At the centre of the Intersolar Commonwealth universe is a massive black hole. This Void is not a natural artefact. Inside there is a strange universe where the laws of physics are very different to those we know. It is slowly consuming the other stars of the galactic core — one day it will have devoured the entire galaxy. It's AD 4000, and a human has started to dream of the wonderful existence of the Void. He has a following of millions of believers. They now wish to Pilgrimage to the Void to live the life they have been shown. Other starfaring species fear their migration will cause the Void to expand again. They are prepared to stop the Pilgrimage fleet no matter what the cost. The Pilgrimage begins…



Peter F. Hamilton



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The starship CNE Caragana slipped down out of a night sky, its grey and scarlet hull illuminated by the pale iridescence of the massive ion storms which beset space for lightyears in every direction. Beneath the deep space vessel, Centurion Station formed a twinkling crescent of light on the dusty rock surface of its never-named planet. Crew and passengers viewed the enclave of habitation with a shared sensation of relief. Even with the hyperdrive powering them along at fifteen light-years an hour, it had taken eighty-three days to reach Centurion Station from the Greater Commonwealth. This was about as far as any human travelled in the mid-thirty-fourth century, certainly on a regular basis.

From his couch in the main lounge, Inigo studied the approaching alien landscape with a detached interest. What he was seeing was exactly as the briefing files projected months ago, a monotonous plain of ancient lava rippled with shallow gullies that led nowhere. The thin argon atmosphere stirred the sand in short lived flurries, chasing wispy swirls from one dune to another. It was the station which claimed his real attention.

Now they were only twenty kilometres from the ground the lights began to resolve into distinct shapes. Inigo could easily pick out the big garden dome at the centre of the human section on the northernmost segment of the inhabited crescent. A lambent emerald circle, playing hub to a dozen black transport tubes that ran out to large accommodation blocks which could have been transplanted from any exotic environment resort in the Commonwealth. From those the tubes carried on across the lava to the cube-like observatory facilities and engineering support modules.

The pocked land to the south belonged to the alien habitats; shapes and structures of various geometries and sizes, most of them illuminated. Next to the humans were the silver bubbles of the hominoid Golant; followed by the enclosed grazing grounds where the Ticoth roamed amid their food herds; then came the mammoth interconnecting tanks of the Suline, an aquatic species. The featureless Ethox tower rose up ten kilometres past the end of the Suline's metal-encased lakes, dark in the visible spectrum but with a surface temperature of 180 degrees C. They were one of the species which didn't interact with their fellow observers on any level except for formal exchanges of data concerning the probes which orbited the Void. Equally taciturn were the Forleene, who occupied five big domes of murky crystal that glowed with a mild gentian light. And they were positively social compared to the Kandra, who lived in a simple metal cube thirty metres to a side. No Kandra ship had ever landed there since the humans joined the observation two hundred and eighty years ago; not even the exceptionally long-lived Jadradesh had seen one, and the Raiel had invited those boulder-like swamp-dwellers to join the project seven thousand years earlier.

A small smile flickered on Inigo's face as he took in all the diverse zones. It was impressive to see so many aliens physically gathered in one place, a collection which served to underline the importance of their mission. Though as his view strayed out to the shadows thrown by the station, he had to admit that the living were completely overshadowed by those who had passed on before them. Centurion Station's growth and age could be loosely measured in the same way as any humble terrestrial tree. It had developed in rings which had been added to over the centuries as new species had joined the project. The broad circle of land along the concave side of the crescent was studded with ruins, crumbling skeletons of habitats abandoned millennia ago as their sponsoring civilizations fell, or moved on, or evolved away from mere astrophysical concerns. Right at the centre the ancient structures had decayed to 'simple mounds of compacted metal and crystal flakes, beyond the ability of any archaeologist to decipher. Dating expeditions had established that this ancient heart of the station had been constructed over 400,000 years ago. Of course, as far as the timescale of the Raiel observation was concerned, that was still short.

A ring of green light was flashing on the lava field which served as a spaceport for the human section, calling down the CNE Caragana. Several starships were sitting on the drab rock beside the active landing zone; two hefty deep space vessels of the same class as the Caragana, and some smaller starships used for placing and servicing the remote probes that constantly monitored the Void.

There was a slight judder as the starship settled, then the internal gravity field switched off. Inigo felt himself rise slightly on the couch's cushioning as the planet's seventy per cent gravity took over. It was silent in the lounge as the passengers took stock, then a happy murmur of conversation broke out to celebrate arrival. The chief steward asked everyone to make their way down to the main airlock, where they would suit up and walk over to the station. Inigo waited until his more eager colleagues had left before climbing cautiously to his feet and making his way out of the lounge. Strictly speaking, he didn't need a spacesuit, his Higher biononics could cocoon his body in perfect safety, protecting it from the thin malignant atmosphere, and even from the cosmic radiation that sleeted in from the massive stars of the Wall five hundred lightyears away. But… he'd travelled all this way partly to escape his unwanted heritage, now was not the time to show it off. He started suiting up along with the rest.

The handover party was a long tradition at Centurion Station. Every time a Navy ship arrived bringing new observers there was a short overlap before the previous group departed. It was celebrated in the garden dome as a sunset gala with the best buffet the culinary unit programs could produce. Tables were laid out under ancient oaks that glittered with hundreds of magic lanterns, and the dome overhead wore a halo of gold twilight. A solido projection of a string quartet played classical mood music on a little stage surrounded by a brook.

Inigo arrived quite early on, still adjusting the sleeves of his ultra-black formal evening suit. He didn't really like the jacket's long square-cut tails, they were a bit voguish for his taste, but had to admit the tailor back on Anagaska had done a superb job. Even today, if you wanted true quality clothes you needed a human in the style and fitting loop. He knew he looked good in it; in fact good enough that he didn't even feel remotely self-conscious.

The station's director was greeting all the arrivals personally. Inigo joined the end of the short line and waited his turn. He could see several aliens milling round the tables. The Golant, looking odd in clothes that approximated the ones worn by humans. With their grey-blue skin and tall narrow heads, the polite attempt to blend in only made them appear even more out of place. There were a couple of Ticoth curled up together on the grass, both the size of ponies, though there any further resemblance ended. These were very obviously predator carnivores, with dark-green hide stretched tight over powerful muscle bands. Alarmingly big and sharp teeth appeared every time they growled at each other and the group of humans they were conversing with. Inigo instinctively checked his integral force field function, then felt shameful for having done so. Several Suline were also present, floating about in big hemispherical glass tanks like giant champagne saucers that were held up by small regrav units. Their translators babbled away while they looked out at the humans, their bulbous bodies distorted and magnified by the curving glass.

'Inigo, I presume, the director's overloud voice proclaimed. 'Glad to meet you; and you're bright and early for the party, as well, most commendable, laddy.

Inigo smiled with professional deference as he shook the tall man's hand. 'Director Eyre, he acknowledged. The briefing file's CV had told him very little about the director, other than claiming his age was over a thousand years. Inigo suspected corrupted data, although the director's clothing was certainly historical enough; a short jacket and matching kilt with a very loud amethyst and black tartan.

'Oh please, call me Walker.

'Walker? Inigo queried.

'Short for LionWalker. Long story. Not to worry, laddy. Won't bore you with it tonight.

'Ah. Right. Inigo held his gaze level. The director had a thick stock of brown hair, but something glittered underneath it, as if his scalp was crawling with gold flecks. For the second time in five minutes Inigo held off using biononics; a field scan would have revealed what kind of technology the director was enriched with, it certainly wasn't one he recognized. He had to admit, the hair made LionWalker Eyre look youthful; just like the majority of the human race these days, no matter what branch — Higher, Advancer, Natural — vanity was pretty much uniform. But the thin grey goatee lent him an air of distinction, and cultivating that was very deliberate.

LionWalker waved his whisky tumbler across the darkened parkland, ice cubes chittering at the movement. 'So what brings you to our celebrated outpost, then young Inigo? Thinking of the glory? The riches? Lots of sex? After all, there's not much else to do here.

Inigo's smile tightened slightly as he realized just how drunk the director was. 'I just wanted to help. I think it's important.

'Why? The question was snapped out, accompanied by narrowed eyes.

'Okay. The Void is a mystery that is beyond even ANA to unravel. If we can ever figure it out we will have advanced our understanding of the universe by a significant factor.

'Huh. Do yourself a favour, laddy, forget ANA. Bunch of decadent aristos who've been mentally taxidermied. Like they care what happens to physical humans. It's the Raiel we're helping, a people who are worth a bit of investment. And even those galumphing masterminds are stumped. You know what the Navy engineers found when they were excavating the foundations for this very garden dome?


'More ruins. LionWalker took a comfortable gulp of whisky.

I see.

'No you don't. They were practically fossilized, nothing more than dust strata, over three quarters of a million years old. And from what I've picked up, looking at the early records the Raiel deign to make available, the observation has been going on a lot longer than that. A million years pecking away at a problem. Now that's dedication for you. We'd no be able to manage that, far too petty.

'Speak for yourself.

'Ah, I might have known, a believer.

'In what?


'That must be pretty common among the staff here, surely? Inigo was wondering how to disengage himself, the director was starting to irritate him.

'Damn right, laddy. One of the few things that keeps me all cheered up out here all by my wee lonesome. Och… here we go. Lionwalker tipped his head back, and stared out across the dome where the low layer of hazy light faded away. Overhead, the crystal was completely transparent, revealing the vast antagonistic nebulas that washed across the sky. Hundreds of stars shone through the glowing veil, spikes of light so intense they burned towards violet and into indigo. They multiplied towards the horizon as the planet spun slowly to face the Wall, that vast barrier of massive stars which formed the outermost skin of the galactic core.

'We can't see the Void from here, can we? Inigo asked. He knew it was a stupid question. The Void was obscured on the other side of the Wall, right at the very heart of the galaxy. Centuries ago, before anyone had even ventured out of Earth's solar system, human astronomers had thought it was a massive black hole, they'd even detected X-ray emissions from the vast loop of superheated particles spinning round the event horizon, which helped confirm their theories. It wasn't until Wilson Kime captained the Commonwealth Navy' ship Endeavour in the first successful human circumnavigation of the galaxy in 2560 that the truth was discovered. There was indeed an impenetrable event horizon at the core, but it didn't surround anything as natural and mundane as a superdense mass of dead stars. The Void was an artificial boundary guarding a legacy billions of years old. The Raiel claimed there was an entire universe inside, one that had been fashioned by a race that lived during the dawn of the galaxy. They had retreated into it to consummate their journey to the absolute pinnacle of evolution. In their wake, the Void was now slowly consuming the remaining stars in the galaxy. In that it was no different from the natural black holes found anchoring the centre of many galaxies; but while they employed gravity and entropy to pull in mass, the Void actively devoured stars. It was a process that was slowly yet inexorably accelerating. Unless it was stopped, the galaxy would die young, maybe three or four billion years before its allotted time. Far enough in the future that Sol would be a cold ember and the human race not even a memory. But the Raiel cared. This was the galaxy they were born in, and they believed it should be given the chance to live its full life.

LionWalker gave a little snort of amusement. 'No, of course you can't see it. Don't panic, laddy, there's no visible nightmare in our skies. DF7 is rising, that's all. He pointed.

Inigo waited, and after a minute an azure crescent drifted up over the horizon. It was half the size of Earth's moon, with a strangely regular black mottling. He let out a soft breath of admiration.

There were fifteen of the planet-sized machines orbiting within the Centurion Station star system. Nests of concentric lattice spheres, each one possessing a different mass property and quantum field intersection, with the outer shell roughly the same diameter as Saturn. They were Raiel-built; a 'defence system' in case a Void devourment phase broke through the Wall. No one had ever seen them in action, not even the Jadradesh.

'Okay. That is impressive, Inigo said. The DFs were in the files, of course. But a machine on that scale and head-on real was awesome.

'You'll fit in, LionWalker declared happily. He slapped a hand on Inigo's shoulder. 'Go find yourself a drink. I made sure we had the very best culinary programs for alcohol synthesis. You can take that as a challenge. He moved on to the next arrival.

Keeping one eye on DF7, Inigo made his way over to the bar. LionWalker wasn't kidding, the drinks were top quality, even the vodka that fountained up through the mermaid ice sculpture.

* * * * *

Inigo stayed at the party longer than he expected to. There was something about being thrown together with a bunch of like-minded devoted people that instinctively triggered his normally dormant social traits. By the time he finally got back to his apartment his biononics had been deflecting alcohol infiltration of his neurones for several hours. Even so, he permitted some to percolate through his artificial defences, enough to generate a mild inebriation and all the associated merits. He was going to have to live with these people for another year. No advantage in appearing aloof.

As he crawled into bed he ordered a complete de-saturation. That was one superb benefit of biononics: no hangover.

And so Inigo dreamed his first dream at Centurion Station. It wasn't his.


Aaron spent the whole day mingling with the faithful of the Living Dream movement in Golden Park's vast plaza, eavesdropping on their restless talk about the succession, drinking water from the mobile catering stalls, trying to find some shade from the searing sun as the heat and coastal humidity rose relentlessly. He thought he remembered arriving at daybreak; certainly the expanse of marble cobbles had been virtually empty as he walked across it. The tips of the splendid white metal pillars surrounding the area had all been crowned with rose-gold light as the local star rose above the horizon. He'd smiled round appreciatively at the outline of the replica city, matching up the topography surrounding Golden Park with the dreams he'd gathered from the gaiafield over the last… well, for quite some time. Golden Park had started to fill up rapidly after that, with the faithful arriving from the other districts of Makkathran2 across the canal bridges and ferried in by a fleet of gondolas. By midday there must have been close to a hundred thousand of them. They all faced the Orchard Palace which sprawled possessively over the Anemone district on the other side of the Outer Circle Canal like a huddle of high dunes. And there they waited and waited with badly disguised impatience for the Cleric Council to come to a decision. Any sort of decision. The Council had been in conclave for three days now, how long could they possibly take to elect a new Conservator?

At one point in the morning he'd edged his way right up beside the Outer Circle Canal, close to the central wire and wood bridge that arched over to Anemone. It was closed, of course, as were the other two bridges on that section; while in ordinary times anyone from ultra-devout to curious tourist could cross over and wander round the vast Orchard Palace, today it had been sealed off by fit-looking junior Clerics who had undergone a lot of muscle enrichment. Camped out to one side of the temporarily forbidden bridge were hundreds of journalists from all over the Greater Commonwealth, most of them outraged by the stubborn refusal of Living Dream to leak information their way. They were easily identifiable by their chic modern clothes, and faces which were obviously maintained at peak gloss by a membrane of cosmetic scales; not even Advancer DNA produced complexions that good.

Behind them the bulk of the crowd buzzed about discussing their favourite candidate. If Aaron was judging the mood correctly, then just about ninety-five per cent of them were rooting for Ethan. They wanted him because they were done with waiting, with patience, with the status quo preached by all the other lacklustre caretakers since the Dreamer himself, Inigo, had slipped away from public life. They wanted someone who would bring their whole movement to that blissful moment of fulfilment they'd been promised from the moment they'd tasted Inigo's first dream.

Some time in the afternoon Aaron realized the woman was watching him. Nothing obvious, she wasn't staring or following him about. Instinct smoothly clicked his awareness to her location — which was an interesting trait to know he had. From then on he was conscious of where she would casually wander in order to keep an easy distance between them, how she would never have her eyes in his direction when he glanced at her. She wore a simple short-sleeved rusty-orange top and knee-length blue trousers of some modern fabric. A little different to the faithful who tended to wear the more primitive rustic clothes of wool, cotton, and leather which were favoured by Makkathran's citizens, but not contemporary enough to be obvious. Nor did her looks make her stand out. She had a flattish face and a cute-ish button nose; some of the time her slim copper shades were across her eyes, while often she had them perched up in her short dark hair. Her age was unknowable, like everyone in the Greater Commonwealth her appearance was locked into biological mid twenties. He was certain she was well past her first couple of centuries. Again, no tangible proof.

After they'd played the orbiting satellites game for forty minutes he walked over, keeping his smile pleasant. There were no pings coming off her that his macrocellular clusters could detect, no active links to the Unisphere, nor any active sensor activity. Electronically, she was as Stone Age as the city.

'Hello, he said.

She pushed her shades up with the tip of a finger and gave him a playful grin. 'Hello yourself. So what brings you here?

'This is a historic event.


'Do I know you? His instinct had been right, he saw; she was nothing like the placid faithful shuffling round them, her body language was all wrong; she could keep tight control of herself, enough to fool anyone without his training — training? — but he could sense the attitude coiled up inside.

'Should you know me?

He hesitated. There was something familiar about her face, something he should know about her. He couldn't think what, for the simple reason that he didn't have any memories to pull up and examine. Not of anything, now he thought about it, certainly he didn't seem to have had a life prior to today. He knew that was all wrong, yet that didn't bother him either. 'I don't recall.

'How curious. What's your name?


Her laughter surprised him. 'What? he asked.

'Number one, eh? How lovely'

Aaron's answering grin was forced. 'I don't understand.

'If you wanted to list terrestrial animals where would you start?

'Now you've really lost me.

'You'd start with the aardvark. Double A, it's top of the list.

'Oh, he mumbled. 'Yeah, I get it.

'Aaron, she chuckled. 'Someone had a sense of humour when they sent you here.

'Nobody sent me.

'Really? She arched a thick eyebrow. 'So you just sort of found yourself at this historic event, did you?

'That's about it, yes.

She dropped the copper band back down over her eyes, and shook her head in mock-dismay. 'There are several of us here, you know. I don't believe that's an accident, do you?


Her hand gestured round at the crowd. 'You don't count yourself as one of these sheep, do you? A believer? Someone who thinks they can find a life at the end of these dreams Inigo so generously gifted to the Commonwealth?

'I suppose not, no.

'There's a lot of people watching what happens here. It's important, after all, and not just for the Greater Commonwealth. If there's a Pilgrimage into the Void some species claim it could trigger a devourment phase which will bring about the end of the galaxy. Would you want that to happen, Aaron?

She was giving him a very intent stare. 'That would be a bad thing, he temporized. 'Obviously. In truth he had no opinion. It wasn't something he thought about.

'Obvious to some, an opportunity to others.

'If you say so.

'I do. She licked her lips with mischievous amusement. 'So, are you going to try for my Unisphere code? Ask me out for a drink?

'Not today.

She pouted fulsomely. 'How about unconditional sex, then, any way you like it?

'I'll bank that one, too, thanks, he laughed.

'You do that. Her shoulders moved up in a slight shrug. 'Goodbye, Aaron.

'Wait, he said as she turned away. 'What's your name?

'You don't want to know me, she called out. 'I'm bad news.

'Goodbye, Bad News.

There was a genuine smile on her face as she looked back at him. A finger wagged. 'That's what I remember best, she said, and was gone.

He smiled at the rear of her rapidly departing head. She vanished quickly enough amid the throng; after a minute even he couldn't spot her. He'd seen her originally because she wanted him too, he realized.

Us, she'd said, there are a lot like us here. That didn't make a lot of sense. But then she'd stirred up a lot of questions. Why am I here? he wondered. There was no solid answer in his mind other than it was the right place for him to be, he wanted to see who was elected. And the memories, why don't I have any memories of anything else? It ought to bother him, he knew, memories were the fundamental core of human identity, yet even that emotion was lacking. Strange. Humans were emotionally complex entities, yet he didn't appear to be; but he could live with it, something deep inside him was sure he'd solve the mystery of himself eventually. There was no hurry.

Towards late afternoon the crowd began to thin out as the announcement remained obstinately unforthcoming. Aaron could see disappointment on the faces moving past him on their way home, a sentiment echoed by the whispers of emotion within the local gaiafield. He opened his mind to the thoughts surrounding him, allowing them to wash in through the gateway which the gaiamotes had germinated inside his cerebellum. It was like walking through a fine mist of spectres, bestowing the plaza with flickers of unreal colour, images of times long gone yet remembered fondly; sounds muffled, as experienced through fog. His recollection of when he'd joined the gaiafield community was as hazy as the rest of his time before today, it didn't seem like the kind of thing he would do, too whimsical. Gaiafield was for adolescents who considered the multisharing of dreams and emotions to be deep and profound, or fanatics like Living Dream. But he was proficient enough with the concept of voluntarily shared thoughts and memories to grasp a coherent sensation from his exposure to the raw minds in the plaza. Of course, if it could be done anywhere it would be here in Makkathran2, which Living Dream had made the capital of the Greater Commonwealth's gaiafield — with all the contradictions that threw up. To the faithful, the gaiafield was almost identical to the genuine telepathy which the citizens of the real Makkathran possessed.

Aaron felt their sorrow first hand as the day began to wind down, with several stronger undercurrents of anger directed at the Cleric Council. In a society where you shared thoughts and feelings, so the consensus went, an election really shouldn't be so difficult. He also perceived their subliminal wish slithering through the gaiafield: Pilgrimage. The one true hope of the whole movement.

Despite the regret now gusting around him, Aaron stayed where he was. He didn't have anything else to do. The sun had almost fallen to the horizon when there was some movement on the broad balcony along the front of the Orchard Palace. All across the plaza, people suddenly smiled and pointed. There was a gentle yet urgent movement towards the Outer Circle Canal. Security force fields along the side of the water expanded, cushioning those shoved up against the railings as the pressure of bodies increased behind them. Various news company camera pods zoomed through the air like glitter-black festival balloons, adding to the thrill. Within seconds the mood in the plaza had lifted to fiery anticipation; the gaiafield suddenly crackled with excitement, its intensity rising until Aaron had to withdraw slightly to avoid being deluged by the clashing storms of colour and ethereal shouts.

The Cleric Council marched solemnly out on to the balcony, fifteen figures wearing full length scarlet and black robes. And in their centre was a lone figure whose robe was a dazzling white, edged in gold, the hood pulled forward to obscure the face inside. The dying sun glowed against the, soft cloth, creating a nimbus around him. A huge cheer went up from the crowd. Camera pods edged in as close to the balcony as their operators dared; Palace force fields rippled in warning, keeping them back. As one, the Cleric Council reached out into the gaiafield with their minds; Unisphere access followed swiftly, making the grand announcement available right across the Greater Commonwealth to followers and nullifidians alike.

In the middle of the balcony, the white-robed figure reached up and slowly pushed back the hood. Ethan smiled beatifically out across the city and its adulating faithful. There was a kindness about his thin solemn face which suggested he was attuned to all their fears; he sympathized and understood. Everyone could see the dark bags under his eyes which could only come from the burden of accepting such a terrible high office, of carrying the expectations of every Dreamer. As his face was exposed to the rich sunlight so the cheering down in the plaza had increased. Now the other members of the Cleric Council turned towards the new Cleric Conservator, and applauded contentedly.

Without conscious intervention, the ancillary thought routines operating inside Aaron's macrocellular clusters animated his ocular zoom. He scanned along the faces of the Cleric Council, designating each image with an integral code as the ancillary routines slotted them into macrocellular storage lacunas ready for instant recall. Later he would study them for any betraying emotion, an indicator of how they had argued and voted.

He hadn't known he had the zoom function, which piqued his curiosity. At his request the secondary thought routines ran a systems check through the macrocellular clusters enriching his nervous system. Exoimages and mental icons unfolded from neutral status to standby in his peripheral vision, lines of shifting iridescence bracketing his natural sight. The exoimages were all default symbols generated by his u-shadow, the personal interface with the Unisphere which would instantly connect him to any of its massive data, communication, entertainment, and commerce functions. All standard stuff.

However, the mental icons he examined represented a great deal more than the standard physiological enrichments which Advancer DN A placed at the disposal of a human body; if he was reading their summaries correctly he was enriched with some extremely lethal biononic field function weaponry.

I know something else about me, he thought, I have an Advancer heritage. It was hardly a revelation, eighty per cent of Greater Commonwealth citizens had similar modifications sequenced into their DNA thanks to the old fanatic genetic visionaries on Far Away. But having biononics as well narrowed the scope fractionally, putting Aaron closer to his true origin.

Ethan raised his hands in an appeal for silence. The plaza fell quiet as the faithful held their breath, even the babble from the media pack was stilled. A sensation of serenity coupled with steely resolution issued out of the new Cleric Conservator into the gaiafield. Ethan was a man who was sure of his purpose.

'I thank my fellow Councillors for this magnificent honour, Ethan said. 'As I begin my tenure I will do what I believe our Dreamer wanted. He showed us the way — nobody can deny that. He showed us where life can be lived and changed until it is perfect however you chose to define that as an individual. I believe he showed us this for a reason. This city he built. The devotion he engendered. It was for one purpose. To live the Dream. That is what we will now do.

There was cheering out on the plaza.

'The Second Dream has begun! We have known it in our hearts. You have known it. I have known it. We have been shown inside the Void again. We have soared with the Sky lord.

Aaron scanned the Council again. He no longer needed to review and analyse their faces for later. Five of them already looked deeply uncomfortable. Around him the cheering was building to an inevitable climax, as was the speech.

'The Skylord awaits us. It will guide us to our destiny. We will Pilgrimage?

Cheering turned to a naked, violent roar of adulation. Inside the gaiafield, it was as though someone was setting off fireworks fuelled by pleasure narcotics. The burst of euphoria surging through the artificial neural universe was awesome in its brightness.

Ethan waved victoriously to the faithful, then gave a last smile and went back inside the Orchard Palace.

Aaron waited as the crowd wound down. So many cried with joy as they departed he had to shake his head in dismay at their simplicity. Happiness here was universal, obligatory. The sun crept down behind the horizon, revealing a city where every window glowed with warm tangerine light — just as they did in the real one. Songs drifted along the canals as the gondoliers gave voice to their delight in traditional fashion. Eventually even the reporters began to drift away, chattering among themselves; those with doubts were keeping their voices low. Out in the Unisphere, news anchors and political commentators on hundreds of worlds were beginning their sombre doomsday predictions.

None of it bothered Aaron. He was still standing in the plaza as the civic bots emerged into the starlight and began clearing away the rubbish which the excitable crowd had left behind. He now knew what he had to do next; the certainty had struck him as soon as he heard Ethan speak. Find Inigo. That's why he was here.

Aaron smiled contentedly around the dark plaza, but there was no sign of the woman. 'Now who's bad news? he asked, and walked back into the jubilant city.

* * * * *

Looking out from the balcony along the front of the Orchard Palace, Ethan watched the last rays of the sun slide over the crowd like a translucent gold veneer. Their cries of near-religious approval echoed off the thick walls of the Palace, he could even feel the vibration in the stone balustrade in front of him. Not that there had even been any inner doubts for him during his long difficult progress, but the response of the faithful was profoundly comforting. He knew he was right to push for his own vision, to haul the whole movement out of its slothful complacency. That was evolution's message: go forward or die. The reason for the Void's existence.

Ethan closed his mind to the gaiafield and strode off the balcony as the sun finally sank below the horizon. The others of the council followed respectfully, their scarlet cloaks fluttering in agitation as they hurried to keep up.

His personal secretary, Chief Cleric Phelim, was waiting at the top of the broad ebony stairs which curved down to the cavernous Malfit Hall on the ground level. The man was in the grey and blue robes which indicated a rank just below that of a full Councillor — a status which Ethan was going to elevate in the next couple of days. His hood was hanging down his back, allowing the soft orange lighting to glimmer off the black skin of his shaven scalp. It gave him a formidable skeletal appearance unusual amid Living Dream members who followed the fashion of long hair that was prevalent in Makkathran. When he fell in beside Ethan he was almost a head taller. That height along with a face that could remain unnervingly impassive had been useful for unsettling a great many people; he could talk to anyone with his mind fully open to the gaiafield, and yet his emotional tone was completely beyond reach. Again, not something the politely passive community of Living Dream were accustomed to. To the Council hierarchy, Phelim and his mannerisms were an uncomfortable intruder. Privately, Ethan rather enjoyed the consternation his utterly loyal deputy generated.

The giant Malfit Hall was full of Clerics who began applauding as soon as Ethan reached the bottom of the stairs. He took the time to bow at them as he made his way across the sheer black floor, smiling thanks and occasionally nodding in recognition. The images on the arching ceiling overhead mimicked the sky of Querencia; Malfit Hall was perpetually locked in dawn, producing a clear turquoise vault, with the ochre globe of the solid world Nikran circling gently around the edge, magnified to an extent where mountain ranges and a few scudding clouds were visible. Ethan's procession moved on into the Liliala Hall, where the ceiling hosted a perpetual storm, with its seething mantle of glowing clouds haloed in vivid purple lightning. Intermittent gaps allowed glimpses of the Mars Twins belonging to the Gicon's Bracelet formation, small featureless planets with a deep, dense red atmosphere that guarded whatever surface they might have from any enquiry. Senior Clerics were gathered beneath the flashing clouds. Ethan took longer here, muttering several words of thanks to those he knew, allowing his mind to radiate a gentle pride into the gaiafield.

At the arching door into the suite of rooms which the Mayor of Makkathran used to hold office, Ethan turned to the Councillors. 'I thank you once more for you confidence in me. Those who were reluctant in their endorsement, I promise to double my efforts to gain your support and trust in the years ahead.

If any of them were vexed with their dismissal they shielded such thoughts from the openness of the gaiafield. He and Phelim alone passed into the private quarters. Inside, there were a series of grand interconnecting chambers. The heavy wooden doors were as intrusive here as they were in Makkathran; whatever species designed and built the original city clearly didn't have the psychology for enclosing themselves. Through the gaiafield, he could sense his own staff moving about within the reception rooms around him. His predecessor's team were withdrawing, their frail emotions of disgruntlement leaking into the gaiafield. Handover was normally a leisurely good-spirited affair. Not this time. Ethan wanted his authority stamped on the Orchard Palace within hours. Before the conclave began, he'd prepared an inner circle of loyalists to take charge of the main administrative posts of Living Dream. And as Ellezelin was a hierocracy, he was also faced with endorsing a new cabinet for the planet's civil government as well.

His predecessor, Jalen, had furnished the Mayor's sanctum in paoviool blocks, resembling chunks of stone that shaped itself as required, a state intuited from the gaiafield. Ethan settled into the seat that formed behind the long rectangular slab of desk. Dissatisfaction manifested itself in small emerald sparkles erupting like an optical rash on the paoviool surfaces around him.

'I want this modern rubbish out of here by tomorrow, Ethan said.

'Of course, Phelim said. 'Do you want Inigo's furnishings restored?

'No. I want this as the Waterwalker showed us.

Phelim actually smiled. 'Much better.

Ethan glanced round the oval sanctum with its plain walls and high windows. Despite his familiarity with the chamber he felt as if he'd never seen it before. 'For Ozzie's sake, we did it! he exclaimed, letting out a long breath of astonishment. 'I'm sweating. Actually sweating. Can you believe that? When he brought his hand up to his brow, he realized he was trembling. For all the years he'd planned and worked and sacrificed for this moment, the reality of success had taken him completely by surprise. It had been a hundred and fifty years since he infused the gaiamotes in order to experience the gaiafield; and on his very first night of communion he'd witnessed Inigo's First Dream. A hundred and fifty years, and the reticent adolescent from the backwater External World of Oamaru had reached one of the most influential positions in the Greater Commonwealth still available to a simple Natural human.

'You were the one they all wanted, Phelim said; he stood slightly to one side of the desk, ignoring the big cubes of paoviool where he could have sat.

'We did it together.

'Let's not fool ourselves here. I would never be considered even for the Council.

'Ordinarily, no. Ethan looked round the sanctum again. The enormity was starting to sink in. He began to wonder what the Void would look like when he could see it with his own eyes.

Once, decades ago, he had met Inigo. He hadn't been disappointed, exactly, but the Dreamer hadn't quite been what he'd expected. Not that he was sure what the Dreamer should have been like — more forceful and dynamic, perhaps.

'You want to begin? Phelim asked.

'I think that's best. The Ellezelin cabinet are all faithful Living Dream members, so they can remain more or less as they are, with one exception. I want you as the Treasury Secretary.


'We're going to build the starships for Pilgrimage. That isn't going to be cheap, we'll need the full financial resources of the whole Free Market Zone to fund construction. I need someone in the Treasury I can depend on.

'I thought I was going to join the Council.

'You are. I will elevate you tomorrow.

'Two senior posts. That should be interesting when it comes to juggling schedules. And the empty seat on the Council I shall be filling?

'I'm going to ask Corrie-Lyn to consider her position.

Phelim's face betrayed a hint of censure. 'She's hardly your greatest supporter on the Council, admittedly, but I think she'd actually welcome Pilgrimage. Perhaps one of our less progressive colleagues…? p

'It's to be Corrie-Lyn, Ethan said firmly. 'The remaining Councillors who oppose Pilgrimage are in a minority, and we can deal with them at our leisure. Nobody will be challenging my mandate. The faithful wouldn't tolerate it.

'Corrie-Lyn it is, then. Let's just hope Inigo doesn't come back before we launch the starships. You know they were lovers?

'It's the only reason she's a Councillor. Ethan narrowed his eyes. 'Are we still looking for Inigo?

'Our friends are, Phelim told him. 'We don't quite have those sort of resources. There's been no sign of him that they've reported. Realistically, if your succession to Conservator doesn't bring him back within the first month or so, I'd say we are in the clear.

'Badly phrased. That makes it sound like we've done something wrong.

'But we don't know why Inigo was reluctant to Pilgrimage.

'Inigo is only human, he has flaws like the rest of us. Call it a failure of nerve at the last moment if you want to be charitable. My own belief is that he'll be watching events from somewhere, cheering us on.

'I hope so. Phelim paused as he reviewed the information accumulating in his exoimages, his u-shadow was balancing local data with a comprehensive overview of the election. 'Marius is here, requesting an audience.

'That didn't take him long, did it?

'No. There are a lot of formalities required of you tonight. The Greater Commonwealth President will be calling to congratulate you, as will the leaders of the Free Market planets, and dozens of our External World allies.

'How is the Unisphere coverage?

'Early days. Phelim checked the summaries his u-shadow was providing. 'Pretty much what we were expecting. Some hysterical anti-Pilgrimage hotheads saying you're going to kill all of us. Most of the serious anchors are trying to be balanced, and explain the difficulties involved. The majority seem to regard Pilgrimage as a politician's promise.

'There are no difficulties in accomplishing Pilgrimage, Ethan said in annoyance. 'I have seen the Skylord's dream. It is a noble creature, it will lead us inside the Void. We just have to locate the Second Dreamer. Any developments on that today?

'None. Thousands are coming forward claiming to be dreaming the Skylord. They don't help our search.

'You must find him.

'Ethan… it took our best Dream Masters months to assemble the existing fragments into the small dream we have. We believe in this case there is no firm link such as Inigo had with the Void. These fragments, they could be entering the gaiafield in a number of ways. Unaware carriers. Directly from the Void? Perhaps it's Ozzie's galactic field. Then there's an overspill from the Silfen Motherholme or some other post-physical sentient having fun at our expense. Even Inigo himself.

'It's not Inigo. I know that. I know the feel of his dreams, we all do. This is something different. I was the one who was drawn to those first few fragments, remember. I realized what they were. There is a Second Dreamer.

'Well, now you are Conservator you can authorize a more detailed monitoring of the gaiafield's confluence nests, track down the origin that way.

'Is that possible? I thought the gaiafield was beyond our direct influence.

'The Dream Masters claim they can do this, yes. Certain modifications can be made to the nests. It won't be cheap.

Ethan sighed. The conclave had been mentally exhausting, and that had just been the beginning. 'So many things. All at once.

'I'll help you. You know that.

'I do. And I thank you, my friend. One day we'll stand in the real Makkathran. One day we will make our lives perfect.


'For Ozzie's sake I hope so. Now, ask Marius in, please. Ethan stood courteously to receive his guest. That it should be the ANA Faction representative he saw first was a telling point. He didn't relish the way he and Phelim had relied on Marius during his campaign to be elected Conservator. In an ideal universe they would have needed no outside aid, certainly not one with so many potentially worrying strings attached. Not that there was ever any suggestion of quid pro quo from Marius. None of the Factions inside the near-post-physical intelligence of Earth's Advanced Neural Activity system would ever be so blunt.

The representative smiled courteously as he was shown in. Of average height, he had a round face with sharp green eyes emphasized by wide irises; nose and mouth were narrow, and his ears were large but flattened back so severely they could have been ridges in the skull. His thick auburn hair was flecked with gold, no doubt the outcome of some Advancer ancestor vanity. There was nothing to indicate his Higher functions. Ethan was using his internal enrichments to run a passive scan, and if any of the representative's field functions were active they were too sophisticated to perceive. He wouldn't be surprised by that, Marius would be enriched with the most advanced biononics in existence. The representative's long black toga suit generated its own surface haze which flowed about him like a slim layer of mist, the faintest tendrils slithered behind him as he walked.

'Your Eminence, Marius said, and bowed formally. 'My most sincere congratulations on your election.

Ethan smiled. It was all he could do not to shudder. Every deep-honed primitive instinct he possessed had picked up on how dangerous the representative was. 'Thank you.

'I'm here to assure you we will continue our support of your goals.

'You don't consider Pilgrimage will trigger the end of the galaxy, then? What he desperately wanted to ask was: who is we? But there were so many Factions inside ANA constantly making and breaking alliances it was virtually a null question. It was enough the Faction Marius represented wanted the Pilgrimage to go ahead. Ethan no longer cared that their reasons were probably the antithesis of his own, or if they regarded him as a simple political tool. Not that he would ever know. Pilgrimage was what mattered, delivering the faithful to their promised universe. All that mattered, in fact. He didn't care if he assisted someone else's political goal as long as it didn't interfere with his own.

'Of course not. Marius grinned in such a way it was as if they were sharing some private joke about how stupid the rest of humanity was compared to themselves. 'If that was the case, then those already in the Void would have triggered that event.

'People need to be educated. I would appreciate your help with that.

'We will do what we can, of course. However, we arc both working against a considerable amount of mental inertia, not to mention prejudice.

'I am very conscious of that. The Pilgrimage will polarize opinion across the Greater Commonwealth.

'Not just those of humans. There are a number of species who are showing an interest in this development.

'The Ocisen Empire, Ethan spat it out with as much contempt as possible.

'Not to be entirely underestimated, Marius said. It wasn't quite chiding.

'The only ones I concern myself with are the Raiel. They have publicly stated their opposition to anyone trying to enter the Void.

'Which is of course where our assistance will be most beneficial to you. Our original offer still stands, we will supply ultrad-rives for your Pilgrimage ships.

Ethan, a scholar of ancient history, guessed this was what the old religious icon Adam had felt when he was offered the apple. 'And in return?

'The status quo which currently reigns in the Greater Commonwealth will be over. .

'And that benefits you, how?

'Species survival. Evolution requires progression or extinction.

'I thought you would be aiming for transcendence, Phelim said flatly.

Marius didn't even look in his direction, his eyes remained fixed on Ethan. 'And that isn't evolution?

'It's a very drastic evolution, Ethan said.

'Not unlike your hopes of Pilgrimage.

'So why not join us?

Marius answered with a mirthless smile. 'loin us, Conservator.

Ethan sighed. 'We've dreamed what awaits us.

'Ah, so it boils down to the old human problem. Risk the unknown, or go with the comfortable.

'I think the phrase you want is: better the devil you know.

'Whatever. Your Eminence, we still offer you the ultradrive.

'Which no one has ever really seen. You just hint at it.

'ANA tends to be somewhat protective towards its advanced technologies. However, I assure you it is real. Ultradrive is at least equal to the drive used by the Raiel, if not superior.

Ethan tried not to smile at the arrogance.

'Oh, I assure you, Conservator, Marius said. 'ANA does not make that boast lightly.

'I'm sure it doesn't. So when can you supply them?

'When your Pilgrimage ships are ready, the drives will be here.

'And the rest of ANA, the Factions which don't agree with you, they'll just stand by and quietly let you hand over this supertechnology?

'Effectively, yes. Do not concern yourself with our internal debates.

'Very well, I accept your most generous offer. Please don't be offended, but we will also be building our own more mundane drive units for the ships — just in case.

'We expected nothing else. Marius bowed again, and left the room.

Phelim let out a soft whistle of relief. 'So that's it, we're just a trigger factor in their political wars.

Ethan tried to sound blase. 'If it gets us what we want, I can live with it.

'I think you are wise not to rely on them exclusively. We must include our own drives in the construction program.

'Yes. The design teams have worked on that premise from the beginning. His secondary routines started to pull files from the storage lacunas in his macrocellular clusters. 'In the meantime, let us begin with some simple appointments, shall we?

* * * * *

Aaron walked across the red marble bridge that arched over Sisterhood Canal, linking Golden Park with the Low Moat district. A strip of simple paddock land which had no city buildings, only stockades for commercial animals, and a couple of archaic markets. He strode along the meandering paths illuminated by small oil lanterns hanging from posts and on into the Ogden district. This was also grassland, bill contained the majority of the city's wooden-built stables where the aristocracy kept their horses and carriages. It was where the main city gate had been cut into the wall.

The gates were open wide when he went through, mingling with little groups of stragglers heading back to the urban expanse outside. Makkathran2 was surrounded by a two-mile-wide strip of parkland separating it from the vast modern metropolis which had sprung up around it over the last two centuries. Greater Makkathran2 now sprawled over four hundred square miles, an urban grid that contained sixteen million people, ninety-nine per cent of whom were devout Living Dream followers. It was now the capital of Ellezelin, taking over from the original capital city of Riasi after the 3379 election returned a Living Dream majority to the planetary senate.

There was no powered transport across the park; no ground taxis or underground train, or even pedwalk strips. And, of course, no capsule was allowed into Makkathran2's airspace. Inigo's thinking was simple enough; the faithful would never mind walking the distance; that was what everyone did on Querencia. He wanted authenticity to be the governing factor in his movement's citadel. Riding across the park, however, was permissible, after all, Querencia had horses. Aaron smiled at that notion as he set off past the gates. Then an elusive memory flickered like a dying hologram. There was a time when he had clung to the neck of some giant horse as they galloped across an undulating terrain. The movement was powerful and rhythmic, yet strangely leisurely. It was as if the horse was gliding rather than galloping; bounding forward. He knew exactly how to flow with it, grinning wildly as they raced onwards. Air blasting against his face, hair wild. Astonishingly deep sapphire sky bright and warm above. The horse had a small, tough-looking horn at the top of its forehead. Tipped with the traditional black metal spike.

Aaron grunted dismissively. It must have been some sensory immersion drama he'd accessed on the Unisphere. Not real.

The midpoint of the park was a uniform ridge. When Aaron reached the crest it was as though he was stepping across a rift in time; behind him the quaintly archaic profile of Makkathran2 bathed in its alien orange glow; while in front were the modernistic block towers and neat district grids producing a multicoloured haze that stretched over the horizon. Regrav capsules slipped effortlessly through the air above it in strictly maintained traffic streams, long horizontals bands of fast motion winding up into cycloidal junctions that knitted the city together in a pulsing kinetic dance. In the south-eastern sky he could see the brighter lights of starships as they slipped in and out of the atmosphere directly above the spaceport. A never-ending procession of big cargo craft providing the city with economic bonds to planets outside the reach of the official Free Market Zone wormholes.

When he reached the outer rim of the park he told his u-shadow to call a taxi. A glossy jade-coloured regrav capsule dropped silently out of the traffic swarm above and dilated its door. Aaron settled on the front bench, where he had a good view through the one-way fuselage.

'Hotel Buckingham.

He frowned as the capsule dived back up into the broad stream circling round the dark expanse of park. Had that instruction come from him or his u-shadow?

At the first junction they whipped round and headed deeper into the urban grid. The tree-lined boulevards a regulation hundred metres below actually had a few ground cars driving along the concrete. People rode horses among them. Bicycles were popular. He shook his head in bemusement.

The Hotel Buckingham was a thirty storey pentagon ribbed with balconies, and sending sharp pinnacles soaring up out of each corner. It glowed a lambent pearl-white, except for its hundred of windows which were black recesses. The roof was a small strip of lush jungle. Tiny lights glimmered among the foliage as patrons dined and danced in the open air.

Aaron's taxi dropped him at the arrivals pad in the centre. He had a credit coin in his pocket, which activated to his DNA and paid for the ride. There was a credit code loaded in a macrocel-lular storage lacuna which he could have used, but the coin made the ride harder to trace. Not impossible by any means, just taking it out of reach of the ordinary citizen. As the taxi took off he glanced up at the tall monochromatic walls fencing him in, feeling unnervingly exposed.

'Am I registered here? he asked his u-shadow.

'Yes. Room 3088. A penthouse suite.

'I see. He turned and looked directly at the penthouse's balcony. He'd known its location automatically. 'And can I afford that?

'Yes. The penthouse costs 1500 Ellezelin pounds per night. Your credit coin has a limit of five million Ellezelin pounds a month.

'A month?


'Paid by whom?

'The coin is supported by a Central Augusta Bank account. The account details are secure.

'And my personal credit code?

'The same.

Aaron walked into the lobby. 'Nice to be rich, he told himself.

* * * * *

The penthouse was five rooms and a small private swimming pool. As soon as Aaron walked into the main lounge he checked himself out in the mirror. A face older than the norm, approaching thirty, possessing short black hair and (oddly) eyes with a hint of purple in their grey irises. Slightly oriental features, but with skin that was rough, and a dark stubble shadow.

Yep, that's me.

Which instinctive response was reassuring, but still didn't give any clues by way of identity.

He settled into a broad armchair which faced an external window, and turned up the opacity to stare out across the night time city towards the invisible heart which Inigo had built. There was a lot of information in those mock-alien structures which would help him find his quarry. Not the kind of data stored in electronic files; if it was that easy Inigo would have been found by now. No, the information he needed was personal, which brought some unique access problems for someone like him, an unbeliever.

He ordered room service. The hotel was pretentious enough to employ human chefs. When the food arrived he could appreciate the subtleties of its preparation, there was a definite difference to culinary unit produce. He sat in the big chair, watching the city as he ate. Any route in to the senior Clerics and Councillors wouldn't be easy, he realized. But then, this Pilgrimage had presented him with a fairly unique opportunity. If they were going to fly into the Void, they'd need ships. It gave him an easy enough cover. That just left the problem of who to try and cultivate.

His u-shadow produced an extensive list of senior Clerics, providing him with gossip about who was allied with Ethan and who, post-election, was going to be scrubbing Council toilets for the next few decades.

It took him half the night, but the name was there. It was even featured on the city news web as Ethan began reorganizing Living Dream's hierarchy to suit his own policy. Not obvious, but it had a lot of potential: Corrie-Lyn.

* * * * *

The courier case arrived at Troblum's apartment an hour before he was due to make his presentation to the Navy review panel. He wrapped a cloak round himself and walked out to the glass lift in the lobby as the emerald fabric adjusted itself to his bulk. Ancient mechanical systems whirred and clanked as the lift slid smoothly downwards. They weren't totally original, of course, technically the whole building dated back over one thousand three hundred and fifty years. During that time there had been a lot of refurbishment and restoration work. Then five hundred years ago a stabilizer field generator was installed, which maintained the molecular bonds inside all the antique bricks, girders, and composite sheets comprising the main body of the building. Essentially, as long as there was power to the generator, entropy was held at arm's length.

Troblum had managed to acquire custodianship over a hundred years ago, following a somewhat obsessional twenty-seven year campaign. Nobody owned property on Arevalo any more, it was a Higher world, part of the Central Commonwealth — back when the building had been put up they called it phase one space. Persuading the previous tenants to leave had taken up all his Energy and Mass Allocation for years, as well as his meagre social skills. He had used mediator councillors, lawyers, historical restitution experts, and even had to launch an appeal against Daroca City Council who managed the stabilizer generator. During the campaign he'd acquired an unexpected ally which had probably helped swing the whole thing in his favour. Whatever the means, the outcome was that he now had undisputed occupancy rights for the whole building. No one else lived in it, and very few had ever been invited in.

The lift stopped at the entrance hall. Troblum walked past the empty concierge desk to the tall door of stained glass. Outside, the courier case was hovering a metre and a half above the pavement, a dull metal box with transport certificates glowing pink on one end, and shielded against field scans. His u-shadow confirmed the contents and directed it into the hall, where it landed on his trolley. The base opened and deposited the package, a fat silvered cylinder half a metre long. Troblum kept the door open until the case departed, then closed it. Privacy shielding came up around the entrance hall and he walked back into the lift. The trolley followed obediently.

Originally, the building had been a factory, which gave each of the five floors very tall ceilings. Then, as was the way of things in those early days of the Commonwealth, the city expanded and prospered, pushing industry out of the old centre. The factory had been converted into high-class apartments. One of the two penthouse loft apartments which took up the entire fifth floor had been purchased by the Halgarth Dynasty as part of their massive property portfolio on Arevalo. The other apartments had all been restored to a reasonable approximation of their layout and decor in 2380, but Troblum had concentrated his formidable energies on the Halgarth one, where he now lived.

In order to get it as near perfect as possible he had extracted both architect and interior designer plans from the city's deep archive. Those had been complemented by some equally ancient visual recordings from the Michelangelo news show of that era. But his main source of detail had been the forensic scans from the Serious Crimes Directorate which he'd obtained direct from ANA. After combining the data, he had spent five years painstakingly recrafting the extravagant vintage decor; the end result of which gave him three en suite bedrooms and a large open-plan lounge which was separated from a kitchen section by a marble-topped breakfast bar. A window wall had a balcony on the other side, providing a grand view out across the Caspe River.

When the City Council's historical maintenance officer made her final review of the project she'd been delighted with the outcome, but the reason for Troblum's dedication completely eluded her. He'd expected nothing else, her field was the building itself. What had gone on inside at the time of the Starflyer War was his area of expertise. He would never use the word obsession, but that whole episode had become a lot more than just a hobby to him. One day he was determined he would publish the definitive history of the War.

The penthouse door opened for him. Solidos of the three girls were sitting on the blue-leather settee up by the window wall. Catriona Saleeb was dressed in a red and gold robe, its belt tied loosely so that her silk underwear was visible. Long curly black hair tumbled chaotically over her shoulders as she tossed her head. She was the smallest of the three, the solido's animation software holding her image as a bubbly twenty-one-year-old, carefree and eager. Leaning up against her, sipping tea from a big cup was Trisha Marina Halgarth. Her dark heart-shaped face had small dark-green butterfly wing OCtattoos flowing back from each hazel eye, the antique technology undulating slowly in response to each facial motion. Lastly, and sitting just apart from the other two, was Isabella Halgarth. She was a tall blonde, with long straight hair gathered into a single tail. The fluffy white sweater she wore was a great deal more tantalizing that it strictly ought to have been, riding high above her midriff, while her jeans were little more than an outer layer of blue skin running down long athletic legs. Her face had high cheekbones, giving her an aristocratic appearance that was backed up with an attitude of cool distain. While her two friends called out eager hellos to Troblum, she merely acknowledged him with a simple nod.

With a regretful sigh, Troblum told his u-shadow to isolate the girls. They'd been his companions for fifty years, he enjoyed their company a great deal more than any real human. And they helped anchor him in the era he so loved. Unfortunately, he couldn't afford distractions right now, however delightful. It had taken him decades to refine the animation programs and bestow valid I-sentient personalities to each solido. The three of them had shared the apartment during the Starflyer War, becoming involved in a famous disinformation sting by the Starflyer. Isabella herself had been one of the alien's most effective agents operating inside the Commonwealth, seducing high ranking politicians and officials, and subtly manipulating them. For a while after the War, to be Isabella-ed was a Commonwealth-wide phrase meaning to be screwed over. But that infamy had faded eventually. Even among people who routinely lived for over five hundred years, events lost their potency and relevance. Today the Starflyer War was simply one of those formative incidents at the start of the Commonwealth, like Ozzie and Nigel, the Hive, the Endeavour s circumnavigation, and cracking the Planters' nano-tech. When he was younger, Troblum certainly hadn't been interested; then purely by chance he discovered he was descended from someone called Mark Vernon who apparently played a vital role in the War. He'd started to casually research his ancestor, wanting nothing more than a few details, to learn a little chunk of family background. That was a hundred and eighty years ago, and he was still as fascinated by the whole Starflyer War now as he had been when he opened those first files on the period.

The girls turned away from Troblum and the trolley that followed him in, chattering away brightly among themselves. He looked down at the cylinder as it turned transparent. Inside it contained a strut of metal a hundred and fifteen centimetres long; at one end there was a node of plastic where the frayed ends of fibre-optic cable stuck out like a straggly tail. The surface was tarnished and pocked, it was also kinked in the middle, as if something had struck it. Troblum unlocked the end of the cylinder, ignoring the hiss of gas as the protective argon spilled out. There was nothing he could do to stop his hands trembling as he slid the strut out; nor was there anything to be done about his throat muscles tightening. Then he was holding the strut up, actually witnessing the texture of its worn surface against his own skin. He smiled down on it the way a Natural man would regarded his newborn child. Subcutaneous sensors enriching his fingers combined with his Higher field-scan function to run a detailed analysis. The strut was an aluminium-titanium alloy, with a specific hydrocarbon chain reinforcement; it was also two thousand four hundred years old. He was holding in his own hands a piece of the Marie Celeste-, the Starflyer's ship.

After a long moment he put the strut back into the cylinder, and ran the atmospheric purge, sealing it back in argon. He would never physically hold it again, it was too precious for that. It would go into the other apartment where he kept his collection of memorabilia; a small specialist stabilizer field generator would maintain its molecular structure down the centuries. As was fitting.

Troblum acknowledged the authenticity of the strut and authorized his quasi-legal bank account on Wessex to pay the final instalment to the black-market supplier on Far Away who had acquired the item for him. It wasn't that having cash funds was illegal for a Higher, but Higher culture was based on the tenet of individuals being mature and intelligent enough to accept responsibility for themselves and acting within the agreed parameters of societal norm. I am government, was the culture's fundamental political kernel. However there was a lot of flexibility within those strictures. Quiet methods of converting a Higher citizen's Energy and Mass Allocation, the so-called Central Dollar, to actual hard cash acceptable on the External Worlds were well established for those who felt they needed such an option. EMA didn't qualify as money in the traditional sense, it was simply a way of regulating Higher citizen activity, preventing excessive or unreasonable demands being placed on communal resources, of whatever nature, by an individual.

As the trolley headed back out of the apartment, Troblum hurried to his bedroom. He barely had time to shower and put on a toga suit before he was due to leave. The glass lift took him down to the basement garage where his regrav capsule was parked. It was an old model, dating back two centuries, a worn chrome-purple in colour and longer than modern versions, with the forward bodywork stretching out like the nose-cone of some External World aircraft. He clambered in, taking up over half of the front bench which was designed to hold three people. The capsule glided out of the garage and tipped up to join the traffic stream overhead. Ageing internal compensators could barely cope with such a steep angle, so Troblum was pressed back into the cushioning as they ascended.

The centre of Daroca was a pleasing blend of modern structures with their smooth pinnacle geometries, pretty or substantial historical buildings like Troblum's, and the original ample mosaic of parkland which the founding council had laid out. Airborne traffic streams broadly followed the pattern of ancient thoroughfares. Troblum's capsule flew northward under the planet's bronze sunlight, heading out over the newer districts where the buildings were spaced further apart and big individual houses were in the majority.

Low in the western sky he could just make out the bright star that was Air. It was the project which had attracted him to Arevalo in the first place. An attempt to construct an artificial space habitat the size of a gas giant planet. After two centuries effort the project governors had built nearly eighty per cent of the spherical geodesic lattice which would act as both the conductor and generator of a single encapsulating force field. Once it was powered up (siphoning energy directly from the star via a zero-width wormhole) the interior would be filled with a standard oxygen nitrogen atmosphere, harvested from the system's outer moons and gas giants. After that, various biological components both animal and botanical would be introduced, floating around inside to establish a biosphere lifecycle. After that, various biological components both animal and botanical would be introduced, floating around inside to establish a biosphere lifecycle. The end result, a zero-gee environment with a diameter greater than Saturn, would give people the ultimate freedom to fly free, adding an extraordinary new dimension to the whole human experience.

Critics, of which there were many, claimed it was a poor — and pointless — copy of the Silfen Motherholme which Ozzie had discovered, where an entire star was wrapped by a breathable atmosphere. Proponents argued that this was just a stepping stone, an important, inspiring testament that would expand the ability and outlook of Higher culture. Their rationale won them a hard-fought Central Worlds referendum to obtain the EMAs they needed to complete the project.

Troblum, who was first and foremost a physicist, had been attracted to Air by just that rationalization. He had spent a constructive seventy years working to translate theoretical concepts into physical reality, helping to build the force field generators which studded the geodesic lattice. At which point his preoccupation with the Starflyer War had taken over, and he'd gained the attention of people running an altogether more interesting construction project. They made him an offer he couldn't refuse. It often comforted him how that section of his life mirrored that of his illustrious ancestor, Mark.

His capsule descended into the compound of the Commonwealth Navy office. It consisted of a spaceport field lined by two rows of big hangars and maintenance bays. Arevalo was primarily a base for the Navy exploration division. The starships sitting on the field were either long-range research vessels or more standard passenger craft; while the three matt-black towers looming along the northern perimeter housed the astrophysics laboratories and scientific-crew-training facilities. Troblum's capsule drifted through the splayed arches which the main tower stood on, and landed directly underneath it. He walked over to the base of the nearest arch column, toga suit surrounding him in a garish ultraviolet aurora. There weren't many people about, a few officers on their way to regrav capsules. His appearance drew glances; for a Higher to be so big was very unusual. Biononics usually kept a body trim and healthy, it was their primary function. There were a few cases where a slightly unusual biochemical makeup presented operational difficulties for biononics, but that was normally remedied by a small chromosome modification. Troblum refused to consider it. He was what he was, and didn't see the need to apologize for it to anyone in any fashion.

Even the short distance from the capsule to the column made his heart race. He was sweating when he went into the empty vestibule at the base of the column. Deep sensors scanned him and he put his hand on a tester globe, allowing the security system to confirm his DNA. One of the lifts opened. It descended for an unnerving amount of time.

The heavily shielded conference room reserved for his presentation was unremarkable. An oval chamber with an oval rock-wood table in the middle. Ten pearl-white shaper chairs with high backs were arranged round it. Troblum took the one opposite the door, and started running checks with the Navy office net to make sure all the files he needed were loaded properly.

Four Navy officers walked in, three of them in identical toga suits whose ebony surface effect rippled in subdued patterns. Their seniority was evidenced only in small red dots glowing on their shoulders. He recognized all of them without having to reference their u-shadows. Mykala, a third level captain and the local ftl drive bureau director; Eoin, another captain who specialized in alien activities, and Yehudi, the Arevalo office commander. Accompanying them was First Admiral Kazimir Burnelli. Troblum hadn't been expecting him. The shock of seeing the commander of the Commonwealth Navy in person made him stand up quickly. It wasn't just his position that was fascinating, the Admiral was the child of two very important figures of the Starflyer War, and famous for his age: one-thousand-two-hun-dred-and-six years old, seven or eight centuries past the time most Highers downloaded themselves into ANA.

The Admiral wore a black uniform of old-fashioned cloth, stylishly cut. It suited him perfectly, emphasizing broad shoulders and a lean torso, the classic authority figure. He was tall with an olive skin and a handsome face; Troblum recognized some of his father's characteristics, the blunt jaw and jet black hair, but his mother's finer features were there also, a nose that was almost dainty and pale friendly eyes.

'Admiral! Troblum exclaimed.

'Pleased to meet you, Kazimir Burnelli extended a hand.

It took Troblum a moment before he realized what to do, and put out his own hand to shake — suddenly very pleased his toga suit had a cooling web and he was no longer sweating. The social formality file his u-shadow had pushed into his exovision was abruptly withdrawn.

I'll be representing ANA: Governance for this presentation, Kazimir said. Troblum had guessed as much. Kazimir Burnelli was the essential human link in the chain between ANA: Governance and the ships of the Navy deterrent fleet, a position of trust and responsibility he'd held for over eight hundred years. Something in the way he carried himself was indicative of all those centuries he'd lived, an aura of weariness that anyone in his presence couldn't help be aware of.

There were so many things Troblum was desperate to ask, starting with: Have you stayed in your body so long because your father's life was so short? And possibly: Can you get me access to your grandfather? But instead he meekly said, 'Thank you for coming, Admiral. Another privacy shield came on around the chamber, and the net confirmed they were grade-one secure.

'So what have you got for us? the Admiral asked.

'A theory on the Dyson Pair generators, Troblum said. He activated the chamber's web node so the others could share the data and projections in his files, and began to explain.

The Dyson Pair were stars three lightyears apart that were confined within giant force fields. The barriers had been established in AD 1200 by the Anomine for good reason. The Prime aliens who had already spread from their homeworld around Alpha to Beta were pathologically hostile to all biological life except their own. The Starflyer was one of them that had escaped imprisonment, and it had manipulated the Commonwealth into opening the force field around Dyson Alpha, resulting in a war which had killed in excess of fifty million humans. Eventually, the force field had been reactivated by Ozzie and Mark Vernon, ending the War, but it had been a shockingly close call. The Navy had kept an unbroken watch on the stars ever since.

Centuries later, when the Raiel invited the Commonwealth to join the Void observation project at Centurion Station, human scientists had been startled by the similarity of the planet-sized defence systems deployed throughout the Wall stars and the generators that produced the Dyson Pair force fields.

Until now, Troblum said, everyone assumed the Anomine had a technology base equal to the Raiel. He disputed that. His analysis of the Dyson Pair generators showed they were almost identical in concept to the Centurion Station DF machines.

'Which proves the point, surely? Yehudi said.

'Quite the opposite, Troblum replied smoothly.

The Anomine homeworld had been visited several times by the Navy exploration division. As a species they had divided two millennia ago; with the most technologically advanced group elevating to post-physical sentience, while the remainder retroe-volved to a simple pastoral culture. Although they had developed wormholes and sent exploration ships ranging across the galaxy, they had only ever settled a dozen or so nearby star systems, none of which had massive astroengineering facilities. The remaining pastoral societies had no knowledge of the Dyson Pair generators, and the post-physicals had long since withdrawn from contact with their distant cousins. An extensive search of the sector by successive Navy ships had failed to locate the assembly structure for the Dyson Pair generators. Until now, human astro-archaeologists had assumed the abandoned machinery had decayed away into the vacuum, or was simply lost.

Given the colossal scale involved, Troblum said, neither was truly believable. First off, however sophisticated they were, it would have taken the Anomine at least a century to build such a generator starting from scratch, let alone two of them — look how long it was taking Highers to construct Air, and that was with near unlimited EMAs. Secondly, the generators were needed quickly. The Prime aliens of Dyson Alpha were already building slower than light starships, which was why the Anomine sealed them in. If there had been a century gap while the Anomine beavered away at construction, the Primes would have expanded out to every star within a fifty lightyear radius before the generators were finished.

'The obvious conclusion, Troblum said, 'is that the Anomine simply appropriated existing Raiel systems from the Wall. All they would need for that would be a scaled-up wormhole generator to transport them to the Dyson Pair, and we know they already possessed the basic technology. 'What I would like is for the Navy to start a detailed search of interstellar space around the Dyson Pair. The Anomine wormhole drive or drives could conceivably still be there. Especially if it was a "one shot" device. He gave the Admiral an expectant look.

Kazimir Burnelli paused as the last of Troblum's files closed. 'The Primes built the largest wormhole ever known in order to invade the Commonwealth across five hundred lightyears, he said.

'It was called Hell's Gateway, Troblum said automatically.

'You do know your history. Good. Then you should also know it was only a couple of kilometres in diameter. Hardly enough to transport the barrier generators.

'Yes, but I'm talking about a completely new manifestation of wormhole drive technology. A wormhole that doesn't need a correspondingly large generator: you simply project the exotic matter effect to the size required.

'I've never heard of anything like that.

'It can be achieved easily within our understanding of worm-hole theory, Admiral.

'Easily? Kazimir Burnelli turned to Mykala. 'Captain?

'I suppose it may be possible, Mykala said. 'I'd need to reexamine exotic matter theory before I could say one way or another.

'I'm already working on a method, Troblum blurted.

'Any success? Mykala queried.

Troblum suspected she was being derisive, but lacked the skill to interpret her tone. 'I'm progressing, yes. There's certainly no theoretical block to diameter. It's all down to the amount of energy available.

'To ship a Dyson barrier generator halfway across the galaxy you'd need a nova, Mykala said.

Now Troblum was sure she was mocking him. 'It needs nothing like that much energy, he said. 'In any case, if they built the generators on or near their home star they would still have needed a transport system, wouldn't they? If they built them in situ, which is very doubtful, where is the construction site? We'd have found something that big by now. Those generators were moved from wherever the Raiel had originally installed them.

'Unless it was produced by their post-physicals, she said. 'Who knows what abilities they have or had.

'Sorry, I'm going to have to go with Troblum on that one, Eoin said. 'We know the Anomine didn't elevate to post-physical status until after the Dyson barriers were established, that's approximately a hundred and fifty years later.

'Exactly, Troblum said triumphantly. 'They had to be using a level of technology effectively equal to ours. Somewhere out there in interstellar space is an abandoned drive system capable of moving objects the size of planets. We need to find it, Admiral. I've already compiled a search methodology using current Navy exploration craft which I'd like—

'Let me just stop you there, Kazimir Burnelli said. 'Troblum, what you've given us so far is a very convincing hypothesis. So much so that I'm going to immediately forward your data to a senior department review committee. If they give me a positive verdict you and I will discuss the Navy's investigation options. And believe me, for this day and age, that's being fast-tracked, okay?

'But you can sanction the exploration division to begin the search right away, you have that authority.

'I do, yes; but it don't exercise it without good reason. What you've shown us is more than sufficient to start a serious appraisal. We will follow due process. Then if you're right—

'Of course I'm fucking right, Troblum snapped. He knew in a remote fashion he was acting inappropriately, but his goal was so close. He'd assumed the Admiral's unexpected appearance today meant the search could begin right away. 'I don't have the EMAs for that many starships myself, that's why the Navy has to be involved.

'There would never be an opportunity for an individual to perform a search, Kazimir replied lightly. 'Space around the Dyson Pair remains restricted. This is a Navy project.

'Yes Admiral, Troblum mumbled. 'I understand. Which he did. But that didn't quell the resentment at the bureaucracy involved.

'I notice you haven't included your results on this "one shot" wormhole drive idea, Mykala said. 'That's a big hole in the proposal.

'It's at an early stage, Troblum said, which wasn't quite true. He'd held back on his project precisely because he was so near to success. It was going to be the clinching argument if the presentation hadn't gone well. Which in a way it hadn't. But… 'I hope to be giving you some positive results soon.

'That I will be very interested in, Kazimir said, finally producing a smile that lifted centuries away from him. 'Thank you for bringing this to us. And I do genuinely appreciate the effort involved.

'It's what I do, Troblum said gruffly. He kept silent as the shielding switched off, and the others left the chamber. What he wanted to shout after the Admiral was: Your mother made her decisions without any committee to hold her hand, and as for what your grandfather would say about getting a consensus… Instead he let out a disgruntled breath as he sealed the files back into his storage lacuna. Meeting an idol was always such a risk, so few of them ever really matched up to their own legend.

* * * * *

The Delivery Man was woken by his youngest daughter just as a chilly dawn light was rising outside. Little Rosa had once again decided that five hours' sleep was quite sufficient for her, now she was sitting up in her cot wailing for attention. And milk. Beside him, Lizzie was just starting to stir out of a deep sleep. Before she could wake, he swung himself out of bed and hurried along the landing to the nursery. If he wasn't quick enough Tilly and Elsie would be woken up, then nobody would get any peace.

The paediatric housebot floated through the nursery door after him, a simple ovoid just over a metre high. It extruded Rosa's milk bulb through its neutral grey skin. Both he and his wife Lizzie hated the idea of a machine, even one as sophisticated as the housebot, caring for the child, so he settled her on his lap in the big chair at the side of the cot and started feeding her out of the bulb. Rosa smiled adoringly round the nozzle, and squirmed deeper into his embrace. The housebot extended a hose which attached to the outlet patch on her sleepsuit's nappy, and siphoned away the night's wee. Rosa waved contentedly at the housebot as it glided out of the nursery.

'Goobi, she cooed, and resumed drinking.

'Goodbye, The Delivery Man corrected. At seventeen months, Rosa's vocabulary was just starting to develop. The biononic organelles in her cells were effectively inactive other than reproducing themselves to supplement her new cells as she grew. Extensive research had shown it was best for a Higher-born human to follow nature's original development schedule up until about puberty. After that the biononics could be used as intended; one function of which was to modify the body however the host wanted. He still wasn't sure that was such a good idea, handing teenagers unrestrained power over their own physiology frequently led to some serious self-inflicted blunders. He always remembered the time when he was fourteen and had a terrible crush on a seventeen-year-old girl. He'd tried to improve his genitals. It had taken five hugely embarrassing trips to a biononic procedures doctor to sort out the painful abnormal growths.

When Rosa finished he carried her downstairs. He and Lizzie lived in a classic Georgian townhouse in London's Holland Park district. It had been restored three hundred years ago using modern techniques to preserve as much of the old fabric as possible without having to resort to stabilizer fields. Lizzie had overseen the interior when they moved in, blending a tasteful variety of furniture and utility systems that dated from the mid-twentieth century right up to up to the twenty-seventh, when ANA's replication facilities effectively halted human design on Earth. Two spacious sub-basements had been added, giving them an indoor swimming pool and a health spa, along with the tanks and ancillary systems that supplied the culinary cabinet and household replicator.

He took Rosa into the large iron-framed conservatory where her toys were stored in big wicker baskets. February had produced its usual icy morning outside, sending broad patterns of frost worming up the outside of the glass. For now, the only true splash of colour to enjoy in the garden came from the winter flowering cherries on the curving bank behind the frozen fish pond.

When Lizzie came downstairs an hour later she found him and Rosa playing with glow blocks on the conservatory's heated flagstone floor. Tilly who was seven, and Elsie their five-year-old, followed their mother in, and shouted happily at their younger sister who ran over to them with outstretched arms, babbling away in her own incomprehensible yet excited language. The three girls started to build a tower out of the blocks, the higher they stacked the faster the colours swirled.

He gave Lizzie a quick kiss and ordered the culinary cabinet to produce some breakfast. Lizzie sat at the circular wooden table in their kitchen. An antiquities and culture specialist, she enjoyed the old-fashioned notion of a room specifically for cooking. Even though there was no need for it, she'd had a hefty iron range cooker installed when they moved in ten years ago. During winter its cosy warmth turned the kitchen into the house's engine room, they always gathered in here as a family. Sometimes she even used the range to cook things which she and the girls made out of ingredients produced by the culinary cabinet. Tilly's birthday cake had been last.

'Swimming for Tilly this morning, Lizzie said as she sipped at a big china cup of tea which a housebot delivered to her.

'Again? he asked.

'She's getting a lot more confident. It's their new teacher. He's very good.

'Good. The Delivery Man picked up the croissant on his plate and started tearing it open. 'Girls, he shouted. 'Come and sit down please. Bring Rosa.

'She doesn't want to come, Elsie shouted back immediately.

'Don't make me come and get you. He avoided looking at Lizzie. 'I'm going to be away for a few days.

'Anything interesting?

'There've been allegations that some companies on Oronsay have got hold of level-three replicator tech, he said. 'I'll need to run tests on their products. His current vocation was to monitor the spread of Higher technology across the External Worlds. It was a process which the Externals got very sensitive about, with hardline Protectorate politicians citing it as the first act of cultural colonization, deserving retribution. However, industrialists on the External Worlds were constantly seeking to acquire evermore sophisticated manufacturing systems to reduce their costs. Radical Highers were equally keen to supply it to them, seeing it precisely as that first important stage for a planet converting to Higher culture. What he had to do, on ANA: Governance's behalf, was to decide the intent behind supplying replicator systems. If Radical Highers were supporting the companies, then he would subtly disable the systems and collapse the operation. His main problem was making an objective decision; Higher technology inevitably crept out from the Central Worlds, in the same way that the External Worlds were always settling new planets around the edge of their domain. The boundary between Central and External was ambiguous to say the least, with some External Worlds openly welcoming the shift to Higher status. Location was always a huge factor in his decision. Oronsay was over a hundred lightyears out from the Central Worlds, which effectively negated the chance that this was simple technology seepage. If there were replicators there, it was either Radicals pushing them, or a very greedy company.

Lizzie's eyebrows lifted. 'Really? What sort of products?

'Starship components.

'Well, that should come in handy out there right now, very profitable I imagine.

He appreciated her guarded amusement. The last few days had seen a rush of starship company officials to Ellezelin, eager to do deals with the new Cleric Conservator.

The girls scuttled in and settled at the table; Rosa clambered on to the twenty-fifth century suede mushroom that was her tiny-tot seat. It morphed around her, gripping firmly enough to prevent her from falling out, and expanded upwards to bring her level with the table top. She clapped her hands delightedly to be up with her family. Elsie solemnly slid a bowl of honey pops across, which Rosa grabbed. 'Don't spill it today, Elsie ordered imperiously.

Rosa just gurgled happily at her sister.

'Daddy, will you teleport us to school? Tilly asked, her voice high and pleading.

'You know I'm not going to, he told her. 'Don't ask.

'Oh please, Daddy, please.

'Yes, Daddy, Elsie chipped in. 'Please t-port. I like it. Lots and lots.

'I'm sure you do, but you're getting on the bus. Teleport is a serious business.

'School is serious, Tilly claimed immediately. 'You always say so.

Lizzie was laughing quietly.

'That's diff— he began. 'All right, I'll tell you what I'll do. If you behave yourselves while I'm gone, and only if, then I'll teleport you to school on Thursday.

'Yes yes! Tilly exclaimed. She was bouncing up and down on her chair.

'But you have to be exceptionally good. And I will find out, your mother will tell me.

Both girls immediately directed huge smiles at Lizzie.

After breakfast the girls washed and brushed their hair in the bathroom; with Elsie having long red hair it always took her an age to untangle it. Parents checked homework files to make sure it had all been done. Housebots prepared school uniforms.

Half an hour later the bus slipped down out of the sky, a long turquoise regrav capsule that hovered just above the greenway outside the house where the road used to be centuries before. The Delivery Man walked his daughters out to it, both of them wearing cloaks over their red blazers, the protective grey shimmer warding off the cold damp air. He checked one last time that Tilly had her swimwear, kissed them both goodbye, and stood waving as the bus rose quickly. The whole idea of riding to school together was to enhance the children's sense of community, an extension of the school itself, which was little more than an organized play and activities centre. Their real education wouldn't begin until their biononics became active. But it still gave him an emotional jolt to see them vanishing into the gloomy horizon. There was only one school in London these days, south of the Thames in Dulwich Park. With a total population of barely a hundred and fifty thousand the city didn't need another. Even for Highers the number of children was low; but then Earth's natives were notoriously reserved. The first planet to become truly Higher, it had been steadily reducing its population ever since. Right at the beginning of Higher culture, when biononics became available and ANA went on line, the average citizen's age was already the highest in the Commonwealth. The elderly downloaded, while the younger ones who weren't ready for migration to a post-physical state emigrated out to the Central Worlds until they chose to conclude their biological life. The result was a small residual population with an exceptionally low birth-rate.

The Delivery Man and Lizzie were a notable exception in having three kids. But then they'd registered a marriage as well, and had a ceremony in an old church with their friends witnessing the event — a Christian priest had been brought in from an External World that still had a working religion. It was what Lizzie had wanted, she adored the old traditions and rituals. Not enough to actually get pregnant, of course, the girls had all been gestated in a womb vat.

'You be careful on Oronsay, she told him as he examined his face in the bathroom mirror. It was, he acknowledged, rather flat with a broad jaw, and eyes that crinkled whenever he smiled or frowned no matter how many anti-ageing techniques were applied to the surrounding skin areas, Advancer or Higher. His Advancer genes had given his wiry muddy-red hair a luxuriant growth-rate which Elsie had inherited. He'd modified his facial follicles with biononics so that he no longer had to apply shaving gel twice a day; but the process wasn't perfect, every week he had to check his chin and dab gel on recalcitrant patches of five o'clock shadow. More like five o'clock puddles, Lizzie claimed.

'I always am, he assured her. He pulled on a new toga suit and waited until it had wrapped around him. Its surface haze emerged, a dark emerald shot though with silver sparkles. Rather stylish, he felt.

Lizzie, who never wore any clothes designed later than the twenty-second century, produced a mildly disapproving look. 'If it's that far from the Central Worlds it's going to be deliberate.

'I know. I will watch out, I promise. He kissed Lizzie in reassurance, trying to ignore the guilt that was staining his thoughts like some slow poison. She studied his face, apparently satisfied with his sincerity, which only made the lie even worse. He hated these times when he couldn't tell her what he actually did.

'Missed a bit, she announced spryly, and tapped her forefinger on the left side of his jaw.

He peered into the mirror and grunted in dismay. She was right, as always.

* * * * *

When he was ready, the Delivery Man stood in the lounge facing Lizzie who held a squirming Rosa in her arms. He held a hand up to wave as he activated his field interface function. It immediately meshed with Earth's T-sphere, and he designated his exit coordinate. His integral force field sprang up to shield his skin. The awesome, intimidating emptiness of the translation continuum engulfed him, nullifying every sense. It was this infinite microsecond he despised. All his biononic enrichments told him he was surrounded by nothing, not even the residual quantum signature of his own universe. With his mind starved of any sensory input, time expanded excruciatingly.

Eagles Harbour flickered into reality around him. The giant station hung seventy kilometres above southern England; one of a hundred and fifty identical stations which between them generated the planetary T-sphere. ANA: Governance had fabricated them in the shape of mythological flying saucers three kilometres in diameter, a whimsy it wasn't usually associated with.

He'd emerged into a cavernous reception centre on the station's outer rim. There were only a couple of other people using it, and they paid him no attention. In front of him, a vast transparent hull section rose from the floor to curve away above, allowing him to look down on the entire southern half of the country. London was almost directly underneath, clad in slow-moving pockets of fog that oozed around rolling high ground like a white slick. The last time he and Lizzie had brought the kids up here was a clear sunny day, when they'd all pressed up against the hull while Lizzie pointed out historical areas, and narrated the events that made them important. She'd explained that the ancient city was now back down to the same physical size it'd been in the mid-eighteenth century. With the planet's population shrinking, ANA: Governance had ruled there were simply too many buildings left to maintain. Just because they were old didn't necessarily make them relevant. The ancient public buildings in London's centre were preserved, along with others deemed architecturally or culturally significant. But as for the sprawl of suburb housing… there were hundreds of thousands of examples of every kind from every era. Most of them were donated or sold off to various individuals and institutions across the Greater Commonwealth, while those that were left were simply erased.

The Delivery Man took a last wistful look down at the mist-draped city, feeling guilt swell to a near-painful level. But he could never tell Lizzie what he actually did; she wanted stability for their gorgeous little family. Rightly so.

Not that there was any risk involved, he told himself as each assignment began. Really. At least: not much. And if anything ever did go wrong his Faction could probably re-life him in a new body and return him home before she grew suspicious.

He turned away from London and made his way across the reception centre's deserted floor to one of the transit tubes opposite. It sucked him in like an old vacuum hose, propelling him towards the centre of Eagles Haven where the interstellar wormhole terminus was located. The scarcity of travellers surprised him, there were no more passengers than normal using the station. He'd expected to find more Highers on their inward migration to ANA. Living Dream was certainly stirring things up politically among the External Worlds. The Central Worlds regarded the whole Pilgrimage affair with their usual disdain. Even so, their political councils were worried, as demonstrated by the number of people joining them to offer their opinion.

It was a fact that with Ethan's ascension to Cleric Conservator, the ANA Factions were going to be manoeuvring frantically for advantage, trying to shape the Greater Commonwealth to their own vision. He couldn't work out which of them was going to benefit most from the recent election; there were so many, and their internal allegiances were all so fluid anyway, not too mention deceitful. It was an old saying that there were as many Factions as there were ex-physical humans inside ANA; and he'd never encountered any convincing evidence to the contrary. It resulted in groupings that ranged from those who wanted to isolate and ignore the physical humans (some anti-animal extremists wanted them exterminated altogether) to those who sought to elevate every human, ANA or physical, to a transcendent state.

The Delivery Man took his assignments from a broad alliance that was fundamentally conservative, following a philosophy that was keen to see things keep running along as they were — although opinions on how that should be achieved were subject to a constant and vigorous internal debate. He did it because it was a view he shared. When he eventually downloaded, in another couple of centuries or so, that would be the Faction he would associate himself with. In the meantime he was one of their unofficial representatives to the physical Commonwealth.

The station terminus was a simple spherical chamber containing a globe fifty metres in diameter whose surface glowed with the lambent violet of Cherenkov radiation, emanating from the exotic matter used to maintain the wormhole's stability. He slipped through the bland sheet of photons, and was immediately emerging from the exterior of a corresponding globe on St Lincoln. The old industrial planet was still a major manufacturing base for the Central Worlds, and had maintained its status as a hub for the local wormhole network. He took a transit tube to the wormhole for Lytham, which was one of the furthest Central Worlds from Earth; its wormhole terminus was secured at the main starport. Only the Central Worlds were linked together by a long-established wormhole network. The External Worlds valued their cultural and economic independence too much to be connected to the Central Worlds in such a direct fashion. With just a few exceptions travel between them was by star ship.

A two-seater capsule ferried the Delivery Man out to the craft he'd been assigned. He glided between two long rows of pads where starships were parked. They ranged in size from sleek needle-like pleasure cruisers, up to hundred-metre passenger liners capable of flying commercial routes up to a hundred lightyears. The majority were fitted with hyperdrives; though some of the larger mercantile vessels used continuous wormhole generators, which were slower but more economic for short-range flights to neighbouring stars. There were no cargo ships anywhere on the field; Lytham was a Higher planet, it didn't manufacture or import consumer items.

The Artful Dodger was parked towards the end of the row. A surprisingly squat chrome-purple ovoid, twenty-five metres high, standing on five tumour-like bulbs which held its wide base three metres off the concrete. The fuselage surface was smooth and featureless, with no hint of what lay underneath. It looked like a typical private hyperdrive ship, belonging to some wealthy External World individual or company; or a Higher council with diplomatic prerogative. An ungainly metal umbilical tower stood at the rear of the pad, with two slim hoses plugged into the ship's utility port, filling the synthesis tanks with baseline chemicals.

The Delivery Man sent the capsule back to the rank in the reception building and walked underneath the starship. His u-shadow called the ship's smartcore, and confirmed his identity, a complex process of code and DNA verification before the smart-core finally acknowledged he had the authority to take command. An airlock opened at the centre of the ship's base, a dint that distended upwards into a tunnel of darkness. Gravity eased off around him, then slowly inverted, pulling him up inside. He emerged into the single midsection cabin. Inert, it was a low hemisphere of dark fabric which felt spongy to the touch. Slim ribs on the upper surface glowed a dull blue, allowing him to see round. The airlock sealed up below his feet. He smiled round at the blank cabin, sensing the power contained behind the bulkheads. The starship plugged into him at some animal level, circumventing all the wisdom and cool of Higher behaviour. He relished the power that was available, the freedom to fly across the galaxy. This was liberation in the extreme.

How the girls would love to ride in this.

'Give me something to sit on, he told the smartcore, 'turn the lights up, and activate flight control functions.

An acceleration couch bloomed up out of the floor as the ribs brightened, revealing a complex pattern of black lines etched on the cabin walls. The Delivery Man sat down. Exoimages flipped up, showing him the ship's status. His u-shadow cleared him for flight with the spaceport governor, and he designated a flight path to Ellezelin, two hundred and fifteen lightyears away. The umbilical cables withdrew back into their tower.

'Let's go, he told the smartcore.

Compensator generators maintained a level gravity inside the cabin as the Artful Dodger rose on regrav. At fifty kilometres altitude, the limit of regrav, the smartcore switched to ingrav, and the starship continued to accelerate away from the planet. The Delivery Man began to experiment with the internal layout, expanding walls and furniture out of the cabin bulkheads. The dark lines flowed and bloomed into a great variety of combinations, allowing up to six passengers to have tiny independent sleeping quarters which included a bathroom formation; but for all its malleability, the cabin was basically variations on a lounge. If you were travelling with anyone, he decided, let along five others, you'd need to be very good friends.

A thousand kilometres above the spaceport, the Artful Dodger went ftl, vanishing inside a quantum field interstice with a photonic implosion that pulled in all the stray electromagnetic radiation within a kilometre of its fuselage. There were no differences perceptible to ordinary human senses, he might have been in an underground chamber for all he knew, and the gravity remained perfectly stable. Sensors provided him with a simplified image of their course as it related to large masses back in spacetime, plotting stars and planets by the way their quantum signature affected the intersecting fields through which they were flying. Their initial speed was a smooth fifteen lightyears per hour, near the limit for a hyperdrive, which the sophisticated Lytham planetary spacewatch network could track out to a couple of lightyears.

The Delivery Man waited until they were three lightyears beyond the network, and told the smartcore to accelerate again. The Artful Dodgers ultradrive pushed them up to a phenomenal fifty-five lightyears per hour. It was enough to make the Delivery man flinch. He had only been on an ultradrive ship twice before; there weren't many of them; ANA had never released the technology to the Central Worlds. Exactly how the Conservative Faction had got hold of it was something he studiously avoided asking.

* * * * *

Two hours later he reduced speed back down to fifteen lightyears an hour, and allowed the Ellezelin traffic network to pick up their hyperspacial approach. He used a TD channel to the planetary datasphere and requested landing permission for Riasi spaceport.

Ellezelin's original capital was situated on the northern coast of Sinkang, with the Camoa River running through it. He looked down on the city as the Artful Dodger sank down towards the main spaceport. It had been laid out in a spiderweb grid, with the planetary Parliament at the heart. The building was still there, a grandiose structure of towers and buttresses made from an attractive mixture of ancient and modern materials. But the planet's government was now centred in Makkathran2. The senior bureaucrats and their departments had moved with it, leading a migration of commerce and industry. Only the transport sector remained strong in Riasi now. The wormholes which linked the planets of the Ellezelin Free Trade Zone together were all located here, incorporated into the spaceport, making it the most important commercial hub in the sector.

The Artful Dodger landed on a pad little different to the one it had departed barely three hours before. The Delivery Man paid a parking fee for a month in advance with an untraceable credit coin, and declined an umbilical connection. His u-shadow called a taxi capsule to the pad. While he was waiting for it, the Conservative Faction called him.

'Marius has been seen on Ellezelin.

It was the second time that day the Delivery Man flinched. 'I suppose that was inevitable. Do you know why he's here?

'To support the Cleric Conservator. But as to the exact nature of that support, we remain uncertain.

'I see. Is he here in the spaceport? he asked reluctantly. He wasn't a front line agent, but his biononics had very advanced field functions in case he ever stumbled into an aggressive situation. They ought to be a match for anything Marius could produce. Although any aggression would be most unusual. Faction agents simply didn't settle their scores physically. It wasn't done.

'We don't believe so. He visited the Cleric Conservator within an hour of the election. After that he dropped out of sight. We are telling you simply so that you can be careful. It would not do for the Accelerators to know our business any more than they want us to know theirs. Leave as quickly as possible.


The taxi capsule took him over to the spaceport's massive passenger terminal. He checked in for the next United Commonwealth Starlines flight back to Akimiski, the closest Central World. All the time he waited in the departure lounge overlooking the huge central concourse he kept his scan functions running, checking to see if Marius was in the terminal. When the passengers boarded forty minutes later, there has been no sign of him, nor any other Higher agent.

The Delivery Man settled into his first class compartment on the passenger ship with a considerable sense of relief. It was a hyperdrive ship, which would take fifteen hours to get to Akimiski. From there he'd make a quick trip to Oronsay to maintain his cover. With any luck he'd be back on Earth in less than two days. It would be the weekend, and they'd be able to take the girls to the southern sanctuary park in New Zealand. They'd enjoy that.

* * * * *

The Rakas bar occupied the whole third floor of a round tower in Makkathran2's Abad district. Inevitably, the same building back in Makkathran also had a bar on the third floor. From what he'd seen in Inigo's dreams, Aaron suspected the furniture here was better, as was the lighting, not to mention the lack of general dirt which seemed so pervasive within the original city. It was used by a lot of visiting faithful who were perhaps a little disappointed by how small the nucleus of their movement actually was in comparison to the prodigious metropolises of the Greater Commonwealth. There was also a much better selection of drinks than the archetype boasted.

Aaron presumed that was the reason why ex-Councillor the Honourable Corrie-Lyn kept returning here. This was the third night he'd sat at a small corner table and watched her up at the counter knocking back an impressive amount of alcohol. She wasn't a large woman, though at first glance her slender figure made her seem taller than she was. Ivory skin was stippled by a mass of freckles whose highest density was in a broad swathe across her eyes. Her hair was the darkest red he'd ever seen. Depending on how the light caught her, it varied from shiny ebony to gold-flecked maroon. It was cut short which, given how thick it was, made it curl heavily; the way it framed her dainty features made her appear like a particularly diabolic teenager. In reality she was three hundred and seventy. He knew she wasn't Higher, so she must have a superb Advancer metabolism; which presumably was how she could drink any badboy under the table.

For the fourth time that evening, one of the faithful but not terribly devout went over to try his luck. After all, the good citizens of Makkathran had very healthy active sex lives. Inigo showed that. The group of blokes he was with, sitting at the big window seat, watched with sly grins and minimal sniggering as their friend claimed the empty stool beside her. Corrie-Lyn wasn't wearing her Cleric robes, otherwise he would never have dared to go within ten metres. A simple dark purple dress, slit under each arm to reveal alluring amounts of skin wound up the lad's courage. She listened without comment to his opening lines, nodded reasonably when he offered to buy a drink, and beckoned the barkeeper over.

Aaron wished he could go over and draw the lad away. It was painful to watch, he'd seen this exact scene play out many times over the last few nights. The barkeeper came over with two heavy shot glasses and a frosted bottle of golden Adlier 88Vodka. Brewed on Vitchan, it bore no real relation to original Earth vodka, except for the kick. This was refined from a seasonal vine, Adlier, producing a liqueur that was eighty per cent alcohol and eight per cent tricetholyn, a powerful narcotic. The barkeeper filled both glasses and left the bottle.

Corrie-Lyn lifted hers in salute, and downed it in one. The hopeful lad followed suit. As he winced a smile against the burn of the icy liquid Corrie-Lyn filled both glasses again. She lifted hers. Somewhat apprehensively, the lad did the same. She tossed it down straight away.

There was laughter coming from the group at the window now. Their friend slugged back the drink. There were tears in his eyes; an involuntary shudder ran along his chest as if he was suppressing a cough. Corrie-Lyn poured them both a third shot with mechanical precision. She downed hers in a single gulp. The lad gave a disgusted wave with one hand and backed away to jeering from his erstwhile pals. Aaron wasn't impressed; last night one of the would-be suitors had kept up for five shots before retreating, hurt and confused.

Corrie-Lyn slid the bottle back along the counter top, where the barkeeper caught it with an easy twist of his wrist and deposited it back on the shelf. She turned back to the tall beer she'd been drinking before the interruption, resting her elbows on either side of the glass, and resumed staring at nothing.

Watching her, Aaron acknowledged that cultivating Corrie-Lyn was never going to be a subtle play of seduction. There was only going to be one chance, and if he blew that he'd have to waste days finding another angle. He got to his feet and walked over. As he approached he could sense her gaiafield emission, which was reduced to a minimum. It was like a breath of polar air, cold enough to make him shiver; her silhouette within the ethereal field was black, a rift into interstellar space. Most people would have hesitated at that alone, never mind the Adlier 88 humiliation. He sat on the stool which the lad had just vacated. She turned to give him a dismissive look, eyes running over his cheap suit with insulting apathy.

Aaron called the barkeeper over and asked for a beer. 'You'll excuse me if I don't go through the ritual degradation, he said. 'I'm not actually here to get inside your panties.

'Thong. She took a long drink of her beer, not looking at him.

'I… what? That wasn't quite the answer he was prepared for.

'Inside my thong.

'I suddenly feel an urge to get ordained into your religion.

She grinned to herself and swirled the remains of her beer round. 'You've had enough time, you've been hanging round here for a few days now.

His beer arrived and Corrie-Lyn silently swapped it for her own.

Aaron raised his finger to the barkeeper. 'Another. Make that two.

'And it's not a religion, she said.

'Of course not, how silly of me. Priest robes. Worshiping a lost prophet. The promise of salvation. Giving money to the city temple. Going on Pilgrimage. I apologize, easy mistake to make.

'Keep talking like that offworlder, you'll wind up head first in a canal before dawn.

'Head first or head-less?

Corrie-Lyn finally turned and gave him her full attention; her smile matched up to her impish allure. 'What in Ozzie's Great Universe do you want?

'To make you very rich indeed.

'Why would you want to do that?

'So I can make myself even richer.

'I'm not very good at bank heists.

'Yeah, guess it doesn't come up much at Priest school.

'Priests ask you to have faith. We can take you straight to heaven, we even give you a sneak preview so you know what you're getting.

'And that's where we come in.


'FarFlight Charters. I believe your not-religion is currently in need of starships, Councillor Emeritus.

Corrie-Lyn laughed. 'Oh, you are dangerous, aren't you?

'No danger, just an aching to be rich.

'But I'm on my way to our heaven in the Void. What do I need with Commonwealth money?

'Even the Waterwalker used money. But I'm not going to argue that case with you; or any other for that matter. I'm just here to make the proposition. You have contacts I need, and it is my belief you're none too happy with your old friends on the Cleric Council right now. Might be willing to bend a few ethics here and there — especially here. Am I speaking the right of things, Councillor Emeritus?

'Why use the formal mode of address? Be bold, go the whole way, call me shitlisted. Everyone else does.

'The Unisphere news clowns have many labels for all of us. That doesn't mean you haven't got the names I need up here. He tapped the side of his head. 'And I suspect there's enough residual respect for you in the Orchard Palace to open a few doors for me. Isn't that the way of it?

'Could be. So what's your name?


Corrie-Lyn smiled into her beer. 'Top of the list, huh?

'Number one, Councillor Emeritus. So how about I buy you dinner? And you either have fun stringing me along, or give me your private bank account code so I can fill it up. Take your time to decide.

'I will.

* * * * *

FarFlight Charters was a legitimately registered company on Falnox. Anyone searching its datacore would have found it brokered for several spacelines and cargo courriers on seven External planets, not a huge operation but profitable enough to employ thirty personnel. Luckily for Aaron it was a simple front which had been put in place should he need it. He didn't know by whom. Didn't care. But if it had been real, then his expenses would have had a serious implications for this year's profitability. This was the third night he'd wined and dined Corrie-Lyn, with much emphasis on the wine. The meals had all been five star gourmet, as well. She liked Bertrand's in Greater Makkathran; a restaurant which made the Hotel Buckingham look like a flophouse for yokels. He didn't know if she was testing his resolve or not. Given the state she was in most nights she probably didn't know herself.

She did dress well, though. Tonight she wore a simple little black cocktail dress whose short skirt produced a seductive hem of mist that swirled provocatively every time she crossed or uncrossed her legs. Their table was in a perfectly transparent overhanging alcove on the seventy-second floor, providing an unenhanced view out across the huge night-time city. Directly below Aaron's feet, capsules slid along their designated traffic routes in a thick glare of navigation strobes. Once he'd recovered from the creepy feeling of vertigo needling his legs the view was actually quite invigorating. The seven course meal they were eating was a sensory delight. Each dish accompanied by a wine the chef had selected to complement it. The waiter had given up offering a single glass to Corrie-Lyn, now he just left the bottle each time.

'He was a remarkable man, Corrie-Lyn said when she finished her gilcherry leaf chocolate torte. She was talking about her favourite topic again. It wasn't difficult to get her started on Inigo.

'Anyone who can create a movement like Living Dream in just a couple of centuries is bound to be out-of-the-ordinary.

'No no, Corrie-Lyn waved her glass dismissively. 'That's not the point. If you or I had been given those dreams, there would still be Living Dream. They inspire people. Everyone can see for themselves what a beautiful simple life can be lived in the Void, one you can perfect no matter how screwed up or stupid you are, no matter how long it takes. Everyone can see for themselves what a beautiful simple life can be lived in the Void, one you can perfect no matter how screwed up or stupid you are, no matter how long it takes. You can only do that inside the Void, so if you promise to make that ability available to everyone you can't not gather a whole load of followers, now can you. It's inevitable. What I'm talking about is the man himself. What I'm talking about is the man himself. Mister Incorruptible. That's rare. Give most people that much power and they'll abuse it. I would. Ethan certainly fucking does. She poured the last of a two-and-a-half century old Mithan port into an equally ancient crystal glass.

Aaron smiled tightly. The alcove was open to the main restaurant floor, and Corrie-Lyn had downed her usual amount.

'That's why Inigo set up the movement hierarchy like an order of monks. Not that you couldn't have lots of sex, she sniggered. 'You just weren't supposed to take advantage of the desperate faithful; you just screw around among your own level.

'So far, so pretty standard.

'Course, I wasn't very pure. We had quite a thing going, me and Inigo. Did you know that?

'I do believe you mentioned it once or twice.

'Course you did, that's why you hit on me.

'This isn't hitting on you Corrie-Lyn.

'Slim and fit. She licked her lips. 'That's what I am, wouldn't you agree?

'Very much so. Actually, he didn't want to admit how physically attractive she was. It helped that any sexual impulse he might have felt was effectively neutralized by her drinking. After the first hour of any evening, she wasn't a pleasant person to be around.

Corrie-Lyn smiled down at her dress. 'Yeah, that's me all right. So… we had this thing, this fling. I mean, sure, he saw other women. For Ozzie's sake, the poor shit had a billion females willing and eager to rip their clothes off for him and have his babies. And I enjoyed it too, I mean, hell, Aaron, some of them made me look like I'd been hit hard by the ugly stick.

'I thought you said he was incorruptible.

'He was. He didn't take advantage is what I'm saying. But he's human. So am I. There were distractions, that's all. The cause. The vision. He stayed true to that, he gave us the dreams of the Void. He believed, Aaron, he believed utterly in what he was shown. The Void really is a better place for all of us. He made me believe, too. I'd always been a loyal follower. I had faith. Then I actually met him, I saw his belief, his devotion, and through that I became a true apostle. She finished the port and slumped back in her chair. 'I'm a zealot, Aaron. A true zealot. That's why Ethan kicked me off the Council. He doesn't like the old guard, those of us who remain true. So you, mister, you just keep your snide patronizing bollocks to yourself, you bastard, I don't fucking care what you think, I hate your smartarse weasel words. You don't believe and that makes you evil. I bet you haven't even experienced one of the dreams. That's your mistake, because they're real. For humans the Void is heaven.

'It could be heaven. You don't know for sure.

'See! She wagged a finger in his direction, barely able to focus. 'You do it every time. Smartarse words. Not stupid enough to agree with me, oh no, but enough to make me have a go preaching at you. Setting it up so I can save you.

'You're wrong. This is all about the money.

'Ha! She held up the empty bottle of port, and scowled at it.

Aaron hesitated, he could never quite tell how much control she had. He took a risk and pushed. 'Anyway, if the Void is salvation, why did he leave?

The result wasn't quite what he'd expected. Corrie-Lyn started sobbing.

'I don't know! she wailed. 'He left us. Left all of us. Oh where are you, Inigo? Where did you go? I loved you so much.

Aaron groaned in dismay. Their quiet meal was now a fullblown public spectacle. Her sobs were increasing in volume. He hurriedly called the waiter and shuffled round the seats to sit next to Corrie-Lyn, putting himself between her and the other curious patrons. 'Come on, he murmured. 'Let's go.

There was a landing platform on the thirtieth floor, but he wanted her to get some fresh air, so they took a lift straight down to the skyscraper's lobby. The boulevard outside was almost deserted. A slim road running down the middle was partially hidden behind a long row of tall bushy evergreen trees. The footpath alongside was illuminated by slender glowing arches.

'Do you think I'm attractive? Corrie-Lyn slurred as he encouraged her to walk. Past the skyscraper there were a couple of blocks of apartments, all surrounded by raised gardens. Local nightbirds swooped and flittered silently through the arches. It was a warm air, with the smell of sea ozone accompanying the humid gusts coming in from the coast.

'Very attractive, Aaron assured her. He wondered if he should insist she take the detox aerosol he'd brought along for this very eventuality. The trouble with drinkers of this stature was that they didn't want to sober up that quickly, especially not when they were burdened with as much grief as Corrie-Lyn.

'Then how come you don't try it on? Is it the drink? Do you not like me drinking? She broke away to look at him, swaying slightly, her eyes blurred from tears, hauntingly miserable. With her light coat undone to show off the exclusive cocktail dress, she presented a profoundly unappealing sight.

'Business before pleasure, Aaron said, hoping she'd accept that and just shut the hell up. He should have caught a taxi from the skyscraper's platform. As if she was finally picking up on his exasperation, she turned fast and started walking.

Someone appeared on the path barely five metres in front of them, a man in a one-piece suit that still had the remnants of its black stealth envelope swirling away like water in low gravity. Aaron scanned round with his full field functions. Two more people were shedding their envelopes as they walked up behind him. His combat routines moved smoothly to active status, accessing the situation. The first of the group to confront them was designated One. Eighty per cent probability he was the commander. The subordinates were tagged Two and Three. His close-range situation exoimage showed all three of them glowing with enrichments. He actually relaxed: by confronting him they'd taken away all choice. With that accepted, there would only be one outcome now. He simply waited for them to present him with the maximum target opportunity.

Corrie-Lyn blinked in mild bewilderment, peering forward at the first man as she clutched her small scarlet bag to her belly. 'I didn't see you. Where were you?

'You don't look too good, your honour, One replied. 'Why don't you come along with us?

Corrie-Lyn pressed back into Aaron's side, degrading his strike ability by a third. 'No, she moaned. 'No, I don't want to.

'You're bringing the Living Dream into disrepute, Your Honour, One said. 'Is that what Inigo would have wanted?

'I know you, she said wretchedly. 'I'm not going with you. Aaron, don't leave me. Please.

'Nobody is going anywhere they don't want to.

One didn't even look at him. 'You. Fuck off. If you ever want a sales meeting with a Councillor, be smart now.

'Ah, well now, here's the thing, Aaron said affably. 'I'm so stupid I can't afford an IQ boost come regeneration time. So I just stay this way for ever. Behind him, Two and Three were standing very close now. They both drew small pistols. Aaron's routines identified their hardware as jelly guns. Developed a century and a half ago as a lethal short-range weapon, they did exactly as specified on human flesh. He could feel accelerants slipping through his neurones, quickening his mental reaction time. Biononic energy currents synchronized with them, upgrading his physical responses to match. The effect dragged out spoken words, so much so he could easily predict what was going to be said long before One finished his sentence.

'Then I'm sorry for you. One sent a fast message to subordinates, which Aaron intercepted, it was nothing more than a simple code. He didn't even need to decrypt it. Both of them raised their weapons. Aaron's combat routines were already moving him smoothly. He twisted Corrie-Lyn out of the way as he bent down. The first shot from Two's jelly gun seared through the air where Aaron's head had been less than a second before. The beam struck the wall, producing a squirt of concrete dust. Aaron's foot came up fast, smashing into the knee of Three. Their force fields clashed with a screech, electrons flaring in a rosette of blue-white light. The velocity and power behind Aaron's kick was enough to distort his opponent's protection. Three's leg shattered as it was punched backwards, throwing the whole body sideways. Aaron's energy currents formatted a distortion pulse which slammed into One. He was flung back six metres into the garden wall, hitting it with a dull thud. His straining force field pushed out a dangerous bruised-purple nimbus as another of Aaron's distorter pulses pummelled him, trying to shove him clean through the wall. His back arched at the impact, force field close to outright failure.

Two was trying to swing his pistol round, tracking a target that was moving with inhuman speed. All his enriched senses revealed was a blurred shape as Aaron danced across the path. He never got a lock, Aaron's hand materialized out of a dim streak to chop across his throat, overloading the force field. His neck snapped instantly, and the corpse flew through the air. Aaron snatched the jelly gun from Two's hand at the same time, wrenching the fingers off with a liquid crunching sound. It took Aaron a fraction of a second to spin round again. His force field expanded into the ground, an anchor snatching away inertia, allowing him to stop instantly, the pistol aligned on One as the dazed man was clambering unsteadily to his feet. Blood from the severed fingers dripped down on to the path. One froze, sucking down air as he stared at the nozzle of the jelly gun. Aaron opened his grip, allowing the fingers to slither away. 'Who are they? he yelled at Corrie-Lyn, who was lying on the sodden grass where she'd landed. She was giving One a bewildered look. 'Who? Aaron demanded.

'The… the police. That's Captain Manby, special protection division.

'That's right, Manby wheezed as he flinched against the pain. 'So you just put that fucking gun down. You're already drowning in shit so deep you'll never see the universe again.

'Join me at the bottom. Aaron pressed the trigger on the jelly gun, holding it down on continuous fire mode. He added his own distortion pulse to the barrage. Manby's force field held out for almost two seconds before collapsing. The jelly gun pulses struck the exposed body. Aaron turned and fired again, overloading Three's force field.

Corrie-Lyn threw up as waves of bloody sludge from both ruined corpses cascaded across the ground. She was wailing like a wounded kitten when Aaron hauled her to her feet. 'We have to go, he shouted at her. She shrank back from his hold. 'Come on, now! Move! His u-shadow was already calling down a taxi.

'No, she whimpered. 'No, no. They didn't… you just killed them. You killed them.

'Do you understand what this is? he growled at her, his voice loud, aggressive; using belligerence to keep her off balance. 'Do you understand what just happened? Do you? They're an assassination squad. Ethan wants you dead. Permanently dead. You can't stay here. They'll keep coming after you. Corrie-Lyn! I can protect you.

'Me? she sobbed. 'They wanted me?

'Yes. Now come on, we're not safe here.

'Oh sweet Ozzie.

He shook her. 'Do you understand?

'Yes, she whispered. By the way she was shaking Aaron thought she was going into mild shock. 'Good, he started to walk towards the descending taxi, hauling her along, heedless of the way she stumbled to keep up. It was hard not to smile. He couldn't have delivered a better result to the evening if he'd planned it.


When Edeard woke, his dream was already a confused fading memory. The same thing happened every morning. No matter how hard he tried he could never hold on to the images and sounds afflicting him every night. Akeem said not to worry; that his dreams were made up from the gentle spillage of other sleeping minds around him. Edeard didn't believe the things he dreamed of came from anywhere like their village, the fragments he occasionally did manage to cling to were too strange and fascinating for that.

Cool pre-dawn light was showing up the cracks in the window's wooden shutters. Edeard lay still for a while, cosy under the pile of blankets that covered his cot. It was a big room, with whitewashed plaster walls and bare floorboards. The rafters of the hammer-beam roof above were ancient martoz wood that had blackened and hardened over the decades until they resembled iron. There wasn't much by way of furniture, two thirds of the floor space was completely empty. Edeard had shoved what was left down to the end which had a broad window. At the foot of the cot was a crude chest where he kept his meagre collection of clothes; there was a long a table covered in his enthusiastic sketches of possible genistar animals; several chairs; a dresser with a plain white bowl and pitcher of water. Over in the corner opposite the cot, the fire had burnt out sometime in I lie night, with a few embers left glimmering in the grate. It was difficult to heat such a large volume, especially in winter, and Edeard could see his breath as a fine white mist. Technically, he lived in the apprentice dormitory of Ashwell village's Eggshaper Guild, but he was the only occupant. He'd lived there for the past six years, ever since his parents died when he was eight years old. Master Akeem, the village's sole remaining shaper, had taken him in after the caravan they had joined in order to travel through the hills to the east was attacked by bandits.

Edeard wrapped a blanket round his shoulders and hurried over the cold floor to the small brick-arch fireplace. The embers were still giving off a little heat, warming the clothes he'd left on the back of a chair. He dressed hurriedly, pulling up badly worn leather trousers and tucking an equally worn shirt into the waist before struggling into a thick green sweater. As always the fabric smelled of the stables and their varied occupants, a melange of fur and food and cages; but after six years at the Guild he was so used to it he hardly noticed. He sat back on the cot to pull his boots on; they really were too small for him now. With the last eighteen months seeing more genistars in the stables and Edeard taking on official commission duties, their little branch of the Eggshaper Guild had seen a lot more money coming it. Hardly a fortune, but sufficient to pay for new clothes and boots, it was just that he never had time to visit the cobbler. He winced slightly as he stood up, trying to wriggle his toes which were squashed together. It was no good, he was definitely going to take an hour out of his busy day to visit the cobbler. He grinned. But not today.

Today was when the village's new well was finished. It was a project in which the Eggshaper Guild was playing an unusually large part. Better than that, for him, it was an innovative part. Edeard knew how many doubters there were in the village: basically everybody. But Master Akeem had quietly persuaded the elder council to give his young apprentice a chance. They said yes only because they had nothing to lose.

He made his way downstairs, then hurried across the narrow rear yard to the warmth of the Guild dining hall. Like the dormitory, it was a sharp reminder that the Eggshaper Guild had known better times. A lot better. There were still two rows of long bench tables in the big hall, enough to seat fifty shapers and their guests on feast nights. At the far end the huge fireplace had iron baking ovens built in to the stonework on either side, and the roasting spit was large enough to handle a whole pig. This morning, the fire was just a small blaze tended by a couple of ge-monkeys. Normally, people didn't let the genistars get anywhere near naked flames, they were as skittish as any terrestrial animal, but Edeard's orders were lucid and embedded deeply enough that the ge-monkeys could manage the routine without panicking.

Edeard sat at the table closest to the fire. His mind directed a batch of instructions to the ge-monkeys using simple telepathic longtalk. He used a pidgin version of Querencia's mental language, visualizing the sequence of events he wanted in conjunction with simple command phrases, making sure the emotional content was zero (so many people forgot that, and then couldn't understand why the genistars didn't obey properly). The ge-monkeys started scurrying round; they were big creatures, easily the weight of a full-gown human male, with six long legs along the lower half of their body, and six even longer arms on top, the first two pairs so close together they seemed to be sharing a shoulder joint, while the third pair were set further back along a very flexible spine. Their bodies were covered in a wiry white fur, with patches worn away on joints and palms to reveal a leathery cinder-coloured hide. The head profile was the same as all the genistar variants, a plain globe with a snout very close to a terrestrial dog; the ears were situated on the lower part of the head back towards the stumpy neck, each one sprouting three petals of long creased skin thin enough to be translucent.

A big mug of tea was placed in front of Edeard, swiftly followed by thick slices of toast, a bowl of fruit and a plate of scrambled eggs. He tucked in heartily enough, already running through the critical part of the day's operation at the bottom of the well. His farsight picked up Akeem when the old man was still in the lodge, the residence for senior shapers annexed to the hall. Edeard could already perceive through a couple of stone walls, sensing physical structures as if they were shadows, while minds buzzed with an iridescent glow. That vision was of a calibre which eluded a lot of adults; it made Akeem inordinately proud of his apprentice's ability, claiming his own training was the true key to developing Edeard's potential.

The old shaper came into the hall to find the ge-monkeys ready with his breakfast. He grunted favourably as he gave Edeard's shoulder a paternal squeeze. 'Did you sense me getting up in my bedroom, boy? he asked, gesturing at his waiting plate of sausage and tomato.

'No sir, Edeard said happily. 'Can't manage to get through four walls yet.

'Won't be long, Akeem said as he lifted up his tea. 'The way you're developing I'll be sleeping outside the village walls by midsummer. Everyone's entitled to some privacy.

'I would never intrude, Edeard protested. He mellowed and grinned sheepishly as he caught the amusement in the old shaper's mind. Master Akeem had passed his hundred and eightieth birthday several years back, so he claimed, though he was always vague about the precise year that happened. Life expectancy on Querencia was supposed to be around two hundred years, though Edeard didn't know of anyone in Ashwell or the surrounding villages who'd actually managed to live that long. However, Akeem's undeniable age had given him a rounded face with at least three chins rolling back into a thick neck, and a lacework of red and purple capillaries decorated the pale skin of his cheeks and nose, producing a terribly wan appearance. A thin stubble left behind after his perfunctory daily shave was now mostly grey, which didn't help the careworn impression everyone received when they saw him for the first time. Once a week the old man used the same razor on what was left of his silver hair.

Despite his declining years, he always insisted on dressing smartly. His personal ge-monkeys were well versed in laundry work. Today his tailored leather trousers were clean, boots polished; a pale yellow shirt washed and pressed. He wore a jacket woven from magenta and jade yarn, with the egg-in-a-twisted-circle crest of the Eggshaper Guild on the lapel. The jacket might not be as impressive as the robes worn by Guild members in Makkathran, but in Ashwell it was a symbol of prestige, earning him respect. None of the other village elders dressed as well.

Edeard sheepishly realized he was fingering his own junior apprentice badge, a simple metal button on his collar; the emblem similar to Akeem's, but with only a quarter circle. Half the time he forgot to pin it on in the morning. After all, nobody showed him any respect, ever. But if all went well today he'd be entitled to a badge with half a circle. Akeem said he could never remember anyone attempting a shaping so sophisticated for their senior apprentice assessment. 'Nervous? the old man asked.

'No, Edeard said immediately. Then he ducked his head. 'They work in the tank, anyway.

'Of course they do. They always do. Our true skill comes in determining what works in real life. From what I've seen, I don't believe there will be a problem. That's not a guarantee, mind. Nothing in life is certain.

'What did you shape for your senior apprentice assessment? Edeard asked.

'Ah, now well, that was a long time ago. Things were different back then, more formal. They always are in the capital. I suspect they haven't changed much.

'Akeem! Edeard pleaded, he loved the old man dearly; but oh how his mind wondered these days.

'Yes yes. As I recall, the assessment required four ge-spiders; functional ones, mind. They had to spin drosilk at the Grand Master's presentation, so everyone wound up shaping at least six or seven to be safe. We also had to shape a wolf, a chimp, and an eagle. Ah, he sighed. 'They were hard days. I remember my Master used to beat me continually. And the larks we used to get up to in the dormitoiy at night.

Edeard was slightly disappointed. 'But I can do ge-spiders and all the rest.

'I know, Akeem said proudly, and patted the boy's hand. 'But we both know how gifted you are. A junior apprentice is normally seventeen before taking the kind of assessment you're getting today, and even then a lot of them fail the first time. This is why I've made your task all the harder. A reshaped form that works is the standard graduation from apprenticehood to practitioner.

'It is?

'Oh yes. Of course I've been dreadfully remiss in the rest of the Guild teachings. It was hard enough to make you sit down long enough to learn your letters. And you're really not old enough to take in the Guild ethics and all that boring old theory, no matter how precise they are when I gift them to you. Though you seem to grasp things at an instinctive level. That's why you're still only going to be an apprentice after this.

Edeard frowned. 'What kind of ethics could be involved in shaping?

'Can't you think?

'No, not really. Genistars are such a boon. They help everyone. Now I'm helping you sculpt, we can produce more standard genera than before, the village will grow strong and rich again.

'Well I suppose as you're due to become a senior apprentice we should start to consider these notions. We'd need more apprentices if that were to truly come about.

'There's Sancia, and little Evox has a powerful longtalk.

'We'll see. Who knows? We might prove a little more acceptable after today. Families are reluctant to offer their children for us to train. And your friend Obron doesn't help matters.

Edeard blushed. Obron was the village's chief bully, a boy a couple of years older than him, who delighted in making Edeard's life a misery outside the walls of the Guild compound. He hadn't realized Akeem had known about that. 'I should sort him out properly.

'The Lady knows you've had enough provocation of late. I'm proud you haven't struck back. Eggshapers are always naturally strong telepaths, but part of that ethics course you're missing is how we shouldn't abuse our advantage.

'I just haven't because… He shrugged.

'It's not right thing to do, and you know that, Akeem concluded. 'You're a good boy, Edeard. The old man looked at him, his thoughts a powerful mixture of pride and sadness.

Proximity to the emotional turmoil made Edeard blink away the water now unexpectedly springing into his eyes. He shook his head, as if to disentangle himself from the old man's mind. 'Did you ever have someone like Obron ragging you when you were an apprentice?

'Let's just say one of the reasons I came to stay in Ashwell was because my interpretation of our Guild ethics differed to the Masters of the Blue Tower. And please remember, although I am your Master and tutor, I also require Guild standards to be fulfilled. If I judge you lacking you will not get your senior apprentice badge today. That includes taking care of your ordinary duties.

Edeard pushed his empty plate away and downed the last of his tea. 'I'd better get to it, then. Master.

'I also fail anyone who shows disrespect.

Edeard pulled a woolly hat on against the chill air, and went out into the Guild compound's main courtyard. It was unusual in that it had nine sides. Seven were made up from stable blocks, then there was a large barn, and the hatchery. None of them were the same size or height. When he first moved in, Edeard had been impressed. The Eggshaper Guild compound was the largest collection of buildings in the village; to someone who'd been brought up in a small cottage with a leaky thatch roof it was a palatial castle. Back then he'd never noticed the deep cloak of kimoss staining every roof a vivid purple; nor how pervasive and tangled the gurkvine was, covering the dark stone walls of the courtyard with its ragged pale-yellow leaves, while its roots wormed their way into the mortar between the blocks, weakening the structure. This morning he just sighed at the sight, wondering if he'd ever get round to directing the ge-monkeys on a clean-up mission. Now would be a good time. The gurkvine leaves had all fallen to gather in the corners of the courtyard in great mouldering piles, while the moss was soaking up the season's moisture, turning into great spongy mats which would be easy to peel off. Like everything else in his life, it would have to wait. If only Akeem could find another apprentice, he thought wistfully. We spend our whole lives running to catch up, just one extra person in the Guild would make so much difference.

It would take a miracle granted by the Lady, he acknowledged grudgingly. The village families were reluctant to allow their children to train at the Eggshaper Guild. They appreciated how dependent they were on genistars, but even so they couldn't afford to lose able hands. The Guild was just like the rest of Ashwell, struggling to keep going.

Edeard hurried across the courtyard to the tanks where his new reshaped cats were kept, silently asking the Lady why he bothered to stay in this backward place on the edge of the wilds. To his right were the largest stables, where the defaults shuffled round their stalls. They were simple beasts, unshaped egg-laying genistars, the same size as terrestrial ponies, with six legs supporting a bulbous body. The six upper limbs were vestigial, producing bumps along the creature's back, while in the female over thirty per cent of the internal organs were ovaries, producing an egg every fifteen days. Males, of which there were three, lumbered round in a big pen at one end, while the females were kept in a row of fifteen separate stalls. For the first time since Akeem had taken him in, the stalls were all occupied; a source of considerable satisfaction to Edeard. Not even a Master as accomplished as Akeem, and despite his age he was a singular talent, could manage fifteen defaults by himself. Shaping an egg took a long time, and Edeard had as many grotesque failures as he had successes. First of all, the timing had to be right. An egg needed to be shaped no earlier than ten hours after fertilization, and no later than twenty-five. How long it took depended on the nature of the genus required.

Edeard had often spent half the night sitting in a stall's deep-cushioned shaper chair with his mind focused on the egg. Eggshaping, as Akeem had so often described it, was like sculpting intangible clay with invisible hands. The ability was a gentle combination of farsight and telekinesis. His mind could see inside the egg, and only those who could do that with perfect clarity could become shapers. Not that he liked to boast, but Edeard's mental vision was the most acute in the village. What he saw within the shell was like a small exemplar of a default genistar made out of grey shadow substance. His telekinesis would reach out and begin to shape it into the form he wanted — but slowly, so frustratingly slowly. There were limits. He couldn't give a genistar anything extra: seven arms, two heads… What the process did was activate the nascent structures inherent within the default physiology. He could also define size, though that was partially determined by what type of genus he was shaping. Then there were sub-families within each standard genus, chimps as well as monkeys, a multitude of horse types — big, small, powerful, fast, slow. A long list which had to be memorized perfectly. Shaping was inordinately difficult, requiring immense concentration. A shaper had to have a lot more than eldritch vision and manipulation; he or she had to have the feel of what they were doing, to know instinctively if what they were doing was right, to see potential with the embryonic genistar. In the smaller creatures there would be no room for reproductive organs, so they had to be disengaged, other organs too had to be selected where appropriate. But which ones? Small wonder even a Grand Master produced a large percentage of invalid eggs.

Edeard walked past the default stables, his farsight flashing through the building, checking that the ge-monkeys were getting on with their jobs of mucking out and feeding. Several were becoming negligent and disorderly, so he refreshed their instructions with a quick longtalk message. A slightly deeper scan with his farsight showed him the state of the gestating eggs inside the defaults. Of the eleven that had been shaped, three were showingsigns that indicated problems were developing. He gave a resigned sigh. Two of them were his.

After the defaults came the horse stables. There were nine foals currently accommodated, seven of which were growing up into the large sturdy brutes which would pull ploughs and carts out on the surrounding farms. Most of the commissions placed on Ashwell's Eggshaper Guild were for genistars which could be used in agriculture. The custom of domestic ge-monkeys and chimps was in decline, which Edeard knew was just because people didn't take the time to learn how to instruct them properly. Not that they were going to come here and take lessons from a fourteen-year-old boy. It annoyed him immensely; he was certain the village economy could be improved fourfold at least if they just listened to him.

'Patience, Akeem always counselled, when he raged against the short-sighted fools who made up their neighbours. 'Often to do what's right you first have to do what's wrong. There will come a time when your words will be heeded.

Edeard didn't know when that would be. Even if today was successful he didn't expect a rush of people to congratulate him and seek out his advice. He was sure he was destined to forever remain the freaky boy who lived alone with batty old Akeem. A well matched pair, everyone said when they thought he couldn't farsight them.

The monkey and chimp pen was on the other side of the horses. It only had a couple of infant monkeys inside, curled up in their nest. The rest were all out and about, performing their duties around the Guild compound. They didn't have any commissions for ge-monkeys on their books; even the smithy who worked five didn't want any extras. Perhaps I should bring people round the Guild buildings-, Edeard thought, show them what the ge-monkeys can do if they're ordered correctly. Or Akeem could show them, at least. Just something that would break the cycle, make people more adventurous. The freaky boy's daydream.

After the monkey pen came the kennels. Ge-dogs remained in high demand, especially the kind used for herding cattle and sheep. Eight pups were nursing from the two milk-bitches which he'd shaped himself. They allowed the defaults to go straight back to egg production without an extended nursing period. It had taken twelve invalid eggs before he'd succeeded in shaping the first. The innovation was one he'd introduced after reading about the milk-bitch in an ancient Guild text, now he was keen to try and extend it across all the genistar types. Akeem had been supportive when the first had hatched, impressed as much by Edeard's tenacity as his shaping skill.

The compound's main gateway was wedged in between the dog kennels and the wolf kennels. There were six of the fierce creatures maturing. Always useful outside the village walls, the wolves were deployed as guards for Ashwell and all its outlying farmhouses; they were also taken on hunts through the forests, helping to clear out Querencia's native predators as well as the occasional bandit group. Edeard stopped and looked in. The ge-wolves were lean creatures with dark-grey fur that blended in with most landscapes, their long snouts equipped with sharp fangs which could bite clean through a medium-sized branch, let alone a limb of meat and bone. The large pups mewled excitedly as he hung over the door and patted at them. His hand was licked by hot serpentine tongues. Two of them had a pair of arms, another of his innovations. Ge wanted to see if they could carry knives or clubs. Something else he'd found in an old text. Another idea the villagers had shaken their heads in despair at.

Out of the whole courtyard, he liked the aviary best. A squat circular cote with arched openings twenty feet above the ground, just below the eves. There was a single doorway at the base. Inside, the open space was criss-crossed by broad martoz beams. Over the years the wood had been heavily scarred by talons, so much so that the original square cut was now rounded out on top. There was only a single ge-eagle left, as big as Edeard's torso. The bird had a double wing arrangement, with two limbs supporting the large front wing and giving it remarkable flexibility, while the rear wing was a simple triangle for stability. It gold and emerald feathers cloaked a streamlined body, with a long slender jaw where the teeth had merged into a single serrated edge very similar to a beak.

Trisegment eyes blinked down at Edeard as he smiled up. He so envied the ge-eagle, how it could soar free and clear of the village with all its earthbound drudgeiy and irrelevance. It had an unusually strong telepathic ability, allowing Edeard to experience wings spread wide and the wind slipping past. Often, whole afternoons would pass with an enthralled Edeard twinned with the ge-eagle's mind as it swooped and glided over the forests and valleys outside, providing an intoxicating taste of the freedom that existed beyond the village.

It rustled its wings, enthused by Edeard's appearance and the prospect of flight. Not yet, Edeard had to tell it reluctantly. Its beak was shaken in disgust and the eyes shut, returning it to an aloof posture.

The hatchery came between the aviary and the cattery. It was a low circular building, like a half-size aviary. Its broad iron-bound wooden door was closed and bolted. The one place in the compound that ge-monkeys weren't permitted to go. Edeard had the task of keeping it clean and tidy. A sheltered stone shelf to the right of the door had nine thick candles alight, traditionally one for each egg inside. He swept his farsight across them all, happy to confirm the embryos were growing satisfactorily. After they'd been laid, the eggs took about ten days to hatch, cosseted in cradles that in winter months were warmed by slow-smouldering charcoal in a massive iron stove. He'd need to rake out the ashes and add some more lumps before midday. One of the eggs was due to hatch tomorrow, he judged, another horse.

Finally, he went into the cattery, the smallest of the buildings walling the courtyard. Standard genistar cats were small semi-aquatic creatures, with dark oily fur and broad webbed feet, devoid of upper limbs. Guild convention had them as one of the seven standard genera, though nobody outside the capital Makkathran ever found much use for them. It was the gondoliers who kept a couple on each boat, using them to keep the city's canals clean of weed and rodents.

The cattery was a rectangular room taken up by big knee-high stone tables. Light came in through windows set into the roof. As a testament to how prolific the kimoss had become, Edeard now always supplemented his ordinary sight with farsight as he shuffled along the narrow aisles between the tables. From inside, the windows had been reduced to narrow slits that provided a meagre amethyst radiance.

Glass tanks sat along the tables. They were ancient, basins the size of bulky coffins, dating back to when the whole compound had been built. Half of them had cracked sides, and dried and dead algae stained the glass, while the bottoms were filled with gravel and desiccated flakes of mud. Edeard had refurbished five to hold his reshaped cats, with another three modified to act as crude reservoirs. The pipes he used to test their ability were strewn across the floor in a tangled mess. All five reshaped cats lay on the gravel bed of the tanks, with just a few inches of water rippling sluggishly round them. They resembled fat lozenges of glistening ebony flesh, half the size of a human. There were no limbs of any kind, just a row of six circular gills along their flanks dangling loose tubes of thick skin. The head was so small it looked completely undeveloped to the point of being misshapen; there were no eyes or ears. It was all Edeard's farsight could do to detect any sparkle of thought at all within the tiny brain.

He grinned down cheerily at the unmoving lumps, searching through them for any sign of malady. When he was satisfied their health was as good as possible, he stood perfectly still, taking calm measured breaths they way Akeem had taught him, and focused his telekinesis on the first cat, the third hand as most villagers called it. He could feel the black flesh within his incorporeal grip, and lifted it off the bed of mucky gravel.

Half an hour later, when Barakka the village cartwright drove his wagon into the courtyard he found Edeard and Akeem standing beside five tarpaulins with the reshaped cats lying onthem. He wrinkled his face up in disgust at the bizarre creatures, and shot the old Guild Master a questioning look.

Are you sure about this? he asked as he swung himself off the bench. The cartwright was a squat man, made even broader by eight decades of hard physical labour. He had a thick, unruly ginger beard that served to make his grey eyes seem even more sunken. His hand scratched at his buried chin as he surveyed the ge-cats, doubt swirling openly in his mind, free for Edeard to see. Barakka didn't care much for the feelings of young apprentices.

'If they work they will bring a large benefit to Ashwell, Akeem said smoothly. 'Surely it's worth a try?

'Whatever you say, Barakka conceded. He gave Edeard a sly grin. 'Are you aiming to be our Mayor, boy? If this works you'll get my blessing. I've been washing in horse muck these last three months. Course, old Geepalt will have his nose right out of joint.

Geepalt, the village carpenter, was in charge of the existing well's pump, and by rights should have built a new pump for the freshly dug well. He was chief naysayer on allowing Edeard to try his innovation — it didn't help that Obron was his apprentice.

'There are worse things in life than an annoyed Geepalt, Akeem said. 'Besides, when this works he'll have more time for profitable commissions.

Barakka laughed. 'You old rogue! It is your tongue not your mind which shapes words against their true meaning.

Akeem gave a small, pleased bow. 'Thank you. Shall we begin loading?

'If Melzar's team is ready, Barakka said.

Edeard's farsight flashed out, surveying the new well, with the crowd gathering around it. 'They are. Wedard has called the ge-monkey digging team out.

Barakka gave him a calculating stare. The new well was being dug on the other side of the village from the Eggshaper Guild compound. His own farsight couldn't reach that far. 'Very well, we'll put them on the wagon. Can you manage a third of the weight, boy?

Edeard was very pleased that he managed to stop any irony from showing amid his surface thoughts. 'I think so, sir. He caught Akeem's small private smile; the Master's mind remained calm and demure.

Barakka gave the reshaped cats another doubting look, and scratched his beard once more. 'All right then. On my call. Three. Two. One.

Edeard exerted his third hand, careful not to boost more than he was supposed to. With the three of them lifting, the reshaped cat rose smoothly into the air and floated into the back of the open wagon.

'They're not small, are they? Barakka said. His smile was somewhat forced. 'Good job you're helping, Akeem.

Edeard didn't know if he should protest or laugh.

'We all play our part, Akeem said. He was giving Edeard a warning stare.

'Second one, then, Barakka said.

Ten minutes later they were rolling through the village, Barakka and Akeem sitting on the wagon's bench, while Edeard made do with the rear, one arm resting protectively over a cat. Ashwell was a clutter of buildings in the lee of a modest stone cliff that had sheered out of the side of a gentle slope. Almost impossible to climb, the cliff formed a good defence, with a semicircular walled rampart of earth and stone completing their protection from any malign forces that might ride in from the wild lands to the north-east. Most of the buildings were simple stone cottages with thatch roofs and slatted shutters. Some larger buildings had windows with glass panes that been brought in from the western towns. Only the broad main street running parallel to the cliff was cobbled, the lanes running off it were little more than muddy ruts worn down to the stone by wheels and feet. Although the Eggshaper compound was the biggest collection of buildings, the tallest was the church of the Empyrean Lady, with its conical spire rising out of the north side of the low dome. Once upon a time the stone church had been a uniform white, but many seasons of neglect had seen the lightest sectionsmoulder down to a drab grey, with kimoss pullulating in the slim gaps between the big blocks.

The road down to the village gate branched off midway along main street. Edeard looked along it, seeing the short brick-lined tunnel which cut through the sloping rampart; at the far end the massive doors were open to the outside world. On the top of the wall, twin watchtowers stood on either side of the door, with big iron bells on top. They would be rung by the guards at any sign of trouble approaching. Edeard had never heard them. Some of the older villagers claimed to remember their sound when bandit gangs had been spotted crossing the farmlands bordering the village.

As Edeard looked at the top of the rampart wall with its uneven line and many different materials he wondered how hard it actually would be to overcome their fortifications. There were places where crumbling gaps had been plugged by thick timbers, which themselves were now rotting beneath swathes of kimoss; and even if every man and woman in the village carried arms they couldn't stretch along more than a third of the length. In reality, then, their safety depended on the illusion of strength.

A sharp prick of pain on his left shin made him wince. It was a telekinetic pinch, which he warded off with a strong shield over his flesh. Obron and two of his cronies were flanking the wagon, mingling with the other villagers who were heading up to the new well. There was a sense of carnival in the air as the wagon made its slow procession through Ashwell, with people abandoning their normal work to tag along and see the innovation.

Now Edeard had been jerked away from his mild daydreaming he picked up on the bustle of amusement and interest filling the aether through the village. Very few people were expecting his reshaped cats to work, but they were looking forward to witnessing the failure. Typical, he thought. This village always expects the worst. It's exactly the attitude that's responsible for our decline; not everything can be blamed on bad weather, poor crops, and more bandits.

'Hey, Egg-boy, Obron jeered. 'What are those abortions? And where are your pump genistars? He laughed derisively, a cackling that was quickly duplicated by his friends.

'These are— Edeard began crossly. He stopped at their laughter rose, wishing the wagon could travel a lot faster. There were smiles on the faces of the adults walking alongside as they witnessed typical apprentice rivalry — remembering what it had been like when they were young. Obron's thoughts were vivid and mocking. Edeard managed to keep his own temper. Revenge would come as soon as the cats were in place. There would be respect for the Eggshaper Guild, with a corresponding loss of status for the carpenters.

He was still clinging smugly to that knowledge when the wagon rolled up beside the new well. It was four months ago when the village's old well had partially collapsed. Rubble and silt had been sucked up into the pump, a large contraption assembled by the Carpentry Guild, with big cogwheels and leather bladders that were compressed and expanded by three ge-horses harnessed to a broad axle wheel. They walked round and round in a circle all day long, producing gulps of water that slopped out of the pipe into a reservoir trough for everyone to use. As no one had noticed the sludge at first, the ge-horses just kept on walking until the pump started to creak and shudder. It had been badly damaged.

Once the extent of the damage to the well had been assessed, the elder council had decreed a new well should be dug. This time, it was at the top of the village, close to the cliff where the water percolating down from the slopes above should be plentiful enough. There were also ideas that a simple network of pipes could carry fresh water into each house. That would have required an even larger pump to be built. At which point Akeem had brought his apprentice's idea to the council.

The crowd which had gathered round the head of the new well was good natured enough when the wagon stopped. Melzar, who listed Water Master among many other village titles, was standing beside the open hole, talking to Wedard, the stonemason who had overseen the team of ge-monkeys that performed the actual digging. They both gave the reshaped cats an intrigued look. Edeard wasn't really aware of them, he could hear a lot of sniggering. It mostly came from the gang of apprentices centred around Obron. His cheeks flushed red as he struggled to hold the anger from showing in his surface thoughts.

'Have faith in yourself, someone whispered into his mind, a skilfully directed longtalk voice directed at him alone. The sentiment was threaded with a rosy glow of approval.

He looked round to see Salrana smiling warmly at him. She was only twelve, dressed in the blue and white robe of a Lady's novice. A sweet, good-natured child she had never wanted to do anything other than join the Church. The Lady's Mother of Ashwell, Lorellan, had been happy to start her instructions. Attendance was never high in the village church apart from the usual festival services. Like Edeard, Salrana never quite fitted into the mainstream of village life. It made them feel kindred. She was like a younger sister. He grinned back at her as he clambered down off the wagon. Lorellan, who was standing protectively to one side of her, gave him a bland smile.

Melzar came over to the back of the wagon. 'This should be interesting.

'Why, thank you, Akeem said. The cold air was turning the blood vessels on his nose and cheeks an even darker shade than normal.

Melzar inclined his head surreptitiously towards the surrounding crowd. Edeard didn't turn round, his farsight revealed Geepalt standing in the front row, feet apart and arms folded, a glower on his thin features. Contempt scudded across his surface thoughts, plain for everyone to sense. Edeard was adept enough to detect the currents of concern underneath.

'What's the water like? Barakka asked.

'Cold, but very clear, Melzar said contentedly. 'Digging the well this close to the cliff is a boon. There is a lot of water filtering through the rock from above us, and it's wonderfully pure. No need to boil it before we make beer, eh? Got to be good news.

Edeard shuffled closer to the hole, half expecting Obron's third hand to shove at him. His feet squelched on the semi-frozen mud around the flagstones, and he peered over the rim. Wedard had done a good job of lining the circular shaft, the stones were perfectly cut, and fixed better than a lot of cottage walls. This well wouldn't crumble and collapse like the last one. Darkness lurked ten feet below the rim like an impenetrable mist. His farsight probed down, reaching the water over thirty feet below ground level.

'Are you ready? Melzar asked. The voice was sympathetic. Without the Water Master's support, the council would never have allowed Edeard to try the cats.

'Yes, sir.

Edeard, Akeem, Melzar, Barakka, and Wedard extended their third hands to lift the first cat off the wagon. Everyone in the crowd used their farsight to follow it into the gloomy shaft. Just as it reached the water, Edeard tensed. Suppose it sinks?

'And release, Akeem said so smoothly and confidently that Edeard had no alternative but to let go. The cat bobbed about, completely unperturbed. Edeard realized he'd been holding his breath, anxiety scribbled right across his mind for everyone to sense, especially Obron. His relief was equally discernible to the villagers.

It wasn't long before all five cats were floating on the water. Melzar himself lowered the thick rubber hose, unwinding it slowly from the cylinder it was spooled round. The end was remarkably complicated, branching many times as if it had sprouted roots. Edeard lay flat on the flagstones around the rim, heedless of the freezing mud soaking into his sweater. Warm air gusted up from the shaft to tickle his face. He closed his eyes, allowing himself to concentrate solely on his third hand as it connected the hose ends to the cat gills. Simple muscle lips closed round the rubber tubes on his command, forming a tight seal. A standard genistar cat had three big floatation bladders, giving them complete control over their own buoyancy as they swam, allowing them to float peacefully or dive down several yards. It was these bladders which Edeard had shaped the new cats around, expanding them to occupy eighty per cent of the total body volume, surrounding them with muscle so that they were crude pumps, like a heart for water. His longtalk ordered them to start the muscle squeeze sequence, building up an elementary rhythm.

Everyone fell silent as he stood up. Eyes and farsight were focused on the giant stone trough which had been set up next to the well. The hose end curved over it. For an achingly long minute nothing happened, then it emitted a gurgling sound. Droplets of water spat out, prelude to a foaming torrent that poured into the trough. It began to fill up remarkably quickly.

Edeard remembered the flow of water from the old well pump: this had several times the pressure. Melzar dipped a cup into the water and tasted it. 'Fresh and pure, he announced in a loud voice. 'And better than that: abundant. He stood in front of Edeard, and started clapping, his eyes ranging round the crowd, encouraging. Others joined in. Soon Edeard was at the centre of a storm of applause. His cheeks were burning again, but this time he didn't care. Akeem's arm went round his shoulder, mind aglow with pride. Even Geepalt was acknowledging the success, albeit grudgingly. Of Obron and his cronies there was no sign.

There was the tidying up, of course. Sacs of the oily vegetable mush which the cats digested were filled and positioned beside the well; valves adjusted so they dripped a steady supply down slender tubes. Edeard connected the far end of each tube to the mouth of a cat, instructing them to suckle slowly. Wedard and his apprentices fastened the hose to the side of the well. The ground was cleared. Finally, the huge stone capping slab was moved over the shaft, sealing the cats into their agreeable new milieu. By that time apprentices and household ge-monkeys were already queuing at the trough with large pitchers.

'You have a rare talent, my boy, Melzar said as he watched the water lapping close to the top of the trough 'I see we're going to have to dig a drain to cope with the overspill. Then no doubt the Council will soon be demanding that mad pipe scheme to supply the houses. Quite a revolution, you've started. Akeem, I'd be honoured if you and your apprentice would join us for our evening meal'

'I will be happy to liberate some of the wine you hold prisoner, Akeem said. 'I've heard there are whole dungeons full under your Guild hall.

'Ha! Melzar turned to Edeard. 'Do you like wine, my boy?

Edeard realized that the question was actually genuine, for once he wasn't simply being humoured. 'I'm not sure, sir.

'Best find out, then.

The crowd had departed, creating a rare atmosphere of satisfaction pervading the village. It was a good way to start the new spring season, ran the feeling, a good omen that times were getting better. Edeard stayed close to the trough as the apprentices filled their pitchers. He wasn't sure if he was imagining it, but they seemed to be treating him with a tad more approbation than before. Several even congratulated him.

'Haunting the site of your victory?

It was Salrana. He grinned at her. 'Actually, just making sure the cats don't keel over from exhaustion, or the hoses don't tear free. Stuff like that. There's a lot that can go wrong yet.

'Poor, Edeard, always the pessimist.

'Not today. Today was…


He eyed the low clouds that were blocking the sun from view. 'Helpful. For me and the village.

'I'm really pleased for you, she exclaimed. 'It takes so much courage to stand up for your own convictions, especially in a place like this. Melzar was right; this is a revolution.

'You were eavesdropping! What would the Lady say?

'She would say, Well done, young man. This will make everyone's life a little better. Ashwell has one less thing less to worry about, now. The people need that. Life is so hard, here. From small foundations of hope, empires can be built.

'That has to be a quote, he teased.

'If you attended church, you'd know.

'I'm sorry. I don't get much time.

'The Lady knows and understands.

'You're such a good person, Salrana. One day you'll be the Pythia.

'And you'll be Mayor of Makkathran. What a grand time we'll have together, making all of Querencia a happy place.

'No more bandits. No more drudgery — especially not for apprentices.

'Or novices.

'They'll talk about our reign until the Skylords return to carry us all into the heart.

'Oh look, she squealed and pointed excitedly at the trough. 'It's overflowing! You've given us too much water, Edeard.

He watched as the water began to spill over the lip of the trough. Within seconds it had become a small stream frothing across the mud towards their feet. They both ran aside, laughing.


Justine Burnelli examined her body closely before she put it on again. After all, it had been over two centuries since the last time she'd worn it. During the intervening years it had been stored in an exotic matter cage that generated a temporal suspension zone so that barely half a second had passed inside.

The cage looked like a simple sphere of violet light in ANA's New York reception facility, a building that extended for a hundred and fifty storeys below Manhattan's streets. Her cage was housed on the ninety-fifth floor, along with several thousand identical radiant bubbles. ANA normally maintained a body for five years after the personality downloaded out of it, just in case there were compatibility problems. Such an issue was unusual, the average was one in eleven million who rejected a life inside ANA and returned to the physical realm. Once those five years were up, the body was discontinued. After all, if a personality really wanted to leave ANA after that, a simple clone could be grown — a process not dissimilar to the old fashioned re-life procedure that was still available out among the External Worlds.

However, ANA: Governance considered it useful to have physical representatives walking the Greater Commonwealth in certain circumstances. Justine was one of them. It was partly her own fault. She'd been over eight hundred years old when Earth built its repository for Advanced Neural Activity, the ultimate virtual universe where everyone was supposedly equal in the end. After so much life she was very reluctant to see her body 'discontinued', in much the same way she'd never quite acknowledged that re-life was true continuation. For her, clones force-fed on a dead person's memories were not the same person, no matter there was no discernible difference. That early-twenty-first century upbringing of hers was just too hard to shake off, even for someone as mature and controlled as she had become.

The violet haze faded away to reveal a blonde girl in her biological mid-twenties. Rather attractive, Justine noted with a little tweak of pride, and very little of that had come from genetic manipulation down the centuries. The face she was looking at was still recognizable as the brattish party it girl of the early-twenty-first century who'd spent a decade on the gossip channels as she dated her way through East Coast society and soap actors. Her nose had been reduced, admittedly, and pointed slightly. Which, now she regarded it critically, was possibly a little too cutesy, especially with cheekbones that looked like they were made from avian bone they were so sharp yet delicate. Her eyes had been modified to a pale blue, matching Nordic white skin that tanned to honey gold, and hair that was thick white-blond, falling down below her shoulders. Her height was greater than her friends from the twenty-first century would have remembered; she'd surreptitiously added four inches during various rejuvenation treatments; despite the temptation she hadn't gained all that length in her legs, she'd made sure her torso was in proportion with a nicely flat abdomen which was easy to maintain thanks to a slightly accelerated digestive tract. Happily she'd never gone for ridiculous boobs — well, except that one time when she was rejuving for her two hundredth birthday and did it just to find out what it was like having a Grand Canyon cleavage. And yes men did gape and come out with even more stupid opening lines, but as she could always have whoever she wanted anyway there was no real advantage and it wasn't really her so she'd got rid of them at the next rejuvenation session.

So there she was, in the flesh, and still in good shape, just lacking a mind. With the monitor program confirming her visual review she poured her consciousness back into her brain. The memory reduction was phenomenal, as was the loss of all the advanced thought routines which comprised her true personality these days. Her old biological neurone structure simply didn't have the capacity to hold what she had become in ANA. It was like being lobotomized, actually feeling your mind wither away to some primitive insect faculty. But only temporary, she told herself — so sluggishly!

Justine drew her first breath in two hundred years, chest jerking down air as if she was waking from a nightmare. Her heart started racing away. For a moment she did nothing — not actually remembering what to do — then the reliable old automatic reflexes kicked in. She drew another breath, getting a grip on her panic, overriding the old Neanderthal instincts with pure rationality. Another regular breath. Calming her heart. Exoimages flickered into her peripheral vision, bringing up rows of default symbols from her enrichments. She opened her eyes. Long ranks of violet bubbles stretched out in all directions around her like some bizarre artwork sculpture. Somehow her meat-based mind was convinced she could see the shapes of people inside. That was preposterous. Inside ANA she'd obviously allowed herself to discard the memory of how fallible and hormone susceptible a human brain was.

A slow smile revealed perfect white teeth. At least I'll get to have some real sex before I download again.

* * * * *

Justine teleported out of the New York reception facility right into the centre of the Tulip Mansion. Stabilizer fields had maintained the ancient Burnelli family home through the centuries, keeping the building's fabric in pristine condition. She gave a happy grin when she saw it again with her own eyes. If she was honest with herself it was a bit of a monstrosity; a mansion laid out in four 'petals' whose scarlet and black roofs curved up to a central tower 'stamen' which had an apex 'anther' made from a crown of carved stone coated in gold foil. It was as gaudy as it was striking, falling in and out of fashion over the decades.

Justine's father, Gore Burnelli, had bought the estate in Rye county just outside New York, establishing it as a base for the family's vast commercial and financial activities in the middle of the twenty-first century. It had remained a centre for them while the Commonwealth was established and expanded outwards until finally its social and economic uniformity was shattered by biononics, ANA, and the separation of Higher and Advancer cultures. Today the family still had a prodigious business empire spread across the External Worlds, but it was managed in a corporate structure by thousands of Burnellis, none of whom was over three hundred years old. Gore, along with his original clique of close relatives (including Justine) who used to orchestrate it all, had long since downloaded into ANA. Though Gore had never formally and legally handed over ownership to his impatient descendants. It was, he assured them, purely a quirk for their own benefit, ensuring the whole enterprise could never be broken up, thus giving the family a cohesion that so many others lacked. Except Justine knew damn well that even in his enlightened, expanded, semi-omnipotent state within ANA, Gore wasn't about to hand anything over he'd spent centuries building up. Quirk, my ass.

She'd materialized in the middle of the mansion's ballroom. Her bare feet pressed down on a polished oak floor that was nearly as shiny as the huge gilt-edged mirrors on the wall. A hundred reflections of her naked body grinned sheepishly back at her. Deep-purple velvet drapes curved around the tall window doors which opened out on a veranda dripping with white wisteria. Outside, a bright low February sun shone across the extensive wooded grounds with their massive swathes of rhododendrons. There had been some fabulous parties held in here, she recalled. Fame, wealth, glamour, power, notoriety, and beauty mingling in a fashion that would have made Jane Austen green with envy.

The doors were open, leading out into the broad corridor. Justine walked through, taking in all the semi-familiar sights, welcoming the warm rush of recognition. Alcoves were filled with furniture that had been antique even before Ozzie and Nigel built their first wormhole generator; and as for the artwork, you could buy a small continent on an External World with just one of the paintings.

She padded up the staircase which curved its way through the entrance hall, and made her way down the north petal to her old bedroom. Everything was as she'd left it, maintained for centuries by the stabilizer fields and maidbots; a comforting illusion that she or any other Burnelli could walk in at any time and be given a perfect greeting in their ancestral home. The bed was freshly made, with linen taken out of the stabilizer field and freshened as soon as she and ANA had agreed to the reception. Several clothes were laid out. She ignored the modern toga suit, and went for a classical Indian-themed emerald dress with black boots.

'Very neutral.

Justine jumped at the voice. Irritation quickly supplanted perturbation. She turned and glared at the solido standing in the doorway. 'Dad, I don't care how far past the physical you claim to be, you DO NOT come into a girl's bedroom without knocking. Especially mine.

Gore Burnelli's image didn't show much contrition. He simply watched with interest as she sat on the bed and laced her boots up. He'd chosen the representation of his twenty-fourth-century self, which was undoubtedly the image for which he was most renown: a body whose skin had been turned to gold. Over that he wore a black V-neck sweater and black trousers. The perfect reflective surface made it difficult to determine his features. Without the gold sheen he would have been a handsome twenty-five-year-old with short-cropped fair hair. His face, which at the time he had it done was nothing more than merged organic circuitry tattoos, was all the more disconcerting thanks to the perfectly ordinary grey eyes peering out of the gloss. That Gore looked out on the world from behind a mask of improvements was something of a metaphor. He was a pioneer of enhanced mental routines, and had been one of the founders of ANA.

'Like it matters, he grunted.

'Politeness is always relevant, she snapped back. Her temper wasn't improved by the way her fingers seemed to lack any real dexterity. She was having trouble tying the boot laces.

'You were a good choice to receive the Ambassador.

She finally managed to finish the bow, and lifted a quizzical eyebrow. 'Are you jealous, Dad?

'Of becoming some kind of turbo-version of a monkey again? Yeah right. Thinking down at this level and this speed gives me a headache.

'Turbo-monkey! You nearly said animal, didn't you?

'Flesh and blood is animal.

'Just how many Factions do you support?

'I'm a Conservative, everyone knows that. Maybe a few campaign contributions to the Outwards.

'Humm. She gave him a suspicious look. Even in a body, she knew the rumours that ANA gave special dispensation to some of its internal personalities. ANA: Governance denied it, of course; but if anyone could manage to be more equal than others it would be Gore who'd been in there right at the start as one of the founding fathers.

'The Ambassador is nearly here, Gore said.

Justine checked her exoimages, and started to re-order her secondary thought routines. Her body's macrocellular clusters and biononics were centuries out of date, but still perfectly adequate for the simple tasks today would require. She called her son, Kazimir. 'I'm ready, she told him.

As she walked out of her bedroom she experienced a brief chill that made her glance back over her shoulder. That's the bed where we made love. The last time I saw him alive. Kazimir McFoster was one memory she had never put into storage, never allowed to weaken. There had been others since, many others, both in the flesh and in ANA, wonderful, intense relationships, but none ever had the poignancy of dear Kazimir whose death was her responsibility.

Gore said nothing as his solido followed her down the grand staircase to the entrance hall. She suspected that he suspected.

Kazimir teleported into the marbled entrance hall; appearing dead centre on the big Burnelli crest. He was dressed in his Admiral's tunic. Justine had never seen him wear anything else in six hundred years. He smiled in genuine welcome and gave her a gentle embrace, his lips brushing her cheek.

'Mother. You look wonderful as always.

She sighed. He did look so like his father. 'Thank you, darling.

'Grandfather. He gave Gore a shallow bow.

'Still holding up in that old receptacle, then, Gore said. 'When are you going to join us here in civilization?

'Not today, thank you, Grandfather.

'Dad, pack it in, Justine warned.

'It's goddamn creepy if you ask me, Gore grumbled. 'No one stays in a body for a thousand years. What's left for you out there?

'Life. People. Friends. True responsibility. A sense of wonder.

'We got a ton of that in here.

'And while you look inwards, the universe carries on around you.

'Hey, we're very aware of extrinsic events.

'Which is why we're having this happy family reunion today. Kazimir gave a small victory smile.

Justine wasn't even listening to them any more, they always ran through this argument as if it was a greeting ritual. 'Shall we go, boys?

The doors of the mansion swung open and she walked out on to the broad portico without waiting for the others. It was a cold air outside; frost was still cloaking the deeper hollows in the lawn where the long shadows prevailed. A few clouds scudded across the fresh blue sky. Pushing its way through them was the Ocisen Empire ship sliding in from the south-east. Roughly triangular, it measured nearly two hundred metres long. There was nothing remotely aerodynamic about it. The fuselage was a dark metal, mottled with aquamarine patches that resembled lichen. Its crinkled surface was cratered with indentations that sprouted black spindles at the centre, whilst long boxes looked as thoughthey'd been welded on at random. A cluster of sharp radiator fins emerged from the rear section, glowing bright red.

Gore gave a derisive chuckle. 'What a monstrosity. You'd think they could do better now we've given them regrav.

'We took five hundred years to get from the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk to the Second Chance, Justine pointed out.

Gore looked up as the alien starship slowed to a halt above the mansion's grounds. 'Do you think it'll have jets of dry ice gushing out when it lands, or maybe they've mounted a giant laser gun that'll blast the White House to smithereens?

'Dad, be quiet.

The ship descended. Two rows of hatches along its belly swung open.

'For fuck's sake, haven't they even heard of malmetal? Gore complained.

Long fat landing legs telescoped out. The movement was accompanied by a sharp hissing sound as high pressure gas vented through grilles in the undercarriage bays.

Justine had to suck her lower lip in to stop herself giggling. The starship was ridiculous, the kind of contraption Isambard Kingdom Brunei would have built for Queen Victoria.

It touched down on the lawn, its landing pads sinking deep into the grass and soft soil. Several radiator fins sliced down into silver birch trees, their heat igniting the wood. Burning branches dropped to the ground.

'Wow, the damage it causes. How will our world survive? Quick, you kids flee to the woods, I'll hold them off with a shotgun.

'Dad! And cancel your solido, you know what the Empire thinks of ANA personalities.

'Stupid and superstitious.

His solido vanished. Justine watched his icon appear in her exoimage. 'Now behave, she told him.

'That ship is leaking radiation all over the place, Gore commented. 'They haven't even shielded their fusion reactor properly. And who uses deuterium anyway?

Justine reviewed the sensor data, scanning the ship's hotspots. 'It's hardly a harmful emission level.

'The Ocisens aren't as susceptible to radioactivity as humans are, Kazimir said. 'It's one reason they were able to industrialize space in their home system with what equates to our mid-twenty-first-century technology. They simply didn't require the shielding mass we would have needed.

Halfway down the starship's fuselage a multi-segment airlock door unwound. The Ambassador for the Ocisen Empire floated out, sitting on top of a hemispherical regrav sled. Physically, the alien wasn't impressive; a small barrel shaped torso wrapped in layers of flaccid flesh that formed overlapping folds. Its four eyes were on serpent stalks curving out from the crest, while four limbs were folded up against the lower half of its body. They were encrusted in cybernetic systems, amplifying its strength and providing a number of manipulator attachments ranging from delicate pliers up to a big hydraulic crab pincer. Further support braces ran up its body, resembling a cage of chrome vertebrae that ended in a collar arrangement just below the base of the eye stalks. Patches of what looked like copper moss were growing across various sections of its flesh; they sprouted small rubbery stalks covered in minute sapphire flowers.

Justine bowed formally as the sled stopped in front of her, floating half a metre off the ground, which put the Ambassador's eye stalks above her. Even with the regrav unit and the physical support it was obvious the Ambassador had come from a low-gravity world. It sagged against the metal and composite structures holding it up. Two of the eye stalks bent round so they were aligned on her.

Ambassador, thank you for visiting us, Justine said.

'We are pleased to visit, the Ambassador answered, its voice a whispery burble coming from a slender vocalizer gill between his eye stalks. Translated into English by the sled processors, a speaker on the rim boomed the reply to Justine.

'My home welcomes you, she said, remembering the formality.

Another of the Ambassador's eye stalks curved round to stare at Kazimir. 'You are the human Navy commander.

'That is correct, Kazimir said. 'I am here as you requested.

'Many of my nest ancestor cousins fought in the Fandola assault. Thin droplets of spittle ran out of the Ambassador's gill, to be absorbed by drain holes in its support collar.

'I am sure they fought with honour.

'Honour be damned. We would have enjoyed victory over the Hancher vermin if you had not intervened that day'

'We are friends with the Hancher. Your attack was ill-advised; I warned you we would not abandon our friends. That is not our way.

The fourth eye stalk turned on Kazimir. 'You in person warned the Empire, Navy commander?

'That is correct.

'You live so long. You are no longer natural.

'Is this why you are here, Ambassador, to insult me?

You overreact. I state the obvious.

'We do not hide from the obvious, Justine said. 'But we are not here today to dwell upon what was. Please come in, Ambassador.

'You are kind.

Justine walked into the entrance hall with the Ambassador's sled gliding along behind her. Somehow it managed to keep a distance that wasn't too close as to be blatantly rude, but still close enough to be disconcerting.

Kazimir's icon blinked up beside Gore's in her peripheral vision. 'You know, he said, 'the Ocisens only started painting their sleds black after they found out humans are unsettled by darkness.

'If that's the best they can come up with it's a wonder their species ever survived the fission age, she replied.

'We shouldn't be in too much of a hurry to mock them, Gore replied. 'However much we sneer, they do have an empire, and they would have obliterated the Hancher if we hadn't stepped in.

'I'd hardly consider that to be an indicator of their superiority, Justine told them. 'And they're certainly not a threat to us. Their technology level is orders of magnitude below Higher culture, let alone ANA.

'Yes, but right now they only have one policy, to acquire better technology, especially weapons technology. A sizeable percentage of the Emperor's expansion budget is diverted to building long-range exploration ships in the hope they'll come across a world whose inhabitants have gone post-physical, and they can help themselves to whatever's left behind.

'Let's hope they never encounter a Prime immotile.

'They've made seventeen attempts to reach the Dyson Pair, Kazimir told her. 'And they currently have forty-two ships searching for an immotile civilization beyond the region of space we Firewalled.

'I didn't know that. Is there any danger they'll find a rogue Prime planet?

'If we can't find one, they certainly won't be able to.

Justine led their little party into the McLeod room, and sat at the head of the large oak table running down the middle. Kazimir took the chair at his mother's side, while the Ambassador hovered at the other end. Its eye stalks bent round slowly, as if it was having trouble with what it saw as it scanned the walls. The room's decor was Scottish themed, which surrounded the alien with tartan drapes, ancient Celtic ceremonial swords, and solemn marble mannequins dressed in clan kilts. Several sets of bagpipes were displayed in glass cases. A fabulous pair of stag antlers hung above the stone mantelplace that had been imported from a highland castle.

'Ambassador, Justine said formally, 'I represent the human government of Earth. I am physical, as you asked, and I am empowered to negotiate on the government's behalf with the Ocisen Empire. What do you wish to discuss?

Three of the Ambassador's eyes curved round to stare at her. 'Although we disapprove of living creatures placing themselves subordinate to the mechanical, we consider your planetary computer is the true ruler of the Commonwealth. That is why I required this direct meeting, rather than with the Senate as usual.

Justine wasn't about to start arguing about political structures with an alien who saw everything in terms of black and white. 'ANA has considerable influence beyond this planet. That is so.

'Then you must work with the Empire to avert a very real danger.

'What danger is that, Ambassador? As if none of us know.

'A human organization is threatening to send ships into the Void.

'Yes, our Living Dream movement wants to send its followers on a Pilgrimage there.

'I am familiar with human emotional states after being exposed to your kind for so long, so I am curious why you do not react to this event with any sense of distress or concern. It is through humans that we know of the Void, therefore you know what effect your Living Dream is proposing to trigger.

'They do not propose anything, they simply wish to live the life of their idol'

'You are deliberately denying the implication. Their entry to the Void will provoke a massive devourment phase. The galaxy will be ruined. Our Empire will be consumed. You will kill us and countless others.

'That will not happen, Justine said.

'We are reassured that you intend to stop the Living Dream.

'That's not what I said. It is not our belief that their Pilgrimage will cause a devourment phase of any size. They simply do not possess the ability to pass through the event horizon which guards the Void. Even the Raiel have trouble doing that, and Living Dream does not have access to a Raiel ship.

'Then why are they launching this Pilgrimage?

'It is a simple political gesture, nothing more. The Ocisen Empire, nor any other species in the galaxy, has anything to worry about.

'Do you guarantee that your Living Dream group cannot get through the event horizon? Other humans have crossed over into the Void. They are the cause of this desire to Pilgrimage, are they not?

'Nothing is certain, Ambassador, you know that. But the likelihood—

'If you cannot guarantee it, then you must prevent the ships from flying.

'The Greater Commonwealth is a democratic institution, complicated in this case by Living Dream being both trans-stellar and the legitimate government of Ellezelin. The Commonwealth constitution is specifically designed to protect every member's right to self-determination on an individual and governmental level. In other words we don't actually have the legal right to prevent them from embarking on their Pilgrimage.

'I am familiar with human lawyers; everything can be undone, nothing is final. You play with words, not reality. The Empire recognizes only power and ability. Your computer government has the physical power to prevent this Pilgrimage, am I not correct?

'Ability does not automatically imply intent, Justine said. 'ANA: Governance has the ability to do many things. We do not do them because of the laws which govern us, both legal and moral.

'It is not part of your morality to destroy this galaxy. You can prevent this.

'We can argue strongly against it, she said, wishing she didn't agree quite so much with the Ocisen.

'The Empire requires a tangible commitment. The Pilgrimage ships must be neutralized.

'Out of the question, Justine said. 'We cannot interfere with the lawful activities of another sovereign state, it goes against everything we are.

'If you do not prevent the launch of this atrocity, then the Empire will. Even your lawyers will agree we have the right to species self-preservation.

'Is that a threat, Ambassador? Kazimir asked quietly.

'It is the course of action you have forced upon us. Why do you not see this? Are you afraid of your primitive cousins? What can they threaten you with?

'They do not threaten us, we respect each other. Can you make the leap to understand that?

Justine tried to read the Ambassador's reaction to the jibe, but it seemed unperturbed. Spittle continued to dribble from its vocalizer gill, while its arms flopped round like landed fish inside their cybernetic casings. 'Your laws and their hypocrisy will always elude us, the Ambassador said. 'The Empire knows you always include extraordinary powers within your constitutions to impose solutions in times of crisis. We require you to invoke them now.

'ANA: Governance will be happy to introduce a motion in the Senate, Justine said. 'We will ask that Living Dream desists from reckless action.

'Will you back this by force if they refuse?

'Unlikely, Kazimir said. 'Our Navy exists to protect us from external enemies.

'What is the Void devourment, if not an enemy? Ultimately it is everyone's enemy. The Raiel acknowledge this.

'We do understand your unease, Ambassador, Justine said. 'I would like to reassure you we will work wholly to prevent any catastrophe from engulfing the galaxy.

'The Raiel could not prevent devourment. Are you greater than the Raiel?

'Probably not, she muttered. Did it understand sarcasm?

'Then we will prevent your ships from flying.

'Ambassador, I have to advise the Ocisen Empire against such a course of action, Kazimir said. 'The Navy will not permit you to attack humans.

'Do not think you can intimidate us, Admiral Kazimir. We are not the helpless species you attacked at Fandola. We have allies now. I represent many powerful species who will not allow the Void to begin its final devourment phase. We do not stand alone. Do you think your Navy can defeat the whole galaxy?

Kazimir seemed unperturbed. 'The Navy acts only in defence. I urge you to allow the Commonwealth to solve an internal problem in our own way. Humans will not trigger a large-scale devourment.

'We will watch you, the Ambassador boomed. 'If you do not prevent these Pilgrimage ships from being built and launched, then we and our new, powerful, allies will act in self-defence.

'I do understand your concern, Justine said. 'But I would ask you to trust us.

'You have never given us a reason to, the Ambassador said. 'I thank you for your time. I will return to my ship, I find your environment unpleasant.

Which was quite subtle for an Ocisen, Justine thought. She stood and accompanied the Ambassador back out to its ship. Gore materialized beside her as the hulking machine rose into the sky.

'Allies, huh? You know anything about that? he asked Kazimir.

'Not a thing, Kazimir said. 'They could be bluffing. Then again, if they are serious about stopping the Pilgrimage, they will need allies. They certainly can't do it alone.

'Could it be the Raid? Justine asked in surprise.

Kazimir shrugged. 'I doubt it. The Raiel don't go sneaking round doing deals to pitch one species against another. If the Empire had approached them, I feel confident they would have told us.

'A post-physical, then?

'Not impossible, Gore conceded. 'Most of them regard us as vulgar little newcomers to an exclusive club. Those that talk to us, anyway. Most can't even be arsed to do that. But I'd be very surprised if one had. They'd probably be quite interested in observing the final devourment phase.

'How about you? Justine enquired lightly.

Gore smiled, snow-white teeth shining coldly between gold lips. 'I admit, it would be a hell of a sight. From a distance. A very large distance.

'So what do you recommend? Justine asked.

'We certainly need to start the motion in the Senate, Kazimir said. 'The Ambassador was quite right. I don't think we can allow the Pilgrimage to launch.

'Can't stop 'em, Gore said with indecent cheerfulness. 'It's in the constitution.

'We do have to find a solution, Justine said. 'A political one. And quickly.

'That's my girl. Are you going to address the Senate yourself? You carry a lot of weight out there: history in the flesh.

'And it would be helpful to get confirmation from the Raiel, Kazimir said. 'You do have the personal connection.

'What? Justine's shoulders slumped. 'Oh hellfire. I wasn't planning on leaving Earth.

'I expect the Hancher Ambassador would like some reassurance, as well, Gore added maliciously.

Justine turned to give her father a level stare. 'Yes, there's a lot of people and Factions we need to keep an eye on.

'I'm sure Governance knows what it's doing. After all, you were its first choice. Can't beat that.

'Actually, I was second.

'Who was first? Kazimir asked curiously.

'Toniea Gall.

'That bitch! Gore spat. 'She couldn't get laid in a Silent World house the day after she rejuved. Everyone hates her.

'Now Dad, history decided the resettlement period was a minor golden age.

'Fucking minuscule, more like.

Justine and Kazimir smiled at each other. 'She was a good President as I recall, Kazimir said.


'I'll go and visit the Hancher Embassy on my way to the Senate, Justine said. 'It would be nice to know about the Empire's military movements.

'I'll start reassigning our observation systems inside the Empire to see if we can get a clearer picture of what's going on, Kazimir said.

* * * * *

As Justine's body teleported out of Tulip Mansion, Gore's primary consciousness retreated to his secure environment within the vastness of ANA. As perceptual reality locations went, it was modest. Some people had created entire universes for their own private playground, setting up self-governing parameters to maintain the configuration. The bodies, or cores, or focal points they occupied within their concepts were equally varied, with abilities defined purely by the individual milieu. Quite where such domains extended to was no longer apparent. ANA had ceased to be limited to the physical machinery which had birthed it. The operational medium was now tunnelled into the quantum structure of spacetime around Earth, fashioning a unique province in which its manifold post-human intelligences could function. The multiple interstices propagated through quantum fields with the tenacity and fragile beauty of a nebula, an edifice forever shifting in tandem with the whims of its creators. It was no longer machine, or even artificial life. It had become alive. What it might evolve into was the subject of considerable and obsessive internal debate.

The Factions were not openly at war over ANA's ultimate configuration, but it was a vicious battle of ideas. Gore hadn't been entirely truthful when he claimed to be a Conservative. He did support the idea of maintaining the status quo, but only because he felt the other more extreme factions were being far too hasty in offering their solutions. Apart from the Dividers, of course, who wanted ANA to fission into as many parts as there were Factions, allowing each to go their own way. He didn't agree with them either; what he wanted was more time and more information, that way he believed the direction they should take would become a lot more evident.

He appeared on a long beach, with a rocky headland a few hundred metres ahead of him. Perched on top was an old stone tower with crumbling walls and a white pavilion structure attached to the rear. The sun was hot on his head and hands; he was wearing a loose short-sleeve shirt and knee-length trousers. His skin was ordinary, without any enrichments. The self-image and surroundings were taken from the early twenty-first century, back when life was easier even without sentient machines. This was Hawksbill Bay, Antigua, where he used to come with his yacht, Moonlight Madison. There had been a resort clustered along the shore in those days, but in this representation the land behind the beach was nothing more than a tangle of palm trees and lush grass, with brightly coloured parrots zipping between the branches. It didn't have the wind that blew constantly through the real Caribbean, either; although the sea was an astonishingly clear turquoise where fish swam close to shore.

There was a simple dirt path up the headland, leading to the tower. The pavilion with its fabric roof covered a broad wooden deck and a small swimming pool. There was a big oval table at one end, with five heavily cushioned chairs around it. Nelson Sheldon was already sitting there, a tall drink resting on the table in front of him.

In the days before ANA, Nelson had been the security chief for the Sheldon Dynasty, the largest and most powerful economic empire that had ever existed. When the original Commonwealth society and economy split apart and reconfigured as the Greater Commonwealth, the Dynasty retained a great deal of its wealth and power, but things weren't the same. After Nigel Sheldon left, it lost cohesion and dispersed out among the External Worlds; still a force to be reckoned with, politically and economically, but lacking the true clout of before.

Over two centuries spent looking after the Dynasty's welfare had turned Nelson into a pragmatist of the first order. It meant he and Gore saw the whole ANA evolution outcome in more or less the same terms.

Gore sat at the table and poured himself an iced tea from the pitcher. 'You accessed all that?

'Yeah. I'm interested who the Empire has as an ally, or even allies.

'Probably just a bluff.

'You're overestimating the Ocisens, they lack the imagination for a bluff. I'd say they've managed to dig up some ancient reactionary race with a hard-on for the good old days and a backyard full of obsolete weapons.

'ANA: Governance is going to have to give that one some serious attention, Gore said. 'We can't have alien warships invading the Commonwealth. Been there, done that. Ain't going to let it happen twice. It was one of the reasons we started building ANA, so that humanity is never at a technological disadvantage again. There's a lot of very nasty hardware lying round this galaxy'

'Amongst other things, Nelson agreed sagely. 'We are going to have to give the Void some serious attention soon — just as the Accelerators wanted.

'I want us to give the Void serious attention, Gore said. 'We can hardly claim to be masters of cosmological theory if we can't even figure it out. It's only the analysis timescale which everyone disagrees on.

'And the method of analysis, but yes I'll grant you we do need know how the damn thing is generated. It's one of the reasons I'm with you on our little conspiracy.

'Think of us as a very small Faction.

'Whatever. I stopped screwing round with semantics a long time ago. Purpose is absolute, and if you can't define it: tough. And our purpose is to undo the damage the Accelerators have caused.

'To a degree, yes. The Conservatives will be most active on that front, we can trust them to do a decent job. I want to try and think a couple of steps ahead. After all we're not animal any more, we don't just react to a situation. We're supposed to be able to see it coming. Ultimately something has to be done about the Void problem. Understanding its internal mechanism is all very well, but it cannot be allowed to carry on threatening the galaxy.

Nelson raised a glass to his lips, and smiled in salute. 'Way to go, tough guy. Where the Raiel failed…

'Where the Raiel tell us they failed. We have no independent confirmation.

'Nothing lasts long enough, apart from the Raiel themselves. 'Bullshit. Half the post-physicals in the galaxy have been around for a lot longer.

'Yeah, and those that were don't bother to communicate any more. They're all quiet, or dead, or transcended, or retroevolved. So unless you want to go around and poke them with a big stick, the Raiel are our source. Face it, ANA is good, great even, we're damn nearly proto-gods, but in terms of development we are still lacking behind the Raiel, and they plateaued millions of years ago. The Void defeated them. They converted entire star systems into defence machines, they invaded the fucking place with an armada, and they still couldn't switch it off, or kill it or blow it to hell.

'They went at it the wrong way. Nelson laughed. 'And you know the right way? 'We have an advantage they never did. We have insider knowledge, a mole.

'The Waterwalker? In Ozzie's name, tell me you're joking. 'You know who paid the most attention to Inigo's dreams right at the start? The Raiel. They didn't know what was inside. They built ships which could theoretically withstand any quantum environment, yet not one of them ever returned. We're the ones who showed them what's in there.

'It's a very small glimpse, a single city on a standard H-congruous planet.

'You're missing the point. His arm swept round Hawksbill to point at the thick pillar of black rock protruding from the water several hundred metres out to sea. Small waves broke apart on it, churning up a ruck of spume. 'You bring any human prior to the twenty-fifth century into here, and they'd think they were in a physical reality. But if you or I were to observe the environment through them, we'd soon realize there were artificial factors involved. The Waterwalker gives us the same opportunity. His telepathic abilities have provided a very informative glimpse into the nature of the universe hiding inside that bastard event horizon. For all it looks like our universe with planets and stars, it most definitely is not. This Skylord of the Second Dream confirms that. The Void has a Heart which is most distinctive, even though we haven't been shown it yet.

'Knowing it's different in there doesn't give us any real advantage.

'Wrong. We know nothing can be achieved on a physical level; you can't use quantumbusters against it, you can't send an army in to wipe out the chief villain's control room. The Void is the ultimate post-physical in the galaxy, and probably all the other galaxies we can see. What we have to do is communicate with it if we ever want to achieve any resolution to the problem it presents to our stars. I don't believe the Firstlife ever intended it to be dangerous; they didn't know there was anything left outside it could ever threaten. That's our window. We know humans can get inside, even though we're not sure how they did it that first time. We know there are humans in there who are attuned to its fabric. Through them we may be able to affect change.

'The Waterwalker is dead. He has been for millennia of internal time.

'Even if he were unique, which I don't believe for a minute, time is not a problem, not in there. We all know that. What we have to do is get inside and forge that tenuous little link to the Heart. That's the key to this.

'You want to visit the Void? To fly through the event horizon?

'Not me. Much as my ego would love being the union point, there's no empirical evidence that I would have the telepathic ability inside. Even if we took ANA inside there's no certainty it could become the conduit. No. We have to employ a method that has a greater chance of success.

Nelson shook his head in dismay and not a bit of disappointment. 'Which is? 'I'm working on it.

* * * * *

It wasn't an auspicious start to the day. Araminta hadn't overslept. Not exactly. She had an Advancer heritage which gave her a complete set of macrocellular clusters, all functioning efficiently; she could order her secondary thought routines competently. So naturally she'd woken up on time with a phantom bleeping in her ears and synchronized blue light flashing along her optic nerve. It was just after that wake-up spike she always had difficulty. Her flat only had two rooms, a bathroom cubical and a combi main room; that was all she could afford on her waitress pay. For all that it was cheap, the expanded bed with its a-foam mattress was very comfortable. After the spike she lay curled up in her cotton pyjamas, cosy as a nesting frangle. Hazy morning sunlight stole round the curtains, not bright enough to be disturbing, the room maintained itself at a comfortable warmth. If she bothered to check the flat's management programs everything was ready and waiting; the day's clothes washed and aired, a quick light breakfast in the cuisine cabinet.

So I can afford to laze for a bit.

The second alarm spike jerked her awake again, vanquishing the weird dream. This spike was harsher than the first, deliberately so, as it was an urgent order to get the hell up — one she never needed. When she cancelled the noise and light she assumed she'd messed up the secondary routines, somehow switching the order of the spikes. Then she focused on the timer in her exoimages.


So it became a struggle to pull on her clothes whilst drinking the Assam tea and chewing some toast. A leisurely shower was replaced by spraying on some travel-clean, which never worked like the ads promised, leaving busy glamorous people fresh and cleansed as they zipped between meetings and clubs. Instead she hurried out of the flat with her mouse-brown hair badly brushed, her eyes red-rimmed and stinging slightly from the travel-clean, and her skin smelling of pine bleach.

Great. That should earn me some big tips, she thought grouchily as she hurried down to the big building's underground garage. Her trike pod purred its way out into Colwyn City's crowded streets and joined the morning rush of commuters. In theory the traffic should have been light, most people these days used regrav capsules, floating in serene comfort above the wheeled vehicles except when they touched down on dedicated parking slots along the side of the roads or rooftop pads. But at this early hour the city's not-so-well-off were all on their way to work, filling the concrete grid close to capacity with pods, cars, and bikes; and jamming the public rail cabs.

Araminta was half an hour late when her pod pulled up at the back of Nik's. She rushed in through the kitchen door, and got filthy looks from the rest of the staff. 'Sorry! The restaurant was already full of the breakfast crowd, mid-level executives who liked their food natural, prepared by chefs rather than cuisine units, and served by humans not bots.

Tandra managed to lean in close as Araminta fastened her apron. She sniffed suspiciously and winked. 'Travel-clean, huh. I guess you didn't get home last night?

Araminta hung her head, wishing she did have an excuse like that. 'I was up late last night, another design course.

'Honey, you've got to start burning the candle at both ends. You're real young and a looker, get yourself out there again.

'I know. I will' Araminta took a deep breath. Went over to Matthew who was so disgusted he didn't even rebuke her. She lifted three plates from the ready counter, checked the table number, cranked her mouth open to a smile, and pushed through the doors.

The breakfast session at Nik's usually lasted for about ninety minutes. There wasn't a time limit, but by quarter to nine the last customers were heading for the office or store. Occasionally, a tourist or two would linger, or a business meeting would run over time. Today there weren't many lagging behind. Araminta did her penance by supervising the cleaning bots as the tables were changed ready to serve morning coffee to shoppers and visitors. Nik's had a good position in the commercial district, five blocks from the docks down on the river.

Tables started to fill up again after ten o'clock. The restaurant had a curving front wall, with a slim terrace running around it. Araminta went along the outside tables, adjusting the flowers in the small vases and taking orders for chocolettos and cappuccinos. It kept her out of Matthew's way. He still hadn't said anything to her, a bad sign.

Some time after eleven the woman appeared and started moving along the tables, talking to the customers. Araminta could see several of them were annoyed, waving her away. Since Ethan declared Pilgrimage ten days ago, Living Dream disciples from the local fane had been coming in and pestering people. It was starting to be a problem.

'Can I help you? Araminta asked, keeping the tone sharp; this was a chance to earn more redemption points with Matthew. The woman was dressed in a charcoal-grey cashmere suit, old-fashioned but expensive with a long flowing skirt, the kind of thing Araminta might have worn before the separation, back in the days when she had money. 'We have several tables available.

'I'm collecting signature certificates, the woman said. She had a very determined look on her face. 'We're trying to get the council to stop ingrav capsule use above Colwyn City.

'Why? It came out before Araminta really thought about it.

The woman narrowed her eyes. 'Regrav is bad enough, but at least they're speed and altitude limited inside the city boundary. Have you ever thought what would happen if an ingrav drive failed? They fly semi-ballistic parabolas, that means they'd plummet down at half orbital velocity.

'Ah, yes, I see. She could also see Matthew giving them a wary look.

'Suppose one crashed on to a school at that speed? Or a hospital? There's just no need for them. It's blatant consumerism without any form of responsibility. People are only buying them to show off. And there are studies that suggest the ingrav effect puts a strain on deep geological faults. We could have an earthquake.

Araminta was proud she didn't laugh out loud. 'I see.

'The city traffic network wasn't designed with those sort of speeds in mind, either. The number of near-miss incidents logged is rising steadily. Will you add your certificate? Help us keep our lives safe.

A file was presented to Araminta's u-shadow. 'Yes, of course. But you'll have to order a tea or coffee, my boss is already cross with me this morning. She flicked her gaze towards Matthew as she added her signature certificate to the petition, confirming she was a Colwyn City resident.

'Typical, the woman grunted. 'They never think of anything but themselves and their profit. But she sat down and ordered a peppermint tea.

'What's her problem? Matthew asked as Araminta collected the tea.

'The universe is a bad place, she just needs to unwind a little. She gave him a sunny smile. 'Which is why we're here.

Before he could say anything else she skipped back to the terrace.

At half past eleven Araminta's u-shadow collated the morning's property search it had run through the city's estate agencies, and shunted the results into one of her storage lacunas. She was on her break in the little staff lounge beside the kitchen. It didn't take her long to review them all; she was looking for a suitable flat or even a small house somewhere in the city. There weren't many that fitted her criteria: cheap, in need of renovation, near the centre. She tagged three agency files as possibles, and checked on how yesterday's possibles were doing. Half of them had already been snapped up. You really had to be quick in today's market, she reflected wistfully. And have money, or at least some decent credit. A renovation was her dream project; buying a small property and refurbishing it in order to sell on at a profit. She knew she could be good at it. She'd taken five development and design courses in the last eight months since separating from Laril, as well as studying every interior decorating text her u-shadow could pull out of the Unisphere. Property development was a risky proposition, but every case she'd accessed showed her that the true key was dedication and hard work, as well as a lot of market research. And from her point of view she could do it by herself. She wouldn't depend on anyone. But first, she needed money…

Araminta was back in the restaurant at twelve, getting the table settings changed ready for lunch, learning the specials the chef was working on. The anti-ingrav crusader had gone, leaving a three-Viotia-pound tip; and Matthew was treating her humanely again. Cressida walked in at ten past twelve. She was Araminta's cousin on her mother's side of the family, partner in a mid-sized law firm, a hundred and twenty-three years old, and spectacularly beautiful with flaming red hair and skin maintained to silky perfection by expensive cosmetic scales. She was wearing a two-thousand-Vpound emerald and platinum toga suit. Just by walking in to Nik's she was raising the whole tone of the place. She was also Araminta's lawyer.

'Darling. Cressida waved and came over for a big hug; air-kissing had never been part of her style. 'Well have I got news for you, she said breathlessly. 'Your boss won't mind if I steal you for a second, will he? Without bothering to check she grabbed Araminta's hand and pulled over to a corner table.

Araminta winced as she imagined Matthew's stare drilling laser holes in her back. 'What's happened?

Cressida's grinned broadly, her liquid scarlet lip gloss flowing to accommodate the big stretch. 'Dear old Laril has skipped planet.

'What? Araminta couldn't quite believe that. Laril was her ex-husband. A marriage which had lasted eighteen utterly miserable months. Everyone in her immediate family had objected to Laril from the moment she met him. They had cause. She could admit that now; she'd been twenty-one while he was three hundred and seven. At the time she'd thought him suave, sophisticated, rich, and her ticket out of boring, small (minded), agricultural Lan-gham, a town over on the Suvorov continent, seven thousand miles away. They thought he was just another filthy Punk Skunk; there were enough of them kicking around the Commonwealth especially on the relatively unsophisticated planets that made up the outer fringes of the External Worlds. Jaded old folks who had the money to look flawlessly adolescent, but still envied the genuinely youthful for their spirit and exuberance. Every partner they snagged was centuries younger in a futile hope that their brio would magically transfer over. That wasn't quite the case with Laril. Close, though.

Her branch of the family on her father's side had a business supplying and maintaining agricultural cybernetics, an enterprise which was the largest in the county, and one in which Araminta was expected to work in for at least the first fifty years of her life. After that apprenticeship, family members were then considered adult and wealthy enough to take off for pastures new (a depressing number set up subsidiaries of the main business across Suvorov), leaving gaps for the latest batch of youngsters to fill, turning the cycle. It was a prospect which Araminta considered so soul-crushing she would have hired out as a love slave to a Prime motile in order to escape. By contrast, Laril, an independent businessman with an Andribot franchise among other successful commercial concerns, was like being discovered by Prince Charming. And given that these days an individual's age wasn't a physical quantity, her family objection to the three century difference was so bourgeois. It certainly guaranteed the outcome of the affair.

The fact that they'd been more or less right about him using her only made her post-separation life even worse. She could never go back to Langham now. Fortunately, Cressida wasn't judgemental, considering Araminta's colossal mistake as part of life's rich experience. 'If you don't screw up, she'd told a weeping Araminta at their first meeting, 'you haven't got a base to launch your improvement from. Now what does the separation clause in the marriage contract entitle you to?

Araminta, who had overcome a mountain of shame even to go to a family member (however distant) for legal help at the start of the divorce had to admit theirs had been an old-fashioned wedding, of the till-death-do-us-part variety. They'd even sworn that to the licensed priest in Langham chapel. It was all very romantic at the time.

'No contract? an amazed and horrified Cressida had asked. 'Gosh, darling, you are headed for a Mount Herculaneum of improvement aren't you?

It was a mountain which Laril's lawyers were doing their very best to prevent her ever setting foot on; their counter-suit had frozen Araminta's own assets, all seven hundred and thirty-two pounds she had in her savings account. Even Cressida with all her firm's resources was finding it hard to break through Laril's legal protection, and as for his commercial activities they had proved even more elusive to pin down. All his early talk of being the centre of a Dynasty-like network of profitable companies was either a lie or a cover-up for some astonishing financial irregularities. Intriguingly, Viota's National Revenue Service had no record of him paying tax at any time in the last hundred years, and were now showing a healthy interest in his activities.

'Skipped. Departed. Left this world. Gone vertical. Uprooted. Cressida grasped Araminta's hands and gave them a near-painful squeeze. 'He didn't even pay his lawyers. And her happiness at that eventuality was indecent. 'And now they're just another name on the list of fifty creditors after his arse.

Araminta's brief moment of delight suddenly darkened. 'So I get nothing?

'On the contrary. His remaining solid assets, that's his town-house, and the stadium food franchise, which we did manage to freeze right at the start are rightfully yours. Admittedly, they don't quite add up to the kind of assets that bragging about will sway a naive young girl's head.

Araminta blushed furiously.

'But not to be sneered at. Unfortunately, there is the question of back taxes. Which I'm afraid amounts to three hundred and thirty-seven thousand Viotia pounds. And if the NRS could ever prove half of Laril's ventures that you told me about, they'd claim the rest too. Bloodsucking fiends. However, they can't prove a damn thing thanks to the excellent encryption and strange lack of records your slippery ex has muddled his life with. Then there's my fee, which is ten per cent seeing as how you're family and I admire your late-found pride. So, the rest is yours, clear and free.

'How much?

'Eighty-three thousand.

Araminta couldn't speak. It was a fortune. Agreed, nothing like the corporate megastructure Laril had claimed he owned and controlled, but still more than she'd expected and asked for in the divorce petition. Ever since she walked into Cressida's office she'd allowed herself to dream she might, just might, come out of this with thirty or forty thousand, that Laril would pay just to be rid of her. 'Oh great Ozzie, you are kidding, she whispered.

'Not a bit of it. A judge friend of mine has allowed us to expedite matters, on account of the circumstances of truly tragic hardship I claimed you're suffering. Your savings are now unfrozen, and we'll transfer Laril's money into your account at four o'clock this afternoon. Congratulations. You're a free and single woman again.

Araminta was horrified that she was crying, her hands seemed to flap about in front of her face of their own violation.

'Wow! Cressida put her arm around Araminta's shoulder, rocking her playfully. 'How do you take bad news?

'It's over? Really over?

'Yep. Really. So what say you and I go celebrate. Tell your manager where to stick his menu, go pour soup over a customer's head, then we'll hit the coolest clubs in town and ruin half the male population. How about it?

'Oh. Araminta looked up, wiping tears with the back of her hand; the mention of Matthew made her realize she was supposed to be serving. 'I need to get back. Lunch is really busy. They rely on me.

'Hey, calm down, take a minute. Think of what's happened here.

Araminta nodded her head sheepishly, glancing round the restaurant. Her co-workers were all trying not to glance in her direction; Matthew was annoyed again. 'I know. I'm sorry. It's going to take a while to sink in. I can't believe it's all over. I've got to… Oh, Ozzie, there are so many things I want to do.

'Great! Let's get you out of here and bring on the serious partying. We'll start with a decent meal.

'No. Araminta could see Tandra staring anxiously, and gave her a weak thumbs up in return. 'I can't just walk out, that's not fair on everyone else here. They'll need to get a replacement. I'll hand in my notice properly, and work the rest of the week for them.

'Damnit, you are horrendously sweet. No wonder your filthy ex could take advantage so easily.

'It won't happen again.

'Too bloody true it won't. Cressida stood up, smiling proudly. 'From now on I'm vetting anyone you date. At least come out for a drink tonight.

'Um, I really do need to go home after this and work things out.

'Friday night, then. Come on! Everyone goes out Friday night.

Araminta couldn't help the grin on her face. 'All right. Friday night.

'Thank Ozzie for that. And get yourself some serious bad girl clothes first. We're going to do this properly'

'Okay. Yeah, okay, I will. She could actually feel her mood changing, like some warm liquid invading her arteries. 'Uh, where do I go for clothes like that?

'Oh, I'll show you darling, don't you worry.

Araminta did work the lunch shift, then told Matthew she was quitting, but was happy to stay on as long as he needed her. He completely surprised her by giving her a kiss and congratulating her on finally breaking free of Laril. Tandra got all teary and affectionate while the others gathered round to hear the news and cheer.

By half past three in the afternoon she'd put on a light coat and walked out. The cool late spring air outside sobered her up, allowing her to think clearly again. Even so, she walked the route she so often walked in the afternoon. Along Ware Street, take a left at the major junction and head down the slope along Daryad Avenue. The buildings on either side were five or six storeys tall, a typical mix of commercial properties. Regrav capsules slid silently overhead, while the metro track running down the centre of the avenue hummed with public cabs. Right now the roads had few vehicles, yet Araminta still waited at the crossings for the traffic solidos to change shape and colour. She barely noticed her fellow pedestrians.

The Glayfield was a bar and restaurant at the bottom of the slope, occupying two storeys of an old wood and composite building, part of the original planet landing camp. She made her way through the dark deserted bar to the stairs at the back, and went up to the restaurant. That too was virtually empty. Up at the front it boasted a sheltered balcony where in her opinion the tables were too close; waitresses would have trouble squeezing between them when they were full. She sat at one next to the rail which gave her an excellent view along Daryad Avenue. This was where she came most afternoons to wind down after her shift at Nik's, sitting with a hot orange chocolate watching the people and the ships. Over to her right the Avenue curved upwards into the bulk of the city, producing a wall of tall buildings expressing the many construction phases and styles that had come and gone in Colwyn's hundred and seventy year history. While to her left the River Cairns cut through the land in a gentle northward curve as it flowed out to the Great Cloud Ocean twenty miles away. The river was half a mile wide in the city, the top of a deep estuary which made an excellent natural harbour. Several marinas had been built on both sides, providing anchorage to thousands of private yachts, ranging from little sailing dinghies up to regrav assisted pleasure cruisers. Two giant bridges spanned the water, one a single unsupported arch of nanotube carbon, the other a more traditional suspension bridge with pure white pillars a flamboyant three hundred metres tall. Capsules slid along beside them, but the ground traffic was almost nonexistent these days. They were mainly used by pedestrians. They led over to the exclusive districts on the south bank, where the city's wealthier residents flocked amid long green boulevards and extensive parks. On the northern shore, barely half a mile from the Glayfield, the docks were built into the bank and out into the mudflats; two square miles of cargo-handling machinery and warehouses and quays and landing pads and caravan platforms. It was the hub from which the Izyum continent had been developed, the second starport on the planet. There was no heavy industry on Viotia; major engineering systems and advanced technology were all imported. With Ellezelin only seventy-five lightyears away, Viotia was on the fringe of the Free Trade Zone. A market which the local population grumbled was free for Ellezelin companies all right, but disadvantaged everyone else caught in their commercial web. There wasn't a wormhole linking Viotia to Ellezelin. Yet. But talk was that in another hundred years when Viotia's internal market had grown sufficiently, one would be opened allowing the full range of cheap Ellezelin products to flood through, turning them into an economic colony. In the meantime, starships from External Worlds came and went. She watched them as she sipped her orange chocolate; a line of huge freighters, their metal hulls as dull as lead, heavy and ungainly, drifting down vertically out of the sky. Behind them, the departing ships rose away from the planet, brushing through Viota's legendary pink clouds, accelerating fast once they reached the stratosphere. Araminta gave them a mild grin, thinking of the anti-ingrav woman. If she was right what would the starships' field effect be doing to the geology beneath the city? Maybe a simple wormhole would be the answer; she rather liked the idea, a throwback to the First Commonwealth era of genteel and elegant train travel between star systems. It was a shame that the External Worlds rejected such links out of hand, but they valued their political freedom too much to risk a return to a monoculture, especially with the threat of Higher culture overwhelming their hard-won independence.

Araminta stayed at the table long after she usually packed up and went home. The sun began to fall, turning the clouds a genuine gold-pink as the planet's hazy mesosphere diffused the dying rays of the K-class star. Trans-ocean barges shone brightly out on the Cairns, regrav engines keeping their flat hulls just above the slow rippling water as they nosed out of the dock and headed for the open sea and the islands beyond. She was always soothed by the sight of the city like this, a huge edifice of human activity buzzing along efficiently; a reassurance that civilization did actually work, that nothing could kick the basics out from under her. And now, finally, she could begin to take an active part, to carve out a life for herself. The files from the property agencies floated gently through her exoimage display, allowing her to plan what she might do to them in more detail than she ever bothered before. Without money such reviews had been pointless daydreams, but this evening they took on a comfortable solidity. Part of her was scared by the notion. If she made a mistake now, she'd be back waitressing tables for the next few decades. She only had one shot. Eighty-three thousand was a tidy sum, but it had to be made to work for her. Despite the trepidation, she was looking forward to the challenge. It marked her life truly beginning.

The sun set amid a warm scarlet glow. It seemed to match Araminta's mood. By then, the first customers of the evening were starting to fill up the restaurant. She left a big tip, and went downstairs. Her usual routine had her walking back to Nik's, maybe do some shopping on the way, and taking the trike pod home. But there was nothing usual about today. There was music blasting through the bar. People were leaning on the counter, ordering drinks and aerosols. Araminta glanced down at her clothes. She was wearing a sensible skirt, navy blue, that came down below her knees, a white top with short sleeves was made from a fabric that was specifically wipe-clean so she could cope with spills. Around her, people had made an effort to smarten up for the evening and she felt slightly downmarket by comparison.

But then who are they to judge me?

It was a liberating thought, of the kind she hadn't entertained since leaving Langham. Back when the future was full of opportunity, at least in her imagination.

Araminta sidled her way up to the bar and studied the bottles and beer taps. 'Green Fog, please, she told the barman. It earned her a slightly bemused smile, but he mixed it perfectly anyway. She drank it slowly, trying not to let the smouldering mist get up her nose. Sneezing would really blow away any remaining credibility.

'Haven't seen anybody drink one of those for a while, a man's voice said.

She turned and looked at him. He was handsome in that precise way everyone was these days, with features aligned perfectly, which she guessed meant he'd been through at least a couple of rejuve treatments. Like the rest of the bar's clientele, he'd dressed up, a simple grey and purple toga jacket that cloaked him in a gentle shimmer.

And he's not Laril.

'Been a while since I was let out, she retorted. Then smirked at her own answer, the fact she was bold enough to say it.

'Can I get you another? I'm Jaful, by the way.

'Araminta. And no, not a Green Fog, that's a nostalgia thing for me. What's current?

'They say Adlier 88Vodka is going down in all the wrong places.

She finished her Green Fog in a single gulp. Tried not to grimace too hard. And pushed the empty glass across the bar. 'Best start there, then.

* * * * *

'Are you awake?

Araminta stirred when she heard the question. She wasn't awake exactly, more like dozing pleasantly, content in the afterglow of a night spent in busy lovemaking. Her mind was full of a strange vision, as if she was being chased through the dark sky by an angel. Her slight movement was enough for Jaful. His hands slid up her belly to cup her breasts. 'Uh, she murmured, still drowsy as the angel dwindled. Jaful rolled her on to her front, which was confusing. Then his cock was sliding up inside her again, hard and insistent. It wasn't a comfortable position. Each thrust pushed her face down into the soft mattress. She wriggled to try and get into a more acceptable stance, which he interpreted as full acceptance. Heated panting became shouts of joy. Araminta cooperated as best she could but the pleasure was minimal at best. Out of practice, she thought, and tried not to laugh. He wouldn't understand if she did. At least she was doing her best to make up for lost time, though. They'd coupled three or four times after they got back to his place.

Jaful climaxed with a happy yell. Araminta matched him. Yep, remember how to do that bit as well. Eighteen months with Laril had made faking orgasms automatic.

Jaful flopped on to his back, and let out a long breath. He grinned at her. 'Fantastic. I haven't had a night like that for a long time, if ever.

She dropped her voice a couple of octaves. 'You were good. It was so funny, like they were reading from a script.

Picked up in a bar. Back to his place for a one night stand. Compliment each other. Both of them playing their part of the ritual to perfection.

But it has been fun.

'I'm going to grab a shower, he said. 'Tell the culinary unit what you want. It's got some good synthesis routines.

'I'll do that. She watched him stroll across the room and into the en suite. Only then did she stare round in curiosity. It was chic city bachelor pad, that much was evident by the plain yetexpensive furniture and contemporary art. The wall opposite the bed was a single window, covered with snow-white curtains.

Araminta started hunting round for her clothes as the spore shower came on. Underwear (practical rather than sexy, she acknowledged with a sigh) close to the bed. Skirt halfway between bed and door. Her white top in the lounge. She pulled it on, then looked back at the bedroom. The shower was still on. Did he always take so long, or was he sticking with the part of the script that gave her a polite opportunity to exit. She shrugged, and let herself out.

There wasn't anything wrong with Jaful. She'd certainly enjoyed herself in his bed for most of the time. It was just that she couldn't think what they could say to each other over breakfast. It would have been awkward. This way she kept the memory agreeable. 'More practice, she told herself, and smiled wickedly. And why not? This is real life again.

The building had a big lobby. When she walked out into the street she blinked against the bright pink light, it was twelve minutes until she was supposed to start the morning shift at Nik's. Her u-shadow told her she was in the Spalding district, which was halfway across the city. So she called a taxi down. It took about thirty seconds until the yellow and purple capsule was resting a couple of centimetres above the concrete, three metres in front of her. She watched in bemusement as the door opened. In all her life she'd never called a taxi herself; it had always been Laril who ordered them. After the separation, of course, she couldn't afford them. Another blow for freedom.

As soon as she arrived at Nik's she rushed into the staff toilets.

Tandra gave her a leery look when she came out, tying her apron on. 'You know, those look like the very same clothes you wore when you left yesterday. She sniffed elaborately. 'Yep, travel-clean again. Did something happen to your plumbing last night?

'You know. I'm really going to miss you when I leave, Araminta replied, trying not to laugh.

'What's his name? How long have you been dating? 'Nobody. I'm not dating, you know that. 'Oh, come on! 'I need coffee. 'Not much sleep, huh? 'I was reviewing property files, that's all. Tandra gave her a malicious sneer. 'Sweetie, I ain't never heard it called that before.

* * * * *

After the breakfast shift was over, Araminta ran her usual review. This time was different. This time her u-shadow contacted the agencies who gave her virtual tours of the five most promising properties using a full sense relay bot. On that basis, she made an appointment to visit one that afternoon.

As soon as she walked through the door, she knew it was right for her. The flat was the second floor of a converted three-storey house in the Philburgh district. A mile and a half north of the dock and three blocks back from the river, with two bedrooms it was perfect for someone working in the city centre on a modest salary. There was even a balcony which you could just see the Cairns from, if you really leaned out over the railing.

She went through the official survey scan with the modern analysis programs recommended by half a dozen professional property development companies. It needed redecorating, the current vendor had lived there for thirty years and hadn't done much to it. The plumbing needed replacing, it would require new domestic units. But the structure was perfectly sound.

'I'll take it, she told the agent.

An hour negotiating with the vendor gave her a price of fifty-eight thousand. More than she would have liked, but it did leave her with enough of a budget to give the place a decent refurbishment. There wouldn't be much left over to live on, but if she completed the work within three or four months she wouldn't need a bank loan. It would be tough, just looking round the lounge with its broken dust capillary flooring and ageing lightfa-bric walling, she could see the amount of work involved. Thatwas when she experienced a little moment of doubt. Come on, she told herself, you can do this. This is what you've waited for, this is what you've earned.

She took a breath, and left the flat. She needed to get back to her place and grab a shower. Travel-clean could only cope for so long. Then, she might just get changed and go out again. There were a lot of bars in Colwyn City she'd heard about and never visited.

* * * * *

Troblum double woke in two of the penthouse's bedrooms. His actual self lay on a bed made from a special foam that supported his large body comfortably, providing him with a decent night's sleep. It had been Catriona's room, decorated in excessively pink fabrics and ornaments; a lot of the surfaces were fluffy, a very girly girl's room which he was now quite used to. His parallel sensorium was coming from a twinning link to the solido of Howard Liang, a Starflyer agent who had been part of the disinformation mission. Howard was in the penthouse's main bedroom, sharing a huge circular bed with the three girls. It was another aspect of the solidos which Troblum had spent years refining. Now, whenever he wanted sex the four characters would launch themselves eagerly into a mini-orgy. The permutations their supple young bodies could combine into were almost endless, and they could keep going for as long as Troblum wanted. He immersed himself for hours, his own body drinking down the pleasure which Howard's carefully formatted neural pathways experienced, as much the puppet as the puppeteer. The four of them together wasn't strictly speaking a historical reality. At least he'd never found any evidence for it. But it wasn't impossible, which sort of legitimized the extrapolation.

The image and feeling of the beautiful naked bodies draped across him faded away as his actual body reasserted itself, cancelling the twinning with Howard. After the shower had squirted dermal fresher spores over him, he walked through into the vast lounge, bronze sunlight washing warmly across his tingling skin.

His u-shadow reported there was still no message from Admiral Kazimir, which he chose to interpret as good news. The delay at least meant it was still being considered. Knowing the Navy bureaucracy, he suspected that the review committee still hadn't formally met. His theory was struggling against a lot of conventional beliefs. Briefly, he considered calling the Admiral direct in order to urge him along, but his personal protocol routines advised against.

He wrapped one of his cloaks round himself, then took the lift down to the lobby. It was only a short walk down to the Caspe River where his favourite cafe was situated on the edge of the quiet water. The building was made from white wood, and sculpted to resemble a Folgail, a bird even more sedate than a terrestrial swan. His usual table underneath a wing arch was free and he sat himself down. He gave his order to the cafe network, and waited while a servicebot brought him a freshly squeezed apple and gonberry juice. The chef, Rowury, spent several days every week in the cafe, cooking for his enthusiastic clientele of foodies. For a culture which prided itself on its egalitarian ethos, Highers could be real snobs about some traditions and crafts, and 'proper' food was well up on the list. There were several restaurants and cafes in Daroca set up as showcases for their gastronomic patrons.

The first dish to arrive was a shredded cereal with fruit and yogurt, all grown naturally (by agriculture enthusiasts), and brought in from five different planets. Troblum started spooning it up. Rowury had come up with a delicious combination, the taste was subtle yet distinctive. It was a shame he couldn't have a second dish, but apart from the delbread toast the quantities here were fixed. If you wanted repeats, seconds or giant portions then you visited a fully automated eatery.

Troblum had finished the cereal and started on his tea when someone sat down in front of him. He looked up in annoyance. The cafe was full — inevitably, but that was no excuse for rudeness. The rebuke never made it out of his lips.

'Hope you don't mind, Marius said as he settled in the chair, his black toga suit trailing thin wisps of darkness behind him as if he was time-lapsed. 'I've heard good reports about this place.

'Help yourself, Troblum said grouchily. He knew he shouldn't show too much resentment at Marius's appearance, after all the Faction representative had channelled the kind of EMA funds to Troblum's private projects which were normally only available to huge public enterprises. It was the demands placed on him in return which he found annoying, not the challenges themselves, they were intriguing, but they always took so much time. 'Oh you already have.

The servicebot delivered a second china cup for Marius. 'How are you keeping, Troblum?

'Fine. As you know. His field functions detected a subtle shielding unfurling round the table, originating from Marius. Not obvious, but enough to prevent anyone from hearing or scanning what they were saying. He'd never liked the representative, and it was unusual to meet in person. An unarranged meeting was unheard of, it made Troblum worry about the reason. Something they consider very important.

Marius sipped the tea. 'Excellent. Assam?

'Something like that.

'Those left on Earth do take a lot of pride in maintaining their ancient heritages. I doubt they actually go out and pick the leaves themselves, though. What do you think?

'I couldn't give a fuck.

'There are a lot of things that elude you, aren't there my friend?

'What do you want?

Marius fixed his green eyes on Troblum, the faintest shiver of distaste manifesting in his expression. 'Of course, bluntness to the fore. Very well. The briefing you gave to the Navy concerning the Dyson pair.

'What about it?

'It's an interesting theory.

'It's not a theory, Troblum said in irritation. 'That has to be the explanation for the origin of the Dark Fortress.

'The what?

'Dark Fortress. It's what the Dyson Alpha generator was originally called. I think it was Jean Douvoir who named it that first, he was on the original Second Chance exploration mission, you know. It was meant ironically, but after the War it fell out of fashion, especially with the Firewall campaign, people just didn't—



'I couldn't give a fuck.

'I've got the unabridged logs from the Second Chance stored in my personal secure kube if you'd like to check.

'No. But I believe your theory.

'Oh for Ozz—

'Listen, Marius snapped. 'Seriously, I believe you. It was excellently argued. Admiral Kazimir thought well enough of your presentation to order a full review, and he is not easily won over. They are taking you seriously.

'Well, that's good then. Isn't it?

'In the greater scheme of things, I'm sure it is. However, you might like to consider where your comprehensive knowledge of the Dark Fortress came from.

'Oh. Now Troblum was really worried. 'I never mentioned I was there.

'I know that. The point is, that we really don't want ANA: Governance to be aware of the detailed examination you and your team made of the Dark Fortress. Not right now. Understand?

'Yes. Troblum actually ducked his head, which was ridiculous, but he did feel contrite; maybe he should have realized his presentation would draw a little too much attention to him. 'Do you think the Navy will review my background?

'No. They have no reason to right now. You're just a physicist petitioning for EMA funds. It happens all the time. And that's the way we'd like it to remain.

'Yeah, I get it.

'Good. So if the review committee advises the Admiral that no further action should be taken, we'd prefer you not to kick up a fuss.

'But what if they favour a proper search?

'We're confident they won't'

Troblum sat back, trying to work out the politics. It was difficult for him to appreciate the motivation and psychology of other people. 'But if you have that much influence on the Navy, why worry?

'We can't affect the Navy directly, not with Kazimir as the safeguard. But your advisory review committee is mostly external, some of them are sympathetic to us, as you are.

'Right. Troblum could feel despair starting to cloud his mind. 'Will I be able to put it forward again after the Pilgrimage?

'We'll see. Probably, yes.

It wasn't exactly good news but it was better than a flat refusal. 'And my drive project?

'That can continue, providing you don't publicize what you're doing. Marius smiled reassurance. It didn't belong on his face. 'We do appreciate your help, Troblum, and we want to keep our relationship mutually beneficial. It's just that events are entering a critical stage right now.

'I know.

'Thank you. I'll leave you alone to enjoy your food now.

With suspicious timing, the servicebot arrived as Marius departed. Troblum stared at the plate it deposited in front of him, a tower of thick buttered pancakes was layered with bacon, yokcheese, scrambled garfoul eggs, black pudding, and topped with strawberries. Maple syrup and afton sauce ran down the sides like a volcanic eruption. The edges of the plate were artistically garnished with miniature hash browns, baked vine salfuds and roasted golden tomatoes.

For the first time in years, Troblum didn't feel remotely hungry.


Edeard had been looking forward to the trip for months. Every year in late summer the village elders organized a caravan to trek over to Witham, the closest medium-sized town in Rulan province, to trade. By tradition, all the senior apprentices went with it. This was part of their landcraft training, of which they had to have a basic knowledge before they could qualify as practitioners. They were taught how to hunt small animals, to clear farmland ditches, which fruit to pick, how to handle a plough, what berries and roots were poisonous, along with the basics of how to make camp in the wild.

Even the fact that Obron would be a travelling companion for three weeks hadn't dented Edeard's enthusiasm. He was finally going to get out of Ashwell. Sure he'd been to all the local farms, but never further than half a day's travel away. The caravan meant he would see a lot more of Querencia, the mountains, people other than the villagers he'd lived among for fifteen years, forests. A chance to see how others did things, explore new ideas. There was so much waiting for him out there. He was convinced it was going to be fantastic.

The reality almost lived up to his expectations. Yes, Obron was a pain, but not too much. Ever since Edeard's success with the ge-cats, the constant hassle hadn't ended but it had certainly eased off. They didn't speak as friends, but on the journey out Obron had been almost civil. Edeard suspected that was partiallydown to Melzar, who was caravan master, and who had made it very clear before they left that he would not tolerate any trouble.

'It might seem like this is some kind of holiday, Melzar told the assembled apprentices in the village hall the night before they departed. 'But remember this is part of your formal education. I expect you to work hard and learn. If any of you cause me any problems, you will be sent back to Ashwell right away. If any of you slack off or do not reach what I consider a satisfactory level of landcraft, I will inform your Master and you will be dropped back a year from qualification. Understood?

'Yes sir, the apprentices muttered grudgingly. There were a lot of smirks hidden from Melzar as they filed out.

They had taken five days to reach Witham. There were seventeen apprentices and eight adults in the caravan. Three big carts carried goods and food; over thirty farm beasts were driven along with them. Everyone rode ge-horses; for some apprentices it was the first time they'd ever been up on the animals. Melzar quickly assigned Edeard to help tutor them. It allowed him to open up conversations with lads who'd ignored him before, after all he was the youngest senior apprentice in Ashwell. But out here on the road they began to accept him as an equal rather than the freaky boy Obron always complained about. Melzar also entrusted him with controlling the ge-wolves they used to keep guard.

'You're better than all of us at guiding those brutes, lad, he'd said as they made camp that first night. 'Make sure they do their job properly. Keep three of them with us, and I want the other four patrolling round outside.

'Yes, sir, I can do that. It wasn't even a brag, those were simple orders.

Talk that night among the apprentices was of bandits and wild tribes, each of them doing their best to tell the most horrific stories. Alcie and Genril came top with the cannibal tribe that supposedly lived in the Talman Mountains. Edeard didn't mention that his own parents had been killed while on a caravan, but everyone knew that anyway. He was thrown a few glances to check out how he was reacting. His nonchalance earned him quiet approval. Then Melzar came over and told them all not to be so gruesome, that bandits weren't half as bad as legend. 'They're basically nomad families, nothing more. They're not organized into gangs. How could they be? If they were a real threat we'd call the militia from the city, and go after them. It's just a few bad 'uns that give the rest a lousy rep. No different tous.

Edeard wasn't so sure. He suspected Melzar was just trying to reassure them. But the conversation moved on, quietening down as they gossiped about their Guild Masters. Judging by their talk, Edeard was convinced he'd got a saint in Akeem. Obron even claimed Geepalt would beat the carpentry apprentices if they messed up.

Witham might have been five times the size of Ashwell, but it shared the same air of stagnation. It was set in rolling, heavily cultivated farmland, with a river running through the middle; unusually it had two churches for the Lady. Edeard bit back on any disappointment as they rode through the big gates. The buildings were stone or had thick timber frames supporting some kind of plaster panelling. Most of the windows were glass rather than the shutters used in Ashwell. And the streets were all stone cobble. He found out later that water was delivered into houses through buried clay pipes, and the drains worked.

They spent two days in the central market square, negotiating with merchants and locals, then stocking up with supplies (like glass) that weren't made in Ashwell. The apprentices had been allowed to bring examples of their own work to sell or trade. Edeard was surprised when Obron brought out a beautifully carved box made from martoz wood, polished to a ebony lustre. Who would have thought an arse like him could create something so charming? Yet a merchant gave him four pounds for it.

For himself, Edeard had brought along six ge-spiders. Always the trickiest of the standard genera to sculpt, they were highly valued for the drosilk they spun. And these had only just hatched, they'd live for another eight or nine months; during that time they would spin enough silk to make several garments, or armour jackets. Three ladies from the Weaver's Guild bid against each other for them. For the first time in his life Edeard's farsight couldn't quite discern how eager they were when they haggled with him; they covered their emotions with steely calm, the surface of their minds as smooth as a genistar egg. He just hoped he was doing the same when he agreed to sell for five pounds each. Surely they could sense his elation? It was more money than he'd seen in his life, let alone held in his hands. Somehow he didn't manage to hang on to it for very long. The market was huge, with so many fabulous items, as well as clothes of a quality rarely found in Ashwell. He felt almost disloyal buying there, but he did so need a decent full-length oilskin coat for the coming winter, and found one with a quilted lining. Further on there was a stall selling knee-high boots with sturdy silkresin soles that would surely last for years — a good investment, then. They also sold wide-brimmed leather hats. To keep the sun off in summer, and the rain in winter, the leatherworker apprentice explained. She was a lovely girl and seemed genuinely eager for him to have the right hat. He dragged out the haggling as long as he dared.

His fellow apprentices laughed when he returned dressed in his new finery. But they had spent their own money, too. And few had been as practical as him.

That evening Melzar allowed them to visit the town's taverns unchaperoned, threatening horrifying punishments if anyone caused trouble. Edeard joined up with Aide, Genril, Janene and Fahin. He spent the evening hoping to catch sight of the leather-worker apprentice, but by the time they reached the third tavern the town's unfamiliar ales had rendered them incapable of just about anything other than drinking more ale. And singing. The rest of the evening was forever beyond recollection.

When he woke up, slumped under one of the Ashwell carts, Edeard knew he was dying. He'd obviously been poisoned then robbed. Too much of his remaining money was missing, he could barely stand, he couldn't eat, he stank worse than the stables. It was also the first night he couldn't remember being troubled by his strange dreams. Then he found out it was a mass poisoning. All the apprentices were in the same state. And all of the adults found it hilarious.

Another lesson learned, Melzar boomed. 'Well done. You lot should graduate in record time at this rate.

'What a swine, Fahin grunted as Melzar walked away. He was a tall boy, so thin he looked skeletal. As a doctor's apprentice he'd managed to get one of the few pairs of glasses in Ashwell to help his poor vision. They weren't quite right for him, magnifying his eyes to a quite disturbing degree for anyone standing in front of him. At sometime during the night he'd lost his jacket, now he was shivering, and not entirely from the cold morning air. Edeard had never seen him looking so pale before.

Fahin was searching through the leather physick satchel that he always carried. It was full of packets of dried herbs, small phials, and some rolled linen bandages. The satchel made him the butt of many jokes in the taverns all last night, yet he refused to abandon it.

'Do you think they'll let us ride in the carts? Janene asked mournfully as she looked at the adults, who were huddled together chortling. 'I don't think I can take riding on a ge-horse this morning.

'Not a chance, Edeard said.

'How much money have you got left? Fahin asked. 'All of you.

The apprentices began a reluctant search through their pockets. Fahin managed to gather up two pounds in change, and hurried off to the herbalist stall. When he came back he started brewing up tea, emptying in several packets of dried leaves and adding the contents of a phial from the satchel.

'What is that? Alcie asked as he sniffed the kettle and stepped back, his eyes watering. Edeard could smell it too, something like sweet tar.

'Growane, flon seed, duldul bird eyes, nanamint. Fahin squeezed some limes into the boiling water, and started stirring.

'That's disgusting! Obron exclaimed.

'It'll cure us, I promise on the Lady.

'Please tell us you rub it on, Edeard said.

Fahin wiped the condensation from his glasses, and poured himself a cup. 'Gulp it down in one, that's best. He swallowed. His cheeks bulged as he grimaced. Edeard thought he was going to spew it up again.

The other apprentices gave the kettle a dubious look. Fahin poured the cup full again. Edeard could sense the doubt in their minds; he felt for Fahin who was trying to do his best to help and be accepted. He put his hand out and took the cup. 'One gulp?

'Yes, Fahin nodded.

'You're not going to… Janene squealed.

Edeard tossed it back. A second later the taste registered, kind of what he imagined eating manure would be like. 'Oh Lady! That is… Urrgh. His stomach muscles squeezed up, and he bent over, thinking he was going to be sick. A weird numbness was washing through him. He sat down as if to catch his breath after a winding blow.

'What's it like? Genril asked.

Edeard was about to slag Fahin off something rotten. 'Actually, I can't feel anything. Still got a headache, though.

'That takes longer, Fahin wheezed. 'Give it fifteen minutes. The flon seed needs to get into your blood and circulate. And you need to drink about a pint of water to help.

'So what was the lime for?

'It helps mask the taste.

Edeard started laughing.

'It actually works? an incredulous Alcie asked.

Edeard gave him a shrug. Fahin poured another cup.

It turned into a ritual. Each of the apprentices gulped down the vile brew. They pulled faces and jeered and cheered each other. Edeard quietly went and fetched himself a bottle of water from the market's pump. Fahin was right, it did help clear his head. After about quarter of an hour he was feeling okay again. Not a hundred per cent, but the brew had definitely alleviated the worst symptoms. He could even consider some kind of breakfast.

'Thanks, he told Fahin. The tall lad smiled in appreciation.

Afterwards, when they packed the carts and got the ge-horses ready, the apprentices were all a lot easier around each other, the joshing and pranks weren't so hard-edged as before. Edeard imagined that this was what it would be like from now on. They'd shared together, made connections. He often envied the casual friendships between the older people in the village, the way they got on with each other. It was outings like this that saw such seeds rooting. In a hundred years' time, maybe it would be he and Genril laughing at hung-over apprentices. Of course, that would be a much bigger caravan, and Ashwell would be the same size as Witham by then.

Melzar led the caravan on a slightly different route back, curving westward to take in the foothills of the Sardok mountain range. It was an area of low valleys with wide floors, mostly wooded, and home to a huge variety of native creatures. There were few paths other than those carved out by the herds of chamalans who grazed on the pastures between the forests. Farsight and the ge-wolves also sniffed out drakken pit traps which would have swallowed up a ge-horse and rider. The drakken were burrowing animals the size of cats, with five legs in the usual Querencia arrangement of two on each side and a thick highly flexible limb at the rear which helped them make their loping run. The front two limbs had evolved into ferociously sharp claws which could dig through soil at a phenomenal rate. They were hive animals, digging their vast warrens underground, with populations over a hundred strong. Singularly they were harmless, but they attacked in swarms which even a well-armed human had trouble fighting off. Their ability to excavate big caverns just below the surface provided them with the means to trap their prey; even the largest of native creatures were susceptible to the pit traps.

A bi-annual hunt had eliminated the drakken from the lands around Ashwell, but here in the wild they were prevalent.

Watching for them heightened Edeard's senses as they passed through the endless undulating countryside. On the third day out of Witham they reached the fringes of the foothills and entered one of the massive forests there, parts of which reached across to the base of the Sardoks themselves.

Edeard had never been in a forest this size before; according to Melzar it predated the arrival of humans on Querencia two thousand years ago. The sheer size of the trees seemed to back up his claim, tall and tightly clustered, their trunks dark and lifeless for the first fifty feet until they burst into a thick interlaced canopy where branches and leaves struggled against each other for light. Little grew on the floor beneath, and in summer when the leaves were in full bloom not much rain dripped through either. A huge blanket of dead, crisped leaves covered the ground, hiding hollows from sight, requiring the humans to use their farsight in order to guide the ge-horses safely round crevices and snags.

It was quiet in the gloom underneath the verdant living awning, the still air amplifying their mildest whisper to a shout that reverberated the length of the plodding caravan. The apprentices slowly abandoned their banter, becoming silent and nervy.

'We'll make camp in a valley I know, Melzar announced after midday. 'It's an hour away, and the forest isn't as wretched as it is here. There's a river as well. We're well past the trilan egg season so we can swim.

'We're stopping there? Genril asked. 'Isn't that early?

'Don't get your hopes up, my lad. This afternoon you're going galby hunting.

The apprentices immediately brightened. They'd been promised hunting experience, but hadn't expected it to be galbys, which were large canine equivalents. Edeard had often heard experienced adults tell of how they thought they'd got a galby cornered only to have it jump to freedom. Their hind limb was oversized and extremely powerful, sometimes propelling them as much as fifteen feet in the air.

True to Melzar's word, the forest began to change as they reached a gentle downhill slope. The trees were spread out, and shorter, allowing pillars of sunlight to swarm down. Grass grew again, swiftly becoming an unbroken stratum. Bushes grew in the long gaps between trees, their leaves ranging from vivid green to a dark amethyst. Edeard couldn't name more than a handful of the berries he could see, there must have been dozens of varieties.

As the light and humidity increased, so the yiflies and bite-wings began to appear; soon they were swirling overhead in huge clumps before zooming down to nip all the available human skin. Edeard was constantly using his third hand to ward them off.

They stopped the carts by a small river, and corralled the genistars. That was when Melzar finally distributed the five revolvers and two rifles he'd been carrying. The majority belonged to the village, though Genril had his own revolver, which he said had been in his family since the arrival. Its barrel was longer than the others, and made out of a whitish metal that was a lot lighter than the sturdy gun-grade steel produced by the Weapons Guild in Makkathran.

'Carved from the ship itself, Genril said proudly as he checked the mechanism. Even that snicked and whirred with a smoothness which the city-made pistols lacked. 'My first ancestor salvaged some of the hull before the tides took the ship down into the belly of the sea. It's been in our family ever since.

'Crap, Obron snorted. 'That would mean it's over two thousand years old.

'So? Genril challenged as he squeezed some oil out of a small can, rubbing it on to the components with a soft linen cloth. 'The ship builders knew how to make really strong metal. Think about it, you morons, they had to have strong metal, the ship fell out of the sky and still survived, and in the universe they came from ships flew between planets.

Edeard didn't say anything. He'd always been sceptical about the whole ship legend. Though he had to admit, it was a great legend.

Melzar slung one of the rifles over his shoulder and came round with a box of ammunition. He handed out six of the brass bullets to each of the apprentices who had been given a revolver. 'That's quite enough, he told them when there were complaints about needing more. 'If you can't hit a galby after six shots, it's either jumped back out of range or it's happily eating your liver. Either way, that's all you get.

Only five apprentices had been given a gun (including Genril). Edeard wasn't one of them. He looked on rather enviously as they slid the bullets into the revolving chamber.

Melzar crouched down, and began to draw lines in the earth. 'Gather round, he told them. 'We're going to split into two groups. The shooters will be lined up along the ridge back there. His hand waved into the forest where the land rose sharply. 'The rest of us will act as the flushers. We form a long line with one end there, which will move forward in a big curve until we're level with the first shooter. That should force anything bigger than a drakken out in front of us, and hopefully into the firing line. Under no circumstances does anyone go past the first shooter. I don't care if you're best friends and using longtalk, you do not walk in front of the guns. Understood?

'Yes sir, they all chorused.

'Okay then, after the first sweep we'll change over the guns and move to a new location. He glanced up at the sky which was now starting to cloud over. 'There'll be enough light to do this three times this afternoon, which will give everyone a chance to use a pistol.

'Sir, my father said only I can use our pistol, Genril said.

'I know, Melzar said. 'You get to hang on to it but not the ammunition when you're in the fiusher line. Now: if you're a part of the fiusher line, you must keep within farsight perception of the people on either side. So in reality that means I want you spaced no more than seventy yards apart. Orders to start, stop, and group together will be issued vocally and in longtalk. You will relay both along the line. You will obey them at all times. The fiusher line will use three ge-wolves to help encourage the galbys to run. This time, Edeard and Alcie will control one each,

I will take the third. No one else is to order them, I don't want them confused. Any questions? No. Good. Let's go, and the Lady smile on us.

Edeard called one of the ge-wolves over, and set off in the group following Melzar. Toran, one of the farmers, led the pistol carriers up towards the stony ridge.

'I don't see the point of this, Fahin complained grimly as he hiked along beside Edeard. 'We've all done pistol shooting at the targets outside the walls, and galbys aren't eatable.

'Don't you listen to anything? Janene said. 'This is all about experience. There's a world of difference between firing at a target and being out here in the woods with dangerous animals charging round. The elder council needs to know they can rely on us to defend the village in an emergency.

Except Melzar told us the nomad families aren't threatening, Edeard thought. So what is the village wall actually for? I must ask Akeem when I get back.

'So what if the galbys don't go towards the shooting line? Fahin asked. 'What if they come at us? He gripped his satchel tighter, as if it could shield him from the forest's animals.

'They won't, Edeard said. 'They'll try and avoid us, because we're a group.

'Yeah, in theory, Fahin grumbled.

'Quit whinging, for the Lady's sake, Obron said. 'Melzar knows what he's doing; he's done this with every caravan for the last fifty years. Besides, galbys aren't all that dangerous. They just look bad. If one comes at you, use your third hand to shield yourself.

'What if we flush out a fastfox?

The apprentices groaned.

'Fastfoxes live down on the plains, an exasperated Aide said, 'They're not mountain animals. You're more likely to get one in Ashwell than here.

Fahin pulled a face, not convinced.

As they approached the edge of the forest again, Melzar used his longtalk to tell them: 'Start to spread out. Remember, keep the people on both sides within your farsight. If you lose contact, longtalk them.

Edeard had Obron on one side and Fahin on the other. He wasn't too happy about that. If anyone was going to screw up it would be Fahin. The lanky boy really wasn't an outdoors type; and Obron wasn't likely to help either of them. But the worst thing Fahin can do is fall behind. It's not like he's got a pistol. And he'll yell hard enough if he can't see us. He sent the ge-wolf ranging from side to side. The mood of excitement was filling his farsight, the minds of everyone in the flusher line twinkling with anticipation.

They moved forwards, slowly spreading out as Melzar directed until they had formed the line. The trees were growing tall again, their dark-green canopy insulating the apprentices from the cloudy sky.

'Move forwards, Obron ordered. Edeard smiled and repeated the instruction to Fahin, who grimaced.

Edeard was pleased he'd kept his new boots on. The forest floor here was littered with sticks among manky clumps of grass, uneven ground with plenty of sharp stones. His ankles were sore where the new leather pinched, yet they protected his feet well enough.

With his farsight scouring the land ahead he kept a slow pace, making sure the line stayed straight. Melzar told them to start making a racket. Obron was shouting loudly, while Fahin let out piercing whistles. For himself, Edeard picked up a thick stick and thwacked it against the tree trunks as he passed by.

There were more bushes in this part of the forest. Big zebrathorns with their monochrome patterned leaves and oozing (highly poisonous) white berries, coaleafs that were like impenetrable black clouds squatting on the earth. Small creatures were exposed to his farsight, zipping out of the way of the humans. Nothing big enough to be a drakken, let alone a galby. The ground became soft under his feet, wet loam that leaked water from every footprint. The scent of mouldering leaf was strong in his nose. He was sure he could smell fungus spores.

Obron was out of eyesight now, somewhere behind the bushes. Edeard's farsight picked him up on the other side of dense trunks.

'Close up a little, he longtalked.

'Sure sure, Obron replied casually.

A ripple of excitement went down the line. Somewhere up towards Melzar's end a galby sped away, not quite in the direction of the shooting line. Edeard's heart started to beat quickly. He knew he was smiling and didn't care. This was the kind of thing he'd wanted ever since he learned he was going on the caravan. There were galbys here! He would get a chance to flush one, and if he was really lucky maybe take a shot later on.

Something squawked above him. Edeard flicked his farsight focus upwards in time to see a couple of birds dart up through the canopy. There was a thicket up ahead, a dense patch of zebrathorn, just the kind of place for a galby to nest in. His farsight swept through it, but there were dark zones and steep little gullies he couldn't be sure about. He sent the ge-wolf slinking in through the bushes as he skirted round the outside. Now he couldn't see Fahin either, but his farsight registered the boy's mind.

Apprehension hit him like a solid force, the mental equivalent of being doused in icy water. Suddenly all his delight deserted him. His fingers actually lost their grip on the stick as his legs seized up. Something terrible was happening. He knew it.

'What? he gasped. He was frightened, and worse, frightened that he was frightened. This makes no sense.

In the middle of the thicket, the ge-wolf he was casually directing lifted its head and snarled, responding to the turmoil bubbling along his tenuous longtalk contact.

'Edeard? Fahin called. 'What's wrong.

'I don't… Edeard pulled his arms in by his side as his knees bent, lowering him to a crouch. He instinctively closed his third hand around himself to form the strongest shield he was capable of. Lady, what's the matter with me? He pushed his farsight out as far as he could, and swept round as if it was some kind of illuminating beam. The tree trunks were too dense to get any kind of decent picture of anything beyond his immediate vicinity.

'What is the matter with you? Obron asked. His mental tone was scathing.

Edeard could sense both apprentices hesitating. The ge-wolf was wriggling round, trying to get out of the thicket and back to him. Dry leaves rustled, and he whirled round, raising the stick protectively. 'I think someone's here. He directed his farsight where he thought the sound had come from, pushing its focus as hard as he could. There were a few tiny rodent creatures scuttling along the forest floor. They could have made the noise—

'What do you mean: someone? Fahin demanded. 'Who?

Edeard was gritting his teeth with the effort of extending his farsight to the limit. 'I don't know, I can't sense them.

'Hey, we're falling behind, Obron longtalked impatiently. 'Come on, get moving.

Edeard stared back into the forest. This is stupid. But he couldn't get rid of his dread. He took a last look at the forest behind, then turned. The arrow came out of the empty trees on his left, moving so fast he never saw it, only his farsight caught the slightest ripple of motion. His shield tightened up as he gasped, his mind clamouring its shock.

The arrow hit his left pectoral muscle. His telekinetic shield held. The force of impact was sufficient to knock him backwards. He landed on his arse. The arrow tumbled down in the loam and weeds beside him; a long blackened shaft with dark-green need-lehawk feathers and a wicked barbed metal tip dripping some thick violet liquid. Edeard stared at it in horror.


His mind was swamped by the telepathic voices. It seemed as if the entire flusher line was mentally shouting at him, demanding an answer.

'Arrow! he broadcast back at them as forcefully as he could. His eyes didn't move from the arrow lying beside him, showing everyone. 'Poison arrow!

A mind materialized thirty yards away, sparkling vivid sapphire amid the cluttered grey shadows which comprised Edeard's ethereal vision of the forest.

'Huh? Edeard jerked his head round. A man stepped out from behind a tree, dressed in a kind of ragged cloak that was almost the same colour as the forest's trunks. His hair was wild, long and braided, filthy with dark-red mud. More mud was smeared across his face and caked his beard. He was snarling, anger and puzzlement leaking out of his mind. One hand reached over his shoulder and pulled another arrow from his quiver. He notched it smoothly into the biggest bow Edeard had ever seen, levelling it as his arm pulled back.

Edeard screamed with voice and mind, a sound he could hear replicated along the flusher line. Even his assailant winced as he let fly.

Edeard thrust his hands out, a motion he followed with his third hand using his full strength. The arrow burst into splinters before it had covered half of the distance between them.

This time it was the forest man who radiated shock into the aether.

'Bandits. Melzar's call echoed faintly round Edeard, spoken and telepathic. 'It's an ambush. Group together everyone, combine your strength. Shield yourselves. Toran, help us!

Edeard was scrambling to his feet, vaguely aware of other shouts and adrenaline-boosted emotional pulses reverberating across the forest. More bandits were emerging from their concealment. Arrows were being fired. His mind reached for the ge-wolf, directing it with frenzied urgency. There wasn't going to be time. The forest man had slung his bow to the ground, and was charging. A knife glinted in his hand.

A telekinetic shove nearly knocked Edeard back to the ground. He countered it easily, feeling the force slither over his skin like icy fingers. The bandit was trying for a heartsqueeze, an attack method which apprentices talked about in nervous awe when they gathered together back in Ashwell. Using telekinesis insidesomeone else's body was the ultimate taboo. Anyone found to have committed the act was exiled. For ever.

Now a bandit was thundering towards Edeard. Knife ready. Death lust fevering his mind. Third hand scrabbling to assail vulnerable organs.

His earlier fear had left Edeard. He wasn't even thinking about the others. A maniac was seriously trying to kill him. That was the whole universe. And as Akeem had explained during their all-too-brief sessions on defensive telekinetic techniques, there is no such thing as a disabling blow.

Edeard stood up and let his arms drop to his side, closing his eyes. He shaped his third hand. Waiting. The pounding of the bandit's bare feet on the forest floor reached his ears. Waiting. The man's berserker cry began. The knife rose up, gripped by white knuckles. Wait… judge the moment. Edeard's farsight revealed the man in perfect profile, he even perceived the leg muscles exerting themselves to the limit as they began the leap. Any second—

The attempted heartsqueeze ended, telekinesis was channelled to assist the attack leap, to strengthen the knife thrust.

— now.

The bandit left the ground. Edeard pushed his third hand underneath the airborne figure and shoved, effort forcing a wild roar from his throat. He'd never exerted himself so much before, not even when Obron's torment was at its worst.

In an instant the bandit's semi-triumphant scream turned to pure horror. Edeard opened his eyes to see a pair of mud-encrusted feet sail over his head. 'FUCK YOU! he bellowed, and added the slightest corrective sideways shove to the trajectory. The bandit's head smashed into a bulky tree four yards above the ground. It made a horrible thud. Edeard withdrew his third hand. The man dropped like a small boulder, emitting a slight moan as he struck the ground. The ge-wolf pounced.

Edeard turned away. All his emotions returned with tidal-wave power as the ge-wolf began tearing and clawing at the inert flesh. He'd forgotten just how fierce the creatures were. His legs were threatening to collapse under him they were shaking so bad, while his stomach heaved.

The loud crack of shots ripped across the forest. They made Edeard spin round in alarm. That has to be us. Right?

There were shouts and cries all around. Edeard didn't know what to do. One of the cries was high pitched: Janene.

'Lady please! Obron wailed. His mind was pouring out dread like a small nova.

Edeard's farsight flashed out. Two fastfoxes were racing straight at the weeping apprentice. He'd never seen one before, but knew instantly what they were. Only just smaller than a ge-wolf, but faster, especially on the sprint, a streamlined predator with a short ebony fur stiff enough to act like armour. Head that was either fangs or horns, and way too many of both. Its hindlimb was thick and strong, allowing it a long sprint-jump motion as the ultimate lunge on its prey.

They had collars on.

Edeard started running towards them and reached out with his third hand. They were forty yards away, yet he still felt their metal-hard muscles flexing in furious rhythm. He didn't even know if they had hearts like humans and terrestrial beasts, let alone where they were. So forget a heartsqueeze. His telekinesis penetrated the brain of the leading one and simply shredded all the tissue he found there. It dropped in mid-bound; flaccid body ploughing a furrow through the carpet of dry leaves. The remaining fastfox lurched aside, its demon head swinging around to try and find the threat. It stopped, growling viciously as Edeard trotted up. Limbs bent as it readied itself to pounce.

'What are you doing? Obron bawled.

Edeard knew he was acting crazy. Didn't care. Adrenaline was powering him on recklessly. He snarled back at the fastfox, almost laughing at it. Then before the creature could move he closed his third hand round it, and lifted it clean of the ground. The fastfox screeched in fury. Its limbs ran against nothing, pumping so fast they were a blur.

'Are you doing that? an incredulous Obron asked.

'Yeah, Edeard grinned.

'Oh crap. Look out!

Three bandits were running towards them. They were dressed the same as the one who attacked Edeard, simple ragged camouflage cloaks, belts with several dagger sheaths. One of them carried a bow.

Edeard sent out a single longtalk command, summoning the ge-wolf.

The bandits were slowing. Consternation began to glimmer in their minds as they saw the furious fastfox scrabbling uselessly in mid-air. More gunshots rang through the forest.

'Protect yourself, Edeard ordered sharply as the bandit with a bow notched an arrow. Obron's shield hardened.

The three bandits came to a halt, still staring disbelievingly at the writhing fastfox. Edeard rotated the predator slowly and deliberately until it was pointing directly at them. He was studying the animal's thoughts, noting the simple motivational currents. It was similar to a genistar mind, although the strongest impulses seemed to be fear-derived. Some kind of punishment/reward training, probably. The bandit with the bow shot his arrow. Obron yipped as Edeard confidently swiped it aside.

There was another pause as the bandits watched it clatter against a tree. Telekinetic fingers skittered across Edeard's skin, easily warded off. All three bandits drew short swords. Edeard slammed an order into the fastfox's mind, sensing its original compulsions changing. It stopped trying to run and snarled at the bandits. One of them gave it a startled look. Edeard dropped it lightly on the ground.

'Kill, he purred.

The fastfox moved with incredible speed. Then its hindlimb slapped the earth and powered it forward in a low arc. Telekinetic shields hardened round the bandits. Against one demented predator they might have stood a chance. The ge-wolf hit them from the side.

'Ho Lady, Obron shuddered as the screaming began. He paled at the carnage, yet couldn't pull his gaze away.

'Come on, Edeard caught his arm. 'We have to find Fahin. Melzar said to join up.

Obron stumbled forward. A burst of pistol fire reverberated through the trees. It must be from the shooting line, Edeard thought, they've come to help. The turbulent shouting was turning into distinct calls. Edeard heard several apprentice names yelled. Longtalk was hysterical snatches of thought mostly overwhelmed with emotional outpourings, a few raw visions threatened to overwhelm him. Pain, twinned with blood pumping out from a long gash in Alcie's thigh. Arrow sticking out of a tunic, numbness from its entry point spreading quickly. Mud-caked faces bobbing as punches were thrown. Impact pain. Camouflaged bandit sprinting between trees as the rifle barrel tracked. Fastfox a streak of grey-black. Blood forming a huge puddle around a torn corpse.

Edeard ran round the side of the zebrathorn thicket. 'Fahin! Fahin, it's us. Where are you? He couldn't see anyone. There was no revealing glimmer of thought in his farsight. 'Fahin!

'He's gone, Obron panted. 'Did they get him? Oh Lady!

'Is there any blood? Edeard was scanning the leaves and soil.

'Nothing. Oh—

Edeard followed Obron's gaze and caught sight of a bandit running through the woods. The man had a sword in his hand, dripping with blood. Anger surged through Edeard, and he reached out with his third hand, yanking at the man's ankle, then pushing him down hard. As the bandit fell, Edeard twisted the sword, bringing the blade vertical. The agonized bellow as he was impaled made Edeard recoil in shock. The bandit's dying mind wept with frustration and anguish. Then the glimmer of thoughts were extinguished.

'He was fifty yards away, Obron whispered in astonishment and no small measure of apprehension.

'Fahin, Edeard called. 'Fahin, can you hear me? His farsight picked out a tiny iridescent glow that suddenly appeared inside the thicket. 'Fahin?

'Edeard? the lanky boy's longtalk asked fearfully.

'Yes! Yes, it's me and Obron. Come on, come out. It's safe. I think.

They both watched as Fahin crawled out of the bushes. His face and hands had been scratched mercilessly, his loose woollen sweater was missing completely. Tacky berry juice was smeared into his hair, and over his glasses which hung from one ear. Amazingly, he was still clutching his physick satchel. Obron helped him up, and abruptly found himself being hugged. 'I was so frightened, Fahin mumbled piteously. 'I fled. I'm sorry. I should have helped.

'It's okay, Obron said. 'I wasn't much use either. He turned and gave Edeard a long thoughtful look, his mind tightening up pensively. 'Edeard saved me. He's killed a score of them.

'No, Edeard protested. 'Nothing like that— then trailed off as he realized he really had killed people today. His guilty glance stole back to the bandit impaled on his own sword. A man was dead, and he'd done it. But the sword had been slick with blood. And the other bandits… they would have killed us. J didn't have (j choice.

Sometimes you have to do what's wrong in order to do what's right.

'Can anyone still see or sense bandits?

Edeard's head came up as he received Melzar's weak longtalk. Obron and Fahin were also looking round.

'Anyone? Melzar asked. 'Okay, then please make your way towards me. If anyone is injured, please help bring them along. Fahin, are you here?

Somehow, Melzar being alive made the world a little less intimidating for Edeard. He even managed a small grin. Obron let out a whistle of relief.

'Yes, sir, I'm here, Fahin replied.

'Good lad, hurry up please, we have injured.

'Oh Lady, Fahin groaned. 'I'm just an apprentice. The doctor won't even let me prepare some of her leaves.

'Just do the best you can, Edeard said.


'You cured our hangovers, Edeard said. 'Nobody will start mouthing off at you for helping the injured. We're not expecting you to be as good as old Doc Seneo. But Fahin, you have to do something. You can't turn your back on wounded people. You just can't. They need you.

'He's right, Obron said. 'I think I heard Janene scream. What would her parents say if you walked away?

'Right, yes, Fahin said. 'You're right, of course. Oh Lady, where are my glasses? I can't do everything by farsight. He turned back to the thicket.

'They're here, Edeard said. His third hand lifted them gently into place, at the same time wiping the berry goop from them.

'Thank you, Fahin said.

They hurried through the forest towards Melzar. Other figures were moving with them in the same direction. Several apprentices sent panicky hellos via longtalk. Edeard remembered an image of Alcie, the wound in his thigh. It had looked bad.

Toran and the apprentices with pistols had gathered into a defensive group with Melzar. Edeard exchanged a relieved greeting with Genril, who was all jitters. He said he had one bullet left in his revolver, and he was sure he'd hit at least one bandit. 'I got really scared when the fastfoxes charged us. Toran killed one with his rifle. Lady! He's a good shot.

'You should see what Edeard did, Obron said flatly. 'He doesn't need guns.

'What? Genril asked. What did you do?

'Nothing, Edeard said. 'I know how to deal with animals, that's all. You know that.

'Just how strong are you? Obron asked.

'Yeah, Genril said. 'We heard your longtalk right over on the ridge, it was like you were next to me screaming into my skull. Lady, I almost ducked when that arrow came at you.

'Does it matter? Edeard asked. He was looking round, wondering where the others were. Out of the twelve apprentices and four adults in the flusher line, only five made it so far, including the three of them. Then Canan the carpenter arrived carrying an unconscious Alcie. Fahin gave his friend a worried look, seeing the crudely wrapped wound already soaked in blood. His mind started to get agitated.

'Go, Edeard directed with a quiet longtalk. 'Do as much as you can.

'P-p-put him down, Fahin said. He knelt beside Alcie and started rummaging through his satchel.

Edeard turned back to the forest, sending his farsight ranging out. Where are the others? His heart quickened as he detected some movement. A couple of apprentices came running through the trees.

'It's all right, Melzar said soothingly. 'You're safe now.

'We left Janene, one of them wailed. 'We tried to save her, but she took an arrow. I ran— He collapsed on the ground, sobbing.

'Nine, Edeard whispered as he kept his vigil. 'Nine out of twelve.

Melzar's hand came down on his shoulder. 'It would have been none without you, he said quietly. 'Your warning saved us. Saved me, in fact. I owe you my life, Edeard. We all do.

'No, Edeard shook his head sadly. 'I didn't warn you. I was terrified. That was all. You heard my fear.

'I know. It was — powerful. What happened? What tipped you off?

'I… He frowned, remembering the sensation of fear that had gripped him. There was no reason for it. 'I heard something, he said lamely.

'Whatever, I'm glad.

'Why couldn't we sense them? I thought I had good farsight. They were closer to me than Obron and Fahin and I never knew.

'There are ways you can eclipse your thoughts, bend them away from farsight. It's not a technique we're very familiar with in Ashwell, and I've never seen it practised so well as today. The Lady knows where they learned it from. And they tamed fastfoxes, too. That's astonishing. We'll have to send messengers out to the other towns and warn them of this new development'

'Do you think there are more of them out there? Edeard could imagine whole armies of bandits converging on their little caravan.

'No. We put them to flight today. And even if there were others lurking about, they have pause for thought now. Their ambush failed. Thanks to you.

'I bet Janene and the others don't think its failed, Edeard said bitterly. He didn't care that he was being rude to Melzar. After this, nothing much seemed to matter.

'There's no answer I can give you to that, lad. I'm sorry.

'Why do they do this? Edeard asked. 'Why do these people live out here hurting others? Why don't they live in the villages, in a house? They're just savages.

'I know, lad. But this is all they know. They're brought up in the wilds and they'll bring their children up the same way. It's not a cycle we can break. There are always going to be people living out beyond civilization.

'I hate them. They killed my parents. Now they've killed my friends. We should wipe them out. All of them. It's the only way we'll ever be allowed to live in peace.

'That's anger talking.

'I don't care, that's what I feel. That's what I'll always feel.

'It probably is. Right now I almost agree with you. But It's my job to get everyone home safely. Melzar leaned in close, studying Edeard's expression and thoughts. 'Are you going to help me with that?

'Yes, sir. I will.

'Okay, now call back our ge-wolves.

'Right. What about the fastfox? Edeard was still aware of the animal prowling round at the limit of his farsight. It was confused, missing its original master.

'The fastfox?

'Edeard tamed it, Obron said. 'His third hand scooped it up, and he made it attack the bandits.

The other apprentices turned to look at Edeard. Despite the exhaustion and apprehension dominating their thoughts a lot of them were registering surprise, and even some concern.

'I told you, Edeard said sullenly. 'I know how to deal with animals. It's what my whole Guild does.

'Nobody's ever tamed a fastfox, Toran said. Melzar flashed him an annoyed glance.

'The bandits did, Genril said. 'I saw the collars on them.

'They'd already learned to obey, Edeard explained. 'My orders were stronger, that's all.

'All right, Melzar said. 'Call the fastfox in. If you can control it, we'll use it to guard the caravan. If not, well… He patted his rifle. 'But I'll warn you now, lad, the village elders won't allow you to keep it.


In Aaron's opinion, Riasi had benefited from being stripped of its capital city status. It retained the grand structures intrinsic to any capital, as well as the expansive public parks, a well-financed transport grid, and excellent leisure facilities, yet with the ministries and their bureaucrats decamped across the ocean to Mak-kathran2 the stress and hassle had been purged from everyday life. So too had exorbitant housing costs. What was left was a rich city with every possible amenity; consequently, its population were kicking back and enjoying themselves.

It made things a lot easier for Aaron. The taxi flight from Makkathran2 had taken nine hours; they'd landed at the spaceport, one of hundreds of identical arrivals. Mercifully, Corrie-Lyn had spent most of the journey asleep. When she did wake she placidly did whatever he told her. So they moved through the vast passenger terminus on the ped walks, visiting just about every lounge there was. Only then did he go back out to the taxi rank and take a trip to the old Parliament building at the centre of the city. It was late morning by then, with a lot of activity in the surrounding district. They swapped taxis again. Then again. Three taxis later they finally touched down in a residential zone on the east bank of the Camoa River.

During the flight from Makkathran2, Aaron had rented a ground-floor apartment in a fifteen-storey tower. It was anonymous enough, a safe house he called it. To Corrie-Lyn it probably seemed secure. Aaron knew his multiple taxi journeys and untraceable coin payment for the apartment were strictly amateur stuff. Any half-decent police officer could track them down within a day.

For two days he did nothing. It took Corrie-Lyn the entire first day just to sober up. He allowed her to order anything she wanted by way of clothes and food, but forbade any alcohol or aerosols. For the second day she just sulked, a state exacerbated by a monster hangover. He knew there was plenty of trauma involved too as she reconciled what had happened with Captain Manby's squad. That night he heard her crying in her room.

Aaron decided to go all out with breakfast the next morning to try and reach through her mood. He combined the culinary unit's most sophisticated synthesis with items delivered fresh from a local delicatessen. The meal started with Olberon bluef-ruit, followed by French toast with caramelized banana; their main course was buckwheat crepes with fried duck eggs, grilled Uban mushroom, and smoked Ayrshire bacon, topped by a delicate omelette aux caviar. The tea was genuine Assam, which was all he could ever drink in the morning — it wasn't his best time of day.

'Wowie, Corrie-Lyn said in admiration. She'd wandered in from her bedroom all bleary eyed, dressed in a fluffy blue towelling robe. When she saw what was being laid out she perked up immediately.

'There's sugar for the bluefruit, he told her. 'It's refined from Dranscome tubers, best in the galaxy.

Corrie-Lyn sprinkled some of the silvery powder over the bluefruit, and tried a segment. 'Umm, that is good. She spooned out some more.

Aaron sat opposite her and took his first sip of tea. Their table was next to a window wall, giving them a view out across the river. Several big ocean-going barges were already coasting along just above the rippling water; smaller river traffic curved round them. He didn't see them, his eyes were on the loose front of her robe which revealed the slope of her breasts. Firm and excellently shaped, he admired cheerfully; she certainly had a great body, his gaze tracking down to her legs to confirm. There were no mental directives either way on having sex with her. So he suspected the hormonal admiration was all his own. It made him grin. Normal after all.

'You're not a starship-leasing agent, Corrie-Lyn said abruptly, her face pulled up in a peeved expression.

He realized he was allowing some of his feelings to ooze out into the gaiafield. 'No.

'So what are you?

'Some kind of secret agent, I guess.

'You guess?


'Don't you know?

'Not really.

'What do you mean?

'Simple enough. If I don't know anything I can't reveal anything. I just have things I know I have to do.

'You mean you haven't got any memories of who you are?

'Not really, no.

'Do you know who you're working for?


'So how do you know you should be working for them?

'Excuse me?

'How do you know you're not working for the Ocisen Empire, that you're helping bring down the Greater Commonwealth? Or what if you're a left-over Starflyer agent? They say Paula Myo never did catch all of them.

'Unlikely, but admittedly I don't know.

'Then how can you live with yourself?

'I think it's improbable that I'm doing something like that. If you asked me to do it now, I wouldn't. So I wouldn't have agreed to do it before my full memory was removed.

'Your full memory. Corrie-Lyn tasted the idea with the same care as she'd sampled the bluefruit. 'Anyone who agrees to have their memory taken out just to get an illegal contract has got to be pretty extreme. And you kill people, too. You're good at it.

'My combat software was superior to theirs. And they'll be re-lifed. Your friend Captain Manby is probably already walking around looking for us. Think how much improved his motivation is now, thanks to me.

'Without your memories you can't know what your true personality is.

Aaron reached for his French toast. 'And your point is?

'For Ozzie's sake, doesn't that trouble you?


She shook her head in amazement. 'That's got to be an artificial feeling.

'Again, so what? It makes me efficient at what I do. Personality trait realignment is a useful procedure at re-life. If you want to be a management type, then have your neural structure altered to give yourself confidence and aggression.

'Choose a vocation and mould yourself to fit. Great, that's so human.

'Now then what's your definition of human these days? Higher? Advancer? Originals? How about the Hive? Huxley's Haven has kept a regulated society functioning for close to one and a half thousand years; every one of them proscribed by genetic determination, and they're still going strong, with a population that's healthy and happy. Now you go and tell me plain and clear: which of us won the human race?

'I'm not arguing evolution with you. Besides it's just a distraction to what you are.

'I thought we'd gone and agreed that neither of us knows what I am. Is that what fascinates you about me?

'In your pervert dreams!

Aaron grinned and crunched down on some toast.

'So what's your mission? Corrie-Lyn asked. 'What do you have to do, kidnap Living Dream Councillors?

'Ex-Councillors. But no, that's not the way of it'

'So what do you want with me?

'I need to find Inigo. I believe you can help.

Corrie-Lyn dropped her spoon and stared at him in disbelief. 'You've got to be kidding.


'You expect me to help you? After what you've just said?

'Yes. Why not?

'But… she spluttered.

'Living Dream is trying to kill you. Understand this: they're not going to stop. If anything, the other night will only make them more determined. The only person left in the galaxy who can put the brakes on your dear new Cleric Conservator is Inigo himself.

'So that's who you're working for, the anti-Pilgrimage lobby.

'There's no guarantee that Inigo will stop the Pilgrimage if he comes back. You know him better than anybody. Do 1 speak the right in that?

She nodded forlornly. 'Yeah. I think you might.

'So help me find him.

'I can't do that, she said in a low voice. 'How can you ask when even you don't know what you'll do to him if we find him.

'Anyone who has hidden himself this well is never going to be taken by surprise even if we do manage to track him down. He knows there are a lot of serious people looking for him. Besides, if I wanted to kill him, why would I take the trouble of hunting him down. If he's off the stage he can't direct any of the actors, now can he? So if I want him back, I must want him back intact.

'I don't know, she said weakly.

'I saved your life.

Corrie-Lyn gave him a sly smile. 'The software running you saved my life. It did it because you needed me. I'm your best hope, remember.

'You're my number one choice.

'Better get ready to schmooze number two.

'Not even my liver could take another night in Rakas. I do need you, Corrie-Lyn. And what about you? What do you need? Don't you want to find him? Don't you want to hear why he upped and left you and all the billions who believed in him? Did he lose faith? Was Living Dream just that all along, nothing more than a dream?

'Low blow.

'You can't do nothing. You're not that kind of person. You know Inigo must be found before the Pilgrimage leaves. Somebody will find him. Nobody can stay hidden for ever, not in this universe. Politics simply won't allow it. Who do you want to find him?

'I… I can't, Corrie-Lyn said.

'I understand. I can wait, at least for a little while longer.

'Thanks. She put her head down and started to eat her French toast, almost as if she was ashamed by the decision.

* * * * *

Aaron didn't see her for nearly three hours after breakfast. She went back into her bedroom and stayed there. His u-shadow monitored a small amount of Unisphere use; she was running through standard information files from the Living Dream fanes in the city. He had a shrewd idea what she was looking for, a friend she could trust, which meant things could well be swinging his way. If they set foot outside it wouldn't be long before Manby or his replacement were racing up behind them, guns flaring.

When she came out she was wearing a loose-neck red sweater and tight black trousers, and a silver necklace made a couple of long loops round her neck before wrapping round her hips. She'd fluffed her dark hair neatly, and infused it with purple and green sparks that glimmered on a long cycle. He gave her an appreciative smile. Which she ignored.

'I need to talk to someone, she announced.

Aaron tried not to make his smirk too obvious. 'Sure thing. I hope you're not going to insist on going alone. There are bad people out there.

'You can come with me, but the conversation is private.

'Okay. Can I ask if you've already set up a meeting?


'Good. Don't call anyone. The Ellezelin cybersphere has government monitors in its nodes. Manby's team will fall on you like a planet-killer asteroid.

Her expression flickered with worry. 'I already accessed the Unisphere.

'That's okay. They probably can't trace your u-shadow access, he lied. 'Do you know where this person is likely to be?

'The Daeas fane, that's over on the south side of the city.

'Right then, we'll take a taxi to that district and land a couple of blocks away. Once we're at the fane we'll try and get a visual on your friend.

'He's not a friend, she said automatically.

Aaron shrugged. 'Whoever the person is. If we find him then you can have your chat in private, okay. Calling him is our last resort; and please let me do that. My u-shadow has fixes available that should circumvent the monitor systems.

She nodded agreement, picked up her scarlet bag and wrapped a long fawn-coloured scarf round her shoulders. 'Let's go.

Aaron was perfectly relaxed in the taxi flight over the city. He spent it looking down on the buildings, enjoying the vertical perspective as the towers flipped past underneath. The inhabitants certainly enjoyed their roof gardens, nearly half of them had some kind of terrace fenced in by greenery; swimming pools were everywhere.

He didn't know what the outcome of Corrie-Lyn's meeting would be. Nor did he really care. His only certainty was that he'd know exactly what to do when the time came. There was, he reflected, a lot of comfort to be had in his unique level of ignorance.

They landed on an intersection at the edge of the Daeas district. It was a commercial area dominated by the monolithic buildings that had been the Ellezelin Offworld Office, the ministry which had masterminded the Free Market Zone and Ellezelin's subsequent commercial and diplomatic domination of neighbouring star systems. Now the structures were given over to hotels, casinos, and exclusive malls. They walked along the ornate stone facades towards the fane, with Aaron making sure they didn't take a direct route. He wanted time to scan round and check for possible — make that probable — hostiles.

'Did you know he was leaving before he actually went? Aaron asked.

Corrie-Lyn gave him an unsettled glance. 'No, she sighed. 'But we'd cooled off quite a while back. I hadn't been excluded, exactly, but I wasn't in the inner circle any more.

'Who was?

'That's the thing. No one, really. Inigo had been getting more and more withdrawn for a long time. Years. Because we were so close, it took a time for me to notice how distant he was growing. You know what it's like.

'I can imagine, he said, which earned him a frown. 'So there was no one event, then?

'Ah, you're talking about the fabled Last Dream, aren't you? No, not that I was aware. But then that rumour had to come from somewhere.

Even before they won a majority in Parliament, the Living Dream's Chief Councillor of Riasi boasted that you could never travel more than a mile in the city without encountering a fane. The buildings didn't have a specific layout: anything which had a hall large enough to accommodate the faithful, along with office space and living quarters, would do. Given the inherent wealth of the Daeas district it was inevitable that the local fane should be impressive; a contemporary Berzaz cube, with horizontal stripes twisted at fifteen degrees to each other, their fluid-luminal surfaces shining with an intensity that automatically matched the sunlight, delineating each floor in a spectromatic waterfall. The overall effect was a city block that was trying to screw itself into the ground. It was surrounded by a broad plaza with a fountain at each point. Tall jets squirted out from the centre of inclined rings that were ticked out with ingrav to make the water flow upslope.

Aaron scanned round the bustling plaza, performing a meticulous assessment of the locale, allowing his combat software to plot escape routes. His u-shadow was busy extracting the civic plans for the neighbouring buildings, along with utility tunnels and traffic routes. Directly opposite the fane's main entrance was an arcade with a curving crystal roof sheltering fifty high-class shops and boutiques on three levels; it had multiple entrances on to three streets and five underground cargo depots, as well as seven cab platforms and ten rooftop landing pads. That would be difficult to cover even for a large surveillance team. Next to it was a staid old ministry building that now housed several financial institutions and a couple of export merchants. There weren't so many ways in and out, but it did have a large subterranean garage full of expensive regrav capsules. The boulevard running alongside was lined with shops and entertainment salons mixed in with bars and restaurants, tables outside played host to a vibrant cafe culture. Aaron's u-shadow called down three taxis and parked them on public pads nearby, paying for them to wait with three independent and genuinely untraceable coin accounts.

'Do you want me to go in and try and find him? Corrie-Lyn asked.

Aaron studied the fane's main entrance, a truncated archway which the fluid-luminal flowed round on either side, presenting it as a dark passageway. Plenty of people were coming and going, the majority dressed in the kind of clothes found on Querencia. Brightly coloured Cleric robes were easy to spot.

'I'm assuming this somebody is a Living Dream Cleric, quite a senior one given your own rank.

She gave him a short nod. 'Yves. He's still the deputy here. I've known him for fifty years. Completely devoted to Inigo's vision.

'Old guard, then.


'Okay, not likely to bump into him running errands round the place then. He's going to stay put in his office.

'That's on the fourth floor. I can probably get up there, I do have some clearance. I'm not sure I can take you with me.

'Any clearance you had will be revoked by now. And if you interface with a Living Dream network it'll send up an alert they can see back on Old Earth.

'So what do you want to do, then?

'If honesty doesn't pay… I have a few tricks that should be able to get us up to his office without drawing attention to ourselves. All you have to do is pray he doesn't turn us in the minute we say "hello".

'I say hello, she emphasized.

'Whatever. His software had now identified three probable hostiles amid the bustle of pedestrians across the plaza. Looking at the shimmering building he got the distinct sensation of a trap waiting to snap shut. His trouble was that pointing out the three suspects wouldn't be anything like enough to convince Corrie-Lyn that she should be doing her utmost to help him. That would require a genuine scare on the same scale as Captain Manby had provided back in Greater Makkathran. The difference being this time she would be awake, sober, and clean. She had to realize Living Dream was her enemy on every level.

'We'll go in by the front door, he said. 'No sense drawing attention to ourselves trying to sneak in round the back.

'Each side of the fane has an entrance which leads to the main reception hall. They're all open, we welcome everyone.

'I was speaking metaphorically, he said. 'Come on. His u-shadow told him the Riasi metropolitan police had just received an alert that two political activists known to be aggressive had been seen in the city. 'Ladies and Gentlemen, Elvis is well and truly back in the building, he muttered without really knowing why.

Corrie-Lyn let out a hiss of exasperation at his nonsense, and headed off towards the fane's entrance. Aaron followed behind, smiling at her attitude. The thoughts within the plaza's gaiafield were pleasurable and enticing, a melange of sensations that made the hair along his spine stand up. It was almost as if the inside of his skull was being caressed. Something wonderful resided inside the fane the gaiafield promised him. He just had to step inside…

Aaron grinned at the crudity of the allure, it was the mental equivalent of fresh baked bread on a winter's morning. He imagined it would be quite an attraction to any casual passer-by; the problem he had with that was the lack of any such specimen, the majority of Ellezelin's population were all Living Dream devotees. But this fane like all the others in the Greater Commonwealth housed a gaiafield confluence nest, it was inevitable the lure effect would be at its peak in the plaza.

No one even looked at them as they walked into the archway with its moire curtain of luminescence. Aaron's level-one field scan showed him the three suspects outside had started to move towards the fane. Hopefully they couldn't detect such a low-power scan, they certainly didn't appear to be enriched with biononics.

There were sensors built into the entrance, standard systems recording their faces and signatures, making sure they had no concealed weapons. The kind every public building was equipped with. Aaron's biononics deflected them easily enough.

Inside, the siren call within the gaiafield slackened off to be replaced by a single note of harmony. Decor and aether blended to give a sense of peaceful refuge, even the air temperature was pleasantly cool. The reception hall was a replica of the main audience chamber in the Orchard Palace where the Mayor greeted honoured citizens. Here, Clerics talked quietly to small groups of people. Aaron and Corrie-Lyn walked through the hall and into the cloister which let to the eastern entrance. A corridor on the right had no visible barrier. Aaron's biononic fields manipulated the electronics guarding it, and the force field disengaged. He paused, checking the building network, but there was no alarm.

'In we go, he told her quietly.

A lift took them up to the fourth floor, opening into a windowless corridor narrower than the one downstairs. As they stepped out, his u-shadow informed him that the three waiting taxis had all just had their management programs examined. Aaron was undecided at what point to tell her that they were being targeted again. The longer he left it, the more difficult it would be to extricate them from the fane. He needed her just rattled enough to sign up for his mission, but not too scared she lost all sense.

With activity in the fane still at a minimum he walked with her along several corridors until they reached Yves' office. The room had an active screen, but Aaron's field scan could cut right through it. There was just one person inside, no enrichments showing.

Corrie-Lyn put a hand lightly on Aaron's chest. 'Just me, she said. Her voice had dropped to a husky tone. He couldn't tell if she was being playful or insistent. Either way, there didn't seem to be a threat in the office, so he smiled gracefully and gestured at the door.

Once she was inside, he walked down the rest of the corridor, checking the other rooms. A woman in plain brown and blue Cleric robes came out of one after he'd passed. She frowned and said: 'Can I help—

Aaron shot her with a low-power stun pulse from the weapons enrichment in his left forearm. His scrambler field severed her connection with the Unisphere as she crumpled on to the floor, blocking the automatic call for help to the police and city medical service emitted by her multicellular clusters. He didn't even bother scooping her up and shoving her inside an empty room. That simply wasn't the kind of timescale he was looking at.

When he started back to Yves' office, all the lifts began to descend to the ground floor. By expanding his level-one field scan to its limit he could just detect weapons powering up down there. He walked straight into Yves' office. 'We have to go— he began, then cursed silently.

Corrie-Lyn was sitting on the edge of a long leather couch, with Yves slumped at the other end. Her red bag was open, an aerosol in her fist, moving hurriedly, guiltily, from her face. A blissful expression weighed down her eyelids and mouth. Aaron couldn't believe he hadn't checked her bag while she'd been sleeping. It was completely unprofessional.

'Oh hi, she slurred. 'Yves, this is the guy I was telling you about, my saviour. Aaron, this is Yves, we were just catching up.

Yves waved his hand at Aaron, producing a dreamy smile. 'Cool'

'Fuck! Aaron shot the man with a stun pulse. He was shifting the weapon on Corrie-Lyn when his tactical programs interrupted the action. In her current state it would be a lot easier for him to evacuate her if she was unconscious and inert, however she had to be aware of the danger she was in to make the right choice and confide in him.

Yves tumbled backwards over the end of the couch and landed on the floor with a soft thud. His legs were propped up by the end of the couch, shoes pointing at the ceiling. Corrie-Lyn stared at her old friend as his feet slowly slithered sideways.

'What are you doing? she wailed.

'Putting my arse on the line to save yours. Can you walk?

Corrie-Lyn hauled herself along the couch to peer down at the crumpled body. 'You killed him! Yves! Oh Ozzie, what are you, you bastard?

'He's stunned. Which gives him the perfect alibi. Now can you walk?

She turned her head to peer at Aaron, which was clearly an action that required a lot of effort. 'He's all right?

'Oh sod it! He didn't have time to waste being her shrink. 'Yep, he's fine. Forget him, we have to get out of here right now. He pulled her off the couch and slung her over his shoulder.

Corrie-Lyn wailed again. 'Put me down.

'You can't even stand up, let alone walk. And we need to run. The field medic sac in his thigh opened and ejected a drug pellet. Aaron slapped it against Corrie-Lyn's neck, above the carotid. 'That should straighten you out in a minute.

'No no no, she protested. 'Leave me alone.

Aaron ignored her and went out into the corridor. She was hanging over his shoulder, arms beating ineffectually at his buttocks as she cursed him loudly. Several Clerics opened theirdoors to see what the commotion was. Aaron stunned each one as they appeared.

'What's happening? Corrie-Lyn slurred.

'Getting out of here. Your old friends have found us.

Her arms stopped flailing and she started to weep. Aaron shook his head in dismay; he'd thought she was more capable than this. He reached the lift and his biononics produced a small disruptor effect. The lift doors cracked, their glossy surface darkening as if he was watching them age centuries in every second. They crumbled away into dust and flakes, pouring away down the shaft where they pattered on to the top of the lift as it stood waiting on the ground floor. Aaron tightened his grip on Corrie-Lyn and jumped down the shaft. She screamed as the darkness rushed past her, a genuine terrified-for-her-life bellow of fear.

His integral force field expanded, cushioning their landing. Another disruptor pulse flashed out from his biononics and the top of the lift disintegrated beneath his feet. Two very startled police officers were looking up as he fell through on top of them. Both of them had force field webbing, which protected them from the impact. The weapons enrichment in Aaron's forearm had to increase its power level by two orders of magnitude to puncture the webbing with a stun pulse. He walked out, still carrying a now-silent Corrie-Lyn. There were several police officers in the corridor between the lift and the welcome hall. They shouted at him to stop, which he ignored. A barrage of energy shots smacked across his force field, encasing him and Corrie-Lyn in a screeching purple nimbus. It didn't even slow him down. He emerged into the welcome hall to see Clerics and visitors running for cover, yelling for help vocally and digitally. Police were taking cover in the archways to three corridors, their weapons peppering him with shots. He fired several low-power disruptor pulses at the hall's ceiling. Thick clouds of composite fragments plummeted down, filling the air with cloying particles; steel and carbon girders sagged, emitting dangerous groans.

Police officers flinched away, retreating away from the collapsing hall. Aaron walked on towards the main entrance while Corrie-Lyn gasped and moaned in martyred dismay at the chaos raging around them.

Outside, the city cybersphere was broadcasting distress and warning messages to anyone within two blocks of the fane. People were scurrying out of the plaza, an exodus which Aaron's tactical programs decided worked against him. Sentient police software was downloading into the district's cybersphere nodes, taking charge, safeguarding the local network from any subversion he might try and activate, suspending capsule and ground traffic, monitoring sensors, sealing him in.

Aaron's u-shadow went for the unguarded systems managing the plaza's fountains, changing the direction of the ingrav effect on the angled rings. The tall jets began to waver, then suddenly swung down until they were horizontal. They slashed from side to side, hosing everyone in the plaza like giant water cannon. People went tumbling across the stone floor, buffeted by thick waves of spray. Aaron reached the fane's entrance and began sprinting across the plaza, partially obscured from the police by the seething spume clouds. His biononics strengthened his leg muscles, the field effect amplifying and quickening every movement. He covered the first hundred metres in seven seconds. Flailing bodies washed past him as the jets continued to play back and forth. Police officers were singled out for merciless drubbing. Their force fields did little to protect them from the powerful deluge, and they toppled easily from the soaking punches. Those that did fire energy shots into the furious spray simply created crackling vortices of ions that spat out curlicues of scalding steam. Victims on the ground scrabbled desperately out of the way as the dangerous vapour stabbed out, screaming at them to stop shooting.

The fountains began to run out of water when Aaron was two thirds of the way across the plaza. Two energy shots hit his force field, throwing off a plume of sparks. The strike made him skid on the wet stone.

'Slow down, Corrie-Lyn yelped as he regained his footing. 'Oh Ozzie, NO!

Aaron's sensory field scanned round. The fane was starting to collapse, folding in on itself and twisting gently, as if in mimicry of the pattern of its fluid-luminary surfaces. 'I must have damaged more than I realized, he grunted. Dust and smoke was flaring out of the entrances like antique rocket engine plumes, billowing over the plaza.

He reached the entrance to the arcade. People had been crowded round, watching the spectacle in the plaza. When Aaron appeared out of the chaos and started charging towards them they'd backed away fast. Now they scattered like frightened birds; no one in the Commonwealth was accustomed to civil trouble, let alone Riasi's residents. As he paused on the threshold, at least five police officers were given a clear line of sight. Energy slammed into his force field, producing a fearsome starblast of photons, its screeching loud enough to overwhelm Corrie-Lyn's howls. Unprotected surfaces around him started to blister and smoulder. He fired three bolts of his own, hidden in the melee, targeting structural girders around the archway. The crystal ceiling began to sag, huge cracks ripped through the thick material. Behind them, the fane finally crumpled, the process accelerating. Chunks of debris went scything across the plaza to impact the surrounding buildings. Tens of thousands of glass fragments created a lethal shrapnel cloud racing outwards. The police officers stopped shooting as they sought cover.

Corrie-Lyn was sobbing hysterically at the sight, then the arcade's archway started to disintegrate. She froze as giant daggers of the crystal roof plunged down around them. Fire alarms were yammering, and bright-blue suppressor foam started to pour down from the remaining nozzles overhead. Aaron dived into the third store, which sold hand-made lingerie. A slush of foam rippled out across the floor as it slid off his force field. Two remaining assistants saw him and sprinted for a fire exit.

'Can you walk? he asked Corrie-Lyn. His u-shadow was attacking the police programs in the arcade's nodes, interfering with the building's internal sensors, and trying to cut power lines directly. It sent out a call to one of the parked taxis, directing it to land at the back of the arcade.

When he pulled Corrie-Lyn off his shoulder all she could do was cross her arms and hug her chest. Her legs were trembling, unable to hold her weight.

'Shit! He shunted her up over his shoulder again, and went into the back of the store. There was a door at the top of the stairs which led down into the basement stockroom, which he descended quickly. His field scan showed him a whole flock of police regrav capsules swooping low over the plaza, while a couple of hardy officers were making their way over the tangle of archway girders. They seemed to be carrying some very high-powered weaponry.

It was cooler in the stockroom, the air dry and still. Overhead lights came on to reveal a rectangular room with smooth concrete walls, filled with ranks of metal shelving. The far end was piled up with old advertising displays. His u-shadow reported that it was having some success in blocking the police software from nearby electronics. They would know he was there, but not what he was doing.

The big malmetal door to the loading bay furled aside, and he went out into the narrow underground delivery road which served all the stores. It was empty, the police prohibition on all traffic was preventing any cargo capsules from using it. Ten metres away on the other side was a hatchway into a utility tunnel. His u-shadow popped the lock and it swung open. He sprinted across the delivery road and clambered inside pushing an unresisting Corrie-Lyn ahead of him. The hatch snapped shut.

Aaron scanned round. There was no light in the tunnel other than a yellow circle glowing round the hatch's emergency handle. It wasn't high enough for him to walk along, he'd have to stoop. Corrie-Lyn was sitting slumped against the wall just beside the hatch.

'There are no visual sensors inside the tunnel, his u-shadow reported. 'Only fire and water alarms.


'In case of flooding. It is a city regulation.

'Typical bureaucratic overkill, he muttered. 'Corrie-Lyn we have to keep going.

She didn't acknowledge. Her limbs were still trembling uncontrollably. But she moved when he pushed at her. Together they shuffled along the tunnel, hunched over like monkeys. There were hatches every fifty metres. He stopped at the sixth one and let his field scan function review the immediate vicinity outside. It didn't detect anyone nearby. His u-shadow unlocked it, and they crawled out into the base of a stairwell illuminated by blue-tinged polyphoto strips on the wall.

'The building network is functioning normally, his u-shadow said. 'The police sentients are currently concentrating their monitor routines on the fane and the arcade.

'That won't last, he said, 'they'll expand outward soon enough. Crack one of the private capsules for me.

He pulled Corrie-Lyn to her feet. With one arm under her shoulder, supporting her they went up a flight of stairs. The door opened into the underground car park of the old ministry building. His u-shadow had infiltrated the control net of a luxury capsule, and brought it right over to the stairwell.

The capsule slid up out of the park's chuteway at the back of the building, and zipped up into the nearby traffic stream. Police sentients queried it, and Aaron's u-shadow provided them with a genuine owner certificate code. Corrie-Lyn stared down at the sluggish mass of boiling dust behind them. Her limbs had stopped trembling. He wasn't sure if that was the mild suppressor drug he'd given her finally flushing the aerosol out of her system, or a deeper level of shock was setting in.

A small fleet of civic emergency capsules and ambulances were heading in to the fane.

'They just shot at us, she said. 'They didn't warn us or tell us to stop first. They just opened fire.

'I had jumped down a lift shaft to try and get out, he pointed out. 'That's a reasonable admission of guilt.

'For Ozzie's sake! If you didn't have a force field web we'd be dead. That's not how the police are supposed to act. They were police, weren't they?

'Yeah. They're the city police, all right.

'But we did get out, she sounded puzzled. 'There were how many… ten of them? Twenty?

'Something like that, yeah.

'You just walked out like nothing could stop you. It didn't matter what they did.

'That's Higher biononics for you. The only way standard weaponry can gain an advantage is overwhelming firepower. They weren't carrying that much hardware.

'You're Higher?

'I have weapons-grade biononics. I'm not sure about the culture part of it. That way of life seems slightly pointless to me, sort of like the pre-Commonwealth aristocracy.

'What's that?

'Very rich people living a life of considerable ease and decadence while the common people slaved away into an early grave, with all their labour going to support the aristocrats and their way of life.

'Oh. Right. She didn't sound interested. 'Inigo was Higher.

'No he wasn't. Aaron said it automatically.

'Actually, he was. But he kept that extremely quiet. Only a couple of us ever knew. I don't think our new Cleric Conservator is aware of his idol's true nature.

'Are you—

'Sure? Yes, I'm sure.

'That's remarkable. There's no record of it; that's a hell of an achievement these days.

'Like I said, he kept it quiet. No one would have paid any attention to a Higher showing them his dreams, not out here on the External Worlds. He needed to appear as ordinary as possible. To be accepted as one of us.

Aaron gave an amused grunt. 'Highers are people, too.

'Some of them. She gave him a meaningful glance.

'Was Yves the other Cleric who knew about Inigo?

'No. She drew a short gasp, and glanced back. 'Oh Ozzie, Yves! He was unconscious when the fane collapsed.

'He'll be all right.

'All right? she yelled, finally becoming animated. 'All right? He's dead!

'Well, he'll probably need re-lifing, yeah. But that's only a couple of months downtime these days.

She gave him an incredulous snort, and leant against the capsule's transparent fuselage to gaze down on the city.

Shock, anger, and fright, he decided. Mostly fright. 'You need to decide what to do next, he told her as sympathetically as he could. 'Team up with me, or… He shrugged. 'I can give you some untraceable funds, that should help keep you hidden.

'Bastard. She wiped at her eyes, then looked down at herself. Her red sweater had large damp patches, and the lower half of her trousers were caked in blue foam. Her knees were grazed and filthy from the inside of the utility tunnel. Her shoulders slumped in resignation. 'He used to go somewhere, she said in a quiet emotionless voice.


'Yes. This isn't the first time he took off on a sabbatical and left Living Dream covering up for his absence. But none of the other times were for so long. A year at most.

'I see. Where did he go?


'That's his birthworld.


'An External World. One of the first. Advancer through and through, he said significantly.

'I'm not arguing with you.

'Did he ever take you?

'No. He said he was visiting family. I don't know how true that was.

Aaron reviewed the files on Inigo's family. There was very little information; they didn't seek publicity, especially after he founded Living Dream. 'His mother migrated inwards a long time ago. She downloaded into ANA in 3440, after first becoming…

'Higher, yes I know.

He didn't follow the point; but for someone to convert to Higher without leaving any record was essentially impossible. Corrie-Lyn must have been mistaken. 'There's no record of any brothers or sisters, he said.

Corrie-Lyn closed her eyes and let out a long breath. 'His mother had a sister, a twin. There was something… I don't know what, but some incident long ago. Inigo hinted at it; the sisters went through this big trauma together. Whatever it was drove them apart, they never really reconciled.

'There's nothing in the records about that, I didn't even know he had an aunt.

'Well now you do. So what next?

'Go to Anagaska. Try and find the aunt or her children.

'How do we get there? I imagine the police will be watching the spaceports and wormholes.

'They will eventually. But I have my own starship. He stopped in surprise as knowledge of the starship emerged into his mind from some deep memory.

Corrie-Lyn's eyes opened in curiosity. 'You do?

'I think so.

'Sweet Ozzie, you are so strange.

Seventeen minutes later the capsule slid down to land beside a pad in Riasi's spaceport. Aaron and Corrie-Lyn climbed out and looked up at the chrome-purple ovoid that stood on five bulbous legs.

She whistled in admiration. 'That looks deliciously expensive. Is it really yours?


'Odd name, she said as she walked under the curving underbelly of the fuselage. 'What's the reference?

'I've no idea. His u-shadow opened a link to the Artful Dodgers smartcore, confirming his identity with a DNA verification along with a code he abruptly remembered. The smartcore acknowledged his command authority.

'Hang on, Aaron told Corrie-Lyn, and grabbed her hand. The base of the starship bulged inwards, stretching into a dark tube. Gravity altered around them and they slid up inside the opening.

* * * * *

Sholapur was one of those Commonwealth planets that didn't quite work. All the ingredients for success and normality were there; a standard H-congruous biosphere, G-type star, oceans, big continents with great landscapes of deserts, mountains, plains, jungles, and vast deciduous forests, handsome coastlines and long meandering archipelagos. The local flora had several plants humans could eat; while the wildlife wasn't wild enough to pose much of a threat. Tectonically it was benign. The twin moons were small, orbiting seven hundred thousand kilometres out to produce the kind of tides and waves that satisfied every kind of marine sports enthusiast.

So physically, there was nothing wrong with it. That just left the people.

Settlement began in 3120, the year ANA officially became Earth's government. It was the kind of incentive which flushed a lot of the remaining political, cultural, and religious malcontents out of the Central Worlds. The greatest machine ever built was obviously taking over, and Higher culture was now so dominant it could never be revoked. They left in their millions to settle the then furthest External Worlds. At 470 lightyears from Earth, Sholapur was an attractive proposition for anyone looking for a distant haven. To begin with, everything went smoothly. There was commercial investment, the immigrants were experienced professionals; cities and industrial parks sprang up, farms were established. But the groups who arrived from the Central Worlds weren't just dissatisfied with Higher culture, they tended to be insular, intolerant of other ideologies and lifestyles. Petty local disputes had a way of swelling to encompass entire ethnic or ideological communities. Internal migration accelerated, transforming urban areas into miniature city states; all with massively different laws and creeds. Cooperation between them was minimal. The planetary parliament was 'suspended' in 3180, after yet another debate ended in personal violence between Senators. And that more or less marked the end of Sholapur's economic and cultural development. It was regarded as hermitic by the rest of the Commonwealth. Even the External Worlds with all their attitude of forthright independence viewed it like a kind of embarrassing drop-out cousin. The nearest settled worlds called it Planet of the Hotheads, and had little contact. Despite that, a great many starships continued to visit. Some of the micro-nations had laws (or a lack of laws) which could be advantageous to certain types of merchant.

Five thousand kilometres above the planetary surface, the starship Mellanie's Redemption fell out of hyperspace amid a collapsing bubble of violet Cherenkov radiation. There was no single planetary traffic control Troblum could contact; instead he filed an approach request with Ikeo City, and received permission to land.

The Mellanie's Redemption measured thirty metres long, a sleek flared cone shape, with forward-curving tailfins that looked functionally aerodynamic. In fact they were thermal radiators added to handle the extensively customized power system. The cabin layout was a central circular lounge ringed by ten sleeping cubicles and a washroom. Hyperdrive ships didn't come much bigger, they simply weren't cost effective to build. Starline companies used them almost exclusively for passengers wealthy enough to pay for fast transport. Most starships used a continuous wormhole drive; they were slower but could be built to any size required, and carried the bulk of interstellar trade around the External Worlds. Originally, Mellanie's Redemption had been a specialist craft, built to carry priority cargo or passengers between the External Worlds. A risky proposition at the best of times. The company who commissioned her had lurched from one financial crisis to another until Troblum made them an offer for their superfast lame duck. He claimed she would be refitted as a big personal yacht, which was a white lie. It was her three large cargo holds which made her perfect for him; their volume was ideal for carrying the equipment he was working on to recreate the Anomine 'one shot' wormhole. Marius had agreed to the acquisition, and the additional EMAs materialized in Trob-lum's account. Although the ship was supposed to remain on Arevalo until Troblum was ready to move the project to its test stage he found it indispensable for some of the transactions he was involved in. The addition of a Navy-grade stealth field was especially beneficial when it came to slipping away from Arevalo without Marius being aware of anything untoward.

City was a somewhat overzealous description for Ikeo which comprised a fifty-mile stretch of rugged sub-tropical coastline with a small town in the middle and a lot of mansions spread along the cliff tops on either side. The province's ideology could best be described as a free trade area, with several individuals specializing in artefact salvage. It did have a resident-funded police force, which its poorer neighbouring states referred to as a strategic defence system.

Mellanie's Redemption descended at the focal point of several ground-based tracking sensors. She landed on pad 23 at the city's spaceport, a two kilometre circle of mown grass with twenty-four concrete pads, a couple of black dome-shaped maintenance hangars, and a warehouse owned by an Intersolar service supply company. There were no arrival formalities. A capsule drew up beside the starship as Troblum walked down the short airstair, puffing heavily from the rush of heat and humidity that hit him as soon as the airlock opened.

The capsule took him several miles out of town to a Romanesque villa atop a low cliff. Three sides of the single-storey building surrounded an elaborate pool and patio area festooned with colourful plants. Several waterfalls spilled down large strategically positioned boulders to splash into the pool. The view down on to the white beach was spectacular, with a needle-profile glide-boat anchored just offshore.

Stubsy Florae was waiting for him by the bar at the side of the pool. Not that anyone called him 'Stubsy' to his face; Florae was sensitive about his height. Sensitive to a degree that he didn't get it changed during rejuvenation therapy because to do that would be to admit that he was a head shorter than most adults and that it bothered him enough to do something about it. He wore knee-length sports trousers and a simple pale-blue shirt open to the waist to reveal a chest covered in hair and a stomach that was starting to bulge. When Troblum appeared he smiled broadly and pushed his oversize sunglasses on to his forehead. His hairline was a lot higher and thinner than Troblum was used to seeing even on External World citizens.

'Hey! My man, Florae exclaimed loudly. He held his arms out and shifted his hips from side to side. 'You been dieting, or what? He laughed loudly again at his own joke. All his companions smiled.

There were seven of them visible in the pool area, either lying on sunloungers, or sitting at the table in the shallow end of the pool sipping drinks that were mostly fruit and ice. Troblum was always slightly uncomfortable about the girls Stubsy kept at the villa. Not quite clones, but there were standard requirements. For a start they were all a lot taller than their boss, two were even taller than Troblum; naturally they were beautiful, with long silken hair, bodies toned as if they were part of some ancient Olympic athlete squad, and wearing tight bikinis — dressing for dinner here was putting on a pair of shorts and sandals. A low-level field scan revealed them to be enriched with several advanced weapons systems; half of the muscle ridges etched beneath their taut skin was actually force field webbing. If they ganged up on Troblum they could probably overwhelm his biononic defences. They acted like a hybrid of floozies and executive assistants. Troblum knew the image which the whole stable arrangement was supposed to convey, but just didn't understand why. Stubsy must have a lot more insecurities than just his height.

Troblum's worn old toga suit rippled round his vast body as he raised his arms. 'Do I look smaller?

'Hey, come on, I'm just fucking with you. What I got, it entitles me.

'What you claim you've got.

'Man, just shove that stake in a little further, I don't think it went right through my heart. How are you, man? It's been a while. Stubsy gave Troblum a hug, arms reaching almost a third of the way round. Squeezing like he was being reunited with a parent.

'Too long, Troblum suggested.

'Still got your ship. Sweet ship. You Higher guys, you live the life all right.

Troblum looked down on Stubsy's head. 'So come and join us.

'Wowa there! Not quite ready for that. Okay? Man don't even joke about. I'd need to spend a decade wiping all my bad memories before they'd let me set foot on the Central Worlds. Hey, you want a drink. Couple of sandwiches, maybe. Alcinda, she knows how to boss a culinary unit around. He lowered his voice and winked. 'Not the only thing she knows her way around, huh.

Troblum tried not to grimace in dismay. 'Some beer maybe.

'Sure sure. Florae gestured to some chairs beside a table. They sat down while one of the girls brought a large mug of light beer over. 'Hey, Somonie, bring it out for my man, will you?

A girl in a vivid-pink bikini gave a short nod and went inside.

'Where did you find it? Troblum asked.

'A contact of mine. Hey, have I been retrofitted without a brain and somebody not tell me? If I tell you about my people what's left for me in this universe?


'You know I've got a network pumping away down there in the civilized Commonwealth. This week it's some guy, next it's another. Who knows where shit is going to appear. You want to stab me in the back, first you got to build yourself your own network.

'I already have.

Florae blinked, his best-friends smile fading. 'You have?

'Sure. Hundreds of guys like you.

'You kill me, you know that? He laughed, too loud, and raised his glass. 'People like me. Ho man!

'I meant, what planet was it recovered from? My record search confirmed Vic Russell handed it back in to the Serious Crimes Directorate when he returned from the Boongate relocation. It was obsolete by then. The SCD would have disposed of it.

'Beats me, Florae said with a shrug. 'Guess there were people like you and me around even back in those days.

Troblum said nothing. The salvager could be right. For all his personality faults and distasteful lifestyle, he had always provided bona fide items. A large number of artefacts in Troblum's museum had come from Florae.

Somonie returned from the villa carrying a long stable-environment case. It was heavy, her arm muscles were standing proud. She put it the table in front of Troblum and Stubsy.

'Before we go any further, Troblum said. 'I have the SCD serial code. The genuine one. So. Do you still want to open the case?

'I don't give a shit what fucking number you think you got, man, this is for real. And hey guess what, you aren't the only asshole in the Commonwealth that creams himself over this shit. I come to you first because I figure we got a friendship going by now. You want to call me out, you want to crap all over my reputation, and you know what, fatboy, you can roll all the way back to your ship and fuck the hell off this world. My fucking world.

'We'd better look at it then, Troblum said. 'I'd hate to lose your friendship. He didn't care about Stubsy Florae, there were dozens of scavengers just like him. But it was an interesting claim; he'd never really thought there were other collectors outside museums. He wondered idly if they could be persuaded to sell. Perhaps Florae could enquire…

Florae's u-shadow gave the case a key, and the top unfurled to reveal an antique ion rifle. A protective shield shimmered faintly around it, but Troblum could clearly see the metre-long barrel which ended in a stubby black metal handle that had several attachment points and an open induction socket on the bottom.

'Yeah well, Stubsy said with a modest grimace, which could almost have been embarrassment. 'The other bit is missing. Obviously. But what the fuck, this is the business end, right? That's what counts.

'There is no "other bit", Troblum said. 'This is designed to be used by someone in an armour suit; it clips on to the lower arm.

'No shit?

It was an effort for Troblum to speak calmly. The weapon certainly looked genuine. 'Would you turn off the field, please.

The shimmer vanished. Troblum's field function swept across the antique rifle. Deep in the barrel's casing were long chains of specifically arranged molecules, spelling out a unique code. He licked the sweat from his upper lip. 'It's real, he whispered hoarsely.

'Yo! Stubsy slapped his hands together in victory. 'Do I ever let you down?

Troblum couldn't stop staring at the weapon. 'Only in the flesh. Would you like payment now?

'Man, this is why I love you. Yes. Yes please. I would very much like payment now, please.

Troblum told his u-shadow to transfer the funds.

'You want to stay for dinner? Stubsy asked. 'Maybe party with some of the girls?

'Put the protective field back on, please. This humidity is inimical.

'Sure thing. So, which one do you like?

'You don't have any idea how important this artefact is, do you?

'I know it's value, man, that's what counts. The fact some policeman shot an alien with it a thousand years ago doesn't exactly ding my bell.

'Vic Russell worked with Paula Myo. And I know you've heard of her.

'Sure man, this planet's living nightmare. Didn't know she was around in those days, too.

'Oh yes, she was around even before the Starflyer War. And it wasn't an alien Vic shot, it was Tarlo, a Directorate colleague who had been corrupted by the Starflyer, and betrayed Vic and his wife. Arguably, Tarlo is one of the most important Starflyer agents there was.

'Ozzie, now I get it: this was the gun that killed him. That connects you.

'Something like that.

'So are you interested in genuine alien stuff as well?

Anything that is part of the Starflyer's legacy. Why, have you located another section of its ship?

Stubsy shook his head. 'Fraid not, man. But one of my neighbours; she specializes in weird alien technology and other interesting little chunks. You know, the odd sample that crews on pathfinder missions pick up, stuff you never get to hear about in the Unisphere, stuff ANA and the Navy like to keep quiet. You want I should put you in touch, I got a Unisphere code, she's very discreet. I'll vouch for her.

'Tell her if she ever comes across any Anomine relics I'll be happy to talk, he said, knowing she wouldn't. Apart from that, I'm not interested.

'Okay, just thought I'd ask.

Troblum raised himself to his feet, quietly pleased he didn't need his biononics to generate a muscle reinforcement field; but then this world had a point-eight standard gravity. 'Could you call your capsule for me, please?

'Money's in, so sure. This is another reason I like you, man, we don't have to screw around making up small talk.

'Exactly. Troblum picked up the stable-environment case. It was heavy; he could feel a mild sweat break out on his forehead and across his shoulders as he lifted it into the crook of his arm. Hadn't Stubsy ever heard of regrav?

'Hey, man, you're the only Higher I know, so I've got to like ask you this. What's ANA's take on this whole Pilgrimage thing?

Is it a bunch of crap, or are we all going to get cluster fucked by the Void?

'ANA: Governance put out a clear statement on the Unisphere. The Pilgrimage is regrettable, but it does not believe the actions of Living Dream pose any direct physical threat to the Greater Commonwealth.

'I accessed that, sure. Usual government bullshit then, huh. But… what do you think, man? Should I be stocking up my starship and heading out?

'Out where, exactly? If the anti-Pilgrimage faction is right, the whole galaxy is doomed.

'You are just one giant lump of fun, aren't you? Come on, man, give it to me straight. Are we in the shit?

'The contacts I have inside ANA aren't worried, so neither am I.

Stubsy considered that seriously for a moment before reverting to his usual annoyingly breezy self. 'Thanks, man, I owe you one.

'Not really. But if I find a way to collect, I'll let you know.

Troblum puzzled over Stubsy's question in the capsule back to his ship. Perhaps he'd been unwise to admit to contacts inside ANA, but it was a very general reference. Besides, he didn't really consider Stubsy to be some kind of agent working for Marius's opponents — of which there were admittedly many. Of course the Starflyer had procured agents a lot more unlikely than Stubsy. But if Stubsy was an agent for some ANA Faction they were playing a long game, and from what Troblum understood, the Pilgrimage situation would be resolved sooner rather than later. Troblum shook his head and shifted the case slightly. It was an interesting theory, but he suspected he was overanalysing events. Paranoia was healthy, but he wouldn't like to report that particular suspicion to Marius. More likely it was a genuine concern on Stubsy's part, one born of ignorance and popular prejudice. That was a lot easier to believe.

The capsule arrived back at Mellanie's Redemption and Troblum carefully carried the stable-environment case into the starship. He resisted the impulse to open it for one last check, but did stow it in his own sleeping cabin for the flight back to Arevalo.

* * * * *

The first thing Araminta knew about the failure was when a shower of sparks sizzled out of the bot's power arm, just above the wrist multi-socket where tools plugged in. At the time she was on her knees beside the Juliet balcony door, trying to dismantle its seized-up actuator. The unit hadn't been serviced for a decade at least. When she got the casing open every part of it was covered in grime. She wrinkled her nose up in dismay, and reached for the small all-function electrical toolkit she'd bought from Askahar's Infinite Systems, a company that specialized in recycled equipment for the construction trade. Her u-shadow grabbed the user instructions from the kit's memory and filtered them up through her macrocellular clusters into her brain; supposedly they gave her an instinctive ability to apply the little gizmos. She couldn't even work out which one would stand a chance of cleaning away so much gunk. The cleanser utensils were intended for delicate systems with a light coating of dust. Not this compost heap.

Then as she peered closer at the actuator components bright light flashed across them. She turned just in time to see the last cascade of sparks drizzle down on the pile of sealant sheets stacked up in the corner of the flat's lounge. Wisps of smoke began to wind upwards. The bot juddered to a halt, as the whole lower segment of its power arm darkened. As she watched, its pocked silvery casing tarnished rapidly from the heat inside.

'Ozzie's mother! she yelped, and quickly started stamping on the sheets, trying to extinguish the glowing points which the sparks had kindled. Her u-shadow couldn't get any access to the bot at all, it was completely dead, and now there was a definite hot-oil smell in the air. Another bot slid away and retrieved an extinguisher bulb from the kitchen. It returned and sprayed blue foam on the defunct bot's arm. Araminta groaned in dismay as the bubbling fluid scabbed over and dripped on to the floorboards, soaking in. The whole wood-look was coming back in vogue, which was why she'd ordered the bot to abrade the original old floorboards down to the grain. As soon as they were done she was going to spread the sealant sheets down while the rest of the room was decorated and fitted, then she'd finish the boards with a veneer polish to bring out the wavy gold and rouge pattern of the native antwood.

Araminta scratched at the damp stain with her fingernail, but it didn't seem too bad. She'd just have to get another bot to abrade the wood down still further. There were five of the versatile machines performing various tasks in the flat, all second or third hand; again bought from Askahar's Infinite Systems.

Now the immediate danger of fire was over her u-shadow called Burt Renik, proprietor of Askahar's Infinite Systems.

'Well there's nothing I can do, he explained after she'd told him what had happened.

'I only bought it from you two days ago!

'Yes but why did you buy it?

'Excuse me! You recommended it.

'Yes, the Candel 8038; it's got the kind of power level you wanted for heavy duty attachments. But you came to me rather than a licensed dealer.

'What are you talking about? I couldn't afford a new model. The Unisphere evaluation library said it was dependable.

'Exactly. And I sell a lot of refurbished units because of that. But the one you bought had a manufacturer's decade-warranty that expired over a decade ago. Now with all the goodwill in Ozzie's universe, I have to tell you: you get what you pay for. I have some newer models in stock if you need a replacement.

Araminta wished she had the ability to trojan a sensorium package past his u-shadow filters, one that would produce the painburst he'd get from a good smack on the nose. 'Will you take part exchange?

'I could make you an offer on any components I can salvage, but I'd have to bring the bot in to the workshop to analyse what's left. I can come out, oh… middle of next week, and there would have to be a collection charge.

'For Ozzie's sake, you sold me a dud.

'I sold you what you wanted. Look, I'm only offering to salvage parts as a goodwill gesture. I'm running a business, I want return customers.

'Well you've lost this one. She ended the call and told her u-shadow never to accept a call from Burt Renik again. 'Bloody hell! Her u-shadow quickly revised her refurbishment schedule, adding on an extra three days to her expected completion date. That assumed she wouldn't buy a replacement for the 8038. It was a correct assumption. The budget wasn't working out like she'd originally planned. Not that she was overspending, but the time involved in stripping out all the old fittings and demode decorations was taking a lot longer than her first estimate.

Araminta sat back on the floor and glared at the ruined bot. I'm not going to cry. I'm not that pathetic.

The loss of the 8038 was a blow, though. She'd just have to trust the remaining bots would hold out. Her u-shadow began to run diagnostic checks on them while she tried to detach the abrader mat from the 8038's foam-clogged multi-socket. The attachment was expensive and, unlike the bot, brand new. Her mood wasn't helped by the current state of the flat. She had been working on it for five days solid now, stripping it down to bare walls, and gutting the ancient domestic equipment, the whole place looked just terrible. Every surface was covered in fine particles, with sawdust enhancing the whole dilapidated appearance; also not helped by the way any sound echoed round the blank rooms. After tidying things up today, she could start the refurbishment stage. She was sure that would re-fire her enthusiasm. There had been times over the last week when she'd had moments of pure panic, wondering how she could have been so stupid to have gambled everything on this ancient cruddy flat.

The abrader attachment came free and she pulled it out. With her u-shadow controlling them directly, two of the remaining bots hauled their broken sibling out of the flat and dumped it in the commercial refuse casket parked outside. She winced every time it bumped on the stairs, but the other occupants were out, they'd never know how the dints got there.

With the abrader plugged in to another bot, a Braklef 34B — only eight years old — she turned her attention back to the balcony door actuator. She knew if she started moping over the broken bot she'd just wind up feeling sorry for herself and never get anything done. She simply couldn't afford that.

The simplest thing, she decided, was to break the actuator down and clean the grime off manually; after that she could use the specialist tools to get the systems up to required standard. Her other toolbox, the larger one, had a set of power keys. She set to with more determination she had any right to without resorting to aerosols.

As she worked, her u-shadow skimmed the news, local and Intersolar, and summarized topics she was interested in, feeding it to her in a quiet neural drizzle. Now she'd bought the flat, she'd cancelled the daily review of city property. It would be too distracting, especially if something really good appeared on the market. So instead she chortled quietly at the images in her peripheral vision as a city councillor's son was indicted on charges of land fraud. The investigators were rumoured to be closing in on Daddy, who sat on the city board for zoning management. Last night, Debbina, the first-born daughter of billionaire Shel-donite Likan had been arrested once again for lewd conduct in a public place. The image of her coming out of Colwyn Central police station flanked by her lawyers this morning showed her still wearing a black spray dress from the previous evening, and her blond hair in disarray. Hansel Industries, one of Ellezelin's top 100 companies was discussing opening a manufacturing district just outside Colwyn; the details were accompanied by economic projections. She couldn't help scan the effect on property prices.

As far as Intersolar political news was concerned the only item was the new Senate motion introduced by Marian Kantil, Earth's Senator, that Living Dream desist from reckless action in respect to its Pilgrimage. Ellezelin's Senator responded to the motion by walking out. He was followed by the Senators from Tari, Idlib, Lirno, Quhood and Agra — the Free Trade Zone planets. Araminta wasn't surprised to find Viotia's Senator had abstained from the vote, as had seven other External Worlds, all on the fringe of the Zone, and all with a large percentage of Living Dream followers in their population. The report went on to show the huge manufacturing yard on the edge of Greater Makkathran, where the Pilgrimage ships would be assembled. Araminta stopped cleaning the actuator to watch. An armada of civic construction machinery was laying down the field, flattening fifteen square miles of countryside ready for its cladding of concrete. The first echelon of machines swept the ground with dispersant beams, chewing into the side of hillocks and escarpments; loosening any material that stood above the required level. All the resulting scree slides of pulverized soil and sand were elevated by regrav modules then channelled by force fields into thick solid streams that curved through the air and stretched back to the holds of vast ore barges hovering at the side of the estuary which made up one side of the yard. Following the levelling operation was a line of more basic machinery which drove deep support piles into the bedrock to support the weight of the starship cradles. The Pilgrimage fleet was to be made up of twelve cylindrical vessels, each a mile long, and capable of carrying two million pilgrims in suspension. Already Living Dream was talking about them being merely the 'first wave'.

Araminta shook her head in mild disbelief that so many people could be so stupid, and switched to local reports of business and celebrities.

Two hours later, Cressida arrived. She frowned down at the prints her shiny leather pumps with their diamond encrusted straps made in the thick layer of dirt coating the hall floor. Her cashmere fur dress contracted around her to save her skin from exposure to the dusty air. One hand was raised to cover her mouth, gold and purple nailprint friezes flowing in slow motion.

Araminta smiled up uncertainly at her cousin. She was suddenly very self-conscious standing there in her filthy overalls, hair wound up and tucked into a cap, hands streaked with black grease.

'There's a dead bot in your casket, Cressida said. She sounded annoyed by it.

'I know, Araminta sighed. 'Price of buying cheap.

'It's one of yours? Cressida's eyebrows lifted. 'Do you want me to call the supplier and have it replaced?

'Tempting. Ozzie knows it wasn't actually that cheap relative to my budget, but no I'll fight my own battles from now on.

'That's my family. Stupidly stubborn to the last.


'I'm here for two reasons. One to look round. Okay, done that. Came a month too early, obviously. Two, I want all the frightful details of Thursday night. You and that rather attractive boy Keetch left very early together. And darling I do mean all the details.

'Keetch is hardly a boy'

'Pha! Younger than me by almost a century. So tell your best cousin. What happened?

Araminta smiled bashfully. 'You know very well. We went back to his place. She proffered a limp gesture at the dilapidated hallway. 'I could hardly bring him here.

'Excellent. And?

'And what?

'What does he do? Is he single? What's he like in bed? How many times has he called? Is he yearning and desperate yet? Has he sent flowers or jewellery or is he all pathetic and gone the chocolates route? Which resort bedroom are you spending the weekend in?

'Wow, just stop there. Araminta's smile turned sour. In truth Keetch had been more than adequate in bed and he had even tried to call her several times since Thursday. Calls she had no intention of returning. The thrill of liberation, of playing the field, of experimenting, of answering to no one, of making and taking her own choices, of just plain having fun; it was all shewanted right now. A simple life without commitments or attachments. Right now was what she should have been doing instead of being married. 'Keetch was very nice, but I'm not seeing him again. I'm too busy here.

'Now I am impressed. Hump 'em and dump 'em. There's quite a core of raw steel hidden inside that ingenue facade, isn't there?

Araminta shrugged. 'Whatever.

'If you ever want a career in law, I'll be happy to sponsor you. You'll probably make partner in under seventy years.

'Gosh, now there's an enticement'

Cressida dropped her hand long enough to laugh. 'Ah well, I tried. So are we on for Wednesday?

'Yes, of course. Araminta enjoyed their girls nights out. Cressida seemed to know every exclusive club in Colwyn City, and she was on all their guest lists. 'So what happened to you after I left? Did you catch anyone?

'At my age? I was safely tucked up in bed by midnight.

'Who with?

'I forget their names. You know you really must go up a level and join an orgy. They can be fantastic, especially if you have partners who know exactly what they're doing.

Araminta giggled. 'No thanks. Don't think I'm quite ready for that yet. What I'm doing is pretty adventurous for me.

'Well when you're ready…

'I'll let you know.

Cressida inhaled a breath of dust and started coughing. 'Ozzie, this place is bringing back too many memories of my early years. Look, I'll call later. Sorry I'm not much practical help, but truthfully, I'm crap with design programs'

'I want to do this by myself. I'm going to do this by myself.

'Hell, make that partner in fifty years. You've got what it takes.

'Remind you of you? Araminta asked sweetly.

'No. I think you're sharper, unfortunately. Bye, darling.

Lunch was a sandwich in her carry capsule as she flew across the city to the first of three suppliers on her list. The carry capsule, like her bots, had seen better days; according to the log she was the fifth owner in thirty years. Perfectly serviceable, the sales manager had assured her. It didn't have the speed of a new model, and if the big rear cargo compartment was filled to the rated load then it wouldn't quite reach its maximum flight ceiling. But she had a lot more confidence in the capsule than the 8038 bot; because of its age it had to pass a strict Viotia Transport Agency flightworthiness test every year, and the last one had been two months before she bought it.

The capsule settled on the lot of Bovey's Bathing and Culinar-yware, one of eight macrostores that made up a small touchdown mall in the Groby district. She walked in to the store, looking round the open display rooms that lined a broad aisle with many branches. Bathrooms and kitchens alternated, promoting a big range of size, styles, and price, though the ones by the door tended to be elaborate. She looked enviously at the larger luxury units, thinking about the kind of apartment she'd develop one day in which such extravagance was a necessity.

'Can I help you?

Araminta turned round to see a man dressed in the store's blue and maroon uniform. He was quite tall with his biological age locked in around his late twenties, dark skin offset by sandy-blond hair. Nice regular features, she thought, without being too handsome. His eyes were light grey, revealing a lot of humour. If they were meeting in a club she'd definitely let him buy her a drink — she might even offer to buy him one first.

'I'm looking for a kitchen and a bathroom. Both have to look and feel high grade, yet cost practically nothing.

'Ah, now that I can understand, and provide for. I'm Mr Bovey, by the way.

She was quite flattered the owner himself would come down on the floor and single her out to help. 'Pleased to meet you. I'm Araminta.

He shook her hand politely. She thought he was debating with himself if he should try for a platonic greeting kiss. It was one of those times when she wished she had a connection to the gaiafield, which would enable her to gauge his emotions, assuming he'd broadcast them. Which as the owner of the store and therefore a professional he wouldn't. Damn. Come on girl, focus.

'What sort of dimensions can you give me to play with? he asked.

Araminta gave him a slightly cheeky grin, then stopped. Perhaps it wasn't a double-entendre. Certainly sounded like one, though. 'Here you go, she told him as her u-shadow produced the blueprint file. 'I would appreciate some help on price. This is my first renovation project, I don't want it to be my last.

'Ah. His eyes strayed to her hands, which still had lines of grime etched on the skin. 'Boss and workforce, I can relate to that.

'Depleted workforce today, I'm afraid. One of my bots blew up. I can't afford any more expensive mistakes.

'I understand. He hesitated. 'You didn't get it from Burt Renik, did you?

'Yes, she said cautiously. 'Why?

'Okay, well for future reference — and I didn't tell you this — he's not the most reliable of suppliers.

'I know he's not the gold standard, but I checked on the evaluation library for that model. It was okay.

This time he did wince. 'Next time you buy something in the trade, including anything from me, I'd recommend some research on Dave's Coding. His u-shadow handed over the address. 'The evaluation library is fine, all those «independent» reports on how the product worked — well, the library is financed and managed by corporations, that's why there's never really a bad review. Dave's Coding is truly autonomous.

'Thank you, she said meekly as she filed the address in one of her storage lacunas. 'I'll take an access sometime.

'Glad to help. In the mean time, try aisle seven for a kitchen. I think we can supply your order from there.

'Thanks. She walked off to aisle seven, more than a little disappointed he didn't accompany her. Perhaps he had a policy of not flirting with customers. Shame.

The man waiting in aisle seven had on an identical blue and maroon uniform. He was perhaps five years older than Mr Bovey, but even taller, with a slender marathon runner frame. His skin was Nordic pale with ginger hair cut short except for a slender ridge right at the crest of his skull. Strangely, his green eyes registered the same kind of general amusement at the world as Mr Bovey.

'I'd recommend these two kitchen styles, he said in greeting, and gestured at a small display area. 'They're a good fit to your dimensions, and this one is an end of the line model. I've got two left in the warehouse, so I can give you a sweet deal.

Araminta was slightly nonplussed. Mr Bovey had obviously passed on her file to this employee; but that was no reason for him to start off as if they were already on familiar terms. 'Let's take a look, she said, lowering the temperature of her voice.

It turned out the end of the line model was quite satisfactory, and it was a good deal. As well as a mid-range culinary unit with a range of multichem storage tanks she got a breakfast bar and stools, ancillaries like a fridge, food prepper, maidbot, shelving and cupboards. The style was chaste white, with black and gold trim. 'If you throw in delivery, I'll take it, she told him.

'Any time you want it, I'll get it to you.

She ignored the flirty overture, and told her u-shadow to pay the deposit.

'Bathrooms: aisle eleven, he told her with unabashed enthusiasm.

The salesman waiting for her in aisle eleven had allowed himself to age into his biological fifties, which was unusual even for Viotia. His ebony skin was just starting to crinkle, with his hair greying and thinning. 'I've got four that I think will suit your aesthetics, was his opening gambit.

'Hello, she snapped at him.

'Ah… yes?

'I'm Araminta, pleased to meet you. And I'm looking for a bathroom for my flat. Can you help me?


'This whole relay thing you've got going here really isn't polite. You could at least say hi to me first before you access the file you're all shooting around here. I am a person, you know.

'I think… ah. His surprised expression softened. Araminta found it a lot more disconcerting than his initial smug chumminess.

'You do know what I am, don't you? he asked.

'What do you mean?

'I am Mr Bovey. We are all Mr Bovey in this store. I am a multiple human.

Araminta was certain she'd be turning bright red with embarrassment. She knew what a multiple was, of course; one personality shared between several bodies through an adaptation of the gaiafield technology. This way, its practitioners claimed, was the true evolutionary leap for humanity that everyone else was pursuing down futile dead ends. A multiple human could never die unless every body was killed, which was unlikely in the extreme. In a quiet non-evangelical way they believed that everyone would one day become multiple. Perhaps after that the personalities would start fusing, leaving one consciousness with a trillion bodies — a much better outcome than downloading into the artificial sanctity of ANA.

It was a human heresy, their detractors claimed, a long-term conspiracy to imitate the Prime aliens of Dyson Alpha. More vocal opponents accused the multiple lifestyle of being started by left-over Starflyer agents trying to continue their dead master's corrupting ideology.

I'm sorry, she said, shamefaced. 'I didn't know.

'That's okay. Partly my fault in assuming you did. Most people in the trade know.

Araminta gave a wry grin. 'I guess continuity of service is a big plus.

'I've got to be better than Burt Renik.


'All right then. So are you and I good to go and look at bathrooms?

'Of course we are.

Araminta wound up buying the third suite the older Mr Bovey showed her. It wasn't out of guilt, he was genuinely offering a good deal, and the plain gold and green style was perfect for the flat. And once she'd let her awkwardness subside, he was fun to talk to. She couldn't quite throw off the weird little feeling of disconnection talking to his older body and knowing he was exactly the same person who'd greeted her, and that body was probably smiling privately at her while dealing with another customer.

'Just let us know when you want it delivered, he said when her u-shadow handed over the deposit.

'Do you… that is: some of you. Ones of you. Handle delivery as well?

'Don't worry, tense hasn't caught up with us multiples yet. And yes, I'll be the one in the carry capsule and helping the bots when they get stuck on the stairs. Not necessarily this body given its age, but me.

'I'll look forward to seeing the rest of you.

'There's a couple of mes who are young and handsome. Call it vanity if you like, I'm not immune to all the usual human flaws. I'll try and schedule thems for the delivery.

'As handsome as you?

'Hey, there's no more discount. You've squeezed me dry already.

She laughed. 'I'd better get back to work then.

Araminta smiled the whole flight back to the flat. Mr Bovey really had been charming. All his versions. She suspected it was more than good client relations. And was he joking about the young and handsome bodies? Actually, even the last one she'd seen, the older one, was quite distinguished. And what if he did ask her out for a date? Would it be just her and twenty of him sitting at a table?

If he asks.

And if he did, what am I going to answer?

The whole idea was unusual, which made it very interesting.

And what if the evening went well? Do I ask twenty of him hack to my place?

Oh stop it!

She was still smiling when she walked back up the stairs and opened the front door. Then her mood came down at the sight of the flat. The bots had made some progress cleaning up; but one with a vacuum attachment was all clogged up. None of the bots had self maintenance capacity, so she'd have to clear that out manually. And she'd still not put the balcony door actuator back together. It could well be quite a while before Mr Bovey delivered her new kitchen and bathroom and she got round to finding out how well she'd read their encounter.

Late in the afternoon when the place was finally getting straightened out she'd started spreading the sealant sheets over the lounge's floorboards. That was when her u-shadow told her there was a call from Laril. 'Are you sure? she asked it.


She debated with herself if she should call Cressida, maybe the Revenue Service would pay a reward. 'Where's he calling from?

'The routing identity originates on Oaktier. A summary slid into her peripheral vision.

'A Central Commonwealth world, she read. 'What's he doing there?

'I do not know.

'Right, she sat on the cube that was her portable bed and took her gloves off. Wiped her forehead. Took a breath. 'Okay, accept the call. His image appeared in her exovision's primary perspective, making it seem as if he was standing right in front of her. If he was providing a real representation he hadn't changed much. Thin brown hair cut short, round face with a chubby jaw and a wide neck, as always thick dark stubble longer than she liked. It was scratchy, she remembered. He never gelled it down smooth no matter how many times she asked.

'Thanks for taking the call, he said. 'I wasn't sure you would.

'Neither was I.

'I hear you're doing okay; you got the money.

'I was awarded the money by the court. Laril, what are you doing? Why are you on Oaktier?

'Isn't it obvious?

That took a few seconds to register, and even longer to accept. It must be some stunt, some scam. 'You're migrating inwards? she asked, incredulous.

He smiled the same carefree smile he'd used when they first met. It was very appealing, warm and confident. She hadn't seen it much after they married.

'Happens to all of us in the end, he said.

'No! I don't believe it. You are going Higher? You?

'My first batch of biononics have been in a week. They're starting to integrate some basic fields. It's quite an experience.

'But… she spluttered. 'For Ozzie's sake. Higher culture would never take you. What did you do, erase half your memories?

'That's a pretty common myth. Higher culture isn't the old Catholic Church, you know; you don't have to confess and recant your past sins. It's current attitude which counts.

'I know they don't take criminals. There was that case centuries ago — Jollian thought that he could escape what he'd done with a memory wipe and a migration to the Inner Worlds. Paula Myo caught up with him and had his biononics removed so he could face trial on the External Worlds as the type of human he was when he committed his crime. I think he got a couple of hundred years' suspension.

'That's what you think of me, that I qualify for the Jollian precedent? Well thanks a whole lot, Araminta. A couple of things you might want to consider. One, Paula Myo isn't after me. And she isn't after me because I haven't committed any crime.

'Have you told the Viotia Revenue Service that?

'My business economics were a mess, sure. I'm not hiding from that. I even told my Higher initiator about my finances. You know what she said?

'Go on.

'Higher culture is about rejecting the evil of money.

'How very convenient for you.

'Look I just wanted to call and apologize. I'm not asking for anything. And I wanted to make sure you're all right.

'A bit late for that, isn't it? she bridled. 'I'm not part of some therapy session you have to complete before they'll take you.

'You're misunderstanding this, perhaps with anger leading you away from what I'm actually saying.

'Ozzie! This is your therapy session.

'We don't need therapy to become Higher, it is inevitable. Even you will migrate eventually.


His image produced a fond lopsided smile. 'I remember thinking that once. Probably when I was in my twenties. I know it probably doesn't make a lot of sense to someone your age when every day is fresh, but after a few centuries living on the External Worlds you begin to get bored and frustrated. Every day becomes this constant battle; politicians are corrupt and crap, projects never get finished on time or in budget, bureaucrats delight in thwarting you, and then there's the eternal fight for money.

'Which you lost.

'I fed myself and my families for over three centuries thank you very much. Even you came out ahead with the residue of that work. But face it, I didn't achieve much now did I? A few tens of thousands of dollars to show for three and a half centuries. That's not exactly leaving your mark on the universe, is it? And it's not just me, there are billions of humans that are the same. The External Worlds are fun and exciting with their market economy and clashing ideologies and outward urge. Youth thrives on that kind of environment. Then there comes a day when you have to look back and take stock. You did that for me.

'Oh come on! You're blaming me for the dog's dinner you made of your affairs?

'No. I'm not blaming you. Don't you get it? I'm thanking you. I was old, it took you to reveal that to me. The contrast between us was so great even I couldn't close my eyes to it for ever. There really is no fool like an old fool, and part of that foolishness came from deluding myself. I was tired of that life and didn't want to admit it. Turning Punk Skunk and taking a young wife was just another way of trying to ignore what I'd become. Even that didn't work, did it? I was making both of us miserable.

'That's putting it mildly, she muttered. In a way though, it was gratifying hearing him admit it was all his fault. 'I left my whole family behind because of you.

He showed her a sly smile. 'And that was a bad thing?

'Yeah, all right, she grinned puckishly. 'You did me a favour there. I'm not really cut out for two centuries of selling agricultural cybernetics.

'I knew that the minute I set eyes on you. So how's the world of property development coming on?

'Harder than I thought, she admitted. 'There are so many stupid little things that bug me.

'I know. Well imagine today's frustration multiplied by three hundred years, that's how I wound up feeling.

'And now you don't?


'I don't believe Higher culture is free of bureaucracy, or corruption, or idiots, or useless politicians. They might not be so blatant, but they're there.

'No, they're not. Well… okay, but nothing like as bad as they are in the External Worlds. You see, there's no need for any of that. So many of the social problems the External Worlds suffer from is born out of markets, capital and materialism; that's what old-style economics produces, in fact trouble just is about all it produces. The cybernated manufacturing and resource allocation procedure which Higher culture is based on takes all those difficulties out of the equation. That and taking a mature sensible perspective. We don't struggle for the little things any more, we can afford to take the longer, intellectual view.

'You talk like you're one of them already.

'Them. That's perspective for you. Higher culture is mainly a state of mind, but backed up by physical affluence.

'You are what the External Worlds strive to be: everyone's a millionaire.

'No. Everyone has equal access to resources, that's what you lack. Though I'd point out that External Worlds always convert to Higher culture in the end. We are the apex of human social and technological achievement. In other words, this is what the human race has been aiming for since proto-humans picked up a club to give us an advantage against all the other predators competing for food out on the African plains. We improve ourselves at every opportunity.

'So why didn't you go straight to ANA and download? That's how Highers improve themselves, isn't it?

'Ultimately, I will, I suppose. But Higher is the next stage for me. I want a time in my body which isn't such an effort. A couple of centuries where I can just relax and learn. There are so many things I want to do and see which I never could before. The opportunities here are just astounding.

Araminta laughed silently, that at least sounded like the old Laril. 'Then I suppose I wish you good luck.

'Thank you. I really didn't want to leave things the way they were between us. If there's anything you ever need, please call, even if it's just a shoulder to cry on.

'Sure. I'll do that, she lied, knowing she never would. She felt indecently content when he ended the call. Closure obviously worked both ways.

* * * * *

The people had no faces. At least none that he was aware of. There were dozens of them, men, women, even children. They were in front of him. Running. Fleeing like cattle panicked by a carnivore. Their screams threatened to split his eardrums. Words rose struggling out of the soundwall. Mostly they were pleas for help, for pity, for sanctuary, for their lives. However hard they ran he kept up with them.

The bizarre melee was taking place in some kind of elaborate hall with crystal grooves running across its domed ceiling. Rows of curving chairs hindered the frantic crowd as they raced for the exit doors. He wouldn't or couldn't turn round. He didn't know what they were trying to escape from. Energy weapons screeched, and the people flung themselves down. For himself, he remained standing, looking down at their prone bodies. Somehow he was remote from the horror. He didn't know how that could be. He was there with them, he was a part of whatever terror was happening here. Then some kind of shadow slid across the floor like demon wings unfolding.

Aaron sat up in bed with a shocked gasp. His skin was cold, damp with sweat. Heart pounding. It took a moment for him to recognize where he was. The lights in the sleeping cabin were brightening, showing him the curving bulkhead walls. He blinked at them as the dream faded.

Somehow he knew the strange images were more than a dream. They must be some memory of his previous life, an event strong enough to cling on inside his neurones while the rest of his identity was wiped. He was curious and daunted at the same time.

What the hell did I get myself mixed up in?

Thinking about it, whatever the affray was, it didn't look any worse than anything this mission had generated so far. His heart had calmed without any help from his biononics. He took a deep breath and climbed off the cot.

'Where are we? he asked the Artful Dodger's smartcore.

'Six hours out from Anagaska.

'Good. He stretched and rolled his shoulders. 'Give me a shower, he told the smartcore. 'Start with water; shift to spores when I tell you.

The cabin began to change, cot flowing back into the bulkhead, the floor hardening to a black and white marble finish. Gold nozzles extruded from each corner, and warm water gushed out.

Even given the ship's obvious Higher origin, it had come as a wondrous surprise to discover it was equipped with an ultradrive. Aaron had thought such a thing to be nothing more than rumour. That was when he realized he had to be working for some ANA Faction. It was an idea he found more intriguing than the drive. It also meant the Pilgrimage was being taken a lot more seriously than people generally realized.

After the spores cleaned and dried his skin he dressed in a simple dark purple one-piece suit and went out into the main lounge. His small cabin withdrew into the bulkhead, providing a larger floorspace. Corrie-Lyn's cabin was still engaged, a simple blister shape protruding into the hemispherical lounge. His suggestion yesterday that they share a bunk had been met by a cold stare and an instant: 'Good night.

She probably wouldn't come out again until they touched down.

The culinary unit provided an excellent breakfast of fried benjiit eggs and Wiltshire drycure bacon, with toast and thick-sliced English marmalade. Aaron was nothing if not a traditionalist. So it would seem, he mused.

Corrie-Lyn emerged from her cabin while he was munching away on his third slice of toast. She'd dressed in a demure (for her) turquoise and emerald knee-length cashmere sweater dress which the ship's synthesizer had produced. Her cabin sank back into the bulkhead, and she collected a large cup of tea from the culinary unit before sitting down opposite Aaron.

Recognizing a person's emotional state was an important part of Aaron's assessment routine. But this morning Corrie-Lyn was as unreadable as a muted solido.

She stared at him for a while as she sipped her tea, apparently unperturbed by the awkwardness of the situation.

'Something on your mind? he asked mildly, breaking the silence. That he was the one who broke it was a telling point. There weren't many people who could make him socially uncomfortable.

'Not my mind, she said, a little too earnestly.

'Meaning? Oh come on, you're an attractive woman. I was bound to ask. You'd probably be more insulted if I didn't.

'Not what I'm talking about. She waved her hand dismissively. 'That was some dream you had.

'I… Dream?

'Did you forget? I didn't become a Living Dream Councillor just because I've got a great arse. I immerse myself in people's dreams, I explore their emotional state and try to help them come to terms with what they are. Dreams are very revealing.

'Oh shit! I leaked that into the gaiafield.

'You certainly did. I'd like to tell you that you are one very disturbed individual. But that would hardly be a revelation, now would it?

'I've seen my fair share of combat. Hardly surprising my subconscious throws up crap like that.

She gave a small victory smile. 'But you don't remember any combat, do you. Not previous to this particular incarnation. That means whatever event you participated in was truly epochal for it to have survived in your subconscious. Wipe techniques are generally pretty good these days, and I suspect you had access to the very best.

'Come off it. That was too weird to be a memory.

'Most dreams are engendered by memory, except Inigo's of course. They have their roots in reality, in experience. What you see is the event as your real personality recognizes it. Dreams are very truthful things, Aaron, they're not something you can ignore, or take an aerosol to ward off. Unless you face that which you dream you will never truly be at peace with yourself.

'Do I cross your palm with silver now?

'Sarcasm is a very pitiful social defence mechanism, especially in these circumstances. Both of us know how disturbed you were.

You cannot shield yourself and your emotions from someone as experienced as myself. The gaiafield will show you for what you are.

Aaron made very sure the gaiamotes were completely closed up, allowing nothing to escape from inside his skull. 'Okay then, he grumbled. 'What was I dreaming? 'Something in your past.

'Hey wow. Surely I am in the presence of a truly galactic master of the art.

Unperturbed Corrie-Lyn took another drink of tea. 'More relevantly: a darkness from your past. In order to have survived erasure and to manifest so strongly, I would evaluate it as a crux in your psychological development. Those people were very frightened; terrified even. For so many to be running so fearfully the threat must have been lethal. That is rare in the Commonwealth today, even among the outermost External Worlds.

'So I was running an evacuation mission out of some disaster. Rare but not unfeasible. There's a lot goes on among the External Worlds that the more developed planets turn a blind eye to.

Corrie-Lyn gave him a sad smile. 'You were above them, Aaron. Remember? Not running with them. You were what they feared. You and what you represented. 'That's bullshit.

'Men. Women. Children. All fleeing you. All hysterical and horror-struck. What were you going to do to them, I wonder. We established back at the fane that you have no conscience.

'Very clever, he sneered. 'I pissed you off, and now you come gunning for a little psychological payback. Lady I have to tell you, it takes a great deal more than anything you've got to spook me out, and that's Ozzie's honest truth.

'I'm not trying to spook you anywhere, Aaron, she said with quiet earnest. 'That's not what Living Dream, the true Living Dream, is about. We exist to guide human life to its fulfilment. The promise of the Void is a huge part of that, yes; but it is not the only component to understanding what you are, your basic nature. I want to liberate the potential inside you. There is more than senseless violence lurking inside your mind, I can sense that. You can be so much more than what you are today, if you'd just let me help. We can explore your dreams together.

'Call me old fashioned, but my dreams are my own.

'The darkness you witnessed at the end interests me.

'That shadow? Despite himself, Aaron was curious she'd picked up on it.

'A winged shadow — which has a strong resonance for most humans no matter which cultural stream they come from. But it was more than a simple shadow. It held significant meaning to you. A representation of your subconscious, I think. After all, it didn't surprise you. If anything you felt almost comfortable with it.

'Whatever. We have more important things to concentrate on right now. Touchdown is in five and a half hours. Something in his mind was telling him to close this conversation down now. She was trying to distract him, to throw him off guard. He couldn't allow that, he had to remain completely focused on his mission to locate Inigo.

Corrie-Lyn raised an eyebrow. 'Are you seriously saying you're not interested? This is the real you we're talking about.

'I keep telling you, I'm happy with what I am. Now, you said Inigo came to Anagaska to visit his family.

She gave him a disheartened gaze. 'I said he visited his homeworld on occasion, when everything got too much for him. All I know was that he had family. Any further inference is all your own.

'His mother migrated inwards then downloaded into ANA. What about the aunt?

'I don't know.

'Did the aunt have children? Cousins he would have grown up with?

'I don't know.

'Was there a family estate? A refuge he felt secure in?

'I don't know.

He sat back, and just about resisted glaring at her. 'His official biography says he grew up in Kuhmo. Please tell me that isn't a lie?

'I'd assume it was correct. That is, I have no reason to doubt it. It's where Living Dream built his library.

'Central worship point for your living god, huh?

'I'm not surprised you don't want to know yourself. You're a real shit, you know that.

* * * * *

The good ship Artful Dodger slipped back into real space a thousand kilometres above Anagaska. Aaron told the smartcore to register with the local spacewatch network and request landing permission at Kuhum spaceport. The request was granted immediately, and the starship began its descent into the middle of the cloud-smeared eastern continent.

When it was first confirmed as H-congruous and assigned for settlement by CST back in 2375, Anagaska was an unremarkable world in what was then called phase three space, destined for a long slow development. Then the Starflyer plunged the Commonwealth into war against the Prime aliens and its future changed radically.

Hanko was one of the forty-seven planets wrecked during the Prime's last great assault against the Commonwealth, its sun pummelled by flare bombs and quantumbusters, saturating the defenceless planet's climate and biosphere with a torrent of lethal radiation for weeks on end. Its hundred and fifty million strong population was trapped under city force fields on a dying world whose very air was now deadly poison. Evacuation was the only possible option. And thanks to Nigel Sheldon and the CST company operating Hanko's wormhole link, its citizens were shunted across forty-two lightyears to Anagaska.

Unfortunately, Anagaska at the time was nothing more than wild forest, native prairie, and hostile jungle; with a grand total of five pre-settlement research stations housing a few hundred scientists. Nigel even had a solution to that. The interior of the wormhole transporting Hanko's population to their new home was given a different, very slow, temporal flow rate relative to the outside universe. With the War over, trillions of dollars were poured into creating an infrastructure on Anagaska and the other forty-six refuge worlds. It took over a century to complete the basic civic amenities and housing, producing cities and towns that were near-Stalinist in their layout and architecture. But when the wormhole from Hanko finally opened on Anagaska, everyone who came through was provided with a roof over their head and enough food to sustain them while they built up their new home's agriculture and industry.

It was perhaps inevitable that after such a trauma, the refuge worlds were slow to develop economically. Their major cities progressed sluggishly in an era when the rest of the Commonwealth was undergoing profound change. As to the outlying towns, they became near-stagnant backwaters. Nobody starved, nobody was particularly poor, but they lacked the dynamism that was sweeping the rest of humanity as biononics became available, ANA came online, and new political and cultural blocs were formed.

Kuhmo was such a town. Little had changed in the seven centuries between the day its new residents arrived, stumbling out of giant government transporters, and the time Inigo was born. When he was a child, the massive hexagonal arcology built to house his ancestors still dominated the centre of the civic zone, its uninhabited upper levels decaying alarmingly while its lower floors offered cheap accommodation to underprivileged families and third-rate businesses. In fact it was still there sixty years later when he left, a monstrous civic embarrassment to a town that didn't have the money to either refurbish or demolish it.

A hundred years later, the arcology's upper third had finally been dismantled with funds from Anagaska's federal government made available on public safety grounds. Then Living Dream made the town council a financial offer they couldn't really refuse. The arcology was finally razed, its denizens rehoused in plush new purpose-built suburbs. Where it had stood, a new building emerged, nothing like as big, but far more important. Living Dream was constructing what was to be Anagaska's primary fane, with a substantial library and free college attached. It attracted the devout from across the planet and a good many nearby star systems, many of them staying, changing the nature of Kuhmo for ever.

Aaron stood under the tall novik trees that dominated the fane's encircling park, and looked up at the tapering turrets with their bristling bracelets of stone sculptures, his nose wrinkling in dismay. 'The arcology couldn't have been worse than this, he declared. 'This is your leader's ultimate temple, his statement to his birthplace that he's moved onwards and upwards? Damn! He must have really hated his old town to do this to it. All this says to me is beware of Kuhmoians bearing gifts.

Corrie-Lyn sighed and shook her head. 'Ozzie, but you are such a philistine.

'Know what I like, though. And, lady, this ain't it. Even the old Big 15 worlds had better architecture than this.

'So what are you going to do, hit it with a disruptor pulse?

'Tempting, I have to admit. But no. We'll indulge in a little data mining first.

* * * * *

The Inigo museum, in reality a shrine, was every bit as bad as Aaron expected it to be. For a start they couldn't just wander round. They had to join the queue of devout outside the main entrance and were assigned a 'guide'. The tour was official and structured. Each item was accompanied by a full sense recording and corresponding emotional content radiating out into the gaiafield.

So he gritted his teeth and put on a passive smile as they were led round Inigo's childhood home, diligently uprooted from its original location two kilometres away and lovingly restored using era-authentic methods and materials. Each room contained a boring yet worshipful account of childhood days. There were solidos of his mother Sabine. Cute dramas of his grandparents whose house it was. A sad section devoted to his father Erik Horovi who left Sabine a few short months after the birth. Cue reconstruction of the local hospital maternity ward.

Aaron gave the solido of Erik a thoughtful stare, and sent his u-shadow into its public datastore to extract useful information. Erik had been eighteen years old when Inigo was born. When Aaron checked back, Sabine was a month short of her eighteenth birthday when she gave birth.

'Didn't they have a contraception program here in those days? he asked the guide abruptly.

Corrie-Lyn groaned and flushed a mild pink. The guide's pleasant smile flickered slightly, returning in a somewhat harder manifestation. 'Excuse me?

'Contraception? It's pretty standard for teenagers no matter what cultural stream you grow up in. He paused, reviewing the essentially non-existent information on Sabine's parents. 'Unless the family was old-style Catholics or initiated Taliban or Evangelical Orthodox. Were they?

'They were not, the guide said stiffly. 'Inigo was proud that he did not derive from any of Earth's appalling medieval religious sects. It means his goals remain untainted.

'I see. So his birth was planned, then?

'His birth was a blessing to humanity. He is the one chosen by the Waterwalker to show us what lies within the Void. Why do you ask? Are you some kind of Unisphere journalist?

'Certainly not. I'm a cultural anthropologist. Naturally I'm interested in procreation rituals.

The guide gave him a suspicious stare, but let it pass. Aaron's u-shadow had been ready to block any query the man shot into the local net. They'd managed to get through the museum's entrance without any alarm, which meant Living Dream hadn't yet issued a Commonwealth-wide alert. But they'd certainly respond swiftly enough to any identity file matching himself and Corrie-Lyn, no matter what planet it originated from. And the fact it came from Anagaska barely two days after the Riasi incident would reveal exactly what type of starship they were using. He couldn't allow that.

'Hardly a ritual, the guide sniffed.

'Anthropologists think everything we do is summed up in terms of rituals, Corrie-Lyn said smoothly. 'Now tell me, is this really Inigo's university dorm? She waved her hand eagerly at the drab holographic room in front of them. Various shabby and decayed pieces of furniture that resembled those shown in full 3Dcolour were on display in transparent stasis chambers.

'Yes, the guide said, returning to equilibrium. 'Yes it is. This is where he began his training as an astrophysicist; the first step on the path that took him to Centurion Station. As an environment, its significance cannot be overstated.

'Gosh, Corrie-Lyn cooed.

Aaron was impressed that she kept a straight face.

* * * * *

'What was that all about? Corrie-Lyn asked when they were in a taxi capsule and heading back for the spaceport hotel.

'You didn't think it was odd?

'So two horney teenagers decided to have a kid. It's not unheard of.

'Yes it is. They were both still at school. Then Erik vanishes a few months after the birth. Plus you tell me Inigo had an aunt, who has been very effectively written out of his family. And you claim Inigo is Higher, which must have happened either at birth or early in his life; that is, prior to his Centurion mission.

'What makes you say that?

'Because, as you said, he took extreme care to hide it from his followers; it's not logical to assume he'd acquire biononics after he began Living Dream.

'Granted, but where does all this theorizing get you?

'It tells me just what a load of bullshit his official past is, Aaron said, waving a hand back at the shrinking museum. 'That farce is a perfect way of covering up his true history, it provides a flawless alternative version with just enough true points touching verifiable reality as to go unquestioned. Unless of course you're like us and happen to know some awkward facts which don't fit. If he was born Higher, then one of his parents had to be Higher. Sabine almost certainly wasn't; and Erik conveniently walks out on his child a few months after the birth.

'It was too much for the boy, that's all. If Inigo's birth was an accident like you think, that's hardly surprising.

'No. That's not it. I don't think it was an accident. Quite the opposite. He told his u-shadow to review local events for the year prior to Inigo's birth, using non-Living Dream archives. They'd almost reached the hotel when the answer came back. 'Ah ha, this is it. He shared the file with her. 'Local news company archive. They were bought out by an Intersolar two hundred years ago and the town office downgraded to closure which is why the files were deep cached. The art block in Kuhmo's college burned down eight and a half months before Inigo was born.

'It says the block was the centre of a gang fight, Corrie-Lyn said as she speed-reviewed. 'A bunch of hothead kids duking out a turf war.

'Yeah right. Now launch a search for Kuhmo gang-culture. Specifically for incidents with weapons usage. Go ahead. I'll give you thousand to one odds there aren't any other files, not for fifty years either side of that date. Look at the history of this place before Inigo built his monstrosity. There was nothing here worth fighting over; not even for kids on the bottom of the pile. The council switched between three parties, and they were all virtually indistinguishable, their polices were certainly the same: low taxes, cut back on official wastage, attract business investment, and make sure the parks look pretty. Hell, they didn't even manage to get rid of the arcology by themselves. That thing stood there for nearly nine hundred years. Nine hundred, for Ozzie's sake! And they couldn't get their act together for all that time. Kuhmo is the ultimate middle-class dead-end, drifting along in the same rut for a thousand years. Bad boys don't want a part of that purgatory, it's like a suspension sentence but with sensory torture thrown in; they just want to leave.

'All right, all right, I submit. Inigo has a dodgy family history. What's your point?

'My theory is a radical infiltration; it's about the right time period. And that certainly won't be on any news file, deep cached or otherwise.

'So how do we find out what really happened? 'Only one way. We have to ask the Protectorate. Corrie-Lyn groaned in dismay, dropping her head into her hands.

* * * * *

The maintenance hangar was on the edge of Daroca's spaceport. One of twenty three identical black-sheen cubes in a row; the last row in a block of ten. There were eighteen blocks in total. It was a big spaceport, much larger than the Navy compound on the other side of the city. Daroca's residents were a heavily starfaring folk, and the Air project had added considerably to the numbers of spaceships in recent centuries. Without any connection to the Unisphere's guidance function a person could wander round the area all day and not be able to distinguish between any of the hangars. A subtle modification to the spaceport net management software provided a near identical disorientation function to any uninvited person who was using electronic navigation to find Troblum's hangar. While the other structures were always opening their doors to receive or disgorge starships, Troblum's was kept resolutely shut except for his very rare flights. When the doors did iris back, a security shield prevented any visual or electronic observation of the interior. Even the small workforce who loyally turned up day after day parked their capsules outside and used a little side door to enter. They then had to pass through another three shielded doors to enter the hangar's central section. Nearly two thirds of the big building was taken up by extremely sophisticated synthesis and fabrication machinery. All of the systems were custom-built; the current layout had taken Troblum over fifteen years to refine. That was why he needed other people to help him. Neumann cybernetics and biononic extrusion were magnificent systems for everyday life, but for anything beyond the ordinary you first had to design the machinery to build the machines which fabricated the device.

Troblum had no trouble producing the modified exotic matter theory behind an Anomine planet-shifting ftl engine, and even describing the basic generator technology he wanted. But turning those abstracts into physical reality was tough. For a start he needed information on novabomb technology, and even after nearly 1,200 years the Navy kept details of that horrendously powerful weapon classified. Which was where Emily Aim came in.

It was Marius who had put the two of them in touch. Emily used to work for the Navy weapons division on Augusta. After three hundred years she had simply grown bored.

'There's no point to it any more, she told Troblum at their first meeting. 'We haven't made any truly new weapons for centuries. All the lab does is refine the systems we have. Any remotely new concept we come up with is closed down almost immediately by the top brass.

'You mean ANA: Governance? he'd asked.

'Who knows where the orders originate from? All I know is that they come down from Admiral Kazimir's office and we jump fast and high every time. It's crazy. I don't know why we bother having a weapons research division. As far as I know the deterrence fleet hasn't changed ships or armaments for five hundred years.

The problem he'd outlined to her was interesting enough for her to postpone downloading into ANA. After Emily, others had slowly joined his motley team; Dan Massell whose expertise in functional molecular configuration was unrivalled, Ami Cowee to help with exotic matter formatting. Several technicians had come and gone over the years, contributing to the Neumann cybernetics array, then leaving as their appliance constructed its required successor. But those three had stuck with him since the early years. Their age and Higher-derived patience meant they were probably the only ones who could tolerate him for so long. That and their shared intrigue in the nature of the project.

When Troblum's ageing capsule landed on the pad outside the hangar he was puzzled to see just Emily's and Massell's capsules sitting on the concrete beside the glossy black wall. He'd been expecting Ami as well.

Then as soon as he was through the second little office he knew something was wrong. There was no quiet vibration of machinery. As soon as the shield over the third door cut off, his low level field could detect no electronic activity beyond. The hangar had been divided in half, with Mellanie's Redemption parked at one end, a dark bulky presence very much in the shade of the assembly section. Troblum stood under the prow of the ship, and looked round uncomprehendingly. The Neumann cybernetic modules in front of him were bigger than a house; joined into a lattice cube of what looked like translucent glass slabs the size of commercial capsules, each one glowing with its individual primary light. It was as if a rainbow had shattered only to be scooped up and shoved into a transparent box. At the centre, three metres above Troblum's head, was a scarlet and black cone, the ejector mechanism of the terminal extruder. It should have been wrapped in a fiercely complex web of quantum fields, intersecting feeder pressors, electron positioners, and molecular lock injectors. He couldn't detect a glimmer of power. If all had gone well over the last few days the planet-shift engine should have been two-thirds complete, assembled atom by atom in a stable matrix of superdense matter held together by its own integral coherent bonding field. By now the cylinder would be visible within the extruder, glimmering from realigned exotic radiation as if it contained its own galaxy.

Instead, Emily and Massell were sitting on a box-like atomic D-K phase junction casing at the base of the cybernetics, drinking tea. Both silent with mournful faces, they flashed him a guilty glance as he came in.

'What happened? he demanded.

'Some kind of instability, Emily said. 'I'm sorry, Troblum. The bonding field format wasn't right. Ami had to shut it down.

'And she didn't tell me!

'Couldn't face you, Massell said. 'She knew how disappointed you'd be. Said she didn't want to be responsible for breaking your heart.

'That's not— Arrrgh, he groaned. Biononics released a flood of neural inhibitors as they detected his thoughts growing more and more agitated. He shivered as if he'd been caught by a blast of arctic air. But his focus was perfectly clear. A list of social priorities flipped up into his exovision. 'Thank you for waiting to tell me in person, he said. 'I'll call Ami and tell her it wasn't her fault.

Emily and Massell exchanged a blank look. 'That's kind of you, she said.

'How big an instability?

Massell winced. 'Not good. We need to re-examine the whole effect, I think.

'Can we just strengthen it?

'I hope so, but even that will be a domino on the internal structure.

'Maybe not, Emily said with a weak confidence. 'We included some big operating margins. There's a lot of flexibility within the basic parameters.

Troblum fell silent with a dismay which even the inhibitors couldn't overcome. If Emily was wrong, if they needed a complete redesign, then the Neumann cybernetics would need to be rebuilt. It would take years. Again. And this drive generator had been his true hope, he'd genuinely thought he would have a functional device by the end of the week. It was the only way to get people to agree with his theory. Marius would see the Navy never backed a search, he was sure of that. This was all that was left to him, his remaining shred of proof.

'You can get the resource allocation, can't you? Massell said in an encouraging voice. 'I mean, you've managed to push your theory to this level. His gesture took in the silent hulk of Neumann cybernetics. 'You've got to have some powerful political allies on the committees. And this wasn't a setback as such; only one thing was out of alignment.

Troblum deliberately avoided looking in Emily's direction. Massell hadn't been one of Marius's candidates. 'Yes, I can probably get the EMA for a rebuild.

'Okay then! Do you want to get on it right away, or leave it a few days?

'Give it a few days, Troblum said, reading from his social priority list. 'We'll all need a while to recharge after this. I'll start going over the telemetry and give you a call when I think I know what the new bonding field format should be.

'Okay. Massell gave him an encouraging smile as he slid off the casing. 'There's a certain Air technician I've been promising a resort time-out with. I'll let her know I'm free. He gave Emily a blank gaze, then left.

'Will there be the resources to carry on? she asked.

'I don't know. Maybe not from our mutual friend. At the back of his mind was a nasty little thought that this had been the result which benefited Marius best. Just how far would the Accelerator Faction representative go to achieve that? 'But I'll carry it on one way or another. I still have some personal EMA left.

Her expression grew sceptical as she looked round the huge assemblage of ultra-sophisticated equipment. 'All right. If you need any help reviewing the data, let me know.

'Thanks, he said.

Troblum's office wasn't much. A corner in one of the annexe rooms big enough for a large wingback chair in the middle of a high-capacity solido projection array. He slumped down into the worn cushioning and stared through the narrow window into the hangar's assembly section. Now he was alone and the neural chemicals were wearing off, he didn't have the heart to begin a diagnostic review. The drive engine should have slid smoothly out of the extruder and into the modified forward cargo hold of Mellanie's Redemption. He would have been ready to show the Commonwealth he was right by the end of the week, to open up a whole new chapter in galactic history. Highers weren't supposed to become frustrated but right now he wanted to kick the shit out of the Neumann cybernetics.

Some time later that afternoon the hangar security net informed Troblum a capsule had landed on the pad outside. Frowning, he flipped the sensor image out of his peripheral vision, and watched as the capsule's door flowed open. Marius stepped out.

Troblum actually feared for his life. The warning at the restaurant had been awful enough. But Troblum had been so sure the design for the drive engine was valid he couldn't stop thinking that the whole manufacturing process had somehow been deliberately knocked out of kilter — sabotaged, in other words. There was only one person who could have that done. He gave the Mellanie's Redemption a calculating glance. Even with his Faction-supplied biononics, Marius wouldn't be able to shoot through the ship's force field.

It wasn't going to happen. Troblum didn't have anywhere to run to; he certainly didn't have a friend — not one, not anywhere. And if Marius was here to eliminate him, it was on orders from the Accelerators. Hiding inside the starship would only postpone the inevitable.

I must start thinking about this, about a way out.

Reluctantly, he ordered the hangar net to open the side door.

Marius came into the office, gliding along in his usual smooth imperturbable fashion. He glanced round, not bothering to hide his distaste. 'So this is where you spend your days.

'Something wrong with that?

'Not at all. Marius gave a thin smile. 'Everyone should have a hobby.

'Do you?

'None you'd appreciate.

'So what are you here for? I did as you asked, I haven't pressed the Navy.

'I know. And that hasn't gone un-noted. He studied the huge stack of Newman cybernetics through the office window. 'My commiserations. You put a lot of effort into today'

'How did you know…

The representative's eerie green eyes turned back to stare at Troblum. 'Don't be childish. Now, I'm here because you need more funds and we have another little project which might interest you.

'A project? Since he didn't seem in danger of immediate slaughter, Troblum couldn't help the tweak of interest.

'One you'll find difficult to refuse once you know the details. Its an ftl drive which we're putting into production. Who knows? Perhaps there will be some overspill into this which you can take advantage of.

Troblum really couldn't think what type of drive the ANA Faction might want, especially after the last ultra-classified project he'd worked on for Marius. 'And you'll help me acquire extra EMAs for a rebuild here?

'Budgets are tight in these uncertain times, but a swift and successful conclusion to our drive programme would probably result in some unused allocation we can divert your way. However, we also have something else you might be interested in, a bonus if you like.

'What's that?

'Bradley Johansson's genome.

'What? Impossible. There was nothing left of him.

'Not quite. He rejuvenated several times at a clinic on an Isolated world. We had an access opportunity several centuries ago.

'Are you serious?

Marius simply raised an eyebrow.

'That sounds good, Troblum said. 'Really good. I almost don't have to think about it.

'I need an answer now.

Once again Troblum was uncertain what would happen if he said no. He couldn't detect any active embedded weapons in the representative, but that didn't mean death wouldn't be sudden and irrevocable. Talk about carrot and stick. 'All right. But first I have to spend a couple of days analysing what happened here.

'We would like you to fly to our assembly station immediately.

'If I can't settle this problem to my own satisfaction I won't be any good to you. I think you know that.

Marius hardened his stare, his eyes darkening from emerald to near-black. 'Very well, you can have forty-eight hours. No more. I expect you to be on your way by then. He transferred a flightplan file over to Troblum's u-shadow.

'I will be. It took a lot of biononic intervention to prevent Troblum from shaking as the representative left the office. There wasn't anything he could do to stop the sweat staining his suit right along his spine. When the sensors showed him the representative's capsule lifting off the pad, he turned to gaze back into the assembly section. It was all far too neat. The problem on the verge of success. The generous offer to help pay for a solution, plus the unbelievable promise of being able to clone Bradley Johansson. Troblum let his biononic field sweep out to flow through the inert cybernetics. 'What did that bastard do? he murmured. Around him the solido projectors snapped on, filling the air with a multicoloured blizzard of fine equations, sparkling as they interacted. Somewhere there had to be a flaw in the blueprint that had taken him fifteen painstaking years to devise, a deliberate glitch. The only person who could put it there was Emily. He called up the sections she was directly involved with. There was an emotion tugging at him as he started to review the data. It took a while, but he eventually realized it was sadness.

* * * * *

From the office he was visiting in the hangar five down from Troblum's, the Delivery Man could just see Marius's capsule as it took to the air again. All he used was his eyes, there was no way the Accelerator representative could know he was under direct observation. 'He's gone, he reported. 'And that hangar has distorted the spaceport's basic guidance protocols — you can't get there unless you're invited. It's definitely a nest for some bad boy activity. Do you want me to infiltrate?

'No thank you, the Conservative Faction replied. 'We'll use passive observation for the moment.

'What about this Troblum character it's registered to?

'Records indicate he's some kind of Starflyer War enthusiast. His starship fiightplan logs are interesting, he visits some out of the way places.

'Do you think he's another representative?

'No. He's a physicist, with some high-level Navy contacts.

'He's involved with the Navy?


'In what regard?

'Left-over artefacts and actions from the Starflyer War. His interest verges on the fanatical.

'So why would Marius pay him a personal visit?

'Good question. We will research him further.

'I can go home now?


'Excellent. If he got to Arevalo's interstellar wormhole terminus in the next ten minutes, he could be back home in time for tea with the girls.


It was a glorious summer evening, the bright sun tinting to copper over the Eggshaper Guild compound while Edeard walked across the main nine-sided courtyard. He took a contented breath as he watched the team of five ge-chimps cleaning the last patch of kimoss off the kennel roof. Their strong little claw hands were tearing up long dusty strips of the thick purple vegetation, exposing the pale slate. The kennels were the last of the courtyard buildings to be spruced up. Roofs and gutterings all around the other sides were clean and repaired. There were no more leaks down on to the young genistars, no more drains overflowing every time it rained. The walls had also benefited from the new chimp team renovating the Guild compound. The mass of gurkvine had been pruned back to neat fluttering yellow rectangles between doors and windows, allowing the apprentice stonemasons to restore the mortar joins in the walls. An additional benefit of the long-neglected pruning was a bumper crop of fruit this year, with dangling clusters of succulent claret-coloured berries hanging almost to the ground.

Edeard stopped to allow Gonat and Evox herd the ge-horse foals into the stables for the night. 'All brushed down and ready? he asked the two young apprentices. He cast his farsight over the animals, checking their short, rough fur for smears of dirt.

'Of course they are, Evox exclaimed indignantly. 'I do know how to instruct a ge-monkey, Edeard.

Edeard grinned good-naturedly, struck by the way he now sounded like Akeem in the way he presided over the guild's three new apprentices. He could sense Sancia in a stall over in the default stables, sitting quietly in a chair as her third hand flowed around an egg, subtly sculpting the nature of the embryonic genistar. The youngsters were talented. Impatient, naturally, but eager to learn. Two of the new ge-horses had been sculpted by Evox, who was inordinately proud of the foals.

Taking on the apprentices had been a real turning point for Akeem and Edeard. Evox had joined them barely a week after the fateful Witham caravan last year. Sancia and Gonat had moved in to the apprentice dormitory before winter set in; and now two more farmers were already discussing sending children to the Guild, at least for the coming winter months. After a hectic six months of initiation and adjustment, things had settled down in the compound. Edeard even found he had some of that most luxurious commodity: spare time. And that was on top of having the compound's ge-chimp team to start the desperately needed renovation. With the apprentices honing their instructional skills, the chimps had performed some internal restoration, whitewashing walls, cleaning floors and even preserving food in jars and casks. This coming winter season wouldn't be anything like as bleak as those past.

'How are the cats? Gonat asked.

'Just going to inspect them, Edeard said. So successful had the ge-cats been at extracting water, that the council had commissioned a second well to be dug at the other end of the cliff face behind the village. As well as producing replacements for the existing well, Edeard now had to supervise a whole new nest. In truth they didn't last as long as he'd hoped, barely two years. And they were still inordinately difficult to sculpt. 'Don't forget we have a delivery from Doddit farm in the morning. Make sure there's enough room in the stores.

'Yes, Gonat and Evox groaned. They mentally pushed and goaded the frisky foals into their stable before Edeard could heap any more tasks on them. The whole courtyard resonated to the hoots, snarls, bleating, and barks of various genera. With the apprentices now capable of basic sculpting, the Guild had suddenly doubled hatching rates. There were a full twenty defaults in the stables; Akeem had consulted with Wedard on building more. The majority of the animals still went out to the farms, but most houses in the village had cleaned out their disused nests and asked for a ge-chimp or a monkey. The demand for ge-wolves since the Witham caravan had increased dramatically. It was all kind of what Edeard had wanted, but he was still disheartened by the way the older villagers refused to let him give them a simple refresher course in instruction, gruffly informing him they'd been ordering genistars round since before his parents were born. True enough; but if you'd been doing it wrong since then nothing was going to change, and they'd wind up with a lot of badly behaved genistars cavorting round Ashwell annoying everyone. So Edeard surreptitiously tried to make sure that the village children had a decent grounding in the ability. The Lady's Mother, Lorellan, helped in her own quiet way by allowing Edeard to sit in on her own instructions to the village youth. Nobody dared protest about that.

Edeard reached the main hall, and sped up the stairs, pleased to be away from the courtyard. One further side effect of their Guild's rising fortune and greater genistar numbers was the stronger smell seeping out from the stables. He'd moved out of the apprentice dormitory the week Evox arrived, taking over a journeyman's room. 'I can't confirm you as a Master yet, Akeem had said gravely, 'no matter what you did beyond these walls, or how proficient you are. Guild procedures must be followed. To be a Master you must have served at least five years as a journeyman.

'I understand, Edeard had replied, secretly laughing at the formality. Lady help us from the way old people try to keep the world in order…

'And I'll thank you to take the Guild a little more seriously, please, Akeem had snapped.

Edeard rapidly wound down his amusement. Akeem seemed able to sense any emotion, however well-hidden.

His new room actually had some furniture in it. A decent desk he'd commissioned himself from the Carpentry Guild; a cupboard and a chest of drawers — needed to store his growing new wardrobe. His cot had a soft mattress of goose down. After some gruesome disasters, he'd eventually got the finer points of laundry ritual over to his personal ge-monkey; so once a week he had fresh sheets, scented with lavender from the herb bed in the compound's small kitchen garden — also now properly maintained.

He washed quickly, using the big china jug of water. The Guild compound wasn't yet connected up to the village's rudimentary water pipe network, but Melzar had promised it would be done by the end of the month. Both he and the smithy were trying to design a domestic stove which would heat water for individual cottages, producing various ungainly contraptions with pipes coiled round them. So far the pipes had all burst or leaked, but they were making progress.

Edeard scraped Akeem's ancient spare razor over his straggly chin hairs, wincing at the little cuts the jagged blade made. A new razor was next on his list of commissions — and a decent mirror. The ge-chimps had left a pile of newly washed clothes from which he chose a loose white cotton shirt, wearing it with his smart drosilk trousers. He'd found several weaver women in the village who would willingly make clothes for him in return for ge-spiders. Akeem called the unregistered trade enterprising, cautioning that it must not interfere with their official commissions. He still had the boots he'd bought in Witham. A little worn now after a year, but they remained comfortable and intact; the only problem was how tight they were becoming. He'd put on nearly two inches of height in the last year, not that he'd bulked out at all. His horror was that he'd wind up looking like Fahin as he put on more height without the corresponding girth.

He opened the top of the small stone barrel in the corner opposite the fire and removed the leather shoulder bag. It was one place relatively immune from casual farsight. He checked the bag's contents hadn't been discovered by the other apprentices, and slung its strap over his arm.

'Very dapper, Akeem observed.

Edeard jumped, clutching the bag in an obviously guilty fashion. He hadn't noticed the old Master sitting in the main hall. Everyone had been trying to duplicate the way the bandits had shielded themselves, with varying degrees of success. Edeard wasn't sure how much mental effort Akeem put into the effect. He'd always had the ability to just sit quietly and blend naturally into the background.

'Thank you, Edeard replied. He self-consciously tugged at the bottom of his shirt.

'Off out, are you? Akeem asked with sly amusement, he gestured at the long table set for five. He'd made nothing of the bag.

'Er, yes. My tasks are complete. I'll start sculpting the new horses and dogs for Jibit's farm tomorrow. Three of the defaults are ovulating; the males are in their pens.

'Some things are definitely easier for other species, Akeem observed, and gave Edeard's clothes another meaningful look. 'So which of our town's fine establishments are you gracing tonight?

'Um, I can't afford the tavern. It's just me and some of the other apprentices getting together, that's all.

'How lovely. Are any of your fellow apprentices female by any chance?

Edeard clamped down hard on his thoughts, but there was nothing he could do about his burning cheeks. 'I guess Zehar will be there. Possibly Calindy. He shrugged his innocence in such matters.

For once Akeem appeared awkward, though he'd put a strong shield around his own thoughts. 'Lad… perhaps some time we should talk about such things.

'Things? Edeard muttered in alarm.

'Girls, Edeard. After all, you are sixteen now. I'm sure you notice them these days. You do know what to ask Doc Seneo for if uh… circumstances become favourable.

Edeard's expression was frozen into place as he prayed to the Lady for this horror to end. 'I… er, yes. Yes I do. Thank you. Go to Doc Seneo and ask for a phial of vinak juice? Oh dear Lady, I'd rather chop it off altogether.

Akeem sat back in his chair and let his gaze rise to the ceiling. 'Ah, I remember my own youthful amorous adventures back in Makkathran. Oh those city girls in all their finery; the ones of good family would do nothing else all day long but pamper and groom themselves for the parties and balls that were thrown at night. Edeard I so wish you could see them. There isn't one you wouldn't fall in love with at first sight. Of course, they all had the devil in them when you got their bodice off, but what a vision they were.

'I have to go or I'll be late, Edeard blurted. Someone of Akeem's age shouldn't be allowed to use words like amorous and bodice.

'Of course, the old Master seemed amused by something. 'I have been selfish keeping you here.

'I'm not that late.

'And I don't mean tonight.


'I'm not up to instructing you any more, Edeard. You have almost outgrown your Master. I think you should go to Makkathran to study at the Guild in their Blue Tower. My name may still be remembered. At the very least my title demands some prerogatives; I can write you a letter of sponsorship.

'I… No. No, I can't possibly go.

'Why not? Akeem asked mildly.

'To Makkathran? Me? It's, no. Anyway, it's… it's so far away I don't even know how far. How would I get there?

'Same way everyone does, my boy, you travel in one of the caravans. This is not impossible or remote, Edeard. You must learn to lift your eyes above the horizon, especially in this province. I would not see you stifled by Ashwell. For that is what surely will happen if you remain. I do not want your talent wasted. There is more to this world, this life, than a single village alone on the edge of the wilderness. Why, just travelling to Makkathran will show you that.

'I will hardly waste my talent by staying here. The village needs me. Look what has happened already with more genistars.

'Ah really? This village is already nervous about you, Edeard. You are strong, you are smart. They are neither. Oh don't get me wrong, this is a pleasant place for someone like me to live out my remaining days. But it is not for you. Ashwell has endured for centuries before you; it will endure for centuries yet. Trust me. A place and people this stubborn and rooted in what they are will not vanish into the black heart of Honious without you. I will write your letter this week. The Barkus caravan is due before the end of the month. 1 know Barkus of old, he owes me some favours. You can leave with them.

'This month? he whispered in astonishment. 'So soon?

'Yes. There is no benefit in delay. My mind is clear on this matter.

'The new ge-cats…

'I can manage, Edeard. Please, don't make this any more difficult for me.

Edeard walked over to the old Master. 'Thank you, sir. This is— He grinned. 'Beyond imagination.

'Ha. We'll see how much you thank me in a year's time. The Masters of the Blue Tower are not nearly as lax as I have grown. They will have a fine time beating obedience into you. Your bones will be black and blue before the first day is half-gone.

'I will endure, Edeard said. He laid a hand on the man's shoulder, for once allowing the love he felt to shine in his mind. 'I will prove you right to them. Whatever happens I will endure, for you. I will never give them cause to doubt your pupil. And I will make you proud.

Akeem gripped the hand, squeezing strongly. 'I am already proud. Now come. You are dallying while your friends carouse. Leave now, and I will have yet another fine meal with our three juvenile dunderwits, listening to their profound talk and answering their challenging questions.

Edeard laughed. 'I am a bad apprentice deserting my Master thus.

'Indeed you are. Now go, for the Lady's sake. Let me summon up what is left of my courage else I shall flee to the tavern.

Edeard turned and walked out of the hall. He almost stopped, wanting to ask what Akeem had meant by they are already nervous about you. He would enquire tomorrow.

'Edeard, Akeem called.

'Yes, Master?

'A word of caution. Stay silent that you are leaving, even to your friends. Envy is not a pretty blossom, and it has a custom of breeding resentment.

'Yes, Master.

* * * * *

The sun had dropped to the top of the rampart wall by the time Edeard hurried up a lane off the main street, heading for the granite cliff at the back of the village. Already the glowing colours of the night sky were emerging through the day's blue like trees out of morning mist. Old Buluku was directly overhead. The vulpine serpent manifesting as a violet stream that slithered through the heavens in a fashion which none of Querencia's few astronomers could ever fathom. It certainly didn't shift with the seasons, nor even orbit round the sun. As Edeard watched, a sliver of electric-blue light rippled lazily along its length, a journey which would take several minutes, too weak to cast a shadow across the dry mud of the lane. Odin's Sea was already drifting towards the northern horizon. A roughly oval patch of glowing blue and green mist that visited the summer nights. The Lady's teachings were that it formed the heart of the Void, where the souls of men and women were carried by the Skylords so they could dream away the rest of existence in quiet bliss. It was only the good and the worthy who were blessed with such a voyage, and the Skylords hadn't been seen in Querencia's skies for so long they were nothing but legend and a faith kept by the Lady's followers. Protruding from the ragged edges of Odin's Sea were the reefs, scarlet promontories upon which Skylords carrying the souls of those less worthy were wrecked and began their long fall into Honious and oblivion.

Edeard often wondered if so many unworthy humans had been carried aloft by the Skylords that there were simply no more of the great creatures left. It would be so typical that humans should bring such casual destruction to this universe. Thankfully, the Lady's teachings said that it was humans who had declined in spirit; that was why the Empyrean Lady had been anointed by the Firstlifes to guide humans back to the path which would once again lead them to the Heart of the Void. It was a sad fact that not many people listened to the Lady's kind words these days.

'Calling to the Skylords? a voice asked.

Edeard smiled and turned. His farsight had kept watch on her since she stepped out of the church ten minutes ago. One of the reasons he'd chosen this particular route. Salrana emerged from the shadows of the market place. Behind the deserted stalls, the church curved up above the rest of the village buildings with quiet purpose. Its crystal roof glimmered in refraction from the altar lanterns.

'They didn't answer, he said. 'They never do.

'One day they will. Besides you're not quite ready to sail into the Heart yet.

'No. I'm not. Edeard couldn't quite match her humour. He might as well have been travelling into the Heart given the distance to Makkathran. How will she cope with me leaving?

He wasn't the only one growing up this summer. Salrana had also put on several inches over the last couple of years; her shoulders were broad as if she was growing into a typical sturdy farmer's girl, but whereas her contemporaries were thickening out ready for their century of toil on the land she remained slim and agile. Her plain blue and white novice robe had grown quite tight, which always made Edeard glance at her in a wholly inappropriate fashion. Not that there was any helping it, she was losing her puppy fat to reveal the sharpest cheekbones he'd ever seen. Everyone could see how beautiful she was going to be. Thankfully, she still suffered from spots and her auburn hair remained wild and girlish, otherwise being in her presence would be intolerable. As it was, he viewed her friendship with delight and dismay in equal measure. She was far too young to be wanting to bed, though he couldn't help wondering how long it would be before she was old enough. Such thoughts made him fearful that the Lady would strike him down with some giant lightning bolt roaring out from Honious itself. Though of course Her priestesses did marry.

Irrelevant now. Even if I do come back, it won't be for years. She'll be with some village oaf and have three children.

'You're in a funny mood, Salrana said, all innocent and curious. 'Is everything all right?

'Yeah. Actually it is. I've had some good news. Great news. He held up a hand. 'And I will tell you later, I promise.

'Gosh, a secret and in Ashwell. Bet I find out by noon tomorrow.

'Bet you don't.

'Bet me what?

'No. I'm being unfair. It's a private thing.

'Now you're just being cruel. I'll pray to the Lady for your redemption.

'That's very kind.

She stood right up close to him, still smiling sweetly. 'So are you off up to the caves?

'Er, yeah, one or two of the others said they might go in. I thought I'd see.

'So when do I get asked?

'I don't think Mother Lorellan would want you in the caves at night.

'Pha. There's a lot of things the good Mother doesn't know I do. She shook her hair defiantly, squaring her shoulders. The aggressive pose lasted a couple of seconds before she started giggling.

'Well I'll pray she doesn't find out, he told her.

'Thank you, Edeard. Her hand rubbed playfully along his arm. 'Who'd have thought it just a few years ago. Both of us happy. And you: one of the lads now.

'I was in a fight before they accepted me. 7 killed people. Even now he could still see the face of the bandit before the man smashed into the tree, the astonishment and fear.

'Of course you were, that's a typical boy thing. That's why you're going into the caves again tonight. We all have to find a way to live here, Edeard. We're going to be in Ashwell for a long long time.

He couldn't answer, just gave her a fixed smile.

'And watch out for that Zehar. She's already bragging how she intends to have you. She was very descriptive. For a baker's apprentice.

'She. Is? She wants…?

Salrana's face was devilsome. 'Oh yes. She blew him a kiss, giggling. 'Let me know the details. I'm dying to know if you can really do such wicked things. Then her back was to him, her skirt held high by both hands, and she went racing off down the slope, giggling all the way.

Edeard let out a long breath. His emotions were as unsteady as his legs. If there was ever a reason to stay in Ashwell, he was looking at it. His farsight followed her long after she'd turned a corner on to main street, making sure she was safe as she ran along on her errand.

* * * * *

There were a number of caves burrowing into the cliffs behind Ashwell. A lot of them had been expanded over the decades, modified into storerooms for the long winter months, where the temperature and moisture hardly varied at all. Several of the larger were used as barns. Edeard wasn't interested in those. Instead, he headed for a small oddly angled fissure in the rock on the western end of the cliff, only thirty yards from where the encircling wall began. He had to scramble up a pile of smoothed boulders to reach it, then grip the upper lip and swing himself into the darkness. Anyone larger than him would have real trouble passing through the gap; he'd only be able to use it for another year or so himself. Once inside, the passage opened up, and the soft background babble of the village's longtalk cut off abruptly. His immediate world contracted to a dank gloomy blackness; even his farsight ability couldn't perceive through such a depth of rock. All he could sense was the open cavity around him. Only after he'd gone round a curve did he see a glint of yellow light ahead.

Seven apprentices were gathered in the narrow cave with its high crevice apex, sitting round a couple of battered old lamps whose wicks were chuffing out a lot of smoke. Their talk stopped as he entered, then their smiles bloomed in welcome. It was a gratifying sensation of belonging. Even Obron raised a cheery hand. Fahin beckoned him over. Edeard was very conscious of Zehar watching him with a near-feline intent, and gave her a nervous grin. Her answering smile was carnivorous.

'Didn't think you were coming, Fahin said.

'I got delayed slightly, Edeard explained. He opened his bag and pulled out the large wine bottle, which earned him some appreciative whistles as he held it up.

Fahin leaned in closer. 'Thought you were running scared of Zehar, he murmured in a knowing whisper.

'Sweet Lady, has she told everyone but me?

'I overheard it from Marilee. She was trying to get Kelina to take some vinak juice from Seneo's pharmacology store. I assumed you were party to it.

'No, Edeard growled.

'Okay. Well should the need arise, and I do mean rise, just ask me. I can get you a phial without anyone being any the wiser, especially Seneo.

'I shall remember it well, thank you.

Fahin nodded, as if unconcerned. An attitude confirmed by his passive surface thoughts. He unbuckled his ancient physick satchel and took out some dried kestric leaves. The pair of them became the centre of some not very subtle attention from the other apprentices in the cave.

Edeard shifted position and opened the wine. It was dark red, which Akeem always claimed was a sign of quality. Edeard was never certain. All the wine available in Ashwell had a strong taste which lingered well into the next day. He supposed he'd get used to it eventually, but as for actually liking it… 'Fahin, where do you see yourself in fifty years?

The doctor's tall apprentice glanced up from the little slate pestle he was preparing. 'You're very serious tonight, my friend. Mind you, she does have that affect on people.

For an instant Edeard thought he was talking about Salrana, then Fahin's eyes glanced over at Zehar, a movement amplified by his over-size lenses.

'No, Edeard said irritably. 'Seriously, come on: fifty years' time. What are you working towards?

'Why I'll be doctor, of course. Seneo is actually a lot older than most people realize. And she says I am her most promising apprentice in decades. He began grinding the kestric leaves with smooth easy motions of the mortar.

'That's it? Village doctor?

'Yes. Fahin wasn't looking at Edeard any more, his thoughts took on an edge. 'I'm not like you, Edeard; Honious take me, I'm not even like Obron. I'm sure you're going to build our Eggshaper Guild to greatness over the next century. You'll probably be Mayor inside thirty years. Ashwell's name will spread, people will come, and this land will flourish once again. We all hope that from you. So, given the circumstances, village doctor and your friend in such times is no small goal after all'

'You truly think I will do that?

'You can do it. Fahin mashed up the last flakes of leaf into a thin powder. 'Either that or you'll lead a barbarian army to sack Makkathran and overthrow the old order. You have the strength to do either. I saw it. We all did. That sort of strength attracts people.

'Don't say that, Edeard said. 'Not even in jest.

'Who's jesting? Fahin poured the kestric powder into a small white clay pipe, adding some tobacco.

Edeard stared at his friend in some alarm. 7s this what people think? Is this why I make them nervous?

'You know the gate guards say they still farsight your fastfoxes at night sometimes, Fahin said. 'Do you keep them out there?

'What? No! I sent it away when we got back; you were with me, you saw me do it. And how would the guards know that, the old fools. They're asleep most of the night anyway, and they can't tell one animal from another at any distance.

'These fastfoxes have collars.

'They're not mine! he insisted. 'Wait, there's more than one? You know I only mastered one. When did they see them? he asked in curiosity.

Fahin struck a match and sucked hard on his pipe stem, pulling the flame down into the bowl. 'I'm not sure, he puffed out some smoke. 'A couple of months now.

'Why did nobody tell me? I could find out if they are real.

'Why indeed? The match went out, and Fahin took a deep drag. Almost immediately, his eyes lost focus.

Edeard stared at his friend with growing dismay. They all gathered up here for a drink and a smoke and talk, just as apprentices had done since Ashwell was founded. But lately Fahin was smoking on a near-nightly basis. It was a habit which had grown steadily ever since they got back from the Witham caravan.

'Sweet Lady, Edeard muttered as the other apprentices came over. Maybe leaving this place is the right thing to do. Fahin passed the pipe up to Genril. A smiling Zehar held out a hand for Edeard's wine. He deliberately took a huge swig before handing it over.

* * * * *

The first thing Edeard did when he woke up was retch horribly. When he tried to turn over he banged his temple hard on cold floorboards. It took a moment to realize, but he wasn't lying on his nice soft mattress. For some reason he was sprawled on the floor beside the cot, still fully dressed apart from one boot. And he stank!

He groaned again and felt the acid rising in his throat. Gave up all attempts at control and threw up spectacularly. As he did so the fear hit, squeezing cold sweat from every pore. He was shaking as he wiped pitifully at the fluid dribbling from his lips, nearly weeping with the misery. Hangovers he could take, even those from red wine, but this was more than just the payback for overindulgence. He'd felt like this before. The forest. The bandit ambush.

His body was reacting to the alcohol and a couple of puffs on the pipe. While his mind was yelling at some deep instinctive level of the mortal danger closing in out of the surrounding darkness. He forced himself to sit up. A thin pastel light from the night sky washed round the shutters revealing his small room. Nothing was amiss, apart from himself. He whimpered from the sheer intensity of fright pouring through him, expecting something terrible to envelop him at any second. The hangover made his head throb painfully. It was hard to concentrate, but he slowly managed to summon up some farsight and scan round.

The three apprentices were asleep in their dormitory. He forced the ability further, almost crying out from the pain sparking behind his eyes. Akeem, too, was asleep on his bed. Out in the courtyard, the young genistars dozed the night away, shuffling and shaking as was their style. A couple of cats trod delicately along the roofs as they tracked small rodents. By the gate, the ge-wolf in its traditional stone guardkennal lay curled up on its legs, big head swaying slowly as it obediently kept watch on the road outside.

Edeard groaned with the effort of searching so far, and let his farsight wither to nothing. He was still shaking and cold. The front of his shirt was disgustingly sticky, and the smell was getting worse. Nausea threatened to return. He struggled out of the shirt and lurched over to the nightstand where there was a glass of water and took several large gulps. In the drawer at the bottom of the little stand was a pouch of dried jewn petals soaked in an oil which Fahin had prepared. He opened it, closed his eyes and shoved one of the petals into his mouth. It tasted foul, but he took one final gulp from the glass, forcing it down.

In all his sixteen years he had never felt so wretched. And still the fear wouldn't abate. Tears threatened to clog his eyes as he shivered again, hugging his chest.

What is wrong with me?

He wobbled over to the window and pushed the shutters open. Cool night air flowed in. Odin's Sea had nearly fallen below the horizon, which meant it was no more than a couple of hours past midnight. The low thatched roofs of the village were spread out around him, pale in the wan flickering light of the nebulas. Nothing moved. But for whatever reason the sight of such serenity simply made the fear even worse. For an instant he heard screams, saw flames. His stomach churned and he bent over the window sill.

Lady, why do yon do this to me?

When he straightened up he instinctively looked at the village gate with its twin watchtowers. There was no sign of the guards. But then they were nearly half a mile away and it was night. Edeard gathered his breath and gripped the side of the windows in grim determination. His farsight surged out. If they're all right I'm going straight back to bed.

The towers were built from smooth-faced stone; recent decades had seen them strengthened inside with thick timber bracing. Even so, there were no holes in the walls, just some alarmingly long cracks zigzagging up and down. Their parapets were large enough to hold ten guards who could fire a number of heavy weapons down on anyone foolish enough to storm the gate. Tonight the eastern tower was empty. A solitary man stood on the western parapet underneath the alarm bell. He was facing inwards, looking across the village. Three bodies lay on the flagstones at his feet.

Edeard lurched in shock, and tried to refocus his farsight. It swept in and out before centring back on the parapet. The lone man's thoughts shone with a hue of satisfaction; Edeard felt a filthy mental smile. 'Greetings, the man longtalked.

Edeard's throat contracted, snagging his breath. 'Who are you?

Mental laughter mocked him. 'We know who you are. We know all about you, tough boy. We know what you did to our friends. Because of that you're mine tonight. And I promise you won't die quickly.

Edeard yelped in horror and dived away from the window. Even so he could still feel the tenuous touch of the other's farsight upon him. He put as much strength as he had behind his longtalk, and cried: 'Akeem! Akeem, wake up. The bandits are here. They're in the village.

His mental shout was like some kind of signal. The soft glow of minds materialized in the alleyways and lanes that wound through the cottages and Guild compounds. Edeard screamed. They were everywhere!

So many! Every bandit in the wilderness must be here tonight.

'What in the Lady's name, Akeem's fuzzy thoughts came questioning.

'Bandits, Edeard called again, with voice and mind. 'Hundreds of them. They're already here. He jabbed every ge-wolf in the compound with a mental goad, triggering their attack state. Loud, dangerous snarling rose from the courtyard.

Five bandits appeared in the street outside the Guild, strong and confident, making no further attempt at cover. They didn't have the muddy skin and wild hair of the ones in the forest; these wore simple dark tunics and sturdy boots. There were no bows and arrows, either. Strangely they wore two belts apiece, looped round their shoulders so they crossed over their chest. Little metal boxes were clipped on to the leather, along with a variety of knives. Whispers spilled out of the aether as they longtalked.

Then Edeard sensed the fastfoxes walking beside them; each had two of the tamed and trained beasts.

'Oh sweet Lady, no, he gasped. His mind registered Akeem longtalking the other elders, fast and precise thoughts raising the alarm.

It was too late. Flames appeared among Ashwell's rooftops. Torches thick with oil-fire spun through the air, guided by telekinesis to land full square on thatch roofs. The fire spread quickly, encouraged by the dry months of a good summer. A dreadful orange glow began to cover the village.

The ge-wolves were racing across the Guild courtyard. Edeard extended his third hand with furious intent and slammed the gates open for them. That was when he heard the noise for the first time. An awful thunderous roar as if a hundred pistols were all firing at once. White light flashed across his open window, and his mind felt the dirty glee of the bandits' thoughts coming from the street below. Ge-wolves fell in torment, their minds radiating terrible flares of pain as their flesh was shredded. Some of them managed to survive the strange weapons to collide with fastfoxes. The metallic roaring abated as the animals fought, tearing at each other as they writhed and spun and jumped.

That was when Edeard heard a woman scream. There was too much turmoil, too much anguish storming across Ashwell, for his farsight to track her down, but he knew what the sound meant. What it would mean for every woman in the village caught alive. And girl.

He sent a single piercing thought at the church. 'Salrana!

'Edeard, her panicked longtalk barked back. 'They're here, they're in the church.

His mind found her instantly, farsight zooming in as if he was illuminating her with a powerful beam of light. She was cowering in her room in the Mother's house which formed the back of the church. Inside the dome itself, three bandits were advancing along the empty aisles, radiating triumph and contempt as their fastfoxes stalked along beside them. Mother Lorellan was already out of bed and heading for the church to deal with the desecrators. For a devout woman her mind shone with inordinately strong aggression.

The bandits and their fastfoxes would cut her to ribbons, Edeard knew. 'Get out, he told Salrana. 'Move now. Out of the window and into the garden. Stay ahead of them, keep moving. Head for the market, it's cobbled, there's no fire there. I'll meet you at the corn measure station.

'Oh Edeard!

'Do it. Do it now.

He raced over to the window. It wasn't such a big jump to the street, and the carnage the fastfoxes were wreaking on the surviving ge-wolves was almost over. Whatever victors were left he could take care of them. Flames were racing across the thatch of the terraced cottages opposite. Doors were flung open, and men charged out, shields firm round their bodies, knives held high. The bandits raised their weapons, and the noise began again. Edeard watched numbly as the squat guns spat a blue-purple flame. Somehow they were firing dozens of bullets, reloading themselves impossibly fast. The villagers shook and flailed in agony as the bullets overwhelmed their shields.

'Bastards, Edeard yelled, and jumped.

'No! Don't. Akeem's longtalk was strong enough to make half the village pause. Even the guns were temporarily stilled.

Edeard landed, his bare heel shooting pain up his leg. He turned towards the nearest bandit, crouching as if he was about to go for a wrestling hold. Somehow he sensed both Akeem and the bandit in the guardtower both holding their breath. The bandit in front of him lifted the dark gun, snarling with delight. Edeard reached out with his third hand, closing it round the gun. He wasn't sure if even his shield could withstand quite so many bullets striking at him, but like every gun, you first had to pull the trigger. The bandit's eyes widened in surprise as his own shielding was unable to ward off Edeard's power. Then the street was subject to an unnerved screech as the bandit's fingers were snapped in quick succession. Edeard rotated the gun in front of the bandit's numb gaze until the man was staring right into the muzzle, then pulled back hard on the trigger. The discharge was awesome, even though it lasted barely a second before something snarled inside the gun's mechanism. It blew the bandit's head apart. Tatters of gore lashed down on the muddy street.

Three other bandits raised their guns. Edeard exerted himself, gripping their flesh tight with his third hand, preventing the slightest movement. 'Get them, he told the surviving villagers stumbling out of the blazing cottages.

'Oh, your death will be exquisite, the bandit in the watch-tower sent.

A gun roared behind Edeard. He turned, flinching, to see the fifth bandit falling on his own weapon, borne down by a swarm of ge-chimps which Akeem had instructed.

'I did say "don't", Akeem's longtalk chided.

'Thank you, Edeard replied. The villagers were dispatching the bandits with a ferocity that he found disturbing. Edeard let go of the bloody corpses. Then everyone was turning to him, awaiting guidance.

'Get into the Guild compound, he told them, aware of how it became an eerie echo of Melzar's instructions back in the forest. 'Group together. That will give your shields real strength.

'You, too, lad, Akeem said as Edeard picked up one of the bandit's guns. It was a lot heavier than he was expecting. A sweep with his farsight revealed an internal mechanism that was inordinately complicated. He didn't understand anything about it other than the trigger. There didn't seem to be many bullets left in the metal box in front of the stock. 'I have to help Salrana.

'No. All's lost here. Get out. Live Edeard, please. Just survive tonight. Don't let them win.

Edeard started running up the street, wincing every time his boot-less foot touched the ground. 'They won't destroy this village.

'They already have, lad. Take cover. Get out.

He sent his farsight flowing out ahead, alert for any bandits. Saw a fastfox loping along an alley. When it emerged Edeard was almost level with it; he pushed his third hand into the creature's skull and ripped its brain apart. It fell in the evil wavering light of burning thatch. The street was a gulley of leaping flame, as bright as any dawn. Screams shouts and gunfire split the harsh, constant flame-growl.

'You are good, aren't you? the watchtower bandit taunted.

Edeard pushed his farsight into the tower, but the man was no longer there. A quick scan of the surrounding area revealed nothing except the broken main gates and dead village guards. 'Where did he go? Edeard asked fretfully. 'Akeem, help, I can't sense half of them. He actually heard a gun mechanism snik smoothly, and hardened his shield. The blast of bullets came from a cottage he'd just passed. He got lucky, he decided afterwards, not all of the bullets hit him, the bandit's aim was off. That and his mind picked up a quiet longtalked, 'No, not him. Even so, the force of the shots which did hit was enough to send him sprawling backwards, half dazed. He instinctively lashed out with his third hand to the source of the shots. A bandit went staggering across the road, shaking his head. Edeard reached up to the furnace of thatch above, and tugged hard. Dense waves of flame peeled off the disintegrating roof and splashed down over the bandit, driving him to his knees. His screams were thankfully muffled.

'Are you all right? Akeem asked.

Edeard groaned as he rolled back to his feet, There were flames everywhere, their ferocity sending huge sparking balls of thatch high into the sky. Windows and doors were belching out twisting orange streamers. The heat was intense on his bare torso, he was sure he could feel his skin starting to crack and blister. 'I'm here, he replied. 'But I can't sense them, I don't know where they are. And he knew the watchtower bandit was coming, slipping stealthily through the swirling flames and sagging walls.

'Try this, Akeem said. His longtalk voice became stretched as if rising to birdsong. It seemed to fill Edeard's skull. A knowledge gift, thoughts and sometimes memories that explained how to perform a specific mental task. Edeard had absorbed hundreds of basic explanations on the art of sculpting but this was far more complex. As the song ended he began to shape his farsight and third hand together into a symbiotic force that wove a darkness through the air around him. It was like standing in the middle of a thick patch of fog.

'Now please, Akeem pleaded. 'Get out. Do not waste your life, Edeard, don't make some futile gesture. Please. Remember: the Blue Tower in Makkathran. Go there. Be someone.

'I can't leave you! he cried into the terrible night.

'The village is already lost. Now go. Go, Edeard. Don't let everything be wasted.

Edeard wanted to shout out that his Master was wrong, that his valiant apprentice friends and strong Masters like Melzar and Wedard were leading the fight back. But looking at the fiery devastation around him he knew it wasn't true. The screams were still filling the air, along with the snarl of fastfoxes and the deadly clamour of guns. Resistance was contracting to a few Guild compounds and halls. The rest of the village was burning to ruin. There was nothing to be saved. Except Salrana.

Edeard forced himself to his feet and started running towards the market again. Once, a bandit hurried past him along the street, not five yards away. The man never knew how close they were. Edeard could so easily have killed him, extracted some vengeance. But that would have shown the watchtower bandit where he was, and even through his anger and desperation Edeard knew he had neither the skill nor strength to win that confrontation.

He sped past three more bandits before charging into the marketplace. The square was surrounded by a wall of flame, but it was cooler amid the stalls. Two bandits were holding down a woman, laughing while the third of their band raped her. Their fastfoxes prowled round the little group, keeping guard.

Edeard just couldn't ignore it. He even recognized the woman though he didn't know her name; she worked at the tannery, helping prepare the hides.

The first the bandits knew of anything amiss was when their fastfoxes suddenly stopped circling. All six beasts swung their heads round, huge jaws opening to ready fangs the size of human fingers.

'What— one of the bandits managed to say. He brought his gun up, but it was too late. The fastfoxes leapt. More screams echoed out around the stalls.

'Ah, there you are, a longtalk voice gloated. 'I was worried you'd run away from me.

Edeard snarled into the smoke-wreathed sky. Try as he might, he couldn't track where the longtalk was originating.

'Now what are you doing there, apart from slaughtering my comrades? Oh yes, I see.

Edeard was aware of Salrana hunched up behind the counter in the corn measure stall, glancing upwards with a puzzled expression. He started to sprint towards her.

'He's in the marketplace, the bandit announced across the whole village. 'Close in.

Edeard sensed bandits turning to head towards him.

'Oh she is lovely. The very young one from the church, isn't it? Yes, I recognize her. Well congratulations, my tough little friend. Good choice. She's certainly worth risking everything for.

Edeard reached the corn measure stall, and dropped his concealment. Salrana gasped in astonishment as he appeared in front of her.

'Got you.

Edeard was only too well aware of the urgent satisfaction in the bandit's longtalk. There was the tiniest flashover of pounding feet, leg muscles straining with effort to get there, to capture the feared hoy.

'Right at the end I'm going to cut your eyelids off so you have no choice but to watch while I fuck her, the bandit said, twining his longtalk with a burst of dark pleasure. 'It'll be the last thing you see before you die. But you'll go straight to Honious knowing this; I'll keep her for my own. She's coming with me, tough boy. And I'll put her to work every single night. Your girl is going to spend the next decade bearing my children.

'Get up, Edeard yelled, and tugged at Salrana's arm. She was crying, her limbs limp and unresponsive. 'Don't let him get me, she wept. 'Please, Edeard. Kill me. I couldn't stand that. I couldn't, I'd rather spend eternity in Honious.

'Never, he said; his arms went round her and he enfolded her within his concealment.

'Get the fastfoxes in the market, the bandit ordered. 'Track him. Find his scent.

'Come on, Edeard whispered. He started for the main entrance, then stopped. Over ten bandits with their fastfoxes were heading up the street towards him. They ignored the frantic chickens and gibbering ge-chimps that were running away from the swirl of lethal flames consuming the buildings. 'Lady! He searched round, not daring to use his farsight in case the diabolical bandit could detect that.

'I don't care if the fire's making it hard to track. Find him!

The bandit's tone was angry, which was the first piece of good news Edeard had encountered all night. Now he glanced round, he saw just how awesome the fire had become. Every building was alight. A foul smoke tower billowed hundreds of feet over the village, blocking the constellations and nebulas. Below its dismal occlusion, walls were collapsing, sending avalanches of burning furniture and broken joists across the lanes. Even the bandits were becoming wary as the smaller alleys were blocked. Of course, the blazing destruction was also closing off Edeard's escape routes. What he needed was a distraction, and fast. His third hand shoved a pile of beer barrels, sending them toppling over. Several burst open. A wave of beer lapped across the cobbles, spreading wide. As the same time he grabbed the minds of as many genistars he could reach, and pulled them into the market, offering them sanctuary. The animals bounded over the stalls, stampeding down the narrow aisles. Flustered fastfoxes charged after them, shaking off their mental restraints to obey more basic hunter instincts.

Almost clever, the bandit announced. 'You think that'll cover your smell? Well why don't you avoid this, tough guy?

The bandits in the market square formed a loose line, and began firing, sweeping their blazing gun muzzles in wide arcs. Genistars howled and whimpered as the bullets chewed through their flesh. They jumped and sprinted for cover as lines of bullets swept after them. Fastfoxes snarled in hatred and distress as they too were hit. Dozens of animals tumbled lifeless on to the cobbles. Blood mingled with beer, washing down the slope.

Edeard and Salrana hunched down as bullets thudded into the stalls around them. Wood splinters whirled through the air. They started to crawl. It wasn't long before the guns stopped. Edeard waited for the next longtalk taunt, but it didn't come. 'Hurry, he urged her. Holding hands, they ran for the alley which led round tbe back of the Carpentry Guild compound. Bandits and their fastfoxes were on patrol around the walls. The inside of the compound burned like a brazier as fire consumed the woodworking halls and timber stores, sending vast plumes of flame into the smoke-clotted sky. The slate roof of the main building had al ready collapsed. Edeard wondered if anyone was still alive inside, maybe sheltering in the cellars. Surely Obron would have found a way. He couldn't imagine a world without Obron.

They came to a crossroads, and Salrana made to turn right.

'Not that way, he hissed.

'But that's down to the wall, she whispered back.

'They'll be expecting that. The fastfoxes will scent us if we try to climb over the ramparts.

'Where are we going then?

'Up towards the cliff.

'But… won't they search the caves?

'We're not sheltering in the caves, he assured her. He found a dozen genistars still alive nearby, mainly dogs, with a couple of chimps and even a foal; and ordered them to walk across and around the track they were leaving to lay false scents. Though he suspected not even fastfoxes would be able to track them with so much smoke and ash in the air.

It took a couple of minutes to reach the site where the new well was being dug. So far Wedard and his team had only excavated five yards down, with barely the top third lined in stone. 'In you go, Edeard told her. There was a small ladder leading down to the wooden framework at the bottom of the hole where ge-monkeys spent their days digging into the stone and clay.

'They'll look in here, Salrana said desperately.

'Only if it's open, Edeard said grimly, and gestured at the big stone cap which would seal the shaft once it was complete.

'You can move that? she asked incredulously.

'We'll find out in a minute. But I'm pretty sure no one can farsight through it.

Salrana started down the crude ladder, her mind seething with fright. Edeard followed her, stopping when his head was level with the rim. This was the biggest gamble, the one on which both their lives now depended, but he couldn't think of any way out of the village, not past the fastfoxes and alert bandits. He fired a longtalk query directly at the Eggshaper Gild compound. 'Akeem? he asked quietly. There was no reply. He still didn't dare use his farsight. With a last furious look at the raging firestorm which was his home, he reached out with his third hand and lifted the huge slab of stone. It skimmed silently through the air, keeping a couple of inches off the ground before settling on the top of the well shaft with a slow grinding sound. The orange glow of the flames, the sound of collapsing masonry and human anguish cut off abruptly.

* * * * *

Edeard waited for hours. He and Salrana clung to each other on the planking at the bottom of the pit, drawing what comfort they could from each other. Eventually, she fell into a troubled sleep, twitching and moaning. He wouldn't allow himself the luxury.

Is this all my fault? Were they seeking revenge for the ambush in the forest? But they started it. His worst guilt came from a single thought which nagged and nagged at his soul. Could I have done more? Now he was sober and the worst of the hangover had abated, he kept thinking about the sensation which had woken him so abruptly. It was the same as the alarm he'd felt in the forest, a foresight that something was wrong. Normally the senior priestesses of the Empyrean Lady claimed to have a modest timesense; granted of course by the Lady Herself. So such a thing was possible. If I hadn't been so stupid. If I hadn't wasted the warning…

He didn't want to open the stone cap. The scene which he knew would greet them was almost too much to contemplate. My fault. All my fault.

A few hours after they took refuge, some slices of pale light seeped in round the edge of the cap where the stone rim wasn't quite level. Still Edeard waited. The rise of the sun wasn't going to automatically make the bandits go away. There was nothing left for them to fear for tens of miles. It would be the villages now who would wait for the fall of each night with dread.

'We never suspected they were so well organized, Edeard said bitterly. 'Me of all people, I should have realized.

'Don't be silly, she said. In the dark she reached out for him again, her slim arm going round his waist. 'How could you have known? This is something beyond even the Mother to see.

'Did Mother Lorellan have a timesense?

'Not much of one, no. Yesterday evening she was concerned about something, but she couldn't define it.

'She couldn't see her own murder? What kind of timesense is that?

Salrana started sobbing again.

'Oh Lady, I'm so sorry, he said, and hugged her tight. 'I didn't think. I'm so stupid.

'No Edeard. You came to help me. Me, out of everybody in Ashwell; all your friends, your Master. Why? Why me?

'I… All those years, it was like just me and you against the world. You were the only friend I had. I don't think I would have made it without you. The number of times I thought about running off into the wild.

She shook her head in dismay. 'Then you'd have been a bandit, you would have been one of the invaders last night.

'Don't say that. Not ever. I hate them. First my parents, now… He couldn't help it, he hung his head and started weeping. 'Everything. Everything's gone. I couldn't help them. Everybody was scared of how strong I am, and when they really needed me I was useless.

'Not useless, she said. 'You helped me.

They spent a long time just pressed together. Edeard's tears dried up after a while. He wiped at his face, feeling stupid and miserable. Salrana's hands came up to cup his face. 'Would you like me? she whispered.

'Er… I. No. It was a very difficult thing to say.

'No? Her thoughts, already fragile, fountained a wave of bewildered hurt. 'I thought—

'Not now, he said, and gripped her hands. He knew what it was, the shattering grief, the loneliness and fright; all so evident in her thoughts. She needed comfort, and physical intimacy was the strongest comfort of all. Given his own shaky emotional state it would have been heartening for him, too. But he cared too much, and it would have felt too much like taking advantage. 'I really would, but you're young. Too young.

'Linem had a child last year, she wasn't quite as old as I am today.

He couldn't help but grin. 'What kind of example is that for a novice to set to her flock?

'Flock of one.

Edeard's humour faded. 'Yes: one.

Salrana looked up at the stone cap. 'Do you think any of them are left?

'Some, yes. Of course. Ashwell village is stubborn and resilient, that's what Akeem always said. That's how it's resisted change so effectively for the last few centuries.

'You really wanted to?

'I— He found it disconcerting the way she could jump between topics so lightly, especially when that was one of the subjects in question. 'Yes, he admitted cautiously. 'You must know how beautiful you're becoming.

'Liar! I have to visit Doc Seneo three times a week to get ointment for my face.

'You are growing up lovely, he insisted quietly.

'Thank you, Edeard. You're really sweet, you know. I've never thought of any other boy. It's always been you.

'Um. Right.

'It would be terrible to die a virgin, wouldn't it?

'Lady! You are the worst novice in the whole Void.

'Don't be so silly. The Lady must have enjoyed a good love life. She was Rah's wife. Half of Makkathran claim to be descended from them. That's a lot of children.

'This has to be blasphemy.

'No. It's being human. That's why the Lady was anointed by the Firstlifes, to remind us how to discover our true nature again.

'Well right now we need to think survival'

'I know. So how old do I have to be? Your age?

'Um, probably, yes. Yes, that's about right.

'Can't wait. Did you go with Zehar last night?

'Not— Hey, that is not your concern. For some stupid reason, he suddenly wished he had given in to Zehar's advances. She'll be dead now; quickly if she was lucky.

'You're going to be my husband. I'm entitled to know all about your old lovers.

'I'm not your husband.

'Not yet, she taunted. 'My timesense says you will be.

He threw up his hands in defeat.

'How long are we going to stay in here? she asked.

'I'm not sure. Even if there's nothing left to scare them off, they won't want to stay too long. The other villages will know what's happened by now. The smoke must have reached halfway to Odin's Sea, and the farms would have fled, longshouting all the way. I expect the province will raise the militia and give chase.

'A militia? Can they do that?

'Each province has the right to form a militia in times of crisis, he said, trying to remember the details Akeem had imparted about Querencia's constitutional law. 'And this definitely qualifies. As to the practical details, I expect the bandits will be long gone before any decent force can get here, never mind chase them into the wilderness. And those guns they had. He held up his trophy, frowning at the outlandish design. No doubting its power, though. 'I've never heard of anything like these before. It's like something humans owned from before the flight into the Void.

'So that's it? There's no justice.

'There will be, as long as I remain alive they will curse their boldness of this day. It is their own death they have brought to our village.

She clutched at him. 'Don't go after them. Please, Edeard. They live out there, it's their wilderness, they know this kind of life, the killing and brutality, they know nothing else. I couldn't stand it if they caught you.

'I had no notion to do it right away.

'Thank you.

'Okay, I think it's the afternoon now. Let's take a look.

'All right. But if they're still there and they see us… I can't be his whore, Edeard.

'Neither of us will be caught, he promised, and meant it. For emphasis he patted his gun. 'Now let's see what's out there. He started to apply his third hand to the cool stone. Lips touched his. His mouth opened in response and the kiss went on for a long time.

'Just in case, Salrana murmured, pressed up against him. 'I wanted us both to know what it was like.

'I… I'm glad, he said sheepishly.

This time it was a lot harder to move the huge stone slab. It was only after he started he realized how exhausted he was, and hungry, and scared. But he shifted the stone a couple of inches until a slim crescent of mundane grey sky was visible. There were no excited shouts or farsight probes down into the pit. He couldn't send his own farsight across much distance given the tiny gap and the fact he was still below ground. Instead, his mind called out to the Guild's sole ge-eagle. His relief when the majestic bird replied was profound. It was perched up on the cliffs, distressed and bewildered. What it showed him when it took flight swiftly brought his mood back down again.

There was nothing left. Nothing. Every cottage was a pile of smouldering rubble; the Guild compounds with their sturdy stone walls had collapsed. He could barely make out the street pattern. A thin layer of grubby smog drifted slowly over the ruins.

When the eagle swooped in lower, he could see the bodies. Charred clothes flapped limply on blackened flesh. Worse still were the parts that stuck out of the debris. Motion caught the eagle's attention, and it pivoted neatly on a wingtip.

Old Fromal was sitting beside the ruins of his house, head in his hands, rocking back and forth, his filthy old face streaked by tears. There was a small boy, naked, running round and round the wrecked market stalls. He was bruised and bleeding, his face drawn into a fierce rictus of determination, not looking at anything in the physical world.

'They're gone, Edeard said. 'Let's go out. He dropped the bated gun and shoved the slab aside.

The stench was the worst of it; cloying smell of the smoking wood remnants saturated with burnt meat. Edeard almost vomited at the impact. It wasn't all genistars and domestic animals that were roasting. He tore a strip of cloth from his ragged trousers, damped it in a puddle, and tied it over his face.

They halted the running boy, who was in a shock too deep for reason to reach. Led old man Fromal away from the hot coals that had been his home for a hundred and twenty-two years. Found little Sagat cowering in the upturned barrels beside the working well.

Seven. That was how many they and the eagle found. Seven survivors out of a village numbering over four hundred souls.

They gathered together just outside the broken gates, in the shadow of the useless rampart walls, where the reek of the corpses wasn't so bad. Edeard went back in a couple of times, trying to find some clothes and food, though his heart was never in the search.

That was how the posse from Thorpe-By-Water village found them just before dusk. Over a hundred men riding horses and ge-horses, well armed, with ge-wolves loping along beside them. They could barely believe the sight which awaited them, nor did they want to accept it was organized bandits who were responsible. Instead of giving chase and delivering justice, they turned and rode back to Thorpe-By-Water in case their own loved ones were threatened. The survivors were taken with them. None of them ever returned.

* * * * *

Edeard used his longtalk to tell Salrana: 'The caravan is here.

'Where? she answered back. 'I can't sense them.

'They've just reached Molby's farm, they should be at the village bridge in another hour or so.

'That's a long way to farsee, even for you.

'The ge-eagle helps, he admitted.


Edeard laughed. 'I'll meet you in the square in half an hour.

'All right.

He finished instructing the flock of ge-chimps clearing out the stables and excused himself with Tonri, the senior apprentice. All he got for his courtesy was an indifferent grunt. Thorpe-By-Water's Eggshaper Guild hadn't exactly welcomed him with open arms. There was a huge question about his actual status. The Master hadn't yet confirmed him as a journeyman. Edeard's request that he should be recognized as such had generated a lot of resentment among the other apprentices, who believed he should be the junior. That his talent was so obviously greater than any of them, even the Master, didn't help the situation.

Salrana had been accepted a lot more readily into the Lady's Church by Thorpe-By-Water's Mother. But she wasn't happy, either. 'This will never be our home, she told Edeard sadly after their first week. Thorpe-By-Water's residents didn't exactly shun the refugees from Ashwell, but they weren't made welcome. Rulan province now lived in fear of the bandits. If they could strike Ashwell, which was three days' ride from the edge of the wilderness, they could strike anywhere in the province. Life had changed irrevocably. There were patrols out in the farmlands and forests constantly now; and craftsmen were having to leave aside all nonurgent tasks to strengthen village walls. Everyone in the Rulan province was going to be poorer this winter.

Edeard walked into the market square to the same averted glances he'd been getting every day for the last three weeks. With its stalls and cobbled floor it was remarkably similar to the one in Ashwell. Larger, of course, Thorpe-By-Water was a bigger village, built in a fork of the River Gwash, providing it with natural protection along two sides. A canal moat had been dug between the two fast flowing water courses, with a sturdy drawbridge in the middle, completing the defences. Edeard thought that might make them safer than Ashwell. There really was only one real point of entry. Unless the bandits used boats. Where would bandits get enough boats from…

His farsight was casually aware of Salrana hurrying towards him. They greeted each other in front of one of the many fish stalls. She was dressed in the blue and white novice robe of the lady, one which was slightly baggy this time.

'Almost like before, Edeard said, looking her up and down. He was quietly aware of the glances she was drawing from the other young men in the market.

She wriggled inside it, pulling at the long flared sleeves. 'I'd forgotten how prickly this fabric is when it's new, she said. 'I only ever had one new one before at Ashwell, for my initiation ceremony; the rest were all second-hand. But the Mother here has had five made for me. She gave his clothes an assessment. 'Still not found a weaver?

Edeard rubbed at his ancient shirt with its strange mis-coloured patches. His trousers were too short as well, and the boots were so old the leather was cracked along the top. 'You need money for a weaver to make a shirt. Apprentices are clothed by their Guild. And apprentices without status get the pick of everything the others don't want.

'He still hasn't confirmed your journeyman status?

'No. It's all politics. His own journeymen are totally inept, and that's mostly thanks to his poor training. They lose at least six out of every ten eggs. That's just pitiful. Even Akeem's apprentices didn't lose that many. They're also five years older than me, so putting me on their level would be an admission of how rubbish he actually is. I didn't appreciate what I'd got with Akeem. He fell silent at the painful memory. They should have made time to recover the bodies, to give their village a proper funeral blessed by the Lady.

'You knew, she said supportively.

'Yes. Thanks. They wandered through the market, Edeard looking enviously at the various clothes on display. As an apprentice he wasn't allowed to trade any eggs he sculpted, they all belonged to the Guild. Akeem had been decently flexible about it, believing in a quiet rewards system. But now Edeard found himself with no money, no friends, and no respect. It was like being ten years old again.

'One of the patrols came in last night, Salrana said as they walked. 'The Mother was at the meeting of village elders this morning; the patrol leader told them they'd found no sign of bandits, let alone a large group of them. Apparently there's talk about cutting down the patrols.

'Idiots, Edeard grunted. 'What were they expecting to find? We told them the bandits can conceal themselves.

'I know. Her expression turned awkward. 'Our word doesn't count for much.

'What do they think destroyed Ashwell?

'Give them some grace, Edeard; their whole world is being turned upside down right now. That's never easy.

'Whereas we've had a cosy ride.

'That's not nice.

'Sorry. He took a long breath. 'I just hate this: after all we went through, and we get treated as if we're the problem. I really should have kept that gun. He'd left it at the bottom of the well shaft, not wanting any part of a bandit legacy. The gun was pure evil. Ever since, he'd been trying to draw the fidgety little components he'd sensed inside. Thorpe-By-Water's blacksmith had laughed when he'd taken the sketches to him, telling him no such thing could be made. Now people were becoming sceptical about the whole repeat-shooting-gun story.

'You did the right thing, she said. 'How awful would life be if everyone had a weapon like that.

'It's pretty awful that the bandits have it and we don't, he snapped at her. 'What's to stop them sweeping through the whole province? Then further? How about the entire region?

'That won't happen.

'No, it won't, because the governor will raise an army. Thankfully, there are more of us than them, so we can win no matter how terrible their weapons are. But that will mean bloodshed on a scale we've never known. He wanted to beat his fists against the nearest stall. 'How did they get that gun? Do you think they found one of the ships we came in?

'Maybe they never left the ship they came in, she said in a small voice.

'Perhaps. I don't know. Why will no one listen to us?

'Because we're children.

He turned to snarl at her, then saw the deep worry in her thoughts, her tired face dabbed with greenish ointment. She was so lovely. Somehow he knew Akeem would approve him risking everything to save her. 'I'm sorry. I don't know why I'm taking it out on you.

'Because I'm the only one who listens, she told him.

'Lady, it's worse here than Ashwell in some ways. The elders are so… backward. They must inbreed like dogs.

Salrana grinned. 'Keep your voice down, she scolded.

'Okay, he grinned back. 'Not much longer now, I hope.

People were gathering along the side of the market square to watch the caravan arrive. Edeard counted thirty-two wagons rolling along the road and over the drawbridge. Most had terrestrial beasts tethered to them; horses, donkeys, oxen, cows; some had pens carrying huge pigs. Ge-wolves padded alongside. There were more outriders with pistols than Edeard remembered from before. The wagons were as large and impressive as he recalled, with their metal-rimmed wheels as tall as him. Most of them were covered by curving canopies of dark oiled cloth, though several were clad in tarred wood almost like tiny mobile cottages. Entire families sat on the driver's bench, waving and smiling as they wound their way into the market. Every summer the caravans would tour the district, trading animals, seeds, eggs, tools, food, drink, and fancy cloth from Makkathran itself. They didn't always visit Ashwell, but Edeard could remember the excitement when they did.

Even before the wagons had stopped, villagers were shouting up at the travelling families, asking what they'd brought. It was a good-natured crowd who had little time for the Mayor's welcoming speech to the caravan leader. Trading was already underway before the formalities were over. Samples of wine and beer were handed down, mostly to apprentices. Edeard chewed on some dried beef that had been flavoured with a spice he'd never tasted before. Salrana picked daintily at trays of fruit and pickled vegetables though she was less restrained when it came to exotic chocolates.

As the evening sky began to darken, Edeard was in considerably better spirits. A lot of the villagers were making for home and supper before returning for the night's traditional festivities. He and Salrana made their way to the lead caravan. The last remaining villagers were leaving, studiously ignoring the Ashwell pair as they did so.

Barkus, the caravan Master, was also as Edeard remembered. A man several decades into his second century, but still hale. He had the largest sideburns Edeard had ever seen, white whiskers bristling round the curve of his jawbone, framing ruddy cheeks. His barrel torso was clad in a red silk shirt and an extravagant blue and gold waistcoat. 'And what can I do for you two? he chortled as Edeard and Salrana edged in close to his wagon; his large family glanced at them and kept about their work, extending the awning on a frame of martoz wood to form an extensive tent. 'I think we've run out of beer samples. He winked at Edeard.

'I want to come with you to Makkathran, we both do.

Barkus let out a booming laugh. Two of his sons sniggered as they pushed the awning pegs into the hard ground. 'Very romantic, I'm sure. I admire your pluck young sir, and you my Lady's lady. But sadly we have no room for passengers. Now I'm sure that if the two of you are to be ah… how shall we say, blessed by an addition, your parents won't be as fearsome as you expect. Trust me. Go home and tell them what's happened.

Salrana drew her shoulders back. 'I am not pregnant. I take my vows of devotion very seriously.

Which blatant lie almost deflated Edeard's indignation. 'I am Edeard and this is Salrana; we're the survivors from Ashwell. He was very aware of the silence his statement caused. Barkus's family were all looking at them. Several strands of farsight emanating from the other side of the wagon swept across them. 'I believe you knew my Master, Akeem.

Barkus nodded sagely. 'You'd best come inside. And the rest of you, get back to work.

The wagon was one of those boasting a wooden cabin. The inside was fitted with beautiful ancient golden wood, intricately carved with a quality which would have eluded Geepalt and his apprentices. Every section of the walls and ceiling were made of doors which came in sizes from some no bigger than Edeard's fist to those taller than he. Barkus opened a pair of horizontal ones, and they folded down into long cushioned benches. Two of the small doors along the apex slid aside to expose misty glass panels. Barkus struck a match and pushed it through a small hole at the end of the glass, lighting a wick. The familiar cosy glow of a jamolar oil flame filled the cabin.

Edeard smiled round, very impressed.

'I remember your Master with great fondness, Barkus said, waving them on to the bench opposite himself. 'He travelled out here with us a long time ago. I was barely your age at the time. Your Mother, too, novice Salrana, always showed us kindness. Both will be missed and mourned. It was a terrible thing.

'Thank you, Edeard said. 'I don't wish to impose, but neither of us can stay in Thorpe-By-Water. We're not very welcome, and in any case it's too close to Ashwell.

'I understand. The whole province is shaken by what happened, though I've heard a great many different versions already. Including, I have to say, a couple which cast you in a less than favourable light, young man. I held my tongue at the telling of such tales because I remember you from our last visit, four summers ago. I also remember what Akeem said about you. He was impressed with your talent, and old Akeem was not easily swayed especially by one so young.

'Edeard risked his life to save me, Salrana said.

'That also I have heard.

'Before that night, Akeem said he wanted me to go to Makkathran to study at the Blue Tower of my Guild. I would — no, I will, see his wish come true.

Barkus smiled softly. 'A worthy goal, young man.

'We will work our passage, Edeard said forcefully. 'I will not freeload.

'Nor I, said Salrana.

'I would expect nothing less, Barkus said. He seemed troubled. 'However, it is a long way, we will not reach Makkathran until next spring, and that is if all goes well. Many caravans have already cut short their regular journey to leave this province. The stories of Ashwell's fate are many, but they have unnerved all of us. As I remember, Akeem said you have a strong third hand?

'That's true. But my talent is in sculpting. There are many wild defaults in the woods and hills of this province. By the time winter falls I can sculpt you a pack of ge-wolves that no bandit gang will ever get past no matter how strong their concealment. I can sculpt them with a stronger sense of smell than any you've used hitherto. I can also sculpt eagles which will circle for miles on every side of the convoy searching out the slightest hint of treachery or ambush.

'I'm sure you can. Even now Barkus was unsure.

'I can also teach you and your families this, Edeard said. He wove his concealment around himself. Barkus gasped, leaning forward blinking. Edeard felt the caravan Master's farsight whipping back and forth across the cabin. He quietly got up and sat next to the startled Barkus, then withdrew his concealment. 'How could the bandits attack you if they can't see you?

'Dear Lady! Barkus grunted. 'I never knew such a thing…

'Akeem gifted this to me.

Barkus regained his composure quickly. 'Did he now. Akeem was right about you, and so I think are half the tales. Very well my dear youngsters, I will accept you both as family tyros. You will come with us as far as Makkathran. And you will indeed work your passage. Let's see if you think such nobility is worthwhile when we reach the Ulfsen mountains. However, Edeard, this arrangement is conditional on you not teaching anyone your concealment trick, do you concur?

'I do, sir. I don't understand why, though.

'You haven't taught it to anyone in Thorpe-By-Water, have you?

'No, sir.

'That's a good political instinct you have there, my boy. Let's just keep it that way, shall we. There's enough trouble infecting our poor old world as it is without everyone sneaking around unseen. Though if you can find a way for farsight to uncover such trickery, I'd be grateful if you would inform me at once.

'Yes, sir.

'Good lad. We leave with the dawn light in three days' time. If you're not here that morning, we still leave. Though I don't suppose your Master will object to your exodus.

'I don't believe he will, sir.

'Makkathran! Edeard said as they hurried away from the wagon. Now Barkus had said he'd take them, all his earlier worries and doubts had dried up. He'd thought that he was running away, that he was being a coward for putting all the provinces between himself and the bandits, for allowing them to deal with the problem and endure their blood being spilt to safeguard the land while he lived a safe comfortable life in the city. But now they were going and that was that. 'Imagine it.

'I can't believe it. Salrana's smile was wide and carefree. 'Do you think it will be as wonderful as the stories we've heard?

'If it is only a tenth as fabulous as they say, it will be beyond anything I have dreamed.

'And we'll be safe, she sighed.

'Yes. He put his arm round her shoulder. In a brotherly fashion! 'We'll be safe. And what splendid lives we'll live in the capital of the world.


The glitch had been surprisingly easy to find. But then Troblum supposed Emily Aim didn't have a lot of time to insert it, nor would she suspect he'd come looking, at least not right away. She'd made several modifications to the blueprint; in itself each one was relatively innocuous which made them even harder to spot, but the cumulative effect was enough to throw the binding effect out of kilter. It was less than an hour's work for him to remove them. Then he restarted the production process.

With that underway, his u-shadow established a secure onetime link back to his apartment. Now he knew that Marius was trying to manipulate him, and would go to any lengths to achieve what he wanted, Troblum knew he needed an escape route. There was only one which would put him beyond even the representative's reach: the colonies. After the Starflyer War each of the old Dynasties had been left with a fleet of redundant lifeboats, starships capable of evacuating the entire senior strata of each 1)ynasty to the other side of the galaxy where they would have been safe had the Prime alien won. Given the phenomenal amount of money poured into their construction, the Dynasty leaders were never going to scrap them simply because the Commonwealth was victorious. Instead, the lifeboats set off to found new worlds and cultures completely independent of the Commonwealth. Over forty ships had launched, though even that figure was ambiguous; the Dynasty leaders were reluctant to admit how much money they'd poured into their own salvation at the expense of everyone else. In the following centuries, more colony ships had set forth. No longer exclusive to Dynasties, they had carried an even broader selection of beliefs, families and ideologies seeking to break free to a degree which even the External Worlds could never offer. The last major departure had been in AD 3000, when Nigel Sheldon himself led a fleet of ten starships, the largest craft ever built, to set up a 'new human experience' elsewhere. It was strongly rumoured at the time that the ships had a trans-galactic flight range.

With the ultra-secure link established to his apartment, Trob-lum used a similarly guarded connection for his u-shadow to trawl the Unisphere for the possible destinations of the colony ships within this galaxy. There were over a hundred departures listed, and subsequently thousands of articles presented on each of them. A lot of those articles speculated on why not one colony had got back in touch, even if it was only for a 'so there' message. Certainly there was no records of any Navy starships stumbling across a human world anywhere else in the galaxy, not that they'd ever explored a fraction of a per cent of the available Incongruous stars. Of course, it was the core of Living Dream dogma that most, if not all, such voyages had wound up inside the Void. However, a lot of genuine academic work had gone into estimating probable locations, despite the best efforts of the dwindling Dynasties to suppress such work. Even assuming the studies were correct, the areas that needed to be searched were vast, measuring hundreds of lightyears across. But Mellanie's Redemption was a fine ship, she should be able to make the trip out to the Drasix cluster, fifty thousand lightyears away, where the Brandt Dynasty ships were said to have flown.

Troblum knew he wouldn't miss the Commonwealth, there was nobody he had any attachment to, and most of the colony worlds would have a decent level of civilization. If he did find the Brandt world, they would presumably be glad to accept his knowledge of biononics which had been developed long after their ships had departed. That just left the problem of what to do with his Starflyer War artefacts. He couldn't bear to be parted with them, yet if he transported them to the hangar, Marius might notice. He began instructing the apartment net on shipping arrangements, then made a painful call to Stubsy Florae.

* * * * *

The Neumann cybernetics took thirty-two hours to produce a planet-shifting ftl engine. Troblum stood underneath the sparkling cylinder as the terminal extruder finished, marvelling at its elegance. His field functions reported a dense knot of energies and hyperstressed matter all in perfect balance. So much exotic activity was present it almost qualified as a singularity in its own right.

If the colony doesn't want biononics, they'll surely want this.

He watched in perfect contentment as force fields manoeuvred the cylinder into Mellanie's Redemption. The modified forward cargo hold closed, and Troblum sent the device into standby mode. Nobody would be able to break the command authority encryption, not even ANA he suspected. The device was his and his alone.

Once it was safe and shielded he went back into the office and restored Emily Aim's glitches to the blueprint, then began adding some of his own, at a much deeper function level. Now the engine really was unique.

Marius called several hours later. 'Have you finished your analysis yet?

'Just about. I think I'm going to have to initiate a complete re-design of the exotic stress channels.

'That sounds bad and I don't even know what you're talking about.

'It's not good, no.

'I'm sure our funds will cover it. But for now I need a small favour.


'I want you to take a colleague to our station.

'A passenger? Troblum asked in alarm. If there was someone else on board, he would never be able to fly free. With a growing sense of dismay he realized that was probably the whole idea. Had Marius detected something? He would have sworn nothing could get through his encryption, but then ultimately he was dealing with an ANA Faction.

'Problem? Your ship can accommodate more than one person, and it's a relatively short flight. We're still inside the Commonwealth, after all.

There was a definite implication in that. 'Not a problem. I'll need to flight prep.

'That shouldn't take more than an hour. Bon voyage.

There had been no polite enquiry as to whether he was ready, in fact it was more like an order. Annoyance warred with a slight curiosity. What do they need me for so urgently?


'Wha—? Troblum twisted round as fast as his bulk would allow. There was a man standing in the office, a very tall man whose skeletal skull was frizzed by a stubble of ginger hair. He wore a simple grey suit that emphasized exceptionally long limbs. 'Who the fuck are you? Troblum's biononics had instantly cloaked him in a defensive force field, now his one weapons enrichment was active and targeting the intruder.

'I'm Lucken. I believe you're expecting me?


'Your passenger, yes. Is the ship ready?

'How did you get in?

Lucken's face remained completely impassive. 'Do you require assistance to prepare for flight?

'Ah, no.

'Then please begin.

Troblum adjusted the front of his old toga suit in angry reaction to the arrogant imposition. 'The umbilicals are already attached. We'll leave as soon as the tanks are full. Do you want to go to your cabin?

'Are you embarking now?

'No. I have important work here to complete.

'I will wait. I will accompany you on board.

'As you wish. Troblum settled back in his chair, and reactivated the solido projectors. Just to show how indifferent he was. Lucken didn't move. His eyes never left Troblum. It was going to be a long flight.

* * * * *

The station was a real flight into nostalgia. It had been fifty years since Troblum saw it last, and he never thought he'd be back — in fact he was rather surprised it was still intact. Mellanie's Redemption took three days to fly from Arevalo to the unnamed red dwarf star. There were no planets, solid or gas, orbiting the weak speck of ruddy light, just a large disc of mushy hydrocarbon asteroids. There were less now than there had been when he first came to work here. He smiled when he remembered that test sequence. It was the last time he'd been genuinely drunk, and hadn't cared what a fool he was making of himself.

Mellanie's Redemption dropped out of hyperspace ten AUs away from the star and eight thousand kilometres directly above iheir destination. Troblum accelerated in at seven gees, heading straight for the centre of the dark torroid that measured five kilometres in diameter. A squadron of defence cruisers shed their stealth effect and soared around the starship in fast tight turns. They were over a hundred metres long, like quicksilver droplets frozen in mid-distortion to produce bodies of warped ripples sprouting odd pseudopod crowns. Their flight was so elegant and smooth they resembled a shoal of aquatic creatures cavorting with a newcomer. However, there was nothing playful about the quantum level probes directed at the Mellanie's Redemption. Troblum held his breath as he waited to see if the sophisticated shielding around the forward hold would deflect the scan. It did, but then he'd helped design the cruisers — seventy years ago now. I le found it interesting that nothing new had been produced in the intervening decades. Human technology was edging ever closer to its plateau. Emily Aim was probably right about her time in the Navy; given their knowledge base there was nothing new in the universe, just innovative variants on that which already existed.

The cruisers escorted them in to the station. Mellanie's Redemption fell below the rim of the torroid, and slid along the broad internal tube, which was almost as long as its diameter. Observing the structure through the starship's modest sensor net Troblum could see that vast sections had been reactivated. The titanium-black fuselage was covered in long slender spikes as if a sharp frost had settled across the whole station. The majority of spikes were translucent blue-white; though in among them, seemingly at random, several of the smaller ones were glowing with a low crimson light, as if they'd caged a few of the photons from the nearby sun.

Troblum piloted Mellanie's Redemption to the base of a red spike which measured nearly seven hundred metres long. A hangar door was open and waiting for them. When it closed, he couldn't help but think of the door to an antique jail cell slamming shut.

'Thank you for flying Troblum Lines, and have a pleasant day, he said cheerily.

Lucken opened the airlock and went outside. The man hadn't spoken a single word since they'd embarked. Hadn't slept, either, just sat in the central cabin the whole time. He'd vanished by the time Troblum activated a small case and pulled his emerald cloak on. Mellanie's Redemption looked small and inadequate inside the giant shiny-white cavity. White tubes had wormed out of the floor to plug into her umbilical sockets. There was no sign of the external door or indeed a way into the station. As Troblum walked along the curving floor, gravity shifted to accommodate him so he was always standing vertical. The whole effect was quite disorientating on a visual level.

A woman was waiting for him under the starship's nose. She was his height, completely hairless, with large perfectly round eyes that dominated her flat face. Her neck was long, over twenty centimetres, but invisible behind a sheath of slim gold rings, as if it was some kind of segmented metallic limb. All of her skin had the surface shimmer of a toga suit tuned to steel-grey. Troblum assumed her skin had actually been biononically modified, the effect was so tight around her. A lot of Highers close to download chose to experiment with physiological modifications.

'Greetings, she said in a pleasant, almost girlish voice. 'I've heard a lot about you.

'Sadly I can't return the compliment, he said, reading off the protocol behaviour program showing in his exovision.

'I'm Neskia, I run the station. My predecessor was most favourable in his assessment of your abilities. Our Faction would like to thank you for returning.

As if I had a choice. 'All very well, but why exactly am I here? Is the swarm malfunctioning?

'Not at all. She gestured gracefully, her neck curving in a fluidly serpentine motion to keep her face aligned on him as she started walking. Troblum followed her along the curve, his case hovering just behind his head. Up above them, a circular door irised open. The station's internal nature had certainly changed in seventy years.


'You sound disappointed, she said and hesitated by the door.

Troblum wasn't sure if the circle had flipped out of the curve to stand upright or if the local gravity manipulation was even weirder than his ordinary senses told him. He refused to verify with a field scan. Disorientation attempts were really very childish. 'Not disappointed. I assume I'm here to inspect and validate the swarm, just in case the worst case Pilgrimage scenario proves true. There have been a few recent advances which could be used to upgrade.

'The swarm has dispersed to its deployment point. It has been constantly upgraded. We don't anticipate the Void's expansion to pose any problem.

'Really? So that's why you kept this station going.

'Among other things. She stepped through the door and into a corridor that had the old simple grey-blue layout which Troblum recognized. They hadn't changed everything.

'I've assigned you a suite in sector 7-B-5, Neskia said. 'You can have it modified to your own tastes, just tell the station smartcore what you want.

'Thank you. And the reason I'm here?

'We are building twelve ultradrive engines to power the Pilgrimage fleet. Your experience in the assembly techniques we are using is unmatched.

Troblum stopped abruptly, his case almost banging into the back of his head. 'Ultradrive?


You mean it's real? I always assumed it was just a rumour.

'It isn't. You'll be working with a small team, fifty or so experts have been recruited. The Neumann cybernetics that built the swarm will handle the actual fabrication.

'Fascinating. His bleak mood at being blackmailed and bullied actually began to lift. 'I'll need to see the theory behind the drive.

'Of course. Her huge eyes blinked once. 'We'll brief you as soon as you've settled in.

'I'm settled right now.

* * * * *

Araminta waited in the flat until Shelly arrived to take full legal possession. She didn't have to do it, Cressida's firm was tackling the sale registration — which meant nothing had gone wrong. But supervising the handover in person added that little professional touch; and in business, reputation was a commodity which couldn't be bought.

She watched from the balcony as Shelly's capsule landed on the designated pad outside, followed by a larger cargo capsule which used the public pad. The flat seemed strangely unattractive now Araminta had moved the dressing furniture out, all carefully chosen pieces that emphasized how spacious and contemporary the property was.

'Is everything all right? Shelly asked as Araminta opened the door.

'Yes. I just wanted to check you were happy.

'Oh yes. I can't wait to get in. Shelly was already walking past her, smiling contentedly at the empty rooms. She was a tall, pretty girl who had her own salon business in the district. Araminta was slightly jealous about that, mainly because Shelly was a year younger than her and obviously successful. But then, she's never made the Laril mistake.

Shelly caught sight of the big bouquet of flowers resting on the kitchen worktop. 'Oh thank you, that's so sweet.

'My pleasure. Araminta's u-shadow transferred the flat's activation codes over to Shelly. 'Now if there are any problems, please call me. She had to flatten herself against the wall as she made her way downstairs. A regrav lifter was hauling a big scarlet and black sofa up to the flat. It wasn't quite what Araminta would have chosen, but… She shrugged and left the house.

Her old carry capsule flew her across Colwyn city to the Bodant district where it settled on a public parking pad. The morning was a dull one, with grubby-ginger clouds darkening towards rain as the wind blew in from the sea. Araminta climbed out and smiled up at the six-storey apartment block. It was a fairly standard layout, ribbed by white balconies that dripped with colourful vines and flowering creepers. The corners were black glass columns alive with purple and blue refraction stipples that swarmed up and down like rodent climbers. At night the effect was sharp and conspicuous, but under a dank daylight sky it lacked any kind of verve. There was a gold crystal dome on the roof, sheltering a communal pool and spa gym. A wide swathe of elegantly maintained gardens along the front were sitting on top of the private underground garage.

Cressida's sleek purple capsule slipped down out of the low clouds to land beside Araminta. 'Well darling, what a coup. The lawyer was wrapped in a furry black and white coat that snuggled cosily round her with every move. She glanced up at the front of the building, eyes narrowing as she saw three balconies piled high with junked fittings. 'I have the access codes and the owner certificates. So let's go up, shall we?

Araminta had bought the entire fourth floor, with all five apartments. The whole apartment block was undergoing redevelopment, presenting an opportunity she couldn't resist when Ikor, one of the original developers, had pulled out. Cressida walked in to the first apartment and rolled her eyes. 'I can't believe you've done this.

'Why not? It's a perfect opportunity for me. Araminta grinned at her cousin's dismay and walked over to the balcony doors. The glass curtained wide for her and she stepped out. There was a faint sound of buzzing and drilling as the other developers prepared their floors for occupancy. 'It's ninety years old, it needs a makeover. And look at the view.

Cressida pushed her sapphire-glossed lips together as she looked out across the Bodant district's park to the Cairns beyond. There was a marina along the embankment directly opposite them, its curving deco buildings radiant white, as if they had just been forged in some fusion furnace. 'You got the wrong side of the park, darling. Over there is where the action and the smart money is. Beside, here you're only a few streets from the Helie district. Really!

'Stop being such a grump. I've proved I can do this, and you know it.

'I also know how much you paid for these hovels. Honestly darling, a hundred K each. Were you kidnapped and held ransom?

'They have three bedrooms each. They need a lot less work than the flat. The two largest have this view. And I cleared a forty K profit on the flat.

'I still can't believe the bank gave you the money for this.

'Standard commercial loan. They liked my business model, Araminta said proudly.

'And Ozzie's coming back to save us all. Go on, you can tell me. You slept with the entire staff of the local office, didn't you?

'It's very simple economics.

'Ha! That just proves you don't know what you're talking about. Economics is never simple.

'I renovate one of them — this one probably — as the show apartment, and sell the rest off. Plan based on people seeing the quality of the finish. The deposits will pay off the mortgage while I refurbish them.

'This is the best one? Oh help me.

'Yes, this one. And Helie is an up and coming area. Don't be so negative. It's annoying. Her tone was more prickly than she'd intended.

Cressida was instantly apologetic. 'I'm sorry darling. But my life is without risk now. Honestly, I admire you for taking this gamble. But you have to admit, it is a gamble.

'Of course it's a gamble. You never get anywhere in life without taking a gamble.

'Well well, whatever happened to the little farmgirl from Langham?

'She died. Nobody came to the funeral.

A perfectly shaped eyebrow rose in surprise. 'What have I unleashed on the world?

'I thought you'd be happy to see me move forward like this.

'I am. Are you going to do all the work yourself, again?

'Most of it, yes. I've got some new bots, and I know where to go for all my supplies and fittings now. This is going to be a prestige development, you'll see, all the apartments will fetch a premium.

'I'm sure they will. Did you know most of the hotels in town are fully booked?

'Is that relevant?

Cressida wiped the balcony rail with a hand then leant on it. 'There's a lot of Living Dream devotees flooding in. Rumour in the gaiafield is that the Second Dreamer is on Viotia.

'Really, I didn't know that, but then I haven't accessed a news show in weeks. I'm a working gal these days.

'Keep it quiet, but the government is worried about the pressure that's going to put on housing, among other things, like public order.

'Oh, come on!

'Seriously. We've had over two million of the faithful arrive in the last seven weeks. Do you know how many have left again?


'None. And if they all apply for residency, that's going to shift the political demographic'

'So we're receiving immigrants again. That's how planets develop. There's going to be a big demand for housing. I come out a winner.

'All I'm saying is that in times of civil disturbance property values take a dive.

'It's that serious? Araminta asked in sudden alarm; after all, Cressida was very well connected.

'You know there's always been an undercurrent of resentment towards Ellezelin. If the Living Dream numbers keep rising at their current rate, then there could be trouble. Who wants to wind up living in a hierocracy?

'Yes, but there's the Pilgrimage. That'll call them back to Ellezelin, won't it? And it's not like they're going to find this stupid Second Dreamer, least of all here. The whole thing's a political stunt by the new Cleric Conservator. Isn't it?

'Who knows. But I'd respectfully suggest, darling, that you find a sucker who you can offload these apartments on to at very short notice.

Araminta recalled how keen Ikor had been to sell to her. And it was a good deal, or so it seemed at the time. Am I the sucker? 'I suppose it wouldn't harm to look for one, she said.

* * * * *

Mr Bovey let loose a small chorus of swearing as four of hims tried to manoeuvre the old-fashioned stone bath along the hallway and through the bathroom door. It was an awkward angle, and the apartment's rear hallway wasn't particularly wide.

'Can I help? Araminta sang out from the kitchen where she and three bots were making last minute changes to the new utility connections ready for the units she'd ordered.

'I'm quite capable, thank you, quadraphonic voices grunted back.

His hurtful insistence made her giggle. 'Okay. It was another twenty minutes before one of him walked into the kitchen. He was the Bovey she'd first encountered in his macrostore's bathroom aisle, the one with ebony skin and an ageing body. In his biological late-middle-age he may have been, but he didn't shirk from hard work. His wrinkled forehead was smeared with sweat.

'I made some tea, she said, gesturing at the kettle with its cluster of ancient cups. 'You look like you need a break.

'I do, my others are younger. He smiled in admiration at the steaming cups and the packet of tea cubes. 'You really did make it, too, didn't you?

'Waiting for my culinary unit to arrive, she said with a martyred sigh.

'It's in the next load, I promise, he told her, and picked up a cup. His eyes took in the packets of folded food and the hydrator oven. 'Are you actually living here?

'Yeah. Not renting saves me a bucket load of money. I mean, what's the point? I've got five apartments, and they're not that bad — the roofs don't leak and the rest is just aesthetics. I can stick it out for a few months.

'You know I really admire your attitude. There's not many your age would take on a project like this.

She batted her eyes. 'And what's my age?

'Honestly? I've no idea. But you come across as a first life.

'I'll own up to that.

'Can I offer you an alternative to hydrated food tonight? There's a nice restaurant I know.

She grinned, her hand curling round her own mug of tea. 'That would be lovely. Oh, I don't like curry!

'That's okay, some of mes don't, either.

'Your tastes are different?

'Sure. Taste is all down to biochemistry, which is subtly different in every human body. And, face it, I have quite a variety to chose from.

'Okay, she said, and dropped her gaze bashfully. 'I have to ask. I've never been on a date with a multiple before. Do you all come and sit at the table with me?

'Nah, I think that would be a little full on for you, wouldn't it? Besides, I have the macrostore to run, deliveries to be made, installation, that kind of thing. My life goes on the whole time.

'Oh. Yes. It was a strange notion. Not an objectionable one, though.

'Now if you were another multiple, it might be different.


'We'd book the whole restaurant of romantic tables for two and take over the lot. Yous and mes everywhere having fifty different conversations simultaneously and trying out the entire menu and wine list all at once. It's like speed dating in fast forward.

She laughed. 'Have you ever done that?

'Tell you tonight.

'Right. So which one of you do I get sitting at that romantic table for two?

'You choose. How many of mes and which ones.

'One, and you'll do just fine.

* * * * *

Araminta took a great deal of thought and care over what to wear and which cosmetic scales to apply. Dressed exactly to plan two hours early. Took one look at herself in the mirror and chucked the whole image. Fifty minutes later all the cases in her bedroom were hanging open. Every outfit she had bought in the last two months was draped over floor and furniture leaving little space to walk. She'd experimented with four different styles of scale membrane. Her hair had been sparkled then damped. Oiled then fluffed. Bejewelled with red scintillators, blue scintillators, green, blue-white…

In the end — with eleven minutes to go — she took an executive decision: go basic. Mr Bovey wasn't the kind to concern himselfs with surface image.

His capsule landed on the pad outside, and she took a lift down to the lobby. The doors opened to a dusty space piled with junk and newly delivered boxes. It was all illuminated by too-bright temporary lighting.

Mr Bovey was dressed in a simple pale-grey toga suit with minimal surface shimmer. He smiled as the doors opened, and said: 'A lady who is on time, now that's — oh wow.

She permitted the smallest nod of approval as he stared. In her mind was an image of his customers left unattended, installations stalled, delivery flights landing at the wrong addresses all over town.

'You look, he swallowed as he tried to regain equilibrium, 'fantastic. Absolutely amazing.

'Why thank you. She held her hands behind her back, and presented the side of her face for a formal greeting kiss like some girly ingenue. It was the right choice then. A black sleeveless dress of plain silky fabric with a wide cleft down the front, barely held together by a couple of slim black emerald chains, making it look as if she was about to burst out. Hair glossed pale auburn, and brushed with just a couple of waves to hang below her shoulders. No scales other than lips slightly darker than her natural pigmentation, and emerald eyelash sparkles on low radiance. Most important was the sly half-smile guaranteed to totally befuddle the male brain — all of them.

Mr Bovey recovered. 'Shall we go?

'Love to.

The restaurant he'd booked was Richard's. Small but stylish, occupying two floors of an old white stone house in the Udno district. The owner was also the chef; and as Mr Bovey explained he had a small boat which he took out down the estuary a couple of times each week to catch fish for the specials.

'So do you date other multiples? she asked once they'd ordered.

'Of course, he told her. 'Not that there are a lot of us on Viotia yet.

'What about marriage? Is that only with multiples?

'I was married once. A multiple called Mrs Rion. It was, he frowned, as if searching for a memory, 'pleasant.

'That sounds pretty awful.

'I'm being unfair to her. We had a good time while it lasted. Sex was great. His smile was shameless. 'Think on it, thirty of her, thirty of me. All of us at it every night. You singles can't get that close to physical paradise even in an orgy.

'You don't know how good I am in an orgy. As soon as she said it she could feel her ears burning. But it was the second time she'd startled him this evening, and they weren't even an hour into the date. Cressida would be proud of me.

'Anyway… he said. 'We called time on the marriage after seven years. No hostilities, we're still friends. Thankfully, we didn't merge our businesses as well. Always sign a pre-marriage contract, no matter what you are.

'Yes. I found that out the hard way.

'You've been married?

'Yeah. It was a mistake, but you were right, I'm young. My cousin says mistakes are the only way to learn.

'You're cousin is right.

'So are you going to try and convert me tonight?

'Convert you?

'Sell the whole multiple idea. I thought you believe multiples are inevitable.

'I do. But I'm not an evangelical. Some of us are, he admitted.

'And you date — uh…

'Outside the faith? Of course I do. People are interesting no matter what type they are.

'Highers seem quite boring. If that sound bigoted, I should explain my ex is currently migrating inwards.

'Not a wholly balanced opinion, then.

Araminta raised a glass. 'Ozzie, I hope not.

'Going Higher is wrong, it's a technocrat route. We're a humanist solution to immortality and evolution.

'You still rely on technology, though.

'It's a very small reliance. A few gaiamotes to homologize our thoughts. It's a simple procedure.

'Ah hah! You are trying to convert me.

He grinned. 'You're paranoid.

'All divorcees are. So are any of you female?

'No. Some multiples are multisexual, but that's not for me. Too much like masturbation I'd imagine.

'I've just thought of something, and you have to answer because it's not fair.

'What's not fair?

'Well, you can see that I'm not with anyone else this evening—

'Ah, his smile turned devious. 'So in among all the hard work the rest of mes are doing back at the macrostore, is there another of me in a different restaurant chatting to another woman? Right?

'Yeah, she admitted.

'Why would it have to be a different restaurant? he gestured round extravagantly. 'Be honest, how could you tell if one of them is me?

The idea made her draw a breath and glance round.

Mr Bovey was laughing. 'But I'm not, he assured her. 'All I'm interested in tonight is you and you alone. His gaze dropped to the front of her dress. 'How could I not be?

'That's, she took another drink of the wine, 'very flattering, thank you.

Which got the evening back on more or less standard lines.

* * * * *

The mighty creatures fly free amid glorious coloured streamers which glow strongly against the infinite dark of the outer reaches. They loop round the great scarlet promontories which extend for lightyears, curving and swooping above the mottled webbing of faint cold gas. As they fly, the notions of what was brush against their bodies to tingle their minds as if they are travelling through the memories of another entity. Such a notion is not far from the truth, especially this close to the nucleus of their universe.

This one she tenants turns lazily along its major axis, aware of its kindred surrounding it. The flock is spread across millions of kilometres. Over a planetary diameter away, another of its own is also rolling, mountain-sized elongated body throwing its vacuum wings wide, tenuous tissues of molecules as large as atmospheric clouds that shimmer delicately in the thin starlight. Somewhere out across the vast gulf it is aware of the whispers of thought arising once more from a solid world. Once more there are individual minds growing strong again, becoming attuned to the fabric of this universe. As it basks in the gentle radiance pouring out of the nebula, it wonders when the minds will have the strength to truly affect reality. Such a time, it agrees with its kindred, is sure to come. Then the flock will depart the great nebula to search out the newcomers, and carry their completed lives back to the nucleus, where all life eventually culminates.

It was a pleasurable notion which made Araminta sigh contentedly even though the creature was slipping away into the darkness where it dwelled. Misty starlight gave way to a row of flickering candles. The gossamer breath of nebula dust firmed up into strong fingers sliding along her legs; more hands began to stroke her belly, then another pair squeezed her breasts. Sweet oil was massaged into her skin with wicked insistence. Tongues licked with intimate sensually.

'Time to wake up, a voice murmured.

On the other side of her another voice encouraged, 'Time to indulge yourself again.

Amid a delicious drowsiness Araminta bent herself in the way the hands were urging. She blinked lazily, seeing the Mr Bovey she'd had dinner with standing beside the vast bed. He smiled down. As she grinned back up at him she was impaled from behind. She gasped, startled and excited, seeing a look of rapture cross his face. A further set of hands started to explore her buttocks. She opened her mouth to receive the cock of a really young him. Which was extremely bad of her.

She didn't know how many hims she was accommodating this time. She didn't know if it was nearly morning or still the middle of the night. She didn't care. Flesh and pleasure was her here and now, her whole universe.

After the meal at Richard's, his capsule had brought them back to his place, a large house set above the city's south bank with lawns that reached down to the river. It wasn't even midnight. Several of hims were in the lounge, a couple were cooking, three were in the swimming pool. More were resting or sleeping upstairs, he told her.

It was like holding court. Her sitting on a broad leather sofa, hims on either side, and more sprawled on cushions at her feet as they chatted away. She took a long time to fight down her instinct that they were all separate people. He enjoyed teasing her, switching speaker mid-sentence, even arguing among himself. But the simultaneous laughter his bodies came out with was endearing. It was a wonderfully languid seduction.

Then the one she'd gone to dinner with leaned over and kissed her. By then the wine and the anticipation were making her heart pound and her skin burn.

'You choose, he murmured silkily.


'How many, and which ones.

She'd glanced round, and seen identical expressions of delight and eagerness on each of him. For that long moment every one of him was completely indistinguishable; he could have been clones. That was when she accepted on a subconscious level that he truly was one.

'You of course, she told her dinner companion. 'You did all the hard work getting me back here, after all. Then she pointed. 'You. The handsome one. 'You. Young and very well muscled — she'd seen that when he climbed out of the pool.

The chosen three led her upstairs. Araminta thought that was daring enough, but the night swiftly evolved into a strenuous sexual adventure as Mr Bovey began teaching her acts that could only be performed as a group. 'Trust me, one of hims said as he opened an aerosol in her face. 'It's a booster. It'll amplify your pleasure, sort of even things up between you and mes. Araminta breathed it down. It was potent.

They gathered round, strong hands supporting her in different positions. She was made to climax with each of hims in turn, with the booster increasing the sensation each time as it gradually saturated her bloodstream. After the third one she flopped back on the mattress in a lovely warm fugue. That was when she saw more of hims had arrived to wait silent and naked around the bed. She didn't protest as they stared down excitedly. 'Yes, she told them. In unison the fresh bodies closed in.

More than once that night Araminta swooned from a combination of exhaustion and aerosol-fuelled ecstasy. Each time he allowed her a small rest before rousing her again. Those were the occasions when she dreamed her strange dream.

She didn't wake up until mid-morning. When she did, the details of the night had merged together into a single strand of relentless animal behaviour. She'd surprised herself by yielding to everything he'd demanded from her.

The diner date Bovey was lying on the bed beside her. He was the only one left in the bedroom. 'Good morning, he said with soft politeness.

'Yeah, Araminta said. She still felt hopelessly tired, as well as unpleasantly sore. The aerosol had worn off, leaving her skin cool and slightly clammy.

'You look beautiful when you're sleeping, did you know that?

'I… No one has told me that before.

'How do you feel?

'Uh, okay I suppose.

'All right, he said in an understanding tone, and stroked some dishevelled hair from her face. 'Let me put it this way; would you like another night like that?

'Yes, she whispered, and knew she was blushing. Despite the frequent outrages he'd committed it had been absolutely the best sex she'd ever had. Exactly the kind of multiple-partner athleticism Cressida always boasted about and she'd been too timid to try. But last night it had technically only been one man; this way she got the thrill without the emotional guilt — almost.

'I hoped you would. Not every single can cope with me like that. You're very special, Araminta.

'I… She hesitated, unsure how much to confide. Which is stupid. 'It was like I was becoming part of you. Is that silly?

'No. With an experience that acute there's always a merger through the gaiafield with anyone nearby, though you mostly remained closed to me. Was that by choice?

'I don't have gaiamotes.

He gave her a curious look. 'Interesting. I was sure… nah, skip it. The house is running a bath for you.

'Thank you. So where do we go from here?

'There's a play on at the Broadway Empire, some kind of comedy, with real actors. I've booked for tonight.

Which wasn't quite what she wanted qualifying. 'Lovely. And after?

'I would like you to come back here, back to this bed. I'd really like that.

Araminta nodded demurely. 'I will. She didn't think it could ever be as exciting as last night had been. First times were always special, but if hes were just as randy tonight it would still be the hottest sex in town. She eased herself off the bed, drawing a sharp breath as she straightened up. 'Um, how many bodies have you got?

It was his turn to seem reticent. 'Over thirty.

'How many… last night?

'Six, he said with a very male grin of satisfaction.

'Ozzie! That's it, I'm now officially a complete trollop. Can't wait to see Cressida's face when I tell her that. Six! She'll be as jealous as hell.

'What do you want for breakfast? he asked as she opened the door to the en suite bathroom.

'Orange juice, Bathsamie coffee strong, croissants with strawberry and hijune jam.

'It'll be ready when you are.

* * * * *

The regrav capsule sped low over the scrub desert. Dead and desiccated bushes virtually the same colour as the crumbling jaundiced mud from which they'd grown merged to a speckled blur as Aaron looked down through the transparent fuselage. Their jumbled smear confused his visual perspective, making it difficult to tell if their altitude was one metre or a thousand. He often found himself searching for the capsule's jet-black shadow slithering fast across the low undulations to provide a clue.

A couple of minutes before they reached the ranch, he saw a fence; posts of bleached wood sticking up in a section of desert which appeared no different to the rest of the wretched expanse. Rusty spikewire sagged between them. More fences flashed past underneath as they drew closer. The fields they marked out were smaller, closer together. Eventually the clutter of buildings which comprised the ranch itself were visible, nestling at the centre of a vast web of spikewire.

'What does he raise out here? Corrie-Lyn asked.

'Korrimues, Aaron said.

'I can't see anything moving.

'Wrong season, I think.

She gave the vast desert a disapproving look. 'There are seasons out here?

'Oh yes. It rains every ten years.

'Gosh, how do the ranchers stand the excitement?

The capsule began to circle the ranch. He counted eight large outlying barn sheds, all built from an ancient ginger-coloured composite, while the house in the middle was a white stone structure surrounded by a big emerald garden. An outdoor swimming pool shimmered deep turquoise. Terrestrial horses cantered around a broad paddock.

'Okay, that actually looks rather nice, Corrie-Lyn said grudgingly.

His field functions reported the capsule was being given a broad-spectrum scan. 'Not quite paradise, he muttered. His own passive scan was registering some dense power clumps in the ground. They were arranged in an even circle around the perimeter. A defence ring of some kind.

The capsule settled on a designated zone just outside the garden.

'Can you… he started to say to Corrie-Lyn, then saw her disinterested expression. 'Just leave the talking to me, okay?

'Of course I will. Shall I just stay in here? Or would you like to gag me? Perhaps you'd prefer me stuffed into a suspension pod?

'Now there's true tempting, he told her cheerfully, ignoring the scowl.

Paul Alkoff was leaning on the five bar gate which led to the paddock, dressed entirely in faded blue denim with a Stetson perched on his head. A tall man who was finally allowing his seven and a half centuries to show. His hair was snow white, worn long at the back but perfectly brushed. His movements were noticeably slow, as if each limb was stiff. With skin that was tanned dark brown his pale blue eyes seemed to shine out of his thin face. A neatly trimmed goatee added to his palpable air of distinction. Even Aaron recognized he was in the presence of a formidable man, he immediately began to wonder just how much living had been crammed into those seven hundred and fifty years. A great deal, if he was any judge.

'Sir, thank you for agreeing to see me.

Corrie-Lyn shot him a surprised look at the respectful tone.

Paul gave a small smile then lifted his Stetson an inch off his hair and inclined his head to Corrie-Lyn. 'Ma'am. Welcome.

'Um, hello, a thoroughly confused Corrie-Lyn managed.

'Don't normally allow your kind in my home, Paul said directly to Aaron. 'So you'll understand if I don't ask you in and break bread with you.

'My biononics are for combat, I'm not Higher.

'Uh huh. Don't suppose it makes no difference these days, son. That battle was fought a long time ago.

'Did you win?

'Planet's still human, so I guess we did some good back then.

'So you are Protectorate?

'My old partners asked me to let you land. When I enquired, I heard they got leaned on by people high up in the movement, people we haven't heard from in a long time. You made that happen, son, so I'd appreciate it if you don't go all coy with me now.

'Of course not'

'What do you want?


'Figured as much. He turned and rested his elbows on the top of the gate. 'You see Georgia out there? She's the one with the dappled mane.

Aaron and Corrie-Lyn walked over to the gate. 'Yes, sir, Aaron said.

'Frisky little thing, ain't she? I can trace her blood-line right back to Arabians on Earth from the mid-nineteenth century. She's as pure as they come. Not an artificial sequence in her whole genome; conceived naturally and born from her mother's belly just as every one of her ancestors have been. To me, that is a thing of beauty. Sublime beauty. I do not wish to see that spoiled. No indeed, I don't want to see her foals improved. She and her kind have the right to exist in this universe just as she was intended to by the planet that created her.

Aaron watched the horse as she cantered around, tossing her mane. 'I can understand that.

'Can you now? And my hat.


Paul took his Stetson off, and examined it before returning it to his head. 'This is the real McCoy, I'll have you know. One of the very last to come out of Texas, over two hundred and fifty years ago in a factory that's manufactured them for damn near a millennia, before ANA finally shut down what it regarded as an inconsequential irrelevance. The once-humans who live on that poor ole world these days don't even make them as a hobby any more. I bought a whole batch and keep them in stasis so every time I wear one out I'll have another a fresh one. I have only two left now. That's a crying shame. But then I don't expect to be around long enough to use that last one. It'll sit right there on top of my coffin.

'I'm sorry to hear that, sir.

'So tell me, son, do you see what I am now?

'Not quite, no.

Paul fixed Aaron with a perturbingly intense stare. 'If I can get all hot under the collar about the purity of a hat, just think what I'm like when human heritage is threatened with extinction.


'Yes. I'm Protectorate, and proud of it. I've played my part in preventing those obscene perversions from spreading their sanctimonious bullshit supremacy across these glorious stars. Higher isn't like some old-fashioned religion or ideology. With them, fellas who hold two different beliefs can argue and cuss about such notions all night long over a bottle of whisky and laugh it off in the morning like gentlemen. But not Higher culture. I regard it as a physical virus to be exterminated. It will contaminate us and take away choice. If you are born with biononics infecting your cells, your choice is taken away from you. You will download your thoughts into ANA. That's it. No option, no alternative. Your essence has been stolen from you before you are born. Humans, true humans, have free will. Highers do not. No indeed.

'And the life they live between birth and download? Corrie-Lyn asked.

'Irrelevant. They're the same as pets, or more likely cattle, cosseted and protected by machines until the moment they're ready to submit to their metal god in a final sacrifice.

'So what's the point in that god creating them?

'Ultimately, there won't be one. Despite the years, this is early days yet. ANA believes it is our replacement. If it is allowed free reign it will see us extinct.

'A lot of species continue after their post-physical plateau, Aaron said. 'For most a singularity is a regeneration event, those that don't go post-physical diversify and spread across new stars.

'Yes. But no longer what they were. Paul gazed out at Georgia again. 'Unless she is protected, the universe will never see her like again. That is wrong. It cannot be allowed.

'The radical Higher movement is almost extinct, Aaron said. 'There are no more infiltrations. ANA saw to that.

Paul smiled thinly. 'Yeah, and ain't that an irony. Maybe the Good Lord is having a joke on his metal pretender over morals.

'I need to ask you about your time as an active Protectorate member.

'Go right ahead, son. I don't know what you are, but I'm pretty sure what you're not, and that's the police or some version of them.

'No, sir, I am not.

'Glad to hear it.

'I'm here about Inigo.

Ah. That was high up on my list. You two looking for him?

'Did you know he was Higher?

Paul's reaction startled Aaron. The old man slapped his hand on the gate, and produced a beaming smile. 'Son of a bitchl I knew it, I goddamn knew it. Hell, he was a wily one. Do you know how long we watched him?

'So you suspected?

'Of course we suspected.

'That means Erik Horovi was Higher?

'Erik? Hell no. Poor kid. He was used just like the sisters by that bastard angel.

'Sisters? Are you talking about Inigo's aunt?

'You don't know so much after all, do you, son?

'No, sir. But I do need to learn. It is urgent.

'Ha. Everything is urgent. The whole universe is in a hurry these days. I know it's that way because I'm older, but damn—

'Erik, Aaron prompted gently.

'We'll start with the angel. You know what they are?

'I've heard of them.

'The radical Highers wanted to convert entire worlds to their culture. They didn't want to give people a choice about it. Like I said, if you're born with biononics you don't have any options in life, in what you become. So back then these angels would land on a planet and do their dirty work; starting the infection which would spread across the entire population. Now the Protectorate watched the spaceports for anyone with biononics, and kept tabs on them while they were visiting. Still do, so I gather. So the angels would land out in the wilds somewhere. They'd jump offship while it was still in low orbit, and their force fields would protect them through aerobraking. He gave Aaron a long look. 'Could you do that?

'Yes, I suppose so. It's just a question of formatting. But back then it would have been cutting edge.

'Oh the bastards were that, for sure. The force fields were what earned them their name. They were shaped like wings, and brought them down to the world amid a fiery splendour. A lot of them got through unnoticed. This time, though, we got lucky; a sympathizer out fishing saw the thermal trail it left over the ocean and called it in. Me and my team tracked the monster to Kuhmo. But we weren't quick enough. By the time we got there it had hooked up with Erik Horovi and Imelda Viatak, who were dating just like normal kids. Now the thing with angels is they're hermaphroditic, and they're beautiful. I mean really beautiful. This one was exceptional even by their standards, either a pretty boy or a real humdinger of a girl depending on your own gender. It was what you wanted it to be. So it made friends with Erik and Imelda and went to bed with both of them. Erik first. Now that's important. Its organs injected his sperm with biononics. Then it lay with Imelda and impregnated her with Erik's altered sperm.

'Contraception? Aaron queried.

'No use. Angels can neutralize it faster than any medic. So the kids find they're having a baby, and the DNA test proves it's theirs no question. Biononics are hellishly difficult to detect in an embryo even today. Back then it was near impossible. So, bang, you've got a challenging in the nest without ever knowing it. Biononics don't come active until puberty, so by then it's too late. Plant enough of them in a population, and a few generations later most of the births are Higher. But we intercepted this little love triangle in time.

'The college art block, Corrie-Lyn said.

'Yes, ma'am. You might say the angel put up something of a fight. But we got it. All you really need to defeat biononics is a heavier level of firepower. The art block got in the way.

'What about the baby?

'We took Erik and Imelda back to our field headquarters. She was pregnant, about two weeks gone as I recall, and it was infected.

'I thought you couldn't tell.

Paul looked straight ahead at the horizon. 'There are ways you can find out. You have to test the cells directly.

'Oh, Ozzie, Corrie-Lyn breathed, her face had paled.

'We took it out of her and checked. No kind of embryo can survive that kind of test. Fortunately we were right this time, it was one of them.

'You're not human, no matter what you claim.

Aaron gave her a furious look. She started to say something then threw her hands up in disgust and walked away.

'Sorry about that, Aaron said. 'What happened?

'Standard procedure in cases when the girl knows she's pregnant, which Imelda did. We can't wipe weeks from their memories, that would be detectable. So we took another ova from her and fertilized it with Erik's contribution, and implanted. Then they both got a memory wipe for the evening they spent with us. Next morning they wake up with a bad hangover, and can't remember what they did. Typical teenage morning after.

'Did it go wrong, then?

'No, son, everything worked perfectly. Nine months later they had a lovely little girl. A normal one.

'So how was Inigo conceived?

'Imelda had a sister.


'Yes. They were twins. Identical twins.

'Ah. I think this is starting to make sense.

'I should have realized. It's every teenage boy's ultimate fantasy; plenty of men, too.

'He slept with both of them.

'Yes. Him and the angel. You just confirmed that for me. Finally. Part of the Protectorate's whole clean-up procedure is to review the angel's memories, to find out who it has contaminated. Hacking into its brain is a terrible, terrible thing, one of the greatest abuses of medical technology possible. It takes days to break the protection which biononics provide for the neurones. I used to do it for the team, may God forgive me, but it was necessary. There's no other way of discovering what those devil-spawned monsters have been up to. It's not an exact science, now or then. Minds are not tidy little repositories like a memory kube. I had to merge my mind with its and endure its vile slippery thoughts inside my own skull. When I reviewed its recent memories I actually experienced coupling with Imelda. He closed his eyes, clearly pained by the fraudulent memory. 'Her face was inches from me. She tasted so… sweet. But, now, I don't suppose it was all her. Rather, the memories weren't just of her. I couldn't tell the difference between the girls. Damnit, at the time I didn't know there was a difference I should be searching for.

'So Inigo was born as part of a radical Higher infiltration plan.

'Yes. We were shocked when we found out Sabine was pregnant, but that was just before she was due. There were a lot of arguments within my team about what we should do.

'Snatch the baby and test it.

'That was one option. The mild one. Paul looked over at Corrie-Lyn who was sitting on a low concrete wall outside one of the barns. 'But intervention becomes progressively difficult as time winds away, especially once the child is born. We're not… There's a difference between abortion and infanticide — to me, anyway. And once it was born it has a legal right of residency. Even if we took it away from the mother and shipped it back to the Central Worlds, they'd just send it right back. Legally, it's a mess. Which is why the Protectorate was formed, to stop the whole nightmare scenario before it gets politically complicated.

'So what did you do?

'I never really believed the girls having a kid two weeks apart was coincidence. In the event, we settled for observation. If Inigo was infected he'd give himself away eventually, they all do.

'But he didn't.

'No. We monitored him off and on for over twenty-five years. He never put a foot wrong. He was a straight down the line normal human. School. University. Girlfriends. Not exceptionally sporting. Got injured when he played football. Had to get a job. Kept out of local politics. Signed up with a rejuve finance company. When he took aerosols he got high. Took a boring academic position in the state university cosmology department. There was nothing to indicate he had biononics. Right up until you arrived today I'd still have said he most probably didn't. I had come to accept that his birth maybe was coincidence after all. Believe me, son, if we'd confirmed it when he reached legal age we would have made a quiet ultimatum.

'Leave or die.

'Yes. There's no other way you can treat them?

'Then he did leave, didn't he? All the way to Centurion Station.

'Yes. And what a goddamned pitiful mess that's turned into. Half the aliens in the galaxy want to shoot us out of space. Who can blame them.

'It's only the Ocisen Empire.

'You mean they're the only ones who have declared themselves. Don't tell me you think the others are just going to sit back and let us wreck the very stars themselves.

'Who knows? If I can find him maybe we can put a stop to the whole Pilgrimage.

'I should have killed him in the womb when I had the chance.

'Whatever he is, he's not Higher.

'He might not be polluted with their culture, yet, but it will come to him eventually.

'Apparently not. He found an alternative to a route you believed was set in stone. His destiny is inside the Void, not with ANA.

Paul shrugged. 'Whichever one it is, it's not a human destiny.

'Our destiny is what we decide to make it. Free choice, remember.

'You're wrong, son. I see you believe in yourself, and I wish you well in that. But you're wrong.

'Okay, we'll just differ on that one. What happened to Erik?

'Bodyloss. Paul caught Aaron's expression. 'Not us, it was a genuine accident. He was working hard to support both girls. A decent lad, I guess. The farmer he was helping out didn't do very good maintenance. The agribot chewed him up something bad. This was maybe six months after the kids were born. His insurance was all paid up, but he'd only just had his memorycell fitted. It's always the same in cases like that. The new body only has a few months of memories, which is never enough to install a decent level of personality. In his re-life state he was very childlike, ironically because his entire childhood was what he lacked. There was no real emotional connection with the sisters and his two children. Not immediately. Imelda worked hard at correcting that. She did well. They went off together. Sabine and little Inigo got left behind. It kicked off a huge family row. The sisters never really spoke after that.

'Which is why Aunt Imelda got written out of his official history.

'That's pretty much it. Yes.

* * * * *

'I've never met a more despicable human, Corrie-Lyn said as the regrav capsule lifted from the ranch. 'And I include our dear Cleric Conservator in that statement.

'Did you ever meet a Higher angel?


'Well then.

'That's it? she shouted angrily. 'That's your justification?

'I'm not trying to justify anything. All I'm doing is pointing out that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. What he used to do was part of the era.

'He's a psychopath. Fuck knows how many babies he's killed. He belongs in suspension for the rest of eternity.

'Dead, you mean.

'Whatever! she snapped, and slumped down into the cushioning. Her delicate features set in a furious sulk.

'I told you to leave the talking to me.

'Shut the fuck up.

'Well at least he helped us.


'There now you see, if you hadn't gone stomping off in a huff…

'Screw you. I bet you were Protectorate before the memory wipe. It certainly fits.


'You can't be certain, though. And how come you have such highly placed contacts in their filthy organization?

'I simply know who to ask in such circumstances, that's all. Information does not imply compliance; and I don't know where my data originates from.

'Pah! She turned to watch the desert skim past.

Aaron waited a minute for her to relent. When she didn't, he smiled quietly and said, 'Inigo bought a rejuvenation policy.

'So? She managed to spit it out with more petulance than a tantruming five-year-old.

'It was part of his attempt to fit in with a normal existence, Aaron continued passively. 'No one with biononics needs a rejuvenation treatment, that's strictly for Advancers and normals. Biononics maintain human cells at an optimum state; the body doesn't age biologically after you hit twenty-five. He did it to fool the Protectorate. After all, he knew what his heritage was, which means he knew what they would do to him if he made a slip.

'And that helps us how?

'It means he had a secure memory store. It probably dates right up to his assignment to Centurion Station.

'I'm so sorry, I didn't realize you were deaf. And that helps us how?

'Somewhere on Anagaska there's an electronic version of the young Inigo's personality. Alkoff gave me the name of the company he bought the policy from.

'That's not going to— Oh dear Ozzie! You have got to be kidding.

Aaron grinned cheerfully at her. 'About time this planet saw a little excitement.

* * * * *

Prior to the Starflyer war, when the Commonwealth was essentially one society comprising predominantly physical citizens, the government created a very senior committee named the Exo-Protectorate Council whose brief was to evaluate the threat level presented by each new alien species as it was discovered. After ANA came on line and took over design, manufacture, and operation of the Commonwealth Navy's warships, threat became something of a non-term. If the old Commonwealth could defeat the Primes, ANA with its near post-physical technology was unlikely to be menaced by anything less than a malevolent post-physical. That wasn't to say that the remaining physical sector of the Commonwealth couldn't encounter a whole load of grief out among the stars. So the ExoProtectorate Council lived on in a modified form inside ANA, operating independently from ANA: Governance.

Its meetings were few and infrequent. Therefore, when Admiral Kazimir called for one, every delegate appeared, suspecting the reason. They met in a neutral perceptual reality in a secure location within ANA, comprising an old-fashioned conference room with rather extravagant white and orange furniture and a panoramic window showing them the Mollavian plains with their wall of hydrogen volcanoes. Sheets of ice-pebble meteorites sleeted downwards, burning crimson contrails with lightning forks rippling in their wake.

Kazimir activated the perceptual reality, and materialized in the seat at the head of the table. Gore flicked in a millisecond later, sitting directly to Kazimir's right. He was followed by Justine. Ilanthe was next to appear, a delicate-looking woman dressed in a blue and grey leotard. Her dark hair had been cropped short and coloured with purple streaks. They didn't represent any kind of enrichments, they were just highlights. It was a style which Kazimir thought he recognized, but couldn't quite place without running a check through his enhanced neural structure. Ilanthe wasn't worth the effort; she was the Accelerator Faction's appointment to the Council, and enjoyed making mischief where she could. The trick with her was not to rise to the bait.

Crispin Goldreich arrived in the seat next to Justine. Over a thousand years ago he'd been a Senator sitting on the original ExoProtectorate Council. It was an appointment he'd maintained ever since. Kazimir and ANA: Governance allowed him to remain because when it came to advising on the political angle of a crisis there were few better short of a full Governance convocation. Unfortunately, his usefulness was limited by a somewhat xenophobic view of aliens; several members of his family had been lost on Nattavaara during the Starflyer War, which had shaped his opinion ever since. As such he was a strong advocate of both the Isolationist and Internalist Factions.

The last two were Creewan and John Thelwell, who respectively put forward Custodian and Darwinist Faction positions.

'Thank you for attending, Kazimir said. 'I have implemented this Council because the situation with regards to the Ocisen Empire has entered a new stage. The Navy squadron deployed in the Hancher domain have detected a massive Empire fleet is now in flight. Its trajectory is aimed directly at the Commonwealth, specifically the sector containing Ellezelin.

'How many ships? Justine asked.

'Two thousand eight hundred and seventeen, Kazimir replied. 'Of which nine hundred are their Starslayer class, the biggest most expensive warships they've ever built. The Empire's economy has suffered a significant downturn over the last forty years in order to facilitate their production. They are armed with warheads similar to quantumbusters. They think we don't know about them, but we detected the trials they conducted forty-five years ago.

'They have quantumbusters? Crispin asked.

'A variant of, yes, Kazimir said. 'Such a development was inevitable. They make our atom-bomb-era species look like a bunch of pacifists.

'And the Navy hasn't bothered to share this with us?

'The Empire believes their advantage is that we don't know. To make it public knowledge that the Empire possesses a device which the External Worlds would regard as a doomsday weapon would be to give away our advantage, not to mention damaging public confidence.

'They must be insane, Creewan muttered. 'The Emperor must realize how we'll react to an assault of that nature. They know how strong we are.

'Actually, they don't, Kazimir said. 'Nobody outside ANA: Governance and myself knows the exact capability of the deterrence fleet.

'Please tell me it is strong enough to deal with the Ocisen Empire.

'Don't concern yourself on that score. They do not pose any sort of threat.

'Are they alone? Gore asked. 'The Ambassador was quite adamant that they'd dug up some decent allies.

'There were no non-Empire ships in the fleet which launched, Kazimir said.

'We'll make a politician out of you yet, my boy. So do we know for sure that the Starslayer class are only armed with quantumbusters, or have they found some nasty left overs from someone who went post-physical?

'We'd have to intercept a Starslayer and scan it to be certain of the precise contents, Kazimir said. 'I don't advise that. In Ocisen terms that provocation would be a declaration of war. Plus, we'd tip their hand how powerful we are.

'Well what the hell do you advise? Crispin asked. 'They're going to find out eventually.

I'd like to avoid that. What I'd like to see applied to the Ocisens is something along the lines of intense diplomatic persuasion that they turn the fleet round and go home.

'Won't happen, Creewan said. 'If the Empire has launched what is essentially their entire Navy at us, it will be politically impossible for them to return until the Pilgrimage has been halted. Asking them nicely just won't hack it. We'll have to use force.

'What about another more immediate threat to the Empire? Justine suggested. 'Some unknown ships approaching from another direction? We could deliver that, surely?

'Yes, said Kazimir. 'But it simply postpones the inevitable. We can manufacture what appears to be a threat, but if their fleet returns to challenge an intruder then our bluff will be called. I cannot blow up star systems simply to maintain an illusion. No matter the morality, there is a considerable physical problem with radiation. Our Firewall project showed that.

'How long until they get here? Ilanthe asked.

'Their flight-time to Ellezelin is seventy-nine days, Kazimir said. 'A significant figure, because the Pilgrimage fleet will not be completed by then. It is reasonable to assume their aim is to hit the Pilgrimage ships while they're still on the ground. If the Living Dream were to get its ships into space, they would be a lot harder to intercept, especially for the Empire.

'Then I don't understand your reluctance to create a diversion. Once the Pilgrimage ships are in space, the Empire fleet is effectively neutralized. You don't have to do anything as dramatic as blow up a star on the other side of the Empire. Launch a thousand drones with a phantom signature, so it appears a hostile fleet is heading to the Empire. Buy us some time for Living Dream.

'They'd know, Gore said. 'It's the timing again. They launch their fleet. We have to delay it and oh look, here's an unknown threat coming at them from the other side of space. How about that for coincidence? Even the Osceans aren't that stupid.

'Don't count on it, John Thelwell muttered.

'It would have to be a credible threat to divert them, Kazimir said.

'So skulk around the Empire's borders and wreck a couple of stars, or at least planets.

'We employ the word Empire too glibly, Justine said. 'The most literal translation of their planets is, Worlds upon which we nest. I'm ashamed this committee is prepared to demonize the Osceans to justify force. We must concentrate on peaceful solutions.

Ilanthe gave Gore a small victory smile as he glowered at his daughter.

'If they weren't sending a fleet towards us armed with enough quantumbusters to wipe out every Commonwealth planet I might not refer to them as a bunch of psychopathic fuckheads, Gore snapped. 'As it is, we are here to advise the Navy on how to respond. You met the Ambassador. Exactly what sort of peaceful overture do you think the Empire will respond to?

'We have to provide them with options, Justine said. 'Preferably ones which allow them to save face.

'Like pressuring Living Dream not to launch its ridiculous Pilgrimage, Creewan said.

'Outside this committee's remit, Ilanthe said swiftly. 'We advise the Navy on its response. She didn't even turn to look at Creewan. 'You want to push for something like that, bring it up at a political meeting, or even Governance.

'It is a valid option, Justine said.

'Not here it isn't. Here we decide on how many of their suns we turn nova in order to convince them to turn back.

'Nobody is turning Empire suns nova, Kazimir said. 'As I said, their fleet does not pose a physical threat to any aspect of the Commonwealth. It can be effectively neutralized.

'That's quite a big claim, Ilanthe said. 'You sure about that?

'Providing they do not possess an excess of stolen post-physical technology, yes.

'Then do just that, neutralize them. Stop them cold in interstellar space. It's not like they have a back-up fleet to send if anything goes wrong.

Kazimir glanced round the table. 'Is that the recommendation of this committee?

'It certainly is not, Justine said.

'And your plan is…? Ilanthe enquired archly.

A warning, John Thelwell said. 'In all likelihood, several warnings, considering who we're dealing with. Followed by a demonstration of our capability and intent.

'Would that be several demonstrations? Justine asked acidly. 'Just to get the point over how big and scary we are.

'Once they see they cannot stop the Pilgrimage they will turn back.

'That implies a governing factor of logic and reason, Crispin said. 'This is the Osceans we're talking about. They've committed to stopping us. Even if it meant the death of every starship in their fleet, they'll keep coming.

'The warships will be disabled, not destroyed, Kazimir said. 'I could not countenance such a loss of life.

'Then I don't even see what you convened us for, Crispin said.

'Because Governance and I don't want to reveal our true capability outside a genuine and serious threat, which this is not.

'Rock and a hard place, Gore grunted. 'The only way to deal with them without huge loss of life all round is by using ANA's technology, which in turn makes us frightening to all the physical aliens knocking around this section of the galaxy.

'This is a morals debate? Ilanthe mocked.

'It might even get the Raiel worried about us, Justine said.

'Gets my vote, Gore said. 'Supercilious little turds. It's about time someone gave their pedestal a good kicking.

'Oh stop it, Justine told him.

Gore leaned forward. 'Deliver a warning to the command ship, he said. 'If it is ignored, disable that ship. If they continue after that, take the lot of 'em down. Use the lowest-level of technology we've got that will do the job, but do it.

'Seconded, Crispin said.

'I would point out that it will be a nestling of the Emperor in charge of the fleet, said Creewan. 'The political implications of the ruling nest being defeated are not good. The likelihood of subsequent instability are strong.

'Which neither harms nor concerns us, John Thelwell said. He gave the Custodian a dismissive glance. 'We've given the Empire a beating before; they never learn.

'Our position gives us an obligation, Justine said.

'Only according to human morals, Ilanthe said. 'These are aliens.

'I wish to remain true to myself, thank you, Justine said primly.

'Of course you do.

'I vote against any physical force being used against the Empire fleet, no matter how restrained. We need to seek an alternative.

'Thank you, Mother, Kazimir said. 'Anyone else against the motion?

Creewan raised his hand.

Kazimir looked round the table. 'Then it is the majority vote that the Navy delivers a warning to the command ship, and subsequently disables it if that warning is ignored. I will initiate that immediately.

'And what if they keep on coming after the command ship is taken out? Justine asked. 'Which they will, and you all know it.

'Then I will reconvene this committee, Kazimir said.

She let out an exasperated hiss of breath, and against all etiquette withdrew instantly. The others stared at the vacated space as the perceptual reality adjusted to her absence.

'That's what being in a real body does for you, Ilanthe muttered archly.

'I will, of course, provide a secure link to the Navy ship delivering the ultimatum, Kazimir said. 'All of you will be able to access the event.

'How long until the demand is made? John Thelwell asked.

'I'd like to bring in a ship which I know has the ability to disable a Starslayer without loss of life, Kazimir said. 'We have that capability in the Hancher assistance squadron. Flight time will be within ten days. The warning will allow them one Earth day to turn round.

'We'll be back here in a fortnight, then, Gore predicted.

* * * * *

Less than a second after the meeting officially ended, Ilanthe requested access to Gore's personal perceptual reality. He'd been expecting it and permitted her entry as he ambled along the white-sand beach below the headland. She walked up out of the water, wearing a blue and white bikini.

'Very Ursula Andress, he said appreciatively. Gone was the spiky Cat hairstyle of the meeting, she was shaking droplets out of long honey-coloured tresses.

'Thank you. Ilanthe squinted up at the noon sun; holding a pale hand across her forehead. 'The governors you have configuring this place are very crude. Am I likely to get sunburn?

'They're not crude, just strong. Prevents hostiles trojaning in nasty surprises. And no, you won't get sunburn, just increase your skin pigmentation factor.

'Ah. She blinked as her skin darkened to a rich bronze. 'It's still a very earthy environment to me. Will you get me drunk and seduce me?

'Sex is common enough between enemies.

'Oh Gore, she pouted. 'We're not enemies. Besides we both got what we wanted out of the meeting.

'Did we?

'We both voted for the same thing. Why? Is dear Justine still sulking?

He started walking along the shoreline again. 'One word of genuine advice: don't ever underestimate my daughter. I still do occasionally. It's a mistake.

'Point taken. Do you think Kazimir will delay because of her?

'Fuck no. He's the most Right Stuff human you'll ever meet. Government gave him a clear order, so he clicks his boot heels, salutes, and presses the button.

'You are so anachronistic. You really should update your references.

'What? Haul myself all the way into the twenty-fifth century?

'Well, one step at a time.

'That's when you were born, wasn't it?

She chuckled. 'They're right. You are pure evil.

'Who's they?

'Just about everybody.

'They're probably right then. So what can I do for you?

'Can we deal?

'On the Pilgrimage? Sure.

'Interesting capitulation. Why do I not believe you?

'It's going to be a cusp event. Every Faction knows it. Hell, even some of the animals outside are waking up to what's going on. The Darwinists are wetting themselves with excitement. And your lot aren't much better, running round, pushing and prodding in places you shouldn't.

'I don't know what you're talking about.

'That arsehole Marius is clocking up a lot of lightyears.

She pretended shock, her hand going to the base of her throat. 'As is your Delivery Man.

'True Conservatives are paranoid little creatures. They have good cause.

'You claim you're not one of them?

'I have an affiliation.

'Funny, according to our files you're the chairman of the board.

'You really should update your references.

She put her hands on her hips. 'Look, do you want to deal or not?

'You're very hot in that pose, you know that?


'All right, what are you offering?

'Some detente. A little less manipulation from both sides.

'Let the animals decide, you mean. I don't think I can buy that coming from you. In any case, we've both spent so long moving our pawns into place that they'll just keep on going without us now. He tilted his head to one side, and smiled. 'Or am I missing something?


'Really? Perhaps some critical event that you need to work smoothly?

'Moments like that are made up by historians after the event to justify their own dreary existence. There's no one thing which will make or break the Pilgrimage.

'Really? Have you ever tried telling Ozzie or Nigel that the actions of an individual are historically invalid?

'Nobody manipulated them. And this is a distraction. We simply want both sides to cool down.

'So the Accelerator Faction wants to let galactic events be decided by animals. Humm. No wonder you don't like my environment, it doesn't have any flying pigs.

'Is that your answer?

'No. But I am mildly curious. Unless either a Faction or ANA: Governance itself intervenes, the Pilgrimage ships will launch. So what the fuck exactly is the Accelerator line on the galaxy being devoured by the Void, exterminating all life including ourselves?

'It won't happen. This is why I'm here, to tell you we have taken precautions in the event of the worst-case scenario.

Gore stopped and turned to stare at her, genuinely surprised. 'What the fuck are you talking about?

'If the Void's boundary sweeps through this sector of space, Harth and ANA will be perfectly safe.

'You don't know that.

'Oh yes we do.

'I really, really, hope you're not basing your goals on some chunk of weapons technology you've managed to cobble together with a couple of old replicators. The Raiel can't defeat the boundary. Even ANA: Governance can't work out what will happen if and when the Void's boundary washes across itself.

'That level of expansion is extremely unlikely, to the point of sheer impossibility. Firstly, the stars of the Wall have tremendous mass; enough to empower the will of every Living Dream pilgrim for centuries. It is an absolute fallacy that every star in the galaxy will be engulfed by the Void. Raiel propaganda shouted in tedious repetition by the Osceans. The Raiel are an ancient failed race, as changeless as the Void itself, they have no right to dictate to us. Even if the entire galactic core gets devoured it doesn't matter. There's nothing alive in there, the planets are radiation-saturated husks of rock. You even believe it yourself, always accusing us of wanting the devourment. Have I ever said that?

'No. I know exactly what Accelerators want: fusion. Right? You want to merge ANA with the fabric of the Void continuum. You think that's how we'll achieve post-physical status.

'You have accessed Inigo's dreams, we know the Conservatives have analysed them as thoroughly as everyone else. Inside the Void, the mind directly affects the fabric of the universe, we can take charge of our own destiny.

'No, no, no, Gore shouted. 'The Void is not a fucking universe, it is a microverse, a tiny insignificant little speck of nothing. In cosmological terms, it doesn't even register. You can play God in there, for sure, the Waterwalker does it. But you're only God in there, nowhere else. It is an alien version of ANA, that's all. That's not transcendence, it's being so far up your own ass you can't see what's going on outside.

'It is a huge opportunity for growth. The Void has stalled, it has been changeless for millions — billions — of years. We can reinvigorate it. Humans have already begun that process; ordinary pitiful animals that now have mental powers even we can only fantasize about. Imagine what will happen when ANA has full access to such a technology, and begins to manipulate it in new directions.

'Sweet Ozzie, you are pitiful. I'd be contemptuous if I considered you sentient, but you're not even that.

'We knew you would be opposed to the fusion, this is what our offer concerns.

'Go on, Gore said suspiciously.

'We will duplicate ANA. Those who wish to attain fusion with the Void can stay here, those who do not can transfer over and fly free.

'That doesn't solve a fucking thing, girlie. The Void can't be allowed to fuse with a post-physical mind, or even ANA — which, face it, isn't there yet.

Ilanthe's expression hardened. 'Your language betrays you. Can't be allowed? You don't have the right to make that judgement. Evolution will occur, either triggered by the Pilgrimage, or a more direct connection. For all you know the Waterwalker himself may bring about expansion.

'He happened a thousand years ago, ten thousand for all we know.

'Time is irrelevant in there.

'Shit! You're not Accelerators, not any more, you've seen the light and converted to Living Dream.

'We have seen an opportunity to advance ourselves, and taken it. We have never hidden our purpose from anyone.

Accelerators didn't start out lusting after the Void.

'Now you are betraying your age, your own changeless nature.

'I should just get out of the way then, should I? Maybe simply erase myself? Make it all nice and simple for the New Order.

'You are responsible for your own destiny. She shrugged an elegant shoulder. 'Your choice.

'Okay, granted; and I will make it, believe me. But assuming you're right and the Void doesn't expand like a hyperspace tsunami when the Pilgrimage gets inside, how are you going to fuse ANA with it?

'We don't have to. Highers will travel with the Pilgrimage ships. They will study the true nature of the Void fabric and the mechanism which generates it.

'If it can be built once, Gore said quietly. 'It can be built again.

Ilanthe smiled. 'Now you understand. We can build a second Void here in this solar system and bring about the fusion right away. ANA will evolve and transcend.

'Nice science experiment. What happens if it doesn't work? ANA is the core of Higher culture, Earth is the physical centre of the Commonwealth. If you take that away, two cultures will suffer.

'I never thought I'd hear that: Gore Burnelli, whining liberal. Normal, Higher and Advancer humans will have to make their own way in the universe. That, too, is evolution.

'In a galaxy that your arrogance will have given a very short future.

'Our solution is one that will satisfy all Factions. Both of us can carry on almost as before.

'You weren't even born on Earth. I was. It's my home. And I'm not letting anyone fuck with it.

'Then you are even less developed that we gave you credit for. Our offer stands. I expect the other Factions will take us up on it when they see the inevitability of what is to come.

'Are you planning to blow the Empire fleet out of space?

Ilanthe looked genuinely indignant. 'Of course not. They are an irrelevance. Kazimir will deal with them, one way or another. She smiled coldly. 'Please consider our offer, Gore. It is made in the spirit of reconciliation. After all, if anyone can be said to be ANA's father, it is you. Time perhaps to let go and allow your child to make its own way in life. She trotted back into the waves and dived below the water.

Gore started at the surf where she disappeared, his mind tracing her withdrawal from his personal reality. 'Fuck me, he grunted.

When he walked along the dirt track that curved up around the headland he found Nelson already sitting by the pool at the base of the tower. As usual, there was a tall drink on the table beside him.

'Did you get all that? Gore asked as he sat down.

'I got it all. I just don't think I believe much of it. For a start she's being very glib about the Pilgrimage ships actually getting inside. What are you going to do?

'I knew they wanted the kind of abilities the Void fabric has, that's a logical development on the way to becoming post-physical, but I'm concerned about their method of acquisition. I don't believe a damn word about some bunch of selfless academics going with the Pilgrimage to study how the thing is put together. We're going to have to root around a little harder to find out what they're really up to out there. Find out what you can about that guy Marius was visiting on Arevalo, that physicist: Troblum.

'Will do. And what if ANA does finally become capable of ascending to post-physical status?

'I've always known it would right from the start. That was the whole point of it — well, that and giving ourselves the ability to defend the Commonwealth.

'Are you going to try and stop it?

'Of course not. I just don't want the natural process hijacked. And that's what's going to happen if we're not careful.

* * * * *

It was already night when Aaron's regrav capsule landed on the pad of St Mary's Clinic, just outside the reception block. He stepped out and looked round. The clinic was set in four square miles of thick forest, with individual buildings scattered across the landscape. Tall gistrel trees formed a dark wall around the pad, their long feathery branches blocking any view of the villas, medical blocks, spas, and leisure domes he knew were out there.

The only light came from the long windows of the reception block, thirty metres away, shining round the black trunks.

Corrie-Lyn stood beside him, straightening her blouse. Her face screwed up. 'Gosh, I love the whole gloomy jungle-with-wild-creatures look they've gone for. Very welcoming.

'Perhaps we could get your manic depression eradicated while we're here.

'Screw you.

'Now remember, darling, happy faces.

He gripped her hand and produced a big bright smile. She almost shook free, then remembered and drew a reluctant breath. 'Okay, but this better be quick.

The reception doors opened as they walked towards the low building. It was a plush interior, which looked as if it had been carved out of pink and gold marble, with secluded grotto chambers recessed into the wall of the central hall. Most of the chambers had been utilized by exclusive retail outlets as display booths for their inordinately expensive designer clothes and products.

Their personal clinician was waiting to greet them; Ruth Stol, who was clearly designed to promote the clinic's expertise, with a body that resembled a teenage goddess draped in semi-translucent silver and pink fabric. Even Aaron who was perfectly mission-focused took a moment to admire and smile at the vision of vitality who extended her flawless hand in greeting. His field functions detected a discreet scan from the building security net, which he deflected easily enough, showing the sensors an image of a moderately overweight man. The additional volume around his torso was actually provided by a bandolier harness carrying an array of weapons.

Ruth Stol was devoid of all enrichments, though she had more macrocellular clusters than the average Advancer, and her nervous system shone with impulses operating at the kind of rate which normal humans could only achieve with a serious dose of accelerants.

'Thank you so much for choosing our clinic Mr Telfer, she said. Her hand pressed against Aaron's palm, squeezing flirtatiously. His biononics ran a check for pheromone infiltration. Paranoid! But her touch and voice were definitely arousing him, his exovision grid showed his heart rate up, skin temperature rising.

'No infiltration, his u-shadow reported. So it was all natural, then. Hardly surprising. 'You're welcome, Corrie-Lyn said in a voice so cold it should have produced ice droplets.

'Er, yeah, Aaron mumbled belatedly. He reluctantly withdrew his hand, enjoying the coy amusement in the clinician's limpid green eyes. 'Thanks for seeing us at such short notice.

'We're always happy to help couples achieve a more secure relationship, Ruth Stol said. 'I believe you said you wanted twins?

'Twins? Corrie-Lyn repeated blankly.

'That's right. Aaron put an arm round Corrie-Lyn's shoulders, feeling the muscles locked rigid. 'The best we can have.

'Of course, Ruth Stol said. 'Boys or girls?

'Darling? Aaron enquired.

'Boys, Corrie-Lyn said.

'Do you have an idea of their physiological status?

'At least as good as you, Aaron told her, which produced another smile. 'And I'd like the pair of us to be advanced to that level, too. It's about time I went cutting edge. He patted his bulky stomach ruefully. 'Perhaps a little metabolism tweaking to thin me down.

'I'd be very grateful for that, Corrie-Lyn said. 'He's so repugnant to look at right now. Never mind sex.

'Oh darling, you promised not to mention that, Aaron said tightly.

She smiled brightly.

'It's a wonderful step to acknowledge any problems right at the start, Ruth Stol said. 'You'll be an enviable family. We can begin our appraisal tomorrow, and review what we can offer you. Our premium service will fast-track your changes; I don't expect this to take more than a couple of weeks. Were you intending to carry the twins yourself? she asked Corrie-Lyn. 'Or is it going to be a womb tank?

'Haven't decided, Corrie-Lyn smiled back. 'I love him enough to consider the physical burden, but you'll have to show me what you can do to make pregnancy easier before I commit.

'How sweet. I'll have a simulated sensory package of the full pregnancy option ready for you to review in the morning, and remember we can always reverse the changes afterwards.


'We've given you villa 163, which has its own pool, and it's not far from block three where you'll receive your treatments.

'Excellent, Aaron said. 'I think I'll go and check out the main pool and the restaurants first, especially that Singapore Grill I've heard about. What about you, dear?

'It's been a long day. I'll go to the villa, and organize that. Corrie-Lyn eyed the various displays around the hall. 'After some shopping. I really like some of these designs.

'Don't spend too much. He gave her a farewell peck on the cheek and headed out of the door. His u-shadow extracted the clinic map from the local net, which would give the appearance of normality for another few minutes. 'Can you get into the vault? he asked it.

'No. There are no data channels into the vault'

Aaron took a path away from the landing pad which would lead to the main pool building, a large blue-tinted dome that housed a lush tropical environment, with the pool itself fashioned to resemble a lagoon. The path lit up like a strip of glowing yellow fog under his feet. 'What about the security system? he asked his u-shadow.

'I can only access the lower levels. All guests are under permanent surveillance of some kind, several are red-tagged.

'Really? Are we red-tagged?


'Will they know if I leave the path?

'Yes. Various passive sensors are feeding the smart core.

'Start some diversions, please. Trigger alerts and attack the security net in several places, well away from me. Nothing to warrant a police call out.


Aaron left the path and started to run through the trees. His suit spun a stealth effect around him. After a minute slipping unseen through the forest he arrived at the administration block. There were two storeys above ground, while his research had shown ten floors cut into the bedrock beneath the forest. The secure storage vault was on the bottom. His field function scan revealed a complex array of sensors guarding the walls and surrounding swathe of garden.

He began to sprint past the last trees, accelerating hard with field-reinforced muscles until he was at the edge of the lawn, then jumped, extending his force field wide, shaping it into two long swept-back petals. Suspended between his invisible wings he glided directly at a specific window on the upper floor like a silent missile. He grinned into the air that rushed against his face and rippled his suit. Excitement was starting to build, which his biononics could only suppress so much. Even though he knew what he was going to have to do, he was still enjoying himself; this was what he existed for.

Aaron let out an em pulse from his biononics, targeted to disable the sensors and power supply around the window. When he was five metres from the wall, he triggered a disruptor effect. Glass turned to white powder and blew inwards with the sound of damp cloth being ripped. He cancelled his force field wings and dropped through the hole, hitting the floor with a roll.

Inside was a long finance department office. Deserted and dark. Door locked. He didn't use the disrupter effect, simply smashed it down with amplified muscle power. The corridor outside ran the length of the building. Orange emergency lighting produced strangely angled shadows across the walls. His scrambler effect knocked out the net across half of the building. He jogged to the emergency stairwell and burst through. Vaulted over the rail and landed with a loud thud on the concrete floor below, integral force field absorbing the impact. He scanned round.

Two security managers were sitting in the control centre, both heavily enriched. They were standing motionless as their u-shadows interfaced them with the clinic's security net and they struggled to make sense of what was happening across the forest.

The door broke apart as Aaron walked through it. Eight energy-dumps flew out from the bandolier straps under his suit, hand-sized black discs that zipped through the air like cybernetic hornets. They struck the security managers before either could fire a shot. Both of them were transformed into silhouettes of searing white light as their personal force-fields were relentlessly overloaded; tendrils of electricity lashed out from the incandescent shapes, grounding through the desks and chairs next to them. Ribbons of smoke crept up from the carpet round their feet. They began to thrash about as the discharge of energy soared to an unbearable thunderclap screech. Light panels in the ceiling detonated into splinters of bubbling plastic.

Aaron drew a jelly gun from the bandolier harness as the nimbus of light on the first manager began to fade. The man's force field flickered erratically into a purple and orange shroud. Dark shadows infiltrated the dying luminescence, exposing swathes of smouldering uniform. Aaron fired. The manager disintegrated in a spherical wave of gore that splattered across the room. After that, Aaron simply waited a few seconds until the energy-dumps completed their work on the second manager, and her force field spluttered out. The room was plunged into darkness as she fell to the floor in a sobbing heap, barely conscious.

He knelt beside her and took the surgical cutter from his pocket. The little black and silver gadget extended its eight malmetal arms as he placed it carefully on her head. Unlike Ruth Stol the clinic hadn't designed any beauty into the security manager. She had a plain round face with dark enriched eyes; the skin on her cheeks was red raw from the crackling electron currents. Tears were leaking across them as she gazed up at Aaron.

'Please, she croaked.

'Don't worry, he told her. 'You won't remember this night when you're re-lifed.

The cutter settled on the crown of her head like some vampiric creature, the arms tightening to obtain a better grip on her singed flesh. Microsurgery energy blades slid out and began to cut. Aaron waited with only the sound of gooey blood droplets drizzling down from the soot-caked ceiling to break the dark silence of the room.

'Procedure complete, his u-shadow reported.

Aaron reached down, and gently pulled the surgical cutter. It lifted upwards with a slimy sucking sound, taking the top of her skull with it. A small amount of blood welled up around the edges of the severed bone, dribbling down through the matted hair. Her exposed brain glistened a pale grey in the weak emergency lighting shining in from the corridor outside.

He poised his left hand a couple of centimetres above the gory naked flesh. The skin on his palm puckered up in seven little circles. Slender worm-like tendrils began to wriggle out of each apex. He brought the hand down on her brain, and manipulated his force field to bond the two together, preventing his hand from sliding, even fractionally. The tendrils insinuated themselves into her neurone structure, branching again and again like some plant root seeking moisture. These tips were hunting out distinct neural pathways, circumventing conscious control over not just her body but her thoughts.

Synapses were successfully violated and corrupted. His men-tallic software began to pull coherent strands out of the chaotic impulses.

Her name was Viertz Accu. A hundred and seventeen years old. Advancer heritage. Currently married to Asher Lei. Two children. The youngest, Harry, was two years old. She was upset that she'd pulled another late shift; little Harry did so like her reading to him before bedtime.

Aaron's software moved the acquisition focus up towards the present.

All earlier emotional content was now superseded by sheer terror. Body's sensory input was minimal, sinking below waves of pain from the force field collapse. One memory rising above all the others, bright and loud: the surgical cutter descending. Starting to repeat. Thoughts becoming incoherent as the memory degenerates into a psychosis loop. Limbs shake as bodyshock commences.

Forget that, Aaron's thoughts instruct the brain he now rules. He has to concentrate, to exert his own thoughts to squash the terror memory. His influence is assisted by the flawless positioning of the neurone override tendrils, making it impossible for her to resist. A different kind of mental pressure is then exerted. Her conscious thoughts wither to insensate status, effectively sinking her into a coma.

Stand, he commands the puppet body.

It straightens up, and Aaron rises beside it. His hand remains locked in place on top of her ruined head by the mucilage force field.

Clinic security system review. Schematics flip up into their mutual exovision, showing alert points. His u-shadow ends its roguish electronic assaults as he accesses the clinic net through Viertz's private secure link. False signals are generated within the administration building to replace the equipment he neutralized during his entry.

Codes. Up from Viertz's own memory and her macrocellular clusters spill file after file of codes for every aspect of the clinic. He deploys them to damp down the security net, reducing it to a level-zero state. Another set of commands reset the smartcore's alertness, convincing it that it was receiving malfunction warnings and the security managers now have everything under control.

Several operatives across the forest are calling in.

It's all right, he mouths and Viertz sends on a secure link. There's been a spate of glitches, those boogledamned glints have been getting into the cabling again. They were chewing on a node, little bastards. Boogledamned is a phrase Viertz is fond of. Glints are tiny native rodents infesting the forest and always causing problems to the clinic and its machinery, despite two illegal attempts by the management to exterminate them.

Generally the explanation is accepted. Viertz exchanges a few more in-character comments with colleagues, and signs off.


They walk along the ground floor corridor, side by side, Aaron's hand still firmly in place on her head. Viertz's code opens the lift doors. Aaron extracts additional overrides which will clear him to accompany her down to the bottom.

The vault level poses more of a problem. It is covered in sensors, all of which are linked directly to the clinic smartcore through isolated, protected circuits. There are no overrides he can utilize to smooth his passage. If it sees him it will immediately query his identity.

The mission is now time-critical.

As the lift reaches the vault level, Aaron uses an em pulse to kill all power circuits and unguarded systems. His scrambler field disables the protected security network. The smartcore now knows something is wrong, but cannot detect what. The entire floor is an electronic dead zone.

Aaron slides the lift door open with his free hand. Metal provides considerable resistance. The activators emit a screech as they are buckled by the pressure he exerts. He steps into darkness. Field function scans and infrared imaging reveal the short, empty corridor ahead. He walks along it with the zombie Viertz marching beside him until they reach the large vault door of meta-bonded malmetal at the end. Both wall and door are guarded by a strong force field, powered independently from within. His free hand strokes across the undefended corridor wall until his fingers are resting over the armoured conduit carrying part of the security net's cabling. He presses down. A small disruptor pulse disintegrates the concrete. Dust pours out, and he pushes his hand deeper into the hole. He has to excavate up to his elbow until he reaches the conduit. There is a brief clash of energy fields and the conduit shatters, exposing the optical cables inside.

The fingertips of this hand extrude slender filaments which penetrate the optical cables, immersing themselves into the blaze of coherent light flashing along the interior. His enrichments are interfaced directly into the smartcore through an unprotected link. A torrent of destructive software is unleashed by his u-shadow, corroding the smartcore's primary routines like acid on skin. In the first eight milliseconds of the assault, the smartcore loses over half of its intellectual processing capacity. Its default preservation routines withdraw its connections to the vault security system, allowing it to retreat and lick its wounds in isolation.

Aaron's u-shadow turns its attention to the connections along the other end of the expropriated optical cable, and examines the security network inside the vault. It takes less than a second to map out the system's nodes and kubes allowing it to remove the smartcore's control and safeguard procedures. The force field switches off, and the thick door opens with a low swish of retracting malmetal.

Aaron removes his hand from the ragged hole. He and Viertz walk forward in tandem, passing through the air/dust shield with a gentle buzzt. Independent lighting panels click on, revealing a shiny oblong chamber filled with floor-to-ceiling racks of translucent pink plastic kubes.

The registry is a simple slim pedestal of metal just inside.

Viertz accesses the dormant software within. She is asked for her DNA-based authority certificate.

As he passes the threshold, Aaron's field scans reveal two strange energy signatures emerging from the walls on either side of the vault. It is the final failsafe to protect the priceless half-million secure memorycells within the vault. Not listed anywhere in the security net inventory, and quietly imported from a Central World where such technology is unexceptional. Two guards with heavy weapons enrichments sealed within the temporal suspension zone of exotic matter cages. Their enrichments were already fully powered up when they began their two-year duty period. They do not ask questions as they step back into real-time, they simply open fire.

Aaron's force field is immediately pushed close to overload as it struggles to protect him and Viertz. His disadvantage is terribly obvious as energy beams pummel into him and the woman. Dense waves of scarlet photons ignite with blinding ferocity around his chest and arms. He staggers back half a step.

Send authority certificate.

But the pedestal uses non-military grade hardware. It cannot receive and acknowledge any information in such a hostile electromagnetic environment.

'Shit! His bandolier belts launch a flock of electronic counter-measure drones and five niling-sponges. The guards twist away from the threat, ducking behind the racks. Aaron reaches out with his free hand and manages to grip the top of the pedestal as the last of the energy barrage drains away from his force field. The filaments emerge from his fingertips and try to burrow into the nodes and cables underneath the metal.

Both guards spin out from behind the racks and open fire again. The niling-sponges cluster together and activate their absorption horizons. Energy beams from the weapons curve bizarrely through the hot air to sink harmlessly into the black-star blooms now drifting sedately in front of Aaron. Their horizons start to expand significantly. The guards shift to kinetic carbines. Their hypervelocity projectiles are unaffected by the niling-sponges and smash against Aaron and Viertz. The force field flares bright copper, shading up towards carmine. Aaron can feel the strain the impacts are punishing his body with, reinforcement fields are struggling to hold him upright.

On your knees.

Viertz sinks quickly to the shiny floor, presenting a smaller, more stable target. His filaments have penetrated the metal casing of the pedestal, and begin to affiliate themselves with the fine mesh of optical strands beneath.

A couple of energy-dumpers skim towards Aaron. He shoots them with a simple ion shot from an enrichment in his forearm. His force field has to reformat momentarily to allow the ions through. It is a weakness which the guards exploit ruthlessly, concentrating their fire. He feels the kinetic projectiles lance into his shoulder and upper torso. Combat software reports five direct hits. Field scans reveal the nature of the foreign projectiles. Number one is a straight explosive, which is countered by a damping field, turning it to a lump of white hot metal. Two releases a pack of firewire tangles, which expand through his flesh, ripping it apart at a cellular level, incinerating as they go, wrecking biononic organelles. They can only be staved off by a specific frequency disrupter field to attack their molecular structure, which has a debilitating effect of the biononics still functional in the area. Three dispenses a nerve agent in sufficient quantity to exterminate five hundred humans. Biononics converge quickly to counteract the deadly toxin. Four is another explosive, neutralized along with one. Five is a cluster of micro-janglers, microbe-sized generators that jam his nervous system, inhibiting biononic and enrichment operations; a secondary function is to induce pain impulses. They require a scrambler field to kill them.

Blood pumps out from the cratered flesh and torn suit, to be flattened back beneath the reformatted force field. The surrounding fabric of his suit is quickly saturated. Biononics congregate around the edge of the wounds, acting in concert to knit the damage back together, sealing up veins, arteries, and capillaries. Inside his body the firewire tangles halt their expansion as the disrupter sabotages their molecular cohesion. It is too slow, they are causing a massive amount of damage. Damage which is amplified by the microjanglers.

Aaron flings his head back to scream in agony as the microscopic technology war is fought within his muscles and blood vessels. But still he keeps hold of both Viertz and the pedestal.

His biononics shut off a whole series of nerves, eliminating the pain and all sensation in his shoulder and arm. A disconcertingly large section of the medical status display in his exovision is flashing red. Nausea plagues him. Shivers run along his limbs. The field medic sac in his thigh pushes a dose of suppressants into his bloodstream.

Another wave of kinetics pound him. He is in danger of falling backwards. His biononics and enrichments are reaching maximum capacity. Countermeasure drones do their best to confuse the enemy targeting sensors, but the narrow confines of the vault almost make such systems irrelevant.

His filaments interface with the registry kube in the pedestal.

Send authority certificate.

The registry software acknowledges Viertz's authority. And the u-shadow runs a search for Inigo's secure store. It locates the memorycell. The physical coordinates are loaded into Aaron's combat routines. A volume of eight cubic centimetres to be held inviolate. The rest of the vault's structure is now expendable.

He lets go of the pedestal and Viertz. The woman slumps forward, a motion which jolts her unsecured brain. A fresh upwelling of blood bubbles out around the circle of cut bone. The protective swirl of niling-sponges deactivate, their black horizons folding in upon themselves. Aaron raises his head and smiles an animal snarl through the clear air at the guards. Their barrage has paused as they take stock.

'Payback time, he growls enthusiastically.

The first disruptor pulse smashes out. Half of the precious racks rupture in a maelstrom of molten plastic. Both guards stagger backwards. Jelly gun shots hammer at their force fields. Energy-dumpers zip about, launched by both sides. Black niling horizons expand and contract like inverse novas. Kinetic projectiles chew into the vault's concrete and marble walls. More racks suffer, shattering like antique glass. The plastic catches fire, molten rivulets streaking across the floor, spitting feeble flames from their leading edges.

Aaron positions himself between the guards and Inigo's memorycell, shielding it from any possible damage. He manages to puncture the force field of one guard's leg and fires the jelly gun into the gap. The leg instantly transforms to a liquid pulp of ruined cells. The guard screams as he topples over. His force field reconfigures over the stump, allowing the blood and gore to splash across the ground where it starts to steam softly. Energy-dumpers attach themselves to him like predatory rodents. He thrashes about helplessly as his force field diminishes.

Now it is just Aaron and the remaining guard. They advance on each other, each trusting in his own weapons enrichments. This is no longer a battle of software or even human wits. It is brute strength only which will prevail now.

At the end they resemble two atomic fireballs colliding. A shockwave of incandescent energy flares out from the impact, vaporizing everything it touches. One fireball is abruptly extinguished.

Aaron stands over the clutter of charcoal which seconds before was his opponent. While still staring down he extends his good arm sideways. An x-ray laser muzzle emerges from his forearm. Its beam slices through the head of the legless guard. Curves up to annihilate the man's memorycell. Aaron lets out a long sigh, then winces at the dull pain throbbing deep in his shoulder. When he glances at it, the blood stain has spread across most of his chest. The hole torn and burned through the suit fabric reveals nothing but a mangled patch of blackened skin seeping blood. His medical monitors report the firewire tangles have burrowed deep, the damage is extensive. Sharp stabs of pain from his left leg make him gasp. His knee almost gives way. Biononics act in concert to trace and eliminate the microjanglers that are cruising recklessly through his bloodstream. If they infiltrate his brain he will be in serious trouble. The medical sac is still pumping drugs into him to counter shock. Blood loss will become a problem very soon unless he can reach a medical facility. However, he remains functional, though he will have to undergo decontamination for the nerve agent. His biononics are not satisfied they have located all the toxin. The field scan function fine tunes itself, and scans again.

Aaron walks over to the rack containing Inigo's memorycell. Niling sponges flutter through the air, and return to his bandolier, snuggling back into their pouches. His feet crunch on a scree of fragments before squelching on blood and plastic magma. Then the memorycell is in his hand, and the most difficult stage of the mission is over.

Flames are taking hold across Viertz's uniform as he walks out of the vault. She has not moved from her kneeling position. Aaron shoots her through the head with the x-ray laser, an act of mercy in case her memorycell is still recording impulses. It's not like him, but he can afford to be magnanimous in the face of success.

* * * * *

Three minutes later Aaron made it out on to the roof of the administration block. He walked over to the edge, drawing breath in short gasps. The numb shoulder wound had started to cold-burn, radiating out waves of dizziness which his medical enrichments could barely prevent from overwhelming him. A terrible burst of pain from his legs, stomach and spine drilled into him, blinding him as he convulsed. Unseen in his exovision displays, the biononics reported progress in their quest to trace and eliminate the remaining elusive microjanglers still contaminating his blood.

Slowly, stiffly, he straightened up again. Teetering close to a two storey fall. His u-shadow reconnected to the Unisphere as soon as he clambered up out of the lift shaft, and reported that the remnant of the smartcore was yelling for help on just about every link the clinic had with the Unisphere.

'Police tactical troops are responding, the u-shadow informed him. 'Clinic security officers are arming themselves. Perimeter is sealing.

'We'd better leave then, Aaron said with bravado. He winced again at a shiver of phantom pain from his collar bone, and called Corrie-Lyn. 'Let's go. I'm at designated position one-A.

'Oh, she replied. 'Are you finished already?

For a moment he thought she was joking. 'What?

'I didn't realize you'd be that quick.

Anger swiftly turned him to ice. The schedule he'd given her was utterly clear cut. Not even the unexpected guards and subsequent fire fight had delayed him more than forty seconds. 'Where are you? His exovision was showing him a local map with the police cruisers closing on the clinic at mach eight.

'Er… I'm still in the reception area. You know they have some really nice clothes here, and Ruth Stol has actually been quite useful with styling. Who'd have thought it? I've already tried on a couple of these lovely wool—

'Get the fuck into the capsule! Right fucking now! he screamed. Tactical software assessed the situation, corresponding with his own instinct. The roof was far too exposed. Another involuntary shudder ran up his legs, and he went with it, tumbling over the edge, totally reliant on his combat software. The program formatted his force field to cushion his landing. Even so, the pain seemed to explode directly into his brain as he thudded into the ground. He rolled over and stumbled to his feet. Far too slowly.

'The doors won't open, Corrie-Lyn said. 'I can't get to the capsule. The alarm is going off. Wait… Ruth is telling me not to move.

Aaron groaned as he staggered erratically across the band of lawn surrounding the administration block. Not that the trees would provide the slightest cover, not against the kind of forces heading for him. Seeking darkness was a simple animal instinct.

'Take the bitch out, he told Corrie-Lyn.


'Hit her. Here's a combat program, he said, as his u-shadow shunted the appropriate file at her. 'Go for a disabling blow. Don't hesitate.

'I can't do that.

'Hit her. And call the capsule over. It can smash through the doors for you.

'Aaron, can't I just get the capsule to break in? I'm really not comfortable hitting someone without warning.

Aaron reached the treeline. His legs gave way, sending him sprawling in the dirt and spiky vines. Pain that was nothing to do with the microjanglers pulsed out from his damaged shoulder. 'Help, he croaked. 'Oh fuck it, Corrie-Lyn, get the capsule here. He started crawling. His exoimages were a blurred scintillation coursing round his constricting vision.

'Hey, she's grabbed me.



'I can't make it. He pushed against the damp sandy soil with his good arm, trying to lever himself back on to his feet. Two police capsules flashed silently overhead. A second later their hypersonic boom smashed him back down into the ground. Tree branches splintered from the violence of the sound. Aaron whimpered as he rolled on to his back.

'Oh Ozzie, there's blood everywhere. I think I've broken her nose. I didn't hit her hard, really.

'Get me, he whispered. He sent a single command thought to the niling-sponges in his bandolier harness. The little spheres soared away into the night, arching away over the waving trees. Violet laser beams sliced through the air, as bright as lightning forks. He grinned weakly. 'Wrong, he told the unseen police capsules.

The niling-sponges sucked down the energy which the capsules pumped into them. Theoretically the niling effect could absorb billions of kilowatt hours before reaching saturation point. Aaron had programmed a limit in. When the police weapons pumped their internal levels to that limit, the absorption effect reversed.

Five huge explosions blossomed high over the forest, sending out massive clashing pressure waves. The police capsules couldn't be damaged by the blast, their force fields were far too strong for that. But the wavefronts sent them tumbling through the night sky, spinning and flailing out beyond the edge of the forest as the regrav drives fought to counter the force. Down below, trees tumbled before the bedlam as if they were no stronger than paper, crashing into each other to create a domino effect radiating out from the five blast centres.

A blizzard of splinters and gravel snatched Aaron off the ground and sent him twirling five metres to bounce badly. Amazingly he was still holding the memorycell as he found himself flat on his back gazing up into a sky beset with an intricate webbing of lambent ion streamers.

'Corrie-Lyn, he called desperately.

Above him, the pretty sky was dimming to infinite black. There were no stars to be seen as the darkness engulfed him.


After breaking camp just after dawn the caravan was on the road for three hours before it finally topped the last ridge and the coastal plain tipped into view. Edeard smiled down on it with an adrenalin burst of enthusiasm. With nearly a year spent travelling he was finally looking at his future. Riding on the ge-horse beside him, Salrana squealed happily and clapped her hands together. Several pigs in the back of O'lrany's cart grunted at the sudden noise.

Edeard ordered his ge-horse to stop. The caravan pushed on inexorably, wagon after wagon rolling down the stony road. Directly ahead of him the foothills of the Donsori Mountains fell away sharply to the awesome Iguru Plain below. It stretched away for mile after long mile. A flat expanse of rich farmland, almost all of which was under cultivation; its surface marked out in huge regular fields filled with verdant crops. A massive grid of ditches fed into wide, shallow rivers delineated by protective earthen embankments. Forests tended to sprawl around the lower slopes of the odd little volcanic cones which broke the plain's uniformity. As far as he could see there was no pattern to the steep knolls. They were dotted purely at random.

It was a strange geography, completely different to the rugged surrounding terrain. He shrugged at the oddity and squinted to the eastern horizon. Part imagination, part horizon-haze, the Lyot Sea was just visible as a grey line.

No need to imagine the city, though. Makkathran bestrode the horizon like a sunwashed pearl. At first he was disappointed by how small it was, then he began to appreciate the distance involved.

'Quite something, isn't it? Barkus said as he rode his aged ge-horse level with Edeard.

'Yes, sir, Edeard said. Additional comment seemed superfluous. 'How far away are we?

'It'll take at least another half a day for us to get down to the plain; this last stretch of road down the mountains is tricky. We'll make camp at Clipsham, the first decent-sized town on the Iguru. Then it'll be near enough another day to reach Makkathran itself. He nodded pleasantly and urged his ge-horse onward.

Almost two days away. Edeard stared entranced at the capital city. Allegedly, the only true city on Querencia. The caravan had visited some fabulous towns on their route, large conurbations with wealthy populations; several had parks bigger than Ashwell. At the time he'd though them grand, sure that nothing could actually be larger. Lady, what a bumpkin I am.

'Doubts here, of all places? Salrana asked. 'Those are some very melancholy thoughts you've got growing in your head there.

'Just humbled, he told her.

Her thoughts sparkled with amusement, producing a teasing smile. 'Thinking of Franlee?

'Not for months, he answered with high dignity.

Salrana laughed wickedly.

He'd met Franlee in Plax, a provincial capital on the other side of the Ulfsen Mountains. A spree of bad luck on the road, including broken wheels and sick animals, as well as unusually early autumn storms meant the caravan was late reaching Plax. As a consequence, they'd been snowed in for over six weeks. That was when he met Franlee, an Eggshaper Guild apprentice and his first real love affair. They'd spent most of the awful cold weather together, either in bed or exploring the town's cheaper taverns. The Eggshaper Guild's Master had recognized his talent, offering him a senior apprenticeship with the promise of journeyman status in a year. He'd been this close to staying.

But in the end his last promise to Akeem gave him a stronger direction. Leaving had been so painful he'd been sullen and withdrawn for weeks as the caravan lumbered slowly along the snowy Ulfsen valleys. A misery to live with, the rest of the caravan had grumbled. It took the remainder of winter and putting the Ulfsens between himself and Plax before he'd recovered. That and Roseillin, in one of the mountain villages. And Dalice. And… Well, several more girls between there and here.

'Look at it, he said earnestly. 'We did the right thing.

Salrana tipped her head back, half-closing her eyes against the bright morning light. 'Forget the city, she said. 'I've never seen so much sky.

When he glanced up he understood what she meant. Their high vantage point gave them a view into the azure infinity which roofed the plain. Small