A nightmare with no end .... In AD2600 the human race is finally beginning to realise its full potential. Hundreds of colonised planets scattered across the galaxy host a multitude of prosperous and wildly diverse cultures. Genetic engineering has pushed evolution far beyond nature's boundaries, defeating disease and producing extraordinary spaceborn creatures. Huge fleets of sentient trader starships thrive on the wealth created by the industrialisation of entire star systems. And thoughout inhabited space the Confederation Navy keeps the peace. A true golden age is within our grasp. But now something has gone catastrophically wrong. On a primitive coloney planet a renegade criminal's chance encounter with an utterly alien entity unleashes the most primal of all our fears. An extinct race which inhabited the galaxy aeons ago called it 'The Reality Dysfunction'. It is the nightmare which has prowled beside us since the beginning of history. This is space opera on an epic scale, with dozens of characters, hundreds of planets, universe-spanning plots, and settings that range from wooden huts and muddy villages to sentient starships and newborn suns. It's also the first part of a two-volume book that is itself the first book of a series. There's no question that there's a lot going on here (too much to even begin to detail the plot), but Hamilton handles it all with an ease reminiscent of E. E. "Doc" Smith. The best way to describe it: it's big, it's good, and luckily there's plenty more on the way.

Reality Dysfunction: Emergence

Chapter 01

Space outside the attack cruiser Beezling tore open in five places. For a moment anyone looking into the expanding rents would have received a true glimpse into empty infinity. The pseudofabric structure of the wormholes was a photonic dead zone, a darkness so profound it seemed to be spilling out to contaminate the real universe. Then ships were suddenly streaking up out of the gaping termini, accelerating away at six gees, twisting round on interception trajectories. They were different from the spherical Garissan naval craft which they had tracked between the stars, graceful, streamlined teardrop shapes. Larger and dangerously powerful. Alive.

Nestled snugly in the armoured and sealed command capsule at the heart of the Beezling , Captain Kyle Prager was shocked out of a simple astrogration review by a datavised proximity alert from the flight computer. His neural nanonics relayed information from the ship’s external sensor clusters directly into his brain. Out here in the great emptiness of interstellar space starlight wasn’t powerful enough to provide an optical-band return. He was relying on the infrared signature alone, arching smears of pinkness which the discrimination programs struggled to resolve. Radar pulses were fuzzed and hashed by the ships’ electronic-warfare pods.

The combat programs stored in the memory clusters of his neural nanonics went into primary mode. He datavised a quick sequence of instructions into the flight computer, desperate for more information. Trajectories from the five newcomers were computed, appearing as scarlet vector lines curving through space to line up ominously on the Beezling and her two escort frigates. They were still accelerating, yet there was no reaction-drive exhaust plume. Kyle Prager’s heart sank. “Voidhawks,” he said. On the couch next to him, Tane Ogilie, the Beezling ’s patterning-node officer, groaned in dismay. “How did they know?”

“Confederation Navy Intelligence is good,” Kyle Prager retorted. “They knew we’d try a direct retaliation. They must have monitored our naval traffic and followed us.” In his mind a black pressure was building. He could almost sense the antimatter-confinement chambers inside the Beezling , twinkling like devilish red stars all around him.

Antimatter was the one anathema which was universal throughout the Confederation. No matter what planet or asteroid settlement you were brought up on, they all condemned it.

The penalty if a Confederation Navy ship caught them was an immediate death sentence for the captain, and a one-way ticket on a drop capsule to a penal planet for everyone else on board.

There was no choice, of course, the Beezling needed the fantastic delta-V reserve which only antimatter provided, far superior to the usual fusion drives of Adamist starships. The Omutan Defence Force ships would be equipped with antimatter drives. They have it because we have it; we have it because they have it. One of the oldest, and feeblest, arguments history had produced.

Kyle Prager’s shoulder muscles relaxed, an involuntary submission. He’d known and accepted the risk, or at least told himself and the admirals he did.

It would be quick and painless, and under ordinary circumstances the crew would survive. But he had orders from the Garissan Admiralty. Nobody was to be allowed access to the Alchemist which the Beezling was carrying; and certainly not the Edenists crewing the voidhawks: their bitek science was powerful enough already.

“A distortion field has locked onto us,” Tane Ogilie reported. His voice was strained, high. “We can’t jump clear.”

For a brief moment Kyle Prager wondered what it would be like to command a voidhawk, the effortless power and total superiority. It was almost a feeling of envy.

Three of the intercepting ships were curving round to chase the Beezling , while the frigates, Chengho and Gombari , only rated one pursuer each.

Mother Mary, with that formation they must know what we’re carrying.

He formed the scuttle code in his mind, reviewing the procedure before datavising it into the flight computer. It was simple enough, shutting down the safeguards in the main drive’s antimatter-confinement chambers, engulfing nearby space with a nova-blast of light and hard radiation.

I could wait until the voidhawks rendezvoused, take them with us. But the crews are only doing their job.

The flimsy infrared image of the three pursuit craft suddenly increased dramatically, brightening, expanding. Eight wavering petals of energy opened outwards from each of them, the sharp, glaring tips moving swiftly away from the centre. Analysis programs cut in; flight vector projections materialized, linking all twenty-four projectiles to the Beezling with looped laserlike threads of light. The exhaust plumes were hugely radioactive. Acceleration was hitting forty gees. Antimatter propulsion.

“Combat wasp launch,” Tane Ogilie shouted hoarsely.

“They’re not voidhawks,” Kyle Prager said with grim fury. “They’re fucking blackhawks. Omuta’s hired blackhawks!” He datavised an evasion manoeuvre order into the flight computer, frantically activating the Beezling ’s defence procedures. He’d been almost criminally negligent in not identifying the hostiles as soon as they emerged. He checked his neural nanonics; elapsed time since their emergence was seven seconds. Was that really all? Even so, his response had been woefully sloppy in an arena where milliseconds was the most precious currency. They would pay for that, maybe with their lives.

An acceleration warning blared through the Beezling —audio, optical, and datavise. His crew would be strapped in, but Mother Mary alone knew what the civilians they carried were doing.

The ship’s acceleration built smoothly, and he felt the nanonic membrane supplements in his body hardening, supporting his internal organs against the gee force, preventing them from being pushed through his spine, ensuring an undiminished blood supply to his brain, forestalling blackout. Beezling shuddered violently as its own volley of combat wasps launched. Acceleration reached eight gees, and carried on building.

In the Beezling ’s forward crew module, Dr Alkad Mzu had been reviewing the ship’s status as it flew towards their next jump coordinate at one and a half gees. Neural nanonics processed the raw data to provide a composite of the starship’s external sensor images, along with flight vector projections. The picture unfurled behind her retinas, scintillating ghost shadows until she closed her eyelids. Chengho and Gombari showed as intense streaks of blue-white light, the glare from their drive exhausts overwhelming the background starfield.

It was a tight formation. Chengho was two thousand kilometres away, Gombari just over three thousand. Alkad knew it took superb astrogation for ships to emerge within five thousand kilometres of each other after a jump of ten light-years. Garissa had spent a lot of money on equipping its navy with the best hardware available.

Money which could have been better spent at the university, or on supporting the national medical service. Garissa wasn’t a particularly rich world. And as to where the Department of Defence had acquired such large amounts of antimatter, Alkad had studiously avoided asking.

“It will be about thirty minutes before the next jump,” Peter Adul said.

Alkad cancelled the datavise. The sensor visualization of the ships faded from her perception, replaced by the spartan grey-green composite of the cabin walls. Peter was standing in the open oval hatch, wearing a dark turquoise ship-suit, padded on all the joints to protect him from bruising knocks in free fall. He smiled invitingly at her. She could see the worry behind the bright, lively eyes.

Peter was thirty-five, a metre eighty tall, with skin actually darker than her own deep ebony. He worked in the university mathematics department, and they had been engaged for eighteen months. Never the outgoing boisterous type, but quietly supportive. One person who genuinely didn’t seem to mind the fact that she was brighter than him—and they were rare enough. Even the prospect of her being for ever damned as the Alchemist’s creator left him unperturbed. He had actually accompanied her to the ultra-secure navy asteroid base to help with the device’s mathematics.

“I thought we could spend them together,” he said.

She grinned back up at him and slipped out of the restraint net as he sat on the edge of her acceleration cushioning beside her. “Thanks. Navy types don’t mind being cooped up by themselves during realignment. But it certainly gets to me.” Various hums and buzzes from the ship’s environmental systems invaded the cabin, crew-members talking softly at their stations, vague words echoing along the cramped companionways. Beezling had been assembled specifically to deploy the Alchemist device, its design concentrating on durability and performance; crew comforts had come a long way down the navy’s priority list.

Alkad swung her legs over the side of the cushioning ledge, feet pulled down to the decking by the strong gravity, and leaned against him, thankful for the warmth of the contact, his just being there.

His arm went round her shoulders. “What is it about the prospect of incipient mortality which gets the hormones flowing?”

She smiled and pressed harder into his side. “What is it in the male make-up that simply being awake gets your hormones going?”

“That’s a no?”

“That’s a no,” she said firmly. “There’s no door, and we’d do ourselves an injury in this gravity. Besides, there will be plenty of time once we get back.”

“Yes.” If we do. But he didn’t say that out loud.

That was when the acceleration warning sounded. Even then it took them a second to react, breaking through the initial moment of shock.

“Get back on the cushioning,” Peter yelled as the gee force leapt upwards. Alkad attempted to swing her legs back up on the ledge. They were made of uranium, impossibly heavy. Muscles and tendons grated horribly as she strained against the weight.

Come on. It’s easy. It’s only your legs. Dear Mother, how many times have you lifted your legs? Come on!

Neural-nanonic nerve-impulse overrides bullied her thigh muscles. She got one leg back on the cushioning. By that time the acceleration had reached seven gees. She was stuck with her left leg on the floor, foot slipping along the decking as the enormous weight of her thigh pushed down, forcing her knee joint open.

The two opposing swarms of combat wasps engaged; attacking and defending drones splitting open, each releasing a barrage of submunitions. Space seethed with directed energy beams. Electronic warfare pulses popped and burned up and down the electromagnetic spectrum, trying to deflect, goad, confuse, harass. A second later it was the turn of the missiles. Solid kinetic bullets bloomed like antique shotgun blasts. All it took was the slightest graze, at those closing velocities both projectile and target alike detonated into billowing plumes of plasma. Fusion explosions followed, intense flares of blue-white starfire flinging off violet coronae. Antimatter added its vehemence to the fray, producing even larger explosions amid the ionic maelstrom.

The nebula which blazed between the Beezling and her attackers was roughly lenticular, and over three hundred kilometres broad, choked with dense cyclonic concentrations, spewing tremendous cataracts of fire from its edges. No sensor in existence could penetrate such chaos.

Beezling lurched round violently, drive deflector coils working at maximum pitch, taking advantage of the momentary blind spot to change course. A second volley of combat wasps shot out of their bays around the attack cruiser’s lower hull, just in time to meet a new salvo fired from the blackhawks.

Peter had barely managed to roll off the acceleration couch where he was sitting, landing hard on the floor of Alkad’s cabin, when the terrible acceleration began. He watched helplessly as Alkad’s left leg slowly gave way under the crushing gee force; her whimpering filling him with futile guilt. The composite deck was trying to ram its way up through his back. His neck was agony. Half of the stars he could see were pain spots, the rest were a datavised nonsense. The flight computer had reduced the external combat arena to neat ordered graphics which buffeted against priority metabolic warnings. He couldn’t even focus his thoughts on them. There were more important things to worry about, like how the hell was he going to force his chest up so he could breathe again?

Suddenly the gravity field shifted. He left the decking behind, and slammed into the cabin wall. His teeth were punched clean through his lip; he heard his nose break with an ugly crunch. Hot blood squirted into his mouth, frightening him. No wound could possibly heal in this environment. He would very probably bleed to death if this went on much longer.

Then gravity righted again, squeezing him back against the decking. He screamed in shock and pain. The datavised visualization from the flight computer had collapsed into an eerily calm moire pattern of red, green, and blue lines. Darkness was encroaching around the edges.

The second clash of combat wasps took place over a wider front. Sensors and processors on both sides were overloaded and confused by the vivid nebula and its wild energy efflux. New explosions were splattered against the background of destruction. Some of the attacking combat wasps pierced the defensive cordon. A third volley of defenders left the Beezling .

Six thousand kilometres away, another nuclear-fuelled nebula burst into existence as the Chengho fought off its solitary hunter’s swarm of combat wasps. The Gombari wasn’t so fortunate. Its antimatter-confinement chambers were shattered by the incoming weapons. Beezling ’s sensor filters engaged instantly as an ephemeral star ignited. Kyle Prager lost his datavised visualization across half of the universe. He never saw the blackhawk which attacked the frigate wrenching open a wormhole interstice and vanish within, fleeing the lethal sleet of radiation its attack had liberated.

The combat wasp closing on Beezling at forty-six gees analysed the formation of the robot defenders approaching it. Missiles and ECM pods raced away, fighting a fluid battle of evasion and deception for over a tenth of a second. Then the attacker was through, a single defender left between it and the starship, moving to intercept, but slowly, the defender had only just left its launch cradle, accelerating at barely twenty gees.

Situation displays flipped into Kyle Prager’s mind. The blackhawks’ positions, their trajectories. Combat wasp performance. Likely reserves. He reviewed them, mind augmented by the tactics program, and made his decision, committing half of his remaining combat wasps to offensive duties.

Beezling rang like a bell as they launched.

At a hundred and fifty kilometres from its prey, the incoming combat wasp’s guidance processors computed it wouldn’t quite reach the starship before it was intercepted. It ran through the available options, making its choice.

At a hundred and twenty kilometres away it loaded a deactivation sequence into the hardware of the seven antimatter-confine chambers it was carrying.

At ninety-five kilometres away the magnetic field of the first confinement chamber snapped off. Forty-six gravities took over. The frozen pellet of antimatter was smashed into the rear wall. Long before contact was actually made the magnetic field of the second confinement chamber was switched off. All seven shut down over a period of a hundred picoseconds, producing a specifically shaped blast wave.

At eighty-eight kilometres away, the antimatter pellets had annihilated an equal mass of matter, resulting in a titanic energy release. The spear of plasma which formed was a thousand times hotter than the core of a star, hurtling towards the Beezling at relativistic velocities.

Sensor clusters and thermo-dump panels vaporized immediately as the stream of disassociated ions slammed into the Beezling . Molecular-binding force generators laboured to maintain the silicon hull’s integrity, a struggle they were always destined to lose against such ferocity. Breakthrough occurred in a dozen different places at once. Plasma surged in, playing over the complex, delicate systems like a blowtorch over snow crystals.

The luckless Beezling suffered a further blow from fate. One of the plasma streams hit a deuterium tank, searing its way through the foam insulation and titanium shell. The cryogenic liquid reverted to its natural gaseous state under immense pressure, ripping the tank open, and blasting fragments in every direction. An eight-metre section of the hull buckled upwards, and a volcanic geyser of deuterium haemorrhaged out towards the stars past shredded fingers of silicon.

Combat wasp explosions were still flooding surrounding space with torrents of light and elementary particles. But the Beezling was an inert hulk at the centre of a dissipating halo, her hull fissured, reaction drive off, spinning like a broken bird.

The three attacking blackhawk captains observed the last volley of Beezling ’s combat wasps lock on to their own ships and race vengefully across the gulf. Thousands of kilometres away, their colleague scored a debilitating strike on the Chengho. And the Beezling ’s combat wasps had halved the separation distance.

Energy patterning cells applied a terrible stress against the fabric of space, and the blackhawks slipped into the gaping wormholes which opened, contracting the interstices behind them. The Beezling ’s combat wasps lost track of their targets; on-board processors began to scan round and round in an increasingly futile attempt to re-acquire the missing signatures as the drones rushed further and further away from the disabled warship.

The return of consciousness wasn’t quite as welcome as it should have been, even though it meant that Dr Alkad Mzu was still alive. Her left leg was a source of nauseous pain. She could remember hearing the bones snapping as her knee hinged fully open. Then came the twists of a shifting gravity field, far more effective than any torturer. Her neural nanonics had damped down the worst of the pain, but the Beezling ’s final convulsion had brought a blessed oblivion.

How in Mother Mary’s name did we survive that?

She thought she had been prepared for the inherent risk of the mission failing, for death to claim her. Her work at the university back on Garissa made her all too aware of the energy levels required to push a starship through a ZTT jump, and what would happen should an instability occur in the patterning nodes. It never seemed to bother the navy crew, or rather they were better at hiding it. She knew also that there was a small chance they would be intercepted by Omutan naval craft once the Beezling emerged above their target star. But even that wouldn’t be so bad, the end should a combat wasp break through Beezling ’s defensive shield would probably be instantaneous. She even acknowledged that the Alchemist might malfunction. But this . . . Hunted down out here, unprepared physically or mentally, and then to survive, however tenuously. How could the good Mother Mary be so callous? Unless perhaps even She feared the Alchemist?

Residual graphics seemed to swirl obstinately among the ailing thoughts of her consciousness. Vector lines intersected their original jump coordinate thirty-seven thousand kilometres ahead. Omuta was a small, unremarkable star directly in front of the coordinate. Two more jumps, and they would have been in the system’s Oort cloud, the sparse halo of ice-dust clouds and slumbering comets which marked the boundary of interstellar space. They were approaching from galactic north, well outside the plane of the ecliptic, trying to avoid detection.

She had helped plan the mission profile, offering her comments to a room full of senior navy staff who were visibly nervous in her presence. It was a syndrome which had affected more and more people in the secret military station as her work progressed.

Alkad had given the Confederation something new to fear, something which surpassed even the destructive power of antimatter. A star slayer. And that prospect was as humbling as it was terrifying. She had resigned herself that after the war billions of planet dwellers would look up at the naked stars, waiting for the twinkling light which had been Omuta to vanish from the night sky. Then they would remember her name, and curse her to hell.

All because I was too stupid to learn from past mistakes. Just like all the other dreaming fools throughout history, wrapped up with seductive, clean equations, their simplistic, isolated elegance, giving no thought to the messy, bloody, physical application that was their ultimate reality. As if we didn’t have enough weapons already. But that’s human nature, we’ve always got to go one better, to increase the terror another notch. And for what?

Three hundred and eighty-seven Dorados: large asteroids with a nearly pure metal content. They were orbiting a red-dwarf sun twenty light-years away from Garissa, twenty-nine light-years from Omuta. Scoutships from both inhabited systems had stumbled across them virtually simultaneously. Who had actually been first would never now be known. Both governments had claimed them: the wealth contained in the lonely metal chunks would be a heady boost for the planet whose companies could mine and refine such plentiful ore.

At first it had been a squabble, a collection of incidents. Prospecting and survey ships dispatched to the Dorados had been attacked by “pirates.” And, as always, the conflict had escalated. It ceased to be the ships, and started to become their home asteroid ports. Then nearby industrial stations had proved tempting targets. The Confederation Assembly’s attempt to mediate had come to nothing.

Both sides had called in their registered naval reserves, and started to hire the independent traders, with their fast, well-equipped ships capable of deploying combat wasps. Finally, last month, Omuta had used an antimatter bomb against an industrial asteroid settlement in the Garissa system. Fifty-six thousand people had been killed when the biosphere chamber ruptured, spewing them out into space. Those who survived, another eighteen thousand with their mashed fluid-clogged lungs, decompressed capillaries, and dissevered skin, had strained the planet’s medical facilities close to breaking point. Over seven hundred had been sent to the university’s medical school, which had beds for three hundred. Alkad had witnessed the chaos and pain first hand, heard the gurgling screams that never ended.

So now it was retaliation time. Because, as everybody knew, the next stage would be planetary bombardment. And Alkad Mzu had been surprised to find her nationalistic jingoism supplanting the academic aloofness which had ruled her life to date. Her world was being threatened.

The only credible defence was to hit Omuta first, and hit it hard. Her precious hypothetical equations had been grasped at by the navy, which rushed to turn them into functional hardware.

“I wish I could stop you from feeling so much guilt,” Peter had said. That was the day they had left the planet, the two of them waiting in the officers’ mess of a navy spaceport while their shuttle was prepared.

“Wouldn’t you feel guilty?” she asked irritably. She didn’t want to talk, but she didn’t want to be silent either.

“Yes. But not as much as you. You’re taking the blame for the entire conflict. You shouldn’t do that. Both of us, all of us, everyone on the planet, we’re all being propelled by fate.”

“How many despots and warlords have said that down the centuries, I wonder?” she retorted.

His face managed to be sad and sympathetic at the same time.

Alkad relented, and took his hand. “But thank you for coming with me, anyway. I don’t think I could stand the navy people by myself.”

“It will be all right, you know,” he said softly. “The government isn’t going to release any details, least of all the name of the inventor.”

“I’ll be able to walk straight back into the job, you mean?” she asked. There was too much bitterness in her voice. “As if nothing had happened?” She knew it wouldn’t happen that way. Intelligence agencies from half the governments in the Confederation would find out who she was, if they hadn’t already. Her fate wouldn’t be decided by any cabinet minister on politically insignificant Garissa.

“Maybe not nothing,” he said. “But the university will still be there. The students. That’s what you and I live for, isn’t it? The real reason we’re here, protecting all that.”

“Yes,” she said, as if uttering the word made it fact. She looked out of the window. They were close to the equator here, Garissa’s sun bleaching the sky to a featureless white glare. “It’s October back there now. The campus will be knee deep in featherseeds. I always used to think that stuff was a bloody great nuisance. Whoever had the idea of founding an African-ethnic colony on a world that’s three-quarters temperate zones?”

“Now that’s a tired old myth, that we have to be limited to tropical hellholes. It’s our society which counts. In any case, I like the winters. And you’d bitch if it was as hot as this place the whole year round.”

“You’re right.” She gave a brittle laugh.

He sighed, studying her face. “It’s their star we’re aiming for, Alkad, not Omuta itself. They’ll have a chance. A good chance.”

“There are seventy-five million people on that planet. There will be no light, no warmth.”

“The Confederation will help. Hell, when the Great Dispersal was at its peak, Earth was deporting over ten million people a week.”

“Those old colony-transport ships have gone now.”

“Earth’s Govcentral is still kicking out a good million a week even now; and there are thousands of military transports. It can be done.”

She nodded mutely, knowing it was all hopeless. The Confederation couldn’t even get two minor governments to agree to a peace formula when we both wanted it. What chance has the Assembly got trying to coordinate grudgingly donated resources from eight hundred and sixty disparate inhabited star systems?

The sunlight pouring through the mess window deepened to a sickly red and started to fade. Alkad wondered woozily if the Alchemist was already at work on it. But then the stimulant programs steadied her thoughts, and she realized she was in free fall, her cabin illuminated by a weak pink-tinged emergency light. People were floating around her. Beezling ’s crew, murmuring in quiet worried tones. Something warm and damp brushed against her cheek, sticking. She brought her hand up instinctively. A swarm of dark motes swam across her field of view, glistening in the light. Blood!

“Peter?” She thought she was shouting his name, but her voice seemed very faint. “Peter!”

“Easy, easy.” That was a crew-member. Menzul? He was holding her arms, preventing her from bouncing around the confined space.

She caught sight of Peter. Two more crew were hovering over him. His entire face was encased by a medical nanonic package which looked like a sheet of thick green polythene.

“Oh, merciful Mary!”

“He’s OK,” Menzul said quickly. “He’ll be all right. The nanonic package can cope.”

“What happened?”

“A squadron of blackhawks caught us. An antimatter blast breached the hull. Screwed us pretty good.”

“What about the Alchemist?”

Menzul shrugged loosely. “In one piece. Not that it matters much now.”

“Why?” Even as she asked she didn’t want to know.

“The hull breach wrecked thirty per cent of our jump nodes. We’re a navy ship, we can jump with ten per cent knocked out. But thirty . . . Looks like we’re stuck out here; seven light-years from the nearest inhabited star system.”

At that moment they were precisely thirty-six and a half light-years from their G3 home star, Garissa. If they had trained the Beezling ’s remaining optical sensors on the faint diamond of light far behind, and if those sensors possessed sufficient resolution, then in thirty-six years, six months, and two days they would have seen a brief surge in the apparent magnitude as Omuta’s mercenary ships dropped fifteen antimatter planet-buster bombs on their home world. Each one had a megatonnage blast equivalent to the asteroid impact which wiped out the dinosaurs on Earth. Garissa’s atmosphere was ruined beyond redemption. Superstorms arose which would rage for millennia to come. By themselves, they weren’t fatal. On Earth, the shielded arcologies had sheltered people from their heat-wrecked climate for five and a half centuries. But unlike an asteroid impact, where the energy release was purely thermal, the planet-busters each emitted the same amount of radiation as a small solar flare. Within eight hours, the rampaging storms had spread the nuclear fallout right across the planet, rendering it completely uninhabitable. Total sterilization took a further two months.

Chapter 02

The Ly-cilph home planet was located in a galaxy far removed from the one which would ultimately host the human Confederation. Strictly speaking it wasn’t a planet at all, but a moon, one of twenty-nine orbiting a gas supergiant, a formidable orb two hundred thousand kilometres in diameter, itself a failed brown-dwarf star. After its accretion had finished it lacked enough mass for fusion ignition; but none the less its inexorable gravitational contraction generated a massive thermal output. What was ostensibly its nightside fluoresced near the bottom end of the visible spectrum, producing a weary emberlike glow which fluctuated in continental-sized patterns as the dense turbulent clouds raged in never ending cyclones. Across the dayside, where lemon-shaded rays from the K4 primary sun fell, the storm bands shone a lambent salmon-pink.

There were five major moons, with the Ly-cilph planet the fourth out from the cloud tops, and the only one with an atmosphere. The remaining twenty-four satellites were all barren rocks: captured asteroids, junk left over from the solar system’s formation, all of them less than seven hundred kilometres in diameter. They ranged from a baked rock ball skimming one thousand kilometres above the clouds, from which the metal ores had boiled away like a comet’s volatiles, up to a glaciated planetoid in a retrograde orbit five and a half million kilometres out.

Local space was hazardous in the extreme. A vast magnetosphere confined and channelled the supergiant’s prodigious outpouring of charged particles, producing a lethal radiation belt. Radio emission was a ceaseless white-noise howl. The three large moons orbiting below the Ly-cilph homeworld were all inside the radiation belt, and completely sterile. The innermost of the three was chained to the ionosphere with a colossal flux tube, along which titanic energies sizzled. It also trailed a plasma torus around its orbital path, the densest ring of particles inside the magnetosphere’s comprehensive embrace. Instant death to living tissue.

The tidal-locked Ly-cilph world coasted along seventy thousand kilometres above the tenuous outer fringes of the magnetosphere, beyond the reach of the worst radiation. Occasional palpitations within the flux lines would bombard the upper atmosphere with protons and electrons, sending squalls of solar-bright borealis lights slithering and twisting silently across the rusty sky.

Atmospheric composition was an oxygen-nitrogen mix, with various sulphurous compounds, and an inordinately high water-vapour level. Mist, fog, and stacked cloud layers were the norm. Proximity to the infrared glow of the supergiant gave it a perpetual tropical climate, with the warm, wet air of the nearside constantly on the move, rushing around to the farside where it cooled, radiating its thermal load away into space, and then returning via storms which traversed the poles. Weather was a drab constant, always blowing, always raining, the strength of the gusts and downpours dictated by the orbital location. Night fell in one place, at one time. On the farside, when supergiant and planet were in an inferior conjunction, and the hellish red cloudscape eclipsed the nearside’s brief glimpse of the sun.

It was a cycle which was broken only once every nine years, when a new force was applied to the timeless equation. A four-moon conjunction, which brought chaos and devastation to the surface with storms of biblical ferocity.

The warmth and the light had incubated life on this world, as they had on countless billions throughout the universe. There had been no seas, no oceans when the first migratory interstellar germ fell onto the pristine planet, rooting its way into the mucky stain of chemicals infecting the bubbling muddy waters. Tidal forces had left a smooth surface, breaking down mountains, grinding away at the steppes left over from the time of formation. Lakes, rivers, and flood plains covered the land, steaming and being rained on. There was no free oxygen back then, it was all combined with carbon. A solid stratum of white cloud ensured the infrared radiation found it hard to escape, even in the centre of the farside. Temperatures were intolerably high.

The first life, as always, was algae, a tough slime which spread through the water, seeping down rivers and streams to contaminate the lakes, hurried through the air by the tireless convection currents. It altered and adapted over geological eras, slowly learning to utilize the two contrasting light sources as an additional energy supply. Success, when it came, was swift, mere millennia. Oxygen poured forth. Carbon was digested. The temperature fell. The rain quickened, thinning the clouds, clearing the sky. Evolution began once more.

For millions of years, the planet’s governing nine-year cycle was of no importance. Storms and hurricanes were an irrelevance to single-cell amoebas floating sluggishly through the lakes and rivers, nor did they matter to the primitive lichens which were creeping over the rocks. But the cells adrift in the water gradually began to form cooperative colonies, and specialization occurred. Jelly-like worms appeared in the lakes, brainless, instinct-driven and metabolically inefficient, little more than mobile lichen. But it was a start. Birth and death began to replace fission as the premier method of reproduction. Mutations crept in, sometimes producing improvements, more often resulting in inviability. Failed strains were rapidly culled by merciless nature. Divergence appeared, the dawn of a million species; DNA strands lengthened, a chemical record of progress and blind alleys. Crawling creatures emerged onto the lakesides, only to be scalded by the harsh chemicals making up the atmosphere. Yet they persisted.

Life was a steady progression, following a pattern which was as standard as circumstances would allow. There were no such things as ice ages to alter the direction which this world’s creatures were taking, no instabilities causing profound climate changes. Only the nine-yearly storms, appearing without fail, which became the dominant influence. The new animals’ breeding cycles were structured around it, plant growth was restricted by it.

The planet matured into a jungle world, a landscape of swamps and lush verdancy, where giant ferns covered the surface from pole to pole, and were themselves webbed and choked with tenacious creepers reaching for the clear sky. Floating weeds turned the smaller lakes into vast marshlands. Elaborate ruff flowers vied for the attention of insects and birds, seed pods with skirts of hardened petals flew like kites through the air. Wood was non-existent, of course, wood required decades of uninterrupted growth to form.

Two wildly different flora genealogies sprang up, with the terminator as an unbreachable dividing line, and battleground. Farside plants adapted to the sun’s yellow light: they were capable of tolerating the long nights accompanying conjunction, the cooler temperatures. Nearside was the province of red light, falling without end: its black-leafed plants were taller, stronger, more vigorous, yet they were unable to conquer farside. Night killed them, yellow light alone was insufficient to drive their demanding photosynthesis, and the scattered refraction of red light by the thick atmosphere never carried far enough, haunting the land for a couple of hundred kilometres beyond the terminator.

The animals were more adaptive, ranging freely across farside and nearside. Dinosaur-analogues never appeared, they were too big, requiring too much time to grow. Apart from bird-analogues, lizard creatures with membranous wings, most animals were smallish, reflecting their aquatic heritage. All were cold-blooded, at home in the muddy streams and weed-clogged pools. They retained that ancestral trait out of pure necessity. For that was where their eggs were laid, buried deep and safe in the mud of the lakebeds, hidden away from the worst ravages of the storm. That was how all life survived while the winds scoured the world, as seeds and eggs and spores, ready to surge forth when stability returned in a few short weeks.

On such an inimical world life can evolve in one of two ways. There are the defeated, littered on countless planets across the cosmos, weak, anaemic creatures huddled in their dead-end sanctuaries, a little protective niche in the local ecology, never rising above a rudimentary level, their very lack of sophistication providing them with the means of continuation. Or there are the triumphant, the creatures which refuse to be beaten, which fight tooth and nail and claw and tentacle against their adversity; those for which circumstances act as an evolutionary spur. The dividing line is thin; it might even be that a devastating storm every eight years could bring genetic ruination. But nine years . . . nine proved enough time to ensure survival, allowing the denizens to rise to the challenge rather than sink back into their ubiquitous mires.

The Ly-cilph claimed such a victory. A mere eight hundred million years after life had begun on their world they had reached their pinnacle of evolution. They became transcendent entities.

Their nine-year cycle starts in a fish form, hatching from the black egg-clusters concealed below the mud. Billions of free-floating slugs emerge, two centimetres long, and are eaten by faster, meaner predators as they gorge themselves on the abundant sludge of decayed vegetation putrefying in the water. They grow and change over three years, losing their tails, developing a snail-like skirt. They cling to the bottom of their lakes, an ovoid body ninety centimetres high, with ten tentacles rising up from the crown. The tentacles are smooth, sixty centimetres long, devoid of suckers, but with a sharp curved horn on the tip; and they’re fast, exploding like a nest of enraged pythons to snatch their ignorant prey swimming overhead.

When their full size has been reached they slide up out of the water to range through the planetwide jungle. Gills adapt to breathe the harsh musky air, tentacle muscles strengthen to support the drooping limbs away from the water’s cosy buoyancy. And they eat, rummaging through the matted undergrowth with insistent horns to find the black, wizened nutlike nodes that have been lying there neglected since the storm. The nodes are made up of cells saturated with chemical memory tracers, memories containing information, the knowledge accumulated by the Ly-cilph race throughout time. They bring understanding, an instant leap to sentience, and trigger the telepathic centre of their brains. Now they have risen above a simple animal level of existence they have much to converse about.

The knowledge is mainly of a philosophical nature, although mathematics is highly developed; what they know is what they have observed and speculated upon, and added to with each generation. Farside night acts as a magnet as they gather to observe the stars. Eyes and minds linked by telepathy, acting as a gigantic multi-segment telescope. There is no technology, no economy. Their culture is not orientated towards the mechanical or materialistic; their knowledge is their wealth. The data-processing capacity of their linked minds far exceeds that of any electronic computer system, and their perception is not limited to the meagre electromagnetic wavelengths of the optical bands.

Once awoken, they learn. It is their purpose. They have so little time in their corporeal form, and the universe they find themselves in, the splendour of the gas supergiant and its multifarious satellites, is large. Nature has ordained them as gatherers of knowledge. If life has a purpose, they speculate, then it must be a journey to complete understanding. In that respect intellect and nature have come to a smooth concordance.

In the ninth year after their hatching, the four large innermost moons line up once more. The distortion they cause in the supergiant’s magnetosphere acts like an extension to the flux tube. The agitated particles of the ionosphere which use it as a conduit up to the first moon’s plasma torus now find themselves rising higher, up to the second moon, then the third, higher still, fountaining out of the magnetosphere altogether. The Ly-cilph world swings round into their path.

It is not a tight directed beam; up at the mushrooming crown the protons and electrons and neutrons have none of the energy they possessed when the roiling flux lines flung them past the first moon. But as always it is the sheer scale of events within the gas supergiant’s domain which proves so overwhelming.

The Ly-cilph world takes ten hours to traverse through the invisible cloud of ions loitering outside the flux lines. In that time, the energy which floods into the atmosphere is more than sufficient to destroy the equilibrium of the slowly circulating convection currents.

The deluge arrives at the end of the planet’s one and only mating season. The Ly-cilph and their non-sentient cousins have produced their eggs and secreted them into the lakebeds. Plants have flowered and scattered their seeds across the landscape. Now there is only the prospect of death.

When the first titanic bursts of azure lightning break overhead, the Ly-cilph stop their analysing and deliberations, and begin to impart all they know into the empty cells of the nodes which have grown out of their skin like warts around the base of their tentacles.

The winds howl, voicing the planet’s torment. Gusts are strong enough to break the metre-thick stems of the fern trees. Once one goes it starts a domino effect in the jungle. Destruction spreads out in vast ripples, looking like bomb blasts from above. Clouds are torn apart by the violence, reduced to cotton tufts spinning frantically in the grip of small, ferocious whirlwinds. Micro-typhoons plunge back and forth, accelerating the obliteration of the jungle.

All the while the Ly-cilph remain steadfast, their adhesive skirts anchoring them to the ground as the air around them fills with broken fronds and shredded leaves. The nodes, now saturated with their precious heritage, drop off like ripe fruit. They will lie hidden amongst the grass and roots for another three years.

Nearside is ablaze with potent lightstorms. High above the tattered clouds, the aurora borealis forms a veil across the sky, a garish mother-of-pearl haze riddled with thousands of long, lurid scintillations, like giant shooting stars. Beyond that, the conjunction is joined, three moons sliding into alignment, bathed in an eerie trillion-amp phosphorescence. An epicentre to one of the gas supergiant’s planet-swallowing cyclones.

The particle jet has reached its zenith. The flux tube’s rain of energy penetrates the tormented lower atmosphere. It is embraced by the Ly-cilph. Their minds consume the power, using it to metamorphose once again. The nodes brought them sentience, the supergiant’s surplus energy brings them transcendence. They leave the chrysalis of the flesh behind, shooting up the stream of particles at lightspeed, spacefree and eternal.

The liberated minds swarm above their abandoned world for several days, watching the storms abate, the clouds reform, the old convection currents return to their familiar courses. The Ly-cilph have achieved incorporeality, but their perspective, shaped by the formative material existence, remains unchanged. As before, they deem the purpose of their life is experience, perhaps eventually to be followed by understanding. The difference is that they are no longer restricted to a single world and brief glimpses of the stars; now the entire universe is laid out before them, they wish to know it all.

They begin to drift away from the odd planet which birthed them, tentatively at first, then with greater boldness, dispersing like an expanding wave of eager ghosts. One day they will return to this point, all the generations of Ly-cilph that ever lived. It will not happen while the primary star still burns; they will travel until they meet the boundary of the universe as it contracts once more, following the galactic superclusters as they fall into the reborn dark mass at the centre, the cosmic egg regathering all it has lost. Then they will be back, congregating around the black star husk, sharing the knowledge they have brought, searching through it for that elusive ultimate understanding. And after understanding they will know what lies beyond, and with that a hope of a further switch to yet another level of existence. Possibly the Ly-cilph will be the only entities to survive the present universe’s final reconfiguration.

But until then they are content to observe and learn. Their very nature precludes them from taking part in the myriad dramas of life and matter unfolding before their ethereal senses.

Or so they believe.

Chapter 03

Iasius had come back to Saturn to die.

Three hundred and fifty thousand kilometres above the gas giant’s wan beige cloudscape the wormhole terminus expanded, and the voidhawk slipped out into real space. Sensors mounted on the strategic-defence satellites patrolling the gas giant’s designated starship emergence zone found the infrared glow straight away, as radar waves tickled the hull. Iasius hailed the nearest habitat with its affinity, and identified itself. The satellite sensors slid their focus away, resuming their vigil.

Captain and crew borrowed the bitek starship’s paramount senses to observe the glorious ringed planet outside, whilst all the time their minds wept with the knowledge of what was to come. They were flying above the gas giant’s sunlit hemisphere, a nearly full crescent showing. The rings were spread out ahead and two degrees below them, seemingly solid, yet stirring, as if a gritty gas had been trapped between two panes of glass. Starlight twinkled through. Such majestic beauty seemed to deny their terrible reason for returning.

Iasius ’s affinity touched their minds. Feel no sorrow,the bitek starship said silently. I do not. What is, is. You have helped to fill my life. For that I thank you.

Alone in her cabin, Captain Athene felt her mental tears become real. She was as tall as any woman of the hundred families, whose geneticists had concentrated on enhancing sturdiness so their descendants could comfortably spend a lifetime coping with the arduous conditions of spaceflight. Her carefully formatted evolution had given her a long, handsome face, now heavily wrinkled, and rich auburn hair which had lost its youthful sheen to a lustrous silver. In her immaculate ocean-blue ship-tunic she projected a regal quality of assurance, which always elicited total confidence from her crews. But now her composure had vanished, expressive violet eyes reflecting the utter anguish welling up inside.

No, Athene, please don’t.

I can’t help it,her mind cried back. It’s so unfair. We should go together, we should be allowed.

There was an eldritch caress down her spine, more tender than any human lover could ever bestow. She had felt that same touch on every day of all her hundred and eight years. Her only true love. None of her three husbands received as much emotional devotion as Iasius , nor, she admitted with something approaching sacrilege, had her eight children, and three of them she had carried in her own womb. But other Edenists understood and sympathized; with their communal affinity there was no hiding emotions or truth. The birthbond between the voidhawks and their captains was strong enough to survive anything the universe could possibly throw at them. Except death, the most private section of her mind whispered.

It is my time,Iasius said simply. There was an overtone of contentment within the silent voice. If the voidhawk had had lungs, Athene thought it would have sighed at that moment.

I know,she said wistfully. it had been increasingly obvious during the last few weeks. The once omnipotent energy patterning cells were now struggling to open a wormhole interstice. Where over half a century ago there had been a feeling that a single swallow manoeuvre could span the galaxy, the pair of them now experienced a muted sense of relief if a planned fifteen light-year swallow was accomplished only a light-month short of the required coordinate. Damn the geneticists. Is parity so much to ask for?she demanded.

One day perhaps they will make ship and captain live as long as each other. But this which we have now, I feel a rightness to it. Someone has to mother our children. You will be as good a mother as you have been a captain. I know this.

The sudden burst of self-satisfied conviction in the mental voice made her grin. Sticky lashes batted some of the moisture away. Raising ten children at my age. Goodness!

You will do well. They will prosper. I am happy.

I love you, Iasius . If I was allowed to have my life again, I would never change a second of it.

I would.

You would?she asked, startled.

Yes. I would spend one day as a human. To see what it was like.

Believe me, both the pleasures and the pain are greatly exaggerated.

Iasius chuckled. Optically sensitive cells protruding like blisters from its hull located the Romulus habitat, and the starship felt for its mass with a tiny ripple in the spacial distortion field its energy patterning cells were generating. The habitat’s solidity registered in its consciousness, a substantial mote orbiting the outside edge of the F-ring. Substantial but hollow, a bitek polyp cylinder forty-five kilometres long, ten wide; it was one of the two original voidhawk bases germinated by the hundred families back in 2225. There were two hundred and sixty-eight similar habitats orbiting Saturn now, along with their subsidiary industrial stations, their numbers tangible evidence of just how important the bitek starships had become to the whole Edenist economy.

The starship sent power flashing through its patterning cells, focusing energy towards infinity, the loci distorting space outside the hull, but never enough to open a wormhole interstice. They rode the distortion wave towards the habitat like a surfer racing for the beach, quickly accelerating to three gees. A secondary manipulation of the distortion field generated a counter-acceleration force for the benefit of the crew, providing them an apparent acceleration of one gee. A smooth and comfortable ride, unmatched by Adamist starships with their fusion drives.

Athene knew she would never be quite so comfortable if she ever took a trip in a voidhawk again. With Iasius she could always feel the nothingness of the vacuum flowing by; a sensation she equated with being in a rowing-boat on some country river, and letting her hand trail through the calm water. Passengers never received that feeling. Passengers were meat.

Go on,she told the starship. Call for them.

All right.

She smiled for both of them at the eagerness in the tone.

Iasius called. Opening its affinity full, projecting a wordless shout of joy and sorrow over a spherical zone thirty astronomical units in radius. Calling for mates.

Like all voidhawks, Iasius was a creature of deep space, unable to operate close to the confines of a strong gravity field. It had a lenticular shape, measuring one hundred and ten metres in diameter, thirty metres deep at the centre. The hull was a tough polyp, midnight blue in colour, its outer layer gradually boiling away in the vacuum, replaced by new cells growing up from the mitosis layer. Internally, twenty per cent of its mass was given over to specialist organs—nutrient reserve bladders, heart pumps supplying the vast capillary network, and neuron cells—all packaged together neatly within a cylindrical chamber at the centre of the body. The remaining eighty per cent of its bulk was made up from a solid honeycomb of energy patterning cells which generated the spatial distortion field it used for both propulsion modes. It was those cells which were decaying in ever larger quantities. Like human neurons they were unable to regenerate effectively, which dictated the starship’s life expectancy. Voidhawks rarely saw out more than a hundred and ten years.

Both the upper and lower hull surfaces had a wide circular groove halfway out from the middle, which the mechanical systems were slotted into. The lower hull groove was fitted mainly with cradles for cargo-pods, the circle of folded titanium struts interrupted only by a few sealed ancillary systems modules. Crew quarters nestled in the upper hull groove, a chrome-silver toroid equipped with lounges, cabins, a small hangar for the atmospheric flyer, fusion generators, fuel, life-support units. Human essentials.

Athene walked around the toroid’s central corridor one last time. Her current husband, Sinon, accompanied her as she performed her final sacrosanct duty: initiating the children who would grow up to be the captains of the next generation. There were ten of them, zygotes, Athene’s ova fertilized with sperm from her three husbands and two dear lovers. They had been waiting in zero-tau from the moment of conception, protected from entropy, ready for this day.

Sinon had provided the sperm for only one child. But walking beside her, he found he held no resentment. He was from the original hundred families; several of his ancestors had been captains, as well as two of his half-siblings; for just one of his own children to be given the privilege was honour enough.

The corridor had a hexagonal cross-section, its surface made out of a smooth pale-green composite that glowed from within. Athene and Sinon walked at the head of the silent procession of the seven-strong crew, air whirring softly from overhead grilles the only sound. They came to a section of the corridor where the composite strip of the lower wall angle merged seamlessly with the hull, revealing an oval patch of the dark blue polyp. Athene stopped before it.

This egg I name Oenone,Iasius said.

The polyp bulged up at the centre, its apex thinning as it rose, becoming translucent. Red rawness showed beneath it, the crest of a stem as thick as a human leg which stretched right down into the core of the starship’s body. The tumescent apex split open, dribbling a thick gelatinous goo onto the corridor floor. Inside, the sphincter muscle at the top of the red stem dilated, looking remarkably similar to a waiting toothless mouth. The dark tube inside palpitated slowly.

Athene held up the bitek sustentator, a sphere five centimetres in diameter, flesh-purple, maintained at body temperature. According to the data core on the zero-tau pod it had been kept in, the zygote inside was female; it was also the one Sinon had fathered. She bent down and pushed it gently into the waiting orifice.

This child I name Syrinx.

The little sustentator globe was ingested with a quiet wet slurp. The sphincter lips closed, and the stem sank back down out of sight. Sinon patted her shoulder, and they gave each other a proud smile.

They will flourish together,Iasius said proudly.


Athene walked on. There were another four zygotes left to initiate, and Romulus was growing larger outside.

The Saturn habitats were keening their regret at Iasius ’s call. Voidhawks throughout the solar system answered with pride and camaraderie; those that weren’t outbound with cargo abandoned their flights to flock around Romulus in anticipation.

Iasius curved gently round the non-rotational dock at the northern endcap. With her eyes closed, Athene let the affinity bond image from the voidhawk’s sensor blisters expand into her mind with superhuman clarity. Her visual reference of the habitat altered as the endcap loomed large beyond the rim of the starship’s hull. She saw the vast expanse of finely textured red-brown polyp as an approaching cliff face; one with four concentrically arrayed ledges, as if ripples had raced out from the axis in some distant time, only to be frozen as they peaked.

The voidhawk chased after the second ledge, two kilometres out from the axis, swooping round to match the habitat’s rotation. Adamist reaction-drive spaceships didn’t have anything like the manoeuvrability necessary to land on the ledges, and they were reserved for voidhawks alone.

Iasius shot in over the edge, seeming to hover above the long rank of mushroomlike docking pedestals which protruded from the floor, before choosing a vacant one. For all its bulk, it alighted with the delicate grace of a hummingbird.

Athene and Sinon felt the gravity fade down to half a gee as the distortion field dissipated. She watched the big flat-tyred crew bus rolling slowly towards the bitek starship, elephant-snout airlock tube held upwards.

Come along,sinon urged, his mind dark with emotion. he touched her elbow, seeing all too plainly the wish to remain during the last flight.

She nodded her head reluctantly. “You’re right,” she said out loud.

I’m sorry that doesn’t make it any easier.

She gave him a tired smile and allowed him to lead her out of the lounge. The bus had arrived at the rim of the voidhawk. Its airlock tube lengthened, sliding over the upper hull surface to reach the crew toroid.

Sinon diverted his attention away from his wife to the flock of voidhawks matching pace with the ledge. There were over seventy waiting, latecomers rising into view as they left their crews behind on the other ledges. The emotional backwash from the waiting bitek starships was impossible to filter out, and he could feel his own blood singing in response.

It wasn’t until he and Athene reached the passage to the airlock that he noticed an irregularity in the flock. Iasius obligingly focused on the starship in question.

That’s a blackhawk!sinon exclaimed.

Amidst the classic lens shapes it seemed oddly asymmetric, drawing the eye. A flattened teardrop, slightly asymmetric, with the upper hull’s dorsal bulge fatter than that on the lower hull; from what he supposed was prow to stern it measured an easy hundred and thirty metres; the blue polyp hull was mottled with a tattered purple web pattern.

The larger size and various unorthodox configurations which set the blackhawks apart, their divergence from the voidhawk norm (some called it evolution), came about because of their captains’ requirement for greater power. Actually, improved combat performance was what they were after, Sinon thought acrimoniously. The price for that agility usually came in the form of a shorter lifespan.

That is the Udat,Iasius said equably. It is fast and powerful. A worthy aspirant.

There’s your answer, then,athene said, using affinity’s singular-engagement mode so the rest of the crew were excluded from the exchange. She had a gleam in her eye as they paused by the airlock’s inner hatch.

Sinon pulled a sour face, then shrugged and walked off down the tube to the bus, giving her the final moment alone with her ship.

There was a hum in the corridor she had never heard before, a resonance coming from Iasius ’s excitement. When she put her fingers to the sleek composite wall there was nothing, no tremor or vibration. Perhaps it was only in her mind. She turned and looked back into the toroid, the familiar confined corridors and lounges. Their whole world.

“Goodbye,” she whispered.

I will love you always.

The crew bus trundled back over the ledge towards the cliff of polyp, nuzzling up to a metal airlock set into the base. Iasius laughed uproariously across the communal affinity band; it could feel the ten eggs inside its body, glowing with vitality, their urgency to be born. Without warning it streaked away from the pedestal, straight towards the waiting flock of its cousins. They scattered in delighted alarm.

This time there was no counter-acceleration force required for the crew toroid, no protection for fragile humans. No artificial safety limits. Iasius curved sharply, pulling an easy nine gees, then flattened its trajectory to fly between the endcap and the giant metal arm of the counter-rotating dock. Weak pearl-white sunlight fell on the hull as it moved out of the ledge’s shadow. Saturn lay ahead, the razor-sharp line of the rings bisecting it cleanly. The bitek starship headed in for the planet-swathing streamers of ice crystals and primitive molecules at twelve gees, stray dust-motes and particles brushed smoothly aside by the distortion field’s bow wave. Enthusiastic voidhawks raced after it, looking more and more like a stippled comet’s tail as they emerged into the light.

In the crew quarters, metal was buckling under its new and enormous weight. Empty lounges and corridors were filled with drawn-out creaking sounds, composite furniture was splintering, collapsing onto the floor, each fresh fragment hitting with the force of a hammer blow, leaving a deep indentation. The cabins and galley were awash with water that squirted from broken pipes, strange ripples quivered across the surface as Iasius performed minute course adjustments.

Iasius entered the rings, optical-band perception degrading rapidly as the blizzard raging outside the hull thickened. It curved round again, bending its path in the direction which the ring particles orbited, but always at an angle, always heading inwards towards the massive presence of the gas giant. It was a glorious game, dodging the larger chunks, the dagger fragments of ice which glittered so coldly, the frosted boulders, sable-black chunks of near-pure carbon. The bitek starship soared around them all, spiralling, diving, swooping in huge loops, heedless of the stress, of the toll its frenzy extracted from the precious patterning cells. Energy was free, coursing through the ring. Cosmic radiation, the planet’s undulating magnetic flux, the doughty gusts of solar wind; Iasius swept it all in with the distortion field, concentrating it into an abundant coherent stream which the patterning cells absorbed and redirected.

By the time it reached the Encke division the power surplus was enough to energize the first egg. Iasius let out a shrill cry of triumph. The other voidhawks responded. They had followed tenaciously, striving to match the giddy helter-skelter route Iasius had flown, boring down the passage it had broken through the ring mass, desperately deflecting the whirling particles tossed about by its wake. The leader of the flock kept changing, none could equal the speed, nor match the carefree audacity; often they were caught out by the savage turns, overshooting, blundering about in a squall of undisturbed particles. It was a test of skill as well as power. Even luck played a part. Luck was a trait worth inheriting.

When Iasius called the first time, Hyale was the closest, a mere two hundred kilometres behind. It surged forward, and Iasius relented, slowing fractionally, holding a straight course. They rendezvoused, Hyale sliding in to hold position ten metres away, their hulls overlapping perfectly. Ring particles skidded round them like snow from a ski blade.

Hyale began to impart its compositional pattern through their affinity bond, a software DNA flowing into Iasius with a sense of near orgasmic glory. Iasius incorporated the Hyale ’s structural format into the vast energy squirt it discharged into the first egg.

The egg, Acetes , awoke in a blaze of wonder and exhilaration. Alive with racing currents of power, every cell charged with rapture and purpose and the urge to burst into immediate growth.

Iasius filled space with its glee.

Acetes found itself propelled out into the naked vacuum. Shattered fragments of Iasius ’s hull were spinning away, a dark red hole set in midnight blue receding at a bewildering speed.

Free!the egg sang. I’m free!

A huge dark bulk hung above it. Forces it could sense but couldn’t understand were slowing its wild tumbling. The universe seemed to be composed entirely of tiny splinters of matter pervaded by glowing energy bands. Voidhawks flashed past at frightening velocities.

Yes, you are free,Hyale said. I bid you welcome to life.

What is this place? What am I? Why can’t I move like you?Acetes struggled to make sense of the scraps of knowledge fluttering around its racing mind, Iasius ’s final gift.

Patience,Hyale counselled. You will grow, you will learn. The data you possess will be integrated in time.

Acetes cautiously opened its affinity sensitivity to cover the whole of Saturn’s environment, and received a chorus of greetings from the habitats, an even greater wave of acknowledgement from individual adult Edenists, excited trills from children; and then its own kind offered encouragement, infant voidhawks nesting within the rings.

Its tumbling halted, it hung below Hyale ’s lower hull, looking round with raw senses. Hyale began to alter their trajectory, moving the egg into a stable circular orbit around the gas giant where it would spend the next eighteen years growing to full size.

Iasius plunged on towards the cloudscape, ploughing a dark telltale furrow through the rings for any entity watching with the right kind of senses. Its flight produced enough power to energize two more eggs, Briseis and Epopeus, while it was still in the A-ring. Hesperus emerged while it was passing through the Cassini division. Graeae, Ixion, Laocoön and Merope all awoke in the B-ring, to be borne away by the voidhawks whose compositional patterns they had been given.

Udat caught up with Iasius near the inner edge of the B-ring. It had been a long, arduous flight, straining even the blackhawk’s power reserves, testing manoeuvrability as seldom before. But now Iasius was calling for a mate again, and Udat glided across the gap until their distortion fields merged and the hulls almost touched. It sent Iasius its own compositional pattern through the affinity bond, swept away by a fervent gratification.

I thank you,Iasius said at the end. I feel this one will be something special. There is a greatness to it.

The egg cannoned up from its ovary, sending out a cascade of polyp flakes, and Udat was left to exert its distortion field to brake the intrigued, eager infant as Iasius departed. The puzzled blackhawk had no chance to ask what it had meant by that last enigmatic statement.

I welcome you to life,Udat said formally, when it had finally stopped the seven-metre globe from spinning.

Thank you,Oenone replied. Where are we going now?

To a higher orbit. This one is too close to the planet.

Oh!a pause as it probed round with immature senses, its giddy thoughts quietening down. What is a planet?

The last egg was Priam , ejected well below the meagre lip of the B-ring. Those voidhawks remaining in the flight, now down to some thirty strong, peeled away from Iasius . They were already dangerously close to the cloudscape which dominated a third of the sky; gravity was exerting its malign influence on local space, gnawing at the fringes of their distortion fields, impairing the propulsive efficiency.

Iasius continued to descend, its lower, faster orbit carrying it ahead of the others. Its distortion field began to falter, finally overwhelmed by the intensity of the gravitational effect five hundred kilometres above the gas giant.

The terminator rose ahead, a black occlusion devouring the silently meandering clouds. Faint phosphene speckles swam through the eddies and peaks, weaving in and out of the thicker ammonia-laden braids, their light ebbing and kindling in hesitant patterns. Iasius shot into the penumbra, darkness expanding around it like an elemental force. Saturn had ceased to be a planet, an astronomical object, it was becoming hugely solid. The bitek starship curved down at an ever increasing angle. Ahead of it was a single fiery streak, growing brighter in its optical sensors. The darkside equator, that frozen remote wasteland, was redolent with sublime grandeur.

Ring particles were falling alongside Iasius , a thick, dark rain, captured by the gossamer fingers of the ionosphere, a treacherously insistent caress which robbed them of speed, of altitude. And, ultimately, existence.

When they had been lured down to the fringes of the ionosphere, icy gusts of hydrogen molecules burnt around them, emitting banners of spectral flame. They dipped rapidly as atmospheric resistance built, first glowing like embers, then crowned by incandescent light; sunsparks, stretching a hundred-kilometre contrail behind them. Their billion-year flight ended swiftly in a violent spectacle: a dazzling concussion which flung out a shower of twinkling debris, quickly extinguished. All that remained was a tenuous trail of black soot which was swept up by the howling cyclones.

Iasius reached the extremity of the ionosphere. The light of the dying ring particles was hot on its lower hull. A tremulous glow appeared around its rim. Polyp began to char and flake away, orange flecks bulleting off into the distance. The bitek starship began to lose peripheral senses as its specialist receptor cells grew warm. Denser layers of hydrogen pummelled the hull. The desent curve began to get bumpy, vexatious supersonic winds were beginning to bite. Iasius flipped over. The abrupt turn had disastrous consequences on its avian glide; with the hull’s blunt underside smashing head on into the hydrogen, the starship was suddenly subjected to a huge deceleration force. Dangerous quantities of flame blossomed right across the hull as broad swaths of polyp ablated. Iasius started to tumble helplessly down towards the scorching river of light.

The retinue of voidhawks watched solemnly from their safe orbit a thousand kilometres above, singing their silent hymn of mourning. After they had honoured Iasius ’s passing with a single orbit they extended their distortion fields, and launched themselves back towards Romulus.

The human captains of the voidhawks involved with the mating flight and the Iasius ’s crew had passed the time of the flight in a circular hall reserved for that one purpose. It reminded Athene of some of the medieval churches she had visited during her rare trips to Earth, the same vaulted ceiling and elaborate pillars, the intimidating air of reverence, though here the polyp walls were a clean snow-white, and instead of an altar there was a fountain bubbling out of an antique marble Venus.

She stood at the head of her crew, the image of Saturn’s searing equator lingering in her mind. A last gentle emanation of peacefulness as the plasma sheath wrapped Iasius in its terminal embrace.

It was over.

The captains stopped by one at a time to extend their congratulations, their minds touching hers, bestowing a fragile compassion and understanding. Never, ever a commiseration; these gatherings were supposed to be a reaffirmation of life, celebrating the birth of the eggs. And Iasius had energized all ten; some voidhawks went to meet the equator with several eggs remaining.

Yes, they were right to toast Iasius .

He’s coming over, look,sinon said. there was a mild tone of resentment in the thought.

Athene raised her eyes from the captain of the Pelion , and observed Meyer making his way through the crowd towards her. The Udat ’s captain was a broad-shouldered man in his late thirties, black hair cut back close to his skull. In contrast to the silky blue ceremonial ship-tunics of the voidhawk captains he wore a functional grey-green ship’s one-piece and matching boots. He nodded curtly in response to the formal greetings he received.

If you can’t say anything nice,athene told Sinon, using singular-engagement mode, don’t say anything at all.she didn’t want anything to spoil the wake; besides she felt a certain sympathy for someone so obviously out of place as Meyer was. Nor would it do the hundred families any harm to introduce some diversity into their stock. She kept that thought tightly locked at the core of her mind, knowing full well how this bunch of traditionalists would react to such heresy.

Meyer stood before her, and inclined his head in a swift bow. He was a good five centimetres shorter than her, and she was one of the smaller Edenists in the hall.

Captain—she began. she cleared her throat. no fool like an old one; his affinity bond was with Udat alone. A unique neuron symbiont meshed with his medulla, providing him with a secure link to its clone-analogue in the Udat , nothing like the hereditary Edenist communal affinity. “Captain Meyer, my compliments to your ship. It was an excellent flight.”

“Thank you for saying so, Captain. It was an honour to take part. You must be proud all the eggs were energized.”

“Yes.” She lifted her glass of white wine in salute. “So what brings you to Saturn?”

“Trade.” He glanced round stiffly at the other Edenists. “I was delivering a cargo of electronics from Kulu.”

Athene felt like laughing out loud, his freshness was just the tonic she needed. She put her arm through his, ignoring the startled looks it caused, and drew him away from the rest of the crew. “Come on, you’re not comfortable with them. And I’m too old to be bothered by how many navy flight code violation warrants are hanging over your head. Iasius and I left all that behind us a long time ago.”

“You used to be in the Confederation Navy?”

“Yes. Most of us put in a shift. We Edenists have a strong sense of duty sequenced into us.”

He grinned into his glass. “You must have been a formidable team, that was some mating flight.”

“History now. What about you? I want to hear all about life on the knife edge. The gung-ho adventures of an independent trader, the shady deals, the wild flights. Are you fabulously wealthy? I have several granddaughters I wouldn’t mind getting rid of.”

Meyer laughed. “You have no grandchildren. You’re too young.”

“Nonsense. Stop being so gallant. Some of the girls are older than you.” She enjoyed drawing him out, listening to his stories, his difficulties in making the repayments to the bank for the loan he’d taken to buy Udat , his anger at the shipping cartels. He provided a welcome anodyne to the black fissure of emptiness which had opened in her heart, the one that would never close.

And when he left, when the wake was over, the thanks given, she lay on her new bed in her new house and found ten young stars burning brightly at the back of her mind. Iasius had been right after all, hope was eternal.

For the next eighteen years Oenone floated passively within the B-ring where Udat had left it. The particles flowing around it were occasionally deluged with bursts of static, interacting with the gas giant’s magnetosphere to stir the dust grains into aberrant patterns, looking like the spokes of a massive wheel. But for most of the time they obeyed the simpler laws of orbital mechanics, and whirled obediently around their gravitonic master without deviation. Oenone didn’t care, both states were equally nourishing.

As soon as the blackhawk departed, the egg began to ingest the tides of mass and energy which washed over its shell. Elongating at first, then slowly bloating into two bulbs over the course of the first five months. One of these flattened out into the familiar voidhawk lens shape, the other remained globular, squatting at the centre of what would ultimately evolve into the bitek starship’s lower hull. It extruded fine strands of organic conductor, which acted as an induction mechanism, picking up a strong electrical current from the magnetosphere to power the digestive organs inside. Ice grains and carbon dust, along with a host of other minerals, were sucked into pores dotting the shell and converted into thick protein-rich fluids to supply the multiplying cells within the main hull.

At the core of the nutrient-production globe, the zygote called Syrinx began to gestate inside a womb-analogue organ, supported by a cluster of haematopoiesis organs.

Human and voidhawk grew in union for a year, developing the bond that was unique even among Edenists. The memory fragments which had come from Iasius , the navigation and flight instincts it had imparted at the birth, became a common heritage. Throughout their lives they would always know exactly where the other was; flight trajectories and swallow manoeuvres were a joint intuitive choice.

Volscen arrived a year to the day after Iasius ’s last flight, rendezvousing with the fledgeling voidhawk egg as it orbited contentedly amid the ring. Oenone ’s nutrient-production globe disgorged the womb-analogue and its related organs in a neat package, which the Volscen ’s crew retrieved.

Athene was waiting just inside the airlock as they brought the organ package on board. It was about the size of a human torso, a dark crinkled shell sprayed with rays of frost where liquids had frozen during its brief exposure to space. They started to melt as soon as it came into contact with the Volscen ’s atmosphere, leaving little viscous puddles on the green composite decking.

Athene could sense the infant’s mind inside, quietly cheerful, with a hint of expectancy. She searched through the background whispers of the affinity band for the insect-sentience of the package’s controlling bitek processor, and ordered it to open.

It split apart into five segments like a fruit; fluids and mucus spilled out. At the centre was a milk-coloured sac connected to the organs with thick ropy cords, pulsing rhythmically. The infant was a dark shadow, stirring in agitation as the unaccustomed light shone on her. There was a gurgling sound as the package voided its amniotic fluid across the floor, and the sac began to deflate. The membrane peeled back.

Is she all right?Oenone asked anxiously. The mental tone reminded Athene of a wide-eyed ten-year-old.

She’s just perfect,sinon said gently.

Syrinx smiled up at the expectant adults peering down at her, and kicked her feet in the air.

Athene couldn’t help but smile back down at the placid infant. It’s all so much easier this way, she thought, at a year old they are much better able to cope with the transition; and there’s no blood, no pain, almost as though we weren’t meant to have them ourselves.

Breathe,athene told the baby girl.

Syrinx spluttered on the gummy mass in her mouth and spat it out. With her affinity sensitivity opened to the full, Athene could feel the passage of the coolish air down into the baby’s lungs. It was strange and uncomfortable, and the lights and colours were frightening after the pastel dream images of the rings which she was used to. Syrinx began to cry.

Crooning sympathy both mentally and verbally Athene unplugged the bitek umbilical from her navel, and lifted the baby out of the sac’s slippery folds. Sinon hovered around her with a towel to wipe the girl down, radiating pride and concern. Volscen ’s crew began to clear up the pulpy mess of the package, ready to dump it out of the airlock. Bouncing Syrinx on her arm, Athene moved down the corridor towards the lounge that was serving as a temporary nursery.

She’s hungry,Oenone said. A thought which was vigorously echoed by Syrinx.

Stop fussing,athene said. She’ll be fed once we’ve dressed her. And we’ve got another six to pick up yet. She’s going to have to learn to take her turn.

Syrinx let out a plaintive mental wail of protest.

“Oh, you are going to be a bonny handful, aren’t you?”

She was, but then so were all of her nine siblings as well. The house Athene had taken was a circular one, consisting of a single-storey ring of rooms surrounding a central courtyard. Its walls were polyp, and its curved roof was a single sheet of transparent composite which could be opaqued as required. It had been grown to order by a retired captain two hundred years previously when arches and curves were the fashion, and there wasn’t a flat surface anywhere.

The valley it sat in was typical of Romulus’s interior, with low, rolling sides, lush tropical vegetation, a stream feeding a series of lakes. Small, colourful birds glided through the branches of the old vine-webbed trees, and the air was rich with the scent of the flower cascades. It resembled a wilderness paradise, conjuring up images of the pre-industrial Amazon forests, but like all the Edenist habitats every square centimetre was meticulously planned and maintained.

Syrinx and her brothers and sisters had the run of it as soon as they learnt to toddle. Nothing harmful could happen to children (or anybody else) with the habitat personality watching the entire interior the whole of the time. Athene and Sinon had help, of course, both human nursery workers and the housechimps, monkey-derived bitek servitors. But even so, it was exhausting work.

As she grew up it was obvious that Syrinx had inherited her mother’s auburn hair and slightly oriental jade eyes; from her father she got her height and reach. Neither parent claimed responsibility for her impetuosity. Sinon was terribly careful not to display any public favouritism, though the whole brood soon learnt to their creative advantage that he could never say no or stay cross with his daughter for long.

When she was five years old the whispers in her sleep began. It was Romulus who was responsible for her education, not Oenone . The habitat personality acted as her teacher, directing a steady stream of information into her sleeping brain; the process was interactive, allowing the habitat to quiz her silently and repeat anything which hadn’t been fully assimilated the first time. She learnt about the difference between Edenists and Adamists, those humans who had the affinity gene and those who didn’t, the “originals”, whose DNA was geneered but not expanded. The flood of knowledge sparked an equally impressive curiosity. Romulus didn’t mind, it had infinite patience with all its half-million strong population.

This difference seems silly to me,she confided to Oenone one night as she lay in her bed. The Adamists could all have affinity if they wanted to. It must be horrible to be so alone in your head. I couldn’t live without you.

If people don’t want to do something, you shouldn’t force them,Oenone replied.

For a moment they shared the vista of the rings. That night Oenone was orbiting high above the dayside of the saffron gas giant planet; it loomed through the misty particle drifts, a two-thirds crescent which always held her entranced. Sometimes she seemed to spend the whole night watching the colossal cloud armies at war.

It’s still silly of them,she insisted.

One day we will visit Adamist worlds, then we’ll understand.

I wish we could go now. I wish you were big enough.

Soon, Syrinx.

For ever.

I’m thirty-five metres broad now. The particles have been thick this month. Just another thirteen years.

Double for ever,the six-year-old replied brokenly.

Edenism was supposed to be a completely egalitarian society. Everybody had a share in its financial, technical, and industrial resources, everybody (thanks to affinity) had a voice in the consensus which was their government. But in all the Saturn habitats the voidhawk captains formed a distinct stratum of their own, fortune’s favourites. There was no animosity from the other children, neither the habitat personality nor the adults would tolerate that, and animosity couldn’t be hidden with communal affinity. But there was a certain amount of manoeuvring; after all, the captains would one day choose their own crews from the people they could get on with. The inevitable childhood groups which formed did so around the cub captains.

By the time she was eight, Syrinx was the best swimmer out of all her siblings, her long spidery limbs giving her an unbeatable advantage over the others in the water. The group of children she led spent most of their time playing around the streams and lakes of the valley, either swimming or building rafts and canoes. This was around the time they discovered how to fox Romulus’s constant surveillance, misusing affinity to generate loitering phantasms in the sensor cells which covered every exposed polyp surface.

When they were nine years old she challenged her brother Thetis to an evasion race as a way of testing their new-found powers. Both teams of children set off on their precarious rafts, gliding down the stream out of the valley. Syrinx and her juvenile cohorts made it all the way down to the big saltwater reservoir which ringed the base of the southern endcap. That was where their punts became useless in the hundred-metre depth; and so there they drifted in happy conspiracy until the axial light-tube dimmed before responding to the increasingly frantic affinity calls from their parents.

You shouldn’t have done it,Oenone chided solemnly that evening. You didn’t have any life jackets.

But it was fun. And we had a real zing of a ride back in the Hydro Department officer’s boat. It was so fast, there was spray and wind and everything.

I’m going to speak to Romulus about your moral responsibility traits. I don’t think they integrated properly. Athene and Sinon were very worried, you know.

You knew I was all right; so Mother must have known as well.

There is such a thing as propriety.

I know. I’m sorry, really. I’ll be nice to Mother and Father tomorrow, promise.she rolled over onto her back, pulling the duvet a little tighter. The ceiling was transparent, and she could just make out the dim silverish moon-glow of the habitat’s light-tube through the clouds. I imagined it was you I was riding on, not just a stupid raft.

Did you?

Yes.there was that unique flash of oneness as their thoughts kissed at every level of consciousness.

You’re just trying to gain my sympathy,Oenone accused.

Course I am. That’s what makes me me. Am I really horrible, do you think?

I think I will be glad when you’re older, and more responsible.

I’m sorry. No more raft rides. Honest.she giggled. It was still heaps of fun, though.

Sinon died when the children were eleven; he was a hundred and sixty-eight. Syrinx cried for days, even though he had done his best to prepare the children. “I’ll always remain with you,” he told the dejected group when they gathered round his bed. Syrinx and Pomona had picked fresh angel-trumpets from the garden to be put into vases beside the bed. “We have continuity, us Edenists. I’ll be a part of the habitat personality, I’ll see what you’re all up to, and we can talk whenever you want. So don’t be sad, and don’t be frightened. Death isn’t something to be afraid of, not for us.” And I want to watch you grow up and start your captaincy,he told Syrinx privately. You’re going to be the best captain ever, Sly-minx, you see.she gave him a tentative smile, and then hugged his frail form, feeling the hot, sweaty skin, and hearing in her mind his inner wince as he shifted his position.

That night she and Oenone listened to his memories as they fled his decaying brain, a bewildering discharge of images and smells and emotional triggers. That was when she first found out about the nagging worry he held about Oenone , the tiny shred of doubt which persisted about the voidhawk’s unusual co-parent. His concern hanging in the darkened bedroom like one of the phantasms she bamboozled the habitat receptor cells with.

See, Sly-minx, I told you I’d never desert you. Not you.

She smiled into the empty air as his distinctive mental tone sounded in her head. Nobody else ever called her that, only Daddy. There was a curious background burble, as if a thousand people were all holding whispered conversations somewhere far behind him.

But the next morning, the sight of his body wrapped in a white shroud being carried out of the house to be buried in the habitat’s arbour was too much for her, and the tears began.

“How long will he live for in the habitat multiplicity?” she asked Athene after the short burial ceremony.

“As long as he wants,” Athene said slowly. She never lied to any of the children, but there were times when she wished she wasn’t so damn noble. “Most people retain their integrity for about a couple of centuries within the multiplicity, then they just gradually blend in to the overall habitat personality. So even then they don’t vanish completely. But at that, it’s a lot better than any heavenly salvation which Adamist religions offer their followers.”

Tell me about religion,syrinx asked the habitat personality later that day. She was sitting at the bottom of the garden, watching fast bronze-coloured fish sliding through the big stone-lined lily pond.

It is an organized form of deity worship, usually originating in primitive cultures. Most religions perceive God as male, because they all have their roots in a time prior to female emancipation—which serves to illustrate how contrived they are.

But people still follow them today?

A majority of Adamists retain their faith, yes. There are several religions current in their culture, notably the Christian and Muslim sects. Both convey the belief that holy prophets walked the Earth at some time in the past, and both promise a form of eternal salvation for those who adhere to the teachings of said prophets.

Oh. Why don’t Edenists believe, then?

Our culture proscribes nothing providing it doesn’t harm the majority. You may, if you wish, practise the worship of any god. The major reason no Edenist chooses this action is that we have extremely stable personalities. We can look at the whole concept of God and spirituality from a vantage point built on logic and physics. Under such an intensive scientific scrutiny, religion always fails. Our knowledge of quantum cosmology is now sufficiently advanced to eliminate the notion of God altogether. The universe is an entirely natural phenomenon, if extraordinarily complex. It was not created by an external act of will.

So we don’t have souls?

The concept of soul is as flawed as that of religion. Pagan priests preyed on people’s fear of death by promising them there was an afterlife in which they would be rewarded if they lived a good life. Therefore belief in your soul is also an individual choice. However, as Edenists have continuation through becoming part of a habitat personality, no Edenists have required this particular aspect of faith. Edenists know their existence does not end with physical death. We have, to some extent, superseded religion thanks to the mechanics of our culture.

But what about you? Do you have a soul?

No. My mentality is, after all, the summation of individual Edenists. Nor was I ever one of God’s creatures. I am entirely artificial.

But you’re alive.


So if there were souls, you’d have one.

I concede your argument. Do you think there are souls?

Not really. It seems a bit silly. But I can see how Adamists believe in it so easily. If I didn’t have the option of transferring my memories into a habitat, I’d want to believe I had a soul, too.

An excellent observation. It was the memory transfer ability which resulted in the mass excommunication of Christian Edenists by Pope Eleanor in 2090. When our founder Wing-Tsit Chong became the first human to transfer his memories into a habitat neural stratum, the Pope denounced his action as sacrilegious, an attempt to avoid divine judgement. Subsequently the affinity gene was declared to be a violation of divine heritage; the Vatican was afraid it placed too great a temptation before the devout. An Islamic proclamation was issued along similar lines a year later, proscribing the faithful from having the gene sequenced into their children. It was the start of the divergence between Edenist and Adamist culture, and also effectively ended Adamist use of bitek. Without affinity control, bitek organisms have little practical use.

But you said there are lots of different religions; how can there be many gods? There can’t be more than one Creator, surely? That’s a contradiction.

A good point. Several of the largest wars Earth has known have been fought over this issue. All religions claim theirs is the true faith. In actuality, any religion is dependent solely on the strength of conviction in its followers.

Syrinx gave up, and rested her head in her hands as she watched the fish scuttle under the big pink water lilies. It all sounded highly unlikely to her.

What about you?she asked Oenone. Are you religious?

I don’t see the need to pray to an unseen deity for anything. I know what I am. I know why I am. You humans seem to delight in building your own complications.

Syrinx stood up, smoothing down her black mourning dress. The fish dived for deep cover at the sudden movement. Thanks a bunch.

I love you,Oenone said. I’m sorry you’re upset over Sinon. He made you happy. That’s good.

I won’t cry any more, she told herself, Daddy’s there whenever I want to talk to him. There, that must mean I’ve got a properly integrated personality. So that’s all right.

If only it didn’t hurt so much deep inside her chest, about where her heart was.

By the time she reached fifteen, her education was concentrating on subjects necessary for captaining a ship. Engineering and power systems, Confederation space law, astrogration, bitek life-support organs, mechanics, fluid behaviours, superconductivity, thermodynamics, fusion physics. She and Oenone listened to long lectures on the abilities and limits of voidhawks. There were practical lessons too, how to use spacesuits, practising fidgety repairs in low gravity, and acclimatization trips to the voidhawk ledges outside. Running through shipboard routines.

She was perfectly at home in free fall. Floating balance was geneered into all Edenists, and the hundred families went further with their manipulation, toughening and thickening internal membranes to withstand high-gee acceleration. Edenists were loath to use nanonic-supplement boosting unless there was no alternative.

By her mid-teens she was losing her puppy fat (not that she’d ever had much to start with) and beginning to acquire her definitive adult features. The carefully modified genes of her ancestors had bestowed her with a long face that had slightly sunken cheeks, emphasizing strong bones, and a wide mouth which could deliver a dazzling smile whenever she chose. She was as tall as most of her brothers, and her figure was filling out to her complete satisfaction. At this time she had grown her hair halfway down her back, knowing she would never have the opportunity again: when she started operational flying it would have to be cut short. Long hair was at best a nuisance and at worst a hazard in a starship.

When she was seventeen she had a month-long affaire with Aulie, who was forty-four, which made it doomed from the start, which made it so romantic. She enjoyed her time with Aulie unashamedly, as much for the mild censure and gossip it generated among her friends and family as the new styles of euphoria she experienced under his knowledgeable tuition. Now he was someone who really knew how to exploit free fall.

Teenage Edenist sexuality was one of the most talked about and envied legends among their Adamist counterparts. Edenists didn’t need to worry about disease, not with their immunology systems; and affinity ensured that there were no problems of jealousy, or even possessive domination. Honest lust was nothing to be ashamed of, it was a natural aspect of teenage hormones on the boil, and there was also ample room for genuine one-to-one attraction. So given that even trainee captains only had five hours of practical engineering and technology lessons each day, and by their mid-teens Edenists needed at most six hours’ sleep per night, the rest of the time was spent pursuing orgasmic release in a manner which would have impressed even the Romans.

Then her eighteenth birthday came around. Syrinx almost couldn’t bring herself to leave the house that morning. Athene had worn her usual cheerful face, emotions hidden beyond even the most sensitive prying. But Syrinx knew exactly how much the sight of all ten children preparing to go hurt her. She had hung back after the formal breakfast, but Athene had shooed her out of the kitchen with a brief kiss. “It’s the price we all pay,” she said. “And believe me, it’s worth it.”

Syrinx and her siblings suited up and walked out onto the innermost ledge of the northern endcap, progressing with long lopes in the quarter gravity. There were a lot of people milling around outside the airlocks, service personnel, the crews of voidhawks currently perched on pedestals. All of them were eagerly awaiting the arrival of the newest voidhawks. The swirl of expectancy from them and other Edenists in the habitat caught her by surprise, but at least it helped quell her own nerves.

I’m the one that should be nervous,Oenone protested.

Why? All this comes naturally to you.


Are you ready?

We could wait a little longer, see if I grow some more.

You haven’t grown for two months. And you’re quite big enough already.

Yes, Syrinx,the starship said, so meekly that she had to smile.

Come on, remember I was apprehensive with Hazat. That turned out to be fantastic.

I hardly think you can compare sex with spaceflight. And I wouldn’t call that apprehension, more like impatience.there was a tone of pique in the mental voice.

Syrinx put her hands on her hips. Get on with it.

Oenone had been steadily absorbing electricity from the nutrient-production globe for the last month; with its growth phase finally complete the demand on the induction pick-off cables by the globe’s organs had fallen off sharply, allowing the starship to begin the long powering-up process of its patterning cells. Now the energy levels were high enough to initiate a distortion field, which would enable it to suck power directly out of space. If it didn’t get the distortion field right the cells would power down, and a rescue mission would have to be launched. In the past such missions hadn’t always been a hundred per cent successful.

With Syrinx’s pride and encouragement bolstering its mind, Oenone started to separate from the nutrient-producing globe. Fibrous tubes tore along their stress lines. Warm fluids squirted into space, acting like crude rocket engines, adding to the pressure on the remaining tubes. Organic conductors snapped and sealed, their ends whipping back and forth in the expanding cloud of vaporized fluid. The final tube broke, and the globe lurched away like a punctured balloon.

See? Easy,syrinx said. the two of them were remembering together, reviewing the miragelike memories of a voidhawk called Iasius . To generate a distortion field you just had to trigger the initial energy flash through the patterning cells like so. Energy began to flow inside the labyrinthine honeycomb of patterning cells, compressing, the density building towards infinity in mere nanoseconds.

The distortion field flared outwards, billowing wildly.

Steady,syrinx instructed gently. the field’s fluctuations began to damp down. It changed shape, becoming more stable, twisting the radiation of local space into a viable stream. The patterning cells began to absorb it. There was a heavenly sensation of satisfaction gusting out to the stars.

Yes! We did it.they embraced mentally. congratulations were flung at them from Edenists and voidhawks alike. Syrinx searched round to see that all her siblings and their craft had generated stable distortion fields. As if Athene’s children would fail!

Together Oenone and Syrinx began to experiment, changing the shape of the field, altering its strength. The voidhawk began to move, rising up out of the rings, into clear space, seeing the stars unencumbered for the first time. Syrinx thought she could feel the wind blowing in her face, ruffling her hair. She was some ancient mariner standing on the wooden deck of her sailing ship, speeding across an endless ocean.

Three hours later Oenone slipped into the gap between Romulus’s northern endcap and the counter-rotating dock. It began to curve round, racing after the ledge.

Syrinx saw it expand from nowhere out of the spinning starfield. I can see you!it had been so long.

And I you,Oenone replied lovingly.

She jumped for joy, legs sending her flying three metres above the ledge.

Careful,Oenone said.

Syrinx just laughed.

It slid in over the edge, and hovered above the pedestal closest to her. When it settled she began to glide-run towards it, whooping exuberantly, arms windmilling for balance. Oenone ’s smooth midnight-blue hull was marbled by a fine purple web.

Chapter 04

The Ruin Ring formed a slim dense halo three kilometres thick, seventy kilometres broad, orbiting five hundred and eighty thousand kilometres above the gas giant Mirchusko. Its albedo was dismayingly low; most of the constituent particles were a dowdy grey. A haze of small particles could be found up to a hundred kilometres outside the main band in the ecliptic plane; dust mainly, flung out from collisions between larger particles. Such meagre dimensions made the Ruin Ring totally insignificant on a purely astronomical scale. However, the effect it had on the course of human events was profound. Its existence alone managed to bring the richest kingdom in history to the verge of political chaos, as well as posing the Confederation’s scientific community the greatest mystery it had ever known, one which remained unsolved a hundred and ninety years after its discovery.

It could so easily have gone unnoticed by the Royal Kulu Navy scoutship Ethlyn , which investigated the system in 2420. But system survey missions are too expensive to mount for the crew to skimp on detail even though it is obvious there is no terracompatible planet orbiting the star, and naval captains are chosen for their conscientious nature.

The robot probe which Ethlyn fired into orbit around Mirchusko performed standard reconnaissance fly-bys of the seven moons above a hundred and fifty kilometres in diameter (anything smaller was classed as an asteroid), then moved on to analyse the two rings encircling the gas giant. There was nothing extraordinary or even interesting about the innermost: twenty thousand kilometres broad, orbiting three hundred and seventy thousand kilometres out, the usual conglomeration of ice and carbon and rocky dust. But the outer ring had some strange spectrographic lines, and it occupied an unusually high orbit. Ethlyn ’s planetary science officer raised the probe’s orbit for a closer look.

When the achromatic pictures relayed from the probe’s optical sensors began to resolve, all activity on board the Ethlyn came to an abrupt halt as the crew abandoned their routine to assess the scene. The ring which had the mass of a modestly sized moon was composed entirely of shattered xenoc habitats. Ethlyn immediately deployed every robot probe in its inventory to search the rest of the system, with depressingly negative results. There were no other habitats, no survivors. Subsequent searches by the small fleet of Kulu research ships which followed also produced a resounding blank. Neither could any trace of the xenoc race’s homeworld be found. They hadn’t originated on any planet in the Ruin Ring’s system, nor had they come from any of the surrounding stars. Their origin and death were a complete enigma.

The builders of the wrecked habitats were called the Laymil, though even the name wasn’t discovered for another sixty-seven years. It might seem that the sheer quantity of remnants would provide archaeologists and xenoc investigators with a superabundance of research material. But the destruction of the estimated seventy thousand plus habitats had been ferocious, and it had happened two thousand four hundred years previously. After the initial near-simultaneous detonation a cascade of secondary collisions had begun, a chain reaction lasting for decades, with gravel and boulders pulverizing large shell sections, setting off another round of collisions. Explosive decompression tore apart the living cells of plants and animals, leaving already badly eviscerated corpses to be decimated still further by the punishing sleet of jagged fragments. And even after a relative calm fell a century later, there was the relentless chafing of the vacuum, boiling surface molecules away one by one until only phantom-thin outlines of the original shape were left.

In another thousand years the decay would have precluded almost any investigation into the Laymil. As it was, the retrieval of useful artefacts was a dangerous, frustrating, and generally poorly rewarded task. The Laymil research project, based in Tranquillity, a custom-grown bitek habitat orbiting seven thousand kilometres above the Ruin Ring, depended on scavengers to do the dirty work.

The scavengers who ventured into the Ruin Ring were driven by a variety of reasons; some (mostly the younger ones) thought it was adventurous, some did it because they had no choice, for some it was a last resort gamble. But all of them kept going in the hope of that one elusive Big Find. Intact Laymil artefacts raised huge prices on the collector’s market: there was a limited and diminishing source of unique alien objets , and museums and private collectors were desperate to obtain them.

There existed no prospecting technology which could sift through the Ruin Ring particles and identify the gems amid the dross; scavengers had to don their spacesuits and get out there amid the hurtling shell splinters and go through it all one piece at a time, using hands and eyeballs. Most of them earned enough from what they found to keep going. Some were better at it than others. Luck, they called it. They were the ones who found a couple of the more intriguing pieces each year, items which would tide them over in high style for months at a time. Some were exceptionally lucky, returning time and again with pieces the collectors and research project simply had to have. And some were suspiciously lucky.

If pressed, Joshua Calvert would have to admit membership of the second category, though it would be a self-deprecating acknowledgement. He had pulled six decent pieces out of the Ring in the last eight months; a pair of reasonably intact plants, a couple of circuit boards (fragile but OK), half of a rodentlike animal, and the big one, an intact egg, seven centimetres high. Altogether they had brought in three-quarters of a million fuseodollars (the Edenist currency, used as a base currency by the Confederation as a whole). For most scavengers that would have been enough to retire on. Back in Tranquillity people were shaking their heads and wondering why he kept returning to the Ring. Joshua was twenty-one, and that much money could keep him in a satisfactorily high-rolling style for life.

They wondered because they couldn’t feel the intense need burning in him, surging down every vein like a living current, animating each cell. If they had known about that tidal-force drive they might have had an inkling of the unquiet nature lurking predator-fashion behind his endearing grin and boyish looks. He wanted one hell of a lot more than three-quarters of a million. In fact it was going to take nearer five million before he was anywhere near satisfied.

Living in a high-rolling style wasn’t even an option as far as he was concerned. A life spent doing nothing but keeping a careful eye on your monthly budget, everything you did limited by the dividends of prudent investments? That sounded like living death to him, suspended inanimation, strictly loser’s territory.

Joshua knew just how much more to life there could be. His body was perfectly adapted to handle free fall, a combination of useful physiological traits geneered into his family by wanderlust ancestors long distant. But it was just a consort to his mind, which was hardwired into the most riotous human trait, the hunger for new frontiers. He had spent his early childhood listening to his father telling and retelling stories of his own captaincy: the smuggling flights, outsmarting Confederation Navy squadrons, the fights, hiring out as mercenary warriors to governments and corporations with a grudge, of travelling the universe at will, strange planets, fanciful xenocs, willing women in ports scattered across the colonized galaxy. There wasn’t a planet or moon or asteroid settlement in the Confederation they hadn’t explored and populated with fanciful societies before the old man finally found the combination of drugs and alcohol which could penetrate the beleaguered defences of his enhanced organs. Every night since he was four years old Joshua had dreamed that life for himself. The life Marcus Calvert had blown, condemning his son to sit out his own existence in a habitat on the edge of nowhere. Unless . . .

Five million Edenist fuseodollars, the price of repairing his father’s starship—although admittedly it might even cost more, the shape old Lady Mac was in after so many years of neglect. Of leaving bloody boring backward Tranquillity. Of having a real life, free and independent.

Scavenging offered him a realistic way, an alternative to indenturing his soul to the banks. That money was out here in the Ruin Ring, waiting for him to pick it up. He could feel the Laymil artefacts calling to him, a gentle insistent prickling at the back of his conscious mind.

Some called it luck.

Joshua didn’t call it anything. But he knew nine times out of ten when he was going to strike. And this time was it. He had been in the Ring for nine days now, nudging cautiously through the unending grey blizzard gusting outside the spaceplane’s windscreen, looking at shell fragments and discarding them. Moving on. The Laymil habitats were remarkably similar to Tranquillity and the Edenist habitats, biologically engineered polyp cylinders, although at fifty kilometres long and twenty in diameter they were fatter than the human designs. Proof that technological solutions were the same the universe over. Proof that the Laymil were, at that level at least, a perfectly ordinary spacefaring race. And giving absolutely no hint of the reason behind their abrupt end. All their wondrous habitats had been destroyed within the period of a few hours. There were only two possible explanations for that: mass suicide, or a weapon. Neither option sat comfortably in the mind; they opened up too many dark speculations, especially among the scavengers who immersed themselves in the Ruin Ring, constantly surrounding themselves with the physical reality of that terrifying unknowable day over two and a half thousand years ago. A third option was the favourite speculation of scavengers. Joshua had never thought of one.

Eighty metres ahead of him was a habitat shell section, one of the larger ones; roughly oval, two hundred and fifty metres at its widest. It was spinning slowly about its long axis, taking seventeen hours to complete each revolution. One side was the biscuit-coloured outer crust, a tough envelope of silicon similar to Adamist starship hulls. The xenoc researchers back in Tranquillity couldn’t work out whether or not it was secreted by the habitat’s internal polyp layers; if so then Laymil biological engineering was even more advanced than Edenism’s bitek. Stacked above the silicon were various strata of polyp, forty-five metres thick, dulled and darkened by vacuum exposure. Sitting on top of the polyp was a seam of soil six metres deep, frozen and fused into a concrete-hard clay. Whatever vegetation had once grown here had been ripped away when the habitat split open, grass and trees torn out by the roots as typhoons spun and roared for a few brief seconds on their way to oblivion. Every square centimetre of surface was pockmarked by tiny impact craters from the millennia-long bombardment of Ring gravel and dust.

Joshua studied it thoughtfully through the gritty mist of particles blurring its outlines. In the three years he had been scavenging he’d seen hundreds of shell fragments just like it, barren and inert. But this one had something, he knew it.

He switched his retinal implants to their highest resolution, narrowed the focus, and scanned the soil surface back and forth. His neural nanonics built up a cartographic image pixel by pixel.

There were foundations sticking up out of the soil. The Laymil used a rigidly geometric architecture for their buildings, all flat planes and right angles. No one had ever found a curving wall. This outline was no different, but if the floor-plan was anything to go by it was larger than any of the domestic residences he had explored.

Joshua cancelled the cartographic image, and datavised an instruction into the spaceplane’s flight computer. Reaction-control-thruster clusters in the tail squeezed out hot streams of ions, and the sleek craft began to nose in towards the foundations. He slipped out of the pilot’s seat where he’d been strapped for the last five hours, and stretched elaborately before making his way out of the cockpit into the main cabin.

When the spaceplane was being employed in its designed role of a starship’s ground to orbit shuttle the cabin was fitted with fifteen seats. Now he was using it purely to ferry himself between Tranquillity and the Ruin Ring, he had stripped them out, utilizing the space for a jury-rigged freefall shower, a galley, and an anti-atrophy gym unit. Even with a geneered physique he needed some form of exercise; muscles wouldn’t waste away in free fall, but they would weaken.

He started to take off his ship’s one-piece. His body was slim and well muscled, the chest slightly broader than average, pointers to the thickened internal membranes, and a metabolism which refused to let him bloat no matter how much he ate or drank. His family’s geneering had concentrated purely on the practicalities of free-fall adaptation, so he was left with a face that was rather too angular, the jaw too prominent, to be classically handsome, and mouse-brown hair which he kept longer than he ought to for flying. His retinal implants were the same colour as the original irises: blue-grey.

Once he was naked he used the tube to pee in before putting on his spacesuit, managing to avoid any painful knocks while he pulled the suit equipment from various lockers. The cabin was only six metres long, and there were too many awkward corners in too little space. Every movement seemed to set something moving, food wrappers he’d misplaced flapping about like giant silver butterflies and crumbs imitating bee swarms. When he got back to port he would have to have a serious cleaning session, the spaceplane’s life-support filters really weren’t designed to cope with so much crap.

In its inactive state the Lunar State Industrial Institute (SII) programmable amorphous silicon spacesuit consisted of a thick collar seven centimetres high with an integral respirator tube, and a black football-sized globe attached to the bottom. Joshua slipped the collar round his neck, and bit the end of the tube, chewing his lips round until it was comfortable. When he was ready he let go of the handhold, making sure he wasn’t touching anything, and datavised an activation code into the suit’s control processor.

The SII spacesuit had been the astronautics industry standard since before Joshua was born. Developed by the Confederation’s only pure Communist nation, it was produced in the Lunar city factories and under licence by nearly every industrialized star system. It insulated human skin perfectly against the hostile vacuum, permitted sweat transpiration, and protected the wearer from reasonably high radiation levels. It also gave complete freedom of motion.

The globe began to change shape, turning to oil and flowing over him, clinging to his skin like a tacky rubber glove. He closed his eyes as it slithered over his head. Optical sensors studding the collar section datavised an image directly into his neural nanonics.

The armour which went on top of his new shiny-black skin was a dull monobonded-carbon exoskeleton with a built-in cold-gas manoeuvring pack, capable of withstanding virtually any kinetic impact the Ruin Ring would shoot at him. The SII suit wouldn’t puncture, no matter what struck him, but it would transmit any physical knock. He ran both suit and armour checklists again while he clipped tools to his belt. Both fully functional.

When he emerged into the Ruin Ring the first thing he did was datavise a codelock order to the outer hatch. The airlock chamber was unprotected against particle bombardment, and there were some relatively delicate systems inside. It was a thousand to one chance, but five or six scavengers disappeared in the Ring each year. He knew some scavengers and even starship crews who had grown blasé about procedures, always moaning at Confederation Astronautics Board operational safety requirements. More losers, probably with a deep death-wish.

He didn’t have to worry about the rest of the spaceplane. With its wings retracted, it was a streamlined fifteen-metre needle, designed to take up as little room in a starship’s hangar as possible. Its carbotanium fuselage was tough, but for working the Ruin Ring he had coated it with a thick layer of cream-coloured foam. There were several dozen long score lines etched into it, as well as some small blackened craters.

Joshua orientated himself to face the shell section, and fired the manoeuvring pack’s gas jets. The spaceplane began to shrink behind him. Out here in deep space the sleek shape seemed completely incongruous, but it had been the only craft he could use. Seven additional reaction-mass tanks and five high-capacity electron-matrix cells were strapped around the tail, also covered in foam, looking like some kind of bizarre cancerous growths.

The detritus of the Ruin Ring drifted unhurriedly around him, a slow-tempo snowstorm, averaging two or three particles per cubic metre. Most of it was soil and polyp, brittle, petrified chips. They brushed against the armour, some bouncing off, some fragmenting.

There were other objects too, twisted scraps of metal, ice crystals, smooth rounded pebbles, lengths of cabling gradually flexing. None of them had any colour; the F3 star was one-point-seven-billion kilometres away, too distant to produce anything other than a pallid monochrome even with the sensors’ amplification. Mirchusko was just visible, a bleached, weary, green bulk, misted over like a dawn sun behind a band of cloud.

Whenever Joshua went EVA it was always the absolute quiet which got to him. In the spaceplane there was never any silence; the hums and whines of the life support, sudden snaps from the thruster-nozzle linings as they expanded and contracted, gurgles from the makeshift water lines. They were constant reassuring companions. But out here there was nothing. The suit skin clogged his ears, muffling even the sound of his own breathing. If he concentrated he could just make out his heartbeat, waves breaking on a very distant shore. He had to battle against the sense of smothering, the universe contracting.

There was something drifting in amongst the particles, a long feather-shape. He shifted the suit sensors’ focus, glad of the diversion. It was a complete bough from a tree, about five metres away on his left. The forked branches were the palest grey, tapering down to small twigs laden with long triangular leaves; the end which had broken away from the trunk was barbed with narrow blades of wood.

Joshua datavised an order into the manoeuvring pack, and curved round to catch the bough. When he reached it he closed his gauntleted hand around the middle. It was like trying to grasp a sculpture of sun-baked sand. The wood crumbled below his fingers, dissociating into minute flakes. Tremors ran along the branches, shaking the origami leaves as if they were in a breeze. He caught himself listening for the dry rustle, then he was suddenly in the heart of an expanding cloud of ash. He watched it for a long regretful moment before unclipping the slim sampler box from his belt in a reflex action, and swatting a few of the flakes.

The gas jets fired, agitating the cloud, and he emerged into a clearer section of space. The shell section was twenty metres away. For a disconcerting moment it looked like solid ground, and he was falling towards it. He shut down the collar sensor input for half a second, redefining his visual orientation in his mind. When the image came back, the shell section was a vertical cliff face, and he was flying towards it horizontally. Much better.

The soil was in shadow, although no part of the shell section was truly black, there was too much scattered light from Mirchusko for that. He could clearly see the foundations now, walls of black glass, snapped off a metre above the frozen quagmire of lustreless soil. The largest room had some kind of mosaic flooring, and a quarter of the small tiles were still in place. He halted seven metres from the darkened shell surface, and slid sideways. When he switched on the armour suit’s lights, white spot beams picked out an elaborate pattern of green, scarlet, and mauve tiles. From where he was it looked almost like a giant eight-taloned claw. Rivulets of water had solidified over it. They sparkled in the twin beams.

Joshua assigned the image a file code, storing it in an empty neural nanonic memory cell. The mosaic would bring in about thirty thousand fuseodollars, he guessed, if he could chip the hundreds of tiles out without breaking them. Unlikely. And the water, or whatever, would have to be scraped or evaporated away first. Risky. Even if he did work out a suitable method, it would probably take at least a week. That couldn’t have been the siren call he’d heard with his mind.

The gas jets burped again.

He began to build up a picture of the edifice as he glided over the stumpy walls: it was definitely a public building of some description. The room with the tile floor was probably a reception hall; there were five equally spaced gaps in one wall which suggested entrance doors. Corridors led off from the other three walls, each with ten small rooms on either side. There was a T-junction at the end of each of them, more corridors, more side rooms. Offices? There was no way of telling, nothing had been left when the building took flight, whirling off into space. But if it were a human building, he would call them offices.

Like most scavengers, Joshua thought he knew the Laymil well enough to build up a working image. In his mind they weren’t so much different from humans. Weird shape, trisymmetric: three arms, three legs, three stumpy serpentlike sensor heads, standing slightly shorter than a man. Strange biochemistry: there were three sexes, one female egg-carrier, two male sperm-carriers. But essentially human in basic motivation; they ate and shitted, and had kids, and built machines, and put together a technological civilization, probably even cursed their boss and went for a drink after work. All perfectly normal until that one day when they encountered something they couldn’t handle. Something which either had the power to destroy them in a couple of hours, or make them destroy themselves.

Joshua shivered inside the perfectly regulated environment of the SII suit. Too much time in the Ruin Ring could do that, set a man to brooding. So call the cramped square rooms offices, and think what happens in human offices. Over-paid intransigent bureaucrats endlessly shuffling data.

Central data-storage system!

Joshua halted his aimless meander around the serrated foundations and flew in close to the nearest office. Low, craggy black walls marked out a square five metres to a side. He got to within two metres of the floor and stopped, hanging parallel to it. Gas from the manoeuvring jets coaxed little twisters of dust from the network of fine fissures lacing the rumpled polyp surface.

He started at a corner, switching the sensors to cover an area of half a square metre, then fired the jets to carry him sideways. His neural nanonics monitored the inertial guidance module in a peripheral mode, allowing him to give his full attention to the ancient polyp as the search navigation program carried him backwards and forwards across the floor, each sweep overlapping the last by five centimetres.

He had to keep reminding himself of scale, otherwise he might have been flying an atmosphere craft over a desert of leaden sand. Deep dry valleys were actually impact scratches, sludgy oases marked where mud particles had hit, kinetic energy melting them, only to re-freeze immediately.

A circular hole one centimetre in diameter. Expanded to fill half his vision. Metal glinted within, a spiral ramp leading down. Bolt hole. He found another one; this time the bolt was still inside, sheared off. Two more, both with snapped bolts. Then he found it. A hole four centimetres across. Frayed cable ends inside waved at him like seaweed fronds. The optical fibres were unmistakable, different tolerances to the Kulu Corporation standard he was used to but apart from that they could have been human made. A buried communication net, which must logically be linked with the central data-storage system. But where?

Joshua smiled around the respirator tube. The entrance hall gave access to every other part of the building, why not the maintenance ducts? It fell into place without even having to think. So obvious. Destiny, or something close. Laughter and excitement were vibrating his nerves. This was it, the Big Strike. His ticket out into the real universe. Back in Tranquillity, in the clubs and scavenger pubs, they would talk in envious respectful tones about Joshua and his strike for decades. He’d made it!

The datavised order he shot into the manoeuvring pack sent him backing away from the office’s floor. His suit sensors clicked down the magnification scale, jumping his vision field back to normal in a lurching sequence of snapshots. The pack rotated him ninety degrees, pointing him at the mosaic, and he raced towards it, pale white ribbons of gas gushing from the jet nozzles.

That was when he saw it. An infrared blob swelling out of the Ruin Ring. Impossible, but there it was. Another scavenger. And there was no way it could be a coincidence.

His initial surprise was replaced by a burst of dangerous anger. They must have tracked him here. It wouldn’t have been particularly difficult, now he thought about it. All you needed was an orbit twenty kilometres above the Ring plane, where you could watch for the infrared signature of reaction drives as scavenger craft matched orbits with their chosen shell sections. You would need military-grade sensors, though, to see through all the gunk in the Ring. Which implied some pretty cold-blooded planning on someone’s part. Someone determined in a way Joshua had never been. Someone who wouldn’t shrink from eliminating the scavenger whose craft they intercepted.

The anger was beginning to give way to something colder.

Just how many scavengers had failed to return in the last few years?

He focused the collar sensors on the still-growing craft, and upped the magnification. Pink smear enveloped by brighter pink mist of the reaction-drive exhaust. But there was a rough outline. The standard twenty-metre-long hexagonal grid of an inter-orbit cargo tug, with a spherical life-support module on one end, tanks and power cells filling the rear cargo cradles, nesting round the reaction drive.

No two scavenger craft were the same. They were put together from whatever was available at the time, whatever components were cheapest. It helped with identification. Everyone knew their friends’ ships, and Joshua recognized this one. The Madeeir , owned by Sam Neeves and Octal Sipika. Both of them were a lot older than him; they’d been scavengers for decades, one of the few two-man teams working the Ruin Ring.

Sam Neeves: a ruddy-faced jovial man, sixty-five years old now, with fluid retention adding considerable bulk to his torso due to the time he spent in free fall. His body wasn’t geneered for long-term zero-gee exposure like Joshua’s, he had to go in for a lot of internal nanonic supplements to compensate for the creeping atrophy. Joshua could remember pleasant evenings spent with Sam, back around the time he started out scavenging, eagerly listening to the older man’s tips and tall stories. And more recently the admiration, being treated almost like a protégé made good. The not quite polite questions of how come he came up trumps so often. So many finds in such a short time. Exactly how much were they worth? If anyone else had tried prying like that he would have told them to piss off. But not Sam. You couldn’t treat good old Sam like that.

Good old fucking Sam.

The Madeeir had matched velocities with the shell section. Its main reaction drive shut down, shimmering vapour veil dissipating. The image began to clarify, details filling in. There were small bursts of topaz flame from its thruster clusters, edging it in closer. It was already three hundred metres behind the spaceplane.

Joshua’s manoeuvring pack fired, halting him above the mosaic, still in the shell’s umbra.

His neural nanonics reported a localized communication-frequency carrier wave switching on, and he just managed to datavise a response prohibition order into his suit transponder beacon as the interrogation code was transmitted. They obviously couldn’t see him just yet, but it wouldn’t take long for their sensors to pinpoint his suit’s infrared signature, not now they had shut down their reaction drive. He rotated so that his manoeuvring pack’s thermo-dump fins were pointing at the shell, away from the Madeeir , then considered his options. A dash for the spaceplane? That would be heading towards them, making it even easier for their sensors. Hide round the back of the shell section? It would be putting off the inevitable, the suit’s regenerator gills could scrub carbon dioxide from his breath for another ten days before its power cells needed recharging, but Sam and Octal would hunt him down eventually, they knew he couldn’t afford to stray far from the spaceplane. Thank Christ the airlock was shut and codelocked; it would take time for them to break in however powerful their cutting equipment was.

“Joshua, old son, is that you?” Sam’s datavise was muzzy with interference, ghostly whines and crackling caused by the static which crawled through the particles. “Your transponder doesn’t respond. Are you in trouble? Joshua? It’s Sam. Are you OK?”

They wanted a location fix, they still hadn’t seen him. But it wouldn’t be long. He had to hide, get out of their sensor range, then he could decide what to do. He switched the suit sensors back to the mosaic floor behind him. The dendrite tendrils of ice cast occasional pinpoint sparkles as they reflected the Madeeir ’s reaction-control-thruster flames. A coherent-microwave emission washed over him; radar wasn’t much use in the Ruin Ring, the particles acted like old-fashioned chaff. To use a scanner which only had the remotest chance of spotting him showed just how serious they were. And for the first time in his life he felt real fear. It concentrated the mind to a fantastic degree.

“Joshua? Come on, Joshua, this is Sam. Where are you?”

The ribbons of frozen water spread across the tiles resembled a river tributary network. Joshua hurriedly accessed the visual file of his approach from his neural nanonics, studying the exact pattern. The grubby ice was thickest in one of the corners, a zone of peaks and clefts interspaced by valleys of impenetrable shadow. He cautiously ordered the manoeuvring pack to push him towards that corner, using the smallest gas release possible, always keeping the thermo-dump fins away from the Madeeir .

“Joshua, you’re worrying us. Are you OK? Can we assist?”

The Madeeir was only a hundred metres away from the spaceplane now. Flames speared out from its thruster clusters, stabilizing its position. Joshua reached the rugged crystalline stalagmites rearing up a couple of metres from the floor. He was convinced he was right; the water had surged up here, escaping its pipes or tubing or whatever had carried it through subterranean depths. He grabbed one of the stalagmites, the armour’s gauntlet slipping round alarmingly on the iron-hard ice until he killed his momentum.

Crawling around the tapering cones hunting for some kind of break in the shell was hard work, and slow. He had to brace himself firmly each time he moved a hand or leg. Even with the sensors’ photonic reception increased to full sensitivity the floor obstinately refused to resolve. He was having to feel his way round, metre by metre, using the inertial guidance display to navigate to the centre, logically where the break should be. If there was one. If it led somewhere. If, if, if . . .

It took three agonizing minutes, expecting Sam’s exuberant mocking laughter and the unbearable searing heat of a laser to lash out at any second, before he found a crevice deeper than his arm could reach. He explored the rim with his hands, letting his neural nanonics assemble a comprehensible picture from the tactile impressions. The visualization that materialized in his mind showed him a gash which was barely three metres long, forty centimetres wide, but definitely extending below the floor level. A way in, but too small for him to use.

His imagination was gibbering with images of the pursuit Sam and Octal were putting together behind him. Bubbling up from that strange core of conviction was the knowledge that he didn’t have time to wriggle about looking for a wider gap. This was it, his one chance.

He levered himself back down to the widest part of the gash, and wedged himself securely between the puckered furrows of ice, then took the thermal inducer from his belt. It was a dark orange cylinder, twenty centimetres long, sculpted to fit neatly into his gauntleted hand. All scavengers used one: with its adjustable induction field it was a perfect tool for liberating items frozen into ice, or vacuum-welded to shell sections.

Joshua could feel his heart racing as he datavised the field profile he wanted into the inducer’s processor, and ordered his neural nanonics to override his pacemaker, nulling the adrenalin’s effect. He lined the thermal inducer up on the centre of the gap, took a deep breath, tensed his muscles, and initiated the program he’d loaded in his neural nanonics.

His armour suit’s lights flooded the little glaciated valley with an intense white glare. He could see dark formless phantoms lurking within the murky ice. Pressure ridges that formed sheer planes refracted rainbow fans of light back at the collar sensors. A gash that sank deep into the shell section’s interior, a depth hidden beyond even that intrusive light’s ability to expose.

The thermal inducer switched on simultaneously with the lights, fluorescing a metre-wide shaft of ice into a hazy red tube. At the power level he used it turned from solid to liquid to gas in less than two seconds. A thick pillar of steam howled past him, blasting lumps of solid matter out into the Ruin Ring. He fought to keep his hold on the ice as the edge of the stream grazed the armour suit.

“See you, Joshua,” Sam’s datavise echoed round his brain, laughing derisively.

The thermal inducer snapped off. A second later the rush of steam had abated enough to show him the tunnel it had cut, slick walls reflecting the suit’s light like rippled chrome. It ended ten metres down in a polyp cave. Joshua spun round his centre of gravity, fists hammering into the still bubbling ice, clawing desperately for traction on the slippery surface as he dived head-first down the tunnel.

Madeeir ’s laser struck the ice as his boots disappeared below the floor. Stalagmites blew apart instantly under the violent energy input, ice vaporized across an area three metres wide. A mushroom cloud of livid steam boiled up into space, carrying with it a wavefront of semi-solid debris. The laser shone like a shaft of red sunlight at its centre.

“Got the little shit!” Sam Neeves’ triumphant exclamation rang in the ether.

The laser blinked out. Slush splattered against the spaceplane’s foam-encased fuselage. A second later it reached the Madeeir , pattering weakly against the alithium struts. Reaction-control thrusters flamed momentarily, holding its position steady.

Once the storm of vapour had dwindled away, Madeeir refocused its sensor suite on the vibrating shell section. There was no ice left among the building’s foundations, the scouring had plucked the tiles free as well, even some of the low-lying walls had been razed by the blast-wave of steam. A roughly circular patch of the polyp floor glowed a dull vermilion. The sheer power of the laser saved Joshua. The soles of his armour suit had been caught in the initial blaze of photons, melting the mono-bonded-carbon boots, boring into the tough black membrane of the SII suit underneath. Even the miraculous Lunar technology couldn’t withstand that assault. His skin had charred, broiling the meat, singeing bone.

But the steam which had erupted so violently absorbed a great deal of the laser’s power. The seething gas also distorted the beam, and it didn’t just surge outwards, it also slammed down through the tunnel, punching at any blockage.

Joshua hurtled out of the gash in the polyp cave’s roof, cannoning into the floor, bouncing, arms flailing helplessly. He was almost unconscious from the pain in his feet, the analgesic block his neural nanonics had erected in his cortex was faltering under the nerve impulse overload. Blood was spraying out of his soles from the arteries which hadn’t been cauterized by the heat. The SII suit redistributed its molecules, flowing around the roasted feet, sealing the broken blood vessels. He hit the cave roof, recoiling. His neural nanonic circuits were visualizing a physiological schematic of his body, an écorché figure with feet flashing urgent red. Neatly tabulated information that was neither sound nor vision was pulsing into his consciousness, telling him the extent of the wounds. He really didn’t want to know, the gruesome details were acting like an emetic.

Steam was still gushing into the cave, building in pressure. He could actually hear the gale screeching its affliction. Caustic probes of red light stabbed down through the gash in the ceiling, fluctuating erratically. He hit the polyp again, jarring his arm. The knocks and spinning and pain were too much; he vomited. The SII suit immediately vented the acidic fluid as his stomach spasmed. He cried out in anguish as the sour juices sloshed round in his mouth, rationality fading away. His neural nanonics recognized what was happening and damped down all external nerve inputs, ordered the suit processor to feed him a draught of cool, clear oxygen, then fired the manoeuvring pack jets at full power to stop his madcap oscillations.

The suspension couldn’t have lasted more than ten seconds. When he took notice of the sensor visualization again the red light illuminating the cave had been extinguished, and the steam was rushing back out of the gap, currents tugging him gently back up towards it again. He reached out an arm to steady himself against the ceiling. His fingers closed automatically around a metal conduit pinned to the polyp.

Joshua did a fast double take, then began to scan the suit collar sensors round the cave. There were no ends in sight. It wasn’t a cave, it was a passage, slightly curved. The conduit was one of twenty running along the ceiling. They had all broken open below the gash, a familiar feathery fan of ragged photonic cables protruded.

His neural nanonics were clamouring for attention, medical data insistent against his synapses. He reviewed it quickly, quashing the return of the nausea. His soles had burnt down to the bone. There were several options stored in the neural nanonics’ medical program. He chose the simplest: shut-off for nerves below the knees, infusing a dose of antibiotics from the armour’s emergency pack, and shunting a mild tranquillizer program into primary mode to calm his inflamed thoughts.

While he waited for the drugs to start working he took a more measured assessment of the passage. The polyp had ruptured in several places, water and a syrupy fluid had spouted in, freezing over the walls in long streaks, turning the passage into a winterland grotto. They were boiling now, crusty surface temporarily turned back to a liquid by the retreating steam, frothing like bad beer. When he shone the suit’s lights into the rents he could see tubes running parallel to the passage; water ducts, nutrient arteries, sewage ducts—whatever, they were the habitat’s utilities. Edenist habitats were riddled with similar channels.

He summoned up the inertial guidance display, and integrated the passage into the data construct of the shell section. If the curve was reasonably constant, one end would emerge from the section’s edge after thirty metres. He started to move up the other way, watching the conduits. He didn’t have anywhere else to go.

The passage branched, then branched again. One junction had five passages. Ice clogged a lot of the walls, bulging outward in smooth mounds. In several places it was virtually impassable. Once he had to use the thermal inducer again. The conduits were often buried under frosted waves. The destruction had been as great down here as it had everywhere else in the habitat. That should have warned him.

The hemispherical chamber might have held the central storage system for the offices above; there was no way of telling now. The conduits which had led him loyally this far all snaked in through an open archway, then split at the apex three metres over his head, running down the curving walls like silver ribs. There had been a great deal of electronic equipment in here at one time: slate-grey columns, a metre or so high, with radiator fins running down the outside, the equivalent of human processor-module stacks. Some of them were visible, badly vacuum eroded now, their fragile complex innards mashed beyond salvation, battered ends sticking out of the rubble. Nearly half of the ceiling had collapsed, and the resulting pile of polyp slivers had agglutinated in an alarmingly concave wall, as though the avalanche had halted half-way through. If gravity was ever reapplied here, the whole lot would come crashing down. Whatever force had rampaged through the chamber when the habitat broke apart had left total devastation in its wake.

Maybe it was deliberate, he mused, because it’s certainly very thorough. Maybe they didn’t want any records to survive?

The manoeuvring pack rotated him, allowing him to perform a complete survey. Over by the archway, a tongue of that viscous brownish fluid had crept in, stealing along the wall until the temperature drop congealed it into a translucent solid. A regular outline was just visible below the gritty surface.

He sailed over, trying to ignore the debilitating effect his maimed feet were having on the rest of his body. He had developed a splitting headache despite the tranquillizer program, and he’d caught his limbs trembling several times as he drifted along the passage. The neural nanonics had reported his core temperature dropping one degree. He suspected a form of mild shock was tightening its malicious grip. When he got back to the spaceplane he was going to have to use the medical nanonic packages to stabilize himself straight away. That brought a grin. When! He’d almost forgotten about Sam and Octal.

He was right about the frozen liquid, though. Up close, with the suit lights on full, he could make out the definite shape of one of the grey electronics pillars. It was in there waiting for him; waiting patiently for over two and a half thousand years, since the time Jesus was nailed to the cross on a primitive, ignorant Earth, immaculately preserved in grubby ice against the insidious decay so prevalent in the Ruin Ring. Every circuit chip, every memory crystal, just waiting for that first current of electrons to reawaken them. His Strike!

Now all he had to do was get it back to Tranquillity.

The communication band was devoid of human data traffic as he perched on the lip of the passage, and all his suit communication block could pick up was the usual background pop and fizz of Mirchusko’s emissions. He’d experienced a strange kind of joy just seeing the Ruin Ring again after retracing his course down the passage. Hope had dwindled to that extent. But now he felt a stubborn determination rising up against the tranquillizer program muffling his mind.

It was impossible to see his spaceplane or the Madeeir from where he was, the passage lip was fourteen metres below the soil seam, a maggot hole in a sheer cliff face. Looking down he could see the ochre silicon envelope thirty-five metres below. And he still didn’t like to think of the force it would take to snap something that thick the way he snapped biscuits.

This part of the shell surface was exposed to the sunlight, a pale lemon radiance, alive with flickering ever-changing shadows cast by the unceasing swarm of Ring particles. His inertial-guidance unit was projecting a course vector into his mind, a warm orange tube stretching out to vanishing point somewhere in the Ring ahead of him. He datavised the trajectory into the manoeuvring pack, and its jets pulsed, pushing him gently away from the passage, slipping silently down the imaginary tube.

He waited until he was a kilometre and a half from the cover of the shell section before changing direction, then headed out at a steep angle to his previous course, facing into the sun, nozzles firing continually, building velocity. What he was actually doing was raising his orbital altitude in respect to Mirchusko. A higher altitude would give him a longer orbital period. When he halted he was still in the same inclination as the Madeeir and the shell section, but five kilometres higher. In their lower, faster orbit, the ship and shell section began to overhaul him.

He couldn’t even see them any more. Five kilometres of particles was as effective a shield as the output from a military electronic-warfare pod. The neural nanonics kept flashing up a graphic overlay for him, a small red circle around the shell section, his one tenuous link with salvation. He had never been so far from the spaceplane before, never been so achingly alone.

His armour suit’s communication block began to pick up first scraps of datavised exchanges between Sam and Octal, unintelligible bursts of digital code with a curious echo effect. He was glad of the diversion, using his neural nanonics to try and decrypt the signals. His universe seemed to fill with numbers, galactic constellations of colourless digits, all twisting elusively as he loaded tracer program after tracer program, searching for a pattern.

“. . . no chance. It’s built for landing security, no telling what’ll . . . on a planet. A thermal inducer would just anneal the . . .” That was Octal’s datavise, emitted from a suit block. It made sense, he was the younger, fifty-two; Sam would be sitting comfortably back in the Madeeir directing his junior to recover what they could from the spaceplane.

Joshua felt a shiver run down his ribcage. The cold of the gas giant’s environment was reaching in through the SII suit to close around him.

Sam’s datavise: “. . . the tail where the tanks . . . anything large would have to be . . .”

Octal’s datavise: “. . . there now. I can see some kind of cradle he’s . . . can’t be for . . .”

They faded in and out, chattering, snarling at each other. Sam seemed certain that Joshua had picked something up. He listened to it in a waking daze as the Madeeir drifted past. Slowly, it was all happening in time stretched thin.

A lump of clear ice coasted past, as broad as his hand. There was a turquoise and orange fish inside, three eyes around a triangular beaklike mouth, staring ahead, as if it was somehow aware of its surroundings, swimming along its eternal migration path. He watched it dwindle away, too numb to try and collect it—gone for ever now.

He had virtually fallen asleep when the inertial-guidance program warned him he was now falling behind the Madeeir . The manoeuvring-pack jets began to fire in a long, elaborate pattern, reducing his velocity and altitude again, sending him curving down behind the Madeeir .

Sam’s datavise: “. . . response from the flight computer . . . photonic interface point . . .”

Octal’s datavise: “. . . fission blade won’t work, the fucking hatch is monobonded carbon, I’m telling you . . . Why don’t you listen, arsehole . . .”

Sam’s datavise: “. . . little shit . . . find his body . . . chew on his bones . . .”

The manoeuvring pack took Joshua behind the Madeeir , the ship a fuzzed pink outline a kilometre ahead of him. He could catch an intermittent view of it through the swirl of particles. Then he lowered his orbit again, a few hundred metres this time, and orbital mechanics reeled him in towards it with painful slowness.

His approach was conducted solely within its blind spot, a cone extending backwards from its reaction drive. All he had to do was keep the bulk of the engine bay between himself and the sensors protruding from the life-support module, and he would remain undetected, especially in the clutter of the Ruin Ring. He also had the advantage that they thought he was dead. They wouldn’t be looking, not for anything as small as a suit.

The last hundred metres were the worst. A quick burst of speed, rushing headlong into the twin pits of the reaction-drive nozzles. If they started up now . . .

Joshua slid between the two fat bell-shapes, and anchored himself on the maze of thrust-distribution struts. The rockets were similar in principle to the engines in his spaceplane, though he didn’t know the marque. A working fluid (usually a hydrocarbon) was pumped into an energizer chamber where it was heated to about seventy-five thousand degrees Kelvin by a colossal discharge from the power cells. It was a simple system, with few moving parts, little to go wrong, and cheap to maintain. Scavengers didn’t need anything more, the delta-V you needed to travel between Tranquillity and the Ruin Ring was small. Joshua couldn’t think of anyone who used a fusion drive.

He began to move around the gimbals, going hand over hand, careful not to jar his feet against anything. The power leads were easy to find, superconductor cables as thick as his arm. He fished round his belt for the fission knife. The ten-centimetre blade glowed a spectral yellow, unusually bright in the shade-soaked engine bay. It made short work of the cables.

Another quick climb brought him up against the hulking tanks. They were covered by a quilt of nultherm insulation blanket. He settled himself at the bottom of one tank, and stripped a patch of the insulation away. The tank itself was a smooth dull silver, merging seamlessly into the turbopump casing at its base. He jammed the thermal inducer into a support-strut joint, squirted on some epoxy to make sure it wouldn’t slip, and datavised a series of orders into its processor.

Ten minutes later, the processor switched on the thermal-induction field. Joshua had programmed it to produce a narrow beam, ten centimetres wide, three metres long. Three-quarters of it was actually projected inside the tank, where it started to vaporize the hydrocarbon liquid. Frenzied currents churned, carrying more fluid into the field. Pressure built swiftly, rising to dangerous levels.

The metal shell of the tank wasn’t quite so susceptible to the field. Its molecular structure retained cohesion for almost twenty seconds before the sheer quantity of heat concentrated into such a small area disrupted the valency bonds. The metal turned malleable and began to bulge outwards, impelled by the irresistible pressure mounting inside the tank.

In the Madeeir ’s cramped cabin, Sam Neeves widened his eyes in horror as datavised alarms shrilled in his brain. Complex ship schematics unfurled across his consciousness, fuel sections a frantic red. Emergency safety programs sent a torrent of binary pulses into the engine bay. None of it made any difference to the rising pressure.

They were contingencies for malfunctions, he realized. This was something else, the tank was being subjected to a tremendous energy input. The trouble was external. Deliberate.

“Joshua!” he roared in helpless fury.

After operating for twenty-five seconds at maximum expenditure the thermal inducer’s electron matrix was exhausted. The field shut down. But the damage had been done.

The protuberance swelling from the tank was glowing a brilliant coral-pink. Its apex burst open. A fountain of boiling gas streaked out, playing across the engine bay. Thermal blankets took flight, whirling away; composite structures and delicate electronics modules melted, sending out spumes of incendiary droplets. Madeeir lurched forward, slewing slowly around its long axis as the rocketlike thrust of the erupting tank shoved against the hull.

“Holy shit,” Sam Neeves spat. “Octal! Octal, for Christ’s sake get back here!”

“What’s happening?”

“It’s Joshua, he’s fucked us. Get back here. The reaction control can’t keep her stable.”

Even as he said it the guidance data pouring into his mind showed the thruster clusters losing the battle to hold the ship level. He tried to activate the main drive, the only engines with the strength to compensate for the rogue impulse of the ruptured fuel tank. Dead.

A neural nanonic medical monitor program overrode his pacemaker, calming his frightened heart. Adrenalin buzzed in his head.

Sensors and control linkages from the engine bay were failing at an unbelievable rate. Large areas of the schematic in his mind were an ominous black. The shell section loomed large in the forward sensors.

Joshua watched from behind the relative safety of a boulder three hundred metres away. The Madeeir was starting to tumble like the universe’s largest drumstick. Sparkly gas spewed out of one end, tracing a wavering arc through space.

“We’re going to hit!” Sam Neeves datavised.

The Madeeir had already wobbled past the spaceplane, giving Joshua a nasty moment. Now it was careering towards the shell section. He held his breath.

It should have hit, he thought, it really should. But the rotation it had picked up saved it. Madeeir flipped over the edge of the polyp cliff as if it was on pivots, its life-support module no more than five metres from the surface. At that speed it would have been split open as though it was made of glass.

Joshua sighed as the gritty tension contracting every tendon drained away. They deserved death, but it would just have to wait now. He had other priorities. Like making sure he lived. At the back of his mind there was a phantom throbbing from his feet. His neural nanonics were reporting his blood was laced with toxins, probably some contamination from the burned flesh, too.

Madeeir raced onwards, deeper into the Ruin Ring. Already two hundred metres beyond the shell section. The plume of gas was visibly weaker.

A small pearl-white mote curved over the edge of the shell section, chasing after the ship. Octal, desperate not to be stranded alone with a spaceplane he couldn’t open. If he’d stopped to think, he might have sabotaged Joshua’s craft.

Be thankful for small mercies, Joshua told himself.

The manoeuvring pack lifted him from his hiding place behind the boulder. Its gas reserve was down to five per cent. Just enough to get back to the spaceplane. Although he would have found a way even if it was empty. Somehow. Today he was fortune’s child.

Chapter 05

Like a fool Quinn Dexter had been waiting for the jolt, a blink of cold emptiness which would tell him the voyage had actually taken place. It hadn’t happened, of course. The crewman had tugged him into the coffin-sized zero-tau pod, one of thousands arranged in a three-dimensional lattice within the colonist-carrier starship’s vast life-support capsule. Unfamiliar with free fall, and hating the disorientating giddiness every motion brought, Quinn had meekly allowed himself to be shoved about like he was so much cargo. The cortical-suppressor collar pinching his neck made any thoughts of escape a pitiful fantasy.

Right up until the moment the pod cover had hinged smoothly over him he refused to believe it was happening, clinging to the notion that Banneth would pull strings and get him off. Banneth was plugged into Govcentral’s State of Canada administration as deep as a high magus in a virgin. One word, one nod of her head, and he would be free once more. But no. It hadn’t happened. Quinn, it seemed, wasn’t important enough. There were hundreds of eager waster boys and girls in the Edmonton arcology who even now would be vying to replace him, hungry for Banneth’s attention, her bed and her smile, a place in the Light Bringer sect’s hierarchy. Youths with verve, with more style than Quinn. Youths who would strut rather than sweat when they were carrying Banneth’s cargo of weird persona-sequestrator nanonics into Edmonton. Who wouldn’t be dumb enough to try and run when the police stopped them at the vac train station.

Even the police had thought Quinn was crazy for doing that, laughing as they hauled his twitching stunned body back to Edmonton’s Justice Hall. The carton had self-destructed, of course, an internecine energy flare reducing the nanonics to indecipherable clusters of crumbling molecules. The police couldn’t prove he was carrying anything illegal. But the charge of resisting arrest was good enough for the magistrate to slap an Involuntary Transport order on him.

Quinn had even tried giving the sect’s sign to the crewman, the inverted cross, fingers squeezing so tight his knuckles had whitened. Help me! But the man hadn’t noticed, or understood. Did they even have Light Brother sects out amongst the stars?

The pod cover closed.

Banneth didn’t care about him, Quinn realized bitterly. God’s Brother, after the loyalty he’d shown her! The atrocious sex she had demanded from him. “My little Sunchild,” she had crooned as he penetrated and was penetrated. The pain he had pridefully endured at his initiation to become a sergeant acolyte. The weary hours spent on the most trivial sect business. Helping to recruit his own friends, betraying them to Banneth. Even his silence after he was arrested; the beating the police had given him. None of it meant shit to Banneth. He didn’t mean shit to Banneth. That was wrong.

After years bumming round as an ordinary waster kid, it had taken the sect to show him what he really was, an animal, pure and simple. What they’d done to him, what they’d made him do to others, it was liberation, freeing the serpent beast which lurked in the soul of every man. Knowing his true self was glorious. Knowing that he had the power to do what he wanted to others, simply because he chose to. It was a magnificent way to live.

It made the lower ranks obey, out of fear, out of respect, out of adoration. He was more than their chapter leader, he was their saviour. As Banneth was his.

But now Banneth had abandoned him, because Banneth thought him weak. Or perhaps because Banneth knew his true strength, the conviction he had in himself. There were few in the sect who were as committed to worshipping the Night as Quinn. Had she come to see him as a threat?

Yes. That was more likely. The true reason. Everyone feared him, his purity. And by God’s Brother they were right to do so.

The pod cover opened.

“I’ll get you,” Quinn Dexter whispered through clenched teeth. “Whatever it takes, I’m coming after you.” He could see it then: Banneth violated with her own persona-sequestrator nanonics, the glittery black filaments worming their way through her cortex, infiltrating naked synapses with obscene eagerness. And Quinn would have the command codes, reducing mighty Banneth to a puppet made of flesh. But aware. Always aware of what she was being made to do. Yes!

“Oh, yeah?” a coarse voice sneered. “Well, cop this, pal.”

Quinn felt a red-hot needle jab up his spine pressing in hard. He yelped more with shock than pain, his back convulsing frantically, pushing him out of the pod.

The laughing crewman grabbed him before he hit the mesh bulkhead three metres in front of the pod. It wasn’t the same man that had put Quinn into the pod seconds before. Days before. Weeks . . .

God’s Brother, Quinn thought, how long has it been? He gripped the mesh with sweaty fingers, pressing his forehead against the cool metal. They were still in free fall. His stomach oscillating like jelly.

“You going to put up a fight, Ivet?” the crewman asked.

Quinn shook his head weakly. “No.” His arms were trembling at the memory of the pain. God’s Brother, but it had hurt. He was frightened the neural blitz had damaged his implants. That would have been the final irony, to have got this far only for them to be broken. The two nanonic clusters the sect had given him were the best, high quality and very expensive. Both of them had passed undetected in the standard body scan the police had given him back on Earth. They had to, possessing the biolectric pattern-mimic cluster would have qualified him for immediate passage to a penal planet.

Being entrusted with it was another token of the sect’s faith in him, in his abilities. Copying someone’s biolectric pattern so he could use their credit disk inevitably meant having to dispose of them afterwards. Weaker members might shirk from the task. Not Quinn. He’d used it on over seventeen victims in the last five months.

A quick status check revealed both the nanonic clusters were still functional. God’s Brother hadn’t deserted him, not entirely.

“Smart boy. Come on, then.” The crewman grabbed Quinn’s shoulder, and began to swim along the mesh with nonchalant flips of his free hand.

Most of the pods they passed were empty. Quinn could see the outlines of more pods on the other side of the mesh. The light was dim, casting long grey shadows. Looking round him he knew how a fly must feel crawling about inside an air-conditioning duct.

After the life-support module, there were a couple of long tubular corridors. Crewmen and colonists floated past. One family was clustered around a wailing four-year-old girl who clung to a grab hoop with a death-grip. Nothing her parents could say would make her let go.

They went through an airlock into a long cylindrical compartment with several hundred seats, nearly all of them occupied. Spaceplane, Quinn realized. He had left Earth on the Brazilian orbital tower, a ten-hour journey crammed into a lift capsule with twenty-five other Involuntary Transportees. It suddenly struck him he didn’t even know where he was now, nothing had been said about his destination during his fifty-second hearing in front of the magistrate.

“Where are we?” he asked the crewman. “What planet?”

The crewman gave him a funny look. “Lalonde. Why, didn’t they tell you?”


“Oh. Well, you could have copped a worse one, believe me. Lalonde is EuroChristian-ethnic, opened up about thirty years ago. I think there’s a Tyrathca settlement, but it’s mainly humans. You’ll do all right. But take my advice, don’t get the Ivet supervisor pissed at you.”

“Right.” He was afraid to ask what a Tyrathca was. Some kind of xenoc, presumably. He shuddered at that, he who had never ventured out of the arcologies or vac-train stations back on Earth. Now they were expecting him to live under open skies with talking animals. God’s Brother!

The crewman hauled Quinn down to the rear of the spaceplane, then took his collar off and told him to find a spare seat. There was a group of about twenty people sitting in the last section, most of them lads barely out of their teens, all with the same slate-grey one-piece jump suit he’d been issued with. IVT was printed in bright scarlet letters on their sleeves. Waster kids. Quinn could recognize them, it was like looking into a mirror which reflected the past. Him a year ago, before he joined the Light Brothers, before his life meant something.

Quinn approached them, fingers arranged casually in the inverted cross sign. Nobody responded. Ah well. He strapped himself in next to a man with a pale face and short-cropped ginger hair.

“Jackson Gael,” his neighbour said.

Quinn nodded numbly and muttered his own name. Jackson Gael looked about nineteen or twenty, with the kind of lean body and contemptuous air that marked him down as a street soldier, tough and uncomplicated. Quinn wondered idly what he had done to be transported.

The PA came on, and the pilot announced they would be undocking in three minutes. A chorus of whoops and cheers came from the colonists in the front seats. Someone started playing a mini-synth, the jolly tune grating on Quinn’s nerves.

“Balls,” Jackson Gael said. “Look at ’em, they want to go down there. They actually believe in that New Frontier crap the development company has peddled them. And we’ve got to spend the rest of our lives with these dickheads.”

“Not me,” Quinn said automatically.

“Yeah?” Jackson grinned. “If you’re rich how come you didn’t bribe the captain, have him drop you off at Kulu or New California?”

“I’m not rich. But I’m not staying.”

“Yeah, right. After you finish your work-time you’re gonna make it as some hotshot merchant. I believe you. Me, I’m gonna keep my head down. See if I can’t get assigned to a farm for my work-time.” He winked. “Some good-looking daughters in this batch. Lonely for them out there in their little wilderness homesteads. People like you and me, they start looking at us in a better light after a while. And if you ain’t noticed yet, there ain’t many Ivet fems.”

Quinn stared at him blankly. “Work-time?”

“Yeah, work-time. Your sentence, man. Why, you think they were going to turn us loose once we hit the planet?”

“They didn’t tell me anything,” Quinn said. He could feel the despair opening up inside him, a black gulf. Only now was he beginning to realize how ignorant of the universe outside the arcology he truly was.

“Man, you must’ve pissed someone off bad,” Jackson said. “You get dumped on by a politico?”

“No.” Not a politician, somebody far worse, and infinitely subtler. He watched the last colonist family emerge from the airlock, it was the one with the terrified four-year-old girl. Her arms were wrapped tightly round her father’s neck and she was still crying. “So what do we do for work-time?”

“Well, once we get down there, you, me, and the other Ivets start doing ten years’ hard labour. See, the Lalonde Development Company paid for our passage from Earth, and now they want a return on that investment. So we spend the prime of our life shovelling shit for these colonists. Community maintenance, they call it. But basically we’re a convict gang, Quinn, that’s what we are; we build roads, clear trees, dig latrines. You name it, every crappy job the colonists need doing, we do it for them. Work where we’re told, eat what we’re given, wear what we’re given, all for fifteen Lalonde francs a month, which is about five fuseodollars’ worth. Welcome to pioneer paradise, Quinn.”

The McBoeing BDA-9008 spaceplane was a no-frills machine designed for operations on stage one agrarian planets; remote basic colonies where spare parts were limited, and maintenance crews were made up of wash-outs and inexperienced youngsters working their first contract. It was a sturdy delta shape built in a New Californian asteroid settlement, seventy-five metres long, with a wingspan of sixty metres; there were no ports for the passengers, just a single curving transparent strip for the pilot. A fuselage of thermal-resistant boron-beryllium alloy glinted a dull oyster in the sharp light of the F-type star a hundred and thirty-two million kilometres away.

Faint jets of dusty gas spirted out of the airlock chamber as the seal disengaged. Docking latches withdrew into the bulk of the starship, leaving the spaceplane floating free.

The pilot fired the reaction-control thrusters, moving away from the seamless curve of the huge starship’s hull. From a distance the McBoeing resembled a moth retreating from a football. When they were five hundred metres apart, a second, longer, burn from the thrusters sent the spaceplane curving down towards the waiting planet.

Lalonde was a world which barely qualified as terracompatible. With a small axial tilt and uncomfortable proximity to its bright primary, the planet’s climate was predominantly hot and humid, a perennial tropical summer. Out of its six continents only Amarisk in the southern hemisphere had been opened for settlement by the development company. Humans couldn’t venture into the equatorial zone without temperature-regulated suits. The one, northern, polar continent, Wyman, was subject to severe storms as the hot and cool air fronts clashed around its edges all year long. Shrivelled ice-caps covered less than a fifth of the area normal for terracompatible planets.

The spaceplane sliced cleanly down through the atmosphere, its leading edges glowing a dull cerise. Ocean rolled past below it, a placid azure expanse dotted with volcanic island chains and tiny coral atolls. Pristine clouds boiled across nearly half of the visible surface, generated by the relentless heat. Barely a day went by anywhere on Lalonde without some form of rain. It was one of the reasons the development company had managed to attract funding; the regular heat and moisture was an ideal climate for certain types of plants, rewarding the farmer colonists with vigorous growth and high yields.

By the time the McBoeing dropped to subsonic velocity it had fallen below the vast cloudband sweeping in towards Amarisk’s western coast. The continent ahead covered over eight million square kilometres, stretching from the flood plains of the western coast to a long range of fold mountains in the east. Under the midday sun it glared a brilliant emerald, jungle country, broken by huge steppes in the south where the temperature dropped towards subtropical.

Beneath the spaceplane the sea was stained with mud, a grubby brown blemish extending for seventy to eighty kilometres out from the boggy shore. It marked the mouth of the Juliffe, a river whose main course stretched just under two thousand kilometres inland, way into the foothills guarding the eastern coast. The river’s tributary network was extensive enough to rival Earth’s Amazon. For that reason alone, the development company had chosen its southern bank as the site of the planet’s capital (and sole) city, Durringham.

The McBoeing passed low over the coastal swamps, lowering its undercarriage, bullet-shaped nose lining up on the runway thirty kilometres ahead. Lalonde’s only spaceport was situated five kilometres outside Durringham, a clearing hacked out of the jungle containing a single prefabricated metal grid runway, a flight-control centre, and ten hangars made from sun-bleached ezystak panels.

The spaceplane touched down with tyres squealing, greasy smoke shooting up as the flight computer applied the brakes. The nose lowered, and it rolled to a halt, then started to taxi back towards the hangars.

An alien world. A new beginning. Gerald Skibbow emerged from the stuffy atmosphere of the spaceplane’s cabin, looking about with reverence. Just seeing the solid picket of raw jungle bubbling around the spaceport’s perimeter he knew he’d done the right thing coming here. He hugged his wife, Loren, as they started down the stairs.

“Damn, will you look at that! Trees, real bloody trees. Millions of them. Trillions of them! A whole bloody world of them.” He breathed in deep. It wasn’t quite what he’d expected. The air here was solid enough to cut with a knife, and sweat was erupting all over his olive-green jump suit. There was a smell, vaguely sulphurous, of something rotting. But by damn it was natural air; air that wasn’t laced with seven centuries of industrial pollutants. And that’s what really counted. Lalonde was dreamland made real, unspoilt, a world on which the kids could make anything come true just by working at it.

Marie was following him down the stairs, her pretty face registering a slight sulk, nose all crinkled up at the scent of the jungle. Even that didn’t bother him; she was seventeen, nothing in life was right when you were seventeen. Give her two years, she’d grow out of it.

His eldest daughter, Paula, who was nineteen, was staring round appreciatively. Her new husband, Frank Kava, stood beside her with his arm protectively round her shoulder, smiling at the vista. The two of them sharing the moment of realization, making it special. Now Frank had what it took, a perfect son-in-law. He wasn’t afraid of hard work. Any homestead with Frank as a partner was bound to prosper.

The apron in front of the hangar was made from compacted rock chips, with puddles everywhere. Six harried Lalonde Development Company officers were collecting the passengers’ registration cards at the bottom of the steps, running them through processor blocks. Once the data was verified, each immigrant was handed a Lalonde citizenship card and an LDC credit disk with their Govcentral funds converted to Lalonde francs, a closed currency, no good anywhere else in the Confederation. Gerald had known that would happen; he had a Jovian Bank credit disk stashed in an inner pocket, carrying three and a half thousand fuseodollars. He nodded thanks as he received his new card and disk, and the officer directed him towards the cavernous hangar.

“You’d think they’d be a bit better organized,” Loren muttered, cheeks puffed against the heat. It had taken fifteen minutes’ queueing before they got their new cards.

“Want to go back already?” Gerald teased. He was holding up his citizenship card, grinning at it.

“No, you wouldn’t come with me.” The eyes smiled, but the tone lacked conviction.

Gerald didn’t notice.

In the hangar they joined the waiting passengers from an earlier spaceplane flight, where the LDC officer collectively labelled them Transient Group Seven. A manager from the Land Allocation Office told them there was a boat scheduled to take them upriver to their allocated settlement land in two days. They would be sleeping in a transients’ dormitory in Durringham until it departed. And they’d have to walk into town, though she promised a bus for the smaller children.

“Dad!” Marie hissed through her teeth as the groans rose from the crowd.

“What? You haven’t got legs? You spent half the time at your day club in the gym.”

“That was muscle toning,” she said. “Not forced labour in a sauna.”

“Get used to it.”

Marie almost started to answer back, but caught the look in his eye. She exchanged a slightly worried glance with her mother, then shrugged acceptance. “OK.”

“What about our gear?” someone asked the manager.

“The Ivets will unload it from the spaceplane,” she said. “We’ve got a lorry ready to take it into town, it’ll go straight onto the boat with you.”

After the colonists started their march into town a couple of the spaceport ground crew marshalled Quinn and the other Involuntary Transportees into a work party. So his first experience of Lalonde was spending two hours lugging sealed composite containers out of a spaceplane’s cargo hold, and stacking them on lorries. It was heavy work, and the Ivets stripped down to their shorts; it didn’t seem to make a lot of difference to Quinn, sweat appeared to have consolidated into a permanent layer on his skin. One of the ground crew told them that Lalonde’s gravity was fractionally less than Earth standard; he couldn’t feel that, either.

About quarter of an hour into the job he noticed the ground crew had all slunk back into the shade of the hangar. Nobody was bothering with the Ivets.

Two more McBoeing BDA-9008s landed, bringing another batch of colonists down from the orbiting starship. One spaceplane took off, ferrying LDC personnel up to the empty berths; they were going home, their contract time expired. He stopped to watch the big dark delta-shape soar into the sky, dwindling away to the east. The sight laced his thoughts with vicious envy. And still nobody was paying him any attention. He could run, here and now, away into that awesome expanse of untamed land beyond the perimeter. But the spaceport was the place where he wanted to run to , and he could well imagine how the homesteaders would treat fugitive Ivets. He might have been stupid enough to be Transported, but he wasn’t that naïve. Cursing softly under his breath, he hauled another composite box full of carpentry tools out of the McBoeing’s hold and carried it over to the lorry.

By the time the Ivets finished the unloading and began their long trudge into Durringham the clouds from the west had arrived bringing a warm, persistent rain. Quinn wasn’t surprised to find his grey jump suit turned out not to be waterproof.

The Lalonde Immigration Registration Department manager’s office was in an administration block grafted onto the spaceport’s flight-control centre. A long rectangular flat roof structure of ezystak panels clipped onto a metal frame. It had been assembled twenty-five years previously when the first colonists arrived, and its austere fittings were showing their age. Lalonde didn’t even rate programmed-silicon constructs for its administration buildings, Darcy thought bleakly; at least the Lunar-built structures had some concessions to comfortable living. If ever a colony project was funded on the cheap, it was Lalonde. But the office did have air-conditioning, powered from solar cells. The temperature was appreciably lower than outside, though the humidity remained constant.

He sat on the settee working his way through the registration cards which the latest batch of arrivals had handed over in exchange for their citizenship and LDC credit disks. The starship had brought five and a half thousand people from Earth; five and a half thousand losers, dreamers, and criminals let loose to wreck another planet in the name of noble destiny. After sixty years in the Edenist Intelligence agency, Darcy couldn’t think of Adamists in any other terms. And they claim they’re the normal ones, he thought wryly, give me ungodly freakishness every time.

He entered another card’s memory into his processor block, glancing briefly at the hologram. A fairly handsome twenty-year-old man, face composed, eyes haunted with fear and hatred. Quinn Dexter, an Involuntary Transportee. The processor block balanced on his lap didn’t respond to the name.

The card was tossed onto the growing pile. Darcy picked up another.

“Something you never told me,” Nico Frihagen said from behind his desk. “Who are you people looking for?”

Darcy looked up. Nico Frihagen was Lalonde’s Immigration Registrar, a grand title for what was essentially a clerk working in the Governor’s Civil Administration Division. He was in his late fifties, dourly Slavic in appearance, with rolling jowls and limp receding hair. Darcy suspected his ancestors had had very little to do with geneering. The slobbish civil servant was drinking beer from a tube, an offworld brand, no doubt pilfered from some unsuspecting arrival’s farmsteading gear. Spaceport staff had a nice racket going ripping off the new colonists. Nico Frihagen was an essential segment of the scam; a list of belongings was included on the colonists’ registration cards.

That readiness to jam his nose in the trough made the registrar an ideal contact for the Edenist operatives. For a straight five hundred fuseodollars a month, Darcy and his partner, Lori, ran through the new immigrants’ identification without having to access the colony’s civic data store.

Details on the immigrants were sparse, the Lalonde Development Company didn’t really care who settled the planet as long as they paid their passage and land registration fee. The company wouldn’t declare a dividend for another century yet, when the population had grown above a hundred million and an industrial economy was rising to replace the agrarian beginnings. Planets were always very long term investments. But Darcy and Lori kept ploughing through the data. Routine procedure. Besides, someone might get careless.

“Why do you want to know? Has somebody been showing an interest?” Lori asked, sitting at the other end of the settee from Darcy. A seventy-three-year-old woman with plain auburn hair and a round face, she looked about half of Nico Frihagen’s age. Like Darcy she lacked the distinctive height of most Edenists, which made both of them ideal for deep cover work.

“No.” Nico Frihagen gestured with the beer tube. “But you’ve been doing this for three years now, hell probably for three years before that for all I know. It’s not just the money, that doesn’t mean much to you people. No, it’s the time you spend. That’s got to mean you’re searching for someone important.”

“Not really,” Lori said. “It’s a type of person we’re after, not a specific individual.”

Good enough,darcy told her silently.

Let’s hope he’s satisfied with it,she replied.

Nico Frihagen took a swig of beer. “What type?”

Darcy held up his personal processor block. “The profile is loaded in here, available on a need to know basis. Do you think you need to know, Nico?”

“No. I just wondered. There have been rumours, that’s all.”

“What sort of rumours, Nico?”

Nico Frihagen gazed out of the office’s window, watching an Ivet team unloading a McBoeing BDA-9008. “Upriver. Some settlers vanished, a couple of homesteads up in Schuster County. The sheriffs couldn’t find any trace of them, no sign of a struggle, no bodies; just empty houses.”

Where the heck is Schuster County?lori asked.

Darcy queried the bitek processor in his block; a map of the Juliffe’s tributary basin bloomed in his mind. Schuster County glowed a soft amber, a sprawling area, roughly rectangular, clinging to the side of the Quallheim River, one of the hundreds of tributaries. Like Nico said, way upriver. Over a thousand kilometres; it’s an area they’re just opening up for settlement.

It could be some kind of big animal. A kroclion, or even something the ecological analysis crew didn’t find.

Maybe.darcy couldn’t bring himself to believe that. “So what was the rumour about it, Nico? What are people saying?”

“Not much, not many people know. The Governor wanted it kept quiet, he was worried about stirring up trouble with the Tyrathca farmers, there’s a group of them on the other side of the savannah which borders Schuster County. He thought they’d get the blame, so the county sheriff hasn’t made an official report. The homesteads have been listed as abandoned.”

“When did this happen?” Lori asked.

“Couple of weeks back.”

Not much to go on,lori said.

It’s remote enough. The kind of area he’d go to.

I concede that. But what would he want with some hick farmers?

Insufficient data.

Are we going to go and check?

Check what? That the homesteads are empty? We can’t go gallivanting off into the jungle over a couple of families who have broken their settlement contract. Goodness, if you stuck me out there in the middle of nowhere, I’d want to run away.

I still say it’s odd. If they had been ordinary malcontents, the local sheriff would have known about it.

Yes. But even if we did go, it would take us two or three weeks to reach Schuster County. That means the trail would be well over a month old and cold. How good are you at tracking trails like that through a jungle?

We could take Abraham and Catlin out of zero-tau, use them to scout the area.

Darcy weighed up the options. Abraham and Catlin, their eagles, had enhanced senses, but even so sending them off without even a reasonable idea of where their quarry might be was pointless. They could spend half a year covering Schuster County alone. If they had more operatives he might have sanctioned it, but not with just the two of them. Covering Lalonde’s immigrants was a long shot, acting on one piece of dubious information nearly forty years old: that Laton had bought a copy of the original ecological assessment team’s report. Chasing off into the hinterlands was completely out of the question.

No,he said reluctantly. We’ll keep them for when we have a definite scent. But there’s a voidhawk due from Jospool in a month, I’ll ask the captain for a complete survey of Schuster County.

OK, you’re the boss.

He sent the mental image of a grin. They had worked together for too long for rank to be anything other than nominal between them.

“Thanks for mentioning this,” Darcy told Nico Frihagen.

“It was useful?”

“Could be. We’ll certainly show our appreciation.”

“Thank you.” Nico Frihagen smiled thinly and took another gulp of beer.

He is a disgusting oaf,lori said.

“We’d be even more grateful if you let us know of any more disappearances,” Darcy said.

Nico Frihagen cocked his beer tube in his direction. “Do my best.”

Darcy picked up another registration card. The name Marie Skibbow was printed along the top; an attractive teenage girl smiled rebelliously at him from her hologram. Her parents were in for a few years of hell, he decided. Outside the grimy window, thick grey clouds were massing on the western horizon.

The road linking Durringham to the spaceport was a broad strip of pinkish rock chippings slicing straight through the thick jungle. Father Horst Elwes marched towards the capital as best he could with his swelling feet rubbing what felt suspiciously like blisters on both heels. He kept a cautionary eye on the clouds accumulating above the gently waving treetops, hoping the rain would hold off until he made it to the transients’ dormitory.

Thin spires of steam drifted out of the chippings around his feet. The narrow gorge between the trees seemed to act as a lens for the sun, and the heat was awesome. A carpet of bushy grass was besieging the edge of the road. Vegetation on Lalonde certainly was vigorous. Birdsong filled the air, a resonant chittering. That would be the chikrows, he thought, reviewing the didactic memory of local conditions which the Church had given him before he left Earth. About the size of a terran pheasant, with bright scarlet plumage. Eatable, but not recommended, the artificial memory informed him.

There wasn’t much traffic on the road. Battered lorries rumbling to and from the spaceport, carrying wooden crates and ancient-looking composite cargo-pods, some loaded up with homesteading gear. The spaceport crews riding power bikes with broad, deep-tread tyres, tooting their horns as they sped past, the men shouting at the girls. Several horse-drawn carts trundled by. Horst stared with unashamed delight at the big creatures. He’d never visited his arcology’s zoo back on Earth. How strange that the first time he should meet them was on a planet over three hundred light-years from their birthworld. And how could they stand the heat with such thick coats?

There were five hundred members in Group Seven, of which he was included. They had all started off down the road in a tightly packed group following the LDC officer, chattering brightly. Now, after a couple of kilometres, they had become well spread out, and subdued. Horst was close to the rear. His joints were already creaking in protest, and the need for a drink was rising sharply. Yet the air was so moist. Most of the men had shrugged out of their jump suit tops and T-shirts, tying the arms around their waist. So too had several of the women. He noticed that all the locals on power bikes were in shorts and thin shirts; so was the LDC officer leading them, come to that.

He stopped, surprised by the amount of blood pounding away in his cheeks, and gave the seal catch at his neck a full ninety-degree twist. The front of his jump suit split open to reveal his thin powder-blue T-shirt, stained a shade deeper by sweat. The lightweight silk-smooth garment might be ideal for shipboard use, and even in an arcology, but for dealing with raw nature it was ridiculous. Somebody must have got their communication channels fouled up. Surely colonists hadn’t been arriving dressed like this for twenty-five years?

A little girl, about ten or eleven years old, was looking up at him. She had that miniature angel’s face of all young children, with straight shoulder-length white-blonde hair, gathered into two pony-tails by small red cords. He was surprised to see she was wearing sturdy ankle-length hiker boots, along with baggy yellow shorts and a small white cotton top. A wide-brimmed green felt hat was tilted back sharply. Horst found himself smiling down at her automatically.

“Hello, there. Shouldn’t you have got on the bus back at the spaceport?” he asked.

Her face screwed up in indignation. “I’m not a baby!”

“I never said you were. But you could have fooled the development company officer into giving you that lift. I would have done it, if I had the chance.”

Her eyes darted to the white crucifix on his T-shirt sleeve. “But you’re a priest.”

“Father Horst Elwes, your priest, if you are in Group Seven.”

“Yes, I am. But claiming a lift would have been dishonest,” she persisted.

“It would have been sensible. And I’m sure Jesus would understand.”

She grinned at that, which made the day seem even brighter to Horst.

“You’re nothing like Father Varhoos back home.”

“Is that good?”

“Oh, yes.” She nodded vigorously.

“Where’s your family?”

“There’s only me and Mother.” The girl pointed to a woman who was walking towards them. She was in her mid-thirties, a strong face with the same fair hair as her daughter. Her robust figure made Horst sigh for what could never be. Not that the Unified Christian Church forbade its priests from marrying, far from it, but even in his prime, twenty years ago, he had been curved in most directions. Now he was what his kinder colleagues described as cuddly, and that was after treating every calorie like an invading virus.

Her name was Ruth Hilton, she told him briskly, and her daughter was Jay. There was no mention of a husband or boyfriend. The three of them started walking down the road together.

“It’s nice to see someone was thinking along practical lines,” Horst said. “A fine band of pioneers we turned out to be.” Ruth was also dressed for the heat, with shorts, cloth hat, and a sleeveless vest; her boots were larger versions of Jay’s. She was carrying a well-loaded rucksack; and her broad leather belt had several devices clipped on to it. Horst didn’t recognize any of them.

“This is a tropical planet, Father. Didn’t the Church give you a generalist didactic memory of Lalonde before you left?” Ruth asked.

“Yes. But I hardly expected to be undertaking a route march the minute we arrived. By my personal timetable, it’s only been fifteen hours since I left the arcology abbey.”

“This is a stage one colony,” Ruth said, without any sympathy. “You think they’re going to have the time or the inclination to wet-nurse five thousand arcology dwellers who have never seen the open sky before? Do me a favour!”

“I still think we might have been given some warning. Perhaps a chance to change into more appropriate clothing.”

“You should have carried it with you in the zero-tau pod. That’s what I did. There’s an allowance for up to twenty kilos of personal luggage in the passage contract.”

“The Church paid for my passage.” Horst answered carefully. He could see Ruth had what it took to survive in this new, demanding world; but she would have to learn to soften her somewhat mercenary attitude or he could imagine himself trying to calm a lynch mob. He forbade a grin. Now that would be a true test of my ability.

“Know what your problem is, Father?” Ruth asked. “Too much faith.”

Quite the contrary, Horst thought, I have nowhere near enough. Which is why I’m here in the remotest part of the human dominion, where I can do little or no harm. Though the bishop was far too kind to put it like that.

“What do you intend doing when we reach our destination?” he asked. “Farming? Fishing in the Juliffe, perhaps?”

“Not likely! We’ll be self-sufficient, of course, I brought enough seeds for that. But I’m a qualified didactic assessor.” She grinned roguishly. “I’m going to be the village schoolmarm. Probably the county schoolmarm, seeing the scraploose way this place is put together. I’ve got a laser imprinter and every educational course you can think of stored in here.” She patted the rucksack. “Jay and I are going to be able to write our own ticket with that. You wouldn’t believe the things you’re going to need to know once we’re dumped in the middle of nowhere.”

“I expect you’re right,” he said without much enthusiasm. Were all the other colonists experiencing the subtle feeling of doubt now they were facing the daunting physical reality of Lalonde? He looked round at the people nearest to him. They were all plodding along lethargically. A gorgeous teenage girl trudged past, face down, lips set in grim misery. Her jump suit top was tied round her waist; she was wearing a tangerine scoop-neck T-shirt underneath, revealing plenty of smooth skin that was coated in sweat and dust. A silent martyr, Horst decided; he had seen the type often enough when he put in a stint at his arcology’s refuge. None of the males nearby paid her the slightest attention.

“You bet I am,” Ruth boomed irrepressibly. “Take shoes, now. You probably brought two or three pairs, right?”

“Two pairs of boots, yes.”

“Smart. But they’re not going to last five years in the jungle, no matter what fancy composite they’re made out of. After that you make your own. And for that you come to me for a course in cobbling.”

“I see. You have thought this out, haven’t you?”

“Wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t.”

Jay smiled up at her mother with complete adoration.

“Isn’t an imprinter rather heavy to be lugging about?” Horst asked curiously.

Ruth guffawed loudly, and ran the back of her hand across her brow in a theatrical motion. “Sure is. But it’s valuable, especially the newest technical courses, stuff this planet’s never heard of. I’m not about to leave that in the hands of the spaceport crew. No way, no how.”

A chill of alarm slithered through Horst. “You don’t think . . .”

“I’m bloody sure they are. It’s what I’d do.”

“Why didn’t you say something back there?” he demanded in exasperation. “I have reading primer books in my container, medicines, communion wine. Some of us could have remained with it for security.”

“Listen, Father, I’m not aiming to be mayor of this group, I’ll leave that to some hulking macho male, thank you. And I can’t see myself being applauded for standing up in front of that manager woman and saying we should stay behind to stop her friends from stealing our gear. Would you have done that, you with your goodwill to all men?”

“Not publicly, no,” Horst said. “But there are ways.”

“Well, start thinking of them, because those precious containers of ours are going to be left piled up in a warehouse in town for the next couple of days before we set sail. And we’re going to need what’s inside them, and I really do mean need ; because anyone who thinks that all it takes to survive out there is determination and honest toil is in for the shock of their pampered lives.”

“Do you always have to be right about absolutely everything?”

“Listen, you’re here to look after our souls, Father. You’ll be good at that, I can see, you’re the caring type. Deep down, anyway. But keeping my soul connected to my body, that’s all down to me. And I intend to do the best job I can.”

“All right,” he said. “It might be a good idea for me to speak with some of our group this evening. Perhaps we could organize some kind of watch at the warehouse.”

“Wouldn’t be a bad idea to see if we can acquire replacements for anything that’s gone walkabout, as well. There’s bound to be other groups’ gear stored with ours, it shouldn’t be too difficult.”

“Alternatively, we could go to the Sheriff’s office, and ask them to find anything that’s been stolen from us,” Horst said forcibly.

Ruth laughed out loud.

They walked on in silence for several minutes.

“Ruth?” he asked eventually. “Why have you come here?”

She exchanged a mournful glance with Jay, the two of them suddenly vulnerable. “I’m running away,” she said. “Aren’t you?”

Durringham had been founded in 2582, a couple of (Earth) years after the Confederation inspection team had confirmed the results of the land venture company’s ecological analysis crew, agreeing that Lalonde had no biota exceptionally hazardous to humans—a certificate which was vital for any planet seeking to attract colonists. The hiatus was due to the venture company (which had bought the settlement rights from the scoutship which discovered the planet) attracting partners, and turning itself into the Lalonde Development Company. With enough financial backing to establish a working spaceport and provide a minimal level of civil administration, as well as securing an agreement with the Edenists to germinate a bitek habitat above Murora, the system’s largest gas giant, the task of attracting colonists began in earnest.

After reviewing the predominantly South-East Asian catchment profiles and intended culture-base of other stage one colony planets in the same sector as Lalonde, the LDC board decided to concentrate on EuroChristian-ethnic stock to give themselves an adequate immigrant pool. They wrote a broadly democratic constitution which would come into effect over a century, with the LDC turning over local civil administration functions to elected councils, and ultimately the governorship to a congress and president at the end of the first hundred years. Theory had it that when the process was complete Lalonde would have developed a burgeoning industrial/technological society, with the LDC as the largest across-the-board shareholder in the planet’s commercial enterprises. That was when the real profits would start to roll in.

At the start of the preliminary stage, cargo starships delivered thirty-five dumpers into low orbit: squat, conical, atmospheric-entry craft, packed full of heavy machinery, supplies, fuel, ground vehicles, and the prefabricated sections of runway. The dumpers were aerobraked below orbital velocity, and one by one began their long fiery descent curve towards the jungle below. They rode the beacon signals down to land beside the Juliffe’s southern bank, spread out in a line fifteen kilometres long.

Each dumper was thirty metres high, fifteen metres across its base, weighing three hundred and fifty tonnes fully loaded. Small fins around the base steered them with reasonable accuracy through the atmosphere until they were seven hundred metres above the ground, by which time they had slowed to subsonic speed. A cluster of eight giant parachutes lowered them for the final few hundred metres, bringing them to a landing which resembled a controlled crash to the small flight-control team watching from a safe distance. They were designed for a one-way trip; where they landed, they stayed.

Construction crews followed them down in small VTOL spaceplanes, and began unloading. When the dumpers had been emptied they formed environment-proof accommodation for the crews’ families and offices for the governor’s civil administration staff.

The jungle surrounding the dumpers was levelled first, a chop and burn policy producing a wide swath of desolated foliage and charred animals; the spaceport clearing followed. After the runway grids were assembled, a second wave of workers arrived in the McBoeings, along with more equipment. This time they had to build their own accommodation, using the profusion of logs the earlier crews had left scattered across the ground. Rings of crude wooden cabins sprang up around all of the dumpers, looking as if they were rafts floating on a sea of mud. Stripped of its scrub cover, subject to continual heavy plant traffic and Lalonde’s daily rains, the rich black loam was reduced to a fetid-smelling sludge which was over half a metre thick in places. The rock crushers worked continuously throughout the planet’s twenty-six-hour day, but they could never supply enough chippings to stabilize the expanding city’s quagmire roads.

The view from the scuffed and algae-splattered window of Ralph Hiltch’s office, on the third floor of the dumper which housed the Kulu Embassy, showed him the sun-soaked timber-plank roofs of Durringham spread out across the gently undulating land next to the river. The conglomeration was devoid of any methodical street pattern. Durringham hadn’t been laid down with logical forethought, it had erupted like a tumour. He was sure even Earth’s eighteenth-century cities had more charm than this. Lalonde was his fourth offworld assignment, and he had never seen anything more primitive. The weather-stained hulls of the dumpers rose above the shanty-town precincts like arcane temples, linked to the ramshackle buildings with a monstrous spider web of sable-black power cables slung between tall poles. The dumpers’ integral fusion generators provided ninety per cent of the planet’s electrical power, and Durringham was completely dependent on their output.

By virtue of the Royal Kulu Bank taking a two per cent stake in the LDC, Kulu’s Foreign Office had acquired the dumper for its staff as soon as the start-up phase of colonization was over, ousting the Governor’s Aboriginal Fruit Classification Division in the process. Ralph Hiltch was grateful for the political arm-twisting manoeuvre of twenty years ago; it allowed him to claim an air-conditioned office, and a tiny two-room apartment next door. As the Commercial Attaché he was entitled to a bigger apartment in the embassy’s residential block outside, but his actual position as Head of Station for the Kulu External Security Agency operation on Lalonde meant he needed the kind of secure quarters which the old dumper with its carbotanium structure could provide. Besides, like everything else in Durringham, the residential block was made of wood, and leaked something rotten.

He watched the near-solid cliff of silver-grey rain sweeping in from the ocean, obscuring the narrow verdant line peeping above the rooftops to the south which marked the boundary of the jungle. It was the third downpour of the day. One of the five screens on the wall opposite his desk showed a real-time weather-satellite image of Amarisk and the ocean to the west, both covered by spiral arms of cloud. To his wearily experienced eye the rain would last for a good hour and a half.

Ralph eased himself back in his chair and regarded the man sitting nervously on the other side of his desk. Maki Gruter tried not to shift about under the stare. He was a twenty-eight-year-old grade three manager working for the Governor’s Transport Office, dressed in fawn shorts and a jade shirt, his lemon-yellow cagoule hanging off the back of his chair. Like almost everyone else in Lalonde’s civil administration he was for sale; they universally regarded this backwoods posting as an opportunity to rip off both the LDC and the colonists. Ralph had recruited Maki Gruter two and a half years ago, a month after he himself had arrived. It wasn’t so much an entrapment exercise as simply making a selection from a host of eager volunteers. There were times, Ralph reflected sagely, when he would like to see an official who wouldn’t sell out for just a sniff of the ubiquitous Edenist fuseodollar. Once his duty tour on Lalonde was finished in another three years he would have to go through innumerable refresher courses. Subversion was so easy here.

In fact there were times when he questioned the whole point of the ESA mounting an operation on what was basically a jungle populated by psychological Neanderthals. But Lalonde was only twenty-two light-years from the Principality of Ombey, the Kulu Kingdom’s newest dominion star system, itself only just out of stage-two development. The ruling Saldana dynasty wanted to make sure that Lalonde didn’t mature along hostile lines. Ralph and his colleagues were assigned to watch the colony’s political evolution, occasionally offering covert assistance to aspirants with coincident policies; money, or black data on opposing candidates, it didn’t make any difference in the end. The formative years of a colony’s independence set the political agenda for centuries to come, so the ESA did its best to make sure the first elected leaders were ideologically benign as regards the Kingdom. Placemen, basically.

It made sense if you took the long-term consequences into account; a few million pounds spent now as opposed to the billions any form of naval action would cost once Lalonde had a technoeconomy capable of building military starships. And God knows, Ralph thought, the Saldanas approached every problem from that angle—with their life-expectancy long term was the only term they understood.

Ralph smiled pleasantly at Maki Gruter. “Anyone of any interest in this batch?”

“Not that I can see,” the civil servant said. “All Earth nationals. Usual Ivet types, waster kids dumb enough to get caught. No political exiles, or at least, none listed.” Behind his head, the screen displaying the vectors of Lalonde’s miserly orbital traffic showed another spaceplane docking with the vast colonist-carrier starship.

“Fine. I’ll have it checked, of course,” Ralph said expectantly.

“Oh, right.” Maki Gruter’s mouth twitched in a half-embarrassed grin. He pulled out a processor block and datavised the files over.

Ralph observed the information flood into his neural nanonics, assigning it to spare storage cells. Tracer programs ran through the fifty-five hundred names, comparing them to his primary list, the most troublesome of Earth’s political agitators known to the ESA. There was no match-up. Later he would datavise the files into a processor block, running a comparison with the huge catalogue of recidivist names, facial images, and in some cases DNA prints which the ESA had trawled from right across the Confederation.

He glanced out through the window again to see a group of the new arrivals slogging along the mushy road which led down the side of the square of grass and straggly roses which passed for the embassy gardens. The rain had arrived, drenching them in seconds. Women, children, and men with their hair beaten down, jump suits clinging to their bodies like a dark, crinkled, lizard hide, all looking thoroughly wretched. There might have been tears on their faces, but he couldn’t tell with the rain. And they still had another three kilometres to go before they reached the transients’ dormitories down by the river.

“Christ, look at them,” he murmured. “And they’re supposed to be this planet’s hope for the future. They can’t even organize a walk from the spaceport properly, none of them thought to take waterproofs.”

“Have you ever been to Earth?” Maki Gruter asked.

Ralph turned away from the window, surprised by the younger man’s question. Maki was normally keen to simply collect the money and run. “No.”

“I have. That planet is one giant hive queen for misbegottens. Our noble past. Compared to that, what this planet offers in the way of a future doesn’t look so bad.”

“Yeah, maybe.” Ralph opened a drawer and took out his Jovian Bank credit disk.

“There’s someone else going upriver with this batch of colonists,” Maki said. “My office had to arrange a berth for him, that’s how I know.”

Ralph stopped in the act of authorizing the usual three-hundred-fuseodollar payment. “Who’s that?”

“A marshal from the Sheriff’s Office. Don’t know his name, but he’s being sent up to Schuster County to scout round.”

Ralph listened to Maki Gruter explain about the missing homestead families, his mind running over the implications. Somebody in the Governor’s Office must consider it important, he thought, there were only five marshals on the planet: combat specialists with nanonic-boosted metabolisms, and well armed. Colony Governors deployed them to sort out severe problems, like bandits and potential revolts, problems that had to be eliminated fast.

Another of Ralph’s briefs was to watch for pirate activity in the Lalonde system. Prosperous Kulu with its large merchant fleet was engaged in a constant battle with mercenary vessels. Undisciplined, under-policed colony planets with woefully deficient communications were an ideal market for stolen cargoes, and most of the immigrants were at least bright enough to bring a credit disk primed with fuseodollars. The contraband was invariably sold deep in the hinterlands, where dreams soured within weeks when it became clear just how tough it was to survive outside the enclosed comfort of an arcology, and nobody was going to question where sophisticated power hardware and medical packages came from.

Perhaps those families had questioned the source of their windfall?

“Thanks for telling me,” he said, and upped the payment to five hundred fuseodollars.

Maki Gruter smiled in gratitude as his credit disk registered the financial bonus. “My pleasure.”

Jenny Harris came in a minute after the transport manager left. A thirty-year-old ESA lieutenant, on her second off-world mission. She had a flat face, her nose slightly crooked, with short dark ginger hair, and a slim figure which belied her strength. Ralph had found her a competent officer in the two years she’d been on Lalonde, if a little bit too rigorous in applying agency procedure to every situation.

She listened attentively as Ralph repeated what Maki Gruter had told him.

“I haven’t heard any word on unexplained hardware appearing upriver,” she said. “Just the usual black-market activity, selling off the gear which the spaceport crews lift from new colonists.”

“What assets have we got up in the Schuster area?”

“Few,” she said reluctantly. “We mainly rely on our contacts in the Sheriff’s Office for reports on contraband, and the boat crews fill in a bit more of the picture. Communication is the problem, naturally. We can give our upriver assets communication blocks, but the Confederation Navy satellites would spot any transmissions even if they were prime encrypted.”

“OK,” Ralph nodded. It was an old argument, urgency against exposure risk. At this stage of its development nothing on Lalonde was considered urgent. “Do we have anyone going upriver?”

Jenny Harris paused as her neural nanonics reviewed schedules. “Yes. Captain Lambourne is due to take a new colonist group upriver in a couple of days, they’re settling land just past Schuster itself. She’s a good courier, I use her to collect reports from our in situ assets.”

“Right, ask her to find out what she can, about the missing families and whether or not there’s been any unexplained equipment appearing up there. In the meantime I’ll contact Solanki, see if he’s heard anything about it.” Kelven Solanki worked at the small Confederation Navy office in Durringham. Confederation Navy policy was that even the humblest of colony worlds was entitled to the same degree of protection as any of the developed planets, and the office was supposed to be visible proof of that. To underline the fact, Lalonde received a twice-yearly visit by a frigate from the 7th Fleet, based at Roherheim, forty-two light-years away. Between visits, a flock of ELINT sensor satellites watched over the star system, reporting their observations directly to the navy office.

Like Ralph and the ESA, their secondary role was to keep an eye out for pirate activity.

Ralph had introduced himself to Lieutenant-Commander Solanki soon after he arrived. The Saldanas were strong supporters of the Confederation, so cooperation as far as locating pirate activity was concerned was a sensible arrangement. He got on reasonably well with the commander, partly due to the navy’s mess, which served arguably the best meals in the city, and neither of them made any mention of Ralph’s other duties.

“Good idea,” Jenny Harris said. “I’ll meet with Lambourne tonight, and brief her on what we want. She’ll want paying,” she added in a cautionary tone.

Ralph requested Lambourne’s file from his neural nanonics, shaking his head ruefully when he saw how much the woman cost them. He could guess how much she would ask for this fact-finding mission upriver. “OK, I’ll authorize it. Try and keep her under a thousand, please.”

“Do my best.”

“Once you’ve dealt with her, I want you to activate an asset in the Governor’s office, find out why the Honourable Colin Rexrew thinks it’s necessary to send a marshal to investigate some missing farmers no one has ever heard of before.”

After Jenny Harris left he datavised the list of new arrivals into his processor block for analysis, then sat back and thought about how much to tell Commander Solanki. With a bit of luck he could drag out the meeting and get himself invited to dinner at the mess.

Chapter 06

Twenty-two thousand kilometres ahead of Oenone , the tiny blue ion-manoeuvring jets of the Adamist starship Dymasio were consumed by the interstellar night. Syrinx watched through the voidhawk’s optical senses as the intense pinprick of light dwindled away to nothing. Directional vectors swirled away at the back of her mind, an unconscious calculation performed in conjunction with Oenone ’s spacial instinct. The Dymasio had lined up on the Honeck star system eight light-years away, the alignment checked out perfectly.

I think this is it,she told thetis. Graeae , her brother’s voidhawk, was drifting a thousand kilometres to one side of Oenone ; the two voidhawks had their distortion fields reduced to a minimum. They were operating in full stealth mode, with minimal energy expenditure. There wasn’t even any gravity in the crew toroid. The crew hadn’t eaten any hot meals, there had been no waste dumps, all of them peeing and crapping into sanitary bags, and there was definitely no hot water. Blanket webs of heat-duct cables had been laid over Oenone ’s hull and crew toroid alike, then smothered by a thick light-absorbent insulation foam. All the starship’s waste heat was siphoned off by the blankets and radiated away through a single dump panel, always orientated away from their prey. Holes had been left for Oenone ’s sensor blisters, but that was all. Oenone kept complaining that the covering itched, which was ridiculous, but Syrinx held her peace—for now.

I agree,thetis replied.

Syrinx felt a shiver of trepidation mingling with a release of pent-up tension. They had been following the Dymasio for seventeen days, keeping twenty to thirty thousand kilometres behind as it zigzagged between uninhabited star systems on a totally random course designed to spot and shake off any possible pursuer. A chase of that nature was demanding and difficult, putting a strain on even Edenist psyches, let alone the twenty-strong Adamist naval marine squad they were carrying. Seeing the way their hard-pressed captain, Larry Kouritz, had maintained discipline throughout the mission had sparked a rare respect. And there weren’t many Adamists who rated that.

With the final coordinate insertion manoeuvres complete, she could imagine the Dymasio retracting its sensors and thermo-dump panels, configuring itself for the jump, charging its patterning nodes with energy. Ready?she asked Oenone .

I’m always ready,the voidhawk replied tartly.

Yes, she would be very glad when this mission was over.

It had been Thetis who persuaded her to sign on with the Confederation Navy for a seven-year tour, Thetis with his strong sense of duty and commitment, goaded by a wilful zest. Syrinx had always intended to put in a naval stint, Athene had often told her rumbustious children of her service days, painting an enticing picture of gallantry and camaraderie. She just hadn’t anticipated it to be quite so soon, three years after she and Oenone started flying.

With their power and agility, voidhawks were an essential component of the Confederation Navy, employed by Fleet admirals as ideal interception craft. After being fitted out with both offensive and defensive combat systems and an extensive array of electronic sensors, then undergoing a three-month procedural-training course, Oenone and Graeae had been assigned to the 4th Fleet, operating from the Japanese Imperium capital Oshanko.

Although the Confederation Navy was a dedicated supranational organization, voidhawks always had Edenist crews. Syrinx had kept her original crew: Cacus, the life-support engineer; Edwin, in charge of the toroid’s mechanical and electrical systems; Oxley, who piloted both the multifunction service vehicle and the atmospheric ion-field flyer; Tula, the ship’s generalist and medical officer. And Ruben, the fusion-generator technician, who had become Syrinx’s lover a month after he came aboard, and at a hundred and twenty-five was exactly a century older than her.

It was like Aulie all over again, an aspect which made her feel incredibly girlish and carefree, almost an antithesis of her responsibilities as captain. They slept together when ship’s schedules permitted, and spent all their shore leave ranging across whichever planet, habitat, or asteroid settlement they were visiting. Although well into middle age, Ruben, like all Edenists, was still more than capable physically, so their sex life was pretty reasonable; and they both shared a delight in exploring the different cultures flourishing within the Confederation, marvelling in their sheer variety. Through Ruben, and his seemingly inexhaustible patience, she had learned to be far more tolerant of Adamists and their idiosyncrasies. Which was another reason for accepting the Confederation Navy commission.

Then there was also that familiar miscreant thrill to be had from the way everyone regarded their relationship as mildly scandalous. Given their life expectancy, large age gaps were common among Edenist partners, but a hundred years was pushing the limits of propriety. Only Athene didn’t make the mistake of objecting, she knew Syrinx far too well for that. In any case, the relationship wasn’t that serious; Ruben was convenient, uncomplicated, and fun.

The final crew-member was Chi, who had been posted to Oenone by the navy to be their weapons officer. He was a career Confederation Navy man, as far as any Edenist could be in an organization which demanded staff officers renounce their national citizenship (hardly practical for Edenists).

Oenone and Graeae had spent four years of patrolling uninhabited star systems, providing occasional random escorts for merchant ships in the hope of engaging pirates, exercised with the Fleet on full-system defence attacks, taken part in a marine assault on an industrial station suspected of building antimatter combat wasps, and making innumerable goodwill calls at ports throughout the 4th Fleet’s sector. For the last eight months the Admiralty had assigned them to an independent interception duty, under the command of the Confederation Naval Intelligence Service. This was the third chase flight the CNIS had sent them on: the first ship had been empty when they reached it; the second, a blackhawk, managed to elude them with its longer swallow range, much to Syrinx’s extreme chagrin. But the Dymasio was undeniably guilty; the CNIS had suspected it of carrying antimatter for some time, and this flight proved it. Now the ship was preparing to enter an inhabited system to make contact with an asteroid separatist group. This time they would make their arrest. This time! Oenone ’s cabin atmosphere seemed compressed by the prospect.

Even Eileen Carouch, the CNIS lieutenant who was liaising with them, had picked up on the Edenists’ expectancy. She was strapped into the couch next to Syrinx, a middle-aged woman with a bland, unmemorable face, the kind Syrinx supposed was ideal for an active agent. But the personality behind it was resolute and resourceful; discovering the Dymasio ’s hoarded cache was proof of that.

Right now she had her eyes tight closed, accessing the datavised information Oenone was providing through bitek processors interfaced with their hardware equivalents, allowing all the Adamists to see what was going on.

Dymasio ’s ready to jump,” Syrinx said.

“Thank heavens for that. My nerves can’t stand much more of this.”

Syrinx felt a grin on her lips. She always found a slight edge of tension in her dealings with Adamists on an individual basis; them and their emotions locked inside impenetrable bone, you never knew quite what they felt, which was difficult for the empathic Edenists to handle. But Eileen had turned out to be amazingly blunt with her opinions. Syrinx quite enjoyed her company.

The Dymasio vanished. Syrinx felt the sharp kink in space as the ship’s patterning nodes warped the fabric of reality around her hull; to Oenone the distortion was like a flare. One that was totally quantifiable. The voidhawk instinctively knew the emergence-point coordinate.

Let’s go!syrinx broadcast loudly.

Power flooded through the voidhawk’s patterning cells. An interstice was torn open. They plunged into the expanding wormhole. Syrinx could feel Graeae generating its own wormhole away to one side, then the interstice closed behind them, sealing them in timeless oblivion. Imagination, twinned with genuine voidhawk sensorium input, provided a giddy rushing sensation for the couple of heartbeats it took to traverse the wormhole. A terminus opened at some indeterminable distance, a different texture of negation, seemingly curving round them. Starlight began to pour in, bending into a filigree of slender blue-white lines around the hull. Oenone shot out into space. Stars became hard diamond points again.

The event horizon had evaporated from the Dymasio ’s hull, depositing the starship five light-days out from Honeck’s sun. Its sensor clusters and thermo-dump panels emerged from the hull with the timidity of a hibernating creature venturing out into a spring day. As with all Adamist starships, it took time to check its location, and scan local space for stray comets or rock fragments. That crucial time lapse allowed the tremendous spacial flaws accompanying the opening of the voidhawks’ terminuses to remain undetected.

Ignorant of his invisible followers, the Dymasio ’s captain activated the starship’s main fusion drive, heading towards the next jump coordinate.

“It’s moving again,” Syrinx said. “Preparing to go insystem. Do you want to interdict?” The thought of antimatter being carried into an inhabited system disturbed her.

“What’s the new destination?” Eileen Carouch asked.

Syrinx consulted the system’s almanac stored in Oenone ’s memory cells. “It looks like Kirchol, the outer gas giant.”

“Any settlements in orbit?” She hadn’t quite grasped how to pull information from Oenone the way she could from hardware memory cores.

“None listed.”

“It has to be heading for a rendezvous, then. Don’t interdict it, follow it in.”

“Let it into an inhabited system?”

“Sure. Look, if it was just the antimatter we wanted, we could have boarded any time in the last three months. That’s how long we’ve known the stuff was on board. Dymasio has visited seven inhabited star systems since we started monitoring it, without threatening any of them. Now my agent confirms the captain has found a buyer with these separatist hotheads, and I want them. This way we can wrap up both supplier and destination. We could even come out of it with the location of the antimatter-production station. Commendations all round, so just be patient.”

“OK.” Did you catch all that?syrinx asked thetis.

Certainly did. And she’s quite right.

I know, but . . .she broadcast a complex emotional harmonic of eagerness and frustration.

Bear with it, little sister.mental laughter. Thetis always knew how to tweak her. Graeae had been born before Oenone , but there was a marked comparison in size; with a hull diameter of a hundred and fifteen metres Oenone was the largest of all Iasius ’s children. And it wasn’t until puberty’s growth hormones came into effect that Thetis outmatched her in physical tussles. But they had always been the closest, always competing against each other.

I’ve never met anyone more unsuitable for a captaincy,ruben chided. No composure, all teenage recklessness, that’s your fault, young lady. I’m jumping ship when this is over, bugger what the contract says.

She laughed out loud, quickly turning it into a cough for Eileen’s benefit. Even though she was used to the degree of honesty which affinity fostered, Ruben always astounded her with his intimate knowledge of her emotional composition. You don’t complain about my other teenage attributes,she shot back, complete with a very graphic image.

Oh, lady, you just wait till we’re off duty.

I’ll hold you to that.

The prospect almost made the tense waiting worthwhile.

Because of the need for a more precise trajectory when jumping towards a planet than for an interstellar jump, Dymasio spent a good fifty minutes re-aligning its course with considerable accuracy. Once its new orbital vector intersected Kirchol, the starship reconfigured itself for a jump.

Weapons status check, please,syrinx demanded when the light from Dymasio ’s dive flame began to fade.

Combat wasps and proximity defence systems on-line,chi replied.

OK, everybody, alert status one. We don’t know how many hostiles there are going to be around Kirchol, so we’ll proceed with extreme caution. The admiral wants this ship interdicted, not destroyed, but if we’re outnumbered we let loose the combat wasps and retreat. Let’s just hope this is the nest.

She caught an indistinct mental grumble: It can’t possibly be another decoy jump. Please.from the tiredness of the tone she guessed it was Oxley, who was actually older than Ruben, a hundred and fifty. Sinon had recommended him when she was assembling her first crew. He had stayed on mostly out of loyalty to her when she signed on with the navy. More cause for guilt.

Dymasio jumped.

Kirchol was a muddy brown globe three hundred and seventy thousand kilometres below Oenone ’s hull, attendant moons glimmering dimly in the exhausted sunlight. The gas giant had nothing like the majesty of Saturn, it was too drab, too listless. Even the stormbands lacked ferocity.

Dymasio and the two voidhawks had emerged above the south pole; insignificant on such a scale, one dull speck, and two coal-black motes, falling with imperceptible slowness as the gravity field tugged at them.

Syrinx opened her mind to Chi, combining Oenone ’s perceptual awareness with the weapons officer’s knowledge of their combat wasps’ performance capabilities. Her nerves stretching over a huge volume of space, making a far-off body tremble in reaction.

The Dymasio started to transmit a simple radio code, beaming it down towards the gas giant. Given their position, there would be no overspill falling on the populated inner system, Syrinx realized, no chance of being detected even in a few hours when the radio waves finally bridged the gulf.

An answering pulse flashed out from something in orbit around Kirchol, well outside Oenone ’s mass-detection range. The source point began to move, vaulting out of its orbit at five gees. Oenone couldn’t detect any infrared trace, and there was no reaction-drive exhaust. The radio signal cut out.

A blackhawk.the thought leapt between the edenists on both voidhawks, a shared frisson of glee.

It’s mine,syrinx told thetis on singular-engagement mode. She hadn’t forgotten how the last blackhawk had given them the slip. It rankled still.

Oh, come on,he protested.

Mine,she repeated coolly. You get all the glory nabbing that actual antimatter. What more do you want?

The next blackhawk we come across is mine.

Of course,she cooed.

Thetis retreated, his subconscious grousing away. But he knew better than try and argue with his sister when she was in that mood.

We’re going after it?Oenone demanded.

We certainly are,she reassured it.

Good, I didn’t like losing that last one. I could have matched its swallow.

No, you couldn’t. That was nineteen light-years. You’d damage your patterning cells trying to emulate that. Fifteen light-years is our limit.

Oenone didn’t answer, but she could sense the resentment in its mind. She had almost been tempted to try the larger than usual swallow, but fear of injuring the voidhawk held her back. That and the prospect of stranding the rest of the crew in deep space.

I would never harm you or the crew,Oenone said gently.

I know. But it was annoying, wasn’t it?


The blackhawk rose up out of the ecliptic plane in a long, graceful curve. Even when it slowed to rendezvous with the Dymasio the two waiting voidhawks couldn’t discern its shape or size. They were thirty thousand kilometres away, too far for optical resolution, and the slightest use of the distortion effect to probe it would have given them away.

Both target craft used their radios when they were five thousand kilometres apart, a steady stream of encrypted data. It made tracking absurdly easy, Oenone ’s passive electronic sensor array triangulating them to half a metre. Syrinx waited until they were only two thousand kilometres apart, then issued the order to interdict.

HOLD YOUR LOCATION,Oenone bellowed across the affinity band. It detected a mental flinch from the blackhawk. CANCEL YOUR ACCELERATION, DO NOT ATTEMPT TO INITIATE A SWALLOW. STAND BY FOR RENDEVOUS AND BOARDING.

Gravity surged back into the crew toroid, building with uncomfortable speed. Oenone and Graeae streaked in towards their prey at eight gees. Oenone was capable of generating a counter-acceleration force of three gees around the crew toroid, which still left Syrinx subject to a harsh five gees. Her toughened internal membranes could just about take the strain, but she worried that the blackhawk would try to run. Their crews nearly always used nanonic supplements, enabling them to withstand much higher acceleration. If it developed into a straight chase, Oenone ’s crew were going to suffer, especially Ruben and Oxley.

She needn’t have worried. After Oenone ’s affinity shout, the blackhawk folded in its distortion field. But she was keenly aware of the sullen anger colouring its thoughts, presumably echoing those of its captain. There was a name, too, or rather an insistence of identity: Vermuden .

Graeae was broadcasting a radio message at the Dymasio , the same demand to maintain position. In the Adamist starship’s case, enforcement was a more practical option. The voidhawk reached out with its distortion field, disrupting the quantum state of space around the Dymasio ’s hull; if it tried to jump away now, the interference would produce instabilities in its patterning nodes, with spectacularly lethal results as the desynchronized energy loci imploded.

Oenone and Graeae drew apart as they closed on their respective targets. The Vermuden was a sharp profile in Syrinx’s mind now, a flattish onion shape one hundred and five metres in diameter, its central spire tapering to a needle-sharp point sixty metres above the hull rim. There was no crew toroid, instead three silvery mechanical capsules were fixed equidistantly around the upper hull; one was a life-support cabin large enough for about five or six people, another was a hangar for a small spaceplane, the third was its cargo hold. Energy currents simmered below its hull, spectral iridescent whirls that suggested extreme agitation.

“Captain Kouritz, you and your squad to the airlock, please,” Syrinx said when they began to slow for rendezvous. “Be advised, the blackhawk’s cabin space is approximately four hundred cubic metres.”

Vermuden hung in space three hundred kilometres away, a dusky crescent, slightly ginger in colour. She could feel Chi locking the proximity defence lasers onto the blackhawk, a mix of electronic and bitek senses providing the focus.

“I’ll go with them,” Eileen Carouch said. She tapped her restraint-strap release catch.

“Make sure the Vermuden ’s captain is brought straight back here,” Syrinx said. “I’ll send one of my people with you to fly Vermuden back to Fleet headquarters.” Without its captain, the blackhawk would have to obey an Edenist.

Oenone flipped over as it approached Vermuden , inverting itself so that it seemed to be descending vertically towards the blackhawk’s upper hull. An airlock tube extended out from the crew toroid. The marine squad waited in the chamber behind it, fully armoured, weapons powered up. Gravity throughout the toroid had returned to a welcome Earth standard.

Syrinx ordered the Vermuden ’s captain to extend the blackhawk’s airlock.

The Dymasio exploded.

Its captain, faced with the total certainty of a personality debrief followed by a Confederation Navy firing squad, decided his crew and ship were a worthwhile price to pay for taking Graeae with him. He waited until the voidhawk was a scant kilometre away, beginning its docking manoeuvres, then turned off the antimatter-confinement chambers.

Five hundred grams of antimatter rushed to embrace an equal mass of ordinary matter.

From Oenone ’s position, two thousand kilometres away, the elemental energy wavefront split the universe in two. On one side the stars burnt with their usual untroubled tranquillity; opposite that infinity vanished, replaced by a solid flat plane of raging photons.

Syrinx felt the light searing into Oenone , scorching opticalreceptor cells into crisps. Affinity acted like a conductor for purple-white light, allowing it to shine straight into her own mind, a torrent of photons that threatened to engulf her sanity. In amongst the glare were fissures of darkness, fluttering around like tiny birds caught by a gale. They called out to her as they passed, mental cries, sometimes words, sometimes visions of people and places, sometimes smells—phantasm tastes, a touch, the laughter, music, heat, chill, wetness. Minds transferring into Oenone ’s neural cells. But broken, incomplete. Flawed.

Thetis!syrinx cried.

She couldn’t find him, not amid such turmoil. And the light had become a pervasive pain. She howled in anguish and hatred.

Vermuden ’s distortion field distended, strengthened, applying stress against the perpetual structure of reality. An interstice yawned wide.

Chi fired the gamma lasers. But the beams raked emptiness. The interstice was already closing.

Less than two seconds after the Dymasio exploded, a blast wave of particles arrived to assault Oenone ’s hull, supplementing the corrosive electromagnetic radiation already striking against the foam. The voidhawk looked past the immediate chaos, observing Vermuden ’s wormhole forming, a tunnel through empty dimensions. Size and determinant length defined by the blackhawk’s energy input. Oenone knew the terminus coordinate exactly, twenty-one lightyears away, the blackhawk’s utter limit.

This time!Oenone thought tempestuously. Energy blazed through its own patterning cells.

No!syrinx shouted, shocked out of her grief.

There is a way, I know how. Trust me.

She waited helplessly as the interstice engulfed them, some treacherous aspect of her subconscious granting the voidhawk permission, urging them on towards retribution. Worry faded when she saw the wormhole was only thirteen light-years long. As its terminus began to open, she felt the patterning cells activate again. Realization was instantaneous, and she laughed with vengeful fury.

Told you so,Oenone said smugly.

The desperate twenty-one light-year swallow had stretched Vermuden ’s energy loading capacity virtually to breaking point. It could sense its captain prone on his acceleration couch, muscles locked solid, back arched, the exertion twinned. The wormhole’s pseudofabric slithered round the hull, not a physical pressure, but tangible none the less. Finally, up ahead, the terminus manifested. Starlight traced strange shapes as it filtered through.

Vermuden popped out into the clean vacuum of normal space, mind radiating vivid relief.

Well done,its captain said. Vermuden felt arm and chest muscles slacken, an indrawn breath.

Powerful laserlight illuminated its hull, washing out its optical receptor cells in a pink dazzle. A lens-shaped mass a hundred and fifteen metres in diameter hung eighty metres off its central spire in the direction of Betelgeuse’s demonic red gleam.

“What the fuck . . . How?” the captain yelped.

This is just the targeting laser,Oenone said. If I sense any flux change in your patterning cells I’ll switch to the gamma lasers and slice you in half. Now extend your airlock. I have some people on board keen to meet you.

“I didn’t know voidhawks could do that,” Eileen Carouch said a couple of hours later. Vermuden ’s captain, Henry Siclari, and the blackhawk’s other two crewmen, were in Oenone ’s brig; and the navy prize crew, headed by Cacus, were familiarizing themselves with the blackhawk’s systems. Cacus reckoned they would be able to take the ship back to Oshanko in a day. “Sequential swallows?” Syrinx said. “Nothing to stop them, you just need a voidhawk with an acute spacial sense.” Like you.

I love you,Oenone replied, unabashed by the alternate praise and admonitions the Edenists had been bombarding it with since the manoeuvre.

Got an answer to everything, haven’t you?she said. But the humour wasn’t there.

Thetis. His broad, smiling face covered in boyish freckles, the uncombed sandy hair, the lanky, slightly awkward body. All the hours together spent roving around Romulus.

He was a part of her identity in the same way as Oenone . Soulsibling, so much had been shared. And now he was gone. Torn away from her, torn out of her, the voyages together, frustrations and achievements.

I mourn for him too,Oenone whispered into her mind, its thoughts drenched with regret.

Thank you. And Graeae ’s eggs have been lost as well. What a terrible, filthy thing to do. I hate Adamists.

No, That is beneath us. See, Eileen and the marines share our loss. It is not Adamists. Only individuals. Always individuals. Even Edenists have our failures, do we not?

Yes. We do,she said, because it was true enough. but there was still that fraction of her mind which remained vacant, the vanished smile.

Athene knew something was shockingly wrong as soon as Oenone emerged above Saturn. She was in the garden lounge, feeding two-month-old Clymene from a bitek mammary orb when the cold premonition closed about her. It made her clutch at her second great-great-grandchild for fear of the future and what it held. The infant wailed in protest at the loss of the nipple and the tightness of her grip. She hurriedly handed Clymene back to her great-grandson, who tried to calm the baby girl with mental coos of reassurance. Then Syrinx’s alarmingly dulled mind touched Athene, and the awful knowledge was revealed in full.

Is there nothing of him left?she asked softly.

Some,syrinx said. But so little, I’m sorry, Mother.

A single thought would be enough for me.

As Oenone neared Romulus it gave up the thought fragments it had stored to the habitat personality. A precious intangible residue of life, the sole legacy of Thetis and his crew.

Athene’s past friends, lovers, and husbands emerged from the multiplicity of Romulus’s personality to offer support and encouragement, cushioning the blow as best they could. We will do what we can,they assured her. she could feel the tremulous remnants of her son being slowly woven into a more cohesive whole, and drew a brief measure of comfort from that.

Although no stranger to death, Athene found this bereavement particularly difficult. Always at the back of her mind was the belief that the voidhawks and their captains were somehow immortal, or at least immune to such wasteful calamity. A foolish, almost childish belief, because they were the children she prized the most. Her last link with Iasius , their offspring.

Half an hour later, dressed in a plain jet-black ship-tunic, Athene stood in the spaceport reception lounge, a proud, solitary figure, the lines on her face betraying every one of her hundred and thirty-five years as they never had before. She looked out over the ledge as Oenone and its anxious escort of two voidhawks from the Saturn defence squadron crept out of the darkness. Oenone sank onto a vacant pedestal with a very human mindsigh of relief. Feed tubes in the pedestal stirred like blind stumpy tentacles, searching for the female orifices on the voidhawk’s underside; various sphincter muscles expanded and gripped, producing tight seals. Oenone gulped down the nutrient fluid which Romulus synthesized, filling its internal bladders, quenching the thirst which leached vitality from every cell. They hadn’t stayed at Oshanko any longer than it took to hand Henry Siclari and his crew over to the Fleet port authorities, and allow Edenist bonding-adjustment specialists to assume command of Vermuden . After that Syrinx had insisted on coming direct to Saturn.

Athene looked out at the big voidhawk with real concern rising.

Oenone was in a sorry state: hull foam scorched and flaking, toroid thermo-dump panels melted, electronic sensor systems reduced to rivulets of congealed slag, the sensor blisters that had faced the Dymasio roasted, their cells dead.

I’m all right,Oenone told her. It’s mostly the mechanical systems that were damaged. And the biotechnicians can graft new sensor blisters into me. I’m never going to complain about being covered in foam again,it added humbly.

When Syrinx came through the airlock her cheeks had become almost hollow, her hair was hanging limp over her skull, and she walked as though she had been condemned. Athene felt the tears come at last, and put her arms round her woebegone daughter, soothing the drained thoughts with an empathic compassion, the maternal balm.

It’s not your fault.

If I hadn’t . . .

Don’t,athene ordered sternly. You owe Thetis and Graeae this much, not to sink into pointless remorse. You’re stronger than that, much stronger.

Yes, Mother.

He did what he wanted to. He did what was right. Tell me how many millions of lives would have been lost if that antimatter had been used against a naked planetary surface?

A lot,syrinx said numbly.

And he saved them. My son. Because of him, they will live, and have children, and laugh.

But it hurts!

That’s because we’re human, more so than Adamists can ever be. Our empathy means we can never hide from what we feel, and that’s good. But you must always walk the balance, Syrinx; the balance is the penalty of being human: the danger of allowing yourself to feel. For this we walk a narrow path high above rocky ground. On one side we have the descent into animalism, on the other a godhead delusion. Both pulling at us, both tempting. But without these forces tugging at your psyche, stirring it into conflict, you can never love. They awaken us, you see, these warring sides, they arouse our passion. So learn from this wretched episode, learn to be proud of Thetis and what he accomplished, use it to counter the grief. It is hard, I know; for captains more than anyone. We are the ones who truly open our souls to another entity, we feel the deepest, and suffer the most. And knowing that, knowing what you would endure in life, I still chose to bring you into existence, because there is so much joy to be had from the living.

The circular house snug in arms of its gentle valley hadn’t changed, still a frantic noisy vortex of excited children, slightly weary adults, and harassed bitek housechimps. Syrinx might never have been away. With eighteen children, and, so far, forty-two grandchildren, eleven great-grandchildren, and the two newest fourth-generation additions, Athene headed a family that never gave her a moment’s rest. Ninety per cent of the adults were involved with spaceflight in one field or another, which meant long absences were the norm. But when they came back, it was the house and Athene they always visited first, staying or passing through as the fancy took them.

“Athene’s boarding-house, bordello, and playpen,” the old ex-captain had called it on more than one occasion.

The younger children were delighted to see Syrinx, whooping as they gathered round her, demanding kisses and stories of the planets she’d visited, while the adults offered subdued condolences. Being with them, knowing and feeling the heartache being shared, lifted the load. Slightly.

After the evening meal Syrinx went back to her old room, asking to be left alone for a few hours. Ruben and Athene acceded, retreating to the white iron chairs on the patio and conversing on the singular-engagement mode, sober faces betraying their worry.

She lay back on the bed, staring through the transparent roof at the lazy winding valleys beyond the dimming axial light-tube. In the seven years since Oenone reached maturity the trees had grown and bushes fattened, expanding the green-on-green patterns of her childhood.

She could feel Oenone out on the ledge, hull being cleaned of foam, mobile gantry arms in position, giving technicians full access to the battered crew toroid. Now it had completed its nutrient digestion its mindtone was returning to normal. It was enjoying being the centre of attention, busy conversing with the ledge crews over aspects of the repairs. Two biotechnicians were squatting over a ruined sensor blister with portable probes, taking samples.


I’m here, Sly-minx. I told you I always would be.

Thank you. I never doubted. How is he?


A little of the dread lifted from her heart. Is he ready?

Yes. But there was so much missing from recent years. We have integrated what we can. The core of identity is viable but it lacks substance. He remains a child, perhaps the part of him you loved the most.

Can I talk to him yet?

You may.

She was standing barefoot on thick, cool grass beside a broad stream, the axial light-tube shining like a thread of captured sunlight overhead. There were tall trees around her, bowing under the weight of vines hanging between their branches, and long cascades of flowers fell to the floor, some of them trailing in the clear water. Butterflies flapped lazily through the still air, contending with bees for perches on the flowers, birds cheeped all around.

It was the clearing where she had spent so many days as a girl, just past the bottom of the lawn. Looking down she saw she was wearing a simple cotton summer dress with a tiny blue and white check. Long loose hair swirled around skinny hips. Her body was thirteen years old; and she knew why even as she heard the children shouting and laughing. Young enough to be regarded as part of childhood’s conspiracy, old enough to be revered, to hold herself aloof and not be resented for it.

They burst into the clearing, six ten-year-old boys, in shorts and T-shirts, bare chested and in swimming trunks, smiling and laughing, strong limbs flashing in the warm light.

“Syrinx!” He was in their middle, sandy hair askew, grinning up at her.

“Hello, Thetis,” she said.

“Are you coming with us?” he asked breathlessly.

A raft of rough silicon sheets, foamed aluminium I-beams, and empty plastic drink tanks—familiar enough to bring tears to her eyes—was lying on the bank, half in the water.

“I can’t, Thetis. I just came to make sure you’re all right.”

“Course I’m all right!” He tried to do a cartwheel on the grass, but toppled over and fell into a laughing heap. “We’re going all the way down to the salt-water reservoir. It’ll be fun, we’ve not told anyone, and the personality won’t see us. We could meet anything down there, pirates or monsters. And we might find some treasure. I’ll bring it back, and I’ll be the most famous captain in all of the habitat.” He scrambled to his feet again, eyes shining. “Please come, Syrinx. Please?”

“Another time, I promise.”

There were shouts from the other boys as the raft was pushed into the fast-flowing stream. It bobbed about at alarming angles for a few seconds before gradually righting itself. The boys started to pile on.

Thetis’s head swivelled between Syrinx and the raft, desperately torn. “Promise? Really promise?”

“I do.” She reached out and held his head between her hands, and kissed him lightly on his brow.

“Syrinx!” He squirmed in agitation, colouring as the other boys launched into a flurry of catcalls.

“Here,” she said, and took off a slim silver necklace with an intricately carved pale jade stone the size of a grape. “Wear this, it’ll be like I’m there with you. And next time I visit, you can tell me all about it.”

“Right!” And he ran for the raft, splashing through the shallows as he fumbled to fasten the chain round his neck. “Don’t forget, come back. You promised.”

How far will he go?she asked sinon as a soaking Thetis was hauled over the edge of the raft by a couple of his friends.

As far as he wishes.

And how long will it last?

As long as he wants.


I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be flippant. Probably about ten or fifteen years. You see, even childhood will ultimately pale. Games that defy adults and friends that mean the whole world are all very well, but a major part of what a ten-year-old is, is the wish to be old; his actions are a shadow of what he sees as adult behaviour. There is an old saying, that the boy is the father of the man. So when he has had his fill of adventure and realizes he will never be that man, that he is a sterile child, his identity will fade out of the multiplicity into the overall personality. Like all of us will eventually, Sly-minx, even you.

You mean he will lose hope.

No. Death is the loss of hope, everything else is merely despair.

The children were paddling now, getting the hang of the raft. Thetis was sitting at the front shouting orders, in his element. He looked round, smiled and waved. Syrinx raised a hand.

Adamists lose hope,she said. The Dymasio ’s captain lost all hope. That’s why he did what he did.

Adamists are incomplete. We know we will continue after the body dies; in some way, some fraction of us will linger for hundreds of millennia. For myself, I cannot even contemplate abandoning the multiplicity segment of the personality, not with you and my other children and grandchildren to watch over. Perhaps in ten or fifteen generations, when I can conjure up no sense of attachment, then I may seek full unity with the habitat personality, and transfer my allegiance to all Edenists. But it will be a very long time.

Adamists have their religions. I thought their gods gave them hope.

They do, to the very devout. But consider the disadvantage under which the ordinary Adamist labours. The mythical kingdom, that is all their heaven can ever be, beyond ever knowing. In the end, such belief is very hard for poor sinful mortals to retain. Our afterlife, however, is tangible, real. For us it is not a question of faith, we have fact.

Unless you are Thetis.

Even he survives.

Some of him, a stunted existence. Floating down a river that will never end.

Loved, treasured, welcomed, eternal.

The raft disappeared round a bend, a clump of willows blocking it from sight. High-pitched voices drifted through the air. Syrinx let her hand drop. “I will visit you again, big brother,” she told the empty gurgling stream. “Again and again, every time I come back. I will make you look forward to my visits and the stories I bring, I will give you something to hope for. Promise.”

In her room she looked up at the darkened indistinct landscape far above. The axial light-tube had been reduced to a lunar presence masked by the evening’s first rain-clouds.

Syrinx closed her mind to the other Edenists, closed it to the voidhawks flying outside, closed it to the habitat personality. Only Oenone remained. Beloved who would understand, because they were one.

Emerging from the jumble of doubt and misery was the tenuous wish that the Adamists were right after all, and there was such a thing as God, and an afterlife, and souls. That way Thetis wouldn’t be lost. Not for ever.

It was such a tiny sliver of hope.

Oenone ’s thoughts rubbed against hers, soothing and sympathetic.

If there is a God, and if somewhere my brother’s soul is intact, please look after him. He will be so alone.

Chapter 07

Over a thousand tributaries contributed towards the Juliffe’s rapacious flow, a wrinkled network of rivers and streams gathering in the rainfall over an area of one and a half million square kilometres. They emptied themselves into the main course at full volume throughout the whole two hundred and ninety-five days of Lalonde’s year, bringing with them immense amounts of silt, rotting vegetation, and broken trees. The turbulence and power of the huge flow was such that the water along the last five hundred kilometres turned the same colour and thickness as milky coffee. By the time it reached the coast the river’s width had swollen to over seventeen kilometres; and the sheer weight of water backed up for two thousand kilometres behind it was awesome. At the mouth it looked as though one sea was bleeding into another.

For the final hundred-kilometre stretch, the banks on the northern side were non-existent; marshland extended up to a hundred and fifty kilometres into the countryside. Named the Hultain Marsh after the first reckless ecological assessment team member to venture a few brief kilometres inside its fringes, it proved an inhospitable zone of reeds and algae and sharp-toothed lizard-analogue animals of varying sizes. No human explorer ever managed to traverse it; the ecological evaluators contented themselves with Hultain’s sketchy report and the satellite survey pictures. When the wind blew from the north, it carried a powerful smell of corruption over the river into Durringham. To the city’s residents the Hultain Marsh had virtually assumed the quality of myth, a repository of bad luck and ghoulish creatures.

The land on the Juliffe’s southern side, however, rose up to twelve metres above the surging brown waters. Sprawling aloof along the bank, Durringham was relatively safe from the most potent of the Juliffe’s spring floods. Poised between spaceport and water, the city was the key to colonizing the entire river basin.

The Juliffe provided the Lalonde Development Company with the greatest conceivable natural roadway into Amarisk’s interior. With its tributaries extending into every valley in the centre of the landmass, there was no need to hack out and maintain expensive tracks in the jungle. Abundant wood provided the raw material for boat hulls, the simplest and cheapest form of travel possible. So shipbuilding swiftly became the capital’s principal industry, with nearly a quarter of its population dependent on the success of the shipyards.

Captains under contract to the LDC would take newly arrived colonist groups upriver, and bring down the surplus produce from the established farms to be sold in the city. There were several hundred boats docking and sailing every day. The port with its jetties and warehouses and fishmarkets and shipyards grew until it stretched the entire length of the city. It was also the logical place to site the transients’ dormitories.

Jay Hilton thought the dormitory was tremendously exciting. It was so different from anything in her life to date. A simple angled roof of ezystak panels eighty metres long, supported by a framework of metal girders. There were no walls, the LDC officer said they would have made it too hot inside. There was a concrete floor, and row after row of hard wooden cots. She had slept in a sleeping-bag the first night, right at the centre of the dormitory with the rest of Group Seven’s kids. It had taken her an age to fall asleep, people kept talking, and the river made great swooshing noises as it flowed past the embankment. And she didn’t think she would ever get used to the humidity, her clothes hadn’t been completely dry since she got off the spaceplane.

During the day the dormitory thronged with people, and the alleyways between the cots were great for chases and other games. Life underneath its rattling roof was very easygoing; nothing was organized for the kids, so they were free to please themselves how they chose. She had spent the second day getting to know the other kids in Group Seven. In the morning they ran riot among the adults, then after lunch they had all made their way down to the riverside to watch the boats. Jay had loved it. The whole port area looked like something out of a historical AV programme, a slice of the Earth’s Middle Ages preserved on a far planet. Everything was made of wood, and the boats were so beautiful, with their big paddles on each side, and tall iron stacks that sent out long plumes of grey-white smoke.

Twice during the day the sky had clouded over, and rain had fallen like a solid sheet. The kids had all retreated under the dormitory roof, watching spellbound as the grey veil obscured the Juliffe, and huge lightning bolts crashed overhead.

She had never imagined the wild was so wild. But her mother wasn’t worried, so she wasn’t. Sitting down and just watching had never been such fun before. She couldn’t think how wonderful it was going to be actually travelling on a river-boat. From a starship one day to a paddle-steamer the next! Life was glorious.

The food they had been served was strange, the aboriginal fruit was all odd shapes with a mildly spicy flavouring, but at least there wasn’t any vat meat like they had at the arcology. After the high tea the staff served for the kids in the big canteen at one end of the dormitory, she went back to the riverside to see if she could spot any aboriginal animals. She remembered the vennal, something like a cross between a lizard and a monkey. It featured prominently in the didactic memory which the LDC immigration advisory team at the orbital-tower base-station had imprinted before she left Earth. In the mirage floating round inside her skull it looked kind of cute. She was secretly hoping she’d be able to have one as a pet once they reached their allotted land upriver.

The embankment was a solid wall of bitek polyp, a dull apricot in colour, preventing any more of the rich black soil from being chewed away by the frighteningly large river. It was thrilling to see so much bitek being used; Jay had never met an Edenist, although back at the arcology Father Varhoos had warned the congregation about them and their soulless technology of perverted life. But using the polyp here was a good idea, the kernels were cheap, and the coral didn’t need constant repairs the way concrete would. She couldn’t see the harm. The whole universe was being turned upside-down this week.

She slid right down the sloping wall to the water itself, and started walking, hoping to see a xenoc fish. The water here was almost clear. Wavelets lapping on the polyp sent up sprays that showered her bare legs; she was still wearing the shorts and blouse that her mother had made her carry in the zero-tau pod. A lot of the other colonists in Group Seven had spent the morning chasing after their gear in one of the warehouses, trying to find more practical clothes.

Everyone had been envious and admiring of her and mother yesterday. That felt good. So much better than the way people back in the arcology regarded them. She pushed that thought away hurriedly.

Her boots splashed through the shallows, the water droplets slithering off the shiny coating. There were a lot of big pipe outlets venting into the river, along with the drainage gullies which were like medium-sized streams, so she had to be careful as she dodged under the pipes not to get splattered by the discharges. Up ahead was one of the circular harbours, six hundred metres in diameter, also made out of polyp; a refuge where the larger boats could dock in calmer waters. The harbours were spaced every kilometre or so along the embankment, with clusters of warehouses and timber mills springing up on the ground behind them. In between the harbours were rows of wooden jetties sticking out into the river, which the smaller traders and fishing boats used.

The sky was growing darker again. But it wasn’t rain, the sun was low in the west. And she was getting very tired, the day here was awfully long.

She ducked under a jetty, hand stroking the black timber pillars. Mayope wood, her eidetic memory said, one of the hardest woods found in the Confederation. The tree had big scarlet flowers. She rapped her knuckles against it experimentally. It really was hard, like a metal, or stone.

Out on the river one of the big paddle-boats was sailing past, churning up a big wake of frothy water as its bows drove against the current. Colonists were lined up along the rails, and they all seemed to be looking at her. She grinned and waved at them.

Group Seven was sailing tomorrow. The real adventure. She stared wistfully after the boat as it slipped away upriver.

That was when she saw the thing caught around a support pillar of the next jetty. A dirty yellow-pink lump, about a metre long. There was more of it underwater, she could tell from the way it bobbed about. With a whoop, she raced forwards, feet kicking up fans of water. It was a xenoc fish, or amphibian, or something. Trapped and waiting for her to inspect it. Names and shapes whirled through her mind, the didactic memory on full recall, trying to match up with what she was seeing.

Maybe it’s something new, she thought. Maybe they’ll name it after me. I’ll be famous!

She was five metres away, and still running as hard as she could, when she saw the head. It was someone in the water, someone without any clothes on. Face down! The shock threw her rhythm, and her feet skidded from under her. She yelled as her knee hit the rough, unyielding polyp. She felt a hot pain as she grazed the side of her leg. She finished up flat against the embankment, legs half in the water, feeling numb all over and sick inside. Blood started to well up in the graze. She bit her lip, eyes watering as she watched it, fighting not to cry.

A wave lifted the corpse in the river, knocking it against the support pillar again. Through sticky tears Jay saw that it was a man, all swollen up. His head turned towards her. There was a long purple weal along one cheek. He had no eyes, only empty holes where they should be. His flesh was rippling. Jay blinked. Long white worms with a million legs were feeding on the battered flesh. One oozed out of his half-open mouth like a slender anaemic tongue, its tip waving around slowly as though it was tasting the air.

She threw her head back and screamed.

The rain which came after the sun sank from the sky an hour later that evening was a big help to Quinn Dexter. Between them, Lalonde’s three moons conspired to cast a bright spectral phosphorescence on the night-time city: people could see their way quite clearly down the slushy streets, but with the thick clouds scudding overhead the light level was drastically reduced. Durringham didn’t have street lighting; individual pubs would floodlight the street outside their entrance, and the bigger cabins had porch lights, but outside their pools of radiance there was only a faint backscatter of photons. In amongst the large industrial buildings of the port where Quinn lurked there wasn’t even that, only gloom and impenetrable shadows.

He had slipped away from the transients’ dormitory after the evening meal, finding himself a concealing gap between a couple of single-storey outbuildings tacked on to the end of a long warehouse. Jackson Gael was crouched down behind some barrels on the other side of the path. Behind him was the high blank wall of a mill, slatted wooden planks rearing up like a cliff face.

There wouldn’t be many people wandering around this part of the port at night, and those that did would probably be colonists waiting for a boat upriver. There was another transients’ dormitory two hundred metres to the north. Quinn had decided that colonists would make the best targets.

The sheriffs would pay more attention to a city resident being mugged than some new arrival who nobody cared about. Colonists were human cattle to the LDC; and if the dopey bastards hadn’t worked that out for themselves, then more fool them. But Jackson had been right about one thing, the colonists were better off than him. Ivets were the lowest of the low.

They had discovered that yesterday evening. When they finally arrived at the dormitory they were immediately detailed to unload the lorries they had just loaded at the spaceport. After they finished stacking Group Seven’s gear in a harbourside warehouse a group of them had wandered off into town. They didn’t have any money, but that didn’t matter, they deserved a break. That was when they found the grey Ivet jump suit with its scarlet letters acted like a flashing beacon: Shit on me. They hadn’t got more than a few hundred metres out of the port before they turned tail and hurried back to the dormitory. They’d been spat on, shouted at, jeered by children, had stones flung at them, and finally someone had let a xenoc animal charge at them. That had frightened Quinn the most, though he didn’t show it to the others. The creature was like a cat scaled up to dog size; it had jet-black scales and a wedge-shaped head, with a lot of sharp needle teeth in its gaping mouth. The mud didn’t slow it down appreciably as it ran at them, and several Ivets had skidded onto their knees as the group panicked and ran away.

Worst of all were the sounds the thing made, like a drawn-out whine; but there were words in the cry, strangely twisted by the xenoc gullet, human words. “City scum,” and “Kid fuckers,” and others that were distorted beyond recognition, yet all carrying the same message. The thing hated them, echoing its master who had laughed as its huge jaws snapped at their running legs.

Back in the dormitory, Quinn had sat down and started to think for the first time since the police stunned him back on Earth. He had to get off this planet which even God’s Brother would reject. To do that he needed information. He needed to know how the local set-up worked, how to get himself an edge. All the other Ivets would dream about leaving, some must have made attempts to escape in the past. The biggest mistake he could make would be rushing it. And dressed in his signpost jump suit, he wouldn’t even be able to scout around.

He had caught Jackson Gael’s eye, and flicked his head at the velvet walls of night encircling the dormitory. The two of them slipped out unnoticed, and didn’t return till dawn.

Now he waited crouched against the warehouse wall, stripped down to his shorts, nerves burning with excitement at the prospect of repeating last night’s spree. Rain was drumming on the rooftops and splashing into the puddles and mud of the path, kicking up a loud din. More water was gurgling down the drainage gully at the side of the warehouse. His skin and hair were soaked. At least the drops were warm.

The man in the canary-yellow cagoule was almost level with the little gap between the outhouses before Quinn heard him. He was squelching through the mud, muttering and humming under his breath. Quinn peered out round the corner. His left eye had been boosted by a nanonic cluster, giving him infrared vision. It was his first implant, and he’d used it for exactly the same purpose back at the arcology: to give him an edge in the dark. One thing Banneth had taught him was never fight until you’ve already won.

The retinal implant showed him a ghostly red figure weaving unsteadily from side to side. Rain showed as a gritty pale pink mist, the buildings were claret-coloured crags.

Quinn waited until the man had passed the gap before he moved. He slid out onto the path, the length of wood gripped tightly in his hand. And still the man was unaware of him, rain and blackness providing perfect cover. He took three paces, raised the improvised club, then slammed it down at the base of the man’s neck. The cagoule’s fabric tore under the impact. Quinn felt the blow reverberate all the way back up to his elbows, jarring his joints. God’s Brother! He didn’t want the man dead, not yet.

His victim gave a single grunt of pain, and collapsed forwards into the mud.

“Jackson!” Quinn called. “God’s Brother, where are you? I can’t shift him by myself. Get a move on.”

“Quinn? Christ, I can’t see a bloody thing.”

He looked round, seeing Jackson emerge from behind the barrels. His skin shone a strong burgundy in the infrared spectrum, arteries and veins near the surface showing up as brighter scarlet lines.

“Over here. Walk forward three steps, then turn left.” He guided Jackson up to the body, enjoying the sense of power. Jackson would follow his leadership, and the others would fall into line.

Together they dragged their victim into the outhouse—Quinn guessed it had been some kind of office, abandoned years ago now. Four bare wooden slat walls and a roof that leaked. Tapers of slime ran down the walls, fungal growths blooming from the cracks. There was a strong citric scent in the air. Overhead the clouds were drifting away inland. Beriana, the second moon, came out, shining a wan lemon light onto the city, and a few meagre beams filtered through the skylight. They were enough for Jackson to see by.

Both of them went over to the pile of clothes they had left heaped on a broken composite cargo-pod. Quinn watched Jackson towelling himself dry. The lad had a strong body, broad shoulders.

“Forget it, Quinn,” Jackson said in a neutral voice, but one that carried in the silence following the rain. “I don’t turn on to that. Strictly het, OK?” It came out like a challenge.

“Hey, don’t lose cool,” Quinn said. “I got my eye on someone, and it ain’t you.” He wasn’t entirely sure he could whip the lanky lad from a straight start. Besides he needed Jackson. For now.

He started to pull on the clothes which belonged to one of last night’s victims, a green short-sleeved shirt and baggy blue shorts, waterproof boots which were only fractionally too large. Three pairs of socks stopped them from rubbing blisters. He was strongly tempted to take those boots upriver, he didn’t like to think what would happen to his feet in the lightweight Ivet-issue shoes.

“Right, let’s see what we’ve got,” he said. They stripped the cagoule from the unconscious man. He groaned weakly. His shorts were soiled, and a ribbon of piss ran out of the cagoule.

Definitely a new colonist, Quinn decided, as he wrinkled his nose up at the smell. The clothes were new, the boots were new, he was clean shaven; and he had the slightly overweight appearance of an arcology dweller. Locals were nearly always lean, and most sported longish hair and thick beards.

His belt carried a fission-blade knife, a miniature thermal inducer, and a personal MF flek-player block.

Quinn unclipped the knife and the inducer. “We’ll take those with us upriver. They’ll come in useful.”

“We’ll be searched,” Jackson said. “Anything you like, we’ll be searched.”

“So? We stash them in the colonists’ gear. We’ll be the ones that load it onto the boat, we’ll be the ones that unload it at the other end.”


Quinn thought he heard a grudging respect in the lad’s voice. He started frisking the man’s pockets, hoping the dampness in the fabric wasn’t piss. There was a citizenship card naming their victim as Jerry Baker, a credit disk of Lalonde francs, then he hit the jackpot. “God’s Brother!” He held up a Jovian Bank credit disk, holographic silver on one side, royal purple on the other. “Will you look at this. Mr Pioneer here wasn’t going to take any chances in the hinterlands. He must have been planning on buying his way out of any trouble he hit upriver. Not so dumb after all. Just his bad luck he ran into us.”

“Can you use it?” Jackson asked urgently.

Quinn turned Jerry Baker’s head over. A soft liquid moan emerged from his lips at the motion. His eyelids were fluttering, a bead of blood ran out of his mouth; his breathing was erratic. “Shut up,” Quinn said absently. “Shit, I hit him too hard. Let’s see.” He pressed his right thumb against Jerry Baker’s, and engaged his second implant. The danger was that with Jerry Baker’s nervous system fucked up from the blow, the biolectric pattern of his cells which activated the credit disk might be scrambled.

When the nanonic signalled the pattern had been recorded, he held up the Jovian Bank credit disk and touched his thumb to the centre. Green figures lit up on the silver side.

Jackson Gael let out a fast triumphant hoot, and slapped Quinn on the back. Quinn had been right: Jerry Baker had come to Lalonde prepared to buy himself out of fifteen hundred fuseodollars’ worth of trouble.

They both stood up.

“Hell, we don’t even have to go upriver now,” Jackson said. “We can set up in town. Christ, we can live like kings.”

“Don’t be bloody stupid. This is only going to be good until he’s reported missing, which will be tomorrow morning.” His toe nudged the inert form on the wet floor.

“So change it into something; gold, diamonds, bales of cloth.”

Quinn gave the grinning lad a sharp look, wondering if he’d misjudged him after all. “This isn’t our town, we don’t know who’s safe, who to grease. Whoever changed that much money would know it was bent, they’d give our descriptions to the sheriffs first chance they got. They probably wouldn’t want us upsetting their own operations.”

“So what do we do with it, then?”

“We change some of it. These local francs have a cash issue as well as disks. So we spend heavily, and the locals will love giving a pair of dumb-arse colonists their toy francs as change instead of real money. Then we buy a few goodies we can take upriver that will make life a lot easier, like a decent weapon or two. After that . . .” He brought the disk up to his face. “It goes into the mud. We don’t leave any evidence, OK?”

Jackson pulled a face, but nodded regretfully. “OK, Quinn. I guess I hadn’t thought it through.”

Baker moaned again, the wavery sound of a man trapped in a bad dream.

Quinn kicked him absently. “Don’t worry about it. Now first help me put Jerry Baker into the drainage gully outside where he’ll wash down into the river. Then we’ll find somewhere where we can spend his fuseodollars in style.” He started looking round for the wooden club to silence Baker and his moaning once and for all.

After visiting a couple of pubs, the place they wound up at was called Donovan’s. It was several kilometres away from the port district, safely distant from any Group Seven members who might be having a last night in the big city. In any case, it wasn’t the sort of place that the staunchly family types of Group Seven sought out.

Like most of Durringham’s buildings, it was single storey, with walls of thick black wood. Stone piles raised it a metre above the ground, and there was a veranda right along the front, with drinkers slouched over the railing, glass tankards of beer in their hands, watching the newcomers with hazed eyes. The road outside had a thick layer of stone chippings spread over it. For once Quinn’s boots didn’t sink in up to his ankles.

Their clothes marked them down as colonists, machine-made synthetic fabric; locals were dressed in loom-woven cloth, shirts and shorts hand sewn, solid boots that came up to the top of their calves, caked in mud. But nobody shouted a challenge as they walked up the steps. Quinn felt almost home for the first time since he’d stepped off the spaceplane. These were people he understood, hard workers who pleased themselves any damn way they chose after dark. They heard the xenoc animals even before they went through the open doors. It was that same eerie whine of the thing which had chased them yesterday evening, only this time there were five or six of them all doing it at the same time. He exchanged a fast glance with Jackson, then they were inside.

The bar was a single plank of wood running along one side of the main bar, a metre wide, fifteen metres long. People were lined up along it, two deep, the six barmaids hard pushed to cope.

Quinn waited until he reached the bar, and held up the Jovian Bank disk. “You take this?”

The girl barely glanced at it. “Yeah.”

“Great, two beers.”

She started pulling them from the cask.

“It’s my last night here before I sail upriver. Do you know where I can maybe get a bit of sport? Don’t want to waste it.”

“In the back.” She didn’t look up.

“Gee, thanks. Have one yourself.”

“A brightlime, thanks.” She put his half-litre tankards down in the puddles on the bar. “Six fuseodollars.”

Which Quinn reckoned was three times what the drinks should cost, unless a brightlime was more expensive than Norfolk Tears. Yes, the locals knew how to treat transient colonists. He activated the credit disk, shunting the money to her bar account block.

The vicious black catlike animals were called sayce, the local dog-analogue, with a degree more intelligence than Earth’s canines. Quinn and Jackson saw them as soon as they pushed aside the rug hanging across the doorway and elbowed their way into Donovan’s rear room. It was a baiting arena; three tiers of benches ringing a single pit dug into the floor and lined with cut stone, five metres in diameter, three deep. Bright spotlights were strung up on the rafters, casting a white glare on the proceedings. Every centimetre of bench space was taken. Men and women with flushed red faces, cheering and shouting, soaked in sweat. It was hot in the room, hotter than the spaceport clearing at midday. Big cages were lined up along the back wall, sayce prowling about inside, highly agitated, some of them butting the bars of that ubiquitous black wood, emitting their anguished whine.

Quinn felt a grin rising. Now this was more like it!

They found a bench and squirmed on. Quinn asked the man he was next to who was taking the money.

It turned out the bookie was called Baxter, a thin oriental with a nasty scar leading from the corner of his left eye down below his grubby red T-shirt neck.

“Pay out only in Lalonde francs,” he said gruffly.

A man mountain with a black beard stood at Baxter’s side, and gave Quinn a cannibal look.

“Fine by me,” Quinn said amicably. He put a hundred fuseodollars on the favourite.

The fights were impressive, fast, violent, gory, and short. The owners would stand on opposite sides of the pit, holding back their animals, shouting orders into the flat triangular ears. When the sayce had reached a fever pitch of anger they were shoved into the pit. Streamlined black bodies clashed in a snarl of six-clawed paws and snapping jaws, muscle bands like steel pistons bunching and stretching the shiny skin. Losing a leg didn’t even slow them down. Quinn saw them tear off legs, jaws, rip out eyes, rake underbellies. The pit floor became slippery with blood, fluid, and sausage-string entrails. A crushed skull usually ended it, the losing sayce being repeatedly smashed against the stone wall until bone splintered and the brain was torn. Their blood was surprisingly red.

Quinn lost money on the first three fights, then picked up a wad of six hundred francs on the fourth, equivalent to a hundred and fifty fuseodollars. He handed a third of the plastic notes to Jackson, and put another two hundred fuseodollars on the next fight.

After seven fights he was eight hundred fuseodollars down, with two and a half thousand Lalonde francs in his pocket.

“I know her,” Jackson said as the next two sayce were being goaded on the side of the pit by their owners. One of them was an old bull, his skin a cross web of scars. That was the one Quinn had put his money on. Always trust in proven survivors.


“Girl over there. She’s from Group Seven.”

Quinn followed his gaze. The girl was a teenager, very attractive, with longish dark hair falling down over her shoulders. She was wearing a sleeveless singlet with a scoop neck; it looked new, the fabric was shiny, definitely synthetic. Her face was burning with astonishment and excitement, the taste of forbidden fruit, sweetest of all. She was sitting between two brothers, twins, about thirty years old, with sandy blond hair, just beginning to thin. They were dressed in shirts of checked cotton, crudely cut. Both of them had the kind of thick brown skin that came from working outdoors.

“Are you sure?” With the glare of the lights it was difficult for him to tell.

“I’m sure. I couldn’t forget those tits. I think she’s called Mary, Mandy, something like that.”

The sayce were shoved into the pit, and the crowd roared. The two powerful vulpine bodies locked together, spinning madly, teeth and claws slicing through the air.

“I suppose she’s entitled to be here,” Quinn said. He was annoyed, he didn’t need complications like the girl. “I’m going to have a word with Baxter. Make sure she doesn’t see you, we don’t want her to know we were here.”

Jackson gave him a thumbs up and took another gulp from his tankard.

Baxter was standing on the ramp leading from the pit to the cages, head flicking from side to side as he followed the battling beasts. He acknowledged Quinn with a terse nod.

A spume of blood flew out of the pit, splattering the people on the lowest benches. One of the sayce was screeching. Quinn thought it was calling, “Help.”

“You done all right tonight,” Baxter said. “Break even, beginner’s luck. I let you place bigger bets, you want.”

“No, I need the money. I’m going upriver soon.”

“You build nice home for family, good luck.”

“I need more than luck up there. Suppose I bump into one of those?” He flicked a finger at the pit. The old bull had its jaws around the younger sayce’s throat, it was slamming its head against the side of the pit, oblivious to the deep gouges the other’s claws were raking down its flanks.

“Sayce not like living near river,” Baxter said. “Air too wet. You be all right.”

“A sayce or one of its cousins. I could do with something with a bit of punch, something that’ll stop it dead.”

“You bring plenty gear from Earth.”

“Can’t bring everything we need, the company doesn’t let us. And I want some recreational items as well. I thought maybe I could pick it all up in town. I thought maybe you might know who I needed to see.”

“You think too much.”

“I also pay a lot.”

Down in the pit a sayce’s head virtually exploded as it was slammed against the wall for the last time. Pulpy gobs of brain sleeted down.

Quinn smiled when he saw the old bull raise its head to its cheering owner and let out a gurgling high-pitched bleat: “Yessss!”

“You owe me another thousand francs,” he told Baxter. “You can keep half of it as a finder’s fee.”

Baxter’s voice dropped an octave. “Come back here, ten minutes; I show you man who can help.”


The old bull sayce was sniffling round the floor of the pit when Quinn got back to Jackson. A blue tongue started to lick up the rich gore sloshing about on the stone.

Jackson watched the spectacle glumly. “She’s gone. She left with the twins after the fight. Christ, putting out like that, and she’s only been here a day.”

“Yeah? Well, just remember she’s going to be trapped on a river cruise with you for a fortnight. You can work your angle then.”

He brightened. “Right.”

“I think I got us what we need. Although God’s Brother knows what kind of weapons they sell in this dump. Crossbows, I should think.”

Jackson turned to face him. “I still think we should stay here. What do you hope to do upriver, take over the settlement?”

“If I have to. Jerry Baker isn’t going to be the only one who brought a Jovian Bank disk with him. If we get enough of them, we can buy ourselves off this shit heap.”

“Christ, you really think so? We can get off? All the way off?”

“Yeah. But it’s going to take a big pile of hard cash, that means we’ve got to separate a lot of colonists from their disks.” He fixed the lad with the kind of stare Banneth used when she interviewed new recruits. “Are you up to that, Jackson? I’ve got to have people who are going to back me the whole way. I ain’t got space for anyone who farts out at the first sign of trouble.”

“I’m with you. All the way. Christ, Quinn, you know that, I proved that last night and tonight.”

There was a note of desperation creeping into the voice. Jackson was insisting on having a part of what Quinn offered. The ground rules were laid out.

So let the game start, Quinn thought. The greatest game of all, the one God’s Brother plays for all eternity. The vengeance game. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s go see what Baxter’s got for us.”

Horst Elwes checked the metabolic function read-out on his medical block’s display screen, then glanced down at the sleeping figure of Jay Hilton. The girl was curled up inside a sleeping-bag, her facial features relaxed into serenity. He had cleaned the nasty graze on her leg, given her an antibiotic, and wrapped the leg in a sheath of epithelium membrane. The tough protective tissue would help accelerate natural dermal regeneration.

It was a pity the membrane could only be used once. Horst was beginning to wonder if he had stocked enough in his medical case. According to his didactic medical course, damaged human skin could rot away if it was constantly exposed to high humidity. And humidity didn’t come any higher than around the Juliffe.

He plucked the sensor pad from Jay’s neck, and put it back in the medical block’s slot.

Ruth Hilton gave him an expectant stare. “Well?”

“I’ve given her a sedative. She’ll sleep for a solid ten hours now. It might be a good idea for you to be at her side when she wakes up.”

“Of course I’ll be here,” she snapped.

Horst nodded. Ruth had shown nothing but concern and sympathy when the sobbing girl had stumbled back into the dormitory, never letting a hint of weakness show. She had held Jay’s hand all the time while Horst disinfected the graze, and the sheriff asked his questions. Only now did the worry spill out.

“Sorry,” Ruth said.

Horst gave her a reassuring smile, and picked up the medical block. It was larger than a standard processor block, a rectangle thirty-five centimetres long, twenty-five wide and three thick, with several ancillary sensor units, and a memory loaded with the symptoms and treatment of every known human illness. And that was as much a worry as the epithelium membrane; Group Seven was going to be completely dependent on him and the block for their general health for years to come. The responsibility was already starting to gnaw at his thoughts. His brief spell in the arcology refuge had shown him how little use theoretical medicine was in the face of real injuries. He had swiftly picked up enough about first aid to be of some practical use to the hard-pressed medics, but anything more serious than cuts and fractures could well prove fatal upriver.

At least the block had been left in his pod; several other items had gone missing between the spaceport and the warehouse. Damn, but why did Ruth have to be right about that? And the sheriffs hadn’t shown any interest when he reported the missing drugs. Again, just like she said.

He sighed and rested his hand on her shoulder as she sat on the edge of the cot, stroking Jay’s hair.

“She’s a lot tougher than me,” he said. “She’ll be all right. At that age, horror fades very quickly. And we’ll be going upriver straight away. Getting out of the area where it happened is going to help a lot.”

“Thank you, Horst.”

“Do you have any geneering in your heritage?”

“Yes, some. We’re not Saldanas, but one of my ancestors was comfortably off, God bless him, we had a few basic enhancements about six or seven generations ago. Why?”

“I was thinking of infection. There is a kind of fungal spore here which can live in human blood. But if your family had even a modest improvement to your immune system there won’t be any problem.”

He stood and straightened his back, wincing at the twinges along his spine. It was quiet in the dormitory; the lights were off in the centre where the rest of Group Seven’s children had been settled down for the night. Bee-sized insects with large grey wings were swarming round the long light panels that had been left on. He and Ruth had been left alone by the other colonists after the sheriff departed to examine the body in the river. He could see some kind of meeting underway in the canteen, most of the adults were there. The Ivets formed a close-knit huddle in a corner at the other end, all of them looking sullen. And frightened, Horst could tell. Waster kids who had probably never even seen an open sky before, never mind primeval jungle. They had stayed in the dormitory all day. Horst knew he should make an effort to get to know them, help build a bridge between them and the genuine colonists, unite the community. After all, they were going to spend the rest of their lives together. Somehow he couldn’t find the energy.

Tomorrow, he promised himself. We’ll all be on the ship for a fortnight, that’ll give me ample opportunity.

“I ought to be at the meeting,” he said. From where he was he could see two people standing up for a shouting match.

“Let ’em talk,” Ruth grunted. “It keeps them out of mischief. They won’t get anything sorted until after the settlement supervisor shows up.”

“He should have been here this morning. We need advice on how to establish our homes. We don’t even know the location we’ve been assigned.”

“We’ll find out soon enough; and the supervisor will have the whole river trip to lecture us. I expect he’s out prowling the town tonight. I can’t blame him, stuck with us for the next eighteen months. Poor sod.”

“Must you always think the worst of people?”

“It’s what I’d do. But that isn’t what worries me right now.”

Horst sneaked another look at the meeting. They were taking a vote, hands raised in the air. He sat down on the cot facing Ruth. “What does worry you?”

“The murder.”

“We don’t know it was a murder.”

“Get real. The body was stripped. What else could it be?”

“He could have been drunk.” Because God knows a drink is what I need just looking at that river.

“Drunk and taking a swim? In the Juliffe? Come on, Horst!”

“The autopsy should tell us if . . .” He trailed off under Ruth’s gaze. “No, I don’t suppose there will be one, will there?”

“No. He must have been dumped in the river. The sheriff told me that two colonists from Group Three were reported missing by their wives this morning. Pete Cox and Alun Reuther. I’ll give you ten to one that body is one of them.”

“Probably,” Horst admitted. “I suppose it’s shocking that urban crime is rife here. Somehow you don’t imagine such a thing on a stage one colony world. Then again, Lalonde isn’t quite what I imagined. But we’ll be leaving it all behind shortly. Our own community will be too small for such things, we will all know each other.”

Ruth rubbed at her eyes, her expression haunted. “Horst, you’re not thinking. Why was the body stripped?”

“I don’t know. For the clothes, I suppose, and the boots.”

“Right. Now what sort of mugger is going to kill for a pair of boots? Actually kill two people in cold blood. God, the people here are poor, I’m not denying it, but they’re not that desperate.”

“Who then?”

She looked pointedly over his shoulder. Horst turned round. “The Ivets? That’s rather prejudiced, isn’t it?” he asked reproachfully.

“You’ve seen the way they’re treated in the town, and we don’t treat them any better. They can’t move outside the port district without getting beaten up. Not with their jump suits on, and they don’t have anything else to wear. So who is more likely to want ordinary clothes? Who isn’t going to care what they have to do to get them? And whoever did murder that man did it inside the port, uncomfortably close to this dormitory.”

“You don’t think it was one of ours?” he exclaimed. “Let’s say, I’m praying it wasn’t. But with the way our luck is turning out, I wouldn’t count on it.”

Diranol, Lalonde’s smallest, outermost moon, was the only one of the planet’s three natural satellites left in the night sky, a nine-hundred-kilometre globe of rock with a red ochre regolith, half a million kilometres distant. It hovered above the eastern horizon, painting Durringham in a timid rose-pink fluorescence when the power bike skidded to a halt just outside the skirt of light leaking from the big transients’ dormitory. Marie Skibbow loosened her grip on Furgus. The ride through the darkened city had been sensational, drawing out every second, filling it with glee and excitement. The walls slashing past, sensed rather than seen, the headlight beam revealing ruts and mud patches on the road almost as soon as they hit them, wind whipping her hair about, eyes stung by the slipstream. Taunting danger with every turn of the wheel, and beating it, living.

“Here we go, your stop,” Furgus said.

“Right.” She swung her leg over the saddle, and stood beside him. Now the weariness swept through her, a frozen wave of depression that hung poised high above, waiting to crash down at the prospect of the future and what it held.

“You’re the best, Marie.” He kissed her, one hand fondling her right breast through the singlet’s fabric. Then he was gone, red tail light sinking into the blackness.

Her shoulders drooped as she made her way into the dormitory. Most of the cots were full, people were snoring, coughing, tossing about. She wanted to turn and run, back to Furgus and Hamish, back to the dark fulfilment of the last few hours. Her brain was still fizzing from the experiences, the naked savagery of the sayce-baiting, and the jubilant crowd in Donovan’s, blood heat inflaming her senses. Then the delicious indecency of the twins’ quiet cabin on the other side of town, with their straining bodies pounding against her first singly then both at once. That crazy bike ride in the vermilion moonlight. Marie wanted every night to be the same, without end.

“Where the hell have you been?”

Her father was standing in front of her, mouth all squeezed up that way it did when he was really angry. And for once she didn’t care.

“Out,” she said.

“Out where?”

“Enjoying myself. Exactly what you think I shouldn’t do.”

He slapped her on the cheek, the sound echoing from the high roof. “Don’t you be so bloody impudent, girl. I asked you a question. What have you been doing?”

Marie glared at him, feeling the heat grow in her stinging cheek, refusing to rub it. “What’s next, Daddy ? Will you take your belt to me? Or are you just going to use your fists?”

Gerald Skibbow’s jaw dropped. People on the nearby cots were turning over, peering at them blearily.

“Do you know how late it is? What have you been up to?” he hissed.

“Are you quite sure you want a truthful answer to that, Daddy? Quite sure?”

“You despicable little vixen. Your mother’s been fretting over you all night. Doesn’t that even bother you?”

Marie curled her lip up. “What tragedy could possibly happen to me in this paradise you’ve brought us to?”

For a moment she thought he was going to strike her again.

“There have been two murders in the port this week,” he said.

“Yeah? That doesn’t surprise me.”

“Get into bed,” Gerald said through clenched teeth. “We’ll discuss this in the morning.”

“Discuss it?” she asked archly. “You mean I get an equal say?”

“For fuck’s sake, can it, Skibbow,” someone shouted.

“We want to get some sleep here.”

Under the impotent stare of her father, Marie pulled her shoes off and sauntered over to her cot.

Quinn was still dozing in his sleeping-bag, struggling against the effects of the rough beer he had drunk in Donovan’s, when someone gripped the side of his cot and yanked it through ninety degrees. His arms and legs thrashed about in the sleeping-bag as he tumbled onto the floor, but there was no way he could prevent the fall. His hip smacked into the concrete first, jarring his pelvis badly, then his jaw landed. Quinn yelled out in surprise and pain.

“Get up, Ivet,” a voice shouted.

A man was standing over him, grinning down evilly. He was in his early forties, tall and well built, with a shock of black hair and a full beard. The brown leather skin of his face and arms was scarred with a lunar relief of pocks and the tiny red lines of broken capillaries. His clothes were all natural fabric, a thick red and black check cotton shirt with the arms torn off, green denim trousers, lace-up boots that came up to his knees, and a belt which carried various powered gadgets and a vicious-looking ninety-centimetre steel machete. A silver crucifix on a slim chain glinted at the base of his neck.

He laughed in a bass roar as Quinn groaned at the hot pain in his throbbing hip. Which was too much. Quinn grappled with the seal catch at the top of the bag. He was going to make the bastard pay. The seal opened. His hands came out, and he kicked his legs, trying to shake off the constricting fabric. Somewhere around the edges of his perception the other Ivets were shouting in alarm and jumping over the cots. A huge damp jaw closed around his right hand, completely around, sharp teeth pinching the thin skin of his wrist, their tips grating between his tendons. Shock froze him for a horrific second. It was a dog, a hound, a fucking hellhound. Even a sayce would have thought twice before taking it on. The thing must have stood a metre high. It had short grizzled grey fur, a blunt hammerhead muzzle, jowls of black rubber, wet with gooey saliva. Big liquid eyes were fixed on him. It was growling softly. Quinn could feel the vibration all the way along his arm. He waited numbly, expecting the jaws to close, the mauling to begin. But the eyes just kept staring at him.

“My name is Powel Manani,” said the bearded man. “And our glorious leader, Governor Colin Rexrew, has appointed me as Group Seven’s settlement supervisor. That means, Ivets, I own you: body, and soul. And just to make my position absolutely clear from the start: I don’t like Ivets. I think this world would be a better place without putrid pieces of crap like you screwing it up. But the LDC board has decided to lumber us with you, so I am going to make bloody sure every franc’s worth of your passage fee is squeezed out of you before your work-time is up. So when I say lick shit, you lick; you eat what I give you to eat; and you wear what I give you to wear. And because you are lazy bastards by nature, there is going to be no such thing as a day off for the next ten years.”

He squatted down beside Quinn and beamed broadly. “What’s your name, dickhead?”

“Quinn Dexter . . . sir.”

Powel’s eyebrows lifted in appreciation. “Well done. You’re a smart one, Quinn. You learn quick.”

“Thank you, sir.” The dog’s tongue was pressing against his fingers, sliding up and down his knuckles. It felt utterly disgusting. He had never heard of an animal being trained so perfectly before.

“Smartarses are troublemakers, Quinn. Are you going to be a troublemaker for me?”

“No, sir.”

“Are you going to get up in the mornings in future, Quinn?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Fine. We understand each other, then.” Powel stood up. The dog released Quinn’s hand, and backed off a pace.

Quinn held his hand up: it glistened from all the saliva; there were red marks like a tattooed bracelet around his wrist, and two drops of blood welled up.

Powel patted the dog’s head fondly. “This is my friend, Vorix. He and I are affinity bonded, which means I can quite literally smell out any scams you dickheads cook up. So don’t even try to pull any fast ones, because I know them all. If I find you doing anything I don’t like, it will be Vorix who deals with you. And it won’t be your hand he bites off next time, he’ll be dining on your balls. Do I make myself clear?”

The Ivets mumbled their answer, heads bowed, avoiding Powel’s eye.

“I’m glad none of us are suffering any illusions about the other. Now then, your instructions for the day. I will not repeat them. Group Seven is going upriver on three ships: the Swithland , the Nassier , and the Hycel . They are currently docked in harbour three, and they’re sailing in four hours. So that is the time you have to get the colonists’ gear loaded. Any pods that aren’t loaded, I will have you carry on your backs the whole way to the landing site upriver. Do not expect me to act as your permanent nursemaid, get yourselves organized and get on with it. You will be travelling with me and Vorix on the Swithland. Now move!”

Vorix barked, jowls peeled back from his teeth. Powel watched Quinn skitter backwards like a crab, then pick himself up and chase off after the other Ivets. He knew Quinn was going to be trouble, after helping to start five settlements he could read the Ivets’ thoughts like a personality debrief. The youth was highly resentful, and smart with it. He was more than a waster kid, probably got tied in with some underground organization before he was transported. Powel toyed with the idea of simply leaving him behind when the Swithland sailed, let the Durringham sheriffs deal with him. But the Land Allocation Office would know what he’d done, and it would be entered in his file, which had too many incidents already. “Bugger,” he muttered under his breath. The Ivets were all outside the dormitory, heading along the path to the warehouse. And it looked like they were gathering round Quinn, waiting for him to start directing them. Oh well, if it came to it, Quinn would just have to have an accident in the jungle.

Horst Elwes had been watching the episode with a number of Group Seven’s members, and now he stepped up to Powel. The supervisor’s dog turned its neck to look at him. Lord, but it was a brute. Lalonde was becoming a sore test for him indeed. “Was it necessary to be quite so unpleasant to those boys?” he asked Powel Manani.

Powel looked him up and down, eyes catching on the white crucifix. “Yes. If you want the blunt truth, Father. That’s the way I always deal with them. They have to know who’s in charge from the word go. Believe me, they respect toughness.”

“They would also respond to kindness.”

“Fine, well you show them plenty of it, Father. And just to prove there’s no ill feeling, I’ll give them time off to attend mass.”

Horst had to quicken his pace to keep up. “Your dog,” he said cautiously.

“What about him?”

“You say you are bonded with affinity?”

“That’s right.”

“Are you an Edenist, then?”

Vorix made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a snicker.

“No, Father,” Powel said. “I’m simply practical. And if I had a fuseodollar for every new-landed priest who asked me that I would be a millionaire. I need Vorix upriver; I need him to hunt, to scout, to keep the Ivets in line. Neuron symbionts give me control over him. I use them because they are cheap and they work. The same as all the other settlement supervisors, and half of the county sheriffs as well. It’s only the major Earth-based religions which maintain people’s prejudice against bitek. But on worlds like Lalonde we can’t afford your prissy theological debates. We use what we have to, when we have to. And if you want to survive long enough to fill Group Seven’s second generation with your noble bigotry over a single chromosome which makes people a blasphemy, then you’ll do the same. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a settlement expedition to sort out.” He brushed past, heading for the harbour.

Gerald Skibbow and the other members of Group Seven followed after him, several of them giving shamefaced glances to the startled priest. Gerald watched Rai Molvi gathering up his nerve to speak. Molvi had made a lot of noise at the meeting last night, he seemed to fancy himself as a leader of men. There had been plenty of suggestions that they form an official committee, elect a spokesperson. It would help the group interface with the authorities, Rai Molvi said. Gerald privately gave him six months before he was running back to Durringham with his tail between his legs. The man was an obvious lawyer type, didn’t have what it took to be a farmer.

“You were supposed to be here yesterday to brief us,” Rai Molvi said.

“Quite right,” Powel said without breaking stride. “I apologize. If you would like to make an official complaint about me, the Land Allocation Office which issues my contract is in a dumper down on the western edge of town. It’s only six kilometres.”

“No, we weren’t going to complain,” Rai Molvi said quickly. “But we do need to establish certain facts to prepare ourselves. It would have been helpful had you attended.”

“Attended what?”

“Last night’s council meeting.”

“What council?”

“Group Seven’s council.”

Powel took a breath. He never did understand why half of the colonists came to Lalonde in the first place. The LDC must employ some pretty amazing advertising techniques back on Earth, he thought. “What was it the council wanted to know?”

“Well . . . where are we going, for a start?”

“Upriver.” Powel stretched out the pause long enough to make the other man uncomfortable. “A place called Schuster County, on the Quallheim tributary. Although I’m sure that if you have somewhere else in mind the river-boat captain will be happy to take you there instead.”

Rai Molvi reddened.

Gerald pushed his way to the front as they all moved out from under the dormitory’s creaking roof. Powel had turned, making for the circular harbour two hundred metres away, Vorix padding along eagerly behind him. There were several paddle-boats pulled up at the wooden quays inside the artificial lagoon. The bright red specks of scavenging chikrows swirled overhead. The sight with its sense of purpose and adventure was unbeatable, quickening his blood.

“Is there anything we need to know about the paddleboats?” he asked.

“Not really,” Powel said. “They carry about a hundred and fifty people each, and it’ll take us about a fortnight to reach the Quallheim. Your meals are provided as part of your transit fee, and I’ll be giving talks on the more practical aspects of jungle lore and setting up your home. So just find yourself a bunk, and enjoy the trip, for you won’t ever have another like it. After we make landfall the real work begins.”

Gerald nodded his thanks and turned back to the dormitory. Let the others pester the man with irrelevant questions, he would get the family packed and onto the Swithland straight away. A long river trip would be just what Marie needed to calm her down.

The Swithland followed a standard design for the larger paddle-boats operating on the Juliffe. She had a broad, shallow hull made of mayope planks, measuring sixty metres from prow to stern and twenty metres broad. With the water flowing by a mere metre and a half below the deck she could almost have been mistaken for a well-crafted raft had it not been for her superstructure, which resembled a large rectangular barn. Her odd blend of ancient and modern technologies was yet another indicator of Lalonde’s development status. Two paddles midway down the hull because they were far simpler to manufacture and maintain than the more efficient screws. Electric motors because the industrial machinery to assemble them was cheaper than the equivalent necessary to produce a steam generator and turbine unit. But then electric motors required a power source, which was a solid-state thermal-exchange furnace imported from Oshanko. Such costly imports would only be tolerated while the number of paddle-boats made the generator and turbine factory uneconomical. When their numbers increased the governing economic equations would change in tandem, quite probably sweeping them away entirely to be replaced with another equally improbable mismatch craft. Such was the way of progress on Lalonde.

The Swithland herself was only seventeen years old, and good for another fifty or sixty at least. Her captain, Rosemary Lambourne, had taken out a mortgage with the LDC that her grandchildren would be paying off. As far as she was concerned, that was a bargain. Seventeen years of watching hapless colonists sailing upriver to their dream’s ruin convinced her she had done the right thing. Her colonist shipment contract with the Governor’s Transport Office was a solid income, guaranteed for the next twenty years, and everything she brought downriver for Durringham’s growing merchant community was pure profit, earning hard fuseodollars.

Life on the river was the best, she could hardly remember her existence back on Earth, working in a Govcentral design bureau to improve vac-train carriages. That was somebody else’s existence.

A quarter of an hour before they were due to cast off, Rosemary stood on the open bridge, which took up the forward quarter of the superstructure’s top deck. Powel Manani had joined her after he had led his horse up the gangplank, tethering it on the aft deck; now the two of them watched the colonists embarking. Children and adults alike shuffled round. The children were mostly gathered round the horse, patting and stroking it gently. Shoulder-bags and larger cases were strewn about over the dark planking. The sound of several heated arguments drifted up to the top deck. Nobody had thought to count how many people were coming on board. Now the boat was overladen, and latecomers were reluctant to find another berth on one of the other ships.

“You got your Ivets organized well,” she told the supervisor. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen the gear stowed so professionally before. They finished over an hour ago. The harbour-master ought to nab them from you and put them to work as stevedores.”

“Humm,” Powel said. Vorix, who was lying on the deck behind them, gave an uneasy growl.

Rosemary grinned at that. Sometimes she wasn’t sure who was bonded to who.

“Something wrong?” she asked.

“Someone, actually. They’ve got themselves a leader. He’s going to be trouble, Rosemary. I know he is.”

“You’ll keep them in line. Hell, you’ve supered five settlements, and all of them wound up viable. If you can’t do it nobody can.”

“Thanks. You run a pretty tight ship yourself.”

“Keep an eye out for yourself this time, Powel. There’s people gone missing up in Schuster County recently. Rumour has it the Governor’s none too happy.”


“The Hycel is carrying a marshal upriver. Going to have a scout round.”

“I wonder if there’s a bounty for finding them? The Governor doesn’t like homesteaders ducking out of their settlement contract, it sets a bad example. Everyone would come and live in Durringham otherwise.”

“From what I hear, they want to find out what happened to them, not where they are.”


“They just vanished. No sign of a fight. Left all their gear and animals behind.”

“Fine, well, I’ll keep alert.” He took a broad-rimmed hat out of the pack at his feet. It was yellow-green in colour, much stained. “Are we sharing a bunk this trip, Roses?”

“No chance.” She leant further over the rail to scan the foredeck for her four children, who along with two stokers were her only other crew. “I’ve got me a brand-new Ivet as my second stoker. Barry MacArple, he’s nineteen, real talented mechanic on both sides of the sheets. I think it shocks my eldest boy. That is, when he actually stops boffing the colonists’ daughters himself.”


Vorix let out a plaintive whine, and dropped his head onto his forepaws.

“When are you back in Schuster County next?” Powel asked.

“A couple of months, maybe three. I’m taking a group up to Colane County on the Dibowa tributary next time out. After that I’ll be up in your area. Want me to visit?”

He settled the hat on his head, working out agendas and timescales in his mind. “No, it’s too soon. This bunch won’t have exhausted their gear by then. Make it nine or ten months, let them feel a little deprivation, we’ll be able to flog them a bar of soap for fifty fuseodollars by then.”

“That’s a date.”

They shook on it, and turned back to watch the quarrelling colonists below.

Swithland cast off more or less on time. Rosemary’s eldest boy, Karl, a strapping fifteen-year-old, ran along the deck shouting orders to the colonists who were helping with the cables. A cheer went up from the passengers as the paddles started turning and they moved away from the quay.

Rosemary was in the bridge herself. The harbour didn’t have much spare water anyway, and Swithland was sluggish with a hold full of logs for the furnace, the colonists, their gear, and enough food to last them three weeks. She steered past the end of the quay and out into the centre of the artificial lagoon. The furnace was burning furiously, twin stacks sending out a high plume of grey-blue smoke. Standing on the prow, Karl gave her a smiling thumbs-up. He’s going to break a lot of female hearts, that one, she thought proudly.

For once there wasn’t a rain-cloud to be seen, and the forward-sweep mass-detector showed her a clean channel. Rosemary gave the horn a single toot, and pushed both paddle-control levers forward, moving out of the harbour and onto her beloved untamed river that stretched away into the unknown. How could life possibly be better than this?

For the first hundred kilometres the colonists of Group Seven could only agree with her. This was the oldest inhabited section of Amarisk outside Durringham, settled almost twenty-five years previously. The jungle had been cleared in great swaths, making way for fields, groves, and grazing land. As they stood on the side of the deck they could see herds of animals roaming free over the broad pastures, picking teams working the groves and plantations, their piles of wicker baskets full of fruit or nuts. Villages formed a continual chain along the southern bank, the rural idyll; sturdy, brightly painted wooden cottages set in the centre of large gardens that were alive with flowers, lines of tall, verdant trees providing a leafy shade. The lanes between the trunks were planted with thick grasses, shining a brilliant emerald in the intense sunlight. Out here, where people could spread without constraint, there wasn’t the foot and wheel traffic to pound the damp soil into the kind of permanent repellent mud which made up Durringham’s roads. Horses plodded along, pulling wains loaded with bounties of hay and barley. Windmills formed a row of regular pinnacles along the skyline, their sails turning lazily in the persistent wind. Long jetties struck out into the choppy ochre water of the Juliffe, two or three to each village. They had constant visitors in the form of small paddle-driven barges eager for the farms’ produce. Children sat on the end of the jetties dangling rods and lines into the water, waving at the eternal procession of boats speeding by. In the morning small sailing boats cast off to fish the river, and the Swithland would cruise sedately through the flotilla of canvas triangles thrumming in the fresh breeze.

In the evening, when the sky flared into deep orange around the western horizon, and the stars came out overhead, bonfires would be lit in the village greens. Leaning on the deck rail that first night as the fires appeared, Gerald Skibbow was reduced to an inarticulate longing. The black water reflected long tapers of orange light from the bonfires, and he could hear gusty snatches of songs as the villagers gathered round for their communal meal.

“I never thought it could be this perfect,” he told Loren.

She smiled as his arm circled her. “It does look pretty, doesn’t it. Something out of a fairy story.”

“It can be ours, this sort of life. It’s waiting up there at the end of the river. In ten years’ time we’ll be dancing round a bonfire while the boats go by.”

“And the new colonists will look at us and dream!”

“We’ll have our house built, like a palace made from wood. That’s what you’ll live in, Loren, a miniature palace that the King of Kulu himself will envy. And you’ll have a garden full of vegetables and flowers; and I’ll be out in the grove, or tending the herds. Paula and Marie will live nearby, and the grandchildren will run both of us off our feet.”

Loren hugged him tightly. He lifted his head and let out a bellow of joy. “God, how could we have wasted so many years on Earth? This is where we all belong, all of us Loren. We should throw away our arcologies and our starships, and live like the Lord intended. We really should.”

Ruth and Jay stood together beside the taffrail and watched the sun sink below the horizon, crowning the vast river with an aura of purple-gold light for one sublime magical minute.

“Listen, Mummy, they’re singing,” Jay said. Her face was a picture of serenity. The horrid corpse of yesterday was long forgotten; she had found utter contentment with the big beige-coloured horse hitched up to the port railing. Those huge black eyes were so soft and loving, and the feel of its wet nose on her palm when she fed it a sweet was ticklish and wonderful. She couldn’t believe something so huge was so gentle. Mr Manani had already said he would let her walk it round the deck each morning for exercise and teach her how to groom it. The Swithland was paradise come early. “What are they singing?”

“It sounds like a hymn,” Ruth said. For the first time since they had landed she was beginning to feel as though she’d made the right decision. The villages certainly looked attractive, and well organized. Knowing that it was possible to succeed was half the battle. It would be tougher further from the capital, but not impossible. “I can’t say I blame them.”

The wind had died down, sending flames from the bonfires shooting straight up into the starry night, but the aroma of cooking food stole over the water to the Swithland and her two sister craft. The scent of freshly baked bread and thick spicy stews played hell with Quinn’s stomach. The Ivets had been given cold meat and a fruit that looked like an orange, except it had a purple-bluish coloured skin and tasted salty. All the colonists had eaten a hot meal. Bastards. But the Ivets were starting to turn to him, that was something. He sat on the deck at the front of the superstructure, looking out to the north, away from all those fucking medieval hovels the colonists were wetting themselves over. The north was dark, he liked that. Darkness had many forms, physical and mental, and it conquered all in the end. The sect had taught him that, darkness was strength, and those that embrace the dark will always triumph.

Quinn’s lips moved soundlessly. “After darkness comes the Bringer of Light. And He shall reward those that followed His path into the void of Night. For they are true unto themselves and the nature of man, which is beast. They shall sit upon His hand, and cast down those who dress in the falsehood of Our Lord and His brother.”

A hand touched Quinn’s shoulder, and the fat priest smiled down at him. “I’m holding a service on the aft deck in a few minutes. We are going to bless our venture. You would be very welcome to attend.”

“No, thank you, Father,” Quinn said levelly.

Horst gave him a sad smile. “I understand. But the Lord’s door is always open for you.” He walked on towards the aft deck.

“Your Lord,” Quinn whispered to his departing back. “Not mine.”

Jackson Gael saw the girl from Donovan’s slouched against the port rail just aft of the paddle, head resting on her hands. She was wearing a crumpled Oxford-blue shirt tucked into black rugby shorts, white pumps on her feet, no socks. At first he thought she was gazing out over the river, then he caught sight of the personal MF block clipped to her belt, the silver lenses in her eyes. Her foot was tapping out a rhythm on the decking.

He shrugged out of the top of his grey jump suit, tying the arms round his waist so she wouldn’t see the damning scarlet letters. There was no appreciable drop in temperature as the humid air flowed over his skin. Had there ever been a single molecule of cool air on this planet?

He tapped her on the shoulder. “Hi.”

A spasm of annoyance crossed her face. Blind mirror irises turned in his direction as her hand fumbled with the little block’s controls. The silver vanished to show dark, expressive eyes. “Yeah?”

“Was that a local broadcast?”

“Here? You’ve got to be kidding. The reason we’re on a boat is because this planet hasn’t invented the wheel yet.”

Jackson laughed. “You’re right there. So what were you ’vising?”

Life Kinetic . That’s Jezzibella’s latest album.”

“Hey, I rate Jezzibella.”

Her sulk lifted for a moment. “Course you do. She turns males to jelly. Shows us fems what we can all do if we want. She makes herself succeed.”

“I saw her live, once.”

“God. You did? When?”

“She played my arcology a year ago. Five nights in the stadium, sold out.”

“Any good?”

“Supreme.” He spread his arms exuberantly. “Nothing like an ordinary Mood Fantasy band, it’s almost straight sex, but she went on for hours. She just sets your whole body on fire, what she does with the dancers. They reckoned her AV broadcast pillars were using illegal sense-activant codes. Who gives a shit? You would have loved it.”

Marie Skibbow’s pout returned. “I’ll never know now, will I? Not on this bloody retarded planet.”

“Didn’t you want to come here?”


The hot resentment in her voice surprised him. The colonists had seemed such a dopey bunch, every one of them wrapped up in the prospect of all that rustic charm crap spread out along the riverbank. It hadn’t occurred to him that they were anything other than unified in their goal. Marie might be a valuable ally.

He saw the captain’s son, Karl, making his way down the side of the superstructure. The boy was wearing a pair of white canvas shorts, and rubber-soled plimsolls. Swithland was riding some choppy water, but Karl’s balance was uncanny, he could anticipate the slightest degree of pitch.

“There you are,” he said to Marie. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you, I thought you’d be at the service the priest’s giving.”

“I’m not helping to bless this trip,” she said smartly.

Karl grinned broadly, his teeth showing a gleam in the deepening twilight. He was a head shorter than Jackson, which put him a few centimetres below Marie’s height, and his torso was muscled like a medical text illustration. His family must have had plenty of geneering, he was too perfect. Jackson watched in growing bewilderment as he held his hand out expectantly to the girl.

“Are you ready to go?” Karl asked. “My cabin’s up forward, just below the bridge.”

Marie accepted the boy’s hand. “Sure.”

Jackson was given a lurid wink from Karl as he led Marie down the deck. They disappeared into the superstructure, and Jackson was sure he heard Marie giggle. He couldn’t believe it. She preferred Karl? The boy was five years younger than him! His fists clenched in anger. It was being an Ivet, he knew it was. The little bitch!

Karl’s cabin was a compact compartment overlooking the prow, definitely a teenager’s room. A couple of processor blocks lay on the desk, along with some micro-tool units and a half-dismantled electronics stack from one of the bridge systems. There were holograms on the wall showing starfields and planets; clothes, shoes, and towels were scattered about on the deck planks. It had about ten times as much space as the cabin the Skibbows and Kavas were forced to share.

The door shut behind Marie, muting the sound of the congregation gathered on the aft deck. Karl immediately kicked off his plimsolls, and unlatched a broad bunk which had been folded flat against the wall.

He’s only fifteen years old, Marie thought, but he has got a tremendous body, and that smile . . . God, I shouldn’t have allowed him to smooth talk me in here, never mind be thinking of bedding him. Which only made her feel even randier.

The congregation started to sing a hymn, their voices bringing a rich enthusiasm to the slow melody. She thought of her father out there, his eager-to-make-amends expression this morning, telling her how the river trip would show her the wholesome satisfaction to be earned from the quieter side of life and honest labours. So please, darling, try to understand Lalonde is our future now, and a fine future at that.

Marie unbuttoned her shirt under Karl’s triumphant gaze, then started on her shorts.

The settlements along the Juliffe changed subtly after the third day. The Swithland passed the end of the Hultain Marsh, and villages began to appear on the distant northern bank. They lacked the trimness of the earlier buildings, there were fewer animals and cultivated fields; less jungle had been cleared, and the trees standing so close to the cabins looked far more imposing.

The river branched, but the Swithland sailed on purposefully down the main channel. The water traffic began to fall off. These villages were still hard at work to tame the land, they couldn’t afford the time it took to make sailing boats. Big barges were chugging down the river, loaded mainly with mayope timber cut by new settlements to sell to the shipyards in the city. But by the end of the first week even the barges were left behind. It simply wasn’t economical to carry timber to the capital over such a distance.

There were tributary forks every hour now. The Juliffe was narrower, down to a couple of kilometres, its fast waters almost clear. Sometimes they would sail for five or six hours without seeing a village.

Horst felt the mood on board turning, and prayed that the despondency would end once they made landfall. The devil makes work for idle hands, and it had never been truer than out here. Once they were busy building their village and preparing the land Group Seven would have no time for brooding. But the second week seemed to last for ever, and the daily rains had returned with a vengeance. People were muttering about why they had to travel quite this far from the city for their allocated land.

The jungle had become an oppressive presence on either side, hemming them in, trees and undergrowth packed so tightly that the riverbanks created a solid barricade of leaves extending right down to the water. Foltwine, a tenacious freshwater aquatic plant, was a progressive nuisance. Its long, brown ribbonlike fronds grew just below the surface right across the width of the river. Rosemary avoided the larger clumps with ease, but strands would inevitably wrap themselves around the paddles. The Swithland made frequent stops while Karl and his younger sister clambered over them, cutting the tough slippery fronds free with the radiant yellow blades of fission knives.

Thirteen days after they departed from Durringham they had left the Juliffe itself behind and started to sail along the Quallheim tributary. It was three hundred metres wide, fast flowing, with vine-swamped trees thirty metres high forming a stockade on both banks. Away to the south, the colonists could just make out the purple and grey peaks of a distant mountain range. They stared in wonder at the snowcaps shining brightly in the sun; ice seemed to belong to an alien planet, not native to Lalonde.

In the early morning of the fourteenth day after leaving Durringham, a village crept into view as they edged their way up the river, the first they had seen for thirty-six hours. It was set in a semicircular clearing, a bite into the jungle nearly a kilometre deep. Felled trees lay everywhere. Thin towers of smoke rose from a few fire pits. The shacks were crude parodies of the cottages belonging to villages downriver; lashed-up frames with walls and roofs made from panels of woven palm fronds. There was a single jetty that looked terribly unsafe, with three hollowed-out log canoes tied up to it. A small stream trickling through the middle of the clearing into the river was an open sewer. Goats were tied to stakes, foraging in the short grass. Emaciated chickens scratched around in the mud and sawdust. The inhabitants stood about listlessly and watched the Swithland go past with numb, hooded eyes. Most of them were wearing shorts and boots, their skin a deep brown, whether from the sun or dirt it was hard to say. Even the apparently eternal chittering of the jungle creatures was hushed.

“Welcome to the town of Schuster,” Rosemary said with some irony. She was standing on the bridge, one eye permanently on the forward-sweep mass-detector, watching out for foltwine and submerged snags.

Group Seven’s council and Powel Manani were ranged around the bridge behind her, grateful to be in the shade.

“This is it?” Rai Molvi asked, aghast.

“The county capital, yeah,” Powel said. “They’ve been going for about a year now.”

“Don’t worry,” Rosemary said. “The land you’ve been allocated is another twelve kilometres upriver. You won’t have to have much contact with them. No bad thing, too, if you ask me. I’ve seen communities like this before, they infect their neighbours. Better you have a fresh start.”

Rai Molvi nodded briefly, not trusting himself to speak. The three rivercraft sailed on slowly, leaving behind the shanty town and its torpid inhabitants. The colonists gathered on Swithland ’s aft deck watched them disappear as the boat rounded a bend in the river, silent and contemplative.

Horst made the sign of the cross, muttering an invocation. Perhaps a requiem would be more appropriate, he thought.

Jay Hilton turned to her mother. “Will we have to live like that, Mummy?”

“No,” she said firmly. “Never.”

Two hours later, with the river down to a hundred and fifty metre width, Rosemary watched the digits on the inertial-guidance block flick round to match the coordinates the Land Allocation Office had given her. Karl stood on the prow as the Swithland crept along at a walking pace, his keen eyes searching the impenetrable green barrier of vegetation along the southern bank. The jungle was steaming softly from the rain of an hour earlier, white tendrils wafting out of the treetops, then spiralling away into the burning azure sky. Small, colourful birds darted about between the branches, shrieking brazenly.

Karl suddenly jumped up and waved to his mother, pointing at the bank. Rosemary saw the tarnished silver pillar with its hexagonal sign on top. It was stuck in the soil five metres above the water. Vines with big purple flowers had already climbed halfway up it.

She gave the horn a triumphant hoot. “End of the line,” she sang out. “This is Aberdale. Last stop.”

“All right,” Powel said, holding up his hands for silence. He was standing on a barrel to address the assembled colonists on the foredeck. “You’ve seen what can be done with a little bit of determination and hard work, and you’ve also seen how easy it is to fail. Which road you go down is entirely up to you. I’m here to help you for eighteen months, which is the period your future will be settled in. That’s the make or break time. Now, tell me, are you going to make a go of it?”

He received a throaty cheer, and smiled round. “Fine. Our first job is going to be building a jetty so that Captain Lambourne and the other two river-boats can dock. That way we can unload your gear properly, without getting it wet. Now a jetty is an important part of any village on this river. It tells a visitor straight away what sort of community you want to carve out for yourselves. You’ll notice our good captain wasn’t too eager to stop at Schuster. Not surprising, is it? A good jetty is one that the boats are always going to stop at, even out here. It’s a statement that you want to take part in what the planet has to offer. It says you want to trade and grow rich. It says that there are opportunities here for clever captains. It makes you a part of civilization. So I think it would be a good idea if we start off as we mean to go on, and build ourselves a solid decent jetty that’s going to last out your grandchildren. That’s what I think. Am I right?”

The chorus of “Yes!” was deafening.

He clapped his hands together, and hopped down off the barrel. “Quinn?” He beckoned to the lad, who was in the group of quiet Ivets standing in the shade of the superstructure.

Quinn trotted forward. “Yes, sir?”

The respectful tone didn’t fool Powel for a second. “The captain is holding station against the current for now. But it’s costing her power, so we have to secure the Swithland if we want her to stay for any length of time. I want you to ferry a cable out to the shore, and tie it onto a tree large enough to take the strain. Think you can manage that?”

Quinn looked from Powel to the mass of dark green vegetation on the bank then back to Powel. “How do I get over there?”

“Swim, boy! And don’t try telling me you can’t. It’s only thirty-five metres.”

Karl came over, uncoiling a rope. “Once you’ve secured it, we’ll haul the Swithland into the shallows, and rig a proper mooring,” the boy said. “Everyone else can wade ashore from there.”

“Great,” Quinn said sourly. He took his shoes off, then started to shrug out of his jump suit. Vorix nosed around the two shoes, sniffing eagerly.

Quinn left his shorts on, and sat on the decking to put his shoes back on. “Can Vorix come with me, please?” he asked.

The dog looked round, long tongue hanging out of the side of its big jaw.

“What the hell do you want him with you for?” Powel asked.

Quinn gestured to the jungle with its barrage of animal sounds. “To take care of any wild sayce.”

“Get in the water, Quinn, and stop whingeing. There aren’t any wild sayce around here.” Powel watched as the lad eased himself over the side of the deck and into the river. Jackson Gael lay flat on the deck, and handed the rope down.

Quinn started swimming for the shore with a powerful sidestroke, dragging the rope behind him.

“The kroclions ate all the sayce,” Powel yelled after him; then, laughing heartily, went aft to get the jetty-building team organized.

Chapter 08

Tranquillity: a polyp cylinder with hemispherical endcaps, its shell the colour of fired unglazed clay, sixty-five kilometres long, seventeen kilometres in diameter, the largest of all bitek habitats ever to be germinated within the Confederation. It was drab and uninviting in appearance, and difficult to see from a distance; what little sunlight eventually reached it from the F3 primary one-point-seven billion kilometres away seemed to be repulsed, preferring to flow around the curving shell rather than strike the surface. It was the only human settlement in the star system, orbiting seven thousand kilometres above the Ruin Ring. The shattered remnants of those very remote xenoc cousins were its sole companions. A permanent reminder that for all its size and power, it was terribly mortal. Lonely, isolated, and politically impotent, there should be few people who would choose to live in such a place.

And yet . . .

Starships and scavenger vessels on an approach trajectory could discern a stippled haze of light hovering around the endcap orientated to galactic north. A cluster of industrial stations floated in attendance. Owned by some of the largest astroengineering companies in the Confederation, they were permanently busy serving the constant stream of starships arriving and departing. Cargo tugs, fuel tankers, personnel carriers, and multipurpose service vehicles shuttled around them, their reaction drives pulsing out a smog of hot blue ions.

A three-kilometre spindle connected Tranquillity’s northern endcap to a non-rotating spaceport: a disc of metal girders, four and a half kilometres in diameter, with a confusing jumble of support facilities, tanks, and docking bays arrayed across its surface, resembling a gigantic metal cobweb that had snagged a swarm of fantastic cybernetic insects. It was as busy as any Edenist habitat, with Adamist starships loading and unloading their cargoes, taking on fuel, embarking passengers.

Behind the tarnished silver-white disc, three circular ledges stood out proud from the endcap: havens for the bitek starships which came and went with quick, graceful agility. Their geometrical diversity fascinated the entire spaceport, and most of the habitat’s population; observation lounges overlooking the ledges were popular among the young and not-so-young. Mirchusko was where the blackhawks mated and died and gestated. Tranquillity offered itself as one of their few legitimate home bases. Their eggs could be bought here, changing hands for upwards of twenty million fuseodollars and absolutely no questions.

Around the rim of the endcap hundreds of organic conductor cables stretched out into space; subject to constant dust abrasion and particle impact, they were extruded on a permanent basis by specialist glands to compensate for the near-daily breakages. The habitat’s rotation kept the cables perfectly straight, radiating away from the shell like the leaden-grey spokes of some cosmic bicycle wheel. They sliced through the flux lines of Mirchusko’s prodigious magnetosphere, generating a gigantic electrical current which powered the biological processes of Tranquillity’s mitosis layer as well as the axial light-tube and the domestic demands of its inhabitants. Tranquillity ingested thousands of tonnes of asteroidal minerals each year to regenerate its own polyp structure and invigorate the biosphere, but chemical reactions alone could never produce a fraction of the energy it needed to nurture its human occupants.

Beyond the endcap and the induction cables, exactly halfway down the cylinder, there was a city, home to over three million people: a band of starscrapers wrapped around the median equator, five-hundred-metre-long towers projecting out of the shell, studded with long, curving transparencies that radiated warm yellow light out into space. The view from the luxurious apartments inside was breathtaking; stars alternated with the storm-wracked gas giant and its little empire of rings and moons, eternal yet ever-changing as the cylinder rotated to provide an Earth-standard gravity at the base of the towers. Here, Adamists were granted the sight which was every Edenist’s birthright.

Small wonder, then, that Tranquillity, with its liberal banking laws, low income tax, the availability of blackhawks to charter, and an impartial habitat-personality which policed the interior to ensure a crime-free environment (essential for the peace of mind of the millionaires and billionaires who resided within), had prospered, becoming one of the Confederation’s premier independent trading and finance centres.

But it hadn’t been designed as a tax haven, not at first; that came later, born out of desperate necessity. Tranquillity was germinated in 2428, on the order of the then Crown Prince of Kulu, Michael Saldana, as a modified version of an Edenist habitat, with a number of unique attributes the Prince himself requested. He intended it to act as a base from which the cream of Kulu’s xenoc specialists could study the Laymil, and determine what fate had befallen them. It was an action which brought down the considerable wrath of his entire family.

Kulu was a Christian-ethnic culture, and very devout. The King of Kulu was the principal guardian of that faith throughout the kingdom; and because of bitek’s synonymous association with Edenists, Adamists (especially good Christian ones) had virtually abandoned that particular branch of technology. Possibly Prince Michael could have got away with bringing Tranquillity into existence; a self-sustaining bitek habitat was a logical solution for an isolated academic research project, and astute propaganda could have smoothed over the scandal. Royalty is no stranger to controversy, if anything it adds to its mystique, especially when relatively harmless.

But the whitewash option never arose; having germinated the habitat, Prince Michael went and compounded his original “crime” (in the eyes of the Church, and more importantly the Privy Council) by having neuron symbionts implanted enabling him to establish an affinity bond with the young Tranquillity.

His final act of defiance, condemned as heretical by Kulu’s conclave of bishops, came in 2432, the year his father, King James, died. Michael had a modified affinity gene spliced into his first son, Maurice, so that he too might commune with the kingdom’s newest, and most unusual, subject.

Both were excommunicated (Maurice was a three-month-old embryo residing in an exowomb at the time). Michael abdicated before his coronation in favour of his brother, Prince Lukas. And father and son were unceremoniously exiled to Tranquillity, which was granted to them in perpetuity as a duchy.

One of the most ambitious xenoc research projects ever mounted, the unravelling of an entire species from its chromosomes to whatever pinnacles of culture it achieved, virtually collapsed overnight as its royal treasury funds were withdrawn and staff recalled.

And as for Michael: from being the rightful monarch of the seven wealthiest star systems in the Confederation, he became the de facto owner of a half-grown bitek habitat. From commanding a navy of seven hundred warships, the third most powerful military force in existence, he had at his disposal five ex-navy transports, all over twenty-five years old. From having the absolute power of life and death over a population of one and three-quarter billion loyal human subjects, he became an administrator of seventeen thousand abandoned, shit-listed technicians and their families, resentful at their circumstances. From being First Lord of the Treasury dealing in trillion-pound budgets, he was left to write a tax-haven constitution in the hope of attracting the idle rich so he could live off their surplus.

For time evermore, Michael Saldana was known as the Lord of Ruin.

“I am bid three hundred thousand fuseodollars for this excellent plant. Really, ladies and gentlemen, this is a remarkable specimen. There are over five intact leaves, and it is of a type never seen before, completely unclassified.” The plant sat in a glass vacuum bubble on the auctioneer’s table: a dusty grey stalk, sprouting five long drooping fern-like leaves with frayed edges. The audience gazed at it in unappreciative silence. “Come along now, that protuberance at the top may well be a flower bud. Its cloning will be such a simple matter, and the genome patent will remain exclusively in your hands, an incalculable font of wealth.”

Someone datavised another ten thousand fuseodollars.

Joshua Calvert didn’t try to see who. This crowd were experts, facial expressions like poker players running downer programs. And they were all here today, packing the room, there wasn’t a spare chair to be had. People stood four deep around the walls, spilling down the aisles; the casuals, billionaires looking for a spark of excitement, the serious collectors, consortium bidders, even some industrial company reps hoping for technological templates.

Here because of me.

Barrington Grier’s outfit wasn’t the largest auction house in Tranquillity, and it dealt in art as much as Laymil artefacts, but it was a tight, polished operation. And Barrington Grier had treated a nineteen-year-old Joshua Calvert who had just returned from his first scavenging flight as an equal, as a professional. With respect. He had used the house ever since.

The bidding room was on the fiftieth floor of the StMary’s starscraper, its polyp walls overlaid by dark oak panelling, with velvet burgundy curtains on either side of the entrance arches and thick royal-blue carpets. Elaborate crystal lights cast a bright glow on the proceedings. Joshua could almost imagine himself in some Victorian London establishment. Barrington Grier had told him once that was the effect he wanted, quiet and dignified, fostering an atmosphere of confidence. The broad window behind the auctioneer spoilt the period effect somewhat; stars spun lazily outside, while Falsia, Mirchusko’s sixth moon, slowly traversed the panorama, a sliver of aquamarine.

“Three hundred and fifty thousand, once.”

Falsia was eclipsed by the auctioneer’s chest.

“Three hundred and fifty thousand, twice.”

The antique wooden gavel was raised. Falsia reappeared, peeping out over the man’s shoulder.

“Final time.”

There was a smack as the gavel came down. “Sold to Ms Melissa Strandberg.”

The room buzzed with voices as the glass bubble was carried away, excitement and nervousness throttling the air. In his second-row seat, with his nerves alight, Joshua felt it build around him, and shifted round uncomfortably, careful not to knock his legs against those of his neighbours. His feet were still painful if he applied pressure too quickly. Medical nanonic packages had swallowed both legs up to his knees, looking like strange green-leather boots, five sizes too large. The packages had a spongy texture, and he felt as though he was bouncing as he walked.

Three auctioneer’s assistants carried a new bubble over to the table, it was a metre and a half high, with a dull gold crown of thermo-dump fins on top, keeping the internal temperature below freezing. A faint patina of condensation misted the glass. The voices in the room chopped off dead.

Joshua caught sight of Barrington Grier standing at the side of the stage, a middle-aged man with chubby red cheeks and a ginger moustache. He wore a sober navy-blue suit with baggy trousers and neck-sealed jacket with flared arms, the faintest of orange lines glowing on the satin material in a spiral pattern. He caught Joshua’s eye, and gave him a wink.

“Now, ladies and gentlemen, we come to the final item of the day, lot 127. I think I can safely say that it is unique in my experience; a module stack of Laymil circuitry which has been preserved in ice since the cataclysm. We have identified both processor chips, and a considerable number of solid-state crystal memories inside. All of them in pristine condition. In this one cylinder there are more than five times the number of crystals we have recovered since the discovery of the Ruin Ring itself. I will leave it to you to imagine the sheer wealth of information stored within. This is undoubtedly the greatest find since the first intact Laymil body, over a century ago. And it is my great privilege to open the bidding at the reserve price of two million Edenist fuseodollars.”

Joshua had been bracing himself, but there wasn’t even a murmur of protest from the crowd.

The bids came in fast and furious, rising in units of fifty thousand fuseodollars. The background level of conversation crept up again. Heads were swivelling around, bidders trying to make eye contact with their opponents, gauge the level of determination.

Joshua gritted his teeth together as the bids rose through four million. Come on, keep going. Four million three hundred thousand. The answer could be stored in there, why the Laymil did it. Four and a half. You’ll solve the biggest problem facing science since we cracked the lightspeed barrier. Four million eight hundred thousand. You’ll be famous, they’ll name the discovery after you, not me. Come on, you bastards. Bid!

“Five million,” the auctioneer announced calmly.

Joshua sank back into the chair, a little whimper of relief leaking from his throat. Looking down he saw his fists were clenched, palms sweating.

I’ve done it. I can start repairing Lady Mac , get a crew together. The replacement patterning nodes will have to come from the Sol system. Say a month if I charter a blackhawk to collect them. She could be spaceworthy within ten weeks. Jesus!

He brought his attention back to the auctioneer just as the bidding went through six million. For a second he thought he’d misheard, but no, there was Barrington Grier grinning at him as if he was running wacko stimulant programs through his neural nanonics.

Seven million.

Joshua listened in a waking trance. He could afford more than a simple node replacement and repair job now. Lady Mac could have a complete refit, the best systems, no expense spared, new fusion generators, maybe a new spaceplane, no, better than that, an ion-field flyer from Kulu or New California. Yes!

“Seven million, four hundred and fifty thousand for the first time.” The auctioneer looked round expectantly, gavel engulfed by his meaty fist.

Rich. I’m fucking rich!


Joshua closed his eyes.

“For the last time, seven million, four hundred and fifty thousand. Anybody?”

The smack the gavel made was as loud as the big bang. The start of a whole new existence for Joshua Calvert. Independent starship owner captain.

A deep chime sounded. Joshua’s eyes snapped open. Everyone had gone silent, staring at the small omnidirectional AV projector on the desk in front of the auctioneer, a slim crystal pillar one metre high. Curlicues of abstract colour swam below the surface. If anything, Barrington Grier’s grin had become even wider.

“Tranquillity reserves the right of last bid on lot 127.” A mellow male voice sounded throughout the auction room.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake—” An angry voice to Joshua’s left. The winning bidder? He hadn’t caught the name.

The auction room descended into a bedlam of shouting.

Barrington Grier was giving him a manic thumbs-up. The three assistants started to carry the bubble and its precious—seven and a half million!—contents out into the wings.

Joshua waited as the room cleared; a noisy crush of people jostling and gossiping, Tranquillity’s right to reserve the last bid their only topic for discussion.

He didn’t care, last bid meant the agreed price plus an extra five per cent. The pillar of electronics would go to the Laymil research team now, analysed by the most experienced xenoc experts in the Confederation. He felt quite good about that, virtuous, maybe it was right they should have it.

Michael Saldana had reassembled as much of the team as he could after those first few traumatic years of exile, building it up in tandem with Tranquillity’s new economy and rapidly increasing financial strength. There were currently around seven thousand specialists working on the problem, including several xenoc members of the Confederation, providing a welcome alternative viewpoint when it came to interpreting the more baroque artefacts.

Michael had died in 2513, and Maurice had assumed the title of Lord of Ruin with pride, continuing his father’s labours. As far as he was concerned, uncovering the reason behind the Laymil cataclysm was Tranquillity’s sole reason for existence. And he pursued it vigorously until his own death nine years ago in 2601.

Since then, the project had gone on apparently unabated. Tranquillity said Maurice’s heir, the third Lord of Ruin, was running things as before, but chose not to seek a high public profile. There had been a flurry of rumours at the time, saying that the habitat personality had taken over completely, that the Kulu Kingdom was trying to reclaim the habitat, that the Edenists were going to incorporate it into their culture (earlier rumour said Michael stole the habitat seed from Edenists), throwing out the Adamists. They had all come to nothing. Right from the start the habitat personality had acted as both the civil service and police force, using its servitors to preserve order, so nothing changed, taxes were still two per cent, the blackhawks continued their mating flights, commercial enterprise was encouraged, creative finance tolerated. As long as the status quo was maintained, who cared exactly which kind of neurones were running the show, human or bitek?

Joshua felt a hand come down hard on his shoulder as he shuffled towards the exit, the weight pressed through his left leg. “Ouch.”

“Joshua, my friend, my very rich friend. This is the day, hey? The day you made it.” Barrington Grier beamed rapturously at him. “So what are you going to do with it all? Women? Fancy living?” His eyes lacked focus, he was definitely running a stimulant program. And he was entitled, the auction house was in line for a three per cent cut of the sale price.

Joshua smiled back, almost sheepish. “No, I’m going back into space. See a bit of the Confederation for myself, that kind of thing, the old wanderlust.”

“Ah, if I had my youth back I would do the same thing. The good life, it ties you down, and it’s a waste, especially for someone your age. Party till you puke every night, I mean what’s the point of it all in the end? You should use the money to get out there and accomplish something. Glad to see you’ve got some sense. So, are you going to buy a blackhawk egg?”

“No, I’m taking the Lady Mac back out.”

Barrington Grier pursed his lips in rueful admiration. “I remember when your father arrived here. You take after him, some. Same effect on the women, from what I hear.”

Joshua raised a wicked smile.

“Come on,” Barrington Grier said. “I’ll buy you a drink, in fact I’ll buy you a whole meal.”

“Tomorrow maybe, Barrington, tonight I’m going to party till I puke.”

The lakehouse belonged to Dominique’s father, who said it used to belong to Michael Saldana, that it was his home in the days before the starscrapers had matured to their full size. It was a series of looping chambers sunk into the side of a cliff above a lake up near the northern endcap. The walls looked as though they had been wind-carved. Inside the decor was simplistic and expensive, a holiday and entertainment pied-à-terre , not a home; artwork of various eras had been blended perfectly, and big plants from several planets flourished in the corners, chosen for their striking contrasts.

Outside the broad glass window-doors overlooking the huge lake, Tranquillity’s axial light-tube was dimming towards its usual iridescent twilight. Inside, the party was just beginning to warm up. The eight-piece band was playing twenty-third-century ragas, processor blocks were loaded with outré stimulant programs, and the caterers were assembling a seafood buffet of freshly imported Atlantis delicacies.

Joshua lay back on a long couch to one side of the main lounge, dressed in a pair of baggy grey-blue trousers and a green Chinese jacket, receiving and dispensing greetings to strangers and acquaintances alike. Dominique’s set were all young, and carefree, and very rich even by Tranquillity’s standards. And they certainly knew how to party. He thought he could see the solid raw polyp walls vibrating from the sound they kicked up on the temporary dance-floor.

He took another sip of Norfolk Tears; the clear, light liquid ran down his throat like the lightest chilled wine, punching his gut like boiling whisky. It was glorious. Five hundred fuseodollars a bottle. Jesus!

“Joshua! I just heard. Congratulations.” It was Dominique’s father, Parris Vasilkovsky, pumping his hand. He had a round face, with a curly beret of glossy silver-grey hair. There were very few lines on his skin, a sure sign of a geneering heritage; he must have been at least ninety. “One of us idle rich now, eh? God, I can hardly remember what it was like right back at the beginning. Let me tell you, the first ten million is always the most difficult. After that . . . no problem.”

“Thanks.” People had been congratulating him all evening. He was the party’s star attraction. The day’s novelty. Since his mother had remarried a vice-president of the Brandstad Bank he had dwelt on the fringes of the plutocrat set which occupied the heart of Tranquillity. They were free enough with their hospitality, especially the daughters who liked to think of themselves as bohemian; and his scavenging flights made him notorious enough to enjoy both their patronage and bodies. But he had always been an observer. Until now.

“Dominique tells me you’re going into the cargo business,” Parris Vasilkovsky said.

“That’s right. I’m going to refit Lady Mac , Dad’s old ship, take her out again.”

“Going to undercut me?” Parris Vasilkovsky owned over two hundred and fifty starships, ranging from small clippers up to ten-thousand-tonne bulk freighters, even some colonist-carrier ships. It was the seventh largest private merchant fleet in the Confederation.

Joshua looked him straight in the eye without smiling. “Yes.”

Parris nodded, suddenly serious. He had started with nothing seventy years ago. “You’ll do all right, Joshua. Come down to the apartment one night before you go, have dinner as my guest. I mean it.”

“I’ll do that.”

“Great.” A thick white eyebrow was raised knowingly. “Dominique will be there. You could do a lot worse, she’s one hell of a girl. A little fancy free, but tough underneath.”

“Er, yes.” Joshua managed a weak smile. Parris Vasilkovsky: matchmaker! And I’m considered suitable for that family? Jesus!

I wonder what he’d think if he knew what his little darling daughter was doing last night? Although knowing this lot, he’d probably want to join in.

Joshua caught sight of Zoe, another sometimes girlfriend, who was on the other side of the room, her sleeveless white gown creating a sharp contrast with her midnight-black skin. She met his eye and smiled, wiggling her glass. He recognized one of the other teenage girls in the group she was with, smaller than her, with short blonde hair, wearing a sea-blue sarong skirt and loose matching blouse. Pretty freckled face, a thinnish nose with a slight downward curve at the end, and deep blue eyes. He had met her once or twice before, a quick hello, friend of a friend. His neural nanonics located her visual image in a file and produced the name: Ione.

Dominique was striding through the throng towards him. He took another gulp of Norfolk Tears in reflex. People seemed to teleport out of her way for fear of heavy bruising should her swaying hips catch them a glancing blow. Dominique was twenty-six, almost as tall as him; sports mad, she had cultivated a splendidly athletic figure, straight blonde hair falling halfway down her back. She was wearing a small purple bikini halter and a split skirt of some shimmering silver fabric.

“Hi, Josh.” She plonked herself down on the edge of the couch, and plucked his glass from unresisting fingers, taking a swift sip for herself. “Look what I ran up for us.” She held up a processor block. “Twenty-five possibles, all we can manage, taking your poor feet into account. Should be fun. We’ll start working through them tonight.”

Shadowy images flickered over the surface of the block.

“Fine,” Joshua said automatically. He hadn’t got a clue what she was talking about.

She patted his thigh, and bounced to her feet. “Don’t go away, I’m going to do my rounds here, then I’ll be back to collect you later.”

“Er, yes.” What else was there to say? He still wasn’t sure who had seduced who the day after he returned from the Ruin Ring, but he’d spent every night since then in Dominique’s big bed, and a lot of the daytime, too. She had the same kind of sexual stamina as Jezzibella, boisterous and frighteningly energetic.

He glanced down at the processor block, datavising a file-title request. It was a program that analysed all the possible free-fall sexual positions where bounceback didn’t use the male’s feet. The block’s screen was showing two humanoid simulacrums running through contortional permutations.


Joshua tipped the processor block screen side down with an incredibly guilty start, datavising a shutdown instruction, and codelocked the file.

Ione was standing next to the couch, head cocked to one side, smiling innocently.

“Er, hello, Ione.”

The smile widened. “You remembered my name.”

“Hard to forget a girl like you.”

She sat in the imprint Dominique had left in the cushions. There was something quirky about her, a suggestion of hidden depth. He experienced that same uncanny thrill he had when he was on the trail of a Laymil artefact, not quite arousal, but close.

“I’m afraid I forgot what you do, though,” he said.

“Same as everyone else in here, a rich heiress.”

“Not quite everybody.”

“No?” Her mouth flickered in an uncertain smile.

“No, there’s me, you see. I didn’t inherit anything.” Joshua let his eyes linger on the outline of her figure below the light blouse. She was nicely proportioned, skin silk-smooth and sun kissed. He wondered what she would look like naked. Very nice, he decided.

“Apart from your ship, the Lady Macbeth .”

“Now it’s my turn to say: you remembered.”

She laughed. “No. It’s what everyone is talking about. That and your find. Do you know what’s in those Laymil memory crystals?”

“No idea. I just find them, I don’t understand them.”

“Do you ever wonder why they did it? Kill themselves like that? There must have been millions of them, children, babies. I can’t believe it was suicide the way everyone says.”

“You try not to think about it when you’re out in the Ruin Ring. There are just too many ghosts out there. Have you ever been in it?”

She shook her head.

“It’s spooky, Ione. Really, people laugh, but sometimes they’ll creep in on you out of the shadows if you don’t keep your guard up. And there are a lot of shadows out there; sometimes I think it isn’t made of anything else.”

“Is that why you’re leaving?”

“Not really. The Ruin Ring was a means to me, a way to get the money for Lady Mac . I’ve always planned on leaving.”

“Is Tranquillity that bad?”

“No. It’s more of a pride thing. I want to see Lady Mac spaceworthy again. She got damaged quite badly in the rescue attempt. My father barely made it back to Tranquillity alive. The old girl deserves another chance. I could never bring myself to sell her. That’s why I started scavenging, despite the risks. I just wish my father could have stayed around to see me succeed.”

“A rescue mission?” She sucked in her lower lip, intrigued. It was an endearing action, making her look even younger.

Dominique was nowhere to be seen, and the music was almost painfully loud now, the band just hitting their stride. Ione was clearly hooked on the story, on him. They could find a bedroom and spend a couple of hours screwing each other’s brains out. And it was only early evening, this party wouldn’t wind down for another five or six hours yet, he could still be back in time for his night with Dominique.

Jesus! What a way to celebrate.

“It’s a long story,” he said, gesturing round. “Let’s find somewhere quieter.”

She nodded eagerly. “I know a place.”

The trip on the tube carriage wasn’t quite what Joshua had in mind. There were plenty of spare bedrooms at the lake-house which he could codelock. But Ione had been surprisingly adamant, that elusive hint of steel in her personality surfacing as she said: “My apartment is the quietest in Tranquillity, you can tell me everything there, and we’ll never be overheard.” She paused, eyes teasing. “Or interrupted.”

That settled it.

They took the carriage from the little underground station which served all the residences around the lake. The tube trains were a mechanical system, like the lifts in the starscrapers, which were all installed after Tranquillity reached its full size. Bitek was a powerful technology, but even it had limits on the services it could provide; internal transport lay outside the geneticists’ ability. The tubes formed a grid network throughout the cylinder, providing access to all sections of the interior. Carriages were independent, taking passengers to whichever station they wanted, a system orchestrated by the habitat personality, which was spliced into processor blocks in every station. There was no private transport in Tranquillity, and everyone from billionaires to the lowest-paid spaceport handler used the tubes to get around.

Joshua and Ione got into a waiting ten-seater carriage, sitting opposite each other. It started off straight away under Ione’s command, accelerating smoothly. Joshua offered her a sip from the fresh bottle of Norfolk Tears he’d liberated from Parris Vasilkovsky’s bar, and started to tell her about the rescue mission, eyes tracing the line of her legs under the flimsy sarong.

There had been a research starship in orbit around a gas giant, he said, it had suffered a life-support blow-out. His father had got the twenty-five-strong crew out, straining the Lady Macbeth ’s own life support dangerously close to capacity. And because several of the injured research crew needed treatment urgently they jumped while they were still inside the gas giant’s gravity field, which wrecked some of Lady Macbeth ’s energy-patterning nodes, which in turn put a massive strain on the remaining nodes when the next jump was made. The starship managed the jump into Tranquillity’s system, a distance of eight light-years, ruining forty per cent of her remaining nodes in the process.

“He was lucky to make it,” Joshua said. “The nodes have a built-in compensation factor in case a few fail, but that distance was really tempting fate.”

“I can see why you’re so proud of him.”

“Yes, well . . .” He shrugged.

The carriage slowed its madcap dash down the length of the habitat, and pulled to a halt. The door slid open. Joshua didn’t recognize the station: it was small, barely large enough to hold the length of the carriage, a featureless white bubble of polyp. Broad strips of electrophorescent cells in the ceiling gave off a strong light; a semicircular muscle membrane door was set in the wall at the back of the narrow platform. Certainly not a starscraper lobby.

The carriage door closed, and the grey cylinder slipped noiselessly into the tunnel on its magnetic track. Currents of dry air flapped Ione’s sarong as it vanished from sight.

Joshua felt unaccountably chilly. “Where are we?” he asked.

Ione gave him a bright smile. “Home.”

Hidden depths. The chill persisted obstinately.

The muscle membrane door opened like a pair of stone curtains being drawn apart, and Joshua gaped at the apartment inside, bad vibes forgotten.

Starscraper apartments were luxurious even without money for elaborate furnishings; given time the polyp would grow into the shapes of any furniture you wanted, but this . . .

It was split level, a wide oblong reception area with an iron rail running along one side opposite the door, overlooking a lounge four metres below. A staircase set in the middle of the railings extended out for three metres, then split into two symmetrically opposed loops that wound down to the lower floor. Every wall was marbled. Up in the reception area it was green and cream; on both sides of the lounge it was purple and ruby; at the back of the lounge it was hazel and sapphire; the stairs were snow white. Recessed alcoves were spaced equidistantly around the whole reception area, bordered in fluted sable-black columns. One of them framed an ancient orange spacesuit, the lettering Russian Cyrillic. The furniture was heavy and ornate, rosewood and teak, polished to a gleam, carved with beautiful intaglio designs, rich with age, the work of master craftsmen from centuries past. A thick living apricot-coloured moss absorbed every footfall.

Joshua walked over to the top of the stairs without a word, trying to take it all in. The wall ahead of him, some thirty metres long and ten high, was a single window. It showed him a seabed.

Tranquillity had a circumfluous salt-water reservoir at its southern end, like all Edenist habitats. In keeping with the size of the habitat, it was some eight kilometres wide, and two hundred metres deep at the centre; more sea than lake. Both coastlines were a mix of sandy coves and high cliffs. An archipelago of islands and atolls ran all the way around it.

Joshua realized the apartment must be at the foot of one of the coastal cliffs. He could see sand stretching into dark blue distance, half-buried boulders smothered beneath crustaceans, long ribbons of red and green fronds waving idly. Shoals of small colourful fish were darting about; caught in the vast spill of light from the window they looked like jewelled ornaments. He thought he saw something large and dark swimming around the boundary of light.

The breath came out of him in an amazed rush. “How did you get this place?”

There was no immediate answer.

He turned to see Ione standing behind him, eyes closed, head tilted back slightly, as if in deep contemplation. She took a deep breath, and slowly opened her eyes to show the deepest ocean-blue irises, an enigmatic smile on her lips. “It’s the one Tranquillity assigned me,” she said simply.

“I never knew there were any here that you could ask for. And these furnishings—”

Her smile turned mischievous. And she was suddenly all little girlish again. It was her hair, he thought, all the girls he knew in Tranquillity had long, perfectly arranged hair. With her short, shaggy style she looked almost elfin, and supremely sexy.

“I told you I was an heiress,” she said.

“Yes, but this . . .”

“You like it?”

“I’m afraid of it. I think I’ve been scavenging in the wrong place.”

“Come on.” She held out her hand.

He took her proffered fingers in a light grip. “Where are we going?”

“To get what you came for.”

“What’s that?”

She grinned, pulling him away from the stairs, along the reception area to the wall at the end. Another muscle membrane in one of the alcoves parted.

“Me,” she said.

It was a bedroom, circular, with a curving window band looking into the sea, its polyp ceiling hidden by drapes of dark red fabric. In the middle of the floor was a crater filled with perfectly clear jelly and covered by a thin rubbery sheet, silk pillows lining the rim. And Ione was standing very close. They kissed. He could feel her shiver slightly as his arms went round her. Heat began to seep into his body.

“Do you know why I wanted you?” she said.

“No.” He was kissing her throat, hands sliding across her blouse to cup her breasts.

“I’ve watched you,” Ione whispered.

“Er—” Joshua broke off fondling her breasts, and stared at her, the dreamy expression.

“You and all those beautiful rich girls. You’re an excellent lover, Joshua. Did you know that?”

“Yeah. Thanks.” Jesus. She’s watched me? When? The night before last had been pretty wild, but he didn’t remember anyone else joining them. Although knowing Dominique it was highly possible. Hell, but I must have been smashed out of my skull.

Ione tugged at his jacket’s sash, opening the front. “You wait for the girls to climax, you want them to enjoy it. You make them enjoy it.” She kissed his sternum, tongue licking the ridges of his pectoral muscles. “That’s very rare, very bold.”

Her words and deeds were acting like the devil’s own stimulant program, sending a sparkling phantom fire shooting down his nerves to invade his groin and send his heart racing. He felt his cock growing incredibly hard as his breathing turned harsh.

Ione’s blouse came open easily under his impatient hands, and he pushed it off her shoulders. Her breasts were high and nicely rounded, with large areolae only a shade darker than her tan. He sucked on a nipple, fingers tracing the sleek muscle tone of her abdomen, eliciting indrawn hisses. Hands clutched and clawed at the back of his neck. He heard his name being called, the delight in her voice.

They fell onto the bed together, the jelly-substance under the sheet undulating wildly. The two of them rode the turbulent waves which their own threshing limbs whipped up.

Entering her was sheer perfection. She was delectably responsive, and strong, sinuous. He had to use his neural nanonics to restrain his body, making sure he remained in control. His secret glee. That way he could wait despite her furious pleading shouts. Wait as she strained and twisted sensually against him. Wait, and provoke, and prolong . . . Until the orgasm convulsed her, and a jubilant screech burst out of her mouth. Then he cancelled the artificial prohibitions, allowing his body to spend itself in frenzied bliss, gloating at her wide-eyed incredulity as his semen surged into her in a long exultant consummation.

They watched each other in silence as the bed slowly calmed. There was a moment’s silent contemplation, then they were both grinning lazily. “Was I as good as all the others, Joshua?”

He nodded fervently.

“Good enough to make you stay in Tranquillity, knowing I’m available whenever you want?”

“Er—” He rolled onto his side, disquieted by the gleam in her eye. “That’s unfair, and you know it.”

She giggled. “Yes.”

Looking at her, sprawled out on her back, with her arms flung above her head, perspiration slowly drying, he wondered why it should be that girls were always so much more alluring just after they’d had sex. So blatantly rampant, probably. “Are you going to ask me to stay, slap down an ultimatum? You or the Lady Mac ?”

“Not stay, no.” She rolled over onto her side. “But I have other demands.”

The second time, Ione insisted on straddling him. It was easier on his feet, and that way he was able to play with her breasts for the whole time she rode him to their twinned climax. For their third encounter, he arranged the cushions into a pile to support her as she went down on all fours, then mounted her from behind.

After the fifth time Joshua really didn’t care that he’d missed the party. Dominique would probably have found herself someone else for the night, too.

“When will you leave?” Ione asked.

“It’ll take a couple of months to make Lady Mac spaceworthy again, maybe three. I placed an order for the patterning nodes right after the auction. A lot depends on how long it takes to deliver them.”

“You know Sam Neeves and Octal Sipika haven’t returned yet?”

“I know,” he said grimly. He had told his story a dozen times a day since he docked, especially among the other scavengers and spaceport crews. The word was out now. He knew they would deny it, maybe even say he attacked them. And he had no proof, it was their word against his. But it was his version which had been told first, his version which was accepted, which carried all the weight. Ultimately, he had money on his side as well now. Tranquillity didn’t have a death penalty, but he had filed a charge of attempted murder with the personality as soon as he’d docked; they ought to get twenty years. The personality certainly hadn’t challenged his story, which gave his confidence a healthy boost.

“Well, make sure you don’t do anything stupid when they do turn up,” Ione said. “Leave it to the serjeants.”

Tranquillity’s serjeants were an addition to the usual habitat servitor genealogy, hulking exoskeleton-clad humanoids that served as a police force.

“Yes,” he groused. An unpleasant thought intruded. “You do believe it was them who attacked me, don’t you?”

Her cheeks dimpled as she smiled. “Oh, yes, we checked as best we could. There have been eight scavengers lost in the past five years. In six cases, Neeves and Sipika were out in the Ring at the same time, and in each instance they auctioned a larger than usual number of Laymil artefacts after they docked.”

Despite the warm weight of her pressing down on him, that eerie chill returned. It was the casual way she said it, the supreme confidence in her tone. “Who checked, Ione? Who’s we?”

She giggled again. “Oh, Joshua! Haven’t you worked it out yet? Perhaps I was wrong about you, although I admit you have been distracted with other matters since we arrived.”

“Worked what out?”

“Me. Who I am, of course.”

The intimation of disaster rose through him like a tidal wave. “No,” he said hoarsely. “I don’t know.”

She smiled, and raised herself on her elbows, head held ten centimetres above his, taunting. “I’m the Lord of Ruin.”

He laughed, a sort of nervous choke which trailed off. “Jesus, you mean it.”

“Absolutely.” She rubbed her nose against his. “Look at my nose, Joshua.”

He did. It was a thin nose, with a down-turned end. The Saldana nose, that famous trademark which the Kulu royal family had kept through every genetic modification for the last ten generations. Some said the characteristic had deliberately been turned into a dominant gene by the geneticists.

What she said was true, he knew it was. Intuition yammered in his mind, as strong as the day he found the Laymil electronics. “Oh shit.”

She kissed him, and sat back, arms folded in her lap, looking smug.

“But why?” he asked.

“Why what?”

“Jesus!” His arms waved about in exasperated agitation. “Why not let people know you’re running things? Show them who you are. Why . . . why carry on with this charade of the research project? And your father’s dead; who’s been looking after you for the last eight years? And why me? What did you mean, being wrong about me?”

“Which order do you want them in? Actually, they’re all connected, but I’ll start at the beginning for you. I’m an eighteen-year-old girl, Joshua. I’m also a Saldana, or at least I have their genetic super-heritage, which means I’ll live for damn near two centuries, my IQ is way above normal, and I’ve got the same kind of internal strengthening you have, among other improvements. Oh, we’re a breed above, us Saldanas. Just right to rule you common mortals.”

“So why don’t you? Why spend your time skulking around parties picking up people like me to screw?”

“It’s an image thing which makes me a shrinking violet for the moment. Maybe you don’t realize just how much authority the habitat personality has in Tranquillity. It is omnipotent, Joshua, it runs the whole shebang, there is no need for a court, for civil servants, it enforces the constitution with perfect impartiality. It provides the most stable political environment in the Confederation outside Edenism and the Kulu Kingdom. That’s why it is such a successful haven; not just a tax haven either, but economically and financially. You’ll always be safe living in Tranquillity. You can’t corrupt it, you can’t bribe it, you can’t get it to change its laws even through logical argument. You can’t. I can. It takes orders from me, and only me, the Lord of Ruin. That’s the way grandfather Michael wanted it, one ruler, dedicated to one job: government. My father had a lot of children by quite a number of women, and they all had the affinity gene, but they all left to become Edenists. All but me, because I was gestated in a womb-analogue set-up similar to the voidhawks and their captains. We’re bonded, you see, little me and a sixty-five-kilometre-long coral-armoured beastie, mind-mated for life.”

“Then come forward publicly, let people know you exist. We’ve been living on rumours for eight years.”

“And that was the best thing for you. Like I said, I’m eighteen. Would you trust me to run a nation of three million people? To make alterations to the constitution, tinker with the investment laws, put up the price of the He3 the starships use, which Lady Macbeth uses? That’s what I can do, change anything I want. You see, unlike Kulu with its court politics, and the Edenists with their communal consensus, I have no one to guide me, or more importantly, to restrain me. What I say goes, and anyone who argues is flung out of an airlock. That’s the law, my law.”

“Trust,” he said, realizing. “Nobody would trust you. Everything works smoothly because we thought the habitat personality was carrying on your father’s policies.”

“That’s right. No billionaire like Parris Vasilkovsky, who has spent seventy years building up his commercial empire, is going to deposit his entire fortune in a nation which has a dizzy teenage girl as absolute ruler. I mean, he’s only got to look at the way his daughter behaves, and she’s a lot older than I am.”

Joshua grinned. “Point taken.” He remembered the crack about watching; of course Ione would be able to receive Tranquillity’s sensory images through her affinity bond, she could watch anything and anybody she wanted. A slight flush warmed his face. “So that’s why you keep on wasting money on the Laymil research project, so people will think it’s business as usual. Not that I’m complaining. Jesus! That last bid right you’ve got, seven and a half million fuseodollars.” His smile faded at the expression of disapproval registering on her face.

“You couldn’t be further from the truth, Joshua. I consider research into the Laymil to be the single most important issue in my life.”

“Oh, come on! I’ve spent years grubbing round in the Ruin Ring. Sure, it’s a mystery. Why did they do it? But don’t you see, it doesn’t matter. Not to the degree which the research team pursue it. The Laymil are xenocs, for Christ’s sake, who cares how weird their psychology was, or that they found some fruitcake death-cult religion.”

Ione exhaled, shaking her head in consternation. “Some people refuse to see the problem, I accept that, but I never thought you’d be one of them.”

“Refuse to see what problem?”

“It’s like that sometimes, something so big, so frightening, staring you right in the face, and you just block it out. Planet dwellers live in earthquake zones and on the side of volcanoes, yet they can’t see anything crazy about it, how stupid they’re being. The reason is all important, Joshua, vitally important. Why do you think my grandfather did what he did?”

“I haven’t got a clue. I thought that was supposed to be the universe’s second greatest mystery.”

“No, Joshua, no mystery. Michael Saldana established the Laymil research project because he thought it was his duty, not just to the kingdom but to all humanity. He could see just how long a project it would be. That’s why he alienated his family and endured the wrath of the Christian Church to grow Tranquillity. So that there would always be someone who shared the need, and had the resources to continue the research. He could have ordered Kulu’s xenoc-research institutions to perform the investigation. But how long would that have lasted? His reign, certainly. Maurice’s reign, too. Possibly even for that of Maurice’s eldest son. But he was worried sick that wouldn’t be long enough. It’s such a colossal task; you know that more than most. Even the Kings of Kulu couldn’t keep a project like this going on a priority budget for more than two or three centuries. He had to be free of his heritage and obligations in order to ensure the most important undertaking in human history wasn’t allowed to waste away and die.”

Joshua gazed at her levelly, remembering the didactic course he had taken on affinity and Edenist culture. “You talk to him, don’t you? Your grandfather. He transferred his memories into the habitat personality, and they leaked into you when you were in the womb-analogue. That’s why you spout all this crap. He’s contaminated you, Ione.”

For a moment Ione looked hurt, then she summoned up a rueful smile. “Wrong again, Joshua. Neither Michael nor Maurice transferred their memories during death. The Saldanas are pretty devout Christians; my Kulu cousins are supposed to rule by divine right, remember?”

“Michael Saldana was excommunicated.”

“By the Bishop of Nova Kong, never by the Pope in Rome. It was politics, that’s all. His punishment, dished out by the Kulu court. He shocked the family to its odiously complacent core by growing Tranquillity. The whole basis of their sovereignty is that they simply cannot be bribed or corrupted, their wealth and privileges make it totally impossible. They are the ultimate straight arrows, dedicated to service, because they have every physical and material whim catered for. There isn’t anything else for them to do but rule. And I have to admit they make quite a good job of it; Kulu is wealthy, strong, independent, with the highest socioeconomic index outside Edenism. The Saldanas and their century-long development projects did that for the Kingdom, a leadership which genuinely considers that its nation’s interests are paramount. That’s remarkable, bordering on unique. And they are revered for it, there are gods who receive less adulation than the Saldanas. Yet Michael considered an intellectual problem sufficient grounds to lay all that aside. Small wonder the family were terrified, not to mention furious with him. He showed it was possible to suborn a mighty Saldana, to turn their attention from parochial matters. That’s why the bishop did what he was ordered to do. But my grandfather remained a Christian until the day he died. And I am too.”

“Sorry.” Joshua leant over and rummaged round in his pile of clothes until he found the small pear-shaped bottle of Norfolk Tears. He took a swig. “You take some getting used to, Ione.”

“I know. Now imagine your reaction magnified three million times. There’d be riots.”

Joshua passed her the bottle. It was tipped up daintily, a few drops of the precious imported liquor sliding down past her lips. He admired the way the skin pulled taut over her abdomen as her head went back, the breasts pushed forward. He let a hand slide up the side of her ribs, questing innocently. The initial shock of her identity was fading like a stolen daydream, he wanted the reassurance she was still the same rutty teenager who had turned him on so badly back at the party.

“So if it’s not prenatal ideological indoctrination, what convinces you that the research project is worthwhile?” he asked.

Ione lowered the bottle, marshalling her thoughts. Joshua, among his many other faults, could be depressingly cynical. “Proximity. Like I said, Tranquillity and I are bonded. I see what it sees. And the Ruin Ring is always there, just below us. Seventy thousand habitats, not so different from Tranquillity, pulverized into gravel. And it was suicide, Joshua. The research team believes that the living cells in the Laymil habitats underwent some kind of spasm, cracking the outer silicon shell. They would have to be ordered to do it, compelled, probably. I doubt I could get Tranquillity to do it just by asking nicely.”

I might,tranquillity said silently in her mind. But you would have to give me a very good reason.

To save me from a fate worse than death?

That would do it.

Name one.

That is something only you can decide.

She grinned and had another nip from the bottle. It was an amazing drink. She could feel its warmth seeping through her. And Joshua’s lower torso was cradled between her thighs. The insidious combination was becoming highly arousing.

He was giving her a curious look.

“Tranquillity says it’s not very likely,” she told him.

“Oh.” He took the bottle back. “But this constant awareness of the Ruin Ring is still a kind of unnatural motivation. Tranquillity worries about it, so you do.”

“It’s more of a gentle reminder, like a crucifix reminds us of what Christ suffered, and why. It means I don’t suffer a lack of faith in the work the research team does. I know we have to find the reason.”

“Why, though? Why do you and your father, and your grandfather, all consider it so important?”

“Because the Laymil were ordinary.” That got through to him, she saw. A frown crinkled his brow below the sticky strands of tawny hair. “Oh, they have a substantially different body chemistry, and three sexes, and monster bodies, but their minds worked along reasonably similar lines to ours. That makes them understandable. It also makes us dangerously similar. And because they were at least equal to us, if not more advanced, technologically. Whatever it was they came up against is something that one day we are also going to encounter. If we know what it is, we can prepare ourselves, maybe even defend ourselves. Provided we have some warning. That’s what Michael realized, his revelation. So you see, he never really did abandon his duty and commitment to Kulu. It’s just that this was the only possible way he could hope to safeguard the Kingdom in the ultra-long-term. However unconventional, it had to be done.”

“And is it being done? Is your precious team any closer to finding out what happened?”

“Not really. Sometimes I get afraid that we are too late, that too much has been lost. We know so much about the Laymil physically, but so little about their culture. That’s why we nabbed your electronics. That much stored data might be the breakthrough we need. We wouldn’t need much, just a pointer. There’s only two real options.”

“Which are?”

“They discovered something that made them do it. Their scientists uncovered some fundamental physical truth or law; or a priest group stumbled across an unbearable theological revelation, that death cult you mentioned. The second option is even worse: that something discovered them, something so fearsome that they felt racial death was a preferable alternative to submission. If it was the second, then that menace is still out there, and it’s only a matter of time until we encounter it.”

“Which do you think it was?”

She squeezed her legs just that fraction tighter against him, welcoming the comfort his physical presence bestowed. As always when she thought about it, the brooding seemed to sap a portion of her will. Racial pride aside, the Laymil were very advanced, and strong . . . “I tend to think it was the second, an external threat. Mainly because of the question over the Laymil’s origin. They didn’t evolve on any planet in this star system. Nor did they come from any local star. And from the spacecraft fragments we’ve found we’re pretty sure they didn’t have our ZTT technology, which leaves a multi-generation interstellar ark as the most likely option. But that’s the kind of ship you only use to colonize nearby stars, within fifteen or twenty light-years. And in any case, why travel across interstellar space just to build habitats to live in? There’s no need to leave your original star system if that’s all you’re going to do. No, I think they came a very long way through ordinary space, for a very real reason. They were fleeing. Like the Tyrathca abandoned their homeworld when its star blew up into a red supergiant.”

“But this nemesis still found them.”


“Has anyone found remnants of an ark ship?”

“No. If the Laymil did travel to Mirchusko in a slower-than-light ship then they must have arrived around seven to eight thousand years ago. To build up a population base of seventy thousand habitats from one, or even ten ships, would take at least three thousand years. Apparently the Laymil didn’t have quite our fecundity when it comes to reproduction. Such an ark ship would have been very old by the time it reached Mirchusko. It was probably abandoned. If it was in the same orbit as the habitats when they were destroyed, then the secondary collisions would have broken it apart.”


She bent over to kiss him, enjoying the way his hands tightened around her waist. The hazy blue-shadow images she had poached from Tranquillity’s sensitive cells, the private cries she had eavesdropped through the affinity bond, had been borne out. Joshua was the most dynamic lover she had ever known. Gentle and domineering; it was a lethal combination. If only he wasn’t quite so ruthlessly mechanical about it. A little too much of his pleasure had come from seeing her lose all control. But then that was Joshua, unwilling to share; the life he led—the endless casual sex offered by Dominique and her set, and the false sense of independence incurred from scavenging—left him too hardened for that. Joshua didn’t trust people.

“That just leaves me,” he said. His breath was hot on her face. “Why me, Ione?”

“Because you’re not quite normal.”


The intimacy shattered.

Ione tried not to laugh. “How many big strikes have you had this year, Joshua?”

“It’s been a reasonable year,” he said evasively.

“It’s been a stupendous year, Joshua. Counting the electronics stack, you found nine artefacts, which netted you a total of over eight million fuseodollars. No other scavenger has ever earned that much in one year in the hundred and eighty years since Tranquillity was germinated. In fact, no other scavenger has ever earned that much, period. I checked. Someone earned six hundred thousand fuseodollars in 2532 for finding an intact Laymil corpse, and she retired straight away. You are either amazingly lucky, Joshua, or . . .” She trailed off, leaving the suggestion hanging tantalizingly in the air.

“Or what?” There was no humour in his tone.

“I think you are psychic.”

It was the flash of guilt which convinced her she was right. Later, she made Tranquillity replay the moment countless times, the image from its optically sensitive cells in the mock-marble walls providing her a perfectly focused close up of the flattish planes which made up his face. For a brief second after she said it, Joshua looked fearful and frightened. He rallied beautifully, of course, sneering, laughing.

“Bollocks!” he cried.

“How do you explain it, then? Because believe me, it hasn’t gone unnoticed amongst your fellow scavengers, and I don’t just mean Messrs Neeves and Sipika.”

“You said it: amazingly lucky. It’s sheer probability. If I went out into the Ruin Ring again, I wouldn’t find a single strike for the next fifty years.”

She stroked a single finger along the smooth skin of his chin. He didn’t have any stubble, facial hair was another free fall irritant geneering had disposed of. “Bet you would.”

He folded his arms behind his head and grinned up at her. “We’ll never know now, will we?”


“And that’s what made me irresistible to you? My X-ray sight?”

“Sort of. It would be useful.”

“Just: useful?”


“Why, what did you expect me to do for you?”

“Make me pregnant.”

This time the fright took longer to fade. “What?” He looked almost panic stricken.

“Make me pregnant. Psychic intuition would be a very useful trait for the next Lord of Ruin to have.”

“I’m not psychic,” he said petulantly.

“So you say. But even if you’re not, you would still make a more than satisfactory genetic donor to any child. And I do have a paramount duty to provide the habitat with an heir.”

“Careful, you’re almost getting romantic.”

“You wouldn’t be tied down by any parental responsibilities, if that’s what bothers you. The zygote would be placed in zero-tau until I’m reaching the end of my life. Tranquillity and the servitor housechimps will bring it up.”

“Fine way to treat a kid.”

She sat up straight, stretching, and ran her hands up her belly, toying with her breasts. You couldn’t be any more unfair to a male, especially when he was naked and trapped below you. “Why? Do you think I turned out badly? Point to the flaw, Joshua.”

Joshua reddened. “Jesus.”

“Will you do it?” Ione picked up the nearly empty liquor bottle. “If I don’t turn you on, there is a clinic in the StAnne starscraper which can perform an in-vitro fertilization.” She carefully let a single drop of Norfolk Tears fall onto her erect nipple. It stayed there, glistening softly, and she moved the bottle to her other breast. “You just have to say no, Joshua. Can you do that? Say no. Tell me you’ve had your fill of me. Go on.”

His mouth closed around her left breast, teeth biting almost painfully, and he started sucking.

What do you think?ione asked tranquillity hours later, when Joshua had finally sated himself with her. He was sleeping on the bed, ripples of aquamarine light played across him, filtering in through the window. High above the water, the axial light-tube was bringing a bright dawn to the habitat’s parkland.

I think the blood supply to your brain got cut off when you were in the womb-analogue organ. The damage is obviously irreparable.

What’s wrong with him?

He lies continually, he sponges off his friends, he steals whenever he thinks it won’t be noticed, he has used stimulant programs illegal on most Confederation worlds, he shows no respect to the girls he has sexual relations with, he even tried to avoid paying his income tax last year, claiming repairs to his spacecraft were legitimate expenses.

But he found all those artefacts.

I admit that is somewhat puzzling.

Do you think he attacked Neeves and Sipika?

No. Joshua was not in the Ruin Ring when those other scavengers disappeared.

So he must be psychic.

I cannot logically refute the hypothesis. But I don’t believe it.

You, acting on a hunch!

Where you are concerned, I act on my feelings. Ione, you grew inside me, I nurtured you. How could I not feel for you?

She smiled dreamily at the ceiling. Well, I do think he’s psychic. There’s certainly something different about him. He has this sort of radiance, it animates him more than any other person I know.

I haven’t seen it.

It’s not something you can see.

Even assuming you are correct about him being psychic, why would your child retain the trait? It’s not exactly something sequenced into any known gene.

Magic passes down through families the same way as red hair and green eyes.

This isn’t an argument I’m going to win, is it?

No. Sorry.

Very well. Would you like me to book you an appointment in the StAnne clinic’s administration processor?

What for?

An in-vitro fertilization.

No, the child will be conceived naturally. But I will need the clinic later to take the zygote out and prepare it for storage.

Is there a specific reason for doing it this way? In vitro would be much simpler.

Maybe, but Joshua really is superb in bed. It’ll be a lot more fun this way.


Chapter 09

The hot rain falling on Durringham had started shortly after daybreak on Wednesday; it was now noon on Thursday and there had been no let-up. The satellite pictures showed there was at least another five hours’ worth of cloud waiting over the ocean. Even the inhabitants, normally unperturbed by mere thunderstorms, had deserted the streets. Scummy water swirled round the stone supports of raised wooden buildings, seeping up through the floorboards. More worryingly, there had been several mudslides on the north-east side of the city. Durringham’s civic engineers (all eight of them) were alarmed that an avalanche effect would sweep whole districts into the Juliffe.

Lalonde’s Governor, Colin Rexrew, received their datavised report phlegmatically. He couldn’t honestly say the prospect of losing half of the capital was an idea which roused any great regret. Pity it wasn’t more.

At sixty years old he had reached the penultimate position in his chosen profession. Born in Earth’s O’Neill Halo, he had started working for the astroengineering giant Miconia Industrial straight after university, qualifying with a degree in business finance, then diversified into subsidiary management, a highly specialized profession, making sure semi-independent divisions retained their corporate identity even though they were hundreds of light-years from Earth. The company’s widespread offices meant he was shunted around the Confederation’s inhabited systems in three-year shifts, slowly building an impressive portfolio of experience and qualifications, always putting his personal life second to the company.

Miconia Industrial had taken a ten per cent stake in the Lalonde Development Company, the third largest single investor. And Colin Rexrew had been appointed Governor two years ago. He had another eight years of office to run, after which he’d be in line for a seat on Miconia’s board. He would be sixty-eight by then, but some geneering in his heritage gave him a life expectancy of around a hundred and twenty. At sixty-eight he would be just hitting his peak. With a successful governorship under his belt, his chances of nabbing the board seat were good verging on excellent.

Although, as he now knew to his cost, success on Lalonde was a slippery concept to define. After twenty-five years of investment by the LDC, Lalonde wasn’t even twenty per cent self-financing. He was beginning to think that if the planet was still here in eight years’ time he would have accomplished the impossible.

His office took up the entire third storey of a dumper on the eastern edge of the city. The furniture itself was all made by local carpenters from mayope wood, Lalonde’s one really useful resource. He had inherited it from his predecessor, and it was a trifle sturdy for his taste. The thick bright jade carpet of kilian hair had come from Mulbekh, and the computer systems were from Kulu. A glass-fronted drinks cabinet was well stocked, with a good third of the bottles in the chiller containing local wines, which he was acquiring a palate for. Curving windows gave him a view out over the cultivated rural areas beyond the suburb, a sight far more pleasing than the backward mundane city itself. But today even the neat white clapboard houses were afflicted by the downpour, appearing dowdy and beleaguered, the usually green fields covered by vast pools of water. Distressed animals crowded onto the island mounds, bleating pathetically.

Colin sat behind his desk, ignoring the datawork flashing urgently on his screens to watch the deluge through the window. Like everyone on Lalonde he wore shorts, although his were tailored in the London arcology; his pale blue jacket was slung over one of the conference chairs, and the conditioner failed to stop sweat stains from appearing under the arms of his pale lemon silk shirt.

There was no such thing as a gym on the whole planet, and he could never bring himself to jog from his official residence to the office in the morning, so he was starting to put on weight at a disappointing rate. His already round face now had accentuated jowls, and a third chin was developing; a smattering of freckles had expanded under Lalonde’s sunlight to cover both cheeks and his forehead. Once hale ginger hair was thinning and fading towards silver. Whatever ancestor had paid for the geneered metabolic improvements which increased his life expectancy had obviously stinted on the cosmetic side.

More lightning bolts stabbed down out of the smothering cloud blanket. He counted to four before he heard the thunder. If this goes on much longer even the puddles will develop puddles, he thought bleakly.

There was a bleep from the door, and it slid open. His neural nanonics told him it was his executive aide, Terrance Smith.

Colin swivelled his chair back round to the desk. Terrance Smith was thirty-five, a tall, elegant man with thick black hair and a firm jaw; today he was dressed in knee-length grey shorts and a green short-sleeved shirt. His weight was never anything less than optimum. The rumour around Colin’s staff said Smith had bedded half of the women in the administration office.

“Meteorology say we’re due for a dry week after this passes over,” Terrance said as he sat in the chair in front of Colin’s desk.

Colin grunted. “Meteorology didn’t say this lot was expected.”

“True.” Terrance consulted a file in his neural nanonics. “The geological engineers up at Kenyon have finished their preliminary survey. They are ready to move on to more extensive drilling for the biosphere cavern.” He datavised the report over to Colin.

Kenyon was the twelve-kilometre-diameter stony iron asteroid that had been knocked into orbit a hundred and twelve thousand kilometres above Lalonde by a series of nuclear explosions. When Lalonde’s first stage of development was complete, and the planetary economy was up and functioning without requiring any additional investment, the LDC wanted to progress to developing a space industry station cluster. That was where the real money lay, fully industrial worlds. And the first essential for any zero-gee industrial stations was an abundant supply of cheap raw material, which the asteroid would provide. The mining crews would tunnel out the ores, literally carving themselves a habitable biosphere in the process.

Unfortunately, now Kenyon was finally in place after its fifteen-year journey from the system’s asteroid belt, Colin doubted he had the budget even to maintain the geological engineering team, let alone pay for exploratory drilling. Transporting new colonists into the continental interior was absorbing funds at a frightening rate, and the first thing an asteroid settlement needed was a reliable home market as a financial foundation before it could start competing on the interstellar market.

“I’ll look into it later,” he told Terrance. “But I’m not making any promises. Somebody jumped the gun on that one by about twenty years. The asteroid industry project looks good on our yearly reports. Moving it into orbit is something you can point to and show the board how progressive you’re being. They know it doesn’t make a dollar while it’s underway. But as soon as it’s here in orbit they expect it to be instantly profitable. So I’m lumbered with the bloody thing while my cretinous predecessor is drawing his standard pension plus a nice fat bonus for being so dynamic while he was in office. The auditors should have caught this, you know. It’s going to be another fifty years before these mud farmers can scrape together enough capital to support high-technology industries. There’s no demand here.”

Terrance nodded, handsome features composed into a grave expression. “We’ve authorized start-up loans for another eight engineering companies in the last two months. Power bike sales are healthy in the city, and we should have an indigenous four-wheel-drive jeep within another five years. But I agree, large-scale consumer manufacturing is still a long way off.”

“Ah, never mind,” Colin sighed. “You weren’t the one who authorized Kenyon. If they’d just stop sending us colonists for six months, allow us to catch our breath. A ship every twenty days is too much, and the passage fees the colonists pay don’t cover half of the cost of sending them upriver. Once the starship’s been paid for the board doesn’t care. But what I wouldn’t give for some extra funds to spend on basic infrastructure, instead of subsidizing the river-boats. It’s not as if the captains don’t make enough.”

“That was something else I wanted to bring up. I’ve just finished accessing the latest schedules flek from the board; they’re going to send us five colonist-carrier starships over the next seventy days.”

“Typical.” Colin couldn’t even be bothered with a token protest.

“I was thinking we might ask the river-boat captains to take more passengers each trip. They could easily cram another fifty on board if they rigged up some awnings over the open decks. It wouldn’t be any different from the transients’ dormitories, really.”

“You think they’d go for that?”

“Why not? We pay their livelihood, after all. And it’s only temporary. If they don’t want to take them, then they can sit in harbour and lose money. The paddle-boats can hardly be used for bulk cargo. Once we’ve repossessed the boats, we’ll give them to captains who are more flexible.”

“Unless they all band together; those captains are a clannish lot. Remember that fuss over Crompton’s accident? He rams a log, and blames us for sending him off into an uncharted tributary. We had to pay for the repairs. The last thing we need right now is an outbreak of trade unionism.”

“What shall I do, then? The transients’ dormitories can’t hold more than seven thousand at once.”

“Ah, to hell with it. Tell the captains they’re taking more heads per trip and that’s final. I don’t want the transients in Durringham a moment longer than necessary.” He tried not to think what would ever happen if one of the paddle-boats capsized in the Juliffe. Lalonde had no organized emergency services; there were five or six ambulances working out of the church hospital for casualties in the city, but a disaster a thousand kilometres upriver . . . And the colonists were nearly all arcology dwellers, half of them couldn’t swim. “But after this we’ll have to see about increasing the number of boats. Because as sure as pigs shit, we won’t ever get a reduction in the number of colonists they send us. I heard on the grapevine Earth’s population is creeping up again, the number of illegal births rose three per cent last year. And that’s just the official illegals.”

“If you want more boats, that will mean more mortgage loans,” Terrance observed.

“I can do basic arithmetic, thank you. Tell the comptroller to shrink some other budgets to compensate.”

Terrance wanted to ask which divisions, every administration department was chronically underfunded. The look on Colin Rexrew’s face stopped him. “Right, I’ll get onto it.” He loaded a note in his neural nanonics general business file.

“It wouldn’t be a bad idea to look into safety on those paddle-boats some time. Make them carry lifebelts.”

“Nobody in Durringham makes lifebelts.”

“So that’s a fresh business opportunity for some smart entrepreneur. And yes I know it would need another loan to establish. Hell, do we have a cork-analogue tree here? They could carve them, everything else on this bloody planet is made out of wood.”

“Or mud.”

“God, don’t remind me.” Colin glanced out of the window again. The clouds had descended until they were only about four hundred metres above the ground. Dante got it all wrong, he thought, hell isn’t about searing heat, it’s about being permanently wet. “Anything else?”

“Yes. The marshal you sent up to Schuster County has filed his report. I didn’t want to load it into the office datanet.”

“Good thinking.” Colin knew the CNIS team monitored their satellite communications. There was also Ralph Hiltch sitting snugly over in the Kulu Embassy, like a landbound octopus with its tentacles plugged into damn near every administration office, siphoning out information. Although God alone knew why Kulu bothered, maybe paranoia was a trait the Saldanas had geneered into their super genes. He had also heard a strictly unofficial whisper that the Edenists had an active intelligence team on the planet, which was pushing credulity beyond any sane limits.

“What was the summary?” he asked Terrance.

“He drew a complete blank.”


“Four families have definitely gone missing, just like the sheriff said. All of them lived out on the savannah a fair distance away from Schuster town itself. He visited their homesteads, and said it was like they walked out one morning and never came back. All their gear had been looted by the time he arrived, of course, but he asked around, apparently there was even food laid out ready for a meal in one home. No sign of a struggle, no sayce or kroclion attack. Nothing. It really spooked the other colonists.”

“Strange. Have we had any reports of bandit gangs operating up there?”

“No. In any case, bandits wouldn’t stop after just a few families. They’d keep going until they were caught. Those families disappeared nine weeks ago now, and there have been no reports of any repetition. Whatever did happen, it looks like a one off.”

“And bandits would have stripped the homesteads of every remotely useful piece of gear, anyway,” Colin mused out loud. “What about the Tyrathca farmers? Do they know anything?”

“The marshal rode out to their territory. They claim they’ve had no contact with humans since they left Durringham. He’s pretty sure they’re telling the truth. There was certainly no sign of any humans ever being in their houses. His affinity-bonded dog had a good scout round.”

Colin stopped himself from making the sign of the cross; his Halo asteroid upbringing had been pretty formal. Supervisors and sheriffs using affinity was something he could never get used to.

“The families all had daughters; some teenagers, a couple in their early twenties,” Terrance said. “I checked their registration files.”


“Several of the girls were quite pretty. They could have moved downriver to one of the larger towns, set up a brothel. It wouldn’t be the first time. And from what we know, conditions in Schuster are fairly dire.”

“Then why not take their gear with them?”

“I don’t know. That was the only explanation I could think of.”

“Ah, forget it. If there aren’t any more disappearances, and the situation isn’t developing into an insurrection, I’m not interested. Write it down to an animal carrying them off for nest food, and call the marshal back. Those colonists know the risks of alien frontiers before they start out. If they’re mad enough to go and live out in the jungle and play at being cavemen, let them. I’ve got enough real problems to deal with at this end of the river.”

Quinn Dexter had heard of the disappearances, it was all round the Aberdale village camp the day a party from Schuster made their official welcome visit to Group Seven. Four complete families, seventeen people flying off into thin air. It interested him, especially the rumours. Bandits, xenocs (especially the Tyrathca farmers over in the foothills), secret metamorph aborigines, they had all been advanced as theories, and all found wanting. But the metamorph stories fascinated Quinn. One of Schuster’s Ivets told him there had been several sightings when they had first arrived a year ago.

“I saw one myself,” Sean Pallas told him. Sean was a couple of years older than Quinn, and could have passed for thirty. His face was gaunt, his ribs were starkly outlined. Fingers and arms were covered in red weals, and pocked sores where insects had bitten him. “Out in the jungle. It was just like a man, only completely black. It was horrible.”

“Hey,” Scott Williams complained. He was the only Afro-Caribbean among Aberdale’s eighteen Ivets. “Ain’t nothing wrong with that.”

“No, man, you don’t understand. It didn’t have any face, just black skin, there was no mouth or eyes; nothing like that.”

“You sure?” Jackson Gael asked.

“Yeah. I was twenty metres from it. I know what I saw. I shouted out and pointed, and it just vanished, ducked down behind a bush or something. And when we got there—”

“The cupboard was bare,” Quinn said.

The others laughed.

“It’s not funny, man,” Sean said hotly. “It was there, I swear. There was no way it could have got away without us seeing. It changed shape, turned into a tree or something. And there’s more just like it. They are out there in the jungle, man, and they’re angry with us for stealing their planet.”

“If they’re that primitive, how do they know we’ve stolen their planet?” Scott Williams asked. “How do they know we’re not the true aboriginals?”

“It’s no joke, man. You won’t be laughing when one of them morphs out of the trees and grabs you. They’ll drag you underground where they live in big cave cities. Then you’ll be sorry.”

Quinn and the others had talked about Sean and what he said that night. They agreed that he was badly undernourished, probably hysterical, certainly suffering from sun dreams. The visitors from Schuster had cast a tangible gloom on the mood of all Aberdale’s residents, an all too physical reminder of how close failure lurked. There hadn’t been much contact between the two groups since the Swithland departed.

But Quinn had thought a lot about what Sean said, and the talk he picked up around the village. A black humanoid, without a face, who could disappear into the jungle without a trace (more than one, judging by the number of sightings). Quinn was pretty sure he knew what that was: someone wearing a chameleon camouflage suit. Nobody else in Aberdale had guessed, their minds just weren’t thinking along those lines, because it would be totally ridiculous to expect someone to be hiding out in the hinterlands of the greatest shit-hole planet in the Confederation. Which, when Quinn considered it, was the really interesting part. To hide away on Lalonde, where nobody would ever look, you must be the most desperate wanted criminal in the universe. Group of criminals, he corrected himself; well organized, well equipped. Conceivably, with their own spacecraft.

Later he discovered all the families who had disappeared had been living in savannah homesteads to the south-east of Schuster. Aberdale was east of Schuster.

Could a retinal implant operating in the infrared spectrum spot a chameleon suit?

The options opening up were amazing.

A fortnight after the Swithland left Group Seven at their new home on the Quallheim, the voidhawk Niobe emerged above Lalonde. With the Edenists having a five per cent stake in the LDC a visit from Jovian Bank officials was a regular occurrence. The visiting voidhawks also brought supplies and fresh personnel to the station in orbit around Murora, the largest of the system’s five gas giants. They were there to supervise Aethra, a bitek habitat that had been germinated in 2602 as part of the Edenist contribution to developing the Lalonde system.

Darcy requested the Niobe ’s captain perform a detailed scan of Schuster County as soon as the voidhawk slipped into equatorial orbit. Niobe altered its orbital track to take it over Schuster at an altitude of two hundred kilometres. The verdant, undulating quilt of jungle rolled past below the voidhawk’s sensor blisters, and it concentrated every spare neural cell on analysing the images. Resolution was ten centimetres, enough to distinguish individual humans.

After five daylight passes Niobe reported that there were no unauthorized human buildings within a one-hundred-kilometre radius of Schuster town, and all humans observed within that area were listed in the immigrant file Lori and Darcy had built up. Aboriginal-animal density was within expected parameters, which suggested than even if a group had concealed themselves in caves or stealth-cloaked structures, they weren’t hunting for food. It found no trace of the missing seventeen people.

After six months Aberdale was looking more like a village and less like a lumberyard with each passing day. Group Seven had waded ashore that first day, armed with fission saws from their gear, and single-minded resolution. They had felled the mayope trees nearest the water, trimmed the trunks to form sturdy pillars which they had driven deep into the shingly riverbed, then sliced out thick planks from the boughs to make a solid walkway. Fission blades made easy work of the timber, ripping through the compacted cellulose like a laser through ice. They sawed like mechanoids, and sweated the cuts into place, and hammered away until an hour before the sun set. By then they had a jetty three metres wide that extended twenty-five metres out into the river, with piles that could moor a half-dozen paddle-craft securely against the current.

The next day they had formed a human chain to unload their cargo-pods and cases as the paddle-boats docked one by one. Will-power and camaraderie made light of the task. And when the paddle-boats had set off back down the river the next day, they stood on the sloping bank and sang their hymn: “Onward, Christian Soldiers”. Loud, proud voices carrying a long way down the twisting Quallheim.

The clearing which formed over the next fortnight was a broad semicircle, stretching a kilometre along the waterfront with the jetty at its centre. But unlike Schuster, Aberdale trimmed each tree as it came down, carrying the trunks and usable boughs to a neat stack, and flinging the smaller leftover branches into a firewood pile.

They built a community hall first, a smaller wooden version of the transients’ dormitory with a wooden slat roof and woven palm walls a metre high. Everyone helped, and everyone learnt the more practical aspects of gussets and joists and tenons and rabbet grooves that a didactic carpentry course could never impart. Food came from frequent hunting trips into the jungle where lasers and electromagnetic rifles would bring down a variety of game. Then there were wild cherry-oak trees with their edible nutty-tasting fruit and acillus vines with small clusters of apple-analogue fruit. The children would be sent on foraging expeditions each day, scouring the fringes of the clearing for the succulent globes. And there was also the river with its shoals of brownspines that tasted similar to trout, and bottom-clinging mousecrabs. It was a bland diet to start with, often supplemented with chocolate and freeze-dried stocks taken from the cargo-pods, but they never fell anywhere near Schuster’s iron regimen.

They had to learn how to cook for batches of a hundred on open fires, mastering the technique of building clay ovens which didn’t collapse, and binding up carcasses of sayce and danderil (a gazelle-analogue) to be spit-roasted. How to boil water in twenty-five-litre containers.

There were stinging insects to recognize, and thorny plants, and poisonous berries, nearly all of which somehow managed to look different from their didactic memory images. There were ways of lashing wood together; and firing clay so that it didn’t crack. Some fronds were good for weaving and some shredded immediately; vines could be dried and used for string and nets. How to dig latrines that nobody fell into (the Ivets were given that task). A long, long list of practicalities which had to be grasped, the essential and the merely convenient. And, by and large, they managed.

After the hall came the houses, springing up in a crescent just inside the perimeter of the clearing. Two-room shacks with overhanging veranda roofs, standing half a metre off the ground thanks to astute management of the tree stumps. They were designed to be added to, a room at a time extending out of the gable walls.

Out of the two hundred and eighteen family groups, forty-two elected to live away from the village, out on the savannah which began south of the river where the jungle eventually faded away to scrub then finally grassland, a sea of rippling green stalks stretching away to the foothills of the distant mountain range, its uniformity broken only by occasional lonely trees and the far-off silver glimmer of narrow watercourses. They were the families who had brought calves and lambs and goat kids and foals, geneered to withstand months of hibernation; pumped full of drugs, and transported in marsupium shells. All the animals were female, so that they could be inseminated from the stock of frozen sperm that had accompanied them across three hundred light-years from Earth.

The Skibbows and the Kavas were among the families who had visions of filling the vast, empty savannah with huge herds of meat-laden beasts. They slept in a tent on the edge of the jungle for five weeks while Gerald and Frank assembled their new home, a four-room log cabin with a stone fireplace, and solar panels nailed on the roof to power lights and a fridge. Outside, they built a small lean-to barn and a stockade; then dammed the little nearby stream with grey stones to form a pool they could wash and bathe in.

Four months and three days after the Swithland departed, they split open their seventeen marsupium shells (three had been stolen at the spaceport). The animals were curled up in a form-fitting sponge, almost as though they were in wombs, with tubes and cables inserted in every orifice. Fifteen made it through the revival process: three shire-horse foals, three calves, one bison, three goats, four lambs, and an Alsatian pup. It was a healthy percentage, but Gerald found himself wishing he could have afforded zero-tau pods for them.

All five family members spent the day helping the groggy animals stand and walk, feeding them a special vitamin-rich milk to speed recovery. Marie, who had never even patted a living animal before let alone nursed one, was bitten, peed on, butted, and had the yellowy milk spewed up over her dungarees. At nightfall she rolled into bed and cried herself to sleep; it was her eighteenth birthday, and no one had remembered.

Rai Molvi made his way across the clearing towards the jetty where the tramp trader boat was waiting, exchanging greetings with several adults. He felt a surge of pride at what he saw, the sturdy buildings, neat stacks of timber, fish smoking over open fires, danderil hides pegged out on frames to dry in the sun. A well-ordered community chasing a common goal. The LDC could use Aberdale in its promotional campaign without any falsehood, it was exemplary.

A second wave of tree felling had been underway for a month now, cutting rectangular gashes deep into the jungle around the perimeter of the clearing. From the air the village resembled a gear cog with exceptionally long teeth. The colonists were starting to cultivate the new fields, digging out the tree stumps, ploughing the soil with rotovators that charged from solar cells, planting their vegetable plots and fruit groves. Lines of small green shoots were already visible, pushing up through the rich black soil, and the farmers had to organize a bird patrol to scare off the hungry flocks perched waiting in the surrounding trees.

Not all of the Earth seeds had germinated successfully, which was surprising because they were geneered for Lalonde’s environment. But Rai had every confidence the village would triumph. Today’s fields would become tomorrow’s estates. In six months they had accomplished more than Schuster had in eighteen. It was down to effective organization, he felt. His council was acknowledged as a stroke of salutary foresight, organizing them into an effective interactive work unit even back in the transients’ dormitory.

He passed the community hall and stood to one side to let a group of children march by, carrying braces of fat polot birds they had caught in their traps. Their skin was scratched from thorns, and their legs were coated in mud, but they were smiling and laughing. Yes, Rai Molvi felt very good indeed.

He reached the jetty and walked its length. A couple of Ivets were in the river, Irley and Scott, hauling up their creels full of mousecrabs. The creels were adaptations of lobster-pots, one of Quinn’s ideas.

Rai waved at the two lads, receiving a grinning thumbs-up. The Ivets were undoubtedly his greatest success. A month after they had arrived, Quinn Dexter had asked to talk to him. “Anything we say to Powel Manani just gets automatically ignored, but we know you’ll give us a fair hearing, Mr Molvi.”

Which was so true. It was his job to arbitrate, and like it or not, the Ivets were part of Aberdale. He must appear strictly impartial.

“We want to organize ourselves,” Quinn had said earnestly. “Right now you have all eighteen of us working for you each day, but you have to feed us and let us live in the hall. It’s not the best arrangement, because we just sweat our arses off for you and don’t get anything out of it for ourselves, so we don’t give a hundred per cent, that’s only human nature. None of us asked to come to Aberdale, but we’re here now, and we want to make the most of it. We thought that if we had a rota so that thirteen of us are available as a general work team each day, then the remaining five could use the time to build something for ourselves, something to give us a bit of pride. We want to have our own cabin; and we could trap and grow our own food. That way you don’t have to support us, and you get a far more enthusiastic work team to help put up your cabins and fell the trees.”

“I don’t know,” Rai had said, although he could see the logic behind the idea. It was just Quinn he was unsettled over; he had encountered waster kids back in the arcology often enough, and Quinn’s sinewy frame and assertive mannerisms brought the memories back. But he didn’t want to appear prejudicial, and the lad was making an honest appeal which might well be beneficial to the whole community.

“We could try it for three weeks,” Quinn suggested. “What have you got to lose? It’s only Powel Manani who could say no to you.”

“Mr Manani is here to help us,” Rai answered stiffly. “If this arrangement is what the town council wants, then he must see that it is implemented.”

Powel Manani had indeed objected, which Rai thought was a challenge to his authority and that of the council. In a session to which Powel Manani was not invited, the council decided that they would give the Ivets a trial period to see if they could become self-sufficient.

Now the Ivets had built themselves a long (and very well constructed, Rai grudgingly conceded) A-frame building on the eastern side of the clearing where they all lived. They caught a huge number of mousecrabs in their creels, which they traded for other types of food among the other villagers. They had their own chicken run and vegetable allotments (villagers had chipped in with three chicks and a few seeds from their own stocks). They joined the hunting parties, even being trusted to carry power weapons, although those did have to be handed back at the end of the day. And the daily work team were enthusiastic in the tasks they were given. There was also some kind of still producing a rough drink, which Rai didn’t strictly approve of, but could hardly object to now.

It all added up to a lot of credit in Rai Molvi’s favour for pushing the idea so hard. And it wouldn’t be long before the time was right for Aberdale to think about formally electing a mayor. After that, there was the county itself to consider. Schuster town was hardly flourishing; several of its inhabitants had already asked if they could move to Aberdale. Who knew what a positive, forthright man could aspire to out here where this world’s history was being carved?

Rai Molvi came to the end of the jetty flushed with a strong sense of contentment. Which was why he was only slightly put out by a close-up view of the Coogan. The boat was twenty metres long, a bizarre combination of raft and catamaran. Flotation came from a pair of big hollowed-out trunks of some fibrous red wood, and a deck of badly planed planks had been laid out above them, supporting a palm-thatched cabin which ran virtually the whole length. The aft section was an engine house, with a small ancient thermal-exchange furnace, and a couple of time-expired electric motors used by the McBoeings in their flap actuators which the captain had salvaged from the spaceport. Forward of that was a raised wheel-house, with a roof made entirely of solar panels, then came the galley and bunk cabin. The rest of the cabin was given over to cargo.

The Coogan ’s captain was Len Buchannan, a wire-thin man in his mid-fifties, dressed in a pair of worn, faded shorts and a tight-fitting blue cap. Rai suspected he had little geneering; the hair peeking out from his cap was tightly curled and pale grey, dark brown skin showed stringy muscles stretched taut and slightly swollen joints, several teeth had rotted away.

He stood in front of the wheel-house and welcomed Rai on board.

“I need a few supplies,” Rai said.

“I ain’t interested in barter,” he said straight away, cheeks puffing out for emphasis. “Not unless it’s powered equipment you’re offering. I’ve had my fill of pickled vegetables and fruit preserves and cured hides. And don’t even think about saying fish. They’re coming out my ears. I can’t sell anything like that downriver. Nobody’s interested.”

Rai fished a roll of plastic Lalonde francs out of his pocket. Buchannan was the third trader captain to appear at Aberdale recently. All of them wanted cash for their goods, and none had bought much of Aberdale’s produce in return. “I understand. I’m looking for cloth. Cotton mainly, but I’ll take denim or canvas.”

“Cost you a lot of francs. You got anything harder?”

“I might have,” Rai said, with a grey inevitability. Didn’t anybody use Lalonde francs? “Let’s see what you’ve got first.”

Gail Buchannan was sitting in the wheel-house, wearing a coolie hat and a shapeless khaki dress. An obese fifty-year-old with long, straggly dark hair, her legs were like water-filled sacks of skin; when she walked it was with a painful waddle. Most of her life was spent sitting on the Coogan ’s deck watching the world go by. She looked up from the clothes she was sewing to give Rai a friendly nod. “Cloth you wanted, is it, lovie?”

“That’s right.”

“Plenty of cloth, we’ve got. All woven in Durringham. Dyed, too. Won’t find better anywhere.”

“I’m sure.”

“No patterns yet. But that’ll come.”


“Does your wife know how to sew, then?”

“I . . . Yes, I suppose so.” Rai hadn’t thought about it. Arcology synthetics came perfectly tailored; load your size into the commercial circuit and they arrived within six hours. If they started to wear, throw them into the recycler. Waster kids dressed in patched and frayed garments, but not decent people.

“If she doesn’t, you send her to me.”

“Thank you.”

“Knitting too. None of the women that come here know how to knit. I give lessons. Best lessons east of Durringham. Know why, lovie?”

“No,” Rai said helplessly.

“Because they’re the only ones.” Gail Buchannan slapped her leg and laughed, rolls of flesh quivering.

Rai gave her a sickly smile and fled into the cargo hold, wondering how many times that joke had been cracked over the years.

Len Buchannan had everything a farmstead could ever possibly want stacked up on his long shelves. Rai Molvi shuffled down the tiny aisle, staring round in awe and envy. There were power tools still in their boxes, solar cells (half of Rai’s had been stolen back in Durringham), fridges, microwaves, cryostats full of frozen animal sperm, MF album flek-players, laser rifles, nanonic medical packages, drugs, and bottle after bottle of liquor. The Lalonde-made products were equally impressive: nails, pots, pans, glass (Rai saw the panes and groaned, what he wouldn’t give for a window of glass), drinking glasses, boots, nets, seeds, cakes of dried meat, flour, rice, saws, hammers, and bale after bale of cloth.

“What kind of things would you take downriver?” Rai asked as Len unrolled some of the cotton for him.

Len pulled his cap off, and scratched his largely bald head. “Truth to tell, not much. What you produce up here, food and the like. People need it. But it’s the transport costs, see? I couldn’t take fruit more than a hundred kilometres and make a profit.”

“Small and valuable then?”

“Yes, that’s your best bet.”


“Could do. There’s some villages not doing as well as you. They want the food, but how are they going to pay for it? If they spend all their money buying food, it’s going to run out fast, then they won’t be able to buy in new stocks of what they really need like seed and animals. I seen that happen before. Bad business.”


“The Arklow Counties, a tributary over in the northern territory. All the villages failed about six or seven years back. No food, no money left to buy any in. They started marching downriver towards villages that did have food.”

“What happened?”

“Governor sent in the marshals, plus a few boosted mercenaries from offplanet if you believe what people say. Them starving villagers took a right pounding. Some escaped into the jungle, still there by all accounts, lot of bandit reports in the north. Most got themselves killed. The rest got a twenty-year work-time sentence; the Governor parcelled them out to other villages to work, just like Ivets. Families broken up, children never see their parents.” He sucked his cheeks in, scowling. “Yes, bad business.” Rai sorted out the cloth he wanted, and on impulse bought a packet of sweetcorn seed for Skyba, his wife. He offered the Lalonde notes again.

“Cost you double, that way,” Len Buchannan said. “The LDC people at the spaceport, they don’t give you anything like the proper exchange rate.”

Rai made one last attempt. “How about chickens?”

Len pointed to a shelf given over to cryostats, their tiny green LEDs twinkling brightly in the gloomy cabin. “See that? Two of those chambers are crammed full of eggs. There’s chickens, ducks, geese, pheasants, emus, and turkeys stored in there; I’ve even got three swans. I don’t need live chickens crapping on my deck.”

“OK.” Rai gave up; he dug into his inside pocket and offered his Jovian Bank disk, feeling a little bit shabby. People should believe in their own planet’s currency. If—when—Schuster County became an important commercial region, he would make damn sure every transaction was made in Lalonde francs. Patriotism like that would be very popular with the voters.

Len stood beside his wife as Rai walked back down the jetty. “Ten thousand born every second,” he murmured.

Gail chuckled. “Aye, and all of them come to live here.”

From their vantage point in the river shallows, Irley and Scott gave Rai a cheery wave as he carried his cloth ashore. Another who had a Jovian Bank credit disk, that made seventy-eight known residents now. Quinn would be pleased with them.

Rai reached the end of the jetty just as Marie Skibbow arrived carrying a bulky shoulder-bag. She gave him an uninterested glance and hurried on towards the Coogan.

What’s she come to pick up? Rai wondered. Gerald’s place was one of the prime savannah homesteads. Although the man himself was a complete self-righteous pain in the arse.

Horst Elwes stood at the base of the church’s wooden corner stanchion, holding the cloth bag full of nails, and still managing to feel completely useless. Leslie didn’t need anyone to hold the nails ready. But Horst could hardly let the Ivet work team assemble the church without being there, without at least the pretence of being involved.

The church was one of the last of Aberdale’s buildings to be put up. He didn’t mind that at all. These people had toiled hard to build their village and clear their fields. They couldn’t spare the time on a structure that would only be used once or twice a week (though he liked to think there would be more services eventually). Nor was it right they should do so. Horst could never forget how the cathedrals of medieval Europe had risen like stone palaces out of the mouldering, stinking wooden slums. How the Church demanded the people of that time give and give and give. How fear was rooted in every soul and carefully nurtured. And because we were so arrogant, as aloof as God Himself, we suffered a terrible price in later centuries. Which again was right. Such a crime deserved a penance that lasted for so long.

So he held his services in the hall, and never complained when only thirty or forty people turned up. The church must be a focal point for unity, a place where people could come together and share their faith, not a baron demanding tribute.

And now the fields had been rotovated, the first batch of crops planted, and the animals brought out of hibernation, Aberdale had a moment of time to spare. Three Ivets had been assigned to him for a fortnight. They had built a long raftlike floor supported half a metre off the ground by old tree stumps, then put up four-metre-high stanchions to hold up the sloping roof.

At the moment it looked like a skeleton of some boxy dinosaur. Leslie Atcliffe was busy hammering the trusses into place, while Daniel held them steady. Ann was busy cutting slates from the sheets of qualtook bark they had stripped off the felled trunks. The church itself would occupy a third of the structure, with a small infirmary at the rear, and Horst’s room sandwiched between the two.

It was all going very well, and would probably go better if Horst wasn’t there asking what he could do to help the whole time.

The church was going to be a fine building, second only to the Ivets’ own A-frame. And how that structure had shown up the hall and the other houses. Horst had joined Rai Molvi in urging the council to allow the Ivets some independence and dignity. Now Quinn was the one who had really worked miracles in Aberdale. Since the long barkslate covered A-frame had gone up the other residents had taken to quietly improving the structure of their own homes, adding corner braces, putting up shutters. And none of us will use an A-frame design, Horst thought. Oh, foolish pride! Everyone was captured by the quaint white-painted cottages we saw on the first days of the voyage upriver, we thought if we could emulate the look we would have the life that went with it. Now the most practical method of construction is a monopoly. Because using it would mean the Ivets knew best. And I can’t even build the church that way, the sensible way, because people would be offended. Not out loud, but they would see and in their hearts they would object. But at least I can use the bark slates rather than slats that will warp and let in the rain like the houses which were built first.

Leslie climbed down the ladder, a rangy twenty-two-year-old wearing shorts sewn together from an old jump suit. A specially made belt had loops to hold all his carpentry tools. To start with Powel Manani had issued the tools on a daily basis, and demanded their return at night; now the Ivets kept them permanently. Several of them had developed into highly skilled carpenters; Leslie was one of them.

“We’ll fetch the last two transverse frames now, Father,” Leslie said. “They’ll be up by lunch, then we can start with the lathing and the slates. You know, I think we will be finished by the end of the fortnight after all. It’s just those pew benches I’m worried about, cutting that many dovetail joints in time is going to be tricky, even with fission blades.”

“Don’t pay it a second thought,” Horst said. “I don’t get enough of a congregation to fill every pew. A roof over our heads is more than enough. The rest can wait. The Lord understands that the farms must come first.” He smiled, keenly aware of how shabby he was in his stained ochre shirt and oversize knee-length shorts. So much at variance from these uniformly trim young men.

“Yes, Father.”

Horst felt a pang of regret. The Ivets were so insular, yet they did more work than most. Aberdale’s success was in no small part due to their efforts. And Powel Manani still grumbled about the liberties they were shown. It didn’t happen in other settlements, he complained. But then other settlements didn’t have Quinn Dexter. It was a thought Horst couldn’t be quite as grateful for as he should be. Quinn was a very cold fish. Horst knew waster kids, their motivations, their shallow wishes. But what went on behind those chilling bright eyes was an utter mystery, one he was afraid to probe.

“I shall be holding a consecration service once the roof’s on,” he said to the two Ivets. “I hope you’ll all come to it.”

“We’ll think about it,” Leslie said with smooth politeness. “Thank you for asking, Father.”

“I notice that not many of you come to my services. Everybody is welcome. Even Mr Manani, although I don’t think he’s particularly impressed with me.” He tried to make it sound jovial, but their expressions never flickered.

“We’re not very religious,” Leslie said.

“I’d be happy to explain the broader ramifications of Christianity to anybody. Ignorance isn’t a crime, only a misfortune. If nothing else we could have a good argument about it, you needn’t worry about shocking me there. Why, I remember some debates from my novice years, we really gave the bishop a roasting.” Now he knew he’d lost them. Their earlier magnanimity had turned to stiff-backed formality, faces hard, sparks of resentment agleam in their eyes. And once more he was aware of how ominous these young men could appear.

“We have the Light Brother—” Daniel began. He broke off at a furious look from Leslie.

“Light Brother?” Horst asked mildly. He was sure he’d heard that phrase before.

“Was there anything else, Father?” Leslie said. “We’d like to collect the transverse frames now.”

Horst knew when to push, and this wasn’t the time. “Yes, of course. What would you like me to do? Help you fetch them?”

Leslie looked around the church impatiently. “We could do with the slates stacking round the floor ready for when we get the lathing up,” he said grudgingly. “Piles of twenty by each stanchion.”

“Jolly good, I’ll start doing that then.”

He walked over to where Ann was standing beside a workbench, slicing up the bark with a fission jigsaw. She was wearing a pair of hand-stitched shorts and a halter top, both made from grey jump suit fabric. There was a huge pile of the slates on the ground around her. Her long face was crunched up in an expression of furious concentration, dark auburn hair hanging in damp tassels.

“We don’t need the slates that urgently,” Horst said lightly. “And I’m certainly not going to complain to Mr Manani if you slacken off a bit.”

Ann’s hand moved with mechanical precision, guiding the slender blade in a rectangular pattern through the big sheet of glossy ginger-coloured qualtook bark. She never bothered to mark out the shape, but each one came out more or less identical.

“Stops me thinking,” she said.

Horst started to pick up some of the slates. “I was sent here to encourage people to think. It’s good for you.”

“Not me. I’ve got Irley tonight. I don’t want to think about it.”

Irley was one of the Ivets; Horst knew him as a thin-faced lad, who was quiet even by their standards.

“What do you mean, you’ve got him?”

“It’s his turn.”


Ann suddenly looked up, her face a mask of cold rage, most of it directed at Horst. “He’s going to fuck me. It’s his turn tonight. Do you want it in writing, Father?”

“I . . .” Horst knew his face was reddening. “I didn’t know.”

“What the hell do you think we do in that big hut at night? Basket weaving? There are three girls, and fifteen boys. And the boys all need it pretty bad, banging their fists each night isn’t enough, so they take it in turns with us, those that aren’t AC/DC. Quinn draws up a nice little impartial list, and we stick to it. He makes sure it’s dished out fairly, and he makes sure nobody spoils the merchandise. But Irley knows how to make it hurt without making it painful, without it showing. Do you want to know how, Father? You want the details? The tricks he’s got.”

“Oh, my child. This must stop, at once. I’ll speak to Powel and the council.”

Ann surprised him. She burst into shrill contemptuous laughter. “God’s Brother. I can see why they dumped you out here, Father. You’d be bloody useless back on Earth. You’re going to stop the boys from screwing me and Jemima and Kay, are you? Then where are they going to go for it? Huh? Lotsa your good parishioners got daughters. You think they want Ivets prowling round at night? And how about you, Father, do you want Leslie and Douglas giving your sweet little friend Jay the eye? Do you? Because they will if they can’t get it from me. Get real, Father.” She turned back to the sheet of bark. A dismissal that was frightening in its finality. Nothing Horst could offer was of the remotest use. Nothing.

It was there, right at the bottom of his pack where it had lain for six and a half months. Untouched, unneeded , because the world was full of worthy challenges, and the sun shone, and the village grew, and the plants blossomed, and the children danced and laughed.

Horst took out the bottle, and poured a long measure. Scotch, though this thick amber liquid had never rested in oak barrels in the Highlands. It had come straight out of a molecular filter programmed with the taste of a long-lost ideal. But it burnt as it went down, and slowly lit up his belly and his skull, which was all he wanted from it.

How stupid. How blind to think the serpent hadn’t come with them to this fresh world. How obtuse that he, a priest, hadn’t thought to look below the shining surface of achievement, to see the sewer beneath.

He poured another measure of Scotch. Breath coming in hot bursts between gulps. God, but it felt good, to abandon mortal failings for a few brief hours. To hide in this warm, silent, forgiving place of sanctuary.

God’s Brother, she had said. And she was right. Satan is here amongst us, piercing our very heart.

Horst filled his glass to the very top, staring at it in abject dread. Satan: Lucifer, the light bringer. The Light Brother.

“Oh no,” he whispered. Tears filled his eyes. “Not that, not that here. Not the sects spreading over this world’s purity. I can’t, dear Lord. I can’t fight that. Look at me. I’m here because I can’t.” He trailed off into sobs.

Now as always, the Lord answered only with silence. Faith alone wasn’t enough for Horst Elwes. But then he’d always known that.

The bird was back again, thirty centimetres long, its plumage a tawny brown flecked with gold. It hovered twenty metres above Quinn, half hidden by the jungle’s curving branches, its wings blurring in an intricate pattern as it maintained position.

He watched it out of the corner of his eye. It wasn’t like any other bird he’d seen on Lalonde; their feathers were almost like membrane scales. When he scanned it with his retinal implant on high magnification he could see it had real feathers, Earth genealogy feathers.

He gave the hand signal, and they advanced steadily through the bush, Jackson Gael on one side of him, Lawrence Dillon on the other. Lawrence was the youngest Ivet, seventeen, with a slim figure, skinny limbs, and sandy blond hair. Lawrence was a gift from God’s Brother. It had taken Quinn a month to break him. There had been the favouritism, the extra food, the smiles and making sure he wasn’t bullied by the others. Then there had been the drugs Quinn had bought from Baxter, the gentle lifts which removed Aberdale and all its squalor and endless toil, blurring away the edges until life was easier again. The midnight rape performed in the middle of the A-frame with everybody watching; Lawrence tied to the floor with a pentagon drawn around him in danderil blood, his mind blown out of his skull by the drugs. Now Lawrence belonged to him, his sweet arse, the golden length of his dick, and his mind. Lawrence’s devotion to Quinn had evolved to a form of worship.

Sex showed the others the power Quinn had. It showed them how in touch with God’s Brother he was. It showed them the glory of freeing the serpent beast that was trapped in every man’s heart. It showed them what would happen if they failed him.

He had given them hope and power. All he demanded in return was obedience.

Demanded and received.

The big spongy leaves of the vines which shrouded the trees brushed lightly against Quinn’s damp skin as he advanced on his prey. After months of working under the brilliant sun he was a rich all-over brown, wearing just a pair of shorts cut from his jump suit, and the boots he’d stolen in Durringham. He’d eaten well since the Ivets started fending for themselves, and put on muscle weight from the work he’d done around the homesteads.

Creepers were hung between the trunks like a net the jungle had woven to catch its smaller denizens. They crackled annoyingly as he waded through them, booted feet crunching on the spindly mosslike grass that grew deep in the jungle. Birds clucked and squawked as they arrowed through the latticework of branches. He could see the distant movement of vennals high overhead, spiralling round trunks and branches like three-dimensional shadows.

The light filtering down through the leaf canopy was growing darker. He spotted an increasing number of young giganteas interspaced with the usual trees. They resembled elongated cones, with an outer coating of mauve-brown fibrous hair rather than a true bark. Their boughs emerged in rings from the trunk, spaced regularly up the entire length; they all sloped downwards at a fifty-degree angle, supporting fanlike arrangements of twigs, densely packed as birds’ nests. Leaves grew on the upper surface like a dark green fur.

The first time Quinn had seen a mature gigantea he thought he must have been tripping. It stood two hundred and thirty metres high, with a base forty-five metres in diameter, rearing out of the jungle like a misplaced mountain. Creepers and vines had wrapped themselves around its lower branches, adding a colourful speckle of multi-coloured flowers to its uninspiring leaden-green leaves. But even the vigorous vines couldn’t hope to challenge a gigantea.

Jackson clicked his fingers, and pointed ahead. Quinn risked raising his head above the shoulder-high rall bushes and spindly light-starved saplings.

The sayce they had been tracking was padding through the skimpy undergrowth ten metres away. It was a big specimen, a buck, its black hide scarred and flecked with blue spots, ears chewed down to stubs. It had been in a lot of fights, and won them.

Quinn smiled happily, and signalled Lawrence forwards. Jackson stayed where he was, sighting the laser rifle on the sayce’s head. Back-up, in case their attack went wrong.

The hunt had taken a while to set up. There were thirty of Aberdale’s residents spread out through the jungle today, but they were all nearer to the river. Quinn, Jackson, and Lawrence had made off south-west into the deeper jungle as soon as they could, away from the river and its humidity, into the country where the sayce lurked. Powel Manani had ridden off at dawn to help one of the savannah homesteads track down the sheep that had wandered off after their stockade had failed. Most importantly, he’d taken Vorix with him to find the scent. Irley had arranged for the stockade fence to fail last night.

Quinn put down the pump-action shotgun he’d bought from Baxter, and took the bolas from his belt. He started spinning it above his head, letting out a fearsome yell. To his right Lawrence was running towards the sayce, his bolas whirling frantically. Nobody knew the Ivets used bolas. The weapon was simple enough to build, all they needed was the dried vine to link the three stones with. They could carry the vine lengths about quite openly, using them as belts.

The sayce turned, its jaws hinging wide to let out its peculiar keening cry. It charged straight at Lawrence. The boy let the bolas fly, yelling with adrenalin intoxication, and it caught the sayce on its forelegs, stones twisting in ever-shorter arcs with incredible speed. Quinn’s whirled around the animal’s right flank a second later, tangling one of the hind legs. The sayce fell, skidding through the grass and loam, its body bucking in epileptic frenzy.

Quinn ran forward, tugging the lasso off his shoulder. The sayce was thrashing about, howling, trying to get its razor-sharp teeth into the infuriating vine strands binding its legs. He twisted the lasso, working up a good speed, studying the sayce’s movements, then threw.

The sayce’s jaws shut between cries, and the lasso’s loop slipped over the muzzle. He jerked back with all his strength. The jaws strained to open, but the loop held; it was silicon fibre, stolen from one of the homesteads. All three Ivets could hear the furious and increasingly frantic cries, muted to a harsh sneezing sound.

Lawrence landed heavily on the writhing sayce, struggling to shove its kicking hind legs into his own loop of rope. Quinn joined him, hugging the sayce’s thick gnarled hide as he fought to coil another length of rope round the forelegs.

It took another three minutes to subdue and bind the sayce completely. Quinn and Lawrence wrestled with it on the ground, getting covered in scratches and mud. But eventually they stood, bruised and shaking from the effort, looking down at their trussed victim lying helplessly on its side. Its green-tinted eye glared back up at them.

“Stage two,” said Quinn.

It was Jay who found Horst late in the afternoon. He was sitting slumped against a qualtook tree in the light drizzle, virtually comatose. She giggled at how silly he was being and shook him by the shoulder. Horst mumbled incoherently then told her to piss off.

Jay stared at him for a mortified second, her lower lip trembling, then rushed to get her mother.

“Ho boy, look at you,” Ruth said when she arrived.

Horst burped.

“Come on, get up. I’ll help you get home.”

The weight of him nearly cracked her spine as he leant against her. With a solemn-faced Jay following a couple of paces behind they staggered across the clearing to the little cabin Horst used.

Ruth let him fall onto his cot, and watched impassively as he tried to vomit onto the duckboard floor. All that came out of his mouth was a few beads of sour yellow stomach juices.

Jay stood in a corner and clutched at Drusilla, her white rabbit. The doe squirmed around in agitation. “Is he going to be all right?”

“Yes,” Ruth said.

“I thought it was a heart attack.”

“No. He’s been drinking.”

“But he’s a priest,” the girl insisted.

Ruth stroked her daughter’s hair. “I know, darling. But that doesn’t mean they’re saints.”

Jay nodded wisely. “I see. I won’t tell anyone.”

Ruth turned and stared at Horst. “Why did you do it, Horst? Why now? You’d been doing so well.”

Bloodshot eyes blinked at her. “Evil,” he groaned. “They’re evil.”

“Who are?”

“Ivets. All of them. Devil’s children. Burn down the church. Can’t consecrate it now. They built it. Evil built it. Herit— here— heretical. Burn it to cinders.”

“Horst, you’re not setting fire to anything.”

“Evil!” he slurred.

“See if there’s enough charge in his electron matrix cells to power the microwave,” Ruth told Jay. “We’ll boil some water.” She started to rummage through Horst’s gear looking for his silver-foil sachets of coffee.

Right up until the moment the electric motors began to thrum, Marie Skibbow hadn’t believed it was actually happening. But here it was, bubbles rising from the Coogan ’s propeller, the gap between the boat and the jetty growing.

“I’ve done it,” she said under her breath.

The ramshackle boat began to chug its way out into the middle of the Quallheim, the prow pointing downriver, gradually picking up speed. She stopped dropping logs into the thermal-exchange furnace’s square hopper-funnel and started to laugh. “Screw you,” she told the village as it began to slide astern. “Screw all of you. And good fucking riddance. You won’t ever see me again.” She shook her fist at them. Nobody was looking, not even the Ivet lads in the water. “Never ever.”

Aberdale disappeared from sight as they steered round a curve. Her laughter became suspiciously similar to weeping. She heard someone making their way aft from the wheel-house, and started lobbing logs into the hopper again.

It was Gail Buchannan, who barely fitted on the narrow strip of decking between the cabin and the half-metre-high gunwale. She wheezed heavily for a moment, leaning against the cabin wall, her face red and sweating below her coolie hat. “Happier now, lovie?”

“Much!” Marie beamed a sunlight smile.

“It’s not the kind of place a girlie like you should be living in. You’ll be much better off downriver.”

“You don’t have to tell me. God, it was awful. I hated it. I hate animals, I hate vegetables, I hate fruit trees, I hate the jungle. I hate wood!”

“You’re not going to be trouble for us are you, lovie?”

“Oh no, I promise. I never signed a settlement contract with the LDC, I was still legally a minor when we left Earth. But I’m over eighteen now, so I can leave home any time I want to.”

A nonplussed frown creased the folds of spare flesh on Gail’s gibbous face for a second. “Aye, well you can stop loading the hopper now, there’s enough logs in there to last the rest of today. We’re only sailing for a couple of hours. Lennie’ll moor somewhere below Schuster for the night.”

“Right.” Marie stood up straight, hands pressed against her side. Her heart was racing, pounding away against her ribs. I did it!

“You can start preparing supper in a while,” Gail said.

“Yes, of course.”

“I expect you’d like a shower first, lovie. Get cleaned up a bit.”

“A shower?” Marie thought she’d misheard.

She hadn’t. It was in the cabin between the galley and the bunks, an alcove with a curtain across the front, broad enough to fit Gail. When she looked down, Marie could see the river through the gaps between the deck boards. The pump and the heater ran off electricity from the thermal-exchange furnace, producing a weak warm spray from the copper nozzle. To Marie it was more luxurious than a sybarite’s jacuzzi. She hadn’t had a shower since her last day on Earth. Dirt was something you lived with in Aberdale and the savannah homesteads. It got into the pores, under nails, scaled your hair. And it never came out, not completely. Not in cold stream water, not without decent soap and gels.

The first sluice of water from the nozzle disgusted her as it drained away. It was filthy. But Gail had given her a bar of unperfumed green soap, and a bottle of liquid soap for her hair. Marie started scrubbing with a vengeance, singing at the top of her voice.

Gwyn Lawes never even knew the Ivets were there until the club smashed into the small of his back. He blacked out for a while from the pain. Certainly he didn’t remember falling. One minute he was lining up his electromagnetic rifle on a danderil, anticipating the praise he would earn from the rest of the hunting party. And the next thing he knew was that there was loam in his mouth, he could barely breathe, and his spine was sheer agony. All he could do was retch weakly.

Hands grabbed his shoulders, and he was turned over. Another blast of fire shot up his spine. The world shuddered nauseously.

Quinn, Lawrence, and Jackson were standing above him, grinning broadly. They were smothered in mud, hair hanging in soiled dreadlocks, spittle saturating their tufty beards, scratches bleeding, dribbles of red blood curdling with the mud. They were savages reincarnated out of Earth’s dawn times. He whimpered in fright.

Jackson bent down, teeth bared with venomous joy. A ball of cloth was thrust into Gwyn’s mouth, tied into place with a gag. Breathing became even harder, his nose flaring, sucking down precious oxygen. Then he was turned again, face pressed into the wet ground. All he could see was muddy grass. He could feel thin, hard cord binding his wrists and ankles. Hands began to search him, sliding into every pocket, patting the fabric. There was a hesitant fumble when fingers found the inside leg pouch on his dungarees trousers, tracing the shape of his precious Jovian Bank credit disk.

“Got it, Quinn,” Lawrence’s voice called triumphantly.

Fingers gripped Gwyn’s right thumb, bending it back.

“Pattern copied,” Quinn said. “Let’s see what he’s got.” There was a short pause, then a whistle. “Four thousand three hundred fuseodollars. Hey, Gwyn, where’s your faith in your new planet?”

Cruel laughter followed.

“OK, it’s transferred. Lawrence, put it back where you found it. They can’t activate it once he’s dead, they’ll never know it’s been emptied.”

Dead. The word cut through Gwyn’s sluggish thoughts. He groaned, trying to lift himself. A boot slammed into his ribs. He screamed, or tried to. The gag was virtually suffocating him.

“He’s got some handy gear here, Quinn,” Lawrence said. “Fission knife, firelighter, and that’s a personal guido block. Spare power mags for the rifle, too.”

“Leave it,” Quinn ordered. “If anything’s missing when they find him, they might get suspicious. We can’t afford that, not yet. It will all belong to us in the end.”

They lifted Gwyn, carrying him on their shoulders like some kind of trophy. He kept drifting in and out of consciousness as he jounced about, twigs and vines slapping against him.

The light was darker when they finally slung him down. Gwyn looked about, and saw the smooth ebony trunk of an old deirar tree twenty metres away, its single giant umbrella-leaf casting a wide circular shadow. A sayce had been tethered to it, straining at the unbreakable silicon-fibre rope, forelegs scrabbling at the loam as it tried to reach its captors, its snapping jaws dripping long chains of saliva. Gwyn suddenly knew what was going to happen next. His bladder gave out.

“Get it riled good and proper,” Quinn ordered.

Jackson and Lawrence started throwing stones at the sayce. It keened in torment, its body jacking about as though an electric current was being run through it.

Gwyn saw a pair of boots appear twenty centimetres from his nose. Quinn squatted down. “Know what’s going to happen afterwards, Gwyn? We’re going to be assigned to help out your widow. Everyone else is busy with their own little plots of heaven. So it’ll be the Ivets who get dumped on. Once again. I’m going to be one of them, Gwyn. I’m going to be a regular visitor to poor, grieving Rachel. She’ll like me, I’ll make sure of that. Just like you and all the others, you want to believe that everything’s so perfect on this planet. You convinced yourselves we’re just a bunch of regular lads who got a bad break in life. Anything else would have cracked your dream open and made you face reality. Illusion is easy. Illusion is the loser’s way out. Your way. You and all the others grubbing round in the dirt and the rain. In a couple of months I’ll be in the bed you made, under the roof you sweated over, and I’ll have my dick rammed up inside Rachel making her squeal like a pig in heat. I hope you hate that idea, Gwyn. I hope it makes you sick inside. Because that’s not the worst. Oh, no. Once I’m through with her, I’ll have Jason. Your shiny-eyed beautiful son. I’ll be his new father. I’ll be his lover. I’ll be his owner. He’ll be joining us, Gwyn, me and the Ivets. I’ll bind him to the Night, I’ll show him where his serpent beast is hidden within. He’s not going to be a dickhead loser like his old man. You’re only the first, Gwyn. One by one I will come to you all, and very few will be given the chance to follow me into darkness. Inside of six months this whole village, the only hope for a future you ever had, will belong to God’s Brother.

“Do you despise me, Gwyn? I want you to. I want you to hate me as much as I hate you and all you stand for. Then you will understand that I’m speaking the truth. You will go to your pitiful Lord Jesus weeping in terror. And you will find no comfort there, because the Light Bringer will be the ultimate victor. You will lose in death, as you have lost in life. You made the wrong choice in life, Gwyn. My path is the one you should have walked. And now it’s too late.”

Gwyn strained and wheezed against the gag until he thought his lungs would burst from the effort. It made no difference, the shriek of hatred and all the threats, the curses condemning Quinn to an eternity of damnation, were left jailed inside his skull.

Quinn’s hands curled round the lapels of Gwyn’s shirt, hauling him upright. Jackson took his feet, and the two of them swung him back and forth, building momentum. They let go, and Gwyn’s tumbling body flew in a shallow trajectory right over the top of the berserk sayce. He hit the loam with a dull thud, face contorted with insane dread. The sayce leapt.

Quinn put his arms round the shoulders of Lawrence and Jackson as the three of them watched the sayce mauling the man, its teeth tearing out great strips of flesh. The power to bring death was equal to that of bringing about life. He felt enraptured as the hot scarlet blood flowed into the soil.

“After life, death,” he chanted. “After darkness, light.”

He looked up, and stared round until he found the brown bird. It was perched up in a cherry oak’s branches, head cocked on one side, observing the carnage.

“You’ve seen what we are,” Quinn called out. “You’ve seen us naked. You’ve seen we’re not afraid. We should talk. I think we have a lot to offer each other. What have you got to lose?”

The bird blinked as if in surprise, and launched itself into the air.

Laton let the kestrel’s wonderfully clear sensorium fade from his mind. The sensation of air flowing over wings remained for several minutes. Flying the predator via affinity was always an experience he enjoyed, the freedom granted to creatures of the air was unsurpassed.

The ordinary world rushed back in on him.

He was in his study, sitting in the lotus position on a black velvet cushion. It was an unusual room, an ovoid, five metres high, its curving walls a smooth polished wood. A cluster of electrophorescent cells were fitted flush with the apex, supplying a glimmer of jade light. The single cushion on the cup of the floor was the only thing to break the symmetry; even the door was hard to see, its lines blending with the grain.

The study possessed a unifying simplicity, freeing his mind of distractions. In here, his body motionless, his affinity expanding his consciousness through bitek processors and incorporated brains, his mentality was raised by an order of magnitude. It was a hint of what could be. A pale shadow of the goal he chased before his exile.

Laton remained sitting, thinking about Quinn Dexter and the atrocity he had perpetrated. There had been a lurid flash of gratification in Dexter’s eyes as that helpless colonist had been thrown to the sayce. Yet he must be more than a brainless sadistic brute. The fact that he had recognized the kestrel for what it was, and worked out what it represented, was proof of that.

Who is God’s Brother?laton asked the house’s subsentient bitek processor network.

Satan. The Christian devil.

Is this a term in wide use?

The term is common among Earth’s waster population. Most arcologies have sects built up around the worship of this deity. Their priest/acolyte hierarchy is a simple variant on that of the more standard officer/soldier criminal organization. Those at the top control those at the bottom through a quasi-religious doctrine, and status is enforced by initiation rituals. Their theology states that after Armageddon has been fought, and the universe abandoned to lost souls, Satan will return bringing light. The sects are unusual only in the degree of violence involved to maintain discipline among the ranks. Because of the level of devotion involved, the authorities have been generally unsuccessful in eradicating the sects.

That explains Quinn, then, Laton thought to himself. But why did he want the money in the colonist’s Jovian Bank credit disk? If he was successful in taking over Aberdale no trading boat would ever stop there; he couldn’t buy anything. In fact, the Governor would be more than likely to send in a posse of sheriffs and deputies to stamp out any Ivet rebellion as soon as word leaked out. Quinn must know that, he wasn’t stupid.

The last thing Laton wanted was for the outside world to show an interest in Schuster County. One marshal digging around was an acceptable risk, he’d known that when he took the colonists from their homesteads. But a whole team of them scouting through the jungle in search of renegade Devil worshippers was totally out of the question.

He had to know more of Quinn Dexter’s plans. They would have to meet, just like Quinn had suggested. Somehow the idea of agreeing to his proposition was vaguely disturbing.

The Coogan was moored against a small sandy spit an hour’s sailing downriver from Schuster town. Two silicon-fibre ropes had been fastened to trees on the shore, holding the tramp trader secure against the current.

Marie Skibbow sat on the prow, letting the warm evening air dry the last traces of water from her hair. Even the humidity had fallen off. Rennison, Lalonde’s largest moon, was rising slowly above the dusky-grey treetops, adding a glimmering oyster light to the gloaming. She sat back against the flimsy cabin wall and watched it contentedly.

Water lapped gently against the Coogan ’s twin hulls. Fish made occasional ripples on the glass-smooth surface.

They’ve probably realized I’ve gone by now. Mother will cry, and Father will explode; Frank won’t care, and Paula will be sad. They’ll all worry about how it will affect them and the animals not having an extra hand at their beck and call all day long. Not one of them will think about what I want, what’s good for me.

She heard Gail Buchannan calling, and made her way back to the wheel-house.

“We thought you’d fallen overboard, lovie,” Gail said. A splash of light from the galley shone out, showing the sweat beading on her blubbery arms. At supper she had eaten more than half of all the food Marie prepared for the three of them.

“No. I was watching the moon come up.”

Gail gave her a lopsided wink. “Very romantic. Get you in the mood.”

Marie felt the hairs on the nape of her neck rising. She was cold despite the jungle’s breath.

“I’ve got your night clothes ready,” Gail said.

“Night clothes?”

“Very pretty. I did the lacework myself. Len likes his brides to have frills. You won’t find better this side of Durringham,” she said generously. “That T-shirt’s nice and tight. But it hardly flatters your figure, now does it?”

“I paid you,” Marie said in a frail voice. “All the way to Durringham.”

“That won’t cover our costs, lovie. We told you, it’s expensive travelling this river. You have to work your passage.”


There was nothing of the bumptious nature left in the huge woman. “We can put you off. Right here.”

Marie shook her head. “I can’t.”

“Course you can. Pretty girl like you.” Gail wrapped a weighty hand around Marie’s forearm. “Come on, lovie,” she coaxed. “Old Lennie, he knows how to treat his brides right.”

Marie put one foot forward.

“That’s it, lovie. Down you come. It’s all laid out here, look.”

There was a white cotton negligee on the galley table. Gail led her over to it. “You just slip this on. And don’t let’s hear any more silly talk about can’t.” She held it up against Marie. “Oh, you’re going to look a picture in this, aren’t you?”

She glanced down numbly at it.

“Aren’t you?” Gail Buchannan repeated.


“Good girl. Now put it on.”


“Here, lovie. Right here.”

Marie turned her back to the gross woman, and began to pull her T-shirt off over her head.

Gail chortled thickly. “Oh, you’re a one, lovie, you really are. This is going to be a chuckle.”

The negligée’s hem barely came below Marie’s buttocks, but if she tried to pull it down any further her breasts would fall out of the top. She had felt cleaner when she was covered in dirt from the jungle.

Still chortling, and giving her little nudges in her back, Gail followed her into the cabin where Len was waiting dressed in an amber towelling robe. A single electric lamp hanging on the ceiling cast a halo of yellow light. Len’s mouth split in a jagged smile as he took in the sight of her.

Gail sank down onto a sturdy stool by the door, puffing in relief. “There now, don’t you worry about me, lovie, I only ever watch.”

Marie thought that perhaps with the sound of the lapping water and the close wooden walls she could pretend it was Karl and the Swithland again.

She couldn’t.

The Ly-cilph had been travelling for over five billion years when it arrived at the galaxy which was home to the Confederation, although at that time it was the dinosaurs which were Earth’s premier life-form. Half of its existence had been spent traversing intergalactic space. It knew how to slip through the wormhole interstices; a creature of energy, the physical structure of the cosmos was no mystery to it. But its nature was to observe and record, so it sped along at a velocity just short of lightspeed, extending its perceptive field around the outcast hydrogen atoms on their aeons-long fall towards the bright, distant star whorls. Each one was unique, an existence to be treasured, extending the knowledge base, its history placed in the transdimensional storage lattice which provided the Ly-cilph with its identity focus. The Ly-cilph was the section of space through which it passed with less disturbance than a neutrino. Like a quantum black hole, it had almost no physical size, yet within was an entire universe. A carefully patterned universe of pure data.

After it arrived at the rim stars it spent millions of years drifting among them, categorizing the life-forms which rose and fell on their planets, indexing the physical parameters of the multitudinous solar systems. It witnessed interstellar empires that bloomed and failed, and planet-bound civilizations that were lost to the final night as their stars cooled to frozen iron. Saint-like cultures and the most bestial savagery; all clicking neatly into place within its infinite interior.

It progressed inwards on a loose line towards the scintillating glow of the galactic core. And in doing so, arrived at the volume of space populated by the Confederation. Lalonde, freshly discovered, and on the edge of the territory, was the first human world it encountered.

The Ly-cilph arrived at the star’s Oort cloud in 2610. After it passed through the band of circling, sleeping comets, occasional laser and microwave emissions impinged on its perception field boundary. They were weak, random fragments of overspill from the communication beams of starships entering orbit above Lalonde.

A preliminary survey showed the Ly-cilph two centres of sentient life in the solar system: Lalonde itself with the human and Tyrathca settlers, and Aethra, the young Edenist habitat in its solitary orbit above Murora.

As always in cases of life discovery, it first performed analytical sweeps of the barren planets. The four inner worlds: sunblasted Calcott and the colossal Gatley with its immense lethal atmosphere, then skipping past Lalonde to review airless Plewis and the icy Mars-like Coum. The five gas giants followed, Murora, Bullus, Achillea, Tol, and distant Puschk with its strange cryochemistry. All of them had their own moon systems and individual milieux requiring examination. The Ly-cilph took fifteen months to classify their composition and environment, then swooped in towards Lalonde.

The search through the jungle took eight hours. Three-quarters of Aberdale’s adult population turned out to help. They found Gwyn Lawes fifteen minutes after Rennison had set below the horizon. Most of him.

Because it was a sayce which had killed him; because the ropes had been taken off his wrists and ankles, and the gag removed from his mouth; because his electromagnetic rifle and all his other possessions were accounted for, everyone accepted it was a natural, if horrible, death.

It was the Ivets who were assigned to dig the grave.

Chapter 10

The Udat slid over the surface of Tranquillity’s non-rotating spaceport as though it was running on an invisible wire. A honeycomb of deep docking-bays flashed past below the blue and purple hull; the spherical fuselages of Adamist starships nested inside, glinting dully under the rim floodlights. Meyer watched through the blackhawk’s sensors as a fifty-five-metre-diameter clipper-class starship manoeuvred itself onto a cradle that had risen out of a bay, orange balls of chemical flame spitting out of its vernier nozzles. He could see the ubiquitous intersecting violet and green loops of the Vasilkovsky Line bold across the forward quarter. It touched the cradle, and pistonlike latches engaged, slipping into sockets around the hull. Umbilical gantries swung round, plugging it into the spaceport’s coolant and environmental circuits. The starship’s thermo-dump panels retracted, and the cradle started to descend into the bay.

So much effort just to arrive,Udat observed.

Quiet down, you’ll hurt people’s feelings,meyer told it fondly.

I wish there were more ships like me. Your race should stop clinging to the past. These mechanical ships belong in a museum.

My race, is it? There are human chromosomes in you, don’t forget.

Are you sure?

I think I accessed it in a memory core somewhere. There are in voidhawks.

Oh. Them.

Meyer grinned at the overtone of disparagement. I thought you liked voidhawks.

Some of them are all right. But they think like their captains.

And how do voidhawk captains think?

They don’t like blackhawks. They think we’re trouble.

We have been known.

Only when money is short,Udat said, gently reproachful.

And if there were more blackhawks and fewer Adamist starships, money would be even tighter. I have wages to pay.

At least we’ve paid off the mortgage you took out to buy me.

Yes.and there’s money to save to buy another when you’re gone. But he didn’t let that thought filter out of his mind. Udat was fifty-seven now; seventy-five to eighty was the usual blackhawk lifespan. Meyer wasn’t at all convinced he would want another ship after Udat . But there was a quarter of a century of togetherness to look forward to yet, and money wasn’t such a problem these days. There was only life-support-section maintenance and the four crew members to pay for. He could afford to pick and choose his charters now. Not like the first twenty years. Now those had been wild days. Fortunately the power compressed into the big asymmetric teardrop shape of Udat ’s hull gave them a terrific speed and agility. They had needed it on occasion. Some of the more covert missions had been hazardous in the extreme. Not all their colleagues had returned.

I’d still like more of my own kind to talk to,Udat said.

Do you talk to Tranquillity?

Oh, yes, all the time. We’re good friends.

What do you talk about?

I show it places we visit. And it shows me its interior, what humans get up to.


Yes, it’s interesting. This Joshua Calvert who chartered us, Tranquillity says he’s a recidivist of the worst kind.

Tranquillity is absolutely right. That’s why I like Joshua so much. He reminds me of me at that age.

No. You were never that bad.

Udat ’s nose turned slightly, gliding delicately between two designated traffic streams congested with He3 tankers and personnel commuters. The bays in this section of the mammoth spaceport disk were larger, it was where the repairs and maintenance work was carried out. Only half of them were occupied.

The big blackhawk came to a halt directly over bay MB 0-330, then slowly rotated around its long axis so that its upper hull was pointing down over the rim. Unlike voidhawks, with their separate lower hull cargo hold and upper hull crew toroid, Udat had all its mechanical sections contained in a horseshoe which embraced its dorsal bulge. The bridge and individual crew cabins were at the front, with the two cargo holds occupying the wings, and an ion-field flyer stored in a small hangar on the port side.

Cherri Barnes walked into the bridge compartment. She was Udat ’s cargo officer, doubling as a systems generalist: forty-five years old, with light coffee skin and a wide face prone to contemplative pouts. She had been with Meyer for three years.

She datavised a series of orders into her console processors, receiving images fed from the electronic sensors mounted on the hull. The three-dimensional picture which built up in her mind showed her Udat hanging poised thirty metres over the repair bay, holding its position steady.

“Over to you,” Meyer said.

“Thanks.” She opened a channel to the bay’s datanet. “MB 0-330, this is Udat . We have your cargo paid for and waiting. Ready for your unload instructions. How do you want to handle it, Joshua? Time is money.”

“Cherri, is that you?” Joshua datavised back.

“No one else on board will lower themselves to talk to you.”

“I wasn’t expecting you for another week, you’ve made good time.”

Meyer datavised an access order into his console. “You hire the best ship, you get the best time.”

“I’ll remember that,” Joshua told him. “Next time I have some money I’ll make sure I go for a decent ship.”

“We can always take our nodes elsewhere, Mr Hotshot Starship Captain who’s never been outside the Ruin Ring.”

“My nodes, genetic throwback who’s too scared to go in the Ruin Ring and earn a living.”

“It’s not the Ruin Ring which worries me, it’s what the Lord of Ruin does to people who skip outsystem before they register their finds in Tranquillity.”

There was an unusually long pause. Meyer and Cherri shared a bemused glance.

“I’ll send Ashly out with the Lady Mac ’s MSV to pick up the nodes,” Joshua said. “And you’re all invited to the party tonight.”

“So this is the famous Lady Macbeth ?” Meyer asked a couple of hours later. He was in bay 0–330’s cramped control centre with Joshua, his left foot anchored by a stikpad, looking out through the glass bubble wall into the bay itself. The fifty-seven-metre ship resting on the cradle in the middle of the floor was naked to space. Its hull plates had been stripped off, exposing the systems and tanks and engines, fantastically complex silver and white entrails. They were all contained inside a hexagonal-lattice stress structure. Jump nodes were positioned over each junction. Red and green striped superconductor cabling wormed inwards from each node, plugged directly into the ship’s fusion generators. Meyer hadn’t thought about it before, but the lenticular nodes were almost identical to the voidhawk profile.

Engineers wearing black SII suits and manoeuvring packs were propelling themselves over the open stress structure, running tests and replacing components. Others rode platforms on the end of multi-segment arms which were fitted out with heavy tools to handle the larger systems. Yellow strobes flashed on all the bay’s mobile equipment, sending sharp-edged amber circles slicing over every surface in crazy gyrating patterns.

Hundreds of data cables were stretched between the ship and the five interface couplings around the base of the cradle. It was almost as though Lady Macbeth was being tethered down by a net of optical fibres. A two-metre-diameter airlock tube had concertinaed out from the bay wall, just below the control centre, giving the maintenance team access to the life-support capsules buried at the core of the ship. Brackets on the bay walls held various systems waiting to be installed. Meyer couldn’t see where they could possibly fit. Lady Macbeth ’s spaceplane clung to one wall like a giant supersonic moth, wings in their forward-sweep position. The additional tanks and power cells Joshua had strapped on for flights to the Ruin Ring were gone; a couple of suited figures and a cyberdrone were trying to remove the thick foam from the fuselage with a solvent spray. Crumbling grey flakes were flying off in all directions.

“What were you expecting?” Joshua asked. “A Saturn V?” He was strapped into a restraint web behind a cyberdrone operations console. The boxy drones ran along the rails which spiralled up the bay walls, giving them access to any part of the docked ship. Three of them were currently clustered round an auxiliary fusion generator, which was being eased into its mountings at the end of long white waldo arms. Engineers floated around it, supervising the cyberdrones which were performing the installation, mating cables, coolant lines, and fuel hoses. Joshua monitored their progress through the omnidirectional AV projectors arrayed around his console.

“More like a battle cruiser,” Meyer said. “I saw the power ratings on those nodes, Joshua. You could jump fifteen lightyears with those brutes fully charged.”

“Something like that,” he said absently.

Meyer grunted, and turned back to the starship. The MSV was returning from another trip to Udat , a pale green oblong box three metres long with small spherical tanks bunched together on the base, and three segmented waldo arms ending in complex manipulators sprouting from the mid-fuselage section. It was carrying a packaged node, coasting down towards one of the engineering shop airlocks.

Cherri Barnes frowned, peering forwards into the bay. “How many reaction drives has she got?” she asked. There seemed an inordinate number of unbilicals jacked into the Lady Macbeth ’s rear quarter. She could see a pair of fusion tubes resting in the wall brackets, fat ten-metre cylinders swathed with magnetic coils, ion-beam injectors, and molecular-binding initiators.

Joshua turned his head fractionally, switching AV projectors. The new pillar shot a barrage of photons along his optical nerves, giving him a different angle on the auxiliary fusion generator. He studied it for a while, then datavised an instruction into one of the cyberdrones. “Four main drives.”

“Four?” Adamist ships usually had one fusion drive, with a couple of induction engines running off the generator as an emergency back-up.

“Yeah. Three fusion tubes, and an antimatter drive.”

“You can’t be serious,” Cherri Barnes exclaimed. “That’s a capital offence!”


Joshua and Meyer both grinned at her, infuriatingly superior. There were smiles from the other five console operators in the control centre.

“It’s a capital offence to possess antimatter,” Joshua said. “But there’s nothing in the Confederation space law about possessing an engine which uses antimatter. As long as you don’t fill up the confinement chambers and use it, you’re fine.”

“Bloody hell.”

“It makes you very popular when there’s a war on. You can write your own ticket. Or so I’m told.”

“I bet you’ve got a real powerful communication maser as well. One that can punch a message clean through another starship’s hull.”

“No, actually. Lady Mac has eight. Dad was a real stickler for multiple redundancy.”

Harkey’s Bar was on the thirty-first floor of the StMartha starscraper. There was a real band on the tiny stage, churning out scarr jazz, fractured melodies with wailing trumpets. A fifteen-metre bar made from real oak that Harkey swore blind came from a twenty-second-century Paris brothel, serving thirty-eight kinds of beer, and three times that number of spirits, including Norfolk Tears for those who could afford it. It had wall booths that could be screened from casual observation, a dance floor, long party tables, lighting globes emitting photons right down at the bottom of the yellow spectrum. And Harkey prided himself on its food, prepared by a chef who claimed he had worked in the royal kitchens of Kulu’s Jerez Principality. The waitresses were young, pretty, and wore revealing black dresses.

With its ritzy atmosphere, and not too expensive drinks, it attracted a lot of the crews from ships docked at Tranquillity’s port. Most nights saw a good crowd. Joshua had always used it. First when he was a cocky teenager looking for his nightly fix of spaceflight tales, then when he was scavenging, lying about how much he made and the unbelievable find that had just slipped from his fingers, and now as one of the super-elite, a starship owner-captain, one of the youngest ever.

“I don’t know what kind of crap that foam is which you sprayed on the spaceplane, Joshua, but the bloody stuff just won’t come off,” Warlow complained bitterly.

When Warlow spoke everybody listened. You couldn’t avoid it, not within an eight-metre radius. He was a cosmonik, born on an industrial asteroid settlement. He had spent over sixty-five per cent of his seventy-two years in free fall, and he didn’t have the kind of geneering bequeathed to Joshua and the Edenists by their ancestors. After a while his organs had begun to degenerate, depleted calcium levels had reduced his bones to brittle porcelain sticks, muscles had atrophied, and fluid bloated his tissues, impairing his lungs, degrading his lymphatic system. He had used drugs and nanonic supplements to compensate at first, then supplements became replacements, with bones exchanged for carbon-fibre struts. Electrical consumption supplanted food intake. The final transition was his skin, replacing the eczema-ridden epidermis with a smooth ochre silicon membrane. Warlow didn’t need a spacesuit to work in the vacuum, he could survive for over three weeks without a power and oxygen recharge. His facial features had become purely cosmetic, a crude mannequin-like caricature of human physiognomy, although there was an inlet valve at the back of his throat for fluid intake. There was no hair, and he certainly didn’t bother with clothes. Sex was something he lost in his fifties.

Although some cosmoniks had metamorphosed into little more than free-flying maintenance craft with a brain at the centre, Warlow had kept his humanoid shape. The only noticeable adaptation was his arms; they forked at each elbow, giving him two pairs of forearms. One set retained the basic hand and finger layout, the other set ended in titanium sockets, capable of accepting a variety of rigger tools.

Joshua grinned and raised his champagne glass at the sleek-skinned two-metre-tall gargoyle dominating the table. “That’s why I put you on it. If anybody can scrape it off, you can.” He counted himself lucky to get Warlow on his crew. Some captains rejected him for his age, Joshua welcomed him for his experience.

“You should get Ashly to fly it on a bypass trajectory that grazes Mirchusko’s atmosphere. Burn it off like an ablative. One zip and it’s all gone.” Warlow’s primary left forearm came down, palm slapping the table. Glasses and bottles juddered.

“Alternatively, you could plug a pump in your belly, and use your arse as a vacuum cleaner,” Ashly Hanson said. “Suck it off.” His cheeks caved in as he made a slurping sound.

The pilot was a tall sixty-seven-year-old, whom geneering had given a compact frame, floppy brown hair, and a ten-year-old’s wonderstruck smile. The whole universe was a constant delight for him. He lived for his skill, moving tonnes of metal through any atmosphere with avian grace. His Confederation Astronautics Board licence said he was qualified for both air and space operations, but it was three hundred and twenty years out of date. Ashly Hanson was temporally displaced; born into reasonable wealth, he had signed over his trust fund to the Jovian Bank in 2229 in exchange for a secure zero-tau pod maintenance contract (even then the Edenists had been the obvious choice as custodians). He alternated fifty years in entropy-free stasis, and five years “bumming round” the Confederation.

“I’m a futurologist,” he told Joshua the first time they met. “On a one-way ride to eternity. I just get out of my time machine for a look round every now and then.”

Joshua had signed him on as much for the tales he could tell as his piloting ability.

“We’ll just remove the foam according to the manual, thanks,” he told the bickering pair.

The vocal synthesizer diaphragm protruding from Warlow’s chest, just above his air-inlet gills, let out a metallic sigh. He shoved his squeezy bulb into his mouth and squirted some champagne into the valve. Drink was one thing he wasn’t giving up, although with his blood filters he could sober up with astonishing speed if he had to.

Meyer leant across the table. “Any word on Neeves and Sipika yet?” he asked Joshua quietly.

“Yeah. I forgot, you wouldn’t know. They arrived back in port a couple of days after you left for Earth. They bloody nearly got lynched. The serjeants had to rescue them. They’re in jail, waiting judicial pronouncement.”

Meyer frowned. “Why the wait? I thought Tranquillity processed the charges right away?”

“There’s a lot of bereaved relatives of scavengers who never came back who are claiming Neeves and Sipika are responsible. Then there’s the question of compensation. The Madeeir is still worth a million and a half fuseodollars even after my axe work. I waived my claim, but I suppose the families are entitled.”

Meyer took another sip. “Nasty business.”

“There’s talk about fitting emergency beacons to all the scavenger craft, making it an official requirement.”

“They’ll never go for that, they’re too independent.”

“Yeah, well, I’m out of it now.”

“Too true,” Kelly Tirrel said. She was sitting pressed up next to Joshua, one leg hooked over his, arm draped around his shoulders.

It was a position he found extremely comfortable. Kelly was wearing an amethyst dress with a broad square-cut neckline which showed off her figure, especially from his angle. She was twenty-four, slightly shorter than medium build, with red-brown hair and a delicate face. For the last couple of years she had been a rover correspondent for Tranquillity’s office of the Collins news group.

They had met eighteen months earlier when she was doing a piece on scavengers for distribution across the Confederation. He liked her for her independence, and the fact that she wasn’t born rich.

“Nice to know you worry about me,” he said.

“I don’t, it’s the dataloss when you detonate your brain across the cosmos in that relic you’re flying, that’s what I’m concerned over.” She turned to Meyer. “Do you know he won’t give me the coordinates for this castle he found?”

“What castle?” Meyer asked.

“Where he found the Laymil electronics stack.”

A smile spread across Meyer’s whole face. “A castle. You didn’t tell me that, Joshua. Did it have knights and wizards in it?”

“No,” Joshua said firmly. “It was a big cube structure. I called it a castle because of the weapons systems. It was tough work getting in, one wrong move and . . .” Grave lines scored his face.

Kelly squirmed a fraction closer.

“It was operational?” Meyer was enjoying himself.


“So why was it dangerous?”

“Some of the systems still had power in their storage cells. So given how much molecular decay they’ve suffered out there in the Ring, just brushing against them could have triggered off a short circuit. They would have blown like a chain reaction.”

“Electronic stacks, and functional power cells. That really was a terrific find, Joshua.”

Joshua glared at him.

“And he won’t tell me where it is,” Kelly complained. “Just think, something that big which survived the suicide could well hold the key to the whole Laymil secret. If I could capture that on a sensevise, I’d be made. I could pick my own office with Collins, then. Hell, I’d be in charge of my own office.”

“I’ll sell you where it is,” Joshua said, “it’s all up here.” He tapped his head. “My neural nanonics have got its orbital parameters down to a metre. I can locate it any time in the next ten years for you.”

“How much are you asking?” Meyer asked.

“Ten million fuseodollars.”

“Thanks, I’ll pass.”

“Doesn’t it bother you, standing in the way of progress?” Kelly asked.

“No. Besides, what happens if the answer turns out to be something we don’t particularly like?”

“Good point.” Meyer raised his glass.

“Joshua! People have a right to know. They are quite capable of making up their own minds, they don’t need to be protected from facts by people like you. Secrets seed oppression.”

Joshua rolled his eyes. “Jesus. You just like to think reporters have a God-given right to stuff their noses in anywhere they want.”

Kelly tipped a glass to his lips, encouraging him to sip the champagne. “But we do.”

“You’ll get it bitten off one day, you see. In any case, we will know what happened to the Laymil. With the size of the research team Tranquillity employs, results are inevitable.”

“That’s you, Joshua, the eternal optimist. Only an optimist would even think about going anywhere in that ship of yours.”

“There’s nothing wrong with the Lady Mac ,” Joshua bridled. “You ask Meyer, those systems are the finest money can buy.”

Kelly fluttered long dark lashes enquiringly at Meyer.

“Oh, absolutely,” he said.

“I still don’t want you to go,” she said quietly. She kissed Joshua’s cheek. “They were good systems when your father was flying her, and they were newer then. Look what happened to him.”

“That’s different. Those orphans on the hospital station would never have made it back here without the Lady Mac . Dad had to jump while he was too close to that neutron star.”

Meyer let out a distressed groan, and drained his glass.

Joshua was up at the bar when the woman approached him. He didn’t even see her until she spoke, his attention was elsewhere. The barmaid’s name was Helen Vanham, she was nineteen, with a dress cut lower than Harkey’s normal, and she seemed eager to serve Joshua Calvert, the starship captain. She said she finished work at two in the morning.

“Captain Calvert?”

He turned from the pleasing display of cleavage and thigh. Jesus, but that title felt good. “You got me.”

The woman was black, very black. There couldn’t have been much geneering in her family, he decided, although he was suspicious about that deep pigmentation; she was fifty centimetres shorter than him, and her short beret of hair was frosted with strands of silver. He reckoned she was about sixty years old, and ageing naturally.

“I’m Dr Alkad Mzu,” she said.

“Good evening, Doctor.”

“I understand you have a ship you’re fitting out?”

“That’s right, the Lady Macbeth . Finest independent trader this side of the Kulu Kingdom. Are you interested in chartering her?”

“I may be.”

Joshua skipped a beat. He took another look at the small woman. Alkad Mzu was dressed in a suit of grey fabric, a slim collar turned up around her neck. She seemed very serious, her features composed in a permanent expression of resignation. And right at the back of his mind there was a faint tingle of warning.

You’re being oversensitive, he told himself, just because she doesn’t smile doesn’t mean she’s a threat. Nothing is a threat in Tranquillity, that’s the beauty of this place.

“Medicine must pay very well these days,” he said.

“It’s a physics doctorate.”

“Oh, sorry. Physics must pay very well.”

“Not really. I’m a member of the team researching Laymil artefacts.”

“Yeah? You must have heard of me, then, I found the electronics stack.”

“Yes, I heard, although memory crystals aren’t my field. I mainly study their fusion drives.”

“Really? Can I get you a drink?”

Alkad Mzu blinked, then slowly looked about. “Yes, this is a bar, isn’t it. I’ll just have a white wine, then, thank you.”

Joshua signalled to Helen Vanham for a wine. Receiving a very friendly smile in return.

“What exactly was the charter?” he asked.

“I need to visit a star system.”

Definitely weird, Joshua thought. “That’s what Lady Mac does best. Which star system?”


Joshua frowned, he thought he knew most star systems. He consulted his neural nanonics cosmology file. That was when his humour really started to deflate. “Garissa was abandoned thirty years ago.”

Alkad Mzu received her slim glass from the barmaid, and tasted the wine. “It wasn’t abandoned, Captain. It was annihilated. Ninety-five million people were slaughtered by the Omutan government. The Confederation Navy managed to get some off after the planet-buster strike, about seven hundred thousand. They used marine transports and colonist-carrier ships.” Her eyes clouded over. “They abandoned the rescue effort after a month. There wasn’t a lot of point. The radiation fallout had reached everyone who survived the blasts and tsunamis and earthquakes and superstorms. Seven hundred thousand out of ninety-five million.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”

Her lips twitched around the rim of the glass. “Why should you? An obscure little planet that died before you were born; for politics that never made any sense even then. Why should anybody remember?”

Joshua shot the fuseodollars from his Jovian Bank credit card into the bar’s accounts block as the barmaid delivered his tray of champagne bottles. There was an oriental man at the far end of the bar who was keeping an unobtrusive watch on himself and Dr Mzu over his beer mug. Joshua forced himself not to stare in return. He smiled at Helen Vanham and added a generous tip. “Dr Mzu, I have to be honest. I can take you to the Garissan system, but a landing given those circumstances is out of the question.”

“I understand, Captain. And I appreciate your honesty. I don’t wish to land, simply to visit.”

“Ah, er, good. Garissa was your homeworld?”


“I’m sorry.”

“That’s the third time you’ve said that to me.”

“One of those evenings, I guess.”

“How much would it cost me?”

“For a single passenger, there and back; you’re looking at about five hundred thousand fuseodollars. I know it’s a lot, but the fuel expenditure will be the same for one person as a full cargo hold. And the crew time is the same as well, they all need paying.”

“I doubt I can raise your full charter fee in advance. My research position is a comfortable one, but not that comfortable. However, I can assure you that once we reach our destination adequate funds will be available. Does that interest you?”

Joshua gripped the tray tighter, interested despite himself. “It may be possible to come to an arrangement, subject to a suitable deposit. And my rates are quite reasonable, you won’t find any cheaper.”

“Thank you, Captain. Can I have a copy of your ship’s handling parameters and cargo capacity? I need to know whether the Lady Macbeth can fulfil my requirements, they are rather specialized.”

Jesus, if she needs to know how big the cargo hold is, just what is she planning on bringing back? Whatever it is, it must have been hidden for thirty years.

His neural nanonics reported she had opened a channel. “Sure.” He datavised over the Lady Mac ’s performance tables.

“I’ll be in touch, Captain. Thank you for the drink.”

“My pleasure.”

At the other end of the bar, Onku Noi, First Lieutenant serving in the Oshanko Imperial Navy, and assigned to the C5 Intelligence arm (Foreign Observation Division), finished his beer and paid the bill. The audio discrimination program in his neural nanonics had filtered out the bar’s chatter and background music, allowing him to record the conversation between Alkad Mzu and the handsome young starship captain. He stood up and opened a channel into Tranquillity’s communication net, requesting access to the spaceport’s standard commercial reference memory core. The file on the Lady Macbeth and Joshua Calvert was datavised into his neural nanonics. What he accessed caused an involuntary twitch in his jaw muscle. Lady Macbeth was a combat-capable starship, complete with antimatter drive and combat-wasp launch-rails, and she was being capaciously refurbished. Pausing only to confirm Joshua Calvert’s visual profile was filed correctly in his neural nanonics memory cell, he followed Dr Mzu out of Harkey’s Bar, keeping an unobtrusive thirty seconds behind her.

Joshua, interested before, was now outright fascinated as he surreptitiously watched the three men trailing after the diminutive Dr Mzu almost collide in the doorway. His intuition had been right again.

Jesus, who is she?

Tranquillity would know. But then Tranquillity would know she was being tailed as well, and who the tails were. Which meant that Ione would know.

He still hadn’t resolved his feelings about Ione. There couldn’t be anyone in the universe who was better at sex, but knowing that Tranquillity was looking at him out of those enchanting sea-blue eyes, that all those fluffy girlish mannerisms were wrapped around thought processes cooler than solid helium, was more than a little disconcerting. Though never inhibiting. She had been quite right about that, he simply couldn’t say no. Not to her.

He returned to her every day, as instinctively as a migrating bird to an equatorial continent. It was exciting screwing the Lord of Ruin, a Saldana. And the feel of her body pressed against his was supremely erotic.

The male ego, he often reflected these days, was a puppet master with a very black sense of humour.

Joshua didn’t have any time to ponder the puzzle of Dr Mzu before someone else hailed him. He turned with a slightly pained expression on his face.

A thirty-year-old man in a slightly worn navy-blue ship’s one-piece was pushing through the throng, waving hopefully. He was just a few centimetres shorter than Joshua with the kind of regular features below short black hair that suggested a good deal of geneering. There was a smile on his face, apprehensive and keen at the same time.

“Yes?” Joshua asked wearily, he was only halfway back to his table.

“Captain Calvert? I’m Erick Thakrar, a ship’s general systems engineer, grade five.”

“Ah,” Joshua said.

Warlow’s thousand-decibel laugh blasted out, silencing the bar for an instant.

“Grade ratings are mostly down to logged flight hours,” Erick said. “I did a lot of time in port maintenance. I’m up to grade three level in practice, if not more.”

“And you’re looking for a berth?”

“That’s right.”

Joshua hesitated, He still had a couple of berths to fill, and one of them was for a systems generalist. But that itchy sensation of discomfort had returned, much stronger than it had been with Dr Mzu.

Jesus, what’s this one, a serial killer?

“I see,” he said.

“I would be a bargain, I’m only asking grade five pay.”

“I prefer to make flight pay a percentage of the charter fee, or a percentage of profits if we trade our own cargo.”

“Sounds pretty good to me.”

Joshua couldn’t fault his attitude. Youthful, enthusiastic, no doubt a good worker, obviously willing to accept the rule bending necessary to keep independent ships flying. Ordinarily, a man you’d want at your back. But that intimation of wrongness wouldn’t leave.

“OK, let me have your CV file, and I’ll look it over,” he said. “But not tonight, I’m in no fit state to make command judgements tonight.”

In the end he invited Erick Thakrar back to the table to see how he got on with the other three crew members. He shared their sense of humour, had some good stories of his own, drank a lot, but not excessively.

Joshua watched it happen through the increasingly rosy glow fostered by the champagne, occasionally having to push Kelly to one side for a proper view of the table. Warlow liked him, Ashly Hanson liked him, Melvyn Ducharme, the Lady Mac ’s fusion specialist, liked him, even Meyer and the Udat crew liked him. He was one of them.

And that, Joshua decided, was the problem. Erick fitted into his role a little too perfectly.

At quarter past two in the morning, feeling very smug, Joshua managed to give Kelly the slip, and sneaked out of Harkey’s Bar with Helen Vanham. She lived by herself in an apartment a couple of floors below Harkey’s. It was sparsely furnished, the walls of the lounge were bare white polyp; big brightly coloured cushions had been scattered around on a topaz moss floor, several aluminium cargo-pods served as tables with bottles and glasses, a giant AV projector pillar occupied one corner. The archways into different rooms all had folding silk screens for doors. Someone had been painting outlines of animals on them, there were paint pots and brushes lying on one of the pods. Joshua saw new tumours of polyp pushing up through the moss like rock mushrooms: furniture buds starting the slow growth into the form Helen wanted.

There was a food secretion panel on the wall opposite the window; a row of teats, like small yellow-brown rubber sacks, were standing proud, indicating regular use. It had been a long time since Joshua had used a panel for food, though a few years ago when money was tight they had been a godsend.

Every apartment in Tranquillity had one. The teats secreted edible pastes and fruit juices synthesized by a series of glands in the wall behind. There was nothing wrong with the taste, the pastes were indistinguishable from real chicken, and beef, and pork, and lamb, even the colours were reasonable. It was the constituency, like viscid grease, which always put Joshua off.

The glands ingested a nutrient fluid from a habitatwide network of veins which were fed from Tranquillity’s mineral digestion organs in the southern endcap. There was also a degree of recycling, human wastes and organic scraps being broken down in specialist organs at the bottom of each starscraper. Porous sections of the shell vented toxic chemicals, preventing any dangerous build-up in the habitat’s closed biosphere.

There was no such thing as starvation in bitek habitats, though both Edenists and Tranquillity’s residents imported vast quantities of delicacies and wines from across the Confederation. They could afford it. But Helen obviously couldn’t. Despite its size, the full teats and absence of materialism marked the apartment down as student digs.

“Help yourself to a drink,” Helen said. “I’m getting out of this customer-friendly dress.” She walked through an archway into the bedroom, leaving the screen folded back.

“What else do you do apart from serve bar at Harkey’s?” he asked.

“I’m studying art,” she called back. “Harkey’s is just for funtime money.”

Joshua broke off from examining the bottles and gave the screens with their animals a more appraising look. “Are you any good?”

“I might be eventually. My tutor says I have a good feel for form. But it’s a five-year course, we’re still on basic sketching and painting. We don’t even get to AV technology until next year, and mood synthesis is another year after that. It’s a drag, but you need to know the fundamentals.”

“So how long have you been at Harkey’s?”

“A couple of months. It’s not bad work, you space industry people tip well, and you’re not a pain like the finance mob. I worked at a bar over in the StPelham for a week. Crapoodle!”

“Have you ever seen Erick Thakrar before? He was sitting at my table, thirtyish, in a blue ship-suit.”

“Yes. He’s been in most nights for a fortnight or so. He’s another good tipper.”

“Do you know where he’s been working?”

“Out in the dock; the Lowndes company, I think. He started a couple of days after he arrived.”

“Which ship did he arrive on?”

“The Shah of Kai.

Joshua opened a channel into Tranquillity’s communication net, and datavised a search request into the Lloyd’s office. The Shah of Kai was a cargo vessel registered to a holding company in the New Californian system. It was an ex-navy transport ship, with a six-gee fusion drive; one hold was equipped with zero-tau pods for a company of marines, and it had proximity-range defence lasers. An asteroid assault craft.

Gotcha, Joshua thought.

“Did you ever meet any of the crew?” he asked.

Helen reappeared in the bedroom archway. She was wearing a long-sleeved net body-stocking, and white suede boots which came halfway up her thighs.

“Tell you later,” she said.

Joshua gave his lips an involuntary lick. “I’ve got a great location file to match that costume, if you want to try it.”

She took a step into the room. “Sure.”

He accessed the sensenviron file, and ordered his neural nanonics to open a channel to Helen. A subliminal flicker crossed his optic nerves. Her sparse apartment gave way to the silk walls of a magnificent desert pavilion. There were tall ferns in brass urns around the entrance, a banquet table along one side was laid out with golden plates and jewelled goblets, and exotic, intricate drapes swung slowly in the warm, dry breeze that blew in from the crimson desert outside. Behind Helen was a curtained-off section, with the silk drawn apart just enough to show them a huge bed with purple sheets and a satin canopy which rose behind the scarlet-tasselled pillows like a sunrise sculpted from fabric.

“Nice,” she said, glancing round.

“It’s where Lawrence of Arabia pleasured his harem back in the eighteenth century. He was some sort of sheik king who fought the Roman Empire. Absolutely guaranteed genuine sensevise recording from old Earth. I got it from a starship captain friend of mine who visited the museum.”


“Yeah. Old Lawrence had about a hundred and fifty wives, so they say.”

“Wow. And he pleasured all of them himself?”

“Oh, yeah, he had to, there was an army of eunuchs to protect them. No other men could get in.”

“Does the magic linger?”

“Wanna find out?”

Ione’s mind encompassed the entirety of Helen Vanham’s bedroom, the photosensitive cells in the bare polyp walls, floor, and ceiling giving her a complete visualization. It was a thousand times more detailed than an AV projection. She could move through the bedroom as if she was there, which in a way she was.

The bed was simply a plump mattress on the floor. Helen lay across it, with a naked Joshua straddling her. He was slowly and deliberately tearing the body-stocking off her.

Interesting,ione observed.

If you say so,tranquillity replied coolly.

Helen’s long booted legs kicked the air behind his back. She was giggling and squealing as more and more strips of her stocking were ripped away.

I don’t mean the sex, though judging by the way he’s turned on I’ll have to try wearing something like that for him myself one day. I was thinking of the way he latched on to Erick Thakrar.

His alleged psychic ability again?

He has had twelve applicants for the post of ship’s general systems engineer so far. All of them legitimate. Yet the minute Erick asked for the berth, he was suspicious. Are you going to maintain it was nothing but luck?

I acknowledge Joshua’s actions do indicate a degree of prescience on his part.

At last! Thank you.

This means you will be going ahead with the zygote extraction, then?

Yes. Unless you have an objection.

I would never object to receiving your child into me, no matter who was the father. It will be our child, too.

And I’ll never know him, she said sadly, not really, just for a few years of his childhood, like I saw Daddy. Sometimes I think our way is too harsh.

I will love him. I will tell him of you when he asks.

Thank you. I shall have other children, though. And I’ll know them.

With Joshua?


What are you going to do about him and Dr Mzu?

Ione sighed in exasperation. The image of Helen’s bedroom rippled away. She glanced round her own study; it was cluttered with dark wooden furniture, centuries old, brought from Kulu by her grandfather. Her whole environment was steeped in history, reminding her who she was, her responsibilities. It was a depressing burden, one which she’d managed to avoid for a long time. But even that would have to end soon.

I’m not going to say anything to him, not now, anyway. Joshua is the seventh captain Mzu has approached in the last five months, she’s just testing the water, seeing what sort of reaction she generates.

She is giving all the Intelligence operatives a bad case of the jitters.

I know. That’s partly my fault. They don’t know what will happen if she tries to leave. There isn’t a Lord of Ruin they can ask, all they have is Daddy’s promise.

And that holds true?

Yes, of course it does. She cannot be allowed to leave. The serjeants must be used to restrain her if she ever attempts it. And if she does get into a ship, you’re going to have to use the strategic defence weapons.

Even if that ship is the Lady Macbeth?

Joshua wouldn’t try to take her out, especially if I asked him not to.

But if he does?

Ione’s fingers curled about the small silver crucifix round her neck. Then you shoot her out of space.

I’m sorry. I can feel the pain in you.

It’s a null situation. He won’t do it. I trust Joshua. Money isn’t his prime motivation. He could have told people I exist. That reporter woman, Kelly Tirrel, she would have paid him a fortune for a scoop like that.

I don’t think he will accept Dr Mzu’s charter, either.

Good. All this is making me think. People do need some kind of reassurance that there is an authority figure behind you. Do you think I’m old enough to start making public appearances yet?

Mentally, you have been mature enough for years. Physically, possibly; you are old enough to face motherhood, after all. Although I think a more suitable mode of attire would help. Image is the paramount issue in your case.

Ione glanced down. She was wearing a pink bikini and a small green beach jacket, ideal for the swim in the cove she took each evening.

I think you may have a point there.

Tranquillity had no blackhawk docking-ledges on its southern endcap. The polyp which made up that hemisphere was twice the usual thickness of the shell so that it could incorporate the massive mineral-digestion organs, as well as several lake-sized hydrocarbon reservoirs. These were the organs which produced the various nutrient fluids circulating in the shell’s vast network of ducts, sustaining the mitosis layer which regenerated the polyp, the starscraper apartment food-secretion glands, the ledge pedestals which fed the visiting blackhawks and voidhawks, as well as various specialist organs responsible for environmental maintenance. Access passages to the outer shell would have been difficult to route through such a tightly packed grouping of titanic viscera.

There was no non-rotational spaceport either. The external hub was taken up by a craterlike maw, fifteen hundred metres in diameter. Its inner surface was lined with tubular cilia, hundred-metre spikes that impaled the asteroidal rubble which ships boosted out of Mirchusko’s inner ring. Once in the maw, the rocks were coated by enzymes ejected from the cilia and broken down into dust and gravel, more manageable chunks which could be ingested and consumed with ease.

The lack of any spaceport outside the endcap, plus the circumfluous salt-water sea lapping around the base on the inside, meant that there was little activity on its curving slopes. The first two kilometres above the coves were terraced like an ancient hill farm, planted with flowering bushes and orchards tended by agronomy servitors. Above the terraces a claggy soil clung to the ever-steepening polyp wall, a vast annular meadow land of thick grasses, whose roots strove to counteract gravity and keep the soil in place. Both grass and soil stopped short three kilometres from the hub, where the polyp was virtually a vertical cliff. Right at the axis, the light-tube emerged, running the entire length of the massive habitat: a cylindrical mesh of organic conductors, their powerful magnetic field containing the fluorescent plasma which brought light and heat to the interior.

Michael Saldana had decided that the quiet, semi-secluded southern endcap would be an ideal site for the research project into the Laymil. Its offices and laboratories now sprawled over two square kilometres of the lower terraces, the largest cluster of buildings inside the habitat, resembling the campus of some wealthy private university.

The project director’s office was on the top floor of the five-storey administration building, a squat, circular pillar of copper-mirror glass ringed with grey stone colonnaded balconies. It sat on the terrace at the back of the campus, five hundred metres above the circumfluous sea, giving it an unsurpassed view of the cycloramic sub-tropical parkland stretching away into misty distance.

The view was something Parker Higgens was immensely proud of, easily the finest in Tranquillity, another fitting perk due to the research project’s eighth director—along with the scrumptious office itself, with its deep-burgundy coloured ossalwood furniture that had come from Kulu in the days before the abdication crisis. Parker Higgens was eighty-five. His appointment had come nine years ago, almost the last act of the Lord of Ruin, and by the grace of God (plus an ancestor wealthy enough to afford some decent geneering) he would keep the post for another nine. He had left actual research behind twenty years ago to concentrate on administration. It was a field he excelled in; building the right teams, massaging mercurial egos, knowing when to push, when to ease off. Genuinely effective scientific administrators were rare, and under his leadership the project had functioned reasonably smoothly, everyone acknowledged that. Parker Higgens liked to keep his world neat and tidy, it was one of his formulas for success, which was why he was particularly shocked to come into work one morning and find a young blonde-haired girl lounging in the deep cushioning of his straight-backed chair behind his desk.

“Who the bloody hell are you?” he shouted. Then he saw the five serjeants standing to attention around the room.

Tranquillity’s serjeants were the habitat’s sole police force, sub-sentient bitek servitors controlled via affinity by the personality, enforcing the law with scrupulous impartiality. They were (intentionally) intimidating humanoids, two metres tall, with a reddish-brown exoskeleton, limb joints encased by segmented rings permitting full articulation. The heads had a sculpted appearance, with eyes concealed in a deep horizontal crease. Their hands were their most human characteristic, with leathery skin replacing the exoskeleton. It meant they could use any artefact built for a human, with emphasis on weapons. Each of them carried a laser pistol and a cortical jammer on their belts, along with restraint cuffs. The belt was their sole article of clothing.

Parker Higgens glanced round dumbly at the serjeants, then back at the girl. She was wearing a very expensive pale blue suit, and her ice-blue eyes conveyed an unnerving impression of depth. Her nose . . . Parker Higgens might have been a bureaucrat, but he wasn’t stupid. “You?” he whispered incredulously.

Ione gave him a faint smile and stood up, extending her hand. “Yes, Mr Director. Me, I’m afraid. Ione Saldana.”

He shook the hand weakly, it was very small and cool in his. There was a signet ring on her finger, a red ruby carved with the Saldana crest: the crowned phoenix. It was the Kulu Crown Prince’s ring, Michael hadn’t bothered to return it to the keeper of the crown jewellery when he was sent into exile. Parker Higgens had last seen it on Maurice Saldana’s finger.

“I’m honoured, ma’am,” Parker Higgens said; he had come very close to blurting: but you’re a girl. “I knew your father, he was an inspiring man.”

“Thank you.” There was no trace of humour on Ione’s face. “I appreciate you’re busy, Mr Director, but I’d like to inspect the project’s major facilities this morning. Then I shall require each division’s senior staff to assemble summaries of their work for a presentation in two days’ time. I have tried to keep abreast of the findings, but remote viewing through Tranquillity’s senses and having them explained in person are two different things.”

Parker Higgens’s whole universe trembled. A review, and like it or not this slip of a girl held the purse strings, the life strings of the research project. What if . . . “Of course, ma’am, I’ll show you round myself.”

Ione started to walk round the desk.

“Ma’am? May I ask what your policy towards the Laymil research project is? Previous Lords of Ruin have been very—

“Relax, Mr Director. My ancestors were quite right: unravelling the Laymil mystery should be given the highest priority.”

The prospect of imminent disaster retreated from his view, like rain-clouds rolling away to reveal the sun. It was going to be all right after all. Almost. A girl! Saldana heirs were always male. “Yes, ma’am!”

The serjeants lined up into an escort squad around Ione. “Come along,” she said, and swept out of the office.

Parker Higgens found his legs racing in an undignified manner to catch up. He wished he could make people jump obediently like that.

There is a third Lord of Ruin.

The news broke thirty-seven seconds after Ione and Parker Higgens walked into the laboratory block housing the Laymil Plant Genetics Division. Everybody who worked for the project was fitted with neural nanonics. So once the instinctive flash of guilt and the accompanying shock of having the director and five serjeants walk in unannounced ten minutes into the working day had worn off, and the introductions began, professors and technicians alike opened channels into the habitat’s communication net. Nearly every datavise began: You’re not going to believe this—

Ione was shown AV projections of Laymil plant genes, sealed propagators with seed shoots worming their way up through the soil, and large fern-analogue plants with scarlet fronds growing in pots, and given small shrivelled black fruits to taste.

After friends, relatives, and colleagues were brought up to speed, it took another fifteen seconds before anyone thought of contacting the news company offices.

Ione and Parker Higgens walked on from the plant genetics laboratory to the Laymil Habitat Structure Analysis office. People were lining the stone path, trampling on the shrubs. Applause and cheers followed her like a wave effect, wolf-whistles were flung boisterously. The serjeants had to gently push aside the more enthusiastic spectators. Ione started to shake hands and wave.

There were five major Confederationwide news companies who maintained offices in Tranquillity, and all of them had been told about Ione’s arrival at the research project campus within ninety seconds of her tour beginning. The disbelieving assistant editor at Collins immediately asked the habitat personality if it was true.

“Yes,” Tranquillity said simply.

The scheduled morning programmes were immediately interrupted to carry the news. Reporters sprinted for tube carriages. Editors frantically opened channels to their contacts in the Laymil project staff, seeking immediate on-the-ground coverage. Datavises became sensevises, relaying optical and auditory nerve inputs directly to the studio. After twelve minutes, eighty per cent of Tranquillity’s residents were hooked in, either watching Ione’s impromptu walkabout on the AV broadcasts, or receiving the sensevise direct through neural nanonics.

It’s a girl, the Lord of Ruin is a girl. God, the Royal Saldanas will go mad over that, there’s not a chance of reconciliation with the Kingdom now.

There were two Kiint working in the physiology laboratory; one of them came into the glass-walled lobby to greet Ione. It was an impressive and moving sight, the slight human girl standing in front of the huge xenoc.

The Kiint was an adult female, icy-white hide glimmering softly in the bright morning light, almost as if she was wearing a halo. She had an oval cross-section body nine metres long, three wide, standing on eight fat elephantlike legs. Her head was as long as Ione was tall, which was slightly intimidating as it reminded her of a primitive shield; a bony, slightly convex, downward pointing triangle with a central vertical ridge which gave it two distinct planes. There were a pair of limpid eyes halfway up, just above a series of six breathing vents, each of which had a furry fringe that undulated with every breath. The pointed base of the head served as her beak, with two smaller hinged sections behind.

Two arm-appendages emerged from the base of her neck, curving round the lower half of her head. They looked almost like featureless tentacles. Then tractamorphic muscles rippled below the skin, and the end of the right arm shaped itself into a human hand.

You are much welcome here, Ione Saldana,the Kiint spoke into her mind.

Kiint could always use the human affinity band, but Edenists had found it almost impossible to sense any form of private Kiint communication. Perhaps they had a true telepathic ability? It was one of the lesser mysteries about the enigmatic xenocs.

Your interest in this research venture does you credit,the kiint continued.

My thanks to you for assisting us,ione replied. I’m told the analysis instruments you have made available here have been an immeasurable help.

How could we refuse your grandfather’s invitation? Foresight such as his is a rare quality among your race.

I would like to speak with you about that sometime.

Of course. But now you must complete your grand progress.there was a note of lofty amusement behind the thought.

The Kiint extended her new-formed hand, and they touched palms briefly. She inclined her massive head in a bow. Murmurs of surprise rippled round the others in the lobby.

Hell, look at that, even the Kiint’s bowled over by her.

After the tour Ione stood alone in one of the orchards outside the campus, surrounded by trees rigorously pruned into mushroom shapes, their branches congested with a fleece of blossom. Petals swirled slowly through the air about her, sprinkling the ankle-length grass with a snowy mantle. She had her back to the habitat, so that the entire interior appeared to curve around her like a pair of emerald waves, their peaks clashing in a long, straight flame of scintillating white light far overhead.

“I want to tell you of the faith I have in everybody who lives in Tranquillity,” she began. “Out of nothing a hundred and seventy-five years ago we have built a society that is respected throughout the Confederation. We are independent, we are virtually crime free, and we are wealthy, both collectively and individually. We can be justifiably proud in that achievement. It was not given to us, it was bought with hard work and sacrifices. And it will continue only by encouraging the industry and enterprise that has generated this wealth. My father and grandfather gave their wholehearted support to the business community, in creating an environment where trade and industry enrich our lives, and allow us to aspire for our children. In Tranquillity, dreams are given a greater than average chance to become real. That you will continue to pursue your dreams is the faith I have in you. To this end I pledge that my reign will be devoted to maintaining the economic, legal, and political environs which have brought us to the enviable position we find ourselves in today and enable us to look forward to the future with courage.”

The image and voice faded from the news studios, along with the aromatic scent of blossom. But not the shy half-smile, that lingered for a long time.

Christ: young, pretty, rich, and smart. How about that!

By the end of the day, Tranquillity had received eighty-four thousand invitations for Ione. She was wanted at parties and dinners, she was asked to give speeches and present prizes, her name was wanted on the board of interstellar companies, designers offered their entire portfolio for her to wear, charities begged her to become their patron. Old friends treated her as though she was a reincarnated messiah. Everyone wanted to be her new friend. And Joshua—Joshua got very grumpy when she spent the first evening reviewing Tranquillity’s summaries of the incredible public reaction rather than spending it in bed with him.

He was also none too happy that Lady Macbeth ’s refit was still a fortnight short of completion. Over the next twenty hours, seventy-five charter flights were organized to carry recordings of Ione around the Confederation. The news company offices were engaged in a ferocious ratings war; they were desperate to break the scoop on as many worlds as possible, as soon as possible. Starship captains cursed their earlier binding contracts to deliver mundane cargoes, and some even broke them. Those that didn’t have immediate contracts named wholly unreasonable prices to the news companies, which were paid without question.

Right across the Confederation, the sensation-hungry devoured Ione, rekindling an avid interest in the black sheep branch of the Saldana family; and even briefly pushing the old Laymil enigma into the limelight again.

Merchants became extremely wealthy on Ione fashions and Ione accessories. Bluesense directors remodelled their female meat to look and feel like her. Mood Fantasy bands composed tracks about her. Even Jezzibella announced she looked cute, and said she’d like to fuck her one day.

The news agencies on Kulu and its Principality worlds treated her appearance as a minor footnote. The royal family didn’t believe in censoring the press, but the court certainly didn’t see her appearance as anything to celebrate. Black-market sensevise recordings of her sold for an absolute fortune right across the Kingdom.

It was one of the abandoned cargo contracts which brought Joshua his first charter two days later.

Roland Frampton was a merchant friend of Barrington Grier, which was how he heard of the Lady Macbeth and how she would be ready to depart in fourteen days.

“When I get my hands on that bastard Captain McDonald I’ll have him broken up for transplant meat,” Roland said angrily. “The Corum Sister won’t get another cargo contract this side of Jupiter, that I do promise.” Joshua sipped his mineral water and nodded sympathetically. Harkey’s Bar didn’t have the same appeal by day, although the term was ambiguous in a starscraper. But people’s biorhythms were in tune with the habitat light-tube; his body knew this was midmorning.

“I paid good rates, you know, not like I was ripping him off. It was a regular run. Now this bloody girl comes along, and everyone goes berserk.”

“Hey, I’m glad we’ve got a Saldana back running things,” Barrington Grier protested. “If she’s half as good as the last two Lords, this place is going to be swinging.”

“Yeah, well, I haven’t got no quarrel with her,” Roland Frampton said hurriedly. “But the way people react.” He shook his head in bemusement. “Did you hear what the news companies were offering captains for the Avon run?”

“Yeah. Meyer and the Udat got the Time Universe charter to Avon,” Joshua said with a grin.

“The point is, Joshua, I’m up shit creek,” Roland Frampton said. “I’ve got my clients screaming for those nanonic medical supplements. There are a lot of wealthy old people in Tranquillity, the medical industry here is big business.”

“I’m sure we can come to an arrangement.”

“Cards on the table, Joshua, I’ll pay you three hundred and fifty thousand fuseodollars for the flight, with an extra seventy thousand bonus if you can get them back here in five weeks from today. After that, I can offer you a regular contract, a flight to Rosenheim every six months. Not to be sneered at, Joshua.”

Joshua glanced at Melvyn Ducharme, who was stirring his coffee idly. He had come to rely a lot on his fusion engineer during Lady Mac ’s refit; he was forty-eight, with over twenty years’ solid starflight experience behind him. The dark-skinned little man gave a small nod.

“OK,” Joshua said. “But you know the score, Roland, the Lady Mac doesn’t leave that bay until I’m happy she’s integrated properly. I’m not rushing it and botching it just for the sake of a seventy-thousand-dollar bonus.”

Roland Frampton gave him an unhappy look. “Sure, Joshua, I appreciate that.”

They shook on it and started to work out details.

Kelly Tirrel arrived twenty minutes later, dropped her bag on the carpet, and sat down with an exaggerated sigh. She called a waitress over and ordered a coffee, then gave Joshua a perfunctory kiss.

“Have you got your contract?” she asked.

“We’re working on it.” He gave the bar a quick scan. Helen Vanham wasn’t anywhere to be seen.

“Good for you. God what a day! My editor’s been having kittens.”

“Ione caught you all on the hop, did she?” Barrington Grier asked.

“And then some,” Kelly admitted. “I’ve been researching for the last fifteen hours without a break, going through the Saldana family history. We’re putting together an hour-long documentary for tonight. Those royals are one bunch of weird people.”

“Are you going to present it?” Joshua asked.

“No chance. Kirstie McShane got it. Bitch. She’s sleeping with the current affairs editor, you know, that’s why. I’ll probably wind up as fashion correspondent or something. If only we’d had some advance warning, I could have prepared, found an angle.”

“Ione wasn’t sure about the timing herself,” he said. “She’s only been thinking about public appearances for the last fortnight.”

There was a murderous silence as Kelly’s head slowly turned to focus on Joshua. “What?”

“Er . . .” He felt as though he’d suddenly been dumped into free fall.

“You know her? You’ve known who she is?”

“Well, sort of, in a way, I suppose, yes. She did mention it.”

Kelly stood up fast, the motion nearly toppling her chair. “Mention it! You SHIT, Joshua Calvert! Ione Saldana is the biggest story to hit the whole Confederation for three years, and you KNEW about it, and you didn’t tell me! You selfish, egotistical, mean-minded, xenoc-buggering bastard! I was sleeping with you, I cared . . .” She clamped her mouth shut and snatched her bag up. “Didn’t that mean anything to you?”

“Of course. It was . . .” He accessed his neural nanonics’ thesaurus file. “Stupendous?”

“Bastard!” She took two paces towards the door then turned round. “And you’re shit-useless in bed, too,” she shouted.

Everyone in Harkey’s Bar was staring at him. He could see a lot of grins forming. He closed his eyes for a moment and let out a resigned sigh. “Women.” He swivelled round in his chair to face Roland Frampton. “About the insurance rates . . .”

The cavern wasn’t like anything Joshua had seen in Tranquillity before. It was roughly hemispherical, about twenty metres across, with the usual level white polyp floor. But the walls’ regularity was broken up by organic protuberances, great cauliflower growths that quivered occasionally as he watched; there were also the tight doughnuts of sphincter muscles. Equipment cabinets, with a medical look, were fused into the polyp; as though they were being extruded, or osmotically absorbed. He couldn’t tell which.

The whole place was so biological. It made him want to squirm.

“What is it?” he asked Ione.

“A clone womb centre.” She pointed to one of the sphincters. “We gestate the servitor housechimps in these ones. All of the habitat’s servitors are sexless, you see, they don’t mate. So Tranquillity has to grow them. We’ve got several varieties of chimps, and the serjeants, of course, then there are some specialist constructs for things like tract repair and light-tube maintenance. There are forty-three separate species in all.”

“Ah. Good.”

“The wombs are plumbed directly into the nutrient ducts, there’s very little hardware needed.”


“I was gestated in here.”

Joshua’s nose wrinkled up. He didn’t like to think about it.

Ione walked over to a waist-high, steel-grey equipment stack standing on the floor. Green and amber LEDs winked at her. There was a cylindrical zero-tau pod recessed into the top, twenty centimetres long, ten wide; its surface resembled a badly tarnished mirror. She used her affinity to load an order into the stack’s bitek processors, and the pod hinged open.

Joshua watched silently as she placed the little sustentator globe inside. His son. Part of him wanted to put a stop to this right now, to have the child born properly, to know him, watch him grow up.

“It is customary to name the child now,” Ione said. “If you want to.”

“Marcus.” His father’s name. He didn’t even have to think about that.

Her sapphire eyes were damp, reflecting the soft pearl light from the electrophorescent strips in the ceiling. “Of course. Marcus Saldana it is, then.”

Joshua’s mouth opened to protest. “Thank you,” he said meekly.

The pod closed and the surface turned black. It didn’t look solid, more like a fissure which had opened into space.

He stared at it for a long time. You just can’t say no to Ione.

She slipped her arm through his and steered him out of the clone womb centre into the corridor outside. “How’s the Lady Macbeth coming along?”

“Not so bad. The Confederation Astronautics Board inspectors have cleared our systems integration. We’re starting to reassemble the hull now, it should be finished in another three days. One final inspection for the spaceworthiness certificate, and we’re away. I’ve got a contract with Roland Frampton to collect some cargo from Rosenheim.”

“That’s good news. So I’ve got you to myself for another four nights.”

He pulled her a bit closer. “Yeah, if you can fit me in between engagements.”

“Oh, I think I might manage to grant you a couple of hours. I’ve got a charity dinner tonight, but I’ll be finished before eleven. Promise.”

“Great. You’ve done beautifully, Ione, really, you just blew them away. They love you out there.”

“And nobody’s packed up and left yet, none of the major companies, nor the plutocrats. That’s my real success.”

“It was that speech you made. Jesus, if there were elections tomorrow you’d be president.”

They reached the tube carriage waiting in the little station. Two serjeants stood aside as the door opened.

Joshua looked at them, then looked into the ten-seater carriage. “Can they wait out here?” he asked innocently.


He leered.

She clung to him tightly afterwards, trembling slightly, their bodies hot and sweaty. He was sitting right on the edge of one of the seats, with her as the clinging vine, legs bent up behind his back. The carriage’s air-conditioning fans made a loud whirring sound as they recycled the unusually humid air.


“Uh huh.” He kissed her neck, hands stroking her buttocks.

“I can’t protect you once you leave.”

“I know.”

“Don’t do anything stupid. Don’t try to beat anything your father did.”

His nose nuzzled the base of her chin. “I won’t. I’m no death wisher.”



She pulled her head back and looked straight into his eyes, trying to make him believe. “Trust your instincts.”

“Hey, I do.”

“Please, Joshua. Not just about objects, people too. Be careful of people.”


“Promise me.”

“I promise.”

He rose up, with Ione still wrapped round his torso. She could feel him getting hard again.

“See those hand hoops?” he asked.

She glanced up. “Yes.”

“Catch hold, and don’t let go.”

She reached up with both hands and gripped a pair of the steel loops on the ceiling. Joshua let go of her, and she yelped. Her toes didn’t quite reach the floor. He stood in front of her, grinning, and gave her a small shove, starting her swinging.

“Joshua!” Ione forked her legs at the top of the arc.

He moved forward, laughing.

Erick Thakrar floated into bay MB 0-330’s control centre towing his bag. He stopped himself with an expert nudge against a grab loop. There was an unusually large number of people grouped round the observation bubble. He recognized all of them, engineers who had worked on the Lady Macbeth ’s refit. All of them had been working long shifts together for the last couple of weeks.

Erick didn’t mind the work, it meant he had won his place on the Lady Macbeth ’s crew. A stiff back and perpetual tiredness was a price worth paying for that. And in another two hours he would be on his way.

The buzz of voices faded away as people became aware of him. A vacant slot around the observation bubble materialized. He steadied himself and looked out.

The cradle had telescoped up out of the bay, taking the Lady Macbeth with it. As he watched, the starship’s thermo-dump panels unfolded from their recesses in the lustreless grey hull. Cradle umbilical couplings withdrew from the rear quarter.

“You are cleared for disconnection,” the bay supervisor datavised. “Bon voyage , Joshua. Take care.”

Orange candle-flames ignited around the Lady Macbeth ’s equator, and the chemical verniers lifted her clear of the cradle with a dexterity only a master pilot could ever achieve.

The engineering team whooped and cheered.


He looked round at the supervisor.

“Joshua says to say sorry, but the Lord of Ruin thinks you’re an arsehole.”

Erick turned back to the empty bay. The cradle was sinking slowly back towards the floor. Blue light washed down as the Lady Macbeth ’s ion thrusters took over from the verniers.

“Son of a bitch,” he muttered numbly.

There were four separate life-support capsules in the Lady Macbeth , twelve-metre spheres grouped together in a pyramid shape at the very heart of the ship. With the expense of fitting them out coming to a minute fraction of the starship’s overall cost, they were well appointed.

Capsules B, C, and D, the lower spheres, were split into four decks apiece, with the two middle levels following a basic layout of cabins, a lounge, galley, and bathroom. The other decks were variously storage compartments, maintenance shops, equipment bays, and airlock chambers for the spaceplane and MSV hangars.

Capsule A housed the bridge, taking up half of the upper middle deck, with consoles and acceleration couches for all six crew-members. Because neural nanonics could interface with the flight computer from anywhere in the ship, it was more of a management office than the traditional command centre, with console screens and AV projectors providing specialist systems displays to back up datavised information.

Lady Macbeth was licensed to carry up to thirty active passengers, or if the cabin bunks were removed and zero-tau pods installed, eighty people travelling in stasis. With only Joshua and five crew on board, there was a luxurious amount of space available. Joshua’s cabin was the largest, taking up a quarter of the bridge deck. He refused to change it from the layout Marcus Calvert had chosen. The chairs were from some luxury passenger ship decommissioned over half a century ago, hinged black-foam sculptures which looked like giant seashells in their folded positions. A bookcase held acceleration-reinforced leather-bound volumes of ancient star charts. An Apollo command module guidance computer (of dubious provenance) was displayed in a transparent bubble. But the major feature, from his point of view, was the free-fall-sex cage, a mesh globe of rubberized struts which deployed from the ceiling. You could bounce around happily inside that without any danger of crashing into inconvenient (and sharp) pieces of furniture or decking. He intended to get into full practice with Sarha Mitcham, the twenty-four-year-old general systems engineer who had taken Erick Thakrar’s place.

Everyone was strapped in their bridge couch when Joshua lifted the Lady Macbeth off bay 0–330’s cradle. He did it with instinctive ease, he did it like a chrysalis opening its wings to the sun, he did it knowing this was what his spiralling DNA had been reconfigured to do.

Flight vectors from the spaceport traffic control centre insinuated their way into his mind, and ion thrusters rolled the ship lazily. He took them out over the edge of the giant disk of girders using the secondary reaction drive, then powered up the three primary fusion drives. The gee-force built rapidly, and they headed up out of Mirchusko’s gravity well towards the green crescent of Falsia, seven hundred thousand kilometres away.

The shakedown flight lasted for fifteen hours. Test programs ran systems checks; the fusion drives were pushed up to producing a brief period of seven-gee thrust, and their plasma was scanned for instabilities; life-support capacity was tested in each capsule. The guidance systems, the sensors, fuel tank slosh baffles, thermal insulation, power circuits, generators . . . the million components that went into making up the starship structure.

Joshua inserted Lady Mac into orbit two hundred kilometres above the craterous lifeless moon while they took a rest for ninety minutes. After a final, formal report confirming overall performance efficiency matched the Confederation Astronautics Board’s requirements, he powered up the fusion drives again, and accelerated back in towards the hazy ochre gas giant.

Adamist starships lacked the flexibility of voidhawks not only in manoeuvrability, but also in their respective methods of faster than light translation. While the bitek craft could tailor their wormholes to produce a terminus at the required location irrespective of their orbit and acceleration vector, ships like the Lady Macbeth jumped along their orbital track without any leeway at all. It was that limitation which cost captains a great deal of time between jumps. The starship had to align itself directly on its target star. In interstellar space it wasn’t so difficult, simply a question of adjusting for natural error. But the initial jump out of a star system had to be as accurate as humanly possible to prevent emergence point inaccuracies from growing out of hand. If a starship was departing an asteroid that was heading away from its next port of call, the captain could spend days reversing his orbit, and the cost in delta-V reserve was horrendous. Most captains simply employed the nearest available planet, giving them the choice of jumping towards any star in the galaxy once every orbit.

Lady Macbeth fell into a circular orbit a hundred and eighty-five thousand kilometres above Mirchusko, a ten-thousand-kilometre safety margin. Gravity distortion prohibited Adamist starships from jumping within a hundred and seventy-five thousand kilometres of gas giants.

The flight computer datavised the vector lines into Joshua’s mind. He saw the vast curved bulk of quarrelling storm bands below, the black cave-lip of the terminator creeping towards him. Lady Mac ’s trajectory was a tube of green neon rings stretching out ahead until they merged into a single thread which looped round behind Mirchusko’s darkside. The green rings swept past the hull at a dizzying velocity.

Rosenheim showed as an insignificant point of white light, bracketed by red graphics, rising above the gas giant.

“Generators on line,” Melvyn Ducharme reported.

“Dahybi?” Joshua asked.

“Patterning circuits are stable,” Dahybi Yadev, their node specialist, said in a calm voice.

“OK, looks like we’re go for a jump.” He ordered the nodes to power up, feeding the generators’ full output into the patterning circuits. Rosenheim was rising higher and higher above the gas giant as Lady Mac raced round her orbit.

Jesus, an actual jump.

According to his neural nanonics physiological monitor program his heart rate was up to a hundred beats a minute and rising. It had been known for some first-time crew-members to panic when the actual moment came, terrified by the thought of the energy loci being desynchronized. All it took was one glitch, one failed monitor program.

Not me! Not this ship.

He datavised the flight computer to pull in the thermo-dump panels and the sensor clusters.

“Nodes fully charged,” Dahybi Yadev said. “She’s all yours, Joshua.”

He had to grin at that. She always had been.

Ion thrusters flickered briefly, fine tuning their trajectory. Rosenheim slid across the vector of green rings, right into the centre. Decimals spun down to zero, tens of seconds, hundredths, thousandths.

Joshua’s command flashed through the patterning nodes at lightspeed. Energy flowed, its density racing to achieve infinity.

An event horizon rose from nowhere to cloak the Lady Macbeth ’s hull. Within five milliseconds it had shrunk to nothing, taking the starship with it.

Erick Thakrar took the StMichelle starscraper’s lift down to the forty-third floor, then got out and walked down two flights of stairs. There was nobody about on the forty-fifth floor vestibule. This was office country, half of them unoccupied; and it was nineteen hundred hours local time.

He walked into the Confederation Navy bureau.

Commander Olsen Neale looked up in surprise when Erick entered his office. “What the hell are you doing here? I thought the Lady Macbeth had departed.”

Erick sat down heavily in the chair in front of Neale’s desk. “She has.” He explained what happened.

Commander Neale rested his head in his hands, frowning. Erick Thakrar was one of half a dozen agents the CNIS was operating in Tranquillity, trying to insert them on independent traders (especially those with antimatter drives) and blackhawks in the hope of getting a lead on pirate activity and antimatter production stations.

“The Lord of Ruin warned Calvert?” Commander Neale asked in a puzzled tone.

“That’s what the maintenance bay supervisor said.”

“Good God, that’s all we need, this Ione girl turning Tranquillity into some kind of anarchistic pirate nation. It might be a blackhawk base, but the Lords of Ruin have always supported the Confederation before.” Commander Neale glanced round the polyp walls, then stared at the AV pillar sticking out of his desk’s processor block, half expecting the personality to contact him and deny the accusation. “Do you think your cover’s blown?”

“I don’t know. The refit team thought it was all a big joke. Apparently Joshua Calvert signed on some girl to replace me. They said she was rather attractive.”

“Well, it certainly fits what we know about him; he could very easily have dumped you for a doxy and a quick leg-over.”

“Then why the reference to the Lord of Ruin?”

“God knows.” He let out a long breath. “I want you to keep trying for a berth on a ship; you’ll find out soon enough if you have been blown. I’m going to put all this on the diplomatic report flek, and let Admiral Aleksandrovich worry about it.”

“Yes, sir.” Erick Thakrar saluted and left.

Commander Neale sat in his chair for a long time, watching the starfield rotate past the window. The prospect of Tranquillity going renegade was horrifying, especially given the one particular status quo it had maintained for twenty-seven years. Eventually he accessed his neural nanonics file on Dr Mzu, and started to check through the circumstances under which he was authorized to have her assassinated.

Chapter 11

Some of the more superstitious amongst Aberdale’s population were heard to say that Marie Skibbow had taken the village’s luck with her when she departed. There was no change in their physical circumstances, but they seemed to suffer a veritable plague of depressing and unfortunate incidents.

Marie had been right about her family’s reaction. After the truth was finally established (Rai Molvi confirmed she boarded the Coogan , Scott Williams confirmed she was loading the thermal furnace when it cast off) Gerald Skibbow’s reaction to what he thought of as his daughter’s betrayal was pure fury. He demanded Powel Manani either chase after the tramp trader on his horse, or use his communication block to have the county sheriff arrest her when the Coogan sailed past Schuster.

Powel politely explained that Marie was now legally an adult, and didn’t have a settlement contract with the LDC, and was therefore free to do as she pleased. Gerald, with Loren weeping quietly at his side, raged at the injustice, then went on to complain bitterly of the incompetence of the LDC’s local representatives. At which point the Ivet supervisor, exhausted from leading the search for Gwyn Lawes after a full day spent in the saddle rounding up stray animals on the savannah, came very close to punching Gerald Skibbow’s lights out. Rai Molvi, Horst Elwes, and Leslie Atcliffe had to pull them apart.

Marie Skibbow’s name was never mentioned again.

The fields and plantations carved out of the jungle at the rear of Aberdale’s clearing were now so large that the vigorous ground creepers which invaded the rotovated soil were growing back almost as fast as they could be chopped up. It was a wearisome task, taxing even the disciplined Ivets. Any further expansion was clearly out of the question until the first batch of crops was firmly established. The more delicate varieties of terrestrial vegetables were struggling laboriously under the never-ending assault from the rain. Even with their geneering, tomatoes, courgettes, lettuce, kale, celeriac, and aubergines laboured upwards, their leaves bent and drooping, yellowing round the edges. One violent storm which left the jungle shrouded in mist for days afterwards scattered half of the village’s chickens, few of which were ever found.

A fortnight after the Coogan departed, another tramp trader, the Louis Leonid , arrived. There was almost a riot at the prices the captain charged; he cast off hurriedly, swearing to warn every boat in the Juliffe basin to avoid the Quallheim tributary in future.

And there were the deaths as well. After Gwyn Lawes there was Roger Chadwick, drowned in the Quallheim, his body discovered a kilometre downriver. Then the terrible tragedy of the Hoffman family: Donnie and Judy, along with their two young teenage children, Angie and Thomas, burnt to death in their savannah homestead one night. It wasn’t until morning when Frank Kava saw the thin pyre of smoke rising from the ashes that the alarm was raised. The bodies were charred beyond recognition. Even a well-equipped pathology lab would have been hard pressed to realize that they had all died from having a hunting laser fired through their eyes at a five-centimetre range.

Horst Elwes pushed the sharpened bottom of the cross thirty centimetres into the sodden black loam, and started to press it in with his boot. He had made the cross himself from mayope wood, not as good as anything Leslie could make, of course, but untainted. He felt that was important for little Angie.

“There’s no proof,” he said as he looked down at the pathetically small oblong mound of earth.

“Ha!” Ruth Hilton said as she handed him Thomas’s cross.

They went over to the boy’s grave. Horst found it very hard to visualize Thomas’s face now. The boy had been thirteen, all smiles, always running everywhere. The cross went in the ground with a sucking sound.

“You said yourself they are Satanists,” Ruth insisted. “And we damn well know those three colonists were murdered back in Durringham.”

“Mugged,” Horst said. “They were mugged.”

“They were murdered.”

The cross had Thomas’s name burnt in crudely with a fission blade. I could have done better than that, Horst thought, it wouldn’t have been much to ask for the poor boy, staying sober while I carved his headmarker.

“Murdered, mugged, it happened in a different world, Ruth. Was there ever really such a place as Earth? They say the past is only a memory. I find it very hard to remember Earth now. Does that mean it’s gone, do you think?”

She looked at him with real concern. He was unshaven, and probably hadn’t been eating properly. The vegetable garden he kept was choked with weeds and vine tendrils. His beefy figure had thinned down considerably. Most people in Aberdale had lost weight since they’d arrived, but they’d built muscle to compensate. Horst’s flesh was starting to hang in folds below his chin. She suspected he’d found another supply of drink since she stood on the end of the jetty and emptied his last three bottles of Scotch into the Quallheim. “Where was Jesus born, Horst? Where did he die for our mortal sins?”

“Oh, very good. Yes, very good indeed. I could train you up as a lay preacher in no time if you’d let me.”

“I have a field to tend. I have chickens and a goat to feed. I have Jay to look after. What are we going to do about the Ivets?”

“Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone.”


“I’m sorry.” He looked mournfully at the cross she was holding.

Ruth thrust it into his hand. “I don’t want them living here. Hell, have you seen the way that little Jason Lawes trots around after Quinn Dexter? He’s like a puppy on a leash.”

“How many of us stop by to look after Rachel and Jason? Oh, we were all such fine neighbours to her for the first week after Gwyn died, ten days even. But now . . . To keep on and on for weeks without end when you have your own family to nurture. People can’t do it, they lack the tenacity. Of course they designate the Ivets to help Rachel. Something is done, and conscience is saved. But I attach no blame for that. This place drains us, Ruth. It turns us inwards, we only have time for ourselves.”

Ruth bit back on what she had heard about Rachel and Quinn Dexter. Hell, poor Gwyn had only been gone five weeks, couldn’t the damn woman wait a little longer? “Where is it going to stop, Horst? Who’s next? Do you know what I dream about? I dream of Jay running round after that super-macho Jackson Gael, or Lawrence Dillon with his pretty face and his dead smile. That’s what I dream. Are you going to tell me I have nothing to worry about, that I’m just paranoid? Six deaths in five weeks. Six accidents in five weeks. We have to do something.”

“I know!” Horst jabbed Judy Hoffman’s cross into the ground. Water oozed up around the edge of the wood. Like blood, he thought, filthy blood.

The jungle steamed softly. It had rained less than an hour ago, and every trunk and leaf was still slick with water. One thick stratum of swan-white mist had formed at waist height. It meant the four Ivets tramping down the animal track could barely see their feet. Fingers of sunlight probing down through the screen of overhead leaves shone out like solid strands of gold in the ultra-humid air. Away in the distance was the tremulous gobbling and cooing of the birds, the chorus they had long since learnt to filter out.

The ground here was rough, distorted by meandering hummocks twice the height of a man. Trees grew out of their sides at slapdash angles, curving upwards, supported by vast buttress roots. Their ash-grey trunks were slender in relation to their height, seldom more than thirty centimetres wide, yet they were all over twenty metres high, crowned by interlaced umbrellas of emerald foliage. Nothing grew on the trunks below. Even the vines and scrub plants around the triangular roots lacked their usual vigour.

“There’s no game here,” Scott Williams said after half an hour of scrambling over interminable hummocks and splashing through the water that pooled around them. “It’s the wrong sort of country.”

“That’s right,” Quinn Dexter said. “No reason for anyone to come this way.” They had started out early that morning, marching down the well-worn path towards the savannah homesteads to the south of Aberdale, a legitimate hunting party, with four borrowed laser rifles and one electromagnetic rifle. Quinn had led them straight down the path for five kilometres, then broke off into the jungle towards the west. He made one sweep each week, the guido block he’d taken from the Hoffmans’ homestead making sure a different area was searched each time.

They had done well from the Hoffmans that night a fortnight ago. Donnie had come to Lalonde well prepared for the rigours of pioneering life. There had been freeze-dried food, tools, medical supplies, several rifles, and two Jovian Bank credit disks. The six Ivets he had led on the night-time mission to the homestead had feasted well before he turned them loose on Judy and the two children.

That had been the first time Quinn had conducted the full ceremony, the dark mass of dedication to God’s Brother. Binding the others to him with the shared corruption. Before that it had been fear which made them obey. Now he owned their souls.

Two of them had been the weakest of the Ivet group, Irley and Scott, disbelievers until lovely Angie was offered to them. The serpent beast had awoken in each of them, as it always did, inflamed by the heat, and chanting, and orange torchlight shining on naked skin. God’s Brother had whispered into their hearts, and shown them the true way of the flesh, the animal way. Temptation had triumphed yet again, and Angie’s cries had carried far across the savannah in the still night air. Since the ceremony they had become Quinn’s most trusted comrades.

It was something Banneth had shown him; the ceremonies were more than simple worship, they had a purpose. If you lived through them, if you committed the rituals, you became part of the sect for ever. There was nobody else after that. You were a pariah, irredeemable; loathed, hated, and rejected by decent society, by the followers of Jesus and Allah.

Soon there would be more ceremonies, and all the Ivets would undergo their initiation.

The ground began to flatten out. The trees were growing closer together now, with thicker undergrowth. Quinn plodded through another stream, boots crunching on the pebbles. He was wearing knee-length green denim shorts and a sleeveless vest of the same material, just right to protect his skin from thorns and twigs. They used to belong to Gwyn Lawes; Rachel had given all his clothes to the Ivets as a thank you for keeping her field free of weeds and creepers. Poor Rachel Lawes was not a well woman these days, she had become very brittle since her husband’s death. She talked to herself and heard the voices of saints. But at night she listened to what Quinn wanted, and did it. Rachel hated Lalonde as much as he did, and she wasn’t alone in the village. Quinn took note of the names she confessed, and ordered the Ivets to ingratiate themselves with the disaffected.

Lawrence Dillon let out an exuberant whoop, and fired off his borrowed laser rifle. Quinn looked up in time to see a vennal shooting through the tops of the trees, the little lizardlike animal flowing like liquid along the high branches, its paws barely touching the bark.

Lawrence fired again. A puff of smoke squirted from a branch where the vennal had been an instant before. “Sheech, but it’s fast.”

“Leave it,” Quinn said. “You’ll only have to carry it the rest of the day. We’ll bag some meat on the way back.”

“OK, Quinn,” Lawrence Dillon said doubtfully. His head was cranked back, shifting from side to side as he squinted upwards. “I’ve lost it, anyway.”

Quinn looked up at where the vennal had been. The nimble tree-dwelling creatures had a blue-green hide which was nearly impossible to distinguish from more than fifteen metres. He switched to infrared, and scanned the treetops of the shadowless red and pink world his retinal implant revealed. The vennal was a bright salmon-pink corona, lying prone along the top of a thick bough, triangular head peering down nervously at them. Quinn turned a complete circle.

“I want you to put your weapons down,” he said.

The others gave him puzzled glances. “Quinn—”

“Now.” He unslung his laser rifle, and laid it on the wet grass. It was a tribute to his authority that the others did as they were told without any further protest.

Quinn spread his hands, palms open. “Satisfied?” he demanded.

The chameleon suit lost its bark pattern, reverting to a dark grey.

Lawrence Dillon took a pace backwards in surprise. “Shit. I never saw him.”

Quinn only laughed.

The man was standing with his back pressed against a qualtook tree eight metres away. He pulled the hood back revealing a round forty-year-old face with a steep chin and light grey eyes.

“Morning,” Quinn said in a jaunty tone. He had been expecting someone different, someone with Banneth’s brand of lashed-up mania; this man seemed to have no presence at all. “You’ve taken my advice, then? Very wise.”

“Tell me why you should not be eliminated,” the man said.

Quinn thought his voice sounded as though it had been synthesized by a processor block, completely neutral. “Because you don’t know who I’ve told, or what I’ve told them. That makes me safe. If you could go around snuffing out entire villages whenever your security had been compromised, you wouldn’t be stashed away here. Now would you?”

“What do you want to talk about?”

“I won’t know that until I see what you’ve got. For a start, who are you?”

“This body’s name is Clive Jenson.”

“What have you done to him, put in a persona sequestrator nanonic?”

“Not quite, but the situation is similar.”

“So, are you ready to talk now?”

“I will listen.” The man beckoned. “You will come with me, the others will remain here.”

“Hey, no way,” Jackson Gael said.

Quinn held his hands up. “It’s OK, it’s cool. Stay here for three hours, then go back to Aberdale whether I’m back or not.” He checked the coordinate on the guido block, and started walking after the man in the chameleon suit whose name used to be Clive Jenson.

After six weeks’ travelling and trading the Coogan was approaching the end of its voyage. Marie Skibbow knew they were within days of Durringham even though Len Buchannan had said nothing. She recognized the lying villages again; the white-painted slat walls of the trim houses, neat gardens, the pastoral fantasy. The Juliffe was coffee brown again, running eagerly towards the freedom of the ocean that couldn’t be far away now. She could see the Hultain Marsh squatting on the north shore when the wavelets weren’t riding too high, a dismal snarl of mouldy vegetation sending out eye-smarting streamers of brimstone gases. Big paddlecraft similar to the Swithland were churning their way upriver, leaving a foamy wake behind them. Fresh colonists gazed out at the shoreline with wonder and desire animating their faces, and children raced round the decks laughing and giggling.

Fools. All of them, utter fools.

The Coogan was stopping at fewer and fewer jetties now. Their original stocks were almost depleted, the tramp trader riding half a metre higher in the water. The balance in Len Buchannan’s Jovian Bank credit disk had grown in proportion. Now he was buying cured meat to sell in the city.

“Stop loading,” Len shouted at her from the wheel-house. “We’re putting ashore here.”

The Coogan ’s blunt prow turned a couple of degrees, aiming for a jetty below a row of large wooden warehouses. There were several cylindrical grain silos to one side. Power bikes bumped along the dirt tracks winding round the houses. The village was a wealthy one. The kind Marie thought Group Seven was heading for, the kind that had tricked her.

She abandoned the logs she was loading into the hopper, and straightened her back. Weeks spent cutting up timber with a fission saw then feeding the hopper in all weathers had given her the kind of muscles she’d never got from the gym at the arcology’s day centre. She had lost almost two centimetres from her waist, her old shorts didn’t cling anything like the way they used to.

Thin smoke from the furnace’s leaky iron stack made her eyes water. She blinked furiously, staring at the village they were approaching, then ahead to the west. She made up her mind, and walked forward.

Gail Buchannan was sitting at the side of the wheelhouse, her scraggly hair tied back, coolie hat casting a shadow over her knitting needles. She had knitted and sewed her way down the whole length of the river from Aberdale.

“Where do you think you’re going, lovie?” the huge woman asked.

“My cabin.”

“Well, you make sure you get back out here in time to help my Lennie with the mooring. I’m not having you slacking off while he has work to do. I’ve never known anyone as lazy as you. My poor husband works like a mechanoid to keep us afloat.”

Marie ignored the obloquy and brushed past her, ducking down into the cabin. She had turned a corner of the cargo hold into a little nest of her own, sleeping on a length of shelving at nights after Len had finished with her. The wood was hard, and she’d repeatedly knocked her head on the frame during the first week until she got used to the confined space; but there was no way she was going to spend the night lying in his embrace.

She stripped off the colourless dungarees she used on deck, and pulled a clean bra and a T-shirt from her bag where they had lain throughout the voyage. Feeling the smooth synthetic fabric snug against her skin brought back memories of Earth and the arcology. Her world, where there was life and a future, where Govcentral gave away didactic courses, and people had proper jobs, and went to clubs, and had a thousand sensevise entertainment channels to choose from, and the vac trains could take you to the other side of the planet in six hours. Black tropical-weave jeans with a leathery look finished the change. It was like wearing civilization. She picked up the shoulder-bag, and went forwards.

Gail Buchannan was hollering for her as she slid the bolt on the toilet door. The toilet itself was just a wooden box (built from mayope so it could take Gail’s weight) with a hole in the top; there was a stack of big vine leaves to wipe with. Marie knelt down and prised the bottom plank off the front of the box. The river gurgled by a metre below. Her two packets were hanging below the decking, tied into place with silicon-fibre fishing-line. She cut the fibre with a pocket fission blade and stuffed the two polythene-wrapped bundles into her shoulder-bag. They were mostly medical nanonic packages, the highest value-for-weight-ratio items the Coogan carried; she’d also included some personal MF players, a couple of processor blocks, small power tools. A hoard that had been steadily built up over the voyage. The shoulder-bag’s seal barely closed around them.

Gail’s voice was reaching hysteria pitch by the time Marie got back to the galley and gave a last look round the wooden cell where she had spent an eternity cooking and cleaning. She took down the big brown clay pot of mixed herbs, and tugged out a thick wad of Lalonde francs. It was only one of the various bundles Gail had secreted around the tramp trader. She stuffed the crisp plastic notes into a rear pocket, then, on impulse, picked up a match before she went out on deck.

The Coogan had already pulled up next to the jetty and Len Buchannan was busy tying one of the cables to a bollard. Gail’s face had turned a thunderous purple below her coolie hat.

She took in Marie’s appearance with one flabbergasted look. “What the hell do you think you’re doing dressed like that, you little strumpet? You’ve got to give Lennie a hand loading the meat. My poor Lennie can’t shift all those heavy carcasses by himself. And where the hell do you think you’re going with that bag? And what have you got in it?”

Marie smiled her lazy smile, the one her father always called intolerably indolent. She struck the match on the cabin wall.

Both of them watched the phosphorus tip splutter into life, the yellow flame biting into the splinter of wood, eating its way along towards her fingers. Gail’s mouth dropped open as realization dawned.

“Goodbye,” she said brightly. “It’s been so nice knowing you.” She dropped the match into the sewing box at Gail’s feet.

Gail screeched in panic as the match disappeared under her scraps of cotton and lace. Bright orange flames licked upwards.

Marie marched off down the jetty. Len was standing by the bollard ahead of her, a length of silicon-fibre rope coiled in his hands.

“You’re leaving,” he said.

Gail was shouting a tirade of obscenities and threats after her. There was a loud splash as the precious sewing box hit the water.

Marie couldn’t manage the blasé expression she wanted. Not in front of him. There was a curious look of dismay on the skinny old man’s face.

“Don’t go,” he said. It was a plea, she’d never heard his voice so whiny before.

“Why? Was there something you didn’t have? Something you forgot to try out?” Her voice came close to breaking.

“I’ll get rid of her,” he said desperately.

“For me?”

“You’re beautiful, Marie.”

“Is that it? All you’ve got to say to me?”

“Yes. I thought . . . I never hurt you. Never once.”

“And you want it to go on? Is that what you want, Len? The two of us sailing up and down the Juliffe for the rest of our days?”

“Please, Marie. I hate her. I want you, not her.”

She stood ten centimetres away from him, smelling the fruit he’d eaten that morning on his breath. “Is that so?”

“I have money. You would live like a princess, I promise.”

“Money is nothing. I would have to be loved. I could give everything of myself to a man who loved me. Do you love me, Len? Do you really love me?”

“I do, Marie. God, I do. Please. Come with me!”

She ran a finger along his chin. Tears were welling up in his eyes.

“Then kill yourself, Len,” she whispered thickly. “For she is all you have. She is all you’ll ever have. For the rest of your life, Len, you’re going to live with the knowledge that I am always beyond you.”

She waited until his tragi-hopeful face crumpled in utter mortification, then laughed. It was so much more satisfactory than kneeing him in the balls.

There was a wagon loaded with silage trundling along the main dirt track, heading west. A fourteen-year-old boy in dungarees was driving it, giving occasional flicks on the big shire-horse’s reins. Marie stuck out her thumb, and he nodded eagerly, overawed eyes goggling at her. She clambered aboard while it was still moving.

“How far to Durringham?” she asked.

“Fifty kilometres. But I’m not going that far, just to Mepal.”

“That’ll do for a start.” She sat back on the hard wooden plank seat, the jolting wheels rocking her gently from side to side. The sun was boiling, the swaying was uncomfortable, the horse stank. She felt wonderful.

The gigantea was over seven thousand years old when Laton and his small band of followers arrived on Lalonde. It was set on a small rise in the land, which pushed its three-hundred-metre-plus length even further above the surrounding jungle. Storms had frayed and broken the tip, resulting in a bulbous knot of snarled twigs with tufts of leaves sticking out at odd angles. Birds had turned this malformed pinnacle into a voluminous eyrie, pecking away at it over the centuries until it was riddled with a warren of holes.

When it rained, water would clog in the gigantea’s thick fuzzy leaves, their weight pushing the downward-sloping boughs even closer towards the fat bole. Then for hours afterwards droplets would sprinkle down, drying the gigantea out from the top, the boughs slowly rising again. Standing on the ground below was like standing under a small, powerful waterfall. The last traces of soil had been washed away from under the boughs several millennia ago. All that remained was a solid undulating tangle of roots, extending outwards for a hundred metres, slimed like seaside rocks at low tide.

Laton’s blackhawk had brought him to Lalonde in 2575. At that time there were less than a hundred people on the planet, a caretaker squad looking after the landing site camp. The ecological assessment team had completed their analysis and left; the Confederation inspection team wasn’t due for another year. He had obtained a classified copy of the company report; the planet was habitable, it would gain the Confederation’s certification. There would be colonists eventually; dirt poor, ignorant, without any advanced technology. Given his own particular designs on the future, it would be a perfect culture to infiltrate.

They had landed in the mountains on Amarisk’s eastern side, twenty humans and seven landcruisers loaded with enough luxuries to make exile bearable, along with more essential stocks: small cybernetic manufacturing systems, and his genetics equipment. He also had the blackhawk’s nine eggs, removed from its ovaries and stored in zero-tau. The blackhawk was sent to oblivion in the fierce blue-white star; and the little convoy started to batter its way through the jungle. It took them two days to reach the tributary river which would one day be called the Quallheim. Three days’ sailing (the landcruisers had amphibious fuselages) brought them to Schuster County, a territory where the soil was deep enough to support the giganteas. Jungle again, and half a day later he found what must surely be the largest gigantea specimen on the continent.

“This will do,” he told his fellowship. “In fact, I think it is rather appropriate.”

The branches were still shedding their weight of water from the earlier rain when Clive Jenson led Quinn Dexter onto the slippery coils of the gigantea’s roots. There was a perpetual twilight under the huge shaggy boughs. Water pattered down, forming runnels that gurgled and sucked their way around the intestinal tangle below his feet.

Quinn resisted the impulse to hunch his shoulders against the big drops splashing on his head. Spores or sap—something organic—had curdled with the water, making it tacky. It was cool in the shade, the coolest he’d ever been on Lalonde.

They neared the colossal bole. The roots began to curve up to the vertical, wooden waves crashing against a wooden cliff. Between the thick cords were dark anfractuous clefts five times his height, tapering away to knife-thin fissures. Clive Jenson stepped into one. Quinn watched him disappear round a curve, then shrugged and followed him in.

After five metres the floor became level and the walls widened out to a couple of metres, the coarse mat of fibre which passed for the gigantea’s bark giving way to smooth bare wood. Carved, he realized. God’s Brother, he’s cut his home into the tree. How much effort has gone into this?

There was a glimmer of light up ahead. He walked round an S-bend, and into a brightly lit room. It was fifteen metres long, ten wide, perfectly ordinary except for the lack of windows. Pegs on one wall held a row of dark green cagoules. Gigantea wood was a pale walnut colour, with a widely spaced grain, making it look as though the walls were built from exceptionally broad planks. There was a desk, like a long bar, running down one side, that had been carved from a single block. A woman stood at the far end of it, watching him impassively.

Quinn broke into a slow grin. She looked about twenty-five, taller than him, with black skin and long chestnut hair, a petite button nose. Her sleeveless amber blouse and white culottes showed off a full figure.

A flicker of distaste crossed her face. “Don’t be disgusting, Dexter.”

“What? I never said a word.”

“You didn’t have to. I’d sooner screw a servitor housechimp.”

“Do I get to watch?”

Her expression intensified. “Stand still, don’t move, or I’ll have Clive dissect you.” She picked a sensor wand off the desk.

Still grinning, Quinn lifted his arms out, and let her run the wand around him. Clive stood to attention a couple of metres away, perfectly still, as if he was a mechanoid construct that had been switched off. Quinn tried not to let it show how much that bothered him.

“So how long have you been here?” he asked.

“Long enough.”

“What do I call you?”


“OK, Camilla, that’s cool. So what’s the story here?”

“I’ll let Laton tell you.” Her tongue was pushed into her cheek. “That’s if he doesn’t just decide to incorporate you like Clive here.”

Quinn threw a glance at the stationary man. “One of the colonists from the Schuster homesteads?”

“That’s right.”


“Your heart rate is high, Dexter. Worried about something?”

“No. Are you?”

She put the wand back on the desk. “You can see Laton now. You’re no danger; two implants and a whole load of attitude.”

He flinched at the mention of implants. There went his last advantage, tiny though it had been. “Got me this far, hasn’t it?”

Camilla started to walk towards the door. “Getting in is the easy part.”

There was a broad spiral staircase leading up through the bole. Quinn caught glimpses of corridors and rooms. A whole level was given over to a large pool-cum-spa. Steam was thick in the air, men and women were lounging about in the water or on various ledges; one was lying flat on a slab being given a massage by a middle-aged woman with an empty expression he was beginning to recognize. He realized what was missing: some people were laughing, but nobody was talking. Servitor housechimps scurried down corridors on mysterious errands; they were about a metre and a half tall, walking with an almost human gait, their golden fur well groomed. When he looked closely he saw they had proper feet rather than the paws of their Earth-jungle ancestors.

God’s Brother, those are Edenist constructs. What the fuck is this?

Camilla took him down a corridor that looked no different to any other. A door opened soundlessly, a thick wooden rectangle with some kind of synthetic muscle as a hinge.

“Lion’s den, Dexter; in you go.”

The door closed as silently as it had opened. Inside was a large circular space with a vaulted ceiling. The furniture was a severe minimalist style: a glass-topped desk with metal legs, a dining table, also glass topped, two settees facing each other; every piece arranged to put a maximum amount of distance between them. One section of the wall was a vast holographic screen with a view of the jungle outside. The camera was well above the treetops, showing an unbroken expanse of leaves; steamy scraps of cloud drifted in meandering patterns. An iron perch, three metres high, stood in the centre of the room. On it was the kestrel, watching him intently. Two people were waiting, a man seated behind the desk and a young girl standing beside the settees.

Laton rose from behind the desk. He was one of the tallest men Quinn had ever seen; well muscled, with cinnamon-coloured skin, looking like a tan rather than natural pigmentation, a handsome, vaguely Asian face with deep-set grey-green eyes and a neat beard, ebony hair tied back in a small pony-tail. He wore a simple green silk robe, belted at the waist. His age was indeterminable, over thirty, less than a hundred. That he was the product of geneering was in no doubt.

This was the presence Quinn had looked for when Clive Jenson had pulled off his chameleon-suit hood. The invincible self-assurance, a man who inspired devotion.

“Quinn Dexter, you’ve caused quite a stir among my colleagues. We have very few visitors, as you can imagine. Do sit down.” Laton gestured to a royal-purple settee where the girl was waiting. “Can we get you anything while you’re here? A decent drink? A proper meal, perhaps? Dear old Aberdale isn’t exactly flowing with milk and honey yet.”

Quinn’s instinct was to refuse, but the offer was too tempting. So bollocks if it made him look grasping and inferior. “A steak, medium rare, with chips and a side salad, no mustard. And a glass of milk. Never thought I’d miss milk.” He gave Laton what he hoped was a phlegmatic smile as the big man sat down on the settee opposite. Out-cooling him was going to be a major problem.

“Certainly, I think we can manage that. We use starscraper food-secretion glands, modified to work from the gigantea’s sap. The taste is quite passable.” Laton raised his voice a degree. “Anname, see to that, would you, please.”

The girl gave a slight, uncertain bow. She must have been about twelve or thirteen, Quinn thought, with thick blonde hair coming down below her shoulders and pale Nordic skin; her lashes were almost invisible. Her light blue eyes put Quinn in mind of Gwyn Lawes in the moments before his death. Anname was one very badly frightened little girl.

“Another member of the missing homestead families?” Quinn guessed.


“And you haven’t incorporated her?”

“She’s given me no reason to. The adult males are useful for various labour-intensive tasks, which is why I kept them on; but the young boys I had no requirement for at all, so they were stored for transplant material.”

“And what were your requirements?”

“Ovaries, basically. I didn’t have a sufficient quantity for the next stage of my project. It was a situation which the homestead females were fortunately able to rectify for me. We have enough suspension tanks here to maintain their Fallopian tubes in a fully functional state, thus ensuring they keep dropping their precious little gifts into my palm each month. Anname hasn’t quite matured enough for that yet. And seeing as how organs never really prosper in tanks, we allow her to run around the place until she’s ready. Some of my companions have become quite fond of her. I even confess to finding her moderately tolerable myself.”

Anname flashed him a glance of pure terror before the door opened and let her out.

“There’s a lot of bitek at work here,” Quinn said. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were an Edenist.”

Laton frowned. “Oh dear. My name doesn’t register amongst your memories, then?”

“No. Should it?”

“Alas, such is fame. Fleeting at best. Of course, I did achieve my notoriety a considerable number of years before you were born, so I suppose it’s to be expected.”

“What did you do?”

“There was an irregularity concerning a quantity of antimatter, and a proteanic virus which damaged my habitat’s personality rather badly. I’m afraid I released it before the replicant code RNA transfer was perfected.”

“Your habitat? Then you are an Edenist?”

“Wrong tense. I was an Edenist, yes.”

“But you’re all affinity bonded. None of you breaks the law. You can’t.”

“Ah, there, I’m afraid, my young friend, you are a victim of popular prejudice, not to mention some rather sickly propaganda on Jupiter’s behalf. There aren’t many of us; but believe me, not everybody born an Edenist dies an Edenist. Some of us rebel, we shut off that cacophony of nobility and unity that vomits into our minds every living second. We regain our individuality, and our mental freedom. And more often than not, we choose to pursue our independent course through life. Our ex-peers refer to us as Serpents.” He gave an ironic smile. “Naturally they don’t like to admit we exist. In fact they go to rather tedious lengths to track us down. Hence my current position.”

“Serpents,” Quinn whispered. “That’s what all men are. That’s what God’s Brother teaches us. Everyone is a beast in their heart, it is the strongest part of us, and so we fear it the most. But if you find the courage to let it rule, you can never be beaten. I just never thought an Edenist could free his beast.”

“Interesting linguistic coincidence,” Laton murmured.

Quinn leaned forwards. “Don’t you see, we’re the same, you and me. We both walk the same path. We are brothers.”

“Quinn Dexter, you and I share certain qualities; but understand this, you became a waster kid, and from that a Light Brother sect member, because of social conditions. That sect was your only route away from mediocrity. I chose to be what I am only after a careful review of the alternatives. And the one thing I retain from my Edenist past is complete atheism.”

“That’s it! You said it. Shit, both of us told ordinary life to go fuck itself. We follow God’s Brother in our own way, but we both follow him.”

Laton raised an exasperated eyebrow. “I can see this is a pointless argument. What did you want to talk to me about?”

“I want your help to subdue Aberdale.”

“Why should I want to do that?”

“Because I’ll turn it over to you afterwards.”

Laton looked blank for a second, then inclined his head in understanding. “Of course, the money. I wondered what you wanted the money for. You don’t want to be Aberdale’s feudal lord, you intend to leave Lalonde altogether.”

“Yeah, on the first starship I can buy passage on. If I can get down to Durringham before any alarm gets out, then I can use one of the villagers’ Jovian Bank credit disks without any trouble. And with you in charge back here there wouldn’t be no alarm.”

“What about your Ivet friends, the ones you seem to be busy baptizing in blood?”

“Fuck ’em. I want out. I got business back on Earth, serious business.”

“I’m sure you have.”

“How about it? We could work it together. Me and the Ivets could round up the women and children during the day when the men are out hunting and farming, use ’em as hostages. Get ’em all into the hall and take their guns away. Once the men are disarmed, it’ll be no problem for you to incorporate ’em all. Then you just make ’em live like they do now. Anyone turns up later, Aberdale is just another crappy colonist village full of arse scratchers. I get what I want, which is out of here , and you get plenty of warm bods; plus there’s no more security risk of someone stumbling on this wood palace and shouting to Durringham about it.”

“I think you’re overestimating my ability.”

“No way. Not now I’ve seen what you’ve got. This incorporation gimmick has got to be like persona sequestration. You could run a whole arcology with that technology.”

“Yes, but the bitek regulators we implant would have to be grown first. I don’t have them in store, certainly not five hundred and fifty of them. It all takes time.”

“So? I ain’t going anywhere.”

“No, indeed. And of course, were I to agree, you would make no mention of me once you returned to Earth?”

“I’m no squeal. One of the reasons I’m here.”

Laton eased back onto his settee and gave Quinn a long thoughtful look. “Very well. Now let me make you an offer. Leave Aberdale and join me. I can always use someone with your nerve.”

Quinn let his gaze wander round the big vacuous room. “How long have you been here?”

“In the region of thirty-five years.”

“I figured something like that; you couldn’t have landed after the colonists arrived, not if you’re as well known as you say you are. Thirty-five years living in a tree without any windows, I gotta tell you, it ain’t me. In any case, I ain’t no Edenist, I don’t have this affinity trick to control the bitek.”

“That can be rectified, you can use neuron symbionts just like your friend Powel Manani. More than a third of my colleagues are Adamists, the rest are my children. You’d fit in. You see, I can give you what you want most.”

“I want Banneth, and she’s three hundred light-years away. You ain’t got her to give.”

“I meant, Quinn Dexter, what you really want. What all of us want.”

“Oh, yeah? What?”

“A form of immortality.”

“Bullshit. Even I know that ain’t on. The best the Saldanas can do is a couple of centuries, and that’s with all their money and genetic research teams.”

“That’s because they are going about it the wrong way. The Adamist way.”

Quinn hated the way he was being drawn into this conversation. It wasn’t what he wanted, he’d seen himself making his pitch on how to subdue Aberdale, and the boss-man seeing the sense of it. Now he was having to think about freaky ideas like living for ever, and trying to make up an excuse why he didn’t want to. Which was stupid because he did. But Laton couldn’t possibly have it to offer anyway. Except this was a very high-technology operation, and he was using the girls for some kind of biological experiment. God’s Brother, but Laton was a smooth one. “So what’s your way?” he asked reluctantly.

“A combination of affinity and parallel thought-processes. You know Edenists transfer their memories into their habitat’s neural cells when they die?”

“I’d heard about it, yeah.”

“That’s a form of immortality, although I consider it somewhat unsatisfactory. Identity fades after a few centuries. The will to live, if you like, is lost. Understandable, really, there are no human activities to maintain the spark of vitality which goads us on, all that’s left is observation, living your life through your descendants’ achievements. Hardly inspiring. So I began to explore the option of simply transferring my memories into a fresh body. There are several immediate problems which prevent a direct transfer. Firstly you require an empty brain capable of storing an adult’s memories. An infant brain would be empty, but the capacity to retain an adult personality, the century and a half of accumulated memories that go towards making us who we are, that simply isn’t there. So I began looking at the neuron structure to see if it could be improved. It’s not an area that’s been well researched. Brain size has been increased to provide a memory capacity capable of seeing you through a century and a half, and IQ has been raised a few points, but the actual structure is something the geneticists have left alone. I started to examine the idea of human parallel thought-processing, just like the Edenist habitats. They can hold a million conversations at once, as well as regulating their environment, acting as an administrative executive, and a thousand other functions, although they have only the one consciousness. Yet we poor mortal humans can only ever think about or do one thing at a time. I sought to reprofile a neural network so that it could conduct several operations simultaneously. That was the key. I realized that as there was no limit to the number of operations which could be conducted, you could even have multiple independent units, bonded by affinity, and sharing a single identity. That way, when one dies, there is no identity loss, the consciousness remains intact and a new unit is grown to replace it.”

“Unit?” Quinn said heavily. “You mean a person?”

“I mean a human body with a modified brain, bonded to any number of cloned replicas via affinity. That is the project to which I have devoted my energies here in this exile. With some considerable degree of success, I might add, despite the difficulties of isolation. A parallel-processing brain has been designed, and my colleagues are currently sequencing it into my germ plasm’s DNA. After that, my clones will be grown in exowombs. Our thoughts will be linked right from the moment of conception, they will feel what I feel, see what I see. My personality will reside in each of us equally, a homogenized presence. Ultimately, this original body will wither away to nothing, but I shall remain. Death shall become a thing of the past for me. Death will die. I intend to spread out through this world until its resources belong to me, its industries and its population. Then a new form of human society will take shape, one which is not governed by the blind overwhelming biological imperative to reproduce. We shall be more ordered, more deliberate. Ultimately I envisage incorporating bitek constructs into myself; as well as human bodies I will be starships and habitats. Life without temporal limit nor physical restriction. I shall transcend, Quinn; isn’t that a dream worth chasing? And now I offer it to you. The homestead girls can provide enough ova for all of us to be cloned. Modifying your DNA is a simple matter, and each of your clones will breed true. You can join us, Quinn, you can live for ever. You can even deal with this Banneth person; ten of you, twenty, an army of your mirrorselves can descend on her arcology to effect your revenge. Now doesn’t that appeal, Quinn? Hasn’t that got more style than rushing round a jungle at night carving people’s guts out for a few thousand fuseodollars?”

Sheer willpower kept Quinn’s face composed into an indifferent mask. He wished he had never come, wished he had never figured out the kestrel. God’s Brother, how he wished. Banneth was nothing compared to this crazo, Banneth was pure reasoned sanity. Yet all the shit Laton sprouted had a terrible logic, drawing him in like the dance of the black widow. Telling him he could be immortal was the same trick he had used against the Ivets, but with such demonic panache, blooding him in conspiracy, making sure there was no turning back. He knew Laton would never let him get to Durringham’s spaceport, let alone reach an orbiting starship. Not now, not with him knowing. The only way out of this tree—this room!—with his brain still his own was by agreeing. And it was going to have to be the most convincing agreement he had ever made in his life.

“This spreading your mind around gimmick, would I have to give up my belief?” he asked.

Laton gave him a thin smile. “Your belief would be amplified, safeguarded against loss in your multiple units, and carried down the centuries. You could even step out of the shadows to exhort your belief. What difference would it make if individual units were flung in jail or executed? The you that is you would remain.”

“And sex, I’d still have sex, wouldn’t I?”

“Yes, with one small difference, every gene would be dominant. Every child you sired would be another of your units.”

“How far along are you with this parallel-processor brain? Have you actually grown one to see if it works?”

“A numerical simulacrum has been run through a bitek processor array. The analysis program proved its validity. It’s a standard technique; the one Edenist geneticists used to design the voidhawks. They work, don’t they?”

“Sure. Look, I’m interested. I can hardly deny that. God’s Brother, living for ever, who wouldn’t want it? Tell you what, I won’t make any move to get back to Earth until after these clones of yours have popped out the exowombs. If they check out as good as you say, I’ll be with you like a shot. If not, we’ll review where we stand. Fuck, I don’t mind waiting around a few years if that’s what it takes to perfect it.”

“Commendable prudence,” Laton purred.

“Meantime, it’d be a good idea to bugger up Supervisor Manani’s communicator block. For both our sakes. However it turns out, neither of us wants the villagers shouting to the capital for help. Can you let me have a flek loaded with some kind of processor-buster virus? If I just smash it, he’s gonna know it’s me.”

Anname walked in carrying a tray with Quinn’s steak, and a half-litre glass of milk. She put it down on Quinn’s lap, and glanced hesitantly at Laton.

“No, my dear,” Laton told her. “This is definitely not St George come to spirit you away from my fire-breathing self.”

She sniffed hard, cheeks reddening.

Quinn grinned wolfishly at her round a mouthful of steak.

“I think I can live with that arrangement,” Laton said. “I’ll have one of my people prepare a flek for you before you go.”

Quinn slurped some of his milk, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Great.”

There was something wrong with Aberdale’s church. Only half of the pews had ever been built and installed, though Horst Elwes occasionally worked on the planks of planed wood the Ivets had cut ready for the remainder. He doubted the three pews he had already assembled in the occasional bouts of shame-induced activity would take the weight of more than four people. But the roof didn’t leak, there was the familiarity of hymn books and vestments, the paraphernalia of worship, and he had a vast collection of devotional music on fleks which the audio-player block projected across the building. For all its deviant inception, it still symbolized a form of hope. Of late, it had become his refuge. Hallowed ground or not, and Horst wasn’t stupid enough to think that was any form of protection, the Ivets never came inside.

But something had.

Horst stood in front of the bench which served as an altar, hair on his arms pricked up as though he was standing in some kind of massive static stream. There was a presence in the church, ethereal yet with an almost brutal strength. He could feel it watching him. He could feel age almost beyond comprehension. The first time Horst had seen a gigantea he had spent over an hour just looking up at it in stupefaction, a living thing that had been old when Christ walked the Earth. But the gigantea was nothing compared to this, the tree was a mere infant. Age, real age, was a fearful thing.

Horst didn’t believe in ghosts. Besides, the presence was too real for that. It enervated the church, absorbing what scant ration of divinity had once existed.

“What are you?” he whispered to the gentle breeze. Night was falling outside, waving treetops cast a jagged sable-black silhouette against the gold-pink sky. The men were returning from the fields, sweaty and tired, but smiling. Voices carried through the clearing. Aberdale was so peaceful, it looked like everything he had wanted when he left Earth.

“What are you?” Horst demanded. “This is a church, a house of God. I will have no sacrilege committed here. Only those who truly repent are welcome.”

For a giddy moment his thoughts were rushing headlong through empty space. The velocity was terrifying. He yelled in shock, there was nothing around him, no body, no stars. This was what he imagined the null-dimension that existed outside a starship would look like while it jumped.

Abruptly, he was back in the church. A small ruby star burnt in the air a couple of metres in front of him.

He stared at it in shock, then giggled. “Twinkle twinkle, little star. How I wonder what you are.”

The star vanished.

His laughter turned to a strangled pule. He fled out into the dusky clearing, stumbling through the soft loam of his vegetable garden, heedless of the shabby plants he trampled.

It was his singing which drew the villagers a few hours later. He was sitting on the jetty with a bottle of home-brew vodka. The group that had gathered looked down at him with contempt.

“Demons!” Horst shouted when Powel Manani and a couple of the others pulled him to his feet. “They’ve only gone and summoned bloody demons here.”

Ruth gave him one disgusted glance, and stalked off back to her cabin.

Horst was dragged back to his cot, where they administered one of his own tranquillizers. He fell asleep still mumbling warnings.

The Ly-cilph was interested in humans. Out of the hundred and seventy million sentient species it had encountered, only three hundred thousand had been able to perceive it, either by technology or their own mentalities.

The priest had clearly been aware of its identity focus, although not understanding the nature. Humans obviously had a rudimentary attunement to their energistic environment. It searched through the records it had compiled by accessing the few processor blocks and memory fleks available in Aberdale, which mostly comprised the educational texts owned by Ruth Hilton. The so-called psychic ability was largely dismissed as hallucinatory or fraud committed for financial gain. However the race had a vast history of incidents and myths in its past. And its strong continuing religious beliefs were an indication of how widespread the faculty was, granting the “supernatural” events a respectable orthodoxy. There was obviously a great deal of potential for energistic perception development, which was inhibited by the rational mentality. The conflict was a familiar one to the Ly-cilph, although it had no record of a race in which the two opposing natures were quite so antagonistic.

What do you think?laton asked his colleagues when the door closed behind Quinn Dexter.

He’s a psychopathic little shit, with a nasty steak of sadism thrown in,said waldsey, the group’s chief viral technologist.

Dexter is certainly unstable,camilla said. I don’t think you can trust him to keep any agreement. His revenge obsession with this Banneth person is the dominant motivator. Our immortality scheme is unlikely to replace it; too cerebral.

I say we should eliminate him,salkid said.

I’m inclined to agree,laton said. Pity. It’s rather like watching a miniature version of one’s self.

You were never that gratuitous, Father,camilla said.

Given the circumstances, I might have been. However, that is an irrelevant speculation. Our immediate problem is our own security. One can reasonably assume Quinn Dexter has informed most, if not all, of his fellow Ivets that something wicked lurks in the woods. That is going to make life difficult.

So? We just take out all of them,salkid said. Out of all the exiles, the ex-blackhawk captain found the decades of inactivity hardest to handle. I’ll lead the incorporated. It’ll be a pleasure.

Salkid, stop acting the oaf,laton said. We can’t possibly eliminate all the Ivets ourselves. The attention such an overt action would generate would be quite intolerable coming so soon after the homesteads.

What, then?

Firstly we shall wait until Quinn Dexter incapacitates Supervisor Manani’s communicator, then we shall have to get the villagers to eliminate the Ivets for us.

How?waldsey asked.

The priest already knows the Ivets are Devil worshippers. We shall simply make the knowledge available to everyone else in a fashion they cannot possibly ignore.

Chapter 12

Idria traced a slightly elliptical orbit through the Lyll asteroid belt in the New Californian system, with a median distance of a hundred and seventy million kilometres from the G5 primary star. It was a stony-iron rock, which looked like a bruised, flaking swede, measuring seventeen kilometres across at its broadest and eleven down the short spin axis. A ring formation of thirty-two industrial stations hung over the crinkled black rock, insatiable recipients of a never-ending flow of raw material ferried out from Idria’s non-rotating spaceport.

It was the variety of those compounds which justified the considerable investment made in the rock. Idria’s combination of resources was rare, and rarity always attracts money.

In 2402 a survey craft found long veins of minerals smeared like a diseased rainbow through the ordinary metal ores, their chemistry a curious mixture of sulphurs, alumina, and silicas. A planetside board meeting deemed that the particular concentration of crystalline strata was valuable enough to warrant an extraction operation; and the miners and their heavy digging machinery began chewing shafts into the interior in 2408. Industrial stations followed, refining and processing the ores on site. Population began to creep upwards, caverns were expanded, biospheres started. By 2450 the central cavern was five kilometres long and four wide, Idria’s rotation was increased to give it a half-standard gravity on the floor. There were ninety thousand people living in it by then, forming a community which was self-sufficient in most areas. It was declared independent, and earned a seat in the system assembly. But it was a company town, the company being Lassen Interstellar.

Lassen was into mining, and shipping, and finance, and starship components, and military systems, amongst other endeavours. It was a typical New Californian outfit, a product of innumerable mergers and takeovers; a linear extension of its old Earth predecessors which had thrived on America’s western seaboard. Its management worshipped the super-capitalist ethic, expanding aggressively, milking governments for development contracts, pressuring the assembly for ever more convenient tax breaks, spreading subsidiaries across the Confederation, shafting the opposition at every opportunity.

There were thousands of companies like it based on New California. Corporate tigers whose spoils elevated the standard of living right across the system. The nature of their competition was fierce and confrontational. The Confederation assembly had passed several censure motions on their dubious exports, and held inquiries into individual supply contracts. New California’s level of technology was high, its military products were in great demand. Companies were indifferent to the use they would ultimately be put to: once the buyer was identified, the pitch made, the finance organized, nothing would be allowed to stop the sale. Not the Government Export Licence office, and certainly not the meddlesome Confederation inspectors. With this in mind, shipping could be a problem, especially the trickier contracts to star systems operating unreasonable embargoes. Captains who took on those contracts could expect high rewards. And the challenge always attracted a certain type of individual.

The Lady Macbeth was resting on a docking cradle in one of the thirty-odd industrial stations coasting in a loose orbit around Idria. Both of her circular cargo hold doors on the forward hull were open, each showing a metallic cave of bracing struts coiled by power and data cables, load clamps, and environmental regulation interface sockets; all of it wrapped in tarnished gold foil and badly illuminated to boot.

The docking bay was a seventy-five-metre crater of carbotanium and composite, ribbed by various conduits and pipes. Spotlights around the curving walls shone stark white beams on the starship’s leaden hull, compensating for the pallid slivers of sunlight falling on the station while it was in Idria’s penumbra. Several storage frames stood around the rim of the bay, looking much like scaffold towers left over from the station’s construction. Each of them was equipped with a long quadruple-jointed waldo arm to load and unload cargo from ships. The arms were operated from a console inside small transparent bubbles protruding from the carbotanium surface like polished barnacles.

Joshua Calvert hung on a grab hoop inside the cargo supervisor’s compartment, his face centimetres from the curving radiation-shielded glass, watching the waldo arm raising another cargo-pod out of its storage frame. The pods were two metres long, pressurized cylinders with slightly domed ends; a thick white silicon-composite shell protected them from the wider temperature shifts encountered in space. They were stamped with Lassen’s geometric eagle logo, and line after line of red stencil lettering. According to the code they were high-density magnetic-compression coils for tokamaks. And ninety per cent of the pods did indeed contain what they said; the other ten per cent held smaller, more compact coils which produced an even stronger magnetic field, suitable for antimatter confinement.

The waldo arm lowered the pod into Lady Mac ’s hold, and a set of load clamps closed around it. Joshua felt a considerable twinge of apprehension. Inside the New Californian system the coils were a legitimate cargo, no matter the misleading coding. In interstellar space their legality was extremely ambiguous, although a decent lawyer should be able to quash any charges. And in the Puerto de Santa Maria system where he was going they spelt deep shit in capital letters ten metres high.

Sarha Mitcham’s hand tightened around his. “Do we really need this?” she asked in a murmur. She had left her padded skullcap off in the transparent hemisphere, letting her short hazel hair wave around lethargically in free fall. Her lips were drawn together in concern.

“ ’Fraid so.” He tickled her palm with a finger, a private signal they often used on board Lady Mac . Sarha was a spirited lover, they had spent long hours experimenting in his cabin’s cage; but this time it didn’t break her mood.

It wasn’t that the Lady Macbeth didn’t make money: in the eight months since Roland Frampton’s first charter they had landed seven cargoes and one passenger group, some bacteriology specialists on their way to join an ecology review team on Northway. But Lady Macbeth also consumed money at a colossal rate: there was fuel and consumables each time they docked; an endless list of component spares, there wasn’t a flight which went by without some kind of burn-out or a mandatory time-expiry replacement; the crew’s wages had to be met; and then there were spaceport charges and customs and immigration fees. Joshua hadn’t quite realized the sheer expense involved in operating the Lady Macbeth . Somehow Marcus Calvert had glossed over that part. Profits were slim verging on non-existent, and he couldn’t afford to bump his rates up any higher, he wouldn’t land a single charter. He’d made more money while he was scavenging.

So now he knew the truth behind the captains’ talk in Harkey’s Bar, and its countless equivalents across the Confederation. Like him they all said how well they were doing, how they only kept flying for the life it offered rather than financial necessity. Lies, all of it a magnificent, artistic construct of lies. Banks sat back and made money, everyone else worked for a living.

“There’s no shame in it,” Hasan Rawand had told him a fortnight ago. “Everyone’s in the same grind. Hell, Joshua, you’re a lot better off than most of us. You haven’t got a mortgage to pay off.”

Hasan Rawand was the captain of the Dechal , an independent trader smaller than the Lady Mac . He was in his mid-seventies, and he’d been flying for fifty years, the last fifteen as an owner-captain.

“The real money isn’t in cargo charters,” he explained. “Not for people like us. That’s just makework to tide us over. The big lines have got all the really profitable routes tied up. They operate vacuum-sealed cartels the likes of you and I aren’t going to break in.”

They were drinking in a club in the dormitory section of an industrial station orbiting Baydon, a two-kilometre alithium wheel spinning to produce a two-thirds standard gravity around the rim. Joshua leant against the bar, and watched the planet’s nightside sliding past the huge window. Sparkles of light from cities and towns sketched strange curves across the darkness.

“Where is the money, then?” Joshua asked. He’d been drinking for three solid hours, long enough to sluice enough alcohol past his enhanced organs and into his brain, giving the universe a snug aura.

“Flights which use that fancy fourth drive tube the Lady Mac ’s fitted out with.”

“Forget it, I’m not that anxious to make money.”

“All right, OK,” Hasan Rawand gestured extravagantly, beer slopping over his glass, drops falling in a slight curve. “I’m just saying that’s the nature of it: combat and sanctions busting. That kind of thing is what the independents like you and me were put in this galaxy for. Everybody makes one of those trips every now and then. Some of us, like me, more often than most. That’s what keeps the hull intact, and the radiation outside the baffles.”

“You make a lot of runs?” Joshua asked, staring into his glass morosely.

“Some. Not a lot. That’s where us owner-captains’ bad-boy reputation comes from. People think we do it all the time. We don’t. But they don’t hear about that, about the mundane flights we make for fifty weeks a year. They only hear about us when we get caught, and the news agencies blitz the networks with the arrest. We’re the perpetual victims of bad publicity. We should sue.”

“But you don’t get caught?”

“Haven’t yet. There’s a method I use, virtually foolproof, but it needs two ships.”

“Ah.” Joshua must have been drunker than he realized, because the next thing he heard himself saying was: “Tell me more.”

And now two weeks later he was starting to regret listening. Although, he had to admit, it damn near was foolproof. Those two weeks had been spent in furious preparation. In a way, he supposed having Hasan Rawand consider him for any kind of partner was an oblique compliment, since only the very best captains could hope to pull it off. And the ultimate risk wasn’t his, not this run. He was the junior partner. But still, twenty per cent wasn’t to be sneered at, not when it came to a straight eight hundred thousand fuseodollars, half in advance.

The last pod of magnetic coils was secured in the Lady Mac ’s cargo hold. Sarha Mitcham let out a soft, rueful sigh as the waldo arm folded down on its cradle. This flight worried her, but she had agreed, along with the rest of the crew when Joshua explained what it entailed. And their money situation was becoming uncomfortably shaky. Even the fleks of MF-band albums the crew always hawked around ports to the bootleg distributors were fetching minimal prices. A lot of her private stock was getting obsolete, official company distribution was catching up on her. Here on Idria she had actually bought more albums than she’d sold. At least New California was a hot system for MF culture, she ought to be able to sell the fresh recordings for another six months yet, especially on the kind of backworld ports Lady Macbeth flew to.

The money would go into the crew’s pooled account so they could finance their own cargo in a couple of months’ time. It was their one bright dream, which made the mundane tolerable. Norfolk was reaching conjunction soon, a cargo of Tears would make some real profit for them if they owned it rather than simply carried it for someone else. And then just maybe they wouldn’t have to do this kind of flight again for a long time.

“All loaded, and not a scratch on your hull,” the woman operating the waldo arm said cheerfully.

Joshua looked back over his shoulder and smiled at her. She was slender, and a bit tall for his taste, but her one-piece uniform showed a nice collection of curves below its emerald fabric. “Yeah, good work, thanks.” He datavised her console, loading in his personal code to confirm the cargo had been transferred on board the Lady Mac .

She checked the data, and handed him his manifest flek. “Bon voyage , Captain.”

Joshua and Sarha glided out of the compartment, negotiating the maze of narrow corridors down to the telescoping airlock tube that linked the Lady Mac ’s life-support capsules to the station.

The waldo operator waited for a minute after they left, then closed her eyes. The cargo pods are all loaded. Lady Macbeth is scheduled to disengage from the station in eighteen minutes.

Thank you,Oenone replied.

Tranquillity’s senses perceived the gravitational disturbance caused by the wormhole terminus opening in a designated emergence zone a hundred and fifteen thousand kilometres away from the habitat itself. Against Mirchusko’s mud-yellow immensity the terminus was a neutral two-dimensional disk. Yet observing it through an optical sensor on one of the strategic-defence platforms ringing the zone, Tranquillity received an inordinately powerful intimation of depth.

Ilex flew out of the wormhole. A voidhawk with a hull that was more grey than the usual blue. It slipped smoothly away from the rapidly shrinking terminus, yawing gracefully as it orientated itself.

Ilex, Confederation Navy ship ALV-90100, requesting approach and docking permission,it said formally.

Granted,tranquillity replied.

The voidhawk accelerated in towards the habitat, building up to three gees almost immediately.

You’re very welcome,tranquillity said. I don’t get many voidhawks visiting me.

Thank you. Though this is not a privilege I was expecting. Up until three days ago we were assigned to fleet patrol duties in the Ellas sector. Now we’ve been switched to diplomatic courier duty. My captain, Auster, is experiencing a mild notion of displeasure, he says we didn’t sign on to be used as a taxi service.

Oh, this sounds interesting.

I believe the circumstances are exceptional. And in connection with this, my captain has another request. He asks that Ione Saldana receive a special envoy from First Admiral Samual Aleksandrovich: one Captain Maynard Khanna.

You have come directly from Avon to bring this captain?


The Lord of Ruin is honoured to accept the Admiral’s envoy, and she invites Captain Auster and his crew to dinner this evening.

My captain accepts. He is curious about Ione Saldana, the news agencies have been most effusive on her behalf.

I could tell you a tale or two about her.


And I’d be interested to hear about the Ellas sector. Are there many pirates there?

The tube carriage slid to a halt and Captain Khanna stepped out onto the small station’s platform. He was thirty-eight years old, with crew-cut sandy red hair, pale skin given to freckles if he was caught by the sun, regular features, and dark brown eyes. His body was kept in trim by a stiff forty-minute navy-approved workout each morning without fail. Out of his academy class of one hundred and fifteen officer cadets he had finished third; it would have been first but the computer psychological assessment said his flexibility wasn’t all that it could be, he was “doctrine orientated”.

He had been on the First Admiral’s executive staff for eighteen months, and in that time hadn’t made a single mistake. This was his first independent assignment, and he was frankly terrified. Tactics and command decisions he could handle, even Admiralty office politics; but a semi-reclusive universally revered black sheep Saldana teenage girl affinity-bonded to a non-Edenist bitek habitat was another matter. How the hell did you prepare motivation-analysis profiles on such a creature?

“You’ll do all right,” Admiral Aleksandrovich had said in his final briefing. “Young enough not to alienate her, smart enough not to insult her intelligence. And all the girls love a uniform.” The old man had winked and given him a companionable pat on the back.

Maynard Khanna pulled the jacket of his immaculate deep-blue dress uniform straight, placed his peaked cap firmly on his head, squared his shoulders, and marched up the stairs out of the station. He came out onto a courtyard of flagstones, lined with troughs full of colourful begonias and fuchsias. Paths led off from all sides into the surrounding sub-tropical parkland. He could see some sort of building a hundred metres away; but it was given only a fleeting glance as he stared round in astonishment. After coming through the airlock from the docking-ledge he had climbed straight into the waiting tube carriage, he hadn’t seen anything of the interior until now. The sheer size of Tranquillity was awesome, big enough to put a couple of standard Edenist habitats inside and shake them around like dice in a cup. A blinding light-tube glared hotly overhead, white candyfloss clouds trailed slowly through the air. A panorama of forests and meadows flecked with silver lakes and long water-courses rose up on either side of him like the walls of God’s own valley. And there was a sea about eight kilometres away—it couldn’t be called anything else with its sparkling wavelets and picturesque islands. He followed the arch of it rising up and up, his neck tilting back until his cap threatened to fall off. Millions of tonnes of water were poised above him ready to crash down in a flood which would have defeated Noah.

He brought his head down hurriedly, trying to remember how he had got rid of the giddiness when he visited the Edenist habitats orbiting Jupiter.

“Don’t look outside the horizontal, and always remember the poor sod above you thinks you’re going to fall on him,” his crusty old guide had said.

Knowing he had been defeated before he even started, Maynard Khanna walked along the yellow-brown stone path towards the building that resembled a Hellenic temple. It was a long basilica which had one end opening out into a circular area with a domed roof of some jet-black material supported by white pillars, the gaps between them filled by sheets of blue-mirror glass.

The path took him to the opposite end of the basilica, where a pair of serjeants stood guard duty like nightmare goblin statues on either side of the entrance arch.

“Captain Khanna?” one asked. The voice was mild and friendly, completely at odds with its appearance.


“The Lord of Ruin is expecting you, please follow my servitor.” The serjeant turned and led him into the building. They walked down a central nave with large gilt-framed pictures hanging on the brown and white marble walls.

Maynard Khanna assumed they were holograms at first, then he realized they were two-dimensional, and a more detailed look revealed that they were oil paintings. There were a lot of countryside scenes where people wore elaborate, if baroque, costumes, riding on horses or gathered in ostentatious groups. Scenes from old Earth, pre-industrial age. And a Saldana would never make do with copies. They must be genuine. His mind balked at how much they must be worth; you could buy a battle cruiser with the money just one of them would fetch.

At the far end of the nave a Vostok capsule was resting on a cradle under a protective glass dome. Maynard stopped and looked at the battered old sphere with a mixture of trepidation and admiration. It was so small, so crude , yet for a few brief years it had represented the pinnacle of human technology. What ever would the cosmonaut who rode it into space think of Tranquillity?

“Which one is it?” he asked the serjeant in a hushed tone.

“Vostok 6, it carried Valentina Tereshkova into orbit in 1963. She was the first woman in space.”

Ione Saldana was waiting for him in the large circular audience chamber at the end of the nave. She sat behind a crescent-shaped wooden desk positioned in the centre; thick planes of light streamed in through the giant sheets of glass set between the pillars, turning the air into a platinum haze.

The white polyp floor was etched with a giant crowned phoenix emblem in scarlet and blue. It took an eternity for him to cover the distance from the door to the desk; the sound of his boot heels clicking against the polished surface echoed drily in the huge empty space.

Intended to intimidate, he thought. You know how alone you are when you confront her.

He snapped a perfect salute when he reached the desk. She was a head of state, after all; the Admiral’s protocol office had been most insistent about that, and how he should treat her.

Ione was wearing a simple sea-green summer dress with long sleeves. The intense lighting made her short gold-blonde hair glimmer softly.

She was just as lovely as all the AV recordings he’d studied.

“Do take a seat, Captain Khanna,” she said, smiling. “You look most uncomfortable standing up like that.”

“Thank you, ma’am.” There were two high-backed chairs on his side of the desk; he sat in one, still keeping his pose rigid.

“I understand you’ve come all the way from the First Fleet headquarters at Avon just to see me?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“In a voidhawk?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Owing to the somewhat unusual nature of this worldlet, we don’t have a diplomatic corps, nor a civil service,” she said airily. A delicate hand waved around at the audience chamber. “The habitat personality handles all the administrative functions quite effectively. But the Lords of Ruin employ a legal firm on Avon to represent Tranquillity’s interests in the Confederation Assembly chamber. If there’s a matter of urgency arising, you only have to consult them. I have met the senior partners, and I have a lot of confidence in them.”

“Yes, ma’am—”

“Maynard, please. Stop calling me ma’am. This is a private meeting, and you’re making me sound like a day-club governess for junior aristocrats.”

“Yes, Ione.”

She smiled brightly. The effect was devastating. Her eyes were an enchanting shade of blue, he noticed.

“That’s better,” she said. “Now what have you come to talk about?”

“Dr Alkad Mzu.”


“Are you familiar with the name?”

“The name and most of the circumstances.”

“Admiral Aleksandrovich felt this was not a matter to take to your legal representatives on Avon. It is his opinion that the fewer people who are aware of the situation, the better.”

Her smile turned speculative. “Fewer people? Maynard, there are eight different Intelligence agencies who have set up shop in Tranquillity; and all of them run surveillance operations on poor Dr Mzu. There are times when their pursuit becomes dangerously close to a slapstick routine. Even the Kulu ESA have posted a team here. I imagine that must be a real thorn in my cousin Alastair’s regal pride.”

“I think what the Admiral meant was: fewer people outside high government office.”