Fallen Dragon

by Peter F. Hamilton



An AOL Time Warner Company This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.


Copyright © 2002 by Peter F. Hamilton All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

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Cover illustration by Jim Burns

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An AOL Time Warner Company Printed in the United States of America Originally published in hardcover by Warner Books.

First Paperback Printing: March 2003


For Kate, who said yes


Time was when the bar would have welcomed a man from Zantiu-Braun's strategic security division, given him his first beer on the house and listened with keen admiration to his stories of life as it was lived oh so differently out among the new colony planets. But then that could be said of anywhere on Earth halfway through the twenty-fourth century. In the public conscience, the glamour of interstellar expansion was fading like the enchantment of an aging actress.

As with most things in the universe, it was all the fault of money.

The bar lacked money. Lawrence Newton could see that as soon as he walked in. It hadn't been refurbished in decades. A long wooden room with thick rafters holding up the corrugated carbon-sheet roof, a counter running its length, dull neon adverts for extinct brands of beers and ice creams on the wall behind. Big rotary fans that had survived a couple of centuries past their warranty date turned above him, primitive electric motors buzzing as they stirred the muggy air.

This was the way of things in Kuranda. Sitting high in the rocky tablelands above Cairns, it had enjoyed long profitable years as one of Queensland's top tourist-trap towns. Sweating, sunburned Europeans and Japanese had made their way up over the rain forest on the skycable, marveling at the lush vegetation before traipsing round the curio shops and restaurant bars that made up the main street Then they'd take the ancient railway down along Barron Valley Gorge to marvel once again, this time at the jagged rock cliffs and white foaming waterfalls along the route.

Although tourists did still come to admire northern Queensland's natural beauty, they were mostly corporate families that Z-B had rotated to its sprawling spaceport base that now dominated Cairns physically and economically. They didn't have much spare cash for authentic Aboriginal print T-shirts and didgeridoos and hand-carved charms representing the spirit of the land, so the shops along Kuranda's main street declined until only the hardiest and cheapest were left—themselves a strong disincentive to visit and stay awhile. Nowadays people got off the skycable terminus and walked straight across to the pretty 1920s-era train station a couple of hundred meters away, ignoring the town altogether.

It left the surviving bars free for the local men to use. They were good at that. There was nothing else for them. Z-B brought in its own technicians to run the base, skilled overseas staff with degrees and spaceware engineering experience. Statutory local employment initiatives were for the crappiest manual jobs. No Kuranda man would sign up. Wrong culture.

That made the bar just about perfect for Lawrence. He paused in the doorway to scan its interior as a formation of TVL88 tactical support helicopters thundered overhead on their way to the Port Douglas practice range away in the north. A dozen or so blokes were inside, sheltering from the evil midday sun. Big fellas, all of them, with fleshy faces red from the first round of the day's beers. A couple were playing pool, one solitary, dedicated drinker up at the bar, the rest huddled in small groups at tables along the rear wall. His brain in full tactical mode, Lawrence immediately picked out potential exit points.

The men watched silently as he walked over to the counter and took off his straw hat with its ridiculously wide brim. He ordered a tin of beer from the middle-aged barmaid. Even though he was in civilian clothes, a pair of blue knee-length shorts and a baggy Great Barrier Reef T-shirt, his straight back and rigid crew-cut marked him out as a Z-B squaddie. They knew it; he knew they knew.

He paid for the weak beer in cash, slapping the dirty Pacific Dollar notes down on the wood. If the barmaid noticed his right hand and forearm were larger than they should be, she kept quiet about it. He mumbled at her to keep the change.

The man Lawrence wanted was sitting by himself, only one table away from the back door. His hat, crumpled on the table next to his beer, had a rim as broad as Lawrence's.

"Couldn't you have chosen somewhere more out of the way?" Staff Lieutenant Colin Schmidt asked. The guttural Germanic tone made several of the local men look around, eyes narrowing with instinctive suspicion.

"This place suits," Lawrence told him. He'd known Colin for all of the full twenty years he'd spent in Z-B's strategic security division. The two of them had been in basic training together back in Toulouse. Green nineteen-year-old kids jumping the fence at nights to get to the town with its clubs and girls. Colin had applied for officer training several years later, after the Quation campaign: a careerist move that had never really worked out. He didn't have the kind of drive the company wanted, nor the level of share ownership that most other young officers had to put them ahead. In fifteen years he'd moved steadily sideward until he wound up in Strategic Planning, a glorified errand boy for artificial sentience programs running resource-allocation software.

"What the hell did you want to ask me you couldn't say it down at the base?"

"I want an assignment for my platoon," Lawrence said. "You can get it for me."

"What kind of assignment?"

"One on Thallspring."

Colin swigged from his beer tin. When he spoke his voice was low, guilty. "Who said anything about Thallspring?"

"It's where we're going for our next asset realization." On cue, another flight of TVL88s swept low over the town; with their rotors running out of stealth mode the noise was enough to rattle the corrugated roof. All eyes flicked upward as they drowned conversation. "Come on, Colin, you're not going to pull the bullshit need-to-know routine on me, are you? Who the hell can warn the poor bastards we're invading them? They're twenty-three light-years away. Everybody on the base knows where we're going—most of Cairns, too."

"Okay, okay. What do you want?"

"A posting to the Memu Bay task force."

"Never heard of it."

"Not surprised. Crappy little marine and bioindustry zone, about four and a half thousand kilometers from the capital. I was stationed there last time."

"Ah." Colin relaxed his grip on the beer tin as he started to work out angles. "What's there?"

"Z-B will take the biochemicals and engineering products; that's all that's on the asset list. Anything else... well, it leaves scope for some private realization. If you're an enterprising kind of guy."

"Shit, Lawrence, I thought you were a straighter arrow than me. What happened to getting a big enough stake to qualify for starship officer?"

"Nearly twenty years, and I've made sergeant. I got that because Ntoko never made it back from Santa Chico."

"Christ, Santa fucking Chico. I forgot you were on that one." Colin shook his head at the memory. Modern historians were comparing Santa Chico to Napoleon's invasion of Russia. "Okay, I get you posted to Memu Bay. What do I see?"

"Ten percent."

"A good figure. Of what?"

"Of whatever's there."

"Don't tell me you've found the final episode of Fleas on the Horizon?"

"That's Flight: Horizon. But no; no such luck." Lawrence's face remained impassive.

"I got to trust you, huh?"

"You got to trust me."

"I think I can manage that."

"There's more. I need you at Durrell, the capital, in the Logistics Division. You'll have to arrange secure transport for us afterward, probably a medevac—but I'll leave that to you. Find a pilot who won't ask questions about lifting our cargo into orbit."

"Find one who would." Colin grinned. "Bent bastards."

"He has to be on the level with me. I will not be ripped off. Understand? Not with this."

Colin's humor faded as he saw how much dark anger there was in his old friend's expression. "Sure, Lawrence, you can rely on me. What sort of mass are we talking about?"

"I don't know for certain. But if I'm right, about a backpack per man. It'll be enough to buy a management stake for each of us."

"Hot damn! Easy meat."

They touched the rims of their tins and drank to that. Lawrence saw three of the locals nod in agreement, and stand up.

"You got a car?" he asked Colin.

"Sure: you said not to use the train."

"Get to it. Get clear. I'll take care of this."

Colin looked at the approaching men, making the calculation. He wasn't frontline, hadn't been for years. "See you on Thallspring." He jammed on his stupid hat and took the three steps to the back door.

Lawrence stood up and faced the men, sighing heavily. It was the wrong day for them to go around pissing on trees to mark their territory. This bar had been carefully chosen so the meeting would go unnoticed by anyone at Z-B. And Thallspring was going to be the last shot he'd ever get at any kind of a decent future. That didn't leave him with a lot of choice.

The one at the front, the biggest, naturally, had the tight smile of a man who knew he was about to score the winning goal. His two compadres were sidling up behind, one barely out of his teens, swigging from a tin, the other in a slim denim waistcoat that showed off glowmote tattoos distorted by old knife scars. An invincible trio.

It would start with one of them making some comment: Thought you company people were too good to drink with us. Not that it mattered what was actually said. The act of speaking was a way of ego pumping until one of them was hot enough to throw the first punch. Same dumb-ass ritual in every low-life bar on every human planet.

"Don't," Lawrence said flatly, before they got started. "Just shut up and go sit down. I'm leaving, okay."

The big fella gave his friends a knowing I-told-you-he-was-chickenshit grin and snorted contempt for Lawrence's bravado. "You ain't going nowhere, company boy." He drew his huge fist back.

Lawrence tilted from the waist, automatic and fast. His leg kicked out, boot heel smashing into the big fella's knee. The one in the denim waistcoat picked up a chair and swung it at Lawrence's head. Lawrence's thick right arm came up to block the unwieldy club. One leg of the chair hit full on, just above his elbow, and stopped dead. Its impact didn't even make Lawrence blink, let alone grunt in pain. The man staggered back as his balance was slung all to hell. It was like he'd hit solid stone. He stared at Lawrence's arm, eyes widening as realization hammered through the drink.

All around the bar, men were pushing back chairs and rising. Coming to help their mates.

"No!" the man in the waistcoat shouted. "He's in Skin!"

It made no difference. The youngster was going for the big bowie knife in his belt scabbard, and nobody was paying any attention to warnings as they closed in.

Lawrence raised his right arm high, punching the air. He could feel a gentle rippling against his wrists as peristaltic muscles brought the darts forward out of their magazine sacs into launch tubules. A ring of small dry slits peeled open above his carpals, black nozzles poking out. The dart swarm erupted.

As he left the bar, Lawrence turned the cardboard sign on the door so it said closed and shut it behind him. He made sure his hat was on square, a fussy action, covering his anger. God damn the Armory Division. Those bastards never erred on the side of caution, always on the side of overkill. He'd seen two of the men lying on the floor start to convulse, the dart toxin levels set way too high for a simple incapacitation sting. The bar was going to get very noisy with police, very quickly.

A South American couple was sitting at one of the tables on the bar's veranda, studying the laminated menu. Lawrence smiled politely at them and walked off down the main street back to the skycable terminus.

* * *

Ambulances and police vehicles were parked down the length of Kuranda's main street when Simon Roderick's TVL77D executive liaison helicopter whispered over the town. They were at all sorts of angles to each other, completely blocking the road for thirty meters on either side of the bar. There were obviously no traffic regulator nodes to guide anybody through Kuranda's streets. Thoroughly in keeping with the town's doughty throwback nature. He shook his head in bemusement at the chaos. Emergency service drivers could never resist the dramatic slam-halt arrival. Tough luck if one of the injured needed a paramedic crew urgently; the closest vehicles were all police. Paramedics clad in green boilersuits were maneuvering stretchers around awkward angles, sweaty faces straining from the effort.

"God, what a bunch of no-brainers," Adul Quan complained from the seat behind Simon. The Third Fleet intelligence operative had pressed his face against the helicopter's side window so he could view the town directly. He never liked utilizing sensor feeds through his direct neural interface, claiming the viewpoint switch made him giddy. "We should bid to manage the state's civil operations. At least offer them AS coordination, bring them into this century."

"We have the urban area franchise," Simon replied. "And all our people have some kind of medical monitor fitted in case there's a problem. We can retrieve them wherever they are. That's what matters."

"Good PR, though. Devoting resources to helping civilians."

"If they want our help they should take a stake in us, contribute and participate."

"Yes, sir."

Simon heard the skepticism in the other's voice and made no comment. To get where he was, Adul had built up a large stake in Z-B, but even that couldn't make him understand what true belonging meant. In truth, Simon thought, no one except himself did. That would change eventually.

Simon used his DNI to feed a series of commands to the autopilot, and the helicopter swung round over the little circular park at the top end of the main street. As he came back to the scrubland truck lot he'd identified as a landing zone, he saw that some kids had spray painted an open eye on the corrugated roof of a derelict shop. The fading green and blue symbol was big enough to stare up at all the strategic security division helicopters that zipped through the tropical skies above the town. Like a perfect portrait painting, its gaze followed Simon as the TVL77D extended its undercarriage and sank down on the baked-mud surface. Rotor downwash sent a flurry of crushed tins and junk-food wrappers tumbling away from them as the fuselage lost its gray sky-blur integument, reverting to ominous matte black.

He paused for a moment as the turbines wound down. His personal AS had extended trawlers to retrieve all the emergency service e-traffic within the local datapool. The relevant messages were relayed straight through his DNI. A display grid snapped up within his apparent field of vision, its indigo color, invisible to the human eye, ensuring it didn't obscure anything in his actual physical sight. But for all the torrent of information presented to him, he was still left lamentably short of hard facts. Nobody on the scene had yet established what had actually happened. So far they just had the one unconfirmed report of a suited Skin running amok.

His attention flicked to one of the medical grids. He called it up, and five high-resolution graphs expanded for him as he stepped from the helicopter cabin. The handheld blood analyzers that the paramedic teams were applying to the victims were establishing links to the Cairns General Hospital's databank, working through chemical profiles to identify the agent involved in the poisoning.

Simon put on a pair of old-fashioned wraparound sunglasses. "Interesting," he murmured. "Do you see this?" He had sent copies of the analyzer results to Z-B's bioweapons division AS, which gave him a positive match on the agent His DNI relayed the secure package to Adul.

"Skin toxin," Adul observed. "An updosed incapacitation shot." He shook his head in disapproval before unfolding his own sunshade membranes across his nose. "One definite fatality. And those two with allergic reactions are going to wind up with nerve damage."

"If they're lucky," Simon said. "And only if these paramedics get them to the hospital fast enough." He ran a hand over his brow, dabbing at a thin layer of perspiration that had already accumulated in the intense heat "Shall I have the antidote dispatched to the emergency room?"

"Incapacitation toxins don't need an antidote; they clear automatically. It's what they're designed for."

"That dosage level will put a hell of a strain on their kidneys, though."

Simon stopped and looked at Adul. "My dear fellow, we're here to investigate how and why it was used, not to act as nursemaid to a bunch of retarded civilians who are too slow to duck in the first place."

"Yes, sir."

It was that tone again. Simon thought he might soon be reconsidering Adul's usefulness as a security operative. In his business, empathy was a valuable trait, but when it veered into sympathy...

The pair of them threaded their way through the maze of emergency vehicles parked along the main street. The few clear passages were clogged by people: locals, sullen and silent, and a few tourists, frightened and excited. Around the bar's veranda, police officers in their shorts and crisp white shirts milled about trying to look as if they had a reason and purpose. Their chief, a tall captain in her mid-forties, wearing full navy blue uniform, stood beside the rail, listening to a young constable making his excitable report.

Simon's personal AS informed him the officer in charge was Captain Jane Finemore. A script page containing her service record expanded out of the grid. He scanned it briefly and dismissed it.

All the police fell silent as Simon and Adul made their way forward. The captain turned; there was a flash of contempt as she took in Adul's mauve Z-B fleet tunic; then her face went protectively blank as she saw Simon in his conservative business suit, jacket slung casually over his shoulder.

"Can I help you fellas?" she asked.

"I rather fear it's the other way round, Captain... ah, Finemore," Simon said, smiling as he made a show of reading her discreet lapel name badge. "We intercepted a report that indicates someone in a Skin suit was engaged in hostile action here."

She was about to answer when the bar's doors slammed open and a paramedic team carrying a stretcher hurried out. Simon flattened himself against the veranda railing, allowing them past. Various medical bracelets had been applied to the patient's neck and arms, small indicator lights winking urgently. He was unconscious, but twitching strongly.

"I haven't confirmed that yet," an irritated Captain Finemore said when the paramedics were clear.

"But that was the initial report," Simon said. "I'd like to establish its validity as a matter of urgency. If someone in Skin is running loose, he needs to be dealt with immediately, before the situation deteriorates any further."

"I am aware of that," Captain Finemore said. "I've put our Armed Tactical Response Team on standby."

"With all respect, Captain, I feel this would be best dealt with by a counter-insurgency squad from our own internal security division. A Skin suit would give the wearer an enormous advantage over your ATR team."

"Are you saying you don't think we can handle this?"

"I'm offering every facility to ensure that you do."

"Well, gee, thanks. I don't know what we would do without you."

Simon's smile remained in place as various police officers snickered around him. "If I could ask, where did that original report come from?"

Captain Finemore jerked her head toward the bar. "The waitress. She was hiding behind the bar when your man opened fire. None of the darts hit her."

"I'd like to talk to her, please."

"She's still in a lot of shock. I've got some specially trained officers talking to her."

Simon used his DNI to route a message through his personal AS. The captain wouldn't have a DNI herself— Queensland State Police budget didn't run to that—but he could see her irises had a purple tint; she was fitted with standard commercial optronic membranes for fast data access. "Did nobody else witness this man in a Skin suit? He would hardly be unobtrusive."

"No." The captain stiffened as the script scrolled down across her membranes. "There was just the one sighting." She was talking slowly now, measuring every word. "That's why I haven't ordered a general containment area around the town yet."

"Then finding out is your first priority. The longer you wait, the wider the containment area, and the less likely it will succeed."

"I've already got cars patrolling along the main road to Cairns, and officers are covering the skycable terminus and the train station."

"Excellent. May I sit in on the waitress's interview now?"

Captain Finemore stared at him. His warning message had been very clear and backed by the state governor's office. But it had been private, enabling her to save face in front of her officers—unless she chose to make it public and destroy her career in a flare of glory. "Yeah, she'll probably be over the worst by now." Said as if she were granting a favor.

"Thank you. That's most kind." Simon pushed the bar's door open and went inside.

Over a dozen paramedics were in the bar, kneeling beside the toxin victims. Orders and queries were shouted among them. They rummaged desperately through their bags to try to find relevant counteragents; medical equipment was strewn about carelessly. Their optronic membranes were thick with script on possible treatments.

The victims shuddered and juddered, heels drumming on the floorboards. They sweated profusely, whimpering at painful nightmares. One was sealed in a black bodybag.

It was nothing Simon hadn't seen before during asset-realization campaigns. Usually on a much larger scale. A single Skin carried enough ammunition to stop an entire mob dead in the street. He stepped gingerly around the bodies, trying not to disturb the paramedics. Police officers and forensic crews were examining walls and tables, adding to the general melee.

The waitress was sitting up at the counter at the far end of the bar, one hand closed tightly round a tumbler of whiskey. She was a middle-aged woman with a fleshy face and permed hair in an out-of-date fashion. Not really seeing or hearing anything going on around her.

Clearly there wasn't a single viral-written chromosome in her DNA, Simon decided with considerable distaste. Given her background, the absence of such v-writing inevitably meant she had low intelligence, bad physiology and zero aspirations. She was one of life's perpetual underdogs.

A female police officer sat on a barstool beside the waitress, a sympathetic expression on her face. If she'd taken in any of her specialist training, Simon thought, the first thing she would have done was move the woman outside, away from the scene.

His AS was unable to find the waitress's name. Apparently, the bar didn't have any kind of accountancy and management programs. The AS couldn't even find a registered link to the datapool; all it had was a phone line.

Simon sat down on the empty barstool next to the waitress. "Hello there. How are you feeling now, er...?"

Weepy eyes focused on him. "Sharlene," she whispered.

"Sharlene. A nasty thing to happen to anyone." He smiled at the police officer. "I'd like to talk to Sharlene alone for a moment, please."

She gave him a resentful look, but got up and walked off. No doubt going to complain to Finemore.

Adul stood behind Sharlene, surveying the bar. People tended to take a wide detour around him.

"I need to know what happened," Simon said. "And I do need to know rather quickly. I'm sorry."

"Jesus," Sharlene shivered. "I just want to forget about it, y'know." She tried to lift the whiskey to her lips. Blinked in surprise when she found Simon's hand on top of hers, preventing the tumbler from moving off the countertop.

"He frightened you, didn't he?"

"Too damn right."

"That's understandable. As you saw, he could cause you a great deal of physical discomfort. I, on the other hand, can destroy your entire life with a single call. But I won't stop there. I will obliterate your family as well. No jobs for any of them. Ever. Just welfare and junk for generations. And if you annoy me any more, I'll see you disqualified from welfare, too. Do you want you and your mother to be whores for Z-B squaddies, Sharlene? Because that's all I'll leave you with. The pair of you will be fucked into an early diseased death down on the Cairns Strip."

Sharlene's jaw dropped.

"Now, you tell me what I want to know. Focus that pathetic mush of flesh you call a brain, and I might even see you get a reward. Which way do you want to go, Sharlene? Annoyance or cooperation?"

"I want to help," she stammered fearfully.

Simon smiled wide. "Splendid. Now, was he wearing a Skin suit?"

"No. Not really. It was his arm. I saw it when he bought his beer. It was all fat, and a funny color."

"As if he had a suntan?"

"Yeah. That's it. Dark, but not as dark as an Aboriginal."

"Just his arm?"

"Yeah. But he had the valves on his neck, too. You know, like Frankenstein bolts, but made from flesh. I could see them just above his collar."

"You're sure about that?"

"Yes. I'm not making this up. He was a Zantiu-Braun squaddie."

"So what happened: he walked in and shot everyone?"

"No. He was talking to some bloke. Then Jack and a couple of the others went over. I guess they were looking for trouble. Jack's like that; a good bloke really, though. That's when it happened."

"The man fired darts that knocked everyone out?"

"Yes. I saw him hold his hand up high, and someone shouted that he was in Skin. I got down behind the counter. Then I heard everyone screaming and falling. When I got up, they were all just lying there. I thought... thought they were all dead."

"And you called the police."


"Had you ever seen this man before?"

"I don't think so. But he might have been in. We get a lot of people in here, you know."

Simon glanced round the bar, and just avoided wrinkling his nose in disgust. "I'm sure you do. What about the person he was talking to—have you seen him before?"

"No. But—"


"He was Zantiu-Braun as well."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah. I've worked in bars all around Cairns. You get to recognize the squaddies, not just from their valves."

"Very well. So the shooter came in and bought a beer, then went straight over to the other squaddie, is that right?"

"Yes. That's about it."

"Try to remember, did either of them seem surprised that the other was there?"

"No. The one who was here first was drinking by himself, like he was waiting for the other."

"Thank you. You've been most helpful."

Captain Finemore gave Simon a surprised look when he emerged from the bar. "What happened?"

"Nothing," he said. "It wasn't a Skin suit He was using some kind of scatter pistol. I expect the dart toxin was produced in an underground lab. Shame the chemist wasn't a bit more attentive to the actual molecular structure when he attempted to retrosynth it."

"A shame?" The line of Captain Finemore's lips was set hard. "We've got one dead, and Christ alone knows if the rest of them will recover."

"Then you'll be glad we're getting out of your hair." Simon gestured along the clutter and confusion of Kuranda's main street. "It's all yours. But if you do need any help rounding the shooter up, then don't hesitate to ask. Our boys can always do with a bit of live training."

"I'll keep it in mind," Finemore said.

As before, police and civilians parted for him with sullen, silent resentment. He ran quickly through the TVL77D's start-up procedure and lifted from the baked mud. His personal AS reported there was no unauthorized removal of a Skin suit from the Cairns base armory.

"Check this out for me," he told Adul. "I want to know who it was walking round in Skin."

"Some squaddie got jumped in a bar. Do you really think it's that important?"

"The incident isn't. The fact that there's no reference to Skin missing is. And I'm curious why two of our people should choose to meet in such a godforsaken place."

"Yes, sir."

Zantiu-Braun's Third Fleet base centered on the old Cairns International Airport just to the north of the town. There were no commercial flights there anymore; the main transport link was the TranzAus magrail train, bringing cargo and people northward with smooth efficiency at five hundred kilometers an hour. Now the parking aprons held squadrons of Third Fleet helicopters along with scramjet-powered spaceplanes and a few dark, missilelike executive supersonic jets; eight old lumbering turboprop craft maintained by Z-B provided a civil coastwatch and rescue service all the way out to New Guinea. As a result, the airspace over Cairns was the busiest section in Australia apart from Sydney, where the remaining airlines had their hub. Synthetic hihydrogen fuels had replaced natural petroleum products, ecologically sounder but relatively expensive to produce, the cost pushing air travel right back where it started in the twentieth century, the preserve of governments, corporations and the rich.

With mass tourism dying and agriculture effectively eliminated by vat-grown food and worsening ultraviolet infall, Queensland was fast becoming an economic wasteland in 2265 when Zantiu-Braun was offered zero-tax start-up incentives to site a new wave of Earth-to-orbit operations there.

In those days, the operation was purely commercial. Freight spaceplanes boosted factory station modules to loworbit stations and returned with valuable microgee products, while the passenger variants ferried colonists up to starships. After 2307 that all began to change. Asset realization became the new priority, and the nature of the cargoes that the space-planes hauled up to low orbit switched accordingly. The number of colonists flying from Cairns fell to zero inside of a decade, replaced by strategic security personnel. Third Fleet support systems took over from industrial shipments.

The base expanded, throwing up barracks and married quarters for the strategic security division squaddies. Engineering and technical support constructed themselves ranks of blank warehouselike buildings. New hangars and maintenance shops sprang up to house and service the helicopters. Huge swaths of government land were rented for training grounds. And, essentially, all of the new arrivals required administration. Glass and marble office towers rose up in the foothills, overlooking the base and the ocean beyond.

Simon Roderick had an office that occupied half of the top floor of the Quadrill block, the newest and plushest of Z-B's little managerial division enclaves. As soon as he landed the helicopter on the rooftop pad he was plunged into yet another round of planning committees and tactical meetings. Senior staff came in and went out of his office as if it were some kind of transit lounge, each with his own proposal or complaint or report. For an age that relied so heavily on artificial sentience, it always astounded Simon that so little could be achieved without human intervention and supervision. People, basically, needed a damn good kick up the ass to get them motivated and acting like adults. Something not even quantum-switch neurotronic pearls could provide.

After three years on-site Simon knew he was going to have to make a drastic recommendation to the Zantiu-Braun Board after the Thallspring campaign. Forty-five years' constant expansion had made the Third Fleet strategic security division so top-heavy with officers and management specialists it was in danger of grinding to a halt from datalock. Everybody's office generated reports and requests on a continual daily basis; coordinating them even with AS routing management was becoming progressively more difficult. Loop involvement, which was the preparatory-stage management strategy, was a grand forward-looking idea, but after four decades of accumulated optimization the Third Fleet software had become classic bloatware, total deadweight. The theory behind loop involvement was excellent. Experience from the last campaign was inserted at base level. Last campaign, these specific platoons ran out of Skin bloodpaks ten days before the usage programs projected; this time therefore they added a special requirements appendant to the logistics profile of those same platoons. Who could argue against providing first-rate support on the front line? But the additional bloodpaks had to be lifted into orbit, which meant more spaceplane flights, which needed maintenance and flight crew time allocation, and fuel, all of which had to be meshed with the existing schedule. A domino effect that triggered an avalanche every time. Simon was convinced the entire Third Fleet structure needed simplifying to such an extent it would actually have to be decommissioned and a new organization formed to replace it One that had modern management procedures incorporated from the start.

For the last four months, since the Thallspring campaign planning had begun in earnest, he had concentrated on personally supervising the practical essentials, such as starship refit schedules, Skin numbers, helicopter availability, and basic equipment readiness. But then his total priority requests and orders had to be integrated into the already saturated command structure, creating another authority layer that the base management AS struggled to accommodate. He liked to think his intervention had speeded up the overall process, but there was no way of telling. Vanity of the ruling classes. We make a difference.

Adul Quan reappeared as the sun sank below the hills behind the base. Simon stood by the wall-window watching the thick gold sunbeams probe around the curved peaks as the last of the starship commanders filed out. In front of him the runway lights were becoming more pronounced, the street grid of some imaginary city, calling the helicopters home for the night. Away to the south, the neon corona of Cairns's Strip was already rising into the darkening sky. Down along the waterside, the clubs and casinos and bars were opening for trade, trashy games and girls smiling with bright come-on calculation at the squaddies.

There were times when Simon almost envied that kind of simple existence: fight, fuck and tune out, even though it was the antithesis of all he believed in. They didn't have to endure the same kind of pressure he experienced on a daily basis. It was one of the reasons he'd given the Kuranda shooter a higher priority than he probably should have. An excuse to get out of the office.

The office door swung shut after the last commander. "Have you got a name for me?" Simon asked.

"I'm afraid not, sir," Adul said. "It's a bit puzzling."

"Really?" Simon went back to his desk and sat down. He cleared the holographic panes of their script and graphs, giving the intelligence operative an expectant glance through the transparent glass. "Proceed."

"I checked the armory first. Skins that are being repaired seemed an obvious choice. Our man could have taken an arm while the computer log registered the suit as being worked on. I got every technician to report to me personally. They all swore their suits were fully integrated. No missing arms."

"One of them was the shooter?" Simon queried.

"Not a chance. You could slip out for maybe half an hour without anyone noticing, but not a trip to Kuranda. I had my personal AS review the internal security cameras, as well. They were all there."

"Okay. Go on."

"Next obvious source was a squaddie on training who slipped away. It can happen in the field easily enough. There were eighteen platoons undergoing training in Skin suits today. The nearest training ground to Kuranda was sixty-five kilometers. All the Skins arrived there this morning, and my AS queried every platoon leader to do an immediate head count this afternoon when I started investigating."

"Nobody missing?"

"Not one. I even got a list of squaddies who weren't actually on the training ground this afternoon. Three of them were injured; the hospital confirms where they were. Two had suit faults and got sent back to base; the armory confirms their location."


"So I checked with skyscan." He nodded at the holographic panes. His DNI routed the file images for him.

Simon watched the picture form in front of him. Kuranda's main street from directly above, reproduced in a slightly washed-out color. He recognized the roof with the graffito open eye. From there it was easy to work out which building was the bar. A couple of pickup trucks were using the street; a few people were scattered about. A white cursor ring began flashing around one man.

"That's our man," Adul said. "And God knows what he looks like."

Simon ordered an image expansion and smiled, rather enjoying the way this was turning out. Worthy opponent, and all that. The image quality left a lot to be desired. The little spy sats that Z-B used to monitor the entire Earth's surface were intended to provide only a general review cover. Their designated function was real-time coverage, where they could be programmed for full-focus resolution. But even so, the memory capacity was adequate for this; he couldn't mistake what he was seeing. "A big hat."

"Yes, sir. I backtracked the time index and followed him from the moment he stepped off the train at Kuranda station. He's wearing it the whole time, and he never looks up."

"What about the man he was meeting?"

"Same problem." The picture changed, with a time index eight minutes earlier. It showed a snap-motion image of a four-wheel-drive jeep pull up at the back of the bar. Someone got out and walked inside.

"Shopkeepers are obviously doing a roaring trade in these hats," Simon muttered. He leaned forward, peering at the frozen picture. "Isn't that one of our jeeps?"

"Yes, sir," Adul said heavily. "The skyscan got its number five-eight-six-seven-ADL-nine-six. According to the transport pool inventory, it was parked here all afternoon. I even used skyscan to track it leaving and arriving back at the base. It used gate twelve on both occasions, and I have the exact times. No record in the gate log."

"Is the gate log e-alpha guarded?" Simon asked sharply.

"No. Nor is the transport pool inventory. But it does use grade-three security encryption."

"They're good, then." Simon nodded approvingly at the holographic pane. "I'll bet you won't be able to backtrack the shooter getting on the train down at Cairns, nor off the sky-cable terminal, either."

"My AS is working on it."

Simon dismissed the image and swiveled his chair so he was facing the wall-window again. The impressive sunbeams had gone from the hills, leaving just stark silhouettes jutting against the fading sky. "They know how to avoid skyscan, and they can help themselves to equipment from the base without leaving any trace. That means they're either officers with high-level access codes, or very experienced squaddies who know the system from the inside. That waitress said she thought they were squaddies."

"That doesn't make any sense. Why would a couple of squaddies go to all that trouble just to have a drink together? They bust over the wire every goddamn night to get down to the Strip."

"Good question. They obviously thought it was worthwhile."

"What do you want me to do?"

"Keep working on it. But if that last backtrack doesn't produce any results, don't bust a ball. Oh, and keep in touch with dear Captain Finemore. I doubt she'll come up with anything, but you never know; we might see a miracle yet."

"So they get away with it."

"Looks like it. Whatever 'it' was."


It had rained steadily overnight, leaving memu Bay's stone-block streets slippery with water early in the morning when everyone was trying to get to work. Soon after, when the tropical sun rose above the ocean, the pale stone began to steam, boosting the humidity to an intolerable height. But by the afternoon everything had cleared, leaving a sweet cleanliness in the air.

Denise Ebourn took the children outside to enjoy what remained of the day. The playschool building was mostly open to the air, with a red clay tile roof standing on long brick pillars. Vigorous creepers swarmed up the pillars, crawling along the roof and clogging the gutters with diamond cascades of purple and scarlet flowers. Staying underneath the eaves wasn't exactly arduous, but like her little charges Denise wanted to be outside with the freedom it represented.

They raced out across the walled garden, cheering and skipping about, amazingly full of energy. Denise walked between the swings and slides, checking that they weren't overexerting themselves, or daring each other into anything dangerous. When she was happy they were behaving themselves as well as any five-year-olds could, she put both hands on top of the chest-high wall and took in a deep breath, gazing out across the little city.

The bulk of Memu Bay occupied a crescent of alluvial land at the end of a mountain range, a perfect natural sheltered harbor. Its more expensive homes clung to the lower slopes of the grassy hills: Roman villas and Californian-Spanish haciendas with the long steps of terraced gardens spilling down the slope in front of them. Sometimes a glimpse of shimmering turquoise betrayed a swimming pool lost amid palisades of tall poplars and elaborate rose-twined columns that surrounded broad sundecks. However, the majority of the urban zone sprawled out around the base of the mountains. As with all new human cities, it had broad tree-lined boulevards slicing clean through the center, fanning out into a network of smaller roads that made up the suburbs. Apartment blocks and commercial buildings alike were all painted plain white, dazzling in the bright afternoon sun, their smoked-glass windows inset like black spatial rifts. Balconies foamed over with trailing plants. Flat roofs sprouted sail-like solar panels that turned lazily to bake themselves in the intense light: they cast long shadows over the silver-rib heat dissipater fins of air conditioners that sprawled horizontally below them. Several parks broke up the city's aching glare, verdant green oases amid the whiteness; their lakes and fountains sparkled in the sun.

Denise always found the terrestrial vegetation a peculiar color, paradoxically unnatural. If she squinted inland, she could see the boundary just visible against the large mountains in the far distance. Terrestrial grass had pushed right up to the edge of the area sterilized by the gamma soak. Beyond that, Thallspring's indigenous vegetation swept away into the haze horizon. A more resolute color, reassuringly blue green; plants out there had bulbous, heavier leaves and glossy stems.

She'd grown up in the hinterlands—Arnoon Province, where human colonization had little impact on native life. Valleys of settlers escaping the restrictions of the majority civilization, as can be found on any human frontier. They lived amid alien beauty, where the vegetation could prove harmful to the unwary. Thallspring's botanical chemistry didn't produce the kind of proteins people or animals from Earth could digest. However, Arnoon's highland forests did cultivate the willow web, which the settlers harvested. When woven correctly it formed a silky waterproof wool that the city dwellers valued. It wasn't a fabulously profitable activity, but it allowed them to sustain their loose community. They were a quiet folk whose chosen life had given Denise a happy childhood, benefiting from the kind of rich education that only a starfaring species could provide while remaining firmly rooted in the nature of her adopted world. A life that was more secure than she ever realized because of their private cache of knowledge, subtly enforcing every core value of their lifestyle.

Her good fortune had lasted right up until the day the invaders arrived.

A burst of giggling broke her reverie. Several of the children were clustering behind her, urging Melanie forward. It was always Melanie: the boldest of them all, she didn't need any encouragement. A natural leader, not quite like her father the mayor, Denise thought. The little girl tugged at Denise's skirt, laughing wildly. "Please, miss," she implored. "A story. Tell us a story."

Denise put her hand to her throat, feigning surprise. "A story?"

"Yes, yes," the others chorused.

"Please," Melanie whined, her expression trembling into unbearable disappointment and the threat of tears.

"All right then." She patted Melanie's head as the others cheered. It was moments like this, when their smiles and adulation fell on her, that Denise knew everything was worthwhile.

At first, Mrs. Potchansky had been dubious about taking her on at the school. So young, barely in her twenties, and brought up in the hinterlands as well. Her youthcare certificates were all in order, but... Mrs. Potchansky had some very quaint old notions about propriety and the right way of doing things, ways probably unheard of in Arnoon Province. With a show of cool reluctance she'd agreed to Denise having a trial period; after all, a lot of very important people sent their children to the playschool.

That was a year ago now. And Denise had even been invited to Mrs. Potchansky's house for Sunday lunch with her own family. Social acceptance didn't come much higher in Memu Bay.

Denise sat herself down on one of the wooden swings, arms wrapping round the chains as she slipped her sandals off. The children settled on the grass in front of her, fidgety and expectant.

"I'm going to tell you the story of Mozark and Endoliyn, who lived a long time ago in the early days of the galaxy."

"Before the black heart started beating?" one of the boys shouted.

"Around the time it began to beat," she said. Many times she'd told the children of the galaxy's black heart, and how it ate up stars no matter what the Ring Empire did to try and stop it, which made them all squeal and gasp in fright. "This was when the Ring Empire was at the height of its power. It was made up from thousands of separate kingdoms, all of them united in peace and harmony. Its people lived on the stars that circled the core of the galaxy, trillions and trillions of them, happy and contented. They had machines that provided them with whatever they wanted, and most of them lived for thousands of years. It was a wonderful time to be alive, and Mozark was especially lucky because he was born a prince of one of the greatest kingdoms."

Jedzella stuck her hand up, fingers wriggling frantically. "Were they people just like us?"

"Their bodies were different," Denise said. "Some of the races who were members of the Empire had arms and legs similar to ours, some had wings, some had four legs, or six, or ten, some had tentacles, some were fish, and some were so big and scary that if you and I saw them we'd run away. But how do we judge people?"

"What they say and do," the children yelled happily, "never how they look."

"That's right. But Mozark did come from a race that looked a little like us. He had four arms, and eyes all the way round his head so he could see in every direction at once. His skin was bright green, and harder than ours, like leather. And he was smaller. Apart from that, he thought like we do, and went to school when he was growing up, and played games. He was nice, with all the qualities a prince should have, like kindness and wisdom and consideration. And all the people in the kingdom thought they were lucky to have a prince who was so obviously going to be a good ruler. When he was older he met Endoliyn, who was the most beautiful girl he'd ever seen. He fell in love with her the moment he saw her."

The children sighed and smiled.

"Was she a princess?"

"Was she poor?"

"Did they get married?"

"No," Denise said. "She wasn't a princess, but she was a member of what we'd call the nobility. And he did ask her to marry him. That's where this story starts. Because when he asked her, she didn't say yes or no; instead she asked him a question right back. She wanted to know what he was going to do with the kingdom when he became king. You see, although she was very comfortable and had great wealth and friends, she worried about what would fill her Me and how she would spend it. So Mozark answered that he would rule as best he could, and be just and listen to what his subjects wanted and endeavor not to let them down. Which is a very reasonable answer. But it wasn't enough for Endoliyn: she'd looked round at everything the kingdom had, all its fabulous treasures and knowledge, and it made her sad."

"Why?" they all gasped in surprise.

"Because everybody in the kingdom saw the same things, and did the same things, and was happy with the same things. There was never anything different in the kingdom. When you know everything and have everything, then nothing can be new. And that's what made her sad. She told Mozark she wanted a king who would be strong and bold, and lead his people. Not follow along and try to please everybody every time, because no person can really do that, you just wind up pleasing nobody. So she would only ever love and marry someone who inspired her."

"That's rude," Melanie declared. "If a prince asked me to marry him, I would."

"What prince?" Edmund sneered.

"Any prince. And that means when I'm a real princess you'll have to bow when I walk past."

"I won't!"

Denise clapped her hands, stopping them. "That's not what being a prince and princess in this kingdom was like. It wasn't a medieval kingdom on Earth, with barons and serfs. The Ring Empire nobility earned the respect they were given."

Edmund wound himself up. "But—"

"What about Mozark?" Jedzella asked plaintively. "Did he get to marry Endoliyn?"

"Well, he was terribly disappointed that she didn't say yes straightaway. But because he was wise and strong he resolved to meet her challenge. He would find something to inspire her, something he could dedicate his life to that would benefit everyone in the kingdom. He ordered a great starship to be built so that he might travel right around the Ring Empire and search out all of its wonders, in the hope that one of them might be different enough to make people change their lives. All of the kingdom marveled at his ship and his quest, for even in those days few people undertook such a journey. So he gathered his crew, the boldest and bravest of the kingdom's nobility, and said farewell to Endoliyn. They launched the amazing ship into a sky the like of which we'll never know. It was a sky to which night never truly came, for on one side was the core with a million giant stars shining bright, and on the other was the ring itself, a narrow band of golden light looping from horizon to horizon. Through all these stars they flew for hundreds of light-years, onward and onward until they were in a part of the Ring Empire where their own kingdom was nothing more than a fabled name. That's where they found the first wonder."

"What?" one of the boys squealed. He was quickly shushed by all his friends.

"The planet's true name had been forgotten centuries ago. It was just called The City now. A place as mythical to Mozark as his kingdom was to its inhabitants. The people who lived there had devoted themselves to creating the most beautiful buildings it was possible to make. All of them lived in a palace with its own parkland and lake and river, and their public buildings were as majestic as mountains. That's why their world was called The City, because every building was so big and grand and had acres and acres of its own grounds that they'd spread right over the entire surface, from the deserts to the polar caps. There was nowhere without a building. Now you might say this would be easy, given that the Ring Empire had machines that could build anything. But The City dwellers didn't want machines building their homes; they thought every person should build his own home; they believed that only if you build it yourself can you appreciate its true grandeur.

"Now, Mozark and his crew landed there and walked amid all these fantastic buildings. Even though they weren't the same species as The City's inhabitants, they could appreciate the splendor of what they were seeing. There were cathedral-like towers slicing kilometers into the sky. Crystal tubes that spiraled up entire mountains, which housed every kind of plant to be found on the planet in every environment. Starkly simple buildings, exquisitely ornate buildings, buildings that flowed into the landscape, they were so naturalistic. The City had them all, visual marvels everywhere you looked. Mozark spent many weeks there, he was so staggered by everything he saw. He thought it was the most superb accomplishment any race could make, for every citizen to live in luxury surrounded by beauty. But eventually he called his crew back to his ship and told them that for all its magnificence The City was not for the kingdom. They left, and continued their flight around the core."

"Why?" the children asked.

"Firstly, because The City had already been done," Denise said. "And secondly, because after a time Mozark began to see what a folly it was. All the inhabitants of The City did was maintain their buildings. Some families had lived in the same palace for twenty or thirty generations. They added to it, but never changed the nucleus, the essence that made them what they were. The only real interest in The City was shown by outsiders, different species from across the Ring Empire who flocked to marvel at its intricacy and debate its significance.

Mozark knew that people could be inspired to build beautiful or gigantic structures, but after that it is always time to move on. The City was magnificent, but decadent. It celebrated the past, not the future. It was everything Endoliyn so dearly wished to escape from. He had no choice but to continue."

"Where did he go?"

"What happened next?"

Denise glanced at her antique watch. A man's watch, bulky for her slim wrist; her grandfather had carefully adjusted its quartz innards to synchronize with Thallspring's twenty-five-and-a-half-hour day. "You'll have to wait until tomorrow for the next part," she said.

A huge barrage of groans and boos greeted the announcement.

"You knew that," she protested, acting astonished. "The Ring Empire is vast. Mozark had lots and lots of adventures on his voyage round it. It'll take me weeks to tell them all. Now make sure you put the games and toys back in the bins before you go. The right bins!"

Slightly mollified with the promise of more tales of the Ring Empire to come, they wandered back across the grass to pick up the discarded toys.

"You have such an imagination, my dear."

Denise turned to find Mrs. Potchansky standing a couple of meters away, giving her a slightly concerned look.

"Ring Empires and little green princes on a quest, indeed. Why not just give them the classics like Pratchett and Tolkien?"

"I don't think they're very relevant to today."

That's such a shame. They might be archaic, but they're lovely stories. I really liked dear old Bilbo Baggins. I even have a hard copy book of The Hobbit, printed on Earth for Tolkien's bicentennial."

Denise hesitated. "The stories I make up do have a moral center."

"I noticed. Although I think I'm the only one who did. You are very subtle, my dear."

Denise grinned. "Was that a compliment?"

"More an observation, I feel."

"Do you want me to stop telling them about the Ring Empire?"

"Heavens no." Mrs. Potchansky was genuinely surprised. "Come along, Denise, you know how good you are with the children. You don't have to fish for compliments from me. I'm just worried you'll turn professional and put all these colorful thoughts of yours straight down into i-media. Who would I get to replace you?"

Denise touched the old lady on her arm. "I'm not going to leave you. I love it here. What could ever change in Memu Bay?" It came out before she could stop it.

Mrs. Potchansky glanced up at the clear turquoise sky, wrinkles around her eyes creasing into a burst of bitter resentment totally at odds with her air of gentility.

"Sorry," Denise said immediately. Mrs. Potchansky had lost her son during the last invasion. Denise knew few details other than the date of his death.

"That's all right, dear. I always look at how we live now. This is a good life we have here, the best of all the settled worlds. That's our revenge against them. They can't destroy our nature. They need us just as we are. I enjoy that irony, I think."

At moments like this, Denise just wanted to blurt out everything to the sweet old lady, all the anger and plans she and the others had brought with them to Memu Bay. Instead she gave Mrs. Potchansky a tight hug. "They won't beat us, not ever. I promise."

Mrs. Potchansky patted Denise's back. "Thank you, dear. I'm so glad you found this school."

* * *

As usual, some of the children were collected late. Old Mr. Anders, picking up his grandson. Francine Hazeldine, the mayor's fifteen-year-old daughter, scooping up her little sister, the pair of them laughing happily at the reunion. Peter Crowther eagerly beckoning his quiet son into a huge limousine. Denise gave them big media pads to finger sketch on while they waited in the classroom.

It took her nearly a quarter of an hour after the last one had left to get everything ready for tomorrow. She wiped the psychedelic patterns from the media pads, sorted the games and toys into the right bins, put the chairs back into line and reflated their one leaky jelfoam mattress. Mrs. Potchansky came in before she'd loaded the dishwasher with all the mugs and cutlery and told her to get off into town. It was a lovely day and she should enjoy herself. The old woman didn't quite ask if Denise had a boyfriend yet, but it wouldn't be long. The query came every three weeks or so, along with associated helpful observations on where nice boys were to be found. Denise always hated the embarrassment of having to deflect her from the topic. There were times when it was like spending the day with her mother.

The school was a couple of kilometers inland, so it was an easy downhill walk to the marina for her. On rainy days she would take the trams that ran through the major boulevards, but today the afternoon sun continued to shine through a clear sky. She strode easily along the sidewalk, making sure she kept under the broad shop awnings: she was wearing a light dress, and at half past four in the afternoon the sun was still strong enough to be avoided. The route was familiar enough, and she was on nodding terms with several people on the way. So very different to her first days in the city, when she jumped every time a car's brakes squealed, and more than five people gathered together made her claustrophobic. It had taken over a fortnight before she was comfortable just going into one of Memu Bay's plentiful cafes and sitting there with friends.

Even now she wasn't quite used to the triads she saw together out on the street, though she made a point of not staring. Memu Bay was proud of its liberalist tradition, dating right back to the founding in 2160. The city fathers, having left an Earth that they considered to have encroached upon personal freedoms, were determined to encourage a more relaxed and enlightened atmosphere on their new world. Communes were prevalent during the early days, along with cooperative industrial enterprises. Reality had gradually eroded this gentle radicalism; collective dormitory halls were slowly refurbished into smarter individual apartments and shares were floated and traded to raise capital for factories to expand. The most prominent leftover from all this early social experimentation was the trimarriages, whose popularity continued long after other hippie chic traditions lost their bloom. Though even that wasn't as popular as it used to be. Trendy liberalism and those first youthful hot randy nights of threesomes tended to deteriorate and sour when middle age approached, inevitably accompanied by mortgage payments and domestic demands with their three-way arguments. And trimarriage divorces were notoriously bitter, scarring a lot of children who swore blind they wouldn't repeat the mistake. Certainly less than a quarter of registrations at City Hall were now trimarriages, and most of those were of the one-male, two-female variety. Gay and lesbian trimarriages were an even smaller percentage.

Car traffic eased off as Denise entered the Livingstone District behind the waterfront; the streets here were narrower and clogged with bicycles and scooters. This was the city's primary retail zone, where quirky little shops alternated with clubs, bars and hotels. As this was where the tourists flocked, the city planners had re-created the look of an old-style Mediterranean town. Small windows and slim balconies overlooked squares full of cafe tables that were shaded by citrus trees. At first the streets had confounded her, as if they were deliberately laid out in the most confusing maze possible. Now, she slipped through like a native. The marina itself was packed with sailing yachts and pleasure craft. Farther along the shore, jetskis and windsurfers curved through the water, weaving round each other with curses and elaborately obscene fist gestures. Passenger boats were bringing divers and snorkelers home after a day exploring the reefs. Several of the archipelago islands were visible out toward the horizon, tiny cones of native coral clotted with a tangle of vivid terrestrial vegetation. They looked superb, motes of paradise scattered on an alien ocean. In fact, the gamma soak had killed the coral down to three meters below the surface. Civil engineering teams had gone out and capped the islands with concrete to stop them from breaking up. Sand was laboriously dredged up from their surrounding lagoons to form the exquisite white beaches, and desalination plants watered the vegetation through a buried irrigation network. It was all done for the benefit of the tourists. The living coral in deeper waters was spectacular enough to attract thousands of visitors each year, while the marina catered to watersports enthusiasts. Those physical activities combined with Memu Bay's reputation for an easygoing lifestyle made the city a premier lure for Thallspring's younger element, intent on having a fun time away from the capital and other sober cities.

The Junk Buoy was right on the waterfront, a popular tavern for tourists on the way back to their hotels and chalets. Not particularly smart, nor expensive, but it was the place where boat and dive instructors hung out as the day wound down, which gave it a big boost of kudos. Tourists could sit out under thatched awnings, watching the sun set behind Vanga peak as they drank cocktails with saucy names served up in long iced glasses.

Denise pushed her sunglasses up on her forehead as she walked in. Several young men watched her move across the room, smiling hopefully for her to join them. Denise ignored the come-ons as she made her way over to the far corner of the tavern, where she knew her colleagues would be. The nightly meat market had begun. The tourists were all in swimware or small tight T-shirts, casting eager curious glances at each other. Over half were wearing Preferred Sexual Acts bracelets. Some of the devices were flashy gold Aztec charms or mock-high-tech strips encrusted with blinking LEDs, while others preferred to use discreet black bands, or simple readouts incorporated into their watches. They would tickle the wrist unobtrusively when someone else with the same PSA loaded in their bracelet was within ten meters, and conversation would dip as directional displays were suddenly checked with avid enthusiasm.

She was aware of some bracelet wearers checking their directional graphics anyway, seeing if they matched her position. The anything-goes set, not unsurprisingly those with the most flamboyant bracelets.

One-night stands Denise could live with, not that she ever would for herself. But it was the coldness of the PSA system that she resented. It took everything that was human away from what should be the most enjoyable part of a relationship, the discovery of someone else.

Raymond Jang and Josep Raichura were sitting on their usual stools. Also as usual, they had a pair of girls with them, young and impressionable, wearing swimsuits and sarongs. Ray and Josep didn't need PSA bracelets. For them, this part of the mission was heaven-sent. When they arrived in Memu Bay, they immediately signed up as diving gill instructors with one of the big leisure companies, which brought them into daily contact with a parade of girls in their teens and early twenties. Diving instructors were universally slim and fit, but Ray and Josep now had perfect mesomorph physiques, tanned to a golden sheen. These days Denise had to think hard to remember the two awkward little boys she'd grown up with in Arnoon, one all gangly, the other who hardly ventured out of doors. Now the dweebs were babe magnets, and relishing every second of it. Even better for them—and worse for Denise—they were supposed to develop casual relationships. It would be essential for the next stage of the plan.

The four of them were having such a good time together that Denise almost felt guilty for butting in. She cleared her throat to attract their attention. The two girls instantly looked her up and down with hostile eyes, working out if she was competition or not. They decided not. Denise was the same age group as their catches, with the kind of slim healthy build that could mean she was a fellow gill instructor, and her impatient expression clearly marked her down as a no-fun person.

"Hello?" one of the girls said, her voice rising an octave with mild derision. "Were we friends in a former life?"

Any decent comeback escaped Denise. The girl's breasts were so large that for the first time Denise got an inkling of that most infuriating male reflex; she just couldn't help glancing at her cleavage. Surely she was too young to have undergone v-writing enlargement?

"Hi, Denise." Ray got up and gave her a demure peck on the cheek. "Girls, this is our housemate, Denise."

They consulted each other silently, and said a resentful, "Oh hi," to Denise.

"We just need a quick chat with Denise," Josep said. He gave his girl a quick pat on her bum. "Won't be a minute, and then we'll see where we can go to eat out tonight."

The girl licked some salt off the rim of her margarita glass. "I'd like that." She walked off with her friend, the pair of them whispering in sultry amusement. There were several coy glances thrown back at the boys.

"Working hard, I see," Denise said. Every time she found them with new girls she told herself it didn't bother her. Every time, her disapproval just spilled out.

Ray grinned. "Just following orders."

Denise steeled herself and sat on one of the vacated stools. There was nobody near them, and a melodic guitar tune was playing through the tavern's sound system. Not that Memu Bay's police were surveilling them—or even knew about them, but basic precautions now would save a lot of trouble later on. "We're clear today," she said quietly. "Prime didn't pick up any encrypted signals on the spacecom network."

"They'll come," Josep said.

His tone was understanding, more like the old Josep. He must have picked up on her frustration—he'd always been the more emotionally sensitive one. She flicked a modest grin of thanks at him. His face was broad, with high cheekbones and lovely wide brown eyes. A thick mop of floppy blond hair was held back from his forehead by a thin leather band—a gift from some girl ages ago. Raymond, by contrast, had round features and a narrow nose, his brown hair cut short. Other than that... She looked from one to the other. The only garment Raymond had on was a pair of old green shorts, while Josep's denim shirt was open down the front. Twin bodies. Did the girls they shared in bed ever comment on that? she wondered.

"I know." She got a grip on her free-flying thoughts. "Anything new from your side?"

"Actually yes," Ray said. He indicated the girls. "Sally lives in Durrell. She's at college there, a geology student."

"Okay, that's promising."

"And there's a possible contact we think should be checked out," Josep said. "His name's Gerard Parry. He started on my six-day diving proficiency course today. We got chatting. Turns out he's local. Works up at Teterton Synthetics, a distribution manager."

A cluster of neural cells in Denise's brain had undergone a d-written modification for direct communication with the local datasphere, an enhancement that human v-writing couldn't yet match. The cluster linked her directly to the pearl ring on her index finger. Her Prime program produced a brief summary of Teterton, scrolling an indigo script across her vision that detailed a small chemical processing company that supplied local food producers with specialist vitamin and protein concoctions. "Did he sound sympathetic?"

"That's for you to find out. But a contact there could be very useful. There's some compounds we still haven't acquired."

"Okay, sounds good. How do I meet him?"

"We promised him a blind date. Tonight."

"Oh God," she groaned. There would barely be time to go home and change.

"He's a nice bloke," Josep protested. "I like him. Sensitive, caring, all that bull chicks go for."

"Just as long as he's not like you," Denise snapped back.

"Ouch." He smiled. "Well, here's your chance to find out Here he comes."


Ray stood up and waved happily. Denise turned to see the man approaching. In his thirties, overweight, with thinning hair. The restrained smile of a professional bachelor, desperate to hide how desperate he was. A broad black-glass PSA bracelet was worn on his right wrist Several girls around the tavern checked their directional displays, and hurriedly looked away.

Denise stood up to greet him, the heel of her right foot making solid contact on Josep's toes.

She didn't get home until well after eleven o'clock that night. By that time the weary anger had become a kind of numb indifference to life. All she wanted to do was go to bed and forget the entire evening.

Despite his appearance, Gerard Parry wasn't a bad man. He could hold a conversation, on local issues at least, and was willing to listen up to a point. He even had a few jokes, though he lacked the nonchalance to tell them properly. She could imagine him working hard to memorize them when he heard them around the office.

They had started off having a couple of drinks with Ray and Josep, much to the obvious disgust of the girls. Then dinner was mentioned, and Josep managed to split them up. Gerard took her to a fairly decent restaurant, which left her free to establish his political sympathies. That was when it all fell apart.

Denise never knew how much blame she should take for personal catastrophes like this. It was strange, considering how she almost unfailingly managed to befriend potential recruits who weren't single and male. She asked Gerard the questions she needed to, and tried to ask others, to show an interest in his personal life. But he figured out pretty early on that she wasn't interested in any kind of long-term relationship, or even a brief passionate affair. Men invariably figured that out about her at some time. Always, at the end of such evenings, it finished with her being told she was too intense, or cool, or aloof. Twice she'd been sneeringly accused of being a lesbian.

She didn't even mind the fact that she never made the connection. What she hated was that she could never tell them why. The fact that she'd committed herself to something more important than them, or her. It justified the way she was. But they'd never know. To all of them, she was just another wasted evening.

Gerard Parry got drunk very quickly, especially for a man of his bulk. His conversation turned into a bitter monologue; there were morbid complaints about how he missed out because girls never looked behind his size for the real him, and rhetorical questions about what did she and the rest of the female universe want from a bloke anyway. During his ramblings, he managed to spill half a glass of red wine over the table, which splashed across her skirt. She got up and didn't look back. The headwaiter called a cab for her.

She sat in the back of the AS-driven vehicle, refusing to cry as the lively town slid by beyond the windows. Inner strength was something that could never be installed, unlike her physical ability. That, she had to supply by herself.

The Prime program in her pearl had recorded the encrypted emissions from Gerard's PSA bracelet. A gross breech of etiquette; PSAs were supposed to be exchanged. As she reviewed the data she gained a degree of satisfaction knowing what a pig he was. It made her feel a hell of a lot more justified leaving him weeping into his wine.

The bungalow she shared with Ray and Josep was in a small, prim housing estate spread along the Nium River estuary, outside the center of town. It meant a twenty-minute commute to work in the morning on the tram, but the rent was relatively cheap. At night there was just enough of a breeze coming up the estuary to keep it cool once the big archway windows were folded back. Jasmine grew up the external walls, a mass of scarlet flowers giving off a sweet scent.

Denise came through the front door and dropped her little shoulder bag on the hall table. She pressed her back to the cool plaster, arching her spine and inhaling deeply. All in all, a really shitty day.

The lights were on in the lounge, turned down low. When she peered in, one of the girls from the Junk Buoy was lying facedown on the sofa, snoring with the erratic snorts of the comatose drunk. There were muffled voices and giggles coming from Josep's bedroom, along with familiar rhythmic sounds. Josep, Ray and the huge-breasted girl energetically straining seams on the jelfoam mattress together.

It would be all right, Denise thought, once she was in her own room with the door shut. From past experience she knew the soundproofing was good enough to give her complete silence to sleep in. When she looked down at her skirt, she could see it needed spraying right away to get the wine stain out. Once she'd put it in the washing cabinet and programmed the cycle, she remembered the pile of clean laundry hurriedly dumped in the linen basket this morning, including all her other work clothes. She'd intended to do them when she got back from playschool in the afternoon. So there she was at quarter past midnight, tired and utterly miserable, standing in the kitchen in her robe, ironing her blouse for tomorrow while the shrill whoops of other people's orgasms echoed along the hall.

If there was such a thing as karma, somebody somewhere in this universe was going to get hurt bad to level this out.


Lawrence Newton never saw a cloud until he was twelve years old. Until then, Amethi's light-time skies had been an unblemished azure from horizon to horizon. When the planet's orbit around its gas-giant primary, Nizana, eventually propelled it into dark-time and the stars came out, they would burn with a steadiness unnatural for any atmosphere, so clear was the frigid air. And with Templeton, the capital where young Lawrence lived, on the hemisphere that permanently faced away from Nizana, he never realized it was possible for anything exciting to exist overhead. In terms of landscape and environment, Amethi was crushingly boring. Nothing moved above, nothing grew on the icy tundra.

To the McArthur Corporation, whose exploratory starship the Renfrew discovered it in 2098, such conditions were perfect In the late twenty-first century, interstellar expansion was at its height, with the big companies and financial consortia funding dozens of colonies. Any planet with an oxygen/ nitrogen atmosphere was being claimed and settled. But these ventures were expensive. The alien biospheres that had produced that precious blend of breathable gases were inevitably hostile and poisonous to terrestrial organisms, some immediately fatal. Establishing human communities amid such conditions was extremely costly. Not so Amethi.

For all it was technically a moon, Amethi's evolution had been fairly standard for a world of its size. It started normally, with a reducing atmosphere that slowly changed as life began to emerge from primordial seas. Primitive organisms that could photosynthesize released oxygen. Carbon was consumed by new lichens and amoebas. An unremarkable cycle that was repeated across the universe wherever such conditions occurred.

Evolution was progressing along standard lines until the asteroid was drawn in by Nizana's immense gravity field. Two hundred million years after the first primitive amoebas began fissioning, the seas were full of fish; plants had established themselves across the land. There were big insects with thistledown wings, and even small creatures not far removed from terrestrial amphibian genealogy. They all died in the aftermath.

The impact explosion threw up enough dust and steam to obscure the entire surface. In doing so, it triggered the ultimate ice age. The glaciers that thrust out from the polar caps in the aftermath encroached farther and farther through the temperate zone until they actually merged at the equator. Seas, oceans and lakes surrendered their water to the single megaglacier as it continued to expand. Temperature plummeted right across the planet, combining with the water loss and darkened atmosphere to eliminate all forms of life except the most resilient bacteria. Amethi returned to an almost primordial state. But now with a fifth of the surface covered in ice to a depth of several kilometers, and the remainder a desert that was Mars-like in its desolation, there was no potential catalyst left to precipitate change. It had become a world trapped in stasis. The isolock.

For the McArthur board members Amethi was perfection, an existing breathable atmosphere and no indigenous life. All that was needed was a slight rise in global temperature to end the isolock and restart a normal meteorological cycle.

Templeton was founded in 2115. At first it was nothing more than a collection of prefabricated igloos with a single track linking it to a runway bulldozed into the frozen dunes. The engineers and administrators who lived there were tasked with establishing a manufacturing base that would be self-sustaining, the idea being that once the initial investment was made, all you needed to do was shovel in local raw materials at one end and ultimately any product you wanted would pop out the other. After that, the only imports would be people and new designs to upgrade and expand the first few factories. Information cost nothing to transport between stars, while people would buy their own tickets to a new land with immense opportunities.

Over the first three years, spaceplanes ferried down their cargo from eight starship flights. At the end of it, industrial facilities in heavily insulated factories could supply most of the burgeoning colony's needs. But not all. There were always a few specialist systems or chemicals essential for the economy or special projects that only Earth with its abundant production facilities could provide. Time after time Temple-ton's governor sent back requests for additional units to be flown out, without which the whole project would stall.

The financial strain that Amethi placed on McArthur wasn't as bad as that for most other colony worlds, where human biochemists fought desperate battles against alien biospheres. Here there was just HeatSmash, the climate project, to initiate. Templeton's first indigenous industrial undertaking was to establish an orbital manufacturing station, Tarona. With that up and running in 2140—after nearly a third of its systems had been shipped in from Earth—they began local production of asteroid capture propulsion engines. Nizana had so much junk rock strewn around in orbit it could have provided HeatSmash with enough material to reheat a dozen worlds. The inaugural impact came in 2142, when a lump of stony iron rock measuring eighty meters across smacked right into the center of Barclay's glacier.

The explosion vaporized nearly a cubic kilometer of water and melted a considerably larger quantity. It had refrozen within a week. The steam clouds never even reached the edge of the glacier before they condensed into bullet-hard snow-flakes and rained down.

Once the planetary engineers had correlated all the data from their sensors, they estimated that the atmosphere would have reheated sufficiently to induce and sustain glacial melt after 111 years of one impact per year, involving asteroids four times the mass of the test impact. With this mildly favorable prognosis, the colonists set about building their new world. By the time Lawrence Newton was born in 2310, economic and social changes on the old homeworld had modified the nature of the colony. Although the physical task of terraforming the world had progressed without interruption, it was no longer a destination for exultant pioneers searching for a little homestead amid a wilderness that was slowly being resurrected.

* * *

The big school bus rolled easily along Templeton's main north highway, fat tires clinging to the grubby concrete with its lacework of fine cracks. Twenty-five kids, aged nine to twelve, chattered excitably or threw crumpled biscuit wrappers at each other before ducking down behind their seats to avoid retaliation. Mr. Kaufman and Ms. Ridley, their teachers, sat up at the front, doing their best to ignore what was going on behind. They'd left the school dome only ten minutes ago; it was going to be a long day.

Lawrence was sitting midway along the bus. The seat next to him went unoccupied. It wasn't that he didn't have friends at school; he did, as well as several cousins and a tribe of more distant relatives. He just didn't have any close friends. Teachers described him as restless. He was clever enough, naturally, given he was a Newton, but that intelligence was never quite captured by any of his academic subjects. Report after report filed with his parents had the age-old comment: can do better. In the competitive environment of the school, where application and achievement received the highest accolades, he was too different to fit in comfortably. Not quite a rebel—he was still too young for that classification—but there were plenty of danger signs that he could fall into the dropout category if something wasn't done fairly soon. It was an almost unknown development among Amethi's well-ordered population. For a member of a Board family it was unthinkable.

So he sat by himself ignoring the antics of his peers, watching the city go by outside. On either side of the highway were drab curving walls of nullthene; huge sheets of the ultrathin translucent gray membrane from which the city domes were made. The standard size was four hundred meters across, produced in one piece by the McArthur factory, and wholly indigenous. Relatively cheap, and simple to establish, it was used by every town and city on the planet. All you needed was a flat patch of land over which to spread it The sheet had a built-in hexagonal web of slim tubing made from buckyfilament carbon (extruded up at Tarona) that was pumped full of epoxy. The resultant force was enough to lift the lightweight nullthene off the ground like some giant balloon that never quite managed to become airborne. The edges had to be buried hurriedly as the membrane's molecular structure had been designed to act as a near-perfect heat trap. Air inside quickly warmed to temperate and even tropical temperatures, exerting quite a lifting pressure from within. Large circulation and thermal exchange units (also built locally) were installed around the edge, helping to maintain the required climate inside. Once the dome was up and regulated, all that was needed to reinvigorate the soil was water and terrestrial bacteria, and it was ready for planting.

Right at the heart of the city, most of the domes were communal. Above average in size at six hundred meters in diameter, they had a single apartment block skyscraper in the center, acting as an additional support for the vaulting surface. Inside, rich parkland had been established around the skyscrapers, complete with artificial lakes and streams. Nobody outside top-level management used cars to get about within the city; the domes were all linked by a comprehensive rail transit network. The only vehicles on the road with the school bus were twenty-wheel juggernauts, agroform machinery, and civil engineering trucks, all of them cheerfully pumping hihydrogen fuel fumes out into the atmosphere.

Factories filled the gaps between the dome rims, squat bunkers built from glass and aluminum. Encrustations of dust streaked the big panes, built up over years as heat and moisture creeping out of the city structures loosened up the frozen ground. Even here, the air suffered as it did in every human city, a pollution of particles and vapor that hadn't known freedom for a hundred thousand years, churned up by the whirling zephyrs thrown off by the trains and road vehicles and dome circulation fans—for decades, the only wind on the whole planet. But it allowed plants to flourish. All along the side of the road, Lawrence could see tufts of dark green grass clogging the ruddy native soil. There were even little fissures where free water had on occasion run, fed by trickles of condensation along badly insulated panels or tattered slits in the nullthene.

Farther out from the city center, food refineries began to replace the domes—industrial sites the size of small towns where pressure tanks and enzyme breeder towers and protein convectors were woven together with a maze of thick, insulated pipes. Hot vapor shivered the air for hundreds of meters above the dulled metal surfaces as small fusion plants pumped their megawatts into the elaborate processes that kept Amethi's human population alive. Each refinery had its own quarry, huge vertical-walled craters gouged deep into the frozen soil by AS-driven bulldozers. Caravans of big utility trucks trundled up and down the pitside ramps all day long, bringing hundreds of tons of elusive, rare minerals to the catalytic furnaces.

The trans-Rackliff Basin pipe ended somewhere on this side of the city, too. It stretched a quarter of the way around the planet to the Barclay's glacier runoff, bringing that essential component of life: water. It was actually cheaper to pump it in than to melt it out of local soil. Both the domes and the refineries were greedy consumers.

Lawrence watched the various human enterprises that made up the city with detached interest, visualizing how Templeton and its peripherals must look from space. Some weird plastic flower seventy kilometers in diameter that had blossomed on this barren alien world as the atmosphere warmed. One day it would burst, the nullthene membranes ripping open in the wind so that the terrestrial spawn nurtured within could be flung out across the entire planet Only with that kind of image did he ever begin to appreciate the enormity of the undertaking that was his homeworld. It was the endless statistics and enhanced images that he could never get his head around, everything the school felt impelled to provide and emphasize.

Out past the last of the refineries, the tundra extended away to the sharp horizon—dirty vermilion soil broken only by rocks and ancient crumbling gullies. Swaths of darkness cut through it at random. When Barclay's Glacier formed, sucking the moisture out of the air and sending the temperature plummeting, the forests were still standing. Their trees had long since died from the cold and lack of light, but the slumbering glacier calmed the air rather than enraging it. There were no winds or sandstorms to abrade the sturdy trunks. The scatterings of moisture left in the soil turned to ice, transforming the surface into a hard concrete mantle, keeping a possessive grip on sand and dust particles.

In the centuries after the glacier formed, Amethi's dead, blackened plants stayed resolutely upright in the still air. Time alone aged them, for there were no elements anymore. Over a hundred thousand years, even petrified wood lost its strength. They corroded slowly, snowing ebony flakes onto the surrounding soil until enough had been shed to make the whole unstable. Then the entire brittle pillar would crack, tumbling over to shatter as if made from antique black glass. More often than not, in the denser forests, they would bring down a couple of their neighbors, initiating cascades of devastation. Where the forests once stood were now areas where the soil was blanketed with low black dunes of congealed grit.

The children quietened at last as this new landscape unwound beyond the bus; here was where their future was birthing with pained deliberation. The first delicate effects of the HeatSmash were proudly visible. Crevices and tiny rills in the hard ground were host to tiny arctic plants. They were all heavily v-written for this world, to endure not only its coldness but also the long light-times and dark-times. Plants that grew above Earth's Arctic Circle through long wearisome days and equally oppressive nights had the closest environmental conditions to those on Amethi. This meant their genes needed the least amount of viral modification to withstand the hostility of this frigid wilderness.

Several of them boasted flowers, tiny dainty coral trumpets or golden starbursts. The most significant accomplishment of the geneticists had been modifying the pollination cycle so that the spores were expelled by ripening anthers into the quiescent air. A haze light enough to drift on Amethi's minimalist breezes, little more than a draft of perfume, yet eradicating the necessity of insects. None of these perennials had needed nurturing in greenhouses and planting out; they were self-set. The first naked terrestrial colonists.

While dark bottle-greens flourished in the earth's crannies, dry-rubber blotches of sulfur yellow and cinnamon brown encrusted exposed rock, from entire cliff faces down to pebbles scattered amid the carbon dunes of the old forests. The lichens that were first spread across Amethi's continents from high-flying robot aircraft in order to kick-start the new ecological cycle, expanded now as never before in the rush of warmth and rising humidity.

Lawrence liked the color invasion stampeding across the bleak tundra. It signaled an astonishing level of achievement. Fundamentally reassuring, that human beings were capable of such visionary endeavor. He began to smile, letting his daydreams build out of the landscape where the impossible was happening. It was easy out here; the demands of his family and school restrictions were falling behind as the bus raced on into the realm of possibilities.

His gaze drifted around and up. He squinted, suddenly alert. Hot urgent hands wiped the bus window where his breath was steaming it up, despite the insulative quality. There. In the sky, something very strange was moving. He knocked on the glass to try to show people where they should look. Then, realizing nobody would ever listen to him, he put his hand up above the window and found the red emergency handle. Without hesitating, he tugged it down hard.

Antiskid brakes engaged as the AS driver program brought the bus to a halt as fast as its engineering parameters would allow. A signal was flashed to the Templeton traffic authority, putting emergency services on immediate recovery standby. Sensors inside and outside the vehicle were reviewed for any sign of abnormality. Nothing was found, but the human/manual intervention was not one the AS could ignore. The bus continued its abrupt deceleration, engine and gearbox whining sharply in mechanical alarm. Kids were hauled back hard into their seats as the safety webbing contracted. Yells and screams ran the length of the aisle. Mr. Kaufman lost hold of his coffee cup and biscuit as he cried: "Fatesbloody-sake..."

A second later the bus was motionless and silent, a state almost as alarming as the sudden braking. Then the horn started a repetitive bleat, and amber hazard strobes on the front and back blazed away. Mr. Kaufman and Ms. Ridley gave each other a frantic uncomprehending look and slapped at their web release buttons. The red light above one of the emergency stop handles was flashing urgently. Mr. Kaufman never got a chance to ask whose seat it was before Lawrence was running past him to the front door, which had popped open automatically. The boy was zipping up the front of his baggy coat.

"What...?" Ms. Ridley blurted.

"It's outside!" Lawrence yelled. "In the air. It's in the air!"


She was yelling at nothing. He had already jumped down the steps onto the highway. The other kids wanted a piece of the action; they were laughing wildly, shock already fading as they dashed after Lawrence. They formed a big group standing on the sandy verge. Coats were hurriedly zipped up and hands stuffed into gloves as the bitter air nipped exposed skin. Lawrence stood a little way ahead of them, searching around for the bizarre shape he'd seen. There were several titters behind him as the wait grew.

"There!" he shouted. His finger pointed westward. "There. Look."

The rebuke Mr. Kaufman had been forming died away. A patch of tufty white cloud was floating serenely through the air, the only blemish in a perfect bright azure sky. Silence fell over the kids as they watched the implausible miracle.

"Sir, why doesn't it fall?"

Mr. Kaufman stirred himself. "Because the density is equal to the air at that altitude."

"But it's solid."

"No." He smiled. "It just looks like it is. Remember when we looked at Nizana through the telescope relay and you could see the clouds that made up the storm bands. They were flowing. This is the same, but a lot smaller."

"Does that mean there are going to be storms here, sir?"

"Eventually, yes. But don't worry, they'll be a lot smaller, too."

"Where did it come from?"

"Barclay's glacier, I suppose. You've all seen the pictures of the runoff. This is one of the results. You're going to be seeing a lot more as you grow up." He let them stare at the harbinger for a while longer, then shooed them back onto the bus.

Lawrence was last up the steps, reluctant to abandon his remarkable discovery. And there was also the inevitable censure to face...

The teachers were a lot more lenient than he expected. Ms. Ridley said she understood how strange the cloud was, but he must ask permission to ever do anything like that again. Mr. Kaufman gave a gruff nod, enforcing everything she said.

Lawrence went and sat down as the bus moved forward again. The rest of the kids forgot their games to chatter in an animated fashion about what they'd just seen. Already, this was the best ecology field trip ever. Lawrence joined in occasionally with a few observations and speculations, his discovery giving him kudos previously not experienced. Mainly, though, he tried to keep tracking the cloud through the bus window.

He couldn't stop thinking about the journey it had made. Traveling halfway around the world, with so much unknown territory laid out below it How ridiculous that a cloud had seen more of Amethi than he ever had. Lawrence wanted to be up there with it, soaring over the land and empty seabeds, swooping down to zoom along the crumbling edge of Barclay's glacier where he could see the runoff, a waterfall as long as a continental shoreline. How fabulous that would be. But here he was, stuck in a bus on his way to a poxy slowlife farm, learning about ecology when at some other school he could be learning how to fly. It just wasn't fair.

The slowlife farm was, like all Amethi's industrial facilities, an uninspiring glass and aluminum box. It was situated all by itself on the side of a gentle valley, with an empty river course meandering away below it. The arctic plants were particularly prolific along the low slopes, clustering thickly on the silt bed itself.

Several of the kids remarked on it when they scuttled from the bus to the warmth of the factory. Lawrence was still trying to see the cloud, which had disappeared off to the north some time ago. The lobby's big outer doors swung shut, and a gust of air washed over the group. They'd all been expecting that. The thermal trap lobby was standard across Amethi, a giant leaky airlock arrangement with thermal recyclers instead of vacuum pumps to prevent temperature drop in the domes. Here, there didn't seem much point. The factory was nothing like as warm as any of the city domes, barely a couple of degrees above freezing. They all kept their coats sealed up.

The supervisor came out to meet them, dressed in padded purple coveralls with a tight-fitting hood. Mrs. Segan, who with her three coworkers ran the whole operation. She tried hard not to show how annoyed she was with another bunch of kids touring around and screwing up her timetable.

"What you're going to see here today has no analogue in nature," she told them as they made their way into the building. This first zone seemed more factory than farm, with dark metal corridors lined with sealed glass windows that looked in on vats of some kind. "We grow fatworms here. I'd like to say breed, but the truth is, every one of these creatures is cloned." She stopped beside a window. The room beyond was filled with racks of trays, filled with a clotted jelly similar to frogspawn. "All slowlife is completely artificial; its DNA was designed for us by the Fell Institute in Oxford, back on Earth. As you know, the more complex an organism is, the more prone to illness and other problems it becomes. Therefore, fatworms are kept very simple indeed. The principal biological streamlining is their complete lack of reproductive ability. That's also very useful to us, as they are only needed for this stage of the terraforming process. They've got a lifetime of about ten years, so when we stop making them, they'll die out." She held up a jar of the jelly substance, handing it to the closest boy. "Pass that around, and please don't breathe on it. All slowlife is optimized to function at subzero temperature; your breath is like a flame to them."

When it came to Lawrence all he could see was a mass of translucent eggs with a pinhead of darkness at the center of each. They didn't quiver or shake about as if they were about to burst open—which would have been something. Boring.

Mrs. Segan took them through into the farm's main rearing arena, a long hall with rows of big rectangular plastic boxes separated by raised metal grid walkways. Pipes overhead sprayed gloopy fluid into each of the open boxes with short regular pulses. The air smelled of crushed grass and sugar.

"Each of the fatworms is essentially a miniature bacteria reactor," Mrs. Segan said as she led them along one of the walkways. "We place them on a new section of tundra and they burrow their way through the ground chewing the dead vegetable matter in the soil. When it comes out, it's suffused with the bacteria that lives in their gut. This prepares the ground for terrestrial plants, which all need the bacteria in the soil to live on."

The kids all leaned over the side of the box she indicated, their interest suddenly regained with the prospect of creatures that could poo out fungus and stuff. A glistening mass of oyster-gray fatworms covered the bottom of the box, squirming slowly: they were about fifteen centimeters long, a couple wide. Everyone oohed and yucked as they pulled rictus grimaces at the slimy minimonsters.

"Is that why they're called slowlife?" someone asked. "Coz they don't move fast?"

"Partly," Mrs. Segan said. "The temperature they encounter outside means they don't have a particularly fast metabolism, which makes their physical motion correspondingly slow. Their blood is based on glycerol so they can keep moving through the coldest ground without freezing solid."

Lawrence sighed impatiently as she droned out long statistics, then started to explain about other slowlife forms. Some were like fish, swimming in the snow-slush runoff rivers round Barclay's glacier; others were distant relatives of caterpillars, munching their way across the huge dunes of carbon granules left behind by Amethi's original forests. He glanced down into the big box again. It was a bunch of worms wriggling around sluggishly. So what? Who in Fate cared what grubbed around under the soil? Why didn't they come up with birds or something interesting? Dinosaurs maybe.

Mrs. Segan moved on, the group buzzing along behind her. Lawrence trailed at the rear. He craned his neck back, looking through the farm's grimy glass roof to see if the cloud had returned. The next thing he knew, he'd tripped on some ridge in the walkway, and went flailing onto his back. One scrabbling hand caught a shallow plastic bin, and when he landed painfully a whole bunch of fully grown fatworms were dropping on top of him.

He rolled away from them quickly, disgust overriding the pain along his jarred spine. These adults were some forty centimeters long, seven or eight in diameter. Their tips waved about blindly. Lawrence clambered to his feet, automatically checking the position of the teachers. Nobody had actually seen him fall. He looked down at the fatworms, the only evidence. Gingerly, telling himself they weren't in the slightest bit dangerous, he groped down and tried to pick one up. It was revoltingly cold and slimy, with a texture like sodden carpet, but he managed to grip it tight. As he lifted it up, the slight wavering motion began to speed up. Instead of putting it back in the bin, he held on and watched. After a while the fatworm was almost thrashing. He dropped it back down onto the floor, and it slithered off along the walkway. There was a claret-colored patch around its midsection where his hand had been. "All right," he murmured. "Not so slow after all." Which was logical. They were slow in the cold; therefore they'd be fast in the warmth.

He scuttled after the group. "Alan," he hissed. "Hey, Alan. Come and look at this."

Alan Cramley stopped munching on his Toby bar, curious about the furtive tone. "What?"

Lawrence took him back to the adult fatworms and showed him. They quickly turned the discovery into a challenge. Pick up the fatworms in tandem and hold them for thirty seconds, then drop them on the walkway and see which reaches the end of the grid first. In the end they were holding on to two each, turning it into a real race.

"What exactly is going on here?" Mr. Kaufman demanded.

Lawrence and Alan hadn't seen him approach from a walkway intersection. He was staring down at the four fat-worms twisting their way across the metal. Several of the other kids were behind him, and Mrs. Segan was scurrying up, anxious to see what the fuss was about.

"I knocked a bin over, sir, and we were trying to pick them up," Lawrence said, holding out his icy hands as proof. Slime dripped from white, cold-crinkled fingertips. "I'm really sorry."

Mr. Kaufman was frowning, not fully convinced.

"Don't touch them," Mrs. Segan called urgently. She slipped past Mr. Kaufman, pulling on a pair of thick gauntlets. "Remember what I told you about them being adapted to the cold."

Lawrence and Alan traded a look.

Mrs. Segan picked up the first fatworm. Her eyes narrowed as she took in the big red mark around its middle. She took it over to the nearest bin. "What have you done?" she yelled. All the fatworms inside had the same red mark. None of them were moving. She hurried to the next bin, and gasped. In the third bin there were some fatworms left undulating slowly; Lawrence and Alan hadn't raced all of them yet. She whirled around. Lawrence took a step back, afraid she'd strike him. Her face was rigid with fury. "You burned them all, you little..." She turned to Mr. Kaufman. "Tour's over. Get these brats out of here."

Lawrence had taken over the robot garage several years ago. The compact tracked machines that originally tended to the elaborate gardens of his family's domes had been replaced by newer, more efficient models when they upgraded their AS groundskeeper program. He'd found the old concrete ramp in the middle of a clump of copper-flowering bushes that had been allowed to expand and merge into a shaggy wall now the entrance was no longer needed. At the base of the ramp was a swing-up door with stiff old lever arms. It took a commendable amount of effort and persistence for a nine-year-old to prize it open, but Lawrence did it, to be rewarded with a musty concrete cave stretching out ahead of him for a good ten meters. Its roof was less than two meters from the ground, and it had strange metal tracks bolted to the floor, walls and ceiling where waldo arms had once run. But there was still power, and a data node.

Since then it had become his den. He'd moved in life's essentials, cluttering it with a dilapidated magenta-colored leather settee, piles of cushions, a couple of tables, an old-model desktop pearl, a sound system with a decibel level that most hard-rock bands would envy, two active memory towers his father had salvaged from the office for him, an eclectic array of tools and boxes of toys he never played with. He'd tacked sheet screens over the walls and even part of the ceiling. A mosaic of images played as soon as the door was opened, some from the memory towers while others broadcast live camera feeds from the datapool.

It was a grand refuge from his family and the rest of Amethi. Even his four younger siblings knew to stay out unless he explicitly invited them in.

He'd gone there as soon as he got back after the ecology field trip. The sheet screens were showing several images of Templeton from cameras mounted on the apex of various domes. One of them showed Nizana's bright crescent, relayed from a near-side school's astronomy department telescope. Another was a telescope tracking Barric, the third-largest moon.

Lawrence told the desktop pearl to find a spaceport feed and switch it to the biggest sheet screen, the one hanging opposite the sofa, which took up half the wall. The camera must have been sited on the control tower: it showed the thick gray runway stabbing out across the bleak rusty-colored tundra. Nothing was landing or taking off.

"Get me a Flight: Horizon episode," he instructed the pearl.

"Which one?" it's AS program asked.

"Doesn't matter. No. Wait. Series one, episode five: 'Creation-5.' I want third person with the edit I chose last time. Put it on the big screen, and close down the others." He flopped into the settee and stuck his feet up on the armrest. The remaining sheet screens blacked out. Right in front of him the credits started to roll and the soundtrack kicked in, making the thin screens tremble.

He'd found Flight: Horizon two years ago when he sent an askping through the catalogues of Amethi's multimedia companies; as far as he was concerned it was the greatest science fiction series ever made. Not fully i, but it allowed personae selection so the episode could be viewed from any of the principal characters' viewpoint. And it wasn't educational like all of Amethi's i-dramas aimed at the youth audience.

Set hundreds of years in the future, it featured the amazingly cool starship Ultema, which had been sent to explore a section of the spiral arm halfway round the galaxy from Earth: several of the crew were alien, and the weird planets they visited were superbly scary. They were also facing some awesome evil aliens, the Delexians, who wanted to prevent them from getting home. It had been imported from Earth thirty years ago, though the copyright was 2287. There were only thirty episodes in the multimedia company's library, and Lawrence knew them so well now he could almost recite the dialogue from memory. He couldn't believe that was all that had been made. The Earth datapool address of the show's fanclub was tagged in the expanded features menu of every episode, so he'd paid a starship carriage fee and sent them a text message asking for more information. Every time a star-ship arrived back at Amethi he checked its communication AS, but they'd never sent him a reply.

The Ultema was locked in a gigantic energy battle against a blue dwarf star that the Delexians had imprinted with a sentience matrix when a green priority script icon opened in the center of the sheet screen. The starship froze, and the script scrolled down.

Lawrence, please come to your father's study.

He checked the clock. Quarter to six. His father had been back home ten minutes. Mr. Kaufman hadn't wasted any time filing his report package. "Gimme the study pearl," he said to the den's AS.

"I have it online," the AS said.

"I'm busy right now," Lawrence said. He pushed some injured annoyance into the tone. The AS running in the study's desktop pearl was smart.

"Lawrence, please, I accessed the message from your school and prioritized it. Your father wants to see you now."

He kept silent.

"Do you want me to bring your father into this conversation on real time?"

"All right." Grudgingly. "I'm coming, I suppose. But you have to explain to the school AS why my homestudy is short tonight."

"You're not doing homestudy."

"I am. I just have Flight: Horizon on as background."

Lawrence swung the garage door shut behind him and wriggled through the bushes. The garage was near the rim of the main dome, which was approaching the end of summer. There were six of the big structures making up the Newton family estate: the large one in the center with its temperate climate, and five smaller ones ringing it, each with a different environment inside. It was one of the larger estates in the Reuiza District, which was where the capital's wealthiest citizens clustered.

He had a three-hundred-meter walk across the grounds to the house itself. The landscape designer had gone in for split levels, with a chessboard of English manor lawns walled in with near-vertical borders of flowering shrubs and perennials. Each lawn was themed with classical plants: one had roses, one with fuchsia, another had begonias, magnolias, hydrangeas, delphiniums; for variety several lawns were enclosed by rockeries sprouting dozens of alpines. Two serpentine pools led away into shallow rocky cascades with reeds and lilies sprouting from outcrops and shelves in the slope. Tall trees stood above the corner of every lawn, again selected for traditional appearance: willow, spruce, birch, horse chestnut, larch. Each of them had had boughs that drooped, either naturally or by judicious shaping, forming massive verdant skirts that swept the grass. Fabulous adventure caves for small children. Lawrence had enjoyed a lot of summers playing in the gardens, as his siblings did now.

A stream ran through the dome, a rough horseshoe shape around the outside of the formal lawns, where the grass was permitted to grow shaggy and daisies and forget-me-nots flourished. He crossed over a narrow moss-cloaked humpback bridge and walked the flagstone path to the house, going up or down steps at the end of each square lawn. Ahead of him, the Newton residence was a stately home built from a yellow stone, with big bay windows protruding from walls swarmed by honeysuckle. Several peacocks strutted around on the gravel path surrounding the house, long folded tails swishing the pebbles about. Their mad penetrating cackle-cry was virtually the only sound in the dome. They scattered as Lawrence crossed the path and made his way up the steps to the front door.

The entrance hall inside was cool. Heavy polished oak doors opened into the formal ground-floor rooms. Their furnishings and decorations were all exquisite antique pieces. Lawrence hated them; he was frightened to go into any of the rooms for fear of breaking some priceless chunk of the family's precious heritage. What was the point of having a house like this? Nobody could use it properly, not like the real homes some of his schoolmates had. It cost a fortune to build. And it didn't belong on Amethi anyway. This was how people used to build. It was the past.

A wooden staircase curved up to the second-floor landing. He trotted up it, footfalls absorbed by the dark crimson carpet.

His mother was standing at the top, holding two-year-old Veronica on her hip. She gave him a worried look. But then that was Mother, always worried about something. His little sister smiled brightly and held out her hands to him. He grinned and kissed her.

"Oh, Lawrence," his mother said. Her voice carried a unique tone of despair and disapproval that always made him lower his head. It was awful, not being able to look at his own mother. And now he'd upset her again, which was a terrible thing, because she was six months' pregnant. It wasn't that he didn't want another brother or sister, but pregnancy always tired her so much. Whenever he said anything she smiled bravely and said it was why she had married his father, to continue the family line.

Family. Everything was for the family.

"Is he really cross?" Lawrence asked.

"We're both disappointed with you. It was a dreadful thing to do. Imagine treating Barrel like that."

Barrel was one of the family's dogs, a shaggy black Labrador. Lawrence's favorite out of the pack that roamed around the house. They'd grown up together. "It's not the same," he protested. "They're just worms."

"I'm not arguing with you. Go and see your father." With that she turned her back on him and started down the stairs. Veronica gurgled happily, waving.

Lawrence waved back forlornly and walked slowly to the study. The door was open. He knocked on the wooden frame.

Kristina was just coming out. The new junior nanny for the Newton children. She gave Lawrence a sly wink, which lifted his spirits considerably. Kristina was twenty-one and utterly beautiful. He often wondered if he had a crush on her, but wasn't sure how you knew. He certainly thought about her a lot, if that's what qualified. Anyway, crushes were stupid. Beauty aside, it was great when she was on duty: she was fun, and she joined in the games his brothers and sisters played, and she didn't seem to mind what he got up to or how late to bed he was. All his siblings liked her as well, which was fortunate because she wasn't a whole load of use when it came to changing diapers and preparing food and things. Pity she wasn't on duty more often.

Like the rest of the house, the study wasn't for the use of children. There was a high marble fireplace that had never seen any flames other than the holographic variety. A couple of green leather reading chairs. You had to look hard to see any accommodation to modern technology: the two largest oil paintings were actually sheet screens, and the desk diary was a case for a pane. The walls were covered in bookcases holding leather-bound volumes. Lawrence would have loved to open up some of the classics (definitely not the poetry) and read what was inside. But they weren't books to be read, just to be looked at and assigned high dollar values.

"Shut the door," his father ordered.

Sighing, Lawrence did as he was told.

His father was sitting behind the walnut veneer desk, throwing a silver Dansk paperweight from hand to hand. He was Doug, to his friends—and a lot of people in Templeton fought over gaining that classification. In his mid-forties, though his extensive germline v-writing made it difficult to tell. With a lean build and a face to which smiling came easy, he could have passed for twenty-five without too much problem. Rivals on McArthur's Board had mistaken that smile for an easygoing nature, an assumption they never repeated.

"All right," he said. "I'm not going to shout at you, Lawrence. At your age it's just a waste of time. You just curl up into a sulk and let it all wash over you. If I didn't know better I'd say you were hitting puberty."

Lawrence blushed furiously. This wasn't what he was expecting, which was probably why his father was talking in such a fashion.

"Want to tell me what happened today?"

"I was just messing about," Lawrence said, making sure there was plenty of regret in his voice. "They were only worms. I didn't know getting them hot could kill them. I didn't mean to do it."

"Only worms. Humm." Doug Newton stopped throwing the paperweight and stared at the ceiling as if lost in deep thought. "That would be the same fatworms that are vital for preparing our ecology, would it?"

"Yes, but they clone millions of them in there every day."

The paperweight was tossed between his hands again. "That's not the point, son. This is just the latest episode in a very long line. You're twelve. I can put up with you misbehaving and slacking off at school; it comes naturally at your age. That's why teachers send us reports; so we can make you do your homestudy and ground you when you pee on the security cameras at the museum. What I don't like is the pattern that's developing here. Lawrence, you show a disturbing lack of respect for everything we're doing on this world. It's as if resurrecting the ecology doesn't matter to you. Don't you want to be able to walk outside the domes in just a T-shirt and shorts? Don't you want to see grass bloom on the deserts and watch forests grow?"

"Course I do." He was still smarting over the peeing remark. He hadn't known his father had heard about that.

"Then why don't you show that? Why don't your actions betray these thoughts? Why are you being such a total pain in the ass these days, and incidentally upsetting your mother who happens to be pregnant and is in no condition to be worried by your absurd antics?"

"I do think it. I saw a cloud today."

"And pulled the emergency stop on the bus. Yes, most impressive."

"It was fantastic. I really loved that part of the ecology."

"Well, that's a start, I suppose."

"It's just... I know how important HeatSmash is for Amethi, and I really admire everything McArthur is doing here. But it doesn't apply to me as much as it does you."

Doug Newton caught the paperweight in his left hand and stared at Lawrence, quirking an eyebrow. "As I recall, we had you v-written for an improved physique and intellect I don't recall specifying traits that allow you to live naked and alone on an unmodified isolocked planet. In fact, I'm pretty sure about that"

"But, Dad, I don't want to live on Amethi. At least not all the time," he added hurriedly. "I want to be a part of McArthur's starflight operations."

"Oh shit."

Lawrence's jaw dropped. He'd never heard his father swear before. He knew now he must be in some pretty deep ... well, shit "Starflight operations?" Doug Newton said. "Has this got anything to do with that stupid show you're always watching?"

"No, Dad. I watch Flight: Horizon because it interests me. It's just a drama show. But that's the kind of thing I want to do. I know I can qualify. I'm doing well in all the subjects you need to get into flight training. I've accessed the application packages and the career structure."

"Lawrence, we're a Board family. Don't you understand that? I sit on McArthur's Board. Me. Your dear old father. I make the decisions when it comes to running this entire planet. That's your future, son. Maybe I haven't emphasized that enough. Maybe I shied away so that you'd grow up as normally as you can, without always having that prospect gnawing away at the back of your mind. But that's the way it is, and I think deep down you know it full well. Maybe that's what's upsetting you. Well, I'm sorry, son, but you're a crown prince in this bright new land of ours. It's not easy, but you gain a hell of a lot more than you lose."

"I can come back and be a Board member. Captaining a starship will be the best sort of training for that"

"Lawrence!" Doug Newton stopped himself, and groaned. "Why do I feel like I'm telling you Father Christmas doesn't exist? Listen to me. I can see how flying a starship looks like the greatest thing ever. But it's not, okay? You go from Amethi to Earth, and then Earth back to here. And that's it Six weeks locked up in a pressurized module with other people's farts and no window. Even calling the staff crew members is a polite lie. People on starships either interface with an AS, or they're mechanics trained in freefall engineering maintenance techniques. You can interface with an AS here in safety and comfort from an office or a park seat. If you do it from a starship cabin for any length of time, your body will suffer. We've got good medicines to cope when your bones thin, your heart muscle decays and your head clogs with every body fluid in existence. They can just about get you through a flight without thinking of suicide—God knows enough of us have done it. I hated going to Earth and back. I was throwing up half the time, I bounced around so much I had more bruises than stepping into a boxing ring can ever give you, and it's impossible to sleep. But a trip back to Earth is a oneshot, people can endure that. If you stay up there ten or fifteen years, even with long planet leave periods, the effects are cumulative. That's just the ordinary damage. It's also a high-radiation-risk profession. Cosmic radiation will tear your DNA to shreds. And all this is the good job; I'm not even going to mention what'll happen to you if you become an engineer who has to go spacewalking. If you think I'm joking, or painting it blacker than it really is, just look up the death rates and life expectancy among crew members. I'll get you access to McArthur's classified personnel files if you want to do it."

"That's not the kind of starflight I'm interested in, Dad. I want to join a starship on a deep exploration mission."


Lawrence didn't like the look of his father's amused smile. It implied some kind of victory. "Yes."

"Find new planets to colonize, make first contact with a sentient alien race, that kind of thing?"


"When you trawled up McArthur's application form for starship crew, did you bother to look up which of our star-ships are dedicated to interstellar exploration? It's in the same information block."

"It doesn't say. That part of operations is all run from Earth." He watched his father's smile widen. "Isn't it?"

"Nothing is run from Earth, son, not since twenty-two eighty-five. In any case, McArthur canceled all interstellar exploration missions in twenty-two thirty. We haven't flown one since, not one. Know why?"

Lawrence didn't believe what he was hearing. It was all part of some fancy ploy to make him study harder at school, or something. "No."

"Too expensive. Starships cost a fortune to build, and a fortune to run. And I do mean fortune. We got nothing in return for scouting around this section of the galaxy. It's an investment black hole."

"We got Amethi!"

"Ah, at last, some pride in your home planet. Yes, we got Amethi; we also had Anyi, Adark and Alagon. That's what twenty-two eighty-five was all about. We had to get rid of them. Colonization costs money that shareholders on Earth will never see a return on. We're never going to make a commercial consumer product and ship it over interstellar distances and sell it for less than it costs to be produced locally. Investment must come from Earth. There was no way McArthur could fund four planets, so we sold three of them to Kyushu-RV and Heizark Interstellar Holdings in merger deals. That canceled a huge part of the debt we were running up, and in parallel with that we divested some other assets to holding companies and reassigned share ownership of the core company to Amethi residents. It was quite innovative really. Several other companies copied us later. The result is that fifty-eight percent of McArthur shares are owned by Amethi residents. The company on Earth, with all its factories and financial services, now exists for one thing, to fund Amethi. It also offers Earth-based shareholders the eventual dividend of emigration—it's like the ultimate benefits and pension scheme."

"But there's so much out there in space we need to see and understand."

"No, there isn't, son," his father said firmly. "Government space agencies sent ships to just about every kind of star there was to collect data right back at the start of the interstellar age. We've examined every stellar anomaly within range and found more planets than the human race can afford to exploit. We've been out there and done it all. That's over, now. This is the time when we benefit from all that knowledge and effort and expense. It's our golden age. Enjoy it."

"I'll go to another company then, join their starship program."

"Hello? This universe calling Lawrence. Did you not hear everything I just said? Son, nobody is exploring anything anymore. There is nothing left to explore. That's why your school concentrates on the courses you'll need to manage Amethi. You have to know what's required to complete the terraforming project. Your future is here, and I want you to start focusing on that, right now. So far I've been tolerant of all this misbehavior, but it ends today. It's time you started measuring up to this family's expectations."


"The world had been chosen by the Last Church to site its Supreme Temple because it was close to the Ulodan Nebula, which was remarkable for its darkness. Normally nebulas can be the most glorious of all stellar objects. They're bunched-up, twisted cyclones of gas and dust that measure light-years across, so big they often have several stars inside. The light from those stars makes them glow, fluorescing the dust and vapor into a blaze of scarlet or violet or emerald. But not the Ulodan. The Ulodan was mostly made up from carbon dust, as black as the gulf between galaxies. There were stars inside, including one very famous one that was home to the Mordiff; but they were all invisible from outside. There was no glow, not even a glimmer. The Ring Empire called it the cloud of the dead, especially after their explorer ship found the Mordiff planet. For the Last Church, it was perfect. Standing on their planet and looking up into the sky, the Ulodan eclipsed half of the core suns. It was as if they were being eaten away.

"Mozark's ship landed there on the fifth year of his journey. I suppose it was inevitable he would go to the Last Church at some point during his voyage. Everybody at some time in their life at least considers religion, and Mozark was no different. He left his ship at the spaceport and went to the city of the Supreme Temple. Over the next few weeks he had many meetings with the priests who ran it. They were pleased to receive him, as they were all people. But of course in Mozark's case they made a special effort. He was a prince from a kingdom in a part of the Ring Empire where they had few churches, and he was looking to enlighten his whole people. With his patronage they could convert many new worlds to the true cause."

"What cause, miss?" Edmund asked. "Did they have Buddha and Jesus and Allah?"

"No." Denise laughed, running a hand through her newly shortened hair. "Nothing like that. You have to remember the Ring Empire was a very old civilization. They were long past believing people who claimed to have spoken to God, or to be related to Him, or to have been sent on a divine mission to enlighten this universe. I'm not even sure 'Church' is a very good translation for what the Last Church represented. It was a kind of evangelical physics, really. Unlike all our religions, there was nothing in their doctrine that was contrary to scientific fact, no way their teachings could be weakened as people learned and understood more about the universe. Instead they were a product of that same learning that had given the Ring Empire all of its fabulous technology. They worshiped—again if that's the right word—the black heart of the galaxy."

The children drew in breaths of astonishment. There were a few nervous titters.

"How could they worship nothing, miss? You said the heart of the galaxy is a black hole."

"I did," Denise agreed. "And that's what it is. A huge great hole into which everything falls and from which nothing ever returns. It's already eaten millions of stars, and one day it will finish devouring the whole galaxy. But not for billions and billions of years. And that's why the Last Church revered it and studied it. Because finally, all that will be left of the universe is black holes. They will consume galaxies and superclusters alike. Every atom that ever was will be locked inside them, and then they'll merge, eventually into one. And after that..." she teased.

"What?" It was a frantic cry from over a dozen small mouths.

"That's why there was a Last Church, because of the uncertainty. Some of the Ring Empire's astrophysicists said that at the moment when the black holes unite and become one, then a new universe will be born, while others claimed that it's the end of everything forever. The Last Church wanted people who believed that after the unification would come a new universe. You see, as everything in this universe would be absorbed by the black holes, they thought they might be able to influence the outcome. Matter is crushed to destruction inside a black hole, but the Last Church believed it is possible for energy to maintain its pattern inside, either by inscribing it on the crushed matter, or as some independent form. They wanted that pattern to be thought. Souls, if you like. They wanted to send souls into the black heart so that when the end of time came, and the neat order of physics and time fell into chaos, there would be purpose.

"Now as you can imagine, this appealed to Mozark. The sheer worthiness of the concept dazzled him: making sure that existence itself continued. It was something to which the kingdom could devote itself with vigor and enthusiasm. It would also appeal to Endoliyn, he thought. But then he began to have doubts, the same kind of doubts that always threaten religion, no matter how rational its basis. Life is a natural product of the universe; to believe its purpose is to artificially impinge upon the end of time is a huge article of faith. The more he thought about it, the closer the Last Church's gospel seemed to be taken from divine intervention. Their very first physicist-priest had made a choice, and in his vanity wanted everyone else to agree with it. Mozark wasn't sure he could do that for himself, let alone his whole kingdom. For all its grandeur, life is small. To expend it all on a mission that may or may not be necessary in hundreds of billions of years' time was to demand just too much faith. A life in the service of the Last Church wouldn't be spent wisely, it would be wasted. That wasn't what Endoliyn wanted.

"Once again, Mozark returned to his ship, and left the First Church planet to continue his voyage. He rejected the Last Church's abstract spirituality just as firmly as he rejected The City's devotion to materialism."

Denise looked round at her little audience. They weren't quite as enthusiastic as they had been when she'd told them about the wonders to be found in The City. Hardly surprising, she chided herself; they're too young to be preached at.

"Sometime soon," she said in a low, awed voice that immediately gained their attention, "I'll tell you about the Mordiff planet and all of its terrible tragic history."

The Mordiff planet was another of those legends of the Ring Empire that made the children shiver with chilly delight every time she mentioned it. Thanks to the vague hints she'd dropped, it had taken on the form of a particularly aggressive hell populated by well-armed monsters. Which wasn't quite a fair description, she thought, but for using as a bogeyman threat to get the garden tidied at the end of the day it was just about peerless.

* * *

After work Denise took a tram up to the Newmarket District of town. A twenty-minute ride, moving slowly away from the substantial buildings clustered around the marina and docks, out into the suburbs where the roads were broad, and the shops and apartment blocks had flat unembellished fronts. Long advertisement boards hugged the street corner buildings, no longer screen sheets but simple paper posters. Side roads showed long rows of nearly identical houses, whitewashed concrete walls scabbing and crumbling in the humid salty air, small gardens overflowing with ferns and palms.

She got off a stop from the enclosed mart she wanted, and walked. There were no tourists here, just locals. She strolled casually, taking her time to look in shop windows. The bars that were open all had tables and chairs on the pavement outside; their patrons preferred the inside where the lighting was low and the music loud. A scent of marijuana and redshift lingered around the darkened doorways, thick and sweet enough for her to imagine it spilling over the step like a tide of dry ice.

As she approached one, a triad stumbled out into the bright sunlight, blinking and shielding their eyes while their slim wingshades unfurled from gold nosebridges. They giggled with the profound scattiness that only the truly stoned can manage. Two men in their late twenties, large, manual workers of some kind judging by their overalls, and a woman. She was in the middle, with her arms slung around both of them. Not much of a figure, not terribly pretty, either. Her tongue glistened in the sunlight as she licked one man's ear, shrieking with delight. His hand closed on her rump, squeezing hotly.

Denise stopped abruptly and turned away. Despite the sunlight and humidity, her skin was suddenly chilly. She cursed herself, her weakness. It was just the combination that had caught her off guard. From her angle: two men dragging the woman off. Incipient sex. Laughter indistinguishable from cries.

Idiot, she raged against herself. There was a wild impulse to slap herself hard across the cheek. Knock some sense into you, girl. Would have done it, too, if this wasn't so public.

It was crazy that her body could be so strong, while her mind was so feeble. Not for the first time, she wondered if Raymond and Josep had asked for subtle neurochemical alterations to be incorporated into their modifications. Human psychology was highly susceptible to chemical manipulation. Could you get a drug for cool?

The triad wobbled away around a corner, and Denise started walking again. A couple of deep breaths and squaring her shoulders tautly returned her traitor body to equilibrium.

A curving glass roof ran the length of the mart, branching out in a cruciform shape a third of the way down from the entrance. Inside, the air was conditioned, scrubbed of moisture and dust. Open-fronted shops had speakers blaring out music and amplifying the spiel that the owners shouted without pause. At the front, the majority of shops were protein knitting; taking raw protein cells from the city's food refineries and blending them with various hydrocarbons and baseline compounds to produce textual approximations of original terrestrial food. There were greengrocers with colored globes purporting to be fruits and vegetables, butchers with burger-steak approximations of every animal from sheep to ostriches, fishmongers with glistening white slivers of flesh on crushed ice; shops with fresh pasta, new-baked bread, rice, curry, cheeses, chocolate, speciality teas and coffees. The smells were enticing as she walked past. Plenty of people loitered, haggling over portions, testing their consistency.

Denise made her way to the back of the mart where Like-side Bikes had their shop. Like every bicycle shop in the universe it had a small front area cluttered with bikes still in their wrappings, while a counter partitioned off a workshop full of tools and small boxes of spares. There were three main work areas, centered on elaborate clamps that held the bikes at chest height. All of them were occupied with machines in various states of assembly with mechanics working on them. Cycling was a popular mode of transport in Memu Bay, and business was brisk.

The assistant manager, Mihir Sansome, looked up and immediately abandoned the child's bike he was working on.

"Hi." Denise flashed him a bright smile. "Has my order come in yet?"

"I believe so." Mihir glanced at his two colleagues and gave Denise a twitchy grin.

She kept her gaze level: it was almost a rebuke.

Mihir cleared his throat. "I'll check." He went back into the workshop and picked up a box from his work bench. "Here we go. Front suspension pins, five sets."

"Thank you." She put cash down on the counter, separating the notes into two piles. Mihir made a show of swiping the box's strip into the till. Five notes went into the cashbox; the larger pile was deftly folded and slipped into his pocket without his colleagues' seeing. He put the box into a carrier bag and handed it to Denise.

As she walked back down the mart, she allowed herself a small smile. Mihir wasn't the greatest actor, but the bicycle shop with its autoclaves and catalytic bonders was incredibly useful. The risk of his activities being noticed was tiny. And even if he was queried by his colleagues or the manager, they'd just assume it was some kind of illegal scam he'd got himself involved in. That was the beauty of every cell-structured underground group: outside of the command group, nobody knew anybody else.

Even if the worst-case scenario came about and the authorities became aware of a cell, they'd only be able to close down that one unit. Taken by itself, the items Mihir had produced for them would mean nothing to the police. He'd probably be able to describe Denise, but as far as he knew she was just a courier. He'd been recruited by members of another cell, who had been given the information that his cousin had died during the last invasion. After skirting around his sympathies, they'd asked him if he could help out making life difficult for the next occupation force. It wouldn't even cost him anything; the movement would be happy to pay for his trouble. Once he'd agreed, the only contact he had was through encrypted packages containing the specifications of components. And Denise.

Had it been a normal radical movement, then they would have used a low-level courier to collect the box. This was a little different Indigo data scrolled across her sight as the Prime in her pearl ring trawled the datapool for real-time police messages. There were hundreds of them, the majority simple routine contacts and location monitors. There were even some special investigation branch operations. None of it related to her.

Even so, she kept an eye on her fellow pedestrians, noted the few cars and vans parked along the street, watched the cyclists. None of them seemed interested in her, except for a couple of lads. But then surveillance operatives wouldn't show an interest; it was recurring faces that she was hunting for.

Only two people got on the tram with her. She switched trams twice before she finally arrived at the workshop, confident no one was following her. It was one of twelve identical workshops in a two-story block designed to accommodate light industry. The whole place had a fairly dilapidated appearance, with windows covered up with reflective shields or wood panels. A faint whine of air-conditioning sounded along the narrow deserted street that led to the rear loading bays. Piles of discarded packaging were accumulating by several of the roll-up doors. She'd never seen anyone put rubbish out, or a city council crew collect any. But the size and position of the piles changed on a weekly basis, so someone else used the workshops.

Denise asked her neural pearl to check the workshop's security network, which reported that the perimeter was secure. She waved her left hand over the lock sensor and pushed the door open. It was a large concrete-walled room inside, empty apart from a long wooden carpentry bench they'd set up in the center and a metal storage rack that took up half of the loading bay wall. Both windows and the roll-up door had been bricked up and reinforced with carbon webbing.

Josep was already sitting at the bench, milling cylinders of stainless steel on a programmable electron beam lathe. "Did you get them?" he asked.

"Hope so." She dropped the box on the bench and broke the seal. Two dozen black cylinders spilled out. They both started examining them.

Mihir had produced slightly conical tubes of boron beryl-hum composite ten centimeters long. The narrower end was open, while the base was sealed with a small hole in the center and an outer ridge. Denise wondered if he knew he was producing bullet casings. The shape was obvious enough, though the high-strength composition could be misleading.

"Not bad," Josep said. He was measuring his casing with calipers, the liquid crystal display blurring as they closed around the base. "Not bad at all. He's got the dimensions within spec."

"I'll start filling them," she said. The casings were the last component. They already had the bullets, the caps and enhanced explosive. Combined with the rifle they'd assembled, a single shot would be able to punch clean through Skin from over two kilometers away.

The rifle was just one of the weapons they planned on using. Other weapons and booby traps were being put together by cells across Memu Bay. Innocuous little components locking together into lethal combinations. This time when the invaders arrived, the resistance movement would be there and ready to make life hell for them.

* * *

Platoon 435NK9 had to wait in the base's transit lounge for five hours. Lawrence didn't mind that for himself—the lounge was air-conditioned, he had a memory chip loaded with a good multimedia library, the drinks machine was free, missiontime pay had begun that morning. Squaddie heaven. He stretched his legs out over three chairs and relaxed while the big departure sheet screen kept repeating the same messages about their scheduling delay and mechanical service requirements. Somewhere out across the hot runway, teams of mechanics were peering quizzically into the inspection hatches of their assigned spaceplane, trying to find which one of the fifty thousand subcomponents the AS pilot was bitching about. AS pilots monitored every component parameter constantly, running the results against International Civil Aerospace Agency performance requirements. Lawrence had heard that operating companies often rebooted their vehicle electronics with AS programs down-rated from the manufacturer's primary installation, allowing a degree more flexibility when it came to determining flight-worthiness. The letter of ICAA's law equaled huge maintenance costs.

If a Z-B AS pilot wanted repairs before it would fly, Lawrence was very happy to have the procedure carried out. The spaceplane would definitely need it.

The enforced hiatus didn't sit so well with the rest of his platoon. Worst hit was Hal Grabowski, the youngest member, just past nineteen years old. Hal's flight experience was limited to one subsonic transocean flight to Australia and five short helicopter trips during the last phase of their training. He'd never been on a spaceplane, let alone experienced freefall. Spaceflight was a novelty he was hungry for, prowling around the lounge in search of some sign that they could embark. A sure giveaway that he'd never seen active service before, either. The ancient armed forces maxim—never volunteer—had streaked over Hal's head at near-orbital altitude.

"It's been three hours!" the kid complained. "Fuck this. Hey, Corp, if they don't fix it, will they give us another spaceplane soon?"

"Yeah, I expect so," Corporal Amersy muttered. He didn't even glance up from the screen on his media player card.

Hal's arms flapped about in disgust He stomped off to annoy someone else. Amersy looked up, watching the kid's back, then turned and smiled at Lawrence. The two of them shook their heads in unison. Amersy was a good ten years older than Lawrence, though his thinning hair was the only outward sign of aging. He was very careful to keep in shape, spending hours each week in the base gym. Good physical condition was a non-negotiable requirement Z-B placed on all its strategic security division squaddies. Amersy was never going to rise above corporal; he had neither the stake-holding nor the connections. It didn't bother him; the position meant he could take good care of his family, so he worked hard at maintaining it. That worked to Lawrence's advantage; Amersy was the most reliable corporal in the Third Fleet.

Only his face betrayed the time he'd devoted to the front line of Z-B's asset-realization policy. A wide patch of skin at the rear of his left cheek was slightly chewed up where a Molotov cocktail had burned through his helmet fifteen years earlier in the Shuna campaign, before Skin reached anything like its current level of ability. Even that shouldn't have been too visible, not with the dark ebony color of Amersy's skin. But that day the Third Fleet field hospital had been inundated with casualties; at the end of a twenty-two-hour shift, the trauma doctor was too fast applying dermal regeneration virals. They'd done the job they were designed for, infiltrating the corium layer to implant new genetic material that would build his epidermal layer back over deep char ridges. Unfortunately the genes that the virals carried were tailored for a Caucasian. Half of Amersy's cheek was white, resembling some kind of flat tumor.

Amersy allowed rookie squaddies to have one joke about it. Hal, naturally, had made a second. The kid was taller even than Lawrence, topping out over two meters, with muscles that could match a Skin suit's strength. It didn't make any difference; he'd limped for a week after landing badly. The kid had shown the corporal plenty of respect since then; it was about the only lesson he had ever learned properly in the whole nine weeks since he'd joined the platoon.

"Are there going to be stewardesses?" Hal asked Edmond Orlov. "You know, some decent-looking pussy."

"It's a fucking military flight, you dipshit," Edmond sneered at him. "Officers and management get freefall blow jobs. You get to fuck Karl."

Karl Sheahan lifted his head, blinking his eyes open. Tiny colored silhouettes shivering over his optronic membranes shrank to nothing. He gave the pair of them the finger.

"What about the starship?" Hal persisted. "Any chicks in the crew?"

"I haven't got a fucking clue. And even if they were all female, it wouldn't make any goddamn difference to you. Crew only ever get the best, that means their fucking coffee machine is smarter and more attractive than you."

"Aww man, that is such a waste. I mean, how many times does a guy have this kind of opportunity? The way I figure, I'll see six, maybe seven campaigns. That'll give me a total of fourteen spaceflights. I don't wanna waste none; that's criminal."

"Waste them how?"

"Boomeranging the padding, man. The big freefall freefor-all. A midair rodeo." He clenched his fists and held them up, pleading. "I wanna have sex in zero-gee, man! Every unnatural position you're not built for. Holy shit. I get hard just thinking about it."

"Shut up, you arrested pervert. There's no such thing. The whole idea's a myth dreamed up by corporate publicity back when they started flying orbital sight-seeing tours. Get it? You even twist your head around fast in freefall and you throw up. You start tumbling around the way you're thinking of, and every orifice lets fly. And I mean every. Now forget about it and give the rest of us a break."

Hal backed off, looking wounded. Edmond was the closest he had to a genuine buddy in the platoon. The two of them had broken base curfew enough nights to go cruising the Cairns Strip together. .

Lawrence waited silently, hoping the kid would finally shut up. There were ten other platoons waiting in the lounge with them, all of them hyped with the prospect of the flight It wouldn't take much to start a fight. He didn't want to start ordering the kid about before the mission had even taken off. None of the others were such a pain, but then they were older, half of them had families, too, which acted like a damping rod on wilder aspects of their behavior. And all of them had seen duty together.

Hal walked over to one of the big picture windows, pressing his face against it to look eagerly out at the huge space-planes that were managing to take off. He took a swig from a Coke can.

"Hal, stop drinking now," Amersy said. "You don't want any fluid in your stomach when we go into orbit. You'll throw up even if you don't twist your head."

Hal glared at the can. He dropped it and kicked it in the direction of the nearest wastebasket. There was no other form of protest.

The kid would do all right, Lawrence decided. He just needed guiding through the first few crowd encounters and he'd start to learn caution. Pity he didn't have a steady girlfriend; that was always a calming influence. But at nineteen he was only interested in screwing as many girls as he could impress by his muscles and his credit card.

Four and a half hours into the wait, and the departure sheet screen changed their flight status to boarding. Hal let out a loud whoop and snatched up his small bag. The rest of Platoon 435NK9 lumbered up out of their chairs and made their way over to the designated gate. Their spaceplane was rolling slowly into the departure bay as they assembled at the clearance desk.

The Xianti 5005h3 spaceplane was a well-proven commercial ground-to-orbit vehicle; the Beijing Astronautics Company had first flown the original 5005a mark in 2290. Since then there had been over forty variants produced as the manufacturer gradually expanded capacity and smoothed out early bugs. The 5005h3 was a stretched delta planform 120 meters long, with a wingspan of a hundred meters. Eighty percent of its volume was taken up by fuel tanks. Its carbon-lithium composite fuselage had a broad center section with graceful curves blending it cleanly into the wing section, a softness in sharp contrast to the knife-blade leading edges. A third of the way down the belly was a single oval scoop intake with an airspike protruding several meters from the rim.

Several gantry service arms rose out of the departure bay's concrete, carrying pipes and utility cables that were plugged into sockets along the Xianti's belly. Technicians in silver fire suits were walking about underneath, inspecting the huge wheel bogies and keeping an eye on the fueling process. A tall girder tower at one side of the bay had clean white vapor flowing silently out of a nozzle on the top, dissipating fast in the warm breeze. That was the only sign that the spaceplane used cryogenic fuel. Its fuselage remained remarkably free from condensation as the on-board tanks were chilled down and filled.

A pair of Z-B spaceflight division staff stood behind the clearance desk, handing out protective black plastic helmets, similar to the kind cyclists used. They made sure everyone put theirs on before embarking. At the end of the sealed walkway a small grimy window looked back along the huge vehicle. That was the last sight Lawrence was given of the spaceplane—a vast expanse of silver-blue wing surface, its size the only indication of the raw power to be unleashed in the flight. As he walked past he felt that familiar small twist of envy, wishing that he were the pilot who hauled this superb monster up through the atmosphere into space and freedom. Except, as all the years since Amethi had shown him, it wasn't true freedom. At some time, you always had to come back down to earth. That wish was the wonderful deceit that had so far cost him twenty years of his life.

The Xianti's passenger cabin was remarkably similar to that of a standard aircraft. Same worn-down blue-gray carpet, not just on the floor but the walls and ceiling, too; pale gray plastic lockers above the seats, harsh lighting, small vent nozzles hissing out dry air a couple of degrees too cool for real comfort. There was plenty of headroom, though, and the chairs had deep jelfoam padding as well as being spaced well apart. All that was missing were windows.

Lawrence made sure the platoon stowed their bags and strapped themselves in securely before he fastened his own buckles. Seatback screens ran through a few brief safety procedures. Lawrence ignored them. Not that he was blasй about spaceflight, more like pragmatic. At takeoff, the spaceplane carried nearly five hundred metric tons of cryogenic hydrogen. No major emergency was survivable.

The Xianti taxied to the end of the runway, and the human pilot cleared the AS for launch. Four Rolls-Royce RBS8200 turbojets throttled up, producing seventy-five tons of thrust.

They began to race down the runway. Seatback screens showed Lawrence the scenery flashing by; the green blur transferred smoothly into a pale blue as they lifted from the tarmac. Then the huge bogies retracted with a noise more like sections of fuselage tearing off. The blue slowly began to darken.

With full afterburn the turbojets pushed the Xianti up to Mach 2.6 somewhere above the Willis Islands. The scramjet ignited then, liquid hydrogen vaporizing in carefully designed supersonic plume patterns within the hot compressed airflow before combusting in long, lean azure flames. It produced 250 tons of thrust, shaking the cabin with a gullet-rattling roar as it pushed the spaceplane ever higher through the stratosphere.

Lawrence clamped his teeth together as the G-force crept upward and the scramjet's fierce vibration blurred his vision. The pressure on his lungs increased toward the verge of pain. He tried to concentrate on breathing regularly—not easy through the building anxiety. The enormity of their power-dive up into orbit made him understand just how insignificant he was in relation to the energies driving them, how hopelessly dependent they were that the obsolete design programs had been used properly fifty years ago, calculating theoretical parameters of aerothermaldynamic flow; that everything was going to work and keep on working under obscene stresses.

Stars began to appear in the seatback screen as the velvet blue panorama drained away into midnight black. The AS pilot began to throttle back the scramjet as they reached Mach 20. They were at the top of the atmosphere now, still soaring upward from the impetus of the burn. Even at that speed, the oxygen density was falling below sustainable combustion levels. Two small rocket motors in the tail fired up, producing a mere fifteen tons of thrust each, which gently eased the spaceplane up to orbital velocity. They created the illusion that the spaceplane was standing vertical on a low-gravity moon. Lawrence's chair creaked as its struts adjusted to the new loading. At least the pounding roar was over.

The glaring blue-white crescent of Earth slid into the bottom of the seatback screen as the rockets cut off, taking with them the last percentage of G-force. Every nerve in Lawrence's body was screaming at him that they were now falling back to the ground, ninety kilometers below. He took some quick shallow breaths, trying to convince himself that the sensation was perfectly natural. It didn't work particularly well, but he was soon distracted by the sounds of worse suffering from his fellow passengers.

For forty minutes the Xianti glided along its course, passing over Central America and out across the Atlantic. Seat-back screens flashed a quick warning, and the small rockets fired again, circularizing their orbit at four hundred kilometers' altitude. After that Lawrence heard a whole new series of mechanical whines and thuds. The spaceplane was opening small hatches on its upper fuselage, extending silver radiator panels to shed heat generated by the life support systems and power cells. Its radar began tracking the Moray. The orbital transfer ship was twenty kilometers ahead, in a slightly higher orbit. Reaction control thrusters adjusted their trajectory in minute increments, closing the gap.

Lawrence watched the screen as the Moray grew from a silver speck to a fully defined ship. It was three hundred meters long, and about as basic as any space vehicle could get. Habitation cabins were five cylinders clustered together, thirty-five meters long, eight wide. They'd been sprayed with a half-meter layer of carbon-based foam, which was supposed to act as a thermal shield as well as providing protection from cosmic radiation. Lawrence had checked the solarwatch bulletin before they took off. Sunspot activity was moderate with several new disturbances forming, one of them quite large. He hadn't told the rest of the platoon, but he was quietly relieved the transfer would take only thirty hours. He didn't trust the foam to protect him from anything serious. Its original white coloring had darkened to pewter gray as the years of vacuum exposure boiled the surface, and even with the spaceplane camera's poor resolution he could see pocks and scars from micrometeorite impacts.

Behind the cylinders was a life support deck, a clump of tanks, filter mechanisms and heat exchangers. A broad collar of silver heat-radiator panels stretched out from the circumference, each segment angled to keep the flat surface away from direct sunlight.

Next was the freight section, a fat trellis of girders sprouting a multitude of loading pins, clamps and environmental maintenance sockets. For the last three weeks, the Cairns base spaceplanes had been boosting cargo pods up to the Moray and its sister ships. They'd been ferrying them up to Centralis at the Lagrange four orbital point where the star-ships waited, then returning to low Earth orbit for more. Even now there wasn't a single unoccupied clamp. They contained the helicopters, jeeps, equipment, armaments and supplies for the Third Fleet's ground forces; everything they'd need to mount a successful mission.

The final section of the ship was given over to propulsion. It housed two small tokamak fusion reactors and their associated support machinery, a tightly packed three-dimensional maze of tanks, cryostats, superconductor magnets, plasma inductors, pumps, electron injectors and high-voltage cabling. The fifteen heat radiator panels necessary to cope with the system were over a hundred meters long, sticking out from the ship like giant propeller blades. The tokamaks fed their power into a high-thrust ion drive, eight grid nozzles buried in a simple box structure that was fixed to the base of the ship almost as an afterthought.

Moray's length drifted past the camera as the Xianti gently maneuvered itself to the docking tower at the front. Reaction control engines drummed incessantly, turning the spaceplane along its axis as it was nudged ever closer. Then the airlock rings were aligned, snapping together with a clang.

Lawrence took a look around the cabin. Several squaddies had thrown up, and the larger air grilles along the ceiling and floor were splattered with the residue. Checking his own platoon he could see several of them showing signs of queasiness. Hal, of course, had an expression of utter delight on his face. Zero-G didn't seem to have any adverse effect on him at all. Typical, Lawrence thought; he could already feel his own face puffing up as fluids began to pool in his flesh.

The airlock hatch swung open, and the cabin PA hissed on. "Okay, we're docked and secure," the human pilot said. "You can egress the transorbital now."

Lawrence waited until the platoon sitting in front of him had gone through the airlock before releasing his own straps. "Remember to move slowly," he reminded his people. "You've got a lot of inertia to contend with."

They did as they were told, unbuckling the restraints and gingerly easing themselves out of the deep seats. It had been over eighteen months since any of them had been in freefall, and it showed—sluggish movements suddenly becoming wild spins. Desperate grabs. Elbows thudding painfully into lockers and seat corners. Lawrence Velcroed his bag to his chest, and used the inset handles along the ceiling to make his way forward. In his mind, he tried to match the process with climbing a ladder. A good grounding psychology: always try for a solid visual reference. Except here his legs wanted to slide out to the side and twist him around. His abdominal muscles tensed, trying to keep his body straight. Someone knocked into his feet. When he glanced around to glare, Odel Cureton was grimacing in apology, his own body levering around his tenuous handhold, putting a lot of strain on his wrists.

"Sorry, Sarge." It was a fast grunt. Odel was trying not to puke.

Lawrence moved a little faster, remembering to kill his motion just before he reached the airlock. He slithered easily around the corner and through the hatch, pleased with the way the old reflexes were coming back.

The Moray was as crude inside as it was outside, stark aluminum bulkheads threaded with dozens of pipes and conduits, hand loops bristling everywhere. The air reeked of urine and chlorine. It must have been strong: Lawrence's sense of smell was fast diminishing beneath clogged sinuses. One of the crew was waiting for him on the other side of the airlock. Lawrence gave him their platoon number, and in return was told what berth they'd been assigned. Each of the big habitation cylinders was color coded. Lawrence led the cursing, clumsy platoon down into the yellow one. Voices echoed about him, coming from open hatchways—other platoons bitching about the conditions and how ill some of their buddies were and why didn't someone do something about bastard freefall. Twice Lawrence banged himself on the walls as they scrambled their way along the central tubular passageway; elbow and knee. By the time he slipped into their compartment he could feel the bruises rising.

The others crawled in after him, moaning and wincing, looking round sullenly. Their compartment was a simple wedge shape. It had three rows of couch chairs with simple hold-you-down straps, a pair of freefall toilets, a locker full of packaged no-crumble meals, a microwave slot and a water fountain with four long hoses ending in stainless-steel valves. Someone had written: Don't even think about it on the aluminum concertina door of one toilet. What would become the ceiling when the ion drive was running was covered with a sheet screen. It was orientated so that anyone in the chair couches would have a reasonable view. A Z-B strategic security logo glowed faintly in the center purple omega symbol bracketing the earth, crowned by five stars.

Hal stowed his bag and flew across the compartment, turning a fast somersault on the way. "This is fucking amazing. Hey, what kind of i-media are they going to give us, anyone know?"

"You don't get i-media in a crate like this," Odel said in exasperation. "This isn't a pleasure cruise, kid. You worked that out yet? You'll be lucky if they've got black-and-white films." He put his glasses on, leaving the display lenses clear, but settling the audio plugs in his ears. Thin vertical scarlet lines appeared on the lenses as he called up a menu. He worked down a playlist of rock tracks from centuries-old classics right up to Beefbat and Tojo Wall, then settled back contentedly as they began to play.

Lawrence sighed, fastening himself loosely into one of the couch chairs. It could have been worse. Some platoons had boosted out of Cairns ten days ago. At least he only had another four days until the Third Fleet departed from Centralis. Perhaps they could put something in the kid's food.

* * *

Simon Roderick went down to the observation gallery half an hour before the portal opening. There were over a hundred people crammed into the small chamber protruding from the surface of Centralis. Somehow they contrived to give him a little patch of free space in front of the thick glass where he could stand by himself. They were silent, though Simon could sense their minds spiking with resentment and disquiet. As always, he ignored their pusillanimous nature with his usual contempt. The physical discomfort of Centralis itself couldn't be dismissed quite so easily, however.

Centrifugal force didn't make him giddy, although he often caught himself wishing for a full one-gravity field.

Centralis was too small for that, its rotation producing slightly less than two-thirds of a gee around its outermost level.

Back in the mid-1970s when Gerard K. O'Neill was putting his High Frontier concept together he produced several designs for space "islands." Starting with the simple Bernal sphere at four hundred meters in diameter, the concepts progressed up to the paradise garden of "Island Three": linked twin cylinders twenty kilometers long. All of them were admittedly achievable with relatively simple engineering procedures. The problem came in gathering together that much material with the requisite construction crews and their assembly equipment in an era when it cost upward of two hundred million U.S. dollars to launch a single space shuttle.

Scramjet spaceplanes eased the problem of cheaper access to space. But as they helped to build low-orbit stations and their associated industrial modules, so they reduced the need for vast habitats. Even in a rampant consumer society, the quantity of ultraspecialist crystals and chemicals that could be produced only in microgee facilities was limited to a few hundred metric tons a year—a figure easily supervised by small tough crews paid exorbitant salaries to endure the generally unpleasant conditions to be found in Earth-orbit space stations.

It was only in 2070, when a method of faster-than-light travel was developed, that there was any need for large high-orbit dormitory towns. Starships were neither compact nor cheap: they needed thousands of people to construct the massive superstructure and integrate hundreds of thousands of components into a functional whole. As they were too big to take off or land on a planet, they had to be built in space. O'Neill's old ideas were pulled out of university libraries and studied afresh.

One critical development since O'Neill's day was synthetic food production. The old island designs were driven by the need to provide vast amounts of farmland to feed the indigenous population. His cylinders had been given multiple-wheel crystal palace geometries and elegant necklaces of agricultural modules so they would be self-sufficient. The new designs discarded all that baggage. All they needed was a couple of refinery modules to process excrement back into protein cells. The starship companies still kept the idea of a central garden park; that kind of open space was acknowledged as a primary psychological requirement for the crews that would have to spend months if not years up in the islands. And that much biota was a reasonably cost-effective fail-safe air regeneration system. But the rest of it, the luxurious landscapes, meandering freshwater lakes, the giant windows with their fans of mechanically swiveled mirrors, Caribbean climates and nuclear family neighborhoods of open-plan Italian villas—that was all condensed and modernized.

Centralis, which was Z-B's primary Lagrange point facility, adopted a plain cylinder geometry, five hundred meters in diameter and one kilometer long. Its apartment complexes were as cramped as any low-rent city skyscraper, only these were ring-shaped, occupying the lower fifty meters of each circular endwall. The garden between them, like any urban park, was overutilized and overmaintained. Shrubs and trees grew tall and spindly on the thin layer of crashed rock sand that passed for soil, the fusion-powered plasma tube running along the axis never providing the right level of UV. But it had ponds with fountains and expensive koi carp, and picnic tables, and a jogging track, and baseball diamonds, and tennis courts. Although it took months for the Johnny-come-latelies to pick up on the Coriolis-driven double curve flight of balls.

Radiation shielding, too, was a constant worry beyond Earth's protective atmosphere. The only true defense against gamma rays and high-energy particles was mass, big fat solid barriers of it. Centralis was given a rocky external shield two meters thick, which was encrusted with black radiator fins. There were a few gaps through, for the axial corridors connecting the main cylinder to the nonrotating docking net at each end, shafts for the pipes carrying fluid to and from the fins, and the observation gallery.

Constellations traced a slow curve outside, although the portal was always in view. It hung fifty kilometers off Centralis's rotation axis like a blue pole star. Simon knew where it was only from the cluster of colony trains keeping station around it, slim silver bars agleam with reflected sunlight, forming their own tight little cluster.

He used his DM to receive sensor feeds from the trains, closing his eyes to be greeted with the sight of the portal directly ahead. A simple ring five hundred meters in diameter, it looked like a toroid of black hexagonal netting encasing a weak-glowing neon tube. The sight of one never failed to inspire him, reaffirming his faith in Z-B and all its endeavors. A portal was the most sophisticated, and expensive, technological artifact that the human race was capable of constructing. Only Zantiu-Braun had the facilities, money and determination to build them. Portals were one-shot wormhole gateways. Rather than the continual spatial compression that ordinary starships generated for themselves to fly through, these opened a wormhole down which any vehicle could travel. It took a phenomenal amount of energy, correctly applied against the fabric of space-time, to create the rift. The combined fusion generators of twenty starships wouldn't be able to produce a fraction of the power necessary. So Z-B manufactured an isomer based around hafnium 178 and boosted it up to its K-mixing state; the subsequent decay to its ground state produced the amount of energy required to distort space-time once it was correctly channeled and focused. But the isomer was incorporated into the solidstate wormhole generation mechanism itself, which meant that once the decay was complete the whole edifice was not only useless but highly radioactive as well. You couldn't take it apart and refill it with a fresh isomer. A new one had to be built each time.

That one-shot limitation meant Z-B had to extract the maximum amount of use from every portal. As a result, they'd designed the colony train, a spacecraft every bit as crude as an orbital-transfer vehicle, but on a much larger scale. They had the same type of engine system, fusion generators powering high-thrust ion rockets, sitting at the base of a kilometer-long girder tower. Simple enough to build, they were assembled in the redundant starship yards floating in attendance around Centralis.

The fleet of colony trains that Simon could view through his sensor feed were fully laden with descent capsules, as if the tower had been swamped by metallic barnacles. Each of the 840 capsules was an identical cone, six meters wide at the base, coated with a silvery ablative foam that would allow them a single airbrake into a planetary atmosphere. They carried four people and all the basic equipment they'd need to start life on a new planet from scratch.

To qualify for a berth, the colonists had to be thirty or younger (that is, of childbearing age) and have an appropriate stakeholding in Z-B. It was a qualification that millions of people still strove for, even though the portal worlds were nothing like the original interstellar colonies. There would never be a follow-up, no second portal delivering supplies to expand the colony, no regular starship flights from Centralis. After they arrived the colonists were on their own. If they wanted to get back in contact with Earth and the other developed worlds, they had to build their own FTL vehicles. Best estimates put that level of financial and industrial ability being achieved at least a century after the founding flight, and probably a lot longer.

As financial analysts never tired of pointing out, Z-B's portal colonies were extremely risky ventures. In an age in which most interstellar flight was now concerned with asset-realization missions, Z-B's attitude seemed almost anachronistic, especially as it was itself heavily involved with asset realization.

Simon observed the colony trains patiently, waiting as the small digital timer on the rim of his vision counted down the minutes left until activation. When it came, there was little physical evidence. The blue light of the portal ring brightened by two orders of magnitude as the isomer cascade was initiated. The aperture turned blank, obscuring the stars that had been visible in the center. Slowly the blue luminescence contained in the ring began to seep inward, forming a solid sheet of photons. It twisted in an instant, distorting backward and opening into a seemingly infinite tunnel. The intensity of the light withdrew until the wormhole walls were defined only by a faint violet haze that neither camera nor eye could quite bring into perfect focus.

A whole grid of script tables displayed by his DNI provided Simon with more information than he wanted about the wormhole's stability and its endpoint coordinate. The target was Algieba, a yellow giant binary system 126 light-years distant. Easily the farthest out that any kind of colony venture had been attempted; it was just approaching the range of the current portal capacity.

The portal operations AS picked up the beacon signal left behind by the explorer starship, allowing it to confirm the endpoint coordinate was within ten million kilometers of the target planet, an Earth-equivalent world orbiting the smaller of the two stars. It flashed a go signal to the colony trains.

Ion rockets burned with a painful near-ultraviolet gleam, moving the massive craft out of their holding pattern. The first five to slide into the wormhole were carrying descent capsules full of industrial equipment and civil engineering machinery, a basic infrastructure that would support the entire colony throughout its early years. Twenty trains of descent capsules followed, each one traversing the twenty-five-kilometer internal length of the wormhole in a little over two minutes, emerging into the double glare of the yellow stars.

Data traffic within the wormhole reached a crescendo as the trains sent back their status and location. Then the isomer cascade was exhausted and the transdimensional fissure collapsed.

Cold blue light faded from within the portal's external netting, revealing a complex braid of flat gold, ebony and jade filaments. The luster had gone from the materials; they now possessed the tarnished and brittle look of an antique, as if the wormhole had aged them centuries.

People started to make their way out of the observation gallery. Simon waited until he was alone. He canceled his DNI link with the Centralis datapool to stare at the patch of space where the dead portal floated. It was as if the extinguished circuitry still exerted some kind of weak gravitational pull on his mind. He felt an almost childish burst of jealousy against those who had gone through. They were free of Earth's myriad problems, its contamination and sullying of all human events. Even their passing made it harder for those left behind. Zantiu-Braun had weakened itself still further by giving them their fresh chance. The company could barely afford to fund a portal colony every eighteen months now; not even asset realization was plugging the financial gap anymore. Every time Simon stood in the observation gallery watching colleagues and family depart, his resolution to stay and hold back the barbarian horde decayed a fraction more. He often wondered what his mind's half-life was, at what point he would give in to pessimism and abandon Earth for his own new beginning. It could happen. The sheer inertia of humanity's stupidity would see to that.

* * *

The Moray arrived at Centralis thirty hours after leaving low-Earth orbit. Lawrence had resisted the urge to eat as best he could, limiting himself to one meal. That way he only had to use the toilet once; even with the ship's tiny acceleration helping directionwise, it wasn't an experience he wanted to repeat if he could help it. At the same time he forced himself to drink every hour or so: with only a minute G-force when the ion engines were on and several hours' coasting in freefall between burns, it was easy for his body to become dehydrated. Without gravity pulling fluids down to his feet, his deep instincts were confused and unreliable. At least pissing in space was simple—assuming you were male.

Hal had to be ordered to drink from the water fountain hose on more than one occasion. He wasn't the major problem. Lewis Ward got a bad dose of space sickness, throwing up every time he even tried to drink water. After a couple of hours dodging revolting yellow stomach juices, Lawrence called for the doctor. When she did arrive twenty minutes later, she simply used a hypospray to give him a mild sedative and told the platoon to try to get him to drink in an hour or so.

"Don't let him eat for the rest of the trip," she warned. "Koribu has a one-eighth gravity field. He can last until then." With that she zipped out of the door with the agility of a shark.

Hal gave a disgusted snort as she left; she'd been in her fifties, and a decade of service in low gravity had seen her body gently swell out as her legs and arms became more spindly. He'd brightened at the prospect of her house call. Since she'd arrived, he hadn't said a word.

"Sorry, guys," Lewis whispered. There was a single strap over his legs, allowing him to adopt a semicurled position on the couch chair. His face was gleaming with sweat. When it came to training and maneuvers, Lewis could move quicker man just about anyone else in the platoon. He had a ratlike agility, allowing him to vanish into some crack or corner that would give him cover whatever the terrain was. His thin body had the kind of stringy standout muscles and tendons Lawrence associated with marathon runners. But he could dash along a ten-meter suspended pole without even having to hold his arms out for balance. Funny how space sickness had hit him worse than any of them.

"No problem, my man," Odel Cureton said. "Statistically, one and a half of us will suffer some kind of aggravated motion sickness per twenty-five hours of flight. You coming down with it means the rest of us are in the clear." Odel was what passed for the platoon's electronic specialist. At thirty-two he didn't have any degrees or qualifications from colleges or even Z-B, at least none that he produced for the personnel department. But as Odel admitted to four ex-wives, and those in just the last six years, Lawrence could appreciate the man's need for blurring his background. Who knew how many other women could legally lay claim to part of his salary packet? Odel was what Lawrence's old teachers had called bookish; the voice was distinctly upper-class English, too. Normally, Lawrence would have deep misgivings about anyone with those characteristics; they were too much like officer material. But Odel couldn't be faulted for his frontline performance, which was all everyone really cared about. The platoon entrusted a lot of its equipment field maintenance to him, knowing he'd do a good job.

"Thanks, cretin," Dennis Eason said. He turned back and applied a medicsensor to Lewis's damp forehead, checking the readout that popped up on his field-aid kit.

"Do you even know what you're doing?" Karl Sheahan asked.

Dennis tapped the Red Cross symbol on his tunic shoulder. "You'd better hope so, pal. I'm your best hope for survival."

"You couldn't even give him a fucking aspirin without checking with that whale they call a doctor."

"I'm not authorized to administer anything," Dennis said tightly. "Not when there's a qualified ship's doctor on call. It's a jurisdictional thing."

"Yeah? Is that what you told Ntoko? Huh? Too much blood, it's a jurisdictional thing."

"Fuck you!"

"Enough," Amersy announced quietly. "Karl, watch the fucking movie and stop causing me grief."

Karl grinned as he performed a neat midair spin and landed gently on a chair couch. It turned out the sheet screen didn't have an interactive driver; all it showed were third-person fixed-view dramas. Up on the ceiling the young actress was tooling up to slaughter the vampires that were taking over Brussels. It meant she had to wear a lot of tight black leather.

Hal was in the chair couch next to Karl, staring up at the movie. He hadn't even heard the goading. Karl held on to a strap and leaned over to slap Hal on the arm. "You could give her one, couldn't you, dickbrain. Huh?"

Hal's leer grew broader.

Some of them managed to sleep for small periods during the rest of the flight. It wasn't easy. There was always noise, if not in their compartment, then from others, drifting incessantly through the ship like an audio-only poltergeist. People flailed about the cabin, sucking noisily on the water hoses, and microwaving snacks, then bitching about how they tasted of nothing. The toilets were used, which always ended in exclamations of misery, and the small cubicles let out a smell each time the doors were folded back. Who had the worst-smelling farts was an ongoing topic of conversation. Nic Fuccio kept score. Those who couldn't sleep kept their eyes shut from exhaustion, shifting around fitfully in the tiny gravity field. At some stage, almost everyone shouted at Dennis to give them tranks. He refused.

Lawrence nearly cheered out loud when the crap movies finally ended and the Moray's captain showed them an external camera view. The Koribu was five kilometers distant, surrounded by a shoal of smaller support and service ships.

Even now, after twenty years in strategic security and flying to eleven different star systems, Lawrence still got an adrenaline buzz from seeing the huge starships. Like every other starship still flying, the Koribu was designed as a colonist carrier. Not that there were any other designs—even the explorer craft that had once probed interstellar space around the Sol system had the same layout. Only the size varied.

Their shape, and to some degree, form, was constrained by the nature of the compression drive. Although FTL capability was a scientific and technological breakthrough of the highest order, it didn't have the kind of commercial viability Earth's corporations and financiers would have liked. The development team had originally talked about starflights taking the same time as intercontinental aircraft journeys. A more honest analogy would have been with sailing ships. Like a portal, the FTL drive generated a wormhole by compressing the fabric of space-time with a negative energy density effect. As such an energy inverter consumed a colossal amount of power simply to open a wormhole, and the only practical source was a fusion generator, the subsequent wormhole was extremely short in comparison to the distance between stars. That wasn't a technological problem, as the starship flew down the wormhole it was creating, so the drive would simply redefine the endpoint, moving it ever forward. Although a valid solution, it also stretched out the flight time.

Modern starships could make the Centauri run in a week, giving them a speed of just over half a light-year per day.

The Koribu was such a ship. She had been intended as a colonist carrier forty-two years ago when she was being assembled in one of Centralis's freeflying shipyards. Cost structuring by Z-B's accountancy AS had given her an effective range of forty light-years. With that as their mandate, the designers had housed her energy inverter in a drum-shaped superstructure two hundred meters in diameter that made up the entire forward third. Seventy percent of its volume was given over to the eight fusion generators required to provide the massive quantities of power that the drive consumed, an engineering reality that explained why the outer surface was a mosaic of thermal radiators, mirror-bright silver rectangles five meters long, throwing off the phenomenal heat-loading produced by the generators' support systems during flight.

Because of the debilitating effect of freefall on human physiology, especially on twenty-seven thousand untrained colonists over ten weeks, some kind of gravity field had to be provided for them and the crew. It came in the simplest fashion there was: six life support wheels, fat doughnuts thirty meters wide and two hundred in diameter. They were arranged in pairs, counter-rotating around an axial shaft to balance precession. Their hulls, in common with all spacecraft operating outside the protection of Earth's magnetic field, were blank, without ports or markings; just the standard coating of light gray foam rucked from particle impacts and bleached from the light of different stars.

Adapting them for strategic security transport was an easy refit. Z-B turned common rooms and lounges into gyms and sim-tac theaters; some dormitories were taken out of commission and used as Skin suit depots, while the remaining dormitories were unchanged. Between them, they could billet twenty thousand squaddies.

Behind the life support wheels came the cargo section, a broad open cylinder section built up from a honeycomb lattice of girders, which formed deep hexagonal silos. They had once carried modules of industrial machinery and essential supplies that the colonists needed to maintain their settlements. Modifying the silos for asset-realization missions was a simple matter of changing the hold-down clamp designs.

Now, seven orbital transfer ships held station three hundred meters away, encircling the Koribu. One-man engineering shuttles glided backward and forward between them and the starship with halo bursts of green and blue flame, carrying the Third Fleet's lander pods, which they slotted down into waiting silos. At one end of the honeycomb, silos had been merged to form long, deep alcoves. They contained space-planes, the familiar sleek profile of Xianti nose cones just visible rising above the shadows.

Koribu's final stage was its main reaction drive, five direct fusion rockets in the shape of elongated cones over three hundred meters long, ribbed with a filigree of pipes and cables. Big spherical deuterium tanks were plugged into the stress structure at the head of the cones, along with ancillary support equipment and ten small tokamaks that provided power for the main engine ignition sequence.

The Moray docked just ahead of the life support section, nuzzling up to a tunnel that had extended out beyond the star-ship's body. Lawrence had to wait for another twenty minutes listening to the clamor of other platoons banging their way through the orbital-transfer ship's habitation cabins and into the tunnel. Finally, they were given clearance to disembark.

It was a long trek through the starship's freefall corridors to the rotating transfer toroid of their wheel. Inside the top of the wheel spoke was an elevator that was barely high enough to take an adult. They all aligned themselves, tucking the boots into the floor hoops. The G-force built as they descended, much to Lewis's relief. They stopped on the middle of the three decks occupying the wheel itself, where the gravity was an eighth Earth-standard. Enough to settle their stomachs and restore normal circulation patterns. But with it came a disconcerting spinning sensation, as if the decking were about to heave over. They emerged from the elevator, reaching out to steady themselves against the wall.

Every time he came down into one of the wheels, Lawrence swore he wouldn't let the effect trick him again. Every time his body promised him he was about to flip over. He gingerly took his hand away from the wall. "Okay, I know it feels like we're washing about. Ignore it. You're all down and stable. Let's go find our quarters."

He set off down the corridor. After ten paces he had to move to one side to avoid Simon Roderick and his retinue of senior managerial staff. The Third Fleet's board representative was so busy snapping out instructions to a harried aide he never even noticed the platoon. Lawrence kept his own face impassive. He'd followed the investigation Roderick and Adul Quan had launched in the wake of the bar fight in Kuranda. His Prime program had loaded unobtrusively into the base's datapool, passively observing the surge of traffic shunting between AS programs, the information requests to skyscan. Their inquiries had withered away after a couple of days, and the police had never turned up anything. Even so, it was a shock coming face-to-face with a board representative who'd taken such a keen interest in his off-base activities.

Roderick and his entourage disappeared up the curve of the corridor, and Lawrence walked on without breaking stride.

The dormitory that they'd been given was probably only double the size of the compartment on the Moray. It had two ranks of bunk beds each with its own locker containing a standard clothes package for everyone, a couple of aluminum tables with chairs and a sheet screen. There was a small washroom next door.

Hal looked around, his face screwed up in dismay. "Oh man, what is this shit?" he exclaimed.

Amersy laughed. "Best quarters in the fleet, welfare boy. Lie back and enjoy. You get fed, you get paid and nobody shoots at you. Now find a bunk and make the most of it."

"I'll go fucking stir crazy." He made to climb onto a top bunk, only to find his way blocked by Karl's forearm.

"Bottom rung, kid," Karl said, grinning a challenge.

"Jesus fucking wept." Hal threw his small bag onto a lower bunk and hopped on after it. "I can't take these closed-up rooms."

"You'll put up with it," Lawrence said. He dropped his own bag on a top bunk, momentarily fascinated by the weird curve of its fall. "Settle down, all of you; you know the onboard drill. I'll find out what our canteen schedule is, and then we work training and fitness around that. Lewis, how are you feeling?"

"Not too bad, Sarge. Guess the doc was right."

Lawrence made his way over to the small keyboard set into the wall beside a sheet screen. Platoon dormitories didn't rate an AS program, but the operating system was sophisticated and easy enough to operate. He called up their basic shipboard data: where they ate and when, what the local time was, when departure was scheduled.

"Hey, you guys want to know where we're headed?" he asked.

"Thallspring," Karl shouted back. "Didn't they tell you, Sarge?"

Hal gave him a puzzled look. "How did you know that? It's like top secret."

Karl shook his head. "Fuck, you are a big waste of space, kid."

They were due to depart in twenty-two hours. Lawrence read the Third Fleet data from the screen and muttered, "Jesus."

"Problem?" Amersy asked quietly.

Lawrence took a quick glance round the dormitory. Nobody was paying attention to them. "Seven ships. Is that what the Third Fleet is these days?"

"More than a match for Thallspring. Their population is small, barely seventeen million."

"Projected," Lawrence said. "That's no true guide. But it's not what I'm worried about."

"The ships?"

"Yeah. Fate! My first mission, to Kinabica, that took seven weeks of spaceplane flights just to lift us and our equipment offplanet. There must have been thirty-five starships on that mission."

"We don't have that many starships anymore. Not since Santa Chico."

"Not just there. Second Fleet lost two ships on approach to Oland's Hope. No one projected they'd have exo-orbit defenses. But they did."

"You want to eject?"

"Hell no. I'm just saying this one could be tough. We're going in too small."

"They'll cope." Amersy clapped him on the shoulder. "Hell, even the kid will pull through."

"Yeah, right." Lawrence began pulling menus from the starship's computer, seeing what he could throw up on the screen. He read one schedule and smiled, hurriedly calling up supplements. "You might want to see this," he told the platoon. "You'll probably never have another chance for ringside seats this good."

The screen brightened with an image from one of Koribu's external cameras. It was centered on the portal, glowing a hazy blue against the void. Colony trains were clustered around like a shoal of eager technological fish.

"Two minutes to the starting gun," Lawrence announced happily. Despite all he hated about Z-B, he had to admit, they got this absolutely right.

His mood was broken by Hal's petulant voice asking, "What the fuck is that thing, a radioactive doughnut? Order me a couple of coffees to go with it, Sarge." He trailed off fast at Lawrence's look.

Lawrence just managed to stop himself from bawling out the kid. He couldn't believe anyone was that ignorant about the most important endeavor the human race was undertaking. But then Hal was just some teenager from a welfare block in some godforsaken city. Lawrence himself had been a teenager with the best education his home planet could provide, as well as apparently unlimited data resource access, and he hadn't known that portals existed. It had been Roselyn who told him.


In five years, Amethi's climate had undergone a profound degree of alteration. The changes wrought by Heat-Smash had become self-sustaining and were now accelerating on a scale that allowed human senses to register them. Locals were calling it the Wakening. Instead of surprise and delight at seeing a single cloud, they now welcomed the sight of a small patch of sky through the sullen cloud mantle.

Now that the overall air temperature had risen several degrees above freezing, the Barclay's Glacier meltdown exhaled water vapor into the atmosphere at a phenomenal rate. Giant cloud banks surged out from the thawing ice sheet, reaching almost up to the tropopause where they powered their way around the globe. In their wake, warmer arid air was sucked in, gusting over the ice where it helped transpiration still further, keeping the planet-sized convection cycle turning.

When the clouds rolled over the tundra they began to darken, condensing to fall as snow. By the time the flakes reached the ground they were miserable gray smears of sleet Great swaths of slush mounted up over the entire planetary surface, taking an age to drain away in stubborn trickles that were often refrozen by fresh falls. On the continental shelves, muddy rivers slowly began to flow again, while across the dead ocean beds, the deep trenches and basins were gradually filling with water. The thin viscous sheets of dirty liquid that rolled sluggishly downslope across the sands carried along the crusting of salt that had lain there undisturbed since the glacier had formed. It was all dragged down into the deepening cores of the returning oceans, dissolving to produce a saturated solution every bit as dense and bitter as Earth's Dead Sea.

Above it, meanwhile, the air was so clogged with hail and snow that flying had become hazardous. Spaceplanes were large enough to power their way up through the weather, but smaller aircraft remained sheltered in their hangars for the duration. Driving also was difficult, with trucks newly converted into snowplows running constantly up and down the main roads to keep them clear. Windshield wipers were hurried additions to every vehicle. Major sections of the Amethi ecology renewal project had been suspended until the atmospheric turbulence returned to more reasonable levels. The insects already scheduled for first release were as yet un-cloned; silos holding the seed banks were sealed up. Only the slow-life organisms remained relatively unaffected, carrying on as normal under the snow until they were unlucky enough to be caught by a fast flush of water. Lacking even rudimentary animal survival instinct, they never had the sense to wriggle or crawl away from the new torrents raking across the land.

This particular phase of Amethi's turbulent environmental modification was proceeding as expected, claimed the climatologists, it was just more vigorous than most of their AS predictions. Some quick revisions incorporating new data estimated the current turmoil wouldn't last more than a few years. Specific dates were not offered.

Lawrence rather enjoyed the Wakening, secretly laughing at all the chaos it had brought to McArthur's meticulously laid plans and the amount of disturbance it caused his father. This was nature as it existed on proper planets, playing havoc with human arrogance, exactly what he wanted to witness firsthand in star systems across the galaxy where alien planets produced still stranger meteorology. However, after the first nine months or so of Amethi's whiteouts and oppressive obscured skies, even he grew bored with the new phenomena.

That boredom was just one of the contributory factors suggested to his parents for his continuing behavioral problems. By the time he reached sixteen his thoroughly exasperated father was already sending him on weekly trips to Dr. Melinda Johnson, a behavioral psychologist. Lawrence treated the sessions as a complete joke, either exaggerating grossly or simply answering every question with a sullen yes or no depending on how pissed off he felt at the time. It probably helped disguise just how alienated he was from the rest of Amethi's society, which was why she never made any progress with him. Lawrence knew he was growing up in the wrong place at the wrong time. He should have been an American astronaut in the 1960s or a deepspace astrophysics officer in the last decades of the twenty-first century when starships first set out to explore the new worlds around Sol. Yet telling that to the professionally sympathetic Dr. Johnson would have been a huge admission of weakness on his part. No way was he giving in to her. She, and everything she stood for, the normality of Amethi, was the problem, not the solution. So the lies and moods just kept on swinging a little further each time, picking curiously at the envelope of acceptability as if it were an interesting scab. All the while he built a defensive shell of stubborn silence around himself, which grew progressively thicker each time his father raged and his mother showed her quiet disapproval. Nothing apart from i-media interested him, nothing apart from gaining more i-media time motivated him. He had few friends, his teachers virtually gave up, and sibling rivalry at home began to resemble a full-blown war zone. With his hate-the-world attitude and his rampaging hormones, he was the basic teenager from hell.

That was why his father had totally surprised him one morning at the breakfast table when he said: "I have to go to Ulphgarth tomorrow for a conference, fancy coming with me?"

Lawrence glanced round his siblings, waiting for them to answer, then realized everyone was staring at him, including his father. "What, me?"

"Yes, you, Lawrence." Doug Newton's lips twitched with his usual lofty amusement.

"Why?" Lawrence grunted suspiciously.

"Oh dear." Doug Newton rubbed his fingertips against his temple. "Well, quite. Why indeed? To reward your exemplary behavior, perhaps? Or your grades? Or just for keeping your data access costs below the K-pound mark this month? Which do you think, Lawrence? Why should I be nice to my eldest son?"

"Why do you always do that? Why are you always so damned sarcastic? Why can't you just ask me like a normal person?"

"As opposed to the way I put the question?"

Lawrence turned bright red as Janice and Ray started sniggering at his expense. He glared around at everyone, angry with himself for being caught out. But it was such an unusual thing for Dad to ask... "Well, what's there, anyway?" He managed to sound as if nothing in the universe could ever interest him in Ulphgarth. Not that he'd actually heard of it before.

"A first-rate conference center, where we're discussing the final stage bidding with contractors for the new Blea River bridge."

"Oh yeah, thanks, like I'm really gonna want to be a part of that"

"Which is what I shall be attending, while you can just stay in the five-star resort hotel next door. One of my aides has pulled out, leaving a room already paid for. You can sleep in as late as you like, or even for the whole five days if you want. You can have room service meals on a twenty-four-hour-a-day basis. There's a fully equipped sports center and pool free to guests. The dome lighting is rigged for tropical climate if you want to lounge around getting a tan. Your room includes unlimited datapool access. There's live music every night. And you don't have to see me or even have a meal with me the entire time. So... do you want to give your mother a break for a few days before term starts?"

Lawrence looked across at his mother, who was smiling gamely. Her stress lines had become permanent since his last brother had been born. He knew she was taking prescription antidepressants, washed down with vodka, and hated her for being so weak. He hated himself even more for being so harsh on her. It was this whole fucking stupid world that was rotten. "I... Yeah. Great. Sounds cool. Thanks."

"Thanks. Good Fate, wonders never cease on this planet, do they?"

Lawrence scowled again.

Three days later, he wasn't actually enjoying himself, but he was relaxing. The hotel building was in a dome all by itself, a fifteen-story triangle of broad glass-fronted balconies right in the center where guests could look out over humid, verdant parkland. It seemed as if every bush and tree was sprouting some kind of brightly colored flower. Branches and leaves had been infused with a vitality lacking to ordinary plants—you could virtually watch the glossy shoots growing. The tough Bermuda grass was mown every night by the gardening robots, but it was still like walking over a layer of thick sponge in the morning.

Lawrence lay back on the sun lounger, shifting his shoulders around on the cushioning until he was completely comfortable. The big lights overhead were warmer than the ones in the tropical dome of his family's estate, sending out rays that soaked right through him. He'd found a spot on the broad curve of paving that surrounded the big circular swimming pool, away from everyone else, but close enough to the open bar to signal to the waiter. Amazingly, nobody bugged him about how old he was when he ordered drinks! He'd started out on beers yesterday before moving on to the list of cocktails. Some of them were pretty disgusting despite the intriguing colors and foliage, and he'd almost gone back to beer. Then he found margaritas.

The girl was in the pool again. Lawrence moved up the backrest slightly so he could see the whole area without having to turn his head. He was wearing mirrorshades with a built-in audio interface to his bracelet pearl, while optronic membranes covered his eyes underneath. So he could either play some i's or sneak a look at the people in the pool or even doze off, and nobody would be able to tell. Yesterday he'd been playing Halo Stars and guzzling down his beers before he noticed her.

She was, he guessed, about sixteen, blond, her thick straight hair cut off level with her shoulders, and tall with legs that were fabulously athletic. In fact her whole body was lithe and trim. He could see that easily enough thanks to the small black bikini she'd worn.

Lawrence had spent the rest of the afternoon watching her and sipping his margarita. There was a whole gang of kids messing about around the pool, from his own age down to about seven or eight. Conference kids, he guessed, left to themselves while the adults discussed the intricacies of bridge building. He didn't join in. For one thing he wasn't so hot on socializing. Never knew what to say to a complete stranger. And then there was his body. He wasn't self-conscious, of course. But out here in the open wearing just his swim trunks he was keenly aware how much heavier he was than the other seventeen-year-old boys. Despite his height and general size, which the school's coaches were convinced would be advantageous for football and field events, he had no interest in joining any of the teams and wasting valuable i-hours by training. That lack of exercise meant that unlike the rest of his year his puppy fat hadn't burned off. It was unusual in a world where most children had been given some degree of germline v-writing to improve their general physiology, as he could see around him. It wasn't just the girl who glowed with health. Even so, she stood out: the other girls having fun in the pool were attractive, but she was stunning. He couldn't say why he found her so irresistible, exactly. She had a narrow face, with wide lips and prominent cheekbones, features that were attractive, but not outstanding. And her gray eyes were never still, always taking in the world around her with wonder. In the end he decided that was her magic—she was so full of life. Others obviously agreed with him; she had a harem of boys longer than a comet's tail following her around.

He watched silently as she splashed about in the pool. Then the group were diving and jumping in. Chasing about around the side, throwing each other in. Lobbing a ball about. Rushing over to their sun lounger to grab a quick gulp of Coke before jumping back in. All the while she was laughing and shouting.

She levered herself up out of the water directly ahead of Lawrence, lean muscles taut, water glistening over her skin. His breath grew hot as he pictured that incredible body shivering in delight while he ran his hands over her, taking as much time as he wanted. Sweet Fate, he wanted to fuck her badly. Really badly. His cock was growing hard inside his trunks. He had to hurriedly activate the bracelet pearl, optronic membranes wiping out the sight of her behind a deluge of astronomical data.

Running away would have looked odd. And he'd seen Naomi Karamann using one of the sun loungers on the other side of the bar. She was—allegedly—his father's executive assistant. Lawrence didn't have to be told she was the same as all the assistant nannies who came and went on a near-monthly basis. A beautiful girl in her early twenties, with dark ebony skin and a very full figure. She walked about the side of the pool in a scarlet swimsuit designed for provocation rather than swimming. At no time had she shown any interest in the conference. The night before, Lawrence had seen his father and her join a big group of businessmen for dinner in the hotel's restaurant. She'd been dressed in some silver backless gown, her hair glittering with embedded gold.

No doubt if she saw him acting strangely his father would hear about it. So he stayed immersed in Halo Stars, gliding over the astonishingly detailed cityscapes of alien cultures. The i-media game was the new market leader. It was an import from Earth, where teams of designers and AS extrapolators must surely have spent years generating the concept. It featured a large band of inhabited stars wrapped around the center of the galaxy, where hundreds of alien races coexisted in a peaceful commonwealth. The first-person player was the pilot of a trade and exploration ship, the Ebris. Whatever settled world the ship landed on, there was some problem or requirement that could be solved by tracking down a resource that another world in the Halo possessed, be it technological, artistic, raw material, medical, or even spiritual. Lawrence was in the middle of a sequence where he was making his way toward a domain that had bred the methane-grazing botanical organisms that a species of sentient octopeds needed to complete their colonization of a new planet. But he could only get the botanicals by trading them for a specific mineral that formed on low-gravity planets with an argon atmosphere. To do that he first had to put together a survey and mining team. Once that was done he would fly scouting missions through a dozen likely star systems, hunting for the right class of planet. And this particular segment had already opened up several further opportunities for his ship.

The sheer wealth of detail, both economic and physical, was astounding. The stars, planets, stellar phenomena and species of the Halo were so real. They'd even got the quasar locations right. The whole thing interlocked perfectly; in the three months since he uploaded the base chapter he hadn't found a single continuity flaw. Flying his ship around the arc of the magnificent glow thrown off by the galactic heart he felt as if he were on a genuine training mission at McArthur's starship officer academy—as it should have been if the company wasn't so stupid. Small wonder the import company with the license was making a fortune.

After scanning three star systems with swarms of micro-satellites he finally found one that had the kind of planet he was looking for. He landed the Ebris at the end of a valley cloaked in a turquoise grass, where a binary of yellow and green dwarf stars were setting in the saddle of the hills. Tomorrow he would supervise the mineral extraction. He noted several potentially dangerous-looking animals slinking through the long grass, loaded their profile into the ship's computer, then saved and exited.

On the opposite side of the pool, the girl was lying on her sun lounger, big gold-orange glasses over her eyes. Several of the younger kids were clustered around, laughing and giggling together. Three of the more persistent boys were sitting on the edge of the sun lounger next to hers, squashed together uncomfortably. Each was doing his best to be charming, witty, knowledgeable and casual. She occasionally laughed at their jokes and joshing. From where Lawrence was it looked as if she was just being polite rather than genuinely amused.

His margarita ice had melted in the bottom of the glass, producing an undrinkable slush. Naomi Karamann had disappeared. Several adults were in the pool and more were walking across the lawn from the hotel. The day's conference had obviously finished. Lawrence picked up his towel and went back inside to order another room-service meal.

That was yesterday. Today, he'd come down early, by his standards, before ten o'clock. His reward was the well-positioned sun lounger and the girl's prompt appearance. This morning she was in a white bikini, but she was just as lively as she had been before. He found himself smiling at the way she enjoyed herself so effortlessly. Two of the smaller girls arrived with her, chattering excitedly, one no more than eleven while the younger was about six or seven. He realized the three of them were all sisters, sharing roughly the same facial features. That explained why the older boys of the wishful harem had been so tolerant of them yesterday.

It wasn't long before the whole group was gathered together again. Laughs and shrieks carried across the humid landscape as they began pushing each other into the water.

Lawrence tensed when one of the older boys, around his own age, shoved the girl in with too much force. But she broke the surface smiling. He let out a sigh, wishing there were some way he could go over and introduce himself and ask if he could join in. It would seem weird now, though, after he'd spent a day slobbing out by himself, mark him out as a creepy freak. What could he say, anyway? Does anyone want to link in to Halo Stars? He didn't think this physically active bunch would have much interest in i's. And she certainly wouldn't.

He told the bracelet pearl to return to the game, and the shadowed valley materialized around him. A small convoy of hoverjeeps roared out of the Ebris's lower cargo hold, with him navigating in the lead vehicle. A satellite survey map was projected onto the windshield, showing him the direction he needed to take. And some distant animals were growling aggressively, hidden by the blue grass.

"Hi there, can you help us out?"

Lawrence told the bracelet pearl to suspend the game. His membranes cleared and he was looking up at the girl. She was standing at the side of his sun lounger, dripping wet and glorious. He pulled his mirrorshades off in a hurried awkward motion, twisting the earpieces out.

"Sorry, what?" Was he staring too hard? The dome lights were directly above her, forcing him to squint. Damn it, I must look a total idiot.

"Can you help us?" She held out a ball. "We need one more to make the teams even."

"Teams?" He could have smacked himself one. He sounded so dumb.

"Yes. We're playing water polo. We're one short."

She had a lovely accent, her voice all blurring and soft. Where had that come from? "Er, yeah, sure." He pushed himself up, standing beside her, holding in his belly. She was only a couple of centimeters shorter than him. For some reason that made no sense, he liked that. But then he liked everything about her. She was utter perfection. "I haven't played for a while. I'm probably a bit rusty." He'd never played before.

"That's okay. Myself, I've never had a game in my life. And I don't think too many of us know the rules anyway."

"Oh, great. Probably best if I'm goalie. Do less damage there." Ask her what her name is, you asshole. Ask!

She smiled brightly. "I fancied that gig myself."

"Sure. Fine. Whatever."

She lobbed the ball at him, which he just managed to catch. "Were we interrupting anything?" She gestured at the mirrorshades and bracelet.

"No. Not at all. I was just going through an i-media, that's all. It's stored."

"Fine." She turned and started back to the pool. "Got him!" she yelled at her friends. The harem of boys greeted the news with unwelcoming smiles.

"Uh, I'm, er, Lawrence."

"Roselyn." She dived cleanly into the water.

It was almost the last he saw of her for the next twenty minutes. Water polo was every bit as bad as he imagined it would be. Twenty minutes in water five centimeters too deep to stand comfortably, while people powerslammed the heavy, wet ball at him. Chlorine spray got in his eyes. He swallowed liters. His breath was hauled down painfully, feeling wretchedly exhausted.

The game finally dissolved into some kind of ending, which was mainly an argument about the score. Twenty, thirty, probably. A lot of shots had got past him. He wheezed up out of the chrome steps with a shaky hold on the rails.

"Are you all right?"

Roselyn was in front of him, squeezing water from her hair.

"Yeah, I'm good." He was too puffed to pull his belly in anymore.

"I fancy a drink." Her expression was mildly expectant.

Lawrence couldn't believe this was happening. "Me too," he blurted.

He received a barrage of evil-eye stares from the harem as he walked with her over to the open-air bar. Several of the boys called out at her to join in with their latest game. She just waved and told them maybe later.

"I need a break," she told Lawrence. "Jeez, where do they get their energy from?"

"I know what you mean. I'm here to chill out."

She sat on the stool right at the end of the wooden bar, which meant nobody but Lawrence could sit next to her. He held back on a smirk as he sat down.

"You here by yourself?" she asked.

"No, with my father. He's at the conference."

"Right." She asked the waiter for a Coke.

"Me too," Lawrence said. It would look like he was showing off if he went for a margarita. "Where's your accent from? I haven't heard anything quite like it before. It's very nice," he added hurriedly. It didn't look like she'd taken offense, and he couldn't think of anything else to say.


"Where's that?"

She burst out laughing.

He grinned bravely, knowing he'd been stupid again.

"I'm sorry," she said. "Dublin's in Ireland, on Earth. We arrived three days ago."

"Earth?" he said, amazed. "You came from Earth? What was the flight like? What did you see?" It seemed wholly unreasonable that girls as young as her two sisters had experienced a real live starflight while here he was, forever trapped in protective domes under an opaque sky.

Her small nose wrinkled up. "I didn't see anything.

There's no window. And I had motion sickness the whole way. Not as bad as Mary, mind. Urrrgh, we must have used up the whole ship's supply of paper towels."


"My sister." She pointed at the elder of the two sporting in the water. "The other one's Jenny, there."

"They look like they're okay kids."


"Oh yeah. I've got five younger brothers and sisters myself. I know what it's like."

"Five. Wow. Your parents must be pretty devout Catholics."

"Ah. I know that's a religion, right? There's not much religion on Amethi. People here all tend to know the universe is natural."

"Do you now?"

"Yeah." He got the feeling he was being teased, somehow. "So why did you come here?"

"My father died."

"Oh shit, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to, well..."

"That's all right. It was over a year ago now. It was a car accident. Very quick. All the people at the hospital said he wouldn't have felt anything. I've got used to it. Still miss him tons, though. But we were stakeholders in McArthur, and there was a lot of insurance, so Mother decided to cash it all in and make the proverbial new start. I'm glad she did. Leaving Dublin took me away from the bad memories, and Earth's pretty crappy these days. This place is just fabulous."

"Er, yeah."

"What's the matter with it?"

"Nothing. You're right. It's just that nowhere you live can be exotic. That's only ever somewhere else."

Her smile lingered for a long time. "Very profound, there, Lawrence. I'd never thought of that before. So do you think I'm going to be bored with Amethi in a while?"

"Actually, no. It's starting to liven up a bit right now."

"Come on, let's go and see it." She picked up her glass of Coke and stood.


"Amethi. Let's go see it."

"Sure. Okay." He smiled at how impulsive she was.

Roselyn set off across the lawns with Lawrence hurrying to keep up. She kept asking what various plants and bushes were. Some of them were similar to those planted within the family's estate, but for the life of him he couldn't give them a name. She didn't seem to mind.

They arrived at the rim of the dome, where the nullthene was anchored in a band of concrete. Thick moss had swamped the crumbling gray surface, though it couldn't get a grip on the slippery nullthene itself. Roselyn pressed herself up against it.

"How can you not find that incredible?" she asked. "I've only got this bikini on, and I'm a millimeter away from an arctic blizzard."

"That's technology, not geography. But you're right. It's pretty spectacular." He was looking at her back, the way she'd arched herself slightly to rest her hands against the thin nullthene. Her skin was smooth and mildly tanned; intriguing bands of muscles slid around just below the surface. "Of course, the technology isn't perfect. And in some cases it's too good."

"What do you mean?"

"McArthur worked out the general effects HeatSmash would have on the environment, but they didn't always follow it through to its conclusion. When the snow started falling, it landed on the domes just like every solid surface. Trouble is, nullthene is a perfect insulator. The cold doesn't get in, but neither does the heat leak out. So the snow stuck, especially up on the top of the domes where it's flatter. When the original designers came up with the particular domes we employ, they made allowances for the next stage of Heat-Smash, when it will rain. The nullthene can take the weight of water running down the outside, but nobody thought about the piles of snow that would accumulate up there. There were splits and miniavalanches in every city. It was damned dangerous. A ton of snow can kill you just as easy as a ton of steel if it falls on you. Over a dozen people were killed, and plenty of buildings were damaged. We had to shore up the support grids in every dome. All the civil engineering robots on the planet were switched over to reinforcement work. It took months, cost a fortune, and everyone's still arguing about who's to blame and what sort of compensation there should be."

She gave him a quick, incredulous glance, then gazed out at the flurry of tiny hailstones drumming against the nullthene. The tundra outside was completely white, even the rugged tufts of grass were no more than spiky white mounds. "It's still impressive to me. All this is the result of human ingenuity."

"Amethi wasn't like this when I was younger. All I ever saw was a frozen desert."

"But to change a whole planet. And not through ecocide."

"Ecocide?" He was beginning to think he should start paying a bit more attention in school. She knew so much more about the universe than he did.

"On most planets that people have colonized there's an existing biosphere," she said. "And none of them are compatible with terrestrial biology. So we come along and kill it off with gamma blasts or toxins and replace it with our own plants and animals. Ecocide, the worst kind of imperialism there is."

"It's only the area around settlements that's cleared, not entire planets."

"Spoken like a true galactic overlord. Each habitable planet had its own indigenous species. They're unique and evolved to live in a reasonable balance. Then we come along and introduce competitive species, our own. At first terrestrial biology zones are enclaves wrapped around our settlements, but then the population rises and the zones expand until they're in full-blown conflict with the natives. And we always back ours up with technology, giving ourselves the edge. Eventually, every planet we've ever landed on will have its indigenous life swamped by ours, and become a poor copy of Earth. That's what some projections say, anyway."

"That's all a long way off."

"Yes. But we've set it in motion." She gave the icy landscape a sad smile. "At least we're not guilty of it here. Do you fancy some lunch?"

Lawrence would have liked to be able to think back to the last time he'd been alone with a beautiful girl, strolling through a lush parkland setting. It had never happened, of course. There'd been no girlfriends, just blue-i's, and fantasies over girls at school. Now here it was, the real thing, and it was so easy he kept wondering if he'd fallen through a wormhole into some alternative universe. Roselyn was gorgeous, she seemed to like him, or at least accept him, and she was easy to talk to. Chatter, actually, which he'd never done with anyone, let alone a girl. But when they got back to the pool they sat together in the restaurant—at a small table with only the two seats—and carried on talking. Lawrence ordered a cheeseburger with extra bacon and a large portion of fries; Roselyn asked for a tuna salad.

She was, she explained, only staying at the hotel for a few days. "It's a sort of treat for us, Mother said; we're here to recover from the starflight just until our apartment is ready. Then we move straight into Templeton and start school. What a bore."

"I live in Templeton," Lawrence blurted.

"Great, maybe we can meet up some time. I'll have to get settled in first, though. I'm going to Hilary Eyre High; it's supposed to be very good."

He swallowed some of the burger before he'd even chewed, clogging his throat. "My school."


"I go there!"

His yell drew another round of glowers from those members of the harem who had wandered in for lunch, hoping Roselyn would be sitting at one of the large tables.

She smiled delightedly. "That's fabulous, Lawrence. You'll be able to show me around and introduce me to everyone. There's nothing so horrible as starting somewhere new when you don't know a single person, don't you think?"

"Uh, yeah, I'd hate it."

"Thanks, Lawrence, that's really sweet of you."

"No problem." He was desperately trying to think who the hell he could introduce her to. Alan Cramley might play along, and one or two others. Worry about it when the time comes, he told himself. All that matters is managing to stay with her right now. Don't blow it. Just don't say anything dumb or pathetic. Please!

After lunch they went back to the poolside. Roselyn put on a white blouse and settled back on her sun lounger. Lawrence took the one beside her, bringing his bracelet and towel over. It turned out she'd never heard of Halo Stars. He found that puzzling; it must surely be one of Earth's major i-media games. But he spent a while explaining and showing her the game before some instinct told him to shut the hell up and move on to another topic.

When she asked him what he was doing that evening he said: "Dunno. Nothing yet."

"I'm going to listen to the band in the hotel bar. They're very good. I heard them last night, too. I didn't think I saw you there."

"No. I was... out. But, er, I'd like to go with you. If you're free tonight."

She appeared satisfied with that. He'd noticed slight dimples appear when she was pleased with something. It wasn't a smile, more like demure approval. "Date then."

Lawrence smiled wide, covering his urge to howl out in victory. A date! But... had he asked for a date and been accepted? Or even more unlikely, was she the one wanting a date with him? It didn't matter. He had a date!

"I just love dancing," Roselyn said contentedly.

Lawrence nearly groaned out loud.

How could it be so easy to get a date with the loveliest girl on Amethi for the one thing he was completely useless at? He spent ninety minutes getting ready in his room. That was seven minutes in the shower using up most of the hotel's stupid poxy-sized complimentary soaps and deodorants. Three minutes getting dressed in his pale green trousers and gray-blue shirt, with a black-and-gold waistcoat; just about the smartest set of clothes he owned. Mother had insisted he bring them in case his father wanted him to go to dinner— thanks, Mum! And eighty minutes with his optronic membranes presenting him with a phantom dance instructor; he had to access the hotel's i-tutorial class for that, because he certainly didn't have anything like it in his own memory chips. Thankfully he did at least know a few of the basics; his family had two or three formal parties each year when he was expected to partner obnoxious great-aunts and revolting ten-year-old nieces on the floor. It was just a question of brushing up.

Only when he checked himself in the mirror when he was on the way out did he realize he didn't know what sort of band it was, nor the type of music they played.

It was Lucy O'Keef, Roselyn's mother, who answered the door when he knocked. She was younger than his own mother and possessed a lot more energy. Lawrence was reminded of an aunt on his father's side of the family, one of those independent women who spent a couple of months each year doing consultancy or software design work, and the rest of the time partying and playing tennis. Clever, active, healthy, pragmatic and good fun. He could also see where Roselyn inherited her beauty from: they shared the same small nose and pronounced cheeks.

"So you're Lawrence." Her voice was husky with amusement.

"Yes, ma'am."

"Come in. She's almost ready."

The O'Keefs had a suite with three bedrooms. This meant the younger sisters were in the lounge, giggling. He'd met them that afternoon, and the three, of them had spent a short, sparky time establishing boundaries. True, like all younger children, they were irritating, but they were too wrapped up in the wonder of a new world to be completely odious. He took their teasing in good humor, reminding himself that Roselyn would have to endure his own siblings one day. That is ... he hoped she would.

When she came out of her bedroom she was wearing a simple navy-blue dress with a skirt less than halfway down to her knees. It made her even more alluring than her bikinis.

"Have fun," Lucy said.

The bar was of a type indigenous to five-star hotels the universe over. Straight ahead of the door was a small semicircular marble counter with dozens of liquor bottles displayed on mirrored shelves. Deep settees and plush chairs were arranged around small tables. A high ceiling was cloaked by low lighting. And inevitably, a grand piano stood on a central podium where a tuxedoed crooner would sit and entertain elderly guests for the evening with tunes never less than a century old.

Tonight a less respectable culture had taken over. The band up on the podium was all electric, playing power ballads.

Bottles of beer were cooling in tubs of ice on the bar, and a buffet had been laid out along one wall. Half the floor was given over to dancing, where holoprojection rigs sent iridescent seaswell waves crashing across the energetic boppers in showers of dazzling kaleidoscopic spray.

Lawrence recoiled slightly as the elevator doors opened on the lobby. He wasn't used to quite so many people packed together. There were a number of the teenagers from the water polo game in there, throwing themselves about enthusiastically. Roselyn grinned wolfishly at the sight and grabbed his hand, pulling him through the doors.

In the end it didn't matter that he didn't know how to dance like the others. There were too many hot bodies pressing in against him to allow any vigorous moves. He just shuffled about, watching Roselyn. She danced a dream, swaying in lithe slow motion, her arms flexing in time to the rhythm.

They grabbed food from the buffet and talked by shouting over the music. She drank her beer straight from the bottle. They danced some more. Drank some more.

With blood pounding, his skin sticky with sweat and alcohol humming sweetly in his head, Lawrence folded his arms around her in the middle of all the swaying people. She flowed up against him, resting her head on his shoulder for a slow number. Golden light broke over her, shimmering into deep violet. They smiled in lazy unison. Lawrence tilted his head forward, and they were kissing.

The band called it a day at two o'clock in the morning. Lawrence and Roselyn were among the five couples left standing.

"That was lovely," she murmured. "Thanks, Lawrence."

When the elevator doors closed, they kissed some more. There was an urgency about it this time. Lawrence pushed his tongue deep into her mouth. Then the elevator door opened. They kept on making out all along the corridor. He slid his hands all over her back before finally clutching at her buttocks. Somehow, he didn't have the courage to grasp her breasts or slide his fingers up inside her skirt.

"I can't," she said breathlessly in his ear. Her tongue licked at him, making him quake. "Mother will wonder where I've been." The door to her suite opened.

"Tomorrow?" he gasped.

"Yes. See you at the pool. Nine o'clock."

His head was spinning so hard it was a miracle he even made it back to the elevator, never mind his own room.

I can't. That's what she said.

Lawrence dropped on his bed, still fully clothed, as the room wobbled about dangerously. She was talking about sex. With me. We were kissing all night. When he closed his eyes and breathed in deeply he could still feel where she'd rested against him. The skin she'd touched seemed to glow hotly.

But what had she meant when she said yes? All he'd asked was: tomorrow? Nothing else, it had been completely open. And she'd said Yes. Yes.

The sleep that should have arrived instantaneously thanks to all that beer he'd guzzled eluded him for hours.

Lawrence was sitting on a sun lounger by the pool by twenty to eight. He was the first guest to get there. Several gardening robots scuttled out of his way as he walked across the lawn. A faint mist from the irrigation system hovered over the grass, making the blades glisten under the coral light. Visually, it was an inspiring start to the day.

Roselyn arrived at ten to nine wearing a loose midnight-black toweling robe and carrying a shoulder bag. They grinned at each other; Lawrence tried not to make it too uncertain and sheepish.

"You're early," she said.

"Didn't want to miss any of the day."

"Are you all right? You look tired."

"I'm fine. Didn't sleep much. My feet ached after all that dancing."

"Poor thing." She kissed the top of his head and plonked herself down on the sun lounger opposite. "Have you had breakfast?"

"Not really." He'd rushed out as soon as the alarm woke him. Hadn't even cleaned his teeth—probably a tactical error if he hoped to kiss her again.

"I know just what you need." She went over to the bar, which was still closed up, and started talking into the phone handset A few minutes later two waiters arrived carrying trays.

They sat up at the bar, peering under the silver lids covering a profusion of plates and dishes. Roselyn made him swallow a couple of pills first: headache and stomach settler. He was only allowed to sip his iced orange juice for a few minutes until they took effect.

She'd ordered popped rice, yogurt with fruit slices, scrambled egg with hash browns, sausages, bacon, black pudding, button mushrooms and tomato, then finishing up with crepes in honey. There was toast and blood-orange marmalade if he wanted it, too. And a pot of Assam tea.

"This is good," he said loyally. Normally he got up at about half past ten and breakfasted on hot chocolate and chocolate cookies. Actually, although the yogurt and fruit was a bit crummy, the rest of it was pretty tasty.

Roselyn spread some of the marmalade on her toast Apart from the yogurt and fruit it was all she had. "Most important meal of the day."

His mother always said that, but coming from Roselyn he could understand and appreciate the meaning. "Any plans for today?"

"Just going to hang," she said lightly.

"Me too."

She rested her elbow on the bar and put her chin in her palm to give him a quizzical look. "You're funny, Lawrence. I've never met a boy quite like you before."

"What do you mean?'

"Half the time you act like you're terrified of me."

"I'm not!" he protested indignantly.

"Good to know. You've got lovely eyes, halfway between gray and green."

"Oh. Um, thanks."

She broke off a corner of toast and popped it in her mouth. "Which is your cue to give me a compliment. Any part of me you like?"

A strength of will that he never knew he had stopped him from looking directly at her chest. Instead he gazed right back into her shining gray eyes. "I wouldn't know where to begin," he said softly, and blushed.

For a moment she held still; then a wide smile spread across her lips. "That sounded like a pretty good beginning to me. For someone who comes over all reticent, you've got the moves, Lawrence."

"That wasn't a move. That's what I really think."

Her hand touched his knee, squeezing gently. "You're really sweet. I didn't understand that. I thought you were just being Mr. Chill, sitting back while the rest of us were charging around the pool like crazed kangaroos. Like some big wolf eyeing up the flock to decide which one to eat"

"Sorry, but you're a really terrible judge of character. I was sitting there because I didn't know what to say to anyone. Stupid really."

"No. Not stupid. There's never anything wrong in being yourself. I think I was hoping you weren't a phony like those lads who've been trying to chat me up these last few days."

He grinned. "It's like you're a boy magnet. I was watching, you know, when I was sitting being Mr. Chill; then-tongues were rubbing against the floor when they trailed after you."

"You should have heard some of the lines. 'I'd love to show you around.' 'Dublin sounds just like my dome, you must visit.' As if some polythene greenhouse could possibly be like a thousand-year-old city. Jeez! I came off a starship, not the ark. It's like they're all country cousins from Einstein County."

"Right," he said cautiously.

"Einstein County." She raised an eyebrow at him. "Where everyone's a relative, to be sure."

Lawrence burst out laughing. "God, you are just so amazing."

She pulled a modest face and did some make-work tidying of their trays. All the while they just smiled at each other. He'd never been so perfectly comfortable with anybody before.

"Did you have a boyfriend back in Dublin?"

"Not really. I was quite keen on one. We went out a couple of times. Nothing happened. Well... nothing too serious, anyhow. Thank Mary. We both knew I was leaving, see. I figured out in the end he thought that meant whatever he wanted would be for free. I wouldn't be there afterward, so he wouldn't have to go through all that emotional crap to dump me for the next girl. Can you believe it? What an asshole."

"He's bonkers. If I'd been him, I would have found a way to follow you here. Stowed away or something."

"Dear Mary, what have I gone and found?" She stroked his cheek, almost as though she was testing to see if he was real. "So what about you, Lawrence, have you got a girlfriend? You can be truthful with me, now. I won't mind."

"Nothing for you to mind. I don't have anybody."

"Now I know I'm on an alien planet. Let me tell you, in Dublin you'd have been triple-dating at least."

"Any chance the two of us can go back there together?"

"There now, just when I think you're smart you go and say something like that. Dublin's the same as the rest of Earth; it's old and tired. And we're both here now. On a planet that's got a future without any of the problems others have. Are you still so sure there's not a big fella up there rolling the dice for us? Seems to me I couldn't be this lucky naturally."

"I'm the lucky one." He leaned forward quite deliberately and kissed her. Her hands went around his head, mussing up his hair, holding him closer as they grew more passionate.

People were talking noisily as they walked over from the hotel to the pool. Lawrence and Roselyn ended the kiss and stared at each other. He didn't feel a trace of embarrassment. Quite the opposite, he felt certainty without arrogance. Both of them knew what they'd started, and knew that the other knew. It was almost relaxing.

"Won't be long before my sisters get here," she muttered.

"Oh, great."

They both laughed, and made their way back to the sun loungers. The newcomers were mostly the younger kids. None of them paid much attention to Lawrence and Roselyn.

"We'll have to wait half an hour for our food to go down before we swim," she told him.

"Right." He watched eagerly as she slipped out of her robe. Today it was a scarlet bikini, and he stared without shame. She blew him a mock-coquettish kiss and settled back on the sun lounger.

Her sisters arrived soon after. Lawrence greeted them with a cheery hello. The four of them chattered away, with the young girls giggling every time the band and dancing of last night was mentioned.

When they all jumped and dived into the pool later on, he endured the girls' attempts to push him under and bounce the big beach ball off his head, retaliating by diving and grabbing their ankles underwater. They laughed and shrieked happily.

He was quite surprised when Roselyn eventually said: "That's it for me." He threw the beach ball as far as he could, laughing as Mary and Jenny raced off in pursuit.

Roselyn was squeezing her hair dry when he got back to the sun lounger. He held out a hand, which she took hold of. "I need a fresh towel," he said. There was a moment of horrendous vertigo while she gave him a level gaze. Then she nodded. "All right," she murmured. "It had better be your room, though."

He regressed to his original self for a while. All he could do on the walk back to the hotel was give her sheepish, nervous looks. She was equally timid, almost as if she were puzzled by who she was with and where they were going. In the elevator, they kissed again, but it was awkward this time. When he closed the door of his room, anxiety was making his fingers tremble.

Roselyn gestured at the broad balcony with its glass wall. "Can you shut the curtains? I know it's silly, but..."

"No." He almost ran across the room to pull the heavy fabric along the rail. When he finished the room was suffused with a warm golden glimmer, and Roselyn's superb body was cloaked in alluring shadow. She was looking at the big double bed, a slightly forlorn expression on her face. That wasn't what he wanted at all. He wanted her to be smiling and begging him to hurry.

"Look," he said in despair, "we can really just collect some towels if you want."

She turned from the bed and held out her arms for him. "No," she said when they were touching. "I don't want towels." She kissed him again, and this time the old heat was back. "And I know exactly what you want."


She slipped free and took a step away. Her hands reached behind her back, flicking the bikini top's clasp. The scrap of cloth fell from her, exposing wonderfully pert breasts.

"You're beautiful, Roselyn," he said, so quietly it was as though he was speaking to himself. Cursing his clumsiness, he closed his fingers around her nipples, tweaking the dark erect buds of flesh. He heard her inhale, a hiss of pain. She frowned in protest.

"Sorry. Sorry." He eased his grip slightly, but never let go. He couldn't do that; he'd never believed she would be so firm, so smooth, warm.

She took his hands gently and slid them up to her shoulders so she could kneel before him. Lawrence whimpered as she pulled his trunks down. She looked at his rock-hard erection with a blank curiousness, then tilted her head back to smile up at him. When she stood up he pulled hurriedly at her bikini bottom, tugging it down her legs. One hand kneaded her breast while the other ran down her belly, feeling the soft pubic hair, the wetness and the heat.

He half-pushed, half-carried her onto the bed. Their hands clutched at each other, mouths open, licking, sucking, devouring and tasting flesh. Breathing came hard and harsh. The sensations she left across his skin were driving him crazy.

Lawrence knew from all the i-blue shows he'd accessed how you were supposed to go slow, to caress and stroke a woman, to arouse her, to consider her feelings. But in the heat and semidarkness he could barely remember the facts he'd been shown. In the here and now he'd got the most beautiful and randiest girl in the universe panting and twisting underneath him. Her delectable legs were flung wide. There was a quick flinch of apprehension scarring her face as he penetrated her; it changed to a kind of dismayed delight. "Oh bloody hell," she grunted. "Just go easy, all right?"

"Of course," he promised. "Of course." As if he would ever do anything else. He began to move in a slow rhythm, as gently as he possibly could. He couldn't believe it was possible for anything to be this exquisite. Her incredible body squirmed beneath him, because of him. The grip she had on his cock was raw ecstasy. Little moans and surprised gasps of excited joy kept bursting from her clenched teeth.

Gentle and slow became impossible. He thrust into her fast and furious, fucking hard just like that vision the very first time he laid eyes on her. He came in great shudders while she cried out.

They rolled apart, him gasping for breath amid the wonder and glory. His head lolled over to see her chest heaving, and he just about came again. He was in love, smitten, besotted, obsessed. He would kill for her. Die for her.

He smiled in simple-minded happiness. "I'm yours, Roselyn. I mean it. You own me now."

The corner of her mouth lifted up, the nearest to a smile she could manage. Her expression was troubled, reluctant "What?" he cried.

"Lawrence. Please. Don't be so rough."

He wanted to throw up. He was the worst shit in the world. He'd hurt Roselyn, the only person who'd ever loved him. Hurt her! "Oh shit. I'm sorry." His fingers shook as they hovered above her. He was too afraid to touch her now. "I didn't mean to. Please, oh please."

"Shush. It's all right." She turned onto her side, and stroked his brow. "I'm all right. Just a bit sore, that's all."

"We won't do that again, ever. I promise."

"Yes, we will, Lawrence."

"But it hurt you," he protested.

"Lawrence, it was our first time. You'll... We'll learn to make it different." She grinned wryly. "The rest of the human race doesn't give up so fast, now, does it?"


She licked around his ear. "If I get as much pleasure out of it as you did just now, would you want to stop?"

"Oh, Fate no. No way."

"Well, then?"

"You want to try again?" Astonishingly, his cock was growing hard again at the mere thought.

"Not that, exactly. Not for a while. Can we try something else instead?"


That was it for the rest of his holiday. Three days spent up in his room, the pair of them naked on his bed. Bodies locked together and writhing heatedly as they experimented with each other. They rested when they were too tired or sore to carry on, going back down to the pool for a swim, or eating in the outside restaurant. After walking the dome's perimeter they'd go back upstairs for another few hours of total physical excess. Lawrence accessed an i-sutra file, and they worked their way enthusiastically through the positions and different acts. The furniture was sturdy enough to be useful, and the big marble bathtub with its powerful spar nozzles was simply glorious fun.

Their lovemaking was only possible during the day. Roselyn insisted she still had to go back to her suite for the night. He didn't mind. He didn't mind anything she said or did. She was his for the day, and the definition of night was pushed back later and later every time. On the last day she didn't leave him until three o'clock in the morning.

"Our apartment is in the Leith dome," she told him as they clung to each other on top of the rumpled sheet in those last few hours. "Is that very far from you?"

"No. I got a trike for my last birthday. I can ride round in less than ten minutes. Or if we cut through the public 'tweendome tunnels and walk it's about twenty-five minutes. Probably best while we're in the Wakening." In his mind he was working out the best route, which domes to go through.

"So it will be easy for us to see each other?" she asked anxiously.

"Very." He stroked his fingertips along the curve of her hips, the way he'd found excited her most.

She snuggled up against him, bestowing a multitude of quick playful kisses along his neck. They tickled.

"And you've got my dp-code?"

"Yes." He moved on top of her, pinning her arms down. "I'll call you as soon as I get home. I'll call you an hour later. I'll call you an hour after that."

"I'm sorry. I don't want to be a possessive bitch. I just want you."

"You'll be in Templeton a day after me. We'll see each other first thing in the morning at school."

"All right." She nodded slowly, as if they'd been discussing a legally binding contract. "I'll wait till then."

The limousine that picked up Lawrence and his father early the next morning took five hours to drive back to their home. Lawrence sat back in the leather seat and stared out moodily at the thick dancing snowflakes. The only thing he saw was Roselyn, curled up in his arms, smiling fondly as they soaked in each other's warmth.

"Is your bracelet pearl broken?" Doug Newton asked.

"Huh?" Lawrence shifted his attention back inside the limo. "No, Dad, it's fine."

"But you're not using it."

"Don't feel like it."

"Hell, we'd better go direct to the hospital emergency department."


Doug caught the tone, and suddenly focused hard on his son. Indigo script faded from his optronic membranes. "Yes?"

"We've got house rules for everything."

"Look, Lawrence, I don't invent them specifically to annoy you. They exist so that we can all live under the same roof in a vaguely civilized fashion."

"Yeah. I know all that. But you've never said what the rules are about girlfriends."



"But you haven't... oh. You kept that very quiet, son. Do we get to meet her?"

"I don't know, Dad, what are the house rules about that? Is she even allowed to visit?"

Doug Newton eased himself back into the seat and gave Lawrence a long look. "All right, son, you're virtually old enough to use your voting shares, so I'm not going to treat you like a total child. In return I expect the same courtesy. Okay?"

"Yeah, right"

"There are two sets of house rules. Your girlfriend will be very welcome to visit. In fact, as you damn well know, your mother will insist on it the instant she finds out you have one. When the young lady comes around, the pair of you can do what you want. Play tennis, soccer, go swimming, study together; all that jazz. She will also be welcome to join us for meals when she's here. What she cannot do is stay the night, not in your room. Understand?"

"Yes, Dad."

"The other set of rules are very simple, and they are the same as in real life. You do not get caught. Neither myself, your mother, and especially not your brothers and sisters, are ever to be put in the position of walking into a room and finding you screwing her ass off. Do you understand that?"

Lawrence knew his cheeks were bright red; he could feel them burning. This was turning into a hell of a week for fundamental life changes. "I get it, Dad. Don't worry, that won't happen."

"Glad to hear it. Just make sure the lock on that cave of yours works properly."

"It does."

Doug Newton shook his head in bemusement. "I'll say one thing, son, you never fail to amaze me. I take it she is real, not an i-program."

"Of course she's real!"

"Thank Fate for that. Does she have a name?"

"Roselyn O'Keef."

"Not sure I know an O'Keef family."

"They're not an Amethi family, Dad. They just got here."

"Really? Well, that means they have a decent stake then."

"Is that all you care about, that they're rich or players?"

"As it happens, yes, it does matter to me. But as we both know by now, what matters to me doesn't even register with you."

"It does. It's just..." Lawrence didn't want to say the wrong thing right now. He'd never talked with his father like this before. All this honesty was almost making him feel guilty for earlier behavior. He supposed he had been slightly inconsiderate to his parents recently. But life here wasn't easy. They always seemed to want so much for him and from him.

"I know." Doug held his hands up. "I'm an ogre. You think you're different to me? If you ever find the time to talk to your grandparents, ask them about the fun they had bringing me up."


"Like I said: if you ever talk to them."

"Yes, Dad."

"That's my son."

As soon as he got home, Lawrence loaded her dp-code into his den's desktop pearl and asked the AS to connect him. Her face filled the sheet screen, smiling down at him. The faint freckles dusting her cheeks were the size of his palm. They talked for an hour. He called her another three times that day before finally going to bed to sleep. During the night, he woke up twice, reaching for her. In those blurred moments before he was fully awake he was unsure if she wasn't just a dream. It was a terrifying experience.

Hilary Eyre High was in the center of its own dome, a three-story H-shape structure, big enough to provide firstclass educational facilities for fifteen hundred pupils. The ground around it was mostly sports fields, with a constant all-year-round climate, approximating the start of a temperate zone autumn. It was an unusual sight for kids who'd grown up in a city where each dome took pride in its horticultural layout. There were no trees at all, just a flat expanse of verdant grass, interrupted by various styles of slim white goalposts.

Not quite as unusual, though, as the sight of Lawrence Newton standing on the steps ninety minutes before the new term officially started. Despite the weather, he'd driven his trike to school to make certain he wasn't late. Now he was shuffling his feet about impatiently as he tried to look at all nine 'tweendome tunnel arches simultaneously. Pupils were emerging from the twisting caverns to walk toward the school's glass entrance hall. Already, several groups were forming on the plaza outside, friends catching up with each other, sports teams bonding before the term's action, pupils behind on their coursework (usually Lawrence) desperately searching for a crib to download, in-crowds being cool together.

He saw her easily enough even when she was a hundred meters away. Shouted and stuck his hand up, ignoring the curious glances. She saw him and smiled. Waved back. He ran over and they embraced in the middle of amused onlookers. That kind of public kissing was against school regulations. Lawrence didn't care.

"You're here," he said dumbly.

"Yes." She grinned around nervously. "I didn't have anything else to do today."

They were attracting just too much attention for Lawrence to pretend to be blase. He put his arm around her, and they walked to the side of the steps.

Roselyn said the trip from the hotel had been fine. The apartment in the Leith dome was okay, except for some problem with the building's network cables. They only had a few pieces of basic furniture, so her mother wanted to go around all the stores that weekend.

"Are these clothes all right?" she asked, fingering her sleeve. She was wearing a long dark skirt, with a white blouse and jade-green sweater. With her hair held back in an enameled butterfly clasp it made her look very prim.

Lawrence found the style arousing. "You look perfect." True, some of the other girls wore clothes that cost a lot more, but it sure as hell didn't make them more attractive.

He saw Alan Cramley giving them a sideways look, focused more on Roselyn than himself. They shared a lot of the same low-grade classes, although Alan had recently turned into a soccer maniac and was actually quite good at the game, which gave him considerably more kudos than Lawrence in their year's food chain.

Alan leered behind Roselyn's back and gave Lawrence a quick thumbs-up. Lawrence's immediate annoyance that anyone should disrespect his beautiful girlfriend in such a fashion was more or less canceled out by the gender bond approval. He'd never had that before.

"So what do I do now?" Roselyn asked.

Lawrence spent the rest of the morning taking her through registration, then showing her the layout of the building. He introduced her to as many people as he could—just about everyone he knew, actually. It didn't take him long to notice that with Roselyn by his side their greetings were warmer than they used to be, girls as well as the boys.

After lunch in the canteen they went back to the entrance hall, which was housing the sign-up session for that term's sports and activities. Roselyn put her name down for badminton, track training, girls' soccer, piano and accountancy.

"What are you after?" she asked brightly after they'd done a complete round of the tables.

"Not sure," he mumbled. He'd never even been to a signup session before. They did another slow circuit of the hall. Software development was the first choice for extra studies: he reasoned that whatever he wound up doing in adult life, that would come in useful, and it would help supplement his coursework. There was a flight club, which almost made him say: "I didn't know this was here." Flying would be cool; he'd played enough i-simulations (normally involving alien fighters and dogfights) to know he'd enjoy the real thing, and the whole concept was still a powerful totem left over from his old ambition to pilot starships. He put his name down for it, which won a smile of approval from Roselyn. It was games that gave him a real headache. In the end he went for cricket, mainly because the training was the same afternoon as her soccer, so they'd stay behind together, but also because it was about the most nonenergetic game he could find in the syllabus.

They had to part for the afternoon when classes started, but he waited for her in the entrance hall afterward and asked her home.

"You should know," he said apologetically, "Mum's been badgering me to bring you back. I can put her off for a couple of days, but it's like trying to stop Barclay's Glacier from melting. It's got to happen sometime."

"That's okay. I'd like to meet her."

"You would?" he asked cautiously.


"Oh. Okay, good. Uh, I brought my trike. We can get home on that."

"A trike? Lawrence! I've only got these clothes. I can't go outside."

"I know. I'm not totally stupid."

He led her down to the garage at the edge of the dome. His trike stood almost by itself in the rack, a small machine with two rear wheels powered by a hihydrogen combustion engine that was encased in metallic purple bodywork. A sleek elongated bubble of plastic gave the driver and passenger a degree of cover from the elements, although it was open along both sides. The three broad tires had deep snow treads, but even so he could never open it up beyond fifty kilometers per hour without risking a skid. Ten years ago every teenager in Templeton either had one or wanted one, but the Wakening had severely curtailed their use—yet another sign that Lawrence had been born into the wrong age.

He dived into the bin beneath the seat and pulled out two pairs of thermal overalls. "See?"

"Oh yes." Roselyn rolled her eyes. "Really useful when you're wearing a skirt."

"Er..." Lawrence knew his face was coloring.

"It's all right. I'll manage." She started to hitch the fabric up.

When she was riding pillion, with her arms tight around him, Lawrence steered them through the thermal cycle lock and out onto Templeton's roads. There had been a light drizzle of hail that lunchtime, which the snowplows had brushed away. The road surface was slick with antifreeze fluid that curdled with melted water, producing the dull shimmer of oil-rainbow patterns. Despite his thermals and helmet, he was glad of the bubble's protection. The wind chill was ferocious.

Templeton's domes glowed with a steady opalescence under the low, forlorn gray sky. The cityscape had acquired a blunter, more industrial-looking architecture these days, appearing less complete than it had during his childhood. The delicate fringe of grass and raoulia plants scrabbling for life along the side of the roads had virtually disappeared. Concrete drainage ditches had been dug in the icy mud along every major route, with excavation mounds piled carelessly alongside. The only remaining signs of botanical life to be found were the rancid green streamers of algae that clotted the deep thaw channels slicing through the scree.

Dome air intake vents were now all fitted with new filters to keep the powdery snow and sticky sleet out of the fans and heat exchange mechanisms, great boxy affairs of galvanized metal held together with crude rivets, standing on legs of steel I-beams. Similar ugly encrustations adorned the factories, additional shielding hastily erected over inlets and grilles.

Worst of all, for Lawrence, was the rust. He'd never realized there was so much metal involved with the city's construction, blithely assuming its component parts were all sophisticated modern composite, held together with intricate molecular bonds. But they weren't: metal remained the cheapest and easiest method of fabrication. Templeton had been screwed, riveted, nailed, reinforced and bolted into a cohesive whole like every other human conurbation since the Iron Age. And now it was paying the price of that cheapness in Amethi's Wakening climate. Rust oozed from every structure. It was the city's sweat, exuded from a million filthy pores. Grubby red-brown stains dribbled and wept along each surface, sapping its strength in an eternal drip of oxidation.

Lawrence was actually relieved when they turned onto the ramp down to the small underground garage that served his family's estate. There was nothing outside for him now. Amethi was squeezing the humans back into their ghettos of technology, veiling the landscape they aspired to conquer. One time at school, the teacher had told them how Scandinavian countries suffered the worst suicide rates on Earth during their long nights; Lawrence understood why, now. It wasn't just coincidence that the hours he spent with i-dramas and games had increased steadily since the Wakening started.

The steps up from the garage opened out into the semiarid dome. Roselyn looked round at a desert of rugged rocks and white sand. Glochidiate and tomentose cacti of every shape flourished amid the wiry scrub grass, their umbellate flowers forming vividly colored crowns. Palms and fig trees encircled quiescent oasis pools where lizards baked on flat rocks around the edges. After the drive from school, the air was wonderfully warm and dry.

"Doesn't anyone live here?" she asked.

"No, the house is in the main dome. This is like an environment park. We've got six." He caught her troubled expression. "What's the matter?"

She wouldn't meet his gaze, and if anything the question just upset her further.

"Roselyn, please."

She was suddenly in his arms, and crying. It was heartbreaking to see her so distraught. He felt as if he was about to cry himself. All he wanted was for her to stop. Every feeling he ever had for her was suddenly intensified. And even through the tears she was beautiful.

"I promised myself I wouldn't do this," she sobbed.

"Do what? What is it? Is it me?"

"No. Yes. Sort of. What you are."

"What do you mean?"

"I'm being so weak. But nothing's stayed the same after Dad died. Everything's different every month. Sometimes it seems like I have to face something new every day. I hate it. I just want to stay in the same place and have a dull boring routine each day, just so it'll give me some stability."

"Hey, it's all right." He stroked her back gently. "You're here to stay on Amethi, and believe me there's nothing more boring and routine than Hilary Eyre High."

She still wouldn't look at him. "I checked up on you."

"You did?"

"Yes. Your family's got a seat on McArthur's Board, Lawrence."

"Yeah. So?"

"You didn't tell me."

"Because it never came up. What's that got to do with anything?"

"I thought... You're rich, and you'll have a million connections and friends here. I know how much society and position means to this world. And I just got here, and we're not rich. I thought I was your little bit of holiday fun. You've had me now. I thought that was it, I wouldn't see you again, and you'd be laughing about how easy I was to all your friends. And then you were waiting for me this morning, and..." Her tears had returned.

He cupped her cheeks with his palms and gently tilted her head so she had to look at him. "I never thought that. I can't believe you thought it. Roselyn, you're going to have to put up with me for the rest of your life, because I'm never going to find anybody as wonderful as you. Never. And if anybody should be worried, it's me. You're going to take one look at all the jocks at school and realize what a mistake you've made."

"No!" Her hand found the back of his head, and pulled him down for a kiss. "No, Lawrence. I don't want some brain-dead jock. I want you."

They stood still for some time, arms wrapped around each other while the geckos and salamanders filled the dome with strange calls. Eventually, Roselyn smiled meekly and wiped her hand across her face, smearing the tear trails. "I must look a mess."

"You look beautiful."

"That's very sweet, but I'm not going to meet your mother like this."

"Er... we can stop off at my den first, I suppose."

Lawrence experienced a mild tingle of doubt as he opened the garage door. Looking at his den with Roselyn standing beside him, he was uncomfortably aware of how ... well, nerdy it must seem. His own private empire. As such it revealed a little too much about his real self.

Roselyn walked into the middle, and turned a slow circle, taking it all in. "It's very—"

"Sad? Egomaniacal? Tasteless?"

"No. Just that it could only belong to a boy."

Roselyn ran her hand along the back of the battered leather settee. She looked at Lawrence. He stared back.

The bottom of the door hadn't reached the ground before they were tugging frantically at each other's clothes.

"What do you do in here?" Roselyn asked afterward. She was lying along the settee, her head resting comfortably in his lap.

Lawrence was still having trouble with the concept of a naked girl in his den. The two factors simply didn't compute. Although, now he thought about it, having sex in here had been severely exciting. The forbidden fruit syndrome. "I don't do a lot. It's just somewhere that I can come and relax, be myself."

"Okay, I can understand that. There's times I wish my dearly beloved sisters never existed, and I was cooped up on a starship with them for a month. No escape. But what do you do, when you're being yourself?"

"Nothing really interesting, I guess. I used to be quite into electronics and stuff. That's what most of the junk is, I just haven't got round to fixing it all. I do a lot of homestudy in here. Play a lot of i-games."

"Like the Halo Stars?'

"That's a new one, actually." He stopped, slightly abashed. But then he did have a nude girl half sprawled over him. You couldn't get more personal than that. "When I was younger, I'd spend hours watching my favorite show up on the big sheet screen."

"What was it?"

"I doubt you've heard of it. Flight: Horizon."

Her nose wrinkled up. "I think I know the name. It's an old sci-fi show, isn't it?"

"Yeah. About a starship exploring the other side of the galaxy. Amethi only imported one series, though. I'll never know what happened to them, and if they made it home."

"Why didn't you send a message to the distribution company back on Earth? It can't cost that much to get the other series sent."

"I tried that a thousand times, but I never get any answer. I guess the company's folded."

"Nothing is ever lost from the datapool, that's why it's expanded beyond its homogeneity globe. It's not that the original network design was faulty, people just kept adding so much memory capacity that the interconnectivity broke down. There are whole sections that are almost autonomous, other sections don't know what's in them, or even that they exist If you need anything slightly quirky these days, you've got to load in a dozen different askpings and hope one of them finds a metalink for you. When I was looking up Amethi, some of the data took days to get back to me. Nothing mainstream, just the peripherals, early survey reports, startup finances, that kind of thing. Specialist stuff. There are even rumors about closedpools existing, sections that only have internal metalinks, and their AS controllers don't know they're no longer linked to the outside."

"That sounds crazy. You can't lose information in Amethi's datapool. One askping will find you anything."

"That's because it's still small. Earth's datapool breakdown was inevitable. There's too much data to be indexed in a single source, and the more the index is distributed the weaker the metalinks become. They're talking about giving it official subdivisions. Except, if you don't know where all the original data is stored, how are you going to rearrange it?"

"No wonder I couldn't get an answer."

"If you like, I can send a message to a friend I know. She can load an askping for the show."

Lawrence tumbled off the settee. He wound up kneeling in front of Roselyn, who was regarding him with intrigued amusement. "You can get the rest of the episodes for me?"

"We can find out if they exist, yes. Entertainment is still mainstream. Unless it's over a century old, of course. Even then, it's pretty easy."

"Please." He clamped his hands on her knees. "I would be eternally grateful, and I will sign that in blood."

"Humm." She pondered the notion for a moment, eyes unfocused on the ceiling. "There is one thing I'd like."

"It's yours."

She took hold of his hand and licked his fingers one by one, ending with a kiss at each tip. Then she began to move him slowly across her body until the place he touched made her gasp. "That," she murmured huskily. "I like that."

Every day for a week Roselyn went back to the Newton family estate after school. Sometimes they drove on the trike, but often they'd walk through the 'tweendome tunnels. It wasn't until the third day she was introduced to Lawrence's mother and brothers and sisters. He worried about the meeting a lot more than she did, wincing every time his mother was "nice" or asked a personal question; glaring at his siblings when they shouted a crass comment. Roselyn sailed through it with a grace he envied as much as he admired.

After that initial encounter was over, he wasn't obliged to bring her into the house every time, although it was made very clear she was to come to a meal whenever she was visiting. And it would be lovely to meet her mother for lunch one day. Soon.

"Parents," she sighed when Lawrence glumly relayed this latest development. "They never book themselves into the nursing home. They just stay home and embarrass their children."

He glanced up from licking her navel. "You know what'll happen, don't you? My mum will start introducing your mum to eligible men."

Roselyn shifted around. They'd put a blanket on the settee now; the leather used to stick to her bare skin. "I doubt it."

He heard the tension in her voice. "Sorry. You don't talk much about him."

"No." She let out a long breath. "I don't. There's not much to say. He was a great father, I loved him lots. Then one day he was gone, and everything I thought was my world went with him. And just when I thought my life was going to be completely shitty from then on, I came here." She pinched a roll of flesh around his waist, which made him squirm. "And there you were waiting for me."

"Something else we've got in common. My life was pretty shitty, too, until I met you. I don't mean it was as bad as you losing your father, no way. Mine was all self-inflicted, most of it, I guess. Easier to bring that to an end."

"Well, I'm going to inflict some more suffering on you."


"Lawrence, I can't keep coming back here after school."

"Why not?" he asked, shocked. "Don't you like this?"

Her grin was dangerous as she clambered on top of him. "Oh yes, to be sure, I like this. Way too much, in case you hadn't noticed. Two weeks with you, and I've turned into a complete slut." She pushed her breasts toward his face.

"Me too." He licked her nipples, urgent for the taste of them. Even after all this time he was still amazed at what she let him do. His own bravery in suggesting things was surprising, too. It was as if neither of them owned a single inhibition between them.

Roselyn lifted herself out of his immediate reach. "I've got to start doing some serious homestudy. Amethi's schools are ultra-fast-tracked compared to dear old Ireland's. If I'm not careful, I'm going to wind up the biggest dunce this planet has ever seen."

"You won't."

"Lawrence! I will. I'm serious now, I have got to get my homestudy done."

"Do it here," he said simply. "There's datapool access. You've got your bracelet pearl with you. No problem." His hand went up ready to fondle her breast.

Roselyn sat back, hands on hips, to stare down at him. "You know what'll happen if I come here to do it. You'll start cuddling up and then we'll wind up fucking, and I'll never get anything done. Do you want me to be a total idiot?"

"Of course not. But—" He couldn't bear the idea of not seeing her outside school. "I won't get fresh with you until you've finished your coursework. Promise. Just, please, come back here in the afternoons. Please?"

"Cross your heart and hope to die?"

His finger drew a cross on his chest. "Absolutely."

"Okay then."


"But, we go to the house first. Do our homestudy there."

"Ow, what?"

"That's the deal. We work together in the lounge or somewhere. That way neither of us can lapse."

"Oh hell. All right"

"And afterward"—she leaned down again, taunting— "afterward, we can come back down here, and I'll show you how grateful I am."

"Will you?"

Her tongue licked around the outside of his lips at the same time he could feel her nipples brushing against his chest. The provocation was a beautiful torment.

"Oh yes," she whispered.

"How grateful is that, exactly?"

"So grateful, I won't be able to talk, my mouth will be too busy."

Lawrence's moan was almost a whimper, his eyes were half shut, pleasure blurring his vision with tears. Trepidation made him tremble as he felt her hand curl lovingly around his balls. Then—bastardFate—her other hand pinched the fat at the side of his belly, and he juddered free.

Her beautiful face was pouting with disappointment "What's the matter?"

"I don't like that," he grunted shamefully.

"You mean this?" Her hand reached for the band of fat again.

"Yes!" He shifted sharply out of her way. "There's no need to remind me I'm overweight."

Roselyn frowned. "You are your body, Lawrence. Just like me."

But your body is fantastic, he avoided saying. Where as mine... "I know. I keep meaning to get into better shape." He shut his mouth quickly, before anything else stupid could escape.

"Really?" Her face lit up, and she kissed him enthusiastically. "That would be such a turn-on for me."


Can-time—the period that ground forces can spend in transit before their combat performance will start to deteriorate—was a factor that military commanders had known about for centuries, building it in to all their tactical planning. According to Z-B's manual, their strategic security forces could endure a fifty-day trip in a starship without any noticeable decay in efficiency.

At forty days into the flight, which put them still three light-years from Thallspring, Lawrence was already wondering if any of Platoon 435NK9 would even get into the drop glider when the time came to go planetside. Whatever office-lurker expert had come up with the fifty-day rule had clearly never been in low-Earth orbit, let alone a starship.

Day forty-one, at 09:30 shiptime, the platoon were in the gym. With the rest of the day given over to nonphysical training and mission revision, it was the wrong time to be doing anything strenuous. The high they'd come out with would take hours to fade, leaving them hyped and edgy. But every platoon was scheduled for ninety minutes a day in one of the life support wheel's gym compartments, keeping their muscle and bone structure up to scratch. There was no getting out of it.

Even knowing it would screw with the rest of his day, Lawrence concentrated hard on his exercise regimen, pushing rhythmically against the stiff resistance of the handlebars. He was prone on one of the starship's standard apparatus benches, which used only springs or pistons to provide resistance. He tightened the resistance settings a couple of notches and carried on. Sweat began to build up on his forehead. His heart was pumping fast. That was the response he wanted, keeping every organ at its peak. He'd emphasized that enough times to the rest of them, and then led by example. Their Skin suits placed a lot of strain on a body, especially one that had been rotting away in an eighth of a gee for five weeks—something the can-time charts tended to overlook.

Glancing round the gym he could see Amersy and Hal Grabowski putting in a decent amount of effort; sweat was staining their scarlet T-shirts. Odel and Karl were getting away with the minimum, as always. Jones Johnson was barely moving his leg restraint, treating the session as some kind of personal rest period.

Typical, Lawrence thought: Jones was their platoon's mechanic, and damn good with just about any sort of machinery, including projectile weapons. Naturally, he assumed that ability compensated for his lack in others. Despite being a member for three campaigns, he never seemed to grasp that the platoon survived by teamwork, which started at the most basic level: physical adequacy.

Lawrence got up and casually threw a towel round his neck. He loped over to Jones and grasped the frame around the man's bench apparatus to give himself some leverage. His free hand slammed down on the leg restraint bars, forcing them to hinge round, and bending Jones's legs almost double.

"Fuck!" Jones yelled.

"You've just been ambushed. A mine has blown a wall down, pinning your legs under a shitload of stone, and three rebels with machetes are coming toward you. If you want to live, you've got to lift yourself free."

"Jesus fuck."

"Come on, you idle bastard, lift."

Jones's face was compressed into a rubber mask as he strained to bring his legs back level. Blood vessels stood out on his neck, pulsing fast.

When it was clear he'd never get the bars back, Lawrence let go. "You're fucking useless, Jones. I don't mind that it will get you killed; we might get a halfway decent replacement. But if you're immobilized it leaves the rest of us covering our asses. Keep up with us, or drop out now. I'm not carrying a liability."

"This is a fucking gym, Sarge. If we're out on patrol I'll be in Skin. This fitness crap we're supposed to stick to is total bullshit."

"The only thing you can ever truly rely on is yourself."

Lawrence caught Hal grinning at the scene. He turned to the kid. "And you can stop smirking. In six days we're going to be on the planet. Every welcoming smile you get means they hate you; the bigger the smile the more they want you dead. We've only got each other down there. Nobody else is going to look out for you. So I want you in the best shape it's possible to be. Not just your body, I want your attitude to be right, too, because Fate help me, I've got to depend on you."

He walked back to his own apparatus bench. Hal resumed his pumping, seemingly proud of how high he'd got the resistance turned up and how easily he handled it. Amersy, who hadn't stopped his forward presses, gave Lawrence a look of mild rebuke as he passed. The corporal wasn't out of line, Lawrence admitted; he had overreacted to Jones slacking off. But this time he wanted a lot more from the platoon than on any other mission. If he was ever going to achieve his personal objective when they reached Thallspring he needed to have complete loyalty, and to do that he had to take care of them. Good care. They might not appreciate it up here, but on the ground these missions quickly became very warped. Society's assholes they might be, but they were streetsmart enough to know who they could trust when the shit hit the fan. And Z-B, in the form of Captain Douglas Bryant, didn't get a look-in.

Lawrence began working his apparatus again. He could see Jones pedaling wildly and let out a quiet snort of satisfaction. He was lucky the squaddie hadn't tried to smack him one. The frustration of can-time was twisting them up. At least back in Cairns they could sneak out of the base at night and screw the tension away with a girl on the Strip.

After gym the platoon was due two hours' equipment readiness training. Lawrence left Amersy to supervise them by himself. He'd got another meeting with the captain; this close to the end of the voyage, they were averaging out at nearly one per day.

Their briefing room was a rectangular compartment with bare aluminum walls, apart from one large, high-resolution sheet screen. The three other platoon sergeants, Wagner, Ciaran and Oakley, were already sitting at the composite table. Lawrence gave them a quick nod and took his own seat. Captain Douglas Bryant walked in a moment later, accompanied by Lieutenant Motluk. The sergeants rose to their feet, all of them with one hand gripping the edge of the table to keep their feet on the ground, while the other was used to salute.

"At ease, people," Douglas Bryant said cordially. He was twenty-eight, a product of Z-B's officer academy in Tunisia. A smart man, with a solid family stake in the company to propel him along the promotion path. When Lawrence accessed his record he found the only active duty the captain had seen was counterinsurgency missions in East Africa. Punishment raids on camps deep in the jungle, where the native tribes still fought the imperialist company mines stripping the minerals from their land. It was a qualification of sorts for asset realization, but Lawrence would have preferred someone with genuine experience.

If he was honest, his contempt for Douglas Bryant originated from knowing the young man was more or less what he would have probably turned out to be himself: genuinely concerned about the condition and morale of the men serving under his command, full of information and knowing shit about what really mattered.

"Ciaran, have you got your platoon's supply inventory sorted out?" the captain asked.

"Sir," the sergeant of Platoon 836BK5 answered. "It was a glitch. The supplies were in the correct lander pod."

The captain smiled around at his sergeants. "It's always software, isn't it? Have we had anything other than virtual problems since we left Centralis?"

They smiled back, tolerantly polite.

"Okay. Final suit tailoring, how are we doing? Newton, your platoon hasn't started yet, why is that?"

"I keep them going in for function tests, sir. I want to leave final tailoring until as late as possible. Even with the gym sessions, five weeks in this gravity is messing with their size."

"I can appreciate the reasoning behind that, but unfortunately it's not quite the procedure we're following. Your platoon is to report for final tailoring oh-eight-hundred tomorrow."


"I can't risk them not being ready when we emerge from compression. We must not be caught unprepared."

Right, Lawrence thought, like Thallspring has moved and we 're going to finish this flight early. Final tailoring took a couple of hours per suit, at max. "I understand, sir."

And so it went. Bryant was obsessed with details; everything any experienced commander would leave to his sergeants to sort out he wanted a say in. He had to have the operation running perfectly along the standard track, a dead giveaway that he was concerned more with the impression he generated within the company than with the practicalities of the situation they'd be facing. He even wanted Oakley to cancel a request he'd made for more remote sensors when they went groundside. His platoon had been assigned to sweep through an urban area that was all narrow roads in a maze of cheap housing—and that was from a ten-year-old map; it could have decayed a lot since then. In other words, a perfect ambush territory for the local badboys. And they'd have a lot of bravado before Z-B established themselves and obtained their good behavior collateral. Lawrence would have wanted the same security those remote sensors could provide. But despite Z-B's vaunted policy of loop involvement, the beachhead plan already contained the number of sensors considered relevant. Bryant did not want anything to alter at this stage.

Oakley said yes, and got his bracelet pearl to rescind the request. They moved on to the landing operation's tuning and how Bryant didn't want them to suffer undue delay on their way out of the drop gliders.

* * *

A gentle warm rain had been falling on Memu Bay for most of the day, the second unseasonable downpour in a fortnight. It meant Denise had to keep the children out of the garden and at the tables and benches sheltered by the roof. In the morning she'd handed out the big media pads and got them to paint the shapes they saw in the clouds, which resulted in a splendid collage of strange creatures in glowing blues, reds and greens. By the afternoon, when it was obvious the clouds weren't going to blow away any time soon, she settled them in a broad semicircle and sat on one of the tables in the center.

"I think it's time I told you about the planet of the Mordiff," she said. "Even though Mozark never actually visited it himself."

There were several sharp intakes of breath. The children gave each other excited looks. The dark history of the Mordiff planet had only ever been hinted at before whenever she talked of the Ring Empire.

Jedzella stuck her hand up. "Please, miss, it's not too horrid, is it?"

"Horrid?" Denise pursed her lips and gave the question some theatrical consideration. "No, not horrid, although they fought terrible wars, which are always evil. I suppose from where we are today, looking back, it's really quite sad. I always say you can learn the most from mistakes, and the Mordiff made some really big mistakes. If you remember what they did, then, I hope, you'll be able to avoid those same mistakes when you grow up. Do you want me to go on?"

"Yes!" they yelled. Several of them gave Jedzella cross glances.

"All right then. Let's see: Mozark never went there, although he did fly close to the Ulodan Nebula where the planet and its star were hiding. There wasn't a lot of point to him going. Even in those times the Mordiff were long gone, and nothing they'd left behind could have helped him in his quest for a grand purpose in life. Although, in a way, a very warped and twisted way, the Mordiff had an overriding purpose. They wanted to live. In that they were no different to all the rest of us: humans today and the sentient species of the Ring Empire all want to live. But by fate, or accident, or chance, or even luck, the Mordiff evolved on a planet in the middle of the darkest, densest nebula in the galaxy at that time. They had daylight, just as we do. The nebula wasn't thick enough to blank out their sun. But their night was absolute. The night sky on that planet was perfectly black. They couldn't see the stars. As far as they knew, they were completely alone; their planet and its sun were the entire universe."

"Didn't they send ships out to find other stars?" Edmund asked.

"No. Because they had no reason to explore. They didn't know anything else existed, and observation backed up the whole idea, so they didn't even know they could go looking. That was their downfall, and it's the lesson we must learn from them. You see, like most sentient species, they thought in the same fashion we do, even though their bodies were very different. They were big, almost as big as dinosaurs, and they had very clever limbs that could change shape. It meant they could slide their bodies along the ground, the way a snake does, or they could swim like fish by turning the limbs into fins, and some Ring Empire historians and archaeologists even thought they could fly, or at least glide. But that didn't stop them from having an ordinary civilization. They had a Stone Age, and an Iron Age, just like us; then they went on and had a Steam Age, and an Industrial Age, and an Atomic Age, and a Data Age. And that was where their troubles started. By then, they had developed their whole world, and they had good medicine that gave them a long healthy life. Their population was expanding all the time and consuming more and more resources. Whole continents became giant cities. They built islands miles across that were just floating buildings. All of their polar continents were settled. There was no room left, and all the surface was being exploited. It meant they had wars, horrible, terrible wars that killed tens of millions of them every time. But they were always pointless, as all wars are. After entire nations were destroyed, the victors would just move into the ruins, and within a generation the land would be full again. All the while their technology, especially their weapons technology, grew more powerful and more deadly. The wars they fought became worse, and more dangerous to the rest of the planet "Then one day, the biggest nation, which was ruled by the greatest Mordiff overlord, discovered how to create a worm-hole."

The children let out a fearful Ooooh.

"Did they invade the Ring Empire, miss?"

"No, they didn't invade the Ring Empire. Have you forgotten? They didn't know it was there. They made their wormhole go in a very different direction. You see, worm-holes are formed from a distortion of space-time. We use ours to create a tunnel through space so we can fly to the stars. The Mordiff traveled in time. Because the Ulodan Nebula denied them a vision of space, time was all they knew. The overlord ordered a single giant wormhole terminus to be built, standing at the center of his nation. It was the greatest device the Mordiff had ever constructed, for not only did the terminus generate the wormhole, its own structure was self-sustaining. As long as it had power, it would never decay or fail. And it got its power from the way it distorted space-time. In other words, it was eternal, almost like perpetual motion."

"My daddy says that's impossible," Melanie said with haughty self-confidence. "He says only fools believe in it"

"It is impossible," Denise said. "But that's the best way to describe how the Mordiff's terminus worked."

Edmund sneered at the girl, then turned to Denise. "Why did the overlord build it, miss?"

"Ah. Well, that's where the terror and the tragedy of the Mordiff begins. When it was finished, the overlord ordered an exodus of his whole nation. An armada of flying craft carried them all into the terminus, millions and millions of Mordiff. And when they were all safe inside, the overlord's personal guards set off the most terrible weapons the nation possessed. All of them, all at once. They were so bad, and so powerful, that they killed every living thing on the whole planet, and turned all the cities to rubble, even those of the overlord's nation."

The children stared at her, awed and troubled.

"Every Mordiff nation had the same awful doomsday weapons; some spread deadly diseases while some simply exploded hard enough to open up cracks into the magma below the continents," Denise said. "The overlord knew it would just be a matter of time until somebody used them. By then, each of the nations was so desperate for new land and resources that not using the doomsday bombs would mean they'd collapse from within.

"So now the overlord's nation was inside the wormhole, traveling further and further into the future, away from the time of the planet's death. Some of them, a scouting party, emerged a hundred thousand years later, flying out of the terminus—which had survived the explosions and radiation, of course. To the scouting party it was only minutes since they'd entered the wormhole, but as soon as they came out they found a sterile planet, with the ruins of the megacities crumbling into dust. By then, the radiation had decayed, and the plagues had died away. These Mordiff scouts dumped bacteria and algae over the surface and flew back into the terminus. Then they came out another thousand years later, when the bacteria had spread everywhere, bringing the soil back to life. This time they scattered seeds before they went back into the terminus. The third time they emerged, they left breeding pairs of animals and fish. A thousand years after that, the world had returned to the state it was in before their Industrial Age, with huge grassy plains and forests and jungles. That's when the whole of the overlord's nation came out of the wormhole. They'd only been flying inside the worm-hole for a couple of hours, while outside a hundred and twenty thousand years had rushed past.

"They looked around at this beautiful, clean new world, and they rejoiced and thanked the overlord for delivering them to this wonderful place. Many of them forgot the crime that had been done to give them this chance at a fresh life and settled down to rebuild their original society. So once more they mined the land for metals and minerals, and their cities began to grow again, always expanding over the wilderness. After a few generations, some of the Mordiff forgot the debt they owed to the overlord family, which still ruled the original nation, and began to break away and form new nations of their own. Two and a half thousand years later, the planet was once again covered with cities. Once again, wars were being fought. So, the overlord of that time did what his ancestor had done. He gathered his nation into flying craft and sent them through the terminus. Behind them, the doomsday weapons exploded yet again.

"This wretched cycle turned another three times. Whenever the world grew too crowded to support the billions of Mordiff who filled the cities, the overlord's nation would escape through time and kill everyone left behind. But after the last time they fled into the terminus, the scouts came out a hundred thousand years later to find something unexpected had happened. Their sun had changed. When they looked at it, they could see dark sunspots swelling and bursting all across its surface. It was reaching the end of its main cycle and growing colder. Of course, as they'd never seen the other stars in the galaxy, they didn't know what was happening. They never knew that stars change and die; they'd assumed that their little universe was static and eternal. The physicists among them began to speculate and produce theories at once, and they probably worked out what was happening, because they were smart, don't forget But knowing what's happening and being able to do anything are very different things.

"So the scout group took measurements and recordings of how cold the air was becoming, and how frigid the land had turned, and went back into the wormhole to report to the overlord. At first, he didn't want to believe what they told him, but, eventually, he came out and witnessed the star's winter for himself. By now, the ground and ruins were covered in a thick layer of frost, which glittered in the dimming sunlight, and the seas were frozen solid. For a long time the overlord raged against what he thought of as supreme injustice before he regained his senses. Scouts were dispatched far into the future: two hundred thousand years, five hundred thousand, a million, two million, even ten million. They all came back with worsening reports of how the sun grew colder and colder, swelling into a huge red monster that covered a fifth of the sky. At no time did it ever show signs of returning to its original state."

"Can stars do that?" Melanie asked quietly. "Get better, I mean?"

"No, dear, they can't. Not by themselves. There are stories that some kingdoms in the Ring Empire tinkered with the interior of stars when the Empire was at the height of its powers, but they're only stories. And for all their knowledge and technology, the Mordiff were never as strong and wise as the Ring Empire. So the overlord had no choice, he had to order his people out of the wormhole as soon as the effect of the doomsday weapons had faded away, and while the sun still had some warmth. In that respect, he was a good leader, doing the best he could. He ordered that the new cities were to be built under protective domes. Their technology, he said, was enough to turn back the tide of night. Which, in truth, it was. They could still live on their planet, protected from the cold under skies of crystal. Fusion power would provide them with all the light and heat they could ever want. But these enclaves were harder to build, and took even more resources to maintain. It was a difficult life, and by now, the Mordiff had evolved for war and conquest. They knew nothing else. After so many generations devoted to endless conflict the outcome was inevitable. Once their population began to expand again, the ordeals and depravation hit them harder than ever before. The domed cities fought each other. It was insane, because they were so much more fragile than the open cities of old. And this time there was nowhere to flee if anyone let off the doomsday weapons. The only thing in their future now was cold and darkness.

"According to the Ring Empire archaeologists, the last of the Mordiff died out less than fifteen hundred years after they emerged from the terminus for the final time. The Ring Empire explored the Ulodan Nebula twenty-five million years later and found a few fractured remains amid the ice that shrouded the whole world, all that was left of a species that had covered their planet with cities and marvels."

The children sighed and shivered. Many of them glanced out at the sky for reassurance that their own sun was still there, as bright and warm as ever. The clouds were clearing above Memu Bay now, shredded by the offshore wind into gravid streamers. Broad white-gold sunbeams prized then-way through the ragged gaps to chase over the land. Denise smiled with them in reassurance at the water that glistened so refreshingly on the plants in the garden and the trees outside.

"That was scary," Jedzella announced. "Why did they all have to die?"

"Because of their circumstances. The nebula meant they could only ever look inward. We're luckier than that. We know the stars exist. It should help us develop a more enlightened attitude toward the way we live and behave." Denise tried hard to keep the sarcasm out of her voice.

One of the girls waved urgently. "What's enlightened?"

"It means being nice and sensible, instead of being stupid and violent." She paused and smiled round. "Now, who wants to go out on the swings?" It was still too wet, and she'd get a telling off from Mrs. Potchansky for letting them get their clothes damp. But they were at their happiest when they were gallivanting around outside: she couldn't bear to take a moment of that away from them.

They pelted out from under the roof, cheering and racing each other to the swings. Denise followed at a slower pace. Running the Mordiff tale through her mind always conjured up a melancholic mood. The story of their tragedy had too many resonances with humanity. There but for the grace of God... Not that she believed in gods, human or alien.

Her Prime alerted her to a priority spacecom alert diving through the datapool. Two fusion plasma plumes had been detected eight million kilometers out from Thallspring. Spacecom was scanning for more. Data traffic rates between then-offices and tracking satellites doubled inside fifteen seconds, then doubled again, increasing almost exponentially.

Denise's hand flew to her mouth as she looked round at the children. Their carefree shrieks, giggles and smiles pounded into her consciousness, and she was suddenly fearful for them. She tilted her head back, searching the section of sky that spacecom's coordinates indicated. In relation to herself, it was a nine-degree window just above the western horizon. There were too many clouds in the way to permit any sighting of the tiny blue-white sparks she knew were there. But their presence acted like an eclipse on her heart, making her world colder and darker. It had begun.

* * *

Captain Marquis Krojen sat back in what he liked to think of as the command chair on the Koribu's bridge. In practice, it was just another black office chair equipped with freefall restraint straps and bolted to the decking behind a computer station. There were eleven other identical stations in the square compartment, arranged in two rows of six, facing each other. Nine of them were currently occupied in readiness for exodus.

When he was a junior officer on his first couple of starflights, he'd managed to get a place in one of the observation blisters in the forward drive section for exodus, his captain of the time agreeing he wasn't essential for the operation. He'd waited spellbound with his fellow young officers as the moment approached, putting up with cramped limbs and stuffy air just for the chance to witness the transition. In the end it was as uneventful as most events aboard a starship. The wormhole wall, a blankness that wasn't quite black, slowly faded away, allowing the stars to shine through, almost like a lusterless twilight creeping up on a misty evening.

That had been thirty years ago. He hadn't bothered with visual acquisition since, preferring the more precise story of the display screen graphics and his DNI grid. Five of his own junior officers were currently crammed into the observation blister, a reward for reasonable performance of duties during the flight. They'd learn.

"Stand by for exodus," Colin Jeffries, his executive officer, announced. "Ten seconds."

There were so many displays counting down that the verbal warning was completely unnecessary. Tradition, though, like so many things on board, orchestrated the crew's behavior, helping to define the chain of command.

His DNI showed him the ship's AS powering down the energy inverter. The plasma temperature in the tokamaks began to cool as the magnetic pinch was reduced. Power levels fell toward break-even, producing just enough electricity to keep the ancillary support systems up and running.

All around the Koribu, the drab monotony of the worm-hole faded away to be replaced by normal space. Holographic panes on top of the bridge computer stations turned black, showing the steady gleam of stars relayed from external cameras. The AS activated various sensors, aligning them on Thallspring. Several of the bridge officers cheered as the bright blue-and-white orb materialized on their panes.

Let's face it, Marquis thought, we have little else to do. Bridge officers were simply a last fail-safe mechanism, nothing more. The AS ran the ship, while humans made small decisions based on the minute fraction of tabulated information it provided them through holographic panes and DNIs. Summaries of summaries: there was so much data generated by the millions of onboard systems that it would take a human lifetime just to review a single frozen moment.

"Eight million kilometers, as near as you can squint," Marquis said, after analyzing his DNI information. "Radar active. We're searching for the rest of the ships."

Simon Roderick leaned on the back of the captain's chair, inspecting his displays. "Very good. I expect that as we tracked their compression distortion while we were in the wormhole, they won't be far behind."

Marquis didn't reply. Everything Roderick said, the way he said it, was an assertion of his assumed superiority. A captain should be master of his own ship; as indeed the other captains of the Third Fleet were. But with Koribu acting as the flagship on this campaign, Marquis had endured Roderick's presence for the whole flight. He'd been subject to a stream of advice and requests the entire time. Every night, Roderick had dined with the senior officers, making it a miserable meal. The man's conversation was rarefied, discussing culture and economics and history and company policy. Never a joke or a lighthearted comment, which put everyone on edge. And he'd occupied five cabins. Five! Although Marquis no longer begrudged him that. The Board member spent most of the ship's day cosseted away there in meetings with his ground force commanders and the creepy intelligence operatives Quan and Raines.

"What's the reaction drive status, Captain?" Roderick asked.

"Engineering crew are priming us for ignition." Marquis kept his voice level and polite. Roderick could access as much data as he could, probably even more, given the access codes he had. The question was just a reminder of the strategy he'd insisted on.

Normally, a fleet would hold its drift positions at exodus, waiting for every starship to arrive before maneuvering into formation and heading in to the target planet. This time, Mr. Roderick had decided that there would be no formation; each starship would start its Thallspring approach flight at once. With the starships strung out, the planet's hypothetical exo-orbit defenses would be more exposed when they deployed. The lead starship would take the brunt of the attack but provide the remainder with first-class targeting information.

Marquis had pointed out during this discussion at their nightly meal that a formation of starships multiplied the available firepower to generate an excellent shield, and provided a much greater all-round coverage than a singleton.

"Remember Santa Chico, Captain," Roderick had replied. "We should examine history and move on from our failings in an appropriate fashion. Tempora muntantur. Tactics evolve in association with technology."

Marquis hadn't been on the Santa Chico campaign, thank God, but that planet was always a one-shot. Thallspring wouldn't have anything like their level of technology. If by some miracle they had built exo-orbital systems, they'd be the old-fashioned kind.

"Course to six-hundred-kilometer orbit plotted, sir," Colin Jeffries said.

Marquis reviewed the fusion drive schematics that his DNI was scrolling. Overall failsoft was 96 percent, which was good. They'd spent three months before the mission in dock at Centralis having a C-list refit. Only if failsoft dropped below 70 percent would he cancel ignition.

"Cleared for ignition, Mr. Jeffries. Alert the life support wheels to secure for gravity shift."

"Yes, sir."

"Anyone know what's happening on the planet?" Roderick inquired lightly.

Adul Quan looked up from the bridge station he'd appropriated. He'd routed a lot of sensor readings to his holographic panes, where analysis routines were reinterpreting the raw data. "Standard microwave and radio emissions. I'm also seeing hotspots corresponding to known settlement sites. They're still there, and effective."

"Ah, some good news. Very well, they'll attempt to contact us soon enough. There's to be no response. I'll talk to the president once we're in orbit."


Amber lights began to flash, warning them of the fusion drive ignition.

"Sir, the Norvelle has come out of exodus," Colin Jeffries reported.

"Excellent," Roderick said. "I'm going to my cabin. I doubt you need me breathing down your neck right at this moment, eh, Captain? You have my every confidence to deliver us into orbit unharmed."

Marquis didn't look round. "I'll inform you of any status change."

* * *

One thing Denise, Ray and Josep had never properly taken into account was how little lead time they'd have. Their Prime software might have trawled the spacecom alert from the datapool with a minimum delay, but that didn't mean there weren't others who were just as fast. Leaks were also a factor. The verified sighting was automatically distributed to over a hundred government personnel; most of them had family, all of them had friends and media contacts.

Fifteen minutes after spacecom's internal verification of starship exodus, the general media knew of the alert and started bombarding the president's office for official confirmation and a public statement. It was just after midnight in Durrell, the capital, but the president's praetorian aides responded swiftly. Their first cautious release that anomalous spacecom data was being reviewed hardly satisfied the howling mob, but it did give them enough justification to start breaking the story across the datapool and on the news shows. It was a story that fed on its own hysteria, expanding with each retelling. Recordings of the last invasion were snatched from their libraries and broadcast in extreme detail, reminding everyone of the oppression and brutality they'd suffered, as if they needed such cues. Thirty minutes later, just about all of Thallspring knew the starships had come again.

In their single act of public responsibility that day, the media announcers did keep repeating there was no need to panic—the starships were eight million kilometers away. Given how many people were desperate to hear the entire message, it amazed psychologists just how many managed to blank that part out.

Human nature being what it is, people's overriding instinct in times of danger is simply to head for home. It's a baseline refuge, seeking comfort and security from contact with your own family. In every city people walked out of work to hail the nearest taxi or jump on their tram; bikes and cars poured onto the roads. There hadn't been traffic snarl-ups and gridlock like it for over a decade; in fact, not since the last time the starships arrived.

Denise's usual twenty-minute trip back to the bungalow on the Nium River estuary took nearly an hour and a half. She hadn't realized so many people even lived in Memu Bay, let alone had cars or bicycles or scooters. So much time had been wasted just sitting in trams expecting them to move any minute. Nobody ever drove down the tram lines in the center of the road—until today, when they blocked it solid. Eventually, she hopped out of the stationary vehicle and started walking.

Fortunately the local datapool retained its integrity through the chaos, though even its connection time had slowed appreciably as half the town used it to contact the other half and ask them where they were. She sent a stack of Preformatted messages through her own ring pearl, using Prime to route the heavily encrypted packages to various resistance cell members so they would be untraceable. Acknowledgments returned sporadically, scrolling across her vision as she dodged traffic and slithered around lumbering pedestrians.

Outside the town's heart, the traffic wasn't so clogged, which allowed the vehicles to drive a hell of a lot faster.

They'd all had their AS programs taken offline, with the human driver ignoring the speed limits. Denise jogged along the suburb pavements, sprinting across intersections. Not even being young and female saved her from vigorous hand signals as cars swerved.

When she did trot up the gravel path to their front door she was sweating enough to make her blouse and skirt cling annoyingly. Ray and Josep still weren't home: they'd been out on a boat when spacecom's alert was given. Their last message said they were less than ten minutes behind her now. She wondered how they'd managed that with the melee constricting the center of town.

The bags they'd need were permanently packed. Denise disengaged the bungalow's active alarm and tugged them from the hall cupboard where they were stowed—a couple of sports shoulder bags, the kind anybody would take for a week's holiday. Inside were clothes—some needing washing—toiletries, coral souvenirs, several bracelet pearls with the supplements any student would own. All the items would pass a spot inspection. It would take a detailed lab analysis to detect any sort of subterfuge. Her ring pearl interrogated the hidden systems, running final function and power checks. Once their validity was confirmed, she dumped them beside the door, then ran back to her own room, stripping off her blouse. Her blood still seemed to be hot and fizzing, even though her heart had slowed right down. Now the starships had arrived, she felt invigorated. A simple faded-copper T-shirt and black shorts gave her a great deal more freedom of movement. She twisted the plain gold band on her index finger that contained the pearl, reassured by the contact. A strange preparation ritual for a warrior about to go into combat, but then this was not an arena the gladiators, knights and ninjas of old would recognize.

Denise was lacing up her sneakers on the doorstep when the boys arrived. They'd acquired an open-top jeep from the diving school, which Josep was driving. He braked it to a sharp halt at the end of the drive. Ray jumped out and slung the cases in the rear. Denise took the backseat. She was still slipping on her safety harness when Josep accelerated away, sending gravel pelting into the jasmine.

"Which way are you going?" she asked.

"We figured the outer loop road," Ray called over his shoulder. "It's longer, but the traffic regulation AS says it's still relatively clear."

Denise visualized a layout of the town. Their bungalow was just about on the opposite side from the airport. Perhaps they should have planned that better, as well. But once they got onto the loop road, it would take them directly there.

"How long?" she asked Josep. She had to shout; the wind was whipping her short hair about as he sped them along the concrete road with its broad, neatly mown verges.

"Forty-five minutes," he said.

"You're kidding."

His smile was grim. "I can do it!"

"Okay." Denise started to instruct her Prime, and indigo timetables slid across her vision. Scheduled planes were still flying out of the airport. According to the bookings program, just about every tourist in Memu Bay was trying to bring his or her departure flight forward to today. Prime accessed the Pan-Skyways reservation system and searched through the passenger list on a flight to Durrell that was due to leave in an hour and ten minutes. Only a quarter of them had checked in so far. Several had contacted the airline to say they'd been caught up in the traffic snarl and were running late. Sensible people, she thought. She erased two of them and substituted Ray and Josep, under their ghost identities.

"We're in," she said gleefully.

The loop road was a big improvement. At first. Traffic on their side of town was light. It began to build, increasing in proportion to the distance to the airport. Even Josep had to slow down as both lanes began to fill.

"Where've they all come from?" she asked, looking round in dismay. Family cars, sedans with darkened windshields, jeeps like theirs, vans and trucks; every one had a driver gripping the wheel with an intent don't-mess-with-me expression on his face.

"I don't know," Josep muttered. "But I know where they're going." He swung the wheel sharply, sending the jeep around a big pickup and onto the hard shoulder. Free of the jammed-up main lanes he accelerated again. Tires bounced frantically through the potholes, the suspension juddering loudly.

Ray grinned happily. "There goes your license."

"It's a stolen jeep, and I'm not licensed to drive it anyway. Now smile for the traffic cameras."

Denise rolled her eyes and pulled a floppy old fishing hat on her head as other drivers shouted at them. To the side of them, traffic was grinding to a complete halt. She could see the kind of luggage people were carrying. Cars just had suitcases thrown into the backseats, but several vans and pickups were piled high with furniture, some even had pets, mainly dogs barking in confusion. A small pony peered nervously out of one rig. She couldn't understand where they thought they were going. It wasn't as if this continent had a big rural community that could absorb them. There was only the Great Loop Highway with its scattered settlements around the Mitchell Plateau Mountains. And she knew what their inhabitants would think of refugees from the city.

"Damn," Josep grunted. Other people had started to swerve onto the hard shoulder. Vehicles stuck on the inside lane were tooting their horns furiously at the lawbreakers trundling past. It didn't take more than another five hundred meters before the hard shoulder was reduced to a parking lot They were still a good twelve kilometers from the airport.

"Go around them," Ray said.

Sighing, Josep engaged the high-traction mode for the hub motors and urged the jeep off the hard shoulder and onto the verge. They bounced along the grass, tilted at quite an angle. Tires left long spin tracks in soil still wet from the morning's downpour. Cars on the hard shoulder tooted angrily as they bumped and fishtailed past the completely stationary lines.

That ride ended three kilometers short of the airport, when the verge turned into a cutting. The banks were too steep for the jeep to use even on high traction.

Josep braked and they slowly slithered down the slope until the tire rims were resting on the curbstones lining the hard shoulder. Nothing was moving on the dual roadway. People had climbed out of their vehicles, talking to each other in exasperated voices. Denise could hardly believe it, but the trams on the high-speed link between the roadways were also stationary. Maniac drivers had actually tried to use the rails as a road, ramming through the crash-barrier that guarded the outer lane. There was a long zigzag line of cars and vans bumper to bumper along the tramway, looking as if several dozen of them had all collided in slow motion. Those drivers were screaming at each other. She could see several fistfights had broken out "Out," Josep said. "Come on, we're close enough now."

A big DB898 passenger plane thundered overhead, its undercarriage bogies folding into its fuselage. Hihydrogen turbofans whined loudly as it rose in a steep climb. Everyone standing about on the road stopped what they were doing to watch it pass. The majority then started walking, as if the aircraft had been some kind of religious summons.

Denise, Josep and Ray started a fast, easy jog, drawing jealous stares from families and older people tramping along the concrete with moody desperation. Thanks to the d-written enhancements throughout their bodies, the weight of the bags and the intense midafternoon sun had no effect on them, so they were able to maintain a steady pace for the entire three kilometers. Denise had a mild sweat when they reached the arrivals hall, but that was all.

The crowds around the various airline gateways were thicker than fans going into a stadium turnstile on a league finals day, and a lot more restless. They pushed and shoved their way toward the front, either ignoring or giving out aggressive nose-to-nose stares to anyone who objected. Up on the walls, giant sheet screens were showing man-in-the-street interviews; with just about everyone the reporters found asking the same thing: when are our exo-orbit defenses going to blast these invader bastards into radio-active gas? Surely some clandestine top-secret government project had built them ready for this moment? Why are we defenseless?

They arrived at the Pan-Skyways gate three with five minutes left until boarding ended. There, in the middle of five hundred noisy, straining, angry people, Denise gave both of them a kiss and a hug. If they were surprised by the uncharacteristic display of affection they didn't show it. She'd often been exasperated by them during the last year; now she realized how much she cared for them, almost as much as for their mission. "Look after yourselves," she mumbled. It wasn't a wish; it was a command.

They returned the hug, promising her they would. When they showed their ghost identity cards to the gate it opened smoothly to let them through.

Denise wormed her way out through the crush of people and went up to the observation deck on the roof. She was the only person there. A humid offshore breeze plucked at her T-shirt as she stood pressed up against the railing. Twenty minutes later, the big Pan-Skyways jet taxied out onto the runway and raced into the hot sky. Denise watched it vanish into the hazy horizon, then lifted her gaze to the sky's zenith. Seven tiny, bright stars were visible through the azure veil.

Her arms were spread wide, hands gripping the smooth, worn metal of the railing. When she took a deep breath, she could feel the oxygen flowing through her arteries, fortifying her enhanced cells. Her physical strength brought a cool self-confidence with it, a state of mind she relished.

Welcome back, she told the sparkling interlopers. Things are going to be a little different this time around.

* * *


Simon Roderick sat at the desk in his appropriated cabin, surrounded by data. Some of it came from holographic panes, the rest was provided by DNI. All of it flowed and flashed at his whim. Organization, the key to success in any field, even one with as many intangibles as this. He knew how Captain Krojen considered himself at the mercy of the Koribu's AS, how isolated that made him from the physical running of the starship, a situation Simon never placed himself in, no matter what his supervisory assignment. The captain's trouble was his insistence on routing commands through his officers, keeping them involved. If he kept humans out of the equation he would find himself a lot closer to achieving true authority over his machinery.

The stream of information enveloping Simon shifted as the last of the Third Fleet starships reached its six-hundred-kilometer orbit. Its new pattern was close to the optimum he had envisaged. Needless to say, Thallspring had deployed no exo-orbit weapons against the starships during their approach. They had, though, endured a constant bombardment of communication traffic during the flight into orbit. Several tapevirals had been hidden in the packages, some of them quite sophisticated—for an isolated world. The Koribu's AS had recognized and isolated them immediately. None of them had come even close to the Barbarian Sentience subversives that the antiglobalizers had used back on Earth.

Simon shifted his attention to the images building up from the small squadron of observation satellites that the Third Fleet had released into low-Thallspring orbit. It was a world that had moved ahead in a steady pedestrian fashion since Z-B's last asset realization. Infrared mapping showed the settlements had expanded roughly as predicted, although Durrell was certainly larger than expected. Worst case, it gave them a hundred thousand more people, which the ground forces could certainly handle. Fortunately, that corresponded to an increase in industrial output. After all, those extra people had to be housed, clothed, fed and provided with jobs.

Several blank zones on the planetary simulation caused him a flicker of dissatisfaction. His personal AS noted the direction of his ire and informed him that three observation satellites and one geostationary communications relay had failed. The successfully deployed systems were being reprogrammed to fill the gaps.

He sent the planetary data into peripheral mode and established a link to Captain Krojen. The officer's sullen face appeared on a hologram pane. "I'd like you to begin the gamma soak, please," Simon said.

"I wasn't aware our reviews were complete," Krojen said. "There could be people down there."

"The primary scans haven't found any artificial structures in the location we selected. That's good enough for me. Begin the soak." He canceled the link before there was an argument, and expanded the Koribu's schematics out of the grid.

Just behind the starship's compression drive section, their gamma projector began to unfurl. The mechanism had been included on all of Z-B's colonist carrier starships as fundamental to establishing a settlement. Basically a vast gamma ray generator and focusing array, it was a cylinder fifteen meters in diameter, and twenty long, riding on the end of a telescopic robot arm. Once it was clear of the drive section, the cylinder's outer segments peeled open like a mechanical flower. On the inside, the petals were studded with hundreds of black-and-silver hexagonal irradiator nozzles. A second set of segments hinged open around the first, followed by a third. At full extension, it formed a circular disk sixty meters across.

Thallspring's second-largest ocean was rolling past underneath the Koribu, with the coastline sliding into view over the horizon. Durrell was directly ahead of the starship, a gray smear amid the emerald crescent of land that was the settlement's enclave of terrestrial vegetation. Outside that, Thallspring's native aquamarine plants embraced the rest of the land.

Koribu's gamma projection array swung around on the end of its arm until it was pointing toward the settlement Small azimuth actuators tweaked its alignment and began tracking. Tokamaks inside the starship's compression drive section started to power up, feeding their colossal energy output straight into the projector array. The amount of energy demanded by a starship to fly faster than light sliced down through the atmosphere in a beam that was no more than a hundred meters wide when it struck the surface.

The impact was centered on a patch of ground at the western perimeter of the settlement, just overlapping the border of the earth plants. No living cell of any type could survive such a concentration of radiation. Thallspring's plants, animals, insects and bacteria died instantly beneath the beam, a huge zone of vegetation that immediately turned bruise-brown and began to wither. Branches and leaves bowed down and curled up beneath the relentless invisible onslaught; fissures split open along tree trunks, hissing out steam from ruptured osmotic capillaries. Animals thudded to the ground, skins shriveled to black parchment and innards cooked, spitting out little wisps of smoke as they ossified in seconds. Even below ground, nothing was spared. The gamma rays penetrated deep into the soil, eradicating bacteria and burrowing insects.

Then the beam began to move, scanning back and forth across the ground in slow kilometer-wide swaths.

Simon shifted the soak data into peripheral. He used the Third Fleet geostationary relays to open a connection into Thallspring's datapool and requested a link to the president.

The man whose image appeared on his holographic pane was in his late fifties, heavy features roughened by lack of sleep. But there was enough anger burning in his eyes to compensate for any insomnia lethargy.

"Stop your bombardment," President Edgar Strauss growled. "For fuck's sake we're not any kind of military threat."

Simon's eyebrow twitched at the obscenity. If only Earth's politicians were as forthright. "Good day, Mr. President. I thought it best if I introduced myself first. I'm Simon Roderick, representing the Zantiu-Braun Board."

"Switch your goddamn death ray off."

"I'm not aware of any bombardment, Mr. President."

"Your starship is firing on us."

Simon tented his fingers, giving the pane and its reply camera a thoughtful look. "No, Mr. President; Zantiu-Braun is continuing to upgrade its investment. We are preparing a fresh section of land for the Durrell settlement to expand into. Surely that's beneficial to you."

"Take your investment and stuff it where the sun doesn't shine, you little tit."

"Is there an election coming up, Mr. President? Is that why you're talking tough?"

"What would the likes of you know about democracy?"

"Please, Mr. President, it's best not to annoy me. I do have to monitor our beam guidance program very closely. Neither of us would want it to move out of alignment at this crucial moment, now, would we?"

The president glanced at someone out of camera range, listening for a moment as his expression soured further. "All right, Roderick, what do you bastards want this time?"

"We're here to collect our dividend, Mr. President. As I'm sure you know."

"Why the hell can't you just say it? Too frightened of what we'll do? You're pirates who'll slaughter all of us if we don't comply."

"Nobody is going to slaughter people, Mr. President. As well as being a crime against humanity with a mandatory death penalty in the World Justice Court, it would be stupidly counterproductive. Zantiu-Braun has a great deal of money tied up in Thallspring. We don't want to jeopardize that"

Edgar Strauss became even more angry. "We're an independent world, not some part of your corporate empire. Our funding was raised by the Navarro house."

"Who sold their interest in Thallspring to us."

"Some goddamn tax-avoidance bullshit on a planet twenty-three light-years away. That doesn't entitle you to come here and terrorize us."

"We're not terrorizing you. We're simply here to collect what rightfully belongs to us. Your middle-class daydream existence was bought with our money. You cannot run away from your fiscal responsibilities. We need a return on that money."

"And if we choose not to?"

"You do not have that choice, Mr. President As the lawfully elected head of state, it is your obligation to provide us with assets that we can liquidate back on Earth. If you personally fail to meet that requirement, you will be removed and replaced by a successor who isn't so foolish."

"What if all of us refuse? Think you can intimidate all eighteen million of us into handing over our possessions to you thugs?"

"That isn't going to happen, and you know it."

"No, because you'll fucking kill us if we try."

"Mr. President, as the officially designated retriever of your planetary dividend, I am serving you formal notice that it is due. You will now tell me if you will comply with its collection."

"Well, now, Mr. Board Representative, as president of the independent planet of Thallspring I am telling you that we do not recognize the jurisdiction of Earth or any of its courts out here. However, I will surrender to a military invasion fleet that threatens our well-being, and allow your soldiers to loot our cities."

"Good enough." Simon smiled brightly. "I will post lists of the assets we require. My subordinates will transfer down to the planet's surface to supervise their shipment. We'll also help reinforce your police force in case of any civil disturbance. I'm sure both of us want this to go as smoothly as possible. The quicker it's done, the quicker we leave." He canceled his link to Edgar Strauss and issued the general landing order.

"We have a go authorization," Captain Bryant informed Lawrence. "Get your platoon suited up. We'll embark the drop gliders in two hours' time."

"Yes, sir. Have we got the updated ground cartography yet?"

"Tactical support is processing the surveillance satellite data at this moment. Don't worry, Sergeant, you'll have it before you fly down. Now carry on."

"Sir." He turned to face the platoon. They were all hanging on the edges of their bunks, facing him expectantly. "Okay, we're on."

Hal let out a loud whoop of satisfaction and jacked out of his bunk. The rest followed, keen for any end to the voyage, even one that pitched them into a hostile environment.

Lawrence was first into their suit armory. One of the reasons Koribu's life support wheels were so cramped was the amount of space the Skin suits took up in transit. Each one was stored in a bulky glass-fronted sustainer cabinet, which fed it a regulated supply of nutrients and oxygen. He walked down to the cabinet with his own suit inside and opened the small drawer on the bottom. It was empty apart from a plastic capsule containing a pair of full-spectrum optronic membranes. He slipped them onto his eyes and began to undress.

There was plenty of joshing and derisory comments as the platoon put in their own membranes and stripped off their one-piece tunics. Lawrence didn't join in; the banter had an edge to it as the reality of Thallspring crept toward them— their way of riding over the jitters.

He stripped naked except for a slim necklace with a cheap hologram crystal pendant. His thumb stroked the scuffed surface, and a seventeen-year-old Roselyn smiled brightly at him. Technically, even the necklace was against regulations, but Lawrence hadn't taken it off in twenty years. He pumped the small dispenser button next to the sustainer cabinet's drawer. The metal nozzle squirted out globs of pale blue dermalez gel, which he began to smear over his body. It took a good five minutes to cover himself completely, slicking down his short-cropped hair, rubbing it into his armpits and crotch. He and Amersy did each other's backs and shoulders. Only then was he ready to put his suit on.

His cabinet door opened with a quiet wheeze of cool air. He put his palm on the scan panel inside for a bone and blood review. The suit AS compared them to the patterns contained within its e-alpha section and agreed he was Lawrence Newton, the designated wearer. He waited for the disengage sequence to run, cycling the sustainer fluids out of the suit before disconnecting the umbilicals. Indigo script from the suit's AS scrolled down his optronic membranes, showing him its status. Bracing himself on the floor, he lifted the flaccid suit out. In the Koribu's low gravity it didn't weigh much, but it had roughly the same inertia as his own body.

From the outside, it looked no different from any of the other Skin suits his platoon was struggling to remove from their cabinets. The flexible carapace was a dark gray color, without any visible seams or ridges. Its fingers had hardened, slightly pointed tips; while the feet were boots with toughened soles. To touch, it had a texture similar to human skin, although the outer layer was the one part that wasn't biological. A smart polycarbon with an external sheet of chameleon molecules, and woven with thermal fibers capable of redirecting its infrared signature. Even if a hostile did manage to locate it, the carapace was tough enough to protect him from all handheld projectile weapons, and a fair percentage of small artillery pieces.

Lawrence gave it the order to egress him, and it split open smoothly across the chest from crotch to neck. Inside the carapace was a stratum of synthetic muscle up to five centimeters thick. He pushed his foot into the right leg, feeling the gel ooze against his skin as the limb slithered deeper into the suit. Like squeezing into whale blubber, he always thought. The left leg followed; then the arms were inserted into their sleeves. He tilted his head back and reached round for the helmet, which was hanging loosely. Moving his arms through even a small arc was hard, as if he were trying to shove a gym bar that was on maximum resistance. Slowly, though, the helmet section came up, and he pushed his head up inside. The grille was open and inactive, allowing him to suck down some air. As always, he felt a quick chill of claustrophobia: it was difficult to move, he could see nothing and hear nothing through the helmet.

Indigo script blinked up as the AS reported it was ready for full integration. Lawrence gave it permission. The carapace sealed up. A ripple moved along the suit as the synthetic muscle adjusted itself to grip him correctly. The optronic membranes flashed elaborate visual test patterns at him, then began feeding him the picture from sensors mounted around the helmet. He swiveled his eyeballs from side to side, a motion picked up by the suit, which altered the sensor angle accordingly. Audio plugs wriggled into his ears, and he heard the grumbles and complaints of the platoon as they clambered into their own suits.

"Phase two," he told the suit AS.

With his legs held tight by the synthetic muscle, small nozzles extended into the valves on the top of his thighs, which had been surgically spliced into his femoral arteries and veins. A second set of nozzles coupled with the subclavian valves on his wrists; the last set were on his neck, plugging his carotid artery and jugular vein into the suit's own circulatory system. With the connections physically secure, the suit AS interfaced with the integral e-alpha guards governing the valves, enabling them. They opened, and his blood began to circulate round the suit muscle, blending with the artificial blood that the suit had been hibernating on in its support cabinet. A checklist scrolled down, confirming the suit muscles' integrity. Internal blood bladders held a large reserve of the oxygenated, nutrient-rich fluid capable of being fed into the circulation system when any bursts of strength were required. Other than that his own organs would have to support the suit muscle entirely by themselves.

"Phase three."

The suit AS began to bring a multitude of peripheral electronic systems online: he'd enhanced the original program with his Prime, which he felt gave him a better response and interface. Nobody else knew about the addition. He still wasn't sure about Prime's legal status, and the Z-B armory technicians disapproved of such customizations.

Phase three started by providing him with several sensor options, all of which he could link to targeting grids. Communication links ran through their interfaces and encryption codes. Air filters slipped across the helmet grille, giving him immunity from chemical and bioviral attack. Integrated weapons systems ran through test sequences. He selected neutral carapace coloring, shifting it from the original dark gray to a bluer shading that the human eye had difficulty distinguishing. That was coupled with full thermal radiance, allowing him to jettison the heat generated by his body and the Skin suit muscle through the thermal fiber weave. His penis sheath confirmed it was secure and capable of allowing him to take a leak any time he needed.

Lawrence stood up and examined the range of articulation his new Skin gave him, moving his limbs in every direction, bending his body, flexing fingers. Sensors on the inside of the synthetic muscle picked up the initial movement, and in conjunction with the AS shifted the suit in a corresponding motion. As he worked methodically through the various positions and actions the yammer of claustrophobia vanished as it always did. Worming up from his subconscious to replace it was a mildly narcotic sense of invulnerability. Even on Santa Chico his Skin had never let him down. Anything that made him less reliant on Captain Bryant was a good thing indeed.

Lawrence looked around the compartment. Most of the platoon were already in their Skin and running preparation checks. He saw Hal, who only had his helmet left to fit. The kid was sitting on the bench, frozen with worry. Lawrence went over and stood directly in front of him. He flashed the kid a quick thumbs-up, unseen by the rest of the platoon. "You need a hand?" his amplified voice bounced round the aluminum walls.

"No, Sarge," Hal said gratefully. "I can cope, thanks." His suited hands scrabbled round slowly and awkwardly behind his head, finding the helmet. Then he was pushing himself into the dark covering.

The platoon trooped out of the suit armory and lumbered down the corridor to the munitions store. Each Skin's AS linked directly with the quartermaster AS to issue the weapons authorization. When he received his allocation, Lawrence's Skin split along the top of his arms, revealing various mechanical components that were melded with muscle bands to form hybrid guns and microsilos. He slotted his magazines into their receiver casings and watched as the thin muscle bands undulated, moving missiles and darts into their sacs and chambers. The punch pistol he'd been given was clipped to his belt, ironically the largest weapon and the least lethal.

For some unfathomable bureaucratic reason, the Cairns base AS had decided that the munitions store should also distribute Skin bloodpaks. Lawrence collected his four and secreted them in the abdominal pouches. They'd give him another few hours' endurance should they hit physically demanding conditions. Nice to have. Although, frankly, if the Memu Bay ground forces hadn't established their headquarters and barracks at the end of the first day, it wouldn't matter anyway.

Now that the squad was active, they took a lift up to the life support wheel's axis, then transferred down the wide axial corridor to the cargo section. The radial corridor that led out to their drop glider was even narrower, making life difficult for the bulky Skin suits. Not that the interior of their little landing craft—a short cylinder filled with two rows of crude plastic chairs—was much of an improvement. They strapped themselves in amid curses about lack of space and bumped elbows. Lawrence took the single chair at the front. It put his head level with a narrow windshield. A small console with two holographic panes was provided in case anything glitched the AS pilot and he needed manual control. For a vehicle intended to deorbit and deliver them to a specific ground coordinate with only a fifty-meter margin of error, the whole arrangement seemed totally inadequate.

Amersy closed the hatch and strapped himself in. Short trembles running through the fuselage indicated the other drop gliders were leaving their silos. Eight minutes to go.

"Hey, Sarge," Jones called out in their general channel. "I think Karl's testing out his vomit tube. Aren't you, Karl?"

"Fuck the hell off."

"Knock it off back there," Lawrence said.

His optronic membranes alerted him to a call from Captain Bryant, which he admitted.

"Tactical have completed the cartography of Memu Bay," Bryant said. "It's accessible now. Get your platoon to install it"

"Yes, sir. Any major changes?"

"None at all. Don't worry, Sergeant, we're on top of this one. I'll see you down there. Meteorology says it's a beautiful day; we might even have a barbecue on the beach this evening."

"Look forward to it, sir." He canceled the link. Asshole. The suit's AS gave him the platoon's general channel. "Okay, we've got the current map. Get it installed and integrated with your inertial navigation. I don't want anyone getting lost."

"Has it got any decent bars marked on it?" Nic asked.

"Hey, Sarge, can we have access to the Durrell guys?" Lewis asked. "Like to know how it's going."

"Sure. Odel, set it up."

"Absolutely, Sergeant."

Five minutes until their flight Lawrence began installing the new cartography into his Skin's neurotronic pearls. Out of curiosity, he accessed the traffic Odel was pulling out of the Durrell force's datapool. His membranes displayed a small five-by-five grid, with thumbnail videos from different drop gliders. He expanded one, seeing a shaky picture from the nose camera. A splinter of dark land rocked from side to side in an ultramarine void. Terse voices barked short comments and orders.

"No groundfire," Amersy observed. "That's good."

"Have you ever seen any?" Hal asked.

"Not yet. But there's always a first time."

Three minutes.

Lawrence dismissed the video grid and requested the new map of Memu Bay. It looked very similar to the settlement he remembered from the last time he was here: big features like the stadium and harbor were still there. Smaller, somehow. He superimposed the old map and let out a shallow breath of aggravation as he took in the new sprawl of outlying districts. Memu Bay had grown beyond Z-B's projections. A larger population would be harder to keep in line. Oh, great. No battle plan ever survived engagement with the enemy, but it would be nice to have one that was vaguely relevant when they hit the beach.

He opened a link to Captain Bryant. "Sir, the settlement's a lot bigger than we thought."

"Not really, Sergeant. A few percent at most. And physically there's been no change to the center since last time. Our deployment strategy remains effective."

"Are we getting any additional platoons?"

"From where? It's Durrell that's really grown over the last decade. If anything we should be supporting our forces there."

"Are we?" he asked in alarm. He'd never dreamed that the platoon might be switched. That would screw up everything.

"No, Sergeant," Bryant said wearily. "Please monitor your status display. And stop worrying. A bigger population just means more behavior collateral. We're carrying enough units down with us for that."


One minute.

The intermittent vibrations he could feel through the fuselage suddenly grew more pronounced. When he did check his status display, he saw the captain's drop glider had left the silo beneath them. Icons flashed an alert. Then Platoon 435NK9's drop glider was shaking as it slid down the silo's rails.

"Hang on to your hats, ladies," Edmond sang out "We're going bungee jumping with angels, and someone just cut the cord."

Light burst in through the windshield. Lawrence saw the edge of the silo falling away from them, a dark hexagon framed in lusterless silver-white metal that shrank into the middle of a honeycomb of identical silos. Their retreat brought the rest of the starship into view. Once again, he could only smile at its functional beauty. Drop gliders and pods were being spat out of the silos at a furious rate. They retreated from the Koribu in an expanding cloud, dropping ass-first toward the planet below. Pods were just squat, rounded cones, with a collar of small rocket motors secured around their peaks. Drop gliders were also cones, but flattened into a standard lifting body shape and fitted with swept-back fins. They'd been coated in a thick pale gray foam of thermal ablative to get them through atmospheric entry. A rocket motor pack had been attached to their rear. Those he could see falling beside them were puffing out streamers of grubby yellow gas from the reaction control nozzles, turning as they fell.

The AS began to fire their own reaction control thrusters, orientating them so the rocket pack was aligned along their orbital track. Thallspring slipped into view through the windshield, a dusky ocean smeared with hoary clouds, its outer atmosphere a phantom silver corona caressing the water. Memu Bay was hiding over the horizon, a third of the planet away.

Orange sparks bloomed around the drop glider as the squadron began to retro-burn, hundreds of solid rocket motor plumes flaring wide in the vacuum, blowing out a cascade of glimmering particles as though some iridescent fluid was part of their chemical formula.

Flight profile displays began a countdown for their own drop glider. The solid rocket at the center of the pack ignited, giving them a four-gee kick. It was little more than a mild discomfort for the platoon, encased in their protective Skin. Thirty seconds later it ended as abruptly as it began. Small thrusters fired again, turning them through 180 degrees. Now the nose was pointing along the line of flight. With their speed below orbital velocity, they began the long curve down into the atmosphere.

The rocket pack stayed attached for another fifteen minutes, maintaining their attitude with steady nudges from the reaction control thrusters. Up ahead of them, a multitude of sparks began to burn once more as the pods and gliders hit the uppermost fringes of gas. They were longer this time, a darker cherry red, and they continued to elongate as the ablative foam vaporized under the vigorous impact of gaseous friction. Soon space around them was drenched with inferno contrails, arching down toward the planet like the chariots of vengeful gods.

Lawrence felt the fuselage start to tremble as they sank deeper into the chemosphere. His communication links to the starship and relay satellites diminished, then dropped out altogether as ionization built up around the fuselage. The AS began to move the fin flaps, testing the vehicle's maneuverability. Once the air surfaces were providing a predetermined level of control, it fired the explosive bolts securing the rocket pack. The jolt flung Lawrence and the others forward into their straps, a motion cushioned by their Skin. There was nothing for him to see now; crimson flames from the slowly disintegrating ablative were playing across the windshield, lighting up the cabin.

They were flying blind at Mach 18 inside the crown of a three-kilometer-long fireball; gravity began to take hold, pulling them eagerly toward the ground. All he could do was wait and sweat and pray as the AS flicked the lean air surfaces with a dolphin's precision, maintaining stability within the hypersonic glidepath. This was the moment he hated and feared above all else. It forced him to invest trust in the cheapest craft Z-B could build to accomplish the job, with nothing he could do other than ride it out.

He reviewed the platoon, calling up a grid of video and telemetry windows. As expected, Amersy's heart rate was over a hundred while he quietly murmured his way through a gospel chant. Hal was asking a host of questions, which Edmond and Dennis took in turns to answer, argue about, or just tell him to shut up. Karl and Nic were talking quietly together. Jones had brought up maintenance profiles for the jeeps that the lander pods were bringing down for them. Whereas Odel... Lawrence enlarged the man's grid, scanning his suit function telemetry. Odel's head was rocking from side to side, while his hands palm-drummed rhythmically on his knees. He'd accessed a personal file block in his Skin's memory. As they were streaking through a planetary atmosphere with the savage brilliance of a dying comet, Odel was happily bopping away to a Slippy Martin track.

At Mach 8 the external flames began to die away. Clean blue daylight embraced the drop glider. Lawrence could see the residue of ablative covering their blunt nose, black bubbling tar that sprinkled droplets from the peak of seething ripples. The craft's antenna found the relay satellite's beacon and established a link.

Mission tactical data scrolled across his membranes. The other drop gliders bringing down the Memu Bay force had made it through aerobrake. One of them, Oakley's platoon, was going to undershoot, coming down fifty kilometers from shore. Their AS was already modifying the descent profile so they'd land at one of the larger archipelago islands. A helicopter could recover them later.

Captain Bryant had already begun shifting deployment patterns to cover the loss. Platoon 435NK9 was given an extra two streets to sweep.

"Always a pleasure," Amersy grunted as the fresh data installed into their mission orders.

"We'll assess on the ground," Lawrence told him. They both knew the extra streets would be left alone—privilege of having field autonomy, it gave him some leeway. Lawrence's priority was getting the platoon through the town without incident.

According to the tactical data, the landing pods were descending nominally. They'd taken a different profile from the gliders, using a longer, higher aerobrake path, then dropping steeply. They were scheduled to hard-land on the ground behind Memu Bay. Watching their tracking data, Lawrence could see they were already spreading too wide, and that was before chute deployment left them vulnerable to wind. From experience, he knew nearly half of them would scatter outside the designated area. Rounding them up would take a long time.

The coastline was visible ahead, growing rapidly. Just how fast they were losing altitude had become apparent with the way the horizon's curvature was flattening out. When he moved forward in his seat, he could see the archipelago spread out below him. It was as if the dark ocean had been stained with droplets of cream. Hundreds of isles and atolls had been created by the crests of coral mountains that had risen up from the ocean floor over a kilometer down, emerging on the surface to accumulate cloaks of white sand. Waves broke against the reefs in gentle sprays of surf. The larger spreads of coral were hosting tufts of vegetation. Dark meandering mounds were visible in the water between the atolls where the submerged reefs lurked. It reminded him of Queensland's coastline, where Z-B's ecological restoration teams had worked their quiet miracles on the ailing Great Barrier Reef. Only the blue tinge of the vegetation was evidence that they were on an alien world.

Closer to the mainland the islands were larger, homes to thick forests. Then the plant leaves were a verdant green, and the beaches protected by long curving wave walls of broken coral. They all had wooden jetties extending out into the ocean. Huts were visible beneath the palm trees; sailing boats and canoes drawn up on the sand.

"Too good to be true," Dennis said. "Maybe we should just stay here when the starships leave."

"Nice idea," Nic said. "But the residents would slice you up into fishbait if they found you."

The drop glider shook enthusiastically for a few seconds as their speed fell below Mach 1. The nose dropped, and the familiar sight of Memu Bay was directly ahead, huddled in the folds of unnervingly tall mountains. The speed of their approach made Lawrence's natural skin crawl. Drop gliders had the aerodynamic characteristics of a brick; the only thing that kept them stable was their forward momentum. And they were shedding that rapidly.

The harbor drifted off to starboard, leaving them pointing at a shallow bay of gingery sand. A marble-walled promenade ran its entire length, separating beach from buildings. What looked like a line of police cars was parked along the top, with blue strobes flashing enthusiastically. Their AS tipped the nose up again, shedding more speed. They lost altitude at a dramatic rate once they leveled out. The beach was less than a kilometer away now, and the waves were only a couple of hundred meters below.

"Stand by," Lawrence called. "Brace yourselves."

Myles Hazeldine stood on the balcony that ran around the fourth floor of City Hall, watching the sky over the ocean.

His two senior aides hovered behind him. Don and Jennifer had been with him since he was a first-time councilman, twenty years ago now, one of the youngest ever to be elected in Memu Bay. They'd stayed loyal ever since, throughout all the wearying backbiting and dirt slinging of democratic politics; even the dubious deals with the business community that helped his campaign funding hadn't put them off. All of them had lost their naive idealism—probably back in that first term when he used to make hothead speeches condemning the then mayor. Now, they made a practical levelheaded team who ran the city with a decent level of efficiency, well equipped to deal with the new generation of young hotheads in the council who constantly criticized him. Goddamn, he was proud of the way he'd overseen Memu Bay's development in recent years. This was a prosperous settlement, high economic index, lowish crime rates ... Shit! Social problems, unions, bureaucrats, finance, scandals—he could handle any of that. But this kind of crisis was beyond anybody's ability to survive.

If he took a heroic stand and resisted Zantiu-Braun, he'd aggravate the situation and the invasion force governor would sling him out anyway. He'd achieve nothing. While if he cooperated and worked alongside the governor to ensure the bastards stole everything they wanted, he'd be a collaborator, a traitor to his electorate. They'd never forgive that.

A swarm of black dots materialized high in the clean azure sky, moving with incredible speed as they sank toward the beach on the east of town. Myles hung his head in shameful fury. Edgar Strauss himself had called yesterday, urging him to cooperate. "None of us want a bloodbath, Myles. Don't let it happen, please. Don't let them take our dignity as well." Another good politician lost to events out of their control. Myles had almost asked: In God's name why didn't you fund exo-orbit defenses? Why have you left us helpless against this? But that would have been too much like kicking a man when he was down. The best missiles Thallspring could have come up with would have been a pathetic token gesture. God alone knew how advanced Earth's weapons technology was these days. And the Z-B starships would have retaliated, made an example. Myles shuddered as he remembered the last invasion: his son dead, the meager ration of food for months afterward as they struggled to get back on their feet. And everyone had accessed the pictures of the new blasted land on the edge of Durrell, that highly unsubtle and very effective demonstration of their capability.

He knew what he would have to do, the public example he would have to set. It would ruin him. He might even have to leave Memu Bay after Z-B withdrew. But then he'd known that when he ordered the police to seal off the beach and clamp down on any physical bravado as the drop gliders arrived. Cooperation would mean keeping a lid on any stupid acts of defiance by the population. Lives would be saved. Although he'd never be thanked. Maybe he did owe Memu Bay's population for all those crabby back-room deals he'd put together down the years. It was a view that helped ease some of the numb depression.

A barrage of sonic booms made him jump. They were so like explosions. Glass rattled in just about every window. He could see flocks of birds taking to the air above the city, wings flapping in wild shock.

Out in the bay, the first of the drop gliders were splash-landing. Dumpy cones streaking down through the air at nearly forty-five degrees to smack into the lazy waves a couple of hundred meters offshore. Huge plumes of spray shot out from the impact point, then followed them as they skidded along the top of the water, gradually dying away as they slowed. Several of the craft careered into the sand with a drawn-out crunching sound, twisting around sharply. One almost made it to the promenade wall, its nose finishing only a couple of meters short.

"Pity," Don grunted.

The majority of drop gliders finished up bobbing in the shallows. Their hatches blew off. Burly dark figures jumped out and began wading ashore, kicking effortlessly through the water. Myles recognized that color, size and strength all too well.

A big banner suddenly unrolled down the promenade wall.

Die Screaming Nazi Fuckheads

Kids raced away from it. The police officers leaning over the rail to watch the drop gliders made no effort to catch them.

"Oh, very original," Myles muttered under his breath. He could only hope that would be the worst the local hooligans would do.

He turned to Don and Jennifer. "Let's go."

The invaders were already running up the promenade steps and spreading out along the top. They seemed to be ignoring the police.

Myles took the elevator down to the mayor's private apartment at the back of City Hall. He didn't really like the place, the ceilings were too high and the rooms too big. It was no place for a family to live. But his own house was away on the other side of town, forty minutes away, so during the week they had to stay here.

His office had wide patio doors that opened onto a small central garden. He saw Francine out there, lying on one of the benches under the shade of a Japanese pine. She was wearing a simple black dress with white piping. The skirt was shorter than he approved of, well above the knee. But he hadn't won that kind of argument with her since she was thirteen. Cindy would have known how to cope with her, he thought. Damn, I should have married again. Never finding the time is such a pathetic excuse.

Francine adjusted her sunglasses. Myles could see a frown on her brow and realized she must be accessing the news channels. He wanted to go out to her and put his arm around her, and offer her some comfort, and promise that it would be over soon, and that she wouldn't be harmed. The sort of thing real fathers would be doing all over Thallspring right now.

But the senior staff and the party leadership were waiting for him, and they had family, too. He sat behind the desk with one last reluctant look at the patio door.

"I'd just like to say that if anyone wants to resign effective immediately, then I will accept it. It won't affect your pensions or benefits." There was a moment of awkward silence, but no one came forward. "Okay, then. Thank you for your support. I do appreciate it. As you know, I've decided to follow Strauss's lead with a policy of cooperation. They're a hell of a lot more powerful than us, and God knows, more evil. Trying to sabotage the chemical plants or throw rocks at their soldiers is just going to lead to retaliation on a scale I cannot accept. So we just grin and bear it, and hope their star-ships all hit a black hole on the voyage back. If we do that, I think we can come through this relatively unscathed, at least as far as infrastructure is concerned. Margret?"

Margret Reece, the chief of police, gave a reluctant nod. She was looking at the reports scrolling down her membranes rather than at anything in the room. "I studied the files from last time. They really are only interested in pillaging our industrial output. That's where their enforcement comes in. We can do what the hell we like in the rest of town, riot and burn it to the ground—they simply won't care. As long as the factories remain intact, they're supplied with raw material, and the staff turn up for each shift, they'll leave us alone."

"Then that's what we ensure happens," Myles said. "The rest of our civic business carries on as normal. To keep the factories operational, we keep the town functioning. That's the service we provide, no matter what."

"Do they steal our food as well?" Jennifer asked. "I remember there wasn't much to go around last time."

"They'll only take what they need to eat themselves," Margret said. "Given that thirty percent of the tourists managed to make it out before flights were grounded this morning, the food refineries we've got will give us a large overcapacity for the remaining population. The reason food was short last time is some rebel moron went and firebombed two of the production lines."

"Which we can't allow to happen again," Myles said swiftly. "I'm not having some heroic resistance movement putting innocent lives in danger."

"I doubt we'll get an organized resistance," Margret said. "Z-B always makes sure the punishment for any action against them outweighs the propaganda gains. But we're keeping a close eye on the people we know can make trouble."

"What about the tourists?" Don asked. "There's a lot of them didn't make it home; the airport looks like a refugee camp."

"Not my decision," Myles said. He had to squash his anger so he could speak in a clear voice. "The governor will say how much civil transport will be allowed. Given why they're here, I expect they'll want everyone at home being as productive as possible."

"One of their platoons has reached the main square," Margret announced loudly. "They'll be here any minute."

So quickly? Myles took a breath. So much would depend on what kind of working relationship he could establish with the governor. "Okay, let's go greet the bastards with a smile."

Denise milled with the crowd on the edges of the Livingstone District. Human curiosity had won out over trepidation, allowing hundreds of people to come watch the spectacle firsthand. Few children had been allowed out, though. This was mainly adults and older teenagers, staring grimly at the streets that led down to the waterfront where the police had established a no-go zone. Conversation was dark mutters of resentment, folklore of what Skin suits were capable of and the atrocities committed last time.

Bars were still open and well frequented. Most of the men were clutching cans of beer, drinking steadily as they watched on their glasses and membranes the drop gliders bursting out of the sky. The attitude reminded Denise of prematch anxiety, home-team fans barely tolerating the provocative antics of their rivals. Animal territorialism was still a strong component of the human psyche. That was going to work to her advantage. This was a very volatile situation, and most of the police were covering the waterfront and promenade. The mayor had been worried about his good citizens rampaging down onto the sand as the drop gliders beached. Idiot. An open beach was no place for urban conflict, not against well-organized troops.

Her sunglasses were showing datapool video relays of the gliders arriving. The discordant voice of the crowd rose around her. She dispatched a series of coded messages to cell members scattered along the street. Acknowledgments came back. Everyone was ready.

The first Z-B troopers appeared at the end of the street. Five of them, striding along confidently. There wasn't even a pause when they saw the crowd.

Denise raised her sunglasses and stared at the first one. Her irises focus-shifted for detailed close-up. The Skin was very similar to what she remembered, as if a bodybuilder were wearing a dark gray leotard. They all had very fat fingers and strange bulges along the arm. Their helmet design had altered; the Skin's pliability ended around the jaw, turning into a protective shell covering the upper face and skull.

There was a tiara band of sensors at eye level, and two gill-vents on the cheeks. The only visible weapon was a cumbersome pistol clipped to a belt along with some pouches (must be for effect, she thought). Heat profile was surprisingly uniform, with only a couple of degrees' difference across the whole suit surface.

Her view pulled back. There were nine Skins walking up the street. A chorus of obscene taunting chants rose from the crowd who were moving back and forth restlessly along the pavement. Nobody ventured closer than four or five meters. Then a young man walked out into the middle of the road directly ahead of the Skins. He was carrying a can of beer, which he drained in a couple of big gulps. The Skins ignored him as they got closer. So he turned his back to them, bent down and dropped his shorts.

"Kiss my ass!"

The crowd laughed and jeered. Several cans clattered onto the road around the Skins, spinning around as foaming beer sprayed out of the open tabs. Still the Skins kept going, silent and seemingly unstoppable. Denise had to admit, their discipline was good. Her ring pearl was picking up short data-bursts from individual suits. Her Prime started to break down the heavy encryption.

A rock sailed over the heads of the crowd to smack against a Skin's chest. Denise's enhanced vision captured the sequence as the outer layer hardened around the impact point. The Skin's stride halted momentarily as the rock bounced off him. Still none of them retaliated. Emboldened by their apparently passive attitude a couple of tough lads ran out and tried to rugby tackle the invaders.

One Skin stopped as the first lad charged toward him, turning so they were facing. The lad was yelling at the top of his voice as he spread his arms wide ready for the collision. A second before they hit, the Skin darted swiftly to one side, bending slightly, one arm coming round. It was a perfectly timed throw. The Skin's arm caught the lad in his chest and lifted with tectonic strength. He left the ground, momentum flipping him until he was upside down above the Skin. Then the powered push ended. His boozy battle-cry had turned to pure terror as he found himself inverted, three meters in the air, and hurtling toward a shop wall. His arms and legs flailed wildly as the now-silent crowd watched. There was a wet thud and the sudden loud crack of snapping bone as he hit the bottom of the wall. His cry cut off dead.

The other Skin simply extended his arm, fingers flat and pointing at his assailant. He never moved as the second lad cannoned into him, the extended fingers striking the middle of his chest. There was a bright flash of electricity, and the lad jerked backward, limbs thrashing madly from the discharge. He crumpled onto the pavement, twitching.

The crowd growled its resentment. They began to close in on the Skins. A swarm of beer cans and stones started to fly.

Lawrence had known it was a bad situation as soon as they got off the promenade and he saw the crowd lining the street ahead. He would have preferred the police to let the town's population through on the beach. The street pushed everyone together. It could cause serious casualties.

"Keep calm," he told the platoon, mainly for Hal's benefit. "They have to find out what we're capable of sometime. Might as well be now. A quickshock demonstration will make them think twice in the future."

The shouts and insults were nothing. Beer sprayed around their feet, and they splashed through. A very well aimed rock caught Odel on his chest.

"Ignore it," Lawrence ordered.

"Shouldn't we tell them to keep back?" Hal asked. There was a hint of unease in his voice. "They're just getting worse."

"This is nothing," Edmond said. "One Skin could take these pimps out. Stop sweating it, kid."

Lawrence expanded Hal's telemetry out of the grid, checking the kid's heart rate. Which was high, but acceptable.

"To these people we must appear invincible," Amersy said. "Half of that trick is making them believe it. So just swagger along nice and easy. Come on, remember your training."

Two fury-driven young men charged out of the crowd, heading straight for the platoon.

"No weapons!" Lawrence commanded. "Lewis, shock yours." The other was heading straight for Hal. Lawrence said nothing, wanting to see how the kid would handle it. As it turned out, the throw was perfect, sending the youth crashing against the bottom of a wall.

"Way to go, kid!" Nic whooped.

"Nice one," Jones said admiringly. "You could have turned faster, though."

"You couldn't," Hal said cheerfully. "Too old. Your reflexes are shot."

"Shit on you."

"Pull in formation," Lawrence said. He didn't like the mood of the crowd. "Hal, well done. Everyone, let's not get excited here."

The crowd was moving in, winding themselves up for a head-on clash. Cans and stones were coming at them from all directions.

"You going to dart them?" Dennis asked.

"Not yet." Lawrence switched on his external speaker and cranked the volume up. "Stand back!" He could see the people closest to him wince, putting their hands over their ears. "You are causing a civil disturbance, and I have the authority to disperse you with appropriate force. Now calm down and go home. The governor and mayor will address you shortly."

His amplified voice was lost under a howl of obscenities. Looking out at the raw hatred facing him he imagined what it would be like standing here without Skin. The lapse made him shiver. "All right, grab your punch pistols, I want..." His suit's AS flashed a warning at the center of the tactical display grid. Sensors had picked up a thermal point approaching fast The Molotov arched through the sky, trailing a streamer of bright blue flame from the hihydrogen fuel. It was spinning as it went, curving down toward Karl.

"Let it hit," Lawrence ordered.

Karl's arm was already extended, the rime-millimeter muzzle poking through the carapace. Targeting lasers had found the Molotov. "Oh, man," Karl grunted. "I hate this, Sarge."

The Molotov crashed down on his helmet. The glass burst, flinging out a sheet of dense flame that enveloped the whole suit. People nearby yelped, scrambling back out of the way as the flames grew hotter, gorging on the fuel. The rest of the platoon calmly took their punch pistols up and flicked the safeties off.

"Give them the talk, Karl," Lawrence said.

The flames died away, revealing the Skin suit standing unharmed. "The person who threw that is under arrest," Karl said through his speakers. "Step forward, please. Now." He took his own punch pistol from his belt. "I said, now."

The crowd began shouting and chanting again. More stones were flung. Then another three Molotovs appeared in the air. Again, they were all aimed at Karl.

Someone's organized, Lawrence realized suddenly. The Molotovs were aimed at the same place, and came from different directions at the same time. "Take them out," he ordered.

Karl and Amersy shot the bottles in midflight. Giant fireballs ruptured the air and poured down. Flame splashed over a dozen people, who ran screeching in agony. The crowd went berserk, and charged forward en masse.

"Disperse!" Lawrence yelled at them above the bedlam. He aimed his punch pistol and fired. The plastic bullet caught a man in the middle of his chest, slamming him back into the three behind him. They tumbled like human bowling pins. Rushing feet trampled them.

The platoon had formed up in a circle. The punch pistols began firing. Psychologically, they should have acted as a much greater deterrent than darts. A mean-looking weapon, a loud gunshot, and a man goes flying. It was obvious and physical, you could see it happening. You should run away lest it happen to you.

Lawrence's AS alerted him to the sound of gunshots, simultaneously running an analysis program. Someone in the crowd was firing a pump-action shotgun. He saw Dennis stagger backward, his Skin carapace totally solid.

"Where the hell did that come from?"

Three Skin AS programs coordinated their audio triangulation and indicated the line of fire. Lawrence's visual sensors showed him a man running through the crowd— something (long, dark) in his hand. He gave the image to Lewis and Nic. "Snatch. I want him."

They charged forward into the mob, ruthlessly thrusting people aside.

Someone jumped on Odel's back, an arm around his neck, trying to strangle him. He reached around and picked off the attacker effortlessly. Two men lunged at Lawrence. He hit one, going for the arm. Kicked at the other, hearing the leg splinter. Each time, the Skin's AS moderated the strength of the blow. A full strike from a Skin fist could smash clean through a human rib cage. Unless you wanted to kill somebody, always go for the limbs.

They were too close now for the punch pistol. He dodged one madman who was swinging a chair at his head. Another broke a bottle across his shoulder; ragged glass spikes slithered uselessly over the Skin carapace.

Jones screamed. Lawrence saw his grid turn red. Graphics swirled madly as the AS tried to make sense of the data. Visual sensors locked on. Jones was falling, arms waving slowly. He hit the pavement, and his fists cracked the stone slabs.

"Jones!" Lawrence yelled. "Status?"

"Okay," Jones gurgled. "Electric. Electric shock. I'm okay. Motherfuck. They zapped me with a charge. Goddamn, it was a brute."

"Amersy," Lawrence ordered. "Dart them."

Amersy held his arm up high. Nozzles slid out through the carapace around his wrist. Fifty darts puffed out.

It was as if God had reached down and switched people off. The front ranks of the mob crumpled with startled expressions that swiftly faded to the neutral face of the deep sleeper. Within seconds, a fifteen-meter logjam of inert bodies surrounded Lawrence and the platoon. Beyond that, the remainder of the crowd stared down at their comatose compatriots in numb horror.

Amersy fired another salvo.

Screams broke out as more people fell. The remainder began running, vanishing down side streets at an incredible rate.

"One for the good guys," Edmond said.

"They're crazy," Hal whined. "Totally fucking crazy. Is it going to be like this the whole time?"

"One sincerely hopes not," Odel said.

"Jones?" Lawrence walked over to the trooper, who was now sitting up. "You okay?"

"Shit. I guess so. The insulation blocked most of it Bloody thing scrambled half of my electronics. Systems are coming back online. E-alpha fortress is rebooting the full AS."

Lawrence didn't like the sound of that at all. The suit should have shielded him from just about any kind of current, and the electronics were EMP-hardened. He looked round the deserted street. A lot of the unconscious bodies were bleeding, and he could see several who'd been caught by the Molotovs. The burns looked bad.

Rocks. Molotovs. Shotguns. Electric shock.

We were being tested, he thought Someone wanted to know our Skin capability.

"Dennis, check Jones over, please."

"Yes, Sarge."

"Did anyone see who hit Jones with the shock?"

"I was busy," Karl said. "Sorry."

"That's okay, we can run the sensor memories."

"Newton?" Captain Bryant said. "What the hell's happened?"

"Crowd got out of control, sir. I don't think..." The display grid with Nic Fuccio's video and telemetry flickered and turned black. A medical alarm began to shrill in Lawrence's ears.

"Sarge!" Lewis cried. "Sarge, they shot him. Oh Jesus. Oh fuck. They shot him."

"Dennis!" Lawrence yelled. "With me." He was sprinting, moving at incredible speed over the sprawled bodies, then powering down a narrow side street. Bright indigo navigation displays scrolled down, guiding his feet. Left turn. Right turn. Curve. Right turn. Clump of people across the narrow road, standing staring. He slammed them aside, ignoring the pained protests.

A Skin was lying spread-eagle on the cobbled road. Dark red blood was spreading out from it in a thick glistening puddle. A fist-sized hole had ripped into the carapace between Nic's shoulders. It was bad, but his Skin could have sustained him. The suit's circulatory system was still plugged into the jugular and carotid splices; in such extreme damage situations the AS would keep the brain supplied with blood until the field medics arrived. Whoever the sniper was, he must have known that. The second shot had been fired when Nic was down. It had taken off the top half of his head, leaving nothing from the nose upward.

Lewis was kneeling on the road beside him. Emergency disposal valves had opened on his lower helmet, allowing a stream of vomit to splash down his chest.

"He's dead," Lewis wailed. "Dead. Never had a chance."

Lawrence glanced around. The civilians were backing off fast. Heads vanished into windows, which were slammed shut.

"Where did it come from?" Lawrence asked.

"Oh God. Oh God." Lewis was rocking back and forth.

"Lewis! Where did the shots come from?"

"I don't fucking know!"

Lawrence looked up and down the nearly empty street, reviewing the last of Nic's telemetry. He was running eastward, so judging from the impact he had been shot from behind. There was no obvious window or balcony for the shooter. When Lawrence raised his view, he saw a church tower standing above the roofs. The whole street was exposed to it. But it must have been over a kilometer away.

Myles Hazeldine's single quiet hope that the governor would be a shrewd political operator open to compromise vanished into the air before they even met. He stood outside the main doors of City Hall, watching the Skin-suited invaders march across the main square. The few locals who stubbornly stood their ground were shoved violently out of the way. Z-B's goons never bothered to modify their suits' strength, so the victims really did tumble backward to land awkwardly on the hard slabs.

The three leading the column trotted up the broad stone steps to the doors. At the last minute Myles realized they weren't going to stop. He hurriedly stepped aside as they barged in, nearly breaking the heavy glass-and-wood doors.

It wasn't their strength that made Myles's heart sink, but the deliberate arrogance. "Hey!" he began.

"You are the mayor?"

It was an unnecessarily loud voice booming from one of the Skins that had stopped in front of Myles and his people.

"I am the democratically elected leader of Memu Bay Council, yes."

"Come with us."

"Very well. I'd like to—"


Myles shrugged to his aides and went back into City Hall. The Z-B goons were spreading out through the large entrance hall. Their tough heels made a clattering noise like hooves on the marble tile flooring. Nervous staff peering through open doorways moved aside briskly as the big, impassive suits started to check out all the offices. Several of them were jogging up the twin looped stairs to the first floor.

The main group made their way directly to the mayor's apartment. Myles had to take fast steps to keep up with them. Nobody asked him directions. The layout would be in their suit memories, of course.

I should have changed the architecture around inside, he thought. That would have pissed them off and spoiled the know-it-all effect.

The doors to his inner study were flung open. Seven of the Skins walked in. Myles saw Francine jump up from the bench out in the garden. She grabbed hold of Melanie and lifted the little girl up so she was cradling her. Melanie's face was sulky with resentment, but not fearful, Myles saw proudly. He made a brief calming gesture at his daughters.

One of the Z-B goons stood by the door and pointed at Myles's aides. "You," the voice reverberated. "Wait out here." A chubby finger beckoned Myles. "You, inside."

Myles found himself standing in front of his own desk as the doors were slammed shut behind him. One of the suited figures sat down in his own chair. Myles winced as the antique pine creaked under the immense weight.

"You should learn to control your suits more carefully," he said calmly. "There won't be a door left in Memu Bay by the time you leave."

There was silence for a moment; then the figure's suit split open down the chest. That was where the impressive routine of invincibility fell apart slightly. He had to struggle to pull his head out of the helmet, and when he did his face was covered in a sticky blue goo.

Myles grinned. "Did you sneeze in there?"

"I am Ebrey Zhang, commander of Z-B forces in Memu Bay and the surrounding settlement regions, which makes me governor of the civil population. I'm now going to give you the only piece of advice you'll get for the whole occupation: don't play the smartass with me. Understand?"

He was about what Myles had expected: somewhere in his forties with dark Asian skin and slightly narrowed eyes; black hair that was receding. His eyeballs were covered in an unusually thick optronic membrane, similar to lizard scales. It didn't make his scowl any more effective. Just a standard-issue military bureaucrat trying to appear uncompromising and totally in control.

"Straight talk, huh?" Myles asked.

"Yes. I don't like politicians. You twist words too much."

"I don't like occupying armies. You kill people."

"Good. Then we have a deal. You're the mayor, Myles Hazeldine, yes?"


"I want the access codes for your civil administration network."

They didn't need them, of course. With their software they could probably establish total control over the network in seconds. That wasn't the point. This was the defeated barbarian chief kneeling before Caesar, acknowledging Rome's authority and glory.

"Certainly," Myles said. He told his desktop pearl to display the codes.

Ebrey turned to one of the faceless suits. "I want us interfaced and supervising the local datapool in ninety minutes. Get me a full industrial capacity review and a police file interrogation. I want to know what they've got, and who's likely to resist."

"Sir," the suited figure replied.

"Mr. Mayor, I'm officially appointing you as my civil deputy. It's now your job to make sure that civil services in this town carry on working smoothly, so you'll be doing essentially the same thing as before but with some exceptions. We keep an eye on your work. The council is suspended for the duration—I'm not putting up with a herd of blabbermouths whining away to me night and day. Second, you can't resign. Third, in public you will give me your full and utmost cooperation as an example to everyone else. Fourth, my second in command will now assume control of your police force. Laws will remain the same, with one principal addition. Interfering with our activities is a capital crime. And we're going to start with the little shit who just went and shot one of my men."


"Killed, actually. I take it you deny all knowledge."

Myles looked round the suited figures, wishing desperately that he could see their faces. "I didn't know that..."

"I'll accept your avowal for now. But believe me when I say we'll find whatever resistance movement you people have cobbled together and exterminate it. I will not tolerate interference with our operation, and certainly not at that level."

"Somebody shot one of you?"

"Yes. And the platoon leader seems to think it was a deliberate trap."

"But... wasn't your man in a Skin suit?"

"He was. That's what I really don't like about this."


"Quite. Now, I take it you've heard about our good behavior collateral policy?"

The news about the death had made Myles's heart jump in panic. Z-B hadn't been in Memu Bay thirty minutes, and already their commander was being forced to consider reprisals. Now the mention of collateral made the muscles across his chest tighten up. "I've heard."

"Of course you have." Ebrey Zhang reached into one of the pouches on his belt, and produced a loop of what looked like white plastic string. "We are going to select a thousand or so honest and true citizens of Memu Bay and put these necklaces on them. Each necklace contains a small discharge mechanism filled with nerve toxin. It's quite painless—after all, we are not savages—but it will kill the recipient within five seconds, and needless to say, there is no cure or antidote. Every mechanism has a specific number, and for every act of violence committed against Zantiu-Braun one or more of those numbers will be selected at random. They will be transmitted by our satellite. The mechanism will discharge, and the wearer will die. If anyone attempts to tamper with or remove their necklace, the mechanism will discharge. The mechanism also has an inbuilt twenty-four-hour timer, which the satellites have to reset every day, again by broadcasting a code. So if anyone thinks he can escape by hiding away underground or in a shielded room, he will only be able to do so for twenty-four hours. Any questions?"

"I think you've made yourself clear."

"Very well. Let us hope that it works, and we don't have a repeat of today's murder." The plastic was rubbed absently in his thick Skin fingers.

Myles couldn't shift his gaze away from the awful thing. "Are you going to put that on me now?"

"Good heavens, no, Mr. Mayor. What would be the point in that? They are supposed to guarantee good behavior in others. If your political opponents saw you'd been fitted with one, I imagine they'd go straight outside and start hitting my people over the head with rocks. You see, I don't want to make you a martyr, Mr. Mayor, I simply want you to back up all those fine words of conciliation and submission with some positive action. Let me show you how that's achieved." He twisted around in the chair and smiled at Francine, who was still standing in the middle of the little garden.

"No!" Myles shouted. He began to lunge forward, but a heavy Skin hand clamped down hard on his shoulder. It was impossible to shift. His vision blurred with tears as the hand gripped tighter; he was sure his collarbone was about to snap.

Ebrey Zhang beckoned. Francine gave him a sullen, rebellious look, then gently put her sister down and whispered a few words in her ear. Melanie ran away across the garden, disappearing through a door on the other side. Francine straightened her back and walked into the study.

"I have a gift for you, my dear," Ebrey Zhang said. The loop of plastic came open.

"For fuck's sake," Myles shouted. "She's only fifteen."

Francine gave her father a brave little smile. "It's all right, Daddy." She knelt in front of the governor, who put the length of plastic round her neck. The two ends melded together, and it contracted until it was tight against her skin.

"I know," Ebrey Zhang said sympathetically. "You want to kill me."

Francine ran across the room and threw her arms around Myles. He clung to her, stroking her chestnut hair. "If anything happens to her, you will die," he told the governor. "And it will be neither quick nor painless."

* * *

It was one of Memu Bay's attractive wide boulevards in the center of town, the pavements lined with tall sturdy trees whose canopy of leaves created a pleasant dappled shade for pedestrians. Karl Sheahan walked along the center of the tram lines, praying that some shithead civilian would try to trip him up or just look at him funny. Anything that would give him a legitimate excuse to smash some local bastard's skull open. He wanted revenge for Nic, no matter what the price.

They'd left Amersy and the kid standing guard over the body to continue their deployment pattern, Karl had argued against that. They should all stay: it was respect if nothing else. But the goddamn sarge had insisted they carry on. So they'd taken their assigned streets, and now he was supposed to be checking for signs of organized resistance.

At least the anger was helping to cover his nerves. Some of them. Goddamn, this bunch of fish fuckers had guns that could shoot through Skin as if it weren't there. That was bad, real bad. It meant they'd all be vulnerable right up until the moment the guys from intelligence tracked down the cache. They'd do that, though. They would find it. He had to believe that. Intelligence division was creepy, but effective. In the meantime, he had to walk about in the open with his ass hanging out ready for someone to kick. Bad. Bad. Bad.

He kept a keen lookout as he walked along, scanning anything that looked remotely like a rifle barrel. His punch pistol was held high and prominent; so far it looked like it was intimidating people like it was supposed to. They were all staying indoors, glancing out at him through windows. There'd been a few catcalls, but that was all. News about the shooting had flooded the local datapool. That and the mass darting had cleared people off the streets pretty fast.

Some old geezer shuffled out of a side road, a walking stick waving about aggressively in front of him. Acting like he owned the place. Karl kept walking.

"Hey, you, sonny," the old man called.


The old man had stopped at the edge of the pavement. "Come here."

Karl swore inside his helmet and angled his walk so he'd pass close. "What do you want?"

"I'm looking for your mother."

Karl's sensors zoomed in for a closer look. The old man really was ancient Probably caught too much sun over the years. "My mother?"

"Yes. She pimps your sister, doesn't she? I want to know how much she charges. I'd like to give you people a good fucking."

Karl's fists clenched. The Skin AS had to modify his grip on the punch pistol to prevent him from crushing the casing. "Get back to the nuthouse, you old fart." He turned away and started walking. Goddamn parasite colony bastards. He never did understand why Z-B didn't just gamma soak the whole lot of them and send down its own people to run the factories.

The walking stick whistled through the air to crack across Karl's back. His carapace didn't even have to harden to protect him.

"Goddamn! Stop that. Crazy old bastard."

"They're going to bury him here, sonny."

The stick had a pointed end, which the old man was now using to try to gouge out one of the helmet sensors.

"Stop that!" Karl gave him a light shove. He nearly fell backward, but quickly regained his balance to make another stab with the stick.

"You can't take the bodies home, they weigh too much, and Z-B's too cheap. Your friend will have to be buried here. I'm going to dig him up again when you're gone."

"Fuck off." Karl swatted the walking stick away.

"We'll piss on him and use what's left of his skull as a trophy. And we'll laugh about how he died, with shit dribbling out of his ass and pain blowing his brain apart."

"Bastard!" Karl grabbed the insane old jerk, and drew his fist back. The old man started a cackling chuckle.

"Karl?" Lawrence asked. "Karl, what's going on?"

That goddamn suit telemetry circuit! Karl had lost count of the number of times he'd wanted to rip it out. He took a breath, his fist still cocked back. "Caught a ringleader, Sarge. He knows about the gun they used."

"Karl, he's about two thousand years old. Put him down."

"He knows!"

"Karl. Don't let them get to you like this. It's what they want."

"Yes, sir." Karl let go of the old man, then realized there was a form of revenge available to him. "Hey, fuckface, you're my trophy now. How do you like that, huh?" He opened the pouch on his belt and pulled out a collateral necklace. The deranged old fool just kept laughing at him the whole time he fitted the thing around his neck, as if it were the best thing that could ever happen.

Michelle Rake had spent the whole morning sitting on her bed hugging her legs. She was fully dressed, but couldn't bring herself to venture out from the little apartment. Some of the other students in the residence house had gone out to see the invaders march through Durrell. Michelle knew what that meant. They'd end up throwing stones at the terrifying Earth-army troops, who would shoot them with agonizing stun bullets and drag them away to have explosive collars fastened around their necks.

So she had kept indoors and accessed the datapool news services. That way she'd been given a close-up view of the drop gliders landing on the edge of town and disgorging thousands of the big Skin-clad troops, who had promptly swarmed along the streets. And she was right People had lobbed rocks, and bottles, and even some kind of firebomb. Barricades were thrown up across streets, then set on fire. The troops just walked through as if it were rain, not flame. Nothing affected them or slowed them down.

There had been other forms of resistance. The news reported that one of the spaceport's hydrogen storage tanks had exploded. A few civic buildings had been set on fire, sending up thick columns of smoke over the capital city. The datapool was slow, and sometimes her connection dropped out for minutes at a time as strange software battles were fought within the city's electronic shadow.

A quarter of an hour after the gliders arrived, small pods full of equipment fell out of the sky, dangling beneath big gaudy yellow parachutes. They were all drifting into the parks and meadows to the west of Durrell. Cameras followed several whose chutes had tangled, hurtling down to smash apart in a cascade of metal and plastic fragments.

To start with, she'd kept a line open to her parents over at Colmore, a settlement two thousand kilometers to the south. It might have been weak of her, but they understood how frightened she was by the invasion. This was her first year at the university, and she didn't make friends too well. All she wanted was to go home, but the commercial flights had all stopped within half a day of the starships being detected. She was stuck here for the duration.

Every time she thought about it, she told herself that she was an adult and should be able to cope. Then she started crying. Durrell was the capital, there would be more of the invaders here than anywhere else. Everything was bigger in Durrell, including the potential for trouble.

An hour after the drop gliders landed, her link to Colmore was cut. Nothing she could do would bring it back; the data-pool management AS kept saying that the satellite links were down—nothing about how or why they were down.

She'd hugged herself tighter, flinching at every tiny sound in the building. Her imagination filled the stairs and corridors with Skin suits as the invaders dragged students out of their rooms and snapped the explosive collars around their necks. They'd do it because everyone knew students always caused trouble, and rioted and demonstrated, and campus was a perpetual hotbed of revolutionaries.

There was a knock at the door. Michelle squealed in shock. The knock came again. She stared across the room at the door. There was nowhere for her to hide, no way she could escape.

She uncurled and stood up. The knock came again. It didn't sound authoritative or impatient. Hating herself for being so fearful, she padded across the threadbare carpet and turned the lock. "It's open," she whispered. She was trembling as if the world were in winter while the door slowly swung back. Somebody was standing there, giving her a curious look. He was so totally out of context that she thought her feverish brain was producing hallucinations.

"Josep?" she muttered.

"Hi, babe."

"Ohmygod, it's you!" She jumped at him, clutching him so hard she would surely squeeze him to death. But... Josep!

They'd met that summer when she was on vacation, celebrating her entrance exams—the first vacation she'd ever had by herself. It had been the most incredible time. Before then she'd always laughed at the clichйd stupidity of a vacation romance. But this had been different, she really had fallen in love. And at night she'd almost been frightened by her body's passion, the things they did with each other in her hotel bed. Almost Leaving Memu Bay had torn her very soul in half.

She sobbed helplessly as he held on to her. "I thought you were one of them," she babbled. "I thought I was going to be made a hostage."

"No, no." His hands stroked her back. "It's only me."

"How did you get here? Why are you here? Oh, Josep, I've been so frightened."

"I caught the last flight out of Memu Bay. I told you, I wanted to come with you and enroll at the university here. I'd just decided to leave the diving school when these Z-B bastards arrived."

"You came here ... for me?"

He took both of her hands, pressing them together inside his own until they stopped shaking. "Of course I did. I couldn't forget you, not ever."

She started crying again.

He kissed her gently on the brow, then moved down her cheek. Each touch of his lips was like a blessing. He was here, wonderful Josep with his strong, exciting body. And all the badness that had fallen upon their world wouldn't, couldn't touch her anymore.

Steve Anders made his way carefully down the concrete steps into the basement underneath the bar. The concrete steps had worn and crumbled in the coastal humidity, making them treacherous. He hadn't even known the bar had such a room underneath, but then it was a long time since he'd been in one of the tourist traps along the marina water-front. His walking stick tapped its way gingerly across each curved surface before he put his feet down. At his age he didn't want to risk a broken bone.

He chuckled at that. It was his age that had brought him here. By God, it was good to be helping fight back against the swine who'd killed his son last time around. Good that he could do something, that his age was finally an asset.

It was a typical bar's storage room. Crates of empty and full bottles stacked against the walls. A trapdoor with a power platform to bring the beer barrels in and out. Broken chairs, advertising placards from years ago, boxes of old tankards, torn sheet screens rolled up and stuffed behind a pile of elaborate clay pots that still held desiccated plants.

He reached the floor and peered around the gloomy shapes. The place was lit by a single green-tinged light cone.

"Hello, Mr. Anders."

He squinted at the girl who came out of the shadows. Pretty, young thing. "I know you," he said. "You're the schoolteacher."

"Best not to label people," Denise said.

"Yes. Yes, of course. I'm sorry."

"That's all right. I thank you for what you've done. It was very brave."

"Pha." His free hand came up automatically to stroke the plastic collateral necklace. "It was easy enough to get. And I had fun annoying that young shit who put it on me."

Denise smiled and indicated a chair. Steve nodded gruffly, covering his rising nerves, and sat down. He watched with interest as she took a standard desktop pearl from her canvas shoulder bag. The unit was a rectangle of black plastic, fractionally larger than her hand, with its pane furled up along one edge. Nothing special.

She put it on her open palm, as if she were holding an injured bird. Her eyes closed and the slightest frown creased her forehead.

Steve Anders wished he were sixty years younger. She was enchanting. Some young lad didn't know how lucky he was.

The desktop pearl changed shape, stiff plastic flowing into a crescent with needle-sharp tips.

"That's unusual," Steve said, trying to keep his voice light. Before he'd retired, he'd been a protein cell technician. Nothing fancy, just a time server at Memu Bay's food refinery. But he knew Thallspring's level of technology.

Denise's eyes fluttered open. "Yes. Are you ready?"

Steve suddenly had a lot more confidence he was going to live through this. "Go ahead."

Denise brought the device up and touched its tips to the collateral necklace. Steve tried to look down at what was happening.

"It is melding with their systems," she said, understanding his apprehension. "By echoing them we can understand their function. Once that state has been reached, they lie open to us."

"It sounds more like philosophy than hacking." Did she mean duplicating their software, or hardware? Either way, he'd never heard of a gadget that acted the way this one did. It excited and disturbed him at the same time.

"There we are," she said contentedly.

The necklace loosened its grip. Denise took it from his neck. Steve let out a whoosh of breath. He saw that the tips of her gadget had sprouted a kind of root network, fibers as thin as human hair that dipped into the necklace plastic.

No, nothing native to Thallspring could do that.

"That's it?" he asked.

"That's it."


The scrum down-formed with a hefty bone-cruncher thud as the heads of the prop forward locked together. Each of the boys tensed, gritting their teeth, breathing hard as they waited for the scrum-half to slip the ball in.

From his flanker's position, Lawrence could just see through the tangle of mud-smeared legs. The ball was a blur of darkness as it entered the narrow gap. He yelled with the effort as he helped his teammates push. The hookers went after the ball like a pair of human jackhammers.

Lawrence's boots began to skid backward. The Lairfold team's prop forwards were the biggest (supposed) eighteen-year-olds Lawrence had ever seen. The Hilary Eyre High first fifteen were losing almost every scrum, and it was costing them in points.

This time Nigel, the Eyres hooker, managed to snag the ball for his team. It went sneaking back through the second row. The Lairfold team saw what was happening and started to wheel the scrum. Rob snatched the ball out of the second row and gave it a flying pass out to the Eyres wing just before he vanished below the painful slam-down of the enraged Lairfold scrum-half.

The scrum broke apart with jostling aggravation, and the heavy boys began to lumber out toward the wingers who were running with the ball. It was passed three times before Alan caught it just short of the halfway line. He was smaller than most of the team, but his stocky frame carried a lot of strength. He sprinted downfield faster than the opposition expected. The twenty boys converging on him had to alter direction, gaining him a few extra seconds before one of Lairfold's flankers crashed into him. It was a tumbling impact, both boys leaving the ground, legs akimbo. The ball flew straight and purposeful out of the melee with Alan screaming, "Go, you fucker!" and Lawrence caught it without even stopping. He pounded toward the Lairfold goal line.

The cheering from the touchline rose to a bombardment of yells, catcalls and chants. Out of the corner of his eye he just saw the scarlet and turquoise pompoms sashaying about as the Eyres cheerleaders gave it their raucous all. Couldn't make out which one was Roselyn. Then he saw the Lairfold fullback coming straight at him, and the lanky bastard was faster. He wasn't going to make the touchdown. On the other side of the pitch Vinnie Carlton was keeping pace with Lawrence's dash, making sure he didn't get in front.

Two seconds before the fullback tackled him, Lawrence turned and flung the ball. The fullback's arms wrapped around his legs and he crashed to the sodden grass with a bruising impact. The ball arced across the field, turning slowly end over end. Everyone watched its silent flight; even the supporters on the sideline abandoned their clamor. Vinnie carried on running. And the Lairfold team noticed him. Their gorilla-men prop forward bellowed a furious war cry. But nobody was even close.

Vinnie caught the ball beautifully, ten paces from the line. He sailed over with a joyful whoop, holding it aloft as he pelted in toward the big goalposts, slamming it down onto the grass.

The crowd was jubilant. Lawrence laughed madly as he clambered out from under the angry fullback. His ribs and shoulder hurt like a bastard, and the tackle had left him partly winded, but he was still clapping and hollering in elation. The Eyres team swooped on Vinnie, who hugged Lawrence.

"Great pass, man!"

"Better try."

"One point down," Alan said, always eager to spread gloom.

Lawrence shook his head. "Two up, you mean. No sweat. Richard'll get it."

They walked back toward their own half as Richard hacked into the ground with his heel, then carefully stood the ball upright. Lairfold lined up between the goal, facing him. But for Richard, Eyre's prize kicker, the three-point goal was a simple jog forward and a swift boot. The ball flew sedately between the tall white posts.

There was another three minutes left to the game. Eyres played it tactical. Not giving ground. Kicking it into touch. Holding the ball in the scrum.

The referee blew the whistle. Both captains did the gentlemanly thing and shook hands in the middle of the pitch. Lawrence stood with his teammates and gave their opponents three hearty cheers as they left the field.

Alan was laughing cruelly. "Look at them. Bunch of jerkoffs. Go home and kill yourselves, guys!"

Nigel's hand clamped over his mouth. "Show some dignity, man."

"I am." Alan smirked. "I'm fucking enjoying myself. I love it when people that arrogant take a dive."

"Hey, man of the match!" John wrapped an arm around Vinnie's shoulder, and pulled his hair down over his face. "What a run!"

Vinnie grinned happily. "Wouldn't have meant a thing without Lawrence."

Lawrence put on his most humble tone. "I do what I can."

"Yeah," Alan grunted. "Only if Roselyn lets you."

Several of the cheerleaders were running across the field to greet their heroes. They were dressed in short scarlet skirts and cornflower-blue sports halters.

"Now that's what I call a welcome home," Alan said. His laugh was like a bad case of hiccups. He put his arms out wide and ran toward them. They scattered.

Roselyn swatted him with a pompom and danced around to reach Lawrence. "You won!" she squeaked as she kissed Lawrence.

"It was a team effort."

"No, it wasn't. It was your brilliant throw that clinched it I saw it all. You were magnificent. Kiss me."

"Oh, for fuck's sake," Alan grumbled. He ambled off toward the changing room.

Lawrence and Roselyn laughed at his departing back.

"Ugh, you're filthy," she complained suddenly. Streaks of cold, wet mud from his shirt had soaked into her halter. "Go and wash."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Be quick. It's freezing out here." She rubbed her arms and gave the dome's conditioning fans a suspicious glance. The school always lowered the temperature for rugby and soccer so the players wouldn't get too hot, but this felt as if the atmosphere had circumvented the inlet grids to blow straight in.

"Are you going to the party tonight?" Nadia asked. She was leaning against Vinnie, with his arm casually possessive around her waist. But it was Lawrence who was receiving her intent stare.

"Yeah, sure," he said, very careful to keep the tone neutral. Roselyn seemed to have some kind of telepathic ability when it came to detecting his thoughts on other girls. Not that he did have thoughts on other girls, of course. Funny thing was, for years not a single girl at Hilary Eyre High had shown any interest in him whatsoever; but now he had Roselyn he'd started to get definite signals. Not just from Nadia, either.

"See you later," Roselyn said. She turned, then bounded back. "One more kiss."

He obliged.

"So is she pregnant yet?" Alan asked in the locker room.

"What? Who?" Lawrence had showered, managing to grab someone else's shampoo. Now he was toweling his hair dry beside his locker.



"So what's all the practice for?" Alan's question trailed off into his hiccup laugh.

"God, you're such a pervert."

"God? Ah, this would be Roselyn's God you've borrowed, would it?"

"Fuck off."

"Listen." Alan's voice rose in volume so he could appeal to the rest of the locker room. "Three times I asked if he was coming out for an evening last week. Every time," his voice became all whiny, "I can't, we have to study together."

"Which bit of her were you studying?" Rob shouted.

"Yeah." Nigel laughed. "Don't you know all the working parts yet?"

"Fuck off," Lawrence yelled at them, hoping he wasn't grinning too much. It was quite a prestige thing, having a girlfriend for so long that everyone knew for sure that the relationship was solidly physical.

"They're just jealous," Vinnie said. "Freaks without chicks."

Lawrence gave him a small bow. "Thank you." He liked Vinnie Carlton. The boy had arrived on Amethi only eighteen months ago, just after Roselyn's family. But already it was as if he'd been there forever. Lawrence had started getting pally with him around the same time he was reintegrating himself with his own peers. Vinnie didn't have any family in Templeton. His father was still back on Earth wrapping up contracts for his software business before flying out to live permanently on Amethi. As Vinnie was seventeen when he disembarked the starship, he was legally able to live without any guardian supervision. He had his own apartment, and some legal firm took care of his finances and other official stuff, such as getting him a place at school. Lawrence had been incredibly jealous of that apartment at first. But they had a lot in common—shared academic classes, both in the flight club (Vinnie had actually flown an aircraft back on Earth—he claimed), got roped into the same team games, enjoyed duking it out in the i's together. They even looked similar, though Lawrence's hair was a couple of shades lighter, and Vinnie's eyes were deep brown instead of gray green. "I think you're cousins," Roselyn had said once.

Lawrence laughed at that and said: "No way." Although a couple of months after they'd been hanging out together he did ask Vinnie about his family. That was when he discovered the Carltons were the ones who'd imported Halo Stars to Amethi. Which made Vinnie a seriously good person to know—he got the upgrades before anyone else. Not that Lawrence was playing the i's anything like as much as he used to. He simply didn't have the time these days.

"Alan, we've got to find you a girl before your mind goes into meltdown from hormone overload," Vinnie said. "You're getting worse every day. You are coming tonight, aren't you?"

"Course I am, this party was my goddamn idea, remember?"

Lawrence could remember Roselyn and Nadia saying the team should all go out together after the game to either celebrate or commiserate. He chose not to mention it at that point "We should ask a few extra girls along," Richard said.

The idea of Richard even knowing a few extra girls was also something Lawrence kept quiet about. Richard had been going steady with Barbara for ages. One extra girl, and she'd kill him.

"Don't you worry about me, mate," Alan said in his most annoyingly cocky voice. "I've got a foolproof system to get laid."

"What?" Nigel snorted. It was supposed to be contemptuous, but a small note of interest had crept in.

The changing room magically quietened down as the other guys in the team just happened to overhear Alan's brag. Not that any of them needed a system, but it never hurt to know.

"Simple," Alan said, delighted by his audience. "My mate, Steve, you remember him, the bright one that went to university last year? Yeah. Well, he swears this works; he does it all the time. You go into the party and look around to find the most beautiful girl there. Then you walk straight up to her and say: will you sleep with me tonight?"

There was a moment of silence as the rugby team absorbed this news.


"You asshole."

"That's such a bunch of shit"

A shoe thrown by a disbeliever hit Alan's leg. He yelped and searched around for the offender. "Hey, look, I'm not kidding around here," he exclaimed. "Steve says it works. He gets laid every weekend. Seriously."

"Oh yeah," John jeered. "And the most beautiful girl in the room takes one look at a toxic midget like you and just says yes."

"Well, maybe," Alan said. "If you get really lucky."

"I think I'll stick to the traditional method of giving her too much to drink," Lawrence muttered.

The noise level rose. People started getting dressed again.

"Hey, listen," Alan protested. "This is statistics. That's solid mathematics. It can't fail."

"But you just said this mythical supermodel was likely to turn you down," Nigel complained.

"So? Doesn't matter. You find the second-most-beautiful girl, and ask her the same thing. If she says no, you just keep moving along down the beauty scale until one of them says yes."

John's expression was pitying. "Alan, none of them are going to say yes. Not to that."

"Yes, they will. They're at the party for exactly the same reason we are. It's just that they're not as honest about it as we are."

"You're lecturing on honesty," Lawrence said. "Oh, my sweet Fate. We're doomed."

"Girls like you being honest," Alan insisted.

"They like politeness and flattery a lot more," Richard said.

"Most of them most of the time, yeah. But this is a party, right? They've been drinking, the evening's moving on and they haven't scored yet. One of them's bound to say yes. It's statistics. I told you."

Vinnie's despair had caused his head to sink into his hands. "Alan," he asked, "do you ever wonder why you haven't got a girlfriend yet?"

"Hey, I've had hundreds of girls, okay."

"When?" Lawrence demanded. "Tell us when this system ever got you a girl."


"I knew it. You're talking bullshit."

"Durr! No! This is completely for real. Steve's screwed half the babes on campus. It's amazing. You've just got to have the balls to use it."

"Your balls have got to be where your brain is before you'll use it, more like," John grunted dourly.

Alan jabbed his thumb proudly against his chest. "Listen, mate, I'm the one that's going to get laid tonight. It's you sad joes who'll be left propping up the bar and going home all by yourselves. I'm telling you, it works."

The party, like all parties, started out with good intentions. At seven-thirty, the first fifteen team and friends headed over to Hillier's, which was in a dome they could all walk to. It was a big old club buried under a residential tower, with three main oval-shaped sections comprising lounge, dance floor, and brasserie, that joined together at a central circular bar. In its heyday, Hillier's had been the center for younger members of Board families, a place where the jazzy hung out and the pool sharks lay in wait. But time and fashion had moved on.

Now it was the even younger members of second-echelon families who congregated there in the evening. They, of course, thought it was superb, a real nightclub that didn't kick up a fuss and ask for proof of age at the door. Hillier's couldn't afford to get that choosy about its paying customers anymore. And these kids did seem to have access to large amounts of money.

The plan was to start with a meal, then move on to a drinking and dancing session. When Lawrence arrived, the boys were all in the lounge, having a drink before hitting the brasserie for something to eat.

"You're late," Vinnie said. He was already on his second beer.

"I had some news," Lawrence said modestly. He'd thought he was in for another lecture when he got home after the match. His father had called him up into the study, and he was never summoned there for any other reason. But when he arrived, his father was smiling as he held out a sheet of hard copy. "Thought you might want to see this," Doug Newton said blithely.

Lawrence took the sheet from his father with some trepidation and began to read. It was a provisional acceptance from Templeton University, offering him a place to study general science and managerial strategy.

Doug clapped his son on the back. "You did it, my boy. Congratulations. I didn't even have to pull any strings."

Lawrence had just stared at the sheet, elated and frightened by what it meant. Everybody applied to Templeton University: the candidate rejection rate was 80 percent. "Only if I get the qualifying grades in my final exams," he said cautiously.

"Lawrence, Lawrence, what are we going to do with you? You'll get them. We both know that. The way you've turned your schoolwork around these last couple of years, you'll probably get a distinction." He gripped his son's shoulders. "I'm proud of you. Genuinely proud."

"Thanks, Dad."

"You off to celebrate tonight? I heard you won the game."

"Some of us are thinking of going down to Hillier's, yeah."

"That old place still going, huh? Ah well, good for you. But I think you deserve something a bit more tangible for this result. I've booked you in for ten days at Orchy. You can go skiing on Barclay's. How does that sound?"

"Pretty amazing!" His enthusiasm faded. "Uh..."

"It's for two," Doug had said gently. "If you have a friend you'd like to take."

Lawrence looked around Hillier's lounge. "Where's Roselyn?"

"Haven't seen her yet." Nigel signaled the barmaid for two beers. She was in her mid-twenties, and immune from his hopeful boyish smiles.

"Oh." Lawrence kept looking. "What about Alan?"

"Am I your personal news trawler? He's around somewhere, talking to a girl."

"What?" Lawrence gaped at Nigel. "You don't mean his system worked?"

"Oh, get fucking real," Nigel exclaimed. The barmaid frowned at his language and put the beers down in front of him without saying a word. Nigel winced at her departing back, then glared at Lawrence. "Thanks."

"You're as bad as Alan. A girl like that and you is never going to happen."

"Maybe if I left a big tip..."

"Don't even think it." Lawrence picked up his glass and took a sip. The beer was so cold it disguised any taste. "So how is Alan doing?"

"One slap on the face, two cocktails thrown at him, and he's been told to piss off a few times as well," Vinnie said happily. "We're thinking of running a book on it."

"Put me down for a day five years hence." Lawrence saw Roselyn moving across the lounge and waved. She was in a green dress that had a big oval patch open at the front to show off her navel. Whatever she wore, she always looked sensational. It was just a knack she had. But as usual it made Lawrence terribly self-conscious about his own clothes. He worried that his bronze-shimmer jacket would look awfully crass beside her.

Roselyn arrived at the bar at the same time Alan staggered in from the other side. A long strip of pink toilet paper was tucked into the back of his trousers. Half of the lounge clientele were mesmerized by this flimsy tail sliding along the floor behind him.

"Damnit," Alan whined. "They're all playing hard to get."

"Who are?" Roselyn asked.

"All the babes." Alan glanced around accusingly at his friends. "Did you guys warn them?"

Nigel bent over, his face radiating martyred dismay, and tugged the toilet paper free. "We didn't have to."

"What?" Alan did a double take at the paper. "Oh, thanks. It must have got stuck in my cleft. My round." He clicked his fingers loudly at the barmaid. "Oi, how about some service?"

"I have some news," Lawrence told Roselyn.

She grinned. "Me too."

"You first."

"No, you."

They both laughed.

"Ladies first," Lawrence said.

"I'm going to throw up," Alan muttered.

"Okay." Roselyn fished round in her small handbag and produced a memory chip. "I'm late because I was downloading this from the Eilean's communication AS; it's just arrived in orbit. Judith sent me another series."

Lawrence gagged in wonder. He took the chip from her hands with a great deal of reverence. "Series six?" he asked.

"Uh-huh." She accepted a margarita from John and carefully wiped the salt from a section of the rim. "The last one."

"Hellfire. The final episode. I wonder if they get home."

Roselyn cocked an eyebrow demurely. "Only one way to find out. Oh, and there was some stuff from the fan site, too. Half a dozen series-related i-games, I think, and a whole load of generated graphic follow-ons."


"Damn." Alan grinned at Roselyn. "This is a moment like that stunt your God does. What is it? Oh yeah, he turns up again or something."

"The Second Coming of The Christ. A time of revelation throughout the universe."

"That's the one." Alan raised his beer glass. "Here's to Lawrence finally finding out what happened to a bunch of jerkoff actors when they asked for a pay raise in series seven."

"There was a proper story arc," Lawrence protested. Too late he realized the fatal mistake of letting Alan know you cared about something.

"Whoo ho! I was right, it's a revelation! Please, Lawrence, do us all a big favor and get a life."

"Alan?" Roselyn asked in a voice tinged with curiosity. "Do you know that girl?"

"Which one?'

"Over there, in the blue top."

"Her?" His glass slopped about in the girl's general direction as he laughed his short dirty laugh. "Damn, see what you mean, two puppies wrestling in a blue sack."

Roselyn's face remained serene. "Yes. Her."

"Never seen her before in my life, Your Honor. And I would definitely remember." He drained the last of his beer and burped. Fortunately, he'd ordered too many, so there was a fresh glass he could lift straight off the bar.

Over Alan's head, Lawrence gave Vinnie a frantic grimace and mouthed: "When did he start?"

Vinnie shrugged helplessly.

"She's been looking at you," Roselyn said.

"Fuck! Really?" Alan laughed again and poked Richard in the chest. "I told you. It's statistics." He straightened himself up and walked over to the girl. There was a momentary flash of panic on her face when she saw him approach.

"Remind me never to annoy you," Nigel told Roselyn.

Lawrence was wincing as he followed Alan's progress. "I'm not sure I can watch this. The pain level's too high."

"So what did you want to tell me?" Roselyn asked.

"Oh, yes." The joy returned to Lawrence's life. He pocketed the memory chip. "I got a letter from Templeton University today."

Roselyn's gaze was one of pure admiration as he explained about his preliminary acceptance and the skiing trip. "I knew you could do it, Lawrence," she murmured quietly. "Well done." She kissed him just below his ear.

"What about your mother?" he asked apprehensively. "Do you think she'll let you come to Orchy with me?"

"You leave her to me."

His hands went around her, pressing into the small of her back. "Sounds good to me." They kissed. He could taste the sharp tang of the margarita on her lips.

"Er, guys, I think we should get over there," Vinnie said.

Alan was so engrossed with making obscene small talk to the girl in the blue top that he hadn't noticed her boyfriend standing behind him.

"No way." John was shaking his head. "Look at the effing size of him!"

"Bigger they are, the harder they fall," Rob declared. He was almost as drunk as Alan.

"As long as he falls on you, not me," Nigel said.

"He's our friend," Lawrence said. Somehow he couldn't summon up much conviction. The boyfriend had a couple of friends with him, too.

"Just tell the bar staff," Roselyn said urgently. "The bouncers will sort it out."

"Too late," Vinnie groaned.

Alan had finally noticed the boyfriend.

They looked on incredulously as their friend employed his own never-fail method of getting out of sticky situations by telling the one about the parrot and the starship stewardess.

"...the airlock slammed shut, and as they were tumbling through interstellar space the bloke turned to the parrot and said, 'Pretty ballsy for a guy with no spacesuit'." Alan giggled hysterically at the punch line.

The boyfriend, it turned out, didn't have much of a sense of humor.

Lawrence finally got home at half past three in the morning, after his father and the family lawyer bailed him out from the police station.

Amethi's turbulent climate was changing again, emerging from its snowfall phase. Over the last few years, billions of tons of water had been liberated from Barclay's Glacier as the meltoff accelerated. The contribution it made to atmospheric pressure and density was small, but effective. Thicker and heavier, the planet's envelope of gas now retained more heat than before. Overall temperature was up by a couple of degrees. On the side of the planet away from the glacier, the snow was giving way to rain. Templeton even had weeks of broken cloud cover as the winds slowly strengthened.

A lot of people saw that as a bad omen, predicting the Wakening would end in hurricanes ripping the domes apart. The official line was that increased air speed was a natural and inevitable part of acquiring a normal weather pattern. There might be a few peaks on the graph along the way, but it would level out in the end.

Whether you believed that or not, the clearer skies did mean that passenger jets were returning to commercial service after their near-hiatus of the preceding years. Lawrence and Roselyn caught the morning flight out from Templeton, taking fifteen hours to reach Oxendale. One day, Oxendale would be the major city on a long chain of islands in the middle of the ocean. For the moment, it was sitting on the top of a massive, flat-topped mountain, the largest in a ridge of similar mountains rising out from a slushy saltwater quagmire.

On this side of the planet, facing Nizana, the glacier still dominated the environment. The air was a lot colder, and clouds still sprinkled snow as they migrated out to the warmer tropics. Their jet touched down on a runway that was coated in white, powdery ice. They glimpsed it only a few seconds before the wheels hit. For the last hour, they'd been flying blind through thick fog. Oxendale's altitude a kilometer above the salty marsh meant that it was almost permanently in the clouds.

They had a half-hour wait in the airport lounge while their luggage was transferred; then they trooped on board a thirty-seater STL plane, built for arctic conditions. Orchy was another two hours' flying time away. Forty minutes after takeoff, they cleared the base of the cloud layer to see Barclay's Glacier in the distance.

With Amethi a quarter of the way around its orbit from superior conjunction, the sun was shining almost directly onto the vertical cliff face of the glacier. It split the land from the sky with a silver-white glare stretching from north to south, as if a crack had appeared in the landscape to allow another, closer sun to shine through from behind the planet. Lawrence had to put his sunglasses on to look at it directly. Colors here were all monotone. The surface of the glacier was pure white; even the clouds didn't seem to cast a shadow. Features, at least from this distance, were nonexistent. The most that could be said was that the ice was rumpled, with long, gentle curves overlapping all the way to the boundary. Overhead, the sky shone with an astonishingly bright metallicblue sheen. Nizana's dominant ocher crescent appeared intrusively alien, its darkness in some way negative. Squashed streamers of cloud swirled about, almost as bright as the glacier itself. All of them were sliding in the same direction, out from the ice shelf and away over the ocean floor.

When Lawrence looked straight down, he could see nothing but dunes of slick auburn mud, their crests dusted white. Slivers of grubby water shimmered in the cirques amid the dunes, forming an infinite plexus of connected rills. Every few kilometers there would be a deep river cutting its way through the mud. Here the water was fast-flowing and filthy, clawing at the gully sides to loosen great swaths of mud. Lumps of ice bobbed along, colliding against each other with enough violence to produce small explosions of splinters, or even split apart.

For all the physical activity, the vista got to Lawrence. He used to think the tundra desert outside Templeton was bleak, but this was pure desolation. There was no sign here that any of the terraforming algae had ever bloomed in the slushy puddles, no meandering tracks of slowlife organisms as they impregnated the mud with their spores and bacteria. This was impassive, ancient geology at its most aloof, untouched by life's Machiavellian tendrils. It made him feel small, irrelevant.

After a while, the little aircraft curved around and headed in over the glacier. A lot of the edge was still sheer cliff, but a quantity had crumbled into giant talus falls extending for kilometers out into the mud. The top of the glacier was bisected by deep rifts that carried the rivers out from the interior. Some of these fractured canyons were over a kilometer deep and still expanding as the water gnawed away at their floor, but that still left them terminating high over the ocean floor. The edge of Barclay's Glacier was host to the most spectacular array of waterfalls on any known world. Over a thousand prodigious rivers ended abruptly hundreds of meters above the ground, projecting their waters in monumental arcs to thunder into ragged craters gouged out by their own relentless torrent.

The town of Orchy was situated on the top of one of these rifts, Coniston's Flaw, a long jagged gully extending well over a thousand kilometers toward the east. In some places it was over three kilometers wide, its steep angled sides resembling the Alpine valleys of France and Switzerland. Orchy was currently sitting on top of a broad, curving section, with the river churning along the rift floor six hundred meters below. The curve meant that the water constantly chewed into the ice, an erosion that pulled down vast avalanches from the sides. Once they'd settled, they were excellent skiing slopes, although the flow of water that created them would ultimately undermine them, changing the valley's profile once again. The entire length of Coniston's Haw was a variable geometry, flexing in month-long undulations, with only its terminal waterfall holding reasonably steady. Even the tributaries would forsake it after abrupt and violent shifts, defecting to other rivers.

Orchy moved to accommodate these whims, a truly mobile town, made up from oblong building modules that could be carried by large flatbed trucks. Whenever the slopes decayed or quaked or collapsed, the silvery modules would be unbolted and hauled along the top of the Haw to the next suitable site.

The STL plane extended its ski blade undercarriage and skidded along a length of flat ice marked out by flare strobes. Fans howled as the AS pilot reversed pitch and brought them to a halt at the center of a microblizzard. A bus took them into town, dropping them off at the Hepatcia Hotel. It was identical to every other cluster of metal modules that made up the town. They were laid out in a fat fishbone pattern, standing on legs that left a seventy-centimeter gap between the floor base and the ice. Reception was at one end of the spine, with the bar, lounge and dining room at the other. The interior was smart without being ostentatious. It reminded Lawrence of aircraft furnishing.

Their room was made up of three modules, which gave them a bedroom, a small bathroom and what the bellboy insisted on calling a veranda room. It was essentially an alcove with lounger chairs and a wide floor-to-ceiling triple-glazed window giving them a view out across Coniston's Flaw.

"Wonder what old Barclay would make of this?" Lawrence mused. Thick clouds were boiling overhead, but they were pure white, fluoresced by the sun. Ice and snow gleamed underneath, making it difficult to know where the horizon was. Orchy was at the center of its own little closed radiant universe. With his new sunglasses, Lawrence could just make out tiny, dark figures zipping down the slopes below the hotel.

"I think he'd be impressed," Roselyn said. Her dimples had returned as she took in the view. "I am."

He glanced around the room. "Not quite up to the same standard as Ulphgarth."

"We'll have to make do." She offered him a small jeweler's box.

"What's this?"

"Open it."

There was a slim silver necklace inside, with a hologram pendant. When he held it up to the light, a small Roselyn in a blue dress smiled at him from inside the plastic.

"So I can be with you all the time," she said, suddenly bashful.

"Thanks." He slipped the chain round his neck and fastened the clasp. "I'll never take it off."

Her hand turned his head to face her, and they kissed passionately. He began tugging at her blouse.

"Wait," she murmured. "I'll just be a moment."

Lawrence did his best not to show his frustration as she picked up a bag and went into the bathroom. "You could get ready, too," she said as she slid the door closed. "And I like the lights low, remember."

He stared after her for a second, then raced over to the door and locked it Over to the big veranda windows and opaqued them. Swept the hand luggage off the bed. Pulled the cover onto the floor. Struggled to push his trousers down, dancing on one foot when his shoe became stuck. Got a shirtsleeve caught as he pulled it off over his head. Set the communication panel to call guard. Landed hard on the bed, and let out a small whoop of delight when the mattress rippled underneath him. Plumped up the pillows and flopped back onto them, hands behind his head, grinning oafishly at the ceiling.

Ten days!

Roselyn walked out of the bathroom. She was wearing a white silk negligee that couldn't have weighed more than ten grams. He'd never been so scared of her sexuality before.

"You're magnificent," he whispered.

She sat on the side of the bed. When he rose up to embrace her, she held up a finger, shaking her head softly. He let himself down again, not sure how long his self-control would last.

"I so hoped you would enjoy me like this," she said quietly.

"Fat chance I wouldn't—" He broke off at the slight frown on her face.

She reached out with one hand to touch the pendant, then gently traced the shape of his pectoral muscles. "I wore this because I wanted to please you. I need you to know how much tonight means to me."

"It means a lot to me, too."

"Does it, Lawrence?" Her hand stroked down his abdomen.

The eroticism of the motion was an insanely beautiful torture. It almost brought tears to his eyes. All he could do was draw breath in sharp little gasps as her gray eyes searched his face, divining everything he felt. He'd never been so naked before.

"We're going to spend the night together," she said. "Do you understand that?"

"Of course I do."

"Do you now? Well, I'll tell you anyway. It means that we can make love for as long as our bodies can last. That there will be nothing else to consider; no timetable, no having to go home, no caution about someone coming in. Just you and me alone with as much joy as we can create. And then when we're done with each other, we're going to fall asleep in each other's arms. We've never known that before, Lawrence. And it's going to be the most exquisite moment of all for me, because I'll do it knowing I'm going to wake up with you beside me. You don't know how long I've wanted that to be."

Even in the dusky light he could see the admiration on her face, and the hope. "I want that just as much as you do," he said. "I wish you'd said something before. We could have worked out a way to make it happen before now."

"Would you have done that? For me?"


"I love you, Lawrence." Her expression became rueful. "And you know all of me now, everything I am, however foolish that is." She swung her legs around and straddled him just above his hips.

"You're not foolish," he told her earnestly.

The grin that dawned on her mouth was wicked and knowing. Fingers slid back up his chest. "You're so fit now," she said huskily. "It's indecent."

"You're the one who wanted me in this condition."

"I did. And I'm a grateful girl." She arched her back, then slowly, tauntingly, began to undo the lace bows running down the front of her negligee.

* * *

They missed their first scheduled skiing lesson, staying in their room together for over a day. Not that it particularly mattered. Amethi wasn't going to move into Nizana's penumbra for another sixty hours. It would remain light for all of that time.

After they did finally get out of bed to have breakfast, Lawrence called the school and arranged another lesson. The AS receptionist told them another slot wasn't available for five hours.

They took a walk through the town, looking at the restaurants and cafes and bars. Pavements were slatted aluminum walkways set up between the buildings, standing on the same kind of legs. Lawrence loved it. The first open-air town he'd ever been in; the sensation of freedom was invigorating. Temperature was at least fifteen to twenty degrees below freezing. Not that he cared about that; they both wore their brand new ski-suits: colorful one-piece garments with a lace-work of active thermal strips whose conductivity could be set by an integral thermostat, allowing you to choose whatever temperature you wanted to be at. The hoods were close-fitting and had extra flaps, which could be pulled across the face. They were essential to stop windburn when you were skiing, but in town most people let them hang free.

"It's like you can feel the ice pulling heat from your skin," Lawrence exclaimed. He was leaning over a walkway's rail, looking down what passed for Orchy's main street. Buses and ice bikes roared about, carrying vacationers between the hotels and the runs.

"Nice to know," Roselyn said. Every flap on her hood was closed tight, leaving just her goggles poking through. Even so, she stood slightly hunched, as if fighting the cold.

Lawrence laughed and kept walking. They stopped off in a couple of stores. The only difference they could find between them were the names of the owners. Both were franchises to the company that ran Orchy. And both of them sold the same ski equipment; there weren't many manufacturers on Amethi yet.

"Business opportunity," Roselyn observed. She giggled at Lawrence, who was trying on a different hood: its style was awful, all pink and orange stripes. "Two business opportunities," she corrected.

"I want to be seen on the slopes," he said with pained dignity.

"What as?'

They moved on. The trouble with a town made out of identical modules, they decided, was that you didn't know what kind of businesses they contained until you were inside. The names flashing over the doors didn't offer much of a clue. Accessing the datapool for a local directory was a pain, and too functional. They just wanted to stroll and take in the sights. Orchy wasn't really built for that. There was no civic identity; its purpose was simply to house and feed people in between skiing jaunts.

They did find a reasonable cafe eventually. The Flood Heights was positioned as close to the edge of the rift as safety would allow. So Lawrence and Roselyn sat at one of the window tables and ordered hot chocolate and a plate of Danish pastries.

He sat sipping at his mug, looking up into the sky with a kind of wistful admiration. He'd never seen Nizana like this, not with his own eyes. Here on the near-side it hung directly overhead, a massive circle sliced by a thousand compacted cloud bands, clearly defined lines of rust red and grubby white grating and tearing at each other with hooked curlicues. Hundreds of runaway cyclone storms the size of moonlets were constantly on the prowl amid the upper layers. They distorted the neat arrangement of bands, chaos engines churning the usual colors into freakish shades with oceanic-sized upwells of weird chemicals from the unseen depths. Sheets of electricity surged outward from their eyes, too vast to be called mere lightning bolts: continents of electrons birthed and extinguished in microseconds. Their ephemeral illumination ensured that Nizana's nightside was never dark; a jade aural phosphorescence writhed permanently within the cage of the ionosphere, while the discharges themselves fluoresced ragged patches of cloud thousands of kilometers across.

"They're going so fast," Roselyn said, gazing down at the skiers sliding along the snow. "Do you think we'll learn to go that fast this time?"

"Huh?" Lawrence brought his attention back to the ground, looking where she was. "Wrong question. You've got strips of polished composite strapped to your feet, and you're standing at the top of a mountain of ice. The trick is learning to go down slowly."

She stopped dropping sugar lumps into her chocolate and flicked one at him. "Prat. You know what I mean."

"Yeah. I don't suppose it's that difficult, not on the nursery slopes. They claim they can get you up to moderate grade by the end of a week."

"It looks scary, but I think I'm going to like it." She watched several skiers as they reached the bottom of the main slope, curving to a halt in a graceful spray of snow. The cable lift began tugging them up to the top again. On the other side of the rift, slim-line fissures extended deep into the ice cliff, intersecting each other and twisting around in convoluted geometries. Sunlight shone into them to be refracted in glorious iridescent rainbows, forever encased below the translucent surface.

Roselyn sighed contentedly. "I'm so happy. I've got you, I've got a life. It's funny, I never thought leaving Earth would allow me to be happy. You know the only thing I miss?"

"What's that?"

"Boats." She gestured around extravagantly. "I mean, Amethi's leisure industry is starting to lift off. There's this, and all those hotel domes in the middle of nowhere, and that ridiculous five-city motor rally race they've got planned for next year. But there are no boats."

"Give it time. Our oceans are filling up, and there are lakes forming on the continents."

"Ha! It'll take another thousand years to melt this glacier. So I'll see none of that till I'm either dead or too old to care. Such a shame. It would have been nice to stand on the prow with the sails creaking away, and feeling the wind on my face."

"When did you ever do that?"

"Dublin has a port, I'll thank you. Although it's mainly for the big cargo ships that come in from England and Europe. But there are sailing clubs along the coast. I know how to crew a dinghy. I was even getting quite good at windsurfing." Her gray eyes stared off beyond the horizon. "But I've done it once. Better that, than never."

Lawrence slouched down in his seat "And I never will."

"You poor old boy." She pouted. "I fell off a lot. The water was freezing, and didn't taste so good either. Heaven alone knows what pollution was in that sea. That's the thing with memories, you only ever dwell on the good parts."

The lesson went the way of all first skiing lessons. Lawrence and Roselyn spent a lot of time slipping about and falling over. But they did make a kind of progress, enough to slide down the nursery slope several times without landing in a tumble of limbs and poles, enough to get an idea of how much thrill there would be from descending the main slope, enough to promise faithfully they'd be back on time tomorrow.

It wasn't until they got back to the hotel room that their muscles began to protest at the way they'd been abused. Ankles and calves ached as they stiffened up. Lawrence's shoulders throbbed as if they'd been bruised, which he could only put down to the way he'd pushed himself along with the poles. With laughter tinged by winces they stripped off and got into the bath together. Soaping each other down was an erotic foreplay that quickly evolved into full sex, sending water all over the floor. Drying each other in the big soft towels had the same effect. Then they moved out into the main room, where the bed waited invitingly.

After their third bout of lovemaking they ordered a huge room-service dinner, complete with iced champagne. The mattress was too unstable for them to eat in bed, so they sat in front of the veranda window wearing big toweling robes and tucked in.

"Those slopes are going to look beautiful after sunset," Roselyn said.

The instructor had told them that when Amethi moved into the umbra the runs were all illuminated by orange and green lamps. Skiers themselves wore red and white torches on their helmets. It was as if the whole valley side was invaded by swarms of dancing starlight.

Lawrence took her hand and gave it a squeeze. "We'll see it. Our last days here are in the conjunction night. We'll be good enough to be using the main slope ourselves by then. They say that when we're in the heart of the umbra, Nizana is like a flaming halo, as if the sun's set the edge of the atmosphere on fire."

"I can't wait."

They took the half-empty bottle of champagne and a box of chocolates back to the bed. Lawrence lay on the mattress, a flute of champagne in one hand, the box of chocolates in reach of the other, and Roselyn curled up beside him.

She squirmed around for a moment until she was perfectly comfortable, then said, "Go on then."

"Thanks." He kissed her brow, and told the room AS, "Access my personal file, entertainment section, and play Flight: Horizon, series six, episode five. Give me the standard third-person view edit."

"Happy now?" Roselyn asked.

She always watched Flight: Horizon with him, though he was pretty sure she was humoring him rather than developing any deep interest in the crew of the Ultema. "I am, thank you," he said with dignity. She snuggled in a fraction closer and took a sip from her own flute as the credits rolled and the signature tune began its fanfare.

Eighty minutes later the Ultema had managed to prevent a planetary collision that would have wiped out three sentient alien species. One of the species was furious with this interference in their glorious destiny as angels of the apocalypse and came gunning for the starship with some very nasty weapons. Three of the crew had been killed before the end, two of whom had just got engaged.

"Seven crew in three episodes," Lawrence said in dismay. "That's as many as in the whole of series four."

"Oh dear." Roselyn's lips were pressed together to hold back her giggles. She attempted to put on a grave expression. "That's not good, then?"

"It doesn't help their chances, no."

"Oh, poor baby." She wriggled around until she was on top of him and gave him a wet kiss while she giggled.

Lawrence played stubborn.

Roselyn laughed outright. "Oh, I'm sorry. It's just that you take it so seriously."

"I used to take it very seriously. They were good role models when I was younger. It meant a lot to me then. Now it's like having old friends around; I can appreciate it without adulating it. You showed me there's more to life than the i's. But I still claim it's a pretty good show."

"Oh, Lawrence." She turned back to give the big sheet screen a remorseful look. "That was nasty of me. I sometimes forget how different our backgrounds are."

"Hey." He stroked her back gently. "You couldn't be nasty if you tried."

"Except to Alan."

Lawrence sniggered. "That wasn't nasty; that was funny."

"True." She lay down beside him, their faces a couple of centimeters apart. "And you were right, Flight: Horizon isn't a bad influence for a growing boy."

"Well, I'm growing out of it now. Damn, taking an administration class at university. That's about as far away as possible from what I used to want."

"No, it's not. Command qualities are the same no matter what fancy name you stick on them. And it will be a damn good basic if you ever change your mind and go in for officer training."

"Ha! Training for what? Dad said it: we just run a passenger service. You should know, you've been on it. I wanted to be a part of exploring the galaxy, pushing back the frontiers. That's all over, now."

Roselyn propped herself up on an elbow to look at him. "This is what I can never understand about you, Lawrence. You always tell me how much you hate McArthur for shutting down its exploration program. Yet you never talk about anything else but staying here and making your contribution to Amethi, to the company. That's dichotomous to the point of schizoid, especially for you."

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"If you can't do what you want here, then leave and do it somewhere else."

"There is nowhere else," he said in exasperation.

Her perplexed look was equally impatient. "Well, not apart from Earth with its half-dozen exploration fleets, no."

Despite the warmth of the room and her body, the lazy fizzing of the champagne in his blood, Lawrence was abruptly cold and terribly alert. What she'd said simply wasn't true. Because it contradicted his whole world, everything he'd known and done since that hot-tempered day when he'd ruined the fatworms. "What did you say?"

"That you should go to Earth and sign on with another company if you feel so strongly about all this."

His hands closed about her upper arms, squeezing hard. "What other fucking companies?"

"Lawrence!" She looked from his hands up to his face.

"Sorry." He let go. Tried to haul in his temper. It seemed to be as intense as his fright. "What companies? Are you telling me that someone is still running explorer fleets?"

"Of course they are. Zantiu-Braun is the biggest space-active company of all, but Alphaston, Richards-Montanna, Quatomo are all still funding missions. None of the fleets are as big as they used to be before everyone started their asset-realization atrocities, but they still send out starships to survey fresh stars. And Zantiu-Braun has its portal colonies as well."

"Somebody's still founding colonies?" His voice had dropped to an aghast whisper.

"Yes. Lawrence, didn't you know any of this?"


"Shit." She was giving him a very troubled look. "Lawrence, I..."

"I want a full datapool trawl," he told the room AS in a flat voice. "Get an askping to pull all the information you can on current interstellar exploration. Specifically, the activities of the Alphaston, Richards-Montanna, Quatomo and Zantiu-Braun companies."

"There are no files on current interstellar exploration," the AS reported. "All information pertaining to current human starflight activities concern commercial flights and asset-realization missions."

Lawrence emitted a punch-drunk snort, astonishment momentarily overcoming his anger. "He lied to me. He fucking lied. My father lied to me. That bastard."

"Lawrence?" Roselyn reached out tentatively, her hand touching his shoulder.

"This whole world is a lie. Everything I'm doing is a lie. Nothing is true." He jumped off the bed as if it had burned him, standing with every muscle tense. "I could be doing it right now. I could be on Earth at an officer academy. And what am I doing? I'm taking fucking administration. That's what I'm fucking doing. And I was so pleased about qualifying I celebrated. Celebrated! Sweet Fate ..." His fists rose up, searching for something to strike. Something to punish. The rage felt superb, making everything so clear.

"Lawrence, calm down."

'"Why?" he shouted. "I've been calm for four years. Which is what he wanted. That piece of shit. That's what McArthur's rigged this whole world to be—nice, quiet, obedient little drones doing as they're told to boost share prices."

"Lawrence, please." Roselyn was close to tears. "Stop it."

The hurt in her voice tripped every defensive reflex he had. Roselyn should never be upset; that was his reason for being alive. "Okay." He held his hands up, a conciliatory gesture. "Okay, you're right. This isn't you, you're not to blame." He hunted around the room, not knowing what he was looking for. Nothing here, that was for sure. "We're leaving. Get your stuff together."

"Lawrence, we can't leave."

"I have to." He lowered his voice, almost pleading. "Roselyn, he lied to me. He lied so big he warped the whole world around me. He trashed everything I wanted, everything I was. Can you understand that?"

She nodded slowly. "What are you going to do?"

"Ask him—no, make him—tell me the truth. I want to know if Amethi university degrees qualify me for another company's starship officer academy. I want to know how to get there. I want to know how much it costs. I want to know."

* * *

They caught a taxi from Templeton airport. Lawrence told it to drop Roselyn at her dome first, then take him on to the Newton estate. It was midafternoon Templeton time when he finally got home, and he'd been traveling for nearly twenty hours. Changing his flights around had been relatively easy. The airline was used to people leaving Orchy early with injuries that had put an end to their skiing, and passenger manifests were drawn up to accommodate last-minute additions.

Full-spectrum lights were shining above him as he walked into the estate's main temperate dome, filling the vast enclosure with a harsh glare. The sun had fallen below Temple-ton's horizon days ago as Amethi's orbit carried it toward inferior conjunction. Somehow, the artificial lighting always seemed wrong to him, as if the engineers were using the spectrum of a different star altogether.

Faint multiple shadows fanned out around him as he walked along the stone path. The red-and-gold climbing roses that swarmed up the pillars on either side were beginning to fade, shedding their petals across the ground. As he walked along, he heard the shouts and whoops of his siblings playing in one of the sunken lawns, so he made a right-angle turn at the end of the rose walk, taking a longer route to the house, making sure he avoided them. He didn't want anyone to know he was back. It was strange, but he still felt protective toward his siblings. They were too young to know what kind of person their father really was. That childhood innocence should be preserved: it was too precious for him to ruin in the flare of temper and reckoning.

When he got to the landing he heard the soft murmur of voices coming from the study. He knew his father would be in there at this time, although it was unusual for someone else to be with him.

The door was partially open. Lawrence edged closer, careful not to make a sound. His father was one of the people in the room; he knew that cheerfully confident voice anywhere. The other was female. He thought it was Miranda, the latest junior nanny, another awesome beauty in her early twenties.

"... not even make it to the ski slopes," his father was saying in amusement. "The two of them away together for a week. Hell, he'll come back screwed senseless. I'll probably need to send an ambulance helicopter for him."

Miranda giggled. "That's what you wanted. You said."

"Yeah, I know. Damn, she's good at her job. Cheap at the price. And those legs of hers; have you seen them?"

Job. The word echoed silently around Lawrence's brain. Job?

"Yes, I've seen," Miranda said. "Why? You like?"

"Oh yeah, I definitely like. I'm tempted to pay for a month with her myself afterward."

"What? His girlfriend? That's really kinky, Doug. Besides, my tits are much bigger than hers. You said you like that. You always say you like that."

"So? I'd have the two of you together. That way I get the best of everything."


"Yeah, I love a good dirty threesome. It'd be quite something, watching you and her going to work on each other."

"You know, I think I'll enjoy that. Roselyn always looks so sweet It would be fun to fuck her. I bet she'd be really hot if you press all the right buttons."

Without the name Lawrence could have forced himself to believe they were talking about someone else. That this was some ludicrous, appalling coincidence. Two other people going on a skiing trip. A different girl his father fancied. Someone else. Not them. Not him. Not Roselyn.

Lawrence's trembling fingers pushed at the heavy wood door. His father was sitting behind the desk, with Miranda perched in front of him. The front of her dress was unbuttoned, allowing her breasts to spill out Her right nipple was pierced by a diamond stud. Doug was slowly licking the bud of erect flesh. He looked up in dismay as the door swung back to reveal Lawrence standing there.

Miranda gasped and hurriedly pulled her dress together.


It was the first time Lawrence had ever seen his father flustered. The guilt and shock simply didn't belong on that ever-assured face.

"Oh, boy. Listen, what we were saying..."

"Yes?" Lawrence surprised himself by how calm he was. "What, Dad? It's not as bad as I think? Is that what you're going to tell me?"

Doug's political control came back with a rueful grin. "I don't suppose I can, really."

"You bought her."

"It's a little more complicated than that."

"How? How is it complicated? Did you pay for her?"


Lawrence took three fast paces into the room, bringing him up to the desk. "DID YOU PAY FOR ROSELYN TO SCREW ME, YOU PIECE OF SHIT?"

Doug flinched back from the fury. "Look, you were losing it, all right? Your school grades were rock bottom, you didn't have any friends, the psychiatrist said you were borderline emotionally retarded, unable to connect with the real world. I was seriously worried. I am your father, however good or bad I am at it."

"So you bought me a whore."

"Son, you had to realize how much Amethi has to offer for someone like you. I couldn't have you throw all that away. And she connected you. Call her what you like. Blame me for the way you met, and I admit it was pretty low. But look at you now, look what she's done, how much she's straightened you out. You're top of the class, you play in all the A-teams, outside school you're the one everybody socializes with. She's shown you how much there is to life here. I promise you I never lied when I said I was proud of what you've achieved."

"Of course you're proud. I became exactly what you wanted. Why did you ever have me, Dad? Why didn't you just clone yourself?"

"Son, please, I know this isn't easy. I mean, hell, I never thought you would fall for her quite like this."

"Why not, she's hot, remember? What else was I going to do, a loser like me?"

"Lawrence, you'll get over this. Admittedly"—he shrugged reasonably—"you'll probably hate me forever, but I can live with that, because I know I did the right thing."

"No, Dad, you did not do the right thing." Lawrence turned round and walked out.

Lawrence didn't know how he got there. He didn't even know when he got there. But sometime later that day, or week, or year, he stood outside the door to the O'Keefs' apartment. Even when it finally came into focus and he recognized where he was, he took a long time before he brought his hand up and knocked.

It was a gentle rap with his knuckles. Lawrence barely heard it himself. He knocked harder. Then harder still. He pounded on the door, seeing it shake in the frame.

"Open up!" he screamed. "Let me in!"

The lock clicked back and he stopped hammering. His hand hurt. Drops of blood welled up on his grazed knuckles.

Lucy O'Keef opened the door. "Oh. Lawrence. It's you." Her shoulders sagged, presumably with remorse. "Your father called me earlier. He said you..."

"Where is she?" he growled.

"I don't think this—"


Roselyn eased her mother to one side. She must have been crying a long time for her eyes to be so red.

At that moment, she'd never looked more vulnerable and adorable. He stared at her mutely. There was nothing he could bring himself to say. Because he knew now that it was all true. And the one thing he couldn't stand was for her to have to say it to him.

He walked off back down the corridor to the elevator.

"Lawrence." Roselyn came out of the apartment, following him. "Lawrence, please, don't go."

He walked faster. Then he was running. His hand slammed on the little silver button set in the wall. Mercifully, the elevator door slid open straightaway. He stepped inside and pressed for the lobby.

"Lawrence." She slapped her hand against the door edge, and it froze. "I'm so sorry, Lawrence. I'm so sorry. I love you."

"He paid you." His thoughts were in so much turmoil he had trouble getting the words out. "He made you do it."

"No." She was sobbing. "No, Lawrence."

"What then? He didn't pay you?"

"The money wasn't for me. You don't understand. It's not like that."

"Like what? What can I possibly not understand?"

"I said yes because of Mary and Jenny."

"Your sisters? What the hell have they got to do with this?"

"We had nothing left. Nothing. McArthur shares are just about worthless on Earth. Not that we ever had many. You can never know what that's like, to be poor. Not you. You're a golden child on a planet that's too young to know any form of decay. This was the only way we could escape Dublin, get off Earth. Me ... doing this."

"You're part of it. You're the biggest part of his lie there was. I hate you for that!"

"I never lied to you, Lawrence."

He punched the lobby button again, wanting this torment to end. "Shut up! Shut up, you bitch. All of this has been false. All of it."

"Only the beginning." She leaned against the wall, utterly exhausted. "That's all, Lawrence. Just me saying hello. One little word. Not the rest of it. Everything since then was genuine. I can't fake loving you for a year and a half. You know it was real. You know that!"

The elevator doors slid shut. Roselyn's devastated wail stabbed clean into his heart.

Vinnie Carlton opened his apartment door to find Lawrence slumped against the wall outside. "What the hell happened to you, man?"

Lawrence showed no sign he'd even heard the question. He was staring ahead without seeing anything. Vinnie shrugged to himself and put a hand under his friend's shoulder, helping him up. "Let's get you inside before the cleaning robot shoves you into the rubbish chute," Vinnie said. "Come on, you look like you need a drink or ten." Lawrence didn't resist as he was steered into the apartment's lounge. A mug of tea was put into his hands. He drank it automatically, then sputtered. "That's disgusting, Vin. What's in it?"

"Rum. I like it."

"Oh." Lawrence drank some more, sipping it down carefully. Not too bad, actually.

"Going to tell me what happened?" Vinnie asked.

Lawrence glanced around uncertainly. He'd come here because Vinnie was the only person he could turn to without getting parents involved. Although Vinnie was a really good friend, Lawrence tended not to come to the apartment much. He'd never quite forgiven Vinnie for saying he and Roselyn couldn't use it to have sex.

Everything in his life was connected to Roselyn.

"You've no idea how lucky you are living by yourself," Lawrence said.

"How so?"

Lawrence told him.

Vinnie sat and listened to the entire story with his face running through a wide spectrum of emotions. "Shit, Lawrence," he said at the end. "This is going to sound stupid, but are you sure?"

"Oh, yeah. I'm sure."

"Christ. I don't believe it I thought Roselyn was great. She was so ... real."

"Right. Girls, huh?" Lawrence tried to make it sound as if he didn't care, as if this were just a standard-issue problem in any relationship. Happened every week. It didn't work. He was too close to breaking down again. Hated himself for that.

"Yeah, girls."

The feeling in Vinnie's voice caused Lawrence to look around the lounge, as if he'd just become aware that something was missing. "Where's Nadia?"

"Ha! We split after the party at Hillier's. She said she didn't want to know someone who was so embarrassing to be with in public. Bitch! What were we supposed to do? Let Alan get beaten to a pulp?"

Lawrence smiled briefly at the memory. "Well, he almost did, anyway."

"Yeah! I just don't have any respect for someone who acts like that."

The humor faded.

"What are you going to do now?" Vinnie asked.

"I don't know. I can't go home, not after this. And I can't ever face her again."

"Well, shit, Lawrence, you can stay here, you know that."

"Thanks. But I can't. I've got to move on. You know? Get clean away."

"You mean one of the other cities?"

"No. I mean right away. Listen, you came from Earth; was she telling me the truth about other companies still flying explorer starship missions?"

"Sure. There aren't many of them left, mind you. I didn't pay a lot of attention to that kind of thing. But she was probably right about Richards-Montanna, and she'd definitely be right about Zantiu-Braun. Hell, that company owns half the bloody planet these days."

"Then why isn't any of this in Amethi's datapool?"

"Oh, it'll be there. It's just that you haven't got the access codes."

"Okay. Then why restrict it? It's not that seditious."

"Who knows? Corporate paranoia, most likely. Don't forget this isn't a democracy."

"Yes, it is," Lawrence said automatically.

"Corporate stakeholding is a little different from the traditional model. Your vote is balanced according to your wealth."

"It has to be. You can't have the poor voting themselves more welfare money. That's economic suicide."

Vinnie pressed his hands to his temple. "Lawrence, I'm not arguing with you. I chose to come and live here, remember. Amethi is quiet and prosperous, a condition that it buys for itself with a heavy load of social hypocrisy. For all that, it has a lot going for it. All I'm saying is, if the Board wants to guide our development steadily along the don't-rock-the-boat course they've mapped out, then there are some policy areas and activities best avoided. I'm taking a guess that they don't want anyone to consider the option of leaving. They would hardly be the first government to have that opinion. And the more new planets that are discovered and opened to colonists, the more options there are for people to leave and pressure to facilitate it. If there's nowhere to go, then you have to stay here and work for the Greater Good of the community."


"It wasn't personal, Lawrence. They didn't notice your obsession with exploring new star systems and cut off all access to starflight information from the datapool."

"I have to leave," Lawrence moaned. "I just can't stay here. You understand that, don't you?"

"Are you talking about going offplanet?"

"Yeah. I want to go to Earth. If there's any chance, any, that I can get on an exploration program, I have to take it I couldn't live with myself if I didn't, not now."

"Okay. I can see that."

Lawrence looked up, trying to maintain some dignity. He didn't want to beg; not to a friend. "Will you help?"

"How?" Vinnie was suddenly cautious.

"Nothing much. I'm rich: I've got a stake in McArthur, remember. Which came out of trust on my eighteenth birthday. I can do what I like with it now. And what I like is to buy a ticket to Earth."

"Your old man will never let that happen." Vinnie took a moment. "Is there enough? It cost my family a bloody fortune to send me here."

"There's enough. But I know what my father will do if I try cashing in my stake. That's why I want the name of the legal firm that runs your family's affairs. They're independent, aren't they? If anyone can help push this through, they can."

"Won't do you any good. Sure they're independent, but your daddy's on the Board. If he says you can't go, there isn't a lawyer or court on the planet that can have that overturned."

"Fuck it!" Lawrence could feel his muscles tensing up. So far he'd received every shock with amazing composure. But it wasn't going to last Each time, the urge to lash out physically was stronger. "I have to go," he shouted at Vinnie. "I have to."

"I know." Vinnie gave him a dubious look, weighing up some invisible options. "Okay. I might be able to help. But if I do, and this doesn't work, you are going to be in seriously deep shit."

"You mean I'm not now?"

"Not compared to this, no."

Lawrence was suddenly very interested. He knew Vinnie well enough to know this wasn't the usual bullshit they fed each other. "What is it?"

"I have some software that I shouldn't have. And I really mean shouldn't. It's called Prime, and it's so powerful it actually has a weapons-grade classification on Earth. Taking a copy off the planet is probably a capital crime."

"No shit? What will this Prime do?"

"It's a quasi-sentient routine; you run it in any kind of neurotronic pearl and it'll be able to subvert every AS on Amethi. Not only can you block every askping your father launches to find out where you are, it'll also cover your tracks at the bank when you take your money out to buy a starship ticket. The first he'll know about you leaving Amethi is when you send him a video file of yourself on a Mediterranean beach sipping pina coladas."

"Damn, it's that good?"

"I'm not even going to risk giving you the top version, no way. But I'll let you have a version that can do the job. And, Lawrence, when you get to Earth, don't advertise the fact that you've got it. Prime is superior to anything on Amethi, but I've had my copy for a while. I expect Earth's datapool will be protected. Certainly the sensitive sections will have shields."

"Okay. I won't forget. And, thanks."