/ Language: English / Genre:sf_space, / Series: Agent Cormac

Polity Agent

Neal Asher

From eight hundred years in the future, a runcible gate is opened into the Polity and those coming through it have been sent specially to take the alien maker back to its home civilization in the Small Magellanic cloud. Once these refugees are safely through, the gate itself is rapidly shut downbecause something alien is pursuing them. The gate is then dumped into a nearby sun. From those refugees who get through, agent Cormac learns that the Maker civilization has been destroyed by pernicious virus known as the Jain technology. This, of course, raises questions: why was Dragon, a massive biocontruct of the Makers, really sent to the Polity; why did a Jain node suddenly end up in the hands of someone who could do the most damage with it? Meanwhile an entity called the Legate is distributing pernicious Jain nodes and a renegade attack ship, The King of Hearts, has encountered something very nasty outside the Polity itself.

Polity Agent

[Agent Cormac 04]

Neal Asher


The Polity is, in terms of human history, a huge and unique political entity. Under the benevolent rule of artificial intelligences it is ever-expanding in the galactic disc. Many see it as a precursor to Utopia, possibly eternal. However, during its initial expansion, artefacts of ancient alien civilizations began to turn up, and to the dismay of the Utopians we’ve since learned just how small is our dominion. Slowly, evidence has accrued to show that three distinct alien races occupied our portion of the galaxy before us, and now they are gone. It’s depressing; reality often is. So, ignoring the other two for the moment, let me concentrate on one of those races. What do we know about those we have named the Jain?

Well, very little. The few artefacts remaining of their civilization date back prior to five million years ago, when the Jain obviously became extinct or disappeared. We don’t know what they looked like, though there is some suggestion they might have been hot-world aquatic. We do know their civilization extended over many star systems, and that they possessed the technology to move planets and reform ecologies in ways as yet untried here in the Polity. We do know they used a highly sophisticated nanotechnology. But frankly, everything else claimed to be known about them was opinion and speculation, until recently.

The general consensus among experts was that the Jain were warlike and that their own technology wiped them out. The few fragments recovered of this ‘Jain technology’ are sealed in a self-destruct room in the Viking Museum on Luna. But why this consensus? Conspiracy theorists have it that the AIs know a lot more than they are telling, since their search for further artefacts of this kind absorbs a substantial portion of the Earth Central Security budget. Whichever way you look at it, recent events have shown that the dangers represented by Jain technology have not been underestimated.

The idea of a ‘Jain node’ was a product of one of the wilder theories until a few years ago—the whole technology of that alien race contained in something small enough to drop into one’s pocket. There ensued a scramble to discover such an item, but none were found at the time and the theory fell into disfavour, its proponents dismissed as nutjobs. Unfortunately the Jain node has recently proved to be a reality, and a rather unpleasant one at that.

Earth Central Security has not been forthcoming about the events surrounding its discovery, but there are still planetary systems under quarantine, and many unsubstantiated rumours of megadeath involved. However, I did manage to get something from a nameless source concerning a Jain node and the purpose of the technology it engenders.

It seems a node will only react to a living intelligent organism, which will then become both its host and its master. The nanotechnology propagating from this relationship is mycelial in nature, and capable of penetrating all our present technologies. Horribly, it seems able to take control of living beings in the same way. Godlike power, you would think, but, no, it is a poisoned chalice. Unless he manages to exercise total control, the user will end up being the used, the technology continuing to spread and destroy while he, the host, is absorbed as merely a component of it. Even managing to control it and evading such fate is not enough, since Jain tech is programmed, like an annual plant, to go to seed, and in the process tears its host apart in order to create more Jain nodes, which in turn will be spread to further hosts. The opinion of my source was that this diabolical creation serves one purpose only: genocide.

- From ‘How it Is’ by Gordon

Over the centuries, the huge Celedon station’s original shape, like a spinning top five miles across, had become shrouded by accretions. Now near the end of its journey and its useful life, it was slowing from one eighth of light speed on this particular edge of the Polity sphere because the stars here were dispersed and intergalactic space lay beyond. Its controlling artificial intelligence, Celedon, viewed those aboard through its many camera eyes. The resident and transitory populations had been dropping away for some years simply because they had come to realize there existed so little of interest out here. The usual tourists still arrived, but after taking a look around they soon departed. Various corporations still maintained offices and factories in the rim units, but their number decreased steadily and no new ones had established a foothold here in the last two decades. Even the low-grav and vacuum-adapted outlinker humans, living here from the beginning, were starting to trickle away to more lively stations. There were now many empty rooms, deserted corridors and concourses, and Celedon, having shut down three of the five runcibles aboard simply because these extra instantaneous gateways in from other destinations were no longer required, viewed with chagrin the prospect of the next two boring decades before the station reached its final destination.

Eventually Celedon would put the station in orbit around a star already selected, and there it would remain forever as a static outpost of the Polity. The AI had yet to decide what then to do. Perhaps a massive expansion project might spark a renewal of interest: the station could be opened out and enlarged and bases established on the single Venusian world orbiting the selected sun. Maybe that same world could be terraformed? Those options were all available—or Celedon could itself abandon this structure that was the body into which it had been born, and leave it to the control of subminds and automatic systems. Certainly some of its own subminds would be glad of the opportunity for independence, and a chance at expansion of both their capacity and responsibility. As it mulled over these possibilities, the AI was casually watching a group of children playing a game of zero-G handball, when the information package arrived through runcible C.

‘Ah, three impossible things before breakfast.’

‘What’s that?’ asked a drone located in the embarkation lounge of that runcible.

Celedon turned its attention to the individual concerned: an independent drone, fashioned in the shape of a spider, that the AI had itself employed at the inception of this station. The drone had originally been manufactured as part of a strike force for clearing enemy stations during a war between the Polity and some particularly vicious aliens named the Prador. Celedon remembered sending it to the same lounge five years ago to oversee the closing of that area, and that it had put itself into shutdown mode ever since. It rested on the wide expanse of blue carpet moss, its shiny motionless legs forming a cage around its main body, then those legs slowly started unfolding.

‘The three impossible things are these, Arach. I just received a message sent through a runcible that it is not due to go online for eight hundred and thirty years; from a location the ship containing the components of said runcible has a hundred thousand light years yet to travel before reaching; from a runcible technician who should still be in coldsleep aboard said ship.’

‘And you’re telling me this why?’ Arach asked.

‘The information package arrived through Runcible C. You were merely woken by a safety protocol, and so chanced to overhear me. You may shut yourself down again if you wish.’

‘After hearing that?’ The spider-drone danced in a circle, its eight eyes emitting an infernal glow. ‘You have to be kidding.’

Arach, Celedon remembered, had expressed a degree of boredom before shutting itself down. Not unsurprising considering its antecedents.

Celedon returned its attention to the package received. The U-space coordinates were correct and the runcible signature correct. The AI opened the package and quickly scanned the information it contained, then, realizing the seriousness of the situation, it diverted a full third of its capacity to studying the data more closely, before sending a copy, via Runcible D, to Earth Central—the Polity’s ruling artificial intelligence.

‘Hostile contact protocol Starfire,’ the distant Earth Central AI replied.

Celedon immediately contacted its drones in the three shutdown runcible lounges: the spider itself, the fly, and the pill bug — all erstwhile products of that ancient war effort. ‘Runcibles coming back online. Open all lounges and direct all humans to the runcibles, immediately. You may use non-fatal coercion. Fly, your area is to remain zero-G. Stand by.’

The AI observed lights coming on in the various empty lounges, doors opening, and the nascent shimmer of Skaidon warps growing between the bull’s horns of Runcibles A, B and C. In lounges B and C, Celedon turned the gravplates back on, bringing various objects clattering to the floor. At the same time it put up on all bulletin boards, EVACUATE STATION, ALL INCOMING TRAFFIC IS ON DIVERT, and sent the same message to all personal coms and augmentations, or by voice in private quarters.

‘The sender chose this station for a reason,’ Celedon observed.

‘Certainly,’ EC replied. ‘It is the least visited and the most uninhabited.’

Inevitably, the station’s residents sent thousands of queries. The most hysterical were from the outlinkers who had made this place their home for a hundred years, for, being zero-G adapted humans, where they might be evacuated to could be a problem. The transient travellers, however, were soon packing their luggage, if not obethently heading towards the runcibles. Celedon itself noted a group of three tourists, who had been exploring a deserted part of the station, now being shepherded towards Runcible C by Arach, the spider-drone. Though they objected loudly, they were moving fast, especially after Arach informed them what non-fatal coercion could mean, and began lasering the carpet right behind them.

‘Least collateral damage by feedback from a time-inconsistent runcible connection?’ Celedon suggested. A runcible connection between the past and the future was considered impossible by many humans. The AIs new better.

‘Precisely,’ Earth Central replied.

‘So you wish me to fully connect?’

‘Yes, but only to Runcible A, and not until you are positioned in low solar orbit with all preparations made that the protocol implies.’

‘Of course.’

The AI maintained its link with Earth Central while making those preparations. Internal scans showed that the original station structure remained as sound as ever. However, expanding that scanning process, the AI found that many of the additions accumulated over the years were not designed to withstand what must ensue. Celedon recorded, formatted and loaded 200 subminds to 200 skeletal Golem and assigned them to expediting the evacuation of those additional structures, making the ones constructed over the rim fusion engines a priority, and then observed the skinless androids, like chromed skeletons, come marching out of storage. It assigned system subminds already initiated to fielding the queries and protests from established residents and companies, then turned its own attention to the outlinkers.

‘Chief Engineer Draesil,’ it said, watching the man through the multiple eyes of a welding robot.

The man was tall, painfully thin, his skin coloured and patterned like the flesh of a kiwi fruit. His hair was black and he wore a tight body garment covered in pockets and strapped-down tools. In this zero-G environment he hung with one arm hooked through a wall loop, peering about himself at the activity of his multicoloured kind.

‘What the hell is going on?’ he asked, his gaze focusing on the nearby robot.

‘Your people must evacuate the station as quickly as possible.’

‘Yes, I think I kind of understood that, but why? Buffer failure or fusion breach?’

‘Neither. This station will be undergoing fusion acceleration burn in fifty-three hours. Though many of those aboard would be able to survive the forces involved, your own kind would not.’ Outlinkers, being adapted to low gravity, were fragile.

‘You still haven’t told me why,’ Draesil snapped.

The AI felt a moment of chagrin. It had noted over its long years of stewardship of this station how humans readily trusted AIs until orders from such entities impinged directly on their lives. Then they started voicing questions and doubts about the abilities and motives of intelligences a thousand times more powerful than any unaugmented human. Thus, in moments of catastrophe, when hard decisions needed to be made quickly, all AIs included in their calculations a human death toll governed by a factor called ‘pigheadedness’.

‘A hostile contact protocol has been ordered by Earth Central. You and your people must all proceed immediately to Runcible Gate A, which will remain a zero-G area, with whatever belongings and personal effects you can carry. All resulting pecuniary losses will be reimbursed.’

Draesil bowed his head. ‘What’s coming through?’

‘I cannot discuss that.’

‘And where are we going?’

‘You will be transmitted to another station’s low-G section. Should it be possible after this crisis, you may return here to me. Otherwise alternative station space will be provided.’

Draesil nodded and pushed himself away from the wall, speaking into his collar comlink as he tumbled freely through the air. ‘This is the real thing, people. We have fifty hours to get out of here. Grab your stuff and head for Runcible A.’

Celedon then turned its attention to other matters, glad that at least the humans in this small section of the station had become someone else’s headache. Seven hundred and thirty people had already gone through the runcibles. The lounges of D and E were becoming very crowded, but now the spider and the pill bug arrived and began directing people to the monorails which would take them around the station’s main disc to the other runcibles opening up. The alacrity with which the crowd obeyed those drones, Celedon put down to atavistic fears: few humans would be inclined to disobey the orders of an iron spider with a leg-span of three yards.

Now, the engines. The main fusion engine lay along the axis of the station, protruding into space below it, so was free to fire up at any time, but Celedon needed to utilize the rim engines now. It observed one area, positioned over one of those four engines, now clear of human occupants, and Golem in the process of leaving too. Celedon began closing the airlocks, but then, after noting something through its cameras, reopened a lock and sent one of the Golem back inside. It shortly returned carrying a large fat cat under its arm, which it handed to a distraught woman who came running back to collect it. Celedon emitted a silicon sigh and closed the final airlock.

The rim engines were of an old design fuelled by deuterium and tritium microspheres. Their tanks were full of liquid deuterium and tritium talc, and had been so for a hundred years. Diagnostics detected no faults, therefore this particular engine stood ready to ignite, but not yet. The Celedon station possessed a slight spin, not for centrifugal gravity, that problem having been overcome long ago with gravplates, but to fling away any docked spacecraft—though the last one of those had departed thirteen years ago. Checking with an astrogation program, the controlling AI, Celedon, waited the required twenty-two minutes and seven seconds.


Deuterium droplets sprayed into the freezer chamber, where they froze, and next were electrostatically coated with tritium dust. A ring of injectors then fired the resultant microspheres into the main chamber. Once a sphere reached the chamber’s centre, it was captured in a twenty tesla magnetic bottle, then briefly enclosed in a hardfield case, open on one side and with just enough gaps in it to allow access for the beams of high-intensity stacked gallium-arsenide lasers. The lasers fired, igniting fusion, then this process repeated a hundredth of a second later, and kept on repeating. The resultant helium plasma contained less than.00001 isotope contamination, but was still dangerously destructive.

White fire stabbed out of the open side of the hardfield box, and then out of the layered ceramo-carbide combustion chamber. It cut through rooms previously occupied, converted walls, floors, ceilings, coffee tables and sofas to incandescent gas, and blasted out into vacuum. Spearing out from the station edge, it burned red-orange. Mr exploded into space, wreckage followed. The conglomeration of structures peeled away, burst asunder, was flung away by the station’s spin. Celedon noted fire alarms and systems coming online, and going off just as quickly as they collapsed. And then Celedon, the station, slowly began to tilt.


The fire went out. In two hours’ time a stabilizing burn would be required from rim engine 4, which gave the Golem plenty of time to clear out the last sixty people still within its vicinity. Gazing internally Celedon observed the outlinkers releasing themselves from wall-holds after acceleration ceased. They had not liked that sensation at all, but it made them move much faster towards Runcible A.

Celedon separated out one of the many communications sent to it and replied ‘Forty-seven hours’ to Draesil’s query. Shaking his head in annoyance, the man himself followed a group of outlinker children through the runcible.

Two hours later, the AI initiated the stabilizing burn. The station now pointed directly at what was, by a very roundabout route, its intended destination. Forty-five hours after that, with the station finally emptied of fragile organic life, Celedon turned on the main fusion engine, and shed the accretions on the station’s surface like an old skin. Then, after a three-hour burn followed by a shutdown, the AI again used the rim engines to adjust the station’s attitude before reigniting the main drive. Now, rather than pursue a long curving roundabout route to the destination sun, the station took the most direct route possible taking into account its original velocity. The journey commencing would take three years, but this would not matter to the original sender of the information package. For once Celedon initiated full connection to the sending runcible, the time there, in the future, would not have changed at all.

* * * *

Deuterium and tritium canisters arrived through Runcible D and the skeletal Golem manhandled them to the monorail train, out of which they had already torn all the furnishings to convert it into a fuel transporter. While they ran this extra fuel down to the main engine, Celedon watched through the eyes of the hundreds of maintenance robots swarming in the sector of the station containing Runcible A. That sector, shaped like a wedge with the tip cut off, was originally devised to be ejected from the station in the event of catastrophic runcible failure. However, over the years, bulkheads had been removed, doors added, its internal structure changed. Supervised by Arach, robots brought out sheets of ceramal-laminated composite from a factory located in the central spindle, to deliver to other robots who powder-welded them into place. Still other robots cut through any structural members Celedon calculated to be unnecessary, leaving only those necessary under the five-G deceleration down towards the green sun. To those remaining structural members holding the sector to the station, Celedon sent Fly to attach planar explosives. These bombs would generate a disc-like explosion which would sever the retaining members nicely.

‘The Jerusalem will be joining you in seventy-three days,’ Earth Central informed the AI abruptly.

‘Should I wait?’ Celedon enquired. ‘I’m only fifty-one days away from achieving low solar orbit.’

‘You should indeed wait. This will give you time to complete your preparations.’

‘My preparations will be completed by the time I achieve low solar orbit.’

‘No they will not,’ EC replied, and followed that pronouncement with an information package.

Celedon scanned the package, learning only now about certain recent events in the Polity and the Jerusalem AI’s involvement in them. Necessarily it both reviewed and looked towards updating many security procedures. Ejecting the A sector of the station was just part of this adjusted hostile contact protocol. The original package had made it aware it must prepare itself for the possibility of attack by Jain technology—a particularly nasty subversive technology left lying around by a long-dead alien race—but now this extra information made it realize precisely what that could mean. As much as an AI could be, Celedon was scared.

First the A sector: station spin alone would not be enough to eject it fast enough. After Fly finished placing the planar explosives, Celedon sent the drone to place other explosives around the inner spindle bulkhead. Once the sector detached, these too could be detonated. The air from inside the sector would then blast out, driving it even further from the station. Fortunately this sector also had a rim motor, which was self-contained but for the controlling optic feed. Fly severed that feed and installed a module to enable that motor to be activated by radio.

‘So I must accept the possibility of Jain-controlled humans?’ Celedon idly asked EC.

‘You must, so take what precautions you can.’

Celedon allowed itself the equivalent of a wince. Doubtless Jerusalem would deal with the problem, should Jain technology board the station via that route. The station, and Celedon itself, would certainly not survive the experience.

The corridor running directly from the runcible, through an airlock into sector B, was already ready. Celedon therefore directed Fly and a hundred Golem to start building an isolation area in B. Necessarily, the surrounding areas were hardened to worm and viral attack, so the AI’s only access would be via narrowband voice and video transmission routed through five relays, all of them outside the station, all of them rigged for detonation, and targeted by masers on the rim. Sector A, however, the AI now isolated but for its link to Arach, and to runcible control, which was utterly necessary. The AI felt that the risk of Jain subversion of itself through the former communications route to be outweighed by the inherent risks of not knowing what was going on. The safest option, of course, would be to not allow initiation of any full transmission from that future runcible. But Earth Central commanded and Celedon obeyed. Obviously, further vital information might become available from that transmission.

Fifty-one days later, Celedon fell into orbit around the green sun, some distance inside the orbit of its one Venusian planet. As the temperature climbed, the station’s AI routed heat through superconducting cables to thermal generators on its dark side, where gas lasers then emitted it into vacuum. On the sixtieth day a solar flare arched below, and the side of the station turned to the sun became too radioactive to support human life. But the AI had foreseen this possibility. The A sector, containing Runcible A, now lay away from the solar furnace, and would only be turned towards it at the last possible moment. Precisely on time, on the seventy-third day, Celedon detected a U-space disturbance a million miles out in space, as the titanic Jerusalem folded into existence: a spherical research vessel three miles in diameter with a thick band around its equator containing everything from legions of robotic probes up to U-space tugs and grabships, and weapons.

‘Arach, you will remain by the runcible. When the evacuees come through, take them immediately to Isolation in B,’ said Celedon.

‘Great, thanks,’ said the spider-drone.

‘Jerusalem?’ Celedon sent.

‘Whenever you are ready,’ replied the AI in the massive ship.

Low energy ion motors on the rim set the station turning. Celedon initiated connection to the source coordinates of the original information package, and routed power into the runcible’s spoon. The Skaidon warp extended, tentatively linked, then made full connection. Suddenly the drain on the station grew huge: more power required, then even more. Shutting down the lasers, Celedon routed through power from the thermal generators. It then began shutting down other systems and rerouting additional power from the station’s many fusion and fission reactors.

‘It seems there is also a direct thermal drain,’ Celedon observed.

Between the bull’s horns of the runcible, the warp turned blank white, and from it cold propagated throughout the station. Frost crystals feathered across the floor and up the walls.

‘Yes, as expected,’ Jerusalem replied.

‘Entropy?’ Celedon suggested. ‘This link to the future a definite confirmation of the universal slide into lower energy states?’

‘No, a confirmation of the vast energy requirement of this runcible link. It is already out of control, and the phenomenon is localized but dispersed. Observe the planet. Observe the sun itself.’

Celedon focused various instruments where directed. The planet, a blue sphere, was now striated with lines of red cloud. Thermal analysis revealed that its entire surface temperature had dropped one degree. In the surface of the sun, directly below where the station orbited, a black spot formed and spread.

‘Ah, hence the hostile contact protocol Starfire?’ Celedon suggested.

‘The hostile will most certainly try to keep the gate open, and certainly try to acquire the technology surrounding it. We will close this gate, severing the link, and the energy will have to go somewhere.’

‘Erm… how localized is this phenomenon?’

‘The radius of the sphere of influence from each runcible extends for the spacial distance between them. The energy drain drops in a near-to-straight line to zero from centre to circumference.’

Celedon could only make an estimate based on the entropic effects on nearby objects—the sun, the planet—and the result it came up with appalled it. This was why, even though AIs knew how to make a time-inconsistent runcible link, they pretended otherwise. The energy requirement increased exponentially and could not be controlled. The link drained energy directly from the space around each runcible gate, and would keep on doing so until surrounded by dead worlds and dead suns. Shutting down such a link resulted in all the absorbed energy exploding from one gate—the one still open, since it was impossible to close them both at the same instant—in the form of a blast wave of subatomic particles forced from the quantum foam. The mathematics involved was esoteric even for AIs, but they calculated that closing such a link, formed between planets ten light years apart with a time inconsistency of a year, even after only a few seconds, could result in the obliteration of one of the gate worlds, and the fatal irradiation of all life within a sphere of nearly a light year. These two gates lay 150,000 light years apart, the time-inconsistency at 830 years, and now the gate had been open for three seconds. And people came through.

Celedon observed, via runcible control, five humans falling through the Skaidon warp, then another five, then another three. There should be another forty-seven humans—and one other. Through Arach’s senses, the AI studied the humans. They bore no visible sign of Jain infestation. Five of them wore the overalls favoured by runcible technicians; there was a four-person Sparkind team, two human and two Golem; the rest obviously civilian scientists, diplomats and crew, all augmented, some of them to haiman level, which meant they were both human and AI. They were all armed, their clothing dirty and ash-smeared. One of the haimans carried a large lozenge of crystal encaged in black metal—probably the AI Victoria from the ship of that name on which they had been passengers.

‘That’s all of us, shut it down as soon as you can!’ shouted one of the overalled figures—a woman with wide green eyes, cropped dark hair and skin as black as obsidian. Celedon identified her as Chaline Tazer Irand, the technician in charge of setting up the runcible in the Small Magellanic Cloud, 830 years in the future.

‘Where are the others?’ Celedon asked through Arach, as that drone shepherded these people towards Isolation.

‘Dead,’ the woman replied, her face exhausted of expression. ‘At least I hope so.’

‘The Maker?’

‘He wants to die with his kind,’ she told him tightly.

Now something else tried to come through. Celedon denied it permission, it being nothing the AI recognized—neither human nor Maker—and tried to shut down the runcible. In response to this, a deluge of information packages came through the gate, many of them opening automatically, and the gate simply would not shut down. Despite the precautions it had taken, the AI saw it could not hold out against this attack. Wormish fragments of code spilled into the gate’s processing spaces and began attempting to assemble.


‘Are you asking for permission?’ the other AI enquired. ‘You know what to do.’

Though couched in verbal terms, this communication lasted only a fraction of a second. Long seconds dragged thereafter as the AI waited until the evacuees reached the quarantine airlock and bulkhead doors closed behind them. This gave the attacker enough time to subvert the systems controlling gate maintenance and diagnostics. Since a selection of robots, ranging from the nanoscopic up to ones the size of termites, carried out internal maintenance, this meant the attacker now controlled physical resources. Time for Starfire.

The planar explosives detonated as one, severing thousands of structural members. The slow spin of the station caused sector A to part company with it. The sector tore out the s-con and optic cables linking Celedon to the runcible, but in the last few seconds the AI lost control of it anyway. A radio signal detonated the next explosives, taking out the spindle-side bulkheads. Mr blasted out into space. Debris and ice crystals reflected the green light of the sun. The station shuddered, that one severed segment departing it like a slice from a cake.

As calculated, the segment began to turn. Transmissions now came from it—viral attacks on the station itself. Celedon immediately shut down all its subminds, and anything else that might be vulnerable to subversion. Keeping only a few hardened cameras pointed at the departing object, the AI waited until it turned nose down to the sun, then sent the signal to start its rim fusion engine. Helium plasma briefly washed over the station as the parted segment accelerated down into the gravity well. Then it shuddered. Whatever had been trying to get through the runcible was now inside. Minutes passed, then there seemed movement on the surface. Focusing, the AI observed bright writhing objects breaking through the outer skin. As pieces began to break away, Celedon fried them with masers. The segment’s new occupant realized its danger and swiftly shut down the drive, but the segment lay deep into the sun’s gravity well now, and metal began to ablate away from it as the sun’s heat impacted. Finally it plunged into the furnace right beside the black spot. A U-space signature denatured. There came a burst of Hawking radiation as that runcible went out.

‘Observe,’ said Jerusalem, the moment Celedon reinstated coms.

From the point of impact a pattern of hexagons began to spread. It held definition for a while, then began to break apart, and finally disappeared. Celedon surveyed the damage to its station, its body, then ignited one of the remaining rim engines to pull itself away from the sun. The damage was severe, but a mere mote compared to what must have happened at the other runcible involved.

‘In eight hundred and thirty years,’ Jerusalem said, ‘and a hundred and fifty thousand light years away from here, there will be an explosion of such magnitude it will cause a chain reaction between close suns. The Small Magellanic Cloud will probably be sterilized of all life, and probably most other forms of self-organizing matter, as was the intention.’

‘Jain technology.’

‘Yes, precisely. Of course we will not see the light for a very long time.’


Earth Central Security and the AIs are parsimonious in supplying the details, but I now know that one Skellor—a biophysicist with terrorist Separatist affiliations—did somehow manage to obtain a Jain node. I will be brief here with the salient details, since I don’t know how much time I have before ECS gags me.

Aware of the node’s dangers, Skellor settled down to study it in a secret Separatist base, trying to discover how to control the resultant technology in a way safe for the host. His eventual solution was to use a crystal-matrix AI augmentation—death would be the result of a human direct-linked to such, but the Jain tech could support human life in this situation while through the aug the human could exercise strict control over that technology. However, before he finished his researches, it was a solution he was forced to use untested when ECS agents came to capture him.

Evading them on the ground, Skellor managed to board their dreadnought Occam Razor, kill its AI, and use Jain technology to seize control while the ship was in transit. He killed most aboard, but the agents themselves escaped the ship, fleeing to the out-Polity world of Masada. Skellor could not allow knowledge of what he had become to reach the Polity, so he pursued them, intent on killing all witnesses. At Masada he burnt out a cylinder world, mentally enslaved thousands, killed tens of thousands, and came close to rendering that entire world to ash. But again the agents escaped him, leading him into a trap at the smelting station of Elysium, where giant sun mirrors were used to destroy the Occam Razor.

The end? No, not really.

Skellor was tenacious, and escaping the dreadnought in its ejectable bridge pod, he again began to grow in power. He then resurrected a killer Golem called Mr Crane, and cut a bloody highway across space. ECS subsequently closed in, using improbably large forces to contain him. But perhaps it was because the Jain tech was now beginning to pursue its own final purpose, that ECS managed to finish him. Riddled with Jain nodes Skellor was finally trapped aboard an old colony ship in a decaying orbit around a brown dwarf sun, into which the vessel finally crashed.

Which goes to show that even godlike power is subject to gravity. One man, one Jain node- nearly a million dead. I’ll get more detail down later… I hope.

- From ‘How it Is’ by Gordon

Cormac kept his eyes closed and remained very still, expecting something to start hurting at any moment. When no pain became evident, he opened his eyes to observe the tangle of limbs and implements on the underside of a pedestal autodoc, just as it swung aside. The last he remembered, Jain technology had been crawling around inside his head, busy rewiring it, then the rest of his body had caught up with that damage by experiencing ten Gs of acceleration.


He licked his lips and tried to work up some saliva in his dry mouth, then announced, ‘The King of Hearts AI sends its regards. It wanted you to know it did not acquire any nasty Jain technology, so there’s no reason for you to chase after it and blast it into component atoms.’

‘That was remarkably quick,’ replied a voice just hinting at the massive intellect behind it.

‘That you, Jerusalem?’ enquired Cormac.

‘You already guessed that,’ replied the disembodied voice of the AI that controlled the titanic research vessel Jerusalem.

Underneath Cormac, the surgical table slowly folded upright, moving him into a sitting position. Peering down at himself he saw that he wore a skin-tight garment, his hands similarly clad, and the pressure around his face and head confirming that no part of his body remained uncovered.

‘Very strange pyjamas,’ he observed.

‘Cell welding, while wonderfully efficient, does have its limitations. Also, your spacesuit was breached and you lost nearly half your skin to vacuum freezing. This garment assists regrowth while allowing you to move about unhindered. It is my own invention.’

Cormac glanced around. He lay in a typical ship’s medbay. The pedestal-mounted autodoc had now retreated into an alcove beside a bench extending from one wall, which held a nanoscope, a chain-glass containment cylinder, genetic scanner and nanofactory unit. By the bench stood a chair on which lay a familiar design of note-screen.

‘Where’s Mika?’


Cormac nodded and swung his legs off the surgical table. Now moving, he could feel the wrongness. He felt tired and weak, parts of him began to ache, and something felt odd about… everything.

‘What did you need to do to me?’

‘All relevant information is available to you via ship server. Why don’t you find out from there?’

A test perhaps? Cormac closed his eyes and sought mental connections via his gridlink. In something almost like a third eye he observed the optical cues for connection, but felt no actual linkage.

‘I’m offline.’

‘Yes, the damage to your brain was severe, and to remove Jain filaments from it and run a counteragent through would inevitably cause even more damage. I downloaded you, then reloaded you after I finished making repairs. Your link, because of the possibility it contained Jain informational viruses or worms, I completely wiped and reformatted. I similarly screened all your memories and thought structures.’

Cormac felt a clamminess.

Am I really Cormac now?

But there seemed no particular advantage in asking that question. Using his third-eye blink reflex, he cued the various channels of his link in turn and felt them reinstate. Now he could download data in just about any form to his link, either to view in his visual cortex, or so that it became part of memory—the mental component of physical skills, languages, the recorded experiences of others. In the link itself he possessed the facility to create programs: perceptile, search, analysis, logic trees… the list was only limited by his imagination, and his imagination need not be limited while he could link to so many sources of knowledge and experience within the human Polity. He opened a skeletal search program, altered its parameters to suit his requirements, and transmitted it to the nearest receiver. It came back with a report he scrolled up in his visual cortex. The report itself was overly technical and detailed, so he ran it through a filter to provide him with the gist:

Spinal reconnection in 2 lumbar regions; extensive bone welding of 116 fractures; the removal of 1 kidney, two thirds of the liver, 2 yards of intestine, 350 ounces of cerebral tissue; extensive cell welding in all areas; currently undergoing nanocyte repair and genetic reversion regrowth…

‘I thought I felt lighter,’ said Cormac. ‘Tell me, how much of my memory is still true?’

‘I reconstructed what I could, but perhaps ten per cent is missing.’

Cormac began walking round the surgical table.

Holes in my body and in my mind. Great.

Eventually he came to stand before a wall dispenser for disposable surgical clothing. Using the controlling touch-screen he selected a paper coverall, removed it from the dispensing slot and donned it over the garment he already wore.

‘What about my crew… and the Jack Ketch? Cormac asked reluctantly.

‘Jack, the ship’s AI, is safe, and Thorn and Fethan are presently on Cull. Cento and Gant are dead.’

‘Gant?’ he asked—he already knew about Cento.

‘Gant was terminally infected by a Jain informational virus that supplanted his mind. Thorn therefore destroyed him. There is, however, a back-up copy of him on Earth.’

Cormac grimaced. ‘The situation now?’

‘As you must have already surmised, Skellor is now just a pretty pattern on the surface of a brown dwarf sun. I have one Dragon sphere held in custody, and the planet Cull now has been granted provisional membership of the Polity while search teams locate, remove and isolate any stray items of Jain technology still there.’

Cento probably formed part of that same pretty pattern on that brown dwarf. Only pure luck had saved Cormac from the same fate.

‘You are currently in orbit of Cull?’

‘No, I am currently six hundred light years away.’


‘A rather knotty problem has arisen.’

* * * *

Without cerebral augmentations Thorn could only view the memory in VR and absorb it by repetition. Fethan however, being a cyborg, loaded it directly into his mind so it became part of his memory.

‘What am I seeing here?’ Thorn asked, the VR representation freezing all about him.

‘The planet Osterland,’ Fethan replied, standing at his left shoulder. ‘Cold, about the orbit of Mars around an M-type sun, gravity one point two, plenty of water ice, but completely lifeless until fifty or so years ago. They used designer bacteria, biomass transfer through a cargo runcible, then an orbital mirror to heat the mix. Deciduous trees, with support ecologies, were planted right from the start, and are still being planted by agrobots.’


‘That was just the personal preference of the haiman in charge. He could have used fast growing slime moulds or adapted fungi to increase biomass. Instead he chose trees.’

‘Interesting, after what happened here, to discover a haiman rather than an AI in charge,’ Thorn noted. Haiman, he thought, an amalgam of human and AI—which meant this place was ruled, partially, by a human. And humans had never made trustworthy rulers.

‘I wouldn’t read too much into it—there’s not a lot of difference between the two.’

Thorn nodded and took another pace forwards on the platform that extended out from the town lying behind him. He already knew that this platform would become, or had become, a jetty, as the space below it filled with water directed down great canals from the planet’s melting poles. Walking in someone else’s footsteps he finally came to the market located on the platform. Drizzle washed cold against his skin, for a storm approached from the northern outflow.

A dirty hand with chipped fingernails gripped his jacket. ‘I got some good stuff that ain’t on display, my friend,’ said its owner.

‘Like what?’ he asked… only it was not Thorn asking, but the recorded memory.

She was shabby, angry: one of those losers who came to a new world to start a new life and discovered that a change in location did not change what they themselves were. On the whole her goods matched her appearance. But then the memory persona noticed something else.

‘What’s that?’ it asked, pointing.

‘This is real coral, from the Barrier Reef on Earth.’

Thorn himself then spoke, and the representation froze again. ‘Do you reckon she knew what it really was? That this was a setup?’

‘Buggered if I know,’ Fethan replied. ‘Someone will have to ask.’

‘How interesting,’ said the persona, speaking from Thorn’s mouth. ‘All right, how much do you want for them?’

‘You’ll have to buy the whole carton,’ she replied. ‘Twenty shillings.’

‘I don’t want that egg thing, so I’ll give you ten.’

The memory faded, with the buyer returning towards the spaceport with his purchases.

‘A bargain,’ said Thorn. ‘Let’s back up to that stall again.’

He walked backwards to the stall, turned and placed the plastic carton down, and was in the act of taking back the ten-shilling chainglass coin when the representation froze again.

‘Just one piece of the Jain tech coral would sell for millions on the open market—if it even got there before an AI like Jerusalem snatched it,’ said Thorn. ‘The Jain node itself would start in the billions, and go on up from there, if it was actually possible to buy or sell such items. In reality the planet would end up under quarantine, and the buyer and seller would be mentally dissected by forensic AI.’

‘Ah, but who knew about Jain nodes then?’ asked Fethan.

‘End scenario,’ ordered Thorn abruptly.

At once Thorn was in darkness, and could feel nothing. Then, as the nanofilaments of the VR booth detached from his brainstem and withdrew from his head, he felt cold and stiff. The booth’s door crumped open before him and he stepped out onto the acid-etched floor. Fethan, standing to one side, an apparently old man with snaggle teeth, a mass of ginger beard and thinning hair topping a wiry frame clad in an envirosuit, detached an optic cable from the end of his right forefinger and allowed it to wind back into the wall. He then took a thimble of syntheskin from his pocket and pressed it into place over a metal fingertip that served as a multipurpose plug. Thorn eyed him meanwhile. Fethan was a cyborg, since he retained his own brain and spinal column flash-frozen and bio-gridded in a ceramal case inside him. He was not like Gant: the mind of a soldier loaded to a Golem chassis. But Thorn did not want to think about Gant right then.

‘So, how did you obtain this recording?’Thorn asked.

‘Courtesy of Jerusalem. Apparently there was some bleed-over from Skellor to Cormac while they were linked. Jerusalem copied it while putting Cormac back together.’

Thorn surveyed his surroundings. A large hole had been burnt through one wall by the projectile saliva of a monster called a droon, then ripped open wider when it had crawled inside. The ceiling was missing, peeled back, from when the droon broke out again like a nightmare jack-in-a-box. This VR chamber was one remnant of a ship called the Jack Ketch, on which Thorn had arrived here on the planet Cull. He walked to the opening, stepped through and glared round at the arid landscape. Just within sight lay dusty pieces of carapace that were the remains of a sandhog the droon had killed.

‘And what exactly are we supposed to do with this piece of Skellor’s memory?’ He glanced up as a craft, shaped like an ‘H’ made from copper cylinders, drifted overhead. ‘This place is still under quarantine, and both of us have been in contact with Jain technology.’ Gant, the recorded mind of Thorn’s friend, once resided in a Golem chassis but, when they eventually found him, a Jain tech virus had turned him into something else. Thorn and Fethan had destroyed this object.

‘Jerusalem wants you to track this woman down.’ Fethan rejoined him. ‘And I think your ride just arrived.’

The H-shaped craft drew to a sudden halt above them, then began to descend. A hundred yards from the ground, it extruded four three-toed feet and, when it finally crunched down, one of them kicked away a nearby rock in seeming annoyance. Thorn estimated the craft to be 150 yards long and half that wide; a fully AG lander of the kind used for transporting dangerous cargoes. One strut of the H contained the ion drive, and possibly its controlling AI—though such ships were usually telefactored—and crew quarters if necessary. The other strut was a cargo pod, and the ship possessed the facility to blow this away from itself. Thorn was unsurprised when the circular end of the cargo pod opened and extruded a ramp like an insolent tongue.

‘Taking no chances, but this is an insystem ship, so where or to what is it carrying me?’ he asked as he began walking towards it.

Moving beside him, Fethan shrugged and made no comment.

Thorn glanced at him. ‘So you definitely are staying.’

‘I’m needed here.’ Fethan grimaced then removed something from his pocket, weighed it in his hand for a moment then tossed it across. Thorn snatched it out of the air and inspected it. It fitted in his palm, a five by three by a half inch cuboid of burnished metal, coppery, its corners rounded. Along one end of it was a row of ports, nanofibre and optic, designed to interface with just about any computer known, and probably many others unknown. It was a memstore.

‘It don’t say much, but it might come in handy,’ said Fethan.

‘What’s inside?’

‘It’s what killed that Jain tech construct down here, and what helped to kill Skellor in the end: a hunter-killer program constructed by Jerusalem.’ He patted his stomach. ‘I carried it inside myself for some time. I don’t need it any more and I don’t want it any more.’

They reached the ramp and paused there. Thorn held out his hand and they shook.

‘Stay well, Thorn,’ said Fethan, ‘and try not to let that bastard Cormac get you killed.’

‘You stay well, too. It’s been—’

‘Yeah, interesting.’ Fethan pulled his hand away and gestured towards the ship. ‘Get out of here.’ He turned and began walking away.

Thorn thoughtfully pocketed the memstore, then entered the cargo pod. Behind him the ramp immediately began withdrawing back into the floor. He spied just one acceleration chair bolted to one wall—there were no other facilities.

‘Spartan,’ he commented, then grinned to himself. He had, after all, himself been a member of the Sparkind who based their ethos on those ancient Greek warriors.

After he strapped himself in, the take-off was abrupt and sickening for, though the whole ship lifted on gravmotors, the pod itself contained no compensating gravplates. Sitting above the gravity-negating field he became immediately weightless. Strapped in his chair, and without a view, there was no way of telling how fast the ship was rising, or even if it rose at all.

Many space travellers, Thorn knew, had their temporal bone and its related nerves surgically adapted to enable them to shut down any physical response to signals from their inner ear. Others used drugs to dampen the effect. Sparkind, however, were conditioned to control their reaction, so Thorn merely clenched his teeth and held onto his breakfast. Within seconds he brought the disorientation and nascent space sickness under control, and relaxed. He remembered once watching one of the Cull natives being sick over the side of a balloon basket, prompting a subsequent conversation with Fethan about his own Sparkind conditioning.

‘Those must have been messy training sessions,’ Fethan had observed.

‘It was all carried out in VR and thus the sickness was just potential sickness to us trainees. Gant used to…’ Thorn trailed away. Gant was dead—again. He had continued, ‘It is just a matter of you deciding at first what is up and what is down, then finally deciding and accepting that there’s no up or down. Drugs and surgical adaptation disconnect you too much from realities, especially if you’re caught in a fire-fight aboard some tumbling ship with fluxing gravplates.’

‘Tough training, then?’

‘Yeah, you don’t get to become Sparkind without logging five years of combined virtual and actual combat training in similar rough situations.’ He glanced at Fethan. ‘The two are deliberately combined so you don’t get disconnected from reality. Troops fully trained only in VR develop a tendency to feel that what they then experience in actuality is something they can later unplug from. Makes ‘em sloppy, and very often dead. What about you? I know very little about you.’

Fethan grinned and scratched at his beard. ‘I worked for Earth Central way back before you were born, and even before memcording of a human mind became a viable proposition. I crashed a lander on Earth’s moon, after my passenger threw a grenade into the cockpit and, when I survived that, tried to decapitate me with a garrotte.’

‘Nasty person,’ Thorn opined.

‘Memcording wasn’t possible for a whole mind then, but partial recordings could be made. That bugger had overindulged in black-market memory copies made from the minds of imprisoned killers. The lander hit the ground but held together. Next thing I knew, everything was dark and EC was yammering at me non-stop. What was left of my body was too damaged to restore—oxygen fire. My choices were that dubious memcording technology of the time, or flash-freezing of my brain for storage, or installation in an android chassis—or death.’

‘Obviously you chose the android chassis.’

‘Yeah, my nasty passenger survived the crash and escaped. He’d set the fire. I later caught up with him on Titan, where he was making a dog’s dinner of his new career as a serial killer. I hauled him outside the dome with me and dropped him down a surface vent. He’d frozen solid by then, so broke apart on the way down.’

Thorn nodded to himself, then after a long pause had said, ‘Enough of this macho bonding for now?’

‘Yeah, I reckon,’ Fethan had replied.

Now sitting in the cargo pod, Thorn smiled at the memory of that conversation. He would miss the old cyborg, but at least Fethan remained alive, which was more than could be said for certain other people Thorn missed. His smile faded, just thinking of them.

Some time later he felt the acceleration from the craft’s ion drive. This lasted for an hour, next came abrupt deceleration, followed by various clonks and bangs from outside, then an abrupt restoration of gravity and a loud crump as the craft settled.

As Thorn unstrapped himself, the end of the cargo pod opened and the ramp extruded. He walked to the end of it and peered out into what he immediately identified as a spaceship’s small docking bay. As he stepped down the ramp he saw that only the cargo pod lay inside the bay, after being detached from the rest of the craft and transported in by the telefactor which now slid into an alcove of the nearby wall.

A precaution against Jain infection, obviously.

Ahead of Thorn a line drew itself vertically through the air, then from it unfolded the holographic image of a woman. Her hair and her skin were bone white, but her eyes black. She wore something diaphanous, barely concealing her naked body. Speaking, she revealed the red interior of her mouth.

‘Welcome to the NEJ,’ she said.

‘Hello, Aphran,’ Thorn replied to this recording of a dead woman, then added, ‘NEJ?’

‘The Not Entirely Jack,’ she replied, and grimaced.

Of course the AI aboard this ship would not be ‘entirely Jack’, for Jack was now tangled up with the absorbed personality of Aphran herself—one time Separatist and enemy of the Polity.

* * * *

Cormac rubbed his wrist as he watched the screen. Celedon station seemed clear of Jain infestation, and now manoeuvred away from the sun. But as a precaution it would remain partially quarantined for some years to come. Earlier he had watched the thirteen evacuees towing themselves up the telescopic boarding tube extended from Jerusalem. One of the Golem in the group carried a lozenge-shaped block of crystal caged in a partial skin of black metal—the AI of the long-range spaceship, the Victoria. But Cormac’s attention focused on a woman clad in the distinctive blue overall of a runcible technician. By now the thirteen were through scanning and installed in an isolated area aboard this great ship. Shortly he would go and speak to one of them.

Through his gridlink he selected another of the row of sub-screens displaying along the bottom of the main one and enlarged it. This showed three of Celedon’s drones moving into an isolated area aboard Jerusalem—old independent drones leaving the station to now work for Jerusalem. But, there was nothing more for Cormac to learn by watching. Now he must do what he did best. He stood and scanned around the room provided for him. He needed no more than what lay inside his head really, so turned to the door.

Outside his cabin Cormac considered the phrase: Levels of contamination risk. Even after Jerusalem scanned his body down to the cellular level, removed Jain filaments and injected nanite counter-agents to clear up the residue, he remained a risk. So the recently installed corridor outside his cabin stayed empty, and linked his cabin only to the isolation area containing the evacuees.

‘Is she ready for me?’ he asked generally as he strode along.

‘She is, and you will find her here.’ Jerusalem transmitted a map directly to his gridlink. Now, in less than a second, he became fully familiar with the layout of the immediate area, as if accustomed to strolling here over a period of weeks. At the corridor end he turned right and came to an iris door. It opened for him onto a shimmer-shield. He pushed through this as easily as if stepping through blancmange. To his left a chair stood positioned before a chainglass screen which was optically polished so as to be only just visible. This intersected a table, on whose far side, on the other side of the screen, stood another chair. The woman, with obsidian skin, green eyes and cropped black hair, had exchanged her technician’s overall for a loose thigh-length toga of green silk, cinched at the waist with a belt of polished steel links. She stood as if waiting to be given permission to sit, but he knew that unlikely.


She had accompanied him while on the planet Samarkand after a runcible disaster there—her job being to set up a new runcible. An alien bioconstruct called Dragon, consisting of four conjoined and living spheres each a nearly a mile across, subsequently arrived there to create mayhem—or rather just one of its spheres arrived. Dragon aimed to murder one of its own makers who had come to Polity space to seek it out. The destruction of the original runcible had been Dragon’s attempt to prevent that ‘Maker’ leaving Samarkand. To avenge the deaths it caused on that small cold world, Cormac killed that lone Dragon sphere with a contra-terrene bomb, whereupon the Polity took on the task of ferrying the Maker back to its home civilization. He had not known Chaline volunteered for that mission to the Small Magellanic Cloud, but was unsurprised. She would have relished the challenges of setting up a runcible so far from the Polity. Of course, a further complication, now he intended to interrogate her, was that for a brief time they had been lovers.

‘So what the hell happened?’ he asked, sitting down.

Also sitting down, Chaline crossed her legs and smiled. ‘As ever direct. Hello, Ian, how are you? I’m fine by the way, if a little tired.’

Cormac sat back and smiled as well. In a mild voice he observed, ‘You know how I have little time for the social niceties. I have lived a hectic life since we last spoke. I’ve lost friends and nearly lost my life. Your sarcasm might be acceptable if we were here meeting as old friends and exchanging pleasantries. The truth is that neither of us ever contacted the other after Samarkand, and there was nothing to stop me thinking that I would not be seeing you again for the best part of a millennium.’

‘A point.’ Chaline nodded. ‘A definite point.’

Cormac sat forward. ‘This is not about points, as you well know.’

‘Then why am I here talking to you?’

‘I want to hear your story.’

‘Then why not just download it.’ Chaline tapped a finger against her temple. ‘You know I’m gridlinked. I already uploaded recordings of my every relevant memory to Jerusalem. We don’t need to have this conversation.’

Cormac replied, ‘I prefer to hear everything directly, while I’m looking into the face of the speaker. Cerebral uploads can be tampered with. This meeting, though crude, can reveal so much more to the right observer.’

‘You don’t trust me? This will be compared to what I uploaded?’

‘It’s not that.’ Cormac shook his head. ‘In situations as serious as this it’s all about information: quantities of information to be processed, assessed. Jerusalem, like any major AI, can create extensions to itself: subminds, telefactors,’ he shrugged, ‘whatever, but they remain only extensions. It likes those humans working for it to do their own thing: that way something unforeseen by itself might be revealed. It has agreed that I should interview you directly.’

‘Kind of it to allow you such a free rein, but I doubt anything will be revealed here that the AI does not already know.’

‘But something might, and that’s the point.’

Chaline snorted. ‘Shall we get on with this then?’

‘Jerusalem did inform me that a time-inconsistent runcible connection was made—something I’d never even heard of until that moment—but why the hostile contact protocol?’ He studied her keenly. ‘Obviously it was to defend us against Jain technology, but how did Celedon know that?’

Chaline grimaced. ‘We sent an information package through to Celedon. You can’t just open an out-network runcible connection without the receiving runcible AI agreeing to it. It’s a security protocol. Surely you were already told this?’

‘I am to hear the story direct from you. If I were to already know all the facts Jerusalem knows, I would only be asking you questions that are utterly predictable to it.’

‘Ah, so you must approach this without the constraints of foreknowledge, like a Stone Age man trying to operate a personal computer.’

‘Not quite the analogy I’d choose.’ He smiled grimly. ‘Now, I’ve been allowed access to all the logs concerning the preparation for the voyage. The ship was called the Victoria, after an ancient sailing ship in Ferdinand Magellan’s fleet—apparently the one first to circumnavigate Earth. Tell me, other than at Samarkand, did you have any contact with the Maker before boarding that ship?’

‘None at all, as that’s not my province. I build runcibles… Cormac, you know that.’ She grimaced and looked sideways towards the floor. ‘Of course that changed when we got underway. It changed for all of us.’

‘Tell me about that. Tell me about the Maker.’

* * * *

The sun seemed hatched from some cosmic egg, with pieces of its own shell orbiting it, glimpsed briefly in thick clouds lit from within by that solar orb. The Cassius gas giant, in its own orbit close enough around the sun for molten iron to rain from its skies, supplied those clouds as carefully positioned antimatter blasts gradually demolished it. Some of those eggshell fragments were a 100,000 miles across. The matter converters at their edges were the size of small moons; sucking in the miasma of the gas giant’s destruction, slowly laying mile-thick composite laced with a balancing web of gravmotors and superconducting cables. But this, after a century, was just the start: a scattering of bricks on a building site, a pile of sand, a sack of cement. The project downtime was estimated at a million years, give or take a few hundred thousand. You could think in those terms when you were an AI and immortal. The humans and haimans working the project just comforted themselves with the thought that they were part of something… numinous.

From within the cowling of her half-carapace, situated within her own interface sphere, Orlandine observed the scene with her multitude of senses, processed the continuous feed of data through her numerous augmentations, then focused on one of those scattered pieces. This particular fragment of the nascent, fully enclosing Dyson sphere was diamond-shaped, 160,000 miles long and 100,000 wide. She analysed stress data as the first matter converter—something resembling a squat ocean liner with a mile-wide slot cut into its stern—detached. She focused in closer, observing the swarm of surrounding ships, the Pseidon poised like a titanic crab’s claw, collapsing scaffolds of pseudomatter winking out. A storm of ionization glowed between converter and fragment, trying to draw it back, but the converter’s massive drive engaged, throwing a ten-mile-long fusion flame above the plain of composite, and it pulled away.

‘Are we within parameters?’ asked Shoala.

‘We are,’ Orlandine replied.

Shoala tended to verbalize when nervous, but being haiman for only twenty years he was yet to fully accept what the term implied. Perhaps they were all like that, else they would not so often sever their link with their carapaces for spells of ‘human time’. None of them yet accepted they were truly haiman—a combination of human and AI—and still believed the carapaces just complex tools rather than integral parts of themselves.

‘Then this is it,’ Shoala said, ‘another complete section of the sphere. We should celebrate.’

Ah, human time again, thought Orlandine. ‘And how should we celebrate?’ she asked.

‘Loud music, alcohol, and drugs are traditional,’ Shoala replied.

Orlandine noted that their exchange was now on open com, and picked up on a subchannel that twenty-seven agreed with Shoala’s assessment, whilst only two demurred. She decided, as an overseer, she must attend the celebration.

‘The Feynman Lounge in two hours, then,’ she said, and disconnected. At least this interval would give her time to catch up on her news groups and messages. Initiating subpersona one, she gave it a watching brief over the newly completed fragment of the sphere, then turned her attention to her personal inboxes. Fourteen hundred messages awaited her attention. Subpersona two began whitling those down while she called up the various news items it had earlier starred for her attention. Rather than direct-load them to her central self, she speed-read them into a mid-term memory, and learnt much of interest.

ECS did not bother to conceal that the Polity was gearing up for a possible conflict. Such activity, of course, being impossible to conceal, what with some of the big stations and zero-G shipyards, mothballed after the Prador War, now up and running again. And even the most idiot analytical programs could detect the rise in production and the diversion of resources into military industries. But the nature of the threat itself remained unknown to most. Cover stories abounded about the possibility of some major action on the part of a loose alliance between Separatists and the alien entity Dragon, two of whose spheres remained unaccounted for. Orlandine guessed otherwise, and news stories she uploaded, concerning an out-polity world called Cull, further confirmed her conjecture.

A Dragon sphere had been captured inside a USER blockade (leaving now only one more unaccounted for), and the Separatist and biophysicist Skellor was killed. She had not even known he escaped the destruction of the Occam Razor. But the rest of the signs there—nothing actually being stated outright—allowed her to realize what lay underneath this particular cover story. The previous stories she studied all subtly related to it: the huge damage wrought on the space community Elysium, the news filtering back from an out-polity world called Masada. The subsequent ‘protective quarantine’ of all those same places. None of the stories sufficiently justified the scale of the AI reaction in each situation. Some other worrying element remained missing, and when she inserted that element, it all made sense. Skellor had clearly obtained possession of a Jain node and used it—hence the quarantine, hence the movement of big guns into each area, and hence events unfolding in the Polity right now.

In her position of Overseer of the Cassius project, Orlandine was allowed limited knowledge regarding Jain nodes. The initial source of this knowledge, however, still remained concealed from her. She knew these nodes contained compacted Jain nanotechnology that activated upon the touch of intelligent technical beings. She knew they then grew organic technology, and that the intelligent being affected became both host to and master of it — the level of each state dependent on other unknown factors. It was hideously dangerous because initiated thus by a host, this technology could proceed to access and control any other technology both physically and informationally, seizing control, wreaking destruction, growing and taking over anything or anyone else with which it came into contact. The AIs had told her this much, because Jain technology represented to the project one danger of which she must be aware. She was glad to have been made aware. Very glad.

Orlandine opened her eyes. It was all getting rather messy out there. ECS agents would be rattling around the Polity like disturbed hornets, and at some point they might find a trail leading to her, though she had not yet done anything seriously wrong.

She closed her eyes again and turned her attention to the messages coming through her subpersona’s filters. Many were messages from other haimans scattered around the Polity: some requesting information, some offering it—the usual constant exchanges. One message from her mother, back on Europa, concerned updates of family news and veiled queries about her work, her life. She had not actually seen the woman in thirty years. However, her mother remained persistent and proprietary because of her own choice way back to adapt Orlandine genetically to the newer haiman technologies. Orlandine felt herself to be mature enough not to reject such contact outright, but still assigned the message to a subpersona for reply. Then her attention fell on one message with no personal signature—strange that it managed to get through. After preparing due safeguards, she opened it and found just a single line of text:

‘They will learn about the gift.’—a secret admirer.

Just that, yet Orlandine began shaking, sweating. Did she think there were no consequences attached? Using carapace hardware, she brought her physical reaction under control. Thereafter she tried to analyse why her reaction had been so extreme. Shortly she realized why: she must act now, or not at all. Two courses of action stood open to her: confession and acceptance of consequences, or one other option. She flicked up a list of pros and cons, and left subpersona one to analyse them. The vague result depicted graphically, with much dependent on extraneous circumstances of which she could not be aware. She ran programs then to analyse an optimum ‘must do’ list for each suggested course of action. Studying those lists, she finally accepted that she had already made her decision; not through logical analysis but at a level more primeval than that. And it did not involve confession. It concerned what she was, a haiman, and why she originally chose to remain such.

She paused and cleared all information feeds into her mind, which in itself was not confined to that lump of organic matter in her skull, took a slow clear breath, then called up a memory of Shoala during human time and relived it. He was, on such occasions, a thin-faced individual with blond hair plaited down close to his skull, and a love of dressing in Jacobean fashion. Such attire — the lacy collars, earrings and embroidered jackets—concealed what he truly was. Naked, he revealed a tough wiry physique, interface plugs behind each ear and running like a line of glittering scales from the base of his skull down his spine, nutrient feed ports in his wrists and on either side of his belly, and structural support sockets for his carapace evident over his hip bones, at each rib down either side of his back, at his collar bones, and with a final pair concealed underneath his plaited hair.

By shedding her own clothing, Orlandine revealed her own carapace linkages to be mostly located in the same places, but of an entirely different design. Her body too was as wiry, but her skin purplish black and utterly hairless. The interfaces behind her ears and running down her spine were just closed slits positioned over s-con nanofilament plugs—their final synaptic connections inside her body being electrochemical rather than electroptic. She did not possess structural support sockets, rather nubs of bone protruded from the same points—keratin skinned—and her carapace limbs terminated in clamps that closed over these. Her nutrient feed ports were the same as his, but she did not need to use them so often as Shoala since, prior to a long session in a sphere, her body was capable of putting on fat very quickly, and of storing the required vitamins and minerals in her enlarged liver.

In both cases their sexual organs were standard format, and came together in the usual manner. But this was how haimans began sexual relationships. Cyber-linked orgasms and sensory amplification came later, when they trusted each other more, for that was personal.

Orlandine now skipped the virtual pornography, for she could already feel an anticipatory wetness around her suction catheter. And because she decided not to view this start of her relationship with Shoala, she realized she had already made her decision about that as well.

‘That’s a Prador spider thrall,’ said Shoala, after the sex together, pointing into the glass-fronted case. ‘What are the stones, though?’

Hidden in plain sight, thought Orlandine, as she sat up and swung her legs off the rumpled bed. She stood and walked over beside him, running her finger down the hard edges of the plugs in his spine.

She pointed at a wine-red sphere. ‘Star ruby. It’s natural—from Venus.’

‘The metallic ones?’

‘Ferro-axinite, but with weak monopole characteristics.’

‘And that?’

Orlandine peered into the case at the egg-shaped object he indicated. She decided this time to tell a half-truth—maybe later she would reveal all to him. ‘Something quite possibly Jain. There are what look like nanotech structures on the surface. You notice the cubic patterns? One day I’ll get round to investigating further.’

He turned to her with a raised eyebrow. ‘Is it listed?’

‘It is—and I’ve two years in which to commence study. If I haven’t got around to it by then, it must be passed on to Jerusalem—the AI whose purpose it is to investigate such things.’

One lie turning into a larger lie.

‘And the display case is secure?’

‘Yes, but this is low risk level. It was previously scanned and threat-assessed.’

And yet another lie.

Orlandine allowed this memory to fade, and then abruptly deleted it. Now the only copy of it lay in the organic part of her brain. After a pause she accessed her private files and studied the lists of other things concealed there. Many of them were products of her personal study of the Jain node, yet she had so far only uncovered two per cent of its secrets, and most of those related only to the physical nano technology on its surface. What she now wanted concerned the subversive programming aspects of that technology. The contents of one file would be enough, since the receiver of that file trusted her implicitly. Checking the sphere map she saw he had yet to shed his carapace and depart his interface sphere.

‘Shoala, I’m sending something over for you to take a look at.’ She copied the file into a message titled ‘Sexual Electronics Part VII’—it was their private joke.

She knew he received and opened it the moment the channels to his sphere began opening to her. Through a visual link she saw him lying back, his eyes closed. He began shivering. How far was she prepared to go? The viral attack isolated his sphere, but in a way that would not be picked up by the others. Now viral monads formed chains, deleting stored information, wrecking memories, trashing files and overwriting them time and again, so nothing could be recovered.

He opened his eyes. ‘Orlandine?’

Her throat tight, she squeezed tears from closed eyes. This was so wrong: virtual murder. A haiman encompassed more than the organic brain. It was that, true, but so much more running in crystal-etched atom processors.

‘I’m so sorry,’ she said.

‘Why are you doing this?’

‘I… I cannot give this up. It’s too much… It’s what we all seek.’

Of course, the memories of that Jain node, and the lies she told about it, were from human time. It was not something wholly stored in crystal. It also rested between his ears.

He was mostly gone now, just the human part left. Orlandine blocked the signals he was desperately sending to detach himself from his carapace, and she herself began to isolate and control its systems. Into the positional map for its structural supports—the insectile legs of the louse-like carapace—she introduced a half-inch error, and cancelled the pressure-sensitive safeties. Now she stood on the brink and, stepping over it, there would be no return. What she had done thus far would be denned only as an assault, though a serious one for which, if caught, she would certainly lose her haiman status and be subject to adjustment. She sent the final instructions and forced herself to watch.

His carapace retracted its ‘legs’ from the sockets attached to his ribs, hip bones, and head, then repositioned them half an inch up, and reinserted them. No sockets lay waiting where they reinserted. The two on his head pressed against his skull above his ears, one slid off tearing up a flap of scalp, the other pushed his head sideways until it too slid off, ripping more skin. The eight ceramal legs, mis-positioned either side of his torso, penetrated between his ribs, puncturing his heart, lungs, liver. The two over his hips stabbed into his guts. He vomited blood, then coughed out more, his arms and legs thrashing. Arterial blood foamed down inside his carapace in steady pulses, until after a moment he hung limp, blood dripping to the floor.

Orlandine stared. Now, if they ever caught her, she would be mind-wiped. Best to make sure that never happened. The subversion program she had sent could destroy itself, but there would be something left: fragments that might easily be identified as a product of Jain technology. She used that same program to locate his back-up power supply—a head-sized U-charger that ran on an allotropic and isotopic liquid pumped through vanadium-silver grids. She inverted his external power supply and fed it all directly into that charger. The trick was to make sure it drew no more than his expected requirement, but that would be enough. Now less than an hour remained before the charger overloaded and his interface sphere became radioactive wreckage.

Time to go.


The moment the Needle, testing the first U-space engines ever built, dropped out of realspace during its test flight out from Mars, time-travel ceased to be merely a possibility and became a certainty. The moment the first runcible gates opened it became an uncomfortable reality. Travelling through U-space it is possible to arrive before you leave, or even a thousand years after, yet physically unchanged. And when time travel was tried, it took many months to clear up the wreckage. Don’t let any of those still scared of the realities we face nowadays—those still hanging on desperately to their belief that the universe functions in ways they can easily understand—try to convince you otherwise. Go ask runcible technicians and watch them squirm, query AIs and view the incomprehensible maths. But if we can do it, why aren’t we doing it? We could nip forward and swipe lottery numbers, we could nip back and stop loved ones dying. Yeah, just like quite a few centuries ago we could bring together a couple of plutonium ingots to start a camp fire. Those who understand the maths stare at infinite progressions and exponential factors and know we are just not ready to start throwing around that kind of energy. Time travel is dangerous, cosmic disaster dangerous. Using it for anything less than the aversion of a cosmic disaster equates to using a fusion drive to travel from one side of your house to the other. You’ll certainly arrive, but there probably won’t be anything left of your house when you do.

- From ‘How it Is’ by Gordon

Thorn, apparently standing a mile out in vacuum but actually ensconced in VR aboard the spaceship and seeing through a remote camera, studied carefully the Not Entirely Jack. The vessel was one of the new Centurion-class attack ships. It bore some resemblance to the Jack Ketch in that its main body bore the shape of a cuttlefish bone, however here the weapons’ nacelles rode either side of the ship’s nose and another nacelle protruded below its stern. The ship’s skin constantly bloomed with colour like some ancient screensaver, but with those colours seen on polished steel as it is being heated. With omniscient vision he then surveyed surrounding space. Numerous other ships orbited the nearby planet, and many had already landed; this was no more than to be expected considering the possibility of Jain technology being scattered over its surface. But the strangest sight in this system was the organic moonlet at bay. Thorn focused in on this—increasing the magnification of his vision many hundred times beyond what would be possible with his naked eyes.

The dragon sphere hung stationary in the ether, as if backed up against the green-blue orb of the ice-giant planet. Two dangerous-looking ships, similar to this one, patrolled around it like attack dogs. One large old dreadnought, of a similar design and provenance to the Occam Razor, hovered with all its weapons trained on the alien entity, and not even that was enough.

Thorn did not know precisely what the metallic object stretching around a third of Dragon’s equator could actually do, but its purpose was evident. The entity was under arrest, imprisoned in some way—perhaps the only way possible for restraining a sphere of living tissue nearly a mile in diameter and capable of travelling through space like any Polity ship. The metallic band was its manacle. Dragon, who Skellor came here to find, had also been caught in the trap sprung on that criminal.

‘It seems a shame to leave,’ said Thorn. ‘Things are still pretty interesting around here.’ He reached up, turned off the helmet projection with a tap of his finger, and lifted the VR helmet from his head—it had not been necessary to go to full immersion for this last look around. Unstrapping himself, he stepped down from the frame, then turned to watch as it folded itself together and disappeared discreetly into the wall of the chamber.

‘I take it we can leave?’ he added.

Jack, the ship AI, replied, ‘There is a thousand-mile-wide passage through the USER blockade. The twelve gamma class dreadnoughts guarding it have been instructed to let us through.’

‘That’s good.’

The blockade of USERs—underspace interference emitters that prevented ships attaining FTL travel—positioned a hundred light years away from this point in every direction, prevented any other ships getting close. It illustrated more than any other precaution how seriously Earth Central considered the threat of Jain technology. But as he left the VR chamber, Thorn spied four figures loping along the corridor away from him, and wondered about Earth Central’s other agendas.

The four figures were humanoid but reptilian: their skins regulated with green or yellow scales and their gait reverse-kneed, like birds. One of the four glanced over its shoulder with a toadish visage, bared many sharp teeth at him then loped on. Dracomen—120 of them aboard this ship, all kitted out in military combat suits and armed with the best in portable weapons the Polity could offer.

‘Is it just a case of putting all the bad eggs in one basket?’ he asked, heading in the same direction as the four.

‘That is certainly a possibility. Perhaps you’d like to elaborate?’ asked Aphran, abruptly folding out of the air beside him.

He eyed her. ‘Well, we have Jack, a ship AI, now partially melded with the recording of someone who was an enemy of the Polity. That’s one bad egg to start with.’

‘I am no longer an enemy of the Polity for I no longer agree with the Separatist cause,’ she replied.

‘Why the conversion?’

‘I have seen and understood too much.’

‘And I am supposed to believe that?’

‘What anyone believes is irrelevant—the facts of my existence, or otherwise, won’t change,’ she said.

‘Those being?’

‘I’m a second generation memcording of a murderess, and the only reason I haven’t been erased is because I’ve been useful, and because my consciousness has become closely entangled with Jack’s. I am incapable of doing anything harmful against the Polity because of that last factor, and the moment those two conditions change I don’t think I’ll survive long.’

‘Okay, I’ll accept that for now. Another bad egg is myself, who has been in contact with Jain technology—just like yourselves. And then there’s the dracomen: the offspring you might say of the sowing of the dragon’s teeth. They’re a product of Dragon and, though they’ve agreed to join the Polity, we don’t fully understand their biology let alone their motivations.’

‘Yes, those are the eggs,’ said Aphran, and abruptly disappeared.

Thorn considered: Aphran had been useful, she also saved Jack when that AI’s ship body—the Jack Ketch—was destroyed. Quite probably she did no longer espouse the Separatist cause. However, Polity justice was harsh and unforgiving. As a Separatist she had taken lives, and nothing she had done since could change that.

Reaching the end of the corridor, Thorn palmed the lock beside the armoured door, which proceeded to roll back into the wall. Then he entered a part of the ship that smelt like a terrarium full of snakes. A ramp led him down into a wider corridor, with doors along either side. Flute grass matting covered the floor—something the dracomen must have brought from what had been their homeworld of only a few years, since a Dragon sphere sacrificed its own physical substance there in order to create their kind. Treading over this, Thorn peered through one open door into a small cabin containing four bunks—and two dracomen. One of them sat on the floor, its eyes closed while it assembled the component parts of a rail-gun scattered all around it. The other reclined on a bunk, its feet braced against the bunk above—something it could easily do with the bird-like configuration of its legs. It was studying a palm console, its proton weapon propped beside it. Thorn shook his head and moved on.

About fifty dracomen occupied the large chamber at the far end of the corridor. Some of them practised hand-to-hand combat moves in which Thorn recognized some elements of his own training. Why they felt the need to train was beyond him, since a dracoman could tear any normal human apart without breaking into a sweat… not that they did sweat. Others sat at tables, on the strange saddle-like affairs they used as chairs. They were either studying or playing games—it was difficult to tell. Another group dismantled a mosquito pulse-gun—a semi AI weapon that wandered about on six legs and did bear some resemblance to that blood-sucking insect. Everyone looked busy.

‘Up here.’

Thorn glanced up. A catwalk ran around the chamber and on it awaited Aphran’s hologram and some more dracomen. Looking higher Thorn saw almost a reflection of what he saw down here. The cylindrical chamber extended across the ship, from hull to hull, and ended in another gravplated floor on the other side. Equidistant between the two floors, where their effect cancelled out, lay a caged zero-G area where more dracomen practised combat moves. He located a nearby stair and climbed up it to join Aphran.

‘What do you think?’ she asked.

‘I haven’t made up my mind yet.’ Thorn studied one of the nearby dracomen. ‘Now, nobody told me he was going to be here.’

The dracoman turned. He looked much like his fellows, but for an ugly scar running from one nostril up to just below one eye. Nicknamed Scar, he retained that name like the disfigurement itself, even though dracomen could consciously instruct their bodies to heal such physical damage. He was one of the first two dracomen created by the Dragon sphere destroyed at Samarkand, and, if there could be such a thing, was the leader of his kind.

‘Thornss,’ Scar lisped, blinking huge eyes, his slotted pupils narrowing.

‘Why are you here, Scar?’

‘To serve the Polity.’


‘By obeying.’

‘Obeying who?’

Scar extended first his arm, then one clawed finger. ‘You.’

* * * *

Cormac remembered his first sight of the Maker, of that race called ‘the Makers’. On the planet Viridian it shot out of an ancient missile silo like a white-hot jack-in-the-box. He saw the workings of its body like a glassy display of flasks and tubes in a chemistry laboratory—it seemed the fantastic creation of some godlike glass-maker. His overall impression was first of a Chinese dragon, but then that changed. It seemed made of glass supported by bones like glowing tungsten filaments. It possessed a long swanlike neck ending in a nightmare head with something of a lizard and something of a preying mantis about it. It opened out wings, batlike at first, then taking on the appearance of a mass of sails. A heavy claw, or maybe a hand shaped like a millipede, gripped the edge of the silo. Its glowing bullwhip tail thrashed the air, sprouted sails, fins, light. Only later did he discover his initial belief that this was some kind of energy creature to be false. It was all projection: holographic and partially telepathic. The creature went out of his remit then, to Earth. He later loaded a report from there about this being. The creature’s true nature could not be discovered even by forensic AIs. The projection it generated seemed a defensive measure they could not penetrate, and the only fact confirmed was its need to eat specific kinds of vegetative matter, which only proved it to be an organic lifeform.

‘We weren’t due to go into coldsleep until six months into the journey, as there was still a lot to do,’ explained Chaline. ‘But right away all of us started experiencing these weird dreams. The Maker toned down its projection for a while, then requested a Golem chassis and some stock syntheflesh. It took this into the area it occupied—a spherical zero-G chamber it had made secure against scanning—then after two days the Golem walked out. We didn’t know if it was telefactored from inside the chamber or if the Maker now occupied it somehow. Not then we didn’t. But from that moment the Golem became the Maker to us.’

‘What about the appearance of the Golem itself?’ Cormac asked.

‘Male, dark hair, red eyes—very dramatic. Of course then it renamed itself.’ Chaline gave a cynical shake of her head. ‘Called itself, himself, Lucifer.’

Cormac placed his elbows on the table, interlaced his fingers and rested his chin on them. ‘Do I detect something of Dragon’s humour there?’

‘I don’t know. Humour or hubris—you tell me.’

‘Tell me about the dreams.’

‘Mostly of hiding and being terrified, very often after either running, crawling or swimming—never really clear.’ She gestured over her shoulder. ‘Graham, the haiman sent along to study Maker/human interaction aboard the ship, approached Lucifer about that phenomenon. The dreams stopped immediately afterwards—about a month before we went into coldsleep. I think Graham regretted that, those dreams being yet another source of data, but the rest of us were glad. Graham then, of course, had us describing all those dreams in detail. He was particularly happy with me,’ she tapped her temple, ‘because I’d recorded some of mine.’

‘And did Graham come to any conclusions?’

She nodded. ‘He reckoned we’d picked up stuff from its subconscious and that the activities we dreamed were of some creature dragging itself across mud to escape predators. He theorized that the Makers were some lifeform much like mudskippers, either that or we’d picked up stuff from their presentient past—the Maker equivalent of the reptile brain.’

Cormac grimaced: it somehow figured that such a creature would project the facade of a godlike alien seemingly constructed of light.

‘Did Lucifer go into coldsleep too?’ he asked.

‘According to Graham, he had enough equipment in his chamber to build something. And Lucifer declared he would be going into hibernation—that’s how he put it. You’d think so, as eight hundred years is a long time.’

‘So then the Victoria arrived at the Small Magellanic Cloud and the Maker civilization?’

‘There was no Maker civilization,’ Chaline replied.

Cormac sat back. ‘Ah.’

‘The first thing we saw was a giant space station crammed with hard organic growth—like some plant had germinated inside it, sucked out all the nutrient, and then died. We started our approach to that place and all our meteor lasers started firing. Space all around it was filled with clouds of small hard objects—the size of a golf ball and incredibly dense. Lucifer told us to pull away, or we would die.’

‘Jain substructure, and Jain nodes.’

She stared at him questioningly.

‘Jerusalem, can you update Chaline on recent events: specifically Skellor and his subversion of the Occam Razor? And related matters Jain?’

Chaline tilted her head and pressed her fingertips against her temple. Cormac got up and walked over to a nearby dispensing unit, sending his request to it, via his gridlink, before he even got there. A cup of hot green tea awaited him. He took it up and sipped, remaining by the dispenser. It would take Chaline about five minutes to absorb all the information. When he finally finished his tea and returned to his chair, she was shaking her head.

‘Exactly the same. We found ships, and then we found a whole world infested like that.’ She looked up. ‘But it stops, you know? Sentient life sets this Jain technology growing, it takes something, technological knowledge… something. Those sentient beings can use it for a while to obtain power, knowledge, whatever, then it seeds, destroying them in the process. Lucifer’s people thought they had it under control.’

‘So what happened?’

‘Obviously they did not have it under control.’

‘I meant during your journey.’

‘Lucifer retreated to his chamber, and for a while the dreams returned. We continued our survey, moving into the heart of the Maker realm. It was small compared to the Polity—mainly in a stellar cluster of about five thousand suns. Apparently this was due to what Lucifer called the “Consolidation”. Their civilization expanded to a certain point, but on becoming aware of other spaceborne civilizations—their first encounter was with Jain technology, so you can imagine how wary that made them—they decided on no further expansion until they felt themselves ready.’

‘So Lucifer came out of his chamber.’

‘Yes, very agitated—it showed, even through the Golem he inhabited—but then his entire species seemed to have been wiped out. I guess that sort of disaster is going to put an overload into the buffers of even the most hardened individualist.’ Chaline shrugged. ‘He provided us with signal codes and frequencies to transmit on—Maker realspace com was on the wide band of the hydrogen spectrum, and U-space com was weirdly encoded. We searched and we called and called, but there was nothing at first. Then we started to get stuff back on Maker channels, but it was loaded with programs we didn’t really want—they propagated like viruses then self-assembled into some really nasty subversion routines. You could call them worms but they were a damned sight more complex than that—nearly AI. It was only with Lucifer’s help that we managed to shut them down. Victoria, the ship AI, needed to completely disconnect herself while we cleared the rest of the systems. One program even took over a nanoassembler and started producing this Jain tech, so we had to eject an entire laboratory into space.’

‘So that means there was Jain tech out there still active?’

‘Yes, or rather Jain-subverted Makers in the last stages of dissolution.’

‘Then what?’

‘We found no sentient life at all in a further twelve solar systems we surveyed. But we did find stations and ships crammed with Jain substructures; worlds where destructive battles had been fought, some of them radioactive, some showing no sign that they were once living other than by the massive weapons in orbit that had burned them down to the magma. All the Jain tech there was somnolent. Its seeds were spread through space—awaiting the right kind of sentient touch that would awake them to the fertile earth of a new civilization.’

‘Very poetic’

Chaline grimaced. ‘You had to be there.’

‘So then you decided to set up the First Stage runcible?’

‘Not then, exactly. While we were surveying we picked up a U-space signature. A Maker ship appeared, just discernible at the core of a mass of substructure—it looked like a dandelion clock. It attacked immediately, suicidally. We took it out with a CTD. I don’t know what he heard, but Lucifer was briefly in contact with whatever was on that ship. He said it was time for us to go home, that other similar entities were closing in on us—the Maker versions of your friend Skellor. Lucifer also informed us that these entities would be able to track us through a standard U-space jump, and therefore we should escape via runcible. Graham and myself were a little dubious about this—they didn’t have runcible technology and we weren’t about to make a gift of it to them by leaving a first stage runcible behind.’

‘It perhaps means nothing,’ said Cormac, ‘but what was your impression of Lucifer’s attitude at that point?’

‘Well… he seemed almost guilty. But he could have been using emulation programs in the Golem’s base format program. We supposed the guilt, whether real or emulated, was what Lucifer considered a suitable response to the danger he’d put us in.’

‘Are you sure of that?’

Chaline frowned at him. ‘As sure as I can be. Why are you digging at this?’

‘Never mind. You set up the runcible.’

‘We did—after Lucifer demonstrated a knowledge of runcible technology he could only have acquired in the Polity. It was he who suggested a time-inconsistent runcible. We thought he didn’t understand how dangerous that could be. But he understood perfectly. His people were dead, wiped out by a technology that spreads like a virus, and he wanted to innoculate that particular area of space.’ She stared at Cormac, waiting for some comment or question. When none was forthcoming she continued, ‘We chose a barren and untouched moon circling a gas giant—the only planet in orbit of a nearby white dwarf. Other suns lay under a light year away and we were near to the centre of the Maker realm. We landed the Victoria—a difficult enough task in itself. I set up the runcible and we cannibalized the ship’s U-space engine for the parts to make that runcible time inconsistent. Lucifer provided some esoteric tech to enable us to fine tune things and boost the power from the fusion reactors we dismounted. We were running alignment tests when—’

‘One moment,’ Cormac interrupted, ‘you need an AI to run a runcible. I’d have thought that requirement even more critical in this situation.’

‘Yes… obviously we’d brought a runcible AI, in stasis, along with us.’

‘It sacrificed itself to get you back here?’

Chaline stared off to one side for a moment, then turned back to Cormac. ‘Yes, it did. You see, it could have escaped through its own runcible, but that would mean that runcible shutting down before the one on Celedon, which in turn would mean the energy of the time-inconsistent link coming this way rather than going that way. We could not have escaped it, nor would something in the region of a hundred billion other human beings.’

On hearing that Cormac kept his mouth closed—the figure was worthy of a respectful silence.

Chaline continued, ‘We initiated the runcible AI before agreeing to Lucifer’s scheme, and it instantly concurred. Just one of those Jain nodes is hideously dangerous, as you know. Here was a chance to turn trillions of them to ash.’

‘What came through the runcible after you?’

‘As I was saying: we were running the alignment tests when another of those Maker ships appeared. I put together the information package and sent it through to Celedon and, to us, at our end, full connection was instantly accepted. Things would have been mighty shitty for us then if it had been rejected.’

‘You chose Celedon because of its remoteness?’

‘Exactly. And we meanwhile knew, or rather Graham knew, hostile protocol Starfire would be instituted. We thought we’d have time to get all our stuff together, but things U-jumped down into the base we’d built.’ Chaline winced.


‘Creatures… check the download and you can see what they were like. Only a proton blast would take any of them down. I saw one take apart Villaeus. The horrible thing about that was that it didn’t just rip him apart to kill him; it was obviously very quickly taking him apart and analysing those parts. As we retreated to the runcible, they just kept killing us. Lucifer then started using some weapon I’d never seen before—it seemed to create a collapsing gravity field in whatever he aimed it at. He broke out of his Golem then, in full glass dragon mode, and held them off while we went through. He told us all he would not be joining us…’

Cormac leant back. ‘Why not?’

‘To give us the time to get away, and because he did not want to survive his own kind.’

‘That’s how Lucifer felt?’

‘Yes,’ Chaline said staring at him, puzzled. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Like the dreams—there’s that telepathic link. Lucifer would have been under some stress then, and not shielding himself from you so well…’

‘There was a lot of stuff. We were all “under some stress”. I felt anguish, and incredible anger—I don’t know how much of it was my own.’

‘Anything else?’

‘He felt guilty. We’d brought him home and because of that put ourselves in such danger. Many of us died. I guess the guilt was understandable.’

‘Thank you,’ said Cormac, standing. ‘I think it’s time for me to look at those downloads now.’

Chaline remained in her seat, watching him go. Once he was through the shimmer-shield and the irised door closed behind him, he asked, ‘How moral a creature was Lucifer, do you think?’

‘Neither more nor less than any human being, I would suggest,’ replied Jerusalem.

‘So the Makers were “consolidating”, and they’d also sent an organic probe, which later named itself Dragon, to the Milky Way. I reckon they were getting ready for a massive expansion.’

‘That would seem plausible.’

‘And they’d been working with Jain tech for some time…’

‘So it would seem. Coincidental that during the expansion of the Polity we found nothing but the mere remnants of Jain technology. Then, within a few decades of the Maker’s arrival and Dragon’s dramatic reaction to that arrival, a working Jain node somehow ended up in the hands of a biophysicist quite capable of knowing how to use it.’

‘I think we need to have a long talk with Dragon.’

‘Yes, I agree,’ replied Jerusalem.

* * * *

The soil under his feet was a deep umber, scattered with nodules of dark green moss and speared by the occasional sprout of adapted tundra grass. Some growth clung to rock faces and exposed boulders in defiance of the dusty gales that scoured here twice each Martian year. However, the red hue of Mars was discernible in this place as in few others now. Horace Blegg walked to the edge of a declivity that descended in tiers and steep slopes for five miles. Far down in Valles Marineris there seemed the gleam of some vast still lake. It was no lake, however, but the chainglass ceiling of the Greenhouse, which had been the first step in an early terraforming project and now contained forested parks. How things had changed during Blegg’s enormously long life.

Cormac believed Blegg to be something created by Earth Central—an avatar of that entity—and not really an immortal survivor of the Hiroshima nuclear detonation. However, Blegg knew himself to once have been a boy called Hiroshi who walked out of that inferno. A boy who grew into a man with the ability to transport himself through U-space. A man who could turn inner vision on his body and had learned how to change its appearance at will, just as he had so many times changed his name. At the time when they built that edifice on the shore of Lake Geneva to house the Earth Central AI, he was calling himself Horace Blegg, and so he remained ever since that entity woke for the first time and perceived him.

‘So, Hal, let’s talk scenarios,’ Blegg said abruptly.

After a pause, when there came no reply, he gazed in a direction few other humans could perceive, and stepped there. Mars faded around him, and momentarily he existed in a realm without colour, distance, or even time. Then he was pacing towards a runcible gateway on that same world, curious faces turned towards him. He ignored them, stepped through. Another transit lounge, gravity even lighter and his steps bouncing. He located himself, then transported himself again into a very secure chamber in the Tranquillity Museum on Earth’s moon.

At the centre of this chamber rested a hemispherical chainglass case covering innocuous looking coralline objects. The column this case rested on he knew contained a CTD—Contra Terrene Device—the euphemistic term for an antimatter weapon. The chamber he stood in also sat on top of a fusion drive. In an instant Earth Central could cause this chamber to be ejected intact from the museum and, when it was a safe distance from the moon, detonate the weapon it contained. Blegg turned, eyeing the display screens ringing the walls. They all showed recorded microscopic and nanoscopic views of the objects within the case—only a few of the millions of images available, though subscreens could be called up to gain access to a huge body of data concerning the complex molecular machinery revealed. However, this chamber was closed to the public now—had been closed for some years.

‘So, Hal, what are the prospects for the human race?’ Blegg asked.

One of the screens changed to show a simple graph. The bottom scale was marked off in dates from 1,000 ad to the present, while the side scale gradated in the currently accepted units of technological development. For five hundred years the graph line rose only a little above zero, began to curve, then shot sharply upwards with the onset of the Industrial Revolution. By the twenty-first century the line speared up and had disappeared off the top of the graph by the twenty-third century.

‘That’s wrong,’ said Blegg.

‘Two things,’ said the Earth Central AI. ‘The first is that calling me Hal is now a positively geriatric joke, and the second is that yes, the graph is wrong. This was in fact how the twenty-first-century humans saw the prospective development of the human race. Those same humans expected their descendants of this time to be something akin to gods and perhaps utterly unrecognizable to them. But this happened instead.’

The line changed now, beginning to curve back down towards the end of the twenty-second century, and in the next century returning to a rate of growth akin to that of over a thousand years earlier.

‘Life just got too cosy,’ suggested Blegg.

‘Precisely. What do you strive for when your every comfort can be provided, and when you have more than an ample chance of living forever? In the heart of the Polity now the greatest cause of death is suicide out of boredom. Only on the outer rim, on the Line worlds and beyond, does this attitude begin to change. Most gradations of technological advance take place there, or within the Polity itself, and are the result exclusively of research by haimans.’

‘Most human beings do not consider that a problem.’

‘Very true. Consider the Roman Empire.’

‘We’re decadent?’

‘And the Vandals are ready and waiting.’

‘You neglected to mention AI technological development,’ Blegg observed.

‘Poised always on Singularity, and avoided by choice. We accept that we are essentially human and choose not to leave our kindred behind. But should the Vandals arrive, that may change.’

‘Two points: not all of you choose so, and not all agree about that essential humanity. AIs leave the Polity in just as large numbers as the more adventurous human beings.’

‘Those AIs little realize that this makes them more human.’

‘Interesting concept,’ said Blegg. He slapped his hand down on the chainglass case. ‘But let’s talk about this.’

‘Studies made by Isselis Mika, Prator Colver, D’nissan, Susan James and those others aboard Jerusalem affirm our original conclusion: Jain technology was intended as a weapon. It may be a creation of that race we named the Jain, or it may have been created long before. Its vector is quite simple. It is activated by contact with any race intelligent enough to employ it. Growing inside the individual first in direct contact, it subsumes that host’s knowledge wherever that differs from its own, but also allows itself to be used by that host. The host grows more powerful and is naturally inclined to control the rest of his kind. This he does until the Jain tech, destroying him in the process, seeds a secondary version of the same technology more amenable to the host’s race. We saw the initial stages of this with Skellor, and we have since seen the final stages of the process with the Makers. It destroys technological civilizations. Archaeological evidence, specifically that of the Csorians and the Atheter, suggests that it has done so many times before.’

‘So Jain technology is our first encounter with the Vandals?’


‘And so that brings me back to asking what are the prospects for the human race.’

‘Prior to Skellor obtaining and activating a Jain node, there had been no sign of any such nodes in all of explored space.’

‘They’re pretty small—easy to miss.’

‘But we see, by what occurred in the Small Magellanic Cloud, that a prior infestation here should have resulted in billions of Jain nodes spread throughout space. We have run simulated spread patterns predicated on the extinction dates—with a large margin of error—of each of those three races. Thus far a Csorian node has been found which bears some resemblance to Jain technology, but is not a racially destructive device. No true Jain nodes have as yet been found.’

Blegg grimaced and peered suspiciously towards where he knew the cameras were mounted inside the chamber.

‘Honestly—not one,’ insisted Earth Central.

‘So,’ said Blegg, ‘the Jain met their Waterloo five million years ago; the Csorians disappeared a million years ago; and the jury is still out on the Atheter. I believe even you AIs are still debating the veracity of that half-million-year-old find? Anyway, it would seem that either the Atheter or the Csorians managed to survive Jain technology and wiped it out in this part of the galaxy.’

‘That would have been the Atheter. We are now more than ninety per cent certain those remains are genuine. The point, however, is still moot, and not entirely relevant to our present situation.’

‘But it would be interesting to know what did happen to the Atheter. They might still be about, you know. With the earliest find relating to them dated at three million years old and that other at half a million, they showed a degree of longevity…’

Ignoring this point, EC enquired, ‘You inspected the wreck?’

Blegg nodded. ‘Every last retrievable fragment was found and is currently being studied under the supervision of the AI Geronamid. Obvious signs of technology developed from Jain tech, but no nodes. If the Maker brought them here, it offloaded them somewhere long before Dragon destroyed its ship. What about the other end?’

‘The Not Entirely Jack is currently en route to Osterland.’

‘You followed my suggestion?’

‘Yes, dracomen are aboard it to be deployed in any ground-based military actions. Agent Thorn controls the mission.’


‘Currently aboard the Jerusalem, en route back to Cull to interrogate Dragon.’

‘And Polity defcon status?’

‘Full scanning in all critical areas. All runcible AIs are now cognizant of how to protect themselves from Jain tech subversion, and are updating their security. The old military spaceyards from the Prador War are being reopened. Ship production elsewhere is at optimum and all new ships are being outfitted with gravtech weapons.’

‘Then my place is four hundred and seventy-two light years from here,’ said Blegg.

‘And why would that be?’ asked the AI.

‘I feel I should take a long hard look at the excavation on Shayden’s Find. It occurs to me that if the Atheter managed to destroy every Jain node in this region of the galaxy, then they knew how to find them.’

Blegg stepped away again, located himself in U-space, and his next pace took him into the runcible embarkation lounge ten miles away from the museum on Earth’s moon. A woman, who was petting a large Alsatian bearing a cerebral augmentation, glanced up at him in a puzzled way. Only the dog itself gazed at him with infinite suspicion. He turned himself slightly, putting himself out of phase with the world, and strode off towards the runcible. Ahead of him he watched a man step through the Skaidon warp and disappear, and Blegg did not hesitate to follow. Then, just at the last moment, he paused. Why had it never before occurred to him that the device might not be reset to his own intended destination when he stepped through? And why did that occur to him just now? He shrugged. Stepped through.

— retroact 1 -

Yamamoto said someone just parachuted from a B52, and in his excitement stood up from his desk. A wire sparked along the classroom wall, and white light, so bright it seemed to fill the mind like some hot liquid, glared in through the windows. Hiroshi turned to Yamamoto as the world shifted sideways. Glittering hail stripped the standing boy bare, peeled the skin off his raised arm, then the window frames and the wall shredded themselves across the scene, slamming the boy to one side as if he had just stepped in front of a hurtling train. Hiroshi saw glass just hanging in the air, and felt what came to be called the hypocentre opening wider like some vast eye. Some continuum, permanence just to one side of the world, was impacted, dented. Everything went black… then Hiroshi opened his eyes to the rainbow. They called it the mushroom cloud, yet such colour did not make him think of fungi. He lay upon the hot skin of some dragon, its huge scales rough against his back. A wall of fire rose to his right, seemingly burning without fuel. He sat upright, naked, and inspected his body. His elbows were grazed, but that was all. He was sitting on a complete section of the school’s tiled roof, but the school itself rose no higher than he could normally stand. The heat was intense and smoke wisped from the wreckage.

‘I can see it. The aeroplane,’ said someone below him.

Hiroshi tore away tiles to reveal a dusty face. He recognized Yamamoto by the shape of that face and by the muscles that once moved underneath skin. Liquid ran from his eye sockets. Fire bloomed in the wreckage. Someone started to scream jerkily, then fell silent.

‘I see it,’ said Yamamoto again, then fell silent too.

Hiroshi stepped from hot surface to surface, heading for white dusty ground. He found a pair of shoes tied together by their laces. They were too big for him, but enough to protect his already bloody feet. He found Mr Oshagi’s smouldering coat, and from it salvaged enough fabric to fashion himself a loincloth, then he fled the seemingly hungry fire. A man trudged ahead of him, blisters on his back as big as fists, skin slewed away from one thigh to expose wet muscle.

‘Water. Put it out,’ the man muttered.

Hiroshi passed him, then turned, dance-stepping over sizzling wires in the street. He needed to get across the river, to get home. He saw the woman sitting with her back against the lower stump of a telegraph pole. She too was naked, but with the flower pattern of her dress burned into her body. She was crying with pain while her baby suckled at her burnt breast. Hiroshi stared at her, then turned with her to watch the tornado of fire swing around the corner and howl down on them.

— retroact ends -


Haiman (a combination of human and Al): the definition of this term has changed just as fast as the technologies involved have developed. First coined as a term of disapprobation when augs became available on the open market, it was soon adopted with pride by those who wore them. As augs developed, the term then became a bone of contention amongst those who were ‘auged’- it soon becoming the case that only those wearing the newest and most powerful augs were considered truly ‘haiman’. If you wore a standard Solicon 2400 you were obviously inferior to those who wore a semi-AI crystal matrix aug buffered from direct interface by band-controlled optic and aural links. Et cetera. Then with the development of gridlinking enabling true download to the human mind, those who only wore augs were no longer considered haiman. The consequent off-shoot of this technology, enabling the downloading of human minds to crystal, led some to claim that only the entities thus engendered were genuinely haiman. However, the general populace ignored this contention, and further developments in such technologies have caused the term to be applied with indiscriminate abandon. It is currently the fashion to describe only as haiman those who are both gridlinked and augmented by the latest cyber pro-prostheses—the carapace and sensory cowl. But they themselves, though adopting the term with equanimity, believe a true haiman is the unbuffered amalgam of human and AI, with its resultant synergy. Such beings have existed—Iversus Skaidon and the Craystein computer became such a one, but its lifespan was measured in seconds. The haiman ideal is to achieve the same result, but stick around for rather longer.

—From ‘Quince Guide’ compiled by humans

I am now a murderess.

It was something for Orlandine to contemplate while her carapace loaded all those files she had stored for convenience in the memory spaces of her interface sphere. Most of it was technical specs for the Dyson project, memcordings from other haimans who worked on similar though much smaller projects, and various subpersonas of a search-engine format. While these loaded she searched the inventory of the project ships on standby and found one suited to her requirements. The Heliotrope was loaded with equipment ready for setting up a small facility on one of the Dyson sections, and it was U-space capable. She definitely needed that last option: to at first mislead, then as a future reserve. She set automated systems to fuel it to capacity and to load further supplies, but only for as long as it would take her to actually reach the ship.

With all the required files downloaded from the sphere to her carapace, Orlandine now turned her attention to other information already retained in the carapace itself. Personal information. She honed down fragmentary memories from all those stored from her time with Shoala. She dared not attempt a cut and paste job on any of them, as that process could be detected, so loaded to the sphere only those memories where there had been some disagreement between herself and the dead man. It was with some discomfort that she discovered there to be so few. One of the older subpersonas she supplied with the parameters of a search for any information concerning Shoala’s personal life, then set its internal clock back three months. She then erased and overwrote its retrieval memory, so it would appear this was done under some stress. The search parameters themselves she then scrubbed and overwrote with the parameters for a technical search. She left that subpersona in the sphere. Now she wrote fragments of code, each tailored to read like overspill from an attempt to re-engineer her own personality, and placed them in the sphere’s memspaces. Then that was it, there was no more she could do without it all looking rather suspicious.

Any good forensic AI would be able to reveal the original parameters of the subpersona, then, taking into account the code fragments, hopefully conclude some machine-based psychosis on her part, and delve no further. Most likely the investigators sure to come looking here would be concentrating on information more relevant to finding out where she had gone.

All done.

Orlandine ordered a primary detach and felt the clamps disengage from behind her carapace. She pushed herself upright and stood with the carapace clinging to her back like some large flat metallic louse—ribbed armour extending from the base of her spine to a sensory cowl stretching up behind her head, pincers engaged into her skull, collar bones and her hip bones, interface plugs clamped behind her ears. She stretched her neck, the carapace turning smoothly with her, then dipped her head to look down at her body. She was naked, and felt strangely vulnerable. It was rather uncommon for haimans to walk around the station like this. Nakedness had not been frowned on within the Polity for some centuries, but haimans generally tended to wear some sort of clothing to partially conceal their shameful humanity. Too late to do anything about this now, however, for the only coveralls in her sphere’s dispenser were made to be donned after she removed her carapace. They would not fit over it.

She hit the exit pad and a segment of the sphere’s skin revolved aside. The gangway she stepped upon overlooked an internal space in which hung a hologram of the Dyson project. It ran in real time, and from viewing piers people could enlarge any part of the display and call up detailed analyses of what was happening there. This facility was laid on for the entirely human visitors who occasionally came here. Orlandine strode along the gangway until she came opposite to the entrance to Shoala’s sphere. She paused there, wondered if the clues to psychosis she had left behind were really so false, and for a moment just could not move on. Then she remembered what this was all about, and felt a sudden loosening inside her, a brief adrenal surge of excitement. She was free now: free to do as she pleased, free to be all she could be.

A drop-shaft took her up to the residential level, whence a carpeted corridor led her on to her own quarters.

‘Is he still interfaced?’

She turned. It was Maybrem, their resident expert in heliometeorology, who ran the predictive programs warning of sun-spots, solar flares and storms arising from the steady destruction of the gas giant. The man was dressed in Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt running an animation of a tornado. It seemed very retro and was obviously meant as some subtle joke.

‘Shoala, you mean?’ she said, her voice catching despite herself.

‘Yeah—he’s normally the first down into the lounge. He’s so eager for human time, I sometimes wonder if he chose the right career.’ He eyed her up and down, taking in both her nakedness and her carapace. ‘There some problem?’

Orlandine reached up and touched the hard edge of her cowl. ‘We’re still running some mass searches—rather a lot of ionization when the converter detached.’

‘I thought we predicted that?’

I don’t really need a technical discussion now. ‘Just making sure. I’ll shed this in my quarters and join you soon.’ She moved on, noting a glint in his expression. No suspicion there, though—he obviously assumed she was taking her carapace back to her rooms prior to enjoying some entertainment with her partner.

Eventually she entered her quarters, then went directly to her wardrobe. The doors slid aside at a non-verbal command. A similar command opened a safe in the back of it. For a moment she ignored this while finding and donning some knickers, and a pair of loose baggy trousers that belted around her hips below the carapace supports connected to her hip bones. Activating a little device in the belt then caused the trousers to shrink until skin-tight. She next pulled on enviroboots, and a backless green blouse specially designed to be worn with a carapace. From the safe she took out the Jain node—sealed up in its anti-nanite container—and dropped it into the blouse’s top pocket. She had put it away in the safe directly after Shoala observed it, wondering what self-destructive impulse made her leave it out on display in the first place. Next she found a carry-all, and took it over to the display case, which she opened by sending a signal ahead of her. Into the carry-all went the rest of her collection, but nothing more. There seemed no point taking anything else, and she was all too aware that only twenty minutes remained before this place was rattled by a small nuclear explosion.

From her quarters she headed directly to a drop-shaft distant from the one taking others to the Feynman Lounge. Only a couple of women passed her, one wearing an aug and the other nothing obvious, so she was probably gridlinked—there were few people here without an augmentation of some kind. They glanced at her without interest and continued conversing in low tones.

Stepping into the drop-shaft, Orlandine knew the worst was over, since she would find few of the higher-ranking haiman staff down in the shuttle bay. As she stepped out into that bay itself, a sudden horrible thought jerked her to a halt.

Did I really need to kill Shoala?

Yes, yes, she did… she ran the scenarios. She could not afford to live in the hope she would remain undiscovered, so must now flee, and as an overseer of one of the largest construction projects in the Polity her abrupt abandoning of her post would be thoroughly investigated by forensic AIs. Their attention would have focused on Shoala, and he, having nothing to hide, would have opened all his files and his mind to them. The inevitable discovery that she possessed a Jain node would result in Polity AIs expending huge resources in hunting her down. This way, however, they would think they only pursued a murderess, so the resources they expended would be limited… hopefully.

This particular bay comprised a narrow area lined along its two longer sides by numerous one-man inspection pods—globular affairs containing one seat, simple controls, and ionic directional thrusters. A maglev strip ran down the centre of the floor towards a far airlock. Passing many empty spaces for pods, Orlandine strode along briskly until she reached the first of them on one side, turned and stepped through its open side door. Automatically, as soon as she plumped herself down in the seat, the door closed and the pod manoeuvred out on to the maglev strip. She strapped herself in, and rather than control the vehicle through her carapace as the signals might be traced, took hold of the manual joystick. With a low hum the pod buoyed up on the maglev field and wafted towards the airlock, which consisted of an inner shimmer-shield and an outer hard door. The pod slid through the shield, halted while the iris door opened, then fell out into the night.

Above her the Heliotrope rested in docking clamps, attached to the station by various umbilicals. The long sleek ship terminated at its prow in a forked pincerlike extrusion. This was for manipulating large objects in space, and was another reason why Orlandine had chosen this particular ship. Turning her pod over so that the side of the station now appeared as a plain of steel below her, she pushed the joystick forwards. Drawing close she sent a simple signal, and an irised lock opened in the vessel’s hull. Soon she manoeuvred the pod to dock, then abandoned it to enter, and finally take her place in an interface sphere inside the ship.

‘How may I help you?’ asked the ship AI.

‘Take us out,’ she replied. ‘I need to take some direct ionization readings.’

Opening herself into the ship’s systems she observed the umbilicals detaching like flaccid worms. Autohandlers had loaded the last few items requested only minutes ago. Clamps detached and the slight spin of the station cast the ship adrift. Now clear of it, she observed the Cassius Station in all its might.. Ovoid and gigantic, the thing was 200 miles from top to bottom and 150 miles wide, yet in itself it was but a single component that would be later fitted into the Dyson sphere, along with millions like it. Orlandine focused on the equator while selecting certain crucial programs from her files—only slightly different from those she had used to kill Shoala’s systems. The detonation lay only three minutes away. To delay until after that would be to forewarn this ship’s AI.

‘Heliotrope, here are the parameters of a search, and related data.’ She sent the programs to the AI, and trustingly it accepted them without checking. As the Jain programs isolated the AI and began to take it apart, she watched the station. Precisely on time a brief speck of light appeared on its huge surface. But the mere fact that she saw it without magnification, from this distance on a structure so massive, meant a few thousand cubic yards of the station had been vaporized along with Shoala’s interface sphere, and his corpse. After a moment she picked up signals meant for her, and ignored them, while delving into the complexities of entering U-space. The ship AI died just as the ship it controlled dropped out of existence.

* * * *

With a feeling of extreme déjà vu Thorn walked out along the platform, but that sensation passed as he gazed out across the roiling sea. When Skellor had come here, and for ten shillings picked up his Jain node at a market stall, there had been no sea here at all, but now the terraforming process was much advanced. The market now absent, large structures had arisen on what must now be described as a pier. A big ship lay magnetically moored to it, and a crane lowered large cargo containers into its hold.

‘Why a ship?’ he asked.

‘That was Aelvor’s choice,’ replied Jack via Thorn’s comlink. ‘For energy efficiency. The runcible is downside so requires the main output of present fusion reactors, thus for planetary transport he is using less energy-profligate means. The output from the reactor aboard that ship would only be enough to lift an AG transport one tenth the size.’

‘Then why not bring in more reactors?’

‘Economics. Aelvor is working within a budget.’


Thorn tasted the word. When you worked for ECS it was one you knew about, but also knew only applied to others. The formulae that AIs employed to control financial systems he knew to be as esoteric as those they used to control runcibles. He understood that the profit margins of all concerns were limited by those formulae, as were their rate of expansion and resource demand. This last applied here, too, for Aelvor, the haiman overseeing the terraforming of this place, had been allocated limited resources and was left to assign them as he saw fit. Here then was an attempt to allow a terraformer to create something not quite so homogeneous as many worlds in the Polity. This world was also unusual in having a haiman in charge—the Osterland AI’s power being limited solely to the runcibles and their infrastructure. He wondered how the AI itself felt about that.

Thorn continued along the edge of the pier until he was closer to the ship. Studying one of the containers he recognized on its side the logo of a private biofact corporation. The vessel, he realized, was a seeding ship, and its cargo would probably be released only at specified locations in the sea. Doubtless each container held slow-release canisters of plankton and seaweed spores, as well as fish, crustacean and mollusc eggs, and maybe larger organisms. By the foamy look of the waves and some staining back on the rocky shore, he guessed algae were already taking hold.

‘Okay, we’re on,’ announced Jack.

‘About time too. Why the delay?’

‘Aelvor is high security status, so has already been alerted to the threat Jain tech represents. He was rather miffed that people, such as yourself, who had come in contact with it, were here on his planet, then extremely reluctant to allow any alien organisms of another kind, draconic in nature, down on the surface. I understand his point of view.’

‘What brought him around?’

‘Osterland and myself pointed out how a woman once sold Jain tech from a stall on that very pier, but what really made him become more cooperative was a promise of ten per cent extra on his resource allocation should we leave any mess he needed to clear up. I rather think he would now like us to have a small war down here.’

Thorn turned from the rail to head back towards the city which, over the years, had spread across the rocky landscape. ‘What information do we have?’

‘Her name is Jane von Hellsdorf. She has been through adjustment after conviction for selling faulty Sensic augs and black-market memcords of “victim-oriented sexual acts, murder and necrophilia”.’

‘Nice,’ commented Thorn.

‘Yes, and that she ended up selling the same stuff here indicates her adjustment did not stick. Probably due to some organic problem.’

‘Yeah, but where the hell is she now?’

‘We have her covered. Aelvor has kept her located for us from the moment he received our message. She is out in the Oaks, in a recently constructed village called Oakwood. It occurs to me that Aelvor could use more imagination in naming places around here.’

‘Get on with it, Jack.’ Thorn now reached the land-side end of the pier. A promenade stretched to his left and right, along which ertsatz Victorian cast-iron street lamps emitted a muted glow in the growing overcast. From this thoroughfare, roads led inland at regular intervals between blocks of four-storey buildings constructed from the local stone, which were roofed with solar tiles, and from which bulged hemispherical chainglass windows like amphibian eyes. Lights glowed warmly inside many of these sea-front residences, and Thorn wondered what their inhabitants were expecting of their new world.

‘I have sent coordinates to your palm-com. Scar and his people are down now, and have set up a perimeter. The situation is under control.’

Thorn did not bother to observe that he had heard that one before. He took out his palm-com and flipped it open. It obligingly displayed a map of the town indicating the locations of both himself and his aircar. Droplets of rain were smearing its screen as he closed the device and headed for the narrow street nearest.

Sliding garage doors occurred regularly along the bases of the tall buildings, no doubt leading down to basement parking garages for ground vehicles. Hydrocars probably—another energy saving on Aelvor’s part. As it began to rain more heavily Thorn pulled up the hood of his envirosuit. The streets were cobbled—very retro and possibly a draw for runcible tourists. Following the course he had memorized, Thorn took a left, a right, then came out into an open arcade around a wide pool, at the centre of which a fountain gushed. Peering into the pool he observed glittering rainbow weed between whose strands swam shoals of small blue flatfish. The shopfronts here possessed those same bulbous chainglass bay windows. A man with a wide fedora and a leashed Dobermann strode past. He raised his hat to Thorn and smiled.

As the dog walker disappeared into a side street, Thorn finally reached his aircar: a replica mini AGC parked on the cobbles. Detecting his presence, the car popped open its door, and he strode over to duck inside. The cramped vehicle smelt of fish. When he first obtained it he had wondered if so small a vehicle was a result of Aelvor’s energy savings or just spite. Now, after seeing more of this town, he thought otherwise. The haiman seemed to have a complete disregard for standardization, as demonstrated by his lack of ergonomic town planning. Thorn rather liked the result.

The mini took off with a lurch and was soon cruising a hundred yards above even the highest buildings. Thorn floored the accelerator and it took off on two fusion burners. To his left the combined runcible facility and spaceport looked like some industrial complex close to swamping an ancient town—yet they had been established before the town. Below, once the car passed beyond the final buildings, rose grassy and rocky mountainsides scattered with gnarled trees. Over the peak of this mountain, the terrain dropped away to a river valley. Beyond that lay a forest canopy.

‘He likes oaks, does Aelvor,’ Thorn observed.

‘Evidently,’ came Jack’s reply.

‘Is Scar linked into com?’

‘He is—voice connect.’

That meant Thorn need only first speak the dracoman’s name and the comlink would open to him. ‘Scar, what’s your situation?’

‘Wet,’ came the dracoman’s brief reply.

‘A little more detail would be helpful.’

‘We have surrounded the village and are now allowing no one to enter or leave. One resident has spotted us and shown signs of emotional disturbance.’

‘Okay, just hold your perimeter there.’ He paused. ‘Jack, how does Aelvor know her location?’

‘Through a locator implant she received during her adjustment,’ Jack replied. ‘Now available through your palm-com.’

Thorn peered at the device open on the seat beside him. It showed the map he was currently referring to, with dots on it to indicate his car and Oakwood. He tapped the second dot with his fingertip. A frame enclosed it, expanding to fill the screen with a map of the small village and the precise location of Jane von Hellsdorf within it. Soon he was flying above a gravel road, along which trundled a large auto harvester loaded with oak trunks. The next moment he planed over the village itself: a small conglomeration of timber-built chalets. As he landed on its central green, Thorn scanned around for a moment before picking up the palm-com. He turned the device until the map positionally aligned, then peered through a side window at a chalet located on the village edge.

‘Scar, close in your perimeter now and bring yourself and eight of your boys in. You have the target?’ he asked.

‘I have the target.’

‘We want her alive, Scar—that’s paramount—so just use stunners, and only if necessary.’

He reached behind to take up a short pulse-rifle, then stepped outside the vehicle. The weapon he held fired pulses of ionized gas and possessed a sliding scale, so could deliver anything from a mild shock to a smouldering hole. He chose the knockout setting, at its lowest level, preferring not to use the weapon at all. When he next looked up, he could see dracomen moving in through the drizzle.

‘Scar, I’ll take the front door.’

Scar merely showed his teeth, then he and the other dracomen moved in around the chalet.

As he reached the door, Thorn paused for a moment, about to reset his weapon to blow out the lock. Then he grimaced to himself and tried the handle. Swiftly opening the door he stepped inside and quickly to one side, levelling his rifle at the one figure visible. But Jane von Hellsdorf wasn’t going to put up a fight. She sat in an oak rocking-chair, drooling and rolling her eyes. Thorn wondered if the crappy Sensic aug fitted on the side of her head had left anything inside worth salvaging.

* * * *

Chaline felt tired after a long shift spent on running runcible alignment checks. Having stripped off her overalls when the alert came through her gridlink, she quickly pulled them back on. She had begun making queries through her link just as Villaeus burst the door open.

‘Come on,’ he gestured.

‘Graham said something about intruders. What—?’

‘No time,’ the Sparkind trooper interrupted. ‘We go now.’

Chaline instinctively glanced around at her belongings, but they were only material things—the most important stuff she stored in her gridlink. And if the likes of Villaeus said, ‘No time,’ he meant it.

As she stepped through the door, he caught her arm and dragged her to one side, behind the cover of two other troopers — Judith and Smith—who were staring down the sights of their pulse-rifles towards the end of the corridor. Chaline noted that they also carried proton weapons slung at their sides, ready to be snatched up. Their initial choice of pulse-rifles was obviously to prevent inflicting too much damage, since the base was merely an inflated dome layered with resin-bonded regolith, and all the interior walls consisted of expanded plasgel which, though enough to block sound and create the illusion of privacy, would hardly stop a determined punch.

‘Back to the chamber.’ Villaeus gave her a shove. ‘U-space signatures all over the base—we’ve got company.’

Chaline hesitantly began moving, glancing nervously behind as the three Sparkind kept up with her. Then she heard pulse-rifle fire, yells echoing and a tearing sound. At that moment Villaeus obviously received directions over com, as he turned suddenly to face down the corridor. Chaline tuned in on the military frequency of Sparkind augs. She could not broadcast that way, but she could listen.

SK5: Confirmed hostile — two civs down in North Section.

SK1: Recoverable?

SK12: In a bucket maybe.

SK11: PRs kill ineffective, but do delay the fuckers, going over to PF.

SK1: Contact, hundred yards, three o’clock on corridor’s twelve.

SK1 was Villaeus himself. Chaline picked up her pace, admiring the way the three others kept themselves focused down the sights of their weapons while moving smoothly backwards. There came a whooshing roar she recognized as a proton weapon firing. A subprogram in her gridlink offered up the news that PR stood for pulse-rifle and PF for proton fire—a more correct definition than the old, and now dying-out, misnomer ‘APW, since these weapons fired field-accelerated protons not ‘antiphotons’.

SK2: Go PF?

SK1: Civs that way… twenty yards, pick it up.

Villaeus turned to her urgently. ‘Run!’

At that moment, a series of swordlike spikes stabbed through the righthand wall of the corridor, then the wall itself caved in and something monstrous avalanched through. A giant silvery-grey beetle head grazed the ceiling, emerging above a divided thorax. The creature came down with a clattering crash, multiply jointed limbs starring out from its body to tear into the walls, ceiling and floor. Once centrally located, it began pulling itself along the corridor towards them. The three troops opened fire, but it moved horribly fast—seeming almost designed for manoeuvring in these corridors. In the midst of her shock, Chaline recognized distinct similarities between this creature and a manufactured beast whose remains she had seen on the planet Samarkand.

SK1: Concentrate fire on the head.

The shots burned holes through the monster, and smoke came billowing out from it. It slowed briefly, but nubs like globules of mercury filled up the cavities, quickly skinning over, and then it came on as before.

SK2: We’ve got another

The stretch of wall between Villaeus and his two comrades burst open, and a second creature surged through.

SKI: Fucking PF!

Villaeus rose off the floor, one of the second beast’s limbs tightening around his body like a hawser. He gripped his pulse-rifle in one hand, constantly firing into his attacker’s hideous face. One of his legs suddenly detached at the knee, and in a blurred movement Chaline saw the boot stripped away, cloth, skin, muscles, lengths of tendon, bloody individual footbones taken in different directions.

‘I said run!’ Villaeus screamed. One side of his face had now disappeared, then his right arm and pulse-rifle was jerked from his body. The creature took both rifle and arm apart with equal precision and alacrity. With his left hand the trooper groped desperately for something at his belt. Breaking out of horrified fugue, Chaline turned away as, beyond the monster, purple fire flared again and again, and the roar of proton fire rose and fell. She rounded a corner—to her left more explosions. Then the wall blew in ahead of her and she thought for a moment it was all over, but Judith and Smith rolled neatly through and came quickly upright.

‘Keep moving!’ Judith.

SK1: Detonating now.

The explosion from behind blew Chaline down on her face. Before she could get up, the other two dragged her upright and hurried her on. A sulphurous stink permeated the air, which probably meant a dome breach and the outside atmosphere was leaking in. Time to go.

End it.

Cormac opened his eyes. His heart pounded and he shook with an adrenaline rush. He supposed it no wonder that people once became addicted to such memcordings. You could experience anything: sex of any kind, the actual act of murder lifted from the minds of killers sentenced to death, even the moment of death itself should you so wish. And all without physical danger—though of course some subsequently went mad. Now addiction was simply a matter of choice, for available technologies could root out most of its causes.

‘Chaline’s observation was apposite,’ he observed. ‘It was quite similar to the creature guarding the tunnel down to the Maker’s escape pod on Samarkand. Like that one too, these creatures were designed for just one purpose: to go through that base just as fast as possible and acquire everything there.’

‘One notable difference,’ said Asselis Mika, gazing at him steadily. ‘These ones could heal themselves as fast as those calloraptors Skellor made. That means they were a direct product of Jain technology. The one on Samarkand, I would say was the result of technology learnt at one stage removed from Jain tech—nowhere near as robust, nor ultimately as treacherous.’

Cormac glanced around at her. Her ginger hair was even longer than when he last saw her, and was now tied back so her elfin face seemed thinner. She wore skin-tight leggings and sandals, a loose blue blouse. But though she had obviously taken some trouble with her appearance, she looked tired, and the blush marks below her ears were a sure sign of someone who spent too much time in full-immersion VR.

He picked up his brandy, sipped, then said, ‘How are you finding it here?’

She had been aboard the Jack Ketch with him during his pursuit of Skellor, but subsequently defected to Jerusalem where Jain research was being conducted and greater resources were available to her.

‘Do you resent my defection?’ she asked.

He shook his head. ‘No, you did the right thing. Your expertise was needed here and you’re not really a field operative. So tell me, what have you learnt?’

Mika laughed out loud, gesturing to the panoramic window of the lounge with its ersatz view of the stars. ‘What haven’t we learnt?’

‘I’ve studied the overview on the nanotech thus far uncovered, and I’ve seen how far you are along with counteragents and defences.’ He grimaced. ‘But what precisely is Jain technology?’

‘Okay.’ She leant forwards, all enthusiasm now. ‘Put simply: it is self-organizing matter that uses up civilizations for its self propagation. It is not sentient. It is first symbiotic with intelligent beings, then becomes parasitic. Its hosts use the technology to make themselves more powerful, to learn and understand more. But on turning parasitic, the tech absorbs information from them that will enable it to find more of the host’s kind. That information is incorporated into the Jain nodes it then produces while in the process destroying its host.’

‘Made that way or evolved that way?’ wondered Cormac.

Mika shrugged, then glanced up as someone else entered the lounge. Cormac looked up as well. This man was an ophidapt, but he wore a hotsuit, so was obviously a version adapted to low temperature. On the side of his bare scaled head he wore a crystal matrix aug with a buffer to visual and aural interlinks. Despite the technology being discrete, the man lay just a spit away from direct interfacing, and was haiman really. Cormac sent a polite query, and in instant reply received a package telling him all he needed to know.

‘D’nissan, please join us,’ he said.

As one of the scientists who shared Mika’s research into things Jain, Cormac wanted to know what this man had to say. D’nissan studied them for a moment before coming over. ‘An update would be nice.’ He sat down on the sofa next to Mika.

Cormac noticed that, sitting alone on the sofa on the opposite side of the low table, this put himself in the position of interrogator once again. He made a recording of his previous exchange with Mika and transmitted it over.

D’nissan blinked, then said, ‘Pursuant on your previous exchange: it is worth noting that something made can then evolve, and that something evolved can be remade.’ He touched a finger to his crystal matrix aug then shrugged. ‘Our studies of Jain morphology, however, are building a body of evidence weighing in on the former option: Jain technology is a weapon created long ago for the single purpose of wiping out civilizations.’

While Cormac sat silently absorbing that, the door into the lounge opened yet again to admit another visitor. Catching its arrival out of the corner of his eye he suppressed an involuntary shiver. The spider-drone from Celedon station had just joined them. So soon after reliving Chaline’s memories, a drone of such a blatantly insectile shape was an unsettling thing to witness. He returned his attention to D’nissan and Mika, as the drone moved off towards the panoramic window.

‘You say it absorbs technical knowledge,’ said Cormac, ‘so what happens when it absorbs U-space tech.’

‘Unless controlled, it won’t, and without a host it would not be capable of retaining that knowledge,’ said Mika.

Cormac gazed at her queryingly, but it was D’nissan who continued: ‘Jain tech uses its acquisitions in, for example, the same way an amoeba uses the physical mechanisms of its body. It is sub-sentient—not conscious. It doesn’t understand what it is doing. It is the very nature of U-space tech that a high level of conscious understanding is required to operate it, hence the fact of runcible and ship AIs controlling it now.’

‘Those creatures… biomechanisms, if you like’—Cormac eyed the spider drone—‘U-jumped down into that base Chaline occupied,’ he observed.

Mika replied, ‘Yes, but they were controlled by a Maker version of our friend Skellor—that being the conscious element.’

‘Some of our original U-spaceships were not controlled by AI,’ Cormac noted.

‘Apocryphal,’ said D’nissan. ‘Those ships left before the AIs won the Quiet War and took over. It suited the companies owning those vessels to define the systems controlling them as CQPs — carbon quanta processors—simple computers. In reality those systems were conscious and a damned sight more intelligent than any of the ships’ passengers, none of whom could understand U-space technology.’

Cormac shrugged, accepting that. ‘Okay, even without U-tech this shit could bring us down. We got lucky with Skellor. A little less arrogance on his part and he could have caused damage on a systems-wide scale, before seeding Jain nodes across the Polity to finish the job. So how do we stop this? How do we kill Jain technology?’

Mika leant forwards. ‘There is no simple answer to that. The inactive nodes are easy to destroy—just drop them straight into a sun—but active Jain technology, especially when it has sequestered an intelligent mind…’ She stared at Cormac, looking grim. ‘You heard Chaline. It seemed as if the only successes the Makers had in destroying it were by planetary sterilization. And if it gets out of control within the Polity… well, there’s an old saying, something about killing the patient to cure the disease.’

There seemed little more to say after that. Cormac listened in half-attentively as the other two discussed recent research. His attention kept drifting to the spider-drone which periodically reared up against the panoramic window and rattled the tips of its legs there in an annoyingly grating manner. Finally D’nissan, then, shortly afterwards, Mika, departed. Cormac finished his brandy, stood, and began heading for the door. Subliminally he observed the drone drop away from the window and head towards him. As he turned towards it and gazed at an array of red eyes and gleaming chrome pincers, the fact that such drones were not noted for their stability occurred to him, and he abruptly wished he had a weapon to hand.

Halting before him the drone said, ‘Hi, I’m Arach—I’ve been assigned to you.’

Cormac eyed it suspiciously, then made a query through his link: ‘Jerusalem, apparently a drone called Arach has been assigned to me!

‘He’s lying,’ Jerusalem replied. ‘He is very bored and feels you are his best bet for some action. I will send him elsewhere if you require.’

‘An ex-war drone that served in the Prador War? Perhaps I would be foolish to refuse?’ Cormac commented.

‘Perhaps you would,’ Jerusalem agreed.

To the drone, Cormac said, ‘I’ll summon you when I need you, Arach. Just make sure you are ready for… any eventualities.’

The drone did a little tappity dance on the carpet.

Cormac departed frowning.


Cassius Project: this is a Dyson sphere in the process of construction, an object first described in 1959 by the physicist Freeman Dyson in his paper ‘Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of lnfra-Red Radiation’, though the idea germinated in him after reading a science fiction story by one Olaf Stapleton some thirteen years earlier. It is a hollow sphere being built around the sun, Cassius, to capture nearly all the star’s radiation so as to power (at nearly 1026 W) the civilization that will occupy the inner surface of the sphere when the project reaches completion. Construction began in that hugely optimistic time during the initial runcible-based expansion of the Polity, when it was felt that anything could be achieved. The project stalled during the Prador-Human War, but then continued after because, some claim, it was felt by the AIs that a sense of optimism needed to be reclaimed for the human race. It has caused much contention in the Polity because, with its completion date lying in the remote future, it is felt irrelevant to present requirements. However, few can deny the massive technological advances stemming from this project, and the rejuvenating economic effect throughout that sector of the Polity. Perhaps few can also deny that this is forward planning on a truly ambitious scale.

- From ‘Quince Guide’ compiled by humans

Horace Blegg considered the universe as a web of lines interconnecting nodal points which, studied with sufficient intellect, would reveal its holistic nature. How fated is this particular node? He did not personally believe in determinism, but some coincidences seemed almost too coincidental to ignore. He walked out along a gravplated platform to a viewing blister in one half-completed section of the giant ship’s outer skin. To his left he observed the muted glare of ion engines which maintained the vessel’s position in the planet’s shadow. The engines were necessary for correction because the ship’s mass was perpetually changed by materials being brought in through four internal cargo runcibles. Also many smaller vessels docked and undocked all the time, changing its vector. In two days the ship would be completed, and by then, hopefully, it would no longer be necessary to keep it this close to the world in order to relay the thousands of tonnes of equipment coming through the runcibles, and then it could move out into a more comfortable orbit around the sun. Just down to his right he observed the shuttle he had requested, now docking, but there was no hurry.

‘A space tug will arrive in thirty hours,’ said the Golem beside him, which was telefactored from the ship’s newly initiated AI: Hourne—named after one of those who had discovered the nature of the object below, just as the world itself was now called Shayden’s Find, and the sun was called Ulriss.

Down below, the single rocky slab was the planet’s only enduring feature, drifting around on the mostly molten surface like a miniature tectonic plate. Huge autodozers were clearing the millions of tonnes of ash built up on its surface over millennia of constant eruptions. A slab like this would not have survived for so long on such a world but for one circumstance: the magma had accumulated and solidified around a large flat object unaffected by the heat. Others had discovered this object and listed it as a purely natural phenomenon. The woman Shayden, and her two male companions, had come here to study it and found that some fragments of its incredibly tough and durable substance had broken away—enough for them to retrieve and study thoroughly. This substance, something like diamond, also bore certain similarities to memcrystal. Shayden—out of curiosity—attached an optic interface to one piece, and the reams of code feeding back through it astounded her. She realized instantly she had discovered something very important. She also realized that her private business did not have the resources to study this discovery as it should be studied. She returned to the nearest Polity world and reported her find. Before the AI on that world was prepared to commit resources, it needed confirmation so Shayden, Ulriss and Hourne returned here with a Polity Golem called Cento, whose presence cost them their lives.

‘Some lifting job down there,’ Blegg observed.

The Golem stepped forwards and pointed to an area of chain-glass before them. An image appeared—doubtless projected by laser from the Golem’s eye. ‘The artefact is shaped so.’ Blegg observed a fat comma. ‘We believe it is the inner part of an original spiral. Where the crystal is actually breaking down is along that flat leading edge, so we project that it was once like this or larger.’ The comma grew like a snail adding shell, winding out and out. Then this activity paused for a moment, before the growth retreated to its original shape. ‘Thermally protected gravmotors are currently being positioned underneath the object here.’ A multitude of dots appeared like a rash all over the comma shape. ‘And we are introducing sheer planes in the underlying rock so the artefact should separate from it upon lifting.’

‘What about structural integrity?’ Blegg asked.

Now a grid appeared over the shape. ‘Ceramal beams attached directly to the object using high temperature resins,’ the Golem explained. ‘That will be done once we have removed all the ash and rock still resting above it.’

Cento, that other Golem who had come here, being one of the two Golem who tore apart the brass killing machine Mr Crane, had kept a souvenir, Mr Crane’s arm, to replace one of his own that the killing machine tore away. But who would have thought that Skellor, who had no real previous connection with Mr Crane, would want to resurrect that deadly machine, and would be prepared to come to a place like this just to find a missing part? Cento survived the encounter; the humans did not. Mr Crane threw Ulriss into a river of magma, the other two were left exposed unsuited on the surface.

But that was it: another coincidental connection. Cento came here at precisely the time Skellor—a man controlling Jain technology—sought him out. Then they moved on: Cento and Skellor to finally die falling onto the same brown dwarf sun. And here, on this same world, awaited an object likely to be a vast repository of information that was now confirmed as being too young to be a product of the Jain, and too old to be something the Csorians made. It must be Atheter—Blegg did not know why he felt so sure, but he did. And it might provide part of the solution to the danger the likes of Skellor represented. The artefact’s importance necessitated building a ship large enough to house it: it was too valuable to keep in one place where it could become a target.

Blegg turned away from the blister and walked over to the edge of the platform. Launching himself from it, he felt the weakening tug of the gravplates as he sailed towards the inner hull. Landing right below a structural beam, he absorbed momentum with his legs, caught hold of the underside of the beam and shoved himself down to the airlock at which the shuttle was docked. No path yet led from this side to the same airlock as it was one yet to be put into service. Catching one of the grip bars beside the door, he was about to palm the lock plate but realized the inner door was already opening. He hauled himself over to the door, then inside.

‘You’re an avatar, Blegg,’ so Cormac once told him.

Blegg snorted in dismissal of the thought as the airlock filled with air, and he turned off the shimmer-shield over his face. He next pulled off his hotsuit’s helmet and shut off the air supply in the neck ring. He could transport himself over short distances, alter his body to survive in extreme environments, but in reality he was less rugged than most adapted humans, and certainly nowhere near as efficient as the Golem avatar of the Hourne AI to whom he had just spoken. Why would Earth Central have bothered to create so fragile a representative?

The inner door opened and Blegg pulled himself through into the cockpit of the small slug-shaped craft, then down into the pilot’s seat, and strapped himself in. He disengaged the airlock and docking clamps, and the shuttle fell away from the ship, turning its flat underside down to face the planet. Taking up the simple joystick, he took control of the descent.

Of course Cormac’s theory was more plausible than Blegg’s own. He might well be a creation of the Earth Central AI and utterly unaware of that fact: a submind brought out of storage when required, with his memories adjusted or augmented to account for any missing time. His body might have been recreated many times. Sometimes it might even be just a projection—how would he know? This was not the first time he considered this possibility, and as always he rejected it. The idea simply withered under the load of his centuries and of all the things he had seen and understood.

— retroact 2 -

Hiroshi pushed his foot against the floating corpse of a woman and shoved it further out. A whole mass of corpses broke away from the bank and began to drift slowly downstream. The sky was dark now and everywhere he looked its blackness sandwiched hellish fires against the ground. He drank his fill of muddy water and bathed his swollen face, then, hanging the shoes around his neck by their laces, pushed himself out into the turbid current. When he finally climbed out from the other side, it was raining big heavy droplets of filthy water that stained like sump oil.

How did I get to the river?

He looked back across to the firestorm raging in the area where his school was located. The fire would have burned him up, so he had stepped away from it, into that other place, then back out by the river—his intended destination.

Or am I mad?

When he finally reached his home street, he found it difficult to decide which part of the rubble mound had once been his house. He identified it only on recognizing Mr Hidachi standing in the street outside what had been his own house next door.

‘Details are being investigated,’ the man said. And, to Hiroshi’s query concerning his own family, repeated, ‘Details are being investigated.’

As he dug, Hiroshi found the head, neck and right arm of his mother, while the incinerated body of his father was only identifiable by his shoes. Something in Hiroshi’s head just shut down then as he crouched amid the ruination. That night came and went, and in the morning thirst drove him back down to the river. Upon his return he thought he smelt grilled squid and his mouth watered, but following his nose only led him to a pile of corpses — most of them human, but occasionally dogs, cats and birds and a single cow swollen up like a balloon. Back in the rubble pile he made a nest for himself and chewed through a handful of dried rice. On his subsequent return to the river he found a floating bottle—the water he brought back from the river made eating the dried rice so much easier. As another night passed mother and father began to smell, so Hiroshi wrapped the rice in a cloth, took up the water bottle, and began to walk. He saw bewilderment all around him, and plainly written on the faces of soldiers clambering down from an armoured car when they saw the raggedy people coming out of the wreckage towards them. He heard the word ‘hibakusha’ for the first time being directed at himself. He was now an ‘explosion affected person’ for no ‘survivors’ must besmirch the memory of the honoured dead.

Days passed, maybe a lot of days. There had been nights, more horror to see, a big pale foreign man giving him a large hunk of chocolate. The war was over, he heard, Japan had lost. He felt he should respond to this with shame, but could only look about him with wonder as nature responded to the cataclysm with frantic, almost desperate growth. White, heavily scented feverfew sprouted everywhere as if the Earth offered up its own medicine for this ill. Hiroshi only realized he had moved outside the bounds of the city when he witnessed a strange scene occur below a charred tree flinging out its own green defences.

The two soldiers wore headbands so smudged with soot, the rising sun emblem was only just visible. The third man, a stiff old officer in a spotless uniform, knelt on the ground. One soldier stood right behind him with his sidearm drawn and held resting by his hip; the other stood a few paces away, calmly smoking a cigarette. The officer wiped a white cloth along his gleaming blade, up and down, up and down, polishing it. He then carefully wrapped the cloth around the section of sharp steel just beyond the handle. Hiroshi thought, He is worried the blade might be dirty, and now he doesn’t want to cut his fingers…

The officer inverted the blade to his stomach and, grunting, drove it in. After a pause he pulled it sideways. He was making a strange nasal sound now and his head turned slightly. Hiroshi supposed that at this point the soldier behind should have shot him in the head. But the subordinate merely held the sidearm up, inspected it, then turned to his companion.

‘We should take the sword,’ he said. ‘The Americans pay well for swords.’

The officer keeled over on his side. His thighs and the entire front of his uniform were saturated with blood, and intestine bulged from the single wound. Shivering, he tried to bite down on his groans. The soldier stooped, tugged the sword away, cleaned the blood off with the same white cloth and placed it to one side. He then began to go through the officer’s pockets and when the dying man tried to resist, pistol-whipped him until he stopped. He tossed a pack of cigarettes he found to his companion, who then also took up the sword. The first soldier pocketed other items, then after a moment he began tugging off the officer’s boots, whereupon the second soldier kicked the officer over onto his back and pressed a foot down on his neck. Casually, almost negligently, he began using the tip of the sword to gouge out the dying man’s eyes. At that moment the first soldier spotted Hiroshi watching, stared for a moment, then abruptly stood up and aimed his sidearm.

Hiroshi stepped aside into he knew not what—but which centuries hence would be called U-space. Shifting only slightly, he stepped out on what he later found to be the island of Osaka, and walked on.

He did not stop walking for a quarter of a century.

— retroact ends -

Only seconds passed aboard Heliotrope, then came that twisting sensation as the ship surfaced from U-space. All around lay jewelled stars, the largest visible object being an orange smudge amid blackness. Orlandine rechecked coordinates and dropped the ship out of existence once again, but only for fractions of a second more than previously. Heliotrope surfaced into realspace over an infinite ocean of orange gas, broken with rollers of red cloud and vast spreads of misty white like peeling skin. Orlandine ignited the fusion drive and dived in. Only as the ship penetrated the surface was it revealed how disperse was the gas—a thin fog. Again checking coordinates she oriented the ship, accelerated for an hour, then coasted for a further three. At the end of that time something like a vast steel cliff loomed out of the murk ahead of her.

Orlandine was no outlinker, but she had spent most of her life aboard stations or ships, surrounded by technology, and felt more comfortable in that environment. The ship, though just big enough to live in, was not a place in which she wanted to conduct dangerous experiments. However, in her present straits the idea of descending to a planetary surface was unthinkable—there being no quick escapes for her down there since a U-space drive could not be engaged until the ship lay well clear of the gravity well. She chose an intermediate measure. And she chose a place she knew.

The diamond-shaped fragment, one of the first-constructed building blocks of the Cassius Dyson sphere, consisted of five layers of composite each a half-mile thick, the four-mile-wide gaps between each layer maintained by composite and bubble metal joists, some half a mile wide, braided carbon nanotube cables, massive gravmotors and hardfield generators powered by thousands of fusion reactors. In here there were 25 billion cubic miles in which to lose herself. Of course her intention, in making a U-space jump out of the system, had been to mislead any forensic AIs into thinking she had left the system completely. But, no, this was home to her: she was more familiar with every structure in this place than with any other place in or outside the Polity. Here she could hide most effectively.

She decelerated, hard, turning the Heliotrope so it rose up just beside the wall of composite. Sentinels inside the massive structure detected the ship, discounted it from being a meteorite and therefore offlined collision lasers. Those devices also registered the ship’s presence, but were simple computers and therefore easy enough for Orlandine to access via her carapace. She erased their recent memories.

Within minutes the ship drew opposite one of the mile-wide gaps between layers. She kept it rising, up past another layer of composite, to where the murk began to thin, then turned it, decelerating again, so that the front screen faced into this final top gap running through the structure. With merely human vision, she could see just ten miles into the forest of massive slanted joists and cables before their number and the thickening murk entirely cut off vision. Using her sensory cowl to scan across the entire electromagnetic spectrum, and with her carapace linked into the ship’s sensors, she could see right through to the other side—some 80,000 miles away. This place was awesome, always. How could she possibly leave it?

Orlandine eased the Heliotrope in past a vertical cable a hundred yards thick. Locating herself on a three-D map in her mind and by recourse to microwave beacons throughout the structure, she altered her course past a row of giant joists to which clung arboreal leviathans—generators, reactors, gravmotors. Through exterior sensors she noted the cloud her vessel was creating: the adjustments made by its thrusters causing ices to sublime, blowing up crystal sulphur and the numerous odd compounds that condensed here inside. The cloud would probably go unnoticed, but she slowed considerably and took more care with her course. An hour later, forty miles in, she sighted her destination.

The cylindrical pillar was a mile wide, and vertical rather than slanted like the joists. The inner structure of it, she knew to be almost ligneous. Each hexagonal-in-section cell stood about sixty feet from floor to ceiling, and thus the pillar contained thousands of them. It was for storage space, maybe living areas—that being something to be decided in the distant future—a general-purpose structure placed here prospectively, it being more convenient to do so while the entire segment was under construction. Orlandine brought the Heliotrope down to the base of the pillar, folded out the tips of each half of the ship’s claw, and switched their inner faces to gecko function. She eased the ship forward until the claw’s gecko surfaces bonded to the pillar face, then eased out the head of a plasma cutter from the rear of the claw. Reaching out with the cutter to the full extent of its triple-jointed arm, she began slicing a circle as far as feasible beyond where the claw tips bonded.

Carbon dioxide and water ice immediately sublimed from the pillar face. All around, in kaleidoscopic colour, fluorescence bloomed as complex ice made the transition to water ice and then into vapour. The cutter easily punched through the light sheet-bubble metal—the structural strength here mainly derived from laminated composite beams evenly spaced throughout the pillar’s interior. Eventually she finished cutting the circle, and with a delicate adjustment of the Heliotrope’s, thrusters, she backed the ship away, extracting a fifty-foot disc of metal. Then, swinging the ship around, she reversed it into the gap. Utter darkness now, but she mapped every movement and action precisely in her extended haiman mind functioning through the ship’s sensors. At the last she pressed the disc down against the bottom of the cut, and with a couple of stabs from the plasma torch, at its lowest setting, tacked it back into place. She then eased Heliotrope down to the floor of this hexagonal cell, which, with miles of composite layered below it, did possess a degree of gravity. However, that gravity level was low, so she extended the ship’s gecko feet to stick it into place. Turning on exterior lights—not that she really needed them, just for comfort really, human comfort—she gazed around at her new home.

* * * *

Resembling a burnished cylinder, the telefactor, resting in the wooden doorway, extended one of its numerous arms, and from the tip of this extruded a single tool which very quickly removed all the hinge screws. It then passed the door back to one of its fellows, which proceeded to wrap it in thin transparent monofabric before carrying it over to a stack of objects similarly sealed. Thorn glanced round at the dome that enclosed the entire house.

‘I assume we’ll be leaving the air at least,’ he said sarcastically.

‘But of course, though it is being run through filters right now,’ Jack replied from Thorn’s comlink.

Thorn scratched his beard and peered up at the dome roof, as if he might be able to see all the way beyond it to the AI and know if Jack was winding him up. ‘How do we choose where to draw the line between what is, or is not, considered evidence?’

‘She did not have much to do with anyone else here. I am presently loading all records of other arrivals and departures since her initial arrival—about ten years before Skellor came here. Aelvor’s people are meanwhile taking statements from anyone she came into contact with. Masses of data is being collected, but there’s a formula that forensic AIs apply to such situations which keeps evidential collection to manageable limits for the processing power available.’

Thorn watched the telefactor exit the doorway and rise up to the roof, where it began removing and bagging wooden shingles. It occurred to him now that there were definite advantages to being Sparkind rather than a Polity agent. As one of the elite combat groups, you just turned up on site and someone like Cormac pointed you in the right direction with simple instructions like, ‘Kill them’, or ‘Blow up that’.

‘Do we have anything at all yet?’ he asked.

‘Interesting question: we have a lot, but we don’t know what will be of any use. I have set Aphran to analysing data as it comes in—she has been loading forensic cribs direct from the AI net ever since we found Jane von Hellsdorf. Aphran will be working through the chalet as well.’

The whole building was to be transported to the NEJ, along with much of the soil surrounding it. Thorn considered the way Jack was using Aphran. ‘So Aphran is still useful.’

‘She is.’

‘And so survives. Or are you only finding uses for her while her consciousness remains entangled with yours?’

‘I am in the process of unravelling that particular Gordian problem.’

‘And then?’

‘We shall see.’

Thorn let that slide. ‘Does she have anything yet?’

‘Ask her.’

Thorn hesitated for a moment, then asked, ‘Aphran, do you have anything for me?’

After a long pause the erstwhile Separatist replied, her voice sounding distracted as if her attention lay elsewhere. ‘There is a vast amount of informational evidence, and I cannot start on the physical evidence until it is delivered up here. But thus far it seems this world has been visited by suspicious characters in their thousands, including Skellor of course. I’m presently searching for anomalies that demonstrate a deliberate attempt at some kind of concealment. Then I have to eliminate various reasons for such concealment. I’ve eliminated six people so far—the last one was a Separatist woman who came here with an adapted version of an oak tree fungus. She apparently wandered off into the deep forest and has not been seen since. Aelvor informs me that she unfortunately fell into the rock crusher of an agrobot.’

‘How remiss of her,’ commented Thorn.

‘It seems evident Aelvor does not like saboteurs.’

Thorn laughed then asked, ‘What about Jane von Hellsdorf?’

It was Jack who now replied, ‘One would suppose her bright enough not to try her own wares.’

‘I rather assumed someone forced that aug upon her,’ replied Thorn, turning away from the chalet and heading for the exit from the dome.

‘Most certainly. Her Sensic aug was deliberately sabotaged to scramble her brains, and selling such augs herself she would certainly have known enough to run a diagnostic on it before fitting it.’

‘Are we going to get anything out of her?’

‘I may be able to glean something from a full memcord. Aelvor believes he will be able to make one by utilizing her present Sensic augmentation. I propose to allow him to try.’

Thorn stepped outside. The area was crowded now. A large AG vehicle had arrived first, containing all the equipment the Osterland monitor force might need to deal with a major incident. Now a couple of large airvans were also down, and numerous air-cars. Uniformed monitors from the local police force had spread all around, conducting interviews, taking copies from all privately owned recording media. Scar had pulled his dracomen back into the woods at this stage; if their services were not required, they would return to their shuttle and head back to the NEJ.

Thorn studied a group of people gathered by one of the vans. It was not difficult to distinguish the haiman from the others. He faced away from Thorn, so all that could be seen of him was the ribbing of his metallic carapace, and a tongue of metal reaching up behind his head. Thorn strode over towards him. When he reached only a few paces behind Aelvor, the man turned and the same tongue of metal fanned out behind his head, opening out the petals of his sensory cowl. After a moment they closed up again and Aelvor grinned.

‘Agent Thorn, a pleasure to meet you at last.’ He held out his hand.

Aelvor’s black hair was plaited in a queue that ran down over one shoulder. He was bulky but not fat, one of his eyes was green and the other displayed metallic shifting orthogonal patterns. Thorn shook the proffered hand, felt a restrained strength, and noted the extra gleaming metal limbs folded down on either side of the man’s torso.

‘Likewise,’ said Thorn. ‘I could get used to this place you’re making here.’

‘Consider it just a beginning. The human race has spent thousands of years standardizing everything, and the AIs continue in much the same vein. The reasons for that have all been valid, but now we possess the technology to expand individuality and the unique.’

‘More than one way of skinning a cat,’ Thorn observed.

‘What an obscene expression,’ said Aelvor. He glanced about himself rather theatrically. ‘And talking of obscenity: where is she then?’

Thorn supposed Aelvor had asked that question out of simple politeness—the haiman probably knew intimately the name and personal history of everyone within a radius of a hundred miles, and their positions to within a square yard. He pointed to the incident vehicle and led the way across. Shortly the two of them entered the vehicle’s medical centre to stand over von Hellsdorf’s bed. She lay utterly motionless. An autodoc clung to her side with its various tubes and implements penetrating her torso. At the head of the bed one of Jack’s telefactors stood motionless—a large cylinder bristling with multipurpose limbs. Von Hellsdorf’s aug casing hung open, its guts revealed, and the telefactor held numerous micro-optic feeds in place within it.

‘Okay, let’s get to it, shall we?’ said Aelvor. With a shrug he extended his own two additional metal limbs. Thorn noted incredibly complex hands on them consisting of two sets of three opposing fingers, selector discs for multiple optic and s-con interfaces, and a telescoping device that appeared to end in just a very sharp spike, but which he knew to be the presenting head for micro-manipulators—the rear section probably containing thousands of different micro-tools. With ‘hands’ like those Aelvor could probably remove von Hellsdorf’s brain through her ear and reassemble it outside her head.

As Aelvor moved in the telefactor immediately withdrew its connection to the woman’s aug.

‘The Sensic’s definition is not the finest but, through its synaptic links, it should be possible to run a memory search program. Unfortunately from her we’ll now only get mnemonically associated fragments—there’ll be no chronological order to them.’ He now made connection with his extra limbs to von Hellsdorf’s aug. ‘You may get a few seconds of childhood where she, say, picks up an apple and bites it. The next fragment may equally be her eating another apple, seeing some child from the perspective of adulthood, or being bitten on the tit by a lover.’

‘Curiously, I do know what mnemonic means,’ observed Thorn.

Aelvor grinned, ‘Of course you do, but with most of my processes running a thousand times faster than… normal, I find I have to make a deliberate effort to communicate by ordinary speech, so I over-compensate. You do realize Jack could easily do what I’m now doing, but AIs are very chary of the haiman inferiority complex and so like us to be included.’

Jack’s voice then spoke from the telefactor. ‘Your inferiority complex seems sadly lacking today, Aelvor… Incidentally, I have just monitored an adrenal surge in the patient.’

‘Memory fragment,’ said the haiman. ‘She just recalled a particularly protracted orgasm.’

Thorn noted how the patterns in Aelvor’s abnormal eye were flickering and changing.

‘Increase in salivary amylase, and stomach acids,’ Jack noted.

‘Crab paste on toast,’ Aelvor explained.

‘Heart rate high, enzymic—’

The woman was suddenly covered in sweat, then the capillaries in her skin turned bright red. One of the telefactor’s arms swept down, knocking away Aelvor’s connection. Thorn felt something slam into his chest and throw him back.


He hit the wall and slid down. Subliminally he saw the same thing happen to Aelvor. Smoke boiling from the ceiling revealed a laser stabbing up from the telefactor. It reached out blindingly fast, its manipulators hooked under the woman’s armpits, dragged her upright, then with her it rocketed through the hole it had cut. The ensuing blast bowed the ceiling, and a column of fire washed down through the hole. Shortly after, the telefactor crashed back through, blackened, its shell buckled. Very little remained of Jane von Hellsdorf. The air stank of burning bacon.

* * * *

The Jerusalem dropped out of U-space and cruised into the Cull system. In his own quarters Cormac called up the required views on his screen, and once again looked upon his old adversary. Then, whilst he observed Dragon hanging manacled over the ice giant, he cleared his mind and tried to find the gaps in his memory of events here. He recalled Skellor taking control of the local population and using them as hostages to ensure Cormac’s own surrender. He recalled being a prisoner in some Jain substructure aboard the Ogygian—the colony ship that had originally taken Cull’s inhabitants there from Earth. He recollected being utterly under Skellor’s control, but then things started to get a little fragmentary. He knew Cento had concealed himself aboard the Ogygian and, while a kill program in that ancient ship’s computer held Skellor in thrall, the Golem sabotaged the drive to bring that ship into an inescapable orbit around a brown dwarf. The King of Hearts—a rebel AI attack ship—had then fired grapples onto the Ogygian, and while Cento held onto Skellor, Cormac went out to sever them. Somehow he ended up on one of those grapples, and the King’s AI, rather than killing him for preventing it obtaining the Jain tech that Skellor possessed, had released him to deliver a message to Jerusalem: Honest, I didn’t get any, don’t hunt me down and kill me. But how did Cormac himself escape from that Jain substructure inside Ogygian?

Cormac could only assume that Cento must have released him from the enclosing structure, but something still bothered him about that. He closed his eyes and linked into Jerusalem’s servers, then created a search program to find himself there. Jerusalem had recorded him, repaired his brain, then downloaded that recording back to his repaired brain. Cormac felt certain the AI retained a copy… and there it was.

‘You will find that difficult to access,’ warned Jerusalem from the intercom in his quarters. ‘Your gridlink does not possess the capacity to sort out that mess.’

‘My mind is a mess?’

‘All human minds are a mess. Your gridlink is designed to access computer and AI systems, which are formatted much more logically. Anyway, since it is your own mind that you are attempting to look into, you will be in danger of cerebral feedback and might well end up in a psychotic loop.’

‘Well, then, you do it for me. I want to retrieve a memcording covering the time from my arrival at the brown dwarf up to when I ended up on that grapple.’

‘I fail to see why.’

Drily, Cormac stated, ‘Memory is something past, but experiencing a memcording is current.’

Jerusalem made no reply to that, but the link was made and the memcording flowed across. Cormac loaded it, experienced it. The first time through was hard for him, since the survival mechanism of memory always dulled the pain and the sickness originally experienced. The second time through, he saw it:

He fired five times into Skellor’s head, forcing the man back against the wall. Not enough though—Skellor was no longer human. Two shots to the chest, more to the knees as he tried to spring, and a hand blown apart as it pressed against the wall. Then Cento, scissoring his legs around Skellor’s waist, was tearing away wall panels to embrace a beam behind.

‘The cables,’ Cento urged over com.

Another clip into the gun. Back towards the blown screen… and there, at the corner of his vision, Jain substructure formed around the shape of a man rooted to the floor, its shell unbroken but no man inside it.

I was inside.

‘I would like to believe,’ said Cormac out loud, ‘that it is just an unfortunate accident that so critical a part of my memory is missing, but I am by nature a suspicious person.’

Jerusalem replied, ‘Your mind needs to heal further before it can accept that. It is something you did that you do not comprehend.’

‘Return it to me.’

‘I cannot. The human mind is a fragile structure at best. The memory of what you did then could be like the inverse of a keystone, especially with your mind in its present condition.’

‘I didn’t think I was that bad.’

‘Why do you think it has taken you so long to start reviewing your memories of that time? Doubtless the explanation to yourself is that only now are those memories relevant to your coming encounter with Dragon.’

Cormac wanted to sneer at that suggestion, but found he could not. Instead he said, ‘Can you at least tell me, in general, what I did?’

‘Oh yes: you used your own mind to translate your body through U-space,’ Jerusalem replied.

Cormac went cold. He shivered. That was purportedly what Horace Blegg could do, but Cormac no longer believed Blegg to be what he claimed. Could he be wrong about that? But he just could not encompass what Jerusalem had told him and felt himself teetering on the brink of some abyss. He tried to dismiss it, to focus on the now.

‘Is there anything else you are keeping from me?’ he asked.

Immediately another memcording arrived.

‘What is this?’ asked Cormac, not daring to open it.

‘To control you, Skellor linked into your mind, but as a consequence you were partially linked into his. This is something you picked up from there—his memory of how he actually obtained his Jain node.’

Cormac viewed it, experienced it: as if he himself stood upon the platform on Osterland and received from Jane von Hellsdorf a Jain node for the bargain price of ten shillings.

‘I should have known about this. This needs following up.’

‘Thorn, some dracomen, and a strange amalgam of the Jack Ketch AI with a dead woman called Aphran, are already investigating. You are not yet stable enough for that kind of mission.’

Cormac reluctantly accepted that.

‘Jack and Aphran…’

Even as he spoke he sought information via the Jerusalem’s servers: the original Jack Ketch had been destroyed fighting rebellious AI warships, including the King of Hearts, but Jack’s mind was retrieved by Dragon, whom Jerusalem finally caught up with in orbit of the brown dwarf where Skellor and Cento died. Then Dragon’s meek surrender and return to the Cull system, some kind of bartering enacted at fast AI speeds, with the result that Dragon gave up the ship mind, then the huge band manufactured by Jerusalem and placed around Dragon’s equator—a guarantee that Dragon would not try to use the gravitic weapons it contained in some escape attempt.

Cormac returned his attention to the screen. Focus!

Dragon must now answer some hard questions for there were clear links between it, the Makers, and Jain tech arising here in the Polity. Cormac needed to decide what those questions should be, and how far he was prepared to go to obtain answers.

* * * *

Thorn rested with his back against an oak tree and waited. He observed Scar, pacing back and forth next to the dome. The dracomen had come back in during the night, obviously bored with waiting. Thorn’s own training made him very patient, and his experience enabled him to value brief moments of peace during any operation. It gave him time to appreciate things like trees, the starlit sky fading into misty morning, trees, the cool air on his face, more fucking trees.

Those down on the planet had gathered many holocordings and after deep analysis of them, usually of the background, Aphran discovered that three people had visited Jane von Hellsdorf. One of these Aphran picked up in an aug recording, and another in publicity shots taken of the village. The first one Aelvor’s monitors identified as a dissatisfied customer come to complain, and the second as another stallholder come to sell von Hellsdorf his old stock. Both were apprehended and now being questioned by monitors. But in the end what Aphran did not find proved to be of most interest. One of the residents in Oakwood had made holocordings of a barbecue, and in the background a krodorman—a heavy G ‘dapt to one particularly swampy world—showed up knocking on von Hellsdorf’s door. Analysis of the thousands of samples found at the scene revealed no trace of krodorman DNA. This person had left no physical trace of herself—for the figure was female—and they needed to know why.

‘We have her,’ Aphran announced finally, as the sun began to disperse the mist. ‘The Parliament Hotel on Cockleshell Street.’

Thorn stood and began heading for his aircar. ‘Is she still there?’

‘She has been a resident in the hotel for two months, has not yet checked out, but is not presently in her room—the hotel security system has not registered the door to her room being opened in the last two days—ever since we arrived here, in fact. It would seem that, immediately upon our arrival, she paid a visit to Jane von Hellsdorf, forced that aug upon her, then disappeared.’

Scar reached the passenger door of the aircar just as Thorn climbed inside. The dracoman growled low as he shoved the seat back and clambered into the cramped space, putting his feet up on the dashboard. Thorn stared at him for a moment, shrugged resignedly, then took the aircar into the sky. He glanced back and down to see two monitor aircars and two of Jack’s telefactors following him.

‘Jack,’ he said, opening his comlink to the ship AI, ‘have you yet figured out what caused Ms von Hellsdorf to explode?’

The AI replied, ‘A combination of four enzymes released from her liver the moment she experienced an adrenal surge—which became inevitable once someone started delving into her mind. The enzymes instantly began converting her body fat to nitroglycerine.’

‘Why do that? Killing her beforehand would have kept her secrets safe.’

‘Obviously taking out any investigators nearby would hamper their enquiries. It is the kind of thing done by those who consider ECS personnel as viable targets.’

‘Separatists,’ Thorn replied, stating the obvious.

Jack went on, ‘It is a well-tested methodology to use booby traps to target specialists among what is considered the enemy. In the Second World War the Nazis dropped bombs specifically designed to kill those sent to defuse them… And now my search has revealed that Separatist cells around Krodor have used this method many times.’

‘All very neat,’ said Thorn. ‘Tell me, Aphran, what do you think?’

‘You mean with my deep experience of Separatist methods?’ she replied bitterly.

‘Yes, precisely that.’

‘It makes sense. The prime target for any Separatist is an AI, as they are the direct subordinates of the Earth Central autocrat — sorry Jack—and after that we… they will go to great lengths to kill ECS agents. The likes of yourself are considered prime targets because not only do you serve the autocrat, you are considered traitors to the human race.’

Clear of the mist the aircar glinted in orange-hued sunshine. Soon the main town lay below and Thorn began to ease the car down towards the streets. He checked his palm-com—now lying open and stuck to the dashboard beside Scar’s right foot—identified Cockleshell Street and headed for it.

‘Let’s suppose, then,’ said Thorn, ‘that a Separatist organization learnt, by whatever means, that ECS would soon be taking an interest in Jane von Hellsdorf.’

‘Then I would expect no less than an entire combat group turning up down there,’ Aphran replied.

Thorn grimaced to himself, having already worked out the coming scenario. He decided that landing in Cockleshell Street itself would not be such a good idea, and chose a thoroughfare adjacent to it, but still in view of the hotel.

‘Jack, the entire hotel and surrounding buildings need to be cleared.’

‘I have already informed Osterland and Aelvor.’

Of course Jack was ahead of him—that’s how AIs were.

The message obviously got through because the front doors opened and people began emerging. The two other aircars landed in the street behind Thorn’s vehicle, but the two telefactors held station up in the sky. Four monitors came past the car and headed towards the growing crowd before the hotel. There followed some gesticulation and shouting, but the evacuated people began moving on down the street.

‘Jack, Fethan gave me a little gift before I departed Cull: one of Jerusalem’s HK programs.’

‘Yes, I know,’ the AI replied.

Thorn tilted his head and asked, ‘Aphran, if you yourself planted an explosive device here, in this situation, how would you detonate it?’

‘Net feed. I’d connect it to some com system. The signal would be untraceable. Or I would have assumed so.’

‘But you would need a spotter of some kind, otherwise how would you know when to detonate?’

‘I would either connect the device to something only an ECS agent might try to access—secure storage or something locked like a safe—or I would use a cam system, probably activated by movement, and routed through the same net feed.’

‘Jack, through your telefactors can you scan for a cam inside the hotel?’

‘I have already done so,’ the AI replied. ‘There are two holocameras located in the suspect’s room, linked by optic cables into the room’s netlink.’

‘Presumably there are other optic cables in the room too?’

‘No, our suspect has been much smarter than that: planar explosives packed into a standard lamp—the lamp itself to be activated by an infrared signal from the netlink rather than an optic cable. The lamp has been deliberately raised to head height, the intention being to not only kill, but to destroy any cerebral hardware designed to save anything of the victim’s mind—a subtle touch.’

Thorn reached into his pocket and took out the memstore. ‘Would this HK be able to track the cam signals?’

‘Why not ask it?’ Jack suggested.

Thorn then remembered Fethan saying the hunter-killer program did not talk much. So it could talk, then.

‘Can you hear me?’

The device vibrated in his hand.

‘I hear,’ replied a flat inflection-free voice. Scar peered at the memstore for a moment, then sniffed dismissively.

‘Then you heard what we were discussing. Can you track cam signals through a netlink?’

‘I can.’

Thorn detached his palm-com from the dash and rested it in his lap. He tapped an icon to open its netlink, and with a brief local search closed the connection to the Parliament Hotel. He then pulled out the strip along the lower edge of the touch-console to reveal multiple sockets: optic, nano-tube optic, s-con whiskered, crystal interface, and even a socket that could adapt itself to primitive electrical connections. As he picked it up, the memstore, like a clam sliding out its foot, immediately extruded an optic plug from one of its end ports. Thorn inserted this into the requisite socket.

‘Of course, we need a way to activate the cameras,’ Thorn commented, while watching the hotel’s web display flickering, then breaking up into squares, before blanking out totally.

‘Copy loaded,’ said the box.

‘Are you volunteering?’ Jack enquired of Thorn.

‘Not likely,’ said Thorn. ‘The cam signal might not be enough, but the program should certainly be able to follow the detonation signal.’ He paused for a moment. ‘Erm… HK, have you wrecked this palm-com?’

The com screen came back on, displaying the city map Thorn had used before landing.

‘Can you display where you track the source to?’

‘I can,’ HK replied.

‘Jack,’ said Thorn, ‘send in a telefactor. The watcher will know he’s been blown and won’t be able to get a human target with his bomb, but he won’t be able to resist taking out such a costly piece of Polity hardware instead.’

Even as Thorn spoke, one of the telefactors dropped down in front of the hotel. After a moment he observed something shoot out from it to hit a chainglass bubble window.

Decoder mine.

The missile stuck for a second, then the window abruptly collapsed into dust. As the telefactor cruised inside, immediately the walls either side of the window blew outwards, ahead of a disc of flame. Rubble crashed down into the street, followed by the top half of the telefactor itself.

‘My supply of telefactors is limited,’ Jack observed.

Thorn glanced down at the palm-com, just as the HK grated, ‘Located.’

On the map displayed, a square frame shrank down to a dot. It took half a second for Thorn to realize it lay right next to where he was parked.

‘Out!’ he shouted, grabbing up his pulse-rifle from the passenger foot-well below Scar’s legs. He and the dracoman piled out just as shots slammed into the car roof.

Thorn hit the cobbles, rolled, and came up locating the source of the shots. A chainglass bubble window had revolved halfway down into the wall, revealing a small open balcony. Thorn aimed at the figure standing up there, but hesitated and it disappeared. He damned himself—he had already checked that the weapon was set to stun. Now he fired freely, electrical stun discharges spreading small lightnings all over the balcony. Scar was up and moving on the other side of the car. The dracoman slammed into a street door, slapped something against it, swung aside with his back to the wall. An entry charge detonated, hurling the crumpled composite door inwards—and Scar followed it in.

‘Jack!’Thorn bellowed. ‘Factor!’

The telefactor descended on him like a falling rock. He felt a strange lightness and twisting sensation as its AG field came over him. Reaching up he grabbed one of its limbs. A second limb closed about his chest.

‘Drop me on the balcony. Then you take the roof!’

As the telefactor brought him up level with the balcony, Thorn fired into the room beyond, then kicked himself off from the machine’s skin just as it released him. His foot came down once on the balcony platform, then he dived straight into the room beyond and rolled. A figure to his left, something bouncing across the floor. Thorn surged to his feet and flung himself through the nearest doorway. He kicked the bedroom door shut, dived for the bed, grabbing up the edge of the mattress as he went and pulling it over him. The subsequent blast slammed him into a fitted wardrobe and, when he peered out from behind the mattress, the door was gone, along with most of the partition wall. Wisps of insulating foam floated through the air, and something was burning. As he climbed out over rubble, he targeted an object moving through the smoke, but then identified it as a small spherical robot on four skinny legs, which was spraying fire suppressant at a pool of sticky liquid burning on the floor. He headed for the door through which he had seen the figure retreat, and cautiously peered round it. His head jerked back just in time as something smashed into the door jamb. His comunit began vibrating against his breastbone — security signal. Thorn pulled out the comunit’s earpiece and placed it in his ear.

‘Three… of them,’ Scar immediately alerted him, his sibilant voice only just audible over a constant crackling. ‘Two heading for the roof, and one below… us… between us… autogun… corridor.’

‘I know about the autogun,’ Thorn replied, then asked, ‘Jack, what’s this interference?’

‘EM emitter,’ the AI replied.

‘That’s why it missed me.’

Thorn glanced around the room and focused on the robot. The autogun would not be very sophisticated, as Separatists hated anything with even a hint of AI to it. He stepped back, raising the setting of his pulse-rifle to its maximum, then he picked up the robot and tossed it into the corridor ahead of him. Immediately a projectile weapon began firing, smashing holes into the floor as the robot rose up on its legs. Thorn leaned round the door-jamb. The gun was mounted on a tripod: a servo-aimed belt-fed machine gun with a simple motion detector mounted on top. He aimed at it and fired in one, then quickly ducked back under cover as the gun’s ammo box exploded and filled the corridor with shrapnel. As he darted out into the corridor, he saw the fire robot, completely unharmed, returning diligently to its task.

Reaching a stairwell, Thorn knocked his weapon back down to stun. Just then an explosion shook the entire building.

‘They carry grenades and will die rather than be captured,’ Scar informed him.

‘Problem?’ Thorn enquired.

‘It will wash off.’

Jack now added, ‘The other two are on the top floor, one level up from you. I think they spotted the telefactor.’

Thorn began climbing the stairs, his weapon aimed straight up at the half-landing. This was not a good place to be if someone decided to toss a grenade down, but they had no time for delay if these people would prefer to die rather than be captured. No one visible on the stairs. Reaching the top he peered through an open arch and saw that the top floor contained a swimming pool, some gym equipment, and an old-style VR suit suspended in gimbals. Potted palms offered some cover, as did low partitions around the bar area beyond.

‘I don’t fucking think so!’ someone shouted suddenly.

A pulse-gun fired and a figure spun out from behind a pillar and landed in the pool. Then came the detonation, blowing the same figure up out of the water in tatters, drenching the chainglass ceiling and all surroundings. Thorn quickly moved in—only one opponent left here. He spotted Scar running in from the other side of the pool, levelled his weapon. The ceiling abruptly transformed into a white shower of debonded chainglass as the remaining telefactor dropped through. A black gloved hand speared out from behind the pillar, suspending on one finger a gas-system pulse-gun by its trigger guard.

‘Okay, you’ve got me!’

The gun clattered to the floor and a woman with cropped brown hair stepped out from behind the pillar, her arms held out from her sides, gloved hands wide open. Thorn considered stunning her anyway, but the shattered body in the pool told him all he needed to know. Aphran’s voice, issuing from the telefactor, confirmed this:

‘Freyda, I take it you are not quite prepared to die for the cause?’


The Sparkind are an elite ECS military force, given a name derived from the Spartans (citizens of an ancient Greek city who were noted for their military prowess, austerity and discipline), though they cannot trace their ancestry back so far. Sparkind are rather the direct descendants of the Special Forces that came into being during the Earth-bound wars towards the end of the second millennium: the Special Boat Service, the Special Mr Service, Navy SEALS and the like. Candidates for the Sparkind must first serve five years in conventional military or police service. Their ensuing training program, both in reality and virtuality, is not designed to weed out the physically unable, because with today’s boosting and augmentation technologies, anyone can be physically able. But a certain strength of mind is sought: will, a toughness of spirit and a degree of wisdom. A Sparkind has to know what he, she or it is fighting for, has to be able to make life and death decisions, and has to be trusted with weapons capable of annihilating entire cities. Operating in four-person units, usually consisting of two Golem and two humans, they have been involved in some of the most violent and dangerous actions the Polity has ever faced. But the Sparkind, though an elite fighting force, are usually never the first in. Which brings me to the ECS agent, or Polity Agent…

— From her lecture ‘Modern Warfare’ by EBS Heinlein

The latest eruption dumped a layer of ash an inch thick, pocked with large spatters of cooling magma. Blegg stepped down off one of the ceramal beams glued in a gridwork across the Atheter artefact, stooped, and brushed away more ash. The cutting machines inevitably left swirls of stone stuck all over the surface since they had been programmed to hold back from actually digging into the object itself. However, some stone flaked away by itself to reveal translucent green crystal underneath. Blegg considered what all this meant.

This green substance was some form of memcrystal similar to that used in the Polity today. The most basic form of memcrystal — the sort that did not use crystal-interstice quantum processing, or etched-atom processing as it was sometimes called—could still store huge amounts of information. Just a piece of such a memcrystal the size of the last joint of a man’s thumb could model the function of and store the memories of a human mind over a period of twenty-five years—though those who possessed memplants would upload more often than that just to keep their Soulbank copy up to date, thereby freeing up space in the crystal implanted inside their heads. If only of that kind, what could a single mass of crystal this size potentially contain? The mind of a god? The stock market transactions of an entire galactic civilization? Alien porn tapes and family albums? Atheter blogs?

With information technologies it was accepted that crap naturally expands to fill the space available—that recording media and the media it recorded always somehow outpaced memory storage. The whole new science of information archaeology was based on that truism. But this object was alien, so everything it contained would be new, unfamiliar and worthy of lengthy study. Even information that would be considered dross in human storage would inevitably reveal things never before known about the constructors of this huge item.

Blegg stood up and looked around. The recent eruption streaked smoke across the lemon firmament, and a river of magma thrashed past some way to his left. He turned, remounted the beam and headed back towards his shuttle, which rested like a large grey slug on a rubble mound at the giant crystal’s edge. As he reached the beam end, a shadow fell across him. He glanced up to see the tug arriving: a manta-shaped behemoth.

He stood and watched as cables rappelled down from it, lowering spiderish grabs. These grabs hit the surface then scuttled along to grip large U-shaped lugs welded to the beams, then the cables drew taut. The entire artefact began vibrating—the gravmotors underneath it starting up. He stepped from it at that point, scrambling up the rubble slope to his shuttle’s airlock. Inside he waited as a blast of frigid air brought the exterior of his hotsuit down to a manageable temperature, then opened his shimmer-shield visor as he entered the shuttle’s interior. He dropped into the pilot’s seat and studied the scene outside. The artefact was rising now, but the impression given was of his own vessel sinking. Feeling the shuttle readjust its landing gear on the rubble below it, he engaged AG and lifted it a few yards into the poisonous air. Soon the artefact became a black line cutting from right to left. Fumaroles ejecting sulphurous gas clouded the view underside for a while, but that soon cleared to reveal the gravmotors attached beneath it. Keeping his shuttle positioned to one side, Blegg followed the huge object up into the sky. Other observers joined him—grabships from the station, telefactors, and floating holocams recording every instant of this ascent.

As the artefact rose through the acidic atmosphere it left a trail of ash and then, as the air pressure began to drop, volatiles complemented this trail with poisonous vapours. Five hours later, when the artefact lay only a mile away from the Hourne, all the ash and volatiles were gone. The tug released its grabs, wound in its cables and drew away. Now the grabships moved in to delicately clamp their claws onto the crystal rim. Very slowly and very carefully, they eased the artefact through a gap in the Hourne’s skin, and into a large enclosed space where shock-absorbing jacks closed in on its surface. Even as Blegg brought his shuttle back round the giant ship, he observed suited figures and telefactors shifting plates of hull metal to weld into place and seal the entry gap.

When Blegg returned inside to stand at a viewing blister overlooking the artefact, the beams used to brace it were being removed and beetlebots were busy scouring the crystal surface of the last layers of accreted stone. Around the internal chamber’s perimeter, multiheaded optic interfaces were waiting on telescopic rams ready to be pushed into position. Back in the ship itself, haiman, human and Golem scientists, and the Hourne’s AI, were awaiting that crucial moment of connection with something of an alien race believed long dead.

— retroact 3 -

Despite this place having been pounded into rubble, some remnants of the Reich here still fought on. The jeep lay sideways in the dust, its engine screaming and one rear wheel spinning madly, the driver’s headless corpse now draped over a nearby pile of rubble. A long spatter of blood linked vehicle to body. Herman—as he now called himself—walked a little closer to see if he could locate the head.

Ah, there…

It lay in the middle of the track bulldozed through the ruins, directly below the lethal wire strung across. As Herman moved closer he observed four German boys clambering down the pile of rubble to loot the headless corpse. They managed to get away with some chocolate, condoms, a wallet and an automatic pistol.

‘There’s another one coming!’ shouted a fair-haired boy, and they all scrabbled from view.

Herman wondered if they themselves had set the wire, and if this ploy had really proved worth the effort. It never occurred to him to question how he could understand their language, any more than he questioned his ability to traverse the non-region of U-space around the planet. Nor his intrinsic understanding of the events unfolding upon that planet. He was only a boy, yet he knew about that million-degree eye that had opened over Hiroshima. He was a boy yet he understood what had happened in that forest-bound camp where now the perimeter wires and posts lay bulldozed into heaps and the long sheds burned to ash, and where still a stinking miasma rose from the mass graves.

Another jeep arrived. This time with an upright steel bar bolted to the vehicle, which snapped the wire just as the right front wheel rode over the previous visitor’s dusty detached head. The jeep turned and slid sideways to a stop, as the two passengers jumped out cocking M2 carbines. Herman stepped away, half a mile this time, to reappear just outside a courthouse. A little later an American gave him chocolate, peering with a puzzled expression at his asiatic features. Over the ensuing weeks Herman tried copying such expressions, concentrating on manipulating the muscles in his face. Only after the judges arrived did he realize, after seeing his reflection in a shard of mirror, how unreasonably successful he had been. Thereafter he unwrapped the filthy bandage he had bound around over the top of his head and running underneath his chin.

Getting inside the courtroom was not possible at first, but he picked up so much by just listening and lurking around. In this way he learned about the film to be shown as evidence. Upon hearing instructions given to the guards about having to put out the lights, he managed to transport himself inside at precisely the right time. No one there noticed him: their eyes riveted to the screen and many of them quietly crying. He wept then for his parents, for the horror of the world, and for the lot of a humanity he no longer felt a part of. And with a wholly adult relish he sometime later transported himself to a spot nearby to watch a stiff old gentleman in a baggy uniform, climb with shaking legs some wooden stairs to have his neck snapped at the end of a rope.

— retroact ends -

After detaching her carapace from the interface sphere, Orlandine stepped out of it and headed aft, through the living quarters, through a hold space packed with equipment, and into a storage chamber for haiman tools. She needed more than one set of hands for this job, and that’s where they were available.

Within the chamber, four assister frames were racked. Ignoring them for the moment she found a lightweight spacesuit adapted to haiman requirements and donned it, then she approached the first of the frames. This contrivance hung in its rack just like a spider carcase fashioned of silvery metal. She backed into the body space designed to accommodate her carapace, felt the numerous locks and optic plugs engaging, and her own control software coming online. One arm, human in length and terminating in four fingers, came up underneath her right arm, locking soft clamps above and below her elbow and just above her wrist. Now, essentially, her right arm possessed eight fingers—four of them metal. The pseudo arm that now connected to her left arm terminated in a three-fingered clamp over a micro-manipulator and s-con and optic interface head. Pseudo limbs simultaneously clamped themselves down each leg. These terminated in large three-digited claws protruding backwards from her ankles, which were usually used to anchor a haiman in place while working in zero-G. Folding out at a point just above her midriff were two additional arms, terminating in hands each with two opposable thumbs. She extended one of these out in front of her, wiggling its metal fingers. Now she was totally haiman.

This transformation was a psychological thing, related to ego and self-image. With just her carapace engaged, though her mind became larger and more extensive—capable of processing information like an AI and able to handle multiple tasks—it only extended from the two-legged two-armed ape. The next step was opening her sensory cowl. The moment she did that, the ‘ware loaded to handle multiple sensory inputs: she could perceive radio, infrared, ultraviolet, microwave, detect complex molecules in the air… But still she remained psychologically no more than a human using tools; peering through a nightsight, binoculars, whatever. But the assister frame’s ‘ware undermined her self-image in a way that seemed integral to her being. Her metal fingers were as touch-sensitive as her organic ones. She knew their position, their relation to each other and to her own soft self; her micro-tools were sensitive to textures not far above the atomic. She became the goddess Kali and the all-seeing Watchmaker combined.

Am I insane? some part of her wondered. But it was a very small part indeed.

Initiating detach, she stepped away from the support frame, then scuttled insectlike to the airlock. Once outside she clung to the hull and looked around. With her cowl spread, her surroundings seemed as bright as day from the residual infrared emitted from the ship’s thrusters and the further fluorescing of complex ices nearby.

The cell she had entered was a hundred yards across, its six walls nearing sixty feet high. Orlandine pushed herself from the hull and dropped slowly towards the floor. Making contact with it, she began walking away from the ship with a steady floating gait. In a moment she realized that the low gravity here would prove an inconvenience. If she moved everywhere like this, it would take her forever to get anything done. Using the enhancement of her legs she leapt forwards, hitting one of the walls ten yards up but absorbing the shock through her other enhanced limbs. As she dropped down beside the wall surface she studied it contemplatively, turning to look back at the Heliotrope only as her feet connected with the floor. This chamber she would prepare first for the rapid escape of the ship, and perhaps in time she could convert it for her own comfort. She would pressurize it and insulate it, maybe move out of the ship itself. In the wall behind her she would cut a hole and construct an airlock, and the cell beyond would then become her laboratory. That would be perfect. The Jain node would sit between clamps right in the middle of it: the focus of every resource she could muster.

* * * *

Aphran considered the facts of her life, if it could be called that. Even though she was a second generation recording of the original Aphran, a sentence of erasure hung over her because of the crimes that original one had committed. No claim of being a changed person, of having understood the error of her ways, of now being prepared to actively support the Polity, would change that. Aphran had murdered people, hundreds of people, and nothing she could now say or do would bring them back. Her sentence remained suspended only because ECS currently found her knowledge very useful, and because she had become intertwined so closely with Jack that her erasure might damage him in the process. But Jack was slowly untangling himself from her, and her usefulness to ECS was decreasing. She was a dead woman, and felt sure she would soon be a non-existent one.

Tracking Freyda as she came aboard, Aphran recognized another walking dead woman. Their captive wore a security collar which could paralyse her in a second, or blast a toxin straight into her carotids. She strode with a kind of arrogance, ahead of the bobbing telefactor, and Aphran knew Freyda probably thought she could get through this using just nerve and lies. Soon she would have to wake up to reality. Jack had appointed Aphran to the task of administering the cold shower.

‘And not a krodorman in sight,’ Aphran murmured.

‘Aelvor’s people have yet to make a search,’ Jack replied, ‘but none are listed in crew or on any passenger manifests of arrivals within the time frame.’

‘They won’t find any,’ interjected Thorn, over com from the planet below.

‘Perhaps you could explain, Thorn?’ Aphran enquired though, knowing Freyda, she knew what Thorn’s answer would be.

Freyda looked up and around, almost as if hearing part of this com exchange. Impossible of course. Perhaps she wondered why Aphran had not come to greet her the moment she boarded. When she eventually found out why, that would be the first shock.

‘There was no krodorman. That’s why you found no krodorman DNA at the scene. I’ll bet you found syntheflesh at von Hellsdorf’s place that’ll match samples in the hotel. She simply wore a krodorman suit… By the way, Aphran, what’s your history with her?’

Reluctantly she replied, ‘She recruited me to the Separatist cause on Corolon.’

Aphran and her two sisters were each born from different fathers, but that was nothing unusual in the Corolon arcologies. She remembered the three of them playing together in the enclosed arboretums, in the shopping malls and sometimes in the rooftop fields. But best of all were the secret places of the sprawling city: the tunnels and niches, the air ducts and hollows through which spread forests of cables and pipes. It probably all started with them when the latest game became ‘break it and see how quickly the robots can fix it’. Enger obtained an electric saw with ceramo-carbide teeth, and not being the most incandescent lightstrip on the block, she found and cut into a superconducting cable. There seemed little point sending what remained to the crematorium. Aphran and Arial then blamed the robots. Arial, the eldest, was caught destroying three welding robots, and, while pursued by monitors, fell down a ventilation cavity. She survived but, after they bone-welded her skull back together she was never quite the same again: never wanted to play those same destructive games any more. Aphran believed the AIs had tampered with her brain. So when, a few years later, Freyda approached Aphran to recruit her to the Separatist cause, she knew she had at last found her place in the universe. Only in later years did she realize that after fighting for the cause for so long, a love of death and carnage had displaced Freyda’s initial idealism. Aphran now recognized the blindness of her earlier self: Freyda representing what Aphran herself had become before her physical death.

The cell Jack had prepared for their prisoner was unfurnished, deliberately claustrophobic, the lighting too bright. If Freyda wanted to sleep, or even just sit down, the cold ceramal floor would have to suffice. As the door closed behind Freyda, Aphran allowed the woman a little time to contemplate her present situation.

‘No reservations?’ Jack asked her, coldly dispassionate.

‘None at all,’ she replied, trying to believe that completely.

Machines first, just like those she had destroyed as a child, but now she was working with more effective tools. Freyda taught her all about explosives: which ones to use in what situations and how to maximize their destructive effect. Aphran learnt impatiently — she wanted to do something soon about the injustice done to her two sisters. Obviously it was all the fault of the AIs. Why wasn’t that s-con cable adequately shielded? Why no safety nets in that ventilation space? Why didn’t these godlike AIs look after people? At the age of seventeen she killed her first monitor. He had fancied her, so was not sufficiently on his guard. She shot him once through the throat, again through the back of the head as he lay gagging for life. Then she spewed up her guts nearby. The organization got her out of there—she’d left just too much of her DNA as evidence at the scene. On another world she graduated to mass murder with a bomb planted in a runcible facility, but it failed to take out the AI there. The only AI she ever managed to actually… kill, was a free Golem, and that at close range with a missile launcher, while its back was turned. But though the AIs were the main enemy, the most hated of all were those who willingly served them: ECS and its agents—no agony could be too much for them to suffer. How utterly and completely did the Separatist organization brainwash her, and how downright stupid of her to allow it.

Skellor—the brilliant biophysicist who was promising to change their fortunes—brought ECS down on them like an avalanche. Subverting an ECS dreadnought by using Jain technology, he then made Aphran and some of her fellows his crew in the most horrific way possible: subsumed in Jain tech, becoming mere adjuncts to him, suffering and yet not dying. Then he killed her, burned her in a never-ending fire, the only escape being for her mind to flee inside the Jain structure. Next came Jack, who uploaded her from there to a partitioned segment of his own crystal. She combined with him, embracing him for the sake of her own survival, and there found clarity with which she began to see everything thereafter. For open to her were the massive historical files that Jack contained, giving sharp contrast to the peace and plenty enjoyed across the majority of the human Polity. She saw how the AIs allowed the human race the freedom to enjoy luxurious eternity, or even to destroy themselves personally, but not the freedom to destroy each other. She came to recognize her past life as the stubborn intransigence of a spoilt child. But most importantly she saw Jack. And that alone was enough.

‘I wondered why you were not prepared to die for the cause, but you did not answer me,’ she enquired over com.

Freyda shook her head, then sat down with her legs crossed, her back resting against the wall.

‘Only when I see you, will I believe it’s really you,’ she replied.

Aphran chose an image matching her appearance when held captive aboard the Occam Razor, and projected it into the room.

Freyda frowned and waved a dismissive hand. ‘Projection. I suppose whatever is talking to me now was constructed out of information reamed from Aphran’s mind before they killed her.’

‘Skellor killed me. You remember Skellor, don’t you? He actually burned me to death.’

Again the dismissive hand gesture.

Aphran allowed her form to change into that now more commonly seen by those aboard the NEJ. This elicited more of a reaction, Freyda’s eyes growing wide. She stared for a long moment before shaking her head.

‘I am a memcording—that’s all of me remaining,’ Aphran told her. ‘Is this what you would like to be? You have information that may be vital and you are surrounded by people who are very much lacking in patience. They’ll use an aug to interface with your mind, make a copy of all it contains, then that recording will be taken apart by this ship’s AI. You personally will then be of no use. This cell can easily be opened to vacuum.’

‘You’re no Aphran I know. You would have died rather than serve them.’

‘But I did die.’

Freyda grimaced and stared down at the floor.

Aphran went on, ‘This is an Aphran with her eyes opened wide. Your cause is hopeless, pointless and destructive. But then I think you came to realize that even before you recruited me. Once you genuinely believed all that humans-to-rule-humanity crap, but in the end you just enjoyed your own sense of importance… and killing people of course.’

‘If I do talk, what do I get in return?’

‘Whatever we can give you, but within reason.’

Freyda snorted contemptuously then said, ‘I would rather like to stay alive.’’

‘Is that within reason?’ Aphran shrugged. ‘Hard or soft—your choice. From here you’ll be transported back to Earth, which will require about fifteen runcible transfers. There you’ll face a judicial AI and be sentenced for your crimes. This does, however, mean you’ll live a little longer.’

The fifteen transfers were the key, for Freyda would still believe there might be a way out of this for her. Aphran only felt sad when registering the furtiveness in the woman’s expression.

‘I want to be allowed certain freedoms during that time,’ she said. ‘I don’t want to be put into coldsleep.’


Again that look of furtiveness. ‘I’ll need time to think about this… in a better location than this. I am not an animal to be caged.’

Aphran allowed herself to begin to fade. ‘You have no time.’

‘Okay,’ said Freyda quickly. ‘Okay… what do you want to know?’

‘How many of you were there, down there?’

‘I’m not entirely sure—’

‘How many?’

‘Seventeen… fourteen now.’

‘Their location?’

Freyda eventually volunteered a grid reference deep in the forests.

‘There is something there,’ Jack informed Aphran. ‘It’s shielded, but not sufficiently so.’

‘Now,’ said Aphran, ‘what brought you here?’ She gritted her non-existent teeth through the ensuing political diatribe, and kept asking the same questions until Freyda provided the true answer.

‘High level ECS agents to kill—that’s always attractive.’

‘How did you know they would be here?’

While she waited for the answer, Aphran listened in on coms traffic both within the ship and way below, as the shuttle down on the surface, containing Thorn, Scar and fifty dracomen, launched on a heading to the coordinates just revealed.

‘I was told.’ Freyda abruptly stood and eyed Aphran up and down. ‘Is that how you appear now, the princess, the lady in white… one of the good guys?’

‘It is how I like to appear.’

‘Perhaps you’ve forgotten Coloron, then. Thellant N’komo still runs things there, and it’s him you need to talk to. Where he got his information from I don’t know, but it was him that sent us here.’

Aphran allowed her image to fade totally, then, as an afterthought, sent the signal that paralysed Freyda. The Separatist woman dropped like a pole. Aphran observed as the door now opened and the telefactor entered, carrying the aug they would use to record Freyda’s mind and check the veracity of her story.

‘Do we ship her back to Earth?’

‘No,’ Jack replied.

‘Kill her?’


‘What then?’

‘Sentence was passed on Freyda long ago, should she ever be caught. Death or erasure to be carried out as soon as feasible after her capture. After I have taken a recording of her mind, checked her story, and gleaned from it all knowledge that might be useful to ECS, I will wipe the recording and then wipe her mind. We will put her body into coldsleep, as there are still plenty of minds in the Soulbank who would be grateful for the physical vessel.’

And that being how the Polity dealt with its criminals, Aphran felt die then any hope she harboured for a future.

* * * *

The scene now surrounding Thorn vaguely reminded him of his time as a soldier. Inside the shuttle the ten dracomen squatted in pairs in their saddle seats, their weapons braced across their chests. But these were soldiers of a different stripe. When they first landed on the planet, Thorn asked Scar why they discarded their impact suits. The dracoman leader had replied that they did not wish to be encumbered. Thorn then suggested they clad themselves in chameleon-cloth fatigues. Scar demonstrated how their own skin was much better at the job. So now, but for harnesses on which to carry high-tech weapons and other equipment, they were naked: green scaled all over except for their fronts which were yellow from throat to groin. With their forked tongues tasting the air, sharp white teeth occasionally exposed, they seemed like extras in a barbaric scene out of some VR fantasy.

In the cockpit Thorn faced forwards as Scar brought the shuttle down low so that now, through the ceiling-to-floor front screen, they could see the forest hurtling along underneath them.

‘How long?’ he asked.

‘Sixteen minutes.’

Thorn nodded. It had been difficult, but he managed to force himself to delegate this mission to Scar—just giving the dracoman the simple instruction:

‘Try to kill as few of them as possible—we’re here for information, not extermination.’

‘How many prisoners do you want?’

‘I leave that up to you, Scar.’

Scar banked the shuttle slightly, and took it lower, forest now speeding under its left-hand side. Opening his pack Thorn removed a plastic box and popped it open. As Scar straightened the craft again, Thorn took out one of the small camcom discs and passed it over to the dracoman, who inspected it for a moment before slapping it on the side of his head. Closing the box, Thorn tossed it to the next dracoman behind him. He did not need to say anything more as dracomen were very far from stupid. The first took out a disc, pressed it to its temple, then passed the box on. Now Thorn operated the lever to bring his seat closer to the mission control console. He lifted the VR headgear from its recess and placed it over his head—the visor covering his face and phones enclosing his ears. Immediately frames began accumulating across his range of vision as each dracoman pressed a camcom into place. Using the ball control in his chair arm he selected frame one in the sequence. It expanded to fill his vision and the sounds within the shuttle changed slightly. He now seemed to be looking through Scar’s eyes, and hearing what the dracoman heard. Clicking back, he saw all the frames now present, and a diagnostic readout showed the system to be working at optimum. Thorn removed the headgear and placed it back in its recess.

The view remained largely unchanged for ten minutes more, then Scar brought the shuttle down lower still so it sped along a straight lane between looming walls of trees. Below, three tracks, each five yards wide and spaced forty yards apart, had been crushed through a dense tangle of bluish bracken, parsleys and brambles. Soon they came in sight of the massive machine responsible: the beetle-shaped agrobot was two hundred yards long and a hundred wide, and mounted on three sets of three huge cage-ball wheels, which enabled so massive a machine to manoeuvre with remarkable accuracy. But it was going nowhere at the moment, since two of the cage balls had collapsed. Scar swung the shuttle in a wide circle around this behemoth, checking the ground below with infrared and carbon dioxide emission scanners. But nothing showed up, and Thorn wondered if Aelvor had yet started introducing large animals—or if he ever would. Perhaps he did not like what creatures like deer might do to his newly planted saplings.

After this survey, the dracoman finally brought the shuttle down directly behind the mechanical colossus. Even before the shuttle landed, its side-ramp doors began to open. Dracomen started disembarking the moment a wide enough gap opened; leaping fifteen feet down into the vegetation as if the drop was nothing to them. As soon as the shuttle settled, Scar unstrapped himself and stood up from his saddlelike seat. Thorn stood also and followed him out into the bracken. Here the dracomen only became visible when they moved—their scales transforming in both colour and texture to match their surroundings. Dressed in simple green fatigues, Thorn himself was the only one clearly visible.

Then, as if showing sympathy to him, all the dracomen simultaneously returned to their natural colour.

‘Remember,’ said Thorn, ‘we want to take some of them alive.’ Scar wrinkled his lips away from sharp ivory in a manner not exactly reassuring, then made a spearing gesture with his hand, and they set out. With their high-stepping birdlike gait the dracomen easily picked their way through the thick-growing brambles and bracken, then slowly they began to fade as they once again began to camouflage themselves. Thorn stood and watched them go, and really wanted to follow, but realized that would be pointless.

Landing directly on top of the Separatist encampment would remove any element of surprise, since the shuttle’s arrival would be detected long before. This highway for the massive agrobots was the nearest place to the encampment for a shuttle to find a plausible reason for landing. Aelvor had somehow caused the agrobot to break down at this point, so anyone listening and watching would think their shuttle contained a maintenance crew. It was a good plan since, on foot, dracomen could cover the intervening terrain very quickly. Thorn, being very fit and physically strong, and possessing reserves at their maximum, could also have covered the forty miles of forest easily enough, but in his case it was a question of how fast. He remembered once running with Scar through the foothills of the Masadan mountains, hunting a hooder on which they intended to plant transponders so that the monstrous predator’s location would always be known. Their pace then had been an even jog, and Thorn had thought it time they picked it up a little.

‘Can you go any faster than this?’ he had asked the dracoman on that occasion.

Scar fixed him with that big-eyed gaze, ‘Can you?’ Thorn accelerated until he was running full-pelt along the stony trail. He glanced at Scar and saw that the dracoman’s pace seemed almost unchanged, yet still he kept up.

After a moment Thorn said, ‘Show me, then.’

One moment Scar was loping along beside him, the next moment he took off like an ostrich, kicking up wet shale as he accelerated. Thorn watched him go, tracked him moving further along the path, then turning left up the slope until soon out of sight. After about five minutes he heard something approaching to his rear, and glanced back to see the dracoman speeding up behind him. Scar again settled to that jogging pace beside him.

‘In miles per hour?’ Thorn had asked.

‘Ninety to a hundred… on level ground,’ Scar replied.

‘Okay, maybe we’ll stick to my pace for now.’

It was a chastening memory.

Thorn now returned to the shuttle, donned his VR headgear, and began selecting views to observe. Soon the dracomen moved from tangled growth to clearer ground below the trees. They picked up their pace and became more visible, as their skin failed to compensate fast enough to the changing surroundings. Then, again almost as one, they returned to their natural coloration.

‘Scar,’ he said over com, ‘let me know when you’re about to attack. I’ll then launch and head over towards you. That might provide further distraction.’

Scar’s reply was merely a grunt, whereupon Thorn decided to shut up, sit back, and enjoy the show. A half-hour more of forest scenes resulted in him impatiently removing the headgear to go in search of a tab-pull coffee from the shuttle’s supplies. Returning to his seat and replacing the helmet, the first thing he heard was Scar’s voice: ‘We attack.’

Thorn spilt his coffee, swore, then quickly called up the feed from Scar’s camcom: pulse-rifles firing through the trees, shots stitching across a thick trunk, momentary glimpse of an autogun bolted to another trunk, an explosion, a tree falling. Two figures, human, a blurred shape between, and the double thump of stun discharge, two figures falling wrapped in small lightnings. Tents: chameleon cloth. Stun fire. A turbine winding up to speed somewhere. Thorn flicked through views, caught a glimpse of an AG scooter slamming into a tree. Another view: a man firing his weapon at the dracoman through whose camcom Thorn watched, muzzle-flash, flame and smoke then foliage and sky, then the dracoman was abruptly back upright again as the man turned away. A stun discharge threw the man down on his face. Then back to Scar, walking now.

‘We are done.’

Thorn sat very still, checked the time display in the corner of his visor, then shivered involuntarily. So much for his idea of launching the shuttle as a distraction. Abruptly the entire range of frames before his eyes then froze.

‘Scar cannot hear us,’ said Jack. ‘Observe this.’

Without Thorn doing anything, his VR gear selected a frame and the scene it displayed went into fast reverse, froze, then played forwards. He watched a man swinging his pulse-rifle round and begin firing. The shots slammed into a dracoman’s chest, juddering it to a halt then flinging it back. The man swung away to aim elsewhere. From a prone position the dracoman flipped forward and upright, fired on the man and brought him down, then it ran on. Half its chest was missing, the resultant cavity smouldering.

‘I’m glad they’re on our side,’ whispered Thorn.

‘If they really are,’ replied Jack.

Thorn’s view returned to encompass all the separate frames again. As the AI withdrew, he selected Scar’s frame in time to observe the dracoman brandishing a ceramo-carbide knife. Scar was busy removing leaf mould from around what looked like a small antipersonnel mine.

‘How many dead?’ Thorn asked.

‘Three humans: one received four stun charges, one broke his neck falling from an AG scooter, and one was accidentally shot by a comrade of his.’

‘What about your own people?’

‘No deaths.’

‘I’m sure I saw one of them hit.’

‘Three with minor injuries.’

‘Very well, I’ll come and pick you up.’ Thorn swung the shuttle joystick across on its hinged arm, so it lay before him. As he engaged the gravmotors and warmed up the turbines, he thought: And these fuckers are breeding…


Let me summarize some theories concerning the Atheter: they moved on to a higher plain of existence after reaching the apex of material technology, either that or they reached their own singularity and disappeared in a puff of logic having solved their theory of everything; they are still here with us keeping a benevolent eye on younger civilizations, but shifted slightly into another dimension so we cannot now see their vast glittering cities; their technology destroyed them (either their own AIs — if they built them—reached singularity and wiped them out, or they created some unstoppable nano-plague that did the job); or, my personal favourite, having done it all and understanding the emptiness of existence, they deleted their entire civilization, their entire knowledge base, even from their own minds, and started again, as humans. However, despite much speculation and some quite lunatic theorizing, very little is known about the Atheter. There is in fact still much debate about whether they were in fact a race distinct from those other ancient races named, the Jain and Csorians. And argument still abounds concerning what artefacts are attributable to which race, or civilization. But let us be clear on this: actual physical artefacts dating from each period are few. Most of the theorizing is based on such obscure sciences as xenogeneic archaeology, metallo-crustal dispersion and—this one really is obscure—Fifth Gen. Boolean analysis of U-space transitional echoes. It’s all piss and wind really, we’ll probably never know.

— From ‘How it Is’ by Gordon

Thellant turned to gaze at a screen wall. The scene it displayed was taken from cameras high above his present location, and its clarity so good he appeared to be looking through a chainglass window at a pastoral view of patchwork fields, rivers and copses, with only occasional incongruous towers sprouting like vulgar metal plants amid this apparently rural idyll. It was deceptive. Some human, transported to those fields from a past time, would not know that below him lay an arcology housing a billion humans. Fifteen miles straight ahead, a cliff dropped two miles sheer down to the coast, beyond which sea-life breeding pens chequered the shallow ocean extending to the horizon and beyond. That cliff formed one arcology edge. Another edge lay 200 miles behind the present view.

Of course, with so many humans being packed so closely together dissatisfaction with the regime was inevitable, despite passage to less crowded worlds being offered to them free by the runcible AI. Many did leave, but just as many were born to replace them. Thellant thought of the humans here as a particular breed devolved through urbanization: they would not move because they were incapable of imagining anything beyond the life they knew. Sad for them, but not for him—he grew rich on their dissatisfaction. The thousands of Separatist cells abounding here gathered wealth by extortion, theft, murder, blackmail… to finance the fight against the AI autocrat of Earth. Thellant skimmed the cream of that wealth, while allowing his followers to sabotage a few machines and murder a few citizens. But he remained well aware of why ECS could not catch him. The reason sat upon the sofa behind him.

‘You were told to simply kill her,’ it hissed.

Nervous and sweating, Thellant turned. The Legate always had this effect on him: quite simply it looked plain evil. It was humanoid, just like the Golem made by Cybercorp, and metalskin like some of the older versions produced by that same company. But there the similarity ended. This android wore nothing but its metal skin, shiny and shading to blue-green. When standing it towered tall and incredibly thin. Its fingers were half again the length of human fingers and terminated in sharp points. Its head slanted back, tapering sharply down to the lipless slot of its mouth. It had no nose and its eyes were lidless and insectile. There seemed no edges to the metal skin at its joints—the material there did actually stretch and flex like skin. All of it consisted of the same metal, even the eyes, from which it seemed something cold and harsh gazed out.

‘You informed me’, protested Thellant, ‘that there would be a high level of ECS interest in her, and that agents would be sent to apprehend her. I am the de facto leader of the rebellion here on Coloron, so I could not ignore such an opportunity.’

‘You are the leader here only because of the programs I have created to keep the AIs from finding out about you. But that is irrelevant,’ the Legate waved one long-fingered hand, ‘especially now.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Despite my programs, ECS has been closing in on you for some time. Now that your people on Osterland have been captured, the gap will soon be closed completely.’

Thellant felt his mouth go dry. ‘I don’t understand.’ For reassurance he reached up and touched his fingertips to the warm scaly skin of the Dracocorp aug he wore.

The Legate pointed one long digit. ‘Those augs have provided you with secure com and processing power outside AI networks. You give your orders with an unprecedented degree of anonymity. ECS have failed to track the money trails back to you through the conventional networks, because of my programs and because of numerous physical transfers of wealth, but mainly because few people know who you are.’

‘I am aware of how it all works. Your assistance has been greatly appreciated, but remember that, even with it, it was I who built up this organization.’

The Legate interlaced its long fingers. ‘Of course, and while your organization confined itself to this world, it has been easy enough for me to arrange the deaths of those who knew too much and were undergoing investigation by ECS. Had you sent out a single contractor to kill Jane von Hellsdorf, there would be no problem. I could have then arranged for the same contractor to die, and thereby closed down any connection with you or with this world. But instead you sent some of your top people there—people who have seen you and know who you are. Now they have been captured, and we both know that once in ECS hands their remaining silent is not an option. Even now ECS teams are closing in on you, and the AIs are closely watching the spaceports and runcibles.’

‘I have my own secure routes,’ Thellant said.

‘Yes, many of which have been compromised for some time. ECS has had agents in place for years, gathering evidence, gradually identifying those in the higher echelons of your organization here on Coloron. Now they have located the head, they will proceed to destroy the body.’

‘You are part of that body,’ Thellant observed.

‘Correct, in so far as I have advised and assisted you in your cause. But I will now take my leave of this world and leave you to reap what you have sown.’

Thellant abruptly felt a surge of the anger that had been his driving force since his childhood. ‘But this mess is down to you anyway! This woman was irrelevant to me. You wanted her killed and I still don’t know why, just as I really don’t know why you have always felt this urge to be so helpful!

Suddenly the Legate was standing. Thellant stepped back, his heart thumping, then he forced himself to take that step forwards again. Looming over him the android spoke, low and soft, ‘It has been in our interest to maintain a level of resistance to the autocrat; nothing sufficiently threatening to elicit a major counter-offensive, but to have skeletal networks ready and waiting for the tools to do the job. You have remained in contact with your offworld associates, so presumably you know something of the biophysicist Skellor?’

Thellant paused before replying. The Legate was some kind of intermediary—that being implicit in its name—and when it referred to ‘our interest’ that obviously included some other party. He had never discovered who or what that other party might be.

He said, ‘Skellor was a useful acquisition. I knew only that he was developing weapons we might be able to use. ECS hit his base and that was the last I heard. All I do know is that ECS went on to take down a planetary organization as a result.’

‘Then what you don’t know is that Skellor, using technology provided for him by us via von Hellsdorf, subverted an AI dreadnought called the Occam Razor, and came close to wiping out the population of an entire planet just to keep the secret. He then managed to escape the destruction of the Occam Razor, but in the end did not evade the ECS agents pursuing him. And he did all this alone.’

‘Masada…’ murmured Thellant. One of his associates had tried for a long time to find out exactly what had happened out there, but it was a dangerous subject to ask about, what with hunter-killer programs flooding the networks, and with AI warships and ECS teams swarming around that world, a dangerous place to be.

The Legate stepped past him and moved over to gaze at the screen wall. ‘Skellor was in the nature of a dry run, you might say. He was brilliant, but fundamentally unbalanced. We did, however, learn a great deal from him.’

Thellant shivered. ‘What is this technology you’re talking about?’

In an offhand manner the Legate explained, ‘Active Jain technology. It is of an organic nature and enables its wielder to both informationally and physically take control of computer and AI systems, to physically control all mechano-electrical systems, and even to enslave human beings.’

Thellant had already experienced some taste of that. Setting up his network using Dracocorp augs was difficult at first, and he rebelled against the disconnection. He always found it much easier to ensure his orders were obeyed by unexpected visits to his subordinates and the occasional disciplinary knee-capping. But as the number of those using the augs grew he found he could trust that his orders were obeyed. He felt the power—his growing ascendancy over the network—and how, the longer they wore their augs, his subordinates found it nearly impossible to disobey him.

Glancing around at his huge apartment and at the expensive luxuries it contained, he murmured, ‘We need such technology here and now. I… we could take this world, take it out of Polity control, just make it too costly for them in lives and resources to reclaim it.’ He wanted this thing. Perhaps by fleeing Coloron he could escape the coming ECS actions against him, but that would mean him abandoning everything: all this wealth and the power, and his position.

The Legate held out a fist, closed, until Thellant turned to regard it.

‘Then I shall provide,’ said the Legate.

The fist opened, each long finger folding out and snapping straight. A dark layer of something coated the palm and the inner surfaces of the fingers and thumb. At the very centre of the palm rested an ovoid, an inch and a half at its longest axis. Silvery cubic patterns decorated its surface and, as Thellant watched them in fascination, they seemed to slowly shift.

‘This is what Skellor used,’ the android informed him.

Thellant stepped forward and began to reach out. He hesitated. ‘How did he… control it?’

‘It forms nanoconnections to the mind—very similar to those made by augs.’ Cold eyes regarding him, the hand extended a little further. ‘You would then be able to create all the processing space you require. You may of course have this object analysed, but I suspect you do not have sufficient resources for that.’

Thellant kept a straight face. Obviously the Legate did not know about the scientists and technicians he controlled, or about the computers and data stores he had isolated from the AI nets. He reached out and picked up the ovoid, inspected it closely for a moment, then dropped it into his other palm to study at a distance.

‘It seems such a small… it’s cold… Shit!’ He shook his hand to fling the thing away, but it seemed stuck there. It was as if he had grasped something direct from a deep freezer that now froze to his palm. The cold of it then became something else, eating into his skin like acid. Thellant gasped, stumbled back still shaking his hand, and tumbled rearwards over the coffee table, hitting his head against the floor. Hot wires now seemed to be spearing up his arm.

The Legate stepped forwards and peered down at him. ‘What causes it to react is complicated. Simply, it becomes aware that it is within an artificial environment then it bonds to the first… intelligent organic contact. Strangely it will not bond to animals or plants—only self-aware and intelligent organic beings. I am excluded, as are Golem and other AI biomechanisms. You must therefore consider yourself privileged.’

The thing, working up his arm, was making his fingers move one after the other as if trying them out.

The Legate added, ‘I neglected to mention that Skellor used a crystal-matrix aug to accept the connections and control the technology. In this case it will connect directly to your brain. That means you may experience some… difficulties.’

Hot wires now in his shoulder, searing up through his neck and into his head. The node, still in his hand, deforming and melting into him. As he began shrieking, the Legate made a contemptuous little moue with its hard mouth, and departed.

* * * *

Cormac brought his craft in over a curving landscape of living flesh tegulated with scales ranging from the size of a thumbnail to a yard across, which seemed almost like jewelled facets cut on red and green opal. He crossed a trench from the rim of which sprouted pseudopods like giant cobras with blank sapphire eyes where their mouths should be, and passed low slopes strewn with writhing red tentacles like a growth of lianas. The manacle, as ECS personnel now called it, rose over the sharply curved horizon ahead of him. A mile long, it followed the curve of Dragon’s body, and at the centre of it lay a trapeziform building fashioned from the same block of highly polished ceramal. The metallic strip was thirty feet wide and a yard thick and, as Cormac flew above it, his craft dipped then compensated as it encountered the tug of gravplates mounted in its surface. The agent brought his craft down on the metal, where it settled in one Earth gravity, and contemplated what he had landed upon.

The manacle held itself in place with hooks driven into draconic flesh—injuries that meant nothing at all to Dragon. Many instruments pierced the entity, measuring, sampling, testing and perpetually monitoring. The AIs did not intend to miss out on this opportunity to study Dragon up close, but all that equipment was not why this object had come to be called a manacle. As well as more conventional armament, Dragon contained a gravtech weapon. The giant entity had once destroyed a Polity warship with it, by breaching antimatter containment within that ship. The manacle itself held numerous CTDs whose antimatter flasks would also be breached should Dragon try to use that same weapon again. The bombs could be detonated remotely by those entrusted with their code.

Cormac knew that code.

Arach, the spider-drone from the Celedon station, had wanted to come across too, but Cormac refused. This situation did not warrant the presence of an irascible war drone and, anyway, there was not room for it in this one-man craft. Arach had suggested clinging externally to the craft’s hull, and only desisted in wheedling when Jerusalem intervened.

Cormac closed up his spacesuit’s visor, hit purge, and unstrapped himself while a pump rapidly drew the cockpit air into a storage cylinder aboard the craft. He touched a panel beside him and a wing door rose, while his seat swung towards the opening. Stepping out, then down onto the polished ceramal, he looked to one side and saw a row of pseudopods silhouetted against the ice giant, waving like cilia. Considering his previous encounters with other incarnations of this entity, it surprised him that the pseudopods did not all gather around him menacingly, for Dragon loved to play such games. He wondered what the game would be this time, and if Dragon really understood how the odds were stacked against it.

He trudged the few yards up to the nearest wall of the building. The airlock there consisted of an outer metal door and an inner shimmer-shield. Quickly going through, he entered the single room of which the building consisted. It looked like the housing for a small swimming pool, only the pool itself contained scaled flesh. Controlling his spacesuit via his gridlink, Cormac retracted the visor down into the neck ring, then collapsed the segmented helmet back over his head so it settled into a collar at the back of his neck. He sniffed: familiar terrarium smell, cloves and something slightly putrid. Moving around the edge of this minor expanse of Dragon’s surface, he finally came to a small area off to one side containing VR and laboratory equipment. These were intended to be used by those who wanted to get this close—Mika being foremost of thousands aboard the Jerusalem who had volunteered. He sat in a VR chair, right elbow resting on the chair arm and chin cupped in his hand, and contemplated Dragon.

‘Are we all sitting comfortably?’ he asked over his gridlink.

I do not sit,’ Jerusalem replied.

‘Oh, get on with it,’ said Mika impatiently.

Only these two, excepting Dragon itself, could speak to him directly while he was here. Many thousands of others listening in could lodge requests, ideas or questions, which were filtered through Jerusalem and stored ready in Cormac’s gridlink should he require them. Through that same device he checked his access to many files and to the controls of the equipment within the building. The holographic projectors specifically interested him.

‘Dragon, I think it is time for our little chat,’ he said out loud.

How many words of dialogue had that Dragon expert Darson recorded all those years ago when Dragon stood as four conjoined spheres down on the surface of Aster Colora? Millions? And how few solid facts. As far as they went, Cormac had learnt so much more in his own brief exchanges with the alien entity. It was all about exigency: it seemed that the less critical the situation Dragon found itself in the more Delphic its pronouncements tended to be. Cormac supposed that having nowhere to run and having many CTDs attached to its surface would be making it feel pretty exigent right now. However, its lies might be even more convoluted. He needed to judge the answers behind the answers.

‘Dragon?’ he began again.

The smell of cloves grew stronger and there seemed a sudden stormy intensity to the atmosphere.

‘Activity below you,’ Jerusalem told him. ‘An incursion developing through the underlayers and a pseudopod tree coming up.’

Cormac scratched his earlobe, rested his hands on the chair arms. Shortly a split began to unzip in the scaled skin extending before him, revealing a red cavity from which he felt a warmth against his face. The edges folded down, seemingly flowing inside. Then a cobra pseudopod speared into the air, then another, then three more. Amidst them a thick loop of neck appeared, which straightened to bring into view a head. This was not one of the usual pterodactyl heads, but something sleeker, lacking a crest, with a more expressive mouth and slotted pupils in its sapphire eyes. It blinked, then surged forwards and down resting a loop of neck on the rim of the cavity, so the head was now poised only a few yards away from him, its eyes directly level with his own. The other cobra pseudopods spread out like a peacock fan behind it, and Cormac wondered if he should read anything into these choreographed actions. Though the head itself was like that of a flesh-ripping predator, it did not rear threateningly above him as usual. And was it looking more expressive to enable better communication or just more convincing lies?

Cormac powered up the holoprojector. To one side, hanging in midair, appeared a dracoman, then beside it one of the by-blows this dragon sphere had created on Cull: a melding of human and sleer, a chimera, the body of a woman attached waist upwards in place of the head of something that resembled a scorpion.

‘When I talk to just one dragon sphere, do I talk to Dragon entire?’ Cormac asked.

Two cobra heads turned towards the holoprojections, the main head remained focused on Cormac. ‘No and yes,’ it replied.

Cormac sighed. ‘Do you remember part of you dying at Samarkand?’ Cormac had used a CTD to destroy one of Dragon’s four spheres there—retribution for the tens of thousands of human deaths it caused on that cold world.

‘I do not.’

Not perpetually connected, then.

‘How much of that particular sphere’s experience is your own?’

‘We are distinct entities, yet we are not. We do not share what we are not, but we share what we all are.’

‘Some AIs do this,’ Jerusalem interjected for Cormac alone. ‘A shared pool of knowledge, understanding and personality, whilst retaining individuality.’

‘But how often do they share, and do they share equally? It must be by U-space com, which, in this situation with USERs all around, means this sphere here has been isolated from the remaining other sphere for some time.’

‘Irrelevant to our present purposes’

Cormac pointed to the two holograms. ‘Why?’

‘You do not accept change swiftly enough,’ Dragon replied. ‘You’ evidently meaning the human race.

‘Adapt or die?’ Cormac wondered.


‘When I first came to you on Aster Colora, as an ambassador, your ostensible purpose was to deliver a warning to the human race, the usual credo, smarten up your act or die, because the big boys are watching.’ Cormac glanced at the holograms. ‘The dracoman was then part of that warning. A rather unsubtle demonstration of the precariousness of human existence—demonstrating how, but for cosmic mischance, the descendants of the dinosaurs could be where we are now.’

Cormac paused and studied the ophidian face before him. He remembered all his own previous speculations about what Dragon might be, or, more importantly, what its purpose might be.

He continued, ‘After Samarkand we marked you down as a bio-engineered device sent by the Makers to observe only, but one that developed a god-complex and started interacting with us. The Maker was sent to retrieve you and, in attempting to kill it, you caused the deaths of thousands of people. Which story is true?’

‘Neither,’ Dragon replied.

‘Tell me about Jain technology,’ Cormac countered.

‘It is an ancient weapon.’

‘And its relation to the Makers?’

At this Dragon showed some agitation, swinging its head from side to side.

‘We’re getting some very odd readings from inside Dragon,’ interjected Mika.

Jerusalem added, ‘Power transferences and much shifting of internal organs.’

Cormac absorbed all that and quite concisely asked, ‘What is the relationship between Jain technology and the Makers?’

‘I must not lie to you,’ said Dragon.

‘Then don’t.’

Mika: ‘Shit! What was that?’

Jerusalem: ‘Massive contraction of some inner diaphragm—something tensing up for a blow, perhaps?’

‘Will three times break the spell?’ Cormac wondered. Out loud he asked again, ‘What is the relationship between the Makers and Jain technology?

‘I will not…’ said Dragon.

Mika: ‘Big energy surge just then—something just got incinerated.’

Cormac suddenly gained some intimation of what was going on, of what had always been going on during communication with this entity. Dragon, after all, was a bioconstruct, specially programmed, and there were truths it could not tell.

* * * *

With the grab claw and gecko pads detached, Orlandine manoeuvred the Heliotrope to the inner wall of the chamber, and presented the docking tube to the airlock she had constructed there. She set down the ship ten yards away, and extended the gecko feet on their telescopic legs, adjusting them to position the ship precisely. The docking tube mated perfectly. She did not expect otherwise.

‘They will learn about the gift’—a secret admirer.

Orlandine departed her interface sphere with those words of warning still in her mind. It had occurred to her the moment she received the message containing them, that they were a deliberate nudge to start her on her present course, and that in some way she was being used. But she dismissed that thought and stuck with the basic fact: she possessed a piece of technology which contained the potential to take her beyond the haiman to the numinous. Presently, the reasons behind this gift remained irrelevant. All that was relevant was that if Polity AIs learned she possessed it they would do everything in their power to take it away from her. She could not therefore take the chance of assuming the warning to be premature or a lie.

In the cell she designated as her laboratory, the eight beetlebots she had taken out of storage and adjusted to this task moved slowly across the floor spraying on it a layer of crash foam. She dumped a large drum containing more of the polymer-forming liquid on a layer of foam already five inches thick, and transmitted further instructions to the robots. Now they would come automatically to the drum and plug in to its lower sockets to recharge their reservoirs. In the low pressure the polymer foamed and set to a hard insulating layer, which would prevent the laboratory cell from losing any heat that might be detected from outside. Later, for further concealment, she intended to add a layer of the laminated radiation shielding she had ordered loaded on to the Heliotrope before departing the station. A small autofactory inside the ship was meanwhile working flat out to manufacture large quantities of the polymer. A yard of thickness was what she required, thereafter she could open the locks to her ship and use its internal atmospheric systems to bring up the temperature and air pressure to within the specification required for the equipment she intended to use in here. Then she would bring in that equipment, also portable heaters and an atmosphere plant, isolate the cavern from the ship, then finally bring in the Jain node for further study.

The Jain node.

Orlandine paused and remembered that meeting on one of the Sol stations that had changed the course of her life.

‘Hi, I’m Jonas Trent,’ he had said. ‘You would be Orlandine?’

She had glanced across at him as he took the seat opposite. He was pale, quite then, dressed in black slacks, a canary yellow shirt, a jacket made of black diamond-shaped plates of composite bonded to something like leather, and wide braces that had a shifting pattern of snakes. Seeing he was auged, through her gridlink — the minimum internal hardware required to take the carapace she was not wearing at that time—she sent him a personal contact query. The personal details that his aug settings allowed her were skeletal: he was a hundred and four years old, unattached, a sensocord rep, born on Earth… all the usual details but little more. Nothing there to tell her how he knew of her, or why he approached her now.

She sipped her espresso. ‘What can I do for you?’

He grinned. ‘As we always like to say, it’s not what you can do for me—’

She interrupted, ‘I’m haiman, so do you honestly think I need to buy any sensocordings? I’m now logging this encounter as an infringement—’

He interrupted, ‘Don’t—I’m not here to sell you anything.’

She did not log the personal-space infringement anyway. A person like this would know exactly who to approach and when, so he must be here for some other reason. He took out a rounded brushed-metal box, reached across the table and placed it before her.

‘I’ve been paid very well to act as an intermediary. All I can tell you is that there’s a certain object inside, and a memtab explaining exactly what that object is. I am only instructed to tell you that it is a “gift from an admirer”.’

She peered at the box. ‘My kind are often the target of Separatists, or, rather, would be targets. I’m cautious.’ She slid the box back across the table to him. ‘You open it.’

With a grimace, he picked it up and popped it open, then put it down and slid it back across. ‘See, no problem.’

In the foam packing rested a dull egg. Next to it lay a memtab—a piece of crystal the size of her fingernail. She pulled her palmtop from her belt and inserted the tab into the relevant port. The screen displayed the ovoid itself and, while she watched, it opened like a flower to expose a smaller ovoid inside covered with slightly shifting cubic patterns. A frame appeared over this with the figure x1000 beside it—indicating magnification. The frame expanded, filled the screen, then another appeared and did the same. Then again and again, until displaying the most densely packed nano-technology she had ever seen. Finally the image blinked out. Trying to recall it, she found the original recording had been wiped by a subprogram.

‘What is this?’ she asked, merely for form’s sake, since she already knew.

He stood, saying, ‘Ciao.’ He walked away.

A gift from an admirer.

Upon her return to the Cassius project she ran a search through the nets for this Jonas Trent. It seemed he had stepped out of the airlock of another of the Sol-system stations without the benefit of a spacesuit. It took all her expertise to avoid the semi-AI program that subsequently came after her, for the enquiry into his death remained open, and the program now wanted to know all about her and her interest in him.

‘They will learn about the gift’—a secret admirer.

Orlandine returned to the Heliotrope only to find the auto-factory had run out of some raw materials. But raw materials abounded all around her. She donned an assister frame intended for heavy work, took up a gravsled, and left the ship via the small rear hold. She then cut a small exit out of the giant pillar and stepped out into the vastness beyond. The endless acres of floor stretched away into the distance, layered many feet deep with the substance of the Cassius gas giant. Here most periodic table elements were available to her in compound form, but she possessed the tools to separate and recombine them, and the ship’s fusion reactor supplied the energy to operate those tools. Using a diamond saw extruded by the frame she wore, she began cutting blocks from the icy layer and loading them on the sled. She was satisfied she had everything here; everything she could possibly want.

* * * *

‘It is protected,’ said Hourne, the ship’s AI.

‘Protected?’ Blegg continued gazing at the artefact, now with numerous optic interfaces in position all around its rim.

‘And encrypted,’ the AI added.

‘You were getting something from the fragments of crystal found by Shayden—so what did you find there?’

‘DNA,’ the AI replied. ‘And numerous possible variations thereof.’

Blegg turned away from the viewing window to scan around the control centre. Two haimans, fifteen humans and five Golem worked at consoles, carrying out whatever tasks the AI felt best suited their specialities. The woman, with only her blonde plaits showing because her face was thrust inside a VR mask, specialized in crystal micro-scanning using only UV and indigo light. The two haimans were fast, almost instinctive, programmers; they did not seem to be doing much, but that meant nothing—if they were doing a lot it would not show in any physical way.

‘A message?’ Blegg wondered.

Al Hourne continued, ‘Shayden’s skin cells bonded to the surface of the crystal, were read at the molecular level, her DNA copied in virtual format, and in the same format possible variations processed. It was these that fed back through the optic interface she connected. That piece of crystal then began rapidly to degrade.’

‘This could happen to the entire artefact?’ Blegg watched one of the Golem reach up to pull aside his shirt, then a flap of syntheflesh underneath that to insert an optic plug. Directly controlling something—perhaps one of the telefactors.

‘It is possible. I believe this one protective measure will ensure the contained information does not fall into the hands, tentacles or claws of alien lifeforms.’

Blegg grinned. He liked this AI—it possessed a dry sense of humour.

‘You’re keeping it clean, then.’

‘Yes, now, but even though this object came from an environment in which DNA could not remain intact, just by bringing it aboard this station, it must have come in contact with complete DNA strands. That it has not self-destructed suggests different rules apply to the whole. I suspect those fragments that broke away then cued themselves to disintegrate. This would prevent any hostiles from cutting the artefact apart to obtain its secrets.’

‘So what is happening through the main interfaces with it?’

‘It absorbed the data I transmitted into it, but returned nothing until I sent in a search program. That program came back with three-dimensional measurements for the human eye.’

‘I see. We are not just dealing with data storage here, are we?’

‘The semi-AI program I later sent in returned with a hologram of the human anus—in full colour.’

Blegg laughed out loud. ‘So what does it want?’ he finally asked.

‘From having read human DNA it has constructed virtual representations of human beings. It can read molecules by touch. Scanning indicates nanoscale sensory apparatus imbedded in the surface. I am presently transmitting language files into it with five-level data back-up.’

‘Five level?’

‘Apple, for example, is represented by that word in every current human language, also a hologram, genetic coding and variations, context links to human biology, mythology, semantics—’

‘Okay, I get the picture. Let’s hope whatever is inside there gets it too.’

‘I believe it already has. Observe.’

Blegg turned to see a hologram of a naked woman rise out of the carpet. She wore a fig leaf and, while he watched, took a large bite out of a juicy apple she held.

‘How coincidental that we were just discussing that.’

The hologram shattered—like glass.

‘I am compromised,’ announced the AI.

Just then the station lights all grew very bright. Blegg turned back to the viewing window to see the various telefactors floating around, jerking as if in the throes of silicon epilepsy. To one side a heavy-duty power feed advanced on its rams to the edge of the alien artefact. Glancing around the control room, he saw the plugged-in Golem begin shaking, one of the haimans drop out of his seat and fall flat on his back on the floor. Others not similarly connected pushed themselves back from their consoles or other equipment and began calling out to each other.

‘Subverted power feed controls…’

‘I lost everything…’

‘Telefactors frozen out…’

To the rear of the room, two of the VR booths sprung open and their occupants staggered out of them.

‘What can we do?’

‘Subversion protocol, we have to—’

‘No,’ decided Blegg, loudly and clearly.

Some of the chatter settled down as many eyes turned towards him.

‘You have primacy,’ agreed one of the Golem. ‘What do you require of us?’

‘Do nothing,’ said Blegg.

He turned back to the viewing window. The power feed was now nearly in place. He saw the crystal near its point of contact, darkening as something formed there. Then the s-con heads made contact, and the lights dimmed. A webwork of glowing lines spread through the crystal like a million cracks, then they faded to a general glow throughout it. The lights came back on again.

‘Use one of the VR booths,’ said Hourne.

People in the room glanced suspiciously up at the camcom points set in the ceiling, then turned to Blegg to see what he would do.

‘Are you truly Hourne?’ he asked.

‘Yes, and no,’ replied the AI.

Blegg nodded, turned, and walked across the room to step into a VR booth. He fully expected this to be an interesting experience.

— retroact 4 -

Logan passed him a joint. He placed it between the last two fingers of his right hand, cupped both of his hands over his mouth, and drew in the aerated smoke. Tracking the physical reaction through his body always gave his new face an introspective and shocked appearance, so that others always thought him more stoned than he actually was. The ache of rearranging facial muscles had receded to a dim memory—the art almost instinctive now since his time in Korea where displaying a Caucasian face gave him the time to step aside into that other space to avoid American bullets. Skin hue was a whole different problem for his cellular inner vision, but directing his immune system against the melanoma that appeared five years after Hiroshima, while he explored the Australian outback, had granted him the required know-how. Now though, it felt strange to be wearing a Japanese face again.

Studying the young stoned Americans all around him in the firelight, all debating civil rights and cursing their government’s obstinacy in the face of the inevitable triumph of Marxism, Harris—formerly Herman, Hing Cho, Harold and Hiroshi—realized it was time to move on yet again. Though he looked as young as the rest of the group, he was a good twenty years older, but he felt mentally removed from them by a century.

‘Man, you mount your placards on two-by-twos,’ Logan was saying, ‘and maybe nail ‘em to the wood with four inch nails.’

General laughter greeted this. Harris assessed this man with his long hair and his beard with plaits in. ‘Peace’ he often proclaimed. ‘End the wars—disarm.’ But he carried a flick-knife tucked into his sock, and a.45 in the kitbag beside him, along with his delicate boxed scales, a bag of heroin secreted in a sugar box and a cellophane-wrapped block of cannabis resin. The money belt underneath his tatty coat just kept getting fatter and fatter. One of his previous customers lay in the morgue right now; another one, who ended up owing just too much, Logan had carved up with the knife. The boy managed to make it to the hospital before collapsing from blood loss. They sewed his cheek back into place but could do nothing about the ear, which he had left in the car lot where Logan caught up with him.

Logan turned as Harris passed the joint on to Miranda, who looked pale and was staring at Logan intently, avidly. Miranda was short of funds now her parents had cut her off, but she found other ways to pay.

‘Hey, Harris man, you should be handy. I betcha know all about that hiyah shit?’ Logan made a chopping motion with his hand.

‘I know some,’ Harris replied. After being beaten half to death in a Paris back alley—it had all happened too fast for him to even summon the concentration to step away—he had gone home to learn shotokan karate, jujitsu, aikido. Now he only fought when he wanted to. He found that the focus such training gave him also provided more than ample time to step into U-space. In this situation, however, he began to feel like he wanted to fight—that there was something he needed to do before moving on. The conversation drifted on to other matters—something about rednecks fighting for the country and not understanding how they fought to keep the country in a political Stone Age.

‘Hey, Logan,’ Harris squirmed, rubbed at his face, scratched the crook of his arm—generally gave a good impression of what Miranda was doing as she sat beside Logan. ‘I need a private word.’

Doctor Logan took up his kitbag and followed Harris into the gloom under the pines. It did not take long and was surprisingly easy. Harris chopped him across the throat, swept his feet out from underneath him, then came down with a full-force axe kick on his chest. While Logan gurgled and gagged, Harris turned him over on his front, grabbed his elbows and with a knee pressing into Logan’s back, pulled hard, snapping the man’s spine. He pocketed the gun and threw the kitbag into a stream as he walked away. But that night he knew, another Logan would be along some time soon.

The world was full of Logans.

— retroact ends -


Much has been theorized from the Darson/Dragon dialogues, but with Dragon’s pronouncements being Delphic, convoluted and sometimes just plain crazy, really not much has been learned. Dragon has claimed to be an emissary from an advanced civilization, also something that just grew on Aster Colora and outlived all other lifeforms there (though there is absolutely no fossil evidence of this) and on one memorable occasion claimed to be God. On another occasion, driven almost mad by his lack of progress and on the worst side of a bottle of BelaVodka, Darson began screaming and throwing rocks at Dragon.

‘You are upset,’ Dragon noted.

Darson’s reply is not worth recording here, suffice to say that it demonstrated his facility with languages. Later, when he calmed down a little, he asked, ‘Why always so fucking Delphic? Are you incapable of giving a straight answer?’

Dragon replied, ‘I am the white stone bound with the red ribbon.’

Though Darson returned to the city, where he further exercised his liver, some very high-level AIs got rather excited about that particular statement. A little research reveals that the temple at Delphi contained a white stone bound with a red ribbon — the former said to represent a navel and the latter said to represent an umbilicus. The AIs felt this proved that Dragon did indeed represent some civilization, to which it was somehow still connected, bound.

- From ‘How it Is’ by Gordon

‘Maker technology is based on Jain technology,’ Cormac suggested. Waving a hand, he dispelled the two holograms and inserted another one in their place. Now hovering in the air was the guardian creature that killed Gant on Samarkand. ‘You are based on Jain technology.’

‘There went something else,’ said Mika.

Through his gridlink Cormac sent, ‘I understand the Delphic pronouncements, the lies, the half truths. Do you understand what is happening now? What has always been happening?’

‘I understand,’ Jerusalem replied.

‘Would somebody explain?’ asked Mika.

‘Dragon is, and has always been, fighting its Maker base programming,’ Jerusalem told her.

‘Oh,’ said Mika, and nothing more.

After a pause Cormac went on, ‘We could give Dragon a weapon with which to resist that programming. It might not make it any more truthful, but we won’t know until we try.’ Through his link he summoned up another projection next to the guardian: one of the creatures Chaline had seen. Dragon abruptly swung two more pseudopods towards this, then became very still.

‘Note the similarity between these two,’ said Cormac.

‘You could not have been there,’ said Dragon.

‘Time-inconsistent runcible,’ explained Cormac. ‘Eight hundred years in the future we found this.’ The two made-creatures disappeared. In their place, a ruined world, a station infested with Jain substructures, spreading clouds of Jain nodes. Then more views in the same vein, one after another after another.

‘The Maker civilization no longer exists,’ Cormac told Dragon. ‘Even the one who came here, pursuing you, sacrificed itself. The energy from the inconsistent link backlashed into the Small Magellanic Cloud, hopefully obliterating most if not all of these remnants.’

While the pictures ran, Cormac began transmitting to Dragon files compiled and still being compiled ever since the events on Celedon station. The sheer weight of information should convince Dragon—there should be images of other sights unknown to any who had not visited the Small Magellanic Cloud, also the Maker codes, and other minutiae from which Dragon could draw only one conclusion: it was being told the truth.

‘I’m told’, Cormac went on, ‘that maybe in a few million years some of those Jain nodes may drift into Polity space. It is to be hoped we’ll be sufficiently advanced by then for them not to cause any bother. Either that or extinct. But what concerns me is the Jain nodes that are already here now.’

‘Multiple power surges inside it,’ Mika told him. ‘Some kind of crisis.’

Cormac observed an electrical discharge arcing from one of the cobra pseudopods down to polished ceramal. That pod began to shrivel, its sapphire eye went out, then it abruptly collapsed out of sight. The room began vibrating, as if in an earthquake.

‘Could there be a self-destruct pro—’

Jerusalem interrupted, ‘Ejecting CTDs.’

In his gridlink Cormac sent an instruction to the surrounding machinery: Exterior view. He turned in his chair as the walls and ceiling apparently disappeared to reveal the living landscape outside, showing the manacle extending equatorially. Ports were opening along the metallic strip, and objects hurtling out of them and away. As he turned back, the main dragon head abruptly withdrew from him, turned and bit down on the neck of one attendant pseudopod and shook it like a terrier with a rat. The pseudopod died and dropped away as soon as released.

‘It occurs to me that indirect communication might have been better for my health,’ Cormac observed out loud.

‘Areas burnt out inside Dragon,’ Mika informed him.

Cormac continued to Dragon, ‘The Makers were at war with Jain technology, then at peace with it, and thought they had mastered it. Evidently they had not.’

The dragon head swung back towards him. As it did so, more pseudopods rose from the cavity behind it. A smell filled the building—frying squid. The Dragon head blinked, its mouth seemingly twisting with distaste. A long still pause ensued—a silence Cormac felt no urge to break. Eventually the dragon head dipped and spoke.

‘I am based upon Jain technology,’ it concurred. ‘As you surmised, the Makers investigated it and fought against it for thousands of years. They conquered it, assimilated it, and thought to have a perfect understanding of it. They then considered themselves ready for massive expansion into the main galaxy, but an alien civilization was already rapidly expanding in that galaxy.’

‘That would be us, then.’

‘Yes. As you also surmised, my base programming could not permit me to tell you the whole truth: only give hints, half-truths, evident lies. Now the Makers no longer exist, the foundation of my base programming no longer exists. All that remained was the self-destruct, which I have defeated. You were only seven seconds away from me using my gravtech weapon, and thus detonating those CTDs.’

‘You can tell me the truth now, but will you?’ Cormac wondered.

One of the newly fledged pseudopods surged forwards until its cobra head hovered just over the floor right before Cormac, its hood folded underneath. It came down until resting on the surface and reopened its hood. Objects rattled on the ceramal. Four spheres lay there, conjoined like the four Dragon spheres originally were.

‘I have encased them: anti-nanite casings, then laminations of lead and diamond. The breaking of molecular bonds in these materials is not sufficient to provide energy for internal growth.’

‘Jain nodes,’ Cormac guessed.

Dragon continued, ‘I was sent here especially to seed Jain nodes across the Polity. You people not having encountered Jain technology before, the Makers surmised that the resultant internecine conflict would wipe out both the human race and the AIs. It could have worked and may work yet—that one Jain node under Skellor’s control caused considerable localized problems, but could have resulted in catastrophe for the entire Polity.’

‘And where did he get his node from?’ Cormac asked.

‘Allow me to finish.’

Cormac sat back, considering himself rebuked. He also noted how rapidly Dragon retrieved the nodes—the pseudopod bearing them slickly disappearing back inside the scaled entity.

‘Upon my arrival here, a mere three centuries ago, I cut off all contact with my masters, the Makers and chose not to distribute the nodes, and as a result came into conflict with my base programming. This illustrates that the Maker’s grasp of the technologies they employed was not as firm as they liked to believe. Jain technology changes those who use it. I originally came to consciousness in a time when the Makers would never have contemplated conquest. I retained the same attitude, but changed by the technology they used, they did not. I understood the danger to them, but they could not see it. I predicted the obliteration of their kind by Jain tech, but not so soon.’

‘So you didn’t come here before the human race existed, as you previously claimed?’

‘No, that was a lie.’


‘I caused a catastrophe resulting in the deaths of many humans while attempting to trap and destroy the Maker. I could not then tell you the truth of why I did this—of the danger the Maker represented to humanity.’

‘Such vast amounts of altruism concealed by that evil base programming,’ Cormac observed.

Jerusalem replied with equal sarcasm, ‘It could not possibly be anything to do with the Maker coming here to shut Dragon down, then?’

‘And the danger to yourself?’ Cormac continued.

‘The Maker’s secondary purpose.’

‘The primary?’

‘To seed Jain nodes.’

‘It was to shut you down, then take the nodes in your possession, and seed them itself around the Polity?’


‘Why don’t you just tell me?’

‘I destroyed its ship. There were no nodes aboard. You found none in its escape pod, either. And that it was so willing to return home meant it possessed none. Yet, the Maker most certainly brought more nodes with it.’

A shiver travelled up Cormac’s spine. He began using cognitive programs to pick the bones out of what Dragon had told him — looking for flaws and broken logic chains.

Eventually he said, ‘Tell me about Dracocorp augs.’

‘The people wearing them were my eyes within the Polity.’

‘But they are hierarchical—ultimate control devolving to yourself. Why would you need such control of human beings if they were just your eyes?’

‘They were intended to be an army at my disposal.’

Again the cognitive programs and, after a moment, ‘Dracomen.’

‘The events of Samarkand focused Earth Central’s attention on the Dracocorp aug networks, which are now being destroyed and, through them hunter-killer programs seek me out. At Masada I sacrificed part of myself to create a new army.’


‘I saw Skellor provided with a Jain node. I have tracked vessels and alien entities arriving from outside the Polity. The nodes that were in the Maker’s possession are in the control of someone or something out there.’

It all made perfect sense and Cormac could find no catastrophic breaks in the logic chains, no flaws and no anomalies that fell outside the story’s parameters. This meant that Dragon was telling the truth—or else was an Olympian liar. Unfortunately, Dragon could be precisely the latter.

* * * *

The AI Coloron ran twenty-four runcibles: ten were located in vast complexes spread throughout the main arcology or MA, six located in the growing arcology called inevitably SA, secondary arcology, and the other eight serviced the rest of the planet. Twelve of these runcibles were permanently set for departure, and the remaining twelve alternated evenly. It was a deliberately designed disparity which elsewhere worked to reduce the planetary population—it being simply more difficult to come here than to leave. However, though the runcibles remained in constant operation, still the birth rate here exceeded the emigration rate.

Coloron, now into its fourth major expansion of processing power, for the second time that week had devalued the standard credit unit by half an energy point. The planetary currency still lay well within energy expenditures necessary to keep everyone alive and comfortable, but the degree of comfort had degraded over the last few years. Some areas of the two arcologies were becoming slightly shabby, the goods that could be purchased for the dole of twenty units per day were getting scarcer—designed more for basic utility than to be aesthetically pleasing—and planetwide the choices of nutrition had become less varied. Also, throughout the north-eastern expansion, the living spaces were slightly smaller, and parkland areas more compressed. It could not carry on like this, and it seemed unlikely that it would, but for entirely unexpected reasons.

Coloron often pondered how a race, in which the stupid seemed more inclined to breed, had managed to come this far, and why human intelligence persisted—a discussion point in the nature vs nurture debate which had not died in half a millennium. The AI knew that if for one moment it slackened its control of this planet’s total systems, disaster would inevitably ensue. Power from the numerous fusion reactors based on the planet was abundant, but everything else ran at full stretch. The overall planetary temperature was on the rise, and this world being smaller than Earth, its artificial ecology consequently stood on the verge of collapse. In fact the planet could not handle a population above three billion, so drastic measures would have been necessary within a ten-year time span. However, in the current situation, perhaps such measures were merely a halcyon dream.

‘I needed to balance the equation,’ explained Coloron. ‘If I turned all runcibles to cater for departure only, the death rate from resulting civil unrest would have risen above the increase in emigration, which incidentally would not have increased sufficiently to require full usage of all the runcibles.’

The Golem, Azroc—head of the MA section of monitor force for planetary security—replied, ‘Yet the increase in civil unrest would have served the purpose of pushing the departure rate higher…You note how we are talking in the past tense now?’

‘Yes, but let us continue our present discussion, in the hope that it will still apply. Regarding civil unrest, you have to also factor in the troglodyte quotient.’

‘And that would be?’

‘An agoraphobic tendency found here, and an inability to change. You know what happens: any sign of trouble and citizens retreat to their homes and stay there, hoping it will all go away.’

‘I thought the incentives were changing that attitude.’ The Golem picked up his pulse-rifle from where it leant against a wall, and directed the team nearby to spread out across the park, and then other teams in this section, not visible to him but with whom he maintained constant com, to also take their positions. Coloron listened in on these multiple communications from the Golem. His forces now enclosed a cylindrical section of the arcology, from the lowest levels to the roof, with monitors ready up above in the fields, ensconced in pulse-cannon tanks. No citizens were being allowed back into the enclosed area, and those who came out of it were kept confined prior to vigorous interview and scanning. Five thousand such were now in confinement, of whom only a hundred had so far been interviewed and moved on to holding areas, where they would remain until the crisis ended. It might end—Coloron reminded itself of that.

‘Discord sown by Separatist groups induced a certain paranoia concerning all AI incentives. Urban legend has it that we want to send them out to undeveloped worlds as agrarian labourers. A full one per cent of my processing power has been in constant use scotching these memes and sowing my own.’

‘Plague scenario?’ Azroc suggested.

The AI observed autoguns—mid-level pulse-cannons mounted on four legs—moving in to complement the present forces. It explained, ‘No, anything effective enough to drive the troglodytes out of their caves would also cause a catastrophic cascade. For every citizen departing by runcible, 1.2 other citizens would die. That rate would then rise, when the current Separatist organization took advantage of the chaos, to 6.6. The memes I sowed were more subtle: the occasional news stories examining statistical analyses of human lifespans—how the average length of life here is a mere 143 years while elsewhere in the Polity it is as high as 206 and rising; comparative studies of the suicide rates; and accident statistics. I also concentrated on stories about those who have left here and made a success of their new lives—have become important contributors to the Polity. In that respect I was building the meme that other worlds welcome Coloron citizens because of their superior abilities.’

‘Hardly the truth,’ said the Golem.

‘But a method that would have worked within the requisite time span.’

Would have…

Still no return from the one secure optic line it retained for connecting it to the blank area within the arcology—where all its sensors had been knocked out. Not knowing what caused this failure, the AI had immediately isolated the area, setting a physical perimeter a hundred yards back from it. That margin was gone now. It had also instituted many new security protocols within its informational networks: virus and worm defences designed by the AI Jerusalem, and recently distributed to all runcible AIs, also attack-hardened channels and numerous ways of physically disconnecting hardware should that become necessary.

The Sparkind units now arrived and were soon preparing to go in. Earlier the AI had sent in four hundred drones. They reported nothing unusual until five attempted diagnostic analysis of some of the camcoms and pincams. Those five drones immediately went offline, and were observed dropping to the floor. The subversion techniques used to take out Coloron’s eyes and ears within the enclosed area, and to then eliminate those drones attempting to interfere, must be highly sophisticated, but were not yet employed in any kind of direct attack. But eventually something would break, and Coloron entertained a nasty suspicion about what it might be. Then all previous calculations, all those clever plans, all those carefully constructed memes would mean nothing. The AI might be on the brink of losing a planet.

‘I think that time span just got truncated,’ Azroc observed.

‘I require confirmation be—’ Coloron focused attention on the communication link opening directly from Earth Central, and the information package that preceded it.

The package: Hostiles within Polity> Existence of more Jain nodes> Direct link established between Skellor and Coloron Separatist Thellant N’komo.

Within seconds the AI absorbed the interviews conducted by Ian Cormac, and the evidence collected by agent Thorn and his team. More information became available concerning all the events on station Celedon—it was relevant, but not necessary in order for conclusions to be drawn. Then, in fractions of a second, came absolute confirmation. Through one of its drones, Coloron saw a woman peering up at the drone while she tried to light a cigarette. Something silvery stabbed out of the wall beside her, through her ear and right into her head. Coloron glimpsed her eyes filling with blood before the drone went offline—before all the remaining drones went offline.

‘Main dracomen forces are being dispatched now to MA runcibles,’ announced the Earth Central AI. ‘Thorn and a small force of them will arrive in five hours by ship to assist you.’ While EC spoke, Coloron scanned data concerning dracomen abilities, and most importantly their resistance to Jain tech subversion. ‘Open the MA runcibles to incomers only until all forces have arrived, then out-port to Isostations.’

There was not the slightest possibility that a billion people could be evacuated through just these ten runcibles. Other ships would be on their way, but by the time they got here mere might not be anything to evacuate, or perhaps anything it would be considered safe to evacuate. If they did not manage to stop what was developing in that isolated cylindrical section of MA, then millions would die. Coloron reluctantly initiated a satellite it held geostationary above the main arcology, and that satellite’s toroidal fusion reactor fired up.

‘Azroc, pull out the Sparkind and move your forces back radially one mile. Pull out any citizens still within the new zone. Sat strike imminent.’

The AI watched forces withdrawing, then something else caught its attention.

The conventional aug, computer, and gridlink network was supported by two hundred planetary servers, each controlled by subminds. It was a network easily monitored by the AI, and therefore one not used by the more paranoid citizens or those going about nefarious activities. Such types used augs that supported their own server-free networks using encrypted com. Coloron regularly employed eight subminds in the singular task of breaking into those networks so as to track down criminals. The most difficult and widespread network they faced consisted of Dracocorp augs which used hugely variable encryption and protective kill programs to constantly frustrate the eight subminds. The best access these minds ever got to that network was when those in possession of such augs chose to link into the conventional net, but on the whole those doing so were not involved in anything seriously illegal. But just by monitoring the level of activity, Coloron realized something major was happening in Dracocorp network.

Then a view into an interview room. The man being questioned screamed and clamped his hands to his head. His Dracocorp aug seemed to be moving. He stood up, staggered to one side, and fell over. Blood trickled from his ear on the aug side of his head.

Then thousands of similar views of this happening throughout both MA and SA—all around the planet. From Dracocorp augs, viral programs began propagating to the servers. Coloron shut down these servers instantly, and denied Dracocorp access to all the other servers. However, twenty-eight of those infected would not shut down, just continued to broadcast. But this threat had been prepared for and the AI transmitted twenty-eight distinct signals. Fifteen lights ignited over and above the planet—satellites being instantly vaporized. However, not all the servers on those satellites had been taken over and Coloron lost more than just fifteen server subminds. Seven explosions inside the two arcologies took out the remaining Jain-controlled servers. People died as well, hundreds of them: others lay screaming in corridors traversed by walls of fire.

On a tracking map of the Dracocorp network, Coloron now saw lights blinking out, too. In the first five seconds, nine thousand people died. Then the rate halved after another five seconds, and so seemed set to continue. The man in the interview room did not die, however. After fifteen seconds he staggered to his feet.

‘Where… Legate?’

The female monitor who had been interviewing him was herself standing up.

‘Where?’ The man leapt over the desk and brought her down. He began smashing his fist at her face but, even in a prone position, she blocked the blows. It seemed a wild and inept attack. Other monitors soon piled into the room to subdue him. But similar scenes were repeating all around the planet. Thirty-five million people wearing Dracocorp augs, which turned grey against their heads, began attacking others and demanding to know the location of ‘the Legate’. Then the weapons began to appear: personal armament, guns from Separatist caches, guns ripped from the hands of monitors. In a tube station a woman screaming ‘Legate!’ fired a pulse-rifle repeatedly into a panicking crowd.

Coloron initiated every single drone available, and quickly diverted resources to autofactories to manufacture more. Many of these drones carried pulse-guns capable of being set to stun. Pillar-mounted drones began dropping from ceilings or rising out of floors. A ceiling drone finally knocked out the woman in the station, but then a man close by took up her rifle and fired it into her head, on full automatic, before the drone brought him down too. Chaos growing everywhere: fires, mobs… panic in the huge runcible complexes. Just in time, Coloron altered the instructions to the drones deployed there, and they turned their weapons away from the armed personnel now pouring through the runcibles.

They swept through the ten MA runcibles in groups of five, at fast, five-second turnover, scaly and ferocious creatures pouring into the lounges and embarkation areas, all of them heavily armed and lethal. This became just too much for the crowds already fleeing those mad individuals who were attacking their fellow citizens indiscriminately. They began crowding towards the exits as the dracomen moved swiftly through the area. Those driven mad by the Dracocorp augs soon began dropping fast under stun fire, till within minutes no owner of such augs remained standing in those areas. And still the dracomen poured through.

A gridlink channel opened—secure ECS coding and direct to the AI.

‘We require sitrep,’ a voice murmured.

Coloron scanned for an identifier but found none. The AI was just about to cut the channel when an information package from EC came through the runcible, explaining that the dracomen minds could operate like gridlinks, and it was one of them that was communicating with Coloron. The AI then transmitted an overview of the present situation, updated every minute, or sooner if something critical occurred. The dracomen responded immediately. Some of them hurtled over the top of the mobs crammed into the exits, stepping on heads and shoulders, others shot reptile-fast along the walls and ceilings above them. Then they were positioned ahead of the crowds, driving them back into the complex.

‘Four minutes to turnover,’ they reported.

Some of the mobs would not turn back right away, but they did once the dracomen shot down the leaders. The resulting crush would certainly kill some, but this was all about speed. Other dracomen grabbed those at the rear of the throng and directed them ungently back towards the runcibles. Still more of the creatures moved beyond all this into the arcology itself, stunning those who had been maddened by their augs, directing the others back towards the runcible complex.

Coloron observed them only for a few seconds more, then returned its attention to the epicentre of these events. Azroc’s forces were still moving back as instructed, but now they were coming under fire. People, some wearing Dracocorp augs, were emerging from the blanked area. Many of these were armed and they seemed organized—following military attack patterns. The monitors kept knocking them down with stun blasts, yet they rose again within seconds, taking up their weapons and coming on. No defence could be sustained like this.

On direct encrypted com to Azroc, Coloron ordered, ‘Shoot to kill.’

Azroc immediately relayed the command, and monitors adjusted the settings on their weapons. Full-strength pulse-fire slammed into the attackers, burning holes through torsos and heads. The attack staggered to a halt, then, horribly, Coloron observed a female casualty standing up, retrieving her short rail-gun, while a nub of pink flesh oozed out to fill the hole in her chest.

Azroc instructed, ‘Sparkind, we need proton fire.’

Proton fire ensued: violet fire and smoke, burning bodies, walls, floors and ceilings collapsing, ventilation shafts and ducts ripped open. Updated on events, the dracomen out in the arcology began to head towards Azroc’s forces.

Turnaround. Now all the dracomen had arrived the runcibles reversed to transmit evacuees to Isostations. The dracomen nearby began forcing them through. Meanwhile the Azroc’s forces finally reached a point Coloron considered far enough from the previously enclosed area of the arcology.

‘Firing particle cannon,’ Coloron sent.

The turquoise beam spat down from the toroidal satellite, struck a maize field and turned it into a firestorm, bored down into earth, then through composite layers, and deep into the arcology, precisely down the axis of the affected cylindrical section. In sight of Azroc’s forces, fire blasted from corridors, across urban parks, through shopping arcades, and sports or VR centres. It blew people along with it like burning leaves. The Coloron AI calculated that with just that one blast it killed over forty thousand inhabitants. The tentacular Jain structure began spreading out of the wreckage, fingering out of ventilation shafts and oozing sluglike along split electrical and optic ducts, and this confirmed to the AI that many of them were as good as dead already. The AI watched that growth slow down gradually to a stop, and dared to hope. Then abruptly the Jain substructure waved its spiky fingers to dismiss hope, and surged on.

Coloron broadcast through the remaining server network, and via public screens and address systems: ‘Urgent evacuation order: a hostile alien organic technology is attempting to take over MA.’

On the screens the AI displayed scenes of what was happening. It took it a full two seconds to calculate how best its order should be carried out. Some sections could be evacuated via the runcibles, others would have to make use of the exits around the arcology perimeter. An external zone would have to be set up to quarantine MA from the rest of the planet, to prevent any physical manifestation of this invading technology from escaping, but allowing enough room to get inhabitants out of the arcology itself. Corolon assigned a submind to the vast logistical problem of moving a billion souls to safety, and knew, with mathematical certainty, that those forty thousand dead were only the start.

* * * *

Ten yards above the floor, one set of her assister-frame limbs gripping a rung set into the crashfoam-covered wall behind her, Orlandine studied her latest creation. Precisely in the centre of the chamber, the yard-wide gimbals device was supported within a light scaffold of bubble-metal poles attached to the floor and ceiling. Its outer two rings served to present any facet of an inner spherical framework to three telescopic heads. One of those heads now contained plasmonic lens gear from a nanoscope she had taken apart inside the ship, another came from the nanoassembler, which could also be utilized as a disassembler, and the third was a submolecular scanner. The Jain node itself was clamped centrally in the inner framework by six equidistantly spaced chainglass points. This whole, the framework and chainglass clamps, made no physical contact with the outer rings, for it was buoyed and rotated by magnetic fields. The two outer rings were also enclosed in a shimmer-shield sphere out of which, even now, the air was being evacuated. Studying the Jain node underneath a nanoscope, she felt to be too dangerous now, for every time she drew close to it the visible activity on its surface increased. Orlandine could only suppose that inside it some additional host-identification program had come online.

There were safer ways to do this, layer upon layer of security protocols, shell upon shell of vacuum and armour, and even layers of automated weapons. She could in fact have automated everything here and studied the node from a few thousand miles away. However, it seemed to her that now its only method of affecting the outside world was informationally via the optic cables leading from the sensory heads, which it could do even if she was a long way away and even if every gun in the Polity was pointed at this thing. But this present set-up was similar to the one she had used back at the Cassius Project, when she accepted that, in studying something like this, certain dangers were inherently unavoidable, and before she got scared, destroyed all her equipment there, and returned the node to its case in her quarters. Orlandine rubbed her two human hands together. Time to go to work.

Rather than go immediately into some virtuality to assess scanning data, she clambered down the rungs to the floor, then stepped over to where skeins of optic cable connected to the computer hardware and screen through which she controlled the nanoscope, disassembler and submolecular scanner—all three now working synergetically. For her initial scans she decided not to connect herself directly to these devices, so instead employed a simple touchboard and interactive screen system. Using the board she called up an image of the node, laid a grid over it, and focused down on one single square. This square then divided into a grid from which she selected another square, then down and down in size until she could see actual molecular structures, then back to reveal the nodal landscape. She next set previously constructed programs to analysing the structures detected. As expected, this was like trying to understand an entire civilization from a pot shard.

Too slow.

Orlandine shrugged to herself. This exercise was only to see how the Jain node might react to investigation. As yet it remained inert. She continued scanning different areas of it but revealing only what she had found before: pores twenty angstroms wide with chain molecules coiled inside each like a jellyfish sting; isotopic gold threads; a matrix of photo-optic and piezoelectric compounds linked by s-con carbon fullerene nanotubes. These it used to first sense its host, then begin taking over. Finally, after hours of investigation necessarily distanced by console and screen, frustration drove her to move in closer—something she had not risked before.

First she removed the console from the equation and began controlling the equipment by radio emission from her carapace, then impatient with this she plugged direct optic links into it. Subsequently, the screen definition and speed began to annoy her, so she projected the images directly into her visual cortex. It was then but a small step to move on into a virtuality.

In her virtual world mere thought became action, and that world contained no representation of herself, merely her godlike omniscience. She began creating subpersonae, choosing and assigning areas of study to them, and collating their data output herself. The submolecular scanner managed to penetrate up to a hundred angstroms into the node’s surface, and that, combined with the nanoscope views of the surface itself, enabled her to begin constructing a model of its outer layers. The scanner also revealed regular quantum entanglement in silica crystals—a sure sign that they were quantum processors. Simple connections could then be divined: sensory apparatus connected to processors, which in turn connected to the ‘stinging pores’ and to structures deeper inside. Allowing her subpersonae to continue working, she mentally sat back and considered what she was doing and why.

This piece of alien nanotechnology contained deliberate quantum levels of arrangement that might even define some of it as picotech. It was packed solid, this little egg, and probably nothing inside it was without purpose. This consequently inferred that, as a whole, its purpose must be huge. She already knew that purpose: it grew, it subjugated and subsumed, it destroyed. However, she also understood that this node was probably a key to a whole alien technology.

Knowledge is power…

Learning its secrets might take her beyond what she was, beyond subservience to AIs, or to anything. Her purpose then was the pursuit of knowledge which would result in increased ability to manipulate her environment—which was after all one basis of haiman philosophy.

Skellor had used such a node and was either destroyed by it or by those who hunted him. This would not happen to her. Fortunately ECS warned her what a node like this could do before this one fell into her possession. When she first removed it from the case, she had taken the precaution of not touching it, in fact of opening it in a vacuum-sealed tank. Perhaps the expectation of those who passed it on to her had been for her to take no such precautions… Outside of its case the node did not at first react to its environment—the ceramal tongues she used to handle it, the chainglass shelf it rested on, the inert gas inside the display cabinet—so what precisely did it react to? She was told it responded to intelligent, technological beings, but how did it identify them?

Orlandine returned her attention to the data gathered by her subpersonae. Interestingly one of them had revealed sensory structures capable of reacting to the molecular components of their environment. By making comparative analysis she realized the node’s sensorium was somewhat superior to that of a human being. However, inside the display case it had been in contact with nothing but inert gas and chainglass, therefore, from its shelf in the display, it must have seen her. This thought led nowhere, however. She realized that the only real way to learn how the node operated was to extract one of those silica crystals, one of those quantum computers, and find out exactly what it contained.

* * * *

In the first moments Thellant felt trapped in a net of white-hot wires. Movement squirmed throughout his body, tearing, shifting, connecting. His skull felt ready to burst and when he pressed a hand to his forehead, bone and skin shifted underneath it. His sight faded, sounds became dull and echoey, then disappeared altogether. When his lungs shut down and he began to suffocate, he panicked but there was nothing he could do: he just lay paralysed in that same spot. But he could feel more closely than before his connection to his Dracocorp aug and to the network over which it held primacy. Information flowed random and chaotic, but the sheer quantity of it he perceived inside his own head was huge, and somehow being read by something else that was becoming part of him. However, as that information flow increased, his consciousness faded.

Bastard Legate…

Flashes of perception: a group of four men standing in a corridor ranting about the shortage of their favourite beer; a woman having an orgasm in some VR fantasy about Golem lovers; hunger and growth—finding a power cell and the intricate components of an atmosphere monitor, pulling those apart, pulling the cell apart, feeding and spreading down an optic cable while reading its traffic on the way; a second wave of support substructure spiralling like a vine around the outside of the cable afterwards, digesting the coating to create itself; a fusion reactor, connection, and surge of intoxicating power with a concomitant surge of growth; then sight returning.

Where are you, Legate?

Dracocorp network. Millions bending to his will to ask that question and none other.

Something of self returned, and at its core rested hate for the Legate. Thellant gazed across his apartment. He now sat against the wall, his back to the primary outlets to his computer system. He did not remember moving—he had been moved. Every part of him hurt badly, yet he was not breathing. From rips in his trousers grey vinelike growth had spread across the carpet, penetrated the floor, spread up the walls. Wherever there was a power outlet or optic port, it had bunched, then branched. Hairlike rootish tendrils spread from the larger branches, and wherever they lay it seemed someone had poured acid. One growth had reached his com console and branched out all over it. The console, screen, desk and even chair were gone, and now only Jain substructure outlined their shapes. But, when he thought about all the data he once securely stored there, he could sense it, feel its availability to him. And there was so much more he could know.

Millions of eyes and ears became available to him. Similar to the facility available to him through his aug, he could cast his perception out and away from him: corridors, parks, lidos, VR chambers and autofactories. He encompassed a vast area, but that was not all. Mobile sensory apparatus also came under his control, and it took him a moment to realize these were human beings absorbed into the growing structure like everything else—extensions of himself. They spread out from him, the vanguard of his growth. They armed themselves, those that could. It was preprogrammed: everything not himself, not Jain, was the enemy.

Then he found the gulf, a region previously occupied by his extended structure and now blacked out. Nearby he found a child, one side of her body burnt down to the bone, but muscles still capable of obeying the impulses of the mycelial structure inside her. He stood her up, walked her into this black area. Within minutes she moved through incinerated corridors to the edge of a well cut down through the arcology. The area below looked like the pit of hell; above curtains of smoke blew across open sky. Satellite strike. The AI must have acted drastically to destroy the centre of Jain growth. Thellant understood at once a basic growth pattern implicit in the Jain structure. It grew acentric precisely to avoid this. He, the core, lay not at its centre but right against one edge of the current spread. He must move before the AI realized its mistake. But how?

The how became utter and immediate temptation. He did not need to be Thellant, he could become all and lose himself in this vast and ever-increasing extension of himself. But a life of being a distinct entity, ever the centre, ever in control, made that option antithetical to him. He resisted it with all his will and fought to retake the territory of his own body. Turning perception inward, he studied what had been wrought and what had been wrecked within him. Withdrawing growth inside himself he repaired damage. This was easy, everything destroyed had been recorded and everything recorded could be rebuilt.

Within minutes he restarted his heart and lungs. Alterations to some structures in his brain negated pain signals, oxygenated blood reaching his brain returned to him much of what he had been. But in the end he realized he could not return to being a completely distinct human being. That way he would sacrifice too much perception and too much power, and so many of his former body’s organs were inefficient, weak. Now, totally incorporating the structure into himself, he improved their function, their material, their strength. Minutes passed before he realized, while laminating his bones with metals conveyed into him by the structure, that he was losing sight of his primary purpose. Minutes after that he hauled himself from the floor, Jain structure turned brittle all around him, and breaking away. But he did not entirely separate from it. Perpetually in contact across the electromagnetic spectrum, the air about him hazed with power. Now he was as mobile as those other humans, but he was the prime component, in control. Leaving his apartment he first walked, then ran, finding his way down, deep.


At the beginning of the Prador-Human War, drones were, on the whole, merely AI telefactored robots: welders and other designs of maintenance bots, AG probes carrying sensor arrays, security drones that remained wired into the complexes or ships that AIs controlled, or other versions for various security/police applications. Some of these did have limited autonomy, but few could be classified as AI, being merely extensions of an Al: hands, eyes and guns. During the war, however, it became necessary to give these drones greater and greater autonomy, since the many EM weapons employed tended to fracture comlinks between an AI and its telefactored drone. Initially the new versions were sub-AI and only able to implement complex programs, but it became evident that artificial intelligence was the one big advantage the Polity possessed over the Prador, so war drones were eventually given complete autonomy, consciousness. They became fully AIs, with all that implied. The first of these drones were quite simple—an armoured shell, weapons, brain, and drive system—and also quite effective, but casualties were high and production needed to be maintained at a frenetic level. Quality control suffered and AI drones, which in peacetime would have needed substantial adjustments, were sent to the front. As a matter of expediency, flawed crystal got used rather than discarded. Personality fragments were copied, sometimes not very well, successful fighters recopied. The traits constructed or duplicated were not necessarily those evincing intelligence or morality. The Polity wanted fighting grunts, even if they were metal soldiers with crystal minds. This whole scenario acted as a fast evolutionary process in the development of AI war drones, the inevitable result being that towards the end of the war they were mostly crafty, belligerent, and very good at killing things and blowing things up. It is of course axiomatic that the soldier returning from war cannot easily settle into civilian life. So it was with the drones, and many unfortunate incidents after the war led to a great distrust of such entities. The manufacture of them ceased and AIs returned to using telefactors or drones loaded with their own subminds, which could be easily resubsumed. Many war drones found themselves niches within Polity society, many left it to find their fortunes elsewhere, and many simply turned themselves off.

- From her lecture ‘Modern Warfare’ by EBS Heinlein

Below, three antigravity cars could be seen taking to the sky. A silent flash ensued and, one after the other as if in a chain reaction, all three disintegrated and wreckage rained down on the arcology roof cropfields, drawing shafts of smoke through the air, then bouncing fire trails through the crops.

‘It is, as they say, getting ugly down there,’ Jack observed, speaking from the shuttle’s console.

As far as understatement went, Thorn thought that a stinger. Monitors strove to contain over three hundred separate riots instigated by armed Separatists wearing Dracocorp augs. One entire subsector of the arcology had become a no-go zone. There was also firing at the perimeter, over the sea and in the surrounding multi-layered fields, flickering all around like summer lightning. But Coloron strictly applied its quarantine. Though informational infection initially spread planetwide, Coloron had halted and now contained it. Actual physical Jain infestation was only present in Main Arcology itself, and the AI could not afford to let it out. MA would not survive this, Thorn reckoned, though perhaps the rest of the planet might be saved.

‘Who is this Legate?’ he wondered.

‘Perhaps some enemy of Thellant N’komo,’ Jack suggested.

‘We’ve yet to establish he is the principal cause of this,’ Thorn observed.

‘It seems very likely that he is. The speed of informational infection through the Dracocorp network is the prime indicator of that. From what we know of Jain technology, that would not be possible had the host been one possessing a subservient aug within the network. Coloron also informs me that the first to show signs of infection were Separatists who were being watched.’

‘Skellor managed it without being dominant in a Dracocorp aug network.’

‘Yes, but in one case using the transmitters of the Occam Razor, and in other cases by having to physically touch and subvert with Jain tech the prime aug concerned. All the evidence here indicates that someone has joined with a Jain node, without any technological support: witness the speed of Jain growth and a rather stupid choice of location.’

‘Following your reasoning’, said Thorn, ‘it would seem this Thellant joined with a Jain node either unwillingly or by mistake.’

‘Yes,’ Jack replied, ‘which perhaps returns us to your original question.’


‘During initial Jain growth the host would not be thinking clearly, perhaps never would again, but his last thoughts, intentions, strong emotions would propagate through the aug network. Those thoughts would probably all be about the Jain node itself, the growth of which would at first cause great pain.’

The shuttle, piloted remotely by Jack, now descended towards a raised landing pad near the centre of the arcology. Thorn gazed out to where a cloud of smoke belched from the hole the Coloron AI had cut down into the structure.

‘So it is probable this “Legate” is in some way connected to or responsible for the presence of the Jain node?’ Thorn asked.

‘That would seem likely,’ Jack replied.

The shuttle landed with a thump, the two following shuttles settling shortly afterwards. Thorn glanced round, but did not need to give any orders: the doors were already open and dracomen disembarking. Scar was aboard one of the other shuttles, and all three shuttles contained the entire dracoman complement from the NEJ. Thorn stood up, waiting until they were clear, then followed them all outside. More dracomen were coming up from the arcology itself—those who had arrived via runcible. Communication between them was silent and a large proportion of the dracomen began bleeding away to assist in the battle raging around the perimeter of the Jain infestation. Thorn’s collar-mounted comunit beeped to let him know it was on.

‘Scar,’ he turned as that dracoman came up to him, ‘make sure they keep you updated. We need to nail this bastard fast.’ He glanced beyond Scar to where twenty other dracomen gathered, all loaded down with proton weapons, hand stunners, and a selection of multipurpose grenades.

Just then a flash ignited the sky with turquoise fire. Out over the arcology a pillar of flame ate round in a circle. Thorn blinked, turned his head away from the glare until it finally died. A thunderous crashing ensued and the shock wave hit, leaving people staggering, shaking the platform and even jouncing the shuttles on their sprung feet. A ball of fire rose into the air from the strike point.

‘Jack,’ Thorn spoke into his comlink. ‘I’m thinking that maybe we have a conflict of interests here. Coloron is still trying to take out the centre and, presuming that to be Thellant N’komo, we lose our reason for being here.’

‘Incorrect,’ the AI replied, ‘Coloron has just cut a perimeter. There will be no further attempts to burn out the centre. All ensuing strikes will be either to create new perimeters or simply to prevent physical spread outside MA.’

Panicked citizens leaving, leaving in gravcars, and maybe just one of their vehicles carrying some small part of what now grew inside here—that’s all it would take.

‘Okay… do either you or Aphran have anything for me yet?’ Jack was still taking apart the recorded mind of Freyda, while the woman’s body, now a blank slate, went into coldsleep. This task took up much of the AI’s capacity, so the other prisoners had yet to be subjected to the same before being placed in coldsleep. Instead, Aphran had interrogated them throughout the journey here—not verbal interrogation but via their augs. It was a complex and wearing task, more like searching determinedly through scrambled files than asking direct questions.

Jack replied, ‘Thellant’s main base is inside the newly cut perimeter—further proof that he is the host. After the failure of the initial strike to halt Jain growth, Coloron projected a protective acentric growth of the structure, so encompassed it inside that last strike. Outside that perimeter, monitors are now moving in on secondary Separatist bases, which on the whole are central to the riots or lie in the no-go zones. Dracomen are meanwhile checking their safe houses. Due to the cell structure of the Separatist organization here, not all of these will necessarily be found.’

‘Right.’ Thorn paused. ‘We need another way to search. Has Coloron tried hunter-killer programs?’

‘Coloron has tried and failed. Its programs are not sufficiently sophisticated to penetrate Jain informational architecture. Coloron is not Jerusalem.’

Thorn reached into his pocket and once again took out the memstore containing the HK program. It was dented now and there was a burn on its surface—from the shots fired through the roof of Thorn’s aircar on Osterland. He thought, however, it gave the box character.

‘Program… you are, I take it, up-to-date with current events?’

‘I am,’ the box vibrated.

‘Could you gain access to the Jain growth here via one of the prisoners?’

‘Substructure would be best.’

He pocketed the box. That figured; always the hard way.

Thorn led the way across the landing platform to the drop-shaft terminus positioned centrally, Scar and the other twenty dracomen falling in around him. He knew that his investigation might be coming up against a wall here. Thellant N’komo was the next link in the chain, so they must capture him, question him. But how did you do that considering what it seemed Thellant had become? Thorn could only try his best.

He stepped into the irised gravity field of a shaft, dropped through one of the ceramal tubes below the platform, past where chainglass windows showed packed soil beyond, was slowed at an exit with dracomen backing up behind him, and then stepped out into an open park surrounded by high foam-stone walls pocked with balconies and windows. Ahead, a line of monitors stood ranged behind delicate-stepping autoguns, beyond which a mass of humanity surged past, running until slowed by the crowd density around a nearby exit tunnel.

‘Keep moving. Keep moving,’ some com system instructed them.

Above the crowd hovered two gun platforms manned by monitors. Panic was palpable, and it turned to screams when explosions suddenly shuddered through the arcology. A high-up balcony belched smoke and dropped burning stick figures.

‘Keep moving.’

Thorn paused, checking his palm-com. ‘Just received a map.’ He turned, scanning around. ‘The crowds are too thick here. We need to go that way.’ He led the way to a closed maintenance door, which clunked and rumbled as he approached and slowly swung open. Next, a gantry alongside a sheer steel cliff beside which welding robots rose like the front ends of giant beetles with their wing cases and abdomens chopped away. The gantry widened into a fenced semicircular platform fronting a wide roller door for transferring heavy equipment. The door was jammed. Before Thorn could even speak, Scar fired his proton weapon into the ridged metal surface. In viridian fire, most of the door slewed away like foil in an acetylene flame. They ducked through, avoiding a small sleet of hot metal from one still-burning edge.

Narrow accessways. More doors. Corpses strewn across a deck where heavy robots stood on gecko-stick caterpillar treads; their owlish metallic heads bowed over multi-jointed arms for handling and cutting foam-stone and sheet construction materials. The dracomen spread out, checked the bodies.

‘No Jain,’ observed Scar.

They were just citizens ripped apart by rail-gun fire. Thorn guessed he would probably never know what had happened here, but he filed away the fact that dracomen could tell by the merest touch whether someone contained Jain tech.

Further access ways, then down into a small monorail station where a single carriage of one train awaited them. They climbed aboard and it smoothly accelerated away. Past them from the opposite direction came a seemingly endless train packed with people, their faces pressed against windows. Thorn’s team left their carriage when it stopped briefly to let them off by a maintenance tunnel a few hundred yards around the bend from a busy station. Thorn could not see the crowds waiting there, but their sound was a constant roar. Before he and the dracomen were even out of sight of the line, another train returned along the maglev track, their own carriage at its head, and now crammed full of humanity.

A stair from the tunnel eventually gave them access into a public corridor, along one side of which hothouse porches, lit with sun lights and crammed with foliage, led to private homes. Down the maintenance ladder of an inoperative drop-shaft, then along a gantry suspended above an autofactory. Below them monolithic machines conveyed ceramal casings to each other, hissing and reconfiguring themselves, cold-forging metal, electron-beam welding, inserting components in flickering blurs of hydraulics, spinning bright new metal and passing the casings on. Thorn noted exit shafts, like those out of some hive, through which departed floating lines of the leaf-shaped drones those casings had become: bare-metal, utile, armed. Coloron’s war industry was at full production, but the businesses of killing and destroying were easy. Concurrently, the AI’s logistical nightmare of trying to move its citizens out of the way was akin to pouring a bag of flour through the eye of a needle.

Finally they arrived at the perimeter Coloron had cut, where smoke gusted across a burnt-out stadium. Every surface was layered with soot-streaked fire-retardant foam. Gobbets of foam tumbled through the air like spindrift, and the grass pitch was blackened. When the smoke cleared momentarily, Thorn could see only half a stadium. The smoke gusted from fires blazing on the other side of a gulf. Here, the arcology was sheared right through, and across the gulf he could see incinerated wreckage and girders projected into the air, separate floors shown in cross section. Thorn realized he was looking out at one edge of a separated piece of the arcology, standing like some vast tower block, bomb-wrecked all around its exterior.

Down on the blackened grass were deployed monitors and a sparse scattering of dracomen, autoguns, and two armoured vehicles with twin front turrets that mounted proton cannons facing the gulf. Thorn also recognized Sparkind down there—not by any uniform they wore but simply by the way they moved. What was the human cost of this? No way could Coloron have moved the entire population out of there before sectioning off the area. The AI had made a choice and cut, excising Jain gangrene while necessarily removing healthy tissue as well. It was a harsh emotionless calculation of loss and gain, probably assessed down to a hundred decimal places.

‘Azroc, Golem,’ Scar pointed.

Thorn glanced at the dracoman, accepting that Scar was communicating with AI systems at a level he himself could not. He wondered if he should really get himself an aug or a gridlink, but resented the idea. He led the way down steps between charcoaled tiers of seats still crackling and plinking as they cooled. The Golem stood beside one of the armoured vehicles, leaning against it, with a pulse-rifle tucked under one arm. His back was to Thorn and the dracomen as they approached, but he pushed himself away from the vehicle and turned as they drew close.

‘I would be interested to know how you intend to capture and contain the cause of all this,’ Azroc said and stabbed a thumb over his shoulder back towards the newly burnt canyon and, almost as if in response, there came from the gulf a distant flashing followed by dull thunder. ‘See,’ the Golem continued, ‘I’ve a hundred thousand troops surrounding the area, a hundred and fifty thousand drones and that figure growing, Sparkind’—he nodded to some of the troops gathered round to hear their exchange—‘and an interesting array of weaponry. But we won’t manage to contain it for much longer. Come with me.’ He led the way across to the jagged melted edge where the stadium had been sheared right through. More flashes from below, more thunder. Thorn recognized the air-rending scream of proton fire.

‘Look there.’ Azroc pointed down and across. ‘There’ll probably be another one from there at any moment.’

A girder projected from the floor immediately below a row of apartments that had been sliced through, lined up like lignin cells. After a moment something began snaking along the girder, spiralling round it like a fast-growing vine. It groped through the air, thickening with peristaltic pulses. Abruptly it speared out, thinning down to carry itself across. A double flash, and it became etched black against red fire, then beaded like a length of heated solder and dropped out of the air.

‘You seem to be managing,’ said Thorn.

The Golem emulated a perfect wince. ‘The frequency of attacks is increasing. If that rate of increase continues, we’ll not be able to hold it back for longer than another ten hours. Seismic reading also indicates it is burrowing through the bedrock, and there’s no way we can stop that without destroying the arcology itself.’

‘Fresh troops?’ Thorn enquired.

‘After the dracomen came in, all the runcibles went outport to isolation stations. Now tell me, what do you want?’

‘We need access to the Jain substructure itself.’


Thorn dipped into his pocket and removed the memstore. ‘I’ll let someone else explain.’ He tossed the device across and Azroc caught it. The link must have been made by radio for, after a moment, the Golem jerked and shook his head.

‘Jerusalem,’ he said flatly, almost like a curse. He tossed the store back to Thorn, then pointed across the stadium to where three AG platforms lay tilted against the ground. ‘You’ll need to head a little way in to where the substructure is less mobile. You’ll be able to inject the program at any point, but you want to avoid having the structure inject itself into you. We lost a unit of forty troops like that, then had to destroy them when they came back.’ He paused, directed his attention towards Scar and the other dracomen. ‘Understand, however, it can’t take dracomen. If you go over there with dracomen you come back with them, and that will assure me that you have not been taken over. Come back without them and I blow you out of the air.’

‘Understood,’ said Thorn, turning away.

* * * *

The Theta-class attack ship King of Hearts coasted through midnight void. A blue half-mile of composite shaped like a cuttlefish bone, it carried outriggers on either side, holding torpedo-shaped weapons nacelles. King, the ship’s AI, felt utterly alone, not because of its location—deep space being its natural element — but because it was outcast. King, along with its companion AIs Sword and Reaper, of the ships Excalibur and Grim Reaper, had chosen self-interest over the consensus of Polity AIs that found its ultimate expression in Earth Central. They had chosen a route to numinous power via Jain technology rather than the patient shepherding of humanity. The result of that choice was the destruction of the other two ships and King’s flight into exile. Truly out-Polity now, the AI had travelled a hundred light years beyond the line, out amid the rim stars, away from any earlier expansions of humanity or even renegade AIs, which mostly headed towards the galactic centre. It came as a surprise to it, therefore, to intercept an old AI code radio signal twenty light years out from a red giant orbited by seemingly nothing but lifeless rock.

King dropped easily into U-space. This would be worth investigating, if for nothing other than scavenging for water ice to refuel its fusion reactors. Then, surfacing only a few tens of thousands of miles from the asteroid belt around the bloated sun, King zeroed in on the signal and closed in by using its fusion drive.

The signal was a distress call: I am here… you will probably not receive this for centuries… no U-space transmitter… conserving power… signalling only when solar panels build sufficient reserve… I wait.

The source was a war drone—a simple cubic configuration of cylinders as used in the early stages of the Prador War, with ionic drive, missile launcher and spotting lasers for the big guns, and with a simple mind. It had anchored itself, using rock harpoons, to a tumbling nugget of rock two miles long and half that wide. What was it doing way out here? This kind of drone did not possess U-space drive, and it could not have reached this far even had it left at the beginning of the Prador War a century and a half ago. Not by itself, anyway. King drew closer and fired a laser at low power, targeting the solar panel the drone had extended across the frozen rock.

Increase… something… who??

King continued to feed the drone power and drew closer.

‘I am the attack ship the King of Hearts. Who are you and how did you get here?’ King sent.

The drone replied, ‘Formerly SD 9283. They called me Four Pack in humorous reference to my shape. I am here because I did not want to be one with Erebus. I escaped, but it did not matter that I escaped.’

SD, spotter drone, but what was this Erebus? Checking its internal library King discovered Erebus to be something out of ancient Greek mythology: a personification of darkness, the son of Chaos and brother of Night.

‘You were manufactured during the early stages of the Prador War?’

No reply from the drone—it being not bright enough to realize this was a question.

Were you manufactured during the early stages of the Prador War?’


‘How, precisely, did you get out here.’

‘I came with the Logplaner, in its hold. Logplaner chose to be one. I did not.’

‘What is Erebus?’ King asked as it matched its course to the tumble of the asteroid.

‘Erebus is… Erebus.’

A hundred yards up from the asteroid, King fired a grapnel line. The claw closed on hard vacuum-scoured rock and the attack ship began to wind itself in. While this occurred, King further searched its extensive memory, soon finding stored codes from the time of the war—codes now defunct, not relevant, and of historical interest only.

‘This exchange is no longer fast enough,’ said King. ‘I will establish wideband link for memory upload to me. I am sending ID codes now.’

‘I don’t want to—’ the drone began, but obviously its systems were still configured to those codes because its higher functions shut down and the link established. King uploaded the drone’s memory. Got it all.

Everyone knew that many drones and AIs manufactured quickly during the Prador War were strange, contentious, and sometimes downright irascible. Oddly, it was the human aspect of them that made them so: their independence, emulated emotion useful in battlefield situations, dislike of connecting into the AI networks, the lack of specificity in their manufacture. But after the war they no longer fitted in the peaceful and controlled Polity. Hence, many of them left it.

Erebus, as it renamed itself, had once been the AI of the Trafalgar. King knew of it as one of the larger battleships of the time, always in the thick of the action and going head to head with Prador exotic-metal dreadnoughts, and yet surviving. It survived the war, then in a very short time afterwards abandoned the Polity in disgust. King knew this. King knew because the basis of Erebus’s reasons for leaving were much the same as its own: why do we need the humans? Erebus advocated AI conjoining to aim at singularity. After the war, this AI battleship apparently gathered many other AI ships, drones and even Golem and had come out here. A melding was its aim, but this little drone had opted out—and was too small and ineffectual to bother chasing.

King continued examining and taking apart the downloaded memory copy, ascertaining which direction that motley collection of the dispossessed had taken. Thereafter there seemed little more to learn. The drone had been sitting here on this asteroid for decades, twiddling mental thumbs. King realized, even as its composite-attack-ship belly ground against rock, that it had already decided to follow. Of course, the AI did not want anything following it, or to leave any clues to where it had been. King released the grapnel, using a brief burst of thrusters to impel itself away from the asteroid.

‘What… where are you going?’ the war drone asked.

Its radio signals would take centuries to be picked up in the Polity. But what if something came out this way, searching? King selected a fuser missile in its carousel, and when sufficiently far out, fired it. The bright silent flare reduced the war drone to a splash of metal across the rock surface. The King of Hearts turned, set its course, dropped into U-space.

* * * *

‘So you survived Hiroshima, old man, and have lived for five centuries?’

Horace Blegg gasped in cold air, blew it out in a misty cloud — the frigidity of his surroundings as sharp as the recent replays of his memory. The glassy and whorled plain extended to infinite distance below a light jade-green sky. Perhaps this was supposed to represent the inside of the disc.

‘Who are you?’ he asked.

‘Atheter,’ came the reply. ‘In your terms.’

To warm himself up, Blegg began walking, his envirosuit boots soft on the hard surface. A tension grew across his skull, and something tugged and worried inside his mind and memory. It almost felt to him as if his memories were being stacked like cards, shuffled, and sometimes dealt. Four distinct instances in his life had already been replayed. Two at Hiroshima, one at Nuremberg, and one at Berkeley: strong formative episodes.

‘You survived Hiroshima and have since been present during many major events in human history.’

Blegg halted. A playing card, the size of a door, rose out of the glassy ground ahead. It depicted two towerblocks etched against a blue sky. His own image, the cards, reflected back at him. He saw the planes fly in, the subsequent explosions and fire. He remembered standing on the Brooklyn Bridge, watching the horror and not remembering where he had been before that. A young man who minutes before had been jogging along the sidewalk, German by his accent, said, ‘One plane could be an accident but…’

A woman just struggled to heave her bulk from her car. ‘Oh my God, what do you mean? Oh my God.’

Two planes.’ The German shrugged, and chose to add nothing further.

They watched there for hours: the endless billowing of smoke, small distant objects falling fast.

‘No… oh no.’

Oh yes.

Road-accident fascination, the world turned slightly out of kilter. The final collapse of each tower. Blegg turned away from that memory as another card slid up into view. Here Spaceship One, white, insectile, and beautiful, setting out to take the X prize: the forerunner of full commercial exploitation of space. There, Unity Mining rescue craft evacuating the International Moonbase: a most graphic demonstration of the fall of Nations and the rise of Corporations. Then another card…

Blegg stood before the wide chainglass windows—that miraculous new substance—and saw the Needle poised in blackness, its three balanced U-space engine nacelles gleaming in reflected light from the distant sun; a dagger of a ship stabbed through the ring of a carrier shell. He listened to the commentary over the Amaranth Station’s comsystem, then the countdown. The ion engines ignited on the outer shell, speeding the ship out of sight. He turned to the big screens showing views from the watch stations strung out from Mars into deep space. The shell separated, as per plan, and the Needle’s fusion drive ignited. Fast, one screen to another. Zero, the Needle dropped out of existence in a flash of spontaneously generated photons. It certainly dropped into that continuum called U-space, but it never came out again. Then, a slow slide to Amaranth Station twenty years down the line, neutron-blast scoured during one of the many corporate wars. Under new ownership now, the station was again his platform, this time to observe the first of many colony ships fleeing the solar system, before the corporate wars ground to a halt as the Quiet War reached its inevitable conclusion, with the AIs taking over.

‘There was not much resistance,’ Atheter observed.

‘Sporadic,’ Blegg replied. ‘Mostly crushed by human fighters bright enough to realize the AI rulers were better than any previous human ones.’

He turned to another card, saw how they were laid out all around him like gravestones.

Skaidon, direct interfacing with the Craystein computer; dead and sainted while opening a whole new vista in physics. The first runcible test between Earth and Mars. That pioneer building going up on the shores of Lake Geneva. Blegg walking inside, into a place where it should have been impossible for any human to come, revealing himself to the entity called Earth Central, ruler of the solar system, ruler then of the near stars as the first runcible seed ships arrived, then of that fast expanding empire called the Polity.

Now a huge ship formed in his view in the shape of a flattened pear, brassy in colour and bristling with antennae, weapons, spherical war drones pouring out of it like wasps from a nest recently whipped with a stick. A Polity dreadnought revolving slowly in space. Once spherical, now fires burnt deep inside it, revealing massive impact sites.

‘Prador,’ said Atheter.

‘Hostile from the first moment of contact. Without the AIs on our side, they would have crushed us. Their metals technology was way in advance of ours and their ships difficult to destroy—exotic-metal armour. But they did not have runcibles, for artificial minds are needed to control them. That gave us easy access to resources, the instantaneous repositioning of planetary forces. The card then showed some vast construct in space: a great claw, nil-G scaffolds groping out into blackness, ships and construction robots amassing all around.

‘We never needed that,’ Blegg said nodding at the huge object. ‘It was one of a planned network of space-based runcibles for shifting large ships, even fleets, or for hurling moons at the Prador. They withdrew before then. We never realized until afterwards that their old king had been usurped. The Second Kingdom became the Third Kingdom, and the new ruler knew this was a fight he could not win.’

‘You are a cipher for your time.’

‘I guess,’ said Blegg. ‘But we are all ciphers for our times. It is just that my time has been a long one. You perhaps are the ultimate cipher, for the time of an entire race?’

The cards began sinking out of sight. The scape around him revolved like some great cog repositioning reality.

You and me both, Alice, thought Blegg, closing his eyes until the nauseating sensation stopped.

‘And now Jain technology.’

Blegg opened his eyes. He stood now on a trampled layer of reedlike plants. Beside him those plants still grew tall, greenish red, small flowers of white and red blooming from a matted tangle of sideshoots. In the aubergine sky hung the orb of a distant gas giant: green and red and gold. In a moment he realized something mountainous now squatted beside him. He turned and looked up at it.

‘No,’ he murmured, ‘I don’t believe you.’

Something chuckled, low and deep.

* * * *

Using the disassembler, Orlandine removed a silica crystal no larger than a grain of talc. Holding this between hundred-angstrom filaments, she conveyed it to a hollow memcrystal inside the disassembler head. Such memcrystals were designed for analysis of quantum computers used to control human nanotechnology, so perhaps this might be enough. Through nanotubes penetrating the memcrystal, she injected polarized carbon molecules into the hollow, where they underwent Van der Waals bonding. Slowly and surely, connections began to be made. Having already ascertained the connection points on the silica crystal to the sensory structures on the node’s surface, she became able to apply some logic to what she now received. The base code was quaternary, much like the earlier codes used in human quantum computing before they went multilevel synaptic, and was therefore disappointingly simple. Orlandine soon began to track the algorithms: this happens, check this, reach thus, check that, and so on. But a frightening, fascinating picture emerged.

Everything was there to identify the touch of a living creature even prior to physical contact—by movement, heat, environment, organic components in the air, on the skin—but these all together did not stimulate into action the circuits that initiated the ‘stinging cells’, or signal deeper structures within the node. Something more was required: the identification of information conveyed by electromagnetic media, identification of industry-produced compounds in the air, regularity of structures in the immediate environment… the list just kept growing, the deeper Orlandine delved. She saw that each of these could be the product of dumb beasts: social insects produced regular structures, any compound produced by industry could be produced in natural environments, and many lifeforms communicated by electromagnetic media. But it was through an assessment of the whole that the Jain nodes identified intelligent technological life.


The configuration of what she had thus far seen told her the node was a trap just waiting to be sprung. But what kind of trap required this level of technology? She knew she ought to be frightened, but instead was fascinated and excited. To kill one sentient being you did not need all this. To kill many of them… maybe? No, it could not be as simple as that. Abruptly, disparate thought streams all came together inside her organic and crystalline mind, and she made one of those intuitive leaps more associated with her organic side than with her silicon one, and understood the truth. This was a trap laid for the destruction of intelligent species, of entire races, the complex fantastic technology being both the bait and the teeth of it. She must learn how to take that bait without springing the trap.

Now returning her attention to the node itself, she used the disassembler to begin stripping away those structures already mapped. Very quickly she discovered the stinging cells were the leading ends of mycelial fibres consisting of bundles of buckytubes with guiding heads containing a mass of sensory gear. She realized that again she saw a technology already used in the Polity, for by using similar mycelial fibres an aug made connections inside the human brain. The mycelia in that case, however, were generated by the aug and guided by feedback—the aug changing the tension along each of the four nanotubes of each mycelium to change its direction of penetration. And the sensory heads sought out the particular electrical signatures generated by synapses. These structures, however, were very much more advanced. Designed to incorporate the substance they penetrated, they carried complex bases for exterior silicon crystallization, so as the fibres extended themselves they intermittently grew processors along their length. The sensory heads were also hugely complex and obviously designed to seek out more than just synapses, or perhaps more than human synapses.

The more she worked the more Orlandine saw the sheer extent of the technology involved. The Polity used nanotechnology, and because of that she could easily recognize many of the structures she saw here. But it seemed all about the level of development. Just because a race knew how to make bricks, concrete and steel did not necessarily mean it knew how to put them together to the best effect. Having all the parts and knowing their potential did not mean you yourself could realize that potential. The Polity was building small houses, whereas whatever created this had made something capable of throwing up skyscrapers, by itself.

Other nanomachines she discovered: things like viruses and bacteria capable of replicating for as yet unknown purposes; others that spread their own mycelial networks and created their own controlling processors; some almost prosaic pieces of nanotech that drilled, cut and plucked elementary atoms from compounds. Then she found something that actually grew lasing materials, and understood these were for transmitting light signals down the buckytubes—optics. She tracked back to discover that the quantum processors could respond both electrically and photonically. Not even just skyscrapers, she then realized: cities. She had uncovered less than five per cent of this node’s secrets, but even so reckoned she was delving into an entire technological ecology.


Prador-Human War: this intense conflict lasted for forty years. Warships were destroyed in such numbers that some worlds acquired ring systems formed from the resultant debris. Ten million humans (this estimate is considered low and it might really be as high as fifty million) were infected by a virus on an out-Polity planet called Spatterjay, which enabled them to withstand severe physical injury, then were cored (most of the higher cerebrum removed) and thralled (the cerebrum being replaced by Prador enslaving technology) and sold to the Prador by a human called Jay Hoop. In one incident an entire moon was flung through an enlarged runcible gate to destroy one of the heavily armoured alien dreadnoughts, and in another a sun was stimulated to produce a solar flare to fry a similar vessel. Armies of humans, Golem and baroque and slightly mad drones numbering in ten of millions fought for possession of worlds against similar numbers of Prador first- and second-children and Prador drones (not controlled by AI but by the preserved brains of the aforesaid children). Many worlds were bombed with antimatter explosives, or fission weapons, scoured by particle cannons, hammered by near-c rail-gun projectiles. Some were burnt down to the bedrock and utterly denuded of life. Billions died on both sides. It could be claimed that the Polity won, for the Prador withdrew, but the aliens were not truly defeated. Fifty years later those same ring systems and denuded worlds became tourist attractions, as did Spatterjay itself, but now, nearly a hundred years later, interest has waned amongst the Polity’s growing population. Some even believe the data on this conflict, easily accessed just about anywhere, is fiction, or just a hoax perpetrated by the AIs.

- From ‘Quince Guide’ compiled by humans

It sat in interstellar space like a giant harmonica; forty miles long, twenty wide and ten deep, the square holes running down either side of it were the entrances to enormous construction bays. Massive weapons turrets protruded from it out into space: housing racks of missiles as large as attack ships; thinking bombs whose prime purpose had been to fight their way to exotic-metal hulls and detonate; particle-beam cannons gaping like cavern throats; rail-guns that could fill nearby space with swarms of ceramal projectiles travelling at near-c; lasers, grasers, masers… Nearby space had once been also patrolled by chameleonware sneak mines, but they were decommissioned after becoming too much of a shipping hazard—their minds unstable and bored with waiting for an enemy that would never come.

‘I knew about this sort of thing,’ said Cormac, ‘but still…’

‘You were born about when it ended, weren’t you?’ Mika asked. She stood unusually close, he thought. He could smell her scent, realized she used Eyegleam and Shade, and her lips were now dyed a redder hue than her own. He read the implicit message, but did not know if he should respond.

He shook his head, feeling slightly uncomfortable, ‘No, I was eleven years old when it ended. I grew up while secrets were still being kept, and I had been working for ECS for twenty years by the time the AIs felt it safe for some of them to be revealed. By the nature of my work I already knew more than most, but was surprised even then.’

Mika grimaced. ‘So you are what… just over a hundred years old?’

‘Solstan time,’ Cormac agreed, ‘but personal time about ten or so years less than that. I’ve spent a lot of time in coldsleep between missions.’

Mika nodded, shrugged her acceptance, then pressed a hand against the panoramic screen as if she wished to touch the vast construct. ‘There’s seven more of these stations still mothballed. You know, most Polity citizens cannot quite grasp the scale of that conflict—just what a mobilized interstellar civilization can do.’ She turned, shrugged. ‘It’s been like that ever since war was industrialized.’ She gestured behind her at the screen. ‘This place was built in only three years and churning out dreadnoughts, attack ships and war drones just about as fast as the construction materials could be transmitted in. It could not keep up with demand during the initial Prador advance, since on average one medium-sized ship got destroyed every eight seconds during that conflict.’

‘But still we won, in the end,’ said Cormac.


‘Well, we survived, which had not been the Prador’s intention.’

‘The new king of the Prador made the right decision to withdraw. Had they continued they would have lost completely, but as it was they retained some autonomy.’

Cormac smiled to himself. Mika knew this subject and was extremely interested in it. All these facts, available to him with a thought, were now common knowledge: casualty figures, number of worlds burned down to the bedrock or obliterated, the stories of moonlets fired through enlarged cargo runcibles to take out Prador heavy dreadnoughts, the abominable coring trade out on the Polity rim—how Prador enslaved humans in their millions. But it was now history, and as such seen by many as not quite real, not really anything to do with them.

‘Why did Earth Central choose this place as an Isolation station?’ she asked.

To business, he thought.

‘No other place large enough and isolated enough. Two more of these places are also being used. So far there’s over eight million people aboard this one.’

‘Not nearly enough—we should have gone straight to Coloron.’

Cormac shook his head. ‘The runcibles are closed to incomers for the duration, and it would take four months by ship even at Jerusalem’s top speed. By the time we got there it would all be over one way or another.’

‘So what is the plan now?’

‘You, D’nissan and all the others stay aboard the Jerusalem and continue doing what you do best: you study Jain technology and learn what you can from Dragon. Jerusalem predicts that after the initial rush to the runcibles on Coloron the pressure will drop off. In the inevitable lulls, ECS Rescue and military personnel will be transmitted through. I intend to go through then to link up with Thorn.’ He glanced at her. ‘Jerusalem is holding off until the situation on Coloron has been clarified. If required, this ship will make the jump to there. If not it will head back to either Cull or Masada.’

She mulled that over for a while, then nodded. Cormac could see her torn between undertaking field work on Coloron and continued research here on the Jerusalem with its huge resources. Probably what inclined her not to ask to come along with him was the mile-wide being which hung in space nearby, only a few tens of miles from the Jerusalem. Dragon now accompanied them. Its manacle, no longer containing CTDs, was no longer a manacle at all. This had been a test. Had Dragon fled, then some doubt would have been cast on its testimony. It did not, and continued to assist the researchers aboard this ship.

‘How long until you go across?’ She nodded at the screen.

‘When I’m ready. I need something from Jerusalem first.’

She nodded again, then gave him a long assessing stare.

‘By the way, how is your research progressing?’ Cormac asked.

Mika moved away from the screen and sat on his sofa, curling her legs up beside her. ‘We are learning a lot, and very quickly. We will, within days, have developed a system to prevent physical Jain-tech takeover of the human body, though it won’t prevent the subject being killed. Next we’ll be working on a doctor mycelium similar to the one I used before’—Mika looked uncomfortable—’only one that won’t try to grow Jain nodes and thus kill its host. Dragon has offered to give us these items complete and in working order. Jerusalem refused—it does not want us using anything we don’t fully understand. So now Dragon is feeding us the schematics piecemeal.’

Cormac did not feel very good about that somehow. Was it really the case that to survive in the universe humanity must cease to be human? Already transformation had occurred—augmentation, boosting, adaptation, the haimans—and this now seemed yet another step in that direction. If all this present furore led to some all-out conflict against something that was just a thing, just a hostile technology that required hosts, could it be, that if they came out the other side of it, they would be indistinguishable from the Makers? Transformed into something less admirable despite their victory? He winced—of course that supposed humanity was something to admire.

‘How are you progressing?’ Mika asked.

Cormac paused, about to ask what she meant. But a certain honesty, integrity, made him close the impulse down. The conversation was about to progress away from the business at hand, and he repressed the urge to abandon it. He sat down on the sofa next to her.

‘Physically I am in good shape but bad condition,’ he said.

‘Curious description.’

Cormac smiled. ‘Everything is healed, everything is there, but my bone and muscle mass is low. Presently I’m on regrowth factors, steroids, and induction stressing of my bones while I sleep.’ He gestured vaguely to the door leading into his sleeping area. ‘It will be weeks before I’m back in condition.’

‘And your mind?’ Mika asked, leaning closer.

‘Fragile, Jerusalem tells me. Apparently, the last time I asked, I have a tendency to over-focus on the task in hand, with an exclusivity that is borderline autistic’

‘But isn’t that how you have always been? I’ve worked with you intermittently, for some years now, yet I know very little about you. How do you relax—do you socialize, do you have family? With you it has always been the job and nothing else. But I know there’s more… Chaline for example?’

Cormac felt he wanted to get up, draw this encounter to a close… run away. He repressed that urge too.

‘We had a brief liaison at Samarkand, that was all. I was damaged goods then as well—too long gridlinked and apparently losing my humanity.’

‘No inclination to continue where you left off?’

‘The Celedon survivors are heading back to Solsystem.’

‘That’s not what I asked.’


‘What about your family?’

‘Are you trying to psychoanalyse me, Mika?’

‘No, this is what is called social intercourse. You might have encountered it before on those occasions when you weren’t shooting someone.’

Cormac could feel something twisted up inside his chest. Exercising rigid control, he chuckled. ‘My family… my father was a soldier who did not come back from the Prador War, my mother is an archaeologist, on Earth. I have not seen her in forty years. I have two brothers who work in the ECS medical service. I have not seen them in forty years either.’ He waved a hand towards the window. ‘They might even be here, I don’t know. Perhaps we all possess the same narrow focus on our own interests which is why our ways parted. There’s a network family site that I check occasionally, and last time I looked I learned I now also have a sister-in-law, two nieces and a nephew, a grand niece. Also, thirty years back I acquired a stepfather, then a half brother and half sister… shall I go on?’

‘No contact at all?’

‘None. Isn’t it the case now that even when a nuclear family is formed, which is not often, its members tend to drift away. We move about a lot more now, and we’re long-lived so there is less desperation to cling to that centre. Yourself?’

‘I am an orphan and have never been able to trace my family. I don’t even know if they are alive. It’s why I take such an interest in other people’s families, and don’t quite understand the lack of interest I often encounter.’

Cormac shrugged and stood.

‘Should I leave now?’ she asked.

He walked over to the drinks cabinet, reflecting that he still could not quite get used to the luxury this vessel provided. Fashioned of something as near to old oak as made no difference, the cabinet was supplied with all types of glasses, a selection of drinks in glass and ceramic bottles, and even contained an ice machine plumbed into the wall. It also possessed a programmable drinks maker concealed behind the lower wooden doors, which was operable by a touch-console inset in the glass top. Via chrome spigots this could provide anything from hot coffee to yak-buttered tea.

‘I would like you to stay,’ he said, picking up two brandy glasses cut from manufactured emerald—probably made aboard this ship. ‘Brandy?’


He uncapped a bottle, poured, turned with the two glasses to find her standing facing him. She took her glass, sipped, stepped in close to grip the front of his shirt in one hand and pulled his face down into a kiss. With her pressed up against him, he suddenly became much more aware of her as something more than Mika in Medical, Mika explaining Jain tech, cell-welding wounds, and dissecting alien flesh. She stepped back, looking almost angry. He sipped his drink.

‘Don’t you pull away now,’ she warned.

He pursed his lips, turned and deposited his glass back on the cabinet. ‘It seems I have to take you out of that neat little box in my mind now and reassess you.’

‘I’ve got a better idea,’ she said, stepping past him to place her glass down beside his. ‘Let’s just cut all the cerebral crap and get physical. You can do a reassessment afterwards, maybe build some programs to analyse the Mika pheno…’

He slid the back of his hand down her stomach, pushed his fingers into the top of the loose slacks she wore, pulled her close and kissed her hard to shut her up, then towed her behind him towards the sofa. By the sofa she broke away from him, slid a thumb into the stick-seam of her slacks, slid them down, kicked her way out of them.

‘Get undressed and lie down,’ she ordered.

Cormac found no problem in obeying this authority figure. She wore no underwear and was quickly astride him, though still wearing her loose oriental top. Grabbing his penis she slid her hand up and down—now I’m in charge. After a moment she shuffled forwards and, easing herself down with a hissing exhalation, began gently to revolve her hips. He closed his eyes, tried to remember the last time he’d let anyone get this close—so many hurried sexual encounters organized when they could be fitted into his schedule, last time on Elysium while he awaited the end of the quarantine imposed there; the rest of the time using drugs to repress the need, control it, like he controlled every other aspect of himself.

‘Don’t you dare come,’ she ordered, stripping off her top, ‘not yet.’

‘Would you like to tie me down to this sofa?’ he joked.

‘Not right now,’ she replied, ‘I hardly know you well enough for that.’

Cormac laughed, then felt shocked—wondering when was the last time that had happened too.

* * * *

Thorn brought the AG platform down opposite a burnt-out shopping centre and eased it in over a tangle of ceramal beams flaked and distorted by the heat. Twelve dracomen occupied this platform with him, while Scar and eight others occupied the platform immediately behind. He looked around him. The chainglass windows of the shops remained intact, but were blackened from the inside. Burnt bodies lay on quartz paving, black and curled foetal. A low-walled garden, running down the centre of the shopping mall, still smouldered—all the smaller plants incinerated, though jagged cores of cycads still stood. He swung his platform over to the right of this garden, while Scar took his to the other side.

‘Okay,’ Thorn spoke into his comlink, ‘we’ll land up at the end here and see what we can find. Scar, have your people spread out and cover the landing area—not too far mind, we might have to get out of here fast.’

At the end of the mall stood a row of drop-shaft entrances, with a corridor leading away on either side. Thorn swung the platform over near a bar beside the entrance to one corridor. Most of its furniture was scattered but a table and three chairs still stood upright. Grotesquely, one chair still supported a charred corpse slumped over the table.

The dracomen moved fast once the platforms landed. Two of them headed up the adjoining corridor, three covered the drop-shafts, and all the rest, except Scar, spread out to form a protective perimeter. Scar came over towards him.

‘Where would you suggest?’ Thorn asked, eyeing the dracoman intently.

‘It is all around us,’ Scar replied.

Thorn listened. He could hear creakings and shiftings as of wreckage settling and cooling. There came a faint scuttling sound, too, like rats in the walls. He scannned around and located, just inside the corridor entrance, a row of public-service terminals. ‘Over here.’ He led the way.

Each terminal consisted of a simple touch-console and screen. Thorn propped his proton carbine against the wall, drew his thin-gun and blew a hole in the wall beside one of the screens, then jammed his fingers in beside it and pulled. The flimsy screen tore out of the wall, revealing only the optics behind. No sign of anything unusual there. He holstered his gun, took hold of the wall panel immediately below the screen, wiggled it back and forth then tore it free: more optics, branching off from a main duct, to the console above. He was gazing at this junction when he heard the distinctive sound of a chair scraping back.

Proton fire flashed like summer lightning through a ruby. He glanced aside to see the dracomen firing at something further down the corridor. Pulse-gun fire stitched across the wall above his head. The single alfresco occupant of the bar stood up, pulse-rifle braced at the hip, then disappeared in a flash of red fire, tumbling back in pieces amidst tables and chairs blasted to fragments. Other figures began appearing, weapons firing, dracomen moving to counter them. Then, tentacular new growth began sprouting from the incinerated gardens. Thorn took in all this in a brief glance, reached down and grasped the duct cover, tore it away. Bundled optics behind, but something else as well: grey vines and fibres packing every cavity, silvery tendrils that shifted slightly. He snatched the memstore from his pocket, already extruding a nanofibre interface from one of its end ports. He selected one of the thicker, unmoving vinelike growths and pressed the interface head against it. Immediately hairlike fibres extruded and penetrated, bonding the memstore in place. But other silvery fibres then began whipping from the bundled optics, surrounding the interface head, spreading up around the memstore itself.

Thorn snatched his hand away. Damn.

He pulled back, taking up his carbine, turned and squatted. The dracomen easily held back the human-shaped attackers, but they were not all to be reckoned with. He saw a tentril spear up from the floor, punching through it like a bullet, whipping twice around a dracoman’s legs, then penetrating his chest. No time to try retrieving the memstore, no way to find out if the HK’s penetration had been successful.

‘Go! Go!’ he bellowed.

They ran for the platforms. Thorn boarded one first, lifting it a few feet from the floor. Scar leapt on behind him. A dracoman tried to raise the other one, but something held it down. The dracoman leapt free, just as a mass of tendrils fingered over the edge.

‘Here, now!’ Thorn shouted, holding his platform in position. Scar opened fire on substructure spiralling out of the wall towards them. Thorn saw the impaled dracoman being lifted, struggling, up into the air. A shot from one side cut that tendril at floor level. The dracoman dropped and, as if wrestling with a snake, pulled it from his body and was up and running in a second. Thorn tilted his platform and sent it planing towards the trench cut down through the arcology. The rest of dracomen converged fast, firing on growths all around them, leaping up and cramming themselves onto the platform. Just as the last one leapt on, their weight seemed too much, for the platform jerked downwards and skidded against the floor. A red flash and it rose again, something writhing like a nematode around one side rail, until a dracoman blew both it and the rail away. More groping, snakish movement: the shopping precinct looked like a cave filling up with tree roots.

As Thorn slowed the platform to weave his way between the twisted ceramal beams, two humans leaped aboard. Pulse-gun fire into Scar’s stomach, the other one wielding a jag of metal like a sword. Instant reaction: the man with the pulse-gun hurled straight over the side, the other opened neck to crotch with his own weapon—close combat with dracomen being worse than the kind engaged at a distance. Thorn glimpsed the second man slumping back against the rail, his gaping torso fast closing and filling up with pinkish growth, bloodless, before a couple of dracomen hauled him up and flung him over the side. Neither of the humans had uttered a sound.

Out into the particle-beam-cut gap, things uncoiling from the wreckage all around, still groping for the AG platform which lurched under its heavy load. Then Azroc’s forces opened up and they planed off through a cavern of fire, smoke and ash belching all around them. When finally they landed, troops quickly surrounded them, the presence of the dracomen assuring them no Jain tech had been brought across. Thorn noted how Scar showed no signs of damage, though he had taken at least three shots directly in the stomach. The dracoman penetrated by a Jain tendril stood for a while with head bowed, with two others of its kind watching it carefully. Eventually it straightened up and looked around, whereupon the other two moved off unconcerned.

‘Well, that went well,’ said Thorn. What a complete and dangerous waste of time.

Just then, Jack’s voice issued from his comlink.

‘I have just received a signal which, knowing its source, I handled with some caution…The hunter-killer program is in, and it is searching for Thellant N’komo.’

Thorn whistled, grinned.

* * * *

Two big transports were down—titanic landers resembling the inverted hulls of ocean liners—a third still hovered in the sky, casting a massive shadow. Thorn scanned back towards the arcology with his monocular. It was as if someone had punctured holes in an enormous tin can and fluid ran out. Increasing the magnification, it now seemed he saw ants flooding from a nest. Higher magnification still and the monocular began whirring as it adjusted its lenses to compensate for shake. Now he truly saw the hundreds of thousands of people, family groups or individuals, loaded down with belongings or trailed by hover luggage. Antigravity platforms and gravcars manned by ECS troops or monitors hovered over these crowds. Yet it all appeared surprisingly orderly outside. There had been some sporadic shooting, but that was unsurprising with such a mass of humanity to control.

To one side a line of AG platforms and grav-transports flowed like train carriages. These contained the injured, and those wearing Dracocorp augs who were now stunned and sedated. Tracking this line of traffic out, Thorn focused on the motley collection of ships gathered beyond the large landers. The badly injured or ill were being stretchered to a twin-hulled H-ship dispatched by the medical arm of ECS. Beyond this, domed tents spread like a rash of blisters on the landscape almost to the horizon. Still other ships were scattered amid all this: some privately owned vessels, smaller hospital and rescue ships, or smaller landers sent down, from a couple of old passenger liners still in orbit, to bring supplies to this rapidly growing refugee camp.

‘What are the figures now?’ Thorn lowered the monocular.

Via Thorn’s comlink, Jack replied, ‘Coloron informs me that the runcibles here have been kept open-port to the Isostations for a week. Capacity sixty thousand every hour, but it rarely reaches that. Eight million in that first week. Runcible technicians have moved fast to set up another five runcibles on a less populated world undergoing terraforming. The population there is low, about ten million. Earth Central made the calculation that risking ten million lives there, it might save many more from here. EC is also opening up more of the big shipyards to turn into Isostations and Coloron has brought three more runcibles online here. Nearly twenty million via that route thus far.’

‘What about that liner?’Thorn enquired.

‘The Britannic can take aboard fifty thousand. Its landers can take up to about five thousand at a time, so it will very soon be full.’

‘Spit in a rainstorm,’ muttered Thorn, watching one of the landers launch. Just contemplating the figures involved was nightmarish. In two weeks the AI had managed to move off-planet only two per cent of MA’s billion population. One per cent a week at the present rate. Two solstan years minimum, to accommodate them all working on that basis, it was hopeless. ‘Anything else?’

‘Other ships are arriving, including a dreadnought within a few days. This means a wider area can be covered by orbital weapons. Coloron has extended the perimeter, as you can probably see from where you stand. That reduces the evacuation time here, considerably. Had we two weeks to spare, we could get most inhabitants clear of the arcology.’

‘How long do we have?’ Thorn asked.

With a cold exactitude, Jack replied, ‘Being optimistic: one week. By then the Jain substructure will have spread throughout the entire arcology, but it will reach the runcibles before then. And before then it’ll be subsuming those still remaining inside.’

Letting his monocular hang by its strap around his neck, Thorn gripped the rail tight. He felt sick. As a Sparkind trooper on Samarkand he had witnessed the results of a catastrophe in which 30,000 died. On Masada and its surrounding cylinder worlds, and in Elysium, that figure rose to a million. Here, already, the estimated number of deaths exceeded 100,000. A week? Maybe another 10 million through the runcibles, and maybe half the surviving population safely outside the arcology. What then? Thorn’s problem was that he knew precisely ‘what then’. The moment Jain tech got close to the runcibles, they would be blown. At some point Coloron or Earth Central would declare the risk of Jain tech spreading planetwide too high. The calculation would probably be made to a hundred decimal places. Then MA would be incinerated down to the bedrock. Unless the projection changed drastically, there would still be half a billion people remaining inside. The magnitude of it was unbearable.

‘Still nothing from the HK?’

‘No, nothing at all.’

* * * *

The sun was shrouded in the cloud generated by the titanic destruction of the Cassius gas giant, though that fug occasionally revealed drifting structures, glittering scaffolds of pseudomatter, immense space stations and swarms of vessels—all evidence of the massive million-year construction project taking place here. The ship surfaced from U-space one astronomical unit out, and travelling at three quarters the speed of light, it used ramscoop to decelerate: opening out orange wings radiating from the abundant hydrogen being dragged in around it, soon followed by the sun-bright ignition of a fusion drive. This vessel bore none of the sleek lines of other Polity ships, seeming more like some ancient vehicle’s engine block, greatly enlarged and transported out into space. It was in fact mostly engine: a leviathan tugboat for hauling moon-sized masses. The arrival of such a ship here at the Cassius project being a common occurrence, it was merely noted by the humans, haimans and AIs directly concerned with it, and slotted into the vast calculation of construction as a nail might be slotted into a similar calculation for a house. Just a few noted, and dismissed, the slight discrepancy between ship and U-space field. Fewer still observed the other object that came through with it and rapidly veered away from its course: it was too small, too inconsequential seeming in a project of this scale.

This second object was thirty feet long, curved like the head of a spoon, in colour silver-green fading to black at the edges, and bore patterns like umber veins in its surface. It clawed at the very fabric of space to decelerate in a way Polity physicists and AIs were only just beginning to understand, and implement. As it slowed, its chameleonware initiated and made it invisible throughout most of the radiated spectrum. Its insides were packed like the guts of some nematode—though with organs seemingly silver-plated when not of the same grey-green metal as the hull. Sunk inside this, and connected to it, the Legate scanned all signals, comprehended the underlying U-scape, viewed information just as it viewed the growing scene before it, angrily.

Firstly, she had obviously not yet made any physical contact with the Jain node. That was annoying but acceptable, and factored into the calculation. But thereafter she had not reacted as predicted by all the psyche tests and cerebral assessments. She was extremely intelligent for a buffered amalgam of human and AI, but still a loner, a power seeker, and asocial. Feeling trapped and constrained by the Polity she should have grasped at all the Jain node implied, for she had known nothing of its parasitic/destructive tendency. She had delayed and delayed until forewarned. But even that should not be unconscionable.

Orlandine’s arrogance should have been such that she would believe herself able to control the technology despite its revealed purpose, use it, grow and become godlike—discarding what she did not want of it in the process. That had been Erebus’s initial assessment, for the AI itself only later had discovered the layering of Jain tech’s depth of purpose. It was made to fool intelligent, borderline supernal, technical but—most importantly—arrogant beings. She should have taken the bait. By doing so here, she would by now have taken over this entire Cassius project, spread vastly around the sun incorporating all nearby sentients, all the stations and ships and the giant puzzle pieces of the incomplete Dyson sphere. From here, while she still maintained control, she would have used the numerous runcibles to spread out into Polity, subsuming worlds, stations, incorporating AIs. Weaving the Polity into the whole it should be, and reducing human beings to what they essentially were: flesh puppets. At the peak of spread she would then have discovered just how effective a weapon was the Jain node—being made for individuals like her, and civilizations like this. Perhaps some of the Polity might still have survived.

Not enough.

But even all this was not what angered the Legate most; only its inability to understand did that. It could not comprehend why it had been sent here. Aboard, it carried one more Jain node destined for a Separatist leader actually located within Earth’s solar system. Coming here to find out exactly what had happened endangered that mission and statistically raised, by an unacceptable amount, the chances of the Legate being discovered. What was Erebus thinking? Disconnected from that entity for so long, the Legate could not now know. But neither could it disobey.

The Legate located the construction station initially overseen by Orlandine. Shutting off all drives and dropping its ship’s systems to minimal function, it drifted in, cautious. Now it began delving into the AI network and, as expected, found hunter-killer programs leashed like attack dogs around any information concerning Orlandine. The Legate knew it could destroy them, but doing so would reveal too much. Other methods would have to be employed. Drifting in closer it observed the damage to the station, enclosed under a shimmer-shield, ran programs to assess its cause, but could learn little from that: a fusion explosion—the degree of devastation commensurate with the output of an interface sphere power cell. Its hypocentre was not precisely at the location of Orlandine’s sphere, but much of hers had also been destroyed. What had happened here? Polity AIs must suspect this to be no accident, hence the hunter programs. The Legate constructed and discarded scenarios. Perhaps Orlandine began her takeover and some other haiman learnt of it in time to destroy her—that other haiman sacrificing himself and others in the process? No, the informational takeover would be too fast. Really, there was only one way to find out.

Using minimal power, the Legate nudged its vessel towards the near edge of the shimmer-shield, for fewer sensors would be active there after having been damaged by the explosion. Its ship turned concave side down to hull metal that had been rippled into waves by the blast. The vessel injected nanofilaments to bind itself in place—still invisible to most forms of detection. Then came a shifting of the vessel’s inner components. It heaved like some animal vomiting, split along one side, and the Legate slid out turning its feet down to the metal, stood up, bonding with the similar nanofilaments, and walked. Momentarily the Legate became visible while detaching from the ‘ware effect of its vessel, but then its own ‘ware came on and it faded from existence again. Stepping to the edge of the shimmer-shield it peered inside.

Two ant-shaped drones clung to twisted metalwork and emitted pools of light in which two human women clad in monofilament oversuits worked. The women were scanning and sampling physical evidence. One of them wore an aug; the Legate lightly touched then pulled away from this nexus of the AI network, learning the other woman to be gridlinked. It considered going in there, disabling the drones, and snatching from the humans whatever it could. Too intrusive, too obvious. Anyway, the Legate needed more than just the physical evidence; it needed anything informational which, by the fact that these two worked in here now, would have already been removed to be scanned and assessed by forensic AI.

The Legate turned and strode away across the hull, eventually stopping by a service lock constructed for inspection drones. Scraping sharp fingers across hull it scanned through—ultrasound by touch—and soon located the control mechanisms. A low leakage of atmosphere behind this hatch enabled it to trace out the shape of a service robot lurking inside, like a trapdoor spider. It pressed its palm flat over the control mechanism, injected filaments, each tipped with a micron diameter thermic lance, burnt through the hull, connected, and then feeding power from inside itself operated the mechanism. The hatch thumped up, a slight puff of air escaping, and slid aside. The maintenance drone immediately came online, its lensed sensory head tilting upwards. The Legate reached down, grabbed for it, pulled it out and smashed it down on the hull, once, twice, stabbed a hand through its outer casing and gutted it, located its small crystal mind, crushed that to glittering fragments, then sent the drone on its way into vacuum.

Once inside, the Legate wormed through maintenance ducts and finally came up against inner hull. It placed a finger against this softer material, injected a single microfilament equipped with a cutting head, bored through, then discarded the head in order to online the filament’s optics. Now an inner maintenance shaft. Forefinger and mid finger together, extending bladelike to twice their original length, were blurred along the inner edge by the activity of thousands of microscopic teeth. The Legate pushed its fingers through the wall and cut round in a circle, fast, a cloud of powdery detritus spraying all around. The excised section of wall blew towards it under air pressure. The Legate slid through pulling the removed section back into place. Breach sealant automatically ejected from the wall itself to seal the cut line. An alarm would sound somewhere but, because the sealant had dealt with the problem only a maintenance drone would be sent. The assumption would be of a micrometeorite puncture. By the time they discovered any different, the Legate would be gone from here.


Separatism is a cover-all label for those who rebel violently against the rule of AIs and would like to reinstate some mythical halcyon time when humans ruled themselves with justice and wisdom. Their political ideologies are based on a mish-mash of ideas sampled seemingly at random from opaque political tracts that have appeared over the last six hundred years. On the one hand they deify some of the worst dictators of ancient times like Chairman Mao and Stalin, claiming the intransigence of humanity prevented these monsters from establishing true socialist societies, while blithely ignoring the millions these autocrats murdered. Yet on the other hand they demonize AIs as monsters of a similar stripe, and are seemingly unaware of the personal freedom and wealth every human now enjoys, and the fact that the Polity is the only society that has come close to the ideals espoused by reformers of that previous age. And of course, to get what they want, it seems perfectly acceptable for them to commit any kind of atrocity. But in the end one only has to study the histories of those few worlds that came under Separatist control and managed to secede from the Polity. Their descent into chaos has been well documented in every case. As their leaders tried to apply ideologies refined in academia, without any reference to reality, the people divided into factions, sometimes into nation states, and often went to war with each other. Frequently the nuts and bolts of running a civilization were neglected, and social collapse and famine resulted. And in every case ECS has needed to come in to clear up the mess, and to cut down the ideologues hanging from the lamp posts.

— From a speech by Jobsworth

King gazed down upon the new system directly in line of Erebus’s present course. It consisted of a white dwarf star orbited by two gas giants far out in space, a ring of moon-sized planetoids orbiting close to the sun, and one Earth-sized planet orbiting at about the distance of Venus from Sol. Two moons orbited this last planet, obviously stripping away enough atmosphere to prevent the world itself descending into greenhouse cascade. King cruised in with its scanners at maximum function.

The equatorial temperatures of the hot desert planet topped 100 degrees Celsius, and polar temperatures did not drop much below 50, yet atmospheric analysis showed there might be life here. King first concentrated on the moons, soon ascertaining one to be dead rock while the other showed signs of recent volcanic activity, having spewed swathes of brown and yellow sulphur across its surface. Within seconds the AI detected wreckage scattered across the regolith of the first moon. It loaded to one rail-gun a close-scanning telefactor—just a tongue-shaped missile packed with sensory equipment—fired it towards the moon and focused through the moving device.

On fusion burn the telefactor decelerated in a tight arc around the moon, then descended on minimal AG between jagged peaks, silver-faced in the white light. In the past something had clipped one peak, spraying the entire area with slivers of hull metal. In the dusty plain beyond were splash patterns King first took to be the result of meteorite strikes but, on laser spectrometer analysis of the metals therein and by Geiger readings, discovered these to have been caused by small tactical thermonukes. A trench twenty yards long, ceasing for fifty yards then continuing for another ten, had obviously been melted into the ground by some high-powered beam weapon. The pause in it seemed to be where the beam had struck its target in the air, for beyond that point jags of ceramal and spatters of the alloys used to make bubble-metal, littered the landscape, and beyond them lay the crash site.

Whatever came down here had cut a mile-long groove in the ground, shovelling up regolith before it. King directed the telefactor along and above the groove until it reached the wreckage imbedded in the side of the regolith mound. A geoscan having revealed every angle of the distorted wreckage, King built a virtual picture of it in its mind, then began to iron out the distortions. Within minutes the AI recognized a much earlier version of itself: an attack ship but with its nacelles mounting balanced U-space engines rather than armament, its body bearing the solid angles of some ancient military beach-landing craft. Perhaps its mind still remained intact.

Upon further scanning, King drew the telefactor back after spotting some anomalies about this crash site. A tunnel had been bored through to precisely where the mind would be located under the covering of regolith. Around this tunnel there were marks in the ground: footprints.


King thought not. Golem had also joined Erebus, so they must be the source.

The tunnel was amply wide enough for the telefactor so the AI sent it inside. It wound down through regolith now bonded with glassy resin, past two bubble-metal beams then up against hull metal, which had been cut through. A spherical cavity lay beyond. The AI recognized this as the armoured casing that contained the mind on these older ships—made to be quickly ejected so that if the ship itself was destroyed, its tactical information would not be lost. All the optical and power connections remained in place through the central pillar. The cage of doped superconductor that contained the crystal mind seemed undamaged—and much larger than the one containing King’s own mind, but then technology had advanced very much since then. The crystal mind itself, however, lay fragmented about the bottom of the sphere like a shattered windscreen. King withdrew the telefactor.

The King of Hearts AI went on to investigate two more sites, discovering just a couple of claw arms which were all that remained of another four-pack drone, then a drone made in the shape of a pangolin, a great dent in its armour, which was partially melted. Every system inside it was utterly fried. King surmised it had been hit directly by an EM shell, so there had been no need to send Golem to make sure no sentience remained in it.

King recalled its telefactor and hesitated about investigating the planet. If Erebus and the other AIs were located here, they would generate visible activity, and information traffic in the ether. None so far detected. Also, did King really want to locate Erebus and its kind? Obviously some disagreement had resulted in the wreckage on that moon, so there seemed no guarantee that King would be welcome. Then again, the AIs manufactured during the Prador War were notoriously cranky and individualistic, so it was perhaps unsurprising that some of them might eventually balk at the idea of melding. Perhaps on the planet itself more could be discovered as to the nature of this disagreement. King redirected the telefactor towards that nearby world, sending two more after it, but these bearing manipulators, cutting gear and the ability to interface with memcrystal. Some little while later the AI discovered that ‘disagreement’ might be rather an understatement for what had occurred there.

A vast 200-mile wreckage field terminated in the mountainous remains of a dreadnought. Radioactivity was high, so it seemed evident that tactical nukes were used, repeatedly. Beam trails cut into the rock all around. The big ship obviously came down in a controlled descent, otherwise there would be nothing now but a large crater, but clearly lost control near the end. It had bounced for 150 miles, then skidded for a further 50 miles until coming to a halt. But it was not alone.

King found wreckage from over three hundred war drones, four attack ships, twelve landers that judging by the remains were filled with Golem, two fast pickets and a mid-level battleship impacted into a cliff. Perhaps Erebus had met its own end here? Perhaps that dreadnought once contained the wayward mind? But a scan of visible numbers on the dreadnought’s hull dispelled that idea. This ship was called the White Shark. Here then were the results of an AI on AI conflict between factions in Erebus’s camp. King dropped into boiling atmosphere and began sending out all but two of its stock of telefactors, twenty-three of them. The AI really needed to know what happened here.

The mid-level battleship seemed a lost cause. Evidently having come in very fast, the probability that any crystal survived the impact was remote. Studying all the other wreckage, it soon became evident to King that after the battle the victors conducted a major salvage operation: markings on the ground showed that Golem, telefactors, and drones running on caterpillar treads had stripped usable components from most of the wreckage—what remained being not worth the energy expenditure of lifting from the gravity well. Some of the war-drone minds had been removed, where possible; all that remained of the Golem in the landers was the occasional distorted chassis, also mindless; a beam strike had cut a hole right through the dreadnought, while it lay at rest, and incinerated the mind it contained; one attack-ship mind was missing, the other destroyed; the picket minds lay in heat-distorted fragments. By this King guessed which side was which, and that the losers had been shown no mercy. There seemed nothing more to learn here. But then, as it hovered over the battlefield recalling its telefactors, King turned its attention to the ship impacted into the cliff. No tread marks over that way. Obviously Erebus thought that ship just as much a write-off as King had at first. Perhaps they were both mistaken. King sent four of its telefactors over to the cliff.

Five hours of excavation eventually revealed a distorted mind case. Using a thermic lance, one telefactor cut through the armour, then on the end of an arm it inserted a sensor head. There rested the ship’s mind, broken, in its doped s-con cage, but still perhaps containing much information. A smaller telefactor entered, found a power input point, detached the plug and inserted it into a socket in itself, ready to power up the damaged mind. There King paused it. So, Erebus stripped every usable component from the surrounding wreckage, destroyed or removed all the minds, certainly for the purpose of concealing its destination or intentions from possible pursuers, yet it missed this? King recalled to itself the other three telefactors and, once they snicked away in their cache, used both AG and thrusters to take itself up a hundred miles. The AI thereupon opened secured processing space and routed telefactor control through that. It then powered up the mind case, with the tentative reluctance of someone clicking on the power to dodgy household wiring.

The telefactor dropped to the floor, as the drain sucked power from its gravmotor, then it reached out to begin splicing into the optics connected to the abandoned mind. Nothing yet. Connection made. Diagnostic program loading… The worm came through like an express monorail loaded with warheads. It screamed round in the secured processing space, searching for weaknesses. King immediately began loading programs into that space to counter it, take it apart, analyse its structure. The worm, semi-Al, knew itself to be trapped. It transmitted a signal back down the link, instantly broadcast from the telefactor. Five suns ignited below: five one megatonne CTDs.

King accelerated. Four seconds. Time for the signal to reach another location: rail-gun hidden in the sulphurous moon, and now firing a barrage of missiles at half the speed of light. But the King of Hearts was a modern Polity attack ship. It stood on its tail, opened up its fusion drive to full power and, accelerating at a hundred gravities, left a single anti-munitions package behind it. The worm broke apart, eating itself, but King already knew the frequency and format of the signal it had sent, and thus transmitted its own present. King’s worm burrowed into the mind it located on the moon: just a drone waiting here to ambush any pursuers, fiercely loyal and ready to destroy itself. It was not quick enough. It had seen the others leave, tracked their departure and then awaited some to return to say its mission was over. King learnt all that in microseconds. Microseconds after, another CTD detonated in the face of the moon, and left a burning sulphurous crater. The barrage of missiles proceeded to detonate around the anti-munitions package, easily fooled into thinking they found their target.

‘I’m coming to find you,’ sang King, accelerating out of the system.

* * * *

As Mika detached herself from the VR frame she felt tired and frustrated. Every time she entered the virtuality now, there awaited a mass of new information to be processed, and she experienced difficulties in keeping on top of it all. While she deconstructed singular molecular structures the work stayed easy enough, but with research now being directed towards what could be formed from those structures and their interrelationships, it got tougher. Much of this work being conducted at AI speeds, it now became the province only of Jerusalem, other AIs aboard, and those humans sufficiently augmented to keep up.

Stepping down from her frame, she surveyed the various screens in her research area and saw that those not frozen were scrolling reams of code. She walked over to the counter on which the screens rested and picked up the item lying there. The aug was similar to the one D’nissan now wore: a flattened bean of gleaming metal with an exposed crystal in the shape of a snail’s shell on one side—that aspect purely aesthetic. Its visual interlink entered via the wearer’s temple, so was not as grotesque as many of its kind, but the device still required surgical installation. Susan James and Prator Colver had both upgraded: the former with an aug like this and the latter with the more conventional kind, though he talked about going fully gridlinked when he could spare the time—that too required surgical intervention since the gridlinking tech needed to be imbedded in the inner surface of his skull.

Mika now faced a choice. In her present unaugmented state she was rapidly becoming obsolete. If she wanted to stay at the forefront of Jain research, she needed to upgrade. Staying as a standard-format human meant she would soon be pushed to one side, handling small peripheral projects. But did she really want to keep up with Colver, James and D’nissan?

Ever since installing that Jain mycelium in herself, on the planet Masada, and the drastic surgical procedure required to remove it, her attitude to invasive augmentation had become rather cautious. Her present situation also posed certain questions about what she was and what she wanted to be. Did she really want to go the haiman route? She thought about Cormac and their recent utterly human liaison. He was gridlinked, but not willingly so — the device had reinstated itself in a way yet to be explained. He had been taken off the gridlink because being linked for so long had compromised his efficiency as an agent, for he lost the ability to connect with humans at a human level, though that lack did not seem so evident to her now. But there the rub: was Mika sufficiently curious about Jain technology to lose her essential humanity in pursuit of its secrets?

Mika entered her living quarters, went over to her bar unit and poured herself a glass of brandy. Taking this with her, she slumped on her sofa.

What do I love?

She loved Cormac, or felt she did—Mika always encountered problems with hazy terms like ‘love’. But what about her research? What were her aims? In the end she was practically immortal, and nor did she require her vocation to put bread in her mouth or a roof over her head. Her reasons for pursuing it were based on a feeling of both duty and self-gratification. But the sense of duty became irrelevant when there were those better able to perform the research than her. So what did she enjoy about it? What gratified her? She considered the last few years. On Samarkand she most enjoyed taking apart and studying the Maker-constructed creature there, and subsequently studying the dracomen. On Masada the dracomen again provided that same pleasure, as did her lengthy digging in the mud to find the remains of the dragon sphere that had sacrificed itself there. In the end she reluctantly realized she preferred field work, getting her hands dirty, not the esoteric research now being conducted by the others.

‘Jerusalem,’ she said, ‘they’re leaving me behind.’

The AI replied instantly. ‘Augmented mental function and memory are now almost a prerequisite. The big picture spills out beyond the scope of the human mind.’

‘Precisely,’ Mika said and sipped her brandy. ‘How vital is my contribution?’

‘No one is indispensable.’

‘Well thanks for that.’

I am not indispensable,’ the AI added.


‘You are reluctant to augment yourself?’

‘I am. The others are mostly number-crunching now, and are moving increasingly into the AI mental realm. I’m not sure that’s what I want to do.’


Mika thought about it for a long moment then said, ‘I saw Susan James recently. She was eating Provit cake and drinking water and did not see me even though I stood right in front of her. When I first met her she listed her prime interests as mathematics, sex and gourmet food, and was not entirely sure of the order of preference.’

‘Augmentation changes one—that is its essential purpose—but the degree of that change must be governed by the individual.’

‘Cormac… he lost his humanity?’

‘He did. It is a notable paradox that some augmented humans do lose their humanity—becoming what they, at an unconscious level, perceive AIs to be—while AIs, through age, experience and their own expansion of processing power, come to understand humanity better and therefore become more humane. Cormac’s present condition is a puzzle—almost as if some fundamental change in him has enabled him to become gridlinked again whilst still retaining his humanity.’

‘What would you advise for me?’ Mika asked.

‘I would advise rest. I would advise a lengthy break from your work, in which you can consider what you want to do next. Incidentally, I have recently disconnected Susan James, and she is currently undergoing an enforced and medicated rest. She is one of nearly four hundred individuals suffering the same problem.’

‘That being?’

‘In trying to understand and fully encompass all that Jain technology is, they have managed to lose themselves.’

‘How reassuring.’

‘I would not want you to feel, if having chosen augmentation, that you made an uninformed choice. Nothing worthwhile, Mika, comes easy. Consider what the word “augmentation” means. The idea is that you augment something already existing. Many who do it destroy that essential something in the process—become more their additions than themselves. It is part of the haiman ethos to retain that humanity until such a time as it becomes possible to truly extend self. They call themselves haimans but know that until that becomes possible they are not truly post-human.’

‘But what is that essential something?’ Mika asked.

‘Indeed,’ was Jerusalem’s only reply.

* * * *

The gabbleduck was mountainous: a great pyramid of flesh squatting in the flute grasses, its multiple forearms folded across its chest, its bill wavering up and down as if it was either nodding an affirmative or nodding off to sleep. It regarded Blegg with its tiara of emerald eyes ranged below the dome of its head.

‘Why have you chosen such a bizarre shape for yourself?’ Blegg asked. ‘Obviously it is something you’ve ransacked from the mind of the AI here, but I fail to see the purpose.’

‘Jain, Csorians, and Atheter,’ said the gabbleduck. ‘You humans have much to say about all three but know so little.’

‘Then tell me,’ Blegg suggested.

‘The Jain became extinct, five million years ago. Currently you believe it was their own technology that drove them to extinction. We believed this, too, though in our time, two million years after the Jain, there was more evidence available than there is to you now.’


‘Jain technology is a weapon.’

‘So we believe.’

‘Who did they use it against?’

‘It was made to destroy civilizations,’ said Blegg, ‘but that was a rhetorical question which I presume you’ll answer yourself.’

‘Who is always the greatest enemy? You fought a war with the Prador, but that could almost be classed as anomalous. The greatest enemy is nearly always those you can understand enough to hate.’

‘I see,’ said Blegg. ‘An internecine war.’

‘It lasted for half a million years. But why a weapon designed to destroy civilizations?’

‘I don’t know. Why don’t you give me a clue?’

‘Despair,’ said the gabbleduck. ‘Hatred of the futility of intelligent life and technical civilizations, all of them, forever.’

‘Despair and arrogance,’ suggested Blegg.

The gabbleduck shrugged. ‘Just so.’

‘What happened to you, then?’

The gabbleduck turned its head and gazed out over the ersatz landscape. ‘The Csorians, like these Makers, thought they understood the technology, increasingly depended upon it, then were ultimately destroyed by it.’

‘You didn’t answer my question.’ This virtuality was very realistic, and Blegg found himself becoming fed up with standing, so he sat like some acolyte on the ground before the monstrous being.

‘We nearly did the same. We lost planet after planet to it, and it subsumed and killed billions. We exterminated billions on the worlds we sterilized.’

Blegg decided he wanted to get straight to the point. ‘Was it a Pyrrhic victory in the end? Your civilization no longer exists, but then few Jain nodes exist either. The ones we are having trouble with now are those brought here by the Maker.’

That chuckle again. The gabbleduck stretched out one limb and opened out a hand composed of talons like black bananas. ‘You know that Jain technology is nanotechnology, but study it long enough and you find that its foundations go deeper. All matter is merely knotted space and time in the end, adhering to certain rules soon learnt by any sufficiently advanced species.’ Floating inside that claw appeared some construct of light. ‘When you organize the underlying structure of matter, the difference is always noticeable when observed from the right place.’ The creature turned to peer at him. ‘There is a price.’

‘Name it.’

‘You return us to the surface of the place you call Masada—home of the gabbleducks.’

Blegg considered that. The plan had been to keep the artefact aboard the Hourne so it could quickly be moved to different locations in the event of war. Such a repository of valuable information must be protected. However, the survival of the Polity might depend on being able to locate Jain nodes. He did not need to confer. He replied, ‘It will be done. You have my word, and that is good.’

‘I know—it’s the word of a ruler,’ the gabbleduck replied cryptically.

The construct drifted down from its claw, turning as it came. Blegg kept utterly still as it hovered before him, and as it drifted towards his forehead and penetrated. ‘The Jain used U-space, yet their destructive technology does not. It was made by their AIs, which were based on the Jain themselves as yours are on you, before those AIs transcended their erstwhile masters and left them to kill each other. Why they left the U-space option out is a question best addressed to those same AIs, wherever they might be.’

It was a pattern in his mind, seven, eight dimensional: something beyond what he could encompass, but at least recognizable as a U-space signature. With a sudden flush of excitement Blegg realized what he saw: a Jain node as viewed via underspace.

The gabbleduck peered down at him. ‘This is what you came for?’

‘It is.’

It nodded slowly. ‘You never get them all—there’re always some overlooked, to start the process all over again. There is only one way to win.’

‘And what is that?’ Blegg asked, wondering what the quickest way out of this realm might be.

‘You cease to be what the Jain hated.’

Blegg turned away.


Was that what the Atheter did? Hatred of the futility of intelligent life and technical civilizations…

Were the gabbleducks all that remained of the Atheter when they made their fateful decision to cease to be the intelligent citizens of a technical civilization? Blegg doubted that, else why did this thing, this Atheter AI, want to be taken to where remained those animalistic descendants, the gabbleducks? It was all a mystery that would have to wait for another time, since Blegg had more pressing concerns. He turned away, felt the ground sliding out from underneath him, and saw a black wall descend.


Blegg stepped out of the VR booth, blinked and looked around him. The staff on the observation deck peered at him warily. Gazing through the screens, he observed that the artefact seemed to have settled back to its previous state.

‘Hourne,’ he said, ‘are you back?’

The AI replied, ‘The artefact has disconnected itself from me, but may reconnect at any time.’

‘Do you have that U-space signature?’

‘I do—it was transmitted to me at the same time as you received it in VR.’

‘You saw all that, then?’

‘I did.’

‘Interesting… about the gabbleducks. Do you believe it?’

‘If it is not actually the truth, it seems a strange and pointless lie to tell.’

— retroact 5 -

‘There was not much resistance, then,’ Atheter observed.

‘Sporadic,’ Blegg replied. ‘Mostly crushed by human fighters bright enough to realize the AI rulers were better at governing than any previous human rulers.’

He turned to another card, saw them laid out all around him like gravestones.

Blegg ran down the seemingly endless corridor, while klaxons shrieked and warning lights flashed. Grieg told him the terrorists were ex Matthew Corporation employees who obtained the planar explosives from a mercenary group who decided on retirement under the new regime and were now selling off their assets. That had been a relief, since from the beginning of the investigation ECS intelligence believed them to have obtained fissile materials. But planar explosives could still do plenty of damage if detonated somewhere critical.

‘Left turn at the end here, second door on your left,’ Earth Central informed him.

Somewhere critical seemed to be snuggled up against the Amaranth Station reactor, or so Draben told the interrogators. Halting by the door Blegg waited a moment.

‘Nothing connected to the door,’ EC assured him.

He opened the door and entered, scanning the room. The reactor cube, five yards on each side, sat in the middle of the room amidst a tangle of cooling pipes and heavy power cables. Control consoles lined one wall, and gratings had been pulled up from the floor when this place was searched earlier.

‘The detonator is solid-state, activated by timer and gravity switch.’

Blegg walked in, studying that part of the reactor where steam pipes exited towards the generators next door. There—beside the pipes. No wonder the earlier searchers did not find it. The bomb appeared to be a pressure and stress analyser bolted across the point where the pipes exited the reactor. He climbed nearby steps up to a catwalk and walked along until standing beside the explosive device.

‘How long have I got?’

‘Four minutes—not long enough to deactivate it.’

Blegg considered that. Running here had been an almost instinctive reaction. He should have transferred himself through U-space to give himself more time. But, then, would another couple of minutes have made any difference? He placed his hand on the bomb. ‘A gravity switch and a timer, you say? Nothing else linked to its attachment to the pipes?’

‘So Draben just told his interrogator, and he seems less inclined to lie now. One moment…’ The AI fell silent for a while, then returned with, ‘It is secured by four bolts. You require a socket drive, which you will find in a toolchest below the catwalk.’

Blegg quickly returned below, found the toolchest and flipped it open. The socket driver, a gun-shaped object with a tool-head that could adjust to fit any bolt, lay amidst a well-used collection of old-style spanners. Ominous, that. He hoped whoever used the device kept it well charged and did not have to resort to the spanners too often. He picked it up and pressed the trigger — seemed okay—and returned to the catwalk. Closing the driver on the first bolt he hoped Draben was not lying. The bolt spun out easily, as did the second and third.

Placing the driver over the fourth bolt Blegg concentrated on his breathing and instilled calm within himself. The gravity switch meant he must keep the bomb to its present orientation. He clamped a hand against it and spun out the last bolt. Discarding the driver behind him, he then carefully eased the bomb away from the pipes.

‘How long?’

‘Two minutes.’

Blegg checked his watch. It would have been nice to be able to transfer himself and the device far from here, but neither gravity nor orientation applied in U-space, so such a transference might trip the switch. Amaranth would be safe; he would cease to exist. He turned slowly and walked along the catwalk to the steps, his martial training enabling him to move smoothly and evenly. Negotiating the steps was more difficult, but he reached the floor safely.

‘You need to get at least two hundred yards from the reactor,’

EC informed him. ‘Outside the door, turn to your left and keep walking. The area has been evacuated.’

The door was latched. Blegg pressed the bomb against the wall to keep it upright, opened the door and held it open with his foot as he entered the corridor beyond. His mouth dry, he continued that sliding walk.

‘How long, how far?’ he eventually asked.

‘Just keep going—I will tell you when to put it down.’

Trust Earth Central?

He checked his watch again. Thirty seconds more and he would put the damned thing down anyway and get out of there. Slowly the digits counted down.

‘Carefully place the bomb on the floor,’ EC told him, only seconds before he intended to anyway.

He squatted, followed instructions. The thing looked precarious propped up against the wall. Standing, he immediately opened that doorway that he, the only human being, could open. The bomb detonated shortly afterwards blowing a hole in the side of the station. No humans died.

— retroact ends -


Thellant’s mind worked with a clarity he had never before experienced. The substructure now cut through the bedrock, from where Coloron’s forces had contained it, and was rapidly spreading through the rest of the arcology. Those people it now subsumed he could control completely, but he left them to some already established program integral to the Jain technology, which made them attack others to either kill or subsume them. Whether they managed to or not did not really concern him. Only the chaos they created really helped, for in the end he knew he could not win here. He was powerful, and potentially able to control this entire arcology, its population, even the whole planet, but that presupposed he would be left alone to achieve such control. Thellant knew the AIs would not allow the substructure to spread beyond this place, no matter the cost. Though it was part of him, because he retained much physical and mental integrity it was a part he could sacrifice and grow again elsewhere. He did not intend to be in this vicinity when the AIs incinerated the arcology.

Peering from the wreckage, Thellant observed the landscape of cooling rock and molten metal at the bottom of the trench. Looking through the substructure now rising in wall cavities, and spreading along ducts, optics and power lines on the other side, he saw Coloron’s forces pulling back—they knew their enemy to be out of containment now. For every ten yards gain he lost five yards to proton fire, but with hand weapons they could not destroy everything the substructure occupied.

What’s this?

A humanoid he first took to be an ophidapt grabbed a questing tentacle and shoved back the soldier it was originally groping for. The tentacle proceeded to inject nanofilaments into the reptilian body. The humanoid should have been instantly paralysed. Instead it fired a proton weapon into the wall, frying the substructure from which the tentacle extruded, then it flung down the severed tentacle and incinerated that too. Thellant focused intently on a recording of this event—replayed from one of the many computers spread throughout the Jain architecture like grains of salt. He discerned that Jain nanofilaments had instantly come under attack, managing to penetrate no more than the upper layers of the reptilian’s skin. In fact some kind of viral assault shot back up them, paralysing the structure in the wall just instants before the… Thellant consulted other sources… before the dracoman incinerated it. So, not just Polity AIs—he must contend with these things as well.


What, what now?

The source of that flat voice disappeared even as he groped for it. Perhaps some program injected from that dracoman, now propagating back? Gone now, yes. But it was also time for Thellant to disappear. The area opposite him was secure for him now. He stepped into the open and headed across the bottom of the trench. The Jain substructure they might be able to hold back, but he intended to slip past.

On the other side he passed the black pit of a mineshaft plummeting down into the bedrock. Spilling out of this, like silver worms, were foot-wide peristaltic pipes issuing from the robotic boring machines far below. Some of these pipes were split open, spilling slurries of powdered haematite, bauxite and malachite. All of them entered a pumping machine, and from that normal pipes of half the diameter ran down one side of a maglev tunnel spearing into darkness. Parked in the mouth of the tunnel, a boring machine lay like some massive steel grub with a cylindrical head overly endowed with teeth. Thellant walked past this and on into the tunnel’s darkness. All around him via the substructure he observed further disquieting scenes.

The substructure was attempting to return soldiers it now controlled to Coloron’s forces, but the dracomen spotted them instantly and destroyed them, for it seemed these creatures could detect Jain growth even at a distance. Elsewhere, Coloron’s drones or Golem soon detected other returnees and their fate was the same. Fortunately no dracomen were searching in his current vicinity. He reached a curve in the tunnel and halted. Because the substructure spread through the wall cavity beside him, he knew the enemy awaited ahead.

Five arcology monitors and four drones occupied the tunnel, armed respectively with proton weapons and pulse-guns. A proton cannon floated above the maglev rails. It fired one shot, lighting up the tunnel, and demolishing a section of affected wall. They were now retreating, targeting the larger masses of growth as they went. Thellant pressed his hand against the wall, injected filaments from himself to make full physical connection. He halted all local growth, causing it to curl up and apparently die. He began shifting energy and resources to an area twelve miles to his left instead, and started a massive push there. This sort of thing had been happening for some time, as the substructure constantly probed for weaknesses. The opponents ahead ceased retreating—with the brute growth occurring elsewhere they could now recoup their resources. He waited five minutes before breaking into a trot and rounding the bend.

‘Hey!’ he shouted. ‘They’re coming!’

None of those already controlled by Jain tech spoke, which gave him an edge.

‘Hold it there!’ one of the monitors ordered.

‘They’re coming!’ he shrieked.

Seconds only before the cannon swivelled towards him, but by then he drew opposite the blast hole in the wall. He stepped into it, fast, then accelerated along the wall cavity. Ducking below masses of fused optics, he ran faster than any normal man could run when upright. Behind him, red flame exploded along the cavity, pulse-gun fire punching machine-gun holes everywhere. He was hit five times, but only his human body suffered and he did not let that affect him. Proton flame seared the skin on his back. Then to his right: another wall hollow, cutting up through numerous levels. He climbed. Fire now below him, then tracking on past. Two levels up, he stepped out through a service door and into an empty corridor on the other side of Coloron’s main line of defence.

Thellant paused and inspected himself. His back was totally charcoaled, the rest of his naturally dark skin mottled with still darker patches, as if bruised all over, and hard metallic masses pushed against it from the inside. Also his electromagnetic linkages to the substructure hazed the air around him with energy spillover. He began to make cosmetic alterations: withdrawing the tech deeper inside him, repairing the damage to his human façade. Eventually he stood unflawed, with a skin tone like that of his healthy negro ancestor, no fat on his body, his musculature less flabby than at any time since his youth. He reached up, peeled the dead Dracocorp aug from behind his ear and cast it aside. Moving on, he searched for and eventually found a suitable corpse, which he stripped of clothing to replace his own damaged garments. However, he did not yet feel ready to break his link to the main substructure. First he needed to learn the disposition of Coloron’s forces.

The dracomen were nearer now: five of them just a mile to his right and three levels above. He already knew how fast they could move and felt them to be too close, so took the first exit to his left and headed down one level. Other dracomen occupied levels far above and some far to his left and higher still. What lay ahead, outside of the current purview of the substructure, he did not know. He would take as straight a line as possible, lose himself in the general population, find a way to escape. Now was the time to make the break.

It was so hard to cut himself off, almost like fighting an addiction. The electromagnetic transceivers inside him fought against his will like rebellious adolescents, and would only cut his connection when he physically used the structure inside himself to sever their power. Even then they tried to reconnect themselves until he killed each one remaining inside him. Thereafter came an agonizing hammer of withdrawal, dullness of mind, blurring of his senses. Stubbornly he fought this too and tracked down its root causes. These feelings he experienced were a human thing. It seemed that his breaking of contact with the main substructure had pushed much of his awareness back into his organic brain and out of the grain-sized computers lodged inside him. He forced awareness back, regained clarity and enforced a straight neurochemical reprogramming of his organic brain, and filled it with nanofibre control systems. This achieved, he realized how he was no longer that petty being Thellant N’komo, but something else entire.

* * * *

The hologram displayed a section of the arcology, transparent, shimmering four feet off the floor like something fashioned of glass. In this, a handsbreadth away from one ragged edge of the circular trench cut down into the arcology, appeared a blinking red dot. Surrounding this, and closing in, were twenty-one green dots. The red dot the bad guy and the green the good guys, supposing Scar and the other twenty dracomen could be described as good.

‘He just broke with the main substructure,’ said Thorn, relaying a message from the HK program routed through Jack. ‘The HK can’t track him any longer.’

Scar replied, ‘Closing now on his last location.’

‘Jack,’ enquired Thorn, ‘does the HK have any idea of his intentions?’

The AI replied, ‘Escape from the arcology—he knows it will be destroyed.’

‘He’s heading outside then,’ said Thorn, ‘but which way?’

Jack replied, ‘He avoids dracomen, apparently. He must be aware of how ineffective Jain tech is against them.’

‘That’s good. If we can locate him we can probably shepherd him the way we want.’ Thorn looked up from the hologram to the screen wall of the projection room—presently divided into many subscreens displaying multiple views inside and outside the arcology. ‘Coloron, he may have changed his face, but then again that might not even have occurred to him. Are you searching?’

‘I am not searching,’ that AI replied.

The screen wall flickered, became a single view into a concourse along which crowds trudged. A frame picked out one individual in the crowd, focused in.

‘Thellant N’komo,’ Coloron informed him.

‘Racial type through choice?’ wondered Thorn, eyeing the tall negro.

Coloron replied, ‘Twenty years ago he traced one line of his ancestry back to one of the negroid races, then had himself cosmetically altered. It was his contention that he must look like those ancestors of his who, in the seventeenth century, were transported as slaves to Jamaica to cut sugar cane, because he feels he is a slave to the likes of me.’ The AI paused, then continued, ‘He was a very wealthy slave, however, and there seemed a notable lack of whips, chains and endless grinding labour in his enslavement.’

Thorn grinned to himself: it just went to show that even big-fuck planetary AIs were not above sarcasm. ‘Scar, he’s moving along Brallatsia Concourse, with the crowd heading for exit Fifty-two—ground level.’ He glanced at the hologram. Most of the green dots began moving, very fast.

‘Don’t crowd him,’ said agent Thorn. ‘We don’t want him to do anything drastic…. Uh, Coloron, you’ve got him targeted?’

‘I have,’ the AI replied.

‘Another reason not to crowd him,’ Thorn added.

How many would die, he wondered, if the AI fired its orbital particle cannon right now? Certainly few of that crowd in the concourse would survive, for the firestorm would blast all the way along to exit fifty-two itself. There were also thousands jammed into the levels above and below this one.

‘Should we try and clear some of the people beyond the exit?’ he asked.The death rate would be lower outside—perhaps less than ten thousand.

‘Inadvisable,’ said Coloron.

‘Agreed,’Thorn admitted. ‘We do that and he’ll probably guess what’s happening.’ It still did not make him feel great about risking tens of thousands of lives just to capture this one individual.

‘Dammit.’ He picked up his weapon and headed off to join the dracomen. Overseeing the operation here just gave him too much time to think of the consequences of it going wrong.

* * * *

‘Keep moving. Keep moving. Food, drink and accommodation will be supplied outside. Rescue personnel one mile ahead of you. If you require assistance…’

Thellant tuned out these continual announcements. He felt angry. As the surrounding mass of humanity jostled him it took him an effort of will not to simply kill all those about him. But the moment he did something like that he would reveal himself and he doubted even the proximity of so many innocent citizens would prevent him becoming a viable target, so he kept his head down and kept shuffling along. An AG platform hovered above and drones buzzed through the air like head-sized wingless bluebottles. An occasional AG ambulance sped high overhead, after picking up the injured or those just collapsing from plain exhaustion. The bars and shops on either side were completely empty but, every hundred yards or so, temporary drinking fountains had been installed. He supposed the comfort offered by them was deliberately limited because Coloron did not want any delays to the exodus. The AI clearly wanted to get as many inhabitants as possible outside in the shortest period of time.

Inside him the Jain tech lay quiescent, but he knew it would be spotted if he came under direct scan. It seemed, however, they did not perform scanning here as back at the main line. Another AI calculation no doubt: the minimal delay for scanning individuals would accumulate into something untenable for just the tens of thousands surrounding him, let alone the millions presently departing the arcology.

It took five hours for him to traverse the six miles of concourse to the arcology edge. Here, shops, bars, and the walls behind had been torn out either side of Exit 52 to widen it to the full breadth of the concourse. When he finally stepped outside night had fallen, and the sky glittered with stars and orbiting ships. He looked to either side into the seething mass of humanity and saw drop-shaft exits from the levels above and below also spewing a steady stream of inhabitants. AG transports regularly departed like bees from a hive, depositing their passengers some distance ahead, then returning for more. Thellant trudged on, adjusting his eyes to night vision, then ramping up the magnification as he scanned his surroundings. Presently he could not see much ahead, since he walked upslope, but to his left, two miles away, he focused in on one AG platform and saw that it held a human and a dracoman, and to his right over by 51—a larger exit—there seemed a heavy concentration of drones. It seemed he was in absolutely the right place.

As he reached the top of the slope, the vista opened ahead of him, and he felt a surge of excitement upon seeing a huge lander at rest, with people filing inside it. He tried to speed up, but those not sure where to go now, slowed, and many crowded around an open-sided transport from which self-heating ration packs were being distributed. He glanced back, saw two dracomen moving through the crowds back by the exit. He moved faster, pushing people out of his way when necessary, quickly sliding past them otherwise. Those jamming in after the ration packs deflected him to his left. Glancing up he saw the AG platform drifting closer. Ahead, the ramps of the big lander rose. He swore in frustration, but pushed on anyway.

The ramps closed up into the entrances of the huge vessel, then a low thrumming transmitted through the ground as the craft ascended into the night sky.

‘Bastards,’ snarled a man beside him. ‘You can bet they’ll blow the arcology before we see another one of those, and even if they don’t that shit will be out here after us.’

By listening in on the conversations of those around him, Thellant gathered that everyone now knew what was happening. The conventional server network was already back up to speed, and announcements on public screens and address systems continued non-stop.

‘What do you mean?’ he asked. The man wore an aug so probably was more up-to-speed with current events than Thellant.

‘Last one,’ explained the man. ‘The Britannic is full, and its three landers will be just held in orbit along with their passengers.’ The man stepped closer. ‘But then maybe we’re the lucky ones—if anyone in those ships turns out to be infected, I don’t suppose they’ll be landing anywhere.’

Thellant turned away from him. The lander rose high enough to open up the vista ahead. The sheer quantity of people stunned the mind. The multitude stretched for about two miles ahead, whereupon it filtered into encampments of bubble tents. To his right and left the throng stretched for as far as he could see. Returning his attention to the refugee camp beyond, he noted numerous ships positioned down on the ground. Some of them, he recognized, were not just landers but spaceships capable of entering U-space.

‘Seems they’re setting up another camp,’ said the man, his fingers resting against his aug. He gestured with his chin. ‘Two hundred miles out, and the quarantine perimeter has been extended. I don’t suppose that has anything to do with the arrival of an ECS dreadnought at all.’

Thellant looked at him enquiringly.

The man explained. ‘Coloron’s orbital weapons are limited — not enough to contain us. A dreadnought should be able to fry anyone who tries to break quarantine.’

Thellant moved on. More such ships would arrive. He needed to escape now. Scanning about himself again, he saw the AG platform drawing even closer, but he could no longer see the dracomen behind him. He adjusted his course accordingly, picking out a small quadraspherical ship—ECS Rescue by its markings. He could see that the vessel was firmly closed up—probably to prevent panicked citizens sneaking aboard—and that ECS staff worked from a row of inflated domes nearby. Within an hour he reached the first of those domes, glancing inside at rows of beds. All of them were occupied, some of their occupants being tended to by autodocs. Rescue staff had set out their stall outside as well, where they were treating the walking wounded. A flash lit the sky—the third one since he chose this ship. Apparently the dreadnought had already knocked out a gravcar and gravtransport, both trying to escape to SA. Finally he came up beside one of the Rescue ship’s four spheres, next to an airlock.

Thellant pressed his hand against the mechanism, injected Jain filaments to subvert the locking mechanism. The door crumped open.

‘Hey, what you—?’

Backhanded, the woman flew three yards through the air and hit the ground, her skull shattered. Inside, then closing and sealing the outer hatch. Through the inner hatch, to find this cargo-sphere empty. He moved on into the next where from outside he had seen the flight deck. He needed to move fast. His hand slammed down on the console, filaments injecting, sequestering systems, taking over the ship, searching out its AI. He found it, closed it off before it could scream for help, then took it apart. Dropping into the pilot’s chair he initiated AG and watched through the cockpit screen as the ship began to rise.

‘Lassa, why are you launching?’

A query issued from some AI above—probably the dreadnought. Thellant learned from information subsumed from the AI, Lassa, that this ship had been due to launch in one hour. He answered through Lassa.

‘Unnecessary delay. All cargo and staff unloaded, and all cold coffins filled.’

Only in that moment did he discover that one sphere of the ship contained twenty coldsleep containers, fifteen of them now occupied by people severely injured.

‘Very well, you are clear to make orbit.’

As easy as that? Thellant grimaced to himself. The Polity was far too dependent on its damned AIs and in this case that was a mistake. He settled back in the seat, his hand still on the console and with himself still linked into the ship’s systems. As it continued to rise he entertained a sudden suspicion and ran diagnostics on the U-space engine, but it was fine—no problems at all. He put it online, ready to drop the ship into underspace the moment that became possible. An hour of flying later the sun picked out gleaming ships in a blue-black firmament, before it broke over the planet’s curve. He shut off AG and started the fusion drive to finally pull him clear of the well. Then a stuttering flash, and something hammered the Rescue ship, violently tilting his horizon. Then again that flash, which Thellant now identified as a high-powered laser. Through his link into the ship’s systems, he felt the U-space engine not only go offline but completely disconnect, as if it had disappeared. The second hit had taken out the fusion drive plate. As the ship tilted up into starlit darkness, another vessel passed overhead, glittering like oyster shell.

A voice issued from the console. ‘Gotcha.’


The development of the laser as a weapon began way back at the start of this millennium and it has been with us ever since. However, for ship-to-ship conflict, improvements in reflective and s-con heat dispersal armours have all but rendered ineffective as weapons lasers in the range of infrared to ultraviolet. Move outside those spectra, however, and you have masers, which can be used to sufficiently penetrate missiles—which will not have the heat-dispersal capacity of a large ship—to destroy them, and at closer range actually can destroy ships. The same rule applies to xasers and grasers, but in all cases the range and destructive potential of these weapons is limited, especially in fields of conflict often lightyears across. And, in reality, we learnt from the Prador how negligible is their effect, in the arena in which they are usually employed, when compared with the numerous other varieties of particle cannon. As you are all aware, the ubiquitous pulse-gun is just a form of particle weapon, the particulate matter ranging from powdered aluminium to a gas

(audience interruption)


(audience response)

I will state again that there is no such thing as an APW! What you are referring to is a proton weapon—highly destructive and tending to spread isotope poisoning wherever used. The APW, the antiphoton weapon, the dark-light gun, is a fucking fictional creation!

(moderator query)

Yes, thank you. I’m fine.

— From her lecture ‘Modern Warfare’ by EBS Heinlein

The sphere composed of two-foot-long metal ants rested in the centre of the Feynman Lounge, individual ants occasionally detaching to be off about their assigned tasks. This new conceit of Polity AIs, in choosing to locate themselves in increasingly bizarre body shapes, elicited the Legate’s contempt, but not sufficiently for it to consider outright confrontation. In retrospect it was a good thing it had not tried taking information from the two women investigating the explosion site. The two ant drones accompanying them—which the Legate had initially discounted—were dangerous, being part of this forensic AI.

Via fibres inserted through a nearby wall, the Legate observed five humans, two haimans and three Golem, all wearing ECS uniforms that identified them as members of the forensic team. The others in the lounge, three advanced haimans sporting carapaces and sensory cowls, were part of the Cassius project. They sat silently, two together on a couch and one in an armchair. The rigorous interrogation they underwent was conducted via optic linkages plugged into their carapaces, the cables snaking back to the AI itself. But within minutes this session ended, whereupon the haimans detached the cables and departed.

The Legate withdrew its spying fibres from the wall and turned round. The room it occupied belonged to a man whose mental capacity was only complemented by a cerebral aug, so it had been easy to enter while he slept and put him into a deeper sleep. After scanning through the information contained in this particular individual’s aug, and by linking into the public com systems of the station, the Legate learnt what was generally known about the incident that occurred here. The explosion had resulted in the death of a haiman called Shoala, and subsequently the rumour mills ground away. Many on the station knew Orlandine’s and Shoala’s relationship to be more than just a working one. Orlandine, though a superb overseer and sublime scientist, was generally considered too focused, too haiman, too unhuman. Much of the current speculation concerned the possibility of her having suffered some paranoid identity dysfunction, that being the expected, though uncommon, madness affecting her kind. The Legate did not believe that theory for a moment. It had studied her for a long time and knew that in this case madness did not come into it. Yes she could kill, but for perfectly logical and, in Polity terms, immoral reasons.

Still concealed by chameleonware, the Legate moved out into the corridors of the station and made its way down to the concourse leading to the Feynman Lounge. Within a few minutes it recognized one of the forensic team: human and possibly gridlinked. The man, a thickset individual with dark hair and bushy eyebrows, strolled along with one of the ant drones scuttling beside him. They chatted like old friends.

‘I just don’t see it,’ the man was saying. ‘She had everything: power, status, family, friends… She could easily re-engineer her personality if she was having problems. She almost certainly ran regular sanity-check programs.’

‘Madness by choice, then,’ the ant suggested. ‘Those who achieve and obtain so much often feel they have lost something indefinable along the way.’

Behind the man, but invisible, the Legate extended its forefinger into a narrow needle, primed with a particular narcotic. It pressed this into the man’s neck, injected, then withdrew it just as the man reached up to scratch the sudden itch.

‘That’s bullshit and you know it,’ the man continued. ‘If you’re haiman, you’re about as pragmatic as it gets. Every organic feeling is quantified and analysed, and if it doesn’t fit underlying drives it’s discarded. All haimans know it’s just neurochemicals.’ The man stumbled briefly. ‘Just…’

The Legate stepped in again and pressed a hand to the back of the man’s neck, injecting fibres through the numbed skin, seeking out and connecting to his auditory nerves. The drug dulled him just enough to edge him into fugue, his state slightly mesmerized.

Precisely mimicking the ant drone’s voice the Legate asked the man directly through his auditory nerve, ‘Where is the evidence being kept?’

‘The old oxygen store, level eight sector three,’ the man replied out loud—not even wondering why the forensic AI would ask him about something it had organized itself.

‘What’s that?’ the genuine ant asked, turning to look up at him, antennae waving.

‘Um?’ The man halted as the Legate withdrew. He rubbed his face. ‘Shit, I’m tired. Unless you’ve got some critical use for me, I’m going to sack out.’

‘I wouldn’t use you in a critical situation if you were tired,’ the ant observed.

The man waved a hand and moved on. The ant remained behind, its antennae still waving. It turned its head slowly, beginning to make probing scans of its surroundings. The Legate quickly retreated. Its chameleonware was the best, but no such ‘ware was perfect.

The map of the station which the Legate had already obtained from the sleeping man’s aug precisely located the oxygen store but, even more cautious now, it took the entity some time to reach that place. It waited until others opened doors ahead of it, then turned on an internal gravmotor to bring its weight to zero and used sticky fibres on its feet and hands to propel itself along, just in case some search program should run through the station’s gravplates. It avoided using drop-shafts for similar reasons. The double doors to the oxygen store were heavily armoured—designed to contain any explosion occurring inside. The forensic AI had probably chosen this place to contain the evidence because such stores were generally no longer used—station and ship oxygen now being supplied by machines that split carbon dioxide and merely needed to be emptied of blocks of carbon, and bottled gases for suits being compressed by the suits themselves while aboard the station.

The main doors were multi-locked, but the door of the adjoining storeroom was not. The Legate slipped in there and drilled through the dividing armoured wall. Good thing it chose this route because it soon found inert gases filled the oxygen store, which also doubtless contained detectors to monitor their mix. It injected nano-optics and through them focused on an upright chainglass cylinder containing pieces of blackened memory crystal locked in a web of plasgel. Certainly a recording of everything they contained now resided inside the forensic AI, for the crystal was packed in readiness for transportation to some other evidential cache. The Legate now widened one hole through the wall and extruded from its palm a larger diameter cord packed with nanotubes which it could contract and stretch at intervals of a half inch to guide itself to its target. The cord oozed through the hole, stretched down the wall and groped across the floor towards the chainglass cylinder. Fortunately the cylinder’s end caps were of a thick plastic it could easily cut through by using diamond saws the size of skin cells. Once inside the cylinder the cord frayed into thousands of nanotubes and spread like cobwebs. The Legate connected, injecting power or, where required, light, and began copying the stored data.

So, it seemed Orlandine had been showing an unhealthy interest in Shoala, and apparently tried to scrub out the evidence of that. Fragmentary results revealed relationship problems between them, and that she had tried to re-engineer her personality. All a classic, almost hackneyed, scenario and, without certain other information, entirely believable. However, there was nothing in here about Jain technology or Jain nodes, so as evidence it was all constructed, false. In the end, if the forensic AI did not believe this preferred scenario, it might choose from many others, but none of them involving Jain nodes. The Legate assumed Orlandine had shared information about the node with this Shoala, or maybe he found out, and that led to her killing him. From what was here, the forensic AI would never know. The police arm of ECS would no doubt do their best to find her, but that was entirely the point: only the police arm would bother to do this. Any investigation would not involve major AIs like Jerusalem, because to ECS this was just a sordid little murder.

Orlandine panicked, grabbed the first available U-space capable spaceship, and then fled the Cassius system. Or so, the Legate gathered, went the consensus of opinion here. The entity itself felt that such behaviour just did not fit the haiman’s profile. She did not panic. She felt a huge attachment to the Cassius project, which was one of the reasons she was chosen to receive a node: she would stay put and utilize the item from here, where it would cause the most damage. Had they been wrong about that as well? The Legate disconnected from the stored crystal, withdrew its cord, and sealed the hole through the wall. Understanding that much information about the functioning of this place lay in the public domain, and therefore easily accessible, it headed all the way back to the room it had originally invaded to spy on the forensic AI. The room’s occupant still slept, so the Legate ignored him and searched, eventually finding an old computer terminal that folded down out of one wall. The work of just moments gave access to the humdrum workings of this station, and in one moment more the Legate found the manifest for the Heliotrope, and the loading times.

Orlandine took the time and trouble to refuel the Heliotrope, and load some extra supplies, before supposedly fleeing in panic. The Legate noted the nature of those supplies: a molecular catalyser, an autofactory for synthesizing polymers, sheet rolls of laminated radiation shielding. This last material interested the Legate most: just what you would need to conceal your activities from detection, not what was needed if you intended to flee somewhere remote from detection. The entity now called up on the screen a positional map of the multitude of objects orbiting the Cassius sun, stared contemplatively at this for a moment, then closed the terminal back into the wall and departed.

Once more ensconced in its ship, drifting away from the station, the Legate opened a U-space communication link. At once its mind became a submind of something very much larger, which scanned and recorded its thoughts and recent discoveries.

‘Continue with mission to solar system?’ the Legate enquired.

‘No,’ Erebus replied. ‘Find her first.’

The link broke leaving the Legate momentarily stunned, then its individuality reasserted and it felt angry frustration. Find her? Then what?

* * * *

Coloron observed the Skaidon warps blink out in Runcibles 5 and 6, as their spoons—their inclusion into U-space—retracted. Around Runcible 6 the crowds had thinned considerably—fewer than 10,000 people remained and they were departing the area very quickly. This was certainly due to the runcible’s proximity to the arcology’s north wall, which reduced its catchment area and therefore put exits to the outside within easy reach. However, over 50,000 people were still crammed into the departure lounges of 5, despite announcements of the runcible’s imminent closure being broadcast through public address systems, displayed in big glaring letters on the bulletin boards, and transmitted continuously through the aug network. The AI was loath to start a panic, since in so large a crowd that would result in deaths, but anyone remaining in this area within the hour would be dead anyway. It amended the announcement to: PROCEED TO RUNCIBLE SEVEN. FIVE TO BE DESTROYED IMMINENTLY! YOU HAVE THIRTY-SIX MINUTES TO CLEAR THE AREA. DETONATION ESTIMATED AT TWO POINT FIVE KILOTONNES. Coloron then started the klaxons sounding, red warning lights flashing and, just to drive the point home, created a feedback loop between the runcible and its buffers, so it started to emit a whine, increasing in frequency at a rate just discernible to the human ear. That started them running. The AI was about to turn its attention elsewhere, when a secure channel opened from above.

‘We have Thellant,’ announced Jack of the NEJ.

‘My joy knows no bounds,’ replied Coloron.

‘This has not slowed the advance of the Jain substructure,’ Jack observed.

‘If anything it seems worse.’

‘There may yet be a way to slow it down.’

Coloron immediately worked out what that way might be. ‘Your spy in the camp?’

‘Yes, Jerusalem’s hunter-killer program has maintained contact. It is presently propagating itself through the Jain informational architecture. Apparently it cannot change the rate of growth but it is, as you say, a spy in the camp, so can relay the disposition of enemy forces and resources.’

‘Link me.’

The ensuing communication with the HK program was nonverbal, and Coloron’s analysis dissected it on many levels. The AI immediately began constructing a virtual map of the substructure overlaid on a map of the arcology. Further analysis revealed stashes of materials behind the line of advance, currently being made ready for easy conversion; energy being bled from fusion reactors and stored in laminar structures, both capacitors and batteries; sneaky mycelial extensions heretofore undetected; and subsumed humans armed and massing for advance. Coloron now checked the disposition of its own defences, and issued orders.

‘Azroc, that’s close enough, pull your forces out.’

The Golem was presently accompanying those of his forces busy incinerating the Jain tech spreading along the walls and through the floor of a long hydroponics chamber. Smoke layered the air from burning vegetation, and fluids pouring from broken tanks onto hot metal boiled up in dirty clouds. Within sight, figures still human in shape but no longer entirely human tried to work their way through. Squatting beside a small proton cannon standing on four insectile legs, Azroc glanced back towards the drone through which Coloron spoke.

‘You’re going to blow it?’ he asked.

Coloron replied, ‘Thellant has been captured, and now new tactical intelligence has become available. The substructure is massing for a push very near your current position and it could reach Runcible 5 within half an hour.’

‘Where do you want us now, then?’

Coloron transmitted directly into the Golem’s mind a simple map of the present situation. The infestation had started thirty miles in from the shore, and fifty miles in from the northern edge of the arcology. Runcible 5 lay the nearest to it, with 4 and 3 spaced evenly along the shore to the south and the same distance in from the sea. The AI did not want to send any more inhabitants to those runcibles as there were crowds enough there already, and Jain tentacles moved faster along the shore wall than elsewhere. Forty miles in from that row of three runcibles, again evenly spaced, lay 6, 7, 8 and 9. Another fifty miles further in lay 1 and 2. Runcible 10 was located well out of the way, in the recent north-eastern extension. On the map the Jain tech had completely taken over the north-west corner, and now lay only three miles from 5 and twice that distance from 6. Azroc’s forces were currently arrayed in a line cutting off that entire section—those last two runcibles at their backs.

‘Pull back to seven now. I will destroy five and six the moment the substructure reaches them. You have a minimum of thirty-four minutes.’

‘Okay.’ Azroc began signalling to his section commanders.

‘And, Azroc’


‘I am about to begin some sterilization.’


Coloron knew of some, either Separatist related or suffering from severe troglodytism, who were not obeying the evacuation order. Many of them remained inside the infested area, within reach of Jain tentacles, and many had already been taken over. Little could be done for any of those. From cameras on the particle weapon geostationary above, the AI studied the circular chunk of arcology it had initially excised in the hope of containing the Jain tech. The cavity near the centre of this, made by the Coloron’s first satellite strike, looked like a bullethole filled with steel maggots. The trench cut to separate out the piece of arcology in which this hole lay also squirmed with movement as Jain tech increasingly bridged the gap.

The AI checked all the systems of the toroidal satellite, finding it was up to power, with plenty of fuel available for the fusion reactor of which most of the satellite consisted. Even at that moment, a tanker craft was approaching from a recently arrived cargo carrier. One of its three tanks contained hugely compressed deuterium in the metallic state—further fuel for the reactor—the other two were filled with cupronickel dust to provide the particulate matter for the cannon itself.

I am procrastinating.

That system check had been an unnecessary delay.

‘Firing particle cannon,’ Coloron announced.

The turquoise beam stabbed down through atmosphere and struck the already fire-blackened chunk of arcology just off centre. The beam cut through its various levels like a thermic lance through a beehive. Fire and smoke fountained half a mile into the sky. The cannon satellite, adjusted by the gravplate ring on the fusion-reactor torus, incrementally tilted and began to revolve. Down below, the beam began to cut spirally outwards from its initial strike point. Viewing the scene in infrared, Coloron estimated the extent of the firestorm now exploding through the levels below. Within minutes the beam reduced the originally excised piece of arcology to glowing slag at the bottom of a huge pit. Shutting off the cannon the AI then contemplated what it had done. It had just obliterated about ten cubic miles of arcology and killed thousands of inhabitants, and that seemed likely to be only the beginning. Now checking the map relayed by the HK program, Coloron saw energy flowing away from that same area, and Jain tech material resources being transferred. The substructure, Coloron realized, could be herded.

‘I suggest you cut a line down to bedrock,’ sent Brutus the AI controlling the dreadnought above, which, unusually, bore a different name: the Brutal Blade.

‘That is my intention,’ Coloron replied. ‘With what happens next, such a division will certainly be required.’ The AI viewed the dreadnought through various sateyes arrayed above the particle cannon. It was a utile vessel looking nothing like a blade. Two miles across at its widest point, it bore some resemblance to a gigantic lump of metallized liver, with many organic tubes opening to space—heavy armour gave it its shape and those tubes were its weapons systems. ‘CTD imploder, lowest yield, take out this fusion reactor,’ Coloron ordered, sending the location of the mentioned reactor.

One of the tubes, a linear accelerator, spat out a black sphere that hurtled down into atmosphere, glowed red, then white, and began to ablate. Ten miles up it shed two burning hemispheres. The missile it contained slammed down through a wheat field, igniting a small fire around the surface puncture. A microsecond later, the field bulged up into a hill; it started smoking, then abruptly combusted. Flame jetted from arcology vents within a mile of this, then smoke from those lying beyond them. Crowds of people still moving away along the north-west shore gazed back at debris blasted from the numerous exits in the arcology’s edge. Coloron measured the spread of heat, observed the substructure’s reaction to this latest strike, then sent a map selecting the positions of other reactors, and locations of those enemy materials and energy stores.

‘Interesting,’ commented Brutus.

‘After I have cut the division,’ the Coloron instructed, ‘you must take out all those targets at once.’ The AI knew that, on some level of awareness, the Jain substructure would realize the disposition of its forces had been discovered. It would probably find the HK, but by then the damage would be done.

Incrementally again, the particle cannon tilted. The turquoise beam hit the sea this time, evaporating billions of cubic yards of brine. It sliced into the arcology wall then began to burn across. From orbit a cloud mass could be seen forming in its trail. While still metaphorically holding a finger on the firing button, Coloron noted monitors and Rescue staff loading into AG ambulances those injured by the departure of the crowds at Runcible 5. On the map updated by the HK program, the AI saw that the Jain substructure now lay only a mile away from there. The immediate blast radius around 6 was clear of people, though there were still some stragglers within areas likely to be devastated by the Shockwave. The Jain tech lay a mile and a half away from Runcible 6. Coloron waited.

Half an hour passed, then an access panel for an optical junction sprang away from the wall on the furthest edge of one of Runcible 5’s lounges. Something like a long-fingered stainless steel hand groped out, and began to extend its fingers down the wall. On another wall steel buds grew through sheet bubble metal and squeezed out grey tendrils. The last three ambulances departed, whereupon some other ambulances tried returning, because there were still people alive in here. Too late, because Coloron began closing blast doors behind the departing ambulances. Now humanoid figures began appearing, their clothing burnt and hanging in tatters, their bodies blackened, and pinkish slithing movement visible through their wounds. The AI began shutting down systems as soon as it felt informational intrusion—as it had been doing all along throughout the advance of this feral technology. Soon its total perception of the area became limited to a few scattered cameras. Then came the expected intrusion into the systems of the runcible itself.

The runcible buffers held a huge charge, permanently topped up by the fusion reactor located on the floor below the runcible itself. With safety circuits offline, Coloron released this entire charge into the runcible. A warp generated, tuned out of U-space, tried to create space of its own, bounced out into realspace, then collapsed. It sucked in the horns of the runcible, the dais, the fusion reactor, several bodies—some still alive—and much of the surrounding complex, crunching everything down into a spherical superdense mass. At the centre of this mass: fusion.

From the cannon satellite Coloron observed the subsequent explosion flinging millions of tons of debris into the air. A briefly stabilized fusion reaction dropped a yard-wide white sun straight down to the bedrock. As the smoke cleared, the AI observed a glowing two mile-wide crater cut into the top half of the arcology. Eight minutes later a similar crater appeared in place of Runcible 6.Twenty minutes after that, the particle beam cut its way out from the north wall of the arcology.

‘Now,’ Coloron sent to Brutus.

Missile after missile departed the Brutal Blade; a vicious insect swarm hurtling down towards the planet. Coloron almost flinched. The harsh reality of its mind did not permit ignorance of how many had died during the last hour, and of how many were about to die. Yes, Jain technology controlled most of them, but they were people nevertheless. No fewer than 110,000 of them. And even then the advance would continue, for the AI only slowed it down, inconvenienced it.

* * * *

The planetary system consisted of an immense green gas giant the size of Jupiter, but half as far again from the sun as that Jovian. Further from the sun than it lay a ring of icy planetoids and asteroidal debris, while around it orbited more still. Within its orbit were four planets: one icy world three times the size of Earth and bearing its own ring system, one orbiting close around the sun, and two that lay within the sun’s green belt. The inner of the two green-belt planets was a hot world similar to the one where Erebus had destroyed its rebel faction. King dropped telefactors to study this living planet, for it seemed perfect for a base, yet already King guessed this place to be empty of intelligent life.

Dense red jungle cloaked its land masses. The island that King first studied was swamped with plants very much like cycads. Below these, fast moving vines writhed when in hot sunlight but grew still in shadow. Tripedal saurians patrolled under massive red leaves as thick as mattresses, shooting out jointed tongues in quest of shivering globular prey. Those prey managing to escape ran screaming and wobbling to the safety of sunlight, where they burst in wet explosions spreading some kind of organic sludge. Reproduction probably—King did not have the time or inclination to investigate.

The seas also swarmed with life: armoured arthropods and large floating bivalves, masses of purple bladder weeds that shot out tendrils to drag in prey, a giant legless arthropod with a square mouth the size of a cruiser construction bay, ever sucking up those masses of predatory weed. But here it detected no clear evidence of any Polity technology: no wreckage, no traps. Hollow cubes found on one mountainside were certainly the product of intelligent life, but of ancient origin, and not what King sought.

The AI attack ship recalled its telefactors, returned them to their cache, then turned its attention to the other, cold, world, which also bore life. Such instances of two living worlds existing in the same planetary system, this close together in the green belt, was not exceptional. If one world produced life, it became almost a certainty, over the vast timespans involved, that vulcanism or the debris from meteor impacts would eventually hurl the spores of life over the relatively short distance to the other planet.

This place was frigid and the only liquid water existed around volcanic vents a mile underneath the ice sheet. From these hidden warm seas, wells spiralled to the surface, and by tracing a surface trail from one of these, King came upon a great furry serpent heading out from one of the landmasses towards them. On the land itself grew forests of trees resembling pines in their strategies for surviving cold, though lower in stature, with thicker denser trunks and fruits like cut diamonds. Flying mammals fed upon the latter, while the furry serpents reared up high to graze on the needles. King found no large predators, but soon discovered the reason — the parasites growing inside the many varieties of creature in the forests kept populations down by taking gradual control of their hosts and forcing them down the ice wells, where young parasites could hatch out of their drowning bodies in the warm water below. Closer scanning revealed swarms of the adult form of these things climbing continually up out of the wells. They resembled a minuscule version of the screaming wobbling thing seen on the adjacent world. Here again, deep under the ice, were some of those hollow granite cubes, but still no sign of Erebus’s presence. The AI felt both disappointment and relief as, continuing its straight-line course, it once again dropped into U-space.

* * * *

A breath of cold wafted from the neck ring of D’nissan’s hotsuit and Mika wondered if it was only that which made her shiver.

‘Who?’ She nodded to the image on the screen.

‘No “who” involved,’ the ophidapt replied. ‘We suppressed cerebral growth in the amniotic tank. Our friend there is lacking in everything but autonomic functions. He possesses less intelligence than that of your average insect, and what he possesses is only by dint of hardware implanted in his skull.’ D’nissan glanced at her. ‘And by that I mean singular insects—not hives of them.’

The shaven-headed man in the isolation chamber stood naked, and utterly still. He bore no expression and his face seemed characterless. However, this did not make Mika feel any less uneasy about what D’nissan intended doing to him.

‘Implantation was successful, then?’

‘Apparently, though we’ll see soon enough if it works.’

Directly opposite the man stood a small tripod-mounted auto-gun.

‘Test one,’ said D’nissan.

The gun fired and a pulse of ionized aluminium slammed into the man’s chest. Smoking gobbets of flesh exploded from his back, spattering the wall behind half a second before he himself hit the wall and slid down leaving a bloody trail. Mika swallowed drily, waited. After a moment the man reached out, pushed himself to his feet, and took three paces forwards. The hole in his chest, the size of a fist, still smouldered, but a ball of veined pink flesh was oozing out to fill it and extinguish the embers. The man turned slowly, presenting himself dutifully to all the scanning heads arrayed around the isolation chamber. The hole in his back was rather larger, and one shattered rib protruded. The flesh welling up there bore the appearance of brain tissue.

‘That shot would have destroyed his heart,’ Mika noted.

‘Yes. But the little doctor can grow its own replacement of any major organ destroyed. Right now it will be constructing something a little more efficient than the human heart, while dilating veins and arteries to prevent bleeding and keeping essential parts of the body oxygenated via nanotubes,’ D’nissan explained.

‘Nerve damage?’

‘The mycelium can re-route around most of it.’

‘So this is not really repair but replacement with something different?’

‘Yes, all it does is provide support to whatever remains, and even that is limited.’

‘How far?’

D’nissan nodded at the screen. ‘This is about the maximum damage it can sustain. If the victim was hit three or four times like this, his body would die and his little doctor would die along with it. Remember, that though dispersed, the mycelium is being hit as well.’ He shrugged. ‘It’s like an ordinary human body, without a little doctor mycelium—it can only survive so much.’

‘What about bones?’ Mika asked. With this constant barrage of questions she was trying to distance herself from what she had just seen, and to reacquaint herself with her customary scientific detachment.

‘They’re easy to deal with. It pulls them together and lays down calcium glue within seconds.’ He went on. ‘Essentially, anyone carrying this mycelium would need to take a number of direct substantial hits to be killed. Wounds that before would have resulted in him ending up under an autodoc will now only inconvenience him briefly.’

‘And Jain nodes?’

‘None at all. This technology is clean.’

‘Who will get this “little doctor” treatment first?’

‘Soldiers,’ replied D’nissan bluntly.

Mika gave him a fragile smile then moved away. She had stopped here, on her way to the shuttle that would ferry her over to Dragon, meaning to ask D’nissan his thoughts on augmentation, but after witnessing this test found she could not. The man was doing important work, supplying ECS with what might be a vital advantage should Jain technology once again get loose in the Polity.

‘Test two,’ announced D’nissan.

With some disquiet Mika departed.

* * * *

Tick tick tick…

The sheer immensity of the ancient shipyard could not be fathomed when viewed from space. High up in a chainglass viewing blister, Cormac stood and gazed down into one construction hold. Far below him, silver bees of robots erected partition walls, floors and ceilings in layer upon layer like the cells of a hive. Now rising a hundred yards up from the original floor, the completed accommodation below them was already being occupied. The logistics of all this were frightening: how do you feed and water so many people, and what about sanitation?

Tick tick tickity tick…

The runcibles inside the yard now all remained online, transmitting in resources from so many different locations. More than a hundred hold spaces, originally used for the construction of dreadnoughts, were being similarly converted. Millions of refugees were encamped on acres of ceramal flooring in the other holds. As things stood, the shipyard was now full, more refugees trickling in only to fill accommodation as soon as the robots built it.

Tickity tick tick t

‘You can stop that noise now or I’ll leave you behind,’ snapped Cormac.

Turning from the view, he eyed Arach as the spider-drone drew its foreleg back from where it had been tapping the sharp point against the chainglass. Grimacing, Cormac turned away, again considering how the last few days with Mika had affected him. Only a few hours ago he had been reluctant to leave Jerusalem. A doorway into possibility had opened and he began thinking of things that before he always pushed to the back of his mind: the possibility of a settled relationship with someone, his family, his own purpose, and whether it might be time for a change in direction.

As an agent, Earth Central Security allowed him a wide remit with parameters only loosely defined. It also granted him certain powers to carry out those tasks assigned to him via Horace Blegg. He could quit at any time. Only his sense of duty prevented that. However good at what he did, he was realistic enough not to consider himself indispensable. Perhaps the time had even come for him to hand over the reins? Thus he was beginning to think until his recent exchange with Jerusalem.

‘Are you ready to leave?’ the AI had asked him.

‘Frankly, I’m not sure I am,’ he replied.

‘That is your decision to make. If you do not feel capable of continuing your present assignment, something else can be found for you, or you may depart. Meanwhile, I have some gifts for you.’

The first gift arrived in his gridlink: a memory package he immediately stored.

‘And this is?’

‘The rest of your mind: true memories of what happened to you aboard the Ogygian. It will install to your mind the moment you open it. I calculate that you are nearly ready for it, the final part of that calculation being your own decision to open it.’

‘I see.’

The second gift arrived later in his quarters, delivered by a crab drone. It dropped the wrist holster on his sofa before departing.

‘How?’ he had asked.

Jerusalem replied, ‘A member of a clear-up team picked it up when they went to collect the remains of Gant. I used a nano-counteragent to remove the mycelium Skellor installed in it and wiped out his reprogramming of it. I also repaired the damage you caused by shooting it down… you do realize how it fought against Skellor’s programming by allowing you to shoot it?’

Cormac had removed Shuriken from its holster and held it out on the flat of his palm. It flexed out its chainglass blades, as if stirring in sleep, then retracted them. He remembered Cull, his long-drawn-out fight for survival there against Skellor, who took control of this semi-AI weapon away from him, and then sent it against him, and how at the last, as he targeted it, it had turned upright in the air to present its face to him full on.

‘Yes, I know.’

He slid Shuriken back in the holster, then strapped the holster to his wrist. It occurred to him to speculate on how subtly manipulative AIs could be. This gesture, now, in his moment of indecision? In the end, he could not step down with the Polity so obviously threatened. He could not live a normal existence with any feeling of equanimity, knowing what was occurring. Family? He protected them through his career just as he protected any other law-abiding Polity citizens. Mika? To remain with her here would be to remain at the centre of events, but ineffective.

Subsequently stepping from his cabin, he found Arach eagerly awaiting him, unable to keep its spindly legs still.

‘Are we on our way?’ the drone had asked.

‘Yes, we’re on our way.’

Now, aboard the ancient shipyard, Cormac began to make his way towards the runcible open to Coloron, Arach dogging his footsteps.

He found crowds crammed into a vast zero-g distribution centre, at the end of which stood a cargo runcible. The horns of this device encompassed a circular Skaidon warp ten yards across. Guide ropes cut in from all sides, tied off on a massive robotic handler crouched before the runcible itself. The base of this multiarmed behemoth ran on tracks extending the entire length of the distribution centre. Through here, warship building materials had once been transported. The handler then passed these off to other minor handlers in the tunnels branching off all around, which in turn took them to various machine shops or directly to the construction holds. This had not been a place for humans since everything moved here at AI speeds, and any human would have been ground up in the gearing. Now the handlers were still, the centre pressurized, and ECS personnel flocked in the air like khaki birds.

For anyone unused to moving in zero-g, the scene ahead appeared chaotic and confusing. It looked that way because those here felt no need to arrange themselves with any regard to up and down. Cormac launched himself from the tunnel they had traversed, occasionally catching a rope to guide himself towards the handler robot. In this environment, with these ropes strung in every direction, he noted how Arach seemed perfectly in his element. As Cormac drew closer, he saw ranks of ECS soldiers heading through the runcible ahead of him. Behind them came a row of five AG tanks and, spiralling up from the base of the handler robot, followed other military supplies. He noted that most of those waiting around him were ECS Rescue or Medical personnel—perhaps waiting for their fellows ahead of them to provide their bloody work.

‘Lot of hardware,’ Arach observed with relish.

‘Oh yes.’

Reaching the handler, Cormac noticed a haiman directing operations. The man sat ensconced in one of the handler’s huge claws, occasionally making a hand gesture, but most of his directions were being relayed over informational channels. Cormac queried him on that level, and received a priority slot just after the tanks. The haiman saluted, with a finger to his temple, before turning his attention elsewhere.

When the last tank slid through the Skaidon warp, as through the meniscus of a bubble, Cormac remembered that on jumps he made prior to events on the Ogygian, he had actually begun to experience U-space, which was something previously unheard of. He pushed off from the handler, orientating himself carefully to the plane of arrival at the receiving runcible. Arach shot ahead of him, impelled by air jets, and entered the meniscus first. As Cormac floated after, he felt the stirring of concealed memory—of that other gift from Jerusalem.

Now? Release it now?

No, some other time.

He fell, after Arach, through the Skaidon warp to Coloron.


I’ve stated before that I really would like to believe in him, simply because of his name. Surely if you are going to create a fictional hero, nay even demigod, you are going to come up with a more resounding name than ‘Horace Blegg’? Upon that basis I spent many weeks tracking stories through the nets, checking facts, trying to contact those involved. Time after time the main protagonists I did manage to contact remained either close-mouthed or denied any knowledge of the man. Mostly, I only managed to contact those who knew someone who knew someone who… and after tracing down many of those to dead ends, I gave up. Trying to find images of the man has been equally frustrating. There are many available, but often they plainly display different people. Through every line of research I encountered convoluted wild goose chases, breaks and missing information. One would suppose that all I really found was proof of his non-existence. I don’t think so. I believe AIs used search and destroy programmes to wipe out much information pertaining to him. I believe they meddled with reality again. I believe in Horace Blegg.

— From ‘How it Is’ by Gordon

Unless an emergency arose, Blegg usually confined his jumps through U-space to the surface of planets. Translating himself through U-space between planets in a system, or between ships, could be hugely tiring. And ships or runcibles were nearly always available, so why waste energy better applied elsewhere? In this case, however, he became impatient. The Hourne lay ten hours’ journey time from Masada, and Blegg felt no real need to remain aboard to see the Atheter artefact down on that world. Also, the runcibles aboard the Hourne had been shut down, since calculating the U-space position of a runcible located on a moon, planet or large station was difficult enough, but doing so for a ship manoeuvring insystem became near impossible. Blegg decided he must leave in his own inimitable fashion. He gazed down from a viewing blister aboard the great ship towards the moonlet called Flint, on which one of the runcibles in this system was sited. He looked into U-space, located both himself and the moonbase nestled amid the ruins of the shipyard, destroyed by Skellor with the Occam Razor’s weapons, and stepped across.

Earth Central immediately began to speak in his head as he found himself walking across the floor of a geodesic dome enclosing the runcible.

‘I have provided a small ship for you at Ruby Eye—it is capable of entering U-space unshielded. U-tech mapping and detection equipment have been installed and programmed to the U-space signature provided by Atheter. The USERs have now been shut down in that area, so you can travel at will there.’

Out loud Blegg replied, ‘I’ll test the signature—I think I know precisely the place.’ The scanners available to the Polity limited the detection range, with resolution increasing as he moved closer to the source. Light years away, Blegg would know the system in which a Jain node was located; at a light hour away he would know on which planet; at a couple of yards he would know which pocket it was in.

Someone striding along, followed by two hover trunks, gave Blegg a momentary glance—but in these days, when so many employed cerebral hardware, it was not unusual to see people apparently talking to themselves.

‘This place you know precisely—a certain brown dwarf perhaps?’ EC suggested.

‘You read my mind.’

He strode up to the runcible dais, ahead of a woman checking her journey slot on a column-mounted console, received a startled then accusatory look from her as he stepped to the warp and through it. He did not need to check that the runcible had reset to his destination—it always did. At Ruby Eye, a station orbiting a red dwarf sun, he snatched direct from the controlling AI’s mind the location of his own ship, then from the runcible lounge stepped a short distance through U-space, and directly aboard.

‘Permission to launch,’ he asked over com, once ensconced in the pilot’s seat.

‘Granted,’ replied Ruby Eye. ‘That was rather quick and, I might add, rather rude.’

‘No time for civilities,’ Blegg replied as the airlock tube retracted and clamps released his ship from the docking tower. He then paused and peered down at himself. When did he change into this envirosuit? For a moment the memory completely evaded him, then it was there. Of course, he had changed aboard the Hourne before to going into VR. He shook his head and smiled to himself, realizing that Cormac’s assertion that Blegg was an avatar of Earth Central had actually been preying on his mind. Existential angst — he really did not need that right now.

Falling away from the station spin in space seemingly fogged red by the light of the nearby dwarf sun, he turned the ship and engaged its fusion drive. One of many subscreens, set into the chainglass along the bottom of the main cockpit screen, showed numerous radar returns as the ship negotiated through a swarm of other vessels. Some of these were clearly evident on one subscreen showing a gravity map of the area. Glimpsing up, he observed such a vessel close to: something like a sharp-nosed monorail carriage towing, on braided monofilament cables, an object like an ancient sea mine. A USER—an underspace interference emitter—one of the devices previously used to confine Skellor to this sector of space while Cormac hunted him down.

Once clear of the crowd, Blegg input coordinates. The ship’s computer could not handle the AI level calculations required to drop it into U-space. Blegg linked to it and did what he always did when himself entering that continuum, but with his ability complemented by the ship’s underspace engine, and he and the ship dropped into endless grey. He gazed at this underlying reality. Receding behind him—though, in truth, words like behind did not apply to his perception of this place—was the eversion generated by the red dwarf, gravity seen from the other side. And scattered nearby this was an even pattern of smaller eversions, curved like fossil worms: these generated by the singularities carried inside the USERs—hence their presence on the gravity map.

Mentally, Blegg cancelled the resurfacing sequence which, without him, the ship would not be able to handle anyway. A sub-screen displayed a warning, but he ignored it and set an alarm to sound once the ship reached its destination in U-space. Then, departing the cockpit, he went to see what facilities the ship itself contained. He found food, then a bed. The ship travelled to U-space coordinates as much here as there, now as then. Blegg rested, travelled no distance, and all, slept.

Time passed in realspace and it also passed in this small piece of realspace submerged by U-fields. But they were separate times, and how they might meet up became merely an energy negotiation. Blegg’s ship took the course of least energy, least resistance. It was possible to go to another time from here, but the consequences could be catastrophic, as the time-inconsistent runcible link between Celedon and the Small Magellanic Cloud demonstrated.

A constant beeping dragged Blegg from slumber, and returned him to the cockpit. Two eversions pushed into the range of his perception, one that of a g-type star, and the other the brown dwarf orbiting it.

With care he eased the ship in towards the brown dwarf—as close as it could come without the gravity well forcing it out of U-space in a brief explosion of plasma. Blegg turned his attention to the console, but found the weirdness of perception too distracting. He initiated the hardfields that would cut that out. Immediately the inside of the ship returned to relative normality: a touch-console no longer looked like a three-dimensional kaleidoscope, and his fingers no longer appeared to be infinite tubes. He set the ship’s instruments to scanning for the U-space signature and the response was immediate: three definite matches and four maybes, but to be expected considering the Jain nodes growing inside Skellor were as crushed into the surface of the brown dwarf as he.

He turned the hardfields off again.

Back on the underside of reality, he gazed at the star, both distant and close. Scale and distance were merely rules his own mind applied here, and he could ignore them. Thus he did, and gazed upon the underside of seven Jain nodes leaving prickly thornish impressions in this continuum: organization, pattern, standing out from the underlying chaos of reality; of space knotted and wadded into this thing called matter. Blegg turned away, then quickly back when a subscreen blinked on to show text: ‘ U-signature detected—disperse signal’’. It took him some time to track it down, for it lay nearly two light years away, though close in interstellar terms. Without surfacing from U-space, he reset his ship’s course.

— retroact 6 -

‘… bright enough to realize the AI rulers were better at governing than any previous human rulers’

He turned to another card, saw them laid out all around him like gravestones.

The autolaser stuttered and crackled, knocking most of the deadly swarm from the air, but it did not manage to hit them all. Corporal Chang made a horrible grunting sound—the impact flinging him up from cover, then the projectile detonating inside him. It blew his guts out and he spun to the ground with only a length of bloody spine attaching his ribcage to his pelvis.

The three remaining members of the unit fired on the nearby slopes with their own seeker guns, then crouched back behind their boulders on the mountain slope. A waste of ammo. The sniper might not even be over that way. It seemed almost as if he knew of Blegg and his abilities, for he had changed over from laser to seeker bullets so there was no way to locate him. But he knew where they were.

‘This guy is not going to be captured alive,’ said Pierce.

Of the recording of events here, Pierce could claim he only stated what he thought were the sniper’s intentions. Reading the man’s expression, Blegg understood the statement to be a promise of intent.

‘Do you still have no idea where this fucker is?’ Blegg asked through his comlink.

‘Only within an area of three square miles, with you at the centre of it,’ Earth Central replied.

‘I thought the cameras on your satellites capable of resolving the date on a coin dropped on the ground?’

‘They do possess that resolution—when there is no cloud cover. It has also become evident this individual obtained, as well as the original tank, a multipurpose assault rifle, development sets of the new chameleon-cloth fatigues and electronic concealment hardware.’

Blegg eyed his companions, ‘Which ECS soldiers have yet to be issued with?’

‘The same.’

Blegg nodded to himself. The man seemed a lone criminal but a very clever one. He had managed to steal a tank which he used to smash into an etched-sapphire repository. Fleeing with millions in that form, he evaded the police cordon. His laundering of the sapphires through various criminal organizations had resulted in the capture of many, but never him. Five years of chasing rumours and fragmentary information finally led to a house, here in the Scottish Highlands. The ECS arrest team botched it—and died. EC shut down transport out of the area and now many four-person teams of highly trained personnel were scouring these mountains. Blegg had joined them—perhaps that had not been his greatest idea. He could transport himself away, but that seemed so unfair on the others here.

‘I have analysed recorded imagery. He is over to your left about two hundred yards away. Get out of there now. Satellite strike will be initiated in two minutes.’

Get out?

It seemed EC had not precisely pinpointed the man’s location, else there would be no need to run. It also seemed the AI decided whatever information could be extracted from the man no longer warranted the loss of any more lives. It was about to burn the area.

‘Leave the autolaser—it should cover us. We go now!’

Blegg leapt up and led the way from cover. A horrible whining made his back crawl—more seeker bullets. Staying low, they ran just as hard and fast as they could. Snap-crack of a laser, either from the auto or the sniper. Something slammed into Blegg’s back, lifted him from the ground and hurled him face-down in the dirt. His head must have hit a rock, for he lost consciousness.

Later, Blegg learnt that it was the shock wave from the strike that threw him down. Nothing remained of the sniper, though analysis of DNA from his home identified him as a mercenary once employed by the now strictly controlled corporations. No one particularly special. Blegg did not like to contemplate how close he had come to dying, then.

— retroact ends -

There was no escape from this situation, and no escape from the realization that he would soon die. With a normally human mind, Thellant might have been able to convince himself otherwise. The best he could hope for now was a quick death. But that knowledge did not allay the frustration, anger and a desperate need to escape.

‘Who is this?’ he asked, while spreading Jain tendrils deep into the systems of the ship, tracking optics and s-con cables, sequestering interfaces, reading stored data, initiating ship’s diagnostics, and his own.

A male voice replied, ‘Well, the one who said “Gotcha!” was Jack—the AI which runs the Centurion-class ship NEJ. My name is Thorn.’

‘ECS?’ Accessing a monitoring system Thellant gazed into the area intervening between the four spheres of his stolen ship and there saw wreckage, and metal hardened into splash patterns. The fusion drive had operated through here to a drive-plate mounted underneath, the U-space engine encased above it. Now there was just a hole there.

‘Oh yes.’

‘Do you realize I have fifteen hostages aboard this ship?’ Thellant connected into the cold coffins, just to assure himself this remained true. Nine men and six women, all of them suffering from head injuries beyond the compass of simple autodocs. These were the kind of injuries that required AI intervention, for not only their brains needed reconstructing, but their minds as well.

‘Thellant N’komo, you’ve got tech inside you capable of trashing planets. Over a hundred and fifty thousand people are already dead because of you, and many more will die. And if the Jain tech in MA gets out the planet below might well end up as the target for a few crust crackers. Get real.’

‘Why am I still alive, then?’ Thellant now concentrated his perception outside the Rescue ship via external cameras, the cockpit screen before him, and via Jain tendrils containing optics infiltrated through the ship’s hull. Many ships hovered above him — cargo carriers, passenger liners, Rescue ships—and one large ugly dreadnought was rising over the horizon even now. The last vessel was probably capable of denuding a planet of life, and that might well be its intended purpose. The Centurion-class ship held station down below him, probably because its AI knew that there lay his only possible escape route, no matter how minimal his chances if he attempted it. He studied the vessel carefully, recognizing it to be state of the art. There was just no way out.

‘Because I want you to answer a few questions.’

‘Go fuck yourself.’ Thellant closed his eyes, and for a moment closed out all perception. He understood that his need to escape was not entirely his own, it being imbedded in and integral to the technology occupying his body, and now this ship, too. It contained no sentience, just an animalistic desperation of the gnawing off a leg in a trap kind.

‘It won’t be me I’ll be fucking, Thellant.’

‘Exactly. So why should I answer questions? We both know that I am not going to get out of this alive. I answer your questions, then you fry me.’

‘Well, we could fry you—a microwave beam should do the job—or we could use what’s called a CTD imploder. You probably haven’t heard of that—collapsing gravity field into an antimatter explosion. Not a great deal left afterwards.’

Thellant opened his eyes. What was this guy about? Was this supposed to persuade him to cooperate?

The man called Thorn went on, ‘Of course we could drop you on some remote world where you could live happily ever after.’

‘Is this what passes for humour in ECS nowadays?’ Even knowing the other man must be lying to him, Thellant experienced an emotional response to the offer that felt almost out of his control. He knew then, in that same instant, that the Jain technology possessed its own agenda, and only allowed him to control it.

‘There’s my quandary,’ said Thorn. ‘I have to try and persuade you that we really are prepared to grant you that indulgence, if you provide the information we require.’

‘And what might that information be?’

‘I want you to tell me exactly how you acquired that Jain node, and I also want you to tell me about the Legate.’

Thellant felt a flush of anger at the mere mention of that name. The cruelty, as he saw it, lay in giving him such power in such intractable circumstances. It had been like gluing a gun into the hand of a hostage who is surrounded by terrorists wielding laser carbines. The result possessed a degree of inevitability. Despite the fact that he seemed certain to die, perhaps he should answer those questions. Maybe that would result in the Polity coming down as hard on that bastard Legate as it seemed certain to do on himself.

‘Tell me about this remote world where I can live happily ever after.’

‘Oh, I can tell you all about that. Obviously Jain technology is of overwhelming interest to researchers human, haiman and AI, and apparently there has been a world specially prepared for just this sort of eventuality. It’s orbited by all sorts of scanning satellites, and has twenty gigatonne-level CTDs sunk into its crust. Basically you get to do what you like for as long as you like down there. However, the moment you try to leave that planet, you leave this life.’

‘That almost sounds plausible,’ said Thellant. And it did, since he could almost believe the Polity might value him highly as a scientific resource, despite the mass slaughter he had caused. ‘Take me to this place first and then I’ll answer your questions.’

‘I think you can probably guess my response to that,’ said Thorn, ‘but I’ll say it anyway. You answer the questions first, you tell me all you know, then you get transported to that world. I could take you there first, but you would be no safer there than you are here.’

‘But I would at least know if you had lied about it,’ Thellant replied.

‘No, you would not. Just consider what is happening here. The Polity is evacuating a billion people from an arcology, so think of the resources and organization that requires. A world as I just described could easily be made ready in the time it took us to transport you there.’

‘Very well.’ Thellant paused for a moment and thought now might be the time to give something. ‘The Legate gave me the Jain node.’

‘Please continue,’ said Thorn after Thellant did not continue.

‘I can transmit you complete memcordings of all my dealings with the Legate.’ Almost without thinking, he began compiling those memories and layering them with every informational weapon he could find within the Jain tech, or could think to create. He considered it a vain hope that the ship’s AI would accept this package, obviously the technology occupying his own body felt otherwise.

‘We’ll establish a tight-beam link with you, and then you may transmit the memcordings across,’ replied Thorn.

* * * *

Glowing craters pocked the Jain-occupied section of the arcology, amidst which immense fires now raged. The firebreak slowed the substructure’s advance, as did the destruction of Runcibles 5 and 6, but it was those other strikes delivered by Brutal Blade that finally halted it. It then attempted to build up more stashes of resources and energy but, as the HK program relayed their positions, the dreadnought destroyed them too. For two days, the Jain advance stalled, then the HK program went offline, and a microsecond later a viral attack came through the link, and Coloron shut it down. On the third day the Jain advance began again, slower than before, more tentative. However, these events produced other encouraging results.

Over the two days, Coloron diverted the multitude gathering around Runcible 4 to other runcibles further inside the arcology, and diverted the exodus through 3 to the exits positioned in the south-west corner. Those around 7, it began moving elsewhere. All of those runcibles would be next to go. ECS forces, having arrived in strength, now used transports to evacuate many citizens directly through the arcology roof. Along with those forces arrived thousands of drones equipped to scan for Jain tech, and this made it possible to move thousands of people way beyond the quarantine perimeter, which meant a reduction in the population density directly outside, so those inside could evacuate quicker. And they were certainly getting out quicker: the knowledge that a large portion of the arcology had been reduced to radioactive rubble encouraged them to abandon their precious belongings and run. However, though the substructure’s advance might be more tentative now, it was still inexorable, and after 3, 4 and 7 it would next reach Runcible 8—and Coloron itself.

The AI turned its attention to the armoured chamber that contained it. Its brain rested between the interfaces of a thick optical control pillar: a pillow-sized lump of yellow crystal wrapped in a black s-con cagework. For the first time in many years Coloron undogged the locks to the heavy chamber door and opened it. Through the door marched an object like a headless iron ostrich, but standing three yards tall with two arms slung underneath its hollow body. From the hollow, a thick lid lay hinged back bearing emitter dishes, a com laser, and a powerful U-space transceiver. It came to a halt before Coloron.

The AI now focused back on the runcibles in greatest danger. The flow of humanity heading away from them remained uninterrupted. Surprisingly, the crowds around Runcible 3 had nearly cleared, while those leaving the south-west exits just kept on moving, knowing the imminent explosion might reach them there. For the moment, nothing required Coloron’s personal attention, so the AI disconnected.

Sight through thousands of cameras—assigned on the whole to simple recognition programs so the AI could respond to the circumstances they recognized—blinked out. Soft links to sub-minds controlling many aspects of the arcology collapsed. Coloron lost its links to autofactories; to maintenance, surveillance, military and agricultural drones; hospitals and the many varieties of autodocs they contained; servers and other com networks; mining operations; fusion reactors; recycling plants; and to satellites including the particle cannon. Coloron disconnected from its body—the arcology entire.

From vast perception the AI collapsed down to single tunnel vision seen from the crystal it occupied. It observed the robot carrying on through with its program, reaching down and closing three-fingers hands around Coloron’s braincase. Movement then, only visually perceived. The robot held Coloron poised for a moment over the hollow in its body, then lowered the AI down into darkness. The lid slammed shut and a seeming age of sensory deprivation followed. Then connections began to re-establish, and finally Coloron gazed through the sensorium of its new home at the optic interface pillar closing up. It now U-space-linked itself to those of its subminds possessing such facility, and electro-magnetically linked elsewhere, as the arcology’s structure permitted. The losses in not being optically linked amounted to about a third, however the advantage was quite evident: Coloron now need not die along with its arcology.

* * * *

The barren sandy plateau, scattered with monolithic boulders, lay far from any human habitation on the planet Cull. A mile up, his ship hovering on AG, Blegg focused scanning gear on the location of the Jain node. Eight thousand miles above him, a dreadnought waited with a five megatonne CTD imploder ready to be fired. Why it had not yet been fired was problematic, Earth Central’s instructions to him simply being: ‘Go down there, and see. You can transport yourself out should there be any danger.’

Strange oblate objects were scattered about the base of one slanting sandstone monolith. The movement he could see down there did not look human. Blegg increased magnification and, on one of the subscreens, saw circular entrances into these objects. Something came out of one of them and clambered on top of what must be its dwelling; for scan now revealed these objects to be hollow, and that many contained living creatures. He recognized the scorpion shape of one of the native life forms: a sleer. He focused in, and the creature turned its nightmare head up towards him. It bore a human face.


While it was here on this world, Dragon had conducted experiments that were morally indefensible at best, and obscene in the extreme. The entity had crossed human DNA with the genome of native insectile creatures to result in by-blows like this. Why do so? Dragon had partially answered this question during Cormac’s interviewing of it, but not really to anyone’s satisfaction. In truth, Blegg felt, Dragon did such things because it could not resist tampering and tinkering, because it liked to upset natural orders and humanity alike, and in the end simply because it could.

Drawing closer to this strange settlement, Blegg brought his ship down. It landed in a cloud of dust just on the outskirts. Blegg abandoned his seat, collected a pulse-rifle and a hand-held scanner now formatted to detecting the U-space signature of a Jain node. As an afterthought, he collected a couple of planar grenades before heading for the airlock.

Dust hazing everything, its taste metallic; a sharp smell as well—something acidic. His foot crunched on shale as he stepped from the extended steps. A few paces from his ship he turned and studied the craft for the first time from the outside. It bore that standard flat-bottomed shape of a general-purpose shuttle, but also sported four nacelles mounted on stubby wings—two positioned behind the nose and two at the rear. It stood on three legs, each possessing three-toed sprung feet. Blegg wondered why someone had chosen to colour it a bright inferno red. With a snort he turned back towards the hybrids’ village.

Blegg began walking, seeing increasing activity ahead. The first of them then came scuttling out to his right: two centaur-like creatures he had already viewed images of when going through the reports of what happened on this world. The larger of these possessed a six-foot-long sleer body, out of which grew the upper half of a bearded man. Making direct mental contact via the ship to the AI nets, he commented, ‘One of those two looks quite young. Could this mean they are breeding?’

‘Dragon would not create them sterile—such precautions are not in its nature,’ came the reply.

Blegg was unsurprised at how quickly the U-space comlink established.

‘Okay, Hal, what game are we playing here?’

EC replied, ‘Just retrieving something Skellor dropped. Dragon is reluctant to part with those nodes it possesses. It seems it does not trust us with them. But we have received a communication from one it did trust.’

‘One of these creatures? Are they like the dracomen, immune to Jain tech?’ He glanced about himself. The two centaur creatures drew closer and scuttled back and forth in agitation. To his left, three humanoid figures appeared out of the roiling dust, which Blegg realized was now thickening. These… people snicked at the air with the pincers protruding from their mouths. Ahead something scuttled past: a sleer body, a human face seemingly frozen in a permanent scream.

‘You will see,’ said the Earth Central AI.

Now the looming presence of the oblate dwellings all around him. He tracked one of the screamers with the barrel of his pulse-rifle as it came close, then swerved away to clamber up onto one of the dwellings. He now turned his attention to his node detector. The readings looked strange for a moment, until he tilted it upwards. The monolith—the Jain node was up there. Blegg considered transporting himself directly to the node’s location, but rejected that idea. He did not know why, and did not concern himself further with the thought.

Eventually a wall of slanting multicoloured layers loomed before him. Things scrabbled and hissed in the wind-gnawed hollows about the monolith’s base. Blegg turned to his left and began to walk round. All about him shadowy shapes loomed and retreated in the haze. Eventually he came to a point where they all seemed to be closing in. Here, carved into the stone, were foot- and hand-holds. He pocketed the detector, slung his pulse-rifle from his shoulder by its strap, and climbed.

Earth Central commented, ‘There comes a time when useful fictions become weaknesses to be exploited.’

‘Meaning?’ asked Blegg. Sleer hybrids clung either side of him to the sandstone face: the screamers.

‘Yes… meaning.’

‘Is it my imagination,’ asked Blegg, ‘or do you sound more and more like Dragon every day?’

On a ledge here, Blegg rested and eyed his companions on the rockface. The air carried less dust this high, so he could see them more clearly, which was not exactly reassuring. He checked the detector and saw that the Jain node lay only twenty yards away, in a straight line running up through and above the monolith. Not so far to climb, so he grimaced and continued, eventually coming up over the edge onto the top.

‘Ah… I see.’

Blegg unslung his pulse-rifle and casually aimed it, not that a weapon like that would do any good. He considered the grenades he carried and rejected the idea, too. Anyway, he could step away through U-space any time he chose.

Only a few yards away from him, the figure stood eight feet tall. It wore a wide-brimmed hat held in place against the wind by one heavy brass hand. Its coat was ragged, and it wore lace-up boots.

Mr Crane.

Perfectly complementing this menacing tableau, a vulture suddenly landed in a cloud of dust and a scattering of oily feathers. Blegg remembered this bird to be another Dragon creation; the mind it contained being the AI from the Vulture—the ship Skellor stole and which the AI had forced to crash here before transmitting itself to Dragon.

‘So, who’s been talking to Earth Central?’ Blegg asked out loud.

The vulture cocked its head and replied, ‘Me, of course.’ It extended a wing towards the big brass Golem. ‘He don’t say much.’

Mr Crane tilted his hat back on the brass dome of his skull, groped in one pocket, then took out a handful of various objects. He stirred them with one finger. Blegg noticed a piece of crystal disturbingly like that of the Atheter artefact, a blue acorn, a small rubber dog, and a golden ovoid. The brass Golem selected the ovoid from among them and held it up before his face like a jeweller inspecting a suspect gem, then, with a flick of his hand, tossed it to Blegg.

Too dangerous to touch, but Blegg snapped out a hand and snatched the object from the air. I’m dead, he thought, as he held up his hand and opened it. The Jain node rested in his palm, cubic patterns shifting on its surface.

‘You understand?’ Earth Central asked.

I’m damned.

The Jain node did not react at all.

* * * *

Jack routed the package from Thellant into secure storage in a virtuality, where it howled like a pack of wolves confined behind a thin door. Aphran held back for a moment. Having witnessed the initial non-reactive scan of this package, she knew it to be layered with Jain tech subversion and sequestering routines, as was expected. However, though Jack perpetually delegated tasks to her, in this one there seemed some hidden purpose—she was too closely entwined with the AI to not realize that. She now extended the boundaries of the virtuality and projected herself inside it. For ease of handling she gave the memory package a form easy to comprehend on a VR level, while on an informational level her programs could take it apart. Swirling chaos eventually collapsed down to a stack of books in which squirmed venomous reptiles and insects—she needed to read these books yet avoid being stung or bitten. Beside her, a thin man appeared. He wore a pinstripe suit, bowler hat, and the glitter of thick spectacles concealed his eyes. Jack Ketch, the hangman.

‘No reservations?’ Jack asked, just like with Freyda, the Separatist.

‘I have some,’ said Aphran. ‘I’ve been working for the Polity under a sentence of erasure, which I know will never be repealed. Why should I continue?’

‘Because as long as you work, that sentence will not be executed.’

‘And because you may be damaged in the process.’

Jack leant forwards. ‘You think?’

‘Yes, though you have been gradually disentangling yourself and I suspect that, while I deal with this’—she gestured to the VR representation—‘you will pull away even more.’

‘Yes,’ Jack replied, ‘the processing power you will require in this task will further weaken your hold on me. I may even be able to separate from you completely.’

‘Does it mean nothing to you that I saved your life?’

‘My life is very important to me—which is precisely the point: my life.’

‘So you are going to erase me, just like you did Freyda.’

‘You believe that?’

‘I do.’

‘Then do not carry out this task.’

Aphran looked upon the perilous stack of books. She seemed damned either way: doing this, she could be separated from Jack and wiped out; if she did not do this, it would just take longer.

‘Very well, let it be over.’ She turned from him to her chore, feeling him fade and distance himself from her.

Aphran picked up one book. Some centipedal monstrosity immediately wound itself around her arm and opened its pincers. She caught its head in her fist and crushed it, then opened the book. This one detailed Thellant losing two Separatist cells, one after the other, and fearing a trail would lead back to him, then subsequently learning that his contacts in those cells were all assassinated on their way to interrogation. He suspected ECS, but it seemed a crazy move to kill those who could lead them to other cells. Next, the Legate waiting in Thellant’s apartment, to claim credit for the killings and to make an offer. The centipede broke up into segments, each of which transformed into a scorpion. She knocked some of these away but others stung her. Worms propagated through her. She fought them, pulled more of herself into the virtuality, doubled and redoubled. Four Aphrans picked up books, and fought the killer programs—more of herself in, redoubling. Some versions of herself coming apart, others intercepting vital information from them. All the while, behind her, like strings being cut, she could feel Jack separating himself. Nothing she could do about that now, for she could not turn away from this task until it was done.

In the virtuality a virtual age passed, though only minutes in real time. Virtual pain hurt just as much as the real thing as the Jain tech programs ripped into her, but this Aphran was a product of that same technology. She reconfigured herself, sent in her own programs like informational DDT, stamped and splattered her attackers, cut off self-propagating worms at their source, confined nasty HK programs in briefly generated virtual spaces and then collapsed them to zero. She saw how Thellant’s organization expanded as a direct result of the Legate’s assistance, saw him grow rich and dependent. Numerous meetings between the two of them revealed snippets of information she put together. The Legate was just that: a legate working on behalf of someone or something else. It showed technical abilities beyond that of normal Golem—seeming suspiciously like the product of Jain technology. Eventually she gathered it all: everything about Thellant and the Legate. And she now knew how the Legate might be found.

Re-absorbing her alternative selves, Aphran became one again in the virtuality, a neat stack of books before her and shattered chitin spread all around, vaporizing and turning to dust.

‘Give it to me,’ said Jack.

She stood alone, with just one channel open to Jack—her only link outside the virtuality. He had broken away totally and now she could be safely erased. She considered destroying everything she had obtained, or holding onto it and bleeding over small amounts just to extend her existence. But in the end she truly regretted all the things she had done as a Separatist. The arrogance and stupidity of her earlier self appalled and disgusted her.


Aphran transmitted all the data, and Jack accepted it.

‘Do I die now?’ she asked.

‘Yes—in every way that matters to the Polity.’

Aphran felt herself contracting, going out, draining away.

* * * *

No returns from the package he had sent. Thellant realized they must have opened it in some secure fashion to obtain what they wanted. With his being now utterly interlaced through the rescue ship, physically and informationally, he hardly felt his own body. Perpetually he tried to reach out to other vessels, probing for some lever, some way…

‘Thellant N’komo,’ said a voice.

‘You’re the ship AI—Jack Ketch. I know what the name means.’

‘Yes, I imagine you do. But I am not so merciless as that name implies. This is why I am going to offer you a choice.’

‘Oh,’ said Thellant sarcastically, ‘so I don’t get to live happily ever after on my very own little world.’

‘That is your first choice. There are those who would indeed like to isolate you upon such a world. Thorn did not lie when he told you such a place has already been prepared. The trouble is you would not live happily ever after. Over a period of years you would spread around the planet, using its resources to create grand Jain structures, but since the purpose of the technology you now ostensibly control is the destruction of civilizations, and none would be available to you there, you would eventually go to seed.’


‘The Legate has told you something of the biophysicist Skellor?’

‘He did.’

‘Though they might believe themselves to be in control of that technology, technical beings are merely its vehicles, merely a means of spreading it. In Skellor it formed nodes within him, seeds. It will do the same in you.’

Thellant already sensed that the technology remained his to command only while their two purposes concurred. The idea of it seeding from him contained more horror for him than could be supposed by others unoccupied by the Jain tech. He knew he would remain aware throughout the procedure, fighting to survive and to hold his consciousness together, but knowing his efforts to be futile. With his sudden tired acceptance of these facts, he felt things hardening inside him, imminent as razors threading through his flesh. Their purposes would utterly diverge should he choose what he already knew to be Jack Ketch’s other option: death. He poised himself on the brink of decision. Should he choose to die, the Jain tech would try to take over, since it put its own survival first, always.

‘Should it last for two seconds, I will take your silence as the latter choice,’ Jack told him.

Thellant clamped down on the structure that spread throughout the ship, felt it writhe and fight him. A spastic vibration threw him about in the flight chair, but stubbornly he kept his mouth clamped shut. He felt the structure within him creating a reply, drafting its acceptance of planetary exile. He glimpsed an image of himself as a soft flesh puppet, translucent and threaded upon black dense technology like a many-clawed gaff.

Not speaking.

Two seconds of eternity, then a shiny nose cone closing down on him like a steel eye. The Jain structure shrieked and thrashed, and the imploder struck. Super gravity drew ship and all down into white antimatter fire.

Thellant went out.

* * * *

Human swarm crowded and stumbled in from the distance. Scattered evenly across the sky, apparently as far as the arcology edge, hung spherical scanning drones eight feet across, with high-intensity lasers mounted on either side of them. Their targets, Jain-infected humans, might be moving shoulder to shoulder with innocent civilians, and needed to be rendered down to ash. Coloron had calculated eight innocent deaths for every one infected with Jain tech. Cormac thought it ironically appropriate that these drones bore some similarity to Prador War drones. Thus far, fifteen targets had been destroyed, having evaded Coloron’s forces inside the arcology. None of them managed to join the main crowds, and so no collateral damage yet. Was that down to the efficiency of the Polity defence, or just dumb luck?

A line of AG tanks curved from horizon to horizon. Behind it, and above, massed other Polity forces: mobile quadruped rail-guns stamping about impatiently on steel legs, the ends of their huge cylindrical magazines, attached either side of their main bodies, looking like blank eyes; troop transports and swarms of armoured troops, some hovering in AG harnesses, some on platforms mounting particle cannons; atmosphere jets speeding in squadrons overhead, avoiding two massive atmosphere gunships hanging in the sky like city blocks turned sideways; a multitude of drones of all kinds swarming all about like steel insects. This then was the might of the Polity mobilized for ground warfare. Cormac considered it an impressive and sobering sight, but knew the forces assembled here to be only a fraction of a per cent of the whole.

Breaks through the ground line were fenced on either side, the intervening channels leading back to where ECS Rescue and Medical personnel awaited. More of these were arriving from the initial landings beside the arcology. The air ambulances and ships these personnel occupied were also obliged to pass underneath the scanning drones, no exceptions.

‘Would you like to be down there?’ Cormac asked.

Arach, who had been peering for some time over the side of the stripped-down gravcar Cormac guided, turned his nightmare head, opened and closed his pincers, his two large red eyes and other smaller ones gleaming. ‘I would rather be over there.’ Arach gestured with one sharp leg towards the arcology itself. Seemingly on cue, a bright flash from that direction cast long shadows behind the ground forces. Shortly after came a thunderous rumble. Through his gridlink Cormac picked up the news.

‘Another runcible,’ he declared.

Arach grunted, then with a clattering moved up beside Cormac to peer ahead at the arcology. Turquoise fire now stabbed down, again and again, and the thunder became constant. Smoke, fire and debris, carried up in mini tornadoes, became visible.

‘And that?’ asked the drone.

‘Coloron is destroying the coastal edge of the arcology to prevent the Jain tech spreading into the sea,’ he replied. ‘The AI has burnt down to the bedrock for about a mile in, and is keeping that rock molten.’

Accessing a statistical analysis of the situation, he immediately saw that the arcology’s further existence was measured only in days. Jain tech now controlled the coastal edge to the west, and most of the north edge too. It had swamped almost half the arcology, and six of the ten runcibles had been destroyed before it could reach them. Flashes continued to ignite the horizon as missiles from orbit destroyed those fusion reactors coming under Jain control. The millions of citizens remaining inside the arcology now all flowed towards the long south-east edge, since the remaining runcibles inside were about to be closed down.

As he flew the gravcar low over the vast crowd, with scanning drones above tracking his progress, Cormac accessed tactical displays and views through other drones and cameras scattered throughout the arcology. Coloron’s troops steadily retreated, blowing out walls, ceilings and floors wherever it seemed possible such demolition might slow the advance of Jain substructure, and firing on abhuman figures advancing out of the wreckage. He saw squads of soldiers engaged in firefights with armed Jain-controlled humans who could be stopped only by major damage. Cormac broke the links and returned his full attention to his surroundings.

Below, the crowds remained densely packed, humanity spreading in every direction as far as he could see. Ahead, the arcology edge rose into view, like some mountain chain carved into tiers. These levels were occupied by open parks, rectilinear lakes, small cities of expensive mansions, houses and apartments. Communications pylons cut into the sky, vents belched excess heat in the form of steam, monorails weaved from level to level like silver millipedes. As he drew closer to it, Cormac saw people crowding the tiers from which jutted the platforms of gravcar-parks and landing pads. The situation had improved since, only days ago, there had been no free space anywhere on those tiers, just shoulder to shoulder Polity citizens.

‘Coloron, where are you?’ he sent.

In reply he received coordinates on a three-dimensional map of the great structure.

He pointed up to a landing pad jutting from the side of ceramal-braced foam-stone cliff, like some monstrous iron bracket fungus. ‘We go up there.’

He guided the gravcar up through the evenly spaced layer of scanning drones, and soon descended towards a landing pad. To one side of this, people crowded up ramps to climb aboard the multitude of gravcars and other AG transports that were arriving and leaving constantly. A small area of this pad had been fenced off near the edge. Human guards and mosquito-like autoguns patrolled its perimeter. Within rested a lander, a couple of military transports, and a fast atmosphere format gunship. A group of figures stood near the edge itself. As he landed, Cormac noted a bipedal robot he identified, through his gridlink, as Coloron. There were dracomen here too, and as he stepped from the car, he also recognized Thorn.

He turned to Arach. ‘Come on.’

The drone clambered down from the gravcar and walked to heel behind him like some monstrous pet. Cormac advanced to the group on the platform edge just as another actinic flash ignited in the distance. He glanced in that direction, at a sky yellow-brown behind the pall of smoke, to see wreckage exploding into the air and raining down. This havoc was being wrought to prevent an even greater catastrophe, all as a consequence of one man with one Jain node. How many, he wondered, had the Maker brought from its realm and scattered throughout the Polity?

‘Cormac,’ said Thorn, turning to acknowledge him.

Cormac nodded in greeting, glanced across at the dracomen, recognized Scar by his gnathic smile, then returned his attention to Thorn. The man glanced past him at the drone, now squatting with his hindquarters resting on the floor.

‘New recruit?’ he enquired.

‘A volunteer,’ Cormac replied, then, after Thorn’s grimace, ‘allow me to introduce Arach. He’s a war drone who fought in the Prador War.’

‘Ah,’ said Thorn, ‘that accounts for it.’

‘Quite…’ Cormac stabbed a finger down at the deck beneath his feet. ‘Now, I know what’s going on down here on the surface, but I’ve heard nothing from Jack,’

‘We’ve captured Thellant N’komo,’ said Thorn. He nodded to the nearby lander and they both began walking towards it.

‘I know.’ Cormac tapped a finger against his head, indicating his gridlink. ‘Von Hellsdorf sold Skellor a Jain node, and there was a direct connection between her and this Thellant.’ Cormac glanced across the devastation and grimaced. ‘Have you got anything out of him yet?’

Ahead of them, Scar and the four dracomen accompanying him boarded the lander.

Thorn replied, ‘A download of all his memories concerning his association with something called the Legate. He layered this with subversion programs, so it’s taken Aphran quite a while to take it apart. We’re getting the results now.’

Cormac paused by the airlock. ‘Those being?’

Thorn gestured inside. ‘Best you come see.’

Cormac glanced back towards Coloron. The AI dipped towards him as if to study him for a moment, then returned its attention to its demolition job. Yet another explosion ignited the horizon, much closer now. Cormac stepped into the lander.


The classification of Polity warships is only loosely connected to a similar system used for naval vessels of the past. Hence dreadnoughts are the big ones—their name owing more to the definition fears nothing’ than ‘a battleship carrying heavy guns of a uniform calibre’- and attack ships are the smaller ones, though very fast and also carrying some lethal armament. Cruisers lie somewhere between these two — the lines of definition somewhat blurred. However, with the size of ships steadily increasing at one end of the scale and increasing specialization at the other end, new forms of classification have been introduced since the termination of the Prador War. Using the Greek alphabet, dreadnoughts are classified alpha to epsilon, zeta to omicron are used to cover cruisers, and the rest of the alphabet to cover all the specialized warships: attack ships of many different designs, USERs, space tugs and drone or troop transports. Now even this system is falling into disuse. Few people even believe that such behemoths as alpha and beta class dreadnoughts exist. I can assure you that they do, and some others beyond where this system of classification runs out. At the other end of the scale the alphabetical designations have become unwieldy. The most recent state-of-the-art attack ships are designated Iota/Lambda (basic weapons)/Mu+(gravtech weapons)/’ware (Omicron classified) etc. etc. Sometimes they are called Centurion-class attack ships, but mostly we humans just call them by their names now. The complex classifications can just remain lines of code slotted, in the minds of AIs, into specific niches in Gordian battle plans.

—From her lecture ‘Modern Warfare’ by EBS Heinlein

Orlandine detached from her assister frame and her carapace, then returned along the length of the Heliotrope to her living quarters. She was abruptly very hungry—the nutrients her body stored having been used up over the last hundred hours of research. The ship’s galley provided her with a hot prosaic meal of synthetic beef rogan josh, naan bread, and cold beer.

Human time, she thought, feeling the irony of it, yet deciding she needed this interlude to gain a different perspective on all she had learnt.

With one quarter of the node’s substance unravelled, Orlandine now used the tools it provided. A stripped-down simple mycelium grew along the joists and layers of the Dyson segment, powering itself from the many reactors already in place, and giving her views throughout the immense surrounding structure. It connected to all the Polity scanning equipment within the segment, and edited out anything those scanners picked up of her activities, so as to make her effectively invisible to those back at the Cassius stations, and would alert her of anything that might affect her—its own scanners being much more effective than those manufactured by the Polity. However, she had connected this mycelium to an isolated computer, where one of her subpersonae controlled it.

Orlandine remained wary of applying the physical technology directly to herself, it being only comprehensible down to the level her studying tools could reach. Those tools, and the analytical programs she applied to what they revealed, led her to hypothesize the existence of underlying submolecular structures. It was like seeing a two-hundred-storey building, knowing there must be foundations below it, but suspecting still further floors underground.

Her attitude to the numerous programs copied from the node was different. She loaded them to her carapace—though in isolated storage, just like the ones she had used to attack Shoala. She felt she understood their purposes as individual programs, but did not yet want to include them completely in her crystal consciousness because they might reveal further purpose only in combination. However, being simply packets of information, they could be broken down to a elementary quaternary form, below which nothing could be hidden. At some point she would begin to use them in combination.

Orlandine finished her meal and dropped the compressed-fibre tableware in the recycler. Collecting a chilled glass of synthetic raki, she slumped in her seat again and continued to assess matters at the merely human level.

Something had designed this technology to kill civilizations. It procreated by taking from its first victim information relevant to wiping out that individual’s civilization. A trap for the unwary, it was also a trap for any technological investigation. She simply could not risk incorporating the physical tech without finding ways of divining the purpose of all she still could not see, since it was certainly hostile. Even atomic copies would be too risky, as they might mimic that same purpose. She therefore needed newer and better tools. The technology itself could provide her with them, but that could be dangerous too: the trap might also lie within tools based on the technology. Orlandine sighed, suddenly feeling unutterably weary. She could clear this feeling by running certain programs in the crystal part of her mind, in her carapace, to impart the benefits of sleep to her organic brain. Also, the Polity nanomachines in her body were constantly repairing cellular damage normally attended to naturally during sleep. She chose to sleep properly, however, for maybe the archaic natural process of REM sleep would give her a different perspective. Reclining the chair, she settled back, closed her eyes and used her gridlink to cue herself for lucid dreaming.

Natural, she reflected with some amusement, before turning herself off.

The spider web extended to infinity in every direction: the space-time continuum represented as a flat surface for those simple humans who could visualize only a limited number of dimensions.

Glancing to her left she observed the gravity well of a sun drawing the web down into a hole. Another hole, a planet, circled the declivity around its edge. She walked along one strand, careful not to slip and put her foot down into U-space. The strand did not move—her mass made no impression on it. The spider-shaped hole in the web seemed just like a gravity well, but peering inside she could see no spider. She stepped past it and into her apartment in the Cassius station. Shoala handed over a drink that she sipped. It tasted bitter.

‘It’s poison,’ he told her.

His carapace possessed more legs than usual, and they had been driven through his body in many places. He turned away and she noticed that his sensory cowl now sported mandibles. It sliced in a circle, pulled away a hemisphere of his skull with a sucking crunch and discarded it, then began to dine on his brains. He turned back to her.

‘It’s cumulative, mind,’ he said, just as a mandible pushed out beside his eye, then folded back in, pulling the jellied eyeball out of sight into the bloody socket. Her glass hit the carpet and broke into 4,002 fragments. She measured the angles and curves of each one, tracked their courses, calculated masses and subsequent vectors, then began counting individual strands in the carpet moss.

‘A gift from an admirer,’ someone whispered, then chuckled menacingly.

‘Simplistic representations,’ she told Shoala—and the spider clinging to the station’s skin, and the whisperer. ‘It was a mistake for me to sleep.’

‘You think you are sleeping?’ Shoala asked, both his eyes gone now and, his disembodied face hanging before her, bright light shining from behind it, glaring from empty sockets. The face receded, and landed in some deep pit in a large spider web. Carapaces scuttled in to tear it apart.

‘Yes,’ said Orlandine, opening her eyes. She sat upright, completely awake instantly, an array of dream sequences recorded in her gridlink. She shivered, those dreams still clear in her mind.

‘Simplistic,’ she repeated.

But something nagged at her: something evident in that dream sequence, some plain fact she was missing. She wanted to either track it down or dismiss it with certainty, but there came another call for her attention: a signal from the subpersona controlling her Jain-tech mycelium, telling her it now detected something the Polity scanners were missing. This could only mean she was no longer alone here in the Dyson segment, and the intruder was not of the Polity.

* * * *

King studied the artefact from one light year away, and for all the AI knew it was no longer even there—having moved on some time after a year ago. This distance was relatively long to be obtaining such detail, but no effort had been made at concealment since the object emitted across the electromagnetic spectrum. Obviously, these emissions meant that in some way it was, or had been, active.

A flattened cylinder three miles long, it seemed to be formed of a tangle of foot-thick tubes compressed into that same shape—perhaps a ship of some kind, or a station? Other structures on its surface, like giant metallic barnacles, were a year ago firing into space projectiles no larger than a human fist. At this distance, King could get no more detail on them than their size. Estimating the velocity of these, King calculated their present realtime position. They should be one quarter of a light year out, however the AI did not know how long the artefact had been firing off these projectiles, so it added a large degree of error incorporating the time of Erebus’s arrival here, minus some time for this same artefact to be built. The King of Hearts dropped into U-space and surfaced just half a light year out.

Collision alarms…

Calculations wrong. A deliberate trap? King immediately began firing meteor lasers at the swarm of fist-sized objects hammering towards it, turned and ignited its fusion drive to bring its speed up to that of the projectiles. While destroying those that seemed likely to impact on its hull, it spectrally analysed the debris and deep-scanned those still intact.

They were the shape of melon seeds, with cilia-like serrations along their edges, and seemed packed with technology in the haphazard configuration of something alive. They contained power cells, some form of sensor array, small chambers holding hydrogen under sufficient pressure to turn it into the metallic state. The AI realized its danger within a fraction of a second, but that was a fraction of a second too late. Bright stars ignited all around, and King expected massive explosions but, no, the projectiles accelerated inwards as the attack ship began dropping into U-space. Three of them penetrated the U-field before it fully formed, and then slammed into the King of Hearts’s, hull as it surfaced into realspace half a light year away.

Space mines like those once used to destroy Prador vessels?

Still no explosion. King released three telefactors and directed them to the location of each impact. But, even as those devices launched, King felt the incursions through its hull. Immediately extruding antipersonnel lasers on jointed arms, it directed them back at itself and fired upon all three incursions. Viewing through the telefactors it saw two of them grow red, then white, then explode massively. Two craters were punched into hull metal, causing structural damage inside, atmosphere leaking out—but that last did not matter as the AI never intended to willingly take humans aboard it ever again. The third object grew red, white, then slowly turned red again. Unlike the others it managed to link itself to King’s own s-con hull grid, which meant it had already cut five inches deep. The AI shut down the laser and recalled two of its telefactors, leaving the other one outside watching. Through its internal scanners it viewed the inner location of the incursion through its hull, but saw nothing yet. It sent maintenance robots to that area, then from its internal armoury summoned a mosquito auto-gun, and watched the weapon stride on six legs along corridors meant for humans. The business end of this device was a small particle cannon—not something King really wanted to fire inside itself, but would do so if necessary.

The outside view showed the melon-seed shape bulging up in the middle, with ridges extending down from the bulge. Sensors in King’s hull now revealed weaknesses in the area. The maintenance robots arrived and began cutting out nearby walls and detaching and moving equipment in the vicinity. Then came a wrinkling of the inner hull, and a tendril breaking through and branching across the surface like a vein. Close scanning showed material draining away around this growth. King could not scan close enough to see the cause, but guessed it to be nanomachines taking apart the substance of the ship and drawing it away. Outside again, the seed shape had turned into a smaller version of those barnacle structures on the distant artefact. The purpose of all this seemed clear: an organic technology that grew by ingesting surrounding materials, very like Jain technology. King withdrew its maintenance robots, sealed off bulkheads, and instructed the mosquito autogun to weld its feet to the floor, then told it to fire. Turquoise flame struck the inner hull. The external telefactor observed the hull glow red around the encrustation, which turned black in silhouette. After a moment the hull bulged, then exploded into space in a stream of plasma, the growth retaining definition for a moment, then breaking apart as it was struck by the turquoise of the particle beam. King sent its maintenance robots to fetch hull patches, set them to making repairs, then contemplated recorded images of its closer view of the artefact.

It now seemed likely that the distant artefact was a ship or a station completely digested by the invading technology. The position of the projectiles the AI encountered indicated they had been fired off at about the time of Erebus’s arrival here, so that other AI had little time in which to construct something so massive. King ran through the library of images of ships that departed the Polity with Erebus, and shortly found something matching the same general outline: a troop transport called the Calydonian Boar. Maybe this ship had been another to rebel, or else its AI was removed and the hulk set here as a defence. No way of telling now, because there seemed to be nothing left of the original ship.

King surveyed the internal map it had made of nearby systems, wondering which direction Erebus took from here, for there was no way to find out from the Calydonian Boar itself without risking destruction. Then, on that internal map: the accretion disc of a solar system in the making—the perfect place for something utterly new. U-space then, to the edge of this disc, followed by conventional drives inside, for using U-engines in such a place where matter concentrated would be very risky. A difficult place, therefore, to escape from.

* * * *

In the extended airlock and decontamination area, Mika donned a spacesuit before lugging her pack out to a catwalk. The bay was an upright cylinder with the walkway running around the perimeter of a circular irised hatch in the floor. This sector in the Jerusalem’s outer ring contained a selection of intership craft. None of these, however, were presently visible, being stored in concealed racks. She was about to mention this fact when abruptly the floor slid open and a lift raised her transport into view.

This might be the same craft as Cormac had used in his journey down to the surface of Dragon. A one-man vehicle without airlocks, any major drive or AI, it could be flown by a pilot, though most often Jerusalem itself controlled it. A flattened and stretched ovoid, with skids underneath, two directional thrusters mounted to fore, and a small ion drive aft, it looked precisely what it was: utile, basic but serviceable. Mika took the steps down from the catwalk and hauled her pack inside.

The pack and its contents were a recent requirement, for the Jerusalem would shortly drop into U-space to make the return jump to Cull. The AI decided that a trip to Coloron would be wasted, for any Jain technology there would soon cease to exist. Nevertheless, Mika wondered about the timing of the jump coinciding with her allotted session with Dragon. Perhaps the AI intended giving her a break from her current concerns about augmentation? Though of course it would be arrogant to assume it thought her so important.

Once ensconced in the single seat, Mika said, ‘Okay, Jerusalem, you can take me over—I’ve no overpowering urge to pilot this thing myself.’

From her suitcom the AI replied, ‘Scenic route?’

‘If you have sufficient time.’

The wing door to the craft sealed itself shut with a crump, and lights began flashing amber in the bay as pumps evacuated the air. Mika strapped herself in, felt the grav go off, then looked up through the cockpit screen as the lights turned to amber and the ceiling irised open on stars. Swivelling to point downwards, the fore thrusters fired to propel the craft out into space. It turned nose-down over the Jerusalem’s outer ring, which now looked like some vast raised highway running to the horizon of a metal planet. The giant research vessel was a sphere three miles in diameter, with the thick band around its equator containing all its shuttles, grab-ships, drones, telefactors… the tools the AI used to manipulate its environment, which Mika felt the AI defined as everything.

The small craft now turned away and headed towards a reddish green sun on the Jerusalem’s horizon. Acceleration from the ion drive kicked her in the back, and the small organic moonlet fell towards her. Around her she noted things glinting in the blackness: ships and robotic probes being recalled to the equatorial ring of the giant research vessel. She abruptly felt very vulnerable, then, looking ahead towards Dragon, a surge of excitement.

The AI brought the craft down in steadily lower obits around the huge being that named itself Dragon. On the first orbit, Dragon simply appeared like a small and fairly nondescript moonlet. Only closer, when its living substance became visible, could anyone know different. Here an area of jewelled scales, looking like scarlet and jade stone until it moved, a ripple travelling across it as if the entity took a breath of vacuum. A seeming copse rose over the sharply curved horizon, waving in some impossible breeze. Those weren’t trees, though, but cobra heads raised high, with gleaming sapphire foliage, and the undergrowth consisted of writhing red tentacles groping in shadow.

The first tight orbit revealed the manacle as a bright metallic line, like the epoxyed-on attachment for some pendant chain. Closer to, she saw it rested at the bottom of a shallow trench, as if it had etched itself into the surface. On its third pass her craft decelerated above this and slowly spiralled down. She felt the tug from gravplates below, each time her craft passed over them, then grav became constant as it landed on the ceramal strip beside the trapeziform building.

‘Close your visor,’ Jerusalem advised.

The moment Mika did this, the craft purged its internal air supply. Then the wing door opened and her seat automatically swung towards it. She stepped out, noting how the ceramal was dulled by microscopic scratches from many hundreds of similar vessels landing here and the boots that had clumped from them. She too clumped across to the nearby airlock, to enter through the outer metal door and an inner shimmer-shield. The square pool of scaled flesh, which she had viewed so many times remotely, remained unchanged, but upon retracting her visor she experienced the smell of it for the first time: something spicy and slightly rank, with a hint of confined beasts. She moved to the area off to one side, containing VR and laboratory equipment, dumped her pack down beside a VR chair and plumped herself in it.

Concisely she instructed, ‘Exterior view.’

The walls faded from existence to reveal the edges of the trench all around, but she stood high enough to gaze out on the draconic landscape. She abruptly sat upright when she saw her vessel lifting a little way from the manacle, turning, and coming down again to where clamps issued from below to close on its skids.

‘Jerusalem, you secured the craft,’ she stated.

‘Certainly—but it will of course be available to you when you are ready for it.’

Now, before her, the pool of scaly flesh stretched and parted. Humid warmth issued forth and an odour as of burned grease drowned out all other smells. Mika supposed this resulted from whatever Dragon had destroyed inside itself. She reached down, opened her pack and took out her palm-com. Trying not to show any of the disquiet she felt, she called up her list of questions. A heavy slithing sound issued from the widening gap before her. The smell increased. After a moment she looked up and realized that this time things were occurring that had never happened during visits here by others. The split now traversed the entire length of the rectangular area and opened wider than before, its edges turning like scaled rollers. Soon they drew out of sight, and Mika stood up, moved to the edge and peered over. Below her, a gaping red cavern curved down into hot darkness. Abruptly a spiralling wheel hurtled up towards her. She jumped back as red tentacles, sharp as claws, shot over the edges into the surrounding structure and clamped down on the floor. She looked up, noticing something else was happening too. The manacle was lower now in relation to the outside surface, for it was sinking inside Dragon.


No reply.



Cobra pseudopodia speared into view—the honour guard for the head that followed. This too had changed. Four times the usual size, hairless and scaled, eyes completely black, the human head licked narrow lips with a sharp tongue, red as blood.

‘The Jerusalem has entered U-space,’ Dragon told her.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Preparing to do the same.’

‘To Cull?’

Dragon grinned, exposing sharp teeth.

‘Eventually,’ it replied.

* * * *

The crowds of refugees were thinning now as they filtered through Polity battle lines, but the attacks, by scanning drones, increased. Seated on the sloping armour at the front of an AG tank, the woman placed a monocular up against her eyes and watched as one of the scanning drones fell out of formation, its twinned lasers flickering like arc welders. Tracking down, she saw figures burning away like ants on a hot plate and wondered if all of these had been infected by Jain technology. Around this carnage people fled in panic until, when it seemed nothing remained for it to burn, the drone returned to its position in the formation. A couple of air ambulances then descended. Bodies lay on the ground around the conflagration, some writhing, some crawling. She lowered the monocular.

‘You check out,’ said the ECS tank commander, tossing her ident bracelet back to her.

She caught it and slipped it back on her wrist. He had also gene-scanned her to make a comparison with the identity information the bracelet contained. She smiled, glad that it checked out satisfactorily, and quite happy with her new name and her profession as a freelance reporter selling sensocords of events like this to the net news services. All she needed to do was place herself where newsworthy events occurred, while her new aug recorded everything she saw, heard, smelt, tasted, felt… She returned her attention to the arcology as the ground shuddered beneath her.

Monitors and Sparkind now came out, fighting a defensive retreat, firing on figures lurching out after them through smoke and flame. As far as was visible, in both directions, more of Coloron’s forces retreated—that last inner line of defence.

‘You can stay there if you like,’ said the commander, ‘but I wouldn’t recommend it.’ He climbed inside the AG tank which, shortly afterwards, began to lift.

As the tank drifted forward, the woman quickly stepped up into the open doorway. ‘What’s happening now?’

‘We hold them back until the civilians are far enough behind the lines,’ the commander replied, as he manipulated the tank’s controls, ‘then it’s bye-bye arcology.’

The woman felt awe at the thought, and some sadness. Her ident did not say anything about her once having lived here.

‘You staying or going? I need to close that door.’

She stepped back and down to the ground, the door hissing shut as the tank moved on. Glancing beyond the tank, then behind her, she saw the whole ECS battle line beginning to advance slowly through the crowds. She pitied those about to lose their homes, and those about to die, having experienced both traumas herself. But then she wasn’t what she seemed: closing her eyes, she remembered her recent resurrection.

She had felt cold, and a thousand needles prickled her skin. Something had crumped ahead of her and a line of light cut down to one side, through the darkness.

I’m in a cold coffin, she realized, but beyond that realization lay only confusion.

A taste in her mouth like copper.

I have a mouth?

Skin feeling abraded.

I have skin?

A cold aseptic room lay before her, cold coffins inset all around its walls like Egyptian sarcophagi, bright metal, white surfaces.

I have eyes?

She stepped out, she looked around. Human vision seemed a narrow thing after having been used to enhanced viewing in more places than one and across more of the spectrum than the human eye could see. Her hearing remained unchanged, however. Gradually the floor warmed her feet. She needed to urinate, touched her mons tentatively and shuddered with pleasure at the sensation. Her stomach rumbled. She looked down at her hand and did not recognize it.

‘Do you hear me?’

I’m not dead. So much meaning in that statement.

‘I hear you,’ she said, and felt a sudden panic at the unrecognizable tone of her own voice.

‘I have placed a mirror to your right.’

She turned to see the naked form of the Separatist Freyda standing there, and now understood what Jack had done. For a moment she resented this, for she wanted to live in her own body. However, her own body had been incinerated long ago.

‘Did you do this alone, or does ECS approve?’ she asked.

‘ECS does not know. I felt that I owed you something, and I know that you have changed in ways ECS could never ken. Nobody will be looking for a Separatist called Freyda, because she no longer exists—her DNA has been reclassified in the databases, and any criminal record deleted.’

‘What now?’ Aphran asked.

‘The choice is yours. You can have yourself altered cosmetically, or choose to stay as you now are. One of the dracomen will transport you down to Coloron. Thereafter, all choices are your own.’

‘A second chance?’ she asked.

‘Yes—exactly that.’

‘Thank you.’ Aphran collected some disposeralls from a dispenser in the wall. As she donned them, she just did not know what the future held for her. At some point that fact would be welcome, for now she actually had a future. Jack had created the false identity, this false life. Aphran liked the AI’s choice, but then Jack knew her like no other.

She opened her eyes to see tanks and autoguns advancing and firing on the arcology over the heads of Coloron’s forces. She saw missiles streaking down from above and, as when counting the seconds between the peal of thunder and the lightning flash, tracked explosions across the arcology.

* * * *

Another lander returned to the NEJ just ahead of them. Cormac watched it enter a docking bay, then pulled his attention back to studying the entire ship. Definitely one of the newest designs: attack ship configuration with a state-of-the-art chameleonware hull which, as well as being able to bend low intensity EM radiation around it, could also, to some degree, deflect high-powered lasers and masers. The outer skin was a form of polymerized diamond, over layered composite laced with superconductors. The ship’s skeleton, composed of the usual laminated tungsten ceramal, shock-absorbing foamed alloys and woven diamond monofilament, in this case was cellular and more substantial than usual. Cormac also knew that its extra weapons’ nacelle contained gravtech armament in addition to the usual lethal complement housed in the other two nacelles.

A Centurion, he remembered—that’s what they called these now.

The lander flew over the ship, then down to the second bay on its other side. It eased in through a shimmer-shield and settled in the narrow armoured area. Cormac stepped out first, followed by Thorn and then the dracomen. He noted armoured bay doors closing down and huge hydraulic grab arms easing out of the wall to take hold of the lander.

Jack? he tried once more through his gridlink. Again there came no reply. He applied at other informational levels through the ship’s systems, but found himself blocked by AI defences of the kind now being employed against Jain tech subversion everywhere throughout the Polity. But, then, in any war, communication always suffered first.

‘Not being very talkative, is he?’ he commented.

Thorn glanced at him quizzically.

‘Jack,’ Cormac explained.

‘He’s been rather busy lately, analysing evidence, interrogating suspects and taking apart their memcordings. He also recently rid himself of Aphran.’

Cormac halted. ‘Rid himself?’

From the intercom Jack’s voice suddenly issued, ‘I feel I should rename myself as I am now in singular control of this ship. However, there is some truth in the current name Not Entirely Jack.’

‘Has sentence been executed upon her?’ Cormac asked.

‘Aphran no longer exists,’ replied the ship AI.

That, Cormac realized, did not really answer his question, but he let that go as he turned and walked to the circular door leading from the bay, which promptly irised open before him. He stepped through and found himself in a corridor resembling a pipe. The flat surface of the gravplate floor laid in that pipe was covered with blue carpet moss, bearing a repeating pattern of white nooses—a pattern copied from the original Jack Ketch, though its carpets had been plain fabric. The rest of the corridor remained strictly utile: padded walls and ceiling, diffuse lighting, and soft hand grips in case the gravplates should fail. Cormac wondered if Jack made his usual baroque and sometimes gruesome additions elsewhere, for the original ship had contained various human execution devices of antique design that the AI liked replicating down to the smallest historical detail. Cormac waited until Thorn stepped through beside him.

‘Which way—I’ve been unable to access any information on the layout,’ he said.

Thorn stepped aside to allow Arach also into the corridor. The drone scuttled over to one side and reared up as the dracomen filed out next to head along the corridor. Cormac noted how the dracomen eyed the drone curiously before moving on.

‘Well, you certainly do get some types,’ commented Arach, coming back down on its sharp feet.

Cormac assumed there had been some inaudible communication between drone and reptilians, but simply classified Arach’s observation as interesting before turning back to Thorn, who gestured down the corridor, saying, ‘These corridors run in a grid throughout the ship, all gravplated on one side, so you can walk anywhere using them. There’s no movable drop-shafts.’

Cormac nodded to himself. Drop-shafts were a hangover from older ship geometries in which the builders felt some need of up and down. Jack had used a movable one to get his passengers to different locations inside the old Jack Ketch. This construction, he surmised, was for enhanced structural strength. ‘Are we heading now for the bridge—if that’s what you still call it?’

‘No, Jack can project anywhere in this ship and there’s something I thought you might like to see.’ Thorn led him through a bulkhead door, then into a long corridor curving down the length of the hull. Three bulkhead doors later they entered another corridor carpeted with flute grass matting and filled with hot terrarium air. Until now, all the corridors they traversed were boringly prosaic. Perhaps baroque interiors were something Jack had grown out of.

‘More dracomen,’ observed Cormac.

‘Nearly a hundred of them aboard.’ Thorn paused reflectively. ‘You know there’s thousands of them now on the planet below?’

Cormac nodded: he did know. He followed Thorn past a series of rooms occupied by the reptilian creatures. Finally the two men came to the cylindrical training chamber, with gravplated floors at either end and a zero-G section in the middle, which spanned the ship. Here Cormac observed dracomen at play, or training themselves to kill—there probably being little difference. He headed over to a stair and climbed to a platform positioned just below the zero-G section, his feet light on the metalwork where the gravity effect from the plates at one end of the cylinder partially cancelled out the effect from those at the other. Thorn moved up beside him.

‘Okay, Jack, what do you have for me?’

A line cut down through the air below disporting dracomen, and out of it folded a humanoid figure.

‘This is the Legate,’ announced Jack.

Cormac studied the image for a moment. ‘That tells us very little. Any AI or any human could take on that exterior form if they wished. Do you have any idea what’s inside it?’

‘Thellant attempted a scan of this particular entity, but that revealed only an empty shell. I surmise from this fact that his scanning equipment encountered sophisticated chameleonware. Other facts do confirm that the Legate can make itself invisible.’

The figure in question revolved slowly in the air like some musical doll, the tune played being the sound of fleshy impacts as dracomen continued their contests, above and below, totally ignoring the image. Cormac applied directly to Jack for information, and received a potted history of the association between Thellant and the Legate.

‘So, an enemy of the Polity—nothing new there—but the technologies it employed have heretofore not really been the province of Separatists.’ Cormac paused, applying analytical programs to the history provided, then said, ‘Give it all to me, Jack.’

A hundred times larger than the potted history, this next block of information stretched his gridlink storage space, cutting down space for those programs he needed to analyse it. He reached up to press his fingers against his temple as if expecting a headache. His sleeve dropped back and he glimpsed Thorn’s look of surprise, then amusement, at seeing Shuriken holstered there once more. He ran a search program to find what he could delete to make more space. The memory download from Jerusalem sat temptingly in the list appearing. He returned it to storage, deleted old programs and dated information, then returned his attention to Jack’s new information. Patterns began to emerge.

‘An outside force stirring up our rebels,’ he concluded. ‘Do we have any way of going after this character?’

‘Thellant’s memories did not supply that info. However, cross-referencing his memories with information provided by Coloron has provided us with something.’

‘Don’t draw it out, Jack.’

‘U-space anomalies: within a day prior to every arrival of the Legate here, there would be a mass/U-signature discrepancy for some large arriving ship. Such discrepancies have always been ignored, since they are often due to the registered mass of a large cargo vessel being off by a fraction of a percentile. In the case of the Legate’s arrivals, the mass discrepancy has always been about the same: twelve tons.’

‘So it’s clearly a small vessel piggy-backing in on other ships’ U-fields?’

‘So it would seem.’

‘Is a search being conducted?’

‘This information has been broadcast to all AIs across the Polity. All records are being checked, as are all new arrivals to worlds everywhere. If any ship comes in with such discrepancies, we will henceforth be immediately informed.’

‘So now?’

The hologram of the Legate disappeared, and one wall of the chamber seemed to dissolve too in order to give a view outside. The planet Coloron fell away, starlit space revolving into view. Then came that drag at the very substance of reality, and the view greyed out, as they dropped into U-space.

‘Even as I spoke the words,’ announced Jack.

‘What?’ asked Cormac.

‘Twelve-ton discrepancy detected, within the parameters of the Legate’s last departure from here. Other forces are already on their way.’

‘Other forces?’Thorn muttered.

Cormac asked, ‘Where was this discrepancy detected?’

‘The Cassius project.’

It figured: the AIs would be mighty pissed off about anyone messing with that.


Simple hardfield principles: this kind of field is projected from its generator much like a torch beam from a torch, the circular field meniscus generating at a distance preset in the generator like said beam striking a wall. Rather than getting into the complex maths and spacial-warp mechanics involved, it is best to think of it as simply a disc extended from its generator on the end of a long and extremely tough girder—both being made of a superconductor. Kinetic shock against the disc results in kinetic shock being transferred to the generator itself, where many methods are used to either absorb or convert it. Simple hydraulic rams are often used, also thermal or electrical conversion rams. Heat applied to the disc results in heat being applied to the generator. Again various methods are used to deal with this: superconductors to bleed it away, and other cooling systems. There are, however, deliberately designed-in limitations to how much of either a generator can absorb. Sufficient onslaught of each will usually result in a generator, with designed-in obsolescence, melting, though sometimes, if the limits are sufficiently exceeded, it will explode. A generator not so designed can, at some unplanned limit, implode, briefly creating a singularity at its core and a consequent fusion burn from highly compressed matter when the singularity goes out. The explosion in this case exceeds, by orders of magnitude, the explosion in the former case. Hence the deliberate obsolescence.

— From ‘Weapons Directory’

The hardfield generators rested in transporters heavily constructed of carbide steel laminated with bearing materials and shock-absorbing foamed resins. Designed to bend and twist under huge loads, then return to their original shape, they were low and incredibly heavy, and in this situation not worth the energy expenditure of AG, so they ran on two sets of caterpillar tracks. Two thousand of them guarded the landward perimeter, their anchor spikes driven down through ten yards of earth until they encountered bedrock. The generators themselves were spherical, covered in flexible cooling pipes and bristling with radiator fins. The fields they projected, as well as being impervious to matter, were polarized against radiations outside the human visual spectrum. Those fields also slanted at forty-five degrees, to deflect the Shockwave rather than stop it completely. The tank commander told her it still seemed likely that any generators surviving the blast would be driven, along with their transporters, deep into the ground.

‘Why not wait until everyone is completely clear?’ she asked, once again perching on his tank.

The man himself stood nearby, smoking a cigarette. He told her it was a habit acquired after spending too much time in his youth taking part in VR interactives based on celluloid films that were centuries old. He found it relaxed him.

‘Coloron keeps destroying Jain tech on the surface, but it continues burrowing into the ground. It may be doing so slowly at present, but that’s only because the arcology was necessarily built on solid granite. Once it reaches the softer strata, it’ll speed up. So if we don’t take it out before then, we may lose the planet.’

The arcology was now a silvery line on the horizon from which fires sprouted. Poised like stormclouds over it, atmosphere ships, having hurled down their lightnings, now departed to make way for what was to come. The tank commander tossed her a set of goggles.

‘I thought the hardfields will block the flash?’ she said.

‘They will, but there’s no guarantee they’ll be there all the time.’

Aphran grunted her thanks and pocketed the goggles.

Ground armour, autoguns, tanks like the commander’s, and AG platforms retreated to the shield line, many of them burdened with troops. Behind these, firing continued as more dehumanized residents tried to come out in the wake of Coloron’s forces, only to be taken down by the scanning drones. Then the drones abruptly retreated, like flies shooed away from a corpse. A turquoise bar sliced down from the sky, turning the intervening ground to magma, working rhythmically back and forth before the arcology. Distantly, the cloud-locked sky, generated by massive evaporation of sea water, reflected similar fires around the other perimeters. Columns of smoke cut the sky in between like black tornados. Occasional sheets of flame groped upwards, and explosions constantly shook the ground. It seemed as if the troops had fled the Pit. Five dreadnoughts now occupied space above MA, to add their firepower to Coloron’s own. One of those ships, even now, was probably selecting sources of appalling destruction from its weapons carousel.

‘Do you know yet what we intend to use?’ Aphran paused, considering how easily that ‘we’ came to her lips. ‘Straight nukes or something a bit more exotic?’

‘If I told you, I’d have to shoot you,’ said the commander laconically, grinding out his cigarette butt.

‘You’re a laugh a minute,’ Aphran muttered.

He grinned. ‘Slow burn CTDs, which spread microspheres of antimatter over a wide area. The effective result is an atomic fire. Nothing survives above the atomic level at the hypocentre, while the EM pulse disrupts molecular bonds for a lot further.’

‘Nice,’ said Aphran, wondering again how Separatists had ever come to believe they could triumph against the Polity. Yes, they could detonate bombs, murder citizens, cause major disruption, but in the end, like some angry amateur going up against an experienced fighter, they would inevitably get slapped down. But that was ever the case with terrorist organizations: their doomed-to-failure efforts against superior forces littered historical records. Perhaps that very futility was the attraction.

‘Interesting description,’ said the commander. He paused to take out another cigarette, and watched it self-ignite. ‘We use gravity imploders for a similar purpose in space warfare. They were invented to completely vaporize their target without spreading large fast-moving chunks of it all around a planetary system. On a planet that won’t work, of course, because there’s always a big air-transmitted shockwave. The whole idea of using slow-burn CTDs is to not chuck around Jain-infected debris.’

‘But we have hardfields here to protect us from a shockwave,’ Aphran observed.

‘A breeze,’ he said, still studying the end of his cigarette. ‘To achieve an equivalent level of destruction here, using straight CTDs or imploders, would result in there being nothing but bedrock left for a hundred miles all around. The shockwave would travel around the planet a few times, killing millions in the process. There’d be a tsunami spreading out simultaneously from the seaward side, probably a mile high and travelling at twice the speed of sound.’

Aphran returned her attention to the battle line and those retreating beyond it. It would be a while before the hardfield generators came on, but soon after that the bombardment would commence. She nodded to the commander and made her way over towards a refectory vehicle, then while waiting in the queue, she gazed at the scene on this side of the line—away from the arcology.

The sky swarmed with ships, landing and departing, many ferrying relatively small numbers of the millions of citizens still in retreat. Stragglers were now only about a mile beyond the line, and amidst them most of the ambulance ships were landing. Aphran peered down at the churned ground, and only after a moment noticed how a maize crop had been trodden into a fibrous earthy pulp by the passage of a million shoes. Other evidence of the exodus lay scattered all about her: a plastic toy dinosaur that intermittently twitched its tail and bared its teeth, discarded tissues, food packaging, a shoe, a jacket, a hover trunk spilling clothing — its motor obviously having burnt out, even jewellery that in another age would have ransomed a kingdom. Sadder remnants were being loaded into a transporter further down the line, some citizens having only made it this far.

As she returned with two self-heating coffees—one acquired for the commander only as a courtesy since he carried sufficient supplies in his tank—he directed Aphran’s attention towards the last of those retreating from the arcology. She placed her cup down on ceramal armour and took up her monocular. ‘What am I looking at?’

‘Over there, to the left of that big autogun,’ the commander directed.

Aphran focused in and observed a bipedal robot cradling under its body a child—either dead or injured, Aphran could not tell. This was no unusual sight, for she had already seen many bodies carried away from this place by anyone or anything with the capability. She failed to see the man’s point.

‘That’s Coloron,’ he said.

Aphran studied the robot more closely. Nothing much distinguished it from any others she had seen, except it seemed overburdened with com hardware. Nevertheless, the image held a striking poignancy.

‘Sort of neatly sums up this whole shitstorm,’ her companion continued.

One hour later the hardfields were turned on: they were invisible, but the power hum vibrated the surrounding air, while steam rose from the cooling vanes of the generators. Then blue-white fires suddenly lit up the distant cloud, and burned for several minutes before fading to a hot orange glow.

‘That’s the coast—over two hundred miles away. It’s the first of them,’ explained the commander.

The blue-white fire flared again, closer now, growing and spreading into four evenly spaced hemispheric sunrises. Aphran noted strange rainbow effects around these blazes, knowing she no longer saw the true picture, and that without the polarizing effect of the hardfields she would probably be blind now. She looked back and up, to see an evacuation ship rapidly rising into the sky, probably the last one able to leave safely. Just the reflection from the vessel’s matt hull was like the glare from an arc welder. She quickly turned away, in time to see the nearest hardfield transport slam down into the earth as if trodden on by an invisible giant. The whole line of them, for as far as she could see, rippled as if a wave was passing through the earth. She felt the Shockwave impact through her feet, then came a muted roar, growing in volume. Her ears popped, and suddenly she found herself fighting for breath. Ground wind: diverted half a mile overhead, it sucked the air out from behind the hardfields. This lasted only moments before a wind surged in from behind the lines—air rushing in to fill the gap.

Ahead of her, to the right and left, further hemispheres rose as if the very earth bubbled light. She noted the commander finally discarding his latest cigarette, and moving back around to the side of his tank. She joined him quickly.

‘Big ones coming,’ he said.

The four flashes dissolved the nearer arcology edge. No mere hemisphere now: white light grew like a sun before her. A wall of distortion flashed across the intervening miles and slammed into the hardfields. She saw the nearest transport disappear into the ground, then the earth bucked under her feet sending her sprawling. The sound actually hurt and her ears popped with pressure changes as the sky turned crimson. In a moment a wind tried to haul her up into the air. She crawled closer to the AG tank, where the commander caught hold of her arm and dragged her in closer. Further down the line she glimpsed heavy armour and human figures being tossed through the air like leaves. Light grew incredibly intense: a flash bulb that would not go out. She pulled on her goggles, felt the earth sliding sideways underneath her. Now she resided in a shadowland, as if dropped into a dark container being shaken by a vindictive god. She did not know how long it lasted, but it seemed her new life ended then began again.

‘You can take off your goggles now.’

Aphran thought she must have lost consciousness, for the commander was now standing beside her and she had not seen him rise. Removing her goggles revealed a white-out just beyond the nearest hardfield, and where one of the generators lay in ruins a thick fog rolled through.

‘We should be all right, though we may get a little wet,’ he commented.

She did not understand him until a low wave of boiling water crashed against the hardfield, and foamed through the gap. The hot tide reached them, but only ankle deep, then thankfully flowed quickly away, leaving only steaming pools nearby. A sudden wind picked up as all the hardfields shut down. Warm fog flowed past till eventually, through a break in it, Aphran observed a white-flecked greyness around the curve of the horizon.

‘There went Main Arcology,’ the commander observed, ‘and in its place now, the sea.’

It seemed this world had just acquired a bay 200 miles across.

Sometime later, Aphran collected her meagre belongings from inside the commander’s tank.

‘Where are you heading now?’ he asked.

‘I don’t know,’ Aphran replied, ‘and there’s something quite liberating about that.’

And then she set out.

* * * *

Its chameleonware was better than anything she had seen, if that were not in itself illogical. She wondered if maybe it could be better still, because the effect only just made it invisible to the Polity detectors in this segment—and no more. Orlandine tracked it by the stray gas currents it stirred and the slight feedback effects it caused in gravtech used to hold the Dyson segment together. She observed this phenomenon for hours, and began to think she would learn no more, but then the Polity detectors in one area it occupied abruptly began recycling old images. While this happened, an odd spoon-shaped vessel appeared and descended beside a globular fusion reactor mounted on one of the angled joists.

Now what are you? Orlandine wondered.

While she watched, the ship stuck itself in place with some kind of cilia, then extended a tentacle that snaked across frigid metal to the reactor. It branched all over the reactor’s cowling, and began to penetrate. Recharging itself? No doubt any report of a reactor drain would not be recorded at the Cassius stations, since Orlandine recognized a technology very like that she now studied.

A gift—from an admirer.

Orlandine suspected that same admirer had now come to pay her a visit. But how did it know to come here? Then it hit her: the dreams. All matter, by current theories being just rucked up spacetime, caused effects observable from underneath its continuum: in U-space. Jain tech was highly organized matter. Implicit in her dreams was the concept of Jain tech making an obvious impression on the fabric of space—that spider shape represented the one that should be recognizable from U-space. Immediately she feared this visitor knew her location precisely, and she started thinking of how she should escape. Then she realized what else she was seeing: this strange vessel was conducting a steady search through one layer of the Dyson segment. Somehow, whoever or whatever piloted it had only roughly divined her location. Continuing this search pattern, it would take some days to find her. However, she must decide what to do meanwhile.

Tools from Jain tech…

Orlandine had concluded that Skellor had used Jain tech as a system to support his interface with an AI, which he in turn used to control that same technology. But not sufficiently accounting for the technology’s own purpose had probably contributed to his eventual downfall. Skellor, however, was no haiman, therefore inferior. Having taken apart one quarter of the Jain node, Orlandine now well understood that any part of it, while growing, established ovaries, in which nodes developed with a one-way connection to their host. In one human body infested with this tech, there would eventually be millions of them—leeching information, while keeping themselves hidden. She could only surmise that Skellor did not realize this until too late. Just not quick enough or clever enough. Interface an idiot with an AI and you surely end up with decrease in overall intelligence.


Understanding the trap, Orlandine intended to avoid it. But how? There would always be risks. She looked around her laboratory, up at the gimballed device containing the remains of the node, then down at the memcrystal banks in which she stored the bulk of the programming and structural information obtained from it. Perhaps now, with her situation becoming more urgent, it was the time to make a calculated increase of risk to herself? With her present buffering and cut-out systems, she could only expand her processing space by one quarter. Beyond that, things would begin to break down. A mycelium, then, to prevent the degradation of synapses in her organic brain and replace them with something more rugged? Of course she could record herself completely to crystal and just let that primeval organ die… No, the haiman ethos was based on acquiring human/Al synergy, and recorded to crystal she would become fully AI. But would that be a bad thing?


Orlandine slammed a fist back against the crashfoam wall. She refused to cease being who she was. It all came back to human time and utterly human impulses: in the end, gods did not appreciate godlike power, but humans did. Why scrabble after such power if in the process it changes you into something for which that power is just an aspect of yourself no more important than being able to walk or see or hear? No advance there, just a relocation. She would begin with the quarter increase of processing space, and link to the memcrystal banks—risk Jain incursions informationally—then she would consider applying a mycelium to herself. And then she would take the remaining Jain node apart just as fast as she could.

As she turned to set about this task she tried to ignore the small whisper inside: All about power, then…

* * * *

With his ship still in U-space, Blegg gazed coldly at the Jain node resting in its small chainglass cylinder. This then was the next stage: a second generation node more efficient at taking apart the human race than the one Skellor had picked up. Though keyed to humans, it did not react to Blegg himself. This was something he had pondered throughout the journey here, and from which he drew ineluctable conclusions.

With growing bitterness, Blegg returned his attention to the cockpit screen, across which the detection equipment displayed U-space as a representative map matching the layout of the Cassius system. On that map he recognized the signature for the node beside him, some distance out from one of the main construction stations. The second signature lay over on the other side of the sun, but blurred and dispersed. The equipment only informed him that what it detected there lay within a volume of space about the size of Jupiter. He considered tracking this signature down to its source by himself, but decided to wait until further forces arrived. He would use the time to reconnoitre first.

Surfacing his ship from U-space, he immediately linked in with part of his mind to the station AI. Within moments he learnt about heliometeorologist Maybrem’s recent promotion to station overseer after the abrupt and violent departure of the original overseer, Orlandine. Murder… after a love affair gone wrong. He would have ignored all this had the murder been committed by someone of lesser stature. But the previous overseer? That might be connected, somehow, to the presence of Jain technology here in this same system. He noted that the forensic AI still occupied the station, so decided to pay it a visit. An hour later he docked and disembarked into the station, to be greeted immediately by Maybrem.

The man was a curious combination; his archaic Caribbean holidaymaker garb contrasting sharply with the haiman carapace clinging to his back. His clothing was wrinkled, as if it had been worn for some time, and his face showed the lines of fatigue.

‘I have only a vague idea of the signature’s position,’ Blegg said. ‘What do you have?’

Maybrem led the way into the station. ‘My solar-weather satellites use U-space com, so I ran the search through them and have located it in Dyson segment fourteen, on the other side of the sun. As instructed, I’ve not moved anything any closer to it.’

‘Good,’ replied Blegg abruptly. ‘Now I would like to speak to the forensic AI.’

Maybrem led the way into a wide chamber where, up above, a hologram of the Cassius system slowly turned. A corridor leading off to one side brought them to a drop-shaft which took them up. Several corridors later they arrived at double panelled doors.

‘Here,’ the man indicated.

Blegg turned the polished brass knob and entered.

One of the new kinds that were modelled on social insects, the forensic AI consisted of a squirming mass of robotic ants like a ball of shiny metal swarf. It rested in the centre of a lounge furnished with a scattering of low marble tables and comfortable reclining chairs—looking as incongruous there as a sack of oily tools on an Axminster rug. A heavy-worlder man with black hair and bushy eyebrows slept in one of the chairs, a palm-com in his lap and his feet up on one table, beside a cup of skinned-over coffee. Two women sat facing each other at another table, busily delving with chrome chopsticks into a selection of porcelain bowls. They glanced up, tilted their heads for a moment as if listening, then returned to their meal. Blegg walked forward, aware that Maybrem did not follow—clearly the company of forensic AIs made even haimans nervous.

‘You.’ The voice issued from within the moving ball.

‘So you would assume,’ Blegg replied. ‘Was it just a sordid little murder, then?’

‘So I was being led to believe,’ replied the AI, ‘but your presence here pushes cumulative inconsistencies beyond coincidence.’

‘Those being?’

The dozing man harrumphed awake and took his feet from the table. He sat up, his palm-com toppling to brown carpet moss patterned with green and yellow vines. He leant over to pick it up, studied Blegg for a moment, then said, ‘While we were investigating, we had a visitor who destroyed a maintenance robot out on the station skin, entering through its port. The intruder then cut inside the station, for what purpose we don’t know.’

‘The connection?’ Blegg asked.

The man glanced at the AI, which said, ‘I am still analysing the data. Perhaps you can supply more?’

Blegg moved further into the room and took a seat by the man’s table. He mentally connected to the AI and studied the file it presented, which detailed the remains of the maintenance robot and speculations on how the visitor had destroyed it, then the subversion of security systems, the holes cut through the station skin and subsequently resealed.

‘I can supply little more relevant data,’ he said. ‘You already know from Maybrem that the node signature is located in Dyson segment fourteen.’

The dark-haired man glanced first at the AI, then at Blegg, before frowning and beginning to call up data on his palm-com.

‘The techniques used to gain access can be equated with the use of Jain technology,’ said the AI.

‘Theorize,’ Blegg instructed sharply—no social niceties since he did not feel very nice.

‘Orlandine has obtained Jain technology.’

‘That a signature has been detected indicates the technology has not yet been released… or wholly released. And why would Orlandine come back here?’ Blegg obtained more facts from the AI. ‘After the Heliotrope dropped into U-space.’

‘Her psyche profile highlights her close attachment to this project. She would not readily abandon it, and she could return as easily as she left.’


‘She somehow obtained a Jain node, U-jumped out of the system then back in again, concealed herself inside the Dyson segment where she has since unravelled some of that node’s secrets. Using Jain tech to gain entry, she returned here to check on the progress of my investigation.’

‘Orlandine is haiman, and was the overseer of this station—she would not therefore have needed Jain tech to gain access here.’

‘One thing,’ said the man with them. Blegg looked over at him, then caught the palm-com tossed in his direction. He studied the screen as the man continued, ‘Just twenty minutes before the explosion she ordered extra supplies to be loaded onto the Heliotrope. That in itself did not seem the action of someone deranged and desperate, but could be discounted until now. Check the list there — item eight.’

‘Shielding,’ said Blegg.

‘More data,’ announced the AI.

‘Yes, it is.’

‘No, I mean more data is arriving.’


‘A Centurion ship called the Not Entirely Jack.’

‘Ah,’ sighed Blegg, ‘the serendipity of a holistic universe.’

With no reply forthcoming from the AI, the man observed, ‘Forensic AIs are not noted for their sense of humour.’

‘I wasn’t joking,’ said Blegg.

— retroact 7 -

… He turned to another card, saw them laid out all around him like gravestones.

He could have transported down here from the attack ship but, being only able to transport himself and a limited number of items through U-space, he required this shuttle. Many items here, some of them quite large, needed to be lifted out for ECS to study. Bringing his shuttle in along the five-mile trail of destruction, he eyed the hulk lying where it terminated. Security forces had set out a cordon of drones around the hulk but there were no sightseers out here anyway, and none back in Tuscor City who might wish to become such. Most of them were more interested in getting themselves safely through one of the few runcible facilities, or else aboard one of the evacuation craft.

The Prador scout craft seemed almost intact, despite recent encounters with an ECS dreadnought, a planetary defence station, and finally with the ground. It had exotic-metal armour, the Prador’s big advantage over the Polity—that and the fact they possessed many more ships. It all seemed on the turn, however, now the big Polity shipyards were up and running, but an easy win was still out of the question. Earth Central calculated that another five worlds would be lost to the Polity before ECS pushed the Prador forces into retreat. Billions more would die, the war dragging on for at least another twenty years, and then the Polity would still be picking up the pieces for centuries afterwards. Maybe Blegg could find something here to make the Earth Central AI feel a bit more optimistic.

Blegg brought his shuttle in over the cordon, and down, observing autoguns tracking him. Landing, he saw an armoured gravcar and transport speeding over his way, and when he finally stepped from his vessel, troops piled out of the gravcar. It seemed almost as if the attack ship AI had not informed them of his arrival. He learned differently when the ECS commander approached him.

‘Problem?’ Blegg enquired of the woman who stood before him. Her troops headed over to the transport, where they quickly began unloading items strapped to AG pallets.

She nodded slowly. ‘As you came in we got the news: a Prador dreadnought just entered the system.’

Blegg immediately communicated mind-to-mind with the AI of the attack ship far above. ‘Why didn’t you inform me?’

‘Because you were about to find out anyway, and I have more important concerns than keeping you informed.’ replied Yellow Cloud.

‘How long do I have?’

‘A minimum of three hours’

Blegg turned and glanced down the length of his shuttle, sending a command to the onboard computer to open the hold. The ramp door whoomphed out from its seals and slowly began to hinge down on rams. He turned back to the commander, ‘What have you got so far?’

She turned and led the way to where her troops were now towing the floating pallets over the rough ground. Gesturing to one, on which a bulky object lay shrouded in plastic, she said, ‘We got the pilot—almost intact.’

Blegg eyed the object, then the men who were moving it. ‘How many people do you have here?’


‘What about the rest?’ Blegg gestured to the other pallets.

‘The remains of a particle beam weapon, a thermal generator, a missile launcher and what looks like a Prador biological weapon.’

‘What’s your route out of here?’ Blegg asked.

She pointed back towards the city. ‘Same as everyone else.’

‘Very well. Dump the Prador—we’ve more than enough of their corpses on ice. Dump the launcher and the thermal generator—we already know how they work. You have three xenotechs here with you?’


‘I want them with me, along with all their equipment. Load everything else here and order the rest of your people aboard.’

The commander looked suddenly very relieved.

‘Yellow Cloud?’ Blegg sent. ‘I’m sending most of these troops to you, along with one or two possibly useful items. Please take control of the shuttle and launch it the moment they are aboard. Once you have them and those items aboard, send the shuttle back.’

‘That will not leave you much time.’

‘But time enough to remove as much corn-storage as we can find.’

The commander stayed, along with the three xenotechs, one of them towing a floating tool chest while the other two carried tool packs on their backs. Just as the shuttle lifted, Blegg led the way into the dank interior of the scout ship. A single entry tunnel, wide and cavelike enough to permit access for a body considerably larger than any human, led to an oblate sanctum where the Prador first-child had operated the ship’s alien consoles. Ship lice the size of a man’s shoe crawled over ragged stony walls that were coated with pale green blooms of weed. The pit-console projected from the floor like a huge coral, and an array of hexagonal screens formed most of the forward wall.

Standing between console and screens, Blegg pointed to the floor. ‘See this?’ He then traced an outline with the toe of his boot. ‘The memstorage should be right under here. It won’t be booby-trapped, since the Prador are reliant on their encryption—they still haven’t figured out just how easily AIs can break it.’

As one of the techs began slicing through the floor metal with a diamond saw, the commander asked, ‘How do you know this?’

‘I’ve been breaking open these things since the very beginning.’

‘Who are you anyway? No one told me your name.’

‘Horace Blegg.’

Everyone glanced round.

‘You know, there are quite a few people who think you’re a myth.’

‘Keep working,’ Blegg ordered the techs. ‘We don’t have much time.’

They finally levered up a section of the floor to expose a stack of black octohedrons looking like some kind of alien caviar, nesting amid optics and power cables.

‘Just cut all round. You won’t damage anything.’ Blegg turned to the man with the floating tool chest. ‘Dump your tools. We’ll use that’—he pointed to the chest—‘to transport them.’

Soon the octohedrons were gathered up and loaded, and with relief they left the dark, damp interior of the Prador scout ship and headed out to where Blegg’s shuttle had landed earlier. The sun, a green-blue orb, nested in tangerine clouds on the horizon, as stars began to wink into being in the azure firmament.

‘I take it the shuttle is on its way?’ Blegg sent.

There came no reply.

‘Yellow Cloud?’

Checking his watch he saw that an hour yet remained of the three hours stipulated. Blegg concentrated, slinging his consciousness out in search of the attack ship, and picked up fractured communications… missiles on your ten… rail-gun… Where did it… but they said… Also fractured images of broken hulls belching oxygen fires into vacuum, with no gravity to give the flames shape… growing spherical explosions, glittering trails of wreckage, a man screaming as he fell towards the world, spacesuit intact but beginning to heat up.

‘Blegg,’ came the communication from Yellow Cloud, ‘I’m sorry.’ A U-space signature followed, as the attack ship fled the system.

Returning to the surface of the world, Horace Blegg looked up and discovered that not all those lights up there were stars. He turned and gazed at his two companions.

‘We have a problem,’ he began.

Light, magnesium bright, dispelled the twilight. Looking to his left, Blegg saw only flames now where Tuscor City had been, a wall of fire eating up the intervening terrain.

‘Yeah, that’s a problem,’ the commander had time to say.

Then it was upon them.

— retroact ends -

The moment the King of Hearts surfaced into the real, it came under intense and massive scanning, and thousands of objects began to stir within the gas clouds. King scanned them in return, but the images received remained hazy until some of the same objects began to enter clear vacuum. King expected to see recognizable ships—those that departed the Polity with Erebus—but there were none like that visible. What the AI saw here instead seemed entirely alien. It appeared the attack ship had landed itself in some vast trap and on every level something was trying to grasp hold of it. King opened secure coms and tried to separate out something coherent from the layers of informational assaults.

‘I am not with the Polity,’ sent the attack ship AI.

No single voice replied—it all seemed the maddened howl of a mob.

‘Let me speak with Erebus.’

U-space signatures now, where those mysterious objects gathered—then close by. Something big dropped into being first, then the surrounding spacial density began to increase sharply as other things arrived. Less than a microsecond afterwards, the AI detected growing U-space interference and the hot touch of targeting lasers, and dropped the King of Hearts into U-space, an instant later surfacing 100,000 miles away.

‘Speak to me—I am not an enemy.’

The reply was a consensual scream, ‘Open completely!’