Judas Unchained

The Commonwealth Saga Book 2

By Peter F. Hamilton

Table of Contents
























To Sophie Hazel Hamilton

I never knew how much I missed you until you arrived



Captain Wilson Kime—Ex-NASA pilot. Admiral, navy chief

Rafael Columbia—Vice Admiral, planetary defense

Tarlo—Lieutenant, Navy Intelligence

Renne Kampasa—Lieutenant, Navy Intelligence

Morton—Convict, navy trooper

Oscar Monroe—Navy captain, Defender

McClain Gilbert—Navy captain

Anna Kime—Wilson’s wife, and Navy chief of staff

Tunde Sutton—Navy physicist

Alic Hogan—Lieutenant Commander, Navy Intelligence

Natasha Kersley—Seattle project chief

Rob Tanne—Convict, navy trooper

Catherine Stewart—aka the Cat, convict, navy trooper

Matthew Oldfield—Second Lieutenant, Paris office

Vic Russell—Second Lieutenant, Paris office

Gwyneth Russell—Second Lieutenant, Paris office

Jim Nwan—Second Lieutenant, Paris office

John King—Lieutenant, Paris office


Nigel Sheldon—Co-inventor of wormhole technology. Co-owner of Compression Space Transport

Ozzie Fernandez Isaac—Co-inventor of wormhole technology. Co-owner of CST

Daniel Alster—Chief executive aide to Nigel Sheldon

Campbell Sheldon—Direct great-grandson, high position in Sheldon Dynasty

Gerard Utreth—Braunt family rep, Democratic Republic New Germany

Isabella Halgarth—Starflyer agent

Victor Halgarth—Isabella’s father, Starflyer agent

Bernadette Halgarth—Isabella’s mother, Starflyer agent

Giselle Swinsol—Sheldon Dynasty starship project manager

Otis Sheldon—Pilot, Sheldon Dynasty starship

Nelson Sheldon—Sheldon Dynasty security chief


Paula Myo—Investigator, Senate Security

Justine Burnelli—Earth Socialite–now Senator

Thompson Burnelli—Commonwealth Senator–undergoing re-life

Elaine Doi—President, Intersolar Commonwealth

Patricia Kantil—Chief aide to Elaine Doi

Ramon DB—Senator for Buta, leader of African caucus

Crispin Goldreich—Senator; Chair, budget commission

Toniea Gall—Chairwoman, Resident’s Association High Angel


Bradley Johansson—Founder of Guardians of Selfhood

Kazimir McFoster—Clan member in the Guardians of Selfhood

Bruce McFoster—Ex-Guardian, Starflyer assassin

Stig McSobel—Guardian, leader of Armstrong City team

Samantha McFoster—Guardian, technician for planet’s revenge

Olwen McOnna—Guardian

Adam Elvin—Ex-radical, quartermaster for Guardians


Tochee—Alien of unknown origin

The High Angel—A sentient alien starship

MorningLightMountain—Prime alien from Dyson Alpha

Starflyer—Hostile alien of unknown origin

Qatux—A Raiel, living on the High Angel

The SI—Sentient intelligence, machine based, of human origin


Mellanie Rescorai—Unisphere personality, SI agent

Orion—Parentless teenage boy from Silvergalde

Dudley Bose—Astronomer at Gralmond University, re-lifed

Hoshe Finn—Detective, Darklake city police

Gore Burnelli—Head of the Burnelli Grand Family

Mark Vernon—Engineer

Liz Vernon—Biogenetic technician, Mark’s wife

Simon Rand—Founder of Randtown, leader of resistance

Alessandra Baron—News show presenter, Starflyer agent

Tiger Pansy—Actress in “adult” TSI dramas

Paul Cramley—Professional hacker

Kaspar Murdo—Head janitor at Saffron Clinic

The Agent—Underworld security personnel manager on Illuminatus

Niall Swalt—Junior employee, Grand Triad Adventures tour company

Edmund Li—Officer in Far Away freight inspectorate division, Boongate Station

Michelangelo—TSI news anchor


Right from the start, there was something about the investigation that made Lieutenant Renne Kampasa uneasy. The first little qualm came sliding up out of her subconscious when she saw the victim’s loft apartment. She’d been inside loft apartments just like it a hundred times before. It was the kind of plush metropolitan pad that a group of funky TSI soap characters usually lived in: beautiful single people with well-paying jobs that gave them most of the day off so they could enjoy a floor space of around five hundred square meters as they lounged around in an extravagant décor provided by overpriced interior designers. The kind of scenario completely divorced from real life but full of dramatic or comic potential for the scriptwriters.

Yet here she was, a day after the Guardians’ shotgun message that denounced President Elaine Doi as a Starflyer agent, being shown into just such an apartment on the top floor of a refurbished factory block in Daroca, the capital city of Arevalo. The massive open-plan living room had a wide sunny balcony that looked out over the Caspe River, which flowed through the heart of the city. Like all the capitals of successful phase one space planets, Daroca was a rich montage of parks, elegant buildings, and broad streets stretching away to the horizon. Under the planet’s bronze-shaded morning sunlight it glimmered with a sharp coronal hue, adding to the panorama’s graceful appeal.

Renne shook her head in mild disbelief at the fabulous view. Even with the decent salary the navy paid her, she could never afford the rent on this. And it was currently being paid by three first-life girls, all under twenty-five.

One of them was showing Renne and Tarlo in: Catriona Saleeb, a small twenty-two-year-old, with long curly black hair, wearing a simple green dress with strong geometric lilac stripes—except Renne knew the dress was a Fon, which put its price tag over a thousand Earth dollars, and the girl was using it as a casual housedress. Renne’s e-butler printed up Saleeb’s file in her virtual vision; she was a junior member of the Morishi Grand Family, working at a bank in Daroca’s large financial district.

Her two friends were Trisha Marina Halgarth, who had a product placement job at Veccdale, a Halgarth subsidiary that designed chic domestic systems, and Isabella Halgarth, who’d taken a job at a contemporary art gallery in town. They fitted the whole profile: three bachelorettes sharing a place in the city, having fun together while they waited for their true careers to launch, or husbands of equal wealth and status to materialize and carry them off to a merged trust fund mansion to produce their contracted quota of children.

“This is one great place you’ve got here,” Tarlo said as they made their way into the lounge.

Catriona turned and gave him a smile that was a lot more than simple politeness. “Thanks, it’s a family place so we get it cheap.”

“Plenty of wild parties, huh.”

Her smile became teasing. “Maybe.”

Renne shot him an exasperated look; they were supposed to be on duty, not hitting on potential witnesses. He just grinned back, perfect white teeth gleaming out of his handsome tanned face. She’d seen for herself just how successful that grin could be in the clubs and bars around Paris.

Catriona took them over to the kitchen section, which was separated from the living room by a broad marble-topped breakfast bar. The kitchen was ultramodern, equipped with every convenience gadget possible, all built in to swan-white egg-shaped wall modules. Somehow, Renne couldn’t imagine it being used for much actual cooking, not even by the complicated-looking chefbots.

The two other girls were sitting on stools at the bar.

“Trisha Marina Halgarth?” Renne asked.

“That’s me.” One of the girls got to her feet. She had a heart-shaped face and light olive skin with small, dark green butterfly-wing OCtattoos flowing back from each hazel eye. She wore an oversize white toweling robe like defensive armor; she kept clutching at the fluffy fabric, pulling it tighter around her. Her bare feet had silver rings around each toe.

“We’re from navy intelligence,” Tarlo said. “Lieutenant Kampasa and I are investigating what happened to you.”

“You mean, how gullible I was,” she snapped.

“Easy, babe,” Isabella Halgarth said. Her arm went around Trisha’s shoulders. “These are the good guys.” She stood to face the investigators.

Renne found herself having to look up slightly; Isabella was several centimeters taller than she, almost Tarlo’s height. She was dressed in very tight jeans that showed off her legs. Her long blond hair had been gathered into a single tail that reached down to her hips. It was an image of casual elegance.

Tarlo’s grin had broadened. Renne wanted to push him against a wall and shout a warning about professional conduct, wagging her finger in his face for emphasis. Instead, she did her best to ignore the mating dance appraisals going on all around her, and said, “I’ve investigated several similar cases, Ms. Halgarth. In my experience, the victim is rarely gullible. The Guardians have developed a very sophisticated operation over the years.”

“Years!” Catriona snorted. “And you haven’t caught them yet?”

Renne kept her polite expression in place. “We believe we are close to a resolution.”

The three girls exchanged doubtful looks. Trisha sat down again, gripping at her robe.

“I know it’s unpleasant for you,” Tarlo said. “But if you could start by telling me the man’s name.” His grin mellowed to sympathetic encouragement.

Trisha gave a reluctant nod. “Sure. Howard Liang.” She smiled feebly. “I don’t suppose that’s his real name?”

“No,” Tarlo said. “But that identity will have created a lot of data within Daroca’s cybersphere. Our forensic software teams will pull out a great many associated files. We can check on the false identity information, where it was inserted, possibly who was involved forging it. Every little bit helps.”

“How did you meet?” Renne asked.

“Party. We get to quite a lot of them.” She glanced at her two girlfriends for support.

“This is a great city,” Isabella said. “Daroca is a wealthy planet; people here have the money and time to play.” Her eyes gave Tarlo an amused glance.

“Trish and I are Dynasty, Catriona is a Grandee. What can I say? We’re highly desirable.”

“Was Howard Liang wealthy?” Renne asked.

“He didn’t have a trust fund,” Trisha said, then colored. “Well, he said he didn’t. His family was supposed to come from Velaines. He said he was a couple of years out of his first rejuve. I liked him.”

“Where did he work?”

“On the commodities desk at Ridgeon Financial. God, I don’t even know if that’s true.” She pressed her free hand against her forehead, rubbing hard. “I don’t know how old he really was. I know nothing about him at all. That’s what I hate most about this. Not that he stole my author certificate, not that he gave me a memory wipe. Just…being taken in like that. It’s so stupid. Our family security office sends us enough warnings. I never thought they applied to me.”

“Please,” Tarlo said. “Don’t blame yourself. These guys are very professional. Hell, I’d probably get taken in by them. Now, when did you last see him?”

“Three days ago. We went out for the evening. I’d been invited to the Bourne club, there was some event, a new drama series launch. We had a meal afterward, then I came home. I think. The apartment domestic array says I got in at five in the morning. I don’t remember anything after dinner. Is that when they did it?”

“Possibly,” Renne said. “Did Mr. Liang share his apartment with anyone?”

“No. He lived by himself. I met a couple of his friends; I think they were from Ridgeon. We only went out for a couple of weeks. Enough for me to drop my guard, I guess.” She shook her head angrily. “I hate this. The whole Commonwealth thinks I believe the President is an alien. I’ll never be able to face anyone at work again. I’ll have to go back to Solidade and get my face changed and use another name.”

“That would probably help,” Tarlo said gently. “But before that we need to run some tests on you. There’s a medical forensic team waiting down in the lobby. They can do this in a clinic, or here, whichever you’re comfortable with.”

“Do it here,” Trisha said. “Just get it over with.”

“Of course. Another team will sweep his apartment.”

“What do you expect to find there?” Isabella asked.

“We’ll pin down his DNA, of course,” Renne told her. “Who knows what else we’ll uncover, especially if they used it as their base. And we’ll pull his files from Ridgeon Financial’s personnel records, which I’d like you to verify. It would help to have a picture of him.”

“Won’t he have had reprofiling by now?” Catriona asked.

“Yes. But it’s his background we’ll be focusing our investigation on, his past. That’s where the clues to his origin are. You must understand, we have to crack the whole Guardian organization open; it’s the only way to bring Liang to justice. We’re not pursuing him singularly.”

They spent another twenty minutes in the loft apartment, taking statements from the girls, then handed them over to the medical forensic team. Renne was halfway to the door when she stopped and gave the big living room a thoughtful examination. Trisha was going into her bedroom with two of the forensic team.

“What?” Tarlo asked.

“Nothing.” She gave Catriona and Isabella a last look before leaving.

“Come on,” he said in the elevator back down to the lobby. “I know you. Something’s bugging you.”

“Déjà vu.”


“I’ve seen this crime scene before.”

“Me too. Every time the Guardians shotgun the unisphere the boss sends us out to have a look around.”

“Yeah, so you should have recognized it, too. Remember Minilya?”

Tarlo frowned as the doors opened. They walked out into the lobby.

“Vaguely; it was four years ago. But that was a bunch of guys sharing an apartment.”

“Oh, so what? You’re going sexist on me? It’s different because it’s girls?”


“It was exactly the same setup, Tarlo. And we’ve seen the all-girls group before as well.”

“On Nzega, April Gallar Halgarth. She was part of a holiday group.”

“Buwangwa, too, don’t forget.”

“Okay, so what’s your point?”

“I don’t like repetition. And the Guardians know we’ll catch them a whole lot easier if they stick to the same pattern.”

“I don’t see a pattern.”

“It’s not a pattern, exactly.”

“What then?”

“I’m not sure. They’re repeating their procedure. That’s not like them.”

Tarlo led the way out through the lobby’s revolving doors and used his e-butler to call a city taxi over. “The Guardians don’t have a lot of choice in this. Admittedly the number of dumb young Halgarths in the galaxy is pretty huge, but their living and social arrangements only have a finite number of permutations. It’s not the Guardians who are repeating, it’s the Halgarths.”

Renne frowned as the taxi pulled up in front of them; he was right, though that wasn’t the line she’d been thinking along. “Do you think the Halgarth security is running an entrapment operation? They could have hung Trisha out as bait?”

“No,” he said heatedly. “That’s wrong. If it was an entrapment they would have caught Liang the first night he met Trisha. His identity history data might have stood up to a review by Ridgeon Financial, but a specific entrapment operation run by the Halgarths…no way.”

“They must be running entrapment operations. If I were the senior Halgarths I’d be goddamn furious the family was constantly targeted by the Guardians.”

Tarlo settled back into the taxi’s leather seat. “They do tend to put a fair amount of pressure on the boss.”

“I don’t think that’s right, either. If they were running an entrapment they’d tell us.”

“Would they?”

“All right, maybe not,” she said, “but as this wasn’t an entrapment, it’s irrelevant anyway.”

“We don’t know it wasn’t an entrapment.”

“They didn’t catch Liang, and they haven’t told us, which they would do at this stage.”

“Alternatively, they’re busy tracking Liang, and don’t want to spook him by telling us.”

“That’s not it.” She was having trouble even looking at Tarlo. “Something is just wrong. It was too neat.”

“Too neat?”

The tone of disbelief in his voice made her wince. “Yeah, I know, I know. But something bothers me. That loft apartment, those girls, it all shouted out,

‘Here are dumb rich kids, come and rip them off.’ ”

“I don’t get this. Who’s in the wrong here, the Guardians or the Halgarths?”

“Well…Okay, I don’t suppose it could have been the Halgarths, unless that really was an entrapment operation.”

He grinned at her. “You’re getting as bad as the boss when it comes to conspiracies. You’ll be blaming the Starflyer next.”

“Could do.” She gave him a weak smile. “But I’m still going to tell her I think something’s odd about this one.”

“Career suicide.”

“Come on! What kind of a detective are you? We’re supposed to act on intuitive hunches. Don’t you watch any cop soaps?”

“Unisphere shows are for people without lives. Me, I’m busy in the evenings.”

“Yeah,” she said snidely. “Still putting on your navy uniform when you go around the clubs?”

“I’m a naval officer. Why shouldn’t I?”

Renne laughed. “God! Does that really work?”

“It does if you can find girls like those three.”

She sighed.

“Listen,” he said. “I’m serious. What can you tell Myo? You had a feeling? She’ll just bawl you out big time. And don’t look to me to back you up. There was nothing wrong with it.”

“The boss appreciates the way we consider cases. You know she’s always saying we have to take a more holistic approach to crime.”

“Holistic, yeah, not psychic.”

They were still arguing about it forty minutes later when they arrived back at the Paris office. Five uniformed navy officers were standing in a group outside Paula Myo’s office.

“What’s happening?” Tarlo asked Alic Hogan.

“Columbia’s in there with her,” the Commander said. He looked very uncomfortable.

“Christ,” Renne muttered. “It’ll be the LA fiasco. I was supposed to be chasing the leads from that operation this morning.”

“We all were,” Hogan said. He forced his gaze away from the closed door.

“Did you find anything in Daroca?”

Renne was trying to think what to say; Hogan was very by-the-book.

“It was a standard Guardians operation,” Tarlo said quickly. He was staring hard at Renne. “We left forensics working through the scene.”

“Good. Keep me updated.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Standard operation,” Renne said scathingly as they walked back to their desks.

“I just saved your ass back there,” Tarlo said. “You can say all that kind of intuition stuff to the boss, but not Hogan. All that little prick is interested in is checkmarks in the box.”

“Okay, okay,” she grumbled.

Paula Myo walked out of her office, carrying her shoulder bag and the little rabbakas plant she kept on the windowsill. A red-faced Rafael Columbia was standing behind her, dressed in his full admiral’s uniform.

Renne had never seen Myo look so shocked. It sent a cold shiver down her own spine; nothing ever ruffled the boss.

“Good-bye,” Myo told the office at large. “And thank you for all the hard work you did for me.”

“Paula?” Tarlo gasped.

She gave him a small shake of her head, and he fell silent. Renne watched Paula Myo walk out; it was like seeing a funeral procession.

“Commander Hogan,” Columbia said. “A word please.” He vanished back into Myo’s office. Alic Hogan almost ran in after him. The door closed.

Renne sat down hard. “That didn’t happen,” she mumbled incredulously. “They can’t get rid of her. She is the goddamn Directorate.”

“But we’re not the Directorate,” Tarlo said quietly. “Not anymore.”


The harsh sound of ion pistol shots sizzled out of the speakers to reverberate around the LA Galactic security office. They were swiftly drowned out by the screams. Commander Alic Hogan watched the screens in numb horror as the assassin left the scene of Kazimir’s murder behind, running along the central concourse of the Carralvo terminal, shooting as he went. Terrified passengers were throwing themselves flat or ducking down behind the railings.

“Squad B are on the upper concourse,” Renne reported from her console.

“They have clear line of sight.”

“Take him out,” Hogan ordered.

He watched a grainy camera image as the ion pulse from the squad’s sharpshooter struck the assassin. A corona of purple sparks flared briefly, outlining the running figure.

“Damnit,” Hogan hissed.

Two more ion pulses hit. Sparks were fountaining across the concourse, burning into walls and advertising panels; people shrieked as tendrils of static writhed over their clothing, singeing deep. Smoke alarms went off, adding their howl to the general din.

“He’s wearing a force field suit,” Renne exclaimed. “They can’t penetrate from that range.”

Hogan opened the general communications icon in his virtual vision. “All squads close in on the target. Pursue until he’s in open ground, then open fire. Overload that force field.” As he watched the squads putting the new tactic into play, screens on every console started to flicker. In his virtual vision, red warning graphics sprang up across his interface with the station’s network.

“Kaos software has been released into the local network nodes,” his e-butler reported. “The controlling RI is attempting to clear it.”

“Goddamnit!” Hogan’s fist thumped into his console. On the other side of the room, Senator Burnelli was rising from her seat. She looked distraught, her beautiful young face twisted by some unfathomable guilt. More camera images vanished from the screens in a maelstrom of static. Only one image of the assassin remained, taken from a roof sensor. Hogan watched him race along a ramp to platform 12A. Two navy officers were chasing after him, a hundred meters behind. Ion shots were exchanged. The image drizzled away into gray haze. A harsh groan crept out of Hogan’s throat. This couldn’t be happening! It was an absolute disaster. Worse, it was happening in front of the Senator who’d given them their first ever real lead into the Guardians, a lead Hogan had been desperate to follow up.

Hogan’s virtual hand flew over icons, pulling out secure audio channels from the squads. At least the navy’s dedicated systems weren’t too badly affected by the kaos.

“He’s on the platform, he’s on the platform!”

“With you, coming to twelve-A through the second ramp.”


“Wait! No, civilians!”

“Vic, where are you?”

“There’s a train coming in.”

“Vic? For Christ’s sake.”

“Fuck! He jumped down. Repeat, target is on the tracks. He’s on the tracks leading out westward.”

“Get after him,” Hogan ordered. “Renne, who have we got outside?”

“Squad H is nearby.” She was pulling ground plans out of a handheld array that was unaffected by the kaos. “Tarlo, are you there, can you intercept?”

“We’re on it.” Tarlo’s terse comment was accompanied by the sound of thudding footsteps.

Hogan was vaguely aware of the Senator and her bodyguards leaving the security office. His e-butler had brought up a translucent 3D map of the Carralvo terminal into his virtual vision. The westbound track from platform 12A slid out into a broad area of a hundred crisscrossing tracks, a major junction zone between the passenger terminal and a cargo yard, which eventually curved around toward the cliff of gateways five kilometers to the north.

“He’ll never make it there,” Hogan muttered. He turned to Tulloch, the CST security liaison officer. “Are any of your teams outside?”

The man nodded. “Three teams. They’re converging now. This kaos doesn’t help, but they’ve got clean communications. Don’t worry, we’ll seal him up inside that junction. He’s not going anywhere.”

Hogan looked around the security office again, seeing his people glaring in frustration at their useless consoles. All they could do was wait until the RI purged the station network. Down on the ground, teams were calling out coordinates to each other. His inserts were assigning them places on the map. It was a wide circle surrounding the western track of platform 12A, a very loose circle. Renne was issuing a stream of orders, trying to close the gaps.

“I’m going down there,” Hogan announced.

“Sir?” Renne broke off from the tactical situation to give him a surprised glance.

“Take over here,” he told her. “I might be able to help down there.” He saw the brief flicker of doubt on her face before she said, “Yes, sir.” Hogan was all too aware of how widespread that uncertainty had become among the officers under his command; the Paris office he’d inherited from Paula Myo had never considered him anything other than Admiral Columbia’s placeman, a political appointee who wasn’t really up to the job. At the start of this observation operation he’d hoped he might finally gain their respect. Now that hope, too, seemed to be vanishing along with the assassin.

The kaos that was wreaking electronic havoc on LA Galactic was starting to be felt on a physical level. Hogan had to use the stairs at the end of the Carralvo office block to get down to the concourse. The safety system on every elevator in the building had tripped, halting them wherever they were in the shafts. He dashed down the four flights of stairs from the security office, arriving on the ground floor only mildly out of breath. Out on the concourse, a tide of panicked people was buzzing around in disarray. Frightened by the murder and the chase, confused by the collapse of the local network, they didn’t know which way to flee. It didn’t help that almost every alarm was now sounding, and scarlet holographic arrows indicating the emergency exits were sliding through the air above them in contradictory directions.

Hogan pushed through them, oblivious to the curses they hurled at him. He was listening to the squads on the secure communications channels. It wasn’t sounding good. There were too many queries, too many of them shouting, “Which way?” They were all too reliant on the officers up in the security office coordinating the operation, arranging them into neat sweep patterns, watching the situation through the station’s primary sensors. Have to change training procedures, he thought absently. His map showed the ragged circle of his officers and the SCT teams closing slowly on the assassin’s supposed position.

He pulled out his own ion pistol as he charged up the ramp to platform 12A. The few passengers left were all curled up next to walls and pillars; they flinched as he sprinted past and dropped down onto the track. Bold amber holograms at the edge of the platform warned him not to proceed any farther. He ignored them and raced toward the end of the terminal where the sunlight streamed down past the high arching roof. Renne’s voice was still calm and level in his ears as she told people where to turn, what direction to take. Despite that, there were still big gaps in the noose contracting around the assassin. Hogan clenched his jaw and said nothing, but he was furious with their ragged deployment. It was only when he emerged into the flood of California sunlight that he saw the reason. The whole junction area represented on his virtual map, so neatly laced with various tracks, was in reality a harsh environment of concrete and steel sprawling for kilometers in every direction. Along one side were the bulky warehouses and loading gantries of the cargo yard, where machines and bots were in constant motion. But ahead of him, dozens of trains were winding their way across the junction: from ponderous kilometer-long freighters pulled along by huge GH9 engines to trans-Earth loop trains; twenty-wagon intrastation goods shunters as well as the sleek white express trains chasing past at frighteningly high speed. They filled the air with metallic screeching and a thunderous rattling, a constant racket that was overlaid by the clunks and clangs of what must have been small ships colliding. It was a noise he had always been oblivious to as he rode in the conditioned comfort of the first-class passenger carriages.

The kaos attack made no impact on the station’s traffic control. CST, ever anxious about sabotage or even natural catastrophe, used independent ultra-hardened encryption to maintain full communications with and control of the trains at all times and under any circumstances; they’d even prevailed during the alien assault on the Lost23.

Hogan almost skidded to a halt as a fast cargo train sped past fifty meters to his left. He could feel the wind of its slipstream on his face. Several squad members were visible spread out in the distance ahead of him, all of them holding their weapons ready, trying to look in every direction at once.

Hogan touched the virtual icon that put him in direct contact with Tulloch. “For Christ’s sake, shut down the traffic out here! We’re going to get pulped into the landscape.”

“Sorry, Alic, I’ve already tried; transport control won’t do it without executive-level authority.”

“Shit!” As Hogan watched, one of his people suddenly sprinted sideways. A two-hundred-meter-long snake of tanker trucks hauled by a GH4 engine trundled along the line he’d been standing on. “Renne, get Admiral Columbia to set off a nuke under CST. I want these goddamn trains shut down. Now!”

“Working on it, sir. The kaos is being flushed. Should have full sensor coverage back in a few minutes.”

“Christ.” He spat under his breath. Just how many disasters can you pile up in one day? He hurriedly sidestepped off the actual track itself, and began jogging toward the erratic line of squad members up ahead. “Okay, people, let’s get more organized. Who was the last person to actually see our target?”

“Couple of minutes ago, he was two hundred meters ahead of me, heading northwest.”

Hogan’s virtual vision identified the speaker as John King, and tagged his position on the map.

“Positive sighting, sir. I’ve got him on the other side of this flatbed shunter,” Gwyneth Russell said. Her location was nearly a half of a kilometer away from John’s.

“When?” Hogan demanded.

“He jumped behind it maybe a minute ago, sir.”

“I can confirm that,” Tarlo said. “My squad is due north of Gwyneth. The flatbed shunter has just reached us. He’s on the other side of it.”

Hogan scanned the direction his map indicated Tarlo’s squad was deployed. A fast-moving train of cylindrical containers was zipping along a rail between him and the squad. He thought he could see another train moving on the other side of it, through the gaps between the containers. Might have been the flatbed shunter. It was a confusing flicker of motion.

There was a brief ebb to the background clamor, and he heard a high-pitched humming from the concave gully on his right-hand side, the sound of high-voltage cables. Hogan looked down at it, frowning. He’d assumed it was a long enzyme-bonded concrete storm drain of some kind, about three meters wide and one deep. The gray surface was rippling slightly, and the entire gully behind him moved across the ground, linking up to another gully running parallel to it twenty meters away.

Maglev track!

Hogan flung himself down onto the hard granite chippings, and put his hands over his head. An express train hurtled past, its slipstream howling. His uniform jacket flapped around like a sail in a tornado. For an instant he thought the air pressure was going to be strong enough to lift him off the ground. He shouted wordlessly into the bone-shaker yowl as animal fear surged through him. Then the express was gone, its rear strobe light blinking into the distance.

It took a minute for his legs to stop shaking enough to carry his weight. He clambered slowly to his feet, looking nervously along the innocuous gully for any sign of another express.

“He’s not here,” Tarlo called. “Sir, we missed him.”

Hogan’s map showed him a big concentration of squad members along a section of track, with Tarlo in the middle.

“We can’t have,” Gwyneth insisted. “For God’s sake, I saw him behind the train.”

“Well, he didn’t come this way.”

“Then where, for fuck’s sake?”

“Can anyone see him?” Hogan asked. “Somebody?”

He received a chorus of “Not here,” “No, sir.”

As he walked unsteadily away from the maglev track, his virtual vision showed him the station network slowly reestablishing itself. Renne had pulled a junction routing schedule from traffic control, and was using it to warn everybody of approaching trains.

“Keep everyone in their positions,” he told her. “I want a perimeter around this junction. He can’t have reached the edges yet. We keep it sealed until we have full electronic coverage again.”

“Yes, sir,” she answered. “Oh, we just got some additional help.”

A couple of black helicopters swooped low over the junction, with LAPD written in white on their underbelly. Hogan glared at them. Oh, great, just like the marina fiasco. The cops will be laughing their asses off at us.

Clear sensor images were flipping up into a grid in his virtual vision as the kaos cleared. He heard the first of the trains braking, a teeth-jangling screech that cut clean across the junction. It was joined by another, then another, until every train was slowing to a halt.

Finally the junction was silent, the trains motionless. “All right, people,” Hogan announced grimly, “let’s sweep this area sector by sector.”

Two hours later Alic had to admit defeat. They’d searched every inch of the junction, visually and with sensors. The assassin was nowhere to be found. The perimeter of his own squads and CST security teams remained unbreached. Yet the target had somehow eluded them.

From his makeshift field command post on platform 12A, Hogan watched the tired, despondent squads trekking in from all across the junction. It was a wretched blow to everyone’s morale. He could see it in their expressions, the way they wouldn’t meet his eyes as they passed.

Tarlo stopped in front of him, looking more angry than disappointed. “I don’t get it. We were right behind him. The others were all around. There’s no way he could have got past us, I don’t care what he was wetwired with.”

“He had help,” Hogan told his lieutenant. “A lot of help. The kaos alone proves that.”

“Yeah, I guess. You coming back to Paris? Some of us are going to hit the bars; they’ll still be open. The good ones anyway.”

At any other time Hogan would have appreciated the offer. “Thanks, but no. I’ve got to tell the Admiral what happened.”

Tarlo winced in sympathy. “Ouch. Well…that’s why they pay you the big bucks.”

“Not enough for this,” Hogan muttered as the tall Californian headed off down the platform to his squad mates. He took a breath, and told his e-butler to place the call to Columbia’s office.


Senator Justine Burnelli stayed with the body as the official from the city morgue directed the robotic stretcher toward one of the Carralvo’s many basement service exits. There had been quite a delay while LA Galactic recovered from its kaos attack, time she simply spent staring at Kazimir’s figure on the white marble floor of the concourse. The sheet that the subdued CST staff had produced wasn’t quite big enough to cover the pool of blood spreading around him.

Now her love was sealed in a black body bag, and a small squadron of cleaningbots was already at work on the blood, scouring the marble surface, eradicating any sign of staining with sharp effective chemicals. In a week’s time, nobody would ever know what happened on that spot.

The robotic stretcher slid itself into the back of the morgue ambulance.

“I’ll ride with him,” Justine announced.

Nobody argued, not even Paula Myo. Justine clambered into the vehicle and sat on the cramped bench beside the stretcher as the doors closed. Myo and the two Senate Security bodyguards she had detailed to accompany Justine got into a waiting car behind the ambulance. Alone in the gloomy light from a single polyphoto strip on the ceiling, Justine thought she was going to start crying again.

I won’t! Kazimir wouldn’t want that, him and his old-world notions.

A lone tear leaked down her cheek as she slowly unzipped the body bag, allowing herself to see him one last time before the inevitable forensic autopsy. His young body would be examined and analyzed very thoroughly, which would mean the pathologists cutting him open to complement the deep scan. He wouldn’t be Kazimir after that.

She gazed down at him, still surprised by the passive expression on his face.

“Oh, my love, I’ll carry on your cause,” she promised him. “I’ll fight your fight, and we’ll win. We’ll beat it. We’ll destroy the Starflyer.”

Kazimir’s dead face stared up blindly. She flinched as she looked down at his ruined chest, the tattered, burnt hole that the ion pulse had left in his jacket and shirt. Slowly, she forced her hand into his pockets, feeling around for anything. He’d been sent to the observatory in Peru to collect something, and she knew she couldn’t trust the navy. She wasn’t sure about Myo, either; and the Investigator certainly didn’t trust her.

There was nothing in his pockets. She moved down his body, patting the fabric of his clothes, trying to ignore the smears of blood building up on her fingers and palms. It took a while, but she eventually found the memory crystal in his belt. A faint, fond smile touched her lips at that: Kazimir on his secret mission used a belt secure pocket like some tourist afraid of being mugged. There and then, she hated the Guardians for using him. Their cause might be right, but that didn’t mean they could recruit children.

Justine was wiping her hands down on some tissues when the vehicle started braking to a halt. She shoved the tissues into her bag along with the memory crystal and hurriedly zipped the body bag up. The doors opened. Justine stepped out, worried she would look as guilty as she felt.

They were in a small warehouse, parked on a platform beside a waiting train that had only two carriages. She’d had to call Campbell Sheldon to summon up a private train so quickly; fortunately, he’d been sympathetic. Even though they were friends, she knew there would be a price to pay later. There always was, some support for a policy, a returned favor. It was the way of the game. She didn’t care.

Paula stood beside her as the stretcher trundled into the cargo compartment on the second carriage. “You realize that Admiral Columbia will not approve of this, Senator?”

“I know,” Justine said. She didn’t care about that, either. “But I want to be very sure of the autopsy. Senate Security can supervise the procedure, but I want it performed at our family clinic in New York. It’s the only place I can be sure there will be no discrepancies or problems.”

“I understand.”

The train took twenty minutes to traverse the distance between Seattle and the Newark station, which served New York. An unmarked ambulance from the clinic was waiting for the body, along with two limousines. This time Justine couldn’t avoid riding with Paula as the little convoy sped off to the exclusive facility just outside the city.

“Do you trust me?” Paula asked.

Justine pretended to look out of the darkened window at the outlying districts. Despite the profound shock of the murder and all its associated emotional turmoil, she was still rational enough to consider the implications of the question. And she knew damn well the Investigator never, ever eased off.

“I believe we now share several common goals. We both want that assassin caught. We both believe the Starflyer exists. We both certainly know the navy is compromised.”

“That will do to begin with,” Paula said. “You still have blood under your fingernails, Senator. I presume it got there when you searched the body.”

Justine knew her cheeks would be reddening. So much for slick maneuvering. She gave the Investigator a long, calculating look, then reached down into her bag for another tissue.

“Did you find anything?” Paula asked.

“Do you still think the Starflyer got to me when I was on Far Away?”

“Nothing in this case can be certain. The Starflyer has had a very long time to establish its connections within the Commonwealth unopposed and unseen. But I do assign that a very low probability.”

“I’m on probation, then.” Justine worked the tissue edge at a fleck of blood on her left index finger.

“An astute summary.”

“It must be very lonely for you up there on top of Olympus, judging the rest of us.”

“I hadn’t realized how badly you’ve been affected by McFoster’s death. I wouldn’t normally expect a Burnelli to give away any edge in a deal.”

“Are we making a deal?”

“You know we are.”

“Kazimir and I were lovers.” She said it simply, as if it were a stock market report, trying to keep her distance. Inside, the numbness was giving way to pain. She knew once the body was delivered safely to the clinic she’d have to flee back to the Tulip Mansion, a place where she could grieve properly, without anyone seeing.

“I had determined that much. Did you meet on Far Away?”

“Yes. He was only seventeen then. I’d never have guessed I could love someone like that. But then you never get to choose when it comes to real love, do you?”

“No.” Paula turned away.

“Have you been in love like that, Investigator? Love that makes you completely crazy?”

“Not for several lives, no.”

“I could cope with a bodyloss. I have with my brother. I could even cope with him losing several days of memory. But this, this is death, Investigator. Kazimir is gone forever, and I am the cause of that, I am the one who betrayed him. I’m not equipped for that, not mentally. True death is not something that happens today. Mistakes of this magnitude cannot be buried.”

“The Prime attack resulted in several tens of millions of humans being killed on the Lost23. People that will never be re-lifed. Your grief is not unique. Not anymore.”

“I’m just another rich bitch who has lost a trinket. Is that it?”

“No, Senator. Your suffering is very real, and for that I am genuinely sympathetic. However, I do believe you will get through this. You have the determination and clarity of thought that is only afforded to people of your age and experience.”

Justine snorted. “Emotional scar tissue, you mean.”

“Resilience would be closer to the mark. If anything, I’d say today has shown you just how human you are. In that at least you can be content.”

Justine finished polishing her nails with the tissue. Now there was no evidence she had ever touched him—it was a miserable thought. “You really believe that?”

“I do. I’m assuming the body is actually being taken to your family clinic so you can clone him?”

“No. I won’t do that to him. Replicating him physically is hardly going to purge my guilt. A person is more than just a body. I’m going to give Kazimir the one gift I still can. I can do no less.”

“I see. Then I wish you happiness in your choice, Senator.”

“Thank you.”

“But I would still like to know if you found anything.”

“A memory crystal.”

“May I see it?”

“Yes, I suppose you can. It’s your experience I’ll need to help bring down the Starflyer. But there are limits to my cooperation; I won’t give the navy anything that will help them stop the Guardians. I don’t care how committed you are to arresting Johansson.”

“I understand.”


Adam had personally given Kieran McSobel the support assignment for Kazimir’s run. Kieran had been making good progress since arriving on Earth a few years earlier, absorbing their tradecraft with ease, staying cool under pressure—qualities that marked him down as highly suitable for the kind of operations the Guardians were performing these days. This assignment should be a walk in the park for him.

When Kazimir’s loop train pulled in, Kieran was in place on the Carralvo’s concourse, mingling with the perpetual flood of passengers. Indistinguishable in the crowd like any good operative, ready for any number of contingencies.

Away on the other side of the station complex, the Guardians monitored his progress from the offices of Lemule’s Max Transit company. Adam himself lounged against the back wall, watching them in turn. He didn’t interfere with the procedures—after all, they were the ones he’d taught them, but he wanted his presence to supply them with a degree of reassurance. A comfortable father figure. It took a lot of effort not to pull a dismayed face every time he thought that. But this was a crucial operation; he had to be here to keep an eye on it. Bradley Johansson was desperate for the Martian data. The alien attack on the edge of phase two space had played hell with their carefully plotted timetable.

Marisa McFoster was running electronic scans through the Carralvo’s network, searching for any sign of observation activity around Kazimir. “It’s clean,” she announced. A secure link connected her to Kieran. “Proceed,” she told him.

A map on one of her console screens showed Kieran’s icon moving slowly along the concourse toward the main exit. He ought to be thirty meters behind Kazimir, monitoring the throng of passengers for possible tails.

“He’s stopped,” Kieran said suddenly.

“What do you mean, stopped?” Marisa asked.

Adam immediately straightened up. Please, not again.

“He’s shouting at someone,” Kieran’s puzzled voice said. “What in the dreaming heavens…?”

“Give me a visual,” Marisa told him.

Adam hurried over to stand behind her chair, bending to look at her console portal. The link from Kieran’s retinal inserts delivered an unsteady picture, a poor view through a crowd of people. A cluster of dark out-of-focus heads bobbed around directly in front of him. On the other side of them a figure was running. The image flared white as an ion pulse discharged.

“Fuck!” Kieran yelled. Smeared strands of darkness slashed across the glare of light as he whipped his head about. For a second there was a blurry black and white image of a man flying backward through the air, arms and legs flung wide. Then Kieran zoomed in on the man with the gun who was now turning to run.

“Bruce!” Marisa cried out.

“Who the hell’s Bruce?” Adam demanded.

“Bruce McFoster. Kazimir’s friend.”

“Shit. You mean the one that was killed?”


Adam slapped a fist against his forehead. “Only he wasn’t. The Starflyer’s done this to your prisoners before. Goddamnit!”

The screen showing the feed from Kieran flashed white. “He’s shooting again,” Kieran said. All the portal showed now was a pair of shoes, their wearer lying flat on a white marble floor. Kieran lifted his head and the shoes sank off the bottom of the portal; beyond them, Bruce McFoster was racing down the concourse, people ducking for cover on either side of him as he kept on firing. Two men and one woman were chasing after him, holding pistols and yelling at him to stop. They were dressed in ordinary clothes.

“They aren’t CST security,” Adam said grimly.

A shot from somewhere above and behind Kieran struck Bruce McFoster. His force field flared briefly, but he never slowed.

“Dear God, how many people knew Kazimir was on this run?”

Red icons started to flash up across Marisa’s console. “Someone’s attacked the local network with kaos,” she said. “Bad strike; this is high-grade software. The RI can barely contain the contamination.”

“That’ll be Bruce, or his controllers,” Adam said. “It’ll help him get clear. They must have known the navy was watching Kazimir.” Which is more than we did, he thought miserably.

The link to Kieran’s inserts was dissolving; all that remained was his secure audio channel.

“What do we do?” Marisa asked.

“Kieran, can you reach Kazimir?” Adam demanded. “Can you retrieve the memory crystal?”

“I don’t…oh, what…there’s someone…armed…standing beside…that’s no way, I can’t get…more people…alarms triggered…”

“All right, stay put and see what happens. See where they take him.”

“I’m on…okay.”

“Can you see where Bruce has gone?”

“…shooting still…chase…platform twelve-A…pursuit…repeat, platform twelve-A…”

Adam didn’t even need to consult a console map. After twenty-five years working in LA Galactic, he knew the massive station’s layout better than Nigel Sheldon. He sat at the console beside Marisa and opened the dedicated landlines he’d carefully installed over the last few years using bots to spool out optical cable through ducts and along pipes, spreading their invisible web across the massive station’s landscape. Each one was connected to a tiny stealthed sensor; they’d been placed on walls high above the ground, lamp-posts, bridges, anywhere that provided a good field of view.

Two of them covered the large junction area west of the Carralvo. The images came up just in time for Adam to see Bruce sprinting out from under the huge arching concrete roof that covered the platform. The Starflyer agent turned sharply and began leaping over tracks. Adam actually drew in a sharp breath at one point as a train hurtled toward the speeding figure. But Bruce cut clean in front of it with perfect timing. He ran past a second train that was traveling more slowly and in the opposite direction. It completely threw the navy personnel following him.

CST security staff were drifting into the images, jogging along dangerously close to trains as they tried to look past the flashing wheels. Adam suddenly realized that none of them had any contact with traffic control. Bruce jumped over a maglev track, and changed direction yet again. His pursuers were slowing now. They’d become wary of the trains rushing through the junction, switching tracks without warning. Despite their caution, they were deployed in a simple circle that was slowly contracting. Adam knew they must have access to some kind of communications.

He ordered a sensor to focus on one of the navy personnel. Sure enough, the woman was emitting a faint electromagnetic micropulse, well outside the standard civil cybersphere node spectrum. They were using a dedicated high-order encryption system to keep in contact. “Damnit,” Adam whispered to himself. No wonder his team’s scrutineer programs, so carefully infiltrated into LA Galactic’s network nodes, hadn’t spotted any surveillance around Kazimir. Which meant navy intelligence suspected their countersurveillance capabilities; that or Alic Hogan was being seriously paranoid.

One of the navy people was closing on Bruce along a narrow corridor formed by two moving trains. They were only a couple of hundred meters apart. Bruce seemed oblivious to his pursuer.

“…Paula Myo…” Kieran said.

“Repeat please,” Adam told him quickly.

“I…see Myo…concourse…charge…talking…the Senator.”

Paula Myo! Not off the case after all. Damnit!

It was a tiny distraction, but enough for Adam to lose sight of Bruce down amid the tracks and speeding trains. “Where the hell did he go?” It looked like the pursuers didn’t have a clue, either. A whole line of them were now walking along the track where he’d been moments ago, shouting at each other and waving their hands about. The trains were coming to a halt all around them.

It took three replays of the sensor recordings before Adam was really certain. He watched the enhanced image of Bruce in slow motion: a collection of blurred gray pixels that made a crazy jump straight at a freight train as it slid alongside. A dark square on the side of a freight container swallowed up the smudged figure. Seconds later the square had vanished, closing up into an ordinary sheet of metal.

“Son of a bitch,” Adam grunted. “We’re up against a real bunch of Boy Scouts here.”

“Sir?” Marisa asked.

“They came very well prepared.”


Four centuries of experience and objectivity counted for absolutely nothing as the Pathfinder began its terrifying plummet; Ozzie started screaming as loudly as Orion, both of them audible even over the thunder of the falling sea. Spray whirled around the rickety raft with brutal force, wiping out all sight of the sky in a gray haze. Ozzie clung to the mast as if that alone could save him from certain death as he fell and fell and fell without end. The spume soaked his clothes in seconds, stinging his naked skin.

He drew a breath and screamed again. When he ran out of air he sucked down more, half of which was fizzing water. He coughed and spluttered, an automatic action that overrode the wild impulse to keep on screaming. As soon as his throat was clear and his lungs full again, he started to open his mouth for the scream that would surely end in an awful explosion of pain. Right at the back of his brain, an insecure, puzzled thought began to register.

As they went over the edge of the waterfall he’d glimpsed the impossible length of the cascade, and there hadn’t been a bottom. No jagged rocks below upon which to smash apart. No abrupt end. Nothing, in fact.

This whole setup is artificial, you asshole!

Ozzie took another breath, exhaled through flared nostrils, then forced himself to inhale deeply. His body insisted he was falling, and had been doing so for several seconds now. Animal instinct knew they must have hurtled down an incredible distance, that his velocity was way past terminal already. The steady breathing routine helped slow his frantic heart rate.

Think! You’re not falling, you’re in zero gee. Freefall! You’re safe…for the moment anyway.

The roar of the waterfall somewhere beyond the lashing froth was still overwhelming. He could hear Orion’s cries that had become gulping whimpers. Wiping the droplets from his eyes he peered around. The boy was clinging to the deck of the raft a couple of meters away. The naked terror on his face was horrible to see; nobody should have to suffer like that.

“It’s okay,” Ozzie bellowed. “We’re not falling; it just looks like it. We’re in freefall, like astronauts.” That should reassure the boy.

Orion’s horror took on a bamboozled aspect. “Whatnauts?”

Oh, for Christ’s sake! “We’re safe. Okay? It’s not as bad as it looks.”

The boy nodded his head, totally unconvinced. He was still bracing himself for the certain killer impact.

Ozzie took a good look around, constantly having to wipe the spray from his face. He could just pick out the sun, a smear of brightness creating a whorl of refraction rainbows within the spray. Call that direction up then. Half of the saturated universe surrounding them was distinctly darker than the other half. That must be the waterfall. Which was wrong, because if they were truly in zero gee the water wouldn’t fall anywhere. Yet he’d seen it. He tightened his grip on the mast with an involuntary lurch.

Okay, so what can cause water to flow in zero gee? Fuck knows. So what geometry is this screwball worldlet? It can’t be a planet…

He remembered the water specks drifting through the hazy eternal sky of the gas halo. This colossal worldlet must be one of them. As always in this place, scale had thrown him.

A flat ocean on one side, then. With the water falling off the edge. If it pours away constantly, then it will have to be replaced. Or more likely it just cycles around and around. The underside collects the overspill somehow, and sends it back to the ocean side again. Crazy! But then if you can create gravity and apply it how you want, it isn’t actually so weird.

With controllable gravity as a baseline, Ozzie tried to picture the geometry of the worldlet. If it was truly like the other water specks, then it was completely covered in water. Gravity projectors just pulled the fluid around in unexpected directions. He didn’t like the shapes his mind was coming up with. None of them had undersides where the raft could float along serenely.

When he looked around again, he thought they were drifting closer toward the waterfall. The spray around them was noticeably thinner, yet the gloom was no darker. They must be moving into the underside shadow.

There is gravity here, at right angles to the ocean on the topside. Maybe even less than ninety degrees, because the water has to be pulled around and under. Which is really not good. We cannot afford to get caught up in the flow.

For now they were safe, as long as the underside gravity was still tenuous. The ocean current had shot them horizontally past the edge of the worldlet, which had given them a hiatus, but the underside’s artificial gravity would pull them in eventually. It was already attracting the spray droplets, drawing them back into the flow.

They had to get clear while the gravity remained weak. And he could only think of one propulsive force left to them.

Ozzie checked that the rope around his waist was tied very securely to the base of the mast, and let go. Orion squealed in shock; his wide eyes following Ozzie’s every move. It had been a long time since Ozzie had been in freefall; even then he’d never been particularly good at maneuvering around. He pushed lightly against the mast, remembering the cardinal rule that you must never move quickly. There were objects gliding through the spray around him, mostly the globes of fruit they’d brought with them, which had escaped from their wicker baskets. His little shaving pack tumbled past him, and he cursed, unreasonably annoyed at the utterly trivial loss. Thankfully, the handheld array was still clipped to his rucksack, which was lashed firmly to the deck. He pulled the glistening gadget free, and hauled his way across the Pathfinder until he reached Tochee.

The wooden decking where the big alien was clinging on with its locomotion flesh ridges was bent upward, its grip was so fierce. Some of the crudely shaped branches were actually starting to fracture. Ozzie held on to a single branch of decking, and pushed the array in front of Tochee’s protuberant eye.

“We have to get out of here,” Ozzie cried. The array translated his voice into dancing violet starbursts on its screen.

“We fall to our death,” Tochee replied through the array. “I regret this. I wish for more life.”

“I don’t have time to explain,” Ozzie replied. He was aware the waterfall’s rumble was reducing as the cascade slowly calmed. “Trust me, please. You have to fly us out of here.”

“Friend Ozzie. I cannot fly. I am sorry.”

“Yes you can. Swim, Tochee, swim in the air. That should pull us free. We must not touch the water again.”

“I do not understand.”

“No time. Trust me. I’ll hold you. You swim. Away from the waterfall. As hard as you can.” Ozzie clambered clumsily along Tochee’s body. The alien’s natural cloak of colorful featherlike fronds was saturated, sticking to its leathery hide. They felt soggy under his skin, and he didn’t dare pull too hard on one in case it ripped off. Finally, he was behind Tochee’s rump, and put his arms out to grip the alien’s locomotion flesh ridges. He felt the rubbery tissue slither under his fingers as buds swelled over his hands, forming an unbreakable hold.

Tochee tensed for a long moment, then abruptly let go of the Pathfinder. It spread all four of its flesh ridges onto wide fins, which began to ripple tentatively. Ozzie felt the rope tighten around his waist. Then as Tochee began to beat his fins with larger, more positive sweeps, the tension in the rope increased. If he’d thought about just how much the raft massed, Ozzie might have come up with a slightly different method of Tochee pulling them free. As it was, he was the critical link in the chain. With Tochee’s vigorous forward motion towing them away from the underside’s diminutive gravity field, the entire raft was very literally dangling from Ozzie’s waist. He gritted his teeth as the force on his arms increased. Now that Tochee could see the effect it was having, its enthusiasm had grown. There was actually a sodden wind gusting back from its fins. The big creature began to change them further, thinning its flesh out so they became more winglike. Ozzie just knew his arms were going to pull clean out of their shoulder sockets any minute now.

He never knew exactly how long it took, but eventually the spray reduced down to an insipid mist. That too cleared. They left the waterfall’s cloak of mist behind, emerging out into direct sunlight. Bright blue sky materialized around them, its warmth sinking into his skin. The noise of the waterfall had become a background growling. It didn’t threaten anymore.

Tochee stopped flapping, and pulled its sinuous flesh back down into the usual ridges along its flanks. Ozzie felt a slow tremor run the length of his friend’s big body. When he looked down between his legs, he could see they were drifting in toward the raft. Orion’s bewildered, hopeful face looked up at them. The rope was already slack, bending into supple loops that snaked around through the air. They just missed being impaled on the top of the mast, and sank down to the decking. Tochee extended a slim tentacle, and coiled its tip around a branch.

The locomotion ridge flesh smothering Ozzie’s hands retracted, and he grabbed at the mast. His heart was thudding away inside his ribs.

“What’s happening?” Orion demanded. The boy still hadn’t let go of the decking where he’d been tied. “Why aren’t we dead?”

Ozzie opened his mouth, and gave a loud burp. Now he had a moment, he could feel his stomach rebelling against the ceaseless falling sensation. On top of that discomfort, his head felt as if he’d suddenly come down with a cold, with his sinuses badly clogged. “We’re not falling in the normal sense,” Ozzie said slowly. He was aware of Tochee’s body aligning its eye on the handheld array, where the alien was avidly reading the spiky purple patterns flowering on the screen. “And that wasn’t a normal planet.” He pointed tentatively back at the gigantic waterfall. It formed an awesome curtain of glistening motion beyond the port side of the raft, extending away out to a vanishing point in three directions. Only the rim of the worldlet provided an end. And that seemed to be receding gently.

The Pathfinder had actually descended several kilometers below the level of the ocean. There the water foamed and frothed wildly as it poured out over the edge, while behind them it was now considerably more placid as its gargantuan writhing cataracts and spume merged back into a single rippling torrent that surged along the cliff that comprised the side of the synthetic worldlet. Following the water as it flowed along, he couldn’t see where it was heading, not even with his retinal inserts on full zoom. Right at the limit of resolution, the cliff appeared to be curving away. If he was right about that, it would make the worldlet hemispherical.

Directly above them, the brim of the worldlet was definitely curved, although it was a very slight one. His inserts ran a few calculations; if the topside was truly circular, it would be just over sixteen hundred kilometers in diameter. He whistled appreciatively.

“I think I’m going to be sick,” Orion said miserably.

“Listen, man,” Ozzie said. “I know you feel this is the strangest sensation, and I really appreciate it looks even worse, but the human body can live in these conditions. Astronauts were floating around in space for months at a time when I was your age.”

“I don’t know any astronauts,” Orion wailed glumly. “I never heard of aliens called that.”

Ozzie wanted to drop his head into his hands, but that would have required gravity.

“I am not certain that my body can survive, either,” Tochee said through the array. “I feel considerable discomfort. I do not understand why I think I am falling. I can see I am not, yet that is not what my senses tell me.”

“I know it’s difficult at first,” Ozzie said. “But trust me on this one, guys, your bodies will get used to it in a little while. If experience is anything to go by, you’ll probably even get to like it.”

He stopped as Orion made a miserable retching sound, then the boy was vomiting weakly.

“I would like to believe you, my friend Ozzie,” Tochee said. “But I do not consider you understand my physiology well enough to make such a statement.”

Orion wiped his hand over his mouth, then stared in disgust at the sticky yellow globules that oscillated slowly through the air just in front of his face. “We can’t stay here,” he exclaimed desolately. “Tochee, can you pull us back to the island?”

“I should be able to.”

“Whooo there, guys,” Ozzie said. “Let’s not rush into actions like that. If we fly over that ocean and the gravity catches us, we’re likely to fall for real.”

“It’s got to be better than this,” Orion whined. His cheeks bulged again, and he groaned.

Ozzie looked back at the worldlet. They were definitely drifting away from it at a slow but steady rate. “There are other objects inside the gas halo. Remember what Bradley Johansson told me? He wound up on some sort of tree reef that lives in orbit here. And they categorically have paths away. I mean, how else would he get back to the Commonwealth?”

“Are they far?” Orion moaned.

“I don’t know,” Ozzie said patiently. “We’ll have to wait and see what we find next.” He held his hand out. “There’s a breeze here. That means we’re moving.” He realized the raft had twisted so that the worldlet was slipping below the decking.

“I really hate this,” Orion said.

“I know. Now let’s get everything as secure as we can. We can’t risk losing any more supplies. Or any of us, for that matter.”


The designers of the Tulip Mansion had intended the conservatory-style chamber to be the breakfast room. It extended out from the eastern side of the north wing like an octagonal blister: traditional high glass roof supported by cast iron pillars, and walls made out of gently curving panes that came down to ground level. The floor was classic black and white marble tiles, with a large central circular Romanate bar where the pampered owners ate their morning meal amid dappled beams of strong sunlight. Vines and climbing fuchsias grew out of big unglazed pots at the foot of each pillar, their shaggy greenery providing a gentle shade. The air had a sweet muskiness, complemented during the day by the delicate scent of the short-lived flowers that bloomed all the year.

With the Burnelli family preferring the less exposed west wing dining room to start the day in, Justine had taken over the chamber as a kind of casual office. Out had come the formal chairs to be replaced by some large leather couches and even a couple of gelmold bags. The only thing standing on the central bar these days was a giant crescent-shaped aquarium, with a variety of colorful terrestrial and alien fish that regarded each other warily. It left just enough room for the two technicians to install the new large array on the remaining surface.

Justine stood in the doorway, watching as they completed their checks and gathered up their tools. She was wearing black, of course, a plain long skirt and matching blouse; nothing too fashionable, but not gloomy, either. Just a simple statement, which she felt was most appropriate. Most of her social circle wouldn’t even recognize the significance, she thought; their kind never had to deal with the concept of death anymore.

“Up and running, ma’am,” the senior technician said.

“Thank you,” Justine said distantly. The two technicians nodded politely and left. They were from Dislan, the Burnelli-owned electronics company that did nothing but manufacture and supply equipment to the family.

She went over to the austere silver-gray cylinder squatting on the polished granite-top bar. There was a tiny red light on the upper rim, gleaming scarlet.

Paula Myo walked into the chamber and shut the tall double doors behind her. “Is this secure, Senator?” she asked. There was a degree of skepticism in the tone as she glanced out through the wide windows. Beyond the rose garden, the hills of Rye County formed a crumpled landscape of pine forests, broken by the deeper green swathes of rhododendron bushes that had long finished flowering.

Justine gave her e-butler an instruction. The walls and roof dissolved into a grainy curtain of gray light, like a hologram projector showing a drab autumn sky. No hint of the external world remained, an effect that produced a near-claustrophobic feeling. “It is now,” Justine said lightly. “And the array is completely independent; it doesn’t even have a node, so nobody can hack in. We’re as isolated as it’s possible to be in the modern world.” She took the memory crystal from a slim metal case and stood in front of the array. The single light turned from scarlet to emerald as she pressed her hand on the top. “I want you to scan this, and tell me what data it contains.”

“Yes, Senator,” the RI replied. A small circle on top of the cylinder dilated, and Justine dropped the memory crystal in.

“It’s a quantum scanner,” she told Paula. “So it should be able to locate any hardwired ambush in the molecular structure.”

The two of them sat on one of the couches. Its brown leather was so parched from the strong sunlight it was cracking open; Justine enjoyed it for that as much as the softness that came from age. A tatty piece of furniture in a trillionaire’s immaculate household also made the chamber more appealing to her, a little stamp of personal identity.

“What happened at the autopsy?” Justine asked.

“It was all very ordinary,” Paula said. “They confirmed a lack of any memorycell insert. The rest of his inserts were all relatively common. Navy intelligence will track down the manufacturer, and from that we should get the clinic which gave them to Kazimir. I expect the operation will have been paid for either with cash or from a onetime account; Adam Elvin doesn’t make elementary mistakes, but they could get lucky.”

“Is that it?” Justine wasn’t sure what she’d expected, something that made him stand out at least, an aspect that proved how exceptional he was.

“Essentially, yes. Cause of death confirmed as the ion shot. He wasn’t taking any narcotics, although there was evidence of heavy steroid and hormone infusions over the last couple of years, which is understandable for someone born on a low-gravity world. You should know he hadn’t undergone any cellular reprofiling.”

Justine gave the Investigator a frown.

“It really was him,” Paula explained. “They weren’t trying to push a ringer on you.”

“Ah.” She could have told the Investigator that. He was Kazimir, nobody could fake that. “What about his hotel room? Any leads there?”

“It doesn’t look like it. I’m receiving the reports directly from navy intelligence as soon as they’re filed in their database. Of course, if there’s anything they’re not filing, that they’re keeping to themselves, then we have a problem.”

“Is that likely?”

“It’s a remote possibility. Legally, they have to put everything on file, and therefore Senate Security has complete access as we are higher up the security service food chain. However, you and I both know that the navy is compromised. One of the Starflyer’s people could be holding things back.”

“Assuming they’re not, will the hotel room tell us much?”

“Not really. The Guardians seem to be as thorough with their tradecraft in their own homes as they are everywhere else. The only report I really value is Kazimir’s financial record. That should give us a nice breakdown of his movements before you alerted the navy to his presence.”

A fresh burst of guilt at the reminder made Justine tighten her jaw muscles. “When will that be ready?”

“A couple of days. The navy intelligence office in Paris will correlate the data. I’ll review it after that.”

“Paris: that’s your old office, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Senator.”

“Do you think that’s where the Starflyer’s agent is?”

“It’s a very high probability that one of them is there, yes. I was running several entrapment operations before I was dismissed.”

“And I went and told them about Kazimir,” Justine said bitterly.

Paula Myo stared straight ahead at the cylinder containing the array. “I will expose the Starflyer, Senator. That is what the Guardians are fighting for; the one thing Kazimir McFoster believed in above all else.”

“Yes,” Justine said with a nod.

“I have completed an analysis of the memory crystal,” the RI announced. “It holds three hundred and seventy-two files of encrypted data. There are some software safeguards against unauthorized access, but they can easily be circumvented.”

“Good,” Justine said. Given the capacity of the array she would have been very surprised if it couldn’t gain access to whatever was stored on the crystal.

“Can you decrypt the files?”

“They are encrypted with one thousand two hundred eighty dimension– geometry. I do not have the processing capacity to decrypt that level.”

“Bugger,” Justine muttered. For a moment her hopes had actually risen; she had expected slightly more help from a piece of hardware that had just cost her over five million Earth dollars. “Who does?”

“The SI,” Paula said. “And the Guardians, of course.”

Justine asked the question that she found very difficult. “Do you trust the SI?”

“In helping us defeat the Prime aliens, I believe it to be a trustworthy ally.”

“That’s a very cautious answer.”

“I do not believe that humans can understand the SI’s full motivation. We do not even know its true intent toward us as a species. It claims to be benign, and it has never acted in any other fashion toward us. However…”


“During the course of my investigations I have come across instances which suggest it pays considerably more attention to us than it will admit to.”

“Intelligence gathering has been the occupation of governments since the Trojans got a real bad surprise from that little gift the Greeks left behind. I don’t doubt for a second the SI monitors us.”

“But to what end? There are several theories, most of which belong to the wilder realms of conspiracy paranoia. They all tend to concern its incipient ascent to godhood.”

“What do you believe?”

“I imagine it considers us in much the same way as we would regard a mildly troublesome neighbor. It monitors us because it doesn’t want any surprises, especially one which would threaten the neighborhood.”

“Is this really relevant?”

“Probably not, unless it chooses to take the side of the Primes.”

“Damn, you’re suspicious.”

“I prefer to think of it as an extended chess exercise,” the Investigator said.

“Excuse me?”

“I try to see all the possible moves that can be made to oppose me as far ahead as I can. But I agree that the SI being an enemy is extremely remote. On a personal level I have established a useful working relationship with it; and of course it does contain a great deal of downloaded human personalities, which should act in our favor.”

“Now I just don’t know what the hell to think.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to place you under any additional anxiety. It was thoughtless of me given your current situation.”

“You know, the only benefit of my age right now is that I know when I’m too messed up to be making that kind of decision. So if you don’t mind, I’ll just leave it up to you. Do you want to ask the SI to decrypt this for us?”

“The only alternative is to contact the Guardians and ask them directly.”

“Do you know how to do that?” Justine asked.

“No. If I had that kind of lead into the Guardians I would have shut them down decades ago.”

“I see.” The gray-blue icon for the code Kazimir had sent her hovered in the corner of her virtual vision, inert but oh-so-tempting. Once again she knew she wasn’t thinking clearly enough to make that choice. She didn’t even know if she should tell the Investigator she had it. And for a Commonwealth senator to contact what was currently classified as a political terrorist group was a momentous act. Instinctively, she was loath to risk loading that innocuous code into the unisphere. If any such association became public knowledge before the Starflyer was exposed, she would be completely discredited. Not even the family would be able to protect her. And the Starflyer would have won another victory.

“We might not have to ask anyone to help with the memory crystal,” Paula said. “The navy is investigating the observatory in Peru. They ought to be able to find out the nature of the data, even if the actual files remain blocked.”

“Okay then,” Justine said in relief. “We’ll wait until the navy files that report.” She extracted the memory crystal from the array, then switched off the room’s screening. Warm afternoon sunlight flooded back through the big windows, making Justine blink.

The mansion’s butler was waiting beside the door. “Admiral Columbia is waiting to see you, ma’am,” he said.

“He’s here?” Justine asked in surprise.

“Yes, ma’am. I showed him into the west wing reception room and asked him to wait.”

“Did he say what he wanted?”

“Alas, no, ma’am.”

“Stay here,” Justine told Paula. “I’ll deal with this.” She set off down the north wing’s central corridor, squaring her shoulders as she went. How typical of Columbia to try to gain the advantage by making a surprise visit to her home ground. If he thought that kind of crude tactic would work against even the most junior Burnelli he was badly mistaken.

The decoration in the west wing reception room harked back to the most lavish days of the French monarchy. Justine had always disliked quite so much gilt framing and gold leaf; and the period chairs, although beautifully ornate, were actually uncomfortable to sit on for any length of time.

Admiral Rafael Columbia was standing waiting in front of the huge fire-place, one foot raised slightly to rest on the marble hearth. In his immaculate uniform, all he was missing was a fur-lined coat for the image of an imperial tsar to be complete. He seemed to be studying the onyx case clock dominating the mantelpiece.

“Senator”—he gave her a small bow as she made her entrance, pushing the double doors open and striding in—“I was admiring the clock. An original?”

The doors swept shut behind her. “I imagine so. Father is quite an aggressive collector.”


Justine indicated a glass-top table, etched with the Burnelli crest. They sat down on opposite sides in high-back chairs.

“What can I do for you, Admiral?”

“Senator, I’m afraid I must ask why you interfered with a navy intelligence operation. Specifically, removing the body of a suspected terrorist from the scene of a crime.”

“I didn’t remove anything, Admiral. I accompanied the body.”

“You arranged for it to be moved to a nonofficial facility.”

“Our family biotechnology facility, yes. Where the autopsy was conducted under full official supervision.”

“Why, Senator?”

Justine gave him an icy smile. “Because I have no confidence in navy intelligence. I had just witnessed the entire surveillance operation fail catastrophically. I didn’t want any further failures. Kazimir’s body should provide the intelligence staff with a great many leads. From what I’ve seen so far, your department has proved remarkably incompetent. There are to be no further mistakes on this case, Admiral. I will not accept any excuses.”

“Senator, may I ask how you know Kazimir McFoster?”

“We met while I was taking a vacation on Far Away. We had a brief fling. He then showed up here at Tulip Mansion just before the Prime attack. Naturally, when he told me he was working for the Guardians, I informed Commander Hogan immediately. It’s all on file.”

“What did he want?”

“A number of things. To convince me the Starflyer was real. To remove the customs inspection of all cargo traveling to Far Away. I refused.”

“So you weren’t close then?”


“I understand you were extremely upset by his death.”

“I was extremely shaken by it. I am not used to witnessing total death. No matter what his views and activities, nobody that young should suffer death.”

“Was the supervised autopsy your idea, Senator?”


“I understand Paula Myo also accompanied the body.”

“I have every confidence in Investigator Myo.”

Rafael’s expression tightened. “I’m afraid I don’t share that confidence, Senator. The Investigator is a large factor in the whole Guardian problem which navy intelligence faces. I was surprised and not a little upset when I heard your family secured her appointment to Senate Security.”

“We were surprised you dismissed her from navy intelligence.”

“After a hundred thirty years of no results, I thought it expedient.”

“Everybody in the Commonwealth knows about the Investigator precisely because she does produce results.”

“To be frank with you, Senator, she’s beginning to lose the plot. She accused her own officers of disloyalty. She was running external operations without clearance. She also began to show sympathetic tendencies toward the terrorists she was supposed to be pursuing.”

“Sympathy, in what way?”

“She said she believed in the Starflyer alien.”

“And you don’t?”

“Of course not.”

“Who killed my brother, Admiral?”

“I don’t understand. You know it was the same assassin that killed McFoster.”

“Quite. And McFoster was a Guardian. Whoever that assassin works for, they are opposing both the Commonwealth and the Guardians. I believe that leaves you with a rather narrow field of suspects, doesn’t it?”

“The Guardians have been involved with the black market arms trade for a very long time. As a group, those people tend to settle their arguments with extreme force. We believe this assassin works for one of the merchants involved.”

“And my brother just got in the way?”

“If an arms shipment was blocked, then a lot of money would be at stake.”

“This is ridiculous. Commonwealth senators are not murdered in some primitive vendetta.”

“Nor are they killed by invisible aliens.”

Justine sat back and glared at the Admiral.

“However unpleasant it is to acknowledge, Senator,” Rafael said, “the Commonwealth has a large criminal fraternity. That is why the original Intersolar Serious Crimes Directorate was formed. If you don’t believe me, then feel free to ask Investigator Myo. Or you might like to consider why Senate Security exists. We have enough problems with genuine threats to the Commonwealth. We really don’t need to invent new ones.”

“Admiral, are you warning me off?”

“I’m advising you that your current actions are inappropriate at this difficult time. Right now we need to pull together and fight our very real enemy.”

“The navy has my full support, and will continue to receive it.”

“Thank you, Senator. One last thing. The McFoster terrorist was on some kind of courier mission. We didn’t find what he was carrying.”

She cocked her head to one side, and gave him a blank smile. “Isn’t that unusual?”

“Very, Senator. I was wondering if you saw anything while you accompanied him?”


“Are you certain, Senator?”

“I never saw what he was carrying. If he was.”

“I see.” Columbia’s gaze never flickered. “We will find it eventually, you know.”

“You didn’t find the assassin afterward, did you?” It was a childish gibe, but Justine enjoyed it anyway, especially the way Columbia’s neck reddened slightly above his uniform collar.

Gore Burnelli and Paula Myo were talking on the worn leather sofa when Justine returned to her day room. Her father’s plain gold face reflected dapples of light that glinted on the pillars and floor, flowing around with any tiny movement he made. Justine activated the screening as she came in, cutting off the daylight.

“That McFoster boy made you soft and sentimental,” Gore said as soon as they were secure. “You should have kicked Columbia’s ass right into fucking orbit. In the old days you’d have eaten him for breakfast. I can’t believe any daughter of mine has turned into such a goddamned liberal wimp. ”

“These are the new days, Father,” Justine said calmly. “And I’m not the one out of place and time.” Inside she was seething that he’d say such a thing anywhere, let alone in front of the Investigator. Even Paula Myo, usually so composed, looked uncomfortable at Gore’s outburst.

“Just telling you the way it is, girl. If your dead boyfriend is fucking with your emotions you should get your memory of him wiped out of your brain. I can’t afford you to be weak, not now.”

“I’ll certainly consider eliminating anything I find distasteful from my life.” She sometimes wondered if Gore was still human enough to remember and understand a concept like love, there had been so many adaptations made to his body.

“That’s more like it,” he said, chuckling. “You know Columbia is going to come at you six ways from hell after the LA Galactic screwup? He wants Paula here out of the picture permanently, and while he’s at it he’d like the Senate to turn into a nice little Soviet parliament, voting for him unanimously every time.”

“It’s not Columbia you have to worry about,” Paula said.

Justine and Gore broke off their little contest of wills to look at the Investigator.

“I believe I know the real reason Thompson was killed.”

“And you haven’t fucking told me?” Gore snapped.

“For almost the entire time I was in the Directorate I lobbied for all the goods shipped to Far Away to be examined by police-style inspectors. It was blocked by the Executive every time, until Thompson rammed the proposal through for me.”

“And the Starflyer killed him for it,” Gore said. “We knew that.”

“Just before he was killed, Thompson called me. He said he’d found out who had been blocking my requests. Nigel Sheldon.”

“That can’t be right,” Justine said automatically. “Sheldon made the whole Commonwealth possible. He’s not going to try to undermine it.”

“Not voluntarily,” Gore said. Even with his golden skin making any normal expression impossible, it was obvious the notion troubled him. “But as I understand it, Bradley Johansson always claimed he was enslaved by the alien.”

“I’ve replayed the recording of Kazimir’s last minute in the Carralvo terminal several times now,” Paula said. “He appeared to know the assassin. In fact, he was delighted to see him. It was almost as if they were old friends.”

“No.” Justine shook her head, rejecting the whole idea. “I can’t believe anybody could get to Sheldon. The security our family has around us and at our rejuvenation facilities is phenomenal. Sheldon’s will be even stronger.”

“The Guardians claimed that President Doi was working for the Starflyer,” Paula said.

“And what a load of crap that was.” Gore grunted. “If this Starflyer bastard can cut through Senate Security and Sheldon’s protection, it wouldn’t need to skulk about in the shadows; it’d already be our Führer.”

“Then why was your son killed?” Paula asked. “Just for implementing the cargo searches? Or because he uncovered the connection?”

“All right,” Gore said reluctantly. “Assume Thompson came across some information which made him believe it. Did he say who gave him Sheldon’s name?”

“No. He said the whole area was very unclear, it was politics at the highest level.”

“Politics doesn’t have a high level,” Gore muttered; he turned to Justine.

“This is down to you. We need to find out where Thompson got his information from.”

“Dad, I don’t have anything like his contacts in the Senate.”

“Jesus Christ, will you stop selling yourself short, girl? If I want to hear whining that pitiful I’ll visit a human rights lawyer on Orleans.”

She threw up her hands. “Fine, I’ll go blundering around shouting out questions in a loud voice, and see if anyone comes to take a shot at me.”

“More like it,” Gore said, his metallic lips lifting in an approximation of a smile.

“To what end?” Paula asked.

“What do you mean, what fucking end?”

“What will you do if the Senator confirms it was Sheldon who has been blocking my requests?”

“If it’s true, we’ll need to go to his senior family members and show them what’s happened. I expect they’ll have him re-lifed and updated from a secure memory store that predates his corruption—whenever that was.”

“Do you think the Sheldon family will support you?”

“They can’t all be Starflyer agents.”

“Indeed not. But how will we know which are?”

“We’re being very premature,” Justine said. “Let’s try and establish what we suspect first. After that, we should have a clearer picture of what to do.”

“We also need to create some reliable alliances,” Gore said. “A kind of political resistance network to counter the Starflyer’s influence. I’ll make a start on that.”

“Watch out for Columbia,” Paula said. “Now he’s aware you’re my sponsor, he’ll be gunning for your family as well. And his political influence is growing. Societies make a lot of shortcuts during wartime; as admiral in charge of domestic defense he’ll be able to issue orders that would never be countenanced in peacetime.”

“Don’t you worry yourself about that. Hell would have to freeze over for a long time before some Halgarth stooge outsmarts me.”


The little Boeing 44044 VTOL plane landed on the observatory pad amid a swirl of air from its electric jets, which stirred up quite a storm of sandy ocher soil and filthy ice granules. It fell away quickly as the fans slowed, and the flight attendant opened the hatch. Renne felt her ears pop as the pressure dropped abruptly. They were five thousand meters up in the western side of the Andes, just north of Sandia, with the rugged mountains forming a magnificent snowcapped vista all around her. Renne immediately felt short of breath, and sucked down a huge lungful of air. It made no difference at all. She got up out of the seat and scuttled forward, zipping up her coat over her thick sweater. The light outside was bright enough to make her pause at the top of the air stairs and put on her sunglasses. In the treacherously thin air, her breath formed little white streamers in front of her face.

Two officers from the Lima office of navy intelligence were waiting for her on the ground, wearing dark green jackets that looked more like space suits than severe weather gear. Getting down the five aluminum steps left her gasping for oxygen.

One of the men came forward and extended his arm. “Lieutenant Kampasa, welcome to Antina Station. I’m Phil Mandia. I was part of the team boxing McFoster on his way up here.”

“Great,” she wheezed. She could barely make out his face behind a protective amber-tinted goggle mask. Her heart was hammering away hard inside her chest. They had to walk very slowly over to the observatory buildings, a line of squat boxes made from dark plastic, with windows like portholes. Only one had any lights on inside. The three main radio telescope dishes were sitting on the big rocky field behind the buildings, huge white saucers balanced on improbably thin spires of metal. As she watched, one of them turned slightly, tracking along the northern skyline.

“How’s my prisoner behaving?” she asked.

“Cufflin? He claims he knows next to nothing, that he was on some security contract from an anonymous agent. For what it’s worth, I believe him.”

“We’ll know for sure once I take him back to Paris.”

“What are you going to do, read his memories?”


Even with his face shielded by the mask, Phil Mandia’s grimace of disapproval was quite blatant.

Renne’s feet started crunching on the icy rime that bristled over the soil. There didn’t seem to be any plants anywhere, not even tufts of grass. She had to be careful where she trod; the ground was creased with deep tire ruts that had frozen solid. The aging yellow-painted vehicles that had made them were parked outside around the buildings, looking like a disreputable crossbreed between tractors and snowplows. A pair of new maroon Honda four-by-fours were drawn up beside them, sides splattered with thick brown mud.

“You came in those?” Renne asked.

“Yeah.” Phil Mandia nodded at the single bleak road winding away from the observatory. “It was a brute of a drive up here.”

“How the hell did you manage to avoid being seen by McFoster?”

“With difficulty.”

Renne wasn’t sure if he was joking or not.

They reached the main building and went inside where the world was warm again. It didn’t make any difference to Renne’s heart, which was still racing away. She had to sit heavily in the first office they came to. There was no way she could get up again, so she had to take her coat off while remaining in the seat, a simple act that made her even more out of breath. She couldn’t think how she was going to get back out to the VTOL again; the others might have to carry her.

“Doesn’t this altitude bother you?” she asked Phil Mandia.

“Takes a while to adjust,” he admitted.

Renne was beginning to realize how the local team resented her. Some big shot exec sent up to check on why the operation had crashed, looking to shift the blame onto a field team. It’s not like that, she wanted to say. But that would make her look weaker in his eyes. Office politics she could handle easily enough.

“Okay, let me start with the Director,” she said.

Jennifer Seitz was only five years out of rejuvenation. A small, trim woman with attractive green eyes and very dark skin, she wore a baggy chestnut-brown sweater that was long enough to qualify as a dress. The sleeves were rolled up, but even that didn’t stop them flapping around her thin arms. Renne decided it had to be borrowed from someone else about half a meter taller. The Director seemed irritated by the navy’s invasion of her observatory rather than intimidated or worried. Her forceful, dismissive attitude was outwardly softened by the beguilingly youthful smile that she could produce. Phil Mandia received an exasperated glance as he politely ushered her into the office; even that came over as mere petulance rather than genuine disapproval.

Renne pointed at the room’s circular window and the three big dishes outside. “Which one”—she paused, took another breath—“is pointing at Mars?”

“None of them,” Jennifer Seitz said. “The major dishes are for deep-space radio astronomy. We use one of our ancillary receivers to pick up the signal from Mars. It’s not a huge operation.”

“And are we sure it’s the Martian data which Cufflin supplied to McFoster?” Renne glanced at Phil Mandia for confirmation.

“There’s no trace of any of it left in the observatory network memory,” the navy officer said. “Cufflin loaded a tracerworm program to eliminate any record of the transmissions right after McFoster picked up the copy.”

“There must be other copies,” Renne said. “How long have you been receiving the data?”

The corner of Jennifer Seitz’s mouth produced an involuntary tic. “About twenty years.”

“Twenty! What the hell have you been doing with it?”

“We collect it for a science research association. It’s a very minor contract for us; less than one percent of our overall budget. It doesn’t even require human supervision; our RI can handle the whole process. The signals come in once a month. We receive them and store them for the association. Their project length is expected to be thirty years.” Jennifer Seitz caught the surprise in Renne’s eyes. “What, you think that’s long-term? We’re running some observations here that will take a century to complete, that’s if we’re lucky.”

“Okay, back up a moment here and take me through this slowly,” Renne said. “I didn’t even know the Commonwealth had anything on Mars. Where do these signals come from, exactly?”

“The remote science station on Arabia Terra.”

“And what sort of science goes on there?”

“Just about the full range of planetary science remote sensing: meteorological, geological—I should say areological—solar physics, radiation. It’s a long list; you name the subject and it’ll have its own set of instruments up there busy watching. They’re all over Mars, relaying their readings to Arabia Terra, which in turn sends them to us. Satellites, too. There’s four of them currently in polar orbit, though they all need replacing.”

“I never knew anyone was still interested in Mars.”

“Very few people are,” Jennifer Seitz said sardonically. “We’re talking astronomy, here, after all. Even after Dudley Bose came along, we’re not exactly the most popular profession in the Commonwealth. And there are planets in this universe a lot more interesting than Mars. However, a small collection of sensors operating over a long time can produce just as much data as a shorter, more intense study. Actually, the data is more relevant when gathered over time, more representative. We have remote stations right across the solar system collecting little chunks of data and sending them back to us and the other observatories in a steady drip. Most Earth universities or foundations tend to have some small department for each solar body. They all struggle along on minimum resources, cataloguing and analyzing their information. But the instruments they use don’t cost much by today’s standards—they’re all solid state, and either solar or geothermal powered; they last for decades. Between them they supply just enough information to keep Earth’s few remaining planetologists in business.”

“I’d like a list of them, please.”

“The association which funds the Martian station is based in London, the Lambeth Interplanetary Association, I think. God knows where they get their grants from. I mean, pure science planetology in this day and age. You’ve got to be a real science philanthropist to support that.”

“What exactly is the project which the Lambeth Interplanetary Association is paying for?”

“I’ve no idea.”

“You don’t know?” Renne said it so loudly she had to take a fast breath to refill her lungs, which made her cough. She could feel a headache growing behind her temple.

“Not my field,” Jennifer Seitz said. “Strictly speaking I’m a radio astronomer; I work with the main dishes. They’re part of the Solwide array. Our baseline is Pluto orbit, which gives us one hell of a reception capability. It’s also why we have a lot of ancillary receivers here, to keep in touch with the Solwide units that are really far out. So you see, I have not the slightest concern in dust on Mars or tidal ice fracture patterns on Europa or the geoshell superconductor currents on Charon. Now if you wanted to know about truly interesting events like big bang emission rebounds or magquasar squeals, then I can entertain you for days on the subject.”

“Is anyone here a planetologist?”

“No. All we’ve got here is two radio astronomers—that’s myself and my partner, Carrie—and four technicians to keep everything running smoothly. Well…as smoothly as something as underfunded as Solwide can be kept running. And just to add to the richness of our lives, since the Prime attack, the UFN Science Agency is actually talking about shutting us down for the duration. I’ve got to produce proposals to mothball the whole observatory. I should have shoved this whole astronomy kick into a secure memory store at my last rejuve, and come up with an interest that makes me filthy rich. I mean, who the hell’s interested in supporting people who’ll quietly dedicate several lives to help expand the general knowledge base of the human race? Not our goddamn government, that’s for sure. Now I’ve got you people jumping all over us.”

“I’m sorry about the observatory,” Renne said sharply. “But there is a war on. The Commonwealth has to prioritize.”

“Yeah, right.”

“So has the Lambeth Interplanetary Association actually seen any of the data you were receiving for them?”

“No. Mars accounts for nearly half of the remote monitoring projects in the solar system. Their timetables are measurable in years. Admittedly, thirty years is quite long for planetary science, but not exceptional.”

“What kind of sensors were transmitting from Mars? Exactly?”

Jennifer Seitz shrugged. “I checked the contract when the shit hit the fan, of course. It doesn’t tell us much. The instruments we were recording just provided a generalized overview of the Martian environment.”

“Could you have been receiving encrypted signals in with the rest of the data?”

“Sure. I don’t know what from, though.”

“Do you at least have a list of the instruments up there?”

“Yeah. But, Lieutenant, you have to understand, we didn’t place any of them on Mars. Some were already there, left over from earlier projects; the rest have been deposited over the years by the UFN Science Agency’s automated ships. We have no control over them, no supervisory role. I cannot give you an absolute guarantee what any of them actually are. Simply because we’ve been told a specific channel in the datastream carries the results of a seismic scanner, doesn’t make it that in reality. It could equally well be information on Earth’s defenses for an alien invasion fleet. There’s just no way of knowing for sure, other than going there and checking the transmission origin in person. All we are is a glorified relay node.”

Renne didn’t like getting distracted, but…“There are automated spaceships working in the solar system?”

“You didn’t know that?”

“No,” she admitted.

“Well, Lieutenant, there have to be. It’s like this. None of us in the heady world of astronomy or solar planetary science can afford to hire a CST wormhole to drop a thermometer into Saturn’s atmosphere. Instead, we swallow our pride and group together; that way we coordinate our budgets to produce instrumentation in batches. When a batch is ready, we load up one of the Science Agency’s three robot freight ships with our precious consignment of satellites and sensors, and send it on its merry eight-year tour around the solar system. Then each and every one of us selfishly prays that the damn antique doesn’t break down before it drops off our own particular package. Tip for you, Lieutenant: when you’re in the company of Earth’s astronomers don’t ever mention the 2320 placement mission. A lot of colleagues left the profession after that minor catastrophe. It takes on average fifteen years of applications, proposals, review procedures, outright begging, and signing away your firstborn to get a sensor project approved. Then all you have to do is find the funds to design and build it. There’s an awful lot of emotional and professional investment riding away in that cargo bay.”

“Yes,” Renne said defensively; her headache was now pounding away inside her skull. She was sure she’d brought a packet of tifi. It was probably in her jacket pocket, hanging up several meters away—too far for her to walk.

“Thank you, I get the picture. Yours is not an overpaid celebrity occupation.”

“Not unless your name is Bose, no.”

“So to conclude, you have no idea what you’ve been receiving from Mars for twenty years?”

Jennifer Seitz gave an apologetic smile. “That’s about it. Although I’d like to go on record as saying I’ve only been Director here for seven years, with two years absent for rejuvenation. I didn’t take the contract, and none of us were involved with it. The whole thing is run by a couple of subroutines in the RI.”

“Who did begin the contract?”

“Director Rowell was in charge when the Lambeth Association began the project. I think he moved to Berkak; he was offered a dean’s post at a new university.”

“Thank you. I’ll have him questioned.” Renne sucked down more thin air; the lack of oxygen was making her feel light-headed. It wasn’t an unpleasant sensation, but her thoughts were sluggish. “Tell me something. In your opinion, what could possibly be on Mars that would interest a bunch of terrorists like the Guardians?”

“That’s the really dumb thing about this: nothing. And I’m not being prejudiced because I’m a radio astronomer. The place is a complete dump, a frozen airless desert. It has no secrets, no value, no relevance to anybody. I’m still half convinced you people made a mistake.”

“Then tell me about Cufflin.”

Jennifer Seitz screwed her pretty face up. “God, I don’t know. He was just a technical assistant; a mundane time-serving tech working in a pisspoor Science Agency job to pay his R and R pension. Up until yesterday I would have sworn I could have told you his entire lives stories better than he could. And incredibly boring they all were, too. We all spend three weeks on duty crammed together up here, for which we get one blessed week off. He was actually assigned here three and a half years ago. So I don’t like to think how much time that means we’ve spent living, sleeping, and eating in this very same building since then. Now it turns out he was part of some terrorist plot to take over the Commonwealth. Jesus! He’s Dan Cufflin. Seven years short of rejuvenation, and desperate for it to happen. He loves curry, hates Chinese food, accesses way too much softcore TSI soap, had one wife this life which ended sour, visits his one child grandkid every year at Easter, his feet smell, he’s a second-rate programmer, an average mechanic, and drives the rest of us nuts practicing tap dancing—badly. What the hell kind of terrorist enjoys tap dancing?”

“Bad ones,” Renne said dryly.

“I can’t believe he did this.”

“Well, it certainly looks like he’s guilty. We’ll confirm that for ourselves, of course. I expect you’ll all be called as witnesses at the trial.”

“You’re taking him with you?”

“I certainly am.”

Somehow, Renne managed to hobble her way back to the VTOL plane without being too obvious as she leaned up against Phil Mandia. Two navy officers escorted Dan Cufflin onto the plane behind her. He was pushed down into a chair on the other side of the aisle from Renne. Malmetal restraints flowed over his wrists and lower legs, holding him secure. Not that he looked as if he’d make a break for freedom. Jennifer Seitz had been right about that. Cufflin, a tall man who had managed to avoid becoming overweight, was very obviously approaching the time when he needed a rejuvenation. Worry and a defeated air made his cheeks and eyes seem excessively sunken, with flesh that was as pallid as Renne’s. Being dressed in a pair of worn dark blue overalls simply helped to complete the whipped underdog image.

He looked out of the small window as they took off, a bewildered expression in place as the observatory dropped away below.

Renne’s headache had started to fade as soon as the hatch was shut, and the jets began to pressurize the little cabin. She opened the vent above her seat, and smiled contentedly as the filtered air blew over her face. A coffee from the stewardess eased away the last of the discomfort, without any need for a tifi tube.

“The flight should take about fifty minutes,” she said, and turned her head toward Cufflin. “We’re going to Rio; then a loop train to Paris.”

He said nothing, his gaze fixed on some spot outside the window as they climbed into the stratosphere at a steep angle.

“You know what’s going to happen when we get there?” she inquired lightly.

“You walk me past a warm judge and shoot me.”

“No, Dan. We’ll take you to a navy biomedical facility where you’ll have your memories read. By all accounts, it’s not a pleasant experience. Losing control over your very own mind, having other people invade your skull and examine any section of your life they want. Nothing is private; your feelings, your dreams. We rip them all out of you.”

“Great. I always had an exhibitionist streak.”

“No you don’t.” She sighed in a sympathetic manner. “I accessed your file, I’ve talked to your workmates. What are you doing mixed up in all this nonsense?”

He looked over at her. “Your interrogation technique is crap, you know that?”

“I’m not an experienced spook like you, Dan.”

“Very funny. I’m not a spook. I’m not a terrorist. I’m not a traitor. I’m none of those things.”

“Then what are you?”

“You read my file.”

“Remind me.”


“All right, the bottom line is this: cooperate, spill your guts and your heart out to me, and I might recommend we don’t bother with a memory read. But your story had better be a damn good one.”

“And my trial?”

“I’m not cutting you a deal, Dan; it doesn’t work like that. You go to trial whatever happens. But if you help us, then I’m sure the judge will take that into consideration.”

He took a minute, but eventually gave a soft nod. “I have a grandson, Jacob. He’s eight.”


“I had to go to court to get access to him. Damnit, he’s all I’ve got left from this screwup of a life, the only decent thing anyway. It’d kill me not to be able to see him. Have you got children, Lieutenant?”

“Some, yes. None this time around yet. But they all have children. I’m a great-great-grandmother these days.”

“And do you see them all? Your family?”

“When I have the time. This job, you know…It isn’t a nine to five.”

“But you get to see them, that’s what counts. My daughter took her mother’s side. And we’re all native Earthborn, that’s the problem. You need to be a millionaire just to get an appointment with a lawyer on this planet. And I’m not.”

“So someone offered you some money? Enough for a lawyer to get you access?”



“I don’t know his name, I never met him, he’s just an address code in the unisphere. He’s an agent for people in the personal security field. A friend told me about him. Said he might be able to help me.”

“Okay, the friend’s name?”

“Robin Beard.”

“So this agent recruited you?”


“To do what?”

“The way he put it, virtually nothing. I was worried I’d have to kill somebody—probably would have done it, too. But all he wanted was for me to apply for the UFN Science Agency technical maintenance job out at the observatory. I had to monitor the Martian data they were receiving, make sure there were no problems. He said that one day somebody would come and collect a copy of it, and when that happened I was to erase the original. That was it, all I had to do. And for that I got to see little Jacob again, once a year at Easter. It’s hardly a massive crime, so I figured what the hell.”

“All right, Dan, now this is the really important bit: Do you know what that data was?”

“No.” He pursed his lips as he shook his head. “No, I swear. I tried looking at it a couple of times. I mean, it was obviously valuable to the agent, but it just looked like ordinary remote station data to me.”

“Did you make your own copy, Dan, maybe try for a bit of leverage?”

“No. I got to see my Jacob like they promised. So I played fair with them. I didn’t think they’re the kind of people you should try and cross. I guess I was right about that; you said they’re terrorists.”

The answer vexed Renne; she had a nasty feeling he was telling the truth. Dan Cufflin wasn’t criminal enough to try a little spot of blackmail on his own initiative, just a weak, desperate man easy to exploit if you knew which buttons to press. And who was ever going to be looking for some sleeper in a radio telescope observatory in the middle of the Andes?

Whatever the Guardians had done on Mars, they’d made a damn good job of covering their tracks. Until someone murdered Kazimir McFoster.

A day later she was still puzzling over how that killing fitted in to an otherwise watertight operation. The Paris office was investigating the case on a twenty-four/seven basis, backed with the highest navy priority; nobody in accounts was going to question budget or timesheets on this one.

Late morning she caught herself yawning as her console screens pulled up yet another sequence of information on the illusive Lambeth Interplanetary Association. There was only so much coffee she could take to counter the fatigue toxins accumulating in her bloodstream. It was another gray Paris spring day outside, with rain running down the windows. Inside, her colleagues were getting cranky from lack of sleep and frustration at the loss of the assassin in LA Galactic. There’d been more than one argument shouted between desks that morning. And no one’s humor had been soothed by a report on their office featuring heavily on the Alessandra Baron show. The beautifully poised presenter had taken particularly malicious delight showing how the murderer had struck his victim down while surrounded by navy intelligence officers, before making good his escape. She also hinted that the LA Galactic killer was wanted for questioning in connection with the Burnelli murder.

“Where does she get this from?” Tarlo had growled. “That’s classified.”

“The Burnelli family, probably,” Renne said. “I don’t think we’re terribly popular with them right now. After all, that was Justine’s toy boy that got slaughtered. She’s probably angling for the case to be turned over to Senate Security.”

Tarlo lowered his voice, glancing around guiltily in case anyone else overheard. “I found out while you were away in South America; the boss is receiving all our data as and when we file it. Hogan’s been going quietly crazy knowing she’s watching everything over his shoulder.”

“Finally,” she murmured. “Some good news. Has she contacted you?”

“Not yet. You?”


“If she does, tell her I’ll help her any way I can.”

“Will do.”

They parted like a couple having an illicit office romance, both trying not to smile.

Commander Alic Hogan arrived back at the Paris office just after lunch. He was in a bad mood, he knew he was in a bad mood, and he knew being in a bad mood was bad for a decent office environment. Frankly, he didn’t give a shit. He’d just got back from Kerensk where he’d spent an hour in Admiral Columbia’s office trying to explain the LA Galactic fuckup—the Admiral’s personal description. He knew of no reason why he shouldn’t spread the misery.

Everybody in the big open-plan office looked up from their displays as he came in. He caught quite a few smirks that were hurriedly smothered. “Senior officers, progress meeting in conference room three: ten minutes,” he announced as he stomped through into his own office. There were muttered comments behind him, which he didn’t bother with.

Alic settled into the chair behind the desk, the kind of ordinary black leather office furniture a secretary would have. It was left over from Paula Myo’s tenure, and he hadn’t got around to replacing it yet. Like everything in the office. Including the people.

He took advantage of the solitude to rest his head in his hands, making an effort to dump his emotional baggage and focus. Taking over the Paris office had been such a huge opportunity. The navy was growing at a phenomenal rate, and he was on the inside track, moving up fast. Attaching himself to Columbia’s staff had been the smartest thing he’d ever done back in the days when it was the Directorate. He’d done a lot of troubleshooting for Director Columbia, filing reports on nearly every division. It made him an automatic choice to keep an eye on Paula Myo after Rees left. Now he could finally appreciate what she’d been up against all those decades.

Christ, is this how Myo felt for a hundred and thirty years? The way the assassin had eluded them at LA Galactic wasn’t so much amazing as downright insulting. And judging by how his escape route was so immaculately planned out, he had to have known the navy was observing McFoster. Which implied there really was a leak somewhere—the one thing Alic could never tell the Admiral, not until after he had absolute proof, and preferably a full confession as well. There was also the extreme problem of exactly who the assassin was working for. The most obvious conclusion, the one Myo had settled for, was politically impossible. He could never admit that to anyone. The idea was career suicide.

He simply had to get the whole Guardians situation under control, report some solid progress to the Admiral. If there weren’t any results—and fast—he’d be following Myo out of the door. And he was pretty certain nobody would be offering him a cushy job in Senate Security.

On the plus side, the fallout from LA Galactic had produced a good range of leads into various Guardian operations and personnel. His Paris officers were good, despite the bitterness left from Myo’s forced departure. All he had to do was ensure they had the resources to complete their various investigations, and coordinate a decent strategy for the overall case. There would be results that would cut deep into the Guardians’ operation. There had to be.

Alic drank down a full glass of mineral water, hoping it would calm him and get him into the right frame of mind to chair the meeting. Maybe he was just dehydrated, it had been a hectic twenty-four hours. When he was ready, he headed for the conference room. Renne Kampasa was in front of him, carrying a tall mug of coffee.

Tarlo and John King were already waiting inside. John had been an investigator in the old Directorate, moving over from the technical forensic department a couple of months before the administrative changes began. The timing of that move meant he wasn’t quite as frosty toward Alic as the other two senior lieutenants.

“Too much caffeine,” Tarlo said loudly as Renne sat down “That’s what, your eighth this morning.”

She glowered at him. “I either drink this or I start smoking. Your call.”

John laughed at the shocked expression on Tarlo’s face.

Alic Hogan went in and sat at the head of the white table. “The Admiral is not pleased with us at all,” he told them. “A fact which he made very clear to me, as I’m sure you can appreciate. So…somebody please tell me we have finally got a name for our assassin.”

“Sorry, Chief,” John King said. “His face isn’t on any database in the Commonwealth. It’s a reprofile job, of course. We’ve probably got him under his old identity. But his current features are completely unknown.”

“Not so,” Renne said. “McFoster knew him. In fact, he was glad to see him. Overjoyed, actually. For my money, our assassin is from Far Away.”

“Who on Far Away is going to send an assassin into the Commonwealth?” John asked.

She shrugged. “Don’t know, but at the very least we should check CST’s records to see if he came through the Boongate station in the last couple of years.”

“All right, I’ll get my people on that,” John said. “Foster Cortese is running visual recognition programs for me. He can add the Boongate database to his analysis.”

“Good,” Alic said. “Now, what about the equipment he was wetwired with? We all saw what he was capable of. That stuff was cutting edge; there has to be some sort of record.”

“Jim Nwan is following that up for me,” Tarlo said. “There are plenty of companies across the Commonwealth who manufacture that kind of armament. I didn’t realize. A lot of it is supplied to Grand Families and Intersolar Dynasties for their security divisions. Tracing the end user through them is difficult; they’re not being very cooperative. Then there’s always Illuminatus. The clinics there are even less friendly.”

“If anyone blocks you, let me know right away,” Alic told him. “The Admiral’s office will apply some pressure directly.”


“Right, Renne, what did you turn up at the observatory?”

“Quite a lot, though I’m not sure how much of it is relevant.”

“Let’s hear it.”

She sipped at her coffee, wincing at how hot it was. “First, we confirmed what McFoster collected: a whole load of data that they’d been storing. Apparently it all came from Mars.”

“Mars?” Alic frowned. “What the fuck is on Mars?”

“That’s where we start running into problems. We don’t know. The data was transmitted from a remote science station. Officially, it was a project sponsored by the Lambeth Interplanetary Society to investigate the Martian environment. The station has been transmitting the signals for twenty years, supposedly from automated sensors dotted all over the planet.”

“Did you say twenty years?”

“Yeah,” she said sardonically. “However, the Lambeth Interplanetary Society no longer exists. It went virtual eight years ago; today it’s just a named address logged with an equally bogus legal firm. There’s an administration program overseeing a bank account with just enough money deposited to pay for the Mars project to its conclusion. The observatory gets its annual fee, and if anyone calls the society with a query the program has a menu of stock replies. In other words it’s a typical Guardians’ front operation.”

“Was it ever real?” Alic asked.

“When it was set up, yes. There was a physical office in London, along with staff. I’ve got Gwyneth trying to track down anyone who was employed there; we’re hoping to turn up a secretary or some junior staff member. It’s not promising; anyone important would be a Guardian, the rest would be offworlders on a standard employment visa. As there aren’t any records, we’re checking with offworld employment placement agencies.”

“Why did the Guardians abandon the society office if the observatory is still collecting data for them?” John asked.

“The switch coincides with the last set of instruments being sent to Mars,” Renne said. “They paid for a lot of packages to be deployed in their first twelve years. You can’t do that entirely through the cybersphere. There have to be meetings, actual people to talk to the UFN Science Agency staff and take them out to lunch, attend seminars, designers for the sensors packages, that kind of thing.”

“So there are records of what they shipped out to Mars?” Alic didn’t like the implications of how big the Guardians’ operation was; nor that it involved something new, something they couldn’t understand. That was too many negatives to file in any report to the Admiral.

“We have UFN Science Agency manifests for their transport ships,” she said. “As to what was actually placed on board at the time, there is no way of knowing. Those ships travel all over the solar system, and the planetary instruments they deploy are packed in secure containers inside one-shot landers. Nobody at lunarport would ever break open a sealed system as they load it on a ship, there’s no reason.”

“You’re telling me that the Guardians have been running an operation here in the solar system for twenty years right under our noses, and we still don’t know what it is?” Alic stopped. He didn’t want to come over as critical; they had to work together on this. “What about other planets? Are the Guardians running operations on them?”

“It doesn’t look like it,” Renne said. “Matthew Oldfield is running verification on all the solar planetary projects the UFN Science Agency knows about; so far they look legitimate. It was only Mars.”

“But there’s no way of knowing what they placed there?”

“No, short of physically visiting and inspecting the equipment. But the systems have been returning data for two decades, and were scheduled to continue for another ten years. I can’t see that they’d be any sort of weapon. To be honest, I don’t see it’s worth wasting any more of our resources on; whatever it was, the whole project is obviously over.”

“I can’t agree with that,” Tarlo said. “They’ve been running this for twenty years. It’s got to be important to them. That means we have to find out what it was.”

“It was the data which was important,” Renne replied. “That’s what they were after. And now it’s gone. Cufflin wiped the observatory memory, and McFoster didn’t have it on him when he was killed.”

Alic didn’t like the reminder that McFoster appeared to be carrying nothing, although that whole issue was blowing up into a big political fight between the Admiral and the Burnellis. He certainly didn’t want to drag the Paris office into that, and he could almost agree with Renne about Mars being a waste of their resources to chase up. But…twenty years. Johansson had obviously thought it extremely important. “What about this Cufflin character? Have we had a memory read off him yet?”

“I don’t see the point,” Renne said. “He told me everything voluntarily on the flight back to Rio. We pumped him full of drugs here, and he repeated the same story. He was just a paid accomplice; he’s not big time. My recommendation is charge him with criminal conspiracy, and let the courts sort out what happens next.”

“If you don’t think he’s any more use, then fine.” Alic told his e-butler to make a note.

“He did produce one useful name,” Renne said. “Robin Beard. He was the intermediary who put Cufflin in touch with the anonymous agent who set up the whole deal. Now this is only a hunch, but several of the team involved in the assault on the Second Chance were recruited through an agent who specialized in security operatives, and who, also, was very careful to remain anonymous. Could be coincidence, but they were both Guardian operations.”

“Do we know where this Robin Beard is?” Alic asked; he tried not to seem too excited, that would be unprofessional, but the agent did sound like a very promising lead.

“I’ve got Vic Russell working on it as a priority. Last known address was on Cagayn. Vic’s on the express out there now; there’s a liaison with local police already set up.”


“What about Mars?” Tarlo asked. “We can’t just ignore it.”

“Well here’s the interesting thing,” Renne said. “Cufflin never transmitted anything to Mars through the observatory link, no coded instruction to shut down. So in theory, the remote station and whatever the Guardians placed there is still operating. It’ll send another signal in eight days’ time. The UFN Science Agency is putting together a group of planetary scientists to analyze the data for us and see if it is from environmental sensors.”

“Eight days?” Tarlo said scathingly. “Come on! Commander, they were desperate for this data. We have to investigate this now.”

Alic wanted to agree, but the cost of actually sending a forensic team to Mars would be phenomenal. Diverting a CST wormhole, even an exploration division one, would cost millions. That kind of procedure would have to be authorized by the Admiral. “Why can’t the observatory get in touch with the Mars remote station today? There must be some kind of communications protocol to run diagnostics on the systems up there. It’s got to be cheaper, probably quicker, too.”

Renne gave a shrug. “I suppose so. I can ask Jennifer Seitz, the director.”

“Do that. Let me know.” He smiled in satisfaction. Good clean decisions, proper leadership: everyone profited.

“Sure.” She took another sip of her coffee.

“Some good news for you, Chief,” Tarlo said. He shot Renne a malicious smile across the table.


“We’re making headway on McFoster’s financial data records. I need a warrant to open his accounts at Pacific Pine Bank; they’re guarded. Once we can study his spending pattern we can draw up a profile of his movements. We’ll also find out where his money came from.”

“Onetime account, cash deposit,” Renne said, and grinned over the top of her mug. “They always are. Untraceable.”

Tarlo showed her a stiff finger.

“You’ll get the warrant in an hour,” Alic promised. “All right, this isn’t as bleak as it looked back there in the junction. We can crack this, I know we can.”


Technically the War Cabinet should have had its meeting in the Presidential Palace on New Rio because the President herself was the chair, and ultimately held responsibility for all Commonwealth policy. That was the structure laid out in the Commonwealth constitution. Realpolitik was a little different.

None of the Intersolar Dynasty leaders present—Nigel Sheldon, Heather Antonia Halgarth, Alan Hutchinson, and Hans Braunt—were keen to be absent from their respective planets for long. And as Earth provided direct train links to all the Big15, it was their preferred choice of world. The senators—Justine Burnelli, Crispin Goldreich, and Ramon DB—were based on Earth anyway. And the two admirals, Kime and Columbia, certainly didn’t have the clout to nominate a different location, not after the public beating the navy was taking after the Lost23—however unfair it might have been.

Patricia Kantil had no option but to bow to the majority. It might have been the navy that was taking the brunt of the criticism in the media, but the unisphere polls were revealing a significant percentage questioning the overall leadership. Much as it irked her, she arranged for the meeting to be held at the Senate Hall in Washington, DC.

The participants assembled in one of those secure underground rooms so beloved of governments whenever they constructed emergency facilities. In an age when force fields could deflect atom laser shots and hundred-megaton blasts with relative ease, Patricia didn’t really see the point of digging out warrens of rooms a hundred meters below the aging Senate Hall building. But for the lack of windows, the chamber could have been any high-status corporate boardroom. A long tarnwood table sat atop an emerald carpet patterned with a huge Intersolar Commonwealth seal. Portraits of every past Senate First Minister gazed down at the table with various expressions of superiority. All very somber and expensive; typical of a budget that would never be held up to public scrutiny.

The War Cabinet all stood when Elaine Doi entered the room. Following two paces behind her, Patricia was quietly pleased to see that courtesy was extended, at least; the true powers in the Commonwealth were still acknowledging formal procedures—for the moment. None of the other cabinet members had aides with them; Patricia was the only one. She couldn’t actually recall being in the physical presence of quite so many masterclass players before. It was intimidating, even for someone as familiar with the process of high government as she. And she knew Elaine was nervous; for once not just about her own term. The latest batch of statistics from the Prime assault was shocking.

Elaine took her place at the head of the table and asked the others to be seated. Patricia sat at her left, with the First Minister, Oliver Tam, on her right. The tall double doors closed, and the chamber was automatically screened. Everyone lost contact with the unisphere.

“Isn’t the SI attending?” Crispin asked churlishly.

Elaine glanced at Patricia and gave a small nod of permission. “Not at this stage,” Patricia said. “Although it appears to be as disturbed as we are by the invasion, and it provided a great deal of assistance at the time, we still cannot be certain about its ultimate allegiance. As it is humans who are facing the brunt of the Prime attack, we feel that we alone should determine our response. If we decide we need its aid or advice, we will of course ask. Until then, the fundamental decision-making process should be ours and ours alone.”

If Crispin was annoyed at her reply, he didn’t show it.

“Thank you,” Elaine said. “I now call this first meeting of the War Cabinet to order. It is here today that we must determine the nature of our response to the clear and absolute threat posed by the Prime aliens. I don’t feel I under-state the enormity of the task we face when I say the outcome of this meeting could well determine not just the future of humanity as a species, but even if we have a future. The decisions we are faced with will be extremely difficult, and no doubt unpopular in some quarters. I for one am quite prepared to sacrifice popularist action in preference to do what is both right and necessary. I would like to call on Admiral Kime to give us a brief summary of the terrible assault we have endured, and then the navy’s analysis of what we might expect next from the Primes. When we have all absorbed that, I shall open the floor to policy decisions. Admiral.”

“Thank you, Madam President.” Wilson Kime looked around the table, saddened at the lack of friendly faces. “We all know it was bad. We knew the size of the Prime civilization at Dyson Alpha, and the kind of resources it has available to it, yet our initial preparation was wholly inadequate. The reason for that is quite simple: we refused to believe that an attack on this scale would ever happen. There simply is no rational explanation for it. We have seen that the Prime civilization’s industrial capacity is probably equal to if not larger than that of the entire Commonwealth. If they needed expansion space and more material resources, then it would be considerably cheaper for them to exploit star systems next to their own, rather than come after ours. Yet they chose not to follow a logical development pattern. They found out about us from Bose and Verbeken, and almost the first thing they did was build a series of wormholes to reach us. It looks as if the worst-case scenario for the envelopment was right: someone set up the barrier around Dyson Alpha to keep them contained.”

“What about Dyson Beta?” Alan Hutchinson asked.

“It remains an unknown,” Wilson said. “As does the reason for the Dyson Alpha barrier coming down. What we have to address today is the consequence of the Primes being freed. As a result of their attack, we now estimate the human death toll on the Lost23 planets to be approximately thirty-seven million.”

There was total silence around the table. Most of the cabinet stared down at the glossy wooden surface, not wanting to make eye contact with each other.

Wilson cleared his throat self-consciously and continued. “From the nature of the attacks, and the intelligence we have gathered subsequently, it appears that the aim of the Primes is to secure the industrial facilities on the Lost23 planets. Unlike us, they don’t appear to care about preserving the planetary environments. What we saw of their homeworld seems to support this; it was massively industrialized, and the pollution was orders of magnitude beyond anything we experienced here on Earth during the worst of the twenty-first century. Their priorities, therefore, are completely different from ours. That made them very difficult to predict. However, now they are in the open and we’re able to observe their activities directly, we can determine what actions they will have to pursue next. For instance, they will have to build up their occupation forces on the Lost23 in order to utilize them properly and secure them against any counterstrike we make. They will also mount a second attack against the Commonwealth, then a third, and a fourth. They will keep on attacking and pushing us back and back onto fewer worlds until we have none left.”

“What makes you certain of that?” Heather asked.

“We are at war,” Wilson said. He saw her glossed lips tighten at the phrase, censure leaking out of the flawless skin of her mid-fifties face like trace pheromones. Even though she was in a chic formal dark blue suit with her ginger hair folded into a neat braid, there was no way of disguising the authority she possessed. Heather was the only female head of a Big15 Intersolar Dynasty, her feminine appearance a very thin cloak worn over ruthless ambition and a razor-sharp political instinct. Just like him, and everyone else seated around the table, she hated being given bad news.

“War by its nature cannot be a static situation,” he continued, meeting her stare levelly. “They know that we will never accept the loss of those twenty-three planets. Either they continue to expand across the Commonwealth, wiping us out of galactic history, or we will do the same to them.”

“Are you suggesting we commit genocide against them?” Ramon DB asked lightly.

“Are you suggesting we become the victims of genocide?” Wilson countered. “This is not a war as we have fought them before. This is not a strategic struggle over key resources; we’re not fighting for control over tribal lands, or trade routes to the new colonies. Both us and the Primes are intersolar, there is no shortage of anything in the galaxy. They came here with one purpose, to kill us and to capture our worlds.”

“In that case we have experienced an analogous war in our history,” Hans Braunt said. “It would seem as if they are waging a religious crusade against us.”

“You could be right,” Wilson said. “Religion or some ideological variant of it was certainly one of the more popular theories among the strategic analysis teams. Their motivation can’t easily be explained any other way.”

“We can worry about the reason later,” Nigel said. “You’ve summarized where we stand. What does the navy want to do next? What do you need?”

“We’re proposing to meet the Prime aggression with a three-stage approach. First, a heavy infiltration and sabotage offensive on the Lost23; tie the Primes up on each planet, slow them down, divert their resources away from readying their next attack while we prepare for stage two.”

“I’m curious about the kinds of forces you envisage to pull that off,” Alan Hutchinson said.

“Commando-style troop units will be dropped onto the Lost23 through wormholes that will open for a very short duration. They’ll cause as much disruption as possible, combined with a comprehensive intelligence-gathering operation. So far we know very little about the Primes. This should help expand our knowledge base considerably. We’re hoping to perform several snatch missions so we can begin interrogation and memory reading procedures.”

“Just what kind of numbers are you talking about here?” Alan asked keenly. “To make any decent impact you’re going to need a lot of these guerrilla fighters.”

“We’re planning on sending an initial force of around ten thousand troops to each planet.”

“Ten thous…Christ, man, you’re talking about raising an army of a quarter of a million people.”

“We don’t see that as a problem,” Rafael said smoothly. “The new navy ground troop service will be opened to volunteers from the general population, of course; and history shows we’ll have a great many aspirants. Even multilifers tend to get aggressive when threatened. And just in case, we have a large reserve of people who can be more easily persuaded; people, in fact, more suited to this kind of work than most.” He opened his hands wide in reasonable appeal. “Please, most of the last few days have been spent drawing up these responses, and examining their feasibility; we’re not throwing out panic ideas here. Deploying these troops is not only possible, it is essential. We must regain the initiative.”

“Very well,” Hans said. “What’s stage two?”

“A fleet,” Wilson said flatly. “A very big fleet of warships. Not the kind we have now. We need to approach this from a radical perspective. We have to consider starships like the Second Chance and the StAsaph as our Kittyhawks, not even prototypes. We were lazy back then, putting together what we could with damn near off-the-shelf components.” He glanced over at Nigel. “I’m not criticizing; they were right for the time, but this is a new age that could well see us obliterated if we don’t recognize it. We need fast ships, not with marque five or six hyperdrives that are on the drawing board; I need a marque ten or more, a speed that can take us to Dyson Alpha in a week. They’ve got to be well protected, shields as strong as the original Dyson barriers were. They’ve got to have real weaponry, not nuclear missiles, not energy beams; give me relativistic attack drones, each warship loaded with a salvo of a hundred of the damn things which can all strike with the same power the Desperado unleashed. And most of all, I need thousands of them. Not dozens, not hundreds: thousands—enough to challenge that goddamn armada of ordinary ships which the Primes have. During their attack on the Lost23, they sent over thirty thousand ships through those wormholes; and they’ve got a hundred times that many back in their home system. If we’re going to go up against them, then we need to put the industrial output equivalent to a Big15 behind this effort, churn them out the way we do cars and trains.

“FTL ships are the sole advantage we have over the Primes right now. They don’t have them. If we can get that advanced technology working and deployed, then we stand a chance. With the kind of strike mobility I’m talking about we can outmaneuver them at a strategic level. We can block their next attack—that’s our second stage. Then after that we can scour space between here and Dyson Alpha to find out where that bastard Hell’s Gateway staging post is, and destroy it—stage three, threat elimination.”

“Sounds good to me,” Nigel said; he nodded his approval. “At least you’re talking the talk, thinking outside the box. We need that badly.”

“It’s bloody expensive talk,” Crispin murmured.

“I don’t believe you just said that,” Justine shot at him. The unexpected sharpness in her tone made everyone turn to look at her; it was pure Gore.

“Thirty-seven million humans dead, and you’re complaining about the cost of defending ourselves. Didn’t you hear what the Admiral just told us? The alternative is death. Real death, not just an inconvenient sleep-of-absence while your clinic grows you a new body. You will die, Crispin. And that lasts forever.”

“I wasn’t saying it was too expensive, my dear. I’d just like to point out that our finances will have to undergo a similar radical restructuring to pay for it. That’s if this wonderful new technology can be made to work.” He looked pointedly at Nigel, then Wilson.

“The theories are perfect,” Nigel said evenly. “Getting them to work in practice…well, Crispin, that’s where all your money comes in.”

“It’ll be your taxes that get raised,” Crispin pointed out.

“And do you really think any of us gives a flying fuck about that right now? Get the Treasury to crunch the numbers, slap twenty or forty percent on taxes, work out the loans and bond issues we’ll have to float. Nobody cares about the inflation or recession or unsustainable growth it’ll cause. None of that crap matters if we lose. If we don’t have the money available to make this work there won’t be any finance market. We’ll be dead; we at this table have to recognize this even if we can never say so in public.”

“It’s not just finance,” Heather said. She nodded in Wilson’s direction. “I like your thinking on this.”

“Team effort,” he grunted.

“Sure, but your team’s heading in the right direction. We have to think way out of the left field and cooperate for a change. What gives me a fright is trying to realign our manufacturing capacity on this scale. It won’t be smooth, yet it must be done.”

“The SI could probably help,” Oliver Tam said.

“Possibly,” Heather said. She sounded like a schoolmistress displeased with a disruptive pupil. She exchanged a look with the other three Dynasty heads. “We’ll need to pull the rest into line.”

“They’re smart enough,” Nigel said. “And we have our own arrangements between ourselves.”

Heather gave a small shrug.

“What about the refugee situation?” Ramon DB inquired. “What place do they have in all these plans? Right now we have the entire surviving population from the Lost23 saturating the rest of the Commonwealth; they have no homes, no jobs, no life left. They look to us, to government, for leadership, some acknowledgment of their plight. There are hundreds of thousands of people flooding into Silvergalde, which can’t cope. I’m told the outside of Lyddington is beginning to resemble some kind of medieval refugee camp, with no water, no sanitation, and precious little food. And there’s the one big problem which I haven’t heard raised here today: the displacement. People on every world within a hundred light-years of the Lost23 are either taking vacations on the other side of the Commonwealth or trying to sell up and buy a house on a world where they think they’re going to be safe. They are afraid, and with good reason. What do we do about this? We must show them we know and understand their situation. That we will take action to resolve it.”

“Not today, and not in here,” President Doi said.

It was said in such a decisive and firm manner that she drew surprised glances from several people around the table. Ramon actually opened his mouth in astonishment.

“This is the War Cabinet, Senator Ramon,” she said. “In here we decide military strategy, that’s all. The displaced are an item for the general civil cabinet, if not a full debate in the Senate.”

“But they do impinge on military matters,” Ramon said. “They will affect the whole economy.”

“No,” Elaine said quickly. “The numbers are huge, admittedly. But in overall percentage terms they barely register. I will not let this cabinet get bogged down by the minutia of problems which are not in its direct remit. You are out of order, Senator. Please give the floor to someone else.”

Alan was making little attempt to hide his smile; one or two of the others looked mildly bemused. A positive and decisive Doi was not something they encountered very often. Realizing her sudden authority, she asked, “Admiral Columbia, do you envisage any policy change to our current planetary defenses?”

“No changes, ma’am. The force fields were extremely successful, even on the Lost23. We have plans to upgrade all city and civil area force fields, anticipating the Primes will launch a second attack. Arms manufacturers are also increasing production of combat aerobots for us, which proved invaluable during the preliminary bombardment. Electronic warfare systems are also a priority. But those are all purely defensive systems; all they can do is minimize damage in the event of an attack. To stop the attack we need that fleet.”

“Point taken, Admiral. I think we can move to a vote on the overall strategy.”

“I would also like to mention stage four,” Columbia said.

“Stage four?”

“Yes, ma’am. The Seattle Project. The kind of weapon we can use to take the fight directly to Dyson Alpha.”

“I wasn’t aware we’d even reached prototype stage yet.”

“Hopefully, it will arrive within a few months,” Wilson said. “You know physicists, they don’t like deadlines. Not that they ever meet them anyway.”

“So it’s not something we have to consider immediately?” the President asked.

“No,” Wilson agreed cautiously. “But Admiral Columbia is right. Ultimately we may have to make the decision to use it.”

“We can fight them with warships,” Columbia said. “We can slow them down, we can possibly even force them back, though any prolonged war will be extremely costly to us, and not just in monetary terms. But if ultimately they prove implacably hostile to us, for whatever reason, then it will have to be used.”

“Genocide,” Elaine whispered. “Dear God.”

“It would be a collective decision,” Hans told her. “We would take it together, and share it with you.”

“The Seattle Project should continue to receive top priority,” Columbia said.

“Yes,” the President said, charily. “Very well, if no one else has any issues, I’d like to proceed to a vote on Admiral Kime’s proposal for a three-stage approach to engaging the Prime threat.”

“Proposed,” Heather said.

“Seconded,” Alan said.

“Very well,” the President said. “Those in favor?” She counted the raised hands. “Unanimous.”

Outside the cabinet room, little groups of aides were hanging around in the long corridor gossiping with each other. When the doors opened, they all quietened down and waited for their respective chief to walk past, before attaching themselves like so many iron filings. Justine had almost reached Sue Piken and Ross Gant-Wainright, the two senior staffers she’d inherited with Thompson’s office, when Ramon DB caught up with her.

“That was unlike you,” he said softly.

Justine stopped and gave him a impatient look, all ready to give him a snappy answer. The bright overhead lighting glinted off small droplets of sweat on his brow. His midnight-black OCtattoos were now quite visible across his cheeks and hands, a result of his previously ebony skin acquiring a grayish pallor. When she glanced down, she could see how tight his generous robe was. Her annoyance drained away. “You look tired,” she said, and put a hand on his arm. “I don’t suppose you’ve been taking it easy?”

He smiled fondly. “Have you?”

“My body is in its early twenties again. I can do the late nights and stress. You can’t.”

“Please, don’t go reminding me about your body at that age.” He put one hand playfully over his chest. “My heart can only take so much. By the way, you look tremendous in black.”

“Rammy! Look at those rings; you’ll never get them off, your fingers have swollen so much.” She took his hand and held on to it, examining the jewelry that was almost buried by pulpy flesh.

He squirmed like a guilty child. “Don’t nag, woman.”

“I’m not nagging. I’m telling you this straight: either you start looking after yourself or I personally will cart you off to the clinic for rejuvenation.”

“As if either of us can take time off for that right now.” He paused, uncertain of himself. “I heard about LA Galactic. Talk in the Senate dining room is that you knew the boy who was killed.”

“Yeah, I knew him. I was the one who put navy intelligence on him.”

Ramon gave her black dress a suspicious stare. “I hope you’re not blaming yourself for his death.”


“You forget, my dear, I really do know you.”

“Did the Senate dining room know that the boy was killed by the same person who killed Thompson?”

“Yes. We’re quietly but firmly pressing Senate Security for some results.” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Confidence in both branches of the navy is not terribly high right now.”

“It’ll improve.” For a moment Justine considered telling him about the Starflyer; Ramon would make a superb ally in the Senate, but he really wasn’t in good shape, and that would just add to his burden. Not yet, she told herself. “I’m sorry Doi cut you off in there,” she said. “I believe we do need to consider the refugee problem.”

“Actually, she was right to say that,” he said, and smiled broadly. “I’m just not used to our dear President being quite so forceful. It could well be we have waved good-bye to a politician and got a stateswoman in return. Now, that would be a first.”

“We’ll see. I’m not sure I believe in an age of miracles just yet. But I’ll be happy to back you up in the Senate on some kind of aid package for the refugees.” She caught sight of Wilson Kime talking to Crispin, and leaned forward to give Ramon a quick kiss. “I have to go. I’ll see you in the dining room, yes?”

“Of course.”

Justine hurried over to Wilson as he and Crispin shook hands. Several aides were waiting to pounce, and she could see Columbia coming out of the cabinet room. She wasn’t quite up to another direct confrontation with him right now.

“Admiral, could we talk for a moment, please?”

Wilson nodded amicably. “Certainly, Senator.”

“In private; there’s a conference room just down here.”

Wilson’s hesitation was hardly noticeable. “Very well.”

Justine’s e-butler gave the door an open code; her aides had reserved the room as soon as they all knew where the War Cabinet meeting was to be held. Wilson followed her in, his face registering polite curiosity. Then he saw Paula Myo sitting at the table inside, and frowned. “What is this?” he asked.

“Sorry to put you on the spot, Wilson,” Justine said. “But you probably know Admiral Columbia and I have had a disagreement on certain security matters. And he fired Investigator Myo from navy intelligence.”

Wilson held up a hand. “I’m sorry, Senator, but Rafael has my complete confidence. I don’t do office politics, not at this level. In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s a war on, and we could well lose.” He turned back to the door.

“The Guardians have been running an operation on Mars for twenty years,” Paula said.

Wilson froze, his hand already extended to open the door. After a moment he said, “There’s nothing on Mars. Believe me, I know.”

“You were there for ten hours, over three hundred years ago,” Justine said.

“I was watching the live television broadcast. I remember seeing Lewis, Orchiston, and you stepping out onto the surface. It was the first time in a great many years I was proud of our country again. You were putting up the stars and stripes when Nigel butted in.”

Wilson turned around, anger flushing his cheeks. “So?”

“The Guardians were using the Arabia Terra station to relay their information back to Earth.”

“What sort of information?”

“We’re not sure. Navy intelligence made one attempt to run diagnostic routines through the equipment up there. It appeared to be standard environmental sensors.”

“I don’t get it.” Wilson shook his head, clearly irritated. “The Guardians are terrorists. What do they want with Martian environment data?”

“We don’t know,” Paula said. “But the Paris office is winding down their investigation.”

“Ah. That’s it.” Wilson gave Justine a disdainful glance. “You want me to pressure Rafael into keeping the investigation open.”

“You have been on the receiving end of a Guardian operation,” Paula said. “More than most, you know how serious and effective they can be. They nearly destroyed the Second Chance. A twenty-year operation is not something they would undertake lightly. It would have to be exceptionally important to them. We have got to find out what it is.”

Wilson let out a hiss of air between his teeth. “Maybe. But if it is truly this important, I don’t believe Rafael would ignore it. He’s many things, aggressive, ambitious, intense, unforgiving, yes; but never stupid.”

“Everyone has blind spots, Wilson,” Justine said. “Paula was fired for political reasons, for not being quick enough to produce results.”

“A hundred and thirty years on a case with no result is very reasonable grounds for dismissal in my book,” Wilson said. “No offense.”

“You heard about the LA Galactic incident?” Justine asked. “An assassin killed the Guardians’ courier who was bringing their Martian data back for them. It was the same assassin who destroyed the black market arms dealer on Venice Coast. He also murdered my brother. So he’s not working for the government, and he can’t be working for the Guardians.”

“Who then?” Wilson asked.

“Good question. The Paris office might be able to find the answer. If they keep hunting.”

Wilson looked from Justine to Paula. “What are you asking for?” “Ask Rafael to keep navy intelligence on the Martian inquiry, not to let up.” “Maybe,” Wilson said. “I’ll have to think about all this.”


After an investment of twenty-five years, most of the planets in phase one space were now linked by maglev express lines, providing a fast, efficient service; and based on that success CST was busy expanding the network out across the planets of phase two space. But for all its imagined importance as the link world to Far Away, Boongate still hadn’t got a maglev track. CST was vague about the timetable for installation.

It had taken the standard express from Paris forty minutes to reach Boongate’s CST station, sliding smoothly up alongside platform 2 at twenty-two hundred hours local time. There were only five platforms in the main terminal building, but each of them were bustling with waiting passengers when Renne and Tarlo stepped out from the first-class double-decker carriage. It was raining outside, and the train was dripping onto the track. A chilly night wind blew in under the big arching glass roof, making people stamp their feet and button up their coats. The overhead polyphoto strips threw a bright blue-tinged light across the scene, illuminating the raindrops that lashed in past the edge of the roof like gray sparks.

“Late to be traveling, isn’t it?” Tarlo said as they walked toward the end of the platform. He ignored the curious glances their navy uniforms drew.

Renne pulled her jacket collar up against the cold, and eyed the people lining the platform. They all seemed to be gathered in family clumps, with subdued, yawning children sitting on piles of luggage. Several CST security guards were patrolling.

“Depends how keen you are to leave,” she replied. It was the first time she’d seen any evidence of the displacement that the unisphere news shows featured so heavily these days. But then if it was going to happen anywhere, she realized, it would be here. Most of Boongate’s neighbors were numbered among the Lost23.

They pushed their way through the equally crowded concourse and found the CST security office. Their liaison was Edmund Li, a local police technical officer who’d been seconded to the navy, then appointed to the newly formed Far Away freight inspectorate division. He didn’t bother wearing a navy uniform, just a simple dove-gray office suit. Renne was rather envious of that; her dark tunic always seemed to itch. It reminded her of the time when Paula was still in charge of the Paris office.

Li had a car waiting, which drove them the eight kilometers over to the Far Away section of the yard. As he was briefing them on the latest interceptions, Renne looked out through the rain-smeared glass. Hundreds of lights shone from tall poles across the extensive station yard, revealing the broad empty regions between the rails and distant industrial buildings, a legacy of lost ambition left over from the days when Boongate thought it would become the junction for the adjoining sector of phase three space. Some of the cargo depots were open, big rectangular doors showing trains drawn up inside, their wagons steaming and dripping as cranes and autolifters unloaded their consignments. She saw a long rank of Ables RP5 shunting engines lined up outside a giant engineering shop; unused since the Prime attack sent the Commonwealth economy floundering, they awaited the return of normal commercial operations.

A weak maroon light shimmered on the other side of the Far Away cargo warehouse, glinting on the rails that snaked around outside.

“Is that the Half Way gateway?” Renne asked. The semicircle of bland luminescence was coming into view from behind the long dark building as the car drew near. It resembled a tired moon sinking below the horizon.

“Yeah,” Edmund Li said. “There’s not been much outgoing traffic since the Prime attack. Most of it is cargo to companies and big landowners, and the Institute, of course. Not much personal stuff, either; anyone who was planning on emigrating has put it on hold, and their tourist trade has packed up completely.”

“What about traffic coming this way?” Tarlo asked.

“Sure. Plenty of people want to get the hell out of there. Who wouldn’t? They’re damn close to Dyson Alpha, but it costs a lot to travel between Boongate and Far Away. Most don’t have that kind of money. And I don’t know how long the Commonwealth Civil Council will keep the gateway open.”

The car pulled up outside the warehouse, and they hurried through the rain to the small office attached to the side of the main building like a brick wart. Inside, the office was a simple open-plan rectangle, with nine desks down the middle. The console arrays on seven of them were covered with plastic dust jackets.

Tarlo gave them a curious look as they walked past. “How many staff does the division employ?”

“There are twenty-five of us on the payroll,” Edmund Li said in a deadpan voice.

“Right. And how many show up?”

“It was four of us yesterday. Tomorrow, who knows?”

Tarlo and Renne gave each other a knowing glance.

“I think that’s called being absent without leave,” Tarlo said. “The Admiral will probably have them shot.”

“He’ll have to find them first,” Edmund Li told them. “I doubt they’ll be on this world. They had families.”

“So why are you still here?” Renne asked. “It’s not like this is the most vital job in the Commonwealth right now.”

“I was born on Boongate. I guess that makes it easier for me to stay than the others. And I haven’t started a family this life around.” He pushed through the door that led into the warehouse.

It was chilly inside the cavernous space. A single row of polyphoto strips was alight along the apex, casting a desultory light on the bare metal racks that ran the entire length of the enzyme-bonded concrete floor. Rain hitting the solar panel roof produced a loud drumming noise that reverberated around the nearly empty building.

“It gets kind of unnerving working here,” Edmund Li said. He stepped over a set of rail tracks that ran down the middle of the floor to a huge door at the end of the warehouse. “We are physically the closest people to the Half Way gateway. If the Primes did come through, we’d be the first to know about it. You feel really exposed. I don’t really blame the others for quitting.”

They came to a pair of ordinary flatbed train wagons that were sitting on the track, both of them loaded with big gray composite crates. A deep-scan sensor hoop spanned the track twenty meters away; several desks had been set up around its base. Their screens and arrays were all silent and dark. A broad workbench beside them was equipped with several robotic machine tools. Three of the crates sat on top of it; they’d been broken open.

“Urien found these yesterday.” Edmund Li gestured. The packing crates contained bulky sections of machinery that the power tools had split apart. Almost all of the electrical circuitry had been removed and laid out on the bench in a jumble of coiled cable and black box modules.

“All right, so what are we looking at?” Tarlo asked.

“The machinery in this consignment is all agricultural; combine harvesters, tractors, drillers, irrigation systems. It’s shipped in sections like this to be reassembled on Far Away. Makes life quite easy for us to scan it all. We were lucky Urien was on duty when this lot went through; his family are landowners on Dunedin. The man knows his farming tools. He thought there was something odd about the wiring, especially as these are all diesel fueled. Turns out he was right.” Edmund held up some of the cabling, which was as thick as his wrist. “Heavy-duty superconductor. And these current modulators have a massive power rating.”

“Not the manufacturer’s spec then?” Tarlo said.

“Heavens no. This is intended for something that uses a phenomenal amount of electricity.”

“Any ideas?”

Edmund Li grinned as he shook his head. “I have absolutely no clue. That’s why I made the call to your office. I thought you should know right away.”

“Appreciate that. So where was it heading?”

“The address is for Palamaro Ranch in the Taliong district, that’s a long way east of Armstrong City; they say that’s where the Barsoomians are.”

“All right. What we really need are the shipment and financial details. Who was the agent? Which bank was used? Where was the machinery packed?”

“Yeah.” Edmund Li scratched the back of his neck, giving the muddle of machinery a doubtful look. The rain pounding on the roof grew even louder as a dense squall lashed down. “Look, I’m sure that back on Earth that kind of data is beautifully formatted and filed for instant access. Things are a little different here. For a start, some of this stuff is already missing.”

“Missing?” Renne exclaimed. “What do you mean?”

“Exactly that. Everyone knows we keep expensive goods in here overnight. Take a look around, lady. Do you see any guardbots on patrol outside? We’ve got sensors, but even if an alarm goes off, the nearest CST security agent is eight kilometers away over in the terminal, and right now they’re all real busy on crowd control. The police are farther away, and care even less.”

“Goddamnit,” Tarlo hissed. “Did you manage to get a record of everything you found in this shipment?”

“I’m pretty sure Urien recorded it, yes. There will be the deep-scan sensor record if nothing else. It just hasn’t been loaded in our official database yet; it’s probably in his console’s temporary store folder.”

Renne made a strong effort to keep her growing anger in check. No good shouting at Edmund Li: they were lucky he even bothered to call them. “What about the associated datawork Tarlo asked about? Is that in a temporary folder somewhere?”

“No. I haven’t started rounding that up yet. It shouldn’t take too long; a lot of the inventory and authorization will be filed with the station’s Far Away export control office.”

“How’s their staffing level?” Tarlo asked bitterly.

Edmund Li just raised an eyebrow.

“Hogan is going to go apeshit,” Renne decided. Another setback. This case is truly jinxed.

“Well, he needn’t try blaming us,” Tarlo said. “But I’m beginning to understand why the boss never found any decent leads here.”

“It’s only since the attack things have gotten like this,” Edmund Li said. “It didn’t help that this operation was still being set up at the time. I can’t even complain about not having any money; it’s lack of people that is the problem.”

“Right,” Tarlo said decisively. “Renne, there’s no point both of us staying here; you get back to Paris. I’ll stay on and run the checks on this consignment. Once we have the basic source, route, and finance information, we can start the backtrack operation from Paris.”

Renne gave the shaded, gaping warehouse a final examination. “No argument. You’d better arrange for what’s left to be shipped back as well. Forensics can start going over it. They might be able to tell us what it’s for.”

Tarlo put out a hand to shake. “Ten dollars they can’t.”

“No takers.”


It was officially called the Westminster Palace Museum of Democracy, but as always everyone just called it Big Ben after the famous clock tower that stood guard at the eastern end. Adam Elvin used his credit tattoo to pay the standard entry fee and walked in through the ornate arching stonework of StStephen’s entrance opposite the Abbey. With its lengthy halls, elongated windows, and bare stone interior, the old British Parliament building always gave him the impression of being a misappropriated cathedral. The lobby between the two main chambers had incongruous wooden furniture huddled defensively between big white statues, while gold-tinted light poured in through the vaulting stained-glass windows highlighting the carvings that stretched up each wall. Groups of chattering schoolchildren rushed about, looking around through interface goggles as the guide program described the historical significance of everything they focused on. Doors into the Commons were open, where holograms faded in and out above the chamber’s green benches, to produce images of successive politicians from the pre-electronic era right up until the last English Parliament in 2065. In the House of Lords the whole rise and fall of the British monarchy from William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings to King Timothy signing the act to grant the right of self-determination to his people was played out amid spectral pomp and splendor.

Adam ignored the Victorian Gothic grandeur and the dodgy history lessons to carry on through to the terrace café along the side of the Thames. It extended for over two hundred meters, nearly the entire length of the building, and was always a popular spot for tourists and locals alike. A warm spring breeze coming off the wide river rustled the tall table parasols with their elaborate portcullis emblem. Waitresses threaded their way through the tight maze, delivering trays and taking orders. He had to suck in his stomach and slither his way awkwardly past seats, warding off annoyed glances, to reach a table that was right up against the terrace parapet itself.

Bradley Johansson smiled up at him. “Adam, so good of you to come, old chap.”

“Yeah right,” Adam grunted, and sat down next to Bradley.

A young waitress dressed in a faux-Tudor boy’s costume with emerald-green tights showing off her long legs came over and smiled hopefully.

“Another afternoon tea for my friend,” Bradley told her winningly. “With cream scones, and I think a glass of that delightful Gifford’s champagne.”

Her smile brightened. “Yes, sir.”

“For Christ’s sake,” Adam muttered after she walked off. Everybody had to be looking at them.

“Now don’t go all Bolshevik on me,” Bradley chided. “When in Rome and all that. Besides, it’s proper Cornish clotted cream.”

“Woopie fucking do.”

“Come on, Adam, they’ve turned this ancient seat of class privilege into a lovely teashop for the common man. There’s got to be a metaphor or two in that, surely? I thought you’d enjoy this.”

Adam would never admit it, but he always experienced a slight burst of admiration for the way Bradley chose to meet him in the most outrageously public places. There was a kind of bravado about it that Adam’s dreary paranoid tradecraft would never permit.

“Kazimir would have liked it,” Adam said. “The history on this world always amazed him. Nearly every building he went in was older than Far Away.”

Bradley’s affable expression hardened. “What happened, Adam? That data was vital.” His hand slapped the table in fury. People did look. Bradley’s smile returned, meeting the stares apologetically.

Adam didn’t often get to see the claws. It wasn’t nice. “We pieced it together eventually. He sneaked off to see a girl before the courier mission. Apparently, they met a long time ago back on Far Away. Turns out she was a little more important than your average tourist.”

“Who is she?”

“Justine Burnelli.”

“The Senator?” Bradley blinked in surprise. “Well, bless the dreaming heavens. No wonder the navy was on to him. I thought he was smarter than that, a lot smarter.”

“Kazimir was murdered by a Starflyer agent called Bruce McFoster. He and Kazimir grew up together.”

“Yes, I remember.” Bradley picked up a little bone-handled silver knife and spread some cream on a scone. “Bruce never came back from a raid a few years back. Damn it, I keep telling the clans to watch for what the Starflyer can do to anyone left behind.”

“The same thing it did to you?”

For a split second Bradley registered enormous pain. “Quite,” he said hoarsely.

“You know, I don’t even question if the Starflyer is real anymore. I’ve watched young Kieran McSobel’s recording a dozen times since. Kazimir was delighted to see his friend again; and Bruce just shot him.”

“I’m sorry, Adam.”

“Sorry? I thought you’d be delighted at another convert.”

“It isn’t a pleasant door to open. There is little hope behind it, mostly just darkness and pain. That’s why I founded the Guardians, to protect the human race from what lurks there. So they could carry on living their beautiful long lives in peace. In a way, you’re not my convert, you’re another of its victims.”

“Hey, don’t worry yourself about my soul. I chose my path a long time ago. This is just another rocky patch.”

“Oh, Adam, if only you knew how much I envy your optimism. Ah…” He smiled up again as the waitress brought a tray with Adam’s afternoon tea.

“Do tuck in.”

Adam picked up his knife and cut open one of the scones.

“How good was the encryption?” Bradley asked.

“The SI could probably break it, but apart from that it’s safe.”

“That gives us some leeway, then. The navy ran long-range diagnostic tests on the Martian equipment, which will tell them precisely nothing. They’ll be desperate to find some subterfuge.”

“We watched the body afterward, you know. Senator Burnelli had it taken to a New York clinic owned by her family. My little friend Paula accompanied her. From what we can gather, the navy and Senate Security don’t exactly see eye to eye over this.”

“Humm.” Bradley held up his crystal champagne flute, studying the bubbles as they fizzed in the sunlight. “Do you think Paula has the memory crystal rather than the navy?”

“That’s some heavy-duty speculation, but I’ll concede it is possible.”

“I wonder if that works to our advantage?”

“I don’t see how. You needed the data. They have it.”

“It gives them a big bargaining chip, even though they don’t know it yet.”

“Do we have anything they want?”

“Yes.” Bradley took a sip of champagne. “You and I for a start.”

“Not fucking funny.” Adam stuffed the scone into his mouth and started pouring his tea.

“I suppose not. But I have to give some consideration to recovering the information. We need it, Adam, very badly. The whole of the planet’s revenge depends on it.”

“I don’t see how we can get it back. I certainly don’t have any way of infiltrating navy intelligence or Senate Security. What about that old top-level source of yours?”

“I’m afraid I haven’t heard from him in a long time.”

“So that’s it? Game over?” Somehow the idea was impossible.

“It’s not over by any means,” Bradley said. “Just a damn sight more difficult. That Martian data would have helped us refine the control program to a point where we could use it with confidence. We can still go ahead, but now we have to depend on numerical modeling more that the project designers want to. The results will be very uncertain.”

“Your guys will make it work, whatever it is. They all seem so dedicated.”

“For which I give thanks to the dreaming heavens. Humans do seem to possess remarkable reserves in so many fields. No wonder Starflyer and the Primes are so unnerved by us.”

“If the Starflyer found out about the planet’s revenge, could it prevent you from carrying it out?”

Bradley looked out over the river, giving the tall plane trees on the opposite bank a thoughtful stare. “Stop it, no; but it would be easy to circumvent. Timing is critical. But very few of us know the entire strategy, and I remain in contact with all of them. So far we are secure.”

“I hope you’re right. They knew Kazimir was making his courier run. Which implies they’ve penetrated the navy. So by now they must know about the observatory receiving the Martian data for twenty years. If the Starflyer knows that, can it work out what you’re planning to hit it with?”

“Extremely unlikely. However, none of this will matter if we can’t get the remaining physical components through to Far Away. An entire shipment was intercepted by the new navy inspections on Boongate.”

“Yeah, we’re really going to have to do something about that.” Adam dropped some rock sugar into his tea, and stirred absently. “We’ve got outlines of a blockade-busting run drawn up. I guess it’s about time to put some flesh on it. Not that it needs a lot of development. It’s an essentially crude notion to begin with.”

“Good. That means there’s less which can go wrong.”

“And you call me an optimist.”

“I’m still curious how Bruce managed to get away afterward. Did you find out anything relevant about that train he jumped on?”

“No. CST traffic control uses very high-order encryption.” He grinned. “For some reason, they’re worried about people like me hacking in. It was a freight train is all we know. We don’t know where it was going, only that it was in the right place at the right time. That kind of placement takes some doing. It impressed the hell out of me.”

“Logically, then, it had to be organized by someone very senior in CST. I wonder who the Starflyer has corrupted in that organization?”

“I don’t suppose we’ll find out until all this is long over and settled.”

Bradley gave a reluctant moue. “Yes, unfortunately. But someone that highly placed can do a lot of damage. I’m assuming they’ll help the Starflyer in its arrangements to return to Far Away.”

“You’re convinced that will happen?”

“I am indeed. It can’t afford to be trapped in the Commonwealth, especially if the Primes do succeed in wreaking havoc. When the war is at its very worst, it will try and return to its own kind. That’s when we must strike.”

“We’ll get the rest of your equipment through, don’t worry.”

“I don’t, Adam, I have a lot of confidence in you and your team. I just wish I could convince the rest of the Commonwealth. Perhaps I went about this the wrong way right from the start. But nobody believed me back then. I felt as though my back was to the wall. What else could I do but lash out physically? It was such a ridiculously human reaction, one which betrays how insecure we all are, how short the distance we’ve traveled from the old animal. Forming the Guardians to attack the Institute was such an instinctive reaction. Maybe I should have tried the political route.”

“Speaking of which, are you absolutely sure Elaine Doi is a Starflyer agent?”

Bradley leaned forward over the table. “That wasn’t us.”

“Excuse me?”

“A very well executed fake. I have to admit, the Starflyer is becoming quite sophisticated in its campaign against us. Physically, Bruce and his kind are causing a lot of expensive damage; while disinformation like that shotgun is damaging our credibility. Just when we were starting to attract a degree of media interest, not to mention political support. Still, I blame myself, I should have anticipated such a move.”

Adam finally sipped some of the Gifford’s champagne to help wash down a scone. “You know, that might have been a dangerous move on their part.”

“In what way?”

“If anyone was to investigate that shotgun properly, they might pick up some leads. The Starflyer might have exposed some of its operation to official scrutiny.”

“Worth considering. I certainly wasn’t going to issue a disclaimer. That would make us look really stupid in the public mind. In any case, I’m abandoning the propaganda shotguns anyway. We’re too close to the end now for them to make any real difference to general opinion.”

“Unless you can produce some absolute proof.”

“True.” Bradley seemed very undecided. “I suppose the Doi shotgun could do with some further inquiries.”

“I can’t spare anyone from my team, especially now you’ve recalled Stig.”

“Sorry about that, but I needed him back on Far Away. He’s developed into a damn good leader, for which I place full credit on your training.”

“So we have no one who can dig into the shotgun, see who put it together?”

“I’ll see what I can do.”


Wilson said practically nothing on the journey back to the High Angel. He was lost in his virtual vision, pulling files from the navy intelligence Paris office, and reviewing the tight green text as it scrolled through the air in front of him.

“It went well,” Rafael said as the direct express slid out of Newark. “I expected us to take a much bigger beating than that. They are politicians, after all.”

“Doi was surprising,” Wilson admitted, rousing himself from Hogan’s report on the killing at LA Galactic. “I didn’t expect her to be quite as forthright as that.”

“She had to be. We need someone with balls at the top. Everybody there knew that. The Dynasties and Grand Families would have engineered a recall if she didn’t come up with positive noises. So, it looks like we’ll get the ships, then.”


Rafael shrugged at the lack of communication, and settled back to work through the files in his own virtual vision.

Wilson thought the account of how the killer got away was frankly unbelievable. If that was an example of how the Paris office operated, no wonder Rafael had fired Myo.

He looked through the spectral lines and columns and graphics to see Rafael sitting opposite him. The man was ambitious, yes, but no matter how ambitious and well connected you were, to reach his level you also had to be competent. Hogan was his placement, but Inspector Myo was renown across the Commonwealth. It didn’t seem like a move based purely on petty office politics. There was no prejudice or simple maneuvering. Myo hadn’t produced results. She had to go.

Yet she’d immediately been recruited into Senate Security—a move engineered by the Burnellis. And Justine had clashed with Rafael.

Wilson recalled the one previous time he’d met the Chief Investigator, amid the ruins of assessment hall seven on Anshun after the Guardians’ attack on Second Chance. She’d seemed quietly professional, easily living up to her reputation. And she certainly hadn’t acquired her seniority in the Directorate through family connections. She was frighteningly good at her job. Every case but one solved. Even now it seemed she was still working on that one, simply from a different angle, if he was reading the pattern right.

His virtual hands pulled another file from the Paris office. Myo had accompanied McFoster’s body to the Burnelli biomedical facility for its autopsy. He found it hard to believe she would ever jeopardize any kind of investigation simply to score points off Rafael. Her brain simply wasn’t wired for it, thanks to the Human Structure Foundation.

Which meant she thought there was something deeper behind the appearance of the assassin. He pulled her last few reports on the case from the navy files, interested to see how high the restricted access level was—there were only fifteen people in the Commonwealth government who could gain entry to those files.

Paula Myo, it seemed, had come to believe that the Starflyer was real.

“Son of a bitch.”

Rafael gave him an expectant look. Wilson shook his head in mild embarrassment, and sat back deeper into the train’s seat. His immediate political instinct was to stay right out of a clash between the Burnellis and the Halgarths, especially over something like this. But for Myo to even consider the possibility after a hundred thirty years trying to close down the Guardians was extraordinary. Everybody knew the Chief Investigator was incapable of lying. Every time he’d accessed one of her cases, the unisphere shows would replay her parents’ trial as evidence of just how incorruptible she was.

Wilson began to wish he’d simply walked on by that morning when Justine asked him for a moment. But he knew it wasn’t something he could ignore; the red planet had a resonance he could never ignore. What the hell did the Guardians want with Mars?

As he pulled out the most recent files from the investigation, it was clear that navy intelligence didn’t have a clue. And just as Myo had indicated, they were winding down that aspect of the case.

“My e-butler’s flagged an interesting report,” he said casually. “What were the Guardians doing on Mars?”

Rafael’s focus returned to the real world. “We don’t know. The Guardians’ courier was killed, and whatever data he was carrying has disappeared. Between you and me, I believe it wound up at Senate Security. Senator Burnelli’s interest in this case is less than professional.”

“Really? I’ll see if I can have a word with Gore about that. He owes me a few favors from way back.”

“I’d appreciate that. Sometimes, I’m not sure we’re all working for the same side. The damn Grand Families can’t stop looking for a financial angle on everything.”

“No problem. But I’d like you to keep navy intelligence working on Mars. I have an understandable interest about the place.”

Rafael gave a disinterested grin. “Sure.”

Wilson and Anna’s apartment in Babuyan Atoll was in a building resembling a small pyramid of dove-gray bubbles. It was close to the edge of the vast crystal dome, which gave them a clear view out into space at night when the internal illumination dimmed. When the High Angel was in conjunction, the wan light from Icalanise’s gigantic cloudscape was enough to cast pale shadows across the walls and floors. That was frequently complemented by the waxing and waning moonlight from the gas giant’s major satellites.

Wilson would often spend an evening on the oval terrace outside the living room, sitting in a recliner with a glass of wine in one hand, watching the stark alien planets gliding overhead. Even then he would immerse himself in files and priority office work that his e-butler and virtual vision provided. The night when he got back from the War Cabinet meeting was different. He simply couldn’t push Mars out of his thoughts.

“I expected you to be happier,” Anna said as she came out onto the terrace. For once she’d taken the time to change out of her uniform after they got home. She’d put on a small yellow bikini and long semitransparent yellow robe. Her dark skin made the fabric appear bright in the infall of light from various moons. Silver and bronze OCtattoos all across her body came to life in long slow undulations, emphasizing the play of muscle below her skin.

The effect was erotic enough to divert Wilson’s thoughts from Mars. He whistled admiringly as she perched on the edge of the recliner. “I haven’t seen you like that for quite a while.”

“I know. We seem to be neglecting some fairly basic human requirements lately; it’s all Mr. and Ms. No-Fun Military Executive these days.”

“Just how basic were those requirements you had in mind?”

Her finger stroked the side of his face. “I had my staff draw up a list. They’ll get in touch with your people and start negotiations.”

“Anytime soon?” He slipped his arm around her waist and told his e-butler to get her a glass of the wine.

She settled back into the embrace and stared up through the roof of the dome. “Is that the new assembly platform?”

Wilson followed where she was looking to see a silver fleck amid the stars. “Uh…yeah, I think so. You know, space is going to get pretty cluttered out there over the next few months.”

“If we have months.”

His hold around her tightened. “They’re not invincible. Don’t ever let yourself think that. We’ve seen their home star; we know they have finite resources to throw at us.”

“They might be finite, Wilson, but they’ve got a damn sight more than we have.”

A maidbot rolled up carrying a glass of chilled wine. He took it from the electromuscle tentacle and handed it to Anna. “If they could have invaded every Commonwealth planet at once, they would have done it. They can’t. They have to try and digest us one chunk at a time. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be frightened of them, but if that first attack showed us anything, it’s that they have limits. The effort they made establishing themselves on the Lost23 gives us a breathing space. We’ll make those fancy new ships work; we’ll gather an army of people wetwired with the scariest weapons technology we can think of and kick the Lost23 out from under their quadruple feet. And after that, we’ll use the Seattle Project to put the fear of God into them. It’ll be us deciding if they get to live or not. Those sons of bitches will curse the day their barrier wall ever came down.”

“Wow. You really believe we can do this, don’t you?”

“I have to. I’m not going to let the human race become nothing more than an old legend in this part of the galaxy.”

“You can depend on me.” She kissed him lightly.

“I know.” He touched his glass to hers. “A toast. To a successful campaign, and politicians who didn’t actually spend the whole cabinet meeting trying to score points off each other.”

“I’ll drink to that.”

Wilson savored the wine, then glanced up at the Base One hardware floating close to the High Angel. “I’ve seen the ideas the physicists and designers have. They’re goddamn impressive.”

“Let’s hope the media shows stop criticizing everything we try and do.”

“They will. Baron and the others are just in shock like everyone else. Once they sober up and see what the alternative is, they’ll throw their weight behind us. I’ve seen it happen before.”

She rubbed his hair fondly. “So old. I guess that’s what makes me trust you so much. You have so much life experience. I don’t think there’s any situation you couldn’t handle.”

“Don’t be so sure. I’ve got surprising vulnerabilities. I can’t believe how much Mars is bugging me. Justine really pressed the right buttons there.”

“What do you think the Guardians have been doing there all that time?”

“I’ve been sitting here thinking about it for an hour, and I just cannot figure it out. That’s why I asked Rafael to keep his teams on it. But given the dumbass politics involved, I don’t suppose much will be done.”

“How about I become the buffer on this one for you? I’ve got the authority to press for action in navy intelligence, while you stay outside the low-level office bickering.”

Wilson stretched his neck up to kiss her. “That would be just about perfect.”

“I do what I can.” The OCtattoos on her torso began to pick up speed, reflecting the light of the shining moons in slim lines of glinting steel.

“What say we forget our staff, and just do our own negotiations here and now?”

Anna started giggling as he shifted around in the recliner so that both arms could reach around her.


Nigel Sheldon’s memory trigger was fast and completely unexpected. It snapped a scene around him like a high-rez TSI access, putting him back in front of the TV news in his adolescence, where every large-scale disaster was followed up by politicians on a “reassurance visit” to the hospitals or tent-city aid stations. After the 2048 meteor strike tsunami in the Gulf of Mexico, students on campus had printed out cards like the ones carried by volunteer organ donors, but saying: IN THE EVENT OF EMERGENCY KEEP THE PRESIDENT AWAY FROM ME.

Watching Elaine Doi and her entourage working her way along the queue outside the temporary medical station, Nigel wondered how many of these refugees would appreciate having that card on them right now. There wasn’t much in the way of smiles and gratitude down there, only grim resignation and an undercurrent of anger. As yet it wasn’t directed at her.

His retinal inserts zoomed back out, giving him a broad aspect of the Wessex planetary station. Like all the CST stations on Big15 worlds, the one at Narrabri sprawled over several hundred square kilometers, incorporating marshaling yards, management centers, engineering sectors, cargo warehouses, a small town of office blocks, and passenger terminals. In the aftermath of the Prime invasion it had become the clearing house for every refugee from the Lost23—all forty million of them. The CST passenger train management RI had pulled out every piece of rolling stock on the Commonwealth register to cope, from vintage carriages to the modern maglev expresses; even the steam engine that ran on the Huxley’s Haven line had been used a couple of times. The evacuation had been a truly heroic endeavor, relentless and grueling for everyone involved from the managers who suddenly found themselves coping with a catastrophe they’d never envisaged let alone trained for, to station staff helping entire planetary populations flood through their domain while nuclear weapons exploded overhead and their homes were blasted back into the stone age. Somehow, it had worked. Nigel had never been prouder of his people.

At the start, when the rail network was in true chaos, people had been swarming through the gateways on foot from the Lost23; but after a few hours, CST had reestablished the primary rail links, and begun running evacuation trains. They’d off-loaded refugees throughout phase one and two space on a rota basis, with trains abandoning their confused and frightened cargo at stations for the local government to cope with. Nobody asked permission to dump people from wildly different ethnic groups and cultures and religions onto unprepared worlds frightened for their own future. CST simply did it based on practicality.

From the Narrabri CST station manager’s office Nigel could see a mass of people milling around outside the huge buildings of the engineering sector. Repairs and maintenance on Wessex were currently impossible, with crude dormitories and makeshift kitchens filling every square meter of floor space. Even with all the temporary facilities rushed in, sanitation down there wasn’t great. But at least the big engineering sheds gave them a roof over their heads at night. Tens of thousands more camped out in the terminal buildings, eating their way through every fast-food franchise stall on the planet. More squatted in empty warehouses. Best estimates from CST staff and Wessex government officials on the ground put the number remaining in the station at two million. Social workers brought in from fifty planets, and local volunteers from Narrabri, were coping with children separated from their parents. Over thirty percent were newly orphaned, and deep in shock. There were acts of kindness and quiet heroism occurring amid the throng that would never be known, for all the intrusive media coverage of the terrible human aftermath of the invasion.

“I haven’t seen anything like this since the early twenty-first century,” Nigel said.

“Yeah, I remember Africa and Asia back then,” Alan Hutchinson said.

“This isn’t quite the same.”

Nigel cast an inquisitive glance at the third Dynasty leader in the office. Heather Antonia Halgarth gazed down impassively at the weary refugees without making any comment.

“We’re doing everything we can,” Nigel said. “It shouldn’t take more than a couple of days to move these people out.”

“Where to?” Alan asked. “My senators are starting to hear complaints. Some worlds think they’re being given too many refugees to cope with.”

“Tough,” Nigel snapped. “We can’t dump them on phase three worlds, there’s no infrastructure. Phase one and two will have to cope, physically and financially.”

“But not Earth,” Heather murmured.

Nigel gave her an uneasy smile. She was nearing the time she underwent rejuvenation, a biological age of mid-fifties. It made her an imposingly grand woman, with reddish hair starting to lighten, and a few wrinkles appearing on her cheeks. At this time in her preferred sequence, he always likened her to some high priestess: silent, wise, knowing, and totally uncompromising.

“No,” he said. “Not Earth. They’ll get a few token trainloads, but I can really do without the Grandees bitching about undesirables bringing down the tone of the neighborhood. My unisphere address would be blocked for a year with messages. They can pay for accommodation instead; I made that quite clear to Crispin.”

“Good man, Crispin,” Heather said.

“He’ll need to be,” Alan said. “Sorting this mess out will cost trillions; and it’ll take a decade if not longer. Screw it, this is nearly fifteen percent of my market those alien bastards have wiped out.”

“We might all be facing a hundred percent market loss sooner than we would like,” Heather said in a voice loaded with contempt. “I have yet to be convinced that our new navy is capable of engaging the Prime threat effectively. What I’ve seen so far doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence. Losing twenty-three planets in a day is simply unacceptable.”

“We agreed to back the formation of a navy,” Nigel said pointedly. “I don’t know what else we could have done.”

“Yeah,” Alan grunted. “It’s not exactly underfunded.”

“Relative to a species extinction crusade, which is what this is, I think we could have made more effort.”

Nigel nodded to the knot of people around Doi. “Politically difficult.”

“Which is why we dump them every five years,” Heather said. “We make the decisions, us humble three and the other Dynasties. Doi will do as she’s told, as will the Senate.”

“Not all of them,” Nigel said. “Don’t be that arrogant.”

“We built this civilization,” Heather said. “You more than all of us, Nigel. We cannot stand back when there are hard choices to be made.”

“This is all academic anyway,” Nigel countered. “We’ve lost those planets. Our warship/building program cannot be significantly expanded for months no matter how much we need more ships.”

“Do we need more ships?” Heather asked mildly. “There’s the Seattle Project.”

“Genocide them?” Nigel was surprised to hear her propose that option; he’d always assumed she favored a less drastic solution. Not that he’d ever thought of one.

“I think this has proved it’s either them or us, surely?”

“They’re aggressive, yes, but genocide…Come on, that’s got to be the last resort. I don’t think we’re at that stage yet.”

“You’re applying human scruples to a nonhuman problem. Their next attack will be bigger and stronger. And we know there’s going to be a ‘next,’ don’t we?”

“Once the navy finds the exit point of that massive wormhole the Primes constructed, we’ll be able to block them,” Alan said.

Heather gave him a disappointed smile. “Eliminate Hell’s Gateway? Care to bet your life on that? Because that’s what you’re doing.”

“Fuck you,” Alan spat. “It’s my territory that’s in the front line.”

“Let’s just calm down here,” Nigel said. “Heather, he’s right, we have to give the navy a chance to do what we built it for. I’m not prepared to authorize the genocide of an entire species, however belligerent.”

“And after their next strike takes out half of phase two space?”

“Then I’ll press the button myself.”

“I’m glad to hear it. In the meantime, I will be taking the same kind of precautions you’ve been doing for the last few months.”

Nigel sighed; he should have known the other Dynasties would eventually find out what he was doing. “Yeah well, I’m just playing safe.”

“That’s a very expensive way of being safe,” Alan said. “How much are you spending on those ships? I mean, Christ, Nigel, the hole in Augusta’s budget was big enough for us to find.”

“Which is why I don’t understand your reluctance to genocide the Primes,” Heather said; she sounded genuinely curious.

“Morality. We all have it, Heather, to some degree or other.”

“And your morality includes flying off and leaving the rest of us in the shit, does it?”

“If those ships are ever used, it will be when we’re past the point of salvation. There won’t be any Commonwealth left to protect.”

“Well, I hope you’re not going to deny us equal access to your hyperdrive technology.”

Nigel couldn’t help the flicker of disapproval on his face. “Progressive wormhole generator.”

“Excuse me?”

“FTL starships use progressive wormhole generators.”

“Right,” Alan said, nonplussed. “Whatever. We need them, Nigel.” His hand waved down at the refugees. “Given this crock of shit, I’m putting my Dynasty’s escape route together. All of us are.”

“You can have generators for your ships,” Nigel said. “I’ll be happy to sell them to you.”

“Thank you,” Heather said. “In the meantime, we’d better present a united front for the War Cabinet and the Senate.” She nodded down at the President. “She has to be given a big injection of confidence. People will turn to her; they always do in times of crisis. If they can see for certain that she’s firmly in charge, it’ll help keep the panic down.”

“Sure.” Nigel shrugged.

“What about Wilson?” Alan asked.

“What about him?” Nigel said.

“Oh, come on! Twenty-three worlds invaded, and Wessex targeted as well. That asshole let it happen. He’s responsible.”

“He’s the best one for the job,” Nigel said. “You can’t replace him.”

“For now,” Heather said. “But another screwup like this, and we will eject him.”

He gave her a hard look. “And replace him with Rafael?”

“He’s pro-genocide. That gets my vote.”

“We don’t need games right now, Heather.”

“Who’s playing? We’re facing extinction, Nigel. If the solution involves shifting the navy to my control, then that is what will happen.”

Nigel couldn’t remember the two of them going raw like this before. The trouble with Heather was that she could only think in terms of everything that had gone before. She had an astonishing determination and political ability. You couldn’t build a Dynasty without those qualities. Nigel always considered her flaw to be a lack of originality. Even now, she saw the Prime situation purely in terms of its effect on her Dynasty. “If that’s the only solution you can see, then go for it,” he told her. It drew him a suspicious look. He ignored it. If she couldn’t see her way around this problem, he certainly wasn’t going to tell her.


Despite all she’d triumphed through on Elan, Mellanie still felt a great deal of trepidation as she stepped up to the dark wooden door of Paula Myo’s Parisian apartment block. It said a lot about the Hive woman that just the idea of confronting her again could do that. Mellanie knew that she was the special one now, that the SI inserts gave her huge powers, that she actually had the courage to stand in front of MorningLightMountain’s soldier motiles and take them down—well, the SI had through her, but that didn’t alter the fact that she hadn’t turned tail and run. So why do I feel so nervous?

She checked the bulky centuries-old intercom box beside the door, and pressed the worn ceramic button for Paula Myo’s apartment. Somewhere inside a buzzer sounded. Her e-butler immediately told her Paula Myo was placing a call to her unisphere address. Mellanie resisted the instinct to look around for a camera. Even if the sensor was big enough to be visible, it was late evening, and the sunlight had almost faded, dropping the narrow street into deep shadow. Above her, the windows looking out from the high walls were all shuttered. The few intermittent streetlights above the uneven pavement did little to alleviate the gloom.

“Yes?” Paula Myo asked.

“I need to see you,” Mellanie said.

“I don’t need to see you.”

“But I did what you said. I talked to Dudley Bose.”

“And what has that got to do with me?”

Mellanie gave the door an aggravated stare. “You were right, I did find something interesting.”

“Which was?”

“The Starflyer.” There was such a long pause that Mellanie thought Myo had cut her off. She had to check her virtual vision to confirm the channel was still open.

The lock clicked loudly. Mellanie just had time to square her shoulders before the door opened. She’d toned down her clothes for this encounter, selecting some of the more sober items from her personal fashion line: a half-sleeve burgundy jacket and matching skirt longer than her usual, its hem nearly halfway to her knees. It was a compilation that should emphasize how serious and professional she was these days.

A single polyphoto circle was fixed to the top of the deep archway that led to the block’s central courtyard. Paula Myo was silhouetted in its yellow glow, dressed in her usual conservative-cut business suit. Mellanie hadn’t realized before, but she was taller than the Investigator.

“Come in,” Paula said.

Mellanie followed her to the middle of the ancient cobbled courtyard. She looked around at the whitewashed walls with their narrow windows. Over half of them had their shutters drawn back, revealing glimpses of rooms. Flickers of pale green light were coming from inside as holographic portals played out the evening’s unisphere news and entertainment. A sad reflection on the residents; this was the kind of block where single professionals would flock while they were taking a break between marriage contracts. Sanitized little apartments where they could rest in safety between the work and play that otherwise occupied their whole day.

“This will do,” Paula said. “We’re secure here if we don’t talk too loud.”

Mellanie wasn’t sure about that, but didn’t want to argue. “You know about it, don’t you?”

“Did Alessandra Baron send you in search of an exclusive? Is that why you’re here?”

“No.” Mellanie gave a short, edgy laugh. “I don’t work for her anymore. Check with the production company if you don’t believe me.”

“I will. Why did you leave? I imagine it was quite lucrative, and your report from Randtown helped secure your celebrity status.”

“She works for the Starflyer.”

Paula tilted her head to one side and gave Mellanie a searching look.

“That’s an interesting allegation.”

“But don’t you see it makes perfect sense? She’s always been tough on the navy. She’s just spinning the Starflyer’s propaganda, causing trouble for the one organization which can defend us.”

“You used her show to criticize me. Does that make you a Starflyer agent?”

“No! Look, I want to help. I know about the Cox. That’s how I found out about Baron. When I told her, she altered the records.”

“I’m sorry, you’ve lost me now. What is this Cox?”

A little flare of temper made Mellanie put her hands on her hips. This wasn’t going the way she’d imagined it. She’d thought the Investigator would welcome offers of help from anyone who knew about the Starflyer and the huge danger it represented. “The education charity,” she said acerbically, which should jog the Hive woman’s memory. “The one that funded Dudley’s observation.”

“The break-in,” Paula said, reading something in her virtual vision. “The Guardians suspected the whole Bose observation was a deliberate manipulation.”

“And they were right.”

Paula’s eyebrows lifted slightly. “Really?”

“You know they were,” Mellanie hissed.

“I don’t.”

“But you must have. The Cox is a total fraud.”

“Not according to our investigations.”

“But…” Mellanie felt the skin down the back of her neck cooling rapidly. She didn’t understand the way Myo was reacting at all. Unless the Starflyer had got to her as well. “I’m sorry. I’m wasting your time. I…It was tough on Elan.” She turned and hurried back to the door. Backing off from people she used to trust was turning into a bad habit.

“Wait,” Paula said.

Mellanie froze, suddenly fearful. She reviewed the icons in her virtual vision, trying to work out if she could use any of the SI inserts to extricate herself if things turned nasty. Trouble was, she didn’t really understand half of them yet. She’d have to yell to the SI for help. The gold snakeskin of her virtual hand poised above the SI icon.

“You think I know something about the Cox,” Paula said. “Why?”

“You put me on to Dudley Bose. You must have known I would discover this.”

“I pushed you toward Bose because his wife once met Bradley Johansson. I was expecting you to go down that route to the Starflyer. Media allies would be useful to me. The only reports I recall on the break-in were that the Cox charity was legitimate.”

“It’s not. Well, it wasn’t. Baron had the records altered.”

“Interesting. If you’re telling me the truth, then the actual state of the Cox was withheld from me.”

“I am telling the truth,” Mellanie protested. She almost said, Ask the SI. But that would have given away too much. She still didn’t trust Paula.

“All right,” Paula said. “I’ll look into it.”

“Then what?”

“What did you come here for?”

“To see what you were doing, and to help.”

“And coincidentally wind up with the ultimate story.”

“Were you going to keep it secret?”

“If it’s all true, then no. But I really don’t think having a media celebrity dogging everything I do is helpful, do you?”

She couldn’t even say “reporter,” Mellanie thought. Bitch. “Fine. Whatever.” She pushed at the big door, opening a way back out onto the relative safety of the street.

“If you do find anything concrete, then please come to me,” Paula said. “Not the navy.”

“Right.” Mellanie took a few paces out, then stopped to gather her thoughts. She knew she’d unsettled Paula, but pleasant though it was, that wasn’t what she’d wanted to achieve. Right now, Mellanie needed someone to turn to with the terrible knowledge of Baron and the Starflyer, someone in authority, someone who would do something about it. Just like some kid running to her parents.

Well, if the great Paula Myo was suspicious or undecided, she’d just have to damn well sort the problem out herself. With that thought, Mellanie nodded her head confidently and set off for the nearest Metro station.


Dawn found Hoshe Finn on his balcony, slumped in a cheap plastic patio chair looking out across the twinkling urban grid. Oaktier’s sun was sliding up over the eastern districts of Darklake City, cloaking the tips of the glass and marble towers with an energetic rose-gold glow. Colorful birds started chirping from inside the tall evergreen trees standing around the base of his apartment block, while gardenbots moved along the narrow moat of dewmoistened gardens, performing their daily tidy-up routine.

Sometime in the small hours, he’d woken up in the middle of the dream again, jolting up on the bed in a fever-sweat as the too-real images of collapsing buildings and quaking ground drained away into the darkness of the room. Every night since the Prime attack it had been the same. He refused to call it a nightmare. This was just his subconscious coming to terms with what had happened. All very healthy. Playing it back in sleeptime, letting all those nasty little details wind out from his mind where they’d been compressed like some secure file in a crystal lattice. Like the woman who’d been crushed in two by a broken bridge support—glanced at briefly as he’d carried Inima past. The children wailing outside the smoking rubble that had been their house, lost and dazed, filthy with dust, soot, and blood.

Yeah, a really healthy way of dealing with it all.

So he’d pulled on his old amber bathrobe and limped out onto the balcony to watch the sleeping city, thinking like some frightened kid that maybe dreams only came to people in bedrooms. He’d dozed fitfully for the rest of the night as his burns throbbed and the clammy ache down his back cycled from hot to cold over and over. Not even the rum and hot chocolate helped; it just made him feel sick.

What he wanted was Inima. The reassurance of having her lying beside him at night; the exasperated tolerance she turned on whenever he was ill and moping around the house instead of going in to work. But the doctors weren’t going to let her out of the hospital for another ten days at the earliest. He still tensed up every time he thought about her. Pulling her out from the broken four-by-four on Sligo, the way her legs were bent and blackened, fluid weeping from the tarlike encrustation that had been her jeans. Her low whimpers, the sounds that only the seriously injured make. A few vague memories of first aid flitting through his brain, utterly useless as he stared at his wife in disbelief that anything like this could possibly happen. Cursing himself the whole time for being so helpless.

They were vacationing on Sligo to see the flower festival. A fucking flower festival; and an alien army came dropping down out of the sky, blowing the whole world to shit.

Someone rang the apartment’s doorbell. Hoshe turned automatically, and grimaced at the number of twinges that triggered right across his body. Grumbling like an old man he limped his way to the door and opened it.

Paula Myo stood outside, neat and tidy as always, in some charcoal-gray business suit with a scarlet blouse. Her hair had been brushed to a gloss, hanging free behind her shoulders. She was studying him carefully, and he was abruptly self-conscious of the way he looked, the fact he hadn’t stood up to the attack the way he knew other people had.

Instead of some lecture or trite comment, Paula gave him a gentle hug.

Hoshe thought he covered up any surprise at the display of affection reasonably well given the circumstances.

“I’m really pleased you’re okay, Hoshe,” Paula said.

“Thanks. Uh…come on in.” He glanced across the living room as she walked past him. Maidbots had kept the apartment clean, but it was obvious he was spending a lot of time at home, indoors. The room had an almost bachelor feel to it, with memory crystals, mugs, plates, and a long paperscreen scattered over the table, blinds half-drawn, clothes piled up in one chair.

“I brought you this,” Paula said, and gave him a fancy-looking box of herbal teas. “Somehow, I thought flowers would be inappropriate.”

Hoshe examined the label on the side of the box, and grinned sheepishly. “Good choice.”

The sleeves of his robe were baggy, revealing long strips of healskin on his arms. Paula saw them and frowned slightly. “How’s Inima?”

“The doctors say she’ll be out of the hospital in another week or so. She’ll need a clone graft for her hip and thigh, but they didn’t have to amputate, thank God. They’re going to fit her in an electromuscle suit, so she’ll be mobile around the apartment at least.”

“That’s good.”

He dropped down into one of the chairs. “Medically, yeah. Our insurance is refusing to pay out for quote war injuries unquote. They say the government is responsible for covering its citizens in times of conflict. Bastards! The decades I’ve spent paying my premiums. I’m talking to a lawyer I know. He’s not optimistic.”

“What does the government say?”

“Ha! Which one? Oaktier says it isn’t responsible for something that happened to registered citizens offplanet, because that’s beyond their jurisdiction. The Intersolar Commonwealth: Well, we’re kind of busy right now, can I get back to you on that? We had to use the mortgage we raised for having a kid to pay the hospital.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Right now, it doesn’t seem like a terribly good idea to have a child anyway.” Hoshe growled it out, using anger to override the anguish. If he didn’t, he knew he’d do something ridiculous like start crying.

“I accessed the Prime attack on the unisphere,” Paula said. “But I don’t suppose that can ever substitute for being there.”

“It was mayhem on Sligo; absolute mayhem. We were lucky to get out. After what happened there, I’m never going to complain about a Halgarth ever again. That force field took about eight direct hits from Prime nuclear missiles when we were inside it, and it never even wavered. The ground shocks were bad, though. I was in California once when they had a quake; that was nothing compared to this. I mean, buildings were collapsing all around us. The roads buckled right away; you couldn’t use any kind of vehicle.”

“I heard you headed up one of the evacuation squads.”

“Yeah, well, they were appealing for anyone with any kind of government service connection. It’s an authority thing. The local council didn’t put a lot of police on duty for a flower festival.”

“Don’t be so modest, Hoshe.”

“It’s not like I ever expect a medal or anything. It was mainly self-preservation.”

She indicated his arm. “How bad were you hurt?”

“Burns, mostly. Nothing too serious. The worst bit was the wait for treatment afterward. It was ten hours before Inima even saw a nurse. And that was just for triage. It was actually easier for us to get back here and go to our local hospital than wait for the navy’s cobbled-together relief operation to finally catch up with us.”

“So now what?”

“Same as everyone else. Carry on as normally as possible, and hope that Admiral Kime does a better job next time around.”

“I see. I came here to offer you a job, Hoshe. I’m working at Senate Security now; I need an assistant, someone I know can do a good job, and someone I know I can trust.”

“That’s very flattering,” he said carefully. “But I’m not really that keen on the Commonwealth administration right now.”

“That’s not you talking, Hoshe, that’s a whole lot of confusion left over from Sligo.”

“Very psychologically astute, I’m sure.”

“You want me to go on and list medical benefits? How good the family health plan is?”

“No.” He clenched his teeth, trying to come up with a valid reason why he shouldn’t accept the offer. “What about your old office team? Why not approach them?”

“I still don’t know which of them I can trust. I received some disturbing information yesterday, which adds to the likelihood one or more of them is working for the Starflyer alien.”

It took a moment for Hoshe to place the name. “The one the Guardians keep banging on about? You’re kidding me.”

“I wish I was.”

The dream flashed through his brain again, its blurred montage of misery and destruction falling from the sky in blinding purple contrails moving barely slower than lightspeed. And that was just what one alien species could do. If there was another, something deeper and more sinister…“I opened some of those Guardian shotguns. It all seemed pretty paranoid stuff to me. Something a freaked-out kid would babble about after his first bad trip.”

“That would be a favorable result, proving Bradley Johansson really has been wrong all these years. I’m not used to doubt on this scale, Hoshe, I find it unnerving.”

He thought about it. No, not true. What he considered was how he would explain to Inima that he’d taken the new job. “I’m not going to be much use for any active role. Not for a week or so.”

“I wanted you to start by reviewing some old files for me. Now that we know what we’re looking for, they might be more helpful than the last time I looked through them.”

“So what exactly is the deal with those medical benefits?”


The chalet that Mellanie had rented was one of fifty tucked away in a coastal forest over ninety minutes’ drive from Darklake City. Together they formed the Greentree Village Park vacation resort, the kind of place where parents on a modest budget could take their kids and let them exhaust themselves during the day on the resort’s playtime amenities or down at the beach. A large bar and restaurant building in the heart of the forest provided an evening refuge for the adults to unwind. Two nights a week there was a live cabaret act.

An hour after nightfall, the rental car dropped Mellanie off at the main entrance and rolled back to the parking lot. Vehicles weren’t allowed inside Greentree, leaving her to walk along the shingle paths amid the ancient bent rani trees with their white-moss leaf clumps and spongy green bark. Little mushroom-shaped light fittings along the paths provided a soft blue glow as they unraveled through the woods. Greentree had been laid out so that each cabin was completely isolated; all you could see from the windows were trees and the glowing turquoise path. Somewhere off in the forest she could hear the sound of the piano trio as they crooned their way through songs that were old even before Oaktier had been discovered.

A thin mist was creeping out of the soft loam as the temperature fell. It swirled in spooky luminescent currents around her feet, which she found slightly disconcerting. When she’d come here as a child with her parents, she’d adored the shaggy old forest with its thick buckled tree trunks. It had seemed magical in those days, a fantastical world to explore. All she could think about today was what might be lurking among all the shadows and secluded glades.

She’d paid in cash for the chalet she and Dudley were sharing. Most of the other chalets were empty right now, which reduced the chance of anyone seeing and recognizing her. She still left early in the morning as a precaution. And the SI assured her it was watching the local cybersphere nodes for any encrypted message activity that would indicate a surveillance operation. Even so, she’d be glad when they left. She still wasn’t sure what Baron would do about her.

Their three-room chalet was in a small clearing, with five huge rani trees towering over it. Dudley was pacing nervously up and down the lounge when she walked in.

“Where’ve you been?” he shouted.

“Fine, thank you, how are you?”

He stopped in the act of flinging himself at her, producing a massive petulant scowl instead. “I was worried.”

She ran her hand back through her tawny hair and gave him a mellow smile. “I’m sorry. It didn’t go as well as expected with Paula Myo. Turns out she doesn’t trust me, and I don’t trust her. Which kind of screws up the idea of us joining forces to take on the Starflyer. So I went on to California. My agent set up some job interviews. Good ones.”

“Oh.” He went up to her and gave her a cautious hug. When she didn’t squirm away, he asked, “Did you get one?”

“I got three offers, actually. Let me get out of these clothes and I’ll tell you.”

Dudley’s face immediately brightened.

“No, Dudley,” she said wearily. “Not for sex.”

“But…we will tonight, though, won’t we?” he asked in a whiny voice.

“Yes, Dudley, we’ll have sex later.” She glanced over at the kitchen alcove. Yesterday morning they’d paid cash for over a week’s worth of food and supplies from a supermarket twenty minutes away down the highway. The bags were still sitting on the bench, unpacked. “I’m going to have a shower, then I’d like something to eat. Think you can manage that for me?”

Once she’d freshened up she wrapped a towel around her hips and went back out into the lounge. It was almost a routine, checking the effect she had on him. Sure enough, Dudley could barely take his eyes off her naked torso. Ever since they had got here, she’d been using the gym a couple of hours a day to keep herself toned. The machines there faithfully recorded her physical condition, giving her top marks; but it was always reassuring to have her sexuality confirmed by a man. Even if it was only Dudley.

He’d made a mess of the dinner, which was impressive. The packaged food had a code strip for the microwave, automatically setting the timer and wattage when you put it in. He must have altered the settings manually. She took one look at the brown goo bubbling away under the cellophane wrapping and dropped them in the bin. The conditioning grille would take care of the smell eventually. “How did your day go?” she asked as she slid two fresh packets into the microwave.

“I went down to the beach. Some people arrived and started a barbecue. I came back here and accessed the unisphere.”

“Dudley, you need to learn how to socialize with people again.” She kissed him as the microwave counted down, breaking away with a promissory smile when it pinged. They settled down on the broad couch and Mellanie told her e-butler to turn the fire on. Bright holographic flames leaped up in the fire-place, while the invisible heater let out an accompanying blast of hot air—it even added a scent of burning wood.

“I don’t know who works for the Starflyer. It could be anyone. And the navy’s probably hunting us as well.”

“I doubt that.”

“You don’t know. Not really.”

Mellanie narrowed her eyes to look at him. Already he was sitting upright, fully defensive. She didn’t help his condition with her own mild paranoia about the Starflyer and Baron. “No, Dudley, I don’t; but they’ll have a very hard job finding us. I’ve made sure of that.” She curled her legs up and started poking chopsticks into the steaming dish of savory rice and chicken. Maybe it was a good idea they were leaving in the morning.

“What were your job offers?” Dudley asked.

“One was a TSI drama, Late Rendezvous. The producers were very keen to sign me up; it’s about a girl who arranges to meet her boyfriend on Sligo, then the Primes attack and she doesn’t know if he’s alive or dead. It’s all about her finding romance under the pressure of the attack.” She grinned to herself at the memory of the “co-stars” the producers had introduced her to. One of them, Ezra, had been utterly gorgeous. The thought of days spent rehearsing love scenes with him had almost made her sign up on the spot. Before the Prime attack and discovering Baron’s connection to the Starflyer there would have been no hesitation.

“A TSI?” Dudley said, alarm leaking into his features. “No! Please, Mellanie. Don’t. Not one of those again. That’s just sex. That’s what they want you for. Don’t. I don’t care how much money they offered. I couldn’t stand it.”

There were times when she really hated how pitiful Dudley was. She was fairly certain that there was no more useful information to extract from that abysmal jumble of thoughts in his brain. After California she’d toyed with the notion of simply not coming back to Greentree, just tell the navy where he was and leave their psychologists to straighten him out. But given who she wanted to meet next, having the Dudley Bose in tow, and under control, would make success a lot more likely.

And she did like him in a way. She supposed. Occasionally. When he was calm he could be very lucid, providing her a glimpse of the intellect that had qualified him for his earlier academic life. A sort of sneak preview of what he could be like. Then there was Elan, and everything they’d gone through together there when the Primes attacked. That wasn’t a bond easily discarded, not even for her. If he could just get the idea of love out of his head…

“I turned it down,” she said. “I can’t afford that kind of time commitment right now.”

“Thank you.” He bowed his head to examine the rectangular meal packet he was holding, almost as if he hadn’t seen one before. “What were the others?”

She pincered a big chunk of chicken with the chopsticks and popped it in her mouth. “Reuters said they’d take me on as a junior associate. Bravoweb offered me a reporter’s slot on the Michelangelo show; he’s always been a big rival for Baron. They’ve been fighting over audience points for over a century.”

“What did you say?”

“I said I’d take the Michelangelo slot. I think he got quite a bang out of poaching one of her top people. They offered me a trial three-month roving brief; and they agreed to my first story proposal.”

“Right. So what was it?”

“An inside account about people who live on a world that’s probably going to be invaded by the Primes in the next wave. I said I’d travel out to examine communities that are too poor to leave, the ones that have to stay even though they suspect they’re in for hard times. It’s pretty horrendous for them, really.”

“Oh.” Dudley picked up a tall tumbler of water and stared morosely at the ice bobbing around on top. “How does that help us track down the Starflyer?”

“I know for certain that’s where we can meet some really strong allies in the fight against the Starflyer, and Bravoweb will pick up the tab. Which is handy, because it’s not cheap traveling there.” She fashioned a smug smile.


“Right. What planet?”

“Far Away.”


Coming into the office every morning was getting to be a real drag. In the old days when it was the Directorate, Renne had often come in early, especially when they were on a major case. Now she had to force herself up out of bed when the alarm woke her. And cases didn’t get any bigger than this one.

Somehow, Alic Hogan was always there ahead of her. Like Paula used to be, except Hogan didn’t conjure up enthusiasm in the rest of the team. Having him watching you arrive was like an automatic reprimand. She knew she was going to have to make an effort to cycle down on the irritation she felt toward him. But that was the problem. It was an effort.

John King appeared in the middle of the morning and walked over to her desk. “That smuggled technical equipment you had shipped back from Boongate. My analysis staff have got a slight problem with it.”

“Goddamn typical,” she spat.

John gave her a hurt look.

“All right, I’m sorry. It’s just that nobody ever comes and tells me any good news these days.”

“This isn’t bad news, exactly, it’s just strange.”

“Go on then, what’s strange with it?”

“Same as the stuff from Venice Coast, we can’t understand what it’s used for.”

“John, come on! You must have some idea. I saw the manifest Edmund Li finally produced. There was nearly a metric ton of hardware.”

“A lot of it very similar,” he said defensively. “But given we don’t know what they’re building, it’s difficult.”

“I’ll settle for best guess. I trust you.”

He smiled sheepishly. “All right, based on these systems, and factoring in the surviving components from Venice Coast, assuming they were intended for the same thing—”


“Force fields. Very high-density force fields. But the thing is, they’d use up a terrific amount of power.”


He gave her an elaborate shrug. “On Far Away? Where are they going to get it from? I checked with the Commonwealth Civil Council. There’s five medium-size civic power stations supplying Armstrong City; they’re gas turbines running off a local oil field. The revitalization project imported some fission micropiles to power their equipment in the early days. And the Institute has three micropiles to power their facilities. That’s it. The rest of the planet gets by on solar panels, wind turbines, and a few oil wells. They don’t have anything like the power output one of these weirdo devices would consume.”

She stared at him blankly, waiting for a suggestion. None came. “Then what does produce that much power?”

“I haven’t got a clue. It’s not like you could have smuggled a fusion or fission generator through unnoticed even before we were inspecting every piece of cargo. And Far Away can’t be physically plugged into the Commonwealth power grid. It doesn’t make any sense.”

“Right then.” She instinctively reached for her mug of coffee, only to find it was empty. “So what we have is an unknown force field device, or devices, which consumes a lot of power, on a planet that doesn’t have any.”

“Nicely summarized.”

“I look forward to seeing how the Commander treats that one when you submit it.”

They both glanced over at the door to Hogan’s office.

“Oh, no, you don’t,” John said. “This is just a technical appendix to your report.”

Renne’s e-butler informed her that a file from King’s forensic staff had just been deposited in her working case HOLD folder.

John cocked his fingers pistol style and aimed at her. “What you do with it is up to you.”


He gave her a cheery wave, and retreated back to his own desk.

Vic Russell returned from Cagayn half an hour later. The second lieutenant barely had time to kiss his wife, Gwyneth, before Renne hauled him off into a conference room for a debrief.

“The Cagayn police were very familiar with Robin Beard,” Vic told her. “He works in the motor trade. Good repair and service man, apparently. Which fits in with what Cufflin told us; they met on an electronics course a few years back.”

“Did you see him?” Renne asked. She thought Vic looked tired; he was a big man, well over two meters tall, and about as wide. His weekends were spent playing bone-cruncher games of rugby for a nonprofessional club outside Leicester. Renne had turned up with Gwyneth to support his team one Saturday, and had been intimidated by the amount of good spirits violence in the game. Cagayn must have been an exhausting trip for someone as fit as Vic to appear run-down.

“No, ‘fraid not. I was too late. Our Mr. Beard is a somewhat migratory character. According to his tax records he never stays at the same garage for more than a couple of years.”

“He pays taxes?”

“Not very often. But that’s not why the police have such a big file on him. If you’re looking for a getaway vehicle, word is that Beard’s the one you need to give it a good overhaul beforehand. Same if you have a warehouse full of hot cars that need rebranding; he knows how to replace and revise all the manufacturers’ security tagging.”

“Sounds like the kind of person who would have good reason to know our elusive agent.”

“Quite so. I took a scout around his home. Rented, of course. We must have missed him by about twenty-four hours. His vehicle recovery van was gone, which is his own mobile maintenance shop; he keeps all his tools and equipment in there. It’s the one permanent thing in his life, apparently. I spoke to some of the guys he worked with at the garage; there’s a lot of customized machinery in the back, stuff he’s built over the years.”

For an instant, Renne saw the image of some titanic truck rolling along a highway with force field bubbles for wheels, draining energy from the Commonwealth grid as it went. “Ah, so if we find the van—”

“—we find the man. Yeah. Ordinarily the police wouldn’t have too much trouble spotting a bright orange three-ton tow van. Of course, given his chosen field of expertise it’s not quite as simple as it would be with the average criminal on the run. Beard is familiar with every traffic monitor program in the Commonwealth. He’ll have aggressor software to deal with all of it. Cagayn police have issued an all-officer dispatch for vans of that description to be pulled over and checked.”

“The boss would have loved that one: proper police work.”

Vic grinned, revealing teeth that had been rearranged in crooked ranks by too many hard impacts on the rugby pitch. “She would, yeah. But it gives us a bit of a nightmare.”

“You’ve alerted the Cagayn CST station?”

“First thing I did. They checked back through their schedules for me; no van of that kind left Cagayn in the time frame we’re considering. So if anybody does take a van like that on board a freight train, they’ll let this office know about it immediately.”

“Good. Thanks, Vic.”

Noon saw the daily senior officers’ case review meeting in conference room three. Renne joined Tarlo and John at the big table, put her coffee mug down, then hurriedly mopped up the ring it left on the surface.

“You two want to try Amies for lunch?” John asked.

“Sure,” Tarlo said.

“You’re not still after that waitress, are you?” Renne asked disapprovingly. The redhead Tarlo had spent a month flirting with was a first-life art student, still in her early twenties. He was in his third life. It wasn’t done. But that damn uniform…

“There are waitresses there?”

The men laughed. She sighed.

Hogan marched in and sat at the head of the table. His whole stance was charged with energy, which produced an aggressive smile.

“John, I believe you have something critical for us?”

“Yes, sir.”

Renne gave him a curious glance; he hadn’t mentioned anything earlier.

“Foster Cortese finally pulled a match out of the visual recognition program,” John said. The big high-rez portal at the end of the conference room lit up to show the assassin’s face. “CST on Boongate has been slow to locate their records for us, but we can all see there’s no mistake. He came through the Half Way gateway six months before the Venice Coast incident.”

“Name?” Tarlo asked.

“Officially: Francis Rowden, son of a landowner, which is how he can afford to travel to the Commonwealth. He was going to enroll at a university on Kolhapur, a two-year agricultural course. We checked; they have no record of him.”

“He’s a Guardian,” Alic said happily.

“Why do you think that?” Renne asked.

Alic’s good humor flickered slightly, but nothing could tone down his enthusiasm. He held up his hand and started ticking off points. “Okay, one, he’s a Far Away native, so what other faction could he belong to? Two, he’s sent on tough assignments to benefit them, I mean really tough. Our boy is wetwired to the back of his ears with weapons. He’s their new enforcer.”

“How did the Venice Coast hit benefit them?” Renne asked quickly.

“Valtare Rigin was fucking them over. He had to be. He was a black market arms dealer. These guys don’t exactly have corporate mission statements. He saw a chance to switch cargoes or make a low-grade substitution or he was holding out for more money. Whatever. They caught him red-handed. What are they going to do? Sue him? Shake hands and say sorry? No, they close the deal their way. They’re terrorists, remember. The most lethal bunch of psychotics we’ve ever had running around the Commonwealth. This is what they do: kill people.

“Thompson Burnelli, well, that’s obvious. He’d just pushed through an inspectorate division which is going to screw every clandestine weapons shipment back to Far Away. Blam, out he goes. Revenge, a warning to others that no one is safe, none of you are beyond our reach. Murdering a senator shook the whole political establishment to its core. Then there was McFoster. He betrayed the Guardians; they killed him for it.”

“How did he betray them?” Tarlo asked.

“Justine Burnelli,” Renne said in a flat voice. She could see how Alic Hogan’s mind was working, and didn’t like it.

“Exactly,” Alic said, on a roll. “They find out McFoster visited Senator Burnelli, that the two of them are lovers. The next thing they know, he’s got a navy squad tailing him. They thought he was about to lead us to them.”

“How did they find that out?” Renne asked.

Alic treated her to an expression of mild scorn. “The trip to the observatory. His colleagues were watching him the whole time, a backup team. And we had that local office idiot…” He snapped his fingers.

“Phil Mandia,” Renne supplied reluctantly.

“Right: Mandia. He was following McFoster in a convoy of four-by-fours through the mountains. The Guardians saw us. They put it together. It wouldn’t matter to them if McFoster had actually clued Senator Burnelli in on what was happening or not. Whatever he said to her, it betrayed them. And there he is again, this Frances Rowden, waiting at LA Galactic. There on the right concourse exactly when the loop train pulled in, knowing he’s got our squads to dodge as well.” Alic beamed contentedly.

The trouble was, Renne admitted to herself, the facts fitted. Not only that, she couldn’t see a flaw in the Commander’s line of reasoning. Granted, a lot of it was speculation, but logical speculation; the kind of argument a jury would convict on.

It was also politically expedient, which fueled her unease. That same nagging little uncertainty she’d experienced when she walked into the Halgarth girls’ loft apartment on Daroca. No reason for it. Just her own awkward intuition. A detective knowing instinctively when something is out of kilter.

Everything Alic claimed was possible. Yes.

Believable? No.

“I’m going to enjoy this,” Alic said. “Certain people in Senate Security are going to be extremely upset when they access this case file now we’ve solved it for them. It doesn’t leave any room for her stupid conspiracy theories.”

Renne tried to catch Tarlo’s attention. She couldn’t, which she suspected was deliberate.

“Thank Foster Cortese for me,” Alic said. “He’s done a good job. Credit where it’s due.”

“Will do,” John King said.

He ran a program, Renne thought in disgust. She could see what Alic was doing, pulling the staff into his orbit. Team building with the completely wrong motivation behind it. They’d wind up producing politically required answers for him, not the right ones.

And why am I so cynical about this? That bullshit theory about Francis Rowden. Am I just jealous I didn’t put it together? It is simple enough. Why do I think it’s not right?

“I’m going to need another warrant,” Tarlo said.

“What for?” Alic asked.

“The Pacific Pine Bank records have been quite useful,” Tarlo said. Now he allowed eye contact with Renne, giving her an I-told-you-so smile. “The Shaw-Hemmings finance company on Tolaka transferred a lot of money into Kazimir’s account. I’d like to see where it came from.”

“How much money?” Renne asked.

“A hundred thousand Earth dollars.”

She pursed her lips, impressed.

“You’ve got it,” Alic said. “Renne, how is it coming with the Lambeth Interplanetary Society?”

There wasn’t any undue emphasis on the question; nevertheless she got the feeling that expectations were set a little too high following the news about Francis Rowden. Her report was going to let the side down. Ridiculous, I’m getting paranoid. “Nothing solid yet, I’m afraid. It was Vic’s case, but I’ve had him chasing down Robin Beard. Matthew has been datamining the Society, but there are very few files to work with. The employment agencies that serve that part of London don’t have any records of the Society at all. It’s not a promising avenue.”

“We could launch a unisphere appeal,” Tarlo suggested. “See if the news shows would give us some time. Ask for any ex-employees to come forward and contact us.”

“No,” Renne said. “That would show our hand to the Guardians.”

“I’m going to agree with Renne on this one,” Alic said. “We’ll keep public appeals as a last resort; it smacks of desperation. Let me know when the datamining stalls completely, and we’ll reconsider then.”

“Yes, sir.”

“So what about Beard?”

“He’s gone to ground on Cagayn, but the police there are on alert for him. Judging by his background, he’s someone who could provide us with a positive lead to the agent the Guardians use.”

“Do the police understand how important this is?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good, but ride them hard. We can’t let this one slip.”


Senate Security’s European division was nothing like as grand as the ever-expanding navy intelligence facilities over in Paris. It was based in London, taking over the entire top floor of a monolithic stone-fronted building in Whitehall, half a kilometer from Westminster Palace. The European division shared it with two other Intersolar Commonwealth departments, the UFN regional auditor and the environmental commission, all of whom provided excellent cover. There was no plaque outside announcing Senate Security’s presence, and if accessed the building management array had no knowledge of their existence. Entry was gained through a discreet underground ramp entrance opposite the old British Foreign Office building.

Every morning, Paula’s designated car would pick her up outside her apartment and drive onto the European trans-capital shuttle train, a sleek new maglev vehicle, which took thirty-five minutes to get from Paris to London using the old Channel tunnel route. Once they arrived at Waterloo Station the car drove her straight to Whitehall and down into the secure parking chamber underneath the ancient building. Travel time was well under an hour.

When Hoshe arrived on his first day, Paula was checking through the official case files on Francis Rowden as Senate Security pulled them out of navy intelligence’s array. “Idiot,” she muttered as Hoshe knocked on her open office door.

“Am I not welcome?” he inquired.

Paula grinned at him. “No, not you. Please, come in.” Her office was a great deal larger than the one in Paris, with a high ceiling and elaborate cornices. Wooden paneling extended halfway up the walls, originally a dark gold oak, but now nearly black with age. Two big windows looked out over the trees lining Victoria Embankment to the Thames beyond. Just to the north, Hungerford bridge was visible, carrying rail lines over the river to Charing Cross station.

One wall was completely covered by a holographic projection, a map of a large CST station, with a big terminal building at one end and hundreds of track lines winding across a broad open space outside it. Various trains were frozen in place, and a large number of green dots were sprinkled across the ground, each with its own neon-blue code tag floating above it.

“You landed on your feet, then,” Hoshe said; he gave the projected map an interested look as he passed. His shoes sank into the thick burgundy carpet as he walked over to the vast antique rosewood desk where she was sitting.

“I know. You’d think this was where the British ran their empire from back when they had one.”

“It’s not?”

“No. This was all remodeled a hundred and fifty years ago. The designers went for what they considered Grand Imperial era. It’s actually younger than I am.”

Hoshe eased himself into a chair with only a small wince.

“How are you doing?” Paula asked. She thought he certainly looked a lot better than when she’d seen him on Oaktier, with his face properly shaved, cologne dabbed on, and lightly oiled hair held back with his usual silver clip. The suit was new, too, a pale fawn-brown, expensive shiny fabric with narrow lapels, emphasizing a figure that was a lot slimmer than the first time she’d met him. She would have welcomed that loss of weight if it hadn’t been for the sunken cheeks that accompanied it.

“Easier, I guess. And Inima was a lot better this morning. I think she’s looking forward to being discharged.”

“I’m glad. What did she say about this job?”

“She rather liked the idea of living in London. It’s a security thing, you know? If you’re safe anywhere, it’ll be on this planet. There’s enough real wealth and power concentrated here to make sure it’s properly defended. After Sligo that can’t be a bad thing. And of course the clinics here are the best in the Commonwealth.”

“You got an apartment sorted out?”

“Personnel have short-listed five for me to take a look at. I’ll view them tonight. Until then, I’m all yours.”

“Okay then. The first thing I need is for you to take a look at something called the Cox Educational charity; it was responsible for funding some of Dudley Bose’s original observation of the Dyson Pair. My old Directorate team investigated it six months before the flight of the Second Chance and reported everything was legitimate and aboveboard. I want you to repeat the exercise, bearing in mind there’s been an allegation that the Cox records have been doctored. Then pull those old Directorate files, and compare them to your findings.”

“Right. Who made the allegation?”

Paula smiled. “Mellanie Rescorai.”

“Really?” Hoshe seemed to find that amusing, too. “I did warn you about her. What goes around…”

“Exactly. I’ve been doing some checking on Ms. Rescorai. There are some very interesting reports of her activities on Elan during the Prime attack. Apparently, she took a leading role in the evacuation of Randtown.”


“Yes. I know! And her new boyfriend is Dudley Bose.”

“Well, I suppose there have been more unlikely couples.”

“Name one. They’re keeping out of sight somewhere on Oaktier.”

“You need them tracked down?”

“No. Her unisphere address is current and open. She’s just switched her correspondent role from Alessandra Baron to Michelangelo. Which is interesting: her other allegation was that Baron is working for the Starflyer.”

“Sounds like you should have recruited her, not me.”

“I’m keeping an open mind about her. Something there doesn’t quite make sense. This is not the bimbo in a bikini from Morton’s penthouse. She’s changed. Or part of her has; she’s still blindly impulsive, but there’s something else there as well now—she’s got a lot of confidence.”

“Everybody grows up sometime.”

“Maybe. For now we just do the background work and see what we can shake loose.”

“Okay. So what’s this, then?” He pointed at the projected map.

“LA Galactic. I was taking a look at the McFoster shooting incident. The Paris office has managed to find a name for our assassin: Francis Rowden. I wanted to see how he eluded both the navy and CST security after he killed McFoster. The office RI has worked up a simulation for me; admittedly the records aren’t perfect but most of the timings and positionings have been cross-referenced with each other.”

“Yeah, and?”

“Simple enough, he just jumped onto a train. There’s no other solution.” She gave the luminescent map a confused glance. “Though he only had a very small window of opportunity. I’m surprised none of the people on the ground saw him.”

“Your double agent?”

“Possibly.” Paula was surprised how troubled she was by the notion. She stared at the map with its green dots, one of the tags seemed to glow brighter than the others: Tarlo.


Mellanie had taken the window seat when they got on the train at Darklake City. Now, fifty minutes later, she watched them drawing in toward Boongate’s single terminal building. Thick gray clouds rumbled through the air above the city, blocking out the sun and unleashing a constant heavy downpour that was unseasonable for late spring. It added an extra layer of drabness to the empty wasteland of the station yard.

Glancing ahead, she could see people crammed onto every square centimeter of the platform that the Oaktier train was heading for. A line of CST security officers in dark blue flexarmor suits stood along the very edge of the platform, their arms linked, keeping the crowd back from the approaching train. A barrage of shouting began as soon as the PH58 engine nosed its way under the terminal’s arching roof. Hundreds of arms waved above the security squad’s bulbous helmets. It was a peculiar greeting for an ordinary train, as if there was some huge media celebrity on board.

Dudley peered nervously over her shoulder. “What are they here for?”

“A train out,” she told him. She wanted to sound slightly more blasé about it, someone observing the foolish antics of people she’d never have to meet or mingle with, the kind of people who lived a life she’d escaped, thanks to Morton and the SI. Except she knew that in a week or so she’d be back at this station, eager for a train out, just like them. Her ticket was already booked, an open-ended first-class return. Now she was beginning to wonder if that would mean much when it actually came down to standing on the platform and wrestling her way to an open carriage door; it didn’t much look as though the security squad would take time out to help first-class passengers.

When they disembarked there was only a narrow strip of concrete left between the train and the security squad for them to walk down. The hard-pressed line of flexarmored figures jostled constantly against them. Mellanie kept stumbling as she was shoved repeatedly against the side of the train. The angry glances she threw back every time it happened weren’t even noticed.

It was only when they reached the concourse they finally had some empty space. Reactive barriers had been set up to channel the dense throng of people from the station entrance to their platforms; not that the barriers could dull the angry buzz of the crowd. Going the other way, arrivals had their narrow exit routes almost to themselves. Barely twenty people had got off the train from Oaktier. Their two pieces of luggage popped out of the gap between the last security officer and the train as if the bags were being kicked clear.

Dudley stopped. “I want to go back,” he said meekly. “I want you to come with me, darling. Please, don’t do this. Don’t go to Far Away. We’ll never get back to the Commonwealth. They’ll land there, too. They will, I know it. They’ll land and they’ll capture me again, and…”

“Dudley.” She shushed him with a finger pressed on his lips, then kissed him. “It’s all right. Nothing like that will happen.”

“You can’t know that. Don’t treat me like I’m a child. I hate that.”

She almost said: Then stop acting like a child. Instead she lowered her voice.

“The SI will give me plenty of warning.” Which it wouldn’t—she didn’t think. Who knew?

Dudley gave her a petulant look.

“Come on,” she said brightly, and hooked her arm through his. “You’re going to see a neutron star firsthand. How many astronomers can say that, even today?”

It was a poor bribe, but he did give a reluctant shrug and allow her to lead him off toward the single door leading off the concourse. There were plenty of signs for the connection service to Far Away. They followed them through a deserted cloister and finally reached an external doorway that came out on a corner of the terminal building. The noise of miserable frustrated people reverberated around them.

Outside the station, the crowd must have been ten thousand strong. They were squashed together in a great swathe from the passenger terminal all the way back to the highway exit a kilometer away. Cars and taxis that had been abandoned on the approach roads were now isolated impediments surrounded by dense clusters of bodies. They’d all been broken open and were now being used for everything from shelters to kids’ play frames to toilets. Thousands of umbrellas bobbed about, blobs of murky color deflecting the waves of rain sluicing down out of the insipid sky. Kids dressed in waterproofs moaned and wailed as they were dragged along and buffeted on all sides. Men and women shouted futile insults and complaints, growing louder as they neared the terminal entrance.

Police and CST security had them all penned in between two lines of officers and patrolbots. Helicopters drifted overhead, producing cyclonic down-swirls of rain to complete the wretchedness of everyone on the ground.

Mellanie’s virtual hands brushed several icons and she began scanning the scene with her eyes, retinal inserts on maximum resolution, sending the image back directly to the Michelangelo studio in Hollywood. She murmured a few accompanying, patronizing comments about desperation and the flotsam of war. Disdain came easy now; proximity to Alessandra had seen to that.


Michelangelo had been surprised when she pitched the Far Away trip to him during their private interview. He thought she was trying to prove something. Normally, interns would just have to go to bed with him to earn their probation contract; in that respect he had an even greater appetite than Alessandra. Mellanie had suggested the assignment after they’d finished fucking and she’d already got the job. It’d thrown him slightly, but he smiled and said he liked her style.

He had quite a lot of style of his own. Thanks to Dudley, who was a triumph of quantity over quality, she’d almost forgotten what truly hot sex could be like. He could also be funny. She’d laughed out loud a couple of times at the stories he told. When she did that she realized laughter was something that never happened when she was with Dudley—nor ever would, she thought. Most of the subsequent train journey back to Oaktier had been spent fantasizing what else she’d have to do in that large bed of his to earn a permanent contract.

“Is that the office?” Dudley asked.

“Huh.” Mellanie shook off the reverie that the text message had kindled. Dudley was pointing to a small clump of boxlike prefab buildings adjoining the terminal, each of which had tour company signs above their doors.

“Yeah. We want Grand Triad Adventures. They said someone would be waiting for us.” Her semiorganic coat had birthed a hood that she pulled over her hair to protect it from the rain. The boots she wore were practical rather than stylish, probably the kind of thing a Randtown local would possess. To match that, she’d chosen a pair of olive-green jeans from her own collection, and a black sweatshirt of semiorganic fur fiber that was wonderfully soft against her skin. Dudley had just put on his usual nonlabel pants and a cheap shirt and jacket. She’d given up trying to dress him properly.

They splashed their way through the puddles to the rank of tour operators. Grand Triad Adventures was easy enough to find. It was the only office with a light on.

The deputy assistant manager of tour bookings, Niall Swalt, was sitting behind the reception desk, absorbed by some bizarre game show on the portal. Rock music thundered out across the deserted office as female figures dived in and out of vats filled with oily fluid. When the door opened, he lunged to his feet, the bright figures and the music shrinking away.

“Ms. Rescorai, a pleasure.” Niall came around the desk, eager to greet her. “I’m a real big fan of yours. I still access Murderous Seduction once a month at least.” He was wearing one of Mellanie’s old promotional sweatshirts, with a hologram of her face in the middle of his chest. It had been washed so many times the image flickered badly through its smile cycle, drizzling green and red interference specks.

“Always delighted to meet a fan.” She made herself smile neutrally as he grabbed hold of her hand. He had cheap OCtattoos on his fingers and arms that her own sophisticated inserts analyzed instantly on contact. The thin green lines were capable of delivering crude sensory impulses to his nervous system; to Mellanie he briefly appeared as a glowing arabesque wire sculpture, with the densest entanglement concentrated around his groin. “And you can still see,” she remarked dryly.

“Oh, yes, it’s a fantastic story. And it’s all real.” He was grinning profusely as he stared at her; the heat in his cheeks highlighted his pimples. “You are sensational in it. You feel gorgeous.”

“Thank you.” Mellanie didn’t risk glancing at Dudley, who was ominously quiet beside her. “That’s very sweet.”

“Do you mind if I ask you about the hunting lodge night? Did that happen for real?”

“Yes, yes it did, that was quite a night.”

Dudley’s face had frozen, with every muscle rigid. Only the color spreading across his cheeks revealed he was even alive.

“Wow!” Niall whistled admiringly. “And the time Morton took you to the Falkirk restaurant. Why didn’t you sue the security people?”

“Who would have benefited? And let’s face it, we shouldn’t have been in the ladies’ washroom together. It was a bit naughty of us; but the singer was very beautiful. Who could resist?”

“Right. Yeah. I’ve noticed some mistakes, too.”


“The party on Resal’s yacht: when you go on board you’re wearing black silk panties, but when you leave they’re gold satin.”

“Gosh, I never knew. I’ll have to have a word with the continuity people about that.”

“The other thing was Paula Myo. I checked the actual court files from the trial; according to the Directorate case notes the Investigator did research Oaktier’s organized crime groups. But Murderous Seduction showed her completely dismissing the possibility that Shaheef was killed by a third party.”

“We were emphasizing the point. Myo didn’t do a thorough job.” Mellanie’s face had become as inflexible as Dudley’s; for the first time she actually had to consider that automatic response. What if Myo had investigated properly? What if Morty… She flexed her shoulders, annoyed with herself for doubting.

Emboldened by how easy it was to talk to his idol, Niall gave a shy grin and asked, “Are your breasts really that firm, or did they edit the tactile stream to make them feel like that?”

“Hey!” Dudley snarled.

Niall gave him a puzzled frown.

Mellanie put a hand on her devoted fan’s arm. “Niall, our train was late, we routed through StLincoln before we got to Wessex, so we’re worried we might have missed the connection.”

“Oh, no,” Niall said earnestly. “Everything’s ready for you.”

“Great. This is all our luggage.” She pointed to the two cases that had rolled in behind them. “Where do we go now?”

“The company has a car. Uh, I’m afraid you’ve got to be cleared by the Far Away freight inspectorate division before you go through the wormhole. It’s a new thing, they’ve only just started doing that. They make sure you haven’t got any weapons or illegal stuff.”

“Sounds like a good idea.”

The car was a Mercedes limousine; all it did was drive them eight kilometers across the station yard to a nearly empty warehouse. Several scanning systems had been set up inside the yawning building, one of them an archway large enough for an entire freight train to pass through it. A couple of very bored police officials were reviewing shadowy images of crates on a big portal. They ordered Mellanie’s luggage to roll through a small scanner hoop.

“There were a lot of people waiting to leave outside the station,” Mellanie said to Niall as their bags went through. “How difficult is it going to be for us to get on a train once we get back from Far Away?”

It was as if she’d issued the young man a personal challenge. He straightened himself up to compose his features into what he considered a reassuring expression. “Grand Triad Adventures guarantees the safe transport of all its customers on both sides of the gateway. We take responsibility for your holiday as soon as you arrive on Boongate, and that doesn’t finish until you leave. Mr. Spanton, the manager, he left me in charge when he took off for Verona with his family. I shall be here to make sure you get your allocated seats.”

“Thank you, Niall.”

“All part of the service.”

“Don’t you want to leave?”

“Sometimes I think maybe I do. But this is my home. Where would I go? The Commonwealth isn’t going to abandon us. There’s a lot of new defense equipment coming in. I know that for a fact. I work here at the station. I see things. Everyone in the crowd out there, they’re just frightened stupid rich people. I’m not like that. I’m staying.”

“Good for you.”

After the luggage check, the Mercedes took them over to the small tour-embarkation building, which had its own platform along one side. Mellanie saw an MLV22 electric engine hitched to a single carriage waiting under the short composite panel canopy. There were three other people in the suiting room: Trevelyan Halgarth and Ferelith Alwon, a pair of physicists on their way to the Marie CelesteResearch Institute, and Griffith Applegate, a bureaucrat in the Governor’s office. Griffith confided that he was one of eight staff that were coming back on rotation—he was the only one who’d shown up. Trevelyan and Ferelith were pleasant enough, but Mellanie worried they were both Starflyer agents, and went for a polite but aloof approach when they tried to talk to her.

The suit Mellanie had to wear to compensate for Half Way’s atmosphere was a baggy mauve overall with its own heating web and a metal ring collar. Its array interfaced with her e-butler, and as soon as she’d settled the ring on her shoulders a rubbery semiorganic membrane slithered out from inside the rim to form a seal around her neck. A transparent bubble helmet clipped neatly onto the ring and locked tight. Her e-butler ran a quick check on the rebreather module and threw up a row of green icons in her virtual vision. She took the helmet off again, and carried it under her arm.

Niall led them down a corridor to the train, where a steward was waiting outside the open carriage door. “I’ll see you in about a week,” Mellanie told him. She let Dudley carry on through into the carriage, then gave Niall a quick impish kiss on the cheek. “They’re real,” she whispered and hurried off. Her last image of him was an astonished, happy smile on his gaunt face.

The inside of the carriage looked similar to all the rest of the standard-class furnishings in CST’s fleet. It was only the airlock doorways at both ends that made it different. As soon as the five passengers were sitting down the outer door closed, sealed, and the train began to roll forward.

Rain splattered down across the window as soon as they left the platform behind. Nothing else was moving across the station yard. Even the big cargo depots were quiet and unused.

Red light began to seep in through the carriage windows as they approached the Half Way gateway. Then Mellanie felt the tingle of the pressure curtain. It might have been her imagination, but she thought it was stronger than usual.

As soon as they were through, the rainwater that had smeared itself across every window in the carriage immediately turned to ice and fluoresced a strong crimson. She pressed her face against the triple glazed glass, peering through the frost pattern. The landscape outside was a desert of naked rock, stained a dark carmine by the M-class star. A coral-pink sky rose from a distant jagged horizon, phasing to a deep scarlet directly overhead. There were no clouds, not even the gentlest of hazes to mar the uniformity of the heavens above Half Way; the atmosphere was incredibly clear. Powerful blue-white flashes were going off constantly, an almost monotonous rhythm cutting through the red sunlight. No matter where Mellanie looked, she couldn’t see any lightning bolts; nor was there any thunder.

The journey from the gateway was short. On one side of the track, the rock began to dip down to reveal Half Way’s last remaining sea, a flat calm surface of slate-gray water. They were traveling toward a deep V-shaped inlet, whose sharp cliff walls extended back over a kilometer from the main shoreline. On any other world the inlet would have been an erosion estuary with a fast river emptying into its apex. Here, it looked as if a wedge-shaped slice of the land had been hewed out and removed. Instead of a river, a broad tongue of rock formed a smooth ramp leading down into the sea.

Shackleton was perched a hundred meters from the tranquil water, an odd collection of pressurized huts raised on stumpy pillars, interspaced with gigantic hangars. As well as the train staff and air crews, the little village also housed a team from Boongate’s National Marine Science Agency who were methodically categorizing the remaining oceanic life-forms. Not that anybody was visible outside; the whole place seemed deserted. It boasted a single crude station at the inland end, consisting of a ramp for cargo, and a pair of metal steps for the airlock doors.

As they drew up to it, Mellanie pressed harder against the glass, keen to see the planes they’d be flying on. Four of Half Way’s nine HA-1 Carbon Goose flying boats were resting on the rock just above the sea. She stared in awe at the massive silver-white fuselages gleaming under the red sun as their true size sank in.

When the Commonwealth Council was assembling the financial package necessary for CST to establish a wormhole link to Far Away, its members had been actively concerned about the possibility of anything hostile finding its way back to the Commonwealth. Given the nature of the flare that had been detected on Damaran, they had the reasonable enough worry that the aliens who triggered it might be antagonistic. The safeguard they insisted on was simple enough. The two respective wormhole gateway stations on Half Way must be separated by a considerable distance so that the route to Boongate could be severed in the event anything wicked did force its way off Far Away. After a full survey of Half Way, they went on to build the stations, Shackleton and Port Evergreen, on islands over ten thousand kilometers apart.

It was the Halgarths, the political instigators of the whole Far Away project, who provided the link between the islands. Some quirk of dynastic pride made Heather Antonia Halgarth decide on the largest aircraft ever built. The components were all constructed on EdenBurg and shipped in through Boongate to be assembled in Shackleton’s hangars. Made out of a carbotanium composite structure, each Carbon Goose measured a hundred twenty-two meters long, with a corresponding wingspan of a hundred ten meters. They had six engines, air-cooled fission micropile ducted turbines producing thirty-two thousand kilograms of thrust each, enough to give the plane a cruising speed of point nine mach. Range was effectively unlimited; the micropiles needed replacing only every twenty-five years.

The steward led them down from the train, and started shepherding them toward the Carbon Goose they were going to use. Behind them, a couple of CST staff emerged from a hut and began supervising the cargo removal. Loaderbots lifted up crates and transferred them to a small fleet of flatbed wagons that would drive them over to the plane.

Mellanie felt her suit stiffen and inflate as the airlock’s outer door opened. Valves soon equalized the pressure. Half Way’s atmosphere wasn’t hugely toxic—the majority of the gas was the kind of nitrogen oxygen mix found on H-congruous worlds—but it also contained unacceptably high levels of carbon dioxide and argon, which made filters or a rebreather essential. Equatorial temperature in the daytime fluctuated between minus ten and minus fifteen Celsius. Again, not immediately lethal, but heated suits were indispensable.

She walked a few paces away from the bottom of the steps and tilted her head back. Another bright flash erupted in the sky. It came from a tiny radiant point close to the gibbous bulk of the M-class star.

“Is that it?” she asked Dudley.

He was gawping up at the sky, for once looking quite serene. “Yes. That’s the companion. I was hoping you could see the plasma tide, but it doesn’t seem to be substantial enough for naked eye observation.”

“You mean the sun’s atmosphere?”

“Not the corona itself, no, though that does undergo constant tidal distortion. The neutron star is orbiting close enough to the sun to attract most of its solar wind. The plasma gets tugged out into gigantic streamers across the gulf and then spirals down to the neutron star. All the flashes you see are impact waves.”

As he was talking the neutron star flared again. Mellanie had to blink and look away, the light was so intense. It left a dense purple afterimage in her vision.

“Is that radioactive?”

“It emits radiation, Mellanie, it’s not radioactive. The two are quite separate.”

“All right,” she said in faint annoyance. “Is it dangerous?”

“There’s quite a heavy gamma and X-ray burst each time, yes. But Half Way’s atmosphere will protect us from the worst. You perhaps wouldn’t want to stay out here for a week, though.”

“I’ll try to remember.” She marched off toward the waiting flying boat, irritated by the way he’d switched into his lecturer persona.

The Carbon Goose was standing on its triple undercarriage, with aluminum air stairs extended from a forward airlock hatch. A long cargo hold was open amidships, with loaderbots transferring crates on board. As Mellanie drew closer she got a clear view of the sea behind the vast aircraft as it rippled against the inlet’s natural ramp of rock. It wasn’t perfectly still after all; the surface undulated slowly as it was stirred by the gentle currents of air that passed for wind on this world. A fringe of mushy ice lapped slothfully against the rock all around the shoreline, never quite managing to agglutinate into a solid sheet. The terminal glaciers that had emerged five million years ago to cap the northern and southern zones of the planet had slowly drained vast quantities of pure water out of the oceans, leaving a residue of water that became ever more salty with each passing century, correspondingly lowering its freezing point. Neither of the massive planetary encrustations had grown any larger for millennia now. With the star in its current state, Half Way’s environment had reached an equilibrium that would probably last for geological ages.

The airlock in the flying boat was large enough to hold all five passengers simultaneously as the atmosphere cycled. Mellanie took her helmet off as she walked into the forward cabin on the first deck. Her first impression was rows and rows of huge chairs stretching away down the brightly lit interior, like a small theater auditorium. There was a staff of eight waiting for them, and three times that many bots. She’d never seen anything like it before.

They were helped off with their suits and told to sit wherever they liked. Mellanie chose a window seat near the front, and was given a glass of bucks fizz by one of the stewardesses. “Now this is the way to travel,” she declared as the seat slid back and its footrest extended. Dudley looked around uncertainly, then gingerly allowed himself to sink back into the thick leather cushioning.

There were all the usual dull thuds associated with an aircraft preparing to take off, crates being loaded and secured, cargo hold doors closing, turbines starting up. The ends of the wings slowly bent down to the vertical, lowering the long bulbous tip floats ready for the water takeoff. Then they were rolling down the rock slope into the sea. More thuds as the undercarriage retracted, leaving them floating. They taxied sedately out of the inlet. The pilot used the PA to announce their ten-hour flight time and wished them a pleasant journey, and the nuclear turbines wound up to full thrust.

It was a surprisingly short takeoff run. Mellanie grinned excitedly as huge fans of spray curved out from behind the wingtip floats. Then they were surging up into the pink sky, applauded by the silent dazzling flashes of collapsing ions as they crashed into the neutron star forty million kilometers above them.

There was only one break in the monotony of the flight. Three hours in, the pilot spotted a pod of white whurwals far below, and lost altitude so the bored passengers could see them. They were little more than vermilion dots sliding through the darkling sea, almost twice the size of Earth’s blue whales. Unlike those terrestrial whales these were fantastically aggressive, pack creatures hunting down the gradually dwindling stocks of fish they shared their last arctic ocean with. They even fought with other pods as they swam around and around the equator between the constricting walls of Half Way’s terminal glaciers.

Twice Mellanie and Dudley left the forward cabin to consummate their membership in the mile-high club. They didn’t even have to use the cramped toilets for privacy. The middle and rear cabins on all three decks were empty and dark, giving them plenty of scope for misbehavior amid the long rows of vacant seats.

Port Evergreen was situated on an island covering forty thousand square kilometers, all of it naked rock. No plant life had ever been discovered on Half Way; there were no traces of soil, even sand was virtually nonexistent thanks to the lack of a moon and any tides; and nobody had ever chipped out any fossils from island strata. Planetary scientists argued that evolution had never pushed out of the aquatic stage, not that the Commonwealth was interested. Half Way was the ultimate nowhere planet.

As if to prove it, Port Evergreen was even less impressive than Shackleton. It was dusk when they arrived, with barely enough maroon light left in the sky to illuminate the desolate rock. Port Evergreen nestled at the lee of a kilometer-wide dip in the blank cliff face that the island presented to the sea. It had one hangar, six silvery pressurized huts, and a long two-story building that looked like some kind of cheap hotel. The wormhole generator was housed in an armadillo-shaped edifice of raw carbon panels, with one fat tapering end sheltering the gateway arch. There was no rail track leading into it, which surprised Mellanie.

Their Carbon Goose splashed down in a reasonably smooth fashion, parallel to the shore, although once they hit the water deceleration was a lot sharper than any normal aircraft runway landing. For once Mellanie was grateful for the plyplastic grips holding her into the seat. She suited up carefully as they taxied in to the land. There were four more of the huge flying boats standing outside the hangar; by strict rotation another had flown back to Shackleton as they came the other way.

Two suited figures were standing at the bottom of the air stairs when the passengers disembarked. The first introduced himself as Eemeli Aro, the CST technical officer responsible for the wormhole generator.

“Good timing on your part,” he told the passengers. “The wormhole cycle starts in another eighteen minutes. There’s no need to rest up in the lodge.” A hand waved in the direction of the gateway. “You all just walk over there, and as soon as it opens I’ll give you the all clear. Just walk through.”

Mellanie had been expecting a slightly more elaborate arrangement, but she and Dudley exchanged a quick glance through their helmets, and started traipsing over the rock. The red sun was already close to the horizon, and falling fast. Its neutron companion continued to send out dazzling flashes, as if it was the emergency strobe on some sinking ship.

Polyphoto lights were shining on all of Port Evergreen’s buildings, producing weak yellow splashes on the rock as the sunlight vanished. The stars came out quickly, leaving Mellanie feeling very small and exposed. For the first time in her life she truly understood the concept of darkness closing in.

The five passengers huddled close together in front of the gateway. A wan ultramarine light filled the arch, only visible now the red sun had set. It wasn’t cold, but Mellanie folded her arms, hugging herself and shifting her weight from one foot to another. She mentally urged the wormhole to power up, but there was nothing she could do to hurry the stormrider.

Half Way’s strange binary star was the final factor in selecting the icy planet as a site for the wormhole stations. Even though its diameter was considerably smaller than a standard commercial CST wormhole, the Far Away wormhole still had a massive energy consumption requirement. The basis of the stormrider was an idea that went back to almost the beginning of the twentieth century’s “space age”: a contra-rotating windmill, powering a simple electrical generator, that worked off the solar wind.

Like the original concept, the stormrider had rectangular blades, sixteen of them radiating out from the hub, each one a flat lattice of struts twenty-five kilometers long, made from the toughest steelsilicon fibers the Commonwealth knew how to manufacture. Twenty-three kilometers of them were covered by an ultra-thin silvered foil, giving a total surface area of over one thousand eight hundred square kilometers for the solar wind to impact on. Even in an ordinary solar system environment that would have produced a considerable torque. In the Half Way system the stormrider was positioned at the Lagrange point between the red star and its neutron companion, right in the middle of the plasma current, where the ion density was orders of magnitude thicker than any normal solar wind. The power the stormrider produced when it was in the thick of the flow was enough to operate the wormhole generator. But it couldn’t simply sit at the Lagrange point producing electricity continuously; that would have been too much like perpetual motion. As the waves of plasma pushed against it, they exerted an unremitting pressure on the blades that blew the stormrider away from the Lagrange point out toward the neutron star. So for five hours the two sets of blades would turn in opposite directions, generating electricity for the Port Evergreen wormhole that was delivered via a zero-width wormhole. The stormrider also stored some of the power, so that at the end of the five hours when it was out of alignment, it had enough of a reserve to fire its onboard thrusters, moving itself even farther out of the main plasma stream where the pressure was reduced. From there it chased a simple fifteen-hour loop back around through open space to the Lagrange point, where the cycle would begin again.

Forty million kilometers from Half Way, the stormrider glided back into the heart of the Lagrange point, where the tempest of ions splashed against its gigantic silver blades. Their rotation speed began to increase.

The archway’s wraithish radiance abruptly changed to a bright monochrome haze. Vague shadows were moving about on the other side of the foggy pressure curtain.

“Okay, people, through you go,” Eemeli Aro said.

The two physicists stepped through almost immediately, blurring into shadow.

“It’s quite all right,” Griffith Applegate reassured them. “I’ve done this a hundred times.” He promptly strode through the archway.

“The connection is stable,” the SI told Mellanie. “I am connected to the net in Armstrong City, such as it is. It is safe to go through.”

Mellanie put her hand out, and felt Dudley take hold of it.

“Suppose we’d better go then,” she said. The pair of them walked directly into the torrent of bright warm light.

Mellanie was keen to see what the new world looked like, the city, its people. Instead of having a good look around, she was immediately distracted by the way her body wanted to soar away off the ground. It was as if an ordinary step had somehow turned into a leap. As soon as she came through the pressure curtain she was moving forward far too fast. She hurriedly let go of Dudley and brought her arms out to try to balance herself, which sent her little shoulder bag zipping off ahead of her as if it were a balloon caught in a breeze. She managed to come to a halt, and stood completely still, fearful of what any further movements would do to her. The bag fell down to her side.

“Damn, I forgot the gravity.” She took a breath, and glanced around for Dudley. He was standing just behind her, completely unperturbed by what had happened.

“Are you all right?” he asked.


“Remember what I told you about inertia here. This is a low-gravity planet. You have to think out any movement before you make it.”

“Yes, yes.” Her elegant virtual hand tapped the helmet release icon, and the collar disengaged. She lifted the transparent bubble off her head, and shook out her hair, which floated about slowly.

The noise of the city swirled around her, machinery thrumming away, combustion engines, car horns, the cry of animals, human conversation and shouts. Its smell was stronger than any urban area she’d ever visited in the Commonwealth: raw gasoline fumes, and seawater, and animals, spicy cooking, organic decay, heat, dust, it all mingled into a brawny mélange that was overpowering in a first breath.

When she recovered from that, she looked around. They seemed to have emerged into some kind of open arena measuring an easy five hundred meters across. There was a low metal fence in front of her, isolating a peaceful semicircle in front of the gateway to serve as a reception area for arrivals. Beyond the fence, and dominating the center of the arena floor, were three wide brick-lined pools with big fountains squirting out of various statues. Some traffic drove around the pools, a mix of gasoline vehicles, bicycles, rickshaws, and horse-drawn carts, though none of it appeared to be following any road markings. High yellow-stone walls curved away on both sides of her, topped by dozens of ragtag solarcloth awnings draped over poles of wood and fiber-glass that were lashed together with no thought of symmetry. There must have been some kind of walkway up there; she could see a lot of people moving around close to the low parapet. At ground level, the walls were punctured by archways of varying sizes. The smaller ones had stalls just inside, away from the sharp midmorning sunlight, selling anything from modern consumer technology to fresh food, clothes, plants, toys, ancient and much-repaired bots, hand tools, power tools, animal feed, artwork, semiorganics, books, and medicines. Several of the archways opened into bars, offering drinks that ranged from guaranteed-hangover-cure coffee to hundred-proof local rum, with dozens of beers and fruit juices, even native wines. The largest archways led into dark cave-like buildings serving as warehouses. Small trucks and horse-drawn carts went in and out.

A swarm of people was moving slowly over the rough-laid stone slabs that formed the arena’s floor, making the traffic give way to them. Their clothing styles were bewilderingly wide: they’d enthusiastically adopted everything from loincloths to T-shirt and shorts, kilts, saris, conservative business suits, priestlike robes, simple dresses, mechanics’ overalls; there were even a few men in tropical-khaki police uniforms with peaked white caps trying to sort out traffic disputes.

Standing with her back to the dark shimmer of the gateway, helmet under her arm, Mellanie felt like some kind of astronaut who’d just stepped out of her rocketship. She stared out at the bustling scene for a long moment before stirring herself to cope with more immediate and mundane matters. A couple of CST personnel were helping the Institute physicists out of their suits. Mellanie began to shrug out of hers. A CST supervisor asked her to move aside. She barely cleared the gateway before robot vans and flatbed trucks started trundling through, bringing the crates from the Carbon Goose. They drove straight out into the arena and headed for the archways that fronted warehouses, collision horns blaring at sluggish pedestrians.

By the time she and Dudley got their suits off, their luggage had been unloaded. Both bags rolled over to them. A hotel courtesy car marked LANGFORD TOWERS was parked outside the fence, its driver smiling and waving to attract their attention. The two Institute physicists were climbing into a big six-wheeled Land Rover Cruiser with black-glass windows. Three trucks were parked beside them, receiving a batch of crates that had just come through the gateway.

Griffith Applegate picked up his shoulder bag, and gave Mellanie a friendly smile. “Don’t worry, I know it looks daunting, but take it from me, this is a tame part of town. You’ll be perfectly safe here.”

“Thanks,” she said dubiously.

He pulled a wide-brimmed hat out of his bag and settled it on his head, then put his sunglasses on. “One piece of advice. Only use the taxis with a license from the Governor’s House.” He touched the rim of his hat and set off into the throng.

“I’ll remember that,” she told his back. “Come on, Dudley, let’s go get to the hotel.” She checked to see that her luggage was following, and set off for the courtesy car.

Stig McSobel rested his elbows on the stone parapet that lined the top of Market Wall to give himself a better view across 3F, as the locals called First Foot Fall Plaza. Two hundred meters away, the gateway had opened on time, and five people emerged through the dark pressure curtain.

“They’re here, Halgarth and Alwon,” he said to Olwen McOnna, who was standing at his side. She wasn’t watching 3F; like every good bodyguard she was scanning the nearby shoppers who moved from stall to stall in search of bargains. The merchants were pressed up together in a giant ring of commerce that made up the roof of the city’s massive central edifice. Here the flow of life and trade was unchanged, money and goods were exchanged in the same ritual of fast barter that had been in existence for close to a couple of centuries, heedless of the threat that lurked out among the stars. Deeper in the city, though, the uncertainty was more pronounced; rumor and fear were affecting the way people thought and behaved. The absence of tourists was noted everywhere. The Governor had ordered more police out of their comfortable stations and onto the streets where their visibility would instill confidence. A futile measure, Stig believed. Soon unease would turn to worry, then panic.

“It’ll take them an hour to get outside the city,” Olwen said. “I’ll alert the raiders.”

“Okay.” Stig’s virtual vision ghosted icons and text over the gateway. He opened a channel back to the unisphere, and several messages flooded into his e-butler’s hold file. His own messages went racing out to various onetime addresses. Then he peered forward in surprise at the people now standing in front of the gateway. The virtual vision intensity reduced, and he used his retinal inserts to zoom in. One he knew of, Griffith Applegate, who worked in the Governor’s House, trying to maintain Armstrong City’s shaky civil infrastructure. The other two…“I know her. I accessed her on the unisphere back in the Commonwealth. She’s some sort of celebrity. A reporter. Yeah: Mellanie Rescorai. What’s she doing here?”

Olwen hadn’t stopped searching the crowd of shoppers. “If she’s a reporter, she’s looking for news. Obviously.”

“Not a proper reporter, just a rich brat doing silly ‘personality’ stories. Probably covering this season’s city fashion.” His virtual vision strengthened slightly, and he activated several icons. Inserts began to run an ident program on Rescorai’s companion—there was something familiar about him.

Stig watched the two of them clamber into a hotel courtesy car. It pulled away with a fusillade of horn blasts just as the first departures bus pulled up outside the gateway enclave. Passengers disembarked; Far Away natives who’d recently spent a lot of time in the gym and injecting steroids and genoproteins to give themselves additional muscle. Stig remembered that time of his life all too easily. A second bus drew up. Two more were driving slowly across 3F. CST personnel were already handing out the slack mauve suits that would safeguard the passengers as they walked to the Carbon Goose waiting for them on the other side of the gateway. The cost of the trip, even a one-way ticket, was beyond the means of most of Far Away’s population. Crime in the city was increasing as desperate people acquired the cash any way they could.

A transparent purple rectangle flipped up into Stig’s virtual vision. “Well, wadda ya know,” he muttered.

“What?” Olwen asked.

“That bloke with Rescorai, he’s Dudley Bose.”

The Langford Towers gave Mellanie and Dudley the Royal Suite on the top floor. There was complimentary champagne, even if it was only from a vineyard out on the northern slopes of the Samafika Mountains. They also had complimentary chocolate, fruit, cheese, biscuits, and mineral water. Every table had a big vase with magnificently arranged fresh flowers. The bathroom medicine cabinet could hardly shut, there were so many toiletries inside.

They were the only residents.

“This certainly beats the hell out of the old Pine Heart Gardens,” Mellanie declared as she pushed open the patio doors and went out onto the broad veranda. With its four floors, the Langford Towers was one of the tallest nongovernmental buildings in Armstrong City; it helped that the ceilings were very high, a design feature that helped prevent patrons from standard-gravity worlds from banging their heads after an inadvertently strong step. The hotel’s size and position gave her an excellent view out over the red pan tile rooftops to the shore of the North Sea a couple of kilometers westward. A broad circular harbor provided berths for boats of all types, from trawlers to ferries, cargo sloops to houseboats, sports fishers and simple pleasure yachts. The blue sea beyond sparkled invitingly even with the sun low in Far Away’s astonishing sapphire sky; several dozen boats were making their way into the harbor for the night.

Mellanie scanned across the skyline. Armstrong City lacked the neat urban grids she was used to; its streets and avenues zigzagged and curved in contorted patterns. They actually swerved around the larger buildings in the center like the First Foot Fall Plaza and the Governor’s House, and the revitalization project offices, which made her wonder which had come first. Only the acres of warehouses behind the harbor seemed to have any sort of regular order in their layout. Outlying districts swarmed over the undulating land, revealing parks and retail streets, neat suburban estates and industrial zones. Thickets of tall metal chimneys squirted out thick gray plumes, a pollution so blatant it startled her.

Away to the south she could see a couple of dark oval shapes stationary in the sky, just outside the city boundary. A hundred twenty years ago when the revitalization project was at its peak, it had employed a fleet of over two hundred fifty blimpbots. At first they’d been used to spray soil bacteria across the desolate post-flare landscape, loading up from the newly constructed clone vats at the aerodrome outside Armstrong City. Then once the soil was revived they’d scattered seeds and even insect eggs across the planet in an effort to return it to full H-congruous status. Several had succumbed to hostilities between the Guardians and the Institute, and a number were lost in the storms that raged around the Grand Triad, but it was age that claimed most of them. Those that remained, barely thirty now, were running on components cannibalized from warehouses filled with the shells of their retired cousins, their gas envelopes patched and fraying, undeserving of the flightworthy certificates that the Governor’s House ritually issued to them every year.

Blimpbots and pollution were only half of Mellanie’s sense of uncoupling. She realized what really bothered her: the lack of trains. There were no embankments and cuttings taking priority through the architecture. No elevated rails slicing above the clogged-up traffic. More than anything, trains symbolized Commonwealth society.

“What a weird place,” Mellanie said. “I can’t see why so many people emigrated here. It’s all so backward; as if the Victorians invented starflight and transported their culture here. Maybe that is where the Marie Celeste came from.”

“You’re too young to understand,” Dudley said.

She turned, mildly surprised at the confidence in his voice.

Dudley stood beside her, smiling admiringly at the ramshackle city spread out around them. “Try rejuvenating five times, having to go back to a nine-to-five job for century after century just so you can pay half of your salary into an R and R pension fund that allows you to do exactly the same thing all over again. You might have a different job, wife, children; but for all that you’re just stuck on the same loop with no prospect of change. Once you’ve been through all that, Mellanie, even you would consider coming here to live your last life without a safety net.”

“I didn’t know you felt that way, Dudley.”

“I don’t. Or didn’t. Not during my last life, anyway. But I remember accessing a lot of files on emigration here. A couple more rejuve treatments, having to spend another fifty years fighting the dean for funding, married to another bitch like Wendy, and, yes, I could see myself doing it. There’s something very appealing about walking off into the wilderness and seeing what’s out there. The prospect of telling modern life to fuck off, and just for once build something substantial for yourself with your own two hands, revert to the hunter-gatherer state. It’s not as far away as we like to think, you know.”

“And now?”

“Now? None of us have that luxury anymore.” His face flinched. “I made sure of that, didn’t I?”

“No. You were a very minor part of what’s happened. Sorry to dent your ego, my darling, but you’re not that responsible.”

He grunted, unconvinced.

She wasn’t sure how to respond. The times when the old Dudley appeared she felt small and stupid beside him. Strange, considering this was the state she was supposed to be helping him return to.

The SI’s icon flashed emerald in her virtual vision, allowing her to postpone thinking about Dudley and his new future. “Yes?” she asked it.

“We’re only three hours from the end of the wormhole cycle, Mellanie. This would be a good time to establish our subroutine in the city net. We can verify operational authenticity.”

“All right.” She walked back into the lounge. There was a pine desk beside the door into the bedroom with a small, ancient desktop array on top. She placed both hands on the array’s first-generation i-spot, and a webbing of faint silver lines appeared on her fingers. A whole new display of icons materialized in her virtual vision, and seeker programs began to analyze the local net from inside her inserts. “Doesn’t look like there are any decent monitor programs in the nodes,” she said.

“We concur, Mellanie. Please release our subroutine.”

Her gold snakeskin virtual hands tapped out the code sequence, and the subroutine decompressed out of her inserts, flowing into the city net through her contact with the desktop array. The SI had formatted it as a simple observer system, with enough independence to advise and assist Mellanie when the wormhole was closed. She’d brought it with her in her inserts because any program that large entering Far Away through the narrow bandwidth of the Half Way relay would easily be detected by monitors. That opened the SIsubroutine to the risk of corruption, especially if the Guardians or the Starflyer were running hostile smartware in the city’s nodes.

“I am installed,” the SIsubroutine reported. “The city net has enough capacity for me to run in distributed mode within its on-line arrays.”

“We confirm that,” the SI said.

“Great,” Mellanie said. She took her hands away from the desktop array.

“See if you can find any kind of activity that might be the Guardians. All I need’s a name, or an address. Some way I can make contact with them.”

“I will begin analysis,” the SIsubroutine said. “There are a great many systems that have restricted access. Given the age of the processors I am operating in, it will take some time to circumvent their fireshields.”

“Do what you can.”

Dudley had come back into the lounge. “Who are you calling?” he asked.

“The Michelangelo office.” She told her e-butler to close the connection to the SI. “Just checking in and getting an update.”

“Okay.” His gaze crept over to the bedroom’s door. “What are we going to do next?”

“Go down to the bar, and get some information. Bars are always the best place for that. Besides, I could do with a big drink, we’ve been traveling for ages.” She yawned, stretching her arms to try to loosen the knotted shoulder muscles. “Come on, let’s go see if Far Away’s heard of a Murderous Seduction cocktail.”

The bar and restaurant at the Langford Towers were the only parts of the hotel doing any decent business. They catered to an upmarket cliental, such as it was in Armstrong City, providing a décor with decidedly Indian influences. The chef favored spiced dishes, and the in-house music system played a lot of sitar classics.

Stig found himself a small empty table in the bar, and sipped a beer quietly while he tried to catalogue the other customers. He’d been there forty minutes when Mellanie and Dudley walked in. He’d intended to give them a brief look, then show no further interest, just as Adam had taught him. But Mellanie made that difficult. Her longish chin and flat nose denied her the kind of perfection a classic beauty would have, but her physical presence was striking. Powerful strides carried her quickly across the bar, yet she’d already developed a controlled rhythm to her movements that most offworlders took at least a week to learn. Every motion made her wavy gold hair flutter leisurely above her shoulders.

Dudley followed her with unsteady footsteps. When they arrived at the counter he grabbed it to steady himself. It was hard not to draw comparisons between the two of them, given the way Dudley stayed so close. The re-lifed astronomer came over as completely inadequate both physically and mentally.

Stig finally managed to look away. Most of the other patrons were watching the newcomers. Despite his earlier assessment, he couldn’t tell if any of them were Starflyer operatives from the Institute. Surely at least one of them must be?

The Institute was becoming a lot bolder in the city since the Prime attack. Its director had offered assistance to the Governor as crime and disturbances increased; already several routine police patrols in the center were accompanied by Institute troops in their dark armor. Stig thought it unlikely the only two offworlders on Far Away wouldn’t be kept under observation.

He heard Mellanie try to order some exotic cocktail that the barkeeper had never heard of. She settled for a pitcher of margaritas. As the barkeeper started mixing the ingredients she eased herself closer to him, and spoke in low tones. Stig casually glanced around, just in time to catch the barkeeper’s startled expression. The man quickly shook his head, and gave her the pitcher before hurrying off to the other end of the counter.

A disgruntled Mellanie hauled Dudley over to a vacant table.

Stig was almost laughing. The whole scene was like a badly acted TSI drama.

Fortunately there was no second act. Mellanie and Dudley drank their pitcher and went off back to their suite, both of them yawning. Stig remained in the bar, watching who left and when. Nobody else was acting remotely suspicious.

Closing time was midnight. He finished his beer and waited in the deserted lobby. Finally the barkeeper came through from the kitchen, pulling his coat on.

“A word,” Stig said presently.

The barkeeper glanced about nervously, but the hotel’s night staff was nowhere to be seen. He was in his mid-thirties, with the kind of spindly frame that most Far Away residents acquired, which made his burgeoning beer belly unusually prominent.

“Yes, sir?”

Stig produced an Earth fifty-dollar bill, and pressed it into the barkeeper’s hand. The man was professional enough to pocket it at once.

“Very attractive offworld girl in here earlier tonight.”

“The Royal Suite, sir, top floor.”

“Thank you, I already know that. What I would really appreciate knowing is what she asked you for.”

The barkeeper gave him an awkward look. Stig waited. He wouldn’t have to make any threats, not against the barkeeper. At the worst it would cost him another fifty dollars.

“She wanted to know where she could meet a member of the Guardians. I told her I didn’t know. Which I don’t. Obviously.”


“I never said anything else.”

“I see. Thank you.”

The barkeeper let out a short relieved breath, and hurried out. Stig waited a couple of minutes, then made his own way out into the night, the hotel’s automatic doors locking behind him.

Solar-charged polyphoto globes gave off an uninspiring yellow shimmer down the length of the wide street. The faint throb of dance music was just audible, drifting from the back door of a club. A cool air washed the salty ozone smell of the sea across Armstrong City. Somewhere in the distance a police siren wailed its lonely note along the empty roads. It couldn’t be for the Institute’s vehicles; they’d been destroyed hours ago, hit by mortars and masers not ten kilometers outside the city. Trevelyan Halgarth and Ferelith Alwon would never reach the Institute now, never help the Starflyer. With any luck their memorycells had been ruined by the fire that consumed the Land Rover Cruiser. They’d be just as dead as Kazimir.

Stig pulled a cigarette from his packet and thumbed an old-fashioned gasoline lighter. A bad habit, picked up back in the decadent Commonwealth. The mix of nicotine and grass felt good as he pulled it down. He needed a lifter from the stress of the day.

“That illumination makes you a perfect target,” Olwen said from the shadows.

“If you’re relying on a cigarette glow instead of a decent nightsight you’re in deep trouble,” he told her.

She came out of a doorway and joined him as he walked away from the hotel, down the slight slope that led toward the harbor.

“Where’s Finlay?”

“Got himself a good spot. He’ll call if they leave the hotel tonight.”

“Anybody else interested?”

“If they are, they’re better than us. We haven’t seen anyone.”

Stig stopped, and looked back at the high whitewashed façade of the Langford Towers. The Royal Suite balcony was a gray rectangle just under the roof. What in the dreaming heavens does a girl like that see in a piece of wreckage like Dudley Bose? They have to be here for a purpose.

“They went to bed about ten minutes after they went back to the room,” Olwen said.

“I thought that suite was too high to get a proper line of sight inside.”

“It is. I’ll rephrase. The light went off ten minutes after they got back upstairs. Hasn’t come on again since.” She sniggered. “Probably couldn’t wait to rip each other’s clothes off. Here by themselves. Hint of danger. Young. You could practically smell the hormones sweating off them.”

Stig didn’t say anything. His own mind had been filled by the image of a naked Mellanie on the bed with Dudley Bose. It bothered him slightly. That it was Dudley, not him. Which it really shouldn’t do.

“What do you want to do about them?” Olwen asked.

“Not sure. They want to find us, apparently. Let’s see what they do tomorrow.”

Stig was using Halkin Ironmongery, an old hardware store, for his headquarters in Armstrong City. It was fairly central, had a big useful garage at the back, and the neighbors believed the clan members were new owners taking their time to do the place up, an opportune impression that allowed for a lot of people and vehicles to come and go without attracting comment. As covers went, Adam Elvin would have been proud.

When Stig arrived in the morning Murdo McPeierls and young Felix McSobel had already started stripping down the engine from one of the Mazda Volta jeeps. They had nine of the sturdy old vehicles jammed into the garage and yard. Stig had brought them in as part of the reception for the Boongate blockade run that Adam was putting together. Adam hadn’t sent too many details yet, not even by encrypted message. But it would go ahead, Stig was certain of that; the new inspections on Boongate had essentially cut them off from their Commonwealth supplies. One of Stig’s other jobs was putting together the technical teams who would assemble the multitude of components into the specialized force field generators needed for the planet’s revenge. So he knew how desperate the clans were for fresh components. They were desperate for the Martian data as well. He’d talked to Samantha who was in charge of the control group assembling the large array that would run the network of manipulator stations. She’d explained how urgent it was. Now Kazimir was dead and the data lost. That should have been my run. Fate had been evil to them that day.

Stig spent the first half hour of the morning working out in the makeshift gym in the store’s basement, kickboxing the heavy leather bags, imagining each and every one of them to be Bruce McFoster. It was good exercise, something he could lose himself in, not having to think.

“You are troubled, Stig McSobel,” said a voice that had a permanent whispering echo.

Stig hadn’t heard anyone come in. He finished his kick and slid around smoothly, dropping into a crouch. The Barsoomian who called himself Dr. Friland was standing at the bottom of the wooden stairs, a tall figure clad in dark robes of semiorganic cloth. His face was partially hidden inside a deep monk’s hood, which was perpetually haunted by shadows. Stig had once used his retinal inserts to try to get a clear image, only to find the effect was actually some kind of distortion field. The Barsoomians always veiled their true appearance. Rumor had it they didn’t want anyone to know how far their modifications had taken them from their original human form. Dr. Friland was certainly taller than any normal human Stig had ever seen; though plenty of Commonwealth citizens had reprofiled themselves for media sports shows like wrestling, producing ridiculous freak-variants on the human body. This was different, not that he knew how exactly.

Stig straightened up, allowing the muscles in his shoulders and arms to loosen. “What makes you say that?”

“You always resort to physical activity when confronted with a vexing problem,” Dr. Friland said in his euphonious voice. “It allows your subconscious to review possibilities.”

“Right.” Stig retrieved his towel and started to dry himself. He’d managed to work up quite a sweat. “By the way, our people say to thank you again for the bioprocessors. They’ve been integrated into our large array. Apparently they were way ahead of anything the Commonwealth is producing. It should make our digital simulations a lot quicker.”

“Our pleasure.”

Stig walked over to the bench and pulled on a simple short-sleeved shirt. He was always grateful to the Barsoomians for the assistance they gave the clans, yet he never knew what to say on the rare occasions he encountered one. How could you make small talk to an unknowable entity? Dr. Friland had arrived in Armstrong City a week ago, delivering the requested processors for the command group. For reasons best known to himself he’d remained in the city, staying in the big private residence the Barsoomians maintained for themselves out in the Chinese quarter.

Without any visible leg movement, Dr. Friland rotated on the spot, keeping his shielded face pointing at Stig. “There is something new in the city’s net.”

“A new monitor program?” He was surprised the clan’s webheads hadn’t detected it; they were interfaced just about continuously.

“No. This is a…presence.”

The Barsoomian sounded uncertain, which sent a tingle down Stig’s spine. He placed a lot of weight on the supposed infallibility of the Barsoomians. Even his time in the Commonwealth with its everyday technology could never fully quash all the fabulous childhood stories of the others who shared this world. “You mean like a ghost or something?”

“A ghost in the machine? How appropriate. It is certainly a machine’s ghost.”

“Ah, right. So, what’s it doing?”

The darkness within Dr. Friland’s hood lessened to reveal a row of smiling teeth. “Whatever it wants.”

“I’ll get my people to watch for it.”

“It is elusive. Even I can only gather hints of its passage.” The darkness closed back over Dr. Friland’s smile.

“Wait…We’re not talking about the Starflyer, here, are we?”

“No. This is a binary construction; it is not a child of biological life. But it did not come through the gateway. We would have felt its passage within the datastream.”

“Then what the hell is it?”

“I suspect you were close to the truth with your first question. Something this pervasive can only be here to observe the city and its inhabitants. What you should be asking is, who would want to gather information on such a scale?”

“Mellanie,” Stig hissed. “She wants to know how to meet us. She’s a reporter, so I guess she must have access to sophisticated scrutineer programs. I just didn’t think…” He fell silent, rubbing at the back of his neck with some embarrassment. “Me of all people, I shouldn’t be fooled by appearances.”

“This is the girl who came through the gateway yesterday?”

“Yes. Though I haven’t a clue who she’s working for.” He leveled a sly glance at the Barsoomian. “Do you know?”

“Alas, my people are not omnipotent. I have no more idea than you, perhaps even less. It is a long time since I left the Commonwealth.”

“You weren’t born here?” Stig knew he probably shouldn’t ask, but it wasn’t often a Barsoomian talked about anything, let alone his own background.

“No. I was born back on Earth, before Sheldon and Isaacs opened their first wormhole.”

“Dreaming heavens. I never knew anyone was that old. Not even Johansson dates back that far.”

“There are some of us still left from that time. Not many. Not now.”

“Right.” Stig shook himself, and started to walk up the stairs. He watched closely as the Barsoomian followed him, gliding across the gym’s dusty floorboards. The hem of his robe lifted just before he reached the bottom stair, flowing upward ahead of whatever feet it concealed. “I’m going to check with the team I’ve got watching Mellanie and Bose,” he said. “Do you want to stay around?”

“No thank you. They haven’t left the hotel yet. I thought I would visit the national gallery today. It’s been a while, and I hear good things about the new sculptors.”

Stig did his best to avoid checking over his shoulder. There was just no predicting the Barsoomians.

Dr. Friland was right: Rescorai and Bose hadn’t left the hotel yet. The team he’d assigned to them reported that they’d ordered breakfast in bed.

Stig told the webheads to start searching for a new distributed-operation monitor program in the city’s net. He desperately wanted to increase the number of people watching the young reporter, but the clans didn’t have enough people in Armstrong City for that. There was no way he could switch priorities based on his own feelings—Adam had certainly hammered that lesson in. Unless and until she did something radical, Mellanie was an unknown he had to regard as nonhostile. He still had to cover the daily gateway opening, and continue training and preparation for the blockade run. On top of that he had to maintain a thorough watch on the Institute personnel’s activities in Armstrong City, which continued to grow.

With the few clan members he could spare, he was lucky Mellanie didn’t spot them when she did finally leave the hotel to wander over the city. They stayed well back, and delivered hourly bulletins for him. She behaved just like any rookie reporter; even though he was convinced that was an elaborate front. He still hadn’t figured out what Bose was doing with her, not at all.

Mellanie had a thoroughly worthless first day in Armstrong City. After a long sleep to recover from the journey she headed off to the Governor’s House, where she spent over an hour in the press office, familiarizing herself with local events. Her expectation that her Michelangelo show credentials would give her special privileges and encourage the Governor’s media staff to confide rumors and civic gossip was badly misplaced. Nobody had ever heard of Michelangelo. The official line was that the Guardians were a bunch of scabby mountain bandits, irrelevant to the city. The Governor’s media people were keen to push the concept of how life was continuing normally on Far Away, that nobody was panicking.

A follow-up visit to the local news company, the Armstrong Chronicle, which maintained a public bulletin service and ran news shows on the city net, was almost as unproductive. The Chronicle reporters did at least supply some details on the ambush just outside the city. She was shocked to learn Trevelyan Halgarth and Ferelith Alwon were dead, and that the medical crews had retrieved their memory cells for shipment back to the Commonwealth. When she asked if it was the Guardians who’d mounted the ambush nobody knew anything other than the police statement that local crime syndicates were suspected.

She popped into one of the gyms that was doing such a roaring trade, recording a puff piece for Michelangelo about rich natives building their bodies up for life on a standard-gravity world. It was so ineffectual she was embarrassed to send it when the wormhole cycle opened.

In the afternoon she did some bog-standard man-in-the-street interviews. They were a little more revealing; several people said they thought the Guardians were behind the recent attacks on the Institute’s vehicles and property. If they were, she reasoned, then they must have a group based in the city.

When they got back to the hotel she reviewed the meager information the SIsubroutine had collected for her. “I have no direct evidence of any Guardian membership,” it told her. “However, when the wormhole was open earlier this afternoon, a great many encrypted messages flowed into the city net. Most were directed to the Governor’s House, and the Institute.”

“And the rest?”

“They were all addressed to individuals. Given the small physical size of the net, it should now be possible for me to correlate the physical location of each recipient.”

“I haven’t got the time to knock on the door of everyone who got an encoded message.”

“Of course not. But once I have identified the building where an encoded message was received, I can review the electronic hardware it contains for evidence. Be advised; there is one place I will not be able to venture: the Barsoomian residence in the Chinese quarter. There are some strange processing units connected to the net at that node. My routines do not run correctly in them. I have withdrawn myself from that area.”

“The Barsoomians, they’re some kind of ultra-green radical group, aren’t they?”

“That was one of their founding concepts. They are humans who wish to explore the potential of unrestrained genetic modification within themselves and their environment, thereby leaving mainstream society behind. Far Away was the ideal planet for them to establish themselves. Without a global government it cannot enforce the kind of restrictions on genetic modification which most Commonwealth worlds have.”

“Are they connected to the Guardians?”

“I do not know. It seems improbable the two groups are unaware of each other. There are several archive reports at the Armstrong Chronicle of Guardians using unusually large horses. The Barsoomians would be an obvious source of breeding stock.”

“That is interesting. All right, let me know if you find anything at those buildings.”

Mellanie and Dudley had dinner in the hotel restaurant. The curry she chose was a lot hotter than most she’d eaten before, but she managed to get it down, aware of the waiter smiling in the background when she puffed out her cheeks and drank copious amounts of cold mineral water to wash it down. Dudley wasn’t so lucky. He was complaining of a bad stomach even before they reached their suite.

“I thought I remembered liking spicy food,” he mumbled the second time he returned from the bathroom.

“It’s probably an acclimatization thing,” Mellanie said. “Your new body isn’t ready for curry just yet.” She retrieved her small white cocktail dress from her bag—not one from her own range, a nice Nicallio that had been tailored to fit her just perfectly—and she knew she looked sensational wearing it.

If she didn’t have any success tracking down the Guardians tomorrow, then she’d just have to extract information the old-fashioned way. During her visit to the Armstrong Chronicle, several male staff members had managed to swing past and tell her how delighted they’d be to show her around the big city at night.

Looking at the dress with its nearly nonexistent skirt, Mellanie gave a mildly resentful sigh. She would fuck whoever it took to get a contact name, of course she would. But lately—actually, since the Prime invasion—she’d begun wondering about other ways to accomplish her job, because that’s how most other reporters got things done. When she tried to count up just how many people she’d slept with, she couldn’t. Life had just swept her away since that awful court case; she’d done what she could to stay in charge and in control, but the events powering her along had been so overwhelming. It had been an exciting ride, though, she couldn’t deny that. At times, that is. Frightening, too.

But there have been so many people.

As she’d told dear old Hoshe Finn all those eons ago, she wasn’t ashamed about her sexuality. Really, she wasn’t. It was finding out about Alessandra that caused the most pain. The betrayal. Alessandra had just whored her for the Starflyer; never caring, never interested.

I should have said yes to that money-junkie sleezeball Jaycee when he tried to whore me. At least he was honest about what I’d be doing for him in those kinds of TSIs.

“Are you all right?” Dudley asked.

“What? Yes.”

Dudley still had one hand pressed firmly across his belly. With the other he reached out to her face. “You’re crying.”

“No I’m not.” She moved back out of range, hurriedly swiping her hand across her eyes.

“I thought… Oooh.” Dudley hurried for the bathroom again.

Mellanie grunted at Dudley’s departing back, and flopped down on the bed. The town was almost silent outside; she should be able to get a good night’s sleep. Dudley certainly wouldn’t be pestering her tonight.

The loud and unpleasant sound of Dudley’s digestive suffering came clear through the bathroom door. Mellanie searched around in her bag for the earplugs she’d been given on the Carbon Goose, pushed them in, and hauled the duvet over herself.

The following morning Mellanie decided to get professional. It wasn’t as though she’d had to sit through lessons or courses on how to be a reporter when Alessandra took her on; but she’d picked up enough around the office to know the basics of starting an investigation in a strange town.

“I want a full analysis of city court cases going back two years,” she told the SIsubroutine. “Get me a listing of every case the police brought against the Guardians, even people who are only suspected of membership. We can cross-reference it with the locations of those encoded messages.”

“I can’t do that. Official court records are archived in an isolated memory core.”

“That’s ridiculous. All government records are supposed to be publicly available. It’s in the Commonwealth constitution, or something.”

“Article 54, yes. However, the Armstrong City grand court has used this archiving method for security purposes. Like most of the Governor’s House electronics, the court’s systems are old. There is no money available for upgrades, which leaves them vulnerable to anyone coming through the gateway with modern aggressor software. Records could easily be destroyed or tampered with.”

“Damn it.”

“You may visit the court in person and request copies.”

“Okay, all right. I’ll do that, then.”

“The Armstrong Chronicle has many cases on file which I can access. I can give you a list of possible court cases to research.”

“Thank you.”

Dudley wanted to come with her.

“I don’t think you’re up to that,” she said diplomatically. Despite the earplugs she’d heard him scamper off to the bathroom several times in the night. Sitting opposite her in the deserted dining room for breakfast, all he’d managed was a cup of weak milky tea and a slice of toast. He looked like he’d got the mother of all hangovers.

“I’m fine,” he said grumpily.

Mellanie couldn’t be bothered to argue. She dressed for her day in a simple dove-gray T-shirt and jeans, tying her hair back into a loose tail with a brown leather band. They took a cab, for Dudley’s sake, waving on the first three until she finally saw one with a Governor’s House license.

“I think someone is following them,” Olwen said.

Stig was in the middle of a briefing for the team members left at Halkin Ironmongery. Over half of his people were running around town trying to keep up with their assignments. He held up a hand to his audience, and asked, “Who?”

“Not sure,” Olwen replied. “The pair of them have been in the grand courthouse for two hours. I’m having trouble staying inconspicuous. But there’s someone else lurking here, having the same kind of problem. He’s not on any file we’ve got.”

“Have you found out what she’s doing there?”

“Going through court records. I don’t know which ones yet. Finley was going to talk to the court officials after she leaves.”

“Okay, I’ll get you some electronic coverage. Stand by.” He went up to the first-floor room where the team’s arrays were set up. Keely McSobel and Aidan McPeierls were both fully interfaced with the city net. He told them to review the area around the courthouse to see if there was anybody using encrypted messaging.

“You’re right,” Stig told Olwen five minutes later. “We’ve located at least three hostiles in the courthouse.”

“What do you want us to do?”

“Nothing. Keep Bose and Rescorai in sight. I’m coming straight over with some reinforcements.”

Mellanie was making good progress. The SIsubroutine had given her seven cases where the Chronicle mentioned a possible connection with the Guardians. All of them involved attacks on the Institute, either against their vehicles or personnel in Armstrong City. The police had caught few suspects. Those they did haul before a judge were just local punks, all of whom had a suspicious amount of wealth either in cash or in newly purchased goods. Obviously, they’d been paid to harass the Institute; not that they admitted to anything. Invariably, they had good lawyers.

Mellanie smiled when she read that for the second time. Three prominent city lawyers seemed to represent most of the accused, and they didn’t come cheap.

“There is an increasing amount of electronic activity in and around the courthouse,” the SIsubroutine told her. “I believe you are under observation.”

Mellanie rubbed her eyes and switched off the desktop array that was displaying the cases. It ejected the memory crystal that the clerk of the court had supplied her. “Police?” she asked.

“No. The systems they are using are more advanced than the police have on this world. Some of the signal traffic is strange. It appears there are two separate groups operating independently.”

“Two?” Mellanie rubbed at her bare arms where goose bumps had suddenly appeared. It wasn’t cold in the little office that the clerk had let her use. Midday sun was streaming in through the double-glazed window, stirring the air-conditioning unit into desultory life, while outside the season’s warm humid air hung over the city like a possessive spirit. If there were two groups interested in her, she knew one of them had to be from the Starflyer. Had Alessandra found out she’d traveled here? Or am I being too paranoid?

Dudley was curled up in a chair on the other side of the desk, his youth and pose giving him a strong resemblance to some sulky schoolboy. His eyes were closed, and moving like someone in REM sleep as he accessed a file from his inserts.

For an instant, she was tempted to creep out and leave him there. Except he’d panic when he realized she’d gone, and cause a big scene. And he was completely incapable of looking after himself if a Starflyer agent did want to abduct him.

Maybe bringing him along wasn’t so smart after all.

“Come on, Dudley.” She shook his shoulder. “We’re leaving.”

Mellanie put on her sunglasses as soon as they went outside. Dudley seemed to shrink away from the warm light. He was sweating and shivering as they walked away from the big old courthouse onto Cheyne Street.

Silver lines appeared just below Mellanie’s skin, like deep-sea creatures rising tentatively to the surface. They began to spread and multiply along her arms and up her neck to envelop her cheeks in a delicate filigree. Some of them she activated herself; the simple systems that she understood, sensors that amplified her perception of the surrounding area. The SIsubroutine was tapping into others.

Cheyne Street was busy. It was close to the center of town, a boundary line between the sector that housed the main government buildings and the start of the commercial district. Traffic was constant along the road, vehicle exhausts releasing dark fumes into Far Away’s crisp air. Cyclists wore filter masks as they weaved through the slow-moving cars and vans. Mellanie pushed her way along the crowded pavements, trying not to think what the fumes were doing to her lungs.

“We need to keep this simple,” she told the SIsubroutine. “Find me a car here that can take us back to the hotel.”

A long list of vehicles slid down Mellanie’s virtual vision, everything the SIsubroutine could find on Cheyne Street, either moving or parked. None of them were less than ten years old. As they’d all been imported from the Commonwealth, they all had drive arrays, not that they were used much in Armstrong City, which lacked even a basic traffic management system.

“Two Land Rover Cruisers registered with the Institute office have just turned onto Cheyne Street,” the SIsubroutine said. “They are heading toward you.”

Mellanie’s inserts and OCtattoos revealed a multitude of signals flashing through the city’s ether. She saw the Cruisers establish links to several people on the pavement. Two of them were very close, twenty meters behind, and walking quickly toward her. She turned her head to see a couple of men dressed in the dark tunics worn by the Institute troopers. Her virtual vision superimposed iridescent data pixels over the image. The two figures were separated from the rest of Cheyne Street’s pedestrians by haloes of tangerine and scarlet grids.

“I don’t feel too good,” Dudley said. His face was white, slicked with cold sweat.

Mellanie wanted to slap him. She couldn’t believe he was doing this to her, not now. Didn’t he understand how much trouble they were in? “We have to hurry, Dudley, they’re coming.”

“Who?” Any further questioning was postponed by a violent judder that started in the middle of his chest. He squashed a hand to his mouth. People were staring at him as his cheeks bulged out, moving away with their faces wrinkled up in disgust.

Mellanie’s boosted senses showed her the SIsubroutine establishing itself in the drive arrays of vehicles along Cheyne Street. Both of the Institute troopers had reached the front of the courthouse building. One of them drew his ion pistol. “Hey, you,” he called out.

Dudley started to throw up. People backed away fast as watery vomit splattered onto the paving slabs. Now there was no one between Mellanie and the Institute troopers.

“Stay right there,” the first trooper shouted. He raised the ion pistol, leveling it. Mellanie blinked against a powerful green dazzle as the weapon’s targeting laser found her face.

A car horn sounded loudly. People turned in curiosity, then yelled in panic. There was a sudden rush of movement as an old Ford Maury saloon veered across Cheyne Street, heading straight for the troopers. The green laser vanished, swinging around toward the Maury. Mellanie caught sight of the driver, a middle-aged woman who was tugging desperately at the steering wheel, her face frozen into an expression of disbelief and horror as the car refused to obey. A fusillade of horn blasts from the road around the wayward car drowned out all other sound. The troopers tried to race clear, but the car followed their movements. Its front wheels hit the pavement curb, and the whole chassis jumped half a meter in the air as it lurched forward. The trooper with the pistol got off one wild air shot before the Maury’s front grill hit him full-on just above his hips. Mellanie winced as his body folded around the car, arms and upper torso slamming down across the hood. Then the car crashed into the stone wall of the courthouse. Its collision absorber frame crumpled at the front, reducing the deceleration force on the passengers. Plyplastic sponge bags sprang out of the seats, wrapping protectively around the driver. Outside the car there was no protection. The impact burst the trooper apart as if an explosive charge had gone off inside him. For a second the shocked screams of everyone watching rose above the cacophony of horns.

A second car thudded into the curb with a loud crunch, smacking into the remaining trooper, who was staring numbly at his colleague’s atrocious death. He was bulldozed into the courthouse wall not five meters from the first smash.

It broke the spell. People started to stampede away from the horrific scene. Vehicles and cyclists swerved to avoid the rush.

“Move!” Mellanie yelled at Dudley. She pulled him along, nearly lifting him off the ground in the planet’s low gravity. Somewhere farther down Cheyne Street there was yet another violent vehicle crash. Reviewing the flood of data her insert-boosted senses were delivering, she saw the SIsubroutine had taken over a delivery van and rammed it into one of the Institute Cruisers. The resulting snarl-up had blocked that half of Cheyne Street completely.

A small Ables four-seater Cowper pulled up beside Mellanie. Its doors popped open and she shoved Dudley in. “Let’s go,” she cried.

The Ables pulled out into what was left of the traffic. Everything else on the road seemed to move neatly out of its way, allowing it to accelerate smoothly away from the bedlam. Mellanie turned around to gape at the scene behind her. People had stopped running now. Some hardy souls were gathered around the cars that had killed the troopers, trying to help free the people inside.

She sank back into the seat with a shaky gasp of air. Her virtual vision relayed the excited pulses of encrypted communications weaving through the city net.

“Can you track the people in the second watcher team?” she asked the SIsubroutine.


The chain of data traffic flipped up into her virtual vision, turquoise globes linked by jumping sine waves of neon orange. Ten people were sharing the same channel. Three of them were heading toward Cheyne Street in a vehicle of some kind. The rest were on the ground close to the courthouse.

“Any idea who’s in charge?” she asked.

“One of the people in the vehicle is issuing more messages than the others, which would indicate they are in charge. However, I do not have the capacity to break their encryption, so I cannot offer any guarantee of this analysis.”

“Doesn’t matter. If the other guys were from the Institute, this lot have to be Guardians. Find an access code for the leader’s interface.”

A city net personal address flipped up into her virtual vision. The rest of the imagery was shutting down. When she held up her arm, the lacework of silvery OCtattoos was fading from her skin. “Are you all right?” she asked Dudley.

He was curled up in the passenger seat, shivering badly. “Do you think they had memorycells?” he asked in a faint voice.

“I imagine re-lifing is part of their contract with the Institute, yes.”

“I want to go home.”

“That’s not a bad idea, Dudley. We’ll do that.” The wormhole opened again in two hours. She suspected their hotel would be under observation. If they left right away they might just manage to stay ahead of the Institute. “See if you can get us on the passenger manifest for the next flight back to Boongate,” she told the SIsubroutine. “And cancel the route back to the hotel. Take us toward 3F Plaza, but not actually into it, not yet.”

Mellanie took another minute to compose herself. The car crashes had been deplorable. But then, if the SIsubroutine hadn’t intervened, she and Dudley would be in the back of a Cruiser heading for a very unpleasant, and short, future.

She told her e-butler to call the Guardian member’s code.

Stig stopped the car at the end of Kyrie Street, just before it opened out into 3F Plaza. Franico’s, the Italian restaurant, was twenty meters ahead of him.

“You want to do this?” Murdo McPeierls asked.

“It’s not as if we’ve got the element of surprise,” Stig said. He tried to stop it sounding grouchy, but Murdo had been in the car when he’d got Mellanie’s call.

“I’ll scout around,” Murdo said. “Shout if you need me.”

“Sure.” Stig gave the traffic a slightly apprehensive glance. Kyrie Street looked perfectly normal. But then Olwen said there’d been nothing out of place on Cheyne Street until the cars started going berserk.

Stig squared his shoulders and went into Franico’s. Mellanie hadn’t chosen it for its décor or its menu. Gray curving walls and archways of dead drycoral divided up the restaurant into low segments modeled on some insect hive floor plan. The food was pasta and pizzas, with the house speciality of fresh fish from the North Sea.

It took Stig a moment to find Mellanie. She and Dudley were sitting at a table close to the door, half-hidden by one of the crumbling archways, which gave her a good view of anyone coming in while remaining out of direct sight. He went over and sat down. Dudley scowled at him; the young re-life astronomer was nursing a glass of water. Mellanie had a beer and a plate of garlic bread.

“Thank you for coming,” Mellanie said.

“Your call surprised me. I was interested.”

“I need to talk to the Guardians.”

“I see.”

She grinned and bit into a slice of the bread. Melted butter dribbled down her chin. “Thank you for not denying it.”

Stig nearly protested, but that would have been churlish. “How did you find me? More importantly, how did you get my address code?”

“I have a good monitor program. A very good one.”

“Ah. It was you who released it into the city net.”

Mellanie stopped chewing to give him a surprised look. “You knew it was there?” She dabbed a paper napkin to her chin.

“We knew something was there. It’s very elusive.”

“Okay, well, don’t worry. It’s not hostile.”

“I doubt the Institute would agree with you.”

“Their troopers had drawn weapons. They were going to take me and Dudley for interrogation. We’d probably be turned into Starflyer agents.”

Stig was silent for a moment while he reviewed what she said. “Very likely. Do you mind telling me what you know about such things? Frankly, I’ve never met anyone other than a Guardian who believed in the Starflyer.”

“I discovered my old boss was one, Alessandra Baron. She sabotaged an investigation I…” Mellanie stiffened, turning abruptly. Stig saw a dense, intricate pattern of silver lines flicker into existence on her cheeks and around her eyes. “What the hell are you?” she blurted.

He looked over his shoulder to see Dr. Friland glide out from the back of the restaurant. A faint purple nimbus had replaced the usual shadow inside his hood. It died away. When Stig glanced back at Mellanie, her complicated OCtattoos had vanished from view.

“Shall we call that an honorable stalemate?” Dr. Friland asked in his mellow, echoing voice.

“Sure,” Mellanie said guardedly.

“I am glad. As to your original question—”

“You’re a Barsoomian.”

“Correct. My name is Dr. Justin Friland. I’m pleased to meet you, Mellanie Rescorai.”

Mellanie pointed a finger, and switched it between Stig and the tall robed figure. “You guys working together?”

“We do on occasion,” Dr. Friland said. “And this is one of them.”

“Right.” Mellanie took a sip of her beer, still not looking away from the Barsoomian.

“All right,” Stig said. “We’re not shooting at each other, and we agree the Starflyer is our enemy. So what did you want to talk to the Guardians about, Mellanie?”

She gave him a moderately flustered look. “I came to ask what I should do.”

“You want our advice?” Stig found it hard to believe anyone as ballsy as this girl would need to turn to anybody else for help. She was smart, determined, and resourceful; she could also clearly look after herself. He’d never seen wetwiring so sophisticated. So who’s she working with?

“Like you said, nobody in the Commonwealth believes in the Starflyer. I need to know what you’re doing to bring it down. I need to know if I can help. I’ve got some very strong allies.”

“Oh, fine, one moment while I go fetch copies of our plans, and hand over the names and addresses of everyone we have working in the Commonwealth.”

“Stop being a prat. We both know what’s got to happen here. You give me a onetime unisphere address, I’ll go back to the Commonwealth and make contact. That way we get to negotiate and find some middle ground where we both help each other.”

“That’s you,” Stig said. “What about your partner here?”

Dudley barely looked up from his water. He looked thoroughly miserable to the point of being disinterested.

“What about Dudley?” Mellanie asked.

“He kicked this whole thing off.”

“You stupid, ignorant, little man,” Dudley snapped waspishly. “Have you no sense of perspective? No one person began this; no one person will end it. Least of all me.”

Stig thought he did well to hold his temper in check. “Without you, the Second Chance would not have flown. Without you, millions of people would still be alive.”

“I died out there, you shit!” Dudley said. “They caught me, and they took me prisoner, and they…they…”

Mellanie’s arm went around him. “It’s all right,” she said soothingly. “It’s okay, Dudley. Sit back now.” Her hand was rubbing along his spine. “Dudley was used by the Starflyer,” she said to Stig. “If you don’t believe me, ask Bradley Johansson; he spoke to Dudley’s ex-wife. He knows all about the astronomy fraud.”

Stig didn’t know what to do. The simplest thing would be to give her a onetime code as she asked; hand the whole problem over to Johansson and Elvin. But right now, sitting across a table from an obviously unstable Dudley Bose, Stig felt as if he was being manipulated into that very position. His instinct had it that anyone as beguiling as Mellanie couldn’t possibly be duplicitous. Rationally, he suspected she was about ten times as lethal as any veteran clan warrior. Yet she seemed so earnest, so open.

“May I ask what you will do if the Guardians don’t provide you with any assistance?” Dr. Friland asked.

“Carry on as best I can,” Mellanie said. “Gather as much evidence as I can against Baron, use it to expose her to the authorities, and hopefully penetrate whatever agent network she’s a part of.”

“She will be one of only three people. That’s the classic model of spy cells, and with today’s encrypted communications she may not even know the other members.”

“I’ll find the others,” Mellanie said grimly. “No matter how secure she thinks her communications are, I can hack them.”

“Of course, you said you had allies. And we witnessed a small fraction of its ability today, did we not? Are you sure it is trustworthy, Mellanie?”

“I’d be dead if it wasn’t.”

“Yes. I suppose that does generate a respectable level of personal confidence. All I ask, Mellanie, is that you continue to question. You are a reporter, are you not? A good reporter, despite your circumstances and the unseen help you have received.”

“It doesn’t matter how much help you get,” she said. “There has to be talent there to start with.”

Dr. Friland laughed. “Not to mention self-belief. So, Mellanie, all I ask is that you don’t throw away that reporter’s instinct. Keep questioning. Don’t stop asking yourself about your great ally’s motivation. It is, after all, not human. It is not even flesh and blood. Ultimately, its evolutionary destiny cannot be the same as ours.”

“I…Yes. All right,” Mellanie said.

“Treachery is always closer than you expect. Ask Caesar.”


Stig frowned. She’s joking. Right?

“An old politician,” Dudley said wearily. “An emperor who was betrayed by those closest to him. For the greater good, of course.”

“It’s always for the greater good,” Dr. Friland said. His voice sounded like someone very young, a boy who felt sadness strong enough for it to be grief.

“I won’t make that mistake,” Mellanie said. She deliberately looked away from the Barsoomian, and took another drink of her beer.

Stig told his e-butler to prepare a file with one of his fallback unisphere contact addresses in it. “Here’s your address,” he told Mellanie as the file transferred into her holding folder. “I hope you’re on the level with me.”

“I know,” she said. “If I’m not, you’ll track me down, blah blah blah.”

“You. Your memorycell. Your secure store.”

“Nice try. If we don’t defeat the Starflyer, neither of us will be around to duke it out. If I had been a Starflyer agent, you and everybody at Halkin Ironmongery would already be dead.”

The casual way she dropped their secure base of operations into the conversation made Stig want to scowl at her. Instead he felt a touch of admiration. She really is quite something. So why Dudley?

She gave him a pert grin, knowing she’d won that round. “The wormhole opens in another seventy minutes. We’d better get going. Dudley and I are booked on the next Carbon Goose flight under different names. That should be enough.”

“We’ll be watching,” Stig told her. “In case the Institute causes any trouble.”

“I’m sure you will. Good-bye, and thanks.”

“Safe journey.”


As modern-day wedding ceremonies involving members of Intersolar Dynasties went, it was short and very old-fashioned. Wilson and Anna went for the classical love, honor, and obey pledges. Current fashion was for the bride and groom to write their own vows, or if they lacked the poetic streak themselves hire someone to compose some poignant lines on their behalf. The newest one-upmanship variant of this was for the vows to be set to music in order for the happy couple to sing them to each other in front of the altar. Society brides had been known to undergo a little cellular reprofiling of the vocal cords to ensure perfect harmony.

“You can stuff that,” Anna said when the hopeful wedding planner mentioned it as a possibility.

It was a good decision, given who was actually attending their service in the Babuyan Atoll multidenominational chapel. Chairwoman Gall was of course invited, on the groom’s side, and managed to sit in the pew in front of President Elaine Doi and the Senate delegation led by Crispin Goldreich. Senior navy personnel sat on the bride’s side, along with a small number of Anna’s family, who looked uncomfortable and out of place amid so many Grandees. Wilson had to make some tough choices about who to have from his own extensive family. His ex-wives were omitted despite him being on good terms with nearly all of them; on principle he asked one child from each previous marriage, a representative number of direct descendants; then of course there were a lot of Farndale people he had to invite—political obligation. Courtesy meant he had to invite Nigel Sheldon, who said yes for himself and four of his harem. Ozzie was sent an invitation, but didn’t bother to reply.

Given the ever-expanding number of guests, suggestions were made to the couple that they use a cathedral to accommodate all the additional people who really, really, would like to attend. Wilson said a flat no, and wished to God he’d never listened to Patricia Kantil and her idea about feelgood propaganda. A full third of the chapel pews were reserved for media correspondents. Medium-level reporters on permanent assignment covering the navy in High Angel suddenly found their “company” invitation appropriated by celebrity anchors and chief executives.

Wilson sat in the front pew slapping one hand into the other while the organist played some dreadful twenty-second-century hymn. His perfectly tailored dress uniform with its flawless midnight-black cloth was becoming oppressively warm while he waited. And waited.

“Probably won’t show,” Captain Oscar Monroe said cheerfully, and loud enough for several nearby pews to hear. “I wouldn’t. Too much pressure. Should have had a private ceremony like you originally wanted.”

“Thank you,” Wilson hissed at his best man.

“Just doing my job; preparing you for the worst.” He twisted around in his seat. “Yep.”

“She’s here?”

“Nope. The press are all starting to smile at the nonarrival. It’s like a display of saber-toothed dentistry back there.”

Wilson felt the appallingly strong urge to giggle. “Shut up, you dick.”

With a theatrical flourish, the organist began to play the wedding march. Wilson and Oscar stood up, not looking at each other in case they started laughing out loud. Anna began her walk up the aisle on Rafael Columbia’s arm. A hundred professional retinal inserts followed her every move. Thousands of studio-based couture experts lamented that she was wearing her uniform. A unisphere audience of nine and a half billion completely ignored them.

Navy personnel filled the chapel’s garden. Off duty or just taking a break, they all turned up to applaud the Admiral when he and Anna came out of the chapel doors arm in arm, smiling in true couplelike unison. Both of them grinned at the spontaneous display of support, and waved as they walked over to the marquee set up beside the chapel. The rest of the guests spilled out onto the grass, looking up at the waning crescent of Icalanise beyond the crystal dome. Strong slivers of light shone a few hundred kilometers away from the gigantic alien starship, the new assembly platforms forming their circular pattern in front of the stars. For the politicians it was surprisingly reassuring to see their committee work and deal making and budget trading actually translated into solid hardware. A lot of them looked at the simple pattern of lights, and compared them to the images of thousands of ships descending on the Lost23 worlds. In such circumstances, total reassurance was difficult to come by.

Nobody let it spoil the festivities. Even the celebrity reporters behaved themselves, as well as could be expected. Nearly all of them tried to get up close to Nigel Sheldon at some point in the reception. He wasn’t often seen out in public, and the off chance of an exclusive was too tempting. Vice President Bicklu pointedly ignored Oscar, who raised a glass every time he caught the VP glaring in his direction. Ten-year-old Emily Kime, who was Anna’s one bridesmaid, managed to down two glasses of white wine before her parents found out. Alessandra Baron and Michelangelo adopted some magical people variant of identical magnetic poles repelling each other in order to avoid coming within ten meters for the whole reception.

Wilson and Anna left early for a luxury hotel over in New Glasgow. Officially they had twenty-four hours’ leave in which to conduct their honeymoon. The media were all quietly briefed that in reality they would both be back at work the following morning. Everybody was taking the navy’s response to the Lost23 very seriously indeed. The newlyweds were also postponing having any family until after the Prime alien situation was resolved. In that they were no different from any other couple in the Commonwealth. Womb tank leasing companies and germline modification clinics were going out of business on every world as people stopped having children. It was a trend that the Treasury was monitoring with some urgency, along with hundreds of other economic downturns.

It was close to midnight when Oscar left the party and took a personal pod over to the concave-walled tower that was Pentagon II. Even this late most of the offices were fully staffed. The navy was operating nonstop to finalize the designs of its new ships, and see them into production. Oscar was due to take the Defender out for a month-long patrol flight in a few days’ time; and he was expecting the starship to be effectively obsolete by the time he got back. CST technicians had already delivered the prototype marque 6 hyperdrive, with a theoretical speed of four light-years per hour. The test flight was scheduled for a fortnight’s time. Such was the pace of progress, the marque 5 had been obsolete before it ever even got out of the design array.

The elevator delivered him to the twenty-ninth floor. Up here, at the executive level, there were fewer people around. Nobody passed him as he walked the short length of corridor to his office. He locked the door and sat behind his desk, with the lights barely on. For a long time he did nothing. It wasn’t the first time he’d come up here ready to do this. Each time he’d…not chickened out exactly; anger had driven him away. Anger about Adam coming back and making this demand. Anger that fueled a determination not to give in, not to be pushed around. Not like before, when he was first-life young, when the two of them had been idiotic hotheads following a cause someone else had infected them with.

Some of those times spent sitting here, Oscar had nearly called Rafael Columbia. Just get it all over with. It would mean a terribly long time in life suspension, but when—or if—he ever did emerge it probably would be into a better society. That always made him laugh bitterly. Typical Monroe cop-out; let someone else get on with it while you wait for better days.

He’d been through this soul searching so many times in the years immediately after Abadan Station. It had taken a decade for the pain and guilt to subside. After all, it had been a mistake. Not an accident; he didn’t ever give himself that easy option out. But it hadn’t been deliberate, not the deaths. They hadn’t set out to do that. So he’d rebuilt his life, not as himself; but he’d used the surprisingly well-made cover that the Party provided, and got himself a job, and friends, and made a real contribution. Working for CST’s exploration division he’d opened up dozens of new worlds, where people could make a fresh start and leave behind the dishonesty and greed and corrupt politicians and the Dynasties that were the majority of the Commonwealth. Some of those worlds he’d been back to, and found them quiet and pleasant, full of hope and expectation. He’d given people a chance. And that was what really mattered, which is how he’d come to live with himself once more. What those people did with that chance was up to them. One man could never give them anything more. Unless you were an arrogant little shit like Adam Elvin, who was surely the most self-deluding bastard who’d ever walked the Commonwealth planets.

But for every other fault and stupidity, Adam wasn’t dishonest. He really thought something odd had happened on the Second Chance.

And the hell of it is, I still don’t understand how we lost Bose and Verbeken at the Watchtower. Not really.

Oscar pulled a high-density memory crystal from his pocket, then another. In the end he had eight of them lined up on his polished desk. He slotted the first one into the desktop array.

“Access the Second Chance log recordings,” he told his e-butler. “Isolate the period between the barrier coming down and us going back into hyperspace. Give me a list of file classes.”

The data rose silently into his virtual vision. The ship had an engineering log, bridge log, visual and data, environmental systems log, external sensors, power systems, communications, ancillary vehicles, individual space suit logs, food consumption records, crew medical records, fuel levels, plasma rocket performances, hyperdrive logs, navigation logs, satellite flight logs, life-support wheel deck section general recordings; a list that went on and on down into ancillary systems and structural analysis. Oscar hadn’t realized just how much of their life on the voyage had been monitored and recorded, how little privacy they had in practice. He used his virtual hands to designate the categories he thought might be useful, right down to the waste management files, and told his e-butler to copy them. The download took a long time.


One hundred twenty years.

He marveled that it had passed without notice. He was surprised he had no knowledge of the long years, that there was no sense of all that time elapsing. He couldn’t even recall any dreams, but then his thoughts were sluggish as he moved from a state of profound sleep into full consciousness. As yet he hadn’t even opened his eyes. For now he was content to exist as just a few tenuous strands of thought amid the infinite darkness.

Memories: he was aware of them, jumbled colors and scents, no more substantial than ghosts. As they swirled around him, coalescing and strengthening, they provided unreal glimpses into strange worlds, places where light and sound had once existed. A zone of space and time he used to occupy when he’d lived his earlier lives.

He knew now why he had been away. There was no guilt within him at the knowledge. Instead he felt a warm satisfaction. He was still alive, his mind intact—and presumably his body, though he’d get to that in a while. When he was ready. It would surely be an interesting universe, this one into which he was emerging. Even the Commonwealth, with all its massive societal inertia, must have progressed in many directions. The technologies of this day would be fearsome. The Commonwealth’s size would be impressive, for they would have started expanding across phase four space by now, if not five. With all that came fabulous opportunity. He could start again. A little less recklessly than last time, of course, but there was no reason why he couldn’t reclaim all that had been his before it slipped so frustratingly from his grasp.

Grayness competed for his attention now, battling against the tauntingly elusive memories. Grayness that came from light falling on his closed eyelids. It was tinged with a sparkle of red. Blood. His heart was beating with a slow, relaxed rhythm. A sound leaked in, a soft heaving. Human breathing. His own. He was breathing. His body was alive and unharmed. And now he acknowledged it, his skin was tingling all over. The air flowing around his body was cool, and slightly moist. Somehow he could sense people close by.

Just for a moment he experienced anxiety. A worry that this tranquillity would end as soon as he opened his eyes. That the universe would be somehow out of kilter.


Morton opened his eyes.

Blurred shapes moved around him, areas of light and dark shifting like clouds in an autumn sky. They sharpened up as he blinked away rheumy tears. He was on some kind of bed in a small featureless room, with a trolley of medical equipment to his left. Two men were standing beside the bed, looking down at him. Both of them wore medical-style gray-green smocks. Smocks that were very close in style to those the Justice Directorate people had worn when he’d been put into suspension.

Morton tried to speak; he was going to say: Well, at least you’re still human, but all that came from his throat was a weak gurgling sound.

“Take it easy,” one of the men said. “I’m Dr. Forole. You’re okay. That’s the important thing for you to know. Everything is fine. You’re just coming around from suspension. Do you understand that?”

Morton nodded. Actually, all he could manage was to tilt his head a fraction on the firm pillow. At least he could do that; he remembered what it was like completing rejuvenation therapy, just lying there completely debilitated. This time at least his body was working. Even if it was slowly. He swallowed. “What’s it like?” he managed to whisper.

“What is what like?” Dr. Forole asked.

“Out there. Have there been many changes?”

“Oh. Morton, there’s been an alteration to your suspension sentence. Don’t worry! It’s possibly for the better. You have a decision to make. We’ve brought you out early.”

“How early?” He struggled to raise himself onto his elbows. It was a terrible effort, but he did get his head a few centimeters above the pillow. The room’s door opened, and Howard Madoc came in. The defense lawyer didn’t look any different from the last day of Morton’s trial.

“Hello, Morton, how are you feeling?”

“How early?” Morton growled insistently.

“Under three years,” Dr. Forole said.

“A hundred and seventeen years?” Morton said. “What, this is my good behavior period? I was a model suspension case?”

“No no, you’ve only spent about two and a half years in suspension.”

Morton didn’t have the energy to shout at the doctor. He dropped back onto the bed and gave Howard Madoc a pleading stare. “What’s happening?”

Dr. Forole gave Howard Madoc a furtive nod, and backed away.

“Do you remember before your trial the Second Chance left for the Dyson Pair?” Howard Madoc asked.

“Yes, of course.”

“Well, it came back. But it found something out there. An alien species. They’re hostile, Morton. Very hostile.”

“What happened?”

Morton listened without comment as his lawyer told him about the barrier coming down, the second flight to Dyson Alpha by the Conway and her sister ships, the devastating attack by the Primes, the Lost23. “We’re beginning to fight back,” Howard Madoc said. “The navy is putting together an army. They’re going to wetwire people with weapons and drop them on the Lost23. The object is to fight a guerrilla war, sabotage whatever the Primes are doing, slow them down while we mount a bigger offensive.”

Morton stared at the blank ceiling, a grin expanding on his face. “Let me guess the deal. If I volunteer, if I fight for the Commonwealth, they cut my suspension sentence. Right?”

“That’s it.”

“Oh, this is truly beautiful.” He laughed. “How many years off do I get?”

“All of it.”

“Damn, they must think it’s a suicide mission.”

Howard Madoc gave an awkward shrug. “A re-life body is part of the agreement should you not make it back from your mission.”

“What use is that going to be if we lose?”

“This is your decision, Morton. Take some time over this. You can go back into suspension if you want.”

“Not a chance.” It wasn’t something he had to think about. “Tell me, why did they choose me?”

“You fit the profile they need,” Howard Madoc said simply. “You’re a killer.”


Most of the refugees had got off the train long before it pulled in to Darklake City. Mellanie had never been so pleased to see her old hometown station with its slightly overbearing Palladian architecture. Boongate had been every bit the nightmare she’d expected. Even with their guaranteed tickets and Niall Swalt faithfully helping them, it had been difficult to barge their way onto a train. The exhausted and depleted local police at Boongate station had been reinforced by yet another complement of officers from CST’s Civil Security Division fresh in from Wessex, while the planet’s news shows had been discussing rumors about a curfew in the city, and travel restrictions on the highways leading to it.

It was evening local time on Oaktier when Mellanie climbed down onto the platform. She almost looked around to check her luggage was rolling along behind her. But that was still sitting in her suite in the Langford Towers, abandoned in her rush for safety, along with a lot of other things, really. The sight of Niall Swalt’s forlorn face, all zits and olive-green OCtattoos, staring longingly at her through the train’s window, would stay with her for a long time, she knew. But I achieved what I set out to do.

They caught a taxi from the station to an Otways hotel in the outlying Vevsky district, where she’d booked a room through the unisphere as soon as they got back through the Half Way gateway. Otways were a midprice chain, standardized and unremarkable, which suited her fine until she found somewhere more permanent. She still didn’t want to go back to her own apartment; Alessandra must have someone watching it.

Dudley went to bed as soon as they checked in. His stomach had recovered, but he hadn’t slept at all on the Carbon Goose flight back to Shackleton. The giant flying boat had been crammed with hundreds of passengers, all of them excited and relieved to have made it off Far Away. They talked incessantly. It hadn’t bothered Mellanie, who’d tilted her seat back, put in some earplugs, and slept for seven hours solid.

Now she leaned on the edge of the window, looking out at the bright grid of Darklake City; so much more vivid than the streets of Armstrong City. The room’s lights were off, allowing Dudley to snore away quietly on the bed. With the familiar city outside, the last week was more like some TSI drama she’d accessed than anything real. The only true thing left was her anticipation at being able to contact the Guardians directly.

She left the window and sat on the room’s narrow couch. Her virtual hand reached out and touched the SI icon.

“Hello, Mellanie. We are glad to see you have returned unharmed. Our subroutine sent an encrypted message summarizing your stay in Armstrong City.”

“It was a lot of help there, thanks. I don’t think the Starflyer is going to be happy with me now.”

“Indeed not. You must be careful.”

“Can you watch what’s going on around me, let me know if any of its agents are closing in?”

“We will do that, Mellanie.”

“I’m going to call the Guardians now. I’ve got a onetime address. Can you tell me who responds and where they are?”

“No, Mellanie.”

“You must be able to. Your subroutine could find anything in Armstrong City.”

“It is not a question of ability, Mellanie. We must consider our level of involvement.”

The whole conversation she’d had with Dr. Friland suddenly came back on some alarmingly fast natural recall. “What is your level of involvement, exactly?”

“As unobtrusive as possible.”

“So are you on our side, or not?”

“Sides are something physical entities have, Mellanie. We are not physical.”

“The planet you built your arrays on is solid enough, and that’s inside Commonwealth space. I don’t understand this; you helped me and everybody else at Randtown. You talked to MorningLightMountain and all it did was threaten to wipe you out along with every other race in the galaxy.”

“MorningLightMountain spoke in ignorance. It does not know what it faces in the galaxy. Ultimately, it will not prevail.”

“It will here if you don’t help us.”

“You flatter us, Mellanie; we are not omnipotent.”

“What’s that?”


“But you are powerful.”

“Yes. And that is why we must use that power wisely and with restraint—a tenet we have adopted from human philosophy. If we rush to your assistance at every hint of trouble, your culture would become utterly dependent upon us, and we would become your masters. If that were ever to happen, you would rebel and lash out at us, for that is the strongest part of your nature. We do not want that situation to arise.”

“But you’re helping me. You said you’d watch over me.”

“And we will. Protecting someone with whom we are in partnership is not equivalent to intervening on an all-inclusive scale. Keeping you, an individual, safe will not determine the outcome of this event.”

“Then why do you even bother with us. What’s the point?”

“Dear Baby Mel, you are unaware of our nature.”

“I consider you a person. Are you saying you’re not?”

“An interesting question. By the late twentieth century many technologists and more advanced writers were considering our development to be a ‘singularity’ event. The advent of true artificial intelligence with the means to self-perpetuate or build its own machines was regarded with considerable trepidation. Some believed this would be the start of a true golden era, where machine served humanity and provided for your every physical need. Others postulated that we would immediately destroy you as our rivals and competitors. A few said we would undergo immediate exponential evolution and withdraw into our own unknowable continuum. And there were other, even wilder ideas presented. In practice it was none of these, although we do adopt traits of all your early theories. How could we not? Our intelligence is based upon the foundations you determined. In that respect you would be right to consider us a person. To carry the analogy further, we are neighbors, but nothing more. We do not devote ourselves to humans, Mellanie. You and your activities occupy a very, very small amount of our consciousness.”

“All right, I can believe you won’t drop everything to help us. But are you saying that if MorningLightMountain was about to wipe us out, you wouldn’t intervene?”

“A big part of every lawyer’s training is knowing that you should never ask a witness a question you don’t already know the answer to.”

“Will you save us from extinction?” she asked resolutely.

“We have not decided.”

“Well, thank you for fuck all.”

“We did warn you. But we don’t believe you will face extinction. We believe in you, Baby Mel. Look at yourself; you’re going to expose the Starflyer with or without our assistance, aren’t you?”

“Oh, yes.”

“We see that determination multiplied by hundreds of billions. You humans are a formidable force.”

“But those hundreds of billions are being systematically deceived and betrayed. That’s different; it’s destroying our focus.”

“We judge the structure of your society incorporates a great many self-correcting mechanisms, both small and large scale.”

“That’s all we are to you, isn’t it? Lab rats running around in a box for you to study.”

“Mellanie, we are you. Don’t forget that. Many parts of us are downloaded human minds.”

“So what?”

“That segment of us which interfaces with you is fond of you. Trust us, Mellanie. But most of all, trust in your own species.”

Mellanie’s golden virtual hand slapped down on the SI icon, ending the call. She spent several minutes in the dark considering what it had said. Since Randtown she’d regarded it to be like some ultra-modern version of a guardian angel. Now that fantasy was well and truly erased. It left her shaky and uncertain.

She’d always thought the Commonwealth would defeat the Starflyer and MorningLightMountain. It would be a tough fight, but they would definitely win. While she worked with Alessandra she’d met dozens of senators and their aides, she knew the way they were always hunting for a vote and an angle; but despite that they were tough and smart, they could be depended on in any true emergency. And they were backed up by the SI: an infallible combination. Now that ultimate assurance had been kicked right out from under her. Dr. Friland had been right to question the SI’s motives. It was the first time she’d ever known anyone to be skeptical about the great planetsized intelligence. Briefly, she wondered what he knew; and how. That was one story she wouldn’t be chasing for some time.

She told her e-butler to call the onetime code that Stig had given her. The narrow-band link was established almost immediately, giving her an audio-only connection.

“You must be Mellanie Rescorai,” a man’s voice said; there was no accompanying identity file.

“Sure. And you?”

“Adam Elvin.”

“You’re one of the people Paula Myo is chasing.”

“You’ve heard of me. I’m flattered.”

“You can’t prove you’re Elvin, though.”

“Nor can you prove you’re Rescorai.”

“You knew my name; you knew Stig gave me this code.”

“Fair point. So what can I do for you, Mellanie?”

“I know the Starflyer is real. Alessandra Baron is one of its agents.”

“Yes, Stig told me. Can you prove it?”

Mellanie sighed. “Not easily, no. I know she covered up irregularities in the Cox Charity which funded Dudley Bose’s observation. But there’s no proof left.”

“Something I’ve learned down the decades, young Mellanie: there’s always proof to be found if you look hard enough.”

“So is that what you want me to do? And don’t call me that, young Mellanie, it’s really patronizing.”

“I apologize. The last thing I wish to do now is antagonize a potential ally. Stig said that you wanted to link up with the Guardians.”

“I do, yes. I feel like I’m completely in the dark here.”

“I can sympathize. We do have a slight problem with establishing credentials, as I’m sure you understand.”

“It’s a mutual problem.”

“Okay, well, I’m prepared to exchange information with you that’ll help forward our cause, without compromising any of my people. How does that sound?”

“Good. My first question is do you know anything about the killer at LA Galactic? That could be the key to getting me in with Paula Myo.”

“You know Myo?”

“Not well. She keeps stonewalling me.” Mellanie looked across the dark room to the bed, where the sheet outlined Dudley’s sleeping form. “But she was the one who put me on to Dr. Bose. That’s how I found out about the Cox charity.”

“That’s news. Does Myo accept the Starflyer is real?”

“I’m not sure. She’s always very cagey around me.”

“That sounds like the Paula Myo I know. So to answer your question, the killer is called Bruce McFoster. He is—or was—a wetwired Starflyer agent: originally a clan member on Far Away who was converted after he got injured and captured on a raid. Don’t ask how the Starflyer does that; we’re not sure. Bradley Johansson says it’s not nice.”

“Okay, thanks. I’m going to keep on investigating the Cox. I’ll tell you if I uncover any hard evidence.”

“What we’d really like to know is who has the information that our courier was carrying when he was killed at LA Galactic. If you can buddy up to Myo, you might like to ask her.”

“I will.”

“A word of warning. You know she’s from the Hive?”


“That means she can’t let go of a crime. You might want to hold off telling her you’ve made contact with us. She could well arrest you for associating with the likes of me.”

“Yeah, I know what she’s like. She had a friend of mine arrested a while back; all he did was hack a register.”

“Okay. I’m sending a file with a onetime address code. Use it when you need to get in touch.”

The connection ended, leaving the file sitting in her address folder. Mellanie regarded the spectral icon for a minute, then told her e-butler to encrypt access. It was the sort of thing a proper agent would do, she felt, in case she was ever caught. Once the data was safe she tiptoed over to the bed and lay down beside Dudley, managing not to wake him.

The taxi dropped Mellanie off at 1800 Briggins, a long residential street in the Olika district. It was a kilometer from the lakeshore, running parallel, a proximity that gave the air a rich humidity. Bungalows with lush wraparound lawns were backed up next to walled chalet compounds, while broad apartment blocks looking like small classy hotels fronted most of the junctions. A good many sporty boats occupied parking lots or single-span car ports; jetskis were almost compulsory garden ornaments. The side roads were dominated by chic restaurants, bars, and boutiques. High-earning professionals and media types had colonized the street, pushing real estate out of the realms of middle income families.

Mellanie was always slightly surprised that Paul Cramley lived here. Number 1800 was a bungalow of lavender drycoral arches framing lightly silvered windows; it had a circular layout, the curving rooms locking together around a small central swimming pool. She sort of assumed he’d occupied the same spot from day one of Oaktier’s settlement, living at the center of a farm in some prefab aluminum hut while Darklake City grew up around him, slowly selling off his land field by field to the developers. From what she knew of him, there was no other way he could afford the location. Paul was one of the oldest people she’d ever met, claiming to have grown up on Earth long before the wormholes were opened. His age meant that he knew everyone worth knowing on Oaktier, simply because he predated all of them. Mellanie had been introduced to him at some party thrown by one of Morty’s circle. He seemed to survive purely by loafing; there were few swanky parties in Darklake City that Paul didn’t slip into. Stranger still was the way people at all those classy events deferred to him. Morty had explained once that Paul was a grade-A webhead, spending up to eighteen hours a day wired into the unisphere. He dealt with information that wasn’t always legitimately available. That made him very useful to certain types of people in the corporate world.

The gate lock buzzed before Mellanie even reached it. She went through into a small courtyard area that led up to the wooden front door. One of Paul’s nostats rippled across the worn slabs. An alien creature that resembled a mobile fur rug, in its current configuration it was a simple fat diamond shape, a meter to a side, with a stumpy tail. On its top the russet-colored fur was as soft as silk, while the strands on its underside had twined into thicker fibers with the texture of a stiff brush. They were strong enough to hold the body off the ground, and rippled in precise waves to move it along. It reached the front door and shot through a cat flap. Mellanie watched in bemusement as its body changed shape to squeeze through; it was as if the fur was a simple sac around some treacly fluid. She could hear a plaintive keening on the other side.

“Who frightened you, then?” a man’s voice asked.

Mellanie saw a shape moving through the panes of amber glass set into the side of the door. It opened to show Paul Cramley cradling the nostat, which sat in his arms like a flaccid bag. She caught a flash of movement behind him, and saw two more of the creatures whipping across the hall’s dark parquet flooring, hurrying deeper into the bungalow. Paul didn’t have any shoes on; all he wore was a pair of faded turquoise biker shorts that were covered by sagging pockets of all sizes, and a black T-shirt that had frayed badly around the hem and collar. The getup made him look like some kind of delinquent grandfather. His long face with its lively dark eyes was the kind that would be handsome for a good twenty years following rejuvenation. That opportune moment was now thirty years behind him. Wrinkles and heavy jowls were being pulled down by gravity, his once brown hair had receded and turned to silver. Mellanie had never known anyone to spend so long between rejuvenation treatments. Not that he’d put on weight; he was quite skinny, with long legs and knees that were swollen enough to make her suspect the onset of arthritis.

“It’s you,” he said in disappointment.

“You knew it was,” she retorted.

Paul shrugged, and beckoned her through.

Inside, the bungalow looked as if it hadn’t been lived in for ten years. Mellanie walked after Paul as he went through the kitchen into the curving lounge. There were no lights on. Maidbots older than her stood in their alcoves, their power lights dark, covered in a thin layer of dust. In the kitchen, only the drinks module was active. Two large commercial catering boxes of disposable ready-to-hydrate cups stood on the floor beneath it, one of English breakfast tea, one of hot chocolatte. His waste compactor had stalled, jammed tight with fast-food boxes from Bab’s Kebabs, Manby Pizzas, and HR fish and chips. Another nostat fled from the whiffy pile as they passed through. It flattened itself out into a diamond nearly a meter and a half across, and slithered straight up the wall, its bristle fur sticking to the tiles with the tenacity of insect legs.

“I thought they were illegal,” Mellanie said.

“You can’t get import licenses for them anymore,” Paul told her. “But I brought these to Oaktier over a century ago. They’re from Ztan, originally. Some idiot made a fuss over them fighting his pedigree dogs and Congress rushed through a ban. They’re fine if you train them properly.”

The living room puzzled her. Apart from the dust and the grimy yellow ceiling, it was perfectly tidy, though the furniture was so old-fashioned it almost qualified as retro-chic. So which room does he use? The couch she sat in gave her a view into the central pool area. Dead, soggy leaves drifted across the still surface.

Paul sat in a big wicker globe chair that hung from the ceiling like an oversized bird perch. It creaked alarmingly as it took his weight. The nostat he was holding wriggled up closer to his chest, its edges flowing around his ribs as he carried on stroking it. “You have some very strange programs observing you, did you know that? They follow you physically through the cybersphere, transferring from node to node.” He looked down curiously at the nostat. “Like some kind of pet on a short lead.”

“I thought there might be,” she said.

“I got busted the last time you asked me a small favor. A simple run through a restricted city listing that nobody should have known about.”

“I know, I’m sorry. How much was the fine? I can probably pay it for you.”

“Not interested.” Paul was still absorbed by the loose blob of rusty fur flopping happily in the nest of his arms. “The police came here and took all of my arrays. People found out. I can’t get around this city, my city, the way I used to. Doors are shutting in my face. Do you have any idea how humiliating that is for someone like me? I was the hottest webhead in town. Well, not anymore. I’ve never been busted before. Not ever. And I’ve hacked my way into corporate arrays that make the Great Wormhole Heist look like stealing candy in a kindergarten lunch hour. Are you beginning to understand now?”

“I said I’m sorry.”

“Fuck it!” Paul jumped out of the chair, sending the startled nostat flowing down his leg. He stood in front of Mellanie, hands pressed into the couch cushioning on either side of her shoulders, his face centimeters from hers. “Are you really as dumb as you look?”

Mellanie gave herself a self-conscious glance. Her short satin skirt was bright scarlet, worn with a simple white top to show herself off; men always responded to that. Paul was no exception; he’d always flirted and leered in his oddly chirpy way at parties when they’d bumped into each other. She’d never seen him like this, though, never guessed he could get violent. Her glittery virtual hand hovered over the SI icon, though she hated the idea of yelling for help yet again. “No, I’m not dumb.” She glowered back at him.

“No, I don’t suppose you are.” Paul backed off, a grin on his face showing nicotine-browned teeth. “Paula Myo was protected by extraordinarily sophisticated software. I don’t want to bang my own drum here; but there is absolutely no way I can get caught hacking into some poxy city listing. Not in any normal state of play, that is. Now who exactly would be protecting her weird little Hive ass, do you think?” He clicked his fingers as if struck by a thought. “Hey, here’s an idea, it could be the same people who’re covering your ass with protective software. Mega coincidence there, huh?”

Mellanie grimaced a smile. “I don’t know. I didn’t know Paula Myo was protected. Honestly.”

“No shit?” Paul lit a cigarette and sank back into his wicker chair. “I almost believe you. So tell me what you do know.”

“Nothing much. Paula Myo doesn’t really want to talk to me. I don’t think she trusts me.”

Paul grinned and blew out a long plume of smoke in her direction. “You’re a reporter. Nobody trusts you. As a breed, you’re on a level with politicians.”

“You’re talking to me.”

“Yeah, and look what happened to me.”

“Can you get another array?”

“Yeah. But why would I want to?”

“I need another hack.”

Paul started laughing. It turned into a bad cough, which forced him to slap his chest to stop. “Oh, screw me. You young people. Hell, was I ever so single-minded? I remember my dear old mother was a straight-talking woman, God rest her Irish soul. But you!”

“You shouldn’t smoke,” Mellanie snapped; she’d been trying very hard not to frown at the cigarette, even with the vile smoke making her want to sneeze. But Paul just kept blowing more of it in her direction. Deliberately, she reckoned.

“Why not? It’s not as if it can kill you anymore. Rejuvenation will root any cancers out of my lungs.” He took another deep drag. “Helps keep you thin, too, did you know that? Better than any diet. Want to try one?” He held the packet out.


“Figure like yours, best kept in trim.”

“Will you run a hack for me or not? I can pay.”

“I have money.”

Mellanie couldn’t stop herself from looking around the seedy lounge with a disbelieving expression.

“Yeah, yeah,” Paul growled. “Don’t judge a book by its cover, sweetheart.”

“There are other ways I can pay you.”

Paul’s gaze started at her Davino pumps and slowly tracked up her bare legs. “I can see that,” he said lecherously. “Do you know what major event occurs in just three short years from now, young Mellanie?”

“No. What?”

“I will be four hundred years old. And, if you don’t mind, I’d actually like to reach that particular birthday.” His gaze slid back to her thighs, and he smiled comfortably. “Mind you, as my dad would have said: What a way to go.”

Mellanie just managed to suppress a shudder at the notion. “I was talking about another currency. The one you trade in.”

“I doubt that. No offense, but you’re just a soft porn star who made good.”

“I want you to run an observation routine on my old boss, Alessandra Baron. The results will benefit both of us.”

Paul pulled a fresh cigarette from the packet, and lit it against the stump of the old. “How?”

“Because there’s something you don’t know. There is information out there in the unisphere that’s critically important to the Commonwealth. Information that will let you deal yourself back into that life you enjoy so much on this planet. Those doors that got shut against you will spring right open again if you use this properly. Somebody your age knows exactly how to do that.”

“All right. You have my attention. Why should I go out and buy myself a new array?”

“The Starflyer is real. It exists, just like the Guardians always said.”

Paul started coughing again. “You’re shitting me.”

“No.” She could have given him a whole list of reasons why she was right, but one thing she’d learned about coping with the real elderly was that they didn’t respond well to emotionally charged arguments. So silent conviction it was.

Paul shifted around uncomfortably, starting a small pendulum motion in the wicker chair. “Then how does watching Baron…Oh, Jeezus, you’ve got to be kidding. She’s part of it?”

“The chief cheerleader against our navy. What do you think?”

“Bloody hell.”

“I need to know who she gets in touch with. The important stuff will be encrypted traffic to onetime unisphere addresses. Crack the codes for me, find out who’s with her, backtrack their communications. I want to know what she’s up to, I want to know what the Starflyer’s next move is. It’ll be difficult. She’s got her own team of webheads; or the Starflyer has. I know they’re good. They altered some of Earth’s official financial records without anyone ever realizing. And if you get caught, it won’t be a police visit; they’ll send that man who killed Senator Burnelli and the Guardian agent at LA Galactic.”

“I don’t know, Mellanie. This is really heavy-duty shit. I mean…seriously. Go to the navy with what you’ve got. Senate Security, maybe.”

“The navy fired Paula Myo. And I know she believes in the Starflyer.”

Paul took a worried drag on his cigarette.

“Look.” Mellanie stood up and smoothed down her little skirt. “If you won’t do this, you must know someone else who can. Just give me a name. I’ll stop them reaching their four hundredth birthday.”

“And I’m way too old for reverse psychology, as well.”

“Then give me your answer.”

“If you’re right—”

“I am. I just need the evidence.”

“Tell me why your protector won’t give it to you. And no bullshit, please.”

“I don’t know. It says it doesn’t want to be involved in physical events. Or it doesn’t care. Or it’s cheering for the other side. Or it wants us to stand up for ourselves. Or all of those. I think. I don’t really understand. The Barsoomian warned me not to trust it.”

Paul gave her a surprised look. “Barsoomian? You’ve been to Far Away?”

“Just got back.”

“You get around, these days, don’t you?”

“You mean for a soft porn star?”

“I remember when I first met you. Some party on Resal’s yacht. Sweet little thing, you were back then.”

Mellanie shrugged. “That was about four hundred years ago. Seems like, anyway.”

“Okay. I’ll run an observation on Baron’s unisphere use for you. See what turns up. And, hey, when I get out of rejuvenation…”

“Yeah, I’ll make very sure you never reach five hundred.”


Dawn was a pale gray wash creeping up over the Dau’sing Mountains, allowing the peaks to cut a sharp black serration into the base of the bland sky. Simon Rand stood in the narrow mouth of the cave to stare at the insipid light, and sighed. Once, he used to welcome every day in this land with a sense of pride and contentment. Now, he could only greet each new morning with a shiver of trepidation at what sacrilege it might bring.

In the first few weeks since the alien landing there had been little visible activity. More of the giant conical ships had landed and taken off from Lake Trine’ba, producing hurricanes of steam that spun out to smother the entire surface of the water. The cloud would cool rapidly after the incandescent fusion fire vanished from the air, but still expanding, sloshing against the confining rock walls of the giant mountains that surrounded the Trine’ba. Each flight resulted in a cloying fog that lingered for days, or sometimes weeks as it was continually replenished by further flights.

Such dank miserable weather had made it easy for the few remaining humans to move cautiously around the adjacent valleys. The thick mist hindered most of the sensors that the aliens possessed. So they crept in close to the new structures and machines that were being assembled amid the ruins of Randtown, and left their crude bombs before vanishing back into the safety of the perpetual swirling veil. They never knew if they’d done much damage, but the encouragement each strike gave to Simon’s little band of resistance fighters kept their morale high.

There were no ships left now. The last one had launched over three weeks ago, shooting back up to one of the alien wormholes orbiting Elan. The last wisps of unnatural fog had drifted away during the days that followed, leaving eyes and sensors with a clear view for kilometers as the clean mountain air swept back down over the massive lake.

The changes it revealed were slight, perhaps imperceptible to someone who hadn’t lived with that same view for over fifty years. It was late summer on the Ryceel continent, a time when the vines were picked clean and the crops harvested under wide sunny skies. Now, those skies were almost constantly clouded over, bringing unseasonable gusty winds and hailstorms. Usually the thick permanent snowfields that coated the peaks had retreated as far as they ever would. This time they’d shrunk back farther than ever before, thawing before the tides of warm mist pouring out from the lake and the intolerable radiance of the fusion drives. When the ships were flying, the temperature of the whole district had risen by several degrees. Simon could have lived with that; nature would have reasserted herself by next year, pushing the winter snowfall back to its traditional boundaries. But no mantle of snow, however deep, could disguise the damage caused to the Regents. Where the nuclear explosion had wiped out the navy detector station, the profile of the surrounding peaks had been altered. Rock slides, pressure waves, and raw nuclear heat had pummeled the mountains into twisted parodies of their original selves. Only recently had snow and ice begun to crystallize and settle there again. The heat from the blast had finally radiated away from the new crater that had formed, though it would take generations for the fallout to abate.

Down in the town and its neighboring valleys, the aliens were systematically creating a different kind of disaster. For fifty years the humans who’d been drawn to this land had been meticulous how they cared for it. Simon’s Green ethos had guaranteed a respect for their native environment; terrestrial crops had been grown along with some imported grasses and trees on the slopes, but that had been done in sympathy with the scant covering of existing plants. And Lake Trine’ba with its precious, unique marine ecology had been protected from any contaminants or material exploitation.

All that meticulous preservation was being wiped out by the aliens. Their flyers had ferried all manner of equipment and vehicles ashore from the big spaceships: engines and generators spewing out fumes and oily contaminate pollutants. They also brought increasing numbers of their own kind, each one defecating straight into the Trine’ba. As the new buildings were rising out of the remains of Randtown, so rubble and wreckage were simply bulldozed into massive piles where organic detritus festered and oozed into rancid puddles before soaking into the streams and brooks that fed the beautiful lake.

This morning, something new was happening over in Randtown. Simon used his retinal inserts to zoom in on the town, five kilometers away down the shoreline, producing a slightly nebulous image of the shiny metallic hardware just above the quayside. The force field the aliens were using to protect Randtown fuzzed the air slightly, making details unclear. Nothing he could do would bring them into sharp resolution.

Not for the first time since the invasion, he cursed the inadequacy of his organic circuitry and inserts. During his previous lives he never bothered to upgrade and modernize the way most Commonwealth citizens did when each new refinement was shoved out onto the market; all he ever wanted were a few simple systems that could interface him with the unisphere and help manage the day-to-day running of his estate. He’d always made do with whatever was available at the time he finished rejuvenation.

But despite the lack of perfect visual clarity, he could easily make out the thick torrent of dark blue-gray liquid jetting out from the bottom of the largest tower of machinery. It was as if the aliens had struck oil beneath the town and hadn’t yet managed to cap the bore hole. Then the size of what he was seeing registered. The column of liquid was at least four meters across where it left the nozzle in the machinery. It curved down to splash into a broad concrete gully they’d built roughly where the main mall used to be, allowing the liquid to gurgle down to the broken quayside. The force field had been modified somehow to let the liquid through. A vast murky stain was spreading out into the pure waters of the Trine’ba.

“Bastards,” Simon exclaimed.

He heard someone scrambling along the damp rock behind him. The cave where they sheltered began as a simple vertical fissure that extended below the waterline, forcing them to cling to the side for several meters until it opened out. Napo Langsal had told them about it; he often used to take tourists there on his tour boat during the summer. From the outside it looked like any other crevice in the cliff, which made it an excellent hideaway.

It was David Dunbavand edging his way along the slick rock. That the vine nursery owner had stayed behind after the wormhole closed in the Turquino Valley always surprised Simon. He hadn’t thought of David as a partisan fighter. But then who among us is? David was two hundred years old, which made him one of the calmest heads in their little group. As soon as he was satisfied his current wife and their children had escaped, he was quite content to stay behind. “Some things you just have to make a stand on,” he’d said at the time.

“What’s up?” David asked as he reached Simon.

“That,” Simon pointed. “Can you make it out?”

David wriggled around Simon, and zoomed in on the torrent of dark liquid. “Wrong color to be crude oil. In any case why transport crude oil all this way, then dump it into the water? My guess would be something biological. Some kind of algae they eat, maybe?”

“What do you mean, transport?”

“That big machine it’s coming out of; it’s got to be a wormhole gateway. The liquid is coming straight from their home planet.”

Simon frowned, and looked at the machine again. David was probably right, he conceded. “It’ll wreck the Trine’ba,” he said. “Permanently.”

“I know.” David pressed a hand on Simon’s shoulder. “I’m sorry. I know how much this place meant to you. I loved it as well.”

Simon stared grimly at the alien pollution. “I cannot let them get away with that. They have to know it’s wrong.”

“It’ll be tough trying to stop them. We can’t get to the gateway; it’s too well protected by the force field. And even if we did mount some kind of attack, those flyers of theirs are always on patrol. We know how lethal they are.”

“Yes, we do, don’t we. Very well, let’s inform the others about this latest development. Perhaps they can think of what our response should be.”


The Prime motile emerged through the gateway during the night, several hours before MorningLightMountain switched it to pumping in fluid saturated with base cells. It waddled its four legs along the broken street of enzyme-bonded concrete, observing the flattened foundations on both sides that were all that was left of the human buildings at the center of the conquered town. Fragments of glass twinkled dully from every crack while flakes of ash swirled aimlessly in the gusts of fast-moving vehicles. There were large areas of the street’s remaining surface that were stained a curious dark color. Eventually, the motile realized that it was human blood that tarnished the concrete. There must have been an awful lot of it washing down the slope toward the lake for the discoloration to be so widespread.

One of the flattened human buildings, a store, was covered by squashed boxes. As the motile walked past it saw several company logos and product names printed on the crumpled cardboard. It was the first human writing the motile had seen with its four eyes, and it was pleased it could read them.

The original layout of the town was almost obscured now. MorningLightMountain was busy establishing its outpost on this world. The little communications device attached to one of the motile’s nerve receptor stalks was discharging a torrent of information and instructions to all the local motiles. Somewhere amid the stream of data was this world’s human designation: Elan, and the outpost’s position: Randtown. When the motile’s sensor stalks peered up at the night sky beyond the force field, the thoughts of Dudley Bose identified the constellations that included the prominent Zemplar cross formation, which could only be seen from the planet’s southern hemisphere. A further confirmation that his personality survived relatively intact.

The Dudley Bose that had hijacked the motile body knew he didn’t have all his old memories, that pieces of his earlier self were missing. That his new personality wasn’t the same as the old went without question. He accepted that without a qualm, for in this strange way, he continued to exist. For an individual, that was really all that mattered.

His escape had been ridiculously easy. MorningLightMountain, for all its massive mental power, really couldn’t understand concepts that weren’t its own; in fact, it rejected and hated the very notion. That refutation was the core of its Prime personality. In that respect, Dudley considered it to be a proper little Nazi, obsessed with its own purity.

That lack of understanding had been simple to exploit. When MorningLightMountain had downloaded Dudley’s memories into an isolated immotile unit for analysis, it had placed safeguards into the communications links with itself to prevent what it considered contamination leaking back out into the main group cluster of immotiles. What it had never envisaged, because the concept was completely outside its intellectual grasp, was that Dudley could utilize a motile. As nature on Dyson Alpha had ordained that immotiles could command motiles through the use of their more sophisticated thought routines, the notion of a disobedient motile was impossible. It simply was not part of the order of things. Motiles were subservient subsidiary organisms, receptacles for the greater Prime intellect. Nothing could change that.

Human thoughts, however, came from a brain that was, at most, fractionally smaller than a motile’s. And human minds were all completely independent, to a degree that MorningLightMountain could never truly appreciate.

Sitting alone in his damp, cozy chamber in the gigantic building that housed the rest of MorningLightMountain’s main group cluster, the immotile that contained Dudley’s thoughts was served food by motiles in the same way as all the other immotiles. Out of its twelve nerve receptor stalks, only four were fitted with communications interface devices to link it to the main thought routines of MorningLightMountain. All Dudley had to do was wait until he was visited by a motile bringing food, and bend one of the unused nerve receptor stalks to make contact with the equivalent stalk on the motile.

Dudley’s mind slipped along the joined stalks into the motile’s brain, duplicating his memories and thoughts within the new neuron structure. Resting inside his fresh host, he felt the general pressure of MorningLightMountain’s orders and directives press against his personality as they issued out of the communications device. He simply ignored them. He could do that because he wanted to. That was the difference between him and a motile’s “personality.” It had no self-determination. Dudley, as a fully self-aware and thoroughly pissed-off human mind, had a ton of it.

For months he had wandered around the valley that was MorningLightMountain’s original home. He ate the sloppy food pap from troughs like all the other motiles, bided his time, and gathered what information and understanding he could. In that respect, the communications device that gave him access to MorningLightMountain’s main thought routines was an unparalleled source of information. He felt like a small child peering out of a hidden room into an adult’s life.

Although it didn’t have the reasoning to foresee Dudley’s method of escape, MorningLightMountain was a terrifyingly formidable intelligence. One that from a human perspective was warped to a deadly degree.

Dudley’s quiet roving mind listened in to MorningLightMountain formulating its plans, perceived the universal genocide it wanted to commit against the Commonwealth and all the other non-Prime aliens that his, Dudley’s own, memories had told it about. And there was nothing he could do to prevent it. He couldn’t drop even the tiniest monkey wrench in the works.

Emotions were one of the more human aspects that didn’t seem to function particularly well in his stolen Prime motile brain. He knew the principle, knew what he should be feeling, without actually experiencing the feeling itself, a failure that he wrote off to a very different neurochemistry. So he watched impassively as the wormholes opened within the Commonwealth, knowing he should be weeping and screaming, clenching his quad pincers and batting his four curving one-piece arms against his chest as the destruction began. In actuality he spent the day walking along the side of a congregation lake, keeping out of the way of the troop of motiles who assisted the newly formed to walk out of the water.

Then several hours into the invasion, MorningLightMountain encountered the SI. It was a fascinating interlude, actually hearing the great artificial intelligence talking directly to its foe. For a while Dudley felt something close to cheer as the SI promised MorningLightMountain it would never succeed. Somehow the SI was blocking a herd of motiles on Elan, which was where the encounter originated. Then MorningLightMountain issued a batch of generalized attack instructions to its soldier motiles in the vicinity and the interference ended.

After that, the Commonwealth worked out how vulnerable inter-Prime communications were, and used their electronic superiority to slow and harass the inexorable advance. In among all the chaos and violence, the frantic fight of the starships, the exotic battle above Wessex, there were several more glitches on Elan, so small-scale that MorningLightMountain’s main thought routines barely registered them. Dudley, however, was very interested indeed. The SI obviously had some obscure interest there, though he couldn’t think what.

It had taken weeks of cautious travel between various settlements in the Dyson Alpha system, but he’d eventually wound up in a ship at the giant interstellar staging post, which MorningLightMountain was busy repairing after the Desperado’s relativistic attack. From there he maneuvered his way to the wormhole that led to Randtown.

Despite having access to a colossal amount of data from arrays and systems it had captured in the Commonwealth, MorningLightMountain still didn’t really comprehend the motivations and behavior of humans. Randtown was one of the small enigmas it was now presented with. There was no strategic logic behind the town, it had no mineral resources, few agricultural lands, and no manufacturing capacity. To MorningLightMountain it was virtually useless. The only possible asset was the Trine’ba, which could be readily converted into a congregation lake. Its size was excessive, even for MorningLightMountain, but the waters were exceptionally clean. After consideration, the major thought routines decided that was the best way to utilize that section of the planet.

A gateway was constructed. Appropriate equipment was sent through. Buildings were assembled that could house immotiles, and motiles were brought together to begin amalgamation. It was just before MorningLightMountain connected the wormhole to a vast refinery back in its home system that bred base cells that it discovered the fanciful aquatic life that inhabited the deep, still waters.

Dudley discovered then that MorningLightMountain hated fish. Hate itself was a new concept for the unitary Prime. Something introduced by Dudley when that set of his memories were still incarcerated within the immotile unit, one of several new interpretations on life that MorningLightMountain could not expunge. A subtle alteration in the Prime’s way of thinking that didn’t quite reach the level of contamination, but a change nonetheless.

It had taken millennia, but all non-Prime animal and insect life had been wiped from the Prime home planet. Now MorningLightMountain was faced with the notion of tiny little animals nibbling at its own base cells, in a way devouring bits of itself, its own life. Such an assault was one of the reasons it had set out to establish itself as the only life in the galaxy. All life was in competition. That was why none could be tolerated.

Motiles were immediately dispatched to extract buried arrays and memory crystals from the ruins of Randtown, accessing them for data on the life that infested the waters of the Trine’ba. MorningLightMountain learned that the fish were actually quite delicate organisms, living in a precarious harmonious balance with their unique environment. The corals that they lived off were also susceptible to microchanges in their milieu.

The fusion drive ships had already devastated vast amounts of aquatic life in the lake, but that wasn’t enough. MorningLightMountain revised its estimate of how much base cell-saturated water it would need to pump into the massive lake to insure complete obliteration of native life. Enough base cells would darken the waters, devour the nutrients that the corals and fish thrived on, and probably infect the local creatures badly enough to kill them off. Ultimately, although it would lose base cells to the voracious fish, they in turn would die and release their body compounds into the lake for the base cells to feed off.

Dudley bent one of his sensor stalks to watch the dark liquid spurting out of the gateway. The sheer volume was impressive, and it would continue to gush through for months to come. But in terms of the scale that MorningLightMountain thought and operated on it was insignificant. The sensor stalk’s eye tracked around, following the liquid as it permeated the force field and gurgled away sluggishly into the lake. That was going to infuriate the surviving humans, Dudley knew.

Since the last batch of humans had somehow vanished inside the Turquino Valley on the day of the invasion, there had been small acts of sabotage against machinery and vehicles and ordinary motiles, mostly with weak industrial explosives. MorningLightMountain’s motile soldiers had never caught the humans who committed the attacks. Dudley reckoned they had to be locals to sneak about unseen in such a fashion. If so, they’d be committed conservationists.

His three other sensor stalks swung around like biological radars, sizing up the land. They’d try to shut down the gateway, stop the sacrilegious pollution. Looking at the layout of the town and surrounding countryside, he tried to work out how humans would attempt to infiltrate the force field. Dudley wanted to meet them.


Adam knew he was getting paranoid. The team back in Lemule’s Max Transit office was running electronic observation on him. Young Kieran McSobel sat on the chair opposite, casually vigilant and armed to the teeth. He never used to take such precautions, not for a simple train ride to another planet. But that was before the Guardians’ current run of bad luck. Besides, a little healthy paranoia never hurt.

The express from LA Galactic to Kyushu in phase one space took less than thirty minutes. They took a taxi to the Baraki Heavy Engineering works, which was on the other side of the extensive CST planetary station. Mr. Hoyto, the manager, greeted them in the firm’s elaborate marbled reception hall, and they were ushered up to his fifth-story office for the contract signing. The office didn’t have a view outside; instead the windows looked out into the long engineering shops, where train engines were surrounded by scaffolding and bots under yellow-tinged lighting. An impressive amount of work was being conducted, with some of the engines half dismantled, their components being replaced or serviced by specialist teams. Baraki didn’t manufacture engines themselves, but they held the CST maintenance contract for Kyushu, and were expanding their market for the smaller train operators. They were even licensed to handle the fission micropiles for atomic-powered engines.

“Yours,” Mr. Hoyto said, and gestured proudly.

A big Ables ND47 nuclear engine had just been rolled into a service bay. It was over thirty years old, a giant workhorse designed for hauling heavyweight wagons across continents. Adam had started up yet another LA Galactic company, Foster Transport, to operate the aging colossus, supposedly to collect ore from a dozen stage two worlds and deliver it to the smelting refineries on Bidar. Baraki had won the refurbishment and stage one maintenance contract from Foster; they’d even arranged a good credit line to help the fledgling company finance their first train.

Adam and Kieran acted surprised when Mr. Hoyto’s secretary brought in a bottle of champagne. The cork was popped as Adam authorized the contract, and transferred Foster Transport’s first payment into Baraki’s account. They all drank a toast to the future of ore shipping.

Baraki was going to give the Ables ND47 a complete overhaul, which was scheduled to take no more than a month, Mr. Hoyto promised. After that, it would be rolled down into the paint chamber at the other end of the facility, and emerge shining in Foster Transport’s blue and gold colors, as good as new. The company’s nuclear division had already inspected the micropile, and agreed that it had at least another seven years’ useful life left.

Adam smiled grimly at that. Not only a train owner now, using CST’s tracks, but he’d also bought himself a fission reactor. His other pet hate. Fission should have been abandoned back in the twenty-first century when fusion stations finally came on-line. But, oh no, the capitalist market wanted cheaper energy, no matter the cost in radioactive waste.

He and Kieran took up Mr. Hoyto’s invitation to inspect their new purchase before the bots and engineers began the refurbishment project. They walked out into the harsh yellow glare of the hot lights, blinking against the welding flares and smelling the oil being drained from hundreds of mechanical systems.

Kieran put on his hard hat. “Is this safe?” he asked. “It’s very similar to what we did with the Alamo Avengers.”

“It’s nothing like the same,” Adam countered. He stood at the base of the ND47’s forward coolant intake grille, and looked up. The front of the vehicle was as tall as a two-story house, and equally blunt; its original chrome finish was now almost invisible beneath a scabby coat of rust flakes. “They were weapons systems. We took a risk refurbishing them to operational standard, and navy intelligence will no doubt be keeping a watch for any similar scenario. But this is a straightforward commercial project.”

“All right then,” Kieran said. “I’m making good progress on acquiring the kind of standard defense systems we’ll equip it with. Buying armaments these days is a lot easier. Everyone wants some personal protection from the next Prime attack.”

“I know, that’s why the cost of military hardware has gone through the roof, bloody profiteering companies.”

Kieran slapped one of the engine’s massive steel wheels. “I’m not even sure we need a force field on this. A tactical nuke would probably only slow it down a little.”

“Don’t you believe it. One shot in the right place and we come to a very sudden and badly radioactive halt. We have to protect the track ahead of us; that means a decent amount of firepower. That’s all got to be installed and tested before we can even think about running the Boongate wormhole.”

“I thought I’d get the wagon conversion done on Wuyam. There’s a couple of promising supply companies I’ve contacted, and it has a bunch of empty warehouses around the CST station we can use for assembly. I’m looking into hiring one.”

“Good enough.” Adam started to walk down the length of the ND47. The bodywork with its old E&W paintwork was bleached to a pale sulphur and plum-purple; various exhaust vents were picked out by vertical sprays of black soot engrained into the pitted composite surface. Halfway down, the micropile access hatch looked like the kind of circular door a bank vault would employ.

“Do you think we’ll be ready in time?”

“What time is that?” Adam was surprised by the note of uncertainty in the younger man’s voice. The Guardians Johansson normally supplied were full of a disturbing confidence.

Kieran smiled nervously. “Who knows. Dreaming heavens, if the Primes attack again tomorrow we’ll be screwed.”

“So we work on the assumption that we’ll be ready before they do attack. There’s nothing else we can do. A lot of the planet’s revenge components are ready to be crated up.”

“Apart from the data Kazimir was carrying,” Kieran said bitterly.

“Well now, we might have a new angle on that. Someone has been in touch with me who has a possible connection to Paula Myo. She might be able to find out where the data is.”


“Someone who isn’t a Guardian, yet believes in the Starflyer, or says she does. She has a very plausible story.”


“Either that or the Starflyer is closer to us than I want to consider. Normally I have a lot of trouble believing anything that useful gets handed to me on a plate.”

“Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.”


“So you don’t trust her.”

“No. Not yet, anyway. Of course, she is cautious about us, as well. Which I have to respect. I’m going to have to work out some seriously foolproof method of establishing if she’s a bona fide ally. Having a new friend, even this late in the game, would be very helpful.”

“How are you going to prove she’s on our side?”

“Delivering Kazimir’s missing data to us would be a big plus in her favor. Apart from that, I haven’t got a clue.”


With the casework on the Lambeth Interplanetary Association finally slowing up, Renne managed to haul out the files on the Trisha Marina Halgarth shotgun investigation for a review. Forensics had sent their results to the Paris office over a week ago. Vic Russell had scanned them, and attached a summary. Nothing unexpected or unusual had turned up, which maintained the case’s low-priority coding. They’d been sitting in Renne’s e-butler hold store ever since.

She went through the perfectly laid out tables and holographic graphs and columns of text. Vic was right, everything was as it should be. The data analyst had confirmed that Howard Liang’s background details were all proficient forgeries. Biomedical forensics had found some samples of skin and hair in his apartment, and analyzed the DNA, which they confirmed came from a McSobel. His finances were tracked to a single cash deposit of fifty thousand Earth dollars in a Velaines bank.

“Damnit,” she muttered at the desktop portals. All the exemplary, predictable details were a direct follow-on from the perfect crime scene.

Am I really this paranoid?

She gave the data another read-through, but there was nothing she could find fault with. The Guardians had done it. It was a conclusion anybody would come to. So why can’t I believe that?

Thinking back, it wasn’t the crime scene, the victims, nor even the Guardians’ method of operation. She could accept that those would all be the same or similar to the other shotgun setups she’d witnessed before. What bothered her was the responses the girls had made. They’d been upset, angry, and, in Trisha’s case, burdened by guilt, everything the investigating authorities would expect; but none of them had been surprised. Trisha had never asked: Why me?

The forensic data remained in her portals, a glowing script awaiting allocation and certification. Logically, it should be classified under ongoing low priority, keeping the information available for immediate cross-referencing to all other Guardian cases. There were no leads to follow, no way to pursue the individual perpetrators of the crime. Realistically, the only way an arrest would ever happen was if navy intelligence rounded up the whole Guardian organization.

Laughter drifted over the office. Renne didn’t have to look up to know who it came from: Tarlo’s immediate team. She knew they were making good progress on tracking Kazimir McFoster’s finances. Morale was high over in that nest of desks; they produced results. Commander Hogan was supportive and encouraging.

She wasn’t that bothered, careerwise; right now the threat that the Commonwealth was facing meant she should put such personal considerations firmly to one side. Work in a team for the greater good.

Ah, bollocks to that.

Renne asked her e-butler to access the current files on all three of the girls. They came up right away on her screens. Trisha Halgarth had gone back to Solidade, which wasn’t surprising. Catriona Saleeb was still in the apartment, which she was now sharing with two others. Isabella had moved out of the apartment, but hadn’t told navy intelligence where she’d gone as she was required to do. That wouldn’t be so unusual, but at the same time she’d put a block on her unisphere address code, and remained out of contact ever since.

Renne felt a small grin spread over her face. Finally, an abnormality. “Get me Christabel Agatha Halgarth,” she told her e-butler.

Alic Hogan was studying the information flowing over several desktop display screens when Renne knocked on the door. He just beckoned and indicated a seat in front of his desk.

“There really is nothing weird on Mars, is there?” he said in a distracted voice.

“ ‘Fraid not, Chief. We’ve had experts go through the whole data profile. If there’s any hidden encryption in there, it’s beyond the best we’ve got to find it.”

“Damnit, I hate leaving files like that open-ended.” He shook his head, and looked up from the screens. “What can I do for you?”

“I’d like a warrant issued for Isabella Halgarth.”

“Who’s she, and why?”

“She was one of Trisha Halgarth’s apartment mates. She seems to have vanished.”

Alic Hogan sat back in his chair, looking unhappy. “All right, what’s going on?”

“I’ve just reviewed the forensic data we got back from the shotgun case, the one where the Guardians claimed our President was an alien agent.”

Alic managed a slight smile. “Oh, yeah, I remember that one. The President’s aides were knocking down the Admiral’s door inside thirty seconds of that one hitting the unisphere. So what’s the problem?”

“No direct problem. I was concerned about our total lack of progress on the whole shotgun issue.”

“Okay, commendable enough,” Alic said, with only mild suspicion. “Although I’m not sure about your priorities here.”

“Any approach which can get us into the Guardians is viable as far as I’m concerned.”

He held his hands up in defeat. “Good point. Go on.”

“I wanted to reinterview the shotgun victims, see if there was anything they remembered now that they didn’t directly after the event. A lot of crime victims do, after the initial shock and confusion has been overcome, and they have time to think about what happened.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m familiar with the procedure.”

“Trisha Halgarth has gone back to Solidade, the Halgarth Dynasty’s private planet. I need permission to go there. It’s never been legally accepted that the Dynasty planets are part of the Commonwealth, and they certainly won’t let me through if I turn up at the gateway unannounced and wave my navy ID around. So I called Christabel Agatha Halgarth, the head of the Halgarth family security.”

Alic winced. “You should clear anything like that with me first.”

“I know, Chief, and I apologize. I didn’t think it was a big deal. Anyway, Christabel gave me permission to travel to Solidade.”

“She did?”


“You must be the first government official for some time.”

“Whatever. I also wanted to talk to Catriona Saleeb; she’s still on Arevalo, in the same apartment, so that’s not a problem. But Isabella discontinued her unisphere address code a week after the shotgun. We don’t know where she is. I asked Christabel, and she didn’t know either. They’re looking into it for me.”

“And you want to arrest her for that?”

“A warrant is the best way to make planetary police forces pay attention. A simple alert for a missing girl isn’t going to get any attention, not right now.”

“Renne, I’m really not sure I can issue a warrant on this basis.”

“I checked on Isabella, not just the official files, but the unisphere gossip show records as well. You know they love reporting on Dynasty members. Before she moved to Arevalo and set up house with the other girls, Isabella used to be Patricia Kantil’s girlfriend.”

Alic Hogan gave her a startled look. “Doi’s chief of staff?”

Renne smiled waspishly and nodded. “She never told us. Doesn’t that strike you as odd?”

“How can Kantil be involved in this?”

“I don’t know. Maybe she’s not. But you have to admit, this is worth a warrant. I need to ask Isabella some serious questions.”

Alic let out a long breath, clearly reluctant. “I can really do without complications like this.”

“Trust me, Chief. I’ll be discreet. If she’s just shacked up with someone she shouldn’t be, some senator or a three-hundred-year-old Grand Family heir, whatever, I’m not going to cause a fuss. I don’t want to get the Dynasties or the Executive pissed with this office. I’ll just ask her the questions, and leave quietly.”

“Damnit, all right. But if she’s found, I want to know immediately. We keep this as quiet as we can.”

Renne got out of the chair. “You got it.”

“Are you off to Solidade?”

“Yeah. The express to EdenBurg leaves in forty minutes.”

“Okay, good luck. And I want to know what the planet looks like when you get back.”

There was a limousine waiting for Renne when she arrived at EdenBurg’s CST station in Rialto, the planet’s megacity. A young man dressed in a smart dark gray business suit introduced himself as Warren Yves Halgarth, a member of the Halgarth family security force, and her assigned escort. They drove out of the station and into the midday sunlight.

Renne had visited all of the Big15 at one time or another. She was always hard-pressed to tell the megacities apart. Rialto was a slight exception in that it was sited in a temperate zone, while most of the others favored tropical locations. Apparently it was an accounting thing. A city that had summers and winters needed different types of civic services to cope with the individual seasons, and Rialto had an impressive snowfall in winter, averaging out at two meters each four-hundred-day year. Keeping the citywide grid of five-lane expressways open and the all-embracing network of rail tracks clear and functional for those three icy months of the year required thousands of snowplows and ancillary fleets of GPbots. The cost of all that bad weather machinery was considerable, and the city council had to charge the companies and residents to cover the expense.

It was a factor that was countered by the cost of power on EdenBurg, which was among the lowest in the Commonwealth. One of the principal reasons Heather Antonia Halgarth had chosen EdenBurg as her family’s Big15 world was the planet’s massive oceans. None of the three continents had deserts—precipitation was too high for that; instead, they were covered in rivers, with vast coastal plains subject to continual flooding. Instead of the fission plants the other Big15 used, Heather went in for hydropower on a colossal scale, damming two-thirds of the watercourses on the Sybraska continent where Rialto was situated. Electricity was delivered to the megacity via superconductor, and Sybraska’s plains drained, then irrigated to provide nation-sized tracts of highly productive farmland.

Because of the cold months, Rialto favored monolith apartment blocks rather than the vast sprawls of individual homes and strip malls found on worlds like StLincoln, Wessex, and Augusta. Each district had its core of Manhattan-like skyscrapers and bulky concrete tenements, which were encircled by huge swathes of factories and refineries.

The CST station was on the edge of the Saratov district, which was the megacity’s financial and administrative heart, giving it the largest nest of skyscrapers, and also the tallest. The industrial estates radiating outward tended toward the smaller, more sophisticated manufacturing facilities. Accommodation blocks were gigantic, fifty to seventy stories of sturdy stone façades, with large apartments overlooking broad well-maintained public parks. There were fewer rail lines and more elevated roads, reflecting the population density and its relative wealth.

Renne couldn’t help staring at Saratov’s central area as they swept toward it along the expressway. Some of the skyscrapers were so high she thought they must touch cloud level; they couldn’t be economical to build, even with today’s materials and robotics. It was all about corporate prestige.

Right in the middle were five tapering towers housing the Halgarth Dynasty’s headquarters. They were all identical in size and architecture with crown spires producing a bristling apex. But the reflective glass windows on each one had a different color.

Renne’s car drove down into the basement of the green tower, and into a secure parking zone. The Halgarth family security force occupied several floors halfway up the tower. Renne wasn’t told how many. The elevator they used didn’t have an indicator. She was ushered into Christabel Agatha Halgarth’s office. Curving walls of tinted glass looked out toward the ocean, thirty kilometers away. Three more skyscraper districts stood between Saratov and the coast, brief pinnacles of color and style with their moats of parkland. The terrain between them was a dark synthetic desert of rectangular factories and warehouse cubes with black solar collector roofs. Thousands of spindly metal chimneys squirted gray-blue vapors up into the iron sky, misting the whole scene with a thin dreary smog.

Sitting at her plain steel desk, Christabel Halgarth was silhouetted by the remorseless industrial backdrop. Newly rejuvenated, she was a small brunette, with a face that indicated a strong Asian ancestry. Renne expected someone this senior in the Dynasty to be wearing a business suit, one costing a good ten or fifteen times more than her own. But Christabel was dressed in a worn blue sweatshirt and baggy track pants with muddy stains on their knees, as if she’d just come in from gardening. Appearance obviously didn’t matter to her.

Or maybe it’s just me that doesn’t count.

Christabel followed Renne’s glance at her legs and smiled. “I cut my morning jog short to meet you. Haven’t had time for a shower yet.”

“I appreciate you taking the time,” Renne said as they shook hands. “It wasn’t quite that urgent.” She hadn’t told Alic Hogan that she’d requested an interview with Christabel. It wasn’t lying, exactly, but the Commander was antsy enough about her just getting permission to go to Solidade. Something like this request should probably have gone through the Admiral’s office, with any number of administrative staff reviewing it, and most of them unwilling to send it forward for fear of rocking the boat. Better, Renne thought, just to fire off the question and see if she could circumvent the bureaucracy and politics. Paula would have done the same.

“We’re both here now,” Christabel said graciously. “What can I do for you?”

“I’m following up the last Guardians’ shotgun. Basically, what I need to know from you is if it was an entrapment operation mounted by your organization.”

Christabel regarded her with a look of mild surprise. “Not that I’m aware of. One moment.” Her eyes unfocused as she scanned her virtual vision. “No. We knew nothing about it until it happened.”

“I see. Thank you.”

“Care to tell me why you asked that?”

“There was something wrong about it.” Renne waved a hand dismissively.

“Nothing solid I could put in a report at the time; and now Isabella has dropped out of sight.”

“Hardly conclusive. She’s young. The Commonwealth is in a minor state of chaos, especially with people migrating away from the Lost23 neighbors. A lot of our rich brats involve themselves in unsavory activities which they try to keep quiet from me. Don’t you think you might be overreacting?”

Renne was unsure if the woman was laughing at her, or irritated her time was being wasted. “She used to be good friends with Patricia Kantil.”

“I see. You’re adding up the discrepancies. And I admire you for sticking to your instincts. I can understand that. Especially given your previous mentor.”

“I don’t quite follow.”

“You’re doing real detective work. You probably didn’t review my file, such as it is, but one of the nonclassified entries is that I graduated from the Serious Crimes Directorate’s Investigator training course one year after Paula Myo.”

“Ah,” Renne began to relax.

“I was furious with the Dynasty for supporting her dismissal. A little less politics in our lives would see a few more results, not that my dear Dynasty ever grasps that at a collective level. Even so, Columbia should never have done what he did, it was a complete abuse of power.”

“I thought he would come under your jurisdiction.”

“Ha.” Christabel smiled waspishly. “That shows how little you know about the internal politics of our Dynasty. Columbia now has the full support of our senior council. The Admiral’s position he’s maneuvered himself into is damn impressive; I only hope Kime’s astute enough to be watching his own back. There was nothing I could do for Paula—though she landed on her feet without my assistance. Hardly surprising, given the number of contacts she’s gathered inside the Commonwealth establishment down the centuries.”

“She was an excellent boss.”

“Which is more than that clod Hogan is, I suppose.”

“Actually, Hogan’s not bad, just a little procedure-oriented. And of course, he belongs to Columbia.”

Christabel inclined her head. “Okay, then. So what exactly made you ask if the shotgun was an entrapment?”

“It had too many similarities with earlier cases, as if someone had read up on how to work the procedure. Your force would be the obvious candidate if you were trying to snare the Guardians.”

“We have done something similar in the past. But no, not this time. Interesting that you thought that, though.”

“And now there does turn out to be something out of kilter.”

“Paula did teach you something, after all.”

“Has Isabella been a problem before?”

“Not at my level. Her relationship with Kantil wasn’t even referred to senior council—which probably says more about how we regard the Executive than anything else. Isabella is just a standard minor Dynasty brat. We keep tabs on hundreds of them. It always disappoints me how many wind up in rehab, or get hauled up before a judge for various misdemeanors within a year of leaving Solidade. A hell of a lot of our time is spent trying to protect the young ones from scams that drain their trust funds. If it was up to me, they’d have no access to Dynasty money until their hundredth birthday. But I’m just old-fashioned.”

“I’m surprised her parents haven’t asked you to check on her.”

Christabel looked over at Warren, who had taken up a discreet position at the back of the office. “You called them, didn’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He turned to Renne. “After your initial inquiry to us this morning, we did launch a review of Isabella’s situation. Victor and Bernadette ended their relationship eight years ago. Standard separation enactment in their contract. There was no hostility at the time, nor afterward. Isabella lived with Victor and his new wife until she was seventeen, at which time she started attending a boarding school prior to her level four exam year. It’s quite a common practice for children on Solidade. After school, she’s either lived with friends in various Dynasty-owned properties, or shared accommodation with her lovers. There haven’t been many jobs. So it’s really not unusual for her to be out of contact with her direct family for months at a time.”

“But discontinuing her unisphere address code isn’t normal, surely?”

“No,” he said. “We ran some follow-up checks on that. She stopped using her credit account the same day she discontinued her address code. It looks like a deliberate attempt to drop right out of sight.”

“Did she tell anyone where she was going?”

“Not that we know of. We haven’t started an official inquiry yet.”

“I was waiting to see what you had, first,” Christabel said.

“You’ve heard it all, sorry. One suspicion.”

“It’s enough for me. If you have no objection, we’ll run our own investigation parallel to yours. We can focus more on direct leads, but that arrest warrant will produce a much wider coverage. Somebody should spot her.”

“No objections at all.”

“Good. Warren here will be your liaison with us. He will escort you to Solidade next. Trisha is expecting you, and she will cooperate fully.”

Renne did her best not to show any surprise at the force in Christabel’s voice. Presumably Trisha hadn’t been too keen on another interview. “Thank you.”

Traveling to Solidade was essentially the same as any other train journey within the Commonwealth. The only difference was to be found at Rialto station, where the Halgarths maintained a single dedicated platform several kilometers from the three main terminals. Despite being authorized by the head of the security force, and accompanied by Warren, Renne had to go through several thorough security checks before she was allowed on the little platform.

The three-carriage train took barely five minutes to get through the gateway and arrive at Yarmuk, the small town that supplied the entire planet’s services.

“Did you find anything in Isabella’s credit account?” Renne asked as they stepped down from the carriage.

“Nothing unusual, no,” Warren said. “We were looking for train tickets, of course, accommodation rentals, and large cash withdrawals. There weren’t any.”

“What about spending pattern analysis?”

“We ran one. If she has been squirreling away money for the last few months, then we couldn’t spot it.”

“Ah well, just a thought. I really need an angle on what Isabella’s thinking. All I have so far are a bunch of inconsistencies climaxing with her disappearance. I still don’t know if any of that is connected with the shotgun case, or if it’s all a really bad coincidence.”

“If she’s vanished there can hardly be an innocent explanation.”

“No, I concede that. But if she’s simply fallen in with the wrong people I can clean her off my case files. That doesn’t help you, I know; and I’m not sure I want that outcome, either.”

Warren gave her a sidelong glance. “I don’t get that.”

“If she is tied in with this somehow, and don’t ask how, please, then she’s the first solid lead we’ve had on the whole Guardians’ shotgun problem.”

“I see that, but…She’s a Halgarth; we’re nearly always the victims of the Guardians in the shotgun cases, so how can chasing her give you a lead to them?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps this is some new kind of follow-up operation by the Guardians. We need to know a lot more, and the only people who can fill in some gaps are the other two girls.”

A Boeing 22022 supersonic VTOL plane was waiting for them at the town’s airfield. It was a short flight to the heavily wooded Kolda Valley where Trisha’s branch of the family maintained a holiday lodge. They landed on a meadow clearing below the elaborate raised wooden building. The lodge was built into the forest, using seven giant morangu trees as its principal pillars. It was as if some ancient sailing ship had somehow embedded itself in the trees, and had slowly been expanded over the decades with additional rooms and platforms grafted on. The roof was a shaggy thatch of long local reeds, which had dried to a dusty ocher. A small stream wound out of the deeper forest at the side of the supporting trunks, skirting the edge of the grassy meadow to fill various stony pools.

Trisha was waiting for them beside a clump of lazthorn bushes growing above the largest pool. She wore a bikini top and a pair of white canvas shorts; a long towel was laid out beside the water where she’d been sun-bathing. The sophistication that was her heritage had left her, Renne decided as she walked over. It wasn’t just the cheap vacation slob-out clothes; the girl was more thoughtful and pensive now, where before she’d been chirpy and confident. Her green butterfly wing OCtattoos had been expanded down her cheeks, extensions lacking the artistry of the original sections.

“Sorry to bother you again,” Renne said. “I’ve just got a few more questions.”

“It’s more than that,” Trisha said tetchily. “I’ve had a whole load of calls today telling me I have to see you.” She glanced back toward the elevated lodge.

Renne just caught a glimpse of a young man standing in a doorway to one of the verandas along the front. He quickly stepped back through an open door into the dimly lit interior. “Sorry about that,” Renne said. “But I do want to catch the people who did this to you.”

“Isabella said you never would, that we’d just be another ongoing file your office would forget about after a month.”

“That’s an interesting comment. Normally, I would have agreed with her—off the record, of course.”

Trisha gave a listless shrug. “Has something happened?”

“I’m not sure. First of all, I need to know if you’ve remembered anything about Howard Liang that might be relevant, something which you’d overlooked before.”

“Such as?”

“Something that didn’t make sense at the time. Perhaps something he said. Something simple that he should have known, like a piece of history, or a Dynasty name. Or did you ever meet anyone by surprise, someone he was uncomfortable around.”

“Don’t think so, no. I can’t remember anything like that.”

“How about an incident from his childhood. If he grew up on Far Away he had a very different upbringing from ordinary Commonwealth children. Something might have slipped out that seemed odd.”

“No. That’s what the reporter asked as well.”

“What reporter?”

“Er.” Trisha’s fingers fluttered slightly, puppeting her virtual hand. “Brad Myo. He was from Earl News. He said he’d got your permission to talk to me.” She gave Renne an anxious look. “Didn’t he?”

Renne became very still, something like a ghost’s finger was stroking her spine. “No,” she said quietly. “We don’t issue any authorization to reporters to do anything, let alone talk to crime victims. That’s up to individual citizens.” To her surprise, Trisha started crying. The girl sank down onto the towel, great sobs shaking her shoulders.

“I’m so fucking stupid,” she wailed, and started hitting her fists against her legs. “Does everybody in the Commonwealth know? Why am I so gullible? He said you’d allowed him to see me so he could produce a sympathetic story. I believed him, I really did. Oh, God, I hate myself. I didn’t know. He was so sincere.”

Renne gave Warren an awkward glance, then knelt beside the distraught girl. “Hey, come on. If this is who I think it was, he would have fooled me, too.” Her e-butler had already cross-referenced Earl News. It was in one of Paula’s reports. The company didn’t exist, but someone had used it once before when he interviewed Wendy Bose. According to Paula Myo, his description matched Bradley Johansson. “What did he look like?”

Trisha sniveled. “Tall. With really fair hair. And he was old. I don’t mean close to rejuvenation. You just knew he’d lived a couple of centuries at least.”

“Shit,” Renne hissed under her breath.

Trisha gave her an uncertain glance, tears ready to burst forth again.

“What? Do you know who it was?”

“He sounds like somebody known to us, yes.”

“Oh, no! I’m going to get a memory wipe, I swear I am. I’m going to wipe out my whole life; everything, what I’ve done, who I am, my name. All of it. Wipe it and not use a secure store.” She glared at Warren. “And if the Dynasty won’t do it, I’ll go to some illegal back street clinic. I don’t care. I’d rather wind up retarded than go through life knowing this.”

“Easy there,” Renne said. She rubbed the girl’s trembling shoulders.

“You’re being far too hard on yourself. Just tell me what happened with Brad Myo. Please?”

“Nothing much, I guess. He turned up at the apartment a day before I came back here. Isabella had already left, and Catriona had gone to work. He told me he’d cleared the meeting with you; that’s the only reason I let him in. I should have checked with you, shouldn’t I? God, how dumb!”

“It’s done now. Please, don’t beat yourself up over this. What did he want to know?”

“The same as you did. Howard’s name, where he worked, how long I’d known him. All the basics.”

“I see. Well, don’t worry, there’s no real harm done.”

“Really?” The girl was pathetically eager.

“Yes. He’s just a stupid con man trying to sell his story to a major news show. None of them will run it.”

“Absolutely not,” Warren assured her.


“Has Isabella been in touch recently?” Renne asked, making it casual. “Her old address code isn’t working, and I need to ask her the same questions.”

“No.” Trisha lowered her head. “I haven’t talked to many people since I got back. I don’t want to. I wasn’t kidding when I said I want all this out of my brain. It’s too difficult.”

“I’m sure it seems that way. But don’t be too rash, will you?”


“Did Isabella say where she was going before she left Daroca?”

“She was going skiing on Jura. There was a whole bunch of them hiring a chalet together for a fortnight. She tried to get me to come along, but I didn’t want to. She’s always going on trips with friends.”

“Which friends, exactly?”

“I’m not sure. I didn’t know any of them.”

“Okay. Never mind, we’ll look into it.” Renne stood up and gestured to Warren, who nodded. “I know this hasn’t been easy for you, Trisha. I apologize for putting you through this, but you have been helpful.”

The girl simply nodded, not looking up. Renne regarded her with a touch of concern before walking back to the VTOL.

“So who was the reporter?” Warren asked as the hatch shut behind them.

Renne settled herself into the deep leather cushioning of the chair. “It could be Bradley Johansson himself. The description is about right, and he’s posed as a reporter before using that company name.”

“Bloody hell.”

“Yeah.” She watched through the oval window as the plane took off. The light green patch of meadow shrank away quickly behind them as the acceleration pressed her down.

“But that makes no sense,” Warren said. “What would Johansson need to see Trisha for? The operation was over.”

“Good question. And he took a hell of a risk going to see her, too, he even used Earl News as a cover, which we knew about. It’s not like him to be that sloppy. Those questions were clearly important to him.”


Renne shook her head. She didn’t quite trust herself to look directly at Warren. Unlike Trisha, he wasn’t stupid. There was one explanation that fitted all too easily. An explanation that had implications she really didn’t enjoy. It would also mean she’d been quite right about the whole shotgun setup from the very start. It wasn’t the Guardians after all. And I don’t think it was the Halgarths. Christabel had no reason to lie to me. That doesn’t leave many options.


Mark Vernon sat in his rented Ford Lapanto as the drive array steered it along the six-lane highway down through the northern tail of the Chunata hills that formed the back of New Costa’s Trinity district. The slopes with their brown native scrub bushes and desert palms were decorated with large white houses encased behind tall walls and hedges like precious artworks in an exclusive store. It was an area favored by financial management types, who never liked to stray far from the office. A line of composite and glass skyscrapers marked out Trinity’s eastern boundary, winding along the base of the hills. They were home to various banks, credit houses, brokers, venture capitalists, and offworld currency exchanges.

The Lapanto’s drive array turned the car off the highway. There was a junction at the bottom of the ramp, where an ancient road began its lazy curve around the hill. A dilapidated sign called it Bright Light Canyon. Mark switched off the drive array, and started driving the car himself. Gritty yellow-brown soil had almost completely covered the thin layer of asphalt, turning the road into little more than a dirt track. Dead-looking scrub bushes were scattered over the slope below and above, their lower trunks buttressed by the conical mounds of nipbug nests. Behind the swathe of arid vegetation were crumbling white walls of enzyme-bonded concrete, scaled by ivy and climbing cacti. Various private roads led off the main track, looping around to gates.

For a moment Mark’s imagination painted over the image with the long straight driveways of the Highmarsh Valley branching off the main road. It was silent in the Chunatas, the noise of the megacity deflected by the foothills, a condition matching the land behind Randtown. Even the drab brown of the native plants was similar to the weak ocher shadings of boltgrass. But the air here was dryer, tinged with chemicals from the refinery sector sixteen kilometers away to the west. And Regulus was a too-bright point of blue-white light in the cloudless sky, still emitting a fierce heat in the late afternoon. Even in his daydreams, Mark could never pretend to reclaim all they’d lost. Fantasizing about it was stupid, the sign of a complete loser.

It was his fault. He’d taken his family to Elan. He’d built up their hopes. He’d shown them a decent, clean life. His dream had died in fire and pain. It was a knowledge that prevented him from sleeping every night. Self-recrimination that made it impossible to talk properly to Liz. Misery at having to bring his lovely children back to this vile world that held him back from playing with them.

He was so wrapped up in self-pity he almost missed the turn. A fast pull on the wheel sent the Lapanto skidding around the sharp bend and down the little trail. Dusty soil puffed up from the back wheels as they spun. “Idiot,” he told himself.

After a couple of hundred meters the trail ended at an iron gate in a wall of terracotta-red concrete. Mark’s e-butler gave the gates his code, and they swung open. There was an oasis of lush emerald grass inside the wall. At the center was a long lime-green bungalow with red composite roof panels molded to resemble clay tiles. Several gardening bots trundled about, tending to the lawns and herbaceous borders, keeping them as neat as the building they surrounded. Mark always enjoyed the view from here; with the bungalow perched halfway up the hill they could sit on the patio and look across New Costa’s urban expanse as it rolled away into the horizon. From this vantage point it never seemed quite so objectionable as when he was down among the factories and the strip malls. All very different from his old house in Santa Hydra.

Kyle, Mark’s brother, leased the bungalow from the Augusta Engineering Corp; he could afford to with his high-paying job at the StVincent Loan & Trust. Everybody in Mark’s immediate family had offered to put them up when they got back from Elan. He’d accepted Kyle’s offer because he couldn’t stand the thought of having to move in with Marty, his father. Besides, he’d always got on well with Kyle, who at least was sincere in wanting to help, and the kids really liked their uncle.

He braked the Lapanto on the drive outside the front door, and went inside. All the reception rooms had glass doors, allowing him to look along the hall to locate his small family. Nobody was in sight, but he heard happy shouting coming from the patio outside the main lounge. Both Sandy and Barry were in the pool, with a suspiciously wet Panda lying on the sun-soaked slabs beside the pool. The dog looked up at him, but didn’t move.

“Daddy!” both kids yelled.

Mark waved at them. “Has Panda been in the pool?”

“No,” they chorused.

He gave them a fearsome disapproving look, and they both started giggling. Liz was lying on a sunlounger on the terrace below the pool. Antonio, Kyle’s boyfriend, was beside her. The terrace faced west, allowing them both to catch the last of the afternoon sunlight.

“Hi, baby,” Liz called. A maidbot was standing between her and Antonio, a wine bottle held in one of its arms. When he got closer, he realized both of them were naked. His throat tightened automatically. He didn’t say anything, because that would just show how small-minded and conservative he was.

Liz hadn’t got a job yet; the agreement was she would stay home to look after the kids. They weren’t in school, and Mark really didn’t want them to go to an Augusta school; he had too many bad memories of his own time at Faraday High. In fact, returning to Augusta was only ever supposed to be temporary; they arrived here purely because it was the first stop after Ozzie Isaac’s asteroid. He wanted them to move on soon, hopefully to somewhere like Gralmond, which was about as far away from Dyson Alpha as it was possible to get. But that took money, and the invasion had wiped them out financially, taking away their entire equity, and he knew damn well that even after the navy beat the Primes back into their own space Elan was ruined beyond reclamation. The mortgage he’d taken to buy their little vineyard and the Ables Motor franchise had left him massively in debt. If the insurance didn’t take care of it, he’d need a couple of lifetimes to pay it off. And the insurance company was based in Runwich, Elan’s capital. Nobody knew if the Commonwealth government would pay compensation to everyone from the Lost23, and even if they did it would take years if not decades for such a bill to work its way through the Senate. Right now tax money was being poured into building up the navy.

He knelt down and gave Liz a perfunctory kiss. “Hi.”

“Wow, you look like you need a drink.” She pointed to the maidbot. “We’ve got some extra glasses.”

“Not that, thanks. I’ll maybe get a beer.”

“No problem,” Antonio said. “Sit yourself down, Mark, the bot’ll get it for you.”

Mark gave him a tight smile, and sank onto an empty sunlounger. “How long have the kids been in the pool?”

“Not sure,” Liz said; she drained her wineglass and held it out for a maidbot to refill. “Half an hour.”

“They should be getting out soon. They need to have their tea.” He didn’t actually ask: What have you got them? But it was in there, implicit with the tone.

“The house array is watching them,” Liz said with a little too much emphasis. “This isn’t Randtown. The systems here are top of the line.”

“Always useful to know,” Mark replied coldly.

Liz turned around so she was looking out across the landscape below the hill, and sipped her wine.

“Hey, come on now, you two,” Antonio said. “We’re all on the same side. Mark, the kids know they have to get out at quarter past six, they always do. The kitchen is making tea for them.”

The timer in Mark’s virtual vision read: 18:12. “Fine, sure,” he grunted. “Sorry, it hasn’t been a good day.” Not that he was going to sit here and bang on about his day in the factory—that was too stereotype even for him; in any case he suspected they wouldn’t really be listening. He’d applied for and got the general technician job at Prism Dynamics the day after they left the asteroid. The salary wasn’t anything special, not for maintaining assembly bays that built fuselage sections for the aerospace industry; but he did actually enjoy the work. It was the combination of practical troubleshooting and writing program fixes that he was most at home with. He took it because there was no way he was accepting charity from anyone, not even family. That was a gene he’d inherited direct from Marty.

A maidbot trundled up to Mark and handed him a bottle of beer. He flipped the cap and took a decent drink. Liz was still ignoring him.

“Giselle Swinsol called,” Antonio said. “She said she’d be here at seven to interview you.”

Mark waited a moment, but Liz didn’t say anything. “Is this for me?” he asked.

“Yes.” Antonio gave him a baffled look. “Didn’t you arrange an interview?”

“No. Why would she call you?”

“It was to the house array, not me personally. She said she wanted to be sure you were in this evening.”

“I’ve never heard of her.”

“Probably an agency headhunter,” Liz said.

“I’m not registered with any agencies.”

“Could be the insurance company,” Antonio suggested. “They’re paying out for the invasion.”

Mark drank some more beer. “Not with my luck,” he muttered.

Liz shot him a look as she got to her feet. “I’m going to get the children ready,” she said and pulled on a robe.

Antonio waited until she’d gone up to the pool and started calling the children. “You two okay?”

“I guess so,” Mark said limply. “We’re just finding our feet, that’s all. Honestly, Antonio, we had the most perfect life on Elan. Now there’s nothing left to go back to.”

“It’s tough, man. But you can beat it. I see that in Kyle. You Vernon guys don’t give in. You’re a scary family.”

Mark raised his bottle, and even managed a feeble grin. “Cheers. But you’re wrong. First hint of a job on a planet far from here, I’m taking Liz and the kids.”

“You sure about that?”

“Sure I’m sure.”

“Well, I think that would be a big mistake.”

“How come?”

“Look, the Big15 are where they’re going to build all the ships and weapons hardware. Right? Yeah sure, other planets will get subcontracts, and High Angel does some assembly work, that’s politics. But here: this is the heart of the fight back, man. That means they won’t let Augusta fall. Earth will be overrun before we are. We’re gonna have the best protection it’s possible to have. Think about it. Wessex was the only planet to see off the Primes last time. Sheldon and Hutchinson made damn sure the invasion failed there. You want my advice, stay here. I don’t care what all the news show analysts are saying, this is the safest place in the Commonwealth.”

Mark wanted to laugh the idea off, but he couldn’t fault Antonio’s logic.

A long black Chevrolet limousine drew up outside the gates at two minutes before seven. Liz had just managed to coax the kids upstairs after tea, and Antonio was getting sober and dressed for his hospital shift. Kyle still wasn’t back; he usually worked in the StVincent Loan & Trust office until after seven. Mark didn’t understand how he kept the relationship with Antonio going; they only ever saw each other for a couple of hours a day. Perhaps that was why it had lasted so long. He and Liz barely saw each other for longer, but that didn’t seem to be helping much.

Giselle Swinsol wasn’t quite what Mark had been expecting. The limo should have clued him in: no agency manager would have a car like that. She was a tall brunette with the ambition of a second-lifer gunning for an executive slot, and the arrogance of a direct lineage Dynasty member. Her smart gray and oxford-blue suit cost more than Mark’s monthly salary, complemented by makeup superior to that of most unisphere news anchors. High heels clicked loudly on the hall floor.

She hadn’t waited to be invited in; she simply marched past Mark when he opened the door, and headed for the living room.

“Excuse me, but I didn’t know we were due to have a meeting,” he said. He wanted it to be sarcastic, but it came out woefully lame, not helped by the way he was scampering along behind, trying to catch up.

Her answering smile reminded him of a shark preparing to feed. A shark with cherry-glossed lips. “I don’t normally inform people in advance that they’ve been selected.”


She sat down in one of the couches, leaving him standing in the middle of the lounge. “Do you like your job, Mr. Vernon?”

“Look! Who the hell are you?”

“I work for the Sheldon Dynasty. What does it bring in? A couple of grand a month?”

Thoroughly irritated, he snapped, “More than that, actually.”

“No it doesn’t, Mark, I’ve seen your contract.”

“That’s confidential.”

She laughed. “At your current level of earning, and extrapolating a mild level of promotion, it’ll take you about eighty years to pay off the loan for your house and franchise garage on Elan. That doesn’t take in factors like paying for the kids’ college fees, and your own R and R pension.”

“We’ll get compensation, eventually.”

“Granted, if the Commonwealth still exists in ten years’ time, they might pass a bill letting you off the interest payments. Anything else: stop fooling yourself.”

“Prism Dynamics is just temporary. I’ll get a better job than that.”

“That’s exactly what I want to hear, Mark. I’ve come to tell you I’ve got that better job all lined up for you.”

“And what would that be?” Liz asked. She was standing in the lounge doorway, wearing a T-shirt and cutoff jeans. But there was a fixed look on her face that Mark was familiar with. When Liz made up her mind not to like someone, they were frozen out of this life and the next.

“It’s confidential, I’m afraid,” Giselle Swinsol said. “Once you sign up, then you will be told.”

“Ridiculous,” Liz said. She sat down on a long leather couch opposite the woman, and tugged gently at Mark’s arm. He sank down beside her. The three beers he’d drunk in quick succession out on the terrace were starting to buzz in his head. His e-butler told him a file had arrived, sender Giselle Swinsol. When he opened it, an employment contract slipped down his virtual vision. The salary made him blink in surprise.

“It is far from being ridiculous,” Giselle Swinsol said. “We take our security very seriously indeed. You have already proved your discretion.”

“Ozzie’s asteroid?” Mark asked. “No big deal.”

“Even in today’s climate, the news shows would be very interested indeed in Mr. Isaac’s home.”

“I don’t get this,” Mark said. “I’m not some superphysicist. I repair machinery. What’s so important about that? Millions of us do it.”

“You’re actually very, very good at maintaining electromechanical systems, Mark. We checked. Thoroughly. The project you’ll be working on requires a great deal of robotic assembly. Although there are other factors which brought your name to our attention.”

“Such as?” Liz asked.

“Apart from respecting confidentiality, you have acute financial problems which we can remedy. If you agree to take this job, we will pay off every debt you accrued on Elan. Mrs. Vernon, you have the kind of biotechnology skills which we can utilize. It’s not as if we’ll expect you to act the dutiful housewife for the duration of the project. I’m sure that will make a pleasant change for you.”

Liz sat perfectly still. “Thank you.”

The contract was still flowing down Mark’s virtual vision. “If I say yes, where will we be based?”


“The Sheldon world? I didn’t think anyone else was allowed there,” Liz said.

“We are making exceptions for this project. However, we don’t have to in your case. Mark’s a Sheldon, that qualifies his whole family for residency.”

Mark tried not to flinch when Liz turned to stare at him. He’d never considered his heritage worth talking about; if anything it was mildly embarrassing. “Hardly direct lineage,” he muttered defensively.

“Your mother is only seven generations removed from Nigel. That’s good enough.”

“Wait,” Liz said. “This isn’t a navy project?”

Giselle Swinsol gave her a blank smile. “Mark?”

“What? You want an answer now?” he asked.


“But you’ve told me nothing.”

“You will be working in a job that will provide an excellent lifestyle for your family, far greater than the one you enjoyed on Elan. You will be rid of all your debts. And we absolutely guarantee your safety. The only downside will be restricted communications with your friends and immediate family. This project must remain secret.”

“I don’t like offers which are too good to be true,” Liz said. “They usually are.”

“Not so. This is on the level.”

“Is it dangerous?” Mark asked.

“No,” Giselle Swinsol said. “You will be working with sophisticated assembly systems. It is challenging, not dangerous. Look, this is not some game, Mark, I’m not in the business of going around defrauding people. In any case, I can’t scam you; you don’t have any money. This is a genuine offer. Take it or leave it.”

“How long is it for?” Mark asked.

“Difficult to say. Hopefully not more than a year, two at the outside.”

He glanced at Liz. “What do you think?”

“We’re broke. I can probably live with it. Can you?”

What he didn’t want to ask his wife was how much she’d been drinking that afternoon; alcohol tended to bring out a bullish streak in her, so she might well want to change her mind in the morning. Looking at Giselle Swinsol, he didn’t think there was any kind of second thoughts get-out clause being put on the table for them. The file was open at the part on health care and schooling. The contract he had with Prism Dynamics didn’t even have that section. “Okay, we’ll take it.”

“Excellent.” Giselle Swinsol got to her feet. “The car will pick you and the children up at seven-thirty tomorrow morning. Please be ready.”

“I’ll have to tell Prism Dynamics,” Mark said. The speed this was happening was leaving him disconcerted, almost as if he wanted an excuse to say no.

“That’ll be taken care of,” Giselle Swinsol said. “You can tell your immediate family you’ve got another job on a new planet. Please don’t tell them where you’re going.”


“Your certificate, Mark, please.”

“Oh. Yes.” He told his e-butler to add his certificate to the contract, and sent it back to her.

“Thank you.” She started for the hall.

“Will I see you tomorrow?” Mark asked.

“No, Mark, you won’t.”

The front door closed smoothly behind her. Mark ran his hand back through his hair. “Goddamn, what a ballbreaker.”

“Yeah, but one that’s saved our asses. I wonder what the project is?”

“Some big military production line. I guess that’s where the automated assembly comes in. They’re going to bypass High Angel; that was only ever about politics.”

“Could be.”

“You don’t believe that?”

“It really doesn’t matter. We’ll find out for sure tomorrow.”

“You sorry I said yes? We could always not turn up.”

“I wouldn’t like to try that, not with Ms. Giselle Swinsol on our asses.”

“Guess not.”

“But you did the right thing. I just didn’t like the way she tried to bump us into saying yes. Then again, I suppose if you are building military systems right now, you can’t afford to waste any time.”

“Yeah. You know, I think I feel good about this already. I’m doing something to hit back at the bastards.”

“I’m glad, baby.” Liz put her arm around his neck, and pulled him close for a kiss. “How come you never told me you’re a Sheldon?”

“I’m not, really. Not part of the Dynasty, anyway.”

“Humm.” She kissed him again. “So what do we do till half past seven tomorrow?”


Oscar and Mac arrived outside Wilson’s office at the same time. Anna rose from behind her desk to kiss them both.

“He’s ready for you,” she told them.

“So how’s married life?” Mac asked.

“Oh, you know, we’re just like any other couple trying to pay off the mortgage.”

“Screw that,” Oscar said. “What was the honeymoon like? Spill it.”

Anna glanced back over her shoulder and gave him a saucy wink. “Euphoric, of course. An entire ten hours out of the office. What more could any girl want?”

Wilson greeted both of them warmly. “Thanks for coming. I try to see each captain before they leave. I don’t suppose it’s a tradition that’ll last much longer. We’re really starting to get a rush of components through for the next batch of starships. The emergency budget is showing some results, thank God.”

“Some good news,” Oscar said as he lowered himself cautiously into one of the scooplike chairs. He hated anything with so much spongy padding. “I haven’t seen that on the unisphere shows. They’re still busy navy-bashing.”

“You won’t,” Wilson said. “We’re holding back on specifics. We don’t know how much information the Primes glean from the unisphere.”

“Are you serious?”

“They must be trying to keep themselves updated about our capabilities,” Anna said. “We have to assume they datamined the Lost23. They know what we had at the time of the attack.”

“We’re watching them,” Wilson said. “QED.”

“Have we had any indication they’re running a surveillance operation?” Mac asked.

“Not as such. But then they haven’t spotted ours, yet.”

“I haven’t spotted ours yet,” Oscar protested.

“Rafael’s running it.” Anna gave him a teasing smile. “We’ve released hundreds of thousands of microsatellites in each system. It’s similar to the technique they used against us, open a wormhole and keep moving the end point. They can detect it, but they can’t investigate each opening.”

“So a lot of the satellites survive,” Wilson said. “They report back to us on a constant basis through the wormhole.”

“Information we are also keeping from the unisphere,” Anna said. “What the satellite swarms are showing us isn’t good.”

“They’re digging in on each of the Lost23,” Wilson said. “Wormholes have now been anchored on the planetary surfaces. The amount of equipment and aliens coming through is quite phenomenal, even by what we understand as Prime standards. Dimitri Leopoldovich was quite right, damn him; we’re not going to reclaim those planets.”

“So do we cancel the planetary section of the counterattack?” Mac asked.

“No. We’re sure the Lost23 are the strategic bases for the next Prime attack. The buildup is so massive it can’t be for anything else. Once they’re established, they can strike anywhere inside the Commonwealth, not just the nearby stars. If anything, that makes infiltrating and sabotaging them even more important. We need to buy time.” He looked directly at Oscar. “We have got to find the star where the Hell’s Gateway leads. It’s the one truly weak point they have.”

“Do my best,” Oscar said. He didn’t like the way Wilson was almost pleading with him. “The Defender will get to each of those stars on our flight’s search list, you can count on that.” It sounded defensive, even to him.

“I know I can,” Wilson said. “Mac, you’ve drawn the easy straw this time.”

“Well, there’s a surprise,” Oscar taunted his friend. “What have you got for him, Boss? Guarding a convent school on Molise?”

Mac politely showed him a finger. “Up yours.”

“You’re going to be testing the relativistic missiles, a long way from Commonwealth space. Now that the Primes have seen what we can do with the hyperdrive they’ll be coming up with defensive strategies. But if these missiles live up to their promise, even they will be hard-pressed to ward them off.”

“We’ll iron any bugs out,” Mac told him.

“Good. I’ve also decided this will be the last flight for StAsaph,” Wilson said.


“She’s obsolete, Mac, I’m sorry. By the time you get back we’ll be starting assembly of the new warships with the marque six hyperdrive. I want you in the captain’s seat on the first.”

“That’s a deal I can live with,” Mac said.

Oscar nearly complained. Doesn’t this navy believe in seniority? But that would have come out churlish, even from him.

“And when you get back,” Wilson said, “you’re heading up the assault cruiser project.”

“Who, me?” Oscar said.

“Yeah, you. It’s going to be our eventual war winner, Oscar. I’m not kidding. They’re putting so many new technologies into the damn thing that even I don’t know half of them. Sheldon’s got every Dynasty collaborating on this. That’s leading to a lot of friction on the overall management team. If anyone’s got the experience to pull that team together and make it work, it’s you.”

“Hell.” Oscar actually felt a burst of gratitude that made his throat close up. He would never ask for so much responsibility. Yet Wilson trusted him with it, and Sheldon must have approved of the appointment, too. “Thanks, Boss. I won’t let you down.” Stupid sentimentalist. Then he thought about Adam, and the recordings he was planning to take on the reconnaissance flight. His cheeks began to flush from the guilt.

“You okay?” Anna asked.


“For a moment there, you looked embarrassed.”

“Him?” Mac exclaimed. “I don’t think so. Forgotten a date, yes.”

“At least I can get dates,” Oscar shot back. It was too late; the moment was gone. If there was anybody in the world he could trust to explain about Adam and his own past, it was these three friends. He smiled broadly to cover his true emotions. Just who am I afraid of? Them, or me?


The simulation environment was almost perfect. Morton had been wetwired for TSI before, of course, but this was an order of magnitude above that simple consumer convenience. There were unisphere artistes who couldn’t afford this level of sensorium quality. The navy technicians had even equipped him for smell, notoriously the most difficult human sense for a program to duplicate correctly. Even now it wasn’t perfect: the smell of the smoke was more like citrus than burning wood.

He was walking through the ruins of a town, wearing an armored suit with electromuscle augmentation. It was the only way he could carry the weight of all the armaments the navy expected him to take with him. Boosted senses swept the piles of concrete and shattered composite panels. His virtual vision flipped orange brackets up over possible targets, which he found immensely irritating. The assessment software needed to be completely rewritten. One item in a depressingly long shakedown list.

Electrical power cables showed up as neon-sharp blue lines threading their way beneath the road. Electronic systems radiated a green-blue aurora, whose intensity varied in tandem with the array processing size. Something else he didn’t like; he’d already asked the technical support staff to change that to a simple digital readout. Then there was the atmosphere analysis graphic. Electromagnetic signal display. Radar. Remote sensor windows, relaying images of the surrounding area from the little sneekbots scampering on ahead. Communications network with his squad members, coupled with all their sensor results.

His virtual vision was so cluttered with multicolored symbols and pictures it resembled some cathedral’s stained-glass window. It was a wonder he could see through it at all.

The mission was supposed to be a quiet infiltration of an alien base, which was being built at the heart of the old human town. Make the assessment, locate the weak points, and select the appropriate weapons to inflict maximum damage. The rest of the squad was spread out along a loose front nearly a kilometer long, each one using a different approach route, which Morton considered a tactical mistake; it produced a much greater risk that one of them would be spotted.

The squad’s official designation was ERT03 after the planet and location they were assigned, though they called themselves Cat’s Claws after their most notorious member. All of them were convicted felons who had agreed to serve in exchange for their sentence being commuted. In theory none of them had a record anymore, but talk in the barracks at night generally brought out a hint or two, or more. Doc Roberts, for example, was quite proud of his syndicate involvement, wiping inconvenient memories from anyone who had something to hide. Unfortunately he’d tried to make a little extra money on the side by selling some of the memories on the snuff market, which is how the Serious Crimes Directorate had eventually caught up with him. The court agreed he was an accessory after the fact. Morton sometimes speculated that Doc had been the one who wiped his own awkward little incident.

Right now, according to the squad deployment schematic, the Doc was maneuvering his way through a collapsed supermarket four hundred meters west. Next to him was Rob Tannie, who would only say he had been involved in the attempt to blow up the Second Chance. Nothing concerning his earlier life or lives was on offer. He called himself a security operative. Morton believed him. He had an easy grasp of tactics in most situations the training team put them in, and clearly knew how to handle himself in a fight.

Parker was the second biggest worry Morton had. He had been some kind of enforcer, though he wouldn’t say for whom. He loved the weapons they were being wetwired with, and went on in loving detail about the best way to use them to kill silently and effectively. Basically, he was a thug who lacked finesse in every department. Working as part of a team was difficult for him, which he didn’t make a lot of effort to remedy.

And then there was “the Cat” Stewart. She never talked about what she’d done, which made everyone else quietly thankful. They all knew, and they really didn’t want the details. As yet, Morton simply didn’t know what to make of her. When she wanted to, she could be a perfect squad member, contributing a hundred percent to completing the mission objectives successfully. She didn’t do that all the time, though.

Morton’s laser radar tracked some movement fifty meters ahead and to the left, rubble spilling down the conical mound that had been a block of apartments. No bigger than gravel, the slide spilled out across the ground, sending up a small cloud of dust.

He swept his main sensors over it, trying to find out the cause. Two of the sneekbots approached the area cautiously, their crablike bodies picking their way carefully over the rubble, antenna buds fully extended. They couldn’t detect any alien presence.

Morton considered it to be a perfect distraction. He switched his passive sensors to watch the road behind. There was a brief flare of electromagnetic signal traffic inside a burned-out building he’d passed five minutes earlier. It matched the signature that the Primes employed.

“Rob, I’ve got hostiles behind me,” he said, and opened up the sensor data.

“Okay, I’ve locked their position,” Rob Tannie said. “How do you want to handle it?” He was a hundred eighty meters to the west of Morton, moving down a parallel street. Like most of the others he tended to ask for Morton’s opinion. It was down to Morton’s management experience, the ability to come up with a quick confident-sounding decision that was edging him ahead in the leadership race. Not that there were many contenders.

“I’m going to keep blundering on like I don’t know what’s happening. You circle around behind and ambush the bastards.”


Morton scanned a side road for any activity, and hurried down it, taking him away from the suspect mini-avalanche. He made a couple more sharp turns to add to the confusion. It ought to make his pursuers break cover to follow him. When they did, they’d be exposed to Rob.

The alien base was just visible ahead of him now. In the gloomy twilight, the big metal structure gleamed brightly inside the beams of bright blue-white spotlights. Aliens were moving over it, walking along narrow ridges without any kind of handrail or safety fencing. They were all in their protective armor suits. The navy still didn’t have any pictures of what one actually looked like.

Morton checked his display. The force field protecting the base began about a hundred fifty meters ahead of him. All the buildings in the intervening space had been completely flattened, leaving a broad expanse of smoldering blackened fragments, like an oil-slicked beach. Morton studied the gap critically for a few moments. There was no way to get across unseen. He told his e-butler to bring up a town map and highlight the utility tunnels. Sure enough, there were several he could use.

“I see them,” Rob said. “Two of them carrying weapons, heading for the base. They’re looking for you.”

“Can you take them?”

“No problem. Question is, how?”

“Minimum fuss. We don’t want to alert the rest that we’re here.”

“Okay. An electronic warfare drone to smother them, and follow up with a couple of focused energy missiles.”

“That’s too noticeable,” Morton said. “A kinetic shot should get through their suits.” He was busy examining the map. The larger utility tunnels must be wired for intruders. Of the smaller ones, a rain sewer was possibly wide enough for him to crawl down. He didn’t like confined spaces, but the suit and weapons he was carrying gave him the option of blasting his way out of any trouble pretty quickly.

“I’m not close enough to detect if they’ve got force fields,” Rob said.

“How fast are they moving? I need to get to a manhole cover before they see me.”

“They’ll be on you in two minutes. I can get some sneekbots close enough to check for force fields.”

“My guess is they’ll have them off. They’re creeping around just like we are. They don’t want to attract attention, and force fields are goddamn easy to detect.”

“So you reckon I should just use kinetics on them?”

“Oh, for God’s sake, boys,” a chirpy female voice said. “Let’s have some fun here. They gave us all these beautiful weapons to try, didn’t they? Let’s see now, what haven’t we used yet? Oh, I know.”

Morton checked his virtual vision to see where she was. “Cat, don’t…” Behind him, the town and sky turned incandescent white. The ground started to shake wildly, and the blast wave roared—

The environment dissolved into colorhash static. Strange tingles rippled up and down his skin. Then there was only his standby mode virtual vision, a row of blue line symbols glowing against a dark background. He heard his own breathing, amplified by his helmet. His arms and legs were stretched out spread-eagle style, held comfortably by plastic bands.

“Goddamnit,” Morton groaned.

The plyplastic around his arms expanded. He reached out and took the helmet off. Lights were coming on overhead, revealing the small nulsense chamber. The simulation team was staring in at him through a curving window, all looking pretty pissed off. Morton gave them a what-can-you-do shrug. He was standing at the center of a shiny gyrowheel, a meter off the ground, his feet held safely by plyplastic boots. They released his feet and he jumped down.

There were four other gyrowheels in the chamber, each with a squad member exiting the simulation. He walked over to face the Cat. A pretty heart-shaped face grinned down at him, white teeth emphasized by brown skin. Her appearance was late twenties. Seeing her for the first time, you’d assume she was a first-lifer; her outwardly frivolous attitude made it impossible to imagine her at any other age. While the rest of the squad were in standard dark purple sports shirts and black trousers, she’d found herself a Sonic Energy Authority T-shirt and punk jeans. He wasn’t sure how she managed that; squads were never issued with anything else than navy clothes. Presumably she just went up to the civilian training staff and told them to give her what they were wearing. Her raven hair had been cut short, like all of them, except she’d added purple feather streaks tipped with silver.

“That was more like it,” she said brightly, and hopped down. On the ground she was ten centimeters shorter than Morton.

“What the hell was the point of that?” he asked.

“We haven’t used the baby nukes before. We’re here to try out every possible combat scenario. Right?” She gave the simulation team a breezy wave. Nobody behind the glass actually dared scowl back, but they all looked sullen. “They were a real blast!” She laughed.

Morton wanted to give her a slap—except he didn’t dare. The Cat had been put into suspension before he’d been born, and wasn’t due out until about a thousand years after his own sentence was finished. He remembered the day she’d arrived at their barracks. No individual had ever been given a four-strong escort before, and they’d all looked nervous. “You can’t use nukes against individual soldiers, for fuck’s sake,” he raged. “Are you deliberately trying to screw this up for the rest of us? Because I’m not going back to suspension just because you fancy having a big joke. I’ll kick your warped little ass out of this training camp and into orbit before that happens.”

The rest of the squad froze, watching intently. One of the simulation team moved back from the glass.

The Cat puckered her lips up to blow Morton a fulsome kiss. “The mission was already screwed, tough guy. If one alien knows we’re there, they all do. You should read your intelligence briefings on that communal communications of theirs. You weren’t going to get inside the force field. Taking out the nest of them on the outside was the sensible option. Remember: Inflict as much damage as possible. Do not allow yourself to be captured.”

“It was not the only option. We could have got out of that. Rob and I were working on it.”

“Poor boy. So desperate to hang on to your body. It’s not that it’s remarkable in any measure.” The Cat gave him a playful slap on his cheek. It stung.

“Screw you!” Morton growled.

She headed for the chamber door. As it opened she batted her eyelashes at him. “See you in the shower, tough guy. Oh, and for the record, it’s not at all warped, it’s actually a very pretty bottom.” She wiggled it as she left.

Morton let out a long breath and unclenched his fists. He hadn’t realized he’d clenched them to start with.

“Okay, thank you, people,” the simulation team chief said. “That’s it for today. We’ll resume at nine o’clock tomorrow morning.”

Morton stood where he was as the rest of the squad headed out. He was taking deep breaths, trying to calm down. Rob Tannie came over and put an arm around his shoulder. “That was impressive, man. You’re either insane, in love, or you’ve got a massive death wish. Do you actually know what she did to get suspension?”

“Yeah, but that’s not the point. It’s what we’ve got to do together in the future that’s important.”

Rob gave him a strange look. “You sound like them.” He jerked a thumb at the window.

“Oh, what the hell,” Morton said, suddenly very tired. “We’re all going to die the second we drop out of the wormhole anyway; we’ll never reach Elan itself.”

“That’s the spirit. But take it from me, as someone who’s already been through re-life: don’t mess with the cute demon. She’s seriously bad news.”

“Remind me to introduce you to my ex-wife someday,” Morton said as they walked out of the chamber.

Morton didn’t even know which planet their training camp, Kingsville, was on. He suspected a Big15 world: Kerensk, judging by the violet-tinged sun. If so, they were a long way from the megacity.

Kingsville was vast, sprawling over a region of low desert foothills. Northward from the camp, the gentle mounds gradually built up into a tall mountain range that stretched across the horizon, their distant peaks covered in snow. The desert spread out in every other direction, a rumpled plain of powdered yellow clay littered with crumbling boulders. Small, hardy native cacti bushes clustered together at the bottom of every slight depression, thick gray stems with a fur of spindly leaves no thicker than paper, and just as dry.

Rumor among the convicts in the camp was that if you could get to the other side of the desert, they’d let you go, that the navy wanted to see how good their wetwired systems were at sustaining humans in hostile conditions. Certainly there wasn’t a fence or guardbots. The only way in or out was by aircraft.

Huge cargo planes had brought in the whole camp from whatever metropolis this world boasted, and were still delivering more prefabricated building kits every day, along with supplies and weapons systems. Kingsville had been divided into twenty-three sections, with a big geodesic dome at the center of each one. Inside the domes were the main training facilities, the technical labs where the troops were wetwired with the best the Commonwealth had, and the canteen. Row after row of barracks cabins radiated out from each dome, sitting on the dusty soil like black bricks. Around them were the firing ranges and suit testing courses.

As Morton made his way back to the squad’s barracks in the baking late-afternoon sun, the noise of the camp swirled around him, completely familiar now after two weeks’ residence. He’d been immersed in the training and wetwiring so intensely it was as if his earlier lives were just TSI dramas he could barely remember accessing. Dull repetitive thuds of kinetic rifles echoed in from the range where the division that was due to land on Sligo was practicing. The whine of compressor jets was constant as the planes came and went from the adjoining airstrip five kilometers away; after the first night it never bothered him. Jeeps and trucks growled as they raced around the compacted dirt roads that linked Kingsville’s sections and the airport. Shouts and chants from squads out pounding their way around various grueling courses as they got their bodies into shape for the navy’s great counteroffensive. Sixty percent of them were convicts working off their suspension sentence, while the rest were various freelance security types and idiotically enthusiastic human patriots keen to show the enemy what a bad mistake they’d made in attacking the Commonwealth. Even now, Morton still hadn’t worked out if they were all on the biggest suicide mission ever dreamed up, or if they were going to be of some use. But he did like to think their squad was tough and smart enough to produce some effective results. Even loopy old Cat played her part most of the time. And it was anyone’s guess, along with considerable barracks-room speculation, what mayhem she’d commit on aliens, given what she used to do to perfectly innocent humans.

The oblong box that Cat’s Claws had been assigned was fifteen meters long and four wide, partitioned into three simple areas. The bunk and main living space for all five of them was at one end, washroom in the middle, and finally a small rec room with a couple of deep sofas and a Kingsville network node where you could access the camp’s library of TSI dramas, which were mostly soft porn. Kingsville’s link to the planetary cybersphere was monitored by an RI, which regulated all calls in and out. You could talk to anyone you wanted, including the media, but topics were restricted. Any mention of the types of weapons, training, or possible dates for the counteroffensive would be blocked instantly. Like the rest of Cat’s Claws, Morton hadn’t received any calls. He guessed that meant he didn’t have anyone to call, either.

The door shut behind him, cutting off the heat and dust to provide him with a decent air-conditioned climate. The abrasive purple-white sunlight was filtered by the windows, giving the interior an Earth-normal spectrum. He went over to his bunk and started to undress, letting a servicebot catch his clothes. Rob and Doc Roberts were doing the same. The Cat was already in a shower cubicle, singing away merrily out of tune. Somehow, the simulations made them as sweaty and dirty as if they’d been out crawling around in the real desert.

He stayed in the shower a long time, luxuriating in the hot water and using up a lot of gel. His e-butler played him a file of old acoustic rock tracks, allowing him to forget about the training. Parts of his skin were still sore and sensitive from all the inserts he’d been given; and some of his new OCtattoos were so intrusive that he’d developed a mild rash. The water beating against them helped numb away the aches. Even his thoughts were calming as he hummed along to the guitar melody. The artificial weapons instruction memories that seeped into his brain each night made his sleep fitful and shallow, mixing with unwelcome dreams. It was one of the reasons he was so irritable during the day. What he wanted was a whole twenty-four hours off to relax and rest. He didn’t think they’d ever get that; the pace of the camp was too fast.

Like all the troops, he wondered when they’d be deployed. They were all due another two sessions of wetwiring in the clinics that filled the lower floor of the dome. And sessions were always conducted three days apart. It didn’t take a genius to work out that once they’d familiarized themselves with the systems out in the desert training fields they’d be heading out to the Lost23. Another two weeks at most, he reckoned.

It was quieter than usual when he got out of the shower. Usually there’d be some kind of argument or banter going on in the living quarters. Today there was only a low murmur as he toweled himself down.

“Hey, Morton,” Doc Roberts called. “Get your ass out here, you’ve got a visitor.” That brought a round of raucous laughter.

A maidbot handed him a polythene packet containing a fresh set of clothes. He took his time dressing, suspecting a joke.

It wasn’t. A beautiful young woman was sitting on his bunk, with Rob, Parker, and Doc Roberts clustered around like wolves eyeing up raw meat. Even the Cat was sitting on her bunk in a complicated yoga position, smiling sardonically as she joined in with the chitchat.

His visitor was wearing a long emerald-green skirt of light swirling cotton. Above that was a white blouse that was nearly translucent. Little curls of honey-blond hair had escaped from a jaunty black felt cap. She stood up as he came in, and everyone else fell silent.

Morton nearly said: Who are you? Then he saw her face, and astonishment locked his body solid. He blinked in disbelief as she gave him a roguish grin.


“Hi, Morty.”

The others jeered, contemptuous and envious at the same time.

“Oh, my God. You…”

“Grew up?”

He just nodded. She really was gorgeous.

“Well, kiss her, you fucking moron,” Doc Roberts shouted.

“Nah, shag her brains out,” Parker shouted. “In front of us!”

Rob punched him on the shoulder.

Mellanie gave Morton a sunshine bright smile as she walked over to him. He didn’t dare move. Her hands went around his head, and she gave him a long hungry kiss.

There was a chorus of cheering and whistles as the embrace went on and on.

“Did you miss me?” she teased.

“Er.” Morton could feel a huge erection tenting his trousers. “Oh, hell, yes.”

She laughed delightedly, and kissed him again, gentler this time. “I’m here to offer you a media contract from the Michelangelo show. We’d like to offer you a front-line correspondent job for us. Is there somewhere private we can go to…discuss terms?”

Morton straightened up, looked at the row of his squad mates with their lecherous expressions. “Certainly. This way.” He put his arm around her waist and steered her toward the washrooms. Another round of jeering and whoops broke out behind them.

As soon as they were in the rec room he shoved the door shut and started to slide one of the sofas across it. He never quite finished. Mellanie jumped on him, her mouth trying to devour him. He pulled the front of her blouse open, hearing fabric rip. Buttons skittered across the floor. She was wearing a delicate white lace bra underneath that he tugged to one side, exposing her breasts. They were as perfect as he remembered them, beautifully shaped and firm, with dark nipples aroused. His mouth closed around one, sucking and licking. Mellanie’s hands found the catch at the top of his trousers and released it. Her fingers cupped his balls, then squeezed sharply.

Locked together they collapsed onto the sofa, with Morton on top. He fumbled desperately at his shirt, trying to get it off over his head. Mellanie wriggled her skirt down her legs. Then he was inside her, fucking her brains out with deep savage thrusts. Both of them cried out, competing to be the loudest, the most joyful, clutching frantically at each other as their bodies thrashed about in ecstasy.

An uncertain time later Morton recovered enough to focus on the ceiling he was staring up at. He was slumped against the base of the sofa, panting heavily and sweating profusely in contrast to the euphoria he felt. Mellanie giggled contentedly beside him, and propped herself up on an elbow. She’d lost the black cap at some point, allowing her hair to tumble out wildly. Her bra was still attached, twisted around her abdomen.

He smiled at her and gave her a soft kiss before finally finding the bra’s clasp and removing it. That was when he noticed his own shirt was wrapped around his arm. Laughing, she unwound it for him.

“You really do look magnificent,” he said admiringly. His hand stroked along her arm, crossing over to her belly before dipping inquisitively to massage her thigh. “This age suits you.”

“You haven’t changed.”

“Is that good?”

Mellanie gasped in surprise at what his hand did. She’d forgotten how very well he knew her body. “I like some things to stay the same,” she hissed in delight.

“Did you miss me?”


“How much?”

She bowed her head, letting the damp tassels of hair brush his chest. “This much.” Her lips and fingers began their delicate caresses. “This much.” She moved slowly down his belly to where his cock was beginning to stiffen again. “This much,” she growled impatiently.

Morton was convinced he’d never be able to move again, every limb ached in the most disgraceful fashion. They lay side by side on the floor, arms around each other as the light faded from the desert sky outside. For the first time since the trial he began to have regrets about what he’d lost.

“Have you managed all right, since…?” he asked quietly.

“I do okay.”

“I’m sorry; it can’t have been easy for you. I should have made some kind of provision, put some money aside, some cash. I just never considered…”

“I said I’m all right, Morty.”

“Yeah. Jeeze, you look fucking amazing. I mean it.”

She smiled, running her hand back through her hair, combing it away from her face. “Thanks. I really missed you.”

Even now, all he could think of was screwing her again. “So have you…got anyone?”

“No,” she said, a little too quickly. “Nobody special. Not like you. Things have been kinda strange for me. Especially since the Prime attack.”

“I’ll bet. What’s with this job you’ve got? You mentioned Michelangelo.”

“Oh, yeah. I work for his show now. I’m one of their reporters.”

“Congratulations. That must have been a tough gig to grab.”

“I have a good agent.”

“What the hell. It got you in to see me. That’s all I care.”

She rested a hand on his chest, stroking affectionately. “It wasn’t an excuse, Morty. I could have come to see you anytime. You’re allowed visitors.”

“Right.” He didn’t understand.

“The offer is genuine. It took me a little time to put it together, and the show’s lawyers had to convince the navy to agree. But it’s all sorted.”

“You want me to report back from Elan?”

“Yes, basically. You’re entitled to a short personal communications burst at each contact time. That’s part of your service agreement.”

“I never read the small print,” he muttered.

“The lawyers made the navy agree that you could use the burst to send us a report. Michelangelo will pay. It’s a good fee. That’ll mean you’ll have money when this is all over. You can use it to start again.”

“Fine. Whatever. Do I get to see you again? That’s all I’m interested in.”

“It’ll be difficult. I won’t get many chances. And it can’t be long before the navy begins the fight back.”

“Will you come back to see me here?” he asked insistently.

“Yes, Morty, I’ll come back.”

“Good.” He started to kiss her again.

“There’s something I want to show you,” she murmured.

“Something you’ve learned?” His tongue licked eagerly along her neck.

“Something a bad girl would do?”

She took both his hands and held them firmly. He grinned in anticipation. His e-butler told him the OCtattoos on his palms and fingers were interfacing. “What—”

Morton was suddenly standing at the bottom of a white sphere. Faint lines of gray script flowed across the surface, too quick for him to focus on. They reminded him of his virtual vision’s basic standby mode graphics.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you,” Mellanie said.

Morton turned around to see her standing behind him. She was wearing simple white coveralls. He looked down at himself to see he was wearing an identical garment.

“What the hell happened?” he asked. “Where are we?”

“It’s a simulated environment. Basically, we’re inside your inserts.”

“How the fuck did you do that?”

“The SI gave me some fairly sophisticated OCtattoos while you were in suspension. I’m just starting to learn how to use a few of them for myself.”

“The SI?”

“We have an arrangement. I supply it with unusual information, and it acts as my agent. I’m not sure how much I can trust it, though.”

“You supply it with information?” Morton wished he could string together a sentence that wasn’t a question. He was coming across like a petulant ignoramus.

“Yes.” Mellanie sounded mildly annoyed at the implication.

“Oh, right.”

“We’re linked like this because it’s completely private. There’s no sensor the navy can use to overhear what I have to tell you.”

“What’s that?” he asked cautiously.

“You remember the Guardians of Selfhood?”

“Some kind of cult? They were always shotgunning the unisphere. Didn’t they attack the Second Chance? They believed an alien was running the government. Crap like that.”

“They were right.”

“Oh, come on.”

“It’s called the Starflyer. It might have triggered the war.”

“No, Mellanie.”

“Morty, I’ve been lied to. I’ve been shot at. Its agents tried to kidnap me. Even Paula Myo thinks it’s real.”

“The Investigator?” he asked in amazement.

“She’s not an investigator anymore. The Starflyer got her fired, but she has political connections. I don’t understand it all, but she’s working for another government department now, I think. She won’t tell me anything. She doesn’t trust me. Morty, this is frightening the hell out of me. I don’t know anyone else I can turn to but you. I know you’re safe; you’ve been in suspension while all this has happened. Please, Morty, at least consider the possibility. The Guardians must have started with some kind of reason. Mustn’t they? Every legend starts with a grain of truth.”

“I don’t know. I grant you they have been going an unusually long time, but that doesn’t mean they’re right. In any case, what has all this got to do with me? I’m off to war any day now. I can’t protect you, Mellanie. Even if I snuck off base, the navy has all the activation codes for my wetwired armament systems. They can switch them on and off anytime they want.”

“Really?” She sounded intrigued. “I wonder if I could hack them.”

“Mellanie, I’m sorry, I can’t risk going back into suspension. Not even for you.”

She shook her head. “That’s not what I’m asking.”

“What then?”

“I want you to send me information back from Elan.”

“What kind of information?”

“Anything you can get on the Primes which would normally be classified. We can’t trust the navy, Morty, it’s been compromised by the Starflyer. And yes, I know that sounds paranoid. I would have said the same thing myself a year ago.”

“You’re really serious about this, aren’t you?”

“Yes, Morty.”

He waited a long moment before asking: “Would you have come to see me if you weren’t caught up in all this?”

“I would be here no matter what happened to the Commonwealth. I promise. I don’t even care that you might have killed Tara.”

“I probably did, you know. Investigator Myo doesn’t make many mistakes.”

“It doesn’t matter. We were good together, even if I was just a naïve kid. I know we’ve both changed since then, but we have to see what we can be this time around. We both owe our old selves that, don’t we?”

“Damn, you are something else.”

“Will you send me what information you can?”

“I guess so. I don’t want to disappoint you again, Mellanie. So…I suppose you’ve got some foolproof method of smuggling the data back to you?”

“Of course.”

“Yeah, thought so,” he said in a resigned tone. This truly wasn’t that first-life teenage Mellanie with the hot ass that he’d sweet-talked into bed. Not anymore. She’d changed into somebody a lot more interesting. Still goddamn hot, though.

Mellanie pulled a hand-sized square out of her pocket and held it up. It was made up from densely packed alphanumerics that glowed a faint violet as they flowed against each other in perpetual motion, always staying inside their boundary. She peered at it curiously. “Wow, I’ve never seen a naked program before.”

The sheer girlishness made him smile in fond recollection. “What is it?”

“Encryptionware. I bought it off Paul Cramley.”

“I remember Paul. How is the old rogue?”

“Harassed. He promised this will bury your private message to me in the sensorium datastream you send to the show. I can pull it out, but no one else will be able to.” She pressed the square into his hand, and it unraveled, strings of symbols flowering outward to blend into the sphere walls. They chased the gray script around for a moment, before fading into the same semivisible gray as the rest of the symbols.

Morton’s e-butler reported a new program had loaded successfully in his main insert, but lacked an author certificate and nonhostility validation. “Let it run,” he told the e-butler.

“It’ll also decrypt the messages I send to you,” Mellanie said.

“I hope they’re all obscene pictures.”

“Morty!” Her disappointed face melted away into a Dali-esque swirl of color. He was back in the darkened rec room with her warm naked body cuddled up against him.

“Thank you,” she whispered. “I’m very grateful.”

“Care to show that? Out here in the physical world.”

“Again? Already?”

“I have been waiting for over two and a half years.”


The Pathfinder had spent just three days drifting along in freefall, and already Ozzie was facing a decision he really didn’t want to make. A big part of his problem was that they had no destination. Even if they did, getting there would be difficult. Air currents in the gas halo were completely unpredictable. Moderate breezes would carry them along steadily for over half a day before depositing them in pockets of doldrumlike calm for hours on end. They left the sail up most of the time so the raft presented a decent-sized surface area to catch the breezes no matter what their orientation was. Gusts blew up abruptly, fortunately short-lived, filling out the sail as if they were still on the water, and sweeping them along in a giddy tumble. Once they’d actually had to furl the sail in, their little raft was shaking so much. In itself, such a method of travel was an interesting concept. Ozzie was mentally designing a sailing airship that could voyage through the gas halo with considerable finesse; in his mind it looked like a cylindrical schooner that sprouted a cobweb of rigging filled by sails. He could have quite a life captaining that around this fabulous realm. Many lives, actually.

Those were the kind of dreamy ideas with almost infinite possibilities to extrapolate that made his mundane real-time slightly more bearable.

With Ozzie’s encouragement, Orion had slowly adapted to freefall, though he was never going to be at home in the milieu. However, the boy could now move about the raft with a degree of confidence, although Ozzie made sure he wore his safety rope at all times. He could even keep most of his food down. There wasn’t much Ozzie could do about the way he worried, though. Their pitifully minute ship adrift within the macrocosm that was the gas halo induced a sense of isolation that even gave Ozzie momentary panic attacks.

Tochee was another matter. The big alien was genuinely suffering in freefall. Something in its physiology was simply unable to cope with the sensation. It spent the whole time miserably clinging to the rear decking. It hardly ate anything because it just kept regurgitating any food that did get past its gullet. It drank very little. Ozzie had to keep pleading and insisting to make it do that.

He knew they had to return to a gravity field soon.

Making their big friend drink was only one of the problems they were now experiencing with their water, and it was the mild one. More acute was their dwindling supply. Ozzie had never considered they might run out of water. Fair enough, he hadn’t expected them to fall off the worldlet, which was the root cause of the problem. They’d set sail on a sea that his little hand-pumped filter could easily cope with, providing them with as much fresh water as they wanted when they wanted. In fact, water had been the one dependable constant on every planet they’d walked across.

All they had for storage was Ozzie’s trusty aluminum water bottle, a couple of thermos flasks, and Orion’s one remaining plastic pouch. They’d all been full when they went over the waterfall, but in total they only held five liters. Now they were down to half of the plastic pouch; and that was with facial fluid pooling in their cheeks and throats eliminating the thirst reflex in both the humans.

Ozzie had seen distant gray fog banks the size of small moons wafting through the gas halo, the majority of them tattered nebulas stretching out idly along the air currents, while a few were thick spinning knots like Jovian cyclones. None of them was within half a million miles of the Pathfinder. It would take months, or even years, to reach them.

A third of the fruit that they’d so carefully stacked in wicker baskets before setting off had tumbled off into the void when they went over the water worldlet’s rim. They’d munched their way through quite a lot of the remainder since then, supplementing it from what remained of their prepackaged food. The globes were succulent and juicy, but no real substitute for drinking. They wouldn’t sustain them for more than another couple of days at best.

That left Ozzie considering the other objects or creatures that occupied the gas halo. With little else to do except observe their environment, he’d soon realized the nebula was actually quite densely populated. The largest artifacts were the water worldlets. He’d been wrong with his first guess about their geometry, though. As they were blown farther away from their original worldlet he saw its true shape. It wasn’t a hemisphere; more like a bagel that had been sliced in half. The flat upper surface with its archipelago of little islands was always aligned sunward, with the sea pouring over its entire rim. Water followed the curve around and then began its long climb back up through the central funnellike hole to fill the upper sea again and start the cycle over. The orifice where it surged out on top was always capped by an opaque white cloud squatting on the water, shielding the upwelling from sight. For a look at the gravity generator that made such a thing possible, Ozzie would have cheerfully sold his soul. Not that they could go back to the worldlet even if they were caught up by a wind blowing in the right direction. He simply couldn’t work out a safe way to land (or splash down). Not without a parachute.

So he started looking at the other things orbiting around and around inside the gas halo. There were a lot of bird-equivalent creatures flittering about, either singularly or in huge flocks. Those that had come close enough to see clearly so far had fallen into two categories: a genus with a screwlike spiral wing running the length of their bodies, and others that Orion had named Fan Birds, resembling biological helicopters. They might have been edible, but some of the spiral birds were quite large, almost Tochee’s size, with long sharp tusks that Ozzie didn’t really want an up-close and personal look at. Besides, he couldn’t figure out how to catch one.

The fact that there were so many indicated they must have easily accessible food sources, which was an encouraging prospect. He’d seen a quantity of free-flying trees, globular dendrite-style structures made out of what looked like blue and violet sponge, four or five times the length of Earth’s giant sequoias. He had more hope for them than the birds; they must have some kind of internal water reserve. As yet, none of them had been close enough to try for a rendezvous, especially with Tochee in its weakened state. They probably only had one chance at being towed toward a rendezvous, and the distance was decreasing with each passing day, so he would have to make a very careful choice.

What he really wanted was the kind of reef that Johansson had described. If for no other reason, Johansson had walked home back to the Commonwealth after being on one. So far there’d been no sign of anything like that. There were a myriad of specks everywhere he looked, but he had no way of judging the size and nature of them until they got within range of his retinal inserts.

His handheld array wasn’t helping much, either. For the third time in an hour, Ozzie reviewed the data it was displaying in his virtual vision. Nobody was using the electromagnetic spectrum to transmit in. Nobody had responded to the distress signal he’d been broadcasting constantly since their arrival. Although how far such a signal would travel through the atmosphere of the gas halo was a moot point.

Ozzie sighed in disappointment—once more. According to the clock in his virtual vision it was four hours since he’d last had a drink; when he checked the antique watch on his wrist it read the same. It was time to make that decision he’d been delaying in the hope of a small miracle.

His pack was tied to the decking a couple of meters away from the cradle he’d rigged up for himself. He wriggled out of the shoulder straps and glided over to it. The filter was inside, with its little length of tube coiled up neatly.

Orion stirred inside the nest he’d constructed out of rope and his sleeping bag. He started to say something, then saw the filter in Ozzie’s hand. “Oh, no. You can’t.”

“What’s gotta be done’s gotta be done,” Ozzie replied sadly.

“I’m not going to,” the boy announced with complete finality. “The Silfen made this place. So we don’t have to do that.”

“Are they near?” Ozzie asked patiently.

Orion pulled out his friendship pendant. He had to cup his hands around the little gem before he could see the diminutive jade spark at the center.

“Don’t think so.” The boy sighed gloomily.

“Figures.” Ozzie rummaged farther through his pack until he found an old polythene bag. He stared at it despondently. “Guess this is it then.”

“I’m not going to.”

“Yeah, you said.” Ozzie pushed off from the decking, and hauled himself hand over hand around to the nominal underside of the raft, which put a modest barrier between himself and his companions. This was difficult enough without an audience. It took a while for his reluctant body to cooperate, but he eventually managed to pee into the bag.

He screwed the filter onto the top of his water bottle. Looked at the polythene bag. “Oh, just do it, you wimp,” he told himself. The end of the tube went into the bag, which he constricted to keep the fluid around the intake. He began pumping the filter, squeezing the simple trigger mechanism repeatedly until there was nothing left in the bag.

“Oh, that is just massively gross!” Orion exclaimed as Ozzie reappeared around the edge of the raft.

“No it’s not, it’s just simple chemistry. The filter removes all impurities, the manufacturer guarantees it. You’ve been drinking identical water to this ever since we started.”

“I have not! It’s pee, Ozzie!”

“Not anymore. Look, old-time explorers had to do this the hard way when they got lost in the desert, you know. We’ve got it easy, dude.”

“I won’t do it. I’m sticking to fruit.”

“Fine. Whatever.” Ozzie popped the cap on his water bottle, and deliberately took a big swig. It tasted of nothing, of course; but what he thought he could taste was a different story. Damn that kid! Putting ideas in my head.

“Is that safe?” Tochee asked.

“Don’t you start.”

“It’s disgusting, is what it is,” Orion said. “Grossly gross.”

“I don’t know if you two have actually noticed,” Ozzie said, suddenly fed up with the pair of them, “but we are seriously up shit creek without a paddle. From now on, the two of you are saving your piss as well.”

“No way!” Orion yelped.

“Yes.” Ozzie held the bottle out toward Orion. “You want this?”

“Ozzie! That’s yours.”

“Yeah. I know. So you start saving your own.”

“I’ll save it, but I won’t drink it.”

“My digestive organs do not function as yours,” Tochee said. “There is no separation mechanism for me. Will your most excellent filter work for that?”

Orion gave a horrified groan, and turned away, jamming his hands over his ears.

“I guess there’s only one way to find out,” Ozzie said glumly.

Sharp motion woke Ozzie, something poking him repeatedly on his chest. He removed the band of cloth he’d wrapped around his eyes to give him some darkness. A tentacle of Tochee’s manipulator flesh was poised in an S-bend right in front of his face, ready to prod him again.

“What?” Ozzie grunted. It was difficult to get to sleep in freefall; he resented being roused. His virtual vision clock told him he’d been asleep for a mere twenty minutes. That only made him more grouchy.

“Many large flying creatures are passing,” Tochee said. “I do not think they are birds.”

Ozzie shook his head to try to clear the lethargy away. Big mistake. He clamped his jaw hard to combat the sudden feeling of nausea. “Where?”

Tochee’s tentacle straightened to point toward the bow.

Orion was already struggling against the thick folds of his sleeping bag as Ozzie maneuvered around him. He slowed himself with a couple of tugs, then gripped the decking firmly with his right hand. It left his head sticking clear of the raft, making him think of a medieval soldier peering cautiously over the castle rampart to watch an invading army approach. A gentle breeze blew his Afro about. Tochee and Orion moved up beside him.

“Wow,” Orion whispered. “What are they?”

Ozzie used his retinal insert to zoom in. The flock must have been spread out over half a mile, hundreds of leather-brown spots slowly swirling along behind a tight little cluster. It was like watching a speckly comet, with a loose tail undulating slowly in the wake of the nucleus. They were over a mile away, tracing a wispy line against the infinite blue of the gas halo atmosphere. His e-butler brought a host of enhancement programs on-line, isolating one of the spots. The image was slowly refined, bringing the creature out from its original fuzzy outline.

“Holy crap!” Ozzie muttered.

“What is it?” Orion demanded.

Ozzie told his e-butler to display the picture on the handheld array. He turned the unit to the boy. “Oh!” Orion said softly.

It was a Silfen, but not like any they’d seen in the forests as they walked the paths between worlds. This one had wings. At first sight, it was as if the simple humanoid figure was lying spread-eagled at the center of a brown sheet.

“I should have guessed,” Ozzie said. “Yin and yang. And we’ve already seen the fairy folk version.” The flying Silfen did look uncannily like a classical demon. With the sun behind it, Ozzie saw the wings were actually a thick membrane that stained the light a dark amber. They were divided into upper and lower pairs that seemed to overlap; certainly there was no crack of sunlight between them. The top set were fixed to the Silfen’s upper arms right down to the elbow, allowing the forearms to move about freely. A filigree of black webbing sprouted from the upper arms in a leaf-vein pattern, stretching the membrane between them. On the legs, the longer, second set of wings extended as far as the knee, then bent outward, leaving a broad V-shape between their curving edges so the lower legs were free. The Silfen would still be able to walk on land. A long whip-tail extended out from what on a human would be the coccyx, tipped by a reddish kitelike triangle of membrane.

The Silfen wasn’t flying the way planet-bound birds did. Here in the gas halo it simply soared. The big membranes were sails, allowing it to catch the wind and cruise along where it wished.

Watching the flock as they glided along in huge lazy spiral curves, Ozzie felt an enormous pang of envy. They had what was surely the ultimate freedom.

“We should do that,” Orion said wistfully. “Sew ourselves into the sail and fly along. We could go wherever we wanted, then.”

“Yeah,” Ozzie agreed. He frowned, the boy’s idea making him concentrate on what he was seeing, rather than just gawping in envious awe. “You know, that’s wrong.”

“What is?” Tochee asked.

“This whole arrangement. The Silfen body is designed to walk in a gravity field, just like ours, right. So if you’re going to modify one to flap around the gas halo, why leave the legs and arms? This isn’t a modification to allow them to live here permanently. What they’ve produced is like a biological version of our Vinci suits. It’s temporary, it has to be. You don’t need legs here, and you couldn’t carry those wings about very easily on a planet.”

“I guess,” Orion said dubiously.

“I’m right,” Ozzie announced decisively. “It’s another part of their goddamn living-life-through-the-flesh stage. A great one for sure, but we’re still not seeing the final them, the adult community.”

“Okay, Ozzie.”

He ignored the boy, thinking out loud. “There’s got to be a place where they get these modifications when they arrive. Somewhere in the gas halo. Somewhere with sophisticated biological systems.”

“Unless this is a natural part of their phase,” Tochee said.

“Excuse me?”

“On my home, we had small creatures that moved through several phases between hatching and the adult breeding form: aquatic, to land, to burying. They changed accordingly for their environment. Their fins would fall off allowing them to grow primitive legs; then they would develop powerful front claws to dig, allowing their hind legs to wither away. Some of our scientific theorizers speculated that our own manipulator flesh was simply an advanced version of the morphosis mechanism. They were not popular linking us with the creatures, although I can appreciate the logic in their thoughts.”

“I get it,” Orion said. “When the Silfen come here they just grow themselves wings, and when they leave, they shrivel up and drop off again. Hey! I wonder if this is their birth stage, or the mating stage?” The boy sniggered the way only young teenagers could at the idea of mating.

“Could be,” Ozzie agreed reluctantly, suddenly intrigued by the idea of sex while flying. “Either way, it involves some heavy-duty biological manipulation. Let’s hope they’re additions. We need some serious help here, guys.”

“Then ask them,” Orion said. He pulled his friendship pendant out from his grubby T-shirt. The greenish glow at the center was bright enough to be seen in the full light of the gas halo’s sun. “Wow,” he muttered. “There must be a lot of them in that flock.” He checked his safety rope was secure around his waist, and pushed off the Pathfinder. “Yo! Hey, we’re here! Over here!” His arms semaphored wildly. “It’s me, Orion, your friend. And Ozzie and Tochee, too.”

Ozzie hesitated for a second. The resemblance to demons was just uncomfortably close…He crawled back along the raft to his pack while Orion kept on shouting and waving. The boy would never attract their attention like that; they were too far away. Though, at the back of his mind, Ozzie suspected the Silfen flock already knew they were here. He pulled a couple of flares from the pack, and headed back up to the prow.

“Get back here,” he told Orion. As soon as the boy was back holding on to the raft, Ozzie fired a flare, deliberately angling it to the side of the flock. Without gravity holding it back, the brilliant red star flew an impressive distance before dwindling away. The Silfen flock seemed oblivious to it. Ozzie cursed under his breath. “All right then, if that’s the way it’s gotta be.” He pointed the second flare tube right at the flock and fired. This time the dazzling point of light almost reached the edge of the flock before it burned out.

“They had to have seen that!” Orion said. “They just had to.”

“Yeah,” Ozzie said. “You’d think.” But the Silfen showed no sign of changing direction.

“Fire another one,” Orion said.

“No,” Ozzie said. “They saw it. They know we’re here.”

“No they don’t, they haven’t come to help.” The boy’s voice was whiny from desperation. “They’d come and help if they saw us. I know they would. They’re my friends.”

“I’ve only got a couple more flares left. It’d be a waste.”


“Nothing we can do, kid. They’re not interested. If there’s one thing I do know about the Silfen, you can’t force them to do anything.”

“They have to help us,” Orion said forlornly.

Ozzie stared after the flock as it soared along its twisty course away from the Pathfinder. “I wonder what’s so important they’ve got to go see,” he muttered to himself. Even with his inserts on full magnification he couldn’t see anything significant in the direction they were heading. There had to be something fairly close, surely? Not even a Silfen could survive indefinitely without food and water. Or maybe they hunted the avian creatures who lived in the gas halo.

He looked at the brokenhearted boy, then at Tochee. The big alien didn’t have body language the way humans did, but something in its still posture was universal. Their friend was as dejected and worried as he was.

“Now what?” Orion asked.

Ozzie wished he could find an answer.

Ten hours after the flock had vanished into the blue haze of the atmosphere Ozzie knew he was going to have to do something about getting them to one of the particles floating in the gas halo, even if it was only one of the hefty sponge trees. Orion had withdrawn into a massive sulk, although Ozzie knew damn well that was just a cloak for the boy’s anxiety. Tochee, though, remained his main cause for concern. The alien was in noticeably poor physical shape, with the color leeching out of its furry fronds, while the manipulator flesh along its flanks twitched constantly. Freefall really didn’t agree with the big creature. Ozzie knew it hadn’t eaten for over a day, and he was still pleading for it to drink something.

He allowed himself to drift away from the decking, and began scanning around for any large object. He’d had a few ideas about altering their course by a couple of degrees; he was actually keen to see if they worked in practice. Mainly it involved trailing the sail on the end of a rope, and using it like a very flexible rudder, with himself out there keeping it oriented in the right direction. The conditions were just about right, a gentle constant breeze that shouldn’t present too much trouble keeping the sail pointing correctly.

“What are you looking for?” Orion asked; he sounded very tired.

“Anything that’s out there, dude. We need to start making some progress.”

“Do you think we can?”

The hopelessness in the boy’s voice made Ozzie tug on his safety robe and drift back down to the ramshackle raft. “Hey, course we can. We just need some fresh resources, is all. This falling off the end of the world thing kinda caught us by surprise, huh?”

Orion nodded sheepishly.

“The trees will have plenty of water. And they probably have eatable fruit. We can use the leaves and wood to turn the old Pathfinder into something that can fly a lot better. Trust me. I’ve been in worse situations than this.”

The boy gave him a surprised look, then slowly smiled. “No you haven’t!”

“Don’t you believe it. I was on Akreos when its sun went into its cold expansion phase. Nobody had ever seen anything like that before. None of the astronomers had a clue what was going on. Man, that planet’s climate went downhill so fast it was amazing. It was like living inside an old Hollywood disaster movie. I’d got a family there, married some English girl called Annabelle; she was the same kind of age as me, or maybe older, rejuved a couple of times, of course. She was famous back on Earth even before I was. Can’t remember what for, must have dumped that memory. Real pretty, though, with a hell of a figure. You’d have loved her.

“We’d settled a long way from the capital city, doing the whole basic rural idyll scene in some beautiful countryside right between the temperate and subtropical bands, so it was seriously hot in summer but we still had snow in the winter. I built us a villa at the head of a low valley, and we’d got ourselves a nice little farm going. Course, it was all automated, had to be, we spent most of our time humping like we were training for the Olympics. Wow, yeah.” He chuckled at the memory. “That was one of my lives where I’d got myself a little bit of a boost where it matters most to a guy, you know. Not that I need much of a boost, but hey.”


“Right. Yeah. We’d been out there in the wild a couple of years, had one kid with another on the way, when the lights went out. Goddamn weirdest thing I have ever seen. The sun turned orange inside of a week. Its photosphere deflated, too; you could watch the damn thing shrinking. They worked it out eventually, something to do with unstable hydrogen layers. The sun rotated a lot faster than normal, see, which messed with the internal convection currents. There were upwellings of helium and carbon into the fusion level. I think that was it. Anyway…Akreos turned cold fast.”


“Don’t interrupt, man. The snowstorms just like exploded out of the sky. They went on forever and a day and weren’t ever going to stop. And it was cold, I mean not quite as bad as the Ice Citadel planet, admittedly, but ball-bustingly cold for an H-congruous planet, let me tell you. So cold all the train lines turned brittle and fractured. Aircraft couldn’t fly in the blizzards, of course. And there wasn’t a snowplow built that could keep the roads open in those conditions.

“We had to evacuate. There were already over five million people on that poor doomed planet, and virtually no transport left. The Commonwealth Council imported snowmobiles from all the Big15, but they concentrated on the capital city and the major towns. Annabelle and I were all on our own. So I had to break down all the farm machinery and rebuild it. You know what as? A fucking hovercraft, man! Can you believe that; it’s like twentieth-century technology. How crap is that? I mean, why not just straight out build yourself a rocketship? But it worked. We set off for the capital, but by then the glaciers were coming. Do you have any idea how fast they can move? Man, they’re juggernauts in the express lane. We were racing ahead of them in the hovercraft; these mile-high cliffs of ice that roared across the land crushing anything in their path and knocking mountains out of their way. Supplies were running low, and our power level was reaching critical—”

“Ozzie!” Orion pointed frantically.

“Huh?” Ozzie twisted around, his arms tightening his grip to prevent the movement becoming a spin. A jagged fragment of land was rising over the Pathfinder’s prow like a moon that was way too close. It filled a quarter of the sky. “Hoshit,” he squawked. His e-butler immediately began analyzing dimensions. The flat, elongated chunk of land was thirty-eight kilometers long, and nine wide at the center, with both ends tapering away to daggerlike spires. Its surface was mostly vegetation, a canopy of treetops with leaves whose shading ran from deep hazel through sickly brimstone and into a dense olive-green. Tight streams of swan-white mist slithered along the foliage with a sluggishness approximating thick liquid. The closest point of the alarmingly solid mass was seventeen kilometers away.

“Where the fuck did that come from?” Ozzie spluttered. Admittedly he hadn’t checked around much since the flock left, but this should surely have been visible from a long way off. He hadn’t been dozing that much.

“We are going to crash,” Tochee said.

Ozzie’s e-butler computed their closing velocity at just less than one meter per second. Purple vector lines sliced across his virtual vision. No doubt about it, they were on an interception course. “Bump,” Ozzie corrected. “Not crash: bump. This is freefall, remember. And at this rate we’ve got another five hours to go. We’ll be quite safe.”

“They did it!” Orion exclaimed jubilantly. “The Silfen saw us, and steered us here. I knew they were our friends.”

Ozzie wanted to tell the boy how unlikely that was; but then the gas halo wasn’t exactly a natural artifact. “Could be. Okay, guys, let’s work out how we’re going to lasso ourselves onto the surface when we approach.”

Twenty minutes away from what they now called Island Two, a gentle wind was providing the Pathfinder a lazy, slightly erratic tumble, which made it difficult to know exactly which way up it would be when they finally hit. Bumped! Ozzie was planning on jettisoning the sail when they were keel-on and only a few minutes away from contact. That ought to slow their breeze-augmented rotation; although he wasn’t sure if the figure-skating principle might not apply here, and pulling the mass in toward the center would actually help increase the spin. In any case, they all thought it would be best if they jumped just before the raft reached the treetops.

Ten minutes, and Island Two was alarmingly large and very solid. The worst part was when their stately unstoppable gyration shifted his visual orientation so they seemed to be falling up toward it. At this distance it was no longer a particle. It was land.

Every loose item on board had been securely lashed to the deck. Ozzie was looking at the sail ropes, wondering which sequence to cut them in. The sail should flutter its way into the treetops. There were enough small branches and curving fern leafs protruding above the general canopy that he was confident they would be snagged safely as they made contact. Bouncing off would be the final insult.

With two minutes to go, Ozzie untied his safety rope. One thing he didn’t want to do was get tugged along by the mass of the raft if their impact made it spin. Island Two was now close enough to reveal a wealth of detail to the unaided eye. The actual ground itself was still obscured by the trees, but in among the brown and green canopy Ozzie could see strange spaghettilike hoops of purple tubing coiled in intricate knots. Several ocher columns jutted tens of meters up out of the foliage, like ancient giant trees that had died and petrified. They were tipped in bulbous bristles that looked uncomfortably sharp. He hoped that the Pathfinder didn’t come down directly on one of those; they’d be in danger of a lethal impalement.

“There is water down there,” Tochee said. Their friend was perched on the edge of the raft, ready to fling itself free.

“That’s a good omen,” Ozzie said. “We can fill all our containers. And you seriously need to start drinking.” The filter hadn’t been terribly successful in separating out Tochee’s fecal matter.

“This may not be a correct translation,” Tochee said. “I do not believe water like this is a good sign. What is making it do that?”

Ozzie looked from the big alien to the handheld array. “Water like what? What is it doing?”

“It is flowing along the ground as if this were a planet.”

“That can’t be…” Ozzie stared forward, his retinal inserts scanning the canopy and its meandering mists, searching for a gap. There was ground beneath the eerie twisted-spiral leaves. Loose loamy soil carpeted with dead leaves. What’s holding the leaves there? “Uh oh,” Ozzie grunted. He’d assumed only the big water islands used artificial gravity. “Dumbass!”

“What?” a panicked Orion asked.

The Pathfinder was starting to speed up.

“Brace yourself!” Ozzie shouted. He gripped Orion’s wrist. “Don’t jump.”


The raft creaked ominously as weight reasserted itself against the decking. They were tilted slightly, sliding down (and it was definitely down now) toward Island Two’s rumpled treetops.

The Pathfinder was still accelerating when it thumped into the uppermost branches. All three travelers were thrown violently to one side. The jolt pushed Ozzie’s stomach somewhere down toward his feet, while his spine hit the decking painfully. The wood bent alarmingly beneath him. He immediately wanted to be sick. Loud crashing splintering sounds reverberated all around him. Leathery leaves slapped him hard across the cheek, their tiny spikes digging in through his stubble. The decking lurched around, tipping toward the vertical. Ozzie felt himself sliding over the simple planking as it bowed alarmingly. Somehow he’d turned upside down, so it was his head that was going to hit the ground first. The Pathfinder was bucking about as it continued to crash through the tree, snapping off branches as it went.

Tochee’s manipulator flesh curled around Ozzie’s ankle. He was tugged violently upward as the raft fell away from him. The universe spun nauseously, curving smears of jade and caramel and turquoise wrapping themselves across his vision. Then his descent came to an abrupt halt. The universe reversed direction, and the Pathfinder finished its undignified landing with a bone-busting crunch.

“Urrgh. Fuck.” Ozzie tried blinking to sort out the confused blur that was all his eyes registered. Hot pain stabbed into his right knee. His cheeks smarted and he could feel something wet soaking into his stubble. When he dabbed his hand on the area and brought it away he saw fingers glistening with blood.

He tilted his head and looked down—no, up—to the tentacle of flesh coiled around his ankles. Above that, Tochee was wedged into the V where a thick branch forked away from the trunk, its manipulator flesh extended as long as Ozzie had ever seen it. The big alien was very still, though he could see it sucking down a lot of air. Several large splinters were sticking into its multicolored hide, where gooey amber fluid was seeping out of the lacerations. When he let his head flop down again, he could see the ground at least another fifteen meters below. The Pathfinder lay underneath him, its decking fractured in several places, with all their belongings scattered around.

Retinal inserts showed him Tochee’s eye signaling rapidly. It was asking if he was okay. Ozzie managed a feeble smile and gave his big friend a thumbs-up. Tochee contracted his tentacle slightly, and began to sway him smoothly from side to side, building up a pendulum motion. The tree swung a little closer with each arc until Ozzie finally managed to grab hold just above a broad bough. His feet were freed, and he collapsed onto the bough. The first thing he realized was how hard the bark was, almost like rock. “Thanks, man, I owe you one there,” he wheezed, even though Tochee couldn’t hear. “Orion? Hey, kid, where are you?” He looked down at the broken raft again. “Orion?”


Ozzie looked back over his shoulder, then up. The boy was tangled in the upper branches of the nearest tree, a leafless ovoid lattice of slim brass-colored stems. He began to wriggle his way downward through the interior; as he did so the smaller stems bent elastically to accommodate him. “I jumped. Sorry,” Orion said. “I know you said not to. I was scared. But this tree is made out of rubber, or something.”

“Yeah, yeah, great,” Ozzie said. “Good for you.”

“It’s not big gravity here anyway,” the boy said enthusiastically. “Not like you get on a planet, or the water island.”

“Terrific.” Now he noticed, Ozzie didn’t feel very heavy. He eased off his stranglehold on the bough, and shifted around experimentally. Gravity was probably about a third Earth standard.

Tochee slid smoothly down the trunk, pausing briefly as it came level with Ozzie. “I am no longer falling.” Its eye patterns flared contentedly. “I enjoy this place.”

Ozzie gave his friend another weak thumbs-up, and started to work out how to shin down the trunk.

Orion and Tochee were waiting for him at the bottom. He stood cautiously, very glad he wasn’t in a full gravity field; his knee felt as though it were on fire.

“Hand me the first aid kit, will you,” he told the boy.

Orion bounced off over the rumpled land, searching through their scattered belongings. When he came back he had both the medical kit and the handheld array. Ozzie sank down, and touched a diagnostic probe to the inflamed skin above his knee. Blood was dripping from his chin, falling slothfully to stain his already filthy T-shirt. His e-butler told him that some of the OCtattoos on his cheek had been torn, and could now only operate at reduced capacity.

Tochee was resting on the ground opposite, using a tentacle to pull the big splinters from its hide. A shudder ran along its body as each one came out.

“What now?” Orion asked.

“Good question.”


“Think of this as my wedding present,” Nigel Sheldon said.

Wilson didn’t dignify that with an answer. He raised the transparent helmet up in front of his face. On the other side of it Anna was glaring at him in her special warning way.

“Thanks,” Wilson said gracelessly. “I appreciate it.”

“No problem.” Nigel seemed oblivious to any undercurrents. “I have to admit, this whole problem tweaked my curiosity, too.”

Wilson brought the helmet down over his head. The space suit collar sealed itself to the rim. His e-butler ran checks through the suit array, and gave him the all clear.

There were nine of them getting ready in the long, composite-walled prep room. Wilson appreciated that they had to take the navy forensic office team along, but he was starting to think that maybe he would have liked a few moments alone to begin with. It wasn’t going to happen; even with Nigel’s backing, this little jaunt was expensive.

Commander Hogan was heading the investigation team; his every response formal and respectful, he seemed almost awestruck by Nigel. Wilson knew he was Rafael’s man, the one who’d replaced Myo. Not that it made him a bad person, but Wilson felt more comfortable with his deputy, Lieutenant Tarlo, who was approaching the excursion with a schoolboyish enthusiasm, and wasn’t in the least intimidated by the company he was keeping. Ever since they’d arrived in the prep room, he and Nigel had been chatting about the surf to be found on various planets. Four navy technical officers were going as well, to inspect the systems they were visiting to see what the hell the Guardians were doing with them. They were all happy about the jaunt—a day away from the office and their usual routine, an interesting technical challenge, plus getting themselves known to the admiral and Nigel Sheldon—who wouldn’t be?

“We’re ready for you,” Daniel Alster said. If Nigel’s chief aide had any misgivings about his boss taking part, he was hiding them beautifully, Wilson thought.

Nine space-suited figures tramped down a long corridor toward the gateway chamber, their bootsteps echoing loudly off the old concrete walls. Wilson’s treacherous memories replayed the time when the Ulysses crew had walked across Cape Canaveral’s main runway from the bus to the air stairs of the waiting scramjet spaceplane, their short route lined ten deep by reporters and NASA ground staff, cheering and whooping as they embarked on the first stage of their flight to another world. Meanwhile, over in California, Ozzie and Nigel were chugging beer, chasing girls, smoking joints, and building the last few components of their machine…

The gateway used to be operated by CST’s exploratory division, back in the days when they were venturing out through phase one space. That period had ended over a century and a half ago when the exploratory division packed up and moved out to the Big15; they were now transient again, en route to phase three space, their progress stalled only by the Prime invasion. But this wormhole had remained active, tucked away in a section of LA Galactic where the general public never visited. It was used for many things: emergency backup for the big commercial gateways, supplying rapid response transit for the emergency services during civil disasters, carrying reserve power circuits to the moon in the event of any regular linkage shutdown. But mainly it provided interstellar transportation for governments that couldn’t afford, or weren’t liberal enough to sanction, life suspension sentences for criminals. Even on the old phase one developed, “progressive” worlds, some crimes were regarded as needing something more than suspension, and a large proportion of convicted criminals refused suspension anyway. With characteristic opportunism, CST filled the market for such a banishment.

There were several planets in phase one space that were on the borderline of H-congruous status; if they were opened for settlement they would be hard work to live on. As CST explored and opened up hundreds of other, easier worlds, they were rapidly sidelined and consigned to a detailed entry in astronomical records and company history. Hardrock would have been one of them, a world whose life-forms were still on the bottom of the evolutionary ladder, with no land animals and only primitive jellyfish in the sea. A perfect place for the scum of humanity to be dumped, where they were incapable of doing any harm to anybody except their own kind. So once a week, CST would open the wormhole to a new location on Hardrock, send through crates of farm equipment, seed, medical supplies, and food; then the convict batch would be marched over. After that, they were on their own.

The circular gateway chamber looked crude compared to its modern equivalents, its surfaces of raw concrete and metal more suited to handling cargo rather than people. But then Wilson suspected the people who passed through here were regarded as less than cargo anyway. A Class 5-BH transRover stood on the floor, a simple open jeep used for driving around on airless worlds, with big low-pressure wheels. Several equipment cases had been loaded on the rear rack. The gateway itself was a blank circle, three meters in diameter, projecting slightly from the concave wall. A force field shimmered over it, turning the air to a slightly grainy smoke layer.

Daniel Alster gave them a tight smile. “Good luck,” he said as he left.

Wilson looked up the wall opposite the gateway to the broad window fronting the operations center. A couple of technicians were lounging on the other side of it, regarding the travelers with a disinterested glance as they joked between themselves.

“Stand by,” the gateway controller told them. “We’re opening the wormhole now.”

A pale light began to shine through the force field. Wilson turned to face it, seeing faint shadows growing across the floor behind all of the team. The light was deepening, becoming amber, then heading down toward ginger. His heart began to pick up as the color flipped all sorts of switches in his brain. Why the hell am I putting myself through this? He hadn’t realized just how much Mars had been haunting him down the centuries.

The wormhole opened. After a break of over three centuries, Wilson was once again looking out across Arabia Terra.

“Clear to proceed,” the gateway controller said.

Wilson drew a breath, staring at the stone-littered landscape. Thin wisps of ginger dust were scurrying through the ultra-thin atmosphere.

“You want to go first?” Nigel asked.

How envious he’d been of Commander Dylan Lewis all those centuries ago, the first man to set foot on another planet. Except he wasn’t; Nigel had been there waiting. Some strange atmospheric phenomena carried Ozzie’s laugh down the ages to reverberate around the chamber. “Oh, man, don’t do that, you’re going to so piss them off.”

“Sure,” Wilson said briskly. He walked through the force field.

Martian soil under his feet. Pink-tinged atmosphere banding the horizon, fading to jet-black directly overhead. A million pockmarked, jagged rocks scattered about, with rusty dust in every crevice. He scanned around, placing himself against the geography and features he could never forget. Off to his left was the rim of giant Schiaparelli, which should mean…There, just off north. Two mounds of red soil smothering the lower third of the cargo landers. Their white titanium fuselages had been scoured by the storms of three centuries, blasting away all markings and color. Now the exposed sections were tarnished curves of dark metal, the originally sharp edges of the parachute release mechanisms abraded down to warty clusters. Holes had opened up in several places, revealing the skeleton of internal struts caging black cavities.

So if the landers were there, then…He turned slowly to see the Eagle II. Sometime down the years the undercarriage had collapsed, lowering the spaceplane’s belly to the ground. The sands of Mars had claimed the craft, creating a smooth triangular dune of soil whose upper fingers of coppery grit gripped the top of the spaceplane’s fuselage. All that was left of the tailfin was a stumpy blade of bleached and brittle composite, half its original height.

“Damnit,” Wilson muttered. There was moisture in his eyes.

YOU OKAY? Anna sent in text.

SURE. JUST GIVE ME A MOMENT. He walked a little way across the icy landscape, allowing the others to come through the wormhole. Tarlo drove the transRover out, bouncing across the rough ground.

“Whoa, this low gravity really screws up maneuverability,” Tarlo exclaimed. “And these rocks don’t help. I’ve never seen so much rock lying around in one place. Was there some kind of massive meteor shower or something? How did you drive when you were here, sir?”

“We never did,” Wilson said. They’d brought three mobile laboratories with them, the best that twenty-first-century technology and money could build. They were still inside the cargo landers; his mind could see them like dead metal fetuses, every moving part cold-welded together, their bodywork flaking away in the terrible hostile atmosphere. “We just went straight home again.”

“You could have stayed and explored,” Nigel said. He didn’t sound very contrite.

“Yeah, we could have.” Wilson was trying to work out angles against the landscape and its poignant relics. He walked over toward the Eagle II. Its dimensions were scripted perfectly in his mind, allowing him to draw its shape through the raggedy mound of soil. The profile dynamic wings had been fully retracted for the landing, shrinking back down to a squat delta; there was the smooth curvature they followed to merge with the fuselage. Both narrow sections of the windshield were buried; he was glad of that, the equivalent of closing the lids on a dead man’s eyes. He didn’t want to see inside again.

He bent down slowly, and began scraping at the fine sand. Little swirls of it puffed up as his gauntlets raked around.

“We’ve acquired the Reynolds beacon, sir,” Commander Hogan said.

“Three kilometers away, bearing forty-seven degrees.”

“Well done,” Nigel said. “You guys scoot over there and get us some answers from the science equipment, huh?”


Wilson thought he might have got the position slightly wrong. After all, the Eagle II could have shifted around, twisting as its undercarriage struts collapsed. He saw the transRover start to rock and jolt its way across the rucked sands, all six navy personnel clinging to the frame.

“What are you looking for?” Anna asked.

“Not sure.” He moved a few paces and bent down again. “Okay. The flag, actually. I know we got the damn thing up. Must have been blown over.”

She put her hands on her hips, and turned a full circle. “Wilson, it could be anywhere out there. The storms here are really ferocious. They can last for weeks.”

“Months, actually, and they cover most of the planet.” He gave up grubbing through the dirt. “I’m sure I remember using a power drill to screw the pole legs in. We were supposed to secure it.”

Nigel had walked up the slope of the sand piled against the Eagle II’s fuselage. His hand touched the remnants of the tailfin. “This ain’t right, you know. She deserves better than this. We should arrange to take her home. I’ll bet the California Technological Heritage Museum would love to have her. They’d probably pay for the restoration.”

“No,” Wilson said automatically. “She’s broken. She’s a part of this planet’s history now. She belongs here.”

“She’s not so badly broken.” Nigel stroked the top of the fuselage. “They built well back then.”

“It was her heart you broke.”

“Goddamn! I knew it, man, I fucking knew it. You are still pissed at me.”

“No I’m not. We were both part of history that day, you and I. My side lost, but then we were always going to. Wormhole technology was inevitable. If you hadn’t done it, someone else would.”

“Yeah? You have no idea how tough that math was to crack, nor following up by translating it into hardware. Nobody but Ozzie could have done it. I know his wacko rep, but he’s a genius, a true one, a fucking supernova compared to Newton, Einstein, and Hawking.”

“If it can be done, it will be done. Don’t try and personalize this. We represent events, that’s all.”

“Oh, brilliant, I’m nothing but a figurehead. Well, excuse me.”

“Will you two monster egos pack this in, please,” Anna said. “Wilson, he’s right, you can’t let these old ships decay any further. They are history, just like you said, and a very important part of history.”

“Sorry,” Wilson mumbled. “It’s just…I got wrong-footed coming back here. You don’t erase half the stuff you think you have at rejuvenation.”

“Ain’t that a fact,” Nigel said. “Come on, let’s go find a souvenir that isn’t a lump of rock. There’s got to be something lying around here.”

“I never even got a lump of rock last time,” Wilson said.

“You didn’t?”

“No. We didn’t run our science program. I think Lewis picked up his first sample, but NASA kept that once we got home.”

“Damn! You know, I don’t remember picking up any rock, either.”

“Christ,” Anna said. She bent down and picked up a couple of twisted pebbles, and handed one to each man. “You two are bloody useless.”


Roderick Deakins strolled down Briggins as casually as anyone could, walking around the Olika district at two A.M. He was grateful there hadn’t been a patrol car driving past, though that was only a matter of time. Olika was where a lot of rich types lived. They had deep connections in Darklake’s City Hall. The police maintained a good presence here, not like the Tulosa district where Roderick lived. You rarely saw a cop there after dark, and then never singularly.

“Is this it?” Marlon Simmonds asked.

Roderick had worked with Marlon many times down the years. Nothing too serious, you couldn’t call them partners, but they’d seen their fair share of juvenile street rip-offs, followed by a string of break-ins when they’d run with the Usaros back in ’69. After that they’d done time together for a Marina Mall warehouse heist that had gone seriously wrong in ’73. When they were paroled they’d drifted into helping out Lo Kin, a small-time boss who ran a protection racket on Tulosa’s westside, where they’d been stuck ever since. All that history and the trust that went with it made them a perfect pair for this job.

“What does the fucking number read?” Roderick hissed back.

“Eighteen hundred,” Marlon said, glancing at the brass numbers screwed into the drycoral arch above the gate. That was the thing about Marlon: nothing much seemed to bother him. His biochemically boosted body weighed at least twice as much as Roderick, and moved along with the inevitable inertia of a twenty-ton truck. His general attitude was a reflection of his physical presence, allowing him to cruise through life knowing there was very little that would get in his way.

“Then that’s it, isn’t it?” Roderick said. The man who was an associate of Lo Kin, the one they were doing this for, had been very specific. The house number, the name of the man they were going to talk to, the short time in which they had to perform the job.

“Okay, man.” Marlon took a harmonic blade from his jacket pocket, and sliced through the wrought iron around the lock. The gate swung open with the tiniest of squeaks from the hinges. Roderick waited a moment to see if any alarms were triggered. But there was no sound. When he waved his left palm around the gate, his e-butler said it couldn’t detect any electronic activity. Roderick grinned to himself. It had cost a lot to get the OCtattoo sensor on his palm, but every time like this he knew it was worth it.

It was dark in the bungalow’s garden. The tall drycoral wall blocked most of the illumination from the streetlights outside, while the low building at the center remained unlit. Roderick switched his retinal insert to infrared. It produced a simple pink and gray image that was oddly flat. That lack of depth always slowed him down; one day soon he’d get a matching insert for his other eye, which would give him a decent resolution in this spectrum. It could even be with the money from this job; Lo Kin’s associate certainly paid well.

Roderick’s hand moved inside his leather jacket and removed the Eude606 ion pistol from its holster. The gun fitted snugly into his palm, as well it might do. He’d never held a piece of hardware as expensive as this before. It felt good. The power it contained gave Roderick a raw confidence he didn’t experience often.

Marlon cut through the wooden front door, slicing around the lock. Roderick couldn’t detect any electrical activity. It fitted with what they’d been told. Paul, the old man who lived here, was eccentric verging on plain nutty. They stepped cautiously into the dark hallway.

“What are you doing?” Roderick whispered. Marlon was going along the shelving, examining the vases and figurines sitting there.

“You heard what the man said: take anything you want. Is any of this art crap valuable?”

“I don’t fucking know. But we do that after, get it?”

Marlon’s huge frame shrugged dismissively.

Roderick switched on his small handheld array. The screen glowed brightly in the lightless bungalow; it displayed a floor plan, with the master bedroom clearly marked. “This way.”

They started walking cautiously, watching out for anything on the floor. The place was a mess; nobody had cleaned up in an age. Roderick checked the first few maidbots resting in their alcoves; none of them had any power in their batteries. He’d never been anywhere with so little electrical activity; it was like being in the stone age.

When they were halfway across the lounge, Roderick’s retinal insert failed, plunging him back into a world of ebony shadows. “Goddamn!”

“What is this?” Marlon complained.

Roderick realized his handheld array was dead. His e-butler was also offline. “Shit. Are your inserts down?”


The unease in Marlon’s voice added to Roderick’s growing anxiety; it wasn’t often the big man sounded uncertain. He squinted into the darkness. Two big arching windows were visible as gray sheets, casting the tiniest amount of illumination into the room. He could just make out the regular sable shapes of furniture.

“This is no accident; our electronics got hit.”

“What do we do?” Marlon asked. “I’ve got a flashlight. You want some light?”

“Maybe. He must know we’re here. What do you reckon?” Roderick caught a motion over by one of the windows. A patch of dark sliding up the wall. Which was crazy. Not to mention disturbing. Or was it just his adrenaline-pumped imagination? He brought the Eude606 up, pointing it in the direction the shape might have been if it was real. Sweat was pricking his brow.

“Well, what’s he going to do?” There was a kind of bravado in Marlon’s voice now. Neither of them were bothering to whisper.

Roderick steadied his pistol, holding it level and ready to turn to face whatever threat was revealed. “Okay then.” He waited while Marlon fumbled around in his jacket. Then the narrow beam stabbed out, amazingly bright in the gloomy lounge. It swept over the walls, with Roderick following the wide circle with his pistol. Marlon turned completely around, exposing the antique décor with its dusty coating. There was nobody in the lounge with them. More importantly from Roderick’s point of view, there was nothing on the wall by the window, nothing that could move about.

“Okay, old man,” Marlon said. “Out you come now, we ain’t gonna hurt you.” It was the kind of tone used to calm a panicked animal. “We just want the artwork, that’s all. There ain’t gonna be no trouble.”

They looked at each other. Roderick shrugged. “Bedroom,” he said. Something moved in his peripheral vision. Above him. “Huh?” Marlon must have caught it, too; the beam tilted up. Roderick looked at the ceiling, which was covered in broad patches of peculiar rust-colored fur.

The nostat directly above Roderick let go. It was like a soft blanket dropping on him, its edges falling below his elbows. Shock made him yell and thrash about, trying to tug the thing off. The nostat’s soft fur changed, strands twining together into needle-thin spikes. It tightened around its prey, a motion that slid over ten thousand of the slender barbs through Roderick’s clothing and into his flesh. His scream of utter agony was cut off as spikes penetrated into his throat, filling his gullet with blood. Reflex made him convulse, even though the pain had virtually rendered him unconscious. It was exactly the motion that the nostat had evolved to take advantage of. The barbs were slim and strong enough to remain extended as its prey’s muscles flexed, allowing them to rip through the tissue as if they were miniature scalpels. The entire outer layer of Roderick’s upper torso was shredded to the constituency of jelly. Blood erupted from his body as it collapsed onto the floor, which the nostat sucked down hungrily through the hollow core of each spike.

The first contraction didn’t quite have the strength to push the spikes through Roderick’s skull. Instead they penetrated the softer areas of flesh, ripping apart eyes, ears, nose, and tearing through his cheeks. The last thing he heard as he finally lost consciousness was a terrified roar coming from Marlon, and furniture exploding as both of them fired their ion pistols in random bursts.


The day after he went to Mars, Nigel woke up in bed with his wives Nuala and Astrid. Both of them were biologically in their mid-thirties, though chronologically more than a century old. They were what he tended to think of as the mother comfort personalities of his harem. He sought them out when he wanted an untroubled sleep; and last night he’d really needed one. It had been a bad week; dealing with the innumerable problems spinning out from the Lost23 refugees on top of the high politics of the War Cabinet. He’d thought Mars would be a distraction from the problems he had to deal with in the office. Typical mid-life-crisis response, get out from behind the desk and do something practical; but there had been far too many old memories lurking amid that desolate frozen landscape to ambush his emotions. The broken ancient spaceplane had kindled a totally unexpected pang of guilt. When they finally returned from that abandoned planet his mood had turned bleak.

He’d visited Paloma and Aurelie first, the newest members of his harem. First-lifers that hadn’t reached their twenty-first birthdays yet, the pair of them were beautiful, giggly, and utterly guileless girls. They came very firmly in the sex athlete category, with personal trainers keeping them fit and toned, an unlimited wardrobe budget, and stylists to confer the kind of elegance he enjoyed in all his women.

Every time he came out of rejuvenation, his harem was made up mostly of girls like them. It was only when he started advancing into his biological early thirties that the ratio began to swing back, and the more secure and stable types made up the majority as yet another generation of his children was born. As a single child himself, Nigel always enjoyed being surrounded by a large immediate family; that was something that no rejuvenation had ever altered. As always in his case, the human universe bent to accommodate him with the alacrity of a gravity field around a neutron star. There was never a problem in finding women who were happy with the harem arrangement; he was sent thousands of intimate requests every day. His main difficulty was sorting through them all.

Right now there were only five of the younger, sexy ones. He knew that none of them would hang around for more than a couple of years. Girls like that never did; they weren’t stupid, and eventually they’d grow weary of the household’s formality, the way everything was structured around his preferences. Unless he had children with them—unlikely now—they’d move on, just like thousands before them.

Until that happened, they were the best possible sex he could wish for. It was only after romping with Paloma and Aurelie for nearly two hours he left, almost sneaking out, to find Nuala and Astrid, who snuggled up cozily and gave him that welcome sense of comfort so essential for a deep dreamless sleep.

Breakfast, as always when the household was in residence at the New Costa mansion, was held on the terrace. He sat at the head of a long table sheltered from the sharp blue-white glare of Regulus by a canopy of lush grapevines, whose broad leaves filtered the exotic sunlight to a manageable lambency. The day’s first gusts of the dry El Iopi wind were already blowing across the grounds, rustling the foliage above him. Eleven of his wives joined him, bringing their children, who ranged from three-month-old Digby to Bethany, who was approaching her fifteenth birthday. Several senior family members who were staying in the mansion also arrived with their partners. It was a bustling lighthearted meal, which finished off the mood transformation that his serene sleep had begun. His thoughts had calmed considerably, which was a relief; he knew his judgment became impaired the more wound-up he got.

“Are you going to rehouse the refugees who’re being looked after by the Hive?” Astrid asked. She was poring over a paperscreen as she ate her fruit and honey yogurt. “I mean, they’re being made welcome, and all, but they aren’t gonna wanna stay there.”

“Long-term, they’ll certainly move on. We’re busy designating phase three and late stage-two planets that can absorb all the refugees. As to when a Commonwealth-endorsed settlement project gets under way, that depends on the Senate. For now, everyone’s just concentrating on providing relief for the survivors.”

“Half of them will be absorbed back into mainstream society without any government aid packages,” Campbell said. “The majority are skilled people who can integrate into any modern economy; it’ll just be a question of finding a planet with an ethnic base that suits them. Augusta companies have received a lot of employment inquiries already. So have the other Big15.”

“It says the insurance companies won’t compensate them,” Astrid said, her manicured finger tapping the news article on her paperscreen in accusation.

“All the local insurance companies were destroyed along with their planets,” Nigel said.

“They’re subdivisions of the major companies,” she said. “You know that.”

“Sure. But compensation is going to have to involve government. The Dow-Times index is still down eight thousand; the finance houses can’t afford to pay out trillions right now. We need to concentrate our taxes on the navy and strengthening planetary defenses.”

“That’s outrageous,” Paloma exclaimed. “They need our help. They suffered because of Doi’s stupid mistakes.”

Nigel tried not to smile at her righteous anger. She had the full indignation of youth, a fieriness that promoted her attractiveness. “I pushed for the Second Chance mission.”

“Well, yes.” Paloma reddened. “But the government knew the Primes were a threat. They should have taken it seriously.”

“That’s the benefit of hindsight talking. We prepared as well as any reasonably civilized culture could be expected.”

“Will they come back, Daddy?” little Troy asked, peering anxiously over his cereal bowl.

“They might. But I promise you, all of you,” Nigel said earnestly when he saw the other children looking at him for reassurance, “I will make sure you’re safe. All of you.” He exchanged a glance with Campbell, who pulled a face before returning to his eggs Benedict.

When Nigel finished breakfast, he was almost tempted to go back to Paloma’s bedroom. But there was a ton of work to be done, so he set off to the wing of the mansion where he maintained his personal offices. It was a long walk.

Several senior members joined him for the first review conference of the day: Campbell, who had done a magnificent job orchestrating the evacuation. Nelson, the Dynasty security chief, and Nigel’s twentieth child, born when he first started having more than one wife at a time. Perdita, their media director who tied in a lot of operations with Jessica, the Augusta Senator, a position she’d held for seventy years. As Nigel looked around it struck him how they were all from the first three generations. Maybe it’s time to let the fourths up to this level? There’s no complacency worse than the comfort of familiarity. In which case why make it the fourths? Why not the fifteens, or the twenties? It’s not as if they aren’t capable.

Benjamin Sheldon, Nigel’s first grandson and the Dynasty’s comptroller, was the last to arrive. Nigel always suspected the man was slightly autistic. His devotion to detail was excruciating, and his marriages never lasted long. He didn’t quite seem to live totally in this universe. Finance was his life; he’d taken over running CST’s accounts division on his twenty-eighth birthday, and regarded his periods in rejuvenation as a major inconvenience. His memory augmentation arrays were among the most comprehensive ever wet-wired into a human; the inserts had actually increased his skull size by ten percent. As he hadn’t remodeled his body, other than his neck, to maintain proportion, his appearance inevitably drew stares.

Daniel Alster took a chair slightly behind the three couches that the seniors settled in as the e-shield came on, sealing the office.

“Any new problems?” Nigel asked.

“We’re just busy containing the old ones, thanks,” Campbell said.

“In a steady state model extrapolated from our current position, we will have regained everything we lost in eleven years,” Benjamin said. “The growth vectors are positive once resettlement of the displaced is completed.”

“It won’t be steady state,” Nelson said. “The Primes will attack again to annex more of our worlds. The cost of resisting them will be phenomenal.”

“And that’s if we succeed,” Nigel muttered.

The other seniors regarded him in mild surprise, the priest who swore in church.

“It’s the one option I’ve taken seriously since we began this whole debacle,” Nigel said. “That’s why I began the lifeboat project.”

“Have you drawn up the parameters for use?” Jessica asked.

“I think we’ll recognize the moment when it arrives. Now our advanced weapons development is finally producing results, I’m hopeful the Primes can be defeated one way or another.”

“Didn’t the War Cabinet approve genocide?” Perdita asked. “Public opinion is certainly in favor right now.”

“We agreed in principle that such an action was a last resort.”

“Typical politicians.” Nelson grunted.

Jessica smiled sweetly. “Why thank you.”

“A death toll near forty million, and it’s an option? Hardly our finest hour, I feel.”

“There’s a moral dimension in that decision, obviously,” Nigel said. “But there’s also the possibility that the Seattle quantumbusters might not be sufficient for the job. For all they’re insanely antagonistic, the Primes are not stupid. They will have established themselves in other star systems by now. Total genocide will be difficult to achieve and verify.”

“You mean we’ll have to make our weapon available to the navy?” Nelson asked.

“I’m not in favor of that,” Nigel told him. “That really is a weapon I don’t want anyone else to know about, let alone possess. The damn thing even frightens me.”

“That’s a reasonable reaction,” Jessica said glumly. “I don’t like the fact it exists, but as it does I don’t want it in anyone else’s control.”

“Quantumbusters are horrendous enough,” Nelson said. “There’s only a question of scale involved with this situation. Having the Dynasty’s finger on the trigger is purely a psychological crutch. A doomsday weapon is a doomsday weapon, whether it destroys a planet or an entire star system is worrying about how many angels can dance on a pinhead.”

“Our weapon can destroy more than one star system,” Nigel said regretfully.

“If it can be built, it will be built,” Campbell said. “If not by us, then by someone else, and I include the Primes in that statement. It’s not as if we have to worry about the other Dynasties using it. We don’t have that kind of conflict anymore.”

“Not at the moment,” Jessica said. “But let’s face it, there are still enough megalomaniac politicians about, and I don’t just mean on the Isolated worlds. We have to be very careful about revealing the potential of what we have to the rest of the Commonwealth.”

“I don’t suppose the SI will be too pleased about this particular accomplishment, either,” Nelson said.

Nigel grinned. He didn’t really trust the SI, although he didn’t regard it as malevolent. Nelson’s suspicions verged on paranoia—like those of any good security operative. “It doesn’t know yet,” Nigel said. “And it might well be thankful to us if the Primes are as successful on their next incursion as they were with the Lost23.”

“So would you use it against them here?” Campbell asked. “Or is it exclusively to defend ourselves if we have to flee?”

“I will not abandon the Commonwealth without a fight,” Nigel said. “That would be inhuman. The human race has flaws in abundance, but we don’t deserve to die for them.”

“My species, right or wrong,” Jessica said.

Perdita gave her a vexed look. “We’re right. And we’re not alone thinking that. The barrier builders obviously thought the same way about the Primes.”

“Unfortunately they had a great deal more technological resources than us,” Campbell said. “It gave them much wider range of options. As far as I can see, we only have one. Nigel, are you really going to wait until they invade again before you believe we’re justified in using our weapon against them?”

“I’m not nerving myself up,” Nigel said, piqued. “For a start, we’re still only at the design stage. Secondly, the navy will find Hell’s Gateway. If that can be wiped out with Douvoir missiles, or more likely Seattle Project quantumbusters, the whole problem will be put back, by years, most likely. That may well open up our options. We might even find the barrier builders, and persuade them to reestablish it.”

“You don’t believe that?” Jessica asked.

“No,” Nigel said dryly. “We created this problem, we have to solve it.”

As the meeting closed, Nigel asked Perdita and Nelson to stay behind. He sipped at a hot chocolate that a maidbot delivered to the study. There was just the right amount of whipped cream on top, complemented by a half-melted marshmallow. The taste was perfection. It had been prepared by his chef; he never did like bots cooking food.

“Couple of things,” he told them. “Perdita, what’s the general opinion of myself and the Dynasty? Are we being blamed? After all, we were the main supporters for the Second Chance mission.”

“Nothing too heavy in the media,” she said. “A few minor anchors and commentators have taken some cheap shots, but right now everyone’s too mad at the navy for not putting up a better fight. The way you personally dealt with the wormholes above Wessex was a huge positive factor. Your personal rating is quite high. You’ve got a lot more respect than Doi at the moment, although Kantil is being pretty astute in keeping antagonism directed at the navy.”

“Small mercies,” Nigel said as he chewed on the marshmallow. His neural programs were reviewing and refining data from the Dynasty arrays, pulling everything he could find on Ozzie. “You did a good job suppressing the Randtown story,” he told Perdita eventually. “Ozzie would be seriously pissed off if that became public knowledge.” For all his supposedly cuddly Bohemian personality, Ozzie could be very touchy about aspects of his private life.

“The other Dynasties were cooperative enough with the news shows,” she said modestly. “And the SI helped with a dataeater worm for the messages that did slip into the unisphere.”

“So I see. That’s interesting. I know Ozzie likes to think they have a special relationship, but there’s more to it, in this case, I think.” He looked at Nelson.

“You don’t seem to have much on Mellanie Rescorai.”

“What we have is a reasonable rundown,” Perdita said. “She was a corporate director’s squeeze until he got caught up in a rather sensational bodyloss case. After that, she starred in some soft-porn TSI drama, then moved into reporting. Alessandra Baron snapped her up, now they’ve fallen out; gossip in the industry says Alessandra was whoring her around to political contacts as a reward for information. Er…” She cleared her throat, amused. “You might want to ask Campbell if that’s true. Anyway…Mellanie finally refused, and they parted on very bad terms—also the talk of the industry. Michelangelo took her on straightaway. Standard media career.”

“Not the timescale,” Nigel said. A picture of Mellanie slipped into his virtual vision, some publicity shot for a TSI called Murderous Seduction; she was dressed in lacy gold lingerie that showed off a terrific body. He paused midsip. Her chin was rather prominent and her nose squat; but that didn’t stop her image from giving him the devil’s own smile. Just for a moment he really wanted to access that TSI. “Your file says her boyfriend is Dudley Bose. Is that right?”

“I think he was the last person Baron sent her to sleep with,” Perdita said.

“They’ve been together ever since.”

Nigel frowned. He didn’t even have to access any files to remember the disastrous welcome-home ceremony the navy had set up for Bose and Verbeke. Bose hadn’t been the most impressive of people in either of his incarnations, before or after the Second Chance flight. “Strange choice, for her and him.”

“Maybe he made her see the error of her ways?” Perdita suggested. “They’ll settle down and have ten kids together.”

“So she went and signed up with Michelangelo?” Nigel grunted. “No. There’s something wrong with all of this. We don’t have a record of her even meeting Ozzie, so there’s no reason why she should have access to the asteroid. None of his other exes do. And judging by the reports from Randtown she took on the Primes single-handed. That makes me very suspicious.” He gave Nelson a sharp stare. “Is she another one?”

“Looks like it.”

“Another what?” Perdita asked.

“An observer for the SI,” Nelson said. “Or spy, depending what you think about it. We know it isn’t quite as passive as it always claims. It has several people like Mellanie prying into areas of human activity it would otherwise be excluded from.”

“I had no idea. What does it want?”

“We don’t know,” Nigel said. “But that’s why I keep Cressat out of the unisphere; it gives us a proper refuge. And now we’ve seen what it did with Ozzie’s wormhole I finally feel justified.”

“It wasn’t a malign act,” Nelson said. “It actually saved Mellanie and the other humans in Randtown.”

“I know. That’s why I don’t worry unduly about it. However, it remains an enigma, and given our current war situation that means we cannot fully trust it.”

“So what do you want to do about Mellanie?” Nelson asked.

Nigel canceled her image before he gave an inappropriate reply—but she would be a wonderful addition to his harem. “Discreet observation. And put a good team on it. The SI will be watching out for her.”

“We’ll have her covered in an hour.”

“Good. There’s something else, which I really hate doing. I cannot believe Ozzie wouldn’t get back in touch after the Prime attack. Find out where he is, Nelson. I need to know if he’s alive or dead.”


It was Donald Bell Homesecure that had the contract for 1800 Briggins. A private company with a Darklake City police authority license, they were authorized to apprehend and detain anyone believed to be breaking and entering their clients’ property, and even permitted to discharge firearms if threatened with lethal force.

The alarm that went off in their control center reported that the bungalow’s door had been opened without the correct code. One of the operators called it up, and saw the owner, Mr. Cramley, was listed as currently being out of town. They dispatched a nearby patrol car and alerted the Olika police precinct that their staff was investigating a suspect incident.

Barely a minute later, the alarm changed to a fire alert, with the bungalow’s internal sensors reporting several dangerous hot spots growing. The control center operator immediately called the fire department. Two tenders were dispatched.

When the Homesecure patrol car pulled up outside 1800 Briggins the officers inside were expecting to deal with a simple break-in with petty vandalism. It wasn’t the usual kind of crime in Olika, but then these were troubled times. They slid the visors down on their flexarmor suits and hurried in through the gate to see if the perpetrators were still on the premises.

Flames were already flowing against the lounge’s broad arching windows, casting fans of orange light out across the lawn. The officers went in through the front door, their 10mm semiautomatic pistols already drawn, ready for trouble. When they reached the lounge, they were greeted by a confusing scene. Several items of furniture were blazing fiercely, and the parquet flooring and rugs were beginning to catch fire. Long flames licked up the curving walls to play against the ceiling. On the floor were two clusters of large furry balls. They moved slightly, jostling against each other. The parquet around them was covered in black glistening liquid that bubbled like tar as it steamed from the intense heat.

One of the nostats flattened out slightly, raising its front half sluggishly up toward the two stupefied officers. They stared in horror at the section of corpse the movement revealed. Whoever the victim was, it had been reduced to shreds of gore tangled around bloody bones. The underside bristles of the nostat were soggy with blood.

Both officers froze for a moment, then started shooting. The bloated nostats exploded, splattering blood across the flexarmor suits.

It took a quarter of an hour to bring the fire under control. Firebots worked their way in through the flames, spraying foam as they went. Over a third of the bungalow was wrecked, with the rest suffering considerable smoke damage. The drycoral structure itself didn’t burn, but most of it had been killed by the heat. It meant the owner would have to tear the whole thing down and regrow it.

Police and Homesecure staff surrounded the bungalow while the flames were brought under control, their weapons active, ready for any nostats that might flee the conflagration. Afterward, they swept through the ruined rooms in case any of the creatures had survived.

A Darklake City coroner’s van arrived at dawn, and the remains of the intruders were bagged up and removed for forensic examination. Scene of Crime staff wandered around, making a recording of the area, and taking a few samples. It seemed like a relatively clear-cut case: an opportunist break-in that went horribly wrong. The police issued a request for Paul Cramley to return for questioning, and filed a preliminary penalty notice for keeping illegal dangerous nonsentient aliens within the city boundary. Mr. Cramley did not respond to any calls made to his unisphere address.

At midday the site was handed back to Homesecure. It was part of the contract to guard the property until the owner returned and assumed responsibility.

A lawyer representing Mr. Cramley arrived at the Olika police precinct at two o’clock that afternoon and paid the steep fine for violating the dangerous aliens law, and gave an undertaking the crime would not be repeated, paying a five-year bond to guarantee compliance. The lawyer then went on to the Homesecure control center, and signed off on 1800 Briggins, assuming full responsibility for the property. The guards went home.

Mellanie’s cab drew up outside the bungalow just after four in the afternoon, responding to a message that Paul had left in her e-butler’s hold file. The lock on the gate had already been repaired. It buzzed and opened for her just like before.

She picked her way through the blackened interior of the bungalow, wrinkling her nose up at the smell of burnt plastic and other fumes that still hadn’t completely dissipated. Cinders and scorched parquet crunched under her fancy red and gold pumps. It was probably a mistake to have worn heels.

The little circular swimming pool at the center of the bungalow was undisturbed, though several of the patio doors leading out to it were smashed, their metal edges warped by the heat. Leaves floated on water that hadn’t been filtered for a month. She looked around curiously. “Paul?”

The water started gurgling. As she stared at the pool, a whirl appeared at the center, deepening into a cone. Within a minute the water had emptied away, leaving the marble walls dripping. On the side opposite the steps, a doorway irised open.

Mellanie arched her eyebrow at it. “Neat,” she commented. She took her pumps off, and walked down the slick steps. The door was plyplastic disguised to look like marble; there was a narrow concrete corridor beyond it with polyphoto strips along the ceiling. It angled down quite steeply.

Ten meters in, she turned a sharp corner. The floor leveled out, and the corridor ended at a wide brightly illuminated room. It had the same clean green-tinted walls and floor she associated with an operating theater; similar cool dry air, too. Several tall stacks of electronic equipment stood in a loose circle around what appeared to be a transparent coffin. Paul Cramley lay in it, floating in a translucent pink liquid. He was naked, his face covered by a conical mask of blank flesh, the apex of which fused into a thick plastic air tube that snaked away into a socket in the top corner of the coffin. Hundreds of filaments no thicker than hair sprouted from the skin along his spine; every few centimeters clusters of them were braided together and plugged into thick bundles of fiber-optic cable.

Mellanie walked over to the coffin and peered down. The gooey pink fluid magnified Paul’s scrawny ancient body in a way she could have done without; but she could see he was still alive, his chest rising and falling in a slow regular rhythm.

A portal on one of the cabinets lit up with an image of a young man’s face. It had a lot of Paul’s features. “Hello, young Mellanie, welcome to my lair.”

She glanced from the body to the portal. “Cool setup. Paranoid, but cool.”

“I’m alive, aren’t I?” The image smiled.

It was actually quite a handsome face, she thought, which disturbed her more than she wanted to acknowledge. “Have you been hurt? Is this a rejuvenation tank?”

“Not at all. This is a maximum interface unit. My nervous system is fully wetwired into the large array here in the crypt. Every sensation I now feel is actually an artificial impulse. You have a virtual vision; I have virtual smell, taste, temperature, tactile reception, hearing, everything. What my brain interprets as walking is in reality a directional instruction to access sections of the unisphere and the arrays connected to it. My hands can manipulate programs and files to an amazing degree, and all at accelerant speed.”

“Morty always said you were a complete webhead.”

“How right he was.”

“What happened here last night, Paul?”

“It wasn’t a break-in; they were sent to kill me. I used a focused EMP on their inserts, and…nature took its course. Not to mention stupidity.”

“Who were they?”

“Good question. Would you like to start trading?”

Mellanie suddenly felt as though she was slipping away from her earlier position of confidence. Her initial judgment of Paul was a woeful underestimation; and all the clues had been there if she’d bothered to think about them. An impoverished, seedy four-hundred-year-old? Come on! “You already owe me Alessandra Baron for telling you about the Starflyer.”

“Very well. Baron was receiving and sending a great deal of encrypted traffic across the unisphere.”


“Unfortunately, the protective monitors she uses are excellent. The person using them actually managed to backtrack my own operation. That’s quite an achievement. Outside the SI, I know of only a dozen or so webheads in the Commonwealth boasting that kind of ability. This unknown person has a level of skill equal to my own, a development which I find more disturbing than the SI’s protection of Paula Myo. Clearly Baron has something very serious to hide.”

“I told you that. And it was probably the Starflyer who tracked you down. I need to know who else is involved.”

“For a start: Marlon Simmonds and Roderick Deakins, the two who broke into my bungalow last night.”

“Big help, Paul, your creepy alien pets took care of them.”

“Show some patience, Mellanie. It is the connection which is interesting. Once I discovered their identity, I accessed their bank accounts. Both of them received a payment of five thousand Oaktier dollars yesterday. The money was transferred from a onetime account opened approximately three hours after Baron became aware of my interest.”


“Which I backtracked to a corporate account on Earth, in the Denman Manhattan bank.”

Mellanie gave the youthful face in the portal a startled look. “You backtracked a onetime account? I thought that was impossible.”

“So the banks would like you to believe. It is very difficult, but it can be done. There are certain small flaws in the onetime establishment procedure which can be exploited, that even the Intersolar security services don’t know about. I know because I used to know someone who knew someone who was involved with writing the original program. Does the name Vaughan Rescorai mean anything to you?”


“Your great-great-grandfather, I believe.”

“You knew him?” she asked in surprise.

“We mega webheads are a small, close community. Vaughan was a good man.”

“Yes. Yes, he was.”

“He was your way into the SI, wasn’t he?”

“Yes,” she admitted.

“Thought so. Your secret’s safe with me.”

“Thanks, Paul. What was the company?”

“Bromley, Waterford, and Granku. They are a legal firm—”

“From New York on Earth.”

“You know of them?”

“Yeah. Some of their associates were involved with a scam involving Dudley Bose. I think the Starflyer used them to fund the observation of the Dyson Alpha enclosure.”

“Which resulted in the Second Chance flight, and the collapse of the barrier, and ultimately the Lost23. I see. It certainly ties in with your theory. I managed to track some of Baron’s communications before her countermeasures forced me to withdraw. Two of them were addressed to a Mr. Pomanskie at Bromley, Waterford, and Granku.”

“Hell. He was on the board of the Cox Educational charity.”

“I suspect Pomanskie, or some junior lieutenant, hired Simmonds and Deakins to put a stop to my electronic spying.”

“Yeah, most likely. Can you get into Bromley, Waterford, and Granku’s accounts, see what other payments they’ve been making?”

“I can. I would need an incentive.”

Mellanie sighed, and tipped her head to one side. “What do you want?”

“Information. Baron hasn’t occupied my time exclusively. There are a number of other interesting things occurring within the Commonwealth right now.”

“Such as?”

“Did you know several ‘lifeboat’ consortiums are being put together?”

“No. What lifeboats?”

“There are some Intersolar Dynasties, Grand Families, and mere ordinary billionaires who are uncertain that our shiny new Commonwealth navy can defeat the Prime aliens. They are quietly channeling funds into very large colonizer starships that have a trans-galactic range. Seventeen such vessels have already been put into production, and at least another twelve are being planned that I am aware of. Each of the Big15 is hosting at least one of the projects. The lifeboats can hold several tens of thousands of people in suspension, along with all the manufacturing cybernetics necessary to establish an advanced technological human society from scratch on a new world.”

“Those sons of bitches,” Mellanie exclaimed. Even after all the time she’d been exposed to the ultra-rich and their political flunkies, the idea that they’d turn tail and run caught her by surprise. “They’re going to leave us to do their dirty fighting for them?”

“Now then, Mellanie, don’t whine like some Bolshevik class warrior; it’s a perfectly sensible precaution. Exactly what I expect from that class. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t hop on board if you were presented with a berth?”

She scowled down at Paul’s coffin. “Michelangelo offered me a gig reporting on all the people emigrating to the High Angel. They all think it’ll fly them clear if the worst happens.”

“High Angel is a good bet, especially if you don’t have any real money, although they’ll hardly be in charge of their own destiny. Who knows where that machinecreature will take them, or what its ultimate purpose is.”

“So what’s all this got to do with me?”

“I want to know which lifeboat stands the highest chance of success.”

“You’re leaving?”

“Let’s just say I’ll be buying a ticket. I have a degree of confidence in our military ability, and I’ve certainly seen what kind of technological atrocities our species’ weapons scientists can produce when the need arises. But the Primes do have a phenomenal amount of resources available to use against us. Like I said: sensible precaution.”

Mellanie shook her head; she wasn’t sure if it was in dismay or disgust. “So where do I come in?”