/ Language: English / Genre:sf_space,sf_epic, / Series: Night's Dawn

Neutronium Alchemist Conflict

Peter Hamilton

Not every fallen angel comes from heaven... The ancient menace has finally escaped from Lalonde, shattering the Confederation's peaceful existence. Those who succumbed to it have acquired godlike powers, but now follow a far from divine gospel as they advance inexorably from world to world. On planets and asteroids, individuals battle for survival against the strange and brutal forces unleashed upon the universe. Governments teeter on the brink of anarchy, the Confederation Navy is dangerously over-stretched, and a dark messiah prepares to invoke his own version of the final Night. In such desperate times the last thing the galaxy needs is a new and terrifyingly powerful weapon. Yet Dr Alkad Mzu is determined to retrieve the Alchemist - so she can complete her thirty-year-old vendetta to slay a star. Which means Joshua Calvert has to find Dr Mzu and bring her back before the Alchemist can be reactivated. But he's not alone in the chase, and there are people on both sides who have their own ideas about how to use the ultimate doomsday device. The Neutronium Alchemist: Conflict, is the second part of the second novel of Peter F. Hamilton's space opera epic that ranges not only across interstellar space but across the boundary between life and death. (The series begins with The Reality Dysfunction: Emergence and Expansion). This book mainly revolves around Dr. Alkad Mzu, creator of a doomsday weapon so powerful it scares even the citizens of this high-tech and heavily beweaponed future. Mzu is on a decades-long quest to take vengeance against the people who destroyed her home planet, and she wields alarming cunning and ruthlessness in the pursuit. But what gives even her pause is the war against the souls of the dead who have returned from a hellish Beyond to possess the living. Both sides want her: the dead want the weapon, the living want to keep the weapon out of the dead's hands. Unfortunately for them, that means they must find and take Mzu alive, while all the dead need to do is kill her, bringing her into their realm. Rarely has science fiction produced a series as rich, satisfying, and big as this one. In addition to the action, Hamilton continues to beguile us with the greater mystery of the returned dead--new clues are discovered, only to create new enigmas.

Neutronium Alchemist: Conflict

Chapter 01

Lady Macbeth slipped slowly into place above the docking cradle, her equatorial verniers sparkling briefly as Joshua compensated for drift. Optical-band sensors gave a poor return here; Tunja’s ruby glow was insipid even in clear space, and down where Ayacucho lurked among the disk particles it was an abiding roseate gloom. Laser radar guided the starship in until the cradle latches clamped home.

The bay’s rim lights sprang up to full intensity, highlighting the hull, their reflected beams twisting about at irregular angles as the thermo-dump panels folded back into the fuselage. Then the cradle started to descend.

In the bridge not a word was spoken. It was the mood which had haunted them all the way from Narok, an infection passed down from captain to crew.

Sarha looked over the bridge at Joshua for some sign of . . . humanity, she supposed. He had flown them here, making excellent time as always. And apart from the kind of instructions necessary to keep the ship humming smoothly, he hadn’t put ten words together. He’d even taken his meals alone in his cabin.

Beaulieu and Dahybi had told the rest of the crew of the Norfolk possession, and how concerned Joshua had been for Louise. So at least Sarha knew the reason for his blues, even though she found it slightly hard to believe. This was the Joshua with whom she’d had an affair for over six months last year. He was so easy about the relationship that when they did finally stop sleeping together she’d stayed on as part of the crew without any awkwardness on either side.

Which was why she found it difficult that Joshua could be so affected by what had happened to Louise, by all accounts a fairly simple country girl. He never became that entangled. Commitment wasn’t a concept which nested in his skull. Part of the fascination was his easygoing nature. There was never any deceit with Joshua, you knew just where you stood.

Perhaps Louise wasn’t so simple after all. Perhaps I’m just jealous.

“Going to tell us now, Captain?” she asked.

“Huh?” Joshua turned his head in her general direction.

“Why we’re here? We’re not chasing Meyer anymore. So who is this Dr Mzu?”

“Best you don’t ask.”

A circuit of the bridge showed her how irritated everyone was getting with his attitude. “Absolutely, Joshua; I mean, you can’t be sure if we’re trustworthy, can you? Not after all this time.”

Joshua stared at her. Fortunately, belaboured intuition finally managed to struggle through his moping thoughts to reveal the crew’s bottled-up exasperation. “Bugger,” he winced. Sarha was right, after all they’d been through together these people deserved a better style of captaincy than this. Jesus, I’m picking up Ione’s paranoia. Thank God I didn’t have to make any real command decisions. “Sorry, I just got hit by Norfolk. I wasn’t expecting it.”

“Nobody expected any of this, Joshua,” Sarha said sympathetically.

“Yeah, right. Okay, Dr Mzu is a physicist, who once worked for the Garissan navy—”

They didn’t say much while he told them what the flight was about. Which was probably a good thing, he guessed. It was one hell of a deal he’d accepted on their behalf. How would I feel if they’d dragged me along without knowing why?

When he finished he could see a mild smile on Ashly’s face, but then the old pilot always did claim to chase after excitement. The others took it all reasonably stoically; though Sarha was looking at him with a kind of bemused pique.

Joshua hitched his face up into one of his old come-on grins. “Told you, you were better off not knowing.”

She hissed at him, then relented. “Bloody hell, wasn’t there anybody else the Lord of Ruin could use?”

“Who would you trust?”

Sarha tried to come up with an answer, and failed hopelessly.

“If anyone wants to bail out, let me know,” Joshua said. “This wasn’t exactly covered in my job description when you signed on.”

“Neither was Lalonde,” Melvyn said dryly.

“Beaulieu?” Joshua asked.

“I have always served my captain to the best of my ability,” the shiny cosmonik said. “I see no reason to stop now.”

“Thanks. All of you. Okay, let’s get Lady Mac powered down. Then we’ll have a quick scout around for the doctor.”

The Dorados Customs and Immigration Service took seventy-five minutes to process the Lady Mac ’s crew. Given the quarantine, Joshua had been expecting some hassle, but these officers seemed intent on analysing every molecule in the starship. Their documentation was reviewed four separate times. Joshua wound up paying a five-thousand-fuseodollar administration fee to the chief inspector before they were confirmed to be non-possessed, had the appropriate Tranquillity government authorization to be flying, and declared suitable citizens to enter Ayacucho.

The lawyers were waiting for him at the end of the docking bay airlock tube. Three of them, two men and a woman, their unfussy blue suits cloned from some conservative chain-store design program.

“Captain Calvert?” the woman asked. She gave him a narrow frown, as if uncertain he could be the person she wanted.

Joshua rotated slightly so his silver star on his epaulette was prominent. “You got me.”

“You are the captain of the Lady Macbeth ?” Again the uncertainty.

“Yep.”

“I am Mrs Nateghi from Tayari, Usoro and Wang, we represent the Zaman Service and Equipment Company which operates here in the spaceport.”

“Sorry, guys, I don’t need a maintenance contract. We just got refitted.”

She held out a flek with a gold scale of justice symbol embossed on one side. “Marcus Calvert, this is a summons for fees owing to our client since August 2586. You are required to appear before the Ayacucho civil claims court at a date to be set in order to resolve this debt.”

The flek was pressed into Joshua’s palm. “Whaa—” he managed to grunt.

Sarha started giggling, which drew a cool glare from Mrs Nateghi. “We have also filed a court impounding order on the Lady Macbeth ,” she said frostily. “Please do not try and leave as you did last time.”

Joshua kissed the flek flamboyantly and beamed at the woman. “I’m Joshua Calvert. I think you should be talking to my father. He’s Marcus Calvert.”

If the statement threw her, there was no visible sign. “Are you the Lady Macbeth ’s current owner?”

“Sure.”

“Then you remain liable for the debt. I will have the summons revised to reflect this. The impounding order remains unaffected.”

Joshua kept his smile in place. He datavised the flight computer for a review of all 2586 log entries. There weren’t any. “Jesus, Dad, thanks a bunch,” he muttered under his breath. No way—absolutely not—would he show the three vultures how fazed he was. “Look, this is obviously an oversight, a computer glitch, something on those lines. I have no intention of contesting the debt. And I shall be very happy to pay off any money owing on Lady Mac ’s account. I’m sure nobody wants this regrettable misunderstanding to come to court.” He jabbed a toe at Sarha whose giggles had turned to outright laughter.

Mrs Nateghi gave a brisk nod. “It is within my brief to accept payment in full.”

“Fine.” Joshua took his Jovian Bank credit disk out of his ship-suit’s top pocket.

“The cost in 2586 to the Zaman Company for services rendered comes to seventy-two thousand fuseodollars. I have an invoice.”

“I’m sure you do.” Joshua held out the credit disk, anxious to be finished.

The lawyer consulted her processor block, a show of formality. “The interest accrued on your debt over twenty-five years comes to two hundred and eighty-nine thousand fuseodollars, as approved by the court.”

Sarha’s laughter ended in a choke. Joshua had to use a neural nanonics nerve impulse override to stop himself from snarling at the lawyer. He was sure she was doing the same to stop her equally blank face from sneering. Bitch! “Of course,” he said faintly.

“And our firm’s fee for dealing with the case is twenty-three thousand fuseodollars.”

“Yes, I thought you were cheap.”

This time, she scowled.

Joshua shunted the money over. The lawyers hauled themselves away down the corridor.

“Can we afford that?” Sarha asked.

“Yes,” Joshua said. “I have an unlimited expense account for this trip. Ione’s paying.” He didn’t want to dwell on what she’d say when she saw the bill.

I wonder why Dad left in such a hurry?

Ashly patted Joshua’s shoulder. “Real chip off the old block, your dad, eh?”

“I hope he hurries up and possesses someone soon,” Joshua said through gritted teeth. “There’s a few things I’d like to talk to him about.” Then he thought about what he’d just said. Maybe not as funny and cuttingly sarcastic as he’d intended. Because Dad was there in the beyond. Suffering in the beyond. That’s if he wasn’t already . . . “Come on, let’s make a start.”

The club he wanted, according to the spaceport personnel, was the Bar KF-T; that’s where the action was. Along with the dealers, pushers, and pimps, and all the rest of the people in the know.

The trouble was, Joshua found after a straight two-hour stint of surfing the tables, they didn’t know the one piece of information he needed. The name of Alkad Mzu had not left a heavy impression on the citizens of Ayacucho.

At the end he gave up and went to sit with Ashly and Melvyn at a raised corner table. It gave him a good view over the dance floor, where some nice girls were moving in trim movements. He rolled his beer bottle between his palms, not much interested in the contents.

“It was only a long shot, Captain,” Melvyn said. “We ought to start sniffing around the astroengineering companies. Right now they’re so desperate for business that even the legitimate ones would happily consider selling her a frigate.”

“If she wants to disappear, she has to do it at the bottom of the heap,” Joshua said. “You’d think the dealers would have heard something.”

“Maybe not,” Ashly said. “There’s definitely some kind of underground league here. It can’t be the same as the usual asteroid independence movements; the Dorados are already sovereign. I got a few hints when they thought I was offering Lady Mac ’s services, plenty of talk about revenge against Omuta. Mzu could have turned to them, after all they’re her people. Unfortunately, the likes of you and I can hardly pass ourselves off as long-lost cousins of the cause.” He held up his hand, studying it dispassionately.

Joshua looked at his own skin. “Yeah, you’ve got a point. We’re not exactly obvious Kenyan-ethnic stock are we?”

“Dahybi might make the grade.”

“I doubt it.” His eyes narrowed. “Jesus, will you look at how many of those kids are wearing red handkerchiefs around their ankles.” Six or seven times that evening while he’d been scouting around teenagers had asked him to take them to Valisk.

“We could do worse than the Deadnights,” Melvyn said broodingly. “At least there aren’t any possessed here.”

“Don’t count on it.” Ashly leaned over the table, lowering his voice. “My neural nanonics suffered a couple of program load errors this evening. Not full glitches, but the diagnostics couldn’t pinpoint the cause.”

“Humm.” Joshua looked at Melvyn. “You?”

“My communications block had a five-second dropout.”

“Some of my memory cells went off-line earlier, too. I should have paid more attention. Shit. We’ve been here barely three hours, and we’ve each been close enough to one to be affected. What does that come to in percentages of the population?”

“Paranoia can be worse than real dangers,” Melvyn said.

“Sure. If they are here, they’re obviously not strong enough to mount an all-out takeover campaign. Yet. That gives us a little time.”

“So what’s out next move?” Melvyn asked.

“Other end of the spectrum, I suppose,” Joshua said. “Contact someone in government who can run discreet checks for us. Or maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to let slip the Lady Mac is for hire. If Mzu is here to get help, the only place it’ll come from is the nationalist community. They might even wind up trying to charter us to deploy the damn thing.”

“Too late now,” Ashly said. “We’re officially here to buy defence components for Tranquillity. And we’ve been asking too many questions.”

“Yeah. Jesus, I’m not used to thinking along these lines. I wonder if any of my fellow captains have been approached for a combat charter?”

“Only if she’s actually in this asteroid,” Ashly said. “Nothing to stop the Samaku docking at one of the others when it arrived. That’s even if she came here in the first place. We ought to be checking that.”

“I’m not an idiot,” Joshua moaned. “Sarha’s working on it.”

Sarha’s smile appeared a little frayed after the third time Mabaki bumped against her. The crowd in the Bar KF-T weren’t that excitable. She could certainly thread her way through without jostling anyone.

Mabaki waggled his eyebrows when she glanced back. “Sorry.” He grinned.

It wasn’t so much that he bumped her, as where. And how the touch tarried. She told herself a pathetic middle-aged letch was probably going to be one of the smaller tribulations they would encounter on this crazy course Joshua had set.

Just before she gave in and tried a datavise, she located Joshua standing over by the bar (where else, she asked herself). “That’s him,” she told Mabaki.

Sarha tapped Joshua on the shoulder as he was accepting a beer bottle from the barmaid. “Joshua, I found someone I think can . . .” She trailed off in confusion. It wasn’t Joshua. That she of all people could be mistaken was astonishing. But he did look remarkably similar, especially in the treacherously shimmering light thrown out by the dance floor’s holographic spray. Same broad chest to accommodate a metabolism geneered for free fall, identical prominent jaw folding back into flat cheeks. But this man’s skin was darker, though nothing like the ebony of most Dorado Kenyan-ethnics, and his glossy hair was jet-black rather than Joshua’s nondescript brown.

“I’m sorry,” she stammered.

“I’m not.” He could certainly manage the Joshua charm-grin, too. Possibly even better than Joshua.

“I was looking for someone else.”

“I hate him already.”

“Goodbye.”

“Oh, please, I’m too young for my life to end. And it will when you leave. At least have a drink with me first. He can wait.”

“No he can’t.” She began to move away. Some erratic impulse made her look back in perplexity. Damn, the likeness was extraordinary.

His smile widened. “That’s it. You’re making the right choice.”

“No. No, I’m not.”

“At least let me give you my eddress.”

“Thank you, but we’re not staying.” Sarha forced her legs to work. She just knew her face would be red. How stupidly embarrassing.

“I’m Liol,” he called out after her. “Just ask for Liol. Everybody knows me.”

I’ll bet they do, she thought, especially the girls. The crowd closed around her again, Mabaki tagging along faithfully.

Second time lucky. Joshua was sitting at a table in a shadowy corner, and he was with Ashly and Melvyn, so there was no mistake this time.

“Officer Mabaki works for the Dorados Immigration Service,” Sarha explained as she pulled up a chair.

“Excellent,” Joshua said. “I’d like to purchase some of your files.”

It cost him fifteen thousand fuseodollars to learn that the Samaku had definitely docked at Ayacucho. One passenger had disembarked.

“That’s her,” Mabaki confirmed after Joshua datavised a visual file to him. “Daphine Kigano. You don’t forget women like that.”

“Daphine Kigano, really? Bit of a viper was she?”

“You’re telling me.” Mabaki savoured another sip of the Tennessee Malt Joshua had bought him. “She was some friend or other of Ikela’s. You don’t mess with those sort of connections.”

Joshua datavised the club’s net processor for a civil information core, and accessed a file on Ikela. It was mostly public relations spin released by T’Opingtu, but it gave him an idea of what he was dealing with. “So I see,” he muttered. “Can you tell us what starships have left since Daphine Kigano arrived?”

“That’s simple. None. Well, not unless you count the Edenist delegation, but they’re from this system’s gas giant anyway. There are still some inter-orbit ships flying, but no Adamist starships. The Lady Macbeth is the first starship to arrive since the Samaku departed.”

After Mabaki left a grin spread over Joshua’s face. It was the first in a long time which didn’t have to be printed there by neural nanonics. “She’s still here,” he said to the others. “We’ve got her.”

“We’ve got a lead on her,” Melvyn cautioned. “That’s all.”

“Optimist. Now we know who to ask for, we can start focusing our efforts. I think this Ikela character would be a good place to start. Hell, we can even get a legitimate appointment. T’Opingtu is the kind of company we ought to approach for Tranquillity’s SD spares, anyway.” He drained his beer bottle and put it back on the table. A flash of movement caught his eye, and he slapped his hand down on the spider which was scuttling clear of the soggy mat.

“Oh, well,” Samuel said. “At least we know why he’s here. I suppose Ione Saldana must have commissioned him to track Mzu.”

“That stupid little cow,” Monica complained. “Doesn’t she have any idea what kind of issues she’s fooling with? And sending some bloody mercenary on the chase!”

“Lagrange Calvert,” Samuel mused. “I suppose she could have done worse. He’s certainly got the balls for a mission like this.”

“But not the style. God, if he starts blundering around asking questions everyone in the Dorados is going to know Mzu is running loose. Here of all places! I ought to terminate him; it’d save us a nasty headache in the long term.”

“I do wish you wouldn’t keep on about how much easier life would be if we killed everyone who poses the slightest inconvenience. Calvert is an amateur, he’s not going to bother us. Besides, he won’t be the one who stirs up the public.” Samuel indicated the row of AV pillars set up along one side of the rented office. Edenist agents were busy monitoring the output of every Ayacucho-based media company.

News of Ikela’s death was already breaking, tying it in with reports of a “disturbance” at the offices of Laxa and Ahmad. Police were treating the death as suspicious, refusing to comment to the rovers gathered outside the doors of the legal firm. Although they’d already let slip that they would like to question Kaliua Lamu about the death.

Monica winced at that. She shouldn’t have blown him, but they had been desperate for the information. The financier had demanded that Monica protect him from his erstwhile comrades: a request she could hardly refuse. He and his family were already on board one of the Edenist delegation’s voidhawks, waiting to be spirited away to safety. “Don’t I know it. That Cabral is going to make our life hell,” she grumbled. “I don’t know why you let him and the other two go.”

“You know perfectly well why. What else could we do? For goodness’ sake, Feira Ile is Ayacucho’s SD chief; and Malindi is president of the Merchant’s Association; and both of them sit on the Dorados governing council. I could hardly authorize their abduction.”

“I suppose not,” she sighed.

“It’s not as if they can tell people what they were doing, or even that they were there.”

“Don’t count on it. They’re certainly above the law here; and if any word of Mzu does leak out it’ll inflame the nationalist sympathy.”

“I think we had better assume it will do. Cabral will make sure of it. After all, he voted to help her retrieve the Alchemist.”

“Yes.” She let out an exasperated groan. “God, we walked right past her!”

“Ran past,” Samuel corrected.

Monica glared at him. “Any sightings?”

“None at all. However we are losing an unusual number of spiders.”

“Oh?”

“Children are going around killing them. It’s some kind of organized game. Several day clubs are running competitions to see who can find the most. There are cash prizes. Clever,” he acknowledged.

“Somebody’s well organized.”

“Yes and no. Children are a most peculiar method of attack, the numbers they can eliminate will inconvenience us rather than block us. If it was another agency that discovered we were infiltrating the asteroid, they would release a tailored virus to kill the spiders.” He cast an inquiring glance. “No?”

She puckered her lips in an ironic smile. “I would imagine that could well be standard operating procedure for some people.”

“So . . . it isn’t an agency, but it is someone who has connections that reach down into local day clubs. And quickly.”

“Not the partizans. They were never that well organized, and their membership is mostly aging reticents. The group that has Mzu?”

“By process of elimination, it must be.”

“Yes, but so far we only know one member, this Voi girl. If there is an inner core of partizans I find it hard to believe the ESA didn’t know about them.”

“And us.” He looked over to the agents monitoring the news, his face flickering through a range of expressions as he exchanged a barrage of questions and answers across the general affinity band. “Interesting.”

“What?” she asked patiently.

“Given Ikela’s mysterious death and his wealth, there’s been no mention of his daughter by any media company. That’s normally the first thing reporters focus on: who’s going to inherit.”

“Cabral’s shielding her.”

“Looks like it.”

“Do you think he could be involved with this new group?”

“Very unlikely. From what we know about him, his partizan involvement was minimal, he was part of it for form’s sake.”

“So what the hell group is Voi mixed up with?”

Much later, when he had the time to sit down and think about it, Liol gave Lalonde as the reason for being so slow off the mark. He would never have been so sluggish under normal circumstances. But after accessing Kelly Tirrel’s report he hit Ayacucho’s clubs and bars, drinking and stimming out with methodical determination. A lot of people were doing exactly the same thing, but for a different reason. They merely feared the possessed, while Liol had watched his life’s dream crumple in less than a second.

It had always been a dangerous dream. A single hope which has lasted from the earliest days of childhood is not a sound foundation on which to build a life. But Liol had done it. His mother had always told him his father would come back one day; an assurance she kept on repeating through another three husbands and countless boyfriends. He will return, and he’ll take us away with him; somewhere where the sun shines dazzling white and the land is flat and endless. A universe away from the Dorados, worldlets haunted by the momentous horror and tragedy of the past.

The dream—the sure knowledge—of his destiny gave Liol attitude, setting him apart from his peers. His was among the first generation of Garissans born after the genocide. While others suffered from their parents’ nightmares, a young Liol flourished in the expanding caverns and corridors of Mapire. He was the champion of his day club; idolized as reckless by his teeny friends, the first of all of them to get drunk, the first to have sex, the first to try soft drugs, and then not so soft, the first to run a black stimulant program through newly implanted neural nanonics. A genuine been-there-done-that kid, as much as you could go and do within the limited scope for experience permitted in orbit around Tunja.

His zest even carried over into his early twenties, when the years of his father’s non-return were beginning to pile up in an alarming quantity. He still clung to his mother’s promise.

A goodly number of his contemporaries emigrated from the Dorados when they reached their majority, a migration worrying to the council. Everyone assumed Liol would be among them, surely the first who would want to seek new opportunities. But he stayed, joining in the effort to build the Dorados into a prime industrial state.

Garissa’s refugees had been awarded the settlement rights to the Dorados by the Confederation Assembly as part of their restitutions against Omuta for the genocide. Every multistellar company mining the ore had to pay a licence fee to the council, part of which was used to invest in the asteroids’ infrastructure, while the remainder was paid directly to the survivors, and their descendants, by now scattered across the Confederation.

By 2606 this dividend had grown to a respectable twenty-eight thousand fuseodollars per annum. With such a guaranteed income as collateral, Liol had little trouble collecting loans and grants from the bank and the Dorados Development Agency to start his own business. In keeping with his now somewhat unhealthy obsession with spaceflight, he formed a company, Quantum Serendipity, specializing in servicing starship electronics. It was a good choice; the number of starship movements in the Tunja system was growing each year. He was awarded subcontracts by the larger service and maintenance companies, working his way up the list of approved suppliers. After two years of steady growth, he leased a docking bay in the spaceport, and made his first bid for a complete starship maintenance service. Year three saw Quantum Serendipity buy a majority share in a small electronics station; by producing the processors in-house he could undercut his competitors and still make a profit.

He now had the majority shares in two electronics stations, owned seven docking bays, and employed seventy people. And six months ago, Quantum Serendipity had landed a service contract for the communications network linking Ayacucho’s SD platforms; a rock-solid income which was on the verge of pushing him into a whole new level of operations.

Then news of the possession arrived from the Confederation Assembly, swiftly followed by Kelly Tirrel’s report. The first didn’t bother Liol half as much as his competitors, with his SD contract he could keep his company afloat throughout the crisis. But the second item, with its hero-of-the-day, super-pilot Lagrange Calvert rescuing little kiddies in his starship. That came close to breaking Liol. It was the end of his world.

None of his friends understood the reason behind his sudden ferocious depression, the worrying benders he launched himself into. But then they had never been told of his dream, and how much it meant to him, that was private. So after a couple of abortive attempts to “cheer him up” had failed dismally amid his tirades of calculatingly vicious abuse, they had left him alone.

Which was why he’d been surprised when the girl in the Bar KF-T had spoken to him. Surprised, and not a little bit blasted. The come-on routine he gave her was automatic, he didn’t have to think. It was only when she’d gone that a frown crossed his flattish, handsome face. “Joshua,” he said in a drink-fuddled voice. “She called me Joshua. Why did she do that?”

The barmaid, who by now had given up on the idea of lugging him home for the night, shrugged gamely and moved on.

Liol drained his whisky chaser in one swift toss, then datavised a search request into the spaceport registration computer. The answer seemed to trojan a wickedly effective sober-up program into his neural nanonics.

Alkad had seen worse rooms when she was on the move thirty years ago. The hotel charged by the hour, catering for starship crews on fast stopovers, and citizens who wanted somewhere quiet and private to indulge any of a variety of vices which modern technology could provide. There was no window, the hotel was cut into rock some distance behind the cliff at the end of the biosphere cavern. It was cheaper that way. The customers never even noticed.

Big holograms covered two of the walls, showing pictures of some planetary city at dusk, its jewelscape of twinkling lights retreating into a horizon of salmon-pink sky. The bed filled half of the floor space, leaving just enough room for people to shuffle around it. There was no other furniture. The bathroom was a utilitarian cubicle fitted with a shower and a toilet. Soaps and gels were available from a pay dispenser.

“This is Lodi Shalasha,” Voi said when they arrived. “Our electronics supremo, he’s made sure the room’s clean. I hope. For his sake.”

The young man rolled off the bed and smiled nervously at Alkad. He was dressed in a flamboyant orange suit with eye-twisting green spirals. Not quite as tall as Voi, and several kilos overweight.

Student type, Alkad categorized instantly, burning with the outrage that came from a head stuffed full of fresh knowledge. She’d seen it a thousand times before when she was a lecturer; kids from an easy background expanding their minds in all the wrong directions at the first taste of intellectual freedom.

His smile was strained when he looked at Voi. “Have you heard?”

“Heard what?” the tall girl was immediately suspicious.

“I’m sorry, Voi. Really.”

“What?”

“Your father. There was some kind of trouble at the Laxa and Ahmad offices. He’s dead. It’s all over the news.”

Every muscle in the girl’s body hardened, she stared right through Lodi. “How?”

“The police say he was shot. They want to question Kaliua Lamu.”

“That’s stupid, why would Kaliua shoot my father?”

Lodi shrugged hopelessly.

“It must have been those people running to the offices. Foreign agents, they did it,” Voi said. “We must not let this distract us.” She paused for a moment, then burst into tears.

Alkad had guessed it was coming, the girl was far too rigid. She sat Voi down on the bed and put her arm around the girl’s shoulders. “It’s all right,” she soothed. “Just let it happen.”

“No.” Voi was rocking back and forth. “I must not. Nothing must interfere with the cause. I’ve got a suppressor program I can use. Give me a moment.”

“Don’t,” Alkad warned. “That’s the worst thing you can do. Believe me, I’ve had enough experience of grief to know what works.”

“I didn’t like my father,” Voi wailed. “I told him I hated him. I hated what he did. He was weak.”

“No, Ikela was never weak. Don’t think that of your father. He was one of the best navy captains we had.”

Voi wiped a hand across her face, simply broadening the tear trails. “A navy captain?”

“That’s right. He commanded a frigate during the war. That’s how I knew him.”

“Daddy fought in the war?”

“Yes. And after.”

“I don’t understand. He never said.”

“He wasn’t supposed to. He was under orders, and he obeyed them right up to his death. An officer to the last. I’m proud of him. All Garissans can be proud of him.” Alkad hoped the hypocrisy wouldn’t taint her voice. She was alarmingly aware how much she needed Voi’s people now, whoever they were. And Ikela had almost kept the faith, it was only a white lie.

“What did he do in the navy?” Voi was suddenly desperate for details.

“Later, I promise,” Mzu said. “Right now I want you to activate a somnolence program. Believe me, it’s the best thing. We were having a hard enough day before this.”

“I don’t want to sleep.”

“I know. But you need it. And I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be here when you wake up.”

Voi glanced uncertainly at Lodi, who nodded encouragingly. “All right.” She lay back on the bed, shuffled herself comfortable, and closed her eyes. The program took hold.

Alkad stood up and deactivated the chameleon suit. It was painful peeling the hood off her face, the thin fabric stuck possessively to her skin. But the room’s cool air was a tonic; she’d sweated heavily underneath it.

She split the seal on her blouse and began to wriggle her arms out of the suit.

Lodi coughed frantically.

“Never seen a naked woman before?”

“Er, yes. But . . . I. That is—”

“Are you just playing at this, Lodi?”

“Playing at what?”

“Being a good-guy radical, a revolutionary on the run?”

“No!”

“Good. Because you’re going to see a lot worse than a bare-arsed woman my age before we’re done.”

His skittish attitude calmed. “I understand. I really do. Er—”

Alkad started on the trousers, they were tighter than the hood. “Yes?”

“Who are you, exactly?”

“Voi didn’t explain?”

“No. She just told me to alert the group for possible action. She said we must be careful because the asteroid was probably under covert surveillance.”

“She was right.”

“Yeah, I know,” he said proudly. “I was the one who worked out the Edenists were spreading those spiders.”

“Clever of you.”

“Thanks. Our junior cadres are cleaning them from critical areas, corridor junctions and places. But I made sure they skimp around this hotel; I didn’t want to draw attention to it.”

“A smart precaution. So do these cadres of yours know we’re here?”

“No, absolutely not; nobody else knows. I swear. Voi said she wanted a safe room; I even paid cash.”

Maybe I can still salvage this after all, Alkad thought. “Tell you what, Lodi; I’m going to have a shower first, then afterwards you can tell me all about this little group of yours.”

As with most crews when they were docked, Joshua liked to book in at a hotel even if it was only for a single night. It wasn’t necessarily more convenient than staying in the Lady Mac , it just made a change. This time, though, the crew returned to the starship; and Joshua depressurized the airlock tube once they were all back on board. It would hardly stop anyone in an SII suit, but Lady Mac had her fair share of internal defence systems. And besides . . . at the back of his mind was the notion that a possessed would be hard-pressed to wear and operate a spacesuit; if Kelly was right, their rampant energistic ability would completely screw up the suit’s processors. He sealed himself up in his sleep cocoon with his paranoia reduced to its lowest level in days.

It was a sombre breakfast as they began to drift into the galley cabin and collect their food five hours later. Everyone had accessed the local news companies. Ikela’s murder was the premier item.

Ashly glanced at the galley’s AV pillar as he plugged his cereal packet into the milk nozzle.

“Got to be a cover-up,” the pilot grunted. “Too much smoke, too little fire. The police should have made an arrest by now. Where’s someone as prominent as this Lamu character going to hide in an asteroid?”

Joshua glanced up from his carton of grapefruit. “You think Mzu did it?”

“No.” Ashly retrieved the now-chilly packet and gulped down a mouthful of the mushy wheat paste. “I think someone trying to get Mzu did it; Ikela just got in their way. The police must know that. They simply can’t blurt it out in public.”

“So did they get her?” Melvyn asked.

“Am I psychic?”

“Such questions are irrelevant,” Beaulieu said. “We don’t have enough information to speculate in this fashion.”

“We can certainly speculate on who else is trying to nab her,” Melvyn said. “For my money, it’s got to be the bloody intelligence agencies. If we can confirm she made it here, so can they. And that’s serious trouble, Captain. If they can kill someone like Ikela with impunity, they’re not going to worry much about riding over us.”

Joshua switched his empty carton of grapefruit for a can of tea and a croissant. He stared around at his crew as he chewed on the bland pastry (another reason he liked hotels, free-fall food was always soft and tacky to avoid crumbs). Melvyn’s words were unsettling, none of them were really used to personal, one-on-one danger; starship combat was so very different. Then there was the possibility of encountering the possessed as well. “Beaulieu’s right, we don’t have enough data yet. We’ll spend the morning rectifying that. Melvyn and Ashly, you team up; I want you to concentrate on industrial defence contracts, see if you can find traces of the kind of things Mzu would require for retrieving and deploying the Alchemist. Principally, that’ll be a starship, but it’ll still need fitting out; if we’re really lucky she could have ordered some kind of customized equipment. Dahybi, Beaulieu; try and find out what happened to the Daphine Kigano alias, where she was last seen, her credit disk number, that kind of thing. I’m going to find out what I can about Ikela and his associates.”

“What about me?” Sarha asked indignantly.

“You’re on duty in here, and you don’t let anyone apart from us on board. From now on, there will always be one of us on the bridge. I don’t know that there are any possessed in Ayacucho, but I’m not risking it. There’s also the intelligence agencies to consider, along with local security forces, and whoever Mzu is lined up with. I think now might also be an appropriate time to take the serjeants out of zero-tau just in case events turn sour. We can pass them off as cosmoniks easily enough.”

Ione was finding the whole sensation of independence most peculiar, both individually and in unison with the mirror fragment minds in the other serjeants. Her thoughts were fluttering across the affinity band like birds fleeing a hurricane.

We must try and separate more,she said.

To which her own thoughts replied: Absolutely.

She felt like giggling; the kind of giggle that came from being tickled by a merciless lover: unwelcome yet inevitable.

The affinity contact with the other three serjeants reduced, paring down to essential information: location, threat status, environment interpretation. She couldn’t help the little frisson of eagerness at the experience; this was the first time she had ever been anywhere outside Tranquillity. Ayacucho might not be much, but she was determined to soak in as much of it as she could.

She was following Joshua out of the transit capsule which had delivered them from the spaceport. The axial chamber was just a low-gee bubble of rock, but at the same time it was a bubble of rock which she hadn’t seen before. Her first foreign world.

Joshua got into a waiting tube lift and sat down. She chose the seat opposite him, the composite creaking as it adjusted to her weight.

“This is all so strange,” she said as the lift moved off. “Part of me wants to be next to you.”

His face became immobile. “Jesus, Ione, why the fuck did you shove your personality into the serjeants? Tranquillity’s would’ve been just fine.”

“Why, Joshua Calvert, I do believe you’re embarrassed.”

“Who me? Oh, no, I’m quite used to sexless two metre monstrosities making a pass at me.”

“Don’t be so grumpy. It’s unbecoming. Besides, you should be grateful. My instinct is very protective towards you. That might give me an edge.”

Joshua’s retort was lost somewhere in his throat.

The lift’s doors opened on a public hall in the asteroid’s commercial district where several late office workers scurried to work while a pair of mechanoids cleaned the walls and floor. It was less spartan than the axial chamber, with a high, arched roof and troughs of plants spaced at regular intervals. But it was still only a tunnel through rock, nothing exuberant. Unfortunately the serjeant didn’t have lips that could easily be compressed into a pout, otherwise she would have done it. She really wanted to see the biosphere cavern.

Joshua started off down the hall.

“What do you hope to accomplish here?” she asked.

“T’Opingtu is a big company; someone will have been appointed to run it straightaway. And Ikela would make sure his replacement is someone he can trust, someone from his immediate circle. It’s not much, but it’s the best lead we’ve got.”

“I really don’t think you’ll be able to get an appointment today.”

“Don’t be such a downer, Ione. Your trouble is Tranquillity is incorruptible and logical, that’s all you’re used to. Asteroids like Ayacucho are neither. The size of the contract I’m going to dangle in their faces will get me straight into the top office. There’s an etiquette to this kind of business.”

“Very well, you get in. Then what?”

“I won’t know until I get there. Remember this is strictly a data acquisition mission, everything is helpful even if it is only negative. So keep your senses open and your memory on full record.”

“Aye, Captain.”

“Okay, now we’re primarily interested in anything we can learn about Ikela’s life. We know he was an Garissan refugee, so who did he move with from the past, was he a strong nationalist? Names, contacts, that kind of stuff.”

“My personality didn’t suffer any damage during the replication process, I can think for myself.”

“Wonderful. A bodyguard with an attitude.”

“Joshua, darling, this isn’t attitude.”

He stopped and jabbed a finger at the husky construct. “Now look—”

“That’s Pauline Webb,” Ione said.

“What? Who?”

Three people were marching down the public hall towards Joshua. Two African-ethnic men flanking a white woman. He didn’t like the look of the men at all; they were wearing civilian suits, but combat armour would have been more appropriate. Boosted, and no doubt containing a wide variety of extremely lethal implants.

Pauline Webb stopped a couple of metres short of Joshua and gave the serjeant a curious glance. “Your appointment is cancelled, Calvert. Collect your crew, get back in your starship, and go home. Today.”

Joshua produced his most nonchalant grin. “Pauline Webb. Fancy seeing you here.”

Her narrowed eyes gave the serjeant another suspicious glance. “This situation is not your concern anymore.”

“It is everybody’s concern,” Ione said. “Especially mine.”

“I didn’t know you things could operate independently.”

“Now you do,” Joshua said politely. “So if you’ll just step aside . . .”

The man directly in front of Joshua folded his arms and planted his feet slightly apart, a true immovable object. He smiled carnivorously down at Joshua.

“Er, perhaps we could come to an arrangement?”

“The arrangement is simple,” Webb said. “If you leave, you get to live.”

“Come on, Joshua,” Ione said. The serjeant’s all-too-human hand closed on his shoulder, forcing him to turn.

“But—”

“Come on.”

“That’s smart advice,” Webb said. “Listen to it.”

Ione let go of his shoulder after a few paces. A fuming Joshua allowed her to escort him back down the hall towards the lift. When he glanced over his shoulder Webb and her two troopers were standing watching him.

“This isn’t her turf,” he hissed at the serjeant. “We could have caused a scene, made trouble for her. The police would have sorted her out as well as us.”

“Any incident with the authorities here would have been resolved in her favour. She’s a CNIS officer assigned to Mzu; the local Navy Bureau would have backed her, and you and I would be in deep shit, not to mention jail.”

“How the hell did Webb know where I was going?”

“I imagine Lady Mac ’s crew is under clandestine surveillance right now.”

“Jesus!”

“Quite. We will have to withdraw and come up with a new strategy.”

They reached the lift doors, and Joshua datavised for a ride back to the axial chamber. He cast another glance over his shoulder to check on Webb, a sly smile germinating on his face. “You know what this means, don’t you?”

“What?”

“The agencies don’t have her yet. We’re still in with a chance.”

“That’s logical.”

“Of course it’s logical. We may even be able to turn this to our advantage.”

“How?”

“I’ll tell you when we’re back in Lady Mac . Everyone’s going to have to undergo decontamination first. Christ knows what sort of covert nanonics they’ve stung us with. We’ll be broadcasting our own thoughts back to them if we’re not careful.”

The lift doors opened and he stepped inside. Someone had slapped half a dozen twenty-centimetre circular holomorph stickers at random over the walls, with a couple more on the ceiling. One was at head height; it started its cycle, a tight bud of lavender photons swelling out from the centre into the form of a scantily clad teenage cheerleader. She shook her silver baton enthusiastically. “Run, Alkad, run!” she yelled. “You’re our last hope; don’t let them catch you. Run, Alkad, run!”

Joshua stared at it in stupefaction. “Jesus wept.”

The cheerleader winked saucily, and syphoned back down below the sticker’s surface. Three more began their cycle.

Chapter 02

Arnstadt fell to the Organization fleet after a ninety-minute battle above the planet. The Strategic Defence network was hammered into oblivion by Capone’s antimatter-powered combat wasps. There had been some advance warning from the Edenists, giving the local navy time to redeploy their ships. Three squadrons of voidhawks had arrived from the habitats orbiting one of the system’s gas giants, reinforcing the Adamist vessels.

None of the preparations altered the final outcome. Forty-seven Arnstadt navy ships were destroyed, along with fifteen voidhawks. The remaining voidhawks swallowed away, withdrawing back to the gas giant.

The Organization fleet’s transport starships moved unopposed into low orbit, and spaceplanes began to ferry a small army of possessed down to the surface. Like all modern Confederation planets, Arnstadt had few soldiers. There were several marine brigades, which were mainly trained in space warfare techniques and covert mission procedures. Wars in this era were fought between starships. The days of foreign invasion forces marching across enemy territory had vanished before the end of the twenty-first century.

With its SD network reduced to radioactive meteorites flaring through bruised skies, Arnstadt was incapable of offering the slightest resistance to the possessed marching down out of their spaceplanes. Small towns were infiltrated first, increasing the numbers of possessed available to move on to larger towns. The area of captured ground began to increase exponentially.

Luigi Balsmao set up his headquarters in one of the orbiting asteroid settlements. Information on the people captured by the advancing possessed was datavised up to the asteroid where the structure coordination programs written by Emmet Mordden decided if they should be possessed or not. Organization lieutenants were appointed, their authority backed up by the firepower of fleet starships in low orbit.

With the subjugation of the planet confidently under way, Luigi split half of the fleet into squadrons and deployed them against the system’s asteroid settlements. Only the Edenist habitats were left alone; after Yosemite, Capone wasn’t about to risk a second defeat on such a scale.

Starships were dispatched back to New California, and fresh cargo ships began to arrive soon, bringing with them the basic components for a new SD network along with other equipment to help consolidate the Organization’s advance. Rover reporters were allowed to see carefully selected sections of the planet under its new masters: children left non-possessed to run around freely, possessed and non-possessed working side by side to restart the economy, Luigi stamping down hard on any possessed who didn’t acknowledge the Organization’s leadership.

News of the successful invasion swept across the Confederation, backed up by sensevise recordings from the reporters. Surprise was total. One star system’s government—no matter what its nature—taking over another was a concept always considered totally impossible. Capone had proved it wasn’t. In doing so he set off a chain reaction of panic. Commentators began to talk about planetary level exponential curves, the most extreme showing the entire Confederation falling to the Organization within six months as the industrial resources of more and more systems were absorbed by Capone’s empire.

On the Assembly floor, demands that the Confederation Navy should intervene and destroy the Organization fleet became almost continuous. First Admiral Aleksandrovich had to make several appearances to explain how impractical the notion was. The best the navy could do, he said, was to seek out the source of Capone’s antimatter and prevent a third system from being taken over. Arnstadt was already lost. Capone had secured a victory which couldn’t be reversed without a great loss of life. At this stage, such casualties were wholly unacceptable. He also pointed out that, sadly, a great many non-possessed crews were cooperating with the Organization to operate their starships. Without them, the invasion of Arnstadt could never have happened. Perhaps, he suggested, the Assembly should consider introducing an emergency act to deal with any such traitors. Such legislation might, in future, discourage captains seeking to sign up with Capone for short term gain.

•   •   •

“Escort duties?” André Duchamp asked wearily. “I thought we were here to help defend New California itself. What exactly does this escort duty entail?”

“Monterey hasn’t given me a detailed briefing,” Iain Girardi said. “But you will simply be protecting cargo ships from attack by the Confederation Navy. Which is exactly what your contract stipulated.”

“Hardly,” Madeleine growled. “Nor does it say anywhere that we help a deranged dictator who wiped out an entire fucking planet. I say jump out, Captain. Power up the patterning nodes right now and get the fuck out of here while we still can.”

“I would have thought this was a more appealing task for you,” Iain Girardi said. His acceleration couch webbing peeled back, and he drifted off the cushioning. “The majority of the crews in the cargo ships are non-possessed, and you won’t be permanently in range of the Organization’s SD platforms. If anything, we’re giving you an easier job with less risk for the same money.”

“Where would we be going?” André asked.

“Arnstadt. The Organization is shipping industrial equipment there to help restart the planetary economy.”

“If they hadn’t blown it all to shit in the first place they wouldn’t need to restart it,” Madeleine said.

André shushed her impatiently. “It seems fine to me,” he told Iain Girardi. “However, the ship will require some maintenance work before we can undertake such an assignment. An escort flight is very different from supplementing planetary defences.”

Iain Girardi’s humour appeared strained for the first time. “Yes. I’ll have to discuss the nature of the repairs with Monterey.” He datavised the flight computer for a communications channel.

André waited with a neutral smile.

“The Organization will bring the Villeneuve’s Revenge up to full combat-capable status,” Iain Girardi announced. “Your hull and sensor suite will be repaired by us, but you must meet the cost of secondary systems.”

André shrugged. “Take it out of our fee.”

“Very well. Please dock at Monterey’s spaceport, bay VB757. I shall disembark there; you’ll be assigned a liaison officer for the mission.”

“Non-possessed,” Desmond Lafoe said sharply.

“Of course. I believe they want you to take some reporters with you, as well. They’ll require access to your sensors during the flight.”

Merde. Those filth. What for?”

“Mr Capone is highly focused on the need for accurate publicity. He wants the Confederation to see that he is not a real threat.”

“Unlike Arnstadt,” Madeleine said swiftly.

André piloted the starship down from its emergence zone to the large asteroid. Spaceflight traffic above New California was heavy: starships raced between the orbital asteroids and the emergence zones, spaceplanes and ion field flyers flew a constant shuttle service from the planet. Although the starship only had sixty-five per cent of its sensor clusters remaining, André kept them fully extended to gather what information he could.

When the flight computer told her Girardi was talking to Monterey again, Madeleine opened an encrypted channel to André: “I don’t think we should dock,” she datavised.

The captain extended the datavise to include Erick and Desmond. “Why not?”

“Look at those ships out there, if anything there’s more activity than before the planet was possessed. I didn’t realize how damn professional this Capone Organization is. We’re not going to get out of this, André, we’re in too deep. The second we dock they’ll swarm on board and possess us.”

“Then who will crew the ship for them? Non , they need us.”

“She has a point about the Organization’s size and motivation, though,” Erick datavised. “The possessed are dependent on us flying the warships, but what happens when there are no more worlds left to invade? Capone took Arnstadt in less than a day, and almost doubled his military resources doing so. He’s not going to stop now. If he and the rest of the possessed keep on winning at that rate, there will be no place left for non-possessed anywhere in the Confederation. That’s what we’ll be helping bring about.”

“I know this.” André cast a guilty glance at Girardi to make sure he wasn’t aware of the conversation. “That is why I agreed to the escort duty.”

“I don’t get it,” Madeleine said.

“Simple, ma chérie . The Organization repairs the Villeneuve’s Revenge for me, fills up our cryogenic fuel tanks, equips us with combat wasps, and sends us off on a flight. Then while we’re en route, we vanish. What is to stop us?”

“Their liaison officer, for a start,” Desmond said.

“Ha, one man. We can overcome him. Capone has made his greatest mistake in trying to dishonour André Duchamp. It is I who is using them now, for the benefit of my fellow man, comme il faut. I am no quisling. And I think we should make sure the reporters know of this savage blow we will strike against Capone.”

“You really intend to leave?” Madeleine asked.

“Naturally.”

Erick grinned, as best as his new skin would allow him. For once Duchamp’s devious nature could actually work for the best. He opened a new file in his neural nanonics memory cell and started recording the sensor images. CNIS would want to know about the Organization’s disposition; though he suspected the New California system would already be under full covert surveillance.

“What about Shane Brandes?” Desmond asked.

André’s face darkened. “What about him?”

“How long were you planning to leave him in zero-tau?”

“I could hardly drop him off at Chaumort, it was too small. We want a backwards planet where we can dump him in the middle of a desert or a jungle.”

“Lalonde would do,” Madeleine said under her breath.

“Well, if you’re looking for somewhere he won’t come back from,” Desmond offered maliciously.

“No,” Erick datavised.

“Why not?” André asked. “Give him to the Organization when we dock. It is an excellent idea. Shows them how loyal we are.”

“We kill him, or dump him. But not that. You didn’t see what they did to Bev.”

André flinched. “Very well. But I’m not hanging on to that bastard forever, his zero-tau is costing me power.”

Villeneuve’s Revenge docked in its designated bay, its crew alert for any treachery from the Organization. There was none to see. As Iain Girardi promised, maintenance teams immediately started to work on the starship’s battered hull and defunct sensors. It took eleven hours to withdraw the damaged sections and install new replacements. Integration and diagnostic checks took another two hours to complete.

Once André agreed that they were ready for escort duties, the Organization started loading combat wasps into the launch tubes. An airlock tube slid out from the docking bay wall to connect with the Villeneuve’s Revenge .

It was Desmond, armed with a machine pistol bought on Chaumort, who went down to the lower deck with Girardi. He made sure the tube was completely empty before opening the hatch and letting the Organization man out. Only when Girardi had swum down the length of the tube, and closed the far hatch behind him, did he give André the all-clear.

“Send your liaison officer through,” André datavised to the spaceport.

As arranged, the man wore nothing, towing his clothes in a small bag behind him as he came along the tube. Desmond made every test they could think of, requesting complex datavises from the liaison officer’s neural nanonics, exposing him to different processor blocks.

“I think he’s clean,” Desmond datavised.

Madeleine unlocked the manual latches on the hatch to the lower deck.

The liaison officer introduced himself as Kingsley Pryor. To Erick, his subdued behaviour and quiet, stumbling voice indicated someone emerging from shock.

“There will be a convoy of twelve cargo ships departing for Arnstadt in three hours,” Kingsley Pryor told them. “The Villeneuve’s Revenge will be one of five combat-capable ships escorting them. Your job is to defend them from any sneak attacks from Confederation Navy ships. If it does happen, they’ll probably use voidhawks against us.” He gave the bridge a thoughtful look. “I wasn’t told there would only be four of you. Is that enough to operate at full combat efficiency?”

“Of course it is,” André responded hotly. “We have survived much worse than a voidhawk attack.”

“Very well. There is one other thing you should know. The Organization is held together by fear and respect, obedience must be total. You have accepted our money and signed on with the fleet, we will not tolerate any disloyalty.”

“You come on my ship, and tell me—” André blustered loudly.

Kingsley Pryor held up a hand. Weak though the gesture was, it silenced Duchamp immediately. Something in the liaison officer’s manner put a great deal of weight behind his authority. “You signed a pact with the devil, Captain. Now I’m explaining the small print. You don’t trust us, fair enough; we don’t really trust you either. I’m sure that now you’ve seen New California firsthand you’ve realized just how powerful and dedicated the Organization is, and you’re having second thoughts about supporting us. Perfectly natural. After all, it would be very easy for a starship to disappear in the direction of the Confederation. Let me try and dissuade you. While your ship was being repaired, a nuclear explosive was included inside one of the new components. It has a seven-hour timer which must be reset by a code. I do not have that code, so you cannot use debrief nanonics to extract it from me. A liaison officer in one of the other escort ships will transmit that code at us every three hours, resetting the timer. In turn I will transmit the code I have been given at the other ships, which have been similarly modified. If all of us stay together, there will be no problem. If one ship leaves, they will be killing themselves and the crew of another ship.”

“Remove it now!” André shouted furiously. “I will not fly under such a blackmail threat.”

“It is not blackmail, Captain, it is enforcement, making sure you abide by the terms of your contract. I believe the argument goes along the lines of: If you intended to keep the agreement you made with us you have nothing to worry about.”

“I will not fly with a bomb on board. That is final!”

“Then they will come on board, and possess you. And another crew will be found. It is the ship and its capability they want, Captain, not you as an individual.”

“This is intolerable!”

For a moment a real anger shone in Kingsley Pryor’s eyes. He sneered at André. “So is a free man agreeing to help Capone, Captain.” Then the emotion was gone, leaving only the meek expression in its wake. “Shall we get the reporters on board now? We haven’t got too much time before we have to be at the jump coordinate.”

•   •   •

Jed Hinton was still a hundred metres from the pub when he knelt down and took the red handkerchief off his ankle. Koblat’s adults were starting to get nettled by Deadnight; kids that followed the cause were being hassled. Nothing serious, some jostling in public places, arguments at home. The usual crap.

Digger, of course, despised the recording; descending into a rage whenever it was mentioned. For once Jed enjoyed a guilty delight at the way he intimidated Miri and Navar, forbidding them to have anything to do with it. Without realizing, he’d altered the political structure of the family. Now it was Jed and Gari who were the favoured ones, the ones who could access Kiera Salter, and talk about her ideas with their friends, and know the taste of freedom.

Jed walked into the Blue Fountain, making out like it was cool for him to be there. Normally he’d be anywhere else, it was Digger’s pub. But Digger was busy these days; not working the tunnelling units, but out at the spaceport doing maintenance on the machinery in the docking bays. There were three shifts a day now, supporting the increasing number of flights. Yet although everyone knew perfectly well starships were arriving and departing several times a day, there was no official log. Three times he’d accessed the net and asked the spaceport register for a list of ships docked only to be told there were none.

Fascinated, the Deadnight kids had asked around, and together they’d pieced together the basics of the quarantine-busting operation. They had all been excited that day, starships arriving illegally was perfect for them. Beth had smiled at him and said: “Bloody hell, we might just make it to Valisk, after all.” Then she’d hugged him. She’d never done that before, not in that way.

He asked the barman for a beer, slowly scanning the pub. A room where the images within the ten-year-old landscape holograms covering the walls were diminishing to blurred smears, their colours fading. The naked rock they covered would be less depressing. Most of the scuffed composite and aluminum tables were occupied. Groups of men sat hunched over their drinks and talked in low tones. Nearly a quarter of the customers were wearing ship-suits, bright and exotic compared to the clothes favoured by Koblat’s residents.

Jed located the crew from the Rameses X , the starship’s name stencilled neatly on their breast pockets. Their captain was with them, a middle-aged woman with the silver star on her epaulette. He went over.

“I wonder if I could talk to you, ma’am?”

She glanced up at him, faintly suspicious at the respectful tone.

“What is it?”

“I have a friend who would like to go to Valisk.”

The captain burst out laughing. Jed flushed as the rest of the crew groaned, trading infuriatingly superior expressions.

“Well, son, I can certainly understand how come your friend is so interested in young Kiera.” She winked broadly.

Jed’s embarrassment deepened, which must have been obvious to all of them. True, he had spent hours on his processor block with a graphics program, altering the image from the recording. Now the block’s small AV pillar could project her lying beside him on the bed at night, or looming over him smiling. At first he’d worried he was being disrespectful, but she would understand the need he had for her. The love. She knew all about love, in its many forms. It was all she spoke of.

“It’s what she offers,” he stammered helplessly. “That’s what we’re interested in.”

That just brought another round of hearty laughter from the group.

“Please,” he said. “Can you take us there?”

The humour sank from her face. “Listen, son, take the advice of an older woman. That recording: it’s just a big bullshit con. They want you there so they can possess you, that’s all. There’s no paradise waiting at the end of the rainbow.”

“Have you been there?” he asked stiffly.

“No. No, I haven’t. So you’re right, I can’t say for certain. Let’s just put it down to a healthy dose of cynicism; everybody catches it when they get older.” She turned back to her drink.

“Will you take me?”

“No. Look, son, even if I was crazy enough to fly to Valisk, do you have any idea how much it would cost you to charter a starship to take you?”

He shook his head mutely.

“From here, about a quarter of a million fuseodollars. Do you have that kind of money?”

“No.”

“Well, there you are then. Now stop wasting my time.”

“Do you know anyone who would take us, someone who believes in Kiera?”

“Goddamnit!” She screwed around in her chair to glare at him. “Can’t you inbred morons pick up a simple hint when it’s smacked you in the face?”

“Kiera said you’d hate us for listening to her.”

The captain let out an astonished snort of breath. “I don’t believe this. Don’t you see how gullible you are? I’m doing you a favour.”

“I didn’t ask you to. And why are you so blind to what she says?”

Blind ? Fuck you, you teeny shit.”

“Because you are. You’re scared it’s true, that she’s right.”

She stared at him for a long moment, the rest of the crew fixing him with hostile stares. They’d probably beat him up in a minute. Jed didn’t care anymore. He hated her as much as he did Digger and all the others with closed minds and dead hearts.

“All right,” the captain whispered. “In your case I’ll make an exception.”

“No,” one of the crew said, his hand going out to hold her arm. “You can’t, he’s only a kid with a hard-on for the girl.”

She shook off the restraining hand and brought out a processor block. “I was going to hand this over to the Confederation Navy, even though it would be difficult to explain away given our current flight schedule. But I think you can have it instead, now.” She took a flek from its slot in the block and slapped it into an astonished Jed’s hand. “Say hello to Kiera for me. If you aren’t too busy screaming while they possess you.”

Chairs were pushed back noisily. The crew of the Rameses X left their unfinished drinks on the table and marched out.

Jed stood at the centre of a now-silent pub, every eye locked on him. He didn’t even notice, he was staring raptly at the little black flek resting in his palm as if it were the key to the fountain of youth. Which in a way, he supposed, it was.

•   •   •

The Levêque was orbiting fifteen thousand kilometres above Norfolk, its complete sensor suite extended to sweep the planet. Despite the Confederation Navy’s hunger for information, little data was returning. Slow cyclonic swirls of red cloud had mushroomed from the islands, mating then smoothing out into a placid sheet, sealing the world behind a uniform twilight nimbus. Small ivory tufts of cirrocumulus swam above the polar zones for a few hours, the last defiant speckling of alien colour; but in time even they fell to melt into the veil.

The consolidation was five hours old when the change began. Levêque ’s officers noticed the cloud’s light emission level was increasing. The frigate’s captain decided to play safe and ordered them to raise their orbit by another twenty thousand kilometres. By the time their main fusion drive ignited, the crimson canopy was blazing brighter than any firestorm. They ascended at five gees, badly worried by the glare expanding rapidly across the stars behind them. Gravitonic sensors reported discordant ripples within the planetary mass below. If the readings were truthful, then the world should be breaking apart. Heavily filtered optical-band sensors revealed the planet’s geometry remained unchanged.

Seven gees, and the cloud’s surface was kindling to the intensity of a nuclear furnace.

Luca Comar looked upwards in a dreamy daze. The red cloud guarding the sky above Cricklade manor’s steep roof was writhing violently, its gold and crimson underbelly caught by potent microburst vortices. Huge churning strips were being torn open, allowing a fierce white light to slam down. He flung his arms wide, howling a rapturous welcome.

Energy stormed through him at an almost painful rate, bursting from some non-point within to vanish into the raging sky. The woman beside him was performing the same act, her features straining with effort and incredulity. In his mind he could feel the possessed all across Norfolk uniting in this final supreme sacrament.

Boiling fragments of cloud plunged through the air at giddy velocities; corkscrew lightning bolts snapping between them. Their red tint was fading, sinking behind the flamboyant dawn irradiating the universe beyond the atmosphere.

A thick, heavy light poured over Luca. It penetrated straight through his body. Through the mossy grass. Through the soil. The whole world surrendered to it. Luca’s thoughts were trapped by the invasion, unable to think of anything but sustaining the moment. He hung suspended from reality as the last surge of energy unwound through his cells.

Silence.

Luca slowly let out his breath. He opened his eyes cautiously. The clouds had calmed, reverting to rumpled white smears. Warm mellow light was shining over the wolds. There was no sun, no single source point, it came from the boundary of the enclosed universe itself. Shining equally, everywhere.

And they’d gone. He could no longer hear the souls in the beyond. Those piercing pleas and promises had vanished. There was no way back, no treacherous chink in the folds of this fresh continuum. He was free inside his new body.

He looked at the woman, who was glancing around in stupefaction.

“We’ve done it,” he whispered. “We escaped.”

She smiled tentatively.

He held out his arms, and concentrated. Not the smoke-snorting knight again; the moment required something more dignified. Soft golden cloth settled around his skin, an imperial toga, befitting his mood.

“Oh, yes. Yes!”

The energistic ability was still there, the imposition of will upon matter. But now the cloth had a stronger, firmer texture to the artefacts he’d created before.

Before . . . Luca Comar laughed. In another universe. Another life.

This time it would be different. They could establish their nirvana here. And it would last forever.

The cluster of five survey satellites from the Levêque gradually spread apart as they glided through the section of space where Norfolk should be. Communications links beamed a huge flow of information back to the frigate. Every sensor they had was switched to maximum sensitivity. Two distinct spectrums of sunlight fell on them. Tremulous waves of solar ions dusted their receptors. Cosmic radiation bombardment was standard.

There was nothing else. No gravity field. No magnetosphere. No atmospheric gas. Space-time’s quantum signature was perfectly normal.

All that remained of Norfolk was the memory.

•   •   •

When it was discovered in 2125, Nyvan was immediately incorporated into the celebration of hope which was sweeping Earth in the wake of Felicity’s discovery. The second terracompatible planet to be found, a beautiful verdant virgin land, proof the first hadn’t been a fluke. Everybody on Earth wanted to escape out to the stars. And they wanted to go there now. That, ultimately, proved its downfall.

By then, people had finally realized the arcologies weren’t going to be a temporary shelter from the ruined climate, somewhere to stay while Govcentral cooled the atmosphere, cleaned up the pollution, and put the weather patterns back to rights. The tainted clouds and armada storms were here to stay. Anyone who wanted to live under an open sky would have to leave and find a new one.

In the interests of fairness and maintaining its own shaky command over individual state administrations, Govcentral agreed that everyone had the right to leave, without favouritism. It was that last worthy clause, included to pacify several vocal minorities, which in practice meant that colonists would have to be a multi-cultural, multi-racial mix fully representative of the planet’s population. No limits were placed on the numbers buying starship tickets, they just had to be balanced. For those states too poor to fill up their quota, Govcentral provided assisted placement schemes so the richer states couldn’t complain they were being unfairly limited. A typical political compromise.

By and large, it worked for Nyvan and the other terracompatible planets being sought out by the new ZTT drive ships. The first decades of interstellar colonization were heady times, when common achievement easily outweighed the old ethnic enmities. Nyvan and its early siblings played host to a unity of purpose rarely seen before.

It didn’t last. After the frontier had been tamed and the pioneering spirit flickered into extinction the ancient rivalries lumbered to the fore once again. Earth’s colonial governance gave way to local administrations on a dozen planets, and politicians began to adopt the worst jingoistic aspects of late twentieth-century nationalism, leading the mob behind them with absurd ease. This time there were no safeguards of seas and geographical borders between the diverse populations. Religions, cultures, skins, ideologies, and languages were all squeezed up tight in the pinch chamber of urban conglomeration. Civil unrest was the inevitable result, ruining lives and crippling economies.

Overall, the problem was solved in 2156 by the Govcentral state of California, who sponsored New California, the first ethnic-streaming colony, open only to native Californians. Although initially controversial, the trend was swiftly taken up by the other states. This second wave of colonies suffered none of the strife so prevalent among the first, clearing the way for the mass immigration of the Great Dispersal.

While the new ethnic-streaming worlds successfully absorbed Earth’s surplus population and flourished accordingly, the earlier colonies slowly lost ground both culturally and economically: a false dawn shading to a perpetual twilight.

“What happened to the asteroids?” Lawrence Dillon asked.

Quinn was gazing thoughtfully at the images which the Tantu ’s sensors were throwing onto the hemisphere of holoscreens at the foot of his acceleration couch. In total, eleven asteroids had been manoeuvred into orbit around Nyvan, their ores mined to provide raw material for the planet’s industries. Ordinarily, they would develop into healthy mercantile settlements with a flotilla of industrial stations.

The frigate’s sensors showed that eight of them were more-or-less standard knots of electromagnetic activity, giving off a strong infrared emission. The remaining three were cold and dark. Tantu ’s high-resolution optical sensors focused on the closest of the defunct rocks, revealing wrecked machinery clinging to the crumpled grey surface. One of them even had a counter-rotating spaceport disk, though it no longer revolved; the spindle was bent, and the gloomy structure punctured with holes.

“They had a lot of national wars here,” Quinn said.

Lawrence frowned at him, thoughts cloudy with incomprehension.

“There’s a lot of different people live here,” Quinn explained. “They don’t get on too good, so they fight a lot.”

“If they hate each other, why don’t they all leave?”

“I don’t know. Ask them.”

“Who?”

“Shut the fuck up, Lawrence, I’m trying to think. Dwyer, has anyone seen us yet?”

“Yes, the detector satellites picked us up straightaway. We’ve had three separate transponder interrogations so far; they were from different defence network command centres. Everyone seemed satisfied with our identification code this time.”

“Good. Graper, I want you to be our communications officer.”

“Yes, Quinn.” Graper let the eagerness show in his voice, anxious to prove his worth.

“Stick with the cover we decided. Call each of those military centres and tell the bastards we’ve been assigned a monitor mission in this system by the Confederation Navy. We’ll be staying in high orbit until further notice, and if any of them want fire support against possessed targets we’ll be happy to provide it.”

“I’m on it, Quinn.” He began issuing orders to the flight computer.

“Dwyer,” Quinn said. “Get me a channel into Nyvan’s communications net.” He floated away from his velvet acceleration couch and used a stikpad to steady himself in front of his big command console.

“Er, Quinn, this is weird, the sensors are showing me like fifty communications platforms in geosync,” Dwyer said nervously. He was using grab hoops to hold himself in front of his flight station, his face centimetres from a glowing holoscreen, as though the closer he could get the more understanding of its data he would have. “The computer says they’ve got nineteen separate nets on this world, some of them don’t even hook together.”

“Yeah, so? I told you, dickbrain, they got a shitload of different nations here.”

“Which one do you want?”

Quinn thought back, picturing the man, his mannerisms, voice, accent. “Is there a North American-ethnic nation?”

Dwyer consulted the information on the holoscreen. “I got five. There’s Tonala, New Dominica, New Georgia, Quebec, and the Islamic Texas Republic.”

“Gimmie the New Georgia one.” Information began to scroll up on his own holoscreen. He studied it for a minute, then requested a directory function and loaded in a search program.

“Who is this guy, Quinn?” Lawrence asked.

“Name’s Twelve-T. He’s one mean fucker, a gang lord, runs a big operation down there. Any badass shit you want, you go to him for it.”

The search program finished its run. Quinn loaded the eddress it had found for him.

“Yeah?” a voice asked.

“I want to talk to Twelve-T.”

“Crazy ass mother, ain’t no fucker got that handle living here.”

“Listen, shitbrain, this is his public eddress. He’s there.”

“Yeah, so you know him, datavise him.”

“Not possible.”

“Yeah? Then he don’t know you. Any mother he need to rap with knows his private code.”

“Okay, the magic word is Banneth. And if you don’t think that’s magic, trace where this call is coming from. Now tell the man, because if I come calling, you’re going out hurting.”

Dwyer gave another myopic squint at his displays. “He’s tracing the call. Back to the satellite already. Hot program.”

“I expect they use it a lot,” Quinn muttered.

“You got a problem up there, motherfucker?” a new voice asked. It was almost as Quinn remembered it, a low purr, too damaged to be smooth. Quinn had seen the throat scar which made it that way.

“No problem at all. What I got up here is a proposition.”

“Where you at, man? What is this monk shit? You ain’t Banneth.”

“No.” Quinn swayed forwards slowly towards the camera lens in the centre of the console and pulled his hood right back. “Run your visual file search program.”

“Oh, yeah. You used to be Banneth’s little rat runner; her whore, too. I remember. So what you want here, ratty?”

“A deal.”

“What you got to trade?”

“You know what I’m riding in?”

“Sure. Lucky Vin ran a trace, he’s pissin’ liquid nitrogen right now.”

“It could be yours.”

“No shit?”

“That’s right.”

“What’ve I gotta do for it, hump you?”

“No, I just want to trade it in. That’s all.”

The whisper lost its cool. “You want to trade in a fucking Confederation Navy frigate? What the fuck for?”

“I need to talk to you about that. But there’s some good quality hardware on board. You’ll come out ahead.”

“Talk, motherfucker? If your hardware’s so shit-hot, how come you wanna dump it?”

“God’s Brother doesn’t always ride to war. There are other ways to bring His word to the faithless.”

“Cut that voodoo shit, man. Damn, I hate that sect shit you arcology freaks use. Ain’t no God, so he sure as shit can’t have no Brother.”

“Try telling that to the possessed.”

“Motherfuck! Smartass motherfucker! That’s what you are, that’s all you are.”

“Do you want to deal or not?” Quinn knew he would; what gang lord could resist a frigate?

“I ain’t promising shit up front.”

“That’s cool. Now I need to know which asteroid to dock with. And it’s going to have to be one which doesn’t ask too many questions. Have you got any weight in orbit?”

“You know it, man, that’s why you come to me. You might talk like you the King of Kulu’s brother, but here it’s me who’s got the juice. And stink this, I don’t trust you, rat runner.”

“With this much firepower behind me, think how much I care. Start fixing things.”

“Fuck you. A strike like this is gonna take a few days to set up, man.”

“You have forty-eight hours; then I want a docking bay number flashing in front of me. If not, I will smite you from the face of the world.”

“Will you cut that freaky crap—”

Quinn cancelled the circuit and threw his head back laughing.

•   •   •

It had only taken a few hours for the screen of red cloud to engulf the sky above Exnall. The tenuous beginnings of the early morning had been supplanted by billowing masses of solid vapour sweeping up from the south. Thunder arrived in accompaniment, bass grumbles which seemed to circle and swoop around the town like jittery birds. There was no telling where the sun was now, but its light still seemed to slip through the covering to illuminate the streets in natural tones.

Moyo marched down Maingreen on his mission to find some kind of transport for Stephanie’s children. The more he thought about the prospect, the happier it made him. She was right, as always, it did give him something positive to do. And no, he didn’t want to spend eternity in Exnall.

He passed the doughnut café and the baseball game in the park, oblivious to either. If he searched with his mind, he could perceive the buildings around him like foggy shadows; all space was dark, while matter was amended to a translucent white gauze. Individual objects were hard to distinguish, and small ones almost impossible; but he thought he stood a good chance of recognizing something like a bus.

The street sweeper was busy again. A man in a grey jacket and cloth cap, pushing his broom in front of him as he made his way slowly along the pavement. Every day he had appeared. He never did anything else but sweep the pavements, never talked to anybody, never responded to any attempts at conversation.

Moyo was slowly coming to learn that not all of Exnall’s possessed were adapting readily to their new circumstances. Some, like the sports nuts and café owners were obsessively filling every moment of their day with activity no matter how spurious, while others would amble around in a listless mockery of their earlier existence. That assessment put his own labours perilously close to the apathetic ones.

A dense collection of shadows at the rear of one of the larger stores caught his attention. When he walked around the building there was a long van parked in the loading bay. It had suffered some damage in the riot; struck by white fire the front two tyres had melted into puddles of sticky plastic, the navy-blue bodywork was blackened, and in some places cracked open, the windshield was smashed. But it was certainly big enough.

He stared at the first tyre, visualizing it whole and functional. Not an illusion, but how the solid matter should actually be structured. The hardened plastic puddle started to flow, amoebic buds swelling up to engulf the naked hub.

“Yo there, man. Having some fun?”

Moyo had been so involved with the tyre he hadn’t noticed the man approaching. At first sight the man looked as if he’d grown a dark brown mane; his beard came down to his waist as did the corkscrew locks of his luxuriant hair. A pair of tiny amber hexagonal glasses which were almost curtained by tresses seemed perversely prominent. The flares of his purple velvet trousers were embellished with tiny silver bells which chimed with each step, not in tune, but certainly in keeping.

“Not exactly. Is this your van?”

“Hey, property is theft, man.”

“Property is what?”

“Theft. You’re like stealing from what rightfully belongs to all people. That van is an inanimate object. Unless you’re into a metallic version of Gaia—which personally I’m not. However, just because it’s inert that doesn’t mean we can abuse its intrinsic value which is the ability to carry cats where they want to go.”

“Cats? I just want it to ferry some children out of here.”

“Yeah well okay that’s cool, too. But what I like mean is that it’s like community property. It was built by people, so all people should share it equally.”

“It was built by cybersystems.”

“Oh, no, that’s real heavy-duty corporate shit. Man, they’ve got into your skull big-time. Here, take a toot, Mr Suit, take yourself out of yourself.” He held out a fat reefer which was already alight and sending out a pungent sweetness.

“No thanks.”

“Takes your mind to other realms.”

“I’ve just got back from one, thank you. I have no intention of returning.”

“Yeah, right, dig your point. The baddest trip of them all.”

Moyo couldn’t quite make out what he was confronting. The man didn’t seem like one of the apathetic ones. On the other hand, he obviously hadn’t managed to adapt very well. Perhaps he came from a pre-technology age, where education was minimal and superstition ruled everyone’s life.

“What era do you come from?”

“Ho! The greatest one there ever was. I dug the era of peace, when we were busy fighting the establishment for all the freedom you cats just take for granted. Heck, I was at Woodstock, man. Can you dig that?”

“Um, I’m very happy for you. So you don’t mind if I rebuild the van, then?”

“Rebuild? What are you, some kind of anti-anarchist?”

“I’m someone who’s got children to look after. Unless you’d rather they were tortured by Ekelund’s people.”

The man’s body bucked as if he’d been struck a physical blow; his arms wove in strange jerky motions in front of him. Moyo didn’t think it was a dance.

“I hate your hostility groove, but I dig your motivation. That’s cool. A square cat like you is probably having a lot of trouble adjusting to this situation.”

Moyo’s jaw dropped open. “I’m having trouble?”

“Thought so. So like what kind of magical mystery tour are you planning here?”

“We’re taking the children out of Exnall. Stephanie wants to drive up to the border.”

“Oh, man!” A wide smile prised apart layers of hair. “That is so beautiful. The border again. We’re gonna roll this old bus out and set the draft dodgers free in the land of Mounties and maple leaves. What a trip! Thank you, man, thank you.” He walked over to the battered van and stroked its front wing lovingly. A small wavy rainbow appeared on the bodywork where his hand had touched it.

“What do you mean, we?”

“Come on, man, lighten up. You don’t think you can handle that kind of scene alone, do you? The military mind is full of low cunning; you wouldn’t get a mile out of town without them throwing up roadblocks across the freeway. Maybe a few of us would fall down some stairs while we’re being arrested, too. It happens, man, all of the frigging time. The federal pigs don’t give a shit about our rights. But I’ve been here before, I know how to go sneaky on them.”

“You think she’d try and stop us?”

“Who, man?”

“Ekelund.”

“Hell, who knows. Chicks like that have got it real hard up their asses. Between you and me, I think they’re maybe like aliens. You know, UFO people from Venus. But I can see you’re sceptical right now, I won’t press it. So how many kids are you planning on squirrelling away in here?”

“About seven or eight, so far.”

Without quite understanding how it happened, Moyo found a friendly arm around his shoulder, guiding him to the van’s cab.

“That’s worthy. I can dig that. Now you just ease yourself up in the driver’s seat, or whatever the hell they call it these days, and dream up some controls we can all handle. Once you’ve done that and I’ve given us a cool disguise we can hit the road.”

Twinkles of light were shooting all over the van’s bodywork, sketching glowing lines of colour in the damaged composite. It was as if a flock of acidhead fairies had been let loose with spray cans. Moyo wanted to complain at this ideological hijack, but couldn’t manage to think up the correct words. He took the easy option, and sat in the driver’s seat like he’d been told.

•   •   •

There was a gap between the deuterium tank’s cryostat ducts and the power feed sub-module which routed superconductor cables to nearby patterning nodes, a narrow crevice amid the boxy, nultherm foam-coated machinery. In the schematics which the flight computer provided, it was listed as a crawlway.

For pigmy acrobats, maybe, Erick thought irascibly. He certainly couldn’t wear any protective gear over the SII suit. Sharp corners and bloated tubes jabbed and squeezed against him every time he moved. It couldn’t be doing the medical nanonic packages around his arm and torso any good. Thankfully the black silicon covering his skin was an effective insulator, otherwise he would have been either roasted, frozen, or electrocuted long ago.

Along with Madeleine he’d been burrowing through the innards of the Villeneuve’s Revenge for nine hours now. It was nasty, tiring, stressful work. With his body in the state it was he had to keep a constant check on his physiological status. He was also running a mild relaxant program in primary mode; claustrophobia was a problem prowling wolfishly around the fringes of conscious thought.

The crawlway ended a metre short of the hull, opening out into a hexagonal metallic cave bordered with stress structure girders, themselves spiralled by cables. Erick squirmed out into this cramped space and drew a sharp breath of relief, more psychological than practical given he was breathing through a respirator tube. He switched his collar sensors to scan around, seeing the fuselage plate behind his head. It appeared perfectly normal, a smooth, slightly curving silicon surface, dark grey with red code strips printed around the edges.

With his legs still jammed in the crawlway, Erick pulled the sensor block from the straps securing it to his side. It contained six separate scanner pads which he slipped out and started fixing to the hull plate and girders.

“Plate 3-25-D is clean,” he datavised to André eight minutes later. “No electromagnetic activity; and it’s solid, too, no density anomalies.”

“Very good, Erick. 5-12-D is next.”

“How is Madeleine doing?”

“She is methodical. Between you, eighteen per cent of the possible locations have now been eliminated.”

Erick cursed. The four of them had carefully gone over the starship’s schematics, working out every possible section of the hull were the device could have been hidden by Monterey’s maintenance crews. With Pryor on board observing the bridge, they were limited to two crew searching at any one time, the two supposed to be asleep. It was going to take a long time to cover all the possible areas.

“I still say it’s probably a combat wasp. That would be the easiest method.”

Oui, but we won’t know for sure until you have eliminated all the other options. Who can tell with such treacherous bastards?”

“Great. How long to Arnstadt?”

“We have another five jumps to go. Two of the other escort ships are manoeuvring sluggishly, which gives us additional time. They are probably searching as we are. You have perhaps another fifteen hours, twenty at the outside.”

Not enough, Erick knew, not nearly enough. They were going to have to go to Arnstadt. After that he didn’t like to think what the Organization would require from them. Nothing as simple as escort duties, that was for certain.

“All right, Captain, I’m on my way to 5-12-D.”

•   •   •

The chamber which the Saldanas used for their Privy Council meetings was called the Fountain Room, a white marble octagon with a gold and opal mosaic ceiling. Imposing three-metre statues stood around the walls, sculpted from a dark rock which had been cut out of Nova Kong, depicting a toga-clad orator in various inspirational poses. The Fountain Room wasn’t as grandiose as some of the state function rooms added to the Apollo Palace in later centuries, but it had been built by Gerald Saldana soon after his coronation for use as his cabinet room. The continuity of power was unbroken since then; the Saldanas were nothing if not respectful for the traditions of their own history.

There were forty-five members of the current Privy Council, including the Princes and Princesses who ruled the Principalities; which meant a full meeting was held only every eighteen months. Normally the King summoned twenty to twenty-five people to advise him, over half of which were nearly always family. Today there were just six sitting around the Fountain Room’s triangular mahogany table with its inlaid crowned phoenix. It was the war cabinet, chaired by Alastair II himself, with the Duke of Salion on his left, followed by Lord Kelman Mountjoy, the Foreign Office Minister; on the King’s right-hand side was the Prime Minister, Lady Phillipa Oshin; Admiral Lavaquar, the defence chief; and Prince Howard, president of Kulu Corporation. No aides or equerries were present.

Alastair II picked up a small gavel and tapped the much-battered silver bell on the table in front of him. “The fifth meeting of this cabinet committee is now in order. I trust everyone has accessed the latest reports concerning Arnstadt?”

There was a subdued round of acknowledgement from the cabinet.

“Very well. Admiral, your assessment?”

“Bloody worrying, Your Majesty. As you know interstellar conquest has always been regarded as completely impractical. Today’s navies exist to protect civil starships from piracy and deter potential aggressors from committing random or sneak assaults. If anyone strikes at us for political or economic reasons they damn well know we will strike back harder. But actually subduing an entire system’s population was not a concept any of our strategy groups even considered until today. Ethnically streamed populations are too diverse, you simply cannot impose a different culture on a defeated indigenous people, it will never be accepted, and you lose the peace trying to enforce it. QED, conquests are impractical. Possession has changed that. All Confederation worlds are vulnerable to it, even Kulu. Though had the Capone Organization fleet jumped into orbit here, they would have lost.”

“Even armed with antimatter?” Prince Howard inquired.

“Oh, yes. We would have taken a pounding, no doubt about it. But we would have won; in terms of firepower our SD network is second only to Earth’s. The thing which concerns our strategists most is the Organization’s theoretical expansion rate. They have effectively doubled their fleet size by taking Arnstadt. If another five or six star systems were to fall into Capone’s hands, we would be facing parity at the very least.”

“We have distance on our side,” Lady Phillipa said. “Kulu is nearly three hundred light-years from New California. Deploying any kind of fleet over such a distance would be inordinately difficult. And Capone is having trouble resupplying his conquests with He3 , he simply isn’t getting any from the Edenists.”

“Your pardon, Prime Minister,” the admiral said. “But you are taking a too literal interpretation of these events. Yes it would be physically difficult for Capone to subdue Kulu, but the trend he is starting would be a different matter indeed. Others returning from the beyond are equally capable, and some have considerably more experience in empire building than he does. Unless planetary governments remain exceptionally vigilant in searching for outbreaks of possession, what happened to New California could easily be repeated. If Capone was all we had to worry about, I would frankly be very relieved. As to the Organization’s He3 shortage: deuterium can and will be used as a monofuel for starship drives. It’s less efficient and its radiation output has a progressively detrimental effect on the drive tube equipment, but do not imagine for a moment that will prevent them from using it. The Royal Navy has contingency plans to continue high-level operations in the event that Kulu loses every single He3 cloudscoop in the Kingdom. We can fly for years, conceivably decades, using deuterium alone should the need arise.”

“So lack of He3 isn’t going to stop him?” the King asked.

“No, sir. Our analysts believe that given the internal nature of Capone’s Organization he will have to continue his expansion efforts in order to survive. The Organization has no other purpose, growth through conquest is all it is geared up for. As a strategy for maintaining control over his own people it is excellent, but sooner or later he will run into size management problems. Even if he realizes this and tries to stop, his lieutenants will stage a coup. If they didn’t they’d lose their status along with him.”

“He seems to be running New California efficiently enough,” Lord Mountjoy said.

“That’s a propaganda illusion,” the Duke of Salion said. “The agencies have come up with a similar interpretation as the navy. Capone boasts he has established a working government, but essentially it’s a dictatorship backed by the threat of ultimate force. It survives principally because the planetary economy is on a war footing which always distorts financial reality for a while. This idea of a currency based on magic tokens is badly flawed. The energistic ability of the possessed is essentially unlimited, you cannot package it up and redistribute it to the have-nots as if it were some kind of tangible commodity.

“And so far no one has challenged Capone, he’s moved too swiftly for that. But the Organization’s internal political situation won’t last. As soon as any kind of routine is established, people can start to look at how they are being made to live and consider it objectively. We estimate that serious underground opposition groups are going to start forming within another fortnight among both communities. From what we’ve actually seen and what we can filter through the propaganda, it would be very tough for possessed and non-possessed to live peacefully side by side. The society Capone has built is extremely artificial. That makes it easy to destroy, especially from within.”

Lord Mountjoy smiled faintly. “You mean, we don’t have to do anything but wait? The possessed will wipe themselves out for us?”

“No. I’m not saying that. Our psychologists believe that they cannot form societies as large or as complex as ours. We have system-wide industrial civilizations because that is what it takes to maintain our socioeconomic index. But when you can live in a palace grander than this one simply by wishing it to be, what is the point of having states whose populations run into hundreds of millions? That’s what will eventually neuter Capone; but it doesn’t get rid of the general problem which the possessed present. Not for us.”

“I never thought a military solution was the right one, anyway,” Alastair said with a contrite nod at the admiral. “Not in the long term. So what kind of threat are we facing from the possessed infiltrating us? Have we really caught all of them who were at liberty in the Kingdom? Simon?”

“Ninety-nine point nine per cent, Your Majesty, certainly here on Kulu itself. Unfortunately, I can’t give you absolutes. Sheer probability dictates that several have eluded us. But the AIs are becoming increasingly proficient in tracking them down through the net. And of course, if they begin to build up in any numbers they become easy for us to spot and eradicate.”

“Hardly good for morale, though,” Lady Phillipa said. “Government can’t guarantee you won’t get possessed, but if it does happen don’t worry, we’ll see it.”

“Admittedly inconvenient for individual subjects,” Prince Howard observed. “But it doesn’t affect our overall ability to respond to the threat. And the Kulu Corporation has already built a prototype personal monitor to safeguard against possession.”

“You have?”

“Yes. It’s a simple bracelet stuffed with various sensors which is linked permanently into the communications net. It’ll stretch our bandwidth capacity, but two AIs can keep real-time tabs on every person on the planet. If you take it off, or if you are possessed, we’ll know about it straightaway and where it happened.”

“The civil rights groups will love that,” she muttered.

“The possessed will not,” Prince Howard said levelly. “And it is their opinion which matters the most.”

“Quite,” Alastair II said. “I shall publicly put on the first bracelet. It ought to help ease public attitude to the notion. This is for their own good, after all.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Lady Phillipa conceded with reasonable grace.

“Very well, we cannot guarantee absolute safety for the population, but as my brother says, we can still conduct broad policy. For the moment, I have to be satisfied with that. As to the principal thrust of that broad policy, we must make a decision about Mortonridge. Admiral?”

“My staff tactical officers have been running battle simulations along the lines young Hiltch suggested. His experience has been a lot of help, but for my mind there are an awful lot of variables and unknowns.”

“Do we win any of these simulations?” the Duke of Salion asked.

“Yes. Almost all of them, providing we devote sufficient resources. That seems to be the clinching factor every time.” He gave the King a worried look. “It’s going to be risky, Your Majesty. And it is also going to be extremely costly. We must maintain our current defence status throughout the Kingdom simultaneously with running this campaign. It will take every military reserve we have, not to mention stretching our industrial capacity.”

“That should keep the baronies happy,” Lady Phillipa said.

Alastair II pretended he hadn’t heard. “But it can be done?” he pressed the admiral.

“We believe so, Your Majesty. But it will require the full support of the Edenists. Ideally, I’d also like some material cooperation from the Confederation Navy and our allies. The more we have, the greater chance of victory.”

“Very well. Kelman, this is your field. How did your audience with the Edenist ambassador go?”

The foreign minister attempted not to smile at the memory; he still wasn’t sure which of them had been the more surprised. “Actually, Ambassador Astor was extremely receptive to the notion. As we know, the old boy doesn’t exactly have the easiest of jobs here. However, once I asked, he immediately put the whole embassy over to working on the practical aspects. Their military and technology attachés agree that the Jovian habitats have the capacity to produce Tranquillity serjeants in the kind of quantities we envisage.”

“What about commitment?” Prince Howard asked.

“Such a request would have to be put before their Consensus, but he was sure that given the circumstances Jupiter would consider it favourably. He actually offered to accompany whatever delegation we send and help present the argument for us. It might not sound like much, but I consider such an offer to be significant.”

“Why exactly?” the King asked.

“Because of the nature of their culture. Edenists very rarely enact a Consensus, normally there is no need. They share so much in terms of ethics and motivation that their decisions on most subjects are identical. Consensus is only required when they confront something new and radical, or they are threatened and need to select a level of response. The fact that the ambassador himself is in agreement with our request and that he is willing to argue our case for us is a very positive factor. More than anyone, he understands what it has cost us to ask for their help in the first place, the pride we have swallowed. He can convey that for us.”

“In other words, he can swing it,” Prince Howard said.

“I consider it a high probability.”

The King paused for a moment, weighing up the troubled faces confronting him. “Very well, I think we should proceed to the next stage. Admiral, start to prepare what forces you need to support the liberation of Mortonridge.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

“Kelman, the immediate burden rests upon your ministry. The admiral says he requires support from the Confederation Navy and our allies, it will be up to the diplomatic service to secure it. Whatever interests we have, I want them realized. I suggest you confer with the ESA to see what pressure can be applied to anyone displaying less than wholehearted enthusiasm.”

“What level of assets do you want activated?” the Duke of Salion asked cautiously.

“All of them, Simon. We either do this properly or not at all. I am not prepared to commit our full military potential against such a powerful enemy unless we have total superiority. It would be morally unacceptable, as well as politically unsound.”

“Yes, sir, I understand.”

“Excellent, that’s settled then.”

“Um, what about Ione?” Lady Phillipa asked.

Alastair almost laughed openly at the Prime Minister’s meekness. Not like her at all. Everyone did so tiptoe around the subject of Tranquillity in his presence. “Good point. I think it might be best if we employ family here to complement Kelman’s people. We’ll send Prince Noton.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Lord Mountjoy said guardedly.

“Any other topics?” the King asked.

“I think we’ve achieved all our aims, sir,” Lady Phillipa said. “I’d like to announce that plans to liberate Mortonridge are under way. A positive step to regain the initiative will be just what people need to hear.”

“But no mention of the Edenists,” Lord Mountjoy interjected quickly. “Not yet, that still needs to be handled with care.”

“Of course,” she said.

“Whatever you think appropriate,” Alastair told them. “I wish all of you good luck on your respective tasks. Let us hope Our Lord smiles on us, the sunlight seems to be decidedly lacking of late.”

•   •   •

It was only the third time Parker Higgens had been invited into Ione’s apartment, and the first time he’d been in alone. He found himself disturbed by the big window in the split-level entrance lounge which looked out into the circumfluous sea; the antics of the shoals of small fish flashing their harlequin colours as they sped about did not amuse him. Strange, he thought, that the threat of pressure which all that water represented should be so much more intimidating than the vacuum outside the starscraper windows.

Ione welcomed him with a smile and a delicate handshake. She was wearing a yellow robe over a glittering purple bikini, her hair still damp from her swim. Once again, as he had been right from the first moment he saw her, Parker Higgens was captivated by those enchanting blue eyes. His only comfort was that he wasn’t alone in the Confederation, millions suffered as he did.

“Are you all right, Parker?” she inquired lightly.

“Yes, thank you, ma’am.”

Ione gave the window a suspicious look, and it turned opaque. “Let’s sit down.”

She selected a small circular table made from a wood so darkened with age it was impossible to identify. A pair of silent housechimps began to serve tea from a bone china set.

“You seem to have made a lot of new friends in Trafalgar, Parker. An escort of four voidhawks, no less.”

Parker winced. Did she have any idea how penetrating that irony of hers could be? “Yes, ma’am. The navy science analysts are here to assist with our interpretation of the Laymil recordings. The First Admiral’s staff suggested the procedure, and I had to agree with their reasoning. Possession is a terrible occurrence, if the Laymil had a solution we should not stint in our efforts to locate it.”

“Please relax, Parker, I wasn’t criticising. You did the right thing. I find it most gratifying that the Laymil project has suddenly acquired so much importance. Grandfather Michael was right after all; a fact he must be enjoying. Wherever he is.”

“You have no objection to the navy people scrutinizing the recordings, then?”

“None at all. It would be a rather spectacular feather in our cap if we did produce the answer. Although I have my doubts on that score.”

“So do I, ma’am. I don’t believe there is a single answer to this problem. We are up against the intrinsic nature of the universe itself, only God can alter that.”

“Humm.” She sipped her tea, lost in contemplation. “Yet the Kiint seem to have found a way. Death and possession doesn’t bother them.” For the first time ever she saw real anger on the old director’s gentle face.

“They’re not still working here are they, ma’am?”

“Yes, Parker, they’re still here. Why?”

“I fail to see the reason. They knew all along what had happened to the Laymil. Their whole presence here is some absurd charade. They never had any intention of helping us.”

“The Kiint are not hostile to the human race, Parker. Whatever their reasons are, I’m sure they are good ones. Perhaps they were gently trying to nudge us in the right direction. Who knows? Their intellects are superior to ours, their bodies too, in most respects. You know, I’ve just realized we don’t even know how long they live. Maybe they don’t die, maybe that’s how they’ve beaten the problem.”

“In which case they can hardly help us.”

She stared at him coolly over the rim of her cup. “Is this a problem for you, Parker?”

“No.” His jaw muscles rippled as he fought his indignation. “No, ma’am, if you value their input to the project I will be happy to set aside my personal objection.”

“Glad to hear it. Now, there are still four thousand hours of sensorium records in the Laymil electronics stack which we haven’t accessed yet. Even with the new teams you brought it’s going to take a while to review them all. We’ll have to accelerate the process.”

“Oski Katsura can construct additional reformatting equipment, that ought to speed things along. The only area of conflict I can see is weapons technology. You did say you wished to retain the right of embargo, ma’am.”

“So I did.” He has a point. Do I really want to hand Laymil weapons over to the Confederation, no matter how noble the cause?

It is no longer a relevant question,tranquillity said. We know why the spaceholms committed suicide. Our earlier assumption that it was inflicted by an external force is demonstrably incorrect. Therefore your worry that the data for some type of superweapon exists is no longer applicable. No superweapon was designed or built.

You hope! What if the spaceholms built one to try and stop the approach of the possessed Laymil ships?

Given the level of their knowledge base at the time of their destruction, any weapons built in defence of the spaceholms would not be noticeably different to our own. They did not think in terms of weapons; whereas there is a case to be made for plotting human history in terms of weapons development. It may well be that anything the Laymil came up with would be inferior.

You can’t guarantee that. Their biotechnology was considerably more advanced than Edenist bitek.

It was impressive because of its scale. However, their actual development was not much different to the Edenists. There is little risk of you worsening the situation by allowing unlimited access to the recordings.

But not zero?

Of course not. You know this, Ione.

I know it.“i think we’d better rescind that proscription for the time being,” she told Parker Higgens.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Is there anything else we can do to assist the Confederation Navy? Our unique position here ought to count for something.”

“Their senior investigator came up with two suggestions. Apparently Joshua Calvert said he found the original electronics stack in some kind of fortress. If he were to supply us with the coordinate of this structure we could explore it to see what other electronics remain. If one stack can survive undamaged, then there must be others, or even parts of others. The data in those crystals is priceless to us.”

Oh, dear,tranquillity said.

Don’t you dare go all sarcastic on me, not after Joshua agreed to find the Alchemist. We both agreed he’s grown up a lot since that time.

Unfortunately his earlier legacy remains.

Just in time she guarded herself against a scowl. “Captain Calvert isn’t here at the moment. But, Parker, I’d advise against too much optimism. Scavengers are notorious braggarts, I’d be very surprised if this fortress he spoke of exists in quite the same condition he claimed.”

Neeves and Sipika may have the coordinate,tranquillity said.They might cooperate. If not, we are in an official state of emergency; debrief nanonics could be used.

Well done. Send a serjeant in there now to interview them. Make it clear that if they don’t tell us voluntarily it’ll be extracted anyway.“i’ll see what can be done,” she said in the hope of countering his disappointed expression. “What was the other suggestion?”

“A thorough scan of Unimeron’s orbital track. If the planet was taken into another dimension by Laymil possessed there may be some kind of trace.”

“Surely not a physical one? I thought we had this argument before.”

“No, not a physical one, ma’am. We thought, instead, there may be some residual energy overspill in the same way the possessed betray their presence. It may be there is a detectable distortion zone.”

“I see. Very well, look into it. I’ll authorize any reasonable expenditure for sensor probes. The astroengineering companies should welcome the work now I’ve stopped ordering weapons for the SD network. We might even get some competitive prices.”

Parker finished his tea, not quite certain he should ask what he wanted to. The responsibilities of the project directorship were sharply defined, but then he was only human. “Are we well defended, ma’am? I heard about Arnstadt.”

Ione smiled, and bent down to scoop Augustine from the floor. He’d been trying to climb the table leg. “Yes, Parker, our defences are more than adequate.” She ignored the old director’s astonishment at the sight of the little xenoc, and stroked Augustine’s head. “Take it from me, the Capone Organization will never get into Tranquillity.”

Chapter 03

Hull plate 8-92-K: lustreless grey, a few scratches where tools and careless gauntlets had caught it, red stripe codes designating its manufacturing batch and CAB permitted usage, reactive indicator tabs to measure radiation and vacuum ablation still a healthy green; exactly the same as all the other hexagonal plates protecting the delicate systems of the Villeneuve’s Revenge from direct exposure to space. Except it was leaking a minute level of electromagnetic activity. That was what the first scanner pad indicated. Erick hurriedly applied the second over the centre of the source. The sensor block confirmed a radiation emission point. Density analysis detailed the size of the entombed unit, and a rough outline of its larger components.

“I got it, Captain,” Erick datavised. “They incorporated it in a hull plate. It’s small, electron compressed deuterium tritium core, I think; maybe point two of a kiloton blast.”

“You’re sure?”

Erick was too tired to be angry. This was his ninth search, and they were all imposing far too much stress on his convalescent body. When he finished each ten-hour session spent snaking through the starship’s innards he had to go straight on bridge duty to maintain the illusion of normal shipboard routine for Kingsley Pryor and the eight rover reporters they were carrying. On top of that the Organization had played dirty. Just as he knew they would.

“I’m sure.”

“Thank the blessed saints. Finally! Now we can escape these devils. You can deactivate it, can’t you, mon enfant ?”

“I think the best idea would be to detach the plate and use the X-ray lasers to vaporise it as soon as it’s clear.”

“Bravo. How long will it take?”

“As long as it does. I’m not about to rush.”

“Of course.”

“Are there any reasonable jump coordinates in this orbit?”

“Some. I will begin plotting them.”

Erick slowly swept the rest of the little cavity for any further incongruous processors. Opposite the hull plate was a spiral of ribbed piping, resembling a tightly coiled dragon’s tail, which led to a heat exchange pump. He had emerged at its rim, wedged between the curving titanium and a cluster of football-sized cryogenic nitrogen tanks which pressurized the vernier rockets. A small, cramped space, but one providing a hundred crannies and half-hidden curves. It took him half an hour to sweep it properly, forcing himself to be methodical. Not easy with an armed mini-nuke eighty centimetres from his skull, its timer counting down.

When he was satisfied there were no booby triggers or alarms secreted in the cavity, he squirmed around to face the hull and eased himself further out of the crawlway like paste from a tube.

Normally, a starship’s hull plates were detached from the outside, with the seam rivets and load pins easily accessible. This was a lot more difficult. The arcane procedure for an internal jettison ran through Erick’s neural nanonics, an operation which must surely have been dreamed up by committees of civil servant lawyers on permanent lunch breaks and with no knowledge of astroengineering. It was highly tempting just to shove a fission blade into the silicon and saw around the mini-nuke in a wide circle. Instead he datavised the flight computer to switch off the sector’s molecular binding force generator, then applied the anti-torque screwdriver to the first feed coupling. It might have been imagination, but he thought his new AT arm was slower than the other. The nutrient reserves were almost depleted. His thoughts were too cluttered to really bother about it.

Eighty minutes later, the plate was ready. The little cavity swarmed with discarded rivets, load pins, flakes of silicon, and several tool heads he’d lost. His suit sensors were having trouble supplying him with a decent image through all the junk. He slotted the last tools back in his harness and wriggled even further out of the crawlway, feeling around with his toes for a solid foothold to brace himself against. When he was in position he was bent almost double with his back pressing against the plate. He started to shove, his leg muscles straining hard. Physiological monitor programs began signalling caution warnings almost immediately. Erick ignored them, using a tranquillizer program to damp down the swelling worry about the further damage he was causing himself.

The plate moved—neural nanonics recording a minute shift in his posture. Then he was rising in millimetre increments. He waited until the neural nanonics reported the plate had shifted five centimetres, then stopped pressing. Inertia would complete the work now. Cramp persecuted his abdomen.

A wide sliver of silver-blue light shone into the cavity as he retreated back down into the crawlway. One edge of the plate was loose, rising up out of alignment. His suit collar sensors hurriedly reduced their receptivity as the beam animated the rivet fragments into a glittering storm.

The plate lumbered upwards. Erick checked the edges one last time to see if they were all clear, then datavised: “Okay, Captain, it’s free. Fire the verniers. Let’s separate.”

He could actually see the silent eruptions of the tiny chemical rocket nozzles ringing the starship’s equator, quick luminous yellow fountains. The hull plate appeared to be moving faster now, receding from the cavity.

Kursk was visible outside. The Villeneuve’s Revenge was in low orbit, soaking in the wellspring of lambent light shimmering off the planet’s cloud-daubed oceans.

It was the Capone Organization’s second conquest: a stage three world, six light-years from Arnstadt. With a population of just over fifty million, it was evolving from its purely planetary-based economic phase to develop a small space industry. Consequently, it was an easy target. There was no SD network, yet it had valuable modern astroengineering stations and a reasonable population. The squadron of twenty-five starships which Luigi Balsmao dispatched to subdue the planet had encountered almost no opposition. Five independent trader starships docked at Kursk’s single orbiting asteroid settlement had been armed with combat wasps; but the weapons were third-rate, and the captains less than enthusiastic about flying out to die bravely against the Organization’s superior firepower.

Along with the other escort ships, the Villeneuve’s Revenge had been assigned to the new Organization squadron within eight hours of arriving at Arnstadt. A subdued but furious André was unable to refuse. They had even seen action, firing half a dozen combat wasps against the two defenders who had responded to their arrival.

With their depleted crew numbers, everyone had to be on the bridge during the last stage of the mission, which meant they couldn’t continue their search for the bomb. Which in turn meant they couldn’t duck out of the final engagement.

With the small battle won, and the planet open to Capone’s landing forces, the Villeneuve’s Revenge had been given orbital clearance duties by the squadron commander. Tens of thousands of tiny fragments thrown out by detonating combat wasps now contaminated space around the planet, each one presenting a serious potential impact hazard to approaching starships. Combat sensor clusters on the Villeneuve’s Revenge were powerful enough to track anything larger than a snowflake that came within a hundred kilometres of the fuselage. And André was using the X-ray laser cannons to vaporise any such fragment they located.

Erick watched hull plate 8-92-K shrink, a small perfect black hexagon against the glittery deep turquoise ocean. It turned brilliant orange in an eyeblink, then burst apart.

“I think it is time we had a small discussion with Monsieur Pryor,” André Duchamp datavised to his crew.

It was almost as if the Organization’s liaison man was expecting them when André datavised his command code to open the cabin door. It was Kingsley Pryor’s designated sleep period, but he was fully dressed, floating in lotus position above the decking. His eyes were open, showing no surprise at the two laser pistols levelled at him.

Nor fear, Erick thought.

“We have eliminated the bomb,” André said triumphantly. “Which means you have just become surplus to requirements.”

“So you’re going to slaughter the other crews, are you?” Kingsley said quietly.

“Pardon?”

“I have to transmit a code every three hours—seven at the most, remember? If that doesn’t happen one of the other starships will explode. Then they won’t be in any position to transmit their code, and another will go. You’ll start a chain reaction.”

André maintained his poise. “Obviously, we will warn them we are leaving before we jump outsystem. Do you take me for a barbarian? They will have time to evacuate. And Capone will have five ships less.” There was a glint in his eye. “I will make sure the rover reporters understand that. My ship and crew are striking right at the heart of the Organization.”

“I expect Capone will be devastated at the news. Deprived of a warrior like you.”

André glared furiously; he could never manage sarcasm, however crude, and he hated being on the receiving end. “You may inform him yourself. We will return you to him via the beyond.” His grip on the laser pistol tightened.

Kingsley Pryor switched his glacial eyes to Erick, and datavised: “You have to stop them murdering me.”

The message was encrypted with a Confederation Navy code.

“Knowing the nature of the possessed, I expect that code was compromised a long time ago,” Erick datavised back.

“Very likely. But do your shipmates know you are a CNIS officer? You’d join me in the beyond if they did. And I’ll tell them. I have absolutely nothing to lose, now. I haven’t for some time.”

“Who the fuck are you?”

“I served a duty tour in the CNIS weapons division as a technical evaluation officer. That’s why I know who you are, Captain Thakrar.”

“As far as I’m concerned that makes you a double traitor, to humanity and the navy. And Duchamp won’t believe a word you say.”

“You need to keep me alive, Thakrar, very badly. I know which star system the Organization is planning to invade next. Right now, there is no more important piece of information in this whole galaxy. If Aleksandrovich and Lalwani know the target, they can intercept and destroy the Organization fleet. You now have no other duty but to get that information to them. Correct?”

“Filth like you would say anything.”

“You can’t risk the possibility that I’m lying. I obviously have access to the Organization’s command echelons, I wouldn’t be in this position if I didn’t. Therefore I could quite easily know their overall strategic planning. At the very least, procedure says I should be debriefed.”

The decision seemed more enervating than all that time spent in the cavity working on the hull plate. Erick was repelled by the notion that a piece of shit like Pryor could manipulate him. “Captain?” he said wearily.

“Oui?”

“How much do you think he’s worth if we turn him over to the Confederation authorities?”

André gave his crewman a surprised look. “You have changed since you came on board, mon enfant .”

Since Tina . . . who wouldn’t? “We’re going to be in the shit with the Confederation when we return. We did sign up with Capone, remember, and we helped with this invasion. But if we bring them a prize like this, especially if we do it in full view of the rovers, we’ll be heroes; it’ll wipe the slate clean.”

As always, avarice won with Duchamp. His gentle face’s natural smile expanded with admiration. “Good thinking, Erick. Madeleine, help Erick stuff this pig into zero-tau.”

“Yes, Captain.” She pushed off the hatch rim and grabbed hold of Pryor’s shoulder. On the way she couldn’t resist giving Erick a troubled look.

He couldn’t even raise a regretful grin in response. I thought it was over, that getting rid of the bomb would finish it. We would dock at some civilized spaceport, and I could turn them all over to the local Navy Bureau. Now all I’ve done is swapped one problem for another. Great God Almighty, when is this all going to end?

•   •   •

The beyond was different, not changed, but the rents which tore open into the real universe fired in flashes of sensation. They enraged and exhilarated the souls which dwelt there; a pathetic taster, a reminder of what used to be. Proof that corporeal life could be theirs again.

There was no pattern to the rents. The beyond did not have a structured topology. They occurred. They ended. And each time a soul would wriggle through to possess. Luck, chance, dictated their appearance.

The souls screamed for more, scrabbling at the residual traces of their more fortunate comrades who had made it though. Pleading, praying, promising, cursing. The tirade was one-way. Almost.

The possessed had the power to look back, to listen harder.

One of them said: We want somebody.

The gibbering souls shrieked their lies in return. I know where they are. I know how to help. Take me. Me! I will tell you.

The chant of a billion tormented entities is not one to be ignored.

Another rent appeared, loud sunlight piercing an ebony cloud. There was a barrier at the top, preventing any soul from surging through into the glory. Its extended existence igniting an agonized desire within those who flocked around it.

See? A body awaits you, a reward for the information we need.

What? What information?

Mzu. Dr Alkad Mzu, where is she?

The question rippled through the beyond, a virus rumour, passed—ripped—from one soul to another. Until, finally, the woman came forth, rising from the degradations of perpetual mind-rape to embrace and adore the pain which saturated her new body. Feelings rushed in to inflate consciousness: warmth, wetness, cool air. Eyes blinked open, half laughing, half-weeping at the agony of her scalded, skinless limbs. “Ayacucho,” Cherri Barnes coughed to the gangsters standing over her. “Mzu went to Ayacucho.”

•   •   •

The top secret file contained a report which the First Admiral found even more worrying than any naval defeat. It had been written by an economist on President Haaker’s staff, detailing the strain which possession was placing on the Confederation economy. The major problem was that modern conflicts tended to be resolved by fifteen-minute engagements between opposing squadrons of starships; fast, and usually pretty decisive. It was an exceptional dispute which led to more than three navy engagements.

Possession, though, was shutting down the interstellar economy. Tax revenue was falling, and with it the government’s ability to support its forces on month-long deployment missions. And the Confederation Navy placed the primary drain on everyone’s finances. Enforcing the quarantine was good strategic policy, but it wasn’t going to solve the problem. A new strategy, one which had to include a final solution, had to be found within six months. After that, the Confederation would start to fragment.

Samual Aleksandrovich exited the file as Maynard Khanna ushered the two visitors into his office. Admiral Lalwani and Mullein, the captain of the voidhawk Tsuga , both saluted.

“Good news?” Samual Aleksandrovich asked Lalwani. It had become a standing joke at the start of their daily situation meetings.

“Not entirely negative,” she said.

“You amaze me. Sit down.”

“Mullein has just arrived from Arnstadt; Tsuga has been on intelligence gathering duties in that sector.”

“Oh?” Samual cocked a thick eyebrow at the youngish Edenist.

“Capone has invaded another star system,” Mullein said.

Samual Aleksandrovich swore bitterly. “That’s not negative?”

“It’s Kursk,” Lalwani said. “Which is interesting.”

“Interesting!” he grunted. His neural nanonics supplied him with the planet’s file. Not knowing the world he was supposed to protect kindled obscure feelings of guilt. Its image appeared on one of the office’s long holoscreens, just a perfectly ordinary terracompatible world, dominated by large oceans.

“Population fifty million plus,” Samual Aleksandrovich recited from the file. “Hell. The Assembly will combust, Lalwani.”

“They’ve no right,” she said. “Your original confinement strategy is working very effectively.”

“Apart from Kursk.”

She ducked her head in acknowledgement. “Apart from Kursk. But then that isn’t due to the quarantine order failing. The quarantine was intended to prevent stealthy infiltration, not armed invasions.”

Samual’s mind went back to the classified report. “Let’s hope the noble ambassadors see it that way. Why did you say it was interesting?”

“Because Kursk is a stage three world: no naval forces, no SD network. A pushover for the Organization. However, all they earned themselves was a few orbital industrial stations and a big struggle to quash the planetary population, the majority of whom live in the countryside, they’re still very agrarian. In other words, the possessed are up against small, solid communities of well-armed farmers who have had plenty of advance warning.”

“But possessed forces backed up by starships, nonetheless,” Samual observed.

“Yes, but why bother possessing fifty million people who can make no positive contribution to the Organization?”

“Possession makes no sense generally.”

“No, but Capone’s Organization needs sound economic support, certainly his fleet does. It won’t operate without a functioning industrial capacity behind it.”

“All right, you’ve convinced me. So what analysis has your staff come up with?”

“We believe it was principally a propaganda move. A stunt, if you like. Kursk wasn’t a challenge to him, and it isn’t an asset. Its sole benefit comes from the psychology. Capone has conquered another world. He’s a force to be reckoned with, the king of the possessed. That kind of garbage. People aren’t going to look at how strategically insignificant Kursk is, all they’ll think about is that damn exponential expansion curve. It’s going to place a lot of political pressure on us.”

“The President’s office has requested a briefing on the new development in two hours, sir,” Maynard Khanna said. “It will be reasonable to assume the Assembly will follow that up with a request for some kind of large-scale high-visibility military deployment. And a victory. It will be expedient for the politicians to demonstrate the Confederation can strike at the enemy, that they’re not sitting back doing nothing.”

“Wonderfully precise thinking,” Samual Aleksandrovich grumbled. “National navies have only released seventy per cent of the forces pledged to us; we are barely managing to enforce the quarantine; we can’t track down where the hell Capone’s antimatter is coming from. Now they expect me to ransack what forces I have to build some kind of interdiction flotilla. I wonder if they’ll give me a target, too, because I certainly can’t see one. When will people learn that if we kill the possessed bodies all we’re doing is simply adding to the numbers of souls in the beyond; and I doubt the families of those we kill will thank us.”

“If I can offer a suggestion, sir,” Mullein said.

“By all means.”

“As Lalwani said, Tsuga has been collecting intelligence from Arnstadt. It’s our contention that Capone isn’t having it all his own way, not down on the planet itself. The SD platforms are having to fire on almost an hourly basis to support the Organization lieutenants on the surface. There is a lot of resistance down there. The Yosemite Consensus believes that if we were to start harassing the ships and industrial stations Capone has in orbit, it would make life very difficult for him. Constant reinforcement over interstellar distances is going to place a considerable strain on his resources.”

“Maynard?” the First Admiral asked.

“Possible, sir. The general staff already has appropriate contingency plans.”

“When don’t they?”

“Primarily, it would mean the observation voidhawks seeding Arnstadt’s orbital space with stealthed fusion mines; a decent percentage should manage to trickle past the SD sensors. Equip them with mass-proximity fuses and any ships down there would be in deep trouble. No one would know when an attack was coming; it would rattle the crews once they realized we were blitzing them. Fast-strike missions could also be mounted against the asteroid settlements; jump a ship in, fire off a random salvo of combat wasps, and jump out again. Something similar to the Edenist attack against Valisk. It would have the advantage that we were mainly destroying hardware rather than people.”

“I want the feasibility studies run today,” the First Admiral said. “Include Kursk as well as Arnstadt. That’ll give me something concrete when I’m called to explain this latest fiasco to the Assembly.” He gave the young voidhawk captain a speculative gaze. “What exactly is Capone’s fleet doing right now?”

“Most of it is spread through the Arnstadt system, keeping the asteroid settlements in line until their populations are fully possessed. A lot of captured ships are being flown back to New California, we assume to be armed ready for his next invasion. But it’s a slow job; he’s probably short of crews.”

“For once,” Lalwani said sorely. “I can’t get over how many of those independent trader bastards went to work for him.”

“Recruitment is slowing considerably now the quarantine is in place,” Maynard Khanna said. “Even the independent traders are reluctant to take Capone’s money now they’ve heard about Arnstadt, and the Assembly’s proclamation must have had some effect.”

“That or they’re too busy raking it in by breaking the quarantine, I expect.” She shrugged. “We’ve been getting reports; some of the smaller asteroids are still open to flights.”

“There are times when I wonder why we bother,” Samual Aleksandrovich marvelled. “Thank you for the briefing, Mullein, and my gratitude to Tsuga for a swift flight.”

“Has Gilmore made any progress?” Lalwani asked when the captain had left.

“He won’t admit it, but the science teams are stumped,” Samual Aleksandrovich said. “All they can come up with is a string of negatives. We’re learning a lot about the capabilities of this energistic ability, but nothing about how it is generated. Nor have Gilmore’s people acquired any hard data on the beyond. I think that worries me the most. It obviously exists, therefore it must have some physical parameters, a set of governing laws; but they simply cannot detect or define them. We know so much about the physical universe and how to manipulate its fabric, yet this has defeated our most capable theorists.”

“They’ll keep at it. The research teams at Jupiter have done no better. I know that Govcentral have established a similar project; and no doubt the Kulu Kingdom will be equally industrious.”

“I think in this instance they might all even be persuaded to cooperate,” Samual Aleksandrovich mused. “I’ll mention it during my presidential briefing, it’ll give Olton something to concentrate on.”

Lalwani shifted around in her chair, leaning forwards slightly as if she was discomforted. “The one piece of genuinely good news is that we believe Alkad Mzu has been sighted.”

“Praise the Lord. Where?”

“The Dorados. Which lends a considerable degree of weight to the report. That’s where seventy per cent of the Garissan refugees finished up. There is a small underground movement there. She’ll probably try to contact them. We infiltrated them decades ago, so there shouldn’t be any problem.”

Samual Aleksandrovich gave his intelligence chief a pensive stare. He had always been able to rely on her utterly. The height of the stakes these days, though, were breaking apart all the old allegiances. Damn Mzu’s device, he thought, the alleged potency of the thing even gnaws at trust. “Which ‘we’ is that, Lalwani?” he asked quietly.

“Both. Most intelligence agencies have assets in the underground.”

“That’s not quite what I meant.”

“I know. It’s going to be down to the agents on the ground, and who reaches her first. For me personally, Edenist acquisition would not be an unwelcome outcome. I know we won’t abuse the position. If CNIS obtains her, then as admiral of the service I will follow whatever orders the Assembly’s Security Commission delivers concerning her disposal. Kulu and the others could give us a problem, though.”

“Yes. What do the Edenists propose to do if you get her?”

“Our Consensus recommends zero-tau storage. That way she will be available should the Confederation ever face an external threat which needs something as powerful as the Alchemist to defend it.”

“That seems a logical course. I wonder if the Alchemist could help us against the possessed?”

“Supposedly, it’s a weapon of enormous destructive power. If that’s true, then like every weapon we have in our arsenal today, it will be utterly ineffective against the possessed.”

“You’re right of course. Unfortunately. So I suppose we are going to have to depend on Dr Gilmore and his ilk for a solution.” And I wish I had the confidence I should have in him. Saviour-to-be is a terrible burden for anyone to carry around.

•   •   •

It was the one sight Lord Kelman Mountjoy had never expected to see. His job had taken him to countless star systems; he had stood on a beach to watch a binary dawn over the sea, admired Earth’s astonishing O’Neill Halo from a million kilometres above the north pole, enjoyed lavish hospitality in the most exotic locations. But as Kulu’s foreign minister, Jupiter was always destined to be verboten.

Now, though, he accessed the battle cruiser’s sensor suite throughout the entire approach phase. The starship was accelerating at one and a half gees, carrying them down towards the five-hundred-and-fifty-thousand-kilometre orbital band occupied by the Jovian habitats. Two armed voidhawks from the Jovian defence fleet were escorting the warship in. Just a precaution, Astor had assured them. Kelman had accepted gracefully, though most of the Royal Navy officers were less charitable.

The habitat Azara was looming large ahead of them, a circular spaceport disk extending out of its northern endcap. Although Edenism didn’t have a capital, Azara played host to all of the foreign diplomatic missions. Even the Kingdom maintained an embassy at Jupiter.

“I still can’t get used to the scale here,” Kelman confessed as the acceleration began to fluctuate. Their approach was in its final stages, the battle cruiser flowing through the thick traffic lanes of inter-orbit ships towards the spaceport. “Whenever we build anything large it always seems so ugly. Of course, technically the Kingdom does own one bitek habitat.”

“I thought Tranquillity was independent,” Ralph Hiltch said.

“Great-grandfather Lukas granted its title to Michael as an independent duchy,” Prince Collis said affably. “So, strictly speaking, in Kulu law, my father is still its sovereign. But I’d hate to try and argue the case in court.”

“I didn’t know,” Ralph said.

“Oh, yes. I’m quite the amateur expert on the situation,” Prince Collis said. “I’m afraid we do all harbour a rather baroque interest in Cousin Ione and her fiefdom. All of my siblings access the official file on Tranquillity at some time while we’re growing up. It’s fascinating.” Alastair II’s youngest child smiled whimsically. “I almost wish I’d been sent with that delegation instead of Prince Noton. No offence,” he added for Astor’s benefit.

“Your Highness,” the Edenist ambassador murmured. “This would seem to be the time for breaking taboos.”

“Indeed. And I shall do my best to throw off my childhood prejudices. But it will be hard. I’m not accustomed to the notion of the Kingdom being dependent on anyone.”

Ralph looked across the small lounge. All of the acceleration couches had tilted down from the horizontal, transforming into oversized armchairs. Ambassador Astor lay back bonelessly in his, a politely courteous expression on his face, as always. Ralph had no idea how he maintained it without the benefit of neural nanonics.

“Attempting to remedy a situation not of your making is hardly dishonourable, Your Highness.”

“Oh, Ralph, do stop blaming yourself for Ombey,” Kelman Mountjoy protested. “Everyone thinks you’ve done a superb job so far. Even the King, which makes it official. Right, Collis?”

“Father thinks very highly of you, Mr Hiltch,” the Prince confirmed. “I dare say you’ll be lumbered with a title once this is over.”

“In any case, I don’t believe this proposed alliance could be said to make the Kingdom dependent on us,” Astor said. “Liberating the possessed of Mortonridge is both necessary and advantageous to everyone. And if, afterwards, we understand each other a little better, then surely that’s for the best, too.”

Kelman exchanged an amused glance with Astor as Ralph Hiltch shuffled around in discomfort. For all that they came from totally different cultures, he and the Edenist shared remarkably similar rationalities. Communication and understanding came swiftly between them. It was a cause of growing dismay to Kelman that the freedom he’d enjoyed all his life, allowing him to develop his intellect, was maintained by guardians such as Ralph and the navy, who could never share his more liberal outlook. Small wonder, he thought, that history showed empires always rotted from the core outwards.

There were checks as soon as they docked. Brief almost-formalities; the inevitable test for static, confirmation that processors worked in their presence; verifications which everybody had to comply with. Including the Prince. Ambassador Astor made sure his own examination was a very public one. And Collis was charm personified to the two Edenists running sensors over him.

Azara’s administrator was waiting with a small official reception committee at the spaceport’s tube station. In most Edenist habitats, the post of administrator was largely ceremonial; though in Azara’s case it had evolved into something approaching Edenism’s foreign minister.

Quite a considerable crowd had assembled to see the delegation; mostly young, curious Edenists, and staff from the foreign embassies.

A smiling Collis listened to the administrator’s short speech, replied with a few appropriate words, and said he was eager to see the inside of a habitat. The whole group ignored the waiting tube carriage and walked out of the station.

Ralph had never been inside a habitat either. He stood on the lawn outside the tube station and stared along the cylindrical landscape, mesmerized by the beauty of the sight. This was a lush, dynamic nature at its most majestic.

“Makes you wonder why we ever rejected bitek, doesn’t it?” Kelman said quietly.

“Yes, sir.”

The Prince was mingling among the crowd, smiling and shaking hands. Walkabouts were hardly a novelty for him, but this was unplanned, and he didn’t have his usual retinue of ISA bodyguards, just a couple of dour-faced Royal Marines that everyone ignored. He was clearly enjoying himself.

Kelman watched a couple of the girls kiss him, and grinned. “Well, he is a real live prince, after all. I don’t suppose they get to meet very many of them around here.” He glanced up at the radiant axial light tube and the verdant arch of land overhead. There was something distinctly unnerving about knowing the vast structure was alive, and looking right back at him, its huge thoughts contemplating him. “I think I’m glad to be here, Ralph. And I think you had the right idea to ask for an alliance. This society really has a frightening potential, I never actually appreciated that before. I always thought it would be they who were the losers as a result of our foreign policy. I was wrong: no matter all the barriers and distance we throw up, they won’t make the slightest difference to these people.”

“It’s too late to alter that now, sir. We’re free of their energy monopoly. And I’m not sorry about that.”

“No, Ralph, I don’t suppose you are. But there are more aspects to life than the purely materialistic. I think both our cultures would benefit from stronger ties.”

“You could say the same about every star system in the Confederation, sir.”

“So you could, Ralph, so you could.”

The second general Consensus within a month, and probably not the last within this year, it acknowledged wryly amid itself as it formed.

The most unfortunate aspect of Lord Kelman Mountjoy’s request, Consensus decided, is its innate logic. Examination of the war simulations presented to us by Ralph Hiltch show a very real possibility that the liberation of Mortonridge will succeed. We acknowledge those among us who point out that this success is dependent on no further external factors being applied in the favour of the possessed. So already we see the risk rising.

Our major problem derives from the projected victory being almost totally illusory. We have already concluded that physical confrontation is not the answer to possession. Mortonridge simply confirms this. If it takes the combined strength of the two most powerful cultures in the Confederation to liberate a mere two million people on a single small peninsula, then freeing an entire planet by such a method clearly verges on the impossible.

Hopes across the Confederation would be raised to unreasonable heights by success at Mortonridge. Such hopes would be dangerous, for they would unleash demands local politicians will be unable to refuse and equally unable to satisfy. However, for us to refuse the Kingdom’s request would cast us in the role of villain. Lord Kelman Mountjoy has been ingenious in placing us in this position.

“I would disagree,” Astor told the Consensus. “The Saldanas know as well as us that military intervention is not the final answer. They too are presented with an enormously difficult dilemma by Mortonridge. As they are more susceptible to political pressures, they are responding in the only way possible.

“I would also say this: By sending the King’s natural son with their delegation they are signalling the importance they attach to our decision, and an acknowledgement of what must inevitably come to be should our answer favour them. If both of us commit ourselves to the liberation there can be no return to the policies of yesterday. We will have established a strong bond of trust with one of the most powerful cultures in the Confederation currently contrary to us. That is a factor we cannot afford to ignore.”

Thank you Astor, Consensus replied, as always you speak well. In tribute of this, we acknowledge that the future must be safeguarded in conjunction with the present. We are presented with an opportunity to engender a more peaceful and tolerant universe when the present crisis is terminated.

Such a raison d’être is not a wholly logical one to place ourselves on a war footing. Nor is the kindling of false hope which will be the inevitable outcome.

However, there are times when people do need such a hope.

And to err is human. We embrace our humanity, complete with all those flaws. We will tell the Saldana Prince that until such time that we can provide a permanent solution to possession he may have our support for this foolhardy venture.

•   •   •

After a five-day voyage, Oenone slipped out of its wormhole terminus seventy thousand kilometres above Jobis, the Kiint homeworld. As soon as they had identified themselves to the local traffic control (a franchise run by humans) and received permission to orbit, Syrinx and the voidhawk immediately started to examine the triad moons.

The three moons orbited the planet’s Lagrange One point, four million kilometres in towards the F2 star. Equally sized at just under eighteen hundred kilometres in diameter, they were also equally spaced seventy thousand kilometres apart, taking a hundred and fifty hours to rotate about their common centre.

They were the anomaly which had attracted the attention of the first scoutship in 2356. The triad was an impossible formation, too regular for nature to produce. Worse, the three moons massed exactly the same (give or take half a billion tonnes—a discrepancy probably due to asteroid impacts). In other words, someone had built them.

It was to the scoutship captain’s credit she didn’t flee. But then fleeing was probably a null term when dealing with a race powerful enough to construct artefacts on such a scale. Instead, she beamed a signal at the planet, asking permission to approach. The Kiint said yes.

It was about the most forthcoming thing they ever did say. The Kiint had perfected reticence to an art form. They never discussed their history, their language, or their culture.

As to the triad moons, they were an “old experiment,” whose nature was unspecified. No human ship had ever been permitted to land on them, or even launch probes.

Voidhawks, however, with their mass perception ability, had added to the sparse data over the centuries. Using Oenone ’s senses, Syrinx could feel the moons’ uniformity; globes of a solid aluminum silicon ore right down to the core, free of any blemishes or incongruities. Their gravity fields pressed into space-time, causing a uniquely smooth three-dimensional stretch within the local fabric of reality. Again, all three fields were precisely the same, and perfectly balanced, ensuring the triad’s orbital alignment would hold true for billions of years.

A pale silver-grey in colour, they each had a small scattering of craters. There were no other features; perhaps the strongest indicator to their artificial origin. Nor could centuries of discreet probing by the voidhawks find any mechanical structures or instruments left anywhere. The triad moons were totally inert. Presumably, whatever the “experiment” was, it had finished long ago.

Syrinx couldn’t help but wonder if the triad had something to do with the beyond and the Kiint’s understanding of their own nature. No human astrophysicist had ever come up with any halfway convincing explanation as to what the experiment could be.

Maybe the Kiint just wanted to see what the shadows would look like from Jobis’s surface,ruben said. The penumbra cones do reach back that far.

It seems a trifle extravagant for a work of art,she countered.

Not really. If your society is advanced enough to build something like the triads in the first place, then logic dictates that such a project would only represent a fraction of your total ability. In which case it might well be nothing other than a chunk of performance art.

Some chunk.she felt his hand tighten around hers, offering comfort in return for the brief hint of intimidation she had leaked into the affinity band.

Remember,he said, we really know very little about the Kiint. Only what they choose to tell us.

Yes. Well I hope they choose to let slip a little more today.

The question over the true extent of the Kiint’s abilities nagged at her as Oenone swept into a six-hundred-kilometre parking orbit. From space Jobis resembled an ordinary terracompatible world; although at fifteen thousand kilometres in diameter it was appreciably larger, with a gravity of one point two Earth standard. It had seven continents, and four principal oceans; axial tilt was less than one per cent, which when coupled with a suspiciously circular orbit around the star produced only mild climate variations, no real seasons.

For a world housing a race which could build the triads there was astonishingly little in the way of a technological civilization visible. Conventional wisdom had it that as Kiint technology was so advanced it could never resemble anything like human machinery and industrial stations, so nobody knew what to look for; either that or it was all neatly folded away in hyperspace. Even so, they must have gone through a stage of conventional engineering, an industrial age with hydrocarbon combustion and factory farming, pollution and exploitation of natural planetary resources. If so, there was no sign of it ever existing. No old motorways crumbling under the grasslands, no commercial concrete cities abandoned to be swallowed by avaricious jungles. Either the Kiint had done a magnificent job of restoration, or they had achieved their technological maturity a frighteningly long time ago.

Today, Jobis supported a society comprised of villages and small towns, municipalities perched in the centre of land only marginally less wild than the rest of the countryside. Population was impossible to judge, though the best guesstimate put it at slightly less than a billion. Their domes, which were the only kinds of buildings, varied in size too much for anyone to produce a reliable figure.

Syrinx and Ruben took the flyer down, landing at Jobis’s only spaceport. It was situated beside a coastal town whose buildings were all human-built. White stone apartment blocks and a web of small narrow streets branching out from a central marina made it resemble a holiday destination rather than the sole Confederation outpost on this placid, yet most eerily alien of worlds.

The residents were employed either by embassies or companies. The Kiint did not encourage casual visits. Quite why they participated in the Confederation at all was something of a mystery, though one of the lesser ones. Their only interest and commercial activity was in trading information. They bought data on almost any subject from anyone who wanted to sell, with xenobiology research papers and scoutship logs fetching the highest prices. In exchange, they sold technological data. Never anything new or revolutionary, you couldn’t ask for anti-gravity machines or a supralight radio; but if a company wanted its product improving, the Kiint would deliver a design showing a better material to use in construction or a way of reconfiguring the components so they used less power. Again, a huge hint to their technological heritage. Somewhere on Jobis there must be a colossal memory bank full of templates for all the old machines they’d developed and then discarded God-alone-knew how long ago.

Syrinx never got a chance to explore the town. She had contacted the Edenist embassy (the largest diplomatic mission on Jobis), explaining her mission, while Oenone flew into parking orbit. The embassy staff had immediately requested a meeting with a Kiint called Malva, who had agreed.

She’s our most cooperative contact,ambassador pyrus explained as they walked down the flyer’s airstairs. Which I concede isn’t saying much, but if any of them will answer you, she will. Have you had much experience dealing with the Kiint?

I’ve never even met one before,syrinx admitted. the landing field reminded her of Norfolk, just a patch of grass designated to accommodate inconvenient visitors. Although it was warmer, subtropical, it had the same temporary feel. Few formalities, and fewer facilities. Barely twenty flyers and spaceplanes were parked outside the one service hangar. The difference to Norfolk came from the other craft sharing the field, lined up opposite the ground-to-orbit machines. Kiint-fabricated, they resembled smaller versions of human ion field flyers, ovoid but less streamlined.

Then why were you sent?pyrus asked, diffusing a polite puzzlement into the thought.

Wing-Tsit Chong thought it was a good idea.

Did he now? Well I can hardly contradict him, can I?

Is there anything I should know before I meet her?

Not really. They’ll either deal with you or not.

Did you explain the nature of the questions I have?

Pyrus waved an empty hand around at the scenery. You told me when you contacted the embassy. We don’t know if they can intercept singular-engagement mode, but I expect they can if they want. Next question of course is would they bother. You might like to ask Malva exactly how important we are to them. We’ve never worked that out either.

Thank you.syrinx patted the top pocket of her ship-tunic, feeling the outline of her credit disk. Eden had loaded it with five billion fuseodollars before she left, just in case. Will I have to pay for the information, do you think?

Pyrus gestured at the Kiint transport craft, and a hatch opened, the fuselage material flowing apart. It was close enough to the ground not to need airstairs. Syrinx couldn’t quite judge if its belly was resting on the ground, or if it was actually floating.

Malva will tell you,pyrus said. I advise total openness.

Syrinx stepped into the craft. The interior was a lounge, with four fat chairs as the only fittings. She and Ruben sat down gingerly, and the hatch flowed shut.

Are you all right?an anxious Oenone asked straightaway.

Of course I am. Why?

You started accelerating at roughly seventy gees and are currently travelling at Mach thirty-five.

You’re kidding!even as she thought it, she was sharing Oenone ’s mind, perceiving herself streaking across a tall mountain range eight hundred kilometres inland from the town at an awesome velocity for atmospheric travel. They must be very tolerant of sonic booms on this planet.

I suspect your vehicle isn’t producing one. My current orbital position doesn’t allow optimum observation, but I can’t locate any turbulence in your wake.

According to Oenone , the craft decelerated at seventy gees as well, landing some six thousand kilometres from the spaceport field. When she and Ruben stepped out a balmy breeze plucked at her silky ship-tunic. The craft had come to rest in a broad valley, just short of a long lake with a shingle beach. Cooler air was breathing down from the snowcapped peaks guarding the skyline, ruffling the surface of the water. Avocado-green grass-analogue threw thin coiling blades up to her knees. Trees with startlingly blue bark grew in the shape of melting lollipops, colonizing the valley all the way up to the top of the foothills. Birds were circling in the distance; they looked too fat to be flying in the heavy gravity.

A Kiint dome was situated at the head of the lake, just above the beach. Despite the fresh mountain air, Syrinx was perspiring inside her ship-tunic by the time they had walked over to it.

It must have been very old; it was made from huge blocks of a yellow-white stone that had almost blurred together. The weathering had given it a grainy surface texture, which local ivy-analogues put to good use. Broad clusters of tiny flowers dripped out of the dark leaves, raising their pink and violet petals to the sun.

The entrance was a wide arch, its border blocks carved with worn crestlike symbols. A pair of the blue-bark trees stood outside, gnarled from extreme age, half of their branches dead, but nonetheless casting a respectable shadow over the dome. Malva stood just inside, a tractamorphic arm extended, its tip formshifting to the shape of a human hand. Breathing vents issued a mildly spicy breath as Syrinx touched her palm to impossibly white fingers.

I extend my greetings to you and your mind sibling, Syrinx,the Kiint broadcast warmly. Please enter my home.

Thank you.syrinx and ruben followed the kiint along the passage inside, down to what must have been the dome’s central chamber. The floor was a sheet of wood with a grain close to red and white marble, dipping down to a pool in the middle which steamed and bubbled gently. She was sure the floor was alive, in fact the whole chamber’s decor was organic-based. Benches big enough to hold an adult Kiint were like topiary bushes without leaves. Smaller ones had been grown to accommodate the human form. Interlocked patches of amber and jade moss with crystalline stems matted the curving walls, threaded with naked veins of what looked to be mercury. Syrinx was sure she could see them pulsing, the silver liquid oozing slowly upwards. An aura of soft iridescent light bounced and ricocheted off the glittery surface in playfully soothing patterns.

Above her, the dome’s blocks capped the chamber. Except from inside they were transparent; she could see the geometric reticulation quite plainly.

All in all, Malva’s home was interesting rather than revelational. Nothing here human technology and bitek couldn’t reproduce with a bit of effort and plenty of money. Presumably it had been selected to put Confederation visitors at ease, or damp down their greed for high-technology gadgets.

Malva eased herself down on one of the benches. Please be seated. I anticipate you will require physical comfort for this session.

Syrinx selected a seat opposite her host. It allowed her to see some small grey patches on Malva’s snowy hide, so pale they could have been a trick of the light. Did grey indicate aging in all creatures? You are very gracious. Did Ambassador Pyrus indicate the information I would ask for?

No. But given the trouble which now afflicts your race, I expect it is of some portent.

Yes. I was sent by the founder of our culture, Wing-Tsit Chong. We both appreciate you cannot tell me how we can rid ourselves of the possessed. However, he is curious about many aspects of the phenomenon.

This ancestor of yours is an entity of some vision. It is my regret I never encountered him.

You would be most welcome to visit Jupiter and talk to him.

There would be little point; to us a memory construct is not the entity, no matter how sophisticated the simulacrum.

Ah. That was my first question: Have the souls of Edenists transferred into the neural strata of our habitats along with their memories?

Is this not obvious to you yet? There is a difference between life and memory. Memory is only one component which comprises a corporeal life. Life begets souls, they are the pattern which sentience and self-awareness exerts on the energy within the biological body. Very literally: you think, therefore you are.

Life and memory, then, are separate but still one?

While the entity remains corporeal, yes.

So a habitat would have its own soul?

Of course.

So voidhawks have as well.

They are closer to you than your habitats.

How wonderful,Oenone said. Death will not part us, Syrinx. It has never parted captains and ships.

A smile rose to her face, buoyed by the euphoria of the voidhawk’s thoughts. I never expected it to, my love. You were always a part of me.

And you I,it replied adoringly.

Thank you,syrinx told malva. Do you require payment for this information?

Information is payment. Your questions are informative.

You are studying us, aren’t you?

All of life is an opportunity to study.

I thought so. But why? You gave up star travel. That must be the ultimate way to experience, to satisfy a curious mind. Why show an interest in an alien race now?

Because you are here, Syrinx.

I don’t understand.

Explain the human urge to gamble, to place your earned wealth on the random tumble of a dice. Explain the human urge to constantly drink a chemical which degrades your thought processes.

I’m sorry,she said, contrite at the gentle chide.

Much we share. Much we do not.

That’s what puzzles myself and Wing-Tsit Chong. You are not that different from us; ownership of knowledge doesn’t alter the way the universe ultimately works. Why then should this prevent you from telling us how to combat the possessed?

The same facts do not bring about the same understanding. This is so even between humans. Who can speak of the gulf between races?

You faced this knowledge, and you survived.

Logic becomes you.

Is that why you gave up starflight? Do you just wait to die knowing it isn’t the end?

Laton spoke only the truth when he told you that death remains difficult. No sentient entity welcomes this event. Instinct repels you, and for good reason.

What reason?

Do you embrace the prospect of waiting in the beyond for the universe to end?

No. Is that what happens to Kiint souls, too?

The beyond awaits all of us.

And you’ve always known that. How can you stand such knowledge? It is driving humans to despair.

Fear is often the companion of truth. This too is something you must face in your own way.

Laton also called death the start of the great journey. Was he being truthful then as well?

It is a description which could well apply.

Syrinx glanced over to Ruben for help, not daring to use the singular engagement mode. She felt she was making progress, of sorts, even if she wasn’t sure where it was leading—though some small traitor part of her mind resented learning that Laton hadn’t lied.

Do you know of other races which have discovered the beyond?ruben asked.

Most do.there was a tinge of sadness in malva’s thoughts.

How? Why does this breakthrough occur?

There can be many reasons.

Do you know what caused this one?

No. Though we do not believe it to be entirely spontaneous. It may have been an accident. If so, it would not be the first time.

You mean it wasn’t supposed to happen?

The universe is not that ordered. What happens, happens.

Did these other races who found the beyond all triumph like the Kiint?

Triumph is not the object of such an encounter.

What is?

Have you learned nothing? I cannot speak for you, Ruben.

You deal with many humans, Malva,syrinx said. You know us well. Do you believe we can resolve this crisis?

How much faith do you have in yourself, Syrinx?

I’m not sure, not anymore.

Then I am not sure of the resolution.

But it is possible for us.

Of course. Every race resolves this moment in its history.

Successfully?

Please, Syrinx. There are only differing degrees of resolution. Surely you have realized this of all subjects cannot be a realm of absolutes.

Why won’t you tell us how to begin resolving the crisis? I know we are not so different. Couldn’t we adapt your solution? Surely your philosophy must allow you some leeway, or would helping us negate the solution entirely?

It is not that we cannot tell you how we dealt with the knowledge, Syrinx. If it would help, then of course we would; to do otherwise would be the infliction of cruelty. No rational sentient would condone that. We cannot advise you because the answer to the nature of the universe is different for each sentient race. This answer lies within yourselves, therefore you alone can search for it.

Surely a small hint—

You persist in referring to the answer as a solution. This is incorrect. Your thoughts are confined within the arena of your psychosocial development. Your racial youth and technological dependence blinds you. As a result, you look for a quick-fix in everything, even this.

Very well. What should we be looking for?

Your destiny.

•   •   •

The hold-down latches locked the Tantu into the docking cradle, producing a mechanical grinding. Quinn didn’t like the sound, it was too final, metal fingers grasping at the base of the starship, preventing it from leaving unless the spaceport crew granted permission.

Which, he told himself, they would. Eventually.

It had taken Twelve-T almost a week to organize his side of the deal. After several broken deadlines and threats and high-velocity abuse, the necessary details had finally been datavised to the Tantu , and they’d flown down to Jesup, an asteroid owned by the government of New Georgia. The flight plan they’d filed with Nyvan’s traffic control was for a cryogenic resupply, endorsed and confirmed by the Iowell Service & Engineering Company who had won the contract. As the fuel transfer didn’t require the Tantu ’s crew to disembark, there was no requirement for local security forces to check for signs of possession. The whole routine operation could be handled by Iowell’s personnel.

When the docking cradle had lowered the frigate into the bay, an airlock tube wormed its way out of the dull metal wall to engage the starship’s hatch. Quinn and Graper waited in the lower deck for the environmental circuit to be established.

The next five minutes, Quinn knew, were going to be crucial. He was going to have to use the encounter to establish his control over Twelve-T, while the gang lord would undoubtedly be seeking to assert his superiority at the same time. And although he didn’t know it, Twelve-T had a numerical advantage. Quinn guessed there would be a troop of gang soldiers on the other side of the hatch, congested with weapons and hyped-on attitude. It’s what he would have done.

What I need, he thought, is the kind of speed which boosting gives the military types. He felt the energistic power shifting inside his body, churning through his muscles to comply with his wishes. Light panels in the airlock chamber began to flicker uncertainly as his robe shrank around his body, eradicating any fabric which could catch against obstructions.

A cold joy of anticipation seeped up within his mind as he prepared to unleash his serpent beast on the waiting foe. For so long now he had been forced to restrain himself. It would be good to advance the work of God’s Brother again, to watch pride shatter beneath cruelty.

Twelve-T waited nervously in the docking bay’s reception chamber as the airlock pressurized. His people were spread around the dilapidated chamber, wedged behind tarnished support ribs, sheltered by bulky, broken-down cubes of equipment. All of them covered the ash-grey circular carbotanium hatch with their weapons, sensors focused and fire-control programs switched to millisecond response triggers.

That shit Quinn might have raged about the delays, but Twelve-T knew he’d put together a slick operation. This whole deal needed the master’s touch. A fucking frigate, for shit’s sake! He’d busted his balls arranging for the starship to dock without the cops realizing what was going down. But then the gang had interests all over New Georgia, half their money came from legitimate businesses. Companies like Iowell—a small operation established decades ago—were easy to muscle in on. The spaceport crew did as the union told them, managers could be persuaded to take their cut.

Getting his soldiers up to Jesup had been a bitch, too. Like him, they all had the gang’s distinctive silver skull; skin from their eyebrows back to the nape of the neck had been replaced by a smooth cap of chrome flexalloy. Metal and composite body parts were worn like medals, showing how much damage you’d taken for the gang.

Try slipping twenty of them into Jesup without the administration cops taking an interest.

But he’d done it. And now he was going to find out just what the fuck was really going on. Because sure as turds floated to the top, Quinn Dexter wasn’t on the level.

The instrument panel beside the hatch let out a weak bleep.

“It’s ready,” Lucky Vin datavised. “Shit, Twelve-T, I can’t get anything from the sensors in the tube. They’ve crashed.”

“Quinn do that, man?”

“I ain’t too sure. This place . . . it ain’t the maintenance hotspot of the galaxy, you know.”

“Okay. Pop the hatch.” He opened the datavise to include the rest of his soldiers. “Sharpen up, people, this is it.”

The hatch seal disengaged, allowing the actuators to hinge it back. Absolute blackness filled the airlock tube.

Twelve-T craned his neck forwards, scar tissue stretching tightly. Even with his retinal implants switched to infrared there was nothing to see in the tube. “Screw this—”

The blackness at the centre of the tube bulged out, a bulbous cone devouring the chamber’s photons. Five maser carbines and a TIP pistol fired, skewering the anti-light chimera from every direction. It broke open, petals of night peeling apart from the centre to splash against the chamber walls.

Twelve-T’s neural nanonics began to crash. Blocks clipped to his belt chased them into electronic oblivion. The last datavise he received was from his maser carbine, telling him the power cells were dropping out. He tried to grasp the ten-millimetre machine gun velcroed to his hip, only to find his arm shuddering; the pistonlike actuators he’d replaced the forearm muscles with were seizing up.

A missile composed of tightly whorled shadow swelled up out of the centre of the flowering blackness. Too fast for the eye to follow in real-time—certainly as far as Twelve-T’s faltering retinal implants were concerned—it shot across the chamber and bounced.

The first scream clogged the chamber’s air. One of the soldiers was crumpling up, his body imploding in a series of rapid strikes. He seemed to be dimming, as if he were caught at the middle of a murky nebula. Then his head caved in, and it was blood not the sounds of agony that went spraying across the chamber.

A second soldier convulsed, as if she were trying to jam her head down towards her buttocks. She managed a single bewildered grunt before her spine snapped.

The third victim darkened, his clothes starting to smoulder. Both of his titanium hands turned cherry-red, glowing brightly. When he opened his mouth to scream a column of pink steam puffed out.

Twelve-T had it worked out by then. There was always a translucent cloud around the soldiers as they were slaughtered, a grey shadow that flickered at subliminal speed. His disabled arm levered the machine gun off the velcro, and he turned desperately towards the source of the latest screams. His soldiers were losing it, flinging themselves at the exit hatch, wrestling with each other in their struggle to escape.

The light panels were turning a dark tangerine and beginning to sputter; black iron grids had materialized across them, growing thicker. Oily smoke began to pour forth. The fractured buzzing sound of the conditioning fans was dying away. Globules of blood oscillated through the air, fringes rippling like restive jellyfish. Twelve-T knew then he’d been fucked. It wasn’t Quinn Dexter, rat boy from the arcologies. This was the worst it could possibly get.

He’d never liked Nyvan. But what the fuck, it was his home planet. Now the possessed were going to violate it, subdue every living body. And he was the total fucking asshole who’d let them in.

Another of his soldiers was being chopped apart, haloed in quivering dusk. Pure fury powered Twelve-T’s malfunctioning body into a final act of obedience. He swung the machine gun around on the macerated soldier and squeezed back on the trigger. It was only a short burst. A blue flame spat out of the muzzle to the accompaniment of a thunderous roar. Without a neural nanonics operational procedure program to help him, the recoil was far more powerful than he expected. His shoes were ripped free of the stikpad, and he was somersaulting backwards through the air, hollering in surprise.

The universe paused.

“Shatter!” a furious voice bellowed.

The machine gun obeyed, its cool silicolithium fragmenting like a shrapnel grenade. Needle slivers sliced deep into Twelve-T’s flesh, some ricochetting off the metal casings of his replacement parts. He was flailing wildly now, trailing fantails of blood from his shredded hand.

“Hold him,” someone instructed curtly.

Quinn slowed himself back from the speedstate, energistic currents sinking down to quiescent levels. As they did, the rest of the world began to accelerate. It had been awesome, moving through an airlock chamber populated by statues, time solidified to a single heartbeat. Their time, not his. God’s Brother had granted him impunity from the actions of any non-possessed. What greater sign that he was indeed the chosen one?

“Thank you, my Lord,” he whispered, humbled. Planets would truly bow before him now; just as Lawrence had prophesied.

Most of the blood had impacted on a surface, splattering wide into big smears and sticking tenaciously. Grotesque corpses drifted peacefully in the warm air streams. The remnants of the gang were in a sorry state. With four possessed in the airlock chamber and pulsing with malevolent power, their artificial body parts had either frozen or were running out of control. And they were all combat vets, heavily dependent on replacements, almost up to cosmonik level. Lawrence and Graper were plucking weapons from unresisting hands, claws, and wrist sockets.

Quinn kicked off towards Twelve-T. His robe resumed its usual extravagant cut as he glided across the compartment.

Twelve-T was sweating heavily. One of the soldiers whose arms were mostly the original organic was bandaging the gang lord’s ruined hands with strips torn from his own T-shirt.

“I admire your strength,” Quinn said. “It can be harnessed to serve God’s Brother.”

“Ain’t no God, can’t have no fucking—” Pain gripped his left arm, forcing him to cry out. His skin hissed as it rose in huge blisters.

“You wanted to irritate me,” Quinn said mildly.

Twelve-T glowered helplessly. He wasn’t used to so much pain, none of them were. Neural nanonics always protected them. That meant it was going to get bad, he realized, real bad. Unless . . .

“And I won’t allow you to suicide,” Quinn said. “I know that’s what you were thinking. Everybody does when they grab what’s gonna happen.”

The strips of cloth bandaging Twelve-T’s hands hardened into shiny nylon. Their ends flexed up like blind snakes, then slowly knotted together.

“You’re so close to me, Twelve-T,” Quinn said earnestly. “Your serpent beast is almost free. You would never have become what you are without realizing what your true nature is. Don’t hold back, embrace God’s Brother. Live in the Night with us.”

“You’ll make a mistake, asshole. And I’ll be around waiting for it.”

“I don’t make mistakes. I am the chosen one.”

“Holy fuck.”

“Follow me, Twelve-T. Submit to your true self and know the glory of His word. Betray your people for greed and profit. That way you will never know defeat again. My disciples fuck who they want when they want. They see their enemies burn in torment. Enjoy rewards you have never dared take before. Help me, Twelve-T. Tell me where the asteroid cops are. Shunt your gang’s money into my credit disk. Show me where the spaceplanes are that can take my disciples down to the surface. Do it, Twelve-T.”

“You won’t get down to the planet,” Twelve-T grunted. “People are too frightened of the possessed landing. There’s all kinds of weird checks going on down there. You might have beaten my troops, big deal; but you dead freaks ain’t going to turn my planet into holiday hellpark.”

“You understand nothing,” Quinn said. “I don’t give a fuck about the souls in the beyond. I’m not here to save anyone, least of all them. God’s Brother has chosen me to help Him bring down the Night.”

“Oh, sweet shit,” Twelve-T whimpered. Quinn was a loon. A motherfucking twenty-four-karat loon.

“I want two things from this planet,” Quinn continued. “A starship I can use to take me home to Earth; because that’s where I can hurt the Confederation most. It’ll have to be a cargo ship of some kind, one which Govcentral’s defences will accept is harmless. I’m sure there are plenty docked here right now, right?”

A small jaw muscle twitched on Twelve-T’s face.

“Good,” said Quinn. The gang lord’s thoughts had betrayed him, bitter defeat mingling with the dregs of resentment and anger. “You want to know what the other thing is, don’t you? It’s simple, I intend Nyvan to be the first planet the Light Brother can bring into His kingdom. I’m going to bring the Night to this planet, Twelve-T. Endless Night. Night without hope. Until He comes from the other side of the beyond to grant you salvation.”

Making sure every word was perfectly clear, Twelve-T said: “Go fuck yourself.” He braced himself for the retribution.

Quinn laughed softly. “Not that easy, shithead. I told you, I want your help. I need a local smartarse to straighten out crap like a ship and how to sneak my possessed disciples past the pigs guarding the planet. Someone who knows all the access codes around here. And that’s you, Twelve-T. As He chose me, so I have chosen you.” He glanced around at the gang’s remaining soldiers. “We’ll open the rest of this worthless trash for possession; then convert all of Jesup. After that, nobody down below will be able to resist us.”

“Oh, Jesus, help us,” Twelve-T begged. “Please.”

“Ain’t no God,” Quinn mimicked savagely. “So he ain’t got no son, has he?” Laughing, he pushed Twelve-T down towards the decking. The gang lord’s knees bent, allowing the stikpad to fasten to his trousers. Quinn stood in front of the supplicant and beckoned Lawrence over. “I know you’re a tough mother, Twelve-T. If you’re possessed you’ll only try to fool your new owner, jazz me about as best you can. You and your dumb pride. I can’t afford that kind of shit anymore. That means I’m gonna have to squeeze what I want to know out of you myself, so I know you’re being honest.”

Kneeling before the monster, head bowed, Twelve-T said: “I will never help you.”

“You will. I have many ways of binding my disciples to me. For most it is love or fear. For you, I choose dependence.” He placed his hands on either side of Twelve-T’s silver head. The feat was the converse of a coronation. Quinn lifted the silver cap from the gang lord’s skull with an almost gentle reverence. It came loose with a soft sucking sound. The bone underneath was covered in a sticky red mucus. Ichor dribbled over Twelve-T’s face, mingling with sticky tears.

Lawrence took the cap from Quinn, acting as jester to the king. A little mad giggle escaped from the boy’s lips as he held it in front of the stricken gang lord, its mirror surface ensuring he witnessed his own reduction to impotent vassal.

Quinn’s hands descended again. This time the noise was louder as the bone creaked and split. He lifted the top of the skull high, smiling at the bloody trophy. Twelve-T’s naked brain glistened below him, wrapped in delicate membranes, small beads of fluid weeping up from the tightly packed ribbons of tissue.

“Now I can keep a real close eye on what you’re thinking,” Quinn said.

Chapter 04

“So your group has no organized structure, as such?” Alkad asked.

“We’re organized, all right,” Lodi Shalasha insisted. “But nothing formal. We’re just like-minded people who keep in touch and help each other out.”

Alkad pushed her legs down into the chameleon suit trousers. There was still a residue of cold sweat smearing the fabric from when she’d worn the suit last night. Her nose wrinkled up in distaste, but she kept on working the trousers up her shins. “You said you had junior cadres, the ones clearing the spiders away. That sounds like a regular underground movement hierarchy to me.”

“Not really. Some of us work in day clubs, that way we help to keep the memory of the genocide alive for the children. Nobody should be allowed to forget what was done to us.”

“I approve.”

“You do?” He sounded surprised.

“Yes. The original refugees seem to have forgotten. That’s why I’m in this mess right now.”

“Don’t worry, Doctor; Voi will get you off Ayacucho.”

“Perhaps.” Alkad prided herself that the somnolence program had been for the best. When the girl had woken this morning she’d been subdued, but still functional. The grief for her father was still there, as it should be, but it hadn’t debilitated her.

Over breakfast, Alkad had explained what her priorities were: to get away from the Dorados as fast as possible now her location was blown to the intelligence agencies, and the remaining principal requirement for a combat-capable starship (she still couldn’t bring herself to mention the Alchemist). It would be too much to hope for the ship to be crewed by Garissan patriot types; a mercenary crew would just have to do now. The three of them had discussed possible options, and Voi and Lodi had started arguing over names, who to contact for what.

Voi had left by herself to secure a starship. It would be inviting disaster for Alkad to be seen with her again. As a pair they were too distinctive, however adroit the chameleon suits were at hiding their peripheral features.

“Hey, you’ve made the news.” Lodi waved his communications block enthusiastically. He’d entered a reference search program to monitor the media output. “Access the Cabral NewsGalactic studio.”

Alkad struggled the suit on over her shoulders, then datavised the room’s net processor for a channel to the studio.

Cabral NewsGalactic was showing a recording of a holomorph sticker which had a young cheerleader shouting: “Run, Alkad, run!”

“Mother Mary,” Alkad muttered. “Is this the work of your people?”

“No. I swear. I’ve never seen one before. Besides, only Voi and I know your name. None of the others even know you exist.”

Alkad went back to the studio. A rover reporter was walking down one of Ayacucho’s main public halls. The stickers were everywhere. A cleaner mechanoid was trying to spray one off the wall, but its solvent wasn’t strong enough. Smears of black semi-dissolved plastic dribbled down the metallic wall panel.

“It is as if a plague has visited Ayacucho,” the rover reporter said cheerfully. “The first of these stickers appeared about six hours ago. And if I didn’t know better I’d say they’ve been breeding like bacteria. Police say that the stickers are being handed out to children; and detectives are currently correlating security monitor recordings to see if they can identify the main distributors. Though sources inside the public prosecutor’s office tell me they’re not sure exactly what charges could be brought.

“The question everyone is asking is: Exactly who is Alkad, and what is she running from?”

The image went back to the studio anchorman. “Our company’s investigations have uncovered one possible answer to the mystery,” he said in a sombre bass voice. “At the time of the genocide, the Garissan navy employed a Dr Alkad Mzu to work on advanced defence projects. Mzu is said to have survived the genocide and spent the last thirty years under an assumed name teaching physics at the Dorados university. But now foreign intelligence agencies, acting in response to Omutan propaganda, have started hunting her under the pretext of illegal technology violations. A senior member of the Dorados governing council, who asked not to be named, said today: ‘Such an action by these foreign agents is a gross violation of our sovereignty. I find it obscene that the Omutans can lay these unfounded allegations against one of our citizens who has dedicated her life to educating our brightest youngsters. If this is their behaviour after thirty years of sanctions, then we must ask why the Confederation ever lifted those sanctions in the first place. They certainly do not seem to have had the desired effect in remedying the aggressive nature of the Omutan government. Their current cabinet is just a new collar on the same dog.’

“The council member went on to say that if Alkad Mzu turned up at his apartment he would certainly offer her sanctuary, and that every true Dorados citizen would do the same. He said he would not rest until all suspected foreign agents had been expelled from the asteroids.”

“Holy Mother Mary,” Alkad groaned.

She cancelled the channel and slumped down onto the bed, the suit’s hood hanging flaccidly over her shoulder. “I don’t believe this is happening. Mother Mary, they’re turning me into a media celebrity.”

“That’s my uncle for you,” Lodi said. “Did you check out the positive bias in those reports? Mary, you’d be elected president tomorrow if we were ever allowed to vote around here.”

“Your uncle ?”

He flinched. “Yeah, sure. Cabral’s my uncle. He’s made a mint out of exploiting the little-Garissan attitude. I mean, just look at the kind of people living here, they lap it up.”

“He’s insane. What does he think he’s doing giving me this kind of public profile?”

“Whipping up public support in your favour. This kind of propaganda is going to make life ten times harder for the agencies chasing you. Anyone tries to take you out of Ayacucho against your will today, they’ll wind up getting lynched.”

She stared at him. That eager face which permitted so much inner anger to show without ever dimming the natural innocence. Child of the failed revolutionaries. “You’re probably right. But this isn’t happening the way I ever expected it to.”

“I’m sorry, Doctor.” He pulled a worn shoulder bag out of the cupboard. “Do you want to try some of these clothes now?”

He was proffering some long sports shorts and an Ayacucho Junior Curveball Team sweatshirt. With a short cut wig and the chameleon suit reprogrammed, they intended her to walk out of the room as an average sports-mad teenager. A male one.

“Why not?”

“Voi will call soon. We ought to be ready.”

“You really believe she can get us off this asteroid in a starship, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Lodi, do you have any idea how difficult that is to arrange, now of all times? Underground movements need to have contacts infiltrated right through the local administrative structure; dedicated, devoted people who will risk everything for the cause. What have you got? You’re rich kids who’ve found a new way to rebel against their parents.”

“Yes, and we can use that money to help you, if you’d just let us. Voi taught us that. If we need something, we buy it. That way there’s no network for the agencies to discover and penetrate. We’ve never been compromised. That’s why you stayed in this room all night without anyone storming the door with an assault mechanoid.”

“You may have a point there. I have to admit the old partizans didn’t do too well, did they.” She gave the chameleon suit hood a reluctant grimace, then started to smooth back her hair ready to slip it on.

Joshua held the petri dish up to the cabin’s light panel, squinting at the clear glass. It looked completely empty; his enhanced retinas couldn’t even find dust motes. But lurking inside the optically pure dish were thirteen nanonic monitor bugs which the medical packages had extracted from Lady Mac ’s crew and the serjeants. They were subcutaneous implants, agents stinging them by casually brushing up against an unsuspecting victim.

“How come I rated three?” Ashly complained.

“Obvious subversive type,” Sarha said. “Bound to be up to no good.”

“Thanks.”

“You’re all in the clear,” she said. “The medical analysis program can’t spot any unusual infections or viruses. Looks like they weren’t playing nasty.”

“This time,” Joshua said. As soon as the scanners in the starship’s surgery had located the first of the monitor bugs he’d ordered Sarha to run a full biochemical analysis on everyone. Microbes and viruses were far easier to introduce in a target than nanonics.

Fortunately, the agencies had been curious rather than hostile. But this was the sharpest reminder to date of the stakes involved. They’d been lucky thus far. It wouldn’t last, he thought. And he wasn’t the only one who realized that. The cabin had a kind of after-game locker-room atmosphere, with a team that was very relieved to have scraped a draw.

“Let’s start from the beginning,” he said. “Sarha, are we secure now?”

“Yes. These bugs can’t datavise through Lady Mac ’s screening. They’re only a problem outside.”

“But you don’t know when we got stung?”

“There’s no way of knowing, sorry.”

“Your friend Mrs Nateghi,” Melvyn suggested. “It was rather odd.”

“You’re probably right,” Joshua said reluctantly. “Okay, assume everything we’ve done up until now has been compromised. First off, is there any point in continuing? Jesus, it’s not as if we don’t know she’s here. The bloody news studios have been broadcasting nothing else. Our problem is how difficult it’s going to be to contact her without anyone else tagging along. They’re bound to try and sting us again. Sarha, will our electronic warfare blocks work against these monitor bugs?”

“They should be able to scramble them; we picked up top-of-the-range systems before we left Tranquillity.”

“Fine. From now on, nobody goes into Ayacucho without one. We also take a serjeant each when we venture out. Ione, I want you to carry those chemical projectile guns we brought.”

“Certainly, Joshua,” said one of the four serjeants in the cabin.

He couldn’t tell if it was the one who’d accompanied him earlier. “Right, what kind of data have we pulled in so far? Melvyn?”

“Ashly and I got around to the five major defence contractors, Captain. The only orders coming in are for upgrades to the asteroid’s SD platforms, and there’s precious few of them. We got offered some magnificent discounts when we asked about supplying Lady Mac with new systems. They’re absolutely desperate for work. Mzu hasn’t ordered any equipment from anybody. And nobody is refitting starships.”

“Okay. Beaulieu?”

“Nothing, Captain. Daphine Kigano disappeared within fifteen minutes of arriving here. There’s no eddress for her, no credit records, no hotel booking, no citizenship register, no public record file.”

“All right. That just leaves us with Ikela.”

“He’s dead, Joshua,” Dahybi said. “Hardly the best lead.”

“Pauline Webb was very keen to stop me having any contact with T’Opingtu’s management. Which means that’s the direction to take. I’ve been reviewing every byte I can find on Ikela and T’Opingtu. He came to the Dorados with a lot of money to start up that company. There’s no mention of where it came from; according to his biography he used to work for a Garissan engineering company as a junior manager. Which doesn’t add up.

“Now if you were Alkad Mzu, on the run and in need of a starship that can deploy the Alchemist, who are you going to go to when you get here? Ikela fits the search program perfectly: the owner of a company which manufactures specialist astroengineering components. Remember she fooled the intelligence agencies for close on thirty years. Whatever plan she formatted with her colleagues after the genocide, it was well thought out.”

“Not perfect, though,” Ashly said. “If it was, Omuta’s star would be turning nova right now.”

“The possessed glitched it for them, that’s all,” Sarha said. “Who could anticipate this quarantine?”

“Whatever,” Joshua said. “The point is, T’Opingtu was probably set up to provide Mzu with the means to deploy the Alchemist. Ikela would have made sure that policy continued in the event he didn’t live long enough to see her arrive.”

“Which he did, but only just,” Ashly said. “It must have been the agencies who snuffed him.”

“But not Mzu,” Melvyn said. “This media campaign backing her sprang up too quickly after the murder. Somebody knows she’s out there. Somebody with a shitload of influence, but not in contact with her. It’s going to be almost impossible for us to snatch her with public opinion being whipped up like this, Captain.”

“Which is exactly the intention,” Dahybi said. “Though it’s more likely aimed at the intelligence agencies rather than us.”

“We’ll deal with that problem if we ever get to it,” Joshua said. “Right now our priority is to establish a trace on Mzu.”

“How?” Sarha asked.

“Ikela has a daughter; according to his public record file she’s the only family he’s got.”

“She’ll inherit,” Beaulieu said bluntly.

“You got it. Her name’s Voi, and she’s twenty-one. She’s our way in to whatever organization her daddy built up in preparation for Mzu.”

“Oh, come on, Joshua,” Ashly protested. “Her father’s just been murdered, she’s not going to make appointments with perfect strangers, let alone tell us anything about the Garissan underground, even if she has any data. Which is questionable. I wouldn’t involve my daughter in anything like that. And the agencies will be wanting to question her, too.”

Joshua wasn’t going to argue. As soon as he reviewed Ikela’s public record file he’d known Voi was the link. Ione would call it his intuition. She might even have been right. The old burn of conviction was there. “If we can just get close to her, we stand a chance,” he said firmly. “Mzu can’t afford to remain here now. She’s going to have to make a break for it, and sooner rather than later. One way or another, Voi will be involved. It’s our best shot.”

“I’m not disagreeing with you,” Dahybi said. “It’s as good a chance as any. But how the hell are you going to get near her?”

“Weren’t you listening?” asked one of the serjeants. “Voi is female and twenty-one.”

Joshua grinned evilly at Dahybi.

“You have got to be joking,” the stupefied node specialist insisted.

“I’ll just lie back and think of the Confederation.”

“Joshua . . .”

Joshua burst out laughing. “Your faces! Don’t worry, Dahybi, I’m not that conceited. But she will have friends. There are quite a lot of rich entrepreneurs in the Dorados, their kids will cling together in their own little social clique. And I am a starship owner captain, after all. One of them will get us in. All I have to do now is find her.” He smiled broadly at his crew, who were regarding him with a mixture of umbrage and resignation. “Time to party.”

Prince Lambert sealed the straps around the lanky girl’s wrists, then activated the sensenviron program. His bedroom dissolved into a circular stone-walled chamber at the top of a castle tower, its bed at the centre of the flagstone floor. His male slaves began to file through the iron-bound door. Ten of them stood around the bed, looking down dispassionately at the spread-eagled figure.

He took the remote response collar from under the pillow and fastened it around her neck.

“What is it?” the girl asked, anxiety rising into her voice. She was very young; it was highly probable she’d never heard of the device before.

He kissed her silent, and datavised the collar’s activation sequence. The technology was a bastardization of medical nanonic packages, sending filaments to merge with her spinal cord. He could use it to manipulate her body into reacting exactly how he wanted, fulfilling each of the fantasies in turn.

“Do hope I’m not interrupting,” one of the slaves said in a sharp female voice.

Prince Lambert gave a start, jumping up from the bed. The girl wailed in dismay as the collar began to knit smoothly with her skin.

He cancelled the sensenviron program, retrieving the reality of his darkened bedroom, and stared at the tall skinny figure which replaced the muscle-bound slave. “For Mary’s sake, Voi! I’m going to change this bloody apartment’s door code, I should never have let you have it.” He squinted at the figure. “Voi?”

She was pulling her chameleon suit hood off, allowing her little crown of dreadlocks to wriggle free. A wig of unkempt gingerish hair was held carelessly in her hand. Her clothes were standard-issue biosphere agronomist overalls. “I want to talk to you.”

His jaw dropped. One hand gestured ineffectually at the girl on the bed, who was tugging at the straps. “Voi!”

“Now.” She went back out into the living room.

He swore, then datavised a shutdown order at the collar and started to open the strap seals.

“How old is she?” Voi asked when he emerged into the living room.

“Does it matter?”

“It might to Shea. Has she found out about your little kinks yet?”

“Why the sudden interest in my sex life? Do you miss it?”

“Like a sunbather misses birdcrap.”

“That’s not what you said at the time.”

“Who cares?”

“I do. We were good together, Voi.”

“History.”

“Then why have you come running back?”

“I need something of yours.”

“Mother Mary, that detox procedure was a big mistake. I preferred you as you were before.”

“I’m really interested in everything you say, P.L.”

“What the hell are you doing here?”

“I want you to flight prep the Tekas , and take me and some friends outsystem.”

“Oh, sure, no problem.” He collapsed into the living room’s leather settee, and favoured her with a pitying gaze. “Any particular destination? New California? Norfolk? Hey, why don’t we go for the big one and see if we can break through Earth’s SD network?”

“It’s important. It’s for Garissa.”

“Oh, Mary. Your poxy revolution.”

“It isn’t revolution, it’s called honour. Access your dictionary file.”

“Haven’t got one. And for your information, there’s a civil starflight quarantine in operation. I couldn’t fly the Tekas away if I wanted to.”

“Do you?”

“Yes. All right, one nil. If I’d known about this quarantine in advance I would have left. The Dorados might be home, but I don’t think they’re the best place to live while the possessed are roaming around. You’ve got the right idea, Voi, you’re just too late.”

She held up a flek. “The Dorados governing council flight authorization: it’ll be an official voyage.”

“How the hell . . .”

“Daddy was on the council. I have his access codes.”

Temptation haunted him like a curse. “Is it still valid?”

“Yes. Myself and three others. Deal?”

“There’s a few people I’d like to bring along.”

“No. You can operate that yacht by yourself, that’s why I chose it. This isn’t a bloody pleasure cruise, P.L. I need you to fly some complex manoeuvres for me.”

Tekas isn’t combat-capable, you know. Who are these others?”

“Need-to-know only. And you don’t. Do we have a deal?”

“Do we get to try out free-fall sex?”

“If fucking me means you’ll fly the yacht for me, fuck away.”

“Mother Mary, you are a complete bitch!”

“Deal?”

“All right. Give me a day to wind things up here.”

“We leave in three hours.”

“No way, Voi. I doubt I could even fill the cryogenic tanks by then.”

“Try.” She waved the flek. “If you don’t; no authorization.”

“Bitch.”

The girl was extravagantly attractive; early twenties with lustrous ebony skin and dry chestnut hair that fell just below her bottom. Her dress was a shimmering metallic grey-blue with a skirt hem higher than the dangling ends of her hair.

Melvyn suspected she was a typical insecure rich kid. Though Joshua didn’t seem to mind, the two of them were busy French-kissing on the Bar KF-T’s dance floor.

“He’s a devil for it,” Melvyn said peevishly. He felt he should explain to Beaulieu, who was sitting at the table with him. “Never works for me. I mean, fusion specialist is a tough job. And I’m crew, that’s glamorous enough, isn’t it? But they just bloody stampede at him when we dock. I think he got his pheromones geneered along with everything else.” He started searching through the cluster of beer bottles on the table for one that had something left inside. There were rather a lot of them.

“You don’t think it’s anything to do with the fact he’s thirty years younger than you?” the cosmonik asked.

“Twenty-five!” Melvyn corrected indignantly.

“Twenty-five.”

“Certainly not.”

The cosmonik gave the Bar KF-T another automatic scan. Joshua’s direction of investigation was obviously puzzling the intelligence agents who were on observation duty. Melvyn and Beaulieu had identified five of them in the club, making a game of it as they sat drinking beer and waiting for Joshua to score. It wasn’t that the agents didn’t mix; they drank, they danced, they chatted to people, the betraying factor was the way they maintained a rigid distance from the Lady Mac ’s crew.

Joshua waved a sunny farewell to the girl and sat down at Melvyn’s table with a satisfied sigh. “Her name’s Kole, and she’s invited me to a party this evening.”

“I’m surprised she can hold back that long,” Melvyn muttered.

“I’m meeting her and her friends at tonight’s benefit gig, then they’re going on to a private bash at someone’s apartment.”

“A benefit gig?” Beaulieu questioned.

“Some local MF bands are getting together so they can raise money for Alkad Mzu’s legal costs, should she ever need to fight Confederation extradition warrants.”

“She’s becoming a bloody religion,” Melvyn said.

“Looks that way.” Joshua started counting the bottles on the table. “Come on, we need to get back to Lady Mac .” He slipped his arm under Melvyn’s shoulder and signalled Beaulieu to help. Between them, they got the drunk fusion specialist to his feet. Ashly and Sarha walked over from the bar. All four serjeants rose from their seats.

None of the agents moved. That would have been too blatant.

A pair of possessed walked into Bar KF-T. A man and woman, dressed in clothes which almost matched current fashions.

Joshua’s electronic warfare block datavised an alarm.

“Get down!” the four serjeants shouted in unison.

The threat-response program which had gone primary as soon as the alarm came on sent Joshua diving for cover amid the tables and chairs. He hit the floor, rolling expertly to absorb the impact. A couple of empty chairs went flying as his legs struck them. His crew was following him down; even Melvyn, though his alcohol-polluted nerves made him slower.

Screams broke out across the club as the serjeants drew their stubby machine guns. The agents were also moving, boosted muscles turning their actions into a blur.

Both the possessed gasped at the near-instantaneous reaction to their appearance. An unnerving number of weapons were lining up on them amid the chaos of a terrified and bewildered clientele.

“Freeze,” a quadriphonic voice ordered them.

They didn’t have functional neural nanonics to run combat programs, but instinct was almost as fast. Both of them started to raise their arms, white fire bursting from their fingertips.

Six machine guns, three semi-automatic pistols, and a carbine opened fire.

Joshua had never heard a chemical projectile weapon before. Ten of them shooting at once was louder than a fusion rocket exhaust. He slammed his hands over his ears. The fusillade couldn’t have lasted more than a couple of seconds. He risked raising his head.

Only the agents (there were actually six—Melvyn had missed one) and the serjeants were standing. Everyone else was on the floor, sprawled flat or curled up in fetal balls. Tables and chairs rolled and spun. The music and dance-floor holograms were still playing.

He heard several peculiar mechanical snicking sounds as fresh magazines were slammed into the guns.

Bullets had shredded the wall behind the possessed, chewing apart the composite panelling. Large splatters of blood covered the tattered splinters of composite. The two bodies—

Joshua squirmed at the sight. There wasn’t much left to identify as human. A nausea suppression program switched smoothly into primary mode, though that only stopped the physical symptoms.

Moans and cries rose over the music. Several people had been hit by ricochets.

“Joshua!”

It was Sarha. She had her hand clamped around Ashly’s left thigh. Blood was staining her fingers scarlet. “He’s been hit.”

The pilot was staring with a calm morbid interest at his wound. “Damn stupid thing.” He blinked in confusion.

“Ione,” Joshua shouted. “Medical nanonic.”

One of the serjeants took a package from its equipment belt. Beaulieu was slitting Ashly’s trouser fabric with a small metal blade that had slid out of her left wrist attachments. A dribble of grey-green fluid was leaking from a bullet hole in her brass breastplate.

“I say, do be careful,” Ashly murmured.

When the wound had been fully exposed, Sarha slapped the package over it.

“Let’s go,” Joshua said. “Beaulieu, take Melvyn. Sarha and I will handle Ashly. Ione, cover us.”

“Now wait a minute,” one of the agents said. Joshua recognized him as one of the heavyweights accompanying Pauline Webb. “You’re staying right here until the police arrive.”

It was a barman who had recovered fast enough to think of the financial possibilities that started recording the scene in a memory cell. Later that day and all through the night the news companies repeated it almost constantly. Six armed men in a shouting match with a young starship captain (later everyone realized it was Lagrange Calvert himself) and his crew. The captain saying that no one was going to prevent him from taking his injured friend to get proper treatment. And what authority have you got anyway? Four identical and disturbingly menacing cosmoniks stood between Calvert and the armed men. There was a short pause, then everyone’s guns seemed to disappear. The starship crew left the club, carrying their wounded with them.

Anchormen speculated long and loud on the possibility that the six armed men were in fact foreign intelligence agents. Rover reporters tried desperately to hunt them down, with no success.

The police officially confirmed that the two people shot dead by the agents had been possessed (though no details about how they knew for sure were forthcoming). Ayacucho’s governing council issued a statement urging everyone to remain calm. Total priority was given to search and identification procedures which were being put into operation to locate any further possessed in the asteroid. All citizens and residents were asked to cooperate fully.

There was no physical expression of panic, no angry mobs gathering in the biosphere cavern, or marches on the council chamber. People were too fearful of what might be lying in wait outside their apartment doors. Those companies and offices which had remained open started to wind down or conduct their businesses purely over the communications net; anything as long as personal contact was reduced. Parents took their children out of day clubs. Emergency services were brought up to full alert status. Company security staff were seconded to the police to help with the search.

By late afternoon several starships had been given official flight authorization by the council. Most of them were taking councillors, their families, and close aides away for conferences or defence negotiations with allies.

“And we can’t stop them,” Monica complained bitterly. She was sitting at the back of the office which the Edenists were using, sipping a mug of instant tea. There was little else for her to do now, which aggravated her intensely. All the ESA’s assets had been activated. None of them had any idea where Mzu was; few had even heard of Voi let alone any underground group the girl was connected with.

Locating Mzu was all down to the Edenist observation operation now, and the slender hope they would get a lucky break.

“She has not embarked on any starship,” Samuel said. “We are sure of that. Both axial chambers have been under constant observation, and not just by us. Nobody who comes within twenty-five per cent of Mzu’s height and mass has passed into the spaceports without being positively identified.”

“Yes yes,” Monica said irritably.

“If we don’t find her in another four hours we are going to withdraw from Ayacucho.”

She’d known it was coming, but that didn’t make it any easier. “That bad?”

“Yes. I’m afraid so.” He had just finished watching another possession through a spider in one of the residential sections. It was the apartment of an ordinary family of five, doing as they’d been advised, staying at home and not allowing anyone else in. Until the police arrived. All three officers were possessed; and after seven minutes so were the family. “We estimate eight per cent of the population has been possessed now. With everyone isolated and sitting tight, it is becoming easier for them to spread. They have taken over the police force in its entirety.”

“Bastards. They’ve gone for officialdom every time since Capone used the police and civil service to take over New California.”

“A remarkably perceptive man, Mr Capone.”

“I don’t suppose it would do any good broadcasting a general warning, now?”

“We think not. There are few weapons available to the general populace; and most of those are energy weapons, which are worse than useless. We would be adding to the suffering.”

“And since that bloody media campaign, nobody would trust us.”

“Exactly.”

“What do we do if Mzu doesn’t escape?”

“That depends on what happens here. If the possessed take Ayacucho out of this universe, the problem is solved, albeit not very satisfactorily. If they remain here, then the voidhawks will enforce a permanent blockade.”

She gritted her teeth, hating the mounting feeling of frustration. “We could try broadcasting a message to her, offer to take her off.”

“I’ve considered it; and I might well use it as a last resort before we evacuate.”

“Great. So now we just sit and pray she walks in front of a spider.”

“You have an alternative?”

“No. I don’t think any of us do.”

“Perhaps not, though I remain intrigued by what Joshua Calvert and his crew were doing in that club.”

“Trying to get laid by the look of it.”

“No. Calvert is shrewd. If you want my guess he is attempting to approach Voi through her friends.”

“He can’t know who her friends are, he doesn’t have the resources. We’ve only got three of her friends on our list, and that took five hours to acquire.”

“Possibly. But he’s already inserted himself in her social strata with that invitation to a party. And it’s a small asteroid.”

“If Voi is hiding Mzu, she’s not going to reveal herself.”

“True.” His grin was childlike in its mischievousness.

“What?” Monica asked in annoyance.

“The irony. From being an amateur irritant, Calvert is now our only lead.”

Ashly had said very little during the trip back to the spaceport. Joshua guessed the pilot’s neural nanonic programs were busy suppressing the shock. But Sarha didn’t seem unduly worried, and she was monitoring the medical package around his thigh.

Melvyn was doing his best to sober up fast. One of the serjeants had given him a medical nanonic package which was now wrapped around his neck to form a thick collar. It was busy filtering all traces of alcohol out of the blood entering his brain.

Joshua’s only concern was the fluid which was still trickling out of the bullet hole in Beaulieu’s breastplate. Medical nanonics would be of no value at all in treating the cosmonik. None of them had standardized internal systems; each was unique, and proud of it. He wasn’t even sure if she was mostly mechanical or biological underneath her brass carapace.

“How are you doing?” he asked her.

“The bullet damaged some of my nutrient synthesis glands. It’s not critical.”

“Do you have any . . . er, spares?”

“No. That function has multiple redundancy backup. It looks worse than it is.”

“Don’t tell me, just a flesh wound,” Ashly grunted.

“Correct.”

The commuter lift’s doors opened. Two serjeants slid out into the corridor first, checking for any possessed between them and the docking bay’s airlock tube. “Joshua,” one of them called.

His electronic warfare detector block wasn’t acting up. “What?”

“Someone here for you.”

He learned nothing from the tone, so he pushed off with his feet and glided out into the corridor. “Oh, Jesus wept.”

Mrs Nateghi and her two fellow goons from Tayari, Usoro and Wang were waiting outside the airlock tube. Another man was floating just behind them.

The crew followed Joshua out of the lift.

“Captain Calvert.” Mrs Nateghi’s voice was indecently happy.

“Can’t get enough of me, can you? So what is it this time? A million-fuseodollar fine for littering? Ten years hard labour for not returning my empties to the bar? Penal colony exile for farting in public?”

“Humour is an excellent defence mechanism, Captain Calvert. But I would advise you to have something stronger in court.”

“I’ve just saved your asteroid from being taken over by the possessed. Will that do?”

“I’ve accessed the NewsGalactic recording. You were lying on the floor with your hands over your head the whole time. Captain Calvert, I have a summons for you to be present at a preliminary hearing to establish proceedings which will determine the ownership of the starship Lady Macbeth , pursuant to the claim my client has filed upon said ship.”

Joshua stared at her, too incredulous to speak.

“Ownership?” Sarha asked. “But it’s Joshua’s ship; it always has been.”

“That is incorrect,” Mrs Nateghi said. “It was Marcus Calvert’s ship. I have a sensorium recording of Captain Calvert admitting that.”

“He was never trying to deny it. His father is dead. Lady Mac ’s registration is filed with the CAB. You can’t challenge that.”

“Yes I can.” The man who had been keeping himself behind the other two lawyers slowly edged forwards.

“You!” Sarha exclaimed.

“Me.”

Joshua stared at him, a very unpleasant chill sluicing into his thoughts. The angular, ebony face was . . . Jesus, I know him. But where from? “So who the hell are you?”

“My name is Liol. Liol Calvert, actually. I’m your big half brother, Joshua.”

The last place Joshua wanted to bring this . . . this fraud was the captain’s cabin. It was his father’s cabin, for Christ’s sake, even though most of the old fittings and personal mementos had been removed during the last refit. This was the closest Joshua had ever come to knowing a home.

But Ashly needed the deep-invasion packages in Lady Mac ’s sickbay to remove the bullet in his thigh. That bitch queen Mrs Nateghi wasn’t going to be deflected, and the summons was real enough. He also had a mission. So it was back to basics.

As soon as the cabin hatch shut behind them, Joshua asked: “Okay, shithead, how much?”

Liol didn’t answer immediately, he was gazing around the cabin. His face carried an expression which was close to trepidation. “I’m finally here,” he said falteringly.

“Do you know how many hours I’ve spent in sensevise simulations learning to fly a starship? I qualified for my C.A.B. pilot’s licence when I was just nineteen.” He glanced awkwardly at Joshua. “This must be very strange for you, Joshua. It is for me.”

“Cut the crap, how much?”

Liol’s face cleared. “How much for what?”

“To drop the claim and bugger off, of course. It’s a neat scam, I’ll give you that. Normally I’d just let the courts break you apart, but I’m a little pushed for time right now. I don’t need complications. So name your price, but you’d better make it less than fifty grand.”

“Nice one, Josh.” Liol smiled and held out his Jovian Bank credit disk, silver side up. Green figures glowed on the surface.

Joshua blinked as he read out the amount of money stored inside: eight hundred thousand fuseodollars. “I don’t understand.”

“It’s very simple, I am your brother. I’m entitled to joint ownership, at the very least.”

“Not a chance. You’re a con artist who knows how to use a cosmetic adaptation package, that’s all. Right now, my face is as famous as Jezzibella’s. You saw an opportunity to make a nuisance of yourself, and remodelled your features.”

“This is my face. I’ve had it ever since I was born, which was before you. Access my public file if you want proof.”

“I’m sure someone as smart as you has planted all the appropriate data in Ayacucho’s memory cores. You’ve done your research, and you’ve shown me you have the money to buy official access codes.”

“Really? And what about you?”

“Me?”

“Yes. How come you acquired this ship after my father died? In fact, how did he die? Is he even dead at all? Prove you’re a Calvert. Prove you are Marcus’s son.”

“I didn’t acquire it, I inherited it. Dad always wanted me to have it. His will is on file in Tranquillity. Anybody can access it.”

“Oh, that’s nice. So Tranquillity’s public records are beyond reproach, while anything stored in the Dorados was put there by criminals. How convenient. I wouldn’t try that one in court if I were you.”

“He’s my father,” Joshua shouted angrily.

“Mine too. And you know it.”

“I know you’re a fake.”

“If you were a true Calvert, you’d know.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

“Intuition. What does your intuition tell you about me, Josh?”

For the first time in his life, Joshua knew what vertigo must feel like. To be teetering on the edge of some monstrously deep chasm.

“Ah.” Liol’s grin was triumphant. “Our little family quirk can be a real downer at times. After all, I knew you were real the second I accessed Kelly Tirrel’s report. I also know what you’re going through, Joshua. I felt exactly the same way about you. All that terrible anger, refusing to believe despite all the evidence. We’re more than brothers, we’re almost twins.”

“Wrong. We don’t even come from the same universe.”

“What exactly worries you the most, Josh? That I am your brother, or I’m not?”

“I’ll scuttle Lady Mac before I let anyone else have her. If you’ve got any intuition, you’ll know how true that is.”

“My mistake.” Liol stroked the acceleration couch beside the hatch, the longing obvious in his eyes. “I can see the ship means as much to you as it does to me. No surprise there, we’ve both got the Calvert wanderlust. Hitting you with a big legal scene first off was bound to create some hostility. But I’ve been waiting for this starship to dock here for every day of my life. Dad left Ayacucho before I was even born. In my mind the Lady Macbeth has always been mine. She’s my inheritance, too, Josh. I belong here just as much as you do.”

“A starship only has one captain. And you, asteroid boy, don’t know the first thing about piloting or captaining. Not that it’s relevant, you’ll never be in a position to fly Lady Mac .”

“Don’t fight this, Josh. You’re my brother, I don’t want to alienate you. Christ, just finding out you existed was a hell of a shock. Family feuds are the worst kind. Don’t let’s start one the moment we meet. Think how Dad would feel, his sons going at each other like this.”

“You are not family.”

“Where was Lady Macbeth docked in 2586, Josh? What ports?”

Joshua clenched his fists, a free-fall assault program working out possible trajectories he could leap along. He hated how smug this arrogant bastard was. Wiping that knowing superiority from his ugly flat face would be wonderful.

“The disadvantage with white skin like yours, Josh, is that I can see every blush. It’s a dead giveaway. Me? I always win at poker.”

Joshua seethed silently.

“So, do you want to discuss this sensibly?” Liol asked. “Personally, I’d hate to face Mrs Nateghi across a courtroom.”

“I don’t suppose, Lie , this sudden urge to acquire a starship has anything to do with your asteroid being overrun by possessed?”

“Lovely.” Liol clapped his hands enthusiastically. “You’re a Calvert, all right. Never see a belt without wanting to hit below it.”

“That’s right. So, I’ll see you in court here in about a week’s time. How does that sound?”

“Would you really abandon your own brother to the possessed?”

“If I had one, probably not.”

“I think I’m going to like you after all, Josh. I thought you’d be soft; after all, you’ve had it dead easy. But you’re not.”

“Easy?”

“Compared to me. You knew Dad. You had the big inheritance waiting. I’d call that easy.”

“I’d call that bollocks.”

“If you don’t believe in your own intuition, a simple DNA profile will tell you if we’re related. I’m sure your sick bay could run one for you.”

And Joshua was absolutely stumped at that. There was something about this complete stranger that was deeply unsettling, yet obscurely comforting at the same time. Jesus, he does look like me, and he knows about the intuition, and Dad wiped the log for 2586. It’s not utterly impossible. But Lady Mac is mine. I could never share her.

He stared at Liol for a moment longer, then made a command decision.

The crew were all hanging around on the bridge, along with Mrs Nateghi. Nobody would make eye contact. Joshua shot out of the captain’s cabin, rotated ninety degrees, and slapped his feet on a stikpad. “Sarha. Take our guest down to the sick bay. Get a blood sample, use a dagger if you want, and run a DNA profile.” He jabbed a finger at Mrs Nateghi. “Not you. You’re leaving. Right now.”

She ignored him while managing to project her complete disdain at the same time. “Mr Calvert, what are your instructions?”

“I just told you . . . Oh.”

“Thank you so much for your help,” Liol said with flawless courtesy. “I’ll be in touch with your office if I decide any further legal action is required against my brother.”

“Very well. Tayari, Usoro and Wang will be delighted to help. Forcing recidivists to acknowledge their responsibilities is always rewarding.”

Combating her amusement, Sarha held up a warning finger as Joshua’s face turned beacon red.

“Dahybi, show the lady out, please,” he said.

“Aye, Captain.” The node specialist gestured generously at the floor hatch and followed Mrs Nateghi through.

Liol flashed Sarha an engaging grin. “You wouldn’t really use a dagger on me, would you?”

She winked. “Depends on the circumstances.”

“Fancy that, Joshua,” one of the serjeants said as the pair of them left the bridge. “There’s two of you.”

Joshua glared at the bitek construct, then executed a perfect midair somersault and zoomed back into his cabin.

Alkad’s tranquillizer program wasn’t nearly strong enough to keep the claustrophobia at bay. Eventually she had to admit defeat and switch a somnolence program to primary. Her only thought as she fell into oblivion was: I wonder who will be there when I wake?

The rendezvous was an elaborate one, which decreased the chances of success. But even that wasn’t her main worry. Getting out of Ayacucho undetected was the big problem.

The asteroid had two counter-rotating spaceports, one at each end. The main one was used by starships and larger inter-orbit craft; while the second was mainly for heavy-duty cargo and utility tankers delivering fresh water and liquid oxygen for the biosphere. It was also the operations base for the personnel commuters and MSVs and tugs which flew between the asteroid and its necklace of industrial stations.

Both were under heavy surveillance by agents. There was no chance of getting through the axial chambers and taking a commuter lift to the docking bays, so Voi had arranged for Alkad and herself to be shipped out in cargo pods.

Lodi and another youth called Eriba, who claimed to be a molecular structures student, worked on a couple of standard pods in one of T’Opingtu’s storage facilities. They were converted into heavily padded coffins moulded to hold someone wearing a SII spacesuit. Both boys swore the insulation would prevent any thermal or electromagnetic leakage. The cargo pods would appear perfectly inert to any sensor sweep.

Of course, the insulation meant that Alkad couldn’t datavise out for help if anything went wrong and nobody opened her pod. She believed she held her composure pretty well while she allowed them to seal her in. After that there was nothing but the tranquillizer program for the twenty minutes before she sought refuge in sleep.

A tug was scheduled to take the cargo pods out to one of T’Opingtu’s foundry stations. From there they would be transferred to an inter-orbit craft that was heading for Mapire.

Alkad woke to find herself in free fall. At least we got out of the asteroid.

Her neural nanonics reported they were picking up a datavise.

“Stand by, Doctor, we’re cracking the pod now.”

She could feel vibrations through her suit, then the collar sensors were showing her slash-lines of red light cavorting around her. The top of the cargo pod came free, and someone in an SII suit and a manoeuvring pack was sliding into view in front of her.

“Hello, Doctor, it’s me, Lodi. You made it, you’re out.”

“Where’s Voi?” she datavised.

“I’m here, Doctor. Mary, but that was horrible. Are you all right?”

“Yes. Fine, thank you.” As well as relief for herself, she felt strangely glad the girl had come through unscathed.

She made sure she had a secure grip on her crumpled old backpack before she let Lodi draw her out of the pod. Held in front of him, with the manoeuvring pack puffing out fast streamers of gas, she sank into the déjà vu of Cherri Barnes towing her back to the Udat . Then, space had been frighteningly empty, with so little light her collar sensors had struggled to resolve anything. Now, she was deep within Tunja’s disk, gliding through a redout blizzard. No stars were visible anywhere, the particles were too thick. Their size was inordinately difficult to judge, a grain of dust a centimetre from her nose, or a boulder a kilometre away, both looked exactly the same.

Ahead of her she could see the waiting starship, its fuselage shining a dim burgundy, much darker than the particles skipping across it like twisters of interference in an empty AV projection. Two thermo-dump panels were extended, resembling slow-motion propeller blades as rills of dust swirled around them. The airlock hatch was open, emitting a welcoming beam of white light.

She sank along it, relishing the return of normal colour. They entered a cylindrical chamber with grab hoops, utility sockets, harsh light tubes, environment grilles, and small instrument panels distributed at random. The sensation that reality was solidifying around her was inescapable.

The hatch closed, and she clung to a grab hoop as air flooded in. Her SII suit flowed back into a globe hanging off the collar, and she was inundated with sounds.

“We did it!” Voi was jubilant. “I told you I could get you out.”

“Yes, you did.” She looked around at them, Voi, Lodi, and Eriba, so dreadfully young to be sucked into this world of subterfuge, hatred, and death. Beaming faces desperate for her approval. “And I’d like to thank you; you did a magnificent job, all of you.”

Their laughter and gratitude made her shake her head in wonder. Such odd times.

Five minutes later Alkad was dressed in her old ship-suit, backpack tight against her waist, following Voi into the Tekas ’s upper deck lounge. The yacht was only large enough for one life-support capsule, with three decks. Despite the lack of volume, the fittings were compact and elegant, everything blending seamlessly together to provide the illusion of ample space.

Prince Lambert was reclining in a deep circular chair, datavising a constant stream of instructions to the flight computer. Tekas was under way, accelerating at a twentieth of a gee, though the gravity plane was flicking about.

“Thank you for offering us the use of your ship,” Alkad said after they were introduced.

He gave Voi a sterling glance. “Not at all, Doctor, the least I could do for a national heroine.”

She ignored the sarcasm, wondering what the story was with him and Voi. “So what’s our current status? Did anyone follow you?”

“No. I’m fairly sure about that. I flew outside the disk for a million kilometres before I went through it. Your inter-orbit craft did the same thing, but on the other side. In theory no one will realize we rendezvoused. Even the voidhawks can’t sense what happens inside the disk, not from a million kilometres away, it’s too cluttered.”

Unless they want to follow me right to the Alchemist, Alkad thought. “What about a stealthed voidhawk just outside the disk, or even inside with us?” she asked.

“Then they’ve got us cold,” he said. “Our sensors are good, but they’re not military grade.”

“We’d know by now if we were being followed,” Voi said. “As soon as we rendezvoused they would have moved to intercept.”

“I expect so,” Alkad said. “How long before we can clear the disk and jump outsystem?”

“Another forty minutes. You don’t rush a manoeuvre like this; there are too many sharp rocks out there. I’m going to have to replace the hull foam as it is; dust abrasion is wearing it down to the bare silicon.” He smiled unconvincingly at Alkad. “Am I going to be told what our mission is?”

“I require a combat-capable starship, that’s all.”

“I see. And I suppose that is connected with the work you did for the Garissan navy before the genocide?”

“Yes.”

“Well, you’ll excuse me if I leave the party before that.”

Alkad thought of the remaining devices in her backpack, and just how tight her security margin had become. “Nobody will force you to do anything.”

“Nice to hear.” He gave Voi another pointed glance. “For once.”

“What jump coordinate does this course give us?” Alkad asked.

“Nyvan,” he said. “It’s a hundred and thirty light-years away, but I can get a reasonable alignment on it without using up too much fuel. Voi told me you wanted a planet with military industrial facilities, and wouldn’t ask too many questions.”

The last of the starships with official flight authorization had departed ninety minutes earlier when Joshua made his way out of the spaceport. Service and maintenance staff had gone home to be with their families. Utility umbilicals supporting the remaining starships were becoming less than reliable.

Three agents were loitering in the axial chamber, talking in quiet tones. They were the only people there. Joshua gave them a blasé wave as he and his escort of three serjeants emerged from the commuter lift.

One of the agents frowned. “You’re going back in there?” she asked incredulously.

“Try keeping me from a party.”

He could hear the argument start behind him as the lift doors closed. Holomorph sticker cheerleaders began their chant all around him.

“If she’s worried enough to question you openly, then the possessed must be gaining ground,” a serjeant said.

“Look, we’ve been over this. I’m just going to check out the gig, and see if Kole has turned up. If she hasn’t, we head straight back.”

“It would have been much safer if I’d gone alone.”

“I don’t think so.” Joshua wanted to say more, but the lift was probably overloaded with nanonic bugs. He datavised the net for a channel to Lady Mac .

“Yes, Joshua?” Dahybi responded.

“Certain people out here are getting twitchy about the possessed. I want you to monitor the asteroid’s internal systems: transportation, power, environment, the net, everything. If any of them start downgrading I want to know right away.”

“Okay.”

Joshua glanced at the rigid, expressionless face of the nearest serjeant. Right now he really wanted Ione to confide in, to be able to ask her opinion, to talk things through. If anyone knew how to handle awkward family, it was her. Some deep-buried prejudice prevented him from saying anything to the serjeants. “One other thing, Dahybi. Call Liol, tell him to get himself over to the Lady Mac right away. Give him a passenger cabin in capsule C. Don’t let him on the bridge. Don’t give him any access codes for the flight computer. And make sure you check him for possession when he arrives.”

“Yes, Captain. Take care.”

A datavise couldn’t convey emotional nuances, but he knew Dahybi well enough to guess at the amused approval.

“You accept his claim, then?” Ione asked.

“The DNA profile seems similar to mine,” Joshua said grudgingly.

“Yes, I’d say ninety-seven per cent compatibility is roughly in the target area. It’s not unusual for starship crews to have extended families spread over several star systems.”

“Thank you for reminding me.”

“If your father was ever anything like you, then it’s possible Liol isn’t your only sibling.”

“Jesus.”

“I’m just preparing you for the eventuality. Kelly Tirrel’s recording has enhanced your public visibility rating by a considerable factor. Others may seek you out in the same way.”

He pulled an ironic face. “Wouldn’t that be something? The gathering of the Calverts. I wonder if there are more of us than there are Saldanas?”

“I very much doubt it, not if you include our illegitimates.”

“And black sheep.”

“Quite. What do you intend to do about Liol?”

“I haven’t got a clue. He’s not touching the Lady Mac , though. Can you imagine having board meetings every time to decide her next destination? It’s the opposite of everything I am, not to mention the old girl herself.”

“He’ll probably come to realize this. I’m sure you can come to some arrangement. He appears to be quite smart.”

“The word is smarmy.”

“There’s very little difference between you.”

The lift dropped him off in a public hall a couple of hundred metres from the Terminal Terminus club where the benefit gig was being played. Not everyone was obeying the governing council’s request to stay put at home. Kids filled the hall with laughter and shouts. Everyone was wearing a red handkerchief on their ankle.

For a moment Joshua felt disconnected from his own generation. He had formidable responsibilities (not to mention problems); they were just stimheads sliding around their perpetual circuit from one empty good time to the next. They didn’t understand the universe at all.

Then a couple of them recognized Lagrange Calvert and wanted to know what it was like rescuing the children from Lalonde, and had there really been possessed in Bar KF-T? They were peppy, and the girls in the group were giving him the eye. He began to loosen up; the barriers weren’t so solid after all.

The Terminal Terminus looked like some kind of chasmal junction between tunnels. Big, old mining machines were parked in arching recesses, their conical, worn-down drill mechanisms jutting out into the main chamber. Obsolete mechanoids clung to the ceiling, spider-leg waldos dangling down inertly. Drinks were served over a long section of heavy-duty caterpillar track.

A fantasy wormhole squatted in the centre, a rippling gloss-black column five metres wide stretching between floor and ceiling. Things were trapped inside, undefined creatures who clawed at the distortion effect in desperate attempts to escape; the black surface bent and distended, but never broke.

“Very tasteful, under the circumstances,” Joshua muttered to a serjeant.

A stage had been set up between two of the mining machines. AV projectors powerful enough to cover a stadium stood on each side.

One of the serjeants went off to guard an emergency exit. The remaining two stuck by Joshua.

He found Kole standing with a group of her friends under one of the mining machines. Her hair had been woven through with silver and chrome-scarlet threads, which every now and then made it fan open like a peacock tail.

He paused for a moment. She was so phony; rich without Dominique’s cosmopolitan verve, and absolute trash compared to Louise’s simple honesty.

Louise.

Kole caught sight of him and squealed happily, kissed him, rubbed against him. “Are you all right? I accessed what happened after I left.”

He grinned brashly, the legend in the flesh. “I’m fine. My . . . er, cosmoniks here are a tough bunch. We’ve seen worse.”

“Really?” She cast a respectful eye over the two serjeants. “Are you male?”

“No.”

Joshua couldn’t tell if Ione was annoyed, amused, or plain didn’t care. On second thought, he doubted the latter.

Kole kissed him again. “Come and meet the gang. They didn’t believe I’d hooked you. Mother, I can’t believe I hooked you.”

He braced himself for the worst.

From her vantage point lounging casually on a coolant feed duct a third of the way up the side of a mining machine, Monica Foulkes watched Joshua greeting Kole’s posse of friends. He knew exactly the attitude to take to be accepted within seconds. She took a gulp of iced mineral water as her enhanced retinas scanned the young faces below. It was hot wearing the chameleon suit, but it gave her the skin tone of Ayacucho’s Kenyan-ethnic population; “foreign agents” were about as popular as the possessed right now. Except Calvert, of course, she thought sorely, he was being greeted like a bloody hero. Her characterization recognition program ran a comparison against the youngsters she was scanning, and signalled a ninety-five per cent probable match.

“Damn!”

Samuel (now black-skinned, twenty-five years old, and wearing jazzy purple sports gear) looked up from the base of the mining machine. “What?”

“You were right. Kole has just introduced him to Adok Dala.”

“Ah. I knew it. He was Voi’s boyfriend up until she dumped him eighteen months ago.”

“Yes yes, I can access the file for myself, thank you.”

“Can you hear what’s being said?”

She glanced down contemptuously. “Not a chance. This place is really filling up now. My audio discrimination programs can’t filter over that distance.”

“Come down please, Monica.”

Something in his tone halted any protest. She slithered down the pitted yellow-painted titanium bodywork of the mining machine.

“We have to decide what to do. Now.”

She flinched. “Oh, God.”

“Do you believe Adok Dala will know where Voi is?”

“I don’t think so, but there’s no guarantee. And if we snatch Dala now, it isn’t going to make a whole lot of difference as far as official repercussions are concerned. He’s hardly going to complain about being taken off Ayacucho, is he?”

“You’re right. And it will prevent Calvert from learning anything.”

Joshua’s neural nanonics reported a call from Dahybi. “Two voidhawks from the defence delegation have just left the docking ledge, Captain. Our sensors can’t see much from inside the bay, but we think they’re keeping station five kilometres off the spaceport.”

“Okay, keep monitoring them.”

“No problem. But you should know that Ayacucho is suffering localized power failures. They’re completely random, and the supervisor programs can’t locate any physical problem in the supply system. One of the news studios has gone off-line, as well.”

“Jesus. Start flight prepping Lady Mac ; I’ll wind things up here and get back to you within thirty minutes.”

“Aye, Captain. Oh, and Liol has arrived. He’s not possessed.”

“Wonderful.”

Kole was still clinging magnetically to his side. No one she’d introduced him to had mentioned Voi. His original idea had been to ask them about Ikela’s murder and see what was said. But now time was running out. He looked around to find out where the serjeants were, hoping Ione wasn’t going to make an issue of pulling out. Hell, we gave it our best.

The compere was striding out on the stage, holding her arms out for silence as the rowdy crowd cheered and started catcalling. She started into her spiel about the Fuckmasters.

“This is Shea,” Kole told him.

It was hard for Joshua to smile; Shea was tall and skinny, almost identical to Voi’s size and height. He datavised his electronic warfare block to scan her, but she was clean. What he saw was real, not a chameleon suit. It wasn’t Voi.

“This is Joshua Calvert,” Kole boasted, raising her voice against the rising whistle of the giant AV projectors. “He’s my starship captain.”

Shea’s melancholia became outright distress. She started crying.

Kole gave her an astonished look. “What’s the matter?”

Shea shook her head, lips sealed together.

“I’m sorry,” Joshua said, earnestly sympathetic. “What did I do?”

Shea smiled bravely. “It’s not you. It’s just . . . my boyfriend left this afternoon. He’s captaining a starship, too, and that reminded me. I don’t know when I’m going to see him again. He wouldn’t say.”

Intuition was starting a major-league riot in Joshua’s skull. The first MF band was strolling onstage. He put a protective arm around Shea’s shoulders, ignoring Kole’s flash of ire. “Come on, I’ll buy you a drink. You can tell me about it. You never know, I might be able to help. Stranger things happen in space.”

He signalled the two serjeants frantically, and turned away from the stage just as the AV projectors burst into life. A thick haze of coherent light filled the Terminal Terminus. Even though he was looking away, sensations spirited down his nerves; fragmented signals saturated with crude activant sequences. He felt good. He felt hot. He felt randy. He felt slippery.

A glance back over his shoulder had him sitting on a saddle astride a giant penis, urging it forwards.

Honestly, kids today. When he was younger MF was about the giddy pursuit, how it felt when your partner adored you in return, or spurned you without reason. Making up and breaking up. The infinite states of the heart, not the dick.

The kids around him were laughing and giggling, joyous expressions on their incredulous faces as the AV dazzle poured down their irises. They all swayed from side to side in unison.

“Joshua, four Edenists are coming this way,” a serjeant warned.

Joshua could see them in the sparkling light cloud which pervaded the audience. Taller than everyone else, some kind of visor over their eyes, moving intently through the swinging throng.

He grabbed Shea’s hand tightly. “This way,” he hissed urgently, and veered off towards the mock wormhole in the centre of the club. One of the serjeants cleared a path, forcing people aside. Frowns and snarls lined his route.

“Dahybi,” he datavised. “Get the rest of the serjeants out of zero-tau, fast. Secure a route through the spaceport from the axial chamber to Lady Mac . I might be needing it.”

“It’s being done, Captain. Parts of the asteroid’s net are crashing.”

“Jesus. Okay, we’ve got the serjeants’ affinity to keep communications open if it goes completely. You’d better keep one in the bridge with you.”

He reached the writhing black column and looked back. Shea was breathless and confused, but not protesting. The Edenists weren’t chasing after him. “What . . . ?” Some sort of struggle had broken out over where he’d left Kole’s friends. Two of the tall agents were pulling an inert body between them. It was Adok Dala, unconscious and shaking, victim of a nervejam shot. The other pair of agents and someone else were holding back some irate kids. A nervejam stick was raised and fired.

Joshua turned his head a little too far, and he was tasting nipple while he slid over dark pigmentation as if he were snowboard slaloming, leaving a huge trail of glistening saliva behind him. His neck muscles flicked back a couple of degrees, and the Edenists were retreating, completely unnoticed by the entranced euphoric audience they were shoving their way through. Behind them, Kole’s friends clung together; those still standing wept uncomprehendingly over those felled by the violence which had stabbed so unexpectedly into their moment of erotic rapture.

Shea gasped at the scene and made to rush over.

“No,” Joshua shouted. He pulled her back, and she recoiled, as frightened by him as the agents. “Listen to me, we have to get out of here. It’s only going to get worse.”

“Is it the possessed?”

“Yeah. Now come on.”

Still keeping hold of her hand he slid around the wormhole. It felt like dry rubber against his side, flexing in queasy movements.

“Nearest exit,” he told the serjeant in front of him. “Go.” It began to plough through tightly packed bodies at an alarming speed. Blissfully unaware people were sent tumbling. Joshua followed on grimly. The Edenists must have wanted Adok Dala for the same reason he wanted Shea. Had he got the wrong friend? Oh, hell.

The cavern wall was only ten metres ahead of him now, a red circle shining above an exit. His electronic warfare block datavised an alarm.

Jesus! “Ione.”

“I know,” the lead serjeant shouted. It drew its machine gun.

“No,” he cried. “You can’t, not in here.”

“I’m not inhuman, Joshua,” the burly figure retorted.

They reached the wall and hurried along to the exit. That was when he realized Kole was still with them.

“Stay here,” he told her. “You’ll be safe with all these people.”

“You can’t leave me here,” she gasped imploringly. “Joshua! I know what’s happening. You can’t. I don’t want that to happen to me. You can’t let them. Take me with you, for Mary’s sake!”

And she was just a stricken young girl whose broken hair was flapping wildly.

The first serjeant slammed the door open and went through. “I’ll stay here,” the second said. The machine gun was held ready in one hand. It took out an automatic pistol and held it in the other. “That’s a bonus, these things are ambidextrous. Don’t worry, Joshua. They’ll suffer if they try and get past me.”

“Thanks, Ione.” Then he was out in the corridor, urging the two girls along. “Dahybi,” he datavised. His neural nanonics reported they couldn’t acquire a net processor. “Bugger.”

“The other serjeants are securing the spaceport,” the serjeant told him. “And the Lady Mac is flight prepped. Everything is ready.”

“Great.” His electronic warfare block was still datavising its alarm. He took his own nine-millimetre pistol out of its holster. Its operating procedure program went primary.

They came to a crossroads in the corridor. And Joshua wasted a second querying the net on the direction he wanted. Cursing, he requested the Ayacucho layout he’d stored in a memory cell. There would be too much risk using a lift now; power supplies were dubious, transport management processors more so. His neural nanonics devised the shortest route to the axial chamber, it seemed depressingly far.

“This way.” He pointed down the left hand corridor.

“Excuse me,” someone said.

Joshua’s electronic warfare block gave out one final warning, then shut down. He whirled around. Standing ten metres down the other corridor were a man and a woman, dressed in heavy black leather jackets and trousers with an improbable number of shiny zips and buckles.

“Run,” the serjeant ordered. It stepped squarely into the middle of the corridor and levelled its compact machine gun.

Joshua didn’t hesitate. Shoving at the girls, he started running. He heard a few heated words being shouted behind him. Then the machine gun fired.

He took the first turning, desperate to escape from the line of sight. His neural nanonics immediately revised his route. The corridors were all identical, three metres high, three metres wide, and apparently endless. Joshua hated that, trapped in a maze and utterly reliant on a guidance program susceptible to the possessed. He wanted to know exactly where he was, and be able to prove it. Being unaware of his exact location was an alien experience. Human doubt was superseding technological prowess.

He was looking over his shoulder as he took the next turning, making sure the girls were keeping up and there was no sign of any pursuit. His peripheral vision monitor program indexed the figure striding down the corridor towards him milliseconds before his neural nanonics crashed.

It was a man in white Arab robes. He smiled in simple gratitude as Joshua and the girls stumbled to a halt in front of him.

Joshua swung his pistol around, but the lack of any procedural program meant he misjudged its weight. The arc was too great. Before he could bring it back to line up on the target, a ball of white fire struck his hand.

Joshua howled at the flare of terrible pain as the pistol fell from his grip. No matter how vigorously he waved his arm the deadly white flame could not be dislodged from its grip around his fingers. Oily stinking smoke spouted out.

“Time to say goodbye to your life,” the smiling possessed said.

“Fuck you.”

He could hear the girls crying out behind him, the wails of their revulsion and horror. Shock was diminishing the pain in his hand slightly. He could feel the puke rising in his throat as more and more of his flesh charred. His whole right arm was stiffening. Somewhere behind his assailant a vast crowd of invisible people were whispering all at once. “No.” It wasn’t a coherent word, just a defiant grunt mangled by his contorted throat muscles. I will not submit to that. Never.

A cascade of water burst out of the corridor’s ceiling to the accompanying sound of a high-pitched siren. The edge of the lighting panels turned red and started to flash.

Shea was laughing with brittle hysteria as she withdrew her fist from the fire alarm panel. Dots of blood oozed up from her grazed knuckles. Joshua punched his own hand upwards, straight underneath a nozzle. He roared triumphantly. The white flame vanished in a gust of steam, and he collapsed down onto his knees, his whole body shaking violently.

The Arab regarded the three of them with a degree of aristocratic annoyance, as if any hint of defiance was unprecedented. Water splattered on his dark headgear, turning his robe translucent as it clung to his body.

Joshua raised his head against the icy torrent to snarl at his enemy. His right hand was dead now; a supreme crush of coldness had devoured his wrist. A few spittles of vomit emerged from his mouth before he managed to growl: “Okay, shithead, my turn.”

The Arab frowned as Joshua reached into a pocket with his left hand and brought out Horst Elwes’s small crucifix. He thrust it forwards.

“Holy Father, Lord of Heaven and the mortal world, in humility and obedience, I do ask Your aid in this act of sanctification, through Jesus the Christ who walked among us to know our failings, grant me Your blessing in this task.”

“But I am a Sunni Muslim,” the bemused Arab said.

“Eh?”

“A Muslim. I have no belief in your false Jewish prophet.” He raised his arms, palms upwards. The deluge of water from the nozzles turned to snow. Every flake stuck to Joshua’s ship-suit, smearing him in a coat of slush. Most of his skin was numb now.

“But I believe,” Joshua ground out through vibrating teeth. And did. The revelation was as shocking as the cold and the pain. But he’d come to this moment of pure clarity through reason and ordeal. All he knew, all he’d seen, all he’d done; it spoke to him that there was order in the universe. Reality was too complex for chance evolution.

Medieval prophets were a convenient lie, but something had made sense out of the chaos which existed before time began. Something started time itself flowing.

“My Lord God, look upon this servant of Yours before me, fallen to a misguided and unclean spirit.”

“Misguided?” The Arab glowered, trickles of static electricity crawling up his robes. “You brain-dead infidel! Allah is the only true—oh shit .”

The serjeant fired, aiming for the Arab’s head.

Joshua drooped limply onto the floor. “That’s always how religious arguments end, isn’t it?” He was only dimly conscious of the serjeant dragging him out of the downpour. His neural nanonics came back on line, and immediately started erecting axon blockades. It was a different kind of numbness than the snow had brought, less severe. The serjeant wrapped a medical nanonic package around his hand. A stimulant program coaxed Joshua’s brain back to full alertness. He blinked up at the three faces peering down at him. Kole and Shea were clinging together, both of them in a shambles, drenched and stupefied. The serjeant had taken a bad pounding, deep scorch marks crisscrossed its body, all-too-human blood was bubbling out from crusted wounds.

Joshua climbed slowly to his feet. He wanted to smile reassuringly at the girls, but the will just wasn’t there. “Are you okay?” he asked the serjeant.

“I’m mobile.”

“Good. What about you two, any damage?”

Shea shook her head timidly, Kole was still sobbing.

“Thanks for helping,” he said to Shea. “That was fast thinking. I don’t know what I would have done without the water. It was all a little bit too close for comfort. But we’re through the worst now.”

“Joshua,” the serjeant said. “Dahybi says that three of the Capone Organization’s warships have just arrived.”

Seven Edenists in full body armour were guarding the docking ledge departure lounge. Monica was tremendously glad to see them. Along with Samuel, she’d been covering their retreat from the Terminal Terminus, no easy duty. There had been three encounters with the possessed on the way, and the shapeshifting magicians terrified her. Nerves and neural nanonics were hyped to the maximum. Never once had she given them the opportunity to surrender or back off. Locate and shoot, that was the way to do it. And she noticed that for all his worthiness and respect for life, Samuel was wired pretty much the same.

The lighting panels were flickering and dimming as the group rushed across the lounge towards the airlock door and the waiting crew bus outside. Monica waited until the airlock hatch slid shut before taking her combat programs off line. She flicked the machine gun’s safety catch on, and slowly pulled off her chameleon suit hood. The bus’s cool air felt gloriously refreshing as it gusted over her sweat-soaked hair.

“Well, that was easy,” she said.

The bus was rolling towards the Hoya , the last voidhawk left on the ledge. Nothing else moved on the shelf of smooth dark rock.

“Unfortunately, you might be right,” Samuel said. He was bent over the unconscious form of Adok Dala, checking the boy with a sensor from a medical block. “Capone’s ships are here.”

“What?”

“Don’t worry. The Duida Consensus has dispatched a squadron of voidhawks to support us. We are in little physical danger.”

An inane impulse made Monica stare out through the bus’s window in search of the Organization ships. She could barely make out the non-rotational spaceport, an eclipsed crescent with the funereal red mist of the disk swirling around its edges. “We’re a long way from New California. Is this another invasion?”

“No, there are only three ships.”

“Then why . . . Oh, God, you don’t think he’s looking for Mzu as well?”

“It is the most obvious possibility.”

They reached the voidhawk, and the bus extended its airlock tube over the upper hull. Despite their situation, Monica glanced around curiously once she was on board. The crew toroid wasn’t that much different from an Adamist starship’s life-support capsule in terms of technology; it was a lot roomier, though. Samuel led her around the central corridor to the bridge and introduced her to Captain Niveu.

“My thanks to Hoya ,” she said, remembering her etiquette.

“Our pleasure, you have been performing a difficult job under extreme circumstances.”

“Tell me about it. What’s happening with the Capone ships?”

“They are accelerating down into the disk, though they have made no threatening moves. The squadron from the Duida habitats is here, we’re moving out to join them now. What happens next depends on the Capone ships.”

“We’re under way?” Monica asked. The gravity field was rock steady.

“Yes.”

“Are there any electronic sensors I can access?”

“Certainly.”

Monica’s neural nanonics received a datavise from the bridge’s bitek processor array. Hoya was already sliding up through the fringes of the disk, like a bird emerging from a rain cloud. Purple and green symbols outlined the three Capone Organization ships, half a million kilometres away, and heading in towards Ayacucho at a steady third of a gravity. The squadron of voidhawks was clustered together just outside the top of the disk.

“They’re not in any hurry,” Monica observed.

“They probably don’t wish to appear hostile,” Niveu said. “If it came to a battle with us they would lose.”

“Are you going to allow them to dock?”

Niveu glanced at Samuel.

“Consensus is undecided,” Samuel said. “We don’t have sufficient information yet. To attack them without reason is not an action we can undertake lightly.”

“They can’t be here on an assault mission,” Niveu said. “Ayacucho has almost fallen now, attacking it would be pointless. The asteroid’s new masters would probably welcome an alliance with Capone.”

“Destroying them now might be the best course for us all in the long run,” Monica said. “If they walk in, they’ll be able to squeeze every byte of data from Voi’s friends. And if Voi and Mzu didn’t get off, then we really are up shit creek.”

“Good point,” Samuel said. “We must find out what we can. Time to talk to our guest.”

Only Sarha, Beaulieu, and Dahybi were on the bridge when Joshua sailed through the floor hatch. He’d told the serjeants to take both girls to capsule C where Melvyn, Liol, and Ashly were waiting in the sick bay.

Sarha’s expression was a blend of anger and worry as he drifted past her acceleration couch. “God, Joshua!”

“I’m all right, really.” He showed her the medical nanonic which had enveloped his right hand. “All under control.”

She scowled as he moved away trailing droplets of cold water. A neat midair twist, and he was lying on his acceleration couch with the webbing folding over him.

“The net has gone completely,” Dahybi said. “We can’t monitor the asteroid’s systems.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Joshua said. “I know exactly what’s happening in there. That’s why we’re leaving.”

“Did the girl help?” Beaulieu asked.

“Not yet. I just want to get us clear first. Dahybi, are any of the voidhawks screwing around with our nodes?”

“No, Captain, we can jump.”

“Good.” Joshua optimistically ordered the flight computer to release the cradle clamps. He was rather pleased to see them disengage, some processors were still working back in the spaceport.

The chemical verniers fired, lifting them straight up out of the bay. Sarha winced as the drab metal wall slid past the tips of the sensor clusters, there was only about five metres clearance. But Lady Mac never wavered. As soon as they emerged from the bay Joshua cut the rockets, letting the starship fly free. The sensor clusters sank down into their jump recesses. An event horizon claimed the hull. They jumped half a light year. A second after they emerged energy flashed through the patterning nodes again. This time the jump was three light-years.

Joshua let out a juddering sigh.

Sarha, Beaulieu, and Dahybi looked at him. He was completely motionless, staring at the ceiling.

“Why don’t you join the others in the sick bay?” Sarha said compassionately. “Your hand should be checked properly.”

“I heard them, you know.”

Sarha gave Dahybi an anxious look. The node specialist gave her a curt gesture with his hand.

“Heard who?” she asked. Her webbing peeled back, allowing her to haul herself over to Joshua. A stikpad at the side of his couch captured her feet.

He didn’t acknowledge her presence. “The souls in the beyond. Jesus, they’re real all right, they’re there waiting. One tiny act of weakness, that’s all it takes, and they’ve got you.”

Her fingers stroked his waterlogged hair. “They didn’t get you.”

“No. But they lie and lie about how they can help. I was angry, and stupid enough to think Horst’s damn cross would save me.” He held up the little crucifix and snorted at it. “Jesus, he was a Muslim.”

“You’re not making a lot of sense.”

He looked up at her with bloodshot eyes. “Sorry. They can hurt you very badly, you know. He’d only just started with my hand, that was a warm-up. I don’t know if I could have held out. I told myself I would, or at least that I wouldn’t give in. I think the only way to do that is to die.”

“But you didn’t give in, and you’re still alive, and it’s only you inside your skull. You won, Joshua.”

“Luck, and the tank is about empty.”

“It wasn’t luck you had three serjeants with you. It was healthy paranoia and good planning. You knew the possessed are extremely dangerous, and took it into account. And that’s what we’ll do again next time.”

He gave a nervous laugh. “If I can manage a next time. It’s quite something to look right down into the abyss and see what’s there waiting for you, one way or the other, as possessed or possessor.”

“We were up against it at Lalonde, and we’re still flying.”

“That was different, I was ignorant then. But now I know for sure. We’re going to die, and be condemned to live in the beyond. All of us. Every sentient entity in the universe.” His face screwed up in pain and anger. “Jesus, I can’t believe that’s all there is: life and purgatory. After tens of thousands of years, the universe finally reveals that we have souls, and then we have the glory snatched right back and replaced with terror. There has to be something more, there has to be. He wouldn’t do that to us.”

“Who?”

“God, he, she, it, whatever. This torment, it’s too . . . I don’t know. Personal. Why the fuck build a universe that does this to people? If you’re that powerful, why not make death final, or make everyone immortal? Why this ? We have to know, have to find out why it works the way it does. That way we can know what the answer to all this is. We have to find something that’s permanent, something which will last until the end of time.”

“How do you propose to do that?” she asked quietly.

“I don’t know,” he snapped, then just as suddenly he was thoughtful again. “Maybe the Kiint. They say they’ve solved all this. They won’t tell us outright, but they might at least point me in the right direction.”

Sarha looked down at his intense expression in astonishment. Joshua taking life so seriously was strange, Joshua mounting a crusade was frankly astonishing. For one second she thought that he had been possessed after all. “You?” she blurted.

All the suffering and angst vanished from his angular face. The old Joshua swept back. He started chuckling. “Yeah, me. I might be catching religion a little late in life, but the born-again are always the most insufferable and devout.”

“It’s more than your hand which needs checking out in the sick bay.”

“Thank you, my loyal crew.” His restraint webbing parted, allowing him up. “But we’re still going to ask the Kiint.” He ordered the flight computer to run a full star track search and correlate their exact position. Then he ran an almanac search for Jobis’s file.

“Right now?” Dahybi asked tartly. “You’re going to throw away all you achieved on Ayacucho just like that?”

“Of course not,” Joshua said smoothly.

“Good. Because if we don’t find Mzu and the Alchemist before the possessed do, there probably won’t be any Confederation left for you to save.”

Adok Dala returned to consciousness with a loud cry. He looked around fearfully at the Hoya ’s sick bay. Not reassured by his surroundings. Not at all.

Samuel removed the medical nanonic package from the base of his neck. “Easy there. You’re quite safe, Adok. Nobody is going to hurt you here. And I must apologize for the way we treated you in the club, but you are rather important to us.”

“You’re not the possessed?”

“No. We’re Edenists. Well, apart from Monica, here; she’s from the Kulu Kingdom.”

Monica did her best to smile at the nervous boy.

“You’re foreign agents, then?”

“Yes.”

“I won’t tell you anything. I’m not helping you catch Mzu.”

“That’s very patriotic. But we’re not interested in Mzu. Frankly, we hope she got away clean. You see, the possessed are in charge of Ayacucho now.”

Adok moaned in distress, clamping his hand over his mouth.

“What we’d like to know about is Voi,” Samuel said.

“Voi?”

“Yes. Do you know where she is?”

“I haven’t seen her for days. She put us all on standby. It was silly, we had to organize the kids in the day clubs to kill spiders. She said Lodi figured out you were using them to spy on us.”

“Clever man, Lodi. Do you know where he is?”

“No. Not for a couple of days.”

“Interesting. How many are there in this group of yours?”

“About twenty, twenty-five. There’s no real list. We’re just friends.”

“Who started it?”

“Voi. She’d changed when she came out of detox. The genocide became a real cause for her. We just got sucked along by her. Everybody does when Voi gets serious about an issue.”

Monica datavised a request to her processor block, retrieving a memory image from the file she’d recorded at the Terminal Terminus. It had bothered her since the snatch. The last glimpse she had of Joshua Calvert showed him tugging a girl along. She showed the enhanced image to Adok. “Do you know her?”

He blinked blearily at the little screen. Whatever drugs Samuel had administered to loosen his tongue were making him drowsy. “That’s Shea. I like her, but . . .”

“Is she one of your group?”

“Not really, but she’s Prince Lambert’s girlfriend. He’s sort of a member; and she’s done a few things for us occasionally.”

Monica looked at Samuel. “What have we got on this Prince Lambert character?”

“A moment.” He consulted his bitek processor block. “He’s registered as a pilot for the Tekas , an executive yacht owned by his family corporation. Monica, it was one of the starships which left Ayacucho this afternoon.”

“Damn it!” She slammed her fist down on one of the cabinets beside Adok Dala’s couch. “Does Voi know Prince Lambert?”

Adok smiled blithely. “Yes. They used to be lovers. He was the reason she wound up in detox.”

Do you have a jump coordinate for the Tekas? samuel asked Niveu.

No. It flew outside our mass perception range. None of the voidhawks registered its jump. But we do have the flight vector. It was an odd course, the ship was heading back down to the disk when it passed beyond us. If it didn’t perform any drastic realignment manoeuvres there are three possible stars it could have flown to: Shikoku, Nyvan, and Torrox.

Thank you. We’ll check them.

Of course. I’ll inform Duida’s defence command. We’ll leave immediately.

Shea had changed into a grey ship-suit when Joshua floated into the sickbay. She was talking quietly to Liol, but broke off to give him a shy grin. Ashly and Melvyn were busy packing equipment away. One of the serjeants held on to a grab hoop just inside the hatch.

“How are you feeling?” Joshua asked her.

“Fine. Ashly gave me a tranquillizer. I think it helps.”

“I wish he’d give me one.”

Her grin brightened. “Is your hand very bad?”

He held it up. “Most of the bone is intact, but I’m going to need some clone vat tissue to build the fingers up. The package can’t regenerate quite that much.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

“Tranquillity will pay for it,” he said, straight-faced. “Where’s Kole?”

“Zero-tau,” Melvyn said.

“Good idea.”

“Do you want me to go in as well?” Shea asked.

“Up to you. But I need some help before you decide.”

“From me?”

“Yes. Let me explain. Contrary to everything the news studios were saying, I’m not a foreign agent.”

“I know that, you’re Lagrange Calvert.”

Joshua smiled. “I knew it would come in useful one day. The thing is, we are looking for Alkad Mzu, but not because of any Omutan propaganda.”

“Why then?”

He took her hand in his, squeezing emphatically. “There is a reason, Shea, it’s a good reason, but not a very nice one. I’ll tell you if you really want to know; because if you’re anything like the person I think you are, you’d help us find her if you knew what’s actually going on. But if you’ll trust me on this, you don’t want to know. It’s up to you.”

“Are you going to kill her?” she asked sheepishly.

“No.”

“Promise?”

“I promise. We just want to take her back to Tranquillity where she’s been living since the genocide. As prisons go, it isn’t bad. And if we can get to her in time, it’ll save an awful lot of people. Maybe an entire planet.”

“She’s going to drop a planet-buster on Omuta, isn’t she?”

“Something like that.”

“I thought so,” she said in a tiny voice. “But I don’t know where she is.”

“I think you do. You see, we believe she’s with Voi.”

“Oh, her .” Shea’s face darkened.

“Yes, her. I’m sorry, this sounds painful for you. I didn’t realize.”

“She and Prince Lambert had a thing. He still . . . well, he’d go back to her if she’d have him.”

“This Prince Lambert is your boyfriend, the starship captain?”

“Yes.”

“Which ship?”

“The Tekas .”

“And it left Ayacucho today?”

“Yes. Do you really think Alkad Mzu was on board?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Is he going to be in trouble with the authorities?”

“I couldn’t care less about him. I just want to locate Mzu. Once I’ve done that, once she knows I’m on her tail and watching every move, the threat will be neutered. She’ll have to come back with me then. Now, are you going to tell me where the Tekas went?”

“I’m sorry, I wish I could help, but he wouldn’t tell me where they were going.”

“Shit!”

“P.L. is flying the Tekas to Nyvan,” Liol said. He looked around inquiringly at the startled faces. “Did I say something wrong?”

“How the bloody hell do you know where he was going?” Joshua demanded.

“P.L.’s a good friend of mine; we grew up together. Quantum Serendipity has the contract to service the Tekas . He’s not the most experienced pilot, and Voi had given him a very odd manoeuvre to fly. So I helped him program the flight vector.”

Chapter 05

André Duchamp had half expected to be shot at by the Ethenthia asteroid’s SD platforms when the Villeneuve’s Revenge jumped into its dedicated emergence zone three thousand kilometres away. He certainly had a lot of explaining to do to the local defence command, followed up by testimony from the rover reporters. When he did finally receive docking permission he assumed the famed Duchamp forcefulness and integrity had won through again.

What actually happened was that while he was busy claiming to be a defector from the Capone Organization, Erick opened a channel to the local Confederation Navy Bureau and asked them to press the local authority for clearance. Even so, the authorities were extremely cautious. Three SD platforms were locked on to the Villeneuve’s Revenge as it approached the spaceport.

The security teams which ransacked the life-support capsules in search of treachery were exceptionally thorough. André put on a brave face as composite panels were split open and equipment modules broken down into component parts for high-definition scanning. The cabins hadn’t exactly been in optimum shape before. It would take weeks to reassemble the trashed fittings to comply with even the minimum of CAB flight-worthiness requirements.

But Kingsley Pryor was hauled away by the emotionless officers from an unnamed division of the defence forces. A big credit bonus to the intrepid crew who had outsmarted Capone.

The only possible flaw was Shane Brandes. So the Dechal ’s fusion engineer was brought out of zero-tau while they were still on the approach phase and given a simple ultimatum: cooperate or you’re going to be a dead crewman who we’re in mourning over. He chose cooperation; explaining to the Ethenthia authorities why they’d abducted him in the first place would have been a little too confusing, he felt.

Thirteen hours after they docked, the last of Ethenthia’s security officers departed. André gazed around lugubriously at his bridge. The consoles were little more than open grids of processor boards; walls and decking had been stripped down to the bare metal; environmental ducts were making stressed whining sounds, and dirty condensation was building up on every surface.

“We did it.” His clown face exhibited a genuine smile as he looked from Erick, to Madeleine, and finally Desmond. “We’re home free.”

Madeleine and Desmond began to chuckle, sharing the realization. They really had come through.

“I have a few bottles in my cabin,” André said. “If those thieving scum anglo police haven’t stolen them. We must celebrate. Ethenthia is as good a place as any to sit out this war. We can keep busy with some proper maintenance. I’m sure I can get the insurance to pay for some of this wreckage; after all, we’re war heroes now. Who will argue, eh?”

“Tina might,” Erick said.

The flatness in the voice dispelled André’s smile. “Tina who?”

“The girl we killed on the Krystal Moon. Murdered, actually.”

“Oh, Erick. Dear enfant. You are tired. You have done more work than most.”

“Certainly more than you. But what’s new there?”

“Erick,” Desmond said. “Come now, it has been a terrible time for all of us. Perhaps we should get some rest before we decide what to do next.”

“Good suggestion. I admit I haven’t quite made up my mind what to do with you yet.”

“What you are going to do with us?” André asked indignantly. “I think your medical modules are malfunctioning; your brain is being fed the wrong chemicals. Come, we will go to bed, and in the morning none of this will be mentioned again.”

“Shut up, you pompous geek,” Erick said. It was the contemptuous indifference of the voice which shocked André into silence.

“My problem is that I owe Madeleine and Desmond my life,” Erick went on. “But then, if you hadn’t been such an arsehole, Duchamp, none of us would ever have been put in the crazy position we were. That’s the kind of hazard I have to accept when I take on missions like this.”

“Missions?” André didn’t like the cold passion which had suddenly overtaken his crewman.

“Yes, I’m an undercover officer in the CNIS.”

“Oh, fuck,” Madeleine grunted helplessly. “Erick . . . Shit, I liked you.”

“Yeah. That’s my problem, too. I’m in a little bit deeper than I ever expected. We made a good team fighting the possessed.”

“So now what?” she asked numbly. “A penal colony?”

“After everything we went through, I’m prepared to make you an offer. I owe you that, I think.”

“What sort of offer?” André asked.

“An exchange. You see, I’m your case officer, I’m the one who decides if the Service prosecutes, I’m the one who provides the evidence that we attacked the Krystal Moon and killed a fifteen-year-old girl because you’re such an incompetent captain you can’t keep up the payments on a ship that isn’t worth ten fuseodollars.”

“Ah! Of course, money is no problem, my dear enfant. I can mortgage the ship, it will be done for you by tomorrow. What currency do you—”

“Shut up!” Madeleine bellowed. “Just shut the fuck up, Duchamp. What is it, Erick? What’s he got to do? Because whatever it is, he’s going to do it with a big smile on his fat stupid face.”

“I want to know something, Duchamp,” Erick said. “And I think you can tell me. In fact, I’m sure you can. Because it’s information which only the vilest, most deceitful pieces of shit in the galaxy are entrusted with.” He drifted over until he was centimetres from the captain. Duchamp had started to tremble.

“What is the coordinate of the antimatter station, André?” he asked softly. “I know you know.”

André blanched. “I . . . I cannot. Not that.”

“Oh, really? Do you know why the Confederation is so unsuccessful in finding antimatter production stations, Madeleine?” Erick asked. “It’s because we can’t use debrief nanonics on people we suspect of knowing where they are. Nor can we use drugs, or even torture. It’s their neural nanonics, you see. The price of learning a station’s coordinate is a very special set of neural nanonics. The black cartel supplies them absolutely free of charge. Top-of-the-range, whatever marque you like, but always with one small modification. If they detect the owner is being subjected to any form of interrogation, such as debrief nanonics, they kamikaze. The only way the coordinate is passed on is voluntarily. So what is it, Duchamp?”

“They’ll kill me,” André whimpered. He made to reach out and clasp Erick’s shoulder, but his hand fisted just before contact and drew back. “Did you not hear? They’ll kill me!”

“Fucking tell him!” Madeleine shouted.

“Non.”

“It won’t be a penal colony after the trial,” Erick said. “We’ll take you away to a quiet little laboratory deep in Trafalgar, and try and see if this time we can beat the kamikaze mechanism.”

“They’ll know. They always find out. Always!”

“One of the stations is supplying Capone with antimatter. That means the cartel has already lost it to the possessed, so they’re not going to care. And what about you? Do you care, do you want Capone to keep winning? And if he does beat us, what do you think he’ll do with you when he finally catches up with you?”

“But suppose the station I know of isn’t the one?”

“The only good antimatter station is one which has been destroyed. Now what’s it going to be? The CNIS lab? The cartel? Capone? Or do I load a no further action code in your file? Make your mind up.”

“I despise you, anglo. I want your precious Confederation to die right in front of you. I want your entire family possessed and made to fuck animals. I want your soul trapped in the beyond for all time. Only then will I have justice for what you and your kind have done to me and my life.”

“The coordinate, Duchamp,” Erick said impassively.

André datavised the star’s almanac file over.

Lieutenant Commander Emonn Verona, the CNIS’s head of station on Ethenthia, sat behind his desk and stared at Erick in what was almost a state of reverence. “You have the name of the next system Capone intends to invade, and an antimatter station coordinate?”

“Yes, sir. According to Pryor, Capone is going to send his fleet to the Toi-Hoi system.”

“Good God. If we can ambush that fleet, we’ve got the bastard cold. He’ll be finished.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Right. This bureau’s only goal now is to get your information back to Trafalgar. There aren’t any navy ships stationed here; I’m going to have to signal the Edenist habitats orbiting Golmo and request some voidhawks. That’s fifteen light-hours away.” He eyed the exhausted captain whose skin seemed to be half nanonic packages; the medical ancillary modules fastened to his belt had several orange LEDs winking on them. “We ought to have a voidhawk here within sixteen hours. That’ll give you some time to have a decent rest first.”

“Thanks. All of us got pretty strung out searching the ship for that nuke.”

“I’ll bet. Are you sure you want to drop the charges against Duchamp?”

“Not really. But I gave my word, even though that means nothing to a man like him. Besides, he knows the navy has a file on him now, he knows we’ll be watching him, he’ll never trust another crew member again. He’ll never be able to fly another illegal flight again. And given the state of that ship, and his own abilities, he isn’t going to be able to make enough from legal charters to keep going. The banks will take the Villeneuve’s Revenge off him. For someone like him, that’s worse than a penal colony or the death sentence.”

“I hope I never get you at my court-martial,” Emonn Verona said.

“He deserves it.”

“I know. What do you want to do about Pryor?”

“Where is he now?”

“He’s being remanded in custody. There are any number of charges we can bring. I can’t believe a Confederation Navy officer turned like that.”

“It will be interesting to find out the reason. I think there’s a lot more to Kingsley Pryor than we know. The best course would be for me to take him back to Trafalgar. He can be debriefed properly there.”

“Okay. I’m going to step up security around the bureau, and I don’t want you to leave it until the voidhawk arrives. There’s a spare office you can use to sleep in, my executive officer will show you. And I’ll organize a medical team to examine you before you depart.”

“Thank you, sir.” Erick stood up, saluted, and walked out. Emonn Verona had been fifteen years in the navy, and undercover officers like Erick Thakrar still unnerved him.

The office light panel dimmed for a few seconds, then flickered annoyingly up to its full brightness. Emonn Verona gave it a resigned glare: the damn thing had been getting worse for a couple of days now. He made a note in his neural nanonics general file to get an engineer in once Thakrar was safely on his way.

•   •   •

Right from the start, Gerald Skibbow had disliked asteroid settlements. They were worse than an arcology; the corridors were claustrophobic, while the biosphere caverns had a forced grandeur which lessened them considerably. Those initial impressions had come from Pinjarra, where the Quadin had left him.

It hadn’t taken long, even for someone as ingenuous as himself, to find out that despite the quarantine, nongovernmental cargoes were still arriving at Pinjarra from outsystem. They didn’t arrive on starships, though, Quadin was virtually the only one docked to the asteroid’s spaceport, the rest were inter-orbit craft. Hours spent in the bars which their crews used gave him an outline of the operation, and a name: Koblat. An asteroid which was open to quarantine-busting flights, acting as a distribution hub for the Trojan cluster. A berth on an inter-orbit ship returning empty cost him five thousand fuseodollars.

It was the starships Gerald wanted, whose captains might conceivably accept a charter to Valisk. He had money in his Jovian Bank credit disk; so perhaps it was his manner which caused them all to shake their heads and turn their backs on him. He knew he was too anxious, too insistent, too desperate. He’d made progress in controlling the extremes of his behaviour; there were fewer tantrums when his requests were refused, and he really tried to remember to wash and shave and find clean clothes. But still the captains rejected him. Perhaps they could see the ghosts and demons dancing inside his head. They didn’t understand. It was Marie they were condemning, not him.

This time he had come very close to screaming at the captain as she made a joke of his pleas. Very close to raising his fists, to punching the truth and the need into her.

Then she had looked into his eyes and realized the danger caged in there, and her smile had emptied away. Gerald knew the barman was watching closely, one hand under the bar to grip whatever it was he used to quell trouble. There was a long moment spent looking down at the captain as silence rippled out from her table to claim the Blue Fountain. He took the time to think the way Dr Dobbs said he should, to focus on goals and the proper way to achieve them, how to make himself calm when his thoughts were febrile with rage.

The possibility of violence passed. Gerald turned and made for the door. Outside, naked rock pressed in on him, creating a sense of suffocation. There were too few light panels in the corridor. Hologram signs and low-wattage AV projections tried to entice him into other clubs and bars. He shuffled past, reaching the warren of smaller corridors which served the residential section. He thought his rented room was close, the signs at every intersection were confusing, numbers and letters jumbled together; he wasn’t used to them yet. Voices rumbled down the corridor, male laughs and jeers, the tone was unpleasant. They were coming from the junction ahead. Dim shadows moved on the walls. He almost stopped and turned around. Then he heard the girl’s cry, angry and fearful at the same time. He wanted to run away. Violence frightened him now. The possessed seemed to be at the heart of all conflicts, all evil. It would be best to leave, to call others to help. The girl cried out again, cursing. And Gerald thought of Marie, and how lonely and afraid she must have been when the possessed claimed her. He edged forwards, and glanced around the corner.

At first, Beth had been furious with herself. She prided herself on how urban-wise she was. Koblat might be small, but that didn’t mean it had much community spirit. There were only the company cops to keep order; and they didn’t much bother unless they’d had their bung. The corridors could get tough. Men in their twenties, the failed rebels who now had nothing in front of them but eighty years work for the company, went together in clans. They had their own turf, and Beth knew which corridors they were, where you didn’t go at any time.

She hadn’t been expecting any trouble when the three young men walked down the corridor towards her. She was only twenty metres from her apartment, and they were in company overalls, some kind of maintenance crew. Not a clan, nor mates coming back from a clubbing session. Mr Regulars.

The first one whistled admiringly when they were a few metres away. So she gave them the standard blank smile and moved over to one side of the corridor. Then one of them groaned and pointed at her ankle. “Christ, she’s wearing one too, a deadie.”

“Are ya gay, doll? Fancy giving that Kiera one, do ya? Me too.”

They all laughed harshly. Beth tried to walk past. A hand caught her arm. “Where you going, doll?”

She attempted to pull herself free, but he was too strong.

“Valisk? Going to shag Kiera? We not good enough for you here? You got something against your own kind?”

“Let go!” Beth started to struggle. More hands grabbed her. She lashed out with her free arm, but it was no good. They were bigger, older, stronger.

“Little cow.”

“She’s got some fight in her.”

“Hold the bitch. Take that arm.”

Her arms were forced behind her back, holding her still. The man in front of her grinned slowly as she twisted about. He grabbed her hair suddenly and pushed her head back. Beth flinched, very near to losing it. His face was centimetres from hers, triumphant eyes gloating.

“Gonna take you home with us,” he breathed. “We’ll straighten you out good and proper, doll; you won’t want girls again, not after we’ve finished with you.”

“Fuck off!” Beth screamed. She kicked out. But he caught her leg and shoved it high into the air.

“Dumb slut.” He tugged at the knot which held the red handkerchief around her ankle. “Reckon this might come in useful, guys. She’s got a mouth on her.”

“You . . . you just bloody well leave her alone.”

All four of them stared at the speaker.

Gerald stood in the corridor’s junction, his grey ship-suit wrinkled and dirty, hair ruffled, three days of beard shading his face. Even more alarming than the nervejam stick he was pointing at them in a two-handed grip was the way it shook. He was blinking as if he were having great difficulty focusing.

“Whoa there, fella,” the man holding Beth’s leg said. “Let’s not get excited here.”

“Get away from her!” The nervejam stick juddered violently.

Beth’s leg was hurriedly dropped. The hands let go of her arms. Her three would-be rapists began to back off down the corridor. “We’re going, okay? You got this all wrong, fella.”

“Leave! I know what you are. You’re part of it. You’re part of them. You’re helping them.”

The three men were retreating fast. Beth looked at the unstable nervejam stick and the persecuted face behind it, and almost felt like joining them. She tried to get her breathing back under control.

“Thanks, mate,” she said.

Gerald sucked on his lower lip and gradually slid down the wall until he was squatting on his heels. The nervejam stick dropped from his fingers.

“Hey, you okay?” Beth hurried forwards.

Gerald looked up at her with a pathetically placid face and started whimpering.

“Jeeze—” She looked around to make certain her assailants had gone, then hunkered down beside him. Something made her hold back from making a grab for the nervejam. She was desperately uncertain what he’d do. “Listen, they’ll probably come back in a minute. Where do you live?”

Tears started streaming down from his eyes. “I thought you were Marie.”

“No such luck mate, I’m Beth. Is this your corridor?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, do you live near here?”

“Help me please, I have to get to her, and Loren’s left me here all alone. I don’t know what to do next. I really don’t.”

“You’re not the only one,” Beth grunted.

“Well who is he?” Jed asked.

Gerald was sitting at the dining-room table in Beth’s apartment, staring at the mug of tea he was holding. It was a pose he’d maintained for the last ten minutes.

“Says his name’s Gerald Skibbow,” Beth said. “Reckon he’s telling the truth.”

“Okay. How about you? You all right now?”

“Yeah. Those manky bastards got a real fright. Don’t reckon we’ll be seeing them again.”

“Good. You know, we might be better off if we stop wearing our handkerchiefs. People are getting real uptight about it.”

“What? No way! Not now. It says what I am: a Deadnight. If they can’t stomach that, it ain’t my problem.”

“It nearly was.”

“It won’t happen again.” She held up the nervejam and gave a brutish smirk.

“Jeeze. Is that his?”

“Yep. Said I could borrow it.”

Jed regarded Gerald in dismayed confusion. “Blimey. Bloke must be pretty far gone.”

“Hey.” She tapped his belly with the tip of the nervejam. “Watch what you’re saying. Maybe he’s a little cranky, but he’s my mate.”

“A little cranky? Look at him, Beth, the guy’s a walking dunny.” He saw the way she tensed up. “Okay. He’s your mate. What are you going to do with him?”

“He’ll have a room somewhere.”

“Yeah, a nice quiet one with lots of padding on the walls.”

“Quit that, will you. How much you’ve changed, huh? We’re supposed to be wanting a life where people don’t jump down each other’s throats the whole time. Least, that’s what I thought. Am I wrong?”

“No,” he grumbled. Beth these days was hard to understand. Jed had thought she’d appreciate the fact he wasn’t making moves on her anymore. If anything that had made her even more intractable. “Hey, look don’t worry. My head’ll get straightened when we reach Valisk.”

Gerald slewed around in his chair. “What did you say?”

“Hey, mate, thought you’d gone switch-off on us there,” Beth said. “How you feeling?”

“What did you say about Valisk?”

“We want to go there,” Jed said. “We’re Deadnights, see. We believe in Kiera. We want to be part of the new universe.”

Gerald stared at him, then gave a twisted giggle. “Believe her? She’s not even Kiera.”

“You’re just like all the others. You don’t want us to have a chance just because you blew yours. That stinks, man!”

“Wait wait.” Gerald held up his arms in placation. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were a Deadnight. I don’t know what Deadnights are.”

“It’s what she said, that Kiera: Those of us who have emerged from the dead of night can break the restrictions of this corrupt society.”

“Oh, right, that bit.”

“She’s going to take us away from all this,” Beth said. “Where arseholes like those three blokes don’t do what they did. Not anymore. There won’t be any of that in Valisk.”

“I know,” Gerald said solemnly.

“What? You taking the piss?”

“No. Honestly. I’ve been searching for a way to Valisk ever since I saw the recording. I came here all the way from Ombey on the one hope that I’d find a way. I thought one of the starships might take me.”

“No way, mate,” Jed said. “Not the starships. We tried. The captains have all got closed minds. I told you, they hate us.”

“Yes.”

Jed glanced at Beth, trying to judge what she thought, if he should risk it. “You must have quite a bit of money, you come here from Ombey,” he said.

“More than enough to charter a starship,” Gerald said bitterly. “But they just won’t listen to me.”

“You don’t need a starship.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ll tell you how to get to Valisk if you take us with you. It’s ten times cheaper than the way you were planning, but we still can’t put that much together ourselves. As you’ve got to charter a whole ship for the flight anyway, it won’t cost you any more for us to be on board.”

“All right.”

“You’ll take us?”

“Yes.”

“Promise?” Beth asked, her voice betraying a multitude of vulnerabilities.

“I promise, Beth. I know what it’s like to be let down, to be abandoned. I wouldn’t do that to anyone, least of all you.”

She shifted around uncomfortably, rather pleased by what he’d said, the fatherly way he’d said it. Nobody on Koblat ever spoke to her like that.

“Okay,” Jed said. “Here it is: I’ve got a pickup coordinate timetable for this system.” He took a flek from his pocket and slotted it in the desktop block. The block’s holoscreen flashed up a complex graphic. “This shows where and when a starship from Valisk will be waiting to take on anyone who wants to go there. All you have to do is charter an inter-orbit craft to get us to it.”

•   •   •

As always, Syrinx found Athene’s house relaxing. No doubt Wing-Tsit Chong and the psychological team would call it a return to the womb. And if she found that amusing, she told herself, she must be virtually recovered.

She had returned from Jobis two days earlier. After relating everything she had learned from Malva to Wing-Tsit Chong, Oenone had flown to Romulus and a berth in an industrial station.

I suppose I ought to be glad you’re flying courier duty for our intelligence service,athene said. The doctors must think you’re recovered.

And you don’t?syrinx was walking with her mother across the garden which seemed to grow shaggier with each passing year.

If you’re not sure yourself, how can I be, my dear?

Syrinx grinned, somehow cheered by the uncanny perception. Oh, Mother, don’t fuss. Work is always a great anodyne, especially if you love your work. Voidhawk captains do nothing else.

I want us flying missions together again,Oenone insisted. It is good for both of us.

For a moment, mother and daughter were aware of the gridwork surrounding Oenone . Technicians were busy working on the lower hull, installing combat wasp launch cradles, maser cannons, and military-grade sensor pods.

Ah well,athene said. Looks like I’m outvoted.

I’ll be all right, Mother, really. Going straight into the defence force would be a little too confrontational. But courier work is important. We have to act with unity against the possessed; that’s vital. Voidhawks have an important role to play in that.

I’m not the one you’re trying to convince.

Jesus, Mother. Everyone I know is mutating into a psychiatrist. I’m a big girl now, and my brain’s back in good enough shape to make decisions.

Jesus?

Oh.syrinx could feel the blush rising to her cheeks—only Mother could do that! Someone I met always used it as an expletive. I just thought it was appropriate these days.

Ah, yes. Joshua Calvert. Or Lagrange Calvert, as everyone calls him now. You had quite a thing about him, once, didn’t you?

I did not! And why is he called Lagrange Calvert?

Syrinx listened with growing incredulity as Athene explained the events which had occurred in orbit around Murora. Oh, no, fancy Edenism having to be grateful to him. And what a stupid stunt jumping inside a Lagrange point at that velocity. He could have killed everybody on board. How thoughtless.

Dear me, it must be love.

Mother!

Athene laughed in delight at being able to needle her daughter so successfully. They’d come to the first of the big lily ponds which verged one side of the garden. It was heavily shaded now; the rank of golden yews behind it had swelled considerably in the last thirty years, their boughs reaching right across the water. She looked into the black water. Bronze-coloured fish streaked for the cover of the lily pads.

You ought to get the servitor chimps to prune the yews,syrinx said. They steal too much light. There are far fewer lilies than there used to be.

Why not see what happens naturally?

It’s untidy. And a habitat isn’t natural.

You never did like losing arguments, did you?

Not at all. I’m always willing to listen to alternative viewpoints.

A burst of good-humoured scepticism filled the affinity band. Is that why you’re turning to religion all of a sudden? I always thought you would be the most susceptible.

What do you mean?

Remember when Wing-Tsit Chong called you a tourist?

Yes.

It was a polite way of saying that you lack the confidence in yourself to find your own answers to life. You are always searching, Syrinx, though you never know what for. Religion was inevitably going to exert a fascination on you. The whole concept of salvation through belief offers strength to those who doubt themselves.

There’s a big difference between religion and spirituality. That is something the Edenist culture is going to have to come to terms with; us, the habitats, and the voidhawks.

Yes, you’re uncomfortably right there. I have to admit I was rather pleased to know that Iasius and I will be reunited again, no matter how terrible the circumstances. It does make life more tolerable.

That’s one aspect. I was thinking more about transferring our memories into the habitat when we die. It forms the basis of our entire society. We never feared death as much as Adamists, which always strengthened our rationality. Now we know we’re destined to the beyond, it rather makes a mockery of the whole process. Except—

Go on.

Laton, damn him. What did he mean? Him and his great journey, and telling us that we don’t have to worry about being trapped in the beyond. And then Malva as good as confirmed he was telling the truth.

You think that’s a bad thing?

No. If we’re interpreting this properly, there is more to the beyond than eternal purgatory. That would be wondrous.

I agree.

Then why didn’t he tell us exactly what awaits? And why would it only be us who escape the entrapment, and not the Adamists?

Perhaps Malva was being more helpful than you realized when she told you the answer lies within us. If you were told, you would not have found it for yourself. You wouldn’t have known it, you would simply have been taught.

It had to be Laton, didn’t it? The one person we can never truly trust.

Even you can’t trust him?

Not even I; despite the fact I owe him my life. He’s Laton, Mother.

Perhaps that’s why he didn’t tell us. He knew we wouldn’t trust him. He did urge us to research this thoroughly.

And so far we’ve failed thoroughly.

We’ve only just started, Syrinx. And he gave us one clue, the kind of souls that have returned. You encountered them, darling, you have the most experience of them. What type are they?

Bastards. All of them.

Calm down, and tell me what they were like.

Syrinx smiled briefly at the reprimand, then gazed at the pink water lilies, trying to make herself remember Pernik. Something she still shied away from. I was being truthful. They really were bastards. I didn’t see that many. But none of them cared about me, about how much they were hurting me. It didn’t bother them, as if they were emotionally dead. I suppose being in the beyond for so long does that to them.

Not quite. Kelly Tirrel recorded a series of interviews with a possessed called Shaun Wallace. He wasn’t callous, or indifferent. If anything he seemed a rather sad individual.

Sad bastards, then.

You’re being too flippant. But consider this. How many Edenists are sad bastards?

No, Mother, I can’t accept that. You’re saying that there’s some kind of selection process involved. That something is imprisoning sinners in the beyond and letting the righteous go on this final journey into the light. That cannot be right. You’re saying there is a God. One that takes an overwhelming interest in every human being, that cares how we behave.

I suppose I am. It would certainly explain what’s happened.

No it doesn’t. Why was Laton allowed to go on the great journey?

He wasn’t. Souls and memory separate at death, remember? It was Laton’s personality operating within Pernik’s neural strata that freed you and warned us, not his soul.

Do you really believe this?

I’m not sure. As you say, a God who takes this much interest in us as individuals would be awesome.athene turned from the pool and slipped her arm through her daughter’s. I think I’ll keep hoping for another explanation.

Good!

Let’s hope you find it for me.

Me?

You’re the one gallivanting around the galaxy again. It gives you a much better chance than me.

All we’re going to do is pick up routine reports from embassies and agents about possible infiltrations by the possessed, and how local governments are coping with the problem. Tactics and politics, that’s all, not philosophy.

How very dull-sounding.she pulled syrinx a little closer, allowing the worry and concern in her mind to flow freely through affinity. Are you sure you’re going to be all right?

Yes, Mother. Oenone and the crew will take good care of me. I don’t want you to worry anymore.

When Syrinx had left to supervise the last stages of Oenone ’s refit, Athene sat in her favourite chair on the patio and attempted to involve herself in the household routine again. There were plenty of children to supervise at the moment, the adults were all away working long hours, mainly in support of the defence force. Jupiter and Saturn were both gearing up for the Mortonridge Liberation.

You shouldn’t try to hold her so tight,sinon said. It doesn’t help her confidence seeing you have so little in her.

I have every confidence,she bridled.

Then show it. Let go.

I’m too frightened.

We all are. But we should be free to face it by ourselves.

How do you feel, then, knowing your soul has gone on?

Curious.

That’s all?

Yes. I already exist in tandem with the others of the multiplicity. The beyond is not too different from that.

You hope!

One day we will know.

Let’s pray it’s later rather than sooner.

Like daughter, like mother.

I don’t think I need a priest right now. More like a stiff drink.

Sinner.he laughed.

She watched the shadows deepen under the trees as the light tube enacted a rose-gold dusk. “There can’t be a God, can there? Not really.”

•   •   •

He doesn’t look terribly happy,tranquillity said as prince noton stepped into one of the ten tube stations which served the hub.

Ione pivoted her perceptual viewpoint through a complete circle, as if she were walking around the Prince. She was intrigued by his air of stubborn dignity, the kind of face and body posture that indicated he knew he was old and outdated but still insisted on interpreting the universe the way he wanted to. He wore the dress uniform of a Royal Kulu Navy admiral, with five small medal pins on his chest. When he removed his cap to climb into the tube carriage there was little hair left, and that grey; a telling sign for a Saldana.

I wonder how old he is?she mused.

A hundred and seventy. He is King David’s youngest exowomb sibling. He ran the Kulu Corporation for a hundred and three years until Prince Howard took over in 2608.

How strange.her attention flicked back to the royal kulu Navy battle cruiser docked in the spaceport (the first active duty ship from the Kingdom in a hundred and seventy-nine years). A diplomatic mission of the highest urgency, its captain had said when he requested permission to approach. And Prince Noton had an entourage of five Foreign Office personnel. He’s part of the old order. We’re hardly likely to have anything in common. If Alastair wants something from me, surely someone younger would have been a better bet? Maybe even a Princess.

Possibly. Though it would be hard not to respect Prince Noton. His seniority is part of the message the King is sending.

For a moment she felt a twist of worry. I wonder. If anyone knows your true capabilities, it is my royal cousins.

I doubt he will ask anything dishonourable.

Ione had to jog down the last twenty metres of the corridor, fumbling with the seal on the side of her skirt. She had chosen a formal business suit of green tropical weave cotton and a plain blouse; smart but not imperious. Trying to impress Prince Noton with power dressing, she suspected, would be a waste of time.

The tube carriage had already arrived at the station of De Beauvoir Palace, her official residence. Two serjeants were escorting the Prince and his entourage down the long nave. Ione raced across the audience chamber in her stockinged feet, sat behind the central desk, and jammed her shoes on.

How do I look?

Beautiful.

She growled at the lack of objectivity and combed her hair back with a hand. I knew I should have had this cut.she glanced around to check the arrangements. six high-backed chairs were positioned in front of the desk. Human caterers were preparing a buffet in one of the informal reception rooms (housechimps would have been a faux pas given the Kingdom’s attitude to bitek, she felt). Change the lighting.

Half of the floor-to-ceiling panes of glass darkened; the remainder altered their diffraction angle. Ten large planes of light converged on the desk, surrounding her in a warm astral glow. Too much—oh, hell.

The doors swung open. Ione rose to her feet as Prince Noton walked across the floor.

Go around the desk to greet him. Remember you are family, and technically there has never been any rift between us and the Kingdom.

Ione did as she was told, putting on a neutral smile: one she could turn to charm or ice. It was up to him.

When she put out her hand, there was only the slightest hesitation on Prince Noton’s part. He gave her a politely formal handshake. His eyes did linger on her signet ring, though.

“Welcome to Tranquillity, Prince Noton. I’m very flattered that Alastair should honour me with an emissary of your seniority. I only wish we were meeting in happier times.”

The staff from the Foreign Office were staring ahead rigidly. If she didn’t know better she would have said they were praying.

Prince Noton took an awkwardly long time to answer. “It is a privilege to serve my King by coming here.”

Ah!“touché, cousin,” she drawled.

They locked gazes while the Foreign Office staff watched nervously.

“You had to be female, didn’t you?”

“Naturally, though it was completely random. Daddy never had any exowomb children. Our family tradition of primogeniture doesn’t apply here.”

“You hate tradition so much?”

“No, I admire a lot of tradition. I uphold a lot of tradition. What I will not tolerate is tradition for tradition’s sake.”

“Then you must be in your element. Order is falling across the Confederation.”

“That, Noton, was below the belt.”

He nodded gruffly. “Sorry. I don’t know why the King chose me for this. Never was a bloody diplomat.”

“I don’t know, I think he chose rather well, actually. Sit down, please.” She went back to her own chair. Tranquillity showed her the Foreign Office personnel exchanging relieved expressions behind her back. “So what exactly does Alastair want?”

“These fellers.” Prince Noton clicked his finger in the direction of a serjeant. “I’m supposed to ask you if we can have their DNA sequence.”

“Whatever for?”

“Ombey.”

She listened with dawning unease as Prince Noton and the Foreign Office personnel related the details of the proposed Mortonridge Liberation. Do you think this will work?

I don’t have the kind of information available to the Royal Navy, so I cannot provide an absolute. But the Royal Navy would not undertake such an action unless they were confident of the outcome.

I can’t believe this is the right way to go about saving people who have been possessed. They’re going to destroy Mortonridge, and a lot of people will get killed in the process.

Nobody ever claimed war is clean.

Then why do it?

For the overall objective, which is usually political. Certainly it is in this case.

So I can halt it then? If I refuse to give Alastair the sequence.

You can be the voice of sanity, certainly. Who would thank you?

The people who wouldn’t get killed, for a start.

Who are the people currently possessed, and would endure any sacrifice to be freed. They do not have the luxury of your academic moral choices.

That’s not fair. You can’t condemn me for wanting to prevent bloodshed.

Unless you can offer an alternative, I would recommend handing over the sequence. Even if you prevaricated, you would not halt the liberation campaign. At the most you would delay it for a few weeks while the Edenists spliced together a suitable warrior servitor.

You know damn well I don’t have any alternative.

This is politics, Ione; you cannot prevent the liberation from going ahead. By helping, you will form valuable alliances. Do not overlook that. You are pledged to defend all those who live within me. We may need help to do this.

No we don’t. You alone of all the habitats are the final sanctuary against the possessed.

Even that is not definite. Prince Noton is correct: old orders, old certainties, are falling everywhere.

What must I do, then?

You are The Lord of Ruin. Decide.

When she looked at the old Prince, his immobile face, and his impassioned thoughts, she knew there was no choice, that there never had been. The Saldanas had sworn to defend their subjects. And in return their subjects believed in them to provide that defence. Over the Kingdom’s history, hundreds of thousands had died to maintain that mutual trust.

“Of course I will provide the DNA sequence for you,” Ione said. “I only wish there was more I could do.”

With an irony Ione found almost painful, two days after Prince Noton departed for Kulu with the DNA sequence, Parker Higgens and Oski Katsura told her they had located a Laymil memory of the spaceholm suicide.

Almost all other research work on the Laymil project campus had stopped to allow staff from every division to assist in reviewing the decrypted sensorium memories. However, despite being the prime focus of activity, the Electronics Division was no busier than the last time she had visited. The decryption operation had been finalized, allowing all of the information within the Laymil electronics stack to be reformatted into a human access standard.

“It’s only the review process itself which is causing a bottleneck now,” Oski Katsura said as she ushered Ione into the hall. “We have managed to copy all of the memories in the stack, so we now have permanent access. In the end, only twelve per cent of the files were scrambled, which leaves us with eight thousand two hundred and twenty hours of recordings available. Though of course we have a team working on the lost sequences.”

The Laymil electronics stack had finally been powered down. Technicians were gathered around its transparent environment sphere, checking and disconnecting it from the conditioning units.

“What are you going to do with it?” Ione asked.

“Zero-tau,” Oski Katsura said. “Unfortunately, it is really too venerable to be put on exhibition. That is, unless you want it displayed to the public for a little while first?”

“No. This is your field, that’s why I appointed you as division chief.”

Ione saw the members of the Confederation Navy science bureau mingling with the ordinary project staff at the various research stations in the hall. It was a sign of the times that she drew no more than a few idly curious glances.

Parker Higgens, Kempster Getchell, and Lieria were standing together to watch the technicians prepare the stack for zero-tau.

“End of an era,” Kempster said as Ione joined them. He appeared oblivious to any connotations in the statement. “We can’t go on depending on stolen knowledge anymore. Much to the distress of the navy people, of course, no giant ray guns for them to play with. Looks like we’ll have to start thinking for ourselves again. Good news, eh?”

“Unless you happen to have a possessed knocking on your door,” Parker Higgens said coldly.

“My dear Parker, I do access the news studios occasionally, you know.”

“How is the search for Unimeron going?” Ione asked.

“From a technical point of view, very well,” Kempster said enthusiastically. “We’ve finished the revised design for the sensor satellite we want to use. Young Renato has taken a blackhawk down to the orbital band we intend to cover to test fly a prototype. If all goes well, the industrial stations will begin mass production next week. We can saturate the band by the end of the month. If there are any unusual energy resonances there, we ought to find them.”

It wasn’t going to be as quick as Ione had hoped for. “Excellent work,” she told the old astronomer. “Oski tells me you have found a memory of the spaceholm suicide.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Parker Higgens said.

“Did they have a weapon to use against the possessed?”

“Not a physical one, I’m happy to say. They seemed inordinately complacent about the suicide.”

“What do the navy people think?”

“They were disappointed, but they concur the spaceholm culture made no attempt to physically defeat the possessed Laymil approaching from Unimeron.”

Ione sat at an empty research station. “Very well.” Show me.

She never could get used to the illusive sensorium squeeze of emerging into a Laymil body. This time, her appropriated frame was one of the two male varieties, an egg producer. He was standing amid a group of Laymil, his current family and co-habitees, on the edge of their third marriage community. His clarion heads bugled softly, a keening joined by hundreds of throats around him. The melody was a slow one, rising and falling across the gentle grassy slope. Its echo sounded in his mind, gathered by the mother entity from every community in the spaceholm. Together they sang their lament, a plainsong in unison with the life spirit of the forests and meadows, the shoalminds of the animals, the mother entity. A chant taken up by every spaceholm as the cozened dead approached their constellation.

The aether was resonant with sadness, its weight impressing every organic cell within the spaceholm. Sunspires were dipping to their early and final dusk, draining away the joyful colours he had lived with all his life. Flowers relaxed into closure, their curling petals sighing for the loss of light, while their spirits wept for the greater loss which was to follow.

He linked arms with his mates and children, ready to share death as they shared life: together. The families linked arms. Drinking strength from the greater concord. They had become a single triangle on the valley floor. Component segments of three adults. Inside them, the children, protected, cherished. The whole, a symbol of strength and defiance. As with minds, so with bodies; as with thoughts, so with deeds.

“Join into rapture,” he instructed his children.

Their necks wove around, heads bobbing with enchanting immaturity. “Sorrow. Fear failure. Death essence triumphant.”

“Recall essencemaster teaching,” he instructed. “Laymil species must end. Knowledge brings birthright fulfillment. Eternal exaltation awaits strong. Recall knowledge. Believe knowledge.”

“Concur.”

Beyond the rim of the spaceholm constellation, the ships from Unimeron slid out of the darkness. Stars gleaming red with the terrible power of the death essence, riding bright prongs of fusion flame.

“Know truth,” the massed choir of spaceholms sang at them. “Accept knowledge gift. Embrace freedom.”

They would not. The pernicious light grew as the ships advanced, silent and deadly.

The Laymil in the spaceholms raised their heads to the vertical and bellowed a single last triumphant note. Air rippled at the sound. The sunspires went out, allowing total darkness to seize the interior.

“Recall strength,” he pleaded with his children. “Strength achievement final amity.”

“Confirm essencemaster victory.”

The spaceholm mother entity cried into the void. A pulse of love which penetrated to the core of every mind. Deep within its shell, cells ruptured and spasmed, propagating fractures clean through the polyp.

Sensation ended, but the darkness remained for a long time. Then Ione opened her eyes.

“Oh, my God. That was their only escape. They were so content about it. Every Laymil rushed into death. They never tried to outrun them; they never tried to fight them. They willfully condemned themselves to the beyond to avoid being possessed.”

“Not quite, ma’am,” Parker Higgens said. “There are some very interesting implications in those last moments. The Laymil didn’t consider they had lost. Far from it. They showed enormous resolution. We know full well how much they worship life; they would never sacrifice themselves and their children simply to inconvenience the possessed Laymil, for that is all suicide is. There are any number of options they could have explored before resorting to such an extreme measure. Yet the one whose sensorium we accessed made constant references to knowledge and truth derived from the essencemasters. That knowledge was the key to their ‘eternal exaltation.’ I suspect the essencemasters solved the nature of the beyond. Am I right, Lieria?”

“An astute deduction, Director Higgens,” the Kiint said through her processor block. “And one which confirms the statement Ambassador Roulor made to your Assembly. For each race, the solution is unique. Surely you do not anticipate suicide as the answer for the problems facing humankind?”

Parker Higgens faced the big xenoc, his anger visible. “It was more than suicide. It was a victory. They won. Whatever the knowledge was they carried with them, it meant they were no longer afraid of the beyond.”

“Yes.”

“And you know what it was.”

“You have our sympathy, and whatever support we can provide.”

“Damn it! How dare you study us like this. We are not laboratory creatures. We are sentient entities, we have feelings, we have fears. Have you no ethics?”

Ione stood behind the trembling director and laid a cautionary hand on his shoulder.

“I am well aware of what you are, Director Higgens,” Lieria said. “And I am empathic to your distress. But I must repeat, the answer to your problem lies within you, not us.”

“Thank you, Parker,” Ione said. “I think we’re all quite clear now on where we stand.”

The director gave a furious wave of his hand and walked away.

I apologize for his temper,ione told the kiint. But as I’m sure you know, this terrifies us all. It is frustrating for us to know you have a solution, even though it cannot apply to us.

Justly so, Ione Saldana. And I do understand. History records our race was in turmoil when we first discovered the beyond.

You give me hope, Lieria. Your existence is proof that satisfactory solutions can be found for a sentient race, something other than genocidal suicide. That inspires me to keep searching for our own answer.

If it is of any comfort, the Kiint are praying humans succeed.

Why, thank you.

•   •   •

Erick was woken by his neural nanonics. He had routinely set up programs to monitor his immediate environment, physical and electronic, alert for anything which fell outside nominal parameters.

As he sat up in the darkened office, his neural nanonics reported an outbreak of abnormal fluctuations in Ethenthia’s power supply systems. When he datavised a query at the supervisor programs, it turned out that no one in the asteroid’s civil engineering service was even examining the problem. A further review showed that fifteen per cent of the habitation section’s lifts appeared to be inoperative. The number of datavises into the net was also reducing.

“Oh, dear God. Not here, too!” He swung his legs off the settee. A wave of nausea twisted along his spine. Medical programs sent out several caution warnings; the team Emonn Verona promised hadn’t been to see him yet.

When he datavised the lieutenant commander’s eddress to the office’s net processor there was no response. “Bloody hell.” Erick pulled on his ship-suit, easing it over his medical packages. There were two ratings standing guard outside the office; both armed with TIP carbines. They came to attention as soon as the door opened.

“Where’s the lieutenant commander?” Erick asked.

“Sir, he said he was going to the hospital, sir.”

“Bugger. Right, you two come with me. We’re getting off this asteroid, right away.”

“Sir?”

“That was an order, mister. But in case you need an incentive, the possessed are here.”

The two of them swapped a worried glance. “Aye, sir.”

Erick started accessing schematics of the asteroid as they went through the Navy Bureau and out into the public hall. He followed that up by requesting a list of starships currently docked at the spaceport. There were only five; one of which was the Villeneuve’s Revenge , which cut his options down to four.

His neural nanonics designed a route to the axial chamber which didn’t use any form of powered transportation. Seven hundred metres, two hundred of which were stairs. But at least the gravity would be falling off.

They went in single file, with Erick in the centre. He ordered both ratings to put their combat programs into primary mode. People turned to stare as they marched down the middle of the public hall.

Six hundred metres to go. And the first stairwell was directly ahead. The hall’s light panels started dimming.

“Run,” Erick said.

Kingsley Pryor’s cell measured five metres by five. It had one bunk, one toilet, and one washbasin; there was a small AV lens on the wall opposite the bed, accessing one local media company. Every surface—fittings, floor, walls—was the same blue-grey lofriction composite. It was fully screened, preventing any datavises.

For the last hour the light panel on the ceiling had been flickering. At first, Kingsley had thought the police were doing it to irritate him. They had been almost fearful as they escorted him from the Villeneuve’s Revenge with a Confederation Navy officer. A member of the Capone Organization. It was only to be expected that they would try to re-establish their superiority with such sad psychology, demonstrating who was in control. But the shifts of illumination had been too fitful for any determined effort. The AV images were also fragmenting, but not at the same time as the light. Then he found the call button produced no response.

Kingsley realized what was happening, and sat patiently on his bunk. Quarter of an hour later the humming sound from the conditioning grille fan faded away. Nothing he could do about it. Twice in the next thirty minutes the fan started up again briefly, once to blow in air which stank of sewage. Then the light panel went out permanently. Still Kingsley sat quietly.

When the door did finally open, it shone a fan of light directly across him, highlighting his almost prim posture. A werewolf crouched in the doorway, blood dripping from its fangs.

“Very original,” Kingsley said.

There was a confused puppylike yap from the creature.

“I really must insist you don’t come any closer. Both of us will wind up in the beyond if you do. And you’ve only just got here, haven’t you?”

The werewolf outline shimmered away to reveal a man wearing a police uniform. Kingsley recognized him as one of his escorts. There was a nasty pink scar on his forehead which hadn’t been there before.

“What are you talking about?” the possessed man asked.

“I am going to explain our situation to you, and I want you to observe my thoughts so that you know I’m telling the truth. And after that, you and your new friends are going to let me go. In fact, you’re going to give me every assistance I require.”

A hundred and fifty metres to the axial chamber. They were almost at the top of the last flight of stairs when the well’s lights went out. Erick’s enhanced retinas automatically switched to infrared. “They’re close,” he shouted in warning.

A narrow flare of white fire fountained up the centre of the stairwell, arching around to burst over the rating behind him. He grunted in pain and swung around, firing his TIP carbine at the base of the streamer. Purple sparks bounced out of the impact point.

“Help me,” he cried. A smear of white fire was cloaking his entire shoulder. Terror and panic were negating all the suppression programs which his neural nanonics had doused his brain with. He stopped firing to flail at the fire with his free hand.

The other rating slithered past Erick to fire back down the stairs. A flat circle of brilliant emerald light sprang over the floor of the stairwell, then started to rise as if it were a fluid. The flare of white fire withdrew below its surface. Shadows were just visible beneath it, darting about sinuously.

The burned rating had collapsed onto the stairs. His partner was still shooting wildly down into the advancing cascade of light. The TIP pulses were turning to silver spears as they penetrated the surface, trailing bubbles of darkness.

The next door was eight metres above Erick. The ratings would never last against the possessed, he knew, a few seconds at best. That few seconds might enable him to escape. The information he had was vital , it had to get to Trafalgar. Millions of innocents depended on it, on him. Millions. Against two.

Erick turned and flung himself up the last few steps. In his ears he could hear a voice shouting: “. . . two of my crew are dead. Fried! Tina was fifteen years old!”

He barged through the door, ten per cent gravity projecting him in a long flat arc above the corridor floor, threatening to crack his head against the ceiling. The persecuting noises and fog of green light shut off as the door slid shut behind him. He touched down, and powered himself in another long leap forwards along the corridor. Neural nanonics outlined his route for him as if it were a starship vector plot; a tube of orange neon triangles that flashed past. Turning right. Right again. Left.

Gravity had become negligible when he heard the scream ahead of him. Fifteen metres to the axial chamber. That was all; fifteen bloody metres! And the possessed were ahead of him. Erick snatched at a grab hoop to halt his forwards flight. He didn’t have any weapons. He didn’t have any backup. He didn’t even have Madeleine and Desmond to call on, not anymore.

More screams and pleas were trickling down the corridor from the axial chamber as the possessed chased down their victims. It wouldn’t be long before one of them checked this corridor.

I have to get past. Have to!

He called up the schematic again, studying the area around the axial chamber. Twenty seconds later, and he was at the airlock hatch.

It was a big airlock, used to service the spaceport spindle. The prep room which led to it had dozens of lockers, all the equipment and support systems required to maintain space hardware, even five deactivated free-flying mechanoids.

Erick put his decryption program into primary mode and set it to work cracking the first locker’s code. He stripped off his ship-suit as the lockers popped open one after the other. Physiological monitor programs confirmed everything he saw as the fabric parted. Pale fluid tinged with blood was leaking out of his medical nanonic packages where the edges were peeling from his flesh; a number of red LEDs on the ancillary modules were flashing to indicate system malfunctions. His new arm was only moving because of the reinforced impulses controlling the muscles.

But he still functioned. That was all that mattered.

It was the fifth locker which contained ten SII spacesuits. As soon as his body was sealed against the vacuum he hurried into the airlock, carrying a manoeuvring pack. He didn’t bother with the normal cycle, instead he tripped the emergency vent. Air rushed out. The outer hatch irised apart as he secured himself into the manoeuvring pack. Then the punchy gas jets fired, sending him wobbling past the hatch rim and out into space.

André hated the idea of Shane Brandes even being inside the Villeneuve’s Revenge . And as for the man actually helping repair and reassemble the starship’s systems . . . merde. But as with most events in André’s life these days, he didn’t have a lot of choice. Since the showdown with Erick, Madeleine had retreated into her cabin and refused to respond to any entreaties. Desmond, at least, performed the tasks requested of him, though not with any obvious enthusiasm. And, insultingly, he would only work alone.

That just left Shane Brandes to help André with the jobs that needed more than one pair of hands. The Dechal ’s ex-fusion engineer was anxious to please. He swore he had no allegiance to his previous captain, and harboured no grudges or ill will towards the crew of the Villeneuve’s Revenge . He was also prepared to work for little more than beer money, and he was a grade two technician. One could not afford to overlook gift horses.

André was re-installing the main power duct in the wall of the lower deck lounge, which required Shane to feed the cable to him when instructed. Someone glided silently through the ceiling hatch, blocking the beam from the bank of temporary lights André had rigged up. André couldn’t see what he was doing. “Desmond! Why must . . .” He gasped in shock. “You!”

“Hello again, Captain,” Kingsley Pryor said.

“What are you doing here? How did you get out of prison?”

“They set me free.”

“Who?”

“The possessed.”

“Non,” André whispered.

“Unfortunately so. Ethenthia has fallen.”

The anti-torque tool André was holding seemed such a pitiful weapon. “Are you one of them now? You will never have my ship. I will overload the fusion generators.”

“I’d really rather you didn’t,” Pryor datavised. “As you can see, I haven’t been possessed.”

“How? They take everybody, women, children.”

“I am one of Capone’s liaison officers. Even here, that carries enormous weight.”

“And they let you go?”

“Yes.”

A heavy dread settled in André’s brain. “Where are they? Are they coming?” He datavised the flight computer to review the internal sensors (those remaining—curse it). As yet no systems were glitching.

“No,” Pryor said. “They won’t come into the Villeneuve’s Revenge . Not unless I tell them to.”

“Why are you doing this?” As if I didn’t know.

“Because I want you to fly me away from here.”

“And they’ll let us all go, just like that?”

“As I said, Capone has a lot of influence.”

“What makes you think I will take you? You blackmailed me before. It will be simple to throw you out of the airlock once we are free of Ethenthia.”

Pryor smiled a dead man’s smile. “You’ve always done exactly as I wanted, Duchamp. You were always supposed to break away from Kursk.”

“Liar.”

“I have been given other, more important objectives than ensuring a third-rate ship with its fifth-rate crew stay loyal to the Organization. You have never had any free will since you arrived in the New California system. You still don’t. After all, you don’t really think there was only one bomb planted on board, do you?”

Erick watched the Villeneuve’s Revenge lift from its cradle. The starship’s thermo-dump panels extended, ion thrusters took over from the verniers. It rose unhurriedly from the spaceport. When he switched his collar sensors to high resolution he could see the black hexagon on the fuselage where plate 8-92-K was missing.

He didn’t understand it, Duchamp was making no attempt to flee. It was almost as if he was obeying traffic control, departing calmly along an assigned vector. Had the crew been possessed? Small loss to the Confederation.

His collar sensors refocused on the docking bay he was approaching, a dark circular recess in the spaceport’s gridiron exterior. It was a maintenance bay, twice as wide as an ordinary bay. The clipper-class starship, Tigara , which sat on the docking cradle seemed unusually small in such surroundings.

Erick fired his manoeuvring pack jets to take him down towards the Tigara. There were no lights on in the bay; all the gantries and multi-segment arms were folded back against the walls. Utility umbilicals were jacked in, and an airlock tube had mated with the starship’s fuselage; but apart from that there was no sign of any activity.

The silicon hull showed signs of long-term vacuum exposure—faded lettering, micrometeorite impact scuffs, surface layer ablation stains—all indicating hull plates long overdue for replacement. He drifted over the blurred hexagons until he was above the EVA airlock, and datavised the hatch control processor to cycle and open. If anyone was on board, they would know about him now. But there were no datavised questions, no active sensor sweeps.

The hatch slid open, and Erick glided inside.

Clipper-class starships were designed to provide a speedy service between star systems, carrying small high-value cargoes. Consequently, as much of their internal volume as possible was given over to cargo space. There was only one life-support capsule, which accommodated an optimum crew of three. That was the principal reason Erick had chosen the Tigara. In theory, he would be able to fly it solo.

Most of the starship systems were powered down. He kept his SII suit on as he moved through the two darkened lower decks to the bridge. As soon as he was secured in the captain’s acceleration couch he accessed the flight computer and ordered a full status review.

It could have been a lot better. Tigara was in the maintenance bay for a complete refit. One of the fusion generators was inoperative, two energy patterning nodes were dead, heat exchangers were operating dangerously short of required levels, innumerable failsoft components had been allowed to decay below their safety margins.

None of the maintenance work had even been started. The owners hadn’t been prepared to commit that much money while the quarantine was in force.

Dear Lord, Erick thought, the Villeneuve’s Revenge was in better condition than this.

He datavised the flight computer to disengage the bay’s airlock tube, then initiated a flight prep procedure. The Tigara took a long time to come on-line. At every stage he had to order backup sequences to take over, or override safety programs, or re-route power supplies. He didn’t even bother with the life-support functions, all he wanted was power in the energy patterning nodes and secondary drive tubes.

With a fusion generator active, he ordered some sensor clusters to deploy. An image of the bay filled his mind, overlaid with fragile status graphics. He scanned the electromagnetic spectrum for any traffic, but there was only the background hash of cosmic radiation. Nobody was saying anything to anybody. What he wanted was someone asking Ethenthia what was happening, why they’d gone off the air. A ship close by that could help.

Nothing.

Erick fired the emergency release pins which the docking cradle’s load clamps were gripping. Verniers sent out a hot deluge of gas which shimmered across the bay’s walls, shaking loose blankets of thermal insulation from the gantries. Tigara rose a metre off its cradle, straining at the nest of umbilical hoses jacked into its rear fuselage. The snapfree couplings began to break, sending the hoses writhing.

The starship was low on cryogenic fuel; he couldn’t afford to waste delta-V reserve aligning himself on an ideal vector. The astrogration program produced a series of options for him.

None of them were what he’d been hoping for. So what else was new?

The last of the umbilicals broke, and the Tigara lurched up out of the bay. Erick ordered the flight computer to extend the communications array and align it on Golmo and the Edenist habitats orbiting there. Sensor clusters began to sink down into their recesses as energy poured into the patterning nodes.

The flight computer alerted him that an SD platform was sweeping the ship with its radar. Then it relayed a signal from traffic control into his neural nanonics.

“Is that you, Erick? We think it’s you. Who else is this stupidly ballsy? This is Emonn Verona, Erick, and I’m asking you: Don’t do it. That ship is completely fucked; I’ve got the CAB logs in front of me. It can’t fly. You’re only going to hurt yourself, or worse.”

Erick transmitted a single message to Golmo, then retracted the communications array down into its jump configuration. The SD platform had locked on. Some of the patterning nodes were producing very strange readings in the prejump diagnostic run-through. CAB monitor programs flashed up jump proscription warnings. He switched them off.

“Game over, Erick. Either return to the docking bay or you join our comrades in the beyond. You don’t want that. Where there’s life, there’s hope. Right? Of all people, you must believe that.”

Erick ordered the flight computer to activate the jump sequence.

Chapter 06

The hellhawk Socratous was a flat V-shaped mechanical spacecraft with a grey-white fuselage made up from hundreds of different component casings, a veritable jigsaw of mismatched equipment, not all of it astronautic. Two long engine nacelles were affixed to the stern, transparent tubes filled with a heavy opaque gas which fluoresced its way through the spectrum in a three-minute cycle.

It was an impressive sight as it slid down out of the starfield for a landing on Valisk’s docking ledge. Had it been real, it would be capable of taking on an entire squadron of Confederation Navy ships with its exotic weapons.

The illusion popped as a crew bus rolled across the ledge towards it. Socratous reverted to a muddy-brown egg-shape with a crew toroid wrapped around its midsection. Rubra could just see two small ridges on the rear quarter which hadn’t been there before. They corresponded roughly with the nacelles of the fantasy starship. He wondered if the tumours would be benign. Did the energistic ability prevent metastasis from exploding inside possessed bodies as the wished-for changes became less illusion and cells multiplied to obey the will of the dominant soul? It seemed an awfully complex requirement for such a crude power, modifying the molecular structure of DNA and taming the mitosis process. The apparent milieux of their energistic ability was blasting holes through solid walls and contorting matter into new shapes; he’d never seen any demonstrations of subtlety.

Perhaps the whole possession problem would burn itself out in an orgy of irreversible cancer. Few of the returned souls were content with the physical appearance of the bodies they had claimed.

How superbly ironic, Rubra thought, that vanity could be the undoing of entities who had acquired near-godlike powers. It was also a dangerous prospect, once they realized what was happening. Those people remaining free would become even more valuable, the attempts to possess them ever more desperate. And Edenism would be the last castle to besiege.

He decided not to mention the prospect to the Kohistan Consensus. It was another small private advantage; no one else in the Confederation had such a unique and extensive vantage point of the possessed and their behaviour as him. He wasn’t sure if he could exploit the knowledge, but he wasn’t going to give it away until he was certain.

A sub-routine of his principal personality was designated to observe the aberrant melanomata and carcinomas developing on the possessed inside the habitat. If the growths turned malignant the current situation would change drastically right across the Confederation.

The crew bus had left the Socratous to trundle back across the ledge. Kiera and about forty of her cronies were flocking into a reception lounge. When the bus docked, it disgorged about thirty-five Deadnight kids. Eager besotted youngsters with red handkerchiefs worn proudly around their ankles and wonder in their eyes that they’d reached the promised land after so much difficulty.

Damn it, you have to stop these flights,rubra complained to the Kohistan Consensus. That’s nearly two thousand victims this week. There must be something you can do.

We really cannot interdict every hellhawk flight. Their objective does not affect the overall balance of strategic events, and is relatively harmless.

Not to these kids it isn’t!

Agreed. But we cannot be everyone’s keeper. The effort and risk involved in arranging clandestine rendezvous to pick up the Deadnights is disproportionate to the reward.

In other words, as long as the hellhawks are busy with this, they can’t cause much trouble elsewhere.

Correct. Unfortunately.

And you used to call me a heartless bastard.

Everybody is suffering from the effects of possession. Until we discover a solution to the entire problem, all we can hope for is to reduce it to an absolute minimum wherever possible.

Right. I’d like to point out that when Kiera reaches the magic number, it’s me who is going to be the one suffering.

That is some time off yet. Asteroid settlements have been alerted to these clandestine rendezvous flights. There should be less of them in future.

I bloody well knew I could never trust you lot.

We did not inflict any of this on you, Rubra. And you are quite welcome to transfer into the neural strata of one of our habitats should it look like Kiera Salter is preparing to shift Valisk out of this universe.

I’ll keep it in mind. But I don’t think you’ll need to welcome this particular prodigal. Dariat is almost ready. Once he comes over, it’ll be Kiera who is going to have to worry about where I shift Valisk.

Your attempt at subversion is a risky strategy.

That’s how I built Magellanic Itg, through sheer balls. It’s also why I rejected you. You don’t have any.

This is not getting us anywhere.

If it works, I’ll be able to start fighting back on a level you can’t conceive of. Risk makes you alive, that’s what you never understood. That’s the difference between us. And don’t try coming over all smarmy superior with me. It’s me who’s got an idea, me who stands a chance. Have you got any suggestions to make, an alternative?

No.

Exactly. So don’t lecture me.

We would urge caution, though. Please.

Urge away.

Rubra dismissed the affinity link with his usual contempt. Circumstances might have forced him into an alliance with his old culture; but all the renewed contact had done was convince him how right he had been to reject them all those centuries ago.

He switched his primary routine’s attention inward. The group of newly arrived Deadnights had been split up and taken away to be opened for possession. A temporary village had sprung up at the base of the northern endcap, extravagant tents and small cosy cottages for the possessed to dwell in. A smaller version of the camps which ringed the starscraper foyers halfway down the interior. The teams Kiera had working to make the starscrapers safe were finding progress difficult. And in any case, the possessed didn’t entirely trust the areas they claimed to have secured. Rubra had never stopped his continual harassment. Nearly ten per cent of the servitor population had been killed as he deployed them on sneak attacks, but he still managed to eliminate a couple of possessed every day.

Separated from their companions, the Deadnights were easily overwhelmed. Piteous screams and pleas hung over the village like smog.

One of Rubra’s newest monitor routines alerted him to a minuscule electrical discrepancy within the starscraper where Tolton was hiding. He had discovered electricity was the key to locating Bonney Lewin when she was using her energistic ability to fox his visual observation. A series of extremely sensitive routines which now monitored his own biolectric patterns could sometimes detect a possessed from the backwash of their energistic power. In effect, the entire polyp structure had become an electronic warfare detector. It was hardly reliable, but he was constantly refining the routines.

He tracked down the wraithish presence to the twenty-seventh floor vestibule where it was moving towards the stairwell muscle membrane door. Visually, the vestibule was empty. At least, according to his local autonomic sub-routines it was. The current in one of the organic conductor cables buried behind the wall fluctuated subtly.

Rubra reduced the power to the electrophorescent cells covering the polyp ceiling. The visual image remained the same for a couple of seconds, then the ceiling darkened. It should have been instantaneous. Whatever was causing the electrical disturbance stopped moving.

He opened a channel to Tolton’s processor block. “Get going, boy. They’re coming for you.”

Tolton rolled off the bed where he’d been dozing. He’d been staying in the apartment for five days. The original occupant’s wardrobes had been ransacked for a new ensemble. He’d accessed a good number of the MF and bluesense fleks in the lounge. And he’d sampled all of the imported delicacies in the kitchen, washing them down with fine wines and a lot of Norfolk Tears. For a suffering social poet, he’d adapted to hedonism with the greatest of ease. Small wonder there was a graceless scowl on his face as he snatched up his leather trousers and wriggled his bulk into them.

“Where are they?”

“Ten floors above you,” Rubra assured him. “Don’t worry, you’ve got plenty of time. I’ve got your exit route ready for you.”

“I’ve been thinking, maybe you ought to steer me toward some weapons hardware. I could start evening up the score a little.”

“Let’s just concentrate on the essentials, shall we? Besides, if you get close enough to a possessed to use a weapon, they’re close enough to turn it against you.”

Tolton addressed the ceiling. “You think I can’t handle it?”

“I thank you for the offer, son, but there are just too many of them. You staying free is my victory against all of them, don’t blow it for me.”

Tolton clipped the processor block to his belt and fastened his straggly hair back in a ponytail. “Thanks, Rubra. We all got it way wrong about you. I know it don’t mean shit to you probably, but when this is over, I’m going to tell the whole wide Confederation what you done.”

“That’s one MF album I’ll buy. First in a long time.”

Tolton stood in front of the apartment’s door, breathed in like a yogamaster, flexed his shoulders like a sport pro warming up, nodded briskly, and said: “Okay, let’s hustle.”

Rubra felt an obdurate burst of sympathy and, strangely enough, pride as the poet stepped out into the vestibule. When Kiera started her takeover he assumed Tolton would last a couple of days. Now he was one of only eighty non-possessed left. One of the reasons he’d survived was because he followed instructions to the letter; in short, he trusted Rubra. And Rubra was damned if Bonney would get him now.

The invisible energistic swirl was on the move again, descending the stairwell. Rubra started to modify the output of the electrophorescent cells in the ceiling. HELLO, BONNEY, he printed. I HAVE A PROPOSITION FOR YOU.

The swirl stopped again.

COME ON, TALK TO ME. WHAT HAVE YOU GOT TO LOSE?

He waited. A column of air shimmered silver, as if a giant cocoon had sprung up out of the polyp. Rubra experienced it most as a slackening of pressure in the local sub-routines; a pressure he hadn’t even been aware of until then. Then the silver air lost its lustre, darkening to khaki. Bonney Lewin stood on the stairs, her Enfield searching for hazards.

“What proposition?”

ABANDON YOUR CURRENT VICTIM, I WILL GIVE YOU A BETTER ONE.

“I doubt it.”

DOESN’T KIERA WANT DARIAT ANYMORE?

Bonney gave the glowing letters a thoughtful stare. “You’re trying to sucker me.”

NO. THIS IS GENUINE.

“You’re lying. Dariat hates you; he’s totally bonkers about beating seven bells out of you. If we help him, he’ll succeed.”

SO WHY HASN’T HE COME TO YOU FOR HELP?

“Because he’s . . . weird.”

NO. IT IS BECAUSE USING YOU TO DEFEAT ME WOULD MEAN HAVING TO SHARE THE POWER WHICH WOULD RESULT FROM HIS DOMINATION OF THE NEURAL STRATA. HE WANTS IT ALL. HE HAS SPENT THIRTY YEARS WAITING FOR AN OPPORTUNITY LIKE THIS. DO YOU THINK HE WILL GIVE THAT AWAY? AND AFTER ME, KIERA IS GOING TO BE NEXT. THEN PROBABLY YOU.

“So you hand him over to us. That still doesn’t make any sense; either way, we get to nail you.”

DARIAT AND I ARE PLAYING OUR OWN GAME. I DO NOT EXPECT YOU TO UNDERSTAND. BUT I DO NOT INTEND TO LOSE TO HIM.

She worried at a fingernail. “I don’t know.”

EVEN WITH MY HELP, HE WILL BE DIFFICULT TO CATCH. DO YOU FEAR FAILURE?

“Don’t try working that angle on me, it’s pathetic.”

VERY WELL. SO DO YOU ACCEPT?

“Difficult one. I really don’t trust you. But it would be a superb hunt, you’ve got me there. I haven’t had a single sniff of that tricky little boyo yet, and I’ve been trying for long enough.” She shouldered her rifle. “All right, we’ve got a deal. But just remember, if you are trying to get me to walk into some ten-thousand-volt power cable, I can still come back. Kiera’s recording is hauling in thousands of morons. I’ll return in one of them, and then you’ll wish all you had to worry about was Dariat.”

UNDERSTOOD. FIND A PROCESSOR BLOCK AND SWITCH IT TO ITS BASIC ROUTINES, THAT SHOULD KEEP IT FUNCTIONING. I WILL UPDATE YOU ON HIS LOCATION.

Dariat walked along the shoreline of the circumfluous saltwater reservoir as the light tube languished to a spectacular golden-orange. The cove was backed by a decaying earth bluff which tipped an avalanche of the pink Tallok-aboriginal grass onto the sand. Curving outgrowths of the xenoc plant resembled a meandering tideline, which gave him the impression of walking along a spit between two different coloured seas. The only sounds were of the water lapping against the sand, and the birds crying out as they flew back to land for the night.

He had walked here many times as a child, an era when being alone meant happiness. Now he welcomed the solitude again; it gave him the mindspace to think, to formulate new subversion routines to insert into the neural strata; and he was free of Kiera and her greed and shallow ambitions. That second factor was becoming a dominant one. They had been looking for him ever since the Edenists destroyed the industrial stations. With both his knowledge of the habitat and energistically enhanced affinity it was absurdly easy to elude them. Few ever ventured down to the vast reservoir, preferring to cling to the camps around starscraper foyers. Without the tubes, it was a long journey across the grassland where malevolent servitor creatures lay in wait for the negligent.

Trouble,rubra announced.

Dariat ignored him. He could hide himself from the possessed easily enough. None of them knew enough about affinity to access the neural strata properly. As a consequence he no longer bothered hiding himself from Rubra anymore, nor did he bother with the linen-suited persona. It was all too stressful. The price of release came in the form of taunts and nerve games emanating from Rubra with unimaginative regularity.

She’s found you, Dariat, she’s coming for you. And boy is she pissed.

Certain he’d regret it, Dariat asked: Who?

Bonney. There’s nine of them heading right at you in a couple of trucks. I think Kiera was saying something about returning with your head. Apparently, attachment to your body was considered optional.

Dariat opened his affinity link with the neural strata just wide enough to hitch onto the observational sub-routines. Sure enough, two of the rugged trucks which the rentcops used were arrowing across the rosy grassland. “Shit.” They were heading straight for the cove, with about five kilometres left to go. How the hell did she find me?

Beats me.

Dariat stared straight up, following the line of the coast which looped behind the light tube. Is there someone above me with a high-rez sensor?

If there is, I can’t spot them. In any case, I doubt a sensor would work for a possessed.

Binoculars? Hell, it hardly matters.

He couldn’t see the trucks with his eyes yet, the tall grass hid them. And his mind couldn’t perceive their thoughts, they were too far away. So just how had they found him?

There is a tube station at the end of the cove,rubra said. They’ll never be able to catch you in that. I can take you to anywhere in the habitat.

Thanks. And you’ll be able to run a thousand volts through me as soon as I step inside a carriage. Or had you forgotten?

I don’t want you blown into the beyond. You know that. I’ve made my offer, and it stands. Come into the neural strata. Join your mind with me. Together we will annihilate them. Valisk can be purged. We will take them to dimensions where simply existing is an agony for them. Both of us will have revenge.

You’re crazy.

Make your mind up. I can hide you for a while while you decide. Is it to be me? Or is it to be Kiera?

Dariat was still receiving the image of the trucks from the sensitive cells. They were rocking madly over the uneven ground as the drivers held them at their top speed.

I think I’ll take a while longer to make up my mind.dariat started jogging for the tube station. After a minute, the trucks swung around to intercept him. “Bloody hell.” Horgan’s body was reasonably fit, but he was only fifteen years old. Dariat’s imagination bestowed him with athlete’s legs, bulky slabs of muscle packed tight under oil-glossed skin. His speed picked up.

I wonder what that kind of overdrive does to your blood sugar levels? I mean, the power has to come from somewhere. Surely you’re not converting the energistic overspill from the beyond directly into protein?

Save the science class till later.he could see the station ahead of him, a squat circular polyp structure bordering the bluff, like some kind of storage tank half-buried in the sand. The trucks were only a kilometre away. Bonney was standing up in the passenger seat of the lead vehicle, aiming her Enfield at him over the windscreen. Motes of white fire punched into the sand around him. He ducked down for the last fifty metres, using the bluff as cover as he scuttled for the station entrance.

Inside, two broad escalators spiralled around each other, their steps moving sedately. A garishly coloured tubular hologram punctured the air up the centre of the shaft, adverts sliding along it. Dariat leapt onto the down escalator and sprinted recklessly, hands barely touching the rail.

He made it to the bottom just as the trucks braked outside; Bonney charged towards the entrance. There was a carriage waiting on the station, a shiny white aluminum bullet. Dariat stopped, panting heavily, staring at the open door.

Get in!

Rubra’s mental voice contained a strong intimation of alarm, which Dariat could hardly credit. If you’re fucking me, I’ll come back. I’ll promise myself to Anstid for that one wish to be granted.

Imagine my terror. I’ve told you, I need you intact and cooperative. Now get in.

Dariat closed his eyes and took a step forwards, directly into the carriage. The door slid shut behind him, and there was a faint vibration as it started accelerating along the track. He opened his eyes.

See?rubra taunted. Not such a bogey man after all.

Dariat sat down and took some deep breaths to calm his racing heart. He used the sensitive cells to watch an apoplectic Bonney Lewin jump down from the empty platform to fire her Enfield along the dark tunnel. She was screaming obscenities. The accompanying hunters were standing well back. One of her boots was treading on the magnetic guide rail.

Fry her,dariat said. Now!

Oh, no. This is much more fun. This way I get to find out if the dead can have heart attacks.

You are a complete bastard.

That’s right. And to prove it, I’m going to show you Anastasia’s secret now. The one thing she never showed you.

Dariat was instantly wary. More lies.

Not this time. Don’t tell me you don’t want to find out. I know you, Dariat. Fully. I’ve always known. I know what she means to you. I know how much she means to you. Your memory of her was strong enough to power a grudge over thirty years. That’s almost inhuman, Dariat. I respect it enormously. But it leaves you wide open to me. Because you want to know, don’t you? There’s something I’ve got, or heard, or saw, that you didn’t. A little segment of Anastasia Rigel you don’t have. You won’t be able to live with that knowledge.

I’ll be able to ask her soon. Her soul is waiting for me in the beyond. When I’ve dealt with you, I’ll go to her, and we’ll be together again.

Soon will be too late.

You’re unbelievable, you know that?

Good. I’ll take you there.

Whatever you like.dariat pushed his weariness behind the thought, showing just how unconcerned he was. Behind that, clutched away from the bravado and outward confidence, his teenage self huddled in worry. That same self which so idolized her. Now there was the chance, the remotest possibility that the image was flawed, less than honest. The doubt cut into him, weakening the core of resolution which had supported him for so terribly long.

Anastasia would never keep anything from him. Would she? She loved him, she said so. The last thing she ever said, ever wrote.

Rubra guided the tube carriage to a starscraper lobby station and opened the door. It’s waiting on the thirty-second floor.

Dariat glanced cautiously out onto the little station and the wide passage which led to the lobby itself. His mind could sense the thoughts of the possessed camped outside the lobby. No one showed any interest in him. He hurried across the floor to the bank of lifts in the centre, reaching them unnoticed.

The lift deposited him at the thirty-second-floor vestibule. A completely normal residential section; twenty-four mechanical doors leading to apartments, and three muscle membranes for the stairwells. One of the mechanical doors slid open to show a darkened living room.

Dariat could sense someone inside, a dozing mind, its thought currents placid. When he tried to use the observation sub-routines for the bedroom he found he couldn’t, Rubra had wiped them.

Oh, no, my boy, you go right in there and face your fate like a man.

Dariat flinched. But . . . one unaware non-possessed. How bad could it be? He walked into the apartment, ordering the electrophorescent cells to full intensity. Thankfully, they responded.

It was a woman who lay on the big bed, a duvet had worked downwards to reveal her shoulders. Her skin was very black, with the minute crinkles which spelt out the onset of middle age and the start of weight problems for anyone without much geneering in their ancestry. A tangle of finely braided jet-black hair was fanned out over the pillows, every strand tipped with a moondust-white bead.

She groaned sleepily as the light came on, and turned over. Despite a face which cellulite was busy inflating, she had a petit nose.

NO! For one moment horror claimed his senses. She was similar to Anastasia. Features, colour, even the age was almost right. If a medical team had gone out to the tepee, they might have reanimated the body, a hospital might conceivably have used extensive gene therapy to regenerate the dead brain cells. It could be done, for the President of Govcentral or Kulu’s heir apparent, the effort would be made. But not a Starbridge girl regarded as vermin by the personality of the habitat in which she dwelt. The cold shock subsided.

Whoever she was, as soon as she saw him, she screamed.

“It’s all right,” Dariat said. He couldn’t even hear his own voice above her distraught wails.

“Rubra! One of them’s here. Rubra, help me.”

“No,” Dariat said. “I’m not. Well . . .”

“Rubra! RUBRA.”

“Please,” Dariat implored.

That silenced her.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said. “I’m running from them myself.”

“Uh huh?” Her gaze darted to the door.

“Really. Rubra brought me here, too.”

The duvet was readjusted. Slim bronze and silver bracelets tinkled as she moved.

Dariat’s chill returned. They were exactly the same kind of bracelets Anastasia wore. “Are you a Starbridge?”

She nodded, wide-eyed.

Wrong question,rubra said. Ask her what her name is.

He hated himself. For giving in, for playing to Rubra’s rules. “Who are you?”

“Tatiana,” she gulped. “Tatiana Rigel.”

Rubra’s mocking, triumphant laughter shook his skull from the inside. Got it now, boy? Meet Anastasia’s little sister.

•   •   •

Another day, another press conference. At least this new technology had progressed beyond flashbulbs; Al had always hated them back in Chicago. More than once he had been photographed raising a hand to ward off the brilliant bursts of light; photos which the papers always ran, because it looked as if he were trying to hide, confirming his guilt.

He had held the press conference in the Monterey Hilton’s big ballroom, sitting at a long table with his back to the window. The idea was that the reporters would see the formation of victorious fleet ships which had just returned from Arnstadt, and were holding station five kilometres off the asteroid. Leroy Octavius said it should make an impressive backdrop for the dramatic news announcement.

Except the starships weren’t quite in the right coordinate, so they were only just visible when rotation did bring them into view; the reporters had to look around the side of the table to see them. And everybody knew the Organization had conquered Arnstadt and Kursk, it wasn’t new even though this made it sort of official.

Drama and impact, that was the sole purpose. So Al sat at the long table with its inappropriate vases of flowers; Luigi Balsmao on one side, and a couple of other ship captains on the other. He told the reporters how easy it had been to break open Arnstadt’s SD network, the eagerness of the population to accept the Organization as a government after a “minimum number” of key administrative people had been possessed. How the star system’s economy was turning around.

“Did you use antimatter, Al?” Gus Remar asked. A weary veteran of these affairs now, he reckoned he knew what liberties he could take. Capone did have a weird sense of honour operating; nobody got blasted for trying to work an angle, only outright opposition earned his disapprobation.

“That’s a dumb kinda question, pal,” Al replied, keeping the scowl from his face. “What do you want to ask that for? We got plenty of interesting dope on how the Organization is curing all sorts of medical problems which the non-possessed bring to our lieutenants. You people, you always look for the bad side. It’s like a goddamn obsession with you.”

“Antimatter is the biggest horror the Confederation knows, Al. People are bound to be interested in the rumours. Some of the ships’ crews say they fired antimatter powered combat wasps. And the industrial stations here are producing antimatter confinement systems. Have you got a production station, Al?”

Leroy Octavius, who was standing behind Al, leaned forwards and whispered something in his ear. Some of the humour returned to Al’s stony face. “I can neither confirm nor deny the Organization has access to invincible weapons.”

It didn’t stop them from asking again and again. He lost the press conference then. There wasn’t any chance to read out the dope Leroy had prepared on the medical bonus, and how they’d prevented the kind of food shortages on Arnstadt which were being reported as affecting other possessed worlds.

Asked at the end if he was planning another invasion, Al just growled: “Wait and see,” then walked out.

“Don’t worry about it, we’ll embargo the whole conference,” Leroy said as they took a lift down to the bottom of the hotel.

“They ought to show some goddamn respect,” Al grunted. “If it wasn’t for me they’d be possessed and screaming inside their own heads. Those bastards never fucking change.”

“You want us to lean on them a little?” Bernhard Allsop asked.

“No. That would be stupid. The only reason the Confederation news companies take our reports is because they’re from non-possessed.” Al hated it when Bernhard tried to be tough and demonstrate his loyalty. I should have him wasted, he’s becoming a complete pain in the ass.

But wasting people wasn’t so easy these days. They’d come back in another body, and carry a grudge the size of Mount Washington.

Goddamn the problems kept hitting on him.

The lift doors opened on the hotel’s basement, a windowless level given over to environmental machinery, large pumps, and condensation-smeared tanks. A boxing ring had been set up at the centre, surrounded by the usual training paraphernalia of exercise bikes, histeps, weights, and punch bags: Malone’s gym.

Whenever he wanted to loosen up, Al came down here. He’d always enjoyed sports back in Chicago; going to the game was an event in those days. One he missed. If he could bring back the Organization, and the music, and the dancing from that time, he reasoned, then why not the sports, too?

Avram Harwood had run a check on professions listed in the Organization’s files, and found Malone, who claimed to have worked as a boxing trainer in New York during the 1970s.

Al marched into the gym area trailed by five of his senior lieutenants, Avram Harwood, and a few other hangers-on like Bernhard. It was noisy in the basement anyway, with the pumps thrumming away, and in the gym with music playing and men pounding away at leather punch bags you had to shout to be heard. This was the way it should be: the smell of leather and sweat, grunts as sparring blows hit home, Malone yelling out at his star pupils.

“How’s it going?” Al asked the trainer.

Malone shrugged, his heavy face showing complete misery. “Today’s people, they gone soft, Al. They don’t want to hit each other, they think it’s immoral or something. We ain’t gonna find no Ali or Cooper on this world. But I got a few contenders, kids who’ve had it hard. They’re working out okay.” A fat finger indicated the two young men in the ring. “Joey and Gulo, here, they could have what it takes.”

Al cast an eye over the two boxers dancing around in the ring. Both of them were big, fit-looking kids, wearing colourful protective gear. He knew enough about the basics to see they were holding themselves right, though they were concentrating too much on defence.

“I’ll just watch awhile,” Al told Malone.

“Sure thing, Al. Help yourself. Hey! Gulo, close the left, the left, asswipe.”

Joey saw his opening and landed a good right on Gulo’s face. Gulo went for a body lock, and both of them bounced on the ropes.

“Break, break,” the ref cried.

Al pulled up a stool and gazed contentedly at the two combatants. “All right, what’s the order of play for today? Speak to me, Avvy.” The ex-mayor’s body twitches were getting worse, Al noticed. And some of the weals still hadn’t healed over despite a couple of attempts by Al’s possessed lieutenants to heal them. Al didn’t like having so much resentment and hostility festering close by. But the guy sure knew how to administrate; replacing him now would be a bitch.

“We now have fifteen delegations from outsystem who have arrived,” Avram Harwood said. “They all want to see you.”

“Outsystem, huh?” Al’s flagging interest started to perk up. “What do they want?”

“Your assistance, basically,” Avram said. He didn’t hide his displeasure.

Al ignored it. “For what?”

“All of them are from asteroid settlements,” Patricia Mangano said. “The first bunch that came here are from Toma, that’s in the Kolomna system. Their problem is that the asteroid only has a population of ninety thousand. That gives them enough energistic power to shift it out of this universe easily enough. But then they realized that spending the rest of eternity inside a couple of modestly sized biosphere caverns which are totally dependent on technology wasn’t exactly going to be a whole load of fun. Especially when nearly a third of the possessed come from pre-industrial eras.”

“Goddamn, this is what I’ve been telling people all along,” Al said expansively. “There ain’t no point in vanishing whole planets away, not until we got the Confederation licked.”

Several of the trainee boxers had drifted over to stand close by. As if aware of the growing interest, Joey and Gulo were increasing their efforts to knock each other senseless. Malone’s rapid-fire monotone picked up momentum.

“So what has this got to do with me?” Al asked.

“The Toma people want to move everyone to Kolomna.”

“Je-zus!”

“They want our fleet to help them. If we chose Kolomna as our next invasion target we will receive their total cooperation for as long as you want it. Every industrial station in the system will be given over to supporting the fleet, every starship captured will be converted to carry weapons or troops, they’ll bring the planetary population into order along Organization lines. They say they want to sign up as your lieutenants.”

Al was flattered, it turned his whole day around.

Out in the ring, both boxers were perspiring heavily. Blood was trickling out of Gulo’s mouth. Joey’s left eye was bruised. Cheers and whistles were swelling from the spectators.

“Risky,” Luigi said. “Kolomna is First Admiral Aleksandrovich’s homeworld. He probably wouldn’t take too kindly to it. I wouldn’t if I was him. Besides, we’re still getting things in order for Toi-Hoi.”

Al rocked back on the stool and materialized one of his Havanas, its end was already alight. “I’m not too worried about that Admiral getting pissed with me, not with what I’ve got in store for him. Any chance we can split the fleet, send some ships to Kolomna?”

“Sorry, boss, that’s some of the bad news I’ve got for you,” Luigi said. “The Confederation is really hassling us bad at Arnstadt. They’ve got voidhawks flying above both poles dropping invisible bombs on the SD platforms in orbit. Stealth, the bastards call it. We’re losing a shitload of hardware every day. And the non-possessed population are putting up some resistance—quite a lot, actually. The new lieutenants we’ve appointed are having to use a whole load of force to establish our authority. It gives them a sense of independence, so we have to use the SD platforms to make them see reason, too. Except the Confederation is knocking the platforms out one at a time, so instead we gotta use starships to substitute, and they’re just as vulnerable.”

“Well, fuck it, Luigi,” Al stormed. “Are you telling me, we’re gonna lose?”

“No way!” an indignant Luigi protested. “We’re launching our own patrols up above the poles. We’re hassling them right back, Al. But it takes five or six of our ships to block one of their goddamn voidhawks.”

“They’re bogging us down out there,” Silvano Richmann said. “It’s quite deliberate. We’re also losing ships out among Arnstadt’s settled asteroids. The voidhawks make lightning raids, fling off a dozen combat wasps and duck away before we can do anything about it. It’s a shitty way of fighting, Al, nothing is head on anymore.”

“Modern navies are built around the concept of rapid tactical assault,” Leroy said. “Their purpose is to inflict damage over a wide front so that you have to overstretch your defences. They’ve adopted a guerilla policy to try and wear down our fleet.”

“Fucking cowards’ way of fighting,” Silvano grumbled.

“It’ll get worse,” Leroy warned. “Now they’ve seen how effective it is against Arnstadt, they’ll start doing it here. New California’s SD network is just as vulnerable to stealth mines. Our advantage is that the Organization is now up and running on the planet. We don’t need to enforce it the way we do on Arnstadt. I think we only used a ground strike ten times last week.”

“Twelve,” Emmet corrected. “But we do have a lot of industrial capacity in orbit. I’d hate to lose much of it to a stealth strike campaign. Our outer system asteroid settlements really aren’t supplying us with anything like the material they should be, production simply doesn’t match capacity at all.”

“That’s because we essentially have the same problem as the outsystem delegations,” Leroy said.

“Go on,” Al said glumly; he was rolling the cigar absently between his fingers, its darkened tip pointing down. But he still hadn’t taken his eyes off the fight. Joey was sagging now, swaying dazedly, while the blood from Gulo’s face was flowing freely down his chest to splatter the floor of the ring. No bell was going to be rung; it wouldn’t finish now until one of them fell.

“Every possessed wants to live on a planet,” Leroy said. “Asteroids don’t have an adequate population base to sustain a civilization for eternity. We’ve started to see a lot of inter-orbit craft heading towards New California from the settlements. And for every possessed on their way, there are another ten waiting for the next ship.”

“Goddamnit,” Al shouted. “When those skid-row assholes get here, you send them right back where they came from. We need those asteroid factories working at full steam ahead. You got that?”

“I’ll notify SD Command,” Leroy said.

“Make sure they know I ain’t fucking joking.”

“Will do.”

Al relit his cigar by glaring at it. “Okay, so, Luigi, when can we start to take out the Toi-Hoi system?”

Luigi shrugged. “I’ll be honest with you, Al, our original timetable ain’t looking too good here.”

“Why not?”

“We thought we’d almost double the fleet size with Arnstadt’s ships. Which we have done. But then we need a lot of them to keep order in that system, and reliable crews are getting hard to find. Then there’s Kursk. We made a mistake with that one, Al, the place ain’t worth a bucket of warm spit. It’s those hillbilly redneck farmers. They just won’t roll over.”

“That’s where Mickey is right now,” Silvano said. “He’s trying to run an offensive which will bring them to heel. It’s not easy. The tricky bastards have taken to the countryside. They’re hiding in trees and caves, a whole load of places the satellite sensors can’t find them. And the Confederation is hitting us big-time with those stealth weapons, like Arnstadt was just a warm-up. We’re losing three or four ships a day.”

“I think Luigi is right when he said we made a mistake invading Kursk,” Emmet said. “It’s costing us a bundle, and returning zippo. I say pull the fleet out; let the possessed on the ground take care of the planet in their own time.”

“That’ll mean the Organization won’t have any clout there,” Patricia said. “Once everyone’s possessed, they’ll snatch it clean out of the universe.”

“The only thing it ever gave to us was propaganda,” Leroy said. “We can’t work that angle anymore. Emmet’s right. I don’t think we should be aiming at any planet lower than stage four, one that can replace our losses, as a minimum requirement.”

“That sounds solid to me,” Al agreed. “I don’t like losing Kursk, but spelt out like that I don’t see that we’ve got one whole hell of a choice. Luigi, get Mickey back here, tell him to bring all the ships and as many of our soldiers as he can. I want to go for Toi-Hoi as soon as you can load up with supplies. People will think we’ve stalled otherwise; and it’s important to keep the momentum going.”

“You got it, boss. I’d like to send Cameron Leung as the messenger, if you ain’t using him. It’ll be the quickest way, cut down on any more of our losses.”

“Sure, no problem. Send him pronto.” Al blew a smoke ring at the distant ceiling. “Anything else?”

Leroy and Emmet gave each other a resigned look. “There’s a lot of currency cheating going on,” Emmet said. “I suppose you could call it forgery.”

“Je-zus, I thought you rocket scientists had that all figured out.”

“Foolproof, you said,” Silvano said with a demon’s grin.

“It should have been,” Emmet insisted. “Part of it is due to the way it’s being implemented. Our soldiers aren’t being entirely honest about the amount of time the possessed are devoting to redeeming their energistic debts. People are starting to complain. There’s a lot of restlessness building up down there, Al. You’re going to have to make it clear to the lieutenants how important it is to stick with the rules. The economy we’ve rigged up is shaky enough already without suffering this confidence crisis. If it fails, then we lose control and the planet goes wild, just like Kursk. You can’t use the SD platforms to waste everyone who disagrees with us; we need to be subtle about how we keep the majority in line.”

“All right, all right.” Al waved a hand, nettled at the schoolmaster tone Emmet was using.

“Based on what we’ve seen so far, I’m not sure a wild possessed population could even feed themselves. Certainly the cities would have to be abandoned as soon as the supply infrastructure collapses. You do need a large area of land under cultivation to support a city like San Angeles.”

“Will you cut this crap. I fucking understand, okay? What I want to know is, what are you going to do about it?”

“It’s about time you met with the groundside lieutenants again, Al,” Leroy said. “We can build on the fleet’s return, show how together we are up here, how they’d be nothing without us. Make them toe the line.”

“Oh, Jesus H. Christ, not another fucking tour. I just got back!”

“You’re in charge of two star systems, Al,” Leroy said matter-of-factly. “There are some things which have to be done.”

Al winced. The fatboy manager was right, as goddamn always. This wasn’t a game to be picked up when he felt like it, this was different from before. In Chicago he’d climbed on the back of the power structure to advance himself; now he was the structure. That was when he finally realized the responsibility, and enormity, of what he’d created.

If the Organization crashed, millions—living and resurrected—would fall beside him, their hopes smashed on the rocks of his selfish intransigence. Alcatraz was the result of his last brush with hubris. Alcatraz would be bliss compared to the suffering focused on him should he fail again.

The fight which was limping to its conclusion was no longer the centre of attention; most of the possessed in the gym were staring at him strangely. They could see the muddle and horror in his mind. Leroy and Avram were waiting, puzzled by the sudden, uneasy silence.

“Sure thing, Leroy,” Al said meekly. “I know what I’m in charge of. And I ain’t never been scared of doing what has to be done. Remember that. So set up that tour. You got that?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Makes a fucking change. Right, you guys all know what you gotta do. Do it.”

Gulo landed one final blow in Joey’s stomach which sent him staggering backwards to collapse in a corner. Malone hopped over the ropes to examine the fallen man. Gulo stood over them, uncertain what to do next. Blood was dripping swiftly from his chin.

“Okay, kid,” Malone said. “That’s it for the day.”

Al flicked his cigar away and stood by the ropes. He beckoned Gulo over. “You did pretty damn good out there, boy. How long you been training?”

Gulo slipped a blood-soaked gumshield from his mouth. “Nine days, Mr Capone, sir,” he mumbled. Little flecks of blood splattered Al’s suit jacket as he wheezed painfully.

Al took hold of the kid’s head with one hand and turned it from side to side, examining the bruises and cuts inside the sparring helmet. He concentrated hard, feeling a cold tingle sweeping along his arm to infect the kid’s face through his fingertips. The bleeding stopped, and the grazed bruising deflated slightly. “You’ll do okay,” Al decided.

Jezzibella was lounging on the circular bed. A wall-mounted holoscreen showed her an image of the gym relayed by a sensor high in the ceiling. Emmet, Luigi, and Leroy clustered together, discussing something in sober tones, their amplified murmurs filling the bedroom.

“Hard day at the office, lover?” Jezzibella asked. It was a persona of toughness wrapping a tender heart. Her face was very serious, fine features slightly flushed. A longish bob hairstyle cupped her cheeks.

“You saw it,” he said.

“Yeah.” She uncurled her legs and stood up, wrestling with the fabric of her long silky white robe. There was no belt, and it was open to the waist, allowing a very shapely navel to peek out. “Come here, baby. Lie down.”

“Best goddamn offer I’ve had all day.” He was bothered by his own lack of enthusiasm.

“Not that; you need to relax.”

Al grunted disparagingly, but did as he was told. When he was lying on his back he stuck his hands behind his head, frowning at the ceiling. “Crazy. Me of all people; I should’ve known what was going to happen with the money. Everyone skims and everyone scams. What made me think my soldiers were going to be square shooters?”

Jezzibella planted a foot on either side of his hips, then sat down. Her robe’s fabric must have carried one hell of a static charge, he guessed, there was no other reason why it should cling to her skin at all the strategic zones. Her fingers dug into the base of his neck, thumbs probing deep.

“Hey, what is this?”

“I’m trying to get you to relax, remember? You’re so tense.” Her fingers were moving in circles now, almost strumming his hot muscle cords.

“That’s good,” he admitted.

“I should really have some scented oils to do this properly.”

“You want I should try and dream some up?” He wasn’t too certain he could imagine smells the way he could shapes.

“No. Improvising can be fun, you never know what you might discover. Turn over, and get rid of your shirt.”

Al rolled over, yawning heavily. He rested his chin on his hands as Jezzibella began to move her fingertips along his spine.

“I dunno what I hate most,” Al said. “Retreating from Kursk, or admitting how right that shitty slob Leroy was.”

“Kursk was a strategic withdrawal.”

“Running away is running away, doll. Don’t matter how you dress it up.”

“I think I’ve found something that might help you with Arnstadt.”

“What’s that?”

She leaned over to the bedside cabinet and picked up a small processor block, tapping the keyboard. “I only saw this recording today. Leroy should have brought it to me earlier. Apparently it’s all over the Confederation. We got it from one of the outsystem delegations that arrived to plead with you.”

The holoscreen switched from the gym to showing Kiera Salter lounging on her boulder.

“Yep, that certainly perks me up,” Al said cheerfully.

Jezzibella slapped his rump. “Just you behave, Al Capone. Forget her tits, listen to what she’s saying.”

He listened to the enticing words.

“She’s actually rather good,” Jezzibella said. “Especially considering it’s AV only, no naughty sensory activants to hammer home the message. I could have done it better, of course, but then I’m a professional. But that recording is pulling in dissatisfied kids from every asteroid settlement that ever received a copy. They call it Deadnight.”

“So? Valisk is one of those frigging freaky habitat places. She’s hardly gonna be a threat to us no matter how many people go there.”

“It’s how they get there which interests me. Kiera has managed to take over Valisk’s blackhawks, they call them hellhawks.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes. And all they’re doing is ferrying idiot kids to the habitat. She is facing the same problem as all the possessed asteroid settlements. They’re not the kinds of places you want to spend eternity in. My guess is that she’s trying to beef up Valisk’s population so the ones already there don’t push to land on a planet. It makes sense. If they did move, Kiera wouldn’t be top dog anymore.”

“So? I never said she was dumb.”

“Exactly. She’s organized. Not on the scale you are, but she’s smart, she understands politics. She’d make an excellent ally. We can supply her with people a lot faster than she can acquire them through clandestine flights. And in return, she loans us a couple of squadrons of these hellhawks, which the fleet desperately needs. They’d soon put a stop to the Confederation’s stealth attacks.”

“Damn!” He shuffled around inside the cage of her legs to see her poised above him, hands on her hips, content smile on her lips. “That’s good, Jez. No it ain’t, it’s fucking brilliant. Hell, you don’t need me, you could run this Organization by yourself.”

“Don’t be silly. I can’t do what you do to me, not solitaire.”

He growled hungrily and reached for the robe. Marie Skibbow’s golden face smiled down on them as more and more of their clothing vanished, some into thin air, some into torn strips.

•   •   •

The First Admiral waited until Captain Khanna and Admiral Lalwani seated themselves in front of his desk, then datavised the desktop processor for a security level one sensenviron conference. Six people were waiting around the oval table in the featureless white bubble room which formed around him. Directly opposite Samual Aleksandrovich was the Confederation Assembly President, Olton Haaker, with his chief aide Jeeta Anwar next to him; the Kulu ambassador, Sir Maurice Hall, was on her left, accompanied by Lord Elliot, a junior minister from the Kulu Foreign Office; the Edenist ambassador, Cayeaux, and Dr Gilmore took the remaining two chairs.

“This isn’t quite our usual situation briefing today, Admiral,” President Haaker said. “The Kulu Kingdom has made a formal request for military aid.”

Samual Aleksandrovich knew his face was showing a grimace of surprise, his sensenviron image, however, retained a more dignified composure. “I had no idea any of the Kingdom worlds were under threat.”

“We are not facing any new developments, Admiral,” Sir Maurice said. “The Royal Navy is proving most effective in protecting our worlds from any strikes by possessed starships. Even Valisk’s hellhawks have stopped swallowing into our systems to peddle their damnable Deadnight subversion. And our planetary forces have contained all the incursions quite successfully. With the sorry exception of Mortonridge, of course. Which is why we are requesting your cooperation and assistance. We intend to mount a liberation operation, and free the citizens who have been possessed.”

“Impossible,” Samual said. “We have no viable method of purging a body of its possessor. Dr Gilmore.”

“Unfortunately, the First Admiral is correct,” the navy scientist said. “As we have found, forcing a returned soul to relinquish a body it has captured is extremely difficult.”

“Not if they are placed in zero-tau,” Lord Elliot said.

“But there are over two million people on Mortonridge,” Samual said. “You can’t put that many into zero-tau.”

“Why not? It’s only a question of scale.”

“You’d need . . .” Samual trailed off as various tactical programs went primary in his neural nanonics.

“The help of the Confederation Navy,” Lord Elliot concluded. “Exactly. We need to move a large number of ground troops and matériel to Ombey. You have transport and assault starships which aren’t really involved with enforcing the civil starflight quarantine. We’d like them to be reassigned to the campaign. The combined resources of our own military forces, our allies, and the Confederation Navy ought to be sufficient to liberate Mortonridge.”

“Ground troops?”

“We will initially be providing the Kingdom with half a million bitek constructs,” Ambassador Cayeaux said. “They should be able to restrain individual possessed, and force them into a zero-tau pod. Their deployment will insure the loss of human life is kept to a minimum.”

You are going to help the Kingdom?” Samual couldn’t be bothered to filter his surprise out of the question. But . . . the Edenists and the Kingdom allied! At one level he was pleased, prejudice can be abandoned if the incentive is great enough. What a pity it had to be this, though.

“Yes.”

“I see.”

“The Edenist constructs will have to be backed up by a considerable number of regular soldiers to hold the ground they take,” Sir Maurice said. “We would also like you to assign two brigades of Confederation Marines to the campaign.”

“I’ve no doubt your tactical evaluations have convinced you about the plausibility of this liberation,” Samual said. “But I must go on record as opposing it, and certainly I do not wish to devote my forces to what will ultimately prove a futile venture. If this kind of combined effort is to be made, it should at least be directed at a worthwhile target.”

“His Majesty has said he will go to any lengths to free his subjects from the suffering being inflicted on them,” Lord Elliot said.

“Does his obligation only extend to the living?”

“Admiral!” Haaker warned.

“I apologize. However you must appreciate that I have a responsibility to the Confederation worlds as a whole.”

“Which so far you have demonstrated perfectly.”

“So far?”

“Admiral, you know the status quo within the Confederation cannot be maintained indefinitely,” Jeeta Anwar said. “We cannot afford it.”

“We have to consider the political objectives of this conflict,” Haaker said. “I’m sorry, Samual, but logic and sound tactics aren’t the only factors at play here. The Confederation must be seen to be doing something. I’m sure you appreciate that.”

“And you have chosen Mortonridge as that something?”

“It is a goal which the Kingdom and the Edenists think they can achieve.”

“Yes, but what would happen afterwards? Do you propose to take on every possessed planet and asteroid in a similar fashion? How long would that take? How much would it cost?”

“I sincerely hope such a process would not have to be repeated,” Cayeaux said. “We must use the time it takes to liberate Mortonridge to search for another approach to the problem. However, if there is no answer, then similar campaigns may indeed have to be mounted.”

“Which is why this first one must succeed,” Haaker said.

“Are you ordering me to redeploy my forces?” Samual asked.

“I’m informing you of the request the Kulu Kingdom and the Edenists have made. It is a legitimate request made by two of our strongest supporters. If you have an alternative proposal, then I’ll be happy to receive it.”

“Of course I don’t have an alternative.”

“Then I don’t think you have any reason to refuse them.”

“I see. If I might ask, Ambassador Cayeaux, why does your Consensus agree to this?”

“We agreed to it for the sake of the hope it will provide to all the living in the Confederation. We do not necessarily approve.”

“Samual, you’ve done a magnificent job so far,” Lalwani said. “We know this liberation is only a sideshow, but it will gain us a great deal of political support. And we are going to need every scrap of support we can find in the coming weeks.”

“Very well.” Samual Aleksandrovich paused in distaste. What upset him most was how well he understood their argument, almost sympathising with it. Image had become the paramount motivation, the way every war was fought for politicians. But in this I am no different from military commanders down the centuries, we always have to play within the political arena in order to fight the real battle. I wonder if my illustrious predecessors felt so soiled? “Captain Khanna, please ask the general staff to draw up fleet redeployment orders based on the request from the Kulu Kingdom ambassador.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I wish your King every success, Ambassador.”

“Thank you, Admiral. We do not wish to disrupt your current naval operations. Alastair does understand the importance of the role you are playing.”

“I’m glad of that. There are going to be some difficult decisions for all of us ahead; his patronage will be essential. As I have said from the beginning, this requires an ultimate solution that can never be purely military.”

“Have you considered the proposal Capone made?” Sir Maurice asked. “I know if any of the possessed can be seen in terms of a conventional enemy, it’s him. But could bitek construct bodies be made to work?”

“We examined it,” Maynard Khanna said. “In practical terms it is completely inviable. The numbers are impossible. A conservative estimate for the Confederation’s current population is nine hundred billion, which averages out at just over one billion per star system. Even if you assume only ten dead people for everyone living, there must be approximately ten trillion souls in the beyond. If they were each given a construct body, where would they live? We would have to find between three to five thousand new terracompatible planets for them. Clearly an impossible task.”

“I would contend that number,” Cayeaux said. “Laton quite clearly said that not every soul remains imprisoned in the beyond.”

“Even if it was only a single trillion, that would still mean locating several hundred planets for them.”

“Laton’s information interests me,” Dr Gilmore said. “We have been assuming all along that it is incumbent on us to provide a final solution. Yet if souls can progress from the beyond to some other state of existence, then clearly it is up to them to do so.”

“How would we make them?” Haaker asked.

“I’m not sure. If we could just find one of them who would cooperate we could make so much more progress; someone like that Shaun Wallace character who was interviewed by Kelly Tirrel. Those we have here in Trafalgar are all so actively hostile to our investigation.”

Samual thought about making a comment concerning relevant treatment and behaviour, but Gilmore didn’t deserve public rebukes. “I suppose we could try a diplomatic initiative. There are several isolated asteroid settlements which have been possessed and yet haven’t moved themselves out of the universe. We could make a start with them; send a message asking them if they will talk to us.”

“An excellent proposal,” Haaker said. “It would cost very little, and if we obtain a favourable response I would be prepared to give a joint research project my full support.”

The sensenviron ended, leaving Dr Gilmore alone in his office. He did nothing for several minutes while the last part of the meeting ran through his mind. A man who prided himself on his methodical nature, the embodiment of the scientific method, he wasn’t angry with himself, at the most he felt a slight irritation that he hadn’t reasoned this out earlier. If Laton was correct about souls moving on, then the beyond was not the static environment he had assumed until now. That opened up a whole range of new options.

Dr Gilmore entered the examination room containing Jacqueline Couteur to find the staff on an extended break. Both quantum signature sensor arrays were missing from the overhead waldo arms. The electronics lab was rebuilding them once again, a near-continual process of refinement as they sought out the elusive transdimensional interface.

Jacqueline Couteur was being fed. A trolley had been wheeled in beside the surgical bed, sprouting a thick hose which hung just over her mouth. Her black head restraint had been loosened slightly, allowing her to switch between the two nipples; one for water, the other a meat paste.

Dr Gilmore walked through to stand next to the surgical bed. Her eyes followed his movement.

“Good morning, Jacqueline; how are you today?”

Her eyes narrowed contemptuously. Little wisps of steam licked up from the electrodes pressing against her skin. She opened her mouth and circled the plastic nipple with her tongue. “Fine, thank you, Dr Mengele. I’d like to speak to my lawyer, please.”

“That’s interesting. Why?”

“Because I’m going to sue you for every fuseodollar you own, and then have you shot down to a penal world in a one-way capsule. Torture is illegal in the Confederation. Read the Declaration of Rights.”

“If you are in discomfort, you should leave. We both know you can do that.”

“We’re not discussing my options at the moment. It is your actions which are in question. Now may I have my one phone call?”

“I had no idea an immortal soul had civil rights. You certainly don’t show your victims much in the way of autonomy.”

“My rights are for the courts to decide. By denying me access to legal representation for such a test case you are compounding your crime. However, if it bothers you, then I can assure you that Kate Morley would like to see a lawyer.”

“Kate Morley?”

“This body’s co-host.”

Dr Gilmore gave an uncertain smile. This wasn’t going to plan at all. “I don’t believe you.”

“Again, you take the role of the court upon yourself. Do you really think Kate enjoys being strapped down and electrocuted? You are violating her basic human rights.”

“I’d like to hear her ask for a lawyer.”

“She has just done that. If you don’t believe me, try running a voice print analysis. She said it.”

“This is absurd.”

“I want my lawyer!” Her voice rose in volume. “You, Marine, you are sworn to uphold the rights of Confederation citizens. I want a lawyer. Get me one.”

The captain of the marine guard looked at Dr Gilmore for guidance. Everyone on the other side of the glass partition was staring in.

Dr Gilmore relaxed and smiled. “All right, Jacqueline. You cooperate with us, we’ll cooperate with you. I will raise the topic with the First Admiral’s legal staff to see if they consider you are entitled to legal representation. But first I want you to answer a question for me.”

“The accused have a right of silence.”

“I’m not accusing you of anything.”

“Clever, Doctor. Ask then. But don’t insult me by asking me to incriminate myself.”

“When did your body die?”

“In 2036. Do I get my lawyer now?”

“And you were conscious the whole time you were in the beyond?”

“Yes, you moron.”

“Thank you.”

Jacqueline Couteur gave him a highly suspicious glance. “That’s it?”

“Yes. For now.”

“How did that help you?”

“Time passes in the beyond. That means it is subject to entropy.”

“So?”

“If your continuum decays, then the entities within it can die. More pertinently, they can be killed.”

“She wants a what ?” Maynard Khanna asked.

Dr Gilmore flinched. “A lawyer.”

“This is a joke, right?”

“I’m afraid not.” He sighed reluctantly. “The problem is, while ordinarily I would dismiss such a request as sheer nonsense, it has opened something of a debate among the investigating staff. I know the Intelligence Service has extremely wide-ranging powers that supersede the Declaration of Rights; but personality debrief is normally conducted by another division. I’m not saying that what we’re doing to Couteur and the others isn’t necessary, I would just like to establish that our orders were drafted correctly, that is: legally. Naturally, I don’t wish to bother the First Admiral with such trivia at this time. So if you could raise the matter with the Provost General’s office I’d be grateful. Just for clarification, you understand.”

•   •   •

In appearance, Golomo was no different from any of the other gas giants found among the star systems of the Confederation. A hundred and thirty-two thousand kilometres in diameter, its ring band slightly denser than usual, its storm bands a raucous mix of twirled vermillion, pale azure, splashed with coffee-cup swirls of white strands. The abnormality for which it was renowned lurked several hundred kilometres below the furrowed surface of the outer cloud layer, down where the density and temperature had risen considerably. That was where the Edenists whose habitats colonized the orbital space above located life; a narrow zone where pressure reduced the speed of the turbulence, and the strange hydrocarbon gases developed an easy viscosity. Single cells like airborne amoebas, but the size of a human fist, could survive there. They always clustered together in great colonies, resembling blankets of beluga. Why they did it, nobody could work out, none of them were specialized, all of them were independent. Yet to find singletons was unusual, at least in the areas so far observed by the probes, which admittedly was a minute percentage of the planet.

At any other time, Syrinx would dearly have loved to pay the research sites a visit. The old curiosity was still itching when Oenone slid out of its wormhole above the gas giant.

Other days, other priorities,the voidhawk chided.

Syrinx felt a hand patting hers; affinity was filled with if not quite sympathy, then certainly tolerance. She gave Ruben a droll glance and shrugged. Okay, another time.she borrowed the voidhawk’s powerful affinity voice to identify them to the Golomo Consensus; SD sensors were already locking on.

The routine for each system they visited was identical: impart a summary of the Confederation’s strategic disposition, then there were accounts of new developments in neighbouring systems, which asteroids and planets faced the possibility of takeovers. In exchange, the Consensus provided an intelligence update on the local system. Oenone could cover two, sometimes three star systems a day. So far the picture of conditions they were building up was depressing. The Edenist habitats were managing to stay on top of the situation, remaining loyal to the designated isolation and confinement policies. Adamist populations were less observant. Everywhere she went there were complaints about the hardships resulting from the quarantine, Edenist worries of local navies falling short of their designated duties, stories of illegal starship flights, a steady trickle of asteroids falling to the possessed, of political manoeuvring and advantage-trading.

We are generally more law abiding than Adamists,oxley said. And there are more of them than us. That’s bound to produce a weighted picture.

Don’t make excuses for them, Caucus said.

Lack of education, and fear,syrinx said. That’s what’s doing it. We have to make allowances, I suppose. But at the same time, their attitude is going to be a real problem in the long term. In fact, it might mean there won’t even be a long term as far as they’re concerned.

Apart from the Kulu Kingdom, and one or two other of the more disciplined societies,ruben’s suggestion was infected with irony.

She delayed her answer as she became aware of a growing unease in Golomo’s Consensus. Voidhawks from the local defence force were popping in and out of wormholes, filling the affinity band with an excited buzz. What is the problem?she inquired.

We are confirming that the Ethenthia asteroid settlement has fallen to possession,consensus informed Oenone and its crew. We have just received a message from its Confederation Navy Bureau concerning the arrival of a CNIS captain, Erick Thakrar, from Kursk. According to the bureau chief, Thakrar had obtained information of an extremely important nature. A voidhawk was requested to carry the captain and his prisoner to Trafalgar. Unfortunately there is a fifteen-hour delay to Ethenthia. In the intervening time the possessed appear to have . . .

Along with everyone else attuned to Consensus, Syrinx and her crew were immediately aware of the incoming message. Habitat senses perceived it as a violet star-point of microwaves, shining directly at Golomo from Ethenthia.

“This is Erick Thakrar, CNIS captain; I’m the one Emonn Verona told you about. Or at least I hope he did. God. Anyway, the possessed have taken over Ethenthia now. You probably know that by now. I managed to make it to a starship, the Tigara , but they’re on to me. Listen, the information I’ve got is vital. I can’t trust it to an open com link; if they find out what I know, it’ll become useless. But right now this ship is totally fucked, and I’m not much better. I’ve got a partial alignment on the Ngeuni system, but there’s barely anything about it in this almanac. I think it’s a stage one colony. If I can’t transfer to a flightworthy starship there, I’ll try and slingshot back here. God, the SD platform is locking on. Okay, I’m jumping now—”

Ngeuni is a stage one colony,Oenone responded immediately.

Syrinx was automatically aware of its spatial location eleven light years away. When correlated with Ethenthia’s current position the alignment must have been very tenuous indeed. If Thakrar’s ship was as bad as he implied . . .

The colony is still in its start-up stage,Oenone continued. However, there may be some starships available.

This is something I should follow up,syrinx told Consensus.

We concur. It will be another day before Thakrar returns here, assuming his ship remains flightworthy.

We’ll check Ngeuni to see if he got there.even as she spoke, energy was flowing through the voidhawk’s patterning cells.

•   •   •

Stephanie heard a loud mechanical screeching sound followed by a raucous siren blast. She grinned around at the children sitting at the kitchen table. “Looks like your uncle Moyo has found us some transport.”

Her humour faded when she reached the bungalow’s front porch. The bus which was parked on the road outside was spitting light in every spectrum; its bodywork a tight-packed mass of cartoon flowers growing out of paisley fields. LOVE, PEACE, and KARMA flashed in nightclub neon on the sides. The darkest areas were its gleaming chrome hubcaps.

Moyo climbed down out of the cab, busily radiating embarrassment. The doors at the back of the bus hissed open, and another man climbed down. She’d never seen anyone with so much hair before.

The children were crowding around her, gazing out eagerly at the radiant carnival apparition.

“Is that really going to take us to the border?”

“How do you make it light up?”

“Please, Stephanie, can I get inside?”

Stephanie couldn’t say no to them, so she waved them on with a casual gesture. They swarmed over the small front lawn to examine the wonderment.

“I can see how this should help us avoid any undue attention,” she said to Moyo. “Have you lost your mind?”

A guilty finger indicated his new companion. “This is Cochrane, he helped me with the bus.”

“So it was your idea?”

“Surely was.” Cochrane bowed low. “Man, I always wanted a set of wheels like this.”

“Good. Well now you’ve had it, you can say goodbye. I have to take these children out of here, and they’re not going in that thing. We’ll change it into something more suitable.”

“Won’t do you no good.”

“Oh?”

“He’s right,” Moyo said. “We can’t sneak about, not here. You know that. Everybody can sense everything in Mortonridge now.”

“That’s still no reason to use this . . . this—” She thrust an exasperated arm out towards the bus.

“It’s like gonna be a mobile Zen moment for those with unpure thoughts,” Cochrane said.

“Oh, spare me!”

“No really. Any cat catches sight of that bus and they’re gonna have to confront like their inner being, you know. It’s totally neat, a soul looking into its own soul. With this, you’re broadcasting goodness at them on Radio Godhead twenty-four hours a day; it’s a mercy mission that makes mothers weep for their lost children. My Karmic Crusader bus is going to shame them into letting you through. But like if you hit on people with a whole heavy military scene, like some kind of covert behind-the-lines hostility raid, you’ll waste all those good vibes your karma has built up. It’ll make it easy for all the cosmically uncool redneck dudes running loose out there to make it hard for us.”

“Humm.” He did make an odd kind of sense, she admitted grudgingly. Moyo gave her a hopeful shrug, a loyalty which lent her a cosy feeling. “Well, we could try it for a few miles I suppose.” Then she gave Cochrane a suspicious look. “What do you mean, us?”

He smiled and held his arms out wide. A miniature rainbow sprang up out of his palms, arching over his head. The children laughed and clapped.

“Hey, I was at Woodstock, you know. I helped rule the world for three days. You need the kind of peaceful influence I exert over the land. I’m a friend to all living things, the unliving, too, now.”

“Oh, hell.”

•   •   •

Erick still hadn’t activated the life-support capsule’s internal environmental systems. He was too worried what the power drain would do to the starship’s one remaining functional fusion generator. There certainly wasn’t enough energy stored in the reserve electron matrix cells to power up the jump nodes.

Ngeuni’s star was a severe blue-white point a quarter of a light-year away. Not quite bright enough to cast a shadow on the hull, but well above first magnitude, dominating the starfield. His sensor image was overlaid with navigation graphics, a tunnel of orange circles which seemed to be guiding the Tigara several degrees south of the star. After five jumps he was still matching delta-v.

Thankfully, the clipper’s fusion drive was capable of a seven-gee acceleration, and they weren’t carrying any cargo. It meant he had enough fuel to align the ship properly. Getting back to Golomo was going to be a problem, though.

The flight computer warned him that the alignment manoeuvre was almost complete. Tigara was flashing towards the jump coordinate at nineteen kilometres per second. He started to reduce thrust and ordered the fusion generator to power up the nodes. As soon as the plasma flow increased he started receiving datavised caution warnings. The confinement field which held the ten-million-degree stream of ions away from the casing was fluctuating alarmingly.

Erick quickly loaded an emergency dump order into the flight computer, linking it to a monitor. If the confinement field fell below five per cent the generator would shut down and vent.

For some reason he was devoid of all tension. Then he realized his medical program was flashing for attention. When he accessed it, he saw the packages were filtering out a deluge of toxins and neurochemicals from his bloodstream at the same time as they were issuing chemical suppressors.

He grinned savagely around the SII suit’s oxygen tube. Neutering his own reflexes at precisely the time he needed them the most. Too many factors were building up against him. And still it didn’t really bother him, not snug in the heart of his semi-narcotic hibernation.

The flight computer signalled that the jump coordinate was approaching. Sensors and heat dump panels began to sink down into their recesses. The main drive reduced thrust to zero. Erick fired the ion thrusters, keeping the Tigara on track.

Then the energy patterning nodes were fully charged. Finally he felt a distant sense of relief, and reduced the fusion generator output. The straining confinement field surged as the plasma stream shrank by ninety per cent inside half a second. Decaying failsoft components didn’t respond in time. An oscillation rippled along the tokamak chamber, tearing the plasma stream apart.

The Tigara jumped.

It emerged deep inside the Ngeuni system; at that instant a perfect inert sphere. The poise was shattered within an instant as the raging plasma tore through the tokamak’s casing and ripped out through the hull, loosing incandescent swords of ions in all directions. A chain reaction of secondary explosions began as cryogenic tanks and electron matrices detonated.

The ship disintegrated amid a blaze of radioactive gases and ragged molten debris. Its life-support capsule came spinning out of the core of the explosion; a silvered sphere whose surface was gashed by veins of black carbon where energy bursts and tiny fragments had peppered the polished nultherm foam.

As soon as it was clear of the boiling gases, emergency rockets fired to halt the capsule’s wild tumbling motion, a solid kick into stability. The beacon began to broadcast its shrill distress call.

Chapter 07

Like most enterprises mounted by governments and institutions on Nyvan, the Jesup asteroid was chronically short of finance, engineering resources, and qualified personnel. The rock’s major ore reserves had been mined out a long time ago. Ordinarily, the revenue would have been invested in the development of the asteroid’s astroengineering industry. But the New Georgia government had diverted the initial windfall income to pay for more immediate and voter-friendly projects on the ground.

After the ore was exhausted, Jesup spent the next decades limping along both economically and industrially. Fledgling manufacturing companies shrank back to service subsidiaries and small indigenous armament corporations. Its aging infrastructure was maintained one degree from breakdown. Of the three planned biosphere caverns only one had ever been completed, leaving a vast number of huge empty cavities spaced strategically throughout the rock which would have been the kernels of fresh mining activity.

It was when Quinn was striding along one of the interminable bare-rock tunnels linking the discarded cavities that he sensed the first elusive presence. He stopped so abruptly that Lawrence almost bumped into him.

“What was that?”

“What?” Lawrence asked.

Quinn turned full circle, slowly scanning the dust-encrusted rock of the wide tunnel. Dribbles of condensation ran along the curving walls and roof, cutting small forked channels through the ebony dust as they generated fragile miniature stalactites. It was as if the tunnel were growing a fur of cactus spikes. But there was no place for anyone to hide, only the waves of shadow between the widely spaced lighting panels.

His entourage of disciples waited with nervous patience. After two days of slickly brutal initiation ceremonies the asteroid now belonged to him. However, Quinn remained disappointed with the number of true converts among the possessed. He had assumed that they of all people would despise Jesus and Allah and Buddha and the other false Gods for condemning them to an agonizing limbo. Showing them the path to the Light Bringer ought to have been easy. But they continued to demonstrate a bewildering resistance to his teachings. Some even interpreted their return to be a form of redemption.

Quinn could find nothing in the tunnel. He was sure he had caught a wisp of thought which didn’t belong to any of the entourage; it had been accompanied by a tiny flicker of motion, grey on black. First reaction was that someone was sneaking along behind them.

Irritated by the distraction, he strode off again, his robe rising to glide above the filthy rock floor. It was cold in the tunnel, his breath turning to snowy vapour before his eyes. His feet began to crunch on particles of ice.

A frigid gust of air swept against him, making an audible swoosh. His robe flapped about.

He stopped again, angry this time. “What the fuck is going on here? There’s no environmental ducts in this tunnel.” He held up a hand to feel the air, which was now perfectly still.

Someone laughed.

He whirled around. But the disciples were looking at each other in confusion. None of them had dared mock his bewilderment. For a moment he thought of the unknown figure at the spaceport on Norfolk, the powerful swirl of flames he had unleashed. But that was light-years away, and no one else had escaped the planet except the Kavanagh girl.

“These tunnels are always acting erratically, Quinn,” Bonham said. Bonham was one of the new converts, possessing Lucky Vin’s body, which he was twisting into a ghoul-form, bleaching the skin, sharpening the teeth, and swelling the eyes. Thick animal hair was sprouting out of his silver skull. He said he had been born into a family of Venetian aristocrats in the late nineteenth century, killed before his twenty-seventh birthday in the First World War, but only after having tasted both the decadence and blind cruelty of the era. A taste which had become a voracious appetite. He had needed no persuading to embrace Quinn’s doctrines.

“I asked one of the maintenance chappies, and he said it’s because there aren’t any ducts in the tunnels to regulate them properly. There are all sorts of weird surges.”

Quinn wasn’t satisfied. He was sure he’d sensed someone sneaking about. A dissatisfied grunt, and he was on his way once more.

No further oddities waylaid him before he reached the cavity where one of the teams was working. It was an almost spherical chamber, with a small flat floor, acting as a junction to seven of the large tunnels. A single fat metal tube hung downwards from the apex, rattling loudly as it blew out a wind of warm dry air. Quinn scowled up at it, then went over to the knot of five men working to secure the fusion bomb to the floor.

The device’s casing was a blunt cone, seventy centimetres high. Several processor blocks had been plugged into its base with optical cables. The men stopped working and stood up respectfully as Quinn approached.

“Did anyone come through here earlier?”

They assured him no one had. One of them was non-possessed, a technician from the New Georgia defence force. He was sweating profusely, his thoughts a mixture of dread and outrage.

Quinn addressed him directly. “Is everything going okay?”

“Yes,” the technician murmured meekly. He kept glancing at Twelve-T.

The gang lord was in a sorry state. Tiny jets of steam spluttered out of his mechanical body parts. Rheumy crusts were building up around the rim of bone in which his brain was resting, as though candle wax were leaking out. The membrane that clothed his brain had thickened (as Quinn wished) but was now acquiring an unhealthy green tint. He was blinking and squinting constantly as he fought the pain.

Quinn followed the man’s gaze with pointed slowness. “Oh, yeah. The most feared gangster on the planet. Real hard-arsed mother who isn’t gonna believe in God’s Brother no matter what I do to him. Pretty dumb, really. But the thing is, he’s useful to me. So I let him live. As long as he doesn’t stray too far from me, he keeps on living. It’s sort of like a metaphor, see? Now, you going to be a hard-arse?”

“No, sir, Mr Quinn.”

“That’s fucking smart.” Quinn’s head came forward slightly from the umbra of the hood to allow a faint light to strike his ashen skin. The technician closed his eyes to hide from the sight, lips mumbling a prayer.

“Now is this bomb going to work?”

“Yes, sir. It’s a hundred megaton warhead, they all are. Once they’re linked into the asteroid’s net we can detonate them in sequence. As long as there are no possessed near them, they’ll function properly.”

“Don’t worry about that. My disciples won’t be here when Night dawns in the sky.” He turned back to the tunnel, giving it a suspicious look. Again he had the intimation of motion, a flicker no larger than the flap of a bird’s wing, and twice as fast. He was sure that someone had been watching the incident. A spoor of trepidation hung in the air like the scent of a summer flower.

When he stood at the entrance he could see the line of light panels shrink into distance before a curve took them from sight. The gentle sound of pattering water was all that emerged. He was half expecting to see that same blank human silhouette which had appeared at the hangar on Norfolk.

“If you are hiding, then you are weaker than me,” he told the apparently empty shaft. “That means you will be found and brought before me for judgement. Best you come out now.”

There was no response.

“Have it your way, shithead. You’ve seen what happens to people I don’t like.”

The rest of Quinn’s day was spent issuing the instructions that would cause Night to fall on the innocent planet below. He commanded New Georgia’s SD network now. It would be a simple matter for the platforms to interfere with Nyvan’s two other functional networks, and various national sensor satellites. Under cover of this electronic warfare barrage, spaceplanes would slide down undetected to the surface. Every nation would be seeded by a group of possessed from Jesup. And Nyvan’s curse of national antagonism would prevent a unified planetary response to the problem, which was the only response that could ever stand a chance of working.

The possessed would conquer here, probably with greater ease than anywhere in the Confederation. They were a single force, knowing nothing of borders and limits.

As for those who would actually be sent down, Quinn chose carefully. A couple of the devout for every spaceplane to make sure they followed their flight vectors and landed at the designated zone, but the rest were ones for whom only fear and his own proximity kept in line: unbelievers. It was quite deliberate. Free of his thrall, they would do what they always did, and seek to possess as many people as they could.

He didn’t care that he would not be there to move among them and bring the word of God’s Brother. Norfolk had shown him that mistake. Conversion on an individual basis was totally impractical when dealing with planetary populations.

Quinn’s duty, and that of the disciples, was the same as all priests; they were simply to prepare the ground for God’s Brother to walk upon, to build the temples and prepare the sacrament. It was He who would bring the final message, showing all the light.

The spaceplanes were only half of the scheme. Quinn was preparing to dispatch inter-orbit ships to the three derelict asteroids under the command of his most trusted followers. Those worthless rocks had now become a cornerstone in his plans to advance the Night.

It was after midnight when Quinn returned to the tunnel. This time he was by himself. He stood motionless under the arching entrance for a full minute, allowing whoever was there to notice him. Then he raised a hand and fired a single bolt of white fire at the electrical cable which ran along the crest of the tunnel. All the light panels went out.

“Now we will know which of us is the master of darkness,” he shouted into the black air. He searched with his mind alone as he walked forwards, aware of the rock as an insubstantial pale grey tube around him. It was all that existed in a blank universe.

Feeble zephyrs of cold air rustled his robe. While out on the very cusp of perception, a tiny buzz increased; similar to the Babel of the beyond, but so much weaker.

He experienced no fright, nor even curiosity at confirming such an alien phenomenon existed. The Lords who battled for the heart of the universe and its denizens worked in ways he could never understand. All he had was his strength, and the knowledge that he knew himself. He would never quail, no matter what.

“I got you now, fuckers,” Quinn whispered back at the tremulous voices.

As if in response, the air grew colder, its churning stronger. He concentrated hard, trying to focus his eldritch sight on the air currents themselves. Elusive, twisting strands; they were hard for his mind to grasp. But he persisted, seeking out the points where heat was draining out of the gas molecules.

As he delved further and further into the convoluted tides of energy a tide of light began to thicken in the air around him, sending faint streaks of colour dancing across the tunnel. It was as if the atmosphere’s atoms had expanded into vast vacuous blobs, rushing around each other in frantic motion. When he slashed at one of the gliding luminescent baubles, his hand was a matt-black shape that passed clean through the hazy apparition. His fingers closed, snatching at nothing.

The misty glowing ball changed direction, ploughing through the others of its kind, rushing away from Quinn.

“Come back!” Quinn bellowed in fury, and let loose a blast of white fire in the direction it had gone. The aerial swell of colour shrank back from the bolt of energy.

Quinn saw them then, people huddled together in the darkness of the tunnel. Illuminated by the energistic discharge, they had dour, frightened faces. All of them were staring at him.

The energy bolt vanished, and with it the vision. Quinn gaped at the nebulous shoal which bobbled in agitation. They were flowing away from him steadily, picking up speed.

He thought he knew what they were, then. A whole group of possessed who had discovered how to make themselves invisible. His own energistic power began to boil through his body, mimicking the patterns inside the effervescent air. It was inordinately difficult, requiring almost his entire strength. As the energy crackled around him in the novel formation he realized what was happening. This was an effect similar to the one sought by the wild possessed on their quest to escape this universe, forcing open one of the innumerable chinks in quantum reality.

Quinn persevered, exerting himself fully, clawing at the elusive opening. After all, if they could do it, he, the chosen one, could achieve the same state. He hurried after the fleeing spectres, down the tunnel to the cavity where the bomb had been placed. The very last thing he could allow was a whole group of souls out of his control or sight.

His emergence into the new realm was gradual. The shadowy outlines of matter which his mind perceived began to take on more substance, becoming less translucent. His skin tingled, as if he were passing through a membrane of static. Then he was there. Weight was different, his body felt as if it were lighter than a drop of rain. He realized he wasn’t breathing. His heart had stopped, too. Though, somehow, his body still functioned. Sheer willpower, he supposed.

He walked into the cavity to find them all, maybe a couple of hundred people; men, women and children. A large knot were gathered around the fusion bomb; if it wasn’t for their blatant dismay they could have been praying to it. They were turning to face him; a collective fearful gasp went up. Children were clutched to their parents. Several held up shaking hands to ward him off.

“Peekaboo,” Quinn said. “I see you, arseholes.”

There was something wrong, something different between him and them. His own body glowed from the energistic power he was exerting, an image of vigour. They, by contrast, were uniformly pallid, almost monochrome. Wasted.

“Nice try,” he told them. “But there’s nowhere you can hide from God’s Brother. Now I want you to all come back to reality with me. I won’t be too hard; I’ve learned a useful trick tonight.” He fixed his eyes on a teenage lad with flowing hair and smiled.

The lad shook his head. “We can’t return,” he stammered.

Quinn took five fast steps forwards and made a grab for the lad’s arm. His fingers didn’t exactly connect, but they did slow down as they passed through the sleeve. The lad’s arm suddenly flared with brilliant colour, and he screeched in shock, stumbling backwards. “Don’t,” he pleaded. “Please, Quinn. It hurts.”

Quinn studied his pain-furrowed face, rather enjoying the sight. “So you know my name, then.”

“Yes. We saw you arrive. Please leave us alone. We can’t harm you.”

Quinn prowled along the front rank of the cowed group, looking at each of them as they pressed together. All of them shared the same dejection, few could meet his gaze. “You mean you were like this when I came here?”

“Yes,” the lad replied.

“How? I was the first to bring the possessed here. What the fuck are you?”

“We’re . . .” He glanced around at his peers for permission. “We’re ghosts.”

•   •   •

The hotel suite was two stories from the ground, which gave it a gravity field roughly a fifth of that which Louise was used to on Norfolk. She found it even more awkward than free fall. Every movement had to be well thought out in advance. Genevieve and Fletcher didn’t much care for it either.

And then there was the air, or rather the lack of it. Both of Phobos’s biosphere caverns were maintained at a low pressure. It was an intermediate stage, double that of Mars to help people en route to the planet to acclimatize themselves. Louise was glad she wasn’t going down to the surface; each breath was a real effort to suck enough oxygen down into her lungs.

But the asteroid was a visual thrill—once she got used to the ground curving up over her head. The balcony gave them an excellent view across the parkland and fields. She would have loved to walk through the forests; many of the trees were centuries old. Their dignity reassured her, making the worldlet seem less artificial. From where she stood on the balcony she could see several cedars, their distinctive layered grey-green boughs standing out against the more verdant foliage. There had been no time for such leisurely activities, though. As soon as they’d left the Far Realm , Endron had booked them in here (though it was her money which paid for the suite). Then they’d been out shopping. She thought she would enjoy that, but unfortunately, Phobos was nothing like Norwich. There were none of the city’s department stores and exclusive boutiques. Their clothes had all come from the SII general merchandise depository which was half shop, half warehouse, but of course none of them fitted her or Gen. Their bodies were a completely different shape to the asteroid’s Martian and Lunar residents. Everything they chose had to be made-up. After that had come processor blocks (everyone in the Confederation used them, Endron explained, certainly travellers). Genevieve had plumped for one with a high-wattage AV projector and went on to load it with over fifty games from the depository’s central memory core. Louise bought herself a block which could control the medical nanonic package around her wrist, allowing her to monitor her own physiological state.

Equipped and appearing like any normal visiting Confederation citizen, Louise had then accompanied Endron to the hostelries frequented by spaceship crews. It was a rerun of her attempts to buy passage off Norfolk, but this time she had some experience in the matter, and Endron knew his way around Phobos. Between them they took a mere two hours to find the Jamrana , an inter-orbit cargo ship bound for Earth, and agree on a price for Louise and the others.

That just left the passports.

Louise dressed herself in a tartan skirt (with stiffened fabric to stop it dancing up in the low gravity), black leggings, and a green polo-neck top. Clothes were the same as computers, she thought. After using the Far Realm ’s flight computer she could never go back to the stupid keyboard-operated terminals on Norfolk, and now she had a million styles of dress available, none of them shaped by absurd concepts of what was appropriate . . .

She went out into the lounge. Genevieve was in her bedroom, the thin sounds of music and muffled dialogue leaking through the closed door as yet another game was run through her processor block. Louise didn’t strictly approve, but objecting now would seem churlish, and it did keep her out of mischief.

Fletcher was sitting on one of the three powder-blue leather settees which made up the lounge’s conversation area. He was sitting with his back to the glass window. Louise glanced at him, then the view which he was ignoring.

“I know, my lady,” he said quietly. “You believe me foolish. After all, I have undertaken a voyage between the stars themselves, in a ship where I swam through the air with the grace of a fish in the ocean.”

“There are stranger things in the universe than asteroid settlements,” she said sympathetically.

“As ever, you are right. I wish I could understand why the ground above us doesn’t fall down to bury us. It is ungodly, a defiance of the natural order.”

“It’s only centrifugal force. Do you want to access the educational text again?”

He gave her an ironic smile. “The one which the teachers of this age have prepared for ten-year-old children? I think I will spare myself repeated humiliation, my lady Louise.”

She glanced at her gold watch, which was almost the last surviving personal item from Norfolk. “Endron should be here in a minute. We’ll be able to leave Phobos in a few hours.”

“I do not relish our parting, lady.”

It was the one topic which she had never mentioned since the day when they had flown up to the Far Realm . “You are still intent on going down to Earth, then?”

“Aye, I am. Though in my heart I fear what awaits me there, I will not shirk from the task I have found for my new body. Quinn must be thwarted.”

“He’s probably there already. Goodness, by the time we reach the O’Neill Halo all of Earth could be possessed.”

“Even if I knew that beyond all doubt, I would still not allow myself to turn back. I am truly sorry, Lady Louise, but my course is set. But do not worry yourself unduly, I will stay with you until you have found passage to Tranquillity. And I will make sure that there are no possessed on your vessel before it casts off.”

“I wasn’t trying to stop you, Fletcher. I think I’m a little fearful of your integrity. People in this age always seem to put themselves first. I do.”

“You put your baby first, dearest Louise. Of that resolution, I am in awe. It is my one regret that by embarking on my own reckless venture that I will in all likelihood never now meet your beau, this Joshua of whom you speak. I would dearly like to see the man worthy of your love, he must be a prince among men.”

“Joshua isn’t a prince. I know now he is nowhere near perfect. But . . . he does have a few good points.” Her hands touched her belly. “He’ll be a good father.”

Their eyes met. Louise didn’t think she had ever seen so much loneliness before. In all the history texts they’d reviewed, he had always taken care to avoid any which might have told him what became of the family he’d left behind on Pitcairn Island.

It would have been so very easy for her to sit beside him and put her arms around him. Surely a person so alone deserved some comfort? What made her emotions worse was that she knew he could see her uncertainty.

The door processor announced that Endron was waiting. Louise made light of the moment with a chirpy smile and went to fetch Genevieve from her room.

“Do we all have to go?” a reticent Genevieve asked Endron. “I’d reached the third strata in Skycastles. The winged horses were coming to rescue the princess.”

“She’ll still be there when we get back,” Louise said. “You can play it on the ship.”

“He needs you there for a full image scan,” Endron said. “No way out of it, I’m afraid.”

Genevieve looked thoroughly disgusted. “All right.”

Endron led them along one of the public halls. Louise was slowly mastering the art of walking in the asteroid’s effete gravity field. Nothing you could do to stop yourself leaving the ground at each step; so push strongly with your toes, angling them to project you along a flat trajectory. She knew she’d never be as fluid as the Martians no matter how much practise she had.

“I wanted to ask you,” Louise said as they slid into a lift. “If you’re all Communists, how can the Far Realm ’s crew sell Norfolk Tears here?”

“Why shouldn’t we? It’s one of the perks of being a crew member. The only thing we don’t like about bringing it in is paying import duty. And so far we haven’t actually done that.”

“But doesn’t everybody own everything anyway? Why should they pay for it?”

“You’re thinking of super-orthodox communism. People here retain their own property and money. No society could survive without that concept; you have to have something to show for your work at the end of the day. That’s human nature.”

“So you have landowners on Mars as well?”

Endron chuckled. “I don’t mean that sort of property. We only retain personal items. Things like apartments are the property of the state; after all, the state pays for them. Farming collectives are allocated their land.”

“And you accept that?”

“Yes. Because it works. The state has enormous power and wealth, but we vote on how it’s used. We’re dependent on it, and control it at the same time. We’re also very proud of it. No other culture or ideology would ever have been able to terraform a planet. Mars has absorbed our nation’s total wealth for five centuries. Offworlders have no idea of the level of commitment that requires.”

“That’s because I don’t understand why you did it.”

“We were trapped by history. Our ancestors modified their bodies to live in a Lunar gravity field before the ZTT drive was built. They could have sent their children to settle countless terracompatible worlds, but then those children would have needed geneering to adapt them back to the human ‘norm.’ Parent and child would have been parted at birth; they wouldn’t have been descendants, just fosterlings in an alien environment. So we decided to make ourselves a world of our own.”

“If I have followed this discourse correctly,” Fletcher said. “You have spent five centuries turning Mars from a desert to a garden?”

“That’s right.”

“Are you really so powerful that you can rival Our Lord’s handiwork?”

“I believe He only took seven days. We’ve got a long way to go yet before we equal that. Not that we’ll ever do it again.”

“Is the whole Lunar nation emigrating here now?” Louise asked, anxious to halt Fletcher’s queries. She had caught Endron giving him puzzled glances at odd times during the voyage. It was something to watch out for; she was used to his naivete, thinking little of it. Others were not so generous.

“That was the idea. But now it’s happened, the majority of those living in the Lunar cities are reluctant to leave. Those who do come here to settle are mostly the younger generation. So the shift is very gradual.”

“Will you live on Mars once you’ve finished flying starships?”

“I was born in Phobos; I find skies unnatural. Two of my children live in Thoth city. I visit when I can, but I don’t think I would fit in down there anyway. After all this time, our nation is finally beginning to change. Not very swiftly, but it’s there, it’s happening.”

“How? How can communism change?”

“Money, of course. Now the terraforming project no longer absorbs every single fuseodollar earned by our state industries, there is more cash starting to seep into the economy. The younger generation adore their imported AV blocks and MF albums and clothes, they are placing so much value on these status symbols, ignoring our own nation’s products purely for the sake of difference, which they see as originality. And they have a whole planet to range over; some of us actually worry that they might walk off into the countryside and reject us totally. Who knows? Not that I’d mind if they do discard our tenets. After all, it is their world. We built it so they could know its freedom. Trying to impose the old restrictions on them would be the purest folly. Social evolution is vital if any ethnic-nationhood is to survive; and five centuries is a long time to remain static.”

“So if people did claim land for themselves, you wouldn’t try to confiscate it back?”

“Confiscate? You say that with some malice. Is that what the Communists on your world say they’re going to do?”

“Yes, they want to redistribute Norfolk’s wealth fairly.”

“Well, tell them from me, it won’t work. All they’ll ever do is cause more strife if they try and change things now. You cannot impose ideologies on people who do not embrace it wholeheartedly. The Lunar nation functions because it was planned that way from the moment the cities gained independence from the companies. It’s the same concept as Norfolk, the difference being your founders chose to write a pastoral constitution. Communism works here because everybody supports it, and the net allowed us to eliminate most forms of corruption within the civil service and local governing councils that plagued most earlier attempts. If people don’t like it, they leave rather than try and wreck it for everyone else. Isn’t that what happens on Norfolk?”

Louise thought back to what Carmitha had said. “It’s difficult for the Land Union people. Starflight is expensive.”

“I suppose so. We’re lucky here, the O’Neill Halo takes all our malcontents, some asteroids have entire low-gee levels populated by Lunar émigrés. Our government will even pay your ticket for you. Perhaps you should try that on Norfolk. The whole point of the Confederation’s diversity is that it provides every kind of ethnic culture possible. There’s no real need for internal conflict.”

“That’s a nice idea. I ought to mention it to Daddy when I get back. I’m sure a one-way starship ticket would be cheaper than keeping someone at the arctic work camps.”

“Why tell your father? Why not campaign for it yourself?”

“Nobody would listen to me.”

“You won’t be your age forever.”

“I meant, because I’m a girl.”

Endron gave her a mystified frown. “I see. Perhaps that would be a better issue to campaign about. You’d have half of the population on your side from day one.”

Louise managed an uncomfortable smile. She didn’t like having to defend her homeworld from sarcasm, people should show more courtesy. The trouble was, she found it hard to defend some of Norfolk’s customs.

Endron took them to one of the lowest habitation levels, a broad service corridor which led away from the biosphere cavern, deep into the asteroid’s interior. It was bare rock, with one wall made up from stacked layers of cable and piping. The floor was slightly concave, and very smooth. Louise wondered how old it must be for people’s feet to have worn it down.

They reached a wide olive-green metal door, and Endron datavised a code at its processor. Nothing happened. He had to datavise the code another two times before it opened. Louise didn’t dare risk a glance at Fletcher.

Inside was a cathedral-sized hall filled with three rows of high voltage electrical transformers. Great loops of thick black cabling emerged from holes high up in the walls, stretching over the aisles in a complicated weave that linked them to the fat grey ribbed cylinders. There was a strong tang of ozone in the air.

A flight of metal stairs pinned against the rear wall led up to a small maintenance manager’s office cut into the rock. Two narrow windows looked down on the central aisle as they walked towards it, the outline of a man just visible inside. Fletcher’s alarm at the power humming savagely all around them was clear in the sweat on his forehead and hands, his small, precisely controlled steps.

The office had a large desk with a computer terminal nearly as primitive as the models Louise used on Norfolk. A large screen took up most of the back wall, its lucidly coloured symbols displaying the settlement’s power grid.

There was a Martian waiting for them inside; a man with very long snow-white hair brushed back neatly and a bright orange silk suit worn in conjunction with a midnight-black shirt. He carried a slim, featureless grey case in his left hand.

Faurax didn’t know what to make of his three new clients at all; if they hadn’t been with Endron he wouldn’t even have let them into the office. These were not the times to dabble in his usual sidelines. Thanks to the current Confederation crisis, the Phobos police were becoming quite unreasonable about security procedures.

“If you don’t mind me asking,” he said after Endron had introduced everybody. “Why haven’t you got your own passports?”

“We had to leave Norfolk very quickly,” Louise said. “The possessed were sweeping through the city. There was no time to apply to the Foreign Office for passports. Although there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have been issued with them, we don’t have criminal records or anything like that.”

It even sounded reasonable. And Faurax could guess the kind of financial package which the Far Realm ’s crew would engineer concerning their passage. Nobody wanted questions at this stage.

“You must understand,” he said, “I had to undertake a considerable amount of research to obtain the Norfolk government’s authentication codes.”

“How much?” Louise asked.

“Five thousand fuseodollars. Each.”

“Very well.”

She didn’t even sound surprised, let alone shocked. Which tweaked Faurax’s curiosity; he would have dearly liked to ask Endron who she was. The call he’d got from Tilia setting up the meeting had been very sparse on detail.

“Good,” he said, and put his case on the desk, datavising a code at it. The upper surface flowed apart, revealing a couple of processor blocks and several fleks. He picked up one of the fleks, which was embossed with a gold lion: Norfolk’s national symbol. “Here we are. I loaded in all the information Tilia gave me; name, where you live, age, that kind of thing. All we need now is an image and a full body biolectric scan.”

“What do we have to do?” Louise asked.

“First, I’m afraid, is the money.”

She gave a hollow laugh and took a Jovian Bank credit disk from her small shoulder bag. Once the money had been shunted over to Faurax’s disk, he said: “Remember not to wear these clothes when you go through the Halo’s immigration. These images were supposedly taken on Norfolk before you left, and the clothes are new. In fact, I’d advise dumping them altogether.”

“We’ll do that,” Louise said.

“Okay.” He slotted the first flek into his processor block and read the screen. “Genevieve Kavanagh?”

The little girl smiled brightly.

“Stand over there, dear, away from the door.”

She did as he asked, giving the sensor lens a solemn stare. After he’d got the visual image filed, he used the second processor block to sweep her so he could record her biolectric pattern. Both files were loaded into her passport, encrypted with Norfolk’s authentication code. “Don’t lose it,” he said and dropped the flek into her hand.

Louise was next. Faurax found himself wishing she were a Martian girl. She had a beautiful face, it was just her body which was so alien.

Fletcher’s image went straight into his passport flek. Then Faurax ran the biolectric sensor over him. Frowned at the display. Ran a second scan. It took a long time for his chilly disquiet to give way into full blown consternation. He gagged, head jerking up from the block to stare at Fletcher. “You’re a—” His neural nanonics crashed, preventing him from datavising any alarm. The air solidified in front of his eyes; he actually saw it flowing like a dense heat shiver, contracting into a ten centimetre sphere. It hit him full in the face. He heard the bone in his nose break before he lost consciousness.

Genevieve squealed in shock as Faurax went crashing to the floor, blood flowing swiftly from his nose.

Endron looked at Fletcher in total shock, too numb to move. His neural nanonics had shut down, and the office light panel was flickering in an epileptic rhythm. “Oh, my God. No! Not you.” He glanced at the door, gauging his chances.

“Do not try to run, sir,” Fletcher said sternly. “I will do whatever I must to protect these ladies.”

“Oh, Fletcher,” Louise groaned in dismay. “We were almost there.”

“His device exposed my nature, my lady. I could do naught else.”

Genevieve ran over to Fletcher and hugged him tightly around his waist. He patted her head lightly.

“Now what are we going to do?” Louise asked.

“Not you as well?” Endron bewailed.

“I’m not possessed,” she said with indignant heat.

“Then what . . . ?”

“Fletcher has been protecting us from the possessed. You don’t think I could stand against them by myself, do you?”

“But, he’s one of them.”

“One of whom, sir? Many men are murderers and brigands, does that make all of us so?”

“You can’t apply that argument. You’re a possessed. You’re the enemy.”

“Yet, sir, I do not consider myself to be your enemy. My only crime, so it sounds, is that I have died.”

“And come back! You have stolen that man’s body. Your kind want to do the same to mine and everyone else’s.”

“What would you have us do? I am not so valiant that I can resist this release from the torture of the beyond. Perhaps, sir, you see such weakness as my true crime. If so, I plead guilty to that ignominy. Yet, know you this, I would grasp at such an escape every time it is offered, though I know it to be the most immoral of thefts.”

“He saved us,” Genevieve protested hotly. “Quinn Dexter was going to do truly beastly things to me and Louise. Fletcher stopped him. No one else could. He’s not a bad man; you shouldn’t say he is. And I won’t let you do anything horrid to him. I don’t want him to have to go back there into the beyond.” She hugged Fletcher tighter.

“All right,” Endron said. “Maybe you’re not like the Capone Organization, or the ones on Lalonde. But I can’t let you walk around here. This is my home, damn it. Maybe it is unfair, and unkind that you suffered in the beyond. You’re still a possessor, nothing changes that. We are opposed, it’s fundamental to what we are.”

“Then you, sir, have a very pressing problem. For I am sworn to see these ladies to their destination in safety.”

“Wait,” Louise said. She turned to Endron. “Nothing has changed. We still wish to leave Phobos, and you know Fletcher is not a danger to you or your people. You said so.”

Endron gestured at the crumpled form of Faurax. “I can’t,” he said desperately.

“If Fletcher opens your bodies to the souls in the beyond, who knows what the people who come through will be like,” Louise said. “I don’t think they will be as restrained as Fletcher, not if the ones I’ve encountered are anything to judge by. You would be the cause of Phobos falling to the possessed. Is that what you want?”

“What the hell do you think? You’ve backed me into a corner.”

“No we haven’t, there’s an easy way out of this, for all of us.”

“What?”

“Help us, of course. You can finish recording Fletcher’s passport for us, you can find a zero-tau pod for Faurax and keep him in it until this is all over. And you’ll know for certain that we’ve gone and that your asteroid is safe.”

“This is insane. I don’t trust you, and you’d be bloody stupid to trust me.”

“Not really,” she said. “If you tell us you’ll do it, Fletcher will know if you’re telling us the truth. And once we’re gone you still won’t change your mind, because you could never explain away what you’ve done to the police.”

“You can read minds?” Endron’s consternation had deepened.

“I will indeed know of any treachery which blackens your heart.”

“What do you intend to do once you reach Tranquillity?”

“Find my fiancé. Apart from that, we have no plans.”

Endron gave Faurax another fast appraisal. “I don’t think I have a lot of choice, do I? If you stop this electronic warfare effect, I’ll get a freight mechanoid to take Faurax to the Far Realm . I can use one of the on board zero-tau pods without anyone asking questions. Lord knows what I’ll say when this is over. They’ll just fling me out of an airlock, I expect.”

“You’re saving your world,” Louise said. “You’ll be a hero.”

“Somehow, I doubt that.”

•   •   •

The cave went a long way back into the polyp cliff, which allowed Dariat to light a fire without having to worry about it being spotted. He’d chosen the beach at the foot of the endcap as today’s refuge. Surely here at least he and Tatiana would be safe? There were no bridges over the circumfluous reservoir. If Bonney came for them she’d have to use either a boat or one of the tube carriages (however unlikely that was). Which meant that for once they’d have a decent warning.

The hunter’s ability to get close before either he or Rubra located her was unnerving. Even Rubra seemed genuinely concerned by it. Dariat never could understand how she ever located them in the first place. But locate them she did. There hadn’t been a day since he met Tatiana when Bonney hadn’t come after them.

His one guess was that her perception ability was far greater than anyone else’s, allowing her to see the minds of everybody in the habitat. If so, the distance was extraordinary; he couldn’t feel anything beyond a kilometre at the most, and ten metres of solid polyp blocked him completely.

Tatiana finished gutting the pair of trout she’d caught, and wrapped them in foil. Both were slipped into the shallow hole below the fire. “They ought to be done in about half an hour,” she said.

He smiled blankly, remembering the fires he and Anastasia had made, the meals she had prepared for him. Campfire cooking was an outlandish concept to him then. Used to regulated, heat inducted sachets, he was always impressed by the cuisine she produced from such primitive arrangements.

“Did she ever say anything about me?” he asked.

“Not much. I didn’t see much of her after she set herself up as a mistress of Thoale. Besides which, I was discovering boys myself about then.” She gave a raucous laugh.

Apart from the physical resemblance, it was difficult to accept any other connection between Tatiana and Anastasia. It was inconceivable that his beautiful love would have ever grown into anything resembling this cheery, easygoing woman, with an overloud voice. Anastasia would have kept her quiet dignity, her sly humour, her generous spirit.

It was hard for him to feel much sympathy for Tatiana, and harder still to tolerate her behaviour, especially given their circumstances. He persisted, though, knowing that to desert her now would make him unworthy, a betrayal of his own one love.

Damn Rubra for knowing that.

“Whatever she did say, I’d appreciate you telling me.”

“Okay. I suppose I owe you that at least.” She settled herself more comfortably into the thin sand, her bracelets tinkling softly. “She said her new boy—that’s you—was very different. She said you’d been hurt by Anstid since the day you were born, but that she could see the real person buried underneath all the pain and loneliness. She thought she could free you from his thrall. Strange, she really believed it; as if you were some sort of injured bird she’d rescued. I don’t think she realized what a mistake she’d made. Not until the end. That was why she did it.”

“I am true to her. I always have been.”

“So I see. Thirty years planning.” She whistled a long single note.

“I’m going to kill Anstid. I have the power now.”

Tatiana began to laugh, a big belly rumble that shook her loose cotton dress about. “Ho yes, I can see why she’d fall for you. All that sincerity and retention. Cupid tipped his arrows with a strong potion that day you two met.”

“Don’t mock.”

Her laughter vanished in an instant. Then he could see the resemblance to Anastasia, the passion in her eyes. “I would never mock my sister, Dariat. I pity her for the trick Tarrug played on her. She was too young to meet you, too damn young. If she’d had a few more years to gather wisdom, she would have seen you are beyond any possible salvation. But she was young, and stupid the way we all are at that age. She couldn’t refuse the challenge to do good, to bring a little light into your prison. When you get to my age, you give lost causes a wide passage.”

“I am not lost, not to Chi-ri, not to Thoale. I will slay Anstid. And that is thanks to Anastasia, she broke that Lord’s spell over me.”

“Oh, dear, oh, dear, listen to him. Stop reading the words, Dariat, learn with your heart. Just because she told you the names of our Lords and Ladies, doesn’t mean you know them. You won’t kill Anstid. Rubra is not a realm Lord, he’s a screwed-up old memory pattern. Sure, his bananas mind makes him bitter and vindictive, which is an aspect of Anstid, but he’s not the real thing. Hatred isn’t going to vanish from the universe just because you nuke a habitat. You can see that, can’t you?”

Yes, go on, boy, answer the question. I’m interested.

Fuck off!

Pity you never went to university; the old school of hard knocks is never quite enough when you need to stand up for yourself in the intellectual debating arena.

Dariat made an effort to calm himself, aware of the little worms of light scurrying over his clothing. A sheepish grin unfurled on his lips. “Yes, I can see that. Besides, without hatred you could never know how sweet love is. We need hatred.”

“That’s more like it.” She started applauding. “We’ll make a Starbridge of you yet.”

“Too late for that. And I’m still going to nuke Rubra.”

“Not before I’m out of here, I hope.”

“I’ll get you out.”

Yeah, and whose help are you going to need for that?

“How?” Tatiana asked.

“I’ll be honest. I don’t know. But I’ll find a way. I owe you and Anastasia that much.”

Bravo, Sir Galahad. In the meantime, three ships have arrived.

So?

So they’re from New California, a frigate and two combat-capable traders. I think our current status quo might be changing.

The voidhawks on observation duty perceived the three Adamist starships emerge from their ZTT jump twelve thousand kilometres out from Valisk. As their thermo-dump panels, sensor clusters, and communications arrays deployed, the voidhawks started to pick up high-bandwidth microwave transmissions. The ships were beaming out news reports all over the Srinagar system, telling everyone who was interested how well the Organization was doing, and how New California was prospering. There were several long items on the possessed curing injuries and broken bones in the non-possessed.

The one thing the voidhawks couldn’t intercept was the signal between the ships and Valisk. Whatever was said, it resulted in eight hellhawks arriving to escort the New California starships to the habitat’s spaceport.

Alarmed by the implication of Capone extending his influence into the Srinagar system, Consensus requested Rubra monitor developments closely. For once, he wasn’t inclined to argue.

Kiera waited for Patricia Mangano at the end of the passageway which led up to the axial chamber three kilometres above her. Without the tube carriages, every ascent and descent had to be on foot. Starting at the axial chamber, the passageway contained a ladder for the first kilometre, then gave way to a staircase for the final two as the curvature became more pronounced. It ended two kilometres above the base of the endcap, emerging from the polyp shell onto a shelflike plateau which was reached by a switchback road.

Thankfully, similar plateaus around the endcap gave them admission to the docking ledge lounges. Which meant they’d all but stopped using the counter-rotating spaceport.

If Patricia was annoyed by the time and physical effort it took her to descend, it was hidden deeper than Kiera’s perception was able to discern. Instead, when Capone’s envoy emerged into the light, she smiled with a simple delight as she looked around. Kiera had to admit, the little plateau was an excellent vantage point. The distinct bands of colour which comprised Valisk’s interior shone lucidly in the light tube’s relentless emission.

Patricia shielded her eyes with one hand as she gazed about the worldlet. “Nothing anybody says can prepare you for this.”

“Didn’t you have habitats in your time?” Kiera asked.

“Absolutely not. I’m strictly a twentieth-century gal. Al prefers us as his lieutenants, that way we understand each other better. Some modern types, I can only comprehend about one word in ten.”

“I’m from the twenty-fourth century myself. Never set foot on Earth.”

“Lucky you.”

Kiera gestured at the open-top truck parked at the end of the road. Bonney was sitting in the backseat, ever vigilant.

Kiera switched on the motor and began the drive down the road. “I’ll warn you from the start, anything you say in the open is overheard by Rubra. We think he tells the Edenists just about everything that goes on in here.”

“What I have to say is private,” Patricia said.

“I thought so. Don’t worry, we have some clean rooms.”

It wasn’t too difficult for Rubra to infiltrate the circular tower at the base of the northern endcap. He just needed to be careful. The possessed could always detect small animals like mice and bats, which were simply blasted by a bolt of white fire. So he had to resort to more unusual servitors.

Deep in the birthing caverns of the southern endcap, incubators were used to nurture insects whose DNA templates had been stored unused since the time when Valisk was germinated. Centipedes and bees began to emerge, each one affinity-controlled by a sub-routine.

The bees flew straight out into the main cavern, where they hovered and loitered among all the temporary camps set up around the starscraper lobbies. Coverage wasn’t perfect, but they provided him with a great deal of information about what went on inside the tents and cottages, where his usual perception was blocked.

The centipedes were carried aloft by birds, to be deposited on the roof of the tower and other substantial buildings. Like the spiders which the Edenist intelligence agency used to infiltrate their observation targets, they scuttled along conditioning ducts and cable conduits, hiding just behind grilles and sockets where they could scrutinize the interior.

Their deployment allowed Rubra and the Kohistan Consensus to watch as Kiera led Patricia Mangano into Magellanic Itg’s boardroom. Patricia had one assistant with her, while Kiera was accompanied by Bonney and Stanyon. No one else from Valisk’s new ruling council had been invited.

“What happened?” Patricia asked after she had claimed a chair at the big table.

“In what respect?” Kiera replied cautiously.

“Come on. You’ve got your hellhawks flitting about the Confederation with impunity to bring back warm bodies. And when they get here, the habitat looks like it’s a Third World refugee camp left over from my own century. You’re living in the iron age, here. It doesn’t make any sense. Bitek is the one technology that keeps working around us. You should be lording it up in the starscraper apartments.”

“Rubra happened,” Kiera said bitterly. “He’s still in the neural strata. The one expert we had on affinity who could possibly remove him has . . . failed. It means we’ve got to go through the starscrapers a centimetre at a time to make them safe. We’re getting there. It’ll take time, but we’ve got eternity, after all.”

“You could leave.”

“I don’t think so.”

Patricia lounged back, grinning. “Ah, right. That would mean evacuating to a planet. How would you keep your position and authority there?”

“The same way Capone does. People need governments, they need organizing. We’re a very socially oriented race.”

“So why didn’t you?”

“We’re doing all right here. Have you really come all this way just to take cheap shots?”

“Not at all. I’m here to offer you a deal.”

“Yes?”

“Antimatter in return for your hellhawks.”

Kiera glanced at Bonney and Stanyon; the latter’s face was alive with interest. “What exactly do you think we can do with antimatter?”

“The same as us,” Patricia said. “Blow Srinagar’s SD network clean to hell. Then you’ll be able to get off this dump. The planet will be wide open to you. And as you’ll be running the invasion, you’ll be able to shape whatever society springs up among the possessed down there. That’s the way it works for the Organization. We begin it, we rule it. Whether it works here, depends on how good you are. Capone is the best.”

“But not perfect.”

“You have your problems, we have ours. The Edenist voidhawks are causing a lot of disruption to our fleet activities. We need the hellhawks to deal with them. Their distortion fields can locate the stealth bombs being flung at us.”

“Interesting proposition.”

“Don’t try and bargain, please. That would be insulting. We have an irritant; you have a potential disaster looming.”

“If you don’t take too much offence at the question, I’d like to know how much antimatter you’ll deliver.”

“As much as it takes, and the ships to deploy them, providing you can keep your end. How many hellhawks can you offer?”

“We have several out collecting Deadnight kids. But I can probably let you have seventy.”

“And you can keep them under control, make them follow orders?”

“Oh, yes.”

“How?”

Kiera gloated. “It’s not something you’ll ever be able to duplicate. We can return the souls possessing the hellhawks directly into human bodies. That’s what they all want eventually, and that’s what we’ll give them, providing they obey.”

“Smart. So do we have a deal?”

“Not with you. I’ll travel to New California myself and talk to Capone. That way we’ll both know how much we can trust the other.”

Kiera hung back after Patricia left the boardroom. “This changes everything,” she said to Bonney. “Even if we don’t get enough antimatter to knock over Srinagar, it’ll give us the deterrence to prevent another voidhawk attack.”

“It looks like it. Do you think Capone is on the level?”

“I’m not sure. He must need the hellhawks pretty badly, or he wouldn’t have offered us the antimatter. Even if he’s got a production station, it won’t exactly be plentiful.”

“You want me to come with you?”

“No.” The tip of her tongue licked over her lips, a fast movement by a lash of forked flesh. “We’re either going to be leaving here for Srinagar, or I’ll deal with Capone to provide us with enough bodies to fill the habitat. Either way, we won’t be needing that shit Dariat anymore. See to it.”

“You bet.”

Can you stop the hellhawks from leaving?rubra asked.

No,the kohistan consensus said. Not seventy of them. They are still armed with a considerable number of conventional combat wasps.

Bugger.

If Kiera does acquire antimatter combat wasps from Capone, we don’t think we will be able to provide an adequate level of reinforcement to Srinagar’s Strategic Defence network. The planet may fall to her.

Then call in the Confederation Navy. Srinagar’s been paying its taxes, hasn’t it?

Yes. But there is no guarantee the navy will respond. Its resources are being deployed over a wide area.

Then call Jupiter. They’re bound to have spare squadrons.

We will see what can be done.

Do that. In the meantime, there are some important decisions to be taken. By me and Dariat both. And I don’t think Bonney Lewin is going to give us much more time.

•   •   •

Erick was sure that the explosion, followed by the capsule’s equally violent stabilization manoeuvre, had torn loose some of his medical nanonic packages. He could feel peculiar lines of pressure building up under the SII suit, and convinced himself it was fluid leakage. Blood or artificial tissue nutrient from the packages and their supplements, he wasn’t sure which. Over half of them no longer responded to his datavises.

At least it meant they couldn’t contribute to the medical program’s dire pronouncements of his current physiological state. His right arm wouldn’t respond to any nerve impulses at all, nor was he receiving any sensation from it. The only positive factor was a confirmation that blood was still circulating inside the new muscles and artificial tissue.

There wasn’t much he could do to rectify the situation. The capsule’s reserve electron matrices didn’t have enough power to activate the internal life-support system. The thin atmosphere was already ten degrees below zero, and falling rapidly. Which meant he was unable to take the suit off and replace the nanonic packages. And just to twist the knife, an emergency survival gear locker containing fresh medical nanonic packages had popped open in the ceiling above him.

Backup lighting had come on, casting a weak pale blue glow across the compartment. Frost was forming on most of the surfaces, gradually obscuring the few remaining active holoscreen displays. Various pieces of refuse had been jolted loose from their nesting places to twirl whimsically through the air, throwing avian-style shadows across the acceleration couches.

Potentially the most troubling problem was the intermittent dropouts from which the flight computer’s datavises were suffering. Erick wasn’t entirely sure he could trust its status display. It still responded to simple commands, though.

With his personal situation stable for a moment, he instructed the capsule’s sensors to deploy. Three of the five responded, pistonlike tubes sliding up out of the nultherm foam coating. They began to scan around.

Astrogration programs slowly correlated the surrounding starfield. If they were working correctly, then the Tigara had emerged approximately fifty million kilometres from the coordinate he was aiming for. Ngeuni was only an unremarkable blue-green star to one side of the glaring A2 primary.

He wasn’t sure if they would pick up the capsule’s distress beacon. Stage one colonies did not have the most sophisticated communications satellites. When he instructed the capsule’s phased array antenna to focus on the distant planet, it didn’t acknowledge. He repeated the instruction, and there was still no activity.

The flight computer ran a diagnostic, which gave him a System Inviable code. Without actually going outside to examine it, there was no way of telling what was wrong.

Alone.

Cut off.

Fifty million kilometres from possible rescue.

Light-years from where he desperately needed to be.

All that was left for him now was to wait. He began switching off every piece of equipment apart from the attitude rockets, the guidance system which drove them, and the computer itself. Judging by the frequency of the thruster firings, the capsule was venting something. The last diagnostic sweep before he shut down the internal sensors couldn’t pinpoint what it was.

After he’d reduced the power drain to a minimum, he pressed the deactivation switch for his restraint webbing. Even that seemed reluctant to work, taking a long time to fold back below the side of the cushioning. At this movement, levering himself up from the couch, fluid stirred across his abdomen. He found that by moving very slowly, the effect (and perhaps the harm) was moderated.

Training took over, and he began to index the emergency gear which had deployed from the ceiling. That was when the emotional shock hammered him. He suddenly found himself shaking badly as he clung to a four person programmable silicon dinghy.

Indexing his position! Like a good little first-year cadet.

A broken laugh bubbled around the SII suit’s respirator tube. The glossy black silicon covering his eyes turned permeable to vent the salty fluid burning his squeezed up eyelids.

Never in his life had he felt so utterly helpless. Even when the possessed were boarding the Villeneuve’s Revenge he’d been able to do something. Fight back, hit them. Orbiting above New California with the Organization poised to obliterate them at the first false move, he’d been able to store most of the sensor images. There had always been something, some way of being positive.

Now he was humiliatingly aware of his mind crumbling away in mimicry of his tattered old body. Fear had risen to consume him, flowing swiftly out of the dark corners of the bridge. It produced a pain in his head far worse than any physical injury ever could.

Those muscles which still functioned disobeyed any lingering wishes he might have, leaving him ignominiously barnacled to the dinghy. Every last reserve of determination and resolve had been exhausted. Not even the ubiquitous programs could shore up his mentality anymore.

Too weak to continue living, too frightened to die: Erick Thakrar had come to the end of the line.

•   •   •

Eight kilometres west of Stonygate, Cochrane tooted the horn on the Karmic Crusader bus and turned off the road. The other three vehicles in the convoy jounced over the grass verge and came to a halt behind it.

“Yo, dudettes,” Cochrane yelled back to the juvenile rioters clambering over the seats. “Time out for like the big darkness.” He pressed the red button on the dash, and the doors hissed open. Kids poured out like a dam burst.

Cochrane put his purple glasses back on and climbed down out of the cab. Stephanie and Moyo walked over to him, arm in arm. “Good place,” she said. The convoy had halted at the head of a gentle valley which was completely roofed over by the rumbling blanket of crimson cloud, rendering the mountain peaks invisible.

“This whole righteous road trip is one major groove.”

“Right.”

He materialized a fat reefer. “Hit?”

“No thanks. I’d better see about cooking them some supper.”

“That’s cool. I can’t psyche out any hostile vibes in this locale. I’ll like keep watch, make sure the nazgul aren’t circling overhead.”

“You do that.” Stephanie smiled fondly at him and went to the back of the bus, where the big luggage hold was. Moyo started pulling out the cooking gear.

“We should manage to reach Chainbridge by tomorrow evening,” he said.

“Yes. This isn’t quite what I expected when we started out, you know.”

“Predictability is boring.” He put a big electric camping grille on the ground, adjusting the aluminum legs to make it level. “Besides, I think it’s worked out for the best.”

Stephanie glanced around the improvised campsite, nodding approval; nearly sixty children were scampering around the parked vehicles. What had started off as a private mission to help a handful of lost children had rapidly snowballed.

Four times during the first day they had been stopped by residents who had told them where non-possessed children were lurking. On the second day there were over twenty children packed on board; that was when Tina Sudol had volunteered to come with them. Rana and McPhee joined up on the third day, adding another bus.

Now there were four vehicles, and eight possessed adults. They were no longer making a straight dash for the border at the top of Mortonridge. It was more of a zigzag route, visiting as many towns as they could to pick up children. Ekelund’s people, who had evolved into the closest thing to a government on Mortonridge, maintained the communications net between the larger towns, albeit with a considerably reduced bit capacity than previously. News of Stephanie’s progress had spread widely. Children were already waiting for the buses when they reached some towns; on a couple of occasions dressed smartly and given packed lunches by the possessed who had taken care of them. They had borne witness to some very tearful partings.

After the children had eaten and washed and been settled in their tents, Cochrane and Franklin Quigley sliced branches off a tree and piled them up to form a proper campfire. The adults came to sit around it, enjoying the yellow light flaring out to repel the clouds’ incessant claret illumination.

“I think we should forget going back to a town when we’re done with the kids,” McPhee said. “All of us get along okay, we should try a farm. The towns are starting to run out of food, now. We could grow some and sell it to them. That would give us something to do.”

“He’s been back a whole week, and he’s already bored,” Franklin Quigley grunted.

“Bore-ing ,” Cochrane said. He blew twin streams of smoke out of his nostrils. They spiralled through the air to jab at McPhee’s nose like a cobra.

The giant Scot made a pass of his hand, and the smoke wilted, turning to tar and splattering on the ground. “I’m not bored, but we have to do something. It makes sense to think ahead.”

“You might be right,” Stephanie said. “I don’t think I’d like to live in any of the towns we’ve passed through so far.”

“The way I see it,” said Moyo, “is that the possessed are developing into two groups.”

Please don’t use that word,” Rana said. Sitting cross-legged next to the flamboyantly feminine Tina Sudol, Rana appeared fastidiously androgynous with her short hair and baggy blue sweater.

“What word?” Moyo asked.

“Possession. I find it offensive and prejudicial.”

“That’s right, babe,” Cochrane chortled. “We’re not possessors, we’re just like dimensionally disadvantaged.”

“Call our cross-continuum placement situation whatever you wish,” she snapped back. “You cannot alter the fact that the term is wholly derogatory. The Confederation’s military-industrial complex is using it to demonize us so they can justify increased spending on their armaments programs.”

Stephanie pressed her face into Moyo’s arm to smother her giggles.

“Come on, we’re not exactly on the side of the saints,” Franklin observed.

“The perception of common morality is enforced entirely by the circumstances of male-dominated society. Our new and unique circumstances require us to re-evaluate that original morality. As there are clearly not enough living bodies to go around the human race, sensory ownership should be distributed on an equitable basis. It’s no good the living protesting about us. We have as much right to sensory input as they do.”

Cochrane took the reefer from his mouth and gave it a sad stare. “Man, I wish I could manifest your trips.”

“You ignore him, darling,” Tina Sudol said to Rana. “He’s a perfect example of male brutality.”

“I suppose a fuck is out of the question tonight, then?”

Tina sucked in her cheeks theatrically as she glowered at the unrepentant hippie. “I’m only interested in men.”

“And always have been,” McPhee said, in an unsubtle whisper.

Tina flounced her glossy, highlighted hair back with a manicured hand. “You men are animals, all of you, simply rancid with hormones. No wonder I wanted to escape that prison of flesh I was in.”

The two groups ,” Moyo said, “seem to be divided into those that stay put, like the café proprietors, and the restless ones—like us I suppose, though we’re an exception. They complement each other perfectly. The wanderers go around playing tourist, drinking down the sights and experiences. And wherever they go, they meet the stayers and tell them about their journeys. That way both types get what they want. Both of us exist to relish experience; some like to go out and find it, others like it brought to them.”

“You think that’s what it’s going to be like from now on?” McPhee asked.

“Yes. That’s what we’ll settle down into.”

“But for how long? Wanting to see and feel is just a reaction from the beyond. Once we’ve had our fill, human nature will come back. People want to settle down, have a family. Procreation is our biological imperative. And that’s one thing we never can do. We will always be frustrated.”

“I’ll like give it a try,” Cochrane said. “Me and Tina can make babies in my tepee anytime.”

Tina gave him a single disgusted look, and shuddered.

“But they wouldn’t be yours,” McPhee said. “That isn’t your body, and it certainly isn’t your DNA. You will never have a child again, not one of your own. That phase of our lives is over, it cannot be regained no matter how much of our energistic ability we expend.”

“You’re also forgetting the third type walking among us,” Franklin said. “The Ekelund type. And I do know her. I signed up with her for the first couple of days. She seemed to know what she was doing. We had ‘objectives’ and ‘target assignments,’ and ‘command structures’—and God help anyone who disobeyed those fascists. She’s a straight power nut with a Napoleonic complex. She’s got her little army of wannabe toughs running around in combat fatigues thinking they’re reborn special forces brigades. And they’re going to keep sniping away at the Royal Marines over the border until the Princess gets so pissed with us she nukes Mortonridge down to the bedrock.”

“That situation won’t last,” McPhee said. “Give it a month, or a year, and the Confederation will fall. Don’t you listen to the whispers in the beyond? Capone is getting his act together out there. It won’t be long before the Organization fleet jumps to Ombey. Then there will be nobody left for Ekelund to fight, and her command structure will simply fade away. Nobody is going to do what she tells them for the rest of time.”

“I don’t want to live for the rest of time,” Stephanie said. “I really don’t. That’s almost as frightening as being trapped in the beyond. We’re not made to live forever, we can’t handle it.”

“Lighten up, babe,” Cochrane said. “I don’t mind giving eternity a try; it’s the flipside which is the real bummer.”

“We’ve been back a week, and Mortonridge is already falling apart. There’s hardly any food left, nothing works properly.”

“Give it a chance,” Moyo said. “We’re all badly shocked, we don’t know how to control this new power we’ve got, and the non-possessed want to hunt us down and fling us back. You can hardly expect instant civilization under those circumstances. We’ll find a way to adjust. As soon as the rest of Ombey is possessed we’ll take it out of this universe altogether. Once that happens, things will be different. You’ll see; this is just an interim stage.” He put his arm around her as she leaned into him. She kissed him lightly, mind shining with appreciation.

“Yo, love machines,” Cochrane said. “So while you two screw like hot bunnies for the rest of the night, who’s going into town to track down some food?”

•   •   •

Got a beacon,edwin announced. his mind was hot with triumph.

Around Oenone ’s bridge, the communal tension level reduced with a strong mental sigh. They had arrived above Ngeuni twenty minutes ago. Every sensor extended. The crew in alert status one. Weapons powered up. Ready for anything. To retrieve Thakrar. To fight possessed starships that had captured Thakrar.

And there had been nothing. No ships in orbit. No response from the small development company advance camp on the planet.

Oenone accelerated into a high polar orbit, and Edwin activated every sensor they had.

It’s very weak, some kind of capsule emergency signal. Definitely the Tigara ’s identification code, though. The ship must have broken up.

Lock on to it, please,syrinx said. she was aware of the astrogration data from the sensors flooding into the bitek processor array. From that, she and Oenone understood exactly where the signal was in relation to themselves.

Go.

The voidhawk swallowed through a wormhole that barely had any internal length at all. Starlight blue-shifted slightly as it twisted into a tight rosette, kissing the hull, then expanding. A life-support capsule was spinning idly ten kilometres in front of the terminus as Oenone shot out. Local space was smeared with scraps of debris from the Tigara ’s violent end. Syrinx could feel the capsule’s mass in her mind as it hung in Oenone ’s distortion field. Sensors and communications dishes in the lower hull pods swung around to point at the dingy sphere.

There’s no response from the capsule,edwin said. I’m registering some power circuits active in there, but they’re very weak. And it’s been venting its atmosphere.

Oxley, Serina, take the MSV over there,syrinx ordered. Bring him back.

Oenone ’s crew watched through Serina’s armour suit sensors as she crept through the decks of the life-support capsule, searching for Captain Thakrar. It was a shambles inside, with equipment torn off bulkheads, hatches jammed, lockers broken open to send junk and old clothes floating free. The air had gone, allowing several pipes to burst and release globules of fluid, which had subsequently frozen solid. She had to use a high-powered fission cutter on the latches around the final hatch before she could worm her way into the bridge. At first she didn’t even recognize the SII-suited figure clutching at one of the emergency supply cases on the ceiling. Granules of frost had solidified on him as they had on every surface, glinting a dusty grey in the beams thrown out by her helmet lights. In his fetal position he looked like some kind of giant mummified larva.

At least he got into a suit,oxley said. Is there any infrared emission?

Check the electronic warfare block first,syrinx said.

Negative electronic warfare emission. He’s not possessed. But he is alive. The suit’s a couple of degrees above ambient.

Are you sure it’s not just natural body heat residue? Those suits are a good insulator. If he’s alive, then he hasn’t moved since the frost formed on him. That must have been hours ago.

Serina’s bitek processor block converted her affinity voice into a straight datavise. “Captain Thakrar? Are you receiving this, sir? We’re Edenists from Golomo; we received your message.” The ice-encrusted figure didn’t move. She waited a moment, then made her way towards him. I’ve just datavised his suit processor for a status update. He’s still breathing. Oh, damn.

They all saw it at the same time: ancillary medical modules anchored to Thakrar by small plastic tubes which burrowed through the SII suit material. Two of the modules had red LEDs shining under their coating of frost, the others were completely dark. The tubes had all frozen solid.

Get him back here,syrinx instructed. Fast as you can, Serina.

Caucus was waiting with a stretcher right outside the MSV’s airlock. Oenone had stopped generating a gravity field in the crew torus so that Serina and Oxley could tow Thakrar’s inert form through the cramped little tube without too much difficulty. He was shedding droplets as they went, the layer of frost melting in the warm air. They got him onto the stretcher, and Oenone immediately reinstated gravity in the torus, tugging the crew down to the decking again. Oxley held on to the dead medical modules as they raced around the central corridor to the sick bay.

Deactivate the suit, please,caucus told serina as the stretcher was wheeled under the diagnostic scanner. She issued the order to the suit’s control processor, which examined the external environment before obeying. The black silicon retreated from Thakrar’s skin, sliding from his extremities to glide smoothly toward his throat. Dark fluids began to stain the stretcher. Syrinx wrinkled her nose up at the smell, putting a hand over her nose.

Is he all right?Oenone asked.

I don’t know yet.

Please, Syrinx, it is him who is hurt, not you. Please don’t remember like this.

I’m sorry. I didn’t know I was being so obvious.

To the others, perhaps not.

It does make me remember, I won’t deny that. But his injuries are very different.

Pain is pain.

My pain is only a memory,she recited; in her mind it was wing-tsit Chong’s voice which spoke the phrase. Memories do not hurt, they only influence.

Caucus winced at the sight which was unveiled. Thakrar’s lower right arm was new, that much was obvious. The medical packages wrapped around it had shifted, opening large gashes in the translucent immature skin. AT muscles lay exposed, their drying membranes acquiring a nasty septic tint. Scars and skin grafts on the legs and torso were a livid red against the snowy skin. The remainder of his packages appeared to have withered, green surfaces crinkling up like aging rubber, pulling the edges back from the flesh they were supposed to heal. Sour nutrient fluids dripped out of torn inlet plugs.

For a moment, all Caucus could do was stare in a kind of revolted dismay. He simply didn’t know where to start.

Erick Thakrar’s bruised eyelids slowly opened. What alarmed Syrinx the most was the lack of confusion they showed.

“Can you hear me, Erick?” Caucus said in an overloud voice. “You’re perfectly safe now. We’re Edenists, we rescued you. Now please don’t try and move.”

Erick opened his mouth, lips quivering.

“We’re going to treat you in just a moment. Are your axon blocks functional?”

“No!” It was very clear, very determined.

Caucus picked up an anaesthetic spray from the bench. “Is the program faulty, or have your neural nanonics been damaged?”

Erick brought his good arm around and pressed his knuckles into Caucus’s back. “No, you will not touch me,” he datavised. “I have a nerve burst implant. I will kill him.”

The spray fell from Caucus’s hand to clatter on the deck.

Syrinx could barely credit what was happening. Her mind instinctively opened to Caucus, offering support to his own frightened thoughts. All the crew were doing the same.

“Captain Thakrar, I am Captain Syrinx, this is my voidhawk Oenone . Please deactivate your implant. Caucus was not going to harm you.”

Erick laughed, an unsteady gulp which shook his whole body. “I know that. I don’t want to be treated. I’m not going back, not out there. Not again.”

“Nobody is going to send you anywhere.”

“They will. They always do. You do, you navy people. Always one final mission, one little bit of vital information to collect, then it will all be over. It never is, though. Never.”

“I understand.”

“Liar.”

She gestured to the outlines of the medical packages visible through her ship-tu