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

The Naked God Flight

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.  Faced with an interstellar war in which the only weapon is exorcism, the Confederation dissolves into anarchy. For in a desperate act of triage, a few wealthy worlds prepare to sacrifice the mass of humankind to the risen dead souls from the Beyond. Meanwhile, the Possessed are destroying whole planets as they flee the universe in a transdimensional quest to find Heaven. But there are far worse things than death-or resurrection. And the Possessed are about to discover that chasing paradise is the most horrific, irrevocable mistake they could make...

Naked God: Flight

Chapter 01

Jay Hilton was sound asleep when every electrophorescent strip in the paediatric ward sprang up to full intensity. The simple dream of her mother broke apart like a stained-glass statue shattered by a powerful gust of sharp white light; colourful splinters tumbling off into the glare.

Jay blinked heavily against the rush of light, raising her head in confusion. The familiar scenery of the ward hardened around her. She felt so tired. It certainly wasn’t morning yet. A huge yawn forced her mouth open. All around her the other children were waking up in bleary-eyed mystification. Holomorph stickers began reacting to the light, translucent cartoon images rising up to perform their mischievous antics. Animatic dolls cooed sympathetically as children clutched at them for reassurance. Then the doors at the far end of the ward slid open, and the nurses came hurrying in.

One look at the brittle smiles on their faces was all Jay needed. Something was badly wrong. Her heart shivered. Surely not the possessed? Not here?

The nurses began ushering children out of their beds, and along the central aisle towards the doors. Complaints and questions were firmly ignored.

“It’s a fire drill,” the senior staff nurse called out. “Come along, quickly, now. I want you out of here and into the lifts. Pronto. Pronto.” He clapped his hands loudly.

Jay shoved the thin duvet back, and scuttled down off the bed. Her long cotton nightie was tangled round her knees, which took a moment to straighten. She was about to join the others charging along the aisle when she caught the flickers of motion and light outside the window. Every morning since she’d arrived, Jay had sat in front of that window, gazing solemnly out at Mirchusko and its giddy green cloudscape. She’d never seen speckles of light swarming out there before.


The silent mental word was spoken so quickly Jay almost didn’t catch it. Though the feel of Haile was unmistakable. She looked round, expecting to see the Kiint ambling down the aisle towards her. But there was only the rank of flustered nurses propelling children along.

Knowing full well she wasn’t doing what she was supposed to, Jay padded over to the big window, and pressed her nose against it. A slim band of tiny blue-white stars had looped itself round Tranquillity. They were all moving, contracting around the habitat. She could see now that they weren’t really stars, they were lengthening. Flames. Brilliant, tiny flames. Hundreds of them.

My friend. My friend. Lifeloss anguish.

Now that was definitely Haile, and intimating plenty of distress. Jay took a step back from the window, seeing misty grey swirls where her face and hands had pressed against it. “What’s the matter?” she asked the empty air.

A cascade of new flames burst into existence outside the habitat. Expanding knots blossoming seemingly at random across space. Jay gasped at the sight. There were thousands of them, interlacing and expanding. It was so pretty.

Friend. Friend.

Evacuation procedure initiated.

Jay frowned. The second mental voice came as a faint echo. She thought it was one of the adult Kiint, possibly Lieria. Jay had only encountered Haile’s parents a few times. They were awfully intimidating, though they’d been nice enough to her.

Designation. Two.

No.the adult responded forcefully. Forbidden.


You may not, child. Sorrow felt for all human suffering. But obedience required.

No. Friend. My friend. Designation. Two. Confirmed.

Jay had never felt Haile so determined before. It was kind of scary. “Please?” she asked nervously. “What’s happening?”

A torrent of light burst through the window. It was as if a sun had risen over Mirchusko’s horizon. All of space was alive with brilliant efflorescences.

The adult Kiint said: Evacuation enacted.


Jay felt a wash of guilty triumph rushing out from her friend. She wanted to reach out and comfort Haile, who she knew from the adult’s reaction was in Big Trouble over something. Instead, she concentrated on forming a beaming smile at the heart of her own mind, hoping Haile would pick it up. Then the air around her was crawling as if she was caught in a breeze.

“Jay!” one of the nurses called. “Come along sweetie, you . . .”

The light around Jay was fading fast, along with the sounds of the ward. She could just hear the nurse’s gasp of astonishment. The breeze abruptly turned into a small gale, whipping her nightie around and making her bristly hair stand on end. Some kind of grey fog was forming around her, a perfectly spherical bubble of the stuff, with her at the centre. Except she couldn’t feel any dampness in the air. It darkened rapidly, reducing the ward to weak spectral outlines. Then the boundary expanded at a speed so frightening that Jay screamed. The boundary vanished, and with it any sign of the ward. She was alone in space devoid of stars. And falling.

Jay put her hands to her head and screamed again, as hard as she possibly could. It didn’t put a stop to any of the horror. She paused to suck down a huge breath. That was when the boundary reappeared out on the edge of nowhere. Hurtling towards her so fast from every direction that she knew the impact would squash her flat. She jammed her eyes shut. “MUMMY!”

Something like a stiff feather tickled the soles of her feet, and she was abruptly standing on solid ground. Jay windmilled her arms for balance, pitching forward. She landed hard on some kind of cool floor, her eyes still tight shut. The air she gulped down was warmer than it had been in the ward, and a lot more humid. Funny smell. Rosy light was playing over her eyelids.

Still crouched on all fours, Jay risked a quick peep as she gathered herself to scream again. The sight which greeted her was so incredible that the breath stalled in her throat. “Oh gosh,” was all she eventually managed to squeak.

Joshua initiated the ZTT jump with little enthusiasm. His downcast mood was one which he shared with all the Lady Mac ’s crew and passengers—at least, those who weren’t in zero-tau. To have achieved so much, only to have their final triumph snatched away.

Except . . . Once the initial shock of discovering that Tranquillity had vanished from its orbit had subsided, he wasn’t frightened. Not for Ione, or his child. Tranquillity hadn’t been destroyed, there was at least that comfort. Which logically meant the habitat had been possessed and snatched out of the universe.

He didn’t believe it.

But his intuition was hardly infallible. Perhaps he simply didn’t want to believe it. Tranquillity was home. The emotional investment he had in the habitat and its precious contents was enormous. Tell anyone that everything they ever treasured has been erased, and the reaction is always the same. Whatever. His vacillation made him as miserable as the rest of the ship, just for a different reason.

“Jump confirmed,” he said. “Samuel, you’re on.”

Lady Mac had jumped into one of Trafalgar’s designated emergence zones, a hundred thousand kilometres above Avon. Her transponder was already blaring out her flight authority codes. Somehow Joshua didn’t think that would quite be enough. Not when you barged in unexpected on the Confederation’s primary military base in the middle of a crisis like this one.

“I’ve got distortion fields focusing on us,” Dahybi said drolly. “Five of them, I think.”

The flight computer alerted Joshua that targeting radars were locking on to the hull. When he accessed the sensors rising out of their recesses, he found three voidhawks and two frigates on interception courses. Trafalgar’s strategic defence command was directing a barrage of questions at him. He glanced over at the Edenist as he started to datavise a response. Samuel was lying prone on his acceleration couch, eyes closed as he conversed with other Edenists in the asteroid.

Sarha grinned round phlegmatically. “How many medals do you think they’ll give us apiece?”

“Uh oh,” Liol grunted. “However many it is, we might be getting them posthumously. I think one of the frigates has just realised our antimatter drive is ever so slightly highly radioactive.”

“Great,” she grumbled.

Monica Foulkes didn’t like the sound of that; as far as the Confederation Navy was aware, it was only Organization ships who were using antimatter. She hadn’t wanted to take Mzu back to Tranquillity, and she certainly hadn’t wanted to wind up at Trafalgar. But in the discussion which followed their discovery of Tranquillity’s disappearance, she didn’t exactly have the casting vote. The original agreement between herself and Samuel had just about disintegrated when they rendezvoused with the Beezling .

Then Calvert had insisted on the First Admiral being the final arbitrator of what was to be done with Mzu, Adul, and himself. Samuel had agreed. And she couldn’t produce any rational argument against it. Silently, she acknowledged that maybe the only true defence against more Alchemists being built was a unified embargo covenant between the major powers. After all, such an agreement almost worked for antimatter.

Not that such angst counted for much right now. Like ninety per cent of her mission to date, the critical deciding factor was outside her control. All she could do was stick close to Mzu, and make sure the prime requirement of technology transfer wasn’t violated. Though by allowing it to be deployed against the Organization, she’d probably screwed that up too. Her debrief was shaping up to be a bitch.

Monica frowned over at Samuel, who was still silent, his brow creased up in concentration. She added a little prayer of her own to all the unheard babble of communication whirling around Lady Mac for the Navy to exercise some enlightenment and tolerance.

Trafalgar’s strategic defence command told Joshua to hold his altitude, but refused to grant any approach vector until his status was established. The Navy’s emergence zone patrol ships approached to within a cautious hundred kilometres, and took up a three-dimensional diamond observation formation. Targeting radars remained locked on.

Admiral Lalwani herself talked to Samuel, unable to restrain her incredulity as he explained what had happened. Given that the Lady Macbeth contained not only Mzu and others who understood the Alchemist’s principals, but a quantity of antimatter as well, the final decision on allowing the ship to dock belonged to the First Admiral himself. It took twenty minutes to arrive, but Joshua eventually received a flight vector from strategic defence command. They were allocated a docking bay in the asteroid’s northern spaceport.

“And Joshua,” Samuel said earnestly. “Don’t deviate from it. Please.”

Joshua winked, knowing it was being seen by the hundreds of Edenists who were borrowing the agent’s eyes to monitor Lady Mac ’s bridge. “What, Lagrange Calvert, fly off line?”

The flight to Trafalgar took eighty minutes. The number of antimatter technology specialists waiting for them in the docking bay was almost as great as the number of marines. On top of that were a large complement of uniformed CNIS officers.

They weren’t stormed, exactly. No personal weapons were actually taken out of their holsters. Though once the airlock tube was sealed and pressurized, Lady Mac ’s crew had little to do except hand over the powerdown codes to a Navy maintenance team. Zero-tau pods were opened, and the various bewildered occupants Joshua had accumulated during his pursuit of the Alchemist were ushered off the ship. After a very thorough body scan, the polite, steel-faced CNIS officers escorted everyone to a secure barracks deep inside the asteroid. Joshua wound up in a suite that would have done a four-star hotel credit. Ashly and Liol were sharing it with him.

“Well now,” Liol said as the door closed behind them. “Guilty of carrying antimatter, flung in prison by secret police who’ve never heard of civil rights, and after we’re dead, Al Capone is going to invite us to have a quiet word.” He opened the cherrywood cocktail bar and smiled at the impressive selection of bottles inside. “It can’t get any worse.”

“You forgot Tranquillity being vanquished,” Ashly chided. Liol waved a bottle in apology.

Joshua slumped down into a soft black leather chair in the middle of the lounge. “It might not get worse for you. Just remember, I know what the Alchemist does, and how. They can’t afford to let me go.”

“You might know what it does,” Ashly said. “But with respect, Captain, I don’t think you would be much help to anyone seeking the technical details necessary to construct another.”

“One hint is all it takes,” Joshua muttered. “One careless comment that’ll point researchers in the right direction.”

“Stop worrying, Josh. The Confederation passed that point a long time ago. Besides, the Navy owes us big-time, and the Edenists, and the Kulu Kingdom. We pulled their arses out of the fire. You’ll fly Lady Mac again.”

“Know what I’d do if I was the First Admiral? Put me into a zero-tau pod for the rest of time.”

“I won’t let them do that to my little brother.”

Joshua put his hands behind his head, and smiled up at Liol. “The second thing I’d do, would be to put you in the pod next to mine.”

Planets sparkled in the twilight sky. Jay could see at least fifteen of them strung out along a curving line. The nearest one appeared a bit smaller than the Earth’s moon. She thought that was just because it was a long way off. In every other respect it was similar to any of the Confederation’s terra-compatible planets, with deep blue oceans and emerald continents, the whole globe wrapped in thick tatters of white cloud. The only difference was the lights; cities larger than some of Earth’s old nations gleamed with magisterial splendour. Entire weather patterns of cloud smeared across the nightside diffused the urban radiance, soaking the oceans in a perpetual pearl gloaming.

Jay sat back on her heels, staring up delightedly at the magical sky. A high wall ringed the area she was in. She guessed that the line of planets extended beyond those she could see, but the wall blocked her view of the horizon. A star with a necklace of inhabited planets! Thousands would be needed to make up such a circle. None of Jay’s didactic memories about solar systems mentioned one with so many planets, not even if you counted gas-giant moons.

Friend Jay. Safe. Gleefulness at survival.

Jay blinked, and lowered her gaze. Haile was trying to run towards her. As always when the baby Kiint got overexcited her legs lost most of their coordination. She came very close to tripping with every other step. The sight of her lolloping about chaotically made Jay smile. It faded as she began to take in the scene behind her friend.

She was in some kind of circular arena two hundred metres across, with an ebony marble-like floor. The wall surrounding it was thirty metres high, sealed with a transparent dome. There were horizontal gashes at regular intervals along the vertical surface, windows into brightly lit rooms that seemed to be furnished with large cubes of primary colours. Adult Kiint were moving round inside, although an awful lot of them had stopped what they were doing to look directly at her.

Haile thundered up; half-formed tractamorphic tentacles waving round excitedly. Jay grabbed on to a couple of them, feeling them palpitate wildly inside her fingers.

“Haile! Was that you who did this?”

Two adult Kiint were walking across the arena floor towards her. Jay recognized them as Nang and Lieria. Beyond them, a black star erupted out of thin air. In less than a heartbeat it had expanded to a sphere fifteen metres in diameter, its lower quarter merging with the floor. The surface immediately dissolved to reveal another adult Kiint. Jay stared at the process in fascination. A ZTT jump, but without a starship. She focused hard on her primer-level didactic memory of the Kiint.

I did,haile confessed. her tractamorphic flesh writhed in agitation, so Jay just squeezed tighter, offering reassurance. Only us were designated to evacuate the all around at lifeloss moment. I included you in designation, against parental proscription. Much shame. Puzzlement.haile turned her head to face her parents. Query lifeloss act approval? Many nice friends in the all around.

We do not approve.

Jay flicked a nervous gaze at the two adults, and pressed herself closer against Haile. Nang formshifted his tractamorphic appendage into a flat tentacle, which he laid across his daughter’s back. The juvenile Kiint visibly calmed at the gesture of affection. Jay thought there was a mental exchange of some kind involved, too, sensing a hint of compassion and serenity.

Why did we not help?haile asked.

We must never interfere in the primary events of other species during their evolution towards Omega comprehension. You must learn and obey this law above all else. However, it does not prevent us from grieving at their tragedy.

Jay felt the last bit was included for her benefit. “Don’t be angry with Haile,” she said solemnly. “I would have done the same for her. And I didn’t want to die.”

Lieria reached out a tentacle tip, and touched Jay’s shoulder. I thank you for the friendship you have shown Haile. In our hearts we are glad you are with us, for you will be completely safe here. I am sorry we could not do more for your friends. But our law cannot be broken.

A sudden sensation of bleak horror threatened to engulf Jay. “Did Tranquillity really get blown up?” she wailed.

We do not know. It was under a concerted attack when we left. However, Ione Saldana may have surrendered. There is a high possibility the habitat and its population survived.

“We left,” Jay whispered wondrously to herself. There were eight adult Kiint standing on the arena floor now, all the researchers from Tranquillity’s Laymil project. “Where are we?” She glanced up at the dusky sky again, and that awesome constellation.

This is our home star system. You are the first true human to visit.

“But . . .” Flashes of didactic memory tumbled through her brain. She looked up at those enticing, bright planets again. “This isn’t Jobis.”

Nang and Lieria looked at each other in what was almost an awkward pause.

No, Jobis is just one of our science mission outposts. It is not in this galaxy.

Jay burst into tears.

Right from the start of the possession crisis the Jovian Consensus had acknowledged that it was a prime target. Its colossal industrial facilities were inevitably destined to produce a torrent of munitions, bolstering the reserve stocks of Adamist navies which thanks to budgetary considerations were not all they should be. The response of the Yosemite Consensus to the Capone Organization had already shown what Edenism was capable of achieving along those lines, and that was with a mere thirty habitats. Jupiter had the resources of four thousand two hundred and fifty at its disposal.

Requests for materiel support started almost as soon as Trafalgar issued its first warning about the nature of the threat which the Confederation was facing. Ambassadors requested and pleaded and called in every favour they thought Edenism owed them to secure a place in production schedules. Payment for the weapons involved loan agreements and fuseodollar transfers on a scale which could have purchased entire stage-four star systems.

On top of that, it was Edenism which was providing the critical support for the Mortonridge Liberation in the form of serjeant constructs to act as foot soldiers. It was the one utterly pivotal psychological campaign waged against the possessed, proving to the Confederation at large that they could be beaten.

Fortunately, the practical aspects of assaulting one or more habitats were extremely difficult. Jupiter already had a superb Strategic Defence network; and among the possessed only the Organization had a fleet which could hope to mount any sort of large-scale offensive, and the distance between Earth and New California almost certainly precluded that. However, the possibility of a lone ship carrying antimatter on a fanatical suicide flight was a strong one. And then there was the remote possibility that Capone would acquire the Alchemist and use it against them. Although Consensus didn’t know how the doomsday device worked, a ship certainly had to jump in to deploy it, which in theory gave the Edenists an interception window to destroy the device before it was deployed.

Preparations to solidify their defences had begun immediately. Fully one third of the armaments coming out of the industrial stations were incorporated into a massively expanded SD architecture. The 550,000-km orbital band containing the habitats was the most heavily protected, with the number of SD platforms doubled, and seeded with seven hundred thousand combat wasps to act as mines. A further million combat wasps were arranged in concentric shells around the massive planet out to the orbit of Callisto. Flotillas of multi-spectrum sensor satellites were dispersed among them, searching for any anomaly, however small, which pricked the potent energy storms churning through space around the gas-giant.

Over fifteen thousand heavily armed patrol voidhawks complemented the static defences; circling the volatile cloudscape in elliptical, high-inclination orbits, ready to interdict any remotely suspicious incoming molecule. The fact that so many voidhawks had been taken off civil cargo flights was actually causing a tiny rise in the price of He3, the first for over two hundred and sixty years.

Consensus considered the economic repercussions to be a worthwhile trade for the security such invulnerable defences provided. No ship, robot, or inert kinetic projectile could get within three million kilometres of Jupiter unless specifically permitted to do so.

Even a lone maniac would acknowledge an attempted attack would be the ultimate in futility.

The gravity fluctuation which appeared five hundred and sixty thousand kilometres above Jupiter’s equator was detected instantaneously. It registered as an inordinately powerful twist of space-time in the distortion fields of the closest three hundred voidhawks. The intensity was so great that the gravitonic detectors in local SD sensor array had to be hurriedly recalibrated in order to acquire an accurate fix. Visually it appeared as a ruby star, the gravity field lensing Jupiter’s light in every direction. Surrounding dust motes and solar wind particles were sucked in, a cascade of pico-meteorites fizzing brilliant yellow.

Consensus went to condition-one alert status. The sheer strength of the space warp ruled out any conventional starship emergence. And the location was provocatively close to the habitats, a hundred thousand kilometres from the nearest designated emergence zone. Affinity commands from Consensus were loaded into the combat wasps drifting inertly among the habitats. Three thousand fusion drives flared briefly, aligning the lethal drones on their new target. The patrol voidhawks formed a sub-Consensus of their own, designating approach vectors and swallow manoeuvres to englobe the invader.

The warp area expanded out to several hundred metres, alarming individual Edenists, though Consensus itself absorbed the fact calmly. It was already far larger than any conceivable voidhawk or blackhawk wormhole terminus. Then it began to flatten out into a perfectly circular two-dimensional fissure in space-time, and the real expansion sequence began. Within five seconds it was over eleven kilometres in diameter. Consensus quickly and concisely reformed its response pattern. Approaching voidhawks performed frantic fifteen-gee parabolas, curving clear then swallowing away. An extra eight thousand combat wasps burst into life, hurtling in towards the Herculean alien menace.

After another three seconds the fissure reached twenty kilometres in diameter, and stabilized. One side collapsed inwards, exposing the wormhole’s throat. Three small specks zoomed out of the centre. Oenone and the other two voidhawks screamed their identity into the general affinity band, and implored: HOLD YOUR FIRE!

For the first time in its five hundred and twenty-one year history, the Jovian Consensus experienced the emotion of shock. Even then, its response wasn’t entirely blunted. Specialist perceptual thought routines confirmed the three voidhawks remained unpossessed. A five-second lockdown was loaded into the combat wasps.

What is happening?consensus demanded.

Syrinx simply couldn’t resist it. We have a visitor,she replied gleefully. her entire crew was laughing cheerfully around her on the bridge.

The counter-rotating spaceport was the first part to emerge from the gigantic wormhole terminus. A silver-white disk four and a half kilometres in diameter, docking bay lights glittering like small towns huddled at the base of metal valleys, red and green strobes winking bright around the rim. Its slender spindle slid up after it, appearing to pull the dark rust-red polyp endcap along.

That was when the other starships began to rampage out of the terminus; voidhawks, blackhawks, and Confederation Navy vessels streaking off in all directions. Jupiter’s SD sensors and patrol voidhawk distortion fields tracked them urgently. Consensus fired guidance updates at the incoming combat wasps, determinedly vectoring them away from the unruly incursion.

The habitat’s main cylinder started to coast up out of the terminus, a prodigious seventeen kilometres in diameter. After the first thirty-two kilometres were clear, its central band of starscrapers emerged, hundreds of thousands of windows agleam with the radiance of lazy afternoon sunlight. Their bases just cleared the rim of the wormhole. There were no more starships to come after that, only the rest of the cylinder. When the emergence was complete, the wormhole irised shut and space returned to its natural state. The flotilla of patrol voidhawks thronging round detected a capacious distortion field folding back into the broad collar of polyp around the base of the habitat’s southern endcap that formed the bed of its circumfluous sea.

Consensus directed a phenomenally restrained burst of curiosity at the newcomer.

Greetings,chorused tranquillity and ione saldana. there was a distinct timbre of smugness in the hail.

Dariat did the one thing which he had never expected to do again. He opened his eyes and looked around. His own eyes in his own body; fat unpleasant thing that it was, clad in his usual grubby toga.

The sight which greeted him was familiar: one of Valisk’s innumerable shallow valleys out among the pink grass plains. If he wasn’t completely mistaken, it was the same patch of ground Anastasia’s tribe had occupied the day she died.

“This is the final afterlife?” he asked aloud.

It couldn’t be. There was an elusive memory, the same befuddlement as a dream leaves upon waking. Of a sundering, of being torn out of . . .

He had fused with Rubra, the two of them becoming one, vanquishing the foe by shunting Valisk to a realm, or dimension, or state, that the two of them grasped was intrinsically adverse to the possessing souls. Perhaps they had even created the new location by simply willing it to be. And then time went awry.

He gave his surroundings a more considered examination. It was Valisk, all right. The circumfluous sea was about four kilometres away, its clusters of atolls easily recognizable. When he turned the other way, he could see a fat black scar running down two-thirds of the northern endcap.

The light tube was dimmer than it should be, even accounting for the loss of some plasma. It proffered a kind of twilight, but grey rather than the magnificent golden sunset Dariat had experienced every day of his life. The grass plain echoed that malaised atmosphere, it was uneasily torpid. Its resident insects had curled up into dormancy; birds and rodents slunk back reticently to their nests, even the flowers had shrugged off their natural gloss.

Dariat bent down to pick an enervated poppy. And his chubby hand passed clean through the stem. He stared at it in astonishment, for the first time seeing that he was faintly translucent.

Shock finally liberated comprehension. A location hostile to possessors, one which would exorcise them from their enslaved hosts, denying them their energistic power. That was the destination he and Rubra had committed the habitat to.

“Oh, Thoale, you utter bastard. I’m a ghost.”

For nearly ten hours the lift capsule had skimmed down the tower linking Supra-Brazil asteroid with the Govcentral state after which it was named, a smooth, silent ride. The only clue to how fast the lift capsules travelled (three thousand kilometres per hour) would come when they passed each other. But as they clung to rails on the exterior of the tower, and the only windows gave a direct view outward, such events remained out of sight to their passengers. Deliberately so; watching another capsule hurtling towards you at a combined speed of six thousand kilometres per hour was considered an absolute psychological no-go zone by the tower operators.

Just before it entered the upper fringes of the atmosphere, the lift capsule decelerated to subsonic velocity. It reached the stratosphere as dawn broke over South America. On Earth that was no longer an invigorating sight; all the passengers saw was an unbroken murky-grey cloud layer which covered most of the continent and a third of the South Atlantic. Only when the lift capsule was ten kilometres above the frothing upper layer could Quinn see the army of individual streamers from which the gigantic cyclone was composed, flowing around each other at perilous velocities. The seething mass was as compressed as any gas-giant storm band, but infinitely drabber.

They descended into the slashing tendrils of cirrus, and the windows immediately reverberated from the barrage of fist-sized raindrops. There was nothing else to see after that, just formless smears of grey. A minute before they reached the ground station, the windows went black as the lift capsule entered the sheath which guarded the bottom of the tower from the worst violence of the planet’s rabid weather.

Digits on the Royale Class lounge’s touchdown counter reached zero, an event marked by only the slightest tremble as latch clamps closed round the base of the lift capsule. The magnetic rail disengaged, and a transporter rolled it clear of the tower, leaving the reception berth clear for the next capsule. Airlock hatches popped open, revealing long extendable corridors leading into the arrivals complex where treble the usual numbers of customs, immigration, and security officers waited to scan the passengers. Quinn sighed in mild resignation. He’d quite enjoyed the trip down, mellowing out with all the facilities the Royale Class lounge could provide. A welcome period of contemplation, assisted by the Norfolk Tears he’d been drinking.

He had arrived at Earth with one goal: conquest. Now at least he had some notions how to go about subduing the planet for his Lord. The kind of exponential brute force approach the possessed had used up to now just wasn’t an option on Earth. The arcologies were too isolated for that. It was curious, but the more Quinn thought about it, the more he realized that Earth was a representation of the Confederation in miniature. Its vast population centres kept separate by an amok nature almost as lethal as the interstellar void. Seeds of his revolution would have to be planted very carefully indeed. If Govcentral security ever suspected an outbreak of possession, the arcology in question would be quarantined. And Quinn knew that even with his energistic powers there would be nothing he could do to escape once the vac-trains had been shut down.

Most of the other passengers had disembarked, and the chief stewardess was glancing in Quinn’s direction. He rose up from his deep leather seat, stretching the tiredness from his limbs. There was absolutely no way he’d ever get past the immigration desk, let alone security.

He walked towards the airlock hatch, and summoned the energistic power, mentally moulding it into the now familiar pattern. It crawled over his body, needle spears of static penetrating every cell. A swift groan was the only indication he showed of the grotesquery he experienced passing through the gateway into the ghost realm. His heart stopped, his breathing ceased, and the world about him lost its glimmer of substance. The solidity of walls and floors was still present, but ephemeral. Irrelevant if he really pressed.

The chief stewardess watched the last passenger step into the airlock, and turned back to the bar. Secured below the counter were several bottles of the complimentary Norfolk Tears and other expensive spirits and liqueurs which her team had opened. They were careful never to leave much, at most a third, before opening a new bottle. But a third of these drinks was an expensive commodity.

She began inventorying all these bottles as empty in her stock control block. The team would split them later, filling their personal flasks, and take them home. As long as they didn’t get too greedy the company supervisor would let it pass. Her block’s datavise turned to nonsense. She gave it an annoyed glare, and automatically rapped it against the bar. That was when the lights started to flicker. Puzzled now, she frowned up at the ceiling. Electrical systems were failing all over the lounge. The AV pillar projection behind the bar had crashed into rainbow squiggles, the airlock hatch activators were whining loudly, though the hatch itself wasn’t moving.

“What—?” she grumbled. Power loss was just about impossible in the lift capsules. Every component had multiple redundancy backups. She was about to call the lift capsule’s operations officer when the lights steadied, and her stock control block came back on line. “Bloody typical,” she grunted. It still bothered her badly. If things could go wrong on the ground, they could certainly go wrong half way up the tower.

She gave the waiting bottles a forlorn glance, knowing she was giving them up if she logged an official powerdown incident report. The company inspectorate authority would swarm all over the lift capsule. She carefully erased the inventory file she’d started, and datavised the lounge processor for a channel to the operations officer.

The call never got placed. Instead she received a priority datavise from the arrivals complex security office ordering her to remain exactly where she was. Outside, an alarm siren started its high-pitched urgent wailing. The sound made her jump, in eleven years of riding the tower she’d only ever heard it during practice drills.

The siren’s clamour sounded muffled to Quinn. He’d watched the airlock lights quiver, and sensed the delicate electronic patterns of nearby processors storm wildly as he pushed himself through the gateway. There was nothing he could do about it. It took all of his concentration to marshal his energistic power into the correct pattern. Now it seemed that pattern had an above-average giveaway effect on nearby electronics—though nothing had happened when he’d slipped out of the ghost realm into the Royale Class lounge at the start of the descent. Of course, he wasn’t exerting himself then, quite the opposite, he’d actually been reining in the power.

Ah well, something to remember.

Thick security doors were rumbling across the end of the corridor, trapping stragglers among the passengers. Quinn walked past them, and reached the door. It put up a token resistance as he pushed himself through, as if it were nothing more than a vertical sheet of water.

The arrivals complex on the other side was made up from a series of grandiose multi-level reception halls, stitched together by wave stairs and open-shaft lifts. It could cope with seventy passenger lift capsules disembarking at once; a capacity which had been operating at barely twenty-five per cent since the start of the crisis. As Quinn made his way out from the sealed admission chamber at the end of the corridor, his first impression was that the air-conditioning grilles were pumping out adrenaline gas.

Down below on the main concourse, a huge flock of people was running for cover. They didn’t know where they were going, the exits were all closed, but they knew where they didn’t want to be, and that was anywhere near a lift capsule that was crammed full of possessed. They were damn sure there was no other reason for a security alert of such magnitude.

Up on Quinn’s level, badly hyped security guards in bulky kinetic armour were racing for the admission chamber. Officers were screaming orders. All the passengers from the lift capsule were being rounded up at gunpoint and being made to assume the position. Anyone who protested was given a sharp jab with a shock rod. Three stunned bodies were already sprawled on the floor, twitching helplessly. It encouraged healthy cooperation among the remainder.

Quinn went over to the rank of guards who were forming a semicircle around the door to the admission chamber. Eighteen of the stubby rifles were lined up on it. He walked round one guard to get a closer look at the weapon. The guard shivered slightly, as if a chilly breeze was finding its way through the joint overlaps of her armour. Her weapon was some kind of machine pistol. Quinn knew enough about munitions to recognise it as employing chemical bullets. There were several grenades hanging from her belt.

Even though God’s Brother had granted him a much greater energistic strength than the average possessed, he would be very hard pressed to defend himself against all eighteen of them firing at him. Earth was obviously taking the threat of possession very seriously indeed.

A new group of people had arrived to move methodically among the whimpering passengers. They weren’t in uniforms, just ordinary blue business suits, but the security officers deferred to them. Quinn could sense their thoughts, very calm and focused in comparison to everyone else. Intelligence operatives, most likely.

Quinn decided not to wait and find out. He retreated from the semicircle of guards as an officer was ordering them to open the admission chamber door. The wave stair down to the main concourse had been switched off; so he climbed the frozen steps of silicon two at a time.

People huddled round the barricaded exits felt his passage as a swift ripple of cool air, gone almost as it started. On the plaza outside, more squads of security guards were setting up; two groups were busy mounting heavy-calibre Bradfield rifles on tripods. Quinn shook his head in a kind of bemused admiration, then carefully walked round them. The long row of lifts down to the vac-train station was still working, though there were few people left on the arrivals complex storey to use them. He hopped in to one with a group of frightened-looking business executives just back from a trip to Cavius city on the moon.

The lift took them a kilometre and a half straight down, opening into a circular chamber three hundred metres across. The station’s floor was divided up by concentric rows of turnstiles, channelling passengers into the cluster of wave stairs occupying the centre. Information columns of jet-black glass formed a picket line around the outside, knots of fluorescent icons twirling around them like electronic fish. Lines of holographic symbols slithered through the air overhead, weaving sinuously around each other as they guided passengers to the wave stair which led down to their platform.

Quinn sauntered idly round the outside of the information columns for a while, watching the contortions of the holograms overhead. The bustling crowd (all averting their eyes from each other), the confined walls and ceiling, wheezing air conditioners pouring out gritty air, small mechanoids being kicked as they attempted to clean up rubbish—he welcomed them all back into his life. Even though he was going to destroy this world and despoil its people, for a brief interlude it remained the old home. His satisfaction came to a cold halt; the name EDMONTON, in vibrant red letters, trickled over his head, riding along a curving convey of translucent blue arrowheads towards one of the wave stairs. The vac-train was departing in eleven minutes.

It was so tempting. Banneth, at last. To see that face stricken with fear, then suffering—for a long long time, the suffering—before the final ignominy of empty-headed imbecility. There were so many stages of torment to inflict on Banneth, so much he wanted to do to her now he had the power; intricate, malicious applications of pain, psychological as well as physical. But the needs of God’s Brother came first, even before the near-sexual urgings of his own serpent beast. Quinn turned away from the glowing invitation in disgust, and went to find a vac-train which would take him direct to New York.

People were starting to congregate around the windows of the bars and fast-food outlets which made up the perimeter wall of the station. Kids stared with intrigued expressions at the images coming at them from newschannel AV projectors, while adults achieved the blank-faced other-whereness which showed they were receiving sensevises. As he passed a pasta stall, Quinn caught a brief glimpse of the image inside a holoscreen above the sweating cook. Jupiter’s cloudscape formed an effervescent ginger backdrop to a habitat; dozens of spaceships were swirling round it in what could almost be read as a state of high excitement.

It wasn’t relevant to him, so he walked on.

Ione had gone straight to De Beauvoir palace after Tranquillity emerged above Jupiter, coordinating the habitat’s maintenance crews and making a public sensevise to reassure people and tell them what to do. The formal reception room was a more appropriate setting for such a broadcast than her private apartment. Now with the immediate crisis over, she was snuggled back in the big chair behind her desk and using Tranquillity’s sensitive cells to observe the last of the voidhawks assigned to implement the aid response settle on its docking ledge pedestal. A procession of vehicles trundled over the polyp towards it, cargo flatbed lorries and heavy-lift trucks eager to unload the large fusion generator clamped awkwardly in the voidhawk’s cargo cradles.

The generator had come from one of the industrial stations of the nearest Edenist habitat, Lycoris; hurriedly ferried over by Consensus as soon as Tranquillity’s status was established. There were currently fifteen technical crews working on similar generators around the docking ledge, powering them up and wiring them in to the habitat’s power grid.

When she sank her mentality deeper into the neural strata and the autonomic monitor routines which operated there, Ione could feel the electricity flowing back into the starscrapers through the organic conductors, their mechanical systems gradually coming back on line. The habitat’s girdling city had been in emergency powerdown mode since the swallow manoeuvre, along with other non-essential functions. Grandfather Michael’s precautions hadn’t been perfect after all. She grinned to herself; pretty damn good, though. And even without the Jovian Consensus on hand to help with all its resources, they had the smaller fusion generators in the non-rotating spaceport.

We would have been okay.

Of course we would,tranquillity said. it managed a mildly chastising tone, surprised at her doubt.

Obviously, nobody had fully thought through the implications of the swallow manoeuvre for Tranquillity. When it entered the wormhole, the hundreds of induction cables radiating out from the endcap rims had been sliced off, eliminating nearly all of the habitat’s natural energy generation capability. It would take their extrusion glands several months to grow new ones out to full length.

By which time they might have to move again.

Let’s not worry about that right now,tranquillity said. We’re in the safest orbit in the Confederation; even I was surprised by the amount of fire-power Consensus has amassed here to protect itself. Be content.

I wasn’t complaining.

Nor are our inhabitants.

Ione felt her attention being focused inside the shell.

It was party time in Tranquillity. The whole population had come up out of the starscrapers to wait in the parkland around the lobbies until the electricity was restored. Elderly plutocrats sat on the grass next to students, waitresses shared the queue to the toilets with corporate presidents, Laymil project researchers mingled with society vacuumheads. Everybody had grabbed a bottle on the way out of their apartment, and the galaxy’s biggest mass picnic had erupted spontaneously. Dawn was now five hours late, but the moonlight silver light-tube only enhanced the ambience. People drank, and ran stim programs, and laughed with their neighbour as they told and retold their personal tale of combat-wasp-swarms-I-have-seen-hurtling-towards-me. They thanked God but principally Ione Saldana for rescuing them, and declared their undying love for her, that goddamn beautiful, brilliant, canny, gorgeous girl in whose habitat they were blessed to live. And, hey, Capone; how does it feel, loser? Your almighty Confederation-challenging fleet screwed by a single non-military habitat; everything you could throw at us, and we beat you. Still happy you came back to the wonders of this century?

The residents from the two starscrapers closest to De Beauvoir palace walked over the vales and round the spinnies to pay their respects and voice their gratitude. A huge crowd was singing and chanting outside the gates, calling, pleading for their heroine to appear.

Ione slid the focus over them, smiling when she saw Dominique and Clement in the throng, as well as a wildly drunk Kempster Getchell. There were others she knew, too, directors and managers of multistellar companies and finance institutions, all swept along with the tide of emotion. Red-faced, exhilarated, and calling her name with hoarse throats. She let the focus float back to Clement.

Invite him in,tranquillity urged warmly.


Survival of dangerous events is a sexual trigger for humans. You should indulge your instincts. He will make you happy, and you deserve that more than anything.

Romantically put.

Romance has nothing to do with this. Enjoy the release he will bring.

What about you? You performed the swallow manoeuvre.

When you are happy, I am happy.

She laughed out loud. “Oh what the hell, why not.”

That is good. But I think you will have to make a public appearance first. This crowd is good-natured, but quite determined to thank you.

Yes.she sobered. But there is one last official duty.

Indeed.tranquillity’s tone matched her disposition.

Ione felt the mental conversation widen to incorporate the Jovian Consensus. Armira, the Kiint ambassador to Jupiter, was formally invited to converse with them.

Our swallow manoeuvre has produced an unexpected event,ione said. We are hopeful that you can clarify it for us.

Armira injected a sensation of stately amusement into the affinity band. I would suggest, Ione Saldana and Tranquillity, that your entire swallow manoeuvre was an unexpected event.

It certainly surprised the Kiint we were host to, she said. They all left, very suddenly.

I see.armira’s thoughts hardened, denying them any hint of his emotional content.

Tranquillity replayed the memory it had from the time of the attack, showing all the Kiint vanishing inside event horizons.

What you have seen demonstrated is an old ability,armira responded dispassionately. We developed the emergency exodus facility during the era when we were engaged in interstellar travel. It is merely a sophisticated application of your distortion field systems. My colleagues helping with your Laymil research project would have used it instinctively when they believed they were threatened.

We’re sure they would,consensus said. And who can blame them? That’s not the point. The fact that you have this ability is most enlightening to us. We have always regarded as somewhat fanciful your claim that your race’s interest in star travel is now over. Although the fact that you had no starships added undeniable weight to the argument. Now we have seen your personal teleport ability, the original claim is exposed as a complete fallacy.

We do not have the same level of interest in travelling to different worlds that you do,armira said.

Of course not. Our starships are principally concerned with commercial and colonization flights, and an unfortunate amount of military activity. Your technological level would preclude anything as simple as commercial activity. We also believe that you are peaceful, although you must have considerable knowledge of advanced weapons. That leaves colonization and exploration.

A correct analysis.

Are you still conducting these activities?

To some degree.

Why did you not tell us this, why have you hidden your true abilities behind a claim of mysticism and disinterest?

You know the answer to that,armira said. Humans discovered the Jiciro race three hundred years ago; yet you have still not initiated contact and revealed yourselves to them. Their technology and culture is at a very primitive level, and you know what will happen if they are exposed to the Confederation. All that they have will be supplanted by what they will interpret as futuristic items of convenience, they will cease to develop anything for themselves. Who knows what achievements would be lost to the universe?

That argument does not pertain here,consensus said. The Jiciro do not know what the stars are, nor that solid matter is composed of atoms. We do. We acknowledge that our technology is inferior to yours. But equally you know that one day we will achieve your current level. You are denying us knowledge we already know exists, and you have done so twice, in this field and in your understanding of the beyond. This is not an act of fellowship; we have opened ourselves to you in honesty and friendship, we have not hidden our flaws from you; yet you have clearly not reciprocated. Our conclusion is that you are simply studying us. We would now like to know why. As sentient entities we have that right.

Study is a pejorative term. We learn of you, as you do us. Admittedly that process is imbalanced, but given our respective natures, that is inevitable. As to bestowing our technology; that would be interference of the grandest order. If you want something, achieve it for yourselves.

Same argument you gave us concerning the beyond,ione remarked testily.

Of course,armira said. Tell me, Ione Saldana, what would your reaction have been if a xenoc race announced that you had an immortal soul, and proved it, and then went on to demonstrate that the beyond awaited, though as Laton said, only for some? Would you have greeted such a revelation with thanks?

No, I don’t suppose I would.

We know that our introduction to the concept of the beyond was accidental,consensus said. Something happened on Lalonde which allowed the souls to come back and possess the living. Something extraneous. This calamity has been inflicted upon us. Surely such circumstances permit you to intervene?

There was a long pause. We will not intervene in this case,armira said. For two reasons. Whatever happened on Lalonde happened because you went there. There is more to travelling between stars and exploring the universe than the physical act.

You are saying we must accept responsibility for our actions.

Yes, inevitably.

Very well, with reservations we accept that judgement. Though, please appreciate, we do not like it. What is the second reason?

Understand, there is a faction among my people who have argued that we should intervene in your favour. The possibility was rejected because what we have learned of you so far indicates that your race will come through this time successfully. Edenists especially have the social maturity to face that which follows.

I’m not an Edenist,ione said. What about me, and all the other Adamists, the majority of our race? Are you going to stand back as we perish and fall into the beyond? Does the survival of an elite few, the sophisticates and the intellectuals, justify discarding the rest? Humans have never practised eugenics, we regard it as an abomination, and rightly so. If that’s the price of racial improvement, we’re not willing to pay it.

If I am any judge, you too will triumph, Ione Saldana.

Nice to know. But what about all the others?

Fate will determine what happens. I can say no more other than to restate our official response: the answer lies within yourselves.

That is not much of a comfort,consensus remarked.

I understand your frustration. My one piece of advice is that you should not share what you have learned about my race with the Adamists. Believing we have a solution, and that piety alone will extract it from us, would weaken their incentive to find that answer.

We will consider your suggestion,consensus said. But Edenism will not voluntarily face the rest of eternity without our cousins. Ultimately, we are one race, however diverse.

I acknowledge your integrity.

I have a final question,ione said. Where is Jay Hilton? She was taken from Tranquillity at the same time as your researchers. Why?

Armira’s thoughts softened, shading as close to embarrassment as Ione had ever known a Kiint to come. That was an error,the ambassador said. And I apologise unreservedly for it. However, you should know the error was made in good faith. A young Kiint included Jay Hilton in the emergency exodus against parental guidance. She was simply trying to save her friend.

Haile!ione laughed delightedly. You wicked girl.

I believe she has been severely reprimanded for the incident.

I hope not,ione said indignantly. She’s only a baby.


Well, you can bring Jay back now; Tranquillity isn’t as vulnerable as you thought.

I apologise again, but Jay Hilton cannot be returned to you at this time.

Why not?

In effect, she has seen too much. I assure you that she is perfectly safe, and we will of course return her to you immediately once your current situation is resolved.

The walls of the prison cell were made from some kind of dull-grey composite, not quite cool enough to be metal, but just as hard. Louise had touched them once before sinking down onto the single cot and hugging her legs, knees tucked up under her chin. The gravity was about half that of Norfolk, better than Phobos, at least; though the air was cooler than it had been on the Jamrana. She spent some time wondering about Endron, the old systems specialist from the Far Realm, thinking he might have betrayed them and alerted High York’s authorities, then decided it really didn’t matter. Her one worry now was that she’d been separated from Gen; her sister would be very frightened by what was happening.

And I got her into this mess. Mother will kill me.

Except Mother was in no position to do anything. Louise hugged herself tighter, fighting the way her lips kept trembling.

The door slid open, and two female police officers stepped in. Louise assumed they were police, they wore pale blue uniforms with Govcentral’s bronze emblem on their shoulders, depicting a world where continents shaped as hands gripped together.

“Okay, Kavanagh,” said the one with sergeant stripes. “Let’s go.”

Louise straightened her legs, looking cautiously from one to the other. “Where?”


“I’d just shove you out the bloody airlock, it’s up to me,” said the other. “Trying to sneak one of those bastards in here. Bitch.”

“Leave it,” the sergeant ordered.

“I wasn’t . . .” Louise started. She pursed her lips helplessly. It was so complicated, and heaven only knew how many laws she’d broken on the way to High York.

They marched her down a short corridor and into another room. It made her think of hospitals. White walls, everything clean, a table in the middle that was more like a laboratory bench, cheap waiting room chairs, various processor blocks in a tall rack in one corner, more lying on the table. Brent Roi was sitting behind the table; he’d taken off the customs uniform he’d worn to greet the Jamrana , now he was in the same blue suit as the officers escorting her. He waved her into the chair facing him.

Louise sat, hunching her shoulders exactly the way she was always scolding Gen for doing. She waited for a minute with downcast eyes, then glanced up. Brent Roi was giving her a level stare.

“You’re not a possessed,” he said. “The tests prove that.”

Louise pulled nervously at the black one-piece overall she’d been given, the memory of those tests vivid in her mind. Seven armed guards had been pointing their machine guns at her as the technicians ordered her to strip. They’d put her inside sensor loops, pressed hand-held scanners against her, taken samples. It was a million times worse than any medical examination. Afterwards, the only thing she’d been allowed to keep was the medical nanonic package round her wrist.

“That’s good,” she said in a tiny voice.

“So how did he blackmail you?”


“The possessed guy calling himself Fletcher Christian.”

“Um. He didn’t blackmail me, he was looking after us.”

“So you rolled over and let him fuck you in return for protection against the other possessed?”


Brent Roi shrugged. “He preferred your little sister?”

“No! Fletcher is a decent man. You shouldn’t say such things.”

“Then what the hell are you doing here, Louise? Why did you try and infiltrate a possessed into the O’Neill Halo?”

“I wasn’t. It’s not like that. We came here to warn you.”

“Warn who?”

“Earth. Govcentral. There’s somebody coming here. Somebody terrible.”

“Yeah?” Brent Roi raised a sceptical eyebrow. “Who’s that then?”

“He’s called Quinn Dexter. I’ve met him, he’s worse than any normal possessed. Much worse.”

“In what way?”

“More powerful. And he’s full of hate. Fletcher says there’s something wrong about him, he’s different somehow.”

“Ah, the expert on possession. Well, if anyone is going to know, it’ll be him.”

Louise frowned, unsure why the official was being so difficult. “We came here to warn you,” she insisted. “Dexter said he was coming to Earth. He wants revenge on someone called Banneth. You have to guard all the spaceports, and make sure he doesn’t get down to the surface. It would be a disaster. He’ll start the possession down there.”

“And why do you care?”

“I told you. I’ve met him. I know what he’s like.”

“Worse than ordinary possessed; yet you seemed to have survived. How did you manage that, Louise?”

“We were helped.”

“By Fletcher?”

“No . . . I don’t know who it was.”

“All right, so you escaped this fate worse than death, and you came here to warn us.”


“How did you get off Norfolk, Louise?”

“I bought tickets on a starship.”

“I see. And you took Fletcher Christian with you. Were you worried there were possessed among the starship crew?”

“No. That was one place I was sure there wouldn’t be any possessed.”

“So although you knew there were no possessed on board, you still took Christian with you as protection. Was that your idea, or his?”

“I . . . It . . . He was with us. He’d been with us since we left home.”

“Where is home, Louise?”

“Cricklade manor. But Dexter came and possessed everyone. That’s when we fled to Norwich.”

“Ah yes, Norfolk’s capital. So you brought Christian with you to Norwich. Then when that started to fall to the possessed, you thought you’d better get offplanet, right?”


“Did you know Christian was a possessed when you bought the tickets?”

“Yes, of course.”

“And when you bought them, did you also know Dexter wanted to come to Earth?”

“No, that was after.”

“So was it dear old samaritan Fletcher Christian who suggested coming here to warn us?”


“And you agreed to help him?”


“So where were you going to go originally, before Fletcher Christian made you change your mind and come here?”


Brent Roi nodded in apparent fascination. “That’s a rather strange place for a young lady from Norfolk’s landowner class to go. What made you choose that habitat?”

“My fiancй lives there. If anyone can protect us, he can.”

“And who is your fiancй, Louise?”

She smiled sheepishly. “Joshua Calvert.”

“Joshua Cal . . . You mean Lagrange Calvert?”

“No, Joshua.”

“The captain of the Lady Macbeth ?”

“Yes. Do you know him?”

“Let’s say, the name rings a bell.” He sat back and folded his arms, regarding Louise with a strangely mystified expression.

“Can I see Genevieve now?” she asked timidly. No one had actually said she was under arrest yet. She felt a lot more confident now the policeman had actually listened to her story.

“In a little while, possibly. We just have to review the information you’ve provided us with.”

“You do believe me about Quinn Dexter, don’t you? You must make sure he doesn’t get down to Earth.”

“Oh, I assure you, we will do everything we can to make sure he doesn’t get through our security procedures.”

“Thank you.” She glanced awkwardly at the two female officers standing on either side of her chair. “What’s going to happen to Fletcher?”

“I don’t know, Louise, that’s not my department. But I imagine they’ll attempt to flush him out of the body he’s stolen.”

“Oh.” She stared at the floor.

“Do you think they’re wrong to try that, Louise?”

“No. I suppose not.” The words were troubling to speak; the truth, but not what was right. None of what had happened was right.

“Good.” Brent Roi signalled her escort. “We’ll talk again in a little while.” When the door closed behind her, he couldn’t help a grimace of pure disbelief.

“What do you think?” his supervisor datavised.

“I have never heard someone sprout quite so much bullshit in a single interview before,” Brent Roi replied. “Either she’s a retard, or we’re up against a new type of possessed infiltration.”

“She’s not a retard.”

“Then what the hell is she? Nobody is that dumb, it’s not possible.”

“I don’t believe she’s dumb, either. Our problem is, we’re so used to dealing with horrendous complexities of subterfuge, we never recognise the simple truth when we see it.”

“Oh come on, you don’t actually believe that story?”

“She is, as you said, from the Norfolk landowner class; that doesn’t exactly prepare her for the role of galactic master criminal. And she is travelling with her sister.”

“That’s just cover.”

“Brent, you are depressingly cynical.”

“Yes, sir.” He held on to his exasperation, it never made the slightest impression on his supervisor. The anonymous entity who had guided the last twenty years of his life lacked many ordinary human responses. There were times when Brent Roi wondered if he was actually dealing with a xenoc. Not that there was much he could do about that now; whatever branch of whatever agency the supervisor belonged to, it was undoubtedly a considerable power within Govcentral. His own smooth, accelerated promotion through the Halo police force was proof of that.

“There are factors of Miss Kavanagh’s story which my colleagues and I find uniquely interesting.”

“Which factors?” Brent asked.

“You know better than that.”

“All right. What do you want me to do with her?”

“Endron has confirmed the Phobos events to the Martian police, however we must establish exactly what happened to Kavanagh on Norfolk. Initiate a direct memory retrieval procedure.”

Over the last five hundred years, the whole concept of Downtown had acquired a new-ish and distinctly literal meaning in New York; naturally enough, so did Uptown. One thing, though, would never change; the arcology still jealously guarded its right to boast the tallest individual building on the planet. While the odd couple of decades per century might see the title stolen away by upstart rivals in Europe or Asia, the trophy always came home eventually.

The arcology now sprawled across more than four thousand square kilometres, housing (officially) three hundred million people. With New Manhattan at the epicentre, fifteen crystalline domes, twenty kilometres in diameter, were clumped together in a semicircle along the eastern seaboard, sheltering entire districts of ordinary skyscrapers (defined as buildings under one kilometre high) from the pummelling heat and winds. Where the domes intersected, gigantic conical megatowers soared up into the contused sky. More than anything, these colossi conformed to the old concept of “arcology” as a single city-in-a-building. They had apartments, shopping malls, factories, offices, design bureaus, stadiums, universities, parks, police stations, council chambers, hospitals, restaurants, bars, and spaces for every other human activity of the Twenty-seventh Century. Thousands of their inhabitants were born, lived, and died inside them without ever once leaving.

At five and a half kilometres tall, the Reagan was the current global champion, its kilometre-wide base resting on the bedrock where the town of Ridgewood had stood in the times before the armada storms. An apartment on any of its upper fifty floors cost fifteen million fuseodollars apiece, and the last one was sold twelve years before they were built. Their occupants, the new breed of Uptowners, enjoyed a view as spectacular as it was possible to have on Earth. Although impenetrably dense cloud swathed the arcology for a minimum of two days out of every seven; when it was clear the hot air was very clear indeed. Far below them, under the transparent hexagonal sheets which comprised the roof of the domes, the tide of life ebbed and flowed for their amusement. By day, an exotic hustle as kaleidoscope rivers of vehicles flowed along the elevated 3D web of roads and rails; by night, a shimmering tapestry of neon pixels.

Surrounding the Reagan, streets and skyscrapers fanned out in a radial of deep carbon-concrete canyons, like buttress roots climbing up to support the main tower. The lower levels of these canyons were badly cluttered, where the skyscraper bases were twice as broad as their peaks, and the elevated roads formed a complex intersecting grid for the first hundred and fifty metres above the ground. High expressways throwing off curving slip roads at each junction down to the local traffic lanes; broad freight-only flyovers shaking from the eighty-tonne autotrucks grumbling along them twenty-four hours a day, winding like snakes into tunnels which led to sub-basement loading yards; metro transit carriages gliding along a mesh of rails so labyrinthine that only an AI could run the network. Rents were cheap near the ground, where there was little light but plenty of noise, and the heavy air gusting between dirty vertical walls had been breathed a hundred times before. Entropy in the arcology meant a downward drift. Everything that was worn-out, obsolete, demode, economically redundant—down it came to settle on the ground, where it could descend no further. People as well as objects.

Limpet-like structures proliferated among the crisscross of road support girders bridging the gap between the skyscrapers, shanty igloos woven from salvaged plastic and carbotanium composite, multiplying over the decades until they clotted into their own light-killing roof. Under them, leeched to the streets themselves, were the market stalls and fast-food counters; a souk economy of fifth-hand cast-offs and date-expired sachets shuffled from family to family in an eternal round robin. Crime here was petty and incestuous, gangs ruled their turf, pushers ruled the gangs. Police made token patrols in the day, and went off-shift as the unseen sun sank below the rim of the domes above.

This was Downtown. It was everywhere, but always beneath the feet of ordinary citizens, invisible. Quinn adored it. The people who dwelt here were almost in the ghost realm already; nothing they did ever affected the real world.

He walked up out of the subway onto a gloomy street jammed with canopied stalls and wheel-less vans, all with their skirt of goods guarded by vigilant owners. Graffiti struggled with patches of pale mould for space on the skyscraper walls. There were few windows, and those were merely armoured slits revealing little of the mangy shops and bars inside. Metallic thunder from the roads above was as permanent as the air which carried it.

Several looks were quickly thrown Quinn’s way before eyes were averted for fear of association. He smiled to himself as he strode confidently among the stalls. As if his attitude wasn’t enough to mark him out as an interloper, he had clothed himself in his jet-black priest robe again.

It was the simplest way. He wanted to find the sect, but he’d never been to New York before. Everybody in Downtown knew about the sect, this was their prime recruiting ground. There would be a coven close by, there always was. He just needed someone who knew the location.

Sure enough, he hadn’t got seventy metres from the subway when they saw him. A pair of waster kids busy laughing as they pissed on the woman they’d just beaten unconscious. Her two-year-old kid lay on the sidewalk bawling as blood and urine pooled round its feet. The victim’s bag had been ripped apart, scattering its pitiful contents on the ground around her. They put Quinn in mind of Jackson Gael; late-adolescence, with pumped bodies, their muscle shape defined by some exercise but mostly tailored-hormones. One of them wore a T-shirt with the slogan: CHEMICAL WARFARE MACHINE. The other was more body-proud, favouring a naked torso.

He was the one who saw Quinn first, grunted in amazement, and nudged his partner. They sealed their flies and sauntered over.

Quinn slowly pushed his hood down. Hyper-sensitive to trouble, the street was de-populating rapidly. Pedestrians, already nervous from the mugging, slipped away behind the forest of support pillars. Market stall shutters were slammed down.

The two waster kids stopped in front of Quinn, who grinned in welcome. “I haven’t had sex for ages,” Quinn said. He looked straight at the one wearing the T-shirt. “So I think I’ll fuck you first tonight.”

The waster kid snarled, and threw a punch with all the strength his inflated muscles could manage. Quinn remained perfectly still. The fist struck his jaw, just to the left of his chin. There was a crunch which could easily be heard above the traffic’s clamour. The waster kid bellowed, first in shock, then in agony. His whole body shook as he slowly pulled his hand back. Every knuckle was broken, as if he had punched solid stone. He cradled it with frightened tenderness, whimpering.

“I’d like to say take me to your leader,” Quinn said, as if he hadn’t even noticed the punch. “But organising yourselves takes brains. So I guess I’m out of luck.”

The second waster kid had paled, shaking his head and taking a couple of steps backward.

“Don’t run,” Quinn said, his voice sharp.

The waster kid paused for a second, then turned and bolted. His jeans burst into flames. He screamed, stumbling to a halt, and flailing wildly at the burning fabric. His hands ignited. The shock silenced him for a second as he held them up disbelievingly in front of his face. Then he screamed again, and kept on screaming, staggering about drunkenly. He crashed into one of the flimsy stalls which crumpled, folding about him. The fire was burning deeper into his flesh now, spreading along his arms, and up onto his torso. His screaming became weaker as he bucked about in the smouldering wreckage.

The T-shirted kid raced over to him. But all he could do was look down in a horror of indecision as the flames grew hotter.

“For Christ’s sake,” he wailed at Quinn. “Stop it. Stop it!”

Quinn laughed. “Your first lesson is that God’s Brother cannot be stopped.”

The body was motionless and silent now, a black glistening husk at the centre of the flames. Quinn put a hand on the shoulder of the sobbing waster kid at his side. “It hurts you, doesn’t it? Watching this?”

“Hurts! Hurts? You bastard.” Even with a face screwed up from pain and rage, he didn’t dare try to twist free from Quinn’s hand.

“I have a question,” Quinn said. “And I’ve chosen you to answer it for me.” His hand moved down, caressing the waster kid’s chest before it reached his crotch. He tightened his fingers round the kid’s balls, aroused by the fear he was inflicting.

“Yes, God, yes. Anything,” the kid snivelled. His eyes were closed, denying what he could of this nightmare.

“Where is the nearest coven of the Light Bringer sect?”

Even with the pain and dread scrambling his thoughts, the waster kid managed to stammer: “This dome, district seventeen, eighty-thirty street. They got a centre somewhere along there.”

“Good. You see, you’ve learnt obedience, already. That’s very smart of you. I’m almost impressed. Now there’s only one lesson left.”

The waster kid quailed. “What?”

“To love me.”

The coven’s headquarters had chewed its way, maggot-fashion, into the corner of the Hauck skyscraper on eighty-thirty street. What had once been a simple lattice of cube rooms, arranged by mathematics rather than art, was now a jumbled warren of darkened chambers. Acolytes had knocked holes in some walls, nailed up barricades in the corridors, pulled down ceilings, sealed off stairwells; drones shaping their nest to the design of the magus. From the outside it looked the same, a row of typically shabby Downtown shops along the street, selling goods cheaper than anywhere else—they could afford to, everything was stolen by the acolytes. But above the shops, the slim windows were blacked out, and according to the building management processors, the rooms unoccupied, and therefore not liable to pay rent.

Inside, the coven members buzzed about industriously twenty-four hours a day. Looked at from a strictly corporate viewpoint, which was how magus Garth always regarded his coven, it was quite a prosperous operation. Ordinary acolytes, the real sewer-bottom shit of the human race, were sent out boosting from the upper levels; bringing back a constant supply of consumer goodies that were either used by the sect or sold off in the coven-front shops and affiliated street market stalls. Sergeant acolytes were deployed primarily as enforcers to keep the others in line, but also to run a more sophisticated distribution net among the dome’s lower-middle classes; competing (violently) with ordinary pushers out in the bars and clubs. Senior acolytes, the ones who actually had a working brain cell, were given didactic memory courses and employed running the pirate factory equipment, bootlegging MF albums, black sensevise programs, and AV activant software; as well as synthesizing an impressive pharmacopoeia of drugs, hormones, and proscribed viral vectors.

In addition to these varied retail enterprises, the coven still engaged in the more traditional activities of crime syndicates. Although sensevise technology had essentially eliminated a lot of prostitution outside of Downtown, that still left protection rackets, extortion, clean water theft, blackmail, kidnapping, data theft, game-rigging, civic-service fraud, power theft, embezzlement, and vehicle theft, among others.

The coven performed all of them with gusto, if not finesse. Magus Garth was satisfied with their work. They hadn’t missed their monthly target in over three years, making the required financial offering to New York’s high magus over in dome two. His only worry was that the High Magus could realize how lucrative the coven was, and demand a higher offering. Increased payments would cut into Garth’s personal profits, the eight per cent he’d been skimming every month for the last five years.

There were times when Garth wondered why nobody had noticed. But then, looking at sergeant acolyte Wener, maybe he shouldn’t be all that surprised. Wener was in his thirties, a big man, but rounded rather than wedge-shaped like most of the acolytes. He had a thick beard, dark hair sprouting from his face in almost simian proportions. His head was in keeping with the rest of his body, though Garth suspected the bone thickness would be a lot greater than average. An overhanging forehead and jutting chin gave him a permanently sullen, resentful expression—appropriately enough. You couldn’t geneer that quality, it was a demonstration that the incest taboo was finally starting to lose force among Downtown residents. Fifteen years in the sect, and Wener was as far up the hierarchy as he’d ever get.

“They got Tod, and Jay-Dee,” Wener said. He smiled at the memory. “Tod went down swinging. Hit a couple of cops before they shot him with a fucking nervejam. They started kicking him then. I got out.”

“How come they spotted you?” Garth asked. He’d sent Wener and five others out to steam a mall. Simple enough, two of you bang into a civilian, cut a bag strap, slice trouser pocket fabric. Any protest: you get crushed by a circle of aggressive faces and tough young bodies looking for an excuse to hurt you as bad as they can.

Wener shifted some flesh around on top of his shoulders, his way of shrugging. “Dunno. Cops maybe saw what was going down.”

“Ah, fuck it.” Garth knew. They’d hit a streak and stayed too long, allowed the mall patrols to realize what was happening. “Did Tod and Jay-Dee have anything on them?”

“Credit disks.”

“Shit.” That was it. The cops would send them straight down to the Justice Hall, walk them past a judge whose assistant’s assistant would access the case file and slap them with an Involuntary Transportation sentence. Two more loyal followers lost to some asshole colony. Though Garth had heard that the quarantine was even affecting colony starship flights. Ivet holding pens at every orbital tower station were getting heavily overcrowded, the news companies were hot with rumours of riots.

Wener was shoving his hands in his pockets, pulling out credit disks and other civilian crap: fleks, jewellery, palm-sized blocks . . . “I got this. The steam wasn’t a total zero.” He spilt the haul on Garth’s desk, and gave the magus a hopeful look.

“Okay, Wener. But you’ve got to be more careful in the future. Fuck it, God’s Brother doesn’t like failure.”

“Yes, magus.”

“All right, get the hell out of my sight before I give you to Hot Spot for a night.”

Wener lumbered out of the sanctum, and closed the door. Garth datavised the room’s management processor to turn up the lights. Candles and shadowy gloom were the sect’s habitual trappings. When acolytes were summoned before him, the study conformed to that: a sombre cave lit by a few spluttering red candles in iron candelabrums, its walls invisible.

Powerful beams shone down out of the ceiling, revealing a richly furnished den; drinks cabinet filled with a good selection of bottles, an extensive AV and sensevise flek library, new-marque Kulu Corporation desktop processor (genuine—not a bootleg), some of the weirder art stuff that was impossible to fence. A homage to his own greed, and devoutness. If you see something you want: take it.

“Kerry!” he yelled.

She came in from his private apartment, butt naked. He hadn’t allowed her to wear clothes since the day her brother brought her in. Best-looking girl the coven had acquired in ages. A few tweaks with cosmetic adaptation packages, pandering to his personal tastes, and she was visual perfection.

“Get my fifth invocation robes,” he told her. “Hurry up. I’ve got the initiation in ten minutes.”

She bobbed her head apprehensively, and retreated back into the apartment. Garth started picking up the junk Wener had left, reading the flek labels, datavising the blocks for a menu. A gentle gust of cool air wafted across his face. The candles flickered. It broke his concentration for a moment. Air conditioner screwed up again.

There was nothing of any interest among Wener’s haul, no blackmail levers; some of the fleks were company files, but a quick check found no commercially sensitive items. He was indifferent about that. Data was the other offering the coven made to the High Magus, and that on a weekly basis. A gift that never brought any return, other than the invisible umbrella of political protection the sect extended to its senior members. So Garth played along, considering it his insurance premium. The reports were more than a simple summary of what was happening inside the coven; the High Magus insisted on knowing what action was going down on the street, every street.

Years of being out on the street at the hard edge had taught Garth the value of good intelligence, but this was like a fetish with the High Magus.

Kerry returned with his robes. The fifth invocation set were appropriately flamboyant, black and purple, embroidered with scarlet pentagrams and nonsense runes. But they were a symbol of authority, and the sect was very strict about internal discipline. Kerry helped him into them, then hung a gold chain with an inverted cross round his neck. When he looked into a mirror he was satisfied with what he saw. The body might be sagging slightly these days, but he used weapon implants rather than straight physical violence to assert himself now; while the shaven skull and eyes recessed by cosmetic adaptation packages gave him a suitably ominous appearance.

The temple was at the centre of the headquarters, a cavity three stories high. Straight rows of severed steel reinforcement struts poking out of the walls showed where the floors and ceilings used to be. A broad pentagon containing an inverted cross was painted across the rear wall. It was illuminated from below by a triple row of skull candles, great gobs of wax in upturned craniums. Stars, demons, and runes formed a constellation around it, although they were fading under layers of soot. The altar was a long carbon-concrete slab, ripped from the sidewalk outside, and mounted on jagged pillars of carbotanium. Impressively solid, if nothing else. There was a black brazier on top of it, lithe blue flames slithering out of the trash bricks it was filled with, sending up a plume of sweet-stinking smoke. A pair of tall serpent-shaped candle sticks flanked it. Ten iron hoops, sunk into the carbon concrete, trailed lengths of chain which ended in manacles.

Just over half of the coven’s acolytes were waiting obediently when Garth arrived. Standing in rows, wearing their grey robes, with coloured belts denoting seniority. Garth would have preferred more. But they were stretched pretty thin right now. A turf dispute with a gang operating out of ninety-ten street had resulted in several clashes. The gang lord was doubtless thinking it would all be settled with a boundary agreement. Garth was going to cure him of that illusion. God’s Brother did not negotiate. Acolytes had the gang under observation, building up a picture of their entire operation. It wasn’t something the gang understood or could ever emulate, they didn’t have the discipline or the drive. Their only motivation was to claw in enough money to pay for their own stim fixes.

That was what made the sect different; serving God’s Brother so rewarding.

In another week Garth would unlock the weapons stash and launch a raid. The High Magus had already arranged for him to take delivery of sequestration nanonics; that would be the fate of the gang’s leadership, turned into biological mechanoids. Any attractive youths would be used as bluesense meat after the acolytes had enjoyed their victory orgy. And, inevitably, there would be a sacrifice.

The acolytes bowed to Garth, who went to stand in front of the altar. Five initiates were shackled to it. Three boys and two girls, lured in by the promises and the treachery of friends. One of the boys stood defiantly straight, determined to show he could take whatever the initiation threw at him so he could claim his place, the other two were just surly and subdued. Garth had ordered one of the girls to be tranked after he’d spoken to her earlier. She’d virtually been abducted by an acolyte angry at losing her to an outside rival, and was likely to go into a mental melt-down if she wasn’t eased in to her new life; she had strong ambitions to better herself and rise out of Downtown.

Garth held up his arms, and made the sign of the inverted cross. “With flesh we bond in the night,” he intoned.

The acolytes started a low, mournful chanting, swaying softly in unison.

“Pain we love,” Garth told them. “Pain frees the serpent beast. Pain shows us what we are. Your servants, Lord.”

He was almost in a trance state as he spoke the words, he’d said them so many times before. So many initiations. The coven had a high turnover, arrests, stim burnouts, fights. But never drop outs.

Indoctrination and discipline helped, but his main weapon of control was belief. Belief in your own vileness, and knowing there was no shame in it. Wanting things to get worse, to destroy and hurt and ruin. The easy way forward . . . once you give in to your true self, your serpent beast. All that started right here, with the ceremony.

It was a deliberate release of sex and violence, an empowerment of the most base instincts, permitting little resistance. So easy to join, so natural to immerse yourself in the frenzy around you. Indulge the need to belong, to be the same as your brethren family. An act which gave the existing acolytes that fraternity.

As to the initiates, they passed through the eye of the needle. Fear kept them in place at first, fear of knowing how exquisitely ugly the sect really was, how they would be dealt with if they disobeyed or attempted to leave. Then the cycle would turn, and there would be another initiation. Only this time it would be them showing their devotion to God’s Brother, revelling in the unchaining of their serpent beast. Doing as they had been done by, and enraptured by the accomplishment.

Whoever had designed the ritual, Garth thought, had really understood basic conditioning psychology. Such elemental barbarism was the only possible way to exert any kind of control over a Downtown savage. And there was no other sort of resident here.

“In darkness we see You, Lord,” Garth recited. “In darkness we live. In darkness we wait for the true Night that You will bring us. Into that Night we will follow You.” He lowered his arms.

“We will follow You,” the acolytes echoed. Their rustling voices had become hot with expectation.

“When You light the true path of salvation at the end of the world, we will follow You.”

“We will follow You.”

“When Your legions fall upon the angels of the false lord, we will follow You.”

“We will follow You.”

“When the time . . .”

“That time is now,” a single clear voice announced.

The acolytes grunted in surprise, while Garth spluttered to a halt, more astonished than outraged at the interruption. They all knew how important he considered the sect’s ceremonies, how intolerant of sacrilege. Only true believers can inspire belief in others.

“Who said that?” he demanded.

A figure walked forward from the back of the temple, clad in a midnight-black robe. The opening at the front of the hood seemed to absorb all light, there was no hint of the head it contained. “I am your new messiah, and I have come among you to bring our Lord’s Night to this planet.”

Garth tried to use his retinal implants to see into the hood, but they couldn’t detect any light in there, even infrared was useless. Then his neural nanonics reported innumerable program crashes. He yelled: “Shit!” and thrust his left hand out at the robed figure, index finger extended. The fire command to his microdart launcher never arrived.

“Join with me,” Quinn ordered. “Or I will find more worthy owners for your bodies.”

One of the acolytes launched herself at Quinn, booted foot swinging for his kneecap. Two others were right behind her, fists drawn back.

Quinn raised an arm, his sleeve falling to reveal an albino hand with grizzled claw fingers. Three thin streamers of white fire lashed out from the talons, searingly bright in the gloomy, smoke-heavy air. They struck his attackers, who were flung backwards as if they’d been hit by a shotgun blast.

Garth grabbed one of the serpent candlesticks, and swung it wildly, aiming to smash it down on Quinn’s head. Not even a possessed would be able to survive a mashed brain, the invading soul would be forced out. Air thickened around the candlestick, slowing its momentum until it halted ten centimetres above the apex of Quinn’s hood. The serpent’s head, which held the candle, hissed and closed its mouth, biting the rod of wax in half.

“Swamp him!” Garth shouted. “He can’t defeat all of us. Sacrifice yourself, for God’s Brother.”

A few of the acolytes edged closer to Quinn, but most stayed where they were. The candlestick began to glow along its entire length. Pain stabbed into Garth’s hands. He could hear his skin sizzling. Squirts of greasy smoke puffed out. But he couldn’t let go; his fingers wouldn’t move. He saw them blister and blacken; bubbling juices ran down his wrists.

“Kill him,” he cried. “Kill. Kill.” His burning hands made him scream out in agony.

Quinn leant towards him. “Why?” he asked. “This is the time of God’s Brother. He sent me here to lead you. Obey me.”

Garth fell to his knees, arms shaking, charred hands still clenched round the gleaming candlestick. “You’re a possessed.”

“I was a possessed. I returned. My belief in Him freed me.”

“You’ll possess all of us,” the magus hissed.

“Some of you. But that is what the sect prays for. An army of the damned; loyal followers of our darkest Lord.” He turned to the acolytes and held up his hands. For the first time his face was visible within, pale and deadly intent. “The waiting is over. I have come, and I bring you victory for eternity. No more pathetic squabbling over black stimulants, no more wasting your life mugging geriatric farts. His true work waits to be done. I know how to bring Night to this planet. Kneel before me, become true warriors of darkness, and together we will rain stone upon this land until it bleeds and dies.”

Garth screamed again. All that was left now of his fingers were black bones soldered to the candlestick. “Kill him, shitbrains!” he roared. “Smash the fucker into bedrock, curse you.” But through eyes blurred with tears he could see the acolytes slowly sinking to the floor in front of Quinn. It was like a wave effect, spreading across the temple. Wener was the closest to Quinn, his simple face alive with admiration and excitement. “I’m with you,” the lumbering acolyte yelled. “Let me kill people for you. I want to kill everyone, kill the whole world. I hate them. I hate them real bad.”

Garth groaned in mortification. They believed him! Believed the shit was a real messenger from God’s Brother.

Quinn closed his eyes and smiled in joy as he gloried in their adulation. Finally, he was back among his own. “We will show the Light Bringer we are the worthy ones,” he promised them. “I will guide you over an ocean of blood to His Empire. And from there we will hear the false lord weeping at the end of the universe.”

The acolytes cheered and laughed rapturously. This was what they craved; no more of the magus’s tactical restraint, at last they could unleash violence and horror without end, begin the war against the light, their promised destiny.

Quinn turned and glanced down at magus Garth. “You: fuckbrain. Grovel, lick the shit off my feet, and I’ll allow you to join the crusade as a whore for the soldiers.”

The candlestick clattered to the ground, with the roast remains of Garth’s hands still attached. He bared his teeth at the deranged possessor standing over him. “I serve my Lord alone. You can go to hell.”

“Been there,” Quinn said urbanely. “Done that. Come back.” His hand descended on Garth’s head as if in anointment. “But you will be of use to me. Your body, anyway.” His needle-sharp talons pierced the skin.

The magus discovered that the pain of losing his hands was merely the overture to a very long and quite excruciating symphony.

Chapter 02

It was designated Bureau Seven, which somewhat inevitably for a government organization was acronymed down to B7. To anyone with Govcentral alpha-rated clearance, it was listed as one of the hundreds of bland committees which made up the management hierarchy of the Govcentral Internal Security Directorate. Officially its function was Policy Integration and Resource Allocation, a vital coordination role. The more senior GISD Bureaus produced their requirements for information and actions, and it was B7’s job to make sure none of the new objectives clashed with current operations before they designated local arcology offices with carrying out the project and assigned funds. If there was any anomaly to be found with B7, it was that such an important and sensitive responsibility did not have a political appointee assigned to run it. Certainly the chiefs of Bureaus 1 through 6 changed with every new administration, reflecting fresh political priorities; and several hundred minor posts among the lower Bureaus were also up for grabs as a loyalty reward to the new President’s retinue. Again, no junior positions were available in B7.

So B7 carried on as it always had, isolated and insular. In fact, just how insular would have come as a great shock to any outsider who investigated the nature of its members—that is, a shock in the brief period left to them before being quietly terminated.

Although the antithesis of democracy themselves, they did take the job of guarding the republic of Earth extremely seriously. Possession was the one threat which actually had the potential not just to overthrow but actually eliminate Govcentral, a prospect which hadn’t arisen for nearly four hundred and fifty years, since the population pressures of the Great Dispersal.

Possession, therefore, was the reason why a full meeting of all sixteen members had been convened for the first time in twelve years. Their sensenviron conference had a standard format, a white infinity-walled room with an oval table in the centre seating their generated representations. There was no seniority among them, each had his or her separate area of responsibility, the majority of which were designated purely on geographical terms, although there were supervisors for GISD’s divisions dealing in military intelligence.

An omnidirectional projection hung over the table, showing a warehouse on Norfolk which was burning with unnatural ferocity. Several museum-piece fire engines were racing towards it, along with men in khaki uniforms.

“It would appear the Kavanagh girl is telling the truth,” said the Central American supervisor.

“I never doubted it,” Western Europe replied.

“She’s certainly not possessed,” said Military Intelligence. “Not now, anyway. But she’d still have those memories if she had been.”

“If she’d been possessed, she would have admitted it,” Western Europe said indolently. “You’re building in complications for us.”

“Do you want a full personality debrief to confirm her authenticity?” Southern Africa asked.

“I don’t think we should,” Western Europe said. He absorbed the mildly polite expressions of surprise the representations around the table were directing at him.

“Care to share with us?” Southern Pacific asked archly.

Western Europe looked at the Military Intelligence supervisor. “I believe we have crossover from the Mount’s Delta ?”

Military Intelligence gave a perfunctory nod. “Yes. We confirmed that the starship was carrying two people when it docked at Supra-Brazil. One of them slaughtered the other in an extravagantly gory fashion right after docking was completed, the body was literally exploded. All that we can tell you about the victim is that he was male. We still don’t know who he was, there’s certainly no correlating DNA profile stored in our memory cores. I’ve requested that all governments we’re in contact with run a search through their records, but I don’t hold out much hope.”

“Why not?” Southern Pacific asked.

“The Mount’s Delta came from Nyvan; he was probably one of their citizens. None of their nations remain intact.”

“Not relevant, anyway,” said Western Europe.

“Agreed,” Military Intelligence said. “Once we’d stripped down the Mount’s Delta , we ran extremely thorough forensic tests on the life support capsule and its environmental systems. Analysis on the faecal residue left in the waste cycle mechanism identified the other occupant’s DNA for us. And this is where the story gets interesting, because we have a very positive match on his DNA.” Military Intelligence datavised the sensevise’s controlling processor, and the image above the table changed. Now it showed an image taken from Louise Kavanagh’s brain a few minutes before the warehouse was fired; a young man with a pale, stern face, dressed in a jet-black robe. The viewing angle was such that he looked down on the members of B7 with a derisory sneer. “Quinn Dexter. He was an Ivet shipped to Lalonde last year, sentenced for resisting arrest, the police thought he was running an illegal package into Edmonton. He was as it happens. Sequestration nanonics.”

“Oh Christ,” Central America muttered.

“The Kavanagh girl confirms he was on Norfolk, and both she and Fletcher Christian strongly suspect he was the one who took over the frigate Tantu . Following that, the Tantu made one unsuccessful attempt to penetrate Earth defences, and immediately withdrew, damaging itself in the process.”

Western Europe datavised the sensenviron management processor, and the image above the table changed again. “Dexter got to Nyvan. One of the surviving asteroids confirmed that the Tantu docked at Jesup asteroid. That’s when their real troubles started. Ships from Jesup planted the nukes in the abandoned asteroids.” He pointed at the image of Nyvan which had replaced Dexter. It was a world like nothing previously seen in the galaxy, as if a ball of lava had congealed in space, a crinkled black surface crust riddled with contorted fissures of radiant red light. The two atmospheric aspects were in constant conflict, supernatural and supernature boiling against each other with harrowing aggression.

“Dexter was there on Lalonde at incident one, according to Laton and our Edenist friends,” Western Europe said remorselessly. “He was on Norfolk, which we now recognize as the major distribution source of infection. He was at Nyvan which has elevated the crisis to a completely new stage; as far as we can tell one which has proved as hostile to the possessed as it is to the ordinary population. And now we are certain he arrived here at Supra-Brazil.” He looked directly at the South America supervisor.

“There was an alert at the Brazil tower station fifteen hours after the Mount’s Delta arrived,” South America said tonelessly. “Just after its descent, one of the lift capsules suffered exactly the kind of electronic glitches known to be inflicted by the possessed. We had the entire arrivals complex sealed and surrounded within ninety seconds. Nothing. No sign of any possessed.”

“But you think he’s here?” East Europe pressed.

South America smiled without humour. “We know he is. After the alert, we hauled in everyone who came down on the lift capsule, passengers and crew. This is what we got from several neural nanonics memory cells.” Nyvan faded away to show a slightly fuzzy two-dimensional picture, indicating a low-grade recording. The figure in the Royale Class lounge wearing a blue-silk suit, and slumped comfortably in a deep chair was undoubtedly Dexter.

“Merciful Allah,” North Pacific exclaimed. “We’ll have to shut down the vac-trains. It’s our one advantage. I don’t care how good he is at eluding our sensors, the little shit can’t walk a thousand kilometres along a vacuum tunnel. Isolate the bastard, and hit him with an SD platform strike.”

“I believe even we would have trouble shutting down the vac-trains,” South Pacific said significantly. “Not without questions being asked.”

“I don’t mean we should issue the order,” North Pacific snapped. “Feed the information up to B3, and make the President’s office authorize it.”

“If the public find out there’s a possessed on Earth, there will be absolute pandemonium,” North Africa said. “Even we would have trouble retaining control over the arcologies.”

“Better than being possessed,” North America said. “Because that’s what he’ll do to the arcology populations if we don’t stop him. Even we would be in danger.”

“I think his objective is more complex than that,” Western Europe said. “We know what he did to Nyvan, I think we can assume he wants to do the same thing here.”

“Not a chance,” Military Intelligence said. “Even if he could sneak around up in the Halo, which I doubt, he’d never acquire enough nukes to split an asteroid open. You can’t remove one of those beauts from storage without anyone knowing.”

“Maybe, but there’s something else. Kavanagh and Fletcher Christian both say that Dexter is here to hunt down Banneth and have his revenge on her. I checked Dexter’s file; he used to be a sect member in Edmonton. Banneth was his magus.”

“So what?” asked North Pacific. “You know what those crazy brute sect members do to each other when the lights go off. I’m not surprised he wants to beat the crap out of Banneth.”

“You’re missing the point,” Western Europe said patiently. “Why would the soul possessing Quinn Dexter’s body care about Dexter’s old magus?” He looked questioningly round the table. “We’re dealing with something new, here, something different. An ordinary person who has somehow gained the same powers of the possessed, if not superior ones. His goals are not going to be the same as theirs, this craving they have to flee the universe.”

North America caught it first. “Shit. He used to be a sect member.”

“And presumably remains so,” Western Europe agreed. “He was still performing their ceremony on Lalonde; that was incident one, after all. Dexter is a true believer in the Light Bringer teachings.”

“You think he’s come back to find his God?”

“It’s not a god he worships, it’s the devil. But no, he’s not here to find him. My people ran a psychological profile simulation; what they got indicates he’s come back to prepare the way for his Lord, the Light Bringer, who glories in war and chaos. He’ll try to unleash as much mayhem and destruction on both us and the possessed as it’s possible to do. Nyvan was just the warm up. The real game is going to be played out down here.”

“Well that settles it then,” North Pacific said. “We have to close the vac-trains. It’ll mean losing an entire arcology to him; but we can save the rest.”

“Don’t be so melodramatic,” Western Europe said. “Dexter is a problem; a novel one, granted. He’s different, and more powerful than all the others B7 has faced over the centuries. But that’s what we are here for, ultimately, to solve problems which would defeat conventional government action. We simply have to locate a weakness and use it.”

“An invisible megalomaniac as powerful as a minor god has a weakness?” North Pacific said. “Allah preserve us, I should like to hear what it is.”

“The Kavanagh girl has escaped him twice. Both times it was due to the intervention of an unknown possessed. We have an ally.”

“On Norfolk! Which has bloody vanished.”

“Nevertheless, Dexter does not command total support from the possessed. He is not invincible. And we have what should be a decisive advantage over him.”

“Which is?”

“We know about him. He knows nothing about us. That can be exploited to trap him.”

“Ah yes,” the Halo supervisor said contentedly. “Now I understand the reluctance for a personality debrief on the Kavanagh girl.”

“Well I don’t,” South America declared querulously.

“Personality debrief requires a much more invasive procedure,” Western Europe said. “At the moment Kavanagh is not aware of what has happened to her. That means we can use her ignorance to get very close to Dexter.”

“Close to . . .” South Pacific trailed off. “My God, you want to use her as a lightning conductor.”

“Exactly. At the moment we have one chance for proximity, and that’s Banneth. Unfortunately there is only a limited degree of preparation we can make with her. The possessed, and therefore presumably Dexter, can sense the emotional content of the minds around them. We have to proceed with extreme caution if he is to be lured into a termination option. If he learns someone is hunting him, we could lose several arcologies, if not more. Moving the Kavanagh girl back into the game doubles our chances of engineering an encounter with him.”

“That’s goddamn risky,” North America said.

“No, I like it,” Halo said. “It has subtlety; that’s more us than closing down the vac-trains and using SD fire to incinerate entire arcology domes.”

“Oh heaven preserve we should let our standard of style drop when the whole fucking world is about to go down the can,” South Pacific groused.

“Does anyone have a substantial objection?” Western Europe enquired.

“Your operation,” North Pacific said hotly. “Your responsibility.”

“Responsibility?” Australia chided lightly.

There were several smiles around the table as North Pacific glowered.

“Naturally I accept the consequences,” Western Europe purred volubly.

“You’re always such an arrogant little shit when you’re this age, aren’t you?” North Pacific said.

Western Europe just laughed.

The three Confederation Navy marines were polite, insistent, and resolutely uncommunicative. They escorted Joshua the entire length of Trafalgar. Which, he thought, was a hopeful sign; he was being taken away from the CNIS section. A day and a half of interviews with sour-faced CNIS investigators, cooperating like a good citizen. None of his questions answered in return. Certainly no access to a lawyer—one of the investigators had given him a filthy look when he half-jokingly asked for legal aid. Net processors wouldn’t respond to his datavises. He didn’t know where the rest of his crew was. Didn’t know what was happening to Lady Mac . And could make a pretty good guess what kind of report Monica and Samuel were concocting.

From the tube carriage station a lift took them up to a floor which was plainly officer country. A wide corridor, good carpet, discreet lighting, holograms of famous Naval events (few he recognized), intent men and women looping from office to office, none of them under the rank of senior lieutenant. Joshua was led into a reception room with two captains sitting at desks. One of them stood, and saluted the marines. “We’ll take him from here.”

“What is this?” Joshua asked. It definitely wasn’t a firing squad on the other side of the ornate double doors in front of him, and hopefully not a courtroom either.

“The First Admiral will see you now,” the captain said.

“Er,” Joshua said lamely. “Okay, then.”

The large circular office had a window overlooking the asteroid’s biosphere. It was night outside, the solartubes reduced to a misty oyster glimmer revealing little of the landscape. Big holoscreens on the walls were flashing up external sensor images of Avon and the asteroid’s spaceports. Joshua looked for Lady Mac among the docking bays, but couldn’t find her.

The captain beside him saluted. “Captain Calvert, sir.”

Joshua locked eyes with the man sitting behind the big teak desk in front of him, receiving a mildly intrigued gaze from Samual Aleksandrovich.

“So,” the First Admiral said. “Lagrange Calvert. You fly some very tight manoeuvres, Captain.”

Joshua narrowed his eyes, unsure just how much irony was being applied here. “I just do what comes naturally.”

“Indeed you do. I accessed that section of your file, also.” The First Admiral smiled at some internal joke, and waved a hand. “Please sit down, Captain.”

A blue-steel chair swelled up out of the floor in front of the desk. Alkad Mzu was sitting in the one next to it, body held rigid, staring ahead. On the other side of her, Monica and Samuel had relaxed back into their own chairs. The First Admiral introduced the demure Edenist woman beside them as Admiral Lalwani, the CNIS chief. Joshua responded with a very nervous twitch of greeting.

“I think I had better start by saying the Confederation Navy would like to thank you for your part in the Nyvan affair, and solving the Alchemist problem for us,” the First Admiral said. “I do not like to dwell on the consequences had the Capone Organization acquired it.”

“I’m not under arrest?”


Joshua let out a hefty breath of relief. “Jesus!” He grinned at Monica, who responded with a laconic smile.

“Er, so can I go now?” he asked without much hope.

“Not quite,” Lalwani said. “You’re one of the few people who knows how the Alchemist works,” she told him.

Joshua did his best not to glance at Mzu. “A very brief description.”

“Of the principles,” Mzu said.

“And I believe you told Samuel and agent Foulkes that you would submit to internal exile in Tranquillity so no one else could obtain the information,” Lalwani said.

“Did I? No.”

Monica pantomimed deep thought. “Your exact words were: I’ll stay in Tranquillity if we survive this, but I have to know.”

“And you said you’d stay there with me,” Joshua snapped back. He scowled at her. “Ever heard of Hiroshima?”

“The first time an atomic bomb was used on Earth,” Lalwani said.

“Yeah. At the time the only real secret about an atom bomb was the fact that it was possible to build one that worked. Once it got used, that secret was out.”

“The relevance being?”

“Anyone who visits the location where we deployed Alchemist and sees the result, is going to be able to figure out those precious principles of yours. After that, it’s just a question of engineering. Besides, the possessed won’t build another. They’re not geared around that kind of action.”

“Capone’s Organization might be able to,” Monica said. “They certainly thought they could, remember? They wanted Mzu at any price, incarnate or just her soul. And who’s going to know where the Alchemist was used unless you and your crew tell them?”

“Jesus, what do you people want from me?”

“Very little,” said the First Admiral. “I think we’ve established to everyone’s satisfaction that you’re trustworthy.” He grinned at Joshua’s sour expression. “Despite what that may do to your reputation. So I’m just going to ask you to agree to a few ground rules. You do not discuss the Alchemist with anyone. And I mean anyone.”

“Easy enough.”

“For the duration of our current crisis you do not put yourself in a position where you will encounter the possessed.”

“I’ve already encountered them twice, I don’t intend to do it again.”

“That effectively means you will not fly anywhere outside the Sol system. Once you get home, you stay there.”

“Right.” Joshua frowned. “You want me to go to Sol?”

“Yes. You will take Dr Mzu and the Beezling survivors there. As you pointed out with your Hiroshima analogy, we cannot push the information genie back into the lamp, but we can certainly initiate damage limitation. The relevant governments have agreed that Dr Mzu can be returned to a neutral nation, where she will not communicate any details of the Alchemist to anyone. The doctor has consented to that.”

“They’ll get it eventually,” Joshua said softly. “No matter what agreements they sign, governments will try to build Alchemists.”

“No doubt,” Samual Aleksandrovich said. “But such problems are for the future. And that is going to be a very different place to today, is it not, Captain?”

“If we solve today, then, yeah. It’ll be different. Even today is different than yesterday.”

“So. Lagrange Calvert has become a philosopher?”

“Haven’t we all, knowing what we do now?”

The First Admiral nodded reluctantly. “Perhaps it’s not such a bad thing. Somebody has to find a solution. The more there are of us searching, the quicker it will be revealed.”

“That’s a lot of faith you have there, Admiral.”

“Of course. If I didn’t have faith in the human race, I would have no right to sit in this chair.”

Joshua gave him a strong look. The First Admiral wasn’t quite what he’d envisaged, the gung-ho military archetype. That made him more confident for the future. Slightly. “Okay, so where do you want me to take the doc in the Sol system, exactly?”

Samual Aleksandrovich smiled broadly. “Ah yes, this is one piece of news I shall enjoy imparting.”

Friend Jay, please cry not.

Haile’s voice was no stronger than the memory of a dream. Jay had closed up her mind as tight as her eyelids. She just lay on the floor, all curled up, sobbing at . . . everything. Ever since that terrible day on Lalonde when the Ivets went mad, she and Mummy had been torn further and further apart. First the cramped house on the savannah. Then Tranquillity, where she’d heard rumours of the possessed taking Lalonde out of the universe—even though the paediatric ward staff had been careful about allowing the refugee kids access to any news. Now this, flying like an angel to another galaxy. Where she’d never get back from. And she’d never see Mummy ever again. Everyone she knew was either dead, or about to be possessed. She wailed louder, so much it hurt her throat.

The back of her head was full of warm whispers, pushing to be let in.

Jay, please restrain yourself.

She is developing cyclic trauma psychosis.

We should impose a thalamic regulator routine.

Humans respond better to chemical suppressers.


Ambiguous context.

Referral to Corpus.

Tractamorphic flesh was slithering round her, rubbing gently. She shook at the touch of it.

Then there was a sharp regular clicking sound, tac tac tac, like heels on the cool hard floor. Human heels.

“What in seven heavens’ name do you lot think you’re doing?” a woman’s voice asked sharply. “Give the poor dear some air, for goodness sake. Come on, get back. Right back. Move out the way.” There followed the distinctive sound of a human hand being slapped against a Kiint hide.

Jay stopped crying.

“Move! You too, you little terror.”

That causes painfulness,haile protested.

“Then learn to move quicker.”

Jay smeared some of the tears from her eyes, and peered up just in time to see someone’s finger and thumb pinching the crater ridge of skin around Haile’s ear, hauling her aside. The baby Kiint’s legs were getting all twisted round as she skittled hurriedly out of the way.

The owner of the hand smiled down at Jay. “Well well, sweetie, haven’t you just caused a stir? And whatever are all these tears for? I suppose you had a bit of shock when they jumped you here. Don’t blame you. That stupid leaping through the darkness stunt used to give me the chronic heebie-jeebies every time. I’ll take a Model-T over that any day. Now there was a really gracious method of transport. Would you like a hanky, wipe your face a bit?”

“Uh,” Jay said. She’d never seen a woman quite so old before; her brown Mediterranean skin was deeply wrinkled, and her back curved slightly, giving her shoulders a permanent hunch. The dress she wore had come straight out from a history text, lemon-yellow cotton printed with tiny white flowers, complemented by a wide belt and lace collar and cuffs. Thin snow-white hair had been permed into a neat beret; and a double loop of large pearls round her neck chittered softly with every movement. It was as if she’d turned age into a statement of pride. But her green eyes were vividly alert.

A frilly lace handkerchief was pulled from her sleeve, and proffered to Jay.

“Thank you,” Jay gulped. She took the hanky, and blew into it heavily. The huge adult Kiint had all backed off, standing several paces behind the small woman, keeping close together in a mutual support group. Haile was pressed against Lieria, who had formshifted a tractamorphic arm to stroke her daughter soothingly.

“So now, sweetie, why don’t you start by telling me your name.”

“Jay Hilton.”

“Jay.” The woman’s jowls bobbled, as if she was sucking on a particularly hard mint. “That’s nice. Well, Jay, I’m Tracy Dean.”

“Hello. Um, you are real, aren’t you?”

Tracy laughed. “Oh yes, sweetie, I’m genuine flesh and blood, all right. And before you ask why I’m here, this is my home now. But we’ll save the explanations until tomorrow. Because they’re very long and complicated, and you’re tired and upset. You need to get some sleep now.”

“I don’t want to sleep,” Jay stammered. “Everybody in Tranquillity’s dead, and I’m here. And I want Mummy. And she’s gone.”

“Oh, Jay, no, sweetie.” Tracy knelt beside the little girl, and hugged her tight. Jay was sniffling again, ready to burst into tears. “Nobody’s dead. Tranquillity swallowed away clean before any of the combat wasps reached it. These silly oafs got it all wrong and panicked. Aren’t they stupid?”

“Tranquillity’s alive?”


“And Ione, and Father Horst, and everybody?”

“Yes, all safe and sound. Tranquillity is orbiting Jupiter right this minute. That surprised everybody, let me tell you.”

“But . . . how did it do that?”

“We’re not quite sure yet, but it must have an awful lot of energy patterning cells tucked away somewhere inside it.” She gave Jay a sly grin, and winked. “Tricky people, those Saldanas. And very clever with it, thankfully.”

Jay managed an experimental smile.

“That’s better. Now, let’s see about finding you that bed for the night.” Tracy rose to her feet, holding Jay’s hand.

Jay used her free hand to wipe the handkerchief across her face as she scrambled to her feet. “Oh right.” Actually, she thought that talk of explanations sounded quite fascinating now. There was so much about this place she wanted to know. It would be worth staying awake for.

You now have betterness, query?haile asked anxiously.

Jay nodded enthusiastically at her friend. “Much better.”

That is good.

I will assume complete Jay Hilton guardian responsibility now.

Jay cocked her head to give Tracy Dean a sideways look. How could she use the Kiint mental voice?

Confirm,nang said. the words jay could hear in her head speeded up then, becoming a half-imagined birdsong, but suffused with feeling.

We will venture wide together,haile said. See new things. There is muchness here to see.

“Tomorrow, maybe,” Tracy said. “We have to get Jay settled in here first.”

Jay shrugged at her friend.

“Now then, Jay, we’re going to jump out of here. It’ll be the same as before, but this time you know it’s happening, and I’ll be with you the whole time. All right?”

“Couldn’t we just walk, or use a groundcar, or something?”

Tracy smiled sympathetically. “Not really, sweetie.” She pointed up at the planets arching over the dark sky. “My home is on one of those.”

“Oh. But I will be seeing Haile while I’m here, won’t I?” Jay raised her hand and waved at her friend. Haile formshifted the tip on one of her tractamorphic arms into a human hand, and wriggled the fingers.

We will build the castles of sand again.

“Close your eyes,” Tracy said. “It’s easier that way.” Her arm went round Jay’s shoulder. “Are you ready?”

This time it wasn’t so bad. There was that quick breeze ruffling her nightie again, and despite having her eyes shut her stomach was telling her very urgently that she was falling again. A squeak crept out of her lips in spite of her best efforts.

“It’s all right sweetie, we’re here now. You can open your eyes again.”

The breeze had vanished, its departure signalling a whole symphony of fresh sound. Hot sunlight tingled her skin; when she breathed in she could taste salt.

Jay opened her eyes. There was a beach in front of her, one which made the little cove on Tranquillity seem quite pallid by comparison. The powder-fine sand was snow-white, stretching out on either side of her for as far as she could see. Wonderfully clear turquoise water lapped against it, languid waves rolling in from a reef several hundred metres out. A beautiful three-masted yacht of some golden wood was anchored half-way between the shore and the reef, undeniably human in design.

Jay grinned at it, then shielded her eyes with a hand and looked round. She was standing on a circle of the same ebony material as before, but this time there was no encircling wall or watching Kiint. The only artefact was a bright orange cylinder, as tall as she was, standing next to the edge. Scatterings of sand were drifting onto the circle.

Behind her, a thick barricade of trees and bushes lined the rear of the beach. Long creeper tendrils had slithered out of them over the hard-packed sand, knitting together in a tough lacework that sprouted blue and pink palm-sized flowers. The only noise was the waves and some kind of honking in the distance, almost like a flock of geese. When she searched the cloudless sky, she could see several birds flapping and gliding about in the distance. The arch of planets was a line of silver disks twinkling away into the horizon.

“Where are we now?” Jay asked.

“Home.” Tracy’s face managed to produce even more wrinkles as she sniffed distastefully. “Not that anywhere is really home after spending two thousand years swanning loyally round Earth and the Confederation planets.”

Jay stared at her in astonishment. “You’re two thousand years old?”

“That’s right, sweetie. Why, don’t I look it?”

Jay blushed. “Well . . .”

Tracy laughed, and took hold of her hand. “Come along, let’s find you that bed. I’ll think I’ll put you in my guest quarters. That’ll be simplest. Never thought I’d ever get to use them.”

They walked off the ebony circle. Up ahead of them, Jay could see some figures lazing on the beach, while others were swimming in the sea. Their strokes were slow and controlled. She realized they were all as old as Tracy. Now Jay was paying attention, she could make out several chalets lurking in the vegetation behind the beach. They were strung out on either side of a white stone building with a red tile roof and a sizeable, well-manicured garden; it looked like some terribly exclusive clubhouse. Still more old people were sitting at iron tables on the lawns, reading, playing what looked like a board game, or just staring out to sea. Mauve-coloured globes, the size of a head, were floating through the air, moving sleekly from table to table. If they found an empty glass or plate they would absorb it straight through their surface. In many cases they would extrude a replacement; the new glasses were full, and the plates piled with sandwiches or biscuit-type snacks.

Jay walked along obediently at Tracy’s side, her head swivelling about as she took in the amazing new sights. As they approached the big building, people looked their way and smiled encouragingly, nodding, waving.

“Why are they doing that?” Jay asked. All the excitement and fright had worn off now she knew she was safe, leaving her very tired.

Tracy chuckled. “Having you here is the biggest event that’s happened to this place for a long time. Probably ever.”

Tracy led her towards one of the chalets; a simple wooden structure with a veranda running along the front, on which stood big clay pots full of colourful plants. Jay could only think of the pretty little houses of the Juliffe villages on the day she and her mother had started sailing upriver to Aberdale. She sighed at the recollection. The universe had become very strange since then.

Tracy patted her gently. “Almost there, sweetie.” They started up the steps to the veranda.

“Hi there,” a man’s voice called brightly.

Tracy groaned impatiently. “Richard, leave her alone. The poor little dear’s dead on her feet.”

A young man in scarlet shorts and a white T-shirt was jogging barefoot across the sands towards them. He was tall with an athletic figure, his long blond hair tied back into a ponytail by a flamboyant leather lace. He pouted at the rebuke, then winked playfully at Jay. “Oh, come on, Trace; just paying my respects to a fellow escapee. Hello, Jay, my name’s Richard Keaton.” He gave a bow, and stuck his hand out.

Jay smiled uncertainly at him, and put out her own hand. He shook it formally. His whole attitude put her in mind of Joshua Calvert, which was comforting. “Did you jump out of Tranquillity as well?” she asked.

“Heavens, no, nothing like that. I was on Nyvan when someone tried to drop a dirty great lump of metal on me. Thought it best I slipped away when no one was looking.”


“I know everything is real weird for you right now, so I just wanted you to have this.” He produced a doll resembling some kind of animal, a flattish humanoid figure made from badly worn out brown-gold velvet; its mouth and nose were just lines of black stitching, and its eyes were amber glass. One semicircular ear had been torn off, allowing tufts of yellowing stuffing to peek out of the gash.

Jay gave the battered old thing a suspicious look, it wasn’t anything like the animatic dolls back in Tranquillity’s paediatric ward. In fact, it looked even more primitive than any toy on Lalonde. Which was pretty hard to believe. “Thank you,” she said awkwardly as he proffered it. “What is it?”

“This is Prince Dell, my old Teddy Bear. Which dates me. But friends like this were all the rage on Earth when I was young. He’s the ancestor of all those animatic dolls you kids have these days. If you hold him close at night he keeps troubles away from your dreams. But you have to keep cuddling him tight for him to be able to do that properly. Something to do with earth magic and contact; funny stuff like that. He used to sleep with me until I was a lot older than you. I thought he might be able to help you tonight.”

He sounded so serious and hopeful that Jay took the bear from him and examined it closely. Prince Dell really was very tatty, but she could just picture him in the embrace of a sleeping boy with blond hair. The boy was smiling blissfully.

“All right,” she said. “I’ll hold on to him tonight. Thank you very much.” It seemed a bit silly, but it was kind of him to be so considerate.

Richard Keaton smiled gladly. “That’s good. The Prince hasn’t had much to do for a long time. He’ll be happy to have a new friend. Make sure you treat him nicely, he’s a bit delicate now, poor thing.”

“I will,” Jay promised. “Are you really old, as well?”

“Older than most people you’ve ever met, but nothing like as antique as good old Trace, here.”

“Huh,” Tracy sniffed critically. “If you’re quite finished.”

Richard rolled his eyes for Jay’s benefit. “Sweet dreams, Jay. I’ll see you tomorrow, we’ve got lots to talk about.”

“Richard,” Tracy asked reluctantly. “Did Calvert do it?”

A huge smile flashed over his face. “Oh yeah. He did it. The Alchemist is neutralized. Just as well, it was a brute of a weapon.”

“Typical. If they’d just devote ten per cent of their military budget and all that ingenuity into developing their social conditions.”

“Preaching to the converted!”

“Are you talking about Joshua?” Jay asked. “What’s he done?”

“Something very good,” Richard said.

“Amazingly,” Tracy muttered dryly.

“But . . .”

“Tomorrow, sweetie,” Tracy said firmly. “Along with everything else. I promise. Right now, you’re going to bed. Enough delaying tactics.”

Richard waved, and walked away. Jay held Prince Dell against her tummy as Tracy’s hand pressed into her back, propelling her up the steps and into the chalet. She glanced down at the ancient bear again. His dull glass eyes stared right back at her, it was an incredibly melancholic expression.

The first hellhawk came flashing out of its wormhole terminus twelve thousand kilometres from Monterey asteroid. New California’s gravitonic detector warning satellites immediately datavised an alert to the naval tactical operations centre. The high pitched audio alarm startled Emmet Mordden, who was the duty officer in the large chamber. At the time he was sitting with his feet up on the commander’s console, reading through a four-hundred-sheet hard copy guide of a Quantumsoft accountancy program in preparation for his next upgrade to the Treasury computers. With most of the Organization fleet away at Tranquillity, and the planet reasonably stable right now, it was a quiet duty, just right to catch up on his technical work.

Emmet’s feet hit the floor as the AI responsible for threat analysis squirted a mass of symbols and vectors up on one of the huge wall-mounted holoscreens. In front of him, the equally surprised SD network operators scrambled to interpret what was happening. There weren’t many of them among the eight rows of consoles in the centre, nothing like the full complement which the Organization had needed at the height of the Edenist harassment campaign. Right now, spaceflight traffic was at a minimum, and the contingent of Valisk hellhawks on planetary defence duty had done a superb job of clearing Edenist stealth mines and spy globes from space around the planet.

“What is it?” Emmet asked automatically; by which time another three wormholes had opened. The precariously-stacked pile of hard copy avalanched off his console as he determinedly cleared his keyboard ready to respond.

The AI had acquired X-ray laser lock on for the first four targets, and was requesting fire authority. Another ten wormholes were opening. Jull von Holger, who acted as the go-between for the Valisk hellhawks and the operations centre, leapt to his feet, shouting: “Don’t shoot!” He waved his arms frantically. “They’re ours! They’re our hellhawks.”

Emmet hesitated, his fingers hovering over the keys. According to his console displays, over eighty wormholes had now opened to disgorge bitek starships. “What the fuck do they think they’re doing busting in on us like that? Why aren’t they with the fleet?” Suspicion flowered among his thoughts; and he didn’t care that von Holger could sense it. Hellhawks were dangerously powerful craft, and with the fleet away they could make real trouble. He’d never really trusted Kiera Salter.

Jull von Holger’s face went through a wild panoply of emotion-derived contortions as he conducted fast affinity conversations with the unexpected arrivals. “They’re not from the fleet. They’ve come here directly from Valisk.” He halted for a moment, shocked. “It’s gone. Valisk has gone. We lost to that little prat Dariat.”

“Holy shit,” Hudson Proctor gasped.

Kiera stuck her head round the bathroom door as the beautician tried to wrap her sopping wet hair in a huge fluffy purple towel. The Quayle suite in the Monterey Hilton was a temple to opulence and personal luxury. As Rubra had denied everyone access to the Valisk starscrapers, along with their apartment bathrooms, Kiera had simply groomed herself with energistic power alone. She had forgotten what it was to sprawl in a Jacuzzi with a selector that could blend in any of a dozen exotic salts. And as for having her hair styled properly rather than forcing it into shape . . .

“What?” she snapped in annoyance; though the beacon-bright dismay in her associate’s mind tempered any real fury at being interrupted.

“The hellhawks are here,” he said. “All of them. They’ve come from Valisk. It’s . . .” He flinched in trepidation. Delivering bad news to Kiera was always a desperately negative career move. Just because she had the kind of teenage-sweetheart looks which could (and had) suckered in non-possessed kids from right across the Confederation didn’t mean her behaviour matched. Quite the opposite—she took a perverse enjoyment from that, too. “Bonney chased after Dariat, apparently. There was a big fight in one of the starscrapers. Plenty of our people got flung back into the beyond. Then she forced him to ally with Rubra, or something.”

“What happened?”

“They, er—Valisk’s gone. The two of them took the habitat out of the universe.”

Kiera stared at him, little wisps of steam starting to lick out of her hair. She’d always bitterly regretted that Marie Skibbow didn’t have some kind of affinity faculty; its absence had always put her at a slight disadvantage in Valisk. But she’d coped, the entire worldlet and its formidable starships had belonged to her. She’d been a power to contend with. Even Capone had sought out her help. Now—

Kiera gave the non-possessed beautician girl a blank-eyed glance. “Get lost.”

“Ma’am.” The girl curtseyed, and almost sprinted for the suite’s double doors on the other side of the lounge.

Kiera allowed herself a muted scream of fury when the doors closed. “That fucking Dariat! I knew it! I fucking knew he was a disaster waiting to happen.”

“We’re still in charge of the hellhawks,” Hudson Proctor said. “That gives us a big chunk of Capone’s action; and the Organization is in charge of a couple of star systems, with more on the way. It’s not such a loss. If we’d been inside the habitat it would be one hell of a lot worse.”

“If I’d been inside, it would never have happened,” she snapped back. Her hair was abruptly dry, and her robe blurred, running like hot wax until it became a sharp mauve business suit. “Control,” she murmured almost to herself. “That’s the key here.”

Hudson Proctor could sense her focusing on him, both her eyes and her mind.

“Are you with me?” she asked. “Or are you going to ask good old Al if you can sign on as one of his lieutenants?”

“Why would I do that?”

“Because if I can’t keep control of the hellhawks, I’m nothing to the Organization.” She smiled thinly. “You and I would have to start right back at the beginning again. With the hellhawks obeying us, we’ll still be players.”

He glanced out of the big window, searching space for a sight of the bitek starships. “We’ve got no hold on them any more,” he said dejectedly. “Without the affinity-capable bodies stored in Valisk, there’s no way they’ll do as they’re ordered. And there aren’t any more of Rubra’s family left for us to replace them with. We’ve lost.”

Kiera shook her head impatiently. Considering she’d coopted the ex-general to her council for his ability to think tactically, he was doing a remarkably poor job of it. But then, maybe a politician’s instinct was naturally quicker at finding an opponent’s weakness. “There’s one thing left which they can’t do for themselves.”

“And that is?”

“Eat. The only sources of their nutrient fluid which they’ll be able to use are on Organization-held asteroids. Without food, even bitek organisms will wither and die. And we know our energistic power can’t magic up genuine food.”

“Then Capone will control them.”

“No.” Kiera could sense his anxiety at the prospect of losing his status, and knew she could rely on him. She closed her eyes, focusing on assignments for the small number of her people she’d brought with her to Monterey. “Which is the most reliable hellhawk we’ve got on planetary defence?”


“Loyal, idiot. To me.”

“That’ll probably be Etchells in the Stryla . He’s a regular little Nazi, always complaining hellhawks never see enough battle action. Doesn’t get on too well with the others, either.”

“Perfect. Call him back to Monterey’s docking ledges and go on board. I want you to visit every Organization asteroid in this system with a nutrient fluid production system. And blow it to shit.”

Hudson gave her an astounded look, trepidation replacing the earlier anxiety. “The asteroids?”

“No, shithead! Just the production systems. You don’t even have to dock, just use an X-ray laser. That’ll leave Monterey as their only supply point.” She smiled happily. “The Organization has enough to do right now without the burden of maintaining all that complicated machinery. I think I’ll go down there right now with our experts, and relieve them.”

It wasn’t dawn which arose over the wolds, in as much as there was no sun to slide above the horizon any more, but none the less the darkened sky grew radiant in homage to Norfolk’s lost diurnal rhythm. Luca Comar felt it developing because he was a part of making it happen. By coming to this place he had freed himself from the clamour of the souls lost within the beyond, their tormented screams and angry pleas. In exchange he had gained an awareness of community.

Born at the tail end of the Twenty-first Century he’d grown up in the Amsterdam arcology. It was a time when people still clung to the hope that the planet could be healed, their superb technology employed to turn the clock back to the nevertime of halcyon pastoral days. In his youth, Luca dreamed of the land returned to immense parkland vistas with proud white and gold cities straddling the horizon. A child brought up by some of the last hippies on Earth, his formative years were spent loving the knowledge that togetherness was all. Then he turned eighteen, and for the first time in his existence reality had bitten, and bitten hard; he had to get a job, and an apartment, and pay taxes. Not nice. He resented it until the day his body died.

So now he had stolen a new body, and with the strange powers that theft had bestowed, he’d joined with the others of this planet to create their own Gaia. Unity of life was a pervasive, shroud-like presence wrapping itself around the planet, replacing the regimented order of the universe as their provider. Because the new inhabitants of Norfolk wished there to be a dawn, there was one. And as they equally desired night, so the light was banished. He contributed a little of himself to this Gaia, some of his wishes, some of his strength, a constant avowal of thanks to this new phase of his existence.

Luca sat on the edge of the huge bed in the master bedroom to watch the light strengthen outside Cricklade; a silver warmth shining down from the sky, its uniformity leaving few shadows. With it came the sense of anticipation, a new day to be treasured because of the opportunity it might bring.

A dull dawn, bland and boring, just as the days have become. We used to have two suns, and revelled in the contrast of colours they brought, the battle of shadows. They had energy and majesty, they inspired. But this, this . . .

The woman on the bed beside Luca stretched and rolled over, resting her chin in her hand and smiling up at him. “Morning,” she purred.

He grinned back. Lucy was good company, sharing a lot of his enthusiasms, as well as a wicked sense of humour. A tall woman, great figure, thick chestnut hair worn long, barely into her mid-twenties. He never asked how much of her appearance was hers, and how much belonged to her host. The age of your host had swiftly become taboo. He liked to think himself modern enough so that bedding a ninety-year-old wouldn’t bother him, age and looks being different concepts here. He still didn’t ask, though. The solid image was good enough.

An image so close to Marjorie it verges on the idolatrous. Did this Lucy see that in my heart?

Luca yawned widely. “I’d better get going. We have to inspect the mill this morning, and I need to know how much seed corn we’ve actually got left in the silos over in the estate’s western farms. I don’t believe what the residents are telling me. It doesn’t correspond with what Grant knows.”

Lucy pulled a dour face. “One week in heaven, and the four horsemen are already giving us the eye.”

“Alas, this is not heaven, I’m afraid.”

“And don’t I know it. Fancy having to work for a living when you’re dead. God, the indignity.”

“The wages of sin, lady. We did have one hell of a party to start with, after all.”

She flopped back down on the bed, tongue poised tautly on her upper lip. “Sure did. You know I was quite repressed back when I was alive first time around. Sexually, that is.”

“Hallelujah, it’s a miracle cure.”

She gave a husky chuckle, then sobered. “I’m supposed to be helping out in the kitchen today. Cooking the workers lunch, then taking it out to the fields for them. Bugger, it’s like some kind of Amish festival. And how come we’re reverting to gender stereotypes?”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s us girls that are doing all the cooking.”

“Not all of you.”

“The majority. You should work out a better rota for us.”

“Why me?”

“You seem to be taking charge around here. Quite the little baron.”

“Okay, I designate you to draw up a proper equitable rota.” He stuck his tongue out at her. “You should be good at secretarial work.”

The pillow hit him on the side of his head, nearly knocking him off the bed. He caught the next one, and put it out of her reach. “I didn’t do it deliberately,” he said seriously. “People tell me what they can do, and I shove them at the first matching job. We need to get a list of occupations and skills sorted out.”

She moaned. “Bureaucracy in heaven, that’s worse than sexism.”

“Just think yourself lucky we haven’t got round to introducing taxes yet.” He started searching round for his trousers. Luckily, the Manor had entire wardrobes of Grant Kavanagh’s high-quality clothes. They weren’t quite Luca’s style, but at least they fitted perfectly. And the outdoor gear was hard-wearing, too. It saved him from having to dream up new stuff. That was harder here, in this realm. Imagined items took a long time to form, but when they did, they had more substance, and persevered longer. Concentrate hard enough and long enough on changing something, and the change would become permanent, requiring no more attention.

But that was inert objects: clothes, stone, wood, even chunks of machinery (not electronics), they could all be fashioned by the mind. Which was fortunate; Norfolk’s low-technology infrastructure could be repaired with relative ease. Physical appearance, too, could be governed by a wish, flesh gradually morphing into a new form—inevitably firmer and younger. The majority of possessed were intent on reverting to their original features. As seen through a rose-tinted mirror, Luca suspected. Having quite so many beautiful people emerge in one place together was statistically implausible.

Not that vanity was their real problem. The one intractable difficulty of this new life was food. Energistic power simply could not conjure any into existence; no matter how creative or insistent you were. Oh, you could cover a plate with a mountain of caviar; but cancel the illusion and the glistening black mass would relapse into a pile of leaves, or whatever raw material you were trying to bend to your will.

Irony or mockery, Luca couldn’t quite decide what their deliverance had led them to. But whichever it was, eternity tilling the fields was better than eternity in the beyond. He finished dressing, and gave Lucy an expectant, slightly chiding look.

“All right,” she grumbled. “I’m getting up. I’ll pull my communal weight.”

He kissed her. “Catch you later.”

Lucy waited until the door shut behind him, then pulled the sheets back over her head.

Most of the manor’s residents were already awake and bustling about. Luca said a dozen good-mornings as he made his way downstairs. As he walked along the grand corridors, the state of the building gradually registered. Windows left ajar, allowing the nightly sprinkling of rain to stain the carpets and furniture; open doors showed him glimpses of rooms with clothes strewn everywhere, remnants of meals on plates, grey mould growing out of mugs, sheets unwashed since the start of Norfolk’s possession. It wasn’t apathy, exactly, more like teenage carelessness—the belief that mum will always be around to clean up after you.

Bloody squalor junkies. Wouldn’t have happened in my day, by damn.

There were over thirty people having their breakfast in Cricklade’s dining hall, which now served as the community’s canteen. The big chamber was three stories high, with a wooden ceiling supported by skilfully carved rafters. Cascade chandeliers hung on strong chains; their light globes were inoperative, but they bounced plenty of the sky’s ambient light around the hall, illuminating the elaborate Earth-woodland frescos painted between every window. A thick blue and cream coloured Chinese carpet silenced Luca’s boots as he walked over to the counter and helped himself to scrambled egg from an iron baking dish.

The plate he used was chipped, the silver cutlery was tarnished, and the polish on the huge central table was scuffed and scratched. He nodded to his companions as he sat, holding back any criticism. Focus on priorities, he told himself. Things were up and running at a basic level, that’s what counts. The food was plain but adequate; not rationed exactly, but carefully controlled. They were all reverting to a more civilized state of behaviour.

For a while after Quinn left, Cricklade’s new residents had joyfully discarded the sect’s loathsome teachings which the monster had imposed, and dived into a continual orgy of sex and overconsumption. It was a reaction to the beyond; deliberately immersing themselves in complete sensory-glut. Nothing mattered except feeling, and taste, and smell. Luca had eaten and drunk his way through the manor’s extensive cuisine supplies, shagged countless girls with supermodel looks, flung himself into ludicrously dangerous games, persecuted and hounded the non-possessed. Then, with painful slowness, the morning after had finally dawned, bringing the burden of responsibility and even a degree of decency.

It was the day when the bathroom shower nozzle squirted raw sewage over him that Luca started to gather up likeminded people and set about restoring the estate to working order. Pure hedonistic anarchy, it turned out, was not a sustainable environment.

Luca saw Susannah emerge from the door leading to the kitchen. His every movement suddenly became very cautious. She was carrying a fresh bowl of steaming tomatoes, which she plonked down on the self-service counter.

As he had applied himself to getting the farming side of the estate functional again, so she had taken on the manor itself. She was making a good job of providing meals and keeping the place rolling along (even though it wasn’t maintained as it had been in the old days). Appropriately enough, for Susannah was possessing Marjorie Kavanagh’s body. Naturally, there had been little room for physical improvement; she’d discarded about a decade, and shortened her extravagant landowner hair considerably, but the essential figure and features remained the same.

She picked up an empty bowl and walked back to the kitchen. Their eyes met, and she gave him a slightly confused smile before she disappeared back through the door.

Luca swallowed the mush of egg in his mouth before he choked on it. There had been so much he wanted to cram into that moment. So much to say. And their troubled thoughts had resonated together. She knew what he knew, and he knew . . .


Hardly. She belongs with us.

Ridiculous because Susannah had found someone: Austin. They were happy together. And I have Lucy. For convenience. For sex. Not for love.

Luca forked up the last of his eggs, and washed them down with some tea. Impatience boiled through him. I need to be out there, get those damn slackers cracking.

He found Johan sitting at the other end of the table, with the single slice of toast and glass of orange which was his whole meal. “You ready yet?” he asked curtly.

Johan’s rounded face registered an ancient expression of suffering, creasing up into lines so ingrained they must have been there since birth. There was a glint of sweat on his brow. “Yes, sir; I’m fit for another day.”

Luca could have mouthed the ritual reply in tandem. Johan was possessing Mr Butterworth. The physical transformation from a lumbering, chubby sixty-year-old to virile twenty-something youth was almost complete, though some of the old estate manager’s original characteristics seemed to defy modification.

“Come on then, let’s be going.”

He strode out of the hall, directing sharp glances at several of the men around the table as he went. Johan was already rising to his feet to scurry after Luca. Those who had received the visual warning crammed food in their mouths and stood hurriedly, anxious not to be left behind.

Luca had a dozen of them follow him into the stables, where they started to saddle up their horses. The estate’s rugged farm ranger vehicles were still functional, but nobody was using them right now. The electricity grid had been damaged during the wild times, and only a couple of possessed in Stoke County owned up to having the knowledge to repair it. Progress was slow; the small amount of power coming from the geothermal cables was reserved for tractors.

It took Luca a couple of minutes to saddle up his horse; buckles and straps fastened into place without needing to think—Grant’s knowledge. Then he led the piebald mare out into the courtyard, past the burnt out ruins of the other stable block. Most of the horses Louise had set free during the fire had come back; they still had over half of the manor’s superb herd left.

He had to ride slower than he liked, allowing the others to keep up. But the freedom of the wolds made up for it. All as it should be. Almost.

Individual farms huddled in the lee of the shallow valleys, stolid stone houses seeking protection against Norfolk’s arctic winters; they were scattered about the estate almost at random. Their fields had all been ploughed now, and the tractors were out drilling the second crop. Luca had gone round the storage warehouses himself, selecting the stock of barley, wheat, maize, oats, a dozen varieties of beans, vegetables. Some fields had already started to sprout, dusting the rich dark soil with a gossamer haze of luxuriant emerald. It was going to be a good yield, the nightly rain they conjured up would ensure that.

He was thankful that most of the disruption to the estate had been superficial. It just needed a firm guiding hand to get everything back on track.

As they approached Colsterworth, the farms were closer together, fields forming a continual quilt. Luca led his team round the outskirts. The streets were busy, clotted by the town’s residents as they strove for activity and normality. Nearly all of them recognized Luca as he rode past. His influence wasn’t quite so great here, though it was his objectives which had been adopted. The town had elected itself a council of sorts, who acknowledged Luca had the right goals in restarting the county’s basic infrastructure. A majority of the townsfolk went along with the council, repairing the water pump house and the sewage treatment plant, clearing the burnt carriages and carts from the streets, even attempting to repair the telephone system. But the council’s real power came from food distribution, over which it had a monopoly, loyalists mounting a round the clock guard on the warehouses.

Luca spurred his horse over the canal bridge, a wood and iron arch in the Victorian tradition. The structure was another of the council’s repair projects, lengths of genuine fresh timber had been dovetailed into the original seasoned planking; energistic power had been utilised to reform the iron girders that had been smashed and twisted (somehow they couldn’t quite match the blue paint colour, so the new sections were clearly visible).

The Moulin de Hurley was on the other bank, a big mill house which supplied nearly a quarter of Kesteven island with flour. It had dark-red brick walls cut by tall iron-rimmed windows; one end was built over a small stream, which churned excitedly out of a brick arch before emptying into the canal at the end of the wharf. A series of tree-lined reservoir ponds were staggered up the gentle curve of the valley which rose away behind the building.

There was a team appointed by the council to help him waiting by the Moulin’s gates. Their leader, Marcella Rye, was standing right underneath the metal archway supporting an ornate letter K. Which gave Luca a warm sensation of contentment. After all, he owned the mill. No! The Kavanaghs. The Kavanaghs owned it. Used to own it.

Luca greeted Marcella enthusiastically, hoping the flush of bonhomie would prevent her from sensing his agitation at the lapse. “I think it’ll be relatively easy to get this up and running again,” he said expansively. “The water powers the large grinder mechanism, and there’s a geothermal cable to run the smaller machines. It should still be producing electricity.”

“Glad to hear it. The storage sheds were ransacked, of course,” she pointed at a cluster of large outbuildings. Their big wooden doors had been wrenched open; splintered and scorched, they now hung at a precarious angle. “But once the food was gone, nobody bothered with the place.”

“Fine, as long as there’s no . . .” Luca broke off, sensing the whirl of alarm in Johan’s thoughts. He turned just in time to see the man stumble, his legs giving way to pitch him onto his knees. “What’s—?”

Johan’s youthful outline was wavering as he pressed his fists against his forehead; his whole face was contorted in an agony of concentration.

Luca knelt beside him. “Shit, what is it?”

“Nothing,” Johan hissed. “Nothing. I’m okay, just dizzy that’s all.” Sweat was glistening all over his face and hands. “Heat from the ride got to me. I’ll be fine.” He clambered to his feet, wheezing heavily.

Luca gave him a confused glance, not understanding at all. How could anyone be ill in a realm in which a single thought had the power of creation? Johan must be severely hung over; a body wasn’t flawlessly obedient to the mind’s wishes here. They still had to eat, after all. But his deputy didn’t normally go in for heroic benders.

Marcella was frowning at them, uncertain. Johan gave a forced I’m fine nod. “We’d best go in,” he said.

Nobody had been in the mill since the day Quinn Dexter had arrived in town. It was cool inside; the power was off, and the tall smoked-glass windows filtered the daylight down to a listless pearl. Luca led the party along the dispenser line. Large, boxy stainless steel machines stood silent above curving conveyer belts.

“Initial grinding is done at the far end,” he lectured. “Then these machines blend and refine the flour, and bag it. We used to produce twelve different types in here: plain, self-raising, granary, savoury, strong white—you name it. Sent them all over the island.”

“Very homely,” Marcella drawled.

Luca let it ride. “I can release new stocks of grain from the estate warehouses. But—” He went over to one of the hulking machines, and tugged a five pound bag from the feed mechanism below the hopper nozzle; it was made of thick paper, with the Moulin’s red and green water wheel logo printed on the front. “Our first problem is going to be finding a new stock of these to package the flour in. They used to come from a company in Boston.”

“So? Just think them up.”

Luca wondered how she’d wound up with this assignment. Refused to sleep with the council leader? “Even if we only produce white flour for the bakeries, and package it in sacks, you’re looking at a couple of hundred a day,” he explained patiently. “Then you need flour for pastry and cakes, which people will want to bake at home. That’s several thousand bags a day. They’d all have to be thought up individually.”

“All right, so what do you suggest?”

“Actually, we were hoping you might like to come up with a solution. After all, we’re supplying the expertise to get the mill going again, and providing you with grain.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“No thanks needed. This isn’t a Communist society, we’re not giving it away. You’ll have to pay for it.”

“It’s as much ours as it is yours.” Her voice had risen until it was almost an indignant squeal.

“Possession is nine-tenths of the law.” He grinned mirthlessly. “Ask your host.” His mind detected his people were sharing his amusement; even Johan’s thoughts were lighter. The townies were highly uncomfortable with the facts being presented.

Marcella regarded him with blatant mistrust. “How do you propose we pay?”

“Some kind of ledger, I suppose. Work owed to us. After all, we’re the ones growing the food for you.”

“And we’re running the mill for you, and transporting the stuff all over the county.”

“Good. That’s a start then isn’t it? I’m sure there’ll be other useful industries in Colsterworth, too. Our tractors and field machinery will need spares. Now all we need is a decent exchange rate.”

“I’m going to have to go back to the council with this.”

“Naturally.” Luca had reached the wall separating the dispenser line from the chamber housing the main grinder. There were several large electrical distribution boxes forming their own mosaic over the bricks. Each one had an amber light glowing brightly on the front. He started pressing the trip buttons in a confident sequence. The broad tube lights overhead flickered as they came alight, sending down a blue-white radiance almost brighter than the sky outside. Luca smiled in satisfaction at his mental prowess. The circuitry for governing this old island was mapped out in his mind now, percolating up from his host.

His modest feeling of contentment faded, absorbed by a new body of emotion slipping over his perceptual horizon. Around him, the others were reacting in the same fashion. All of them turned instinctively to face the same outer wall, as if trying to stare through the bricks. A group of people were approaching Colsterworth. Dark thoughts sliding through Norfolk’s atmosphere of the mind like threatening storm clouds.

“I think we’d better go take a look,” Luca said. There were no dissenters.

They used the railway to get about over the island, adapting one of the utilitarian commuter trains which had trundled between the island’s towns. A steam-powered ironclad fortress now clanked and hissed its way along the rails, hauling a couple of Orient Express carriages behind it. Several sets of what looked like twin recoilless ack-ack guns had been mounted at both ends of the train, while the barrel of a big tank cannon pointed along the top of the boiler, emerging from the combination turret/driver’s cabin.

Just outside Colsterworth, where the rail went over the canal before it got to the station, Luca and Marcella stood side by side on the embankment at the head of their combined teams. More people were emerging from the town, bolstering their numbers. Antibodies responding to an incursive virus, Luca thought. And they were right to do so. People here were made to wear their hearts on their sleeves, visible to everyone else. It saved a lot of bullshitting around. Plain for all to see, those coming down the track were set on just one thing.

The train let out a long annoyed whistle, sending a fountain of steam rocketing up into the sky. Metallic screeches and janglings came pouring out of the engine when its riders realized how committed the townie blockaders were. Its pistons pounded away, reversing the wheel spin.

Luca and Marcella stood their ground as it howled forwards. A thought-smile flashed between them, and they stared down at the tracks, concentrating. The rails just in front of their feet creaked once, then split cleanly. Bolts holding them to the timber sleepers shot into the air, and the rails started to curl up, rolling into huge spirals. Flame spewed out of the train’s wheels. The riders had to exert a lot of energistic strength to halt its momentum. It stopped a couple of yards short of the coils. Billows of angry steam jetted out of valves all along the underside, water splattered down onto the tracks. A thick iron door banged open on the side of the driver’s cabin. Bruce Spanton jumped down.

He was dressed in anti-hero black leathers, impenetrable sunglasses pressed tight against his face. Heavy boots crunched on the gravel chippings of the embankment as he stalked towards the huddled townsfolk. A holster with a gold-plated Uzi slapped his leg with every step.

“Hello,” Luca muttered, “Somebody watched way too many bad cable movies when they were younger.”

Marcella subdued a grin as the ersatz Bad Guy halted in front of them.

“You,” Bruce Spanton growled. “You’re in my way, friend. You must feel lucky to try a move like that.”

“What do you boys want here?” Luca asked wearily. The bad vibes emanating from Spanton and the others in the train weren’t entirely forged. Not everyone on Norfolk had calmed down after returning from the beyond.

“Me and the guys, just passing through,” Spanton said challengingly. “No law against that, here, is there?”

“No law, but plenty of wishes,” Luca said. “This county doesn’t want you. I’m sure you’ll respect that majority opinion.”

“Tough shit. You got us. What you gonna do, call the cops?”

A big silver Western sheriff’s badge mushroomed on the front of Marcella’s tunic. “I am the police in Colsterworth.”

“Listen,” Bruce Spanton said. “We’re just here to check out the town. Have us a bit of fun. Stock up on some food, grab some Norfolk Tears. Then tomorrow we’ll be gone. We don’t want no trouble; it’s not as if we want to stay here. Crappy dump like this, not our scene. Know what I mean?”

“And how are you going to pay for your food?” Marcella asked. Luca did his best not to turn and frown at her.

“Pay for it?” Spanton yelled in astonishment. “What the fuck are you scoring, sister? We don’t pay for anything any more. That got left behind along with all the rest of the lawyers and shit we had to put up with back there.”

“It doesn’t work like that,” Luca said. “It’s our food. Not yours.”

“It’s not yours, shithead. It belongs to everyone.”

“We’ve got it. You don’t. It’s ours. That simple enough for you?”

“Fuck you. We’ve got to eat. We’ve got a right to eat.”

“I remember you now,” Luca said. “You were one of Dexter’s people. Real devout arse licker. Do you miss him?”

Bruce Spanton stabbed a finger at Luca. “I’m going to remember you, shithead. And you’re going to wish I fucking hadn’t.”

“Learn the rules when you go abroad,” Luca said forcefully. “And then live by them. Now either you climb back on your pathetic little cartoon mean machine and leave. Or, you stay and find yourself a useful job, and earn a living like everybody else. Because we’re not in the business of supporting worthless parasite scum like you.”

“Get a jo . . .” disbelief and rage made Bruce Spanton splutter to a halt. “What the hell is this?”

“For you, exactly that: Hell. Now get out of our county before we run you out.” Luca heard several cheers from behind him.

The sound made Bruce Spanton look up. He glanced round the crowd, sensing their mood, the belligerence and resentment focusing on him. “You fuckers are crazy. You know that? Crazy! We’ve just escaped from all this shit. And you’re trying to bring it back.”

“All we’re doing is building ourselves a life as best we can,” Luca said. “Join in, or fuck off.”

“Oh we’ll be back,” Bruce Spanton said, tight lipped. “You’ll see. And people will join us, not you. Know why? Because it’s easier.” He stomped off back to the train.

Marcella grinned at his back. “We won. We showed the bastards, eh? Not such a bad combination, you and me. We won’t be seeing them again.”

“This is a small island on a small planet,” Luca said, more troubled than he wanted to be by Spanton’s parting shot.

Chapter 03

Sinon’s serjeant body had been divested of its last medical package just five hours before the Catalpa flew out of its wormhole terminus above Ombey. The voidhawk’s crew toroid was overcrowded, carrying thirty-five of the hulking serjeants and their five-strong biomedical supervisory team in addition to the usual crew. Heavy dull-rust coloured bodies stood almost shoulder to shoulder as they performed lumbering callisthenics all around the central corridor, discovering for themselves the parameters of their new physiques.

There was no fatigue in the fashion of a genuinely human body, the tiredness and tingling aches. Instead blood sugar depletion and muscle tissue stress registered as mental warning tones within the neural array housing the controlling personality. Sinon thought they must be similar to a neural nanonic display, but grey and characterless rather than the full-spectrum iconographic programs which Adamists enjoyed. Interpreting them was simple enough, thankfully.

He was actually quite satisfied with the body he now possessed (even though it was unable to smile at that particular irony for him). The deep scars of the serjeant’s assembly surgery were almost healed. What minimal restriction they imposed on his movements would be gone within a few more days. Even his sensorium was up to the standard of an Edenist body. Michael Saldana certainly hadn’t skimped on the design of the bitek construct’s genetic sequence.

Acclimatisation to his new circumstances had twinned a growing confidence throughout the flight. A psychological boost similar to a patient recovering from his injuries as more and more of the medical packages became redundant. In this case shared with all the other serjeant personalities who were going through identical emotional uplifts, the general affinity band merging their emerging gratification into synergistic optimism.

Despite a total lack of hormonal glands, Sinon was hot for the Mortonridge Liberation campaign to begin. He asked the Catalpa to share the view provided by its sensor blisters as the wormhole terminus closed behind them. The external image surged into his mind; featuring Ombey as a silver and blue crescent a hundred and twenty thousand kilometres ahead. Several settled asteroids swung along high orbits, grubby brown specks muffled by a fluctuating swirl of silver stardust as their industrial stations deflected spears of raw sunlight. Larger, more regular motes of light swarmed around Catalpa , its cousins emerging from their termini and accelerating in towards the planet.

This particular squadron was comprised of just over three hundred of the bitek starships. It wasn’t even the first to arrive at the Kingdom principality today. The Royal Navy’s strategic defence centre on Guyana had combined its flight management operations and sensors with civil traffic control to guide the torrent of arriving starships into parking orbits.

The voidhawks headed down towards the planet, merging into a long line as they spiralled into alignment over the equator. They shared the five hundred kilometre orbit with their cousins and Adamist starships from every star system officially allied to the Kingdom. Military and civil transports unloaded their cargo pods into fleets of flyers and spaceplanes; Confederation Navy assault cruisers had brought an entire battalion of marines, and even the voidhawks were eager to see the huge Kulu Royal Navy Aquilae-class starships.

After reaching low orbit, the Catalpa had to wait a further eight hours before its spaceplane received clearance to ferry the first batch of serjeants down to Fort Forward. Sinon was on it as the night-shadowed ocean fled past underneath the glowing fuselage. Their little craft had aerobraked down to mach five when Xingu’s western coastline rose over the horizon ahead. The red cloud was just visible to the sensors, a slice of curving red light, as if the fissure between land and sky had been rendered in gleaming neon. Then their altitude dropped, and it sank away.

They must know we’re here,choma said. With ten thousand spaceship flights hyperbooming across the ocean every day, they’ll hear us arriving if nothing else.in the twenty-fifth century, choma had been an astroengineering export manager based at Jupiter. Although he’d readily admitted to the other serjeant personalities that his personal knowledge-base of obsolete deep space startracker sensors was not very relevant to the Liberation, his main interest was strategy games, combined with the odd bit of role-playing. For himself and his fellow quirky enthusiasts, the kind of simulation arenas available to Edenists through perceptual reality environments were anathema. They wanted authentic mud, forests, rock faces, redoubts, heavy backpacks, heat, costumes, horse riding, marches, aching joints, flagons of ale, making love in the long grass, and songs around the campsite. To the amusement of the other inhabitants, they would take over vast tracts of habitat parkland for their contests; it was quite a faddish activity at the time. All of which made Choma the closest thing Sinon’s squad had to an experienced soldier.

A lot of the old strategy game players had come out of the multiplicity to animate serjeant bodies. Slightly surprisingly, very few ex-intelligence agency operatives had joined them, the people whose genuine field operations experience would really have been valuable.

Very likely,sinon agreed. Dariat demonstrated his perceptive ability to the Kohistan Consensus; no doubt the combined faculty of the Mortonridge possessed will provide them with some foreknowledge.

That and the ring of starships overhead. The convoys aren’t exactly unobtrusive.

But they are obscured by the red cloud.

Don’t count on it.

Does that worry you?sinon asked.

Not really. Surprise was never going to be our strategic high-ground. Best we could hope for is the scale of the Liberation being a nasty shock to Ekelund and her troops.

I wish I had experience of the combat situations we will be facing rather than theoretical memories.

I expect that experience is going to be one thing you’ll be collecting plenty of, in a very short timespan.

The Catalpa ’s spaceplane landed at Fort Forward’s new spaceport, racing along one of the three prefabricated runways laid out in parallel. Another was touching down forty-five seconds behind it; that managed to spark a Judeo of concern in Sinon’s mind. Even with an AI in charge of slotting the traffic together, margins were being stretched. Ion field flyers were landing and launching vertically from pads on the other side of the spaceport’s control tower at a much faster rate than the runways could handle spaceplanes.

For the moment, the spaceport’s principal concern was to offload cargo and send it on to Fort Forward. The hangars were frantically busy, heavy-lift mechanoids and humans combining to keep the flow of pods going; any delay here would have a knock on effect right back up to orbit. Nearly all of the Liberation’s ground vehicles were assigned to carry cargo. Passenger vehicles were still up in orbit.

Sinon and the others were given a static charge test by Royal Marines as they got to the bottom of the spaceplane’s stairs. That it was perfunctory was understandable, but Sinon was satisfied to see they did test everybody. As soon as they were cleared the spaceplane taxied away, joining a queue of similar craft waiting to take off. Another one rolled into place, extending its airstair. The Marine squad moved forward again.

An Edenist liaison officer they never even saw told them that they were going to have to get to Fort Forward on foot. They were part of a long line of serjeants and marines marching along a road of freshly unrolled micro-mesh composite next to the new six-lane motorway. After they got underway, Sinon realized that it wasn’t only Confederation Marines who made up the human contingent of the Liberation’s ground forces. He walked over to a boosted mercenary taller than himself. The mercenary’s brown skin had exactly the same texture as leather, long buttress ropes of muscle were clumped round the neck, supporting a nearly-globular skull armoured with silicolithium like an all-over helmet. In place of a nose and mouth, there was an oval cage grill at the front, and the saucer eyes were set very wide apart, giving little overlap, normal apart from the blue-green irises, which appeared to be multifaceted.

When Sinon asked, she said her name was Elana Duncan. “Excuse me for inquiring,” he said. “But what exactly are you doing here?”

“I’m a volunteer,” Elana Duncan replied with an overtly feminine voice. “We’re part of the occupation force. You guys take the ground from those bastards, we’ll hold on to it for you. That’s the plan. Listen up, I know you Edenists don’t approve of my kind. But there aren’t enough marines to secure the whole of Mortonridge, so you’ve got to use us. That, and I had some friends on Lalonde.”

“I don’t disapprove. If anything I’m rather glad there’s someone here who has actually been under fire before. I wish I had.”

“Yeah? Now, see, that’s what I don’t get. You’re cannon fodder, and you know you’re cannon fodder. But it doesn’t bother you. Me, I know I’m taking a gamble, that’s a life-choice I made a long time ago.”

“It doesn’t bother me, because I’m not human, just a very sophisticated bitek automaton. I don’t have a brain, just a collection of processors.”

“But you got a personality, dontcha?”

“This is only an edited copy of me.”

“Ha. You must be very confident about that. A life is a life, after all.” She broke off, and tipped her head back, neck muscles flexing like heavy deltoids. “Now there’s a sight which makes all this worthwhile. You can’t beat those old warships for blunt spectacle.”

A CK500-090 Thunderbird spaceplane was coming in to land. The giant delta-wing craft was at least twice the size of any of the civil cargo spaceplanes using the runways. Air thundered turbulently in its wake as it slipped round to line up on its approach path, large sections of the trailing edges bending with slow agility to alter the wing camber. Then a bewildering number of hatches were sliding open all across its fuselage belly; twelve sets of undercarriage bogies dropped down. The Thunderbird hit the runway with a roar louder than a sonic boom. Chemical rockets in the nose fired to slow it, dirty ablation smoke was pouring out of all ninety-six brake drums.

“God damn,” Elana Duncan murmured. “I never thought I’d ever see an operation like this, never mind be a part of it. A real live land army on the move. I’m centuries after my time, you know, I belong back in the Nineteen and Twentieth Centuries, marching on Moscow with Napoleon, or struggling across Spain. I was born for war, Sinon.”

“That’s stupid. You know you have a soul now. You shouldn’t be risking it like this. You have invented a crusade for yourself to follow rather than achieve anything as an individual. That is wrong.”

“It’s my soul, and in a way I’m no different to Edenists.”

Sinon felt a rush of real surprise. “How so?”

“I’m perfectly adjusted to what I am. The fact that my goals are different to those of your society doesn’t matter. You know what I think? Edenists don’t get caught in the beyond because you’re cool enough under pressure to figure your way out. Well, me too, pal. Laton said there was a way out. I believe him. The Kiint found it. Just knowing that it’s possible is my ticket to exit. I’ll be happy searching because I know it’s not pointless, I won’t suffer like those dumbasses that wound up trapped. They’re losers, they gave up. Not me. That’s why I’m signed up on this mad Liberation idea, it’s just part of getting ready for the big battle. Good training, is all.”

She gave his shoulder an avuncular pat with a hand whose fingers had been replaced by three big claws, and marched off.

That’s an excess of fatalism,choma remarked. What a strange psychology.

She is content,sinon answered. I wish her well in that.

A large quantity of love had been invested in constructing the farmhouse. Even the Kulu aristocracy with their expensive showy buildings employed modern materials in their fabric. And Mortonridge was a designated rapid growth area, with government subsidies to help develop the farms. A resolutely middle-class province. Their buildings were substantial, but cheap: assembled from combinations of carbon concrete, uniform-strength pulpwood planks, bricks made from grains of clay cemented by geneered bacteria, spongesteel structural girders, bonded silicon glass. For all their standardisation, such basic components afforded a wealth of diversity to architects.

But this was unmistakable and original. Beautifully crude. A house of stone, quarried with an industrial fission blade from a local outcrop; large cubes making the walls thick enough to repel the equatorial heat and keep the rooms cool without air conditioning. The floor and roof beams were harandrid timbers, sturdy lengths dovetailed and pegged together as only a master carpenter could manage. Inside, they’d been left uncovered, the gaps between filled with reed and plaster, then whitewashed. It was as historic as any of the illusions favoured by the possessed, not that anyone could mistake something so solid for an ephemeral aspiration.

There was a barn attached at the end, also stone, forming one side of the farmyard. Its big wooden doors were swinging open in the breeze the day the Karmic Crusader pulled up outside. Stephanie Ash had been tired and fed up by the time they pulled off the main road and drove along the unmarked dirt track. Investigating it had been Moyo’s idea.

“The road must lead somewhere,” he insisted. “This land was settled recently. Nothing’s had time to fall into disuse yet.”

She hadn’t bothered to argue with him. They’d driven a long way down the M6 after handing the children over, a journey which meant having to pass back through Annette Ekelund’s army. This time they’d been pointedly ignored by the troops billeted in Chainbridge. After that they’d zigzagged from coast to coast looking for a refuge, somewhere self-sufficient where they could rest up and wait for the grand events beyond Mortonridge to play themselves out. But the towns in the northern section of the peninsula were still occupied, though there was a steady drift out to farms. They were unwelcome there; the possessed were learning to guard their food stocks. Every unoccupied farm they’d visited had been ransacked for food and livestock. It was a monotonous trend, and finding a functional power supply to recharge the Karmic Crusader was becoming more difficult.

After the joy and accomplishment of evacuating the children, the comedown to excluded refugee status was hard. Stephanie hadn’t exactly lost faith, but the narrow road was no different to any of the dozens they’d driven down the last few days. Hope rebutted unfailingly each time.

The road took the bus through a small forest of aboriginal trees, then dipped into a shallow, lightly-wooded valley which meandered extravagantly. A stream bubbled along the lush grassy floor, its speed revealing they were actually travelling up at quite an angle. After four kilometres, the valley ended by opening out into a nearly circular basin. It was so regular, Stephanie suspected it was an ancient impact crater. A lacework of silver brooks threaded their way down the sides, feeding a lake at the centre, which was the origin of the valley’s stream. The farmhouse stood above the shore, separated from the rippling water by a neatly trimmed lawn. Behind it, someone had converted the north-facing walls of the basin into stepped terraces, making a perfect sun-trap. The levels were cultivated with dozens of terrestrial fruit and vegetable plants; from citrus tree groves to lettuce, avocados to rhubarb. Almost all the aboriginal vegetation had been removed; even the south side looked as if it was covered in terrestrial grass. Goats and sheep were wandering around grazing peacefully.

They all piled out of the Karmic Crusader, smiling like entranced children.

“There’s nobody here,” Rana said. “Can you sense it? This whole place is empty.”

“Oh goodness,” Tina exclaimed nervously. She took the last step off the bus’s stairs, her scarlet stilettos sinking awkwardly into the road’s loose-packed gravel surface. “Do you really think so? This is simply paradise. It’s just what we all deserve after everything we’ve done for others. I couldn’t bear us being thrown out by someone else claiming they were here first. It would be excruciating.”

“There are no vehicles left,” McPhee grunted. “The owners probably received the Kingdom’s warning and cleared out before Ekelund’s people arrived in these parts.”

“Lucky for them,” Rana said.

“More so for us,” Moyo said. “It’s absolutely bloody perfect.”

“I think the irrigation system is screwed,” McPhee said. He was shielding his eyes with a hand as he squinted up at the terraces. “There, see? There must be channels to divert the brooks so that each level receives a decent supply. But it’s spilling over like a waterfall. The plants will drown.”

“No they won’t,” Franklin Quigly said. “It’s not broken. The power’s off, and there’s no one here to manage it. That’s all. We could get it fixed inside of a day. That’s if we’re staying.”

They all turned to look at Stephanie. She was amused rather than gratified by the compliment. “Oh I think so.” She smiled at her ragged little band. “We’re not going to find anywhere better.”

They spent the rest of the day wandering round the farmhouse and the terraces. The basin was an intensive-cultivation market garden; there were no cereal crops on any of the terraces. There were signs of a hurried departure all through the building, drawers pulled out, clothes spilled on the shiny floorboards, a tap left running, two old suitcases abandoned half-packed in one of the bedrooms. But there was a lot of basic foodstuffs left in the pantry, flour, jams, jellied fruit, eggs, whole cheeses; a big freezer was filled with fish and joints of meat. Whoever the farm belonged to, they didn’t believe in modern sachets and readymade meals.

Tina took one look inside the kitchen with its simple array of shining copper pots and pans, and sniffed with emphatic disapproval. “You can take the worship of all things rustic too far, you know.”

“It’s appropriate to what we are now,” Stephanie told her. “The consumer convenience society cannot exist in our universe.”

“Well just don’t expect me to give up silk stockings, darling.”

Moyo, Rana, and McPhee scrambled up to the top of the basin to a small building they assumed was a pumphouse for the irrigation system. Stephanie and the rest started clearing out the farmhouse. By the third day, they’d got the terrace irrigation equipment working again. Not perfectly, their presence still glitched some of the management processors; but there was a manual back-up control panel in the pumphouse. Even the clouds’ gloomy claret illumination had grudgingly brightened as they established themselves and began exterting their influence. It wasn’t the pure sunlight which shone upon towns and larger groups of possessed, but the plants gleefully absorbed the increased rain of photons, and perked up accordingly.

A week later Stephanie had every right to be content as she walked out into the relatively cool air of early morning. The right, but not the reality. She opened the iron-framed French doors which led out to the lawn, and stepped barefoot onto the dewy grass.

As usual the red clouds tossed through the sky above, their massive braids strumming the air until it groaned in protest. This time, though, a subtler resonance was carried by the rancorous vapour. It couldn’t be heard, it merely preyed on the mind like a troublesome dream.

She walked down to the shore of the lake, her head turning slowly from side to side as she scanned the sky, questing for some kind of hint. Anything. The nettling sensation had been building for many days now. Whatever the origin, it was too far away for her senses to distinguish, skulking below the horizon like a malevolent moon.

“So you like feel the cosmic blues sounding out, too?” Cochrane said ruefully.

Stephanie jumped, she hadn’t noticed him approach. The bells on the ancient hippy’s velvet flares were silent as he trod lightly over the grass. An exceptionally large reefer hung from the corner of his mouth. It smelt different than usual, not nearly as sweet.

He caught her puzzlement, and his beard parted to show a smug grin. Fingers with many rings plucked the brown tube from his mouth, and held it vertically. “Guess what I found growing on some forgotten terrace? This Mr Taxpaying Johnny Appleseed we’ve taken over from here wasn’t quite as straight as his fellow Rotarians believed. Know what this is? Only like genuine nicotiana. And as illegal as hell around these parts. Man but it feels good, first real drag I’ve had in centuries.”

Stephanie smiled indulgently as he stuck it back in his mouth. Indulgent was all you could be with Cochrane. Moyo was coming out of the farmhouse, his mind darkened with concern.

“You know it’s here, too, don’t you?” she asked sadly. “This must be what Ekelund meant when she told me the Saldana Princess was preparing.”

“And Lieutenant Anver,” Moyo muttered.

“The earth can feel war’s coming, that blood’s going to be spilt. How very . . . biblical; bad vibes in the aether. I’d so hoped Ekelund was wrong, that she was just trying to justify maintaining her army by claiming phantom enemies were waiting on the other side of the hill.”

“No way,” Cochrane said. “The bad dude cavalry’s like mounting up. They’ll charge us soon, guns blazing.”

“Why us?” Stephanie asked. “Why this planet? We said we wouldn’t threaten them. We promised, and we kept it.”

Moyo put his arm round her. “Being here is a threat to them.”

“But it’s so stupid. I just want to be left alone, I want time to come to terms with what’s happened. That’s all. We’ve got this beautiful farm, and we’re making it work without hurting anybody. It’s good here. We can support ourselves, and have enough time left over to think. That doesn’t make us a threat or a danger to the Confederation. If we were allowed to carry on we might be able to make some progress towards an answer for this mess.”

“I wish we could be left alone,” Moyo told her sadly. “I wish they’d listen to us. But they won’t. I know what it’ll be like out there now. Common sense and reason won’t matter. Forcing us out of Mortonridge is a political goal. Once the Saldanas and other Confederation leaders have declared it, they won’t be able to pull back. We’re in the path of a proverbial irresistible force.”

“Perhaps if I went back up to the firebreak and spoke to them. They know me. They might listen.”

Alarm at what she was saying made Moyo tighten his grip around her. “No. I don’t want you doing anything crazy like that. Besides, they wouldn’t listen. Not them. They’d smile politely for a while, then shove you into zero-tau. I couldn’t stand that, I’ve only just found you.”

She rested her head against him, quietly thankful for his devotion. He’d been there for her since the very first day. More than a lover, a constant source of strength.

“You can’t go,” Cochrane said. “Not you. These cats would like fall apart without you to guide them. We need you here, man. You’re our den mother.”

“But we won’t last long if we stay here, and the Princess sends her army to find us.”

“A little more time is better than the big zippo. And who knows what our karma’s got mapped out for us before the jackboots kick our door down.”

“You’re not normally the optimist,” Stephanie teased.

“Face it babe, I’m not normally alive. That kinda warps your outlook, dig? You gotta have faith these days, man. Some cool happening will come along to like blow our minds away.”

“Groovy,” Moyo deadpanned.

“All right, you win,” Stephanie assured them. “No noble sacrifices on my part. I’ll stay here.”

“Maybe they’ll never come,” Moyo said. “Maybe Ekelund will defeat them.”

“Not a chance,” Stephanie said. “She’s good, and she’s mean, which is everything it takes. But she’s not that good. Just stop and feel the weight of them building up out there. Ekelund will cause them a whole load of grief when the invasion starts, but she won’t stop them.”

“What will you do then, when they reach the farm? Will you fight?”

“I don’t think so. I might lash out, that’s human nature. But fight? No. What about you? You said you would, once.”

“That was back when I thought it might do some good. I suppose I’ve grown up since then.”

“But it’s still not fair,” she complained bitterly. “I adore this taste of life. I think going back to the beyond will be worse now. Next time, we’ll know that it doesn’t have to be permanent, even though it probably will be. It would have been far better if we’d been spared knowing. Why is the universe persecuting us like this?”

“It’s karma, man,” Cochrane said. “Bad karma.”

“I thought karma was paying for your actions. I never hurt anyone badly enough for this.”

“Original sin,” Moyo said. “Nasty concept.”

“You’re wrong,” she said. “Both of you. If I know anything now, it’s that our religions are lies. Horrid, dirty lies. I don’t believe in God, or destiny, not any more. There has to be a natural explanation for all this, a cosmological reason.” She sank into Moyo’s embrace, too tired even for anger. “But I’m not smart enough to work it out. I don’t think any of us are. We’re just going to have to wait until someone clever finds it for us. Damn, I hate that. Why can’t I be good at the big things?”

Moyo kissed her brow. “There are forty kids on the other side of the firebreak who are mighty glad you achieved what you did. I wouldn’t call that a small thing.”

Cochrane blew a smoke ring in the direction of the oppressive presence beyond the firebreak. “Anyhow, nobody’s served us an eviction order on these bodies yet. The evil Kingdom’s warlords have got to like catch us first. I’m going to make chasing after me tragically expensive to the taxpayers. That always pisses them off bigtime.”

We really should be doing this in a perceptual reality,sinon moaned. I mean: actual physical training. It’s barbaric. I’m amazed Ralph Hiltch hasn’t assigned us a crusty old drill sergeant to knock us into shape. We’ve got the right scenario.

That morning, the serjeants had been driven out to a training ground ten kilometres east of Fort Forward, a rugged stretch of land with clumps of trees and mock-up buildings. It was one of twenty-five new training zones, their basic facilities thrown up as quickly as Fort Forward itself. Royal Marine engineers were busy constructing another ten.

Choma half-ignored Sinon’s diatribe, concentrating on the bungalow in front of them. The rest of the squad were spread out round the dilapidated building in a semicircle, learning to cling to whatever cover was available. Stupid really, he thought, considering the possessed can sense us from hundreds of metres. But it added to the feeling of authenticity. The point which Sinon was missing.

Suddenly, one of the small bushes fifty metres away shimmered silver, and metamorphosed into a green-skinned hominoid with bug-eyes. Balls of white light shot away from his pointing hand. The two serjeants swivelled smoothly, lining their machine guns up on the apparition.

Ours,they told the rest of the squad. sinon squeezed the trigger down with his right index finger, while his left hand twisted the gun’s side grip, selecting the fire rate. The small chemical projectile cases reverberated loudly as they fired, smothering all other sounds. Ripples of static shivered over the end of the barrel as the pellets hammered into their target.

The static gun was the weapon which the Kingdom had developed to arm the serjeants for the Liberation. A simple enough derivative of an ordinary machine gun, the principal modification was to the bullet. Inert kinetic tips had been replaced by spherical pellets which carried a static charge. Their shape reduced their velocity from ordinary bullets (and their accuracy), though they could still inflict a lethal amount of damage on a human target, while their electrical discharge played havoc with the energistic ability of a possessed. Every pellet carried the same level of charge, but the variable rate of fire would allow the serjeants to cope with the different strengths of the individual possessed they encountered; and as the gun’s mechanism was mechanical, the possessed couldn’t glitch it—in theory.

It took three seconds of concentrated fire on the green monster before it stopped flinging white light back at Sinon and Choma. The image collapsed into an ordinary human male, who pitched forward. A holographic projector lens glinted in the bush behind it.

You were too slow to respond to the target’s strength,their supervisor told them, in a genuine combat situation his white fire would have disabled the pair of you. And, Sinon . . .


Work on improving your aim, that entire first burst you fired was wide.

Acknowledged,sinon informed the supervisor curtly. he adopted singular engagement mode to talk to Choma. Wide shooting, indeed! I was simply bringing the gun round onto the target. Approaching fire can be a large psychological inhibitor.

Certainly can,choma replied with strict neutrality. he was scanning the land ahead, alert for new dangers. It would be just like the training ground controllers to hit them immediately again.

I think I am beginning to comprehend the gun’s parameters,sinon declared. My thought routines are assimilating its handling characteristics at an autonomic level.

Choma risked a mildly exasperated glance at his squad mate. That’s the whole point of this training. We can hardly accept a tutorial thought routine from a habitat, now can we? The Consensus didn’t even know about static guns when we left Saturn. Besides, I always said the best lessons are the ones you learn the hard way.

You and your atavistic Olympiad philosophy. No wonder it fell out of fashion by the time I was born.

But you’re getting the hang of it, aren’t you?

I suppose so.

Good. Now come on, we’d better advance to the building or we’ll wind up on latrine duty.

At least the serjeant’s lips and throat allowed Sinon to sigh plaintively. Very well.

Princess Kirsten had switched her retinal implants to full resolution so that she could watch the squads advancing over various sections of the training ground. There was a old saying running loose in her mind, as if one file was continually leaking from a memory cell: I don’t know about the enemy, but by God they frighten me. This was the first time she’d ever encountered the big bitek constructs outside of a sensevise. Their size and mien combined to make them both impressive and imposing; she was now rather glad Ralph Hiltch had the courage to suggest using them. At the time she’d been only too happy deferring the final choice to Allie. The family does so lack the bravery to make really important decisions, thank God he still has the guts. It was the same even when we were kids, we all waited for his pronouncement.

Several hundred of the dark figures were currently crawling, slithering, and in some cases running through the undergrowth, bushes, and long grass while colourful holographic images popped into existence to waylay them. The sound of gunfire rattled through the air; it was a noise she was becoming very familiar with.

“They’re making good progress,” Ralph Hiltch said. He was standing beside the Princess on the roof of the training ground’s management centre, which gave them an uninterrupted view over the rumpled section of land which the Liberation army had annexed. Their respective entourages were arranged behind them, officers and cabinet ministers forming an edgy phalanx. “It only takes two sessions on average to train up a serjeant. The support troops need a little longer. Don’t get me wrong, those marines are excellent troops; I don’t just mean the Kingdom’s, our allies have sent their best, and the mercs are formidable at the best of times. It’s just that they’re all way too reliant on their neural nanonic programs for fire control and tactics, so we really discourage their usage. If a possessed does break through the front line, that’s the first piece of equipment that’s going to glitch.”

“How many serjeants are ready?” Kirsten asked.

“About two hundred and eighty thousand. We’re training them up at the rate of thirty thousand a day. And there’s another five training grounds opening each day. I’d like the rate increased, but even with the Confederation Navy brigades, I’ve only got a limited number of engineering corps; I have to balance their assignments. Completing the accommodation sections of Fort Forward is my priority.”

“It would appear as though you have everything under control.”

“Simple enough, we just tell the AI what we want, and it designates for us. This is the first time in history a land army commander doesn’t have to worry unduly about logistics.”

“Providing a possessed doesn’t get near the AI.”

“Unlikely, ma’am; believe me, unlikely. And even that’s in our contingency file.”

“Good, I’d hate us to become overconfident. So when do you think you’ll be able to begin the Liberation?”

“Ideally, I’d like to wait another three weeks.” He acknowledged the Princess’s raised eyebrow with a grudging smile. They’d spent the best part of two hours that morning under the gaze of rover reporters, inspecting the tremendous flow of materiel and personnel surging through Fort Forward’s spaceport. To most people it looked as if they already had the military resources to invade a couple of planets. “Our greatest stretch is going to be the opening assault. We have to ring the entire peninsula, and it’s got to be one very solid noose, we can’t risk anything less. That’ll have to be achieved with inexperienced troops and untested equipment. The more time spent preparing, the greater chance we have for success.”

“I’m aware of that, Ralph. But you were talking about balance a moment ago.” She glanced back at Leonard DeVille, who responded with a reluctant twitch. “Expectations are running rather high, and not just here on Ombey. We’ve demanded and received a colossal amount of support from our political allies and the Confederation Navy. I don’t need to remind you what the King said.”

“No ma’am.” His last meeting with Alastair II, the time when he’d received his commission needed no file. The King had been adamant about the factors at play, the cost of external support, and the public weight of anticipation and belief.

Success. That was what everyone wanted, and expected him to deliver, on many fronts. And I have to give them that. This was all my idea. And my fault.

Unlike the Princess, Ralph didn’t have the luxury of glancing round his people for signs of support. He could well imagine Janne Palmer’s opinion—she’d be right too.

“We can begin preliminary deployment in another three days,” he said. “That way we’ll be able to start the actual Liberation in eight days’ time.”

“All right, Ralph. You have another eight days’ grace. No more.”

“Yes ma’am. Thank you.”

“Have you actually managed to test one of the static guns on a possessed yet?”

“I’m afraid not, ma’am, no.”

“Isn’t that taking a bit of a chance? Surely you need to know their effectiveness, if any?”

“They’ll either work, or not; and we don’t want to give Ekelund’s people any advance warning just in case they can devise a counter. We’ll know if they’re any use within seconds of our first encounter. If they don’t, then the ground troops will revert to ordinary light arms. I just hope to God they don’t have to, we’ll inflict a hell of a lot of damage on the bodies we’re trying to recover. But the theory’s perfect, and the machinery’s all so beautifully simple as well. Cathal and Dean dreamed up the concept. It should have been obvious from the start. I should have come up with it.”

“I think you’ve worked enough miracles, Ralph. All the family wants from you now is a mundane little victory.”

He nodded his thanks, and stared out over the training ground again. It was changeover time, hundreds of grubby-red serjeants were on the move, along with a good number of ordinary troops. Though ordinary was a relative term when referring to the boosted mercenaries.

“One question,” Leonard DeVille said; he sounded apologetic, if not terribly sincere about it. “I know this isn’t quite what you want to hear right now, Ralph. But you have allocated room for the rover reporters to observe the action during the assault, haven’t you? The AI does know that’s a requirement?”

Ralph grinned. This time he gave Palmer a direct look before locking eyes with the Home Office Minister. The Princess was diplomatically focused on the returning serjeants.

“Oh yes. We’re putting them right in the front line for you. You’ll get sensevises every bit as hot as the one Kelly Tirrel produced on Lalonde. This is going to be one very public war.”

Chainbridge was different now. When Annette Ekelund had first arrived here, she’d transformed it into a simple headquarters and garrison town. Close enough to the firebreak to deploy her irregulars if the Kingdom sent any of its threatened “punishment” squads over to snatch possessed. Far enough away so that it was outside the range of any inquisitive sensors—incidentally making it reasonably safe from SD fire. So she’d gathered her followers to her, and allowed them their illusion of freedom. A genuine rabble army, with a licence to carouse and cavort for ninety per cent of the time, with just a few of her orders to follow the morning after. Something to do, something vaguely exciting and heroic-seeming, gave them a sense of identity and purpose. For that, they stayed together.

It made them into a unit for her, however unwieldy and unreliable. That was when Chainbridge resembled a provincial town under occupation by foreign troops with unlimited expense accounts. Not a bad analogy. There were parties and dances every evening, and other people began to hang around, if for no other reason than the army made damn sure they had full access to Mortonridge’s dwindling food supplies. It was a happy town kept in good order, Annette even established the hub of Mortonridge’s downgraded communication net in the old town hall, which was commandeered as her command post. The net allowed her to retain a certain degree of control over the peninsula, keeping her in touch with the councils she’d left in charge of the towns her forces had taken over. There wasn’t much she could do to enforce her rule, short of complete overkill and send in a brigade of her troops, but in the main she’d created a small society which worked. That was before any of the inhabitants really believed that the Kingdom would break its word and invade with the express intention of ripping body from usurping soul.

Now Chainbridge’s parties had ended. The few inhabited buildings had lost their ornate appearance in favour of a bleakly oppressive, fortress-like solidity. Non-combatants, the good-timers and hangers on, had left, drifting away into the countryside. The town was preparing for war.

From her office window in the town hall, she could look down on the large cobbled square below. The fountains were off, their basins dry and duned by clumps of litter. Vehicles were parked in neat ranks under the rows of leghorn trees that circled the outer edge of the square. They were mostly manual-drive cars and four-wheel drive farm rovers, as per her instructions. None of them wore any kind of illusory image. Engineers were working on several of them, readying them for the coming ordeal.

Annette came back to the long table where her ten senior officers were sitting. Delvan and Milne had taken the chairs on either side of hers; the two people she relied on the most. Delvan claimed to have been an officer in the First World War; while Milne had been an engineer’s mate during Earth’s steamship era, which made him a wizard with all things mechanical, though he freely admitted to knowing very little about electronics. Beyond them, sat Soi Hon, who was a veteran of early-Twenty-first Century bush wars, an ecological agitator, he called himself. Annette gathered his battles hadn’t been fought along national lines, but rather corporate ones. Whatever he wanted to describe himself as, his tactical know-how in the situation they faced was invaluable. The rest of them were just divisional commanders, gaining the loyalty of their troops through personality or reputation. Just how much loyalty, was a moot point.

“What are today’s figures?” Annette asked.

“Nearly forty deserted last night,” Delvan said. “Little shits. In my day they would have been shot for that kind of cowardice.”

“Fortunately, we’re not in your day,” Soi Hon said. “When I fought the desecrators who stole my land I had legions of the people who did what they had to because our cause was just. We needed no military police and prisons to enforce the orders of our commanders then, nor do we here. If in their hearts people do not want to fight, then forcing them will not make them good soldiers.”

“God is on the side of the big battalions,” Delvan sneered. “Owning your claptrap nobility doesn’t guarantee victory.”

“We are not going to win.” Soi Hon smiled peacefully. “You do understand that, don’t you?”

“We’ll have a damn good try, and to hell with your defeatist talk. I’m surprised you didn’t leave with the rest of them.”

“I think that’ll do,” Annette said. “Delvan, you know Soi Hon is right, you’ve felt what the Kingdom is gathering to fling against us. The King would never commit his forces against us unless he was convinced of the outcome. And he has the backing of the Edenists, who even more than he, won’t engage in a foolhardy venture. This is a showpiece war; they intend to demonstrate to the Confederation’s general public that we are beatable. They cannot afford to lose, no matter what it costs them.”

“So what the hell do you want us to do, then?” Delvan asked.

“Make that cost exorbitant,” Soi Hon said. “Such people always assign a value to everything in monetary terms. We might not be able to defeat them on Mortonridge, but we can certainly prevent any further Liberation campaigns after this one.”

“Their troops will have reporters with them,” Annette said. “They’ll want to showcase their triumphs. This war will be fought on two fronts, the physical one here, and the emotional one broadcast by the media across the Confederation. That is the important one, the one we have to win. Those reporters must be shown the terrifying price of opposing us. I believe Milne has been making some preparations.”

“Not doing so bad on that front, lass,” Milne said. He sucked on a big clay pipe for emphasis, every inch the solid reliable NCO. “I’ve been training up a few lads, teaching them tricks of trade, like. We can’t use electrical circuits, of course, not our type. So we’ve gone back to basics. I’ve come up with a nice little mix of chemicals for an explosive; we’re shoving it into booby traps as fast as we can make ’em.”

“What kind of booby traps?” Delvan asked.

“Anti-personnel mines, ground vehicle snares, primed buildings, spiked pits; that kind of thing. Soi’s been showing us what he used to rig up when he was fighting. Right tricky stuff, it is, too. All with mechanical triggers, so their sensors won’t pick them up, even if they can get them working under the red cloud. I’d say we’re due to give Hiltch’s boys a load of grief once they cross the firebreak. We’ve also rigged bridges to blow, as well as the major junction flyovers along the M6. That ought to slow the buggers down.”

“All very good,” Delvan said. “But with respect, I don’t think a few scraps of rubble will make much difference to their transport. I remember the tanks we used to have, great big brutes, they were. But by heaven they could crunch across almost every surface; and the engineers have had seven centuries to improve on that.”

“Ruining the road junctions might not make a huge impact, but it will certainly have some effect,” Soi Hon said impassively. “We know how large this Liberation army is, even in these times that makes it unwieldy. They will use the M6, if not for front line troops, then certainly for their supplies and auxiliaries. If we delay them even by an hour a day, we add to the cost. Slowing them down will also give us time to respond and retaliate. It is a good tactic.”

“Okay, I’m not arguing with you. But these booby traps and blown bridges are a passive response. Come on man, what’ve you got that’ll allow us to attack them?”

“My lads have found quite a few light engineering factories and the like in Chainbridge,” Milne said. “The machine tools still work if you switch ’em to manual. Right now, I’ve got ’em churning out parts for a high velocity hunting rifle. I don’t know what the hell that sparky machine gun is that the souls have seen Hiltch’s boys practising with. But I reckon my rifle’s got an easy twice the range of ’em.”

“They’ll be wearing armour,” Delvan warned.

“Aye, I know that. But Soi’s told me about kinetic enhanced impact bullets. Our armourers are doing their best to produce them, you’ll have a decent stock in another few days. We’ll be able to inflict a lot of damage with them, you see if we don’t.”

“Thanks, Milne,” Annette said. “You’ve done a great job, considering what you’ve had to work with, and what we’re facing.”

Milne cocked his pipe at her. “We’ll put up a good account of ourselves, lass, no worries.”

“I’m sure.” She gazed round at the rest of her commanders. There was a good range of emotions distributed among them, from clear nerves to stupid over-confidence. “Now we know roughly what our own capabilities are, we need to start working out how we’re going to deploy. Delvan, you’re probably the best strategist we have . . .”

“Butt-headed traditionalist,” Soi Hon muttered sotto voce.

Annette raised a warning eyebrow and the old guerrilla made a conciliatory shrug. “What is Hiltch likely to do?” she asked.

“Two things,” Delvan said, ignoring Soi. “Firstly, their initial assault is going to be a lulu. He’ll throw everything he’s got at us, on as many fronts as he can afford to open. We’ll be facing massive troop incursions, this wretched space warship bombardment, aircraft carpet bombing, artillery. The aim is to demoralise us right from the start, make it quite clear from the scale of the Liberation that we’ll lose, drumming it home in a fashion we can’t possibly ignore. I’d recommend that we actually pull back a little way from the borders of the peninsula; don’t give him an easy target. Leave it to Milne’s booby traps to snarl up his timetable, and stall any immediate visible success he wants to lay on for the reporters.”

“Okay, I can cope with that. What’s his second likely objective?”

“His target missions. If he’s got any sense, he’ll go for our population centres first. Our power declines with our numbers, which will make his mopping up operation a damn sight easier.”

“Population centres,” Annette exclaimed in annoyance. “What population centres? People are deserting the towns in droves. The councils are reporting we’re now down to less than half the numbers we had in urban areas when we took over Mortonridge. They’re like our deserters, heading for the hills. Right now we’re spread over this land thinner than a pigeon’s fart.”

“It’s not the hills they’re after,” Soi said, his soft tone a rebuke. “It’s the farms. Which was only to be expected. You are well aware of the food situation across the peninsula. Had your efforts been directed at developing our civil infrastructure instead of our military base, it would be a different story.”

“Is that a criticism?”

His gentle laugh was infuriating, mockingly superior. “A plea for industrialisation, from me? Please! I regard the land and the people as integral. Nature provides us with our true state. It is our towns and cities with their machines and hunger, which have birthed the corruption that has contaminated human society for millennia. The defence of people who chose to live with the land is paramount.”

“Okay, thanks for the party manifesto. But it doesn’t alter what I said. We haven’t got that many population centres to lure Hiltch’s forces into ambush.”

“We will have. I suspect Delvan is correct when he says Hiltch will want to open with a grand gesture. That should work in our favour. As always when a land is invaded, its people pull together. They’ll see that as individuals they can offer no resistance to the Liberation forces, and they’ll flee their isolation in search of group sanctuary. We will gather ourselves together as a people again. Then the battle will be joined in full.”

Annette’s growing smile was a physical demonstration of the satisfaction spreading through her thoughts. “Remember Stephanie Ash, what I told her about having to decide whose side she was on? That self-righteous cow just stood there smiling politely the whole time, knowing her world view was the real thing and that I’d come round to her way of thinking in the end. Looks like I’ll have the last laugh after all—even if it is only a short one. Damn, I’m going to enjoy that almost as much as I am bollixing up my dear old friend Ralph’s campaign.”

“You really think we’ll be able to start recruiting into the regiments again?” Delvan asked Soi Hon.

“Can you think of nothing but your own position and power? It is not the regiments which will inflict the worst casualties, but the united people. Group ten of us together, and the destructive potential of our energistic power is an order of magnitude greater than any artillery the Liberation forces can bring to bear.”

“Which is less than one per cent of the lowest powered maser on a Strategic Defence platform, and that’s before we get into the heavy duty systems like their X-ray lasers,” Annette said, tired of their bickering. “It’s not our numbers which matter, but our ability to communicate and organise. That’s what we have to safeguard until the last of us is shoved into zero-tau.”

“I agree,” Delvan said. “The whole war is going to be an extremely fluid situation from the start. Lightning strikes, hit the bastards and run, are what we should be planning for.”

“Exactly, that’s where I expect you two to combine for me. Your overall strategy, Delvan, combined with Soi’s tactics. It’s a lethal alliance, the equivalent of the Kingdom and the Edenists.”

“An inspired comparison,” Soi chuckled.

“My pleasure. All right, let’s start looking at the map, and see who we’re going to send where.”

It was Emmet Mordden, again, who was on duty in the operations centre when the Organization fleet started to emerge above New California. The hellhawks were first, their wormholes opening more or less in the official emergence zone, a hundred thousand kilometres above Monterey. That gave them some warning that the Adamist craft were en route. Emmet quickly called in five more operatives to monitor their rag-tag arrival. They certainly aimed for the emergence zone, but with possessed officers on board aiming and hitting were increasingly separate concepts. Event horizons started to inflate across a vast section of space around the planet; the only thing regular about them was the timing. One every twenty seconds.

The big flight trajectory holoscreens ringing the centre had to change perspective several times, clicking down through their magnification to encompass space right out to Requa, New California’s fourth moonlet. Black icons started to erupt across the screen as if it was being struck by dirty rain.

The AI began to absorb the swarm of information datavised in from the SD sensor platforms, and started plotting the starships’ erratic trajectories. Multiple vector lines sprang up on every console display. The operators studied them urgently, opening communication circuits to verify the ships were still under Organization control. Emmet got so carried along by the pandemonium of the first few minutes it took a while before he began to realize something was badly wrong with the whole episode. Firstly, they were too early, Admiral Kolhammer’s task force couldn’t possibly have arrived at Tranquillity yet. Secondly, there were too many ships. Even if the ambush had been a massive success, some ships would have been lost. Of all Capone’s lieutenants, he had the most pragmatic view of just how effective the fleet ships were.

Those two ugly facts were just beginning to register, when he sensed the dismay bubbling up among Jull von Holger’s thoughts, as the hellhawk liaison man communicated with his colleagues.

“What the hell is it?” Emmet demanded. “Why are they back here? Did they lose, chicken out, or what?”

Jull von Holger shook his head in bewilderment, most reluctant to be the messenger of bad news. “No. No, they didn’t lose. Their target . . . Tranquillity jumped away.”

Emmet frowned at him.

“Look, just call Luigi, okay. I don’t understand it myself.”

Emmet gave him a long dissatisfied look, then turned to his own console. He ordered it to find the Salvatore ’s transponder, and open a channel to the flagship. “What’s going on?” he asked when a fuzzy picture of Luigi Balsamo appeared in the corner of his display.

“She tricked us,” Luigi shouted angrily. “That Saldana bitch ran away. Christ knows how she managed it, but the whole thing vanished down a wormhole. Nobody told us a habitat could do that. You never warned us, did you? You’re supposed to be the Organization’s technical whiz kid. Why the fuck didn’t you say something?”

“About what? What do you mean it went down a wormhole? What went down a wormhole?”

“Why don’t you listen , shitbrain? The habitat! The habitat vanished in front of us!”

Emmet stared at the image, refusing to believe what he’d heard. “I’m calling Al,” he said eventually.

It was the first time Luigi had ever been intimidated by the big double doors of the Nixon suite. There were a couple of soldiers on duty outside, wearing their standard fawn-brown double-breasted suits, big square-jawed guys with a dark rasp of stubble, glossy Thompson machine guns held prominently. He could sense several people milling about inside, their familiar thoughts dull and unhappy as they waited for him. He thought of all the punishments and reprimands he’d attended in his own capacity as one of the Organization’s elite lieutenants. The omens weren’t good.

One of the soldiers opened the doors, a superior in-the-know grin on his face. He didn’t say anything, just made a mocking gesture of welcome. Luigi resisted the urge to smash his face to pulp, and walked in.

“What the fuck happened?” Al bellowed.

Luigi glanced round at the semicircle of erstwhile friends as the doors closed behind him. Patricia was there, as was Silvano, Jezzibella, Emmet, Mickey, and that little bitch Kiera. All of them going with the tide that was sweeping him away to drown.

“We were given some very bad information.” He looked pointedly at Patricia. “Perez sold us a dummy. And you bought it.”

“He didn’t,” she snapped. “He possessed one of the First Admiral’s top aids in Trafalgar. Kolhammer was heading straight for Tranquillity.”

“And we would have got him, too. If somebody had just warned me. I mean, Jesus H Christ, an entire goddamn habitat flitting off. Do you have any idea how big that thing was?”

“Who cares?” Al said. “The habitat wasn’t your main target. You were there to blow up Kolhammer’s ships.”

“The only way we could do that was if we’d captured the habitat first,” Luigi said angrily. “Don’t try blaming all this on me. I did everything you asked.”

“Who the fuck else am I going to blame?” Al asked. “You were there, it was your responsibility.”

“Nobody has ever heard of a habitat that can do that before,” Luigi ground out. “Nobody.” He shoved an accusatory finger at Jezzibella. “Right?”

For whatever reason, Jezzibella had assumed her impish adolescent girl persona, red ribbons tying her hair into ponytails, a white blouse and grey pleated skirt not really covering her body. She pouted, a gesture which was almost obscenely provocative. It was an act which various judges had been asked to ban when she performed it live on tour. “Right. But I’m hardly an expert on energy patterning systems, now am I?”

“Christ almighty. Emmet?” It was almost a plea.

“It is unprecedented,” Emmet said with some sympathy.

“And you.” Luigi glared at Kiera. “You lived in a habitat. You knew all about how they work, why didn’t you tell us?” The attack didn’t quite kick up the response he expected. A flash of icy anger twisted Kiera’s thoughts, while Al simply sneered scornfully.

“Valisk was not capable of performing a swallow manoeuvre,” she said. “As far as we know, only Tranquillity has that ability. Certainly none of the Edenist habitats can. I don’t know about the other three independent habitats.”

“Didn’t stop Valisk from vanishing, though, did it,” Al muttered snidely.

Silvano gave an over-loud laugh, while Jezzibella smiled demurely at Kiera’s discomfort. Luigi looked from one to the other in puzzlement. “Okay, so are we agreed? It was a shitty situation, sure. But there was nothing I could do about it. That Saldana girl took everyone by surprise.”

“You were the fleet’s commander,” Al said. “I gave you that job because I thought you were smart, man, that you had some flare and imagination. A guy with a few qualities, know what I mean? If all I want is some putz who expects a slap on the back every time he does what he’s told I would have given the job to Bernhard Alsop. I expected more from you, Luigi, a lot more.”

“Like what? I mean, come on here, tell me, Al, just what the hell would you have done?

“Stopped it from flying out. Don’t you get it, Luigi? You were my man on the ground. I was goddamn depending on you to bring the Organization through this okay. Instead, I’m left with shit all over my face. Once you saw what was happening you should have zeroed the place.”

“Christ, why won’t any of you listen ? I was fucking trying to zero it, Al. That’s what spooked Saldana; that’s what made her scoot the hell out of there. I’d got nearly five thousand of those war rockets chasing after her faster than a coyote with a hornet up its ass, and she got clean away. There was nothing we could do. We were damn lucky to cut free ourselves. The explosions from all those war rockets did some damage, too, we were . . .”

“Wooha there,” Al held up a hand. “What explosions? You just said the combat wasps never touched Tranquillity.”

“Yeah, but most of them detonated when they hit the wormhole entrance. I don’t understand none too well; the technical boys, they say it’s like a solid barrier, but it’s made out of nothing. Beats me. Anyway, the first ones started to go off, and . . . hell, you know how powerful antimatter is, they set off the others. The whole lot went off like a string of goddamn firecrackers.”

“All of them? Five thousand antimatter-powered combat wasps?”

“That’s right. Like I said, we were lucky to get out alive.”

“Sure you were.” Al’s voice had dropped to a dangerous monotone. “You’re alive, and I’m out one planet which we postponed invading, I’m down a Confederation Navy task force you were supposed to ambush, and I’ve also got to replace five thousand combat wasps fuelled up by the goddamn rarest substance in the whole fucking universe. Jeez, I’m real glad you’re back. Seeing you here smiling away in once piece makes me feel absolutely fucking peachy. You piece of shit ! Do you have any idea how badly you’ve screwed up?”

“It wasn’t my fault!”

“Oh absolutely. You’re right. No way are you to blame for this. And you know what? I bet I know who it was. Yeah. Yeah, now I think about it, I know. It was me. That’s right, me. I’m to blame. I’m the asshole here. I made the biggest fucking mistake of my life when I put you in charge.”

“Yeah? Well I didn’t hear you whining none when I came back from Arnstat. Remember that day? I delivered a whole fucking planet on a fucking plate for you, Al. You gave me the keys for the city back then. Parties, girls, you even made Avvy track down a genuine copy of the Clark Gable Gone with the Wind for me. Nothing. Nothing was too much trouble. I was loyal to you, then, and I’m loyal to you now. I don’t deserve any of this. All you lost was a few lousy rockets and some fancy fuel. I put my life on the line for you, Al. And we all know how goddamn precious that is now, don’t we? Well, do you know what? I don’t deserve to be treated like this. It ain’t right.”

Al scowled, looking round the other lieutenants. They all kept their faces blank, of course, but their minds were boiling. Annoyance and doubt were the predominant emotions. He guessed his own mind would show the same. He was fucking furious with Luigi, it was the first defeat the Organization had been dealt, the news boys would crow about it clear over the Confederation. His image would take a terrible battering, and as Jez always said: image was everything in the modern world. The aura of the Organization’s invincibility would be hit badly. Yet at the same time, Luigi was right, he had done his best, right from the start when they’d all walked into City Hall in the ballsiest escapade this side of the Trojan horse.

“By rights, I ought to fucking fry you, Luigi,” Al said darkly. “We’ve been set back weeks thanks to what happened at Tranquillity. I’ve got to find another planet to invade, I’ve got to wait until we’ve built up a decent new stock of antimatter, the reporters will hang me out to dry, everyone’s confidence is busted. But I’m not going to. And the only reason I’m not going to is because you came back here like a man. You ain’t afraid to admit you made a mistake.”

There was a new flash of anger in Luigi’s mind at that. Al waited, mildly intrigued, but it was never voiced. He materialised a Havana, and took a comfortable drag before saying: “So I’ll make you an offer. You can stay with the Organization, but I’m going to bust you right back down to the bottom of the ladder again. You’re a private zero class, Luigi. I know the other guys’ll go hard on you for a while, but you stay loyal, you keep your nose clean, and you can work your way back up again. I can’t be no fairer than that.”

Luigi gawped at Al, struggling with disbelief at what he’d just heard while a strangled choke growled up from his throat. His mind was telegraphing the notion of outright rebellion. Al fixed him with the look, all humour eradicated. “You won’t like the alternative.”

“All right, Al,” Luigi said slowly. “I can live with that. But I’m telling you, I’ll be back in charge of the fleet inside of six months.”

Al guffawed, and clapped Luigi’s arm. “That’s my boy. I knew I made the right decision with you.” Luigi managed a brief smile, and turned to walk out of the room. Al slumped his shoulders when the doors shut. “Guess that’s one guy we’ve lost for good.”

Jezzibella rubbed his arm in sympathy. “You did the right thing, baby. It was honourable. He did fuck up something chronic.”

“I wouldn’t have been so generous,” Kiera said. “You shouldn’t show so much kindness. People will see it as a weakness.”

“You’re dealing with people, not mechanoids,” Jezzibella said blankly. “You have to make allowances for the odd mistake. If you shoot every waiter who spills a cup of coffee over your skirt, you wind up with a self service bar.”

Kiera smiled condescendingly at her. “What you’ll actually wind up with is a group of highly efficient waiters who can do the job effectively.”

“You mean, like the way your team handled things on Valisk?”

“All teams need an effective leader.”

Al was tempted to let them go for it—nothing like a good catfight. But one bust-up among his senior lieutenants was enough for today. So instead, he said: “Speaking of which, Kiera, are the hellhawks going to keep flying for me?”

“Of course they will, Al. I’ve been busy setting up my new flight coordination office in one of the docking ledge departure lounges. Close to the action, as it were. They’ll do what I tell them to.”

“Uh huh.” He didn’t like the implications of that sweetly spoken assurance any more than the unpleasant note of victory rippling through her mind. And judging by the sudden suspicion colouring Jez’s thoughts, neither did she.

It was one of those absurd left right, left right sideways shuffles that seemingly automatically occurs when two people try to get out of each other’s way simultaneously which finally blew Beth’s temper. She’d come out of the washroom at one end of the Mindori ’s life support module to find Jed standing outside waiting to use it. He immediately dropped his head so he didn’t have to look at her and danced to one side. A move she instinctively matched. They dodged about for a couple of seconds.

The next thing Jed knew was a hand grasping his collar, and hauling him into the washroom. Bright mock sunbeams poured through the smoked-glass portholes, producing large white ovals on the polished wood floor. Archaic brass plumbing gleamed and sparkled all around the small compartment. Jed’s knee banged painfully on the rim of the enamel bath as Beth smoothly slewed his weight round like some kind of ice skater act. The door slammed shut, the lock snicked and he was shoved flat against the wall. “Listen ball-brain,” she snarled, “I was not shagging him. Okay?”

He risked a sneer, praying she wasn’t still carrying the nervejam stick. “Yeah? So what were you doing in bed with him?”

“Sleeping.” She saw the new expression of derision forming on his face, and twisted his sweatshirt fabric just a fraction tighter. “Sleeping,” she repeated forcefully. “Jeeze, mate, the guy’s brain is totally zonked. It took a time to get him quietened down, that’s all. I dozed off. Big deal. If you hadn’t stormed out so bloody fast you would have seen I still had all my clobber on.”

“That’s it?”

“What the hell do you expect? The pair of us were working our way through a kama sutra recording? Is that what you think of me? That I’m going to leap into bed with the first geriatric I meet?”

Jed knew his answer to that question was going to be critical, and possibly close to fatal if he got it wrong. “No,” he insisted, willing himself to believe it totally. Voice only would never be good enough. He often suspected Beth had some kind of advanced telepathic ability. “I don’t think that of you at all. Um . . . you’ve got more class that that. I always said so.”

“Hummm.” Her grip on his sweatshirt loosened slightly. “You mean you were always miffed I didn’t let you shag me.”

“That’s not it!” he protested.


Jed thought that jibe was best ignored in its entirety. “What do you make of this delay?” he asked.

“Bit odd. I don’t understand why we didn’t dock with Valisk before we went on another rendezvous. I mean, we were already there in the Srinagar system, least that’s what I thought.”

“Yeah. I didn’t see Valisk, though, just some gas giant. Then the ship swallowed away again. I thought I was going to die. We were there .”

“Choi-Ho and Maxim said this new rendezvous was major-league important when I asked them. They clammed up pretty smart when I asked them where it was, though. You think that’s important?”

“Course it’s important. Question is, why?”

“We might have to dodge some navy patrols to make the new rendezvous. That’ll be risky.”

“So why not tell us?”

“There’s a lot of kids on board. Could be they don’t want to worry them.”

“Makes sense.”

“But you don’t reckon?”

“Dunno. It’s funny, you know. We busted our balls to get a flight. Everything we had got left behind, our families, friends, everything. But I didn’t have any doubts. Now we’re as good as there . . . I don’t know, it’s just such a big thing. Maybe I’m a bit scared. What about you?”

Beth gave him a careful look, unsure just how much she should reveal. He really had invested a lot in the ideal of Valisk and all it promised. “Jed, I know Gerald’s a bit flaky, but he told me something.”

“A bit flaky.”

“Jed! He said Kiera is actually called Marie, that she’s his daughter. He reckons that Valisk is no different to any other place the possessed have taken over.”

“Crap,” he said angrily. “That’s total crap. Look, Beth. We know Kiera is a possessor, she’s never hidden that. But she’s only borrowing that girl’s body. She said things like that won’t matter after Valisk leaves the universe. She can take on her own form again.”

“Yes, but, Jed . . . His daughter.”

“Just a weird coincidence, that’s all. Mind, it explains why the old fart is so crazy.”

She nodded reluctantly. “Maybe. But then again it wouldn’t do any harm to start thinking the unthinkable, would it?”

He took hold of both her arms, just above the elbows. “We’ll be all right,” he said intently. “You’ve accessed Kiera’s recording enough times. You know she’s telling us the truth. This is like wedding night nerves.”

She gave his hands a curious glance; normally she would have instantly shaken free from such a grip. But this flight was not an ordinary time. “Yeah. Thanks, mate.” She gave him a timid smile.

Jed returned an equally uncertain flutter. He started to slowly lean forward, bringing his face down towards hers. Her lips parted slightly. He closed his eyes. Then a finger was resting on his chin.

“Not here,” Beth said. “Not in a dunny.”

Beth actually let him hold her hand as they walked along the life support module’s central corridor. Somehow it didn’t seem to matter so much now. Back on Koblat it would have meant everyone knowing: Beth and Jed, Jed and Beth. The boys would have smiled and whooped and given Jed the thumbs up. “Well done mate. Scored with an ice maiden, nice one. So what does she look like with her kit off? Are they big tits? Is she any good at it? Has she gone down on you yet?” While the girls would have clustered round her and asked if he’d said he loved her. Does he devote enough time to you? Are you going to apply for an apartment together?

It was a horrendous cycle spinning around her, a compendium of everything she hated about Koblat. The loss of any purpose to life. Surrendering to the company and signing on as another of its cheaply produced multi-function biological tools. She knew several girls on her corridor level who were grandmothers at twenty-eight.

Their weakness had given her the strength to strive for at least the hope of something more, to resist almost intolerable peer pressure. Star of her education stream, exceptionally receptive to each didactic memory she received. Applying for every college scholarship and exchange programme she could locate in the asteroid’s memory cores. Enduring the jeers and whispers. But it had been hard hard hard. Then along came Kiera, who offered a way out from all that awful pressure. A life that was different and kind. And Beth had believed, because Kiera was the same sort of age, and empowered, and taking control of her own destiny. And because . . . it was easy. For the first time ever.

They stopped outside the cabin she’d been sharing with Gerald, and Jed kissed her before she could turn the handle. Not a very good kiss, he almost missed her lips, and definitely no tongue like there was in all the low-rated blue sensevise recordings she’d accessed. His anxious expression almost made her laugh, as if he was expecting her to deck him one. Which, she admitted, she probably would have done three weeks ago if he’d come on fresh with her. She got the door open, and they stumbled inside, not bothering with the lights. Jed kissed her again. A better attempt, this time. When he finished, she asked: “Will you think of her?”

“Who?” he asked in confusion.

“You know, her, Kiera. Will you think of her when you’re doing it with me?”

“No!” Although there was enough of a quaver in his voice to reveal the truth. To her, if no one else. She knew him well enough, growing up together for ten years. It was almost too close.

He had become—not obsessed, that wasn’t strong enough—captivated by Kiera and that exquisite beguiling beauty of hers. In dismay Beth knew it wouldn’t be her face he saw when he closed his eyes in ecstasy, not her body he would feel below his fingers. For some reason, despite the humiliation, she didn’t really care. After all, she had her own reasons for this. She twined a forearm behind his head, and pulled him down to kiss her again. The lights came on. Beth gasped in surprise, and twisted to look at the bunk, expecting to see Gerald there. It was empty, the blankets rumpled.

There was a melodic chime from the dresser, and the small mirror above it shimmered with colour. A man’s face appeared on it; he was middle aged, with a Mediterranean complexion and a long chin which pulled his lips downwards, making him appear permanently unhappy.

“Sorry to interrupt,” he said. “But I think you’ll find what I have to say quite important.”

Jed had stiffened the second he appeared, quickly pulling his hands away from Beth. She tried not to show how annoyed she was by that; she’d just made the decision—what did he have to be guilty about?

“Who are you?” she asked.

“Rocio Condra; I am the soul possessing this hellhawk.”

“Oh brother,” she murmured. Jed managed to blush even deeper.

“I was listening to your conversation in the washroom. I believe we can help each other.”

Beth smiled weakly. “If you’re powerful enough to do that, how can we possibly help you? You can do anything.”

“My energistic power gives me a great deal of influence over the local environment, I agree. But there are some things which remain beyond me. Listening to you, for example, I had to use a bitek processor; there’s one in every section of the Mindori ’s life support module.”

“If you’ve heard everything we’ve talked about, then you know about Gerald and Marie,” Beth said.

“Indeed. That is why I chose you to make my offer to. You already know everything is not what it seems.”

Jed peered at Rocio’s image. “What offer?”

“The end requirements haven’t yet been finalized. However, if all goes well, I expect I shall require you to perform some physical tasks for me. Nothing too difficult. Just venture into a few places I obviously cannot reach.”

“Such as?”

“That is not yet apparent. We will have to advance this partnership one step at a time. As a gesture of goodwill, I am prepared to impart some information to you. If, based on what you hear, you then wish to continue with this relationship, we can move forward together.”

Beth gave Jed a puzzled glance, not surprised to find he was equally mystified. “Go on,” she said. “We’ll listen.”

“I am about to swallow into the New California system. We will probably dock at Monterey asteroid, the headquarters of the Capone Organization.”

“No way!” Jed cried.

“There never was a new rendezvous, was there?” Beth asked, somehow unsurprised by the revelation.

“No,” Rocio said. “We did not dock at Valisk because it is no longer in this universe. There was a battle for control between different factions of possessed inside. The victors subsequently removed it.”

Jed took a couple of paces backwards, and sank down onto the bunk. His face was fragile with dismay. “Gone?”

“I’m afraid so. And I am genuinely sorry. I know how much hope you had for your future there. Unfortunately, that hope was extremely misplaced.”

“How?” Beth asked through clenched teeth.

“There never was any Deadnight, not really. Kiera Salter simply wanted fresh bodies to possess so that she could expand the habitat’s population base. Had you disembarked there, you would have been tortured until you surrendered yourselves to possession.”

“Oh Jeeze,” Beth whispered. “And Monterey? What’s going to happen to us at Monterey?”

“Much the same, I expect. The Organization does retain professional non-possessed who have specialist fields of expertise. Are you highly qualified in any subject?”

“Us?” Beth barked in consternation. “You’ve gotta be bloody joking, mate. The only thing we know how to do proper is mess up. Every bloody time.” She was afraid she was going to start crying.

“I see,” Rocio said. “Well, in return for your help, I am prepared to hide you on board when we dock at Monterey.”

“What sort of help?” Jed asked.

Beth wheeled round to glare at him. “Does it bloody matter! Yes we’ll help. As much as you want.”

Rocio’s image gave a dry smile. “As I said, my requirements will not be fully established until I have analysed the local situation. It may be that I don’t require you to do anything. For the moment, I shall simply hold you in reserve.”

“Why?” Beth asked. “You’re part of them. You’re a possessor. What do you want us for?”

“Because I am not part of them. We are not all the same. I was being coerced into helping Kiera. Now I must find out what has happened to the other hellhawks, and decide what to do next. In order to do that, I must keep every conceivable option open. Having allies who are in no position to betray me will provide an excellent advantage.”

“All right,” Beth said. “What do we have to do?”

“I will swallow into the New California system in another thirty minutes. Even if Kiera and the other hellhawks have left there, the passengers will have to be disembarked. For now, the pair of you must be hidden. I believe I have a place which will put you outside the perception range of Choi-Ho and Maxim Payne.”

“What perception range?” Jed asked.

“All possessed are able to sense the thoughts of other people. The range varies between individuals, of course.”

“You mean they know what I’m thinking?” he hooted.

“No. But they are aware of your presence, and with that your emotions. However, such perception through solid matter is difficult; I believe the fluid in some of my tanks will shield you. We just have to get you at the centre of a suitably large cluster.”

“There had better be room for five of us in this nest of yours,” Beth said sprightly.

“I only require two people.”

“Tough, mate. You get yourself a bargain package with us. Gerald and the girls come too.”

“I don’t need them.”

She gave his image a cold smile. “Must have been dead a long time, huh? To forget what it’s like to have other people, friends, responsibilities. What? You think we’d leave them behind for Capone. A couple of kids? Come on!”

“The Organization is unlikely to possess the girls. They pride themselves in being altruistic and charitable.”

“Good for them. But it doesn’t make any difference. You get all five of us, or none at all.”

“That’s right,” Jed said, coming up to stand beside her. “Gari’s my sister. I’m not leaving her with Capone.”

Rocio sighed heavily. “Very well. But only those three. If you have a flock of second cousins on board, they will have to take their chances with the Organization.”

“No second cousins. What do you want us to do?”

It took a lot of nerve to saunter idly into the Mindori ’s main lounge with a bland expression on his face, knowing what he did. Jed felt he carried it off rather well; his visits to the Blue Fountain in search of sympathetic starship crews had provided a good rehearsal for brazening out awkward moments. There was a big press of Deadnight kids in the lounge, more than usual as the extended flight finally approached its end. All of them gazing eagerly out of the big forward-looking window at the silver-on-black starfield.

Jed let his eyes flick round quickly, confirming Choi-Ho and Maxim Payne weren’t anywhere about. Rocio had assured him they were both in their cabin, but he didn’t entirely trust everything the hellhawk’s soul said.

In this instance, Rocio hadn’t lied. The two possessed were nowhere to be seen. Jed walked confidently across the lounge to one of the fitted cupboards on the far side. Its narrow slatted doors were made from rosewood, with small brass handles moulded to resemble rose buds. As he put his hand round the cool metal, it turned to black plastic below his fingers. A narrow display panel appeared briefly to one side, framing a block of grey alphanumerics which flickered too fast to be read. He waited until he heard a discreet click then pulled gently. The door opened a fraction, and he moved closer, covering his actions.

Rocio had told him the bitek processor blocks were on the third shelf from the top. The thin gap allowed him to confirm the slim rectangular units were waiting there. It was obviously some kind of general equipment storage cupboard; he could see tool kits, and test blocks, and sensor modules, as well as several devices he couldn’t fathom at all. A rack on the fourth shelf contained five compact laser pistols.

He froze.

It was probably Rocio’s final assessment of his suitability. If he could turn his back on the weapons he would be resolute enough to be of use to the hellhawk. If he knew anything about this nebulous deal, whatever help Rocio wanted, it would not be small, not when the exchange price was his own life. But a weapon would offer some security, however feeble. And Beth had her nervejam stick.

Knowing his heated thoughts would be betraying his guilt to Rocio in a way no clandestine visual observation ever could, Jed reached calmly for a pistol, then slid his hand smoothly up to one of the processor blocks. He tucked both of them neatly into his inside jacket pocket, and shut the cupboard door again. The electronic lock vanished instantly beneath a slick ripple of wood grain which lapped over it.

Walking back out of the lounge was the worst part. Some little part of Jed’s brain was yelling at him to warn them. All of a sudden, he hated them. Sweetly trusting kids, their eyes happy and shining as they gawped out at the enchanting vista of interstellar space. All that hope suffusing unseen, yet cloying, into the air as they waited for the window to reveal their own special nirvana waiting for them at the end of the next wormhole.

Fools! Blind, stupid, and ridiculously ingenuous. The hatred clarified then. He was looking at multiple reflections of himself.

Beth got Gerald to come along with her, which he did unquestioningly. Jed brought Gari and Navar, who were intensely curious, twittering together as they walked down the length of the corridor. Their curiosity turned to hard-edged scepticism as Jed knocked softly on the washroom door.

“You told us this was important,” Navar said accusingly.

“It is,” he assured her. Something in his tone stalled the scornful sniff she was preparing as a retort.

Beth unlocked the washroom door and slid it open. Jed checked the corridor to make sure no one was watching. With only fifteen minutes to go until the swallow manoeuvre, all the other Deadnights were crowding round the observation ports in the forward cabins. The two girls gave Gerald a confused look as they all crowded into the confined space of the cabin. In turn, Gerald barely noticed them. Jed took the bitek processor block from his pocket. One surface shimmered with a moirй holographic pattern, then cleared to show Rocio’s face.

“Well done, Jed,” he said. “Bluffing it out is often the best option.”

“Yeah, all right, now what?”

“Who’s that?” Navar asked.

“We’ll explain later,” Beth said. “Right now, we’ve got to get into position ready for when the ship docks.” She said it to the girls, although she was actually studying Gerald intently. He was in one of his passive moods, unperturbed by what was happening. She just prayed he stayed that way while they were hidden away.

“Aren’t we getting off at Valisk?” Gari asked her big brother in a forlorn voice.

“No, doll, sorry. We’re not even docking with Valisk.”

“Why not?”

“Guess we got lied to.” The bitter sorrow in his voice silenced her.

“You will need to clear the floor,” Rocio instructed.

Beth and the two girls climbed into the bath, while Gerald sat on the toilet lid. Jed pressed himself back against the door. The floorboards faded away; rich honey colour bleaching to a sanitary grey-green, resilient texture becoming the uncompromising hardness of silicolithium composite. Some residual evidence of the wood illusion remained, little ridges where the planks had lain, dark flecks in the surface a pallid mimicry of the grain pattern. In the centre of the floor was an inspection hatch, with recessed metal locking clips at each corner.

“Turn the clips ninety degrees clockwise, then pull them up,” Rocio said.

Jed knelt down and did as he was told. When the clips were free, the hatch rose ten centimetres with a swift hiss of air. He swung it aside. There was a narrow metal crawl way below it, bordered by foam-insulated pipes and bundled cables. Beth activated the lightstick she’d brought along, and held it over the hatch. There was a horizontal T-junction a couple of metres down.

“You will go first, Beth,” Rocio said, “and light the way. I will supply directions. Jed, you must close the hatch behind you.”

Reluctantly, with the girls pouting and scowling, they all climbed down into the crawl way. Jed tugged the hatch back into place after him, nearly catching his fingers as it guillotined shut. When it was in place, the washroom floor silently and fastidiously sealed over with elegant floorboards again.

Chapter 04

Dariat wandered along the valley, not really paying much attention to anything. Only the memories pulled at him, bittersweet recollections guiding him towards the sacred places he hadn’t dared visit in the flesh for thirty years, not even when he’d roamed through Valisk to avoid Bonney and Kiera.

The wide pool, apparently carved into the grey-brown polyp-rock by the stream’s enthusiastic flow, nature at its most pleasing. Where tufts of soft pink grass lined the edges, strains of violet and amber moss sprawled over the scattering of boulders, and long fronds of water reeds swayed lazily in the current.

The flat expanse of land between the slope of the valley and an ox-bow loop in the stream. An animal track wound through it, curving round invisible obstacles as it led down to a shallow beach where the herds could drink. Apart from that it was untouched, the pink grass which currently dominated the plains was thick and lush here, its tiny mushroom-shaped spoor fringes poised on the verge of ripeness. Nobody had camped here for years, despite its eminent suitability. None of the Starbridge tribes had ever returned. Not after . . .

Here. He walked to one side of the empty tract, the taller stalks of grass swishing straight through his translucent legs. Yes, this was the place. Anastasia’s tepee had been pitched here. A sturdy, colourful contraption. Strong enough to take her weight when she tied the rope round her neck. Was the pink grass slightly thinner here? A rough circle where the pyre had been. Her tribe sending her and her few belongings on their way to the Realms (every possession except one, the Thoale stones, which he had kept safe these thirty years). Her body dispersed in fire and smoke, freeing the soul from any final ties with the physical universe.

How had they known ? Those simple, backward people. Yet their lives contained such astonishing truth. They more than anyone would be prepared for the beyond. Anastasia wouldn’t have suffered in the same way as the lost souls he’d encountered during his own fleeting time there. Not her.

Dariat sat on the grass, his toga crumpling around chubby limbs, though never really chafing. If any of her essence had indeed lingered here, it was long gone now. So now what? He looked up at the light tube, which had become even dimmer than before. The air was cooler, too, nothing like Valisk’s usual balmy medium. He was rather surprised that phenomenon registered. How could a ghost sense temperature? But then most aspects of his present state were a mystery.


He shook his head. Hearing things. Just to be certain, he looked around. Nobody, alive or spectral, was in sight. An interesting point though. Would I be able to see another ghost?

Dariat. You are there. We feel you. Answer us.

The voice was like affinity, but much softer. A whisper into the back of his mind. Oh great, a ghost being haunted by another ghost. Thank you again, Thoale. That could only ever happen to me.

Who is this?he asked.

We are Valisk now. Part of us is you.

What is this? What are you?

We are the habitat personality, the combination of yourself and Rubra.

That’s crazy. You cannot be me.

But we are. Your memories and personality fused to Rubra’s within the neural strata. Remember? The change to us, to the neural strata’s thought routines, was corporeal and permanent. We remain intact. You, however, were a possessing soul, you were torn out by the habitat’s shift to this realm.

A realm hostile to the possessed,he said rancorously.


Don’t I know it. I’m a ghost. That’s what the shift did to me. A bloody ghost.

How intriguing. We cannot see you.

I’m in the valley.


Dariat could feel the understanding within the personality. It knew which valley he meant. A true affinity.

Can we have access to your sensorium, please. It will allow us to analyse the situation properly.

He couldn’t think of a reasonable objection, even though the idea sat uncomfortably. After thirty years of self-imposed mental isolation, sharing came hard. Even with an entity that claimed to be derived from himself.

Very well,he griped. he allowed the affinity link to widen, showing the personality the world through his eyes—or at least what he imagined to be his eyes.

As requested, he looked at his own body for the personality, walked about, demonstrated how he had no material presence.

Yet you persist in interpreting yourself as having human form,the personality said. How strange.

Force of habit, I guess.

More likely to be subconscious reassurance. The pattern is your basic foundation, the origin of quintessential identity. Retention of that is probably critical to your continuation as a valid entity. In other words, you’re very set in your ways. But then we know that already, don’t we.

I don’t believe I’m that self-destructive. So if you wouldn’t mind cancelling the insults for a few decades.

As you wish. After all, we do know how to cut the deepest.

Dariat could almost laugh at the impression of dйjа vu which the exchange conjured up. He and Rubra had spent days of this same verbal fencing while he was possessing Horgan’s body. Was there a reason you wanted to talk to me? Or did you just want to say hello?

This realm is not hostile to souls alone. It is also affecting our viability right down to the atomic level. Large sections of the neural strata have ceased to function, nor are such areas static, they flow through the strata at random, requiring persistent monitoring. Such failures threaten even our homogenised presence. We have to run constant storage replication routines to ensure our core identity is not erased.

That’s tough, but unless the failure occurs everywhere simultaneously, you’ll be safe.

As may be. But the overall efficiency of our cells is much reduced. The sensitive cell clusters cannot perceive as clearly as before; organ capability is degrading to alarming levels. Muscle membrane response is sluggish. Electrical generation is almost zero. All principal mechanical and electrical systems have shut down. The communication net and most processors are malfunctioning. If this situation continues, we will not be able to retain a working biosphere for more than ten days, a fortnight at most.

I hate to sound negative at a time like this, but what do you expect me to do about it?

The remaining population must be organized to assist us. There are holding procedures which can be enacted to prevent further deterioration.

Physical ones. You’ll have to ask the living, not me.

We are attempting to. However, those who have been de-possessed are currently in an extremely disorientated state. Even those we have affinity contact with are unresponsive. As well as undergoing severe psychological trauma, their physiological condition has deteriorated.


There are nearly three hundred of our relatives still in zero-tau. Your idea, remember? Kiera was holding them ready as an incentive for the hellhawk possessors. If they were to be taken out, we would have a functional work force ready to help, one that has a good proportion of qualified technicians among it.

Good idea . . . Wait, how come their zero-tau pods are working when everything else has failed?

The zero-tau systems are self-contained and made from military-grade components, they are also located in the deep caverns. We assumed that combination affords them some protection from whatever is affecting us.

If all you’ve got to do is flick one switch, why not just use a servitor?

Their physiological situation is even worse than the humans. All the animals in the habitat seem to be suffering from a strong form of sleeping sickness. Our affinity instructions cannot rouse them.

Does that include all the xenoc species?

Yes. Their biochemistry is essentially similar to terrestrial creatures. If our cells are affected, so are theirs.

Okay. Any idea what the problem is? Something like the energistic glitch which the possessed gave out?

Unlikely. It is probably a fundamental property of this realm. We are speculating that the quantum values of this continuum are substantially different from our universe. After all, we did select it to have a detrimental effect on the energy pattern which is a possessing soul. Consequently, we must assume that mass-energy properties here have been altered, that is bound to affect atomic characteristics. But until we can run a full analysis on our quantum state, we cannot offer further speculation.

Ever considered that the devil simply doesn’t allow electricity in this particular part of hell?

Your thought is our thought. We prefer to concentrate on the rational. That allows us to construct a hypothesis which will ultimately allow us to salvage this shitty situation.

Yeah, I can live with that. So what is it that you want me to do?

See if you can talk to someone called Tolton. He will switch off the zero-tau pods for us.

Why? Who is he?

A street poet, so he claims. He was one of the inhabitants we managed to keep out of Bonney’s clutches.

Does he have affinity?

No. But legend has it that humans can see ghosts.

Shit, you’re grasping at straws.

You have an alternative?

Ghosts can get tired. This unwelcome discovery made itself quite clear as Dariat trudged over the grassland towards the ring of starscraper lobbies in the middle of the habitat. But then if you have imaginary muscles, they are put under quite a strain carrying your imaginary body across long distances, especially when that body had Dariat’s bulk.

This is bloody unfair,he declared to the personality. When souls come back from the beyond, they all see themselves as physically perfect twenty-five-year-olds.

That’s simple vanity.

I wish I was vain.

Valisk’s parkland was also becoming less attractive. Now he had hiked out of the valley, the vivid pink grass which cloaked the southern half of the cylinder was grading down to a musky-grey, an effect he equated to a city smog wrapping itself round the landscape. It couldn’t be blamed entirely on the diminished illumination; the slim core of plasma in the axial light tube was still a valiant neon blue. Instead it seemed to be part of the overall lack of vitality which was such an obvious feature of this realm. The xenoc plant appeared to be past its peak, as if its spore fringes had already ripened and now it was heading back into dormancy.

None of the insects which usually chirped and flittered among the plains had roused themselves. A few times, he came across field mice and their xenoc analogues, who were sleeping fitfully. They’d just curled up where they were, not making any attempt to return to their nests or warrens.

Ordinary chemical reactions must still be working,he suggested. If they weren’t, then everything would be dead.

Yes. Although from what we’re seeing and experiencing, they must also be inhibited to some degree.

Dariat trudged on. The spiral-springs of grass made the going hard, causing resistance as his legs passed through them. It was though he was walking along a stream bed where the water was coming half-way up his shins. As his complaints became crabbier, the personality guided him towards one of the narrow animal tracks.

After half an hour of easier walking, and pondering his circumstances, he said: You told me that your electrical generation was almost zero.


But not absolute?


So the habitat must be in some kind of magnetic field if the induction cables are producing a current.

Logically, yes.


Some induction cables are producing a current, the majority are not. And those that are, do so sporadically. Buggered if we can work out what’s going on, boy. Besides, we can’t locate any magnetic field outside. There’s nothing we can see that could be producing one.

What is out there?

Very little.

Dariat felt the personality gathering the erratic images from clusters of sensitive cells speckling the external polyp shell, and formatting them into a coherent visualisation for him. The amount of concentration it took for the personality to fulfil what used to be a profoundly simple task surprised and worried him.

There were no planets. No moons. No stars. No galaxies. Only a murky void.

The eeriest impression he received from the expanded affinity bond was the way Valisk appeared to be in flight. Certainly he was aware of movement of some kind, though it was purely subliminal, impossible to define. The huge cylinder appeared to be gliding through a nebula. Not one recognizable from their universe. This was composed from extraordinarily subtle layers of ebony mist, shifting so slowly they were immensely difficult to distinguish. Had he been seeing it with his own eyes, he would have put it down to overstressed retinas. But there were discernible strands of the smoky substance out there; sparser than atmospheric cloud, denser than whorls of interstellar gas.

Abruptly, a fracture of hoary light shimmered far behind the hub of Valisk’s southern endcap, a luminous serpent slithering around the insubstantial billows. Rough tatters of gritty vapour detonated into emerald and turquoise phosphorescence as it twirled past them. The phenomenon was gone inside a second.

Was that lightning?dariat asked in astonishment.

We have no idea. However, we can’t detect any static charge building on our shell. So it probably wasn’t electrically based.

Have you seen it before?

That was the third time.

Bloody hell. How far away was it?

That is impossible to determine. We are trying to correlate parallax data from the external sensitive cells. Unfortunately, lack of distinct identifiable reference points within the cloud formations is hampering our endeavour.

You’re beginning to sound like an Edenist. Take a guess.

We believe we can see about two hundred kilometres altogether.

Shit. That’s all?


Anything could be out there, behind that stuff.

You’re beginning to catch on, boy.

Can you tell if we’re moving? I got the impression we were. But it could just be the way that cloud stuff is shifting round out there.

We have the same notion, but that’s all it ever can be. Without a valid reference point, it is impossible to tell. Certainly we’re not under acceleration, which would eliminate the possibility we’re falling through a gravity field . . . if this realm has gravity, of course.

Okay, how about searching round with a radar? Have you tried that? There are plenty of arrays in the counter-rotating spaceport.

The spaceport has radar, it also has several Adamist starships, and over a hundred remote maintenance drones which could be adapted into sensor probes. None of which are functioning right now, boy. We really do need to bring our relatives out of zero-tau.

Yeah yeah. I’m getting there as quick as I can. You know what, I don’t think fusing with my thought routines has made that big an impression on you, has it?

According to the personality, Tolton was in the parkland outside the Gonchraov starscraper lobby. Dariat didn’t get there on the first attempt. He encountered the other ghosts before he arrived.

The pink grassland gradually gave way to terrestrial grass and trees a couple of kilometres from the starscraper lobbies. It was a lush manicured jungle which boiled round the habitat’s midsection, with gravel tracks winding round the thicker clumps of trees and vines. Big stone slabs formed primitive bridges over the rambling brooks, their support boulders grasped by thick coils of flowering creepers. Petals were drooping sadly as Dariat walked over them. As he drew closer to the lobby, he started to encounter the first of the servitor animal corpses, most of them torn by burnt scars, the impact of white fire. Then he noticed the decaying remains of several of their human victims lying in the undergrowth.

Dariat found the sight inordinately depressing. A nasty reminder of the relentless struggle which Rubra and Kiera had fought for dominance of the habitat. “And who won?” he asked morbidly.

He cleared another of the Neolithic bridges. The trees were thinning out now, becoming more ornate and taller as jungle gave way to parkland. There were flashes of movement in front of him coupled with murmurs of conversation, which made him suddenly self-conscious. Was he going to have to jump up and down waving his arms and shouting to get the living to notice him?

Just as he was psyching himself up for the dismaying inevitable, the little group caught sight of him. There were three men and two women. Their clothes should have clued him in. The eldest man was wearing a very long, foppish coat of yellow velvet with ruffled lace down the front; one of the women had forced her large fleshy frame into a black leather dominatrix uniform, complete with whip; her mousy middle-aged companion was in a baggy woollen overcoat, so deliberately dowdy it was a human stealth covering; of the remaining two men, one was barely out of his teens, a black youth with panther muscles shown off by a slim red waistcoat; while the other was in his thirties, covered by a baggy mechanics overall. They made a highly improbable combination, even for Valisk’s residents.

Dariat stopped in surprise and with some gratification, raising a hand in moderate greeting. “Hello there. Glad you can see me. My name’s Dariat.”

They stared at him, already unhappy expressions displaced by belligerent suspicion.

“You the one Bonney had everyone chasing?” the black guy asked.

Dariat grinned modestly. “That’s me.”

“Motherfucker. You did this to us!” he screamed. “I had a body. I had my life back. You fucked that. You fucked me. You ruined everything. Everything! You brought us here, you and that shit living in the walls.”

Comprehension dawned for Dariat. He could see the faint outlines of branches through the man. “You’re a ghost,” he exclaimed.

“All of us are,” the dominatrix said. “Thanks to you.”

“Oh shit,” he whispered in consternation.

There are other ghosts?the personality asked. the affinity band was awash with interest.

What does it bloody look like!

The dominatrix took a step towards him; her whip flicked out, cracking loudly. She grinned viciously. “I haven’t had a chance to use this properly for a long time, dearie. That’s a shame, because I know how to use it real bad.”

“Gonna get you plenty of chance to catch up now,” the black guy purred to her.

Dariat stood his ground shakily. “You can’t blame me for this. I’m one of you.”

“Yeah,” said the mechanic. “And this time you can’t get away.” He drew a heavy spanner from his leg pocket.

They must all be here,the personality said. All the possessing souls.

Just great.

“Can we hurt him?” the mousy woman asked.

“Let’s find out,” the dominatrix replied.

“Wait!” Dariat implored. “We need to work together to get the habitat out of this place. Don’t you understand? It’s collapsing around us, everything’s breaking down. We’ll be trapped here.”

The black guy bared his teeth wide. “We needed you to work with us to beat the habitat back in the real universe.”

Dariat flinched. He turned and ran. They gave chase immediately. That they’d catch him was never in doubt. He was appallingly overweight, and he’d just finished a nine kilometre hike. The whip slashed against the back of his left calf. He wailed, not just from the sharp sting, but from the fact it could sting.

They whooped and cheered behind him, delighted by the knowledge they could inflict injury, pain. Dariat staggered over the end of the bridge, and took a few unsteady steps towards the thicker part of jungle. The whip struck him again, flaying his shoulder and cheek, accompanied by the dominatrix’s gleeful laugh. Then the lean black guy caught up with him, and jumped high, kicking him in the small of the back.

Dariat went flying, landing flat on his stomach, arms and legs spread wide. Not a single blade of grass even bent as he struck the ground; his bloated body seemed to be lying on a median height of stalks, while longer stems poked straight through him.

The beating began. Feet kicked savagely into his flanks, his legs, neck. The whip whistled down again and again, landing on his spine each time. Then the mechanic stood on his shoulders, and brought the spanner down on his skull. The battering became rhythmic, horrifyingly relentless. Dariat cried out at every terrifying impact. There was pain, in abundance there was pain, but no blood, nor damage, nor bruising or broken bones. The blaze of hurt had its origin in a concussion of hatred and fury. Each blow reinforcing, emphasising how much they wanted him ruined.

His cries grew fainter, though they were just as insistent, and tainted with increasing anguish. The spanner, and the whip, and the boots, and the fists began to sink into him, puncturing his intangible boundary. He was sinking deeper into the grass, the hammering propelling his belly into the soil. Coldness swept into him, a wave racing on ahead of the solid surface with which he was merging. His shape was lacking definition now, its outline becoming less substantial. Even his thoughts began to lose their intensity.

Nothing could stop them. Nothing he said. Nothing he begged. Nothing he could pay. None of his prayers. Nothing. He had to endure it all. Not knowing what the outcome would be; terrifyingly, not knowing what it could be.

They let him be, eventually. After how much time not one of them knew. As much as it took to satisfy their hunger for vengeance. To dull the enjoyment of sadism. To experiment with the novel methods of brutality available to ghosts. There wasn’t much of his presence left when they finished. A gauzy patch of pearl luminescence loitering amid the grass, the back of his toga barely bobbing above the surface of the soil. Limbs and head were buried.

Laughing, they walked away.

Amid the coldness, darkness, and apathy, a few strands of thought clung together. A weak filigree of suffering and woe. Everything he was. Very little, really.

Tolton had a brief knowledge of scenes like this. Secondhand knowledge, old and stale, memories of tales told to him by the denizens of the lowest floors of the starscrapers. Tales of covert combat operations, of squads that had been hit by superior firepower, waiting to be evac-ed out of the front line. Their bloody, battered casualties wound up in places like this, a field hospital triage. It was the latest development in the saga of the habitat population’s misfortunes. Lately, studying the parkland had become a form of instant archaeology. Evolving stages of residence were laid out in concentric circles, plain to see.

In the beginning was the starscraper lobby, a pleasing rotunda of stone and glass, blending into the superbly maintained parkland. Then with the arrival of possession, the lobby had been smashed up during one of the innumerable firefights between Kiera’s followers and Rubra, and a shanty town had sprung up in a ring around it. Tiny Tudor cottages had stood next to Arabian tents, which were pitched alongside shiny Winnebagoes; the richness of imagination on display was splendid. That was before Valisk departed the universe.

After that, the illusion of solidity had melted away like pillars of salt in the rain, exposing rickety shacks assembled from scraps of plastic and metal. They leant together precariously, one stacked against another to provide a highly dubious stability. The narrow strips of grass between were reduced to slippery runnels of mud, often used as open sewers.

So now the survivors of Valisk’s latest change in fortune had moved again, repelled from the hovels of their erstwhile possessors, they were simply sprawling uncaringly across the surrounding grass. They lacked the energy and willpower to do anything else. Some lay on their backs, some had curled up, some were sitting against trees, some stumbled about aimlessly. That wasn’t so bad, Tolton thought, after what they’d been through a period of stupefaction was understandable. It was the sound which was getting to him. Wails of distress and muffled sobbing mingling together to poison the air with harrowing dismay. Five thousand people having a bad dream in unison.

And just like a bad dream, you couldn’t wake them from it. To begin with, when he’d emerged from his hiding place, he’d moved from one to another. Offering words of sympathy, a comforting arm around the shoulder. He’d persisted valiantly for a couple of hours like that, before finally acknowledging how quite pathetically pointless it all was. Somehow, they would have to get over the psychological trauma by themselves.

It wasn’t going to be easy, not with the ghosts as an ever-present reminder of their ordeal. The ex-possessors were still slinking furtively through the outlying trees of the nearby jungle. For whatever reason, once they’d been expelled from their host bodies, they wouldn’t leave. Immediately after Valisk’s strange transformation they had clung longingly to their victims, following them with perverted devotion as they crawled about shaking and vomiting in reaction to their release. Then as people had gradually started to recover their wits and take notice, the anger had surfaced. It was that massive deluge of communal hatred which had forced the ghosts to retreat, rather than the shouts of abuse and threats of vengeance.

They’d fled into the refuge of the jungle around the parkland, almost bewildered by the response they’d spawned. But they hadn’t gone far. Tolton could see them thronging out there amid the funereal trees, their eerie pale radiance casting diaphanous shadows which twisted fluidly amid the branches and trunks.

But the ghosts never went any further than the trees. It was as if the greater depths of the darkling habitat frightened them, too. That was the aspect of this whole affair which worried Tolton the most.

His own wanderings were almost as aimless as anyone in the throes of recovery. Like them, he didn’t relish the idea of venturing through the shanty town, he also considered it prudent not to fraternise with the ghosts. Though somewhere at the back of his mind was some ancient piece of folklore about ghosts never actually killing anybody. Whichever pre-history warlock came up with that prophecy had obviously never encountered these particular ghosts.

So he kept moving, avoiding eye-contact, searching for . . . well, he’d know what when he saw it. Ironically, the thing he missed most was Rubra, and the wealth of knowledge which came with that contact. But the processor block he’d used to stay in touch with the habitat personality had crashed as soon as the change happened. Since then he’d tried using several other blocks. None of them worked, at most he got a trickle of static. He didn’t have enough (any, actually) technical knowledge to understand why.

Nor did he understand the change which the habitat had undergone, only the result, the mass exorcism. He assumed it had been imposed by some friendly ally. Except Valisk didn’t have any allies. And Rubra had never dropped any hint that this might happen, not in all the weeks he’d kept Tolton hidden from the possessed. There was nothing for it but to keep moving for the delusion of purpose it bestowed, and wait for developments. Whatever they might be.

“Please.” The woman’s voice was little more than a whisper, but it was focused enough to make Tolton hesitate and try to see who was speaking.

“Please, I need some help. Please.” The speaker was in her late middle-age, huddled up against a tree. He walked over to her, avoiding a couple of people who were stretched out, almost comatose, on the grass.

Details were difficult in this leaden twilight. She was wrapped in a large tartan blanket, clutching it to her chest like a shawl. Long unkempt hair partially obscured her face, glossy titian roots contrasted sharply with the dirty faded chestnut of the tresses. The features glimpsed through the tangle were delicate, a pert button nose and long cheekbones, implausibly artistic eyebrows. Her skin seemed very tight, almost stretched, as if to emphasise the curves.

“What’s wrong?” Tolton asked gently, cursing himself for the stupidity of the question. As he knelt beside her, the light tube’s meagre nimbus glimmered on the tears dribbling down her cheeks.

“I hurt,” she said. “Now she’s gone, I hurt so badly.”

“It’ll go. I promise, time will wash it away.”

“She slept with hundreds of men,” the woman cried wretchedly. “Hundreds. Women, too. I felt the heat in her, she loved it, all of it. That slut, that utter slut. She made my body do things with those animals. Awful, vile things. Things no decent person would ever do.”

He tried to take one of her hands, but she snatched it away, turning from him. “It wasn’t you,” he said. “You didn’t do any of those things.”

“How can you say that? It was done to me. I felt it all, every minute of it. This is my body. Mine! My flesh and blood. She took that from me. She soiled me, ruined me. I’m so corrupt I’m not even human any more.”

“I’m sorry, really I am. But you have to learn not to think like that. If you do, you’re letting her win. You’ve got to put that behind you. It’s over, and you’ve won. She’s been exorcised, she’s nothing but a neurotic wisp of light. That’s all she’ll ever be now. I’d call that a victory, wouldn’t you?”

“But I hurt,” she persisted. Her voice dropped to a confessional tone. “How can I forget when I hurt?”

“Look, there are treatments, memory suppressers, all sorts of cures. Just as soon as we get the power turned back on, you can . . .”

“Not my mind! Not just that.” She had begun to plead. “It’s my body, my body which hurts.”

Tolton started to get a very bad feeling about where the conversation was heading. The woman was shaking persistently, and he was sure some of the moisture glistening on her face had to be perspiration. He flicked an edgy glance back at her unnatural roots. “Where, exactly, does it hurt?”

“My face,” she mumbled. “My face aches. It’s not me anymore. I couldn’t see me when she looked in a mirror.”

“They all did that, all imagined themselves to look ridiculously young and pretty. It’s an illusion, that’s all.”

“No. It became real. I’m not me, not now. She even took my identity away from me. And . . .” Her voice started trembling. “My shape. She stole my body, and still that wasn’t enough. Look, look what she’s done to me.”

Moving so slowly that Tolton wanted to do it for her, she drew the folds of the blanket apart. For the first time, he actually wished there was less light. To begin with it looked as though someone had badly bungled a cosmetic package adaptation. Her breasts were grossly misshapen. Then he realized that was caused by large bulbs of flesh clinging to the upper surface like skin-coloured leeches. Each one almost doubled the size of the breast, the weight pulling them down heavily. The natural tissue was almost squashed from view.

The worst part of it was, they obviously weren’t grafts or implants; whatever the tissue was, it had swollen out of the natural mammary gland. Below them, her abdomen was held anorexically flat by a broad oval slab of unyielding skin. It was as though she’d developed a thick callous across the whole area, fake musculature marked out by faint translucent lines.

“See?” the woman asked, staring down at her exposed chest in abject misery. “Bigger breasts and a flat belly. She really wanted bigger breasts. That was her wish. They’d be more useful to her, more fun, more spectacular. And she could make wishes come true.”

“God preserve us,” Tolton murmured in horror. He didn’t know much about human illnesses, but there were some scraps of relevant information flashing up out of his childhood’s basic medical didactic memories. Cancer tumours. Almost a lost disease. Geneering had made human bodies massively resistant to the ancient bane. And for the few isolated instances when it did occur, medical nanonics could penetrate and eradicate the sick cells within hours.

“I used to be a nurse,” the woman said, as she ashamedly covered herself with the blanket again. “They’re runaways. My breasts are the largest growths, but I must have the same kind of malignant eruptions at every change she instituted.”

“What can I do?” he asked hoarsely.

“I need medical nanonic packages. Do you know how to program them?”

“No. I don’t even have neural nanonics. I’m a poet, that’s all.”

“Then, please, find me some. My neural nanonics aren’t working either, but a processor block might do instead.”

“I . . . Yes, of course.” It would mean a trip into the lifeless, lightless starscraper to find some, but his discomfort at that prospect was nothing compared to her suffering. Somehow, he managed to keep a neutral expression on his face as he stood up, even though he was pretty certain a medical nanonic package wouldn’t work in this weird environment. But it might, it just might. And if that slender chance existed, then he would bring one for her, no matter what.

He cast round the dismal sight of people strewn about, holding themselves and moaning. The really terrifying doubt engulfed him then. Suppose the anguish wasn’t all psychological? Every possessed he’d seen had changed their appearance to some degree. Suppose every change had borne a malignancy, even a small one.

“Oh fucking hell, Rubra. Where are you? We need help.”

As always, there was no warning when the cell door opened. Louise wasn’t even sure when it had swung back. She was curled up on the bunk, dozing, only semi-aware of her surroundings. Quite how long she’d been in this state, she didn’t know. Somehow, her time sense had got all fouled up. She remembered the interview with Brent Roi, his sarcasm and unconcealed contempt. Then she’d come back here. Then . . . She’d come back here hours ago. Well, a long time had passed . . . She thought.

I must have fallen asleep.

Which was hard to believe; the colossal worry of the situation had kept her mind feverishly active.

The usual two female police officers appeared in the doorway. Louise blinked up at their wavering outlines, and tried to right herself. Bright lights flashed painfully behind her eyes; she had to clamp her mouth shut against the sudden burst of nausea.

What is wrong with me?

“Woo there, steady on.” One of the police officers was sitting on the bed beside her, holding her up.

Louise shook uncontrollably, cold sweat beading on her skin. Her reaction calmed slightly, though it was still terribly hard to concentrate.

“One minute,” the woman said. “Let me reprogram your medical package. Try to take some deeper breaths, okay?”

That was simple enough. She gulped down some air, her chest juddering. Another couple of breaths. Her rogue body seemed to be calming. “Wha . . . What?” she panted.

“Anxiety attack,” said the policewoman. “We see a lot of them in here. That and worse things.”

Louise nodded urgently, an attempt to convince herself that’s all it was. No big deal. Nothing badly amiss. The baby’s fine—the medical package would insure that. Just stay calm.

“Okay. I’m okay now. Thank you.” She proffered a small smile at the police officer, only to be greeted with blank-faced indifference.

“Let’s go, then,” said the officer standing by the door.

Louise girded herself, and slowly stood on slightly unsteady legs. “Where are we going?”

“Parole Office.” She sounded disgusted.

“Where’s Genevieve? Where’s my sister?”

“Don’t know. Don’t care. Come on.”

Louise was almost shoved out into the corridor. She was improving by the minute, although the headache lingered longer than anything else. A small patch of skin at the back of her skull tingled, as if she’d been stung. Her fingers stroked it absently. Anxiety attack? She hadn’t known there was such a thing before. But given everything she currently had to think about, such a malaise was more than likely.

They got into a lift which had to be heading down. The gravity field had risen to almost normal when they got out. This part of the asteroid was different to the cells and interview rooms she’d been kept in until now. Definitely government offices, the standardized furniture and eternally polite personnel with their never-smiling faces were evidence of that. She took a little cheer from the fact these corridors and glimpsed rooms weren’t as crushingly bleak as the upper level. Her status had changed for the better. Slightly.

The police officers showed her into a room with a narrow window looking out over High York’s biosphere cavern. Not much to see, it was dawn, or dusk, Louise didn’t know which. The grassland and trees soaking up the gold-orange light were a brighter, more welcoming green than the cavern in Phobos. Two curving settees had been set up facing each other in the middle of the floor, bracketing an oval table. Genevieve slouched on one of them, hands stuffed into the pockets of her shipsuit, feet swinging just off the floor, looking out of the window. Her expression was a mongrel cross between sullen resentment and utter boredom.

“Gen.” Louise’s voice nearly cracked.

Genevieve raced across the room and thudded into her. They hugged each other tightly. “They wouldn’t tell me where you were!” Genevive protested loudly. “They wouldn’t let me see you. They wouldn’t say what was happening.”

Louise stroked her sister’s hair. “I’m here now.”

“It’s been forever. Days!”

“No, no. It just seems like that.”

“Days,” Genevieve insisted.

Louise managed a slightly uncertain smile; wanting for herself the reassurance she was attempting to project. “Have they been questioning you?”

“Yes,” Genevieve mumbled morosely. “They kept on and on about what happened in Norwich. I told them a hundred times.”

“Me too.”

“Everybody must be really stupid on Earth. They don’t understand anything unless you’ve explained it five times.”

Louise wanted to laugh at the childish derision in Gen’s voice, pitched just perfectly to infuriate any adult.

“And they took my games block away. That’s stealing, that is.”

“I haven’t seen any of my stuff either.”

“The food’s horrid. I suppose they’re too thick to cook it properly. And I haven’t had any clean clothes.”

“Well, I’ll see what I can do.”

Brent Roi hurried into the room, and dismissed the two waiting police officers with a casual wave. “Okay, ladies, take a seat.”

Louise flashed him a resentful look.

“Please?” he entreated without noticeable sincerity.

Holding hands, the sisters sat on the settee opposite him. “Are we under arrest?” Louise asked.


“Then you believe what I told you?”

“To my amazement, I find sections of your story contain the odd nugget of truth.”

Louise frowned. This attitude was completely different to the one he’d shown her during the interview. Not that he was repenting, more like he’d been proved right instead of her.

“So you’ll watch out for Quinn Dexter?”

“Most assuredly.”

Genevieve shuddered. “I hate him.”

“That’s all that truly matters,” Louise said. “He must never be allowed to get down to Earth. If you believe me, then I’ve won.”

Brent Roi shifted uncomfortably. “Okay, we’ve been trying to decide what to do with the pair of you. Which I can tell you is not an easy thing, given what you were attempting. You thought you were doing the right thing, bringing Christian here. But believe me, from the legal side of things, you are about as wrong as it’s possible to be. The Halo police commissioner has spent two days being advised by some of our best legal experts on what the hell to do with you, which hasn’t improved his temper any. Ordinarily we’d just walk you past a warm judge and fly you off to a penal colony. There’d be no problem obtaining a guilty verdict.” He gazed at Genevieve. “Not even your age would get you off.”

Genevieve pushed her shoulders up against her neck, and glowered at him.

“However, there are mitigating circumstances, and these are strange times. Lucky for you, that gives the Halo police force a large amount of discretion right now.”

“So?” Louise asked calmly. For whatever reason she wasn’t afraid; if they were due to face a trial none of this would be happening.

“So. Pretty obviously: we don’t want you up here after what you’ve done; plus you don’t have the basic technical knowledge necessary to live in an asteroid settlement, which makes you a liability. Unfortunately, there’s an interstellar quarantine in force right now, which means we can’t send you off to Tranquillity where your fiancй can take care of you. That just leaves us with one option: Earth. You have money, you can afford to stay there for the duration of the crisis.”

Louise glanced at Genevieve, who squashed her lips together with a dismissive lack of interest.

“I’m not going to object,” Louise said.

“I couldn’t care less if you did,” Brent Roi told her. “You have no say in this at all. As well as deporting you, I am officially issuing you with a police caution. You have engaged in an illegal act with the potential of endangering High York, and this will be entered into Govcentral’s criminal data memory store with a suspended action designation. Should you at any time in the future be found committing another criminal act of any nature within Govcentral’s domain this case will be reactivated and used in your prosecution. Is that clear?”

“Yes,” Louise whispered.

“You cause us one more problem, and they’ll throw you out of the arcology and lock the door behind you.”

“What about Fletcher?” Genevieve asked.

“What about him?” Brent Roi said.

“Is he coming down to Earth with us?”

“No, Gen,” Louise said. “He’s not.” She tried to keep the sorrow from her voice. Fletcher had helped her and Gen through so much, she still couldn’t think of him as a possessor, one of the enemy. The last image she had was of him being led out of the big airlock chamber where they’d been detained. A smile of forlorn encouragement on his face, directed at her. Even in defeat, he didn’t lose his nobility.

“Your big sister’s right,” Brent Roi told Genevieve. “Stop thinking about Fletcher.”

“Have you killed him?”

“Tough to do. He’s already dead.”

“Have you?”

“At the moment he’s being very cooperative. He’s telling us about the beyond, and helping the physics team understand the nature of his energistic power. Once we’ve learned all we can, then he’ll be put into zero-tau. End of story.”

“Can we see him before we go?” Louise asked.


The two female police officers escorted Louise and Genevieve directly up to the counter-rotating spaceport. They were given a standard class berth on the Scher , an inter-orbit passenger ship. The interstellar quarantine hadn’t yet bitten into the prodigious Earth, Halo, Moon economic triad; outsystem exports made up barely fifteen per cent of their trade. Civil flights between the three were running close to their usual levels.

They arrived at the departure lounge twelve minutes before the ship was scheduled to leave. The police returned their luggage and passports, with Earth immigration clearance loaded in; they also got their processor blocks back. Finally, they handed Louise her Jovian Bank credit disk.

Louise had her suspicions that the whole procedure was deliberately being rushed to keep them off-balance and complacent. Not that she knew how to kick up a fuss. But there was probably some part of their treatment which a good lawyer could find fault with. She didn’t really care. Scher ’s life support capsule had the same lengthy cylindrical layout as the Jamrana , except that every deck was full of chairs. A sour stewardess showed them brusquely to their seats, strapped them in, and left to chase other passengers.

“I wanted to change,” Genevieve complained. She was pulling dubiously at her shipsuit. “I haven’t washed for ages. It’s all clammy.”

“We’ll be able to change when we get to the tower station, I expect.”

“Which tower station? Where are we going?”

“I don’t know.” Louise glanced at the stewardess, who was chiding an elderly woman’s attempts to fasten her seat straps. “I think we’ll just have to wait and find out.”

“Then what? What do we do when we get there?”

“I’m not sure. Let me think for a minute, all right?”

Louise squirmed her shoulders, letting her muscles relax. Freefall always made her body tense up as it tried to assume more natural gravity-evolved postures. Thankfully, the cabin chairs were almost flat, preventing her from getting stomach twinges.

What to do next hadn’t bothered her much while she’d been in custody. Convincing Brent Roi about Dexter was her only concern. Now that had been accomplished, or seemed to be. She still couldn’t quite believe he had taken her warnings particularly seriously; they’d been released far too quickly for that. Dismissed, almost.

The authorities had Fletcher in custody, and he was cooperating with them about possession. That was their true prize, she thought. They were confident their security procedures would spot Dexter. She wasn’t. Not at all. And she’d made one solemn promise to Fletcher, which covered exactly this situation.

If I can’t help him physically, at least I can honour my promise. If our positions were reversed, he would. Banneth, I said I’d find and warn Banneth. Yes. And I will. The sudden resolution did a lot to warm her again.

Then she was aware of a strangely rhythmic buzzing sound, and blinked her eyes open. Genevieve had activated her processor block; its AV projector lens was shining a conical fan of light directly on her face. Frayed serpents of pastel colour stroked her cheeks and nose, glistening on a mouth parted in an enraptured smile. Her fingers skated with fast dextrous motions over the block’s surface, sketching eccentric ideograms.

I’m really going to have to do something about this obsession, Louise thought, it can’t be healthy.

The stewardess was shouting at a man cradling a crying child. Tackling Gen was probably best delayed until they reached Earth.

It wasn’t rugged determination, or even victorious self-confidence which brought him back. Instead, came the slow, dreadful comprehension that this awful limbo wouldn’t end if he did nothing.

Dariat’s thoughts hung amid vast clusters of soil molecules, membranous twists of nebula dust webbing the space between stars, insipid, enervated. Completely unable to evaporate, to fade away into blissful non-existence. Instead, they hummed with chilly misery as they conducted pain-soaked memories round and around on a never ending circuit, humiliation and fear undimmed by time and repetition.

Worse than the beyond. At least in the beyond, there were other souls, memories you could raid to bring an echo of sensation. Here there was only yourself; a soul buried alive. Nothing to comfort you but your own life. Screaming from the pain of the blows which battered him down might have stopped, but the internal scream of self-loathing could never cease. Not incarcerated here. He didn’t want to go back, not to the dimly sensed light and air above, the vicious brutality of the ghosts waiting there. Every time he emerged, they would pummel him down again. That was what all of them wanted. He would go through the same suffering again and again. Yet he couldn’t stay here, either.

Dariat moved. He thought of himself, visualised pushing his bulky body up through the soil, as if he was doing some kind of appalling fitness-fad exercise. It wasn’t anything like that easy. Imagination couldn’t power him as before. Something had happened to him, weakening him. The vitality he owned, even as a ghost, had been leeched out by the matter with which he was entwined.

Fantasy muscles trembled as he strained. Finally, along his back, sensation was returning in a paltry trickle. A warmth, but not on his skin. Inside, just below the surface.

It inspired greed, a hunger for more. Nothing else mattered, the warmth was revitalising, a font of life. It lent to his strength, and he began to rise faster through the soil, sucking in more warmth as he went. Soon, his face cleared the ground, and he was moving at an almost normal speed. Extricating himself from the soil meant discovering just how cold he was. Dariat stood up, teeth chattering, arms crossed over his chest, hugging tight as his hands tried to rub some heat into icy flesh. Only his feet were warm, though that was a relative term.

The grass around his sandals was a sickly yellow-brown, dead and drooping. Each blade was covered in a delicate sprinkle of hoarfrost. They made up a roughly oval patch about two metres long. Body-shaped, in fact. He stared at it, completely bewildered.

Damn, I’m cold!

Dariat? That you, boy?

Yes, it’s me.one question—he didn’t really want to ask, but had to know. How long was I . . . out for?

It’s been seventeen hours.

Seventeen years was a figure he could have believed in quite easily. Is that all?

Yes. What happened?

They beat me into the ground. Literally. It was . . . Bad. Real bad.

Then why didn’t you come out earlier?

You won’t understand.

Did you kill the grass?

I don’t know. I suppose so.

How? We thought you didn’t interact with solid matter.

Don’t ask me. There was a kind of warmth as I came out. Or maybe it was just hatred which killed the grass, concentrated hatred. That’s what they were giving off; Thoale be damned, but they hated me. I’m cold now.he scanned round, searching through the tree trunks for any sign of the other ghosts. After a moment, he walked away from the patch of dead grass, spooked by the place. The opposite of consecrated ground.

Movement felt good, it was making his legs warm up. When he glanced down, he saw a line of frosted footsteps in the grass trailing back to the burial patch. But he was definitely getting warmer. He started walking again, a meagre lick of heat seeping up from his legs to his torso. It would take a long time to dispel the chill, but he was sure it would happen eventually.

The starscraper is the other way,the personality said.

I know. That’s why I’m going back to the valley. I’ll be safe there.

For a while.

I’m not risking another encounter.

You have to. Look, forewarned is forearmed. Just take it carefully. If you see any ghosts waiting ahead of you, go around them.

I’m not doing it.

You have to. Our internal status is still decaying. We must have those descendants out of zero-tau. What good will a dead habitat do you? You know they’re the only chance of salvation any of us have. You know that. You just showed us how bad entombment here is; that could become permanent if we don’t get clear.

Shit!he stopped, standing with his fists clenched. Tendrils of frost slithered out from under his soles to wilt the grass.

It’s common sense, Dariat. You won’t be giving in to Rubra just by agreeing.

That’s not—

Ha. Remember what we are.

All right! Bastards. Where’s Tolton?

Tolton had found the lightstick in an emergency equipment locker in the starscraper’s lobby. It gave out a lustreless purple-tinged glow, and that emerged at a pitiful percentage of its designated output wattage. But after forty minutes, his eyes had acclimatised well. Navigating down through the interior of the starscraper posed few physical problems. Resolution, however, was a different matter. In his other hand he carried a fire axe from the same locker as the lightstick, it hardly inspired confidence.

Beyond the bubble of radiance which enveloped him, it was very dark indeed. And silent with it. No light shone in through any of the windows; there wasn’t even a dripping tap to break the monotony of his timorous footsteps. Three times since he’d been down here, the electrophorescent cells had burst into life. Some arcane random surge of power sending shoals of photons skidding along the vestibules and stairwells. The first time it happened, he’d been petrified. The zips of light appeared from nowhere, racing towards him at high speed. By the time he yelled out and started to cower down, they were already gone, behind him and vanishing round some corner. He didn’t react much better the next two times, either.

He told himself that he should be relieved that some aspect of Rubra and the habitat was still functioning, however erratically. It wasn’t much reassurance; that the stars had vanished from view had been a profound shock. He’d already decided he wasn’t going to share that knowledge with the other residents for a while. What he couldn’t understand was, where were they? His panicky mind was constantly filling the blank space outside the windows with dreadful imaginings. It wasn’t much of a leap to have whatever skulked outside getting in to glide among the opaque shadows of the empty starscraper. Grouping together and conspiring, flowing after him.

The muscle membrane door at the bottom of the stairwell was partially expanded, its edges trembling slightly. He cautiously stuck the lightstick through the gap, and peered round at the fifth floor vestibule. The high ceilings and broad curving archways that were the mise-en-scиne of Valisk’s starscrapers had always seemed fairly illustrious before; bitek’s inalienable majesty. That was back when they were bathed in light and warmth twenty-four hours a day. Now they clustered threateningly round the small area of illumination he projected, swaying with every slight motion of the lightstick.

Tolton waited for a moment, nerving himself to step out. This floor was mainly taken up by commercial offices. Most of the mechanical doorways had frozen shut. He walked along, reading the plaques on each one. The eighth belonged to an osteopath specialising in sports injuries. There ought to be some kind of medical nanonics inside. The emergency lock panel was on the top of the frame. He broke it open with the blunt end of the axe, exposing the handle inside. Now the power was off, or at least disabled, the electronic bolts had disengaged. A couple of turns on the handle released the lock entirely, and he prised the door open.

Typical waiting room: not quite expensive chairs, soft drinks dispenser, reproduction artwork, and lush potted plants. The large circular window looked out at nothing, a black mirror. Tolton saw his own reflection staring back, with a fat man in a grubby robe standing behind him. He yelped in shock, and dropped the lightstick. Flat planes of light and shadow lurched around him. He turned, raising the axe up ready to swipe down on his adversary. Almost overbalancing from the wild motion.

The fat man was waving his arms frantically, shouting. Tolton could hear nothing more than a gentle murmur of air. He gripped the axe tightly as it wobbled about over his head, ready for the slightest sign of antagonism. None came. In fact, there probably couldn’t ever be any. Tolton could just see the door through the fat man. A ghost. That didn’t make him any happier.

The ghost had put his hands on his hips, face screwed up in some exasperation. He was saying something slowly and loudly, an adult talking to an idiot child. Again, there was that bantam ruffling of air. Tolton frowned; it corresponded to the movements of the fat ghost’s jaw.

In the end, communication became a derivative of lip reading. There was never quite enough sound (if that’s what it truly was) to form whole words, rather the faint syllables clued him in.

“Your axe is the wrong way round.”

“Uh.” Tolton glanced up. The blade was pointing backwards. He shifted it round, then sheepishly lowered it. “Who are you?”

“My name’s Dariat.”

“You’re wasting your time following me, you can’t possess me.”

“I don’t want to. I’m here to give you a message.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yes. The habitat personality wants you to switch off some zero-tau pods.”

“How the hell do you know that?”

“We’re in affinity contact.”

“But you’re a . . .”

“Ghost. Yes, I had noticed. Although I think a revenant is a term more applicable in my case.”

“A what?”

“The personality never warned me you were this stupid.”

“I am not . . .” Tolton’s outrage spluttered to a halt. He started to laugh.

Dariat gave the alleged street poet a mildly annoyed glare. “Now what?”

“I’ve had some weird shit dumped on me in my time, but I think arguing with a ghost over my IQ has got to be the greatest.”

Dariat felt his lips move up in a grin. “Got a point there.”

“Thank you, my man.”

“So, are you going to help?”

“Of course. Will turning off the pods be of any use?”

“Yeah. That mad bitch Kiera was holding a whole load of my illustrious relatives in stasis. They should be able to get things up and running again.”

“Then we can get out of . . .” Tolton took another look at the window. “Where are we, exactly?”

“I’m not sure you can call this a place, more like a different state of being. It exists to be hostile to the possessed. Unfortunately, there are a few unexpected side effects.”

“You sound as though you’re talking from a position of knowledge; which I frankly find hard to believe.”

“I played a part in bringing us here,” Dariat admitted. “I’m not completely sure of the details, though.”

“I see. Well, we’d better get started, then.” He picked up the lightstick. “Ah, wait. I promised a woman I’d try and find some medical nanonic packages for her. She really does need them.”

“There’s some in the osteopath’s storage cabinet, through there.” Dariat pointed.

“You really are in touch with Rubra, aren’t you.”

“He’s changed a bit, but, yes.”

“Then I’m curious. Why did the two of you choose me for this task?”

“His decision. But most of the other corporeal residents got whacked out when they were de-possessed. You saw them up in the park. They’re no good for anything right now. You’re the best we’ve got left.”

“Oh, bloody hell.”

When they emerged up into the decrepit lobby, Tolton sat down and tried to get a processor block to work. He’d never had a didactic memory imprint covering their operations and program parameters. Never needed one; all he used them for was recording and playing AV fleks, and communications, plus a few simple commands for medical nanonics (mainly concerned with morning-after blood detoxification).

Dariat started to advise on how to alter the operating program format, essentially dumbing down the unit. Even he had to consult with the personality about which subroutines to delete. Between the three of them, it took twenty minutes to get the little unit on line with a reliable performance level.

Another fifteen minutes of running diagnostics (far slower than usual), and they knew what medical nanonics could achieve in such an antagonistic environment. It wasn’t good news; the filaments which wove into and manipulated human flesh were sophisticated molecular strings, with correspondingly high-order management routines. They could bond the lips of wounds together, and infuse doses of stored biochemicals. But fighting a tumour by eliminating individual cancer cells was no longer possible.

We can’t waste any more time on this,the personality protested.

Tolton was hunched up over the block. Dariat waved a hand under his face—the only way to catch his attention. Out here in the park the poet found it even harder to hear him; though Dariat suspected his “voice” was actually some kind of weak telepathy.

“It’ll have to do,” Dariat said.

Tolton frowned down once again at the horribly confusing mass of icons eddying across the block’s screen. “Will they be able to cure her?”

“No. The tumours can’t be reversed, but the packages should be able to contain them until we get back to the real universe.”

“All right. I suppose that’ll do.”

Dariat managed to feel mildly guilty at the sadness in Tolton’s voice. The way the street poet could become so anxious and devoted to a stranger he’d only spent five minutes with was touching.

They walked through the moat of decaying shacks and into the surrounding ring of human misery. The loathing directed at Dariat by those that saw him was profound enough to sting. He, a creature now purely of thought, was buffeted by the emanation of raw emotion; his own substance refined against him. It wasn’t as strong as the blows inflicted by his fellow ghosts, but the cumulative effect was disturbingly debilitating. When he’d sneaked into the lobby he hadn’t attracted such attention, a few glances of sullen resentment at most. But then, he realized, he was still suffering from the effects of the entombment, he’d been weaker, less substantial.

Now, the jeering and catcalls which chased him were building to a crescendo as more and more people realized what the commotion was about and joined in. He started staggering about, groaning at the pain.

“What is it?” Tolton asked.

Dariat shook his head. There was real fear building in him now. If he stumbled and fell here, victim to this wave of hatred, he might never be able to surface from the soil again. At every attempt he would be pressed back by the throng of people above him, dancing on his living grave.

“Going,” he grunted. “Got to go.” He pressed his hands over his ears (fat lot of good that it did) and tottered as fast as he could out towards the shadowy trees beyond. “I’ll wait for you. Come when you’ve finished.”

Tolton watched in dismay as the ghost scurried away; becoming all too aware of the animosity which was now focusing on him. Head down, he hurried away in the direction he thought he’d left the woman.

She was still there, propped up against the tree. Dull eyes looked up at him, suffused with dread, hope denied. It was the only part of her which betrayed any emotion. Her stretched-tight face seemed incapable of displaying the slightest expression. “What was the noise about?” she mumbled.

“I think there was a ghost around here.”

“Did they kill it?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think you can kill ghosts.”

“Holy water. Use holy water.” Tolton knelt down, and gently eased her clutching hands from the blanket. This time when it parted he was determined not to grimace. It was hard. He placed the nanonic medical packages on her breasts and belly the way Dariat had said, and used the block to activate the pre-loaded programs. The packages stirred slightly as they started to knit with her skin.

She let out a soft sigh, embodying both relief and happiness.

“It’ll be all right,” he told her. “They’ll stop the cancer now.”

Her eyes had closed. “I don’t believe you. But it’s nice of you to say it.”

“I mean it.”

“Holy water; that’ll burn the bastards.”

“I’ll remember.”

Tolton found Dariat skulking among the fringes of the trees. The ghost couldn’t keep still, nervously searching round for signs of anyone approaching.

“Don’t fret, man. The others don’t care about you so long as you stay away from them.”

“I intend to,” Dariat grumbled. “Come on, we’ve got a way to go.”

He started walking.

Tolton shrugged, and started after him.

“How was the woman?” Dariat asked.

“Perky. She wanted to sprinkle you with holy water.”

“Silly cow,” he snorted with derisive amusement. “That’s for vampires.”

Kiera had decreed that the zero-tau pods should be put in the deep chambers around the base of the northern endcap. The polyp in that section was a honeycomb of caverns and tunnels; the chambers used almost exclusively by the astronautics industry to support the docking ledge infrastructure. Stores, workshops, and fabrication plants all dedicated to supplying Magellanic Itg’s blackhawk fleet. It was a logical place to use. The equipment was already close to hand. There wasn’t as much danger from Rubra’s insurgency in the big, unsophisticated caverns as there was in the starscrapers. And if they wanted them set up anywhere else, they’d be facing a troublesome relocation job.

As soon as Dariat told him where the zero-tau pods were, Tolton tried to use one of the rentcop jeeps abandoned around the starscraper lobby. It crawled along barely at walking pace. Stopped. Started. Crawled some more. Stopped.

They walked the whole way to the base of the northern endcap. Several times during the day Tolton caught Dariat studying the path behind them, and asked what he was trying to see.

“Footprints,” the fat ghost replied.

Tolton decided that after what he’d been through, Dariat was entitled to a reasonable degree of neurotic paranoia. The lightstick grew steadily brighter as they ventured into the cavern levels. Indicator lights began winking on some chunks of machinery. After a while, when they were deep inside the habitat shell, the electrophorescent strips were glowing; not as bright as before, but they remained steady.

Tolton switched the lightstick off. “You know, I even feel better down here.”

Dariat didn’t answer. He was aware of the difference himself. An atmosphere reminiscent of those heady days thirty years ago, endless bright summer days when being alive was such a blessing. The personality was right, the otherworldliness of this continuum hadn’t fully penetrated down here. Things worked as they were supposed to.

We might manage to salvage something from this yet.

They found the zero-tau pods in a lengthy cavern. At some time, there had been machinery or shelving pinned to the wall; small metal brackets still protruded from the dark-amber polyp. Deep scratches told of their recent, hurried removal. Now the cavern was empty except for the row of interstellar-black sarcophagi running the length of the floor. Each of them had been taken from a blackhawk, the crudely severed fittings were proof of that. Thick cables had been grafted on to the interface panels, wiring them into clumps of spherical high-density power cells.

“Where do I start?” Tolton asked.

The processor block he was carrying bleeped before Dariat could begin the usual prolonged process of exaggerated enunciation. “It doesn’t matter. Pick one.”

“Hey,” Tolton grinned. “You’re back.”

“Rumours of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.”

Oh, please,dariat said.

What’s the matter with you? We’re back on track. Rejoice.

Dariat was abruptly party to a resurgence of optimism, the sense of a hibernating animal approaching winter’s end. Holding his scepticism in check, he watched Tolton go over to the closest zero-tau pod. The personality issued a couple of simple instructions, and Tolton pecked at a keyboard.

Erentz completed her cower as the scene above her switched. One instant a Chinese warlord with a cruel smile, promising that the next thing she would know was the torture leading up to possession, the next a moderately overweight, wide-eyed man with a good ten days’ worth of grubby stubble was peering anxiously down at her. The light was dimmer, too. The wail which she’d started before the pod was activated, continued, rising in pitch.

It’s all right. Calm yourself.

Erentz paused, gathering her breath. Rubra?the mental voice which had chivvied her along since before she could remember felt different slightly.

Almost. But don’t worry. The possessed have gone. You’re safe.

There was a background emotion which sparked a small doubt. But the obvious apprehension and concern of the man staring down at her was a strange, fast-acting tonic. He definitely wasn’t possessed.

“Hello,” Tolton said, desperate for some kind of response from the startled young woman.

She nodded slowly, and raised herself gingerly into a sitting position. It didn’t help that the first thing she saw was Dariat hanging back by the cavern entrance. She emitted a frightened gasp.

I’m on your side,dariat told her, earning a twitchy laugh in response.

What is happening here?she demanded.

The personality began to fill her in. Acceptance of her new situation came amid a rush of relief. Erentz, like all the others released from zero-tau, relied on Rubra to provide a substantial part of their confidence. That he was the one who’d beaten the possessed was a heady boost for them. Fifteen minutes saw the last of the zero-tau pods deactivated. Dariat and Tolton were sidelined to slightly peeved observers as the brigade of Rubra’s descendants quickly and efficiently set about releasing their cousins. After that, when they’d come down off the hype, the habitat personality began marshalling them into groups and giving them assignments.

First priority was given to igniting the various fusion generators dotted about the spaceport. They made two attempts to initiate fusion, both of which failed. Microfusion generators, they soon found, worked well in the deep caverns; so they began the arduous process of manoeuvring starship auxiliary tokamaks through the spaceport and down the endcap. When the first one came on-line operating at thirty-eight per cent efficiency, they knew they really did stand a chance.

Schedules were drawn up to install another dozen in the caverns, feeding their energy into the habitat’s organic conductors. After two days’ unstinting effort, the light-tube began to blaze with early-morning intensity. Noonday brightness was beyond them, but the resumption of near-normal light provided a huge psychological kick for every resident (curiously, that also included the ostracised ghosts). In tandem, the habitat’s huge organs began to function again, ingesting and revitalising the myriad fluids and gases utilised within the polyp.

Confidence guaranteed, the personality and its team set about investigating their continuum. Equipment was ransacked from physics labs and Magellanic Itg research centres, and taken down to the caverns where it was powered up. Crude space probes were prepared from the MSVs, sprouting simple sensor arrays. Outside that hot hive core of activity, the rest of the residents slowly began to gather themselves together mentally and physically. Although that promised to be possibly the longest journey of all.

But after a week, Valisk had regained a considerable amount of its most desired commodity: hope.

There was a broad grin smeared across Joshua’s face during the entire approach manoeuvre; sometimes it came from admiration, sometimes plain affection. He knew he must look utterly dopy. Simply didn’t care. Lady Mac ’s external sensor array was feeding his neural nanonics a panoramic view of Jupiter’s snarled pink and white cloudscape. Tranquillity formed a sharp midnight-black silhouette sailing across the storms.

The massive habitat looked completely undamaged; although its counter-rotating spaceport was darker than usual. The docking bays, normally the focus of frantic time-pressure maintenance efforts, were shut down and lightless, leaving the curving ebony hulls of Adamist starships half-hidden in their eclipsed metal craters. Only the navigation and warning strobes were still flashing indomitably around the edges of the big silver-white disc.

“It’s really here,” Ashly said in a stunned voice from across the bridge. “That’s, that’s . . .”

“Outrageous?” Beaulieu suggested.

“Damn right it is,” Dhabi said. “Nothing that big can be a starship. Nothing.”

Sarha laughed quietly. “Face it, people; we’re living in interesting times.”

Joshua was glad that the Mzu, her compatriots, and the agency operatives were all down in capsule D’s lounge. After everything they’d been through, for the crew to show such bewilderment now was almost an admission of weakness, as if they couldn’t cope with the rigours of starflight after all.

Jovian flight management authority datavised their final approach vector, and Joshua reduced the fusion drives to a third of a gee as they crossed the invisible boundary where Tranquillity’s traffic control centre took over guidance responsibility. Their escort of five voidhawks matched the manoeuvre with consummate elegance; unwilling to show anything other than perfection to Lagrange Calvert, a tribute to the modest debt Edenism owed him for Aethra.

If only they knew,samuel said. They’d be flying parabolas of joy.

The Jovian sub-Consensus which dealt with classified security matters acknowledged the sentiment with an ironic frisson. Given our culture’s fundamental nature, the restriction of knowledge is always a curious paradox to us,it said. However, in the case of the Alchemist, it is fully justified. Every Edenist does not need to know specific details, hence the requirement for my existence. And your job.

Ah yes, my job.

You are tired of it.

Very.as soon as the Lady Macbeth had emerged above Jupiter, Samuel had been conversing with the security sub-Consensus. It was the reason there had been relatively little fuss made about their arrival. First Admiral Aleksandrovich’s decision had quickly been accepted by Consensus and Tranquillity.

After that, Samuel had immersed his mentality with Consensus, allowing his worries and tension to dissipate among his fellows. Sympathy for Edenists was so much more than a simple expression of compassion; with affinity he could feel it reaching into his mind, warmth and light dispelling the accumulation of icy shadows that were fear’s legacy. No longer alone. Floating in a buoyant sea of welcome understanding. His thoughts began to flow in more regular patterns, and with that state achieved his body quietened. A sense of wellbeing claimed him; sharing himself with Consensus, entwined with the billions living contentedly above Jupiter, sporting with the voidhawks, he became whole again.

Yet this is the time we need you most,sub-consensus replied. You have proved how valuable you are. Your skills are essential to this crisis.

I know. And if I’m needed for another assignment, I’ll go. But I think after this, it’s time I found a new career. Fifty-eight years of one thing is enough, even for a low-stress job.

We understand. There is no immediate field assignment awaiting you. We would like you to resume the observation of Dr Mzu for the time being.

I think that’s a formality now.

Yes. But it will help to have you there in person. You have proved your worth to Monica Foulkes, she trusts you, and it is her report that will influence the Duke more than anything, and through him, the King. In this affair we must reassure the Kingdom we are playing fair.

Of course. Our alliance is a remarkable achievement, even in these circumstances.


I’ll stay with Mzu.

Thank you.

Samuel used his affinity to stay in communication with the voidhawk escort, so he could borrow the image of Jupiter from their sensor blisters. It was a much more satisfying view than the AV projection of Lady Macbeth ’s sensor array. He watched their approach to Tranquillity, awed by the giant habitat, and not a little disconcerted by its star-jumping capability. It was so strange seeing it here, a familiar place, in a familiar location; but the two didn’t belong together. He smiled at his own discomfort.

“You look happy,” Monica said gruffly.

They had taken acceleration couches slightly apart from Mzu and the Beezling survivors; the two groups still not quite trusting each other. During the flight they’d been formal and polite, nothing more.

Samuel waved at the lounge’s AV pillar with its moirй sparkle, which was also showing the approach. “I rather like the idea of thwarting Capone in such a fashion. A habitat that can perform a swallow manoeuvre! Who’d have thought it? Well, a Saldana did, obviously. I doubt many others would.”

“I didn’t mean that,” Monica said. “You were happy the moment we arrived here, and you’ve been getting happier ever since. I’ve been watching you.”

“Coming home is always comforting.”

“It’s more than that, it’s like you’ve mellowed out.”

“I have. Communion with my people and Consensus always does that. It’s a valuable psychological relief. I don’t relish being apart from it for so long.”

“Oh God, here we go again, more propaganda.”

Samuel laughed. They might not have affinity, but he knew her well enough by now that it almost didn’t make any difference. A pleasant revelation when dealing with an Adamist, let alone an ESA operative. “I’m not trying to convert you, I’m just saying it’s good for me. As you noticed.”

Monica grunted. “You ask me, it’s a weakness. You’re dependent, and that can’t be good in our profession. People should be capable of acting by themselves without any hang ups. If I get wound up, I just run a stim program.”

“Ah yes, the natural human method of dealing with stress.”

“No worse than yours. Faster and cleaner, too.”

“There are many ways of being human.”

Monica stole a glance over at Mzu and Adul, still resentful at what they’d all been through. “Inhuman, as well.”

“I think she’s realized her folly. That’s good. It’s a sign of maturity to learn from one’s mistakes, especially after living with them for so long. She may yet make a positive contribution to our society.”

“Maybe. But as far as I’m concerned, she’ll need watching till the day she dies. And even then I’d be none too sure, she’s that tricky. I still think the First Admiral was wrong, we should have zero-taued the lot of them.”

“Well rest easy; I’ve already told Consensus I’ll continue watching over her. I’m too old and jaded for another active assignment. Once this crisis is concluded I’ll move on to something else. I always rather fancied wine growing; fine wine, of course. The kind of vintage that would satisfy the real oenophile. After all, I’ve tasted enough rubbish while I’ve travelled round the Confederation. Some of our habitats have superb vineyards, you know.”

Monica gave him a single surprised look, then snorted in amusement. “Exactly who are you trying to fool?”

It certainly wasn’t a hero’s welcome. Only Collins bothered to report that the Lady Macbeth had docked, and they did it in a tone which suggested Joshua was slinking back home.

Five serjeants greeted Mzu and the Beezling survivors, escorting them to their new quarters. They weren’t under arrest, Tranquillity explained, speaking through the constructs; but it laid down the guidelines for their residence quite austerely. A few friends were waiting for the crew in the bay’s reception compartment. Dahybi and Beaulieu vanished off with them, heading for a bar. Sarha and Ashly took a commuter lift together. Two deputy managers from the Pringle Hotel greeted Shea and Kole, ushering them away to their rooms.

That left Joshua with Liol to take care of. He wasn’t entirely sure what to do about that. They were still orbiting round each other, though it was a closer orbit now. A hotel was out, too cold, Liol was family after all. He just wished they’d managed to sort out the problem of Lady Mac and Liol’s gung-ho claim. Though his brother had definitely become more conciliatory as the flight progressed. A good sign. It looked as though Liol would have to share his apartment. Well, at least he’d understand bachelor mess.

But as soon as Joshua air-swam out from their airlock tube, Ione was in front of him, toes pressed with ballerina grace on the compartment’s stikpad. Doubts about Liol vanished. She was wearing a simple maroon polka-dot summer dress, ruffed gold-blond hair floating daintily. It made her seem girlish and elegant all at once. The sight of her like that summoned up memories warmer than any neural nanonics catalogued recollections could ever be.

She grinned knavishly, and held out both hands. Joshua caught hold and let her gently secure him. They kissed, a tingle lost somewhere between just good friends and old lovers. “Well done,” she whispered.

“Thanks, I . . .” He frowned when he saw who was waiting behind her. Dominique: dressed in a tight sleeveless black leather T-shirt that was tucked into white sports shorts. All curves and blatant athleticism. As overt as Ione was demure.

“Joshua, darling!” Dominique squealed happily. “My God, you look so divine in a shipsuit. So well packaged. What can those naughty designers have been thinking of?”

“Er, hello, Dominique.”

“Hello?” She pouted with tragic disappointment. “Come here, gorgeous.”

Arms that were disproportionately strong wrapped round him. Wide lips descended happily, a tongue wriggling into his mouth. Hair and pheromones tickled his nose, making him want to sneeze.

He was too embarrassed to resist. Then she stiffened suddenly. “Oh wow , there’s two of you.”

The embrace was broken. Dominique stared hungrily behind him, long fronds of blond hair writhing about.

“Um, this is my brother,” Joshua mumbled.

Liol gave her a languid grin, and bowed. It was a good manoeuvre considering he wasn’t anchored to a stikpad. “Liol Calvert, Josh’s bigger brother.”

“Bigger.” Dominique’s eyes reflected slivers of light like coquettish diamonds.

In some way he couldn’t quite work out, Joshua was no longer between the two of them.

“Welcome to Tranquillity,” Dominique purred.

Liol took a hand gently and kissed her knuckles. “Nice to be here. It looks spectacular so far.”

A small groan of dismay rumbled up from Joshua’s throat.

“There’s plenty more to see, and it gets a whole lot better.” Dominique’s voice became so husky it was almost bass. “If you want to risk it, that is.”

“I’m just a simple boy from a provincial asteroid; of course I’m looking forward to the delights of the big bad habitat.”

“Oh, we have several bad things you’ll never find in your asteroid.”

“I can believe it.”

She crooked a finger in front of his nose. “This way.”

The two of them levitated out of the hatch together.

“Humm.” Ione smiled with sly contentment. “Eight seconds total; that’s pretty fast even for Dominique.”

Joshua looked back from the hatch to her amused blue eyes. He realized they were alone. “Oh, very neat,” he remarked admiringly.

“Let’s just say, I had a premonition they might hit it off.”

“She’ll eat him alive. You know that, don’t you?”

“You never complained.”

“How did you know about him?”

“While you were on your approach flight I was busy assimilating memories from the serjeants. The two that are left, anyway. You had a hell of a time.”


“You’ll do all right, you and Liol. Just a bit too similar for comfort at the start, that’s all.”

“Could be.” He squirmed uncomfortably.

She rested a hand on each shoulder, smiling softly. “But not identical.”

There was nothing much said while they rode the commuter lift down the spaceport spindle. Just looks and smiles. Shared knowledge of what was to come when they got back to her apartment. Coming from shared relief that they’d both survived, and maybe wanting a return to times past for the reassurance that would bring. It wouldn’t be the same, but it would still be familiar. It wasn’t until they got into a tube carriage that they kissed properly. Joshua reached up to stroke her cheek.

“Your hand,” she exclaimed. A whole rush of noxious memories were bubbling forth: the corridor in Ayacucho, Joshua on all fours in the slush, his hand blackened and charred, the two girls clinging together, whimpering, and the furious arab snarling then horrified as the serjeant opened fire. The roar of bullets and stink of hot blood. Not a sensevise she’d accessed, remote and vaguely unreal; she’d been a genuine witness to the actual event and always would be.

Joshua took his hand away from her face as she gave it a concerned look. A medical nanonic package had formed a thin glove to cover his fingers and palm. “I’m okay. The navy medics matched and grafted some muscle tissue; they’ve had a lot of practice with this kind of injury. It’ll be okay in another week.”

“Good.” She kissed the tip of his nose.

“You’re worried about a couple of fingers; I was scared shitless about Tranquillity. Jesus, Ione, you’ve no idea what it was like finding you gone. I thought you’d been possessed just like Valisk.”

Her broad freckled face crinkled with mild bafflement. “Humm, interesting. I get surprised by other people being surprised. All right, it could have been possession. But you of all people should have worked it out. I as good as told you.”


“The very first night we met. I said that grandfather Michael believed that we would eventually encounter whatever the Laymil had come up against. Of course, back then everyone thought it was an external threat, which was a reasonable enough assumption. Unfortunately, that also meant that Tranquillity was likely to be the first to confront it. Either we’d find it among the Ruin Ring, or it would return to Mirchusko, the last place it had visited. Grandfather knew we probably wouldn’t be able to beat it with conventional weapons, he hoped we’d discover what it was so we could develop some kind of defence in time. But just in case . . .”

“He wanted to be able to run,” Joshua concluded.

“Yes. So he ordered a modification to the habitat’s genome.”

“And nobody realized? Jesus.”

“Why should they? There’s a ring of energy patterning cells around the shell, at the end of the circumfluous sea. If you look at the habitat from the outside, the ridge containing the water is actually a kilometre wider than the sea itself. But who’s going to measure?”

“Hidden in plain view.”

“Quite. Michael didn’t see any reason to advertise the fact. Our royal cousins know . . . I assume, anyway. The files are stored in the Apollo Palace archives. It gives us the ability to jump away from trouble, a long way away. I chose Jupiter this time, because we considered Jupiter safe. But ultimately Tranquillity could jump across the galaxy in thousand light-year swallows, and the possessed would never be able to follow us. And if the crisis gets that bad, I’ll do it.”

“Now I get it. That’s how you knew the Udat ’s wormhole vector.”


When the tube carriage arrived at Ione’s apartment Joshua was feeling comfort as much as excitement. Neither of them took the lead, asking or pressing the other, they simply went to the bedroom because it was what the moment had ordained. They both slipped out of their clothes, admiring each other. Almost dreamily, Joshua tasted her breasts again, regretting how long it had been. Both of them showed off the old skills, knowing precisely what to do to each other’s flesh to invigorate and arouse.

Only once, when she knelt in front of him, did Ione speak. “Don’t use your nanonics,” she whispered. Her tongue licked along his cock, teeth closing delicately on one ball. “Not this time. This should be natural.”

He agreed, complying, making the encounter raw, and relishing every second of their performance. It was new. The big jelly-mattress bed was the same, so were the positions they accomplished. This time, though, they had honesty, openly celebrating the physical power they exerted over each other. It was as emotionally satisfying as it was sensually rewarding.

Afterwards they spent the night sleeping in each other’s arms, snuggled up like childhood siblings. The loitering contentment made breakfast a civilized meal. They wrapped themselves in huge house robes to sit at a big old oak table in a room mocked up to resemble a conservatory. Palms, ferns, and delecostas grew out of moss-coated clay pots, their multiplying stems interlaced with broad iron trellises to produce verdant walls. The illusion was almost perfect but for the small neon-bright fish swimming past on the other side of the glass.

House chimps served them scrambled parizzat eggs, with English tea and thick-cut toast. While they ate, they accessed various news broadcasts from Earth and the O’Neill Halo, following the Confederation’s response to Capone, the build up of forces for the Mortonridge Liberation, rumours of the possessed spreading among the asteroids, appearing in star systems previously thought clean.

“Quarantine busters,” Ione said sharply at the item on Koblat being taken out of the universe. “The idiots in those asteroids are still letting them dock. At this rate the Assembly will have to shut down interplanetary flights as well.”

Joshua looked away from the AV projection. “It won’t make any difference.”

“It will! They have to be isolated.”

He sighed, regretful at how easily the mood had gone. Forgetting everything for a day had been so comfortable. “You don’t understand. It’s like saying you’ll be safe if Tranquillity jumps across the galaxy where the possessed can’t find you. Don’t you see, they’ll always find you. They are what you become. You, me, everyone.”

“Not everyone, Joshua. Laton mentioned some kind of journey through the afterworld, he didn’t believe he’d be trapped in the beyond. The Kiint have as good as admitted we don’t all wind up there.”

“Good, build on that. Find out why.”

“How?” She gave him a measured look. “This isn’t like you.”

“I think it is. I think it took that possessed to make me realize.”

“You mean that Arab in Ayacucho?”

“Yeah. No kidding, Ione, I was staring death and what comes after right in the face. Bound to make you stop and wonder. You can’t solve everything with direct action. That’s what makes this Mortonridge Liberation so ridiculous.”

“Don’t I know it. That whole miserable campaign is nothing more than a propaganda exercise.”

“Yeah. Though I expect the people they do de-possess will be grateful enough.”

“Joshua! You can’t have it both ways.”

He grinned at her over the rim of a huge tea cup. “We’re going to have to, though, aren’t we? There has to be some solution to satisfy both sides.”

“Right,” she said cautiously.

Chapter 05

In any given month, there would be between two and seven armada storms rampaging across Earth’s surface, a relentless assault they’d persevered with for over five hundred years. Like so many things, their name had become everyday currency. Few knew or cared about its origin.

It had begun with chaos theory: the soundbite assertion that one butterfly flapping its wings in a South American rain forest would start a hurricane in Hong Kong. Then in the Twenty-first Century came cheap fusion, and mass industrialisation; entire continents elevated themselves to Western-style levels of consumerism within two decades. Billions of people found themselves with the credit to buy a multitude of household appliances, cars, exotic holidays; they moved into new, better, bigger homes, adopting lifestyles which amplified their energy consumption by orders of magnitude. Hungry to service their purchasing power, companies built cities of new factories. Consumer and producer alike pumped out vast quantities of waste heat, agitating the atmosphere beyond the worst-case scenarios of most computer models.

It was after the then largest storm in history raged across the Eastern Pacific in early 2071 that a tabloid newscable presenter said it must have taken a whole armada of butterflies flapping their wings to start such a brute. The name stuck.

The storm which had swept up from mid-Atlantic to swamp New York was ferocious even by the standards of the Twenty-seventh Century. Its progress had been under observation for hours by the arcology’s anxious weather defence engineers. When it did arrive, their response systems were already on line. It looked as though a ragged smear of night was sliding across the sky. The clouds were so thick and dense no light could boil throughout to illuminate their underbelly—until the lightning began. Then the rotund tufts could sometimes be distinguished, streaked with leaden grey strata as they undulated overhead at menacing speed. The energy levels contained within would prove fatal for any unprotected building. Consequently, the ability to deflect or withstand the storms was the prime requirement of any design brought before the New York civil engineering review board for a building permit. It was the one criterion which could never be corroded by backhanders or political pressure.

The tip of every megatower was crowned with high-wattage lasers, whose beams were powerful enough to puncture the heart of the heavy clouds. They etched out straight channels of ionized air, cajoling the lightning to discharge directly into the superconductor grids masking the tower structure. Every tower blazed like a conical solar flare above the dome residents, spitting out residual globules of violet plasma.

Amid them fell the rain. Fist-sized drops hurled out by a furious wind to hammer against the domes. Molecular binding force generators were switched on to reinforce the transparent hexagons against a kinetic fusillade which had the force to abrade raw steel.

The noise from this barrage of elements drummed through the dome to shake the gridwork of carbotanium struts supporting the metro transit rails. Most above-ground traffic had shut down. Right across the arcology, emergency crews were on full standby. Even the shield of lasers and superconductors were no guarantee against power spikes in such conditions. In such times, sensible people went home or to bars, and waited until sharp slivers of pewter light started to carve up the clouds, signalling the end of the deluge. A time when fear was heightened. When more primitive thoughts were brought to the fore.

A good time. Useful.

Quinn looked up at the old building which was home to the High Magus of New York.

Under cover of the storm, sect members were piling out of the vans behind him. Only ten possessed so far: a manageable number for what he had in mind. The rest, the acolytes and initiates, followed obediently, in awe of the apostles of evil who now commanded them.

Faith, Quinn mused, was a strange power. They had committed their lives to the sect, never questioning its gospels. Yet in all of that time, they had the reassurance of routine, the notion that God’s Brother would never actually manifest himself. The bedrock of every religion, that your God is a promise, never to be encountered in this life, this universe.

Now the souls were returning, owning the power to commit dark miracles. The acolytes had fallen into stupefaction rather than terror, the last doubt vanquished. Condemned as the vilest outcasts, they now knew they’d been right all along. That they were going to win. Whatever they were ordered to do, they complied unquestioningly.

Quinn motioned the first team forward. Led by Wener, the three eager acolytes scampered down a set of steps at the base of the wall, and clustered round the disused basement door at the bottom. A codebuster block was applied, then a programmable silicon probe was worked expertly into the crack between the door and the frame. The silicon flexed its way under the ageing manual bolts, then began to reformat its shape, pushing them back. Within thirty seconds, the way in was open. No alarms, and no give away use of energistic power.

Quinn stepped through.

The difference between the headquarters and the dingy centre on Eighty-Thirty street surprised even Quinn. At first he even thought he might have the wrong place, but Dobbie, who now possessed magus Garth’s body, reassured him this was indeed where they should be. The corridors and chambers were an inverse mirror of the Vatican’s splendour. Rich fittings and extravagant artwork, but sybaritic rather than warmly exquisite, celebrating depravity and pain.

“Fuck, look at this place,” Wener muttered as they marched down one of the corridors. Sculptures took bestiality as their theme, featuring both mythical and xenoc creatures, while paintings showed the saintly and revered from history being violated and sacrificed on the altars of the Light Bringer.

“You should take a good look,” Quinn said. “It’s yours. Those hours ripping off citizens and pushing illegals on the street, that paid for all this. You live in shit, so the High Magus can live like a Christian bishop. Nice, isn’t it.”

Wener and the other acolytes glowered round at the perverse grandeur, envious and angry. They split up, as arranged. One of the possessed leading each group of acolytes, securing the exits and strategic areas, the weapons cache. Quinn went straight for the High Magus. Three times, he encountered acolytes and priests scurrying along the corridors. They were all given the same simple choice: Follow me, or be possessed.

They took one look at the black robe, listening to the voice whispering out of the seemingly empty hood, and capitulated. One of them even gave a mad little laugh of relief, a strong sense of vindication flooding his mind.

The High Magus was taking a bath when Quinn strode into his quarters. It could have been the penthouse of some multistellar corporation president, certainly there was little evidence of idolatrous worship amongst the opulence. Much to Wener’s disappointment he didn’t even have naked servant girls to wash him. Slimline domestic mechanoids stood quietly among the white and blue furnishings. His one concession to turpitude appeared to be the goblet he was drinking a seventeen-year-old red wine out of, its vulvic influences impossible to ignore. Islands of lime-green bubbles drifted round his round frame, giving off a scent of sweet pine.

He was already frowning as Quinn glided over the gold-flecked marble to the sunken bath, presumably forewarned by the failure of his neural nanonics. His eyes widened at the invasion, then narrowed as the eccentric delegation stared down at him.

“You’re a possessed,” he said directly to Quinn.

There was no panic in the mind of the High Magus, which surprised Quinn, if anything the old man appeared curious. “No, I am the Messiah of our Lord.”


The mocking irony of the tone caused the hem of Quinn’s robe to stir. “You will obey me, or I will have your fat shit body possessed by someone more worthy.”

“More compliant, you mean.”

“Don’t fuck with me.”

“I have no intention of fucking with you or anyone else.”

Quinn was puzzled by this whole exchange. The original calmness he could sense in the High Magus was slowly replaced by weariness. The High Magus took another sip of the wine.

“I’m here to bring Night to the Earth as Our Lord bids,” Quinn said.

“He bids nothing of the sort, you pathetic little prick.”

Quinn’s ashen face materialized to thrust out of his hood.

The High Magus laughed out loud at the shock and anger he saw there, and committed suicide. Without any noise or hysterics, his body froze, then slowly slithered down the side of the bath. It rolled to one side, and floated inertly on the surface, white bloated rims of fat bobbing among the green bubbles. The wine goblet sank, a red stain marking where it had vanished.

“What are you doing?” Quinn shouted at the departing soul. He sensed a final sneer as the retreating wisps of energy evaporated amid dimensional folds. His claw hands shot out of the voluminous sleeves, as if to pull the essence of the High Magus back to face judgement. “Shit!” he gasped. The magus must have been demented. Nobody. Nobody went into the beyond, not now they knew for sure what awaited them there.

“Asshole,” Wener grunted. Along with the other acolytes, he was perturbed by the death. Trying not to show it.

Quinn knelt down at the side of the bath, searching the corpse with eyes and eldritch senses for the mechanism of its demise. There were the usual weapons implants, he could perceive those all right, hard splinters among the softer grain of organic matter, even the neural nanonics were discernible. But Quinn’s energistic power had nullified them. What then? What instrument could effect an instantaneous and painless suicide? And more curiously, why was the High Magus equipped with it?

He straightened slowly, retracting his head and arms back within his cloak’s veil of night. “It doesn’t matter,” he told his agitated followers. “God’s Brother knows how to deal with traitors, the beyond is not a refuge for those who fail Him.”

A dozen heads nodded in eager acceptance before him. “Now go and bring them to me,” he said.

The acolytes scattered to do his bidding. They rounded up everyone in the headquarters, and herded them into the temple. It was a vaulting chamber nestled at the core of the Leicester, a baroque fabrication of gilded pillars and crude cut stone blocks. Six giant pentagons were etched on the curving ceiling, emitting a dull crimson glow. The grumble of the storm was just audible, a bass reverberation sneaking through the Leicester to give the floor a faint vibration.

Quinn stood beside the altar as the captives were ushered up to him one at a time. Every time, he repeated the simple choice of futures: follow me, or be possessed. Merely claiming you would submit was no use. Quinn interrogated their innermost beliefs and fears before passing his final decree. He wasn’t surprised by how many failed. Inevitably, this far up the sect hierarchy, they had grown soft. Still evil, still exploiting the soldiers below them, but not for the right reasons. Maintaining their own status and comforts had evolved into their dominant urge, not a willingness to further the cause of the Light Bringer. Traitors.

He made them suffer for their crime. Over thirty were chained to the altar and vanquished. By now he had become proficient in opening a fissure back into the beyond; but more importantly he’d learned how to impose his own presence around the opening, valiantly guarding the gateway from the unworthy. Even in their utter desperation for escape, many souls turned aside from such a custodian. Those who did emerge conformed to Quinn’s ideal. Nearly all of them had been sect members while they were alive.

He gathered them together after the ceremony, explaining what God’s Brother had decided for them. “We need more than one arcology to bring Night to this world,” he told them. “So I’m leaving you this one for yourselves. Don’t piss this opportunity away. I want you to take it over, but carefully, not like the way the possessed do on other planets, even Capone. Those dickheads just rush up and head butt every town they come across. And each time, the cops swoop down and pick them off. This time it’s gonna be different. You’ve got the acolytes worshipping the ground you shit on. Use them. Moving around is what lets those fucking AIs sniff you out. You mess with processors and power cables just by being near them. So don’t go near them. Stay in the sect centres and get the acolytes to bring people to you.”

“Which people?” Dobbie asked. “I understand how we don’t gotta move about. But, shit, Quinn, there’s over three hundred million people in New York. The acolytes can’t bring them all to us.”

“They can bring the ones that count, the police captains and technical guys, the ones gonna cause you grief. Or at least knock them out, stop them from reporting that you’ve arrived in town. That’s all I want from you right now. Get yourselves established. There’s a sect centre in every dome, take them over and hole up there for a while. Live like a fucking king, I’m not saying don’t enjoy yourself. But I want you ready, I want you to build up a coven of possessed in each dome. Loyal ones, you all know how fucking important discipline is. We’re going strategic. Learn where the major fusion generators are, hunt down the fresh water stations, and the sewage plants, see which intersections the transport system depends on, track down critical nodes in the communication net. The acolytes will know all this crap, or they can find out. Then when I give the word, you smash each of those sites into lava. You paralyse the whole fucking arcology with terrorism, bring it to its knees. That way the cops won’t be able to organize any resistance when we emerge to claim glory for Him. You come out into the open and start possessing others, and you turn them loose. Nobody can run, there’s nowhere to go, no outside. Possessed always win on asteroids, this is no different, just bigger, is all.”

“The new possessed, they won’t worship God’s Brother,” someone said. “We can choose a few who will to start with, but if we turn them loose, there’s no way millions of them is going to do like we say.”

“Of course not,” Quinn said. “Not at first, anyway. They have to be forced into this, like I did to Nyvan. Haven’t you worked it out yet? What’s going to happen to an arcology with three hundred million possessed living in it?”

“Nothing,” Dobbie said in puzzlement. “It won’t work.”

“Right,” Quinn purred. “Nothing’s going to work. I’m going to visit as many arcologies as I can, and I’m going to seed all of them with possessed. And they’re all going to collapse, because energistic power breaks the machinery. The domes won’t be able to hold off the weather any more, there isn’t going to be any food, or water. Nothing. Not even forty billion possessed wishing at once are going to be able to change that. They’ll shift Earth into another realm, but it still won’t make any difference. Just being somewhere else isn’t going to put food on the table, won’t restart the machines. That’s when it will happen. The revelation that they have nowhere else to turn. Our Lord will have won their minds.” He lifted his hands, and allowed a pallid smile to show from his hood. “Forty billion possessors, and the forty billion they possess. Eighty billion souls screaming into the Night for help. Don’t you see? It’s a cry so strong, so full of anguish and fear, that it will bring Him. Finally, He will emerge from the Night, bringing light to those who have come to love Him.” Quinn laughed at the astonishment on their faces, and dark delight in their minds.

“How long?” Dobbie asked avidly. “How long we gotta wait?”

“A month, maybe. It’ll take me a while to visit all the arcologies. But I’ll penetrate them all in the end. Wait for my word.” The silhouette of his robe began to fade. Outlines of the furniture behind him started to show through. Then he was gone. A cold breeze drifted across the chamber, perturbing the shallow gasps of consternation that echoed from the dismayed disciples.

The Mindori approached Monterey at a steady half gee acceleration. Two hundred kilometres ahead, the asteroid’s features were resolving, crumpled dust-grey rock speared by metallic spires and panels. It was surrounded by a swarm of pearl-white specks that flashed and glinted in the tenacious sunlight. The Organization fleet: over six hundred Adamist warships floating in attendance while small service craft flitted among them. Each one a unique knot in Rocio Condra’s distortion field.

Gliding among them were the more subtle interference patterns of other distortion fields. Valisk’s hellhawks were here. Rocio called out in welcome. Those who bothered to acknowledge his arrival were subdued. The emotional content simmering within most of his fellows was one of grudging acceptance. Rocio accepted it reluctantly. It was what he’d been expecting.

Glad to see you found your way back to us,hudson proctor said. What have you got?

The affinity link provided Rocio an opening to the man’s eyes. He was in one of the docking ledge lounges, overlooking the pedestals where several hellhawks were perched. The room had been altered into an executive-style office. Kiera Salter was sitting at a broad desk, her head coming up to give him a hard, enquiring stare.

Deadnight kids,rocio said. I haven’t told them Valisk has gone.

Good, good.

“The Organization hasn’t got any real use for that kind of waster trash,” Kiera said as Hudson repeated his silent conversation. “Dock here and disembark them. They’ll be dealt with appropriately.”

And what about us?rocio asked mildly. What do the hellhawks do now?

“I’ll have you assigned to fleet support duties,” Kiera said impassively. “Capone is preparing another invasion. The hellhawks are becoming essential to ensure viability.”

I don’t wish to fly combat duties any more, thank you. This starship is proving an excellent host for my soul, I have no intention of endangering it, especially now that you have no reserve body for me to inherit.

Kiera’s answering smile portrayed regret. It wasn’t an emotion Hudson relayed via affinity, keeping the exchange scrupulously neutral.

“I’m afraid we’re effectively on a war footing,” Kiera said. “Which means, that wasn’t a request.”

Are you trying to order me?

“I’m offering you one simple choice. You do as I tell you, or you fuck off back to the Edenists right now. You know why that is? Because we’re the only two who can feed you. I am now in full command of the only possessed-owned nutrient supply in this star system. Me, not Capone and the Organization, me. If you want to prevent that excellent host of yours from expiring from malnutrition, you do exactly what I ask, and in return you’ll be permitted to dock and ingest as much of that goo as you can hold. No one else can provide you with that, non-possessed asteroids will blow you away with their SD platforms before you get within a hundred kilometres. Only the Edenists can supply you. And they’ve got their price, too, as I’m sure they’ve told you. If you cooperate with them, it’ll be to help understand the nature of the interface with the beyond. They’ll find out how to banish us. You and I will both be zapped back into that infernal oblivion. So decide, Rocio; where your loyalty lies, who you’re going to fly for. I’m not asking for you and me to be friends, I want to know if you’ll obey, that’s all. And you will tell me now.”

Rocio opened his affinity to converse with the other hellhawks. Is this what she holds over us?

Yes,they answered. There is no third alternative that we can see.

This is monstrous. I’m happy with this form. I don’t want to risk it in Capone’s egotistical conquests.

Then protect it, you pitiful bastard,etchells said. Stop whining and fight for what you believe in. Some of you are so pathetic, you don’t deserve what you’ve got.

Rocio remembered Etchells, always eager to intercept the voidhawks observing Valisk. When Capone had first approached Kiera for help, he’d been excited and anxious to become involved in the conflict.

Piss off, you fascist bigot.

A coward, and a way with words,etchells retorted. No wonder you’re so insecure.

Rocio closed his affinity with the offensive hellhawk. I’ll dock at Monterey and offload the passengers,he told Hudson and Kiera. What kind of fleet support are you proposing?

Kiera’s smile lacked grace. “While the fleet is here, all hellhawks are on a rota to interdict the spy globes and stealthed bombs. The voidhawks have just about given up that nonsense, but they’re still probing our defences, so we have to remain vigilant. Apart from that, there’s also some communication duties, VIP flights and collecting cargo from asteroids. Nothing too demanding.”

And when Capone finds a new planet to invade?

“You fly escort for the fleet, and then you help them eliminate the target world’s Strategic Defence network.”

Very well. I will be docking in another eight minutes, please have a pedestal ready to receive me.rocio abandoned hudson proctor’s mind, and analysed what had been said. The situation was almost what he’d been expecting. Controlling the supply of nutrient fluid was the only practical way of binding the hellhawks to the Organization. What he hadn’t predicted was Kiera still being in charge. She’d obviously come to the same conclusion about coercion.

A few queries to a couple of friendlier hellhawks, and he found that Etchells had visited most of the asteroid settlements in the New California system, blasting their nutrient production machinery. Kiera had ordered the flight, and Hudson had been on board to make sure everything ran smoothly. Kiera and the Organization were still separate. She was using her control over the hellhawks to maintain her status as a power player. Scheming little bitch. And it would be the hellhawks who paid for that status.

Rocio’s ersatz beak parted slightly. Even though he couldn’t manage a modestly contented smile any more, the intent was there. Forced obedience always generated discontent. Allies wouldn’t be hard to find. He abandoned his favoured bird-image just as he slipped round Monterey’s counter-rotating spaceport. The Mindori settled its hull on one of the docking ledge pedestals, and gratefully received the hose nozzles probing its underbelly. Muscle membranes contracted round the seal rings, and the thick nutrient fluid pulsed its way up into the nearly-depleted reserve bladders. The whole process served to emphasise just how vulnerable the giant bitek starship was. After such a long flight, Rocio was enduring a strong subconscious pressure to ingest again, and he had absolutely no control over the substance pumped along the pipes. Kiera could be giving him anything, from water to an elaborate poison. It tasted fine, to his limited internal sense and filter glands, but he could never be quite sure. His plight was intolerable. So what? he asked himself, bitterly. Blackmail always was.

The rebellion began at once. Rocio ordered his bitek processor array to open a channel into the asteroid’s communication network. Access to any defence-critical system was denied; the Organization had protected its electronic architecture as thoroughly as the New California defence force it had usurped. However, that left a lot of civil memory cores and sensors to access. He began to analyse what information he was permitted, and hooked in to various cameras to look round.

A large bus trundled over the rock ledge, its flaccid elephant-trunk airlock tube snuggling up to the Mindori ’s life support section. Inside the hellhawk, the Deadnight kids raced through their cabins, snatching up their bags. A long, agitated queue formed outside the main airlock hatch. Choi-Ho and Maxim Payne stood at the end, smiling placidly.

When the hatch swung open amid a hiss of white vapour, the kids let out a collective gasp of delight. Kiera herself was waiting for them. Gorgeous body clad in a small scarlet dress, hair tumbling over her honey-coloured shoulders. And that mesmerising smile every bit as bright in real life as it was in the recording. They filed past her in a numb daze, eyes wide with awe as she said hello to each and every one of them. All she got was a few mumbled words in return.

“That was easy enough,” she said to Choi-Ho and Maxim at the end. “We had a couple of flights end in riots when they realized they weren’t at Valisk. For no-hopers, they can be vicious little shits. There was a lot of damage, and it’s hard getting replacement components for these life support modules.”

“So what do we do now?” Maxim asked.

“I always need good officers. Or you can join the Organization if you like. Capone is keen to recruit soldiers to enforce his rule down on the planet. You’ll be on the cutting edge of his empire,” she said sweetly.

“I’m good at what I do now,” Choi-Ho said levelly. Maxim quickly agreed.

Kiera observed their minds. There was a tang of resentment, of course, there always was. But they’d capitulated. “All right, you’re in. Now let’s get these loser brats into the asteroid. They won’t be suspicious if we stay with them.”

She was right. Her presence alone was enough to fool the besotted Deadnights, none of them ever questioning why the bus windows were blanked out. It wasn’t until they walked through the next set of airlocks that suspicions started to bubble up. They were all from asteroid settlements, and the equipment here was very similar to what they thought they’d left behind. Habitats were supposed to be different, devoid of this many mechanical contrivances. With the elder ones slightly puzzled now, they trooped into the main arrivals hall. The Organization gangsters were waiting. It only took two acts of violence against the bravest rebels to quell any further resistance. They were quickly segregated and classified according to the charts Leroy and Emmet had provided.

Amid a welter of tearful and frightened crying, individuals were hauled off into the corridors. As the Organization was still very male dominated, the older boys were all taken down to Patricia Mangano and imminent possession by new soldiers. With them went the less attractive girls. Prettier girls were dispatched to the brothel where they would service the Organization’s soldiers and non-possessed followers. The children (and definition was difficult, puberty plus a couple of years appeared to be the deciding factor) were flown down to the planet, where Leroy paraded them in front of the rover reporters, claiming their salvation from Deadnight as more humanitarian charity on Al’s behalf. The distorted image of a weeping seventeen-year-old girl being shoved along by a machine-gun toting gangster in a brown pinstripe suit vanished from the processor block’s screen in a hail of static.

“I can’t find any further working cameras in that section,” Rocio announced. “Would you like me to return to the arrivals hall?”

Jed had to work hard against his tightening throat muscles. “No. That’s enough.” When the hellhawk possessor had shown them the first pictures snatched from cameras, Jed had wanted to scramble out of their cramped refuge. Kiera was actually on board! A mere thirty metres away from him. He’d suddenly wondered what the hell he was doing, crouched painfully between cold, condensation-smeared tanks with loops of grimy cable wiping his forehead. The sight of her brought back all the old rapture. And she was smiling. Kiera would make the angels envious of her beauty and compassion.

Then he heard bonkers Gerald reciting: “Monster, monster, monster, monster,” like it was some kind of freaky spell.

Beth was rubbing the old fart’s arm, all full of sympathy, saying, “It’s okay, you’ll get her back, you will.”

Jed wanted to shout out how barmy the pair of them were. But by then the last of the Deadnights were in the bus, and Kiera’s smile was gone. In its place was a hideously alien expression of contempt verging on cruelty. The words which came from her lips were cold and harsh. Rocio had been telling the truth.

Despite the evidence, that lost part of Jed’s heart had wanted to believe in his divine saviour and her promises of a better world. Now he knew that was gone. Worse than that, it had never existed. Even Digger had been right. Bloody Digger, for Christ’s sake! He was just a dumb stupid waster kid trying to score the ultimate escape trip from Koblat. If Beth and the girls hadn’t been in there with him, he knew he would have burst into tears. For Jed, not even the scenes in the arrivals hall were as horrific as that final moment when Kiera’s smile vanished.

By the time Rocio Condra’s face reappeared on the block, the girls were sniffling quietly, arms around each other. Beth made no attempt to hide the tears meandering down her cheeks. Gerald had shrunk back into his usual uncommunicative self.

“I’m sorry,” Rocio said. “But I did suspect that something like this was going to happen. If it’s of any comfort, I am in a similar position.”

“Similar?” Beth grunted. “Comfort? I knew some of those girls, damn you. How can you compare what they’re going to go through with what you’ve got to do? That’s not patronising, that’s sickening.”

“They are being forced to prostitute themselves with men in order to survive. I have to risk my life and that of my host in hostile combat conditions if I wish to continue my existence in this universe. Yes, I have to say there is similarity, whether you see it or not.”

Beth glared at the processor block through her misery. She’d never felt so low before, not even when those men had grabbed her that time when she met Gerald.

“So now what?” Jed asked dolefully.

“I’m not certain,” Rocio answered. “Obviously, we must find a new source of nutrient fluid for myself and those hellhawks that share my beliefs. I shall have to gather a lot more information before that option opens itself.”

“Do we have to stay in here the whole time?”

“No, of course not. There is no one inside the life support section, you may come out now.”

It took a hot, aggravating five minutes to wriggle free from the confines of the cramped under-floor service ducts. Jed was the first to extricate himself from the hatch in the washroom floor. He quickly helped the others free. They wandered out into the central corridor, glancing about anxiously, not quite believing Rocio when he said they were alone.

They stood in the big forward lounge, looking out of the long window at the docking ledge. The row of pedestals stretched away, gradually curving above them, silver mushrooms sprouting from the grizzled rock, each one bathed in a pool of yellow light. But for three other docked hellhawks suckling their nutrient fluid from the hoses, it could have been a post-industrial wasteland. Some technicians were working on the cargo cradles of one craft, but apart from that, nothing moved.

“So we just wait,” Beth said, flopping down into a settee.

Jed pressed his nose to the transparency, trying to see the rock wall at the back of the ledge. “Guess so.”

“I’m hungry,” Gari complained.

“Then go eat,” Jed said. “I’m not going to stop you.”

“Come with us.”

He turned from the window, seeing his sister’s apprehensive expression, and smiled reassuringly. “Sure, kid, no problem.”

The galley was one compartment Rocio hadn’t tried to modify with his energistic imagination, leaving the contemporary metal and composite surfaces undisturbed. However, they’d plainly been pillaged by some passing barbarian army. A cascade of empty sachets were littering the floor, stuck in place by treacle-like liquids. Storage cabinet doors swung open, revealing empty spaces. The timer on an induction oven bleeped away relentlessly.

A ten minute search turned up five cans of drinking chocolate, a sachet of unhydrated oatmeal cakes, and a serve-3 pizza with extra anchovies.

Jed surveyed the cache with dismay. “Oh Jeeze, there’s nothing left to eat.” He knew what that meant, one of them would have to sneak into the asteroid to find some supplies. Zero guesses who’d get picked for that doozy.

Jay woke up in a wonderfully soft bed, wrapped inside a smooth cocoon of clean cotton sheets smelling faintly of lavender. It was that warm drowsy state which always followed a really long, deep sleep. She squirmed round a little, enjoying the contentment of being utterly at peace. Some small object had managed to wedge itself under her shoulder, harder than the luxurious pillow. Her hand closed round it, pulling it out. Coarse fur tickled her fingers. Frowning, squinting she held up the . . . doll. Tatty old thing. She smiled cosily, and put Prince Dell down beside her. Snuggling into the mattress.

Her eyes flipped wide open. A fog of hoary light was curving round a pair of plain navy-blue curtains. It illuminated a neat wooden room, with its sloping ceiling supported by a scaffold of naked A-frame beams. The tight-fitting wall boards had all been painted a silky green, bedecked with picture frames that were mainly landscape watercolours, though there were several sepia photos of people in history-text clothes. A glazed pedestal washbasin with brass taps stood in the corner, a towel hanging beside it. There was a wicker chair at the foot of the bed, with a pair of fat cushions crammed into it. The sound of waves rolling gently onto a beach could just be heard in the background.

Jay flung back the sheet and slithered down off the bed. Her feet touched a warm carpet, and she padded over to the window. She lifted a corner of the curtain, then pulled it wide open. The beach was outside; a fringe of grass blending into white sands, followed by gorgeous turquoise water stretching out to a mild horizon haze. A clear azure sky rose from the other side of the haze, cut in half by that incredible curving line of brilliant silver-white planets. She laughed in amazed delight. It was real, really real.

The bedroom’s door opened into the chalet’s hallway. Jay ran along it, out onto the veranda. The hem of her nightie flapped around bare feet, Prince Dell was clutched in one hand. Outside, the heat and salty humidity gusted over her along with the intense sunlight. She flew down the steps and onto the grass, dancing round and whooping. The sand was hot enough to make her jump up and down before retreating back onto the grass. She gave the glittering water an exasperated look. How lovely it would have been to dive right in. Haile was going to adore this place.

“Good morning to you, young Jay Hilton.”

Jay jumped, and turned round. One of the purple globes she remembered from last night was floating half a metre above her head. Her nose wrinkled up in bemusement. It seemed to be the victim of a talented graffiti artist who’d inflicted two black and white cartoon eyes rimmed with black-line eyebrows; more black lines defined a pug nose, while the mouth was a single curve sealed by smile commas. “What are you?” she asked.

“Well, wadda ya’know, my name’s Mickey. I’m a universal provider. But I’m a special one, coz I’m all yours.” The mouth jerked up and down in time with its voice.

“Oh yeah?” Jay asked suspiciously. That silly face was far too happy for her liking. “What does a universal provider do, then?”

“Why, I provide, of course.”

“You’re a machine.”

“Guess so,” it said with goofy pleasure.

“I see. So what do you provide?”

“Whatever you want. Any material object, including food.”

“Don’t be stupid. You’re tiny, what if I wanted a . . . a vac-train carriage.”

“Why would you want one of those?”

Jay sneered at it smugly. “I just want one. I’m proving a point.”

The face lines squiggled their way into an expression of dozy obedience. “Oh. Okey-dokey, then. It’s going to take about quarter of an hour to put it together.”

“Sure,” Jay sneered.

“Hey! That’s got lots of complicated parts inside, you know.”


“If you’d asked for something simple, I could provide straight away.”

“All right. I want the Diana statue from the Paris arcology. That’s just a lump of carved rock.”

“Easy peasy.”

“Uh—” Jay managed to grunt.

Mickey zipped out over the beach, too fast for her to follow. She swivelled, just in time to see it inflating equally fast. At ten metres in diameter, its ridiculous face was suddenly not so pleasant and harmless as it loomed above her. A pair of shoes began to ooze through the bottom. They were as long as Jay was tall. Mickey started to rise up, exposing legs, waist, torso . . .

The full fifteen metre height of the granite statue gazed out serenely across the Kiint ocean. Pigeon droppings scarred its shoulders. Above Diana’s head, Mickey shrank back to its usual size and floated back down to Jay. Its mouth line shifted up into feline gratification.

“What have you done?” Jay yelled.

“Provided the statue. Wossamatter, wrong one?”

“No! Yes!” She glanced frantically along the beach. There were figures moving round outside the other chalets and big white clubhouse, but fortunately none of them seemed to have noticed. Yet. “Get rid of it!”

“Oh. Charming.” Mickey inflated out again. Its hurt pout ominous on such a scale. The statue was swallowed whole. The only memorial: a pair of giant footprints in the sand.

“You’re mad,” Jay accused as it shrank once again. “Utterly mad. They should switch you off.”

“For what?” it wailed.

“For doing that.”

“Just doing what I’m told,” it grumbled. “I suppose you want to cancel the vac-train as well, now?”


“You should make up your mind. No wonder they won’t hand over my kind of technology to the Confederation. Think of all the statues you’d leave lying round the place.”

“How do you do it,” she asked sharply. “How do you work? I bet you’ve never even been to Earth, how do you know what Diana’s statue looked like?”

Mickey’s voice dropped back down to normal. “The Kiint have this whopping great central library, see. There’s no end of stuff stored in there, including your art encyclopaedias. All I’ve gotta do is find the template memory.”

“And you make it inside you?”

“Small things, no problem. I’m your man, just shout. The bigger stuff, that’s gotta be put together in a place like a high-speed factory. Then when it’s done and polished they just ship it in through me. Simplisimo.”

“All right. Next question, who decided to give you that silly voice?”

“Whaddya mean, silly? It’s magnifico.”

“Well, you don’t talk like an adult, do you?”

“Ha, hark who’s talking. I’ll have you know, I’m an appropriate companion personality for a girl your age, young missy. We spent all night ransacking that library to see what I should be like. You got any idea what it’s like watching eight million hours of Disney AVs?”

“Thank you for being so considerate, I’m sure.”

“What I’m here for. We’re partners, you and me.” Mickey’s smile perked up again.

Jay folded her arms and fixed it with a stare. “Okay, partner ; I want you to provide me with a starship.”

“Is this another of those point thingies?”

“Could be. I don’t care what type of starship it is; but I want it to be one I can pilot by myself, and it has to have the range to get me back to the Confederation galaxy.”

Mickey’s eyes blinked slowly, as if lethargic shutters were coming down. “Sorry, Jay,” it said quietly. “No can do. I would if I could, honest, but the boss says no.”

“Not much of a companion, are you.”

“How about a chocolate and almond ice cream instead? Big yummie time!”

“Instead of a starship. I don’t think so.”

“Aww, go on. You know you want to.”

“Not before breakfast, thank you.” She turned her back on it.

“Okay. I know, how about a megalithic strawberry milkshake, with oodles and oodles of . . .”

“Shut up. And you’re not called Mickey, either. So don’t pretend you are.” Jay smiled at the silence; imagining it must be contorting its sketched face into hurt dismay. Her name was being called from the chalet.

Tracy Dean stood on the veranda, waving hopefully. She was dressed in a pale lemon dress with a lace collar, its design obsolete but still stylish. Jay walked back, aware that the provider machine was following. “The face wasn’t a good idea, was it?” Tracy said with dry amusement after Jay climbed the steps to the veranda. “Didn’t think so. Not for someone who’s seen all you have. But it was worth a try.” She sighed. “Program discontinued. There, it’s just an ordinary provider, now. And it won’t talk stupid anymore, either.”

Jay glanced up at the purple sphere, which was now completely featureless. “I don’t mean to be awkward.”

“I know, sweetie. Now come and sit down. I’ve got some breakfast for you.”

A white linen tablecloth had been spread over a small table beside the weather-worn railings. It had Spanish pottery bowls with cereal and fruit, one jug of milk, and another of orange juice. There was also a teapot with a battered old strainer.

“Twinings Ceylon tea,” Tracy said happily as they sat down. “Best you can have for breakfast in my opinion. I became completely addicted to it in the late Nineteenth Century, so I brought some back with me once. Now the providers can synthesise the leaves for me. I’d like to be all snobbish and say that I can tell it’s not the same, but I can’t. We’ll let it brew for a while, shall we?”

“Yes,” Jay said earnestly. “If you like.” There was something deliciously fascinating about this old woman who had Father Horst’s compassion and Powel Manani’s determination.

“Have you never brewed tea in a pot before, young Jay?”

“No. Mummy always bought it in sachets.”

“Oh dear me. There are some things which the march of progress doesn’t improve, you know.”

Jay poured some milk over the cereal bowl, deciding not to ask about the strange-shaped flakes. One thing at a time. “Do the Kiint live on all these planets?”

“Ah, yes. I did promise I’d explain things today, didn’t I, sweetie?”


“Such impatience. Where to start, though?” Tracy sprinkled some sugar onto her grapefruit, and sank a silver spoon into the soft fruit. “Yes, the Kiint live on all these planets. They built them, you know. Not all at once, but they have been civilized for a very long time. One planet couldn’t possibly accommodate them all any more, just like there are too many humans to live on Earth nowadays. So they learned how to extract matter from their sun and condense it. Quite an achievement, actually, even with their technology. The arc is one of the wonders of this galaxy. Not just physically, culturally, too. All the species who’ve achieved FTL starflight visit here eventually. Some that haven’t, too. It’s the greatest information exchange centre we know of. And the Kiint know of a few, believe me.”

“The provider said there was a big library here.”

“It was being modest. You see, when you’ve got the technology to take care of your every physical requirement, there’s not much else you can do but develop your knowledge base. So that’s what they do. And it’s a big universe to get to know. It keeps them occupied, and fulfils life’s basic requirement.”

“What’s that?”

“To live is to experience, and experience is living. I had a lovely little chuckle when the first Kiint ambassador from Jobis told the Confederation they had no interest in starflight. Travel broadens the mind, and heavens do they travel. They have this quite magical society, you see, they spend their whole time developing their intellects. The best way I can put it for you, is that wisdom is their equivalent of money, that’s what they pursue and hoard. I’m generalising, of course. A population as large as theirs is bound to have dissidents. Nothing like our Edenist Serpents, of course; their disagreements are mostly philosophical. But there are a few Kiint who turn their backs on their own kind. There’s even a couple of planets in the arc they can go to where they’re free of the central society.

“Whatever faction they come from, they’re all very noble by our standards. And I’ll admit it leaves them superbly prepared to face transcendence when their bodies die. But to be honest, that kind of existence is rather boring for humans. I don’t think we’ll ever go quite so far down that road. Different mental wiring, thankfully. We’re too impatient and quarrelsome. Bless us.”

“So you are really human then?”

“Oh yes, sweetie. I’m human. All of us living here are.”

“But why are you here?”

“We work for the Kiint, helping them to record human history. All of us take little unobtrusive jobs where we can get a good view of events. In the old days it was as servants of lords and kings, or joining up with nomads. Then when the industrial age started up we moved into the media companies. We weren’t front line investigative reporters, we were the office mundanes; but it meant we had access to an avalanche of information most of which never made it into the official history books. It was perfect for us; and we still mostly work in the information industries today. I’ll show you how to use the AV projector later if you want, every broadcast humans make goes into the arc’s library. That always tickled me, if those desperate marketing departments only knew just how wide an audience they really have.”

“Are the Kiint really that interested in us?”

“Us, the Tyrathca, the Laymil, xenocs you’ve never heard of. They’re fascinated by sentience, you see. They’ve witnessed so many self-aware races dwindle away to nothing, or self-destruct. That kind of loss is tragic for the races which succeed and prosper. Everybody’s different, you see, sweetie. Life alone is precious, but conscious thought is the greatest gift the universe offers. So they try and study any entities they find; that way if they don’t survive their knowledge won’t be entirely lost to the rest of us.”

“How did you end up working for them?”

“The Kiint found Earth when they were exploring that galaxy about two and a half thousand years ago. They took DNA specimens from a few people. We were cloned from that base, with a few alterations.”

“Like what?” Jay asked eagerly. This was a wonderful story, so many secrets.

“We don’t age so quickly, obviously; and we’ve got a version of affinity; little things like that.”

“Gosh. And you’ve been on Earth since you were born?”

“Since I grew up, yes. We had to be educated the Kiint way first. Their prime rule in dealing with other species, especially primitive ones, is zero intervention. They were worried that we might become too sympathetic and go native. If we did that, we’d introduce ideas that were wrong for that era; I mean, think what would have happened if the Spanish Armada was equipped with anti-ship missiles. That’s why they made us sterile, too; it should help us remain impartial.”

“That’s horrid!”

Tracy smiled blankly at the horizon. “There are compensations. Oh sweetie, if you’d seen a fraction of what I have. The Imperial Chinese dynasties at their height. Easter Islanders carving their statues. Knights of armour battling for their tiny kingdoms. The Inca cities rising out of jungles. I was a servant girl at Runnymede when King John signed the Magna Carta. Then lived as a grandee noblewoman while Europe was invigorated by the Renaissance. I waved from the harbour when Columbus set sail across the Atlantic; and spat as Nazi tanks rolled into Europe. Then thirty years later I stood on Cocoa Beach and cried when Apollo 11 took off for the moon, I was so proud of what we’d achieved. And there I was in the spaceplane which brought Richard Saldana down to Kulu. You have no idea how blessed my life has been. I know everything, everything, humans are capable of. We are a good species. Not the best, not by Kiint standards, but so much better than most. And wonderfully unique.” She sniffed loudly, and dabbed a handkerchief on her eyes.

“Don’t cry,” Jay said quietly. “Please.”

“I’m sorry. Just having you here, knowing what you could accomplish if you have the chance, makes this hurt so much harder. It’s so bloody unfair.

“What do you mean?” Jay asked. Seeing the old woman so upset was making her nervous. “Aren’t the Kiint going to let me go home?”

“It’s not that.” Tracy smiled bravely, and patted Jay’s hand. “It’s what kind of home that’ll be left for you. This shouldn’t have happened, you see. Discovering energistic states and what they mean normally comes a lot later in a society’s development. It’s a huge adjustment for anybody to make. Human-type psychologies need a lot of preparation for that kind of truth, a generation at least. And that’s when they’re more sociologically advanced than the Confederation. This breakthrough was a complete accident. I’m terrified the human race won’t get through this, not intact. We all are, all the Kiint observers want to help, to point the researchers in the right direction if nothing else. Our original conditioning isn’t strong enough to restrict those sort of feelings.”

“Why don’t you?”

“Even if they allowed us, I’d be no use. I’ve been part of all our history, Jay. I’ve seen us evolve from dirty savages into a civilization that has spread among the stars. More than anybody I know what we could grow into if we just had the chance. And I have the experience to intervene without anyone ever knowing they’d been guided. But at the most crucial time of our social evolution, when that experience is utterly vital , I’ve got to stay here.”

“Why?” Jay pleaded.

Tracy’s frail shoulders trembled from repressed emotion. “Oh sweetie, haven’t you worked out what this dreadful place is yet? It’s a bloody retirement home.”

The view arrived suddenly. For over twenty minutes Louise had been sitting in one of the lounge’s big chairs, its webbing holding her in the deep hollow of cushioning. Her belly muscles were beginning to strain as they were obliged to hold her in a curving posture. Then she felt a slight trembling in the decking as the lift capsule was shunted onto the tower rail. A tone sounded. Thirty seconds later they flashed out of the Skyhigh Kijabe asteroid. There was a quick impression of soured-white metal mountains, but they quickly shrank from sight overhead. Gentle gravity relieved her muscles, and the webbing slackened.

Earth shone with a mild opalescent light below her. It was midday in Africa, at the base of the tower, and the clouds were charging in from the oceans on either side. There seemed to be a lot more of them than there had been on Norfolk, although the Far Realm had been orbiting at a much lower altitude. That might account for it. Louise couldn’t be bothered to find the correct meteorology files in her processor block, and run a comparison program. The sight was there to enjoy not analyse. She could actually see the giant white spirals spinning slowly as they battered against each other. It must be a pretty impressive speed for the movement to be visible from such a height.

Genevieve switched her webbing off, and glided over to the lounge window, pressing herself against it. “It’s beautiful,” she said. Her face was flushed as she smiled back at Louise. “I thought Earth was all rotten.”

Louise glanced about, slightly worried by what the other passengers would think of the little girl’s remark. With the quarantine, most of them must be from Earth or the Halo. But nobody was even looking at her. In fact, it seemed as though they were deliberately not looking. She went over to stand beside Gen. “I guess that’s as wrong as everything else in the school books.”

The Halo was visible against the stars, a huge slender thread of stippled light curving behind the planet, like the most tenuous of a gas-giant’s rings. For five hundred and sixty-five years, companies and finance consortiums had been knocking asteroids into Earth orbit. The process was standardized now; first the large-scale mining of mineral resources, hollowing out the habitation caverns, then the gradual build up of industrial manufacturing stations as the initial resources were depleted and the population switched to a more sophisticated economy. There were nearly fifteen thousand inhabited asteroids already drifting along in their common cislunar orbit, and new rocks were arriving at the rate of thirty-five a year. Tens of thousands of inter-orbit craft swooped between the spinning rocks, fusion exhausts tangling together in a single scintilating nimbus. Every asteroid formed a tiny bulge in the loop, wrapped behind a delicate haze of industrial stations.

Louise gazed at the ephemeral testament to astroengineering commerce. More fragile than the bridge of heaven in Norfolk’s midsummer sky, but at the same time, more imposing. The vista inspired a great deal of confidence. Earth was strong, much stronger than she’d realized; it sprang from a wealth which she knew she would never truly comprehend.

If we’re safe anywhere, we’re safe here. She put her arm round Genevieve. For once, contented.

Below the majesty of the Halo, Earth was almost quiescent by comparison. Only the coastlines of North and South America hinted at the equal amount of human activity and industry on the ancient planet. They remained in darkness, awaiting the dawn terminator sliding over the Atlantic; but the night didn’t prevent her from seeing where people were. Arcologies blazed across the land like volcanoes of sunlight.

“Are they the cities?” Genevieve asked excitedly.

“I think so, yes.”

“Gosh! Why is the water that colour?”

Louise switched her attention away from the massive patches of illumination. The ocean was a peculiar shade of grey green, not at all like the balmy turquoise of Norfolk’s seas when they were under Duke’s stringent white glare.

“I’m not sure. It doesn’t look very clean, does it? I suppose that must be the pollution we hear about.”

A small contrite cough just behind them made both girls start. It was the first time anyone apart from the stewards had even acknowledged they existed. When they turned round they found themselves facing a small man in a dark purple business suit. He’d already got some thin wrinkles on his cheeks, though he didn’t seem particularly old. Louise was surprised by his height, she was actually an inch taller than him, and he had a very broad forehead, as if his hair wouldn’t grow properly along the top of it.

“I know this is rude,” he said quietly. “But I believe you’re from outsystem?”

Louise wondered what had given them away. She’d bought the pair of them new clothes in Skyhigh Kijabe, one-piece garments like shipsuits but more elaborate, with pronounced pockets and cuffs. Other women were wearing the fashion; so she’d hoped they would blend in.

“Yes,” Louise said. “From Norfolk, actually.”

“Ah. I’m afraid I’ve never tasted Norfolk Tears. Too expensive, even with my salary. I was most sorry to hear about its loss.”

“Thank you.” Louise kept her face blank, the way she’d learned to do whenever Daddy started shouting.

The man introduced himself as Aubry Earle. “So this is your first visit to Earth?” he asked.

“Yes,” Genevieve said. “We want to go to Tranquillity, but we can’t find a flight.”

“I see. Then this is all new to you?”

“Some of it,” Louise said. She wasn’t quite sure what Aubry wanted. He didn’t seem the type to befriend a pair of young girls. Not from altruism, anyway.

“Then allow me to explain what you are seeing. The oceans aren’t polluted, at least not seriously; there was an extensive effort to clean them up at the end of the Twenty-first Century. Their present colouring comes from algae blooms. It’s a geneered variety that floats on the top. I think it looks awful, myself.”

“But it’s everywhere,” Genevieve said.

“Alas, yes. That’s our carbon sink these days. Earth’s lungs, if you like. It performs the job once done by forests and grasslands. The surface vegetation is not what it used to be, so Govcentral introduced the algae to prevent us from suffocating ourselves. Actually, it’s a far more successful example of terraforming than Mars. Though I would never be so undiplomatic as to say that to a Lunar citizen. We now have less carbon dioxide in our atmosphere than at any time in the last eight hundred years. You’ll be breathing remarkably clean air when you arrive.”

“So why do you all live in the arcologies?” Louise asked.

“Heat,” Aubry said sadly. “Do you know how much heat a modern industrial civilization of over forty billion people generates?” He gestured down at the globe. “That much. Enough to melt the polar ice and quicken the clouds. We’ve taken all the preventative measures we can, of course. That was the original spur to build the orbital towers, to prevent spaceplanes aerobraking and shedding even more heat into the air. But however economic we are, we can’t dissipate it at a rate that’ll turn the clock back. The old ocean currents have shut down, there’s no ozone layer at all. And that kind of ecological retro-engineering is beyond even our ability. We’re stuck with the current environment, unfortunately.”

“Is it very bad?” Genevieve asked. What he’d described sounded worse than the beyond, though she thought the man didn’t sound terribly upset by the cataclysm.

He smiled fondly at the planet. “Best damn world in the Confederation. Though I expect everyone says that about their homeworld. Am I right?”

“I like Norfolk,” Louise said.

“Of course you do. But if I might make an observation, this is going to be noisier than anything you’ve experienced before.”

“I know that.”

“Good. Take care down there. People aren’t likely to help you. That’s our culture, you see.”

Louise gave him a sideways look. “Do you mean they don’t like foreigners?”

“Oh no. Nothing like that. It’s not racism. Not overtly, anyway. On Earth everybody is a foreigner to their neighbour. It’s because we’re all squashed up so tight. Privacy is a cherished commodity. In public places, people don’t chat to strangers, they avoid eye contact. It’s because that’s the way they want to be treated. I’m really breaking taboos by talking to you. I doubt any of the other passengers will. But I’ve been outsystem myself, I know how strange it all is for you.”

“Nobody’s going to talk to us?” Genevieve asked apprehensively.

“Not as readily as I.”

“That’s fine with me,” Louise said. She couldn’t quite bring herself to trust Aubry Earle. At the back of her mind was the worry that he would volunteer to become their guide. It had been bad enough in Norwich when she’d depended on Aunt Celina; Roberto was family. Earle was a stranger, one prepared to drop Earth’s customs in public when it suited him. She gave him a detached smile, and led an unprotesting Gen away from the window. The lift capsule had ten decks, and her standard-class ticket allowed her into four of them. They managed to avoid Earle for the rest of the flight. Though she realized he was telling the truth about privacy. Nobody else talked to them.

The isolation might have been safer, but it made the ten hour trip incredibly boring. They spent a long time watching the view through the window as Earth grew larger, and talking idly. Louise even managed to sleep for the last three hours, curling up in one of the big chairs.

She woke to Gen shaking her shoulder. “They just announced we’re about to reach the atmosphere,” her sister said.

Louise combed some strands of hair from her face, and sat up. Other passengers who’d been dozing were now stirring themselves. She took the hair clip off as she reorganized her mane, then fastened it up again. First priority when they were down must be to get it washed. The last time she’d managed properly was back on Phobos. Maybe it was time for a cut, a short style that was more manageable. Though the usual arguments still applied: she’d invested so much time keeping it in condition, cutting it was almost a confession of defeat. Of course, back at Cricklade she’d had the time to groom herself every day, and had a maid to help.

Whatever did I do all day back then?

“Louise?” Genevieve asked cautiously.

She raised an eyebrow at the girl’s tone. “What?”

“Promise you won’t get mad if I ask?”

“I won’t get mad.”

“It’s just that you haven’t said yet.”

“Said what?”

“Where we’re going after we touch down.”

“Oh.” Louise was completely stumped. She hadn’t even thought about their destination. Getting away from High York and Brent Roi had been her absolute priority. What she needed to do was find somewhere to stay so she could think about what to do next. And without consulting her block there was really only one city name from her ethnic history classes which she was certain would still exist. “London,” she told Genevieve. “We’re going to London.”

The African orbital tower had been the first to be built, a technological achievement declared the equal of the FTL drive by the Govcentral committees and politicians who’d authorized it. Typical self-aggrandising hyperbole, but acknowledged to be a reasonable comparison none the less. As Aubry Earle had said, it was intended to replace spaceplanes and the enormously detrimental effect they were having on Earth’s distressed atmosphere. By 2180 when the tower was finally commissioned (eight years late), the Great Dispersal was in full swing, and the volume of spaceplane traffic had become so injurious to the atmosphere that meteorologists were worrying about elevating the armada storms to an even greater level of ferocity.

The question became academic. Once the tower was on line, its cargo capacity exceeded thirty per cent of the world’s spaceplane fleet. Upgrades were being planned before the first lift capsule ran all the way up to Skyhigh Kijabe. Four hundred and thirty years later, the original slender tower of monocarbon fibre was now nothing more than a support element threading up the centre of the African Tower. A thick grey pillar dwindling off up to infinity, immune to the most punishing winds the armada storms could fling at it. The outer surface was lined with forty-seven magnetic rails, the structure’s maximum. It was now cheaper to build new towers than expand it any further.

The lower five kilometres were the fattest section, providing an outer sheath of tunnels to protect the lift capsules from the winds, enabling the tower to remain operational in all but the absolutely worst weather conditions. Exactly where the tower ended and the Mount Kenya station started was no longer certain. With a daily cargo throughput potential of two hundred thousand tonnes, and up to seventy-five thousand passengers, the capsule handling infrastructure had moulded itself tumescently around the base, a mountain in its own right. Eighty vac-train tunnels intersected in the bedrock underneath it, making it the most important transport nucleus on the continent.

To keep the passengers flowing smoothly, there were eighteen separate arrival Halls. All of them followed the same basic layout, a long marble-floored concourse with the exit doors from customs and immigration rooms on one side, and lifts on the other, leading to the subterranean vac-train platforms. Even if an arriving passenger knew exactly which lift cluster they wanted, they first had to negotiate a formidable barricade of retail stalls selling everything from socks to luxury apartments. Keeping track of one individual (or a pair) amid the perpetual scrum occupying the floor wasn’t easy, not even with modern equipment.

B7 left nothing to chance. A hundred and twenty GSDI field operatives had been pulled off their current assignments to provide saturation coverage. Fifty were allocated to Hall Nine, where the Kavanagh sisters were due to disembark, their movements coordinated by an AI that was hooked into every security sensor in the building. Another fifty were already on their way to London within minutes of Louise saying that was her intended goal. Twenty had been held in reserve in case of cockups, misdirection, or good old fashioned acts of God.

The arrangements had caused more arguments among B7; all of the supervisors remained extremely proprietorial when it came to their respective territories. Southern Africa, in whose domain the Mount Kenya station fell, disputed Western Europe’s claim that he should take personal command of the surveillance. Western Europe counterclaimed that as the tower station was just a brief stopover for the sisters, and the whole operation was his anyway, he should have the necessary authority. The other B7 supervisors knew Southern Africa, renowned for the tedious minutiae of procedure worship, was just going through the motions.

Western Europe was given his way over the tower station, as well as gaining concessions to steer the operation through whichever territory the Kavanaghs roamed in their search for Banneth.

Southern Africa acceded to the decision, and withdrew testily from the sensenviron conference. Smiling quietly at his inevitable victory, Western Europe datavised the AI for a full linkage. With the station layout unfolding in his mind, he began to designate positions to the agents. Tied in with that was the lift capsule’s arrival time, and the departure times of each scheduled vac-train. The AI computed every possible travel permutation, plotting the routes which the sisters would have to walk across the concourse. It even took into account the types of stalls which might catch their eye. Satisfied the agents were placed to cover every contingency, Western Europe stoked the logs on his fire, and settled back into a leather armchair with a brandy to wait.

It was probably the ultimate tribute to the fieldcraft of the GSDI agents that after all fifty of them took up position in Hall Nine, Simon Bradshaw didn’t notice them, not even with his hyper instinct for the way of things on the concourse. Simon was twenty-three years old, though he could easily pass for fifteen. Selected hormone courses kept him short and skinny, with soft ebony skin. His large eyes were moist brown, which people mistook for mournful. Their endearing appeal had salvaged him from trouble countless times in the twelve years he’d been strutting the concourses of the Mount Kenya station. Local floor patrol cops had his profile loaded in their neural nanonics, along with hundreds of other regular sneak opportunists. Simon used cosmetic packages every fortnight or so, altering his peripheral features, though his size remained constant. It was the act you had to vary to prevent the cops from putting a comparison program into primary mode. Some days dress smart and act little boy lost, dress casual and act street tough, dress neutral act neutral, pay a cousin to lend you their five-year-old daughter and come over as a protective big brother. But never ever dress poor. Poor people had no business in the station, even the stall vendors had neat franchise uniforms below their shiny franchise smiles.

Today Simon was actually in a franchise uniform himself: the scarlet and sapphire tunic of Cuppamaica, the coffee cafй. Being unobtrusive by being mundane. Nobody was suspicious of station workers. He saw the two girls as soon as they emerged through the customs and immigration archway. It was like they had a hologram advert flashing over their heads saying: EASY. He couldn’t ever remember seeing such obvious offworlders before. Both of them gawping round at the cavernous Hall, delighted and amazed by the place. The little one giggled, pointing up at the transit informatives, baubles of light charging about overhead like insane dragonflies, shepherding passengers towards the right channels.

Simon was off immediately, coming away from the noodle stall he’d been slouching against as if powered by a nuclear pulse. Moving at a fast walk, the luggage cab buzzing incessantly at his heels as its small motors strained to keep up. He was desperately trying not to run, the urgency was so hot. His principal worry now was if the others of his profession saw them. It would be like a feeding frenzy.

Louise couldn’t bring her legs to move. Her fellow passengers had swept her and Genevieve out of customs, carrying her along for a few yards before her surroundings exerted a grip on her nerves. The arrivals Hall was awesome, a stadium of coloured crystal and marble, saturated with noise and light. There must surely have been more people thronging across its floor than lived in the whole of Kesteven island. Like her, they all had luggage cabs chasing after them, adding to the bedlam. The squat oblong box had been supplied by the line company operating the lift capsule. Her bags had been dumped inside by the retrieval clerk, who’d promptly handed her a circular card. The cab, he promised, would follow her everywhere as long as she kept the card with her. It was also the key to open it again when they got down to their vac-train platform. “After that you’re on your own,” he said. “Don’t try and take it on the carriage. That’s MKS property, that is.”

Louise swore she wouldn’t. “How do we get to London?” Gen asked in a daunted tone. Louise glanced up at the mad swarms of photons above them. They were balls of tightly packed writing, or numbers. Logically, it must be travel information of some kind. She just didn’t know how to read it.

“Ticket office,” she gulped. “They’ll tell us. We’ll have to buy a ticket for London anyway.”

Genevieve turned a complete circle, trying to scan the Hall through the melee of bodies and luggage cabs. “Where’s the ticket office?”

Louise pulled the processor block out of her shoulder purse. “I’ll find it,” she said with determination. It was just a question of accessing a local net processor and loading a search program. An operation she’d practised a hundred times with the tutorial. Watching the graphics assemble themselves in the display as she conjured up a welcome feeling of satisfaction.

I’ve got a problem and I’m solving it. By myself, and for myself. I’m not dependent.

She grinned happily at Gen as the search program interrogated the station information processors. “We’re actually on Earth.” She said it as though she’d only just realized. Which, in a strange way, she had.

“Yes,” Genevieve grinned back. Then she scowled as a scrawny youth in a red and blue uniform barged into her. “Hey!”

He mumbled a grudging apology, side-stepped round the luggage cab and walked away.

The block bleeped to announce it had located the vac-train ticket dispensers for Hall Nine. There were seventy-eight of them. Without showing any ire, Louise started to redefine the search parameters.

Easy, easy, easy . Simon wanted to yell it out. That jostle with the little kid was the modern equivalent of the shell game. Visually confusing as their respective luggage cabs crossed paths, and allowing his grabber to intercept their tag card code at the same time. He fought the impulse to turn round and check the new luggage cab at his feet. Those girls were in for a hell of a shock when they got to their platform and found only a pile of beefbap wrappers inside it.

Simon headed for the stalls at a brisk pace. There was a staff lift at the middle. Route down to a quieter level, where he could examine his prize. He was ten metres from the front line of stalls when he was aware of two people closing on him. It wasn’t an accidental path, either, they were coming at him with all the purpose of combat wasps. Running wasn’t going to do any good, he knew that. He pressed the release button on the grabber hidden in his palm. The girls’ luggage cab swerved away, no longer following him. Now, if he could just dump the grabber in a waste bin. No proof.

Shit. How could his luck turn like this?

One of the cops (or whoever) went after the luggage cab. Simon hunted round for a bin. Anywhere there was a fast food bar. He ducked round the first stall, making one last check on his pursuers. That was why he never saw the third (or fourth and fifth, for that matter) GISD agent until the woman bumped right into him. He did feel, briefly, a small sting on his chest. Exactly the same place she was now taking her hand away from. His guts suddenly turned very cold, then that sensation faded to nothing.

Simon looked down at his chest in puzzlement just as his legs faltered, dropping him to his knees. He’d heard of weapons like this, so slim they never left a mark as they punctured your skin; but inside it was like an EE grenade going off. The world was going quiet and dim around him. High above, the woman watched him with a faint sneer of satisfaction on her lips.

“For a couple of bags?” Simon coughed incredulously. But she’d already turned, walking away with a calm he could almost respect. A real pro. Then he was somehow aware of himself finishing the fall to the floor. Blood rushed out of his gaping mouth. After that, the darkness rushed up to drown him. Darkness, but not total night. The world was only the slightest of distances away. And he wasn’t alone in observing it from outside. The lost souls converged upon him to devour the font of keen anguish that was his mind.

“That way,” Louise said brightly. The block’s little screen was showing a floor layout, which she thought she’d aligned right.

With Genevieve skipping along at her side she negotiated the obstacle course of stalls. They slowed down to window shop the things on display, not really understanding half of them. She also thought there must be a subtle trick to negotiating the crowd which was eluding her. Twice on the way to the dispenser, people banged into her. It wasn’t as though she didn’t look where she was going.

The block had told her there was neither a ticket office, nor an information desk. A result which made her acknowledge she was still thinking along Norfolk lines. All the information she needed was in the station electronics, it just needed the right questions to extract it.

A vac-train journey to London cost twenty-five fuseodollars (fifteen for Gen); a train left every twelve minutes from platform thirty-two; lifts G to J served that level. Once she knew that, even the transit informatives whirling past overhead began to make a kind of sense.

Western Europe accessed an agent’s sensevise to watch the sisters puzzle out the ticket dispenser. Enhanced retinas zoomed in on Genevieve, who had started clapping excitedly when a ticket dropped out of the slot.

“Don’t they have ticket dispensers on Norfolk, for heaven’s sake?” the Halo supervisor asked querulously. He had maintained executive control over the observation team during the Kavanaghs’ trip from High York down to the Mount Kenya station, anxious that nothing should mar the hand over. Now, curiosity had impelled him to tarry. Having initiated a few unorthodox missions in his time, he was nevertheless impressed with Western Europe’s chutzpa in dealing with Dexter.

Western Europe smiled at the sensevise overlay of Halo, who appeared to be leaning against the marble fireplace, sipping a brandy. “I doubt it. Some cheery-faced old man in a glass booth would be more their style. Haven’t you accessed any recent sensevises of Norfolk? Actually, just any sensevises of the place would do. It hasn’t changed much since the founding.”

“Damn backward planet. It’s like the medieval section of a themepark. Those English-ethnic morons abused the whole Great Dispersal ethos with that folly.”

“Not really. The ruling Landowner class introduced a stability we’re still striving for, and without one per cent of the bloodshed we employ to keep a lid on things down here. In a way, I envy all those pastoral planets.”

“But not enough to emigrate.”

“That’s a very cheap shot. Quite beneath you. We’re as much products of our environment as the Kavanaghs are of theirs. And at least they’re free to leave.”

“Leave yes. Survive in the real world, no.” He indicated the observation operation’s status display. It wasn’t a pleasing tally. Five people had been eliminated by the guardian blanket of GISD agents—pickpockets, sneak thieves, a scam jockey—as the sisters made their way across the concourse. Extermination was the quick, no arguments, solution. It was also going to cause an uproar with the local police when the bodies were discovered. “At this rate, you’re going to wind up slaughtering more people than Dexter has to protect them.”

“I always thought station security should be sharper,” Western Europe said casually. “What kind of advert is it for Govcentral when visitors get ripped off within ten minutes of their arrival on the good old homeworld?”

“Most don’t.”

“Those girls aren’t most. Don’t worry, they’ll be safer when they reach London and book into a hotel.”

Halo studied Western Europe’s handsome young face, amused by the mild expression of preoccupation to be found there. “You fancy Louise.”

“Don’t be absurd.”

“I know your taste in women as well as you know my preferences. She’s exactly your type.”

Western Europe swirled the brandy round his three-hundred-year-old snifter, not looking up at the smug overlay image. “I admit there’s something really rather appealing about Louise. Naivetй, one supposes. It does always attract, especially when coupled with youthful physical beauty. Earth girls are so . . . in your face. She has breeding, manners, and dignity. Also something the natives here lack.”

“That’s not naivetй, it’s pure ignorance.”

“Don’t be so uncharitable. You’d be equally adrift on Norfolk. I doubt you could ride to the hunt in pursuit of the cunning hax.”

“Why would anybody, let alone me, want to go to Norfolk?”

Western Europe tilted the snifter back and swallowed the last of the brandy. “Exactly the answer one expects from someone as jaded and decadent as you. I worry that one day this whole planet will think like us. Why do we bother protecting them?”

“We don’t,” Halo chuckled. “Your memory transfer must have glitched. We protect ourselves. Earth merely is our citadel.”

Chapter 06

It was as if space had succumbed to a bleak midwinter. Monterey was moving into conjunction with New California, sinking deeper through the penumbra towards the eclipse. Looking through the Nixon suite’s big windows, Al could see the shadows above him expanding into black pools of nothingness. The asteroid’s crumpled rock surface was slowly melting from view. Only the small lights decorating the thermal exchange panels and communication rigs gave him any indication that it hadn’t been removed from the universe entirely. Equally, the Organization fleet gathered outside was now invisible save for navigation strobes and the occasional spectral gust of blue ions fired from a thruster.

Beneath his feet, New California slid across the brilliant starscape, a gold-green corona crowning an empty circle. From this altitude, there were no city lights, no delicate web of lustrous freeways gripping the continents. Nothing, in fact, to show that the Organization existed at all.

Jezzibella’s arms crept round his chest, while her chin came to rest on his shoulder. A mild forest-morning perfume seeped into the air. “No sign of red clouds,” she said encouragingly.

He lifted one hand to his lips, and kissed the knuckles. “No. I guess that means I’m still numero uno about here.”

“Of course you are.”

“You wouldn’t fucking think so the beefs everyone’s got. Not just what they say, either. What they think counts for a whole lot.”

“They’ll be all right once the fleet’s in action again.”

“Sure,” he snorted. “And when’s that gonna be, huh? Fucking Luigi, I shoulda popped him properly, screwing up like that. It’s gonna take another twenty—thirty days to build up our antimatter stocks to anything like a load we can risk another invasion with. So Emmet says. That means six weeks minimum I know. Goddamn! I’m losing it, Jez. I’m fucking losing it.”

Her grip tightened. “Don’t be silly. You were bound to have setbacks.”

“I can’t afford one. Not now. Morale’s going to shit out there. You’ve heard what Leroy said. Possessed crew are going down to the surface for funtime and ain’t coming back. They think I’m gonna lose control of the planet and they’ll be better off down there when it happens.”

“So get Silvano to tighten up.”

“Maybe. You can only be so tough, you know?”

“You sure you can’t bring the next invasion forward?”


“Then we need something else to keep the soldiers and lieutenants occupied and committed.”

He turned to face her. She was wearing one of those whore’s dresses again, just tiny little strips of pale yellow fabric up the front (he had ties wider than that), and a teensy skirt. So much skin tantalisingly revealed; it made him want to tug it off. As if he’d never seen her in the buff before. But then she was always alluring in some new fashion, a mirror hall chameleon.

A sensational piece of ass, no doubt about it. But the way she kept on coming up with ideas for him (just like her never-ending mystique) had become vaguely unnerving of late. It was like he’d become dependent, or something.

“Like what?” he asked flatly.

Jezzibella pouted. “I don’t know. Something which doesn’t need the whole fleet, but’ll still be effective. Not a propaganda exercise like Kursk; we need to hurt the Confederation.”

“Kingsley Pryor’s gonna do that.”

“He might. Although that’s a very long shot, remember?”

“Okay, okay.” Al wished up one of his prime Havanas, and took a drag. Even they seemed to have lost some of their bite recently. “So how do we use some itsy piece of the fleet to piss the Feds?”

“Dunno. Guess you’d better go call Emmet in; see what he can come up with. That’s strictly his field.” She gave him a slow wink and sauntered off to the bedroom.

“Where the hell are you going?” he demanded.

A hand waved dismissively. “This dress is for your eyes only, baby. I know how hot you get when other people see what I’ve got to offer. And you need to have a clear head when you’re talking to Emmet.”

He sighed as the tall doors closed behind her. Right again.

When Emmet Mordden arrived fifteen minutes later, Al had returned to the window. There was very little light in the big lounge, just some red jewels glimmering high up on the white and gold walls. With Monterey now fully into the umbra, the window was little more than a slate grey rectangle, with Al’s ebony silhouette in the middle. His youthful face was illuminated by a diminutive orange glimmer coming from the Havana.

Emmet tried not to show too much annoyance at the cigar smoke clogging the room. The Hilton’s conditioners never managed to eliminate the cloying smell, and using energistic power to ward it off was too much like overkill. It might just offend Al, too.

Al raised a hand in acknowledgement, but didn’t turn away from the window with its empty view. “Can’t see anything out there today,” he said quietly. “No planet, no sun.”

“They’re still there, Al.”

“Yeah yeah. And now is when you tell me I got responsibilities to them.”

“I’m not going to tell you that, Al. You know the way it is.”

“Know what, and don’t tell Jez this, I’d trade in the whole shebang for a trip home to Chicago. I used to have a house in Prairie Avenue. You know? Like, for my family. It was a nice street in a decent neighbourhood, full of regular guys, trees, good lighting. There was never any trouble there. That’s where I want to be, Emmet, I wanna be able to walk down Prairie Avenue and open my own front door again. That’s all. I just wanna go home.”

“Earth ain’t like it used to be, Al. And it hasn’t changed for the best. Take it from me, you wouldn’t recognize it now.”

“I don’t want it now, Emmet. I want to go home . Capeesh?”

“Sure, Al.”

“That sound crazy to you?”

“I had a girl before. It was a good thing back then, you know.”

“Right. See, I had this idea. I remember there was this Limy guy, Wells, I think his name was. I never read any of his books, mind. But he wrote about things that are happening today in this crazy world, about Mars men invading and a time machine. Boy, if he’s come back, I bet he’s having a ball right now. So . . . I just wondered; he was thinking stuff like that, a time machine, back in the Twentieth Century, and the Confederation eggheads, they can build these starships today. Did they ever try to make a time machine?”

“No, Al. Zero-tau can carry ordinary people into the future, but there’s no way back. The big theory guys, they say it can’t be done. Not in practice. Sorry.”

Al nodded contemplatively. “That’s okay, Emmet. Thought I’d ask.”

“Was that all, Al?”

“Shit no.” Al smiled reluctantly, and turned from the window. “How’s it going out there?”

“We’re holding our own, especially down on the planet. Haven’t had to use an SD strike for three days now. Some of the lieutenants have even caught a couple of AWOL starship crew. They’re getting shipped back up here tonight. Patricia’s going to deal with. She’s talking about setting an example.”

“Good. Maybe now those bastards will learn there ain’t no get-out clause when you sign up with me.”

“The voidhawks have stopped dumping their stealth bombs and spyglobes on the fleet. Kiera’s hellhawks have done a good job clearing them out.”

“Huh.” Al opened the liquor cabinet, and poured himself a shot of bourbon. The stuff was imported from a planet called Nashville. He couldn’t believe they’d called a whole goddamn planet after that hick dirt-town. Their booze had a kick, though.

“You remember she moved her people into the rooms along the docking ledge?” Emmet said. “I know why she did it, now. They’ve knocked out all the machinery which makes the nutrient fluid for the hellhawks. And not just here in Monterey, all over the system, too. The Stryla visited all the asteroids we run, and layered their nutrient machinery. Her people are guarding the only one left working. If the hellhawks don’t do as they’re told, they don’t get fed. They don’t eat, they die. It’s that simple.”

“Neat,” Al said. “Let me guess, if we try to muscle in on the last machine, it gets zapped.”

“Looks like it. They’ve let slip that it’s booby trapped. I’d hate to risk it.”

“As long as the hellhawks do what I want, she can stay. Barricading herself in like that is dumb. It makes her even more dependent on me for status. She has to support me, she’s not important to anyone else.”

“I’ve put a couple of people on surveying what’s left of the machinery she smashed up. We might be able to put a working unit back together eventually, but it’ll take time.”

“Time is something which is giving me a fucking headache, Emmet. And I ain’t talking about Wells’s machine here. I need to get the fleet back into action, soonest.”

“But, Al—” he stopped as Al held up a hand.

“I know. We can’t launch no invasion right now. Not enough antimatter. There’s gotta be something else they can do. I’m being honest with you here, Emmet, the boys are so antsy, they’ll mutiny if we keep them kicking their heels in port much longer.”

“I suppose you could launch some fast strike raids. Let people know we’ve still got some punch.”

“Strike on what? Just blowing things up for the sake of it, ain’t my style. We have to give the fleet a purpose.”

“There’s the Mortonridge Liberation. The Confederation’s been beaming propaganda about that to every city on New California, telling us how we’re bound to lose eventually. If we hit some of their supply convoys we’d be helping the possessed on Ombey.”

“Yeah,” Al said. The notion didn’t really appeal, too few visible returns. “What I’m looking for is something that’ll cause a shitload of trouble for the Confederation each time. Knocking out a couple of ships ain’t going to do that.”

“Well . . . This is just an idea, Al. I don’t know if it’s the kind of thing you’re looking for. It depends on how many planets you want to rule over.”

“The Organization has to keep up its momentum to exist. Ruling planets is only a part of that. So talk to me, Emmet.”

Kiera could see eight hellhawks out on the ledge below her. They were all sitting on their pedestals, ingesting nutrient fluid. A rotor had been drawn up so the whole flock could feed on the ten metallic mushrooms which remained functional. Studying the huge creatures, so powerful yet utterly dependent, Kiera couldn’t avoid the religious analogy. They were like a devout congregation coming to receive mass from their priestess. Each of them abased themselves before her, and if the correct obeisance was performed, they received her blessing in return, and were allowed to live.

The Kerachel swept in above the ledge, appearing so swiftly out of the umbra it might have just swallowed in. A pointed lozenge-shape, a hundred metres long, it hardly hesitated as it found its designated pedestal and sank down. Knowing that even though it couldn’t see her expression, it could sense her thoughts, she smiled arrogantly down upon it. “Any problems?” she asked casually.

“Monterey’s command centre monitored its patrol flight,” Hudson Proctor replied. “No deviations. Eight suspect objects destroyed.”

“Well done,” she murmured. A hand waved languid permission to start.

Hudson Proctor picked up a handset, and began speaking into it. Two hundred metres below the departure lounge, her loyal little team opened a valve, and the precious fluid surged along a pipe out to the pedestal. A feeling of contentment strummed the air like background music as Kerachel began sucking in its food. Kiera could feel the hellhawk’s mood, it mellowed her own.

There were eighty-seven hellhawks based at Monterey now. A formidable flotilla by anyone’s standards. Securing them for herself had absorbed all her efforts over the last few days. Now it was time to start thinking ahead again. Her position here was actually a lot stronger than it had been at Valisk. If the habitat was a fiefdom, then New California was a kingdom in comparison. One which Capone appeared singularly inept at maintaining. The main reason she’d established herself so easily in the docking ledges was the apathy spreading through Monterey. Nobody thought to question her.

That simply wouldn’t do. In building his Organization, Capone had grasped an instinctive truth. People, possessed or otherwise, needed structure and order in their lives. It was one of the reasons they fell into line so easily, familiarity was a welcome comrade. Give them the kind of nirvana which existed (though she had strong suspicions about that) in the realm where planets shifted to, and the population would sink into a wretched, lotus-eating state. The Siamese twin of unending indulgent leisure. If she was honest to herself, she was terrified of the immortality she’d been given. Life would change beyond comprehension, and that was going to be very hard indeed. For an adaptation of that magnitude, she would no longer be herself.

And that, I will not permit.

She enjoyed what she was and what she’d got, the drives and needs. Like this, at least she remained recognizably human. That identity was worth preserving. Worth fighting for.

Capone wouldn’t do it. He was weak, controlled by that ingenious trollop Jezzibella, by a non-possessed.

In the Organization, a method of enforcing control over an entire planetary population had been perfected. If she was in charge, it could be used to implement her policies. The possessed would learn to live with their phobia of open skies. In return they would have the normal human existence they craved. There would be no dangerous metamorphosis into an alien state of being. She would remain whole. Herself.

A twitch of motion broke her contemplation. Someone was walking along the docking ledge, someone in a bulky orange and white spacesuit with a globular helmet. Compared to modern SSI suits, the thing was ridiculously old-fashioned. The only reason for wearing one was if you didn’t have neural nanonics.

“Are there any engineering crews on the ledge?” Kiera asked. She couldn’t see any hellhawks receiving maintenance right now.

“A couple,” Hudson Proctor answered. “The Foica is being loaded with combat wasps, and Varrad ’s main fusion generator needs work on its heat dump panels.”

“Oh. Where . . .”

“Kiera.” Hudson held up the handset in trepidation. “Capone’s calling all his senior lieutenants. It’s an invite to some kind of glam party this evening.”

“Really?” She gave the spacesuited figure one last glance. “And I haven’t a thing to wear. But if our Great and Glorious Leader has summoned me, I’d better not disappoint him.”

Back on Koblat, they called these spacesuits ballcrushers. Jed had worn one before for an emergency evacuation drill, and now he was remembering why. Putting it on was easy enough; when they got it out of the locker it was a flaccid sack three times too large for his frame. He’d wriggled into it, standing with arms outstretched and legs apart so the baggy fabric could hang unobstructed off each limb. Then Beth had activated the wristpad control, and the fabric contracted like an all-over tourniquet. Now every part of his body was being squeezed tight. It was the same principle as an SII suit, preventing any loose bubbles of air becoming trapped between his skin and the suit. If a suit contained any sort of gas, it would inflate like a rigid balloon as soon as he stepped out into a vacuum.

This way, he could move about almost unrestricted. Providing he ignored the sharp pincer sensation besetting his crotch at every motion. Not an entirely easy thing to disregard.

But apart from that, the suit was functioning smoothly. He wished his heart would do the same. According to the hazy purple icons projected onto the inside of his helmet, the suit’s integral thermal shunt strips were conducting away a lot of heat. Nerves and an adrenaline high were making the blood pound away in his arteries. His tension wasn’t helped by the rank of huge hellhawks he was walking along. He knew they could sense his thoughts and all the guilt cluttering up his skull, which made the torment even worse. A bad case of feedback. Bubbles of plastic and dark metal clung to the underbellies of the bitek starships like mechanical excrescences. Weapons and sensors. He was sure every one of them was tracking him.

“Jed, you’re getting worse,” Rocio told him.

“How can you tell?”

“Why are you whispering? You are using a legitimate spacesuit radio frequency. If the Organization is monitoring this, which I doubt, they still have to decrypt the signal, which I also doubt their ability to do. As far as they are concerned you are just one of Kiera’s people, while she will think you belong to the Organization. That’s the beauty of this in-fighting, nobody knows what anyone else is doing around here.”

“Sorry,” Jed said contritely into the helmet mike.

“I’m monitoring your body functions, and your heartrate is still climbing.”

That brought a shudder which rippled up from Jed’s legs to make his chest quiver. “Oh Jeeze. I’ll come back.”

“No no, you’re doing fine. Only another three hundred metres to the airlock.”

“But the hellhawks are going to know!”

“Only if you don’t take precautions. I think it’s time we used a little chemical help here.”

“I didn’t bring any. We weren’t supposed to need that in Valisk.”

“I don’t mean your underclass narcotics. The suit medical module will provide what you need.”

Jed hadn’t even known the suit had any medical modules. Following Rocio’s instructions, he tapped out a series of orders on the wristpad. The air in the helmet changed slightly, becoming cooler, and smelling of mint. For such a small suffusion, its effect was swift. The cold massaged its way in through Jed’s muscles, bringing a nearly-orgasmic sigh from his throat. It was a hit stronger than anything he’d ever scored in Koblat. His mind was being methodically purged of fright by this balmy tide of wellbeing. He held up his arms, expecting to see all his anxiety streaming out of his fingertips like liquid light.

“Not bad,” he declared.

“How much did you infuse?” Rocio asked.

The hellhawk’s voice came across as brittle and irritating. “What you said,” Jed retorted in a fashion which demonstrated quite plainly who was occupying the lead role. A couple of the physiology icons were flashing a rather pleasing pink in front of him. Like pretty little flower buds opening, he thought.

“All right, Jed, let’s keep going, shall we?”

“Sure thing, mate.”

He started walking forwards again. Even the twinge in his groin was less of an issue now. That medical suffusion was good shit. The hellhawks had stopped radiating their intimidation. With his mind chilling he started to see them in a different context; grounded on their pedestals, sucking desperately at their drink. Not so much different to himself and the girls. He acquired a more confident stride as he passed the last two.

Rocio’s voice started issuing directions again, guiding him in towards the airlock. Tall spires of machinery ran up the rock cliff at the back of the ledge, sprouting pipes in a crazed dendritic formation. Several small fountains of thin vapour were jetting out horizontally from junctions and micrometeorite punctures; their presence a testament to Monterey’s floundering maintenance programme. Windows were set into the drab, sheered rock; long panoramic rectangles fronting departure lounges and engineering management offices. All but two were dark, reflecting weak outlines of the floodlit hellhawks. The remaining pair revealed nothing but vague shadows moving behind their frosted anti-glare shielding.

Maintenance vehicles, cargo trucks, and crew buses had been left scattered along the base of the cliff. Jed made his way through the maze they formed, thankful of the cover. The airlocks waited for him beyond, unlit tunnels leading into the asteroid. Conduits that would take him directly to the nest of the most feared possessed in the Confederation. His trepidation rose again as he approached them. He stopped on the threshold of a personnel airlock, and used the wristpad again.

“Careful how much of that trauma suppresser you inhale,” Rocio said lightly. “It’s strong stuff, they designed it to keep you functional after an accident.”

“No worries,” Jed said earnestly. “I can handle it.”

“Very well. There’s no one in the area immediately behind the airlock. Time to go in.”

“Jed?” Beth’s voice sounded loud and high in his helmet. “Jed, can you hear me?”

“Sure, doll.”

“Okay. We’re watching the screens, too. Rocio is relaying images from the cameras inside, so we’ll look out for you, mate. And he’s right about the medical module, go easy on it, huh? I want to share some of that suffusion with you when you get back.”

Even in his tranquil state, Jed interpreted that right. He went into the airlock feeling majestic.

He took his helmet off, and took a breath of neutral air. It helped to clear his head a bit, not so much euphoria, but none of the fright, either. Good enough. Rocio gave him a whole string of directions to follow, and he started off cautiously down the corridor.

The store room for crew supplies wasn’t far from the airlock, naturally enough. Rocio had been keeping a careful watch on things, seeing what happened when other hellhawks came to dock. Several of his bitek comrades still had crew on board. The combat wasps they carried required activation codes, and following standard security procedures, Kiera and Capone had split the codes between loyalists. No one person could fire them. It was a significant point that she hadn’t asked Rocio to carry any.

Jed found the door Rocio nominated, and pulled back the clamps. Cold air breezed out, turning his breath to foggy streamers. Inside, the room was split into aisles by long free-standing shelves. Despite the Organization’s claim that normalizing food production on New California was a priority, there weren’t many packs left. Processing food for the space industry was a specialist business; ideally, everything had to be crumbs-free, taste-strengthened, and packaged in minimum volume. Leroy Octavius had decided that restarting the kitchen facilities of the relevant companies wasn’t cost effective. Consequently, fleet crews had been making do with old stocks and standard pre-packed meals.

“What’s there?” Beth asked impatiently. There were no cameras actually in the store room, Rocio had to go on what he’d seen being taken in and out.

Jed walked down the aisles, brushing the frost dust off various labels. “Plenty,” he muttered. Providing you liked yoghurt, mint potatocakes, cheese and tomato flans (dehydrated in sachets that looked like fat biscuits), blackcurrant and apple mousse concentrate; complemented with hot-frozen cubes of broccoli, spinach, carrot, and sprouts.

“Oh bugger.”

“What’s the matter?” Rocio asked.

“Nothing. The boxes are heavy, that’s all. We’re going to have a real party when I get this lot back to the ship.”

“Are there any chocolate oranges?” Gari piped up.

“I’ll have a look, sweetheart,” Jed lied. He went back out into the corridor to fetch a trolley which had been abandoned just along from the store room. It ought to fit through the airlock, which meant he could use that to transport everything back to the Mindori . Then they’d all have to be carried up the stairs to the life support module’s airlock. It was going to be a long hard day.

“Somebody coming,” Rocio announced after Jed had got a dozen boxes out of the store room and onto the trolley.

Jed stopped dead, hugging a box of compressed rye chips. “Who?” he hissed.

“Not sure. Camera image isn’t too good. Small guy.”

“Where is he?” Jed dropped the box, wincing at the sound.

“A hundred metres away. But heading your way.”

“Oh Jeeze. Is he possessed?”


Jed shot across the storage room and closed the door. Nothing he could do about the damning trolley outside, though. His heart began yammering as he flattened himself against the wall beside the door—as if that made a difference.

“Still coming,” Rocio announced calmly. “Seventy metres now.”

Jed’s hand crept down to the utility pocket on his hip. Fingers flicked the seal catch, and he dug inside. His hand closed around the cold, reassuring grip of the laser pistol.

“Thirty metres. He’s coming to the junction with your corridor.”

Don’t look at the bloody trolley, Jed prayed. Christ, please don’t.

He drew the laser pistol out, and studied the simple controls for a second. Switched modes to constant beam, full power. Repeater was no good, a possessed would be able to screw with the electrics inside while he was shooting. He was only going to have one chance.

“He’s in the corridor. I think he’s seen the trolley. Stopping just outside.”

Jed closed his eyes, shaking badly. A possessed would be able to sense his thoughts. They would all be hauled off to face Capone. He would be tortured and Beth would get sent to the brothel.

I should have left the door open, that way I could have sprung out and surprised them.

“Hello?” a voice called. It was very high pitched, almost a girl.

“Is that them?” he whispered to his suit mike.

“Yes. He’s examined the trolley. Now by the door.”

The locking clamp moved, slowly hinging back. Jed stared at it in dread, desperate for one last hit from the suit’s medical module.

If the laser doesn’t work, I’ll kill myself, he decided. Better that . . .

“Hello?” the high voice sounded timid. “Is someone there?”

The door started to open.


Jed shouted in fury, and jumped from the wall. Holding the laser pistol in a double handed grip, he spun round and fired out into the corridor. Webster Pryor was saved by two things: his own diminutive height, and Jed’s quite abysmal aim.

The red strand of laserlight was quite brilliant compared to the corridor lighting. It left Jed squinting against the glare, trying to see what he was shooting at. Blue-white flames and black smoke were squirting out of the corridor wall opposite, tracing a meandering line in the composite. Then the smoke stopped, and a spray of molten metal rained down. He was slicing through a conditioning duct.

He did—just—see a small man dive to the floor at his feet as the laser slashed round in search of a target. There was a yell of panic, and someone was screaming: “Don’t shoot me don’t shoot me!” in a high pitched voice.

Jed yelled himself. Confused all to hell what was happening. Tentatively, he took his finger off the laser’s trigger. Metal creaked alarmingly as the duct sagged around the dripping gap in its side. He looked down at the figure in the white jacket and black trousers grovelling on the floor. “What in Christ’s name is going on? Who are you?”

A terrified face was looking up at him. It wasn’t a bloke, just a kid. “Please don’t kill me,” Webster pleaded. “Please. I don’t want to be one of them. They’re horrible.”

“What’s happening?” Rocio asked.

“Not sure,” Jed mumbled. He took a look down the corridor. All clear.

“Was that a laser?”

“Yeah.” He aimed it down at Webster. “Are you possessed?”

“No. Are you?”

“Course bloody not.”

“Well I didn’t know,” Webster wailed.

“How did you get a weapon?” Rocio asked.

“Shut up! Jeeze, give me a break. I just got one, okay?”

Webster was frowning through his tears. “What?”

“Nothing.” Jed hesitated, then put the laser pistol back in his utility pocket. The kid looked harmless; though the waiter’s jacket with its brass buttons which he wore, along with his oil-slicked hair, was a little odd. But he was more scared than anything else. “Who are you?”

The story came out in broken sentences, punctuated by sobs. How Webster and his mother had been caught up in Capone’s take-over. How they’d been held in one of the asteroid’s halls with hundreds of other women and children. How some Organization woman came searching them out from the rest. How he’d been separated from his mother and put to work serving drinks and food for the gangster bosses and a peculiar, very pretty, lady. How he kept hearing Capone and the lady mention his father’s name, and then glance in his direction.

“What are you doing down here?” Jed asked.

“They sent me for some food,” Webster said. “The cook told me to find out if there were any swans left in storage.”

“This is the spacecraft section,” Jed said. “Didn’t you know?”

Webster sniffled loudly. “Yes. But if I look everywhere, I could stay away from them for a while.”

“Right.” He straightened, and found one of the small camera lenses. “What do we do?” he asked, flustered by the boy’s tale.

“Get rid of him,” Rocio said curtly.

“What do you mean?”

“He’s a complication. You’ve got the laser pistol, haven’t you?”

Webster was looking up at him passively, eyes red-rimmed from the tears. All mournful and beat; the way not so long ago Jed had looked at Digger when the pain was at its worst.

“I can’t do that!” Jed exclaimed.

“What do you need, a note from your mother? Listen to me, Jed, the second he steps within range of a possessed, they’ll know something’s happened to him. Then they’ll come looking for you. They’ll get you, and Beth, and the girls.”

“No way. I can’t. I just can’t. Not even if I wanted to.”

“So what are you going to do instead?”

“I don’t know! Beth? Beth, have you been switched on to all this?”

“Yes, Jed,” she replied. “You’re not to touch that boy. We’ve got plenty of food, now, so bring him back with you. He can come with us.”

“Really?” Rocio enquired disdainfully. “And where’s his spacesuit? How’s he supposed to get out to me?”

Jed looked at Webster, thoroughly disconcerted. This whole situation was just getting worse and worse. “For Christ’s sake, just get me out of this.”

“Stop being an arsehole,” Beth snapped. “It’s bloody obvious, you’ll have to steal one of the vehicles. There’s plenty of them about. I can see some of them docked to the airlocks close to where you went in. Take one and drive it over to us.”

Jed wanted to curl up into a ball and take a decent hit. A vehicle! In full view of this whole nest of possessed.

“Please Jed, come back,” Gari entreated. “I don’t like it here without you.”

“All right, doll,” he said, too bushed to kick up an argument. “On my way.” He rounded on Webster. “And you’d better not be any trouble.”

“You’re going to take me away?” the boy asked in wonder.

“Sort of, yeah.”

Jed didn’t bother about collecting any more food from the shelves. He just started pushing the trolley, making sure Webster was in sight the whole time.

Rocio reviewed the camera images and schematic data available to him, and quickly devised a route to one of the docking ledge vehicles. It meant the two of them taking a lift up to the lounge level, which he didn’t like. But previewing enabled him to hurry them past the sections where crews were still working without incident.

The vehicle he’d chosen for them was a small taxi with a five-seater cab. Large enough to take the trolley, and simple enough for Jed to drive. He was back at the Mindori three minutes after disengaging from the airlock. It actually took him longer than that to match the taxi’s docking tube with the starship’s life support module hatch. Once the tube was locked and pressurized, Beth, Gari, and Navar came rushing in to greet the returning hero. Beth put her hands on either side of his face and gave him a long kiss. “I’m proud of you,” she said.

That wasn’t something she’d ever told him before, and she didn’t hand out platitudes, either. Of course, today had been full of not merely the unusual, but the positively weird. However, the words left him warm and uncertain. The moment was only slightly spoilt when the two younger girls started reading labels and found out what he’d brought back.

It had taken the Monterey Hilton’s head chef over three hours to prepare the meal. A dozen or so senior lieutenants and their partners had been invited to an evening with Al and Jezzibella. Pasta with a sauce that was at least as good as they used to make on Earth (supervised by Al), swan stuffed with fish, fresh vegetables boosted up from the planet that afternoon, desserts heavy on chocolate and calories, matured cheeses, the finest wines New California could produce, the fanciest liqueurs. As well as the food, there was a five-piece band, and some showgirls for later. Guests would also receive items of twenty-four carat jewellery (genuine, not energistic baubles), personally selected by Al himself. The evening was intended to be memorable. Nobody left Al Capone’s party without a smile on their face. His reputation as a wild and exuberant host had to be preserved, after all.

What Al didn’t know was that Leroy had to be taken off Organization administration duties in order to make the arrangements. He’d spent over an hour calling senior Organization personnel to facilitate the ingredients and people necessary to make the party work. That bothered the obese manager. The picture he and Emmet were getting from various lieutenants and city bosses down on the surface was a smooth one, things falling neatly into place, people doing as they were told. But not so long ago, when the fleet left for Arnstat, Leroy had put together a grand ball in under a week. A time when the planet and high-orbit asteroids had fought for the privilege of supplying Al with the best of anything they had. This party was a fraction of that scale and a multiple of the effort.

However, despite the grudging donations, the Nixon suite’s dining room was an impressive and dramatic example of lavishness when Leroy finally arrived, immaculate tuxedo straining around his huge frame. One of the more lissom girls from the brothel was on his arm; the pair of them a gross example of human glandular divergence. Heads turned to look at him when they arrived together. Silent calculations were quickly performed when a smiling Al greeted them, and handed the girl a diamond necklace which even her cleavage couldn’t devour. No snide remarks were ventured, though the mind-tones said it all.

Monterey was out of the umbra again, heading into the light. Outside the broad window, New California’s green and blue crescent gleamed warmly. It was a sumptuous atmosphere for the pre-dinner drinks, and the atmosphere was suitably relaxed. Waiters circulated with gold and silver trays of canapйs, making sure no glass was ever in danger of heading towards half empty. Conversation flowed, and Al circulated with grace, showing no favouritism.

His mood didn’t even falter when Kiera showed up an easy fifteen minutes after everyone else. She wore a provocatively simple sleeveless summer dress of some thin mauve fabric, cut to emphasise her figure. On a girl of her body’s age it would have been charmingly guileless, on her it was a declaration of all-out fashion war against the other females in the room. Only Jezzibella in the ever-classic little black cocktail number looked snazzier. And by the bright cherub’s smile she used to welcome Kiera, she knew it.

“Al, darling,” Kiera’s smile was wide and sweltering as she kissed Al’s cheek. “Great party, thanks for the invite.”

For a second, Al worried her teeth might be going for his jugular. Her thoughts bristled with an icy superiority. “Wouldn’t be the same without you,” he told her. Jeeze, and to think he’d once considered her a possible lay. His wang would get so cold inside her, it’d snap clean off.

The notion made him shiver. He beckoned to one of the waiters. The guy must have been in his nineties, one of those dignified old coots that were perfect as butlers. Young Webster should have been doing this job, Al thought, it would have made for a cuter image. But he hadn’t seen the boy all evening. The old man wobbled forwards obediently, carrying a tray of black velvet with a shimmering sapphire cobweb necklace resting on it.

“For me?” Kiera simpered. “Oh, how lovely.”

Al took the necklace off the tray and slowly fastened it round her neck, ignoring her lecherous smirk at his proximity.

“It’s so nice to see you here,” Jezzibella said, clinging to Al’s arm. “We weren’t sure if you could spare the time.”

“I’ve always got time for Al.”

“That’s nice to hear. Keeping the hellhawks in line must take up a big part of your day.”

“I don’t have any trouble coping. They know I’m in charge of them.”

“Yeah, you got some interesting moves, there,” Al said. “Emmet was full of praise for what you did. Said it was smart. Coming from him, that’s quite a compliment. I’ll have to remember them in case I’m ever in a similar situation.”

Kiera removed a champagne saucer from one of the waiters, her gaze searched the room like a targeting laser until she found Emmet. “You won’t be in a similar situation, Al. I’m covering that flank for you. Very thoroughly.”

Jezzibella morphed into her hero-worshipping early-teens persona. “Covering for Al?” her high girlish voice piped.

“Yes. Who else?”

“Come on, Jez,” Al grinned in mock-rebuke. “There ain’t no one else in the market for hellhawks, you know that.”

“I do.” Jezzibella looked up adoringly at him, and sighed.

“And without me, there’s no reason for New California to keep supporting them,” Al said.

Kiera’s attention moved back from Emmet. “Believe me, I’m very aware of everyone’s position. And their worth.”

“That’s nice,” Jezzibella said blandly.

“Enjoy your drink, babe,” Al said, and patted Kiera’s arm. “I got a small announcement to make before we sit down to eat.” He marched over to Emmet, and signalled the head waiter to bang a gong. The room fell silent, people picking up on the focused excitement in Al’s mind. “This ain’t the usual kind of speech to make at table. I ain’t got no stag jokes, for a start.”

Faithful smiles switched on all around. Al took another sip of champagne—damn, but he wanted a shot of decent bourbon. “All right, I ain’t gonna bullshit around with you. We got problems with the fleet, on account of it ain’t got nowhere to go. You know how it is, we gotta keep momentum going or the boys’ll go sour on us. That right, Silvano?”

The brooding lieutenant nodded scrupulously. “Some of the guys are getting close to the boil, sure, Al. Nothing we can’t keep a lid on.”

“I don’t wanna keep no fucking lid on nothing. We gotta give the bastards something to do while we build up stocks of antimatter. We can’t take over no planet again, not for a while. So we’re gonna hit the Confederation from another angle. That’s what I got for you, something new. This way we cause them one fuck of a lot of damage, and don’t get hurt ourselves. And we got Emmet here to thank for that.” He put his arm round the Organization’s reluctant technology expert, and gave him a friendly hug. “We’re gonna launch some raids on other planets, and break through their space fort defences. Once we’ve done that, we can sling a whole load of our guys down to the surface. Tell them, Emmet.”

“I’ve done some preliminary designs for one-man atmospheric entry pods,” Emmet said in a tense voice. “They’re based on standard escape boats, but they can descend in under fifteen minutes. That’s high gees for whoever’s inside, but with our energistic strength it shouldn’t be a problem. And they’re simple enough, that we shouldn’t screw up the guidance electronics. All the fleet has to do is create a window in the SD coverage long enough for them to get down. Once they’re on the ground, the good old exponential curve comes into play.”

“Without the fleet firepower to back them up, they’ll lose,” Dwight said bluntly. “The local cops will wipe them out.”

“It depends on how together the planet is, and how many soldiers we can shove down there,” Al said, untroubled. “Emmet’s right about how fast we can expand. That’s gonna cause the governments a shitload of grief.”

“But, Al, the Organization can’t expand as fast as ordinary possessed. We’ve got to have time to let Harwood and his guys vet the souls that’re coming back. Christ, we’ve had enough trouble with loyalty on New California, let alone Arnstat. If we don’t have committed lieutenants, the Organization’ll fall apart.”

“Who gives a shit?” Al laughed round at the startled expressions. “Come on, you guys! Just how many goddamn planets do you think we can run? Even the King of Kulu’s only got half a dozen. If I gave all you dopeheads one apiece to be emperor of, that still leaves hundreds of free ones left out there to screw with us. We gotta start levelling the odds, here. I say shoot possessed down to the surface and let the fuckers run loose. We can use all our hotheads from here, all the crap artists who wanna take New California out of the universe, send them, get rid of the assholes permanently. That way we’re solving two problems at once. Fewer traitors here, and planets dropping out of the Confederation. You retards grabbed what that’ll mean yet? It means less hassle for us. Every planet we hit is gonna scream to the navy for the same kinda help Mortonridge is getting. That’ll cost them plenty to provide. Money they can’t spend dicking with us.” He looked round the room, knowing he’d won them over. Again. His face reddened with the heat of victory, three tiny white lines proud on his cheek. That reluctant admiration he’d kindled in them proving he was the man with the plan, and the balls to see it through.

Al raised his glass high in triumph. And it was like a room full of krauts doing their knee-jerk fascist salute as the others held their own glasses up, fast. Jezzibella winked impishly at him from behind the back row, while Kiera’s face was drawn as she considered the implications.

“A toast. Goodbye to that goddamn pain in the ass Confederation.”

The Mindori ’s distortion field expanded outwards in a specific pattern of swirls, generating ripples in the fabric of space-time. They pushed against the hull, lifting it from the pedestal in a simple, smooth motion. Inside the large forward lounge, none of the six passengers noticed even a quiver in the apparent gravity field. They’d just finished their meal of mashed turkey granules, which was the only meat product Beth could hammer into a burger shape. Jed was ignoring the sullen stares that were getting flashed his way. Turkey wasn’t so bad after it had been grilled.

Gerald Skibbow looked up at the lounge’s big screen as the edge of the docking ledge slipped towards them. “Where are we going?” he asked.

Webster twitched in surprise, it was the first time he’d heard Gerald speak. The others stared at him, slightly nervous of what would follow. Even now, after all this time, he was still nutty Gerald to them. Rocio had privately confided to Jed and Beth he couldn’t make any sense of Gerald’s thoughts at all.

A small picture of Rocio’s face appeared in one corner of the screen. “I’ve been given a patrol flight vector,” he said. “It’s not a very demanding one, we’ll never be more than three million kilometres from New California. I suspect it’s a trial to see if I do as I’m told. I have just filled my reserve bladders with nutrient fluid, if I was going to leave, now would be an obvious time.”

“Are you going to?” Beth asked.

“No. The only place to go is the Edenist habitats and the Confederation. The price for their sanctuary would be cooperating with their physicists. And that would ultimately lead to the defeat of the possessed. I told you before, I need to find other options.”

“I don’t want to leave Monterey,” Gerald said. The screen was now showing the asteroid’s counter-rotating spaceport receding at a considerable speed. “Please go back and let me disembark.”

“Can’t do that, Gerald, mate,” Beth said. “Them possessed, they’d spot you inside Monterey in a flash. Give the whole game away. We’d all wind up like Marie, that way, and they’d punish Rocio, too.”

“I will assist you with Kiera in whatever way I can,” Rocio said. “But first, I must establish myself as one of her servile flock.”

Beth reached over and gripped Gerald’s arm. “We can wait that long, eh?”

Gerald considered her words; although he was sure his thoughts were taking longer to form these days. There was a time when he could give an instant reply to any topic or question. That Gerald existed only in his mind now, a memory that was hard to find and difficult to see. “All right,” he said. It was a tough concession to make. To have been so close to her. Just a few hundred metres. And now having to leave, to abandon her. It would probably be days until they could return. Days darling Marie would have to spend enduring the torment of that terrible woman’s control. The notions of what she would get up to with her captive flesh were horrible. Marie was a lovely little girl, so pretty. Always had lots of boyfriends, which he’d tried not to get upset and protective over. Back on Lalonde, sex seemed the only thing the possessed were interested in. And like every father since the dawn of civilization, Marie’s sexuality was the one thing Gerald never dared dwell upon.

It would be that, he admitted in his dark heart. Night after night, Kiera would allow some man to run his hands over her. Would laugh and groan at the abuse. Would demand hot physical violations. Bodies writhing together in the darkness. Beautiful, strong bodies. Gerald whimpered softly.

“You okay?” Beth asked. Beside her, Jed was frowning.

“Fine,” Gerald whispered. His hands were rubbing his perspiring forehead, trying to massage the pain inside. “I just want to help her. And if I could just get to her, I know I could. Loren said so, you see.”

“We’ll be back there in no time, okay, no worries.”

He nodded lamely, returning to pick at the food they’d given him. He had to get to Marie soon. He was sorry about everyone else’s predicament, but what Marie was suffering was unspeakable. Next time they landed at Monterey, he decided, it would be different. No details, but definitely different.

Rocio was aware of Gerald’s ardent, fractured anxiety sinking back under calmer emotions. That man’s mind was a complete enigma. Not that Rocio actually wanted to be privy to such tortured thoughts. Shame that he couldn’t convince Beth and Jed to stay on board by themselves. This entourage of people were making his position more complicated. Ideally, he’d like to winnow the numbers down again.

Now that he was clear of the asteroid, he began to accelerate. Modifying the distortion field to generate ever-more powerful ripples in space-time. He surfed them at seven gees, a secondary manipulation alleviating the force around the life support section. As the sense of freedom rose in tandem with his speed, he allowed his dreamform to blossom. Dark wings slowly spread wide, sweeping eagerly, sending motes of interplanetary dust swirling in his wake. He shook his neck, blinking huge red eyes, flexing his talons. In this state, he was perfectly at one with himself and life. It reaffirmed the conviction that Kiera’s hold over himself and his comrades must be broken.

He began talking to the other hellhawks, probing for emotional nuances. Building a pattern of those who thought as he did. Of the seventy currently in the New California system, he thought there were possibly nineteen he could count on for open support, another ten would probably side with him if things looked favourable. Several were playing it very coy, while eight or nine, led by Etchells and Cameron Leung, revelled in the prospect of following the Organization fleet into glory. Good enough odds.

Eight hours into his patrol, Hudson Proctor delivered new instructions. There’s an interplanetary ship decelerating towards New California,kiera’s lieutenant said. Coming straight in along the south pole, one and a half million kilometres out. We think it’s come from the Almaden asteroid. Can you sense it?

Rocio expanded his distortion field, probing where Proctor indicated. The ship slithered into his perception as a tight kink of mass, alive with energy.

Got it,he acknowledged.

Intercept them, and order them to return.

Are they hostile?

I doubt it. Probably just another bunch of idiots who think they can live where they want instead of where the Organization tells them.

Understood. And if they don’t want to return?

Blow them to shit. Any questions?


Rocio changed the distortion field again, concentrating it on a small area just ahead of his beak. Power surged through his patterning cells, and the stress he was applying leapt towards infinite. A wormhole interstice opened, and he shot through, emerging from the terminus less than two seconds later. It folded neatly behind his tailfeathers, returning local space-time to its usual consonance.

The interplanetary ship was three kilometres away, a long silk-grey splinter of metal and composite. Standard configuration of barrel-shaped life support module separated from the drive section by a lattice tower. It was decelerating at two thirds of a gee, blue-white fusion flame spearing cleanly from its exhaust. Rocio was also aware of another wormhole terminus opening five thousand kilometres away. A hellhawk slid out, deflating its distortion field immediately, and drifting inert. He resisted the temptation to hail it. Shadowing him in such a fashion to monitor his conduct was very unsubtle.

A radar pulse triggered the ship’s transponder: according to the code it was called the Lucky Logorn . Rocio matched velocities with it, and opened a short-range channel. “This is the Organization ship Mindori ,” he told them. “You’re approaching New California’s Strategic Defence network without clearance. Please identify yourself.”

“This is Deebank, I guess I’m the captain around here. We haven’t been advertising our presence in case we attracted those goddamn voidhawks. Sorry about that, didn’t mean to give you a scare. We’d like clearance to rendezvous with a low orbit station.”

“Clearance refused. Return to your asteroid.”

“Now just a goddamn minute, we’re loyal members of the Organization here. What gives you the right to order us about?”

Rocio activated a maser cannon on his lower hull, and targeted one of the thermo-dump panels plumbed into Lucky Logorn ’s equipment bay. “One. I’m not ordering you, I’m relaying an instruction from the Organization. Two.” He fired.

The blast of coherent maser radiation thumped a half-metre hole into the middle of the thermo-dump panel. Fluorescent orange shards spun away, their glimmer slowly fading to black.

“Fuck you,” Deebank shouted. “You bastards can’t keep us out here forever.”

“Realign your drive. Now. My second shot will be through your fusion tube. You’ll be left drifting out here. The only thing you’ll have to occupy yourselves with is a sweepstake. Is your food going to run out first? Or will it be the air? Then again, a voidhawk might pick you up, and you get used as research lab beasts by the Confederation.”

“You piece of shit.”

“I’m waiting.” Rocio slid closer, picking up the resentment and anger boiling through the eight people in the life support section. There was bitter resignation in there, too.

Sure enough, the fusion drive plume twitched round, sending Lucky Logorn on a shallow arc which would ultimately see it heading back to Almaden. Cancelling so much delta-V was a long, energy expensive business. It would take them hours.

“We’re going to remember you,” Deebank promised. “Time will come when you need to join us. Don’t expect it to be easy.”

“Join you where?” Rocio asked, genuinely curious.

“On a planet, dick-for-brains.”

“Is that what this was all about? Your fear of space?”

“What the hell did you think we were doing? Invading?”

“I wasn’t told.”

“Okay. So now you understand, will you let us through?”

“I can’t.”


Rocio played for the sympathy angle, marshalling his thoughts into contrite concern. “I mean it. There’s another hellhawk shadowing me, making sure I do what I’m told. They’re not certain about my commitment to the cause, you see.”

“Hear that splashing sound? That’s my heart bleeding.”

“Why doesn’t the Organization want you on New California?”

“Because they need the products Almaden makes in its industrial stations. The asteroid has plenty of astroengineering companies who specialise in weapons systems. And we’re the poor saps who have to terrorise non-possessed technicians into keeping them running. You got any idea what that’s like? It’s a crock of shit. I was a soldier when I was alive, I used to fight the kind of fascists who enslaved people like this. I’m telling you, it ain’t right. It ain’t what I was brought up to do. None of this is.”

“Then why stay in the Organization?”

“If you ain’t for Capone, you’re against him. That’s the way it works. He’s been real smart the way he’s set things up. Those lieutenants of his will do anything to keep their position. They put the screws on us, and we have to put the screws on the non-possessed. If there’s any trouble, if we start to object, or get uppity, they just call on the fleet for back up. Don’t they? You’re the enforcers, you make it all hang together for him.”

“We have our own enforcer, she’s called Kiera.”

“The Deadnight babe? No shit? I wouldn’t mind submitting my poor body to some enforcement by her.” Laughter rumbled across the gap between the ships.

“You wouldn’t say that if you’d ever met her.”

“Tough bitch, huh?”

“The worst.”

“You don’t sound too happy about that.”

“You and I are in the same situation.”

“Yeah? So listen, maybe we can come to some kind of arrangement? I mean, if we have to go back to Almaden, the lieutenants are going to make us eat shit for pulling this stunt. Why don’t you take us back to New California, let us off at a low orbit station, or if you’ve got a spaceplane we could use that. If we get down there to the surface, we stay. Believe me. There’d be no comeback.”

“Fine for you.”

“We’ll get you a body. A human one, the very best there is. There’s millions of non-possessed left on the planet; we’ll get one ready for possession and hold it for you. This way you get down there without any of the risk we’ll be going through. Listen, you can sense I’m telling the truth. Right?”

“Yes. But it doesn’t interest me.”

“What? Why not? Come on! It’s the greatest deal in town.”

“Not for me. You people really hate this empty universe, don’t you?”

“Oh, like you don’t? You were in the beyond. You can hear the beyond. It’s always there, just one step away on the other side from night. We have to get away from that.”

“I don’t.”


“But I don’t. Really. Certainly I can still hear the lost souls, but it’s not as if they can touch me. All they are is a reminder of that nothingness. They’re not a threat themselves. Fear is the only thing that drives you to escape. I’ve got over that. Mindori belongs here in the emptiness, this is its perfect milieu. Having this construct as my host has taught me not to be afraid. Perhaps it should be you who try and find blackhawk and voidhawk bodies? Can you imagine that? It would solve everyone’s problem, without all this conflict and violence. If after you die, you were to be given a voidhawk body to possess. Enough could be grown for the lost souls, I’m sure of it, given time and commitment. Then ultimately, space would become filled with billions of us, the entire human race transformed into dark angels flitting between the stars.”

“Hey, pal, know what? Possessing that monster didn’t cure you, it made you take a swan dive over the edge.”

“Perhaps. But which of us is content?”

“You got Kiera to worry about. Remember? How come you don’t flap off into the sunset?”

“As you say, Kiera is a problem.”

“Right, so don’t come over all superior.”

“I wasn’t. Your offer to deal interests me. It may be possible to come to some arrangement. I have a notion, but it’ll take some time to check the requirements. Once you’re back on Almaden, I’ll look you up.”

Coming down to the gym in the Hilton’s basement always stirred Kiera’s darker animal feelings. She rather enjoyed her new role of laid back vamp, letting her eye wander over the young men being put through their paces by a gruff Malone. Their apprehension was pleasurable as they saw her watching, the nudges and worried glances. It wasn’t that she’d never had affairs back on New Munich, she’d taken several lovers during her marriage, both before and after her husband’s fall from grace. But they’d all been insipid, cautious encounters. Most of the thrill had come from the concept of having an affair, of cheating and not getting caught. The sex had never been anything special.

Now though, she was free to explore her sexuality to the full, with no one to disapprove or condemn. Part of her allure came from being a woman in power, she was a challenge to any male; the rest came from Marie Skibbow’s gorgeous body. It was the second factor which brought her down here to the non-possessed. Possessed lovers, like poor old Stanyon, were so artificial. Men inevitably gave themselves big penises, could stay erect all night, had Greek-god bodies. Strutting clichйs, that spoke volumes about their weaknesses and insecurities.

She much preferred the youngsters from the gym for the reality they provided. Unable to hide behind any mental or physical illusion, sex with them was raw and primitive. Dominating them in bed, without a single inhibition, was utterly delicious. And Marie herself had a surprising amount of knowledge which Kiera could extract and experiment with. Despised memories and skill gained during a long river journey spent capitulating to an old man called Len Buchannan. Enduring the nightly humiliation for one reason alone, the freedom which waited at the end of the river. The girl had a single minded determination which Kiera quite admired. It came close to her own. Even now, captive and tragic, inside her mental prison, Marie clung to the notion of deliverance.

But how? Kiera wondered lightly.

Somehow. One day.

Not with me in command of you.

Nothing lasts forever. As you know.

Kiera dismissed the impudent girl from her thoughts with a derisory mental sneer. Her gaze found a rather delicious nineteen-year-old hammering his fists into a long leather punch bag. The desperate aggression and sweating muscles were highly arousing. He knew she was standing behind him, but refused to turn. Hoping if he avoided eye contact she would pass by. She crooked a finger at Malone, who came over reluctantly.

“What’s his name?” she asked huskily.

“Jamie.” The squat trainer’s thoughts were full of contempt.

“Are you frightened of me, Jamie?”

He stopped punching, steadying the bag. Gentle grey eyes stared at her levelly. “You, no. What you can do, yeah.”

She applauded languidly. “Very good. Don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you.” She glanced down at Malone. “I’ll bring him back to you in the morning.”

Malone took his cap off, and spat on the floor. “Whatever you say, Kiera.”

She walked right up to Jamie, enjoying his discomfort at her proximity. “Oh dear, I’m not that bad am I?” she murmured.

He was a head taller than her. When he looked down, his eyes were drawn the rich tanned skin revealed by her mauve summer dress. Embarrassment warred with other, more subtle emotions. Kiera grinned in victory. At least something was going right tonight. Capone and his damn sedition plans! She took his big hand in hers, and began to lead him out of the gym like a giant puppy. Before she reached the double doors, they swung open. Luigi barged through, carrying a pile of towels. He caught sight of Kiera, and glared angrily. Commander of the fleet, now running trivial demeaning errands for the nonentity Malone. The resentment twisting him up was almost strong enough to manifest itself as pernicious violence; he was sure she was here simply to witness his humiliation first hand. The boss’s new favourite gloating over her ex-rival’s downfall.

“Luigi,” Kiera said brightly. “Fancy seeing you here. How wonderful.”

“Piss off, bitch.” He elbowed past her, scowling.

“After the towels, will you be going down on your knees to tie up their shoes?”

Luigi twisted in mid step, and marched back to her. He thrust his head forward so their noses were touching. “You’re a whore. A very cheap whore. With only one thing to sell. When the Organization has used up your hellhawks, you’ll be nothing. Best thing is, you know it’s coming. Your bullshit ice empress routine doesn’t fool anyone. This whole damn asteroid is laughing at you.”

“Of course it’s coming,” she said serenely. “But they wouldn’t be used up if the fleet was commanded properly.”

Confusion marred his face and his thoughts. “What?”

That uncertainty was enough for Kiera. She patted Jamie’s heavily muscled forearm. “Why don’t you take those heavy towels from Luigi, darling. It looks like I won’t be needing you tonight, after all.”

Jamie peered over the pile of towels unexpectedly dumped in his arms, watching the doors close behind Kiera and Luigi. “I don’t get it,” he complained. Part of him had actually been quite looking forward to the sex, despite what the others kept saying about the Deadnight witch.

Malone patted the big lad’s shoulder in a paternal fashion. “Don’t worry about it, my boy. You’re well off out of that kind of scene.”

Given Dr Pierce Gilmore’s senior position within the CNIS’s scientific staff, weapons analysis division, it was inevitable that a large part of his nature tended towards the bureaucratic. Precise and methodical in his work, he believed strongly in following sanctioned procedures to the letter during his investigations. Such adherence to protocol was something of a joke among his department’s junior staff, who accused him of inflexibility and lack of imagination. He endured their behind-his-back humour stoically, while politely and consistently refusing to take short cuts and play up to wild hunches. To his credit, it was exactly the kind of leadership the weapons division needed. Eternal patience is a prime requisite in the dismantling of unknown weapons that have been designed illegally (mostly under government patronage) and tend to incorporate elements that actively discourage close examination. In the seven years he’d held his post, the division’s safety record was exemplary.

Also to his credit, he didn’t indulge in the usual internal empire building so beloved of government employees, especially those who, like him, were essentially unaccountable. As a result, his office was a modest one, roughly equivalent to the entitlement of a middle manager in some multistellar company. There were few personal items, some ornaments and desktop solid images; a shelf of Stanhopea orchids flourishing under a slim solaris tube. The furniture was formal, a comfortable reproduction of the flared darkwood Midwest-ethnic style he’d grown up with. Broad holographic windows of Cheyenne’s heroically rugged countryside did little to disguise the room’s actual location, buried deep inside Trafalgar. In its favour, the electronic suite Gilmore had installed was a top-of-the range Edenist processor array verging on AI status. Such a system helped facilitate the twice weekly multi-disciplinary councils he chaired to investigate the capabilities of the possessed.

This was the second time the team heads had met since Jacqueline Couteur had made her bid for freedom in maximum security court three, and the aftermath was still affecting everyone’s mood. Professor Nowak, the quantum physicist, was first to arrive, helping himself to some of the coffee from the percolator jug which Gilmore kept going full time. Dr Hemmatu, the energy specialist, and Yusuf, the electronics chief, came in together talking in low tones. They gave Gilmore a perfunctory nod and sat down at the conference desk. Mattox was next, the neurology doctor keeping to himself as usual, choosing a chair one along the desk from Yusuf. Euru completed the group, sitting directly opposite Gilmore. In contrast to the rest of them, the dark-skinned Edenist appeared almost indecently happy.

Gilmore had known his deputy long enough to see it wasn’t just the usual contentment which all Edenists shared. “You have something?” he enquired.

“A voidhawk has just arrived from the Sinagra system. It was carrying an interesting recording.”

Hemmatu perked up. “From Valisk?” The independent habitat had supplied a large amount of very useful data on the behaviour of the possessed before it vanished.

“Yes, just before Rubra and Dariat took it away,” Euru said, smiling broadly. He instructed his bitek processor block to datavise the file to them.

The sensevise they received was a strange one, lacking the resolution normally associated with full nerve channel input. Conversions from Edenist habitat memories to a standard Adamist electronic format were notoriously quirky, but this was something else again. Nesting within its environment of pastel colours, tenuous scents, and mild tactorials, Gilmore tried bravely to avoid using the connotation: spectral. He failed dismally.

The memory was of Dariat, while he bobbed about on the surface of some icy water inside a dark polyp-walled tube. The cold was severe enough to penetrate even his energistic protection, judging by the way it was numbing his appropriated limbs, and making him shiver. A plump black woman clung to him, shaking violently inside her strange waistcoat of cushions.

Did you gain any impression of size?the kohistan consensus asked Dariat.

Not really, a universe is a universe. How big is this one?

Consensus received his quick recollection of the beyond. His soul had become a feeble flicker of identity adrift in a nowhere at one remove from reality. Nowhere full of similar souls; all of them with the same craving, the sensations available on the other side.

The memory of someone else’s memory: if the sensenviron of the Valisk starscraper waste tube was tenuous, this was as insubstantial as a nearly-forgotten dream. The beyond, as far as Dariat was concerned, lacked any physical sensation, all that betrayed its presence was a transparent tapestry of emotions. Anguish and yearning flooded through the realm Souls clustered round, desperately suckling at his memories for the illusion of physical sensation they contained.

Confusion and fear reigned in Dariat’s mind. He wanted to flee. He wanted to plunge into the glorious star of sensation burning so bright as Kiera and Stanyon forced open a path into Horgan’s body. The beyond withered behind him as he surged along the tear through the barrier between planes of existence.

And how do you control the energistic power?consensus asked.

Dariat gave them a visualization (perfectly clear this time) of desire overlaying actuality. More handsome features, thicker hair, brighter clothes. Like a hologram projection, but backed up by energy oozing out of the beyond to shore it up, providing solidity. Also, the destructive power, a mental thunderbolt, aimed and thrown amid boiling passion. The rush of energy from the beyond increasing a thousandfold, sizzling through the possessed body like an electric charge.

What about senses? This ESP faculty you have?the world around him altered, shifting to slippery shadows.

There were several more questions and observations on the nature of Dariat’s state, which the rebel possessor did his best to answer. In total, the recording amounted to over fifteen minutes.

“Wealth indeed,” Gilmore said when it ended. “This kind of clarification is just what we need to pursue a solution. It seemed to me as though Dariat actually had some freedom of movement in the beyond. To my mind, that implies physical dimensions.”

“A strange sort of space,” Nowak said. “From the way the souls were pressed close enough to overlap, there appeared to be very little of it. I won’t call it a place, but it’s definitely a unified area. It was almost a closed continuum, yet we know it exists in parallel to our own universe, so it must have infinite depth. That’s damn close to being paradoxical.” He shrugged, disturbed by his own reasoning.

“That perception ability Dariat demonstrated interests me,” Euru commented. “The effect is remarkably similar to a voidhawk’s mass perception sense.”

Gilmore looked across his desk to the tall Edenist, inviting him to continue.

“I’d say the possessed must be interpreting local energy resonances. Whatever type of energy they operate within, we know it pervades our universe, even if we can’t distinguish it ourselves yet.”

“If you’re right,” Nowak said, “that’s a further indication that our universe is conjunctive with this beyond realm, that there is no single interface point.”

“There has to be an identifiable connection,” Euru said. “Dariat was clearly aware of the lost souls while he occupied Horgan’s body. He could hear them—for want of a better phrase. They were pleading with the possessors the whole time, asking to be given bodies. Somewhere there is a connection, a conduit leading back there.”

Gilmore glanced round the desk to see if anyone else wanted to pick up on the point. They were all silent, concentrating on the implications Euru and Nowak raised. “I’ve been considering that we might need to approach this from a different angle,” he said. “After all, we’ve had a singular lack of success in trying to analyse the quantum signature of the effect, perhaps we should concentrate less on the exact nature of the beast, and more on what it does and implies.”

“In order to deal with it, we have to identify it,” Yusuf said.

“I’m not advocating a brute force and ignorance approach,” Gilmore replied. “But consider; when this crisis started, we believed we were dealing with an outbreak of some energy virus. I maintain that is essentially what we have here. Our souls are self-contained patterns capable of existence and travel outside the matrix of our bodies. Hemmatu, how would you say they are formed?”

The energy expert stroked his cheek with long fingers, pondering the question. “Yes, I think I see what you’re driving at. The beyond energy is apparently present in all matter, including cells, although the quantity involved must necessarily be extremely tenuous. Therefore as intelligence arises during life, it imprints itself into this energy somehow.”

“Exactly,” Gilmore said. “The thought patterns which arise in our neurone structure retain their cohesion once the brain dies. That is our soul. There’s nothing spiritual or religious about it, the entire concept is an entirely natural phenomenon, given the nature of the universe.”

“I’m not sure about denying religion,” Nowak said. “Being inescapably plugged into the universe at such a fundamental level seems somewhat spiritually impressive to me. Being at one with the cosmos, literally, makes us all part of God’s creation. Surely?”

Gilmore couldn’t quite work out if he was joking. A lot of physicists took to religion as they struggled with the unknowable boundaries of cosmology, almost as many as embraced atheism. “If we could just put that aside for the moment, please?”

Nowak grinned, waving a hand generously.

“What I’m getting at is that something is responsible for retaining a soul’s cohesion. Something glues those thoughts and memories together. When Syrinx interviewed Malva, she was told: ‘Life begets souls.’ That it is ‘the pattern which sentience and self awareness exerts on the energy within the biological body.’

“So souls accrue from the reaction of thoughts upon this energy,” Nowak said. “I’m not disputing the hypothesis. But how can that help us?”

“Because it’s only us: humans. Animals don’t have souls. Dariat and Laton never mentioned encountering them.”

“They never mentioned encountering alien souls either,” Mattox said. “But according to the Kiint, they’re there.”

“It’s a big universe,” Nowak said.

“No,” Gilmore countered. “That can’t apply. Only some souls are trapped in the section we know about, the area near the boundary. Laton as good as confirmed that. After death, it’s possible to embark on the great journey. Again, his words.”

Euru shook his head sadly. “I wish I could believe him.”

“In this I agree with him, not that it has much bearing on my principal contention.”

“Which is?” Mattox asked.

“I believe I know the glue which holds souls together. It has to be sentience. Consider, an animal like a dog or cat has its individuality as a biological entity, but no soul. Why not? It has a neural structure, it has memories, it has thought processes operating inside that neural structure. Yet when it dies, all that loses coherence. Without a focus, a strong sense of identity, the pattern dissolves. There is no order.”

“The formless void,” Nowak muttered in amusement.

Gilmore disregarded the jibe. “We know a soul is a coherent entity, and both Couteur and Dariat have confirmed there is a timeflow within the beyond. They suffer entropy just as we do. I am convinced that makes them vulnerable.”

“How?” Mattox asked sharply.

“We can introduce change. Energy, the actual substance of souls, cannot be destroyed, but it can certainly be dissipated or broken up, returned to a primordial state.”

“Ah yes.” Hemmatu smiled in admiration. “Now I follow your logic. Indeed, we have to reintroduce some chaos into their lives.”

Euru gave Gilmore a shocked stare. “Kill them?”

“Acquire the ability to kill them,” Gilmore responded smoothly. “If they have the ability to leave the part or state of the beyond where they are now, they must clearly be forced to do so. The prospect of death, real final death, would provide them with the spur to leave us alone.”

“How?” Euru asked. “What would be the method?”

“A virus of the mind,” Gilmore said. “A universal anti-memory that would spread through thought processes, fracturing them as it went. The beauty of it is, the possessed are constantly merging their thoughts with one another to fulfil their quest for sensation. En masse, they are a mental superconductor.”

“You might just be on to something here,” Hemmatu said. “Are there such things as anti-memory?”

“There are several weapons designed to disable a target’s mental processes,” Mattox said. “Most of them are chemical or biological agents. However, I do know of some that are based upon didactic imprint memories. But so far my colleagues have only produced variants that induce extreme psychotic disorders such as paranoia or schizophrenia.”

“That’s all we need,” Nowak grunted. “Extra demented lost souls. They’re quite barmy enough as it is.”

Gilmore gave him a disapproving glance. “Would an anti-memory be possible, theoretically?” he asked Mattox.

“I can’t think of any immediate show-stoppers.”

“Surely it would just self-destruct?” Yusuf said. “If it eradicates the mechanism of its own conductivity, how can it sustain itself?”

“We’d need something that rides just ahead of its own destruction wave,” Mattox said. “Again, it’s not a theoretical impossibility.”

“Nobody said the concept wouldn’t need considerable development work,” Gilmore said.

“And trials,” Euru said. His handsome face was showing a considerable amount of unease. “Don’t forget that phase. We would need a sentient being to experiment on. Probably several.”

“We have Couteur,” Gilmore muttered. He acknowledged the Edenist’s silent censure. “Sorry: natural thought. She caused us more than her fair share of trouble in court three.”

“I’m sure there will be bitek neural systems adequate for the purpose,” Mattox said hurriedly. “We don’t have to use humans at this stage.”

“Very well,” Gilmore said. “Unless anyone has any objections, I’d like to prioritize this project. The First Admiral has been placing considerable pressure on us for an overall solution for some time. It’ll be a relief to report we might be able to finally go on the offensive against the possessed.”

Edenist habitats gossiped among themselves. The discovery first surprised, then amused Ione and Tranquillity. But then their multiplicity personalities were made up from millions of people, who like all the elderly were keen to see how their young relatives were doing and spread the word among friends. The personalities were also integral to Edenist culture, so naturally they took an avid interest in human affairs for the reaction it would ultimately have upon themselves. The minutiae of political, social, and economic behaviour from the Confederation at large was absorbed, debated, and meditated upon. Knowledge was the right of all Edenists. It was just the method of passing on the more miscellaneous chunks which was delightfully quirky. Manifold sub-groups would form within every personality, with interests as varied as classical literature to xenobiology; early industrial age steam trains to Oort cloud formations. There was nothing formal, nothing ordained about such clusterings of cognate mentalities. It was, simply, the way it was. An informal anarchy.

Observing this, Tranquillity began to consider itself the equivalent of some ageing uncle overseeing a brood of unruly young cousins. Its own decorum generated a mild feeling of alienation from its contemporaries (which Ione also found amusing). Only when the full Jovian Consensus, with all its solemn nobility, arose from the gabbling minds, was there a notion of kinship.

By the time Tranquillity did arrive at Jupiter, there were literally millions of sub-groups convening within the habitat personalities to consider every possible aspect of the possession problem (essentially, Gilmore’s committee to the Nth degree). Eager to participate in the search for a solution, Tranquillity contributed its memories and conclusions of the crisis to date; information which was eagerly disseminated and deliberated over. Among the groupings who surveyed all matters religious, the most interesting development was the Kiint’s curiosity in the Tyrathca’s Sleeping God. The question of what the Sleeping God might actually be was passed to the cosmology groupings. They didn’t have much of an idea, so they queried the xenopsychology field. In turn, they wondered if the enigma would be better served by the xenocultural historians . . .

At which point, two very distinct (and in their different ways, very important) mentalities among the collective personalities became aware of the Sleeping God problem. The sub-Consensus for security and Wing-Tsit Chong together decided the matter was best dealt with by themselves and a few of their own specialists. In collaberation with Ione, of course.

Joshua had a bad feeling about Ione calling him to a conference without being told the reason. There were resonances of being asked to go after Mzu coming into play. It got worse when she told him it was to be convened in De Bouvoir Palace. That meant it was going to be formal, official.

When he arrived at the small tube station which served visitors to the Palace, Mzu was climbing the steps ahead of him. He wanted to turn round and go back to supervising Lady Mac ’s refit. But at least this was as bad as it could possibly get. They made laboured small talk as they walked along the dark-yellow stone path to the classical building. Mzu didn’t know why she’d been invited, either.

A horde of servitor chimps were scurrying about on either side of the path, along with specialist agronomy servitors. All of them were busy repairing the once immaculate parkland. Grass had been trampled into mud by thousands of dancing feet, topiary bushes were knocked into odd shapes, with bottles sticking out of unusual crevices. But it was the tomis shrubs which had taken the worst battering; with their blue and gold trumpet-shaped flowers torn from broken branches to form a brown, slippery mat across the path. The servitors were optimistically trying to repair them with adroit pruning and staking; though the smaller ones were simply being replaced. Vandalism on such a scale was unheard of in Tranquillity. Though Joshua did have to smile at the pile of clothes which the chimps had gathered up. It was mostly underwear.

A pair of serjeants were on guard duty outside the basilica’s archway entrance. “The Lord of Ruin is expecting you,” one intoned. It led them along the nave to the audience chamber.

Ione sat in her accustomed place behind the crescent table in the centre. Long, flat streamers of light from the towering windows intersected around her, giving her an almost saintly portrayal. Joshua was hard pressed not to comment on the theatre of the moment when she smiled a welcome, but he played the game and bowed solemnly. Mzu was given a more punctilious nod of recognition. There were six high-backed chairs set up along the convex side of the table, four of them already occupied. Joshua knew Parker Higgens; Samuel was there as well; but he had to run a search through his neural nanonics to name the Laymil project’s chief astronomer, Kempster Getchell. The fourth turned to face him . . .


“Hello, Joshua,” Syrinx said. The possibility of a smile teased her lips.

“Oh,” Ione murmured in a suspiciously sweet tone. “Do you two know each other?”

Joshua gave Ione a punitive look, then went over to Syrinx and gave her a light kiss on the cheek. “I heard what happened on Pernik. I’m glad you came through it all right.”

She touched the medical nanonic on his hand. “I’m not the only one who’s come through, apparently.”

Joshua returned the smile, and sat next to her.

“There’s a file I want you and Dr Mzu to review before we start,” Ione told him.

The miserable scene of Coastuc-RT swamped Joshua’s mind; with Waboto-YAU arguing through its translator, and the two menacing soldier-caste Tyrathca standing close to Reza Malin. He’d avoided accessing most of Kelly’s recordings when Collins released them. Lalonde was one planet he didn’t want to return to by any method. The close presence of the mercenary leader was a shortcut to emotions he’d rather leave dormant.

When the recording ended, he looked up to see one of the long glass windows behind Ione had darkened. Instead of emitting strong golden light, it now contained the image of an ancient Oriental man sitting in an antique wheelchair.

“Wing-Tsit Chong will speak for the Jovian Consensus today,” Ione announced.

“Right,” Joshua said. He loaded that name into a search program, ready to run it through his memory files.

Syrinx leant across. “The founder of Edenism,” she said softly. “Quite a major historical figure, in fact.”

“Name the inventor of the ZTT drive,” Joshua retorted.

“Julian Wan normally gets the credit. Although technically he was only the head of the New Kong asteroid’s stardrive research team; a bureaucrat, basically.”

Joshua frowned in pique.

“Possibly the present would provide us with a more suitable topic for discussion,” Wing-Tsit Chong chided gently.

“The Sleeping God throws up a number of questions,” Ione said. “Very relevant questions, given the Tyrathca’s psychology. They believed it would be able to help them against possessed humans. And they don’t lie.”

“So far this entity or object has made no appreciable impact upon our situation,” Wing-Tsit Chong said. “Implying three options. It is a myth, and the Tyrathca were either fooled or mistaken by their encounter with it. It is not capable of assisting them. Or it does exist, it is capable, and it has simply restrained itself, so far.”

“That third implication is the most interesting,” Kempster said. “It’s an assumption that the Sleeping God is sentient, or at lest self-aware; which rules out a celestial event.”

“I always concurred with the artefact possibility myself,” Parker Higgens said. “The arkship Tyrathca would surely recognize a celestial event for what it was. And celestial events don’t keep watch. Waboto-YAU was quite insistent about that. The Sleeping God dreams of the universe, it knows everything.”

“I concur,” Wing-Tsit Chong said. “This entity has been assigned extraordinary perceptive powers by the Tyrathca. Although we can assume the memories of Sireth-AFL’s family would become open to degradation down the centuries, the major elements must retain their integrity. Something very unusual is out there.”

“Have you asked the Kiint direct what it is, and what their interest is?” Joshua asked.

“Yes. They claim a total lack of knowledge on the subject. Ambassador Armira simply repeats Lieria’s claim that they are interested in the full record of Kelly Tirrel’s sojourn on Lalonde so they might understand the nature of human possession.”

“They might be telling the truth.”

“No,” Parker Higgens said forcefully. “Not them. They’ve been lying to us since first contact. This is more than coincidence. The Kiint are desperately interested. And I’d love to beat them to it.”

“A race that can teleport?” Joshua said light heartedly. The old director’s vehemence was out of character here.

“Even if the Kiint aren’t interested,” Ione said swiftly, “we certainly are. The Tyrathca believe it to be real and able to assist them. That alone justifies sending a mission to it.”

“Wait—” Joshua said. He couldn’t believe he’d been so slow. “You want me to go after it, don’t you?”

“That’s why you’re here,” Ione answered calmly. “I believe you said you wanted to make a contribution?”

“Yes, I did.” There was a residue of reluctance in the acknowledgement. Some of the old bravado. I want to originate the solution. Claim all the glory. Shades of the good old days.

He grinned at Ione, wondering if she’d guessed what he was thinking. More than likely. But if there was a chance this xenoc God might have an answer, he wanted in. He owed a lot of people the effort. His dead crew. His unborn child. Louise and the rest of Norfolk. Even himself, now he refused to avoid thinking of death and the mysteries that inaugurated. Facing up to fate in such a fashion might be frightening, but it made living a hell of a lot easier. And, to be honest with himself, so did the prospect of flying again.

“And so, I believe, did Syrinx,” Ione said. The voidhawk captain nodded admission.

“The Kiint stonewalled you, huh?” Joshua asked.

“Malva was very polite about it, but essentially, yes.”

Joshua settled back, gazing up at the domed ceiling. “Let me see. If a Tyrathca arkship encountered this God, then it has to be a long way off, a very long way. Not too much problem for a voidhawk, but . . . ah, now I get it. The antimatter.” Lady Mac ’s inclusion was obvious now. Her delta-V reserve was currently five or six times greater than most Adamist warships, making her an obvious candidate to surmount the problem of galactic orbital mechanics. For starships, there’s a lot more than just distance to the gulf between stars. Ultimately, it is velocity which governs their design and finances.

Earth’s sun orbits the galactic centre roughly once every two hundred and thirty million years, giving it an approximate velocity of two hundred and twenty kilometres per second relative to the core. Other stars, of course, have different orbital velocities, depending on their distance from the core, so their velocities relative to each other are also different. Voidhawks can cope with the variance by tailoring their wormhole terminus to match a local star’s vector. It’s a manoeuvre which uses up an inconvenient amount of energy from the patterning cells; however, because they obtain their energy for free it doesn’t affect their commercial performance except in terms of recharging time. But for Adamist starship captains, that variance isn’t merely inconvenient, it’s a positive bane. The ZTT jump might provide a short cut across the interstellar gulf, but it cannot magically change inertia. A starship emerging from a jump has precisely the same vector it had when it started. In order to rendezvous with the planet or asteroid at its destination, its delta-V has to be altered to match. It’s a tedious process which uses up plenty of fuel; in other words, it costs money. And the further the stars are away from each other, the greater the velocity difference. For most Adamist starships, a flight right across the longest axis of Confederation space, a distance approaching nine hundred light-years, would use up over ninety per cent of their reaction drive fuel. Several marques would be incapable of the feat anyway. The limit is imposed because they all used fusion drives.

Antimatter, of course, provided a vastly superior delta-V. And the antimatter Lady Mac had taken on board from the Beezling was still in her confinement chambers. The First Admiral had given Samuel instructions for the secure military facilities at Jupiter to dispose of it. One of the five specialist ships qualified to handle the substance was still en route to Tranquillity.

“There is a high possibility that a long flight will be required to bring this task to a fruitful conclusion,” Wing-Tsit Chong said. “I congratulate you on your clarity of thought, young Joshua.”

Syrinx and Ione swapped a glance. “You’re going to let him use antimatter?” Mzu asked in surprise.

“A voidhawk and Adamist starship are a good pairing for this kind of assignment,” Syrinx said. “Both of us have strengths and weaknesses which complement the other. Providing the Adamist ship can manage to keep up with a voidhawk, of course.”

“Outperform, or outsmart?” Joshua asked civilly.

“All right,” Mzu said. “So why am I here?”

“We believed you might be able to help us analyse the nature of the Sleeping God,” Kempster Getchell said. “Especially if it turns out to be a high-technology weapon rather than a natural phenomenon, which is my field.”

Alkad glanced round at their faces, depressed when she knew she should have been flattered. “I had one idea,” she said. “Once. Thirty years ago.”

“One original insight,” Wing-Tsit Chong said. “Which is one more than most people have had, or ever will have. You have a mind which is capable of it. An ability which can innovate on such a level is an asset we cannot overlook.”

“What about Foulkes?” Alkad asked Samuel.

“If you agree to participate, I’ll speak with her. The non-contact prohibition placed upon you does not apply in this situation. You will be permitted to fly on this mission. However, I will accompany you along with Monica.”

“I’m flattered.”

“Don’t be. And please don’t interpret our continued presence as approval for what you did. It so happens, that there are sections of this mission which require the kind of ability which Monica and I specialise in.”

“How very enigmatic. Very well, if you think I’m the right person for the job, I’d be honoured to take part.”

“Good,” Ione said.

“But I’ll need Peter with me.”

“This isn’t a honeymoon cruise,” Samuel told her, reproachfully.

“We worked as a team putting the Alchemist together. It’s a synergistic relationship.”

“Somehow, I doubt that,” Ione said. “But for argument’s sake, I’ll permit you to ask him if he wants to accompany you.”

“So where were you thinking of sending us?” Joshua asked.

“Regretfully, you will have to go directly to the source,” Wing-Tsit Chong said. “Which is one of the reasons this mission is being assembled under the auspices of the Jovian security sub-Consensus. A thorough search of xenology records both at Jupiter and Earth have revealed absolutely no reference to the Sleeping God. The Tyrathca have never mentioned it to us before.”

“The source? Oh Jesus, you mean Hesperi-LN, the Tyrathca home planet?”

“Initially, yes. Waboto-YAU told us that it was another arkship which encountered the Sleeping God, not Tanjuntic-RI. Therefore, that arkship must have lasered the information to all the other Tyrathca arkships in the exodus fleet. We must hope that a recording of that message is still aboard Tanjuntic-RI. If you can find it, you may be able to establish the approximate location of the encounter.”

“That could be a long way off,” Joshua said. His neural nanonics started to access almanac and Tyrathca history files from memory cells, running them through a navigation program. The result rising into his mind in the form of gold and scarlet icons was both fascinating and alarming. “Hesperi-LN isn’t their genuine home planet, remember. It’s just the last colony world Tanjuntic-RI founded. Look, the original Tyrathca star, Mastrit-PJ, the one they escaped from is on the other side of the Orion Nebula. That puts it at least 1,600 light-years away. Now if we get real unlucky, and the arkship which found the Sleeping God was going in the opposite direction to Tanjuntic-RI, you’re talking twice as far.”

“We are aware of that,” Wing-Tsit Chong said.

Joshua sighed with indubitable regret. To take Lady Mac on such a voyage would have been awesome. “I’m sorry, there isn’t that much antimatter left. I can’t take the old girl that far.”

“We are aware of your starship’s performance capabilities,” Wing-Tsit Chong said. “However there is a supply of antimatter which you will be able to use.”

“You keep some here at Jupiter?” Joshua asked in what he figured was a casual voice.

“No,” Syrinx said. “A CNIS agent called Erick Thakara located a production station which may be supplying Capone.”

“Thakara—” Joshua’s search program located the appropriate file; he locked eyes with Ione. “Really? That’s . . . helpful.”

“With the 1st fleet somewhat overstretched, the First Admiral’s staff have asked for Jupiter’s voidhawks to tackle it,” Samuel said.

“Which they are preparing to do,” Wing-Tsit Chong said. “However, before the station is finally annihilated, you will be able to take on board as much antimatter as the Lady Macbeth ’s confinement systems can handle.”

“Three thousand light-years,” Joshua murmured. “Jesus.”

“Meredith Saldana’s task force has a large contingent of Confederation Navy marines assigned to it,” Ione said. “They’ll secure the station for you once the personnel surrender to the voidhawk squadron.”

“What if the station operatives just suicide?” Joshua said. “They usually do when the Navy confronts them.”

“And take as many of us with them as they can,” Syrinx whispered.

“They will be offered a penal planet sentence instead of the usual death penalty,” Samuel said. “We can only hope that proves attractive enough to them.”

“All right, but even if we load Lady Mac with enough antimatter, the Tyrathca have ended communications with the Confederation,” Joshua said. “Do you really think they’ll allow us to search through Tanjuntic-RI’s electronic systems?”

“Probably not,” Samuel said. “But as we don’t intend to ask their permission, it doesn’t really matter, does it?”

Chapter 07

You didn’t have to be attuned to the land like a possessed to know it was about to happen. Most of Ombey’s population was aware the time had come.

Day after day the news companies had been broadcasting sensevises from rover reporters covering the build up of Liberation forces. Everybody knew somebody who was connected to somebody who was involved in some way; from hauling equipment out to Fort Forward to serving drinks to Edenists in spaceport bars. Speculation on the current affairs programmes was deliberately vague about specific dates and precise numbers, even the communication net gossips were showing restraint in naming the day. Hearsay aside, the evidence was pretty solid.

The type of cargoes raining down on the planet had changed. Combat gear was slowly being replaced by heavy-duty civil engineering equipment, ready to repair the expected damage to Mortonridge and provide additional support infrastructure for the occupying forces. The personnel arriving at Fort Forward were also subject to a shift in professions. Just under a million serjeants had been sent from Jupiter, along with nearly a quarter of a million marines and mercenaries from across the Confederation. The Liberation army was essentially complete. So now it was the medical teams being ferried down from orbit, civilian volunteers complementing entire mobile military hospitals. Estimated casualty figures (both military and civilian) were strictly classified. But everyone knew the twelve thousand medical staff were going to suffer a heavy workload. Eighty voidhawks had already been assigned evac duties, spreading the wounded around facilities in the Kingdom and its allies.

Throughout the seventh day following Princess Kirsten’s visit, Ralph Hiltch and his command staff studied the figures and displays provided by the AI. The neuroiconic image which accumulated in his mind kept expanding as more information was correlated. By late afternoon, his conscious perception point seemed to be hanging below a supergalaxy of multicoloured stars, which threatened to make him giddy as he tried to examine it in all directions at once. Despite its coherence, what he really wanted was more training time, more transport, more supplies, and definitely more intelligence assessments of the terrain ahead. But essentially, his army was as ready as it would ever be. He gave the order for final stage deployment to begin.

Over half of the serjeants and their back-up brigades had already left Fort Forward. The previous two days had been spent mustering at their preliminary positions offshore. Nearly a hundred islands around Mortonridge’s coast had been taken over as temporary depots; from reefs which barely showed above the waves to resort atolls dotted with luxury hotels. Where there were no convenient scraps of land, huge cargo ships had been hurriedly converted into floating docks, and anchored thirty kilometres from the shore.

For the first stage of the coastal assault, the army was scheduled to use boats. They were actually going to storm ashore, wading through the waves and up onto the sand, almost in homage to a great many of the incarnations from the past they were facing. Ralph wasn’t prepared to risk flying even the simplest of aircraft into the energistic environment over Mortonridge, not until after they’d dealt with the red cloud at least.

The remainder of the Liberation ground forces emptied out of Fort Forward in massive convoys, spreading out along the firebreak in thousands of multi-terrain vehicles. There was no attempt at secrecy, no hugging the cover behind ridges and hills. The squads drove through the encroaching twilight and into the night; the nimbus of their massed headlight beams creeping like an anaemic dawn along the horizon paralleling the firebreak.

Across Xingu, a civil curfew order was enacted once again, with the police put on full alert. Although they were fairly sure no possessed were left outside Mortonridge, the continent’s authorities were taking Annette Ekelund’s threat of sabotage very seriously. When dawn arrived, no civilian would be allowed out onto the streets. People grumbled and groaned, and datavised protests to local news shows, remembering what a nuisance the curfew had been last time. It was almost a bravado show of defiance. In the main, they just settled back and accessed the show.

High above the planet, the Strategic Defence centre on Guyana began coordinating the Royal Navy’s part of the assault. Thrusters flared on low orbit weapons platforms, refining their new orbits. A flotilla of three hundred voidhawks also began to accelerate, synchronizing their distortion fields to rise away from the planet in a long curve.

The psychic pressure mounting against Mortonridge shifted from faint intimation to blatantly unmistakable.

To casual observation, Chainbridge was still a busy town. When Annette Ekelund reached a slight ridge a couple of kilometres from the outskirts, she stopped the sturdy country rover she was driving and looked back over her shoulder. Hundreds of lighted windows shone out across the lame farmland, burning steady against the flickering crimson waves scattered down from the lumbering cloud roof. The buildings were warm, too, warm enough to fool any perfunctory sensor scans into believing they were occupied. But no one was left there, her command group was the last to leave.

“It’ll keep the blighters tied up for a while,” Delvan assured her. He was sitting in the passenger seat beside her, clad in his old khaki uniform, a discreet row of scarlet and gold ribbons on his chest.

In the back seat, Soi Hon veiled a sneer. He, too, had reverted to type: dark jungle fatigues and a felt bush-ranger hat. “For at least a quarter of an hour.”

“Would you like to return to the beyond fifteen minutes early?” Delvan enquired lightly.

“Any time we delay them is good time,” Annette told the pair of them. She took the brake off, and accelerated down the secondary road. They were heading for Cold Overton, a small village eighty kilometres away. Their field command centre; picked virtually at random by Soi Hon, central but not strategically so, adequate road links, surrounded by thick forest. It was as good as any, not that they’d be staying long. Fluid tactics was the key to this campaign.

Soi Hon clapped Delvan on the shoulder. “And this is our time, eh? You and I both. Onward to death and glory.”

“There is no glory here.” Delvan spoke so quietly, the others could only just hear him against the bass grumble of thunder.

“Don’t tell me you’re having second thoughts?”

“I heard my men wailing at night,” the old soldier replied emotionlessly. “The ones left out in No Man’s Land, left behind to drown in puddles of their own blood; the ones that weren’t vomiting their lungs up from that devilish gas. Screaming for us to help them, more frightened at being alone than they were of being shot.”

“You Christians, you always take life so personally. We’re here by accident, not design. Nothing is ordained, you are only what you make of yourself. You can never go back, the past doesn’t change. Stop thinking about it. The only part of history which matters is the future.”

“It broke my heart, not being able to help them. Good, decent men; boys a lot of them. I swore I’d never get involved in such madness again. They called it total war. But it wasn’t, it was total bloody murder. Insanity had become a disease, and we all caught it. Twice in my lifetime my nation sent its youth out to die for a just cause, to protect ourselves and our way of life.” He smiled frigidly at the eco warrior. “And now here I am once again. Seven bloody centuries later. Seven hundred years, and nothing has changed. Not one damn thing. I’m fighting to preserve myself and my new life. A righteous war with me on the side of the angels, even though they’ve become fallen angels. And I can already hear the screams, God help me.”

“All I hear is our victory song,” Soi Hon said. “The voice of the land is louder and stronger than any human cry. This is our place, we are at one with it. We belong here. We have a right to exist in this universe.”

Delvan closed his eyes and tipped his head back. “Lord forgive me I am such a fool. Here we all are, embarking on a crusade to storm the very gates of Heaven Itself in our desperation. What a monumental folly. I shall smite at the dark angels massed against us, crying for death, for only in death will we ever find peace. Yet You have already revealed that death is not our destiny, nor ever can be.”

“Wake up, old man. We’re not fighting God, we’re fighting an unjust universe.”

For the first time since his return from the beyond, Delvan smiled. “You think there’s a difference?”

The island was enchanting, its botany and geology combining into the kind of synergistic idyll which was the grail of Edenist habitat designers. Inland, there were craggy rocks hosting long white waterfalls, and thick lush forests choked with sweet-scented flowers. The shore comprised cove after cove, their pale gold sands gleaming under the azure sky; except for one, where the offshore reef crumbled under the foaming breakers to give the sands an exquisite fairydust coating of pink coral. It appealed to humans on a primal level, urging them to slow down and spend time just soaking in nature. As a reward for their worship, time itself would expand and become almost meaningless.

Even in his current existence, Sinon wished he was staying longer than their eighteen-hour stopover. Five thousand serjeants had descended on this tiny jewel of land glinting in the ocean, along with their equipment and support personnel. Marines were camped ten to a room in the resort hotels; gardens and tennis courts had been requisitioned as landing pads; and the coves were harbours for a hundred of the regiment’s landing boats. All day, the boats had taken their turn to nuzzle the shore, extending their forward ramps so that jeeps and light trucks could drive on board. Now, in the evening, the serjeants were finally embarking.

Syrinx would like this place,sinon told choma. I must tell her about it.he was two thirds of the way along a line of serjeants who were wading out to their landing boat. There wasn’t enough room on this particular beach to berth more than three boats at a time, so the other eleven were anchored a hundred metres offshore. A column of serjeants snaked out to each one, making slow time through the water. The big constructs were laden with backpacks, carrying their weapons above their heads to stop them getting wet. Groups of Royal Marines milled about on the bluff, watching the process. If all went well, they’d be doing the same thing next morning.

Now there’s good healthy optimism,choma replied.

What do you mean?

I’ve been working out our probable casualty rate. Would you like to know how many of our squad are likely to survive the entire campaign?

Not particularly. I have no intention of becoming a statistic.

Where have I heard that before? In any case, it’s two. Two out of ten.

Thank you very much.sinon reached the landing boat. it was an ugly, rugged affair, one design serving the entire Liberation armada. A carbosilicon hull mass produced over on Esparta, with power cells and an engine that could have come from any of a dozen industrialized star systems allied to the Kingdom. Hard-pressed navy engineers had plugged the standard components together, completing several hundred each day. The three on the beach were still being worked on by technicians.

Honesty is supposed to be our culture’s strength,choma said, mildly irked by the negative reaction.

We’re a long way from Eden now.sinon slung his rifle high on his shoulder, and started climbing the ladder up the side of the boat. When he reached the top of the gunnel he looked back to shore. The sun was sinking into the sea, leaving a rosy haze line above the darkening water. Parodying that, on the opposite horizon, the glow of the red cloud was visible, a narrow fracture separating water and air.

Last chance, Sinon told himself. The other serjeants were all climbing down into the boat, their mind-tones subdued but still resolute. Rationally, he was buying the Confederation time to find a genuine answer. And Consensus itself had approved this course of action. He swung his legs over the rail, and put a hand down to help Choma. Come on, let’s go storm the Dark Lord’s citadel.

The Royal Marine ion field flyer was a lone spark of gold shimmering high in the night sky, brighter than any star. It flew across the top of the Mortonridge peninsula, keeping parallel to the firebreak, twenty-five kilometres to the north, and holding a steady fifteen kilometre altitude.

Ralph Hiltch sat in the flyer’s cabin as Cathal Fitzgerald piloted them above the northern end of the mountain range which formed the peninsula’s spine. Eight hours of neural nanonics enforced sleep had left him feeling fresh, but emotionally dead. His mind had woken immune to the human consequences of the Liberation. Whether it was numb from the torrent of information which had been bullying his brain for weeks, or guilty at the enormity of what he’d organized, he wasn’t sure.

It meant that now he was hooked into the flyer’s sensor suite, he could view the last stages of the deployment with god-like dispassion. Which was probably for the best, he thought. Accepting personal responsibility for every casualty would drive anyone insane within the first two minutes. Even so, he’d wanted this one last overview. To convince himself it was genuine if nothing else. The last insecurity, that all the data and images he’d handled had been transformed to physical reality.

There could be doubt. The army spread out below him, his army, was flowing over the black land in streamers of fluid light, bending and curling round hills and valleys. Individual vehicles expressed as twinkles of light, barely different to icons blipping their way across a map. Except here there was no colour, just the white headlight beams contrasting the funeral ground.

It was after midnight, and two-thirds of the ground deployment was complete. Both flanks were established, now there was only the centre to set up, the most difficult aspect. His main spearhead was going to drive right along the M6, allowing the huge supply and back-up convoys an easy ride. Using the motorway was a disturbingly obvious strategy, but essential if they were to complete in a minimum timescale.

Ekelund would have sabotaged the road, but bridges could be repaired, blockades shunted aside, and gorges filled. The combat engineering corps were ready for that. At least the possessed didn’t have air power. Though occasionally he had images of propeller biplanes roaring overhead and strafing the jeeps. Victory rolls with the pilot’s white silk scarf flapping jauntily in the slipstream. Stupid.

Ralph switched the suite’s focus to the red cloud. Its edges were still arched down to the ground, sealing the peninsula away from the rest of the planet. Dusky random wave shadows rolled across the pulpy surface. He thought they might be more restless than usual, though that could well be his imagination. Thankfully, there was no sign of that peculiar oval formation which he’d seen once before. The one he absolutely refused to call an eye. All he really wanted was one glimpse through; to reassure himself the peninsula was still there, if nothing else. They’d had no data of any kind from inside since the day Ekelund had brought the cloud down. No links with the net could be established; no non-possessed had managed to sneak out. A final sweep with the flyer’s sensors revealed nothing new.

“Take us back,” he told Cathal.

The flyer performed a fast turn, curving round to line up on Fort Forward. Ahead of it, the giant Thunderbirds continued to swoop down out of the western sky, delta heatshields glowing a dull vermilion against the starfield backdrop. That aspect of the build up, at least, remained unchanged. Cathal landed them inside the secure command complex, along the southern side of the new city. Ralph trotted down the airstair, ignoring the armed Marine escort which fell in around him. The trappings of his position had ceased to register as special some time ago, just another aspect of this extraordinary event.

Brigadier Palmer (the first person Ralph had promoted) was waiting outside the door to the Ops Room. “Well?” she asked, as they walked in.

“I didn’t see anyone waving a white flag.”

“We’d know if they wanted to.” Like a lot of people involved with the Liberation, especially those who’d been on Mortonridge since the start, she considered herself to have a connection with the possessed hidden behind the red cloud, an awareness of attitude. Ralph wasn’t convinced, although he acknowledged the possessed exerted some kind of psychic presence.

The Ops Room was a long rectangular chamber with glass walls separating it from innumerable specialist planning offices. Completing electronic systems integration and connecting their architecture with Ombey’s military communication circuits was another triumph for the overworked Royal Marine engineering corps, though its rushed nature was evident in the bundled cables hanging between consoles and open ceiling panels, air conditioning which was too chilly, and raw carbon-concrete corner pillars. Its floor-space was taken up by cheap corporate-style desks holding consoles, AV projectors, and communication gear. Right now, it was full to capacity; over fifty officers from the Royal Navy were collaborating with an equal number of Edenists; the next largest contingent was the Confederation Navy with twenty; while the remainder were drawn from various participating allies.

They were going to be the coordinators of the Liberation, the human analysis and liaison between the ground forces and the controlling AI back in Pasto. A failsafe against the maxim: No battle plan survives contact with the enemy. Every one of them stood up as Ralph Hiltch entered. That, he did notice. Together they had spent the past few weeks planning this together, arguing, pleading, contributing ideas, working miracles. They’d learned to cooperate and coordinate their fields of expertise, putting aside old quarrels so they melded into a unified, dedicated team. He was proud of them and what they’d accomplished.

Their show of respect rekindled several of his suppressed emotions. “I’ll keep this short,” he told the hushed chamber. “We can’t pretend this is going to solve the problem possession poses to the Confederation, but it’s a damn sight more important than a propaganda war, which is what some reporters have been calling it. We’re fighting to free two million people, and we’re battling to bring hope into the lives of an awful lot more. To me, that’s more than worthwhile, it’s essential. So let’s make our contribution a good one.”

Amid scattered applause, he made his way to his office at the far end. His desk gave him a view down the whole length of the Ops Room, providing he craned his neck over the stack of processor block peripherals connected to his main desktop console. While he was datavising the array for strategic updates, his executive command group joined him. As well as Janne Palmer who was the Chief of the occupying forces, there was Acacia, the Edenist liaison, an elderly woman who had served as ambassador to Ombey for five years. He’d also drafted in Diana Tiernan to act as the army’s technical advisor, helping to filter the scientific reports on the possessed which were flooding in from across the Confederation. Cathal completed the gathering, still holding his post as Ralph’s assistant, but now with the rank of lieutenant commander.

When the glass door slid shut, isolating them from the noise from outside, Ralph requested a security level one sensenviron conference. Princess Kirsten and Admiral Farquar joined them around the white bubble room’s table. “The deployment’s going remarkably well,” Ralph said. “All our principal front line divisions will be in place at zero-hour.”

“My occupation troops are effectively ready,” Janne said. “There are a few minor hitches, mostly logistical. But given the amount of materiel involved, and the different groupings we’re attempting to coordinate, I’m happy. We’re well within estimated parameters. The AI should have the bugs knocked out by morning.”

“The serjeants are also ready,” Acacia reported. “Again, there are some hitches, mainly with transport equipment, but we are committed.”

“Admiral Farquar?” Kirsten asked.

“All space based assets are functional. Platform orbits are synchronized, and the voidhawks are reaching apogee. It looks good.”

“Very well,” Kirsten said. “God help me for this, but they’ve left us with no alternative. General Hiltch, you now have full command authority for Ombey’s military forces. Engage the enemy, Ralph, evict them from my planet.”

Standard military doctrine was, somewhat inevitably, fairly unimaginative. Every kind of tactic and counter-tactic had been attempted, practised, and refined by generals, warlords, and emperors down the centuries until there was little room for mistake. So even though Mortonridge was unique from a philosophical standpoint, it could be defined in military terms as a large scale hostage/siege scenario. Given that assessment, the method of resolving it was clear cut.

Ralph wanted to isolate the possessed in small groups. They were vulnerable like that, capable of being overwhelmed. To achieve it, their communications should be broken, denying them the ability to regroup and mount any kind of counter-attack. Harassment should be constant, wearing them down. And, if possible, he wanted them deprived of the cover provided by their red cloud. In summary: divide and conquer. An ancient principle, but now aided by the kind of firepower which only modern technology could provide.

Ombey had four and a half thousand low orbit Strategic Defence platforms. Their orbital vectors were orchestrated to provide a constant barrier above the surface, similar to the way electrons pirouetted around their nucleus. For the Liberation, all that had changed. Navy starships had taken over the low orbit protection duty, leaving the platforms free for an altogether different task. Their elaborate inclinations had been shifted, ion thrusters firing for hours at a time to clump them into flocks of twenty-five. Now they formed a single chain around the planet, with an inclination tilted at just a couple of degrees to the equator. One flock would pass over Mortonridge every thirty seconds.

Sensor satellites had been manoeuvred into the gaps between the platforms, ready to provide the Liberation Forces with an unparalleled coverage of the peninsula once the red cloud had been broken apart. Admiral Farquar used them to watch the dawn terminator sliding over the ocean towards the lowering band of red cloud. Tactical overlays showed him the positions of the landing boats heading in for the beaches. Far overhead, the flotilla of voidhawks had passed apogee, and were now hurtling downwards, accelerating at eight gees.

In one hour, dawn would reach Mortonridge’s eastern seaboard. The Admiral datavised his command authority code to Guyana’s SD control centre. “Fire,” he ordered.

Though they never knew it, the Liberation forces very nearly won in the first ninety seconds. The initial flock of SD platforms sent seventy-five electron beams slamming down through the upper atmosphere to strike the red cloud. They were aimed along the north/south axis of the peninsula, and defocused, so that at the point of impact they were over fifty metres across. The intention wasn’t to pierce the red cloud, just to pump it full of electrical energy, the possessed’s one known Achilles Heel. Each beam began scanning from side to side, in gigantic ten second sweeps that took them from coast to coast.

Then the second flock of platforms slid up over the horizon and into range. Another seventy-five beams speared down. There was a ten second overlap before the first flock was out of range.

Annette Ekelund let out a single shriek of agony, and dropped helplessly to her knees. The pain was incredible. A shaft of blue-star sunlight flung down from a height greater than heaven lanced clean through her skull. It didn’t just burn her stolen brain, it set fire to her very thoughts. That part of her spirit which communed so gladly with the others on Mortonridge was the treacherous conductor. The part which created the shield of cloud and gave them all a subliminal sense of community. Her belief in whatever humanity has survived the incarceration of the beyond. And now it was killing her.

She abandoned it in its entirety. Her scream twisting from pain to wretchedness. All around her, the other souls were shrinking away from each other, withdrawing into self. The last sob burbled out from her lips, and she flopped limply onto her back. Her body was freezing, shaking in shock. Delvan and Soi Hon were scrabbling in the dirt somewhere nearby, she could hear their whimpers. She couldn’t see either of them, the world had gone completely black.

Every possessed across the Confederation was instantly aware of the strike. Pain and shock reverberated through the beyond. Wherever they were, whatever they were doing, they felt it.

Al Capone was underneath Jezzibella when it happened, adopting a complicated position so that her breasts were pushed into his face while he could still bend his knees for the leverage to give her a damn good shafting. Her laugh was halfway between a giggle and a moan when the mental impact knocked him with the force of a wild hockey puck. He convulsed, shouting in pained panic.

Jezzibella cried out as his frantic motion twisted her arm, nearly dislocating her shoulder. “Al! Fuck. That fucking hurts, you fucking dickhead. I told you I don’t do that sado shit, fuck you.”

Al grunted in confused dismay, shaking his head to clear the weird dizziness foaming inside. He was so disoriented, he fell off the side of the bed.

For the first time, Jezzibella actually caught a glimpse of Brad Lovegrove’s natural features beneath the illusion. Not too different to Al, they could almost be brothers. Her anger faded at the sight of him grimacing, limbs twitching in disarray. “Al?”

“Fuck,” he gasped. “What the fuck was that?”

“Al, you okay, baby? What happened?”

“God damn! I don’t know.” He looked round the bedroom, expecting to see some kind of bomb damage, G-men storming through the door. . . . “I ain’t got a clue.”

For Jacqueline Couteur the invisible shockwave almost proved fatal. Strapped onto the examination table in the demon trap she couldn’t move when her muscles spasmed. Her vital signs monitor alerted the staff to some kind of seizure, at which point her conscious defence against the electric current they were shunting through her body began to crumble. Fortunately, one of the more alert team members shut the power off before she was genuinely electrocuted. It took her five or six minutes to recover her normal antagonism, and prowess.

On patrol a million kilometres above New California, Rocio Condra lost control of the distortion field, letting it flare and contract wildly. The big hellhawk tumbled crazily, its bird-form imploding in a cloud of dark scintillations. Gravity inside the life-support cabin vanished along with the quaint steamship interior. Jed, Beth, Gerald and the three kids suddenly found themselves in freefall. Then gravity returned in a rush, far too strong, and in the wrong direction, making one of the bulkhead walls the floor. The surface swatted them hard, then the gravity failed again to send them flying across the cabin in a tangle of limbs and screams. Stars gyrated savagely beyond the viewport. Another wash of gravity sucked them down onto the ceiling.

In Quinn Dexter’s case, it was his first setback on Earth. He had just arrived at Grand Central Station to take a vac-train to Paris. Not the original station building on Manhattan, the island itself was actually abandoned and flooded, but New Yorkers were sentimental about such things. This was the third such edifice to carry the name. Buried nearly a kilometre below the centre of dome five, it formed the hub of the arcology’s intercontinental train network.

Once more he had secluded himself within the ghost realm to avoid any risk of detection. That was when he began to notice just how many ghosts haunted the station and other subterranean sections of the vast arcology. Hundreds of them drifted mournfully amid the unseeing streams of commuters. They were drab despondent figures, staring round at the faces that rushed past. There was so much longing and desperation in their expressions, as if every one of them was searching for some long lost child. They were aware of Quinn, gazing at him in bewilderment as he strode through the main concourse on his way to the platforms. In turn, he ignored them, worthless creatures incapable of either aiding or hindering his crusade. They really were as good as dead.

He was twenty metres short of the wave elevator for platform fifty-two when the flashback from the Liberation reached him. The impact wasn’t actually too great, he’d withstood far worse at Banneth’s hands, it was the suddenness of it all which shocked him. Without warning he was yelling as streaks of pain flared out from the centre of his brain to infect his body. Edmund Rigby’s captive thoughts writhed in agony, transfixed by the blast of torment.

Quinn panicked, frightened by the unknown. Until this moment he believed he was virtually omnipotent. Now some witchery was attacking him in a method he couldn’t fathom. Souls in the beyond were screaming in terror. The ghosts around him began wailing, clasping their hands together in prayer. His control over the energistic power faltered as his thoughts dissolved into chaos.

Bud Johnson never saw where the guy came from. One second he was hurrying to the wave elevator, on his way to catch a San Antonio connection—the next, some man in a weird black robe was kneeling on all fours on the polished marble floor at his feet. That was almost impossible, everyone who grew up on Earth and lived in the arcologies had an instinctive awareness of crowds, the illogical tides and currents of bodies which flowed through them. He always knew where people were in relation to himself, alert to any possible collision. Nobody could just appear.

Bud’s momentum kept his torso going forwards, while his legs were completely blocked. He went flying, pivoting over the man’s back to crash onto the cool marble. His wrist made a nasty snapping sound, firing hot pain up his arm. And his neural nanonics did nothing. Nothing! There were no axon blocks, no medical display. Bud let out a howl of pain, blinking back tears as he looked up.

Those tears might have accounted for two or three of the curious faces peering down at him. Pale and distressed, wearing extremely odd hats. When he blinked the salty fluid clear, they’d gone. He clutched at his injured wrist. “Sheesh, dear God, that hurts.” A murmur of surprise rattled over his head, a strong contrast to the screams breaking out across the rest of the station. No one seemed particularly concerned about him.

“Hey, my neural nanonics have failed. Someone call me a medic. I think my wrist’s broken.”

The man he’d fallen over was now rising to his feet. Bud was acutely conscious of the silence that had closed around him, of people backing away. When he looked up, any thoughts of shouting curses on the clumsy oaf vanished instantly. There was a face inside the large hood, barely visible. Bud was suddenly very thankful for the robe’s shadows. The expression of fury and malice projected by the features he could see was quite bad enough. “Sorry,” he whispered.

Fingers closed around his heart. He could actually feel them, individual joints hinging inwards, fingernails digging into his atriums. The hand twisted savagely. Bud choked silently, his arms flapping wildly. He was just aware of people closing in on him again. This time, they registered concern. Too late, he tried to tell them, far too late. The aloof devil turned casually and faded from his sight. Then so did the rest of the world.

Quinn observed Bud’s soul snake away from his corpse, vanishing into the beyond, adding his screams to the beseeching myriad. There was a big commotion all around, people shoving and jostling to get a good view of whatever was going down. Only a couple of them had gasped as he returned himself to the ghost realm, fading out right in front of them. At least he’d retained enough composure not to use the white fire. Not that it mattered now. He’d been seen, and not just by people with glitched neural nanonics; the station’s security sensors would have captured the event.

Govcentral knew he was here.

Tucked down in the central hold of the landing boat, Sinon couldn’t physically see the rest of the squadron closing on the shore. Affinity made it unnecessary; all the Edenist minds on and orbiting Ombey were linked together, providing him with more information than General Hiltch had available. He was aware of his personal position, as well as that of his comrades, even the Liberation’s overall situation was available to him. The voidhawk flotilla revealed the red cloud beneath them. Huge lightning bolts were writhing across the upper surface as the SD platforms continued their electron barrage. At the centre, along the spine of hills, the glow was fading, allowing pools of darkness to ripple outward.

Along with all the other serjeants, Sinon craned forwards for a look. The barrier of red cloud had grown steadily through the night as the boats headed in for the beach. From ten kilometres offshore, it stretched right across the water, solid and resolute like the wall at the end of the world.

Small flickers of lightning arose to dance along the bottom, slashing down into the waves. Steam plumes screwed upwards from the discharges. Then the lightning streamers were coming together into massive dazzling rivers, rising up, following the steep curve of the cloud to arch inland. The red glow faded, taking less then five seconds to die completely. Its disappearance startled Sinon and the other serjeants. The victory was too sudden. This was not the epic struggle they’d been preparing for. The crawling webs of lightning more than made up for the absence; blazing bright right across the horizon.

You know, that is actually a very big cloud,sinon said. The brilliant flashes were near-continuous now, keeping the dark mass illuminated prominently.

You noticed that,choma retorted.

Yes. Which could be a problem. It was rather nicely contained while the possessed were using it as a shield. As such, we tended to disregard its physical properties; it was, after all, primarily a psychological barrier.

Psychological or not, we can’t cruise straight through with all that electrical activity.

Choma wasn’t the only one to reach that conclusion. They could already feel the boat slowing as the captain reduced power to the engines. A precaution repeated simultaneously by the entire armada.

“Recommendations?” Ralph asked.

“Shut down the SD assault,” Acacia said. “The landing boats are already slowing. They can’t penetrate that kind of lightning storm.”


“I think so. If the red light is an indication of the possessed’s control, then we’ve already routed them.”

“That’s a very big if,” Admiral Farquar protested.

“We don’t have a lot of choice,” the elderly technology advisor said. “The landing boats clearly can’t get through, nor can the ground vehicles, for that matter. We have to let the energy discharge itself naturally. If the red light returns when they’re inside, we can resume the electron beam attack until the cloud itself starts to break up.”

“Do it,” Ralph ordered. “Acacia, get the serjeants as close as they can to the cloud, then as soon as the lightning’s finished, I want them through.”

“Yes, General.”

“Diana, how long is it going to take to dissipate that electricity?”

“A good question. We’re not sure how deep or dense that cloud is.”

“Answer me.”

“I’m afraid I can’t. There are too many variables.”

“Oh great. Acacia, is the lightning going to affect the harpoons?”

“No. The cloud’s too low for that, and they’re going too fast. Even if one took a direct hit from a lightning bolt, the trajectory won’t be altered by more than a couple of metres at best.”

The voidhawk flotilla was only one and a half thousand kilometres from the surface of Ombey. Mortonridge filled their sensor blister coverage, changing from a red smear to a seething mass of blue-white streamers, more alive than ever before. There was just time for one last query.

We’re still go,acacia assured them.

All three hundred voidhawks reached the apex of their trajectory. Their bone-crushing eight-gee acceleration ended briefly. Each one flung a swarm of five thousand kinetic harpoons from its weapons cradles. Then power surged through their patterning cells again, reversing the previous direction of the distortion field. The punishing intensity was unchanged, still eight gees, pushing them desperately away from the planet with its dangerous gravity field.

Far below, the delicate filigree of shimmering lightning vanished beneath an incandescent corona as the upper atmosphere ignited. The plasma wake left by one and a half million kinetic harpoons had merged together into a single photonic shockwave. It hit the top of the cloud, puncturing the churning grey vapour with such speed there was little reaction. At first. Acacia was quite right, the cloud for all its bulk and animosity could not deflect the harpoons from their programmed targets.

No human could draw up that list, it was the AI in Pasto that ultimately designated their impact points. They descended in clumps of three, giving a ninety-seven per cent probability of a successful hit. Mortonridge’s communication net was the main target.

Urban legend dictated that modern communication nets were annihilation proof. With hundreds of thousands of independent switching nodes spread over an entire planet, and millions of cables linking them, backed up by satellite relays, their anarchistic-homogeneous nature made them immune to any kind of cataclysm. No matter how many nodes were taken out, there was always an alternative route for the data. You’d have to physically wipe out a planet before its data exchange was stalled.

But Mortonridge was finite, its net isolated from the redundancy offered by the rest of the planet. The location of every node was known to within half a metre. Unfortunately, ninety per cent of them were proscribed, because they were inside a built up urban area. If kinetic harpoons started dropping amid the buildings, resulting casualties would be horrendous. That left the cables out in the open countryside. A lot of them followed roads, nestled in utility conduits along the side of the carbon concrete, but many more took off across the land, laid by mechanoids tunnelling through forests and under rivers, with nothing on the surface to indicate their existence.

Long-inactive files of their routes had been accessed and analysed by the AI. Strike coordinates were designated, with the proscription that there should be no habitable structure within three quarters of a kilometre. Given the possessed’s considerable ability to defend themselves on a physical level, it was considered a reasonable safe distance.

Stephanie Ash lay quivering on the floor even after her mind had recoiled from the communion with other souls. The loss hurt her more than any pain from the electron beam attack against the cloud. That simple act of union had given her hope. As long as people went on supporting each other, she knew, despite everything else, they remained human to some small degree. Now even that fragile aspiration had been wrenched from them.

“Stephanie?” Moyo called. His hand was shaking her shoulder gently. “Stephanie, are you all right?”

The fear and concern in his voice triggered her own guilt. “God, no.” She opened her eyes. The bedroom was lit solely by a small bluish flame coming from his thumb. Outside the window, blackness swarmed the whole world. “What did they do?” She could no longer sense the psychic weight pressing against her from the other side of the firebreak. Only the valley was apparent.

“I don’t know. But it’s not good.” He helped her to her feet.

“Are the others all right?” She could sense their minds, spread out through the farmhouse, embers of worry and pain.

“Same as us, I guess.” A bright flash from outside silenced him. They both went to the window and peered out. Huge shafts of lightning skidded along the underbelly of the cloud.

Stephanie shivered uncomfortably. What had successfully shielded them from the open sky was now an intimidatingly large mass far too close overhead.

“We’re not in charge of it anymore,” Moyo said. “We let go.”

“What’s going to happen to it?”

“It’ll rain, I guess.” He shot her an anxious look. “And that’s a lot of cloud up there. We just kept adding to it, like a baby’s security blanket.”

“Maybe we should get the animals in.”

“Maybe we should get the hell out of here. The Princess’s army will be coming.”

She smiled sadly. “There’s nowhere to go. You know that.”

The frequency of the lightning had increased dramatically by the time they rounded up Cochrane, Rana, and Franklin to help chase after the chickens and lambs that normally ambled round inside the farmyard. The first few big drops of water began to patter down.

Moyo stuck his hand out, palm up. As if confirmation was really needed. “Told you,” he said smugly.

Stephanie turned her cardigan into a slicker, even though she didn’t hold out much hope of staying dry. The drops were larger than any she’d ever known. All the chickens were running through the open gate, the lambs had already vanished into the atrocious night. She was just about to suggest they didn’t bother trying to catch them when daylight returned to Mortonridge.

Cochrane gaped up at the sky. The clouds had turned into translucent veils of grey silk, allowing the light to pour through. “Wow! Who switched the sun back on, man?” The bottom of the clouds detonated into incandescent splinters, searing down through the air. Vivid star-tips pulling down a hurricane cone of violet mist after them. Stephanie had to shield her eyes, they were so bright.

“It’s the end of the world, kids,” Cochrane cried gleefully.

All one and a half million harpoons struck the ground within a five second period. A clump of them were targeted on a cable four kilometres from the farm valley, their terrible velocity translated into a single devastating blast of heat. The radiant orange flash silhouetted the valley rim, lasting just long enough to reveal the debris plume boiling upwards.

“Ho shit,” Cochrane grunted. “That Mr Hiltch really doesn’t like us.”

“What were they?” Stephanie asked. It seemed incredible that they were still in their bodies. Surely that kind of violence would wipe them out?

“Some kind of orbital bombardment,” Moyo said. “It must have been aimed at Ekelund’s troops.” He didn’t sound too convinced.

“Aimed? It was everywhere.”

“Then why didn’t it hit us?” Rana asked. Moyo just shrugged. That was when the roar of the impact reached them, a drawn out rumble loud enough to swallow any words.