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

Reality Dysfunction Expansion

Peter Hamilton

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 second volume of Hamilton's two-part book The Reality Dysfunction is as fast paced and densely packed as the first. It picks up the many plot threads left hanging in Emergence and runs with them, ending some subplots and beginning other more interesting ones. Joining the large cast of characters is Graeme Nicholson, a reporter stuck on the backwater planet of Lalonde, where mud and wood seem to be the only things in great abundance. But Lalonde is fast becoming the focus of an invasion that seems to defy time and logic, and soon Nicholson will regret ever learning about the biggest story to hit the galaxy in a thousand years.

Reality Dysfunction: Expansion

Chapter 01

Graeme Nicholson sat on his customary stool beside the bar in the Crashed Dumper, the one furthest away from the blaring audio block, and listened to Diego Sanigra, a crewman from the Bryant , complain about the way the ship had been treated by Colin Rexrew. The Bryant was a colonist-carrier starship that had arrived at Lalonde two days ago, and so far not one of its five and a half thousand colonists had been taken out of zero-tau. It was a ruinous state of affairs, Diego Sanigra claimed, the governor had no right to refuse the colonists disembarkation. And the energy expenditure for every extra hour they spent in orbit was costing a fortune. The line company would blame the crew, as they always did. His salary would suffer, his bonus would be non-existent, his promotion prospects would be reduced if not ruined.

Graeme Nicholson nodded sympathetically as his neural nanonics carefully stored the aggrieved ramblings in a memory cell. There wasn’t much which could be used, but it was good background material. How the big conflict reached down into individual lives. The kind of thing he covered so well.

Graeme had been a reporter for fifty-two of his seventy-eight years. He reckoned no journalist didactic course could teach him anything new, not now. With his experience he should have been formatting didactic courses, except there wasn’t a news company editor in existence who would want junior reporters corrupted to such an extent. In every sense he was a hack reporter, with an unerring knack of turning daily misfortune into spicy epic tragedy. He went for the human underbelly every time, highlighting the suffering and misery of little people who were trampled on, the ones who couldn’t fight back against the massive uncaring forces of governments, bureaucracies, and companies. It was not from any particular moral indignation, he certainly didn’t see himself as championing the underdog. He simply felt emotions laid raw made for a better story, with higher audience ratings. To some degree he had even begun to look like the victims he empathized with so well; it was partly reflexive, they were less suspicious of someone whose clothes never quite fitted, who had thick ruddy skin and watery eyes.

His brand of sensationalism went down well with the tabloid broadcasts, but by concentrating on the seedy aspects he knew best, building a reputation as a specialist of dross, he found himself being squeezed out of the more prestigious assignments; he hadn’t covered a half-decent story for a decade. Over the last few years his neural nanonics had been used less for sensevise recording and more for running stimulant programs. Time Universe had given him a roving assignment eight years ago, pushing him off onto all the shabby little fringe jobs that no one else with a gram of seniority would cover. Anything to keep him out of a studio, or an editorial office where his contemporaries had graduated to.

Well, no more. The joke was on the office has-beens now. Graeme Nicholson was the only man on the ground, the one with the clout, the one with the kudos. Lalonde was going to earn him the awards he’d been denied all these years; then maybe after that one of those nice cosy office seats back home on Decatur.

He had been on Lalonde for three months to do a documentary-style report on the new world frontier, and gather general sensevise impressions and locations for the company library’s memory cores. Then this wonderful calamity had fallen on Lalonde. Calamitous for the planet and its people, for Rexrew and the LDC career administration staff; but for Graeme Nicholson it was manna from heaven. It being war, or an Ivet rebellion, or a xenoc invasion, depending on who you were talking to. He had included accounts of all three theories on the fleks Eurydice had taken to Avon last week. But it was strange that after two and a half weeks the Governor had still made no official announcement as to exactly what was happening up in the Quallheim and Zamjan Counties.

“That executive assistant of Rexrew’s, Terrance Smith, he’s talking about sending us to another phase one colony world,” Diego Sanigra grumbled. He took another gulp of bitter from his tankard. “As if that’s going to be any help. What would you say if you were a colonist who paid passage for Lalonde and came out of zero-tau to find yourself on Liao-tung Wan? That’s Chinese-ethnic, you know, they wouldn’t like the EuroChristian-types we’ve got stored on board.”

“Is that where Terrance Smith suggested you take them?” Graeme Nicholson asked.

He gave a noncommittal grunt. “Just giving you an example.”

“What about fuel reserves? Have you got enough He3 and deuterium to get to another colony world and then return to Earth?”

Diego Sanigra started to answer. Graeme Nicholson wasn’t listening too hard, he let his eyes wander round the hot crowded room. One of the spaceport shifts had just come off duty. At the moment there were few McBoeing flights. Only the three cargo ships orbiting Lalonde were being unloaded; the six colonist-carriers were waiting for Rexrew to decide what to do with their passenger complements. Most of the spaceport crews simply turned up at the start of each shift so they could keep claiming their pay.

I wonder what they feel about the end of overtime, Graeme asked himself. Might be another story there.

The Crashed Dumper certainly wasn’t suffering from the troubles afflicting the rest of the city; this outlying district didn’t protest or riot over Rexrew and the Ivets, it housed too many LDC worker families. There were a lot of people in tonight, drowning their sorrows. The waitresses were harried from one end of the long room to the other. The overhead fans were spinning fast, but made little impression on the heat.

Graeme heard the audio block falter, the singer’s voice slowing, deepening to a weird bass rumble. It picked up again, turning the voice to a girlish soprano. The crowd clustered round started laughing, and one of them brought his fist down on it. After a moment the loud output returned to normal.

Graeme saw a tall man and a beautiful teenage girl walk past. Something about the man’s face was familiar. The girl he recognized as one of the Crashed Dumper’s waitresses, although tonight she was dressed in jeans and a plain cotton blouse. But the man—he was middle-aged with a neat beard and small pony-tail, wearing a smart leather jacket and ash-grey shorts, and he was very tall, almost like an Edenist.

The glass of lager dropped from Graeme’s numb fingers. It hit the mayope planks and smashed, soaking his shoes and socks. “Holy shit,” he croaked. The fright constricting his throat prevented the exclamation being more than a whisper.

“You all right?” Diego Sanigra asked, annoyed at being interrupted in mid-complaint.

He forced himself to look away from the couple. “Yes,” he stammered. “Yes, I’m fine.” Thank Christ nobody was paying any attention, if he had looked round . . . He reddened and bent down to pick up the shards of glass. When he straightened up the couple were already at the bar. Somehow they had cut straight through the crush.

Graeme ran a priority search program through his neural nanonics. Not that he could possibly be mistaken. The public figures file produced a visual image from a memory cell, recorded forty years ago. It matched perfectly.

Laton!

Lieutenant Jenny Harris twitched the reins, and the dun-coloured horse gave the big qualtook tree a wide berth. Her only previous experience with the animals was her didactic course and a week in the saddle five years ago during an ESA transportation training exercise back on Kulu. Now here she was, leading an expedition through one of the toughest stretches of jungle in the Juliffe tributary network and trying to avoid the attention of a possible military invasion force at the same time. It wasn’t the best reintroduction to the equestrian art. She thought the horse could sense her discomfort, he was proving awkward. A mere three hours’ riding and every muscle in her lower torso was crying for relief; her arms and shoulders were stiff; her backside had gone from soreness to numbness and finally settled for a progressive hot ache.

I wonder what all this bodily offensive is doing to my implants?

Her neural nanonics were running an extended sensory analysis program, enhancing peripheral vision and threshold audio inputs, and scrutinizing them for any signs of hidden hostiles. Electronic paranoia, basically.

There had been nothing remotely threatening, except for one sayce, since they left the Isakore , and the sayce hadn’t fancied its chances against three horses.

She could hear Dean Folan and Will Danza plodding along behind her, and wondered how they were getting on with their horses. Having the two ESA G66 Division (Tactical Combat) troops backing her up was a dose of comfort stronger than any stimulant program could provide. She had been trained in general covert fieldwork, but they had virtually been bred for it, geneering and nanonic supplements combining to make them formidable fighting machines.

Dean Folan was in his mid-thirties, a quiet ebony-skinned man with the kind of subtle good looks most of the geneered enjoyed. He was only medium height, but his limbs were long and powerful, making his torso look almost stunted by comparison. It was the boosted muscles which did that, Jenny knew; his silicon-fibre-reinforced bones had been lengthened to give him more leverage, and more room for implants.

Will Danza fitted people’s conception of a modern-day soldier; twenty-five, tall, broad, with long, sleek muscles. He was an old Prussian warrior genotype, blond, courteous, and unsmiling. There was an almost psychic essence of danger emanating from him; you didn’t tangle with him in any tavern brawl no matter how drunk you were. Jenny suspected he didn’t have a sense of humour; but then he’d seen action in covert missions three times in the last three years. She’d accessed his file when the jungle mission was being assembled; they had been tough assignments, one had earned him eight months in hospital being rebuilt from cloned organs, and an Emerald Star presented by the Duke of Salion, Alastair II’s first cousin, and chairman of the Kulu Privy Council’s security commission. He had never talked about it on the journey upriver.

The nature of the jungle started to change around them. Tightly packed bushy trees gave way to tall, slender trunks with a plume of feather-fronds thirty metres overhead. A solid blanket of creepers tangled the ground, rising up to hug the lower third of the tree trunks like solid conical encrustations. It increased their visibility dramatically, but the horses had to pick their hoofs up sharply. High above their heads vennals leapt between the trees in incredible bounds, streaking up the slim trunks to hide in the foliage at the top. Jenny couldn’t see how they clung to the smooth bark.

After another forty minutes they came to a small stream. She dismounted in slow tender stages, and let her horse drink. Away in the distance she could see a herd of danderil bounding away from the trickle of softly steaming water. White clouds were rolling in from the east. It would rain in an hour, she knew.

Dean Folan dismounted behind her, leaving Will Danza sitting on his horse, keeping watch from his elevated vantage point. All three of them were dressed identically, wearing a superstrength olive-green one-piece anti-projectile suit, covered with an outer insulation layer to diffuse beam weapons. The lightweight armour fitted perfectly, with an inner sponge layer to protect the skin. Thermal-shunt fibres woven into the fabric kept body temperature to a pre-set norm, which was a real blessing on Lalonde. If they were struck by a projectile slug the micro-valency generators around her waist would activate, solidifying the fabric instantly, distributing the impact, preventing the wearer’s body from being pulped by automatic fire. (Jenny’s only regret was that it didn’t protect her from saddle sores.) The body armour was complemented by a shell-helmet which fitted with the same tight precision as the suit. It gave them all an insect appearance, with its wide goggle lenses and a small central V-shaped air-filter vent. The collar had a ring of optical sensors which could be accessed through neural nanonics, giving them a rear-view capability. They could even survive underwater for half an hour with its oxygen-recycling capacity.

The stream was muddy, its stones slimed with algae, none of which seemed to bother the horses. Jenny watched them lapping it up, and requested a drink from her shell-helmet. She sucked ice-cold orange juice from the nipple as she reviewed their location with help from the inertial guidance block.

When Dean and Will swapped position she datavised the armour suit’s communications block to open a scrambled channel to Murphy Hewlett. The ESA team had split up from the Confederation Navy Marines after leaving the Isakore . Acting separately they thought they stood a better chance of intercepting one of the sequestrated colonists.

“We’re eight kilometres from Oconto,” she said. “No hostiles or locals encountered so far.”

“Same with us,” the marine lieutenant answered. “We’re six kilometres south of you, and there’s nobody in this jungle but us chickens. If Oconto’s supervisor did lead fifty people in pursuit of the Ivets, he didn’t come this way. There’s a small savannah which starts about fifteen kilometres away, there are about a hundred homesteads out there. We’ll try them.”

Static warbled down the channel. Jenny automatically checked her electronic warfare suite, which reported zero activity. Must be atmospherics.

“OK. We’re going to keep closing on the village and hope we find someone before we reach it,” she datavised.

“Roger. I suggest we make half-hourly check-ins from now on. There isn’t . . .” His signal dissolved into rowdy static.

“Hell! Dean, Will, we’re being jammed.”

Dean consulted his own electronic warfare block. “No activity detected,” he said.

Jenny steadied her horse and put her foot in the stirrup, swinging a leg over the saddle. Will was mounting hastily beside her. All three of them scanned the surrounding jungle. Dean’s horse snickered nervously. Jenny tugged at the reins to keep hers from twisting about.

“They’re out there,” Will said in a level tone.

“Where?” Jenny asked.

“I don’t know, but they’re watching us. I can feel it. They don’t like us.”

Jenny bit down on the obvious retort. Soldier superstitions were hardly appropriate right now, yet Will had more direct combat experience than her. A quick hardware status check showed that only the communications block was affected so far. Her electronic warfare block remained stubbornly silent.

“All right,” she said. “The one thing we don’t want to do is run into a whole bunch of them. The Edenists said they were most powerful in groups. Let’s move out, and see if we can get outside this jamming zone. We ought to be able to move faster than them.”

“Which way?” Dean asked.

“I still want to try and reach the village. But I don’t think a direct route is advisable now. We’ll head south-west, and curve back towards Oconto. Any questions? No. Lead off then, Dean.”

They splashed over the stream, the horses seemingly eager to be on the move again. Will Danza had pulled his thermal induction pulse carbine from its saddle holster; now it was cradled in the crook of his right arm, pointing upwards. The datavised information from its targeting processor formed a quiet buzz at the back of his mind. He didn’t even notice it at a conscious level, it was as much a part of the moment as the easy rhythm of the horse or the bright sunlight, making him whole.

He made up the rear of the little procession, constantly reviewing the sensors on the back of his shell-helmet. If anyone had asked him how he knew hostiles were nearby he would just have to shrug and say he couldn’t explain. But instinct was pulling at him with the same irresistible impulse that pollen exerted on bees. They were here, and they were close. Whoever, or whatever, they were.

He strained round in the saddle, upping his retinal implants’ resolution to their extreme. All he could see was the long thin black trunks and their verdant cone island bases, outlines wavering in the heat and unstable magnification factor.

A movement.

The TIP carbine was discharging before he even thought about it, blue target graphics sliding across his vision field like neon cell doors as he dropped the barrel in a single smooth arc. A red circle intersected the central grid square and his neural nanonics triggered a five-hundred-shot fan pattern.

The section of jungle in the central blue square sparkled with orange motes as the induction pulses stabbed against the wood and foliage. It lasted for two seconds.

“Down!” Will datavised. “Hostiles four o’clock.”

He was already slithering off the horse, feet landing solidly on the broad triangular creeper leaves. Dean and Jenny obeyed automatically, rolling from their saddles to land crouched, thermal induction pulse carbines held ready. The three of them turned smoothly, each covering a different section of jungle.

“What was it?” Jenny asked.

“Two of them, I think.” Will quickly replayed the memory. It was like a dense black shadow dashing out from behind one of the trees, then it split into two. That was when he fired, and the image jolted. But the black shapes refused to clarify, no matter how many discrimination programs he ran. Definitely too big for sayce, though. And they were moving towards him, using the shaggy treebases for cover.

He felt a glow of admiration, they were good.

“What now?” he datavised. Nobody responded. “What now?” he asked loudly.

“Reconnaissance and evaluation,” said Jenny, who had just realized even short-range datavises were being disrupted. “We’re still not out of that jamming effect.”

There was a silent orange flash above her. The top third of the tree ten metres to her left began to topple over, hinging on a section of trunk that was mostly charred splinters. Just as it reached the horizontal, the rich green plumes at the top caught on fire. They spluttered briefly, belching out a ring of blue-grey smoke, then the fire really caught. Two vennals leapt out, squeaking in pain, their hides badly scorched. Before the whole length of wood crashed down, the plumes were burning with a ferocity which matched the sun.

The horses reared up, whinnying alarm. They were pulled down by boosted muscles.

Jenny realized the animals were rapidly becoming a liability as she clung on to hers. Her neural nanonics reported the suit sensors had detected a maser beam striking the tree, which was what snapped it. But there was no detectable follow-up energy strike to account for the ignition.

Dean’s sensors had also detected the maser beam. He fired a fifty-shot barrage back along the line.

The fallen tree’s tip fizzled out. All that was left was a tapering core of wood and a heap of ash. Blackened ground creepers smouldered in a wide circle around it.

“What the hell did that?” Dean asked.

“No data,” Jenny answered. “But it isn’t going to be healthy.”

Globules of vivid white fire raced up the trunks of several nearby trees like some bizarre astral liquid. Bark shrivelled and peeled off in long strips behind them, the naked wood below roaring like a blast furnace as it caught alight. The flames redoubled in vehemence. Jenny, Will, and Dean were surrounded by twelve huge torches of brilliant fire.

Jenny’s retinal implants struggled to cope with the vast photon flood. Her horse reared up again, fighting her, neck sweeping from side to side in an effort to make her let go, forelegs cycling dangerously close to her head. She could see the terror in its eyes. Foam sprayed out of its mouth to splatter her suit.

“Save the equipment,” she shouted. “We can’t hang on to the horses in this.”

Will heard the order as his horse began bucking, its hind legs kicking imaginary foes. He drove his fist into its head, catching it between the eyes, and it froze for a second in stunned surprise, then slowly buckled, collapsing onto the ground. One of the blazing trees gave a single creak of warning and keeled over. It slammed down on the horse’s back, breaking ribs and legs, searing its way into the flesh. Oily smoke billowed up. Will darted forward, and tugged at the saddle straps. His suit datavised an amber alert to his neural nanonics as the heat impact of the flames gusted against the outer layer.

Balls of orange flame were hurtling through the air above him, spitting greasy black liquids: vennals, fleeing and dying as their roosts were incinerated. Small withered bodies hit the ground all around, some of them moving feebly.

Dean and Jenny were still struggling with their horses, filling the air with confused curses. Will’s suit sounded a preliminary caution that thermal input was reaching the limit of the handling capacity. He felt the saddle strap give, and jumped backwards, hugging the equipment packs. The suit’s outer dissipator layer glowed cherry red as it radiated away the excess heat, and wisps of smoke rose from around his feet.

More trees were falling as the flame consumed the wood at a fantastic rate. For one nasty moment they were completely penned in by a rippling fence made up from solid sheets of that strange lethal white flame.

Jenny salvaged her equipment packs from her horse and let go of the bridle. It raced away blindly, only to veer to one side as another burning tree fell in its path. One of the fiery vennals landed on its back, and it charged straight into the flames, screaming piteously. She watched it tumble over. It twitched a couple of times, trying to regain its feet, then flopped down limply.

By now a ring of ground a hundred metres in diameter was burning, leaving just a small patch at the centre untouched. The three of them grouped together at the middle as the last two trees went down. Now there was only the ground creepers burning, sending up forked yellow flames and heavy blue smoke.

Jenny pulled her packs towards her and ran a systems status check. Not good. The guidance block was putting out erratic data, and the suit’s laser rangefinder return was dubious. The hostiles’ electronic warfare field was growing stronger. And according to her external temperature sensors, if they hadn’t been wearing suits with a thermal-dispersal layer they would have been roasted alive by now.

She gripped the TIP carbine tighter. “As soon as the flames die down I want a sweep-scorch pattern laid down out to four hundred metres. Fight fire with fire. They’ve shown us what they can do, now it’s our turn.”

“All right,” Will muttered happily.

Rummaging round in her packs for one of the spherical heavy duty power cells she was carrying, she plugged its coiled cable into the butt of her carbine. The other two were doing the same thing.

“Ready?” she asked. The flames were only a couple of metres high now, the air above them swarmed with ash flakes, blotting out the sun. “Go.”

They stood, shoulders together, forming a triangle. The TIP carbines blazed, sending out two hundred and fifty invisible deadly shots every second. Targeting processors coordinated the sweep parameters, overlapping their fields of fire. Neural nanonics ordered their muscles to move in precise increments, controlling the direction of the energy blitz.

A ripple of destruction roared out across the already cremated land, then started to chew its way into the vegetation beyond. Dazzling orange stars scintillated on tree trunks and creepers, desiccating then igniting the wood and tangled cords of vine. The initial ripple became a fully-fledged hurricane firestorm, exacerbated by the relentless push of the carbines.

“Burn, you mothers,” Will yelled jubilantly. “Burn!” The entire jungle was on fire around them, an avalanche of flames racing outward. One again the vennals were dying in their hundreds, plunging out of their igneous trees right into the conflagration.

Dean’s neural nanonics reported that his carbine was stuttering whenever he wiped the barrel across a certain coordinate. He brought it back and held it. The shot rate declined to five a second.

“Shit. Jenny, they’re locking their electronic warfare into my carbine targeting processor.”

“Let me have the section,” she said.

He datavised the coordinates over—no problem with communication any more. When she aimed her own TIP carbine along the line its output dropped off almost immediately, but her suit blocks were coming back on-line. “Jeeze, that electronic warfare of theirs is the weirdest.”

“Want me to try?” Will asked.

“No. Finish the sweep-scorch first, we’ll deal with them in a minute.” She turned back to her section. Watching the invincible rampart of flame cascade over the jungle had sent her heart racing wildly. The awe that she could command such fearsome power was soaring through her veins, taking her to a dangerous high. She had to load a suppression order into her neural nanonics, which restricted the release of natural adrenalin sharply. The sweep pattern was completed, and her flesh cooled. But she still felt supreme.

A holocaust of flame raged a hundred and twenty metres away.

“OK, they’ve given their position away,” she said. “Dean, Will: gaussguns, please. Fragmentation and electron-explosive rounds, forty–sixty ratio.”

Will grinned inside his shell-helmet as he bent down to retrieve the heavy-duty weapon. The gaussgun barrel was dark grey in colour, a metre and a half long. It weighed thirty kilograms. He picked it up as if it was made from polystyrene, checked the feed tube was connected to the bulky magazine box at his feet, datavised in the ratio, and aimed it out through the shimmering flames. Dean deployed its twin beside him.

Jenny had been probing through the flames, using her TIP carbine to determine the extent and location of the dead zone simply by recording where it cut out. She datavised the coordinates over to Dean and Will: an oval area fifty metres long, roughly three hundred metres away.

“One hundred and fifty per cent coverage,” she said. “Fire.” Even she had to marvel at how the two men handled the weapons. The gaussguns hurled ten rounds a second, leaving the muzzle at five times the speed of sound. Yet they hardly moved as the recoil hammered at them, swaying gently from side to side. She doubted her boosted muscles could cope.

Away beyond the first rank of flames, a wide island of intact jungle erupted in violent pyrotechnics. Explosions five metres above the ground slammed out hundreds of thousands of slender crystallized carbon shrapnel blades. They scythed through the air at supersonic velocity, sharp as scalpels, stronger than diamond. Those trees which had survived the firestorm disintegrated, shredded instantly by the rabid aerial swarm. Confetti fragments blew apart like a dandelion cloud in a tornado.

The rest of the shrapnel impacted on the ground, slicing through the tangled mat of creepers, blades stabbing themselves thirty to forty centimetres down into the loose moist loam. They never had a chance to settle. EE projectiles rained down, detonating in hard vicious gouts of ionic flame. Plumes of black loam jetted up high into the ash-dimmed sky. The whole area was ruptured by steep-walled two-metre craters, undulating like a sea swell.

Looking down on the desolation, it was hard to believe even an insect could have survived, let alone any large animal.

The three ESA agents stared through the ebbing flames at the dark cyclone of loam particles and wood splinters obscuring the sun.

Jenny’s neural nanonics ran a series of diagnostic programs through her suit equipment blocks. “That electronic warfare field has shut down,” she said. There was a faint quaver to her voice as she contemplated the destructive forces she had unleashed. “Looks like we got them.”

“And everybody knows it,” Dean said flatly. “They must be able to see this fire halfway back to Durringham. The hostiles are going to come swarming to investigate.”

“You’re right,” she said.

“They’re still there,” Will pronounced.

“What?!” Dean said. “You’ve cracked. Nothing could survive that kind of barrage, not even an army assault mechanoid. We blasted those bastards to hell.”

“I’m telling you; they’re still out there,” Will insisted. He sounded nervous. Not like him at all.

His edginess crept in through the comfortable insulation of Jenny’s suit. Listening to him she was half convinced herself. “If someone survived, that’s good,” she said. “I still want that captive for Hiltch. Let’s move out. We’d have to investigate anyway. And we can’t stay here waiting for them to regroup.”

They quickly distributed the remaining ammunition and power cells from their packs, along with basic survival gear. Each of them kept their TIP carbine; Will and Dean shouldered the gaussguns without a word of protest.

Jenny led off at a fast trot across the smouldering remnants of jungle, towards the area they had bombarded with the gaussguns. She felt terribly exposed. The fire had died down, it had nothing left to burn. Away in the distance they could see a few sporadic flames licking at bushes and knots of creeper. They were in the middle of a clearing nearly a kilometre across, the only segment of colour. Everything was black, the remnants of creepers underfoot, tapering ten-metre spikes of trees devoured by natural flames (as opposed to the white stuff the hostiles threw at them), cooked vennals that lay scattered everywhere, other smaller animals, a savagely contorted corpse of one of the horses, even the air was leaden with a seam of fine dusky motes.

She datavised her communication block to open a scrambled channel to Murphy Hewlett. To her surprise, he responded straight away.

“God, Jenny, what’s happened? We couldn’t raise you, then we saw that bloody great fire-fight. Are you all OK?”

“We’re in one piece, but we lost the horses. I think we did some damage to the hostiles.”

“Some damage?”

“Yeah. Murphy, watch out for a kind of white fire. So far they’ve only used it to set the vegetation alight, but our sensors can’t pick up how they direct the bloody stuff. It just comes at you out of nowhere. But they hit you with an electronic warfare field first. My advice is that if your electronics start to go, then lay down a scorch pattern immediately. Flush them away.”

“Christ. What the hell are we up against? First that paddle-boat illusion, now undetectable weapons.”

“I don’t know. Not yet, but I’m going to find out.” She was surprised at her own determination.

“Do you need assistance? It’s a long walk back to the boat.”

“Negative. I don’t think we should join up. Two groups still have a better chance to achieve our objective than one, nothing has changed that.”

“OK, but we’re here if it gets too tough.”

“Thanks. Listen, Murphy, I’m not aiming to stay in this jungle after dark. Hell, we can’t even see them coming at us in the daytime.”

“Now that sounds like the first piece of sensible advice you’ve given today.”

She referred to her neural nanonics. “There are another seven hours of daylight left. I suggest we try and rendezvous back at the Isakore in six hours from now. If we haven’t captured a hostile, or found out what the hell is going down around here, we can review the situation then.”

“I concur.”

“Jenny,” Dean called with soft urgency.

“Call you back,” she told Murphy.

They had reached the edge of the barrage zone. Not even the tree stumps had survived here. Craters overlapped, producing a crumpled landscape of unstable cones and holes; crooked brown roots poked up into the sky from most of the denuded soil slopes. Long strands of steam, like airborne worms, wound slowly around the crumbling protrusions, sliding into the holes to pool at the bottom.

Over on the far side she watched three men emerging from the craters, scrambling sluggishly for solid ground. They helped each other along, wriggling on their bellies when the slippery loam proved impossible to stand on.

Jenny watched their progress in the same kind of bewildered daze which had engulfed her as the fantastical paddle-steamer sailed down the river.

The men reached level ground sixty metres away from the ESA team, and stood up. Two were recognizable colonist types: dungarees, thick cotton work shirts, and woolly beards. The third was dressed in some kind of antique khaki uniform: baggy trousers, calves bound up by strips of yellowish cloth; a brown leather belt round his waist sporting a polished pistol holster; a hemispherical metal hat with a five-centimetre rim.

They couldn’t possibly have survived, Jenny found herself thinking, yet here they were. For one wild second she wondered if the electronic warfare field had won, and was feeding the hallucination directly into her neural nanonics.

The two groups stared at each other for over half a minute.

Jenny’s electronic warfare block reported a build-up of static in the short-range datavise band. It broke the spell. “OK, let’s go get them,” she said.

They started to circle round the edge of the barrage zone. The three men watched them silently.

“Do you want all three?” Will asked.

“No, just one. The soldier must be equipped with the most powerful systems if he can create that kind of chameleon effect. I’d like him if we can manage it.”

“I thought chameleon suits were supposed to blend in,” Dean muttered.

“I’m not even sure we’re seeing men,” Will added. “Maybe the xenocs are disguising themselves. Remember the paddle-steamer.”

Jenny ordered her suit’s laser rangefinder to scan the soldier; its return should reveal the true outline to an accuracy of less than half a millimetre. The blue beam stabbed out from the side of her shell-helmet. But instead of sweeping the soldier, it broke apart a couple of metres in front of him, forming a turquoise haze. After a second the rangefinder module shut down. Her neural nanonics reported the whole unit was inoperative.

“Did you see that?” she asked. They had covered about a third of the distance round the barrage zone.

“I saw it,” Will said brusquely. “It’s a xenoc. Why else would it want to hide its shape?”

The distortion in the datavise band began to increase. Jenny saw the soldier start to unbuckle his holster.

“Stop!” she commanded, her voice booming out of the communication block’s external speaker. “The three of you are under arrest. Put your hands on your head, and don’t move.”

All three men turned fractionally, focusing on her. Her neural nanonics began to report malfunctions in half of her suit’s electronics.

“Screw it! We must break them up, even three of them are too powerful. Will, one round EE, five metres in front of them.”

“That’s too close,” Dean said tensely as Will brought the gaussgun to bear. “You’ll kill them.”

“They survived the first barrage,” Jenny said tonelessly. Will fired. A fountain of loam spurted up into the air, accompanied by a bright blue-white sphere of flame. The blast-wave flattened some of the nearby piles of soil.

Jenny’s neural nanonics reported the electronics coming back on-line. The loam subsided, revealing the three men standing firm. A faint whistle was insinuating itself into the datavise band; her neural nanonics couldn’t filter it out.

“One metre,” she snapped. “Fire.”

The explosion sent them spinning, tottering about for balance. One fell to his knees. For the first time there was a reaction; one of the two farmer-types started snarling and shouting. His face above the beard was black, whether from loam or a flashburn she couldn’t tell.

“Keep firing, keep them apart,” Jenny called to Will. “Come on, run.”

Explosions bloomed around the three men. Will was using the gaussgun the way riot police employed a water cannon, harrying the men as they tried to come together. Blasts that would rip a human to pieces barely affected them, at the most they tumbled backwards to sprawl on the ground. He was tempted to land a round straight on one, just to see what it would do. They scared him.

Jenny’s feet pounded over the scorched creepers. The packs and the TIP carbine weighed nothing as her boosted muscles powered up and took the full load. Will was doing a good job, one of the men had been separated from the other two. He was the farmer-type who had shouted earlier. She brought her TIP carbine round and aimed it at his left ankle, neural nanonics allowing her to compensate for the vigorous motion of her body. If they could disable him, they could chase off or kill the other two. A severed cauterized foot wasn’t lethal.

Her neural nanonics triggered a single shot. She actually saw the induction pulse. A complete impossibility, her mind insisted. But a slender violet line materialized in the air ahead of her. It struck the farmer’s ankle and splashed apart, sending luminous tendrils clawing up his leg. He yelled wildly, and tumbled headlong.

“Dean, subdue him,” she ordered. “I want him in one piece. Will and I will fend off the other two.” Her carbine’s targeting circle slithered round on the soldier as she stopped running. He was taking aim with his revolver. They both fired.

Jenny saw luminous purple tapeworms writhing across the neatly pressed khaki uniform. The soldier began to jerk about as if he was being electrocuted. Then the bullet struck her with the force of a gaussgun’s kinetic round. Her suit hardened instantly, and she found herself somersaulting chaotically, grey sky and black land streaking past in a confused blur. There was an instant’s silence. She landed hard, and her suit unfroze. She was rolling, arms and legs jolting the ground sharply.

The gaussgun was roaring three metres away. Will was standing his ground, feet apart to brace himself, swivelling from the hip to send EE rounds chasing after each of the men.

Jenny scrambled to her feet. The soldier and one of the farmers were fifty metres away. They were facing Will, but retreating in juddering steps from the onslaught of projectiles. Somehow she had hung on to the TIP carbine, and now she lined it up. Radiant purple lines shivered across the soldier once more. He threw up his hands, as if he was physically warding off the intense energy pulses. Then both he and the farmer looked at each other. Something must have been said, because they both turned and ran towards the rim of the jungle eighty metres behind them.

Dean Folan dropped his gaussgun and backpack, which allowed him to cover the last thirty metres in two and a half seconds. In that time he fired his TIP carbine twice. The beams tore into glaring purple streamers which knocked the farmer down into the soft loam. With his opponent out for the count, Dean took the last five metres in a flying tackle, landing straight on top of him. The weight of his own body and the suit and his equipment should have been enough to finish it. But the man started to rise straight away. Dean gave a surprised yelp as he was lifted right off the ground, and went for a stranglehold, only to find a hand clamping round each wrist pulling his arms apart. He fell onto his back as the farmer regained his feet. A booted foot kicked him in the side of his ribs. His suit hardened, and he was thrown onto his belly by the force of the blow. The farmer must be a construct made entirely out of boosted muscle! His neural nanonics combat routine programs went into primary mode. He swung the TIP carbine round, and another vicious kick actually cracked the casing. But he lashed out with his free arm, knocking the farmer’s other leg out from under him. The farmer went down heavily on his backside.

Somewhere in the distance the gaussgun was thumping out a stream of EE projectiles.

Both of them struggled into a semi-crouch, then launched themselves. Once again, Dean found himself losing. The farmer’s impact sent him reeling backwards, fighting to keep his feet. Arms with the strength of a hydraulic ram grappled at him. His neural nanonics reviewed tactical options, and decided his physical strength was dangerously inferior. He let himself sway backwards, taking the farmer with him. Then his leg came straight up, slamming into the man’s stomach. A classic judo throw. The farmer arched through the air, snarling in rage. Dean drew his twenty-centimetre fission blade and twisted round just in time to meet the man as he charged. The blade sliced down, aiming for the meat of the right forearm. It struck, cutting through the cloth sleeve. But the yellow glow faded, and it skated across the skin, scoring a shallow gash.

Dean stared at the narrow wound, partly numbed, partly shocked. Will was right, it must be a xenoc. As he watched, the skin on the forearm rippled, closing the gash. The farmer laughed evilly, teeth showing white in his grubby face. He started to walk towards Dean, arms coming up menacingly. Dean stepped inside the embrace, and ordered his suit to solidify below his shoulders. The farmer’s arms closed round him in a bear hug. Composite fibres, stiffened by the suit’s integral valency generators, creaked ominously as the farmer’s arms squeezed. A couple of equipment blocks snapped. Instinct made Dean switch off the fission blade’s power, leaving a dull black blade with wickedly sharp edges. The hostiles seemed capable of controlling and subverting any kind of electrical circuit—maybe if the knife wasn’t powered up . . . He pressed the tip up into the base of the farmer’s jaw.

“You can heal wounds on your arm. But can you heal your brain as it’s sliced in half?” The blade was shoved up a fraction until a bead of blood welled out around the tip. “Wanna try?”

The farmer hissed in animosity. He eased off his grip around Dean’s chest.

“Now keep very still,” Dean said as he unlocked his suit. “Because I’m very nervous, and an accident can happen easily and quickly.”

“You’ll suffer,” the farmer said malevolently. “You’ll suffer longer than you have to. I promise.”

Dean took a pace to one side, the blade remaining poised on the man’s neck. “You speak English, do you? Where do you come from?”

“Here, I come from here, warrior man. Just like you.”

“I don’t come from here.”

“We all do. And you’re going to stay here. For ever, warrior man. You’re never going to die, not now. Eternity in purgatory is that which awaits you. Do you like the sound of that? That’s what’s going to happen to you.”

Dean saw Will walk behind the farmer, and touch the muzzle of the gaussgun to the back of his skull.

“I’ve got him,” said Will. “Hey, xenoc man, one bad move, one bad word, and you are countryside.” He laughed. “You got that?”

The farmer’s dirty lips curled up in a sneer.

“He’s got it,” Dean said.

Jenny came over and studied the strange tableau. The farmer looked perfectly ordinary apart from his arrogance. She thought of his two comrades that had run into the jungle, the hundreds—thousands—more just like him out there. Maybe he had a right to be arrogant.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

The farmer’s eyes darted towards her. “Kingsford Garrigan. What’s yours?”

“Cuff him,” Jenny told Dean. “We’ll take him back to the Isakore . You’re going for a long trip, Kingsford Garrigan. All the way to Kulu.” She thought she saw a flash of surprise in his eyes. “And you’d better hope your friends don’t try and interfere with us. I don’t know what you are, but if you attempt to screw up our electronics again, or if we have to cut and run, the first thing we drop is you. And drop you we will, from a very great height.”

The farmer spat casually on her foot. Will jabbed him with the gaussgun.

Jenny opened a communication channel to the geosynchronous platform, and connected into the Kulu Embassy dumper.

“We’ve got you one of the hostiles,” she datavised to Ralph Hiltch. “And when I say hostile, I’m not kidding.”

“Fantastic. Well done, Jenny. Now get back here soonest. I’ve got our transport to Ombey arranged. The ESA office there has the facilities for a total personality debrief.”

“I wouldn’t bank on it working,” she said. “He’s immune to a TIP shot.”

“Repeat, please.”

“I said the TIP carbine doesn’t hurt him, the energy pulse just breaks apart. Only physical weapons seem to have any effect. At the moment we’ve got him subdued with a gaussgun. He’s also stronger than the G66 boys, a lot stronger.”

There was a long silence. “Is he human?” Ralph Hiltch asked.

“He looks human. But I don’t see how he can be. If you want my opinion, I’d guess at some kind of super bitek android. It’s got to be a xenoc bitek, and a pretty advanced bitek at that.”

“Christ Almighty. Datavise a full-spectrum image over, please. I’ll run it through some analysis programs.”

“Sure thing.”

Dean had the man’s hands behind his back to slide a zipcuff over his wrists. It was a figure-of-eight band of polyminium with a latch buckle at the centre. Jenny watched Dean tighten the pewter-coloured loops; no electronic lock, thank heavens, just simple mechanics.

She ordered her neural nanonics to encode the retinal pixels, and datavised the complete image over to the embassy. Infrared followed, then a spectrographic print.

Dean ejected the power magazine from his broken TIP carbine and handed it to Jenny along with the spares, then recovered his gaussgun. With Will covering their prisoner, they started walking back towards the Isakore at a brisk pace. Jenny aimed them off at a slight tangent, taking them quickly back into the jungle. She still felt too exposed in the firestorm clearing.

“Jenny,” Ralph called after a minute. “What did the hostile say his name was?”

“Kingsford Garrigan,” she replied.

“He’s lying. And you’re wrong about him being a xenoc android, too. I’ve run a search program through our records. He’s a colonist from Aberdale called Gerald Skibbow.”

“It is a wet, humid night here in Durringham, as they always are on this poor benighted planet. The heat clogs my throat and my skin sweats as though I have caught a fever. But still I feel cold inside, a coldness that grips the very cells of my heart.” Was that a bit too purple? Oh well, the studio can always edit it out.

Graeme Nicholson was squatting on aching ankles in the deepest shadows cast by one of the spaceport’s big hangars. It was drizzling hard, and his cheap synthetic suit was clinging to his flabby body. Despite the warmth of the water he really was shivering, the fat rolls of his beer belly were shaking the same way they did when he laughed.

Fifty metres away a defeated yellow light shone from an office in the spaceport’s single-storey administration block. It was the only occupied office, the rest had shut long ago. With his retinal implants straining, Graeme could just make out Laton, Marie Skibbow, and two other men through the grimed glass. One of them was Emlyn Hermon, the Yaku ’s second-in-command, who had met Marie and Laton in the Crashed Dumper. He didn’t know the fourth, but he must work for the spaceport administration in some capacity.

He just wished he could listen to whatever deal they were making. But his boosted hearing was only effective inside a fifteen-metre radius. And no prize in the universe would make him creep any closer to Laton. Fifty metres was quite close enough, thank you.

“I have followed the arch-diabolist here from the city. And nothing I have seen has given me the slightest hope for the future. His interest in the spaceport can only indicate he is ready to move on. His work on Lalonde is complete. Violence and anarchy reign beyond the city. What monstrous curse he has let loose is beyond my imagination; but each new day brings darker stories down the river, sucking away the citizens’ hope. Fear is his real weapon, and he possesses it in abundance.”

Marie held out a small object Graeme took to be a Jovian Bank credit disk. The spaceport administration official proffered its counterpart.

“The alliance has been formed. His plan advances another notch. And I cannot believe it will bring anything other than disaster upon us. Four decades has not reduced the fear. What has he achieved in those four decades? I ask myself this question time and again. The only answer must be: evil. He has perfected evil.”

The office light went out. Graeme emerged from his sheltered recess, and walked along the side of the hangar until he could see the administration block’s main entrance. The drizzle was worsening, becoming rain. His suit felt cool, and unbearably clammy, restricting his movements. A prodigious amount of water was running off the ezystak-panel roof overhead, splattering onto the chippings round his soaking feet. Despite the physical discomfort and nagging consternation at Laton’s presence, he felt an excitement that had been absent for years. This was real journalism: the million to one break, the hazardous follow-up, getting the story at any cost. Those shits back in the editing offices could never handle this, safe paunchy career creatures; and they would know it too. His real victory.

Laton and his cohorts had all emerged into the bleak night wearing cagoules against the weather. They had their backs to him, heading for the flight line where the indistinct outlines of the parked McBoeings formed windows into an even graver darkness. Laton (betrayed by his height) had his arm around Marie.

“The beauty and the beast, look. What can she see in him? For Marie is just a simple colony girl, proud and decent, loving her new planet, working long hours like all of this city’s residents. She shares the planetary ethic of her neighbours, striving hard to achieve a better world for her children. Yet somehow she has stumbled. A warning that none of us is immune to the attraction of the dark side of human nature. I look at her, and I think: there but for the grace of God go I.”

Halfway along the McBoeings was a smaller spaceplane. It was obviously Laton’s goal. Bright light shone out of its open airlock, casting a grey smear across the ground. A couple of maintenance crew personnel were tending the mobile support units under its nose.

Graeme sneaked up to the big undercarriage bogies of a McBoeing forty metres away, and crouched down below the broad tyres. The spaceplane was one of the small swing-wing VTOL marques starships carried in their hangars. He switched his retinal implants to full magnification and scanned the fuselage. Sure enough, the name Yaku was printed on the low angular tail.

Some kind of argument was going on at the foot of the steps leading up to the airlock. The administration official was talking heatedly to another man wearing a cagoule with the LDC emblem on the arm. Both of them were waving their arms around. Laton, Marie, and Emlyn Hermon stood to one side, watching patiently.

“The last obstacle has been reached. It is ironic to consider that all that stands between Laton and the Confederation is one immigration official. One man between us and the prospect of galactic tragedy.”

The argument ended. A Jovian Bank disk was offered.

“Can we blame him? Should we blame him? It is a foul night. He has a family which looks to him for support. And how harmless it is, a few hundred fuseodollars to avert his eyes for one swift minute. Money which can buy food for his children in these troubled times. Money which can make life that fraction easier. How many of us would do the same? How many? Would you?” Nice touch that, involve people.

Laton and Marie went up the battered aluminium stairs, followed by a furtive Emlyn Hermon. The administration official was talking to the two ground crew.

Just as he reached the airlock hatch, Laton turned, the hood of his cagoule falling back to reveal his face in full. Handsome, well proportioned, a hint of aristocracy: Edenist sophistication, but without the cultural heritage, that essential counterbalance which made the affinity gene carriers human. It looked as though he was staring straight at Graeme Nicholson. He laughed with a debonair raffishness. Mocking.

Everyone in the Confederation who accessed the sensevise in the weeks which followed experienced the old journalist’s heart thud inside his ribs. All of a sudden breath was very hard to come by, stalling in his throat.

That pause, the derision. It wasn’t an accident, chance. Laton knew he was there, and didn’t care. Graeme was too far beneath him to care.

“He is going now. Free to roam the stars. Should I have tried to stop him? Put myself up against a man who can make entire worlds tremble at the mention of his name? If you think I should, then I am sorry. For I am so frightened of him. And I do not believe I would have made any difference, not against his strength. He would still be on his way.”

The airlock hatch shut. The two ground crew scuttled about, hunched against the rain, unplugging the thick dark-yellow ribbed hoses from their underbelly hatches. Compressors wound up, kicking out micro-squalls of the heavy rain. Their reedy sibilance built steadily until the spaceplane rocked on its undercarriage. It lifted into the murky sky.

“My duty now is to warn you all. I will do what I can, what I must, to ensure this sensevise reaches you. So that you know. He is coming. It is you who must fight him. I wish you luck. Those of us left here have our own battle against the calamity he has unleashed out in the hinterlands. It is not one for which we are well prepared, this is not a planet of epic heroes, just ordinary people like yourselves. As always, the burden falls upon those least able to shoulder it; for a terrible night has fallen on Lalonde, and I do not think we will see the dawn again.”

The spaceplane swooped up in a sharp climb, its wings beginning to fold back. It arrowed into the low, bulging cloud base, and disappeared from view.

A dozen paltry fires spluttered and hissed on the broad road outside the Governor’s dumper, the flames devouring fence posts and broken carts that had been snatched for fuel. Little knots of protesters clustered round them under the watchful eyes of the sheriffs and deputies circling the carbotanium cone. An uneasy truce had broken out after the anger and violence of the day. The earlier barrages of stones and bottles had been answered each time by cortical-jamming impulses from the sheriffs. Thankfully the protesters had refrained from using any real weapons today. Now the chanting had stopped. The naked menace in a thousand throats screaming in unison wasn’t something Colin Rexrew was accustomed to dealing with. He could never make out what they had been chanting for these last few days; he thought they weren’t entirely sure themselves apart from wanting the turmoil to end. Well, so did he. Very badly.

Each time Colin Rexrew looked out of his window he could see some new plume of smoke rising from the vista of dark rooftops. Tonight the horizon was dotted with three or four fierce orange flares as buildings burned. If it wasn’t for the rain and humidity Durringham would have been reduced to a single giant firestorm days ago.

And the deteriorating civic situation in the city wasn’t even his real problem.

When Candace Elford came into the office Colin Rexrew was behind his desk as always, gazing vacantly at the window strip and the luckless city outside. Terrance Smith gave her a fast, expressive grimace, and they both sat down.

“I’m afraid I have now effectively lost control over a third of the city,” she started.

It was the nightly situation briefing. Or the nightly crisis meeting, depending on how cynical Colin felt. The intensifying pressures seemed to make it hard to concentrate at the very times he needed his full mental resources. He would have given a lot to be able to run a stimulant program through his neural nanonics, or even escape into a MF album for a few hours like he used to in his adolescence. It would have made the strain a little easier to bear.

Not even his neural nanonics with their top of the range managerial programs were much help. There were too many unaccountable—downright weird—factors cropping up to apply standard responses. Had there ever been a stage one colony governor who had lost all control of his planet? The memory cells held no record of any.

What a way to get into the history books.

“Is it the invaders?” he asked.

“No, as far as we can make out they are still some distance away. What we’re dealing with here is mainly opportunist looting, and some organized grabs for power. Nothing political, but there are some strong criminal gangs who have been quick to take advantage of the unrest. I’d point out that most of the districts my sheriffs have been excluded from are on the south-eastern side of town. Those are the newest and poorest; in other words the most disaffected to begin with. The heart of the city, and more importantly the merchant and industrial sectors, remain stable. If anything, the older residents resent the lawlessness. I’m looking to recruit more deputies from them.”

“How long before you can start to regain control of the south-east districts?” Terrance Smith asked.

“At the moment I’m just looking to contain the trouble,” Candace Elford said.

“You mean you can’t?”

“I didn’t say that, but it isn’t going to be easy. The gangs have captured two dumpers, and their fusion generators. We can’t afford to damage them, and they know that. I lost a lot of good people in Ozark and on the Swithland fiasco. Plus we have to deal with the transient colonists. They seem to be the biggest problem right now; they’re holed up in the docks and I can’t shift them. There are barricades across every access route and there’s a lot of wanton destruction and looting going on. So half the port is currently unusable, which has antagonized the boat captains; and I have to deploy a lot of people to keep an eye on them.”

“Starve them out,” Colin said.

She nodded reluctantly. “That’s one option. About the least expensive at the moment. But it will take time, there was a lot of food stored in those warehouses.”

“The merchants won’t like that,” Terrance Smith said.

“Screw the merchants,” Colin said. “I’m sorry about the transients’ gear being looted, but that doesn’t excuse this kind of behaviour. We can help them eventually, but not if they’re going to hamper every effort with petty-minded belligerence.”

“Some families lost everything—”

“Tough shit! We are in danger of losing an entire planet of twenty million people. My priority is to the majority.”

“Yes, sir.”

There were times when Colin just felt like telling his aide: here’s my seat, you take over, you with your situation summaries and cautiously formulated response suggestions. Instead, the Governor walked over to the drinks cabinet and searched through the bottles for a decent chilled white wine, and to hell with the chief sheriff’s disapproval.

“Can we defend Durringham from the invaders?” he asked quietly as he flipped the neck seal and poured out a glass.

“If we had enough time to prepare, and you declared martial law, and if we had enough weapons.”

“Yes or no?”

Candace Elford watched the glass in the Governor’s hand. It was shaking quite badly, the wine nearly spilling. “I don’t think so,” she said. “Whatever it is that’s out there, it’s strong, well armed, and well organized. The Confederation Navy office thinks they are using some kind of sequestration technology to turn colonists into a slave army. Faced with that, I don’t think we really stand much of a chance.”

“Sequestration nanonics,” Colin mumbled as he sank back into his chair. “Dear God, who are these invaders? Xenocs? Some exiled group from another planet?”

“I’m not one hundred per cent certain,” she said. “But my satellite image analysis people found these this morning. I think it may throw a little light on the situation.” She datavised an order into the office’s computer. The wall-screens lit up, showing a blank section of jungle fifty kilometres west of Ozark.

The satellite had passed over in the middle of the afternoon, giving a clear bright image. Trees were compacted so tightly the jungle looked like an unbroken emerald plain. Five perfectly straight black lines began to probe across the green expanse, as if the talons of a huge invisible claw were being scored down the screen. The satellite cameras zoomed in on the head of one line, and Colin Rexrew saw trees being bulldozed into the ground. A big ten-wheeled vehicle rolled into view, grey metal glinting dully, a black bubble-cab protruding from a flat upper surface. It had a blunt wedge-shaped front that smashed through trunks without the slightest resistance. Viscous sprays of red-brown mud were being flung up by its rear wheels, caking the metal bodywork. There were another three identical vehicles following it along the track of shattered vegetation it was ripping through the jungle.

“We positively identified them as Dhyaan DLA404 landcruisers; they are made on Varzquez. Or I should say, were made. The Dhyaan company stopped producing that particular model over twenty years ago.”

Colin Rexrew datavised a search order into the office computer. “The LDC never brought any to Lalonde.”

“That’s right. The invaders brought them. What you’re seeing is the first definite proof that it is an external force behind all this. And they’re heading straight towards Durringham.”

“Dear God.” He put his empty wineglass down on the desk, and stared at the screens. The enemy had a physical form. After weeks of helpless wrestling with an elusive, possibly imaginary, foe, it was finally real; but a reason for the invasion, logical or otherwise, was impossible to devise.

Colin Rexrew gathered up what was left of his old determination and resolve. Something tangible gave his psyche a fragment of very welcome confidence. He accessed the one neural nanonics program he had thought he would never have to use, strategic military procedure, and put it into primary mode. “We have to stop deluding ourselves we can handle this on our own. I need combat troops backed up with real fire-power. I’m going to blow these invaders right off my planet. We only need to locate the headquarters. Kill the brain and the body is irrelevant. We can see about removing the sequestration nanonics from people later.”

“The LDC board will need convincing,” Terrance Smith said. “It won’t be easy.”

“They will be told afterwards,” Colin said. “You’ve seen those landcruisers. They’ll be here in a week. We must move fast. After all, it’s the board’s interest I’m ultimately protecting; without Lalonde there will be no LDC.”

“Where can you get troops from without going through the board?” Terrance asked.

“The same place they would ultimately get them from. We buy them on a short-term contract.”

“Mercenaries?” the aide asked in surprised alarm.

“Yes. Candace, where’s the nearest port we can get enough in reasonable numbers? I want armed ships, too; they can provide the fire-power back-up from low orbit. It’s expensive, but cheaper than buying in strategic-defence platforms. They can also prevent any more of the invader’s ships from landing.”

The chief sheriff gave him a long, testing stare. “Tranquillity,” she said eventually. “It’s a base for blackhawks and the so-called independent traders. Where you find the ships, you find the people. Ione Saldana might be young, but she’s not stupid, she won’t throw out the undesirables. The plutocrats who live in the habitat have too many uses for them.”

“Good,” Colin said decisively. “Terrance, cancel all work on Kenyon as of now. We’ll use the money earmarked for mining its main chamber. It always was bloody premature.”

“Yes, sir.”

“After that, you can take one of the colonist-carrier ships to Tranquillity and supervise the recruitment.”

“Me?”

“You.” Colin watched the protest form and die unvoiced on the younger man’s lips. “I want at least four thousand general troops to re-establish order in Durringham and the immediate counties. And I also want teams of combat scouts for the Quallheim Counties. They are going to have to be the best, because they are going to be assigned the search and destroy mission in the deep jungle. Once they locate the invader’s home base they can zero it for the starships’ weapons. We can pound it from orbit.”

“What sort of armaments are we looking for on these starships?” Terrance asked guardedly.

“Masers, X-ray lasers, particle beams, thermal inducers, kinetic harpoons, and atmospheric penetration nukes—straight fusion, I don’t want any radioactives clogging the environment.” He caught the aide’s eye. “And no antimatter, not under any circumstances.”

Terrance gave a cautious grin. “Thank you.”

“What ships have we got available in orbit right now?”

“That was something I was going to mention,” Terrance said. “The Yaku left its parking orbit this evening. It jumped outsystem.”

“So?”

“Firstly, it was a cargo ship, and only fifty per cent of its cargo had been unloaded. And cargo is the one thing we are still bringing down to the spaceport. It had no reason to leave. Secondly, it had no permission to leave. There was no prior contact with our Civil Flight Control Office. The only reason I found out it had left was because Kelven Solanki got in touch with me to query it. When I checked with flight control to ask why they hadn’t informed us about it, they didn’t even know Yaku had lifted from parking orbit. It turns out someone had erased the traffic-monitor satellite data from the spaceport computer.”

“Why?” Candace asked. “It’s not as if we have anything that could prevent them from leaving.”

“No,” Colin said slowly. “But we could have asked another ship to track it. Without the monitor satellite data we don’t know its jump coordinate, we don’t know where it went.”

“Solanki will have a copy,” Terrance said. “Ralph Hiltch too, I suspect. If he was pressed.”

“That’s all we need, another bloody puzzle,” Colin said. “See what you can find out,” he told Candace.

“Yes, sir.”

“Back to the original question. What other ships are available?”

Terrance consulted his neural nanonics. “There are eight left in orbit; three cargo ships, the rest colonist-carriers. And we’re due for another two colonist-carriers this week, as well as a Tyrathca merchant ship sometime before the end of the month to check on their farmers.”

“Don’t remind me,” Colin said sorely.

“I think the Gemal would be the best bet. That only has forty Ivets left in zero-tau. They can be transferred to the Tachad or the Martijn , both of them have spare zero-tau pods. It wouldn’t take more than a few hours.”

“Get onto it tonight,” Colin said. “And, Candace, that means the spaceport has to be defended at all costs. We have to be able get those troops down in the McBoeings. There’s nowhere else for them to land. The scouts can use VTOLs to take them direct to the Quallheim Counties, but the rest will have to use the McBoeings.”

“Yes, sir, I am aware of that.”

“Good, start organizing for it, then. Terrance, I want you back here in ten days. Give me one month, and I’ll have these bastards begging me for surrender terms.”

The gaussgun’s fragmentation round hit the man full in his chest, and penetrated to a depth of ten centimetres, already starting to crater the flesh, impact shock pulverizing the entire mass of organs held within his rib cage to mucilaginous jelly. Then it exploded, silicone shrapnel reducing the entire body to a spherical cascade of scarlet cells.

Will Danza grunted in acute satisfaction. “Try rebuilding yourself out of that, my xenoc friend,” he told the slippery red leaves.

The hostiles were impervious to almost any major injury. The little ESA team had found that out long ago. Gaping lacerations, severed limbs—they barely slowed the hostiles down as they emerged from the thick bushes to harass the party. Wounds closed up, bones knitted in seconds. Lieutenant Jenny Harris might insist on calling the prisoner a sequestrated colonist, but Will knew what it really was. Xenoc monster. And its friends wanted it back.

Twice in the last three kilometres Jenny Harris had been forced to order a sweep-scorch pattern. The things had been throwing that eerie white fire of theirs. Once a ball had struck Dean Folan’s arm, burning through the suit’s energy diffusion layer as if it wasn’t there. The medical nanonic package they’d put on his arm looked like a tube of translucent green exoskeleton.

“Hey!” Dean yelled. “Get back here!”

Jenny Harris looked round. Gerald Skibbow was running into the jungle, both arms pumping wildly. “Shitfire,” she muttered. He had been zipcuffed a moment ago. Dean was lining up his gaussgun.

“Mine,” she called. Her blue TIP carbine targeting graphic centred on a tree five metres ahead of the running man; the shots punched straight through the slim trunk, puffs of steam and flame squirted out. Gerald Skibbow swerved frantically as the tree toppled across his path. Another volley of shots and the jungle around him caught light. One final shot on his knee knocked his legs from under him.

The three of them trotted over where he lay sprawled in the crushed muddy vines.

“What happened?” Jenny asked. She had assigned Dean to guard the prisoner. Unless a gaussgun was in his back the whole time, Gerald Skibbow felt free to cause as much trouble as possible.

Dean held up the zipcuff. It was unbroken. “I saw a hostile,” he said. “I only turned away for a second.”

“OK,” Jenny sighed. “I wasn’t blaming you.” She bent over Gerald Skibbow, whose grimed face was grinning up at them, and jerked his right arm up. There was a narrow red line braceleting the wrist, an old scar. “Very clever,” she told him wearily. “Next time, I’ll order Dean to slice your legs off below the knee. We’ll see how long it takes you to grow a new pair.”

Gerald Skibbow laughed. “You don’t have that much time available, Madame bitch.”

She straightened up. Her spine creaked and groaned as if she was a hundred and fifty. She felt older. The fire was crackling loudly in the surrounding bushes, flames inhibited by the green twigs.

It was another four kilometres back to the Isakore , and the jungle was becoming progressively thicker. Vines here wrapped the trees like major arteries, creating a solid hurdle of verdant mesh between the trunks. Visibility was down to less than twenty-five metres, and that was with enhanced senses.

We’re not going to make it, she realized.

They’d been expending gaussgun ammunition at a heavy rate ever since they set off. They had to, nothing else worked against the hostiles. Even the two TIP carbines were down to forty per cent of their power reserve. “Get him up,” she ordered curtly.

Will clamped an arm round Gerald Skibbow’s shoulder and hauled him to his feet.

White fire burst out of the ground around Jenny’s feet, damp loam tearing open to spit out dazzling globules which spiralled up her legs like a liquid repelled by gravity. She screamed at the pain as her skin blistered and burned inside the anti-projectile suit. Her neural nanonics isolated the nerve strands, eliminating the raw impulses with analgesic blocks.

Will and Dean started firing their gaussguns at random into the blank impassive jungle in the vain hope of hitting a hostile. EE projectiles mashed the nearby trees. Shreds of sappy vegetation whirred through the air, forming a loose curtain behind which vivid explosions boomed.

The viscid beads of white fire evaporated as they reached Jenny’s hips. She clenched her teeth against the solid ache from her legs. Frightened by the damage her neural nanonics were shielding her from. Frightened she couldn’t walk. The medical program was choking up her mind with red symbols, all of them clustered around schematics of her legs like bees round honey. She felt faint.

“We can help you,” silver voices whispered in chorus.

“What?” she asked, disorientated. She sat on the lumpy ground to take the strain off her legs. Her trembling muscles had been about to dump her there anyway.

“You all right, Jenny?” Dean asked. He was standing with the gaussgun pointing threateningly into the broken trees.

“Did you say something?”

“Yes, are you OK?”

“I . . .” I’m hearing things. “We’ve got to get out of here.”

“First thing you have to do is get a medical nanonic package on those legs. I think there’s enough,” he said, uncertainty clouding his voice.

Jenny knew there wasn’t, not to get her patched up for a hike of four kilometres under combat conditions. The neural nanonics prognosis wasn’t good; the program was activating her endocrine implant, sending a potent stew of chemicals into her bloodstream. “No,” she said forcefully. “We’re not going to get back to the boat like this.”

“We ain’t going to leave you,” Will said hotly.

She grinned unseen inside her shell-helmet. “Believe me, I wasn’t going to ask you to. Even if the medical nanonics can get me walking, we don’t have enough ordnance left to blast our way back to the Isakore from here.”

“What then?” Will demanded.

Jenny requested a channel to Murphy Hewlett. Static crashed into her neural nanonics, that eerie whistling. “Shitfire. I can’t get the marines.” She hated the idea of abandoning them.

“I think I can see why,” Dean said. He pointed at the treetops. “Smoke, and plenty of it. South of here. Some distance by the look of it. They must have laid down a sweep-scorch pattern. They got troubles, too.”

Jenny couldn’t see any smoke. Even the leaves at the top of the trees had turned a barren grey. Her vision was tunnelling. A physiological-status request showed her endocrines were barely coping with the flayed legs. “Sling me your medical nanonics,” she said.

“Right.” Will fired six EE rounds into the jungle then hurriedly detached his backpack and tossed it over. He was back watching the abused trees before it reached her.

She ordered her communications block to open a channel to Ralph Hiltch, then turned the backpack seal’s catch and fumbled around inside. Instead of the subliminal digital bleep that signalled the block was interfacing with the geosynchronous platform, all she heard was a monotonous buzz.

“Will, Dean, open a channel to the geosync platform, maybe a combined broadcast will get through.” She picked up her TIP carbine, and pointed it at Gerald Skibbow, who was squatting sullenly beside a swath of vines four metres away. “And you, if I think you are part of the jamming effort, I will start a little experiment to see exactly how much thermal energy you can fight off. You got me, Mr. Skibbow? Is this message getting through the electronic warfare barrier?”

The communication block reported the channel to the embassy was open.

“What’s happening?” Ralph Hiltch asked.

“Trouble—” Jenny broke off to hiss loudly. The medical nanonic package was contracting round her left leg, it felt as though a thousand acid-tipped needles were jabbing into the roasted gouges as the furry inner surface knitted with her flesh. She had to order the neural nanonics to block all the nerve impulses. Her legs went completely numb, lacking even the heavy vacuum feeling of chemical anaesthetics. “Boss, I hope that fall-back scheme of yours works. Because we need it pretty badly. Now, boss.”

“OK, Jenny. I’m putting it in motion. ETA fifteen minutes, can you hang on that long?”

“No problem,” Will said. He sounded indecently cheerful.

“Are you secure where you are?” Ralph asked.

“Our security situation wouldn’t change if we moved,” Jenny told him, marvelling at her own understatement.

“OK, I’ve got your coordinates. Use your TIP carbines to scorch a clearing at least fifty metres across. I’ll need it for a landing-zone.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’m on my way.”

Jenny swapped her TIP carbine for Dean’s gaussgun. By sitting with her back to a tree she could keep it pointed at Gerald Skibbow. The two G66 troops began slashing at the jungle with their TIP carbines.

The captain of the Ekwan was a middle-aged woman in a blue ship-suit, with the kind of robust, lanky figure that suggested she was from a space-adapted geneered family. The AV projector showed her floating ten centimetres above the acceleration couch in her compact cabin. “How did you know we were leaving orbit?” she asked. Her voice was slightly distorted by a curious whistle that was coming through the relay from the LDC’s geosynchronous communication platform.

Graeme Nicholson smiled thinly at her puzzled tone. He diverted his eyes from the projection for a second. On the other side of Durringham spaceport’s flight control centre Langly Bradburn rolled his eyes and turned back to his monitor console.

“I have a contact in the Kulu Embassy,” Graeme said, returning to the projection.

“This isn’t a commercial flight,” the captain said, a fair amount of resentment bubbling into her voice.

“I know.” Graeme had heard of the Kulu Ambassador throwing his authority around and virtually commandeering the Kulu-registered colonist-carrier. A situation which became even more interesting when he discovered from Langly that it was Cathal Fitzgerald who was in orbit making sure the captain did as she was told. Cathal Fitzgerald was one of Ralph Hiltch’s people. And now, as Graeme looked through the flight control centre’s window, he could see a queue of people standing on the nearby hangar apron, shoulders angled against the rain as they embarked on a passenger McBoeing BDA-9008. The entire embassy staff and dependants. “But it is only one memory flek,” he said winningly. “And the Time Universe office will pay a substantial bonus when you hand it in to them, I can assure you of that.”

“I haven’t been told where we’re going yet.”

“We have offices in every Confederation system. And it would be a personal favour,” Graeme emphasized.

There was a pause as the captain worked out that she would receive the entire carriage fee herself. “Very well, Mr. Nicholson. Give it to the McBoeing pilot, I’ll meet him when he docks.”

“Thank you, Captain, pleasure doing business with you.”

“I thought you sent a flek out with the Gemal this morning?” Langly observed as Graeme switched off the metre-high projection pillar.

“I did, old boy. Just covering my back.”

“Are people really going to be interested in a riot on Lalonde? Nobody even knows this planet even exists.”

“They will. Oh, indeed they will.”

Rain slammed against the little spaceplane’s fuselage as it dived out through the bottom of the clouds. It made a fast rattling sound against the tough silicolithium-composite skin. Individual drops burst into streaks of steam, vaporized by the friction heat of the craft’s Mach five velocity.

Looking over the pilot’s shoulder Ralph Hiltch saw the jungle blurring past below. It was grey-green, sprinkled by flexuous strands of mist. Up ahead was a broad band of brighter grey where the clouds ended, and getting broader.

“Ninety seconds,” Kieron Syson, the pilot, shouted over the noise.

A loud metallic whirring filled the small cabin as the wings began to swing forward. The spaceplane pitched up at a sharp angle, and the noise of the rain impacts increased until talking was impossible. Deceleration hit three gees, forcing Ralph back into one of the cabin’s six plastic seats.

Sunlight burst into the cabin with a fast rainbow flash. The sound of the rain vanished. They levelled out as their speed dropped to subsonic.

“We’ll need a complete structure fatigue check after this,” Kieron Syson complained. “Nobody flies supersonic through rain, half the leading edges have abraded down to their safety margins.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Ralph told him. “It’ll be paid for.” He turned to check with Cathal Fitzgerald. Both of them were wearing the same model of olive green one-piece anti-projectile suits as Jenny and the two G66 troops. It had been a long time since Ralph had dressed for combat, a cool tension was compressing his body inside and out.

“Looks like your people have been having themselves a wild time,” Kieron said.

Away in the southern distance a vast column of dense soot-laden smoke was rising high into the pale blue sky, a ring of flames dancing round its base. Ten kilometres to the east a kilometre-wide ebony crater had been burned out of the trees.

The spaceplane banked sharply, variable-camber wings twisting elastically to circle it round a third, smaller, blackened clearing. This one was only a hundred metres across. Small licks of flame fluttered from the fallen trees around the perimeter, and thin blue smoke formed a mushroom dome of haze. There was a small green island of withered vegetation in the exact centre.

“That’s them,” Kieron said as the spaceplane’s guidance systems locked on to the signal from Jenny Harris’s communication block.

Four people were standing on the crush of vine leaves and grass. As Ralph watched, one of them fired a gaussgun into the jungle.

“Down and grab them,” he told Kieron. “And make it fast.”

Kieron whistled through closed teeth. “Why me, Lord?” he muttered stoically.

Ralph heard the fan nozzles rotate to the vertical, and the undercarriage clunked as it unfolded. They were swinging round the black scorch zone in decreasing circles. He ordered his communication block to open a local channel to Jenny Harris.

“We’re coming down in fifty seconds,” he told her. “Get ready to run.”

The cabin airlock’s outer hatch hinged open, showing him the fuselage shield sliding back. A blast of hot, moist air hurtled in, along with the howl of the compressors.

“Faster, boss,” Jenny shouted, her voice raw. “We’ve only got thirty gaussgun rounds left. Once we stop this suppression fire they’ll hit the spaceplane with everything they’ve got.”

A fine black powder was churning through the cabin like a sable sandstorm. Environment-contamination warnings sounded above the racket from the compressors, amber lights winked frantically on the forward bulkhead.

“Land us now,” Ralph ordered Kieron. “Cathal, give them some covering fire, scorch that jungle.”

The compressor noise changed, becoming strident. Cathal Fitzgerald moved into the airlock, bracing himself against the outer hatch rim. He began to swing his TIP carbine in long arcs. A sheet of flame lashed the darkening sky around the edge of the clearing.

“Ten seconds,” Kieron said. “I’ll get as close to them as I can.”

Ash rose up in a cyclonic blizzard as the compressor nozzle efflux splashed against the ground. Visibility was reduced drastically. An orange glow from the flames fluoresced dimly on one side of the spaceplane.

Jenny Harris watched the craft touch and bounce, then settle. She could just make out the name Ekwan on the narrow, angled tail. Ralph Hiltch and Cathal Fitzgerald were two indistinct figures hanging on to the side of the open airlock. One of them was waving madly; she guessed it was Ralph.

Will Danza fired the last of his gaussgun rounds, and dropped the big weapon. “Empty,” he muttered in disgust. His TIP carbine came up, and he started adding to the flames.

“Come on, move!” Ralph’s datavise was tangled with discordant static.

“Get Skibbow in,” Jenny ordered Dean and Will. “I’ll cover our backs.” She brought her TIP carbine to bear on the soot-occluded jungle, putting her back to the spaceplane.

Will and Dean grabbed Gerald Skibbow and started to drag him towards the sleek little craft.

Jenny limped after them, trailing by several metres. The last heavy duty power cell banged against her side, its energy level down to seven per cent. She reduced the carbine’s rate of fire, and fired off fifteen shots blindly. Grunting and shuffling sounds were coming down her headset, relayed by the suit’s audio pick-ups. She flicked to her rear optical sensors for a moment and saw Gerald Skibbow putting up a struggle as four people tried to haul him through the spaceplane’s airlock hatch. Ralph Hiltch slammed his carbine butt into Gerald’s face. Blood poured out of the colonist’s broken nose, dazing him long enough for Will to shove his legs through.

Jenny switched her attention back to her forward view. Five figures were solidifying out of the swirl of ash. They were stooped humanoids; like big apes, she thought. Blue targeting graphics closed like a noose around one. She fired, sending it flailing backwards.

A ball of white fire raced out of the gloom, too fast to duck. It splashed over her TIP carbine, intensifying. The weapon casing distorted, buckling as though it was made of soft wax. She couldn’t free her fingers from the grip; it had melted round them. Her throat voiced a desolate cry as the terrible fire bit hard into her knuckles. The flaming remnants of the carbine fell to the ground. She held up her hand; there were no fingers or thumb, only the smoking stump of her palm. Her cry turned to a wail, and she tripped over a root protruding from the loam. The woody strand coiled fluidly round her ankle like a malicious serpent. Four dark figures loomed closer, a fifth lumbering up behind.

She twisted round on the ground. The spaceplane was twelve metres away. Gerald Skibbow was lying on the floor of the airlock with two suited figures on top of him pinning him down. He looked straight at Jenny, a gleeful sneer on his blooded lips. The root tightened its vicelike grip, cutting into her ankle. He was doing it, she knew that then.

“Lift,” she datavised. “Ralph, for God’s sake lift. Get him to Ombey.”

“Jenny!”

“Make it mean something.”

One of the dark figures landed on her. It was a man, strangely corpulent, bulky without being fat; thick matted hair covered his entire body. Then she couldn’t see anything; his belly was pressed against her shell-helmet.

That quiet chorus spoke to her again. “There is no need for fear,” it said. “Let us help you.”

Another of the man-things gripped her knees, his buttocks squashing her damaged legs into the ground. The front of her anti-projectile suit was ripped open. It was difficult to breathe now.

“Jenny! Oh Christ, I can’t shoot, they’re on top of her.”

“Lift!” she begged. “Just lift.”

All the neural nanonics analgesic blocks seemed to have collapsed. The pain from her legs and hand was debilitating, crushing her thoughts. More ripping sounds penetrated her dimming universe. She felt hot, damp air gust across her bared crotch.

“We can stop it,” the chorus told her. “We can save you. Let us in.” There was a pressure against her thoughts, like a warm dry wind blowing through her skull.

“Go to hell,” she moaned. She sent one final diamond-hard thought needling into her faltering neural nanonics, a kamikaze code. The order was transferred into the high-density power cell, shorting it out. She wondered if there would be enough energy left for an explosion big enough to engulf all the man-things.

There was.

The Ekwan fell around Lalonde’s equator, six hundred kilometres above the brown and ochre streaks of the deserts which littered the continent of Sarell. With its five windmill-sail thermo-dump panels extended from its central section, the colonist-carrier was rotating slowly about its drive axis, completing one revolution every twenty minutes. A passenger McBoeing BDA-9008 was docked to an airlock tube on its forward hull.

It was a tranquil scene, starship and spaceplane sliding silently over Sarell’s rocky shores and out across the deepening blues of the ocean. Thousands of kilometres ahead, the terminator cast a black veil over half of Amarisk. Every few minutes a puff of smoky yellow vapour would flash out of a vernier nozzle between the starship’s thermo-dump panels, gone in an eyeblink.

Such nonchalant technological prowess created an effect which totally belied the spectacle inside the airlock tube, where children cried and threw up and red-faced parents cursed as they fended off the obnoxious sticky globules. Nobody had been given time to prepare for the departure; all they had brought with them was clothes and valuable items stuffed hastily into shoulder-bags. Children hadn’t even been given anti-nausea drugs. The embassy staffers shouted back and forth in angry tones, disguising both relief at leaving Lalonde and disgust at the flying vomit. But the Ekwan ’s crew were used to the behaviour of planet dwellers; they floated around with hand-held suction sanitizers, and cajoled the reluctant children towards one of the five big zero-tau compartments.

Captain Farrah Montgomery watched the picture projected from an AV pillar on the bridge command console, indifferent to the suffering. She’d seen it all before, a thousand times over. “Are you going to tell me where we are heading?” she asked the man strapped into her executive officer’s acceleration couch. “I can start plotting our course vector. Might save some time.”

“Ombey,” said Sir Asquith Parish, Kulu’s Ambassador to Lalonde.

“You’re the boss,” she said acidly.

“I don’t like this any more than you.”

“We’ve got three thousand colonists left in zero-tau. What are you going to tell them when we get to the Principality?”

“I’ve no idea. Though once they hear what’s actually happening down on the surface I doubt they’ll complain.”

Captain Montgomery thought about the flek in her breast pocket with a glimmer of guilt. The reports they’d been receiving from Durringham over the past week were pretty garbled, too. Maybe they were better off leaving. At least she could transfer the responsibility to the ambassador when the line company started asking questions.

“How soon before we can leave orbit?” Sir Asquith asked.

“As soon as Kieron gets back. You know, you had no right to send him on a flight like that.”

“We can wait for two more orbits.”

“I’m not leaving without my pilot.”

“If they’re not airborne by then, you don’t have a pilot any more.”

She turned her head to look at him. “Just what is going on down there?”

“I wish I knew, Captain. But I can tell you I’m bloody glad we’re leaving.”

The McBoeing undocked as the Ekwan moved into the penumbra. Its pilot fired the orbital manoeuvring rockets, and it dropped away into an elliptical orbit which would intercept Lalonde’s upper atmosphere. Ekwan started her preflight checks, testing the ion thrusters, priming the fusion tubes. The crew scurried through the life-support capsules, securing loose fittings and general rubbish.

“Got him,” the navigation officer called out.

Captain Montgomery datavised the flight computer, requesting the external sensor images.

A long contrail of blue-white plasma stretched out across Amarisk’s darkened eastern side, its star-head racing over the seaboard mountains. Already fifty kilometres high and rising. Bright enough to send a backwash of lame phosphorescent light skating over the snow-capped peaks.

Ekwan ’s flight computer acknowledged a communication channel opening.

Ralph Hiltch watched the hyped-up Kieron Syson start to relax once he could datavise the starship again. It should have been something for Ralph to be thankful about, too, communications had been impossible in the aftermath of the landing. Instead he treated it like a non-event, he expected nothing less than the communications block to work. They were owed functional circuitry.

Environment-contamination warning lights were still winking amber, though the pilot had shut off the cabin’s audio alarm. The air was dry and calciferous, scratching the back of Ralph’s throat. Gravity was falling off as they soared ever higher above the ocean, curving up to rendezvous with the big colonist-carrier. The prolonged bass roar of the reaction rockets was reducing.

The air they breathed was bad enough, but the human atmosphere in the spaceplane’s confined cabin was murderous. Gerald Skibbow sat at the rear of the cabin, shrunk down into his plastic seat, a zipcuff restraining each wrist against the armrests, his hands white knuckled as he gripped the cushioning. He had been subdued since the airlock hatch closed. But then Will and Dean were looking hard for an excuse to rip his head off. Jenny’s death had been fast (thank God) but very, very messy.

Ralph knew he should be reviewing the memory of the ape-analogue creatures, gaining strategically critical information on the threat they faced, but he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. Let the ESA office on Ombey study the memory sequence, they wouldn’t be so emotionally involved. Jenny had been a damn good officer, and a friend.

The spaceplane’s reaction drive cut off. Free fall left Ralph’s stomach rising up through his chest. He accessed a nausea-suppression program and quickly activated it.

Huddled in his chair, Gerald Skibbow began to tremble as the forked strands of his filthy, blood-soaked beard waved about in front of his still-bleeding nose.

Ekwan ’s hangar was a cylindrical chamber ribbed by metal struts; the walls were composed of shadows and crinkled silver blankets. The spaceplane, wings fully retracted, eased its squashed-bullet nose through the open doors into the waiting clamp ring. Actuators slid catches into a circle of load sockets behind the radar dome, and the craft was drawn inside.

Three of Ekwan ’s security personnel, experts at handling troublesome Ivets in free fall, swam into the cabin, coughing at the ash dust which filled the air.

Will took the zipcuffs off Gerald Skibbow. “Run, why don’t you,” he said silkily.

Gerald Skibbow gave him a contemptuous glance, which turned to outright alarm as he rose into the air. Hands clawed frantically for a grip on the cabin ceiling. He wound up clutching a grab loop for dear life.

The grinning security personnel closed in.

“Just tow him the whole way,” Ralph told them. “And you, Skibbow, don’t cause any trouble. We’ll be right behind, and we’re armed.”

“You can’t use TIP carbines in the ship,” one of the security men protested.

“Oh, really? Try me.”

Gerald Skibbow reluctantly let go of the grab loop, and let the men tug him along by his arms. The eight-strong group drifted out into the tubular corridor connecting the hangar to one of the life-support capsules.

Sir Asquith Parish was waiting outside the zero-tau compartment, a stikpad holding his feet in place. He gave Gerald Skibbow a distasteful look. “You lost Jenny Harris for him?”

“Yes, sir,” Will said through clamped teeth.

Sir Asquith recoiled.

“Whatever sequestrated him has several ancillary energy-manipulation functions,” Ralph explained. “He is lethal; one on one, he’s better than any of us.”

The ambassador gave Gerald Skibbow a fast reappraisal. Light strips circling the corridor outside the zero-tau compartment hatch flickered and dimmed.

“Stop it,” Dean growled. He jabbed his TIP carbine into the small of Skibbow’s back.

The light strips came up to full strength again.

Gerald Skibbow laughed jauntily at the shaken ambassador as the security men shoved him through the hatch. Ralph Hiltch cocked an ironic eyebrow, then followed them in.

The zero-tau compartment was a big sphere, sliced into sections by mesh decking that was only three metres apart. It didn’t look finished; it was poorly lit, with bare metal girders and kilometres of power cable stuck to every surface. The sarcophagus pods formed long silent ranks, their upper surface a blank void. Most of them were activated, holding the colonists who had gambled their future on conquering Lalonde.

Gerald Skibbow was manoeuvred to an open pod just inside the hatchway. He glanced around the compartment, his head turning in fractured movements to take in the compartment. The security men holding him felt his muscles tensing.

“Don’t even think of it,” one said.

He was propelled firmly towards the waiting pod.

“No,” he said.

“Get in,” Ralph told him impatiently.

“No. Not that. Please. I’ll be good, I’ll behave.”

“Get in.”

“No.”

One of the security men anchored himself to the decking grid with a toe clip, and tugged him down.

“No!” He gripped both sides of the open pod, his features stone-carved with determination. “I won’t!” he shouted.

“In!”

“No.”

All three security men were pushing and shoving at him. Gerald Skibbow strove against them. Will tucked a leg round a nearby girder, and smacked the butt of his TIP carbine against Gerald Skibbow’s left hand. There was a crunch as the bones broke.

He howled, but managed to keep hold. His fingers turned purple, the skin undulating. “No!”

The carbine came down again. Ralph put his hands flat against the decking above, and stood on Gerald Skibbow’s back, knees straining, trying to thrust him down into the pod.

Gerald Skibbow’s broken hand slipped a couple of centimetres, leaving a red smear. “Stop this, stop this.” Rivulets of white light began to shiver across his torso.

Ralph felt as though his own spine was going to snap, the force his boosted muscles were exerting against his skeleton was tremendous. The soles of his feet were tingling sharply, the worms of white light coiling round his ankles. “Dean, switch the pod on the second he’s in.”

“Sir.”

The hand slipped again. Gerald Skibbow started a high-pitched animal wailing. Will hammered away at his left elbow. Firefly sparks streaked back up the carbine every time it hit, as though he was striking flint.

“Get in, you bastard,” one of the security men shouted, nearly purple from the effort, face shrivelled like a rubber mask.

Gerald Skibbow gave way, the arm Will had hammered on finally losing hold. He crashed down into the bottom of the pod with an oof of air punched out through his open mouth. Ralph cried out at the shock of the jolt that was transmitted back up his cramped legs. The curving lid of the pod began to slide into place, and he bent his knees frantically, lifting his legs out of the way.

“No!” Gerald Skibbow shouted. He had begun to glow like a hologram profile, rainbow colours shining bright in the compartment’s gloom. His voice was cut off by the lid sliding into place, and it locked with a satisfying mechanical click . There was a muffled thud of a fist striking the composite.

“Where’s the bloody zero-tau?” Will said. “Where is it?”

The lid of the pod hadn’t changed, there was no sign of the slippery black field effect. Gerald Skibbow was pounding away on the inside with the fervour of a man buried alive.

“It’s on,” Dean shouted hoarsely from the operator’s control panel. “Christ, it’s on, it’s drawing power.”

Ralph stared at the sarcophagus in desperation. Work, he pleaded silently, come on fuck you, work! Jenny died for this.

“Switch on, you shit!” Will screamed at it.

Gerald Skibbow stopped punching the side of the pod. A black emptiness irised over the lid.

Will let out a sob of exhausted breath.

Ralph realized he was clinging weakly to one of the girders, the real fear had been that Gerald Skibbow would break out. “Tell the captain we’re ready,” he said in a drained voice. “I want to get him to Ombey as quickly as we can.”

Chapter 02

The event horizon around Villeneuve’s Revenge dissolved the instant the starship expanded out to its full forty-eight-metre size. Solar wind and emaciated light from New California’s distant sun fell on the dark silicon hull which its disappearance exposed. Short-range combat sensors slid out of their jump recesses with smooth animosity, metallic black tumours inset with circular gold-mirror lenses. They scoured a volume of space five hundred kilometres across, hungry for a specific shape.

Data streams from the sensors sparkled through Erick Thakrar’s mind, a rigid symbolic language written in monochromic light. Cursors chased through the vast constantly reconfiguring displays, closing in on an explicit set of values like circling photonic-sculpture vultures. Radiation, mass, and laser returns slotted neatly into their parameter definition.

The Krystal Moon materialized out of the fluttering binary fractals, hanging in space two hundred and sixty kilometres away. An inter-planetary cargo ship, eighty metres long; a cylindrical life-support capsule at one end, silver-foil-cloaked tanks and dull-red fusion-drive tube clustered at the other. Thermo-dump panels formed a ruff collar on the outside of the environmental-engineering deck just below the life-support capsule; communication dishes jutted out of a grid tower on the front of it. The ship’s midsection was a hexagonal gantry supporting five rings of standard cargo-pods, some of them plugged into the environmental deck via thick cables and hoses.

A slender twenty-five-metre flame of hazy blue plasma burnt steadily from the fusion tube, accelerating the Krystal Moon at an unvarying sixtieth of a gee. It had departed Tehama asteroid five days ago with its cargo of industrial machinery and micro-fusion generators, bound for the Ukiah asteroid settlement in the outer asteroid belt Dana, which orbited beyond the gas giant Sacramento. Of the star’s three asteroid belts, Dana was the least populated; traffic this far out was thin. Krystal Moon ’s sole link to civilization (and navy protection) was its microwave communication beam, focused on Ukiah, three hundred and twenty million kilometres ahead.

Erick’s neural nanonics reported that pattern lock was complete. He commanded the X-ray lasers to fire.

Two hundred and fifty kilometres away, the Krystal Moon ’s microwave dishes burst apart into a swirl of aluminium snowflakes. A long brown scar appeared on the forward hull of the life-support capsule.

God, I hope no one was in the cabin below.

Erick tried to push that thought right back to the bottom of his mind. Straying out of character, even for a second, could quite easily cost him his life. They’d drilled that into him enough times back at the academy. There was even a behavioural consistency program loaded into his neural nanonics to catch any wildly inaccurate reactions. But flinches and sudden gasps could be equally damning.

The Villeneuve’s Revenge triggered its fusion drive, and accelerated in towards the stricken cargo ship at five and a half gees. Erick sent another two shots from the X-ray cannon squirting into the Krystal Moon ’s fusion tube. Its drive flame died. Coolant fluid vented out of a tear in the casing, hidden somewhere in the deep shadows on the side away from the sun, the fountain fluorescing grey-blue as it jetted out from behind the ship.

“Nice going, Erick,” André Duchamp commented. He had the secondary fire-control program loaded in his own neural nanonics. If the newest crew-member hadn’t fired he could have taken over within milliseconds. Despite Erick’s performance in the Catalina Bar, André had a single nagging doubt. After all, O’Flaherty was one of their own—after a fashion—and eliminating him didn’t require many qualms no matter who you were; but firing on an unarmed civil ship . . . You have earned your place on board, André said silently. He cancelled his fire-control program.

Villeneuve’s Revenge was a hundred and twenty kilometres from the Krystal Moon when André turned the starship and started decelerating. The hangar doors began to slide open. He started to whistle against the push of the heavy gee force.

He had a right to be pleased. Even though it had only been a tiny interplanetary jump, two hundred and sixty kilometres was an excellent separation distance. Since leaving Tehama, Villeneuve’s Revenge had been in orbit around Sacramento. They had extended every sensor, focusing along the trajectory Lance Coulson had sold them until they had found the faint splash of the Krystal Moon ’s exhaust. With its exact position and acceleration available in real time, it was just a question of manufacturing themselves a jump co-ordinate.

Two hundred and sixty kilometres, there were voidhawks that would be pushed to match that kind of accuracy.

Thermo-dump panels stayed inside the monobonded silicon hull as the Villeneuve’s Revenge rendezvoused with Krystal Moon . The jump nodes were fully charged. André was cautious, they might need to leave in a hurry. It had happened before; stealthed voidhawks lying in wait, Confederation Navy Marines hiding in the cargo-pods. Not to him, though.

“Bev, give our target an active sensor sweep, please,” André ordered.

“Yes, Captain,” Bev Lennon said. The combat sensors sent out fingers of questing radiation to probe the Krystal Moon .

The brilliant lance of fusion fire at the rear of the Villeneuve’s Revenge sank away to a minute bubble of radiant helium clinging to the tube’s nozzle. Krystal Moon was six kilometres away, wobbling slightly from the impulse imparted by the venting coolant fluid. Thrusters flared around the rear bays, trying to compensate and stabilize.

Ion thrusters on the Villeneuve’s Revenge fired, nudging the bulky starship in towards its floundering prey. Brendon piloted the multifunction service vehicle up out of the hangar and set off towards the Krystal Moon . One of the cargo-bay doors slowly hinged upwards behind him.

“Come on, Brendon,” André murmured impatiently as the small auxiliary craft rode its bright yellow chemical rocket exhaust across the gap. Ukiah traffic control would know the communication link had been severed in another twelve minutes; it would take the bureaucrats a few minutes to react, then sensors would review the Krystal Moon ’s track. They’d see the spaceship’s fusion drive was off, coupled with the lack of an emergency distress beacon. That could only mean one thing. The navy would be alerted, and if the Villeneuve’s Revenge was really unlucky a patrolling voidhawk would investigate. André was allowing twenty minutes maximum for the raid.

“It checks out clean,” Bev Lennon reported. “But the crew must have survived that first X-ray laser strike, I’m picking up electronic emissions from inside the life-support capsule. The flight computers are still active.”

“And they’ve suppressed the distress beacon,” André said. “That’s smart, they must know we’d slice that can in half to silence any shout for help. Maybe they’ll be in a cooperative mood.” He datavised the flight computer to open an inter-ship channel.

Erick heard the hiss of static fill the dimly lit bridge as the AV pillar was activated. A series of musical bleeps came with it, then the distinct sound of a child crying. He saw Madeleine Collum’s head come up from her acceleration couch, turning in the direction of the communication console. Blue and red shadows flowed over her gaunt, shaven skull.

Krystal Moon , acknowledge contact,” André said.

“Acknowledge?” a ragged outraged male voice shouted out of the AV pillar. “You shithead animal, two of my crew are dead. Fried! Tina was fifteen years old!”

Erick’s neural nanonics staunched the sudden damp fire in his eyes. A fifteen-year-old girl. Great God Almighty! These interplanetary ships were often family operated affairs, cousins and siblings combining into crews.

“Release the latches on pods DK-30-91 and DL-30-07,” André said as though he hadn’t heard. “That’s all we’re here for.”

“Screw you.”

“We’ll cut them free anyway, Anglo , and if we cut then the capsule will be included. I’ll open your hull up to space like the foil on a freeze-dried food packet.”

A visual check through the combat sensors showed Erick the MSV was two hundred metres away from the Krystal Moon . Desmond Lafoe had already fitted laser cutters to the craft’s robot arms; the spindly white waldos were running through a preprogrammed articulation test. Villeneuve’s Revenge was lumbering along after the smaller, more agile, auxiliary craft; three kilometres away now.

“We’ll think about it,” said the voice.

“Daddy!” the girl in the background wailed. “Daddy, make them go away.”

A woman shushed her, sounding fearful.

“Don’t think about it,” André said. “Just do it.”

The channel went silent.

“Bastards,” André muttered. “Erick, put another blast through that capsule.”

“If we kill them, they can’t release the pods.”

André scowled darkly. “Scare them, don’t kill them.”

Erick activated one of the starship’s lasers; it was designed for close-range interception, the last layer of defence against incoming combat wasps. Powerful and highly accurate. He reduced the power level to five per cent, and lined it up on the front of the life-support capsule. The infrared beam sliced a forty-centimetre circle out of the foam-covered hull. Steamy gas erupted out of the breach.

André grunted at what he considered to be Erick’s display of timidity, and opened the inter-ship channel again. “Release the pods.”

There was no answer. Erick couldn’t hear the girl any more.

Brendon guided the MSV around the rings of barrel-like cargo-pods circling the Krystal Moon ’s mid-section. He found the first pod containing microfusion generators, and focused the MSV’s external cameras on it. The latch clamps of the cradle it was lying in were closed solidly round the load pins. Sighing regretfully at the time and effort it would cost to cut the pod free, he engaged the MSV’s attitude lock, keeping station above the pod, then datavised the waldo-control computer to extend the arm. Droplets of molten metal squirted out where the cutting laser sliced through the clamps, a micrometeorite swarm glowing as if they were grazing an atmosphere.

“Something’s happening,” Bev Lennon reported. The electronic sensors were showing him power circuits coming alive inside the Krystal Moon ’s life-support capsule. Atmosphere was still spewing out of the lasered hole, unchecked. “Hey—”

A circular section of the hull blew out. Erick’s mind automatically directed the X-ray lasers towards the hole revealed by the crumpled sheet of metal as it twirled off towards the stars. A small craft rose out of the hole, ascending on a pillar of flame. Recognition was immediate: lifeboat.

It was a cone, four metres across at the base, five metres high; with a doughnut of equipment and tanks wrapped round the nose. Tarnished-silver protective foam reflected distorted star-specks. The lifeboat could sustain six people for a month in space, or jettison the equipment doughnut and land on a terracompatible planet. Cheaper than supplying the crew with zero-tau pods, and given that the mother ship would only be operating in an inhabited star system, just as safe.

Merde , now we’ll have to laser every latch clamp,” André complained. He could see that Brendon had cut loose half of the first pod. By his own timetable, they had nine minutes left. It was going to be a close-run thing. “Knock that bloody lifeboat out, Erick.”

“No,” Erick said calmly. The lifeboat had stopped accelerating. Its spent solid rocket booster was jettisoned.

“I gave you an order.”

“Piracy is one thing; I’m not being a party to slaughter. There are children on that lifeboat.”

“He’s right, André,” Madeleine Collum said.

Merde ! All right, but once Brendon has those pods cut free I want the Krystal Moon vaporized. That bloody captain has put our necks on the block by defying us, I want him ruined.”

“Yes, Captain,” Erick said. How typical, he thought, we can go in with lasers blazing, but if anyone fights back, that’s unfair. When we get back to Tranquillity, I’m going to take a great deal of unprofessional pride in having André Duchamp committed to a penal planet.

They made it with forty-five seconds to spare. Brendon cut both cargo-pods free, and manoeuvred them into the waiting cargo hold in the Villeneuve’s Revenge . X-ray lasers started to chop at the Krystal Moon as the MSV docked with its own cradle to be drawn gingerly into the hangar bay. The remaining cargo-pods were split open, spilling their wrecked contents out into the void. Structural spars melted, twisting as though they were being chewed. Tanks were punctured, creating a huge vapour cloud that chased outward, its fringes swirling round the retreating lifeboat.

The starship’s hangar door slid shut. Combat sensors retreated back into the funereal hull. An event horizon sprang up around the Villeneuve’s Revenge . The starship shrank. Vanished.

Floating alone amid the fragmented debris and vacuum-chilled nebula, the lifeboat let out a passionless electromagnetic shriek for help.

The word was out even before the Lady Macbeth docked at Tranquillity’s spaceport. Joshua’s landed the big one. On his first Norfolk run, for Heaven’s sake. How does he do it? Something about that guy is uncanny. Lucky little sod.

Joshua led his crew into a packed Harkey’s Bar. The band played a martial welcome with plangent trumpets; four of the waitresses were standing on the beer-slopped bar, short black skirts letting everyone see their knickers (or not, in one case); crews and groups of spaceport workers whistled, cheered, and jeered. One long table was loaded down with bottles of wine and champagne in troughs of ice; Harkey himself stood at the end, a smile in place. Everyone quietened down.

Joshua looked round slowly, an immensely smug grin in place. This must be what Alastair II saw from his state coach every day. It was fabulous. “Do you want a speech?”

“NO!”

His arm swept out expansively towards Harkey. He bowed low, relishing the theatre. “Then open the bottles.”

There was a rush for the table, conversation even loud enough to drown out Warlow erupted as though someone had switched on a stack of AV pillars, the band struck up, and the waitresses struggled with the corks. Joshua pushed a bemused and slightly awestruck Gideon Kavanagh off on Ashly Hanson, and snatched some glasses from the drinks table. He was kissed a great many times on his way to the corner booth where Barrington Grier and Roland Frampton were waiting. He loaded visual images and names of three of the girls into his neural nanonics for future reference.

Roland Frampton was rising to his feet, a slightly apprehensive smile flicking on and off, obviously worried by exactly how big the cargo was—he had contracted to buy all of it. But he shook Joshua warmly by the hand. “I thought I’d better come here,” he said in amusement. “It would take you days to reach my office. You’re the talk of Tranquillity.”

“Really?”

Barrington Grier gave him a pat on the shoulder and they all sat down.

“That Kelly girl was asking after you,” Barrington said.

“Ah.” Joshua shifted round. Kelly Tirrel, his neural nanonics file supplied, Collins news corp reporter. “Oh, right. How is she?”

“Looked pretty good to me. She’s on the broadcasts a lot these days. Presents the morning news for Collins three times a week.”

“Good. Good. Glad to hear it.” Joshua took a small bottle of Norfolk Tears from the inside pocket of the gold-yellow jacket he was wearing over his ship-suit.

Roland Frampton stared at it as he would a cobra.

“This is the Cricklade bouquet,” Joshua said smoothly. He settled the three glasses on their table, and twisted the bottle’s cork slowly. “I’ve tasted it. One of the finest on the planet. They bottle it in Stoke county.” The clear liquid flowed out of the pear-shaped bottle.

They all lifted a glass, Roland Frampton studying his against the yellow wall lights.

“Cheers,” Joshua said, and took a drink. A dragon breathed its diabolical fire into his belly.

Roland Frampton sipped delicately. “Oh, Christ, it’s perfect.” He glanced at Joshua. “How much did you bring? There have been rumours . . .”

Joshua made a show of producing his inventory. It was a piece of neatly printed paper with Grant Kavanagh’s stylish signature on the bottom in black ink.

“Three thousand cases!” Roland Frampton squeaked, his eyes protruded.

Barrington Grier gave Joshua a sharp glance, and plucked the inventory from Roland’s hands. “Bloody hell,” he murmured.

Roland was dabbing at his forehead with a silk handkerchief. “This is wonderful. Yes, wonderful. But I wasn’t expecting quite so much, Joshua. Nothing personal, it’s just that first-time captains don’t normally bring back so much. There are arrangements I have to make . . . the bank. It will take time.”

“Of course.”

“You’ll wait?” Roland Frampton asked eagerly.

“You were very good to me when I started out. So I think I can wait a couple of days.”

Roland’s hand sliced through the air, he ended up making a fist just above the table. Determination visibly returned his old spark. “Right, I’ll have a Jovian Bank draft for you in thirty hours. I won’t forget this, Joshua. And one day I want to be told how you did it.”

“Maybe.”

Roland drained his glass in one gulp and stood up.

“Thirty hours.”

“Fine. If I’m not about, give it to one of the crew. I expect they’ll still be here.”

Joshua watched the old man weave a path through the excited crowd.

“That was decent of you,” Barrington said. “You could have made instant money going to a big commercial distribution chain.”

Joshua flashed him a smile, and they touched glasses. “Like I said, he gave me a break when I needed it.”

“Roland Frampton doesn’t need a break. He thought he was doing you a favour agreeing to buy your cargo. First-time captains on the Norfolk run are lucky if they make two hundred cases.”

“Yeah, so I heard.”

“Now you come back with a cargo worth five times as much as his business. You going to tell us how you did it?”

“Nope.”

“Didn’t think so. I don’t know what you’ve got, young Joshua. But by God, I wish I had shares in you.”

He finished his glass and treated Barrington to an iniquitous smile. He handed over the small bottle of Norfolk Tears. “Here, with compliments.”

“Aren’t you staying? It’s your party.”

He looked round. Warlow was at the centre of a cluster of girls, all of them giggling as one sat on the crook of his outstretched arm, her legs swinging well off the floor. Ashly was slumped in a booth, also surrounded by girls, one of them feeding him dainty pieces of white seafood from a plate. He couldn’t even spot the others. “No,” he said. “I have a date.”

“She must be quite something.”

“They are.”

The Isakore was still anchored where they had left it, prow wedged up on the slippery bank, hull secure against casual observation by a huge cherry oak tree which overhung the river, lower branches trailing in the water.

Lieutenant Murphy Hewlett let out what could well have been a whimper of relief when its shape registered. His retinal implants were switched to infrared now the sun had set. The fishing boat was a salmon-pink outline distorted by the darker burgundy flecks of the cherry oak leaves, as if it was hidden behind a solidified waterfall.

He hadn’t really expected it to be there. Not a quantifiable end, not to this mission. His mates treated his name as a joke back in the barracks. Murphy’s law: if anything can go wrong, it will. And it had, this time as no other.

They had been under attack for five hours solid now. White fireballs that came stabbing out of the trees without warning. Figures that lurked half seen in the jungle, keeping pace, never giving them a moment’s rest. Figures that weren’t always human. Seven times they’d fallen back to using the TIP carbines for a sweep-scorch pattern, hacking at the jungle with blades of invisible energy, then tramping on through the smouldering vine roots and cloying ash.

All four of them were wounded to some extent. Nothing seemed to extinguish the white fire once it hit flesh. Murphy was limping badly, his right knee enclosed by a medical nanonic package, his left hand was completely useless, he wasn’t even sure if the package could save his fingers. But Murphy was most worried about Niels Regehr; the lad had taken a fireball straight in the face. He had no eyes nor nose left, only the armour suit sensors enabled him to see where he was going now, datavising their images directly into his neural nanonics. But even the neural nanonics pain blocks and a constant infusion of endocrines couldn’t prevent him from suffering bouts of hallucination and disorientation. He kept shouting for them to go away and leave him alone, holding one-sided conversations, even quoting from prayers.

Murphy had detailed him to escort their prisoner; he could just about manage that. She said her name was Jacqueline Couteur, a middle-aged woman, small, overweight, with greying hair, dressed in jeans and a thick cotton shirt. She could punch harder than any of the supplement-boosted marines (Louis Beith had a broken arm to prove it), she had more stamina than them, and she could work that electronic warfare trick on their suit blocks if she wasn’t being prodded with one of their heavy-calibre Bradfield chemical-projectile rifles.

They had captured her ten minutes after their last contact with Jenny Harris. That was when they’d let the horses go. The animals were panicking as balls of white fire arched down out of the sky, a deceitfully majestic display of borealis rockets.

Something made a slithering sound in the red and black jungle off to Murphy’s right. Garrett Tucci fired his Bradfield, slamming explosive bullets into the vegetation. Murphy caught the swiftest glimpse of a luminous red figure scurrying away; it was either a man with a warm cloak spread wide, or else a giant bat standing on its hind legs.

“Bloody implants are shot,” he muttered under his breath. He checked his TIP carbine’s power reserve. He was down to the last heavy-duty power cell: twelve per cent. “Niels, Garrett, take the prisoner onto the boat and get the motor going. Louis, you and I are laying down a sweep-scorch. It might give us the time we need.”

“Yes, sir,” he answered.

Murphy felt an immense pride in the tiny squad. Nobody could have done better, they were the best, the very best. And they were his.

He drew a breath, and brought the TIP carbine up again. Niels was shoving his Bradfield’s muzzle into the small of Jacqueline Couteur’s back, urging her towards the boat. Murphy suddenly realized she could see as well as them in the dark. It didn’t matter now. One of the day’s smaller mysteries.

His TIP carbine fired, nozzle aimed by his neural nanonics. Flames rose before him, leaping from tree to tree, incinerating the twigs, biting deeply into the larger branches. Vines flared and sparkled like fused electrical cables, swinging in short arcs before falling to the ground and writhing ferociously as they spat and hissed. A solid breaker of heat rolled around him, shunted into the ground by his suit’s dispersal layer. Smoke rose from his feet. The medical nanonic package around his knee datavised a heat-overload warning into his neural nanonics.

“Come on, Lieutenant!” Garrett shouted.

Through the heavy crackling of the flames Murphy could hear the familiar chugging sound of the Isakore ’s motor. The suit’s rear optical sensors showed him the boat backing out from under the cherry oak, water boiling ferociously around its stern.

“Go,” Murphy told Louis Beith.

They turned and raced for the Isakore . Murphy could just targeting graphics circling his back.

We’ll never make it, not out of this.

Flames were rising thirty metres into the night behind them. Isakore was completely free of the cherry oak. Niels was leaning over the gunwale, holding out a hand. The green-tinted medical nanonic package leaching to his face looked like some massive and grotesque wart.

Water splashed around his boots. Once he nearly slipped on the mud and tangled snowlily fronds. But then he was clinging to the side of the wooden boat, hauling himself up onto the deck.

“Holy shit, we made it!” He was laughing uncontrollably, tears streaming out of his eyes. “We actually bloody made it.” He pulled his shell-helmet off, and lay on his back, looking at the fire. A stretch of jungle four hundred metres long was in flames, hurling orange sparks into the black sky far above.

The impenetrable water of the Zamjan shimmered with long orange reflections. Garrett was turning the boat, aiming the prow downriver.

“What about the Kulu team?” Louis asked. He’d taken his shell-helmet off, showing a face glinting with sweat. His breathing was heavy.

“I think that was a sonic boom we heard this afternoon,” Murphy said, raising his voice above the flames. “Those Kulu bastards, always one move ahead of everyone else.”

“They’re soft, that’s all,” Garrett shouted from the wheel-house. “Can’t take the pressure. We can. We’re the fucking Confed fucking Navy fucking Marines.” He whooped.

Murphy grinned back at him; fatigue pulled at every limb. He’d been using his boosted muscles almost constantly, which meant he’d have to make sure he ate plenty of high-protein rations to regain his proper blood energy levels. He loaded a memo into his neural nanonics.

His communication block let out a bleep for the first time in five hours; the datavise told him that there was a channel to the navy ELINT satellite open.

“Bloody hell,” Murphy said. He datavised the block: “Sir, is that you, sir?”

“Christ, Murphy,” Kelven Solanki’s datavise gushed into his mind. “What’s happening?”

“Spot of trouble, sir. Nothing we can’t handle. We’re back on the boat now, heading downriver.”

Louis gave an exhausted laugh, and flopped onto his back.

“The Kulu team evacuated,” Kelven Solanki reported. “Their whole embassy contingent upped and left in the Ekwan this evening. Ralph Hiltch called me from orbit to say there wasn’t enough room on the spaceplane to pick you up.”

Murphy could sense a great deal of anger lying behind the lieutenant-commander’s smooth signal. “Doesn’t matter, sir; we got you a prisoner.”

“Fantastic. One of the sequestrated ones?”

Murphy glanced over his shoulder. Jacqueline Couteur was sitting on the deck with her back to the wheel-house. She gave him a dour stare.

“I think so, sir, she can interfere with our electronics if we give her half a chance. She’s got to be watched constantly.”

“OK, when can you have her back in—” Kelven Solanki’s datavise vanished under a peal of static. The communications block reported the channel was lost.

Murphy picked up his TIP carbine and pointed it at Jacqueline Couteur. “Is that you?”

She shrugged. “No.”

Murphy looked back at the fire on the bank. They were half a kilometre away now. People were walking along the shoreline where the Isakore had been anchored. The big cherry oak was still standing, intact, a black silhouette against the blanket of flame.

“Can they affect our electronics from here?”

“We don’t care about your electronics,” she said. “Such things have no place in our world.”

“Are you talking to them?”

“No.”

“Sir!” Garrett yelled.

Murphy swung round. The people on the shore were standing in a ring, holding hands. A large ball of white fire emerged from the ground in their midst and curved over their heads, soaring out across the river.

“Down!” Murphy shouted.

The fireball flashed overhead, making the air roil from its passage, bringing a false daylight to the boat. Murphy ground his teeth together, anticipating the strike, the pain as it vaporized his legs or spine. There was a clamorous BOOM from behind the wheel-house, the boat rocked violently, and the light went out.

“Oh shit, oh shit.” Garrett was crying.

“What is it?” Murphy demanded. He pulled himself onto his feet.

The boxy wooden structure behind the wheel-house was a smoking ruin. Fractured planks with charred edges pointed vacantly at the sky. The micro-fusion generator it had covered was a shambolic mass of heat-tarnished metal and dripping plastic.

“You will come to us in time,” Jacqueline Couteur said calmly. She hadn’t moved from her sitting position. “We have no hurry.”

The Isakore drifted round a bend in the river, water gurgling idly around the hull, pulling the fire from view. A duet of night and silence closed over the boat, a void surer than vacuum.

Ione wore a gown of rich blue-green silk gauze. A single strip of cloth which clung to her torso then flared and flowed into a long skirt, it forked around her neck, producing two ribbonlike tassels that trailed from each shoulder. Her hair had been given a damp look, it was bound up and held in place at the back by an exquisite red flower brooch, its tissue-thin petals carved from some exotic stone. A long platinum chain formed a cobweb around her neck.

The trouble with looking so elegant, Joshua thought, was that part of him just wanted to stare at her, while the other part wanted to rip the dress to shreds so he could get at the body beneath. She really did look gorgeous.

He ran a finger round the collar on his own black dinner-jacket. It was too tight. And the butterfly tie wasn’t straight.

“Leave it alone,” Ione said sternly.

“But—”

“Leave it. It’s fine.”

He dropped his hand and glowered at the lift’s door. Two Tranquillity serjeants were in with them, making it seem crowded. The door opened on the twenty-fifth floor of the StOuen starscraper, revealing a much smaller lobby than usual. Parris Vasilkovsky’s apartment took up half of the floor, his offices and staff quarters took up the other half.

“Thanks for coming with me,” Joshua said as they stood in front of the apartment door. He could feel the nerves building in the base of his stomach. This was the real big time he was bidding for now. And Ione on his arm ought to impress Parris Vasilkovsky. Precious little else would.

“I want to be with you,” Ione murmured.

He leant forward to kiss her.

The muscle membrane opened, and Dominique was standing behind it. She had chosen a sleeveless black gown with a long skirt and a deep, highly revealing V-neck. Her thick honey-blonde hair had been given a slight wave, curling around her shoulders. Broad scarlet lips lifted in appreciation as she caught the embrace.

Joshua straightened up guiltily, though his errant eyes remained fixed on Dominique’s cleavage. A host of memories started to replay through his mind without any assistance from his neural nanonics. He’d forgotten how impressive she was.

“Don’t mind me,” Dominique said huskily. “I adore young love.”

Ione giggled. “Evening, Dominique.”

The two girls kissed briefly. Then it was Joshua’s turn.

“Put him down,” Ione said in amusement. “You might catch something. Heaven only knows what he got up to on Norfolk.”

Dominique grinned as she let go. “You think he’s been bad?”

“He’s Joshua; I know he’s been bad.”

“Hey!” Joshua complained. “That trip was strictly business.”

Both girls laughed. Dominique led the way into the apartment. Joshua saw her skirt was made up from long panels, split right up to the top of her hips. The fabric swayed apart as she walked, giving Joshua brief glimpses of her legs, and a pair of very tight white shorts.

He held back on a groan. It was going to be hard to concentrate tonight without that kind of distraction.

The dining-room had two oval windows to show Mirchusko’s dusky crescent—south of the equator two huge white cyclone swirls were crashing, in a drama which had been running for six days. Slabs of warmly lit coloured glass paved the polyp walls from floor to ceiling, each with an animal engraved on its surface by fine smoky grooves. Most of them were terrestrial—lions, gazelles, elephants, hawks—though several of the more spectacular non-sentient xenoc species were included. The grooves moved at an infinitesimal speed, causing the birds to flap their wings, the animals to run; their cycles lasted for hours. The table was made from halkett wood (native to Kulu), a rich gold in colour, with bright scarlet grain. Three antique silver candelabras were spaced along the polished wood, with slender white candles tipped by tiny flames.

There were six people at the dinner. Parris himself sat at the head of the table, looking spruce in a black dinner-jacket. The formal evening attire suited him, complementing his curly silver-grey hair to give him a distinguished appearance. At the other end of the table was Symone, his current lover, a beautiful twenty-eight-year-old whose geneered chromosomes had produced a dark walnut skin and hair a shade lighter than Dominique’s, a striking and delightful contrast. She was eight months pregnant with Parris’s third child.

Joshua and Dominique sat together on one side of the table. And Dominique’s long legs had been riding up and down his trousers all through the meal. He had done his best to ignore it, but his twitching mouth had given him away to Ione, and, he suspected, Symone as well.

Opposite them were Ione and Clement, Parris’s son. He was eighteen, lacking his big sister’s miscreant force, but quietly cheerful. And handsome, Ione thought, though not in the mould of Joshua’s wolfish ruggedness; his younger face was softer, framed with fair curly hair that was recognizably Parris’s. He had just returned from his first year at university on Kulu.

“I haven’t been to Kulu yet,” Joshua said as the white-jacketed waiter cleared the dessert dishes away, assisted by a couple of housechimps.

“Wouldn’t they let you in?” Dominique asked with honeyed malice.

“The Kulu merchants form a tight cartel, they’re hard to crack.”

“Tell me about it,” Parris said gruffly. “It took me eight years before I broke in with fabrics from Oshanko, until then my ships were going there empty to pick up their nanonics. That costs.”

“I’ll wait until I get a charter,” Joshua said. “I’m not going to try head-butting that kind of organization. But I’d like to play tourist sometime.”

“You did all right penetrating Norfolk,” Dominique said, eyes wide and apparently innocent over her crystal champagne glass.

“Hey, neat intro,” he said enthusiastically. “We just slid into that subject, didn’t we? I never noticed.”

She stuck her tongue out at him.

“You got off lightly, Joshua,” Parris said. “Me, I get lumbered with her subtlety all day every day.”

“I would have thought she was old enough to have left home by now,” he said.

“Who’d have her?”

“Good point.”

Dominique lobbed a small cluster of grapes at her father.

Parris caught them awkwardly, laughing. One went bouncing off across the moss carpet. “Make me an offer for her, Joshua, anything up to ten fuseodollars considered.”

He saw the warning gleam in Dominique’s eye. “I think I’ll decline, thanks.”

“Coward.” Dominique pouted.

Parris dropped the grapes onto a side plate, and wiped his hand with a napkin. “So how did you do it, Joshua? My captains don’t get three thousand cases, and the Vasilkovsky line has been making the Norfolk run for fifty years.”

Joshua activated a neural nanonics memory cell. “Confidentiality coverage. Agreed?” His gaze went round the table, recording everyone saying yes. They were legally bound not to repeat what they heard now. Although quite what he could do about Ione was an interesting point, since her thought processes were Tranquillity’s legal system. “I traded something they needed: wood.” He explained about the mayope.

“Very clever,” Dominique drawled when he finished, though there was a note of respect in amongst the affected languor. “Brains as well as balls.”

“I like it,” Parris said. He studied his cut-crystal glass. “Why tell us?”

“Supply and demand,” Joshua said. “I’ve found a valuable hole in the market, and I want to fill it.”

“But the Lady Macbeth hasn’t got the capacity to do it by herself,” Clement said. “Right?”

Joshua had wondered how smart the lad was. Now he knew. A real chip off the Vasilkovsky block. “That’s right. I need a partner, a big partner.”

“Why not go to a bank?” Dominique asked. “Charter some ships for yourself.”

“There’s a loose end which needs tying up.”

“Ah,” Parris, showing some real interest at last, leant forward in his seat. “Go on.”

“The power mayope has over Norfolk lies in keeping it a monopoly, that way we can keep the price high. I have a provisional arrangement with a distributor on Norfolk who’s agreed to take as much as we can ship in. What we need to do next is pin down the supply to a single source, one that only we can obtain. That is going to take upfront money, the kind which can’t be explained away to bank auditors.”

“You can do that?”

“Parris, I have never been on a planet more corrupt than Lalonde. It’s also very primitive and correspondingly poor. If you, with all your money, went there, you would be its king.”

“No, thank you,” Parris said sagely.

“Fine, but with money pushed into the right credit disks we can guarantee that no one else gets an export licence. OK, it won’t last for ever, administration people move on, traders will offer counter-bribes when they find what we’re doing; but I figure we ought to get two of Norfolk’s conjunctions out of it. Two conjunctions where your ships are filled to capacity with Norfolk Tears.”

“Every ship? I do have quite a few.”

“No, not every ship. We have to walk a fine line between greed and squeeze. My Norfolk distributor will give us most favoured customer status, that’s all. It’ll be up to us to work out exactly how much we can squeeze them for before they start to protest. You know how jealously they guard their independence.”

“Yes.” Parris nodded thoughtfully.

“And what about Lalonde?” Ione asked quietly. Her glass was dangling casually between thumb and forefinger, she rocked it from side to side, swirling the champagne around the bottom.

“What about Lalonde?” Joshua asked.

“Its people,” Symone said. “It doesn’t sound as though they get a very good deal out of this. The mayope is their wood.”

Joshua gave her a polite smile. Just what I need, bleeding hearts. “What do they get at the moment?”

Symone frowned.

“He means they get nothing,” Dominique said.

“We’re developing their market for them,” Joshua said. “We’ll be pumping hard cash into their economy. Not much by our standards, I admit, but to them it will buy a lot of things they need. And it will go to the people too, the colonists who are breaking their backs to tame that world, not just the administration staff. We pay the loggers upriver in the hinterlands, the barge captains, the timber-yard workers. Them, their families, the shops they buy stuff from. All of them will be better off. We’ll be better off. Norfolk will be better off. It’s the whole essence of trade. Sure, banks and governments make paper money from the deal, and we slant it in our favour, but the bottom line is that people benefit.” He realized he was staring hard at Symone, daring her to disagree. He dropped his eyes, almost embarrassed.

Dominique gave him a soft, and for the first time, sincere kiss on his cheek. “You really did pick yourself the best, didn’t you?” she said challengingly to Ione.

“Of course.”

“Does that answer your question?” Parris asked his lover, smiling gently at her.

“I guess it does.”

He started to use a small silver knife to peel the crisp rind from a date-sized purple fruit. Joshua recognized it as a saltplum from Atlantis.

“I think Lalonde would be in capable hands if we left it to Joshua,” Parris said. “What sort of partnership were you looking for?”

“Sixty-forty in your favour,” he said amicably.

“Which would cost me?”

“I was thinking of two to three million fuseodollars as an initial working fund to set up our export operation.”

“Eighty-twenty,” Dominique said.

Parris bit into the saltplum’s pink flesh, watching Joshua keenly.

“Seventy-thirty,” Joshua offered.

“Seventy-five-twenty-five.”

“I get that percentage on all Norfolk Tears carried by the Vasilkovsky Line while our mayope monopoly is in operation.”

Parris winced, and gave his daughter a small nod.

“If you provide the collateral,” she said.

“You accept my share of the mayope as collateral, priced at the Norfolk sale value.”

“Done.”

Joshua sat back and let out a long breath. It could have been a lot worse.

“You see,” Dominique said wickedly. “Brains as well as breasts.”

“And legs,” Joshua added.

She licked her lips provocatively, and took a long drink. “We’ll get the legal office to draw up a formal contract tomorrow,” Parris said. “I can’t see any problem.”

“The first stage will be to set up an office on Lalonde and secure that mayope monopoly. The Lady Mac has still got to be unloaded, then she needs some maintenance work, and we’re due a grade-E CAB inspection as well thanks to someone I met at Norfolk. Not a problem, but it takes time. I ought to be ready to leave in ten days.”

“Good,” said Parris. “I like that, Joshua. No beating around, you get straight to it.”

“So how did you make your fortune?”

Parris grinned and popped the last of the saltplum into his mouth. “Given this will hopefully develop into quite a large operation, I’ll want to send my own representative with you to Lalonde to help set up our office. And keep an eye on this upfront money of mine you’ll be spending.”

“Sure. Who?”

Dominique leaned over until her shoulder rubbed against Joshua’s, a hand made of steel flesh closed playfully on his upper thigh. “Guess,” she whispered salaciously into his ear.

Durringham had become ungovernable, a city living on spent nerves, waiting for the final crushing blow to fall.

The residents knew of the invaders marching and sailing downriver, everyone had heard the horror stories of xenoc enslavement, of torture and rape and bizarre bloodthirsty ceremonies; words distorted and swollen with every kilometre, like the river down which they travelled. They had also heard of the Kulu Embassy evacuating its personnel in one madcap night, surely the final confirmation—Sir Asquith wouldn’t do that unless there was no hope left. Durringham, their homes and jobs and prosperity, was in the firing line of an unknown, unstoppable threat, and they had nowhere to run. The jungle belonged to the invaders, the seven colonist-carrier starships orbiting impotently overhead were full, they couldn’t offer an escape route. There was only the river and the virgin sea beyond.

The second morning after Ralph Hiltch made his dash to the relative safety of the Ekwan , the twenty-eight paddleboats remaining in the frightened city’s circular harbours set off in convoy downriver. Price of a ticket was one thousand fuseodollars per person (including a child). No destination was named: some talked about crossing the ocean to Sarell; Amarisk’s northern extremity was mooted. It didn’t matter, leaving Durringham was the driving factor.

Given the exorbitant price the captains insisted on, and the planet’s relative poverty, it was surprising just how many people turned up wanting passage. More than could be accommodated. Tempers and desperation rose with the brutal sun. Several ugly scenes flared as the gangplanks were hurriedly drawn up.

Frustrated in their last chance to escape, the crowd surged towards the colonists barricaded in the transients’ dormitories at the other end of the port. Stones were flung first, then Molotovs.

Candace Elford dispatched a squad of sheriffs and newly recruited deputies, armed with cortical jammers and laser rifles, to quell this latest in a long line of disturbances. But they ran into a gang ransacking a retail district. The tactical street battle which followed left eight dead, and two dozen injured. They never got to the port.

That was when Candace finally had to call up Colin Rexrew and admit that Durringham was out of control. “Most urban districts are forming their own defence committees,” she datavised. “They’ve seen how little effect the sheriffs have against any large-scale trouble. All the riots we’ve had these last few weeks have shown that often enough, and everyone’s heard about the Swithland posse. They don’t trust you and me to defend them, so they’re going to do it for themselves. There’s been a lot of food stockpiled over the last couple of weeks. They all think they’re self-sufficient, and they’re not letting anyone over their district’s boundary. That’s going to cause trouble, because I’m getting reports of people in the outlying villages to the east abandoning their land and coming in looking for a refuge. Our residents aren’t letting them through. It’s a siege mentality out there. People are waiting for Terrance Smith to come back with a conquering army, and hoping they can hold out in the meantime.”

“How far away are the invaders?”

“I’m not sure. We’re judging their progress by the way our communications with the villages fail. It’s not constant, but I’d say their main force is no more than ten or fifteen kilometres from Durringham’s eastern districts. The majority are on foot, which should give us two or three days’ breathing space. Of course, you and I know there are nests of them inside the city as well. I’ve had some pretty weird stories about bogeymen and poltergeists coming in for days now.”

“What do you want to do?” Colin asked.

“Revert to guarding our strategic centres; the spaceport, this sector, possibly both hospitals. I’d like to say the port as well, but I don’t think I’ve got the manpower. There have been several desertions this week, mostly among the new deputies. Besides, nearly all of the boats have left now; there’s been a steady exodus of fishing craft and even some barges since the paddle-boat convoy cast off this morning, so I can’t see a lot of point.”

“OK,” Colin said with his head in his hands. “Do it.” He glanced out of the office window at the sun-lashed rooftops. There was no sign of any of the usual fires that had marked the city’s torment over the last weeks. “Can we hang on until Terrance returns?”

“I don’t know. At the moment we’re so busy fighting each other that I couldn’t tell you what sort of resistance we can offer to the invaders.”

“Yeah. That sounds like Lalonde through and through.”

Candace sat behind her big desk, watching the situation reports paint unwelcome graphics across the console displays, and issuing orders through her staff. There were times when she wondered if anyone out there was even receiving them, let alone obeying them.

Half of her sheriffs were deployed around the spaceport, spending the afternoon digging in, and positioning some large maser cannons to cover the road. The rest took up position around the administration district in the city, covering the governor’s dumper, the sheriff’s headquarters, various civic buildings, and the Confederation Navy office. Five combined teams of LDC engineers and sheriffs went round all the remaining dumpers they could reach, powering down the fusion generators. If the invaders wanted Durringham’s industrial base, such as it was, Rexrew was determined to thwart them. The He3 and deuterium fuel was collected and put into storage at the spaceport. By midafternoon the city was operating on electron-matrix power reserves alone.

That more than anything else brought home the reality of the situation to the majority. Fights and squabbles between gangs and districts ended, those barricades which had been erected were strengthened, sentry details were finalized. Everyone headed home, the roads fell silent. The rain which had held off all day began to slash down. Beneath its shroud of miserable low cloud, Durringham held its breath.

Stewart Danielsson watched the rain pounding away on the office windows as the conditioner hummed away efficiently, sucking the humidity from the air. He had made the office his home over the last week; Ward Molecular had seen a busy time of it. Everybody in town was keen to have the ancillary circuits on their electron-matrix cells serviced, especially the smaller units which could double as rifle power magazines at a pinch. He’d sold a lot of interface cables as well.

The business was doing fine. Darcy and Lori would be pleased when they got back. They hadn’t actually said he could sleep over when they left him in charge, but with the way things were it was only right. Twice he’d scared off would-be burglars.

His sleeping-bag with the inflatable mattress was comfy, and the office fridge was better than the one in his lodgings; he’d brought the microwave cooker over from the cabin out back of the warehouse. So now he had all the creature comforts. It was turning into a nice little sojourn. Gaven Hough stayed late most nights, keeping him company. Neither of them had seen Cole Este since the night after the first anti-Ivet riot. Stewart wasn’t much bothered by that.

Gaven opened the door in the glass partition wall and stuck his head round. “Doesn’t look like Mr. Crowther is coming to pick up his unit now, it’s gone four.”

Stewart stretched himself, and turned the processor block off. He’d been trying to keep their work records and payments up to date. It had always seemed so easy when Darcy was handling it. “OK, we’ll get closed up.”

“We’ll be the last in the city. There’s been no traffic outside for the last two hours. Everyone else has gone home, scared of these invaders.”

“Aren’t you?”

“No, not really. I haven’t got anything an army would want.”

“You can stay here tonight. I don’t think it’ll be safe walking home through this town now, not with the way people are on edge. There’s enough food.”

“Thanks. I’ll go and shut the doors.”

Stewart watched the younger man through the glass partition as he made his way past the workbenches to the warehouse’s big doors. I ought to be worried, he thought, some of the rumours flying around town are blatantly unreal, but something is happening upriver. He gave the warehouse a more thoughtful glance. With its mayope walls it was strong enough to withstand any casual attempt at damage. But there were a lot of valuable tools and equipment inside, and everybody knew that. Maybe we should be boarding the windows up. There was no such thing as an insurance industry on Lalonde, if the warehouse went so did their jobs.

He turned back to the office windows, giving them a more objective appraisal; the frames were heavy enough to nail planks across.

Someone was walking down the muddy road outside. It was difficult to see with the way the rain was smearing the glass, but it looked like a man dressed in a suit. A very strange suit; it was grey, with a long jacket, and there was no seal up the front, only buttons. And he wore a black hat that looked like a fifty-centimetre column of brushed velvet. His right hand gripped a silver-topped cane. Rain bounced off him as though his antique clothes were coated in frictionless plastic.

“Stewart!” Gaven called from somewhere in the warehouse. “Stewart, come back here.”

“No. Look at this.”

“There’s three of them in here. Stewart!”

The native panic in Gaven’s voice made him turn reluctantly from the window. He squinted through the partition wall. It was dark in the cavernous warehouse, and Gaven had shut the wide doors. Stewart couldn’t see where he’d got to. Humanoid shapes were moving around down by the stacks of crates; bigger than men. And it was just too gloomy to make out quite what—

The window behind him gave a loud grating moan. He whirled round. The frames groaned again as though they had been shoved by a hurricane blast. But the rain was falling quite normally outside. It couldn’t be the wind. The man in the grey suit was standing in the middle of the road, cane pressing into the mud, both hands resting on the silver pommel. He stared directly at Stewart.

“Stewart!” Gaven yelled.

The window-panes cracked, fissures multiplying and interlacing. Animal reflex made Stewart spin round, his arms coming up to protect his head. They’re going to smash!

A two and a half metre tall yeti was standing pressed up against the glass of the partition wall. Its ochre fur was matted and greasy, red baboon lips were peeled back to show stained fangs. He gagged at it in amazement, recoiling.

All the glass in the office shattered at once. In the instant before he slammed his eyelids shut, he was engulfed by a beautiful prismatic cloud of diamonds, sparkling and shimmering in the weak light. Then the slivers of glass penetrated his skin. Blood frothed out of a thousand shallow cuts, staining every square centimetre of his clothes a bright crimson. His skin went numb as his brain rejected outright the shocking level of pain. His sight, the misty vermilion of tightly shut eyes, turned scarlet. Pain stars flared purple. Then the universe went harrowingly black. Through the numbness he could feel hot coals burning in his eye sockets.

“Blind, I’m blind!” He couldn’t even tell if his voice was working.

“It doesn’t have to be like that,” someone said to him. “We can help you. We can let you see again.”

He tried to open his eyelids. There was a loathsome sensation of thin tissues ripping. And still there was only blackness. Pain began to ooze its way inwards, pain from every part of his body. He knew he was falling, plummeting to the ground.

Then the pain in his legs faded, replaced by a blissful liquid chill, as if he was bathing in a mountain tarn. He was given his sight back, a spectral girl sketched against the infinite darkness. It looked as though she was made up from translucent white membranes, folded with loving care around her svelte body, then flowing free somehow to become her fragile robes as well. She was a sublime child, in her early teens, poised between girlhood and womanhood, what he imagined an angel or fairy would be like. And she danced all the while, twirling effortlessly from foot to foot, more supple and graceful than any ballerina; her face blessed by a bountiful smile.

She held out her arms to him, ragged sleeves floating softly in the unfelt breeze. “See?” she said. “We can stop it hurting.” Her arms rose, palms pressing together above her head, and she spun round again, lightsome laughter echoing.

“Please,” he begged her. “Oh, please.”

The pain returned to his legs, making him cry out. His siren vision began to retreat, skipping lightly over the emptiness.

She paused and cocked her head. “Is this what you want?” she asked, her dainty face frowning in concern.

“No! Back, come back. Please.”

Her smile became rapturous, and her arms closed around him in a celebratory embrace. Stewart gave himself up to her balmy caresses, drowning in a glorious tide of white light.

Ilex coasted out of its wormhole terminus a hundred thousand kilometres above Lalonde. The warped gateway leading out of space-time contracted behind the voidhawk as it refocused its distortion field. Sensors probed round cautiously. The bitek starship was at full combat stations alert.

Waiting tensely on his acceleration couch in the crew toroid, Captain Auster skimmed through the wealth of data which both the bitek and electronic systems gathered. His primary concern was that there were no hostile ships within a quarter of a million kilometres, and no weapon sensors were locking on to the voidhawk’s hull. A resonance effect in Ilex ’s distortion field revealed various ship-sized masses orbiting above Lalonde, then there were asteroids, satellites, moons, boulder-sized debris. Nothing large was in the starship’s immediate vicinity. It took a further eight seconds for Ilex and Ocyroe, the weapons-systems officer, working in tandem, to confirm the absence of any valid threat.

OK, let’s go for a parking orbit; seven hundred kilometres out,auster said.

Seven hundred?Ilex queried.

Yes. Your distortion field won’t be so badly affected at that altitude. We can still run if we have to.

Very well.

Together their unified minds arrived at a suitable flight vector. Ilex swooped down the imaginary line towards the bright blue and white planet.

“We’re going into a parking orbit,” Auster said aloud for the benefit of the three Adamist naval officers on the bridge. “I want combat stations maintained at all times; and please bear in mind who could be here waiting for us.” He allowed an overtone of stern anxiety to filter out to the Edenist crew to emphasize the point. “Ocyroe, what’s our local space situation?”

“Nine starships in a parking orbit, seven colonist-carriers and two cargo ships. There are three interplanetary fusion drive ships en route from the asteroid Kenyon, heading for Lalonde orbit. Nothing else in the system.”

“I can’t get any response from Lalonde civil flight control,” said Erato, the spaceplane pilot. He looked up from the communication console he was operating. “The geosynchronous communication platform is working, as far as I can tell. They just don’t answer.”

Auster glanced over at Lieutenant Jeroen van Ewyck, the Confederation Navy Intelligence officer they had brought with them from Avon. “What do you think?”

“This is a backward planet anyway, so their response isn’t going to be instantaneous. But given the contents of those fleks I’d rather not take any chances. I’ll try and contact Kelvin Solanki directly through the navy ELINT satellites. Can you see if you can get anything from your planetside agents?”

“We’ll broadcast,” Auster said.

“Great. Erato, see what the other starship captains can tell us. It looks like they must have been here some time if there are this many left in orbit.”

Auster added his own voice to Ilex ’s affinity call, spanning the colossal distance to the gas giant. Aethra answered straight away; but the immature habitat could only confirm the data which Lori and Darcy had included in their flek to the Edenist embassy on Avon. Since Kelven Solanki had transmitted the files to Murora there had only been the usual weekly status updates from Lalonde. The last one, four days ago, had contained a host of information on the colony’s deteriorating civil situation.

Can you tell us what’s happening?gaura asked through the affinity link between Aethra and Ilex . He was the chief of the station supervising the habitat’s growth out at the lonely edge of the star system.

Nobody is answering our calls,auster said. When we know something, Ilex will inform you immediately.

If Laton is on Lalonde he may make an attempt to capture and subvert Aethra. He has had over twenty years to perfect his technique. We have no weaponry to resist him. Can you evacuate us?

That will depend on the circumstances. Our orders from the First Admiral’s office are to confirm his existence and destroy him if at all possible. If he has become powerful enough to defend himself against the weapons we are carrying, then we must jump back to Fleet Headquarters and alert them. That takes priority over everything.auster extended a burst of sympathy.

We understand. Good luck with your mission.

Thank you.

Can you sense Darcy and Lori?auster asked Ilex .

No. They do not answer. But there is a melodic in the affinity band which I’ve never encountered before.

The voidhawk’s perceptive faculty expanded into Auster’s mind. He perceived a distant soprano voice, or a soft whistle; the effect was too imprecise to tell. It was an adagio, a slow harmonic which slipped in and out of mental awareness like a radio signal on a stormy night.

Where is it coming from?auster asked.

Ahead of us,Ilex said. Somewhere on the planet, but it’s skipping about. I can’t pin it down.

Keep tuned in to it, and if you track down its origin let me know right away.

Of course.

Jeroen van Ewyck datavised his console processor to point one of Ilex ’s secondary dishes at a navy ELINT satellite orbiting Lalonde, then opened a channel down to the office in Durringham. There was nothing like the usual bit rate available, the microwave beam emitted by the navy office was well below standard strength. A flustered rating answered, and switched the call straight through to Kelven Solanki.

“We’re here in response to the flek you sent on the Eurydice ,” Jeroen van Ewyck said. “Can you advise us of the situation on the planet, please?”

“Too late,” Kelven datavised. “You’re too bloody late.”

Auster ordered the bitek processor in his command console to patch him into the channel. “Lieutenant-Commander Solanki, this is Captain Auster. We were dispatched as soon as we were refitted for this mission. I can assure you the Admiralty took the report from you and our Intelligence operatives very seriously indeed.”

“Seriously? You call sending one ship a serious response?”

“Yes. We are primarily a reconnaissance and evaluation mission. In that respect, we are considered expendable. The Admiralty needs to know if Laton’s presence has been confirmed, and what kind of force level is required to deal with the invasion.”

There was a moment’s pause.

“Sorry if I shouted off,” Kelven said. “Things are getting bad down here. The invaders have reached Durringham.”

“Are these invaders acting under Laton’s orders?”

“I’ve no idea yet.” He started to summarize the events of the last couple of weeks.

Auster listened with growing dismay, a communal emotion distributed equally around the other Edenists on board. The Adamists too, if their facial expressions were an accurate reflection of their thoughts.

“So you still don’t know if Laton is behind this invasion?” Auster asked when he finished.

“No. I’d say not; Lori and Darcy had virtually written him off by the time they got to Ozark. If it is him backing the invaders, then he’s pulling a very elaborate double bluff. Why did he warn Darcy and Lori about this energy virus effect?”

“Have you managed to verify that yet?” Jeroen van Ewyck asked.

“No. Although the supporting circumstantial evidence we have so far is very strong. The invaders certainly have a powerful electronic warfare technology at their fingertips, and it’s in widespread use. I suppose Kulu will be the place to ask; the ESA team managed to get their prisoner outsystem.”

Typical of the ESA,erato said sourly.

Auster nodded silently.

“How bad are conditions in the city?” Jeroen van Ewyck asked.

“We’ve heard some fighting around the outlying districts this evening. The sheriffs are protecting the spaceport and the government district. But I don’t think they’ll hold out for more than a couple of days. You must get back to Avon and inform the First Admiral and the Confederation Assembly what’s happening here. At this point we still can’t discount xenocs being involved. And tell the First Admiral that Terrance Smith’s mercenary army must be prevented from landing here, as well. This is far beyond the ability of a few thousand hired soldiers to sort out.”

“That goes without saying. We’ll evacuate you and your staff immediately,” Auster said.

Forty-five of them?ocyroe asked. That’s pushing our life-support capacity close to the envelope.

We can always make a swallow direct to Jospool, That’s only seven light-years away. The crew toroid can support us for that long.

“There’s some of the ratings and NCOs I’d like to get off,” Kelven Solanki datavised. “This wasn’t supposed to be a front-line posting. They’re only kids, really.”

“No, all of you are coming,” Auster said flatly.

“I’d like to capture one of these sequestrated invaders if possible,” Jeroen van Ewyck put in quickly.

What about the marines, Erato?auster asked. Do you think it’s worth a try?

I’ll fly recovery if we can spot them,the pilot said. His thoughts conveyed a rising excitement.

Auster acknowledged his leaked feelings with an ironic thought. Pilots were uniformly a macho breed, unable to resist any challenge, even Edenist ones.

The Juliffe basin is proving difficult to resolve,Ilex said with a note of annoyance. My optical sensors are unable to receive a clearly defined image of the river and its tributaries for about a thousand kilometres inland.

It’s night over the basin, and we’re still seventy thousand kilometres away,auster pointed out.

Even so, the optical resolution should be better than this.

“Commander Solanki, we’re going to attempt to recover the marines as well,” Auster said.

“I haven’t been able to contact them for over a day. God, I don’t even know if they’re still alive, let alone where they are.”

“None the less, they are our naval personnel. If there’s any chance, we owe them the effort.”

The statement drew him a startled glance from Jeroen van Ewyck and the other two Adamists on the bridge. They quickly tried to hide their gaffe. Auster ignored it.

“Christ but—All right,” Kelven Solanki datavised. “I’ll fly the recovery myself, though. No point in risking your spaceplane. It was me who ordered them in there to start with. My responsibility.”

“As you wish. If our sensors can locate their fishing boat, do you have an aircraft available?”

“I can get one. But the invaders knocked out the last plane to fly into their territory. One thing I do know is that they’ve got some lethal fire-power going for them.”

“So has Ilex ,” Auster said bluntly.

Joshua Calvert fell back onto the translucent sheet and let out a heartfelt breath. The bed’s jelly-substance mattress was rocking him gently as the waves slowed. Sweat trickled across his chest and limbs. He gazed up at the electrophorescent cell clusters on Ione’s ceiling. Their ornate leaf pattern was becoming highly familiar.

“That’s definitely one of the better ways of waking up,” he said.

“One?” Ione unwrapped her legs from his waist and sat back on his legs. She stretched provocatively, hands going behind her neck.

Joshua groaned, staring at her voraciously.

“Tell me another,” she said.

He sat up, bringing his face twenty centimetres from hers. “Watching you,” he said in a throaty voice.

“Does that turn you on?”

“Yes.”

“Solo, or with another girl?” She felt his muscles tighten in reflex. Well, that’s my answer, she thought. But then she’d always known how much he enjoyed threesomes. It wasn’t Joshua’s cock which was hard to satisfy, just his ego.

He grinned; the Joshua rogueish-charm grin. “I bet this conversation is going to turn to Dominique.”

Ione gave his nose a butterfly kiss. They just couldn’t fool each other; it was a togetherness similar to the one she enjoyed with the habitat personality. Comforting and eerie at the same time. “You mentioned her name first.”

“Are you upset about her coming to Lalonde with me?”

“No. It makes sound business sense.”

“You do disapprove.” He stroked the side of her breasts tenderly. “There’s no need to be jealous. I have been to bed with Dominique, you know.”

“I know. I watched you on that big bed of hers, remember?”

He cupped her breasts and kissed each nipple in turn. “Let’s bring her to this bed.”

She looked down on the top of his head. “Not possible, sorry. The Saldanas eradicated the gay gene from their DNA three hundred years ago. Couldn’t risk the scandal, they are supposed to uphold the ten commandments throughout the kingdom, after all.”

Joshua didn’t believe a word of it. “They missed erasing the adultery gene, then.”

She smiled. “What’s your hurry to hit the mattress with her? The two of you are going to spend a week locked up in that zero-gee sex cage of yours.”

“You are jealous.”

“No. I never claimed to have an exclusive right to you. After all, I didn’t complain about Norfolk.”

He pulled his head back from her breasts. “Ione!” he complained.

“You reeked of guilt. Was she very beautiful?”

“She was . . . sweet.”

“Sweet? Why, Joshua Calvert, I do believe you’re getting romantic in your old age.”

Joshua sighed and dropped back on the mattress again. He wished she’d make up her mind whether she was jealous or not. “Do I ask about your lovers?”

Ione couldn’t help the slight flush that crept up her cheeks. Hans had been fun while it lasted, but she’d never felt as free with him as she did with Joshua. “No,” she admitted.

“Ah hah, I’m not the only one who’s guilty, by the looks of it.”

She traced a forefinger down his sternum and abdomen until she was stroking his thighs. “Quits?”

“Yes.” His hands found her hips. “I brought you another present.”

“Joshua! What?”

“A gigantea seed. That’s an aboriginal Lalonde tree. I saw a couple on the edge of Durringham, they were eighty metres tall, but Marie said they were just babies, the really big ones are further inland from the coast.”

Marie said that, did she?”

“Yes.” He refused to be put off. “It should grow all right in Tranquillity’s parkland. But you’ll have to plant it where the soil is deep and there’s plenty of moisture.”

“I’ll remember.”

“It’ll grow up to the light-tube eventually.”

She pulled a disbelieving face.

I will have to run environmental compatibility tests first,tranquillity said. Our biosphere is delicately balanced.

So cynical.“thank you, joshua,” she said out loud.

Joshua realized he had regained his erection. “Why don’t you just ease forward a bit?”

“I could give you a treat instead,” Ione said seductively. “A real male fantasy come true.”

“Yes?”

“Yes. There’s a girlfriend of mine I’d like you to meet. We go swimming together every morning. You’d like that, watching us get all wet and slippery. She’s younger than me. And she never, ever wears a swimming costume.”

“Jesus.” Joshua’s face went from greed to caution. “This isn’t on the level,” he decided.

“Yes, it is. She’s also very keen to meet you. She likes it a lot when people wash her. I do it all the time, sliding my hands all over her. Don’t you want to join me?”

He looked up at Ione’s mock-innocent expression, and wondered what the hell he was letting himself in for. Gay gene, like bollocks. “Lead on.”

They had walked fifty metres down the narrow sandy path towards the cove, Ione’s escort of three serjeants an unobtrusive ten paces behind, when Joshua stopped and looked round. “This is the southern endcap.”

“That’s right,” she said slyly.

He caught up with her as she reached the top of the bluff. The long, gently curving cove below looked tremendously enticing, with a border of shaggy palm trees and a tiny island offshore. Away in the distance he could see the elaborate buildings of the Laymil project campus.

“It’s all right,” she said. “I won’t have you arrested for coming here.”

He shrugged and followed her down the bluff. Ione was running on ahead as he reached the sand. Her towelling robe was flung away. “Come on, Joshua!” Spray frothed up as her feet reached the water.

A naked girl, a tropical beach. Irresistible. He dropped his own robe and jogged down the slope. Something was moving behind him, something making dull thudding sounds as it moved, something heavy. He turned. “Jesus!”

A Kiint was running straight at him. It was smaller than any he’d seen before, about three metres long, only just taller than him. Eight fat legs were flipping about in a rhythm which was impossible to follow.

His feet refused to budge. “Ione!”

She was laughing hysterically. “Morning, Haile,” she called at the top of her voice.

The Kiint lumbered to a halt in front of him. He was looking into a pair of soft violet eyes half as wide as his own face. A stream of warm damp breath poured from the breathing vents.

“Er . . .”

One of the tractamorphic arms curved up, the tip formshifting into the shape of a human hand—slightly too large.

“Well, say hello, then,” Ione said; she had walked up to stand behind him.

“I’ll get you for this, Saldana.”

She giggled. “Joshua, this is my girlfriend, Haile. Haile, this is Joshua.”

Why has he so much stiffness?haile asked.

Ione cracked up, nearly doubling over as she laughed. Joshua gave her a furious glare.

Not want to shake hands? Not want to initiate human greetings ritual? Not want to be friends?the kiint sounded mournfully disappointed.

“Joshua, shake hands. Haile’s upset you don’t want to be friends with her.”

“How do you know?” he asked out of the corner of his mouth.

“Affinity. The Kiint can use it.”

He put his hand up. Haile’s arm reached out, and he felt a dry, slightly scaly, bud of flesh flow softly around his fingers. It tickled. His neural nanonics were executing a priority search through the xenoc files he had stored in a memory cell. The Kiint could hear.

“May your thoughts always fly high, Haile,” he said, and gave a slight formal bow.

I have much likening for him!

Ione gave him a calculating stare. I might have known that charm of his would work on xenocs too, she thought.

Joshua felt the Kiint’s flesh deliver a warm squeeze to his hand, then the pseudo-hand peeled back. The itchy sensation it left in his palm seemed to spread up along his spine and into his skull.

“Your new girlfriend,” he said heavily.

Ione smiled. “Haile was born a few weeks ago. And boy, does she grow fast.”

Haile started to push Ione towards the water, flat triangular head butting the girl spiritedly, beak flapping. One of her tractamorphic arms beckoned avidly at Joshua.

He grinned. “I’m coming.” His scalp felt as if he’d been in the sun too long, an all-over tingle.

“The water eases her skin while she’s growing,” Ione said as she skipped ahead of the eager Kiint. “She needs to bathe two or three times a day. All the Kiint houses have interior pools. But she loves the beach.”

“Well, I’ll be happy to help scrub her while I’m here.”

Much gratitude.

“My pleasure,” Joshua said. He stopped. Haile was standing at the edge of the water, big eyes regarding him attentively. “That was you.”

Yes.

“What was?” Ione asked, she looked from one to the other.

“I can hear her.”

“But you don’t have an affinity gene,” she said, surprised, and maybe a little indignant.

Joshua has thoughts of strength. Much difficulty to effect interlocution, but possible. Not so with most humans. Feel hopelessness. Failure sorrow.

He swaggered. “Strong thoughts, see?”

“Haile hasn’t quite mastered our language, that’s all,” Ione smiled with menace. “She’s confused strength with simplicity. You have very elementary thoughts.”

Joshua rubbed his hands together determinedly, and walked towards her. Ione backed away, then turned and ran giggling into the water. He caught her after six metres, and the two of them fell into the small clear ripples whooping and laughing. Haile plunged in after them.

Much joyness. Much joyness.

Joshua was interested by how well the young Kiint could swim. He would have considered her body too heavy to float, but she could move at a fair speed; her tractamorphic arms spread out into flippers, and angled back along her flanks. Ione wouldn’t let her go out to the little island, saying it was still too far, which ruling Haile accepted with rebellious sulks.

I have seen some of the all-around’s park space,she told Joshua proudly as he rubbed the dorsal ridge above her rump. Ione has shown me. So much to absorb. Adventureness fun. Envy Joshua.

Joshua didn’t quite understand how to collect his thoughts into a voice Haile could understand, instead he simply spoke. “You envy me? Why?”

Venture as you please. Fly to stars so distant. Welcome sights so strange. I want this, muchness!

“I don’t think you’d fit in the Lady Mac . Besides, human ships that can carry Kiint have to be licensed by your government. I haven’t got that licence.”

Sadness. Anger. Frustration. I may not venture beyond adult defined constraints. Much growth before I can.

“Bumming round the universe isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Most of the Confederation planets are pretty tame, and travelling on a starship is boring; dangerous too.”

Danger? Excitement query?

Joshua moved down towards Haile’s flexible neck. Ione was grinning at him over the xenoc’s white back.

“No, not excitement. There’s a danger of mechanical failure. That can be fatal.”

You have excitement. Achievement. Ione narrated many voyages you have undertaken. Triumph in Ruin Ring. Much gratification. Such boldness exhibited.

Ione turned her giggle into a cough. You’re a flirt, girl.

Incorrect access mode to human males, query? Praise of character, followed by dumb admiration for feats; your instruction.

Yes, I did say that, didn’t I. Perhaps not quite so literally, though.

“That was a while ago now,” Joshua said. “Of course, life was pretty tricky in those days. One wrong move and it could have been catastrophic. The Ruin Ring is an ugly place. You’ve gotta have determination to be a scavenger. It’s a lonely existence. Not everyone can take it.”

You achieved legend status. Most famous scavenger of all.

Don’t push it,ione warned.

“You mean the Laymil electronics stack? Yeah, it was a big find, I earned a lot of money from that one.”

Much cultural relevance.

“Oh, yeah, that too.”

Ione stopped rubbing Haile’s neck and frowned. “Joshua, haven’t you accessed the records we’ve been decoding?”

“Er, what records?”

“Your electronics stack stored Laymil sensevise recordings. We’ve uncovered huge amounts of data on their culture.”

“Great. That’s good news.”

She eyed him suspiciously. “They were extremely advanced biologically. Well ahead of us on the evolutionary scale; they were almost completely in harmony with their habitat environment, so now we have to question just how artificial their habitats were. Their entire biology, the way they approached living organisms, is very different to our own perception. They revered any living entity. And their psychology is almost incomprehensible to us; they could be both highly individual, and at the same time submerge themselves into a kind of mental homogeneity. Two almost completely different states of consciousness. We think they may have been genuine telepaths. The research project geneticists are having furious arguments over the relevant gene sequence. It is similar to the Edenist affinity gene, but the Laymil psychology complements it in a way which is impossible to human Edenist culture. Edenists retain a core of identity even after they transfer their memories into the habitat personality at death, whereas the Laymil willingness to share their most private selves has to be the product of considerable mental maturity. You can’t engineer behavioural instinct into DNA.”

“Have you found out what destroyed their habitats yet?” Joshua asked. Haile shuddered below his hand, a very human reflex. He felt a burst of cold alarm invading his thoughts. “Hey, sorry.”

Fright. Scared feel. So many deaths. They had strength. Still were defeated. Query cause?

“I wish I knew,” Ione said. “They seemed to celebrate life, much more than we do.”

The Isakore was bobbing about inertly on the Zamjan as though it was a log of elegantly carved driftwood, ripples slopping against the hull with quiet insistence. They had rigged up a couple of oarlike outriggers to steer with during the first day—the rudder alone was no good. And they’d managed to stick more or less to the centre of the river. It was eight hundred metres wide here, which gave them some leeway when the current began to shift them towards one of the banks.

According to Murphy Hewlett’s inertial-guidance block they had floated about thirty kilometres downriver since the micro-fusion generator had been taken out. The current had pushed them with dogged tenacity the whole time, taking them away from the landing site and the burnt antagonistic jungle. Only another eight hundred plus kilometres to go.

Jacqueline Couteur had been no trouble, spending her time sitting up in the prow under the canvas awning. If it hadn’t been for the ordeal they’d been through, the price they’d paid in their own pain and grief, to capture her, Murphy would have tied the useless micro-fusion generator round her neck and tossed her overboard. He thought she knew that. But she was their mission. And they were still alive, and still intact. Until that changed, Lieutenant Murphy Hewlett was going to obey orders and take her back to Durringham. There was nothing else left, no alternative purpose to life.

Nobody had tried to interfere with them, although their communication channels were definitely being jammed (none of the other equipment blocks were affected). Even the villages they had sailed past had shown no interest. A couple of rowing dinghies had ventured close the first morning, but they’d been warned off with shots from one of the Bradfields. After that the Isakore had been left alone.

It was almost a peaceful voyage. They’d eaten well, cleaned and reloaded the weapons, done what they could about their wounds. Niels Regehr swam in and out of lucidity, but the medical nanonic package clamped over his face was keeping him reasonably stable.

Murphy could just about allow himself to believe they would return to Durringham. The placid river encouraged that kind of foolish thinking.

As night fell at the end of the second day he sat at the stern, holding on to the tiller they had fixed up, and doing his best to keep the boat in the centre of the river. At least with this job he didn’t have to use his leg with its achingly stiff knee, though his left hand was incapable of gripping the tiller pole. The clammy air from the water made his fatigues uncomfortably sticky.

He saw Louis Beith making his way aft, carrying a flask. A medical nanonic package made a broad bracelet around his arm where Jacqueline Couteur had broken the bone and it glimmered dimly in the infrared spectrum.

“Brought you some juice,” Louis said. “Straight out the cryo.”

“Thanks.” Murphy took the mug he held out. With his retinal implants switched to infrared, the liquid he poured from the flask was a blue so deep it was nearly black.

“Niels is talking to his demons again,” Louis said quietly.

“Not much we can do about it, short of loading a somnolence program into his neural nanonics.”

“Yeah, but Lieutenant; what he says, it’s like it’s for real, you know? I thought people hallucinating don’t make any sense. He’s even got me looking over my shoulder.”

Murphy took a swallow of the juice. It was freezing, numbing the back of his throat. Just perfect. “It bothers you that bad? I could put him under, I suppose.”

“No, not bad. It’s just kinda spooky, what with everything we saw, and all.”

“I think that electronic warfare gimmick the hostiles have affects our neural nanonics more than we like to admit.”

“Yeah?” Louis brightened. “Maybe you’re right.” He stood with his hands on his hips, staring ahead to the west. “Man, that is some meteorite shower. I ain’t never seen one that good before.”

Murphy looked up into the cloudless night sky. High above the Isakore ’s prow the stars were tumbling down from their fixed constellations. There was a long broad slash of them scintillating and flashing. He actually smiled, they looked so picturesque. And the hazy slash was still growing as more of them hit the atmosphere, racing eastwards. It must be a prodigious swarm gliding in from interplanetary space, the remains of some burnt-out comet that had disintegrated centuries ago. The meteorites furthest away were developing huge contrails as they sizzled their way downwards. They were certainly penetrating the atmosphere a long way, tens of kilometres at least. Murphy’s smile bled away. “Oh my God,” he said in a tiny dry voice.

“What?” Louis asked happily. “Isn’t that something smooth? Wow! I could look at that all night long.”

“They’re not meteorites.”

“What?”

“They’re not meteorites. Shit!”

Louis looked at him in alarm.

“They’re bloody kinetic harpoons!” Murphy started to run forwards as fast as his knee would allow. “Secure yourself!” he shouted. “Grab something and hold on. They’re coming down right on top of us.”

The sky was turning to day overhead, blackness flushed away by a spreading stain of azure blue. The contrails to the west were becoming too bright to look at. They seemed to be lengthening at a terrific rate, cracks of sunlight splitting open across the wall of night.

Kinetic harpoons were the Confederation Navy’s standard tactical (non-radioactive) planetary surface assault weapon. A solid splinter of toughened, heat-resistant composite, half a metre long, needle sharp, guided by a cruciform tail, steered by a processor with preprogrammed flight vector. They carried no explosives, no energy charge; they destroyed their target through speed alone.

Ilex accelerated in towards Lalonde at eight gees, following a precise hyperbolic trajectory. The apex was reached twelve hundred kilometres above Amarisk, two hundred kilometres east of Durringham. Five thousand harpoons were expelled from the voidhawk’s weapons cradles, hurtling towards the night-masked continent below. Ilex inverted the direction of its distortion field’s acceleration wave, fighting Lalonde’s gravity. Stretched out on their couches, the crew raged impotently against the appalling gee force, nanonic supplement membranes turning rigid to hold soft weak human bodies together as the voidhawk dived away from the planet.

The harpoon swarm sheered down through the atmosphere, hypervelocity friction ablating away the composite’s outer layer of molecules to leave a dazzling ionic tail over a hundred kilometres long. From below it resembled a rain of fierce liquid light.

Their silence was terrifying. A display of such potency should sound like the roar of an angry god. Murphy clung to one of the rails along the side of the wheel-house, squinting through squeezed-up eyelids as the solid sheet of vivid destruction plummeted towards him. He heard Jacqueline Couteur moaning in fear, and felt a cheap, malicious satisfaction. It was the first time she had shown the slightest emotion. Impact could only be seconds away now.

The harpoons were directly overhead, an atmospheric river of solar brilliance mirroring the Zamjan’s course. They split down the centre, two solid planes of light diverging with immaculate symmetry, sliding down to touch the jungle away in the west then racing past the Isakore at a speed too fast even for enhanced human senses to follow. None of them, not one, landed in the water.

Multiple explosions obliterated the jungle. Along both sides of the Zamjan gouts of searing purple flame streaked upwards as the harpoons struck the earth, releasing their colossal kinetic energy in a single devastating burst of heat. The swath of devastation extended for a length of seven kilometres along the banks, reaching a kilometre and a half inland. A thick filthy cloud of loam and stone and wood splinters belched up high into the air, blotting out the heat flashes. The blast-wave rolled out in both directions, flattening still more of the jungle.

Then the sound broke over the boat. The roar of the explosions overlapped, merging into a single sonic battering-ram which made every plank on the Isakore twang as if it was an overtuned guitar string. After that came the eternal thunderclap of the air being ripped apart by the harpoons’ plunge; sound waves finally catching up with the weapons.

Murphy jammed his hands across his stinging eardrums. His whole skeleton was shaking, joints resonating painfully.

Debris started to patter down, puckering the already distressed surface of the river. A sprinkling of fires burnt along the banks where shattered trees lay strewn among deep craters. Pulverized loam and wood hung in the air, an obscure black fog above the mortally wounded land.

Murphy slowly lowered his hands, staring at the awful vision of destruction. “It was our side,” he said in dazed wonder. “We did it.”

Garrett Tucci was at his side, jabbering away wildly. Murphy couldn’t hear a thing. His ears were still ringing vociferously. “Shout! Datavise! My ears have packed up.”

Garrett blinked, he held up his communications block. “It’s working,” he yelled.

Murphy datavised his own block, which reported the channel to the ELINT satellite was open.

A beam of bright white light slid over the Isakore , originating from somewhere above. Murphy watched as the beam swung out over the water, then tracked back towards the boat. He looked up, beyond surprise. It was coming from a small aircraft hovering two hundred metres overhead, outlined by the silver stars. Green, red, and white strobes flashed on the tips of its wings and canards. His neural nanonics identified the jet-black planform, a BK133.

Murphy’s communication block bleeped to acknowledge a local channel opening. “Murphy? Are you there, Murphy?”

“Sir? Is that you?” he asked incredulously.

“Expecting someone else?” Kelven Solanki datavised.

The beam found the Isakore again, and remained trained on the deck.

“Have you still got your prisoner?”

“Yes, sir.” Murphy glanced at Jacqueline Couteur, who was staring up at the aircraft, shielding her eyes against the spotlight.

“Good man. We’ll take her back with us.”

“Sir, Niels Regehr is injured pretty badly. I don’t think he can climb a rope ladder.”

“No problem.”

The BK133 was descending carefully, wings rocking in the thermal microbursts generated by the harpoons’ impact. Murphy could feel the compressor jets gusting against his face, a hot dry wind, pleasant after the river’s humidity. He saw a wide hatch was open on the side of the fuselage. A man in naval fatigues was slowly winching down towards the Isakore .

Floodlights on the roof of the navy office showed the grounds around the building were thick with people. All of them seemed to be looking up into the night sky.

Murphy watched them through the BK133’s open mid-fuselage hatch as Kelven Solanki piloted it down onto the roof pad. A wedge-shaped spaceplane was sitting on one side of the roof, wings retracted; it only just fitted, tail and nose were overhanging the edges. It was one of the most welcome sights he had seen in a long long while.

“Who are all those people?” he asked.

“Anyone who saw Ilex ’s spaceplane taking the staff away earlier,” Vince Burtis said. He was the nineteen-year-old navy rating who had winched the marine squad to safety. To him the invasion was exactly what he had signed on for, adventure on alien worlds; he was enjoying himself. Murphy hadn’t the heart to disillusion him. The kid would realize soon enough.

“I guess they want to leave too,” Vince Burtis said soberly.

The BK133 settled on the roof. Kelven datavised the flight computer to power down the internal systems. “Everyone out,” he said.

“Hurry, please.” Erato’s appeal was relayed through his communication block. “I’m in touch with the sheriffs outside. They say the crowd is already at the door.”

“They shouldn’t be able to get in,” Kelven datavised.

“I think some of the sheriffs may be with them,” Erato said hesitantly. “They’re only human.”

Kelven released his straps and hurried back into the cabin. Vince Burtis was guiding Niels Regehr’s tentative footsteps, helping him down through the hatch. Garrett Tucci and Louis Beith were already out, marching Jacqueline Couteur towards the spaceplane at gunpoint.

Murphy Hewlett gave his superior a tired smile. “Thank you, sir.”

“Nothing to do with me. If the Ilex hadn’t shown up you’d still be paddling home.”

“Is everyone else from the office out?”

“Yes, the spaceplane made a couple of flights earlier this evening, we’re the last,” Kelven said.

They both hopped down onto the roof. The noise of the spaceplane’s compressors rose, obscuring the sound of the crowd below. Kelven did his best to ignore the sensation of guilt. He had made a lot of friends among Lalonde’s civil administration staff. Candace Elford had turned over the BK133 as soon as he asked, no questions. Surely some people could have been taken up to the orbiting colonist-carriers.

Who though? And who would choose?

The best—the only—way to help Lalonde now was through the Confederation Navy.

The stairwell door on the other side of the BK133 burst open. People began to spill out onto the roof, shouting frantically.

“Oh, Christ,” Kelven said under his breath. He could see three or four sheriffs among them, armed with cortical jammers, one had a laser hunting rifle. The rest were civilians. He looked round. Vince Burtis and Niels Regehr were halfway up the stairs to the airlock. One of the Ilex ’s crew was leaning out, offering a hand to Niels. Vince was staring over his shoulder in shock.

“Get in,” Kelven datavised, waving his arms.

Two sheriffs were rounding the nose of the BK133, more people were crouched low scuttling under the fuselage. Still more were running out of the open door. There must have been thirty on the roof.

“Wait for us.”

“You can carry one more.”

“I have money, I can pay.”

Murphy aimed his Bradfield into the air and fired off two shots. The heavy-calibre weapon was startlingly loud. Several people threw themselves down, the rest froze.

“Don’t even think about it,” Murphy said. The Bradfield lined up on one of the ashen-faced sheriffs. A cortical jammer fell from the man’s hands.

The noise of the spaceplane’s compressors was becoming strident.

“There’s no room on board. Go home before anyone gets hurt.”

Kelven and Murphy started backing towards the spaceplane. A young brown-skinned woman who had crawled under the BK133 straightened up, and walked towards them defiantly. She was holding a small child in front of her, it couldn’t have been more than two years old. Plump face and wide liquid eyes.

Murphy just couldn’t bring himself to point the Bradfield at her. He reached the foot of the spaceplane’s aluminium stairs.

“Take him with you,” the woman called. She held the child out. “For Jesus’s sake, take my son, if you have a gram of pity in you. I’m begging you!”

Murphy’s foot found the first step. Kelven had a hand on his arm, guiding him back.

“Take him!” she shrieked over the swelling compressor efflux. “Take him, or shoot him.”

He shuddered at her fervour. She meant it, she really meant it.

“It would be a kindness. You know what will happen to him on this cursed planet.” The child was crying, squirming about in her grip.

The other people on the roof were all motionless, watching him with hard, accusing eyes. He turned to Kelven Solanki, whose face was a mask of torment.

“Get him,” Kelven blurted.

Murphy dropped the Bradfield, letting it skitter away across the silicon roof. He datavised a codelock into its controlling processor so no one could turn it on the spaceplane, then grabbed the child with his right hand.

“Shafi,” the woman shouted as he raced up the stairs. “His name’s Shafi Banaji. Remember.”

He barely had a foot in the airlock when the spaceplane lifted, its deck tilting up immediately. Hands steadied him, and the outer hatch slid shut.

Shafi’s baggy cotton trousers were soiled and stinking; he let out a long fearful wail.

Chapter 03

Including Tranquillity, there were only five independent (non-Edenist) bitek habitats to be found within the boundaries of the Confederation. After Tranquillity, probably the most well known, or notorious depending on your cultural outlook and degree of liberalism, was Valisk.

Although they were both, technically, dictatorships, they occupied opposite ends of the political spectrum, with the dominant ideologies of the remaining three habitats falling between them, a well-deserved mediocrity. Tranquillity was regarded as elitist, or even regal given its founder: industrious, rich, and slightly raffish, with a benevolent, chic ruler, it emphasized the grander qualities of life, somewhere you aspired to go if you made it. Valisk was older, its glory days over, or at the very least in abeyance: it played host to a more decadent population; money here (and there was still plenty) came from exploiting the darker side of human nature. And its strange governorship repelled rather than attracted.

It hadn’t always been so.

Valisk was founded by an Edenist Serpent called Rubra. Unlike Laton, who terrorized the Confederation two and a half centuries later, his rebellion was of an altogether more constructive nature. He was born in Machaon, a habitat orbiting Kohistan, the largest gas giant in the Srinagar star system. After forty-four years, he abandoned his culture and his home, sold his not inconsiderable share in his family’s engineering enterprise, and emigrated to a newly opened Adamist asteroid settlement in Kohistan’s trailing Trojan cluster.

It was a period of substantial economic growth for the star system. Srinagar had been colonized by ethnic-Hindus in 2178 during the Great Dispersal, a hundred and sixteen years earlier. Basic industrialization had been completed, the world was tamed, and people were looking for new ways of channelling their energies. All across the Confederation emerging colony planets were exploiting space resources and increasing their wealth dramatically. Srinagar was eager to be numbered among them.

Rubra started with six leased interplanetary cargo ships. Like all Serpents he was a high achiever in his chosen field (nearly always to Edenist embarrassment, for so many of them chose crime). He made a small fortune supplying the Trojan cluster’s small but wealthy population of engineers and miners with consumer goods and luxuries. He bought more ships, made a larger fortune, and named his expanding company Magellanic Itg—joking to his peers that one day he would trade with that distant star cluster. By 2306, after twelve years of steady growth, Magellanic Itg owned manufacturing stations and asteroid-mining operations, and had moved into the interstellar transport market.

At this point Rubra germinated Valisk in orbit around Opuntia, the fourth of the system’s five gas giants. It was a huge gamble. He spent his company’s entire financial reserves cloning the seed, mortgaging half of the starships to boot. And bitek remained technology non grata for the major religions, including the Hindu faith. But Srinagar was sufficiently Bolshevik about its new economic independence from its sponsoring Govcentral Indian states, and energetic enough in its approach to innovation, to cast a blind eye to proscriptions announced by fundamentalist Brahmians on a distant imperialist planet over two centuries earlier. Planet and asteroid governments saw no reason to impose embargoes against what was rapidly evolving into one of the system’s premier economic assets. Valisk became, literally, a corporate state, acting as the home port for Magellanic Itg’s starship fleet (already one of the largest in the sector) and dormitory town for its industrial stations.

Although Valisk was a financially advantageous location from which Rubra could run his flourishing corporate empire, he needed to attract a base population to the habitat to make it a viable pocket civilization. Industrial stations were therefore granted extremely liberal weapons and research licences and Valisk started to attract companies specializing in military hardware. Export constraints were almost non-existent.

Rubra also opened the habitat to immigration for “people who seek cultural and religious freedom”, possibly in reaction to his own formal Edenist upbringing. This invitation attracted several nonconformist religious cults, spiritual groups, and primitive lifestyle tribes, who believed that a bitek environment would fulfil the role of some benevolent Gaia and provide them free food and shelter. Over nine thousand of these people arrived over the course of the habitat’s first twenty-five years, many of them drug– or stimulant-program addicts. At this time, Rubra, infuriated with their unrepentant parasitical nature, banned any more from entering.

By 2330 the population had risen to three hundred and fifty thousand. Industrial output was high, and many interstellar companies were opening regional offices inside.

Then the first blackhawks to be seen in the Confederation began to appear, all of them registered with Magellanic Itg, and captained by Rubra’s plentiful offspring. Rubra had pulled off a spectacular coup against both his competitors and his former culture. Voidhawk bitek was the most sophisticated ever sequenced; copying it was a triumph of genetic retro-engineering.

With blackhawks now acting as the mainstay of his starship fleet, Rubra was unchallengeable. A large-scale cloning programme saw their numbers rising dramatically; neural symbionts were used to give captaincies to Adamists who had no qualms about using bitek, and there were many. By 2365 Magellanic Itg ceased to use anything other than blackhawks in its transport fleet.

Rubra died in 2390, one of the wealthiest men in the Confederation. He left behind an industrial conglomerate used as an example by economists ever since as the classic corporate growth model. It should have carried on. It had the potential to rival the Kulu Corporation owned by the Saldana family. Ultimately it might even have equalled the Edenist He3 cloud-mining operation. No physical or financial restrictions existed to limit its inherent promise; banks were more than willing to advance loans, the markets existed, supplied by its own ships.

But in the end—after the end—Rubra’s Serpent nature proved less than benign after all. His psychology was too different, too obsessional. Brought up knowing his personality pattern would continue to exist for centuries if not millennia, he refused to accept death as an Adamist. He transferred his personality pattern into Valisk’s neural strata.

From this point onward company and habitat started to degenerate. Part of the reason was the germination of the other independent habitats, all of whom offered themselves as bases for blackhawk mating flights. The Valisk/Magellanic Itg monopoly was broken. But the company’s industrial decline, and the habitat’s parallel deterioration, was due principally to the inheritance problem Rubra created.

When he died he was known to have fathered over a hundred and fifty children, a hundred and twenty-two of whom were carefully conceived in vitro and gestated in exowombs; all had modifications made to their affinity gene, as well as general physiological improvements. Thirty of the exowomb children were appointed to Valisk’s executive committee, which ran both the habitat and Magellanic Itg, while the remainder, along with the rapidly proliferating third generation, became blackhawk pilots. The naturally conceived children were virtually disinherited from the company, and many of them returned to the Edenist fold.

Even this nepotistic arrangement shouldn’t have been too much trouble. There would inevitably be power struggles within such a large committee, but strong characters would rise to the top, simple human dynamics demanded it. None ever did.

The alteration Rubra had made to their affinity gene was a simple one; they were bonded to the habitat and a single family of blackhawks alone. He robbed them of the Edenist general affinity. The arrangement gave him access to their minds virtually from the moment of conception, first through the habitat personality, then after he died, as the habitat personality.

He shaped them as they lay huddled in the metal and composite exowombs, and later in their innocent childhood; a dark conscience nestled maggot-fashion at the centre of their consciousness, examining their most secret thoughts for deviations from the path he had chosen. It was a dreadfully perverted version of the love bond which existed between voidhawks and their captains. His descendants became little more than anaemic caricatures of himself at his prime. He tried to instil the qualities which had driven him, and wound up with wretched neurotic inadequates. The more he attempted to tighten his discipline, the worse their dependence upon him became. A slow change manifested in the habitat personality’s psychology. In his growing frustration with his living descendants he became resentful; of their lives, of their bodily experiences, of the emotions they could feel, the humanness of glands and hormones running riot. Rubra was jealous of the living.

Edenist visits to the habitat, already few and far between, stopped altogether after 2480. They said the habitat personality had become insane.

Dariat was an eighth-generation descendant, born a hundred and seventy-five years after Rubra’s body died. Physically he was virtually indistinguishable from his peer group; he shared the light coffee-coloured skin and raven hair that signalled the star system’s ethnic origin. A majority of Valisk’s population originated insystem, though few of them were practising Hindus. Only his indigo eyes marked him out as anything other than a straight Srinagar genotype.

He never knew of his calamitous inheritance until his teens, although even from his infancy he knew in his heart he was different; he was better, superior to all the other children in his day club. And when they laughed at him, or teased him, or sent him to Coventry, he laid into them with a fury that none of them could match. He didn’t know where it came from himself, only that it lay within, like some slumbering lake-bottom monster. At first he felt shame at the beatings he inflicted, blood for a five-year-old is a shocking sight; but even as he ran home crying a different aspect of the alien ego would appear and soothe him, calming his pounding heart. There was nothing wrong, he was assured, no crime committed, only rightness. They shouldn’t have said what they did, catcalled and sneered. You were right to assert yourself, you are strong, be proud of that.

After a while the feelings of guilt ebbed away. When he needed to hit someone he did it without remorse or regret. His leadership of the day club was undisputed, out of fear rather than respect.

He lived with his mother in a starscraper apartment; his father had left her the year he was born. He knew his father was important, that he helped to manage Magellanic Itg; but whenever he paid mother and son one of his dutiful visits he was subject to moody silences or bursts of frantic activity. Dariat didn’t like him, the grown-up was weird. I can do without him, the boy thought, he’s weak. The conviction was as strong as one of his didactic imprints. His father stopped visiting after he was twelve years old.

Dariat concentrated on science and finance subjects when he began receiving didactic courses at ten years old, although right at the back of his mind was the faintest notion that the arts might just have been equally appealing. But they were despicable moments of weakness, soon swallowed by the pride he felt whenever he passed another course assessment. He was headed for great things.

At fourteen the crux came. At fourteen he fell in love.

Valisk’s interior did not follow the usual bitek habitat convenience of a tropical or sub-tropical environment. Rubra had decided on a scrub desert extending out from the base of the northern endcap, then blending slowly into hilly savannah plain of terrestrial and xenoc grasses before the standard circumfluous salt-water reservoir at the base of the southern endcap.

Dariat was fond of hiking round the broad grasslands with their subtle blend of species and colours. The children’s day club which he used to dominate had long since broken up. Adolescents were supposed to join sports groups, or general interest clubs. He had trouble integrating, too many peers remembered his temper and violence long after he had stopped resorting to such crude methods. They shunned him, and he told himself he didn’t care. Somebody told him. In dreams he would find himself walking through the habitat talking to a white-haired old man. The old man was a big comfort, the things he said, the encouragement he gave. And the habitat was slightly different, richer, with trees and flowers and happy crowds, families picnicking.

“It’s going to be like this once you’re in charge,” the old man told him numerous times. “You’re the best there’s been for decades. Almost as good as me. You’ll bring it all back to me, the power and the wealth.”

“This is the future?” Dariat asked. They were standing on a tall altar of polyp-rock, looking down on a circular starscraper entrance. People were rushing about with a vigour and purpose not usually found in Valisk. Every one of them was wearing a Magellanic Itg uniform. When he lifted his gaze it was as though the northern endcap was transparent; blackhawks flocked around their docking rings, loaded with expensive goods and rare artefacts from a hundred planets. Further out, so far away it was only a hazy ginger blob, Magellanic Itg’s failed Von Neumann machine spun slowly against the gas giant’s yellow-brown ring array.

“It could be the future,” the old man sighed regretfully. “If you will only listen how.”

“I will,” Dariat said. “I’ll listen.”

The old man’s schemes seemed to coincide with the pressure of conviction and certainty which was building in his own mind. Some days he seemed so full of ideas and goals he thought his skull must surely burst apart, whilst on other occasions the dream man’s long rambling speeches seemed to have developed a tangible echo, lasting all day long.

That was why he enjoyed the long bouts of solitude provided by the unadventurous interior. Walking and exploring obscure areas was the only time the raging thoughts in his brain slowed and calmed.

Five days after his fourteenth birthday he saw Anastasia Rigel. She was washing in a river that ran along the floor of a deep valley. Dariat heard her singing before he saw her. The voice led him round some genuine rock boulders onto a shelf of naked polyp which the water had scoured of soil. He squatted down in the lee of the boulders, and watched her kneeling at the side of the river.

The girl was tall and much much blacker than anyone he’d seen in Valisk before. She appeared to be in her late teens (seventeen, he learned later), with legs that seemed to be all bands of muscle, and long jet-black hair that was arranged in ringlets and woven with red and yellow beads. Her face was narrow and delicate with a petite nose. There were dozens of slim silver and bronze bracelets on each arm.

She was only wearing a blue skirt of some thin cotton. A brown top of some kind lay on the polyp beside her. Dariat caught some fleeting glimpses of high pointed breasts as she rubbed water across her chest and arms. It was even better than accessing bluesense AV fleks and tossing off. For once he felt beautifully calm.

I’m going to have her, he thought, I really am. The certainty burned him.

She stood up, and pulled her brown top on. It was a sleeveless waistcoat made from thin supple leather, laced up the front. “You can come out now,” she said in a clear voice.

Just for a moment he felt wholly inferior. Then he trotted towards her with a casualness that denied she had just caught him spying. “I was trying not to alarm you,” he said.

She was twenty centimetres taller than him; she looked down and grinned openly. “You couldn’t.”

“Did you hear me? I thought I was being quiet.”

“I could feel you.”

“Feel me?”

“Yes. You have a very anguished spirit. It cries out.”

“And you can hear that?”

“Lin Yi was a distant ancestress.”

“Oh.”

“You have not heard of her?”

“No, sorry.”

“She was a famous spiritualist. She predicted the Big One2 quake in California back on Earth in 2058 and led her followers to safety in Oregon. A perilous pilgrimage for those times.”

“I’d like to hear that story.”

“I will tell it if you like. But I don’t think you will listen. Your spirit is closed against the realm of Chi-ri.”

“You judge people very fast. We don’t stand much of a chance, do we?”

“Do you know what the realm of Chi-ri is?”

“No.”

“Shall I tell you?”

“If you like.”

“Come then.”

She led him up the river, bracelets tinkling musically at every motion. They followed the tight curve of the valley; after three hundred metres the floor broadened out, and a Starbridge village was camped along the side of the river.

Starbridge was the remnants of the cults and tribes and spiritualists who had moved into Valisk during its formative years. They had slowly amalgamated down the decades, bonding together against the scorn and hostility of the other inhabitants. Now they were one big community, united spiritually with an outré fusion of beliefs that was often incomprehensible to any outsider. They embraced the primitive existence, living as tribes of migrants, walking round and round the interior of the habitat, tending their cattle, practising their handicraft, cultivating their opium poppies, and waiting for their nirvana.

Dariat looked out on the collection of ramshackle tepees, stringy animals with noses foraging the grass, children in rags running barefoot. He experienced a contempt so strong it verged on physical sickness. He was curious at that, he had no reason to hate the Starbridge freakos, he’d never had anything to do with them before. Even as he thought that, the loathing increased. Of course he did, slimy parasites, vermin on two legs.

Anastasia Rigel stroked his forehead in concern. “You suffer yet you are strong,” she said. “You spend so much time in the realm of Anstid.”

She brought him into her tepee, a cone of heavy handwoven cloth. Wicker baskets ringed the walls. The light was dim, and the air dusty. The valley’s pinkish grass was matted, dry and dying underfoot. He saw her sleeping roll bundled up against one basket, a bright orange blanket with pillows that had some kind of green and white tree motif embroidered across them, haloed by a ring of stars. He wondered if that was what he’d do it on, where he’d finally become a real man.

They sat crosslegged on a threadbare rug and drank tea, which was like coloured water, and didn’t taste of much. Jasmine, she told him.

“What do you think of us?” she asked.

“Us?”

“The Starbridge tribes.”

“Never really thought about you much,” Dariat said. He was getting itchy sitting on the rug, and it was pretty obvious there weren’t going to be any biscuits with the tea.

“You should. Starbridge is both our name and our dream, that which we seek to build. A bridge between stars, between all peoples. We are the final religion. They will all come to us eventually; the Christians and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists, even the Satanists and followers of Wicca; every sect, every cult. Each and every one of them.”

“That’s a pretty bold claim.”

“Not really. Just inevitable. There were so many of us, you see, when Rubra the Lost invited us here. So many beliefs, all different, yet really all the same. Then he turned on us, and confined us, and isolated us. He thought he would punish us, force us to conform to his materialistic atheism. But faith and dignity is always stronger than mortal oppression. We turned inwards for comfort, and found we had so much that we shared. We became one.”

“Starbridge being the one?”

“Yes. We burned the old scriptures and prayer books on a bonfire so high the flames reached right across the habitat. With them went all the ancient prejudices and the myths. It left us pure, in silence and darkness. Then we rebirthed ourselves, and renamed what we knew was real. There is so much that old Earth’s religions have in common; so many identical beliefs and tenets and wisdoms. But their followers are forced apart by names, by priests who have grown decadent and greedy for physical reward. Whole peoples, whole planets who denounce one another so that a few evil men can wear robes of golden cloth.”

“That seems fairly logical,” Dariat said enthusiastically. “Good idea.” He smiled. From where he was sitting he could see the whole side of her left breast through the waistcoat’s lace-up front.

“I don’t think you have come to faith that quickly,” she said with a trace of suspicion.

“I haven’t. Because you haven’t told me anything about it. But if you were telling the truth about hearing my spirit, then you’ve got my full attention. None of the other religions can offer tangible proof of God’s existence.”

She shifted round on the rug, bracelets clinking softly. “Neither do we offer proof. What we say is that life in this universe is only one segment of the great journey a spirit undertakes through time. We believe the journey will finish when a spirit reaches heaven, however you choose to define that existence. But don’t ask how close this universe is to heaven. That depends on the individual.”

“What happens when your spirit reaches heaven?”

“Transcendence.”

“What sort?”

“That is for God to proclaim.”

“God. Not a goddess, then?” he asked teasingly.

She grinned at him. “The word defines a concept, not an entity, not a white man with a white beard, nor even an earth mother. Physical bodies require gender. I don’t think the instigator and sovereign of the multiverse is going to have physical and biological aspects, do you?”

“No.” He finished the tea, relieved the cup was empty. “So what are these realms?”

“While the spirit is riding a body it also moves through the spiritual realms of the Lords and Ladies who govern nature. There are six realms, and five Lords and Ladies.”

“I thought you said there was only one heaven?”

“I did. The realms are not heaven, they are aspects of ourselves. The Lords and Ladies are not God, but they are of a higher order than ourselves. They affect events through the wisdoms and deceits they reveal to us. But they have no influence on the physical reality of the cosmos. They are not the instigators of miracles.”

“Like angels and demons?” he asked brightly.

“If you like. If that makes it easier to accept.”

“So they’re in charge of us?”

“You are in charge of yourself. You and you alone chose where your spirit roams.”

“Then why the Lords and Ladies?”

“They grant gifts of knowledge and insight, they tempt. They test us.”

“Silly thing to do. Why don’t they leave us alone?”

“Without experience there can be no growth. Existence is evolution, both on a spiritual and a personal level.”

“I see. So which is this Chi-ri I’m closed against?”

Anastasia Rigel climbed to her feet and went over to one of the wicker baskets. She pulled out a small goatskin bag. If she was aware of his hungry look following her every move she never showed it. “These represent the Lords and Ladies,” she said as she sat back down. The bag’s contents were tipped out. Six coloured pebble-sized crystals bounced on the rug. They had all been carved, he saw; cubes with their faces marked by small runes. She picked up the red one. “This is for Thoale, Lord of destiny.” The blue crystal was held up, and she told him it was for Chi-ri, Lady of hope. Green was for Anstid, Lord of hatred. Yellow for Tarrug, Lord of mischief. Venus, Lady of love, was as clear as glass.

“You said there were six realms,” he said.

“The sixth is the emptiness.” She proffered a jet-black cube, devoid of runes. “It has no Lord or Lady, it is where lost spirits flee.” She crossed her arms in front of herself, fingers touching her shoulders, bracelets falling to the crook of her elbows. She reminded Dariat of a statue of Shiva he’d seen in one of Valisk’s four temples; Shiva as Nataraja, king of dancers. “A terrible place,” Anastasia Rigel murmured coolly.

“You don’t think I have any hope?” he asked, suddenly annoyed at this primitive paganish nonsense again.

“You resist it.”

“No, I don’t. I’ve got lots of hope. I’m going to run this habitat one day,” he added. She ought to be impressed by that.

Her head was shaken gently, hair partly obscuring her face. “That is Anstid deceiving you, Dariat. You spend so much time in his realm, he has an unholy grip upon your spirit.”

“How do you know?” he said scornfully.

“These are called Thoale stones. He is the Lord I am beholden to. He shows me what is to unfold.” A slight, droll smile flickered over her lips. “Sometimes Tarrug intervenes. He shows me things I should not see, or events I cannot understand.”

“How do the stones work?”

“Each face is carved with the rune of a realm. I read the combinations, how they fall, or in the case of the emptiness where it falls in relation to the others. Would you like to know what your future contains?”

“Yeah. Go on.”

“Pick up each crystal, hold it in your hands for a moment, try to impress it with your essence, then put it in the bag.”

He picked up the clear one, naturally. Love Lady. “How do I impress it?”

She just shrugged.

He squeezed the crystals one at a time, feeling increasingly stupid, and dropped them in the goatskin bag. Anastasia Rigel shook the bag, then tipped the crystals out.

“What does it say?” Dariat asked, a shade too eagerly for someone who was supposed to be sceptical.

She stared at them a while, eyes flicking anxiously between the runes. “Greatness,” she said eventually. “You will come to greatness.”

“Hey, yeah!”

Her hand came up, silencing him. “It will not last. You shine so bright, Dariat, but for such a short time, and it is a dark flame which ignites you.”

“Then what?” he asked, disgruntled.

“Pain, death.”

“Death?”

“Not yours. Many people, but not yours.”

Anastasia Rigel didn’t offer to sleep with him that time. Nor any of his visits during the month which followed. They walked round the savannah together, talking inanities, almost as brother and sister. She would tell him about the Starbridge philosophy, the idiosyncrasies of the realms. He listened, but became lost and impatient with a worldview which seemed to have little internal logic. In return he told her of his father, the resentment and the confusion of loss; mainly in the hope she’d feel sorry for him. He took her down into a starscraper; she said she’d never been in one before. She didn’t like it, the confining walls of the apartments, although she was fascinated by the slowly spinning starfield outside.

The sexual tension died down from its initial high-voltage peak, though it was never laid to rest. It became a sort of game, jibes and smirks, played for points that neither knew how to win. Dariat enjoyed her company a lot. Someone who treated him fairly, who took time to hear what he said. Because she wanted to. He could never quite understand what she got out of the arrangement. She read his future several times, though none of the readings ever proved quite as dire as the first.

Dariat spent more and more time with her, almost divorcing himself from the culture lived out in the starscrapers and industrial stations (except for keeping up on his didactic courses). The portentous aspirations in his mind lost their grip when he was in her presence.

He learnt how to milk a goat, not that he particularly wanted to. They were smelly, bad-tempered creatures. She cooked him fish which she caught in the streams, and showed him which plants had edible roots. He found out about the tribe’s way of life, how they sold a lot of their handicrafts to starship crews, chiefly the rugs and pottery, how they shunned technology. “Except for nanonic medical packages,” she said wryly. “Amazing how many women become technocrats around childbirth time.” He went to some of their ceremonies, which seemed little more than open air parties where everyone drank a strong distilled spirit, and sang gospel hymns late into the night.

One evening, when she was wearing just a simple white cotton poncho, she invited him into her tepee. He felt all the sexual heat return as the outline of her body was revealed through the fabric by the light of the tepee’s meagre oil lamp. There was some kind of clay pot in the centre with a snakelike hose coming from the side. It was smoking docilely, filling the air with a funny sweet and sour scent.

Anastasia took a puff on the pipe, and shivered as if she’d swallowed a triple whisky. “Try some,” she said, her voice rich with challenge.

“What is it?”

“A wide gate into Tarrug’s realm. You’ll like it. Anstid won’t. He’ll lose all control over you.”

He looked at the crimped end of the tube, still wet from her mouth. He wanted to try it. He was frightened. Her eyes were very wide.

She tipped her head back, expelling two long plumes of smoke from her nostrils. “Don’t you want to explore the realm of mischief with me?”

Dariat put the tube in his mouth and sucked. The next minute he was coughing violently.

“Not so hard,” she said. Her voice sounded all furred. “Take it down slow. Feel it float through your bones.”

He did as he was told.

“They’re hollow, you know, your bones.” Her smile was wide, shining like the light-tube against her black face.

The world spun round. He could feel the habitat moving, stars whipping round faster and faster, smearing across space. Smeared like cream. He giggled. Anastasia Rigel gave him a long, knowing grin, and took another drag on the tube.

Space was pink. Stars were black. Water smelt of cheese. “I love you,” he told her. “I love you, I love you.” The tepee walls were palpitating in and out. He was in the belly of some huge beast, just like Jonah.

Bloody hell.

“What did you say?”

Shit, I can’t filter . . . What’s green? What are you—

“My hands are green,” he explained patiently.

“Are they?” Anastasia Rigel asked. “That’s interesting.”

What has she given you?

“Tarrug?” Dariat asked. Anastasia had said that was who they were going to visit. “Hello, Tarrug. I can hear him. He’s talking to me.”

Anastasia Rigel was at right angles to him. She pulled the poncho off over her head, sitting crosslegged and naked on the rug. Now she was totally upside-down. Her nipples were black eyes following him.

“That’s not Tarrug you hear,” she said. “That’s Anstid.”

“Anstid. Hi!”

What is it? What is in that bloody pipe? Wait, I’m reviewing the local memory . . . Oh, fuck, it’s salfrond. I can’t hold onto your thoughts when you’re tripping on that, you little prick.

“I don’t want you to.”

Yes, you do. Oh, believe me you do, boy. I’ve got the keys to every dark door in this kingdom, and you’re the golden protégé. Now stop smoking that mind-rotting crap.

Dariat very deliberately stuck the tube in his mouth, and inhaled until his lungs were about to burst. His cheeks puffed out. Anastasia Rigel leant forwards and took the tube from between his lips. “Enough.”

The tepee was spinning in the opposite direction to the habitat, and outside it was raining shoes. Black leather shoes with scarlet buckles.

Shit! I’m going to kill that little black junkie bitch for this. It’s high bloody time I shoved the Starbridge tribes out of the airlock. Dariat, stand up, boy. Walk outside, get some fresh air. There’s some medical nanonic packages in the village, the headman’s got some. They can straighten out your blood chemistry.

Dariat’s giggles returned. “Piss off.”

GET UP!

“No.”

Weakling! Always bloody weaklings. You’re no better than your bastard father.

Dariat squeezed his eyes shut. The colours were behind his eyelids too. “I am not like him.”

Yes, you are. Weak, feeble, pathetic. All of you are. I should have cloned myself when I had the chance. Parthenogenetics would have solved all this bullshit. Two fucking centuries of weaklings I’ve had to endure. Two centuries, fuck it.

“Go away!” Even stoned, he could tell this wasn’t part of the trip. This was more. This was much much worse.

“Is he hurting you, baby?” Anastasia Rigel asked.

“Yes.”

I’ll fucking cripple you if you don’t get up. Smash your legs, shred your hands to ribbons. Do you like the sound of that, boy? A life spent grubbing round like a snail. Can’t walk, can’t feed yourself, can’t wipe your arse.

“Stop it,” Dariat screamed.

Get up!

“Don’t listen to him, baby. Close your mind.”

Tell that bitch from me, she’s dead.

“Please, both of you, stop it. Leave me alone.”

Get up.

Dariat tried to rise. He got up to his knees, then fell into Anastasia’s lap.

“You’re mine now,” she said gladly.

No, you’re not. You’re mine. Always mine. You can never leave. I won’t allow you to.

Her hands ran over his clothes, opening seals. Kisses with the sharp cold impact of hailstones fell on his face. “This is what you wanted, what you always wanted,” she breathed in his ear. “Me.”

The nauseating colour stripes blitzing his sight swirled into blackness. Her hot skin sliding up and down against him. Weight pressing against every part of him. He was doing it! He was fucking! Tears poured out of his eyes.

“That’s right, baby. Up inside me. Purge him. Purge him with me. Fly, fly into Venus and Chi-ri. Leave him behind. Free yourself.”

Always mine.

Dariat woke feeling awful. He was lying on the stiff tousled grass of the tepee without a stitch of clothing. The entrance flap was open, a slice of bright morning light sliding through. A heavy dew mottled his legs. Something had died and decomposed in his mouth, his tongue by the feel of it. Anastasia Rigel was lying beside him. Naked and beautiful. Arms tucked up against her chest.

Last night. I fucked her. I did it!

He tried to smother an ecstatic laugh.

Feeling better?

Dariat screamed. It was inside his head. Anstid. The realm demigod.

He jerked around, hugging himself, biting his lower lip so hard he drew blood.

Don’t be an idiot. I’m not a bloody spirit bogeyman. There’s no such thing. Religion is a psychological crutch for mental inadequates. Spiritualism is for mental paraplegics. Think what that makes your girlie friend.

“What are you?”

Anastasia Rigel woke up, blinking against the light. She ran her hand through her wild hair and sat up, looking at him with a curious expression.

I’m your ancestor.

“A lost spirit from the emptiness?” he asked, wide eyed with fright.

Give me one more word of mythology and I really will have your legs broken. Now think logically. I’m your ancestor. Who can I be?

Information from his didactic history courses tumbled into his thoughts. “Rubra?” The idea didn’t make him feel any better at all.

Well done. Now stop panicking, and stop shivering. I don’t normally talk direct to someone your age, I like to let you have sixteen years to yourself. But I’m not going to allow you to become a dopehead. Do not ever smoke that stuff again. Understand?

“Yes, sir.”

Stop vocalizing. Concentrate your thoughts.

“What are you saying, baby?” Anastasia Rigel asked. “Are you still tripping?”

“No. It’s Rubra, he’s . . . We’re talking.”

She pulled the white poncho round herself, giving him an alarmed look.

I’ve got plans for you, boy,rubra said. Big plans. You’re destined for Magellanic Itg’s executive committee.

I am?

Yes. If you play your cards right. If you do as you’re told.

I will.

Good. Now I’ve been lenient letting you sow your oats with dinky little Anastasia. I can understand that, she’s got a nice body, good tits, pretty face. I had a sex drive myself, once. But you’ve had your fun now; so put your clothes on and say goodbye. We’ll find someone a bit more suitable.

I can’t leave her. Not after . . . last night.

Take a real good look at yourself, boy. Rutting with a bubblehead primitive on a filthy mat in a tepee. Some friend, she filled your brain with two kinds of shit. That’s not how Valisk’s future ruler is going to behave. Is it?

No, sir.

Good boy.

He started to pick up his clothes.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“Home.”

“He told you to.”

“I . . . What is there here?”

She gave him a forlorn look over the white poncho which was still clasped to her body. “Me. Your friend. Your lover.”

He shook his head.

“I’m human. That’s more than he is.”

Come on. Leave.

Dariat pulled on his shoes. He paused by the entrance flap.

“It’s Anstid,” she said in a mournful tone. “That’s who you really talk to.”

Pseudobabble. Ignore her.

Dariat walked slowly out of the village. Some of the elders gave him strange looks as he passed their steaming cooking pits. They couldn’t understand. Why would anyone leave Anastasia’s bed?

That’s their trouble, boy. They’re too backward. The real world is beyond them. I really must get round to cleaning them out one day.

Now Dariat knew what he was, what he was destined for, the didactic courses took on a whole new level of importance. He listened to Rubra’s advice on the specializations he needed, the grades he had to achieve. He became obedient, and a shade resentful at his own compliance. But what else was there? Starbridge?

In return for acquiescence Rubra taught him how to use the affinity bond with the habitat. How to access the sensitive cells to see what was going on, how he could call on vast amounts of processing power, the tremendous amount of stored data that was available.

One of the first things Rubra did was to guide him through a list of possible replacement girls, eager to bury the lingering traces of yearning for Anastasia Rigel. Dariat felt like a voyeuristic ghost, watching the prospective candidates through the sensitive cells; seeing them at home, talking to their friends. Some of them he watched having sex with their boyfriends, two with other girls, which was exciting. Rubra didn’t seem to object to these prolonged observations. At least it meant he didn’t have to pay for bluesense fleks any more.

One girl he chanced on was nice, Chilone, nine months older than him. As black as Anastasia (which was what first caught his attention), but with dark auburn hair. Shy and pretty, who talked a lot about sex and boys with her girl friends.

Still he hesitated from meeting her, even though he knew her daily routine, knew her interests, what to say, which day clubs she belonged to. He could contrive a dozen encounters.

Get on with it,rubra told him after a week of cautious scrutiny. Screw her brains out. You don’t think Anastasia’s still pining over you, do you?

What?

Try using the sensitive cells around the tepee.

That was something he’d never done, not using the habitat’s perception faculty to spy on her. But the tone Rubra used had a hint of cruel amusement in it.

Anastasia had a lover, Mersin Columba, another Starbridge. A man in his forties; overweight, balding, with white pallid skin. They looked horrible locked together. Anastasia flinched silently as she lay underneath his pumping body.

The old white-hot infantile fury rose into Dariat’s mind. He wanted to save her from the repellent humiliation; his beautiful girl who had loved him.

Take my advice. Go find young Chilone.

Like juvenile Edenists, it hadn’t taken Dariat long to discover how to fox the habitat’s sensitive cells. Unless Rubra’s principal personality pattern was concentrating on him in particular, the autonomous monitoring of the subroutines could be circumvented.

Dariat used the sensitive cells to follow Mersin Columba out of the tepee. The podgy oaf had a smug smile on his face as he made his way down to the stream. Anastasia Rigel was curled up on her rug, staring at nothing.

Mersin Columba made his way down the valley before stripping off his shirt and trousers. He splashed into a wide pool, and began to wash off the smell and stains of sex.

The first blow from Dariat’s wooden cudgel caught him on the side of his head, tearing his ear. He grunted and dropped to his knees. The second blow smashed across the crown of his skull.

Stop it!

Dariat aimed another blow; laughing at the surprise on the man’s face. Nobody does that to my girl. Nobody does that to me! A cascade of blows rained down on Mersin Columba’s unprotected head. Rubra’s furious demands were reduced to a wasp’s buzz at the back of Dariat’s raging mind. He was vengeance. He was omnipotent, more than any realm Lord. He struck and struck, and it felt good.

The water pushed at Mersin Columba’s inert body. Long ribbons of blood wept from the battered head, turned to tattered curlicues by the current. Dariat stood over him. The bloody length of wood dropped from his fingers.

I didn’t realize what I’d created with you,rubra said. The silent voice lacked its usual conviction.

Dariat shivered suddenly. His heart was pumping hard. Anastasia is mine. Well, she certainly doesn’t belong to poor old Mersin Columba any more, and that’s a fact.

The body had drifted five metres downstream. Dariat thought it looked repugnant, sickly white, bloated.

Now what?he asked sullenly.

I’d better get some housechimps to tidy up. And you’d better make tracks.

Is that it?

I’m not going to punish you for killing a Starbridge. But we’re going to have to work on that temper of yours. It can be useful, but only if it’s applied properly.

For the company.

Yes. And don’t you forget it. Don’t worry, you’ll improve with age.

Dariat turned and walked away from the river. He hiked up out of the valley and spent the afternoon wandering aimlessly around the savannah.

His thoughts were glacial. He had killed a man, but there was no remorse, no sense of guilt. No sense of satisfaction, either. He felt nothing, as if the whole incident was an act he’d seen on an AV recording.

When the light-tube began to dim into brassy twilight he turned and made his way towards the Starbridge village.

Where do you think you’re going?rubra asked.

She’s mine. I love her. I’m going to have her. Tonight, always.

No. Only I am for always.

You can’t stop me. I don’t care about the company. Keep it. I never wanted it. I want Anastasia.

Don’t be a fool.

Dariat detected something then, a strand of emotion wound up with the mental voice: anxiety. Rubra was worried.

What’s happened?

Nothing’s happened. Go home. It’s been a hellish day.

No.he tried to use the sensitive cells to show him the village. Nothing, Rubra was blocking his affinity.

Go home.

Dariat started running.

Don’t, boy!

It was over a kilometre back to the valley. The pink and yellow grass came up to his waist in places, blades whipping his legs. He reached the brow of the slope and looked down in dismay. The village was packing up, moving on. Half of the tepees were already down, folded into bundles and put on the carts. Animals were being rounded up. All the fire pits were out. It was a crazy time to be moving. Night was almost here. His sense of calamity redoubled.

Dariat sprinted down the steep slope, falling twice, grazing his knees and shins. He didn’t care. Faces turned to watch as he dashed towards Anastasia’s tepee.

He was shouting her name as he shoved the entrance flap aside.

The rope had been tied to the apex of the tepee. She must have used a stack of her wicker baskets to stand on. They were scattered all over the floor.

Her head was tilted to one side, the rope pressing into her left cheek, just behind the ear. She swayed slightly from side to side, the tepee’s poles letting out quiet creaks.

Dariat stared at her for some immeasurable time. He didn’t understand why. Not any of it.

Come on, boy. Come on home.

No. You did this. You made me leave her. She was mine. This would never have happened if you’d stayed out of my life.tears were pouring down his cheeks.

I am your life.

You’re not. Not not not.he closed out the voice. Refusing to hear the pleas and threats.

One of the wicker baskets had a piece of paper lying on top. It was weighted down by Anastasia’s goatskin bag. Dariat picked it up, and read the message she’d written.

Dariat, I know it was you. I know you thought you did it for me. You didn’t. You did it because it’s what Anstid wanted, he will never allow you an alliance with Thoale. I thought I could help you. But I see I can’t; I’m not strong enough to defy a realm Lord. I’m sorry.

I can’t see any purpose in staying in this universe any more. I’m going to free my spirit and continue my flight towards God. The Thoale stones are my gift to you; use them please. You have so many battles to fight. Seeing the future may help you win some.

I want you to know I loved you for all the time we were together.

Anastasia Rigel

He loosened the thong at the top of the bag and spilled the six crystals onto the dusty rug. The five which were carved with runes landed with the blank face uppermost. He slowly picked them up, and threw them again. They came up blank. The empty realm, where lost spirits go.

Dariat fled the Starbridge village. He never went back. He stopped taking didactic courses, refused to acknowledge Rubra’s affinity bond, argued a lot with his mother, and moved into a starscraper apartment of his own at fifteen.

There was nothing Rubra could do. His most promising protégé for decades was lost to him. The affinity window into Dariat’s mind remained closed; it was the most secure block the habitat personality pattern had ever known, remaining in place even while the boy slept. After a month of steady pressure Rubra gave up, even Dariat’s subconscious was sealed against subliminal suggestions. The block was more than conscious determination, it was a profound psychological inhibition. Probably trauma based.

Rubra cursed yet another failure descendant, and switched his priority to a new fledgeling. Monitoring of Dariat was assigned to an autonomic sub-routine. Occasional checks by the personality’s principal consciousness revealed a total drop-out, a part-time drunk, part-time hustler picking up beer money by knowing people and where to find them, getting involved with deals which were dubious even for Valisk. Dariat never got a regular job, living off the starscraper food pap, accessing MF albums, sometimes for days on end. He never approached a girl again.

It was a stand-off which lasted for thirty years. Rubra had even stopped his intermittent checks on the wrecked man. Then the Yaku arrived at Valisk.

The Yaku ’s emergence above Opuntia six days after it left Lalonde never raised a query. None of Graeme Nicholson’s fleks had yet reached their destination when the cargo starship asked for and was granted docking permission. As far as both the habitat personality and the Avon Embassy’s small Intelligence team (the only Confederation observers Rubra would allow inside) were concerned it was just another cargo starship visiting a spaceport which handled nearly thirty thousand similar visits a year.

Yaku had emerged a little further away from Valisk than was normal, and its flight vector required a more than average number of corrections—the fusion drive was fluctuating in an erratic fashion. But then a lot of the Adamist starships using Valisk operated on the borderline of CAB spaceworthiness requirements.

It docked at a resupply bay on the edge of the three-kilometre-wide disk which was the habitat’s non-rotational spaceport. The captain requested a quantity of He3 and deuterium, as well as oxygen, water, and some food. Spaceport service companies were contracted within ten minutes of its arrival.

Three people disembarked. Their passport fleks named them as Marie Skibbow, Alicia Cochrane, and Manza Balyuzi; the last two were members of Yaku ’s crew. All three cleared Valisk’s token immigration and customs carrying small bags with a single change of clothing.

The Yaku undocked four hours later, its cryogenic tanks full, and flew down towards Opuntia. Whatever its jump coordinate was, the gas giant was between it and Valisk when it activated its energy patterning nodes. No record of its intended destination existed.

Dariat was sitting up at the bar in the Tabitha Oasis when the girl caught his eye. Thirty years of little exercise, too much cheap beer, and a diet of starscraper gland synthesized pastes had brought about a detrimental effect on his once slim physique. He was fat verging on obese, his skin was flaky, his hair was dulled by a week’s accumulation of oil. Appearance wasn’t something he paid a lot of attention to. A togalike robe covered a multitude of laxities.

That girl, though: teenaged, long limbed, large breasted, exquisite face, bronzed, strong. Wearing a tight white T-shirt and short black skirt. He wasn’t alone in watching her. The Tabitha Oasis attracted a tough crew. Girl like that was a walking gang-bang invitation. It had happened before. But she hadn’t got a care in the world, there was an élan to her which was mesmerizing. All the more surprising, then, was her table companion.

Anders Bospoort: physically her counterpart; late twenties, slab muscles, the best swarthy face money could buy. But he didn’t have her youthful exuberance, his mouth and eyes smiled (for that money they ought to) but there was no emotion powering the expression. Anders Bospoort was in almost equal proportions gigolo, pimp, pusher, and blue-sense star.

Strange she couldn’t see that. But he could pile on the charm when necessary, and the expensive wine bottle sitting on the table between them was nearly empty.

Dariat beckoned the barkeeper over. “What’s her name?”

“Marie. Arrived on a ship this afternoon.”

That explained a lot. Nobody had warned her. Now the wolves of the Tabitha Oasis were circling the camp-fire, enjoying her elaborate seduction. Later they would be able to share the corruption of youth, sensevising Anders Bospoort’s boosted penis sliding up between her legs. Have her surprise and pleading in their ears. Feel the ripe body molested by powerful skilled hands.

Maybe Anders wasn’t so stupid, Dariat thought, bringing her here was a good advert. He could ask an easy ten per cent over the odds for her flek.

The barkeeper shook his head sadly. He was three times Dariat’s age, and he’d spent his every year in Valisk. He’d seen it all, so he claimed, every human foible. “Pity, nice girl like that. Someone should tell her.”

“Yeah. Anywhere else, and someone might.” Dariat looked at her again. Surely a girl with her beauty couldn’t be that naïve about men?

Anders Bospoort extended a gracious arm as they rose from the table. Marie smiled and accepted it. He thought she looked glad at the opportunity to stay close. The gazes she drew from the men of the Tabitha Oasis weren’t exactly coy. His size and measured presence was a reassurance. She was safe with him.

They walked across the vestibule outside the bar, and Anders datavised the starscraper’s mechanical systems control processor for a lift.

“Thank you for taking me there,” Marie said.

He saw the excitement in her eyes at the little taste of the illicit. “I don’t always go there. It can get a little rough. Half of the regulars have Confederation warrants hanging over them. If the navy ever comes visiting Valisk the population on penal planets would just about double overnight.”

The lift arrived. He gestured her through the open doors. Halfway there, and it was going so smoothly. He’d been a perfect gentleman from the moment they met outside the Apartment Allocation Office (always the best place to pick up clean meat), every word clicking flawlessly into place. And she’d been drawn closer and closer, hypnotized by the old Bospoort magic.

She glanced uncertainly at the floor as the doors closed, as if she’d only just realized how far from her home and family she was. All alone with her only friend in the whole star system. No going back for her now.

He felt a tightening in his stomach as the anticipation heightened. This would all go on the flek; the prelude, the slow-burning conquest. People appreciated the build in tension. And he was an artiste supreme.

The doors opened to the eighty-third floor.

“It’s a walk down two floors,” Anders told her apologetically. “The lifts don’t work below here. And the maintenance crews won’t come down to fix them. Sorry.”

The vestibule hadn’t been cleaned for a long time and rubbish was accumulating in the corners. There was graffiti on the walls, a smell of urine in the air. Marie looked round nervously, and stayed close to Anders’ side.

He guided her to the stairwell. The light was dim, a strip of electrophorescent cells on the wall whose output had faded to an insipid yellow. Dozens of big pale moths whirred incessantly against it. Water leaked down the walls from cracks in the polyp. A cream-coloured moss grew along the edge of every step.

“It’s very kind of you to let me stay with you,” Marie ventured.

“Just until you get your own apartment sorted out. There are hundreds of unused ones. It’s one of life’s greater mysteries why it always takes so long for the Allocation Office to assign one.”

Nobody else was using the stairs. Anders very rarely got to meet any of his neighbours. The bottom of the starscraper was perfect for him. No quick access, everyone stayed behind closed doors to conduct their chosen business in life, and no questions were ever asked. The cops Magellanic Itg contracted to maintain a kind of order in the rest of Valisk didn’t come down here.

They left the stairwell on his floor, and he datavised a code at his apartment door. Nothing happened. He flashed her a strained smile, and datavised the code again. This time it opened, juddering once or twice as it slid along its rails. Marie went in first. Anders deliberately kept the inside lights low, and codelocked the door behind him—at least the processor acknowledged that. He put his arm round her shoulder and steered her into the biggest of the three bedrooms. That door was codelocked too.

Marie walked into the middle of the room, eyes straying to the double bed. There were long velvet straps fixed to each corner.

“Take your clothes off,” Anders told her. An uncompromising sternness appeared in his voice. He datavised an order to the overhead light panel, but it remained at its lowest level. Shit! And she was obediently stripping off. Nothing for it, he’d have to stay with the deep shadows and hope everyone found it erotic.

“Now take mine off,” he ordered. “Slowly.”

He could feel her hands trembling as she pushed the shirt off his broad shoulders, which made a nice touch. Nervous ones were always more responsive.

His eyes ran over her with expert tracking as she walked ahead of him to the bed, capturing every square centimetre of flesh on display. When she was lying on the water mattress his hands traced the same route. Then his boosted cock was swelling to its full length, and he focused on her face to make sure he captured her fear. That was always a big turn on for the punters.

Marie was smiling.

The lights sprang up to full intensity.

Anders twisted round in confusion. “Hey—”

At first he thought someone had crept up and snapped handcuffs round his wrists, but when he looked he saw it was Marie’s elegant feminine hands gripping him.

“Let go.” The pain as she squeezed harder was frightening. “Bitch! Let go. Christ—”

She laughed.

He looked back down at her, and gasped. She was sprouting hair right across her chest and stomach, thick black bristles that scratched and pricked his skin where he lay on top of her. Individual strands began to harden. It was like lying on a hedgehog hide. The long tips were puncturing his own skin, needling in through the subcutaneous layers of fat.

“Fuck me, then,” she said.

He tried to struggle, but all that did was push more needle spines into his abdomen. Marie let go of one wrist. He hit her then, on the side of her ribs, and her flesh gave way below his fist. When he brought his hand away it was covered in yellow and red slime. The spines piercing him turned to worms, slick and greasy, licking round inside the swath of puncture holes down his torso. Blood trickled out.

Anders let out an insane howl. She was rotting below him, skin melting away into a putrescent crimson film of mucus. It was acting like glue, sticking him to her. The stench was vile, stinging his eyes. He puked, the wine from the Tabitha Oasis splattering down on her deliquescing face.

“Kiss me.”

He bucked and floundered against her, weeping helplessly, praying to a God he hadn’t addressed in over a decade. The worms were wriggling between his abdominal muscles, twining round tendon fibres. Blood and pus squelched and intermingled, forming a sticky glue which wedded them belly to belly like Siamese twins.

“Kiss me, Anders.”

Her free hand clamped onto the back of his skull. It felt like there was nothing left on it but bone. Sludge dripped into his coiffured hair.

“No!” he whimpered.

Her lips had dribbled away like candle wax, leaving a wide gash in the bubbling corruption that was her face. The teeth were a permanent grin. His head was being forced down towards her. He saw her teeth parting, then they were rammed against his own face.

The kiss. And hot, black, gritty liquid surged up out of her throat. Anders couldn’t scream any more. It was in his own mouth, kneading its way down his air passage like a fat, eager serpent.

A voice from nowhere said: “We can stop it.”

The liquid detonated into his lungs. He could feel it, hot and rancid inside his chest, swelling out to invade every delicate cavity. His ribcage heaved at the alien pressure from within. He had stopped struggling.

“She’ll kill you unless you let us help. She’s drowning you.”

He wanted to breathe. He wanted air. He would do anything to breathe. Anything.

“Then let us in.”

He did.

Using the sensitive cells in the polyp above Anders Bospoort’s bed, Dariat watched as the injuries and manifestations reversed themselves. Marie’s glutinous skin hardened, bristles retracting. The wounds down Anders Bospoort’s abdomen closed up. They became what they were before: satyr and seraph.

Anders began to stroke himself, hands tracing lines of muscle across his chest. He looked down on his body with a childlike expression of awe which swiftly became a broad grin. “I’m magnificent,” he whispered. “Utterly magnificent.” The accent was different to Anders’ usual. Dariat couldn’t quite place it.

“Yes, you look pretty good,” she replied indifferently. She sat up. The sheets were stained a faint pink below her back.

“Let me have you.”

Her mouth wrinkled up with indecision.

“Please. You know I need to. Hell, it’s been seven hundred years. Show a little compassion here.”

“All right then.” She lay back down. Anders started to lick her body, reminding Dariat of a feeding dog. They fucked for twenty minutes, Anders rutting with a fervour he’d never shown in any of his fleks. Electric lights and household equipment went berserk as they thrashed about. Dariat quickly checked the neighbouring apartments; a stimulant-program writer was yelling in frustration as his processors crashed at tremendous speed; a clone merchant’s vats seethed and boiled as regulators fried the fragile cell clusters which they were wired up to. Doors all around the vestibule opened and shut like guillotines. He had to launch a flurry of subversive affinity orders into the floor’s neural cells to prevent the local personality subroutines from alerting Rubra’s principal consciousness.

When he arrived, puffing heavily, outside the apartment, Marie and Anders Bospoort were getting dressed. He used a black-market customized processor block to break the door’s codelock, and walked straight in.

Marie and Anders looked up in alarm. They ran out of the bedroom. The processor block died in Dariat’s hand and the apartment was plunged into pitch darkness.

“The dark doesn’t bother me,” he said loudly. The sensitive cells showed him the two of them were walking towards him menacingly.

“Nothing will bother you from now on,” Marie replied.

The belt of his toga robe began to tighten round his belly. “Wrong. Firstly you won’t be able to tyrannize me like you did poor old Anders, I’m not that weak. Secondly, if I die Rubra will see exactly what’s been going on, and what you are. He might be crazy, but he’ll fight like a lion to defend his precious habitat and corporation. Once he knows you exist you’ve lost ninety per cent of your advantage. You’ll never take over Valisk without my help.”

The lights came back on. His belt loosened. Marie and Anders regarded him with expressionless faces.

“It’s only thanks to me he doesn’t know already. You obviously don’t understand much about bitek. I can help there as well.”

“Perhaps we don’t care if he knows,” Anders said.

“OK, fine. You want me to lift the limiter orders I put on this floor’s sensitive cells?”

“What do you want?” Marie asked.

“Revenge. I’ve waited thirty years for you. It’s been so long, so very tiring; I nearly broke on more than one occasion. But I knew you would come in the end.”

“You expected me?” she asked derisively.

“What you are, yes.”

“And what am I?”

“The dead.”

Chapter 04

Gemal emerged from its jump six hundred and fifty thousand kilometres above Mirchusko, where the gas giant’s gravity anchored it in a slightly elliptical orbit; Tranquillity, in its lower circular orbit, was trailing by two hundred thousand kilometres. Oliver Llewelyn, the colonist-carrier’s captain, identified his starship to the habitat personality, and requested approach and docking permission.

“Do you require assistance?” Tranquillity asked.

“No, we’re fully functional.”

“I don’t get many colonist-carrier vessels visiting. I thought you might have been making an emergency maintenance call.”

“No. This flight is business.”

“Does your entire passenger complement wish to apply for residency?”

“Quite the opposite. The zero-tau pods are all empty. We’ve come to hire some military specialists who live here.”

“I see. Docking and approach request granted. Please datavise your projected vector to spaceport flight control.”

Terrance Smith datavised a sensor access request into the starship’s flight computer, and watched the massive bitek habitat growing larger as they accelerated towards rendezvous in a complex manoeuvre at two-thirds of a gee. He opened a channel to the habitat’s communication net, and asked for a list of starships currently docked. Names and classifications flowed through his mind. A collation program sorted through them, indicating possibles and probables.

“I didn’t realize this was such a large port,” he said to Oliver Llewelyn.

“It has to be,” the captain replied. “There are at least five major family-owned civil carrier fleets based here purely because of the tax situation, and most of the other line companies have offices in the habitat. Then you’ve got to consider the residents. They import one hell of a lot; everything you need to live the good life, from food to clothes to pretentious art. You don’t think they’ll eat the synthesized pulp the starscrapers grow, do you?”

“No, I suppose not.”

“A lot of ships pick up contracts for them, bringing stuff in from all over the Confederation. And of course Tranquillity is the Confederation’s principal base for blackhawk mating flights now Valisk is falling from favour with the captains. The eggs gestate down in the big inner ring. It all adds together. The Lords of Ruin have built it into one of the most important commercial centres in this sector.”

Terrance looked across the bridge. Seven acceleration couches were arranged in a petal pattern on its composite decking, and only one of them was empty. The compartment had an industrial look, with cables and ducts fixed to the walls rather than being tucked neatly out of sight behind composite panels. But then that was a uniform characteristic throughout the Gemal and her sister ships which shuttled between Earth and stage one colony worlds. They were bulk carriers whose cargo happened to be people, and the line companies didn’t waste money on cosmetic finishes.

Captain Llewelyn was lying inertly on his acceleration couch, surrounded by a horseshoe of bulky consoles; a well-built sixty-eight-year-old oriental with skin as smooth as any adolescent. His eyes were shut as he handled the datavise from the flight computer.

“Have you been here before?” Terrance asked.

“I stopped over two days, that was thirty-five years ago when I was a junior officer in a different company. Don’t suppose it’s changed much. Plutocrats put a lot of stock in stability.”

“I’d like you to talk to the other captains for me, the independent trader starships we want to hire. I haven’t exactly done this kind of work before.”

Oliver Llewelyn snorted softly. “You let people know what kind of flight you’re putting together, then start flashing that overloaded Jovian Bank credit disk around, and you’ll be beating them off with a stick.”

“What about the mercenaries and general troops?”

“The captains will put you in touch. Hell, the combat boosted will pay the captains for an introduction. You want my advice, delegate. Find yourself ten or twenty officer types with some solid experience, and let them recruit troops for you. Don’t try and do it all yourself. We haven’t got time, for a start. Rexrew gave us a pretty tight schedule.”

“Thanks.”

“You’re paying, remember?”

“Yeah.” It had taken twenty thousand fuseodollars just to get Oliver Llewelyn to agree to take the Gemal to Tranquillity. “Not part of my LDC contract,” the captain had said stubbornly. Money was easier than datavising legal requirements at him. Terrance suspected it was going to cost a lot more to take the Gemal back to Lalonde. “You sound like you know what you’re talking about,” he said, mildly intrigued.

“I’ve flown a lot of different missions in my time,” the old captain said indifferently.

“So where do I meet these starship captains?”

Oliver Llewelyn accessed a thirty-five-year-old file in his neural nanonics. “We’ll start at Harkey’s Bar.”

Fifteen hours later Terrance Smith had to admit that Oliver Llewelyn had been perfectly correct. He didn’t need to make any effort, the people he wanted came to him. Like iron to a magnet, he thought, or flies to shit. He was sitting in a wall booth, feeling like an old-style tsar holding court, receiving petitions from eager subjects. Harkey’s Bar was full with starship crews hunched around tables, or concentrating in small knots at the bar. There was also a scattering of the combat boosted in the room. He had never seen them before, not in the flesh—if that’s what it could be called. Several of them resembled cosmoniks, with a tough silicon outer skin, and dual—even triple—lower arms, sockets customized for weapons. But the majority had a sleeker appearance than the cosmoniks, whose technology they pilfered; they’d been sculpted for agility rather than blunt EVA endurance, although Terrance could see one combat boosted who was almost globular, his (her?) head a neckless dome, with a wrap-around retinal strip, grainy auburn below its clear lens. The lid rippled constantly, a blink moving round and round. There were four stumpy legs, and four arms, arranged symmetrically. The arms were the most human part of the modified body, since only two of them ended in burnished metal sockets. He tried not to stare at the assembled grotesqueries, not to show his inner nerves.

The bar’s atmosphere was subdued, heavy with anticipation. It was long past the time the band were usually jamming on stage, but tonight they were drinking back in the kitchen, resigned to a blown gig.

“Captain André Duchamp,” Oliver Llewelyn said. “Owner of the Villeneuve’s Revenge .”

Terrance shook hands with the smiling round-faced captain. There was some contradiction in his mind that such a jovial-seeming man should want to join a military mission. “I need starships capable of landing a scout team on a terracompatible planet, then backing them up with tactical ground strikes,” he said.

André put his wineglass down squarely on the table. “The Villeneuve’s Revenge has four X-ray lasers and two electron-beam weapons. Planetary bombardment from low orbit will not be a problem.”

“There could also be some anti-ship manoeuvres required from you. Some interdiction duties.”

“Again, monsieur, this is not a problem from my personal position; we do have combat-wasp launch-cradles. However, you would have to provide the wasps themselves. And I would require some reassurance that we will not be involved in any controversial action in a system where Confederation Navy ships are present. As a commercial vessel I have no licence to carry such items.”

“You would be operating under government licence, which allows you to carry any weapons system quite legitimately. This entire mission is completely legal.”

“So?” André Duchamp gave him a quizzical glance. “This is excellent news. A legal combat mission is one I will welcome. As I say, I have no objection to conducting anti-ship engagements. May I ask which government you represent?”

“Lalonde.”

André Duchamp had a long blink while his neural nanonics almanac file reviewed the star system. “A stage one colony world. Interesting.”

“I am negotiating with several astroengineering companies with stations here at Tranquillity for combat wasps,” Terrance Smith said. “There will also be several nuclear-armed atmospheric-entry warheads to be taken on the mission. Would you be prepared to carry and deploy them?”

“Oui.”

“In that case, I believe we can do business, Captain Duchamp.”

“You have yet to mention money.”

“I am authorized to issue a five hundred thousand fuseodollar fee for every ship which registers for Lalonde naval duty, payable on arrival at our destination. Pay for an individual starship is three hundred thousand fuseodollars per month, with a minimum of two months’ duty guaranteed. There will be bonuses for enemy starships and spaceplanes destroyed, and a completion bonus of three hundred thousand fuseodollars. We will not, however, be providing insurance cover.”

André Duchamp took a leisurely sip of wine. “I have one further question.”

“Yes?”

“Does this enemy use antimatter?”

“No.”

“Very well. I would haggle the somewhat depressing price . . .” He cast a glance around the crowded room, crews not quite watching to see what the outcome would be. “But I feel I am not in a strong bargaining position. Today it is a buyer’s market.”

From his table on the other side of the bar Joshua watched André Duchamp rise from Terrance Smith’s booth. The two of them shook hands again, then André went back to the table where his crew were waiting. They all went into a tight huddle. Wolfgang Kuebler, captain of the Maranta , was shown to Smith’s booth by Oliver Llewelyn.

“That looks like five ships signed up,” Joshua said to his crew.

“Big operation,” Dahybi Yadev said. He drained his beer glass and sat it down on the table. “Starships, combat-boosted mercs, enhanced troops; that’s a long, expensive shopping list. Big money involved.”

“Lalonde can’t be paying, then,” Melvyn Ducharme said. “It doesn’t have any money.”

“Yes, it does,” Ashly Hanson said quietly. “A colony world is a massive investment, and a very solid one if you get in early enough. A healthy percentage of my zero-tau maintenance trust-fund portfolio is made up from development company shares, purely for the long-term stability they offer. I’ve never, ever heard of a colony failing once the go-ahead has been given. The money may not be floating around the actual colonists themselves, but the amount of financial resources required simply to initiate such a venture runs close to a trillion fuseodollars. And Lalonde has been running for over a quarter of a century, they’d even started an asteroid industrial settlement project. Remember? The development company has the money; more than enough to hire fifteen independent traders and a few thousand mercenary troops. I doubt it would even cause a ripple in their accountancy program.”

“What for, though?” Sarha Mitcham asked. “What couldn’t the sheriffs handle by themselves?”

“The Ivet riots,” Joshua said. Even he couldn’t manage any conviction. He shrugged under the sceptical looks the others gave him. “Well, there was nothing else while we were there. Marie Skibbow was worried about the scale of the civil disturbance. Nobody quite knew what was happening upriver. And the number of troops this Smith character is trying to recruit implies some kind of ground action is required.”

“Hard to believe,” Dahybi Yadev muttered. “But the actual mission objective won’t be known until after they’ve jumped away from Tranquillity. Simple security.”

“All right,” Joshua said. “We all know the score. With Parris Vasilkovsky backing us on the mayope venture we have a chance to make macro money. And at the same time, with the money we made from the Norfolk run we certainly don’t need to hire on with any mercenary fleet.” He looked at each of them in turn. “Given the circumstances, we can hardly take Lady Mac to Lalonde ahead of the fleet. I’ve heard that Terrance Smith has ordered a batch of combat wasps from the McBoeing and Signal-Yakovlev industrial stations. He’s clearly expecting some kind of conflict after they arrive. So the question is, do we go with him to find out what’s happening, and maybe protect our interest, or do we wait here for news? We’ll take a vote, and it must be unanimous.”

Time Universe’s Tranquillity office was on the forty-third floor of the StCroix starscraper. It was the usual crush of offices, studios, editing rooms, entertainment suites, and electronic workshops; a micro-community where individual importance was graded by allocated desk space, facility size, and time allowance. Naturally, given the make-up of the habitat’s population, it had a large finance and commerce bureau, but it also provided good Confederationwide news coverage.

Oliver Llewelyn walked into the wood-panelled lobby at ten thirty local time the day after the Gemal had docked. The receptionist palmed him off on a junior political correspondent called Matthias Rems. In the composite-walled office Matthias used to assemble his reports he produced the flek Graeme Nicholson had given him and named a carriage fee of five thousand fuseodollars. Matthias wasn’t stupid, the fact that the Gemal ’s captain had come direct from Lalonde was enough to warrant serious attention. By now the entire habitat knew about the mercenary fleet being assembled by Terrance Smith, though its purpose remained unknown. Rumour abounded. Lalonde was immediate news; plenty of Tranquillity residents would have LDC shares sleeping in their portfolios. First-hand sensevises of the planet and whatever was happening there would have strong ratings clout. Ordinarily Matthias Rems might have hesitated about the shameless rip-off fee (he guessed correctly that Llewelyn had already been paid), especially after he accessed the company personnel file on Graeme Nicholson; but given the circumstances he knuckled under and paid.

After the captain left, Matthias slotted the flek into his desktop player block. The sensevise recording was codelocked, so Graeme Nicholson had obviously considered it important. He pulled Nicholson’s personal code from his file, then sat back and closed his eyes. The Crashed Dumper invaded his sensorium; its heat and noise and smell, the taste of a caustic local beer tarring his throat, unaccustomed weight of a swelling belly. Graeme Nicholson held the fragments of a broken glass in his hand, his arms and legs trembling slightly; both eyes focused unwaveringly on a tall man and lovely teenage girl over by the crude bar.

Twelve minutes later a thoroughly shaken Matthias Rems burst in on Claudia Dohan, boss of Time Universe’s Tranquillity operation.

The ripple effect of Graeme Nicholson’s flek was similar to the sensation Ione’s appearance had caused the previous year, in every respect save one. Ione had been a feel-good item: Laton was the antithesis. He was terror and danger, history’s nightmare exhumed.

“We have to show a sense of responsibility,” a twitchy Claudia Dohan said after she surfaced from the sensevise. “Both the Confederation Navy and the Lord of Ruin must be told.”

The AV cylinder on her desktop processor block chimed. “Thank you for your consideration,” Tranquillity said. “I have informed Ione Saldana about Laton’s reappearance. I suggest you contact Commander Olsen Neale yourself to convey the contents of the flek.”

“Right away,” Claudia Dohan said diligently.

Matthias Rems was glancing nervously round the office, disturbed by the reminder of the habitat personality’s perpetual vigilance.

Claudia Dohan broke the news on the lunchtime programme. Eighteen billion fuseodollars was wiped off share values on Tranquillity’s trading floor within quarter of an hour of the sensevise being broadcast. Values crept back up during the rest of the afternoon as brokers assessed possible war scenarios. By the end of the day seven billion fuseodollars had been restored to prices—mainly on astro-engineering companies which would benefit from armaments sales.

The Time Universe office had done its work well, considering the short period it had in which to prepare. Its current affairs channel’s usual afternoon schedule was replaced by library memories of Laton’s earlier activities and earnest studio panel speculation. While Tranquillity’s residents were being informed, Claudia Dohan started hiring starships to distribute copies of Graeme Nicholson’s flek across the Confederation. This time she had a small lever against the captains, unlike Ione’s very public appearance; she had a monopoly on Laton’s advent and they were bidding against each other to deliver fleks. By the evening she had dispatched eighteen starships to various planets (Kulu, Avon, Oshanko, and Earth being the principals). Those Time Universe offices would in turn send out a second wave of fleks. Two weeks ought to see the entire Confederation brought up to speed. And warned, Claudia Dohan thought, Time Universe alone alerting the human and xenoc races to the resurgent danger. A greater boost to company fortunes simply wasn’t possible.

She took the whole office out to a five-star meal that night. This coup, following so soon after Ione, should bring them all some heady bonuses, as well as boosting them way ahead of their contemporaries on the promotion scale. She was already thinking of a seat on the board for herself.

But it was a hectic afternoon. Matthias Rems (making his debut as a front-line presenter) introduced forty-year-old recordings of the broken Edenist habitat Jantrit, its shell cracked like a giant egg where the antimatter had detonated. Its atmosphere jetted out of a dozen breaches in the five-hundred-metre-thick polyp, huge grey-white plumes which acted like rockets, destabilizing the cylinder’s ponderous rotation. The wobble built over the period of a few hours, until it developed into an uncontrollable tumble. On the outside, induction cables lashed round in anarchic hundred-kilometre arcs, preventing even the most agile voidhawks from rendezvousing. Inside, water and soil were tossed about, acting like a permanent floating earthquake. Starscrapers, weakened by the blast, broke off like rotten icicles, whirling away at terrific velocities. And all the while their air grew thinner.

Some people were saved as the voidhawks and Adamist starships hurtled after the spinning starscrapers. Eight thousand out of a population of one and a quarter million. Even then utter disaster might have been averted. The dying Edenists should have transferred their memories into the habitat personality. But Laton had infected Jantrit’s neuron structure with his proteanic virus and its rationality was crumbling as trillions upon trillions of cells fell to the corruption every second. The other two habitats orbiting the gas giant were too far away to provide much assistance; personality transference was a complex function, distance and panic confused the issue. Twenty-seven thousand Edenists managed to bridge the gulf; three thousand patterns were later found to be incomplete, reduced to traumatized childlike entities. Voidhawks secured another two hundred and eighty personalities, but the bitek starships didn’t have the capacity to store any more, and they were desperately busy anyway, chasing the starscrapers.

For Edenists it was the greatest tragedy since the founding of their culture. Even Adamists were stunned by the scale of the disaster. A living sentient creature thirty-five kilometres in length mind-raped and killed, nearly one and a quarter million people killed, over half a million stored personality patterns wiped.

And it had all been a diversion. A tactic to enable Laton and his cohorts to flee without fear of capture after their coup failed. He used the community’s deaths as a cover; there was no other reason for it, no grand strategic design.

Every voidhawk, every Confederation Navy ship, every asteroid settlement, every planetary government searched for Laton and the three blackhawks he had escaped with.

He was cornered two months later in the Ragundan system: three blackhawks, armed with antimatter and refusing to surrender. Three voidhawks and five Confederation Navy frigates were lost in the ensuing battle. An asteroid settlement was badly damaged with the loss of a further eight thousand lives when the blackhawks tried to use it as a hostage, threatening to bomb it with antimatter unless the navy withdrew. The naval flotilla’s commanding admiral called their bluff.

As with all space engagements there was nothing left of the vanquished but weak nebulas of radioactive molecules. There was no body to identify. But it couldn’t have been anyone else.

Now it seemed there must have been four blackhawks. Nobody could mistake that tall, imperious man standing on the steps of the Yaku ’s spaceplane, laughing at a cowering Graeme Nicholson.

The guests Matthias Rems invited into the studio, a collection of retired navy officers, political professors, and weapons engineers, observed that Laton’s actual goal had never been declared. Speculation had been rife for years after the event. It obviously involved some kind of physical (biological) and mental domination, subverting the Edenists through the (fortunately) imperfect proteanic virus he had developed. Changing them and the habitats. But to what grandiose ideal had been thought for ever unknown. The studio debate concentrated on whether Laton was behind the current conflict on Lalonde, and if it was the first stage in his bid to impose his will on the Confederation again. Graeme Nicholson had certainly believed so.

Laton was different to the kind of planetary disputes like Omuta and Garissa; the perennial squabbling between asteroid settlements and their funding companies over autonomy. Laton wasn’t a violence-tinged argument over resources or independence, he was after people, individuals. He wanted to get into your genes, your mind, and alter you, mould you to his own deviant construct. Laton was deadly personal.

One of the keenest observers of the Time Universe programmes was Terrance Smith. The Laton revelation had come as a profound shock. He, and the Gemal ’s crew, became the objects of intense media interest. Hounded every time he left the colonist-carrier, he eventually had to appeal to Tranquillity for privacy. The habitat personality agreed (a resident’s freedom from intrusion was part of the original constitution Michael Saldana had written), and the reporters were called off. They promptly switched their attention to anyone who had signed on as a member of the mercenary fleet, all of whom protested (truthfully) that they knew nothing of Laton.

“What do we do?” Terrance Smith asked in a bleak voice. He was alone with Oliver Llewelyn on the Gemal ’s bridge. Console holoscreens were showing the Time Universe evening news programme, cutting between a studio presenter and segments of Graeme Nicholson’s recording. The captain was someone whose opinion Terrance valued, in fact he’d grown heavily dependent on him during the last couple of days. There weren’t many other people he confided in.

“You don’t have many options,” Oliver Llewelyn pointed out. “You’ve already paid the registration fee to twelve ships, and you’ve got a third of the troops you wanted. Either you go ahead as originally planned, or you cut and run. Doing nothing isn’t a valid alternative, not now.”

“Cut and run?”

“Sure. You’ve got enough money in the LDC’s credit account to lose yourself. Life could get very comfortable for you and your family.” Oliver Llewelyn watched Terrance Smith closely, trying to anticipate his reaction. The notion obviously appealed, but he didn’t think the bureaucrat would have enough backbone.

“I . . . No, we can’t. There are too many people depending on me. We have to do something to help Durringham. You weren’t down there, you don’t know what it was like that last week. These mercenaries are the only hope they’ve got.”

“As you wish.” Pity, Oliver Llewelyn thought, a great pity. I’m getting too old for this kind of jaunt.

“Do you think fifteen ships is enough to go up against Laton?” Terrance Smith asked anxiously. “I have the authority to hire another ten.”

“We’re not going up against Laton,” Oliver Llewelyn said patiently.

“But—”

The captain gestured at one of the console holoscreens. “You accessed Graeme Nicholson’s sensevise. Laton has left Lalonde. All your mercenaries are faced with is a big mopping-up operation. Leave Laton to the Confederation; the navy and the voidhawks will be going after him with every weapon they’ve got.”

The notion of taking on Laton was something the starship captains had been discussing among themselves. Only three were sufficiently alarmed to return Terrance Smith’s registration fee. He had no trouble in attracting replacements, and bringing the number of the fleet up to nineteen—six blackhawks, nine combat-capable independent traders, three cargo carriers, and the Gemal itself. Virtually none of the general troops or the combat-boosted mercenaries resigned. Fighting Laton’s legions, being on the right side, gave the whole enterprise a kudos like few others; old hands and fresh youngsters queued up to sign on.

Three and a half days after he arrived, Terrance Smith had all he came for. The one request from Commander Olsen Neale to hold off and wait for a Confederation naval investigatory flight was smilingly refused. Durringham needs us now, Terrance told him.

Ione and Joshua walked down one of Tranquillity’s winding valleys in the late afternoon, dew-heavy grass staining their sandals. She was wearing a long white cotton skirt and a matching camisole, a loose-fitting outfit which allowed the air to circulate over her warm skin. Joshua just wore some long dark mauve shorts. His skin was tanning nicely, she thought, he was almost back to his old colour. They had spent most of his stopover outside; swimming with Haile, riding, walking, having long sexual adventures. Joshua seemed to get very turned on having sex beside and in the bountiful streams meandering through the habitat.

Ione stopped at a long pool which formed the intersection of two streams. It was lined by mature rikbal trees, whose droopy branches stroked the water with their long, thin leaves. They were all in flower, bright pink blooms the size of a child’s fist.

Gold and scarlet fish slithered through the water. It was tranquillity, Ione thought, small t, created by big T; name chasing form, name creating form. The lake—the whole park—was a pause from the habitat’s bustle; the habitat was a pause from the Confederation’s bustle. If you wanted it to be.

Joshua pushed her gently against a rikbal trunk, kissing her cheek, her neck. He opened the front of her camisole.

Hair fell down across her eyes, she was wearing it longer these days. “Don’t go,” she said quietly.

His arms dropped inertly to his sides, head slumping forwards until his brow touched hers. “Good timing.”

“Please.”

“You said you weren’t going to dump this possessive scene on me.”

“This isn’t being possessive.”

“What then? It sounds like it.”

Her head came up sharply, pink spots burning on both cheeks. “If you must know, I’m worried about you.”

“Don’t be.”

“Joshua, you’re flying into a war zone.”

“Not really. We’re flying escort duty for a troop convoy, that’s all. The soldiers and combat boosted are in at the hard edge.”

“Smith wants the starships to provide ground strikes; he’s bought combat wasps for interdiction missions. That’s the hard edge, Joshua, that’s the dead edge. Bloody hell, you’re going up against Laton in an antique wreck that barely rates its CAB spaceworthiness licence. And there’s no reason. None. You don’t need mayope, you don’t need Vasilkovsky.” She held his arm, imploring. “You’re rich. You’re happy. Don’t try and tell me you’re not. I’ve watched you for three years. You’ve never had so much fun as when you gallivanted around the galaxy in the Lady Macbeth . Now look at what you’re doing. Paper deals, Joshua. Making paper money you can never spend. Sitting behind a desk, that’s your destination. That’s where you’re flying to, Joshua, and it isn’t you.”

“Antique, huh?”

“I didn’t mean—”

“How old is Tranquillity, Ione? At least I own the Lady Mac , it doesn’t own me.”

“I’m just trying to shock some sense into you. Joshua, it’s Laton you’re facing. Don’t you watch the AV recordings? Didn’t you access Graeme Nicholson’s sensevise?”

“Yes. I did. Laton isn’t on Lalonde. He left on the Yaku . Did you miss that bit, Ione? If I wanted to go on suicide flights I’d chase after the Yaku . That’s where the danger is. That’s where the navy heroes are going. Not me, I’m protecting my own interests.”

“But you don’t need it!” she said. God, but he could be bonehead stubborn at times.

“You mean you don’t.”

“What?”

“Not convenient, is it? Me having that much money. That much money would mean I make the decisions, I make the choices. It gives me control over my life. Where does that fit into your cosy scenario of us, Ione? I won’t be so easy to manipulate then, will I?”

“Manipulate! One glimpse of a female nipple and your fly seal bursts apart from the pressure. That’s how complicated your personality is. You don’t need manipulating, Joshua, you need hormone suppressors. All I’m doing is trying to think ahead for you, because God knows you can’t do it for yourself.”

“Jesus, Ione! Sometimes I can’t believe you’re bonded to a cubic kilometre of neuron cells, you don’t display the IQ of an ant most days. This is my chance , I can make it. I can be your equal.”

“I don’t want an equal.” Ione jammed her mouth shut. She’d nearly done it, nearly said: “I just want you.” But torture wouldn’t bring that from her lips, not now.

“Yeah, so I noticed,” he said. “I started with a broken-down ship. I made that work, I earned a living flying it. And now I’m moving on, moving up. That’s life, Ione. Growing, evolving. You should try it sometime.” He turned and stomped off through the trees, sweeping the hanging branches aside impatiently. If she wanted to say sorry, she could damn well come after him and do it.

Ione watched him go, and fumbled with the front of her camisole. What an arsehole. He might be psychic, but only at the expense of common sense.

I’m so sorry,tranquillity said gently.

She sniffed hard. What about?

Joshua.

There’s no reason. If he wants to go, let him. See if I care.

You do care. He is right for you.

He doesn’t think so.

Yes, he does. But he is prideful. As are you.

Thanks for nothing.

Don’t cry.

Ione glanced down, seeing her hands as blobs. Her eyes were horribly warm. She wiped at them vigorously. God, how could I have been so stupid? He was just supposed to be a fun stud. Nothing more.

I love you,tranquillity said, so full of cautious warmth that Ione had to smile. Then she winced as her stomach churned, and promptly threw up. The bile was acid and disgusting. She cupped her hands to capture some of the cool pool water so she could rinse her mouth out.

You are pregnant,tranquillity observed.

Yes. The last time Joshua came back, before he made the Norfolk run.

Tell him.

No! That would only make it worse.

You are both fools,tranquillity said with unaccustomed ardour.

Stars slid across the window behind Commander Olsen Neale. Choisya was the only one of Mirchusko’s moons visible, a distant grey-brown crescent sliver peeping up over the bottom of the oval every three minutes. Erick Thakrar didn’t like the sight of the starfield, it was too close, too easy to reach. He wondered, briefly, if he was developing a space-phobia. It wasn’t unheard of, and there were a lot of associations involved. That horrified, distraught voice coming from the Krystal Moon ; a fifteen-year-old girl. What had Tina looked like? It was a question he’d been asking himself a lot recently. Did she have a boyfriend? What mood fantasy bands did she cherish? Had she enjoyed her life on the old interplanetary vessel? Or did she find it intolerable?

What the fuck was she doing in the forward compartment below the communication dishes?

“The micro-fusion generators were handed directly over to the Nolana as soon as we docked,” Erick said. “They never even passed through Tranquillity’s cargo-storage facility. Which means there was no data work, no port manager’s inspection. And of course we were all on board the Villeneuve’s Revenge until the transfer was finished. I couldn’t get a message out to you.”

“We’ll track the Nolana , of course,” Olsen Neale said. “See where the generators go. It should expose the distribution net. You’ve done well,” he added encouragingly. The young captain looked haggard, nothing like the bright eager agent who had wangled himself a berth on the Villeneuve’s Revenge those long months ago.

It hits us all in the end, son, Olsen Neale thought soulfully to himself. We deliberately bring ourselves down to their level so we can blend in, and sometimes it costs just too much. Because nothing can go lower than human beings.

Erick remained unmoved by the compliment. “You can have Duchamp and the rest of the crew arrested immediately,” he said. “My neural nanonics recording of our attack on the Krystal Moon will be more than enough to convict them. I want you to tell the prosecutor to ask for maximum penalties. We can have them all committed to a penal planet. The whole lot of them, and that’s better than they deserve.”

And it transfers your guilt, as well, Neale thought silently. “I don’t think we can do that right now, Erick,” he said.

“What? Three people have died just so that you have enough evidence against Duchamp. Two of them I killed myself.”

“I’m truly sorry, Erick, but circumstances have changed somewhat radically since your mission began. Have you accessed Time Universe’s Lalonde sensevise?”

Erick gave him a demoralized stare, guessing what was coming. “Yes.”

“Terrance Smith has signed on the Villeneuve’s Revenge for his mercenary fleet. We’ve got to have somebody there, Erick. It’s a legal mission for a planetary government, there’s nothing I can do to prevent them from leaving. Christ, this is Laton we’re talking about. I was about ten years old when he destroyed Jantrit. One and a quarter million people just so he could make a clean getaway, and the habitat itself; the Edenists had never lost a habitat before, their life expectancy is measured in millennia. And now he’s had nearly forty years to perfect his megalomaniac schemes. Shit, we don’t even know what they are; but what I’ve heard about Lalonde is enough to frighten me. I’m scared, Erick, I’ve got a family. I don’t want him to get his hands on them. We have to know where he went on the Yaku . Nothing is more important than that. Piracy and flogging off black-market goods are totally irrelevant by comparison. The navy has to find him and exterminate him. Properly this time. Until he’s dead, we have no other goal. I’ve already sent a flek to Avon, a courier left on a blackhawk an hour after the Time Universe people told me about their recording.”

Erick’s brow crinkled in surprise.

Olsen Neale gave a modest smile. “Yes, a blackhawk. They’re fast, they’re good. And Laton will ultimately have them too if we don’t stop him. Their captains are just as unnerved by him as we are.”

“All right.” Erick gave up. “I’ll go.”

“Anything. Any piece of data. What he’s done out in the Lalonde hinterlands. Where the Yaku went. Just anything.”

“I’ll get whatever I can.”

“You could try asking this journalist, Graeme Nicholson.” He shrugged at Erick’s expression. “The man’s smart, resourceful. If anyone on that planet had the presence of mind to track the Yaku ’s jump coordinate, it’ll be him.”

Erick rose to his feet. “OK.”

“Erick . . . take care.”

The heavy curtains in Kelly Tirrel’s bedroom were drawn across the two oval windows. Ornate wall-mounted glass globes emitted a faint turquoise light. It made the white bedsheets shimmer as if they were the surface of a moonlit lake; human skin was dark and tantalizing.

Kelly let Joshua run his hands over her, parting her legs so he could probe the damp cleft hidden below her tangle of pubic hair.

“Nice,” she purred, squirming over the rumpled sheets.

His teeth shone as he parted his lips. “Good.”

“If you take me with you, there will be five days of this. Nonstop; and in free fall, too.”

“A powerful argument.”

“Money as well. Collins will pay triple rate for my passage.”

“I’m already rich.”

“So get richer.”

“Jesus, you’re a pushy bitch.”

“Is that a complaint? Did you want to be with someone else tonight?”

“Er, no.”

“Good.” Her hand slid round his balls. “This is the one for me, Joshua. This is my make or break chance. I blew the Ione story because of someone not a million kilometres from here.” Her fingers tightened slightly. “Opportunities like this don’t come to a place like Tranquillity three times in a life. If I pull it off I’ll be made; top of the seniority table, good assignments, a decent bureau posting, a real salary. You owe me this, Joshua. You owe me very big.”

“Suppose the mercenaries don’t want you with them?”

“You leave them to me. The way I’ll pitch it at them, they’ll eat up the offer. Heroes up against frightening odds helping to flatten Laton, rogues with a heart of gold, sensevised into every home in the Confederation. Come on!”

“Jesus.” There was still an uncomfortable pressure round his balls, long red nails touching his scrotum, a little too sharply to be described as tickling. She wouldn’t. Would she? Her smart, expensive grey-blue Crusto suit was folded neatly over a chair by the dresser. It had been taken off with military regimentation as she prepared for sex.

She probably would. Jesus.

“Of course I’ll take you.”

Thumb and forefinger nipped one ball impishly.

“Yow!” His eyes watered. “You don’t think you’re getting carried away with this idea, do you? I mean, there are career moves and career moves. Landing on a hostile planet behind enemy lines is pushing company loyalty to extremes.”

“Crap.” Kelly rolled onto one elbow and glared at him. “Did you see who Time Universe had introducing their studio segments? Matthias bastard Rems, that’s who. Just because he was in the right place at the right time. That lucky little shit. He’s younger than me, barely out of his nursery pen. And they gave him three days prime scheduling time. And market research says he’s popular because he’s boyish. Some women like that, it turns out. Eighty-year-old virgins, I should think. The reason Time Universe won’t let him record sensevises is because then we’d all know for sure he hasn’t got any balls.”

“Not a problem in your case, is it?”

It came out before he could think. Kelly spent a hot violent twenty minutes making him wish it hadn’t.

The nineteen starships under Terrance Smith’s command assembled a thousand kilometres beyond Tranquillity’s spaceport: the Gemal with five thousand general troops, three cargo clippers carrying their equipment and supplies, and fifteen combat-capable ships, six of which were blackhawks.

Tranquillity watched their drives come on, and the flotilla moved in towards Mirchusko at one gee. The Adamist starships employed a single-file formation (with Gemal leading) which the blackhawks encircled insolently. Strategic-defence sensor-platforms detected a vast amount of encrypted data traffic being exchanged between the ships as communication channels were tested and combat tactics exchanged.

They curved around the gas giant, heading towards its penumbra. Their drive exhausts shortened and vanished while they were still a hundred and eighty-four thousand kilometres above the unruly cloudscape, coasting towards the jump co-ordinate. Tranquillity saw the faint blue flickers of ion jets perfecting their orbital tracks; then the thermo-dump panels and sensor clusters began to withdraw. The blackhawks rushed away from the main convoy, freed of the constraints imposed by their Adamist partners, expanding in a perfectly spaced rosette. Then the bitek starships performed their swallow manoeuvre, jumping on ahead to scout for any possible trouble. Space reverberated with the gravity-wave backwash of their wormhole interstices snapping shut behind them, impinging on the habitat’s sensitive mass-detection organs.

Gemal jumped. Tranquillity noted its spacial location and velocity vector. The trajectory was aligned exactly on Lalonde. One by one the remaining starships fell into the same jump coordinate and triggered their energy patterning nodes, squeezing themselves out of space-time.

Chapter 05

Since the advent of its independence in 2238, Avon’s government had contracted civil astroengineering teams to knock fifteen large (twenty– to twenty-five-kilometre diameter) stony iron asteroids into high orbit above the planet using precisely placed and timed nuclear explosions. Fourteen of them followed the standard formula of industrialization adopted throughout the Confederation. After their orbits were stabilized with a perigee no less than a hundred thousand kilometres, their ores had been mined out and the refined metal sent down to the planet below in the form of giant lifting bodies which coasted through the atmosphere to a splash-glide landing in the ocean. The resulting caverns were expanded, regularized into cylindrical shapes, the surface sculpted into a landscape, sealed, then turned into habitable biospheres. At the same time the original ore refineries would gradually be replaced by more sophisticated industrial stations, allowing the asteroid’s economy to shift its emphasis from the bulk production of metals and minerals to finished micro-gee engineered products. The refineries moved on to a fresh asteroid in order to satisfy the demand of the planetary furnaces and steel mills, keeping the worst aspects of raw-material exploitation offplanet where the ecological pollution on the aboriginal biota was zero.

Anyone arriving at a terracompatible planet in the Confederation could tell almost at a glance how long it had been industrialized by the number of settled asteroids in orbit around it.

Avon had been opened for colonization to ethnic Canadians in 2151 during the Great Dispersal, and conformed to the usual evolutionary route out of an agrarian economy into industrialization in slightly less than a century. A satisfactory achievement, but nothing remarkable. It remained a pedestrian world until 2271 when it played host to the head of state conference called to discuss the worrying upsurge in the use of antimatter as a weapon of mass destruction. From that conference was born the Confederation, and Avon seized its chance to leapfrog an entire developmental stage by offering itself as a permanent host for the Assembly. Without any increase in exports, foreign currency poured in as governments set up diplomatic missions; and the lawyers, interstellar companies, finance institutions, influence peddlers, media conglomerates, and lobbyists followed, each with their own prestige offices and staff and dependents.

There was also the Confederation Navy, which was to police the fragile new-found unity between the inhabited stars. Avon contributed to that as well, by donating to the Assembly an orbiting asteroid named Trafalgar which was in the last phase of mining.

Trafalgar was unique within the Confederation in that it had no industrial stations after the miners moved out. It was first, foremost, and only, a naval base, developing from a basic supply and maintenance depot for the entire Confederation Navy (such as it was in the early days) up to the primary military headquarters for the eight hundred and sixty-two inhabited star systems which made up the Confederation in 2611. When First Admiral Samual Aleksandrovich took up his appointment in 2605 it was the home port for the 1st Fleet and headquarters and training centre for the Marine Corps. It housed the career Officer Academy, the Engineering School, the Navy Technical Evaluation Office, the First Admiral’s Strategy Office, the Navy Budget Office, the principal research laboratories for supralight communications, and (more quietly) the headquarters of the Fleet Intelligence Arm. A black and grey peanut shape, twenty-one kilometres long, seven wide, rotating about its long axis; it contained three cylindrical biosphere caverns which housed a mixed civilian and military population of approximately three hundred thousand. There were non-rotational spaceports at each end: spheres two kilometres in diameter, the usual gridwork of girders and tanks and pipes, threaded with pressurized tubes carrying commuter cars, and docking-bays ringed by control cabins. Their surface area was just able to cope with the vast quantity of spaceship movements. The spindles were both fixed to Trafalgar’s axis at the centre of deep artificial craters two kilometres wide which the voidhawks used as docking-ledges.

As well as its responsibility for defence and anti-pirate duties across the Confederation it coordinated Avon’s defence in conjunction with the local navy. The strategic-defence platforms protecting the planet were some of the most powerful ever built. Given the huge numbers of government diplomatic ships, as well as the above average number of commercial flights using the low-orbit docking stations, security was a paramount requirement. There hadn’t been an act of piracy in the system for over two and a half centuries, but the possibility of a suicide attack against Trafalgar was uppermost in the minds of navy tacticians. Strategic sensor coverage was absolute out to a distance of two million kilometres from the planetary surface. Reaction time by the patrolling voidhawks was near instantaneous. Starships emerging outside designated areas took a formidable risk in doing so.

Ilex was calling for help even before the wormhole terminus closed behind it. Auster had ordered the voidhawk to fly straight to Avon, over four hundred light-years from Lalonde. Even for a voidhawk, the distance was excessive. Ilex needed to recharge its energy patterning cells after ten swallows, which involved a prolonged interval of ordinary flight to allow its distortion field to concentrate the meagre wisps of radiation which flittered through the interstellar medium.

The voyage had taken three and a half days. There were sixty people on board, and the bitek life-support organs were rapidly approaching their critical limit. The air smelt bad, membrane filters couldn’t cope with the body gases, CO2 was building up, oxygen reserves were almost exhausted.

Trafalgar was five thousand kilometres away when the wormhole terminus sealed. Legally, it should have been a hundred thousand. But a long sublight flight to a docking-ledge would have pushed Ilex ’s life-support situation from critical to catastrophic.

The asteroid immediately went to defence condition C2, allowing the duty officer to engage all targets at will. Nuclear-pumped gamma-ray lasers locked onto the voidhawk’s hull within three-quarters of a second of the wormhole opening.

Every Edenist officer in Trafalgar’s strategic-defence command-centre heard Ilex ’s call. They managed to load a five-second delay order into the defence platforms. Auster gave a fast resume of the voidhawk’s situation. The delay was extended for another fifteen seconds while the duty officer made her evaluation. A squadron of patrol voidhawks closed on Ilex at ten gees.

“Stand down,” the duty officer told the centre, and datavised a lockdown order into the fire-command computer. She looked across at the nearest Edenist. “And tell that idiot captain from me I’ll fry his arse off next time he pulls a stunt like this.”

Ilex swooped in towards Trafalgar at five gees as traffic control cleared a priority approach path ahead of it. Six patrol voidhawks spiralled round it like over-protective avian parents, all seven bitek starships exchanging fast affinity messages of anxiety, interest, and mild rebuke. The northern axial crater was a scene of frantic activity while Ilex chased the asteroid’s rotation, looping around the globular non-rotating spaceport to fly in parallel to the spindle. It settled on a titanium pedestal with eight balloon-tyre maintenance vehicles and crew buses racing towards it, bouncing about in the low gravity.

Lalonde’s navy office personnel disembarked first, hurrying along the airlock tube to the waiting bus, all of them taking deep gulps of clean, cool air. A medic team carried Niels Regehr off in a stretcher, while two paediatric nurses soothed and patted a blubbering Shafi Banaji. Environment-maintenance vehicles plugged hoses and cables into the crew toroid’s umbilical sockets, sending gales of fresh air gusting through the cabins and central corridor. Resenda, Ilex ’s life-support officer, simply vented the fouled atmosphere they’d been breathing throughout the voyage, and grey plumes jetted up out of the toroid, seeded with minute water crystals that sparkled in the powerful lights mounted on the spindle to illuminate the crater.

Once the first bus trundled away, a second nosed up to the airlock. A ten-strong marine squad in combat fatigues and armed with chemical projectile guns marched on board. Rhodri Peyton, the squad’s captain, saluted an exhausted, unwashed, and unshaven Lieutenant Murphy Hewlett.

“This is her?” he asked sceptically.

Jacqueline Couteur stood in the middle of the corridor outside the airlock, with Jeroen van Ewyck and Garrett Tucci training their Bradfields on her. She was even dirtier than Murphy, the check pattern of her cotton shirt almost lost below the engrained grime picked up in the jungle.

“I’m tempted to let her show you what she can do,” Murphy said.

Kelven Solanki stepped forwards. “All right, Murphy.” He turned to the marine captain. “Your men are to have at least two weapons covering her at all times. She’s capable of emitting an electronic warfare effect, as well as letting loose some kind of lightning bolt. Don’t try to engage her in physical combat, she’s quite capable of ripping you apart.”

One of the marines snickered at that. Kelven didn’t have the energy left to argue.

“I’ll go with her,” Jeroen van Ewyck said. “My people need to be briefed anyway, and I’ll let the science officers know what’s required.”

“What is required?” Jacqueline Couteur asked.

Rhodri Peyton turned, and gave a start. In place of the dumpy middle-aged woman there was a tall, beautiful, twenty-year-old girl wearing a white cocktail gown. She gave him a silent entreating look, the maiden about to be offered to the dragon. “Help me. Please. You’re not like them. You’re not an emotionless machine. They want to hurt me in their laboratories. Don’t let them.”

Garrett Tucci jabbed the Bradfield into her back. “Pack it in, bitch,” he said roughly.

She twisted, like an AV projection with a broken focus, and the old Jacqueline Couteur was standing there, a mocking expression on her face. Her jeans and shirt were now clean and pressed.

“My God,” Rhodri Peyton gasped.

“Now do you see?” Kelven asked.

The now nervous marine squad escorted their prisoner along the connecting tube to the bus. Jacqueline Couteur sat beside one of the windows, five guns lined up on her. She watched the bare walls of sterile rock impassively as the bus rolled back across the crater and into a downward sloping tunnel that led deep into the asteroid.

First Admiral Samual Aleksandrovich hadn’t set foot on his native Russian-ethnic birth planet Kolomna for the last fifty-three of his seventy-three years; he hadn’t been back for a holiday, nor even his parents’ funeral. Regular visits might have been deemed inappropriate given that Confederation Navy career officers were supposed to renounce any national ties when they walked through the academy entrance; for a First Admiral to display any undue interest would have been a completely unacceptable breach of diplomatic etiquette. People would have understood his attending the funerals, though. So everyone assumed he was applying the same kind of steely discipline to his private affairs that ruled his professional life.

They were all wrong. Samual Aleksandrovich had never been back because there was nothing on the wretched planet with its all-over temperate climate which interested him, not family nor culture nor nostalgic scenery. The reason he left in the first place was because he couldn’t stand the idea of spending a century helping his four brothers and three sisters run the family fruit-farming business. The same geneering which had produced his energetic one metre eighty frame, vivid copper hair, and enhanced metabolism, bestowed a life expectancy of at least a hundred and twenty years.

By the time he was nineteen years old he had come to realize that such a life would be a prison sentence given the vocations available on a planet just emerging from its agrarian phase. A potentially blessed life should not be faced with such finite horizons, for if it was it would turn from being a joy into a terrible burden. Variety was sanity. So on the day after his twentieth birthday he had kissed his parents and siblings goodbye, walked the seventeen kilometres into town through a heavy snowfall, and signed on at the Confederation Navy recruitment office.

Metaphorically, and otherwise, he had never looked back. He had never been anything other than an exemplary officer; he’d seen combat seven times, flown anti-pirate interdictions, commanded a flotilla raiding an illegal antimatter-production station, and gained a substantial number of distinguished service awards. But appointment to the post of First Admiral required a great deal more than an exemplary record. Much as he hated it, Samual Aleksandrovich had to play the political game; appearing before Assembly select committees, giving unofficial briefings to senior diplomats, wielding Fleet Intelligence information with as much skill as he did the rapier (he was year champion at the academy). His ability to pressure member states was admired by the Assembly President’s staffers, as much for its neatness as the millions of fuseodollars saved by circumventing fleet deployment to trouble spots; and their word counted for a great deal more than the Admiralty, who advanced the names of candidates to the Assembly’s Navy Committee.

In the six years he had held the office he had done a good job keeping the peace between sometimes volatile planetary governments and the even more mercurial asteroid settlements. Leaders and politicians respected his toughness and fairness.

A great deal of his renowned even-handed approach was formed when at the age of thirty-two he was serving as a lieutenant on a frigate that had been sent to Jantrit to assist the Edenists in some kind of armed rebellion (however unbelievable it sounded at the time). The frigate crew had watched helplessly while the antimatter was detonated, then spent three days in exhausting and often fruitless manoeuvres to rescue survivors of the tragedy. Samual Aleksandrovich had led one of the recovery teams after they rendezvoused with a broken starscraper. With heroic work that won him a commendation he and his crew-mates saved eighteen Edenists trapped in the tubular honeycomb of polyp. But one of the rooms they forced their way into was filled with corpses. It was a children’s day club that had suffered explosive decompression. As he floated in desolated horror across the grisly chamber, he realized the Edenists were just as human as himself, and just as fallible. After that the persistent snide comments from fellow officers about the tall aloof bitek users annoyed him intensely. From then on he devoted himself body and soul to the ideal of enforcing the peace.

So when the Eurydice had docked at Trafalgar carrying a flek from Lieutenant-Commander Kelven Solanki about the small possibility (and he had been most unwilling to commit himself) that Laton was still alive and stirring from his self-imposed exile, First Admiral Samual Aleksandrovich had taken a highly personal interest in the Lalonde situation.

Where Laton was concerned, Samual Aleksandrovich exhibited neither his usual fairness nor a desire for justice to be done. He just wanted Laton dead. And this time there would be no error.

Even after his staff had edited down Murphy Hewlett’s neural nanonics recording of the marine squad’s fateful jungle mission, to provide just the salient points, there was three hours of sensorium memory to access. When he surfaced from Lalonde’s savage heat and wearying humidity, Samual Aleksandrovich remained lost in thought for quarter of an hour, then took a commuter car down to the Fleet Intelligence laboratories.

Jacqueline Couteur had been isolated in a secure examination room. It was a cell cut into living rock with a transparent wall of metallized silicon whose structure was reinforced with molecular-binding-force generators. On one side it was furnished with a bed, wash-basin, shower, toilet, and a table, while the other side resembled a medical surgery with an adjustable couch and a quantity of analysis equipment.

She sat at the table, dressed in a green clinical robe. Five marines were in the cell with her, four of them carrying chemical-projectile guns, the fifth a TIP carbine.

Samual Aleksandrovich stood in front of the transparent wall looking at the drab woman. The monitoring room he was in resembled a warship’s bridge, a white composite cube with a curved rank of consoles, all facing the transparent wall. The impersonality disturbed him slightly, an outsized vivarium.

Jacqueline Couteur returned his stare levelly. She should never have been able to do that, not a simple farmer’s wife from a backwoods colony world. There were diplomats with eighty years of experienced duplicity behind them who broke into a sweat when Samual Aleksandrovich turned his gaze on them.

He likened the experience to looking into the eyes of an Edenist habitat mayor at some formal event, when the consensus intellect of every adult in the habitat looked back at him. Judging.

Whatever you are, he thought, you are not Jacqueline Couteur. This is the moment I’ve dreaded since I took my oath of office. A new threat, one beyond anything we know. And the burden of how to deal with it will inevitably fall heaviest on my navy.

“Do you understand the method of sequestration yet?” He asked Dr Gilmore, who was heading the research team.

The doctor made a penitent gesture. “Not as yet. She’s certainly under the control of some outside agency, but so far we haven’t been able to locate the point where it interfaces with her nervous system. I’m a neural nanonics expert, and we’ve got several physicists on the team. But I’m not entirely sure we even have a specialization to cover this phenomenon.”

“Tell me what you can.”

“We ran a full body and neural scan on her, looking for implants. You saw what she and the other sequestrated colonists could do back on Lalonde?”

“Yes.”

“That ability to produce the white fireballs and electronic warfare impulses must logically have some kind of focusing mechanism. We found nothing. If it’s there it’s smaller than our nanonics, a lot smaller. Atomic sized, at least, maybe even sub-atomic.”

“Could it be biological? A virus?”

“You’re thinking of Laton’s proteanic virus? No, nothing like that.” He turned and beckoned to Euru.

The tall black-skinned Edenist left the monitor console he was working at and came over. “Laton’s virus attacked cells,” he explained. “Specifically neural cells, altering their composition and DNA. This woman’s brain structure remains perfectly normal, as far as we can tell.”

“If she can knock out a marine’s combat electronics at over a hundred metres, how do you know your analysis equipment is giving you genuine readings?” Samual Aleksandrovich asked.

The two scientists exchanged a glance.

“Interference is a possibility we’ve considered,” Euru admitted. “The next stage of our investigation will be to acquire tissue samples and subject them to analysis outside the range of her influence—if she lets us take them. It would require a great deal of effort if she refused to cooperate.”

“Has she been cooperative so far?”

“For most of the time, yes. We’ve witnessed two instances of visual pattern distortion,” Dr Gilmore said. “When her jeans and shirt were removed she assumed the image of an apelike creature. It was shocking, but only because it was so unusual and unexpected. Then later on she tried to entice the marines to let her out by appearing as an adolescent girl with highly developed secondary sexual characteristics. We have AV recordings of both occasions; she can somehow change her body’s photonic-emission spectrum. It’s definitely not an induced hallucination, more like a chameleon suit’s camouflage.”

“What we don’t understand is where she gets the energy to produce these effects,” Euru said. “The cell’s environment is strictly controlled and monitored, so she can’t be tapping Trafalgar’s electrical power circuits. And when we ran tests on her urine and faeces we found nothing out of the ordinary. Certainly there’s no unusual chemical activity going on inside her.”

“Lori and Darcy claimed Laton warned them of an energy virus,” Samual Aleksandrovich said. “Is such a thing possible?”

“It may well be,” Euru said. His eyes darkened with emotion. “If that creature was telling the truth he would probably have been attaching the nearest linguistic equivalents to a totally new phenomenon. An organized energy pattern which can sustain itself outside a physical matrix is a popular thesis with physicists. Electronics companies have been interested in the idea for a long time. It would bring about a radical transformation in our ability to store and manipulate data. But there has never been any practical demonstration of such an incorporeal matrix.”

Samual Aleksandrovich switched his glance back to the woman behind the transparent wall. “Perhaps you are looking at the first.”

“It would be an extraordinary advance from our present knowledge base,” Dr Gilmore said.

“Have you asked the Kiint if it is possible?”

“No,” Dr Gilmore admitted.

“Then do so. They may tell us, they may not. Who understands how their minds work? But if anyone knows, they will.”

“Yes, sir.”

“What about her?” Samual Aleksandrovich asked. “Has she said anything?”

“She is not very communicative,” Euru said.

The First Admiral grunted, and activated the intercom beside the cell’s door. “Do you know who I am?” he asked.

The marines inside the cell stiffened. Jacqueline Couteur’s expression never changed; she looked him up and down slowly.

“I know,” she said.

“Who exactly am I talking to?”

“Me.”

“Are you part of Laton’s schemes?”

Was there the faintest twitch of a smile on her lips? “No.”

“What do you hope to achieve on Lalonde?”

“Achieve?”

“Yes, achieve. You have subjugated the human population, killed many people. This is not a situation I can allow to continue. Defending the Confederation from such a threat is my responsibility, even on a little planet as politically insignificant as Lalonde. I would like to know your motives so that a solution to this crisis may be found which does not involve conflict. You must have known that ultimately your action would bring about an armed response.”

“There is no ‘achievement’ sought.”

“Then why do what you have done?”

“I do as nature binds me. As do you.”

“I do what my duty binds me to do. When you were on the Isakore you told the marines that they would come to you in time. If that isn’t an objective I don’t know what is.”

“If you believe I will aid you to comprehend what has happened, you are mistaken.”

“Then why did you allow yourself to be captured? I’ve seen the power you possess; Murphy Hewlett is good, but not that good. He couldn’t get you here unless you wanted to come.”

“How amusing. I see governments and conspiracy theories are still inseparable. Perhaps I’m the lovechild of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe come to sue the North American Govcentral state in the Assembly court for my rightful inheritance.”

Samual Aleksandrovich gave her a nonplussed look. “What?”

“It doesn’t matter. Why did the navy want me here, Admiral?”

“To study you.”

“Precisely. And that is why I am here. To study you. Which of us will learn the most, I wonder?”

Kelven Solanki had never envisaged meeting the First Admiral quite so early in his career. Most commanders were introduced, certainly those serving in the 1st Fleet. But not lieutenant-commanders assigned to minor field-diplomat duties. Yet here he was being shown into the First Admiral’s office by Captain Maynard Khanna. Circumstances muted the sense of excitement. He wasn’t sure how the First Admiral viewed his handling of events on Lalonde, and the staff captain had given him no clues.

Samual Aleksandrovich’s office was a circular chamber thirty metres across, with a slightly domed ceiling. Its curving wall had one window which looked out into Trafalgar’s central biosphere cavern, and ten long holoscreens, eight slowly flicking through images from external sensors and the remaining two showing tactical displays. The ceiling was ribbed with bronze spars, with a fat AV cylinder protruding from the apex resembling a crystalline stalactite. There were two clusters of furniture; a huge teak desk with satellite chairs; and a sunken reception area lined by padded leather couches.

Maynard Khanna showed him over to the desk where the First Admiral was waiting. Auster, Dr Gilmore, Admiral Lalwani, the Fleet Intelligence chief, and Admiral Motela Kolhammer, the 1st Fleet Commander, were all sitting before the desk in the curved blue-steel chairs that had extruded out of the floor like pliable mercury.

Kelven stood to attention and gave a perfect salute, very conscious of the five sets of eyes studying him. Samual Aleksandrovich smiled thinly at the junior officer’s obvious discomfort. “At ease, Commander.” He gestured at one of the two new chairs formatting themselves out of the floor material. Kelven removed his cap, tucked it under his arm, and sat next to Maynard Khanna.

“You handled Lalonde quite well,” the First Admiral said. “Not perfectly, but then you weren’t exactly prepared for anything like this. Under the circumstances I’m satisfied with your performance.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Bloody ESA people didn’t help,” Motela Kolhammer muttered.

Samual Aleksandrovich waved him quiet. “That is something we can take up with their ambassador later. Though I’m sure we all know what the outcome will be. Regrettable or not, you acted properly the whole time, Solanki. Capturing one of the sequestrated was exactly what we required.”

“Captain Auster made it possible, sir,” Kelven said. “I wouldn’t have got the marines out otherwise.”

The voidhawk captain nodded thankfully in acknowledgement.

“None the less, we should have given your situation a higher priority to begin with, and provided you with adequate resources,” Samual Aleksandrovich said. “My mistake, especially given who was involved.”

“Has Jacqueline Couteur confirmed Laton’s existence?” Kelven asked. Part of him was hoping that the answer was going to be a resounding no.

“She didn’t have to.” Samual Aleksandrovich sighed ponderously. “A blackhawk”—he paused, raising his bushy ginger eyebrows in emphasis—“has just arrived from Tranquillity with a flek from Commander Olsen Neale. Under the circumstances I can quite forgive him for using the ship as a courier. If you would like to access the sensevise.”

Kelven sank deeper into the scoop of his chair as Graeme Nicholson’s recording played through his brain. “He was there all along,” he said brokenly. “In Durringham itself, and I never knew. I thought the Yaku ’s captain left orbit because of the deteriorating civil situation.”

“You are not in any way to blame,” Admiral Lalwani said.

Kelven glanced over at the grey-haired Edenist woman. There was an inordinate amount of sympathy and sadness in the tone.

“We should never have stopped checking, all those years ago,” she continued. “The presence of Darcy and Lori on Lalonde was a rather miserable token to appease our paranoia. Even we were guilty of wishing Laton dead. The hope overwhelmed reason and rational thought. All of us knew how resourceful he was, and we knew he had acquired data on Lalonde. The planet should have been thoroughly searched. Our mistake. Now he has returned. I don’t like to think of the price we will all have to pay before he is stopped this time.”

“Sir, Darcy and Lori seemed very uncertain that he was behind this invasion,” Kelven said. “Laton actually warned them of this illusion-creating ability the sequestrated have.”

“And Jacqueline Couteur agrees he isn’t a part of this,” Dr Gilmore said. “That’s one of the few things she will admit to.”

“I hardly think we can take her word for it,” Admiral Kolhammer said.

“Precise details are for later,” Samual Aleksandrovich said. “What we have with Lalonde is shaping up into a major, and immediate, crisis. I’m tempted to ask the Assembly President to declare a state of emergency; that would put national navies at my disposal.”

“In theory,” Admiral Kolhammer said drily.

“Yes, and yet anything less may not suffice. This undetectable sequestration ability has me deeply worried. It has been used so freely on Lalonde, hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions. How many people does the agency behind it intend to subjugate? How many planets? It is a threat which the Assembly cannot be allowed to ignore in favour of its usual horse trading.” He considered the option of total mobilization before reluctantly dismissing it. There wasn’t enough evidence to convince the president, not yet. It would come eventually, he was in no doubt of that. “For the moment we will do what we can to contain the spread of this plague, whilst trying to find Laton. The flek from Olsen Neale also went on to report that Terrance Smith has met with some success in recruiting mercenaries and combat-capable starships for Governor Rexrew. That blackhawk made excellent time from Tranquillity; a little over two days, the captain told me. So we may just be able to put a brake on Lalonde before it gets totally out of hand. Terrance Smith’s ships are scheduled to depart from Tranquillity today. Lalwani, you estimate it will take them a week to reach Lalonde?”

“Yes,” she said. “It took the Gemal six days to get from Lalonde to Tranquillity. With the starships in Smith’s fleet having to match formation after each jump, a single extra day is a conservative estimate. Even a navy flotilla would be hard pushed to match that. And those are not front-line ships.”

“Apart from the Lady Macbeth ,” Maynard Khanna said in a quiet voice. “I accessed the list of ships Smith recruited; the Lady Macbeth is a ship I am familiar with.” He glanced at the First Admiral.

“I know that name . . .” Kelven Solanki ran a search program through his neural nanonics. “The Lady Macbeth was orbiting Lalonde when the trouble first broke out upriver.”

“That wasn’t mentioned in any of your reports,” Lalwani said. Her slim forehead showed a frown.

“It was a commercial flight. Slightly odd, the captain wanted to export aboriginal wood, but as far as we could tell perfectly legitimate.”

“This name does seem to be popping up with suspicious regularity,” Maynard Khanna said.

“We should be able to look into it easily enough,” Samual Aleksandrovich said. “Commander Solanki, the principal reason I asked you here was to inform you that you are to act as an adviser to the squadron which will blockade Lalonde.”

“Sir?”

“We’re launching a dual programme to terminate this threat. The first aspect is a Confederationwide alert for Laton. We have to know where the Yaku went, where it is now.”

“He won’t stay on board,” Lalwani said. “Not after he reaches a port. But we’ll find him. I’m organizing the search now. All the voidhawks in the Avon system will be conscripted and dispatched to alert national governments. I’ve already sent one to Jupiter; once the habitat consensus is informed, every voidhawk in the Sol system will be used to relay the news. I estimate it will take four to five days to blanket the Confederation.”

“Time Universe will probably beat you to it,” Admiral Kolhammer said gruffly.

Lalwani smiled. The two of them were sparring partners from way back. “In this case I wouldn’t mind in the least.”

“Be a lot of panic. Stock markets will take a tumble.”

“If it makes people take the threat seriously, so much the better,” Samual Aleksandrovich said. “Motela, you are to assemble a 1st Fleet squadron, a large one, to be held on fifteen-minute-departure alert. When we find Laton, eliminating him is going to be your problem.”

“What problem?”

“I admire the sentiment,” Samual Aleksandrovich said with a touch of censure. “But kindly remember he escaped from us last time, when we were equally hungry for blood. That mistake cannot be repeated. This time I shall require proof, even though it will no doubt be expensive. I imagine Lalwani and Auster will agree.”

“We do,” Lalwani said. “All Edenists do. If there is any risk in confirming the target is Laton, then we will bear it.”

“In the meantime, I want Lalonde to be completely isolated,” Samual Aleksandrovich said. “The mercenary force is not to be allowed to land, nor do I want any surface bombardments from orbit. Those colonists have suffered enough already. The solution to this sequestration lies in discovering the method by which it is implemented, and devising a counter. Brute force is merely dumping plutonium in a volcano. And I suspect the mercenaries would simply be sequestrated themselves should they land. Dr Gilmore, this is your field.”

“Not really,” the doctor said expressively. “But we shall put our female subject through an extensive series of experiments to see if we can determine the method of the sequestration and how to cancel it. However, judging by what we know so far, which is virtually nothing, I have to say an answer is going to take a considerable time to formulate. Though you are quite right to instigate a quarantine. The less contact Lalonde has with the rest of the Confederation the better, especially if it turns out Laton isn’t behind the invasion.”

“The doctor has a point,” Lalwani said. “What if the Lalonde invasion is the start of a xenoc incursion, and Laton himself has been sequestrated?”

“I’m keeping it in mind,” Samual Aleksandrovich said. “We need to know more, either from the Couteur woman or Lalonde itself. Our principal trouble remains what it has always been: reaction time. It takes us far too long to amass any large force. Always our conflicts are larger than they would have been if we had received a warning of problems and threats earlier in their development. But just this once, we may actually be in luck. Unless there was some supreme diplomatic foul-up, Meredith Saldana’s squadron was due to leave Omuta three days ago. They were in the system mainly for pomp and show, but they carried a full weapons load. A squadron of front-line ships already assembled and perfectly suited to these duties; we couldn’t have planned it better. It’ll take them five days to get back to Rosenheim. Captain Auster, if Ilex can get there before they dock at 7th Fleet headquarters and all the crews go on leave, then Meredith might just be able to get to Lalonde before Terrance Smith. And if not before, then certainly in time to prevent the bulk of the mercenary troops from landing.”

Ilex will certainly try, First Admiral,” Auster said. “I have already asked for auxiliary fusion generators to be installed in the weapons bays. The energy patterning cells can be recharged directly from them, reducing the flight time between swallows considerably. We should be ready to depart in five hours, and I believe we can make the two-day deadline.”

“My thanks to Ilex ,” Samual Aleksandrovich said formally.

Auster inclined his head.

“Lieutenant-Commander Solanki, you’ll travel with Captain Auster, and carry my orders for Rear-Admiral Saldana. And I think we can manage a promotion to full commander before you go. You’ve shown considerable initiative over the last few weeks, as well as personal courage.”

“Yes, sir, thank you, sir,” Kelven said. The promotion barely registered, some irreverent section of his mind was counting up the number of light-years he had flown in a week. It must be some kind of record. But he was going back to Lalonde, and bringing his old friends help. That felt good. I’ve stopped running.

“Add an extra order that the Lady Macbeth and her crew is to be arrested,” Samual Aleksandrovich told Maynard Khanna. “They can try explaining themselves to Meredith’s Intelligence officers.”

The Santa Clara materialized a hundred and twenty thousand kilometres above Lalonde, almost directly in line between the planet and Rennison. Dawn was racing over Amarisk, half of the Juliffe’s tributary network flashing like silver veins in the low sunlight. The early hour might have accounted for the lack of response from civil traffic control. But Captain Zaretsky had been to Lalonde before, he knew the way the planet worked. Radio silence didn’t particularly bother him.

Thermo-dump panels slid out of the hull, and the flight computer plotted a vector which would deliver the starship to a five hundred kilometre equatorial orbit. Zaretsky triggered the fusion drive and the ship moved in at a tenth of a gee. Santa Clara was a large cargo clipper, paying a twice-annual visit to the Tyrathca settlements, bringing new colonists and shipping out their rygar crop. There were over fifty Tyrathca breeders on board, all of them shuffling round the cramped life-support capsules; the dominant xenocs refused to use zero-tau pods (though their vassal castes were riding the voyage in temporal suspension). Captain Zaretsky didn’t particularly like being chartered by Tyrathca merchants, but they always paid on time, which endeared them to the ship’s owners.

Once the Santa Clara was underway, he opened channels to the nine starships in parking orbit. They told him about the riots, and rumours of invaders, and the fighting in Durringham which had lasted four days. There had been no information coming up from the city for two days now, they said, and they couldn’t decide what to do.

Zaretsky didn’t share their problem. Santa Clara had a medium-sized VTOL spaceplane in its hangar, his contract didn’t call for any contact with the human settlements. Whatever rebellion the Ivets were staging, it didn’t affect him.

When he opened a channel to the Tyrathca farmers on the planet they reported a few skirmishes with humans who were “acting oddly;” but they had prepared their rygar crop, and were waiting for the equipment and new farmers the Santa Clara was bringing. He acknowledged the call, and continued the slow powered fall into orbit, the Santa Clara ’s fusion exhaust drawing a slender thread of incandescence across the stars.

Jay Hilton sat on the rock outcrop fifty metres from the savannah homestead cabin, her legs crossed, head tipped back to watch the starship decelerating into orbit, and mournful curiosity pooling in her eyes. The weeks of living with Father Horst had brought about a considerable change in her appearance. For a start her lush silver-white hair had been cropped into a frizz barely a centimetre long, making it easier to keep clean. She had cried bucketfuls the day Father Horst took the scissors to it. Her mother had always looked after it so well, washing it with special shampoo brought from Earth, brushing it to a shine each night. Her hair was her last link with the way things used to be, her last hope that they might be that way again. When Father Horst had finished his snipping she knew in her heart that her most precious dream, that one day she’d wake up to find everything had returned to normal, was just a stupid child’s imagination. She had to be tough now, had to be adult. But it was so hard.

I just want Mummy back, that’s all.

The other children looked up to her. She was the oldest and strongest of the group. Father Horst relied on her a great deal to keep the younger ones in order. A lot of them still cried at night. She heard them in the darkness, crying for their lost parents or siblings, crying because they wanted to go back to their arcology where none of this horrid confusion and upset happened.

Dawn’s rosy crown gave way to a tide of blue which swept across the sky, erasing the stars. Rennison faded to a pale crescent, and the starship’s exhaust became more difficult to see. Jay unfolded her legs and clambered down off the rocks.

The homestead on the edge of the savannah was a simple wooden structure, its solar-cell roof sheets glinting in the strong morning light. Two of the dogs, a Labrador and an Alsatian, were out and about. She patted them as she went up the creaking wooden stairs to the porch. The cows in the paddock were making plaintive calls, their udders heavy with milk.

Jay went in through the front door. The big lounge whiffed strongly—of food, and cooking, and too many people. She sniffed the air suspiciously. Someone had wet their bedding again, probably more than one.

The floor was a solid patchwork of sleeping-bags and blankets, their occupants only just beginning to stir. Grass stuffing from the makeshift mattresses of canvas sacks had leaked out again.

“Come on! Come on!” Jay clapped her hands together as she pulled the reed blinds open. Streamers of gold-tinged sunlight poured in, revealing children blinking sleep from their eyes, wincing at the brightness. Twenty-seven of them were crammed together on the mayope floorboards, ranging from a toddler about two years old up to Danny, who was nearly the same age as Jay. All of them with short haircuts and rough-tailored adult clothes which never quite fitted. “Up you get! Danny, it’s your gang’s turn to do the milking. Andria, you’re in charge of cooking this morning: I want tea, oatmeal, and boiled eggs for breakfast.” A groan went up, which Jay ignored; she was just as fed up with the changeless diet as they were. “Shona, take three girls with you and collect the eggs, please.”

Shona gave a timid smile as well as she could, grateful for being included in the work assignments and not being treated any differently to the others. Jay had drilled herself not to flinch from looking at the poor girl. The six-year-old’s face was covered in a bandage mask of glossy translucent epithelium membrane, with holes cut out for her eyes and mouth and nose. Her burn marks were still a livid pink below the overlapping membrane strips, and her hair was only just beginning to grow back. Father Horst said she ought to heal without any permanent scarring, but he was forever grieving over the lack of medical nanonic packages.

Coughs and grumbles and high-pitched chattering filled the room as the children struggled out of bed and into their clothes. Jay saw little Robert sitting brokenly on the side of his sleeping-bag, head in his hands, not bothering to get dressed. “Eustice, you’re to get this room tidied up, and I want all the blankets aired properly today.”

“Yes, Jay,” she answered sullenly.

The outside door was flung open as five or six children rushed out laughing, and ran for the lean-to, which they used as a toilet.

Jay picked her way over the rectangles of bedding to Robert. He was only seven, a black-skinned boy with fluffy blond hair. Sure enough, the navy blue pants he wore were damp.

“Pop down to the stream,” she said kindly. “There will be plenty of time to wash before breakfast.”

His head was lowered even further. “I didn’t mean to,” he whispered, on the verge of tears.

“I know. Remember to wash out your sleeping-bag as well.” She caught the sound of someone giggling. “Bo, you help him take the bag down to the stream.”

“Oh, Jay!”

“It’s all right,” Robert said. “I can manage.”

“No, you won’t, not if you want to be back in time for breakfast.” The big table was already being pulled out from the kitchen corner by three of the boys, scraping loudly across the floor. They were shouting for people to get out of the way.

“Don’t see why I should have to help him,” Bo said intransigently. She was an eight-year-old, meaty for her age, with chubby red cheeks. Her size was often deployed to help boss the smaller children around.

“Chocolate,” Jay said in warning.

Bo blushed, then stalked over to Robert. “Come on then, you.”

Jay knocked once on Father Horst’s door and walked in. The room had been the homestead’s main bedroom when they moved in; it still had a double bed in it, but most of the floor space was taken up with packets, jars, and pots of food they’d taken from the other deserted homestead cabins. Clothes and cloth and powered tools, anything small or light enough to be carried, filled the second bedroom in piles that were taller than Jay.

Horst was getting up as the girl came in. He’d already got his trousers on, thick denim jeans with leather patches, a working man’s garment, requisitioned from one of the other savannah homesteads. She picked up the faded red sweatshirt from the foot of the bed and handed it to him. He had lost a lot of weight—a lot of fat—over the last weeks; slack bands of flesh hung loosely from his torso. But even the folds were shrinking, and the muscles they covered were harder than they had ever been, though at night they felt like bands of ignescent metal. Horst spent most of every day working, hard manual work; keeping the cabin in shape, repairing and strengthening the paddock fence, building a chicken run, digging the latrines; then in the evening there would be prayers and reading lessons. At night he dropped into bed as if a giant had felled him with its fist. He had never known a human body could perform such feats of stamina, least of all one as old and decrepit as his.

Yet he never wavered, never complained. There was a fire in his eyes that had been ignited by his predicament. He was embarked on a crusade to survive, to deliver his charges to safety. The bishop would be hard pressed to recognize that dreamy well-meaning Horst Elwes who had left Earth last year. Even thinking about his earlier self with its disgusting self-pity and weaknesses repelled him.

He had been tested as few had ever been before, his faith thrown onto towering flames that had threatened to reduce him to shreds of black ash so powerful was the doubt and insecurity fuelling them: but he had emerged triumphant. Born of fire, and reforged, his conviction in self, and Christ the Saviour, was unbreakable.

And he had the children to thank. The children who were now his life and his task. The hand of God had brought them together. He would not fail them, not while there was a breath left in his body.

He smiled at Jay who was as grave faced as she always was at the break of day. The sounds of the usual morning bedlam were coming through the door as bedding was put away and the furniture brought out.

“How goes it today, Jay?”

“Same as always.” She sat on the end of the bed as he pulled on his heavy hand-tooled boots. “I saw a starship arrive. It’s coming down into low orbit.”

He glanced up from his laces. “Just one?”

“Uh huh,” she nodded vigorously.

“Ah well, it’s not to be today, then.”

“When?” she demanded. Her small beautiful face was screwed up in passionate rage.

“Oh, Jay.” He pulled her against him, and rocked her gently as she sniffled. “Jay, don’t give up hope. Not you.” It was the one thing he promised them, repeating it every night at prayers so they would believe. On a world far away lived a wise and powerful man called Admiral Aleksandrovich, and when he heard what terrible things had happened on Lalonde he would send a fleet of Confederation Navy starships to help its people and drive away the demons who possessed them. The soldiers and the navy crews would come down in huge spaceplanes and rescue them, and then their parents, and finally put the world to rights again. Every night Horst said it, with the door locked against the wind and rain, and the windows shuttered against the dark empty savannah. Every night he believed and they believed. Because God would not have spared them if it was not for a purpose. “They will come,” he promised. He kissed her forehead. “Your mother will be so proud of you when she returns to us.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really.”

She pondered this. “Robert wet his bed again,” she said.

“Robert is a fine boy.” Horst stomped on the second boot. They were two sizes too large, which meant he had to wear three pairs of socks, which made his feet sweat, and smell.

“We should get him something,” she said.

“Should we now? And what’s that?”

“A rubber mat. There might be one in another cabin. I could look,” she said, eyes all wide with innocence.

Horst laughed. “No, Jay, I haven’t forgotten. I’ll take you out hunting this morning, and this time it will be Danny who stays behind.”

Jay let out a squeal of excitement and kicked her legs in the air. “Yes! Thank you, Father.”

He finished tying his laces and stood up. “Don’t mention the starship, Jay. When the navy comes it will be in a mighty flotilla, with their exhaust plumes so strong and bright they will turn night into day. Nobody will mistake it. But in the meantime we must not pour cold water on the others’ hopes.”

“I understand, Father. I’m not as dumb as them.”

He ruffled her hair, which she pretended not to like, wriggling away. “Come along now,” he said. “Breakfast first. Then we’ll get our expedition sorted out.”

“I suppose Russ will come with us?” she asked in a martyred voice.

“Yes, he will. And stop thinking uncharitable thoughts.”

The children already had most of the bedding off the floor. Two boys were sweeping up the dried grass from the sack mattresses (Must find a better replacement, Horst thought). Eustice’s voice could be heard through the open door, yelling instructions to the children airing the linen outside.

Horst helped to pull the big table into the middle of the room. Andria’s team were scurrying round the kitchen corner, tending the equipment and the meal. The big urn was just starting to boil, and the three IR plates were heating up the boiling pans ready for the eggs.

Once again Horst gave a fast prayer of thanks that the solar-powered equipment functioned so well. It was easy enough for the children to use without hurting themselves, and most of them had helped their mothers with the cooking before. All they needed was some direction, as they did in every task he set them. He didn’t like to think how he would have coped if the homestead hadn’t been empty.

It took another fifteen minutes before Andria’s cooking party were ready to serve breakfast. Several of the eggs Shona brought back were broken, so Horst himself scrambled them up in a pan on a spare IR plate. It was easier to feed Jill, the toddler, that way.

The tea was finally ready, and the eggs boiled. Everyone lined up with their mug and cutlery and eggcup, and filed past the kitchen bar which doubled as a serving counter. For a few wonderful minutes the room was actually quiet as the children drank, and cracked their eggs open, and pulled faces as they munched the dry oatmeal biscuits, dunking them in the tea to try and soften them up first. Horst looked round his extended family and tried not to feel frightened at the responsibility. He adored them in a way he had never done with his parishioners.

After breakfast it was wash time, with the extra two tanks he had installed in the rafter space struggling to provide enough hot water. Horst inspected them all to make sure they were clean and that they had jell-rinsed their teeth. That way he could have a few words with each of them, make them feel special, and wanted, and loved. It also gave him the chance to watch for any sign of illness. So far there had been remarkably little, a few colds, and one nasty outbreak of diarrhoea a fortnight ago, which he suspected was from a batch of jam that had come from another homestead.

The morning would follow its standard pattern while he and Jay were away. Clothes to be washed in the stream and hung out to dry. Hay to be taken into the cows, corn to be measured out into the chicken-run dispensers (they never did that very well), lunch to be prepared. When he went away it was always the packets of protein-balanced meals from Earth—all they had to do was put them in the microwave for ninety seconds, and nothing could go wrong. Sometimes he allowed a group to pick elwisie fruit from the trees on the edge of the jungle. But not today; he gave Danny a stern lecture that no one was to wander more than fifty metres from the cabin, and someone must be on watch the whole time in case a kroclion turned up. The plains carnivores hadn’t often plagued the homesteads, but his didactic memory showed what a menace the lumbering animals could be. The boy nodded earnestly, eager to prove his worth.

Horst was still suffering from stings of doubt when he led the group’s one horse from its stable. He trusted Jay to be left in charge, she acted far older than her years. But he had to hunt for meat, there were hardly any fish in the nearby stream. If they stuck to the cache of food in his bedroom it would be gone within ten days; it existed to supplement what he killed and stored in the freezer, and acted as an emergency reserve just in case he ever did get ill. And Jay deserved a break from the homestead, she hadn’t been away since they arrived.

He took two other children with him as well as Jay. Mills, an energetic eight-year-old from Schuster village, and Russ, a seven-year-old who simply refused to ever leave Horst’s side. The one and only time he had gone hunting without him the boy had run off into the savannah and it had taken the whole afternoon to find him.

Jay was grinning and waving and playing up to her jealous friends when they set off. The savannah grass quickly rose up around their legs; Horst had made Jay wear a pair of trousers instead of her usual shorts. A thick layer of mist started to lift from the waving stalks and blades now the sun was rising higher into the sky. Haze broke the visibility down to less than a kilometre.

“This humidity is worse than the Juliffe back in Durringham,” Jay exclaimed, waving her hand frantically in front of her face.

“Cheer up,” Horst said. “It might rain later.”

“No, it won’t.”

He glanced round to where she was walking in the track he was making through the stiff grass. Bright eyes gleamed mischievously at him from below the brim of her tatty felt sun-hat.

“How do you know?” he asked. “It always rains on Lalonde.”

“No, it doesn’t. Not any more, not during the day.”

“What do you mean?”

“Haven’t you noticed? It only ever rains at night now.”

Horst gave her a perplexed stare. He was about to tell her not to be silly. But then he couldn’t remember the last time he’d rushed indoors to shelter from one of Lalonde’s ferocious downpours—a week, ten days? He had an uncomfortable feeling it might even have been longer. “No, I hadn’t noticed,” he said temperately.

“That’s all right, you’ve had a lot on your mind lately.”

“I certainly have.” But the chirpy mood was broken now.

I should have noticed, he told himself. But then who regards the weather as something suspicious? He was sure it was important though, he just couldn’t think how, or why. Surely they couldn’t change the weather.

Horst made it a rule that he was never away for more than four hours. That put seven other homestead cabins within reach (eight counting the ruins of the Skibbow building) as well as allowing enough time to shoot a danderil or some vennals. Once he had shot a pig that had run wild, and they’d eaten ham and bacon for the rest of the week. It was the most delicious meat he’d ever tasted, terrestrial beasts were pure ambrosia compared to the coarse and bland aboriginal animals.

There was hardly anything of any value left in the cabins now, he had stripped them pretty thoroughly. After another couple of visits there would be little point in returning. He caught himself before brooding turned to melancholia; he wouldn’t need to go back, the navy would come. And don’t ever think anything different.

Jay bounded up to walk beside him, adjusting her stride to match his. She gave him a sideways smile, then returned her gaze to the front, perfectly content.

Horst felt his own tensions seeping away. Having her so close was like the time right after that dreadful night. She had screamed and fought him as he pulled her away from Ruth and Jackson Gael. He had forced her through the village towards the jungle, only once looking back. He saw it all then, in the light of the fire which pillaged their sturdy tranquil village, snuffing out their ambitions of a fair future as swiftly as rain dissolved the mud castles the children built on the riverbank. Satan’s army was upon them. More figures were marching out of the dark shadows into the orange light of the flames, creatures that even Dante in his most lucid fever-dreams had never conceived, and the screams of the ensnared villagers rose in a crescendo.

Horst had never let Jay look back, not even after they reached the trees. He knew then that waiting for the hunting party to return was utter folly. Laser rifles could not harm the demon legions Lucifer in his wrath had loosed upon the land.

They had carried on far into the jungle, until a numbed, petrified Jay had finally collapsed. Dawn found them huddled together in the roots of a qualtook tree, soaked and shivering from a downpour in the night. When they eased their way cautiously back towards Aberdale and hid themselves in the vines ringing the clearing they saw a village living a dream.

Several buildings were razed to the ground. People walked by without paying them a glance. People Horst knew, his flock, who should have been overwrought by the damage. That was when he knew Satan had won, his demons had possessed the villagers. What he had seen at the Ivet ceremony had been repeated here, again and again.

“Where’s Mummy?” Jay asked miserably.

“I have no idea,” he said truthfully. There were fewer people than there should have been, maybe seventy or eighty out of the population of five hundred. They acted as though devoid of purpose, walking slowly, looking round in befogged surprise, saying nothing.

The children were the exception. They ran around between the somnolent, shuffling adults, crying and shouting. But they were ignored, or sometimes cuffed for their trouble. Horst could hear their distraught voices from his sanctuary, deepening his own torment. He watched as a girl, Shona, trailed after her mother pleading for her to say something. She tugged insistently at the trousers, trying to get her to stop. For a moment it looked like she had succeeded. Her mother turned round. “Mummy,” Shona squealed. But the woman raised a hand, and a blast of white fire streamed from her fingers to smite the girl full in the face.

Horst cringed, crossing himself instinctively as she dropped like a stone, not even uttering a cry. Then anger poured through him at his own cravenness. He stood up and strode purposefully out of the trees.

“Father,” Jay squeaked behind him. “Father, don’t.”

He paid her no heed. In a world gone mad, one more insanity would make no difference. He had sworn himself to follow Christ, a long time ago, but it meant more to him now than it ever had. And a child lay suffering before him. Father Horst Elwes was through with evasions and hiding.

Several of the adults stopped to watch as he marched into the village, Jay scuttling along behind him. Horst pitied them for the husks they were. The human state of grace had been drained from their bodies. He could tell, accepting the gift of knowledge as his right. Six or seven villagers formed a loose group standing between him and Shona, their faces known but not their souls.

One of the women, Brigitte Hearn, never a regular churchgoer, laughed at him, her arm rising. A ball of white fire emerged from her open fingers and raced towards him. Jay screamed, but Horst stood perfectly still, face resolute. The fireball started to break apart a couple of metres away from him, dimming and expanding. It burst with a wet crackle as it touched him, tiny strands of static burrowing through his filthy sweatshirt. They stung like hornets across his belly, but he refused to reveal his pain to the semicircle of watchers.

“Do you know what this is?” Horst thundered. He lifted the stained and muddied silver crucifix that hung round his neck, brandishing it at Brigitte Hearn as though it was a weapon. “I am the Lord’s servant, as you are the Devil’s. And I have His work to do. Now stand aside.”

A spasm of fright crossed Brigitte Hearn’s face as the silver cross was shaken in front of her. “I’m not,” she said faintly. “I’m not the Devil’s servant. None of us are.”

“Then stand aside. That girl is badly hurt.”

Brigitte Hearn glanced behind her, and took a couple of steps to one side. The other people in the group hurriedly parted, their faces apprehensive, one or two walked away. Horst gestured briefly at Jay to follow him, and went over to the fallen girl. He grimaced at the singed and blackened skin of her face. Her pulse was beating wildly. She had probably gone into shock, he decided. He scooped her up in his arms, and started for the church.

“I had to come back,” Brigitte Hearn said as Horst walked away. Her body was all hunched up, eyes brimming with tears. “You don’t know what it’s like. I had to.”

“It?” Horst asked impatiently. “What is it?”

“Death.”

Horst shuddered, almost breaking his stride. Jay looked round fearfully at the woman.

“Four hundred years,” Brigitte Hearn called out falteringly. “I died four hundred years ago. Four hundred years of nothing.”

Horst barged into the small infirmary at the back of the church, and laid Shona down on the wooden table which doubled as an examination bed. He snatched the medical processor block from its shelf and applied a sensor pad to the nape of her neck. The metabolic display appeared as he described her injuries to the processor. Horst read the results and gave the girl a sedative, then started spraying a combination analgesic and cleansing fluid over the burns.

“Jay,” he said quietly. “I want you to go into my room and fetch my rucksack from the cupboard. Put in all the packets of preprocessed food you can find, then the tent I used when we first arrived, and anything else you think will be useful to camp out in the jungle—the little fission blade, my portable heater, that kind of stuff. But leave some space for my medical supplies. Oh, and I’ll need my spare boots too.”

“Are we leaving?”

“Yes.”

“Are we going to Durringham?”

“I don’t know. Not straight away.”

“Can I go and fetch Drusilla?”

“I don’t think it’s a good idea. She’ll be better off here than tramping through the jungle with us.”

“All right. I understand.”

He heard her moving about in his room as he worked on Shona. The younger girl’s nose was burnt almost down to the bone, and the metabolic display said only one retina was functional. Not for the first time he despaired the lack of nanonic medical packages; a decent supply would hardly have bankrupted the Church.

He had flushed the dead skin from Shona’s burns as best he could, coating them in a thin layer of corticosteroid foam to ease the inflammation, and was binding her head with a quantity of his dwindling stock of epithelium membrane when Jay came back in carrying his rucksack, It was packed professionally, and she had even rolled up his sleeping-bag.

“I got some stuff for myself,” she said, and held up a bulging shoulder-bag.

“Good girl. You didn’t make the bag too heavy, did you? You might have to carry it a long way.”

“No, Father.”

Someone knocked timidly on the door post. Jay shrank into the corner of the infirmary.

“Father Horst?” Brigitte Hearn poked her head in. “Father, they don’t want you here. They say they’ll kill you, that you can’t defend yourself against all of them.”

“I know. We’re leaving.”

“Oh.”

“Will they let us leave?”

She swallowed and looked over her shoulder. “Yes. I think so. They don’t want a fight. Not with you, not with a priest.”

Horst opened drawers in the wooden cabinet at the back of the infirmary, and started shoving his medical equipment into the rucksack. “What are you?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she said woefully.

“You said you had died?”

“Yes.”

“What is your name?”

“Ingrid Veenkamp, I lived on Bielefeld when it was a stage one colony world, not much different to this planet.” She twitched a smile at Jay. “I had two girls. Pretty, like you.”

“And where is Brigitte Hearn now?”

“Here, in me. I feel her. She is like a dream.”

“Possession,” Horst said.

“No.”

“Yes! I saw the red demon sprite. I witnessed the rite, the obscenity Quinn Dexter committed to summon you here.”

“I’m no demon,” the woman insisted. “I lived. I am human.”

“No more. Leave this body you have stolen. Brigitte Hearn has a right to her own life.”

“I can’t! I’m not going back there. Not to that.”

Horst took a grip on his trembling hands. Thomas had known this moment, he thought, when the disciple doubted his Lord’s return, when in prideful arrogance he refused to believe until he had seen the print of nails in His hand. “Believe,” he whispered. “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His name.”

The Brigitte/Ingrid woman bowed her head.

Horst asked the question that should never be asked: “Where? Where, damn you!”

“Nowhere. There is nothing for us. Do you hear? Nothing!”

“You lie.”

“There is nothing, just emptiness. I’m sorry.” She took an unsteady breath, seemingly gathering up a remnant of dignity. “You must leave now. They are coming back.”

Horst shut the flap on his rucksack and sealed it. “Where are the rest of the villagers?”

“Gone. They hunt fresh bodies for other souls trapped in the beyond, it has become their quest. I haven’t the stomach for it, nor have the others who remained in Aberdale. But you take care, Father. Your spirit is hale, but you could never withstand one of us for long.”

“They want more people to possess?”

“Yes.”

“But why?”

“Together we are strong. Together we can change what is. We can destroy death, Father. We shall bring eternity into existence here on this planet, perhaps even across the entire Confederation. I shall stay as I am for all time now; ageless, changeless. I am alive again, I won’t give that up.”

“This is lunacy,” he said.

“No. This is wonder, it is our miracle.”

Horst pulled his rucksack onto his back, and picked Shona up. Several adults had started to gather around the church. He walked down the steps pointedly disregarding them, Jay pressing into his side. They stared at him, but no one made a move. He turned and headed for the jungle, mildly surprised to see Ingrid Veenkamp walking with him.

“I told you,” she said. “They lack nerve. You will be safer if I am with you. They know I can strike back.”

“Would you?”

“Perhaps. For the girl’s sake. But I don’t think we will find out.”

“Please, lady,” Jay said, “do you know where my mummy is?”

“With the others, the pernicious ones. But don’t look for her, she is no longer your mother. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” she mumbled.

“We’ll get her back for you, Jay,” Horst said. “One day, somehow. I promise.”

“Such faith,” Ingrid Veenkamp said.

He thought she was mocking, but there was no trace of a smile on her face. “What about the other children?” he asked. “Why haven’t you possessed them?”

“Because they are children. No soul would want a vessel so small and frail, not when there are plentiful adults to be had. Millions on this planet alone.”

They had reached the fields, and the soft loam was clinging to Horst’s feet in huge claggy lumps. With the weight of the rucksack and Shona conspiring to push him into the ground he wasn’t even sure he could make it to the first rank of trees. Sweat was dripping from his forehead at the effort. “Send the children after me,” he wheezed. “They are hungry and they are frightened. I will take care of them.”

“You make a poor Pied Piper, Father. I’m not even sure you’ll last until nightfall.”

“Mock and scorn as you like, but send them. They’ll find me. For God knows I’ll not be able to travel far or fast.”

She dipped her head briefly. “I’ll tell them.”

Horst staggered into the jungle with Jay beside him, her big shoulder-bag knocking against her legs. He managed another fifty metres through the inimical vines and undergrowth, then sank panting painfully to his knees, face perilously red and hot.

“Are you all right?” Jay asked anxiously.

“Yes. We’ll just have to take it in short stages, that’s all. I think we’re safe for now.”

She opened the shoulder-bag’s seal. “I brought your cooler flask, I thought you might need it. I filled it with the high-vitamin orange juice you had in your room.”

“Jay, you are a twenty-four-carat angel.” He took the flask from her and drank some of the juice; she had set the thermostat so low it poured like slushy snow. They heard someone pushing their way through the undergrowth behind them, and turned. It was Russ and Andria, the first of the children.

Trudging across the savannah wasn’t quite the holiday Jay had told herself it would be. But it was lovely being away from the homestead, even if it was only going to be for a few hours. She longed to ride the horse, too; though there was no way she was going to plead with Father Horst in front of the boys.

They arrived at the Ruttan family’s old homestead after forty minutes’ walking. Untended, it had suffered from Lalonde’s rain and winds. The door which had been left open had swung to and fro until the hinges broke, and now it lay across the small porch. Animals (probably sayce) had used it for shelter at some time, adding to the disarray inside.

Jay waited with the two boys while Father Horst went in, carrying his laser hunting rifle, and checked over the three rooms. The abandoned cabin was eerie after the noise and bustle of their own homestead. She heard a distant rumble, and looked up, thinking it was approaching thunder. But the sky remained a perfect basin of blue. The noise grew louder, swelling out of the west.

Father Horst emerged from the homestead carrying a wooden chair. “It sounds like a spaceplane,” he said.

The grimed window-panes were rattling in their frames. Jay searched the sky frantically as the sound began to fade into the east. But there was nothing to be seen, the spaceplane was too high. She gave the distant mountains to the south a forlorn glance. It must have been going to the Tyrathca farmers, she thought.

“Have a hunt round,” Horst said. “See if you can find anything useful; you might try the barn as well. I’m going to the roof to cut the solar-cell sheets down.” He put the chair down under the eaves, and stood on it, squirming his way up onto the roof.

There was nothing much in the cabin; fans of grey fungus had established a foothold in the cracks between the planks, and greenish ripples of mould patterned the damp mattresses. She pulled a couple of clay mugs out from under one of the beds, and Russ found some shirts in a box below the kitchen workbench.

“They’ll be all right once we wash them,” Jay declared, holding up the smelly, soiled garments.

They had more luck in the barn: two sacks of protein-concentrate cakes used to feed young animals that had just come out of hibernation, and Mills discovered a small fission-blade saw behind a pile of old cargo-pods. “Good work!” Horst told them as he clambered down. “And look what I got, all three sheets. We’ll be able to heat the water tanks up in half the time now.”

Jay rolled up the solar-cell sheets while he lifted the sacks into the plough horse’s big saddle-bags.

Horst handed round his chill flask full of icy elwisie juice, then they set off again. Jay was glad of her hat. The sunlight was scorchingly hot on her arms and back, air rippled and shimmered all around. I never thought I’d miss the rains.

There was a river to cross before they reached the Soebergs’ homestead. It was less than a metre deep, but about fifteen metres wide. A fast, steady flow from the mountains, winding in broad curves along the savannah’s gentle contours. The bottom was smooth rock and rounded pebbles. Snowlily plants were growing right across it, their long fronds waving in the current. Flower buds as big as her head bobbed on the surface, the first splits starting to appear in their sides.

Jay and Horst took their boots off, and waded across clinging to the side of the horse. The water was invigorating, numbing her toes. She could easily believe it must have come directly from the snow peaks themselves, she wouldn’t have been surprised to see nuggets of ice bobbing about. After she sat on the bottom of the bank and dried her feet she thought she could walk for another hundred kilometres. Her skin was still tingling delightfully when they started up the bank.

They had been walking for another ten minutes when Horst held up his hand. “Mills, Russ, come down off the horse,” he said with quiet insistence.

The tone he used set up an uncomfortable prickling along Jay’s spine. “What is it?” she asked.

“The Soebergs’ homestead. I think.”

She peered over the tops of the wavering grass stems. There was something up ahead, a white silhouette against the indistinct horizon, but the sun-roiled air made it hard to tell exactly what.

Horst fished his optical intensifier from a pocket. It was a curving band of black composite that fitted over his eyes. He studied the scene ahead for a while, his right forefinger adjusting the magnification control.

“They are coming back,” he said in a soft murmur.

“Can I see?” she asked.

He handed her the band. It was large and quite heavy; the edges annealed to her skin with a pinching sensation.

She thought she was looking at some kind of AV recording, a drama play perhaps. Sitting in the middle of the savannah was a lovely old three-storey manor house, surrounded by a wide swath of tidy lawns. It was made of white stone, with a grey slate roof and large bay windows. Several people were standing under the portico.

“How do they do that?” Jay asked, more curious than alarmed.

“When you sell your soul to Satan, the material rewards are generous indeed. It is what he asks in return you should fear.”

“But Ingrid Veenkamp said—”

“I know what she said.” He removed the band from her face, and she blinked up at him. “She is a lost soul, she knows not what she does. Lord forgive her.”

“Do they want our homestead too?” Jay asked.

“I shouldn’t think so. Not if they can build that in a week.” He sighed, and took one final look at the miniature mansion. “Come along, we’ll see if we can find a nice fat danderil. If we get back early I’ll have time to mince the meat, and you can have burgers tonight. What do you say?”

“Yeah!” the two boys chanted in chorus, grinning.

They turned round, and started to trek back across the heat-soaked savannah to the homestead.

Kelven Solanki floated through the open hatch into the Arikara ’s bridge. The blue-grey compartment was the largest he’d ever seen in a warship before. As well as the normal flight crew it had to accommodate the admiral’s twenty-strong squadron-coordination staff. Most of their couches were empty now. The flagship was orbiting Takfu, the largest gas giant in the Rosenheim star system, taking on fuel.

Commander Mircea Kroeber was stretched out along his couch, supervising the fuelling operation with three other crew-members. Kelven had seen the cryogenic tanker as Ilex docked with the huge flagship. A series of spherical tanks stacked on top of a reaction drive section, and sprouting thermo-dump panels like the wings of a mutant butterfly.

The squadron of twenty-five ships was in formation around the Arikara , holding station five hundred kilometres away from Uhewa, the Edenist habitat which was resupplying them with both fuel and consumables. It was just one of the priority operations Ilex ’s arrival in the star system had kicked off ten hours ago. Rosenheim’s planetary government had immediately placed a restriction on all starship passengers and crew wanting to visit the surface. They now had to go through a rigorous screening process to make sure Laton wasn’t amongst them, creating a vast backlog in the low orbit port stations. The system’s asteroid settlements had swiftly followed suit. Reserve naval officers were being called up, and the 7th Fleet elements present in the system had been put on alert status along with the national navy.

Kelven was beginning to feel like a plague carrier, infecting the Confederation with panic.

Rear-Admiral Meredith Saldana was hanging in front of a console in the C&C section of the bridge, his soles touching the decking’s stikpads. He was wearing an ordinary naval ship-suit, but it seemed so much smarter on him, braid stripes shining brightly on his arm. A couple of his staff officers were in attendance behind him. One of the console’s AV projection pillars was emitting a low-frequency laser sparkle. When Kelven looked straight at it he saw Jantrit breaking apart.

Meredith Saldana datavised a shutdown order at the console as Kelven let the stikpad claim his shoes. The Rear-Admiral was six centimetres taller than him, and possessed a more distinguished appearance than the First Admiral. Could the Saldanas sequence dignity into their genes?

“Commander Kelven Solanki reporting as ordered, sir.”

Meredith Saldana gave him a frank stare. “You are my Lalonde advisory officer?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Just been promoted, Commander?”

“Yes, sir.”

“It always shows.”

“Sir, I have your orders flek from the First Admiral.” Kelven held it out.

Meredith Saldana took the black coin-sized disk with some reluctance. “I don’t know which is worse. Three months of these ridiculous ceremonial fly-bys and flag-waving exercises in the Omutan system, or a combat mission which is going to get us shot at by unknown hostiles.”

“Lalonde needs our help, sir.”

“Was it bad, Kelven?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I suppose I’d better access this flek, hadn’t I? All we’ve received so far are the emergency deployment orders from Fleet headquarters and the news about Laton showing up again.”

“There is a full situation briefing included, sir.”

“Excellent. If we run to schedule we should be departing for Lalonde in eight hours. I’ve requested another three voidhawks be assigned to the squadron for liaison and interdiction duties. Is there anything else you think I need immediately? This mission’s code rating gives me the authority to requisition almost any piece of hardware the navy has in the system.”

“No, sir. But you will have a fourth extra voidhawk, Ilex has been assigned to the squadron as well.”

“You can never have too many voidhawks,” Meredith said lightly. There was no response from the young commander. “Carry on, Kelven. Find yourself a berth, and get settled in. Report for duty here to me an hour before departure time, you can give me a first-hand account of what we can expect. I always feel a lot happier being brought up to date by someone with hands-on experience. Meanwhile I suggest you get some sleep, you look like you need it.”

“Yes, sir, thank you, sir.”

Kelven twisted his feet free of the stikpad, and pushed off towards the hatch.

Meredith Saldana watched him manoeuvre through the open oval without touching the rim. Commander Solanki seemed to be a very tense man. But then I’d probably be the same in his place, the admiral thought. He held up the flek with a sense of foreboding, then slotted it into his couch player to find out exactly what he was up against.

Horst was always glad to get back to the homestead and greet his scampish charges; after all, when all was said and done, they were only children. And profoundly shocked children at that. They should never be left on their own, and if he had his way they never would. Practicality dictated otherwise, of course, and there had never yet been any major disaster while he was roaming the savannah for meat and foraging the other homesteads. To some extent he had grown blasé about his trips. But this time, after encountering the possessed out at the Soeberg homestead, he had forced the return pace, stopping only to kill a danderil, his mind host to a whole coven of thoughts along the theme of what if.

When he topped a small rise six hundred metres away and saw the familiar wood cabin with the children sporting around outside he felt an eddy of relief. Thank you, Lord, he said silently.

He slowed down for the last length, giving Jay a respite. Sweat made her blue blouse cling to her skinny frame. The heat was becoming a serious problem. It seemed to have banished the hardy chikrows back into the jungle. Even the danderil he’d shot had been sheltering in the shade of one of the savannah’s scarce trees.

Horst blinked up at the unforgiving sky. Surely they don’t mean to burn this world to cinders? They have form now, stolen bodies; and all the physical needs, urges, and failings which go with them.

He squinted at the northern horizon. There seemed to be an effete pink haze above the jungle, dusting the sharp seam between sky and land, like the flush of dawn refracted over a deep ocean. The harder he tried to focus upon it, the more insubstantial it became.

He couldn’t believe it was a natural meteorological rara avis. More an omen. His humour, already tainted by the Soeberg homestead, sank further.

Too much is happening at once. Whatever polluted destiny they are manufacturing, it is reaching its zenith.

They were a hundred metres from the cabin when the children spotted them. A scrum of small bodies came running over the grass, Danny in the lead. Both of the homestead’s dogs chased around them, barking loudly.

“Freya’s here,” the boy yelled out at the top of his voice. “Freya’s here, Father. Isn’t it wonderful?”

Then they were all clinging to him, shouting jubilantly and smiling up with enthusiasm as he laughed and patted them and hugged them. For a moment he revelled in the contact, the hero returning. A knight protector and Santa Claus rolled into one. They expected so much of him.

“What did you find in the cabins, Father?”

“You were quick today.”

“Please, Father, tell Barnaby to give my reading tutor block back.”

“Was there any more chocolate?”

“Did you find any shoes for me?”

“You promised to look for some story fleks.”

With his escort swirling round and chattering happily, Horst led the horse over to the cabin. Russ and Mills had slithered off its back to talk with their friends.

“When did Freya arrive?” Horst asked Danny. He remembered the dark-haired girl from Aberdale, Freya Chester, about eight or nine, whose parents had brought a large variety of fruit trees with them. Kerry Chester’s grove had always been one of the better maintained plots around the village.

“About ten minutes ago,” the boy said. “It’s great, isn’t it?”

“Yes. It certainly is.” Remarkable, in fact. He was surprised she had survived this long. Most of the children had turned up during the first fortnight while they were still camping in a glade a kilometre away from Aberdale. Five of them walking from Schuster. They had said a woman was with them for most of the journey—Horst suspected it was Ingrid Veenkamp. Several others, the youngest ones, he had found himself as they wandered aimlessly through the jungle. He and Jay made a regular circuit of the area round the village in the hope of finding still more. And for every one they did save he suffered the images of ten more lost in the ferocious undergrowth, stalked by sayce and slowly starving to death.

At the end of a fortnight it was obvious that the messy, hot, damp glade was totally impractical as a permanent site. By that time he had over twenty children to look after. It was Jay who suggested they try a homestead cabin, and four days later they were safely installed. Only five more children had turned up since then, all of them in a dreadful state as they tramped down the overgrown track between Aberdale and the savannah. Dispossessed urchins, totally unable to fend for themselves, sleeping in the jungle and stealing food from the village when they could, which wasn’t anything like often enough. The last had been Eustice, two weeks ago when Horst skirted the jungle on a hunting trip; a skeleton with skin, her clothes reduced to tattered grey rags. She couldn’t walk, if the Alsatian hadn’t scented her and raised the alarm she would have been dead inside of a day. As it was, he had nearly lost her.

“Where is Freya?” Horst asked Danny.

“Inside, Father, having a rest. I said she could use your bed.”

“Good lad. You did the right thing.”

Horst let Jay and some of the girls lead the horse over to the water trough, and detailed a group of boys to remove the danderil carcass he’d secured to its back. Inside the cabin it was degrees cooler than the air outside, the thick double layer of mayope planks which made up the walls and ceiling proving an efficient insulator. He said a cheery hello to a bunch of children sitting around the table who were using a reading tutor block, and went into his own room.

The curtains were drawn, casting a rich yellow light throughout the room. There was a small figure lying on the bed wearing a long navy-blue dress, legs tucked up. She didn’t appear starved, or even hungry. Her dress was as clean as though it had just been washed.

“Hello, Freya,” Horst said softly. Then he looked at her fully, and even more of the savannah’s warmth was drained from his skin.

Freya raised her head lazily, brushing her shoulder-length hair from her face. “Father Horst, thank you so much for taking me in. It’s so kind of you.”

Horst’s muscles froze the welcoming smile on his face. She was one of them! A possessed. Below the healthy deeply tanned skin lay a wizened sickly child, the dark dress hid a stained adult’s T-shirt. The two images overlapped each other, jumping in and out of focus. They were enormously difficult to distinguish, obscured by a covering veil which she drew over his mind as well as his eyes. Reality was repugnant, he didn’t want to see, didn’t want truth. A headache ignited three centimetres behind his temple.

“All are welcome here, Freya,” he said with immense effort. “You must have had a terrible time these last weeks.”

“I did, it was horrible. Mummy and Daddy wouldn’t speak to me. I hid in the jungle for ages and ages. There were berries and things to eat. But they were always cold. And I sometimes heard a sayce. It was really scary.”

“Well, there are no sayce around here, and we have plenty of hot food.” He walked along the side of the bed towards the dresser below the window, every footfall magnified to a strident thump in the still room. The noise of the children outside had perished. There was just the two of them now.

“Father?” she called.

“What do you want here?” he whispered tightly, his back towards her. He was afraid to pull the curtains open, afraid there might be nothing outside.

“It is a kindness.” Her voice was deepening, becoming a morbid atonality. “There is no place for you on this world any more. Not as you are. You must change, become as us. The children will come to you one at a time when you call. They trust you.”

“A trust that will never be betrayed.” He turned round, Bible in hand. The leather-bound book his mother had given him when he became a novice; it even had a little inscription she had written in the cover, the black ink fading to a watery blue down the decades.

Freya gave him a slightly surprised look, then sneered. “Oh, poor Father! Do you need your crutch so badly? Or do you hide from true life behind your belief?”

“Holy Father, Lord of Heaven and the mortal world, in humility and obedience, I do ask Your aid in this act of sanctification, through Jesus Christ who walked among us to know our failings, grant me Your blessing in my task,” Horst incanted. It was so long ago since he had read the litany in the Unified prayer-book; and never before had he spoken the words, not in an age of science and universal knowledge, living in an arcology of crumbling concrete and gleaming composite. Even the Church questioned their need: they were a relic of the days when faith and paganism were still as one. But now they shone like the sun in his mind.

Freya’s contempt descended into shock. “What?” She flung her legs off the bed.

“My Lord God, look upon Your servant Freya Chester, fallen to this unclean spirit, and permit her cleansing; in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” Horst made the sign of the cross above the furious little girl.

“Stop it, you old fool. You think I fear that, your blind faith?” Her control over her form was slipping. The healthy clean image flickered on and off like a faulty light, exposing the frail malnourished child underneath.

“I beseech You to grant me Your strength, O Lord; so that her soul may be saved from damnation.”

The Bible burst into flames. Horst groaned as the heat gnawed at his hand. He dropped it to the floor where it sputtered close to the leg of the bed. His hand was agony, as though it was dipped in boiling oil.

Freya’s face was screwed up in determination, great rubberlike folds of skin distorting her pretty features almost beyond recognition. “Fuck you, priest.” The obscenity seemed ludicrous coming from a child. “I’ll burn your mind out of your skull. I’ll cook your brain in its own blood.” Her possessed shape shimmered again. The lame Freya below was choking.

Horst clutched at his crucifix with his good hand. “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, I order you, servant of Lucifer, to be gone from this girl. Return to the formless nothing where you belong.”

Freya let out a piercing shriek. “How did you know!”

“Begone from this world. There is no place in the sight of God for those who would dwell in Evil.”

“How, priest?” Her head turned from side to side, neck muscles straining as though she was fighting some invisible force. “Tell me . . .”

Heat was building along Horst’s spine. He was sweating profusely, frightened she really would burn him. It was like the worst case of sunburn he had ever known, as though his skin was splitting open. His clothes would catch fire soon, he was sure.

He thrust the crucifix towards the girl. “Freya Chester, come forth, come into the light and the glory of our Lord.”

And Freya Chester was solidly before him, thin sunken face racked by pain, spittle on her chin. Her mouth was working, struggling around complex words. Terror pounced from her black eyes.

“Come, Freya!” Horst shouted jubilantly. “Come forth, there is nothing to fear. The Lord awaits.”

“Father.” Her voice was tragically frail. She coughed, spewing out a meagre spray of saliva and stomach juices. “Father, help.”

“In God we trust, to deliver us from evil. We seek Your justice, knowing we are not worthy. We drink of Your blood, and eat of Your flesh so we may share in Your glory. Yet we are but the dust from which You made us. Guide us from our errors, Lord, for in ignorance and sin we know not what we do. And we ask for Your holy protection.”

For one last supremely lucid moment the demon possessor returned. Freya glared at him with a ferocity which withered his resolution by its sheer malice.

“I won’t forget you,” she ground out between her curled lips. “Never in all eternity will I forget you, priest.”

Unseen hands scrabbled at his throat, tiny fingers, like an infant’s. Blood emerged from the grazes sharp nails left around his Adam’s apple. He held the crucifix on high, defiant that Christ’s symbol would triumph.

Freya let out a last bellow of rage. Then the demon spirit was gone in a blast of noxious arctic air which blew Horst backwards. Neatly stacked piles of food packets went tumbling over, the bedlinen took flight, loose articles stampeded off the dresser and table. There was a bang like a castle door slamming in the face of an invading army.

Freya, the real Freya, all crusty sores, ragged clothes, and bony famined figure, was stretched out on the bed, emitting quiet gurgles from her chapped mouth. She started to cry.

Horst clambered to his feet, hanging on to the edge of the bed for support. He drew a gasping breath, his body aching inside and out, as though he had swum an ocean.

Jay and a troop of frantic children rushed in, shouting in a confused babble.

“It’s all right,” he told them, dabbing at the scratch marks on his throat. “Everything’s all right now.”

When Jay awoke the next morning she was surprised to see she had overslept. She hardly ever did that, the few minutes alone to herself at the start of each morning were among the most precious of the day. But it had to be dawn. A pale tinge of hoary light was creeping into the cabin’s main room around the reed blinds. The other children were all still sound asleep. She quickly pulled on her shorts, boots, and an adult-sized shirt she had altered to something approximating her own size, and slipped quietly out of the door. Thirty seconds later she ran back in shouting for Father Horst at the top of her voice.

Far above the lonely savannah cabin, the long vivid contrails of thirteen starship fusion drives formed a cosmic mandala across the black pre-dawn sky.

Chapter 06

Lewis Sinclair had been born in 2059. He lived in Messopia, one of the first purpose-built industrial/accommodation/leisure complexes to be constructed on Spain’s Mediterranean coast; a cheerless mathematical warren of concrete, glass, and plastic which covered five square kilometres and sheltered ninety thousand people against the ferocious armada storms which were beginning to plague Earth. It was a heavily subsidized experiment by the European Federal Parliament, by that time desperate to tackle the cancerous underclass problem thrown up by the continent’s eighty-five million unemployed. Messopia was a qualified success; its medium-scale engineering industries provided only a minimal return for investors, but it provided a foretaste of the huge arcologies which in the centuries to come would house, protect, and employ Earth’s dangerously expanded population.

His path through life was never going to be anything other than troublesome; born to low-income parents, who were only in the new microcosm city because of the parliamentary law requiring a socially balanced population. There was no real niche for him in an enterprise geared so resolutely towards the middle-class job/family/home ethic. He played truant from school, turned to crime, drugs, violence. A textbook delinquent, one of thousands who ran through Messopia’s architecturally bankrupt corridors and malls.

It could have been different, if the education system had caught him early enough, if he had had the strength to hold out against peer pressure, if Messopia’s technocrat designers had been less contemptuous of the social sciences. The opportunities existed. Lewis Sinclair lived in an age of quite profound technological and economic progress, and never really knew it, let alone shared in it. The first batches of asteroid-mined metal were starting to supplement depleted planetary reserves; biotechnology was finally living up to its initial promise; crude examples of the affinity bond were being demonstrated; more and more non-polluting fusion plants were coming on-stream as the supplies of He3 mined from Jupiter’s atmosphere increased. But none of it reached down to his level of society. He died in 2076, seventeen years old; one year after the bitek habitat Eden was germinated in orbit around Jupiter, and one year before the New Kong asteroid settlement began its FTL stardrive research project. His death was as wasteful as his life, a fight with power-blade knives in a piss-puddled subterranean warehouse, him and his opponent both high on synthetic crack. The fight was over a thirteen-year-old girl they both wanted to pimp.

He lost, the power blade chopping through his ribs to slice his stomach into two unequal portions.

And Lewis Sinclair made the same discovery as every human eventually made. Death was not the end of being. In the centuries that followed, spent as a virtually powerless astral entity suspended in dimensional emptiness, perceiving and envying mortals in their rich physical existence, he simply wished it were so.

But now Lewis Sinclair had returned. He wore a body again, weeping for joy at such simple magnificence as raindrops falling on his upturned face. He wasn’t going to go back into the deprivation which lay after physical life, not ever. And he had the power to see that it was so; him and all the others, acting in combination, they were supreme badasses.

There was more to him than before, more than the strength which flesh and blood provided. Part of his soul was still back there in the terrible empty gulf; he hadn’t emerged fully into life, not yet. He was trapped like a butterfly unable to complete the transformation from dirt-bound pupa to wing-free ephemeral. Often he felt as though the body he had possessed was simply a biological sensor mechanism, a mole’s head peeking out from the earth, feeding sensations back to his feeling-starved soul via an incorporeal umbilical cord. Strange energistic vortices swirled around the dimensional twist where the two continua intermingled, kinking reality. The bizarre effect was usable, bending to his will. He could alter physical structures, sculpt energy, even prise open further links back into the extrinsic universe. His mastery of this power was increasing gradually, but its wild fluxes and resonances caused havoc in cybernetic machinery and electronic processor blocks around him.

So he watched through the spaceplane’s narrow curving windscreen as the Yaku (now operating under a forged registration) dwindled against the sharp-etched stars, and felt his new muscles relaxing below the seat webbing. The spaceplane systems were an order of magnitude simpler than the Yaku ’s, and critical malfunctions were highly unlikely now. Starflight was a disturbing business, so very technical. His dependency on the machines which his very presence disrupted was unnerving. With some luck he would never have to venture across the interstellar gulf again. He and his five colleagues riding down to the surface would be sufficient to conquer this unsuspecting world, turning it into a haven for other souls. Together they would make it their own.

“Retro burn in five seconds,” Walter Harman said.

“OK,” Lewis said. He concentrated hard, feeling round a chorus of distant voices with the peculiar cell cluster in this body’s brain. We’re coming down now,he told pernik Island.

I look forward to your arrival,the island personality replied.

The affinity voice sounded clear and loud in his mind. Bitek functioned almost flawlessly despite the energistic turmoil boiling around his cells. It was one reason for selecting this particular planet.

The manoeuvring rockets at the rear of the little spaceplane fired briefly, pushing him down into the angle of the seat. The conditioning grille above his head was emitting an annoyingly loud whine as the fan motor spun out of control. His fingers tightened their grip on the armrests.

Walter Harman claimed to have been a spaceplane pilot back in the 2280s, serving in the Kulu Navy. As only three of them had even been in space before, his right to pilot the spaceplane went unchallenged. The body he used belonged to one of Yaku ’s crew, possessed within minutes of Lewis boarding the starship. It was equipped with neural nanonics, which unlike bitek proved almost useless in the constant exposure to the hostile energistic environment a possession generated, so Walter Harman had activated the spaceplane’s manual-control system, an ergonomic joystick which deployed from the console in front of the pilot’s seat. A projection pillar showed trajectory graphics and systems information, updating constantly as he muttered instructions to the flight computer.

The spaceplane rolled, and Lewis saw the mass of the planet slide round the windscreen. They were over the terminator now, heading into the penumbra.

Night was always their best time, putting mortal humans at a disadvantage, adding to their own potency. Something about the darkness embraced their nature.

The spaceplane shook gently as the upper atmosphere began to strike the heatshield belly. Walter Harman pitched them up at a slight angle, and swung the wings out a few degrees, beginning the long aerobrake glide downwards.

They were still in the darkness when they dropped below subsonic. Lewis could see a hemispherical bauble of light glinting on the horizon ahead.

“Your approach is on the beam,” the island personality informed them over the microwave channel. “Please land on pad eighteen.” A purple and yellow flight vector diagram appeared on the console’s holoscreen.

“Acknowledged, Pernik,” Walter Harman said. A three-dimensional simulacrum of the island materialized inside Lewis’s skull, an image far sharper than the porno holographs he used to peddle back in Messopia. He automatically knew which pad eighteen was. A burst of doubt and anxiety blossomed in his mind, which he did his best to prevent from leaking back down the affinity bond to the island personality. This Edenist consensual set-up was so smooth. He worried that they might be taking on more than they could reasonably expect to accomplish.

The island personality had accepted his explanation that he was representing his merchant family enterprise from Jospool. Not every Edenist used the voidhawks to carry freight, there simply weren’t enough to go round.

Lewis studied the mental simulacrum. Pad eighteen was close to the rim and the floating quays, there would be machinery there. It would be easy.

Pernik’s coating of moss made the two-kilometre disk a black hole in the faintly phosphorescent ocean. Pale yellow radiance shone from a few windows in the accommodation towers, and floodlights illuminated all the quays. It was 4 a.m. local time, most of the inhabitants were asleep.

Walter Harman set the spaceplane down on pad eighteen with only a minor wobble.

Welcome to Pernik,the personality said formally.

Thank you,lewis replied.

Eysk is approaching. His family runs one of our premier fishing enterprises. He should be able to fill your requirements.

Excellent,lewis said. My thanks again for receiving me so promptly. I have spent weeks on that Adamist starship; it was becoming somewhat claustrophobic.

I understand.

Lewis wasn’t sure, but he thought there was a mild dose of puzzlement in the personality’s tone. Too late now, though, they were down. Excitement was spilling into his blood. His part of the scheme was by far the most important.

The airlock opened with a couple of jerky motions as the actuators suffered power surges. Lewis went down the aluminium stairs.

Eysk was walking across the polyp apron towards pad eighteen. A ridge of electrophorescent cells circling the pad were casting an austere light over the spaceplane. Lewis could see very little of the island beyond; there was one accommodation tower forming a slender black rectangle against the night sky, and the sound of waves sloshing against the rim came from the other side of the spaceplane.

“Keep him busy,” Lewis ordered Walter Harman as the pilot followed him down the stairs.

“No problem, I’ve got a thousand dumb questions lined up. Atlantis hadn’t been discovered when I was alive.”

Lewis reached the landing pad and tensed—this was it, make or break time. He had altered his facial features considerably during the starflight; that old journalist back on Lalonde had given him a nasty moment. He waited for the approaching Edenist to shout an alarm to the island.

Eysk gave a slight bow in greeting, and directed an identity trait at Lewis. He waited politely for Lewis to return the punctilio.

Lewis didn’t have one. He hadn’t known. His only source of data on Edenist customs was far beyond his grasp.

Deep down at the centre of his brain there was a presence, the soul which used to own the body he now possessed. A prisoner held fast by the manacle bonds of Lewis’s thoughts.

All of the possessors had a similar prisoner, visualized as a tiny homunculus contained within a sphere of cephalic glass. They pleaded and they begged to be let out, to come back; annoying background voices, a gnat’s buzz across consciousness. The possessed could use them, torment them with glimpses of reality in return for information, learning how to blend in with the modern, starkly alien society into which they had come forth.

But the centre of Lewis’s mind contained only a heavy darkness. He hadn’t told the others that, they were all so boastful of how they controlled their captives, so he just brazened it out. The soul he had usurped as he came to this body neither entreated nor threatened. Lewis knew it was there, he could sense the surface thoughts, cold and hard, formidable with resolution. Waiting. The entity frightened him, he had come to possess the body the same way he had walked Messopia’s corridors, The King of Strut—thinking he could handle it. Now the first fractures of insecurity in his hyped-up confidence were multiplying. The usurped soul’s personality was far stronger than him; he could never have withstood such dread isolation, not simply beyond sensation, but knowing sensation was possible. What kind of person could?

Are you all right?eysk asked kindly.

I’m sorry. I think it may have been something I ate. And the ride down was a god-fucking bitch.

Eysk’s eyebrow rose. Indeed?

Yeah, feel like I’m gonna puke. Be all right in a minute.

I do hope so.

“This is Walter Harman,” Lewis said out loud, knowing he was making a colossal balls-up of things. “A pilot, so he claims. After that flight, think I’m going to ask the captain for a dekko at his licence.” He laughed at his witticism.

Walter Harman smiled broadly, and put out his hand. “Pleasure to meet you. This is one hell of a planet. I’ve never been here before.”

Eysk seemed taken aback. “Your enthusiasm is most gratifying. I hope you enjoy your stay.”

“Thanks. Say, I tasted some gollatail a year back, have you got any round here?”

I’m just going for a walk, get some air,lewis said. Down in his memories were a thousand hangovers; he gathered together the phantom sensation of nausea and cranial malaise, then broadcast them into the affinity band. It ought to clear my head.

Eysk flinched at the emetic deluge. Quite.

“I’d like to try some again, maybe take back a stock of my own,” Walter Harman prompted. “Old Lewis here can tell you what our ship’s rations are like.”

“Yes,” Eysk said. “I believe we have some.” His gaze never left Lewis’s back.

“Great, that’s just great.”

Lewis stepped over the half-metre ridge of electrophorescent cells around the pad, and headed towards the island’s rim. There was one of the floating quays ahead, a twenty-metre crane to one side for lifting smaller boats out of the water.

Sorry about this,lewis told the island personality. A flight has never had this effect before.

Do you require a medical nanonic package?

Let’s leave it a minute and see. Sea wind always was the best cure for headaches.

As you wish.

Lewis could hear Walter Harman chattering away inanely behind him. He reached the metal railing that guarded the rim, and stood beside the crane. It was a spindly column and boom arrangement made from monobonded carbon struts, lightweight and strong. But heavy enough for his purpose. He closed his eyes, focusing his attention on the structure, feeling its texture, the rough grain of carbon crystals held together with hard plies of binding molecules. Atoms glowed scarlet and yellow, their electrons flashing in tight fast orbits.

Miscreant energistic pulses raced up and down the struts, sparking between molecules. He felt the others in the spaceplane cabin lending their strength, concentrating on a point just below the boom pivot. The carbon’s crystalline lattice began to break down. Spears of St Elmo’s fire flickered around the pivot.

A tortured creaking sound washed across the rim of the island. Eysk looked round in confusion, peering against pad eighteen’s glare.

Lewis, move now please,the island personality said. Unidentified static discharge on the crane. It is weakening the structure.

Where?he played it dumb, looking round, looking up.

Lewis, move.

The compulsion almost forced his legs into action. He fought it with bursts of mystification, then panic. Remembering the power blade as it descended, the sight of blood and chips of bone spewing out of the wound. It hadn’t happened to him, it was some horror holo he was watching on the screen. Distant. Remote.

Lewis!

Carbon shattered with a sudden thunderclap. The boom jerked, then began to fall, curving down in that unreal slow motion he’d seen once before. And nothing had to be faked any more. Fear staked him to the ground. A yell started to emerge from his lips—

—Mistake. Your greatest and your last, Lewis. When this body dies my soul will be free. And then I can return to possess the living. And when that happens I will have the same power as you. After that we shall meet as equals, I promise you—

—as the edge of the boom smashed into his torso. There was no pain, shock saw to that. Lewis was aware of the boom finishing its work, crushing him against the polyp. Body ruined.

His head hit the ground with a brutish smack, and he gazed up mutely at the stars. They started to fade.

Transfer,pernik ordered. the mental command was thick with sympathy and sorrow.

His eyes closed.

Pernik awaited. Lewis saw it through a long dark tunnel, a vast bitek construct glowing with the gentle emerald aura of life. Colourful phantom shapes slithered below its translucent surface, tens of thousands of personalities, at once separate and in concord: the multiplicity. He felt himself drifting towards it along the affinity bond, his energistic nexus abandoning the mangled body to infiltrate the naked colossus. Behind him the dark soul rose as smoothly as a shark seeking wounded prey to re-inherit the dying body. Lewis’s tightly whorled thoughts quaked in fright as he reached the island’s vast neural strata. He penetrated the surface, and diffused himself throughout the network, instantly surrounded by a babble of sights and sounds. The multiplicity murmuring amongst itself, autonomic subroutines emitting pulses of strictly functional information.

His dismay and disorientation was immediately apparent. Ethereal tentacles of comfort reached out to reassure him.

Don’t worry, Lewis. You are safe now . . .

What are you?

The multiplicity recoiled from him, a tide of thoughts in swift retreat, leaving him high and dry. Splendidly alone. Emergency autonomic routines to isolate him came on-line, erecting axon blockades around the swarm of neural cells in which he resided.

Lewis laughed at them. Already his thoughts were spread through more cells than the body which he’d abandoned had contained. The energistic flux resulting from such possession was tremendous. He thought of fire, and began to extend himself, burning through the multiplicity’s simplistic protection, seeping through the neural strata like a wave of searing lava, obliterating anything in his path. Cell after cell fell to his domination. The multiplicity shrieked, trying to resist him. Nothing could. He was bigger than them, bigger than worlds. Omnipotent. The cries began to die away as he engulfed them, receding as though they were falling down some shaft that pierced clean to the planet’s core. Squeezing. Compressing their fluttering panicked thoughts together. The polyp itself was next, contaminated by swaths of energy seething out of the transdimensional twist. Organs followed, even the thermal potential cables dangling far below the surface. He possessed every living cell of Pernik. At the heart of his triumphant mind the multiplicity lay silent, stifled.

He waited for a second, savouring the nirvana-high of absolute mastery. Then the terror began.

Eysk had started to run towards the rim as the crane creaked and groaned. Pernik showed him the boom starting to topple down. He knew he was too late, that there was nothing he could do to save the strangely idiosyncratic Edenist from Jospool. The boom picked up speed, slamming into the apparently dumbfounded Lewis. Eysk closed his eyes, mortified by the splash of gore.

Calm yourself,the personality said. His head survived the impact. I have his thoughts.

Thank goodness. Whatever caused the crane to fail like that? I’ve never seen such lightning on Atlantis before.

It . . . I . . .

Pernik?

The mental wail which came down the affinity link seemed capable of bursting Eysk’s skull apart. He dropped to his knees, clamping his hands to his head, vision washed out by a blinding red light. Steel claws were burrowing up out of the affinity link, ripping through the delicate membranes inside his brain, shiny silver smeared with blood and viscid cranial fluid.

“Poor Eysk,” a far-off chorus spoke directly into his mind—so very different to affinity, so very insidious. “Let us help you.” The promise of pain’s alleviation hummed in the air all around.

Even numbed and bruised he recognized the gentle offer for the Trojan it was. He blinked tears from his eyes, closing his mind to affinity. And he was abruptly alone, denied even an echo of the emotional fellowship he had shared for his entire life. The grotesque mirage of the claw vanished. Eysk let out a hot breath of relief. The polyp below his trembling hands was glowing a sickly pink—that was real.

“What—”

Hairy cloven feet shuffled into view. He gasped and looked up. The hominid creature with a black-leather wolf’s head howled victoriously and reached down for him.

Laton opened his eyes. His crushed, faltering body was suffused with pain. It wasn’t relevant, so he ignored it. There wasn’t going to be much time before oxygen starvation started to debilitate his reasoning. Physical shock was already making concentration difficult. He quickly loaded a sequence of localized limiter routines into the neuron cells buried beneath the polyp on which he was pinned by the twisted crane boom. Developed for his Jantrit campaign, their sophistication was orders of magnitude above the usual diversionary orders juvenile Edenists employed to avoid parental supervision. Firstly he regularized the image which the surrounding sensitive cells were supplying to the neural strata, freezing the picture of his body.

At that point his heart gave its last beat. He could sense the desperate attempts by the multiplicity to ward off Lewis’s subsumption of the island. Laton was banking everything on the primitive street boy using brute force to take over. Sure enough Lewis’s eerily potent, but crude, thought currents flowed through the neural strata below, flushing every other routine before him; though even his augmented power failed to root out Laton’s subversive routines. They were symbiotic rather than parasitic, working within the controlling personality not against it. It would take a highly experienced Edenist bitek neuropathologist to even realize they were there, let alone expunge them.

Laton’s lips gave a final quirk of contempt. He cleared a storage section in the neuron cells, and transferred his personality into it. His final act before consciousness and memory sank below the polyp was to trigger the proteanic virus infecting every cell in his body.

Mosul dreamed. He was lying in bed in his accommodation tower flat, with Clio beside him. Mosul woke. He looked down fondly at the sleeping girl; she was in her early twenties with long dark hair and a pretty flattish face. The sheet had slipped from her shoulders, revealing a pert rounded breast. He bent over to kiss the nipple. She stirred, smiling dreamily as his tongue traced a delicate circle. A warm overspill of gently erotic images came foaming out of her drowsy mind.

Mosul grinned in anticipation, and woke. He frowned down in puzzlement at the sleeping girl beside him. The bedroom was illuminated by a sourceless rosy glow. It shaded Clio’s silky skin a dark burgundy colour. He shook the sleep from his head. They had been making love for hours last night, he was entitled to some lassitude after that.

She responded eagerly to his kisses, throwing aside the sheet so he could feast on the sight of her. Her skin hardened and wrinkled below his touch. When he looked up in alarm she had become a cackling white-haired crone.

The pink light shifted into bright scarlet, as though the room was bleeding. He could see the polyp walls palpitating. In the distance a giant heartbeat thudded.

Mosul woke. The room was illuminated by a sourceless rosy glow. He was sweating, it was intolerably hot.

Pernik, I’m having a nightmare . . . I think. Am I awake now?

Yes, Mosul.

Thank goodness. Why is it so hot?

Yes, you are having a nightmare. My nightmare.

Pernik!

Mosul woke, jerking up from the bed. The bedroom walls were glowing red; no longer safe hard polyp but a wet meat traced with a filigree of purple-black veins. They oscillated like jelly. The heartbeat sounded again, louder than before. A damp acrid smell tainted the air.

Pernik! Help me.

No, Mosul.

What are you doing?

Clio rolled over and laughed at him. Her eyes were featureless balls of jaundiced yellow. “We’re coming for you, Mosul, you and all your kind. Smug arrogant bastards that you are.”

She elbowed him in the groin. Mosul shouted at the vicious pain, and tumbled off the raised sponge cushion which formed his bed. Sour yellow vomit trickled out of his mouth as he writhed about on the slippery floor.

Mosul woke. It was real this time, he was sure of that. Everything was dangerously clear to his eyes. He was lying on the floor, all tangled up in the sheets. The bedroom glowed red, its walls raw stinking meat.

Clio was locked in her own looped nightmare, hands raking the top of the bed, staring sightlessly at the ceiling. Unformed screams stalled in her throat, as though she was choking. Mosul tried to get up, but his feet slithered all over the slimed quaking floor. He directed an order at the door muscle membrane. Too late he saw its shape had changed from a vertical oval to a horizontal slash. A giant mouth. It parted, giving him a brief glimpse of stained teeth the size of his feet, then thick yellow vomit discharged into the bedroom. The torrent of obscenely fetid liquid hit him straight on, lifting him up and throwing him against the back wall. He didn’t dare cry out, it would be in his mouth. His arms thrashed about, but it was like paddling in glue. There seemed no end to the cascade, it had risen above his knees. Clio was floundering against the wall a couple of metres away, her body spinning in the hard current. He couldn’t reach her. The vomit’s heat was powerful enough to enervate his muscles, and the stomach acid it contained was corroding his skin. It had risen up to his chest. He struggled to stay upright. Clio had disappeared below the surface, not even waking from her nightmare. And still more poured in.

As far as Lewis Sinclair was aware, Laton’s corpse lay perfectly still under the crumpled crane boom. Not that he bothered to check. Pernik Island was big, much larger than his imagination had ever conceived it, and for someone with his background difficult to comprehend. Every second yelled for his attention as he sent out phobic fantasies through his affinity bonds with the slumbering populace, invading their dreams, breaking their minds wide open with insane fear so more souls could come through and begin their reign of possession. He ignored the bitek’s tedious minutiae—autonomic organ functions, the monitoring routines which the old multiplicity employed, enacting muscle membrane functions. All he cared about was eliminating the remaining Edenists; that task received his total devotion.

The island’s cells glimmered a faint pink as a result of the energistic arrogation, even the shaggy coat of moss shone as though imbued with firefly luminescence. Pernik twinkled like a fabulous inflamed ruby in the funereal gloom of Atlantis’s moonless night, sending radiant fingers probing down through the water to beckon curious fish. An observer flying overhead would have noticed flashes of blue light pulsing at random from the accommodation tower windows, as though stray lightning bolts were being flung around the interior.

Long chill screams reverberated around the borders of the park, emerging from various archways at the base of the towers. By the time they reached the rim they had blended into an almost musical madrigal, changes in pitch matching the poignant lilt of the waves washing against the polyp.

Housechimps scampered about, yammering frantically at each other. Their control routines had been wiped clean by Lewis’s relentless purge of the multiplicity and all its subsidiaries, and long-suppressed simian tribal traits were surfacing. Fast, violent fights broke out among them as they instinctively fled into the thicker spinneys growing in the park.

The remaining sub-sentient servitor creatures, all eighteen separate species necessary to complement the island’s static organs, either froze motionless or performed their last assigned task over and over again.

Unnoticed amid the bedlam and horror, Laton’s corpse was quietly dissolving into protoplasmic soup.

Edenist biotechnicians examining the wreckage of Jantrit had called the process Laton used to doctor the habitat’s neural strata a proteanic virus. In fact, it was far more complex than that. Affinity-programmable organic molecules was a term one researcher used.

Deeply disturbed by the technology and its implications, the Jovian consensus released little further information. Research continued, a classified high-priority project, which concentrated on developing methods to warn existing habitats of the sub-nanonic weapon being deployed against them, and a means of making future habitats (and people) immune. Progress over the intervening forty years was slow but satisfactory.

Of course, unknown to the Edenists, at the same time Laton was equally busy on Lalonde refining his process, and meeting with considerable success.

In its passive state, the updated proteanic virus masqueraded as inert organelles within his body cells—no matter what their nature, from liver to blood corpuscles, muscles to hair. When his last affinity command activated them, each organelle released a batch of plasmids (small, artificially synthesized DNA loops) and a considerable quantity of transcription factors, proteins capable of switching genes on or off. Once the plasmids had been inserted into the cell’s DNA, mitosis began, forcing the cells to reproduce by division. Transcription factors switched off the human DNA completely, as well as an entire series of the new plasmids, leaving them to be carried passively while just one type of plasmid was activated to designate the function of the new cell. It was a drastic mutation. Hundreds of thousands of Laton’s cells were already dying, millions more were killed by the induced mitosis; but over half fissioned successfully, turning into specialist diploid gametes.

They spilled out of the arms, legs, and collar of his one-piece ship-suit in a magenta sludge, draining away from stubborn clusters of dead cells that retained their original pattern—kernels of lumpy organs, slender ribs, a rubbery dendritic knot of veins. As they spread across the polyp they started to permeate the surface, slipping through microscopic gaps in the grainy texture, seeping down towards the neural stratum four metres below. Pernik’s nutrient capillaries and axon conduits speeded their passage.

Four hours later, when dawn was breaking over the condemned island, the majority of the gametes had reached the neural stratum. Stage two of the proteanic virus was different. A gamete would penetrate a neural cell’s membrane and release the mission-specific plasmid Laton had selected (he had four hundred to choose from). The plasmid was accompanied by a transcription factor which would activate it.

Mitosis produced a neuron cell almost identical to the original it replaced. Once begun, the reproduction cycle was unstoppable; new cells started to supplant old at an ever-increasing rate. A chain reaction of subtle modification began to ripple out from the rim of the island. It went on for a considerable time.

Admiral Kolhammer was almost correct about Time Universe beating the Edenists to inform the Confederation about Laton. Several dozen star systems heard the news from the company first. Governments were put in an embarrassing position of knowing less than Time Universe until the voidhawks carrying diplomatic fleks from Admiral Aleksandrovich and the Confederation Assembly President arrived, clarifying the situation.

Naturally enough, public perception was focused almost exclusively on Laton: the threat from the past risen like the devil’s own phoenix. They wanted to know what was being done to track him down and exterminate him. They were quite vociferous about it.

Presidents, kings, and dictators alike had to release statements assuring their anxious citizens that every resource was being deployed to locate him.

Considerably less attention was drawn to the apparent persona sequestration of Lalonde’s population. Graeme Nicholson hadn’t placed much emphasis on the effect, keeping it at the rumour level. It wasn’t until much later that news company science editors began to puzzle about the cost-effectiveness of sequestrating an entire backward colony world, and question exactly what had happened in the Quallheim Counties. Laton’s presence blinded them much as it did everyone else. He was on Lalonde, therefore Lalonde’s uprising problem was instigated by him. QED.

Privately, governments were extremely worried by the possibility of an undetectable energy virus that could strike at people without warning. Dr Gilmore’s brief preliminary report on Jacqueline Couteur was not released for general public access.

Naval reserve officers were called in, warships were placed on combat alert and brought up to full flight-readiness status. Laton gave governments the excuse to instigate rigorous screening procedures for visiting starships. Customs and Immigration officers were told to be especially vigilant for any electronic warfare nanonics.

There was also an unprecedented degree of cooperation between star systems’ national groupings to ensure that the warning reached everybody and was taken seriously. Within a day of a flek courier voidhawk arriving, even the smallest, most distant asteroid settlement was informed and urged to take precautions.

Within five days of Admiral Lalwani dispatching the voidhawks, the entire Confederation had been told, with just a few notable exceptions. Most prominent of these were starships in transit.

Oenone raced in towards Atlantis at three gees. There were only sixty cases of Norfolk Tears left clamped into its lower hull cargo bay. Since leaving Norfolk, Syrinx had flown to Auckland, a four-hundred-light-year trip. Norfolk Tears increased in price in direct proportion to the distance from Norfolk, and Auckland was one of the richer planets in its sector of the Confederation. She had sold sixty per cent of her cargo to a planetary retailer, and another thirty per cent to a family merchant enterprise in one of the system’s Edenist habitats. It was the first shipment the Auckland system had seen for fifteen months, and the price it raised had been appropriately phenomenal. They had already paid off the Jovian Bank loan and made a respectable profit. Now she was back to honour her deal with Eysk’s family.

She looked through Oenone’s sensor blisters at the planet as they descended into equatorial orbit. Cool blues and sharp whites jumbled together in random splash patterns. Memories played below her surface thoughts, kindled by the sight of the infinite ocean. Mosul’s smiling face.

We’re not going to stay very long, are we?Oenone asked plaintively.

Why?she teased. Don’t you like talking to the islands? They make a change from habitats.

You know why.

You stayed in Norfolk orbit for over a week.

I had lots of voidhawks to talk to. There are only fifteen here.

Don’t worry. We won’t stay long. Just enough time to unload the Norfolk Tears, and for me to see Mosul.

I like him.

Thank you for the vote of confidence. While we’re here, would you ask the islands to see if anyone has a cargo they need shipping outsystem.

I’ll start now.

Can you give me a link through to Mosul first, please.

It is midnight on Pernik. The personality says Mosul is unobtainable at the moment.

Oh dear. I wonder what her name is?

Syrinx.

Yes?

Pernik is wrong.

What do you mean? Mosul is available?

No, I mean the personality is different, altered. There is no joy in its thoughts.

Syrinx opened her eyes and stared round the contoured walls of her cabin. Familiar trinkets she had picked up on her voyages were lined up in glass-fronted alcoves. Her eyes found the fifteen-centimetre chunk of whalebone carved into a squatting Eskimo which Mosul had given her. But Oenone ’s unease was too unsettling for the crude statue to register the way it usually did, bringing forth a warm recollection intrinsic to both of them.

Perhaps there has been an accident on one of the fishing boats,she suggested.

Then the grief should be shared, as is proper.

Yes.

Pernik hides behind a facade of correctness.

Is Eysk available?

One moment.

Syrinx felt the voidhawk’s mind reach out, then Eysk was merging his thoughts with her. Still the same old kindhearted family elder, with that deeper layer of toughness that made him such a shrewd businessman.

Syrinx,he exclaimed happily, we were wondering where you had got to.

Did you think I’d skipped out on you?

Me?he projected mock horror. Not at all. The arrest warrant we had drawn up was a mere precaution.

She laughed. I’ve brought your cases of Norfolk Tears.

How many?

Sixty.

Ah well, my family will be through that lot before the week’s out. Are you coming down tonight?

Yes, if it’s not too late.

Not at all. I’ll have some servitors lined up to unload your flyer by the time you get down.

Fine. Is everything all right on the island?

There was a moment’s hesitation, a thought-flash of bemused incomprehension. Yes. Thank you for asking.

Is Mosul there?

Sex, that’s all you young people think of.

We learn by example. Is he there?

Yes. But I don’t think Clio will welcome an interruption right now.

Is she very pretty?

Yes.he generated an image of a girl’s grinning face, half hidden by long dark hair. She’s bright, too. They are on the point of formalizing the arrangement.

I’m happy for him, for both of them.

Thank you. Don’t tell Mosul I said so, but she’ll make a splendid addition to the family.

That’s nice. I’ll see you in a couple of hours.

I’ll look forward to it. Just remember, Mosul learnt everything he knows from me.

As if I could forget.she broke the contact.

Well?Oenone asked.

I don’t know. Nothing I could put my finger on, but he was definitely stilted.

Shall I ask the other islands?

Goodness, no. I’ll find out what’s troubling them once I’m down. Mosul will tell me, he owes me that much.

Hooked into the flyer’s sensors, Syrinx couldn’t be sure, but Pernik appeared aged somehow. Admittedly it was darkest night, but the towers had a shabby look, almost mouldered. They put her in mind of Earth’s Empire State Building, now carefully preserved in its own dome at the centre of the New York arcology. Structurally sound, but unable to throw off the greying weight of centuries.

Thirty-two years old, and you see everything in such jaded terms, she told herself wearily. Pity that Mosul had formed a permanent attachment, though. He would have made a good father.

She clucked her tongue in self-admonition. But then her mother had conceived two children by the time she was thirty.

There’s always Ruben,Oenone suggested.

It wouldn’t be fair to him, not even to ask. He’d feel obligated to say yes.

I would like you to have a child. You are feeling incomplete. It upsets you. I don’t like that.

I am not feeling incomplete!

You haven’t even prepared any zygotes for my children yet. You should think about these things.

Oh goodness. You’re starting to sound like Mother.

I don’t know how to lie.

Rubbish!

Not to you. And it was you who was thinking of Mosul in that light.

Yes.syrinx stopped trying to argue, it was stupidly blinkered. What would I do without you?

Oenone wrapped her thoughts with a loving embrace, and for a moment Syrinx imagined the flyer’s ion field had leaked inside the cabin, filling it with golden haze.

They landed on one of the pads in the commercial section. The electrophorescent-cell ridge around the metal grid shone with a strong pink radiance. Few of the accommodation tower windows were lit.

It looks like they’re in mourning,syrinx said to Oxley in singular engagement mode as she walked down the aluminium stair. They had flown down alone so that the little flyer could carry more cargo, but it was still going to take three trips to bring all sixty cases down.

Yes.he glanced about, frowning. There aren’t many fishing boats in dock, either.

Eysk and Mosul walked out of the shadows beyond the ridge.

Syrinx forgot everything else as Mosul sent out a burst of rapturous greeting, mingled with mischievously erotic subliminals.

She put her arms around him and enjoyed a long kiss.

I’d like to meet her,she told him. Lucky thing that she is.

You shall.

They stood about on the pad, chatting idly, as the island’s lizard-skinned housechimps unloaded the first batch of cases under Oxley’s careful direction and stacked them on a processor-controlled flat-top trolley. When all eighteen cases were on, the drone trundled off towards one of the low warehouse domes ringing the park.

Do you want me to bring the rest down tonight?oxley asked.

Please,eysk said. I have already organized sales with other families.

The pilot nodded, winked at Syrinx, who was still standing with Mosul’s arm around her shoulder, and went back into the flyer. Sitting in the command seat he linked his mind with the controlling processor array.

Something was affecting the coherent magnetic-field generation. It took a long time to form, and he had to bring compensator programs on-line. By the time he finally lifted from the pad the fusion generator was operating alarmingly close to maximum capacity.

He almost turned back there and then. But once he rose above a hundred metres the field stabilized rapidly. He had to cut the power levels back. Diagnostic programs reported the systems were all functioning flawlessly.

With a quick curse directed at all Kulu-produced machinery, he ordered the flight computer to design an orbital-injection trajectory that would bring him to a rendezvous with Oenone.

See you in three hours,syrinx called as the sparkling artificial comet performed a tight curve around the accommodation towers before soaring up into the night sky.

Three hours!oxley let his groan filter back down the affinity link.

You’re professionals. You can handle it.

He put the flyer into a steep climb. One thing about an oceanic world, there was no worry about supersonic-boom footprints stomping all over civic areas. He was doing Mach two by the time he was fifteen kilometres away.

Pernik vanished from his affinity perception. Ordinarily a contact would simply fade with distance until it was no more. But this was different, like steel shutters slamming into place. Oxley was over a hundred and fifty years old, in his time he’d visited almost ninety per cent of the Confederation, and he had never known an Edenist habitat to react in such a manner. It was alien to the whole creed of consensual unity.

He switched in the aft sensors. A luminous red pearl haunted the horizon, sending shimmer-spears of light dancing across the black water.

“What is . . .” The words dried up at the back of his throat.

Pernik?he demanded. Pernik, what is going on? What is that light?

The silence was total. There wasn’t the slightest trace of the personality’s thoughts left anywhere in the affinity band.

Syrinx?

Nothing.

Oenone, something’s happening on Pernik, can you reach Syrinx?

She is there,the worried voidhawk answered. But I cannot converse with her. Something is interfering.

Oh, heavens.he banked the flyer round, heading back for the island.

Affinity broadened out from the single tenuous thread to the orbiting voidhawk, offering him the support of innumerable minds combining into a homogenized entity, buoying him up on a tide of intellect. He wasn’t alone, and he wasn’t anxious any more. Doubts and personal fears bled away, exchanged for confidence and determination, a much-needed reinforcement of his embattled psyche. For a moment, flying over the gargantuan ocean in a tiny machine, he had been horribly lonely; now his kind had joined him, from the eager honoured enthusiasms of sixteen-year-olds up to the glacial thoughts of the islands themselves. He felt like a child again, comforted by the loving arms of an adult, wiser and stronger. It was a reconfirmation of Edenism which left him profoundly grateful for the mere privilege of belonging.

This is Thalia Island, Oxley, we are aware of Pernik’s withdrawal from affinity and we are summoning a planetary consensus to deal with the problem.

That red lighting effect has me worried,he replied. The flyer had dropped below subsonic again. Pernik gleamed a sickly vermilion eight kilometres away.

Around the planet, consensus finalized, bringing together every sentient entity in an affinity union orchestrated by the islands. Information, such as it had, was reviewed, opinions formed, discussed, discarded, or elaborated. Two seconds after considering the problem the consensus said: We believe it to be Laton. A ship of the same class as the Yaku arrived last night and sent a spaceplane down to the island. From that time onward Pernik’s communication has declined by sixty per cent.

Laton?the appalled question came from Oenone and its crew.

Yes.the atlantean consensus summarized the information that had been delivered by a voidhawk two days earlier. As we have no orbital stations our checks on arriving ships were naturally less than ideal, depending solely on civil traffic control satellite-platform sensors. The ship has of course departed, but the spaceplane remained. Pernik and its population must have been sequestrated by the energy virus.

Oh no,oxley cried brokenly. Not him. Not again.

Ahead of him, Pernik issued a brilliant golden light, as though sunrise had come to the ocean. The flyer gave a violent lurch to starboard, and began to lose height.

Syrinx watched the little flyer disappear into the east. The night air was cooler than she remembered from her last visit, bringing up goosebumps below her ship-tunic. Mosul, who was dressed in a baggy sleeveless sweatshirt and shorts, seemed completely unaffected. She eyed him with a degree of annoyance. Macho outdoors type.

This Clio was a lucky woman.

Come along,eysk said. The family is dying to meet you again. You can tell the youngsters what Norfolk was like.

I’d love to.

Mosul’s arm tightened that bit extra round her shoulder as they headed for the nearest tower. Almost proprietary, she thought.

Mosul,she asked on singular engagement, what’s wrong down here? You all seem so tense.it was a struggle to convey the emotional weight she wanted.

Nothing is wrong.he smiled as they passed under the archway at the foot of the tower.

She stared at him, dumbfounded. He had answered on the general affinity band, an extraordinary breach of protocol.

Mosul caught her expression, and sent a wordless query.

This is . . .she began. Then her thoughts flared in alarm. Oenone , she couldn’t perceive Oenone ! “Mosul! It’s gone. No, wait. I can feel it, just. Mosul, something is trying to block affinity.”

“Are they?” His smile hardened into something which made her jerk away in consternation. “Don’t worry, little Syrinx. Delicate, beautiful little Syrinx, so far from home. All alone. But we treasure you for the gift you bring. We are going to welcome you into a brotherhood infinitely superior to Edenism.”

She spun round, ready to run. But there were five men standing behind her. One of them—she gasped—his head had grown until it was twice the size it should be. His features were a gross caricature, cheeks deep and lined, eyes wide and avian; his nose was huge, coming to a knife edge that hung below his black lips, both ears were pointed, rising above the top of his skull.

“What are you?” she hissed.

“Don’t mind old Kincaid,” Mosul said. “Our resident troll.”

It was getting lighter, the kind of liquid redness creeping across the island’s polyp which she associated with Duchess-night on Norfolk. Her legs began to shake. It was shameful, but she was so alone. Never before had she been denied the community of thoughts that was the wonder of Edenism. Oenone!the desperate shout crashed around the confines of her own skull. Oenone , my love. Help me!

There was an answer. Not coherent, nothing she could perceive, decipher. But somewhere on the other side of the blood-veiled sky the voidhawk cried in equal anguish.

“Come, Syrinx,” Mosul said. He held out his hand. “Come with us.”

It wasn’t Mosul. She knew that now.

“Never.”

“So brave,” he said pityingly. “So foolish.”

She was physically strong, her genes gave her that much. But there were seven of them. They half carried, half pushed her onwards.

The walls became strange. No longer polyp but stone. Big cubes hewn from some woodland granite quarry; and old, the age she thought she had seen on the approach flight. Water leaked from the lime-encrusted mortar, sliming the stone.

They descended a spiral stair which grew narrower until only one of them could march beside her. Syrinx’s ship-tunic sleeve was soon streaked with water and coffee-coloured fungus. She knew it wasn’t real, that it couldn’t be happening. There was no “down” in an Atlantean island. Only the sea. But her feet slipped on the worn steps, and her calves ached.

There was no red glow in the bowels of the island. Flaming torches in black iron brands lighted their way. Their acrid smoke made her eyes water.

The stairway came out onto a short corridor. A sturdy oak door was flung open, and Syrinx shoved through. Inside was a medieval torture chamber.

A wooden rack took up the centre of the room; iron chains wound round wheels at each end, manacles open and waiting. A brazier in one corner was sending out waves of heat from its radiant coals. Long slender metal instruments were plunged into it, metal sharing the furnace glow.

The torturer himself was a huge fat man in a leather jerkin. Rolls of hairy flesh spilled over his waistband. He stood beside the brazier, cursing the slender young woman who was bent over a pair of bellows.

“This is Clio,” Mosul’s stolen body said. “You did say you wanted to meet her.”

The woman turned, and laughed at Syrinx.

“What is the point?” Syrinx asked weakly. Her voice was very close to cracking.

“This is in your honour,” the torturer said. His voice was a deep bass, but soft, almost purring. “You, we shall have to be very careful with. For you come bearing a great gift. I don’t want to damage it.”

“What gift?”

“The living starship. These other mechanical devices for sailing the night gulf are difficult for us to employ. But your craft has elegance and grace. Once we have you, we have it. We can bring our crusade to new worlds with ease after that.”

FLEE! Flee, Oenone . Flee this dreadful world, my love. And never come back.

“Oh, Syrinx.” Mosul’s handsome face wore the old sympathetic expression she remembered from such a time long ago now. “We have taken affinity from you. We have sent Oxley away. We have taken everybody from you. You are alone but for us. And believe me, we know what being alone does to an Edenist.”

“Fool,” she sneered. “That wasn’t affinity, it is love which binds us.”

“And we shall love the Oenone too,” a musical chorus spoke to her.

She refused to show any hint of surprise. “Oenone will never love you.”

“In time all things become possible,” the witching chorus sang. “For are we not come?”

“Never,” she said.

The corpulent paws of Kincaid the troll tightened around her arms.

Syrinx closed her eyes as she was forced towards the rack. This is not happening therefore I can feel no pain. This is not happening therefore I can feel no pain. Believe it!

Hands tore at the collar of her ship-tunic, ripping the fabric. Hot rancid air prickled her skin.

This is NOT happening therefore I can feel no pain. Not not not—

Ruben sat at his console station in Oenone’s bridge along with the rest of the crew. There were only two empty seats. Empty and accusing.

I should have gone down with her, Ruben thought. Maybe if I could have provided everything she needed from life she wouldn’t have gone running to Mosul in the first place.

We all share guilt, Ruben,the atlantean consensus said. And ours is by far the larger failing for letting Laton come to this world. Your only crime is to love her.

And fail her.

No. We are all responsible for ourselves. She knows that as well as you do. All individuals can ever do is share happiness wherever they can find it.

We’re all ships that pass in the night?

Ultimately, yes.

Consensus was so large, so replete with wisdom, he found it easy to believe. An essential component of the quiddity.

She is in trouble down there,he said. Frightened, alone. Edenists shouldn’t be alone.

I am with her,Oenone said. She can feel me even though we cannot converse.

We are doing what we can,the consensus said. But this is not a world equipped for warfare.

The part of Ruben which had joined with the consensus was suddenly aware of Pernik igniting to solar splendour—and he was sitting strapped into a metal flea that spun and tossed erratically as it fell from the sky.

SYRINX!Oenone cried. Syrinx. Syrinx. Syrinx. Syrinx. Syrinx.

The voidhawk’s affinity voice was a thunderclap roar howling through the minds of its crew. Ruben thought he would surely be deafened. Serina sat with her mouth gaping wide, hands clamped over her ears, tears streaming down her face.

Oenone, restrain yourself,the consensus demanded.

But the voidhawk was beyond reason. It could feel its captain’s pain, her hopelessness as the white-hot metal seared into her flesh with brutal intricate skill while in her heart she thought of nothing but their love. Lost in helpless rage its distortion effect twisted and churned like a frenzied captured beast pummelling at its cage bars.

Gravity rammed Ruben down into his seat, then swung severely. His arms outside the webbing were sucked up towards the ceiling, their weight quadrupling. Oenone was tumbling madly, its energy patterning cells sending out vast random surges of power.

Tula was yelling at the voidhawk to stop. Loose pieces of junk were hurtling round the bridge—cups and plastic meal trays, a jacket, cutlery, several circuit wafers. Gravity was fluctuating worse than a roller-coaster ride. One moment they appeared to be hanging upside-down, the next they were at right angles, and always weighing too much. A spinning circuit wafer sliced past Edwin, nicking his cheek. Blood squirted out.

Ruben could just make out the calls of the other voidhawks in orbit above Atlantis, trying to calm their rampant cousin. They all started to alter course for a rendezvous. Together their distortion fields could probably nullify Oenone ’s supercharged flailings.

Then the most violent convulsion of all kicked the crew toroid. Ruben actually heard the walls give a warning creak. One of the consoles buckled, big skinlike creases appearing in its composite sides as it concertinaed down towards the decking. Coolant fluid and sparks burst out of the cracks. He must have blacked out for a second.

Gravity was at a forty-degree angle to the horizontal when he came to, and holding steady.

I’m coming. I’m coming. I’m coming,Oenone was braying.

Horrified, Ruben linked into the voidhawk’s sensor blisters. They were heading down towards Atlantis at two and a half gees. Reaction to the berserker power thundering through the energy patterning cells made the muscles in his arms and legs bunch like hot ropes.

Fast-moving specks were rising above the hazy blue-white horizon, skimming over the atomic fog of the thermosphere like flat stones flung across a placid sea. The other voidhawks: their calls redoubled in urgency. But Oenone was immune to them, to the Atlantean consensus’ imperious orders. Rushing to help its beloved.

They’re too far away, Ruben realized in dismay, they won’t reach us in time.

The consensus relaxed its contact with Oxley, allowing him complete independence to pilot the floundering flyer, letting his instinct and skill attempt to right the craft unencumbered. He shot order after order into the bitek processors, receiving a stream of systems information in return. The coherent magnetic generators were failing, databuses were glitched, the fusion generator was powering down, electron-matrix crystal power reserves were dropping. Whatever electronic warfare techniques Pernik had, they were the best he had ever encountered, and they were trying to kill him.

He concentrated on the few control channels which remained operational, reducing the spin and flattening out the dive. The faltering magnetic fields squeezed and pushed at glowing ion streams, countering the corkscrew trajectory. Black ocean and lustrous island chased each other round the sensor images at a decreasing rate.

There was no panic. He treated it as though it was just another simulation run. An exercise in logic and competence set by the CAB to try and trip him.

At the back of his mind he was aware of further pandemonium breaking out amid the consensus. A ghost image lying across the flyer’s sensor input visualization showed him Oenone plummeting towards the planet.

With only a kilometre of altitude left the flyer lost its spin. The nose was dangerously low. He poured the final power reserves into raising it, using the craft’s ellipsoid surface as a blunt wing, gaining a degree of lift in an attempt to glide-curve away from the island. Distance was his only chance of salvation now. Streaks of reflected starlight blurred on the sable water below, growing closer. There was no sign of the electronic warfare assault abating.

Pernik’s resplendent silhouette winked out. Silence detonated into the affinity consensus, absorbing the entire planet’s mental voice.

Into the emptiness came a single devastating identity trait.

Your attention, please,laton said. We don’t have much time. Oenone , resume your orbit now.

The flyer’s crashed systems abruptly sprang back into zealous life. And a shock-numbed Oxley was pressed deep into his seat as it vaulted back into the sky.

Lewis Sinclair watched keenly as the torturer manipulated Syrinx’s mangled leg with a pair of ruddy glowing tongs and a mallet. She wasn’t screaming so loudly now. The fight was going out of her. But not the spirit, he suspected. She was one tough lady. He had seen the type before back in Messopia; cops mainly, the special forces mob, hard-eyed and dedicated. A pusher Lewis worked for had captured one once, and it didn’t matter what was done to the man, they couldn’t get him to tell them anything.

Lewis didn’t think the possessed were going to gain control of the voidhawk through Syrinx. But he didn’t say anything, let them sweat it. It wasn’t so much his problem, possessing the island gave him a measure of security a mere human body could never offer. The range of physical sensations and experiences available to him was truly astonishing.

The sensitive cells woven through the polyp were fantastically receptive; people with their mundane eyes and ears and nose were almost insensate by comparison. His consciousness roved at random through the huge structure, tasting and sampling. He was getting the hang of splitting himself into multiples, supervising a dozen actions at once.

Syrinx groaned again as the souls from beyond sang into her mind with their strange icy promises. And Lewis saw a girl standing at the back of the dungeon. The quake her presence sent through his psyche perceptibly rocked the entire island, as though it had ridden over a tidal wave. It was her! The girl from Messopia, Thérèse, the one he’d fought and died over.

Thérèse was tall for thirteen, skinny, with breasts that had been pushed into maturity by a course of tailored growth hormones. Long raven hair, brown eyes, and a pretty, juvenile face with just the right amount of cuteness; everybody’s girl next door. She was wearing black leather shorts to show off her tight little arse, and her breasts were almost falling out of a scarlet halter top. Her pose was indolent, chewing at her gum, one hand on her hip.

Where the hell did she come from?lewis asked.

What?the possessed eysk asked.

Her. Thérèse. There, behind you.

Eysk turned round, then frowned angrily at the ceiling. Very funny. Now fuck off.

But—

Thérèse gave a bored sigh and sauntered out of the dungeon.

Can’t you see her?

None of them answered him. He knew she was real, he could hear her clicking walk, feel the weight of her black stilettos on his polyp, olfactory cells picked up the sugary whiff of gum on her exhaled breath. She walked away from the dungeon, down a long corridor. For some reason it was difficult to keep his perception focused on her. She was only walking, but she seemed to be moving so fast. He barely noticed as the polyp of the corridor gave way to concrete. The light became a harsh electric yellow coming from bulbs on the ceiling, each one cupped by a protective wire cage. She hurried on ahead of him, feet sending out that regular click click click as her stilettos rapped the ground. His filthy jeans restricted his movements, clinging to his legs as he trailed after her. The air was cooler here, he could see his breath emerging as white streamers.

Thérèse slipped through a big set of grey-painted metal doors ahead. Lewis followed her into the empty subterranean warehouse in Messopia five hundred and fifty years ago. He gagged. It was a square chamber, sixty metres to a side, twenty metres high, rough poured concrete ribbed with steel beams coated in red-oxide paint. Striplights cast a feeble moon-white glow from on high. As before, leaking sewage pipes dripped rank liquids onto the floor.

She stood in the middle of the floor, looking at him expectantly.

He glanced down, seeing his body for the first time. “Oh no,” he said in a desperate voice. “This isn’t happening.”

Loud, positive footsteps sounded from the far end of the warehouse. Lewis didn’t wait to see who was emerging from the gloom, he spun round. There was no door any more, just a concrete wall. “Jesus Almighty. Fuck!”

“Hello, Lewis.”

His body was compelled to turn, leg muscles working like dead meat fired by a cattle prod. He bit hard on his trembling lip.

Thérèse had gone. The person walking towards him was the body he had possessed on Lalonde.

“You’re dead,” Lewis whispered through a fear-knotted throat.

Laton merely smiled his superior smile. “Of all the people resident in this universe today, Lewis, you should know there is no such thing as death.”

“I’m in charge here,” Lewis yelled. “I am Pernik.” He tried to fling the white fire, to conjure up energistic devastation, to flay the zombie to its stinking corrupt bones and beyond.

Laton halted five metres away. “You were Pernik. I told you once that we would meet again as equals. I lied. You cannot even begin to conceive the processes involved in your manifestation within this universe. You are a Neanderthal out of time, Lewis. You believed brute force was the key to conquest. Yet you failed to even think about the source of your energistic power. I know, I’ve been analysing your tiresomely sluggish thoughts ever since you possessed my body.”

“What have you done to me?”

“Done? Why, Lewis, I have made you a part of me. Possession of the possessor. It is possible given the right circumstances. In this case I simply corrupted Pernik’s neural stratum with my biological weapon. The neuron cells and nerve paths only conduct my thought impulses now. You can kill the cells, but you can’t subvert them. It’s a question of coding, you see. I know the codes, you don’t. And please don’t ask me for them, Lewis, it’s nothing as simple as a number. You now operate only as a subsidiary part of me, you only think because I allow you to. That is how I summoned you here.”

“I think because I am! I have been me for centuries, you bastard.”

“And were you to go back there to the beyond, you would be you again. Free and independent. Do you want to go, Lewis? That is your escape from my bondage. In this universe you require a physical, living biological matrix in which to function. You may depart now if you wish.”

A weight pulled at Lewis’s belt. When he looked down he saw it was the power-blade knife hanging in its sheath. “No.” He shook his head feebly, quailing at the prospect. “No, I won’t. That’s what you want. Without me Pernik would be free again. I’m going to stop that, I’m going to beat you.”

“Don’t flatter yourself, Lewis. I will never allow you to resume your barbaric act of sodomy. You think of yourself as strong, as purposeful. You are entirely incorrect. You and the other returners have a nebulous plan to re-establish yourselves permanently in this physical universe. You do so because of your own quite pathetic psychological weaknesses.”

Lewis snarled at his tall tormentor. “So fucking smart, aren’t you. Let’s see what you’re like after a hundred fucking years of nothing; no food, no breathing, no touch, just fucking nothing. You’ll be begging to join us, shithead.”

“Really?” Laton’s smile no longer contained even a vestige of humour. “Think what you are, Lewis. Think what all the returners are. Then ask yourself, where is the rest of the human race? The hundreds of billions who have died since the day our ancestors first struck two flints together, from the time we watched the glaciers retreating as we battled with mammoths.”

“They’re with me, billions of them. They’re waiting for their chance. And when they get into this universe they’re gonna come gunning for you, shithead.”

“But they’re not with you in the beyond, Lewis, there are nothing like enough souls to account for everyone. You cannot lie to me, you are part of me. I know. They’re not there. Ask yourself who and why, Lewis.”

“Fuck you.” Lewis drew the knife from its scabbard. He thumbed the switch in a smooth motion and the silver blade emitted a dangerous buzz.

“Lewis, kindly behave yourself; this is my perceptual reality, after all.”

Lewis watched the solid blade curve round towards his fingers. He dropped the knife with a yell. It vanished before it reached the floor, making as little fuss as a snowflake landing on water. “What do you want with me?” He raised his clenched fists, knowing that it was all futile. He wanted to pound his knuckles into the concrete.

Laton took another few paces towards him. And Lewis came to realize just how imposing the big Edenist was. It was all he could do not to back away.

“I want to make amends,” Laton said. “At least part way. I doubt I will ever be fully forgiven in this universe, not for my crime. And it was a crime, I admit that now. You see, from you I have learnt how wrong I was before. Immortality is a notion we all grasp at because we can sense that there is continuity beyond death. It is an imperfect realization due to the weakness of the fusion between this continuum and the state of emptiness which follows. So much of our misunderstanding of life is rooted in this, so many wasted opportunities, so much religious claptrap born. I was wholly wrong to try and achieve a physical life extension, when corporeal life is but the start of existence. I was no better than a monkey trying to grasp a hologram banana.”

“You’re mad!” Lewis shouted recklessly. “You’re fucking mad!”

Laton became pitying. “Not mad, but very human. Even in this hiatus state I have emotions. And I have weaknesses. One of them is the desire for revenge. But then you know all about that, don’t you, Lewis? Revenge is a prime motivator; glands or no glands, chemical fury or otherwise. You burnt for it in the empty beyond, revenge on the living for the crime of living.

“Well, now I shall have my revenge for the agonies and degradations you so joyfully submitted my kind to. My kind being the Edenists. For I am one. At the end. Flawed, but proud of them, their silly pride and honour. They are a basically peaceful people, those of Pernik more than most, and you delighted in shattering their sanity. You also destroyed my children, and you revelled in it, Lewis.”

“I still do! I hope it fucking hurt you watching! I hope the memory makes you scream at nights. I want you in pain, you shit, I want you weeping. If I’m part of your memories then you won’t ever be able to forget, I won’t let you.”

“Oh, Lewis, haven’t you learnt anything yet?” Laton drew his own knife from a scabbard he brought into existence. Its wickedly thrumming power-blade was half a metre long. “I’m going to free Syrinx and warn the Atlantean consensus as to the exact nature of the threat they face. However, the remaining possessed do present a slight problem. So I need you to overcome them, Lewis. I shall consume you, completely.”

“Never! I won’t help.”

Laton took a pace forwards. “It isn’t a question of choice. Not on your part.”

Lewis tried to run. Even though he knew it was impossible. The concrete closed in, shrinking the warehouse to the size of a tennis court, a room, a cube five metres across.

“I require control of the energistic spillover, Lewis. The power which comes from colliding continua. For that I must have the you which is you. I must complete my possession.”

“No!” Lewis raised his arms as the blade came whistling down. Once again there was the dreadful grinding sound as bone was pierced and fragmented. A flash of intolerable pain followed by the devastating numbness. His blood spilled onto the floor in great spurts from his elbow stump.

“Goodbye, Lewis. It may be some time before we encounter one another again. But none the less I wish you luck in your search for me.”

Lewis had collapsed twitching into a corner, soles of his boots slipping on his own blood. “Bastard,” he spat through white lips. “Just do it. Get it over with and laugh, you shithead prick sucker.”

“Sorry, Lewis. But like I told you, I shall consume you in your entirety. It’s almost a vampiric process, really—though I expect that particular irony is sadly lost on you. And in order for the transfer to work you must remain conscious for the entire feast.” Laton gave him a lopsided, half-apologetic smile.

The true meaning of what the Edenist was saying finally sank in. Lewis started to scream. He was still screaming when Laton picked up his severed arm and bit into it.

Pernik’s illumination returned to normality with eye-jarring suddenness. The accommodation towers blazed with diamond-blue light from every window, winding pathways through the park were set out by orange fairy lanterns, circular landing pads glowed hotly around the entire rim, the floating quays were like fluorescent roots radiating out into the opaque glassy water.

Oxley thought it looked quite magnificent. So cruelly treacherous, that a creation of such beauty could play host to the most heinous evil.

Land immediately please, Oxley,laton said. I don’t have much time. They are resisting me.

Land?oxley felt his throat snarl up as outrage vied with a shaky form of laugh. Show me where you are, and I’ll come to you, Laton. I’ll be doing around Mach twenty when we embrace. Show yourself!

Don’t be a fool. I am Pernik now.

Where’s Syrinx?

She lives. Oenone will confirm that. But you must pick her up now, she requires urgent medical attention.

Oenone?he sent the querying thought lancing upwards, while at the back of his mind he was aware of Laton delivering a vast quantity of information to the Atlantean consensus.

The voidhawk registered as a subdued jumble of thoughts. It had stopped its crazed descent; now it was rising laboriously up out of the mesosphere, its distortion effect generating barely a tenth of a gee.

Oenone, is she alive?

Yes.

The emotional discharge in the voidhawk’s thought brought tears to his eyes.

Oxley,ruben called, if there’s any chance . . . please.

OK.he studied the island. pinpricks of light were blooming and dying right across it, stars with a lifetime measurable in fractions of a second. It looked quite magical, though he didn’t like to dwell too hard upon what their cause would be.

Consensus, should I go in?

Yes. No other spaceplanes can reach Pernik in time. Trust Laton.

That was it, the universe had finally gone totally insane. Oh, shit. OK, I’m taking the flyer down.

Fires had taken hold in the central park when Oxley piloted the flyer down onto one of the pads. He could see a spaceplane further along the row, wings retracted, lying on its side with its undercarriage struts sticking up in the air and its fuselage cracked open around the midsection. Bodies were sprawled on the polyp around the base of the nearest accommodation tower; most of them looked as though they had been caught in a firestorm, skin blackened, faces unrecognizable, clothes still smoking.

An explosion sounded in the distance, and a ball of orange flame rolled out of a window on the other side of the park.

They are learning,laton said impassively. Grouped together they can ward off my energistic assaults. It won’t do them any good in the long run, of course.

Oxley’s nerves were raw edged. He still thought this was some giant trap. The steel-clad jaws would snap shut any second; conversation might just be the trigger. Where’s Syrinx?

Coming. Open the flyer airlock.

He felt the consensus balance his insecurities with an injection of urbane courage. Somehow he was giving the order to cut the ion field and open the airlock.

Faint shouts and the drawn out screeching of metal under tremendous stress penetrated the cabin. Oxley sniffed the air. Mingled with the brine was a frowsty putrescence which furred the roof of his mouth. With his hand clamped firmly over his nose he made his way aft.

Someone was walking towards the flyer. A giant, three metres tall, hairless, naked skin a frail cream colour, virtually devoid of facial features. It was holding a figure in its outstretched arms.

“Syrinx,” he gasped. He could feel Oenone pushing behind his eyes, desperate to see.

Three-quarters of her body was engulfed by green medical nanonic packages. But even that thick covering couldn’t disguise the terrible damage inflicted on her limbs and torso.

The nanonic packages do not function well in this environment,laton said as the giant mounted the flyer’s airstairs. Once you are airborne their efficiency will recover.

Who did this?

I do not know their names. But I assure you the bodies they possessed have been rendered nonfunctional.

Oxley backed into the cabin, too shaken to offer further comment. Laton must have loaded an order into the flight-control processors, because the front passenger seat hinged open to form a flat couch. It was the one designed for transporting casualty cases. Basic medical monitor and support equipment slid out from recesses in the cabin wall above it.

The giant laid Syrinx down gently, then stood, its head touching the cabin ceiling. Oxley wanted to rush over to her, but all he could do was stare dumbly at the hulking titan. Its blank face crawled as though the skin was boiling. Laton looked down at him.

“Go to the Sol system,” the simulacrum said. “There are superior medical facilities available there in any case. But the Jovian consensus must be informed of the true nature of the threat these returning souls pose to the Confederation; indeed to this whole section of the galaxy. That is your priority now.”

Oxley managed to jerk a nod. “What about you?”

“I will hold the possessed off until you leave Pernik. Then I will begin the great journey.” The big lips pressed together in compassion. “If it is of any comfort, you may tell our kind I am now truly sorry for Jantrit. I was utterly and completely wrong.”

“Yes.”

“I do not ask forgiveness, for it would not be in Edenism’s power to grant. But tell them also that I came good in the end.” The face managed a small, clumsy smile. “That ought to set the cat among the pigeons.”

The giant turned and clumped out of the cabin. When it reached the top of the airlock stairs it lost all cohesion. A huge gout of milky white liquid sloshed down onto the metal grid of the landing pad, splattering the flyer’s landing gear struts.

The flyer was five hundred kilometres from Pernik and travelling at Mach fifteen up through the ionosphere when the end came.

Laton waited until the diminutive craft was beyond any conceivable blast range, then used his all-pervasive control to release every erg of chemical energy stored in the island’s cells simultaneously. It produced an explosion to rival an antimatter planetbuster strike. Several of the tsunami which raced out from the epicentre were powerful enough to traverse the world.

Chapter 07

It was a quiet evening in Harkey’s Bar. Terrance Smith’s bold little fleet had departed the previous day, taking with it a good many regulars. The band audibly lacked enthusiasm, and only five couples were dancing on the floor. Gideon Kavanagh sat at one table; the medical nanonic package preparing his stump for a clone graft was deftly covered by a loose-fitting purple jacket. His companion was a slim twenty-five-year-old girl in a red cocktail dress who giggled a lot. A group of bored waitresses stood at one end of the bar, talking among themselves.

Meyer didn’t mind the apathetic atmosphere for once. There were some nights when he really didn’t feel like maintaining the expected image of combination raconteur, bon viveur, ace pilot, and sex demon—the qualities that independent starship captains were supposed to possess in abundance. He was too old to be keeping up that kind of nonsense.

Leave it to the young ones like Joshua, he thought. Although with Joshua it was hardly an act.

Nor was it always an artificial pose for you,Udat said.

Meyer watched one of the young waitresses swish past the end of the booth, an oriental with blonde hair whose long black skirt was split up to her hips. He didn’t even feel remotely randy, just appreciative of the view. Those days seem to be long gone,he told the blackhawk with an irony that wasn’t entirely insincere.

Cherri Barnes was sitting in the booth with him; the two of them sharing a chilled bottle of imported white Valencay wine. Now there was a woman he felt perfectly comfortable with. Smart, attractive, someone who didn’t feel compelled to talk into any silences, a good crew member too; and they’d been to bed on several occasions over the years. No incompatibility there.

Her company lightens you,Udat proclaimed. That makes me happy.

Oh, well, as long as you’re happy . . .

We need a flight. You are growing restless. I am eager to leave.

We could have gone to Lalonde.

I think not. Such missions do not sit well with you any more.

You’re right. Though Christ knows I would have liked a crack at that bastard Laton. But I suppose that’s something else best left to Joshua and his ilk. Though what he wanted to go for after the money he pulled in on the Norfolk run beats me.

Perhaps he feels he has something to prove.

No. Not Joshua. There’s something odd going on there. And knowing Joshua, money is at the root of it. But no doubt we’ll hear about it in due course. In the meantime the Lalonde mission has left a pleasing shortage of starships docked here. Finding a charter should be relatively easy.

There were those Time Universe charters available. Claudia Dohan specifically wanted blackhawks to deliver the fleks of Graeme Nicholson’s sensevise. Time was of the essence, she said.

Those charters were all rush and effort.

It would have been a challenge.

If I’d wanted my mother as a permanent companion rather than a blackhawk I would never have left home.

I am sorry. I have upset you.

No. It’s this Laton business. It has me worried. Fancy him turning up again after all this time.

The navy will find him.

Yeah. Sure.

“What are you two talking about?” Cherri asked.

“Huh? Oh, sorry,” he grinned sheepishly. “It’s Laton, if you must know. Just thinking of him running round free again . . .”

“You and fifty billion others.” She picked up one of the menu sheets. “Come on, let’s order. I’m starving.”

They chose a chicken dish with side salad, along with a second bottle of wine.

“The trouble is, where can you travel to that’s guaranteed safe?” Meyer said after the waitress departed. “Until the Confederation Navy finds him, the interstellar cargo market is going to be very jumpy. Our insurance rates are going to go through the roof.”

“So shift to data-courier work. That way we don’t have to physically dock with any stations. Alternatively, we just fetch and carry cargo between Edenist habitats.”

He shifted his wineglass about on the table, uncomfortable with the idea. “That’s too much like giving in, letting him win.”

“Well, make up your mind.”

He managed a desultory smile. “I dunno.”

“Captain Meyer?”

He glanced up. A smallish black woman was standing at the end of the booth’s table, dressed in a conservative grey suit; her skin was black enough to make Cherri seem white. He guessed she was in her early sixties. “That’s me.”

“You are the owner of the Udat ?”

“Yes.” If it had been anywhere else but Tranquillity, Meyer would have pegged her as a tax inspector.

“I am Dr Alkad Mzu,” she said. “I wonder if I could sit with you for a moment? I would like to discuss some business.”

“Be my guest.”

He signalled to a waitress for another wineglass, and poured out the last of the bottle when it arrived.

“I require some transportation outsystem,” Alkad said.

“Just for yourself? No cargo?”

“That is correct. Is it a problem?”

“Not for me. But the Udat doesn’t come cheap. In fact, I don’t think we’ve ever carried just one passenger before.”

We haven’t,Udat said.

Meyer quashed a childish grin. “Where do you want to travel? I can probably give you a quote straight away.”

“New California.” She sipped her wine, peering at him over the rim of the glass.

Out of the corner of his eye, Meyer could see Cherri frowning. There were regular commercial flights to the New Californian system from Tranquillity three or four times a week, and more non-scheduled charter flights on top of that. The Laton scare hadn’t stopped any departures yet. He was suddenly very curious about Alkad Mzu.

OK, let’s see how badly she wants to get there. “That would be at least three hundred thousand fuseodollars,” he told her.

“I expected it to be about that,” she replied. “Once we arrive, I may wish to pick up some cargo to carry on to a further destination. Could you supply me with the Udat ’s performance and handling parameters, please?”

“Yes, of course.” He was only slightly mollified. Taking a cargo on somewhere was a viable excuse for an exclusive charter. But why not travel to New California on a regular civil flight, then hire a starship after she arrived? The only reason he could think of was that she specifically wanted a blackhawk. That wasn’t good, not good at all. “But Udat is only available for civil flights,” he stressed the word lightly.

“Naturally,” Alkad Mzu said.

“That’s all right then.” He opened a channel to her neural nanonics and datavised the blackhawk’s handling capacity over.

“What sort of cargo would we pick up?” Cherri asked. “I’m the Udat ’s cargo officer, I may be able to advise on suitability.”

“Medical equipment,” Alkad said. “I have some type-definition files.” She datavised them to Meyer.

The list expanded in his mind, resembling a three-dimensional simulacrum of magnified chip circuitry, with every junction labelled. There seemed to be an awful lot of it. “Fine,” he said, slightly at a loss. “We’ll review it later.” Have to run it through an analysis program, he thought.

“Thank you,” Alkad said. “The journey from New California will be approximately two hundred light-years, if you’d care to work out a quote based on the cargo’s mass and environmental requirements. I will be asking other captains for quotes.”

“We’ll be tough to beat,” he said smoothly.

“Is there any reason why we can’t know where we’re going?” Cherri asked.

“My colleagues and I are still in the preliminary planning stage of the mission. I’d prefer not to say anything more at this time. But I shall certainly inform you of our destination before we leave Tranquillity.” Alkad stood up. “Thank you for your time, Captain. I hope we see each other again. Please datavise your full quote to me at any time.”

“She hardly touched her wine,” Cherri said as the doctor departed.

“Yes,” Meyer said distantly. Five other people were leaving the bar. None of them space industry types. Merchants? But they didn’t look rich enough.

“Are we putting in a formal bid?”

“Good question.”

I would like to visit New California,Udat said hopefully.

We’ve been before. You just want to fly.

I do. It is boring sitting on this ledge.Udat relayed an image of whirling stars as seen from Tranquillity’s docking-ledge, speeded up, always tracing the same circles. The edge of the habitat’s spaceport disk started to grey, then crumbled and broke apart with age.

Meyer grinned. What an imagination you have. I’ll get us a charter soon. That’s a promise.

Good!

“I think we need to know a little bit more about this Mzu woman,” he said out loud. “No way is she on the level.”

“Oh, really?” Cherri cooed; she cocked her head on one side. “You noticed that, did you?”

Ione let go of the image. Her apartment rematerialized around her. Augustine was walking determinedly across the dining-room table towards the remains of the salad she had pushed away, moving at a good fifty centimetres a minute. At the back of her mind she was aware of Alkad Mzu standing in the vestibule of the thirty-first floor of the StMartha starscraper waiting for a lift. There were seven Intelligence agency operatives hanging around in the park-level foyer above her, alerted by their colleagues in Harkey’s Bar. Two of them—a female operative from New Britain, and the second-in-command of the Kulu team—resolutely refused to make eye contact. Strange really. For the last three weeks they had spent most of their off-duty hours in bed together screwing each other into delirious exhaustion.

In my history courses I recall an incident in the twentieth century when the American CIA tried to get rid of a Caribbean island’s Communist president by giving him an exploding cigar,ione said.

Yes?tranquillity asked loyally.

Six hundred years of progress—human style.

Would you like me to inform Meyer that Alkad Mzu will not be granted an exit visa?

Informing him I’ll blow him and the Udat out of existence if he leaves with her would be more to the point. But no, we won’t do anything yet. How many captains has she contacted now?

Sixty-three in the last twenty months.

And every contact follows the same pattern,she mused. A request for a charter fee quote to carry her to a star system, then picking up a cargo to take onwards. But never the same star system; and it was Joshua who was asked to quote for Garissa. Ione tried not to consider the implications of that. It had to be coincidence.

I am sure it is,tranquillity said.

I was leaking. Sorry.

There was never any follow-up to her meeting with Joshua.

No. But what is she doing, I wonder?

I have two possible explanations. First, she is aware of the agency observers—and it would be hard to believe she is not—and she is simply having fun at their expense.

Fun? You call that fun? Threatening to recover the Alchemist?

Her home planet has been annihilated. If the humour is somewhat rough, that is to be expected.

Of course. Go on.

Secondly, she is attempting to produce a range of escape options which exceed the observers’ ability to keep track of. Sixty-three is an excessive number of captains to contact even for a warped game.

But she must know it isn’t possible to confuse you.

Yes.

Strange woman.

A very intelligent woman.

Ione reached over to her discarded plate, and began shredding one of the lettuce leaves. Augustine crooned adoringly as he finally reached the pile of shreds, and started to munch at them.

Is it possible for her to circumvent your observation? Apparently Edenists can induce localized blindspots in their habitats’ perception.

I would say it is extremely unlikely. No Edenist has ever succeeded in evading me, and there were many attempts in your grandfather’s day.

Really?she perked up.

Yes, by their Intelligence agency operatives. All failed. And I acquired some valuable information on the nature of localized circumvention patterns they employed. Fortunately I do not use quite the same thought routines as Edenist habitats, so I am relatively insusceptible. And Alkad Mzu does not have affinity.

Are we sure? She was missing for some time between Garissa’s destruction and turning up here, four years. She could have had neuron symbionts implanted.

She did not. A complete medical body scan is required for health-insurance coverage for all Laymil project staff when they start work. She has neural nanonics, but no affinity symbionts. Nor any other implants, for that matter.

Oh. I’m still unhappy over these continual encounters with starship captains. Perhaps if I had a private word with her . . . explain how upsetting it is.

That might work.

Did Father ever meet her?

No.

I’ll think about what to say then, I don’t want to come over all heavy handed. Perhaps I could invite her for a meal, keep it informal.

Certainly. She always maintains her social propriety.

Good. In the meantime, I’d like you to double the number of serjeants we keep in her immediate vicinity. With Laton running loose in the Confederation, we really don’t want to add to Admiral Aleksandrovich’s troubles right now.

Meyer and Cherri Barnes took a lift up from Harkey’s Bar to the StMartha’s foyer. He walked with her down a flight of stairs to the starscraper’s tube station, and datavised for a carriage.

“Are we going back to the hotel or Udat ?” Cherri asked.

“My hotel flat has a double bed.”

She grinned, and tucked his arm round hers. “Mine too.”

The carriage arrived, and he datavised the control processor to take them to the hotel. There was a slight surge of acceleration as it got under way. Meyer sank deeper into his cushioning; Cherri still hadn’t let go of him.

His neural nanonics informed him a file stored in one of the memory cells was altering. Viral safeguard programs automatically isolated the cell. According to the menu, the file was the cargo list Alkad Mzu had datavised to him.

The viral safeguard programs reported the change had finished; tracer programs probed the file’s new format. It wasn’t hostile. The file had contained a time-delay code which simply re-arranged the order of the existing information into something entirely different. A hidden message.

Meyer accessed the contents.

“Holy shit,” he muttered fifteen seconds later.

Now that would be a real challenge,Udat said excitedly.

Ombey was the newest of Kulu’s eight principality star systems. A Royal Kulu Navy scoutship discovered the one terracompatible planet in 2457, orbiting a hundred and forty-two million kilometres from its G2 star. After an ecological certification team cleared its biosphere as non-harmful, it was declared a Kulu protectorate and opened for immigration by King Lukas in 2470. Unlike other frontier worlds, such as Lalonde, which formed development companies and struggled to raise investment, Ombey was funded entirely by the Kulu Royal Treasury and the Crown-owned Kulu Corporation. Even at the beginning it couldn’t be described as a stage one colony. It couldn’t even be said to have gone through a purely agrarian phase. A stony iron asteroid, Guyana, was manoeuvred into orbit before the first settler arrived, and navy engineers immediately set about converting it into a base. Kulu’s larger astroengineering companies brought industry stations to the system to gain a slice of the military contracts involved, and to take advantage of the huge start-up tax incentives on offer. The Kulu Corporation began a settlement on an asteroid orbiting the gas giant Nonoiut, which assembled a cloudscoop to mine He3 . As always within the Kingdom, the Edenists were excluded from germinating a habitat and building an adjunct cloudscoop, a prohibition rationalized by the Saldanas on religious grounds.

By the time the first wave of farmers arrived, the already substantial government presence produced a large ready-made consumer base for their crops. Healthcare, communications, law enforcement, and didactic education courses, although not quite up to the level of the Kingdom’s more developed planets, were provided from day one. Forty hectares of land were given to each family, along with a generous low-interest loan for housing and agricultural machinery, with the promise of more land for their children. Basic planetary industrialization was given a high priority, and entire factories were imported to provide essentials for the engineering and construction business. Again, government infrastructure contracts provided a massive initial subsidy. The company and civil workers arriving during the second ten-year period was equal to the number of farmers.

In 2500 its population rose above the ten million mark, and it officially lost its protectorate status to become a principality, governed by one of the King’s siblings.

Ombey was a meticulously planned endeavour, only possible to a culture as wealthy as the Kulu Kingdom. The Saldanas considered the investment costs more than worthwhile. Although the Principality didn’t start to show a return for over ninety years, it allowed them to expand their family dynasty as well as their influence, both physical (economic and military) and political, inside the Confederation. It made their position even more secure, although by that time a republican revolution was virtually impossible. And it was all done without conflict or opposition with neighbouring star systems.

By 2611 there were twelve settled asteroids in orbit and two more on their way. Planetary population was a fraction under two hundred million, and the twelve settled asteroids in the system’s dense inner belt were home to another two million people. Subsidies and loans from Kulu had long since ended, self-sufficiency both industrially and economically had been reached in 2545, exports were accelerating. Ombey was a thriving decent place to live, bristling with justified optimism.

Captain Farrah Montgomery had expected the flight from Lalonde to take four days. By the time the Ekwan finally jumped into the Ombey system, emerging two hundred thousand kilometres above the planet’s surface, they had been in transit for eight. The big colonist-carrier had endured a multitude of irritating systems failures right from the very first minute of getting underway. Mechanical components had broken down, electrical circuits suffered a rash of surges and drop-outs. Her crew had been harried into short-tempered despair as they attempted patchwork repairs. Most worrying, the main fusion tubes produced erratic thrust levels, adding to the difficulty of reaching plotted jump coordinates, and increasing the flight duration drastically.

Fuel levels, while not yet critical, were uncomfortably low.

Sensors slid out of their jump recesses, and Captain Montgomery performed a preliminary visual orientation sweep. Ombey’s solitary moon, Jethro, was rising above the horizon, a large grey-yellow globe peppered with small deep craters, and streaked with long white rays. They were above the planet’s night side; the Blackdust desert continent straddling the equator was a huge ebony patch amid oceans that reflected jaundiced moonlight. On the eastern side of the planet the coastline of the Espartan continent was picked out by the purple-white lights of towns and cities; there were fewer urban sprawls in the interior, declining to zero at the central mountain range.

After Captain Montgomery had cleared their arrival with civil flight control, Ralph Hiltch contacted the navy base on Guyana, and requested docking permission along with a code four status alert. Ekwan closed on the asteroid at one and a quarter gravities, holding reasonably steady. The base admiral, Pascoe Farquar, after receiving Ralph’s request, backed by Sir Asquith, authorized the alert. Nonessential personnel were cleared from the habitation cavern the navy used. Commercial traffic was turned away. Xenobiology, nanonic, and weapons specialists began to assemble an isolation confinement area for Gerald Skibbow.

The Ekwan docked at Guyana’s non-rotating spaceport amid a tight security cordon. Royal Marines and port personnel worked a straight five-hour shift to bring the Ekwan ’s three thousand grumbling, bewildered colonists out of zero-tau and assign them quarters in the navy barracks. Ralph Hiltch and Sir Asquith spent most of that time in conference with Pascoe Farquar and his staff. After he accessed sensorium recordings Dean Folan made during the jungle mission, as well as the garbled reports of Darcy and Lori claiming Laton was on Lalonde, the admiral decided to raise the alert status to code three.

Ralph Hiltch watched the last of the fifty armour-suited marines floating into the Ekwan ’s large zero-tau compartment. They were all muscle boosted and qualified in free fall combat routines; eight of them carried medium-calibre automatic recoilless projectile carbines. The sergeants followed Cathal Fitzgerald’s directions and started positioning them in three concentric circles surrounding Gerald Skibbow’s zero-tau pod, with five on the decks either side in case he broke through the metal grids. Extra lights had been attached to the nearby support girders, beams focused on the one pod in the compartment which was still encased by an absorptive blackness, casting a weird jumble of multiple shadows outside the encircling ring of marines.

Ralph’s neural nanonics were relaying the scene to the admiral and the waiting specialists. It made him slightly self-conscious as he anchored himself to a girder to address the marine squad.

“This might look excessive for one man,” he said to the marines, “but don’t drop your guard for an instant. We’re not entirely sure he is human, certainly he has some lethal energy-projecting abilities that come outside anything we’ve encountered before. If it’s any comfort, free fall does seem to unnerve him slightly. Your job is just to escort him down to the isolation area that’s been prepared. Once he’s there, the technical people will take over. They think the cell they’ve prepared will be able to confine him. But getting him there could get very messy.”

He backed away from the pod, noting the half-apprehensive faces of the first rank of marines.

God, they look young. I hope to hell they took my warning seriously.

He checked his own skull-helmet, and took a deep breath. “OK, Cathal, switch it off.”

The blackness vanished from the pod revealing the smooth cylindrical composite sarcophagus. Ralph strained to hear the manic battering which Skibbow had been giving the pod before the zero-tau silenced him. The compartment was quiet apart from the occasional scuffling of the marines as they craned for a glimpse.

“Open the lid.”

It began to slide back. Ralph braced himself for Skibbow to burst out of the opening like a runaway combat wasp with a forty-gee drive. He heard a wretched whimpering sound. Cathal gave him a puzzled glance.

God, did we get the right pod?

“All right, stay back,” Ralph said. “You two,” he indicated the marines with the carbines, “cover me.” He pulled himself cautiously across the grid towards the pod, still expecting Skibbow to spring up. The whimpering grew louder, interspersed with low groans.

Very, very carefully, Ralph eased himself up the side of the pod, and peeked in. Ready to duck down fast.

Gerald Skibbow was floating listlessly inside the curving cream-white composite coffin. His whole body was trembling. He clutched his shattered hand to his chest. Both eyes were red rimmed, blood was still oozing from his mashed nose. The smell of jungle mud and urine clogged in Ralph’s nose.

Gerald continued his weak gurglings, bubbles of saliva forming at the corner of his mouth. When Ralph manoeuvred himself right over the pod there was no reaction from the unfocused eyes.

“Shit.”

“What’s happened?” Admiral Farquar datavised.

“I don’t know, sir. It’s Skibbow all right. But it looks like he’s gone into some kind of shock.” He waved a hand in front of the colonist’s filthy, bloody face. “He’s virtually catatonic.”

“Is he still dangerous, do you think?”

“I don’t see how he could be, unless he recovers.”

“All right, Hiltch. Have the marines take him down to the isolation area as quickly as possible. I’ll have an emergency medical team there by the time you arrive.”

“Yes, sir.” Ralph pushed himself away, allowing three marines to pull the still unresisting Skibbow from the zero-tau pod. His neural nanonics informed him the asteroid was being stood down to code six status.

I don’t understand, he thought bleakly, we brought a walking nuke on board, and wind up with a pants-wetting vegetable. Something wiped that sequestration from him. What?

The marine squad departed the compartment noisily, joking and catcalling. Relieved they hadn’t been needed after all. With one hand holding idly on a girder, Ralph hung between the two decking grids long after the last of them left, staring at the zero-tau pod.

Three hours after Guyana’s alert status was reduced to code six, life inside had almost returned to normal. Civilians with jobs in the military-run cavern were allowed to resume their duties. Restrictions on communication and travel were lifted from the other two caverns. Spaceships were permitted to dock and depart, although the spaceport where the Ekwan was berthed was still off-limits to anything but navy ships.

Three and a half hours after the marines delivered a virtually comatose Gerald Skibbow to the isolation cell, Captain Farrah Montgomery walked into the small office Time Universe maintained on Guyana and handed over Graeme Nicholson’s flek.

It was an hour after the maids had served Cricklade’s breakfast, and Duke was already rising across a sky that was ribbed with slender bands of flimsy cloud. Duchess-night had seen the first sprinkling of rain since the midsummer conjunction. The fields and forests glimmered and shone under their glace coating of water. Aboriginal flowers, reduced to wizened brown coronets after discharging their seeds, turned to a pulpy mess and started to rot away. Best of all, the dust had gone from the air. Cricklade’s estate labourers had started their morning in a cheerful mood at the omen. Rain this early meant the second crop of cereals should produce a good heavy harvest.

Louise Kavanagh didn’t care about the rain, nor the prospect of an impending agricultural bounty. Not even Genevieve’s playful enthusiasm could summon her for their usual stroll in the paddock. Instead, she sat on the toilet in her private bathroom with her panties round her ankles and her head in her hands. Her long hair hung lankly, tasselled ends brushing her shiny blue shoes. It was stupid to have hair so long, she thought, stupid, snobbish, impractical, a waste of time, and insulting.

Why should I have to be preened and groomed like I’m a pedigree show horse? It’s a wicked, filthy tradition treating women like that. Just so that I look the classic-beauty part for some ghastly clot-head young “gentleman’. What do looks matter, and especially looks that come from a pseudo-mythical past on another planet? I already have my man.

She clenched her stomach muscles again, squeezing her guts hard as she held her breath. Her nails dug into her palms painfully with the effort. Her head started to shake, skin reddening.

It didn’t make the slightest difference. She let the air out of her straining lungs in a fraught sob.

Angry now, she squeezed again. Let out her breath.

Squeezed.

Nothing.

She wanted to cry. Her shoulders were shivering, she even had the hot blotches round her eyes, but there were no tears left. She was all cried out.

Her period was at least five days overdue. And she was so regular.

She was pregnant with Joshua’s baby. It was wonderful. It was horrible. It was . . . a wretched great mess.

“Please, Jesus,” she whispered. “What we did wasn’t really a sin. It wasn’t. I love him so. I really do. Don’t let this happen to me. Please.”

There was nothing in the world she wanted more than to have Joshua’s baby. But not now . Joshua himself still seemed like a gorgeous fantasy she had made up to amuse herself during the long hot months of Norfolk’s quiescent summer. Too perfect to be real, the kind of man who melted her inside even as he set her on fire with passion. A passion she didn’t quite know she had before. Previous daydreams of romance had all sort of blurred into vague unknowns after her tall, handsome champion kissed her. But lying in bed at night the memory of Joshua’s cunning hands exploring her naked body brought some most unladylike flushes below the sheets. There hadn’t been a day gone by when she didn’t visit their little glade in Wardley Wood, and the smell of dry hay always kindled a secret glow of arousal as she thought of their last time together in the stable.

“Please, my Lord Jesus.”

Last year one of the girls at the convent school, a year older than Louise, had moved away from the district rather abruptly. She was from one of Stoke County’s more important families, her father was a landowner who had sat on the local council for over a decade. Gone to stay with a wealthy sheep-farming relative on the isle of Cumbria, the Mother Superior had told the other pupils, where she will learn the practical aspects of house management which will adequately prepare her for the role of marriage. But everyone knew the real reason. One of the Romany lads, in Stoke for the rose crop, had tumbled her in his caravan. The girl’s family had been more or less shunned by decent folk after that, and her father had to resign his council seat, saying it was due to ill health.

Not that anyone would dare do that to any branch of the Kavanagh family. But the whispers would start if she took a sudden holiday; the tarnish of shame would never be lifted from Cricklade. And Mummy would cry because her daughter had let her down frightfully badly. And Daddy would . . . Louise didn’t like to think what her father would do.

No! she told herself firmly. Stop thinking like that. Nothing terrible is going to happen.

“You know I’m coming back,” Joshua had told her as they lay entwined by the side of the sun-blessed stream. And he said he loved her.

He would return. He promised .

Everything would be all right after that. Joshua was the one person in the galaxy who could face up to her father unafraid. Yes, everything would be fine just as soon as he arrived.

Louise brushed her—fearsomely annoying—hair from her face, and slowly stood up. When she looked in the mirror she was an utter ruin. She started to tidy herself up, pulling up her panties, splashing cold water on her face. Her light flower-pattern dress with its long skirt was badly creased. Why couldn’t she wear trousers, or even shorts? She could just imagine Nanny’s reaction to that innocent suggestion. Legs on public display? Good grief! But it would be so much more practical in this weather. Lots of the women working in the groves did; girls her age, too. She started to plait her hair. That would be something else which changed after she was married.

Married. She grinned falteringly at her reflection. Joshua was going to be in for a monumental shock when he returned and she told him the stupendous news. But, ultimately, he would be happy and rejoice with her. How could he not? And they would be married at the end of summer (which was as quick as decency versus a swelling belly could allow), when the Earth flowers were at their peak and the granaries were full from the second harvest. Her bulge probably wouldn’t show, not with an adequately designed dress. Genevieve would adore being chief bridesmaid. There would be huge marquees on the lawns for the reception. Family members she hadn’t seen for years. It would be the biggest celebration in Stoke County for decades, everyone would be happy and they would dance under the neon-red night sky.

People might guess because of the speed. But Joshua was going to be her father’s business partner in this exciting mayope venture. He was rich, of good blood (presumably—how else would he inherit a starship?), a fine manager able to take on Cricklade. An eminently suitable (if unusual) match for the Cricklade heir. Their marriage wouldn’t be that extraordinary. Her reputation would remain intact. And the Kavanaghs’ respectability would remain unblemished.

After the wedding they could travel Norfolk’s islands for their honeymoon. Or maybe even to another planet in his starship. What was important was that she wouldn’t have the baby here, with everyone noting the date of birth.

Real life could match up to her most fantastical daydreams. With a fabulous husband, and a beautiful baby.

If Joshua . . .

Always, if Joshua . . .

Why did it have to be like that?

The lone Romany caravan stood beside a tall Norfolk-aboriginal pine in a meadow which until recently had been a site for more than thirty similar caravans. Rings of flat reddish stones confined piles of ash, cold now. Grass along the bank of the little stream was trampled down where horses and goats had drunk and people had scooped water into pails. Several piles of raw earth marked the latrines, their conical sides scored with fresh runnels, evidence of last Duchess-night’s rain.

The caravan, a hybrid of traditional design riding modern lightweight wheels, had seen more prosperous times. Its jaunty and elaborate paintwork was fading, but the wood was sound. Three goats were tethered to its rear axle. Two horses waited outside, one a mud-spotted piebald shire-horse with a wild shaggy mane which was used to pull the caravan, the other a black riding stallion, its coat sleek and glossy, the expensive leather saddle on its back polished to a gleam.

Grant Kavanagh stood inside the caravan, stooping so he didn’t knock his head on the curving ceiling. It was dark and faintly dusty, smelling of dried herbs. He enjoyed that, it brought back sharp memories of his teenage years. Even now, the sight of the Romany caravans winding their way through Cricklade’s wolds as midsummer approached always made him feel incredibly randy.

The girl pulled back the heavy curtains hanging on a cord across the middle of the caravan. Her name was Carmitha, twenty years old, with a big broad-shouldered body, which, Grant knew with depressing instinct, would be horribly overweight in another six or seven years. Rich black hair hanging below her shoulders harmonized with dark, smooth skin. She had changed into a flimsy white skirt and loose-fitting top.

“That looks fantastic,” he said.

“Why, thank you, kind sir.” She curtsied, and giggled effusively.

Grant drew her closer and started to kiss her. His hands fumbled with the buttons down the front of her blouse.

She pushed him away gently, and removed his hands, kissing the knuckles lightly. “Let me do that for you,” she said coquettishly. Her fingers moved down to the top button in a slow, taunting caress. He looked in delight as her body was exposed. He pulled her down onto the bed, immensely gratified by her ardour.

The caravan squeaked as it started rocking. A hurricane lantern hanging from a brass chain on the ceiling clanged loudly as it swayed gently to and fro. He barely heard it above Carmitha’s exuberant whoops of joy.

After a time which was nowhere near long enough, he came in drastic shudders, his spine singing raptures. Carmitha quickly squealed, claiming multiple orgasms were nearly making her swoon.

He collapsed onto the bed, prickly blankets scratching his back. Dust mingled with sweat and trickled among the curly hair on his chest.

By God but summer conjunction makes life worth living, he thought. A time when he could prove himself again and again. The Tear crop had been one of the best ever; the estate had made its usual financial killing. He had tumbled nearly a dozen young girls from the grove teams. The meteorological reports were predicting a humid month ahead, which meant a good second harvest. Young Joshua’s audacious mayope proposal could only add to the family’s wealth and influence.

The only blot on the horizon was the reports coming out of Boston on the disturbances. It looked like the Democratic Land Union was stirring up trouble again.

The Union was a motley collection of reformists and political agitators, a semi-subversive group who wanted to see land distributed “fairly” among the People, the foreign earnings from the sale of Norfolk Tears invested with social relevance, and full democracy and civil rights awarded to the population. And free beer on Friday nights, too, no doubt, Grant thought caustically. The whole blessing of a Confederation of eight hundred plus planets was that it gave people a massive variety of social systems to choose from. What the Democratic Land Union activists failed to appreciate was that they were free to leave for their damned Communistic workers’ paradise as soon as the workshy little buggers earned enough cash to pay their passage. But oh no, they wanted to liberate Norfolk, no matter how much damage and heartache they caused in the process of peddling their politics of envy.

A chapter of the Democratic Land Union had tried to spread its sedition in Stoke County about ten years ago. Grant had helped the county’s chief constable round them up. The leaders had been deported to a Confederation penal planet. Some of the nastier elements—the ones found with home-made weapons—had been handed over to a squad of special operations constables from the capital, Norwich. The rest, the pitiful street trash who handed out leaflets and drank themselves into a coma on the Union-supplied beer, had been given fifteen years’ hard labour in the polar work gangs.

There hadn’t been sight or sign of them on Kesteven ever since. Some people, he thought sagely, just never learn. If it works, don’t try and fix it. And Norfolk worked.

He kissed the crown of Carmitha’s head. “When do you leave?”

“Tomorrow. Most of my family has already left. There is fruit-picking work in Hurst County. It pays well.”

“And after that?”

“We’ll winter over in Holbeach. There are many deep caves in the cliffs above the town. And some of us get jobs in the harbour market gutting fish.”

“Sounds like a good life. Don’t you ever want to settle down?”

She shrugged, thick hair sloshing about. “Be like you, tied to your cold stone palace? No thanks. There might not be much to see in this world, but I want to see it all.”

“Better make the most of the time we’ve got, then.”

She crawled on top of him, calloused hands closing round his limp penis.

There was a pathetic scratching knock on the caravan’s rear door. “Sir? Are you there, sir?” William Elphinstone asked. The voice was as quavery as the knock.

Grant chopped back on an exasperated groan. No, I’m not in here, that’s why my bloody horse is outside. “What do you want?”

“Sorry to bother you, sir, but there’s an urgent phone call for you at the house. Mr. Butterworth said it was important, it’s from Boston.”

Grant frowned. Butterworth wasn’t going to send anyone after him unless it was genuinely important. The estate manager knew full well what he was up to at a slack time like this. He was also wily enough not to come looking himself.

I wonder what young Elphinstone has done to annoy him, Grant thought irreverently.

“Wait there,” he shouted. “I’ll be with you in a minute.” He deliberately took his time dressing. No damn way was he going to come dashing out of the caravan tucking his shirt into his trousers and give the lad something to tell all the other junior estate managers.

He straightened his tweed riding jacket, smoothed down his muttonchops with his hands, and settled his cap. “How do I look?”

“Masterful,” Carmitha said from the bed.

There was no detectable irony. Grant fished around in his pocket and found two silver guineas. He dropped the gratuity into a big china bowl sitting on a shelf beside the door as he went out.

Louise watched her father and William Elphinstone ride up to the front door. Grooms appeared, and took charge of the horses. From the way the animals were sweating it had been a hard ride. Her father hurried into the house.

Poor old Daddy, always busy.

She strolled over to where William was talking to the grooms, both boys younger than her. He saw her coming and dismissed them. Louise stroked the black stallion’s flank as the big animal was led past her.

“Whatever is all the fuss about?” she asked.

“Some call from Boston. Mr. Butterworth thought it important enough to send me out looking for your father.”

“Oh.” Louise started to move away. Rather annoyingly, William walked in step with her. She wasn’t in the mood for company.

“I’ve been asked to the Newcombes’ bash on Saturday evening,” he said. “I thought it might be rather fun. They’re not quite our people, but they set a decent table. There will be dancing afterwards.”

“That’s nice.” Louise always hated it when William tried to put on graces. “Our people” indeed! She went to school with Mary Newcombe.

“I hoped you would come with me.”

She looked at him in surprise. Eagerness and anxiety squabbled over his face. “Oh, William, that’s jolly nice of you to ask. Thank you. But I really can’t. Sorry.”

“Really can’t?”

“Well, no. The Galfords are coming to dinner on Saturday. I simply must be there.”

“I thought that perhaps now he’s left, you might find more time for my company.”

“Now who’s left?” she asked sharply.

“Your friend, the gallant starship captain.”

“William, you really are talking the most appalling tosh. Now I’ve said I can’t attend the Newcombes’ party with you. Kindly leave the subject.”

He stopped and took hold of her arm. She was too surprised to say anything. People simply did not take such liberties.

“You always found plenty of time for him,” he said in a flat tone.

“William, desist this instant.”

“Every day, it was. The two of you galloping off to Wardley Wood.”

Louise felt the blood rising to her cheeks. What did he know? “Remove your hand from me. Now!”

“You didn’t mind his hands.”

“William!”

He gave her a humourless smile and let go. “I’m not jealous. Don’t get me wrong.”

“There is nothing to be jealous of. Joshua Calvert was a guest and friend of my father’s. That is the end of the matter.”

“Some fiancés would think otherwise.”

“Who?” she squawked.

“Fiancés, my dearest Louise. You must be aware there is some considerable speculation upon whom you are to marry. All I’m saying is that there are some Kesteven families of good breeding, and eligible sons, who would take exception to your . . . shall we call it, indiscretion.”

She slapped him. The sound rang across the lawn as her palm struck his cheek. “How dare you!”

He dabbed at his cheek with the fingers of his right hand, a look of distaste on his face. The imprint of her palm was clearly etched in pink. “What an impetuous creature you are, Louise. I had no idea.”

“Get out of my sight.”

“Of course, if that’s what you wish. But you might like to consider that should word get out, your currently enviable position may well become less than secure. I don’t want to see that happen, Louise, I really don’t. You see, I am genuinely very fond of you. Fond enough to make allowances.”

She seemed utterly incapable of movement, condemned to stand there in front of him, gaping in astonishment. “You . . .” It came out in a crushed gasp. For a distressing instant she thought she was going to faint.

William knelt in front of her.

No, she thought, oh no no no, this can’t be happening. Joshua bloody Calvert, where are you?

“Marry me, Louise. I can obtain your father’s approval, have no fear of that. Marry me, and we can have a wonderful future together here at Cricklade.” He held his hand out, face soft with expectancy.

She drew herself up into the most regal pose she could manage. And very clearly, very calmly said: “I would sooner shovel bullock manure for a living.” One of Joshua’s better expressions, though admittedly not verbatim.

William paled.

She turned on a heel and walked away. Her back held straight.

“This is not the last time we shall pursue this topic,” he called after her. “Believe me, dearest Louise, I will not be defeated in my suit for you.”

Grant Kavanagh sat himself down behind the desk in his study and picked up the phone. His secretary had put a call through to Trevor Clarke, Kesteven’s lord lieutenant. Grant didn’t like the implications of that one jot.

“I need you to bring Stoke’s militia to Boston,” Trevor Clarke said as soon as they had exchanged greetings. “A full turnout, please, Grant.”

“That might be difficult,” Grant said. “This is still a busy time here. The rosegroves need pruning, and there’s the second grain crop to drill. We can hardly take able men from the land.”

“Can’t be helped. I’m calling in all the county militias.”

“All of them?”

“ ’Fraid so, old chap. We’ve blacked it from the news, you understand, but the situation in Boston, frankly, doesn’t look good.”

“What situation? You’re not seriously telling me that bloody Union rabble worries you?”

“Grant . . .” Trevor Clarke’s voice dropped an octave. “Listen, this is totally confidential, but there are already five districts in Boston that have been completely taken over by this mob, rendered ungovernable. We have a state of open insurrection here. If we send the police in to re-establish order they don’t come out again. The city is under martial law, insofar as we can enforce it. I’m worried, Grant.”

“Dear Christ! The Democratic Land Union has done this?”

“We’re not sure. Whoever these insurrectionists are, they seem to be armed with energy weapons. That means offplanet complicity. But it’s hard to believe the Union could ever organize something like that. You know what they’re like, hotheads smashing up tractors and ploughs. Energy weapons break every letter in our constitution; they are everything this society was set up to avoid.”

“An outside force?” Grant Kavanagh could hardly believe what he was hearing.

“It may be. I have asked the Chancellor’s office in Norwich to request the Confederation Navy squadron extends its duty tour. Fortunately the personnel are all still here having their shore leave. The squadron commander is recalling them back up to orbit now.”

“What good is that?”

“The navy starships can make damn sure nothing else is delivered to the insurrectionists from outsystem. And as a last resort they can provide our ground forces with strike power.”

Grant sat perfectly still. Ground forces. Strike power. It was unreal. Through the windows he could see Cricklade’s peaceful wolds, rich and verdant. And here he was calmly talking about virtual civil war. “But God’s teeth, man, this is a city we’re talking about. You can’t use starship weapons against Boston. There are a hundred and twenty thousand people living there.”

“I know,” Trevor Clarke said mordantly. “One of the militia’s major assignments will be to help evacuate the civilians. You will be minimizing casualties, Grant.”

“Have you told the Chancellor what you’re planning? Because if you haven’t, I damn well will.”

There was a silence which lasted for several seconds. “Grant,” Trevor Clarke said gently, “it was the Chancellor’s office that recommended this action to me. It must be done while the insurrectionists are concentrated in one place, before they have a chance to spread their damnable revolution. So many people are joining them. I . . . I never thought there was so much dissatisfaction on the planet. It has to be stopped, and stopped in a way that forbids repetition.”

“Oh, my God,” Grant Kavanagh said brokenly. “All right, Trevor, I understand. I’ll call in the militia captains this afternoon. The regiment will be ready for you by tomorrow.”

“Good man, Grant. I knew I could rely on you. There will be a train to collect you from Colsterworth Station. We’ll billet you in an industrial warehouse outside town. And don’t worry, man, the starships are only a last resort. I expect we’ll only need one small demonstration and they’ll cave in.”

“Yes. I’m sure you’re right.” Grant returned the pearl-handled phone to its cradle, a morbid premonition telling him it could never be that simple.

The train had six passenger carriages, room enough for all of the Stoke county militia’s seven hundred men. It took them twenty-five minutes to embark. The station was a scene of pure chaos; half of the town’s streets were clogged with carts, carriages, buses, and farm-ranger vehicles. Families took a long time saying goodbye. Men were shifty and irritable in their grey uniforms. Complaints about ill-fitting boots rippled up and down the platform.

Louise and Marjorie were pressed against the wall of the station with a pile of kitbags on one side, and olive-green metal ammunition boxes on the other. Some of the boxes had date stamps over ten years old. Three hard-faced men were guarding the ammunition, stumpy black guns cradled in their arms. Louise was beginning to regret coming, Genevieve hadn’t been allowed.

Mr Butterworth, in his sergeant-major’s uniform, marched up and down the platform, ordering people about. The train was gradually filled; work teams began to load the kitbags and ammunition into the first carriage’s mail compartment.

William Elphinstone came down the platform, looking very smart in his lieutenant’s uniform. He stopped in front of them. “Mrs Kavanagh,” he said crisply. “Louise. It looks like we’re off in five minutes.”

“Well, you mind you take great care, William,” Marjorie said.

“Thank you. I will.”

Louise let her gaze wander away with deliberate slowness. William looked slightly put out, but decided this wasn’t the time to make an issue of it. He nodded to Marjorie and marched off.

She turned to her daughter. “Louise, that was extremely rude.”

“Yes, Mother,” Louise said unrepentantly. How typical of William to volunteer even though it wasn’t his militia, she thought. He only did it to be covered in glory, so he would seem even more acceptable to Daddy. And he would never be in the front line sharing the risk with the poor common troops, not him. Joshua would.

Marjorie gave her daughter a close look at the unexpected tone, seeing the sulky stubborn expression on her usually placid face. So Louise doesn’t like William Elphinstone. Can’t say I blame her. But to be so public was totally out of character. Louise’s decorum was always meticulously formal and correct, gratingly so. Suddenly, despite all the worry of Boston, she felt delighted. Her daughter wasn’t the meek-minded little mouse any more. She wanted to cheer out loud. And I wonder what started this episode of independent thinking, though I’ve a pretty shrewd idea. Joshua Calvert, if you laid one finger on her . . .

Grant Kavanagh strode vigorously along the side of the train, making sure his troops were settled and everything was in place. His wife and daughter were waiting dutifully at the end of the platform. Both of them quite divine, Marjorie especially.

Why do I bother with those little Romany tarts?

Louise’s face was all melancholic. Frightened, but trying not to show it. Trying to be brave like a good Kavanagh. What a wonderful daughter. Growing up a treat. Even though she had been a bit moody these last few days. Probably missing Joshua, he thought jovially. But that was just another reminder that he really would have to start thinking seriously about a decent bloodmatch for her. Not yet though, not this year. Cricklade Manor would still echo with her laughter over Christmas, warming his heart.

He hugged her, and her arms wrapped round his waist. “Don’t go, Daddy,” she whispered.

“I have to. It won’t be for long.”

She sniffed hard, and nodded. “I understand.”

He kissed Marjorie, ignoring the whistles and cheers which rang out from the carriages at the rear of the train.

“Now don’t you try and prove anything,” she said in that weary half-censorious way which meant she was scared to the core. So he said, “Of course I won’t, I’ll just sit in the command tent and let the youngsters get on with it.”

Marjorie put her arm around Louise as they waved the train out of the station. The platform was a solid mass of women with handkerchiefs flapping from frantic wrists. She wanted to laugh at how silly they must all look to the men on the train. But she didn’t because she was a Kavanagh, and must set an example. Besides, she might have started crying at the futility and stupidity of it all.

In the clear sky above, silver lights flashed and twisted as the navy squadron changed formation and orbital inclination so that Boston was always in range to one of their number.

Dariat was nerving himself up to commit suicide. It wasn’t easy. Suicide was the culmination of failure, of despair. Since the return of the dead from the realm of emptiness, his life had become inspiring.

He watched the couple make their cautious way down the starscraper’s fetid stairwell. Kiera Salter had done well seducing the boy, but then what fifteen-year-old male could possibly resist Marie Skibbow’s body? Kiera didn’t even have to enhance the physique she had possessed. She just put on a mauve tank top and a short sky-blue skirt and let nature wreak havoc on the boy’s hormone balance—as she had done with Anders Bospoort.

The monitoring sub-routine assigned to observe Horgan flowed through the neural cells behind the stairwell’s polyp walls, spreading out through the surrounding sectors to interface with the starscraper’s existing routines. An invisible, all-encompassing guardian angel. It was checking for threats, the possibility of danger. Horgan was another of Rubra’s myriad descendants. Cosseted, privileged, and cherished; his mind silently, stealthily guided into the correct academic spheres of interest, and bequeathed a breathtaking arrogance for one so young. He had all the hallmarks of conceit endemic to Rubra’s tragic protégés. Horgan was proud and lonely and foul tempered. A lanky youth with dark Asian skin, and giveaway indigo eyes, if his chromosomes had granted him the muscle weight to back up his narcissistic personality he would have been involved in as many fights as the young Dariat.

Naturally he admitted no surprise when Kiera/Marie confided her attraction to him. A girl like that was his due.

Kiera and Horgan stepped out of the stairwell onto the eighty-fifth-floor vestibule.

Dariat felt the monitoring routine flood into the apartment’s stratum of neural cells and interrogate the autonomic routines within, reviewing local memories. This was the crux. It had taken him two days to modify the apartment’s routines. None of his usual evasions had ever had to withstand examination by such a large personality sub-routine before, it was virtually sentient in its own right.

There was no alarm, no bugle for help to Rubra’s principal consciousness. The monitor routine saw only an empty apartment waiting for Horgan.

“They are coming,” Dariat told the others in Anders Bospoort’s bedroom. All three possessed were with him. Ross Nash who rode in Bospoort’s own body, a Canadian from the early twentieth century. Enid Ponter, from the Australian-ethnic planet Geraldton, dead for two centuries, who occupied Alicia Cochrane’s mortal form. And Klaus Schiller, possessing Manza Balyuzi’s body, a German who muttered incessantly about his Führer, and seemingly angered at having to take on an Asian appearance. The body was now markedly different to the image contained in his passport flek the day he disembarked from the Yaku . His skin was blanching; jet-black hair streaked with expanding tufts of fine blond strands; the gentle facial features shifting to rugged bluntness, eyes azure blue. He had even grown a couple of centimetres taller.

“And Rubra?” Enid Ponter asked. “Does he know?”

“My disruption routines have worked. The monitor can’t see us.”

Ross Nash looked slowly round the bedroom, almost as though he was sniffing a trace of some exotic scent in the air. “I sense it. Behind the walls, there is a coldness of heart.”

“Anstid,” Dariat said. “That’s what you sense. Rubra is just an aspect of him, a servant.”

Ross Nash made no attempt to hide his disgust.

None of them really trusted him, Dariat knew. They were strong enemies who had agreed a precarious truce because of the damage they could each inflict on the other. Such a stand-off could never last long. Human doubts and insecurities gnawed at such restraints, chafing at reasonableness. And the stakes on both sides were high, accelerating the devout need to see treachery in every hesitant breath and wary footstep.

But he would prove his worthiness as few had done before. Entrusting them with not merely his life, but his death as well. It was all so absurdly logical.

He needed their awesome powers of manifestation, and at the same time retain his affinity. Their power came from death, therefore he must die and possess a body with the affinity gene. So simple when you say it quick. And completely mad. But then what he had seen these last few days defied sanity.

Horgan and Kiera entered the apartment. They were kissing even as the door closed.

Dariat concentrated hard, his affinity strumming the new neural routines alive with a delicate harmony of deceit. The image of the twined figures was incorporated into one of them. An illusive fallacy; generated by a misappropriated section of the habitat’s neural cells massing ten times that of the human brain. Small in relation to the total mass of the neural strata, but enough to make the illusion perfect, giving the phantom Horgan and Kiera weight and texture and colour and smell. Even body heat. The sensitive cells registered that as they started to tug each other’s clothes off with the typical impatience of teenagers in lust.

Most difficult of all for Dariat to mimic was the constant flow of emotion and feeling Horgan emitted unconsciously into the affinity band. But he managed it, by dint of careful memory and composition. The monitor routine looked on with tranquil disinterest.

There was a split in Dariat’s mind, like alternative quantum-cosmology histories, two realities diverging. In one, Horgan and Kiera raced for the bedroom, laughing, clothes flying. In the other . . .

Horgan’s eyes blinked open in surprise. The kiss had delivered every promise her body made. He was primed for the greatest erotic encounter of his life. But now she was sneering contemptuously. And four other people were coming into the lounge from one of the bedrooms. Two of the men were huge, in opposite directions.

Horgan barely paid them any attention. He had heard of deals like this, whispered terrors amongst the kids in the day clubs. Snuffsense. The bitch had set him up as the meat they would rape to death. He turned, his leg muscles already taut.

Something—strange, like a hard ball of liquid—hit him on the back of the head. He was falling, and in the distance a choir of infernal angels was singing.

Dariat stood aside as Ross Nash hauled the semiconscious Horgan into the bedroom. He tried not to stare at the boy’s feet, they were floating ten centimetres in the air.

“Are you ready?” Kiera asked, her tone dripping with disdain.

He walked past her into the bedroom. “Do we get to screw afterwards?”

Dariat had favoured an old-fashioned capsule you swallowed rather than a transfusion pad or medical package. It was black—naturally—two centimetres long. He had acquired it from his regular narkhal supplier.