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

The Naked God Faith

Peter Hamilton

Hell just went quantum . . . The Confederation is starting to collapse politically and economically, allowing the possessed to infiltrate more worlds. Quinn Dexter is loose on Earth, destroying the giant arcologies one at a time. As Louise Kavanagh tries to track him down, she manages to acquire some strange and powerful allies whose goal does not quite match her own. The campaign to liberate Mortonridge from the possessed degenerates into a horrendous land battle of the kind which hasn't been seen by humankind for six hundred years. Then some of the protagonists escape in a very unexpected direction . . . Joshua Calvert and Syrinx now fly their starships on a mission to find the Sleeping God - which an alien race beleives holds the key to finally overthrowing the possessed. On Earth, satanist Quinn Dexter possesses a new army of the damned, using them to initiate The Night's Dawn, the entropic annihilation of all Creation. At the same time Joshua Calvert, master of the Lady Macbeth, seeks a miracle in a haystack: the truth behind a legend that 15,000 years ago the alien Tyrathca intercepted a single message from unexplored space beyond Orion: "IT SEES THE UNIVERSE. IT CONTROLS EVERYTHING. OUR ARRIVAL WOKE IT." Could a God be sleeping somewhere between the stars? And can Joshua possibly find this unknown Deity before The Night's Dawn devours the cosmos?

Naked God: Faith

Chapter 01

It was a foul job, but better than scouting round the starscrapers. Tolton and Dariat were driving a truck slowly over Valisk’s grass plains in search of servitor bodies. Food was becoming a critical commodity within the enfeebled habitat. During Kiera’s reign the possessed had simply helped themselves to existing supplies with little thought devoted to replenishing them. Then after plunging into the dark continuum, the survivors had turned to butchering the wild terrestrial animals that had fallen into unconsciousness. Large cooking pits had been dug outside the northern endcap caverns, where the Starbridge tribes took charge of trussing the beasts on long poles to be roasted over the flames as if for a medieval banquet. It was a predictably monotonous diet of goat, sheep, and rabbits; but nourishing enough. None of the other lethargic survivors complained.

Now that operation was being accelerated. The animals were gradually slipping from their strange comas into death. Their carcasses had to be recovered and cooked before they started to decay. If it was hung in the coolest caverns, properly cured meat could be stored for several weeks and still remain edible. Building up a stockpile of food was also a logical precaution to be undertaken in times of war. Rubra’s regiment of descendants all knew about the visitor, and had been surreptitiously supplementing their armaments ever since. The remaining survivors hadn’t been told.

Tolton wondered if that was why he and Dariat had been given this particular task, so he wouldn’t have much contact with the refugees occupying the caverns.

“Why should the personality distrust you?” Dariat asked as the street poet drove them along the side of a stream in one of the shallow valleys meandering through the southern grasslands. “You’re one of the real survivors of the possessed occupation. You’ve proved yourself as an asset as far as it’s concerned.”

“Because of what I am; you know I’m on the side of the underclass, that’s my nature. I might warn them.”

“Do you think warning them is helping them? They’re in no fit state to put up any resistance if that thing comes back. You know damn well my illustrious relatives are the only ones who stand a chance of stopping it. Go ahead and tell the sick there’s some kind of homicidal ice dragon stalking us, see how much you improve their morale. I don’t want to preach homilies, but class distinction has been suspended for the duration. We’re divided into effectives and dependants, now. That’s all.”

“All right, damn it. But you can’t keep them in ignorance forever.”

“They won’t be. If that thing ever gets inside, everyone’s going to know about it.”

Tolton gripped the top of the steering wheel with both hands, and slowed so he could watch Dariat’s answer. “You think it will come back?”

“The opinion is a resounding yes. It wanted something the first time, and all we did was make it mad at us. Even assuming it has the wackiest psychology possible, it’ll come back. The only questions are: when? And: will it be alone?”

“Bloody hell.” Tolton twisted the throttle again, and sent the truck splashing through a shallow section of the stream. “What about the signalling project? Can we call the Confederation yet?”

“No. There’s still a team working on it, but most of my relatives are doing what they can to beef up the habitat defences.”

“We still have some?”

“Not many,” Dariat admitted.

Tolton saw a suspicious avocado-green lump amid the wispy tips of pink xenoc grass, and slowed the truck to a halt. The body of a large servitor lizard was lying curled up on the ground. A tegu, geneered for agronomy maintenance, it measured one and a half metres from nose to tail, with long rake-like fingers on its hands. There were hundreds of them in Valisk, patrolling the streams where they were employed to clear jams of dead grass and twigs that built up along rocky snags.

Dariat stood and watched as his friend bent over and gingerly touched the creature’s flanks.

“I can’t make out if it’s alive or not,” Tolton complained.

“It’s dead,” Dariat told him. “There is no life energy left in the body.”

“You can tell that?”

“Yeah. It’s like a little internal glow; all living things have it.”

“Hell. You can see that?”

“It’s similar to seeing, yes. I guess my brain just interprets it as light.”

“You haven’t got a brain. You’re just a ghost. A whole bunch of thoughts strung together.”

“There’s more to me than that, if you don’t mind. I’m a naked soul.”

“Okay. There’s no need to get touchy about it.” Tolton grinned. “Touchy. Get it? A ghost, touchy.”

“I hope your poetry is better than your humour. After all, you’re the one that’s got to pick it up.” His translucent foot nudged the dead lizard.

Tolton’s grin crumpled. “Bugger.” He went round to the back of the truck, and lowered the tailgate. There were already three dead servitor chimps lying on the metal floor. “I didn’t mind the goats so much, but this is like cannibalism,” he grumbled.

“Monkeys were a delicacy in several pre-industrial societies back on Earth.”

“No wonder they all died out, then; their kids ran off to the city and lived happily ever after on Chinese takeaway.” He put his hands under the lizard’s body, disgruntled by the dry-slippery feel of the scales and the way they shifted so easily over protuberant bones. Muttering about the truck’s lack of a winch, he started to drag the body over to the tailgate. The lizard was quite a weight, needing several stages to haul it up the steep ramp. Tolton was flushed by the time he finally skewed it over the chimps. He jumped down and shoved the tailgate back up, shoving the latches home.

“Good job,” Dariat said.

“Just as long as I don’t have to butcher them, I don’t care.”

“We should get back. That’s a big load already.”

Tolton grunted in agreement. The trucks had been stripped down to the minimum number of systems; there were no governing processors, no power steering, no collision alert radar, nor impact-triggered seat webs. A power cell was wired directly to the wheel hub motors, with the throttle as the only control. Such an arrangement gave the vehicles a modicum of reliability, though even that was far from a hundred per cent. Switching them on was always a lottery. And if they had too much weight in the back they wouldn’t work at all.

Dariat,the personality called. The visitor is back, and it’s not alone.

Oh Thoale. How many?

A couple of dozen, I think. Maybe more.

Once again, Dariat knew how much mental effort it took for the personality to focus on the approaching specks. Even then, he wasn’t sure it was observing all of them. As before, pale streaks of turquoise and burgundy were fluxing within the strands of the dusky nebula outside. A scattering of wan grey dots swished between the ragged strands, curving sharply at each turn, but always coming closer. Their movements were confusing, but even so the personality should have been able to track them.

Dariat looked through the truck’s grimed windscreen. The Northern endcap was thirty kilometres away, suddenly a huge distance across the rolling grasslands and scrub desert. It would take them at least forty minutes to get there, assuming the cloying blades of pink grass didn’t get any thicker before they reached one of the rough tracks. And that was a long time to be alone in this continuum. Not that the caverns would offer much sanctuary.

It was ironic, Dariat thought: he who had managed to isolate himself for thirty years, now wanted to surround himself with people. He could never forget that debilitating cold the visitor had inflicted on him last time. His soul was unprotected in this realm. If he was going to truly die, he preferred to do it in the company of his own kind. He turned to Tolton, making sure his lips were exaggerating his words. “Does this thing go any faster?”

The street poet gave him a panicked glance. “Why?”

“Because now would be a good time to find out.”

“The bastard’s come back?”

“More than one.”

Tolton twisted the throttle urgently, nudging the speed up to over forty kilometres an hour. The wheel hub motors started making erratic buzzing sounds—normally they were completely silent. Dariat used affinity to watch the visitors’ approach. The personality had activated the seven lasers and two masers emplaced around the rim of the counter-rotating spaceport. As before, there was no radar return from any of the visitors.

The first ones began their final dash from the shifting fringe of the nebula through the clear space to the habitat’s shell. They were condensing the darkness around themselves now, twirling sharp horns of light in kaleidoscopic arcs. Optical sensors locked on, aligning the energy weapons on one of the giveaway distortion swirls. Nine intense energy beams pinioned the visitor. Its sole response was to spin faster, wriggling wildly along its trajectory as it plummeted in towards the shell. The radial spires of distorted luminescence flared brighter and higher. Then it was falling behind the tips of the starscrapers, beyond the weapons’ elevation. They slid back to find another target. It, too, was unaffected by the energy strike.

The personality stopped firing. Anxiety spread like a mental virus among Rubra’s descendants as they waited to see what the visitors would do next. The personal weapons they’d prepared were distributed and primed. Not that anyone held out much hope. If the spaceport lasers couldn’t harm them, then rifles (however large the calibre) were going to be completely useless. Not that anybody refused them. Having a hefty chunk of destructive hardware you could grip in your hands was always a nice psychological boost.

The Orgathé led a swarm of its eager kith towards the giant living object, soaking up the blaze of heat which it threw away so casually. They had come to pre-empt the absorption that was the fate of all beings in the dark continuum, gorging on as much of its life-energy as they could before it reached the mélange. Once that happened, so many of the entities entombed within would be empowered to resurrection and individuality that the whole mélange would be loosened, possibly even breaking apart for a short while. But there would never be enough energy to return them all to the place from which they’d fallen. That privilege could only be granted to those who empowered themselves before the dispersal.

That was why it had called upon the others, the strongest of their kind, able to fly far and long from the mélange. Together they might successfully storm the object where one had failed. To be rewarded with enough energy to elevate themselves out of the dark continuum was worth any risk.

The Orgathé swooped closer. Huge waves of thought rippled through the layer of life energy below the object’s surface, focusing on it. Pillars of energy lashed out from the dead section at the far end; a kind unusable by the Orgathé. It closed its boundary against the flow, letting the power splash apart harmlessly. The pillars of energy vanished when it dove down close to the surface. Its kith were following it down, hungered by the abundant energy, crying victoriously among themselves.

Ahead now were the hollow spindles protruding from the object’s midsection. The Orgathé increased its speed, hardening itself with a reckless expenditure of energy. It remembered the sheet of transparent matter it had landed on before. Easy to identify amid the thousands of other identical sheets inlaid along the length of the spindle, a dead section, drained of life-energy and heat. This time, the Orgathé didn’t slow down.

The window of Horner’s bar detonated inwards with a terrifyingly violent explosion. Craggy shards of crystal blasted into the bar, scything through the furniture. Frozen, ice-cloaked tables and chairs disintegrated into billowing clouds of glossy silvery fragments. Then the entire maelstrom reversed its flow, and howled out through the shattered window. The badly shredded main door into the vestibule buckled and collapsed, allowing the air to rush through.

Emergency pressure locks all across the twenty-fifth storey started to slide shut. They were mechanical systems, self-powered, activated by simple failsafe pressure sensors. The majority of them were unaffected by the malaise inflicted by the dark continuum. Only a minority of the starscraper’s muscle membranes reacted to the potentially lethal development.

The personality concentrated hard, ensuring that the muscle membranes around the Djerba’s lobby were shut, then tried to reach the floors immediately below that. Its thought routines encountered a tide of exhaustion that grew worse the further it inserted itself into the starscraper. Only the vaguest images from the twenty-fifth floor were available.

The Orgathé gripped the rim of the bar’s window with several appendages, waiting until the gale subsided. Bottles detonated in mid flight as they were swept across the room, their exotic liquor solidifying in weird bulbous shapes the instant they broke free of the glass. Anything which struck the Orgathé simply bounced off, gyrating away into the void outside. As soon as the roar of air began to ebb, it moved into the starscraper. The wall around the empty door simply burst apart as it went through.

Still there was no clear image of it as it moved along the vestibule; all the sensitive cells could discern before they died was a tumour of darker shadow within the lightless chamber. And now the habitat personality was having to divert its attention to the rest of the Orgathé swarm that were slamming their way through other starscraper windows. Emergency pressure locks and muscle membranes were closing throughout the deserted structures, desperately trying to contain the atmospheric breaches.

The Orgathé continued to surge forward into the starscraper, hunting round for concentrations of life-energy to consume. It was spread thinly here, nothing like as rich as the layer beneath the object’s outer surface. Instinctively, the Orgathé barged upwards towards that mammoth source. Flat planes of matter splintered as it hammered through them. Further harsh gusts of gas whistled past. Then it found what it wanted, a solid stream of liquid suffused with life-energy pouring along the core of the starscraper. It moved as close as it could, siphoning the heat out of the thick wall of matter surrounding the stream until the outside began to crack. Then it bored through with a couple of appendages, and immersed their tips in the current. Sweet, vital life-energy flowed back into the Orgathé, replenishing it after its considerable exertions. It settled down and began consuming the apparently infinite torrent, growing in a way impossible before.

Three trucks approached the ring of dilapidated hovels encircling the Djerba’s lobby. Each vehicle had two people inside, a nervous driver and an even more nervous lookout armed with a heavy calibre rifle. They began to nudge along the muddy tracks between the precarious walls, heavy wheels squelching cans and empty sachet wrappers into the ground.

Past the hovels, they pulled up short of the lobby. As with all Valisk’s internal buildings, it was an elaborate edifice, a dome shape from gradually inclined tiers of long white polyp window arches with a circular apex of amber-tinted crystal. Inside, it had the kind of furniture nests and large marble floors endemic to any human travel station. A few cracked windows along the bottom tier, and smashed furniture smeared across the floor, was the only evidence of past battles between Kiera and Rubra.

Tolton gave it all a jaundiced look. “God, I really didn’t expect to be coming back here,” he grumbled.

“You’re not alone,” Dariat told him.

Erentz climbed down out of the passenger seat, keeping her rifle trained squarely on the lobby. The visitors had been in Valisk for thirty hours now. In all that time, not one of them had emerged from a starscraper, nor made any hostile move. If it hadn’t been for the broken windows and closed emergency locks there would be no evidence of their incursion at all. After their desperate efforts to gain entry, such inactivity had everyone troubled and confused. The personality was determined to discover what nefarious activity they were cooking up in the starscrapers.

The lifts were clumped together in the centre of the lobby, a broad column of grey polyp reaching half way to the amber crystal above. Its curving wall was inset with silvery mechanical doors. One of them slid open as the group approached. Erentz put down the large case of equipment she was carrying, and inched over to the rim so she could snatch a look down. The top of the lift was out of sight, leaving a dark circular shaft with vertical rails that faded from sight after a few metres. She shone a torch into the gulf. All that did was show her more of the rails, and another set of emergency fire-control doors on the inside. If she leaned right over, she could just make out the door below.

From what I can discern, the visitor is now on the twenty-second floor,the personality said. I have managed to seal off the floors below, so the twenty-second remains fully pressurized. The twenty-third is the same. Twenty-four is partially pressurized. Twenty-five is now in a vacuum. Your only escape route, Erentz, is up. Dariat, I imagine you can use the lower floors. A vacuum really shouldn’t bother you.

Dariat nodded thoughtfully. Let’s try not to put that theory to the test, okay? Besides, where would I go once I reach the bottom?

It took twenty minutes to prepare. Three of the group started to rig up a winch they’d brought, securing it on the lobby floor with large bolts. The rest helped Erentz into the silver-grey suit which she was going to wear for the reconnaissance. They’d chosen a thermal emission suit, capable of protecting its wearer from extreme temperatures. It had a thick layer of insulation with a molecular structure similar to the nulltherm foam used by starships. The one drawback to that particular property was that the heat generated by a living body’s organs and muscles couldn’t escape. Any wearer would cook themselves to death inside thirty minutes. So before getting into it, Erentz had to put on a tight-fitting regulator overall made from heat absorber fabric. It was capable of soaking up and storing her body’s entire output for seven hours before having to be drained.

“Are you sure this is going to work?” Tolton asked as he sealed the outer gauntlets to her sleeves. The suit’s puffy appearance was making her look like an arctic skier.

“You were down there with it before,” she answered. “It has some kind of active heat-sink ability. I’ve got to have something to shield me from that if I get too close. And I can’t risk wearing an SII suit, not in this continuum; there’s no guarantee it’ll even work below the first floor.”

“All right. If you’re happy . . .”

“I’m not.” She slipped the suit’s breathing mask on, fiddling with it until it was comfortable. The suit wasn’t pressurized, but the mask maintained her air supply at a constant temperature.

Tolton handed her the electron rod. Its spiked tip was capable of giving off a ten thousand volt shock. “This should stop it getting too close. Electricity seems to be our one constant these days. It can blast the possessed back into the beyond, and it certainly scared the visitor.”

She held up the rod, then slipped it into her belt next to a laser pistol and a fission blade. “I feel like I’m off to poke the tiger,” she mumbled round the mask.

I’m sorry,said the personality. But we really do need to know what these things are up to.

Yeah yeah.she pulled the helmet visor down, a transparent material thick enough to give the world a gentle turquoise shade. You ready?she asked dariat.

Yes.his affinity voice might have said it, but his mind didn’t.

The winch cable had been looped round a pulley at the top of the lift shaft. It ended in a couple of simple straps which Erentz clipped onto a harness around her torso. Above the straps, there was a simple control box on a flexible stalk, with four buttons to govern the winch. She tugged at the thin cable, testing its strength.

It’s a linked molecule silicon fibre,explained one of the engineers who’d rigged it up. Totally reliable; it can support a hundred times your body weight.he indicated a small toggle-like handle nesting in the junction between the two straps. This is your fast retrieval handle. The winch drum is recoil-wound, like a spring. The further you go down, the tighter the tension. So if you need to get back up here in a hurry, forget the control box, simply twist and pull. It’ll reel you in fast. And the whole mechanism is mechanical, so no demon spook can mess with it.

Thanks.erentz touched the little toggle reverently, the way she’d seen Christians stroking a crucifix. She walked over to the rim of the lift shaft, switching on her helmet and wrist lights. We’re on.

Dariat nodded and came over to stand behind her. He put his arms round her chest. His legs he bent so they were wrapped round hers, his feet hooking together between her ankles. It felt like a solid hold. I think I’m secure.

Erentz stepped off into space, and swung out into the shaft. She dangled over black emptiness, rotating very slowly. Dariat weighed nothing at all. The only way she knew he was still there was the faintest glow coming from his arms as they clung to her. All right, let’s go see what it’s up to.she pressed the descent button, and the cable started to play out, lowering her. The last she saw of the lobby was three people crowded shoulder to shoulder in the bright doorway, craning down to watch her. Twenty-two floors is a long way to go when you’re hanging on the end of an invisible cable in absolute darkness.

The shaft’s horizontal pressure seal on the thirtieth storey is closed,the personality said. The drop is not as fearsome as you imagine it.

I’m really trying not to imagine it at all,she shot back waspishly.

Dariat didn’t say anything. He was too busy fighting the fatigue trembles in his legs. The awkward position he was in made his muscles prone to cramps. Stupid for a ghost, he told himself repeatedly.

The lift doors kept sliding by, buff silver panels affixed to the polyp by a web of support rails and actuator cabinets. Dariat kept trying to use the sensitive cells on each floor to survey the vestibule as they dropped past, but the neural strata was badly affected by the dark continuum’s enervation. The thought routines inside were confused and slow, providing meagre pictures of the darkened corridors. Even those had vanished by the twenty-first storey. Real worry began to seep into Dariat’s thoughts. It was the visitor who was causing this part of the affliction. Almost an anti-presence, soaking up life and heat like some hazy event horizon. This was alien at its extreme.

Here we are,erentz said. she slowed their descent until they were level with the doors to the twenty-second floor vestibule.

I don’t think I can hold on for much longer,dariat said. My arms are starting to ache.

Erentz’s mind was moderately incredulous, but she spared him a direct comment. She started to sway, building up pendulum momentum, carrying them closer to the shaft wall each time. Catching hold of the struts and conduits beside the door was easy, and she steadied them against the polyp, feet resting on a latch motor casing. There was an emergency release handle on the top rail, which she turned through ninety degrees. The door slid open with a quiet hiss of compressed air.

With one hand poised ready on the retrieval toggle, she shuffled along the lower rail and swung round the edge of the door. Okay so far,she told the personality and all her relatives who were monitoring her progress. The vestibule was as dark as the lift shaft. Even the emergency lights had failed. Frost glinted everywhere her lights touched. The suit’s environment sensor reported the air was fifty degrees below freezing. So far here electronic systems were functioning close to their operational parameters.

Erentz slowly unclipped the winch cable, and secured it on a strut just inside the rim of the door; easily available in a hurry. She and Dariat shared an affinity layout of the floor, with the visitor’s approximate position indicated by a black blob. It wasn’t very precise, and they both knew that since the floor’s bitek and electronics had failed, it could have moved without the personality knowing.

That was one of the reasons the personality had wanted Dariat along on the reconnaissance. They knew he was affected by the visitor, implying he might just be able to sense it while Erentz in her insulated suit would remain unaware. As theories went, it wasn’t the most inspiring. In the end, Dariat only agreed to accompany Erentz because he knew more than most just how grim their position was. The personality held nothing from him, treating him almost as an adjunct of itself, like an exceptionally mobile observation sub-routine (or favourite pet, he thought on occasion). They desperately needed quantifiable data on the dark continuum if they were going to get a message out to the Confederation. So far the probes and quantum analysis sensors had returned next to zero information. The visitor was the only source of new facts they’d encountered. Its apparent ability to manipulate energy states could prove valuable.

“Earth’s recipe for omelettes,” Dariat murmured silently. “First steal some eggs.”

Let’s go,erentz said.

Try as he might, Dariat couldn’t find true fear in her mind. Apprehension aplenty, but she genuinely believed they would be successful.

They set off along the gently curving vestibule, heading for the visitor. Fifteen metres from the lift, a massive hole had been punched through the floor. It was as if a bomb had detonated, smashing the neat layers of polyp into a jumble of large slabs and pulverised gravel. Nutrient fluid, water, and sludge had leaked out from various severed tubules, oozing down the piles of detritus before turning to rucked tongues of dull grey ice. They stood at the broken rim, and looked down.

We won’t stand a chance against this thing,dariat said. Holy Anstid, look at what it can do; the strength of the fucking thing! That polyp’s over two metres thick, look. We’ve got to get out of here.

Calm down,the personality replied. Whoever heard of a ghost being frightened?

Well, hear it and weep. This is suicidal.

Physical strength alone didn’t do this,erentz said. It was helped by the cold. If you lower the polyp’s temperature far enough it becomes as brittle as glass.

That’s a real comfort to know,dariat retorted scathingly.

The personality is right, we shouldn’t balk just because of this. It demonstrates that the visitor uses cold the same way we use heat, that’s all. If we’d wanted to break through a wall, we’d heat it with lasers or an induction field until it weakens. This is an example of how logic progresses in this continuum; concentrating enough energy to heat something is fantastically difficult here, so the visitors simply apply the inverse.

But we don’t know how they apply it,dariat said. So we can’t defend ourselves against it.

Then we need to find out,erentz said simply. And you have to admit, if this is how it moves about, we’ll definitely hear it coming.

Dariat cursed as she started to pick her way over the loose debris bordering the hole. He knew now why the personality had picked her. She had more gung-ho optimism than a whole squadron of test-pilots. Reluctantly, he started to follow.

There were deep gouge marks in the floor that had torn the scarlet and lemon carpet into crumpled waves. The naked polyp underneath was pocked with small craters in a triangular pattern every couple of metres. Dariat had no trouble picturing them as talon marks. The visitor had bulldozed its way along the vestibule, cracking the walls and shredding the furniture and fittings. Then it had veered off deeper into the interior of the starscraper. According to the personality, it was resting right against the core. The door to a large apartment suite was missing, along with a considerable chunk of the surrounding wall. Erentz halted several of metres short, and ran her suit’s wrist beams around the big aperture.

The vestibule on the other side is undamaged,she said. It has to be in there.

I agree.

Can you tell for certain?

I’m a ghost, not a psychic.

You know what I mean.

Yeah. But I feel okay so far.

She knelt down and began unhooking sensors from her belt, screwing them onto a telescopic pole. I’ll just run a visual and infrared scan first, with spectral and particle interpretation programs hooked in, no active sweeps.

Try a magnetic scan as well,the personality suggested.

Right.erentz added one last sensor to the small clump, then looked round at Dariat. Okay?

He nodded. She extended the pole cautiously. Dariat used affinity to receive the results directly from the bitek processor governing the sensors, seeing a pale image of the frosted wall sliding past. It was superimposed with translucent sheets of colour that shimmered with defraction patterns, the results of the analysis programs, which Dariat fully failed to understand. He shifted the focus, cancelling everything but the raw visual and infrared image.

He watched the edge of the smashed wall go past. Then there was nothing. Is it still working?he asked.

Yes. There’s absolutely no light in there. No electromagnetic emissions at all. That’s odd, the walls should register on the infrared no matter how cold they are. Its like the visitor has thrown some kind of energy barricade across the hole.

So go for an active scan,dariat said. Laser radar, perhaps.

Simpler if you just go and take a peek,the personality said.

No bloody way! You don’t know it’s an energy barricade; that might be the visitor itself hiding round the corner.

If it was that close, you really would sense it.

We don’t know that for sure.

Stop farting about like an old woman and go stick your head round the edge.

Erentz had already pulled the telescopic pole back. She wasn’t going to give him any support at all.

Okay, I’ll look.the whole notion was even worse than when he’d taken that suicide pill back in Bospoort’s apartment. At least then he’d had a pretty good idea what he was letting himself in for. Shine as much light over here as you can,he told erentz.

She put the last sensor back on her belt, then pulled out the laser pistol and a small tubular flare launcher. Ready.

They both moved over to the other side of the vestibule, giving Dariat a better angle. Erentz focused her helmet beams on the gap as he crept towards it. There was nothing to see. The beams could have been trying to illuminate a cold neutron star for all the effect they had.

Dariat was standing opposite the gap now. Shit. Maybe it is an event horizon. I can’t see a bloody thing in there.it was as if the universe ended inside the apartment. an uncomfortable analogy, given their circumstances.

Stage two, then,erentz said. she brought her flare launcher up, aiming it at the gap. Let’s see if this exposes anything.

We shouldn’t rush into this,dariat said quickly.

Fine,the personality interjected. As you can’t see anything from outside, and you don’t want to use the flare, why don’t you just go in there and take a look around.

It might think the flare is some kind of weapon,dariat said.

Then what do you suggest?

I’m just saying, that’s all. It doesn’t hurt to be prudent.

We’ve taken every precaution we can. Erentz, use the flare.

Wait!right out on the very edge of visibility, there was a perturbation in the curtain of darkness. Faint shadow-shapes moved sinuously, the surface distortion of something stirring deep inside. The blackness started to recede from him with the leisurely speed of an outgoing tide, uncovering the edges of the apartment.

His mind was aware of Erentz’s finger tightening on the launcher’s release trigger. Determination in her mind not to come back without some useful information on the visitor.

No. Don’t . . .

The flare streaked across the vestibule, a searing-white magnesium blaze that punctured the pseudoveil across the gap. Dariat looked directly into the shattered apartment.

Paradoxically, the new strength it had gained was weakening the Orgathé as a whole. As it absorbed the life-energy contained within the stream of liquid, its once-quiescent riders began to rise out of their unity. It was no longer a singleton. The collective which had originally formed the Orgathé was separating. Before, they had bound their meagre scraps of life-energy together, a synergistic combination which had allowed them to fly free of the mélange. Together, they had been strong. Now there was more than enough life-energy to make them strong individually. They had no real need for each other any more.

Physically, they remained in the same place. There was no reason to move. Quite the opposite. They needed to stay and consume the life-energy which would finally allow them their independence. That ultimate condition hadn’t yet been achieved, though it was very close now. Already the Orgathé’s physical composition was changing in anticipation of the splendid moment. Internally, it had begun to compartmentalise; dividing in a mockery of biological cell multiplication, with each section attaining a unique shape. The Orgathé had become a womb for a dozen different species.

Then it sensed the two entities approaching. Their flames of life-energy were too small and weak to be worthy of any active intervention. The liquid supply of life-energy was far more enriching than any it would gain by devouring individuals. The Orgathé simply coiled the darkness protectively around itself and carried on consuming.

And Erentz fired the flare into the apartment. Dariat saw the vast bulk of the Orgathé clinging to the far wall, a sagging glossy-black membrane with flabby protuberances that pulsed in discordant rhythms, as if something was scrabbling round underneath. Tentacle-like bands of raw muscle were wound round it so tightly they quivered with tension.

The flare smacked into a wall, bounced, dropped to the frost-sprinkled carpet where its started to burn through into the polyp. Heat and light drenched the apartment in equal proportions. The Orgathé could ward off the light, but not the heat. That penetrated right through its fractions, bringing a wave of pain with it.

Dariat watched the Orgathé peel apart like segments of rotting fruit as it fell off the wall. A torrent of ice-frothed sludge poured out of two puncture holes it had been suckling from. The thick bubbling tide swept a grotesque menagerie of malleable creatures across the floor before it. They tottered and rolled chaotically in the dimming light, churning up the slough. Multi-jointed legs scrabbled round in the same fashion as a newborn deer attempting to stand. Damp wings fluttered ineffectually, flinging off fantails of sticky droplets. Mouths, beaks, and gullets pumped and gasped in silence.

Oh fuck,dariat moaned. the habitat’s affinity band was stunned into mortified silence as he shared his vision with everybody.

Erentz started to back down the vestibule, fear sending cold shivers along her limbs. The flare sputtered and died, sending up a final spiral wisp of smoke. Just before the light vanished, Dariat thought the creatures were solidifying, their skin hardening. In the darkness, he heard a clack as might be made by teeth in an excessively large jaw snapping shut. Dizziness struck him like a rubber truncheon. He staggered away from the apartment, almost unaware of Erentz’s suit lights bobbing about wildly as she started running.

Move, Dariat!the level of worry in the personality’s plea goaded him into taking a few shaky steps. Come on, boy. Get the fuck out of there.he took a few more steps, sobbing in frustration at the weakness that had infected his spectral limbs. Lodging in his mind, though not through the gateway of affinity, was an awareness of the visitor’s stupendous hunger.

Dariat had stumbled on for several metres before he even realized he was going the wrong way. Wretched despair produced a pitiful growl in his throat. “Anastasia, help me.”

Come on boy. She wouldn’t want you to give up, not now.

Angry at the injustice of her memory being used against him, he glanced over his shoulder. Erentz’s lights were almost out of sight as she raced away. He saw a halo of darkness eclipse the thin slices of fading light behind him. His legs almost gave out at the sight.

Keep going. I’ve got you a way out.

He took a couple more fumbling steps before the personality’s words even registered. Where?

Next lift shaft. The door is jammed open.

Dariat could see very little now. It wasn’t just the lack of light, his vision was misted with grey. Only his memory placed the lift shaft for him, and that was being reinforced by the personality. Four or five metres ahead, and on his left.

How’s that going to help?he asked

Simple, the lift is stalled ten stories down. You just jump. Land on top, and walk through the door. You can do that, you’re a ghost.

I can’t,he wailed. You don’t understand. Solid matter is hideous.

While the visitor right behind you is . . . what?

Sobbing he ran his hand along the wall, and found the open lift door. The visitor was sliding smoothly and silently towards him; chilling him further. He sank to his knees, perched right on the edge as if in prayer.

Not ten stories. That’ll kill me.

Exactly which of those solid bones in your transparent body do you think you’ll break? Listen to us you little shithead, if you had any scarp of decent imagination at all you’d just float up to the lobby. Now JUMP!

Dariat could actually sense the polyp dying all around him as the visitor swept towards him. Lady Chi-ri, help me.he topped over the lip and into the eternal lift shaft.

Erentz sprinted as hard as she could back down the vestibule. Something was stopping her frantic muscles from delivering their best. She felt feeble. She felt nauseous. The rucked carpet did its devious best to trip her.

Keep going,the personality implored passionately.

She didn’t actually look round. Didn’t need to. She knew something was coming after her. The floor was vibrating as a heavy body pounded along. Strident screeches were repeated again and again as some claw or fang ripped across the polyp. And cold was penetrating her suit as if there was no insulation at all. Without ever looking back, she waved the laser pistol behind her and fired off a series of wild shots. They had no apparent effect on her pursuer.

Affinity showed her the group up in the lobby. Her relatives were snatching up their weapons, thumbing the safeties. Tolton, in ignorance from his lack of affinity, was becoming frantic, shouting: “What? What?”

You are approaching the hole in the floor,the personality warned.

“Shit!” She intended it as a defiant bellow. It came out as a whimper. Her body was twice its proper weight. The weakness seemed to amplify her fear, clotting her mind with dread.

An easy jump,the personality promised. Don’t stop running. It’s just a question of timing and sure footing.

Where’s Dariat?she asked suddenly.

Four more paces. Concentrate.

It was as though she was already losing her balance, leaning too far forward and having to windmill her arms to keep upright. The edge wobbled towards her. Her knees were bending and she didn’t know why.

Now!

The personality’s command fired her muscles. Erentz leapt across the hole, flinging her arms forward. She hit the floor on the other side, and collapsed, tumbling painfully. Elbows and knees managed to hit every jutting chunk of rubble.

Get up. You’re almost there. Come on!

Groaning in anguish, she staggered to her feet. As she turned, her wrist beams shone back across the hole. Erentz screamed. The Orgathé itself had come after her. Still the largest and strongest of all the dissociated collective, it clawed its way along the vestibule after the small fleeing entity. There was no way it could fly in here. Even though it was diminished in physical size by the separation of the others, the vestibule was too narrow for its wings to be extended. As it was, the Orgathé had to hunch in on itself to avoid the ceiling.

Fury powered it now. Fury at being ripped from the nourishment. It had been so close to achieving the energy level it wanted. To have that triumph burned away was excruciating. It didn’t care about feeding again, it didn’t even care about breaking out of the dark continuum. It wanted vengeance.

Erentz jerked into motion again. Pure adrenaline-rush terror overrode her recalcitrant leg muscles. She sprinted for the open lift door. A gust of buffeting air told her the Orgathé had sprung across the hole behind her. There wasn’t going to be enough time to fasten the cable straps to her harness.

She slammed into the wall at the side of the lift doors, spinning round to face the Orgathé. It had obscured itself in folds of darkness again. Only the purposeful ripples slithering across the nebulous surface hinted at the terrible menace contained within. She fired the laser pistol, simply to see the darkness stiffen around the beam’s impact point. A wavering dawn of pink light bloomed behind the Orgathé, making a mockery of the weapon.

The flare,the personality urged. Fire the flare at the bugger.

Erentz had nothing else left. All there could be now was a jump into the shaft, and hope the fall killed her before the Orgathé caught her. She brought the slim launcher tube up, pointing it at the centre of the ethereal darkness, and pulled the trigger.

A pathetically small spark of incandescence plunged into the vast Orgathé. It spasmed uncontrollably, appendages writhing to thrash against the walls and ceiling. Huge splinters of polyp were sent whirling in dangerous cascades from the force of the blows. Erentz stared at the monster as it bucked about, incredulous that a tiny flare could induce such an awesome result. The whole vestibule was shaking violently.

Yeah, fascinating,said the personality. Now get out of there while it’s distracted.

She snatched the straps from the strut where she’d secured them. Only one was attached to the harness when she yanked down on the toggle. The power of the rewind made her yip in shock as she went hurtling upwards. Unexpected gee forces tore the laser pistol and the flare launcher from her hands. The narrow band of the shaft wall illuminated by her lights was a continuous blur of grey.

Brace yourself,the personality said.

Abruptly she was in freefall, still rocketing up. Coils of cable floated sedately around her. The lobby door was visible above: blank white rectangle. It expanded at a frightening rate. Then she was slowing, reaching the top of her arc, level with the door. The slack loops of cable sped through the pulley just as she started to fall, and she was wrenched to a halt. Hands reached out to haul her in through the door. She sank down on the black and white marble tiles of the lobby floor, taking fast gulps of air. Her helmet was removed. Annoying voices buzzed querulously in her ears.

“Where is he?” Tolton demanded. “Where’s Dariat?”

“Down there,” she panted miserably. “He’s still down there.” Her mind sent out a desperate affinity call to the ghost. All she could perceive in return was a faint incoherent cry of consternation.

A brutal howl of tearing metal and disintegrating polyp reverberated out of the lift shaft’s open doors. The whole group froze, then looked at the gap as one.

“It’s coming up,” Erentz stammered. “Holy shit, it’s coming after me.”

They scattered, racing for the lobby doors and the trucks outside. Erentz’s exhaustion and bulky suit slowed her to little more than a hobble. Tolton grabbed her arm and pulled her along.

The Orgathé exploded out of the top of the lift shaft at near-sonic velocity, a comet of anti-light. It punched through the lobby roof without even slowing down. Big, lethal shards of amber crystal slashed down, shattering on the marble tiles. Erentz and Tolton both dived for cover under one of the upturned couches as a surf of crystal fragments skittered around them.

The personality watched the visitor curve round and flatten out; perceptive cells strained to keep it in focus. It was a roughly triangular patch of slippery air, surrounded by black diffraction rainbows similar to a magnified heat shimmer effect. Big iron-hard hailstones pattered onto the grass below it. A kilometre above the parkland, it started to curve round, heading back for the Djerba’s lobby. Tolton and Erentz had reached his truck. Both of them were squinting up against the reddish glare of the axial light-tube, trying to spot the visitor. He squeezed the throttle round as far as it would go, and the wheels grumbled into life. They trundled towards the wall of shanty huts at less than ten kilometres per hour.

“Faster!” Erentz yelled frantically.

Tolton reset the throttle. It made no difference to their speed. Another of the trucks was rocking lazily over the ground twenty metres away, going even slower than they were. “This is all the juice we’ve got,” Tolton barked.

Erentz was staring at a thin line of wavering silver-black air that was sliding through the sky towards them. Pellucid streamers were unfurling below it, like long coiling jellyfish tendrils. She knew what they were intended for, and what they were going to grab. “This is it. Endgame.”

No it’s not,the personality said. Get in amongst the shacks. Forget the trucks, and make sure you take all your lasers and flares with you.

With the rest of the personality’s plan expanding into her mind, she shouted: “Come on,” to Tolton.

He braked the truck just short of the first rickety hut of plastic sheeting and lashed-up composite poles. They started running down the muddy alley between precarious walls. High above them, the Orgathé had started its approach run, a cascade of hail falling all around it.

Erentz and her relatives started firing their lasers round wildly. “Incinerate it!” she bellowed at Tolton. “Burn it all.” Bright scarlet beams slashed at walls and roofs, scorching long lines in the plastic. Edges smouldered and started to burn, curling and dripping. Flames spat along junctions, pumping out jets of black smoke.

The group had congregated in one of the larger open yards between the flimsy buildings. Tolton was shrinking back from the apparent madness, shielding his face from the heat that the eager, leaping flames were throwing out. “What are you doing?” he cried.

Erentz started firing her flare launcher at piles of rubbish. There were several spectacular bursts of flame as bundles of packaging and abandoned containers ignited. Sooty flakes wafted round in the microthermals. “It can’t stand the heat,” she shouted at the bewildered street poet. “The flames can beat it back. Come on, help us!” Tolton aimed his own laser, adding to the melee.

The Orgathé was just visible, a lenticular patch of shaded, rippling air, itself distorted by the heat gushing upwards from the tips of the flames. It held its course, arrowing down towards them, until the last possible moment. The long scrabbling tendrils hanging from its underbelly parted furiously as they skimmed the flames.

Tolton couldn’t see it anymore. His eyes were smarting from the bitter chemical smog billowing out from the roaring plastic. Lush ebony smoke was swirling round his legs, obscuring the ground. Heat seared the skin over the back of his hands as he held them up to defend his face. He could smell singeing hair. A puissant blast of air sent him staggering to his knees, whipping the smoke round into a blinding cyclone. For a second the heat vanished, replaced by its absolute opposite. Glistening sweat transmuted into frost right across his body. He thought his blood was going to turn solid inside his veins, the cold was so frighteningly intense. Then it was gone.

Smoke was rolling itself into vortex spirals as hail stung his face.

Yes!” erentz shouted up at the retreating Orgathé. “We beat the bastard. It’s frightened.”

It’s repelled,the personality chided. There’s a big difference.

Sensitive cells showed her the airborne monster coming round back to the shanty village in a long curve. The flames from the first buildings they’d fired were shrinking.

Move to a new section,the personality said. Let’s hope the bugger gives up before you run out of things to burn.

The Orgathé made another five attempts to assail Erentz and her group before it finally withdrew and flew deeper into the habitat interior. Over half of the shanty village had been razed by then. Tolton and the others were caked in grime, and retching badly from the smoke and fumes. Their exposed skin was cracked and bleeding from the heat. Only Erentz, with her suit and mask, was unaffected.

You’d better start walking towards the caverns,the personality said. We’ll have a couple of trucks sent to pick you up.

Erentz slowly surveyed the blackened ruins with their slowly solidifying lakes of molten plastic. Couldn’t we just wait here? These guys have been through hell.

Sorry, more bad news. We think the other sections of the visitor are coming up from the Djerba. The last few functioning systems we’ve got in there are being extinguished floor by floor. It can’t be anything else.

Shit.she gave the lobby an apprehensive look. What about Dariat?

Nothing.

Damnit.

We are he. In us he lives on.

He’d argue that.

Yes.

There must have been fifty of those brutes down there.

No,the personality said. The glimpse we were given of the visitor without its visual shield was a brief one, but detailed memory analysis of the scene indicates twelve, at most fifteen, were birthed from the mother creature. We don’t believe they are anything like the size of the one which has pursued you.

Well that’s a real big relief.

They started picking their way through the sulphurous, carbonized wreckage of the buildings, heading for the track that wound its way across the scrub desert to the northern endcap. Tolton balked until Erentz started explaining the reason for urgency. “So we can’t get down there to find what happened to him?” he asked.

“Not until we know it’s clear. And then . . . what do the remnants of a ghost look like? It’s not as if there are going to be any bones.”

“Yeah,” Tolton gave the lobby a final, remorseful look over his shoulder. “I suppose not.”

The Orgathé cruised through the air, scanning the inside of the object for the nearest source of life-energy. The interior was even worse than the external shell. Here the living layers were protected by many metres of dead matter with just the thinnest sprinkling of cells smeared on top. Plants, that had a pitiful content of life-energy. No use to the Orgathé, it needed to regain the true richness which lay beneath. There were several entrances back down to the protruding spindles, which it ignored. This time it wanted a more secure feeding place.

For a while it scouted round over the pink grasslands before eventually turning towards the strip of liquid. Just above the beaches and coves of the far side the surface was riddled with large cave entrances, leading deep into the solid mantle of matter. In there, large currents of the life-energy burned brightly, flowing through vast layers of living cells stacked one on top of the other. Tunnels of living fluids formed complex warrens, thousands of tributary channels connecting to the town-sized organs encased within the endcap.

The Orgathé landed on a broad expanse of platinum sand that formed one of the trim little coves. Elaborate filigrees of glacial frost sprang out from its feet as it clawed its way up to the nearest cave. As soon as it reached the buff, grass and bushes perished instantly, their leaves turning a rancid brown and freezing into shape. It barely scraped through the cave entrance. Mock-stalactites snapped off as its hardened carapace brushed against them, shattering as they clattered to the floor. The Orgathé’s appendages were modified then hardened by further expenditures of energy to help it bulldoze its way past constrictions and awkward bends. Contact with the hot matter bruised its body, but it was slowly acclimatising to the heat endemic within the habitat.

After a while it came up against a huge tunnel conveying the living fluid. It broke through the thick wall and eased its entire body into the driving torrent. For the first time since it had slipped into the dark continuum it knew contentment. With that came the shiver of expectation.

The trucks still hadn’t reached Erentz and the others, though she could just see a small dark speck moving somewhere out there on the scrub desert ahead of them. Walking had become an automatic trudge while her mind followed the flight of the visitor. Valisk’s general affinity band was filled with speculation and comment as the personality and Erentz’s relatives discussed what was to be done next.

Coverage once the Orgathé moved into the cave wasn’t so easy. Tracking its movement was a question of following the null-zone surrounding it by the trail of dead polyp left in its wake.

The damn thing has definitely broken into the nutrient artery feeding my mineral digestion tract,the personality said. It’s creating severe flow pressure problems.

What’s it actually doing to the nutrient fluid?erentz asked. Can you sense any change?

The fluid has been chilled down considerably, which is understandable given what we know of the visitor’s intrinsic capability. And over ninety per cent of the corpuscles are dead. A strange outcome, the fluid temperature alone is not sufficient to kill them.

When Dariat and I disturbed it down in the Djerba, it’d broken into one of the starscraper’s nutrient fluid tubules. That must be what it’s after. It’s feeding on your nutrient fluid.

An excellent hypothesis. However, it is not digesting the fluid, we would have been alerted to the loss of volume. And we strongly doubt we have a compatible biochemistry.

It must need something the nutrients contain. Can you run an analysis on the fluid in the Djerba and the other starscrapers where you have visitors squatting?

One moment.

Erentz felt the personality’s principal thought routines focusing on the vast network of tubules and conduits that wormed through Valisk’s gigantic mitosis layer, probing for aberrations. A big part of the problem in locating any interference was the way the nutrient fluid was pumped into and around the starscrapers. For a start there were many different types. Some just fed the mitosis layer and the muscle membranes, others fed the environmental filter organs down in the basement floors. Specialist fluids supplied the food synthesis organs in each apartment. And all of them underwent a long cycle from the digestive and treatment organs of the southern endcap to the starscrapers and back again, taking several days to complete the circuit. The entire process was autonomic, with the governing sub-routines and specialist monitoring cells inside the tubule walls watching for known toxins seeping into the fluid. They weren’t looking for whatever kind of corruption was being inflicted by the visitor.

With the bitek systems inside the starscrapers currently functioning erratically at best, the return flow was sluggish. Some of the corpuscles had been naturally depleted by the organs they were intended to replenish, while a fair quantity returned still carrying the fresh molecules and oxygen they were originally bound with. It made a review of the fluid that was emerging from the starscrapers inordinately difficult. Eventually, though, the personality said: We concur that the visitors are all somehow consuming the nutrient fluids. The proportion of dead corpuscles is approaching ninety per cent in some tubules. The nature of the consumption is unclear. We can only conclude it is somehow connected with their heat-sink ability; certainly there is no detectable physical digestion involved.

They’re ghouls,she said. Dinosaur-sized parasites. We’ve got to find some way of stopping them.

Fire is the only effective method we’ve discovered so far. It will take time to manufacture flame throwers.

It’ll have to be done. They’ll eat you alive otherwise.

Yes. Until we can build the appropriate weapons hardware, we’re shutting down the supply of nutrient fluid to the starscrapers.

Good idea.she could see the trucks growing out of the scrub desert, trundling along the hard-packed dirt track. Maybe that’ll stop them multiplying. If we can’t, the bastards will evolve into a plague.

Fifty light-years from Hesperi-LN, Lady Mac and the Oenone moved tentatively towards each other. Joshua had to use radar for the manoeuvre, while Syrinx utilized the voidhawk’s distortion field. This deep in interstellar space there wasn’t enough starlight to illuminate a white gas-giant. Two small technological artefacts coated in non-reflective foam were simply zones of greater darkness. The only clue to their existence an observer might have had was when they occasionally eclipsed a distant star.

When Joshua did fire Lady Mac ’s ion thrusters to lock attitude, Syrinx had to blink water from her eyes in reflex. The blue flames were completely dazzling to Oenone ’s deep space acclimatised optical sensor blisters. Both ships extended their airlock tubes and docked. Joshua led Alkad, Peter, Liol, and Ashly into the voidhawk’s crew toroid. They’d come for a conference to review the data from Tanjuntic-RI and determine the next stage of the flight. The two physicists were obviously required. Joshua had brought Ashly because of his wide experience and delight in new and strange cultures, which might be useful. Liol’s presence was a little harder to justify. Out of all of them, he’d seen the least of the universe. It was just that . . . Joshua was getting used to having him around, someone he didn’t have to explain everything to. They thought the same way about the same things. That made Liol useful back-up if he wanted to argue a point of contention.

Syrinx was waiting for them at the inner airlock hatch, a sly reminiscence in her mind at the last time Joshua had come aboard when the two ships were docked. If she’d ever had any lingering doubts about him, they’d ended at Hesperi-LN. Now she was glad it was he accompanying Oenone rather than some gruesomely efficient Confederation Navy captain from Meredith Saldana’s Deathkiss squadron.

She led the party into Oenone ’s main lounge. The long compartment was furnished with plain autumn-red couches which matched the gentle curvature of the walls. Glass-fronted shelves displayed a large, varied collection of objects the crew had collected during their flights, ranging from simple pebbles to antique carvings, even examples of unusual consumer products.

Monica was sitting with Samuel in one of the couches. Joshua took the one next to theirs, which put him opposite Renato, Oski, and Kempster. Alkad and Peter sat with Parker, who gave his former colleague a simple polite greeting, as if he had no feelings about her activities and motives. Joshua didn’t believe that for a second.

Syrinx claimed a seat next to Ruben, and smiled round. “Now we’re all here: Oski, did we retrieve everything from the arkship?”

The electronics specialist glanced at the slim processor block on the rosewood table in front of her. “Yes. We managed to datavise all the files stored in the Planetary Habitation terminal into our processors. They’re all translated now. There’s a lot of information on the five planets they colonized prior to Hesperi-LN.”

“And I’ve been accessing some of the files,” Monica said. “I was right, one of those planets was inhabited by a sentient species. They were at an early industrial age.” She datavised the lounge’s processor. An AV lens on the ceiling came alive, projecting a laser-like cone of light down into the compartment. A series of two dimensional pictures materialized at the base, just above the decking. Aerial reconnaissance shots of grey, dirty towns, their brick and stone buildings sprawled across a landscape of blue-green vegetation. They all had rows of factories clustering around the outskirts, tall drab chimneys squirting thick smoke into the azure sky. Small vehicles moved along narrow stone roads, puffing out exhaust fumes. Cultivation was extensive, with human-style checkerboard squares of fields cutting into forests and lapping against the steeper hills.

Tyrathca spaceplanes started to feature in the pictures, landing in the fields and meadows outside towns. Crowds of the four-armed bipeds Monica had found in the archive display cube were shown running from armed soldier-caste Tyrathca. Close-ups of the quirky alien buildings with their arched roofs. They didn’t have windows in the outer walls, instead a funnel-like light well delivered illumination to the interior. The architectural arrangement was obvious: many of them had been struck by Tyrathca missiles, exposing the burnt-out structure.

At some time, what passed as the xenocs’ army had rallied. Crude artillery pulled by lumbering eight-legged horse-analogue beasts had been deployed against the spaceplanes. Masers reduced them to smouldering ruin.

“Jesus,” Joshua muttered when the file had finished. “A genuine invasion by bug-eyed space aliens. The whole thing looked like snatches from a low budget adaptation of The War of the Worlds .”

“I’m afraid it was inevitable,” Parker said in regretful tones. “I’m beginning to learn the hard way just how rigidly individual species stick to their own philosophies and laws, and how different that philosophy can be to ours.”

“They committed genocide,” Monica said, glaring at the old project director. “If there’s any of those xenocs left alive, they’ve probably been enslaved. And you’re calling it a philosophy? For fuck’s sake!”

“We regard genocide as one of the worse crimes a person or government can commit,” Parker said. “The massive extermination not only of life, but an entire way of living. Such an act repels us, and rightly so, because that’s the way we are. We have emotion and empathy, some would say they govern us. I remind you the Tyrathca do not have these traits. The nearest they come to emotion is the protectiveness they extend to their children and their clan. If you put a breeder caste into a human war crimes court to answer for this atrocity it would never be able to understand what it was doing there. They cannot be judged by our laws, because our laws are the embodiment of our civilization. We cannot condemn the Tyrathca, however much we despise what they do. Human rights are precisely that: human.”

“They took over an entire planet, and you don’t think they’ve done anything wrong?”

“Of course they have done wrong. By our standards. And by our standards, so have the Kiint in continually refusing to give us the solution to possession which we know they have. What are you proposing, that we file charges against Jobis as well?”

“I’m not talking about filing charges, I’m talking about the whole Tyrathca situation. We have to reconsider our mission in view of what we’ve uncovered.”

“What do you mean, reconsider?” Joshua asked. “The original circumstances haven’t changed, and our goal certainly hasn’t. Okay, the Tyrathca committed a terrible crime thousands of years ago. We personally, these two ships, can’t do anything about that. But we do know to treat them more cautiously than before. When we get back, the Confederation Assembly can work out what to do about the genocide.”

“If they’re allowed to take that initiative,” Monica said quietly. “I admit I’m angry about the genocide. But I’m more worried about the present day implications.”

“How can that affect us?” Alkad asked. “And I speak of someone with direct experience of a genocide. What we’ve seen is awful, yes. But it was a long time ago, and a long way off.”

“It affects us,” Monica said, “Because it shows us the Tyrathca in their true light. Consider, we’ve now established that there were a thousand arkships.”

“One thousand two hundred and eight,” Renato said. “I rechecked the flightpath files.”

“Great, even worse,” Monica said. “Even assuming each of them was less successful than Tanjuntic-RI, say they only founded a couple of colonies apiece, that gives them a population at least two to three times greater than the Confederation.”

“Spread over a huge volume of space,” Kempster said. “And not a cohesive political entity like our civilization.”

“Only because there’s been no need for them to achieve unity,” Monica said. “So far. Look, I’m in intelligence; Samuel and I both spend our time assessing potential risk, it’s what we’re trained for. We catch problems in their embryonic stage. And that’s the situation we have here. We’ve discovered a massive threat to the Confederation, in my opinion at least as dangerous as possession.”

“Physically dangerous,” Samuel interjected. He smiled for the interruption. “I do concur with Monica that the Tyrathca present us with an unexpected problem.”

“Crap,” Joshua said. “Look at what we did to them back at Hesperi-LN. You and the serjeants defeated an entire regiment of the soldier caste. And Lady Mac flew circles round their ships. Confederation technology means we outclass them by an order of magnitude.”

“Not quite, Joshua,” Ashly said. The pilot was still gazing at the last picture projected by the AV lens, an apprehensive expression on his face. “What Monica is saying is that we’ve stirred up the proverbial hornets’ nest. The potential of the Tyrathca threat is a serious one. If all those thousands of colony worlds joined together, sheer numbers would present us with a huge problem. And they do have Confederation technology, we sold them enough weapons in the past. They could retro-engineer combat wasps if they had to.”

“You saw how they used them against Lady Mac ,” Joshua said. “The Tyrathca can’t handle space warfare, they don’t have the right kind of neural wiring for that kind of activity.”

“They could learn. Trial and error would improve them. Granted they’ll probably never be as good as us. But that’s where their superior numbers come in, and it works against us. In the very long haul they could wear us down.”

“Why should they?” Liol asked. He spread his arms wide in appeal. “I mean, Christ, you’re sitting here talking like we’re at war with them. Sure they’re narked we jumped into their system and raised a little hell. But this flight is totally deniable, right? Nobody’s going to admit to sending us. You don’t commit your entire race to a conflict that will kill billions because we beat up a chunk of wreckage they’d already abandoned.”

“We tend to overlook what they are so that we can maintain our preferred policy of diplomatic tolerance,” Samuel said. “We like to see them as slightly simple, and stubborn; the ultimate big lummox. A species we can feel superior to, without them ever being aware of our complacent condescension. While in fact, they are a species so aggressive and territorial that they have evolved a soldier caste. Evolved one. We can barely comprehend the drive behind such a phenomena. Such a thing requires tens of millennia to achieve. Throughout all that time on their homeworld the social climate maintained the pressures necessitating such a development. Their history is a solid monoculture of conflict.”

“I still don’t see how that makes them a danger,” Liol persisted. “If anything it works in our favour. We provided the Hesperi-LN Tyrathca with the ZTT drive over two hundred years ago. And what do they do with it? Do they rush off to contact their long-lost relatives on the first five colony worlds? Bollocks. They’ve founded more colony worlds for themselves, so their immediate relatives could benefit. They didn’t want to share that little technological gem with anybody else.”

“You’re right,” the Edenist said. “Providing you add one qualifier: to date. As Monica said, we are dealing with the concept of potential here. In one respect, the Tyrathca are like us; an external threat will unite them. The arkships themselves are proof of that.”

“We’re not a threat to them!” Liol was almost shouting.

“We haven’t been until now,” Monica said. “Until now they didn’t know we could become elemental. They were so disturbed by the prospect of human possessed they immediately opted for isolation. We have become a danger. Possessed humans have attacked Tyrathca settlements. Our already superior military strength has been multiplied by an unknown amount. Remember they do not see humanity divided between possessed and non-possessed. We are one species, that has suddenly and dramatically changed for the worse.” She pointed to the projection. “And now we’ve seen what happens to xenoc species which come into dispute with the Tyrathca.”

Liol lapsed back into silence. Scowling, worried now rather than angered by losing the argument.

“All right,” Joshua said. “There’s a potential for conflict between the Tyrathca and the Confederation, assuming we survive possession intact. It still doesn’t affect our mission.”

“The Confederation should be warned of this development,” Monica said. “We have learned more about Tyrathcan nature than anyone has before. And with their isolation policy, nobody else is likely to find out. That knowledge is now of considerable strategic importance.”

“You’re not seriously suggesting we turn back already?” Joshua asked.

“I have to concur with Monica, that’s now a factor we should consider,” Samuel said.

“No no,” Joshua said. “You’re blowing this out of all proportion. Look, we’re forty-two light-years from Yaroslav, which is the nearest Confederation star system. Lady Mac would have to expend a lot of delta-V to match velocities. We’d take over a day to get there, and the same to get back here. And right now, time is the biggest critical factor we have. Who knows what the possessed are cooking up behind us? They might even have taken over the Yaroslav system.”

“Not the Edenist habitats,” Monica said. “Voidhawks could distribute our warning.”

“The Oenone would only need a day to get to Yaroslav and back,” Ruben said. “That’s not so much of a delay.” He gave Syrinx an encouraging smile.

She didn’t return it. “I really don’t want us to separate at this point,” she said. “Besides, we haven’t even established how the search for the Sleeping God is progressing. I think we should at least hear the status review from Parker’s team before we go making that kind of decision.”

“Agreed,” Joshua said quickly. Monica glanced at Samuel, then shrugged. “Okay.”

Parker leaned forward, permitting himself a small smile. “At least I have one piece of good news for us: we have confirmed the Sleeping God does exist. There’s a reference in one of the Tyrathca files.”

There were smiles all round the lounge. Ashly clapped his hands together, and let out an exhilarated: “Yes!” He and Liol grinned broadly at each other.

“The file didn’t tell us what the bloody thing was,” Kempster said gruffly. “Just what it did. And that’s really weird.”

“Assuming it’s true,” Renato said.

“Don’t be such a depressive, my boy. We’ve already been through that aspect. The Tyrathca don’t invent stories, they can’t.”

“So what can it do?” Joshua asked.

“From what we can determine, it transported one of their arkships a hundred and fifty light-years. Instantaneously.”

“It’s a stardrive?” Joshua asked in disappointment.

“I don’t think so. Oski, would you put this in perspective for us, please.”

“Certainly.” She datavised the processor block on her table, clearing the final picture of the Tyrathca invasion from the AV projection. “This is a simulation of Tanjuntic-RI’s flightpath from Mastrit-PJ to Hesperi-LN, based on what we’ve discovered in the files from the arkship.” The AV lens projected a complex starchart centred on the colourful smear of the Orion nebula. A red star on the opposite side of the nebula from the Confederation was surrounded by a swarm of informational icons. “Mastrit-PJ is now either a red giant or supergiant, and it has to be quite close to the far side of the nebula, which is why we’ve never seen it before. Now, the Tanjuntic-RI flew right round the nebula. We don’t know which way round; the Tyrathca have never revealed the location of their other colonies to us, and we didn’t extract enough information from their terminals to determine them. However, we know for certain that it stopped eleven times en route, eventually finishing up at Hesperi-LN. Five of those stops were to found colonies; the others were in star systems without a biocompatible planet, so they just refuelled and repaired Tanjuntic-RI, and carried on.” A thin blue line extended out from Mastrit-PJ, linking eleven stars in a rough curve going around on the galactic South side the luminescent nebula. “This course is important, because it actually cut the arkship off from direct line of sight to Mastrit-PJ. Their communication laser simply wasn’t powerful enough to penetrate the dust and gas that makes up the nebula. So after the fourth star they visited, all messages to and from Mastrit-PJ had to be relayed through the colonies. Which is also why the latter communiqué files were stored in the Planetary Habitation terminal.”

“We think Mastrit-PJ’s stellar expansion must account for the eventual fall off in message traffic,” Renato said eagerly. “Towards the end of the flight, Tanjuntic-RI was communicating with the colonies alone. Some messages were also forwarded from colonies established by other arkships, but there was nothing coming from Mastrit-PJ at all.”

“I’m surprised there ever was,” Alkad said. “If it detonated into a red giant, nothing should have survived. The star’s planets would have been consumed.”

“They must have set up some kind of redoubt in the cometary halo,” Renato said. “Their astroengineering resources were quite considerable by that time, after all. The Tyrathca who didn’t get to leave on arkships would have made some kind of survival attempt.”

“Fair assumption,” Alkad acknowledged.

“But that civilization would be finite,” Renato said. “They have no new resources to exploit, they can’t replenish themselves like the arkships do at every new star system. So eventually, they died off. Hence the lack of messages in the last five thousand years.”

“But one of the last communiqués from Mastrit-PJ was the one concerning the Sleeping God,” Parker said. “A century later, they finally went off air. Tanjuntic-RI had beamed a message back, asking for further details, but by then they were eight hundred light-years away. The Mastrit-PJ civilization was probably extinct before the first colony world received the original communiqué.”

“Can we see it, please?” Ruben asked.

“Of course,” Oski said. “We isolated the relevant text from the message, there’s a lot of softbloat garbage about source and compression. And they repeat each message thousands of times over about a fortnight to ensure the entire chunk is eventually received intact.” She gave them a file code. When they accessed it, the processor showed a simple text sheet.

INCOMING SIGNAL RECEIVED

DATE 75572-094-648

SOURCE FALINDI-TY RELAY

MASTRIT-PJ REPORTS

FLIGHTSHIP SWANTIC-LI SIGNAL RE-ACQUIRED DATE 38647-046-831.

LAST SIGNAL RECEIVED DATE 23867-032-749.

INCLUDED

TRANSMISSION DETAILS

SWANTIC-LI REPORTS

DATE 29321-072-491. PLASMA BUFFER FAILURE WHILE DECELERATING INTO STAR SYSTEM **********. MULTIPLE IMPACT DAMAGE. 1 HABITATION RING DEPRESSURIZED. 27 INDUSTRIAL SUPPORT CHAMBERS DEPRESSURIZED WITH ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT LOSS. 32% POPULATION KILLED. LIFE-SUPPORT FUNCTIONS UNSUSTAINABLE. TOTAL LIFE-SUPPORT CESSATION EXPECTED WITHIN 7 WEEKS. NO INHABITABLE PLANETS IN STAR SYSTEM. SENSORS LOCATED AN EXTENSIVE SPATIAL DISTURBANCE ORBITING THE STAR. IT IS A DORMANT SOURCE OF GODPOWER. IT SEES THE UNIVERSE. IT CONTROLS EVERY ASPECT OF PHYSICAL EXISTENCE. ITS REASON IS TO ASSIST PROGRESS OF BIOLOGICAL ENTITIES. OUR ARRIVAL WOKE IT. WHEN WE ASKED FOR ITS HELP IT TRANSPORTED SWANTIC-LI TO THIS STAR SYSTEM 160 LIGHT-YEARS AWAY, WHERE THERE IS A HABITABLE PLANET. TO ANY WHO COME AFTER US, WE DEEM IT AN ALLY OF ALL TYRATHCA.

DATE 29385-040-175. SWANTIC-LI POPULATION TRANSFERRED TO HABITABLE PLANET. COLONY GOERTHT-WN ESTABLISHED.

Tagged on to the end of the file were three pictures. The quality was uniformly low, even after passing through discrimination and amplification filter programs. All of them showed a silver-grey smear against a stellar background. Whatever the object was, the Tyrathca of Coastuc-RT had reproduced its shape almost exactly: a broad disk with conical spires rising from each side. Its surface was smooth, without any visible markings or structures, a constant metallic sheen.

“How big is it?” Joshua asked.

“Unknown,” Renato said. “And unknowable. We don’t have any references. There was no focal length given for any of the pictures, so there’s no way we can put a number on the beast. It could be gas-giant sized, or a couple of kilometres across. The only clue I have to go on is their claim that it comes complete with an extensive spatial disturbance, which I’m assuming is some kind of intense gravity field. That would tend to prohibit anything too small. The one object that can qualify as coming near to filling the parameters we’ve got so far is a small neutron star, but that couldn’t have this shape.”

Joshua gave Alkad a long look. “Neutron stars of whatever size don’t have the properties described by the Tyrathca in that communiqué,” she said. “Nor do they look like that. I think we have to conclude it’s an artefact.”

“I’m not going to quibble with anyone’s theories,” Kempster said. “Plain and simple, we don’t have enough information to determine its nature. Sitting here trying to second guess what five fuzzy pictures are showing us is completely pointless. What we have established, is the existence of something with some very strange properties.”

“The term ‘godpower’ is fascinating,” Parker said. “Especially as we’re not dealing with spoken nuances. Plain text gives our translation a much higher level of accuracy.”

“Ha!” Kempster waved a dismissive hand at the director. “Come off it, we don’t even have an accurate definition of God in our own language. Every culture assigns different values to God. Humanity has used the term to mean everything from creator of the universe to a group of big angry men who have nothing better to do than mess about with the weather. It’s a concept, not a description.”

“However you want to squabble over semantics, God implies an extraordinary amount of power in any language.”

“Godpower, not God,” Ruben corrected pointedly. “That has to be significant, too. It’s definitely an artefact of some kind. And as the Tyrathca didn’t build it, we’ve probably got as much chance as anyone of switching it back on.”

“It was dormant, and their approach woke it up,” Oski said. “Sounds like you don’t even have to press the button to activate it.”

“I say it still sounds like a stardrive to me,” Liol said, with a nod to Joshua. “The communiqué said it assists the progress of biological entities, and it shunted that arkship a hundred and sixty light-years. That seems pretty clear cut. No wonder the Tyrathca thought it was bloody miraculous. They don’t have FTL technology. And a stardrive big enough to transport an arkship is going to be built on one hell of an impressive scale. It was bound to astonish them, even with their fatalistic phlegmatism.”

“They said a lot of things about it,” Joshua said. “None of which quite match up. What I mean is, none of the qualities they’ve given it are aspects of a single machine. Stardrives don’t observe the universe, nor do they control physical existence.”

“I could add several questions,” Syrinx said. “Like what is it doing in a star-system with no biocompatible planet? It would also appear that there’s some kind of controlling sentience. Remember the Tyrathca asked it for help, they didn’t just switch it to stardrive function and fly away.”

“They couldn’t have anyway,” Samuel said. “It sent Swantic-LI to a system with an inhabitable planet. In other words, it knew there was one there when the Tyrathca didn’t.”

“That makes it benign, as well,” Kempster said. “Or at least, friendly; presumably to biological entities. And I’m just arrogant enough to believe that if it was co-operative with the Tyrathca it really ought to extend the same courtesy to us.”

Joshua looked round the group. “If no one has anything to add about its abilities or nature, I think we’ve learned enough to confirm we should continue with this mission. Monica, you want to say no?”

The ESA agent pressed her head into her hands and stared at the decking. “I agree this thing sounds pretty impressive, but I wasn’t just drawing attention to the Tyrathca to be a pain. They do worry me.”

“Not on any timescale we have to worry about,” Oski said. “Even assuming you’re one hundred per cent right, and they now see the human race as a dangerous plague to be wiped out. It would be decades before they can even contemplate such an action. Take the worst case, and assume they’ve already travelled from Hesperi-LN to the other colonies Tanjuntic-RI founded. They still won’t be able to build ZTT starships for years to come, not in any quantity. Frankly, I have my doubts they would ever manage it. Retro-engineering our systems would be extremely difficult for them, given their lack of intuition. Even if they did crack it, they’d have to build production stations. So even if this flight takes us a couple of years, we’ll still be back well in time to warn the First Admiral.”

Monica consulted Samuel. “I think that’s reasonable,” he said.

“All right,” she said reluctantly. “I admit I’m curious about this Sleeping God.”

“Good,” Joshua said. “Next question, where the hell is it? You left the star system location blank.”

“It’s a ten digit coordinate,” Kempster said. “I can give you a direct translation if you really want. Unfortunately, it’s total nonsense, because we don’t have the Tyrathca almanac from which it was taken.”

“Oh bollocks!” Liol slumped back into the couch, slapping the cushion fabric in frustration. “You mean we’ve got to go back into Tanjuntic-RI?”

“Unwise,” Samuel said. “I believe the hornets’ nest analogy applies. We really did stir them up.”

“Can’t the Oenone work it out?” Liol asked. “I thought voidhawks have a real good spatial awareness.”

“They do,” Syrinx said. “If we had a Tyrathca almanac, we could take you straight to the star with the Sleeping God. But first we need that almanac, and there’s only one place to get it from. We have to go back.”

“Not so,” Kempster said cheerily. “There is a second star system where we know it exists: Mastrit-PJ itself. Even better, they received Swantic-LI’s messages direct; there may be others which were never relayed to Tanjuntic-RI. All we have to do is fly around the Orion nebula, any red giant star will shine at us like a damn great beacon. As soon as the sensors see it, we can work out a valid approach vector.”

“More promising, from our point of view, Mastrit-PJ is now uninhabited,” Parker said. “This time we’ll be able to undertake a more leisurely, and thorough, retrieval of the files we want from the ruins.”

“We don’t know how long this redoubt civilization has been dead for,” Oski said, a note of worry in her voice. “The condition of the Laymil relics are bad enough, and they’re only two and a half thousand years old. I can’t promise I can recover anything from electronics that have been exposed to space for twice that long.”

“If necessary, we can just scout round the stars closest to Mastrit-PJ for other Tyrathca colonies. There must be a lot of them in that area. They won’t have been warned about us devious humans yet. The point is, we can find copies of that almanac on the other side of the nebula.”

“I wasn’t disputing that,” Oski said. “I’m just saying, for the record, there may be problems.”

“You’re all overlooking one thing,” Joshua said. He almost smiled when he received their indignant looks. “Is there even going to be a Sleeping God waiting for us if the Kiint get there first? And what the hell do they want with it anyway?”

“We can’t not continue because of the Kiint,” Syrinx said. “In any case, we don’t have real proof that . . .” she trailed off under Joshua’s mocking gaze. “All right, they were at Tanjuntic-RI. But we knew they were interested before we set out. It’s because of them we’re here now. To my mind, this just proves the Sleeping God is a big deal.”

“All right,” Joshua said. “The other side of the nebula, it is.”

Chapter 02

Fifty years ago, Sinon had visited the Welsh-ethnic planet Llandilo, where he’d spent a cold three hours straddling sunrise to watch a clan of New Druids welcome the first day of spring. As pagan ceremonies went, it was a fairly boring affair for an outsider, with off-key singing and interminable Gaelic invocations to the planet’s mother goddess. Only the setting made it worthwhile. They’d gathered on the headland of some eastward-facing coastal cliffs, where a line of tremendous granite pillars marched out to sea. God’s colonnade, the locals called it.

When the sun rose, pink and gold out of the swaddling sea mist, its crescent was aligned perfectly along the line of pillars. One by one, their tops had blazed with rose-gold coronas as the shadows flowed away. Gladdened by nature’s poignancy, the congregation of white-clad New Druids had finally managed to achieve a decent harmony and their voices rang out across the shore.

It was a strange recollection for Sinon to bring to his new serjeant body with its restricted memory capacity. He certainly couldn’t remember his reason for retaining it. An overdose of sentiment, presumably. Whatever the motive, the Llandilo memory was currently providing a useful acclimatisation bridge to the present. Nine thousand of the serjeants trapped on Ketton’s island had gathered together near the edge of the plateau to exert their will, with the remainder joining their endeavours via affinity as they walked resolutely over the mud towards the rendezvous point. They weren’t praying, exactly, but the visual similarity with the New Druids was an amusing comfort. The beleaguered Edenists needed whatever solace they could garner from the dire situation.

Their first, and urgent, priority had been to stem the gush of atmosphere away from the flying island before everybody suffocated. A simple enough task for their assembled minds now they had acquired some degree of energistic power; the unified wish bent whatever passed for local reality into obedience. Even Stephanie Ash and her raggedy little group of followers had aided them in that. Now it was as though the air layer around the outside of the island had become an impregnable vertical shield.

Encouraged and relieved, they stated their second wish loud and clear: to return. In theory, it should have been easy. If a massive concentration of energistic power had brought them here to this realm, then an equally insistent concentration should be able to get them back. So far, this argument of logical symmetry had failed them utterly.

“You dudes should give it a rest,” Cochrane said irritably. “It’s real spooky with all of you standing still like some zombie army.”

Along with the others of Stephanie’s group, the redoubtable hippie had spent a quarter of an hour trying to help the serjeants open some kind of link back to the old universe. When it became obvious (to them) that such a connection was going to be inordinately difficult, if not impossible, he’d let his attention drift. They’d ended up sitting in a circle round Tina, giving her what support and comfort they could.

She was still very weak, sweating and shivering as she lay inside a heavily insulated field sleeping bag. One of the serjeants with medical knowledge who’d examined her said that loss of blood was the biggest problem. Their direct infusion equipment didn’t work in this realm, so it had rigged up a primitive intravenous plasma drip feed for her.

Stephanie’s unvoiced worry was that Tina had suffered the kind of internal injuries they could never repair properly with their energistic power, however much they willed her to be better. As with Moyo’s eyes, the subtleties of the flesh had defeated them. They needed fully-functional medical nanonic packages. Which wasn’t going to happen here.

Her other concern was exactly what would happen to the souls of anyone whose body died in this realm. Their connection with the beyond had been irrevocably severed. It wasn’t a prospect she wanted to explore. Though looking at Tina’s poorly acted cheer, she thought they might all find out before too long.

Sinon broke out of his trance-state, and looked down at Cochrane. “Our attempt to manipulate the energistic power is not a physically draining exercise. As there is nothing else for us to do here, we consider it appropriate to continue with our efforts to return home.”

“You do, huh? Yeah, well, I can dig that. I purge myself with yoga. It’s righteous. But, you know, us cats, we’ve got to like eat at some time.”

“I’m sorry, you should have said.” Sinon walked over to one of the large piles of backpacks and weapons which the serjeants had discarded. He found his own and unfastened the top. “We don’t ingest solid food, I’m afraid, but our nutrient soup will sustain you. It contains all the proteins and vitamins required by a normal human digestion system.” He pulled out several silvery sachets and distributed them round the dubious group. “You should supplement the meal with water.”

Cochrane flipped the cap off the sachet’s small valve and sniffed suspiciously. With everyone watching intently, he squeezed a couple of drops of the pale amber liquid onto his finger, and licked at them. “Holy shit! It tastes like seawater. Man, I can’t eat raw plankton, I’m not a whale.”

“Big enough to qualify,” Rana muttered under her breath.

“We have no other source of nourishment available,” Sinon said in mild rebuke.

“It’s fine, thank you,” Stephanie told the big serjeant. She concentrated for a moment, and her sachet solidified into a bar of chocolate. “Don’t pay any attention to Cochrane. We can imagine it to be whatever taste we like.”

“Bad karma’ll get you,” the hippie sniffed. “Yo there, Sinon. You got a glass going spare? I figure I can still remember what a shot of decent bourbon tastes like.”

The serjeant rummaged round in his pack, and found a plastic cup.

“Hey, thanks, man.” Cochrane took it from him, and transformed it into a crystal tumbler. He poured a measure of the nutrient soup out, watching happily as it thinned into his favourite familiar golden liquor. “More like it.”

Stephanie peeled the wrapper from her chocolate, and bit off a corner. It tasted every bit as good as the imported Swiss-ethnic delicacy she remembered from her childhood. But then, in this case the memory is the taste, she told herself wryly. “How much of this nutrient soup have you got left?” she asked.

“We each carry a week’s supply in our pack,” Sinon said. “That period is calculated on the assumption we will be physically active for most of the time. With careful rationing it should last between two and three weeks.”

Stephanie gazed out across the rumpled grey-brown mud which made up the surface of the flying island. Occasional pools of water glinted in the uniform blue-tinted glare that surrounded them. A few scattered ferrangs and kolfrans nosed around the edges of drying mires, nibbling at the fronds of smothered vegetation. Not enough to provide the combined human and serjeant inhabitants with a single meal. “I guess that’s all the time we’ve got then. Even if we had warehouses full of seed grain, three weeks isn’t enough time to produce a crop.”

“It is debatable if the air will sustain us for that long anyway,” Sinon said. “Our estimate for the human and serjeant population on this island is twenty-thousand-plus individuals. We won’t run out of oxygen, but the increase in carbon dioxide caused by that many people breathing will reach a potentially dangerous level in ten days’ time unless that air is recycled. As you can see, no vegetation survives to do this. Hence our determination to explore the potential of our energistic power.”

“We really ought to be helping you,” Stephanie said. “Except I don’t see how we can. None of us have affinity.”

“The time might come when we need your instinct,” Sinon said. “Your collective will brought us here. It is possible that you can find a way back. Part of our problem is that we don’t understand where we are. We have no reference points. If we knew where we were in relation to our own universe, we might be able to fashion a link back to it. But as we played no part in bringing the island here, we don’t know how to begin the search.”

“I don’t think we do either,” Moyo said. “This is just a haven for us, a place where the Liberation isn’t.”

“Interesting,” Sinon said. More serjeants started to listen to the conversation, eager for any clue that might be scattered amid the injured man’s words. “You weren’t aware of this realm before, then?”

“No. Not specifically. Although I suppose we were aware that such a place existed, or could exist. The desire to reach it is endemic among us—the possessors, that is. We want to live where we don’t have any connection to the beyond, and where there’s no night to remind us of empty space.”

“And you believe this is it?”

“It would seem to fill the criteria,” Moyo said. “Not that I can vouch for the lack of night,” he added bitterly.

“Are the other planets here?” Sinon asked. “Norfolk and all the others? Were you aware of them at any time?”

“No. I never heard or felt anything like that when we moved here.”

“Thank you.” Instinct appears to be the governing factor,he said to the others. I don’t believe we can rely on it for answers.

I don’t understand why we can’t simply wish ourselves back,choma said. We have a power equal to theirs; we also have a commensurate desire to return.

The united minds in their mini-consensus decided there were two options. That the possessed had spontaneously created a sealed continuum for themselves. An improbable event. While that would account for several properties of this realm—the failure of their electronic hardware, the cutting off of the beyond—the creation of an entirely new continuum by manipulating existing space-time with energy would be an inordinately complex process. Coming here was achieved by sheer fright, which discounted such a procedure.

More likely, this continuum already existed, secluded among the limitless dimensions of space-time. The beyond was such a place, though with very different parameters. They must have been thrown deep inside the multitude of parallel realms conjunctive within the universe. In such circumstances, home would be no distance at all away from where they were now. At the same time, it was on the other side of infinity.

There was also the failure to open even a microscopic wormhole, despite a formidable concentration of their energistic strength. That did not bode well at all. Before, ten thousand possessed had opened a portal wide enough to embrace a lump of rock twelve kilometres in diameter. Now, twelve thousand serjeants couldn’t generate a fissure wide enough to carry a photon out.

The explanation had to be that energy states were different here. And in eleven days’ time, that simple difference was going to kill them when the clean air ran out.

Stephanie watched Sinon for a couple of minutes, until it became apparent that he wasn’t going to say anything else. She could sense the minds of the serjeants all around her, just. There was none of the emotional surges which betrayed normal human thoughts. Just a small, even, glow of rationality, which occasionally fluttered with a hint of passion, a candle flame burning a speck of dust. She didn’t know if that was indicative of Edenist psyches, or normal serjeant mentality.

The swarthy bitek constructs remained unnervingly motionless as they stood in a loosely circular formation. Every new platoon which arrived immediately discarded their backpacks and joined their fellows in stationary contemplation of their predicament. As far as Stephanie could tell, they were the only humans among them. The newly arrived serjeants had all given the remnants of Ketton a wide berth. Yet she could sense a stir of minds amid the ruined town. As first puzzled why not one of them had ventured out to talk to the serjeants, she’d now assigned a certain resignation to the fact.

“We should go over and talk to the others,” she said. “Having this kind of division is ridiculous in these circumstances. If we’re going to survive, we have to cooperate and work together.”

McPhee sighed, and wriggled his large frame comfortably over the sleeping bag he was lying on. “Oh lass, you only see good in everyone. Open your eyes. Remember what yon bastards did to us, and let them stew.”

“I’d like to open my eyes,” Moyo said harshly. “Stephanie’s right. We should at least make an attempt. Setting up different camps is stupid.”

“I didn’t mean to offend. I’m just pointing out that they’ve made no attempt to talk to us or the serjeants.”

“They’re probably too nervous of the serjeants,” Stephanie said. “It’s only been half a day, after all. I doubt they even know how much trouble we’re in. They’re not as disciplined as the Edenists.”

“They’ll find out eventually,” Rana said. “Let them come to us when they’re ready. They won’t be so dangerous then.”

“They’re not dangerous now. And we’re in a perfect position to make the first move.”

“Whoa there, sister,” Cochrane said. He struggled up into a sitting position, which sent a lot of bourbon slopping out of his tumbler. “Not dangerous? Like funky! What about the Ekelund chick? She put up some mighty fine barricades last time we waved goodbye.”

“That situation hardly applies anymore. You heard Sinon. We’re going to die if we don’t find a way out of here. Now I don’t know if their help will make any difference, but it certainly won’t reduce our chances.”

“Urrgh. I like hate it when you’re reasonable, it’s the ultimate bad trip. I know it’s bigtime wrong, and I can never escape.”

“Good. You’ll come with us, then.”

“Oww shit.”

“I’ll stay here with Tina,” Rana said quietly, and gave her friend’s hand a small squeeze. “Someone has to keep her comfortable.”

Tina smiled with hollow defiance. “I’m such a nuisance.” There was a chorus of indignant reassuring no’s from the group. They all hurriedly smiled at her or made encouraging gestures. Moyo’s face wore a forlorn expression as he fumbled round for Stephanie’s guiding hand.

“We won’t be long,” she told the pair of them positively. “Sinon?” She tapped the serjeant lightly on its shoulder. “Would you like to come with us?”

The serjeant stirred. “I will. Making contact is a good idea. Choma will accompany us, also.”

Stephanie couldn’t quite sort out the reason she was doing this. There was none of the automatic protectiveness which had driven her to help the children back on Mortonridge. Not even the sense of paternalism which had kept them all together in the weeks before the Liberation. She supposed it could have been simple self-preservation. She wanted the two sides working together to salvage this situation. Anything other than their wholehearted effort might not be enough.

The ground outside Ketton had suffered few changes following the quake. There was the shallowest of curves across the width of the island, betraying the original shape of the valley from which it had been snatched. Long hummocks bordered the slowly drying mires, rambling gently across the slope like the sand-ripples of a tidal estuary. All that remained of the forests which had smothered the foothills were denuded black branches poking resolutely skywards. There was no sign of the roads which had survived the deluge; the quake had swept them away. Twice they found craggy sheets of carbon concrete jutting up from the mud, leaning over at acute angles. Neither of them corresponded to their memory of where the road had been.

With the loam all churned up again, Stephanie found her feet sinking a couple of inches at every step. It wasn’t as bad as when they’d raced to keep ahead of the jeeps, but walking was an effort. And they still hadn’t fully regained their strength. Half a mile from the outskirts of the town, she stopped for a rest, disappointed at how hard she was breathing. Each inhalation made her feel guilty at the way she was poisoning the air.

From a distance, Ketton was at least different to the surrounding land. Individual, tightly-packed zones of colour supported the theory that although most of the buildings were damaged, they at least remained loosely intact. Now she could see what a fallacy that was. She should have been warned by the complete absence of trees.

Cochrane prodded his narrow purple sunglasses up to his forehead, and peered ahead. “Man oh man, what were you cats thinking of? I mean, this is like wasted , with the world’s biggest capital W.”

“The harpoon assault against Ketton was intended to deprive the occupying possessed of any tactical cover,” Sinon said. “We have suffered considerable attrition due to your booby traps and ambushes. As you were determined to make a stand here, General Hiltch was equally resolved to deny you any advantage the town itself could offer. I believe the quake was also supposed to be a psychological blow as well.”

“Yeah?” the hippie scoffed. “Well that backfired on you, didn’t it? Look where scaring us shitless got you.”

“You consider yourself better off here?” McPhee laughed snidely at Cochrane’s chagrin.

“Is it bad?” Moyo asked.

“There’s nothing left,” Stephanie told him. “Nothing at all.” Up close the patches of colour were actually just dull variations of grime, low mounds of rubble that fused into the mud. Even with their energistic power almost undimmed, the possessed had made no attempt to resurrect the buildings. Instead, people were picking their way among the ruins, a constant swarm of movement.

As they drew closer, she realized there was nothing aimless and disorientated in the actions of the survivors. They were methodically excavating the mounds, scooping out quantities of bricks and shattered concrete with a combination of physical and energistic force. It was all very purposeful and efficient. In other words, organized.

“Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea,” she said in a low voice as they reached the outer knolls of rubble. “I think Ekelund might still be in charge here.”

“In charge of what?” Cochrane asked. “This is like a municipal landfill site. And they’ve only got ten days to live.”

A team of two women and one man, barely out of his teens, were working away on one of the piles, shifting large metal frames as if they were made of plastic. They’d already dug several short tunnels into the pile. Battered composite boxes of sachets had been stacked neatly just above the mud. The three of them stopped what they were doing as Stephanie and Sinon walked over. Stephanie’s spirits fell even further when she saw they were wearing army fatigues.

“We thought we ought to see if there was anything we could do to help,” she said. “If there’s somebody trapped in the wreckage, or anything.”

The young man scowled, looking between her and her companions. “Nobody trapped. What you doing with those Kingdom monster things? You some kind of spy?”

“No, I’m not a spy,” she said carefully. “There is nothing for anyone to spy on here. We’re on this island together. Nobody has anything to hide any more. There’s nothing to fight for, not amongst ourselves.”

“Oh yeah? How much food have you got? Not much, I’ll bet. Is that why you’re here?” His anxious glance slipped to the small stack of boxes they’d uncovered.

“The serjeants have enough food to last us, thank you. Who’s actually in charge here?”

The man was opening his mouth to answer when an incredible stab of hot pain punctured Stephanie’s hip. It was so intense she couldn’t even cry out in shock. She was flung back by the force of the impact, the world spinning madly about her. Landing on her back, she saw her limbs splayed out in the air. Gore and blood splattered onto the mud around her as she went limp.

I’ve been shot!

Everyone was shouting wildly. Dashing about in total confusion. The air hazed over with bright scintillations, thickening protectively around her. Stephanie raised her head, looking along her body with numb interest. Her trousers and blouse were glistening crimson with blood. There was a long rent in the fabric over her hip, showing the torn flesh and splinters of bone underneath. Shock gave her vision a perfect clarity. Then her head suddenly became very warm, and the hideous pain returned. She screamed, her vision turning grey as her muscles relaxed, dropping her head down into the mud again.

“Stephanie! Fuck, oh fuck, what’s happened?”

That was Moyo, his anguish and fright making her frown.

“Ho-lee shit! Those dudes shot her. Yo, Stephanie, babe, you hear me? You hang on. It’s like a scratch. It’s nothing. We’ll fix it for you.”

A dark demon was kneeling beside her, its carapace alive with wriggling sparks.

“I’m applying pressure. It should stop the bleeding. Focus your thoughts on repairing the bone first.”

Stephanie was receding from them, only vaguely aware of a dry liquid spilling all across her torso. It was deepest over her hips, exerting a cool weight. A beautiful opalescent cloud twinkled languidly in front of her eyes. Soothing to watch. She could feel her yammering heart slowing to a more pedestrian rhythm. Which brought her frantic gasps back under control. That was good. She still harboured a lot of guilt about using all that air.

“It’s sealing up.”

“God, the blood.”

“She’s all right. She’s alive.”

“Stephanie, can you hear me?”

Long shivers were rippling up and down her body. Her skin had turned to ice. But she could blink her eyes into focus. The faces of her dear friends were staring down, paralysed with grief.

Her lips flicked into a tiny smile. “That hurt,” she whispered.

“Just take it easy,” Franklin grunted. “You’re in shock.”

“Certainly am.” Moyo’s hand was clutching her upper arm so tightly it was painful. She tried to reach for him, offer some reassurance.

“The wound has been repaired,” Sinon said. “You have lost a considerable amount of blood, however. We’ll need to take you back to our camp, and get some plasma into you.”

Something familiar was creeping into her sphere of consciousness. Familiar and unwelcome. Cold, hard thoughts, reeking of callous satisfaction.

“I told you so, Stephanie Ash. I told you not to come back here.”

“You piece of fascist shit!” McPhee bellowed. “We’re no’ armed.”

Stephanie struggled to lift her head. Annette Ekelund was standing at the head of some thirty or so soldiers. She was wearing an immaculately pressed pale khaki field commander’s uniform, complete with forage cap. Three stars glinted unnaturally on her epaulettes. A powerful hunting rifle was cradled casually in her hands. Holding Stephanie’s gaze, she worked the bolt slowly and deliberately. A spent cartridge case was ejected.

Stephanie groaned, her shoulders sagging with dismay. “You’re insane.”

“You bring the enemy into our camp, and you expect to go unpunished. Come come, Stephanie, that’s not how it works.”

“What enemy? We came to see if you needed help. Don’t you understand?” She wanted to retreat back into the numb oblivion of pain and shock. It was preferable to this.

“Nothing has changed simply because we’ve won. They are still the enemy. And you and your loony bin refugee friends are traitors.”

“Excuse me,” Sinon said. “But you have not won. This island has no food. The air will run out in ten days’ time. All of us have to find a way back before then.”

“What do you mean the air’s running out?” Delvan asked.

Sinon’s voice became louder. “There is no fresh air in this realm, only what we brought with us. At the current rate, our breathing will exhaust it in ten days, a fortnight at the most.”

Several soldiers in the ranks behind Ekelund exchanged solicitous glances with each other.

“Simple disinformation,” Annette said dismissively. “It sounds very plausible. If we were back in our old universe I’d even believe it myself. But we’re not. We’re in the place of our choosing. And we chose an existence that would carry us safely down through eternity. This is as close to classical heaven as the human race will ever get.”

“You specified the boundary qualifications,” Sinon said. “A realm where you were cut off from the beyond, and night is a null concept. But that’s all you did. This realm isn’t going to safeguard you from folly. It’s not some actively benign environment that will happily provide every need. You are responsible for what you bring here, and all you brought was a lump of lifeless rock with a thin smear of air on top. Tell me, I’m interested, how do you think this island is going to sustain you for tens of thousands of years?”

“You are a machine. A machine designed with one purpose, to kill. That is all you understand. You have no soul. If you had, you would feel at one with this place. You would know its glory. This is where we longed to be. Where we are safe, and at peace. You have lost, machine.”

“Yo there.” Cochrane had raised his hand. He smiled broadly, radiating enthusiasm like an eager schoolboy. “Um, lady, I’m normally like organic I’m so in touch with the music of the land. And I gotta tell you, I don’t feel shit for this lump of mud. There’s no karmic vibes here, babe. Believe me.”

“Believe a seditious junkie? I think not.”

“What do you want?” Stephanie asked. She could see Cochrane losing his cool if he kept on arguing with Ekelund. That would turn out bad for everybody. Ekelund needed very little justification to exterminate all of them. In fact, Stephanie was wondering what was holding her back. Probably just enjoying her gloat.

“I don’t want anything, Stephanie. You broke our arrangement and came here to me, remember?”

“In peace. Wanting to help.”

“We don’t need help. Not from you. Not here. I have everything under control.”

“Stop this.”

“Stop what, Stephanie?”

“Let them go. Give these people back their liberty. For pity’s sake, we’ll die here if we can’t find a way out, and you’ve got them fenced in by your authoritarian regime. This isn’t heaven. This is a huge mistake we got panicked into making. The serjeants are trying to help us. Why can’t you cooperate with that?”

“Ten hours ago, these things you’ve befriended were trying to kill us. No, worse than kill. Any of us they capture, they throw back into the beyond. I didn’t see you rushing to hand back your nice new body, Stephanie. You went crawling out of Ketton hoping to hide in the dirt until they passed over.”

“Look if it’s some kind of revenge trip you want, then just shoot me in the head and get it over with. But let the others go. You can’t condemn everyone on this island just because you have so much fear and hatred inside.”

“I abhor your assumed nobility.” Annette walked past Cochrane and Sinon to stand over Stephanie. The barrel of the rifle hung inches above her clammy forehead. “I find it utterly repellent. You can never accept that you might be wrong. You perpetually claim the moral high ground as if it’s some kind of natural inheritance. You use your own sweetness-and-light nature as a shield to ignore what you’ve done to the body you’ve stolen. That disgusts me. I would never try to deny what I am, nor what I’ve done. So just for once, admit the truth. I did what was right. I organized the defence of two million souls, including yours, and prevented you from being cast back into that horror. Tell me, Stephanie, was that the right thing to do?”

Stephanie closed her eyes, squeezing small trickles of moisture out onto her cheeks. Maybe Ekelund is right, maybe I am trying to ignore this monstrous crime. Who wouldn’t? “I know what I’ve done is wrong. I’ve always known. But I haven’t got a choice.”

“Thank you, Stephanie.” She turned to Sinon. “And you, death machine, if you believe what you say, then you should switch yourself off and allow real humans to live longer. You’re wasting our air.”

“I am human. More so than you, I suspect.”

“The time will come when we will throw the serpent back out into the emptiness.” She smiled without humour. “Enjoy the fall. It looks like being a long one.”

Sylvester Geray opened the doors to Princess Kirsten’s private office and gestured Ralph to go through. The Princess was sitting at her desk, with the French doors open behind her, allowing a slight breeze to ruffle her dress. Ralph stood to attention in front of her, saluted, then put his flek down on the desk. He’d worked on the single file stored inside during the flight over from Xingu.

Kirsten looked at it with pursed lips, making no attempt to pick it up. “And that is . . . ?” She said it with the air of someone who knew very well what it contained.

“My resignation, ma’am.”

“Rejected.”

“Ma’am, we lost twelve thousand serjeants at Ketton, and God knows how many possessed civilians went with them. I gave the order. It is my responsibility.”

“It certainly is, yes. You assumed that responsibility when Alaistair placed you in charge of the Liberation. And you will continue to bear that responsibility until the last possessed on Mortonridge is placed in zero-tau.”

“I can’t do it.”

Kristen gave him a sympathetic look. “Sit down, Ralph.” She indicated one of the chairs in front of the desk. For a second it appeared as though Ralph might refuse, but he gave a subdued nod and eased himself down.

“Now you know what being a Saldana is like,” she told him. “Admittedly, we’re not faced with quite such momentous decisions every day, but they still pass across this desk here. My brother has authorized fleet deployments which have resulted in a far higher cost of life than Ketton. And as you of all people know, we indirectly license the elimination of people who would one day cause trouble for the Kingdom. Not very many, and not very often, perhaps, but it mounts up over the course of a decade. Those decisions have to be made, Ralph. So I grit my teeth, and give the necessary orders, the really tough ones that the Cabinet would have a collective fit over if they were ever made to take them. That’s genuine political power. Making the decisions which affect other people’s lives. The overall daily running of the Kingdom is our domain, us Saldanas. Now call us what you like: ruthless dictators, heartless capitalists, or benign guardians appointed by God. The point is, what we do, we do very well indeed. That’s because we take those decisions without hesitation.”

“You’re trained to, ma’am.”

“True. But so are you. I admit the scale here is vastly different to what an ESA head of station is accustomed to. But in the end, you’ve been deciding who lives and who dies for some time now.”

“I got it wrong!” Ralph wanted to shout at her, make her see reason. Something in his subconscious held him back. Not out of respect, or even fear. Perhaps I just want to know I did the right thing. Nobody else in the Kingdom, except perhaps Alaistair II himself, could provide that assurance and have it mean anything.

“Yes Ralph, you did. You got it very badly wrong. Squeezing the possessed into Ketton was a bad move, even worse than using electron beams against the red cloud.”

He looked up in surprise, meeting the Princess’s uncompromising stare.

“Were you looking for compassion, Ralph? Because you won’t get it in here, not from me. I want you back on Xingu revising the advance across Mortonridge. Not just because you’re there to stop me and the family from taking the blame. I remember you the night we discovered Ekelund and the others had landed on this planet. You were driven, Ralph. It was mighty impressive to watch. You didn’t compromise a single decision to Jannike or Leonard. I enjoyed that. People of their rank don’t often get publicly stone-walled.”

“I didn’t realize you were paying me that much attention,” Ralph grunted.

“Of course you didn’t. You had one job to do, and nothing else mattered. Now you have another job. And I expect you to see it through.”

“I’m not the right man. That drive you saw, that’s what landed us with the Ketton fiasco. The AI gave me several options. I chose the brute force approach because I was too fired up for a rational alternative. Hammer them with overwhelming firepower and battalions of troops until they capitulate. Well now you know what that policy leaves us with. A damn great hole in the ground.”

“It was a painful lesson, wasn’t it?” She leant forward, determined to convince rather than alienate. “That just makes you better qualified to carry on.”

“Nobody will trust me.”

“Snap out of that self-pitying bullshit routine right now.”

Ralph almost smiled. Sworn at by a Saldana Princess.

“This is what war is about, Ralph. The Edenists aren’t going to carry grudges; they were part of the decision-making process to storm Ketton. As for the others, the marines and occupation forces, they all hate you anyway. One more cock-up by the chief isn’t going to make any difference to their opinion. They’ll get their orders for the next stage, and the lieutenants and NCOs will make sure they’re carried out to the letter. I want you to issue those orders. I’ve asked you twice, now.” Her finger pushed the flek back over the desk, a chessmaster going for checkmate.

“Yes ma’am.” He picked up the flek. Somehow he’d known all along it would never be that easy.

“Right,” Kirsten said briskly. “What’s your next move?”

“I was going to recommend my successor change our assault policy again. One of our principal concerns over the Ketton incident is how the inhabitants and serjeants are going to survive. Even if the possessed were stockpiling all the town’s supplies, there can’t be much food left wherever they’ve gone.”

“You’re guessing.”

“Yes ma’am. But unless we have totally misread the situation, it is a logical one. Prior to this, the possessed have removed entire planets to this hidden sanctuary dimension of theirs. A planet gives them a viable biosphere capable of feeding them. Ketton is different, it’s just rock with a layer of mud on top. It’s just a question which they run out of first, air or food.”

“Unless they find one of the other planets where they can take refuge.”

“I hope they can do that, ma’am, I really do. I don’t know what kind of conditions exist wherever they are, but they would have to be very weird indeed if it enables them to land that section of rock on a planet. In fact, we believe the strongest possibility is that they’ll return once they realize how much trouble they’re in. The geologists say that’ll cause all kinds of trouble, but we’re preparing for the eventuality.”

“Good grief.” Kirsten tried to imagine that vast section of countryside coming down to land in its own crater, and failed. “You realize, if they do come back, it will have a profound implication for the other planets? That would be proof that they can be returned as well.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“All right, this is all interesting theorizing, but what was the change of policy?”

“After we reviewed Ketton’s problems, we started to consider the supply situation on Mortonridge itself. Thanks to the deluge, there is no fresh food left at all; the satellites haven’t managed to find a single field of crops left intact on the whole peninsular. Some animals managed to survive; but they’re going to die soon because there’s nothing left for them to feed on. We know the possessed cannot use their energistic power to create any food, not out of inorganic matter. So it’s only a matter of time until they run out of commercially packaged food.”

“You can starve them out.”

“Yes. But it’s going to take time. Mortonridge had an agricultural economy. Most towns have some kind of food industry, either a processing factory or warehouse. If the possessed organize properly and ration what they’ve got, they can hold out for a while yet. What I’d suggest we do is continue the front line’s advance, but modify the direction they’re taking. The serjeants can still engage small groupings of possessed in the countryside without too much worry. Larger concentrations in the towns should be left alone. Set up a firebreak around them, leave a garrison to watch, and then just wait until the food runs out.”

“Or they pull another disappearing act.”

“We believe Ketton happened because the possessed we’d trapped there were pressured into reacting by the assault. There’s a big psychological difference between seeing ten thousand serjeants marching towards you and simply squabbling among yourselves over the last sachets of spaghetti bolognese.”

“The longer we leave them possessed, the worse condition the bodies will be in. And that’s before malnutrition.”

“Yes, ma’am. I know that. There’s also the problem that if we just simply contract the front line the way we have been doing, we’ll push a lot of possessed into one giant concentration in the middle. We’ll have to split Mortonridge into sections. That’ll mean redeploying the serjeants to drive inland in columns and link up. And if we’re leaving serjeants behind as garrisons, the numbers available for front line duties will be depleted just when we need them most.”

“More decisions, Ralph. What I said to you the other day about providing political cover still stands. Do what you have to on the ground, leave the rest to me.”

“Can I expect any improvement in the medical back-up situation? We’re really going to need it if we start sieges.”

“The Edenist ambassador has indicated that their habitats will take the worst cancer cases from us, but their voidhawks are badly stretched. Admiral Farquar is looking into making troop transports available, at least they have zero-tau pods in them. In fact, I’ve asked Alaistair for some Kulu Corporation colony transport ships. We can start storing patients until the pressure on facilities eases off.”

“That’s something, I suppose.”

Kirsten stood and datavised Sylvester Geray that the audience was over. “The most fundamental rule of modern society: Everything costs more and takes longer. It always has done, and always will do. And there’s nothing you or I can do about it, General.”

Ralph managed a small bow as the doors opened. “I’ll bear it in mind, ma’am.”

“I think I can manage to walk now,” Stephanie said.

Choma and Franklin had carried her back to the serjeant’s camp on an improvised stretcher. She’d lain on the muddy ground beside Tina, a sleeping bag wrapped round her legs and torso and a plasma drip in her arm. Too weak to move, she’d dozed on and off for hours, falling victim to vague anxiety-drenched dreams. Moyo had stayed at her side the whole time, holding her hand and mopping her brow. Her body was reacting to the wound as if she’d come down with a fever.

Eventually, the cold shivers passed, and she lay passively on her back gathering her woozy thoughts back together. Nothing much had changed: the serjeants were still standing motionless all around. Occasionally, a circular patch of air high above them would inflate with white light and pulse briefly before extinguishing. If she closed her eyes, she could sense the flow of energistic power into the zone they designated: an intense focal point that was attempting to tear a gap in the fabric of this realm. The pattern which they applied the energy changed subtly every time, but the result was always the same: dissipation. This realm’s reality remained stubbornly intact.

Choma looked over from where he was examining Tina’s lower spine. “I would rather you did not exert yourself for a while longer,” he said to Stephanie. “You did lose a lot of blood.”

“Just like me,” Tina said. It was little more than a whisper. Her arm lifted a couple of inches off the ground, hand feeling round through the air.

Stephanie touched her, and they twined fingers. Tina’s skin was alarmingly cold.

“Yes, I ought to take things easy, I suppose,” Stephanie said. “We won’t get better if we stress ourselves.”

Tina smiled and closed her eyes, a contented hum stealing away from her lips. “We are getting better, aren’t we.”

“That’s right.” Stephanie kept her voice level, hoping the discipline would also keep her thoughts from fluttering. “Us girls together.”

“Just like always. Everybody’s been so kind, even Cochrane.”

“He wants you back on your feet, so he can carry on trying to get you on your back again.”

Tina grinned, then slowly dropped back into a semi-slumber.

Stephanie raised herself onto her elbows, imagining the sleeping bag fluffing up into a large pillow. The fabric rose up to support her spine. Her friends were all there, watching her with kind or mildly embarrassed expressions. But all of them were concerned. “I’m such an idiot,” she said bitterly to them. “I should never have gone back to Ketton.”

“No way!” Cochrane boomed.

McPhee spat in the direction of the ruined town. “We did the right thing, the human thing.”

“It’s not you who is to blame,” Rana said primly. “That woman is utterly deranged.”

“Nobody knew that more than me,” Stephanie said. “We should have taken some elementary precautions at least. She could have shot all of us.”

“If showing compassion and trust is a flaw, then I’m proud to say I share it with you,” Franklin said.

“I should have guarded myself,” Stephanie said, almost to herself. “It was stupid. A bullet would never have done any damage before; we were careful back on Ombey. I just thought we would all pull together now we’re in the same predicament.”

“That was a big mistake.” Moyo patted her hand warmly. “First you’ve made since we met, so I’ll overlook it.”

She took his hand, and brought it up to her face, kissing his palm lightly. “Thank you.”

“I don’t think being prepared and paranoid would have been much use to us anyway,” Franklin said.

“Why not?”

He held up one of the nutrient soup sachets. The silver coating gradually turned blue and white as the shape rounded out. He was left holding a can of baked beans. “We’re not as strong here. Changing that sachet would have taken an eyeblink back in the old universe. And that’s why they can’t get back.” He indicated the serjeants just as another white blaze of air above them broke apart into expanding rivulets of blue ions. “There isn’t enough power available here to do what we did. Don’t ask me why. Presumably it’s got something to do with being blocked from the beyond. I expect those rifles Ekelund has could cause quite a bit of harm no matter how hard we make the air around ourselves.”

“Any more good news for the patients?” Moyo asked, scathingly.

“No, he’s right,” Stephanie said. “Besides, hiding from the facts now isn’t going to help anyone.”

“How can you be so calm about it? We’re stuck here.”

“Not exactly,” she said. “Being an invalid has had one benefit. Sinon?”

Since the unfortunate trip to Ketton, the serjeants had been keeping a cautionary watch on the town in case Ekelund made any hostile move. Sinon and Choma had taken the duty, combining it with helping the two patients. It wasn’t particularly difficult; from their slightly raised elevation they could see anything moving across the bland stretch of ochre mud between them and the desolated town. There would be plenty of warning if anyone came.

Sinon was checking over a batch of the sniper rifles which the serjeants were equipped with. Not that he expected they would be used. If Ekelund did send her people, the serjeants would simply establish a barrier around their camp similar to the one holding in the air around the island, offering passive, yet insurmountable, resistance.

He put down the sight he was cleaning. “Yes?”

“Are you and the others aware we’re actually moving?” Stephanie asked him. For some time, she’d been watching what passed for a sky in this realm. When they’d first arrived, it had appeared to be a uniform glare being emitted from some indefinable distance all around them. But as she’d lain there looking at it, she became aware of subtle variants. There were different shades arching above the flying island, arranged like flaccid waves, or streamers of thin mist. And they were moving, sliding slowly in one direction.

As Stephanie started to describe them, more and more serjeants broke away from their mental union to look upwards. A mild emotion of self-censure washed through the assembled minds. We should have noticed this. Direct observation is the most basic method to gather data on an environment.

By using affinity to link their vision together, the serjeants could scan the sky like some multi-segment telescope. Thousand of irises tracked the same faint wavering irregularity as it passed gently overhead. Parallel minds performed basic mental arithmetic to derive the parallax, putting the aberration roughly fifty kilometres away.

“As the bands of dimmer light seem to be fluctuating slightly in width, we conclude there is some kind of extremely tenuous nebula-like structure enveloping us,” Sinon told the fascinated humans. “However, the source of the light remains indeterminable, so we cannot say for certain if it is the nebula or the island which is moving. But given that the speed appears to be close to a hundred and fifty kilometres an hour, we are tentatively assigning movement to the island.”

“Why?” Rana asked.

“Because it would take a great deal of force to move the nebula at that speed. It’s not impossible, but as the environment outside the island is essentially a vacuum, the problem of what force could be acting on the nebula is multiplied by an order of magnitude. We cannot detect any physical or energy impacting against the island, ergo, there is no ‘wind’ to push it along. We concede that it could still be expanding from its origin point, but as the fluctuations within it indicate a reasonably passive composition, such a possibility is unlikely.”

“So we really are flying,” McPhee said.

“It would appear so.”

“I don’t want to like piss all over your parade or anything,” Cochrane said. “But have you cats ever considered we might be like falling ?”

“The direction of flow we can see in the nebula makes that unlikely,” Sinon said. “It appears to be a horizontal movement. The most probable explanation is that we emerged at a different relative velocity to this nebula. Besides, if we had been falling since we arrived, then whatever we are falling towards would surely be visible by now. To exert such a powerful gravitational field, it would be massive indeed; several times the size of a super-Jovian gas-giant.”

“You don’t know what kind of mass or gravity are natural in this realm,” McPhee said.

“True. This island is proof of that.”

“What do you mean?”

“Our gravity hasn’t changed since we arrived. Yet we are no longer part of Ombey. We assumed it has remained normal because the subconscious will of everyone here required that it do so.”

“Holy shit.” Cochrane jumped up, giving the bottom of his wide velvet flares a startled glance. “You mean, we’re only dreaming there’s gravity?”

“Essentially, yes.”

The hippie clenched his hands, and pressed them hard against his forehead. “Oh man, that is a total bummer. I want my gravity to be the real stuff. Listen, you don’t fool around with something as basic as this. You just don’t.”

“Reality is now essentially contained in your mind. If you perceive gravity acting on you, then it is real,” the serjeant said imperturbably.

A large lighted reefer appeared in Cochrane’s hand, and he took a deep drag. “I am heavy,” he chanted. “Heavy, heavy, heavy. And don’t no one forget that. You listening to me, people? Keep thinking it.”

“In any event,” Sinon told McPhee. “If we were in the grip of a gravity field, the nebula would be falling with us. It isn’t.”

“Some good news,” McPhee grunted. “Which is also no’ natural here.”

“Forget the academics of the situation,” Moyo said. “Is there any way we can use it?”

“We intend to set up an observation detail,” Sinon said. “A headland watch, if you like, to see if there is anything out there in front of us. It could be that all the other planets the possessed removed from the universe are here in this realm with us. We will also start using our affinity to call for help; it’s the only method of communication we have that works here.”

“Oh man, no way! Who’s going to hear that? Come on, you guys, get real.”

“Obviously we don’t know who, if anyone, will hear. And even if there is a planet out there, we doubt we’d be able to reach its surface intact.”

“You mean alive,” Moyo said.

“Correct. However, there is one strong possibility for rescue.”

“What?” Cochrane yelled.

“If this is the realm where all the possessed yearn to go, then it is conceivable Valisk is here. It might hear our call, and its biosphere would be able to support us. Transferring ourselves inside would be a simple matter.”

Cochrane let out a long sigh, blowing long trails of sweet-smelling green smoke from his nostrils. “Hey, yeah, more like it, dude. Good positive thinking. I could dig living in Valisk.”

Watching was one thing the humans could do almost as well as the serjeants, so Stephanie and her friends hiked across the final kilometre to the edge of the island to help establish the headland lookout camp. It took them over an hour to get there. The terrain wasn’t particularly rough. Crusted mud cracked and squelched under their feet, and they had to go around several pools of stagnant water. But Tina had to be carried the whole way on a stretcher, along with her small array of primitive medical equipment. And even with energistic strength reinforcing her body, Stephanie had to stop for a rest every few minutes.

Eventually, they reached the top of the cliff, and settled themselves down fifty metres short of the precipice. They’d chosen the brow of a mound, which gave them an excellent uninterrupted view out across the glaring emptiness ahead. Tina was placed so she could look outward by just raising her head, making her feel a part of their enterprise. She smiled a painful tired thanks as they rigged her plasma container up on an old branch beside her. The ten serjeants accompanying them clumped their backpacks together, and sat down in a broad semicircle like a collection of lotus-position Buddhas.

Stephanie eased herself down on a sleeping bag, quietly content the journey had ended. She promptly turned a sachet of nutrient soup into a ham sandwich and bit in hungrily. Moyo sat beside her, allowing his shoulder to rest against hers. They exchanged a brief kiss.

“Groovy,” Cochrane hooted. “Hey, if love is blind, how come lingerie is so popular.”

Rana regarded him in despair. “Oh very tactful.”

“It’s a joke,” the hippie protested. “Moyo doesn’t mind, do you, man?”

“No.” He and Stephanie put their heads together and started giggling.

Giving them a slightly suspicious look, Cochrane settled down on his own sleeping bag. He’d changed the fabric to scarlet and emerald crushed velvet. “So how about a sweepstake, you dudes? What’s going to come sailing over the horizon first?”

“Flying saucers,” McPhee said.

“No no,” Rana said primly. “Winged unicorns ridden by virgins wearing Cochrane’s frilly white lingerie.”

“Hey, come on, this is serious, you guys. I mean, like our lives depend on it.”

“Funny,” Stephanie mused. “Not so long ago I was wishing death was permanent. Now it could well be, and I’d like to keep on living just that little bit longer.”

“I would like to ask why you believe you will actually die?” Sinon enquired. “You have all indicated that is what will happen in this realm.”

“It’s like the gravity, I suppose,” Stephanie said. “Death is such a fundamental. That’s what we expect at the end of life.”

“You mean you are willing your own extinction?”

“Not exactly. Being free of the beyond was only a part of what we wanted. This realm was supposed to be marvellously benign. It probably is, if we were on a planet. We wanted to come here and live forever, just like the legends of heaven. And if not forever, certainly thousands of years. A proper life, like we used to think we had. Life ends in death.”

“In heaven, death would not return you to the beyond,” Choma ventured.

“Exactly. This life would be better than before. Energistic power gives us the potential to fulfil our dreams. We don’t need a manufacturing base, or money. We can make whatever we want just by wishing it into being. If that can’t make people happy, nothing can.”

“You would never know a sense of accomplishment,” Sinon said. “There would be no frontier to challenge you. Electricity is virtually non-existent, denying you any kind of machinery more advanced than a steam engine. You expect to live for a good portion of eternity. And nobody can ever leave. Forgive me, I do not see that as paradise.”

“Always the downside,” Cochrane muttered.

“You might be right. But even a jail planet trapped in the Eighteenth Century followed by genuine death is better than the beyond.”

“Then your energies would surely be better directed in solving the problem of human souls becoming trapped in the beyond.”

“Fine words,” Moyo said. “How?”

“I don’t know. But if some of you would cooperate with us, then avenues of possibility would be opened.”

“We are cooperating.”

“Not here. Back in the universe where the Confederation’s scientific resources could be marshalled.”

“All you ever did when we were on Ombey was assault us,” Rana said. “And we know the military captured several possessed to vivisect. We could hear their torment echoing through the beyond.”

“If they had cooperated, we wouldn’t have to use force,” Choma said. “And it was not vivisection. We are not barbarians. Do you really think I wish to consign my family to the beyond? We want to help. Self-interest dictates that if nothing else.”

“Another wasted opportunity,” Stephanie said sadly. “They do mount up, don’t they.”

“Someone is coming from the town,” Choma announced. “They are walking towards our encampment.”

Stephanie automatically turned to look back over the mud prairie behind them. She couldn’t see anything moving.

“It is only five people,” Choma said. “They don’t appear hostile.” The serjeant continued to give them a commentary. A squad was dispatched to intercept the newcomers, who claimed they were leaving Ekelund, disillusioned by the way things were in the ruined town. The serjeants directed them to the headland group.

Stephanie watched them approach. She wasn’t surprised to see Delvan was with them. He was dressed in his full nineteen-hundreds army officer regalia, a dark uniform of thick wool with plenty of scarlet, gold, and imperial purple-ribbons.

“Phallocentric military.” Rana sniffed disdainfully, and made a show of turning round to gaze out over the precipice.

Stephanie gestured to the newcomers to sit down. They all seemed apprehensive about the kind of reception they’d receive.

“You dudes had enough of her, huh?”

“Admirably put,” Delvan conceded. He turned a sleeping bag into a tartan-pattern blanket, and lounged across it. “She’s gone completely batty. Mad with power, of course. Saw it enough times back in the Great War. Any spark of dissension is classed as mutiny. I expect she’ll have us shot, if she ever sees us again. Quite literally.”

“So you deserted.”

“I’m sure she’ll see it that way, yes.”

“We believe we can keep her forces away,” Sinon said.

“Glad to hear it, old chap. Things were getting pretty dire back there. Ekelund and Soi Hon are still preparing for some kind of conflict. She’s got the power, you see. Now there’s no beyond for souls to flee back into, the threat of discipline is jolly effective. And of course she’s in charge of dishing the food out. A whole bunch of silly asses still believe in what she’s doing. That’s all it ever takes, you know, one leader with a bunch of loyalists to enforce orders. Damn stupid.”

“What does she think is going to happen?” Stephanie asked.

“Not too sure about that. I don’t think she is, either. Soi Hon keeps sprouting on about how we are as one with the land, and how you serjeant chaps are ruining our harmony. They’re egging each other on. Trying to convince the rest of those poor sods over there that everything will be dandy once you’ve been thrown over the edge. Utter bilge. Any idiot can see this chunk of land isn’t going to be the slightest use to anyone no matter who’s on it.”

“Only Annette could think that this island is worth fighting over.”

“I agree,” Delvan said. “Sheerest bloody folly. Seen it before. People become obsessed with one idea and can’t let go. Don’t care how many die in the process. Well, I’m not going to help her. I made that mistake before. Never again.”

“Yo, man, welcome to decentville.” Cochrane held out a silver flask.

Delvan took a small nip, and smiled appreciatively. “Not bad.” He took a larger drink, and passed it on. “What exactly are you all looking for out there?”

“We don’t know,” Sinon said. “But we’ll recognize it when we see it.”

Jay spent twenty minutes correcting and castigating the universal provider after breakfast that morning. It kept reabsorbing the dress and extruding a new one for her. The variations were small, but Jay was determined to get it right. Tracy had sat in on the session for the first five minutes, then patted Jay lightly and said: “I think I’ll leave the pair of you to it, sweetie.”

The design she wanted was simple enough. She’d seen it back in the arcology one day: a loose, pleated reddish skirt that came down to the knee, and blended smoothly up into a square-cut neck top that was bright canary-yellow, the two colours interlocking like opposing flames. It had looked wonderful on the shop mannequin two years ago, expensive and attractive. But when she asked, her mother said no, they couldn’t afford it. After that, the dress had come to symbolise everything wrong with Earth. She always knew what she wanted in life, but she could never get to it.

Tracy knocked on the bedroom door. “Haile will be here in a minute, poppet,” she called.

“Coming,” Jay yelled back. She glared at the globe floating over the wicker chair. “Go on, spit it out.”

The dress glided out through the purple surface. It still wasn’t right! Jay put her hands on her hips, and sighed in disgust at the provider. “The skirt is still too long. I told you! You can’t have the hem level with the knee. That’s awful.”

“Sorry,” the provider murmured meekly.

“Well I’ll just have to wear it now. But you’re going to get it right when I come back this evening.”

She hurriedly pulled the dress on, wincing as it went over the bruise on her ribs (the edge of the surfboard had whacked her hard when she fell off). Her shoes were totally wrong as well: white sneakers with a tread thick enough to belong on a jungle boot. Blue socks, too. Sighing at her martyrdom one last time, she picked up the straw boater (at least the provider had got that right) and perched it on her head. A quick check in the mirror above the sink to see just how bad the damage was. That was when she saw Prince Dell lying on the bed. She screwed her face up, riddled with guilt. But she couldn’t take him with her to Haile’s home planet. Just couldn’t. The whole flap over the dress was because she was the first human to go there. She felt very strongly that she ought to look presentable. After all, she was kind of like an ambassador for her whole race. She could imagine what her mother would say; carrying a scruffy old toy about with her simply wasn’t on.

“Jay!” Tracy called.

“Coming.” She burst through the door and scampered out onto the chalet’s little veranda. Tracy was standing beside the steps, using a small brass can with a long spout to water one of the trailing geraniums. She gave the little girl a long look.

“Very nice, poppet. Well done, that was a good choice.”

“Thank you, Tracy.”

“Now just remember, you’re going to see lots of new things. Some of them are going to be quite astonishing, I’m sure. Please try not to get too excitable.”

“I’ll be good. Really.”

“I’m sure you will.” Tracy kissed her lightly. “Now run along.”

Jay started down the steps, then stopped. “Tracy?”

“What is it?”

“How come you’ve never been to Riynine? Haile said it’s really important, one of their capital planets.”

“Oh, I don’t know. Too busy when that kind of sightseeing would have excited me. Now I’ve got the time, I can’t really be bothered. Seen one technological miracle, seen them all.”

“It’s not too late,” Jay said generously.

“Maybe another day. Now run along, you’ll be late. And Jay, remember, if you want the toilet, just ask a provider. No one’s going to be embarrassed or offended.”

“Yes, Tracy. Bye.” She pressed a hand on the top of her boater, and raced off across the sand to the ebony circle.

The old woman watched her go, over-large knuckles gripping the handle of the watering can too tightly. Bright sunlight caught the moisture poised at the corner of her eyes. “Damn,” she whispered.

Haile materialized when Jay was still ten metres away from the circle. She whooped, and ran harder.

Friend Jay. It is a good morning.

“It’s a wonderful morning!” She came to a halt beside Haile, and flung an arm round the baby Kiint’s neck. “Haile! You grow every day.”

Very much.

“How long till you get to adult size?”

Eight years. I will itch all that time.

“I’ll scratch you.”

You are my true friend. Shall we go?

“Yes!” She did a little jump, smiling delightedly. “Come on, come on!”

Blackness plucked both of them away.

The falling sensation didn’t bother Jay at all now. She just shut her eyes and held her breath. One of Haile’s appendages was coiled comfortingly round her wrist.

Weight returned quickly. Her soles touched a solid floor, and her knees bent slightly to absorb the impact. Light was shining on her closed eyelids.

We are here.

“I know.” She was suddenly nervous about opening her eyes.

I live there.

Haile’s tone was so eager Jay just had to look. The sun was low in the sky, still casting off its daybreak tint. Long shadows flowed out behind them across the large ebony circle they’d arrived on. It was out in the open air, with the rumpled landscape sweeping away for what seemed like a hundred kilometres or more to the horizon. Flat-cone mountains of pale rock, crinkled with pale-purple gorges, rose regally out from the lavish mantle of blue-green vegetation; not strung out in a range as normal, but spread out across the whole expanse of steppe. Large serpentine rivers and tributary streams threading through the vales glinted silver in the fresh sunlight, while tissue-fine sheets of pearl-white mist wound around the lower slopes of the mountains. The vista was nature at its most striking. Yet it wasn’t natural; this was what she imagined the inside of an Edenist habitat would be like, but on an infinitely larger canvas. There was nothing ugly permitted here; designed geology ensured this world would have bayous rather than dark, stagnant marshes, languid downs instead of lifeless lava fields.

That didn’t stop it from being truly lovely, though.

There were buildings nestled amid the contours; mainly Kiint domes of different sizes, but with some startlingly human-like skyscraper towers mingled among them. There were also structures that looked more like sculptures than buildings: a bronze spiral leading nowhere, emerald spheres clinging together like a cluster of soap bubbles. Each of the buildings was set by itself; there were no roads, or even dirt tracks as far as she could see. Nevertheless, undeniably, she was in a city; one that was conceived on a vaster, grander scale than anything the Confederation could ever achieve. A post-urban conquest of the land.

“So where do you live?” she asked.

Haile’s tractamorphic arm uncoiled from her wrist and straightened out to point. The ebony circle was surrounded by a broad meadow of glossy aquamarine grass-analogue bordered by clumps of trees. They at least looked like natural forests rather than carefully composed parkland. Several different species were growing together, black octagonal leaves and yellow parasols competing for light and space; long smooth boles, capped with a fuzzy ball of pink fern-fronds, had stabbed up from the tops of more bushy varieties, resembling giant willow reeds.

A steel-blue dome was visible through the gaps in the trees half a kilometre away. It didn’t look much bigger than the ones back in Tranquillity.

“That’s nice,” Jay said politely.

It has difference to my first home in the all around. The universal providers have eased life greatly here.

“I’m sure. So where are all your friends?”

Come. Vyano has been told about you. He would like to initiate greetings.

Jay gasped as she turned to follow the baby Kiint. There was a huge lake behind her, with what she assumed could only be the castle of some magical Elf lord. Dozens of featureless, tapering white towers rose from its centre; the tallest spires were those right at the centre of the clump, easily measuring over a kilometre high. Delicate single-span bridges wove their way through the gaps between the towers, curving around each other without ever touching. As far as she could understand it, they followed no pattern or logic; sometimes a tower would have as many as ten, all at different levels, while others had only a couple. The whole edifice scintillated with brilliant red and gold flashes as the strengthening sunlight slithered slowly across its quartz-like surface. It was as dignified as it was beautiful.

“What is that?” she asked as she hurried after Haile.

This is a Corpus locus, a place for knowledge to grow and ripen.

“You mean like a school?”

The baby Kiint hesitated. Corpus says yes.

“Do you go to it?”

No. I am still receiving many primary educationals from the Corpus and my parents. First I must understand them fully. That is a hardness. When I have understanding I can begin to expand my own thoughts.

“Oh, I get it. That’s like the way we do it, too. I have to receive a lot of didactic courses before I can go on to university.”

You will go to university?

“I suppose so. I don’t know how on Lalonde, though. There might be one in Durringham. Mummy will tell me when she comes back and things get better.”

I hope for you.

They had reached the lake’s shore. Its water was very dark, even when Jay stood on the shaggy grass-analogue right at the edge and peered over cautiously she couldn’t see the bottom. The surface reflected her image back at her. Then it started to ripple slightly.

Haile was walking out towards the white towers. Jay paused for a moment to watch her friend. There was something not quite right about the scene, something obvious which her mind couldn’t quite catch.

Haile was about ten meters from the shore when she realized Jay wasn’t following. She swung her head round to look at the girl. Vyano is in here. Do you not want to meet him?

Very slowly, Jay cleared her throat. “Haile, you’re walking on the water.”

The baby Kiint looked down at where her feet-pads were dinting the surface of the lake. Yes. Query puzzlement. Why do you find wrongness?

“Because it’s water!” Jay shouted.

There is stability for those wishing to attend the locus. You will not fall in.

Jay glared at her friend, though intense curiosity was a strong temptation. Tracy’s warning rang clear in her mind. And Haile would never trick her. She put a toe cautiously on the water. The dark surface bent ever so slightly as she began to apply pressure, but her shoe couldn’t actually break the surface tension and get wet. She put even more weight on her foot, allowing her whole sole to rest on the water. It supported her without any apparent strain.

A couple of tentative steps, and Jay glanced from side to side, giggling. “This is brilliant. You don’t need to build bridges and stuff.”

You have happiness now?

“You bet.” She started to walk towards Haile. Slow ripples expanded out from under her shoes, clashing and shimmering away. Jay couldn’t stop the giggles. “We should have had this in Tranquillity. We could have got out to that island, then.”

Rightness.

Smiling happily, Jay let Haile’s arm tip wrap round her fingers, and together they walked over the lake. After a couple of minutes the towers of the locus seemed no closer. Jay began to wonder just how big they were.

“Where’s Vyano, then?”

He comes.

Jay scanned the base of the towers. “I can’t see anybody.”

Haile stopped, and looked down at her feet, head swaying from side to side. I have sight.

Promising herself she wouldn’t yelp or anything, Jay looked down. There was movement beneath her feet. A small pale-grey mountain was sliding through the water, twenty metres beneath the surface. Her heart did sort of go thud, but she clamped her jaw shut and stared in amazement. The creature must have been bigger than any of the whales in her didactic zoology memories. There were more flippers and fins than Earth’s old behemoths, too. A smaller version of the creature was swimming along beside it, a child. It curved away from its parent’s flank, and started to race upwards, its fins wriggling enthusiastically. The big parent rolled slowly, and dived off into the depths.

“Is this Vyano?” Jay exclaimed.

Yes. He is a cousin.

“What do you mean cousin? He’s nothing like you.”

Humans have many sub-species.

“No we don’t!”

There are Adamists and Edenists, white skin, dark skin; more shades of hair than colours in the rainbow. This I have seen for myself.

“Well, yes, but . . . Look here, there’s none of us live underwater. That’s just totally different.”

Corpus says human scientists have experimented with lungs that can extract oxygen from water.

Jay recognized that particular mental tone of pure stubbornness. “They probably have,” she conceded.

The aquatic Kiint child was over fifteen metres long; flatter than a terrestrial whale, with a thick tractamorphic tail that was contracting into a bulb as it neared the surface. Its other appendages, six buds of tractamorphic flesh, were spaced along its flanks. To help propel it through the water, they were currently compressed into semicircular fans that undulated with slow power. Perhaps the most obvious pointer to a shared heritage with landbound Kiint was the head, which was simply a more streamlined version that had six gills replacing the breathing vents. The same large semi-mournful eyes were shielded with a milky membrane.

Vyano broke surface with a burst of spray and energetic waves, which churned outward. Jay was suddenly trying to keep her balance as the lake’s surface bounced about underneath her like some hyperlastic trampoline. Haile was bobbing up and down beside her, in almost as much trouble, which was slightly reassuring. When the swell had eased off, a mound of glistening leaden flesh was floating a couple of metres away. The aquatic Kiint formshifted one of its flank appendages into an arm, tip spreading out into the shape of a human hand.

Jay touched palms.

Welcome to Riynine, Jay Hilton.

“Thank you. You have a lovely world.”

It has much goodness. Haile has shared her memories of your Confederation worlds. They are interesting also. I would like to visit after I am released from parental proscription.

“I’d like to go back, too.”

Your plight has been spoken of. I grieve with you for all that has been lost.

“Richard says we’ll pull through. I suppose we will.”

Richard Keaton is attuned to Corpus,haile said. He would not tell untruths.

“How could you visit the Confederation? Does that jump machinery of yours work underwater as well?”

Yes.

“But there wouldn’t be much for you to see, I’m afraid. Everything interesting happens on land. Oh, except for Atlantis, of course.”

Land is always small and clotted with identical plants. I would see the life that teems below the waves where nothing remains the same. Every day is joyfully different. You should modify yourself and come to dwell among us.

“No thank you very much,” she said primly.

That is a sadness.

“I suppose what I mean is, you wouldn’t be able to see what humans have achieved. Everything we’ve built and done is on the land or in space.”

Your machinery is old to us. It holds little attraction. That is why my family returned to the water.

“You mean you’re like our pastorals?”

I apologise. My understanding of human references is not complete.

“Pastorals are people who turned away from technology, and lived life as simply as they can. It’s a very primitive existence, but they don’t have modern worries, either.”

All races of Kiint embrace technology,haile said. The providers cannot fail now; they give us everything and leave us free.

“This is the bit about you which I don’t really get. Free to do what?”

To live.

“All right, try this. What are you two going to be when you grow up?”

I shall be me.

“No no.” Jay would have liked to stamp her foot for emphasis. Given what she was standing on, she thought better of it. “I mean, what profession? What do Kiints spend all day doing?”

You know my parentals were helping with the Laymil project.

All activity has one purpose,vyano said. We enrich ourselves with knowledge. This can come from simply interpreting the observed universe or extrapolating thoughts to their conclusion. Both of these are complementary. Enrichment is the result life is dedicated to. Only then can we transcend with confidence.

“Transcend? You mean die?”

Body lifeloss, yes.

“I’m sure doing nothing but thinking is all really good for you. But it seems really boring to me. People need things to keep them occupied.”

Difference is beauty,vyano said. There is more difference in the water than on land. Our domain is where nature excels, it is the womb of every planet. Now do you see why we chose it over the land?

“Yes. I suppose so. But you can’t all spend the whole time admiring new things. Somebody has to make sure things work smoothly.”

That is what the providers do. We could not ascend to this cultural level until after our civilization’s machinery had evolved to its current state. Providers provide, under the wisdom of Corpus.

“I see, I guess. You have Corpus like Edenists have Consensus.”

Consensus is an early version of Corpus. You will evolve to our state one day.

“Really?” Jay said. Arguing philosophy with a Kiint wasn’t really what she had in mind when she wanted to visit Riynine. She gestured round, trying to indicate the locus and all the other extravagant buildings: an act of human body language which was probably wasted on the young aquatic Kiint. “You mean humans are going to wind up living like this?”

I cannot speak for you. Do you wish to live as we do?

“It’d be nice not having to worry about money and stuff.” She thought of the Aberdale villagers, their enthusiasm for what they were building. “But we need concrete things to do. That’s the way we are.”

Your nature will guide you to your destiny. It is always so.

“I suppose.”

I sense we are kindred, Jay Hilton. You wish to see newness every day. That is why you are here on Riynine. Query.

“Yes.”

You should visit the Congressions. That is the best place for a view of the physical achievement which you value so.

She looked at Haile. “Can we?”

It will have much enjoyment,haile said.

“Thanks, Vyano.”

The aquatic Kiint began to sink back below the water. Your visit is a newness which has enriched me. I am honoured, Jay Hilton.

When Haile had told Jay that Riynine was a capital world, the little girl had imagined a cosmopolitan metropolis playing host to a multitude of Kiint and thousands of exciting xenocs. The Corpus locus was certainly grandiose, but hardly kicking.

Her impression changed when she popped out of the black teleport bubble onto one of Riynine’s Congressions. Although the physical concept was hardly extravagant for a race which had such extraordinary resources, there was something both anachronistic and prideful in the gigantic cities which floated serenely through the planet’s atmosphere. Splendidly intricate colossi of crystal and shining metal that proclaimed the true nature of the Kiint to any visitor; more so than the ring of manufactured planets. No race which had the slightest doubt about its own abilities would dare to construct such a marvel.

The one in which Jay found herself was over twenty kilometres broad. Its nucleus was a dense aggregation of towers and circuitous columns of light like warped rainbows; from that, eight solid crenated peninsulas radiated outwards, themselves bristling with short flat spines. The bloated tufts of cloud it encountered parted smoothly to flow around its extremities, leaving it at the centre of a doldrum zone whose clarity seemed to magnify the landscape ten kilometres below. Shoals of flying craft spun around it, their geometries and technologies as varied as the species they carried; starships equipped with atmospheric drives cavorted along the same flightpaths as tiny ground-to-orbit planes. All of them were landing or taking off from the spines on the peninsulas.

Jay had arrived at one end of an avenue which ran along the upper reaches of a peninsula. It was made from a smooth sheet of some burgundy mineral, host to a web of glowing opalescent threads that flowed just below the surface. Every junction in the web sprouted a tall jade triangle, like the sculpture of a pine tree. A roof of crystal arched overhead, heartbreakingly similar to an arcology dome.

Jay held on to Haile’s arm with a tight grip. The avenue thronged with xenocs, hundreds of species walking, sliding, and in several cases flying along together in a huge multi-coloured river of life.

All her pent up breath was exhaled in a single overwhelmed “Wow!” They hurried off the teleport circle, allowing a family of tall, feathered octopeds to use it. Globes similar to providers, but in many different colours, glided sedately overhead. She sniffed at the air, which contained so many shifting scents all she could really smell was something like dry spice. Slow bass grumbles, quick chittering, whistles, and human(ish) speech gurgled loudly about her, blurring together into a single background clamour.

“Where do they all come from? Are they all your observers?”

None of them are observers. These are the species who live in this galaxy, and some others. All are friends of Kiint.

“Oh. Right.” Jay walked over to the edge of the avenue. It was guarded by a tall rail, as if it were nothing more than an exceptionally big balcony. She stood on her toes and peeked over. They were above a compact city, or possibly a district of industrial structures. There didn’t appear to be any movement in the lanes between the buildings. Right in front of her, spacecraft swished along parallel to the peninsula’s crystal roof as they vectored in on their landing sites.

The Congression was high enough above the land to lose fine details amid the broader colour swathes of mountains and savannahs. But as though to compensate, the curvature of the horizon could be seen, a splinter of purple neon separating the land and the sky. A coastline was visible far ahead. Or behind. Jay wasn’t sure which way they were travelling. If they were.

She contented herself with watching the spacecraft flying past. “So what are they all doing here, then?”

Different species come here to perform exchanges. Some have ideas to give, some require knowledge to make ideas work. Corpus facilitates this. The Congressions act as junctions for those who seek and those who wish to give. Here they can find each other.

“That all sounds terribly noble.”

We have opened our worlds to this act for a long time. Some races we have known since the beginning of our history, others are new. All are welcome.

“Apart from humans.”

You are free to visit.

“But nobody knows about Riynine. The Confederation thinks Jobis is your homeworld.”

I have sadness. If you can come here, you are welcome.

Jay eyed a quartet of adult Kiint walking along the avenue. They were accompanied by what looked suspiciously like spectres of some slender reptilians dressed in one-piece coveralls. They were certainly translucent, she could see things through them. “I get it. It’s sort of like a qualifying test. If you’re smart enough to get here, you’re smart enough to take part.”

Confirm.

“That’d be really helpful for us, learning new stuff. But I still don’t think people want to spend their life philosophising. Well . . . one or two like Father Horst, but not many.”

Some come to the Congressions asking for our aid, and to improve their technology.

“You give them that, machines and things?”

Corpus responds to everyone at a relative level.

“That’s why the provider wouldn’t give me a starship.”

You are lonely. I brought you here. I have sorrow.

“Hey,” she put her arm round the baby Kiint’s neck, and stroked her breathing vents. “I’m not sorry you brought me here. This is something not even Joshua has seen, and he’s been everywhere in the Confederation. I’ll be able to impress him when I get back. Won’t that be something?” She gazed out at the fanciful craft again. “Come on, let’s find a provider. I could do with some ice cream.”

Chapter 03

Rocio waited a day after the Organization’s convoy returned from the antimatter station before he abandoned his routine high orbit patrol above New California and swallowed out to Almaden. Radar pulses from the asteroid’s proximity radar washed across Mindori , returning an odd fuzzy blob on the display screens. It fluctuated in time with the human heart. The visual-spectrum sensors showed the huge dark harpy with its wings folded, hovering two kilometres out from the counter-rotating spaceport. A glitter of red light could just been seen through eyelids that weren’t completely shut.

In turn, Rocio focused his own senses on Almaden’s docking ledge. Each of the pedestals had been struck by laser fire, spilling a sludge of metal and plastic out across the rock where it had solidified into a grey clinker-like puddle with a surface badly pocked by burst gas bubble craters. The nutrient fluid refinery and its three storage tanks had also been targeted.

Rocio shared his view with Pran Soo who was back at Monterey. What do you think?he asked his fellow hellhawk.

The refinery isn’t as badly damaged as it looks. It’s only the outer layers of machinery which have been struck. Etchells just ripped his laser backwards and forwards over it, which no doubt looked spectacular. Lots of molten metal spraying everywhere, and tubes detonating under the pressure. But the core remains intact, and that’s where the actual chemical synthesis mechanism is.

Typical.

Yes. Fortunately. There’s no practical reason why this can’t be returned to operational status. Providing you can get the natives to agree.

They’ll agree,rocio said. We have something they want: ourselves.

Good luck.

Rocio shifted his senses to the counter-rotating spaceport, a small disk whose appearance suggested it was still under construction. It was mostly naked girders containing tanks and fat tubes, with none of the protective plating that spaceports usually boasted. Three ships were docked: a pair of cargo tugs and the Lucky Logorn . The inter-orbit craft had returned ten hours earlier. If the Organization lieutenants in the asteroid were going to discipline the crew, they would have done it by now.

Rocio opened a short range channel. “Deebank?”

“Good to see you.”

“Likewise. I’m glad you haven’t been thrown out of your new body.”

“Let’s just say, there are more people sympathetic to my cause than there are to the Organization.”

“What happened to the lieutenants?”

“Complaining to Capone direct from the beyond.”

“That was risky. He doesn’t take rebellion kindly. You may find several frigates arriving to make the point.”

“We figure he’s got enough problems with the antimatter right now. In any case, the only real option he’s got left against this asteroid is to nuke us. If that looks likely, we’ll shift out of this universe and take our chances. We don’t want to do that.”

“I understand perfectly. I don’t want you to do that, either.”

“Fair enough, you and I both have our own problems. How can we help each other?”

“If we’re going to break free from the Organization we require an independent source of nutrient fluid. In return for you repairing your refinery, we are prepared to transport your entire population to a planet.”

“New California won’t take us.”

“We can use one which the Organization has already infiltrated. Myself and my friends have enough spaceplanes to make the transfer work. But it will have to be soon. Without the antimatter station there will be no new infiltrations, and those that have been seeded will not remain in this universe for much longer.”

“We can start repairing the refinery right away. But if we all leave, how are you going to maintain it?”

“Spare parts must be manufactured in sufficient quantity to keep the refinery functional for a decade. You will also have to adapt your mechanoids for remote waldo operation.”

“You’re not asking for much.”

“I believe it’s an equal trade.”

“Okay, cards on the table. My people here say the components shouldn’t be any problem, our industrial stations can handle that. But we can’t produce the kind of electronics which the refinery needs. Can you get hold of them for us?”

“Datavise a list over. I will make enquiries.”

Jed and Beth had listened to the exchange in the stateroom cabin they’d moved into. They were spending a lot of time in the neatly furnished compartment by themselves. In bed. There wasn’t a lot else to do since Jed’s mission to resupply their food stocks. And despite Rocio’s assurances that his plans were progressing smoothly, they couldn’t shake off their sense of impending disaster. Such conditions had completely suppressed their inhibitions.

They were lying together on top of the bunk in post-coital languor, stroking each other in cozy admiration. Sunlight streaming in through the wooden slats that covered the porthole was painting warm stripes across them, helping to dry damp skin.

“Hey, Rocio, you really think you can make this deal swing?” she asked.

The mirror above the teak dresser shimmered to reveal Rocio’s face. “I think so. Both of us want something from the other. That is the usual basis for trade.”

“How many hellhawks want in?”

“A sufficient number.”

“Oh yeah? If a whole load of you bugger off, Kiera’s gonna do her best to cripple you. You’ll have to defend Almaden for a start. You’ll need combat wasps for that.”

“Good heavens, do you really think so?”

Beth glared at him.

“There are no suitable asteroid settlements available in other star systems,” Rocio continued. “This is our one chance to secure an independent future for ourselves, despite its proximity to the Organization. We will make quite sure we’re capable of defending that future, never fear.”

Jed sat up, making sure the blanket was covering his groin when he faced the mirror (Beth never did understand that brand of shyness). “So where do we fit in?”

“I don’t know yet. I may not need you, after all.”

“You gonna turn us in to Capone?” Beth asked, hoping her voice didn’t waver.

“That would be difficult. How would I explain your presence on board?”

“So you just let Deebank and his mates in here to take care of us, huh?”

“Please, we are not all like Kiera. I had hoped you’d realize that by now. I have no desire to see the children possessed.”

“So where are you going to let us off?” Beth asked.

“I have no idea. Although I’m sure the Edenists will be happy enough to retrieve you from my corrupt clutches. Details can be worked out when we have locked down our own position. And I have to say that I’m disappointed by your attitude, given what I saved you from.”

“Sorry, Rocio,” Jed said immediately.

“Yeah, didn’t mean no offence for sure,” Beth said, one degree above sarcasm.

The image faded, and they looked at each other. “You shouldn’t annoy him so much,” Jed protested. “Jeeze, babe, we’re like totally dependent on him. Air, water, heat, even bloody gravity. Stop pushing!”

“I was just asking.”

“Well don’t!”

“Yes, sir. Forgot for a moment that you were in charge of everything.”

“Don’t,” Jed said remorsefully. He reached out and stroked her cheek tenderly. “I never said I was in charge, I’m just worried.”

Beth knew full well that when he looked at her body the way he was doing now, what he actually saw was the memory of Kiera’s fabulous figure. It didn’t bother her any more, for reasons she didn’t question too closely. Need overcoming dignity, most likely. “I know. Me too. Good job we’ve found something to keep our minds off it the whole time, huh?”

His grin was sheepish. “Too right.”

“I’d better get going. The kids’ll be wanting their supper.”

Navar squealed and pointed when they walked into the galley. “You’ve been at it again!”

Jed tried to bat her hand away, but she dodged back, laughing and sneering. He could hardly rebuke her; he and Beth hadn’t exactly been secretive about what they were doing.

“Can we eat now?” Gari asked plaintively. “I’ve got everything ready.”

Beth gave the preparations a quick inspection. The girls and Webster had prepared six trays for the induction oven, mixing food packets together. Potato cakes with rehydrated egg mash and cubes of carrot. “Well done.” She keyed in the quantity on the oven’s control panel, and activated it. “Where’s Gerald?”

“Going crazy in the main lounge. What else?”

Beth gave the girl a sharp glance.

Navar refused to give ground. “He is,” she insisted.

“You dish the food out,” Beth told Jed. “I’ll go see what the problem is.”

Gerald was standing in front of the lounge’s large viewport, palms pressed against it, as though he was trying to push the glass out of its frame.

“Hey there, Gerald, mate. Supper’s ready.”

“Is that where she is?”

“Where, mate?”

“The asteroid.”

Beth stood behind him, looking over his shoulder. Almaden was centred in the viewport. A dark lump of rock, rotating slowly against the starscape.

“No mate, sorry. That’s Almaden, not Monterey. Marie isn’t in there.”

“I thought it was the other one. Monterey, where she is.”

Beth gave his hands a close inspection. The knuckles were lightly grazed from pounding on something. Fortunately, they weren’t bleeding. She gently put her hand on his forearm. Every muscle was locked rigid beneath her fingers, trembling. His forehead was beaded in sweat.

“Come on, mate,” she said quietly. “Let’s get some tucker down you. Do you good.”

“You don’t understand!” He was near to tears. “I have to get back to her. I don’t even remember when I saw her last. My head is so full of darkness now. I hurt.”

“I know, mate.”

“Know!” he screamed. “What do you know? She’s my baby, my beautiful little Marie. And she makes her do things, all the time.” He shuddered violently, his eyelids fluttering. For a moment, Beth thought he was going to fall over. She tightened her grip as he swayed unsteadily.

“Gerald? Jeeze . . .”

His eyes abruptly sprang open, hunting frantically round the room. “Where are we?”

“This is the Mindori ,” she said calmly. “We’re on board, and we’re trying to find a way to get back to Monterey.”

“Yes.” He nodded quickly. “Yes, that’s right. We have to go there. She’s there, you know. Marie’s there. I have to find her. I can free her, I know how to. Loren told me before she left. I can help her escape.”

“That’s good.”

“I’m going to talk to the captain. Explain. We have to fly back there right away. He’ll do it, he’ll understand. She’s my baby.”

Beth stood completely still as he turned round sharply, and hurried out. She let out a long despondent breath. “Oh shit.”

Jed and the three kids were sitting round the small bar in the galley, spooning up the pinkish mush from their trays. They all gave Beth an apprehensive glance as she came in. She tilted her head at Jed, and retreated back into the corridor. He followed her out.

“We’ve got to get him to a doctor, or something,” she said in a low voice.

“Told you that the day we first saw him, doll. The fella’s a genuine braincrash.”

“No, it’s not just that, not just in his head. He’s really ill. His skin’s all hot, burning, like he’s got a fever, or a virus.”

“Oh Jeeze , Beth.” Jed pressed his forehead against the cool metal wall. “Think, will you. What the hell can we do? We’re inside a bleeding hellhawk fifty trillion light-years from anyone who’d give a toss about us. There’s nothing we can do. I’m real sorry about him catching some xenoc disease. But all I’m worried about now is that he doesn’t infect us with it.”

She hated him for being right. Being completely impotent, not to mention dependent on Rocio, was tough. “Come on.” With a final check on the kids to make sure they were eating, she hauled Jed into the lounge. “Rocio.”

A translucent image of his face materialized in the viewport. “Now what?”

“We’ve got a real problem with Gerald. Reckon he’s sick with something. It’s not good.”

“He’s here on your insistence. What do you want me to do about it?”

“I dunno for sure. Have you got a zero-tau pod? We could shove him in there until we leave. The Edenist doctors can give him a proper going over then.”

“No. There’s no working zero-tau pod anymore. The possessed are understandably nervous about such items; the first ones to come on board broke it up.”

“Bugger! What do we do?”

“You’ll have to nurse him along as best you can.”

“Terrific,” Jed muttered.

Almaden began to slide across the viewport.

“Hey, where are we going now?” Jed asked. The asteroid vanished below the rim, leaving only stars which were slicing thin arcs across the blackness as the hellhawk accelerated in a tight curve.

“Back to my patrol route,” Rocio said, “and hope no one has noticed my absence. Deebank has datavised the list of electronic components they need to get the nutrient refinery functioning again. They’re all available at Monterey.”

“Well glad to hear it, mate,” Jed said automatically. A cold thought ran clean through his brain. “Wait a minute. How are you going to get the Organization to hand them over?”

Rocio’s translucent image winked, then vanished.

“Oh Jeeze. Not again!”

In peacetime, Avon’s starship emergence zones were positioned round the planet and its necklace of high-orbit asteroids at convenient distances to the stations and ports which they served. The one exception was Trafalgar, which, of necessity, was always on alert for suspicious arrivals. Following the official outbreak of war, or as the diplomats in Regina preferred: crisis situation, all the emergence zones were automatically shifted further away from their port. Every Confederation almanac carried the alternative coordinates, and the onus was on captains to ensure they were aware of any official declaration.

Emergence zone DR45Y was situated three hundred thousand kilometres away from Trafalgar, designated for use by civil starships flying with government authorization. The sensor satellites which scanned it were no less proficient than those covering the zones designated for various types of warships, there was after all no telling what vessels an enemy might employ. So when the gravitonic distortion scanners began to pick up the familiar signature of a ship starting to emerge, additional sensor batteries were brought on line within milliseconds. The rapidly expanding warp in space-time was the focus of five SD weapons platforms. Trafalgar’s SD control also vectored four patrol voidhawks towards it and put another ten on rapid-response alert status.

The event horizon expanded out to thirty-eight metres and vanished, revealing the starship’s hull. Visual-spectrum sensors showed the SD controllers a standard globe coated with dull nulltherm foam. All perfectly normal, except for a single missing hexagonal hull plate. And the ship was impressively close to the centre of the zone; the captain must have taken a great deal of care aligning his last jump coordinate. Such a manoeuvre indicated someone anxious to please.

Radar pulses triggered the starship’s transponder. Trafalgar’s AI took under a millisecond to identify the response code as the Villeneuve’s Revenge , captained by André Duchamp.

Following the standard transponder code, the Villeneuve’s Revenge promptly transmitted its official flight authorization code issued by the Ethenthia government.

Both codes were linked to grade two security protocols. The CNIS duty officer in Trafalgar’s SD command centre took immediate charge of the situation.

Another, altogether quieter, alert was initiated within the asteroid’s secure communication net, of which the CNIS knew nothing. The televisions, radios, and holographic windows inside The Village’s clubhouse abandoned their nostalgiafest to warn the observers of this latest development.

Tracy sat up to stare at the screen. The large lounge had fallen very quiet. Colourful SD sensor imagery was scrolling down the big Sony television set as various weapons locked on to the starship’s fuselage. She backed up that somewhat poor supply of data with a more comprehensive summary from Corpus as it gathered information from a variety of sources in and around Trafalgar.

“They won’t let the ship get near them,” Saska said in a hopeful voice. “They’re far too paranoid right now, thank the saints.”

“I hope you’re right,” Tracy muttered. A quick check with Corpus showed her Jay was still in the Congression with Haile. Best place for her right now; Tracy definitely didn’t want her to pick up on all their doubts and worries. “Hell alone knows how Pryor managed to worm his way off Ethenthia.”

“Ethenthia’s possessed could probably be cowed with Capone’s name,” Galic said. “Bluffing your way into the headquarters of the Confederation Navy is a very different matter.”

The CNIS duty officer appeared to share the thought. She immediately declared a C4 condition, prohibiting the suspected hostile starship from moving, and requesting the patrol voidhawks to interdict. Warnings were datavised directly to the Villeneuve’s Revenge , making very clear what action would be taken if SD Command’s orders were not obeyed. They were then prohibited from using any propulsion system, not even the RCS thrusters to lock attitude, nor were they permitted to extend their thermo-dump panels, no more sensor booms were to be extended, or any other fuselage hatch activated. Non-propulsive vapour dumps were allowed, but prior warning should be given. Once a grudging Captain Duchamp had confirmed his compliance, the four patrol voidhawks accelerated in towards the inert ship at a respectable five gees.

Kingsley Pryor datavised his personal code to the CNIS duty officer, identifying himself as a Confederation Navy officer. “I’ve managed to elude New California to get here,” he told her. “I secured a lot of tactical data on the Organization fleet before I left. It should be delivered to Admiral Lalwani as soon as possible.”

“We are already aware of your period with Capone,” the duty officer said. “Our undercover operative Erick Thakara’s report of his time crewing with the Villeneuve’s Revenge was very thorough.”

“Erick is here? That’s good, we thought he’d been caught.”

“He’s filed charges of desertion and collaboration against you.”

“Well even if I have to undergo a Court Martial to prove my innocence, it doesn’t change the fact that I’m carrying a great deal of useful information. The admiral will want me debriefed properly.”

“You will be. The patrol voidhawks will escort you to a secure dock once we have confirmed your ship’s status.”

“I assure you, there are no possessed on board. Nor is this ship a military threat. I’m amazed we even managed to get here at all given the state some of our systems are in. Captain Duchamp is not the most proficient of officers.”

“We know that, too.”

“Very well. You should also be aware there is a nuclear device embedded in hull plate 4-36-M. It has a decimal three kiloton yield. I have the control timer’s reset code, and it’s currently seven hours from detonation.”

“Yes, that’s Capone’s standard method of ensuring compliance. We’ll confirm its location with a remote probe from one of the voidhawks.”

“Fine; what do you want me to do?”

“Nothing at all. The hull plate will be removed before you can proceed to dock. Duchamp must open the flight computer to us, and remove all access restrictions. You will be given further instructions as we proceed with our analysis.”

On the bridge, Kingsley removed the straps securing him to his acceleration couch, and gave the seething captain a detached glance. “Do as she requests. Now.”

“But of course,” André growled. A thousand times during the flight he had considered simply refusing to go any further, calling Pryor’s bluff. Arriving at Trafalgar was going to put an end to his life, permanently. The anglo Navy knew too much about him now, thanks to Thakara. They would take his ship and probably his liberty away from him, no matter how much money he spent on villainous lawyers. This was one port where he had no favours to call in at all. But each time the option popped up into his head, one nasty little aspect of cowardice prevented him from actually putting thoughts into deeds. Refusal meant certain death from the nuke in the hull plate, and André Duchamp could no longer face that fate as confidently as he once had. He had stared the possessed in the eye and defeated them (not that the Confederation navy had ever thanked him for that, oh no), and more than most he knew how real they were. With that came the cold knowledge of what awaited his soul. Any fate, however humiliating, had suddenly become more attractive than death.

André datavised a set of instructions into the flight computer, enabling the SD command centre to take control. The procedure was well established now. All internal sensors were activated, verifying the number of crew on board, establishing their identities. They were then required to datavise files and physiological data to SD Command; stage one in corroborating that they weren’t possessed. Stage two would be an intensive sensor examination once they had docked.

Once SD Command had provisionally classified the five people on board as non-possessed, diagnostic routines were run through every processor in the starship. In the case of the Villeneuve’s Revenge this procedure wasn’t quite as smooth as it would be in a ship that adhered closer to CAB maintenance requirements. Several legally required systems remained stubbornly off-line. However, SD Command confirmed that there were no telltale glitches in those processors which were working. This, coupled with an analysis of the (admittedly incomplete) environmental system logs, allowed them to assign a ninety-five per cent probability that the starship wasn’t smuggling any possessed.

André was allowed to deploy the thermo-dump panels, relieving the heat sinks. Thrusters fired, stabilising their attitude. An MSV from one of the voidhawks slid out of its hangar and manoeuvred itself over hull plate 4-36-M. Waldo arms reached out, ready to detach the section.

Tracy watched the camera feed on the big Sony television screen as the anti-torque keys engaged around the panel’s rim. “I don’t believe this!” she exclaimed. “They think it’s safe!”

“Be reasonable,” Arnie said. “Those precautions are good enough to locate any possessed skulking on board.”

“Except Quinn Dexter,” Saska grumbled.

“Let’s not complicate matters. The fact is, the navy is being very prudent.”

“Rubbish,” Tracy snapped. “That CNIS officer is criminally incompetent. She must know Capone had exerted some kind of coercive hold over Pryor, yet she’s not taken that into account. They’ll let that bloody ship dock once they’ve unscrewed the hull plate.”

“We can’t stop them,” Saska warned. “You know the rules.”

“Capone and his influence are waning,” Tracy said. “No matter what delusory victory he inflicts he cannot regain what he’s lost, not now. I say we cannot permit him this gesture. The overall psychological dynamic of the situation has to be taken into account. The Confederation must survive, not only that it must be the entity which brings this crisis to a successful resolution. And the Navy is the embodiment of the Confederation, especially now. It must not be damaged. Not to the extent Pryor’s mission is capable of.”

“You’re being as arrogant as Capone,” Galic said. “Your thoughts, your opinions, are the ones which must prevail.”

“We all know very well what has to prevail,” she replied. “There has to be a valid species-wide government mechanism to implement the kind of policies which are going to be needed afterwards, and oversee the transition phase. For all its faults, the Confederation can be made to work properly. If it fails the human race will fragment, socially, politically, economically, religiously, and ideologically. We’ll be right back where we were in the pre-starflight age. It’ll take centuries to recover, to get us back to where we are today. By that time we should have joined the transcendent-active population of this universe.”

“We?”

“Yes. We. We privileged few. Just because we were engineered here doesn’t mean we’re not human. Two thousand years spent walking amongst our own people makes this the alien world.”

“Now you’re being melodramatic.”

“Call it what you like. But I know what I am.”

The internal sensors on the Villeneuve’s Revenge revealed Kingsley Pryor to be alone in his own small cabin. He’d adopted the same unnerving posture which André and his three crew had witnessed throughout the tortuous flight. He hung centimetres from the decking, legs folded in Lotus position, with eyes granted a vision of some terribly personal hell. Even over the link from the starship, the CNIS duty officer could see he was suffering.

With the remote electronic survey complete, and hull plate 4-36-M now detached and held in the MSV’s waldo, André was given a vector taking them in towards Trafalgar at a tenth of a gee. SD Command observed the flight computer responding to the crew’s instructions, coaxing the fusion tube to life. They were following the security protocols to the last byte.

Kingsley drifted the last few centimetres down onto the decking, and suppressed a whimper at what that meant. During the flight he’d elevated his dilemma to a near physical pain, every thought he had concerning his destination burned from within. There simply was no way out of the box Capone and his whore had trapped him in. Death surrounded him, making him more compliant than any set of sequestration nanonics could ever achieve. Death and love. He couldn’t allow little Webster and Clarissa to vanish into the beyond. Not now. Nor could he let them be possessed. And the only way to prevent that from happening also could not be permitted.

Like men in his position throughout history, Kingsley Pryor did nothing as events swept him to their conclusion; simply waiting and praying that a magical third option would spring from nowhere. Now with the fusion drive pushing the starship towards Trafalgar, hope had cast him aside. The power he had been given to inflict suffering was insane in its size, yet he could feel Webster and Clarissa. The two balanced, as Capone knew they would. And now Kingsley Pryor had to make that impossible choice between the intimate and the abstract.

The cabin sensor had enough resolution to observe his lips contracting into a bitter smile. It looked as though a scream was about to burst loose. The CNIS duty officer shook her head at the way he was acting. Looks as though his brain’s cracked, she thought. Though he was keeping passive enough.

What the sensor never showed her was a patch of air beside Kingsley’s bunk thicken silently into the shape of Richard Keaton. He smiled sadly down at the stricken Navy officer.

“Who are you?” Kingsley asked hoarsely. “How did you hide on board?”

“I didn’t,” Richard Keaton said. “I’m not a possessed here to check up on you. I’m an observer, that’s all. Please don’t ask for who, or why. I won’t tell you that. But I will tell you that Webster has escaped from Capone, he’s no longer on Monterey.”

“Webster?” Kingsley cried. “Where is he?”

“As safe as anyone can be right now. He’s on a rogue ship that takes orders from no one.”

“How do you know this?”

“I’m not the only person observing the Confederation.”

“I don’t understand. Why tell me this?”

“You know exactly why, Kingsley. Because you have a decision to make. You are in a unique position to affect the course of human events. It’s not often an individual is put in this position, even though you don’t appreciate all the implications stretching out ahead of you. Now, I can’t make that decision for you, much as I’d like to. Even I can’t break the restrictions I work under. But I can at least bend them enough to make sure you have all the facts before you pass your judgement. You must choose when and where you die, and who dies with you.”

“I can’t.”

“I know. It’s not easy. You just want the status quo to carry on for so long that you become irrelevant. I don’t blame you for that, but it isn’t going to happen. You must choose.”

“Do you know what Capone did to me, what I’m carrying?”

“I know.”

“So what would you do?”

“I know too much to tell you that.”

“Then you haven’t told me everything I need to know. Please!”

“Now you’re just looking for absolution. I don’t provide that, either. Consider this, I have told you what I believe you should know. Your son will not suffer directly from any action you take. Not now, nor in the time which follows.”

“How do I know you’re telling the truth? Who are you?

“I am telling you the truth, because I know exactly what to tell you. If I wasn’t what I say I am, how would I know about you and Webster?”

“What should I do? Tell me.”

“I just did.” Richard Keaton started to raise his hand in what could have been a gesture of sympathetic compassion. Kingsley Pryor never found out, his visitor faded away as beguilingly as he’d arrived.

He managed a small high-pitched snigger. People (or xenocs, or maybe even angels) were watching the human race; and were very good at it. It wouldn’t take much to see what was going on among the Confederation: a few carefully placed scanners could pick up the appropriate datavises, the CNIS and its counterparts did that as a matter of routine. But to secrete observers among the possessed cultures was an ability far beyond any ordinary intelligence agency. That kind of ability was unnerving. Despite that, he felt a small amount of relief. Whoever they were, they cared. Enough to intervene. Not by much, but just enough.

They knew the devastation he would cause. And they’d given him an excuse not to.

Kingsley looked straight at the cabin sensor. “I’m sorry. Really. I’ve been very weak to come this far. I’m ending it now.” He datavised an instruction into the flight computer.

On the bridge, André twitched in reaction as red neuroiconic symbols shrilled their warnings inside his skull. One by one, the starship’s primary functions were withdrawn from his control.

“Duchamp, what are you doing?” SD Command queried. “Return our access to the flight computer immediately or we will open fire.”

“I can’t,” the terrified captain datavised back. “The command authority codes have been nullified. Madeleine! Can you stop them?”

“Not a chance. Someone’s installing their own control routines through the Management Operations Program.”

“Don’t shoot,” André begged. “It’s not us.”

“It must be someone who had direct MOP access. That’s your crew, Duchamp.”

André gave Madeleine, Desmond, and Shane a frightened glance. “But we’re not . . . merde, Pryor! It’s Pryor. He’s doing this. He was the one who wanted to come here.”

“We’re powering down,” Desmond shouted. “Fusion drive off. Tokamak plasma cooling. Damn, he’s opened the emergency vent valves. All of them. What’s he doing?”

“Get down there and stop him. Use the hand weapons if you have to,” André shouted. “We’re cooperating,” he datavised at SD Command. “We’ll regain control. Just give us a few minutes.”

“Captain!” Shane pointed. The hatch in the decking was sliding shut. Orange strobes started to flash with near-blinding pulses in time to a piercing whistle.

“Mon dieu, non!”

SD sensors relayed a perfectly clear image of the Villeneuve’s Revenge to the CNIS duty officer. The ship was well into its deceleration phase when the emergency started. It was less than two hundred kilometres away from Trafalgar’s counter-rotating spaceport, which was grave cause for concern. The crew’s apparent dismay could just be one massive diversion. If a salvo of combat wasps were fired at the asteroid from this distance it would be almost impossible to intercept all of them.

Had it just been Duchamp and his crew on board, she would have vaporised the starship there and then. But Pryor’s actions and enigmatic statement just before his cabin sensor had gone off line stayed her hand. She was sure he was doing this; and the one routine which the starship had left open to Trafalgar’s scrutiny was fire control to the combat wasps. Pryor must be trying to reassure SD Command. None of the lethal drones had been armed.

“Keep tracking it with a full weapons lock,” she datavised to her fellow officers in the SD Command centre. “Tell the voidhawk escort to stand by.”

Long jets of snowy vapour were squirting out from the Villeneuve’s Revenge as the emergency vent emptied every tank on board. Hydrogen, helium, oxygen, coolant fluid, water, reaction mass; they all emerged under high pressure to shake the ship about as if a dozen thrusters were firing in conflicting directions. None of them were powerful enough to affect its orbital trajectory. With its deceleration burn interrupted, it continued to fly towards Trafalgar at nearly two kilometres per second.

“They’re not going to have any fuel even if they do regain control of the propulsion systems,” the SD guidance officer said. “The ship will impact in another two minutes.”

“If it gets within ten kilometres of Trafalgar, destroy it,” the CNIS duty officer ordered.

The multiple vent continued unabated for another fifteen seconds, giving the ship a highly erratic tumble. Explosive bolts detonated across the fuselage, punching out dry plumes of grey dust as they severed the outer stress structure. Huge segments of the hull peeled free like dusky silver petals opening wide, exposing the tight-packed metallic viscera. Sharp bursts of blue light flashed beneath the surface, visible only through the slimmest of fissures; more explosive bolts, detaching equipment from the internal stress grid. The starship began to break apart, its tanks, drive tubes, tokamak toroids, energy patterning nodes, heat exchangers, and a swarm of subsidiary mechanisms forming a slowly expanding clump.

Three high-thrust solid rocket motors were clustered around the base of the life support capsule which contained the bridge; they ignited with only the briefest warning, thrusting the sphere clear of the cloud of technological detritus. Duchamp and the others were flung back into their acceleration couches, bodies straining against the fifteen-gee acceleration.

“My ship!” André screamed against the punishing force. The Villeneuve’s Revenge , the one last minuscule glint of hope for a post-crisis existence he had left, was unravelling around him, its million-fuseodollar components spinning off into the depths of the galaxy, transforming themselves into unsalvageable junk. Loving the ship more deeply than he did any woman, Duchamp forgave the eternal demands which it made for his money, its temperamental functions, its thirst for fuel and consumables; for in return it gave him a life above the ordinary. But it wasn’t quite fully paid for, and years ago he’d forsaken a comprehensive insurance policy with those legalized thieving anglo insurance companies in favour of trusting his own skill and financial acumen. His scream ended in a wretched juddering sob. This universe had just become worse than anything which the beyond promised.

Kingsley Pryor didn’t ignite the rockets on his own life support capsule. There was nowhere for him to escape to. The debris of the Villeneuve’s Revenge was churning heatedly now, agitated by the bridge’s life support capsule erupting from its centre. But it was still all sweeping towards Trafalgar, and carrying Kingsley along with it. He didn’t know exactly where he was; he couldn’t be bothered to access the rudimentary sensors surmounting the capsule. All he knew was that he’d done his best by the crew, and he wasn’t in Trafalgar where Capone wanted him to be. Nothing else mattered any more. The decision had been taken.

Floating alone in a cabin illuminated only by tiny yellow emergency lights, Kingsley datavised the off code to an implant in his abdomen. The little containment field generator represented the peak of Confederation technology; even so it pushed way beyond the kind of safety specifications normally used for handling antimatter. The ultra-specialist military lab in New California which manufactured it had neglected to include the standard failsafe capacity which even the most cheapskate black syndicates employed. Capone had simply decreed that he wanted a container defined by size alone. That’s what he got.

When the confinement field shut down, the globe of frozen anti-hydrogen touched the side of the container. Protons, electrons, anti-protons, and anti-electrons annihilated each other in a reaction that very, very briefly recreated the energy density conditions which used to exist inside the Big Bang. This time, it didn’t result in creation.

SD platform lasers were already picking off the gyrating chunks of equipment around the fringe of the debris cloud that had once been the Villeneuve’s Revenge . The bulk of the swarm was less than twenty-five kilometres from Trafalgar, on a course that would collide with one of the spherical counter-rotating spaceports. Ionized vapour from the disintegrating components fluoresced a pale blue from the energy beams stabbing through them, forming a seething bow-wave around the remaining pieces. It was as if a particularly insubstantial comet was shooting across space.

Kingsley Pryor’s life support capsule was twenty-three kilometres and eight seconds away from the spaceport when it happened. Another three seconds and the SD lasers would have targeted it, not that it would have made much difference. Capone had intended to do to Trafalgar what Quinn Dexter had done to Jesup; with the antimatter detonating in one of the biosphere caverns the asteroid would have been blown apart. Even if Kingsley didn’t cheat his way past the inevitable security checks and had to kamikaze in the spaceport, the damage would have been considerable, destroying the counter-rotating sphere, any ships docked, and possibly dislodging the asteroid from its orbit.

By switching off the confinement chamber outside Trafalgar, Kingsley would be reducing the damage considerably. Enough to salvage his conscience and allow him to return to New California claiming a successful mission. However, in physical terms, he wasn’t doing the Confederation Navy much of a favour. Unlike a fusion bomb, the antimatter explosion produced no relativistic plasma sphere, no particle blast wave; but the energy point which sprang into life had the strength to illuminate the planet’s nightside a hundred thousand kilometres below. The visible and infrared spectrum it emitted contained only a small percentage of the overall energy output. Its real power was concentrated in the gamma and X-ray spectrums.

The surrounding shoal of metal trash which had been the Villeneuve’s Revenge twinkled for a picosecond before evaporating into its sub-atomic constituents. Trafalgar proved somewhat more resilient. Its mottled grey and black rock gleamed brighter than the sun as the energy tsunami hammered against it. As the white light faded, the surface facing the blast continued to glow a deep crimson. Centrifugal force stirred the sluggish molten rock, sending it flowing out along the humps and crater ridges where it swelled into bulbous fast-growing stalactites. Town-sized heat exchangers and their ancillary equipment anchored to the rock crumpled, their composite components shattering like antique glass while the metal structures turned to liquid and dribbled away, scattering scarlet droplets across the stars.

Hundreds of starships were caught by the micro-nova burst. Adamist vessels were luckier, in that their bulky structure shielded the crews from the worst of the radiation. Their mechanical systems underwent catastrophic failure as the X-rays penetrated them, instantly turning them into flying wrecks, coughing out vapour like the Villeneuve’s Revenge . Scores of life support capsules hurtled clear of the dangerously radioactive hulks.

Exposed voidhawks suffered badly. The ships themselves died wretchedly as their cells’ integrity was decimated. The further they were from the detonation, the longer their misery was dragged out. Their crews in the thin-walled, exposed toroids were killed almost instantly.

Trafalgar’s spherical counter-rotating spaceport buckled like a beachside shack in a hurricane. The nulltherm foam coating its girders and tanks crisped to black and moulted away. Air in the pressurized sections was superheated by the radiation, expanding with explosive force, ripping every habitable section to shreds. Tanks ruptured. Fusion generators destabilised and flash vaporised.

The concussion was totally outside the load capacity of the spindle. With fusion generator plasma roaring out of the collapsing sphere, the slender gridwork started to bend. It snapped off just above the bearing and took flight, deflating into a flaccid carcass beneath the short-lived fireballs puffing open across its superficies.

A dozen datavised emergency situation alerts vibrated urgently inside Samual Aleksandrovich’s skull. He looked up at the staff officers conducting the daily strategy review. More worrying than the initial crop of alerts was three of them immediately failing as their processors crashed. Then the lights flickered.

Samual stared at the ceiling. “Bloody hell.” Information pouring into his mind confirmed there’d been an explosion outside the asteroid. But big enough to affect internal systems? Outside his panoramic window, the central biosphere’s axial light gantry was darkening as the civil generators powered down in response to losing their cooling conduits. Whole sections of the asteroid’s ultra-hardened communications net had gone off-line. Not a single external sensor remained active.

The office lighting and environmental systems switched to their back-up power cells. High-pitched whines, the daily background sound pervading the entire asteroid, began to deepen as pumps and fans shut down.

Seven marines in full body armour rushed into the office, a detachment of the First Admiral’s bodyguard. The captain in charge didn’t even bother to salute. “Sir, we are now in a C10 situation, please egress your secure command facility.”

A circular section of floor beside the desk was sinking down to reveal a chute that curved away out of sight. Flashing lights and sirens had begun to echo the datavised alarms. Thick metal shields were closing across the window. More marines were running along the corridor just outside the office, shouting instructions. Samual almost laughed at how close such dramatics came to being counter-productive. People needed to remain calm in such events, not have their fears accentuated. He considered refusing the earnest young captain’s directive; gut instinct, acting out the role of gruff lead-from-the-front commander. Trouble was, that kind of gesture was so totally impractical at his level. Preserving the authority of the command structure was essential in a crisis of this magnitude. Threats had to be countered swiftly, which only an uninterrupted chain of command could achieve.

Even as he hesitated, the floor trembled. They really were under attack! The concept was incredible. He stared at the cups on the table in astonishment as they started to jitter about, spilling tea.

“Of course,” he told the equally apprehensive marine captain.

Two of the marines jumped down the chute first, their magpulse rifles drawn ready. Samual followed them. As he skidded his way down along the broad spiral an assessment and correlation program went primary in his neural nanonics, sorting through the incoming datastreams to discover exactly what had happened. SD Command confirmed the Villeneuve’s Revenge had detonated a quantity of antimatter. The damage to Trafalgar was considerable. But it was the thought of what had happened to the ships of the 1st Fleet which chilled him. Twenty had been docked at the time of the explosion, three further squadrons had been holding station a hundred kilometres away. Two dozen voidhawks were on their docking ledge pedestals. Over fifty civil utility and government craft were in close proximity.

The secure command facility was a series of chambers dug deep into Trafalgar’s rock. Self sufficient and self-powered, they were designed to hold the First Admiral’s staff officers during an attack. Any weapon powerful enough to damage them would split the asteroid into fragments.

In view of what had just happened, it wasn’t the most comforting thought Samual had with him as he came off the end of the chute. He strode into the coordination centre, drawing nervous glances from the skeleton crew on duty. The long rectangular room with its complex curving consoles and inset holographic windows always put him in mind of a warship’s bridge; with the one advantage that he’d never have to endure high-gee manoeuvres in here.

“Status please,” he asked the lieutenant commander in charge.

“Only one explosion so far, sir,” she reported. “SD command is trying to re-establish contact with its sensor satellites. But there were no other unauthorised ships within the planetary defence perimeter when we lost contact.”

“Don’t we have any linkages?”

“There are some sensors functional on the remaining spaceport, sir. But they’re not showing us much. The antimatter’s EM pulse crashed a lot of our electronics, even the hardened processors are susceptible to that power level. None of the working antennas can acquire an SD platform signal. It could be processor failure, or actual physical destruction. We don’t know which yet.”

“Get me a GDOS satellite, then. Link us to a starship. I want to talk to somebody who can see what’s going on outside.”

“Yes sir. Combat back-up systems are deploying now.”

More of the coordination centre crew were hurrying in and taking their places. His own staff officers were coming in to stand behind him. He caught sight of Lalwani and beckoned urgently.

“Can you talk to any voidhawks?” he asked in a low voice when she reached him.

“Several.” Deep pain was woven across her face. “I feel them dying still. We’ve lost over fifty already.”

“Jesus Christ,” he hissed. “I’m sorry. What the hell’s happening out there?”

“Nothing else. There are no Organization ships emerging as far as the survivors are aware.”

“Sir!” the lieutenant commander called. “We’re reestablishing communications with the SD network. Three GDOS satellites are out, they must have been irradiated by the explosion. Five are still functional.”

One of the holographic windows flickered with orange and green streaks, then stabilized. The image was coming from an SD sensor satellite; it was positioned on the perimeter of Trafalgar’s defence network, ten thousand kilometres away. None of the inner cordon of satellites had survived.

“Hell,” the First Admiral muttered. The rest of the coordination centre was silent.

Half of Trafalgar’s lengthy peanut-shape glimmered a deep claret against the starscape. They could see sluggish waves of rock crawling across the ridges, boulder-sized globules sprinkling from the crests, cast away by the asteroid’s rotation. The ruined spaceport was retreating from its fractured spindle, turning slowly and scattering blistered fragments in its wake. Igneous spheres drifted without purpose around the stricken rock, squirting out sooty vapour like cold comets: the ships too close to the antimatter blast for their crews to survive the radiation blaze.

“All right, we’re intact and functional,” the First Admiral said sombrely. “Our first priority has to be re-establishing the SD network. If they have any sense of tactics, the Organization will try to hit us while our weapons platforms are disabled. Commander, bring in two squadrons of 1st Fleet ships to substitute for the SD platforms, and reassign the planetary network to provide us with as much cover as it can. Tell them to watch for an infiltration mission, as well; I wouldn’t put that past Capone at this point. Once that’s done, we can start initiating rescue flights for the survivors.”

The coordination centre crew spent an hour orchestrating the surviving 1st Fleet squadrons into a shield around Trafalgar. With more and more back-up communication links coming on line, information began pouring in. Three quarters of the asteroid’s SD network had been wiped out in the blast. Over a hundred and fifty ships had been completely destroyed, with a further eighty so radioactive they were beyond rescue. Of the spaceport facing the Villeneuve’s Revenge nothing had survived; once the bodies had been retrieved it would have to be nudged into a sun-intercept orbit. Initial casualty figures were estimated at eight thousand, though the coordination centre crew felt that was optimistic.

Once his orders were being implemented, the First Admiral reviewed the SD command centre files on the Villeneuve’s Revenge . He convened a preliminary enquiry team of six from his staff officers, briefing them to assemble a probable chain of events. The last moments of the angst-laden Kingsley Pryor replayed a dozen times through his neural nanonics. “We’ll need a full psychological profile,” he told Lieutenant Keaton. “I want to know what they did to him. I don’t like the idea that they can turn my officers against the Navy.”

“The possessed are only limited by their imagination, Admiral,” the medical liaison officer said politely. “They could apply a great deal of pressure to individuals. And Lieutenant-commander Pryor had his family stationed with him on New California, a wife and son.”

“I pledge to place myself and my actions above all personal considerations,” Samual quoted quietly. “Do you have family, Lieutenant?”

“No sir, no direct family. Though there is a second cousin I’m quite fond of; she’s about the same age as Webster Pryor.”

“I suppose academy oaths and good intentions don’t always survive the kind of horror real life throws at us. But it looks like Pryor was having second thoughts at the end. We should be grateful for that. God alone knows what kind of carnage he would have unleashed if he’d got inside Trafalgar.”

“Yes, sir. I’m sure he did his best.”

“All right, Lieutenant, carry on.” Samual Aleksandrovich returned to the situation display swarming through his mind. With the Strategic Defence redeployment under way and ships assigned to rescue duties, he could concentrate on Trafalgar itself. The asteroid was in bad shape. Essentially all of its surface equipment had been vaporized; and that was ninety per cent heat dump mechanisms. The asteroid was generating almost no power, its environmental systems were operating on their reserve supplies alone. None of the biosphere caverns or habitation sections could get rid of their heat into space, the emergency thermal stores had ten days’ capacity at most. When the habitat was designed no one had envisaged this kind of absolute damage; it had been assumed that the heat dump panels wrecked by a combat wasp could be replaced in the ten-day time scale. Now though, even if Avon’s industrial stations could manufacture enough hardware fast enough, it couldn’t be attached. Half of the rock surface was so radioactive it would have to be cut off to a depth of several metres. And that same half was also extremely hot. Most of that heat would radiate outwards over the next couple of months, but a considerable fraction would also seep inwards. Left unchecked, the temperature in the biosphere caverns would rise high enough to sterilise them. The only way to prevent that from happening was with heat dump mechanisms, which couldn’t be replaced because of the heat and radiation.

Samual cursed as the civil engineering teams datavised their various assessments and recommendations. Cost aside, he couldn’t possibly begin a program like that in the middle of this crisis.

He was going to have to evacuate the asteroid. There were contingency plans for dispersing the Navy institutions and forces around Avon’s moons and asteroid settlements. That wasn’t the problem. Capone had won a profound propaganda victory. The headquarters of the Confederation Navy bombed into extinction, whole squadrons lost, voidhawks dead. It would completely negate the entire Mortonridge Liberation campaign in the opinion of the general public.

Samual Aleksandrovich sank back into his chair. The only reason he didn’t bury his head in his hands was because of all the eyes watching him, needing him to remain confident.

“Sir?”

He looked up to see Captain Amr al-Sahhaf’s normally calm face contaminated with apprehension. Now what? “Yes, Captain.”

“Sir, Dr Gilmore reported that Jacqueline Couteur has escaped.”

A cold fury that Samual hadn’t experienced for a long time pushed its way through his rational thoughts. The damned woman was becoming his bête noir , a ghoul feeding off the Navy’s misfortune. Lethal, and contemptuously smug . . . “Has she broken out of the laboratory?”

“No sir. The demon trap’s integrity has been maintained throughout the assault.”

“Very well, assign a squad of marines, and whatever else Dr Gilmore says he needs to find her. Full priority.” He ran a search program through several files. “I want lieutenant Hewlett placed in charge of the search mission. My orders to him are very simple. Once she has been recaptured, she is to be put directly into zero-tau. And I do mean: directly. In future, Dr Gilmore can use someone less troublesome for his research.”

By the third doorway, it was noticeably warmer than usual in the broad corridor leading towards the CNIS secure weapons laboratory. The heat given off by the armour of thirty-five marines was accumulating in the air. Conditioning vents running along the ceiling were operating on reduced cycle mode; only a third of the light panels were on.

Murphy Hewlett took point duty himself, leading his squad along. They were each armed with static-bullet machine pistols modelled on Ombey’s design, with five of the team carrying Bradfields just in case. Murphy had taken time to brief them personally while they suited up; laying down simple procedures for engaging the possessed, hoping he was coming on confident.

As they arrived at the third door he signalled their technical sergeant forward. The man walked over to the door’s control processor, and studied his own block.

“I can’t find any time log discrepancies, sir,” he reported. “It hasn’t been opened.”

“Okay. Front line ready,” Murphy ordered.

Eight marines spread out across the corridor, lining their machine guns up on the door. Murphy datavised Dr Gilmore that they were in position and ready. The door swung up, hissing from the pressure difference. Tendrils of pale white vapour licked around the edges as hot and cold air intermingled. Dr Gilmore, five other researchers, and three armed marines were standing just inside. No one else was visible.

Murphy switched on his suit’s audio circuit. “In!” he ordered.

The marine squad surged forward, forcing the scientists to bunch together as they bustled past. Murphy datavised a close order at the door’s processor, and entered his own codelock. The big slab of metal swung down again, sealing into place.

“Jacqueline isn’t in this section,” Dr Gilmore said, bemused by their military professionalism.

In answer, Murphy beckoned him forwards and touched a static sensor against his arm. The result was negative. He told his squad to check the others. “If you say so, Doctor. What exactly happened?”

“We think the EMP interrupted the electricity supply we were using to neutralize her energistic power. It shouldn’t have done; we’re exceptionally well shielded in here, and our systems are all independent apart from the heat exchange mechanisms. But somehow she was able to overcome the marine guards and break out of the isolation laboratory.”

“Overcame, how, exactly?”

Pierce Gilmore gave a humourless smile. “She killed them, and two of my staff. This escapade is a futile gesture of defiance. Not even Jacqueline can walk through two kilometres of solid rock. She knows this, of course. But causing us the maximum amount of disruption is part of her tiresome little game.”

“The whistle has just been blown, Doctor. My orders are that upon capture she is to be placed in zero-tau. They came right from the First Admiral, so please don’t query them.”

“We are on the same side, Lieutenant Hewlett.”

“Sure thing, Doc. I was in the courtroom. Remember that.”

“I am on record as objecting to that adventure. Couteur is extremely duplicitous, and intelligent. It is a bad combination.”

“We’ll bear that in mind. Now how many of the lab staff have you accounted for?”

Gilmore glanced along the main corridor running round the laboratory complex. Several of the silvery doors were open, with people peering out nervously. “Nine have not responded to my general datavise.”

“Shit!” Murphy accessed the floor plan file in his neural nanonics. The laboratory complex covered two levels; essentially a ring of research labs on top of the environmental and power systems, with storage and engineering facilities included. “Okay, everyone is to return to their office or lab, wherever they are now. The existing marine detail is to stay with them and guard against intrusion. I don’t want anyone moving round except for my squad, and that includes you, Doctor. Then I want an AI brought on-line to monitor the complex’s processors for glitches.”

“We’re doing that already,” Gilmore said.

“And it can’t find her?”

“Not yet. Jacqueline knows how we track possessed, of course. She will be concealing her power. Which means she will be vulnerable during the first few seconds after you locate her.”

“Yeah. Tell you, it’s all good news, this assignment, Doc.”

The procedure Murphy initiated was a simple enough one; five marines were left behind to cover the door in case Couteur made a break for it. Unlikely, Murphy admitted to himself, but with her there was always the prospect of double bluff. The remainder of the squad he split into two groups, going in opposite directions to work their way round the ring. Each laboratory was examined in turn, using electronic warfare blocks and infrared (in case Couteur was disguising herself as a piece of equipment). All the staff were tested and verified; they then had to leave their neural nanonics open to the CNIS office overseeing the mission, to confirm they weren’t being possessed after the marines left. One room at a time, and even scanning the corridor walls as they progressed. Murphy was leaving absolutely nothing to chance.

He led the group going counterclockwise from the door. The laboratory corridor might have been a much simpler geometry than Lalonde’s jungle, denying her any real ambush opportunity, but he couldn’t get rid of the old feeling that the enemy was right behind him. Several times he caught himself turning to stare past the marines following along behind. That wasn’t good, because it made them jumpy, distracted. He concentrated hard on the curving space ahead, securing each empty room. Taking it a stage at a time, setting a proper example.

Despite the jumble of equipment in most labs, it was a simple enough task to scan their sensors round. The scientists and technicians inside were profoundly relieved to see them, although each welcome was subdued. Every time, they were checked out then sealed in.

The biological isolation facility, where Couteur had been held, was the ninth room Murphy visited. Its door had been forced half-way open, buckled metal runners preventing it from moving further. Murphy signalled the technical sergeant forward. He flattened himself against the wall, and gingerly extended a sensor block around the edge of the door.

“Clean sweep,” the sergeant reported. “If she’s in there, she’s not in range.”

It was a perfect double cover advance into the room. The marines deployed inside, scanning every centimetre as they went. A glass wall divided the room in half, with a large oval hole smashed through it. That, Murphy was expecting, along with the bodies torn by unpleasantly familiar deep char marks. There was a surgical table on the other side of the glass, surrounded by equipment stacks. Tubes and wires were strewn around it, a complement to the limb restraint straps which hung limply over the edges where they’d been severed.

Who could really blame the occupant for breaking free? Murphy didn’t appreciate being made to ask that question.

They left two sensor blocks behind to cover the broken door as they filed out, in case she returned. The next room, an office, had one of Couteur’s other victims sprawled on the carpet. They scanned the corpse first, and applied the static sensor. Murphy wasn’t going to be caught out that way.

But it was a genuine corpse, with a large number of small burns and several broken bones. A characteristics scan confirmed it was Eithne Cramley, one of the physics department technicians. Murphy was sure Couteur had tried to make Cramley submit to possession, but wouldn’t have had enough time to make a success of the process. The rest of the room was empty. They sealed it and moved on.

It took ninety minutes for the two marine groups to meet up. All they’d found was six of the staff who didn’t respond to Gilmore’s datavise.

“Looks like she’s lurking in the basement,” he told them. He ordered ten marines to stand guard at the top of the stairs, and took the remainder down with him. This, he thought, was more her territory. The construction crew hadn’t lavished the same kind of care down here as they had up in the ring of laboratories. They’d made it spacious enough, and well lit; but in the end it was just six caverns drilled in a line to house utility systems.

Again the marines deployed in perfect formation when they reached the bottom of the stairs. Murphy supervised them with growing unease. His heart rate now had to be regulated by his neural nanonics he was wired so tight, even the regenerated flesh on the fingers of his left hand was tingling with phantom sensation. He just wished it was a reliable way of warning him as a possessed was coming close. With each meter they advanced he was expecting Couteur to launch some vicious attack. He just couldn’t understand what she was doing. Most likely scenario was that the three staff they hadn’t located yet were now possessed. But she would know he’d be working on that assumption. There was nothing in this for her. Except being free of her bondage for a few hours. A reasonable enough impetus for most people. Murphy couldn’t forget that voyage back to Trafalgar on the Ilex, the wearisome power struggle she’d waged against her captors the whole time. It hadn’t taken him long to realize she’d allowed herself to be captured, making a mockery of poor old Regehr’s terrible burns.

Advantage, that was her sole ambition, gaining the upper hand. This escape couldn’t provide that for her. Not unless there was some enormity he’d overlooked. He felt as though his brain was being fossilised by the pressure of worry.

“Sir,” the marine on point duty shouted. “Infrared signature.”

They’d reached the environmental processing machinery. A hall of naked rock with seven big, boxy, air filter/regenerator units in a row down the centre. Pipes and ducts rose out from them in conical webs, leading away into glare of the overhead lighting panels. The marines were advancing along both sides of the bulky grey casings.

Someone was crouching down on top of the third, secreted amid a twist of metre-wide pipes. When Murphy switched his retinas to infrared, a distinctive thermal emission hazed around the edge of the pipes like a pink mist. Neural nanonics computed the output as consistent with a single person.

“Wrong,” he muttered. His suit audio speaker boosted the word, sending it rumbling round the hall. Okay, she’d made an effort to hide, but it was a pitiful one. Going through the motions. Why?

“Dr Gilmore?” Murphy datavised. “Is there any kind of super weapon she could have stolen from one of your laboratories?”

“Absolutely not,” Gilmore datavised back. “Only three portable weapons are undergoing examination in the laboratory. I verified their locations as soon as we knew Couteur had escaped.”

Another explanation gone, Murphy acknowledged miserably. “Encirclement,” he datavised to the squad. They began to fan out along the hall, keeping behind the pipes and machinery. When they had her surrounded he cranked the volume up further. “Come along, Jacqueline. You know we’re here, and we know where you are. Game over.” There was no visible response.

“Sir,” the technical sergeant said. “I’m picking up activity on the electronic warfare block. She’s increasing her energistic power.”

“Jacqueline, stop that right now. I have full shoot to kill authorization on this mission. You really have pissed off our top brass with these stunts of yours. Now take a good look at what you’re sitting on. That casing is all metal. We don’t even have to use our machine guns, I’ll just order someone to lob an EE grenade in your direction. You ought to know what electricity does to you by now.”

He waited a few seconds, then fired three rounds at the pipes just above the thermal emission. The bullets sliced a dim violet streak across his vision that vanished as soon as it began.

Jacqueline Couteur slowly stood up, hands raised high. She glanced round with supreme disdain at the marines crouched beneath her, their weapons gripped purposefully.

“Down on the ground, now,” Murphy ordered.

She did as she was told with insultingly measured slowness; descending the rungs welded on to the side of the conditioner. When she reached the ground five marines advanced on her.

“On the ground,” Murphy repeated.

Sighing at how she’d been wronged she lowered herself to her knees, and slowly bent forward. “I trust this makes you feel safe?” she enquired archly.

The first marine to reach her shouldered his machine gun and took a holding stick from his belt. It telescoped out to two metres, and he closed the pincer clamp around Couteur’s neck.

“Scan and secure the rest of the hall,” Murphy instructed. “We’re still missing three bodies.”

He walked over to where Jacqueline Couteur was being held fast. The pincer was riding high on her neck, tilting her jaw back. It was an uncomfortable position, but she never showed any ire.

“What are you doing?” Murphy asked.

“I believe you’re in charge.” The tone was calculated to annoy, superior and amused. “You tell me.”

“You mean this is all you’ve achieved? Two hours’ liberty and you’re sulking about down here? That’s pathetic, Couteur.”

“Two hours tying up your resources, frightening your squad. And you, I can see the fear clouding your mind. Then I also eliminated several key CNIS science personnel. Possibly I engendered some more possessed to run loose in your precious asteroid. You’ll have to find that out for yourself. Do you really regard that as insignificant, lieutenant?”

“No, but it’s beneath you.”

“I’m flattered.”

“Don’t be. I’ll find out whatever scam you’re pulling, and I’ll blow it out the fucking airlock. You don’t fool me, Couteur.” Murphy pushed up his visor, and shoved his face centimetres from hers. “Zero-tau for you. You’ve abused our decency for way too long. I should have shot you back on Lalonde.”

“No you wouldn’t,” she sneered. “As you said, you’re too decent.”

“Get her up to the lab,” Murphy snarled.

Gilmore was waiting for them at the top of the stairs; he directed them to professor Nowak’s laboratory where a couple of technicians had prepared a zero-tau pod. Jacqueline Couteur hesitated slightly when she saw it. Two machine guns prodded into the small of her back, urging her forwards.

“I ought to say sorry for any suffering you’ve undergone,” Gilmore said awkwardly. “But after the courtroom, I feel completely vindicated.”

“You would,” Jacqueline said. “I shall be watching you from the beyond. When your time comes to join us, I’ll be there.”

Gilmore gestured at the zero-tau pod, as if getting in was voluntary. “Empty threats, I’m afraid. By that time, we shall have solved the problem of the beyond.”

Couteur gave him a final withering glance, and climbed into the pod.

“Any final message?” Murphy asked. “Children or grandchildren you want to say something to? I’ll see it’s passed on.”

“Go fuck yourself.”

He grunted and nodded to the technician operating the pod. Couteur was immediately smothered beneath the jet-black field.

“How long?” Murphy asked tensely. He still couldn’t believe this was all there was to it.

“Leave her in for at least an hour,” Gilmore said with bitter respect. “She’s tough.”

“Very well.” Murphy refused to allow the door connecting the secure laboratory with the rest of the asteroid to be re-opened, not with three people still unaccounted for. The marines continued their sweep of the utility caverns. As well as people, Murphy had them examine the fusion generators. Since the loss of the external heat exchangers, they’d been operating in breakeven mode, shunting their small thermal output into the emergency heat storage silo. Couteur couldn’t rig them to explode, but the plasma could do a lot of damage if the confinement field had been tampered with.

The technicians reported back that they were untouched. After another forty minutes one of the missing bodies was found, dead, and stuffed behind an air conditioning vent. Murphy ordered the squad to go back through the rooms they’d covered and open all the remaining grilles, no matter what size. A possessed could easily hollow out a small nest for themselves in the rock.

He waited seventy minutes before ordering the zero-tau pod to be switched off. The woman inside was wearing a tattered and burnt laboratory tunic with the CNIS insignia on her shoulder. She was weeping fervently as she tottered out, clutching at a bloody wound across her abdomen. Murphy’s characteristics recognition program identified her as Toshi Numour, one of the weapons section’s biophysics researchers.

“Shit,” Murphy groaned. “Dr Gilmore,” he datavised. There was no reply. “Doctor?” The communications processors in the secure laboratory complex reported they couldn’t acquire Dr Gilmore’s neural nanonics.

Murphy burst out into the main corridor, and shouted at his squad to follow. With ten suited figures clattering along at his heels, he sprinted for Gilmore’s office.

As soon as the black shell of the zero-tau field had snapped up around Jacqueline Couteur, Pierce Gilmore headed back for his office. He didn’t protest at Hewlett’s continuing restrictions in preventing them from leaving the secure laboratory complex. In fact, he rather approved. He’d received a nasty shock when Couteur escaped, on top of the asteroid physically shaking in the wake of the antimatter blast. Under the circumstances, such precautions were both logical and sensible.

The office door slid shut behind him, and some of the lighting came on. Current power rationing permitted him only four of the ceiling panels, the kind of light provided by a cold winter afternoon. None of the holographic windows were active.

He walked over to the percolator jug, which was still bubbling away contentedly, and poured himself a cup. After a moment of regret, he switched it off. There probably wouldn’t be enough space in his evacuation allocation to take it or any of the bone china cups with him. Assuming there would be any allocation for personal effects. With over three hundred thousand people to evacuate in a week, the amount of baggage they could take with them would be minimal to zero.

The small solaris tube running above his orchids was also off. Several of the rare pure-genotype plants were due to flower, their fleshy buds had almost burst. They never would now. There would be no light and fresh air, and the heat would arrive soon. The secure laboratory was closer to the surface than most of the asteroid’s habitable sections, it would receive the worst of the inward seepage. Furniture, equipment, it would all be lost. The only thing to survive would be their files.

Pierce sat behind his desk. In fact, he really ought to be drawing up procedures to safeguard the information ready for when they transferred to their secondary facility. He put his cup down on the leather surface, next to an empty cup. That hadn’t been there before.

“Hello, Doctor,” Jacqueline Couteur said.

He did flinch, but at least he didn’t jump or yelp. She didn’t have the satisfaction of witnessing any disconcertion, which in the game they played was a big points winner. His eyes locked on an empty section of wall directly ahead, refusing to turn round and look for her. “Jacqueline. You have no feelings. Poor Lieutenant Hewlett really won’t enjoy being outsmarted in this manner.”

“You can stop trying to datavise for help now, Doctor. I disabled the room’s net processors. Not with my energistic power, either, there was no glitch to alert the AI. Kate Morley had some knowledge of electronics, a couple of old didactic courses.”

Pierce Gilmore datavised the comprehensive processor array installed in his desk. It reported that its link with Trafalgar’s communication’s net had been removed.

Jacqueline chuckled softly as she walked round the desk into his line of sight. She was carrying a processor block, its small screen alive with graphics that monitored his datavises. “Anything else you’d like to try?” she enquired lightly.

“The AI will notice the processors have gone off line. Even if it isn’t caused by a glitch, a marine squad will be sent to investigate.”

“Really, Doctor? A lot of systems were damaged by the EM pulse. I’ve apparently been caught and shoved into zero-tau, and the marines have already cleared this level. I think that gives us time enough.”

“For what?”

“Oh dear me. Is that finally a spike of fear I sense in your mind, Doctor? That has got to be the first arousal of any kind you’ve had for many a year. Perhaps it’s even a hint of remorse? Remorse for what you put me through.”

“You put yourself through it, Jacqueline. We asked you to cooperate; you were the one who chose to refuse. Very bluntly, as I recall.”

“Not guilty. You tortured me.”

“Kate Morley. Maynard Khanna. Should I go on?”

She stood directly in front of the desk, staring at him. “Ah. Two wrongs making a right? Is that what I’ve reduced you to, Doctor? Fear does things to the most brilliant of minds. It makes them desperate. It makes them pitiful. Is there any other excuse you’d like to offer?”

“If I was facing a jury, good and true, I could offer several justifications. Such arguments would be wasted on a bigot.”

“Petty, even for you.”

“Cooperate with us. It’s not too late.”

“Not even clichés change in five hundred years. That says quite a lot about the human race, don’t you think? Certainly everything I need to know.”

“You’re transferring onto an abstract concept. Self-hatred is a common aspect of a diseased mind.”

“If I’m the one that’s ill and incapable, how come you’re the one in terminal trouble?”

“Then stop being the problem, and help us with a solution.”

“We are not problems .” Her hand slammed down on the front of the desk, making the two coffee cups jump. “We are people. If that simple fact could ever register in that fascist bitek brain of yours then you might be able to look in a different direction, one that would help bring an end to our suffering. But that is beyond you. To think along those lines you have to be human. And after all these weeks of study, the one definite conclusion I have come to, is that you are not human. Nor can you ever become human. You have nothing, no moral foundation from which to grow out of. Laton and Hitler were saints compared to you.”

“You’re taking your situation far too personally. Understandably, after all, you can hardly retreat from it. You lack the courage for that.”

“No.” She straightened up. “But I can make my last noble stand. And depriving the Confederation Navy of your so-called talent will be a satisfactory achievement for me. Nothing personal, you understand.”

“I can put an end to this, Jacqueline. We’re so very close to an answer now.”

“Let’s see how your rationality endures the reality of the beyond. You will now experience every facet of it. Being possessed by one of its inhabitants; living within it, and if you’re really fortunate, as a possessor, forever terrified that some lucky living bastard is going to rip you out of your precious new prize and send you back screaming. What will your answer be then, I wonder?”

“Unchanged.” He gave her a sad defeated smile. “It’s called resolution, the ability and determination to see things through to the end. However unexpected or disappointing that end turns out to be. Not that anyone will ever know now. But I held true to myself.”

Alarmed by his mind tone, Jacqueline started to point her right arm. Slivers of white fire licked up from her wrist.

In Gilmore’s mind the alternatives were stark. That she would torture him was inevitable. He would be possessed, or more likely damaged so badly that his body died, banishing his soul to the beyond. That was where logic broke down. He believed, or thought he did, that there was a way out of the beyond. Doubt undermined him, though. Factious, unclean human emotion, the type he hated so. If a way through the beyond existed, why did the souls remain trapped? There was no certainty any more. Not for him, not there. And he couldn’t stand that. Facts and rationality were more than the building blocks of his mind, they were his existence. If the beyond was truly a place without logic, then Pierce Gilmore had no wish to exist there. And his own sacrifice would advance human understanding by a fraction. Such knowledge was a fitting last thought.

He datavised the processor array for the latest version of the anti-memory. Jacqueline’s hand was already lining up desperately on him when the desktop AV projection pillar silently pumped a blindingly pervasive red light across the office.

Sixty minutes later Murphy Hewlett and his squad blew the office door out with an EE charge, and rushed in to the rescue. They found Gilmore slumped over his desk, and Kate Morley lying on the floor in front of it. Both of them were alive, but completely unresponsive to any kind of stimulus the squad medic could apply. As Murphy said later during his debriefing, they were nothing but a pair of wide awake corpses.

Chapter 04

From the safety of the little plateau, a quarter of the way up the northern endcap, Tolton trained his telescope on the lobby of the Djerba starscraper. Another swirl of darkness was pushing up through the dome of white archways. Pieces of the structure tumbled across the crumpled lawn circling the forlorn building. He kept expecting to hear the sound of breaking glass reach across the distance. The telescope provided a good, sharp image, as if he was just a few metres away. He shivered at that errant thought, still able to feel the wave of coldness that had swept through him every time the flying monster passed overhead.

“This one’s a walker.” He moved aside and let Erentz use the telescope’s eyepiece.

She studied it for a minute. “You’re right. It’s picking up speed, too.” The visitor had shoved its way through the smouldering ruins of the shanties, leaving a deep furrow in its wake. Now it was traversing the meadows beyond. The wispy pink grass stalks around it turned black, as if they’d been singed. “Moving smoothly enough; fast, too. It should reach the southern endcap in five or six hours at that rate.”

Just what we need,the personality groused. Another of the buggers leeching off us. We’ll just have to reduce nutrient fluid production to survival minimum, keep the neural strata alive. That’ll play hell with our main mitosis layer. It’ll take us years to regenerate the damage.

Eight of the dire visitors had now emerged from the Djerba, three of them taking flight. Without fail, they had headed for the southern endcap, just as the first and largest had done. Those that moved over the land had left a contrail of dead vegetation behind them. When they reached the endcap, they bored their way through the polyp and into the arteries which fed the giant organs, suckling the nutrient fluid.

“We should be able to burn them out soon,” she said. “The flame throwers and incendiary torpedoes are coming on fine. You’ll be okay.”

The look Tolton gave her made his lack of affinity irrelevant. He bent over the telescope again. The visitor was crunching its way through a small forest. Trees swayed and toppled, broken off at the base. It seemed incapable of going round anything. “That thing is goddamn strong.”

“Yeah.” Her worry was pronounced.

“How’s the signal project coming?” He asked the question several times every day, frightened he might miss out on some amazing breakthrough.

“Most of us are working on developing and producing our weapons right now.”

“You can’t give up on that. You can’t!” He said it loud for the benefit of the personality.

“Nobody’s giving up. The physics core team is still active.” She didn’t tell him it was down to five theorists who spent most of their time arguing about how to proceed.

“Okay then.”

Two more are approaching,the personality warned.

Erentz gave the street poet a swift glance. He was engrossed with the telescope again, tracking the movements of the visitors still loose on the grass plains. No need to panic the others.

Quite.

The creatures had been arriving at the rate of nearly one every half hour ever since Erentz’s disastrous foray into the Djerba. The personality was now worried about its ability to maintain the habitat’s environmental integrity. Each new arrival invariably smashed its way into a starscraper, then proceeded to hammer the tower’s internal structure. So far the emergency inter-floor pressure seals had held. But if the invasion continued at this rate a breach was inevitable.

We believe some of the incumbents are now starting to move,the personality said. It’s slow, which makes it hard to tell, but they could start to emerge into the parkland within in the next day or so.

Do you think they’re multiplying like the first one did?

Impossible to tell. Our perception routines close to them are almost completely inviolable now. We suspect a great deal of the polyp is dead. However, if one did, then it is logical to assume the others will follow that pattern.

Oh great. Oh shit. We’re going to have to tackle each one separately. I’m not even sure we can win. The numbers are starting to stack up against us.

We will have to review our tactics after the first few encounters. If the expenditure is too great then we may adopt Tolton’s wishes and deploy everyone on the signal project.

Right.she let out a beaten sigh. You know, I don’t even consider that defeatist. Anything which gets us out of this is fine by me.

A healthy attitude.

Tolton straightened up. “What next?”

“We’d better get back down to the others. The visitors aren’t immediately threatening.”

“That can change.”

“If it does, I’m sure we’ll know about it real soon.”

They walked into the small cave at the back of the plateau. It housed a tunnel which spiralled down through several chambers to the caverns at the base of the endcap. Wave escalators and stairs were arranged in parallel down each level. Most of the wave escalators had stopped, so the descent took them quite a while.

The caverns had taken on the aspect of a fort under siege. Tens of thousands of people lay ill on whatever scraps of bedding were available. There was no order to the way they were arranged. Nursing the bedridden was left entirely to those slightly less ill, and consisted mainly of taking care of their sanitary needs. Those qualified (or with basic how-to didactic memories) to operate medical packages circulated constantly, perpetually exhausted.

Erentz’s relatives had formed an inner coterie in the deepest caverns, where the light manufacturing tools and research equipment were concentrated. They’d also taken care to stockpile their own food supply, which could last them for well over a month. Here at least, a semblance of normality remained. Electrophorescent strips shone brightly in the corridors. Mechanical doors whirred open and shut. The clatter of industrial cybernetics vibrated along the polyp. Even Tolton’s processor block let out a few modest bleeps as basic functions returned to life.

Erentz let him into a chamber serving as an armoury. Her relatives had been busy since the reconnaissance in the Djerba, designing and producing a personal flame thrower. The basic principal hadn’t changed much in six hundred years: a chemical tank carried on the user’s back, with a flexible hose leading to a slim rifle-like nozzle. Modern materials and fabrication techniques allowed for a high pressure system, giving a narrow flame that could reach over twenty metres, or be switched to a wide short-range cone. Scalpel or blunderbuss, Erentz commented. There were also incendiary torpedo launchers; essentially scaled-up versions of an emergency flare.

She started into discussions with several of her relatives, mostly using affinity. Only a few exclamations were actually voiced. Tolton felt like a child left out of abstruse adult conversation. His attention wandered off. Surely the personality wouldn’t expect him to join the combatants fighting the dark creatures? He lacked the kind of driven intensity Erentz and her relatives flaunted, their birthright. He was afraid to ask in case they said yes. Worse, they could say no and kick him out of their caverns to rejoin the rest of the population.

There must be some important non-combatant post he could fill. He raised his processor block to type an unobtrusive question for the personality. The Rubra of old would sympathise with that, and the Dariat section was his friend. Then he realized Erentz and her cousins had stopped talking.

“What?” he asked nervously.

“We can sense something in the rail tube approaching one of the endcap stations,” the block said. It was essentially the same voice Rubra had used to speak with him the whole time he was in hiding; though something about it had changed. A stiffness in the inflexion? Minor yet significant.

“One of them’s coming here?”

“We don’t believe so. They rampage about without any attempt to disguise themselves. This is more like a mouse sneaking along. None of the surrounding polyp is suffering the usual heat-loss death. But our perceptive cells are unable to obtain a clear image.”

“The bastards have changed tactics,” Erentz snarled. She snatched one of the flame throwers from a rack. “They know we’re here!”

“We are uncertain on that point,” the personality said. “However, this new incursion will have to be investigated.”

Several more people ran into the armoury, and began picking up weapons. Tolton watched the abrupt whir of activity with bewildered alarm.

“Here.” Erentz thrust an incendiary torpedo launcher at him.

He grabbed it in reflex. “I don’t know how to use this.”

“Aim it and shoot. Effective range two hundred metres. Any questions?”

She didn’t sound in a forgiving mood.

“Oh crap,” he grunted. He rocked his head from side to side, attempting to force the stiffness out of his neck muscles, then joined them in the hurried exodus.

There were nine of them in the group which marched down the stairs to the endcap tube station. Eight of Rubra’s heavily armed, grim-faced descendants; and Tolton hanging as close to the back of the pack as possible while trying not to make it too obvious.

The main lighting strips were dark and cold. Emergency panels flickered with sapphire phosphorescence as if stirred into guilty life by the clumping footsteps. Not that they were of much use. Helmet projectors encased each member of the group in a sphere of bright white light. So far their power cells were unaffected.

“Any change?” Tolton whispered.

“No,” the block whispered back. “The creature is still moving along the tube tunnel.”

Rubra hadn’t damaged this particular station during the brief active phase of his conflict with the possessed. Tolton kept expecting everything to return to life in a blast of light and noise and motion. It was Marie Celeste territory. A carriage was standing abandoned at one of the twin platforms, its door open. A couple of fast food packets lay abandoned on the marble floor outside, their contents dissolved into a pellicle of grey mould.

Erentz and her cousins fanned out along the platform, and edged cautiously towards the blank circle of the tunnel mouth behind the carriage. Three of them dropped down onto the rail, and crossed swiftly to the far wall. They slunk back into various crannies, crouched down, and aimed their weapons forward.

Along with those remaining on the platform, Tolton secured himself behind one of the central pillars, and brought his launcher up. Nine helmet projectors focused their illumination on the tunnel entrance, banishing the shadows for several metres along its length.

“This isn’t exactly an ambush,” he observed. “It can see we’re here.”

“Then we find out just how determined they are to get at us,” Erentz said. “I tried the subtle approach back in the Djerba. Believe me, it’s a bunch of shit.”

Wondering just how much their definitions of subtle were at variance, Tolton tightened his grip on the launcher. Once again, he checked the safety catch.

“Getting close now,” the personality cautioned.

A speck of grey materialized at the furthest extreme of the tunnel’s shadows. It rippled as it moved steadily forwards towards the station.

“Different,” Erentz muttered. “It’s not concealing itself this time.” Then she gasped as the habitat’s sensitive cells finally managed to focus.

Tolton squinted at the slowly resolving shape, pointing his launcher to the vertical so he could strain ahead. “Holy shit,” he said quietly.

Dariat emerged from the tunnel mouth, and smiled softly at the semicircle of lethal nozzles pointing at him out of the blazing light. “Something I said?” he asked innocently.

You should have identified yourself to us,the personality said in censure.

I have been busy thinking, discovering what I am.

And that is?

I’m not quite sure yet.

Tolton whooped happily, and emerged from behind his pillar.

“Careful!” Erentz warned.

“Dariat? Hey, is that you?” Tolton hurried along the platform, grinning madly.

“It’s me.” There was only a slightly sardonic tone colouring his voice.

Tolton frowned. He’d heard his friend’s voice loud and clear, never even needing to concentrate on the lip movement. He came to a confused halt. “Dariat?”

Dariat put his hands flat on the platform edge, and heaved himself up like a swimmer emerging from a pool. It looked like a lot of effort to lift so much weight. His toga stretched tight over his shoulders. “What’s up, Tolton? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” He chuckled as he walked forward. The frayed hem of his toga brushed against one of the fast-food packets, and sent it spinning.

Tolton stared at the rectangle of plastic as it skidded to a halt. The others were bringing their weapons to bear again.

“You’re real,” Tolton stammered. “Solid!” The obese grinning man standing in front of him was no longer translucent.

“Damn right. The Lady Chi-Ri smiled on me. A warped kind of smile, I guess, but definitely a smile.”

Tolton reached out gingerly and touched Dariat’s arm. Cold bit into his questing fingers like razor fangs. He snatched his hand back. But there had definitely been a physical surface; he’d even felt the crude weave of the toga cloth. “Shit! What happened to you, man?”

“Ah, now there’s a story.”

“I fell,” Dariat told them. “Ten bloody stories down that lift shaft, screaming all the way. Thoale alone knows why suicides are so fond of jumping off cliffs and bridges; they wouldn’t if they knew what that trip’s like. I’m not even sure I did it on purpose. The personality was bullying me to do it, but that thing was getting closer, which made me weaker. I probably lost control of my legs I was so debilitated. Whatever . . . I went over the edge and landed smack on top of the lift. I even penetrated it a few centimetres I was falling so hard. Shit, I hate that. You’ve no idea how bad solid matter feels to a ghost. Anyway, I was just forcing my legs through the lift’s roof to get out of there when the bloody bogeyman lands right bang beside me. I could even feel it coming, like a gust of liquid helium blowing down the shaft. But the thing is, it didn’t break when it hit. It splashed.”

“Splashed?” Tolton queried.

“Absolutely. It was like a goo bomb detonated on top of the lift. The whole shaft was splattered in this thick fluid. Everything got coated, including me. But the fluid reacted to me, I could feel the droplets. It was like getting caught in a spray of ice.”

“How do you mean, reacted?”

“They changed while they were going through me. Their shape and colour tried to match the section of my body they were in. I figured it’s like my thoughts have a big influence over them. I’m imagining my shape, right. So that imagination interacts with the fluid and formats it.”

“Mind over matter,” Erentz said sceptically.

“You got it. Those creatures are no different from any human ghost, except they’re made up of this fluid; a solid visualization. They’re souls, just like us.”

“So how come you became solid?” Tolton asked.

“We fought for it, me and the other entity’s soul. The impact made it lose concentration for a moment, that’s why the stuff went flying off. Both of us started scrambling round to suck up as much as we could. And I was a hell of a lot stronger that it was. I won. Must have got seventy per cent of what was there before I made a run for it. Then I hid in the bottom floors until the rest of them had gone.” He looked round the circle of faintly suspicious faces. “That’s why they’ve come here. Valisk is saturated with energy that they can use. It’s the kind of energy that makes up our souls, life-energy. The attraction is like a bee for pollen. This is what they crave; they’re sentient just like us, they’ve come from the same universe as us, but blind instinct rules them now. They’ve been here so long they’re severely diminished, not to mention totally irrational. All they know is that they have to feed on life-energy, and Valisk is the biggest single source to emerge here that they can remember.”

“That’s what they were doing to the nutrient fluid,” the personality said. “Absorbing the life-energy from it.”

“Yeah. Which is what trashes it. And once it’s gone, you’ll never be able to produce any more. This dark continuum is like a bedamned version of the beyond.”

Tolton slumped onto the bottom stair. “Just fucking great. This is worse than the beyond?”

“I’m afraid so. This must be the sixth realm, the nameless void. Entropy is the only lord here. We will all bow down before him in the end.”

“This is not a Starbridge realm,” the personality retorted sharply. “It’s an aspect of physical reality, and once we understand and tabulate its properties we will know how to open a wormhole interstice and escape. We’ve already put a stop to these creatures consuming any more of us.”

Dariat glanced suspiciously round the empty station. “How?”

“The habitat’s nutrient fluid arteries have been shut down.”

“Uh oh,” Dariat said. “Bad move.”

With their nourishment denied them, the Orgathé began to search round for further sources of raw life-energy, crying out in their own strange intangible voices. Their kith who had infested the southern endcap organs shrilled in reply. Even there, the rich fluids were drying up, but the organs themselves were suffused with a furnace glow of life-energy. Enough for thousands.

The Orgathé pummelled their way up through the starscrapers one by one, and took flight.

Dariat, Tolton, Erentz, and several others stood outside one of the endcap caverns they were using as a garage for the rentcop trucks. They shielded their eyes from the bruised tangerine nimbus of the light-tube to watch one of the dark colossi soar upwards from a collapsing lobby. With its tattered wing sails extended, it was bigger than a cargo spaceplane. A small pearl-white twister of hail and snow fell from its warty underbelly.

Erentz puffed a relieved breath out through her teeth. “At least they’re still heading for the southern endcap.”

There are over thirty of them gnawing their way through our organs now,the personality said. The damage they are inflicting is reaching dangerous levels. And there’s only a single pressure door in the Igan starscraper preventing an atmosphere breach. You will have to go on the offensive. Dariat, will the flame throwers kill them?

No. Souls cannot be killed, even here. They just fade away to wraiths, maybe shadows not even that strong.

You know what we mean, boy!

Yeah, sure. Okay, the fire will fuck with their constituent fluid. They’re taking a long time to acclimatize to the heat levels in the habitat. We’re Thoale alone knows how many thousands of degrees above the continuum’s ambient.

You mean hundreds.

I don’t think so. Anyway, they can’t take a direct blast of physical heat. Lasers and masers they can simply deflect, but flame should dissipate the fluid and leave their souls naked. It’ll turn them into another just bunch of ghosts skulking round the parkland.

Excellent.

“If they can’t die, what do they want with all that life-energy?” Erentz asked.

“It boosts them above the rest,” Dariat said. “Once they’re strong, they’ll stay free for a long time before the life-energy leaks away again.”

“Free of what?” Tolton asked uneasily. He had to stand several paces away from his friend. Not out of rudeness; Dariat was cold. Moisture condensed across his toga as it would on a beer bottle fresh from the fridge. None of the droplets stained the cloth, though, Tolton noticed. And that was only one of the oddities this reincarnation displayed. There were differences in behaviour, too, little quirks which had come to the fore. He’d watched Dariat quietly as they’d all walked up out of the tube station. There was a confidence about him that had been missing before; as if he was merely indulging his relatives rather than helping them. That deep anger had been expelled, too, replaced by sadness. Tolton wondered about that combination, sadness and confidence was a strange driving force. Probably quite volatile, too. But then given what poor old Dariat had been through in the last few weeks, that was eminently forgivable. Worthy of a verse or two, in fact. It had been a long time since Tolton had composed anything.

“We didn’t have a real long conversation on top of the lift,” Dariat said. “It was the kind of pressurized memory exchange I experienced in the beyond. The creature’s thoughts weren’t very stable.”

“You mean it knows about us?”

“I expect so. But don’t confuse knowing with being interested. Absorbing life-energy is all they exist for now.”

Erentz squinted after the receding Orgathé as it headed over the circumfluous sea. “We’d better get organized, I suppose.” She couldn’t have sounded less enthusiastic.

Dariat gave up on the dark invader, and looked around. A crowd of ghosts was hanging back from the cavern entrance, keeping among the larger boulders littering the desert. They regarded the little band of tenacious corporeal humans with grudging respect, avoiding direct eye contact like a shoplifter eluding the store detective.

“You!” Dariat barked suddenly. He started to march over the powdery sand. “Yes, you, shithead. Remember me, huh?”

Tolton and Erentz trailed after him, curious at this latest behaviour.

Dariat was closing on a ghost dressed in baggy overalls. It was the mechanic he’d encountered when he went searching for Tolton just after the habitat arrived in the dark continuum.

Recognition was mutual. The mechanic turned and ran. Ghosts parted to let him through their midst. Dariat chased after him, surprisingly fast for his bulk. As he passed through the huddle of ghosts they shivered and shuffled further away, gasping in shock at the cold he exuded.

Dariat caught hold of the mechanic’s arm, dragging him to a halt. The man screeched in pain and fear, flailing about, unable to escape Dariat’s grip. He started to grow more transparent.

“Dariat,” Tolton called. “Hey, come on, man, you’re hurting him.”

The mechanic had fallen to his knees, shaking violently as his colouring bled away. Dariat by contrast was almost glowing. He glowered down at his victim. “Remember? Remember what you did, shithead?”

Tolton drew up short, unwilling to touch his erstwhile friend. The memory of the cold he’d experienced back in the station was too strong.

“Dariat!” he shouted.

Dariat looked down at the mechanic’s withering face. Remorse opened his fingers, allowing the incorporeal arm to slip away. What would Anastasia say about such behaviour? “Sorry,” he muttered shamefully.

“What did you do to him?” Tolton demanded. The mechanic was barely visible. He’d curled up into a foetal position, half of his body sunk into the sand.

“Nothing,” Dariat blurted, ashamed of his action. The fluid which brought him solidity apparently came with an ugly price. He’d known it all along, simply refused to acknowledge it. Hatred had been an excuse, not a motivator. As with the Orgathé instinct was supplanting rationality.

“Oh, come on.” Tolton bent down and moved his hand through the whimpering ghost. The air felt slightly cooler, otherwise there was no trace that he existed. “What have you done?”

“It’s the fluid,” Dariat said. “It takes a lot to maintain myself now.”

“A lot of what?” Rhetorical question: Tolton knew without needing an answer.

“Life-energy. Just keeping going uses it up. I need to replenish. I don’t have a biology, I can’t breathe or eat a meal; I have to take it neat. And souls are a strong concentration.”

“What about him?” A tiny patina of silver frost was forming on the ground within the ghost’s vague outline. “What about this particular concentration ?”

“He’ll recover. There’s plants and stuff he can recoup the loss from. He did a lot worse to me, once.” No matter how much Dariat wanted, he couldn’t look away from the drained ghost. This is what we’re all going to end up like, he acknowledged. Pathetic emancipated remnants of what we are, clinging to our identity while the dark continuum depletes us until we’re a single silent voice weeping in the night. There’s no way out. Entropy is too strong here, drowning us away from the light.

And I was instrumental in bringing us here.

“Let’s get back inside,” Erentz said. “It’s about time we put you under the microscope, see if the physics gang can make any sense of you.”

Dariat thought about protesting. Eventually he just nodded meekly. “Sure.”

They walked back towards the cavern entrance, through the clutter of subdued ghosts. Two more Orgathé hatched from the Gonchraov starscraper lobby, tumbling up into the wan twilight sky.

There were vigilantes at Kings Cross station, hard young gang members drafted in from the low-cost residential estates scattered around the outer districts of Westminster Dome. Their uniforms went from pseudo-military to expensive business suits, denoting their differing membership. Ordinarily such a mixture was hypergolic. See/kill. And if civilians got caught in the line of fire, tough. In some cases, feuds between boroughs and individual gangs went back centuries. Today, they all wore a simple white ribbon prominently on their various lapels. It stood for Pure Soul, and united them in commitment. They were here to make sure all of London stayed pure.

Louise stepped off the vac-train carriage, yawning heavily. Gen leaned against her side, nearly sleepwalking as they moved away from the big airlock door. It was almost three in the morning, local time. She didn’t like to think how long she’d been up for now.

“What are you creeps doing getting off here?”

She hadn’t even noticed them until they stood in front of her. Two dark-skinned girls with shaved heads; the taller one had replaced her eyeballs with blank silver globes. Both of them wore identical plain black two-piece suits of some satin fabric. They didn’t have blouses; the jackets were fastened by a single button, exposing stomachs as muscular as any Norfolk field labourer. Their cleavage was the only way to tell they were female. Even then Louise wasn’t entirely sure, they might just be butched-up pectorals.

“Uh?” she managed.

“That train’s from Edmonton, babe. That’s where the possessed are. Is that why you left? Or are you here for some other reason, some kind of freako nightclub?”

Louise began to wake up fast. There were a lot of young people on the platform; some dressed in suits identical to the girls’ (the voice finally convinced her about gender), others in less formal clothes. None of them showed any inclination to embark on the newly arrived train. Several armour-suited police were clumped round the exit archway, with their shell—helmet visors raised. They were looking in her direction with some interest.

Ivanov Robson moved smoothly to stand at Louise’s side, his movement hinting at the same kind of inertia carried by an iceberg. He smiled with refined politeness. The gang girls didn’t flinch, exactly, but they were smaller now, somehow, less menacing.

“Is there a problem?” he asked quietly.

“Not for us,” the one with the silver eyes said.

“Good, then please stop hassling these young ladies.”

“Yeah? So what are you, their dad? Or maybe just their great big friend out for some fun tonight.”

“If that’s the best you can do, stop trying.”

“You didn’t answer my question, bigfoot man.”

“I’m a London resident. We all are. Not that it’s any of your concern.”

“Like fuck it isn’t, brother.”

“I’m not your brother.”

“Is your soul pure?”

“What are you all of a sudden, my confessor?”

“We’re guardians, not priests. Religion is fucked; it doesn’t know how to fight the possessed. We do.” She patted her white ribbon. “We keep the arcology pure. No shitty little demon gets in past us.”

Louise glanced across at the police. There were a couple more of them now, but they showed no sign of intervening. “I’m not possessed,” she said indignantly. “None of us are.”

“Prove it, babe.”

“How?”

The gang girls both took small sensors from their pockets.

“Show us you contain only one soul, that you’re pure.”

Ivanov turned to Louise. “Humour them,” he said in a clear voice. “I can’t be bothered to shoot them; I’d have to pay the judge far too much to bounce us out of jail before breakfast.”

“Fuck you,” the second gang girl shouted.

“Just get on with it,” Louise said wearily. She held out her left arm, the right was curled protectively round Gen. The gang girl slapped the sensor on the top of her hand.

“No static,” she barked. “This is a pure babe.” Her followup grin was weird, showing teeth that were too long to be natural.

“Check the sprog.”

“Come on, Gen,” Louise coaxed. “Hold out your hand.” A scowling Genevieve did as she was told.

“Clean,” the gang girl reported.

“Then you must be what I can smell,” Genevieve scoffed.

The gang girl drew her hand back for a slap.

“Don’t even dream it,” Ivanov purred.

Genevieve’s face slowly broke into a wide smirk. She looked straight at the girl with the silver eyes. “Are they lesbians, Louise?”

The gang girl had trouble controlling her temper. “Come with us, little girl. Find out what we do to freshmeat like you.”

“That’s enough.” Ivanov stepped forward and proffered his hand. “Genevieve, behave, or I’ll smack you.” The gang girl put her sensor to his skin, taking care to do it softly.

“I’ve met a possessed,” Genevieve said. “The nastiest one there’s ever been.”

Both gang girls gave her an uncertain look.

“If a possessed does ever comes out of a train, you know what you should do? Just run. Nothing you can do will stop them.”

“Wrong, titchy bitch.” The gang girl patted a pocket; there was something heavy bulging the fabric. “We just pump them with ten thousand volts and watch the firework display. I’ve heard it’s real pretty. Be good to me, I’ll let you watch, too.”

“Seen it already.”

“Huh!” The girl turned her silver eyes on Banneth. “You too. I want to know you’re pure.”

Banneth laughed gently. “Let’s hope your sensor can’t probe my heart.”

“What the hell are you all doing here?” Ivanov asked. “The only time I’ve seen the Blairs and the Benns in the same place before was a morgue. And I can see a couple of MoHawks over there as well.”

“Looking after our turf, brother. These possessed, they’re part of the sect. You don’t see none of those bastards down here, do you? We’re not going to let them crunch us like they done New York and Edmonton.”

“I think the police will do that, don’t you?”

“No fucking way. They’re Govcentral. And those shits let the possessed down here in the first place. This planet’s got the greatest defences in the galaxy, and the possessed just breezed through them like they weren’t even there. You want to tell me how come that happened?”

“Good point,” Banneth drawled. “I’m still waiting to hear on that one myself.”

“And why haven’t they shut down the vac-trains properly?” the girl continued. “They’re still running to Edmonton where we know the possessed are. I accessed that sensevise of the fight, it was only a couple of hours ago for Christ’s sake.”

“Criminal,” Banneth agreed. “They were probably bribed by big business.”

“You taking the piss, bitch?”

“Who, me?”

The gang girl gave her a disgusted stare, not knowing what to make of her attitude. She jerked her thumb over her shoulder. “Go on, get the fuck out of here, all of you. I hate you rich kinks.” She watched them walk through the exit archway with a vague sense of unease scratching away at her mind. There was something badly wrong about the group, the four of them were a complete mismatch. But screw that, as long as they weren’t possessed who cared what kind of orgy they were heading off to. She shivered suddenly as a cold breeze swept along the platform. It must have been caused by the carriage airlocks swinging shut.

“That was awful,” Genevieve exclaimed when they reached the big sub-level hall above the station’s platforms. “Why didn’t the police stop them doing that to people?”

“Because it’s way too much trouble at three o’clock in the morning,” Ivanov said. “Besides, I expect most of the officers down there are quite happy to let the vigilantes take the heat if a possessed did step out of a train. They act as a buffer.”

“Is Govcentral being stupid allowing the vac-trains to continue?” Louise asked.

“Not stupid, just slow. It is the universe’s largest bureaucracy, after all.” He waved a hand at the informationals flittering overhead. “See? They’ve shut a few routes down already. And public pressure will close a lot more before long. It’ll snowball once everyone’s had time to access the Edmonton fight. This time tomorrow you’ll have trouble getting a taxi to take you further than a couple of streets.”

“Do you think we’ll be able to leave London again?”

“Probably not.”

The way he said it sounded so final: a pronouncement rather than an opinion. As always, an authority in knowledge he had no business knowing.

“All right,” Louise said. “I suppose we’d better go back to the hotel, then.”

“I’ll come with you,” Ivanov said. “There might be a few more of these nutters around. It wouldn’t do for the natives to learn you’re from Norfolk right now. These are paranoid times.”

For some reason, Andy Behoo popped into Louise’s mind; his offer to sponsor her for Govcentral citizenship. “Thank you.”

“What about you?” Ivanov asked Banneth. “Do you need to share a cab?”

“No thank you. I know where I’m going.” She walked off towards the lifts around the rim of the hemispherical cavern.

“Don’t mention it,” Louise muttered grumpily at her back.

“I expect she’s grateful, really,” Ivanov said. “Probably just doesn’t know how to express it.”

“She could try harder.”

“Come along, let’s get you two home to bed. It’s been a long day.”

Quinn watched the lift doors close on Banneth. He didn’t bother to rush after her. Finding her again would be relatively simple. Bait was never hidden. Oh, it wouldn’t be obvious. He would need time, and resources, and have to make an effort. But her location would be filtered through the arcology’s downtowners, the sect covens and gangs would be informed. That was why he’d been lured here, after all. London was the largest, most elaborate trap ever assembled for one man. In a strange way, he felt rather flattered. That the supercops were prepared to sacrifice the whole arcology just to nail him was a mark of extreme respect. They feared God’s Brother exactly as He should be feared.

He trailed after Louise as she walked over to the lifts with her brat sister and the huge private eye. She was very drowsy, which relaxed her face. It left her delicate features unguarded and natural; a state which served only to amplify her beauty. He wanted to put out a hand and stroke her exquisite cheeks, to see her smile gently at his touch. Welcome him.

She frowned, and rubbed her arms. “It’s cold down here.” The moment broke.

Quinn rode up to the surface with the trio, then left them as they went off to the taxi garage. He took a subwalk under the busy road and hurried along one of the main streets radiating out from the station. There would only be a limited amount of time until the supercops closed down the vac-trains.

The second alley leading off from the main street contained what he wanted. The Black Bull, a small, cheap pub, filled with hard-drinking men. He moved among them, unseen as his expanded senses examined their clothing and skulls. None of them were fitted with neural nanonics, but several were carrying processor blocks.

He followed one into the toilets, where the only electrical circuit was for the light panel.

Jack McGovern was peeing blissfully into the cracked urinal when an icy hand clamped round the back of his neck and slammed his face into the wall. His nose broke from the impact, sending a torrent of blood to splash into the porcelain.

“You will take your processor block from your coat pocket,” a voice said. “Use your activation code, and make a call for me. Do it now, or die, dickhead.”

Rat-arsed he might have been, but overdosing on self-preservation allowed Jack’s mind to focus with remarkable clarity on his options. “Okay,” he mumbled, a lip movement which sent more blood dribbling down the wall. He fumbled for his processor block. There was an emergency police-hail program which was activated by feeding in the wrong code.

The terrible pressure on his neck eased off, allowing him to turn. When he saw who his assailant was, the thought of deviously calling for help withered faster than hell’s solitary snowflake.

Quinn returned to Kings Cross, sharing a lift down to the underground chamber with a cluster of vigilantes. He wandered through the vaulting hall, ambling round the closed kiosks and steering clear of industrious cleaning mechanoids. The lifts kept on disgorging gang members, who immediately took the wave escalators down to the platforms. He kept watching the informationals, paying particular attention to the arrivals screens. In the two hours which followed, five vac-trains arrived from Edmonton. All departures slowed down to zero.

The Frankfurt train pulled in at five minutes past five. Quinn went and stood at the top of its platform’s wave escalator. They were the last to come up, Courtney and Billy-Joe gently guiding the drugged woman between them. The two acolytes had smartened up, looking closer to a pair of grungy university students than downtown barbarians now. Their snatch victim—a middle-aged woman wearing a crumpled dress with an unbuttoned cardigan—had the vacant eyes typical of a triathozine dose; her body fully functional, brain in an advanced hypnoreception state. There and them, if she’d been told to jump off the top of an arcology dome, she’d do it.

They moved at a brisk pace across the floor and hopped into a lift. Quinn wanted to materialize, just so he could cheer at the top of his voice. The tide was turning now. God’s Brother had given His chosen messiah another sign that he remained on the path.

At five-thirty, the sixth train from Edmonton arrived. A notice slithered over the holograms announcing that the routes to North America had now been shut by order of Govcentral. Five minutes later, all departures were cancelled. Vac-trains already en route to the arcology were being diverted to Birmingham and Glasgow. London was now physically isolated from the rest of the planet.

It was just a little scary how his prediction had come so true. But then he was bound to be right, with God’s Brother gifting him understanding.

People were coming up from the platforms: the last straggle of passengers, the vigilante gangs (already eyeing each other now the reason for their truce was over), the police duty teams, station crews. Informationals floating overhead vanished like pricked bubbles. Display boards blanked out. The twenty-four hour stalls closed up, their staff gossiping hotly together at they rode the lifts up to the surface. The wave escalators halted. All the solaris lights overhead dimmed down, sinking the cavern into a gloomy dusk. Even the conditioning fans slowed, their whine dropping several octaves.

It was the paranoiac moment every solipsist fears. The world was a stage constructed around him, and this chunk of it was shutting down as it was no longer part of the act. For a second, Quinn worried that if he went to the dome wall and looked out there would be nothing there to see.

“Not yet,” he said. “Soon though.”

He took a last look round, then went over to one of the emergency fire stairs and started the long trek to the surface and the rendezvous point.

Louise was surprised at how much she associated the hotel room with home. But it was reassuring to be back after the ordeal of Edmonton. Partly it was because she now considered her obligation over: she’d done what she promised dear Fletcher and warned Banneth. A small blow struck against that monster Dexter (even though he’d never know). The fact that the Ritz was so comfortable helped a lot, too.

After Ivanov Robson dropped them off, both girls slept well into the morning. When they finally went downstairs for breakfast, reception informed Louise there was a small package for her. It was a single dark-red rose in a white box, with a silver bow tied round. The card that came with it was signed from Andy Behoo.

“Let me see,” Gen said, bouncing on her bed in excitement.

Louise smelt the rose, which to be honest was rather a weak scent. “No,” she said, and held the card aloft. “It’s private. You can put this in water, though.”

Gen regarded the rose suspiciously, sniffing it cautiously. “Okay. But at least tell me what he says.”

“Just: thank you for last night. That’s all.” She didn’t mention the second half of the message, where he said how lovely she was, and how he’d do anything to see her again. The card was put into her new snakeskin bag, and the little pocket codelocked against small prying fingers.

Gen took one of the vases from the ancient oak dresser, and went off to the bathroom for some water. Louise datavised her net connection server and inquired if there were any messages for her. The six-hourly ritual. Pointless, as the server would automatically deliver any communiqué as soon as it received one.

There were no messages. Specifically, no messages from Tranquillity. Louise flopped back on the bed, staring at the ceiling as she tried to puzzle it out. She knew she’d got the message protocol right; that was part of the NAS2600 communication program. Something had to be wrong at the other end. But when she put the news hound into primary mode, there was no report of anything untoward happening to Tranquillity. Perhaps Joshua simply wasn’t there, and her messages were piling up in his net server memory.

She thought about it for a while, then composed a brief message to Ione Saldana herself. Joshua said he knew her, they’d grown up together. If anybody knew where he was, she would.

After that, she launched a quick directory search and datavised detective Brent Roi.

“Kavanagh?” he replied. “God, you mean you bought yourself a set of neural nanonics?”

“Yes, you didn’t say I couldn’t.”

“No, but I thought your planet didn’t allow you that kind of technology.”

“I’m not on Norfolk now.”

“Yeah, right. So what the hell do you want?” he asked.

“I’d like to go to Tranquillity, please. I don’t know who I have to get permission from.”

“From me, I’m your case officer. And you can’t.”

“Why not? I thought you wanted us to leave Earth. If we got to Tranquillity, you wouldn’t have to worry about us any more.”

“Frankly, I don’t worry about you now, Miss Kavanagh. You seem to be behaving yourself—at least, you haven’t tripped any of our monitor programs.”

Louise wondered if he knew about the bugs Andy had removed at Jude’s Eworld. She wasn’t going to volunteer the information. “So why can’t I go?”

“I gather you haven’t got the hang of your news hound program yet.”

“I have.”

“Really. Then you ought know that as of oh-five-seventeen hours GMT, the global vac-train network was shut down by an emergency Presidential executive decree. Every arcology is on its own. The President’s office says they want to prevent the possessed in Paris and Edmonton from sneaking into more arcologies. Myself, I think it’s a load of crap, but the President is scared of public opinion more than he is of the possessed. So like I told you before, you’re on Earth for the duration.”

“Already?” she whispered aloud. So much for Govcentral moving slowly. But Robson had been right again. “There must be a way out of London to the tower,” she datavised.

“Only the vac-trains.”

“But how long will this go on for?”

“Ask the President. He forgot to tell me.”

“I see. Well, thank you.”

“Don’t mention it. You want some advice? You have finite funds, right? You might consider shunting along to a different hotel. And if this goes on for much longer, which I suspect it will, you’ll need a job.”

“A job?”

“Yeah, that’s one of those nasty little things ordinary people do, and in return they get given money by their employer.”

“There’s no need to be rude.”

“Eat it. When you apply to the local Burrow Burger as a waitress, or whatever, they’ll want your citizenship number. Refer them to me, I’ll grant you temporary immigrant status.”

“Thank you.” That much sarcasm couldn’t be carried along a datavise, but he’d know.

“Hey, if you don’t fancy that, at least you’ve got an alternative. A girl like you won’t have any trouble finding a man to look after her.”

“Detective Roi, can I ask what happened to Fletcher?”

“No, you can’t.” The link ended.

Louise looked out of the window across Green Park. Dark clouds swirled over the dome, hiding the sun. She wondered who’d sent them.

It was a forty-storey octagonal tower in the Dalston district, one of eight similar structures that made up the Parsonage Heights development. They were supposed to raise the general tone of the neighbourhood, encumbered as it was by low-cost housing, bargain centre market halls, and a benefits-reliant population. The towers were supposed to rest on a huge underground warren of factory and light manufacturing units. Above that buzzing industrial core, the first seven floors would be given over to retail outlets, followed by five floors of leisure industry premises, three more floors of professional and commercial offices, and the remaining floors taken up by residential apartments. The whole entity would be an economic heart transplant for Dalston, creating opportunity and invigorating the maze of shabby ancient streets outside with rivers of commerce and new money.

But Dalston’s underlying clay had a water-table problem which would have tripled the cost of the underground factory warren in order to prevent it from flooding, so it was downgraded to a couple of levels of storage warehousing. The local market halls cut their rock bottom prices still further, leaving half of the retail units unrented; franchise chains took over a meagre eight per cent of the designated leisure floorspace. In order to recoup their investment, Voynow Finance hurriedly converted the thirty upper floors into comfortable apartments with a reasonable view across the Westminster Dome, which market research indicated they could sell to junior and middle management executive types.

The rushed compromise worked, after a fashion. Certainly, sixty years after its construction, Parsonage Heights was home to a slightly more affluent class than Dalston’s average. There were even some reasonable shops and cafés established on the lower floors—though what activities went on in the dilapidated, damp, and crumbling warehouses hidden beneath was something the top-floor residents declined to investigate.

The local police station knew there was a Light Bringer coven down there; but for whatever reason, the chief constable had never instituted a raid. So when Banneth’s tube train pulled in at Dalston Kingsland station, the magus and a fifteen-strong bodyguard was waiting with impunity on the platform to greet her. She took one look at the blank-faced young toughs carrying their pathetic assortment of inferior weapons, and had trouble preventing a laugh.

Did you arrange this?she asked western europe.

I simply told the magus how important you are to God’s Brother. He reacted appropriately, don’t you think?

Too appropriately. This is becoming a farce.

The Dalston coven magus stepped forwards, and bowed slightly. “High Magus, it’s an honour to have you here. We have your safe house ready.”

“It better be a good one, or I’ll have you strapped down on your own altar and demonstrate how we deal with people who fail God’s Brother in Edmonton.”

The magus’s vaguely hopeful air wafted away, leaving behind a belligerent expression. “You won’t be able to fault us. Our position hasn’t been compromised.”

She ignored the crude reference. “Lead on.”

The bodyguard clumped their way noisily up the carbon-concrete stairs and out onto Kingston High Street. The first four out of the station’s automatic door levelled their TIP carbines along the road, which startled the few late-night pedestrians heading home from the district’s grotty clubs. They swept their muzzles round in what they thought was a professional scanning manoeuvre.

“Clear!” the leader barked.

Banneth rolled her eyes as the rest of the bodyguard hurried out around her. Cars had been halted in the street to let them cross. They hurried into the ground floor mall of the Parsonage Heights tower opposite the station. Three more sect members were waiting inside, standing guard beside an open lift. The magus and eight bodyguards crowded in around Banneth. They rode it to the top floor, where it opened out directly into the penthouse vestibule. More sect members were inside, toting their weapons and finishing off the new security sensor array.

“No fucker’s going to sneak up on you while you’re here,” the magus said confidently. “We’ve got every approach covered. There’ll be guards outside, and in all the stairwells. Nobody gets in or out without a secure access code, which you have command authority over.”

Banneth walked into the penthouse, which occupied the whole fortieth floor. The absent owner had chosen its decor straight out of a thirty-year-old catalogue file specialising in unashamed chintz: green leather furniture, Turkish rugs over polished marble tiles, glowing primary-colour sketches hanging on the walls, and a red marble fireplace complete with holographic flames. A glass wall had swing-up slab doors which led out to a roof garden with a swimming pool and hot tub; the sun loungers were sculpted blue plastic frogs.

“The fridge is full,” the magus said. “If you take a fancy to anything, just let us know and we’ll have it sent up. I can get anything you need. My grip on this town is total.”

“I’m sure,” Banneth said. “You, you, and you,” her finger singled out two attractive girls and a teenage boy. “Stay. The rest of you, fuck off. Now.”

The magus blushed heavily. Treating him like a piece of street shit in front of his acolytes would be a serious blow to his authority. She stared right at him, a silent direct challenge.

He snapped his fingers, gesturing everyone out, then stomped through the big blackwood doors without looking back.

“Dump the guns,” Banneth told the three remaining acolytes. “You won’t be needing them in here.”

After a moment’s hesitation they left them beside the kitchen bar. Banneth walked out into the small paved garden. Night fuchsias spilled their sweetness into the air. It had a balcony of high, one-way glass, allowing her to look over the glimmering crater of lights which defined the city. Nobody could see in. A reasonable protection against snipers, she acknowledged.

Did I cause a big enough splash?she asked western europe.

Oh yes. The dear magus is currently screaming at London’s High Magus about how big a shit you are. All the covens will be talking about your arrival by this evening.

Evening.she shook her head irritably. I hate train lag.

Not relevant. I’ll have the little traffic-stopping scene downstairs logged on the police intelligence bulletin as well. The patrol constables will ask their informants for further information about the coven’s new activities. We’ll have the whole arcology covered. Dexter will find you.

“Shit,” Banneth mumbled. She beckoned the nervous acolytes out onto the roof garden. “One, find me a decent glass of Crown whisky; then take your clothes off. I want to watch you swimming.”

“Um, High Magus,” one of the girls said anxiously. “I can’t swim.”

“Then you’d better learn fast. Hadn’t you?”

Banneth ignored their whispering behind her, and looked upwards. Long strips of faintly luminescent cloud curved round the dome, breaking into agitated foam as they hit the surface flow boundary. Patches of night sky were visible through the choppy fringes. Stars and spacecraft shone bright against the blackness. There was the hint of a hazy ark above the northern horizon.

This penthouse is difficult to reach from the ground, but wide open to the sky,she observed. That means an SD strike.

Correct. I have no intention of using a nuke inside the dome. But an X-ray laser can penetrate the crystal with minimal damage. If he can survive that, then frankly there is no hope for us.

There certainly isn’t for me.

You created him.

B7 created me.

We permitted you, there’s a difference. You were convenient for us. Under our patronage you fulfilled most of your ambitions. Without us, you would now either be dead or an Ivet.

If I can take him out . . .

No. I don’t want you fighting back. He must not be made to turn invisible again. I only have one chance at this. It’s quite poetic really: the whole world’s future depending on an individual.

Poetic. Fuck, what the hell are you people?

I believe our original agreement was that B7’s patronage would be provided on a no-questions-asked basis. Despite your predicament, you still don’t qualify to ask that question, and I have no intention of indulging you. When you are dead, then you can observe me from the beyond.

Some people make it past the beyond. That’s what the Edenists claim.

Then I wish you bon voyage.

Banneth glanced out over the preserved city again. The first pale grey photons of dawn were slipping up from the eastern horizon to lap against the bottom of the giant crystal dome. She wondered how many more dawns she was going to see.

Truthful estimate, knowing the way she’d put Dexter together, no more than a week.

The acolytes were splashing about in the pool now, including the non-swimming girl clinging resolutely to the shallow end. Banneth didn’t care, the whole point was just to see their great young bodies glistening wet. Indulging herself with them was definitely one-up on the customary last meal. However, there were files stored in her neural nanonics which had to be edited and prepared. Her lifetime’s work. She could hardly allow it to go to waste, though finding an institution that would accept it might prove difficult. It wasn’t just that she wanted it preserved, she wanted it studied, utilized. An important body of knowledge: human behaviour under the kind of extreme conditions that would forever remain closed to academic medical circles. It was unique, which made it all the more valuable. Perhaps some day it might become a classic reference for psychology students.

She went back into the lounge and settled into one of the dreadful green leather couches, ready to start indexing the files. It would be amusing to see how long the acolytes stayed in the water.

The Lancini had been built at the start of the Twenty-first Century, a huge department store intended to rival London’s best: set on Millbank overlooking the Thames, it had a très chic view which along with its retro-thirties decor was calculated to bring in the affluent and curious alike. As with all outsize endeavours, its decline was never going to be swift. It had limped along for decades with falling customer numbers and negative profits. The image it attempted to foster right from the start was dignity without snobbishness. According to the market survey programs worshiped by its executives, such a policy would attract older shoppers, with their correspondingly larger credit funds. Floor managers, left with no margin for innovation, kept ordering established, unhip, brands to serve their loyal, ageing shoppers. Every year, fewer of them returned.

The execs really should have known that; if they’d just cross-linked their market surveys with the store’s own funeral service department, they would have seen just how far their customer loyalty extended. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite extend to after-burial purchasing. So 2589 saw the very last traditional January sale ending with an undignified auction to dispose of the store’s fittings. Now only the shell of the building remained.

Nothing changed, because nothing was allowed to change. The London historical buildings continuity council made quite sure of that in its rigorous defence of heritage. Anyone was free to purchase the Lancini and start a commercial business up in it, providing it was refurbished to match the original interior plans, and that business was retail shopping. Another setback to refurbishment was the price the receivers were demanding to satisfy the store’s creditors.

Then news of possession and the beyond reached Earth. And, quite paradoxically, age suddenly became a highly motivating factor in change. It was old people who sat on the historical buildings continuity council. London’s most venerated (and richest) banks and financial institutions were mostly governed by centenarians. These were the people who were going to be the first generation of humans who would enter the horror of the beyond knowing it was waiting for them. Unless, of course, a method of salvation was found. So far the Church (any/every denomination), Govcentral’s science councils, and the Confederation Navy had been unable to provide that salvation.

That just left one possible refuge: zero-tau.

Several companies were quickly formed to supply demand. Obviously, long-term facilities would ultimately be needed to carry these customers of oblivion through the millennia; mausolea more enduring than the pyramids. But they’d take time to design and build; meanwhile the hospital chaplains remained in business. Temporary storage facilities were urgently required.

By a near unanimous vote, the historical buildings continuity council quickly approved a change of use of premises certificate for the Lancini. Zero-tau pods were shipped in from the Halo and taken in via delivery gates more used to household furnishings and haute couture. The ancient cage lifts had the load capacity to take them up to every floor. Oak floorboards, seasoned by five centuries of dehumidified conditioning, were strong enough to hold the new weight distribution pattern. Heavy-duty cabling laid in for the floor displays carried sufficient electricity to feed the pods’ power-hungry systems. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the building’s projected three hundred year lifespan, the Lancini would have made a good eternity crypt.

Certainly Paul Jerrold thought it appropriate enough when he was shown to his pod. It was on the fourth floor, one of a long row in the old Horticultural section, lined up opposite the windows. Over half of the big sarcophagi were active, their black surfaces absorbing the dust-choked sunbeams as if they were spatial chasms. The two nurses helped him in over the rim, then fussed round, smoothing down his loose fitting track-suit. He kept quiet through the nannying; at a hundred and twelve he was becoming used to the attitude of medical staff. Always exaggerating the attention they gave their patients, as if the care would go unnoticed if they didn’t.

“Are you ready?” one asked.

Paul smiled. “Oh yes.” The last couple of weeks had been busy ones, itself a blessing at his age. First the devastating news of possession. Then the slow response, the determination by himself and the others at his elite West End club that they should not become victims of the beyond. The web of discreet contacts put out, offering an alternative for those who could pay for it. His solicitors and accountants had been tasked with shifting his substantial holdings into a long-term trust that would pay for maintaining his stasis. It didn’t cost much: maintenance, rent, and power. Even if the trust was badly bungled, he had enough money in the bank to keep himself secure for ten thousand years. Then once it had been arranged, there had been the arguments with his children and their swarm of offspring, all of whom had adopted a quiet waiting policy to obtain his wealth. A brief legal battle (he could afford much better lawyers than they), and that was it, and here he was: a new breed of chrononaut.

His habitual dread of the future had faded, replaced by a keen interest in what awaited. When the zero-tau field switched off, there would be a full solution to the beyond, society would have evolved radically to take knowledge of the afterlife into account. There might even be a decent rejuvenation treatment available. Possibly, humans would have finally achieved physical immortality. He would become as a god.

A flicker of greyness, shorter than an eyeblink . . .

The pod cover lifted, and Paul Jerrold was slightly surprised to see he was still in the Lancini. He’d expected to be in some huge technological vault, or perhaps a tasteful recovery room. Not right back where his voyage through eternity had started. Unless these new, magnificently advanced humans had re-created the Lancini to provide their ancestors with the psychological comfort of familiar territory, a considerate way to ease their introduction to this fabulous new civilization built in his absence.

He glanced eagerly through the big, dirty window opposite. Dusk had fallen across the Westminster Dome. The thriving lights of the south bank glimmered brightly in front of the steel grey clouds smothering the vast arc of the dome. A projection of some kind?

The pair of medical staff attending him were somewhat unconventional. A girl leaned over the pod, very young, with amazingly large breasts squeezed up by a tight leather waistcoat. The adolescent boy standing beside her wore an expensive pure-wool sweater that was somehow wrong on him; his face was stubbly, with animal-mad eyes. He held a loop of power cable in one hand, plug dangling loosely.

Paul took one look at the plug, and datavised an emergency code. He couldn’t get a response from any net processor; then his neural nanonics crashed. A third figure clad in a jet-black robe slipped out of the gloom to stand at the foot of the pod.

“Who are you?” Paul croaked in fright. He levered himself up into a sitting position, skinny hands with their bulging veins gripping the edge of the pod.

“You know exactly who we are,” Quinn said.

“Have you won? Did you defeat us?”

“We’re going to, yes.”

“Oww shit, Quinn,” Billy-Joe protested. “Look at these old farts, they ain’t good for nothing. No soul’s gonna make them last, not even with your kind of black magic.”

“They’ll last long enough. That’s all that matters.”

“I told you, you want decent possessed you gotta go to the sects for bodies. Fuck, they worship you. All you’ve gotta do it tell them to bend over, they ain’t gonna put up no fight.”

“God’s Brother,” Quinn growled. “Don’t you ever think, shithead? The sects are a lie. I’ve told you, they’re controlled by the supercops. I can’t go to them for anything, we’d just give ourselves away. This place is fucking perfect. Nobody’s going to notice people going missing from here, as far as this world’s concerned they stopped existing as soon as they walked through the door.” His face jutted out of the hood to grin down at Paul. “Right?”

“I have money.” It was Paul’s last gambit, the one thing everyone desired.

“That’s good,” Quinn said. “You’re almost one of us already. You don’t have far to go.” He pointed a finger, and Paul’s world howled into pain.

Western Europe had hooked eight AIs in to London’s communication net, which gave him enough processing capacity to review each chunk of electronic circuitry in the arcology on a ten second cycle, providing it had a net connection. All processor blocks, no matter what their function, were datavised on a fifteen-second rota and examined for suspect glitches.

He wasn’t the only worried citizen. Several commercial software houses had gripped the marketing opportunity and offered possession monitoring packages. It consisted of a neural nanonics program which sent a continual capacity diagnostic and location datavise to the company security centre, who would alert the police if the user suffered an unexplained glitch or drop out. Bracelets were also spilling into the shops which did the same thing for kids too young for neural nanonics.

Communication bandwidth was becoming a serious problem. Western Europe had used GSDI authority to prioritize the AI scanning programs, leaving them unimpeded while civil data traffic suffered unheard of capacity reductions and switching delays.

The visualization of the arcology’s electronic structure was a theatrical gesture, impressing no one. It stood on the table of the sensenviron secure conference chamber like an elaborate glass model of the ten domes. Fans of coloured light rotated through the miniature translucent structures with strobe-like repetition.

South Pacific studied their movement as the other B7 supervisor representations came on line around the oval table. When all sixteen were there, she asked: “So where is he, then?”

“Not in Edmonton,” North America said. “We kicked their asses out of the universe. The whole goddamn nest of them. There’s none of the bastards left.”

“Really?” Asian Pacific said. “So you’ve accounted for the friend of Carter McBride as well, have you?”

“He’s not a threat to the arcology, he only wants Dexter.”

“Crap. You can’t find him, and he’s just an ordinary possessed.” Asian Pacific waved an arm at the simulacrum of London. “All they have to do is steer clear of electronics, and they’re safe.”

“Got to eat sometime,” Southern Africa said. “It’s not like they’ve got friends to take care of them.”

“The Light Bringer sect loves them,” East Asia grumbled.

“The sects are ours,” Western Europe said. “We have no worries in that direction.”

“Okay,” South Pacific said. “So tell us how you’re doing in New York? We all thought the police had got them that time as well.”

“Ah yes,” Military Intelligence said. “What’s the phrase the news anchors keep using? Hydra Syndrome. Shove one possessed into zero-tau, and while you’re doing that five more come forth. Emotive figures, but true.”

“New York got out of hand,” North America said. “I wasn’t prepared for that.”

“Obviously. How many domes have been taken over now?”

“Figures of that magnitude are unnecessarily emotive,” Western Europe said. “Once the possessed base population climbs above two thousand, there’s nothing anyone can do. The exponential curve takes over and the arcology is lost. New York is going to be this planet’s Mortonridge. It’s not our concern.”

“Not our concern!” North Pacific said. “This is bullshit. Of course it’s our concern. If they spread through the arcologies this whole planet will be lost.”

“Large numbers are not our concern. The military will have to deal with New York later.”

“If it’s still here, and if they don’t turn cannibal. The food vats won’t work around possessed, you know, and the weather shields won’t hold, either.”

“They’re reinforcing the domes they’ve captured with their energistic power,” North America said. “The arcology caught the tail end of an armada storm last night. The domes all held.”

“Only until they complete their takeover,” South Pacific said. “The remaining domes can’t barricade themselves in forever.”

“New York’s inevitable fall is regrettable, I’m sure,” Western Europe said. “But not relevant. We have to accept it as a defeat and move forward. B7 is about prevention, not cure. And in order to prevent Earth itself from falling, we have to eliminate Quinn Dexter.”

“So like I asked, where is he?”

“Undetermined at this moment.”

“You lost him, didn’t you? You blew it. He was a sitting duck in Edmonton, but you thought you were smarter. You thought your dandy little psychology game would triumph. Your arrogance could have enslaved us all.”

“Interesting tense, there,” Western Europe snapped. “Could have. You mean, until you saved the day by closing down the vac-trains, after we agreed not to screw each other over.”

“The President had a very strong public mandate for closing them down. After Edmonton’s High Noon firefight, the whole world was clamouring for a shutdown.”

“Led by your news companies,” Southern Africa said.

Western Europe leaned over the table towards a smiling South Pacific, his head centimetres short of the simulacrum. “I got them back, you moronic bitch. Banneth and Louise Kavanagh returned to London safely. Dexter will do everything in his power to follow them there. But he can’t bloody well do that if he’s trapped in Edmonton. Six trains, that’s all that got out before your stupid shut down order. Six! It’s not enough to be certain.”

“If he’s as good as you seem to think, he would have got on one of them.”

“You’d better hope he has, because if he was left behind you can kiss goodbye to Edmonton. We have nothing in place there which could confirm his existence.”

“So we lose two arcologies. The rest are now guaranteed safe.”

“I lose two arcologies,” North America said. “Thanks to you. Do you realize how much territory that is for me?”

“Paris,” South Pacific said. “Bombay, Johannesburg. Everyone’s taking losses today.”

“You’re not. And the possessed are on the run in those arcologies. We have them locked down, thanks to the sects. None of those will escalate into a repetition of New York.”

“We hope,” said India. “I’m managing parity at the moment, that’s all. But panic is going to be a factor in the very near future. And that works to their advantage.”

“You’re quibbling over details,” South Pacific said. “The point is, there are methods of solving this problem other than obsessing over Dexter. My policy is the correct one. Confine them while we engineer a permanent solution. If that had been adopted at the start, we would have lost the Brazilian tower ground station at most.”

“We didn’t know what we were dealing with when Dexter arrived,” South America said. “We were always going to lose one arcology to him.”

“Dear me, I had no idea this was a policy forum,” Western Europe said. “I thought we were conducting a progress review.”

“Well, as you’ve made no progress . . .” South Pacific said sweetly.

“If he’s in London, he won’t be found by conventional means. I thought we’d established that. And for your information, total inactivity isn’t a policy, it’s just the wishful thinking of small minds.”

“I’ve stopped the spread of possession. Remind us what you’ve achieved?”

“You’re fiddling while Rome burns. The cause of the fire is our paramount concern.”

“Eliminating Dexter will not remove the possessed in New York or anywhere else. I vote we devote a higher percentage of our scientific resources to finding a permanent solution.”

“I find it hard to credit that even you are playing politics with this. Percentages aren’t going to make the slightest difference to the beyond at this stage. Anyone who can provide a relevant input to the problem had been doing just that since the very beginning. We don’t need to call in the auditors to verify our compassion credentials, they’re hardly quantifiable in any case.”

“If you don’t want to be a part of the project, fine. Be sure you don’t endanger us any further by your irresponsibility.”

Western Europe cancelled his representation, withdrawing from the conference. The simulacrum of London vanished with him.

The cave was at the lowest level of the endcap caverns, protected on all sides by hundreds of metres of solid polyp. Tolton felt quite secure inside it; first time in a long time.

Originally a servitor veterinary centre, it had been pressed into use as a physics lab. Dr Patan headed up the team which the Valisk personality had charged with making sense of the dark continuum. He’d greeted Dariat’s arrival with the joy of a long-lost son. There had been dozens of experiments, starting with simple measurements: temperature (Dariat’s ersatz body was eight degrees warmer than liquid nitrogen, and almost perfectly heat resistant) electrical resistivity (abandoned quickly when Dariat protested at the pain). Then came energy spectrum and quantum signature analysis. The most interesting part for a layman observer like Tolton was when Dariat gave a sample of himself. Patan’s team quickly decided an in-depth study was impossible when the fluid was being animated by Dariat’s thoughts. Attempts to stick a needle into him and draw some away proved impossible, the tip wouldn’t penetrate his skin. In the end it was down to Dariat himself, holding his hand over a glass dish and pricking himself with a pin which he’d conjured into existence by imagination. Red blood dripped out, changing as it fell away from him. Slightly sticky grey-white fluid splattered into the bowl. It was carried away triumphantly by the physicists. Dariat and Tolton exchanged a bemused look, and went to sit at the back of the lab.

“Wouldn’t it have been easier to tear off a bit of cloth from your toga?” Tolton asked. “I mean, it’s all the same stuff, right?”

Dariat gave him a flabbergasted look. “Bugger. I never thought of that.”

They spent the next couple of hours talking quietly, with Dariat filling in the details of his ordeal. The conversation stopped a couple of hours later when he fell silent, and gave the physicists a cheerless glance. They’d been quiet for several minutes, five of them and Erentz studying the results of a gamma spike microscope. Their expressions were even more worried than Dariat’s.

“What have you found?” Tolton asked.

“Dariat might be right,” Erentz said. “Entropy here in the dark continuum appears to be stronger than in our universe.”

“For once I wish I hadn’t said I told you so,” Dariat said.

“How do you know?” Tolton asked.

“We have contended this state for some time,” Dr Patan said. “This substance seems to confirm that. Although I can’t give you an absolute yet.”

“What the hell is it, then?”

“Best description?” Dr Patan smiled thinly. “It’s nothing.”

“Nothing? But he’s solid.”

“Yes. The fluid is a perfect neutral substance, the end product of total decay. That’s the best definition I can give you based on our results. A gamma spike microscope allows us to probe sub-atomic particles. A most useful device for us physicists. Unfortunately, this fluid has no sub-atomic particles. There are no atoms as such; it appears to be made up from a single particle, one with a neutral charge.”

Tolton summoned up his first grade physics didactic memories. “You mean neutrons?”

“No. This particle’s rest mass is much lower than that. It has a small attractive force, which gives it its fluidic structure. But that’s its only quantifiable property. I doubt it would ever form a solid, not even if you were to assemble a supergiant star mass of the stuff. In our own universe, that much cold matter will collapse under its own gravity to form neutronium. Here, we believe there’s another stage of decay before that happens. Energy is constantly evaporating out of electrons and protons, breaking down their elementary particle cohesion. In the dark continuum dissipation rather than contraction would appear to be the norm.”

Is evaporating? You mean we’re leaking energy out of our atoms right now?”

“Yes. It would certainly explain why our electronic systems are suffering so much degradation.”

“How long till we dissolve into that stuff?” Tolton yelped.

“We haven’t determined that yet. Now we know what we’re looking for, we will begin calibrating the loss rate.”

“Oh shit.” He whirled round to face Dariat. “The lobster pot, that’s what you called this place. We’re not going to get out, are we.”

“With a little help from the Confederation, we can still make it back, atoms intact.”

Tolton’s mind was racing ahead with the concept now. “If I just fall apart into that fluid, my soul will be able to pull it back together. I’ll be like you.”

“If your soul contains enough life-energy, yes.”

“But that fades away as well. . . . Yours does, you had to steal more from that ghost. And those entities outside, they’re all battling for life-energy. That’s all they do. Ever.”

Dariat smiled with sad sympathy. “That’s the way it goes here.” He broke off and stared at a high corner of the cave. The physicists did the same, their expressions all showing concern.

“Now what?” Tolton demanded. He couldn’t see anything up there.

“Looks like our visitors have got tired with the southern endcap,” Dariat told him. “They’re coming here.”

The first of three Confederation Navy Marine flyers soared across Regina just as twilight fell. Sitting in the mid-fuselage passenger lounge, Samual Aleksandrovich accessed the craft’s sensor suite to see the city below. Street lighting, adverts, and skyscrapers were responding to the vanishing sun by throwing their own iridescent corona across the urban landscape. He’d seen the sight many times before, but tonight the traffic along the freeways was thinner than usual.

It corresponded to the mood reported by the few news shows he’d grazed over the last couple of days. The Organization’s attack had left the population badly shaken. Of all the Confederation worlds, they had supposed Avon to be second only to Earth in terms of safety. But now Earth’s arcologies had been infested, and Trafalgar was so badly damaged it was being evacuated. There wasn’t a countryside hotel room to be had anywhere on the planet as people claimed their outstanding vacation days or called in sick.

The flyer shot over the lake bordering the eastern side of the city and swiftly curved back, losing height as it approached the Navy barracks in the shadow of the Assembly Building. It touched down on a circular metal pad, which immediately sank down into the underground hangar. Blastproof doors rumbled shut above it.

Jeeta Anwar was waiting to greet the First Admiral as he emerged from the flyer. He exchanged a couple of perfunctory words with her, then beckoned the captain of the Marine guard detail.

“Aren’t you supposed to check new arrivals, Captain?” he asked.

The captain’s face remained blank, though he was strangely incapable of focusing on the First Admiral. “Yes, sir.”

“Then kindly do so. There are to be no exceptions. Understand?” A sensor was applied to the First Admiral’s bare hand; he was also asked to datavise his physiological file into a block.

“Clear, sir,” the captain reported, and snapped a salute.

“Good. Admirals Kolhammer and Lalwani will be arriving shortly. Pass the word.”

The Marine guard squad emerging from the flyer, and the two staff officers, Amr al-Sahhaf and Keaton, were also quickly vetted for signs of possession. Once they were cleared, they fell in around the First Admiral.

The incident put Samual Aleksandrovich in a bad frame of mind. On the one hand the captain’s behaviour was excusable; that the First Admiral would be a possessed infiltrator was inconceivable. Yet possession was still spreading precisely because no one believed their friend/spouse/child could have been taken over. That was why the Navy was leading by example, the three most senior admirals all taking different flyers to the same destination in case one of them was targeted by a rogue weapon. Enforced routine procedures might just succeed where personal familiarity invited disaster.

He met President Haaker in the barracks commander’s conference room. This was one discussion both of them had agreed shouldn’t be taken to the Polity Council just yet.

The President had Mae Ortlieb with him, which gave them two aides each. All very balanced and neutral, Samual thought as he shook hands with the President. Judging by Haaker’s unconstrained welcome, he must have thought the same.

“So the anti-memory does actually work,” Haaker said as they sat round the table.

“Yes and no, sir,” Captain Keaton said. “It eradicated Jacqueline Couteur and her host along with Dr Gilmore. However, it didn’t propagate through the beyond. The souls are still there.”

“Can it be made to work?”

“The principal is sound. How long it will take, I don’t know. Estimates from the development team range from a couple of days to years.”

“You are still giving it priority, aren’t you?” Jeeta Anwar asked.

“Work will be resumed as soon as our research team is established in its back-up facility,” Captain Amr al-Sahhaf said. “We’re hoping that will be inside a week.”

Mae turned to the President. “One team,” she said pointedly.

“That doesn’t seem to be much of a priority,” the President said. “And Dr Gilmore is dead. I understand he was providing a lot of input.”

“He was,” the First Admiral said. “But he’s hardly irreplaceable. The basic concept of anti-memory has been established; developing it furthers a multidisciplinary operation.”

“Exactly,” Mae said. “Once a concept has been proved, the quickest way to develop it is give the results to several teams; the more people, the more fresh ideas focused on this, the faster we will have a useable weapon.”

“You’d have to assemble the teams, then bring them up to date on our results,” Captain Keaton said. “By the time you’ve done that, we will have moved on.”

“You hope,” she retorted.

“Do you have some reason to think the Navy researchers are incompetent?”

“None at all. I’m simply pointing out a method which insures our chances of success are significantly multiplied. A standard approach to R&D, in fact.”

“Who would you suggest assists us? I doubt astroengineering company weapons divisions have the necessary specialists.”

“The larger industrialized star systems would be able to assemble the requisite professionals. Kulu, New Washington, Oshanko, Nanjing, Petersburg, for starters, and I’m sure the Edenists would be able to provide considerable assistance; they know more about thought routines than any Adamist culture. Earth’s GISD has already offered to help.”

“I’ll bet they have,” Samual Aleksandrovich grunted. By virtue of his position he had an idea of just how widespread Earth’s security agency was across the Confederation stars. They had at least three times the assets of the ESA, though even Lalwani was uncertain just how far their networks actually reached. One of the reasons it was so difficult to discover their size was the network’s essentially passive nature. In the last ten years there had only been three active operations that CNIS had discovered, and all of those were mounted against black syndicates. Quite what they did with all the information their operatives gathered was a mystery, which made him cautious about trusting them. But they always cooperated with Lalwani’s official requests for information.

“It’s a reasonable suggestion,” the President said.

“It would also remove exclusivity from the Polity Council,” the First Admiral said. “If sovereign states acquire a viable anti-memory weapon they could well use it without consultation, especially if one of them was facing an incursion. After all, that kind of supra-racial genocide would not leave any bodies as evidence. Anti-memory is a doomsday weapon, our primary negotiating tactic. As I have always maintained, it is not a solution to this problem. We must face this collectively.”

The President gave a reluctant sigh. “Very well, Samual. Keep it confined to the Navy for now. But I shall review the situation in a fortnight. If your team isn’t making the kind of progress we need, I’ll act on Mae’s suggestion and bring in outside help.”

“Of course, Mr President.”

“That’s good then. Let’s go face the Polity Council and hear the real bad news, shall we.” Olton Haaker rose with a pleasant smile in place, content another problem had been smoothly dealt with in the traditional consensus compromise. Mae Ortlieb appeared equally sanguine. Her professional expression didn’t fool Samual Aleksandrovich for a second.

For its private sessions the Confederation’s Polity Council eschewed secure sensenvirons, and met in person in a discrete annex of the Assembly building. Given that this was where the most crucial decisions affecting the human race would be taken, the designers had seen fit to spend a great deal of taxpayer’s money on the interior. It was the amalgam of all government Cabinet rooms, infected with a quiet classicism. Twelve native granite pillars supported a domed roof painted in Renaissance style, with a gold and platinum chandelier hanging from the centre, while swan-white frescos of woodland mythology roamed across powder blue walls. The central round table was a single slice of ancient sequoia wood, taken from the last of the giant trees to fall before the Armada Storms. Its fifteen chairs were made from oak and leather to a Nineteenth-Century Plymouth design, and new (each delegate was allowed to take theirs home with them after their term was over). Glass-fronted marbled alcoves displayed exactly 862 sculptures and statuettes; one donated by each planet in the Confederation. The Tyrathca had contributed a crude hexagonal slab of slate with faint green scratches on the surface, a plaque of some kind from Tanjuntic-RI (worthless to them, but they knew how much humans valued antiquity). The Kiint had presented an enigmatic kinetic sculpture of silvery foil, composed of twenty-five concentric circular strips that rotated around each other without any bearings between them, each strip was suspended in air and apparently powered by perpetual motion (it was suspected they were pieces of metallic hydrogen).

Lalwani and Kolhammer joined the First Admiral outside the council chamber, and the three of them followed the President in. Twelve chairs were already filled by the ambassadors currently appointed to the Polity Council. Haaker and Samual took their places, leaving the fifteenth empty. Although Ambassador Roulor was entitled to take the seat vacated by Rittagu-FUH, the Assembly had delayed formally voting to confirm his appointment. The Kiint hadn’t complained.

Samual sat down with minimum fuss, acknowledging the other ambassadors. He didn’t enjoy the irony of being called here in the same way he’d called them to request the starflight quarantine. It indicated events were now controlling him.

The President called the meeting to order. “Admiral, if you could brief us on the Trafalgar situation, please.”

“The evacuation will be complete in another three days,” Samual told them. “Active Navy personnel were given priority and are being flown to their secondary locations. We should be back up to full operational capability in another two days. The civilian workers are being ferried down to Avon. All decisions about refurbishing the asteroid will be postponed until the crisis is over. We’ll have to wait until it’s physically cooled down anyway.”

“What about the ships?” the President enquired. “How many were damaged?”

“One hundred and seventy three Adamist ships were destroyed, a further eighty-six are damaged beyond repair. Fifty-two voidhawks were killed. Human deaths so far stand at nine thousand two hundred and thirty-two. Seven hundred and eighty-seven people have been hospitalised, most of them with radiation burns. We haven’t released those figures to the media yet. They just know it’s bad.”

The ambassadors were silent for a long moment.

“How many starships belonged to the First Fleet?” Earth’s ambassador asked.

“Ninety-seven front-line warships were lost.”

“Dear God.” Samual didn’t see who muttered that.

“Capone cannot be allowed to get away with an atrocity of this magnitude,” the President said. “He simply cannot.”

“It was an unusual set of circumstances,” Samual said. “Our new security procedures should prevent it happening again.” Even as he spoke the words, he knew how pathetic it sounded.

“Those circumstances, possibly,” Abeche’s ambassador said bitterly. “What if he dreams up some new course of action? We’ll be left with another bloody great disaster on our hands.”

“We’ll stop him.”

“You should have expected this, made some provision. We know Capone had antimatter, and he has nothing to lose. That combination was bound to result in a reckless strike of some kind. Jesus Christ, don’t your strategy planners consider these scenarios?”

“We’re aware of them, Mr Ambassador. And we do take them seriously.”

“Mortonridge hasn’t delivered anything like the victory we were expecting,” Miyag’s ambassador said. “Capone’s infiltration flights have got everybody petrified. Now this.”

“We have eliminated Capone’s source of antimatter,” the First Admiral said levelly. “The infiltration flights have stopped because of that. He does not have the resources to conquer another planet. Capone is a public relations problem, not the true threat.”

“Don’t tell me we should just ignore him,” Earth’s ambassador said. “There’s a difference between confining your enemy and not doing anything in the hope he’ll go away, and the Navy has done precious little to convince me it’s got Capone under control.”

The President held a hand up to prevent the First Admiral from replying. “What we’re saying, Samual, is that we have decided to change our current policy. We can no longer afford the holding tactics of the starflight quarantine.”

Samual looked around the hard, determined faces. It was almost a vote of no confidence in his leadership. Not quite, though. It would take another setback before that happened. “What do you propose to replace it with?”

“An active policy,” Abeche’s ambassador said hotly. “Something that will show people we’re using our military resources to protect them. Something positive.”

“Trafalgar should not be used as a casus belli ,” the First Admiral insisted.

“It won’t be,” the President said. “I want the Navy to eliminate Capone’s fleet. A tactical mission, not a war. Wipe him out, Samual. Eliminate the antimatter threat completely. As long as he still has some, he can send one Pryor after another sneaking through our defences.”

“Capone’s fleet is all that keeps him in charge of the Organization. If you take that away, we’ll loose Arnstat and New California. The possessed will take them out of the universe.”

“We know. That’s the decision. We have to get rid of the possessed before we can start to deal with them properly.”

“An attack on the scale necessary to destroy his fleet, and New California’s SD network will also kill thousands of people. And I’d remind you that the majority of crews in the Organization ships are non-possessed.”

“Traitors, you mean,” Mendina’s ambassador said.

“No,” the First Admiral said steadily. “They are blackmail victims, working under the threat of torture to themselves and their families. Capone is quite ruthless in his application of terror.”

“This is exactly the problem we must address head on,” the President said. “We are in a war situation. We must retaliate, and swiftly or we will lose what little initiative we have. Capone must be shown we are not paralysed by this diabolical hostage scenario. We can still implement our decisions with force and resolution when required.”

“Killing people will not help us.”

“On the contrary, First Admiral,” Miyag’s ambassador said. “Although we must deeply regret the sacrifice, eradicating the Organization will give us a much needed breathing space. No other group of possessed has managed to command ships with the same proficiency as Capone. We will have returned to the small risk of the possessed spreading through quarantine-busting flights, which the Navy should be able to contain as you originally envisaged. Eventually, the possessed will simply remove themselves from this universe entirely. That is when we can begin our true fight back. And do so under a great deal less stress than our current conditions.”

“Is that the decision of this Council?” Samual asked formally.

“It is,” the President said. “With one abstention.” He glanced at Cayeaux. The Edenist ambassador returned the look unflinchingly. Edenism and Earth held the two other permanent seats on the Polity Council, awarded because of their population size and formed a powerful voting bloc; they were rarely in disagreement over general policy. Ethics, of course, nearly always set the Edenists apart.

“They’re inflicting too much damage on us,” Earth’s ambassador said, adopting a measured tone. “Physically and economically. Not to mention the disintegration of morale propagated by events like Trafalgar, and unfortunately our arcologies. It has to be stopped. We cannot show any weakness in dealing with this.”

“I understand,” the First Admiral said. “We still have the bulk of Admiral Kolhammer’s task force available in the Avon system. Motela, how long would it take to deploy them?”

“We can rendezvous the Adamist warships above Kotcho in eight hours,” Kolhammer replied. “It will take a little longer for affiliated voidhawk squadrons to gather. Most could join us en route.”

“That will mean we can hit Capone in three days’ time,” Samual said. “I would like some extra time to augment those forces. The tactical simulations we’ve run indicate we need at least a thousand warships to challenge Capone successfully in a direct confrontation. We’ll need to call in reserve squadrons from national navies.”

“You have one week,” the President said.

Chapter 05

The news of Trafalgar was whispered through the beyond until it reached Monterey, whereupon it sparked jubilation in some quarters.

“We beat the bastards,” Al whooped. He and Jez were fooling around in the Hilton’s swimming pool when Patricia rushed in with the news.

“Sure did, boss,” Patricia said. “There was thousands of the Navy ship crews joined the beyond.” She was smiling brightly. Al couldn’t remember seeing her do that before.

Jezzibella flung herself at Al’s back, wrapping her arms round his neck and her legs round his hips. “Told you Kingsley would make it!” she laughed. She was in her carefree adolescent persona, clad in a gold micro-bikini.

“Okay, yeah.”

She splashed him. “Told you so.”

He tipped her under the water. She shot up again laughing gleefully, a mermaid Venus.

“What about the asteroid?” Al asked. “Did we get the First Admiral?”

“Don’t think so,” Patricia said. “Seems like the antimatter went off outside. The asteroid is still intact, but it’s completely screwed.”

Al cocked his head to one side, listening to the multitude of voices murmuring at him, each one suffused with a plea. Rummaging through the nonsense which made up most of it took a while, but eventually he built up a picture of the disaster.

“So what happened?” Jezzibella asked.

“Kingsley didn’t get inside. Guess the security nazis were on to him. But he came through all right, Jee-ze did he ever. Wiped out a whole spaceport full of their warships, and a shitload of hardware got busted up with it.”

Jezzibella circled round in front of him, and embraced him passionately. “That’s good. Smart propaganda.”

“How do you figure that?”

“Blew up all their machines, but didn’t kill too many people. Looks like you’re the good guy.”

“Yeah.” He rubbed his nose against hers, hands moving round to cup her ass. “Guess I am.”

Jezzibella shot Patricia a sly look. “Has anyone broken the good news to Kiera, yet?”

“No. I don’t think so.” Patricia was smiling again. “You know, I think I’ll go tell her.”

“She won’t let you in her little ghetto,” Al said. “Just invite her to the celebrations.”

“We’re having a celebration?” Jezzibella asked.

“Hey, girl, if this ain’t worth one, I don’t know what the fuck is. Give Leroy a call, tell him to break out the good booze in the ballroom. Tonight, we are gonna party!”

Kiera stood in front of the lounge’s window, staring down at the hellhawks on their docking pedestals. The yammering, pitiful voices of the beyond were intent on explaining the magnitude of the Trafalgar disaster to her. The Organization’s triumph infuriated her. Capone was turning out to be a lot harder to crack than she’d envisioned at the start of her little rebellion. It wasn’t just the mystique of his name, or his cleverly insidious hold on the Organization’s power structure. Those two facets she could have worn down eventually. He was getting far more than his fair share of luck. For a while the elimination of the antimatter station had tilted events in her favour. With the cancellation of the seeding flights, the fleet had been getting edgy again. Now this. And Capone was well aware of her less-than-loyal actions, even though nothing was out in the open. Yet.

She couldn’t see it from this window, but a third of the way round the docking ledge, that little nerd Emmet Mordden was trying to rebuild one of the nutrient fluid refineries that she’d disabled. If he succeeded, then she was going to lose, and lose badly. One voice, pathetically eager to please, told her that at least one squadron of voidhawks had perished in the awesome explosion.

“Fuck it!” Kiera stormed. She refused to acknowledge any more of the insidious incorporeal babble. “I didn’t know he was cooking this up.”

Her two senior co-conspirators, Luigi Balsamo and Hudson Proctor, gave each other a look. They knew how dangerous life became when she was in this kind of mood.

“Me neither,” Luigi said. He was sitting on one of the long settees, drinking some excellent coffee and watching her carefully. “Al used a quantity of antimatter for a secret project a while back. I never guessed it was for anything like this. Gotta give him credit, this is going to skyrocket his credibility among the crews.”

“That barbarian wouldn’t have the intelligence to plan this out by himself,” she snapped. “I bet I know who put the idea in his head. Little whore!”

“Smart for a whore,” Hudson Proctor said.

“Too smart,” Kiera said. “For her own good. I shall enjoy telling her that some day soon.”

“It’s going to make life difficult for us though,” Luigi said. “We’ve been getting through to a lot of people recently. There was plenty of support for all of us heading down to the planet.”

“There still is,” Kiera said. “How long is this triumph going to last for him? A week? Two? Ultimately, it changes nothing. He has nothing else to offer. I’ll take the Organization with me to New California, and Capone and his whore can freeze their asses off up here until the remainder of the Confederation Navy comes knocking. See how he likes that.”

“We’ll keep plugging away,” Luigi promised.

“I might be able to turn this to our favour,” Kiera said thoughtfully. “If the crews can be made to see that it’s mainly a propaganda stroke, one that’s got the remaining ninety-nine per cent of the Confederation Navy badly pissed off with us.”

“And are likely to come and settle the score,” Hudson finished excitedly.

“Exactly. And there’s only one place we’ll be truly safe from that retaliation.”

A bleep escaped from an AV pillar on the glass table in front of the settee. Kiera walked over to it in annoyance and keyed an acknowledgement. It was Patricia Mangano, calling to tell them, if they hadn’t already heard, the fabulous news about Trafalgar. And they were all invited to the victory party Al was throwing that evening.

“We’ll be there,” Kiera replied sweetly, and switched off.

“We’re going?” a startled Hudson Proctor asked.

“Oh yes,” Kiera said. Her smile upgraded to pure malice. “This is the perfect alibi.”

Mindori swooped in round the counter-rotating spindle and dropped on the pedestal which Hudson Proctor had assigned it. Rocio didn’t fold in the hellhawk’s distortion field immediately; there was some activity farther up around the rocky ledge that he found interesting. Several non-possessed were in spacesuits, concentrated round a section of machinery that was pinned to the vertical cliff.

How long has that been going on for?he asked pran soo in singular engagement mode.

Two days now.

Anyone know what they’re doing?

No. But it’s nothing to do with Kiera.

Really? The only systems on the ledge are connected with voidhawk and blackhawk maintenance and service.

Gaining the ability to provide us with nutrients is an obvious move for Capone,pran soo said. It would appear our options are finally starting to open up.

Not for me,rocio said. Capone only wants us to compliment the Organization fleet. No doubt he will offer better terms than Kiera’s ever done, but we will still be drawn into the conflict. My goal remains achieving complete autonomy for all of us.

There are now fifteen of us who will provide whatever covert assistance we can. If the Almaden equipment can be made to function, we believe most of the others will join us. With a few noticeable exceptions.

Ah yes, where is Etchells?

I don’t know. He still hasn’t returned.

We can’t have gotten that lucky. Did you check with Monterey’s net to see if the electronics we require are in stock?

Yes. Everything is there. But I don’t understand how we can get them out. We’ll have to ask the Organization direct. Are you going to negotiate with the Organization? The fleet still needs us to patrol local space around the planet; it is not a combat duty.

No. Capone won’t take kindly to my deal with Almaden; we’ll be depriving him of their industrial capability. I believe I can obtain the electronics without the assistance of outside groups.

Rocio used the bitek processors in Mindori ’s life support cabin to establish a link with Monterey’s communication net. Last time he had just accessed visual sensors to locate the food storage facilities for Jed. That had been simple enough; this task had an altogether different level of complexity. With Pran Soo’s help he gained access to the maintenance files, and tracked down the physical location of the components they wanted. That information wasn’t restricted, although they used a false log-on code to make sure there were no incriminating bytes that could ever link them to the components in question. After that, Rocio loaded in a requisition for the items. The spares allocation procedure which Emmet Mordden had erected around Monterey’s stock of components had several integral security protocols. Rocio had to bring the hellhawk’s on-board processor array into the loop to circumvent the safeguards with a powerful codebuster program. Once they were in the system, he ordered the electronics to be delivered to a maintenance shop outside the section of the spaceport which was under Kiera’s physical jurisdiction.

Very good,pran soo said. Now what?

Simple. Just walk in and collect them.

Jed studied the route Rocio had devised, trying to spot any flaws. So far, he’d found the depressing number of zero. The hellhawk’s possessor was using the big screen in the lounge to display it, though it would also be loaded into the spacesuit’s processor. Jed could call it up on the visor’s graphics overlay so that this time he wouldn’t be reliant on Rocio calling out a stream of directions. He would have to walk about a kilometre along the ledge to reach the designated airlock. No complaints about that, despite having to wear a ballcrusher again. The possessed couldn’t use spacesuits, so as long as he was outside there wouldn’t be any of the buggers near him. It was inside when his troubles would begin. Again!

“There is a large celebration party due to begin in another fifty minutes,” Rocio said, his face taking up a small square on the top right corner of the screen. “That is when you should perform this mission. Most of the possessed will be there, it will minimize the chance of discovery.”

“Fine,” Jed mumbled. It was hard to concentrate: as well as sitting next to Beth on the couch, he had Gerald pacing up and down behind him, muttering gibberish to himself.

“Half of the components have been delivered to the maintenance shop already,” Rocio said. “That’s the beauty of a heavily automated system like Monterey. The freight mechanoids don’t start asking questions when there’s no one there in the shop to receive them. They just dump them and go back for the next batch.”

“Yeah, we know,” Beth said. “You’re a bloody genius.”

“Not everyone could pull this off so stylishly.”

Jed and Beth shared a look; her hand went across his thigh and squeezed. “Fifty minutes,” she murmured.

Gerald walked round the settee and up to the big screen. He held a hand out and traced green dotted route from Mindori to the asteroid’s airlock, fingers stroking the glass gently. “Show her,” he asked quietly. “Show me Marie.”

“I can’t, I’m sorry,” Rocio said. “There’s no general net access to the section of the asteroid where Kiera has barricaded herself in.”

“Barricaded?” Gerald’s face flashed with alarm. “Is she all right? Is Capone shooting at her?”

“No no. Nothing like that. It’s all politics. There’s a big tussle going on for control of the Organization right now. Kiera’s making sure she’s safe from any kind of digital prying, that’s all.”

“Okay. All right.” Gerald nodded slowly. He gripped his hands together, kneading them until his knuckles cracked.

Jed and Beth waited anxiously. This kind of behaviour usually preceded an announcement.

“I’ll go with Jed,” Gerald said. “He’ll need help.”

Rocio gave a deep chuckle. “No way. Sorry, Gerald, but if I let you out, we’ll never see you again. And that just won’t do, now will it?”

“I’ll help him, really I will. I won’t cause any trouble.”

Beth hunched down small in the couch, not meeting anyone’s eye. The pitiful way Gerald kept beseeching them was acutely embarrassing. And physically he was in a bad way, with sweaty skin and dark baggy skin accumulating under his eyes.

“You don’t understand,” Gerald backed away from the screen. “This is my last chance. I’ve heard what you’re saying. You’re not coming back. Marie is here! I have to go to her. She’s only a baby. My little baby. I have to help, have to.” His whole body was shaking, as if he was about to cry.

“I will help you, Gerald,” Rocio said. “Truly I will. But not now. This is critical to us. Jed has to get those components. Just be patient.”

“Patient?” It came out as a strangled gasp. Gerald turned round, his hands ready to claw at the air. “No! No more.” He drew a laser pistol from his pocket.

“Christ,” Jed groaned. His hands went automatically to pat at his jacket. Pointless, he knew it was his pistol all right.

Beth was struggling to her feet, hampered by her arms being caught up with Jed’s panicked movements. “Gerald, mate, don’t,” she cried.

“She’s asking, I’m telling you,” Rocio said sternly.

“Take me to Marie! I’m not kidding.” Gerald aimed the laser at the two entangled youngsters, walking fast towards the couch until the muzzle lens was centimetres from Jed’s forehead. “Don’t use your energistic power on me. It won’t work.” His free hand tugged at the hem of his sweatshirt, revealing several power cells and a processor block taped to his stomach. They were connected together by various wires. The block’s small screen had an emerald spiral cone that turned slowly. “If this glitches, we all go up. I know how to bypass the cells’ safety locks. I learned that a long time ago. When I was on Earth. Before all this happened. This life I brought them all to. It was supposed to be good. But it isn’t. It isn’t! I want my baby back. I want to make things right again. You’re going to help me. All of you.”

Jed looked directly at Gerald, seeing the way he kept blinking as if in pain. Very slowly, he started to push Beth away from him. “Go on,” he urged when she started to protest. “Gerald isn’t going to shoot you, are you Gerald? I’m your hostage.”

The hand holding the laser pistol wobbled alarmingly. But not by enough for Jed to dodge free. Not that he would, he decided; the power cells saw to that.

“I’ll kill you,” Gerald hissed.

“Sure you will. But not Beth.” Jed kept on pushing at her, until she started to stand.

“I want Marie.”

“We’ll give you Marie, if you let Beth go.”

“Jed!” Beth protested.

“Go on, doll, walk out now.”

“Not bloody likely. Gerald, put that bloody gun down. Switch off the block.”

“Give me Marie!” Gerald screamed. Beth and Jed both flinched.

Gerald pressed the pistol against Jed’s skin. “Now! You’ll have to help. I know you’re frightened of the beyond. See, I know what I’m doing.”

“Gerald, mate, with all respect, you haven’t got a fucking clue w—”

“Shut up!” He started panting, as if there wasn’t enough oxygen in the compartment. “Captain, are you hurting my head? I warned you not to use your power on me.”

“I’m not, Gerald,” Rocio said hurriedly. “Check the block: there’s no glitch, is there?”

“Oh Jesus, Gerald!” Beth wanted to sit down again; the strength was flowing out of her legs.

“There’s enough power in the cells to blow a hole in the capsule hull if they detonate.”

“I’m sure there is, Gerald,” Rocio said. “You’ve been very clever. You outsmarted me. I’m not going to fight you.”

“You think if I go in there that they’ll catch me, don’t you?”

“It’s a pretty good probability, yes.”

“But you’re flying away after this is all over, aren’t you? So it doesn’t matter if they catch me, does it?”

“Not if we get the components.”

“There you go then.” Gerald gave a semi-hysterical giggle. “I’ll help Jed load up the components, and then I’ll go and look for her. It’s easy. You should have thought of it first.”

“Rocio?” Beth said desperately. She looked imploringly at the little portion of the screen containing his face.

Rocio considered his options. It was unlikely he could negotiate with the madman. And stalling was useless. Time was the critical factor. He only had another four hours at the most before he finished ingesting his nutrient fluid; he’d been feeding slowly as it was. This opportunity would never be repeated.

“All right, Gerald, you win; you leave with Jed,” Rocio said. “But remember, I will not let you back on board, under any circumstances. Do you understand that, Gerald? You are absolutely on your own.”

“Yes.” It was as if the laser pistol’s weight had abruptly increased twentyfold; Gerald’s arm drooped to hang at his side. “But you’ll let me go? To Marie?” his voice became an incredulous squeak. “Really?”

Beth said nothing while Jed and Gerald suited up. She helped them with their helmet seals, and checked the backpack systems. Their suits contracted around them; Gerald’s outlined the power cells around his torso. She’d had a couple of opportunities to snatch the laser pistol from him while he was struggling into the bulky fabric sack. It was the thought of what he might do which had restrained her. This wasn’t the bewildered, hurt eccentric she’d been looking out for since Koblat. Gerald’s illness had elevated itself to a level that was potentially lethal. She honestly thought he would blow himself up if anyone got in his way now.

Just before Jed closed his visor she kissed him. “Come back,” she whispered.

He gave an anxious, brave smile.

The airlock closed and started cycling.

“Rocio!” she yelled at the nearest AV lens. “What the hell are you doing? They’ll be caught for sure. Oh Jeeze, you should have stopped him!”

“Name an alternative. Gerald might be dangerously unbalanced, but that trick with the power cells was clever.”

“How come you never saw him putting them together? I mean, why aren’t you watching us?”

“You want me to watch everything you do?”

Beth blushed. “No, but I thought at least you’d keep an eye on us, make sure we’re not messing with you.”

“You and Jed can’t mess with me. I admit I made a mistake with Gerald. A bad one. However, if Jed does manage to obtain the components, it won’t matter.”

“It will to Gerald! They’ll catch him. You know they will. He won’t be able to take that again, not what they’ll do to him.”

“Yes. I know that. There is nothing I can do. Nor can you. Accept it. Learn how to deal with it. This won’t be the last time you experience tragedy in your life. We all do. I’m sorry. But at least with Gerald out of the way we can get back on track. I am grateful to you for your efforts, and your physical assistance. And I will turn you over to the Edenists. You have my word, for what it’s worth. I can give you nothing else, after all.”

Beth made her way into the bridge. Sensor and camera images filled most of the console screens. She didn’t touch any of the controls, just sat in one of the big acceleration chairs and tried to scope as much as she could all at once. One screen was centred on a pair of spacesuited figures waddling across the smooth rock of the docking ledge. Others were focused on various airlock doors, windows, and walls of machinery. A group of five were relaying pictures from inside the asteroid: a couple of deserted corridors, the maintenance shop with Rocio’s precious stack of pilfered components, and two views of the Hilton lobby where Capone’s guests were arriving for the party.

One girl, barely older than Beth, swept in through the lobby, escorted by two handsome young men. Most people turned to look, nudging each other.

The girl’s exquisite face made Beth scowl. “That’s her, isn’t it? That’s Kiera?”

“Yes,” Rocio said. “The man on her right is Hudson Proctor, I don’t know who the other is. Some poor stud she’s wearing out in bed. The bitch is a complete whore.”

“Well don’t tell Gerald, for Christ’s sake.”

“I wasn’t planning on it. Mind you, most of the possessed go sex-mad to begin with. Kiera’s behaviour is nothing exceptional.”

Beth shuddered. “How much farther has Jed got to go?”

“He’s only just started. Look, don’t worry, he’s got a clear route, the components are waiting. He’ll be in and out in less than ten minutes.”

“If Gerald doesn’t foul it up.”

Bernhard Allsop didn’t mind missing the big party. He didn’t get on with too many of Al’s bigshots. They all sneered and laughed at him behind his back. The possessed ones, that is; the non-possessed treated him with respect, the kind of respect you gave a pissed rattler. It didn’t bother him none. Here he was, at the centre of things. And Al trusted him. He hadn’t been demoted or sent down to the planet like a lot of lieutenants who didn’t measure up. Al’s trust meant a hell of a lot more than everyone else’s sniggering.

So Bernhard didn’t complain when he drew this duty. He wasn’t afraid of hard work to get ahead. No sir. And this was one of Al’s top projects. Emmet Mordden himself had said so. Second only to the hit against Trafalgar. That was why work wasn’t stopping even during the party. Al wanted a whole bunch of machinery fixing. It was stuff connected with the hellhawks. Bernhard wasn’t so hot on the technical details. He’d tuned and overhauled auto engines when he was back home in Tennessee, but anything more complex than a turbine was best left to rocket scientists.

He didn’t even mind that. It meant he didn’t have to get his hands dirty, all he had to do was supervise the guys Emmet had assigned to this detail. Watch for any treachery in the minds of the non-possessed and make sure they pulled the whole shift. Easy. And when it was over, Al would know that Bernhard Allsop had come through with the goods again.

It was a long way through the corridors from Monterey’s main habitation quarters to the section of the docking ledge where the refurbishment was being carried out. He didn’t have a clue what went on behind all the doors he walked past. This part of the rock was principally engineering shops and storage rooms. Most of it had fallen into disuse since the Organization had taken over from the New California navy. Which just left miles of well lit, warm corridors all laid out in a three dimensional grid, unused except for the occasional mechanoid and maintenance crew. There were big emergency pressure seal doors every couple of hundred yards, which was how Bernhard got to learn his way around. They all had a number and a letter which told you where you were. Once you’d done it a couple of times, it was kind of like Manhattan, obvious.

Pressure door 78D4, another ten minutes’ walk from the nutrient refinery chamber. He stepped over the thick metal rim and started walking along the corridor. It ran parallel to the docking ledge, though he could never make out a curve along the floor, even though he knew it had to be there. The doors on his left led to a couple of maintenance offices with long windows overlooking the ledge, a lounge, an airlock chamber, and two EVA prep rooms. There were only two doors on his right: a mechanoid service department and an electronics repair shop.

A quiet metallic whine made him look up. Pressure door 78D5, sixty yards ahead of him, was sliding across the corridor. Bernhard felt his borrowed heart thump. They only closed if there was a pressure loss. He whirled round to see 78D4 sliding into place behind him.

“Hey,” he called. “What’s happening?” There were no flashing red lights and shrill alarms like there had been in all the drills. Just unnerving silence. He realized the conditioning fans had stopped; the ducts must have sealed up as well.

Bernhard hurried along towards 78D5, pulling his processor block from his pocket. When he pressed the keys to call the control centre, the screen printed NO NET ACCESS AVAILABLE. He gave it a puzzled, annoyed look. Then he heard a hissing sound start up, growing very loud very quickly. He stood still and looked round again. Halfway down the corridor, an airlock door was sliding open. It was the one leading out onto the docking ledge. One thing Emmet had emphasised time and again to reassure Organization members from earlier centuries: it was impossible for both airlock doors to open at once.

Bernhard howled in terrified anger, and started sprinting for 78D5. He shoved a hand out, and fired a bolt of white fire. It struck the stolid pressure door and evaporated into violet twinkles. Someone was on the other side, deflecting his energistic power.

Air was surging past him, building to hurricane force and producing short-lived streamers of white mist that curved sinuously round his body. He hammered another bolt of white fire at the pressure door. This time it didn’t even reach the dull metal surface before it was negated.

They were trying to murder him!

He reached the slab-like pressure door and pounded against the small transparent port in the centre while the wind clawed at his clothes. Its roar was growing fainter. Someone was moving on the other side of the port. He could sense two minds; one he thought he recognized. Their gratification was horribly conspicuous.

Bernhard opened his mouth and found there was hardly anything left to inhale. He concentrated his energistic power around himself, making his body strong, fighting the sharp tingling sensation sweeping over his skin. His heart was yammering loudly in his chest.

He punched the pressure door, making a tiny dint in the surface rim. Another punch. The first dint straightened out amid a shimmer of red light.

“Help me!” he shrilled. The puff of air was ripped from his throat, but the cry had been directed at the infinity of souls surrounding him. Tell Capone, he implored them silently. It’s Kiera!

He was having trouble focusing on the stubborn pressure door. He punched it again. The metal was smeared with red. It was a fluid this time, not the backspill from energistic power warping physical reality. Bernhard dropped to his knees, fingers scraping down the metal, desperate for a grip. The souls all around him were becoming a lot clearer.

“What’s that?” Jed asked. He hadn’t spoken to Gerald since they walked down the Mindori ’s stairs, and even then it had only been to tell him the direction they were to take. They’d walked along together ever since, trudging past the feeding hellhawks. Now they were on a section of ledge unused by either Kiera or Capone. No man’s land. The purple physiology icons projected against his visor told their usual sorry tale: his heart-rate was too high, and his body was hotter than it should be. This time he’d steered clear of snorting an infusion to calm his jabbering thoughts. So far.

“Is there a problem?” Rocio asked.

“You tell me, mate.” Jed pointed at the cliff wall, fifty metres ahead. A horizontal fountain of white vapour was gushing out of an open airlock hatch. “Looks like some kind of blow out.”

“Marie,” Gerald wheezed. “Is she there? Is she in danger?”

“No, Gerald,” Rocio said, an edge of exasperation in his voice. “She’s nowhere near you. She’s at Capone’s party, drinking and making merry.”

“That’s a lot of air escaping,” Jed said. “The chamber must have breached. Rocio, can you see what’s going on in there?”

“I can’t access any of the sensors in the corridor behind the airlock. That section of the net has been isolated. There isn’t even a pressure drop alert getting out to the asteroid’s environmental control centre. The corridor has been sealed. Someone’s gone to a lot of trouble concealing whatever the hell they’re up to.”

Jed watched the spurt of gas die away. “Shall we keep going?”

“Absolutely,” Rocio said. “Don’t get involved. Don’t draw attention to yourselves.”

Jed glanced along the line of blank windows above the open airlock. They were all dim, unlit. “Sure thing.”

“Why?” Gerald asked. “What’s in there? Why don’t you want us to see? It’s Marie, isn’t it? My baby’s in there.”

“No, Gerald.”

Gerald took a few paces towards the open airlock.

“Gerald?” Beth’s voice was high, strained and excitable. “Listen to me, Gerald, she’s not in there. Okay? Marie’s not there. I can see her, mate, there are cameras in the big hotel lobby. I’m looking at her right now. I swear it, mate. She’s in a black and pink dress. I couldn’t make that up, now could I?”

“No!” Gerald started to run, a laboured half-bouncing motion. “You’re lying to me.”

Jed stared after him in mounting dismay. Short of letting off a flare, there was nothing more he could do to attract attention to them.

“Jed,” Rocio said. “I’m using your private suit band, Gerald can’t hear this. You have to stop him. Whoever opened that airlock isn’t going to want him blundering in. And they have to be a major faction player. This could ruin our whole scheme.”

“Stop him how? He’ll either shoot me or blow both of us into the bloody beyond.”

“If Gerald triggers an alarm, none of us will ever get off this rock.”

“Oh Jeeze .” He shook his fist helplessly at Gerald’s crazy lurching run. The loon was fifteen metres from the open airlock.

“Take a hit,” Beth said. “Chill down before you go after him.”

“Fuck off.” Jed started to run after Gerald, convinced the whole world was now watching. And worse, laughing.

Gerald reached the open airlock, and ducked inside. By the time Jed arrived half a minute later, he was nowhere to be seen. The chamber was standard, like the one Jed had come though last time he’d gone inside this bloody awful maggot nest of rock. He moved along it cautiously. “Gerald?”

The inner door was open. Which was deeply wrong. Jed knew all about asteroid airlocks, and one thing you could positively not ever do was open an internal corridor to the vacuum. Not by accident. He glanced at the rectangular hatch as he passed, seeing how the swing rods had been sheered, the melted cables around the rim seal interlock control.

“Gerald?”

“I’m losing your signal.” Rocio said. “I still can’t access the net around you. Whoever did it is still there.”

Gerald was slumped against the corridor wall, legs splayed wide in front of him. Not moving. Jed approached him cautiously. “Gerald?”

The suit band transmitted a shallow, frightened whimper.

“Gerald, come on. We’ve got to get out of here. And no more of this crazy shit. I can’t take it any more, okay. I mean really can’t. You’re cracking my head apart.”

One of Gerald’s gauntleted hands waved limply. Jed stared past him, down to the end of the corridor. A dangerous geyser of vomit threatened to surge up his throat.

Bernhard Allsop’s stolen body had ruptured in a spectacular fashion as the energistic power reinforcing his flesh had vanished. Lungs, the softest and most vulnerable tissue, had burst immediately, sending litres of blood pouring out of his mouth. Thousands of heavily pressurized capillaries just beneath his skin had split, weeping beads of blood into the fabric of his clothes. It looked as though his double breasted suit was made from brilliant scarlet cloth—cloth that seethed as if alive. The fluid was boiling away into the vacuum, surrounding him with a hazy pink mist.

Jed attacked his suit wrist pad as if it was burning him. Dry air scented with peppermint and pine blew into his face. He clamped his jaw shut against the rising vomit, turning bands of muscle to hot steel as he forced himself not to throw up. This spacesuit wasn’t sophisticated enough to cope with him spewing.

Something loosened inside him. He coughed and spluttered, sending disgustingly tacky white bile spraying over the inside of his visor. But his nausea was subsiding. “Oh God, oh Jeeze, he’s just pulped.”

The pine scent was strong now, thick in his helmet, draining feeling away from his limbs. His arms moved sluggishly, yet they were as light as hydrogen. Good sensation.

Jed let out a snicker. “Guess the guy couldn’t hold it together, you know?”

“That’s not Marie.”

The processor governing Jed’s spacesuit cancelled the emergency medical suppresser infusion. The dosage had exceeded CAB limits by a considerable margin. It automatically administered the antidote. Winter fell across Jed, chilling him so badly he held a gauntlet up to his visor, expecting to see frost glittering on the rubbery fabric. The coloured lights flashing annoyingly into his eyes gradually resolved into icons and digits. Someone kept chanting: “Marie, Marie, Marie.”

Jed looked at the corpse again. It was pretty hideous but it didn’t make him feel sick this time. The infusion seemed to have switched off his internal organs. It also implanted a strong sensation of confidence, he could tackle the rest of the mission without any trouble now.

He shook Gerald’s shoulder, which at least put an end to the dreary chanting. Gerald squirmed from the touch. “Come on, mate, we’re leaving,” Jed said. “Got a job to do.”

A motion caught Jed’s attention. There was a face pressed up against the port in the pressure door. As he watched, the blood smearing the little circle of glass began to flow apart. The man on the other side stared straight at Jed.

“Oh bloody hell,” Jed choked. The balmy feeling imparted by the infusion was gusting away fast. He turned frantically to see the airlock’s inner hatch starting to close.

“That’s it, mate, we’re outta here.” He pulled Gerald up, propping him against the wall. Their visors pressed together, allowing Jed to look into the old loon’s helmet past the winking icons. Gerald was oblivious to anything, lost in a dream-state trance. The laser pistol slid from lifeless fingers to fall onto the floor. Jed glanced longingly at it, but decided against. If it came to a shootout with the possessed, he wasn’t going to win. And it would only piss them off. Not a good idea.

The face at the port had vanished. “Come on.” He tugged at Gerald, forcing him to take some steps along the corridor. Thin jets of grey gas started to shoot out of the conditioning vents overhead. Green and yellow icons appeared on his visor, reporting oxygen and nitrogen thickening around him. One thing Jed clung to was that the possessed were no good in a vacuum; suits didn’t work, and their power couldn’t protect them. As soon as he got back out on the ledge he was safe. Relatively.

They reached the airlock hatch, and Jed slapped the cycle control. The control panel remained dark. Digits were flickering fast across his visor; the pressure was already twenty-five per cent standard. Jed let go of Gerald and pulled the manual lever out. It seemed to move effortlessly as he spun it round and round. Then it jarred his arms. He frowned at it, cross that something as simple as a lock should try to hurt him. But at least the hatch swung open when he pulled on it.

Gerald stumbled into the chamber, as obedient as a mechanoid. Jed laughed and cheered as he pulled the hatch shut behind him.

“Are you all right?” Rocio asked. “What happened?”

“Jed?” Beth cried. “Jed, can you hear me?”

“No sweat, doll. The bad guys haven’t got what it takes to spin me.”

“He’s still high,” Rocio said. “But he’s coming down. Jed, why did you use the infuser?”

“Just quit bugging me, man. Jeeze, I came through for you, didn’t I?” He pressed the outer hatch’s cycle control. Amazingly, a line of green lights on the panel turned amber. “You’d have snorted a megawatt floater too if you saw what I did.”

“What was that?” Rocio’s voice had softened down to the kind of tone Mrs Yandell used when she talked to the day-club juniors. “What did you see, Jed?”

“Body.” His irritation at the insulting tone was lost under a memory of wriggling scarlet cloth. “Some bloke got caught in the vacuum.”

“Do you know who he was?”

“No!” Now he was sobering up, Jed desperately wanted to avoid thinking about it. He checked the control panel, relieved to see the atmosphere cycle was proceeding normally. The electronics at this end of the airlock were undamaged. Not sabotaged, he corrected himself.

“Jed, I’m getting some strange readings from Gerald’s suit telemetry,” Rocio said. “Is he okay?”

Jed felt like saying: was he ever? “I think the body upset him. Once he realized it wasn’t Marie, he just shut up.” And who’s complaining about that?

The control panel lights turned red, and the hatch swung open.

“You’d better get out of there,” Rocio said. “There’s no alert in the net yet, but someone will discover the murder eventually.”

“Sure.” He took Gerald’s hand in his and pulled gently. Gerald followed obediently.

Rocio told them to stop outside a series of horseshoe-shaped garage bays at the base of the rock cliff, a hundred metres from the entrance they were supposed to use to get into the asteroid. Three trucks were parked in the bays, simple four wheel drive vehicles with seating for six and a flatbed rear.

“Check their systems,” Rocio said. “You’ll need one to drive the components back to me.”

Jed went along them, activating their management processors and initiating basic diagnostic routines. The first one was suffering from some kind of power cell drop out, but the second was clean and fully charged. He sat Gerald in one of the passenger seats, and drove it round to the airlock.

When the chamber’s inner hatch swung open, Jed checked his sensor reading before he cracked his visor up. A lifetime of emergency procedure drills back on Koblat made him perpetually cautious about his environment.

“There’s nobody even close to you,” Rocio said. “Go get them.”

Jed hurried along the corridor, took a right turn, and saw the broad door to the maintenance shop, three down on the right. It opened for him as he touched the lock panel. The lights sprang up to full intensity, revealing a basic rectangular room with pale-blue wall panelling. Cybernetic tool modules stood in a row down the centre, encased in crystal cylinders to protect their delicate waldos. A grid of shelving covered the rear wall, intended to hold a stock of spares used regularly by the shop. Now there were just a few cartons and packages left scattered around—apart from the large pile in the middle which the mechanoid had delivered.

“Oh Jeeze, Rocio,” Jed complained. “There’s got to be a hundred here. I’m never going to muscle that lot out, it’ll take forever.” The components were all packed in plastic boxes.

“I’m getting a sense of déjà vu here,” Rocio said smoothly. “Just pile them onto the freight trolley and dump them in the airlock chamber. It’ll be three trips at the most. Ten minutes.”

“Oh brother.” Jed grabbed a trolley and shoved it over to the shelving. He started to throw the boxes on. “Why didn’t you get the mechanoids to dump them at the airlock for me?”

“It’s not a designated storage area. I would have had to reprogram the management routines. Not difficult, but it might have been detected. This method reduces the risk.”

“For some,” Jed muttered.

Gerald walked in. Jed had almost forgotten him. “Gerald, you can take your helmet off, mate.” There was no response.

Jed went up to him and flipped the helmet seals. Gerald blinked as the visor was raised.

“Can’t stay in that spacesuit here, mate, you’ll get noticed. And you’ll suffocate eventually.”

He thought Gerald was about to start crying, the bloke looked so wretched. To cover his own guilt, Jed went back to loading the boxes. When he had as many as the trolley could handle, he said: “I’m going to get rid of this bundle. Do me a favour, mate, start loading the next lot.”

Gerald nodded. Even though he wasn’t convinced, Jed hurried out back to the airlock. When he got back, Gerald had put two boxes on the second trolley.

“Ignore him,” Rocio said. “Just do it yourself.”

It took a further three trips to carry all the boxes to the airlock. Jed finished loading the trolley for the last time, and paused. “Gerald, mate, look, you’ve got to get a grip, okay?”

“Leave him,” Rocio said curtly.

“He’s gone,” Jed said sadly. “Total brainwipe this time. That corpse did for him. We can’t leave him here.”

“I will not permit him back on board. You know what a danger he has become. We cannot treat him.”

“You think this gang are going to help him?”

“Jed, he did not come here looking for their help. Don’t forget he has a homemade bomb strapped to his waist. If Capone does become unpleasant with Gerald, he’s going to be in for a nasty surprise himself. Now get back to the airlock. Beth and your sister are the people you should be concentrating on now.”

More than anything, Jed wanted another dose out of the suit’s medical kit. Something to take away the hurt of abandoning the crazy old man. “I’m real sorry, mate. I hope you find Marie. I wish she wasn’t, well . . . what she is now. She gave a lot of us hope, you know. I guess I owe both of you.”

“Jed, leave now,” Rocio ordered.

“Screw you.” Jed steered the trolley at the wide door. “Good luck,” he called back.

He forced himself not to go fast on the drive back to the Mindori . There was too much at stake now to risk drawing attention to himself by a last minute error. So he resisted twisting the throttle as he passed the fateful airlock with the corpse behind it. Rocio said the net in that section had returned to full operation and the corridor’s emergency doors had opened, but no one had found the body yet.

Jed drove under the big hellhawk and parked directly below one of its barnacle-like cargo holds. Rocio opened the clamshell doors, and Jed set about transferring the boxes over onto the loading platform which telescoped down. At the back of his mind he knew that when the last box was on board, then he and Beth and the kids were no longer necessary. And probably a liability to boot.

He was quite surprised to be allowed back up the ladder into Mindori ’s airlock. Shame finally overwhelmed him when he took his helmet off. Beth was standing in front of him, ready to help with his suit; face composed so she didn’t show any weakness. The enormity of everything he’d done snatched the strength from his legs. He slid down the bulkhead, and burst into tears.

Beth’s arms went round him. “You couldn’t help him,” she crooned. “You couldn’t.”

“I never tried. I just left him there.”

“He couldn’t come back on board. Not now. He was going to blow us up.”

“He didn’t know what the hell he was doing. He’s mad.”

“Not really. Just very sick. But he’s where he wanted to be, near Marie.”

Jack McGovern drifted back into consciousness aware of a sharp, deep stinging coming from his nose. His eyes fluttered open to see dark-brown wood crushed against his cheek. He was lying on floorboards in near darkness in the most uncomfortable position possible, with his legs bent so his feet were pressing into his arse and his arms twisted behind his back. Blood was pounding painfully in his forearms. His hangover was the greatest yet. When he tried to stir, he couldn’t. His wrists and ankles were all bound up together by what felt like a ball of red hot insulating tape. An attempt to groan revealed his mouth was also covered with tape. One nostril was clogged with dry blood.

That frightened him badly, sending pulse and breathing wild. Air hissed and thrummed through his one small vulnerable air passage. It was like reinforcement feedback, making him even more aware of how dependant he was. Attempting to hyperventilate and half-suffocating because of it made his head pound worse than ever. His vision vanished under a red sparkle.

Insensate panic dragged on for an indeterminable time. All he knew was that when his sight finally returned along with his sluggish thoughts, his breathing was slowing. His attempted thrashing had shifted him several centimetres across the floorboards. He calmed a lot then, still wishing his hangover would fuck off and leave him alone. The memory of what had happened in the Black Bull’s toilet trickled back into his mind. He found that the tape across his mouth didn’t stop him from whimpering at the back of his throat.

A possessed! He’d been mugged by a possessed. Yet . . . he wasn’t possessed himself, which is what they always did to people—everyone knew that. Unless this was the beyond?

Jack managed to roll round onto his side and take a look round. Definitely not the beyond. He was in some kind of ancient cube of a room, a half-moon window set high up on one wall. Old store display placards were stacked opposite him, fading holophorescent print advertising brands of bathroom accessories he could dimly remember from his childhood. A heavy chain led from his ankles to a set of metal pipes that ran straight up from the floor to the ceiling.

He shuffled along the floor for all of half a metre, until the chain was tight. Nothing he did after that even scratched the pipes, let alone weakened them or made them bend away from the wall. He was still three metres from the door. Bracing and clenching his arm and shoulder muscles had the solitary effect of making his wrists hurt more. That was it then. No escape.

His hangover had long abated when the door finally opened. He didn’t know when; only that hours and hours had passed. Cold arcology night light slithered in through the high window, painting the bare plaster walls a grubby sodium yellow. It was the possessed man who came in first, moving without sound, his black monk robe swirling round him like orderly mist. Two others followed him in, a young teenage girl and a sulky, adolescent boy. They were hauling a woman along between them; middle-aged, her shoulders slumped in defeat. Her chestnut hair was arranged in a pleated crown, as if she’d put it up ready for a shower; wisps had escaped to dangle in front of her eyes. It hid most of her face, though Jack could make out the broken, lonely expression.

The boy bent down and yanked the tape over Jack’s mouth as hard as he could. Jack grunted at the pulse of pain as it ripped free. He gulped down air.

“Please,” he panted. “Please don’t torture me. I’ll surrender, okay. Just fucking don’t.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Quinn said. “I want you to help me.”

“I’m yours. Hundred per cent! Anything.”

“How old are you Jack?”

“Hu . . . uh, twenty-eight.”

“I’d have put you older, myself. But that’s fine. And you’re about the right height.”

“What for?”

“Well, see, Jack, you got lucky. We’re gonna smarten you up a bit, give you a makeover. You’re gonna be a whole new man by the time we’re finished. And I won’t even charge you for it. How about that?”

“You mean different clothes and stuff?” Jack asked cautiously.

“Not exactly. You see, I found out that Greta here is a fully qualified nurse. Course, some assholes would call that synchronicity. But you and I know that’s total bullshit, don’t we Jack.”

Jack grinned round wildly. “Yeah! Absolutely. No fucking way.”

“Right. It’s all part of His plan. God’s Brother makes sure everything comes together for me. I am the chosen one, after all. Both of you are His gifts to me.”

“You tell him, Quinn,” Courtney said.

Jack’s grin had been frozen into place by the aching realization of how deep into their shared insanity he’d fallen. “A nurse?”

“Yep.” Quinn signalled Greta forwards.

Jack saw she held a medical nanonic package. “Oh Jesus fuck, what are you going to do?”

“Hey, asshole, Jesus is dead,” Courtney shouted. “Don’t you go calling his name around us, he can’t help you. He’s the false lord. Quinn is Earth’s new messiah.”

“Help me!” Jack yelled. “Somebody help.”

“Mouthy little turd, ain’t he,” Billy-Joe said. “Ain’t no body gonna hear you, boy. They didn’t hear any of the others, and Quinn hurt them a fuck of a lot more.”

“Look, I said I’d help you,” Jack said desperately. “I will. Really. I’m not bullshitting. But you gotta keep your end of the bargain. You said no torture.”

Quinn walked back to the door, putting as much distance as he could between himself and Jack in the small room. “Is it working now?” he asked Greta.

She looked at the small display on her processor block. “Yes.”

“Okay. Start by getting rid of his vocal cords. Billy-Joe’s right, he talks too much. And I need him to be quiet when I use him. That’s important.”

“No!” Jack yelled. He started to squirm round on the floor.

Billy-Joe laughed and sat down hard on his chest, forcing the air out of his lungs. It fluted weakly as it escaped through his nostril.

“The package can’t remove his vocal cords,” Greta said in a disinterested monotone. “I’ll have to disengage the nerves.”

“Fine,” Quinn said. “Whatever.”

Jack stared right at her as she leaned over and applied the glossy green package to his throat. Direct eye to eye contact, the most personal human communication there was. Pleading, imploring. Don’t do this. He could have been looking into a mechanoid’s sensor lens for the effect it had on her. The package adhered to his skin, soft and warm. He clenched his throat muscles against the invasion. But after a minute or so they began to relax as he lost all feeling between his jaw and his shoulders.

Silencing him was just the beginning. He was left alone as the package did its work, then the four of them returned. This time Greta was carrying a different type of nanonic package, a face-mask with several sac-like blisters on the outer surface, inflated by some glutinous fluid. There were no slits for him to see out through when she placed it over his face.

That was when the routine started. Every few hours they would return and remove the mask. Greta would refill the sacs. His face would be examined, and Quinn would issue a few instructions before the mask was replaced. Occasionally they’d give him cold soup and a cup of water.

He was left alone in a darkness that was frightening in its totality. His face was numbed by the package, and whatever it was doing prevented even the red blotches that usually appeared behind closed eyelids. That just left him with hearing. He learned how to tell the difference between night and day. The half-moon window let in a variety of sounds, mostly traffic flowing along the big elevated motorway running down the middle of the Thames. There was also the sound of boats, swans and ducks squabbling. He began to get a feel for the building, too. Big and old, he was sure of that; the floorboards and pipes conducted faint vibrations. In the day there was some activity. Whirring sounds that must be lifts, clumping as heavy objects were moved around. None of it close to his room.

At night there was screaming. A woman, starting with a pitiful wail which was eventually reduced to miserable sobbing. Each time the same, and not far away. It took a while for him to realize it was Greta. Obviously, there were worse things than having your features modified by a nanonics package. The knowledge didn’t act as much of a comfort.

The ghosts knew the Orgathé were approaching Valisk’s northern endcap, their new awareness perceiving black knots of menacing hunger sliding through the air. It was enough to overcome their apprehension towards the humans that hated them, sending them fleeing into the caverns harbouring their ex-hosts.

Their presence was one more complication for the defenders. Although the personality could watch the Orgathé flying along the habitat, it certainly didn’t know where they’d land. That left Erentz and her relatives with the entire circumference to guard. They’d already decided that it would be impossible to move the thousands of sick and emaciated humans from the front line of the outer caverns. Flight time down the length of the habitat was barely fifteen minutes, and the Orgathé emerging from the southern endcap were joined by several new arrivals who had just entered through the starscrapers. There simply wasn’t time to prepare, all they could do was snatch up their weapons and assemble in teams ready to respond to the nearest incursion; even the way they were spaced round the endcap was less than ideal.

Wait until they get inside,the personality said. If you fire while they’re still in the air, they’ll just swoop away. Once they’re in the caverns they can’t escape.

The Orgathé hesitated as they glided down towards the scrub desert, in turn sensing the hatred and fear of the entities below. For several minutes they circled above the cavern entrances as the last ghosts fled inside, then the flock descended.

Thirty-eight of the buggers. Stand by.

Tolton shifted his grip on the incendiary torpedo launcher as Erentz told him to get ready. His sweat was making its casing slippery. He was standing behind Dariat, who in turn was at the tail end of a group of his relatives waiting in a passage at the back of one of the hospital caverns. What he thought of as his special status hadn’t exempted him from this brand of lethal madness.

He heard a lot of groaning start up in the cavern. It quickly degenerated into weak screams and shouted curses. The ghosts were flooding in, ignoring the bedridden humans to plunge deeper into the cavern network. They started to run past him, mouths open to yell silent warnings. Their movements sketched short-lived smears of washed-out colour through the air.

Then one of the Orgathé hit the entrance outside. Its body elongated, the front section pressing forward eagerly through the curving passageway, while the bulbous rear quarter squirmed violently, adding to its impetus. Those ghosts that had only just made it inside were engulfed by writhing appendages as the huge creature surged along. Their savage cries of suffering penetrated the entire endcap as their life-energy was torn away from them. The other ghosts and Dariat could actually hear them, while the humans experienced their torment as a wave of profound unease. Tolton looked down at the launcher for reassurance, only to find his hands were trembling badly.

“We’re on!” Erentz barked.

The Orgathé charged into the cavern, preceded by a hail of freezing polyp pebbles and a technicolor ripple of terrified ghosts. Ahead of it, three rows of grubby bedding were laid out across the polyp floor, home to over 300 lethargic patients, already disturbed by the ghosts. They did their best to retreat, staggering or crawling back against the wall; some of the nurses managed to lug their charges towards the passageways. The Orgathé lunged forwards greedily, turning the cavern into a riot of hysterical bodies and slashing appendages. Each time it coiled a tentacle around someone their body turned to solid ice and shattered, releasing a ghost that sank to its knees and waited for the devastating follow-up blow.

Through it all, Erentz and her relatives attempted to spread out and encircle the Orgathé. Every metre of ground had to be fought over, elbowing through the throng of terrified people. Blankets, plastic cartons, and chunks of rock-hard frosted flesh were kicked about underfoot, making every step treacherous. The pincer movement was never going to work properly; the best they could hope for was positioning themselves close to the passageways, blocking the Orgathé’s escape.

When they had five of the possible seven exit routes covered, they opened fire. A cowering Tolton saw slivers of dazzling light pulse through the air to be absorbed by the Orgathé’s nebulous form, and assumed that was the signal to start firing. He pushed a couple of elderly, enfeebled men aside and brought his own launcher up. His mind was so battered by the sight of panic and devastation across the cavern floor he barely aimed it. He just pulled the trigger and watched numbly as the incendiary torpedoes pummelled the dark mass.

The flame throwers opened fire with a raucous howl, adding their particular brand of carnage to the onslaught. Eight lines of bright yellow fire jetted over the heads of the cowering crowd to flower open against the Orgathé. The beast jerked frenziedly, buffeted from all sides by the terrible flame. Its constituent fluid boiled furiously, sending clouds of choking mist to saturate the beleaguered cavern.

Tolton clamped a hand over his mouth as his eyes smarted. The vapour was colder than ice, condensing over his skin and clothes to form a slick mucus-like film. He had trouble standing as it built up underfoot. All around him people were falling over and skating across the floor. He couldn’t aim the launcher with any accuracy now, the recoil from each shot sent him slithering back wildly. In any case, he wasn’t entirely sure where the creature was any more. The mist was fluorescing strongly as the jets of flame continued to seer through it, turning the whole cavern into a uniform topaz haze.

Without any visible target, Tolton stopped firing. People were everywhere, shrieking and crying as they skidded about, a racket which fused with the roar of the flame throwers to create total sonic bedlam. Any random shot would probably hit someone. He dropped to all fours and tried to find the cavern wall, a way out.

Erentz and the others kept on firing. The personality’s perception of the cavern through its sensitive cells was less than perfect, but it could keep them informed of the Orgathé’s approximate location. Erentz twisted about continually, keeping the flame playing on the creature’s flanks. With the billowing mist, running figures, and the target continually shrinking, she had a lot of trouble keeping aligned. But it was working: that mattered above all else, helping to blank the knowledge of what a misapplied jet would strike.

Dariat finally perceived the Orgathé’s denuded ghost flying back out into the habitat. He shared his enhanced cognition with his relatives and the personality, showing them the wraith flashing past. The light and sound of the flame throwers swiftly died away.

As the disgustingly clammy mist descended out of the air to congeal over people and polyp alike, it revealed a floor littered with bodies. Those who hadn’t been too badly burnt or had escaped the Orgathé’s slashing appendages were wriggling mutely beneath the slick membranous muck. Nearly a third remained motionless; whether they were too exhausted or wounded to make an effort was impossible to tell. The grungy fluid concealed details.

Tolton watched with numb incredulity as ghosts started to rise up out of the floor like humanoid mushrooms, stretching elastic fronds of the fluid with them. They were harvesting the material as Dariat had done, cloaking their form with substance.

Erentz and her team were striding through the slaughter and misery as if it didn’t exist, whooping out greetings to each other as they congregated by one of the side passageways. Dr Patan was among them, wiping sloppy goo from his face and grinning with the same vivacity as the others as he checked his launcher.

Tolton stared after them as they hurried off down the passageway, totally immune to the suffering throughout the cavern. The personality had informed them of another visitor raising hell in a cavern close by, and they were eager to resume the fight. It wasn’t just entropy which was stronger in this continuum, he reflected; inhumanity was equally pervasive.

Eventually he stirred himself, though he was uncertain what to do next. Dariat came over to stand at his side, and they surveyed the cavern with its dead, its wounded, and its enervated ghosts. Together they moved out to offer what comfort they could.

The mask came away cleanly from Jack McGovern’s face. He blinked against the gentle light coming through the storeroom’s high window. Without the package, his bare skin was host to a peculiar sensation, somewhere between numb and sore. What he wanted to do was dab at it with his hands, trace his fingertips over his cheeks and jaw to find out what they’d done to him. But he was still bound up with the tape and chain.

“Not bad,” Courtney said. She gave Greta an affectionate slap on the arm. The woman flinched badly; muscles on her neck and limbs twitched in a cascade reaction.

“Even got the eye colour right.”

“Show him,” Quinn said.

A giggling Courtney bent down and thrust a small mirror at Jack. He stared at the image. It was the last thing he expected; they’d given him Quinn’s face. He frowned the question.

“You’ll see,” Quinn said. “Get him ready.” A single gesture, and the chain fell from Jack’s ankles. The tape wasn’t so simple. Billy-Joe produced a vicious-looking combat knife, and started sawing.

Returning blood brought pain roaring into Jack’s feet and hands as the tape was prised away. He couldn’t stand. Courtney and Billy-Joe had to drag him out between them. First stop was a staff washroom. They dumped him in a shower cubicle, and turned the nozzle on full. Cold water sluiced down, making him gag, batting feebly at the spray. Dark stains seeped out of his trousers. Never once had they let him use a toilet.

“Take your clothes off,” Quinn ordered. He chucked a tube of soap gel down onto the cracked tiles. “Wash thoroughly. That stink is a giveaway.”

They stood round, watching as he slowly opened the seals on his shirt and trousers. Feeling and movement was slow to return to his extremities. He had a lot of trouble keeping hold of the tube as he applied the gel. Standing was also very painful, it felt like he was tearing tendons as his knees straightened out. But it was Quinn who’d told him to stand, and he didn’t dare not.

Quinn snapped his fingers, and Jack was abruptly dry. Courtney handed him a black robe. Its cut was identical to Quinn’s, voluminous arms and deep hood, but it was just ordinary cloth, not the patch of empty space which clung to the dark messiah.

Courtney and Billy-Joe inspected them as they stood side by side. Height was almost the same, within three centimetres. A slight weight difference was obscured by the robe.

“God’s Brother must be laughing His ass off,” Billy-Joe said. “Shit, it’s like you’s twins.”

“It’ll do,” Quinn decided. “Any updates on her position?”

“No way, man,” Billy-Joe said, suddenly serious. “Those dudes from the Lambeth coven swore on it. It’s a big fucking deal for them having another High Magus visiting the arcology, especially now. They’s all talking about how this is His time. But she’s staying put in her tower, won’t move, won’t see anyone, not even London’s High Magus. And she’s a real pain in the ass, they all say that. Who else is it gonna be?”

“You’ve done good, Billy-Joe,” Quinn said. “I won’t forget that, and neither will He. When I bring Night to this arcology I’ll let you loose inside a model agency. You can keep yourself a harem of the hottest babes there are.”

“All right!” Billy-Joe punched the air. “Rich bitches, Quinn. I want me some rich bitches, all dressed up real fine in silk and stuff. They always wear that for their own kind, don’t even look at the likes of me. But I’m gonna show them what its like to fuck with a real man.”

Quinn laughed. “Shit, you don’t ever change.” He took another look at Jack, and nodded in satisfaction. The man was eerily similar to himself. It ought to be enough. “Do it,” he told Courtney.

She pushed Jack’s hood aside, and pressed a medical spray to his neck.

“Just to keep you calm,” Quinn said. “You’ve handled this all right so far, I’d hate for you to blow it now.”

Jack didn’t know what the drug was, only that it buzzed warmly in his ears. The fear of what was going to happen to him set sail and drifted away. Just standing still and admiring the glistening droplets form around the shower nozzle was fascinating entertainment. Their fall was an epic voyage.

“Come here,” Quinn said.

It was a very loud voice, Jack thought. But he had nothing else to do, so he slowly walked over to where Quinn was standing. Then his skin grew cold, as if a winter breeze was flowing through his robe. The room began to change, its drab colours melting away. The walls and floor became simple planes of thick shadow. Billy-Joe, Courtney, and Greta were blank statues, frothing with iridescence. Other people became visible, everything about them was clearly defined, their features, clothes (odd, ancient styles), hair. Yet they lacked colour to the point of translucency. And they were all so sad, mournful faces with anguished eyes.

“Ignore them,” Quinn said. “Bunch of assholes.” By contrast to the others, Quinn was vibrant with life and power.

“Yes.”

Quinn gave him a sharp look, then shrugged. “Yeah well, I suppose we’re not really talking. After all, you’re not actually alive in here.”

Jack contemplated that. His thoughts were losing their sluggishness. “What do you mean?” He realized he couldn’t hear his heart beating any more. Nor was his mouth moving when he spoke.

“Shit.” Quinn’s exasperation manifested itself as a tide of warmth flooding from his shining body. “The hypnogenic doesn’t work here, either. Should have figured that. Okay, let’s put it real simple for you. Do as I say, or I’ll hurt you real bad; and in this realm that can be very bad indeed. Understand?”

They started to slide through the room. Jack didn’t know how; his legs weren’t moving. The wall came at him, and passed by with a stinging sensation that made his thoughts quake.

“It’ll get worse,” Quinn said. “Going through thick chunks of matter is painful. Ignore it, just you sit back and enjoy the view.” They started to pick up speed.

Banneth had tired of the acolytes. Even watching them fucking each other senseless was a bore. It was all so ordinary. She kept thinking of the improvements and modifications she could make to their thrashing bodies to spice up the sex and make it potentially a great deal more interesting. There were definitely attributes she could bestow upon the boy to make him more ruthless, both in bed and in life, the first arena acting as a training ground for the second. After critical deliberation, she concluded the girls would probably both benefit from a more feline nature.

Not that any of it mattered now. She’d acquired the same kind of fatalism as the rest of the planet’s population. Since the vac-train shutdown, absenteeism and petty crime had increased considerably in every arcology. After an initial flurry of concern, the authorities had decided such actions were not in fact precursors to wholesale possession. Basically, it was people taking the news badly. Apathy had risen to rule with all the intangible force of a dominant star sign.

Banneth pulled on her robe and walked out of the penthouse’s master bedroom, not even glancing back at the fresh outburst of moaning from the tangle of bodies on the mattress behind her. She went over to the lounge area’s cocktail bar and poured herself a decent measure of Crown whisky. Four days’ inactivity floating round the apartment had reduced the bottle’s contents down to the last couple of centimetres.

She settled back into one of the atrocious leather chairs and datavised the room’s management processor. Tasselled curtains swished shut across the glass wall, cutting off the sight of the night-time arcology. A holographic screen above the fireplace bar flared with colour, giving her a feed from the local news station.

Another two of New York’s domes had succumbed to the possessed. Rover reporters relayed the images from the vantage point of a megatower, revealing a faint red glow emanating from the buildings inside the geodesic crystal roof. Police in Paris claimed they had captured nineteen more possessed and thrown them into zero-tau pods. There were interviews with dazed ex-hosts; one claiming to have been taken over by Napoleon; another swore she’d been used by Eva Perón. From Bombay a terse official statement assured residents that local disturbances were under control.

Several times the station switched back to that morning’s address by the President, who had asserted that there were no new incidents of suspected possession. He said his decision to shut down the vac-trains was now fully justified. Local law enforcement agencies were successfully keeping the possessed confined in the regrettable cases where they’d managed to establish themselves in arcologies. He called on all people to pray for New York.

Banneth took another sip of the Crown, enjoying the all-too-rare sensation of alcohol seeping through her synapses. No mention of London, then.

None at all,western europe confirmed. I’m not even suppressing any. He’s being remarkably restrained.

If he’s here.

He is.

You shut down the vac-trains awful quick.

I didn’t.

Really?banneth perked up at that. any information she could gather on B7 always fascinated her. In all the years she’d been working for them, she’d learned so little about how they operated. Who did?

A flash of pique escaped along the affinity link. An idiotic colleague panicked. Sadly, not all of us are completely focused on the problem.

How many are there?

No. Old habits die hard, and the habit of secrecy is very old indeed in my case. You should appreciate that, with your obsession in behavioural psychology.

Come on. You can indulge me. I can’t even fart without your consent. And I am about to be vaporized.

A pat on the head for a faithful old servant?

Whatever you want to call it.

Very well, I suppose I do have some small obligation. You have behaved yourself admirably. I will reveal one aspect of myself, on the condition that you don’t pester me any further.

Done deal.

The habit. It has formed over six hundred years.

Shit! You’re six hundred years old?

Six hundred and fifty-two, actually.

What the fuck are you?

Done deal, remember.

Xenoc, is that it?

The affinity link carried a mental chuckle. I’m fully human, thank you. Now stop asking questions.

“Six hundred years old,” Banneth muttered in awe. It was an astonishing disclosure. If it was true. But the supervisor had no reason to lie. You keep going into zero-tau; stay in for fifty years, come out for a couple every century. I’ve heard of people doing that.

Dear me, I’m disappointed. It must be all that whisky you’re guzzling down, it’s fogging your brain. I don’t consider myself to be that mundane. Zero-tau indeed.

What then?

Work it out. You should be grateful. I’ve given you something to keep your mind active in your last days. You were becoming morbid and withdrawn. Now your files are all edited and catalogued, you need a fresh mental challenge.

What’s going to happen to my files? You will publish them, won’t you?

Ah, sweet vanity. It’s been the downfall of egomaniacs greater than you.

Won’t you?she repeated, annoyed.

It will make an excellent archive resource for my people.

Your people? What do they want with . . .the holo-screen image wobbled; a story from Edmonton, a reporter touring round a sabotaged power plant, detailing the repairs. Did you see that?

The AI is picking up microfluctuations in the penthouse’s electrical circuits. He’s there.western europe’s excitement was crackling down the affinity link like a static slap to the brain.

“Shit!” Banneth downed the whisky in one swift gulp. Nothing I can do. The phrase was locked in her mind, repeating and repeating. Now the moment was swooping down on her, bitter resentment surged up. She struggled to her feet. Quinn was never going to see her slumped in defeat. He was also damn well going to know she was the principal factor in outsmarting him.

She datavised the lights up to full strength, and turned a circle, scanning the penthouse. Moisture was smearing her vision. The holoscreen wobbled again, its sound jolting.

Slowly, and with a taunting smile on her face, she said: “Where are you, Quinn?”

It was like a poorly focused AV projection coming to life. A dark shadow wavering in front of the door to the bedroom, blocking out the motion of the oblivious acolytes. It was translucent at first, but thickened quickly. The overhead lights flickered and the holoscreen image imploded into a soiled rainbow. Banneth’s neural nanonics crashed.

Quinn Dexter stood on the marble tiles, clad in his ebony robe, looking right at her. Fully materialized.

Gotcha, you bastard!

The supervisor’s victorious cry rang out in Banneth’s skull. For a whole second she stared at her beautiful creation, every gorgeous feature; remembering the angry power locked up beneath the smooth pale skin. He stared right back. Rather, his eyes were unmoving. Wrong. Wrong! WRONG. Wait, it’s not—

The SD X-ray laser fired. Kilometres above Banneth, the beam penetrated the arcology’s crystal dome. It struck the top of the Parsonage Heights tower, transmuting the carbon-concrete structure and dubious decor into a blast of ions. A twister of near-solid blue light flared up towards the dome from the skyscraper’s ruined crown.

Quinn floated down lightly through the heart of the explosion, intrigued by the level of violence storming through the physical universe outside. He’d been wondering exactly what weapon they’d use once they found him. Only an SD platform could produce such spectacular savagery.

He observed Banneth’s soul disconnect from the dispersing atoms of her body. She howled in rage as she became aware of him; the real him. Jack McGovern’s desolated soul was already slithering into the beyond.

“Nice try,” Quinn mocked. “So what are you going to do for an encore?” He extended his perception as she dwindled away, savouring her anguish and useless fury. And also . . . Out there, trembling weakly on the furthest edge of awareness, was a ragged chorus of more tenuous cries. Resonant with misery and terrible pain. Far, far away.

That was interesting.

Chapter 06

The uniform sheet of light which appeared above Norfolk to signify daytime wasn’t quite as glaring now. Although still several weeks away, the onset of autumn was plain to see for those who knew their weather lore.

Luca Comar stood at his bedroom window, looking out over the wolds as he’d done every morning at daybreak since . . . Well, every morning. There was a particularly thick mist covering the estate today. Beyond the lawns (unmown for weeks now, damn it), all he could see were the old cedars, great grey shadows guarding Cricklade’s orchards and pastures. Gravely reassuring in their size and familiarity.

It was completely still outside. A morning so insipid it couldn’t even coax native animals out of their burrows. Dewdrops cloaked every leaf, their weight bending branches out of alignment, making it seem as though every bush and tree was sagging from apathy.

“For heaven’s sake come back to bed,” Susannah grunted. “I’m cold.”

She was lying in the middle of their huge four poster bed, eyes closed, sleepily trawling the duvet back around her shoulders. Her dark hair fanned out across the rumpled pillows like a broken bird’s nest. Not as long as it used to be, he thought wistfully. The two of them getting together had been inevitable. Back together, in one respect. However you wanted to look at it, they were suited for each other. And there had been one argument too many with Lucy.

Luca went back and sat on the edge of the bed, looking down at his love. Her hand crept out from under the duvet, feeling round for him. He held it gently, and bent over to kiss her knuckles. A gesture that had carried over from their courting days. She smiled lazily.

“That’s better,” she purred. “I hate it when you leap out of bed every bloody morning.”

“I have to. The estate doesn’t run itself. Especially not now. Honestly, some of the buggers are more idle and stupid now than they were before.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“Yes it does. We still have a crop to get in. Who knows how long this winter is going to last.”

She lifted her head and peered up at him in modest confusion. “It’ll last the same time as it always does. That’s what’s right for this world, and that’s what we all feel. So that’s the way it will be. Stop worrying.”

“Yeah.” He looked back at the window again. Tempted.

She sat up and gave him a proper look. “What is it? I can sense how troubled you are. It’s not just the crops.”

“It is, partly. You and I both know that I have to be here to make sure it’s done right. Not just because they’re a bunch of slackers. They need the kind of guidance Grant can give them. Which silos are used for what, how much drying the grain should be given first.”

“Mr Butterworth can tell them that.”

“Johan, you mean.”

They managed to avoid each other’s eye. But the mild guilt was the same in both of them. Identity was a taboo topic on Norfolk these days.

“He can tell them,” Luca said. “Whether they’ll listen and actually do the work is another matter. We’ve still got a way to go before we’re one big harmonious family working for the common good.”

She grinned. “Arses need to be kicked.”

“Damn right!”

“So what’s with all the angst?”

“Days like this give me time to think. They’re so slow. There’s no urgent farmwork to do at the moment, only the pruning. And Johan can supervise that okay.”

“Ah.” She drew her knees up under her chin, and hugged them. “The girls.”

“Yeah,” he admitted sheepishly. “The girls. I hate it, you know. It means I’m more of Grant than I am of me. That I’m losing control. That can’t be right. I’m Luca; and they’re nothing to me, they’re nothing to do with me.”

“Me neither,” she said miserably. “But I think we’re fighting an instinct we can never beat. They’re the daughters of this body, Luca. And the more I settle into this body, the more it belongs to me, then the more I have to accept what comes with it. What Marjorie Kavanagh is. If I don’t, she’ll haunt me forever; and rightly so. This is supposed to be our haven. How can it be if we reject them? We will never be given peace.”

“Grant hates me. If he could put a gun to my head right now, he’d do it. Sometimes, when I’m more him than me, I think I’m going to do it. The only reason I’m still here is because he’s not ready to commit suicide yet. He desperately wants to know what’s happened to Louise and Genevieve. He wants that so bad that I do too, now. That’s why today is so tempting. I could take a horse and ride over to Knossington, there’s another aeroambulance stationed there. If it still works I could be in Norwich by evening.”

“I doubt any kind of plane would work, not here.”

“I know. Getting to Norwich by boat is going to be a hell of a lot more difficult. And then winter will make it damn near impossible. So I ought to start now.”

“But Cricklade won’t let you.”

“No. I don’t think so. I’m not sure anymore. He’s getting stronger, wearing me down.” He gave a short bitter laugh. “Taste the irony in that. The person I possess, possessing me in return. No more than I deserve, I suppose. And you know what? I do want to see that the girls are okay. Me, my own thoughts. I don’t know where that comes from. If it’s the guilt from what I tried to do to Louise, or if it is him, his first victory. Carmitha says we’re reverting. I think she could be right.”

“No she’s not, we will always be ourselves.”

“Will we?”

“Yes,” she said emphatically.

“I wish I could believe that. So much of this place isn’t what we expected. All I ever truly wanted was to be free of the beyond. Now I am, and I’m still being persecuted. Dear God, why can’t death be real? What kind of universe is this?”

“Luca, if you do go looking for the girls, I’m going with you.”

He kissed her, searching to immerse himself in normality. “Good.”

Her arms went round his neck. “Come here. Let’s celebrate being us. I know quite a few things Marjorie never did for Grant.”

Carmitha spent the morning working in the rose grove, one of a thirty-strong team gainfully employed to return Norfolk’s legendary plants to order. Because of the delay, it was harder work than usual. The flower stems had toughened, and new late-summer shoots had flourished, tangling their way through the neat wire trellises. It all had to be trimmed away, returning the plants to their original broad fan-shape. She started by deadheading each plant, then used a stepladder to reach the topmost shoots, snipping through them with a pair of heavy-duty secateurs. Long whip-like shoots fell from her snapping blades to form a considerable criss-cross pile around the foot of the steps.

She also considered that the grass between the rows had been allowed to grow too long, but held her tongue. It was enough that they were keeping the basics of her world ticking over. When the end came, and the Confederation descended out of the strange blank sky to banish the possessing souls, enough would remain for the genuine inhabitants to carry on. Never as before , but there would be a degree of continuity. The next generation would be able to build their lives over the ruins of the horror.

It was the thought she remained faithful to throughout every day. The prospect that this wouldn’t end was a weakness she could not permit herself. Somewhere on the other side of this realm’s boundary, the Confederation was still intact; its leadership pouring every ounce of effort into finding them, and with that an answer.

Her belief faltered at what that answer might be. Simply expelling the souls back into the dark emptiness of the hereafter solved nothing. Some place devoid of suffering must be found for them. They, of course, thought they’d already found it by coming here. Fools. Poor blighted, tragic fools.

Similarly, her imagination failed to embrace exactly what life on Norfolk, and the other possessed worlds, would be like afterwards. She’d always respected the mild culture of spirituality in which she’d been raised, just as the house-dwellers worshiped their Christian God. Neither gave the slightest clue how to live once you truly knew you had an immortal soul. How could anyone take physical existence seriously now they knew that? Why do anything, why achieve anything when so much more awaited? She’d always resented this world’s artificial restrictions, while admitting she could never have an alternative. “A butterfly without wings,” her grandmother used to call her. Now the doorway into an awesome, infinite freedom had been flung wide open.

And what had she done at the sight of it? Clung to this small life with a tenacity and forcefulness few others on this world had contrived. Perhaps that was going to be the way of it. A future of perpetual schizophrenia as the inner struggle between yin and yang went nuclear.

Far easier not to think about it. Yet even that was unwelcome, implying she had no mastery over her destiny. Instead, being content to await whatever fate was generously awarded by the Confederation, a charity dependant. Something else contrary to her nature. These were not the easiest of times.

She finished levelling the top of the bush and pulled a couple of recalcitrant shoots out of the thick lower branches where they’d fallen. The secateurs moved down, slicing into some of the older branches. Apart from the five main forks, a bush should be encouraged with fresh outgrowth every six years. Judging by the wizened bark and bluish algae streaks starting to bubble out of the hairline cracks, this one had been left long enough. She quickly fastened the new shoots she’d left into place, using metal ties. Her wrist moved automatically, twisting them tight, not even having to look at what she was doing. Every Norfolk child could do this in her sleep. Others in the team were tending their bushes in the same way. Instinct and tradition were still the rulers here.

Carmitha went down four rungs on the stepladder, and started cutting at the next level of branches. A little knot of foreign anxiety registered in her mind. It was gliding towards her. She hung on to a sturdy trellis upright, and leaned out to look along the row to spot the source. Lucy was running along the grass, dodging the piles of shoots, waving her arms frantically. She stopped at the foot of Carmitha’s ladder, panting heavily.

“Can you come, please,” she gasped. “Johan’s collapsed. God knows what’s the matter with him.”

“Collapsed? How?”

“I don’t know. He was in the carpentry shop for something, and the lads said he just keeled over. They couldn’t get him to stand, no matter what they did, so they made him comfortable and sent me to fetch you. Damnit, I’ve ridden the whole way out here on a bloody horse. What I wouldn’t give for a decent mobile phone.”

Carmitha climbed down the stepladder. “Did you see him?”

“Yes. He looks fine,” Lucy said a shade too quickly. “Still conscious. Just a bit weak. Been overdoing it, I expect. That bloody Luca thinks we’re all still his servants. We’re going to have to do something about that, you know.”

“Sure you are,” Carmitha said. She hurried along the row towards the thatched barn where her own horse was tethered.

When Carmitha rode into the stable she dismounted and handed the reins over to one of the non-possessed boys Butterworth/Johan had promoted to stablehand. He smiled in welcome and quietly muttered: “This has got them all shook up.”

She winked. “Too bad.”

“You gonna help him?”

“Depends what it is.” Since she’d arrived at Cricklade, a surprising number of its residents had popped over to her caravan to ask for her help with various ailments. Colds, headaches, aching limbs, sore throat, indigestion; little niggling things which their powers found hard to banish. Broken bones and cuts they could heal up, but anything internal, less immediately physical, was more troublesome. So Carmitha started dispensing her grandmother’s old herbal potions and teas. As a result, she’d taken over tending the manor’s herb garden. Many evenings were spent pounding the dried leaves with her pestle, mixing them up and pouring the resulting powders into her ancient glass jars.

More than anything, it eased her acceptance into the manor’s community. They’d rather turn to naturalistic Romany cures than consult the few qualified doctors available in the town. Properly prepared ginseng (sadly, geneered for Norfolk’s unique climate, so probably with its original properties diluted) and its botanical cousins remained preferable to the kind of medicines which Norfolk’s restricted pharmaceutical industry was licensed to produce. Not that their stocks were very large; and Luca had given up trying to negotiate more from Boston. The townies hadn’t got the factory working.

She found it strange that the simple knowledge of plants and land which was her heritage, and which had hidden her from them, had earned her their respect and thanks.

The carpentry shop was a tall single-storey stone building at the back of the manor, in amid a nest of bewilderingly similar buildings. They all looked like oversized barns to her, with high wooden shutters and steep solar-cell roofs; but they housed a wheelwright’s, a dairy, a smithy, a stonemason’s, innumerable stores, even a mushroom house. The Kavanaghs had made sure they had every craft the manor needed to be virtually independent for its basic needs.

When she arrived, several people were milling around the entrance of the carpentry shop with the embarrassed air of someone who’s been forced to endure a family row. Not wanting to be there, yet unwilling to miss out. She was greeted with relieved smiles and ushered through. The electric saws and lathes and tenoning machines were silent. The carpenters had cleared their tools and lengths of wood from one of the benches and laid Johan out on top, head propped up on spongy cushions, body wrapped in a tartan blanket. Susannah was holding a glass of ice water to his lips prompting him to drink, while Luca stood at the end of the bench, frowning down in thoughtful concern.

There was a grimace on Johan’s rounded adolescent face, turning his usual lines into deep creases. Sweat glistened on his skin, sticking his thin sandy hair to his forehead. Every few seconds a big shiver ran down his body. Carmitha put a hand on his brow. Even though she was prepared for it, she was surprised by how hot his skin was. His thoughts were a bundle of worry and determination.“Want to tell me what happened?” she asked.

“I just felt a bit faint, that’s all. I’ll be all right in a while. Just need to rest up. Food poisoning, I expect.”

“You never eat any,” Luca muttered.

Carmitha turned round to face the audience. “Okay, that’s it. Take your lunch break or something. I want some clear air in here.”

They backed out obediently. She motioned Susannah aside, then pulled the blanket off Johan. The flannel shirt under his tweed jacket was soaked with sweat, and his plus fours seemed to be adhering to his legs. He shuddered at the exposure to the air.

“Johan,” she said firmly. “Show yourself to me.”

His lips tweaked into a brave smile. “This is it.”

“No it isn’t. I want you to end this illusion right now. I have to see what’s wrong with you.” She wouldn’t let him look away from her eyes, conducting a silent power struggle with his ego.

“Okay,” Johan said eventually. His head dropped back onto the cushion in exhaustion after the small clash. It was as though a ripple of water swept down him from head to toe: a line of twisted magnification that left a wholly different image in its wake. He expanded slightly in all directions. His flesh colour lightened, revealing the veins underneath. Patchy grey stubble sprouted from his chin and jowls as he aged forty years. Both eyes seemed to sink down into his skull.

Carmitha drew in a startled breath. It was the sagging jowls which clued her in. To confirm it, she unbuttoned his shirt. Johan wasn’t quite a classic famine victim; their skin was stretched tight over the skeleton, with muscles reduced to thin strings wound round their limbs. He had plenty of loose flesh, so much it hung off him in drooping folds. It was as if his skeleton had shrunk, leaving a sack of skin that was three sizes too big.

There were big hints that this wasn’t just caused by lack of eating. The folds of flesh were strangely stiff, arranged in patterns that mocked the muscle pattern belonging to an exceptionally toned twenty-five-year-old. Some of the ridges were pink, as if rubbed sore; in several places they were so red she suspected they were long blood blisters.

Shame welled up in Johan’s mind, responding to the dismay and tinges of disgust in the three people surrounding him. The emotional oscillation was so powerful Carmitha had to sit on the edge of the bench beside him. What she wanted to do was turn and leave.

“You wanted to be young again,” she said quietly. “Didn’t you?”

“We’re building paradise,” he told her in desperation. “We can be whatever we want to be. It only takes a thought.”

“No,” Carmitha said. “It takes a lot more than that. You haven’t even got a society that functions as well as Norfolk’s old one.”

“This is different,” Johan insisted. “We’re changing our lives and this world together.”

Carmitha bent over the trembling man until her face was a couple of inches from his. “You’re changing nothing. You are killing yourself.”

“There’s no death here,” Susannah said sharply.

“Really?” Carmitha asked. “How do you know?”

“We don’t want death here, so there is none.”

“We’re in a different place. Not a different existence. This is a giant step back from reality. It won’t last; it’s built on a wish, not a fact.”

“We’re here for eternity,” Susannah said gruffly. “Get used to it.”

“You think Johan is going to survive eternity? I’m not even sure I can get him through another week. Look at him, take a bloody good look. This is what your ridiculous powers have reduced him to; this . . . wreck. You haven’t been granted the power to work miracles, all you can do is corrupt nature.”

“I’m not going to die,” Johan wheezed. “Please.” His hand gripped Carmitha’s arm, a hot, damp pressure. “You have to stop this. Make me better.”

Carmitha gently pulled herself free. She started to study his self-inflicted impairments properly, trying to work out what the hell she could realistically achieve. “Most of the healing will be up to you. Even so, this convalescence will stretch the concept of holistic medicine to its limit.”

“I’ll do anything. Anything!”

“Humm.” She ran her hand over his chest, tracing the creases in the flesh, testing them for firmness as she would ripe fruit. “Okay. How old are you?”

“What?” he asked, bewildered.

“Tell me how old you are. You see, I know already. I’ve been coming to this estate for the rose season for over fifteen years now. My earliest recollection is of Mr Butterworth supervising the grove teams. He was the estate manager even back then. He was a good one, too; never shouted, always knew what to say to get people going, never treated the Romanies different to anyone else. I always remember him dressed in his tweeds and yellow waistcoat; when I was five I thought he was king of the world he looked so fine and jolly. And he knew the way Cricklade worked better than anyone other than the Kavanaghs. None of that happens overnight. So now you tell me, Johan, I want to hear it from your own mouth; how old are you?”

“Sixty-eight,” he whispered. “I’m sixty-eight Earth years old.”

“And how much do you weigh when you’re healthy?”

“Fifteen and a half stone.” He was silent for a moment. “My hair’s grey, too, not blond. I don’t have much of it anyway.” The confession relaxed him slightly.

“That’s good. You’re beginning to understand. You must accept what you are, and rejoice in it. You were a soul tormented by emptiness, now you have a body again. One that can provide you with every sensation that was taken from you in the beyond. What it looks like is a supreme irrelevance. Allow the flesh to be what it is. Hide from nothing. I know, it’s tough. You thought this place was the solution to everything. Admitting it isn’t to yourself will be difficult, coming to believe it even more so. But you must learn to accept your new self, and the limitations Butterworth’s body imposes. He had a good life before, there’s no reason why that can’t continue.”

Johan was trying to appear reasonable. “But how long for?” he asked.

“His ancestors were geneered, I expect. Most colonists were. So he’ll last decades more at least, providing you don’t pull a stunt like this again.”

“Decades.” His voice was bitter with defeat.

“Or days if you don’t start to believe in yourself again. You have to help me help you, Johan. I’m not joking. I won’t even waste my time with you if you don’t stop dreaming that you’re destined for immortality.”

“I’ll do it,” he said. “I really will.”

She patted him comfortingly, and drew the blanket back up. “Very well, you lie here for now. Luca will arrange for some of the lads to carry you back to your room. I’m going to go over to the kitchen and have a word with cook about what sort of foods she’s got available. We’ll start off giving you plenty of small meals each day. I want to avoid putting any sudden stress on your digestive system. But it’s important we get some decent nutrition back into you.”

“Thank you.”

“There are some treatments I can use which will make this easier for you. They’ll need preparing. We’ll make a start this afternoon.”

She left the carpentry shop, and walked back to the manor’s rear courtyard. Cricklade’s kitchen was a long rectangular room, bridging the gap between the west wing’s storerooms and the main hall. Tiled with plain black and white marble, one wall was lined with a ten-oven Aga radiating a fierce heat that the open windows couldn’t eradicate. Two of Cook’s assistants were taking loaves from the baking ovens and knocking them out of their tins onto wire racks below a window. Three more assistants were busy by the row of Belfast sinks, chopping vegetables ready for the evening meal. Cook herself was supervising a butcher who was cutting up a sheep carcass on the central island. Copper-bottomed pots and pans of every size and shape dangled from a large suspended rack overhead like segments of a polished halo. Carmitha had hung bunches of her herbs between the pots along the side facing the Aga, helping them to dry faster.

She waved at Cook and went over to Véronique who was sitting at the last Belfast sink, scraping carrots on the wooden chopping board. “How’s it going?” Carmitha asked.

Véronique smiled, and put a hand worshipfully on her heavily pregnant stomach. “I can’t believe he hasn’t started yet. I need to take a pee every ten minutes. Are you sure it wasn’t twins?”

“You can sense him for yourself now.” Carmitha slid her hand over the baby, experiencing only warm contentment. Véronique was possessing the body of Olive Fenchurch, a nineteen-year-old maid who had married her estate worker love about two hundred days ago. A short engagement, followed by an equally short, if biologically improbable, pregnancy. For here she was about to give birth with nearly seventy days’ gestation misplaced. A common occurrence on Norfolk.

“I don’t like to,” Véronique said shyly. “It’s like bad luck, or something.”

“Well take it from me, he’s just fine. When he wants to make a move, he’ll let us all know.”

“I hope it’s soon.” The girl shifted uncomfortably on the wooden chair. “My back’s killing me, and my legs ache.”

Carmitha smiled in sympathy. “I’ll come and rub some peppermint oil into your feet this evening. That should perk you up.”

“Ohooo thank you. You have the most cleverest hands.” It was almost as if the possession hadn’t taken. Véronique had such a quiet, gentle nature, nervously trying to please, so very similar to Olive. She’d once confessed to Carmitha that she’d died in some kind of accident. She wouldn’t say how old she’d been, but Carmitha suspected early to mid teens; there had been occasional mention of bullies at her day-club.

Now her French accent was blending with a raw Norfolk dialect. An unusual combination, although mellow enough to the ear. The rich Norfolk vowels became more pronounced each day; rising as the turmoil endemic to possessed minds shrank away inside her. Carmitha had a strong suspicion about that as well.

“Did you hear about Mr Butterworth?” she asked.

“Why yes,” Véronique said. “Is he all right?”

Interesting that she doesn’t think of him as Johan, Carmitha thought; then felt shabby at such a feeble trick. “Just a bit wonky, that all. Mostly because he hasn’t been eating properly. I’ll fix him up all right, which is why I’m here. I need you to make up some oils for me.”

“I’d love to.”

“Thanks. I want some crab-apple; there are plenty of those in store so it shouldn’t be a problem. Some bergamot, remember that’s to be made mainly from the rind. And we’ll need angelica, too; that can help to rouse his appetite; so I’ll need a fresh batch each day. Then when he’s recovering we can apply avocado to improve his skin tone, help his self-esteem that way.”

“I’ll get right on to it.” Véronique glanced at the door and blushed.

Carmitha saw Luca standing in the doorway, watching them. “I’ll be back for them in a little while,” she told the girl.

“You think all that’s going to help?” Luca asked as she brushed past him into the utility corridor running the length of the west wing.

“Careful,” she said. “You nearly said: that rubbish.”

“But I didn’t though, did I?”

“No. Not this time.”

“Three of the lads took him upstairs. Doesn’t look very good, does it? I mean, the state of him!”

“Depends on your attitude.” She went out into the courtyard with Luca trailing behind. Her caravan was standing close to the gates, curtains drawn and door shut. Still her small fortress against this realm. It was more her world than the planet was now.

“All right, I’m sorry,” Luca called. “You should know by now what I’m like.”

She leant against the front wheel and grinned wickedly. “Which one of you, my lord, sir?”

“That’s got to be quits.”

“Maybe.”

“So, please, what are the oils for?”

“Mainly aromatherapy massage, though I’ll use some in his bath as well; probably a lavender.”

“Massage?” The doubt was back.

“Look, even if we had Confederation medical technology, that’s not the whole story, not in this case. There’s more to curing people than slamming their biochemistry back into gear, you know. That’s always been scientific medicine’s problem, it’s only interested in the physical. Johan must fight this affliction both within and without. That’s not his original body, and the instinct to shape it into what he remembers as his own form must be broken. Powerful physical contact, exemplified by massage, can put him in touch with this body. I can make him acknowledge it, end this resentment and subconscious rejection. That’s where the oils come in; a crab-apple base is an excellent relaxant. The two combined should ease his acceptance of his true existence.”

“Amazing. You sound like an expert on the subject of possessed body rejection.”

“I’m adapting several old methods. There are some strong precedents here. This is not too dissimilar from classic anorexia.”

“Oh, come on!”

“I’m speaking the truth. In a lot of cases, young girls simply couldn’t come to terms with their developing sexuality. They tried to regain the body they’d lost by slimming themselves back down to what they were, with disastrous consequences. Now here on this planet, you all firmly believe you’ve become angels or godlings or crap like that. You think this is a real garden of Eden, and you’re the immortal youths frolicking around the fountain. Like a politician believing her own bullshit, you’ve convinced yourselves your illusions are as strong as reality. They’re not.”

His smile was devoid of conviction. “We can create. You know that. You’ve done it yourself.”

“I’ve carved matter, that’s all. Taken a magic invisible blade held firmly in my mind, and whittled away until I’m left with the shape I want. The nature of that matter always remains the same.” She glanced around the courtyard at the usual midday loungers taking their break in the small pools of shade close to the walls. Several sets of eyes were watching them idly. “Come inside,” she said.

Even with all that time sitting quiet in the forest, and her new powers, she hadn’t quite got round to tidying the caravan. Luca looked round politely as she cleared some clothes off her chair, and gestured him to sit. She took the bed. “I didn’t say anything in front of Susannah, but I suppose I’ve got to tell someone.”

“What?” he enquired charily.

“I don’t think it was entirely malnutrition. I could feel hard lumps of flesh under his skin. If he wasn’t so obviously wasting away, I’d say new muscle was growing. Except, it didn’t feel like muscle tissue, either.” She bit her lip. “That doesn’t leave a lot of choices.”

It took Luca a long time to link up what she was saying. Mostly because he was desperate to avoid the conclusion. “Tumours?” he said softly.

“I’ll give him a proper examination when I give him his first massage. But I don’t know what else it can be. And, Luca, there’s a fuck of a lot of it.”

“Oh Jesus H Christ. You can cure it, right? The Confederation doesn’t have cancer like we did in my day.”

“The Confederation can deal with it, yes. But there’s no single solution, no Twenty-seventh Century pill I can whip up a formula for and crank out in a chemistry lab. It needs working medical nanonics, and people who know how to use them. Norfolk never had any of that to start with. I think you’ll have to start calling in qualified doctors. This is all way outside my league.”

“Oh shit.” He held his hands up in front of his face, fingers held wide. They were shaking. “We can’t go back. We just can’t.”

“Luca, you’ve been changing your body as well. Nothing like as bad as Johan. But you’ve been doing it. Smoothing out the wrinkles, tucking in the old gut. If you’d like me to examine you, I’ll do it now. No one has to know.”

“No.”

For the first time, she felt sorry for him. “Okay. If you change your mind . . .” She started opening the caravan’s little wooden cupboards, preparing the items she wanted to take up to Johan’s room.

“Carmitha?” Luca asked softly. “What the hell were you doing, going to bed with Grant for money?”

“What the fuck kind of question is that?”

“You know exactly what I mean. A girl like you. You’re smart, young, you’re bloody attractive. You could take your pick of any young man you wanted, even from landowner families. That’s been known. Why that?”

Her arm shot out, and she caught his chin in a tight grip, making it impossible for him to look away from her furious expression. “This day’s been a long time coming, Grant.”

“I’m not—”

“Shut up. You are him, or at least you’re listening. And this time you can’t close your mind. You’re too desperate for any sight of outside. Isn’t that right?”

He could only grunt as her fingers squeezed tighter.

“He made you think, didn’t he? That Luca. Made you stop and take a look around your precious world. Well he’s right to ask, why did I have to whore myself with you? The reason I did it is easy enough. You admire my independence, my free spirit. Well that independence costs. It would take me an entire season tending the groves to earn enough money to replace a single wheel on this caravan. One broken wheel, one half hidden rock in the mud, and my freedom is taken away from me. The rim is made from tythorn, I can saw and plane a new section for myself if I have a mishap. But the bearings and spring-spokes are made in your factories. And we need sprung wheels because there aren’t any proper roads. You don’t build them, do you, because you want everyone to use the trains. If people had cars, that would skew the whole economy away from you, your ideal. And I’m not even going to go into how much a horse like Olivier costs to buy and feed. So there’s your answer, plain to see. I do it for the money, because I have no choice. I was born your whore. You’ve made everybody on this planet your whores. Your landowner freedoms are bought at our expense. I let you have me, because you would pay well, that gratuity you so kindly leave behind means I don’t have to do it often. You’re a commodity, Grant, you and the other landowners. You’re valuable currency, nothing more.” She shoved him away hard. The back of his head cracked into the curving planks of the caravan, making him yelp and wince. When he put his hand round to dab at his skull, it came away with a smear of blood. He gave her a frightened look.

“Heal yourself,” she told him. “Then get out.”

For a city which banned all commercial overflights, there were a surprising number of skywatchers in Nova Kong. Their attention was inevitably directed at the Apollo Palace, charting the movements of the ion flyers, planes, and spaceplanes which came and went from the building’s landing pads and courtyards. The volume, arrival time, and marque of vehicles was a good indicator of the kind of diplomatic and crisis management activity being dealt with by the Saldana family staff. Kulu’s communication net even had a couple of very unofficial bulletin sites devoted to the topic; carefully monitored by the ISA to make sure no active sensors were being used.

With the onset of the possession crisis, the skywatch enthusiasts gave the palace airspace the kind of coverage matched only by the city’s defence array sensors. Civilian craft such as those used by junior ministers and waggish royal cousins had vanished. Now it was only military vehicles darting in and out among the ornate rotundas and stone chimney stacks. Even so, their squadron insignias gave some clues away about their passengers and cargo. The gossip bulletins were well served by the skywatchers (with a few contributions of ISA disinformation).

This particular morning when the city was overcast with grey clouds sprinkling sleet across the boulevards and parks, they faithfully recorded the arrival of four flyers from the Royal Marine 585 Squadron in amongst the twenty other landings. 585’s dedicated role was logistics, a description broad enough to cover many sins. As a consequence their presence went unremarked.

Also unremarked was the arrival over the previous thirty-hour period of warships from (among other planets) Oshanko, New Washington, Petersburg, and Nanjing, which were now parked in low equatorial orbit. They had brought respectively, Prince Tokama, Vice-President Jim Sanderson, Prime Minister Korzhenev, and deputy speaker Ku Rongi. Such was the secrecy surrounding the high-power guests that not even the Kulu Foreign Ministry had been notified; certainly the embassies of the planets concerned knew nothing.

It was left to the Prime Minister, Lady Phillipa Oshin, to greet them as their flyers touched down in an inner quadrangle one after the other. She smiled with polite firmness as a Royal Marine tested each guest for static, which they accepted with equal aplomb. The palace cloisters were unusually empty as she escorted them to the King’s private study. Alaistair II rose from the deep chair behind his desk to give them a more cordial welcome. There was a fierce log fire burning in the grate, repelling the chill which washed off the frozen quadrangle outside the French windows. The chestnut trees around the prim lawn were denuded of leaves, leaving the branches glinting under encrustations of ice like clustered quartz.

Lady Phillipa sat at the side of the desk next to the Duke of Salion; while the guests were in green leather chairs facing Alaistair.

“Thank you all for coming,” the King said.

“Your ambassador said it was important,” Jim Sanderson said. “And our diplomatic relationship is old and valuable enough to get you my ass over here. Though I have to say I should be back home where I’m visible to the voters. This crisis is about appearing confident more than anything.”

“I understand,” Alaistair said. “If I might make an observation, the crisis is now developing outside the arena of public confidence.”

“Yeah, we heard Mortonridge is in trouble.”

“The rate of advance has slowed down after Ketton,” the Duke of Salion admitted. “But we are still gaining ground and de-possessing the inhabitants.”

“Good for you. What’s that got to do with us? You’ve already had as much help as we can reasonably provide.”

“We believe the time has come to make some positive decisions on the policies we adopt to defeat the possessed.”

Korzhenev grunted in amusement. “So you called us here in secret to discuss this action rather than take it to the Assembly? I feel as if I am a member of some old cabal plotting revolution.”

“You are,” the King said. Korzhenev’s smile faded.

“The Confederation is failing,” the Duke of Salion told the surprised guests. “The economies of the developed worlds like ours are suffering badly from the civil starflight quarantine. Stage two planets are paralysed. Capone has acted with singular brilliance with his infiltration flights and the strike against Trafalgar. Our populations are in a state of physical and emotional siege. Quarantine-busting flights continue to spread possession slowly but surely. And now Earth, the industrial and military core of the entire Confederation, has been infected. Without Earth on our side, the whole equation is changed. We must take its loss into account if we are to survive.”

“Just hold on there a minute,” Jim Sanderson said. “The possessed have got a toehold in a couple of arcologies, is all. You can’t sign Earth off that easily. GISD is one tough mother of an agency, they’ll crack whatever heads they have to in order to clear the possessed out.”

Alaistair looked at the Duke, and nodded permission.

“According to our GISD contact, there are now at least five arcologies host to the possessed.”

Prince Tokama raised an eyebrow. “You are well informed, sir. I had not been told of this development before I left Oshanko.”

“Half of the Royal Navy auxiliary vessels are doing nothing but running round on courier duty for us,” the Duke said. “We’re keeping as current as we can, but even that information is a couple of days old now. According to the report, the worst situation is in New York, but the other four arcologies will fall within weeks at the most. Govcentral has been commendably quick in closing down the vac-train routes, but we believe that ultimately the possessed will spread to the remaining arcologies as well. If anyone is capable of surviving Earth’s climate without technological protection, it is a possessed.”

“And that isn’t even the big problem,” Alaistair said. “Lalonde’s population was roughly twenty million, of which we can assume a minimum of eighty-five per cent were possessed. Between them, they had enough energistic power to snatch the planet from this universe. New York’s official population is three hundred million. By themselves they have more than enough power to remove Earth. They won’t even have to wait until the other arcologies are taken over.”

“A valid observation, however, the Halo will surely remain,” Ku Rongi said. “That is the main source of commerce with the Confederation. Trade with the Sol system will be diminished, not erased.”

“Hopefully, yes,” the Duke said. “Our GISD contact says they don’t yet understand how the possessed penetrated Earth’s defences. So the possibility exists that they may be able to spread among the Halo asteroids as well. The other problem facing the Halo is that when the Earth is removed to some other realm, its gravity field will go with it. The Halo asteroids will physically disperse.”

“Very well,” Prince Tokama said. “I am sure your analysists have produced a definitive report on the outcome of these events. So assuming we are deprived of Earth, and at least some of the Halo’s resources, what do you see as the most effective policy to proceed with?”

“Olton Haaker and the Polity Council have just ordered a full scale Confederation Navy attack against Capone’s fleet,” the Duke said. “It should close down the Organization’s rule, and allow the possessed on New California to do what comes naturally. They’ll shunt it away, thus eliminating the threat of any further infiltration flights and antimatter terrorism. What we propose is taking that policy to its conclusion.”

“The industrialized star systems should align themselves into a core-Confederation,” Lady Phillipa said. “At the moment we’re dangerously overstretched trying to enforce the quarantine and supporting actions like Mortonridge. The cost simply cannot be sustained, not with the economic slowdown we’re all suffering from. If we contract our spheres of influence, the cost is considerably reduced, and the effectiveness of our military forces in maintaining security over a smaller volume of space is correspondingly improved. Given that increased security, we could begin trading among ourselves again.”

“You mean no one else would be allowed to fly in?”

“Essentially, yes. We would extend the government authorization process we have in place today to cover commercial starships. Any vessel registered in one of the secured star systems would be allowed to resume flying between systems, subject to a reasonable security inspection. Ships which came from unsecured systems would not be permitted to dock. In other words, we stake out our perimeter and guard it very well indeed.”

“And the other planets?” Korzhenev enquired. “The ones we leave out in the cold. What do you foresee for them?”

“They’re the principal source of our trouble in the first place,” the Duke said. “They do not police their asteroid settlements effectively, which encourages quarantine-busting flights and with them the prospect of possessed getting loose inside another star system.”

“So we just abandon them?”

“By withdrawing our present unconditional military support, they will be forced into taking the responsibility they’ve so far avoided. With the present quarantine in force, their marginal industrial asteroid settlements are inviolable anyway. In effect, we have been subsidising their suspended status for the owners. Once that situation is ended, the asteroids will be mothballed and their populations returned to the home star system’s terracompatible planet. In itself that will considerably reduce the number of routes by which the possessed can continue to spread. We may even rid ourselves of their incursion into this universe entirely. If they see they cannot reach fresh planets, then those who remain will take themselves away to this new realm of theirs.”

“Then what?” Jim Sanderson asked. “Okay, we regain most of what we’ve lost in financial terms. I’m in favour of that. But it doesn’t solve anything long term. Even if the possessed clear out and leave us alone, we still have to consider the bodies, the people , they’ve stolen and enslaved. There’s hundreds of millions of them depending on us to rescue them, billions probably by now. That’s a healthy percentage of our whole species. We can’t ignore that. The whole issue of souls and what happens to us after death has got to be thoroughly addressed. That’s what I was hoping for when I came here today, something new.”

“If there was an easy solution we would have found it by now,” the King said. “The amount of research and effort focused on this is like no other endeavour in our history. Every university, every company and military laboratory, every febrile mind in eight hundred inhabited star systems has been working on it. The best anybody has come up with is the possibility of a doomsday anti-memory for the souls in the beyond. One can hardly consider such mass slaughter as a valid answer, even if it can be made to work. We have to start looking at this from a different angle altogether. In order to do that, we must have stability and a reasonable degree of prosperity as an umbrella to work under. Society will have to change in many ways; most of which will be profoundly unsettling. One doesn’t even know if it will ultimately reinforce or obliterate our faith in God.”

“I can see the logic in what you’re saying,” Korzhenev said. “But what about the Assembly and the Confederation Navy itself? They exist to protect all planets equally.”

“Bottom line,” Lady Phillipa said, “is that he who pays the piper . . . and those of us in this room do pay a considerable amount. We’re not abandoning anybody, we’re restructuring policy to a more realistic response towards this crisis. If it could be solved quickly, then all we’d need is the quarantine and a few interdiction flights. As that quite obviously hasn’t happened, we are going to have to take the tough decision and settle in for the long haul. This is the only way we can offer those already possessed with any prospect of regaining their own identities one day.”

“How many other star systems do you envisage joining this core-Confederation?” Prince Tokama asked.

“We believe ninety-three systems have the kind of fully developed technoindustrial infrastructure to qualify for admission. We don’t envisage this as being a small elite. Our fiscal analysis shows that many stars would be able to sustain a modest but steady economic growth pattern between themselves.”

“Do you envisage asking the Edenists to join?” Ku Rongi asked.

“Of course,” the King replied. “In fact we took inspiration from them. After Pernik they have demonstrated an admirable resolution in safeguarding their habitats from infiltration. That’s precisely the kind of determination we wish to institute among ourselves. If the stage two planets and developing asteroids had done the same right from the start, we wouldn’t even be in this appalling position.”

Jim Sanderson looked round the three other guests, then turned back to the King. “Okay, I’ll brief the President and tell him it gets my vote. It ain’t what I wanted, but at least it’s something practical.”

“My honourable father will be informed,” Prince Tokama said. “He will need to bring your proposal to the attention of the Imperial Court, but I can see no problem if enough planets can be convinced.”

Korzhenev and Ku Rongi gave their assent, promising to take the proposal to their governments. The King shook hands and had a few personal words of thanks with each as they were ushered out. He didn’t hurry them, but time was important; the next four senior representatives were due in an hour. Five Eighty-five Squadron had a busy three days scheduled.

A hundred and eighty-seven wormhole termini opened with impressive synchronization a quarter of a million kilometres away from Arnstat, directly between the planet and its sun. Voidhawks emerged from the gaps and immediately established a defence sphere formation five thousand kilometres in diameter, scanning space with their distortion fields and electronic sensors for any sign of nearby technological activity. They detected the planet’s SD platforms, of course; a much-depleted network in the aftermath of the Organization’s successful invasion. Nonetheless, local sensor satellites had already discovered them, and the remaining high-orbit platforms were locking on. The SD network was reinforced by Organization fleet warships, of which there were a hundred and eighteen currently in orbit, along with twenty-three hellhawks and a token half-dozen new low-orbit platforms ferried in from New California which were principally used to enforce Organization rule on the ground. Their presence, especially in conjunction with the antimatter combat wasps which some of them carried, had effectively upgraded the planetary defence shield to the same level as it had been with a full SD network.

Capone and Emmet Mordden were satisfied the Organization could defeat any task force of warships the Confederation sent in an attempt to reclaim space above the Arnstat. In any case, it was only the Organization’s dominance of that space which prevented the planet from being taken out of the universe by the possessed on the surface, effectively stymieing the First Admiral.

True, there had been an considerable increase in lightning raids recently: voidhawks swallowing in to shoot off combat wasps and stealth munitions. But few of the missiles had ever hit a target; interception rate was over ninety-five per cent. The state of constant alert had given the crews operating the sensor satellites a high proficiency rating. Complemented by the hellhawks’ distortion fields, they were confident nothing could get close enough to the orbiting asteroid settlements or industrial stations to inflict any kind of serious damage.

Nothing happened for the first two minutes after the voidhawks emerged. Both sides were searching for clues to see what the other was going to do. The Organization chief didn’t know what to make of it. A voidhawk force in this formation was normally a securement operation, enabling a larger fleet of Adamist warships to jump in with impunity. But a hundred and eighty-seven was a colossal number for a beachhead detachment, more likely to be the task force in its entirety. The distance was also puzzling: at the moment they were outside effective combat wasp engagement range. But antimatter combat wasps would give the Organization an advantage, allowing them to engage the attackers first as they flew in towards the planet.

The voidhawks confirmed the Organization was unable to reach them—unless the hellhawks chose to swallow up for a confrontation. None of them did. More wormhole termini started to open. Then the first Adamist ship emerged in the middle of the defence sphere formation.

Admiral Kolhammer was using the battleship Illustrious as his flagship. Its size permitted him to carry a full complement of tactical staff, and provided them with a fully fledged C&C compartment independent of the bridge. No ship in the Confederation Navy was better suited to coordinating an attacking force of this magnitude. Though even with the number of antenna which Illustrious boasted, the tactical staff were hard pressed to establish and maintain communication with all the thousand-plus ships under his command.

Emphasising the monumental strength they represented, it took the task force over thirty-five minutes to complete their emergence manoeuvre. To the officers and crew of the Organization fleet it seemed as though the torrent of ships would never end.

Kolhammer’s staff began datavising ships with new vectors as soon as they established contact. Fusion drives blinked on, powering the task force into a giant disk formation. So many plasma exhausts concentrated in one place produced a blazing purple-white haze brighter than the sun. People on the surface of the planet could see the attackers as a coin-sized patch flowering open against the centre of the dazzling photosphere, an unnerving portent of what was to come.

Eight hundred Adamist warships formed the nucleus of the new attack formation, while five hundred voidhawks flocked around their periphery. Once their relative positions were locked, the main drives burst into life, accelerating the ships in towards the planet at eight gees. Voidhawks expanded their distortion fields and matched the acceleration of their technological comrades.

The gigantic neuroiconic display wheeled slowly inside Motela Kolhammer’s mind, each ship a pinprick of golden light trailing a purple vector tag in a headlong rush to the solid bulk of the planet ahead, represented by a blank, ebony sphere. The strength of the planetary defence layers were illustrated by translucent coloured shells wrapped around the blackness. The ships still had some way to go before the outermost, yellow shell. And still neither side had fired a shot.

The simulation put him in mind of a hammer descending on an egg, rendered with impossibly delicate artistry for what it actually portrayed. Even he was dismayed at the level of violence to be unleashed when those two forces collided in the physical world. Something he never expected. But the tradition of the Confederation Navy was to prevent exactly this kind of monstrosity from happening, not to instigate it. He couldn’t help the guilt which came from knowing this was happening because politicians considered the Navy had failed in their principal duty.

Stranger than that, the knowledge and its burden was bearable because of those politicians. The very people who had declared the attack had made it possible to do so with minimal casualties—on the Navy’s side. By insisting on total success, the Polity Council had given Kolhammer the one thing all military commanders crave before battle is joined: overwhelming firepower.

Kolhammer’s task force accelerated towards Arnstat at a constant eight gees for thirty minutes. When he gave the order for the starships to switch off their drives, they were still 110,000 kilometres out, just on the fringes of the outer SD network, and travelling at over 150 kilometres per second. Frigates, battleships, and voidhawks fired a salvo of 25 combat wasps each. Every drone was pre-programmed to operate in an autonomous seek-and-destroy mode. A perfect engagement scenario: any chunk of matter above Arnstat, from pebble-sized interplanetary meteorites to kilometre-long industrial stations, MSVs to asteroids, was classified as hostile. The Confederation Navy ships didn’t have to stay to supervise the attack over encrypted communications links, there would be no salvos of Organization antimatter combat wasps fired at their ships to counter, no 12-gee evasive manoeuvres. No risk.

Adamist warships began to jump away. Wormhole interstices were prised open, carrying some of the voidhawks to their rendezvous coordinates. Only the Illustrious, 10 escort frigates, and 300 accompanying voidhawks remained to observe the outcome. All of them now decelerating at 10 gees as the armada of 32,000 combat wasps swept on ahead, accelerating at a full 25 gees.

It was a clash which had one outcome from the moment it was instigated. Even with over 500 antimatter combat wasps available, the Organization could do nothing to stop the incoming weapons. Not only did the Confederation have an incredible weight of numbers on their side; the ever-increasing velocity at which they were approaching gave them an overwhelming kinetic advantage. Kills could only be achieved by a first-time direct hit; no defending submunition would have a second chance.

The hellhawks swallowed out en masse without even bothering to consult Arnstat’s SD command. Organization frigates began to retract their sensor booms and communication dishes down into their hull recesses prior to jumping clear. Those assigned to low-orbit enforcement duty began to accelerate at high gees, striving for an altitude where they could use their patterning nodes successfully.

Voidhawk distortion fields examined the pressure which the Organization frigates applied against space-time in order to escape. Each combination of energy compression and trajectory was unique, allowing for only one possible emergence coordinate. Three voidhawks swallowed away in pursuit of each Organization ship, with orders to interdict and destroy. With the Adamist warships needing several seconds after emergence to extend their sensors, the voidhawks would have a small window when their target was utterly defenceless. Kolhammer was determined none of them should return to New California to bolster Capone’s strength and add their antimatter to his stockpile.

The combat wasps in the attacking swarm began to dispense their submunitions, stretching a dense filigree of white fire across space for tens of thousands of kilometres. Brief, tiny pulses of glowing violet gas spewed out at random as the SD network’s outer sensor satellites detonated. Then the explosions began to multiply as more and more of Arnstat’s hardware was obliterated. The swarm swept across the first of the planet’s four asteroid settlements circling above geosynchronous orbit, overwhelming its short-range defences. Kinetic spears and nuclear-tipped submunitions pummelled the rock, biting out hundreds of irradiated craters. Vast cataracts of ions and magma flared away into space from each impact, the asteroid’s rotation curving them sharply to wrap itself in a thick psychedelic chromosphere. Second-tier SD platforms and inter-orbit shuttles were caught next. They were followed by another of the asteroids. For a moment it looked as though the pure savagery of the weapons had somehow ignited a fission reaction within the rock’s atomic structure. The lush stipple of explosions melded into a single radiative discharge of stellar intensity. Then the light’s uniformity cracked. At its core the asteroid had shattered, releasing a deluge of molten debris, kicking off a wave of cascade explosions as each fresh target was intercepted by the submunitions.

Pressed deep into his acceleration couch by air molecules heavier than lead, Motela Kolhammer watched the results through a combination of optical sensor datavises and tactical graphic overlays. The two were becoming indistinguishable as reality began to imitate the electronic displays. Distinct shells of light were enveloping the planet as clouds of plasma cooled and expanded. It was low orbit, inevitably, where the largest number of vehicles, stations, and SD hardware was emplaced. Consequently, when the submunitions tore through them, the resultant blastwaves became a mantle of solid light that sealed the entire planet away from outside observation.

Beneath it, wreckage fell to earth in bewitchingly attractive pyrotechnic storms. Streaks of ionic flame tore through the upper atmosphere, a sleet of malignant shooting stars heating the stratosphere to furnace temperatures. A potent crimson glow rose up from the clouds to greet them.

Illustrious raced 80,000 kilometres over the south pole as the possessed on the ground chanted their spell. First warning came when the planetary gravity field quaked, warping the battleship’s trajectory by several metres. The shroud of light around Arnstat never faded; it merely changed colour, rippling through the spectrum towards resplendent violet as it contracted. Optical-spectrum sensors had to bring several shield filters on line during the last few minutes as the source shrank towards its vanishing point.

Motela Kolhammer kept one optical sensor aligned on the accusingly empty zone as the battleship’s radar and gravitonic sensors scanned space for any sign of the planet’s mass. Every result came in negative. “Tell our escort to jump to the task force rendezvous coordinate,” he told the tactical staff. “Then plot a course for New California.”

Sarha fell through the open hatchway into the captain’s cabin, ignoring the dark composite ladder and allowing the half-gee acceleration to pull her down neatly onto the decking. She landed, flexing her knees gracefully.

“Ballet really missed out when you chose astroengineering at university,” Joshua said. He was standing in the middle of the room, dressed in his shorts and towelling off a liberal smearing of lemon-scented gel.

She gave him a hoydenish grin. “I know how to exploit low-gee to my advantage.”

“I hope Ashly appreciates it.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Humm. So how are we doing?”

“Official end of duty watch report, sir. We’re doing the same as yesterday.” Her salute lacked efficiency.

“Which was the same as the day before.”

“Damn right. Oh, I tracked down the leak in that reaction mass feed pipe. Somebody slacked off when the tanks were installed in the cargo holds, a junction was misaligned. Beaulieu says she’ll get on it later today. In the meantime I isolated the pipe; we have enough redundancy to keep the flow at optimum.”

“Yeah, right, fascinating.” He balled the towel and chucked it in a low arc across the cabin. It landed dead centre on the hopper’s open throat and slithered down.

She watched it vanish. “I want to keep the fluid volume up. We might wind up needing it.”

“Sure. How were Liol’s jumps?” He already knew, of course; Lady Mac ’s log was the first thing he’d checked when he woke up. Liol had completed five jumps on the last watch, each essentially flawless according to the flight computer. That wasn’t quite the point.

“Fine.”

“Humm.”

“All right, what’s the matter? I thought the two of you were getting on okay these days. You can hardly fault his performance.”

“I’m not.” He fished a clean sweatshirt out of a locker. “It’s just that I’m asking a lot of people for advice and opinions these days. Not a good development for a captain. I’m supposed to make perfect snap judgements.”

“If you ask me a question about guiding Lady Mac I’ll be worried. Anything else . . .” Her hand waved limply, wafting air about. “You and I bounced around in that zero-gee cage enough to start with. I know you don’t connect the same way most people do. So if you want help with that, I’m your girl.”

“What do you mean, don’t connect?”

“Joshua, you were scavenging the Ruin Ring when you were eighteen. That’s not natural. You should have been out partying.”

“I partied.”

“No, you screwed a lot of girls between flights.”

“That’s what eighteen-year-olds do.”

“That’s what eighteen-year-old boys dream of doing. Adamist ones, anyway. Everyone else is busy falling helter skelter into the adult world and desperately trying to find out how the hell it works, and why it’s all so difficult and painful. How you handle friendships, relationships, breakups; that kind of thing.”

“You make it sound like we have to pass some kind of exam.”

“We do, though sitting it lasts for most of your life. You haven’t even started revising yet.”

“Jesus. This is all very profound, especially at this time of the morning. What are you trying to tell me?”

“Nothing. You’re the one that’s troubled. I damn well know it’ll be nothing to do with our mission. So I guess I’m trying to coax you into telling me what’s on your mind, and convince you it’s okay to talk about it. People do that when they’re close. It’s normal.”

“Ballet and psychology, huh?”

“You signed me up for my multi-tasking.”

“All right,” Joshua said. She was right, it was hard for him to talk about this. “It’s Louise.”

“Ah! The Norfolk babe. The very young one.”

“She’s not . . .” he began automatically. Sarha’s lack of expression stopped him. “Well, she is a bit young. I think I sort of took advantage.”

“Oh wow. I never thought the day would come when I heard you say that. Exactly why is it bothering you this time? You use your status like a stun gun.”

“I do not!”

“Please. When was the last time you went planetside or even into port without your little captain’s star bright on your shoulder?” She gave him a sympathetic smile. “You really fell for her, didn’t you?”

“No more than usual. It’s just that none of my other girlfriends wound up being possessed. Jesus, I had a hint of what that was like. I can’t stop thinking what it must have been like for her, how fucking ugly. She was so sweet, she didn’t belong in a world where those kind of things happen to people.”

“Do any of us?”

“You know what I mean. You’ve done stims you shouldn’t have, you’ve accessed real news sensevises. We know this is a badass universe. It helps, a bit. As much as anything can. But Louise—damn, her brat sister, too. We flew off and left them, just like we always do.”

“They spare children, you know. That Stephanie Ash woman on Ombey brought a whole bunch of kids out. I accessed the report.”

“Louise wasn’t a child. It happened to her.”

“You don’t know that for certain. If she was smart enough, she might have eluded them.”

“I doubt it. She doesn’t have that sort of ability.”

“She must have had some pretty amazing features to have this effect on you.”

He thought back to the carriage journey to Cricklade after they’d just met, her observations on Norfolk and its nature. He’d agreed with just about everything she’d said. “She wasn’t street-smart. And that’s the kind of dirty selfishness you need to elude the possessed.”

“You really don’t believe she made it, do you?”

“No.”

“Do you think you’re responsible for her?”

“Not responsible, exactly. But I think she was sort of looking at me as the person who was going to take her away from Cricklade Manor.”

“Dear me, whatever could have given her that impression, I wonder?”

Joshua didn’t hear. “I let her down, just by being me. It’s not a nice feeling, Sarha. She really was a lovely girl, even though she’d been brought up on Norfolk. If she’d been born anywhere else, I’d probably . . .” He fell silent, shifting his sweatshirt round, not meeting Sarha’s astonished stare.

“Say it,” she said.

“Say what?”

“Probably marry her.”

“I would not marry her. All I’m saying is that if she’d been given a proper childhood instead of growing up in that ridiculous medieval pageant there might’ve been a chance that we could have had something slightly longer-term than usual.”

“Well that’s a relief,” Sarha drawled.

“Now what have I done?” he exclaimed.

“You’ve been Joshua. For a moment there I thought you were actually evolving. Didn’t you hear yourself? She hasn’t had the education to become a crew member on Lady Mac , therefore it can’t possibly work between you. There was never a thought that you might give up your life to join her.”

“I can’t!”

“Because Lady Mac is far more important than Cricklade estate, which is her life. Right? So do you love her, Joshua? Or do you just feel guilty because one of the girls you shagged and dumped happened to get captured and possessed?”

“Jesus! What are you trying to do to me?”

“I’m trying to understand you, Joshua. And help if I can. This matters to you. It’s important. You have to know why.”

“I don’t know why. I just know I’m worried about her. Maybe I’m guilty. Maybe I’m angry at the way the universe has crapped all over us.”

“Fair enough. All of us are feeling that way right now. At least we’re doing something about it. You can’t fly Lady Mac to Norfolk and rescue her; not any more. As far as anyone knows, this is the next best thing.”

He gave her a sad grin. “Yeah. I guess that’s me being selfish, too. I have to be doing something. Me.”

“It’s the kind of selfishness the Confederation needs right now.”

“That still doesn’t make it fair what happened to her. She’s suffering through no fault of her own. If this Sleeping God is as powerful as the Tyrathca believe, then it’s got some explaining to do.”

“We’ve been saying that about our deities ever since we dreamt them up. It’s a fallacy to assume it shares our morals and ethics. In fact it’s quite obvious it doesn’t. If it did, none of this would have happened. We’d all be living in paradise.”

“You mean the argument against divine intervention is forever unbreakable?”

“Yep, free will means we have to make our own choices. Without that, life is meaningless; we’d be insects grubbing along the way our instincts tell us. Sentience has to count for something.”

Joshua leant over and placed a grateful kiss on her forehead. “Getting us into trouble, usually. I mean, Jesus, look at me. I’m a wreck. Sentience hurts.”

They went out into the bridge together. Liol and Dahybi were lying on their acceleration couches, looking bored. Samuel was emerging from the hatchway.

“That was a long handover,” Liol remarked waspishly.

“Can’t you manage those yourself?” Joshua asked.

“You might have a Calvert body, but don’t forget which of us has more experience.”

“Not in all the relevant fields, you don’t.”

“I’m off watch,” Dahybi announced loudly. His couch webbing peeled back, allowing him to swing his feet down onto the decking. “Sarha, you coming?”

Joshua and Liol grinned at each other. Joshua made a polite gesture towards the floor hatch, which Liol acknowledged with a gracious bow. “Thank you, Captain.”

“While you’re in the galley I could do with some breakfast,” Joshua shouted after them. There was no reply. He and Samuel settled down on their acceleration couches. The Edenist was becoming a proficient systems officer, helping the crew with their shifts, as had the other science team specialists travelling on board. Even Monica was chipping in.

Joshua accessed the flight computer. Trajectory graphics and status schematics overlaid the external sensor images. Space had become awesome.

Three light-years ahead, Mastrit-PJ poured a strong crimson light across the dull foam which coated the starship’s fuselage. The Orion nebula veiled half of the starscape to galactic north of Lady Mac , a glorious three-dimensional tapestry of luminescent gas with a furiously turbulent surface composed from scarlet, green, and turquoise clouds clashing as rival oceans, their million-year antagonism throwing out energetic, chaotic spumes in all directions. Inside, it was knotted with proplyds, the glowing protoplanetary disks condensing out of the maelstrom. At the heart lay the Trapezium, the four hottest, massive stars, whose phenomenal ultraviolet output illuminated and energized the whole colossal expanse of interstellar gas.

Joshua had come to adore the infinitely varied topology of the nebula as they’d slowly flown out of Confederation space to soar around it. It was alive in a way no physical biology could match, its currents and molecular shoals a trillion times as complex as anything found in a hydrocarbon-based cell. The young, frantic stars which cluttered the interior were venting tremendous storms of ultra-hot gas, propagating shockwaves that travelled over a hundred and fifty thousand kilometres an hour. They would take the form of loops which curled and twisted sinuously, their frayed ends shimmering brightly as they fanned away the wild energy surging along their length.

For the crews in both Lady Mac and Oenone , watching the nebula had replaced all forms of recorded entertainment. Its majesty had lightened their mood considerably; theirs was now a true flight into history, no matter what the outcome.

Joshua and Syrinx had decided on flying around the galactic south of the nebula, an approximation of Tanjuntic-RI’s flightpath. During the first stages they’d utilized observations from Confederation observatories to navigate around the quirky folds of cloud and glimmering prominences visible from human space, even though the images were over 1,500 years out of date. But after the first few days they were traversing space never glimpsed by human telescopes. Their speed slowed as they had to start scanning ahead for stars and dust clouds and parsec-wide cyclones of iridescent gas.

Long before Mastrit-PJ itself was visible, its light coloured the cooler outer strands of the nebula. The ships flew onwards with its thick red glow deepening around them. As soon as the star rose into full view 700 light-years ahead, parallax measurements enabled Oenone to calculate its position, enabling them to plot an accurate trajectory straight for it.

Now Joshua was piloting Lady Mac to her penultimate jump coordinate. Radar showed him Oenone 1,000 kilometres away, matching their half-gee acceleration. The burn was stronger than Adamist ships usually employed, but they hadn’t been altering their delta-V much during the flight round the nebula, choosing to wait until they got a fix on Mastrit-PJ before matching velocity with the red giant.

“Burn rate is holding constant,” Samuel said, after they’d run their diagnostic programs. “You have some quality drive tubes here, Joshua. We should have just under sixty per cent of our fusion fuel left when we jump in.”

“Good enough for me. Let’s hope we don’t soak up too much delta-V searching for the redoubt. I want to hold all the antimatter in reserve for the Sleeping God.”

“You are positive about the outcome, then?”

Joshua thought about the answer for a moment, mildly surprised by his own confidence. It was a pleasant contrast to the disquiet he felt over Louise. Intuition, a tonic against conscience. “Yeah. Guess I am. That part of it, anyway.”

The orange vector plot which the flight computer was datavising into his neural nanonics showed him the jump coordinate was approaching. He started reducing their acceleration, datavising a warning to the crew. Samuel began retracting the sensor booms and thermo-dump panels.

Lady Mac jumped first, covering two and a half light years. Oenone shot out of its wormhole terminus six seconds later, a healthy hundred and fifty kilometres away. Mastrit-PJ wasn’t quite a disk, though its brilliant glare would make it hard for the naked eye to tell. From a mere half light-year distance its red light was sufficient to wash out the nebula and most of the stars.

“I’ve been hit by lasers with less power,” Joshua muttered as the sensor filters cut in to deflect the rush of photons.

“It’s only recently ended its expansion phase,” Samuel said. “In astrological terms, this has only just happened.”

“Stellar explosions are fast events. This happened fifteen thousand years ago, at least.”

“Once the initial expansion occurs, there is a long period of adjustment within the photosphere as it stabilises. Either way, the overall energy output is most impressive. As far as this side of the galaxy is concerned, it outshines the nebula.”

Joshua checked the neuroiconic displays. “No heat, and precious little radiation. Particle density is up on the norm, but then it’s been fluctuating the whole time we’ve chased round the nebula.” He datavised the flight computer to establish a communication link with Oenone . “How are we doing with the final coordinate?”

“I was pleasingly correct with my earlier estimates,” the voidhawk replied. “I should have the final figure ready for you in another five minutes.”

“Fine.” After their first sighting of Mastrit-PJ, Joshua had checked the figures which Oenone had supplied a couple of times, out of interest rather than distrust. Each time they’d been better than any reading Lady Mac ’s technological sensors could provide. He didn’t bother after that.

“We should be able to measure the photosphere boundary to within a thousand kilometres,” Syrinx datavised. “Defining exactly where it ends and space begins is problematical. Theory has an effervescence zone measuring up to anything between five hundred to half a million kilometres thick.”

“We’ll stick to plan-A, then,” Joshua datavised back.

“I think so. Everything’s checked out as we expected so far. Kempster has activated every sensor we’re carrying, recording it like flek memories are infinite. I expect he’ll let us know if he and Renato spot any anomalies.”

“Okay. In the meantime I’ll plot an initial vector to leave Lady Mac with a neutral relative velocity. I can refine it when you’ve finished working out the coordinate.” He suspected Oenone could supply him with the appropriate vector within milliseconds. But damn it, he had some pride.

Lady Mac ’s star trackers locked on to the new constellations they’d mapped. He brought his navigation programs into primary mode and began feeding in the raw data.

Joshua and Syrinx had decided on an interval of several hours before making the final jump to Mastrit-PJ. Partly it was due to their lack of knowledge on its real position and size. Once that was determined, they intended to emerge in the ecliptic plane, a safe distance above the top of the photosphere, with their velocity matched perfectly to the star’s. It meant the only force acting on them would be the star’s gravity, a tiny tide-like pull inwards. From that vantage point they would be able to scan space for a considerable distance. Logically, the remnants of the Tyrathca’s redoubt civilization should be orbiting the star’s equator. Possibly on a Pluto-type planet that had survived the explosion, or a large Oort-ring asteroid. Although the volume of space was admittedly huge, by jumping in steady increments round Mastrit-PJ’s equator they should eventually be able to find it.

Oenone would also spend the time to completely recharge its energy patterning cells from cosmic radiation, saving its fusion fuel. Not only would that prepare the voidhawk to carry out the search, it would then have the ability to withdraw across a considerable distance, matching Lady Mac ’s sequential jump facility should they unwittingly enter a hostile armed xenoc environment. That was an imaginative worst-case scenario dreamt up by Joshua, Ashly, Monica, Samuel, and (surprisingly) Ruben; which everyone else cheerfully told them verged on outright paranoia. As it turned out, they’d done quite a good job.

A star is a perpetual battleground of primal forces, principally those of heat and gravity which manifest themselves as expansion and contraction. At its core, a main-sequence star is a giant hydrogen fusion reaction, heating the rest of the mass sufficiently to counter gravitational contraction. However, fusion is only as finite as its fuel supply, while gravity is eternal.

After billions of years of steady luminescence, Mastrit-PJ exhausted the hydrogen atoms of its core, burning them into inert helium. Fusion energy production continued within a small shell of hydrogen wrapped around the central region. Temperature, pressure, and density all began to change as the envelope took over from the core as the principal source of heat. As the transformation of its internal structure progressed, so Mastrit-PJ left its original stable luminous sequence behind at an ever increasing rate. Its outer layers began to expand, heated by convection currents surging up from the growing fusion envelope. While on the inside of the envelope, the core continued its gravitational contraction as a snow of helium atoms drifted downwards adding to its mass.

Mastrit-PJ divided into two distinct and very different entities: the centre burning with renewed vigour as it continued its contraction, and the outer layers bloating out and cooling through the spectrum from white through yellow and into red. That was the epoch of stellar evolution from which the Tyrathca had fled. The expanding star inflated out to over four hundred times its original radius, eventually settling down with a diameter of one thousand six hundred and seventy million kilometres. It swept across the three inner planets, including the Tyrathca homeworld, and quickly devoured the two outer gas-giants. There was no exact line to show where the star ended and space began, instead the inflamed hydrogen thinned out into a thick solar wind which blew steadily out into the galaxy. However, for catalogue and navigational purposes, Oenone had defined Mastrit-PJ’s periphery at seven hundred and eighty million kilometres from its invisible core.

Lady Macbeth was the first to emerge, a respectable fifty million kilometres above the wispy radiant sea of dissolving particles. Normal space had ceased to exist, leaving the starship coasting between two parallel universes of light. On one side, the spectral eddies of the nebula jewelled with young stars; on the other, a flat, featureless desert of golden-hot photons.

Oenone emerged twenty kilometres from the dark Adamist ship.

“Contact locked,” Joshua datavised in confirmation to Syrinx as their dish acquired Oenone ’s short-range beacon. Lady Mac ’s full complement of survey sensors were rising out of their fuselage recesses, along with the new systems which Kempster had requested. He could actually see a similar suite deploying from the pods riding in the voidhawk’s lower fuselage cargo cradles.

“I see you,” she replied. “Confirming no rocks or dust clouds in our immediate vicinity. We’re starting the sensor sweep.”

“Us too.”

“How’s your thermal profile?”

“Holding fine,” Sarha replied when he consulted her. “It’s hot out there, but not as bad as the approach to the antimatter station. Our dump panels can radiate it away faster than we’re absorbing it. Wouldn’t want you to fly us too much closer, though. And if you can give us a slow continuing roll manoeuvre, I’d be happy. It’ll avoid any hot-spots building on the fuselage.”

“Do my best,” he told her. “Syrinx, we can cope. How about you?”

“Not a problem at this distance. The foam insulation is intact.”

“Okay.” He fired the starship’s equatorial ion thrusters, initiating the slow barbecue-mode roll Sarha wanted.

The crew were all at their bridge stations, ready to cope with any contingency the red giant threw at them. Samuel and Monica were down in the main lounge in capsule B, sharing it with Alkad, Peter, and Oski, who were accessing the sensor data. Oenone ’s results were being delivered directly to Parker, Kempster, and Renato. Both ships were exchanging their data in real time, allowing the experts to review it simultaneously.

The image of local space built up quickly, charting the strong riot of particles flowing past the hull. Outside didn’t quite qualify as a vacuum.

“Calmer than Jupiter’s environment,” Syrinx commented. “But just as dangerous.”

“Not as much hard radiation as we predicted,” Alkad said.

“The hydrogen bulk must be absorbing it before it reaches the surface.”

Their optical and infrared sensors were performing slow scans of space away from the red giant’s surface. Analysis programs searched for shifting light-points which would indicate asteroids or moonlet-sized bodies, even a planet. Oenone ’s distortion field could find little local mass bending space-time’s uniformity. The brawny solar wind seemed to have blown everything away. Of course, they were looking at less than one per cent of the equatorial orbit track.

The first result came from a simple microwave frequency sensor that picked up an unidentified pulse lasting less than a second. It was coming from somewhere closer to the surface.

“Kempster?” Oski datavised. “Is there any way a red giant could emit microwaves?”

“Not with any of our current theories,” the surprised astronomer replied.

“Captain, can we take a closer look at the source, please?”

On the bridge, Joshua gave Dahybi a warning look. Intuition fluttered his heart. “Node status?”

“We can jump clear, Captain,” Dahybi said quietly.

“Liol, keep monitoring our electronic warfare detectors, please. I want to play this very safe indeed.”

The flight computer reported the sensors had picked up another microwave pulse.

“That’s very similar to radar,” Beaulieu said. “But not a recognizable Confederation signature. It’s nothing like the Tyrathca ships used, either.”

“Oski, I’m switching our sensor focus area for you now,” Joshua said.

Both passive and active sensor clusters rotated on the end of their booms to study the direction from which the pulse had come. The flight computer assembled their results into a generalized neuroiconic image in accordance with its governing graphic-generation programs, approximating the physical structure which the image enhancement subroutine was delivering and combining it with a thermal and electromagnetic profile.

“Remind me again,” Sarha said in a subdued breath. “In our expert team’s professional opinion, we’re here for an aeons-dead civilization whose relics are going to be extremely difficult to find. That’s what you sold us, wasn’t it?”

The most powerful telescopes Oenone and Lady Mac carried were quickly aligned on the structure which the sensor clusters had located, amplifying and clarifying the first low-resolution image. Orbiting twenty million kilometres ahead of the starships, a city was flying unperturbably above the slow-churning blooms of the convection currents which contoured the red giant’s surface. Spectrography confirmed the presence of silicates, carbon compounds, light metals, and water. Microwaves buzzed across its turrets. Butterfly wing magnetic fields flapped in a steady heartbeat. A forest of rapier spines rose from its darkside, gleaming at the top of the infrared spectrum as they radiated away its colossal thermal load.

It was five thousand kilometres in diameter.

Chapter 07

Quinn used simple timing rather than risk sending his orders out through London’s communication net. No matter how innocuous the message, there was always a chance the supercops would pick up the chain. Even though they thought they’d eliminated him in the Parsonage Heights strike, they would be watching for signs of other possessed in the arcology. Standard procedure. Quinn would have done the same in their place. However, their paranoia had been quenched amid the flames and death engulfing the tower’s penthouse. With that came a slight relaxation of effort, falling back to established routine rather than determined proactive searches. It gave him the interlude he desired.

By necessity, London was now destined to be the capital of His empire on Earth. Such honour would be visited upon the ancient city and its outlying domes only by using possessed as disciples to deliver His doctrine. But there were inherent problems recruiting them. Even they were reluctant to follow the gospel of God’s Brother to its exacting, painful letter. As he’d learned on Jesup, violent coercion was often required to obtain the wholehearted cooperation of non-sect members. Even Quinn was limited in the number of people he could intimidate at once. And without that strict adherence to His cause, the possessed would do what they always did and snatch this world from the universe. Quinn couldn’t allow that, so he’d adopted a more tactical strategy, borrowing heavily from Capone’s example, exploiting the hostility and avarice most possessed exhibited on their return to the universe.

The possessed from the Lancini had been carefully and stealthily scattered throughout the arcology and provided with very detailed instructions. Speed was the key. Come the appointed hour, each one would enter a preselected building and open the night staff to possession. When the day workers arrived, they would be possessed one by one, jumping the numbers up considerably but stopping short of exponential expansion. Quinn wanted about 15,000 by ten o’clock in the morning.

After that had been achieved, they would surge out of their buildings and physically disperse across the arcology. By then, there would be little the authorities could do. It took an average of five to ten well-armed police officers to eliminate one possessed. Even if they could track them via electronic glitches, they simply didn’t have the manpower available to deal with them. Quinn was gambling that Govcentral wouldn’t use 15,000 SD strikes against London. The rest of the population would be his hostages.

While that was going on, Quinn himself would be establishing a core of loyalists who would venture forth to exert a little discipline: again, a hierarchy based on the Organization. The newly emerged possessed would be taught that they had to maintain the status quo, and encouraged to target the police and local government personnel—anyone who could organize resistance. A second stage would see them shutting down the transport routes, then going on to seize power, water, and food production centres. A hundred new fiefdoms would emerge, whose only obligation was obedience and tribute to the new Messiah.

With his empire founded, Quinn intended to put the non-possessed technicians to work on secure methods of transport that would enable him to carry the crusade of God’s Brother to fresh arcologies. Eventually, they would gain access to the O’Neill Halo. From there, it was only a matter of time until His Night fell across this whole section of the galaxy.

The night after the Parsonage Heights incident, patrol constables Appleton and Moyles were cruising their usual route in central Westminster. It was quiet at two o’clock in the morning when their car passed the old Houses of Parliament and turned down Victoria Street. There were few pedestrians to be seen walking along outside the blank glass facades of the government agency office buildings which transformed the start of the street into a deep canyon. The constables were used to that; this was a bureaucrat district after all, with few residents or nightlife to attract anyone after the shops and offices closed.

A body fell silently out of the black sky above the lighting arches to smash into the road thirty metres ahead of Appleton and Moyles. The patrol car’s controlling processor automatically reversed power to the wheel hub motors, and turned the vehicle sharply to the right. They braked to a halt almost directly beside the battered body. Blood was flowing out of the jump-suit’s sleeves and trouser legs to spread in big puddles across the carbon-concrete surface.

Appleton datavised a priority alert to his precinct station, requesting back-up; while Moyles ordered Victoria Street’s route and flow processors to divert all traffic away from them. They emerged from the patrol car with their static-bullet carbines held ready, holding position behind the armoured doors. Retinal implants scanned round in all spectrums, motion detector programs in primary mode. There was nobody on the pavements within a hundred metres. No immediate ambush potential.

Cautiously, they started scanning the sheer cliffs of glass and concrete on either side, hunting for the open window from which the body had come. There wasn’t one.

“The roof?” Appleton asked nervously. His carbine was swinging about in a wide arc as he tried to cover half the arcology.

The precinct station duty officers were already accessing the Westminster Dome’s sensor grid, looking down from the geodesic structure to see the two officers crouched down beside their car. Nobody was on the roofs of the buildings flanking the road.

“Is he dead?” Moyles yelled.

Appleton licked his lips as he weighed up the risks of leaving the cover of the door to dash over to the body. “I think so.” Assessing severely battered and bloody flesh it was an old bloke, really old. There was no movement, no breathing. His enhanced senses couldn’t detect a heartbeat, either. Then he saw the deep scorch marks branding the corpse’s chest. “Oh bloody hell!”

The civil engineering crew had repaired the hole in the Westminster Dome with commendable speed. A small fleet of crawler pods had traversed the vast crystal edifice, winching a replacement segment along with them. Removing the old hexagon and sealing the new segment into place had taken twelve hours. Molecular bonding generator tests were initiated, making sure it was now firmly integrated with the rest of the dome’s powered weather defences.

Checking the superstrength carbon lattice girders and beefing up suspect strands of the geodesic structure was still going on as darkness fell; work continued under the pods’ floodlights.

Far below them, the clearing up of Parsonage Heights tower was an altogether messier affair. Fire service mechanoids had extinguished the flames in the shattered stub of the octagonal tower. Paramedic crews hauled the injured out of the remaining seven towers of the development project that had been bombarded with a blizzard of shattered glass and lethal debris. Smaller fires had broken out on the two skyscrapers next to the one hit by the SD strike. Council surveyors had spent most of the day examining the damaged buildings to see if they could be salvaged.

There was no doubt that the remnants of the tower struck by the X-ray laser would have to be demolished. The remaining eight floors were dangerously weak; metal reinforcement rods had melted to run out of the carbon-concrete slabs like jam from a doughnut. It was the local coroner’s staff who went in there after the fire mechanoids were pulled back and the walls had cooled down. The bodies they recovered were completely baked by the X-ray blast.

It was London’s biggest spectator event, drawing huge crowds which spilled over into the open market and surrounding streets. Civilians mingled with rover reporters, gawping at the destruction and the knot of activity on the dome high above. It was the crawler pods which proved that some kind of SD weapon had been used, despite the original denials of the local police chief. By early morning a grudging admission had come from the mayor’s office that the police had suspected a possessed to be holed up in the Parsonage Heights tower. When pressed how a possessed had infiltrated London, the aide pointed out that a sect chapel was established in the warehouse below the tower. The acolytes, she assured reporters, were now all under arrest. Those that had survived.

Londoners grew jittery as more facts were prised out of various Govcentral offices over the long morning and afternoon, a lot of the information contradictory. Several lawyers acting for relatives of the tower’s vaporized residents lodged writs against the police for the use of extremely excessive force and accused the Police Commissioner of negligence in not attempting an evacuation first. Absenteeism all over the arcology grew steadily worse during the day. Productivity and retail sales hit an all-time low, with the exception of food stores. Managers reported people were stocking up on sachets and frozen meat bricks.

All the while, images of the broken tower with its blackened, distended, mildly radioactive fangs of carbon-concrete were pushed out by the news companies. Bodybags being carried over the rubble remained the grim background for everybody’s day, talked over by new anchors and their specialist comment guests.

A police forensic team was sent in with the coroner’s staff. Their orders weren’t terribly precise, just to search for anomalies. They were backed up by three experts from the local GISD office, who managed to remain anonymous amid everyone else poking round the restricted area.

The crowd went home before nightfall, leaving just a simple police cordon, patrolled by officers who fervently wished they’d drawn a different duty that evening.

A preliminary forensic report was compiled before midnight by the GISD experts, who had been following their police colleagues’ tests and analyses. It contained nothing of the remotest relevance to Banneth or Quinn Dexter.

“One was just going through the motions anyway,” Western Europe told Halo and North America after he’d accessed the report. “Although I’d dearly like to know how Dexter pulled that invisibility stunt.”

“I think we should just count ourselves fortunate that none of the other possessed seem capable of it,” Halo said.

“That SD strike has caused quite a stir,” North America said. “The honourable senators are demanding to know who gave SD command the authority to fire on Earth. Trouble is, this time the President’s office is screaming for the same answer. They may try to launch a commission of inquiry. If the executive and the representatives both want it, we might have trouble blocking them.”

“Then don’t,” Western Europe said. “I’m sure we can appoint someone appropriate to chair it. Come on, I shouldn’t have to explain basic cover-your-arses procedure. That strike request is logged from the Mayor’s civil defence bureau to SD command. It was a legitimate request. Senior Govcentral officers have the right to call for back up from Earth’s military forces in emergency. It’s in the constitution.”

“SD Command should have requested fire authority from the President,” Halo said bluntly. “The fact they can actually fire on Earth without the appropriate political authorization has raised a few eyebrows.”

“South Pacific isn’t stirring this, is she?” Western Europe asked sharply.

“No. Frankly, she has as much to lose as the rest of us. The current Presidential defence advisor is hers; he’s doing a good job in damage limitation.”

“Let’s hope it’s sufficient. I’d hate to pull the plug on the President right now. People are looking for leadership stability to get them through this.”

“We’ll ensure the news agencies will mute the story however loud the senators shout,” Halo said. “Shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Jolly good,” Western Europe said. “That just leaves us with the problem of the ordinary possessed.”

“New York’s a mess,” North America admitted glumly. “The remaining non-possessed citizens are defending themselves, but I expect they’ll lose eventually.”

“We’ll have to call another full B7 meeting,” Western Europe concluded without enthusiasm. “Decide what we’re going to do in that eventuality. I for one have no intention of being carried off to this realm where the other planets have vanished to.”

“I’m not sure we’ll get a full turnout,” Halo said. “South Pacific and her allies are pretty pissed with you.”

“They’ll come round,” Western Europe said confidently.

He never did get a chance to find out if he was right. London’s deputy Police Commissioner datavised him at quarter past two with the news of the body in Victoria Street.

“There’s was no identification on the old boy,” the deputy commissioner reported. “So the constables took a DNA sample. According to our files, it’s Paul Jerrold.”

“I know the name,” Western Europe said. “He was quite wealthy. You’re sure the burn marks were caused by white fire?”

“They match the configuration. We’ll know for sure when the forensic team gets there.”

“Okay, thank you for informing me.”

“There’s something else. Paul Jerrold was a zero-tau refugee. He transferred his holdings to a long-term trust and went into stasis last week.”

“Shit.” Western Europe sent a fast inquiry into his AI, which ran an immediate search. Paul Jerrold had entrusted himself to Perpetuity Inc., one of many recently formed companies specialising in providing zero-tau for the elderly wealthy. The AI’s review of the company’s memory core established Jerrold had been sent to an old department store called Lancini which Perpetuity Inc. was renting until more suitable premises could be built.

Under Western Europe’s direction, the AI shifted its attention to the department store, reactivating ancient security sensors on every floor. Hall after hall filled with bulky zero-tau pods jumped into blue-haze focus. The AI switched to the only scene of activity. Perpetuity Inc. had set up a monitor centre in the manager’s old office; a couple of night-shift technicians were sitting by their desks, drinking tea and keeping an eye on an AV projector squirting out a news show.

“Datavise them,” Western Europe ordered the deputy commissioner. “Tell them to switch off Paul Jerrold’s pod and see who’s in there.”

It took a short argument before the technicians agreed to do as they were asked. Western Europe waited impatiently as the ancient cage lift creaked it way up to the fourth floor and they walked over to the Horticulture section. One of them switched the pod off. There was no one inside.

Thoroughly unnerved, they now did exactly as they were told, and went along the row of zero-tau pods switching them off. All of them were empty.

“Clever,” Western Europe acknowledged bitterly. “Who’s going to notice they were missing?”

“What do you want to do?” the deputy commissioner asked.

“We have to assume the zero-tau refugees have been possessed. There are four hundred pods in the Lancini; so get some of your officers in there immediately, find out exactly how many people have been taken. Next, seal off London’s domes and shut down all the internal transport systems. I’ll have the Mayor’s office declare an official civil curfew has been enacted. We might have got lucky; it’s two-thirty, ninety-five per cent of the population will be at home, especially after today’s frights. If we can keep them there, then we can prevent the possessed from spreading.”

“Patrol cars are on their way.”

“I also want every duty forensic team in the arcology shifted over there now. You’ve got thirty minutes to get them inside. Have them examine every room which looks like someone’s been inside recently. Staff rooms, store rooms, the kind of locations where there aren’t any security sensors. They’re to search for human traces. Every piece they find is to be DNA tested.”

There were other orders. Tactical preparation. All police and security personnel were woken and called in, ready to be deployed against the possessed. Hospitals were put on amber status three, preparing for heavy casualties. The arcology’s utility stations were put under guard, their technicians billeted in nearby police stations. GISD members were put on standby.

As soon as the administration was underway, orchestrated by the mayor’s civil defence bureau but actually run by B7’s AI, Western Europe called his colleagues. They appeared slowly and grudgingly in the sensenviron conference room. North and South Pacific were the last to show.

“Trouble,” Western Europe told them. “It looks like Dexter managed to take over nearly four hundred people while he was here.”

“Without you knowing?” an incredulous Central America asked. “What about the AI search programs?”

“He snatched them from zero-tau pods,” Western Europe said. “You should check the companies offering people stasis in your own arcologies. It was a blind spot.”

“Obvious with hindsight,” North America said.

“Trust Dexter to find it,” Asian Pacific said. “He does seem to have an unnervingly direct talent to find our weaknesses.”

“Not any more,” Halo said.

“I really hope so,” Western Europe said. It was the first sign of hesitancy he’d ever shown. The others were actually shocked into silence.

“You hit him with a Strategic Defence X-ray laser!” Eastern Europe said. “He couldn’t survive that.”

“I’m hoping the forensic tests at the Lancini will confirm that. In the meantime, we’ve reactivated his psychological profile simulation to determine what he was hoping to achieve with these new possessed. The fact that they’ve been dispersed, indicates some kind of attempted coup. Letting the possessed run wild doesn’t help him. Remember, Dexter wants to conquer humanity on behalf of his Light Bringer. It’s likely he wanted control over a functioning arcology, which he could then use as a base to further his ambitions.”

“Question,” Southern Africa said. “You said Paul Jerrold was a victim of white fire. That indicates he wasn’t a possessed.”

“This is where it gets interesting,” Western Europe said. “Assume Jerrold was possessed, and Dexter sent him out with all the others from the Lancini. They spread out over London, and start possessing new recruits for the cause. One of those new arrivals is our ally from Edmonton, the friend of Carter McBride.”

“Shit, you think so?”

“Absolutely. He overpowers Paul Jerrold’s possessor, and gives us a warning impossible to ignore. Apparently those two constables nearly had a heart attack when the corpse landed in front of their patrol car. Do you see? He’s telling us that the possessed are active, and letting us know where they came from. Dexter’s entire operation was exposed by that single act.”

“Can you stop them?”

“I think so. We were given enough advance notice. If we can prevent the arcology’s population from congregating, then the possessed will have to move themselves. Movement exposes them, makes them vulnerable.”

“I don’t know,” East Asia said. “Put one possessed into a residential block, and they don’t have to move about much to possess everybody in there with them.”

“We’ll see it happening,” Western Europe said. “If they bunch together in that kind of density they won’t be able to disguise their glitch-effect from the AI.”

“So you see it happening,” South Pacific said. “So what? No police team will be able to pacify a block filled with two or three thousand possessed. And it won’t be just one block, you said there were hundreds of people missing from the Lancini. If you have a hundred residential blocks taken over, you will not be able to contain them. B7 certainly cannot independently order a hundred SD strikes, not after Parsonage Heights.”

“We’re right back to our original problem,” Southern America said. “Do we exterminate an entire arcology to prevent the Earth being stolen from us?”

“No,” Western Europe said. “We do not. That’s not what we exist for. We are a police and security force, not megalomaniacs. If it looks like there is a runaway possession effect in one of the arcologies, then we have lost. We accept that loss with as much grace as we can muster and retreat from this world. I will not be a party to genocidal slaughter. I thought you all realized that by now.”

“Dexter beat you,” Southern Pacific said. “And the prize was our planet.”

“I can contain four hundred possessed in London,” Western Europe said. “I can contain four thousand. I might even manage fifteen thousand, though it will be bloody. Without Dexter they are just a rabble. If he’s still alive, he will assume control, and Earth will not be lost. He will not permit that to happen. It’s not London we have to worry about.”

“You don’t know anything,” South Pacific said. “You can’t do anything. All any of us can do now is watch. And pray that the Confederation Navy anti-memory can be made to work. That’s what you’ve reduced us to. You think I’m stubborn and cold blooded. Well, I choose that over your monstrous arrogance every time.” Her image vanished.

The other supervisors followed her until only North America and Halo were left.

“The bitch has a point,” North America said. “There’s not an awful lot left for us to do here. Even if you’re successful with London, it’ll be Paris, New York, and the others which drag us down. They’re a lot further along the road to total possession. God damn, I’m going to hate leaving.”

“I didn’t tell our fraternal colleagues everything,” Western Europe said calmly. “Thirty-eight of the people missing from the Lancini only arrived there yesterday, after the Parsonage Heights strike. In other words, the plot to snatch and possess them was still operating up until about nine hours ago. And we know it’s Dexter’s operation; the friend of Carter McBride made that quite clear when he delivered Jarrold.”

“Holy shit; he’s still alive,” Halo exclaimed. “Good God, you hit him with an SD weapon, absolute ground zero. And he survived. What the hell is he?”

“Smart and tough.”

“Now what do we do?” Northern America asked.

“I play my ace,” Western Europe said.

“You have one?”

“I always have one.”

The terrible, tragic cries were still faint. Quinn pushed himself deeper into the ghost realm than he had ever done before, so much so he had reduced himself to little more than the existence-impoverished ghosts themselves. He flung his mind open, listening to the ephemeral wailing that came from somewhere still further away from the real universe. The first ones he’d sensed were human, but now he was closer he thought there were others. A kind he didn’t recognize.

These were nothing like the woeful pleas that issued forth from the beyond. These were different. A torment more refined, so much graver.

Strange to think that somewhere could be worse than the beyond. But then the beyond was only purgatory. God’s Brother lived in an altogether darker place. Quinn’s heart lifted to think he might be hearing the first stirrings of the true Lord as He rose to lead His army of the damned against the bright angels. A thousand times that long night, Quinn called out in welcome to the entities whose cries he experienced, flinging all his power behind the silent voice. Yearning for an answer.

None was granted.

It didn’t matter. He had been shown what was. Dreams laid siege to the furthest limits of his mind while he floated within the ghost realm. Darkling shapes locked together in anguish, a war which had lasted since the time of creation. He couldn’t see what they were, like all dreams they danced away from memory’s focus. Not human. He was sure of that now.

Warriors of the Night. Demons.

Elusive. For this moment.

Quinn gathered his thoughts and returned to the real world. Courtney yawned and blinked rapidly as Quinn’s toe nudged her awake. She smiled up at her dark master, uncurling off the cold flagstones.

“It’s time,” he said.

The possessed disciples he had chosen stood in a silent rank, waiting obediently for their instructions. All around them, the ghosts of this place howled their anger at Quinn’s desecration, bolder than any he had encountered before, but still helpless before his might.

Billy-Joe came ambling along the aisle, scratching himself with primate proficiency. “It’s fucking quiet outside, Quinn. Some kind of weird shit going down.”

“Let’s go and see, shall we?” Quinn went out into the hated dawn.

The curfew announcement was glowing on the desktop block’s screen when Louise and Genevieve woke. Louise read it twice, then datavised the room’s net processor for confirmation. A long file of restrictions was waiting for her, officially informing her that the mayor had temporarily suspended her rights of travel and free association.

Gen pressed into her side. “Are they here, Louise?” she asked mournfully.

“I don’t know.” She cuddled her little sister. “That Parsonage Heights explosion was very suspicious. I suppose the authorities are worried some of them escaped.”

“It’s not Dexter, is it?”

“No, of course not. The police got him in Edmonton.”

“You don’t know that!”

“No, not for certain. But I do think it’s very unlikely he’s here.”

Breakfast was one of the few things which the curfew didn’t prohibit. When they arrived at the restaurant, the hotel’s assistant manager greeted them in person at the door and apologised profusely for the reduction in service, but assured them that the remaining staff would do their utmost to carry on as normal. He also said that regretfully, the doors onto the street had been locked to comply with the curfew edict, and told them the police were being very strict with anyone they found outside.

Only a dozen tables were occupied. In fearful exaggeration of the curfew order, none of the residents were talking to each other. Louise and Genevieve ate their corn chips and scrambled eggs in a subdued silence, then went back upstairs. They put a news show on the holographic screen, listening to the anchor woman’s sombre comments as they looked out over Green Park. Flocks of brightly coloured birds were walking along the paths, pecking at the stone slabs as if in puzzlement as to where all the humans had gone. Every now and then, the girls saw a police car flash silently along Piccadilly and travel up the ramp onto the raised expressway circling the heart of the old city.

Genevieve got bored very quickly. Louise sat on the bed watching the news show. Rover reporters were stationed at various vantage-point windows across the arcology, relaying similar views of the deserted streets and squares. The Mayor’s office, ever mindful of its public relations dependency, had granted some reporters a licence to accompany constables in patrol cars. They faithfully delivered scenes of constables chasing groups of shifty youths off the streets where they were hanging in spirited defiance of authority. An unending number of senior Govcentral spokespersons offered themselves up for interview, reassuring the audience that the curfew was a precaution indicative of the mayor’s strong leadership and his determination London should not become another New York. So please, just cooperate and we’ll have this all sorted out by the end of the week.

Louise turned it off in disgust. There was still no message from Joshua.

Genevieve laced on her slipstream boots and went down to the lobby to practice her slalom techniques. Louise went with her, helping to set up a line of Coke cartons along the polished marble.

The little girl was half way down her run, and pumping her legs hard, when the main revolving door started moving, allowing Ivanov Robson into the lobby. She squeaked in surprise, losing all concentration. Her legs shot from under her, sending her on another painful tumble against the marble. Momentum kept skidding her right up to Robson’s shoes. She bumped up against him.

“Ouch.” She rubbed her knee and her shoulder.

“If you’re going to do that, you should at least wear the right protective sports kit,” Robson said. He put a big hand down and pulled her upright.

Genevieve’s feet began to slide apart; she hurriedly double clicked her right heel before she made another undignified tumble.

“What are you doing here?” she gasped.

He glanced at the receptionist. “I’ve been asked to collect the pair of you.”

Louise glanced through the glass panes of the revolving door. There was a police car parked outside, its windows opaqued. Private detectives couldn’t acquire official transport during a curfew, no matter how well placed the contacts they claimed to have. “By whom?” she enquired lightly.

“Someone in authority.”

She didn’t feel in the least bit perturbed by this development. Quite the contrary, this was probably the first time he was being completely honest with them. “Are we under arrest?”

“Absolutely not.”

“And if we refuse?”

“Please don’t.”

Louise put an arm round Gen. “All right. Where are we going exactly?”

Ivanov Robson grinned spryly. “I have absolutely no idea. I’m rather looking forward to finding out myself.” He accompanied them back up to their room, urging them to pack everything as quickly as possible. The doorman and a couple of night porters picked up all their bags and struggled downstairs with them.

Robson settled their account with the receptionist, brushing aside Louise’s half-hearted protests. Then they were out through the revolving door and into the back of the police car, their bags being placed in the boot.

“This is very comfy,” Louise said as Robson climbed in and took a seat opposite them. The interior was more like a luxury limousine, with thick leather seats, air conditioning, and one-way glass. She half-expected a cocktail bar.

“Not quite your standard arrest wagon, no,” he agreed.

They accelerated along Piccadilly and curved smoothly up onto the circular express route. Louise could see all the hologram adverts glimmering over the empty streets below, the only visible movement in the arcology.

The car shot along the web of elevated roads threaded round the skyscrapers, and she imagined millions of pairs of eyes behind the blank glass facades looking out to see them flash past. People would wonder what they were doing, if they were rushing to contain an outbreak of possession. There was no other reason for the police to be active. Not even the mayor himself was allowed out of 10 Downing Street, as his press office had been keen to point out a hundred times that morning.

Curiosity was becoming a very strong force in Louise’s head. She was keen to meet the person who had summoned them. There had obviously been so much going on around her of which she was totally ignorant. It would be nice to have an explanation. Even so, she couldn’t for the life of her work out why anyone so powerful would want to see her and Gen.

Her hope that all would be quickly revealed was doused as the police car took a ramp down to the base of the rim and drove straight into an eight-lane motorway tunnel. A huge set of doors rumbled shut behind the car, sealing them in. Then there was nothing but the carbon-concrete walls lit by glareless blue-white lights. More than the arcology, the broad deserted motorway gave her the greatest impression of the curfew and the sense of fear powering London’s residents into obedience.

Some unknown distance later, they turned off the motorway into a smaller tunnel road, leading down to the subterranean industrial precincts. The car delivered them to a huge underground garage with the style of arching roof more suited to a train station in the age of steam. Long rows of grubby heavy-duty surface vehicles stood unattended in their parking bays. The police car drove along until they came to the end bay, containing a Volkswagen Trooperbus. Two technicians and three mechanoids were fussing round the big vehicle, getting it ready for its trip.

The car door slid open, sending in a wave of hot humid air that reeked of fungal growth. Holding her nose in exaggerated disdain, Genevieve followed Robson and her sister out to look at the vehicle. The Trooperbus had six double wheels along each side, one and a half metres in diameter with tread cracks deep enough to hold Genevieve’s hand. A heavy retractable track bogie was folded up against its rear, capable of pushing it out of quagmires which came up over the wheel axles. Its dirty olive-green body resembled a flat-bottomed boat hull, with small oblong windows set along the side, and two large angled windscreens at the front. All the thick glass was tinted a deep purple. With its steel and titanium armour bodywork it weighed thirty-six tonnes, making it virtually impossible for an Armada Storm to flip it over. Just to make sure, there were six ground securement cannons, which could fire long tethered harpoons into the earth for added stability in case it was ever caught outside in rough weather.

Genevieve slowly looked along the length of the brutish mud-splattered machine. “We’re going outside?” she asked in surprise.

“Looks that way,” Robson replied cheerfully.

One of the mechanoids was directed to unload the sisters’ department-store bags, transferring them to a locker on the side of the Trooperbus. A technicians showed them the hatchway.

The main cabin of the Trooperbus was designed to hold forty passengers; this one was fitted with ten very comfortable leather upholstered swivel chairs. There was a toilet and small galley at the back, and a three-seat cab at the front. Their driver introduced himself as Yves Gaynes.

“No stewardess on this trip,” he said, “So just have a rummage round in the lockers if you need anything to eat or drink. We’re well stocked.”

“How long is this going to take?” Louise asked.

“Should be there for afternoon tea.”

“Where exactly?”

He winked. “Classified.”

“Can we watch out of the front?” Genevive asked. “I’d love to see what Earth’s really like.”

“Sure you can.” He gestured her forward, and she scrambled up into the cab.

Louise glanced at Robson. “Go ahead,” he told her. “I’ve been outside before.” She joined Gen in the spare seat.

Yves Gaynes sat in front of his own console and initiated the startup routine. The hatch closed, and the air filters cycled up. Louise let out a sigh as the air cooled, draining out the moisture and smell. The Trooperbus rolled forwards. At the far end of the garage, a slab of wall began to slide upwards, revealing a long carbon-concrete ramp saturated in sunlight bright enough to make Louise squint despite the heavily shielded glass.

London didn’t end along the perimeter of its nine outer domes. The arcology itself was principally devoted to residential and commercial zones; while the industries sited inside were focused chiefly towards software, design, and light manufacturing. Heavy industry was spread around outside the domes in underground shelters ten kilometres long, with their own foundries, chemical refineries, and recycling plants. Also infesting the dome walls like concrete molluscs were environmental stations, providing power, water, and cool filtered air to the inhabitants. But dominating the area directly outside were the food factories. Hundreds of square kilometres were given over to the synthesis machinery capable of producing proteins and carbohydrates and vitamins, blending them together in a million different textural combinations that somehow never quite managed to taste the same as natural crops. They supplied the food for the entire arcology, siphoning in the raw chemicals from the sea, and the sewage, and the air to manipulate and process into neat sachets and cartons. Rich people could afford imported delicacies, but even their staple diet was produced right alongside the burger paste and potato granules of the hoi polloi.

It took the Trooperbus forty minutes to clear the last of the vast, half-buried carbon-concrete buildings full of organic synthesisers and meat clone vats. Strictly rectangular mounds, sprouting fat heat exchange towers, gave way to the natural rolling topology of the land. The sisters stared out eagerly at the emerald expanse unfurling around them. Louise was struck by growing disappointment, she’d expected something more dynamic. Even Norfolk had more impressive scenery. The only activity here came from the long streaks of bruised cloud fleeing across the brilliant cobalt sky. Occasional large raindrops detonated across the windscreen with a dull pap.

They drove along a road made from some kind of dark mesh which blades of grass had risen through to weave together. The same vivid-green plant covered every square inch of land.

“Aren’t there any trees?” Louise asked. It looked as though they were driving through a bright verdant desert. Even small irregular lumps she took to be boulders were covered by the plant.

“No, not any more,” Yves Gaynes said. “This is just about the only vegetation left on the planet, the old green grass of home. It’s tapegrass, kind of a cross between grass and moss, geneered with a root network that’s the toughest, thickest tangle of fronds you’ll ever see. I’ve broken a spade before now, trying to dig through the stuff. It goes down over sixty centimetres. But we’ve got to grow it. Nothing else can stop soil erosion on the same scale. You should see the floods we get after a storm, every crease in the ground turns into a stream. If they’d had this on Mortonridge it would have been a different story, I’ll tell you.”

“Can you eat it?” Genevieve asked.

“No. The people who sequenced it were in too big a rush to produce something that would just do the job to build in refinements like that. They just concentrated on making it incredibly tough, biologically speaking. It can withstand as much ultraviolet as the sun can throw at it, and there’s not a disease which can touch it. So now it’s too late to change. You can’t replace it with a new variety, because it’s everywhere. Half a centimetre of soil is enough to support it. Only rock cliffs defeat it, and we’ve got limpet fungi for them.”

Genevieve puckered her lips up and pressed herself up against the windscreen. “What about animals? Are there any left?”

“Nobody’s really sure. I’ve seen things moving round out there, but not close, so it could just be knots of dead tapegrass blowing about. There’s supposed to be families of rabbits living in big warrens along some of the flood-free valleys. Friends of mine say they’ve seen them, other drivers. I don’t know how, the ultraviolet ought to burn out their eyes out and give them cancer. Maybe there’s some species that developed resistance; they certainly breed fast enough for it to evolve, and they always were tough buggers. Then there’s people say pumas and foxes are still about, feeding on the rabbits. And I’ll bet rats survived outside the domes if anything has.”

“Why do you come out here at all?” Louise asked.

“Maintenance crews do plenty of work on the vac-train tubes. Then there’s the ecology teams, they come out to repair the worst aspects of erosion: replant tapegrass and restore river banks that get washed away, that kind of thing.”

“Why bother?”

“The arcologies are still expanding, even with all the emigration. There’s talk of building two more domes for London this century. And Birmingham and Glasgow are getting crowded again. We’ve got to look after our land, especially the soil; if we didn’t, it would just wash away into the sea and we’d be left with continents that were nothing more than plateaus of rock. This world’s suffered enough damage already, imagine what the oceans would be like if you allowed all that soil to pollute them. It’s only the oceans which keep us alive now. So I suppose it boils down to self-interest, really. At least that means we’ll never stop guarding the land. That’s got to be a good result.”

“You like it out here, don’t you?” Louise asked.

Yves Gaynes gave her a happy smile. “I love it.”

They drove on through the wrecked land, sealed under its precious, protective living cloak. Louise found it almost depressingly barren. The tapegrass, she imagined, was like a vast sheet of sterile packaging, preserving the pristine fields and spinnies which slept below. She longed for something to break its uniformity, some sign of the old foliage bursting out from hibernation and filling the land with colour and variety once more. What she wouldn’t give for the sight of a single cedar standing proud; one sign of resistance offered against this passive surrender to the unnatural elements. Earth with all its miracles and its wealth ought to be able to do better than this.

They drove steadily northwards, rising out of the Thames valley. Yves Gaynes pointed out old towns and villages, the walls of their buildings now nothing more than stiff lumps drowned under tapegrass, names decaying to waypoints loaded into the Trooperbus’s guidance block. The Trooperbus had left the simple mesh road behind a long time ago when Louise went back into the main cabin to heat some sachets for lunch. They were driving directly across the tapegrass now, big wheels crushing it to pulp, leaving two dark green tracks behind them. Outside, the land was becoming progressively more rugged, with deepening valleys, and hills sporting bare rock crowns clawed by talons of grey-green lichen and ochre fungus. Gullies carried silver streams of gently steaming water, while lakes rested in every depression.

“Here we are,” Yves Gaynes sang out, four hours after they left London.

Ivanov Robson squeezed his bulk into the cab behind the sisters, staring ahead with an eagerness to match theirs. A plain geodesic crystal dome rose out of the land, about five miles wide, Louise guessed; its rim contoured around the slopes and vales it straddled. The dome itself was grey, as if it was filled with thick fog.

“What’s it called?” Genevieve asked.

“Agronomy research facility seven,” Yves Gaynes replied, straightfaced.

Genevieve responded with a sharp look, but didn’t challenge him.

A door swung open at the base of the dome to admit the Trooperbus. Once the door closed, a red fungicide spray shot out from all sides to wash away mud and possible spores from the vehicle’s body and wheels. They rolled forward into a small garage, and the hatch popped open.

“Time to meet the boss,” Ivanov Robson said. He led the two girls out into the garage. The air was cooler than inside the Trooperbus and the Westminster Dome, Louise thought. She was wearing only a simple navy-blue dress with short sleeves. Not that it was cold, more like a fresh spring day.

Ivanov beckoned them forwards. Genevieve double clicked her heel, and glided along at his side. There was a small four-seater jeep waiting, with a red and white striped awning and a steering wheel. The first one Louise had seen on this planet. It made her feel more comfortable when Ivanov sat behind it. She and Gen took the rear seats, and they started off.

“I thought you didn’t know this place,” Louise said.

“I don’t. I’m being guided.”

Louise datavised a net processor access request, but got no response. Ivanov drove them into a curving concrete tunnel a couple of hundred yards long, then they were abruptly out in full sunlight. Gen gasped in delight. The agronomy research dome covered a patch of countryside which was the England they knew from history books: green meadows flecked with buttercups and daisies, rambling hawthorn hedges enclosing shaggy paddocks, small woods of ash, pine, and silver birch lying along gentle valleys, giant horse chestnuts and beeches dotted across acres of parkland. Horses were grazing contentedly in the paddocks, while ducks and pink flamingos amused themselves in a lake with a skirt of mauve and white water lilies. In the centre was a sprawling country house that made Cricklade seem gaudy and pretentious in comparison. Three-storey orange brick walls were held together by thick black oak beams in traditional Tudor diagonals, though they were hard to see under the mass of topaz and scarlet climbing roses. Windows of tiny leaded glass diamonds were thrown wide to let the lazy air circulate through the rooms. Stone paths wound through a trim lawn that was surrounded by boarders of neatly pruned shrubs. A line of ancient yews marked the end of the formal garden. There was a tennis court on the other side, with two people swatting a ball between them in an impressively long volley.

The jeep took them along a rough track over the meadows round to the front of the house. They turned in through some wrought iron gates and trundled along a cobbled, mossy drive. Swallows swooped mischievously low over the grass on either side, before arrowing back up to the eaves where their ochre mud nests were hidden. A wooden porch around the front door was completely smothered by honeysuckle; Louise could just see someone waiting amid the shadows underneath.

“We’ve come home,” Genevieve murmured in delight.

Ivanov stopped the jeep in front of the porch. “You’re on your own now,” he told them.

When Louise shot him a look, he was staring ahead, hands gripped tightly on the steering wheel. She was just about to tap him on the shoulder, when the person waiting in the porch stepped forwards. He was a young man, about the same age as Joshua, she thought. But where Joshua’s face was lean and flat, his was round. Quite handsome though, with chestnut hair and wide green eyes. Lips that were curved somewhere between a smile and a sneer. He was wearing a white cricket jumper and tennis shorts; his bare feet shoved into shabby sneakers with a broken lace.

He put a hand out, smiling warmly. “Louise, Genevieve. We meet at last, to coin a cliché yet again. Welcome to my home.” A black Labrador padded out from the house and snuffled round his feet.

“Who are you?” Louise asked.

“Charles Montgomery David Filton-Asquith at your service. But I’d really prefer you to call me Charlie. Everybody here does. As in right, one expects.”

Louise frowned, still not shaking his hand, though he hardly seemed threatening. Exactly the kind of young landowner she’d grown up with, though with a good deal more panache admittedly. “But, who are you? I don’t understand. Are you the one that summoned us here?”

“ ’Fraid so. Hope you’ll forgive me, but I thought this would be an improvement on London for you. Not very jolly there right now.”

“But how? How did you get us out through the curfew? Are you a policeman?”

“Not exactly.” He pulled a remorseful face. “Actually, I suppose you could say I rule the world. Pity I’m not making a better job of it right now. Still, such is life.”

There was a swimming pool on the other side of the ancient house, a long teardrop shape with walls of tiny white and green marble tiles. It had a mosaic of the Mona Lisa on the floor of the deep end. Louise recognized that, though she couldn’t remember the woman flashing her left breast in the original painting. A group of young people were using the pool, splashing about enthusiastically as they played some private-rules version of water polo with a big pink beach ball.

She sat on the Yorkstone slab patio with Charlie and Gen, relaxing at a long oak table which gave her an excellent view out over the pool and the lawns. A butler in a white coat had brought her a glass of Pimms in a tall tumbler, with plenty of ice and fruit bobbing round. Gen was given an extravagant chocolate milk shake clotted with strawberries and ice cream, while Charlie sipped at a gin and tonic. It was, she had to admit, all beautifully civilized.

“So you’re not the President, or anything,” she enquired. Charlie had been telling them about the GISD, and its bureau hierarchy.

“Nothing like. I simply supervise serious security matters across Western Europe, and liaise with my colleagues to combat global threats. Nobody elected us; we had the ability to dictate the structure and nature of the GISD back when continental governments and the UN were merging into Govcentral. So we incorporated ourselves into it.”

“That was a long time ago,” Louise said.

“Start of the Twenty-second Century. Interesting times to live through. We were a lot more active in those days.”

“You’re not that old, though.”

Charlie smiled, and pointed across at the rose garden. A neat, sunken square, divided up into segments, each one planted with different coloured rose bushes. Several tortoise-like creatures were moving slowly among the tough plants, their long prehensile necks standing proud, allowing them to munch the dead flowers, nibbling the stem right back to the woody branch. “That’s a bitek construct. I employ twelve separate species to take care of the estate’s horticulture for me. There’s a couple of thousand of them here altogether.”

“But Adamists have banned bitek from all their worlds,” Gen said. “And Earth was the first.”

“The public can’t use it,” Charlie said. “But I can. Bitek and affinity are very powerful technologies; they give B7 quite an advantage over would-be enemies of the republic. It’s a combination which also allows me to live for six hundred years in an unbroken lineage.” He waved a hand over himself in a proud gesture. “This is the thirty-first body I’ve lived in. They’re all clones, you see; parthenogenetic, so I retain the temperament for the job. I’m affinity capable, I had the ability long before Edenism began. I used neurone symbionts at first, then the affinity sequence was vectored into my DNA. In a way, the immortality method which B7 uses is a variant on Edenism’s end-of-life memory transfer. They use it to transfer themselves into their habitat neural strata. I, on the other hand, use it to transfer myself into a new, vigorous young body. The clone is grown in sensory isolation for eighteen years, preventing any thought patterns from developing. In effect, it’s an empty brain waiting to be filled. When the time comes, I simply edit the memories I wish to take with me, and move my personality over to the new body. The old one is immediately destroyed, giving the process a direct continuity. I even store the discarded memories in a bitek neural construct, so no aspect of my life is ever truly lost.”

“Thirty-one bodies is a lot for only six hundred years,” Louise said. “A Saldana lives for nearly two centuries these days. And even us Kavanaghs will last for about a hundred and twenty.”

“Yes,” Charlie said with an apologetic shrug. “But you spend the last third of that time suffering from the restrictions and indignity of age. An illness which only ever gets worse. Whereas as soon as I reach forty I immediately transfer myself again. Immortality and perpetual youth. Not a bad little arrangement.”

“Until now,” Louise took a drink of Pimms, “those previous bodies all had their own souls. That’s quite different from memories. I saw it on a news show. The Kiint said they’re separate.”

“Quite. Something B7 has collectively ignored. Hardly surprising, given our level of conservatism. I suppose our past bodies will have to be stored in zero-tau from now on; at least until we’ve solved the overall problem of the beyond.”

“So you were really alive in the Twenty-first Century?” Gen asked.

“Yes. That’s what I remember, anyway. As your sister says, the definitions of life have changed a lot recently. But I’ve always considered myself to be the one person for all those centuries. That’s not a conviction you can break in a couple of weeks.”

“How did you get to be so powerful in the first place?” Louise asked.

“The usual reason: wealth. All of us owned or ran vast corporate empires during the Twenty-first Century. We weren’t merely multinationals, we were the first interplanetaries; and we made profits that outgrossed national incomes. It was a time when new frontiers were opening again, which always generates vast new revenues. It was also a time of great civil unrest; what we’d called the Third World was industrialising rapidly thanks to fusion power, and the ecology was destabilising at equal speed. National and regional governments were committing vast resources into combating the biosphere breakdown. Social welfare, infrastructure administration, health care, and security—the fields government used to devote its efforts to—were all slowly being starved of tax money and sold off to private industry. It wasn’t much of a jump for us. Private security forces had guarded company property ever since the Twentieth Century; jails were being built and run by private firms; private police forces patrolled closed housing estates, paid for out of their taxes. In some countries you actually had to take out insurance in order to pay the state police to investigate a crime if you were a victim. So you see, evolving to an all-private police force was an intrinsic progression for an industrialized society. Between the sixteen of us, we controlled ninety per cent of the world’s security forces, so naturally we collaborated and cooperated on intelligence matters. We even began to invest in equipment and training at a level that would never bring us a fiscal return. It paid us, though; nobody else was going to protect our factories and institutions from crime lords and regional mafias. The crime rate actually started to fall for the first time in decades.

“After that, we made the decision to bring about Govcentral, along with its centralized tax laws, which were slanted in our favour. Our lawyers were parachuted into senior advisory positions to cabinet ministers and state executives, our lobbyists helped steer parliaments and congresses through controversial legislation. B7 was just the formalization and consolidation of our position.”

“That’s monstrous,” Louise said. “You’re dictators.”

“As is the landowner class on Norfolk,” Charlie replied. “Your family is the same as me, Louise, except you’re not quite so honest about it.”

“People came to Norfolk after the constitution was written, they didn’t have it imposed on them.”

“I might argue that with you, but I completely understand your sense of outrage, probably better than you do yourself. I’ve encountered it enough times down the centuries. All I can ask is that you judge the means by what it achieved. Earth has a stable, comfortably middle-class population free to live their lives more or less as they want. We survived the climate collapse, and we’ve spread out to colonize the stars. None of that would have been accomplished without a degree of strong leadership, the lack of which is the curse of modern media-accountable democracy. I’d say that was a pretty impressive achievement.”

“The Edenists are democratic, and they’ve prospered.”