/ Language: English / Genre:sf_detective, / Series: Greg Mandel

The Nano Flower

Peter Hamilton

At first no one noticed when the flower was delivered to Julia Evans, owner of Event Horizon, but this flower has genes millions of years in advance of terrestrial DNA. Where did the plant come from? Greg Mandel, telepathic investigator, must find out-before the Nano Flower blooms.

The Nano Flower

by Peter F. Hamilton

CHAPTER ONE

Suzi crapped the Frankenstein cockroach into the toilet bowl, then pushed the chrome handle halfway down for a short flush.

She concentrated on the neural icon which seemed to hover at the periphery of her consciousness, and marshalled her thoughts into a distinct instruction sequence. Activate Sense Linkage and Directional Control, she ordered her bioware processor implant.

When she closed her eyes the ghostly image from the cockroach's infrared-sensitive retinas intensified to its full resolution. There was a moment of disorientation as she interpreted the picture being fed along the optical fibre plugged into her coccyx ganglion splice. It was a hazy jumble of Möbius topology, shaded red, pink, and black, a convolution through which green moons fell. The cockroach was clinging to the bottom of the sewer pipe directly underneath a shower of droplets from the toilet downpipe. Directional graphics superimposed themselves across the picture, resembling an aircraft pilot's command display.

Suzi guided the cockroach up the side of the sewer pipe until it was out of the water channel, then set it walking. Optical fibre began to unspool behind it, thinner than a cobweb.

Perspective was tricky. She allowed herself to believe she was walking through some baroque nether-world cathedral. The fluted walls had a black-mirror sheen, carved with a fabulous abstract glyph. Above her, the curving roof was punctured by elliptical ebony holes, all of them spitting phosphene-green globules. A small river slithered down the concave floor, bearing away unidentifiable lumps of pale fibrous matter. She was suddenly very glad Jools the Tool hadn't stitched any olfactory receptors into the Frankenstein cockroach when he was putting it together for her.

Pressure-sensitive cell clusters detected the rush of air, warning her of the approaching flush. She scuttled the cockroach right up to the roof of the sewer. The burst of water churned past underneath her. A turd the size of a cargo ship rode the wavefront, trailing ribbons of disintegrating paper.

She waited until the surge had gone, then brought the cockroach back down the curving pipe and carried on forwards. Fungal growths were blooming out of cracks in the concrete, moonscape mattresses of slime. The cockroach clambered over the humps without even slowing, all the while spinning out its gossamer thread.

Up ahead, where the pipe contracted to a black vanishing point, she thought she saw something move.

In a way, Suzi considered the Morrell deal as a vindication of the way she had lived the last twelve years. There was no violence involved, not even a hint of it. Violence had launched her into the tekmerc game after she got out of prison. Organized violence, deliberately and precisely applied. It was her trade, all she knew.

Her teens and early twenties had been spent in the Trinities, an anti-PSP gang operating out of the Mucklands Wood estate in Peterborough during the years when the People's Socialism Party controlled the country, a long dark decade of near-Maoist dictatorship just after the Greenhouse Effect ran riot.

She had joined up the day after a squad of PSP Card Carriers ransacked her parents' hotel, stripping out the fittings, stealing the booze. Her father had been pistol whipped, a beating which left him partially paralyzed down his right side. Her mother had been gang-raped, a trauma she never recovered from. They were middle-aged middle-class suburbanite innocents, well-to-dos who couldn't believe what was happening to their green and pleasant England, and didn't know how to stop it.

The only reason Suzi had been there when it happened was because the PSP had shut down Welbeck College, the British Army's officer cadet boarding school. A military career was all she had wanted for as long as she could remember.

An ambition subtly reinforced by her slightly disreputable maternal grandfather who spun enticing stories of glory and honour back in the days when he'd served in the Falklands and the Gulf. Gaining one of the fiercely contested places at Welbeck, despite her physical stature, had been the zenith of her young life.

She had wanted to fight that afternoon when the Party militia came, young struts with their red armbands and bright new cards that had President Armstrong's signature bold along the bottom to say whatever they did was official. Fresh from her four terms of unarmed combat classes and rifle shooting and square bashing she considered herself invincible. But her father, bigger and stronger, had forced her into a storeroom and locked her in. Suzi hammered on the door in rage and humiliation until sounds of the looting penetrated, the crash of breaking glass merging with anguished screams. Then she shrank into a corner, hugging herself in the dark, and praying nobody smashed down the door to find her.

The police discovered her the next morning, all cried out. As she saw the wreckage that was once her home and her parents, rage turned to demonic hatred. She could have prevented it, she knew. if she'd just been given the chance, been given the weapons hardware to complement her determination and amplify her size.

The Trinities were led by an ex-British Army sergeant, Teddy La Croix, called Father by the kids under his command. He put her to work as a runner.

Peterborough in those days had a raw frontier-town edge to it. Over fifty thousand people had descended on the city, one step ahead of the rising sea that was slowly devouring the Fens, and more were on the way. The polar melt and thermally expanded oceans eventually sent the muddy water to lap at the city's eastern suburbs, turning the lush Nene valley into an estuary. This on top of an indigenous population still struggling to adapt to the year-round heat, the imminent collapse of public gas, electricity, and water grids, food rationing, and austerity economics.

Suzi flittered about the congested streets, soaking up the buzz of grim determination everyone seemed to possess. She watched the old temperate vegetation die in the steambath atmosphere exhaled by the Fens quagmire, only to be replaced by the newer more vigorous tropical plants with their exotic blooms. She walked entranced along the rows of stalls which sprang up along each road as the traffic faded away, stealing often, eating well, and fighting with the barrow boys.

Nobody noticed her, one more kid running wild in a city teeming with thousands of her kind. She thrived in her environment, but all the while she moved with purpose, keeping tabs on Party members, watching who went in and out of the town hall, acting as a sentry for raids on Party offices. At nights she would be there in the riots organized by the Trinities, an incongruously small skinny figure compared to the rest of her platoon, which aimed for muscle bulk and favoured combat fatigues and leathers.

She learned tradecraft from Greg Mandel, another ex-Army man working with Father to overthrow PSP oppression; how to make Molotovs that didn't go out when they were thrown, how a platoon should deploy to jump a police snatch squad, what to use against assault dogs, the correct way to break riot shields, a long interesting list of tactics and weapons no one had ever mentioned at Welbeck.

She killed her first man at sixteen; a People's Constable who was lured out of a warm pub on to a dark building site by a halter top, a mini skirt, and a smile that promised. The rest of her platoon were waiting for him with clubs and a Smith and Wesson. They were all blooded that night.

Suzi threw up afterwards, with Greg holding her until the shudders subsided.

"You can go home now," he said. "You've had your revenge."

But she glanced at the broken body, and answered, "No, this is just the hand, not the head. They've all got to go, or what we're doing will be pointless."

Greg had looked terribly sad, but then he always did when anyone talked about vengeance, or let their grief show. It wasn't until years later she found out why he always seemed to be hurt so much by other people's pain.

The next morning she cut her hair, spiked it, and dyed it purple. Standard procedure; a lot of people in the pub would have given her description to the Constables.

The Trinities taught her discipline and self-confidence, as well as a hell of a lot about weapons, filling in all the technical gaps Welbeck had left. She was young enough to be good at it, and smart enough to use her anger as inspiration rather than let it rule her.

There were gangs like the Trinities in every town in the country, battling to overthrow the PSP. Suzi considered herself to be part of a crusade, making everything she did right.

Then they won. President Armstrong was killed, the PSP was routed, the Second Restoration returned the royal family to the throne, the first elections gave the New Conservatives a huge majority, and everything suddenly became complicated. The PSP relics, their Constables and apparatchiks, banded together as the Blackshirts, went underground, and turned to ineffectual civil disobedience that petered out after a few years. The Trinities fought them, naturally. But it wasn't appreciated any more. They were too crude, too visible; people were looking to cut free from the past.

It ended as it had run on for ten years—in bloodshed. A two-day firefight between the Trinities and the Blackshirts that left Mucklands Wood and Walton in ruins. The government had to call out the army to put a halt to it.

Suzi survived to be picked up by the army. Her barrister was the best available, paid for by sympathizers of the anti-PSP cause, of which there were plenty. She got a twenty-five-year sentence, because the New Conservative government wanted to demonstrate it was showing no favouritism. On appeal, held quietly and unpublicized by a co-operative press, it was reduced to five. She served eighteen months, fifteen in an open prison that allowed weekend leave.

The closed universe of the sewer was familiar enough now for any abnormality to register; Suzi had almost forgotten the limp reality which lay outside. And there was definitely something else in the pipe with her. A cool pulse of excitement slipped along the optical fibre as the cockroach hurried onwards.

In front of her the bloated hump which was blocking a quarter of the pipe glowed a rich crimson, flecked by weaker claret smears. It was a rat, gnawing at some fetid titbit clasped between its forepaws. Huge glass-smooth hemispherical eyes turned to look at Suzi, the nose twitched.

She remembered all those fantasy quest novels she used to read as a child, princess sorcerers and fell beasties. Grinning wryly, none of them had ever gone up against dragon-sized rodents.

Initiate Defence Mode.

A pair of flexible antennae deployed on either side of the cockroach's head, swinging forward, long black rods curved like callipers. The rat hadn't moved, staring seemingly in surprise at the intruder in its domain. Suzi halted twenty centimetres away, antennae quivering at the ready.

It came at her with a fast fluid grace, mouth widening to reveal serrated tombstone teeth, forepaw reaching out to pin her down, black talons extended. The descending paw brushed against the cockroach's erect antenna tips. Suzi's vision was wiped out in an explosion of sparkling white light as the electroplaque cells below the cockroach's carapace discharged through the antennae.

When the purple mist cleared she could just see the rat's beefy hindquarters pumping furiously, tail held high, whipping from side to side.

A quick systems check showed she had enough charge left in the electroplaque cells to fend off two more assaults. Guidance graphics told her there was another twelve metres to go before she reached the junction she wanted.

Suzi moved forwards. This underworld was no different to her own, she thought, except it was more honest. Down here you either ate or got eaten, and everything knew where it stood in relation to everything else, the knowledge sequenced into its DNA. In her world nothing was so simple, everybody wore a chameleon coat these days, status unknown.

After prison she had picked up work on the hardline side of tekmerc deals, the combat missions which were launched when covert penetrations and clandestine data snatches had failed.

At first it had been as part of a team, then as word got around about her competence and reliability she commanded her own. She began to add dark specialists to her catalogue—hotrods, 'ware spivs, pilots, Frankenstein surgeons, sac psychics. Companies with problems sought her out to organize the whole deal for them. She was the interface between corporate legitimacy and the misbegotten, the cut-off point.

She had picked up the Morrell deal four months ago. It was straightforward enough, a simple data snatch. Morrell was a small but ambitious microgee equipment company in Newcastle, a subcontractor supplying components to the giant kombinates for their space operations.

Space was in vogue now, the new boom industry; ever since the Event Horizon corporation had captured a nickel-iron asteroid and manoeuvred it into orbit forty-five thousand kilometres above the Earth.

Because Event Horizon was registered in England, the rock came under the jurisdiction of the English parliament, who named it New London and established a Crown Colony in the hollowed-out core. New London ushered in an era of ultra-cheap raw materials, which were eagerly consumed by the necklace of microgee factories in low orbit above the equator, doubling their profitability virtually overnight. Mining chunks of rock from New London was easy enough, but refining metals and minerals out of the ore in a freefall environment presented difficulties, that was where the real money lay.

It was a problem which had led Suzi to a second-floor bistro in Peterborough's New Eastfield district on a muggy day in January. She was thankful for the bistro's smoked glass windows and air conditioning; the building opposite was buffed white stone, inlaid by balconies with mock-Victorian ironwork. It gleamed like burnished silver from the low sun. The street below was a flux of people, men in spruce shirts and shorts, salon-groomed women in light dresses, most of them with wide-brimmed hats, all of them with sunglasses. Silent cars glided down the rain-slicked road, bumper to bumper Mercs, Jags, and Rollers. New Eastfield had been ascendant even in the PSP years, but since Event Horizon cracked giga-conductor technology and reindustrialization went into overdrive the district had become a beacon for the smart money and the brittle, propitious lifestyle which went with it.

"Morrell have developed a cold-fusion solution to ionic streaming," said the man sitting opposite her. He was in his late thirties, with a gym-installed muscle-tone to compliment his salon manicure. An image as tabloid as his power-player attitude. The name he gave her was Taylor Faulkner.

Suzi's tame hotrod, Maurice Picklyn, had run a tracer on him for her, and that actually was his name. Working for Johal HF in their orbital refinery division, executive rather than technical.

"Cold fusion?" Suzi asked.

"Pie in the sky," Faulkner sighed. "Too good to be true. But somehow they've done it, boosted efficiency and lowered power consumption at the same time. Old story; small companies have to innovate, they don't have the research budget that shaves off a percentage point each year."

She sipped at her orange juice. "And you want to know what they've got?"

"Yes. They've finished the data simulation, now they're starting to assemble a prototype. Once that's been demonstrated, they'll be given access to kombinate-level credit facilities by the banks and finance houses. They've already asked for proposals from several broker cartels; which is how we found out what they're working on."

"Hmmm." Suzi used her processor implant to review the data profile Maurice Picklyn had assembled on Johal HF; a fifth of their cashflow came from refining New London's rock. "What's my budget?"

"Four hundred K, New Sterling."

"No, seven hundred. The licence alone would cost you that, even if Morrell grant you one, and then you'd be paying them royalties straight out of your profits."

"Very well."

She took a week to review Morrell's security layout. The company had taken a commercial unit on a landfill site that used to be one of the Tyne's shipyards. Its research labs and prototype assembly shop were physically isolated, a cuboid composite building sitting at the centre of a quadrangle formed by offices and cybernetics halls. And there was a lot of weapons hardware in the gap. The only way in to the research section was through the outer structure, then over a small bridge, clearing five security checks on the way. A team of psychic nulls working in relay prevented any espersense intrusion. The research division mainframe wasn't plugged in to any datanet, so no hotrod could burn in. She had to admit it was a good set up. The only way to breach it physically would be an airborne assault. That lacked both finesse and an acceptable probability of success.

She started to review personnel, which led to the discovery of the company's blind spot. Because it was impossible to physically carry data out of the research building, Morrell security only vetted the workers once a year, a full data and espersense scan.

Maurice Picklyn found her three possibles from the ionic streaming project's research team, and she selected Chris Brimley, a programmer specializing in simulating vacuum exposure stresses: unmarried, twenty-nine, unadventurous, a Round Tabler whose main interest was fishing. He lived by himself in Jesmond, renting a flat in a converted terrace house. A perfect pawn.

Suzi did a deal with Josh Laren, a local small-time hood who owned a nightclub, L'Amici, which had a gambling licence. She set up Col Charnwood, a native Geordie and one of her regular team, with a stash of narcotics any pusher would envy. Paid Jools the Tool to stitch together the cockroach. Then to complete the operation, she called Amanda Dunkley up to Newcastle. Amanda Dunkley had a body specifically rebuilt for sin, with a small rechargeable sac at the base of her brain which fed themed neurohormones into her synaptic clefts. The psychic trait which the neurohormones stimulated was a very weak ESP, giving her an uncanny degree of empathy. Maurice Picklyn manufactured a fresh identity for her, and Suzi got her a secretarial job at the city council building.

Three days after Chris Brimley bumped into Amanda in his local pub, his old girlfriend had been dumped. Two days after that Amanda had moved into his flat. In the house on the other side of the street, which Suzi had leased as a command post, she and the rest of her team settled down in front of the flatscreens and enjoyed themselves watching the blue and grey photon-amp images of Chris Brimley's bedroom. It took Amanda a week and a half to corrupt his body with her peerless sexual talent. After long nights during which his whole body seemed to be singing hosannas he told her he wanted them to be together for ever, to get married, to live happily in a picturesque cottage in a rural village, for her to have ten babies with him. Corrupting his mind took a little longer.

Chris Brimley slowly came to the realization that his life didn't offer much in the way of interest to his newfound soul mate. They began to venture out at the weekends, then it was two or three nights a week. They discovered L'Amici, which Amanda loved, which made him happy. Col Charnwood introduced himself, so delighted to be their friend he gave them a gift. Nibbana, one of the most expensive designer drugs on the market, though Chris Brimley didn't know that.

He tried a few chips on the table, egged on by an excited Amanda. It was fun. The manager was surprisingly relaxed about credit.

After two months Chris Brimley had a nibbana habit that needed three regular scores a day to satisfy, and a fifty-thousand-pound New Sterling debt with L'Amici. They couldn't afford to go out any more, and now Amanda cried a lot in the evening, showering him with concern. Chris Brimley had actually slapped her once when she found him searching her bag for money.

Josh Laren's office was a dry dusty room above L'Amici, the only furniture his teak desk, three wooden chairs, and an antique metal filing cabinet. Ten cases of malt whisky, smuggled over the Scottish border, were stacked against one wall.

Col Charnwood spent an hour going over the room with a sensor pad, sweeping for bugs. It wasn't that Suzi mistrusted Josh Laren; in his position she would have wired it up.

The trembling Chris Brimley who walked into that office was unrecognizable as the clean-cut lad of two months previously. Suzi even felt a stab of guilt at his condition.

"I thought—" Chris Brimley began in confusion.

"Sit," Suzi told him.

Chris Brimley lowered himself into the seat on the other side of the desk from her.

"You came here to discuss your debt, right?" she asked.

"Yes. But with Josh."

"Shut the fuck up. For a welsh this size Josh has come to me."

"Who—"

Suzi split her lip in a winter grin. "You really wanna know?"

"No," he whispered.

"Good, maybe you're beginning to realize how deep you're in, boy. Let me lay it out for you, we're gonna get that money back, every penny. My people had a lot of practice at that, never failed yet. Why we get called in. Two ways, hard and soft. Hard: first we clean you out, flat, furniture, bank, the same with that little slut you hang out with, then we start working down your family tree. We see that Morrell gets to know, they fire you, you're instant unemployable."

"Oh, Jesus." Chris Brimley covered his face with his hands, rocking back and forth in the chair.

"Think maybe I'd better tell you the soft before you piss yourself," Suzi said.

Suzi halted the cockroach below a toilet downpipe. Her implant's time function told her it was eleven thirty-eight. Ninety seconds behind schedule, not bad at all.

Climbing up the downpipe was slow going. She had to concentrate hard, picking ridges for a secure foothold. Two metres. There was a rim where the concrete pipe slotted into a stainless-steel one.

She stood the cockroach on its back legs, pressing it against the smooth vertical wall of stainless steel. Her perspective made it seem at least a kilometre high. Three snail-skirt buds on the cockroach's underbelly flared out and stuck to the silvery metal. It began to slide up the featureless cliff face.

"Pull the ionic streaming data from Morrell's research mainframe and squirt it into your cybofax," Suzi told an aghast Chris Brimley.

"What? I can't do that!"

"Why? Codes too tough?"

"No. You don't understand. I can't take a cybofax into the research block. Hell, we're not even allowed to wear our own clothes inside; security makes us change into company overalls before we enter. We're scanned in and out."

"Yeah, Morrell security's got a real fetish about isolation. But you've got the use of a cybofax in the research building, aintcha?"

"A company one," Chris Brimley answered.

"Good. And you can pull the data from the terminals no sweat?" Suzi persisted.

"Yes, my access codes are grade three. My work is applicable to every component of the refiner. Loading it into a cybofax would be unusual, but nobody would question it. But I can't bring it out."

"Not asking you to. Point is, you can move that data around anywhere you like within the research building."

Without the directional graphics providing constant guidance updates, Suzi would never have made it round the U-bend. The water confused the cockroach's infrared vision, and there were too many curves.

It was eleven forty when the cockroach rose out of the water, clinging to the side of the stainless-steel toilet bowl. She wondered what it must look like to Chris Brimley, a demon insect sliding up silently to bite his arse.

The infrared cut out, leaving her at the bottom of a giant silver crater; a uniform sky of pink-white biolum light shone overhead. She saw something moving above her, dark and oblong, expanding rapidly. Brimley's cybofax. There was a flash of red laser light way down on the borderline of visibility. An answering pulse from the Frankenstein cockroach.

Loading Data, her implant reported; its memory clusters began to fill up.

Suzi knew Chris Brimley was saying something, the cockroach's pressure-sensitive cells were picking up a pattern of rapid air compression. But there was no way of telling what the words were, not without proper discrimination programs. She just hoped there was no one in the next cubicle.

Loading Complete.

She slackened the snail skirts' grip on the stainless steel. There was a blurred swirl of silver and pink-white streaks as the cockroach fell back down to the bottom of the bowl. Chris Brimley pressed the flush, and the world vibrated into black.

Initiate Internecine Procedure.

The electroplaque cells discharged straight into the body of the Frankenstein cockroach, roasting it in a millisecond.

Disengage Optical Lead.

Suzi's coccyx interface sealed. The end of the optical fibre dropped into her toilet bowl. She pressed the chrome handle for a full flush, then tugged her panties and skirt back up.

The elapsed time was seven minutes, her bioware implant told her as she left the toilets. Outside she was Karren Naughton again, one of eight hopeful candidates for a job on Morrell's main reception desk.

She rejoined the other girls sitting in the personnel department waiting-room. It was in the outer ring of buildings, a low-security area where visitors came and went all day.

It was still the tea break. Earlier on the candidates had been given assessment tests, now it was the separate interviews. Suzi wanted to skip them, plead a queasy stomach and leg it out on to the street. The stolen data seemed to gleam like a sun-lanced diamond in her brain. Everyone would be able to see it. She held her place, discipline was something Father had drilled into her all those years ago. Unless you are about to be blown, don't ever break cover. Chris Brimley didn't know it was her on the other end of the optical fibre, didn't know where the Frankenstein had been infiltrated into the sewer system.

Karren Naughton was third to be called. She sat in a glass-walled office being sincere to a woman whose big lapel badge said her name was Joanna.

Twenty minutes later, after being told she was first-rate material Suzi walked out of the sliding glass doors and into the wall of humidity rolling off the Tyne.

Col Charnwood picked her up, driving a navy-blue low-slung Lada Sokol with one-way glass.

"Well, pet?" he asked after the gull-wing door hinged down.

Suzi allowed herself a smile, breath coming out of her in a rush. "In the bag."

"All right." Col Charnwood flicked the throttle and accelerated into the thick stream of traffic along the base of the river's embankment. The huge slope was covered by the thick heart-shaped leaves of delicosa plants that had twined around the rocks.

"I'll squirt it down to Maurice, let him give it a once-over first," Suzi said.

"Ya think he'll know if it's kosher?"

"Maybe not, but he'll know if it's connected with ionic streaming. I'm no 'ware genius. Brimley could've palmed us off with the data construct of a steam engine for all I know."

There was a serpent of red tail-lights growing in front. Col Charnwood swore at them as he slowed. The road was contraflowed ahead, long rows of cones stretched across the thermo-hardened cellulose surface. Suzi could see heavy yellow-painted contractors' machinery moving slowly along the embankment. They were stripping the shell of rock and vegetation from the mound, exposing the dark blue-grey coal slag underneath.

"Canna leave anything alone," Col Charnwood muttered.

Suzi didn't say anything. She knew Col had been one of the thousands who had built the embankment over a quarter of a century ago. A third of Newcastle's population had signed on with the city council's labour crews as the West Antarctic ice-sheet went into slushdown, and most of the rest had contributed at some time or another. Men, women, and children using JCBs, wheelbarrows, spades, picks, sacks, anything they could lay their hands on to haul the slag out of the barges, dumping it on the fifteen-metre-high mounds along the Tyne's banks. They rolled the rocks into place on top of the slag with ropes and pulleys, a protective crust against wave erosion. Working round the clock for a solid nine months to save their city from the rising sea level.

"Never been anything like it," Col Charnwood had told Suzi and the team late one night when they had tired of Amanda's gymnastic antics. "Like something out of the Third World, it was. Bloody thousands of us, there were. Swarming like flies over the muck. Didna matter who you were, not then. We all worked ten-hour shifts. The money was the same as you'd get paid by the benefit office for being on the dole. But it was our city we were protecting. That meant something in them days, ya know?"

Now the embankment was being refurbished, centimetre by centimetre. Tracked machinery that crunched up the rock, heated it, spun it into fibres, then laid it down over the slag mounds which had been re-profiled for improved hydrodynamic efficiency, a glassy lava flow that would hold back the Tyne for a century.

"Cutting our heart out of it," Col said sadly.

Suzi looked closely at the machinery as they passed, seeing the small Event Horizon logo on each of the lumbering rock smelters, a blue concave triangle sliced with a jet-black flying V.

"We unplugging from the deal, pet?" Col asked.

Suzi visualized Chris Brimley, shorn of all dignity, helpless eyes pleading with her. A victim of deliberately applied psychological violence. "Not straight away, no. I want Amanda to put Brimley back together again first. The money from this will pay his debts to L'Amici. She can get him to break his habit. After that I'll pull her out. He'll have a chance at life again."

Col shot her an uncertain glance.

"Where's your sense of style, Col?" she asked, smiling. "We make a soft exit. This way Morrell doesn't find out for at least another five months. Maybe never. People have a way of forgetting the worst, glossing over the nightmares. Morrell's security psychics might not spot his guilt next time they vet him. Be nice to think."

"Well, you're paying, pet."

"Yeah, I'm paying." An expensive treatment to wipe the memory of that broken man with the bowed head in Josh Laren's dim echoing office. Buying off her own guilt.

This time it was a pub in Longthorpe, a long wood-panelled, glass-fronted room originally built to serve the Thorpe Wood golf-course as a clubhouse. Now it looked out over the Ferry Meadows estuary where the golf-course used to be. Taylor Faulkner had taken a window table, staring across the grey-chocolate mud-flats which the outgoing tide had uncovered. He was dressed in an expensive white tropical-weave suit, toying with a tall half-pint glass of lager.

Suzi slid on to the bench opposite him. The barman had glanced at her when she came in, drawn by her size, about to object to a schoolgirl waltzing in, then he met her gaze.

"We hadn't heard," Taylor Faulkner said. "It's been very quiet in Newcastle."

"You want combat, find yourself a general."

"No offence."

"For seven hundred K, offend away."

Taylor Faulkner looked pained. He held up a platinum Zurich card, and showed it to the Amex which Suzi produced, using his thumb to authorize the transfer. She watched the Amex's grey digits rise, and smiled tightly.

"May I see what I've bought?" he asked.

"Sure." She scaled a palm-sized cybofax wafer across the table to him. "The code is: Goldpan. No hyphen. Anything else will crash wipe, OK?"

"Yes." He pocketed the cybofax.

"Nice knowing you, Mr. Faulkner."

He turned to the window and the gulls scratching away at the mud.

Suzi rose and made for the door. The sight of the figure in black cotton Levi's standing at the bar drinking German beer from a bottle made her stop. Leol Reiger, another tekmerc commander. They'd worked together on a couple of deals, hadn't got on. Not at all. Leol fancied himself as very big time. He was into running spoilers on kombinates, burning Japanese banks. Rumour said he'd even snatched data from Event Horizon. Suzi knew that wasn't true; he was still alive. And he hadn't been there when she came in.

She sat on a stool next to him, feet half a metre off the floor, putting their heads at almost the same level. Ordinarily she didn't mind having to look up at people. But not Leol Reiger.

"Slumming, Leol?"

Leol Reiger lowered his bottle, amber eyes set in a pale face stared at her. He had designer stubble and a receding hairline, oiled and slicked back. "Never learn, do you, Suzi. Four months for a soft penetration, that's four months' worth of exposure risk."

"Bollocks. What the fuck do you know about it?" she asked, feeling a kick of dismay. How the hell did Leol Rieger know about her deal with Johal HF? He would never work for a company like Morrell, they were too small, too insignificant.

"Know you checked the wrong people. You were looking down, Suzi. Then, down is where you come from. Once a Trinity, always a Trinity. Nothing more. You don't have what it takes to make tekmerc, you never did."

"Lifted my data, and the target doesn't even know it's gone. Not like you. Your deals, all that's left is smoking craters in the ground and bodies. Your catalogue's getting pretty thin these days, Leol, right? Word's around, not so many troops want in on your deals."

"That so?" Leol Reiger gestured with the beer bottle.

Two men were sitting with Taylor Faulkner. Both of them hardline troops, Suzi could tell.

Leol Reiger took another sip. "You should've looked up, Sun. A real tekmerc would've looked up. A real tekmerc would've seen how much that ionic streaming trick is really worth to Johal HF."

She looked at Taylor Faulkner again, seeing how relaxed he was, smiling wanly out of the window. With sick certainty she knew she'd been switchbacked, the knowledge was like bile.

"You were real careful looking down," Leol Reiger was saying. "Went through all Morrell's personnel. But you should've been looking up, maybe got your hotrod to crack a few Johal HF files open. Done that, you'd have found our Faulkner here. Not a perfect specimen of humanity, our Faulkner." Leol Reiger finished his bottle, putting it on the bar.

Sun had to look up at him.

"Five million New Sterling, Suzi. That's what me and my partner are going to get from Johal HF this afternoon when we deliver the ionic streaming data. I paid you out of petty cash." He turned to the barman. "Get the little lady a drink, whatever she wants. My treat."

She watched Leol Reiger walk over to Taylor Faulkner, clap him on the shoulder. The two of them laughed. Fury and helplessness rooted her to the bar stool. That shit Leol Reiger had been right, that was the real source of the pain, not the money. She should've checked, should've ripped Taylor Faulkner a-fucking-part, built a proper profile, not just a poxy ident check.

"What'll it be?" the barman asked.

Suzi picked up Leol Reiger's empty beer bottle and hurled it at the row of optics.

CHAPTER TWO

Monaco at dusk was bathed in thick copper-red light as the dome diffused the last rays of the sun into a homogeneous glow, banishing shadows. Buildings seemed to shine of their own accord.

Charlotte Fielder admired the town's tasteful stone-fronted buildings through the window of the chauffeured Aston Martin. Monaco's architecture was a counterfeit of the late nineteenth century, a blend of French and Spanish; hacienda mansions, apartment blocks with elegant white façades, black railings, red clay tiles, verandas festooned with scarlet-flowering geraniums growing out of pots.

It was the kind of flawless recreation which only truly idle money could achieve. Hardly any of the town was more than twenty years old, so little had survived the razing, when the citizens of Nice had marched on the principality in search of food. Charlotte had been three years old when it happened. But she'd seen AV recordings of the aftermath at school; they reminded her of bombed-out towns from some war zone. Dunes of rubble, where a few walls and archways had endured the maddened assault to jut skywards like pagan altars, soot-blackened bricks, burnt spikes of wood, wisps of smoke twisting lazily. The heat-expanded Mediterranean sea had risen to swirl around that part of the town built on landfill sites, its filth-curdled water pushing a grisly tideline of bodies and seaweed along the crumpled streets. Even the colours had leached out of the images, fixing the scene in her mind as grainy black and white desolation.

The destruction had been spectacular even by the standards of a Europe which had almost collapsed into anarchy in those first few years of climatical tumult engendered by the Warming.

Charlotte retained only vague recollections of her early childhood when the world was plunged into chaos, dream sequences of places and faces, a seemingly endless procession of days when it was too hot and there was never enough to eat. Half of her waking hours had been spent roaming London's wide bicycle-clogged streets, scavenging food from markets and street stalls. She had lived with her aunt Mavis, a woman in her late forties, with a round haunted face, always wearing floral-print dresses and pink slippers. Aunt Mavis never had a job; by design a lifetime dole dependant, she only took Charlotte in for the extra food allocation. Charlotte never saw any of it; her ration cards were traded with the spivs for bootleg gin, which Aunt Mavis would sit and drink in front of the big flatscreen on the lounge wall, curtains perpetually drawn.

The woman had exchanged reality for Globecast's soaps, where formatted plots always rewarded a hard life with the glitter trappings of materialism and golden sunsets, love and caring. The channels offered her a glimpse of salvation from the Warming and the PSP, a world twisted out of recognition, becoming an electronic religion-substitute. Worshipped ceaselessly.

One evening, when she was seven, Charlotte had returned home to find her aunt pressed against the flatscreen, knocking on it tearfully and pleading with the handsome smiling characters to let her in. She had been put in an orphanage not long after. The hunger ended then, replaced by work in the kitchens, peeling vegetables, washing crockery.

That was when her life really began, the normality of school and other children. The only link with her past was a solid thread of determination never to be hungry again. Then Dmitri Baronski had come into her world when she was fifteen, and he made his offer, opening a door into a semi-magical realm where nobody ever lacked for anything.

The Aston Martin reached Monaco's perimeter road, where the seamless translucent shell of the dome rose out of the concrete sea wall, curving gradually overhead, massive enough to hold up the sky. She could see a couple of jetties on the outside, sleek white-painted yachts bobbing gently at their moorings. Large circular tidal-turbine lagoons of gene-tailored coral mottled the quiet sea all the way out to the darkening horizon. Monaco still refused to plug into France's electrical grid, remaining resolutely independent.

On the other side of the road were dignified hotels with black-glass lobby doors and long balconies. She watched them go past, feeling a vague sense of amusement that a town which had so meticulously recreated the ambience of long-lost imperialistic elegance in its fabric and culture should seek shelter by huddling under a hyper-modern structure like the dome. It was a failing of the set she moved through, she thought, that they never strived for anything new. The talent and resources deployed here could just as easily have been used to create something bold and innovative. Instead, they turned automatically to the past, drowning themselves in the safety of their genteel heritage.

Yet, for her, the replication was less than perfect. She recognized the quality of crispness in the lines of the buildings, a cold efficiency in the determinedly handsome layout which betrayed the mentality of its originators. Monaco was a compact bundle of wealth, its borders jealously guarded. It had become an enclave, a fortified castle of the rich, complete with drawbridge.

Even with her whiter than white passport and prepaid hotel reservation the Immigration officials had taken their time before allowing her in. Permanent residency within the principality was strictly limited; you had to be proposed by three residents and demonstrate assets in excess of four million Eurofrancs before you could even register for consideration.

So Charlotte stood in the airport arrivals lounge in a queue of impatient, nervous people watching enviously as resident card holders zipped through their channel without any fuss. She had been afraid the hard-nosed woman behind the customs desk would open the flower box in her flight bag, ask questions about it. But the customs and immigration setup seemed more like a ritual than anything else. The wait, the questions, underlining that Monaco was different, not some common tourist resort or gambling state.

It was while she was standing there that she saw the man for the second time that day. He was in the same queue, ten places behind her. There was something about him, the way his cool eyes were never looking at her when she turned round, his phlegmatic indifference to queueing, which set him slightly apart, creepy almost. At any other time she would have guessed him to be a hardline bodyguard for some Monaco plutocrat, coming home after a holiday. But she had seen him earlier in the day at the Cape Town spaceport, mingling among the crowd of friends and relatives that had greeted the other passengers on her spaceplane flight. If she had seen him in the departure lounge, waiting for the connecting flight to Monaco, then it would only be natural for him to be standing in the queue behind her. But what had he been doing in the crowd waiting for the spaceplane?

Finally, her passport had been cleared, her invitation and hotel reservation validated by the Immigration officer, a matronly woman in a stiff blue uniform. Charlotte obediently thumbprinted the declaration on the officer's terminal, confirming that she had read and would abide by the principality's laws. She received her temporary visa from the unsmiling woman. Their eyes had met for a second, and Charlotte read the uniquely female contempt for the thousandth time. She had worn a scarlet Ashmi jumpsuit for her flight back to Earth, tucked into black leather cowboy boots, gold Arnstrad cybofax wafer clipped into her top pocket, Ferranti sunglasses. About as expensively casual as you could get; she enjoyed the look in the mirror, a designer test-pilot. Then the Immigration bitch went and smashed her mood.

It was an appropriate entrance to Monaco, she thought later; scorn and suspicion dogging her steps.

The El Harhari hotel wasn't much different to the others ringing the inside of the dome. A little larger, perhaps. Its colonnaded frontage a pearl-white marble that glowed pink in the directionless sunset. The Aston Martin swept smoothly up a looped drive lined by tall, bushy-topped palm trees. There was a stream of cars ahead of it, disgorging passengers outside the hotel's main entrance.

The El Harhari was hosting the annual Newfields ball, a charity that sponsored educational courses for underprivileged children throughout Europe. There was nothing remarkable about the charity, or the ball. At least half a dozen similar fund-raising events were held in Monaco every night. But Newfields rose far above the ordinary by having Julia Evans on its board of trustees, making its ball the social event of the month. Tickets were seven thousand Eurofrancs apiece; touts charged twenty and cursed their scarcity.

Dmitri Baronski, Charlotte's sponsor, had managed to get her one, shaking his head in dismay when she phoned him with the request. "What on Earth do you want to go to that function for?" he'd asked. His thin, lined face seemed more fragile than usual, white hair drooping limply. The valley outside the Prezda arcology where he lived was visible through his apartment's picture window behind him.

"I just want to see Julia Evans," Charlotte had replied equitably. "I've always admired her. Meeting her would be a real treat." She didn't like holding out on the old man, but it was a harmless piece of fun, exciting too, in its own way. That was the real reason she had agreed to make the delivery. She had spent years striving to bring stability into her life, overlooking the fact that it was the partner of monotony.

"All right," Baronski had grumbled. "But all she'll do is shake your hand and thank you for supporting the charity. Same as everybody else. You won't be invited back to Wilholm Manor for tea on the lawn, you know."

"I don't expect to be. A handshake will suit me fine."

It had taken him six hours to track down a ticket for her. She never doubted he could do it. Then when he called her at the Cape Town spaceport to confirm, he also told her to introduce herself to Jason Whitehurst as soon as she reached the El Harhari. "He's a nice enough old boy; and he's English, too, so you should get on fine."

"OK." She had kept her face perfectly composed, just as Baronski himself had trained her, not letting her disappointment show. But it would have been nice to go to just one ball as a regular guest.

Baronski squirted Jason Whitehurst's data profile into her cybofax for her to study during the flight to Monaco, and signed off chuntering.

She smiled fondly at the cybofax screen after his image had faded. Nothing ever seemed to faze the old duffer, no request too obtuse for him to handle; his shadowy web of contacts rivalled a superpower's intelligence agency. It was a job Charlotte would love to take over when he retired. She suspected most of his girls shared that ambition.

The footman who opened the Aston Martin's door was dressed in smart grey livery. Charlotte alighted gracefully, careful not to smile when she caught his eyes straying to her legs as her skirt rode up on the car's cushioning. She'd had ten-centimetre bone grafts put in her legs, six centimetres above the knee, four below. Her muscles had been recontoured around the extensions. It was an expensive treatment, but well worth it. Her new legs were powerfully athletic, beautifully shaped; designed to make men wish.

Five huge aureate chandeliers hung in the El Harhari's lobby, throwing a silver haze of light over the guests as they filed into the ballroom. The men wore formal dinner jackets, although some of them had military-style regalia complete with swords. The women were all in long gowns, dripping with diamonds.

Charlotte moved easily through the crowd, holding the flower presentation box in her left hand. Her gown was made from navy-blue silk with a décolleté neckline; with her long neck and short clipped sandy hair it looked as though she was showing more skin than she actually was. She felt rather than saw several of the men watching her.

She accepted a glass of champagne from the waiter, taking a sip as she looked round. The plush ballroom was nearly full, long stalactites of freshly cut flowers floated above the milling partygoers, a large orchestra occupied the raised stage. She saw a pair of matched Mercedes coupés on the side of the highly polished wooden dancefloor, the raffle's grand prize.

Julia Evans was standing at the centre of a small group of Newfields' committee members, greeting a long queue of guests. A dinner-jacketed channel gossipcast cameraman covered each introduction. Charlotte studied her closely. The owner of Event Horizon was thirty-four, tall, with an attractive oval face and light complexion; her chestnut hair was worn long and straight, falling halfway down her back. Her dress was emerald green, a fabric as smooth as oil, stylish rather than ostentatious. Even her jewellery was modest, a few small intricate pieces; making the elderly gem-bedecked dowagers in the queue seem absurdly gauche in comparison.

It was almost as though Julia Evans was using her own refinement to mock the crass flamboyance around her.

Charlotte found it difficult to look away. Julia Evans's reputation exerted an intrinsic fascination. She had inherited Event Horizon, aged seventeen, from her equally famous grandfather, Philip Evans, and had gone on to run it with the kind of barbed efficiency which was beyond any of its rivals. The company's fortune was based on its gigaconductor patent, a universal energy-storage system used to power everything from household gear to spaceplanes. Julia had shrewdly exploited the money which licensing brought in to expand Event Horizon until it dominated the post-Warming English economy. There were just so many legends and rumours, so much gossip connected with this one woman, it was hard to relate all the allegations and acclaim to the slim figure standing a few metres away.

Watching her, Charlotte decided there was something different about her after all, a kind of glacial discipline. Julia's small polite smile never faltered as she was introduced to the torrent of eager dignitaries. It was almost a regal quality.

"Genuine power has an attraction more fundamental than gravity," Baronski once told Charlotte. "No matter whether it is an influence for good or supreme evil, it pulls people in and holds them spellbound."

The effect Julia Evans had on people made Charlotte realize just how true that was. The snippets of conversation she'd overheard so far in the ballroom were all mundane, small talk. Everyone knew that Julia Evans didn't like to talk shop at social functions. It was faintly ridiculous, the whole Mediterranean coast was talking about the new alliance between Egypt and the Turkish Islamic Republic, worried about how it would affect regional trade, whether a new Jihad legion would rise in North Africa. And the people here must be the most interested of all, they stood to make or lose fortunes on the outcome. But there wasn't a word.

She remembered a midnight conversation with one of her patrons, a high-grade financier, two or three years previously. He had confessed that his children were deliberately conceived to be the same age as Julia's two children in the hope they would prove acceptable playmates. That all-elusive key to the innermost coterie. At the time Charlotte had shaken her head in bemused disbelief. Now she wasn't so sure.

Julia Evans's tawny eyes found Charlotte across the ballroom. With a guilty start Charlotte realized she must have been staring for well over a minute. She hurriedly took a sip of champagne to cover herself. Gawking like some adolescent wannabe who'd unexpectedly bumped into her idol. Thank heavens Baronski wasn't here to witness such a lapse.

Charlotte quickly scanned the faces in the background. Before the party she had reviewed Julia Evans's data profile, the one Associated Press assembled, looking for someone close to her. She had sifted carefully through the information, deciding on three names which might provide a short cut to access.

She walked round the end of the queue, towards the knot of people behind Julia Evans.

Rachel Griffith was chatting to one of the Newfields committee members. A middle-aged woman trying not to let her boredom show. The data profile had said she'd been with Julia Evans for nineteen years; starting out as a bodyguard, then moving over to personal assistant when she got too old for hardliner activity.

She gave Charlotte a quizzical look. There was that instant snap of recognition, condescension registering. "Yes?"

"Would you see Julia Evans gets this, please." Charlotte handed over the box. It was twenty-five centimetres long, ten wide, with a transparent top showing the single mauve trumpet-shaped flower inside. A white bow was tied round the middle.

Rachel Griffith took it in reflex, then gave the box a disparaging frown. "Who's it from?"

"There is a card." It was in a small blank envelope tucked under the ribbon. Charlotte didn't quite have the courage to open it and read the message herself. As she turned away, she said, "Thank you so much," all sugary pleasant, to show how indifferent she was. Rewarded by Rachel Griffith's vexed expression.

The box wouldn't be forgotten now. Charlotte felt pleased with herself making the connection with so much aplomb. How many other people could hand-deliver articles to the richest woman in the world and be sure they'd reach their destination? Baronski had taught her a damn sight more than etiquette and culture. There was an art to handling yourself in this kind of company. Perhaps that was why he had selected her. His scout in the orphanage staff must have recognized some kind of inherent ability. Character was more important than beauty in this game.

Charlotte let herself be talked into a couple of dances before she started looking for her new patron. She'd be damned if she didn't get some enjoyment out of the party. The young men were charming, as they always were when they thought they were conversing with an equal; both in their twenties, one of them was at university in Oslo. They were good dancers.

She thought she saw the creep from the airport while she was on the dancefloor, dressed in a waiter's white jacket. But he was on the other side of the ballroom, and he had his back to her, so it was hard to tell, and she certainly wasn't going to stop dancing to check.

She located Jason Whitehurst in one of the side rooms; it was a refuge for the older people, with plenty of big leather armchairs, and waiter service. The data profile from Baronski said Jason Whitehurst was sixty-six, a wealthy independent trader with a network of cargo agents all across the globe. She thought he looked like a Russian czar, straight backed, a pointed white beard, wearing the dress uniform of the King's Own Hussars. There was a discreet row of ribbons pinned on his chest. She recognized the one which was for the Mexico campaign. His eyes must have been implants, they were so clear, and startlingly blue.

According to the profile Jason Whitehurst had a son, but there was no wife. Charlotte was relieved about that. Wives were a complication she could do without. Some simply ignored her, others treated her like a daughter, the worst were the ones who wanted to watch.

Jason Whitehurst was in conversation with a couple of contemporaries, the three of them standing together with large brandy glasses in their hands. She walked right up and introduced herself.

"Ah yes, the old Baron told me you'd be here," Jason Whitehurst said. His voice was beautifully clipped and precise. He left his friends with a brief wave.

She liked that, there was no pretence, no charade that she was a relative or a friend's daughter. It spoke of complete self-confidence; Jason Whitehurst didn't have to care what anyone else thought. He could make a good patron, she thought, people like him always did. A man who had made a success of his life wasn't inclined to quibble over trivia. Not that money ever came into it. There was an established routine, no need for vulgarity. And Baronski would never tolerate anyone who didn't play by the rules.

While she was with him, the patron would pay for all her clothes, her travel, incidentals; and there would be gifts, mostly jewellery, perfume, sometimes art, once a racehorse (she still laughed at Baronski's consternation over that). After it was over, after the patron had tired of her, Baronski would gather in all her gifts and pay her a straight twenty per cent.

"Are your bags packed?" Jason Whitehurst asked.

"Yes, sir."

"Jason, please, my dear. Like to keep an informal house."

She inclined her head.

"Good," he said. "We'll be leaving Monaco right after this blessed fandango."

"Baronski said you were voyaging to Odessa," she said. Always show an interest in their activities, make them think everything they do is important.

Jason Whitehurst stared at her. "Yes. Have you been to Odessa before?"

"No, I'm afraid not."

"Beastly place… I do a little trade there, no other reason to go. Lord knows what'll happen now Turkey's plugged in with Egypt, though. Still, not your concern. Phone your hotel, tell them my chauffeur will pick up your luggage; he'll take it down to the airport for you.

"Pardon me?"

"Now what?"

"I thought we were voyaging on your yacht?"

Jason Whitehurst pulled at his beard. She couldn't tell if he was amused or angry.

"Ought to read your data profiles a little closer, dear girl. Now then, I've got some people to see here first. So, in the mean time, I want you to find Fabian, get acquainted."

"Your son?"

"That's right. Do you know what he looks like?"

She remembered the picture in the data profile, a fifteen-year-old boy with thick dark hair coming down over his ears. "I think I can recognize him, yes."

"Excellent. Just go where the noise is loudest, that's where he'll be. Now then, a few words of caution. Little chap doesn't have many real friends. My fault, I expect, keep him on board the Colonel Maitland all the time. Not terribly used to company, so make allowances, yes?"

"Certainly."

"Good. I've told him you'll be meeting us here. Splendid girl like you is exactly what he needs. As you can imagine, he's looking forward to your company enormously, so don't disappoint him."

"You want me…?" Charlotte trailed off in surprise.

"You and Fabian, yes. Problem?"

The idea threw her completely. But in the end, she supposed, it didn't make any real difference. "No." She found she couldn't look Jason Whitehurst in the face any more.

"Jolly good. I'll see the two of you in about an hour in my car. Don't be late."

Jason Whitehurst marched off, leaving Charlotte alone with the realization that no matter how well you thought you knew them, the ultra-rich were not even remotely human.

Fabian Whitehurst was easy enough to find. There were only about fifteen boys and girls in their early teens at the ball, and they were all clustered together outside the entrance to the disco. They were giggling loudly, red faced as they swapped jokes.

Charlotte made a slow approach across the ballroom, taking her time to study them. She was only too well accustomed to the inherent brattishness of the children of the rich. Spoilt and ignored, they developed a shell of arrogance early in life, treating everyone else as third-class citizens. Including Charlotte; in some cases, especially Charlotte. Her throat muscles tensed at the memories.

These seemed no different, their voices grated from ten metres away, high pitched and raffish. The girls had been given salon treatments, fully made up, their hair in elaborate arrangements. They nearly all wore white dresses, though a couple were in low-cut gowns. There was something both silly and sad about the amount of jewellery they wore.

The boys were in dinner jackets and dress shirts. Charlotte was struck by their similarity, as if they were all cousins. Their cheeks chubby, moving awkwardly, making an effort to be boisterous. She imagined someone had told them this was the way you had to behave at parties, and they were all scrabbling to conform.

Then she caught sight of Fabian Whitehurst, the tallest of the group. His face didn't have quite the pampered look of the others. She could see some of his father's characteristics in his angled jawline and high cheekbones. Handsome little devil, she thought, he'll be a real handful when he grows up.

Fabian suddenly looked up. For the second time in one evening, Charlotte felt flustered. There was something demanding in his gaze. But he couldn't keep it going, blushing crimson and dropping his eyes quickly. She waited. Fabian glanced up guiltily. She lifted the corner of her mouth gently, a conspiracy smile, then let her attention wander away.

Julia Evans was dancing on the ballroom's wooden floor, with some ancient nobleman sporting a purple stripe across his tailcoat. Maybe there were penalties for being so rich, after all.

Charlotte knew that if she had that much money, she would've taken her pick of the handsomest young blades, the ones who could make her laugh and feel all light inside, and screw protocol. She took another sip of champagne.

"Er, hello, you look awfully bored," Fabian said. He was standing in front of her, an oversize velvet bow tie spoiling the sartorial chic of his tailored dinner jacket. His shaggy hair was almost falling in his eyes as he looked up at her, he flipped it aside with a toss of his head.

"Oh dear, does it show?" she asked encouragingly. Out of the corner of her eye she could see all the other youngsters watching them with eager envious expressions.

"No. Well, sort of, a bit. I'm Fabian Whitehurst." His eyes darted down to her cleavage, then away again. As if it was a dare.

"Yes, I know. Your father said I'd find you over here. I'm Charlotte Fielder. Pleased to meet you."

"Crikey!" Fabian's gasp of surprise was almost a shout. He blushed hotly again at the solecism, his shoulders hunching up in reflex. His voice dropped to a whisper. "You? You're Charlotte?" And for a moment every aristocratic pretension was stripped away, he was an ordinary incredulous fifteen-year-old who didn't have a clue.

" 'Fraid so." Training halted the giggle as it formed in her throat. But he was funny to watch.

"Oh." A spark of jubilation burned in Fabian's eyes. "I wondered if you would care to dance," he said breathlessly.

"Thank you, I'd like that," she said, and drained the glass.

Fabian's grin was arrogant triumph. They walked into the disco together, past Fabian's astonished friends. He gave them a fast thumbs up, lips curling into a smug sneer. Charlotte's serene smile never flickered.

CHAPTER THREE

Julia Evans's office occupied half of an entire floor in the Event Horizon headquarters tower. When she sat at her desk the window wall ahead of her seemed to recede into the middle distance, a delusory gold band sandwiched between the expansive flat plains of floor and ceiling.

The office was decorated in beige and cream colours, the furniture all custom-made teak; work area, informal conference area, leisure area, separated out by troughs of big ferns. Van Goghs, Turners, and Picassos, selected more for price and pretension than aesthetics, hung on the walls. It would have been unbearably formal but for the crystal vases of cut flowers standing on every table and wall alcove. Their perfume permeated the air, replacing the dead purity of the conditioning units.

After her PAs politely but firmly ended her conference with the company's senior transport division executives, Julia poured herself a cup of tea from a silver service and walked over to the window, turning down the opacity. Virtually the only reason she had an office these days was for personal meetings; even in the data age the human touch was still an essential tool in corporate management, certainly at premier-grade level.

When the gold mirror faded away, she looked down on Peterborough's old landbound quarter lazing under the July sun, white-painted walls throwing a coronal glare back at her. The dense cluster of brick and concrete buildings had a kind of medieval disarray to them. She rather liked the chaos, it had an organic feel, easily preferable to the regimented soulless lines of most recent cities. Meticulous civic concepts like town planning and the green belt were the first casualties after the Fens had flooded; the refugees swooping on the city had wanted dry land, and when they found it they stubbornly put down roots. Their new housing estates and industrial zones erupted on any patch of unused ground. A quarter of a century on, and legal claims over land ownership and compensation were still raging through the county courts.

The old quarter had an atmosphere of urgency about it; there was still excitement to be had down on those leafy streets. From the few local newscasts Julia managed to see, she knew that smuggling was still a major occupation for the Stanground armada, a mostly quaybound collection of cabin cruisers, houseboats, barges, and motor launches that had flocked to the semi-submerged suburb from the Norfolk Broads. Unlicensed distilleries flourished; syntho vats were assembled in half-forgotten cellars, causing a lot of heat for the vice squad; brothels serviced visiting sailors; and tekmercs lived like princes in New Eastheld condominiums, ghouls feeding off company rivalries.

There was a certain romance about it all that appealed to a younger part of Julia's personality, the girlish part. Peterborough served as a kind of link to her past, and the few brief years of carefree youth she had been allowed before Event Horizon took over her life. She could have it all shut down, of course, if she'd wanted—ended the smuggling, sent the madams packing, banished the tekmercs. It was her city well enough; the Queen of Peterborough, the channels called her. And she did make sure that the police stamped down hard on any excesses, but held back from all-out sanitization; not so much out of sentiment these days, but because she recognized the need for the escape valve which the old quarter provided. There was no such laxity in the new sector of the city which was rising up out of the Fens basin.

Seventeen years ago, when Event Horizon returned to England after the PSP fell, Peterborough had been approaching its infrastructure limits. It was becoming increasingly obvious that the kind of massive construction projects Julia and her grandfather envisaged just couldn't be supported by the existing utilities. The city's eastward sprawl was already up to the rotting remnants of the Castor Hanglands wood, and threatened to reach the A1 in another decade even without Event Horizon's patronage; there simply wasn't room for their proposed macro-industry precincts on land.

The solution was easy enough: the Fens basin was uninhabited, unused, and unloved; and west of Peterborough the water was only a couple of metres deep. So fifteen years ago the dredging crews and civil engineers moved out into the quagmire, and began to build the first artificial island.

From where she was standing, on the sixty-fifth floor of the Event Horizon tower, Julia could see all twenty-nine major islands of the Prior's Fen Atoll, as well as the fifteen new ones under construction. Event Horizon owned twelve of them: the seventy-storey tower which was the company's global headquarters; seven cyber-factory precincts churning out household gear, cybernetics, light engineering, and gigaconductor cells; and four giant arcologies, each of them providing homes, employment, education, and leisure facilities for eleven thousand families.

Kombinates had followed Event Horizon to Peterborough, lured by Julia's offer of a lower giga-conductor licensing royalty to anyone who set up their production facilities in England. The subsequent rush of investment helped reinvigorate the English economy at a rate which far outstripped the rest of Europe, and allowed Julia to consolidate her influence over the New Conservative government.

It was those same kombinates and their financial backing combines who had built the rest of the Atoll she was looking down on, adding cuboidal cyber-factories, dome-capped circular amphitheatre apartment complexes, the city's international airport, and the giant pyramidal arcologies. Prior's Fen Atoll was now home to three hundred and fifty thousand people, with an industrial output ten times that of the land-bound portion of the city.

She could see the network of broad deep-water channels which linked the islands. Their living banks of gene-tailored coral were covered in sage reeds, showing as thin green lines holding the mud desert at bay. Container freighters moved along them, taking finished products from the arcologies and cyber-factories, and sailing down the kilometre-wide Nene to the Wash and the open sea beyond. The new expanded river course had been dredged deep enough so that the maritime traffic could even sail at low tide, most of the mud winding up as landfill on the airport island.

A thick artery of elevated metro rails stabbed out from the landbound city, splitting wide like a river throwing off tributaries. Individual rails arched over the deep-water channels to reach every island. Blue streamlined capsules slid along the delicate ribbons, slotting in behind one another at the junctions with clockwork precision. In all the time she had watched from her eagle's vantage point she'd never seen a foul-up.

But then, that was the way of this new conglomeration, she thought, no room for failure. That was why she preferred to gaze at the old quarter. The mega-structures of the Atoll, with their glossy low friction surfaces bouncing the sun like geometric crystalline mountains, were a pointer to the future. It looked like shit.

The nineteen-sixties paranoids were right; the machines are taking over.

She shook her head as if to clear it, and finished her tea. The knowledge of her own power did funny things inside her brain. Whatever she looked at, she knew she could change if she wanted to—give that neighbourhood better roads and services, improve the facilities at that school, stop that tower block from being built. So much she could do, and once she did it without even stopping to think. There hadn't been so much as a tremble of hesitancy when she began Prior's Fen Atoll. Now though, some of the old assurance was beginning to wear thin. Or maybe it was just age and cynicism creeping up on her.

Julia returned to her desk, a big teak affair with a green leather top. Her hands slid across the intaglio edges, feeling little snicks of roughness in the deepest insets. At least someone in England still knew how to work with wood. Cybernation hadn't engulfed everybody. She caught herself, frowning disparagingly. What a funny mood.

She touched the intercom pad. "Is Troy here yet?"

"Reception said he's arrived," said Kirsten McAndrews, her private secretary. "He should be up in another five minutes. Do you want him to come straight in?"

"Call me first," Julia said.

"The Welsh delegation is still here."

"Oh, Lord, I'd forgotten about them. How's my schedule for this afternoon?"

"Tricky. You said you wanted to be home by four."

"Yes. Well, if the last meeting doesn't run on I'll see them."

"OK, I'll tell them."

"And for Heaven's sake don't let them know my stylist has preference. If they do see Troy come through, tell them he's some kind of financial cartel president."

"Will do." There was an amused tone in Kirsten's voice.

Julia sank back into the chair, resignation darkening her mood further. The Welsh delegation had been laying siege to her office for over a week now; a collection of the most senior pro-independence politicians who urgently wanted to know her views on their country's bid for secession from the New Conservative-dominated Westminster parliament's governance. Event Horizon was currently considering sites for two new cyber-precincts, and Wales, under New Conservative rule, was one of the principal contenders. The referendum was due in another five weeks; it was a measure of their desperation that they were prepared to sit out in the lobby rather than hit the campaign trail. So far she had managed to avoid any comments, on or off the record.

Open Channel to Selfcores, she instructed her bioware processor implant.

Her view of the office was suddenly riddled with cracks, fracturing and spinning away. It always did that if she didn't close her eyes in time.

Everyone thought she ran Event Horizon with her unique sang-froid flare because of her five bioware node implants. They reasoned she simply plugged herself directly into the vast dataflows the company created to act as some kind of omnipotent technophile sovereign. Given that the nodes with their logic matrices and data storage space gave her an augmented mentality able to interpret reports in milliseconds and implement decisions instantaneously, it was an understandable mistake. Companies and kombinates gave their own premier-grade executives identical implants in the belief they could boost their own managerial control in the same fashion. None of them had ever come close to matching Event Horizon's efficiency.

Julia's consciousness slipped into a dimensionless universe; the body sensorium of colours, sounds, touch, and smell simply didn't apply here. Even her time sense was different, accelerated. She hung at the centre of three dense data shoals, like small galactic clusters, observing streams of binary pulses flash between the suns. They were bioware Neural Network cores, brains of ferredoxin protein: Event Horizon's true directorate. Their massive processing capacity enabled them to keep track of every department, follow up every project with minute attention, directing the company along the policy lines she formulated. Her confidence in them was absolute. All she did was review their more important decisions before authorization, a human fail-safe in the circuit.

Two of the NN cores had been grown by splicing her sequencing RNA into the ferredoxin, duplicating her neuronic structure. After that she had downloaded her memories into them. They echoed her desires, her determination, her guile, crafting Event Horizon with loving vigilance, uninterrupted by the multiple weaknesses of the body's flesh.

Calmness stole into her own thoughts, as if the rationality which governed this domain was seeping back through the linkage. Here, there was a subtle boost to her faith that all problems were solvable. It was just a question of correctly applied logic.

Good morning, she said.

You seem a bit peaky today, NN core one replied.

Yes, last night's Newfields' ball was a wash-out.

Total surprise. I don't know why you keep going to those dos.

To keep up appearances, I suppose, she answered.

Who for? NN core two asked.

There was a difference between the personalities of her two NN cores, slight but definite. Core two assumed a stricter attitude, more matriarchal. Julia always thought she must have been very up-tight the day she downloaded her memories into it.

Self-delusion is what makes the world go round, she said.

If other people believe everything's all hunky-dory with you, you might even begin to believe it yourself, said NN core one.

Something like that, yes, she admitted.

There's still no sign of him, then? NN core two asked.

Sensation penetrated the closed universe, a sliver of cold dismay trickling down her back. Royan had been missing for eight months now. Her lover, confidant, partner in crime, joy-bringer, keeper of the key to her heart, dark genius, father of her two children, haunted soul. Deliberately missing, as only he could be. Eight months, and the pain was still bright enough to hurt. And now worry was its twin.

You would know that, she said. Best of all. Their awareness was spread like a spectral web through the global data networks, alert for facts, whispers, and gossip they could use to Event Horizon's advantage. There were patterns to the flow of information, tenuous and confused, but readable to entities like the three NN cores. Everybody in the world betrayed themselves through the generation of data; you could not move, eat, wash, or make love without it registering in a memory core somewhere. Except for Royan, whose flight left no contrail of binary digits, mocking the most sophisticated tracker programs ever constructed.

What could someone with Royan's brilliance build in eight months? And why keep it a secret from her?

Shadow wings of sympathy folded round her, a sisterly embrace by two of the NN cores.

Don't fret yourself so, Juliet, the third NN core said gruffly. He'll be back. Boy always was one for stunts, little bugger.

Thank you, Grandpa, she said.

The thought patterns of Philip Evans reflected a brisk gratification.

He was a perfect counterbalance to her two NN cores, Julia thought, his cynicism and bluntness tempering her own gentler outlook. Together they made a truly formidable team.

And one which was unlikely to be repeated. She knew of some kombinates who'd loaded a Turing managerial personality into a bioware number cruncher, hoping to recreate Event Horizon's magic formula that way. They hadn't met with much success. Instinct and toughness, even compassion, weren't concepts you could incorporate into a program. Neural Networks could possess such qualities, because they weren't running programs, they were genuine personalities. But at sixty million Eurofrancs apiece, an NN core wasn't the kind of project to be attempted on a speculative basis. And even if one was built, there was the question of whose sequencing RNA to use as a template, whose memories to download. If the person selected didn't have the right mind-set to run the kombinate, it would be too late to change.

Philip Evans had done it because he was dying anyway. He had nothing to lose. It worked for him because he had a lifetime's experience of running the company in a dictatorial fashion. And it wasn't until she'd been in the hot seat for seven years that Julia had grown her first core.

I'm all right now, she said.

The intangible support withdrew.

My girl, her grandfather said proudly. At moments like this, he could be absurdly sentimental.

Let's get this morning's list crunched, Julia said. She opened her mind up to the stack of data packages the three NN cores had prepared over the past forty hours. There was no conscious thought involved, no rigorous assessment; she let the questions filter through her mind, instinct providing the answers.

They started with subcontracts; company names and products, their quality procedures, industrial relations record, financial viability, bid prices, and finally a recommendation. Julia would say yes or no, and the profile would be snatched away, to be replaced by the next. She couldn't remember them afterwards; she didn't want to remember them. That was the whole point. The system only involved her thought processes, not her memory, leaving her brain cells uncluttered.

Personnel was the second category. She handled the promotions and disciplining of everyone above grade five management herself. If only divisional managers knew how closely their boss really followed their careers.

Divisional review came next. Start-up factories' progress, retooling, enlargement programmes, new product designs.

Cargo fleets, land, air, rail, space, and sea.

New London biosphere maintenance.

New London second chamber progress.

Microgee materials processing modules.

Finance.

Energy.

Security.

Prior's Fen Atoll civil engineering.

That's the lot, said NN core one.

Julia consulted her nodes. Over eight thousand items in six and a half minutes. She couldn't remember one of them, although her imagination lodged an image of hard-copy sheets streaming by on a subliminal fast forward.

Any queries? she asked.

Only Two, said her grandfather.

Says you, NN core two rebuked. How you can think Mousanta is a problem I don't know.

What are they? Julia asked, forestalling any argument.

Well, the three of us share a slight concern about Wales, NN core two said. You are going to have to make a decision about who to support some time.

I know, she said miserably. I just don't see how I can win.

So choose the option which causes the least harm, said her grandfather.

Which is?

For my mind, the Welsh Nationalists have promised Event Horizon a bloody attractive investment package if you go ahead and build the cyber-precincts. I say see the delegation, they are bound to Improve on the offer. It would be a fantastic boost for them to come out and announce they've swung you over. Bloody politicians, never miss a trick.

In order for their promises to mean anything they have to win the referendum first, NN core two said patiently. They're terrified you won't commit to a site until after the vote, of course. People won't vote for secession unless they're sure it will be beneficial. Which is what the Nationalists have been promising all along. Catch twenty-two, for them anyway. If they win the referendum and can't produce the jobs independence was supposed to bring they'll be lynched.

Dead politicians, her grandfather chortled. If I had a heart, it would be bleeding.

Our civil projects development division has been getting daily calls from the New Conservatives' central office, NN core one said. And the Ministry of Industry is pledged to Lord knows how much support funding if you build the precincts around Liverpool.

What sort of concessions have they been offering Event Horizon if I do site the cyber-precincts in Wales?

Almost the same support deal, her grandfather said. Officially. But Marchant has been playing his elder statesman go-between role to some effect; he's made it clear that the offer only stands providing the Nationalists lose the referendum, and you announce a cyber-precinct for Wales after that. It'll show the New Conservatives aren't neglecting the area.

Which is precisely why the Nationalists have been getting so much support in the first place, NN core one said. Because Wales hasn't received much priority from this government.

What would a Welsh secession do to the New Conservative majority? Julia asked.

Reduce it to eighteen seats. Which is why they're taking Wales so seriously for once. Chances are, with an independent Wales they'll lose their overall majority at the next general election.

After seventeen years, Julia mused. That would take some getting used to.

It wouldn't affect us much, NN core two said. Not now, Event Horizon is too well established, in this country and abroad. And it's not as if any new government is going to introduce radically different policies. The party manifestos are virtually all variants on a theme; the only differences are in Priorities. This new breed of politicians are all spin doctor bred, they don't pursue ideologies any more, only power Itself.

Whatever you do, Juliet, it wants to be done soon.

Yes, I suppose so.

We recommend one cyber-precinct is sited in Wales and one somewhere else, presumably Liverpool, NN core two said. It's a compromise which makes perfect sense, and deemphasizes your role in the referendum.

Fine, I'll notify the development division.

That just leaves the question of timing the announcement.

She massaged her temple, wishing it would ease the strain deeper inside. Yes, OK, leave it with me, I'll think about it. What was the second query?

An anomaly I picked up on, Juliet.

A data package unfolded within her mental perception. Julia studied it for a moment. It was a bid which Event Horizon had put in for a North Italy solid state research facility, the Mousanta labs in Turin. Event Horizon's commercial intelligence office noted that the molecular interaction studies Mousanta was doing would fit in with a couple of the company's own research programmes. The finance division had made a buy-out offer to the owners, only to be outbid by the Globecast corporation.

Julia saw she'd turned down a request to make a higher bid. So?

So, why, Juliet, is Globecast, a company which deals purely in trash media broadcasts, making a too high offer for a solid state research lab?

Oh, come on, Grandpa; Clifford Jepson probably wants it to help with his arms sales. The chairman of Globecast had a profitable second occupation as an arms merchant. She knew that he handled a lot of extended credit underground sales to organizations which the US government didn't wish to be seen showing any open support. In consideration, Globecast's tax returns weren't scrutinized too closely.

Clifford is a middle-man, Juliet, not a producer.

You think there could be more to it?

It doesn't ring true, that's all.

Yes. OK, Grandpa, get commercial intelligence to take another look at Mousanta, what makes it so valuable. Perhaps they've got a black defence programme going for the North Italy government?

Could be.

Sort the details, then.

OK, girl. There was no mistaking his eagerness.

Exit SelfCores.

Julia was back in the office, grinning at her grandfather's behaviour. He did so love the covert side of company operations. One of the reasons he and Royan had got on so well, closeheads.

She was just refilling her teacup when the door opened and Rachel Griffith came in.

There weren't many people who could burst in on Julia Evans unannounced. And those that did had to have a bloody good reason, invariably troublesome.

Julia took one glance at Rachel's thin-lipped anxiety and knew it was bad. Rachel didn't fluster easily.

"What is it, Rachel?" Julia asked uneasily.

"God, I'm sorry, Julia. I just didn't pay it a lot of attention when she gave it to me." Rachel Griffith held out a slim white flower-presentation box.

Julia took it with suddenly trembling fingers. The flower inside was odd, not one she'd seen before. It was a trumpet, fifteen centimetres long, tapering back to what she assumed was a small seed pod; the colour was a delicate purple, and when she looked down the open end it was pure white inside.

There was a complex array of stamens, with lemon-yellow anther lobes. The outside of the trumpet sprouted short silky hairs.

She sent an identification request into her memory nodes' floral encyclopaedia section.

The envelope had already been opened; she drew out the handwritten card.

Take care, Snowy,

I love you always,

Royan

Julia's eyes watered. It was his handwriting, and nobody else called her Snowy.

With her eyes still on the card she asked, "Where did it come from?"

"Some girl handed it to me at the Newfields ball last night." Rachel sounded worried. "I don't know who she was, but she knew me. Never gave her name, just shoved it in my hands and told me to pass it on to you."

Julia looked up. "What sort of girl? Pretty?"

"She was a whore."

"Rachel!"

"She was, I know the type. Early twenties, utterly gorgeous, impeccably dressed, manners a saint couldn't match, and lost eyes."

There was no arguing, Julia knew, Rachel was good at that kind of thing, her years as a hardline bodyguard, constantly vigilant, had given her an almost psychic sense about people. Besides, Julia knew the sort of girl she was talking about, courtesans were common enough at events like the Newfields ball.

Her nodes reported that the flower species wasn't indexed in their files.

Open Channel to SelfCores. Get me a match up for this, would you? she asked silently. It was important she knew what he had chosen for her.

She looked back to the card, its bold script with over-large loops. She could remember him perfecting his writing, sitting at a narrow wooden table in her island bungalow, the sea swishing on the beach outside, his brow furrowed in concentration.

And the flower, the flower was the sealer. Royan adored flowers, and she always associated them with him, ever since the day when they finally met in the flesh.

Access RoyanRecovery. She had node referenced the memory because she knew it would always be special, wanting to guard the details from entropic decay down the years.

Six of them had walked into the Mucklands Wood estate that afternoon fifteen years ago, all of them wearing English Army uniforms. Morgan Walshaw, Event Horizon's security chief at the time, who was quietly furious with her. It was the first (and last) time she had ever defied him over her own safety, Greg Mandel, who was as close to Royan as she was, and who'd agreed to lead them as soon as he'd heard she was going in. Rachel, who was her bodyguard back then, and two extra hardliners, John Lees and Martyn Oakly.

Mucklands Wood was the home of the Trinities, a bleak tower block housing estate which the city council had thrown up in the first couple of years after the Fens flooded. It stood on the high ground to the west of the A1, looking down on Walton where the Blackshirts were based. Two mortal enemies, separated by a single strand of melting tarmac and the luckless residential district of Bretton.

Rescuing Royan was more than a debt. Two years before, he had saved Philip Evans from a virus that PSP leftovers had squirted into the NN core. One of the best hackers on the circuit, he had written an antithesis which purged the virus. He had never asked for payment. A strange kind of bond had developed between them afterwards. Both of them powers in their respective fields, both feared, both near friendless, both wildly different. The attraction/fascination was inevitable, affection wasn't, but it had come nevertheless. There was nothing sexual about the relationship, given the circumstances there couldn't be. Neither of them ever expected to meet in the flesh. But the association was mutually rewarding. Royan had helped Julia safeguard Event Horizon's confidential commercial data from his peers on the circuit, while Julia supplied the Trinities with weapons to continue their fight against the Blackshirts. She hated the Blackshirts almost as much as Royan did.

But only now was she seeing the real cost of sponsoring the Trinities. Nothing like the intellectual exercise of arranging Shipments through Clifford Jepson. An action whose only reaction was the occasional item on the evening newscasts. She didn't have distance between her and the Trinities any more. Mucklands Wood wasn't the adventure-excitement she had expected, the little scary thrill of visiting the darkside. This was raw-nerve fear.

The struggle was all over now. There were no more Trinities, no more Blackshirts. Fires still burnt in both districts, sending up pillars of thick oily smoke to merge with the low bank of smog occluding the sky above the city. Half a squadron of Army tilt-fans orbited the scene slowly, alert for any more trouble.

Peterborough's usual dynamic sparkle had vanished, shops closed, factories shut. The city's frightened, shocked citizens were barricaded in their homes, waiting for the all-clear to sound. Both sets of protagonists had known this was the last time, the showdown, they hadn't held back.

Julia walked over hard-packed limestone. The whole estate was a barren wasteland. There were no trees or shrubs, even weeds were scarce; a greasy blue-grey moss slimed the brick walls of abandoned roofless employment workshops. The Trinities symbol was sprayed everywhere, raw and challenging, a closed fist gripping a thorn cross, blood dripping.

Two of the estate's high-rise blocks had been razed in the battle, toppling over after a barrage of anti-tank missiles had blown out the bottom floors. Julia's little group threaded its way past one, a long mound of broken twisted rubble, with metal girders sticking out at low angles. Squaddies picked their way over it gingerly, helping city firemen with their thermal-imaging sensors. Futile gesture really. She could see pieces of smashed furniture crushed between the jagged slabs of concrete, torn strips of brightly coloured cloth flapping limply, splinters of glass everywhere, dust thick in the air. A long row of bodies lay at the foot of the tower, covered in blankets. Some had dark wet stains.

Morgan Walshaw looked at her as they marched past. But she forced herself into an expression of grim endurance, and never broke stride.

A two-man patrol halted them. The squaddies in their dark-grey combat leathers and equipment webs didn't even seem human. Sinister cyborg figures cradling stub-barrelled McMillan electromagnetic rifles, bulbous photon-amp lenses giving their helmet visors an insect appearance, there wasn't a square centimetre of skin visible. She couldn't understand half of the gear modules clipped to their webs, and didn't bother consulting her nodes. She didn't want to know. All she'd come for was Royan.

Greg and Morgan Walshaw exchanged a few words, and the squaddies waved them on. They had been guarding the approach to a field hospital, three inflated hemispheres of olive-green plastic. Land Rovers and ambulances stood outside, orderlies hurrying between the bloody figures lying on stretchers. The empty white plastic wrappers of disposable first aid modules littered the ground; the oddest impression of the day, a dusting of giant snowflakes.

For the first time, Julia heard the sounds of the aftermath. The moans and screams of the wounded. Guilt sent icy spikes into her belly.

"Morgan," she said in a small voice.

He glanced back at her, and she saw the genuine worry in his face. Despite the forty years between them, she had always considered him one of her closest friends.

"What?" he asked. There was an edge in his voice. He was ex-military himself. She wondered, belatedly, what sort of memories their visit must be raking up.

"I'd like to do something for the survivors. They'll need proper medical treatment after the Army triage. Lawyers too, probably."

"I'll get on to it when we're finished here." He dropped back to walk beside her. "You holding out all right?"

"I'll manage."

His arm went round her shoulder, giving her a quick comforting shake.

"Tell you, this is the one," Greg said over his shoulder. He was indicating the high-rise block straight ahead.

It was identical to all the others left standing. Twenty storeys high, covered in a scale of slate-grey low-efficiency solar cell panels. Most of its windows had blown out. Fires had been extinguished on several floors, she could see the soot stains, like black flames, rising out of the broken windows, Surrounding solar panels had melted and buckled from the heat.

"Been one hell of a scrap here," Greg muttered.

The burnt-out wreckage of an old-style assault helicopter was strewn on the ground fifty metres from the tower. She stared at it, bewildered. Assault helicopters? In a gang war? Three military microlights were crumpled on the limestone around it, wing membranes shredded by laser fire.

There were several squaddies on sentry duty outside the tower, under the command of a young lieutenant who was waiting for them near the entrance. An intelligence officer, Julia knew; the Minister of Defence had assured her the lieutenant would be briefed about the need for total security.

The lieutenant snapped off a salute to Greg, then his eyes widened when he saw the Mindstar Brigade badge on Greg's shoulder. If anything he became even stiffer. Julia wondered what he would do if she lifted up her own silvered vizor to let him see who she was.

Greg returned the salute.

"Nobody has entered the tower since the firing stopped, Captain," the lieutenant said. "But apparently some of the Blackshirts penetrated it on the first day. There was a lot of fighting around here, they seemed to think it was important. Do you want my squad to check it out?"

Morgan Walshaw glanced up at the blank grey cliff in front of them. "No, thank you. Give us forty-five minutes. Then you can commence a standard securement procedure."

"Yes, sir." The lieutenant had found the brigadier's insignia on Morgan Walshaw's uniform.

"At ease, Lieutenant," Morgan Walshaw said mildly.

Greg led them into the tower, leaving the lieutenant behind outside. He moved like a sleepwalker, eyes barely open. Julia knew he was using his bioware gland, neurohormones pumping into his brain to stimulate his psi faculty, espersense washing through the tower to detect other minds, seeing if anyone was lying in ambush. He always said he couldn't read individual thoughts, just emotional composition, but Julia never managed to feel convinced. His presence always exacerbated her guilt. Just knowing he could see it lurking in her mind made her concentrate more on the incidents she was ashamed over—losing her temper with one of Wilholm's domestic staff yesterday, twisting Morgan Walshaw's arm to come to Mucklands, the two boys she was currently stringing along—running loose in her mind and bloating the original emotion out of all proportion. An unstoppable upward spiral.

The inside of the tower was stark. Bullet craters riddled the entrance hall walls, none of the biolum panels were on. A titan had kicked in the two lift doors, warping and tearing the buffed metal. The shafts beyond were impenetrably black.

"Through here," Greg said reluctantly. He put his shoulder to the stairwell door. John Lees and Marryn Oakly had to lend a hand before it finally juddered open wide enough for them to slip through.

There was a jumble of furniture behind it, and two bodies: Trinities, lads in their late teens. She looked away quickly. They had been trying to get out, pulling at the pile of furniture. Their backs were mottled with laser burns.

By the time they reached the eleventh floor, Julia was sweating hard inside the heavy uniform, her breath coming in deep gulps. Nobody else was complaining, not even Morgan Walshaw who was over sixty, so she kept quiet. But she could see the difference between being genuinely fit like the hardliners, and her own condition, which was arrived at by following a Hollywood celebrity's routine to keep her belly flat and her bottom thin. It was damn embarrassing; she was the youngest of the group.

Greg held an arm up for silence, he pointed to the door which opened on to the corridor. "Someone a couple of metres inside. They're in a lot of pain, but conscious."

"What do you want to do?" Morgan Walshaw asked.

"Bad tactics to leave a possible hostile covering your escape route."

Morgan Walshaw grunted agreement, and signalled John Lees forwards. The hardliner drew his Uzi hand laser and flattened himself against the wall by the door. Greg tested the door handle, then nodded once, and pulled the door open. John Lees went through the gap with a quick professional twist.

Julia was always amazed by how fast her bodyguards could move. It was as if they had two sets of reactions, one for everyday use, and accelerated reflexes for combat situations. One time, she had asked Morgan Walshaw if it was drugs, but he'd just laughed annoyingly and said no, it was controlled fear.

"All clear," John Lees called.

It was a boy in his early twenties, dressed in a poor copy of Army combat leathers. He was sitting with his back propped against the wall, helmet off. Both his legs were broken, the leather trousers ripped. A thick band of analgesic foam had been sprayed over his thighs. Blood covered the concrete floor beneath him. His face was chalk white, covered in sweat, he was shivering violently.

"A Blackshirt," Greg said in a toneless voice.

The boy's eyes met Julia's, blank with incomprehension. He was the same age as Patrick Browning, one of her current lovers. She had never been so close to one of her sworn enemies before. Blackshirt firebombing was a regular event at her Peterborough factories, the cost of additional security and insurance premiums was a real curse.

"Don't hurt him," she said automatically.

The boy continued his compulsive stare.

"Your lucky day," Greg told him blandly. "I've gone up against a lot of your mates in my time." He pressed an infuser tube on the boy's neck, and his head lolled forwards.

"The Army will pick him up when they comb the tower," Morgan Walshaw said. "He ought to live."

They carried on up the stairs to the twentieth floor. Greg halted at the door which opened into the central corridor, his eyes fully closed. Julia could hear her heart yammering. Rachel caught her eye, and winked encouragement.

"Is he alive?" Julia asked.

Greg's eyes fluttered open. "Yeah."

Julia let out a sob of relief. This hardly seemed real any more, it was so far outside her usual life. She thought she would feel anticipation, but there was only a sense of shame and despair. It had taken so many deaths to bring about this moment, mostly people her own age, denied any sort of future, good or bad. And all for an indecisive battle in a war which had ended four years ago. None of this had been strategic, it was basic animal bloodlust.

The corridor was a mess. There were no windows, the biolum strip had been smashed. Greg and Martyn Oakly took out powerful torches.

There was something five metres down the corridor, an irregular hump. At first she thought one of the tower's residents had dropped a big bag of kitchen rubbish, there was a damp meaty smell in the air. Then she saw the ceiling above had cracked open; three smooth dark composite cones poked down out of the gap. A battered helmet lay on the floor, alongside a couple of ammunition clips, and a hand. It still had a watch round the wrist.

Julia vomited violently.

The next minute was a blur. Rachel Griffith was holding on to her as she trembled. Everyone else gathered round, faces sympathetic. She didn't want that sympathy. She was angry with herself for being so weak. Embarrassed for showing it so publicly. She should never have come, it was stupid trying to be this macho. Morgan Walshaw had been right, which made her more angry.

"You OK?" Rachel Griffith asked.

"Yes." She nodded dumbly. "Sorry."

Rachel winked again.

Bloody annoying.

Julia got a grip on herself.

Greg turned the handle of room 206, the door opened smoothly. There was a hall narrower than the corridor outside, then they were in Royan's room.

That was when she saw the flowers. It was so unexpected she barely noticed the rest of the fittings. Half of the room was given over to red clay troughs of flowering plants. She recognized some—orchids, fuchsias, ipomoeas, lilies, and petunias—a beautiful display, lucid colours, strong blooms.

Not a dead leaf or withered petal among them. The plants were tended by little wheeled robots that looked like mobile scrap sculptures, the junked innards of a hundred different household appliances bolted together by a problem five-year-old. But the clippers, hoses, and trowel blades they brandished hung limply. For some inane reason she would have liked to see them in action.

Past the plant troughs a wall had been covered by a stack of ancient vacuum-tube television screens, taken out of their cabinets and slotted into a metal framework. Julia ducked round hanging baskets of nasturtiums and Busy Lizzies. She saw a big workbench with bulky waldos on either side of it. The kind of 'ware module stacks she was familiar with from Event Horizon's experimental laboratories took up half of the available floor space.

A camera on a metal tripod tracked her movements. Its fibre-optic cables were plugged into the black modem balls filling Royan's eyesockets. He sat in a nineteen-fifties vintage dentist's chair in the middle of the room.

Julia smiled softly at him. She knew what to expect, Greg had told her several times. When he was fifteen, Royan was a committed Trinities hothead, taking part in raids on PSP institutions, sabotaging council projects. Then one night, in the middle of a food riot organized by the Trinities, he wasn't quite quick enough to escape a charge of People's Constables. The Constables' chosen weapon was a carbon monolattice bullwhip; wielded properly it could cut through an oak post three centimetres in diameter. After Royan had fallen, two of them set about him, hacking at his limbs, lashing his back open. Greg led a counter attack by the Trinities, hurling Molotovs at the People's Constables. By the time he got to Royan, the boy's arms and legs had been ruined, his skin, eyes, and larynx scorched by the flames.

Royan's torso was corpulent, dressed in a food-stained T-Shirt; his arms ended below the elbows; both legs were short stumps. Plastic cups were fitted over the end of each amputated limb, ganglioti splices, from which bundles of fibre optic cables were attached, plugging him into the room's 'ware stacks.

The bank of screens began to flicker with a laborious determination. The lime-green words that eventually materialized were a metre high, bisected by the rims of individual screens as they flowed from right to left.

JULIA. NOT YOU. NOT YOU HERE.

"'Fraid so," she said lightly.

NEVER WANTED YOU TO COME. NOT TO SEE ME. SHAME SHAME SHAME. Royan's torso began to judder as he rocked his shoulders, mouth parting to show blackened buck teeth.

Julia wished to God she could interface her nodes direct with his 'ware stacks here, they normally communicated direct through Event Horizon's datanet. Speedy, uninhibited chatter on any subject they wanted, arguing, laughing, and never lying; it was almost telepathy. But this was painfully slow, and so horribly public. "The body is only a shell," Julia said. "I know what's inside, remember?"

OH SHIT A RIGHT SMART-ARSE.

"Behave yourself," Greg said smartly.

HELLO, GREG. I KNEW YOU WOULD COME. GOING TO HAUL ME OUT OF THE FLAMES AGAIN?

"Yeah."

HIDE ME UNTIL THE ARMY HAS GONE

"No," Julia said. "It's over, Royan."

NEVER. THERE ARE STILL THOUSANDS OF PSP OUT THERE. I'LL FIND THEM, I'LL TRACK THEM DOWN. NO ONE ESCAPES FROM ME.

"Enough!" she stamped her foot. Tears suddenly blurred her vision. "It's horrible outside. You Trinities and Blackshirts, all lying dead. They're our age, Royan. They could have had real lives, gone to school, had children."

STOP IT

"I won't have it in my city any more. Do you hear? It stops. Today. Now. With you. You're the last of the Trinities. I'm not having you start it up again."

I CAN'T HAVE A LIFE. I'M NOT HUMAN. BEAST BEAST BEAST

Julia's resolution turned to steel. "And the first thing you can do is stop feeling so bloody sorry for yourself," she said coldly.

SORRY. YOU THINK THIS IS SORRY? BITCH BITCH BITCH. WHAT DO YOU KNOW? COSSETED PAMPERED BILLIONAIRESS BITCH. HATE YOU. VILE.

"You're coming to the Event Horizon clinic," she said. "They'll sort you out."

Royan began to twist frantically in his dentist's seat. NO. NOT THAT. NOT HOSPITAL AGAIN.

"They won't hurt you. Not my doctors."

WON'T WON'T WON'T GO. NO!

"You can't stay here." Julia was aware of how unusually quiet Morgan Walshaw was, the other hardliners, too. But they didn't understand, deep down Royan wanted to be normal again, she'd seen his soul, its flaws, weeping quietly to itself. The fear barrier stopped him, the time he'd spent in the city hospital after the riot had been a living medieval hell, blind, voiceless, immobile. It had taken a long time for the health service to release funds for his ganglion splices and optical modems.

STOP HER, GREG. YOU'RE MY FRIEND. DON'T LET HER UNPLUG ME.

"Julia's right," Greg said sadly. "Today was the end of the past. There's no more anti-PSP war to be fought." He took an infuser out of his pocket.

NO NO NO. PLEASE GREG. NO. I'LL BE NOTHING WITHOUT MY 'WARE. NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING. BEG YOU. BEG.

Morgan Walshaw moved to stand in front of the camera on the tripod. Royan was shaking his head wildly. Julia pressed her hand across her mouth, exchanging an agonized glance with Greg. He discharged the infuser into Royan's neck.

The letters on the screens dissolved into bizarre shimmers of static. Royan worked his mouth, wheezing harshly. "Please, Julia," he rasped. "Please no." Then the infusion took hold, and his head dropped forwards.

Julia found herself crying softly as Rachel Griffith hugged her. Greg and Morgan Walshaw hurriedly unplugged Royan's optical fibres from the 'ware stacks.

They trooped up the service stairs to the roof, Greg and Martyn Oakly carrying Royan on an improvised stretcher. Julia held his camera, careful not to get the cables caught on anything.

One of Event Horizon's tilt-fans, painted company colours, picked them up. It rose quickly into the overhanging veil of filthy smoke, away from curious squaddies, and the prying camera lenses of channel newscast crews. Julia looked down through a port at the broken landscape below, emotionally numb. The damage was dreadful, Mucklands Wood's desolated towers, Walton's smashed houses. So many bystanders made homeless, she thought; and this was the poorest section of the Peterborough, they didn't have much clout in the council chamber. She was going to have to do something about that, not just rebuilding homes, but bring hope back to the area as well. That was the only real barricade against the return of the miasmal gangs.

Now, fifteen years later, she could allow herself some degree of comfort with the result. From her office she could just make out the heavily wooded park and prim white houses, there were schools and light manual industries, an open-air sports amphitheatre, a technical college, the artists' colony. The residents of Mucklands and Walton could believe in their future again.

We can't find any reference to the flower, NN core one told her.

She focused slowly on the presentation box in her hands, her mind still lingering on the showy array of blooms in Royan's room. He told her later he grew them for their scent; smell was one of the few natural senses he had left. He put a lot of weight on flowers.

Are you sure? she asked.

Absolutely, it's not in Kew Gardens' public reference memory cores. They are the most comprehensive in the world.

Access all the botanical institutes you can. It has to be listed somewhere.

She frowned at the delicate enigmatic mauve trumpet. Why, after eight months without a word, would he send an unidentifiable flower?

CHAPTER FOUR

For ten months of the year Hambleton village slumbered tranquilly under the scorching English sun, the rural idyll of a nineteenth century that existed only in wishful daydreams and apocryphal historical dramas. It was nestled at the western end of a long whale-back peninsula which jutted out into the vast Rutland Water reservoir, surrounded by a quilt of lush citrus groves which had sprung up in the aftermath of the Warming. Through those quiet ten months the groves were maintained by a handful of labourers who lived locally. But twice a year the trees fruited, and the peninsula played host to an invasion of travellers which quadrupled the population overnight. Such an influx could never be anything other than a rumbustious fiesta, awaited with a mixture of trepidation and delight by the residents.

This July the convoy of travellers hunting work at the groves stretched the entire length of the road which ran along the peninsula spine. There were genuine horse-drawn gypsy caravans, brightly painted in primary colours with elaborate trim; twentieth-century vans with long strips of bright chrome, bulky custom-built trailers towed by four-wheel-drive Rangers, converted buses, and sleek ultra-modern land cruisers. Kids screamed and ran among the stationary vehicles, playing their incomprehensible games. Dogs barked excitedly and tripped the children. Goats and donkeys added their querulous cries to the hullabaloo. Adults stood in groups round the cabs talking in quiet murmurs. Smells of cooking drifted through the stifling air.

From where Greg Mandel stood at the gate of the camp field it looked like a real carnival. He always enjoyed the first two weeks of July, blistering heat, fruit hanging ripe in the groves, the campfire meals, music and dancing under the stars. There were even the odd days when they got some picking done.

"Roll it through," he yelled up at the driver in the trailer cab. The vehicle had been converted from a redundant Army AT Hauler chassis, eight metres long, with six wheel sets. It rumbled into the field, leaving deep ruts in the mud.

"How many is that?" he asked Christine, his eldest daughter.

"Nineteen. Room for lots more yet, no messing." She grinned happily. The twice-yearly picking seasons were dizzy times for the four Mandel children. New faces, old friends, no school, late nights, extra money for helping with the crop.

"How many teams do you want this year?" Derek Peters asked. He was standing beside Greg, a grizzled old family chief, wearing dungarees and a porkpie hat. He was the first traveller to arrive looking for work when Greg and Eleanor moved into the rundown farm sixteen years ago. Since then he'd been back each time, in summer for the oranges and limes, and November for the smaller tangerine crop. He knew most of the travellers, advising Greg who to take on, who the trouble makers were.

"About thirty-five," Greg said. "That ought to see us through. There was a lot of blossom in the east grove this year."

"You'll make it to kombinate level yet," Derek said.

Greg shrugged, inwardly pleased by the compliment. The year he and Eleanor began converting the farm's old meadows, he had struggled to plant two groves in time for his first crop; now he had nearly fifty hectares of the Hambleton peninsula covered with gene-tailored citrus trees. All of them on the prime southern slope where they received the most sunlight.

There were eleven other citrus plantations on the peninsula, taking advantage of the reservoir's superabundance of water to irrigate the thirsty trees. But the Mandel plantation was easily the largest, which meant Greg was invariably elected chairman of the local Citrus Growers' Association. His cosy lifestyle, his respectability, was something he looked upon with a strong sense of irony. Not that he would ever consider abandoning the groves, not now.

When he and Eleanor set up their new home on the peninsula he hadn't been at all sure of the idea. Up until then his life had been given over almost exclusively to combat or conflicts of one kind or another. A professional soldier, he had joined the Army at eighteen, serving in a paratroop regiment until the joint services' psi-assessment test found him to be esp positive; whereupon he wound up with a hurried transfer to the newly formed Mindstar Brigade. After the Army came the Trinities, and a hot brutal decade slugging it out against the People's Constables on Peterborough's streets. But unlike the majority of the Trinities he made an attempt to cut free once the PSP fell; living in an old timeshare estate chalet on the shore of the reservoir, trying to make ends meet as a private detective. A role his espersense made him ideal for.

Two years spent grubbing away on desultory poorly paid cases and enduring lonely bachelor nights. Two years trying to build a reputation for professionalism and competence.

And ultimately it paid off. He was hired by Event Horizon to track down the source of a security violation in their orbital factory. The case grew in size and complexity until he was finally confronting some PSP relics who had squirted a virus into Philip Evans's NN core. At the same time Eleanor came into his life. The two events combining to change his mundane world out of all recognition.

An extremely grateful Julia paid him a ridiculously lavish fee for resolving the case. They could have lived quite comfortably off the interest alone, which made the prospect of carrying on as a detective seem stupid. But they had to do something, aristocratic lotus-eating, endless parties, and global tourism didn't appeal to either of them. So they bought the farm: Greg had been a picker before often enough, a good supply of ready cash during the PSP years; and Eleanor grew up on an agricultural kibbutz.

By and large, it had been a good choice. Apart from one relapse, when Julia had used something approaching moral blackmail to coerce him into helping the police with a murder investigation which threatened to tarnish Event Horizon's esteem, his previous life drifted away from him. He was happy to let it. The old memories of violence and sorrow grew progressively more inaccessible, veiled by a cold. discouraging fog.

The next vehicle trundled up to the camp field's gate. Greg reckoned this year's convoy was the largest yet. With the New Conservatives giving road repair a high priority, traffic in general was on the increase. Another ten years would have people worrying about gridlock again—he had to explain the word to Christine, a relic of his own youth. To someone who had grown up with roads that were little more than moss-clogged tracks it was an unbelievable concept. But three years ago the big Transport Department remoulder vehicle had laid a thermo-hardened cellulose strip over Hambleton peninsula's crumbling tarmac road, and she had fallen into thoughtful silence. That was one part of the post-Warming boom he could do without. But with each of Hambleton's plantations taking on pickers the convoy families should all find work this summer. He ought to bring that up at the next Association meeting; if they ever had to start turning away large numbers it could lead to resentment. Maybe he could sound Derek out about it first. He scrawled a quick note on his cybofax wafer.

"Hey wow," Christine growled.

Greg looked up at the new arrivals. Two boys driving an old blue-sprayed ambulance, he could just make out the words Northampton Health Authority down the side.

"Alan and Simon," Derek said. "Cousins."

Everybody was a cousin or an in-law, if they weren't they didn't get past the gate. Greg never could work out what qualified them as family, it certainly wasn't anything as simple as genetics.

"First year by themselves," Derek added.

Greg could see that for himself, they were both about twenty, fresh-faced and apprehensive. The ambulance's tyres were bald. "You ever done any picking before?" he asked.

"Yes, sir," the driver said. "Ever since I could climb a ladder, maybe before, too."

"And you are?"

"Simon, sir."

"Can you do anything else?" Christine asked. There was a purring challenge in her voice.

Simon broke into a sudden ingratiating smile. From his position in the passenger seat, Alan was craning over Simon's shoulder, staring.

Greg sent out a silent prayer. Christine was fifteen years old, and developing a figure as grand as her mother's. The lime-green cap-sleeve T-shirt she was wearing proved that; and now he thought about it, her cut-off jeans were high and tight. None of her clothes were exactly little-girlish any more. He supposed that one day he really ought to talk to her about boys and sex, except that he had always sort of assumed Eleanor would do that. Coward, he told himself silently.

Simon's mouth had opened to answer her, but then he took in Greg's impassive expression and Derek's scowl, and decided not to chance it. "We can help with the cooking. And I have an HGV licence," he offered.

"Any mechanical problems, and I'm your man," Alan added. "City and Guilds diploma in transport power systems."

Greg made a note on his cybofax.

"Mr. Mandel lets you in, then you work from dawn to dusk," Derek said. "I told him you was good boys; you fuck up, you make me a liar, you disgrace your family."

From anyone else it would have been absurdly over the top. But Simon and Alan suddenly looked panicky.

"We want to work," Simon insisted. "We didn't drive two hundred klicks for fun."

Greg ordered a low-level secretion from his gland. In his imagination it was a slippery lens of black muscle, pumping away enthusiastically, oozing milky liquids. It was an illusion he had somehow never quite managed to shake off. Reality was far more banal. The gland was an artificial endocrine node which the Army had implanted in his skull, absorbing blood, and refining a devilish cocktail of psi-enhancing neurohormones to exude into his synapses.

The Army saw psychics forming a super-intelligence-gathering task force, pinpointing enemy locations, divining their generals' strategies, opening up a whole chapter of information that would ensure victory. The Mindstar Brigade never quite lived up to those initial hopes, although it retained a fearsome reputation. Psi wasn't an exact science, human brains were stubbornly recalcitrant, and not everybody could take the psychological pressure.

After his encouraging test results, the project staff had expected Greg to develop a formidable sixth sense, seeing through brick walls, seeking out tactical data over twenty kilometres. Instead, he wound up with the ability to perceive people's emotions, their fears and hopes, knowing instantly when someone was lying. It was useful for counter-intelligence work, but hardly justified the expense.

His gland also cultivated a strong intuitive sense, although official opinion was divided on that. Greg knew it was real. One time in Turkey during the Jihad Legion conflict, he had tried to convince his company commander it was too risky crossing a valley floor. The major hadn't listened, putting it down to the usual squaddie superstition about open ground.

Eight of the company had been lost when the Apache attack helicopters swam out of the cloudless sky, another fifteen were stretcher cases.

Greg felt his perception altering as the neurohormones bubbled through his brain, the world receding slightly, becoming grey and shadowy. The tightly wound thought currents of the two boys in the ambulance shone out at him. It was like watching fluid neon streamers swirling in surreal patterns, a cryptic semaphore message he alone could read.

He always checked over newcomers, just to make sure he wasn't letting any vipers into Hambleton's rustic peace. But neither of the boys were harbouring anything sinister, no malice or secret disdain, there was just a flutter of nerves as they waited for his answer, a genuine urge to work. And in Alan's case, a high-voltage sparkle of admiration for Christine.

The one thing Greg never used his espersense for was checking up on his own children. He'd always promised himself that. Paranoid parents were the last thing a growing kid needed. So he stopped short of seeing how interested Christine really was with the two boys, preferring trust instead.

Besides, she already had three serious boyfriends that he knew of.

Christine brushed some of her long titian hair aside, tucking it behind her ear. "Two hundred kilometres; where have you come from?" she asked the boys.

"York," Alan said.

"Oh, I think that's such a wonderful city. I always love visiting it."

"We'll give it a shot," Greg said hurriedly, trying to regain control.

"Thank you, sir," Simon said, grinning broadly. "We'll show you haven't made a mistake."

"Right. Park down beside the torreya tree. Make sure to put some wood underneath your wheels, the ground's wet. OK? And don't cut down any trees in the copse." He pointed at the block of Chinese pine saplings beyond the groves. "We provide logs."

"Yes, sir."

The ambulance's hub motors engaged with a light whine.

"And don't you piss in the reservoir," Derek yelled after them. Simon's hand waved from the open window.

"You've never been to York," Greg said to Christine.

She started giggling. "Oh, Dad, what's that got to do with anything?"

Greg gave up. "Right, that's twenty. Who's next?"

A pair of hands were placed over his eyes. "I thought you always told me it was impossible to creep up on a psychic," a woman's voice said in his ear.

Christine squealed. "Aunty Julia!"

Greg turned round to see Christine hugging Julia Evans. He gave her a lame grin. "Listen, you, it's more than possible when a psychic is having a day like this one."

"I know the feeling." Julia gave him a kiss, just a little bit longer than politeness dictated.

Greg slapped her bottom. "Behave yourself." When Julia was seventeen she'd had a mild crush on him, a psychic detective and ex-hardline resistance fighter was so far outside her usual experience she thought it terribly romantic, the ultimate in mysterious strangers. Greg was suddenly aware of Derek shuffling uncomfortably. He introduced Julia, privately amused by Derek's consternation when he realized that, yes, it really was the Julia Evans. "Did you bring Daniella and Matthew with you?" he asked.

"Yes, I've just picked them up from Oakham School. They went on into the house."

"Picked them up from school," Greg chuckled. "Just an ordinary working mum, huh?"

Julia grinned. "Looks like you've got a good crop this year," she said.

"Best yet." He caught sight of Victor Tyo, Event Horizon's security chief, standing respectfully a couple of metres behind Julia. A slender Euroasian with an adolescent's face and thick black hair, he had slung his suit jacket over one shoulder, white shirt undone at the collar. At forty years old, he was young for the job, but Greg had worked with him on the virus case, Victor Tyo had what it took. That too young face was a misdirection, the brain behind could have been made from solid bioware. There weren't many tekmercs who chanced going up against Event Horizon these days.

Greg shook Victor's hand warmly. "Where are Julia's bodyguards? You're far too old for hardlining now."

"Hey," Victor Tyo spread his arms. "You speak for yourself." He gestured with one hand. A nineteen-fifties Rolls Royce Silver Shadow was parked on the drive just above the farmyard, two sober-faced hardliners in ash-grey suits standing beside it.

Greg rolled his eyes. "My God, it's the camouflage detachment." On the road at the top of the drive a flock of children was forming, plotting dark misdeeds.

A horse-drawn caravan had pulled up in front of the gate, painted bright scarlet with yellow and blue trim. Greg recognized Mel Gainlee holding the reins, a spry pensioner who'd been coming to Hambleton for almost as long as Derek. He waved hopefully to Greg.

"Christine."

She was staring across the field to where the ambulance was parking.

"What?" she asked guiltily.

Greg handed her his cybofax wafer, glancing at the logo on the bottom right corner. Thankfully it was Event Horizon's triangle and flying-V. That could have been embarrassing. "You and Derek sort the rest of the teams out for me, OK?" His intuition had been sending out subtle warnings since he saw Victor Tyo had accompanied Julia. Victor was a good friend, but he didn't make social calls in the middle of the working week. Neither did Julia, come to that.

Christine's face coloured slightly. "Sure, Dad," she agreed seriously.

Greg felt a burst of pride. She really was growing up.

"She's quite something," Julia said as she and Victor Tyo walked with Greg down the rough track back to the farmhouse. Her bodyguards had fallen in a regulation ten paces behind. The kids on the road were letting off wolf-whistles.

"Yeah." Greg couldn't stop smiling.

"Sorry if we interrupted. I'd forgotten what a pandemonium Hambleton is at picking time."

"No problem. Derek knows who to let through. I only put in an appearance for form's sake."

"Where do they all come from?" She gazed back towards the heat-soaked convoy.

"From all over, of course."

The E-shaped farmhouse had been added to and extended over the years, bricks and stone and composite sheeting were all in there somewhere, hidden under a shaggy coat of reddish-green ivy. The steeply angled roof was made entirely from polished black solar panels. A couple of satellite dishes were mounted on the western gable end, pointing into the southern sky. The larger of the two was faded and scratched, obviously second hand, with a complicated-looking aluminum receiver at the focus.

A gaggle of geese scattered, honking loudly as the five of them walked into the farmyard.

"That's new," said Julia, pointing at the satellite dishes.

"Oliver put it up," Greg explained. "The boy's gone astronautics crazy. He picks up all sorts of spacecraft communication traffic on it. Wants to go and live in New London. So Anita's decided she's going to live in a Greenland commune."

Oliver and Anita were eleven-year-old twins, and took a savage joy in trying to be total opposites.

Greg had planted evergreen magnolias around two sides of the farmyard, the third side was defined by a long wooden barn. The planks for which had come from the dead deciduous trees in Hambleton Wood. It was full with white kelp-board boxes ready for the picking, the stacks reaching up to the roof. Three tractors were drawn up outside, their wheels thick with mud.

Julia looked at them pensively. "I really ought to have remembered this was the main fruit season."

"No reason why you should. Fruit picking isn't something Event Horizon has cybernated."

"Oh, you!" She poked him in mock exasperation as Victor Tyo laughed.

It was cooler inside the house, conditioners filling the air with a slightly clammy refrigerated chill. Greg led Julia and Victor Tyo into the sun lounge, checking quickly to see if any of the children's toys were lying about underfoot. The room had a white-tile floor, furnished with a pair of twisted-cane frame chairs and a three-seater settee. Benji, the family parrot, was climbing delicately over the outside of his cage.

A broad bay window looked out over the huge southern prong of Rutland Water. White wooden hireboats from the fishing lodge at Normanton bobbed about on the blue water, windsurfers and sailing yachts zipped round them. Red-faced cyclists pedalled along a narrow track just above the far shoreline, sweltering in the tropical heat of the English summer.

Greg relished the view, he had grown up in the small arabic county, lived on the shore of the reservoir for over twenty-five years. The Berrybut time-share estate was almost directly opposite the farm; in the evening he and Eleanor would watch the nightly bonfire blaze in the centre of the horseshoe of chalets, remembering earlier, simpler times.

Eleanor came into the sun lounge, walking carefully, stiffbacked from her seven-month pregnancy.

Greg caught Victor Tyo throwing him a startled glance as Eleanor and Julia embraced. It added to his growing sense of unease.

"Victor." Eleanor was smiling as she kissed the security chief. "Never see enough of you. Found a girl you can settle down with yet?"

"Eleanor," Greg protested.

"There is someone," Victor agreed defensively.

"Good, you can bring her round to dinner. We'd love to meet her."

"You never mentioned her to me," Julia said.

Victor Tyo sent a silent dismayed appeal to Greg.

"Sit down," Greg said. "And you two, behave; stop trying to embarrass Victor." He snagged Eleanor round her waist and urged her over to the settee.

"Oliver, Anita and Richy are out in the stables," Eleanor said. "I sent Matthew and Daniella out to find them. One of the mares has just foaled."

Julia groaned. "They'll only want to bring it back to Wilholm with them."

Greg put his arm around Eleanor, enjoying the feel of her as she leant in against him. "So what did you come for?" he asked.

Julia had the grace to look mildly guilty. "Royan."

"You've heard from him?" Eleanor asked.

"Sort of."

She handed Greg a slim white box, explaining about the unknown girl at the Newfields ball.

The trumpet flower inside was drooping, its light fuzz of hairs curling up. Greg's intuition strummed a quiet string of warning. Something about the flower was desperately wrong. He couldn't begin to guess what.

"And there was just the one card with it?" he asked.

"Yes."

He gave the box to Eleanor.

"I don't recognize it," Eleanor said. "What sort is it?"

Julia shot Victor Tyo a nervous questioning glance. The security chief shrugged.

"That's where the real problem begins," Julia said. "My NN cores ran a search through every botanical memory core they could access. Nothing. They drew a complete blank. No big deal about that, there are a lot of new gene-tailored varieties on the market; can't keep track of everything. Still, I sent it down to the lab for genetic sampling, see if we could find what it was derived from, the parent species." She drew a breath, pressing her palms together. "It's extraterrestrial."

"Alien?" Greg felt a fast twist of cold fear. Gone. With his sensitivity, no wonder the flower had triggered a mild wave of xenophobia. He stared at the flower; intuition shouting loud and clear what Julia was going to ask him to do next.

Eleanor's weight pressed against him, she was giving Julia a doleful accusing look.

"It can't be," Eleanor said. "It's no different to any other flower."

Greg could sense a stiff form of revulsion growing in her mind; she wanted to reject the whole notion.

"A flower is a very simple organism," Julia said, the slightest quaver in her voice betraying the severe fright Greg was observing in her thoughts. "It attracts insects to assist in pollination, nothing more. Naturally an alien flower will look similar to our own."

"So this planet it came from has bees as well, does it?"

"The individual species of plants and animals won't resemble ours, but given a planet with anything remotely approaching Earth's climate they will certainly be analogous. Evolutionary factors will remain pretty constant throughout the universe, the simplest solution always applies. Think how many plants have developed since life began on Earth, all of them variants on a central theme."

"What rubbish."

"Please, Eleanor," Julia said painfully. "I wish you were right, I really do. I wanted the geneticists to be completely wrong. But the flower has nothing like our DNA. The chromosome-equivalents are toroidal, arranged in concentric shells. My geneticists say the sphere they form is unholy complex, and definitely not from this solar system."

"For complex, read 'advanced'," Victor Tyo said. "The geneticists estimate the source planet could be anything up to a couple of billion years further up the evolutionary ladder than Earth. The gene sphere is much larger than terrestrial DNA strands."

It didn't really register with Greg, nonsense numbers. He ordered a gland secretion, concentrating inwards. There was no truth to be gained from intuition, only a sense of what might be, hints. He scrambled round for a sign of fear, that the flower was dangerous. But there was only the original tremendous unease, amplified to a cloying presence. He imagined this was what being haunted must be like.

He rose from the near-trance state.

"The flower," Greg said. "It's not lethal, but I get a sense of weight behind it, a pressure building up."

"The aliens?" Victor Tyo asked.

"No," Greg gave him a wry smile. "No spaceships, no Martian invasion fleet. But there's something… biding time."

"There is a ship, something had to bring it here," Victor said. "They're close, watching us, hell they're probably even down here among us. How would we know? We've no idea what they look like, what they're capable of. God Almighty, entities from another planet." Perhaps it was just the emphasis his boyish face gave to any deeply felt emotion, but Victor's dismay seemed to be on the point of crushing him.

"Aliens might have the technological advantage over us," Greg said. "But I'd be very surprised if they could land on Earth without the strategic defence networks picking them up. Am I right, Julia?"

She gave a subdued nod. "Yes. The sensor coverage is good, it has to be given the potential for kinetic assaults. You could orbit a ship two hundred thousand kilometres out without being spotted, fair enough, but the chances of detection increase with every kilometre you travel closer to Earth. Once you're within fifteen thousand kilometres of the surface you're visible. It doesn't matter how good your stealth technology is, any physical body passing through the planetary magnetosphere generates a flux that the sensors will pick up. We're tracking hundreds of thousands of objects up there, anything from discarded solar panels to composite bolts."

"So where did the flower come from?" Eleanor asked.

Julia shook her head slowly. "I don't know. And that's what really worries me. I can't believe even aliens have the ability to circumvent our technology to that extent."

"You said you could feel a pressure," Victor said. "What kind of pressure?"

Greg shrugged, uncertain how to express it in words. "Something waiting."

"Look," Julia said. "We know there's been some kind of first contact; that there is, or has been, a ship visit the Earth, or at least the solar system. That's your presence; no big mystery there. What I want to know is, how is Royan tied in? That's what I came for, Greg. Where is he?"

"I don't know. But you were right about the flower being a message. It might even be a warning."

"Then why didn't he say so?" she asked hotly.

Greg realized how much worry and concern was bottled up behind her tawny eyes.

"Wrong question," he said. "We should be asking: what's he warning us about? And why such a baroque warning? If he had enough liberty to send off flowers, why not just give you a call? At the very least he could squirt us a data package."

"Bugger your questions, Greg! I want to know what's happened to Royan."

"Well, what did you expect? A séance?" He cursed as soon as he said it.

Julia blushed.

"No," Eleanor said levelly, her eyes never leaving Julia. "You want the girl, don't you? The one who gave Rachel the box."

The blush deepened, she nodded once. "She's the link. The only one we've got."

Greg looked at Eleanor, then back to Julia. "I can't," he said, appalled at how much it cost to say. "Not me, not any more. Sorry."

"Bloody right you can't," Eleanor said coolly. She fixed Julia with a stare. "Look around you; four children, a fifth on the way, the farm, the picking season."

"I know," Julia whispered. "But… aliens, Eleanor. It goes beyond me and Royan, though I wish to God it didn't. Who else can I trust? Who would you trust? You want these aliens to contact the religious fundamentalist movements first? One of the South American dictatorships? We have to find him, quickly and quietly. Greg's a gland psychic, worth ten of these new sac users, and he's had proper training. The best there is, and my friend, Royan's friend. Who else can I ask?"

Greg narrowed his eyes. Julia's compulsion had always been stronger than any psychic power. And combine it with logic as well…

"Give me a name, Greg, someone better; Lord, someone your equal would do."

"How the bloody hell would I know?" he snapped. "I left that game sixteen years ago. Victor? You must have whole memory cores full of psychics."

"I do," Victor said quietly. "And we reviewed them, that's why we're here. I'm sorry. These modern sac users are good, but they don't have your training, your strength. Mindstar hunted out people with the highest potential. Today, anyone who has a minor flash of talent can take a themed neurohormone and think he's some kind of warlock. In a lot of respects themed neurohormones are a step backwards; and no one ever developed one to boost intuition."

"Jesus wept!"

"Royan's out there, Greg," Julia said. "Negotiating with aliens, holding them off, leading them in. Lord, I don't know which. But I have got to find out, Greg. Please?"

He looked helplessly at Eleanor. She fumbled for his hand, and gave him a squeeze. He tightened his grip round her shoulder.

"He is a friend," Eleanor said in a tiny voice. She sounded as though she was trying to convince herself and failing miserably.

"Yeah, he is that."

"You're not hardlining, Gregory," Eleanor said firmly. "Not at your age."

He twisted under the look in her eyes, wanting to object, or at least have it said in private. The trouble was she was quite right. At fifty-two he would be hopelessly outclassed by today's youngsters. Logic and intuition were in concord over that, worst luck. And if there was one certainty about all of this, there was going to be trouble. Royan's method of contact alone was evidence of that.

Nothing ever simple, nothing ever straightforward. His bloody life story.

"No problem in that direction, at all," Victor said smoothly. "One of Event Horizon's security crash teams will be on permanent alert to assist you. With hypersonic transport, they can be anywhere on the globe within forty minutes. And of course you'll have as many of my hardliners accompanying you as you want. All you have to do is ask the questions."

"No," Greg said. "If I'm doing this then I want someone I know watching my back. Someone who's reliable, someone who's good."

"Of course," Victor said.

"I'll take Suzi."

"What?" Julia sat upright in her chair.

Eleanor stiffened inside his encircling arm.

Greg resisted the impulse to smile.

"She is one of the more competent tekmercs," Victor said grudgingly.

"Yeah," Greg said. "She ought to be. I trained her."

Victor raised an eyebrow. "I think you'll find she's grown a bit since those days. Reputation-wise, that is."

"I'm sure Event Horizon can afford her," Greg said.

"We certainly can," Julia agreed. "There will be one of Event Horizon's executive jets here for you first thing tomorrow morning. I've already cleared your entry into Monaco."

Eleanor's features hardened, spiking Julia with a voodoo glare.

"Fine," Greg said phlegmatically. Had there ever been a time when Julia didn't get her way? "We'd better visit Suzi this afternoon."

"You might find you need more backup than Suzi by herself," Julia said.

Greg gave her a hard look, he was rapidly tiring of revelations. Why?"

"The girl at Newfields, or somebody else, they took a sample out of the flower as well."

"You sure?"

"Yes. The lab pointed it out as soon as they saw it. One of the stamens had been cut off. And it was definitely a cut, not a break."

"Would a stamen be enough for a genetic test?" Greg asked. "I mean, this unknown who took it, are they likely to know the flower is extraterrestrial?"

"Yes. Theoretically, all you need is a single cell. A stamen is more than sufficient."

Greg rubbed a hand across his temple. "I doubt it would be the girl who took the sample."

"Why not?" Eleanor asked.

"Purely because she is just the courier, especially if Rachel is right about her being a whore."

"Courtesan," Julia corrected. "Don't fall into the mistake of thinking she's a dumb go-between. Believe you me, at that level there's a difference. She'll be smart, well educated, and knowledgeable."

"OK," said Victor. "But smart or not, courtesans don't own genetic labs."

"I agree," said Greg. "Somebody else apart from us knows about the alien. But until we know more about the girl, I couldn't even begin to guess who."

"Exactly," said Julia. "So will you take some extra hardliners?"

"Maybe a couple. But they stay in the background."

"I'll brief them myself," said Victor.

Eleanor rested her head well back on top of the settee's cushioning, eyes slitted as she stared at the ceiling. "What did the government say about the alien?" she asked.

Greg watched Julia flinch at the question. He'd never seen her do that before, not in seventeen years.

"They don't know yet," Julia mumbled reluctantly.

"When were you planning on telling them?"

"As soon as the situation requires it."

"You don't think it does yet?" Eleanor asked.

"All we have is supposition, so far."

"And the genes. They convinced you."

"The point is, what could the government do that I can't? Order a strategic defence network alert? I really don't think neutral particle beam weapons and pulsed X-ray lasers are going to be an awful lot of use against the kind of technology which moved a ship between stars, and did so undetected. Besides, think of the panic."

"All right," Eleanor said uncertainly. "But we have to make some preparations."

"Event Horizon is preparing," said Victor. "We're assembling a number of dark specialist teams, spreading them through our facilities, kitting them out with top-line equipment."

"What use is that?" Eleanor demanded indignantly.

"Listen, I can't believe we're facing some kind of military action," Julia said. "But so far these aliens have been acting in a very clandestine fashion. If push comes to shove, then Earth is going to lose. No question about it. So we roll with the punch; if we can't fight interstellar technology, we acquire it for ourselves, and fire it right back at them."

Greg turned to watch the sailors on the reservoir. There was something cheerfully reassuring about the brightly coloured triangles of cloth slicing across the water. A nice homely counterbalance to this vein of raw insanity which had erupted into his life.

He didn't like the connotations interstellar technology was sparking off in his intuition. Though he had to admit Julia had the right idea. If they couldn't be beaten with hardware, use innate human treachery against them.

And what does that say about us as a species?

CHAPTER FIVE

Jason Whitehurst was right, she should have paid more attention to his data profile. He did have a yacht, of sorts, the Colonel Maitland; it was an old passenger airship he had bought and converted into an airborne gin palace.

After the Newfields ball, Whitehurst's limousine had driven the three of them halfway around the Monaco dome's perimeter road before turning off. A covered bridge linked the dome to the city-state's airport, a circular concrete island fifteen hundred metres east of the Prince Albert marina. They'd driven past the terminal building and across the apron to a Gulfstream-XX executive hypersonic. The plane was a small white arrowhead shape, with a central bulge running its whole length, twin fins at the back. With its streamline profile, embodying power and speed, it would have been easy to believe it was some kind of organic construct.

Charlotte ducked under the wing's sharp leading edge and climbed the aluminum stairs through the belly hatch. The cabin was windowless, a door leading forwards into the cockpit, another at the aft bulkhead for the toilet, there were ten seats. A smiling steward in a dark purple blazer showed her how to fasten the belt. Jason sat at the front; and Fabian sat opposite her, his greedy smile blinking on and off.

And that was it. There was no passport and immigration control, no customs, no security search. Jason Whitehurst's money simply overrode the mundane protocols of everyday existence, an intangible bow wave force clearing all before his path. Even so, she thought there should've been some kind of formality. But at least she didn't see the creep with the cool eyes this time.

Charlotte had actually dozed on the short flight. She woke as the steward touched her shoulder. The back of Fabian's head was descending through the hatch.

She glanced about in confusion as she came down the hypersonic plane's stairs. The Gulfstream had landed on a circular VTOL pad. A stiff chilly breeze plucked at her gown. They were definitely out at sea, she could taste the freshness of the air. But all she could see past the lights ringing the pad was a band of night sky, stars twinkling with unusual clarity, there was no sign of the sea, no sound of water. A bright orange strobe light was flashing two hundred metres ahead of the Gulfstream's nose, seemingly suspended in space. That was when she started to realize where they were.

"Welcome to my yacht, my dear," Jason Whitehurst said with a touch of irony.

Charlotte lifted her mouth in a smile. "Thank you, sir."

He wagged a finger.

"Jason," she corrected.

"Good girl."

We must be right on top of the airship, she thought. But it's so stable, even in the breeze, it must be massive.

Fabian had disappeared through a door at the rear of the pad. Jason guided her courteously towards it.

Charlotte yawned widely, covering her mouth quickly. "Excuse me," she apologized.

"Tired, my dear? You were out like a light on the plane."

"I'm sorry, you must think me dreadfully rude. I've been on my feet for thirty-six hours. I've only just returned from my holiday. It's been planes and airport lounges all day, I'm afraid."

They went through the door into a well-lit corridor. Fabian was waiting by a lift.

"That sounds most interesting," Jason Whitehurst said. "I shall enjoy hearing all about your travels tomorrow over lunch."

Charlotte's heart sank.

The lift door hummed open. Everything was made out of composite, she noted—walls, floor, ceiling.

"Fabian, I think you had better see your lady guest to one of the spare cabins for tonight," Jason Whitehurst said. "Dear Charlotte is terribly tired. I think she needs a night's rest. She can move into your room tomorrow."

And that cleared up any possible ambiguities about the situation, Charlotte thought. Clever of him, reassuring his son in front of her.

Fabian's face fell. "Yes, Father."

She shared the lift with Fabian. He kept giving her fast glances, suddenly nervous again. She thought she'd succeeded in putting him at ease while they were dancing. "How old are you?" he asked quickly. "I mean… you don't have to say. Not if you don't want to."

"I'm twenty-one, Fabian."

"Oh." He stared at the stainless-steel control panel beside the door. "I was fifteen a few months back, actually. Well more like nine months, really."

According to the data profile Baronski had squirted over to her, Fabian had celebrated his fifteenth birthday barely a fortnight ago. "That's nice."

Fabian blushed. "Why?"

"Because people will still treat you like a kid. But you're not. It means you can get away with murder."

His jaw worked silently for a moment. "Ah, yes, right."

The lift doors opened on the gondola's upper deck. He showed her down a long corridor to her cabin. She began to wonder again about the size of the Colonel Maitland.

"Thank you, Fabian," she said when the cabin door slid open.

"Sleep as long as you want. There's nothing rigid about meals on board. The cooks will always get you something to eat whenever you ask them. That's what they're here for." He flipped the hair from his eyes. "Would you like to come swimming with me tomorrow?"

"Swimming? In an airship? What do you do, jump into the sea?"

Just for a moment a genuine fifteen-year-old's grin flashed over his face. "No, nothing like that. I'll show you."

"Sounds fun. That's a date, then."

She woke to the faintest of buzzing sounds, having to concentrate hard to be certain she wasn't imagining it. It seemed to rise and fall in some strange cycle of its own. There was no accompanying vibration. She thought it might be the propellers.

Her cabin was stylish and luxuriant, vaguely reminiscent of a nineteenth-century steamship. Wooden dresser and chests, mossy sapphire carpet, biolum globes like giant opals, pictures of pre-Warming landscapes on the walls. Three sets of mulberry curtains along one wall emitted a dull glow. A remote unit was sitting on the bedside cabinet.

She found the button for the curtains, and rolled off the bed as they drew apart, revealing long rectangular windows with brass frames.

Colonel Maitland was cruising three or four kilometres above the Mediterranean. The water below shone with a rich clear blue hue, while wave-tops shimmered brightly creating a silver glare. She had never flown over the Mediterranean like this before. Hypersonics flew so high and fast that details blurred to non-existence, seas were reduced to a formless blue plane. But this view was hypnotic. She could see ships down there, trailing long V-shaped wakes; bulk cargo carriers, rusty splinters no bigger than her thumb nail.

There was a light tapping on the door. Charlotte looked round the cabin, and saw a towelling robe on the foot of the bed. She slipped into it.

"Come in."

It was a maid, a woman in her early thirties, dressed in a plain black knee-length tunic, her mouse-brown hair wound into a neat bun. She curtsied. And she got it right, too, Charlotte noticed.

"Did madam have a pleasant rest?" The maid's English was slightly accented. Slavonic?

"There's no need for that nonsense in private," Charlotte said.

"Madam?"

That hurt. Formality was the way a patron's household staff told her they thought she was on a social stratum way below them, about equal to the family pets. Dumb, pampered, and good at tricks. "I had a very pleasant rest. Is the rest of the ship up and about?"

"It is nearly eleven o'clock, madam."

Charlotte blinked in surprise. When she looked out of the windows again she saw the sun was well up in the sky.

She cocked her head at it, finding something vaguely disconcerting about its appearance. Whatever the anomaly was, she couldn't quantify it.

"Mr. Whitehurst is expecting me for lunch," Charlotte said. "What time is that?"

"Twelve fifty, madam."

Charlotte ran her hands through her hair. "I'll take a shower first. Where are my clothes?" The gown she'd worn to the Newfields ball was draped over a chair. She'd been so tired last night she couldn't be bothered even to find a hanger for it. Now the material was probably creased beyond rescue.

The maid opened a drawer. Charlotte recognized some of her clothes folded neatly. When had that been done?

"Would madam like me to assist in the bathroom? I am a trained manicurist."

"You know how to do hair as well?"

A slight bow.

"Good, in that case you can give me a hand." And get that nice clean tunic all wet and soapy as well.

The maid slid open a varnished pine door to reveal a bathroom. It was all marbled surfaces and extravagant potted ferns.

The marble must be fake, Charlotte decided. They couldn't possibly afford the weight, not even in this airship. Jason Whitehurst giving his guests fake marble. She grinned.

"Mr. Jason said to be sure your choice of day attire was a suitable one for a companion of Master Fabian's," the maid said. Her face was beautifully composed. "I took the liberty of laying out one or two of the briefer items from madam's wardrobe. I hope they meet with your approval, there were so many to select from."

"Why, thank you, I'm sure your knowledge in that area is unmatched." Charlotte swept regally into the bathroom. One all. But it was shaping up like a long dirty war.

Lunch was difficult. They ate in the aft dining-room on the gondola's upper deck; looking out at the stern of the airship. Charlotte discovered she had been quite right about the Colonel Maitland, it was vast; seven hundred metres long, a hundred and twenty in diameter. Its fuselage was made up from sheets of solar cells, a glossy black envelope reflecting narrow ripples of sunlight in mimicry of the sea below.

Jason Whitehurst sat at the head of the table, with his back to the curving band of windows. Charlotte and Fabian sat on either side of him, facing each other. Fabian was doing his best not to stare. But once or twice she thought she caught that glint of anticipation on his face again.

As she worked her spoon into the avocado starter Charlotte watched the translucent blur of the contra-rotating fans at the stern. The Colonel Maitland was making a hundred and fifty kilometres an hour. She hadn't known airships could travel so fast, her mind classing them as lumbering dinosaurs.

"Oh no, not at all," Jason Whitehurst said when she mentioned it. "Even the previous generation of rigid airships in the nineteen-thirties were reaching speeds around a hundred and twenty kilometres an hour. Flat out, the Colonel Maitland can make a hundred and eighty. It used to cruise at about a hundred and fifty when it was on the trans-Pacific passenger run."

"This was a passenger ship?" she asked.

"Yes. Airships came into their own after the Warming and the Energy Crunch. Damnable era, that one, the whole world went positively insane for over a decade. Still, I expect that was before your time, my dear. And very fortunate you were too, missing it. But after the jet fleets were grounded by impossibly expensive fuel, beauties like the old Colonel were all we had until Event Horizon cracked the giga-conductor's molecular structure. After that, of course, everybody went bloody speed mad. Hypersonics, spaceplanes; nothing but rush and bustle. One shouldn't complain, one supposes; the world is a better place now, so everyone says. But airships have such class. That's why I couldn't resist buying this old chap when it came on the market."

Charlotte took a sip of her white wine. This assignment was turning into a complete waste of time. Jason Whitehurst spent most of his time on board the Colond Maitland, so he said, only touching the ground for parties like the Newfields ball and other social events, the occasional business meeting. His trading empire was mostly handled by his cargo agents, and ninety per cent of his financial business conducted via private satellite relays. That didn't bode well at all. A large part of her arrangement with Baronski was listening to table talk. It was amazing what premier-grade kombinate executives and company chairmen would say when they were relaxed in a convivial atmosphere, safe amongst their own. Of course, they didn't expect her to follow a word of what they were saying. Youth, a pretty face, and a perfect figure equals no brain at all. So the next day she would call up Baronski, and he played the bytes of insider knowledge on the stock markets. Charlotte only got two per cent on that deal, but it would often come to more than the price her patron's gifts brought in.

Except now there were no guests on board, nor any prospect of them before they reached Odessa. And Fabian was supposed to be her patron; the only gifts she was likely to get from him would be rock concert tickets and a Playboy channel subscription.

One of the waiters brought her a chicken salad. Charlotte waited until Jason Whitehurst started eating, then tucked in. Her usual patrons, with their overhanging bellies and multiplying chins, tended to become irritable when they saw her nibbling at her food while they chomped their way through five-course meals, it showed them up. So she had had her digestive enzymes alerted with biochemicals to reduce her digestion rate; now it didn't matter how much she ate, she didn't put on weight. With slenderness guaranteed, a simple regimen of light exercise was all she needed to keep her ballerina muscle tone.

"So where did you take this holiday of yours?" Jason Whitehurst asked.

"New London."

"No, really?" Fabian stopped eating, his fork halfway to his mouth. "You mean the asteroid?"

"Yes."

The boy's eyes shone. "What's it like?"

Charlotte moistened her lips with the wine again. "Formidable. The flight out leaves you with a most peculiar impression; it's both big and small at the same time. On the approach you see this huge mountain of rock adrift in space halfway out to the moon. Then, inside, it's a tiny little world-let, the centre hollowed out and planted with trees and grass and crops. Yet even that is big, because you can see it all, and know how small you are by comparison."

"Crikey. I'd like to get up there myself sometime."

"When you're older," Jason Whitehurst said.

"Yes, Father."

Jason Whitehurst reached over, and ruffled the boy's hair. "Ah, impatience of youth. Just wait a few more years, Fabian, you can do what you like after that. Tell your poor old father to get stuffed then."

Fabian did a half-squirm below his father's hand, glancing anxiously at Charlotte, so obviously fearful of how she would interpret the gesture. Daddy's little boy.

"I imagine there can't be very much to do up there," Jason Whitehurst said.

"Oh no, there's much more to it than the microgee industries and Event Horizon's mineral mining operation," Charlotte said. "They're trying to develop it as a finance and tourist centre."

"Good heavens, a sort of Disneyland in orbit, that kind of thing?"

"Not quite, it's rather more exclusive than that. They have casinos, nightclubs, if anything it's rather like a giant cabana club."

"Sounds ghastly," Jason Whitehurst muttered.

"And there's zero gee, as well," Charlotte said.

"From what I've been given to understand, it makes people sick."

"Not much nowadays, the medical people have got the anti-nausea drugs worked out fairly well. They had to. Sports form a big part of the attraction. There are a lot of games that you can play in the various low gee terraces. Tennis, badminton, squash, handball; they're all a lot of fun up there. The ball travels completely differently, you have to develop a whole new set of reflexes to cope. And then there's the fall surfing, that's worth the price of the ticket alone. You must have seen it on the channels."

Jason Whitehurst dabbed at his mouth with a linen napkin. "Yes. Well that settles it, I certainly won't be going. I'm far too old to learn anything new."

"Oh, come on, Father. It sounds terrific."

"Maybe for your sixteenth birthday."

"Great!"

"I said maybe." Jason sat back as the waiter removed his plate. "You obviously enjoyed yourself up there, my dear?"

"Yes. I'd like to go back."

Jason Whitehurst pulled thoughtfully at his beard as he looked at her. "How long were you up there for?"

"Ten days."

"I see. And then straight from the spaceport to the Newfields ball. You were in a bit of a rush, weren't you?"

Charlotte didn't like the way he was asking her questions, it wasn't polite conversation-making any more. "I support the Newfields charity, it means a lot to me."

"Dead boring, though," Fabian said. "Except when we were dancing," he added hurriedly.

"Thank you," Charlotte smiled at him.

"Do you still want to come swimming?"

It was the third time he'd asked. Charlotte had finally twigged why he was so persistent: swimming meant bikinis. Devious old Fabian. "I certainly do, yes."

"Not until you've digested your lunch," Jason Whitehurst said. "Why don't you show Charlotte round the old Colonel first."

The gondola was a hundred metres long, thirty wide, with two decks containing all the cabins, lounges, and staff quarters. Fabian led her down the central corridors, opening various doors. The flight centre was at the front of the lower deck, a big room with panoramic windows; three bored officers monitored the airship's systems on five horseshoe-consoles. Fabian introduced her to them, then they went up into the main hull.

"This is where it gets interesting," Fabian said as they climbed a short flight of stairs at the rear of the gondola, right above the dining-room they'd had lunch in.

The stairs came out on to a narrow composite walkway with a rail at waist height, illuminated by a row of biolum strips. Charlotte was standing in a three-metre gap between a spherical helium balloon and the solar cell envelope. Long girders made from improbably thin monolattice carbon struts curved away on both sides, disappearing into darkness. The walkway was a narrow thread of light which stretched out into infinity fore and aft.

She shivered from the cool air. The gap seemed to suck sound away.

Fabian started walking towards the stern. "There are nine of these big spherical gasbags," he said, pointing up, "and two smaller ones in the conical sections at both ends."

Charlotte pressed her hand against the blue-grey roof of plastic. It felt tacky, slightly cooler than the surrounding air.

"Then there's these ten doughnut-shaped ones spaced between the spheres, so we don't waste any volume," Fabian continued. They were underneath a deep curving valley where the spherical gasbag pressed up against a doughnut, taut wires securing both of them to the monolattice spars.

Charlotte let him guide her, not really listening to the details of what she was seeing. Fabian found a walkway leading off at right angles to the main one. It began to curve upwards. She was soon climbing a ladder to another walkway halfway up the side of the fuselage.

"I'm sorry about the way the staff treated you," Fabian said. "It was jolly rude."

Charlotte watched him flip the hair out of his eyes. She hadn't realized he'd noticed the chill of the waiters as they served her at lunch, not many did. "They don't count," she said.

He considered this. "Oh. Does it happen to you a lot?"

"Sometimes."

There were more turns, another flight of stairs. They arrived at a doorway. Charlotte didn't have a clue where they were any more, except the unending buzz of the fans was slightly louder.

"Here we are," Fabian said happily, and showed his card to the lock.

Charlotte looked round as biolum strips covered in protective grilles came on. The room had an industrial feel to it; a gloomy high ceiling, the walls covered in big thermal insulation panels. It had housed some heavy machinery in the past; the mountings were still there, jutting out of the walls, two rows of thick pipes rose out of the floor like stumpy chimneys, capped by metal plates, a spiderweb of empty cable ducts arched around the door. But it was a teenager's den now. A rich teenager. There were flatscreens screwed to the walls, several hardware terminals and display cubes on old tables, piles of cushions, a music deck, a couple of electric guitars, large speakers, clothes scattered round, empty boxes, and ten large tanks full of tropical fish.

"This chamber used to hold the MHD units," Fabian said. "When it was an ordinary passenger ship on the Pacific run the Colonel Maitland burnt hydrogen for power. The solar cell envelope doesn't catch enough energy to power the fans, you see. But when Father had it refitted, we switched to gigaconductor cells. Saves an awful lot of weight."

"So where does the power come from now?" she asked.

Fabian fell back into one of the beanbags, hands behind his head, beaming. "The Gulfstream has extra cells fitted, they charge up from the industrial grid every time it lands, then it transfers the electricity when it gets back."

"So this is where you hang out, is it?" She peered at one of the fish tanks, admiring the vivid rainbow patterns on the guppies, suspecting genetic engineering featured prominently in their heritage.

"Yep."

"Doing what, exactly?"

"I'll show you." Fabian jumped up, limbs jerking erratically, as though he was operated by wires. He tugged his T-shirt off. "This is really the most scorching game on the market. I love this. I'm good at it, too. Really good."

She frowned, slightly bemused as he started to delve through a pile of junk. He pulled on a sleeveless shirt that was stained and torn, then started to clip on what looked like body armour. A metal breastplate painted in jungle camouflage; it had a small spotlight that stood above his left shoulder on a stalk.

"That screen," Fabian told her, urgently. "Watch that one." He was typing quickly on a complicated-looking terminal. "Please, Charlotte."

"Sure." Your daddy's paying for it, after all. She saw he had acquired a GI helmet with a small radio mike hanging down. He picked up a bulky gun, some sort of cross between a shotgun and a semi-automatic rifle, and stood in the centre of a circular black mat.

There was something weirdly familiar about the costume. Then the theatre-sized flatscreen on the rear wall lit up.

A cramped room illuminated by dull red lighting, metal lockers forming walls and narrow aisles. Figures frozen in an alert pose, all of them holding the same kind of rifle as Fabian, all looking up at the ceiling with expressions of worry and concern. Charlotte recognized the woman in the centre: Sigourney Weaver. "I know this," she said. "It's from Aliens."

Fabian laughed. He was abruptly engulfed by a two-metre bubble of holographic light, a shadowless pearl haze. Faint coloured lines flickered around him, an exoskeleton drawn in blue, as though he had been cocooned by a computer graphics display.

The scene on the flatscreen came alive. And there was Fabian, one of the space marines, firing his gun wildly as the aliens crashed down through the command centre's roof. He had obviously perfected his chosen role, screaming obscenities, blasting the creatures apart in eruptions of green and yellow gore, covering the retreat back to the medical centre. Then one of the aliens punched up through the floor at his feet, and he went down firing defiantly until a black skeletal hand clamped over his face, dragging him to oblivion. A last terrified scream and he was gone.

Charlotte laughed delightedly, clapping and whistling. "Encore!" She didn't have to fake it. Almost all of her patrons tried to impress her, showing off their sophisticated art collections or delicate antiques, lecturing her extensively on every piece, demonstrating how cultured and refined they were, always hoping for an admiration which wasn't entirely bought. No one had ever tried to woo her with anything remotely like this before, not simple enjoyment. It was all so gloriously childish. She couldn't help wondering how she would look up there on the big screen.

Fabian clambered back to his feet, and slung the chunky rifle over his shoulder. His face split with a rich happy smile. "See, told you I was good. You can pick whatever character you like. I love playing Hudson; he's a real fighter. He's scared the whole time, but he's tough too when it counts. I know his dialogue off by heart."

"You were brilliant." She went over to the terminal he had activated, there were three times the usual number of keys. "What is this?"

"Videoke. All the companies and kombinates say it's going to be their supernova sales item this Christmas. Father got me this deck in advance; he's trying to buy a big consignment of them for Central America. The software houses have only remastered fifty movies for interactivity so far. I've got them loaded in the deck's AV memox; all the real classics since cinema started, even some black and white ones."

"It's wonderful, Fabian."

"Do you want to try it?" he asked generously. "You could be Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, or Laura Dern in Jurassic Park, you're easily beautiful enough."

"Thank you, flatterer. I will some time, once I've learned the lines. If I'm going to do it, I want to do it properly, like you. I'll have to find the right clothes, too."

"I could do the Humphrey Bogart part with you."

"Yes." She read the list of films the videoke deck's flatscreen was displaying. Snow White in the Disney cartoon would certainly be a challenge. And which dwarf could Fabian be? She chuckled quietly to herself.

Fabian slowly took his helmet off. His hair was all sweaty, clinging to his scalp. "Charlotte."

She looked round at him, surprised by his serious tone.

"I meant it when I said you were beautiful."

"Thank you, Fabian."

"I couldn't believe it the first time I saw you." His pose of assured confidence crumpled, shoulders slumping inside the green armour. "I thought I was dreaming. I knew you'd be pretty, but—"

"Give you a tip, never oversell."

His head came up, lips pressed together defiantly. "Are you laughing at me?"

"No, Fabian. I'm not laughing at you. Life is cruel enough without people deliberately adding to it."

"Oh. You're nothing like… I don't mind what you do, you know."

"What do I do?"

Fabian blushed, the invisible wires tugged his shoulders into a lopsided shrug. "You know. The others, before me. Hiring yourself out."

"Cars and flats are hired out, Fabian. They're objects."

"You mean you want to?"

"I mean there are limits. I have a choice."

His youthful uncertainty had returned. He looked almost fragile, she thought.

"So you only came on board the Colonel because you wanted to?" he asked.

"More or less, yes."

"With me?" his voice was disbelieving.

Charlotte was strongly tempted. Revenge for all the shit she'd been made to eat over the years. She could hit him now, beat him with words, sarcasm and derision, cripple him up inside. He was one of them, the indifferent rich, floating effortlessly through life. Never caring, that was their real crime.

His face hovered halfway between pride and trepidation. The kind of innocence she'd never had.

She couldn't do it.

It wasn't often like this. She was supposed to be a passing fancy, an interesting diversion. Not someone who could leave a lasting impression. But with Fabian, she knew she'd be a wonderful memory for the rest of his life. The greatest present a fifteen-year-old could ever be given—judged from a fifteen-year-old's viewpoint. And who knows, I might even alter his perspective on life.

Charlotte twitched her lips sensually. "You won't like this."

"What?"

"When I saw you back at the Newfields ball. I thought you were kind of cute."

"Cute?" he blurted in dismay.

"Told you."

"Oh." Fabian dropped the rifle back on the junk pile and scratched his neck. "Really?"

"Yes."

"So you must like me a bit."

"I suppose so."

He seemed to inflate with purpose. "All right! Can we go swimming now?"

There really was a swimming-pool on board. A surprisingly large one, fifteen metres long, six wide. The room had a small bar at one end, and solaris spots shining out of a hologram sky. Sun loungers were set out along one side of the pool, the other side was flush with the wall, the windows ten centimetres above the water.

Charlotte tested the water with one foot, then shrugged out of her towelling robe. She was wearing a bright scarlet crossover-back swimsuit underneath. Fabian watched her with a bold face and timid eyes as she dived cleanly into the pool.

She swam over to the windows, and looked out at the Mediterranean below. Floating in water that was floating through air. How strange. And there was that feeling of something being out of kilter again. It was mid-afternoon, with the sun sinking towards the horizon ahead of the Colonel Maitland. She decided that when she got to Odessa she'd call Baronski and tell him to find her another patron. Fabian could nearly be classified as sweet, he was certainly gullible, and easily controlled. But there was no way she was going to spend the next month cooped up in an airship with no one else to talk to.

"Do you want the wave generator on?" he asked.

"Maybe later. I'm still getting used to the idea of a pool in the air. Waves would be pushing it."

He turned onto his back, and drifted away. "The pool makes a lot of sense, you know. It weighs less than the hydrogen the ship used to store; and water is the best kind of ballast, quick to dump."

"Are you telling me that if there's an emergency we're going to go down the plug hole?"

Fabian laughed. "No, course not, stupid. There's a grille over the drain."

Charlotte pushed off from the windows. "Fabian, where do you go to school?"

"Here, I use flexible rate learning programs on my terminal. But I'm going away to university. Father said I am. Cambridge, I hope. That's where he went. I want to do economics so I can take over the trading company from him."

"So when do you get out?"

"Out?"

"Of the Colonel Maitland."

"Oh, when we reach a port where Father has some business. Or if we go to a party."

"So how do you make friends?"

Fabian's good humour faded. He stood up in the middle of the pool. "There are the other kids on the party circuit. And I talk to people on the phone chatlink."

She swam over to him, and stood up, the water coming up to her elbows. His head tilted up to look at her.

"That's nice," she said. "You must meet a lot of varied people."

Fabian nodded. His gaze dropped to the scoop of her swimsuit and stayed there. She eased her chest forward a fraction. Regretting it almost immediately as Fabian became very still; teasing him was such a delicate business. He was on the verge of panic.

"Yes?" she said gently.

"Charlotte…" He visibly gathered courage. "Charlotte, can I kiss you now? You don't have to say yes."

She took a slow step forwards, amused by his suddenly startled expression. Her hands held his shoulders, and she gave him a long kiss, finishing by sucking his lower lip as they parted.

If anything Fabian looked even more confused and lost than usual.

"Didn't you like that?" she asked.

"Crikey, yes! It's just—"

She gave him a fast impersonal kiss on the tip of his nose. "Don't feel guilty, Fabian. Never that. I'm here for you."

"I didn't ask for you to be brought on board," he said defensively.

"I know. So, friends?"

"Yes." He gave an anxious nod, then experimented with a grin.

"Good."

"Why did you want to know about my friends?" he asked.

"Just curious."

"Where do you live?"

"I have a flat in the Prezda, that's an Austrian arcology."

"But you can't live there much."

"No. I don't suppose I do. But it's nice to have somewhere to call home. Somewhere you can always return to and shut the door on the rest of the world. Everybody needs that."

"If you don't live there much, then you can't have many real friends either. Not steady ones."

Charlotte couldn't manage to summon up her usual smile. "Fabian, have you got a bioware processor implant?"

His satisfied expression dissolved into perplexity. "No. Of course not. Why?"

"Because you're a very bright boy, that's why."

His grin reappeared. "Really? You really think so?"

"Yes."

"I didn't want to be rude," he said contritely. "I thought—"

"Go on, I don't bite."

"Well, I thought that might be why you decided to come with me, because we were both the same. Neither of us has anybody really close."

She let the water flow back over her, twisting idly.

"Could be."

Charlotte waited for an hour after dinner before she tapped on Fabian's door. The meal had been another exercise in high discomfort; the three of them sitting in the aft dining-room as the twilight faded into night. Jason Whitehurst had asked about New London again. Where she stayed, who she'd met, actually wanting to know which flights she'd used, for Heaven's sake. Even Fabian had begun to shift uncomfortably in his seat.

"Busy?" Charlotte asked.

Fabian shook his head, and backed away from the door. The flatscreen on the wall was showing a Western. His cabin's layout was similar to hers, but personalized, with clothes scattered about, real books piled on the dresser, shoes underfoot. Biolum panels glowed dully, reddish pink embers.

Charlotte closed the door. Fabian gave the impression of wanting to jump on her, and flee at the same time. He stared miserably at his bare feet.

"I wasn't sure if you'd really turn up," he said in a thick voice. "I still think you might be a dream."

Charlotte turned the flatscreen off, deepening the shadows. "Fabian?"

"Yes?"

"Am I really so hard to look at?"

When he lifted his head she gently pushed the lock of hair from his forehead, then put her hands on his cheeks and kissed him. His skin was singularly smooth under her fingers.

She let go, slightly disturbed by the amount of adoration in his gaze. "Before we go any further, I just wanted to thank you."

"Me? What for?"

"For not trying to order me about."

"I wouldn't do that. Honestly."

"Yes. I know." Charlotte showed him a slow enticing smile.

"And now you don't have to." She slipped the straps off her shoulders in an easy motion and let the gown slide to the carpet with a silky rustle. Her self-control nearly cracked at the sight of the outright astonishment on his face as he stared at her breasts. Baronski had said they were big enough not to need enlarging, but she'd taken a hormone course to strengthen the Cooper's ligaments which supported the ductal lobes, keeping them high and firm.

Fabian flipped his hair aside, and scrambled for his shirt buttons, his eyes never leaving her.

"No," she said, and the huskiness of her tone surprised even her. "I'll do that."

She started at his collar, kissing his skin as it was exposed, moving down his chest on to his belly. There were no blemishes, nor spots, it was baby-flesh. She reached his shorts, and pulled them down along with his pants.

Fabian was biting his lower lip, drawing breath in judders when she rose to stand in front of him. She slithered quickly out of her panties.

"Bed," she said, and took him by the hand.

He lay down on the rumpled sheets, an almost fearful expression on his face. Charlotte sat across his hips, her gaze holding his eyes for a long moment, then slowly leant forwards.

It was a strange sensation, to be in bed with someone so inexperienced, having to guide and whisper encouragement. But she discovered a secret miscreant pleasure in being dominant for once, bigger and stronger. It was exciting listening to him whimper as her fingers dug into his hard buttocks, tongue making love to his erection. She let him play with her breasts for a long time.

Then finally he was up between her legs, pumping wildly. It was over quickly, Fabian crying out as he fell on top of her.

She held him until his shaking passed. Kissing his brow as she gently stroked his spine.

"I got it all wrong, didn't I?" he said wretchedly.

"No, not at all. I've known of some people who get so wound up the first time that they just freeze. That hardly happened to you, now did it? You'll learn how to make it good for both of us."

"So it wasn't good for you, then?"

She sighed. Even now his mind functioned like a 'ware chip. "This was your night, Fabian."

"But you let me do anything I wanted to you. Anything. You never stopped me."

"Was that so terrible? Didn't you like it?"

"God yes, you're so beautiful. It's brilliant enough just being able to look at you and touch you, but sex with you is like going to heaven."

She had to strain hard not to laugh. He really was cute.

"Sex is whatever you enjoy, providing it doesn't hurt your partner."

He raised himself on his elbows, looking down on her body with a sheepish awe. "Please, Charlotte, show me how to make you enjoy it. I want to thrill you, I want to make you as excited as I am, I want to be the greatest lover you've ever had. Please. Just show me how. Please, Charlotte."

Now how long had it been since she'd had a request like that? If ever. She grinned lazily, and stretched her arms above her head, arching her back. "Do you know what an erogenous zone is?"

"Course I know!"

She giggled. "Ah, but where are they?"

His indignation faltered.

Charlotte caught one of his hands; she gently kissed the tip of each finger, licking with feline provocation, then guided him across her abdomen.

CHAPTER SIX

Suzi was sunbathing on the balcony when she heard the piccolo hiss of the executive hypersonic's compressor fans. Darkness swept over her, accompanied by a wave of half-imaginary cold as the boiling afternoon sun was eclipsed by the little arrowhead plane.

Suzi opened her eyes and squinted up, but there was too much glare to make out the fuselage insignia. Andria sat up beside her, long hand shielding her eyes from the sun as she watched the hypersonic settle on the condominium's roof pad two storeys above them.

"I don't recognize it," the girl said.

Suzi turned on to her back, shuffling her shoulders until the lounger's cushioning was comfortable. "It's an Event Horizon Pegasus CV-1 88D," she mumbled with her eyes closed again. "Their latest marque."

Andria laughed. "No, Suse, I meant, I don't know who it belongs to. I don't think it belongs to any of the residents."

That laugh did things to Suzi's brain that could normally only be achieved by a hefty infusion of proscribed substances, it was carefree and warm, amazingly sultry. She lifted her head to look at the naked girl on the lounger beside her.

Andria was nineteen, her body lean and long limbed, dark wavy hair falling below her shoulders. She had a heart-shaped face with a flat nose, and wide ever-curious eyes that never seemed to stay focused on anything for more than a few seconds. The whole world was a constant delight to Andria, she had to try and see all of it at once. Then there was her shyness, which was a provocative aphrodisiac.

Her pregnancy didn't show yet. Six weeks after the private London clinic specializing in parthenogenetic reproduction had fertilized Suzi's ovum and planted it securely inside Andria, the girl's coffee-coloured belly was still flat and firm.

They had met in a New Eastfield nightclub last October, Suzi celebrating a finance sink deal with some of her team, Andria on a night out with her boyfriend.

It took Suzi three weeks to lure Andria into bed, shamelessly exploiting the girl's sunny, trusting nature. She hadn't pursued anyone with such determination since her Trinities days; it was like being drunk on raw lust. Their first night together was worth every agonizing second of the wait. She used Andria's body to work off fantasy after fantasy, only to find it just left her wanting more. It meant that for the first time in a long while Suzi had been forced to tell someone how much she felt about them.

Andria had moved in permanently at the start of December, though she insisted on keeping her datashuffling job in the office of a local shipping agent. It was that kind of quiet pride which was such a puzzle and fascination to Suzi. A girl who would surrender every inhibition to her at night, yet still refused to become a dependant. Andria was more than erotic satisfaction, she filled the soul's longing.

So in January, just before she started working on the Johal HF deal, Suzi screwed up her courage, and asked Andria to consider having her child.

"But why?" Andria had asked as Suzi lay on top of her.

The air-conditioned darkness of the penthouse's bedroom revealed only the faintest of silhouettes, but Suzi knew the girl had a frown on her face. "Because it's a way out for me," she answered, shrinking inside for showing her vulnerability. "This shit I'm in, I know it's bad, but it's addictive. It gives me a high. I can't get out. There's nothing outside tekmerc territory that can give me the same buzz. I've seen 'em all, dopey bastards who say they'll quit when they've made their wad. Never do; they live wild for a few months, even a couple of years, then they come crawling back, and when they do their edge is all screwed up."

She felt Andria's fingers running lightly round her chin. "You could always set up as a corporate security consultant, your experience must count for—" the girl began.

"Bollocks. Kombinate security wouldn't touch me with a bargepole. Besides, I want right out, the whole way. Got the money, too."

"But what would you do?"

"Get conventional. Shit, I know it sounds fucking stupid. Right? But I'd like to give convention a go. I thought a pub or a hotel, maybe a club."

"If a consultancy wouldn't give you the excitement, then I don't think a pub would be what you need."

"I know someone," Suzi whispered. "Someone who used to do this kind of crap, a real hardliner. He got out, clean and sweet. Jesus wept, one person. One out of all the thousands."

Andria kissed her throat lightly, trying to give comfort through intimacy. "And he did it through being conventional?"

"Yeah." That image came back to spook her again. Greg and Eleanor walking down the aisle of Hambleton's dinky little church, both of them smiling radiantly at each other, not seeing anyone else. Suzi hadn't wanted to go, hadn't known what to wear, hadn't known what present to get. Like a flicking savage figuring out a cybofax. It had come as a harsh shock, finding out just how far she'd regressed from society. "He's got a wife, kids, farm, the whole flicking works. And he never came back."

"Was he your lover?"

"No. Yes. Not really. Good mates, that's all."

"And you think you can follow him?"

Suzi stroked the damp strands of hair from Andria's forehead. She always wanted to be tender afterwards, make up for her earlier fierceness, show the girl she really cared. She knew sex was another of her failings, needing to be on top when it was boys, making the girls submit. She wanted to stop, to be normal. Didn't know how; couldn't figure how the other ways could possibly work like everyone said, all that giving and sharing bollocks. Sex was power.

"Fuck-all chance of doing anything else," Suzi said. "I mean, tekmercs, we screw convention, deliberately. That's what we are. But this jobs and family bullshit, it works, for billions of people, it sodding works. If I just had something that I could commit myself to, something I could feel a bit of pride in." Her voice had risen without her realizing. "Shit, maybe Leol Reiger was right about me when he said I haven't got what it takes. Sometimes I hope he is. But I need something to anchor me to that kind of world. Kid would do that."

"Yes," Andria said simply.

"You'll do it?"

"Of course I will. I love you, Suse."

Andria was still watching the hypersonic above them. The balconies on the eastern end of the Soreyheath condominium looked out over New Eastfield's marina and the gleaming structures of Prior's Fen Atoll away in the lazy distance beyond. They were arranged in tiers, which meant Suzi could see any of the balconies below her, but not the two above. A concrete-enforced statement about social position, she always thought.

The tip of the hypersonic's nose was sticking over the end of the roof, like a bird of prey crouched ready to pounce on the supine bodies laid out invitingly below it.

Access Concierge. Identify Incoming Plane Ownership.

Suzi took a drink of orange from her glass. She was skipping alcohol right now, it wasn't fair on Andria.

Pegasus G-ALPH Registered with Event Horizon Corporation. Suzi glanced thoughtfully at the white nose cone.

The phone shrilled.

Andria pressed the sound-only button. "Yes?"

"Guests for you, Miss Landon," the concierge 'ware's construct voice said. "Julia Evans and Greg Mandel."

Suzi heard Andria's indrawn breath at the mention of Julia, she smiled at the girl's innocent enquiring gaze, and began hunting round for her robe. "Well, send 'em in, then."

Suzi hadn't seen Greg for over six months, though she did make an effort to stay in touch. Sort of. Julia she hadn't talked to for nearly three years. The multibillionairess was only a couple of years older than Suzi. When she came through the front door, Suzi couldn't find any appreciable signs of ageing. Julia still looked like a young twenty-five-year-old. And she didn't possess the kind of conceit which would send her scurrying to the surgeons. Rich and youthful; there just wasn't any justice.

Greg gave her a quick hug and a kiss. Julia seemed at a loss what to do, kiss, shake hands, wave…

"I thought you aristo types always knew what to do in every social situation," Suzi scoffed. "Inbred etiquette along with all the other deviances."

Julia screwed up her face and stuck her tongue out.

Suzi turned the white presentation box over in her hands. Flowers weren't her thing, though she had to admit it was a bid odd. But—"Extraterrestrial?"

"Yes." Julia was sitting on one of the lounge's white-leather pillow chairs. A real close look showed she had stress lines around her eyes and mouth.

Suzi shot Greg a look. "And what do you make of it?" She'd always been awed, and not a little envious of his intuition. If she had anything like it, no way would Leol Reiger ever have taken her so easily. What Greg said about the flower she'd be happy to go along with.

Aliens were something so far outside her norm she hadn't got a clue how to react at all—except maybe scream and run. But if Julia was right about them arriving in the solar system, they were behaving fucking odd. And what did they look like? More important, what did they want? Why all this secrecy?

Just thinking about it made her ache inside.

"The flower is real enough," Greg said. "But as to what the aliens are like, I've no idea."

"Shit. You're a big help."

"Forget the implications, if it makes you feel any easier," Greg said. "Concentrate on the immediate. All we're going to do tomorrow is track down the courier girl, find out where she got the flower from. Julia takes over from there." He kept glancing out at the balcony where Andria was lying on the lounger.

"I'll bet you take over," Suzi muttered. "Starship technology should bring in a bundle, even by your standards."

Julia played nervously with her fingers in her lap. "I just want Royan back," she said. "That's all."

That name was an omen, all bad. Suzi could feel it shackling her to the past, reeling her in. Greg was the same, she figured, all edgy underneath. He really wasn't up to any of this any more, not at his age, he'd been out of it for too long, things had changed. Respect was gone, violence was on the up. Trouble was, they all owed Royan in a big way. Without him, his hotrod expertise, the Trinities would have been wiped off the map.

"You really going looking for the little pillock?" she asked Greg.

"Yeah."

"Oh, bollocks, count me in."

CHAPTER SEVEN

On top of everything else, this. Julia came down the hypersonic's stairs in a foul mood. It was the children's speech day at school, she never missed that, and wasn't about to start now.

The wind on the top of the Event Horizon tower was cool, blowing off the land. Down below, a thick milky mist covered the quagmire and the deep-water channels, even rising high enough to claim the interlocking metro rail lines. The sun was an anaemic pink nebula hovering somewhere out over the Wash.

Kirsten McAndrews waited for her at the side of the landing pad. "Is Mutizen's negotiator here yet?" Julia asked her.

"Yes, he arrived on the metro right after you called to set up the meeting." Kirsten cleared her throat delicately. "The Welsh delegation are waiting as well."

"Bloody hell! What do they do, sleep here?"

Kirsten maintained a diplomatic silence.

Julia glanced back down at the Prior's Fen Atoll, where the Mutizen kombinate's arcology lifted out of the oily mist, up-draughts around its sloping walls stirred slow-moving eddies all around the base.

Open Channel to SelfCores. You three had better be right about this, she told them crisply.

We are, NN core one replied levelly. The Cambridge laboratory team has been up all night assessing the data; the concept is radically different from any current technology.

Julia paused at that. Different, or just more advanced?

Different, there's a whole new set of principles involved. Mutizen have come up with a real breakthrough, by the look of things. That's why we gave Peter Cavendish's message a priority one grading.

Right, thanks. She screwed some of the sleep out of her eyes with her knuckles. The Fens Basin was so much quieter at this time of day, passive and clean, less fraught. "I'd forgotten how refreshing a sea dawn can be," she told Kirsten McAndrews as they walked into the lift.

Royan had loved to sit on the beach and watch the dawn creeping up out of the Atlantic.

It had taken Event Horizon's Bristol clinic twenty months to rebuild him. They cloned his muscles, blood vessels, tendons, nerves, skin, and bones, a hundred diverse glands, organs, and cell clusters, then painstakingly stitched the components together into entire limbs. It was a hugely expensive procedure, not that the money meant anything to her. She had to buy the clinic an extra thirty clone vats, draft in a regiment of specialists. Their so-called Frankenstein department was already one of the most advanced in Europe, but they didn't have anything approaching the necessary capacity. None of the medical team had heard of a case where all four limbs had to be replaced. Normally amputees used kinaware prosthetics, but she wanted him whole again, human. She knew that was the only way he could ever hope to banish the past.

Julia visited once a week, never shirking, closing her ears to the pitiful pleas and wails, his demands just to end it all. Royan hated the clinic, it was a constant reminder of the time he had spent hospitalized after the riot, a helpless pain-racked dependant. At least in Mucklands Wood he had been somebody; Son, the one the Trinities depended on for information and technology, an electronic guru. Vital. Venerated. Now she had reduced him to a slab of meat again.

When the process of grafting his new limbs began, the clinic kept him in a near-permanent state of induced somnolence. The few times she visited when he was awake he hadn't been lucid, crying out at the pain, trapped in a looped nightmare of flames and black whips.

Then one day, more than a year after they rescued him from Mucklands, she walked into his room to find him standing, skinny paper-white hands gripping a zimmer frame, blue veins bulging. Pride and wonder illuminated his face. The nurses had to catch him almost straight away, but he'd wanted her to be the first to see him upright again. She had to turn quickly so he couldn't see her tears.

After that, the physiotherapists went to work on him, building the muscles, teaching him co-ordination. Even something as simple as lifting a spoon to his mouth had to be relearnt from scratch. They spent another two months bringing him up to full health with exercises and high-protein diets, massages and deep-heat toning. All the while, Royan's complaints growing louder and crabbier.

Then, when the last medical team had completed their final checks, Julia took him away from the clinic. They went to a small island she owned off Mahone Bay in Nova Scotia, her retreat from the world.

She had bought it a couple of years earlier. A desolate uninhabited place, barely two kilometres across. Grass had survived the Warming, as it always did; but all that remained of the stunted windswept trees were parched white branches lying on the marly soil. She got the island for a song; the hard-pressed Canadian ecological teams were still absorbed with reseeding the continental biosphere, replacing the forests and replanting the prairies. It would be decades before they got round to isolated regions like Mahone Bay.

Event Horizon's botanical crew moved in to reshape the island's habitat, transforming it into the kind of pre-Warming Bahamian paradise she'd seen on the channel shows.

There was a simple wooden bungalow set back from a long sandy beach, the only building. The two of them walked aimlessly along the shore the afternoon they arrived, exploring the gentle bluff behind the beach. A small dense selva forest was spreading out from the island's core, broad-leaved trees draped in pale grey and green epiphyte mosses, tied together by a filigree of vines. The company crew had hatched families of small colourful birds to fill out the ecology. Julia laughed in delight at their antics as they swooped in and out of the branches. Royan was entranced by the profusion of flowers in a natural habitat, smelling their exotic scents, picking them and holding them up to the sun. He reminded her of a child let loose in a spring garden after a long icebound winter.

They ate supper on the creaking veranda, and slipped off to bed as the last fragments of light drained from the day.

Royan had been moulded by her subconscious desire, tall, strong, broad-shouldered, exactly how she imagined the shell of his mind to be in her fantasies, a physique to match the intellect. There was something strangely enticing about a power which could incarnate a lover exactly as envisaged, making sure neither of them would be disappointed. Royan had never argued about the rehabilitation programme she'd selected, it was an anodyne to his previous state. Like her, he wanted his new self to be as far removed from the crippled husk in Mucklands as it was physically possible to get.

For three months they did nothing but laze in the sun and make love. Royan learned to swim. Julia learned to cook, or at least barbecue. Then she found she was pregnant with Daniella.

They returned to England flush with optimism and an inflated sense of omnipotence. It was the future they laid claim to; rich, young, and data smart, digital godlings forging their new bright empire.

She often thought, later, that they were both slightly crazy, the kind of hubristic crazy that always came when the power to build dreams was granted. But they had been a unique combination: her money, his hotrod talent; the result was synergistic. She gave him access to 'ware coming out of Event Horizon's research divisions, so new the security programmers didn't even know it existed. He rewarded her with the personality package, a digital micro-entity capable of functioning within any processor core, self-contained and self-determinative, its purpose reflected in its originator's thought processes.

Together they unleashed a deluge of the sprite-like composites in the global data networks, raiding the research cores of rival companies, adding to Event Horizon's technological base. Then they went for the big one, the electron-compression warhead. Their super-compressed packages squirted into the Sandia National Laboratories processor cores, established themselves within the management routines, and downloaded every file they could find.

The channels called electron compression the rich man's nuke; an explosive which produced a megaton blast without the radioactive fallout of nuclear weapons. Only America, the Russian republic, and China had mastered the technology, though there were rumours of Japan making a successful test under the Pacific.

Julia built the electron-compression warheads on a cyberfactory ship floating in international waters, and used them to knock New London into Earth orbit. The asteroid's mineral reserves, coupled with the giga-conductor royalties, gave Event Horizon a financial primacy which the kombinates could never match.

She gave Royan challenges he could never have conceived of back in Mucklands Wood, she gave him a love he'd never known before, she gave him the most exquisite pair of children. Then she had to stand beside him and watch him lose interest in each one of her gifts. It made her feel so small and destitute, for she had nothing else left to give. Finally, when he walked out without any explanation, she was left clinging desperately to the children in a reflex defence. They were all she had left of the good times, and her sole hope for the future.

Three men were already in the office waiting for her. The first was Peter Cavendish, the director of Event Horizon's collaborative ventures office. A bulky fifty-year-old with snow-white hair, his charcoal suit showing signs of being worn too long. Accompanying him was Nicholas Beswick, a physics professor who unfailingly managed to set Julia's nerves on edge with his combination of eagerness and timidity. Nicholas Beswick was basically a complete nerd, but one whose understanding of quantum mechanics was unsurpassed, making him tremendously important to Event Horizon. It was his research team which five years ago had finally produced a processor that utilized one-dimensional wire to carry single electrons. The technology had invigorated the global 'ware industry to a degree which hadn't been seen since the late nineteen-eighties. The amount of money licensed production of quantum-wire processor chips raked in for Event Horizon was second only to that of the gigaconductor royalties.

Nicholas Beswick half bowed, half flinched when Julia entered the office. She gave him a gracious smile as she sat behind her desk, and turned down the window's opacity to let the wan early morning light flood the big room. There were no flowers in the vases yet, the tower's daytime maintenance crew were only just starting their shift.

"Thanks for coming in so quickly, Julia," Peter Cavendish said. "I know it was short notice, but I really do think this is important enough to warrant your personal attention."

"Yes, so I understand. Can you give me a summary of where we stand before Mutizen's negotiator arrives, please."

Peter Cavendish settled into one of the high-backed chairs in front of her desk. "Mutizen came to us yesterday with what is a pretty standard proposal. They claimed they have made a breakthrough in atomic structuring, and asked if we would go into partnership with them to develop and market the technology. They offered us a look at their data under a confidentiality contract. If we decide not to join them we can't research or sell the same technology for five years. Since we don't have any atomic structuring projects right now, I agreed. We were in a no-lose situation. That's what I thought."

"This atomic structuring process," she asked. "You mean they can just assemble blocks of atoms in any pattern they want?"

Nicholas Beswick rocked forwards in his chair, an eager schoolboy grin on his face. "Yes, that's exactly it. We didn't quite comprehend the implications until after we reviewed their data. At first we were under the assumption that it was just an improved method of our current solid-state assembly techniques; as you know quantum-wire construction is still fairly laborious even with today's ion positioners. But it turned out that Mutizen was talking about a method of locking atoms into place with coherent emissions of gluons, the field particles of the strong nuclear force. They operate directly on the quarks which make up neutrons and protons. If it is possible to manipulate the force like this you could literally solidify air, turn it into a block stronger than monolattice filament." He sighed, breath hissing through his teeth. "Ms Evans, I'm not kidding, the potential of this thing frightens the living shit out of me. My staff have been working out applications more or less nonstop ever since they got Mutizen's data package. It can strengthen metal to make it impregnable, harden a bubble of air over a city to withstand a nuclear attack, squeeze deuterium together for fusion, manipulate weather fronts, heck, we could probably even produce lumps of neutronium—"

"Have Mutizen actually physically demonstrated it?" she asked sharply.

"If they have, they haven't told us," Peter Cavendish said. "This was just a taster to gain our undivided attention."

"And believe me it worked," Nicholas Beswick said. "All we've been given so far is the force's behavioural equations. No word on the method of generation."

"Hmmm." Julia stared at Nicholas Beswick until he started to redden. "You're the best I've got, Nicholas, can you see how to build a nuclear force generator?"

He made a farting sound with his lips. "No way, sorry. It's totally beyond me. In fact, gluon emission of the type they describe isn't even explainable with our current understanding of quantum chromodynamics. They must have something totally and radically new."

"But the rest of it makes sense to you?" she persisted.

"Absolutely, the maths checks out perfectly. That's not difficult at all, we do know enough about quark properties to confirm their predictions."

"Interesting." Julia switched her gaze to the ceiling. Open Channel to SelfCores. What do you three think?

Mutizen hasn't built a working nuclear force generator, her grandfather said. It stands to reason. If they had, they wouldn't be offering you a partnership.

Yes, but why offer me a partnership anyway? They have a lead in a field which no one else even knew existed. Why not just keep plugging away?

Mutizen is a heavy industry kombinate, NN core one said. Their production is geared towards cars, ships, civil engineering plant, macro-cybernetics, more or less anything mechanical, with mining and foundry divisions. Interesting that a kombinate like that should have a research team working on such fundamental physics in the first place.

I concur, NN core two said.

Me too, Juliet. The obvious conclusion is that the data isn't theirs. And they don't have the means to develop it themselves, which is why they've come running to you. No skin off their nose. You say yes, and crack the generator; they're plugged into a whole new technology with a minimal outlay. Trouble is, if Event Horizon commits funds and research teams to developing the technology, and in the mean time the real owner emerges with the completed system, you're going to be out in the cold. The gigaconductor and New London aren't going to be worth bugger-all if this atomic structuring is half as good as Beswick reckons.

You mean I've got a little more bargaining power than we thought originally?

Damn right, m'girl! Screw the bastards for every penny you can get—

A smile touched Julia's lips. Good old Grandpa, they weren't made like that any more. Yes, you're probably right. What I can certainly do is buy us a breathing space. In the mean time, I think it would be a good idea to try and track down the source of this atomic structuring concept. Assemble the most comprehensive profile of Mutizen possible, turn over their financial backing consortiums, review their research personnel for a likely candidate in the atomic structuring field—someone like Beswick. The works. Then get our economic intelligence division to see if any of the other kombinates are building up an investment reserve. If one of them is working on atomic structuring they're going to need some hefty production facilities when it's perfected.

My girl.

We'll initiate now, said NN core two.

Julia pondered whether to squirt a personality package into Mutizen's management cores to see what it could find, and decided to wait until the preliminary findings were complete first. She refocused on Peter Cavendish and Nicholas Beswick. "Tea, please, Kirsten, we might as well do this properly. And have Mutizen's negotiator come in now. What's his name, anyway?"

"Eduard Muller," Peter Cavendish told her. "He's one of Mutizen's vice-presidents, in charge of their Prior's Fen Atoll power engineering division. Top notch."

"Power engineering," Julia mused. "It has a certain ring to it, I suppose."

Eduard Muller was a professional premier-grade executive, London suit, Italian shoes, French shirt, sado smile. He had a ginger crew cut, and carefully shaded tan, cloned clear green eyes; his age was indeterminately forty.

Julia hated the sight of him, his manners would be as smooth as his clothes, his English unaccented, they might as well have sent her a cyborg.

He sat in a high-back chair beside Peter Cavendish, radiating friendliness. Two young assistants stood behind him, one male, one female, blank courteous faces. The woman kept a slim black leather briefcase folded under her arm.

"I'll come straight to the point," Julia said as she left her big breakfast cup of tea to cool on the desk. "As you can tell from the priority I've assigned this meeting, I'm extremely interested in acquiring atomic structuring technology. Nicholas here is full of praise for its potential."

Eduard Muller's eyes flicked to an embarrassed Nicholas Beswick, then back to Julia. "We had every confidence you would be. Obviously we are strongly in favour of an association with Event Horizon, your size and technical ability would make you a perfect partner to help us exploit this technology. A partnership would be most rewarding for both of us."

"You are envisaging a fifty-fifty split?" Julia asked.

"Yes, although we would expect you to perform most of the final development stage given that we have provided a theoretical framework for you to work from. Your solid-state research division is second to none, whereas it is no secret we lack in that direction. After that, production and marketing would be a joint effort, perhaps handled by a newly created subsidiary, with Event Horizon and Mutizen each holding fifty per cent of the stock."

"So far all you have shown us is a sequence of interesting equations. I shall require far more substantial data before I can even begin to make a decision."

"What sort of data were you thinking of?" Eduard Muller asked.

"Your complete research findings on the practicality of a nuclear force generator."

"It is within my brief to offer you such additional data in return for a certain level of commitment visible on your side."

"Good," said Julia. "Because unless we see some proof that the force generator is theoretically possible, there can be no deal."

"The data we have assembled concerning the force generator does indicate that it is possible to construct one. It can be made available, providing Event Horizon deposits two hundred million New Sterling in a neutral account as a guarantee of confidentiality. Please understand, I do not ask this lightly. But I'm sure that by now you appreciate the implications of this technology. It is quite capable of instigating a profound revolution in the pattern of our lives. Its defence applications alone would bring in a revenue far in excess of Event Horizon's annual turnover."

"Oh, yeah," Julia drawled. "I'm aware of the implications. So aware I'm surprised you're prepared to share atomic structuring with anyone."

Eduard Muller was good, she had to admit that. His face could have been machine-milled steel for all the expression he showed.

"As I said, we have the theorists, you have the facilities; strengths and weaknesses corresponding, the basis of all mutually profitable ventures."

"Hmmm." Julia sipped her tea. She'd been expecting Eduard Muller to spring something like the deposit. A standard business tactic. Mutizen would want to know exactly how keen she was to acquire the atomic structuring technology.

"I will give you an answer in two days," Julia said.

Eduard Muller inclined his head, the first hint of emotion he had betrayed. "Of course."

"Providing you do not make a similar offer to anyone else during that time. You will thumbprint an agreement to that effect before you leave."

"Ah." He offered a reluctant smile.

"It will give my assessment team time to draw up a full report based on the data they already have. That's reasonable, surely? Two days isn't going to make any difference to a project of this undertaking. Besides, it will take that long for you and Peter to thrash out the confidentiality clauses; even I don't put two hundred million on the line without reading the small print first."

"Very well, Ms Evans. I think Mutizen can agree to that."

"Odd," Peter Cavendish said after Eduard Muller and his two assistants had left.

"Yes," Julia agreed. "They produce a few giga-bytes of data, and we embark on an open-ended research project for them." There was something else, the way Eduard Muller had been wanting a decision straight away. Even if he had wanted it, he shouldn't have shown her that he did. Either he wanted her to know, which made even less sense, or he was under a great deal of stress. Whatever the answer, she had more cards to play with than she'd started with.

She got up and walked over to the window. The mist had melted away under the first rays of the sun, exposing the chocolate mud of the quagmire. Tepid oil-rainbows shivered across its surface. "He was right about one thing, though. I can't afford not to be involved."

Peter Cavendish rose from his seat. "You think they have solved the generator problem?"

"No. At least, nothing past a fundamental theory, a notion how it might be built; that's why they want to bring in Nicholas and his team."

"So what do you want me to do?"

"I'll need you to draw up two sets of contracts. The worst case, where we have to agree to Mutizen's current terms. The second, I want Mutizen paying half of the development costs with us, and Event Horizon owning fifty-one per cent of the marketing subsidiary stock."

Peter Cavendish let out a whistle. "Do you think you can get them to agree to that?"

Julia abandoned the view of Prior's Fen Atoll. If she closed her eyes she could see hologram-colour data streams like arched fairy bridges looping around her. She was woven into the web via her implant nodes, digesting and contributing, but never controlling. The topography of the global data net had long left human understanding behind.

The key to the modern world is retrieval, Royan had told her. All the answers you could possibly want exist somewhere within the world's data cores.

She didn't know what questions to ask. The glowing data web was contracting. Smothering.

Julia opened her eyes, seeing Peter Cavendish's concerned face.

"We've got two days to find some leverage," she said. "In the mean time, I've got a speech day to attend."

CHAPTER EIGHT

Greg slipped his leather jacket over a sky-blue sweatshirt. The black leather was thin enough to move easily, thick enough to shield him from the chill of early morning. It had been a present from Eleanor a couple of years back when his old one had finally torn.

"You're going to wear that in Monaco, are you?" Eleanor asked. She was sitting on the edge of their bed, wrapped in a quilted housecoat. Hands fidgeting in her lap, knotting and unknotting the belt.

Greg glanced at himself in the bedroom's antique full-length mirror. Flat stomach, sideburns frosted with grey, a hint of excess flesh building up on his neck. Not bad for fifty-four. He managed to get down to the gym in Oakham twice a week, the fitness bug was something he'd caught during his Army days. After surviving the war in Turkey and the street violence in Peterborough, it would be silly to succumb to clogged arteries and wasted muscles.

"I thought it was all right," he said. "Fits the image of an English gentleman farmer."

Eleanor tsked in disapproval.

"It's not as if I'm going to a social function with the Prince."

"Don't I know it," she mumbled.

Greg went and sat beside her on the bed, his arm going round her shoulders. Eleanor's head remained bowed, focusing on her hands.

There was none of the old pre-mission exhilaration that used to fire his blood. He'd thought there might have been, the one final deal, proving he could still hack it. He knew plenty of married officers in the Army, combat deployment was something their wives accepted. But family had come after that stage of his life, there was no way the two could be reconciled now.

"If you don't want me to go, then I won't," he said.

"That's blackmail, Greg. Putting it off on me. You know you have to go."

"Yeah." He kissed her on the side of the head, tasting hair.

"And you behave yourself around that Suzi."

Greg laughed and gave her a proper kiss.

Eleanor responded hungrily, then pushed him away. "Don't, you know where that sort of thing leads." She looked down at her belly, smile fading.

"Tell you, it's funny," he said quietly. "Even five or six years back I would probably have pleaded with Julia for the chance to do this. I mean, Royan missing, in trouble. What could be more important? But now… I resent it, this being ruled by the past. And I think Suzi does, too. That was a nice girl she's living with. Pregnant, as well."

"Suzi?" Eleanor exclaimed.

"No, the girl, Andria. Not that Julia and I were actually told. But you can't hide that from a psychic."

"Oh. That ought to be interesting. Suzi, a parent."

"Yeah." He went over to the dresser and picked up the Event Horizon cybofax Julia had given him yesterday. "For your own safety," she'd said. "It's got a locater beacon for the security crash teams to keep track of you. If you need hardline help, just shout, they'll be there in minutes. And I've loaded one of my personality packages into the memory. You never know, I might actually be of some use to you."

Greg slipped the palm-sized wafer into his breast pocket. God alone knew what else her security division had squeezed into its 'ware.

He drew back the honey-coloured curtains. Cool early morning sky, halfway between grey and white. A narrow spire of smoke rose from the dead ashes of the Berrybut estate's bonfire on the opposite shore. Heavy dew coated the grass of the paddock. The pole jumps for Anita's pony made sharp splashes of colour among the pale blades. They wanted a fresh coat of paint, he saw, and the grass was too long.

"I'd better get off," he said. "This is going to be a long day."

Rutland Water's high-water level was marked by a thick band of quarried limestone blocks thrown round the entire shoreline to prevent erosion when the reservoir was full. But it had been a hot summer, the farms and citrus groves of the surrounding district had siphoned off a lot of water for irrigation. The vertical water level was already two metres below the bottom of the limestone; on the Hambleton peninsula that produced a broad expanse of mudflats which had dried as hard as concrete under the relentless sun.

Greg and Eleanor walked down the slope from the farmhouse to the limestone, and stood on the top of the crumbling blocks. The travellers' camp was just beginning to stir.

They heard a shout as Christine came running down the slope after them. "Dad, you were going to leave without saying goodbye," she accused.

Greg saw the Event Horizon Pegasus hypersonic sink out of the wispy cloud band and skim across the reservoir towards him.

"I'll only be gone a couple of days, at the most," he said.

Christine threw her arms round him and gave him a wet kiss. Eleanor's peck on the cheek was more demure.

The three of them watched the arrowhead-planform Pegasus slowing; a hundred metres from the shore its nose pitched up. Slats opened in its underbelly, venting the compressor fans' efflux straight down. The undercarriage unfolded, and it settled on the rusty-coloured mudflats in a swirl of dust. A flock of swans drifting on the water behind it rose into the sky, wings pumping frantically.

Greg gave Eleanor a final kiss, and clambered down the nettle-swamped limestone.

There were two security division hardliners waiting for him at the bottom of the hatchway stairs. Pearse Solomons and Malcolm Ramkartra; depressingly young, healthy, and respectful.

"Good morning, sir. We've been instructed to provide you with backup should you request it," Pearse Solomons told him.

Greg's espersense picked up a hint of resentment in the man's mind. Not a total cyborg after all, then. He went up the stairs in an improved frame of mind.

The windowless cabin had fifteen seats, a compact rosewood cocktail bar at the rear, and a flatscreen on the forward bulkhead beside the door into the cockpit.

Suzi and Rachel Griffith were sitting at the back. Suzi lounging lethargically in her chair, dressed in a dark purple shellsuit. Her mousy hair had been given a crew cut. At least she didn't dye it mauve these days.

"Christ, you look keen," she said.

Greg sat in the seat beside her. "You know me."

"Yeah. Me too. I feel like I've been press-ganged."

Greg gave Rachel an apologetic shrug.

"I gave up hardlining ten years ago," Rachel said. "Exec assistant suited me just fine."

"Just point her out to us," Greg said. "Your job ends there."

"Yes," Rachel said; she looked troubled.

Pearse Solomons and Malcolm Ramkartra came up the stairs and sat in the front two seats. The belly hatch slid shut.

Malcolm Ramkartra picked up a slim phone that was built into his armrest. He turned to Greg and Suzi. "Is Monaco still the destination?"

"Yeah," Greg said. "And tell the pilot to put the nose camera image on the screen after we lift."

"Yes, sir." Malcolm Ramkartra spoke briefly into the handset.

"We travel on these planes when we go on holiday with Julia," Greg said. "I never can get used to not having a port. I grew up with aircraft that you can see out of."

There was a gentle whine from the fans as they spun up. The deck tilted back slightly.

Suzi grunted. "Didn't know you went on holiday together."

"Sure. The kids are all big mates. And I sometimes think Eleanor and I are the only ordinary people Julia knows."

"You're ordinary, huh?" Suzi grinned evilly.

"More than you, dear, that's a fact." He felt a press of acceleration as the Pegasus surged upwards. The flatscreen lit up, showing blue sky, splashes of white cloud piling up in the south, and a big pink-gold sun lifting over the horizon.

"It was bad at the start," Greg said. "People thought we were an easy route to her. The rich and the social climbers. We couldn't move for presents and invitations. The way they behave, it's ridiculous, disgusting really. Say hello to one, and you're a lifelong friend. They don't know what shame is. One birthday the drive looked like the end of a car factory production line; Jags, Ferraris, Lotuses, MGs. Two of them had a ribbon tied round, for Christ's sake. I sent them all back to the garages. That type just don't know when to give up. And I couldn't count how many times I've been asked to be a non-executive director—" He became aware of Suzi's silent unsympathetic stare.

"It's a hard life, isn't it?" she said.

The Pegasus flew at an altitude of twenty kilometres, turning south above the North Sea and passing over the English Channel at Mach two. They hit Mach four heading into the Bay of Biscay, then went subsonic to cross the Pyrenees.

Greg watched their approach to the tiny coastal principality on the bulkhead flatscreen. Circles predominated below, almost as if some weird genealogy of symmetrical aquatic creatures was surfacing to storm ashore. The pink rings of the tidal turbine lagoons, flat dusty-grey field of the airport. Then there was the Monaco dome itself, a faintly translucent golden egg that had driven itself into the cliffs. Two thirds of it extended out into the rich blue water of the sea, radiating white jetties like wheel spokes. He could just make out shaded rectangular outlines through the monolattice shell.

The Pegasus settled on to the airport island. Over half of the parked planes were similar white arrowhead executives, the passenger jets were long flattened cones with narrow fin wings.

Pearse Solomons and Malcolm Ramkartra stood as the belly hatch popped open.

"Are you carrying?" Greg asked the hardliners as he came forwards.

"Yes, sir," Pearse Solomons said. "A Tokarev IRMS7 laser pistol."

"OK. Load up with a second, and come with us. Malcolm, you stay here, and maintain constant contact."

"I've got a Browning, fifty-shot maser," Suzi said as she slung a canvas Puma flight bag over her shoulder.

"I sort of took that for granted," Greg said.

It was hot outside, the expansion joints on the concrete apron creaking in protest, barely audible over the ever-present piccolo hiss of compressor fans. Greg slipped on a pair of Ferranti sunglasses.

Commissaire André Dubaud was waiting at the foot of the stairs, Monaco's deputy police chief.

"Trust him," Victor Tyo had told Greg. "He's good at his job, and he understands the politics involved with corporate cases. He's also totally paid for, so there shouldn't be any trouble."

They shook hands, and Greg introduced Suzi and Rachel. Commissaire Dubaud was in his mid-forties, wearing an immaculate black uniform with a peaked cap.

"Mr. Tyo informs me you are looking for a girl," he said.

"That's right," Greg said. "We don't know her name, but she was definitely at the Newfields ball three days ago."

"May I enquire why you are hunting her?" André Dubaud nodded pointedly at the Pegasus. "This seems rather a large operation to track down one good-time girl."

"Certainly. She was in possession of a certain item which interests us. We'd like to ask her a few questions about it."

André Dubaud glanced at his polished shoes. "Very well. Are you intending to extradite her?"

"No. She will answer everything I ask her."

"So?"

"No messing," Greg said.

They drove into the dome in André Dubaud's official car, a black Citroën with fold-down chairs in the rear. Greg thought it was the kind of limo a head of state would normally ride in.

He looked hard at a thick white pillar sticking out of the water halfway across. It was made of metal, topped by a petalsegment composite hemisphere. There was another one five hundred metres past the first, heat distortion above the sea made it impossible to see if there was a third.

"What are they?" he asked.

"Tactical defence lasers," André Dubaud said. "If Nice comes knocking again, those bastards will wish they hadn't. The principality is impervious to all forms of attack now, from rioters with stones all the way up to KE harpoons. It has to be done, of course. Our inhabitants are the natural targets to certain kinds of diseased minds. But they're entitled to live like anyone else. Inside our dome civilization is total. The one place in the world where you can walk down any street at any time, and never have to look over your shoulder."

"It sounds as if your department is doing an excellent job," Greg said. He glanced at Suzi, but she was hunched down in the Citroën's leather seat, staring out of the tinted window, her size making her appear like a sulking child. She hadn't spoken since being introduced to the Commissaire. They were total opposites; Greg reckoned Dubaud knew it as well. If she hadn't been operating under Julia's aegis, he doubted Suzi would even have been allowed to land at the airport.

"There is a degree of fraud perpetrated by our financial community," André Dubaud said. "But physical crime—property theft, the act of violence—that is unheard of."

By banishing the poor, Greg thought, the people who commit robbery and muggings. Monaco hadn't solved crime, they'd just dumped the problem on someone else. Not even New Eastfield in Peterborough went that far. He could sense the stubborn pride in André Dubaud's mind, mingling with a trace of what seemed suspiciously like paranoia. He held back on the urge to inject some sarcastic observations. Maybe that's why Suzi had kept silent, instinctively recognizing the futility. Trying to reason with someone like André Dubaud about basic human dignity would be like pissing in the wind.

The covered bridge from the airport island dipped down, and the Citroën drove through an arch in the base of the dome, coming out on the perimeter road. Clean, that was the impression he got from the tidy rows of white buildings bathing under a tangerine glow, clean verging on sterile.

"Where's the casino?" Suzi asked.

André Dubaud pointed to a cluster of white-stone buildings on the cliffs. She peered up at them curiously.

The Citroën took them right up to the marble front of the El Harhari. A footman opened the door for Greg, and he followed André Dubaud up the stairs into the lobby.

A troupe of cleaners were busy inside, polishing the mirrors and dark wooden furniture, drone vacuums moving up and down the carpet. Claude Murtand, the hotel security manager, met them under one of the chandeliers. With his handsome face and perfect hair he looked like a channel star, dwarfing Suzi.

"A picture of a girl?" he asked after André Dubaud explained what they wanted.

"Yeah," Greg said. "She was here for the Newfields ball, name unknown. Attractive, early twenties, short fair hair, wearing a dark-blue gown, possibly silk. We think she's on the game."

"This is Monaco," Claude Murtand murmured. "Who isn't?"

André Dubaud scowled at him.

The El Harhari's white-tiled security centre had a long bank of monitor screens along one wall relaying scenes from around the hotel. Two big flatscreens showed the floorplans, red and yellow symbols flashing in rooms and corridors. There were two island consoles, with three operators each. Claude Murtand had a small glass-walled office at the back.

"We compile a profile on each guest," Claude Murtand said as he led them in. "In so far as we can, just what is available in public memory cores. Obviously it's only a secondary precaution. Customs and Immigration filter out anyone genuinely dangerous."

"That true?" Greg asked André Dubaud.

"Certainly," the Commissaire said. "Our passport control is the most stringent in the world. Nobody with a criminal record is allowed in."

"You and the wife must get lonely here all by yourself," Suzi said in an undertone.

Rachel smiled faintly. Greg shot Suzi a warning glance. "What about the Newfields guests, did you put together a profile on them?" he asked Claude Murtand.

"No. We have a complete list of those who originally bought tickets. But unfortunately tickets for these events change hands all the time, especially when someone like Julia Evans is attending, there's no way of knowing in advance exactly who's going to turn up."

"OK." Greg switched a finger at the monitor screens. "Did you record the ball?"

"Of course."

"Right. We'll start with the lobby camera memory for the night."

There were six cameras covering the lobby. Rachel chose the one giving a head on view of the door; Greg watched over her shoulder.

He recognized the people coming in, the category, not the names. The type that used to pester him and Eleanor during the first years after their marriage. Anybody over twenty-eight had their facial structure frozen in time with annual trips to discreet clinics, until they reached fifty-five, then they were allowed to age with virile silver-haired dignity. Appearance wasn't just important to them, it was everything.

He watched Julia make her entrance a quarter of an hour after the official start. The jockeying to greet her. One statuesque redhead beauty in a shimmering black dress quite deliberately screwed her stiletto heel into the foot of a rival to be sure of being on the front row as Julia walked by.

The faces blurred together. Beauty was a quality which ebbed when it became monotonous, and none of the women lacked it. He concentrated on the dresses, looking for blue.

"That's her," Rachel Griffith said,

Greg halted the memory playback. The girl had sharp cheekbones, broad, square shoulders held proud. Judging from her build she could have been a professional athlete, except… he stared at her. An indefinable quality. Something lacking, perhaps? Rachel was right, she was a pro.

Suzi whistled softly. "Some looker."

Greg restarted the memory, and watched the girl walk down the lobby towards the ballroom. He stopped the memory again when she was just under the camera. The white flower box was clasped in her hand. "Bingo. Can you get me a better shot of her face?" he asked Claude Murtand.

"Certainly." The security manager slid on to a chair beside Rachel. He checked the memory's time display, and began to call up corresponding memories from the other lobby cameras. He found an image of the girl staring almost straight into one camera above the reception desk, and squirted it into André Dubaud's cybofax. The Commissaire relayed it to the police headquarters central processor core.

"Two minutes," he said proudly. "We'll have her name for you."

"The name on her passport," Suzi said.

"Madame, nobody with a false passport enters Monaco."

Greg reversed the memory, watching the girl walk backwards to the door, halted it. She seemed to be by herself. "Can I see the memory of the outside camera, a couple of minutes before she comes in, please?"

The girl was the only person to get out of a dark green Aston Martin.

André Dubaud's cybofax bleeped. He began to read the data that flowed down the wafer's little screen. "Charlotte Diane Fielder, aged twenty-four, an English citizen, resident in Austria. Occupation, art student"

Greg felt a grin tugging his face. Suzi was chortling.

"She checked in to the Celestious at four-thirty p.m. three days ago," André Dubaud continued. "Then checked out at nine-forty p.m. the same evening."

"What time did the Newfields ball end?" Greg asked.

"Julia packed up around one o'clock," said Rachel. "It was still going strong then."

"Most had left by four," said Claude Murtand. "There was a party of about thirty who stayed on to have breakfast. That would be about seven o'clock."

Greg closed his eyes, sorting out an order of questions. "André, would you find out if she's still in Monaco for me, please?"

"Of course." The Commissaire began to talk into his cybofax.

"Rachel, would you and Pearse review the lobby door camera memory for the rest of the night, please. I'd like to know what time Charlotte Fielder left the hotel. And whether she was alone."

"Sure thing," said Rachel.

"What about me?" said Suzi.

Greg grinned. "You come with me to the Celestious. Make sure I don't get into any trouble."

"Bollocks," Suzi muttered.

André Dubaud slipped his cybofax into his top pocket. "Immigration have no record of Charlotte Fielder leaving the principality, so she's still here," he said firmly. "But there is no hotel registration in her name. That means she's staying with a resident."

Greg ordered his gland to secrete a dose of neurohormones, shutting off Claude Murtand's office, the turbulent thought currents of nearby minds, concentrating inwards. It was his intuition he wanted; now he had a face and an identity to focus on, he could scratch round inside his cranium for a feeling, maybe even an angle on her current location.

But he didn't get the certainty he wanted, not even a sense of mild expectancy, which he would've settled for; instead there was a cold emptiness. Charlotte Fielder wasn't in Monaco, not even close.

Back in the Citroën, Greg used his cybofax to call Victor Tyo, and squirted Charlotte Fielder's small file over to him.

"See what sort of profile you can build," he said to the security chief. "She's gone to ground somewhere. Be helpful to know friends and contacts. Her pimp too, if you can manage it."

"You got it," Victor said. "Is she still in Monaco, do you think?"

"Commissaire Dubaud believes she is."

The cybofax screen had enough definition to show a frown wrinkling Victor's forehead. "Oh. Right. Can you get me her credit card number?"

Greg looked across at André Dubaud, who was sitting on one of the fold down seats, his back to the driver. "Can we get that from the Celestious?"

"Yes."

"Call you back," Greg told Victor.

The Celestious had a faintly Bavarian appearance, a flat high front of some pale bluish stone, a tower at each corner. Windows and doors were highly polished red wood, with gleaming brass handles. The principality's flag fluttered on a tall pole. Greg looked twice at that, there couldn't be any wind under the dome, someone had tricked it out with wires and motors. Utterly pointless. He put his head down, and went through the rotating door. It was the politics of envy. Monaco was getting to him, he was finding fault in everything. Always a mistake, clouding judgement. Never would have happened in the old days.

There was a strong smell of leather in the lobby, the decor was subdued, dark wood furnishings and a claret carpet. Biolums were disguised as engraved glass bola wall fittings.

André Dubaud showed his police card to the receptionist and asked for the manager.

"You think she's made a bolt for it?" Suzi asked Greg in a low voice.

"Yeah. She came here for one thing, delivering the flower to Julia. When that was over, her part in all this finished."

"Snuffed?"

"Could be." He scratched the back of his neck.

"But you don't think so."

"Not sure. My infamous intuition doesn't say chasing her is a waste of time."

"So how did she get out? This gold-plated rat hole is worse than a banana republic for security."

"You're the tekmerc, you tell me."

"No. Seriously, Greg, I'd never take on a deal inside Monaco. Use hotrods to burn data cores in the finance sector, maybe, but only from outside terminals. It's like Event Horizon; something you just have to learn to accept as untouchable."

"I thought you left Event Horizon alone because Julia owned it."

Suzi made a big show of shifting the weight round on her shoulder strap. "Yeah, well. That, and I've seen what's left of people after our angel-face Victor has finished with them. Sometimes there's enough to fill a whole eggcup."

"He's good, isn't he? Julia and old Morgan Walshaw knew what they were doing giving him the job."

"Too fucking true."

"So you don't reckon our Miss Fielder could get out on the quiet?"

"Put it this way, I've never heard of anyone else doing it. And I would've done. It's the dome which is the problem. A one hundred percent physical barrier. The only holes are the official ones. Nobody needs to create smuggling routes into Monaco, see? Drugs aren't illegal here. They actually have two pharmaceuticals licensed to produce narcotics. Any kind you want."

"I didn't know that." Somehow he wasn't surprised.

André Dubaud walked over to them with the manager, a tall old man with thinning grey hair, who actually wore glasses, round lenses with silver rims. He must do that for effect, Greg thought. It worked too; he had the kind of old-world dignity anyone would trust.

He listened to Greg's request, and beckoned one of the receptionists over. Greg was given Charlotte Fielder's American Express number, which he squirted direct to Victor.

The porter who was on duty the night of the Newfields ball was summoned from the staff quarters. Greg didn't learn much. Charlotte Fielder had phoned the hotel and told them to pack her bags, a car would be sent to collect them. The porter couldn't remember any details, it was a limousine of some kind, black, maybe a Volvo or a Pontiac.

"Not a green Aston Martin?" Greg asked.

"No, sir," said the porter.

"You seem very sure, considering you couldn't remember the make."

"We have a complementary fleet of Aston Martins at the disposal of our guests," the manager explained. He consulted his cybofax. "One was booked by Miss Fielder to take her to the El Harhari for the Newfields ball. But that's the only time she used one."

"Right, can you show me the memory for the camera covering the front of the hotel please."

The manager gave a short bow. "Of course."

They viewed it in his office, sipping coffee from delicate china cups. Greg watched the porter put three matched crocodile-skin cases into the boot of a stretched Pontiac, a chauffeur helped him with the largest.

"Progress," said Greg. He leant forward and read the licence plate number off to André Dubaud. "Can we have a make on the driver as well, please."

"It's a hire car," the Commissaire said, as his cybofax printed out the vehicle registry data. "I'll have my office check the hire company's records. The chauffeur's identity won't take a minute."

Greg and Suzi walked back out into the dome's filtered tangerine light. One of the Celestious doormen was holding the Citroën's door open for them. André Dubaud followed slowly.

"Problem?" Greg asked.

A muscle on the side of André Dubaud's cheek twitched. "There seems to be a glitch in our characteristics recognition program."

"Meaning what?" Suzi asked.

"It's taking too long to identify the Pontiac's chauffeur." He gave the cybofax a code number, and began speaking urgently into it.

Greg met Suzi's eyes as they sank down into the Citroën's cushioning, they shared a sly smile. He knew André Dubaud wasn't going to trace the chauffeur, it wouldn't be a program glitch, that was too complicated. The simple method would be to wipe the chauffeur's face from the police memory core, or make sure it was never entered in the first place. Either way, it would take a pro dealer to organize. His cybofax bleeped.

It was Julia. She appeared to be sitting in Wilholm's study. The walls behind, her were covered with glass-fronted shelves, heavy with dark leatherbound books. The edge of a window showed sunny sky.

"How's the speech day coming along?" Greg asked.

Julia smiled. "You'll have to ask her when she gets back."

"Right." He was talking to an image one of the NN cores was simulating. He wondered how many of her business deals were made like this, flattering the smaller company directors with what they thought was a personal interview.

"Rachel was right about Charlotte Fielder," Julia said. "She's quite well known, at least to us. She's one of Dmitri Baronski's girls. Security keeps a fairly complete list of his stable in case any of my executives should stumble."

"Who's Dmitri Baronski?" Greg asked.

"A first-class pimp, although that doesn't do him justice, he's a lot more than that. Clever old boy, lives in Austria. Runs a stable of girls who aren't quite as dumb as they like to make out to their clients. He's made a fortune on the stock market based on loose talk they've picked up for him."

"No messing?" For the first time, Greg began to feel a certain anticipation. "So this Fielder girl was a good choice as courier, then?"

"Yes. After all, would you know how to deliver a present to me, and be sure I'd see it?"

"Royan would," Greg said. "But you're right; method is one thing, carrying it off is another. Fielder must be bright enough to realize some of the implications of what she was doing."

Rachel, Pearse Solomons, and Claude Murtand were sitting round the El Harhari security centre's desk drinking tea. A plate of biscuits rested on top of the terminal. The monitor screens were dark.

"Got her," Rachel said. "She left at five to eleven, and she was with someone."

Greg didn't like the dry amusement leaking into Rachel's voice, it suggested a surprise.

Claude Murtand called up the memory, and Greg watched Charlotte Fielder walking out of the El Harhari with a young teenage boy. The kid kept sneaking daunted looks at Charlotte Fielder's low-cut neckline, his smile flashing on and off.

Greg halted the memory and studied the boy's eager, wonder-struck face. There was something not quite right about him. It was as if he was a model; everything about him, the awkwardness, the slight swagger, a designer's idea of teenager.

"She'll eat him alive," Suzi snorted gleefully. "He won't last the night."

"Way to go." Rachel said.

"André, can you get a make on that boy for me, please?" Even as he said it, Greg knew the boy would defy identification, just like the chauffeur. Judging by the apprehensive way André Dubaud was ordering the make, he thought so too.

"What car did they leave in?" Greg asked Claude Murtand. The hotel security manager tapped an order into his terminal's keyboard, and played the outside camera memory on a monitor screen.

Greg and Suzi groaned together. It was the Pontiac.

He got Claude Murtand to run the outside camera memory, and watched the Pontiac rolling up to the El Harhari's front door; the same chauffeur who'd driven it at the Celestious hopped out and opened the doors. Charlotte Fielder and her boy companion climbed in. Greg asked to see it again, a third time. His intuition had set up a feathery itch along his spine.

"Freeze it just before Fielder gets in," Greg told Claude Murtand. "OK, now enlarge the rear of the car."

The image jumped up, focusing on the open door and the boot. Charlotte Fielder's raised foot hovered over the door ledge.

"More," Greg said.

The image lost definition badly, black metal and darkened glass, fuzzy rectangular shadows stacked together. He peered forward.

"Suzi, look at the rear window, and tell me what you see."

She sat in Claude Murtand's seat right in front of the monitor screen, screwed up her eyes. "Shit yes!" she exclaimed.

"What?" Rachel demanded.

Greg tracked an outline down the left-hand side of the rear window, a ghost sliver of deeper darkness. "There's someone else in there."

Greg could sense André Dubaud's growing anger; there was worry in there as well, churning his thought currents into severe agitation.

"It would seem that my office is unable to identify the boy at this time," the Commissaire said.

Greg knew how much the admission hurt him. The Nice sacking was burned into the psyche of Monégasque nationals, everything they'd done since had been structured around safeguarding the principality. Now people were coming and going as they pleased. The wrong sort of people.

"No shit," Suzi said, and there was too much insolence even for her.

"Madame, everyone who comes to Monaco is entered in the police memory core. Everyone. No exceptions."

"Wrong. You squirt my picture into this characteristics recognition program of yours, or Greg's, or Rachel's, or Pearse's. You'll get bugger-all back, just like the chauffeur and the kid. We never showed our passports to anyone, never thumbprinted an Immigration data construct."

"Certainly not," André Dubaud said. "You are here as Madame Evans's guests. I know how much importance she attached to your mission. Though I might question her judgement in your case. Naturally, considering the urgency, you were spared the inconvenience."

"And that's it," Suzi said. "Greg asked me how I'd pull someone from this pissant lotus land. Said I couldn't. I don't have what it takes, I'm hardline and covert deals. What you need for this is money. That's what jerks your strings, Commissaire. Money. You people have turned it into a flicking religion, you fawn over the stuff. Christ, all Julia's got to do is speak, and you roll over and spread your legs. All 'cos she's loaded."

André Dubaud had reddened, lips squashing into a bloodless line, taking slow shallow breaths through his nose.

"Yeah, thank you, Suzi," Greg said. "How about it, André?" Is there anyone else in the police department apart from yourself who has the authority to waive Passport and Immigration controls?"

"There are some others who could sanction such a courtesy. But it could only be done if the circumstances justified it," André Dubaud said sullenly.

"How many people?"

"Please understand, money is not all that is required. The person making such a request would have to be of impeccable character."

"How many?"

"Twenty-five, thirty. Perhaps a few more."

"Oh, great."

Victor's face formed on Greg's cybofax as soon as he entered the code.

"Charlotte Fielder was lifted out of here," Greg said. "No doubt about it. This is a real pro deal; lot of money, lot of talent. The Pontiac that spirited her away from the Newfields ball was hired, the bloke who paid was the chauffeur. There's no trace of him, he wasn't entered in the police memory core. Same result for the boy she left with. As for the other person in the car, I couldn't even tell you if they were male or female."

The other three, Rachel, Suzi, and Pearse Solomons were sitting quietly round Claude Murtand's office, happy to let him summarize. The air conditioner was humming softly, sucking out the accumulated moisture. Claude Murtand and André Dubaud were on the other side of the glass wall, talking in low tones, and casting an occasional unhappy eye in his direction.

"I can't add much," Victor said. "Fielder hasn't used her Amex card for the last three days, so no leads for that. But then she hadn't used it for a ten-day period prior to booking into the Celestious, either."

"What did she use it for ten days ago?" Greg asked.

Victor glanced at something off screen. "It was in Baldocks, that's a department store in Wellington, New Zealand. A bill for forty-three dollars; but it wasn't itemized."

"Not important," Greg said. "So what was she doing for the ten days between Wellington and Monaco?"

"That's what you're supposed to tell me," Victor said.

"Meeting Royan," Suzi said.

"Right. But where?" said Greg. "I have two questions, based on what we've found out so far. Firstly, why take so much trouble over a courier? Given that all she had to do was deliver the flower box to Julia, someone has gone to a hell of a lot of effort to stash her away."

"Because she can lead us to Royan," Suzi said.

"Fair enough. So that means the people behind her, the ones with the Pontiac, don't want us to know where Royan is. Ordinarily, I'd say that pointed to a kidnapping."

"But there's the flower," Victor said.

"Yeah, and also the eight months that Royan's been missing. Holding someone for eight months without a ransom demand is ludicrous."

"Who knows how alien minds work?" Suzi asked.

"Not me," said Greg. "But the chauffeur and the kid were human—" he broke off, remembering the boy's perfection. "Make that humanoid."

"Oh, bollocks," Suzi said. "Fucking aliens walking round Monaco."

"They might have the technological know-how to enter and leave the dome whenever they wanted," Greg pointed out. But he couldn't bring himself to believe it. Too complicated, especially now they had established money could do the job just as easily. "The thing is, someone powerful is moving Fielder around. That's the second question. Why not bring her in to Monaco the way she was taken out? Letting her come in through the normal channels, going through Passport control, thumbprint, the legal construct, then booking into the Celestious, all of that let's us find out who she is. Why? When they could obviously have handed over the flower to Julia, and left us completely in the dark?"

Suzi stretched in her chair. "Go on. You've obviously got an answer."

"Two different groups," Greg said. "She came from Royan, to deliver the flower. Then afterwards, someone else nabbed her."

"If it was a tekmerc squad, could you find out, Suzi?" Victor asked.

"Maybe. But it would take time. Week, maybe two. Then longer to find out who put the deal together."

"Not good enough," said Victor.

"Fuck you too."

"If you want my opinion," Greg said, "the group that arranged for Fielder to be lifted are the ones who took the first sample from the flower."

Victor nodded. "That fits. You think they'll have found Royan by now?"

"If they had a psychic interrogate Fielder, it would take a minute to find out what she knew. Drugs and a polygraph, that's about thirty minutes. They've had her for nearly three days now."

"Bloody hell."

"There's one easy short cut we could try," Greg said. "Phone Fielder's cybofax number, and use whatever clout Event Horizon has with English Telecom to find out the co-ordinate."

"Good idea," said Victor.

His image on Greg's cybofax slid smoothly to one side. Julia appeared on the other half, sitting in her study again. Nothing behind her had moved, even the sunlight shining through the window was at the same angle.

"No need to make it an official request," she said. "I'm infiltrating the location response targeting software in lineisat's antenna platforms. Calling Fielder's number now."

Greg waited.

"No reply," Julia said. "There isn't even a signal from the transponder."

"Keep trying."

"If all they wanted from Fielder was Royan's location, then she's probably been snuffed," Victor said.

"No, she hasn't," Greg said.

"OK." Victor subsided with good grace. He had seen Greg's intuition at work before.

Greg wondered what young Pearse Solomons was making of all this. The security hardliner had been sitting at attention ever since Victor had come on the cybofax. After Julia appeared he hadn't taken a breath.

"That just leaves us with Baronski," Greg said.

"What can he tell us?" Suzi asked.

"Charlotte Fielder left the party early, with a rich young boy, in an expensive car. She walked out of the El Harhari freely, I'd almost say happily. That means the boy was either someone she knew, or more likely the son of a client. Either way, Baronski should be able to tell us."

CHAPTER NINE

It was the sun again, inexplicably wrong. Charlotte finally twigged the reason when she was having a latish breakfast in the Colonel Maitland's aft dining-room.

Fabian sat opposite her as usual. He acted dazed, almost in shock, barely eating his cereal. Every time he looked at her it was with an unsettling degree of reverence.

But then Fabian was a boy in lust. He was also a remarkably fast learner. She had spent a strenuous two hours last night coping with his enthusiasms and demands before he finally drifted off into an exhausted sleep, then he'd been ready for more this morning. Which was why they turned up late at the table.

Jason Whitehurst was already sitting at the table waiting for them. He greeted them with an unabashed smile. "Ah, glad to see you young people are getting on so well."

Fabian blushed hot crimson.

Jason Whitehurst had chosen his cereal, unperturbed, and ordered his cybofax to display the London Times, which he read as he ate.

Charlotte could hear the waiter squeezing fresh orange juice at the side table behind her. She started in on her own cereal bowl. The sun was filling the dining room with a liquid rose-gold light, rising into view directly behind Jason Whitehurst. She stared at it, feeling cold despite the thick Cotton of her summer dress.

Jason Whitehurst looked up from his cybofax. "Something wrong, my dear?"

"West," she said numbly. "We're heading west."

"That's right."

"But Odessa is east of Monaco. I thought we were going around Italy, then up into the Black Sea."

"No." Jason Whitehurst inspected a slice of toast, then began buttering it. "My agent has taken care of my business in Odessa. There's no need to go there now. Great relief all round, one expects. I told you what it was like."

The waiter put a glass of orange down in front of Charlotte. She ignored it. "Where are we going, then?"

"Going?" Jason Whitehurst affected puzzlement. "Why, my dear girl, the Colonel Maitland simply drifts. On a whim and a prayer, I always say. I had a notion that South America would be nice. You and Fabian could laze around on the beach, that sort of thing, whatever it is a boy and a girl do together these days. How does that sound, young man?"

"Great, father," Fabian said cautiously.

"Which country in South America?" Charlotte asked. It was hard to maintain her pose of polite seminal interest.

"Oh, I don't know. I really hadn't given it any thought, to be woundingly honest. Why, have you got any preferences?"

For once she was stuck for a reply. There was a small part of her mind thinking that Baronski would be shaking his head in dismay; questioning her patron's intent, letting her own disapproval show. It simply was not done. But either Jason Whitehurst was the most carefree soul she'd ever met, or he was being deliberately obtuse.

She'd heard of patrons like that, not that there were many, thank heavens. Instead of physical mastery, they went in for nasty psychological games. Mental kinks designed to rip the sense of order from a bewildered girl, reduce her to a disorientated nervous wreck. It gave them a sense of power. A mind set which got its bang from destruction.

Charlotte remembered talking to one of the women tutors that Baronski had sent her round to learn the extras which put her so far above the others of her trade. The woman had told her it was all down to age and bitter jealousy; the patrons wanted to punish the girls for their youth and beauty, something their money could never bring back to them.

Charlotte reckoned that no one with a trading empire as large as Jason Whitehurst could have the kind of slapdash mind he alluded to.

She ran quickly through her options. "French Guiana is supposed to be nice," she said with cheerful enthusiasm. "It has some wonderful beaches. Then there's the tropical nature park we could tour; that has some of the oldest original rain forest on the continent. And they're still discovering new insect species each year." French Guiana was also one of the closest South American countries to Europe; which meant the voyage would be over as quickly as possible, and she could skip out.

"I can't somehow imagine Fabian being vastly interested in bugs; is that right, young man?"

Fabian looked at Charlotte, then at his father. Trapped, not wanting to disappoint either. She felt sorry for him.

"Isn't French Guiana where Devil's Island is?" Fabian asked.

Jason Whitehurst pulled at his beard. "Yes, do you know, I think you're right there. The jolly Ile du Diable. I might have guessed a red-blooded lad like you would show an interest in the totally macabre. Still, can't be helped, all part of growing up. So, French Guiana it is, then."

Charlotte dived straight into the Colonel Maitland's pool and started doing lengths, a smooth easy freestyle with a neat flip at each end. It was one of the best ways she knew of working off frustration, losing herself in the mechanical spin of limbs, not having to think. She stopped after thirty lengths; the pool was smaller than she was used to. There wasn't the distance to work up a decent speed, or maybe she was just spoilt.

"Crikey, is there anything you're no good at?" Fabian asked. "I thought I was a good swimmer, but you just left me standing."

"Sorry. I was a bit wound up over Odessa."

"Oh." The corner of his mouth depressed. "Father can be a bit, well, casual, at times. I suppose it must be unusual unless you're used to it."

She swung her legs up, and floated on her back. Now probably wasn't a good time to ask what happened to his father's previous girls, if they left in floods of tears.

"Now I know where we're heading I'll be all right." She began to swish her feet, heading for the window. "You didn't have to say you wanted to go to French Guiana, you know. I wouldn't have been offended."

"No, really, I wanted to go." He started swimming beside her. "Well, all right, not the trees and caterpillars and things. But I would like to see Devil's Island. And the beaches, with you."

Charlotte steadied herself on the side of the pool by the window. She looked down thoughtfully on the water below. "Where are we now, do you think?"

Fabian held on to the side, eyes on her rather than the water. "It's the Atlantic, we're west of Africa. I can get you the exact co-ordinates if you want."

"No, thank you Fabian, that's all right. It's just a pity we missed seeing Gibraltar. Have you ever been there before?"

"No."

"If the Colonel Maitland comes back to the Mediterranean some time, then remember to ask your father to show you. The Straits drop flow is quite something, that tiny little gap is the only place the Mediterranean basin can fill up from. Thermal expansion didn't raise the Mediterranean's level as high as the oceans, the water was warmer to start with. So the Atlantic is still a good couple of metres higher, and that's after nearly twenty-five years. They won't reach equipoise for a long time yet."

"Did you ride it?"

"No. I was too scared, the drop flow is over five kilometres long. I watched the macho loonies doing it, through. You sit in one of the overhang cafes on the rock, and your bones shake from the turbulence round the base, the sound is like one continual thunderclap. They reckon the rock itself will be gone in a few more decades. Nothing can resist that sort of pressure."

She remembered more, the sleek canoe-like capsules that people rode the Straits drop flow in, like phosphene dots zipping across her vision as she watched that incredible surge of white water from the safety of the café. Three of the people in her group had wanted to try it, knowing full well the drop flow claimed a couple of lives a week.

She thought at the time how little regard they had for their own lives. There was a degeneracy building in the world's rich, becoming more advanced with each generation. There used to be a kind of adventurism in the excitement they sought, the power boat racing, desert car rallies, polar trekking. But now the element of calculation was missing from the risks they took, superseded by recklessness, a return to the live fast die young ideal. She supposed it was an answer to the increasing jadedness of their existence, in this world so much pleasure could be bought on the cheap. Their urge towards self-destruction set them apart from the poor again.

"Sounds great," he said.

She realized he hadn't really been listening. He was still looking at her, query and longing bound up in his worshipful stare. What would he be like when he was eighteen? "I'll do a deal with you, Fabian."

"What?"

"If you take my bikini off, I'll pull your trunks down."

Fabian's bedroom had been furnished with the same expensive care and attention lavished on the rest of the airship—an antique dresser, upholstered Nordic chairs, Chinese carpet, two pale still-life paintings in slim plain gilt frames. But the drawer had scratches, and a very odd purple stain that was still sticky; T-shirts, towels, and shorts hung all over the chairs; shoes and blade roller skates dotted that carpet; bawdy holograms of bimbo bands had been tacked up on the walls.

Fabian was a pretty ordinary teenager after all. One den the size of a small warehouse wasn't nearly large enough for all his rubbish.

Charlotte had only ever seen it when the light was low, in daylight it was even worse. She sat cross-legged in the middle of the bed, with her bikini back on, watching Fabian. He was squatting on his towel in front of the big wall-mounted flatscreen; it was tuned to French MTV, playing an old Rolling Stones track, the sound muted. But he was looking down at his cybofax, doing the London Times crossword with one hand, holding a choc-ice bar in the other.

She had never seen anyone do the crossword so fast. He would take a bite from the ice-cream and read the clues, then his fingers would dance over the keys. There was never any hesitation, no referring back to the cybofax's dictionary function. She was tempted to ask him about a bioware node again; but that would make an issue out of it. Besides, she didn't think Fabian had lied back at the pool yesterday. She didn't think Fabian would know how to lie to her about anything.

So how could he demolish the crossword like this?

"Doesn't the maid ever clean up here?" Charlotte asked.

Fabian looked round with bemused curiosity. "The staff take my clothes and stuff to be washed. But I'd lose everything if it was put into drawers."

She picked up a metre-long model of an old-style military tilt-fan. It was heavier than she'd expected. The miniature missiles looked very realistic. "What can you do with this indoors?"

Fabian flipped his lock of hair aside. "Nothing, stupid. I fly it from the Colonel's landing pad. Do you want to come up and try it? I'll let you use the remote, it's dead easy."

"Maybe later. Where do you get all this stuff from? You must go on week-long shopping expeditions when the Colonel Maitland reaches a town."

"Oh no, I pick it all out from catalogue channels, and have it forwarded to our next airport. The Gulfstream collects it for me."

"I see." Jason Whitehurst hadn't been exaggerating when he said he kept Fabian on board the Colonel Maitland the whole time. She didn't approve of that at all. Not that she could ever say so.

"I'll have the maids clean it up if you don't like it," Fabian offered generously.

"I don't think your father could afford the overtime bill."

Fabian burst into gleeful laughter. "How do you do that?"

"What?"

"Everything you say is always just right. The clothes you wear make you look utterly fantastic. You can swim well. You're a super dancer. You know about everywhere in the world, not just what countries look like, but their politics as well. You're like a superwoman, or something."

"That's age, Fabian. When you're as ancient as me, you'll have learnt it all as well."

Fabian dropped his eyes. "You're not old."

"You're very sweet."

"You said you wouldn't call me things like sweet and cute again," he said petulantly. "Not now I'm your lover."

"Sorry."

"Charlotte?"

"Yes."

"Can we do it again?"

He might be bright, she thought, but he had a grasshopper mind. "I think we might, yes."

Fabian scrunched up the choc-ice wrapper and lobbed it in the direction of the bin, then bounced on to the bed beside her. "I forgot, you're incredibly sexy too." He said it timidly, as though he was swearing in church.

"Thank you." Charlotte straightened her legs, and lay on her side next to him. "Remember what I like?" She kissed him, hand running over his belly. Her voice deepened. "How to make me ask you for more?"

Watching her face closely, Fabian reached out and undid the bikini top. He smiled greedily as the triangular scraps of fabric came free in his hands, and began to stroke the length of her ribcage the way she'd taught him. "What's it like in space?"

Charlotte groaned, the mood spoilt. "Oh, heavens, Fabian. I've told you all I possibly can. If you want to know any more, you'll have to go there."

"No. I meant, you know, that… freefall sex."

"Oh. Unearthly delights."

"What?" he choked.

"Unearthly delights, that's what the New Londoners call freefall sex."

"Wizard! So what's it like?"

"I don't know. Never had the chance to try it."

"No?"

She could read him like a book. He didn't believe her. "No. But I admit I was thinking of it; I met a nice local boy while I was there. But I cut four days off the end of my holiday and came home early. So I never got the chance in the end. I expect it's overrated, tourist board propaganda."

"You packed up a holiday in space early! Whatever for?"

Charlotte swore silently. This airship flight was affecting her more than she liked, her self-discipline was going all to hell. "I had to get back for some business, and then there was the Newfields ball. Why? Would you rather I was still up there?"

"No! Crikey, Charlotte," he said, genuinely indignant. "Don't say things like that."

She ran a hand over his chin, momentarily confounded by the lack of stubble.

Fabian drew a quick breath. "Hey, listen, I've just had a tremendous idea. We can go up to New London together. Right? You heard Father say I could go in a couple of years. Well, I will. It'll be wizard. We could spend the whole time in freefall. Unearthly delights!" He giggled and clapped his hands exultantly.

It took a supreme effort to maintain her light smile. Dear God, he was a besotted teenager who thought she was going to stay with him till death us do part, amen. Sex equals love, they all thought that at his age. How could she have been so stupid, getting herself into this situation? It could only ever end in heartbreak now.

Fabian was waiting, flushed and deliriously expectant.

"A couple of years is a long time to wait." She took hold of his hands, and placed them firmly on her breasts. "And I know some pretty good earthly delights."

Charlotte let the shower's hot spray play over her back, soapy water running down her thighs and calves. It felt good, relaxing her. The sharp jets of water pounded into her skin like a scratchy massage. Steam swirled around, warming her all the way through.

What the hell was she going to do about Fabian? He wasn't a bad kid, certainly he deserved a lot better than her and his father. The obvious thing to do was cut and run as soon as she reached French Guiana. He was young, resilient, he'd get over her fast enough. Except she knew how much it would hurt him. How much she would hurt him.

She couldn't bear the thought of that trusting, mischievous face screwed up in misery. In itself an unusual, and disturbing, admission.

God damn Jason Whitehurst for not bringing up his son properly. And God damn Baronski for not knowing what Jason Whitehurst had wanted her for. The old boy was normally so careful about what he got his girls into.

Charlotte gave her hair a final rinse and turned off the shower. She wrapped a big towel around herself, then used another to dry her hair. The robe she'd worn over her bikini to walk about in through the gondola was lying on the damp tiles, soaking up the condensation the shower had thrown out. It could stay there now. The maid could clean it. Bitch.

She sat down in front of the mirror, and combed out her hair. Her cabin hadn't got that stale stuffy taste in the air like Fabian's. It gave her room to breathe, room to move. Having her own cabin was the only real plus of this assignment. She liked the times she was on her own, an interval when she could be reflective, when every move and word wasn't an effort.

She looked at the image in the mirror, stretching, wriggling her toes. "Gawd luv us, ducks. See 'ow grand we is nahdays." She giggled. Funny, it was harder to do that accent now than the upper-middle-class one Baronski had patiently coached her in. The past really had died.

Charlotte got up and searched through her bedside cabinet. Her gold Amstrad cybofax was in the second drawer. She took it out and sat on the bed, curling her legs up. "Phone function," she told the wafer, then gave it Baronski's number. He probably couldn't help her out of her predicament straight away, but she could vent a lot of her frustration on him. It was something he was always good at, always there as a shoulder to cry on. Everyone needed someone like that, life would be unlivable otherwise. And in any case, she needed to tell him she wouldn't be going to Odessa. He liked his girls to keep in touch.

UNABLE TO ACQUIRE SATELLITE LINKAGE, the cybofax screen printed.

Charlotte stared at it. Unable? She climbed off the bed and walked over to the window. The jet-black solar envelope hull of the airship curved away above her like a medium-sized moon. No wonder the cybofax's signal couldn't reach the geostationary antenna platform.

There was a standard terminal on the other side of the bed, but she shied away. If she was going to have a decent rant at Baronski about Whitehurst she didn't want to do it on the man's own 'ware. More than one of her patrons had routinely recorded calls.

Charlotte began looking through drawers for her Ashmi jumpsuit. She could go up to the landing pad, the cybofax would work from there.

Maybe if she stuck out this assignment for another month, push Fabian away gradually. That might work, no hard feelings on either side, and a wonderful memory of first love for the rest of his life. But another month of this? At least in French Guiana there would be the beach bars, and some decent nightlife.

Charlotte was zipping up the jumpsuit when there was a rap at the door. The maid came in.

"Mr. Jason would like to see you," she said.

"OK, I'll be about twenty minutes."

"He said now." There was a definite gloat in the voice.

Fabian had shown her where his father's study was, in the midsection of the lower gondola deck, but they hadn't gone in. Now Charlotte found it was equipped with ultra-modern fittings, the first she'd seen on board. Walls, floor, and ceiling were a silver-white composite; flatscreens showed homolographic maps of the globe, coastlines glowing sharply, cities and ports tagged with ten-digit codes. Jason Whitehurst was sitting behind a smoked-glass desk that resembled a rectangular mushroom. She could see tiny red and green lights inside the glass top, squiggling like trapped fireflies. It was the only piece of furniture in the room.

The heels of her leather ankle boots clicked loudly as she walked towards him.

"Chair," Jason Whitehurst said. A circle of floor in front of his desk turned grey. It extruded upwards, a smooth cylinder at first, then it began to flow, like something organic caught by time-lapse photography.

Charlotte sat tentatively in the curving scoop chair which formed. It felt as hard as rock under her fingernails.

"You attempted to use your cybofax to make an external call," Jason Whitehurst said.

"Yes."

"I must ask you not to do that again. I am conducting some very delicate negotiations at the moment."

"I won't interrupt them. It was just a call to a friend."

"You called Baronski."

Charlotte began to wonder if it had been the bulk of the airship hull which had blocked the call, after all. "That's right. He likes to know where I am, and as we're not going to Odessa—"

"He likes to know what you hear."

"Pardon me?"

"Baronski deals in the information you supply him. That will not be the case on this voyage."

"I wasn't going to say anything about you. I don't know anything about you."

"Nor will you. I purchased you purely to provide Fabian with some amusement, nothing more. Now that is all."

It took a moment for the dismissal to sink in. Charlotte rose on legs which were suddenly trembling. Once the door had slid shut behind her she rubbed her eyes. Her knuckles seemed to be very damp.

CHAPTER TEN

The Pegasus carrying Victor Tyo to Duxford settled on to the rooftop pad with a slight rocking motion as the undercarriage absorbed the plane's weight. The stewardess opened the belly hatch, and Victor trotted down the stairs. His bodyguard followed a few paces behind.

He supposed the necessity of having a bodyguard was an oblique compliment to his own efficiency. The latest generation of tekmercs tended to take failure personally, regarding their activities as something companies should tolerate, like fires or bad debts. If their deals got blown, it wasn't their fault. Like petulant children caught shoplifting.

It was a problem which meant simply blowing the covert operations they mounted against Event Horizon wasn't good enough any more. He had to root out the whole nest of them involved every time.

The current price for assassinating Victor Tyo was half a million Eurofrancs, offered by Eugene Selby after his attempt to snatch research data on magnetic logic circuits ended with his hotrods being backtracked and taken out by a couple of Foxhound missiles. The price for killing that assassin should he or she prove successful was a million Eurofrancs. A quarter of a million Eurofrancs could be picked up by anyone who cared to reveal Eugene Selby's present geographical coordinates.

Victor's life was nearly all tangled up in deterrent circles like that these days. It didn't particularly bother him. All part of the game. His choice to be a player had been made long ago.

Right back when he joined the security division, Morgan Walshaw had told him, "Once in, never out; this job is for always." He'd been young enough then to nod seriously and say, "Yes, sir, I understand perfectly." Understand, but not completely appreciate. Always was turning out to be a long time.

Lately he'd taken to saying the same thing to recruits himself. His division had grown in proportion with the commercial side of Event Horizon; it matched national intelligence agencies in size, possessing the tactical strike power equal to a couple of RAF squadrons.

The three major opposition parties at Westminster were constantly demanding enquiries into tekmerc-planted rumours of his activities, and even the New Conservatives were becoming nervous. If it hadn't been for the fact that ministers needed Julia on their side over Wales, incidents like the Selby deal could well result in the police taking a more active interest. As if they had the capacity to deal with tekmercs, but try telling that to politicians. Event Horizon security wasn't the cause of problems, it was the result of them.

His staff were currently monitoring eighteen separate tekmerc deals being mounted against the company. There was definitely a leak somewhere inside the biochemical division, which even the psychics couldn't pin down. And now he had aliens coming at him.

I wonder what old Walshaw would make of that one?

It wasn't that life had been easier in his day, but at least the battle lines were a hell of a lot clearer.

It was hot outside the hypersonic, although Duxford was spared Peterborough's swamp humidity; that was something he'd never acclimatized to. The plane had landed on the roof of Building One at the Event Horizon Astronautics Institute. It was typical of the space industry to use that kind of nomenclature, he thought, reflecting the medium they dealt in. Cold, vast, and soulless.

Building One was a five-storey ring of offices and laboratories, eight hundred metres in diameter. The circular space they enclosed was covered by a domed solar collector roof, rising up beside him like a crack into space, sucking light and heat from the air. Looking the other way, Victor could just make out the stone buildings of Cambridge's colleges, trembling in the heat haze. The rest of the city was a pastiche of red brick and black solar panels. Hardly any modern buildings. It made a pleasant change.

Building Three was a clone of Building One, sitting a kilometre away, on the site of the old War Museum buildings, its green-silver glass wall bouncing spears of tinted sunlight at him. Building Three was the big brother of the first two, its outer ring fifteen storeys high, sixteen hundred metres in diameter. A mile, back in Birmingham where Victor grew up, where they still clung to the real England of pints and inches with the obstinacy of people frightened by the seemingly perpetual flux which the Warming had brought early in the millennium. Searching for the sanctuary of stability in erstwhile customs.

Spaceplanes hummed gracefully through the sky, big swept-wing delta shapes; arriving from the west and landing, departures racing away to the east. The long line of pads that accommodated them had been built along Duxford's old runway, he remembered. The War Museum's original geography was all very vague in his mind now. He could barely recall the lie of the land before Building One had gone up, seventeen years ago. Change hadn't stopped after the Greenhouse Effect plateaued, if anything it had redoubled its confusion.

Building Four was half completed, another one the size of Three; the first three storeys of glass already in place, as if the green-silver panes were organic, a crust that grew up the naked concrete and composite structure. And he knew that Julia had begun preliminary discussions with the bankers and finance houses for Building Five.

Even after all this time, after penetrating the Evans mystique, seeing her angry, frightened, sad, and drunk, he still looked on Julia as a figure of awe. People were fascinated by her because of her money, blinded by it. Nobody understood, she had a thousand critics, snipers, detractors. All of them claiming they could do the job better. He knew different, Julia actually cared about the country. In that she was almost unique in an era of multinationalism, the abrasion of significant borders; but she insisted the critical divisions of Event Horizon were all sited in England. The software writers, the research teams, product designers, the factories which produced the 'ware chips. Other countries were given the assembly lines, the metal-bashing subsidiaries, but the heart of every piece of Event Horizon gear was built in England. That was where the real work lay, the real challenge, real money. The principal reason England's trade balance was permanently in the black.

And Duxford was the grand prize. Over half of the company's giga-conductor royalties had been invested here. The Institute pulled together every human engineering discipline, taxed ingenuity to its limits, gave England an unbeatable technological and economic edge over the rest of the European Market Alliance nations. Space hardware subcontracts were only placed with English companies. The external supply industry that had risen to support Julia's space programme provided secure jobs for over a million people, the Institute itself employed a hundred and fifty thousand at Duxford alone, and more in orbit and up at New London.

The money she poured into orbital materials processing modules and the New London project was frightening. She'd been doing it for a solid fifteen years without ever showing weakness or doubt. And only now was she beginning to get anything like a decent return. Nobody else had that sort of faith; in their own vision, in the scientists, technicians, and astronauts who'd captured the asteroid. Victor knew that if it'd been up to him, he would've abandoned space to the kombinates and government agencies a long time ago.

Without Julia Evans the world would be a much poorer place. She cared about people, and nobody appreciated it. Except him.

Victor put a halt on that line of thought. You ridiculous fool, he told himself.

Eddie Coghlan, the Institute's security division manager, was standing by the open stair door at the edge of the pad. Victor could see the man reviewing his own recent performance in his mind, desperately trying to think why his boss should pay an unexpected visit.

Victor shook Eddie Coghlan's hand. "You can relax now, Eddie, I'm not here to chase you."

Eddie Coghlan smiled crisply. "That's something, you had me worried there for a minute."

They went down the stairs, talking amicably. Eddie Coghlan was glad to have the opportunity to discuss a few points, and Victor listened readily enough, making suggestions. He didn't go for the intimidating approach, a fear figure. He knew there were some company security chiefs who ran their departments on those lines, and wasn't much impressed. Security was a delicate, complex job; bawling orders like a sergeant-major might look good for the board, but like all dictatorships it was ultimately ineffective.

Access Astronautics Institute Building One Floor Plan, he told his processor node. The three-dimensional glass image formed in his mind.

Display Route from Landing Pad Three to SETI Office. A red dot appeared on the landing pad, and extended a line down the stairs. Perspective shifted to keep the tip of the line in front of his perception point; directional graphics blinked up, naming the sections it was passing through.

When he came out of the stairwell on to the fifth floor's central corridor, he stepped unerringly on to a moving walkway. He was in an administrative segment, glass walls on either side showing him big open-plan offices with staff bent over desk terminals.

"There's going to be a rush of reassignment orders for the Institute's research staff coming through over the next few days," he told Eddie Coghlan as they slid past the canteen. "Top grades, the real thinker types. So I want you to blow Meter ski’s deal, and Callaway’s."

"But we haven't identified all the team members," Eddie Coghlan said. "If we blow the ones we know, the rest will pull the cutouts and vanish."

"Can't be helped. These reassignments are supposed to be ultra-hush, I don't want them to become open knowledge to the tekmercs. OK?"

"You're the boss," Eddie Coghlan said glumly. "When do you want it done?"

"Today."

"Christ!"

"Sorry, but that's the way it goes. I'll see if I can assign some psychic empaths to you. Have them interrogate the tekmerc members you do nab, that way you should get a reasonably complete list." He stepped off the walkway at an intersection, and started to ride an escalator down.

"Right you are," Eddie Coghlan said. "Is that why you're here, to supervise the reassignments?"

Victor liked that, no questions about what the reassignments were for. Eddie was a good security man. He started down the next escalator to the third floor. "No, I'm here to see Dr Parnell, actually."

Eddie Coghlan frowned, trying to place the name. "Not the SETI project director?"

"Yes."

"Oh, right." He glanced at his watch. "I suppose he'll be in by now."

Dr Rick Parnell's personnel profile said he was thirty-seven, which surprised Victor. Himself apart, Event Horizon's divisional chiefs were normally in their fifties. When he accessed the Astronautics Institute's records he found out why. SETI was about the smallest project on Event Horizon's books, with only twelve members. Julia funded it out of the pure science budget; the project was virtually a token, she was simply covering all aspects of space research, however remote.

Victor certainly hadn't known it existed, not until Julia suggested he go and see if they could come up with any suggestions about how to find the alien starship. She was anxious that Greg's tenuous pursuit of the Newfields girl wasn't the only option of making contact with them.

The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence project had been allocated three offices on the inward side of Building One's ring; the usual array of desks and terminals and holographic display cubes, worn dark-green carpet squares. Victor was mildly disappointed, expecting something more elaborate for this kind of project, at least. His own office wasn't much different, larger with better furniture.

He left Eddie Coghlan to organize the tekmerc busts and went in. The SETI staff gave him and his bodyguard inquisitive stares; all of them were in their twenties, he noted. An attractive female secretary directed him to Rick Parnell's office.

The room looked out over the assembly hall, an incomprehensible mini-city of cybernetic machinery, its roadways heavy with little white carts and drone cargo flat-tops following buried guidance tracks. On the far side he could see a curving row of integration bays where standard payload pods were fitted out, each bay a buzz of activity. More pods were hanging from the overhead hoists, like a series of white moon-lets drifting along rectangular orbital paths.

The wall behind the SETI director's desk was covered with holograms of satellites. To Victor's eye they were similar to the geosync antenna platforms, although he guessed the outsized dishes were radio observatories. There was one computer simulation of a mesh dish alongside New London; if he was reading the scale right it was over twenty kilometres in diameter.

Dr Rick Parnell had his feet up on his desk, drinking a can of Ruddles bitter as he watched a data display in his terminal's cube. He had been a varsity rugby player while he was at Oxford, half a head taller than Victor, with broad, sloping shoulders, and blond hair that was starting to thin. It looked like he worked hard to keep in trim. The body didn't really belong in a white shirt and suit trousers, Victor thought, more like tennis kit.

"Security chief?" he asked after Victor showed his card. "What, you mean of the whole company?"

"That's right."

"You come to evict us?"

"No. I'd like to talk to you."

Rick Parnell suddenly realized he was drinking a can of bitter in office hours. He drained it in a couple of gulps, crumpled it, and threw it into the bin. Perfect shot. "You don't look old enough to be a security chief."

Victor sat in front of the desk. "There aren't many old people in security. We don't survive that long."

Rick Parnell managed a sickly smile. "What did you want to talk about?"

"Firstly, let me remind you of the confidentiality undertaking you thumbprinted when you were employed by Event Horizon."

Rick Parnell coloured slightly. "Hey, now listen. I was told that was a formality. This project might not seem much to a guy like you, but we accomplish a lot, and most of that is because we're mainly a co-ordination centre. Half our budget goes on grants to universities and agencies, we arrange international conferences, publish datasheets. You start restricting our output, and there's no point to us even existing."

"I'm not interested in restricting the flow of ideas, I simply ask that our conversation is not bandied about."

"Otherwise I'm for the chop."

Victor sat back in the chair and gave Rick Parnell a searching look. "Tekmercs make threats, Mr. Director. I work on the other side of the fence. We try and ensure that a dedicated researcher's life's work isn't stolen from under their nose, that the pension fund you've paid into for forty years doesn't get emptied by some hotrod with a smart decryption program. Now, you and I are employed by the same lady, and she suggested I ask your professional advice on a matter I'm involved with. Is that really so hard for you?"

Rick Parnell twitched in discomfort. "No. Sorry, of course not. I'm just not used to the idea of the head of Event Horizon's security division walking into my office. I didn't think you people even knew we existed." He lifted his head, as if he was sniffing at the air. "Julia Evans herself told you to come here? The Julia Evans?"

"Yes."

"For professional advice?"

"Yes."

"OK, fire away."

"Hypothetically, if there was an alien spaceship in the solar system, how would I go about detecting it?"

Rick Parnell opened his mouth, closed it, then started again. "If an alien spaceship came into the solar system, believe me, you'd know about it. Something like that would be a bigger event than the Second Coming."

Victor gazed thoughtfully at the hologram of the big dish. This was the second time he'd been told the arrival of aliens would be momentous. The prospect was beginning to worry him badly. "In what way?"

"Spectacular. OK, look. There's two ways of travelling between the stars. In a small ship going very fast, say about thirty or fifty per cent lightspeed. Or a big multi-generation ship, something the size of New London, travelling at one or two per cent lightspeed. Either way, it takes a colossal amount of energy to move them. If anything like that started decelerating into the solar system, the plasma from the reaction drive would scream like a nova across the radio bands. We'd spot it half a light-year out. It would stop radio astronomy stone dead across half of the sky."

"What if they didn't use a reaction drive? What if they have some faster than light drive like the science fiction shows on the channels?"

"Christ, you're really serious, aren't you?"

"Yes."

Rick Panel put his elbows on the desk, and rested his chin on his clasped hands. "Nick Beswick is the one you really should be asking about this, because it all fits in with quantum theory, but… FTL means producing wormholes through space-time large enough for a ship to pass through. Now wormholes are theoretically possible, but we haven't got a clue how to open one."

"An advanced technology might be able to achieve it."

"Granted, an extremely fanciful technology could stress space to a degree that tears it open. However, even if you have that level of technology you still couldn't enter the solar system without being detected. If the terminus of a wormhole on this scale erupted near Earth, its gravitational distortion would be of epic proportions. To my knowledge there are three hundred and twenty functional gravity-wave detectors on this planet, fifteen of which are in orbit; astrophysicists use them to check out general relativity. They would have spotted it."

"What about an FTL system that used something other than wormholes?"

Rick Parnell frowned sadly. "You know, my problem is usually convincing people that aliens do exist. Now you come in, and I have to persuade you what you're saying doesn't make any sense. This universe is no different for aliens than it is to us, it obeys the same physical parameters ten million light-years away as it does right in this office. That includes relativity."

"I was just trying to establish if there's a third method of aliens arriving in the solar system."

"If there is, we can't conceive it. Which would make them roughly the equivalent of angels."

"Fair enough. So just go back to my original question, we don't know the method they used to get here, and we didn't see them arrive. How do we locate them now?"

"These hypothetical aliens, are they on Earth?"

"No. We don't believe they could get past the strategic defence sensors."

"Good point. But you're giving me a tall order here, you know? The solar system is a big place, and that's just staying in the plane of the ecliptic. They could easily be in a high inclination orbit. If you take Pluto's orbital radius as the boundary, and extend your search to cover a spherical volume, that's a quarter of a million cubic AUs to sift through. An electromagnetic sweep is the only practical method, assuming they're emitting in that spectrum. There's a good chance of picking up random noise leakage from their on-board systems, certainly with the power levels a starship will need to employ."

"Do you have that sort of equipment?"

Rick Parnell gave a low laugh. "We've got six ten-million-channel receivers operating at the moment, although we only own them in partnership with various national science councils and space agencies. But they're all assigned to specific sections of the sky. It's the old nightmare, you listen to your section for eighteen months of deathly silence, then the day you move on to the next, there's a genesis pulse."

"What's a genesis pulse?"

"Special message, a shout that says "Here we are!" to the universe at large. You use a dish like the Arecibo to beam a strong signal at a star cluster with a high quota of Sol-like stars. Put in plenty of data about local life and culture, star co-ordinates—you do that by triangulating with known quasars. We send out a couple every year. Give it a millennium, we might even get an answer."

"So there's no way you can run a search for me, then?"

Rick Panel swivelled his chair, and tapped the hologram of the giant dish. "This is Steropes, we've spent twenty per cent of our budget and three years refining the design. You persuade our lovely lady boss to part with two billion pounds New Sterling and in five years I'll have it up and running for you. If you've lost a hydrogen atom inside the solar system, this beauty will be able to find it for you."

Victor held back on the urge to shout. "I meant, starting today."

"God, no. No way, sorry."

"Shit."

Rick Parnell clenched his hands tight, as if he was praying. "OK, I've been straight with you. Now, what have you got? What made you come in here and ask me this?"

"We are in possession of certain evidence which suggests that first contact has already been initiated."

Rick Parnell's lips moved around the words, repeating them silently. "Oh, God. What evidence?" he croaked.

"An artefact."

"What fucking artefact?"

"A biological one."

Rick Parnell lent right over the desk, fired by excitement and trepidation. "High order?"

"Pardon me?"

"I mean, more advanced than the microbes?" His hands spun for emphasis, urging Victor on like a football coach.

Victor felt a real tingle of alarm. Greg had once explained to him how his intuition manifested itself, a cold that wasn't physical. This was something similar. "Slow down. Which microbes are we talking about?"

Rick Parnell let out a groan and flopped back into his chair. "After the turn of the century the Japanese NASDA agency sent an unmanned probe called Matoyaii out to Jupiter. It was designed to measure the near-Jupiter environment, from the ionosphere out to it's plasma torus. That's a pretty active area, saturated with radiation, the planetary radio emissions; and then there's the magnetosphere, the flux-tube, small moons, the ring bands. Fascinating to see how they all interact. Thing was, when mission control manoeuvred the Matoyaii in close to a ring particle the on-board spectroscope started to register some pretty odd hydrocarbon patterns. Nothing conclusive, nothing final, you understand. Intensive analysis wasn't possible, the sensors weren't designed for microscopic examination. And the hydrocarbon deposits were minute. Specks really, like dust motes. If they were microbes, they could've been captured by the gravity field, and settled on the ring particles."

"They were alive?" Victor asked.

"More than likely. The theory's been around since the middle of the twentieth century. High-order organic forms couldn't survive interstellar transit, they couldn't contain enough energy, not for the time-scales and distances involved. But something like a microbe or a germ, they might just make it. Go into a kind of suspended animation between stars, they're small enough to withstand freezing. The microbes were even put forward as an hypothesis for flu epidemics, literally a plague from space."

"So there is life on other planets," Victor said, half to himself.

"Now you question it!" Rick Parnell exclaimed in exasperation.

"What we found might have been a joke, an elaborate bioware construct. But not any more, not with you telling me this."

Rick Parnell smiled affably. "Well, we'll know about the microbes for certain when Royan gets back, of course."

Victor looked up sharply, meeting a sincere expectant gaze.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

The bishop was from the trendier wing of the Church of England, a Campaign for Orbital Disarmament badge prominent on his lapel. His wiry grey hair blew about in the light breeze as he stood at the microphone at the front of the stage. He kept slipping youth-culture sound bites into his speech in an effort to hold the younger members of the audience.

It sounded bizarre to Julia, like a Victorian toff getting enthusiastic about the lifestyle of New Age communes. Her early years had been spent with the First Salvation Church in Arizona; it was more cult than religion, but she had picked up a basic belief in Christian teachings and ethics which had never been discarded. She found the bishop squirm-inducing, almost making her feel ashamed about her faith.

She'd chosen to sit with the rest of the parents, in a plastic chair set out on the browning grass of Oakham School's playing fields. The governors had wanted her up on the makeshift wooden platform with the bishop and other dignitaries, or at least in the front row of the seats. She turned that down with a flatness which left them thinking they'd mortally offended her. Worried glances had flown like startled sparrows.

People were so stupidly sensitive. Did they think she was some sort of mafia princess who kept a black book?

There were about five hundred parents listening to the speeches and waiting for the prize giving. The men in grey tropical-weave suits, putting a brave face on the bishop's verbal meandering; wives in light colourful dresses and elaborate hats, smiling brittlely.

She had deliberately fled into the middle of them, seeking anonymity; sitting with Eleanor in the hope she would blend in. Some chance. Between the two of them, she and Eleanor had six children to manage, then there were her seven hard-liner bodyguards. Her party had taken over an entire row of the hard chairs.

Eleanor fanned herself with the programme, glancing at her slim Rolex. "He can't go on for much longer," she muttered out of the corner of her mouth.

"No, they'll lynch him soon," Julia agreed.

"Will the hardliners do it?" Matthew, her eight-year-old son, asked eagerly.

"Don't be silly," Anita Mandel told him imperiously. "Aunty Julia was being sarcastic. Don't you know what sarcastic is?"

"Of course—" Matthew began fiercely.

Julia and Eleanor silenced them before the argument got out of hand. Julia put her arm round her son, and gave him a hug. He resembled his father so closely, a constant raw-nerve reminder of all she was missing.

Eleanor took another look at her Rolex. "They'll be in Monaco now."

"I didn't want to ask Greg to do this, you know."

"I know," Eleanor said wearily. She put her hand on her belly and shifted uncomfortably in the chair.

Julia felt even more guilt crystallizing around her, it was like a prison cell she had to carry round.

The bishop sat down to a sharp burst of applause. The headmaster rose and began his introduction to the prizes. Julia gave Daniella a final check over to make sure her uniform was tidy. Daniella had won her year's history prize. Julia was secretly thankful it wasn't the economics prize; that would've been too much like Daniella bursting a gut for the subject she believed her mother wanted her to excel in. Not that she would be unhappy if Daniella showed a natural inclination towards the qualities necessary for a career in Event Horizon, she just didn't want the girl to feel constrained.

Julia leaned in towards Eleanor. "It's foolish of me, in a way. I'm relying on Royan as a psychological crutch. Find him, and the world is going to be at rights again. Fat chance. Find him, and we find the flower's origin. Our problems will only just be beginning."

"There's no going back now," Eleanor said. "Like it or not, the human race isn't alone any more."

"Yes, but why all this secrecy? Why not just land on the White House lawn like they do in the channel shows?"

"The eco-warriors would laser them dead for bringing a million gruesome new varieties of bugs to the planet."

"That's something," Julia said thoughtfully. "Suppose we never can meet in the flesh, that the risk of bacteriological contamination is too high. All we'll ever be able to do is trade information."

"That's one answer for you, then," Eleanor said. "They aren't here to trade, they're listening, tapping our datanets and taking the information. The cosmic equivalent of data pirates."

And who better to help them than Royan, Julia thought. "Yeah, could be. Let's hope it is something that simple."

The marquee was full of parents and pupils, standing with drinks in their hands, talking with animated voices. The sixth formers who were leaving were busy swapping addresses, promising faithfully to stay in touch. They had that slightly apprehensive air about them. Julia could remember the feeling herself: the day her grandfather had died, his body at least, and she was the sole legal owner of Event Horizon. The future was loaded with promise, but it was still totally uncharted, dark country. Scary at that age.

Eleanor's crack about contamination kept running through her mind. Surely there must be some risk from unknown germs? Yet Royan had sent her a freshly cut flower. He couldn't have been worried.

She took a sip of mineral water from her glass, and pretended to study one of the paintings lined up along the back of the marquee, a hummingbird in flight, wings blurred as if in motion. It was part of the school art department's exhibition of work by the pupils.

Open Channel to SelfCores, What did the genetics lab report say about humans picking up a possible infection from the flower?

Virtually zero, NN core one answered. In fact the problem is reversed. There was no equivalent to our bacteria in the flower. Appendix fifteen suggested that symbiotic bacteria, such as the terrestrial nitrogen-fixing rhizobia, have been incorporated into the parent plant's genetic code; and the natural resistance to parasites has evolved and strengthened to such a point where the parasites died off.

Wouldn't the parasites evolve in tandem? she asked.

If they had, then the laboratory should have found some on the flower. There were none, ergo they have died off.

So we are a bacteriological threat to the aliens?

Possibly. There are three options. One, that contact with us would be extremely dangerous for them, that they will have no immunity to our primitive diseases. Two, their immune systems are so advanced that our germs and bacteria will be no threat at all. Three, that our respective biochemistry is so different that there can be no cross-infection. However, given that the flower's cell composition was so similar to terrestrial cells, for example the inclusion of cellulose and lignin in the cell membrane, the third option is the least likely.

So even if full contact is established, we may not be able to meet?

Insufficient data, you know that, NN core two chided.

Yes. Sorry, I just hate this floundering around in the dark.

We know, remember?

Two of you do, she countered, teasing.

They know, Juliet, but I care.

Thank you, Grandpa.

We have some good news for you, NN core two said.

Please, I could do with some.

Greg has discovered the name of the courier, a Charlotte Diane Fielder. She is one of Dmitri Baronski's girls.

Baronski? Julia knew the name, his operation, but he was very second-rate. Or rather, he made sure he stayed second-rate. Always targeting the idle rich and society figures. Never doing anything that would bring a kombinate security division down on him. A man who'd found his niche, feeding off parasites. This is slightly out of his league, isn't it?

Yes, if he is involved. Charlotte Fielder has been lifted from Monaco, and it was a very professional deal. Greg suggested that the same people who took a sample of the flower are now holding Fielder.

Where is he now? she asked.

On his way back to Monaco's airport. He is going to visit Baronski to see if he knows Fielder's current whereabouts.

OK, keep monitoring the situation.

"Marry me," an American voice said. "Marry me and let me take you away from all this."

Julia turned from the hummingbird to see Clifford Jepson standing at her side, grinning ingratiatingly. The president of Globecast was in his forties with a round berry-brown face, thick black hair combed back, channel newsman smile. She knew it was all a forgery, cosmetic face and hormone hair.

Like Julia, Clifford Jepson had inherited his position; and Globecast had nearly doubled its share price in the eight years since he'd been its president. He also carried on his father's underclass arms trading, which was less welcome news. Julia had used him to supply the Trinities. And she'd questioned the wisdom ever since.

She really liked his father, her uncle Horace. But Clifford Jepson seemed to think that it was a friendship which he'd inherited along with Globecast. He hadn't, but his position made him just equal enough to talk without being stilted.

Julia glanced round, and saw Melanie Jepson talking to the headmaster. She was a beautiful woman, early twenties, blonde hair so fine it was almost white, a spectacular figure.

"You've got it all wrong, Clifford," she said drily. "Middle-aged businessmen with midlife crises are supposed to leave frumpish old wives for dazzling young actresses, not the other way round."

"Nothing frumpish about you, Julia. You know I've always held a torch for you."

"Spare me, you'll be calling me a real woman next."

He looked at the hummingbird painting. "Not bad, sharpen up the colours, add some life to the eyes, could be the makings of a decent artist there. Nice to see the old forms being adhered to. Kids these days, all they do is talk to their graphic simulators."

"Bloody hell, crook and art critic. Clifford, what are you doing here?"

He waved his glass in the direction of his wife. "Getting the kids down for entry. I'm based in Europe more often than not these days. So we thought they could board over here, give them a chance of some permanency in their lives. Trouble is, the entrance list for this place is getting kinda full these days. Can't think why."

That was another aspect of life Julia didn't enjoy. She'd chosen Oakham School because it was good, and near Wilholm, and Greg and Eleanor sent their children to it. Daniella and Matthew wouldn't be friendless when they arrived, nor would they have to board, a notion she couldn't bear. The arrangement had been confidential, but within a week of Daniella starting every entry place for the next ten years had been booked solid. Rumour had it that places for Matthew's year had been traded for over a quarter of a million Eurofrancs.

"Clifford, Bonnie's only two," she said.

"Thirty months, and every bit as pretty as her mom."

"Oh, well, I wish you luck. It's a good school, Daniella and Matthew enjoy it here." She walked on to the next painting, a rusting petrol-driven car with a Coke bottle growing out of its roof. A couple of parents were engrossed with it. The woman nudged her husband who looked up, and gave a start when he saw Julia. She gave them a flicker of a smile.

"Julia, I was being serious about us."

Why couldn't he take the hint? "I'm a mother with two children, remember?"

"You're a single parent, who's been alone for eight months." His face was sober.

"What do you know about it?"

"That he's a fool. That he won't be coming back."

"He will."

"Face it Julia, eight months."

"Eight months or eight years, it makes no difference to me. I'll wait."

Clifford Jepson gulped down the remainder of his drink. When she looked closely, she saw he was strangely apprehensive. Almost frightened.

"Can we talk?" he asked.

"Not if you're going to make any more indecent proposals."

"It's important, Julia."

The last thing she wanted was to talk shop. Oliver, Anita, and Richy had pulled Eleanor away to see the exhibitions various departments were staging, Matthew and his bodyguard had gone with them. Daniella and Christine were part of a big group of girls in a corner of the marquee, Daniella's bodyguard wearing a tired tolerant expression.

"Five minutes," she said.

The sports field was almost deserted. A group of school maintenance staff had already started to dismantle the stage, ten boys were stacking up the chairs under the supervision of a master. Ahead of her, the first Xl's cricket square was a bright strip of emerald, standing out from the rest of the field's parched grass. Over to one side the score board was still showing the result of the last match. It was one of the old-fashioned affairs, a small boxy pavilion dating from the last century, with junior boys scurrying about inside changing the numbers round.

Matthew had to explain how it worked the first time she and Royan came to watch a match. She was amazed at the primitiveness of it, the scorer even used a big paper ledger to keep the runs in. Royan, of course, had loved the idea. It'd been a good afternoon, she remembered, after the match they'd taken Matthew, Daniella and some of their friends to have tea at a café in the town. A big noisy party, where the children had all eaten too much cake. None of them cared who she was.

Julia sat on one of the wooden seats dotted around the pitch's boundary line, tugging the brim of her hat down against the glare. The air was dusty, tickling the back of her throat.

Clifford Jepson sat beside her, grimacing at the stains of ancient bird droppings on the cracked wood. A line of their bodyguards had fanned out behind them to form a phalanx against casual intrusion by any of the other parents.

"Marriage was only half the proposition," he said. "It's a start, an opening to something much bigger, grander."

"Merging Event Horizon and Globecast so our children could take over the world. No, thank you, Clifford. You forget I could buy Globecast if I really wanted to."

His PR smile turned tight. "Will you hear me out? I'm not talking about Globecast. Right now, I'm holding something that's gonna grow and grow. It's big, Julia, the biggest. I'm offering you a partnership."

Open Channel to SelfCores. I think you three had better listen to this. "A partnership in what?" she asked.

"Something new. Something explosive. It's a whole new industry, Julia. The company that markets it is gonna win big."

How interesting, NN core one said. Not many days when we get offered two revolutionary partnerships.

You think they're connected? she asked.

There's one way to find out, Juliet. Start name dropping, see how our Clifford reacts.

Right. "This partnership," Julia said laconically. "Let me guess: you provide the data constructs of a rudimentary technology, and Event Horizon develops it to a commercially viable level? Is that the way you see it working, Clifford?"

He raised his hands, putting on a rueful grin. "God damn, on the ball or what? After all these years, Julia, I'm still not in your class, nobody is. OK, let me lay it straight on the line for you. Event Horizon is one of several possible partners I'm considering. And I'd like it to be you, Julia, I really would. This operation of yours, you leave the kombinates standing. If we can thrash out a deal, make the numbers work, then it's yours. I'll be a sleeping partner, maybe a gate to some military contracts, but essentially it'll be your field."

"This sleeping partner arrangement, I hope that's not intended literally, Clifford."

"People like us, Julia, I mean, working close on this deal, spending time together, maybe you'll see more to me than you do now."

"But I still have to put in the best bid if I want this new technology you're offering?"

"Yeah, you've got some stiff competition lining up for a slice of this pie. I'm not hiding that from you. But I'll show you what I'm offering on a confidential basis, and you can decide what sort of offer to make. I'm confident you'll come out tops. You'll understand what this means, you've got the kind of vision the kombinate boards lack. And this needs someone with vision behind it, Julia."

Dear Lord, he makes you want to vomit, NN core two said. So dreary and predictable.

This all sounds very familiar, Julia said. Do you think Clifford could be the one Mutizen stole the molecular structuring data from?

If they did, then where did he get it from? NN core one asked. Globecast doesn't employ a single physicist.

Oh yes they bloody well do, my girl, Philip Evans said. I told you there was something wrong about Globecast bidding to acquire the Mousanta labs.

So you did, Grandpa. But they haven't acquired it yet. Which means Mousanta can't be the source. Did commercial intelligence come up with anything?

Sod-all! Idle buggers. You hit this Clifford, Juliet, hit him hard. Make him know he's a cheap nobody.

Behind Clifford Jepson a couple of umpires had walked out on to the cricket square. They began to set up the wickets.

"What's the matter, Clifford?" she asked. "Hasn't Mousanta got the resources to hack the atomic structuring theory? Is that why you've come running to me and the kombinates to build the generator for you?"

"Motherfuck!" Clifford Jepson gasped.

It was all she could do not to laugh. His fall from oily confidence to bewildered fright was classic comedy. The lack of control surprised her, though, she hadn't been expecting that, not from a trained executive. Another demonstration that he didn't really have what it took. She could never understand why he carried on the arms trading. In his father's day it was different, the post-Warming world was unstable, astutely placed arms shipments could quite often shift the balance of power in small countries. But now life had calmed down again, the only people who wanted arms on the black market were the alienated, increasingly bitter and desperate radical political groups. It made Clifford Jepson little more than an extension of the terrorists he served.

"How?" he demanded.

"One has contacts."

"Not for that. Atomic structuring is the biggest ultra-hush there's ever been."

"Not so, apparently."

Squeeze him, Juliet, go for the slam. You can dictate your own terms now. I never did like the little bugger, not a patch on his father.

"Do you still want to offer me a partnership?" she asked.

"I'll consider any bid you submit."

"Good. Have your office contact Peter Cavendish. I'm sure we can come to some arrangement. I'll be generous, Clifford. The person who delivers the theory for a nuclear force generator to Event Horizon will be a very rich person indeed. I hope it's you, Clifford, I really do. For old times' sake."

My girl, Philip Evans said smugly.

Ask him about the source, NN core two said.

"Clifford." He looked at her, not angry. Wary, though, she thought, a wounded animal, cornered but prepared to fight. "If you provide me with your source, where you obtained the data from, I'll offer you forty-five per cent royalties, and we'll close the deal this afternoon."

"No way, Julia. You want the generator, you deal through me."

"As you wish." She rose to her feet, brushing down her skirt.

"Hey, wait."

"Call Cavendish, you have the number. I'll review what the two of you come up with; if I think it's good enough, I'll thumbprint on the dotted line, if not, your opposition get their big day."

"Who are they? Who else is offering this?"

She gave him a sweet smile. "No way, Clifford," said with her old Arizona twang. Philip Evans's gusty laughter echoed through her brain, her cybernetic mind twins projected quiet satisfaction. She left an acutely flummoxed Clifford Jepson on the bench, and headed back to the marquee. Her bodyguards closed in to escort her.

An end-of-term-prankster had fastened a crude bra made out of pillowcases to the top of the flag-pole above the school's art and design block. It was flapping slowly in the breeze. The bishop and the governors had been facing it all through the speeches. Julia started to laugh.

CHAPTER TWELVE

The interest was trickling back into Greg's brain, like a hit that charged his neurone cells with a dose of raw energy, leaving the mind clean, thoughts flowing with cold perfection. He hovered on the razor's edge between satisfaction and dismay. Tracing the girl, and through her Royan, was supposed to be a duty, not one of love's labours. But it felt good, the way he'd made it all come together in Monaco. Most of what they had learnt was negative information; it was a challenge making sense out of that. Dropped straight into a premier deal after fifteen years out in the cold, and still managed to hit the floor running. Not bad at all.

He knew Eleanor had feared this the most, that he'd enjoy himself, remember the good old days, how it used to be, the excitement and the danger. When they met she'd been more than a little impressed by the romance of being a private detective. Even now, time tended to obscure the years before that, when he was out on Peterborough's streets; the brain's natural defence mechanism fading out the pain and anguish associated with the Trinities. But if he really thought about it, those moments were there, hiding in the shadows beyond the firelight.

Eleanor didn't have anything to worry about, he decided, not really. Chasing after Charlotte Fielder wasn't about to trigger the male menopause. In any case, there was something slightly unreal about this investigation; carried from location to location in millionaire style, every fact uncovered pounced on by Victor's division and Julia's NN cores, producing a flood of profile data. All very swift and painless.

In fact the interest would be purely abstract if it hadn't been for his eagerness to talk to Baronski, it was almost impatience. The Pegasus had to fly subsonically over land. He resented that, knowing how fast the plane could go.

There was something else fuelling his mood, though, something darker, his intuition imparting a sense of time closing in. He hadn't confessed that to Suzi yet.

The flatscreen on the forward bulkhead showed the Austrian alps slipping by underneath the plane. They reminded Greg of Greenland's coastline after the ice had melted, a range of lifeless rock, scarred and stained. He could see massive landslides, where the pine forests had died leaving the soil exposed to torrential rains. Thick white-water rivers snaked down every valley, tearing out more soil and flooding the pastures. Reforestation was progressing slowly, the ecological regeneration teams had to build protective shields around their plantations. From the air they showed as green rectangles sheltering in the lee of the mountains, fragile and precarious. But there were new hydropower dam projects everywhere, ribbons of deep blue water accumulating in the deeper gorges. Most of the electricity was sold to the kombinate cyber-factory precincts in Germany. Austria had little heavy industry of its own, although low taxes and loose genetic-engineering laws had attracted investment from the biotechnology companies after the Warming. Event Horizon had several research centres in the country, he knew, as well as its main clinic at Liezen. He'd spent some time there himself, recuperating after tracking down the people who squirted the virus into Philip Evans' NN core. It was where he had proposed to Eleanor.

He smiled at the memory, then turned back to his cybofax which was showing Baronski's data profile. Dmitri Baronski was sixty-seven, a Russian émigré, leaving his motherland when he was twenty-three as an exchange student and never going back. He'd spent ten years as a PR officer for the Tuolburz kombinate, only to be dismissed for creaming off too high a percentage on the girls and boys he was supposed to supply for visiting executives. After that there were some arrests for pimping, one for fencing stolen artwork. Then fifteen years ago he'd hit on the idea of providing escorts for the wealthy, going for quality rather than quantity. He gave his girls an education in deportment equal to a Swiss finishing school, and discreetly presented them to European society.

He ran about a dozen at any one time, and the snippets of information they provided from pillow talk earned him about three-quarters of a million Eurofrancs a year from the stock exchange. It could have been more, but he was surprisingly honest with the girls, giving them a percentage.

"Christ, will you look at this!" Suzi exclaimed.

Greg left Baronski's exploits to look over her shoulder. She was busy reviewing Charlotte Fielder's profile on her cybofax.

"What's up?" he asked.

"This girl has run up a medical bill that a hypochondriac millionaire would envy."

"She's ill?"

"Neurotic, more like. There ain't much of the original Charlotte Fielder left, the biochemistry she's carrying around! Her piss'd rake in a fortune on the street." She ran her index finger down the wafer's screen. "Get this, vaginal enlargement! What's she been bonking, King Kong? Follicle tint hormones. Submaxillary gland cachou emission adaptation. What the flick is that?"

"It's a biochemical treatment to alter her saliva composition," Rachel said. "Makes her breath smell sweet the whole time, even the morning after. Especially the morning after."

"Jesus wept. Bigger tits, yes, I can understand that; but this lot…"

Greg enjoyed her growing choler; Suzi didn't show her real feelings often enough, keeping them bottled up in the mistaken belief that remaining unperturbed was more professional. "What? You mean it's not natural?"

Rachel laughed.

Suzi started to snap at him, then grinned weakly. "All right. But I don't know why we're bothering looking for off-planet aliens. This girl isn't anywhere near human any more."

"It's just a tool of the trade, dear. You and Julia have bioware nodes, I have a gland, Fielder has beauty."

Suzi turned the display off, and tucked the wafer into her shellsuit's top pocket. "Yeah, maybe. But it's acid weird, wouldn't catch me doing it."

"I'd hope not," he muttered.

The Pegasus was over a large town, shedding speed.

"Is that Salzburg?" Greg called forward to Pearse Solomons.

"Yes, sir. And we've got landing clearance for the Prezda."

"Fine." They were losing height rapidly, the Pegasus pitching its nose up at a respectable angle. Outside the town, the ecological-regeneration teams had triumphed. Rivers had been given gene-tailored coral banks to halt erosion. They were lined by surge reservoirs, like small craters, to cope with the sudden floods inflicted by Europe's monsoon season. Valley floors were a lush green again, speckled with wild flowers; llamas and goats grazing peacefully. Dark green tracts of evergreen pines were rising up the side of the slopes once more. They were a gene-tailored variety, nitrogen-fixing to cope with the meagre soil, their roots splaying out like a cobweb, clinging to exposed rock with an ivy-derived grip.

He wondered how much it would cost to repair the whole of the country in this way, a Japanese water garden treatment.

The Prezda arcology had been built into a natural amphitheatre at the head of a valley, facing south. It was as if the rock had been ground down into a smooth curved surface and polished to a mirror finish. A cliff face of a hundred thousand silvered windows looked out down the valley, he could see the mountains and lush parkland reflected in them. The image wavered as the Pegasus drew closer, as though the windows were rippling.

Between the two silver arms of the residential section was a low dome housing the inevitable shopping mall and the business community, along with the leisure facilities. The cyber-factories were buried in the rock behind the apartments. Power for the city-in-a-building came from a combination of nearby hydroelectric dams and hot rock exchange generators, bore holes drilled ten kilometres down to tap the heat of the Earth's mantle.

"Ant city," Suzi said as the Pegasus headed in for a pad above the western arm.

"You live in a condominium," Greg retorted.

"Yeah, but I get out to work and play."

The Pegasus landed on the roof, and taxied on to a lift platform at the edge. They began to slide down the side of the silver wall to the hangar level.

"Does Event Horizon have a contact in Prezda security?" Greg asked the two security hardliners.

"Not on the payroll," Pearse Solomons said. "But there is a commercial interests liaison officer, he deals with cases like data fencing, or bolt-hole suspects. He'll allow us to tap a suspect's communications, mount a surveillance operation, that kind of thing. You want me to call him?"

"No. We'll keep him in reserve."

There was a swift rocking motion as the Pegasus rolled forwards into the hangar. Greg stood up and made his way to the front of the plane.

"You think Baronski is going to co-operate?" Suzi asked as she followed him.

"According to his profile he goes out of his way not to annoy the big boys. Besides, he's old, he's not going to blow his chances of a golden retirement over something like a client's identity, not when we start bludgeoning him with Julia's name."

The belly hatch opened, letting in a whine of machinery and the shouts of service crews.

"Malcolm, you come with us this time," Greg said.

The hangar took up the entire upper floor of the Prezda, nearly two hundred metres wide, curving away into the distance. Bright sunlight poured through its glass wall, turning the planes parked along the front into black silhouettes. It was noisy and hot. Gusts of dry wind flapped Greg's jacket as they made their way across the apron. Executive hypersonics and fifty-seater passenger jets were taxiing along the central strip, rolling on and off the lift platforms. Drone cargo trucks trundled around them, yellow lights flashing.

The back half of the hangar had been carved into living rock, the rear wall lined with offices, maintenance shops, and lounges. Biolum strips were used to beef up the fading sunlight.

Greg walked through the nearest lounge and called a lift. He held his cybofax up to the interface key in the wall beside it, requesting a data package of the Prezda's layout. "Baronski lives seven floors down from here, and off towards the central well," he said, reading from the wafer's screen.

Suzi pressed for the floor and the lift door shut.

Greg tried to get an impression from his intuition. But all he got was that same pressure of time slipping away.

The lift doors opened on to a broad well-lit corridor with two moving walkways going in opposite directions. It was deserted, the only noise a low-pitched rumble from the walkways. They stepped on to the walkway going towards the centre of the arcology. There were deep side corridors every fifty metres on the right-hand side, ending in a floor-to-ceiling window that looked out across the valley.

The eighth walkway section brought them to the central well. A shaft at the apex of the amphitheatre, seventy metres wide, zigzagged with escalators. It was twenty storeys deep, Greg guessed the roof must be the hangar above. Each floor had a circular balcony, two-thirds of which was lined with small shops and bistros, the front third a gently curved window. The rails of glass-cage lifts formed an inner ribcage.

It was a busy time, the tables in front of the windows were nearly all full, smartly uniformed waitresses bustling about. People were thronging the concourse and the balconies, filling the escalators. Teenagers hung out. Strands of music drifted up from various levels, played by licensed buskers. Greg could see a team of clowns working through the window tables two storeys below, children laughing in delight.

"Baronski is back this way," Greg said, and pointed back down the corridor. "Couple of doors." That was when the ordered his gland secretion, seeing a flash of black muscle-tissue jerking. His espersense unfurled, freeing his thoughts from the prison of the skull. Minds impinged on the boundary as it swept outwards, deluging him with snaps of emotion, of tedium and excitement, the tenderness of lovers, and frustration of office workers. One fragment of thought had a hard, single-minded purpose that was unique in the whirl of everyday life about him. He stopped and searched round, seeking it again, knowing from irksome memory what it spelt.

"Wait," he said.

Suzi almost bumped into him as he halted. "Now what?"

There was a flare of interest in the mind. And again, another one on the edge of perception, a couple of floors higher up.

"There's a surveillance operation here," Greg said. "I've got two people in range. Probably more outside."

Suzi shifted her bag. "Targeting Baronski, do you think?"

"Dunno. They're interested in us, though, the direction we're heading."

"What now?"

"Malcolm, there's one on the other side of the well, opposite this corridor, not moving. Male. See if you can spot him."

Malcolm Ramkartra turned slowly and leant back on the walkway, resting his elbows nonchalantly on the rail. "Think so. Bloke in a blue-grey shortsleeve sports shirt, late twenties, brown hair cut short. He's outside a greengrocers, reading a cybofax."

Greg looked down the corridor. A woman and her ten-year-old daughter were riding the walkway towards the well. Ordinary thought currents. There was no one else.

Two people in the well implied a sophisticated deal. They couldn't stay there all the time, which meant a rotation, others held in reserve. Probably an AV spy disk covering Baronski's door as well. More people to trail the old man if he went down the corridor to a lift.

He realized he'd subconsciously accepted that it was Baronski who was the surveillance target. Not that there'd been much conscious doubt. The chance of this being a coincidence was way too slim.

"OK, this is how we handle it. Malcolm, you walk down the corridor to the first lift, call it, and hold it. When you've got it, Suzi and I will try and get in to see Baronski. If the observers start thinking hostile thoughts, we'll run for it, if not, we go in. Meantime, you get Pearse to contact that security liaison officer, go through Victor Tyo if it'll add more weight. But I want to know if that's an authorized surveillance. This might just be a police drugs bust, or something."

"Bollocks," Suzi said.

"Yeah, all right, some hope. But we check anyway."

"Gotcha," said Malcolm. He stepped on to the walkway that took him back down the corridor.

"We're running into a lotta heavy-duty shit for what was supposed to be a simple little track-down," Suzi muttered. "The Monaco lift, now this."

Greg was watching Malcolm, who was talking urgently into his cybofax. "Yeah, Julia didn't think this through properly."

"How do you mean?"

"Why did the people who took that sample from the flower bother taking it in the first place? I mean if they knew what the flower was they wouldn't need to take a sample. If they didn't, then there'd be no reason to do it. The flower was a specific message from Royan to Julia, he knew she'd be curious about it because flowers are special to the two of them. But for anyone else, it would be meaningless, a beautiful girl carrying a token from a lover."

"If they knew she was a courier they would have ripped her baggage apart to find the message. Analysed everything. Maybe even used a psychic to sniff out what she was carrying. You said the flower was giving off freaky vibes."

"Could be," he admitted. "Especially if they knew she was carrying a warning about the aliens, a living example would be an obvious way of providing proof. But if they are working for the aliens, then why let a message about their existence get out at all? Why not snuff her?"

Suzi rubbed her forehead. "Christ, Greg. I'm just here to hardline for you, remember?"

"I don't expect answers. All I'm saying is that this is weirder than it looks."

"That's what I've just fucking told you!"

"I'm trying to think what kind of allies these aliens might have plugged in with. For a start, whoever it is has got to be rich enough to afford these kind of deals."

"A kombinate, finance house, someone like Julia; Christ, take your pick."

"There's no one else like Julia."

"Independently wealthy, arsehole."

"But why?"

"Like I said to Julia yesterday. Starship technology is worth a bundle. Antimatter drives, boron hydride fusion, high-velocity dust shields. Any one of those would be instant trillionairedom."

"Right." He was amused by her reaction. Suzi, a starship buff. He knew the English Interstellar Society sponsored regular conventions, covering topics from propulsion systems down to the practicality of pioneers setting up homesteads in alien biospheres. And there was a large chapter active in Peterborough, naturally, the heart of England's high-tech industry. The thought of Suzi attending didn't fit his world view.

The observer on the other side of the well emitted a burst of annoyance. He began to walk away from his position, thought currents feverishly active.

Looking the other way, Greg saw Malcolm Ramkartra was holding the lift. The hardliner gave Greg a short nod.

Two new minds moved into his perception range, that same steely intent as the first observer prominent amongst their thought currents.

"Bugger."

"What?" Suzi asked.

"The observation team have realized we've seen them. Come on."

At least Baronski was at home. Greg could sense his mind. Thought currents moving normally, their tension slacker than the people in the well, the way it always was with older people. Another mind close by was denser, brighter, filled with expectancy, a streak of suspense.

"He's got someone in there with him," Greg said. "One of his girls, at a guess." He pressed the call button. The suspicion and interest of the observers rose.

"Yes?" Baronski's voice asked from the grille.

"Dmitri Baronage? Could we come in, please? We'd like a word."

"I'm not seeing anyone today."

"It is important."

"No."

"Just a couple of questions, I won't take a minute."

"No, I said. If you don't go away, I shall call arcology security."

Greg sighed. "Baronski, unless you open this door right now, I'll come back with arcology security, and they'll smash it down for me. OK?"

"Who are you?"

Greg showed his Event Horizon security card to the key, there was a near invisible flash of red laser light. "I'm Greg Mandel. Now can I come in? After all, you're not on our shit list… yet."

"You're from Event Horizon?"

"Yeah, and one of your girls met with our boss in Monaco the other night. Are you getting my drift?"

"I… Yes, very well." The door lock clicked.

Baronski's lounge was huge, its colour scheme navy-blue and royal purple. The chairs and settee were sculpted to look like open sea shells. Antique furniture cluttered the wall, delicate tables holding various art treasures, a genuine samovar, an icon panel of the Virgin Mary that was dark with age, what looked suspiciously like a Fabergé egg, which Greg decided had to be a copy. The paintings were chosen for their erotica, old oils and modern flour sprays side by side. They were illuminated by biolum lamps in the shape of a tulip, grey smoked glass with elaborate gold-leaf curlicues. Vivaldi was playing quietly out of hidden speakers.

Suzi whistled softly as they walked in. Greg's suede desert boots sank into the pile carpet. He was conscious of his leather jacket again, Eleanor's disapproval.

Baronski and the girl were both in silk kimonos. There was a pile of glossy art books on a low coffee table in front of the settee. Two tall glasses full of crushed ice on Tuborg beer mats standing beside the open volumes.

The girl was black, about sixteen, with that same athlete's build that instantly reminded him of Charlotte Fielder. She was obviously going to be beautiful; her cheeks and nose were covered in blue dermal seal, but her features were so finely drawn it almost didn't matter. She stood beside the settee, perfectly composed, looking at him with wide liquid eyes, unafraid.

Baronski was backdropped by the Alps beyond the picture window, a thin man with a thin face, nothing near Greg's simple mental image of burly red-faced Russian grandfathers. He was dainty, birdlike, longish snow-white hair brushed back, resembling a plume. But stress had marred his face, leaving bruised circles round his eyes, creases across his cheeks. His mind had such an air of weariness that it evoked a strong sense of sympathy. Greg wanted to urge him to sit down.

"What exactly is it you require?" Baronski asked stiffly. "I'm sure you must be aware that I've never sought to infringe upon any of Event Horizon's activities. My girls have very clear instructions on this matter."

Greg clicked his fingers at the girl. "Best if you disappear."

She glanced at Baronski.

"Go along, Iol. I'll call you when we're finished."

She curtsied, and walked silently across the lounge to the hallway door.

Suzi watched her go. "Give her a lot of artistic tuition, do you?"

The door closed.

"Miss…?"

"Suzi."

Baronski appeared to chew something distasteful. "Indeed."

"I expect you know the routine," Greg said.

"Remind me," the old man said vaguely.

"Hard or soft. We don't leave without the data we came for. And I do have a gland, so we'll know if it is the right data. Clear enough?"

"My word, am I really that important? A gland, you say. You obviously cannot read my mind directly."

"I'm an empath; you lie, and I know about it instantly."

"I see. And suppose I were to say nothing?"

"Word association. I reel off a list of topics, and see which name your mind jumps at. But it's an effort, and it annoys me."

"So what would you do should you become annoyed, beat it out of me? I imagine I would feel a lot of pain at my age. The old bones aren't very strong now."

"No, I wouldn't lay a finger on you. That's what she's here for."

There as a sharp pulse of indignation from Suzi's mind, but she held her outward composure.

Baronski studied her impassive face for any sign of weakness, then sighed and sat carefully in the settee. "I suppose this day was inevitable, I just pushed it away to the back of my mind, always secretly hoping that I would be proved wrong. But I can honestly say that I never intended to upset Julia Evans. In a way she is an admirable woman, so many would have squandered what she has. Yes, admirable. You can see that I'm telling the truth, can't you?"

"I knew that before I came," Greg said.

"Yes. Well, what do you wish to know?"

"Charlotte Diane Fielder."

"My yes, a beautiful girl, very smart. I was proud of Charlotte. One of my triumphs. What has she done?"

"Where is she?"

"I genuinely don't know."

Greg frowned, concentrating. There was a strong trace of disappointment in Baronski's mind. "Do you know who she left the Newfields ball with?"

"It was supposed to be Jason Whitehurst. My problem is that I can't find out if she actually did or not. I haven't been able to contact her or Jason since."

"This Jason Whitehurst, is he about fourteen, fifteen?"

Baronski gave him a surprised look, and picked up one of the beer glasses from the table. "Good Lord no, Jason is in my age bracket. He has got a son, though, Fabian. Fabian is fifteen, perhaps you mean him."

"Could be." Greg pulled out his cybofax, and summoned up the memory of Charlotte and the boy leaving the El Harhari.

"Yes," Baronski said, studying the wafer's screen. "That is Fabian Whitehurst."

"And this?" Greg showed him the chauffeur.

"No. I don't know that man at all."

"OK, what does Jason Whitehurst do?"

"He's a trader, shifting cargo around the world. A lot of it is barter, buying products or raw material from countries that have no hard cash reserves, then swapping it for another commodity, and so on down the line until he's left with something he can dispose of for cash. There's quite an art to it, but Jason is a successful man."

"Said it'd be some rich bastard," Suzi said. "Money lifted her over the border, no need for a tekmerc deal."

"Yeah," Greg agreed. "Where does Jason Whitehurst live?"

Baronski took a sip from the glass. "On board his airyacht, the Colonel Maitland."

"What the fuck's an airyacht?" Suzi asked.

"A converted airship. Jason tends to the eccentric, you see. He bought it ten years ago, spends his whole time flying over all of us. I visited once, it has a certain elegant charm, but it's hardly the life for me."

Greg sat heavily in one of the chairs. Wringing information out of the old man was depressing him. It was psychological bullying. Dmitri Baronski was a man who took confidentiality seriously. He'd built his life on it. "Do you know where Whitehurst was flying to after Monaco?"

"Yes. That's why all the heartache. The Colonel Maitland was supposed to be flying straight to Odessa, so Jason told me. But there's been no trace of them, no answer to any of my calls. I tell myself it cannot be an accident. Airships are the safest way to travel; a punctured gasbag, or a broken spar, the worst that can happen is a gradual deflation. The Colonel Maitland would simply float to the ground. But it hasn't happened. Such an event would be on every channel newscast, rescue services all around the Mediterranean would be alerted by emergency beacons. Jason Whitehurst and his airyacht have simply vanished from the Earth. I don't like that. I always keep an eye on my girls, Mr. Mandel, I'm very stringent about the patrons I introduce them to. There are certain members of my charmed circle who develop, shall we say, unpleasant tastes and requirements. I won't have that, not for my girls."

"Very commendable. Did you try phoning Whitehurst's office?"

"He has several agents dotted about the globe, and yes I called some of them. It was the same answer each time. Jason Whitehurst is currently incommunicado."

Greg looked at Suzi, who shrugged indifferently.

"Julia and Victor won't have any trouble locating something that size," she said. "There can't be that many airships left flying."

"Yeah," Greg acknowledged. There was something faintly unsettling about the way the world lay exposed to Event Horizon. A single phone call and someone's credit record was instantly available; a request to the company operating the Civil Euroflight Agency's traffic control franchise, and Europe's complete air movement records would be squirted over to Peterborough for examination. If an Interpol investigator had requested the data, it would take hours or even days for the appropriate legal procedures to be enacted and release it. Companies and kombinates were developing into an extralegal force more potent than governments, but only in defence of their own interests. It was a creep back towards medievalism, he thought, when people had to petition their local baron for real action, when the king's justice was just a distant figurehead.

One law for the rich, another for the poor. Nothing ever really changed, not even in the data currency age. And why was he getting so cynical all of a sudden?

Baronski was sitting listlessly in the settee, face morbid. "Please tell me, what has Charlotte done?"

"She hasn't done anything herself," Greg said. "It looks like she just got caught up in something a lot bigger. We're not angry with her, OK? But we do need to talk to her. Urgently."

"Yes. I'll tell her if she gets in touch. Thank you, Mr. Mandel."

Greg stood up. There was a sharp twang from his intuition, an intimation that he was being sold short. He glanced sharply at Baronski, a shrunken figure lost in his own anxiety. The curse of intuition was its lack of clarity, he was never quite certain.

"Anything you want to ask?" he asked Suzi.

"Nah."

"OK. If Charlotte does get in touch with you, ask her to call us, please. It will save everyone an awful lot of trouble."

"I shall," Baronski said. He put his glass down, and picked up a gold cybofax. Greg squirted his number over.

"Well?" Suzi asked as they left the apartment.

"Dunno. I get the impression he's cheating us somehow."

"So why didn't you ask him about it?"

"Ask him what? Sorry, Dmitri, but what haven't you told us? Fat lot of use that would be. You know my empathy is only good for specifics."

"Yeah. Skinny little fart, wasn't he?"

"It's not a crime." Greg saw Malcolm Ramkartra was still waiting by the open door of the lift. His espersense stretched out again. There were four observers in the well now, and that was just the ones within range. "I think it's about time we found out a bit more about the opposition."

"Suits me."

Greg walked out into the centre of the corridor, and beckoned Malcolm Ramkartra.

"What did the liaison officer say?" he asked when the hardliner reached them.

"He didn't know the surveillance team were here. There's no police operation on this floor."

"No shit?" Suzi said.

"OK. Malcolm, I want to talk to one of the observers. We're going back to the well; I'll physically identify one and we'll work a pincer on him. You go round the balcony clockwise, Suzi and I will take anticlockwise. If he backs off down a corridor, so much the better, he'll be isolated for a while. If you reach him first, then immobilize him, but make sure he's still conscious. Don't worry about visibility, tell you, this deal is important, OK?"

"Yes, sir, Mr. Tyo explained that to us."

"Right, and the name's Greg."

Malcolm Ramkartra gave a quick smile, his thoughts tightening up. There wasn't any worry present, a true pro. Greg realized how little he knew about him, apart from the fact that he'd be the best. This deal was so bloody rushed.

"Let's go." They began to walk towards the well. "Two of them are sitting at a table in front of the window. The third is almost in the same place as the one Malcolm spotted earlier. The fourth is a woman, on the balcony above ours, hovering ten metres from the corridor on our left. So we'll take number three."

"How long do you need with him?" Malcolm Ramkartra asked.

"About a minute."

"Oh." This time there was a flutter of consternation in his thought currents.

"And no, I can't read your mind directly."

Suzi gave a wicked chuckle.

Two men stepped into the corridor from the well. The one in front had a pale face, wounded amber eyes, his ebony hair swept back and clinging to his skull. His suit was dark grey, baggy trousers and a black belt with a silver lion-head buckle. Everything about him shouted hardliner.

The other was an oriental, his hair in braids ending in tiny ringlets. He possessed a surly confidence bordering on egomania.

Suzi stopped dead.

The first man gave a start, and put his hand on the arm of his partner.

His mind was the perfect twin of Suzi's, Greg saw. The two of them flush with loathing and alarm, ricocheting back and forth, building.

"Suzi," said the man in the suit. "The oddest places. Yes?"

"Leol Reiger, still trailing way behind as per flicking usual."

"Depends what I'm after."

"Baronski," Suzi said firmly, and turned to Greg. "Was he?"

The initial confusion in Leol Reiger's had mind twisted to sharp alarm at the mention of Baronski's name.

"Yeah, he knows Baronski."

Leol Reiger's eyes never left Suzi. "Who's your friend, Suzi?" he asked softly.

"Never seen him before in my life."

"Chad," Leol Reiger said.

The younger oriental man grinned at Greg. "Hey, voodoo man, you do this?"

Greg was caught by surprise at the speed with which Chad's psi arose. Ordinary misty thought currents suddenly gleamed like chrome, rich with arrogant power. Chad's espersense unfurled, black daemon wings taking Greg into their implacable embrace.

The sensation was like a hot wet tongue slipping right through his temple, licking round his brain. Gone before he could harden his mind against it.

And he'd never even bothered to take the most elementary precaution. Jumped like a total novice. Chad must be loaded with sacs; themed neurohormones stored at critical sections through the brain, lifting the psi faculty from dormant to active like throwing a switch.

"Mr. Greg Mandel is a gland psychic," Chad said, his grin widening to mock.

"Really?" said Leol Reiger.

Greg could sense Suzi's annoyance, twined with a small thread of exasperation that she should be let down like this. He increased his gland's secretion, shame damping down as a cool anger surfaced in his thoughts; remembering the games the Brigade used to play in barracks. Squaddies' games, the kind played after days in combat, when life and dignity had been reduced to zero. The ones the Mindstar project directors had frowned upon, too dangerous for their valuable personnel to indulge in.

"And a Mindstar Brigade veteran as well," Chad went on. "A real top gun in his day. Like, a century ago."

"So what is this?" Leol Reiger asked. "You running a pensioner's outing, Suzi?"

"I'd hate to think you were treading on my turf, Leol. That'd piss me off real bad," Suzi growled back.

Greg tried to keep track of the observers' reactions. They were alert and interested by the confrontation. Nothing to do with Leol Reiger, then.

"Back off, bitch," said Leol Reiger. "And you," he flicked a finger at Malcolm Ramkartra, "keep your hand away from that shoulder holster. I'll chop you into fucking dogmeat, else. Got it?"

"That's enough," Greg said. "You two aren't going to see Baronski, he belongs to us now. Fuck off, the pair of you."

"Jesus, a geriatric control-freak," Leol Reiger sneered. "Chad, deal with him."

Greg thought of a knife, bright steel shimmering, needle tip pricking the skin on the bridge of Chad's nose.

Chad began to laugh, his thoughts flaring as the sacs discharged again and the neurohormone dose hit his bloodstream. "Gonna crack your mind open like an eggshell, war hero."

Greg tensed his mind behind the imaginary blade, and –

— reality flickered—

— and pushed. Chad's thoughts were too hard, too closely packed. The knife slithered across their congealed surface, denied an opening.

"Best you can do?" Chad asked.

"Yeah."

"Too bad."

"That's why I always bring my little friend along," Greg said, nodding at a point behind Chad.

Screams broke out in the well. People were pushing and shoving as they raced past the end of the corridor, terror in their faces. Display stands went crashing to the ground. One of the barrows was overturned, oranges and nectarines tumbling about across the tiled floor.

The beast was about the size of a lion, jet black, covered in an ice-smooth exoskeleton. Talons made skittering noises against the tiles as it padded round the corner into the corridor. Its head was a streamlined nightmare, eyes buried in deep recesses, razor fins on its crown, tapering reptilian muzzle.

Chad gaped at it, frozen in disbelief.

"Shit almighty," Suzi squawked in panic.

Leol Reiger stumbled a step backwards, his pale face shocked. The beast screeched, a metallic keen that threatened to shatter glass. Chad threw his hands over his ears, yelling in fright. The sound cut off.

"Kill," Greg said.

"No!" Chad wailed. He turned to run.

The beast leapt, forelimbs catching Chad's left shoulder, extended talons slashing. Blood squirted. Chad was flung into the walkway's handrail. He screamed at the pain as his mangled arm took the full weight of the impact. Tears squeezed out of his eyes. He doubled over, clamping his right hand over his left shoulder, blood bubbled through his fingers, staining his sleeve.

"Jesus Christ, call the fucker off."

Leol Reiger went for his weapon, hand fumbling inside his suit jacket. Malcolm Ramkartra's arm moved with a smooth fast piston motion, as if his body was working in accelerated time; his Tokarev pistol pressed against Leol Reiger's neck. "Don't," he whispered happily.

The beast turned, head swinging round to focus on Chad. Its long muzzle snapped shut with a crack like a rifle.

Chad whimpered, cowering, staggering backwards. "Please God, don't let it."

He was bowled over by the beast, his head smacking on to the tiles. The beast's powerful muzzle opened centimetres from his face, and it let out a long undulating howl. A narrow gap in the exoskeleton between its hindlegs split open, grotesque genitalia arose.

Chad's mouth shrieked soundlessly, and—

— reality flickered—

— and he puked.

There was no beast, no blood, no shredded arm. Chad was curled up on the floor, hands wrapped round his head, sobbing quietly. The stench of vomit and piss curled the air.

Leol Reiger was staring down at him an amazement. "What the fuck—" Amber eyes jerked up to fix Greg, betraying the wild flames of consternation that were burning in the mind.

"No expense spared, eh, Leol?" Suzi said. "You always have the best on your squad."

"Take him away," Greg told Leol Reiger in a dead voice. "And don't come back."

"Shit on you," Leol Reiger spat. He kicked Chad. "Up, you useless bastard. Get up."

Chad dropped his hands from his face, blinking tears from his eyes. He looked round in lost confusion. Saw Greg and flinched.

"Get up."

Chad grasped the walkway rail, breathing heavily, and hauled himself to his feet.

Greg could feel the first twinges of the neurohormone hangover scratching away behind his temple. With the effusion level he'd used they would soon accelerate into stabs of white-hot lightning crackling round the inside of his skull.

"Bugger, but I hate eidolonics," he muttered.

Leol Reiger and Chad turned the corner out into the well, Chad reeling like a drunk. Several shoppers watched their progress.

"I never knew you could do that," Suzi said.

Malcolm Ramkartra was looking at him with a studied expression, respectful, and more than a little disconcerted.

"Oh yeah," Greg said. "But it costs."

Each of the observers had become a whirlpool of excitement. One of them began to follow Leol Reiger.

"Who was that?" he asked Suzi.

"Leol fucking Reiger, real bundle of fun. Likes to think he's a premier-grade tekmerc, but he's just a jumped up hardliner with an attitude problem."

"I thought the two of you were trying to out-cool each other to death."

Suzi's face hardened. "Listen, he might be a prize prick, but if he's in on this deal there's serious trouble brewing."

"Yeah, he's not working with the observers for a start."

"Oh, bollocks. A third group involved." She sucked in air, letting it whistle through her teeth. "Greg, I don't like this."

"Tell you, me neither."

Leol Reiger and Chad sank out of his perception range. They had taken one of the glass cage lifts down the side of the well.

"What now?" Suzi asked.

"I still want to talk to one of those observers. But first I think we'd better make use of the small lead we've got."

"Are you going to warn Baronski?" Malcolm Ramkartra asked.

Greg thought for a moment. Leol Reiger's mind had been screaming for vengeance as he disappeared. "No. Reiger has gone to regroup, that's all. We've got a small breathing space. Baronski isn't our concern, if we try and safeguard him, Reiger will come after us, and I don't know what he's loaded with." He gave Suzi an enquiring glance.

"God knows," she said. "But he won't be travelling lightweight. He'll have hardline backup, and he'll have made sure it's enough to get him into Baronski's apartment."

"So scratch Baronski, maybe the observers will protect him when they see Reiger coming back. Then, maybe not. Our advantage is we know about Whitehurst, let's exploit that." Greg pulled his cybofax from his top pocket, and give it Julia's number. He squinted at the screen when she came on; she was sitting in the back seat of her Rolls. The real Julia. "How were the speeches?"

"Boring, I'll trade places with you next time."

"Deal. Listen, are you up to date?"

"Yes, her name's Charlotte Fielder, and you're going to see Baronski."

"Seen him. Trouble is, there's one very pissed off tekmerc here called Leol Reiger who wants to see him as well."

"Do you need assistance?"

"No, he's gone now. But Baronski is being watched, and not by Reiger. That means at least two other groups are on the same trail we are."

"Dear Lord. Who, Greg?"

"I don't know. I was hoping you could tell us."

Julia sucked her lower lip in concern. "No, sorry. I'll get my team on it."

"You do that. But at least we've got a lead on Fielder from Baronski. He told us that she's gone off with someone called Jason Whitehurst, a trader. Do you know him?"

"Jason? Yes, I know him, I even do business with him. He places some of my gear in Africa and the Far East; he runs some complex exchange deals, but he's reliable. I've met him at a few functions… Quite a nice old boy. You'd get on well with him, Greg, he's ex-military."

"No messing? Well, that boy who left the El Harhari with Charlotte Fielder was Jason Whitehurst's son, Fabian; so she's definitely with Whitehurst. The thing is, Baronski can't contact her. Apparently Whitehurst lives in an airship, and he's not answering calls. I need its co-ordinates."

"Jason's son?" Julia asked.

Greg picked up on the puzzlement in her voice. "Yeah."

"I don't think so, Greg, Jason's gay."

"Christ," Suzi muttered. "You said it, Greg, that old fart Baronski cheated you. How about we go back and find out who the kid really is?"

The neurohormone hangover was beginning to bite. He tried to concentrate. "Irrelevant; Charlotte left with that boy, and Baronski believed he was Jason Whitehurst's son. So whatever this Fabian character really is, he and Jason are operating together. And Jason is definitely plugged in somewhere down the line; why else did he pull his vanishing act? Julia, assemble a full profile on Jason Whitehurst for us, and find out where the bloody hell that airship is."

"OK, it's already underway."

"Fine, call me back when you have something." He tucked the cybofax back into his top pocket. "Right, let's go and lift one of those observers."

"I wonder who's paying Leol?" Suzi asked as they walked towards the well.

"One at a time, Suzi, please."

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

"Haunted?" Fabian's eyes widened in delight. "How can an asteroid be haunted?"

"I've no idea; it was only a rumour," Charlotte replied idly. She hugged one of the den's cushions. It was fun doing it on the cushions, there were lots of combinations they could be used in, imagination and gravity the only limits. None of her usual patrons could have coped with her inventiveness; even with their expensive clinic treatments joints creaked, muscles soon tired. But Fabian was more than capable, and becoming increasingly proficient under her tutelage. "How does anywhere get to be haunted?"

It was gloomy in the den, Fabian had turned the biolums off, leaving just the light from the fish tanks and the flat-screens to illuminate them. A black and white videoke scene they had recorded earlier was playing on the biggest flatscreen, showing Charlotte going through one of Charlie Chaplin's slapstick routines. Fabian had stolen a dinner jacket and trousers from his father's wardrobe for her to wear. They were baggy enough to complete the 'little tramp' image, but even after five goes she couldn't get the movements quite right. The holographic exoskeleton which choreographed her limb movements was inordinately difficult to follow. She was beginning to respect just how gymnastic Chaplin must have been.

"If something really terrible happens to a chap, like a murder or something, then his spirit is so heavy with grief that it lingers," Fabian said. "That's what I heard, anyway."

"Hmm, don't think there have been any murders in New London yet. They used to say that shooting stars were the souls of emperors ascending to heaven; perhaps they all migrated into the asteroid."

Fabian giggled. "Napoleon, Caesar, and Queen Victoria all spooking up the habitation cavern together, they'd have a right old time."

Charlotte counted that observation as quite a victory. The Fabian who'd leered at her during the Newfields ball would have launched into a lecture about how shooting stars were actually meteorites breaking apart in the atmosphere as they were coming down. So, stupid, how could they be spirits going up?

She wanted Fabian on her side, not that she had any choice when it came to allies. However, she did have some considerable advantages. He was a fifteen-year-old sex maniac, and completely in love with her. On top of that, he was fascinated with space. And she could satisfy each desire. Got him by the heart, balls, and mind. Poor old Fabian.

"Queen Victoria?" Charlotte enquired.

"Absolutely, she was empress over the biggest empire there ever was."

"Oh, yes. I think we'd better scrap that idea, then. She would be pretty distinctive even as a ghost. The Celestials couldn't mistake her."

"Celestials?" Fabian rolled over onto his belly, resting his chin on his hands. He flipped his hair aside. "Who's that? Go on, tell me. You know you will."

"All right. But you're not to tell anyone else. No showing off to your party friends that you know something they don't."

"Promise. Really, Charlotte, I do."

"All right. The Celestial Apostles are a group of about two hundred people who live up in New London without official clearance."

"You mean like tekmercs?"

"No, not at all like tekmercs. Their name is a bit of a cover-all for all the illegals up there these days. But the original Celestial Apostles were founded as a religious community. From what I could understand they're waiting for something like the Second Coming."

"Why can't they wait for it on Earth?"

"Revelation, chapter four, verse one: there is a door which opens into Heaven—presumably New London."

"Oh, crikey!" Fabian whined in disgust. "All the religious nuts always quote Revelation to back up their visions. It's pure junk, just like Nostradamus. You can read anything you want into it if you're stupid enough."

"I know. Convenient, isn't it?" She flashed him a bright smile. "Anyway, chapter four goes on to say: "Come up hither, and I will show thee things which must be hereafter." Which is why the Celestials chose to stay in New London, because that's where they'll see whatever it is that's coming. It does have a kind of internal logic."

"I suppose so."

"What started off as a fringe religious movement attracted more people when they realized it was possible to stay up there without Event Horizon's permission; the idealists who really believe in space, the old High Frontier dream. Construction workers mainly, ones whose contract with Event Horizon ran out after the main section of the colony was finished. A whole host of oddballs threw in with them, from research professors right down to maintenance engineers who'd been fired for negligence. All of them determined not to be flung out of what they see as the human race's greatest hope. So the Celestial Apostles preach two kinds of salvation now. Both wings of the movement expect New London to be a fulcrum in human events. I think they may be right, too, the technological Celestials. There are another four asteroid-capture missions in progress; it's the way the future's going. One day there could be hundreds of inhabited asteroids in orbit around Earth, and think how that kind of industrial capacity would boost the global economy."

"But how could these Celestials stay up there if their contracts ran out? I thought only active workers were allowed to live in New London."

"How would you find them, Fabian? There are fifteen thousand people living and working in New London, plus another four or five thousand tourists at any one time. How can you spot two hundred illegals in that crowd? Especially as there's only about seventy police officers, with maybe twice that many Event Horizon security staff. It would be a fulltime job for the lot of them. And the Celestials hide good, Fabian. New London's habitat chamber, Hyde Cavern, has a surface area of twenty-three square kilometres, then there's the tunnels, hundreds of kilometres of them, and natural caves, fissures in the rock that Event Horizon has never mapped out."

Fabian's expression was remote, junky eyes gazing at her. "They live in caves?"

"Yes, most of them, or the unused apartments."

"How come you know all this?" he asked suspiciously.

"I met a couple of them. They try and get round as many tourists as possible, asking us to join. They were very serious, almost evangelical. Everyone's welcome, they said. Not my cup of tea."

"Crikey, you mean they're recruiting more people to join them?"

"Yes."

"But you said there was over two hundred Celestials already. They'd never be able to buy food for that many, not in a closed environment. Besides, the banks would burn their cards. What do they eat?"

Charlotte laughed. "Whatever they want. The only plant you can't eat in Hyde Cavern is the grass, the rest is all fruit and vegetable, every type you can name. A vegetarian's paradise. It looks spectacular, too. Most of the plants were gene-tailored, and the New London Civil Council insisted they were given decent flowers." She drew a deep breath, remembering. "And the scents! Fabian, there's nowhere on Earth that smells so fresh."

He deflated in frustration. "Bloody hell, I want to go there."

She leant over and kissed the nape of his neck. "I'm sorry, Fabian. I didn't mean to make you jealous."

"I'm not. It's just… I wish Father would trust me more."

"He's a busy man right now." She moved her lips on to his spine, tasting warm saltiness. His downy hair brushing against her cheek. "And New London is going to be there for a long, long time."

"Oh, Father's always busy."

"He told me he'd got some very important contracts to tie up this week."

"Crikey, you're not kidding. I'm not even allowed to use my terminal's datalink to the communication platforms. How am I supposed to get hold of the latest VR games, and the new videoke releases?"

Charlotte stopped her featherlight kisses halfway down Fabian's back. She had been depending on him to provide her with a communication circuit to Baronski. Jason Whitehurst seemed to have thought of that too. God damn the man! "Isn't that unusual?"

"I'll say so. There isn't a single satellite uplink free. I don't know what he can do with all the data that's being squirted on board. All of our cargo agents are plugged into the company management processor cores. He must be selling off an entire country."

"Hey, can you see what they're downloading with all this gear of yours?" She made it come out casually, an impulse.

Fabian twisted his head to look back over his shoulder at her. "Well, yes, I suppose I could. Technically, I mean. My gear could handle it." He looked straight ahead again. "I never have though."

She started kissing his spine again. "It might be fun."

"Father tells me everything about the business."

"Everything?"

"Think so." There were shades of defensiveness and doubt jumbled together in his voice.

Charlotte reached his buttocks. "Turn over, Fabian."

Charlotte pulled on a broad white cotton halter top, and a pair of running shorts. They were tight, making her look as if she was about to burst out of them. Partly clothed always excited men more than being naked.

Fabian watched her getting dressed, wearing the serious face of someone at prayer. "You're so beautiful."

She knelt down and put her hand under her chin. "You keep saying that."

"Because you are."

"And you're very chivalrous."

He flipped his hair aside. "Just saying what I think. I can do that, can't I?"

"The girls at Cambridge are going to go wild over you. Rich, young, clever, handsome, and a real gentleman; and that's before you take your clothes off."

Fabian pulled away, staring at a science fiction saga on one of the flatscreens; wedge-shaped fighter-spaceplanes dog-fighting in the rings of a gas-giant planet. "I don't want any other girls," he said pertly. "I've got you."

She cupped his ears, and gently bent forward to kiss him. He had listened devoutly to everything she'd told him, and remembered it all. If only he wasn't so young, or she wasn't so bloody old. One of the fighters exploded in a brilliant concussion of white and blue flames, dousing them in a tide of phosphor radiance.

"There," she said as the explosion shrank. "See what kind of effect you have."

"I love you, Charlotte."

She gave his nose a quick kiss. "Have you ever skinnydipped in an ice-cold mountain tarn while there's a full moon in the sky?"

"No. Never."

"We'll try it tonight, then. I don't know about the moon and the ice, but the pool's there waiting."

"Yes!" His head swivelled about, taking in the terminals and his miscellaneous 'ware modules, suddenly very determined. "I'm going to see what Father's doing. He's got some pretty strange contacts, you know, for business, for making sure he gets delivery contracts and things. But he's never done anything like this before." He tugged his outsize Superman T-shirt out from under some cushions, and fought his way into it.

"Oh, well, I'm already out of my depth," Charlotte said. "I can never even balance my card accounts. I'll let you get on with it."

"Right," he mumbled. Multicoloured graphics were already rising in the cubes of the terminal he was operating.

She arranged the cushions in a loose nest, slumping into a beanbag at the bottom. Her cybofax displayed the London Times; the headline article was on the upcoming Welsh referendum.

She couldn't concentrate on it. A mirage of Fabian shimmered above the little screen. It wasn't as if she hadn't formed strong bonds with a patron before. One of her favourites had been eighty-eight, Emile Hirchaur, a French count. There had never been any sex involved; he simply enjoyed watching her walk and swim and ride: she'd been a surrogate body for him. And she was an attentive listener, he could be quite funny. He had chortled delightedly at his scandalized relatives when they came to visit his chateau. Life had to be made fun at his age, it would have been so utterly pointless otherwise. He treated his senescence like a second childhood. Another real gentleman. She'd cried horribly when he died.

And there had been younger, hotter lovers. Never anything serious, just physical, a relief from the feeble, tremulous sex of her patrons.

But the two had never been combined. Not that Fabian could be called a patron, not really. He didn't understand the rules, the obligations. And she couldn't blame him for that.

Why couldn't he be a snot-nosed brat she could hate as easy as breathing? Why a bright, shy, lonely boy? And most of all, why did he have to be cooped up on this bloody airship?

"Got it," Fabian called.

One of the wall-mounted flatscreens was showing an accountancy display, thick columns of green numbers moving from top to bottom in jittery stop-start sequences. "Oh, that's no use, hang on." He began to type quickly. A narrow red line appeared along the bottom of the flatscreen, gradually moving upwards; as the descending numbers reached it some of them would contract, then expand out as titles. "Decryption program," he said. The red line reached the top of the screen and stayed there.

Charlotte put down her cybofax, and studied the neatly tabulated accountancy display. It was a big company, probably a kombinate, no one else had a monthly cash flow of two billion Eurofrancs. There were hundreds of subsidiaries, all tied together.

Another flatscreen lit, showing the same sort of thing, a third.

"That's all kombinate finance," she said. "Look at the amount of money involved."

Fabian flipped his hair aside and looked at her cannily. "How would you know?"

"I can read, thank you, Fabian. And I've picked up enough money talk in my life."

He blushed. "Oh, yes, right."

She walked over to him, and slipped her arms round him, resting her chin on his shoulder. "I said I knew what it was, not that I could interpret it."

"Oh, well, it's just a confidential monthly performance review, nothing breathtaking."

"You mean your father shouldn't have them?"

"Anyone can get hold of them if they really want; that much data can't be kept hushed up. There are some commercial intelligence companies that actually produce nothing else but analyses of kombinates."

"So what's he doing with them?"

Fabian shrugged inside her arms, and tapped a finger on the terminal's cube. "One of our on-board lightware number crunchers is running a pattern-recognition program. I'd say he's probably running their finances through it, looking for money being spent on accumulating a stock of specific raw material, or invested in certain facilities."

Charlotte ran the flat of her hands lightly across his chest. "Why?"

"Placement. Father will have acquired some kind of rare cargo; and now he's searching for the best market." He cocked his head to one side as another set of monthly performance figures began to roll down the first screen. "You know, Charlotte, it must be a jolly important cargo for him to go to all this trouble."

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

As far as Suzi was concerned the deal was souring rapidly. Leol fucking Reiger turning up, that was serious bad news.

She had planned on meeting Reiger again, sure, when she was in body armour, lugging some heavy-duty weapons hardware around with her. Be interesting to see how much the shit smiled then.

He hadn't been smiling much when he'd backed off, him and that psychic tit, Chad. She was still trying to make sense of that; it was like waking from a dream she knew had been bad, but there was no straight memory of it. The only clue was the shape lurking behind her eyes, never fully visible, some dark animal, similar to a gene-tailored sentinel panther, except this one was bigger, hard, like a gargoyle that had come to life. Freaky.

Greg had given her a double shock, first that he could do that, second that he would. Fifteen years of fruit farming stripped away, dumping him back on Peterborough's hot streets as if he'd never been away. One mean hardliner.

She hadn't been so close to psychics when they'd clashed before. And one sample of that backwash was more than enough. It was too much like black sorcery.

She snatched a glance at Greg as the three of them walked back towards the well. He was battling against his gland headache, face sliding back into remorse again. The soft years had returned to cloud him. But the old Greg was still there, buried under all that civilization. A good thought to hold on to if events freewheeled much further downhill.

That was what got to her, rode her hard into a micro-storm of worry, the lack of professionalism about the deal. The urgency. Bugger Julia for hustling her into it, using Royan for emotional blackmail. She was mildly surprised she could still be twisted like this, an unrealized chink in her armour-plated heart. First Andria, now old friendships; might as well walk into Leol Reiger's bedroom stark bollock naked.

Sharp cold sunlight fell into the well at a severe angle. Busy preoccupied faces swarmed past, a termite conveyor belt. There was something about arcology dwellers, clannish, almost cyborgs with smile circuitry. She could pick one out of a stadium rock crowd. The Prezda's well was just their kind of turf, all the primness and carefully calculated nookishness of the small franchise shops. Hardly surprising that visitors tended to use the big domed shopping mall outside.

Greg walked right over to the balcony rail, gripping the smooth brass with both hands, gazing across the well. She followed his line.

"There are two observers left on this level now," Greg said. "One straight ahead. And I tell you, he's getting jumpy. Male, thirty, ginger beard, wearing grey trousers, a mint-green polo shirt, sunshade band."

She scanned the opposite side of the balcony. "Got him."

"Yes," Malcolm said.

"OK," said Greg. "Haul him in."

They turned right, walking round towards the window. Malcolm headed in the other direction.

"How you holding out?" she asked Greg.

"Bloody painful. I haven't used that much neurohormone for ten years, not since we had organized poaching teams invading the peninsula."

"What, lemon rustlers?" There was the most ridiculous image in her mind.

"No. Deer, as in does and stags. There's a good herd of them in Armley Wood now."

He sounded so serious. "Yeah, all right, Greg, spare me the juice. Point is, are you up to drilling this observer's brain?"

"Yeah. Don't fret yourself. I'll find out who hired him."

They were halfway towards the observer, walking past the window tables. The alps outside were brown wrinkled teeth, small caps of snow a gritty grey in colour. Suzi kept a surreptitious eye on the observer with the ginger beard ahead of them. He was beginning to drift towards the corridor entrance.

She activated her cybofax. "Malcolm?"

"Hearing you clear," the hardliner answered.

"OK, checking."

"Christ." Greg blurted. He took two fast steps to the balcony rail and leant over.

When she joined him she saw he was watching one of the glass cage lifts rising smoothly. It was on the other side of the well, a couple of floors below. An escalator interrupted her view. "Is it Leol?"

"Yep. And there's six others in there with him. Major hostiles."

The lift emerged from behind an escalator. She looked directly at Leol Reiger, who saw her at the same time. His arms moved.

"Shit!" Greg's hand slammed into her shoulder. As she fell she saw white spiderweb cracks blooming across the glass of the lift. The distinct warble of an electromagnetic rifle cut across the well's bustle. She landed painfully on her shoulder, Puma bag thumping into her side. Already rolling.

A stipple sheet of orange flame erupted across the front of the delicatessen behind her. Fucking explosive-tip projectiles! Heat washed over the back of her neck. The toughened-glass windows of the delicatessen simply disintegrated, long, lethal crystalline shards raining down over the food displays and floor. Screams burst out all around the balcony, mixed with the crescendo of smashing glass. Terrified people around her diving for cover.

Cold fury boiled up. Leol fucking Reiger, like a conditioned lab rat, see her and shoot, never mind there were hundreds of civilians about.

A high-pitched alarm started to shrill. There was a man on his knees in front of the shattered delicatessen, hands held in front of his face, one of the shards transfixing his wrist. Blood was squirting out of the wound. Two young women in identical stewardess suits were clinging to each other, the fabric of their uniforms punctured as if they'd been peppered with buckshot, each hole the centre of a spreading red stain.

Suzi rolled again, on to her chest, bringing her legs up, trainers scrabbling for purchase on the smooth tiles.

"Corridor!" Greg roared above the bedlam. Another volley of electromagnetic rifle fire ripped the air. The plastic sign along the top of the delicatessen's window flared orange, then ruptured, showering the nearby section of the balcony with fragments of plastic and small chunks of smoking concrete. A fresh round of screaming broke out.

"Tell Malcolm!" Greg shouted. Then he was running, stooping to keep his head below the level of the rail. Moving surprisingly fast.

"Malcolm," she yelled into the cybofax. "The corridor, get into the corridor!"

Running was easier for her, she didn't have to bend over as much as Greg. She began to catch him up. An escalator was mindlessly delivering prone bodies on to the balcony; frightened men, women and children, sobbing, holding their hands over their heads. As if that would do any good. She dodged round the outside of the logjam of petrified bodies, nearly tripping on outstretched legs.

More electromagnetic rifle fire poured out of the lift. They were guessing where she and Greg were now. Projectiles twanged and whined off concrete and the metal of the escalators, bursting into bright fleurets.

Twenty metres ahead of her, she saw the ginger-headed observer scurry into the corridor. Beyond him, Malcolm was pressed up against the balcony rail, the Tokarev pointing towards the lift railings. A dense ruby beam stabbed out of the pistol. She watched it strike the lift railings, just above the lift itself. There was a fantail plume of cherry-red sparks, a squirt of white molten metal. Suzi heard a grinding metallic shriek rising above the incessant alarm. It cut off with a crunch.

The shop windows behind Malcolm detonated into flame and scything fragments as the electromagnetic rifles opened fire on him. He hunched down low as glass daggers whirred through the air all around him. Streaks of blood appeared over his suit.

Suzi risked a glance over the balcony rail. The cage lift was stuck three metres below the balcony. She should have done that, flicked up the mechanism. Malcolm had done all right; security people normally played by the rules, but then, Malcolm was one of Victor's. Someone in the lift was swinging a rifle towards her. She ducked fast.

Greg had made it to the entrance of the corridor. He was looking helplessly at Malcolm, who was lying beside the balcony rail, his face screwed up in pain.

"Get him," Suzi yelled. She jerked the zip on her Puma bag, spilling the contents on to the floor. Saw the Browning. Grabbed it.

Greg was edging cautiously towards Malcolm. Suzi flicked the Browning to rapid pulse, and twisted fast, hands over the railing, taking aim.

There was no glass left in the lift. Leol Reiger's team were climbing through the open frame, dropping on to the balcony below. Two of them had already made it. They were helping a third who was spread-eagled on the outside of the lift. The remaining four in the lift were covering the balcony with their rifles. Couldn't see which was Leol.

She let off three maser pulses; moving the Browning in a slow arc, the way Greg had taught her to use beam weapons in some distant age. One of the figures inside the lift fell backwards, arms windmilling. A small circle of intense flame flared on the back of the man climbing down on to the balcony. She couldn't tell where the third pulse hit.

Just as she dived back under cover she saw the man clinging to the outside of the lift begin to fall. She scuttled along behind the balcony rail, wincing as the electromagnetic rifle projectiles chewed at the shop fronts.

People were moaning now, rather than screaming. Most of the wounds she could see looked superficial, clothing and skin cut by flying glass, smaller deeper fragmentation punctures.

Greg had one arm around Malcolm, half dragging him towards the corridor. The hardliner's feet were skating about on the tiles, as if he didn't have full control over them.

Suzi lifted the Browning over the balcony again. The tekmercs in the lift had hunched down in the bottom. There was no sign of the two on the balcony. She got off six pulses, holding the beam on the lift. Then she saw one of the tekmercs on the balcony raising his electromagnetic rifle above the railing. She crouched down and raced for the corridor, blazing projectiles chiselling long gouges into the wall above her.

Greg and Malcolm collapsed on to the walkway leading down into the safety of the corridor. Suzi landed on the ribbed metal segments a couple of metres behind them. She realized how heavily she was breathing, air sucked into her lungs in fast gulps.

"You OK?" Greg shouted back at her.

"Yeah." The walkway seemed to be crawling along, no speed at all. The corridor's curve was too gentle, she could still see the entrance into the well. The moans and whimpers were fading, but the alarm was still howling away. "How's Malcolm?"

"Functional," the security hardliner answered with a weak grin.

"Can you make out if Leol's team are coming after us?" she asked Greg.

"Not yet."

Malcolm drew his cybofax out of his top pocket and muttered something to it. He studied the display. "There's a SWAT squad on its way to the well, Prezda security think it's a lone psycho burner on the loose."

"Can you break in and tell them it's a tekmerc team?" Suzi asked.

"Yes."

"Do it; if the police go out there unprepared Leol's crazies will snuff the lot of them."

Malcolm spoke into the cybofax.

"How bad does this Reiger hate you?" Greg asked.

"Bad enough. Sodding mutual it is, too."

"Will he leave Baronski to come after you?"

"Doubt it. He's fucking insane, but not stupid. He knows he's got to get Baronski now, or he's blown his deal. I'll be around for a long time. We'll have our little chat later."

Greg climbed to his feet, helping Malcolm to stand. Suzi looked back; the well was out of sight. She stood, yelling at the sharp unexpected pain in her left leg. When she looked down, the shellsuit was torn around the knee. A clump of glass needles were embedded in the flesh, blood flowing freely. Now her senses were calming down she was aware of other lacerations, arms, back, buttocks. Little tingle points, hot and sticky.

"Jesus wept," she muttered.

They reached the end of the walkway. A group of people were milling about, numb and white faced as zombies. Some of them had cuts and nicks from the glass fragments. They looked balefully at Suzi. She realized the Browning was still in her hand, its red LED charge light winking steadily.

"Next set of lifts," Greg said impassively. Malcolm was leaning on him heavily, limping. The back of his jacket was sodden with blood.

Suzi followed the pair of them through the silent group on to the next walkway. She hated the accusations in their stares. Wanting to explain, it wasn't me. Blame Leol Reiger. No use.

"What next?" she asked. The alarm's cry was reduced to a distant whistle now.

Greg's eyes were unfocused. There was blood on his face, oozing from small cuts on his cheeks, a deep one right next to his eye.

They'd been lucky, she knew. If Leol had thought about it, planned it out instead of letting his instincts rule…

"Tactical retreat," Greg said. "None of us is in any fit state to do anything. I've lost track of the observer. And chasing after the one back in the well is a definite no. Besides, if you're right about Reiger, our lead over Fielder is getting narrower by the second. Bugger, but I wanted to know who else we were up against."

At the end of the walkway they took a lift up to the next floor, then switched. Malcolm slumped against the steel-panel wall, sucking down shallow breaths. Suzi was getting worried about the amount of blood he was losing. It was dripping steadily off his jacket, soaking the floor. He was muttering something in a slurred voice.

Greg tugged his cybofax out as the lift doors slid shut. "Rachel, we're in shaft A1 7, lift five. Bring the Pegasus as close to it as you can, and come and get us. It's hit the fan, OK?"

"On our way, Greg," Rachel's voice said out of the wafer.

Suzi's cybofax bleeped. She pulled it out of her top pocket with stiff fingers, knowing who it would be.

Leol Reiger's face filled the little screen. His corpse flesh was actually coloured, cheeks red. She could see one of Baronski's porno art paintings on the wall behind him.

"Two of my team, Suzi bitch. You snuffed two of them."

There was a woman's scream in the background, Suzi thought it might be Iol. Leol Reiger never paid it any attention.

"You fucking well brought them here, Leol. You ordered them to open fire when there were civilians around, you paranoid rat prick. They were sitting ducks in that lift. Your screw-up tactics. Your fault."

"I've got a deal to close right now, Suzi. But afterwards, you and I are going to say hello. First I'm gonna sprain your mind, show you a scene that'll make you scream; then I'm gonna snap your little kiddy body in two. You read me, bitch?"

"Bollocks. You're on the wrong side of this deal, Leol. I've got the fucking English Army behind me." She savoured the momentary flash of puzzlement on his face, then said, "Say hi to the SWAT squad for me, Leol," and flipped him off. The tremble in her legs was nothing to do with the glass fragments.

The lift opened into a passenger lounge, plastic chairs arranged in a zigzag pattern, hologram adverts of civil hypersonics slicing through clean sunny skies, departure information screens, a children's play area. An echoic tannoy voice was announcing a flight arrival. The first thing Suzi saw when the lift doors opened was Rachel and Pearse racing towards them, Tokarevs held ready. Waiting passengers scrambled out of the way.

Rachel's eyes widened in surprise when she saw them. "Lord hellfire, anything serious?"

"Malcolm's out, can't walk," Greg said.

"I got him," Pearse said. He pulled Malcolm's arms around over his chest, and lifted him piggyback style. Suzi didn't notice any drop in speed as he began to jog for the lounge door.

The Pegasus was taxiing towards the lounge as they came out into the hangar. Greg went up the belly-hatch stairs first, then Pearse, Suzi followed with Rachel bringing up the rear.

Malcolm had been lowered into one of the chairs at the front of the cabin. A couple of wall lockers were open, aluminium first aid cases on the floor. Pearse was easing his colleague's tattered soggy jacket off. "We'll have to cut the trousers," he said. It was all very tight and professional, she thought.

"Fine," Greg muttered, raiding the first aid kits for a diagnostic sensor and antiseptic sprays. He handed Pearse an infuser tube, which the hardliner pressed against Malcolm's neck

The belly hatch slid shut.

"Where to?" Rachel asked.

"Out," Suzi said. "Now. We should have some co-ordinates coming from Julia in a little while. But just get us out."

Rachel snatched up the handset.

Suzi started worrying about Leol Reiger's transport. Himself, a psychic, and at least six hardliners; whatever he'd arrived in it had to be big, and probably loaded with defence hardware, knowing Leol.

"Grab hold of something," Rachel called.

The flatscreen showed the Pegasus turning towards one of the lift platforms. Suzi could hear the compressors surging. With a rush of childish delight she knew what the pilot was going to do. She sank quickly into one of the chairs. Her knee was giving her hell.

There was a push of acceleration, and the Pegasus began its run for the platform. Hangar staff rushed to get clear. She felt the drop as they shot over the edge, her belly suddenly freefalling. The grassy valley floor with its railway lines and twin autobahns filled the flatscreen. Then they were bottoming out, swooping up again above the Prezda's dome.

"Is this plane fitted with an ECM system?" she asked.

Rachel looked up from the handset. "Yes."

"Tell the pilot to use it, and fly an evasion pattern through the mountains. We might be followed."

"Right."

"Suzi!" Greg called. "Take over from me, will you?"

She rose from the chair, the pain in her knee more acute. Malcolm was unconscious; Pearse had got his jacket and shirt off, and was spraying the wounds with antiseptic. The clear oily liquid mixed with blood, forming runnels across Malcolm's ribs, splashing on the chair fabric.

Suzi checked the data the diagnostic was displaying on its screen. Her guess about the blood had been right, he was losing too much. She found a plasma bladder, and pulled out its bioware leech patch. The patch resembled a flattened snail, a hard carapace with a soft spongy underside, connected to the plasma bladder with a plastic tube. She held Malcolm's forearm and pressed the leech pad against his skin. There was a soft sucking sound as it adhered. The pattern of yellow and green LED on the bladder's pump changed as the leech patch inserted its needle probes into his blood vessels, then it began feeding plasma into him.

Greg sat down gingerly in one of the chairs, and gave Victor Tyo's number to his cybofax.

Suzi heard the security chief say, "Bloody hell, what happened to you?"

"Tell you, we're not the only people looking for Charlotte Fielder." He started to fill Victor in on the events in the Prezda.

Suzi began spraying dermal seal on Malcolm's lacerations; the foam sizzled as it touched the skin, rapidly solidifying into a pale blue membrane. She was continually bracing herself as the plane banked and rose. Malcolm's back had been badly slashed by the flying glass. She had to use flesh tape on the wider cuts. Pearse was working on his legs, using a small sensor pad to find any buried glass fragments.

"Hey," she said quietly. "He did all right, your mate. Stopped those tekmercs dead."

"Reason he was chosen," Pearse grunted.

"Yeah, right." Suzi heard Greg rounding up, and asked Rachel to finish for her. She limped back to where Greg was sitting. A glance at the bulkhead flatscreen showed a continual blur of rock

"You too?" Victor asked when Greg handed her the cybofax.

Suzi sat heavily in one of the chairs, grimacing. The hand she was holding the cybofax with was filmed in dried blood, and not all of it was Malcolm's. "Yeah. But you should see the opposition."

"I know, Greg told me."

"Listen, Leol Reiger, I know him. He's a prize turd, but the bastard's good."

"I'm reviewing his profile now, Suzi. But I was aware of the name. Have you got any idea who employed him, any rumours?"

"Nope, sorry. Gave me a fuck of a shock seeing him there." She stared at Victor's concerned young-seeming face, her instincts rebelling against confiding in him. Security man. But she had hardlined with him once, seventeen years ago, some weird case Greg was working on for Julia. It was just she hated opening herself to anyone. "Victor, there's this girl. Name's Andria Landon. She's in my apartment at the Soreyheath condominium; not a hardliner, not even tekmerc. Means she can't look out for herself. So if Leol Reiger wants to hit me, she's the obvious choice. You got a safehouse she can stay at till I get back?"

"No problem, I'm dispatching a couple of my people, they'll have her out of there in twenty minutes." He said it all crisp and efficient, which she figured was his way of not showing surprise.

"They've got to be good, Victor."

He was looking at something off-screen, typing. "They will be. Call her now and tell her they're coming: Howard Lovell, and Katie Sansom. Got the names?"

"Yeah. Thanks, Victor."

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Victor came down out of the Pegasus on to Wilholm Manor's lawn. He was greeted by a rich scent of honeysuckle in the moist air. The sprinklers had been on, drenching the lawns, keeping the grass lush and green. His shoes were swiftly coated in the artificial dew.

The Manor in front of him was a long classical grey-stone building, three stories high. It dated back to the eighteenth century, although it had undergone considerable modernization and refurbishment over the years. The last major overhaul had come when Julia and Philip Evans bought it, right after PSP fell, ousting the communal farmers and virtually gutting the interior before returning it to an opulence of a bygone age.

Wilholm estate was a rare enclave of gracious living, Victor always thought, out of sync with the present and all its digital bustle. A true English country house, basking in an eternal Indian summer. Birds always singing, flowers always in bloom. Time slowed down here.

Rick Parnell trotted down the stairs out of the executive hypersonic's belly hatch, carrying his suit jacket over his shoulder. When he was clear of the plane he turned a full circle, gawping at the grounds like an overawed tourist. "Bloody hell, you mean somebody actually lives here? It looks like a theme park."

"It's your boss who lives here, just remember," Victor said.

Rick Parnell was staring at the trout lake at the bottom of the gardens; now the hypersonic's compressors had wound down the noise of the waterfall on the far side was clearly audible. Beyond the dark water was a dense stretch of woodland. The Chinese yew and virginciana trees were draped in a lacework of dark green ivy and clematis vines, clusters of plate-sized red and lilac flowers dangling. They had survived the spring hurricanes again, the few trunks that had keeled over adding to the rustic authenticity of the spinney. It was hard to believe that the grounds were only eighteen years old.

Paths crisscrossed the lawn, fenced by topiary drimys and japonicas, elaborate cockerels, dogs, bears, concentric spheres, and one giant pair of shears. A wide lily pond had a statue of Venus in the centre, shooting a fountain five metres into the air. Boxy orange drones crawled along the flower borders, digesting faded roses and forking out weeds.

Victor started off towards the manor, Rick Parnell following reluctantly. Daniella and Matthew were playing in the big outdoor pool. They'd got Brutus, their sheepdog, in with them. Victor watched Matthew slide down the water chute along one side, nearly landing on top of the excited animal. Qoi, their nanny, was sitting at a table on the patio behind the pool, reading her cybofax, and occasionally glancing up to check on her wayward charges.

Victor liked the children; Julia had brought them up well, deliberately ensuring they didn't have the hauteur of their contemporaries. She had almost gone too far in Matthew's case, the boy could be a bit of a pain at times. Though what he probably needed was a father. Daniella was growing up along similar lines to her mother, tall and slim, though her hair was darker, and not worn as long. Nice kid, occasionally very serious, as if she was suffering bouts of premature adulthood. She waved, smiling, and shouted something at him. He guessed it was an invitation to join them, but the barking dog made it hard to tell. He gave her an exaggerated shrug and walked into the drawing room through open French doors.

"Open house here, isn't it?" Rick said.

"Oh no, nothing like. If you weren't with me you wouldn't have made it off the bottom step of the Pegasus. Julia just doesn't like the security hardware to spoil the look of the place."

"I can believe that. What this place must have cost to build."

Victor opened the door. "She's entitled."

They came out into a big hall hung with oil paintings. Victor led the way up a broad curving stairway and on to the landing. Rick struggled into his jacket on the way up.

The door to Wilholm's study was solid teak, with a simple polished brass handle. Victor turned it and pushed. "Lion's den," he said with a grin.

Rick gave him a thanks-for-nothing glance, and walked in still adjusting his tie.

The room was oak panelled, its lead-glazed windows looking out over the Manor's rear lawns. There was a long oak table down the centre, with ten black wooden chairs along each side. Julia sat at the head, studying the data displayed in the cubes of an elaborate terminal in front of her.

Rick's greeting died unspoken. Victor was expecting it, a reaction he had seen a thousand times before. Julia in the flesh did that to people. She belonged on channel newscasts, in gossipcasts, there was even a university which included her management of Event Horizon as part of its business finance course. She wasn't real.

"Dr Rick Parnell," Victor said innocently. "Your SETI director."

Julia offered her hand. "Do sit down, though I have to say I don't quite understand why Victor brought you."

Victor pulled out a chair for himself, and sat on one side of Julia. "I brought him because Royan's been playing silly buggers with our memory cores. Tell her about the microbes, Rick."

Rick settled in the chair on the other side of Julia, his bulk filling it dangerously. Victor listened to him launch into an explanation of the Matoyaii probe, its unsubstantiated discovery in Jupiter's rings. Rick's usual bluster had vanished, replaced by a boyish eagerness.

Julia leaned back in her chair after he finished. "Now you've jogged my memory, I do remember hearing about the flu theory," she said slowly. "Years ago, probably when I was back at school. But why do you assume these microbes come from the stars? I would have thought Jupiter itself is a more obvious choice. The chemistry and the energy exists to support microbic life forms in its atmosphere, surely some spoors could have leaked out to the rings, maybe even riding up the Io flux-tube."

Victor watched the last of Rick's assurance crumple. Of course, an interstellar origin was so much easier for him to believe in, more important, more dramatic. It gave the whole SETI discipline that edge of certainty, respectability. The same reason people wanted to believe in flying saucers rather than swamp gas.

"The origin is irrelevant to our present situation," Victor said. "The point is, when he heard the microbes existed, or might exist, Royan had a probe built to investigate them."

Julia looked at him blankly, as if the words he'd spoken had come out wrong. "When?"

"He approached me about sixteen months ago," Rick said. "I expect that was because I suggested a probe to verify Matoyaii's findings as soon as you appointed me. It was turned down."

Julia's expression became cool, she didn't say anything. Rick swallowed and went on, "After Royan came to us, my office advised the design team on the kind of sensors required to locate the microbes."

"There's no record of this," Julia said. Her eyes were closed. Victor knew she was using her nodes, probably talking to her NN cores, running tracers through Event Horizon's memory cores. He had done it himself on the flight back from the Astronautics Institute, and drawn a complete blank. But if there were any bytes on the probe hidden in the company's memory cores, Julia would find them. He always thought it a considerable irony that the boss of Event Horizon was one of the greatest hotrods on the planet.

"I watched it being built," Rick said, a shade defensively. "It was assembled in Building One, you could actually see it from my office window."

"A Jupiter probe?" Julia asked. "Built in full view, and nobody said anything?"

"Best place to hide something," Victor said. "One more space project in an Institute that boots five thousand tonnes of hardware into orbit every week. Who'd notice, who'd even care?"

"Mr. Tyo is quite right," Rick said. "Unmanned planetary exploration isn't of much interest to Institute personnel. Not since the Mars and Mercury landings. There was nothing special about Kiley, the components were all standard apart from the microbe detection sensors and sampling waldos."

"Kiley?" Julia asked.

"Yes. Royan chose the name. It's a kind of boomerang," Rick explained.

"A boomerang? You mean Kiley was a sample-return mission?"

"Yes."

"Has it returned?" she demanded.

"I couldn't tell you. That would depend on how long it stayed in orbit around Jupiter. But I will tell you this, it was built for speed. The probe itself only massed about two tonnes, the propulsion section came in at over forty tonnes. It filled a Clarke-class spaceplane payload bay. There were five stages, throwaway reaction-mass tanks and gigaconductor cells. That raised a few eyebrows at the Institute. Whoever heard of throwing away giga-conductor cells? Royan was certainly in a hurry for it to get on Jupiter."

The corner of Julia's mouth turned down. "Nothing new in that, he was always in a hurry. So how long would it take to get there?"

"Launched at an optimal conjunction, ten weeks," Rick said.

"And presumably the same time to return?"

"Yes, possibly a week or so less. The Sun's gravity field would accelerate it, you see."

"Do you know when it was launched?"

"Not to the day, no. But Kiley was rolled out of Building One eight months ago, last November."

Julia gave him a long hard look, holding her body immobile.

Victor knew her mood well enough, contemplative, but Rick was visibly wilting under such a direct contact.

"Did he ever say why he was so keen to examine these microbes?" Victor asked. "What was so important about them?"

"No," Rick said. "He never confided in me. Sorry."

Victor glanced enquiringly at Julia.

"Fraid not," she shook her head fractionally.

"Care to guess?"

"I don't think I could. I'm beginning to realize how little of him I ever did know."

Rick cleared his throat cautiously. "Er, are we, the Institute, that is, in trouble for assembling the probe? Royan did have all the funding clearance, and we knew he's your husband—" He broke off miserably.

Julia favoured him with a thin grin. "Oh, yes, he's mine all right. And no, I don't hold the Institute to blame. Royan has the authority to use whatever Event Horizon facility he wishes to."

"Even if he can't be bothered to tell us," Victor said. It came out with more feeling than he intended, and Julia registered a flicker of pain. Julia's choice had always baffled him, although he and Royan had always been careful never to show any animosity towards each other. If anything, they'd always been scrupulously polite, to the point of excess, it became a ritual. Perhaps the mistrust he felt was just a security man's instinct. But he always considered Royan a flaw in Julia's otherwise meticulous life; it was always her devotion, her money. All Royan had brought with him were his hotrod programs. Love was never reasonable.

"Something I'd like to ask," Victor said, evading Julia's critical eye. "Seeing as how I don't believe in coincidence: Royan builds a Jupiter probe to investigate alien life, then he turns up warning us about alien life. Would it make sense for our aliens to use Jupiter as a base?"

"You mean, could their ship be in orbit around Jupiter?" Julia asked.

"Just an idea," Victor said. It was one he'd had on the flight back to Wilholm. He had wanted to pursue it with Rick, but then Greg had called and he wound up getting sidetracked with safeguarding Andria Landon.

"A good one," said Rick. "However advanced their technology, a starflight would deplete on-board resources, certainly on a slower-than-light ship. Jupiter would be an excellent resupply point. Minerals and metal in its ring, ice on Europa, He3 in its atmosphere."

"Can you at least run a search of Jupiter for us?" Victor asked.

"I keep telling you," Rick said irritably. "SETI is not a hardware-orientated department. All we have is an office, and access to the Institute's lightware cruncher. That's it, the total, what we are."

"Not any more," Julia said. "As of now, I am placing every deep-space sensor facility Event Horizon owns under the control of the SETI department." Her eyes went distant. "Your role will mainly be co-ordination, but then that's what you're used to. Tell the visible- and radio-astronomy departments what you require, I'll see you have the clearance by the time you get back to the Institute. You can also get the visible-astronomy staff to interpret any recent visual records of Jupiter. There's our own Galileo telescope, as well as the IAP's Aldrin. Victor, you handle any image purchases from the Aldrin. Go through some fronts, I don't want anyone to know Event Horizon is the end user, not at this stage."

"This is all very sudden," Rick said slowly. He kept glancing at Victor for confirmation of what was actually happening. "Funny, nothing like the contact scenarios we were prepared for. We always assumed it would be non-material contact, almost archaeological, digging through the electronic remains of a culture, signals broadcast before the human race had even learnt how to knap flints. Now this, a starship finally arrives, then it hides from us. Crazy."

"I'm sure you can cope," Julia said, there was a line of steel in her voice.

Rick jerked back out of his daydream. "Yes, of course, absolutely no problem."

"Good. You're searching for two things. Firstly, any sign of an alien starship. Secondly, this Kiley probe of Royan's. I want to know if it's still in Jupiter orbit, or if it's en route back to Earth. Got that?"

"Yes." Rick bobbed his head.

"There's a third option on Kiley," Victor reminded her. "The most likely, that it's already returned."

"How would we know?" Julia asked. "Royan's wiped or guarded any reference in the company memory cores. Even I can't find any traces," she added significantly.

"We do it the old-fashioned way. Ask people instead of machines," he said with a slow smile. Investigative techniques, cross-indexing and correlating data, had been a part of his original training. Unused for well over a decade, ever since security simply became a question of correct data retrieval. It would be good to actually use his brain on a problem again, satisfying, that and being out in the field for a change. "We can start with Rick here?"

"Me?" the startled SETI director asked.

"Yes."

"But I've told you everything I know about Kiley, every byte."

"Not quite. For a start, which bay the Kiley was assembled in?"

"F37, I think."

"Right, Julia would you ask your team to access the records for that bay, see if they can work out how Royan glitched the cores to hide what he's been doing?"

"Good idea," she said.

"In the mean time, Rick and I will get back to the Institute, start talking to the team that assembled Kiley, and more important, see if we can locate the spaceplane crew that launched it."

"What for?" Rick asked.

"Because if it has returned, their familiarity with the system would make them the logical choice to perform the recovery flight."

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Julia watched the study door close behind the two men. Rick Parnell had been more or less what she'd expected, except for his physical size; an intellectual, socially out of his depth. Wasn't royalty supposed to be able to put anyone at their ease? That was one trick she had never mastered. It always took three or four meetings with people before they started to relax around her. Apart from Victor, of course, she couldn't think of a time when Victor had been reticent around her. Always honest, that was Victor's big attraction. And loyal, which went far beyond professional integrity. Julia quickly put a brake on that stray thought.

You shouldn't be so dishonest with yourself, Juliet, her grandfather said gently.

She hadn't realized the NN cores were still plugged in.

I wasn't being dishonest, just practical.

Poor Juliet, so many problems, so many unknowns.

You're getting quite dismally sentimental in your old age.

Listen, my girl. I know this is immortality, but it's tasteless, odourless, and numb; and it isn't going to get any better. Maybe I should have gone for the angels and demons deal after all.

You don't have glands, Grandpa, you don't need the outside world.

No, but I like it.

Oh, all right, anything for peace and quiet.

Load OtherEyes. She felt the package squirt into one of her processor nodes, it was a fragment of her grandfather, a sub-personality, formatting her sensory impulses and relaying them back to his NN core. In effect, he was riding her nervous system, a tactual tourist.

Happy now? Julia asked. She gave him access to her sensorium about once a week; he always claimed he needed to receive the physical sensations to stop himself going insane. Julia doubted it, her two NN cores never made the same request, and her grandfather had skipped the last four months of both her pregnancies.

"Too bloody weird, Juliet," he had told her. "Remember this is a lad who grew up in the sixties—the Beatles, Apollo moonshots, and black and white telly—that's my stomping ground, simple times. Looking round this brain-wrecked world half of me thinks I'm in hell already."

That's better, thank you, Juliet.

His silent voice always sounded closer when OtherEyes was loaded, which was impossible. She stretched her arms, wriggling her fingers, then breathed in deeply.

Oh, terrific, that grand old smell of chilly conditioned air. Can't beat it. You live in a bloody spaceship, you do, girl.

She laughed. I'll take a walk out in the gardens for you later. Daniella and Matthew are in the pool, I could join them.

An eerie wisp of pride slithered through her brain at the mention of her children. Not hers, not the usual background of paternal pride.

They're good kids, they are, Juliet. My great-grandchildren. Even if they do keep taking Brutus into the pool.

Oh, not again! I've told Qoi not to let them.

There was a mental chuckle. Brutus doesn't harm anybody, it's not as if he's got fleas. Besides, I remember a little girl who would have stabled her horse in her bedroom if I'd let her.

If you're going to get all asinine maudlin, you can go back where you came from.

So cold and ruthless we are now, Juliet, how we've grown.

The communication channel widened to incorporate her two NN cores.

We've found Jason Whitehurst's airship, NN core one said. There was a brief impression of excitement. We didn't even have to go extralegal. Stratotransit PLC holds the Euro-flight Agency franchise for traffic control, and Event Horizon owns twelve per cent of Stratotransit, so our request for a memory squirt was perfectly legitimate.

Good, so where are they?

Stratotransit tracked the Colonel Maitland leaving Monaco and flying west across the Mediterranean, then out into the Atlantic over the Straits of Gibraltar. That's where radar coverage ends, so we've been relying on our Earth Resource platforms to track her from there.

One of the terminal cubes in front of her lit up. Julia recognized the Iberian peninsula and north-west Africa, both glowing in various shades of red. The sea was a light green.

You are seeing an enhanced infrared image, NN core one explained. The image expanded, centring on the Straits of Gibraltar. Julia could make out the drop flow, a tongue of emerald green that seemed to shimmer. A blue dot crept into the picture.

There they are. They crossed at night, which is significant. It was the only time they were in sight of land after leaving Monaco.

The image was expanding again, shifting west and south. The Colonel Maitland flew north of the Canaries, then out over the ocean.

The Colonel Maitland is currently seven hundred kilometres due west of the Cape Verde islands, and holding station, NN core one said. That's the absolute middle of nowhere. For the last ten hours, all it's done is compensated for the wind.

Julia stared at the blue dot, virtually equidistant from both landmasses, Africa and South America. You mean only someone with our resources could locate the Colonel Maitland right now?

Yes, for all its size, the damn thing is tiny on an oceanic scale. Unless you have access to the same Stratotransit and satellite data as we do, there's no way you could find it.

What about the usual communication links? she asked. Call Jason Whitehurst up and locate him via a transponder.

Jason is too wily for that; pulling transponder co-ordinates out of Intelsat is an ancient hotrod trick. There's no transponder response to his number.

You mean he's totally incommunicado?

Far from it; one of security's ELINT satellites has an orbit which passes close enough to scan the Colonel Maitland. We waited until the latest results were squirted over to us before telling you we'd found Jason. It turns out the Colonel Maitland is operating some kind of localized jammer.

Is that why we can't get any response from Charlotte Fielder's cybofax?

Could well be, if she's on board. But Jason Whitehurst certainly hasn't been struck dumb. He's using his own comsat to squirt data about among his cargo agents, and the bit rate is approaching maximum capacity. And the uplink to geosync orbit is a very tight beam; but the ELINT intercepted a portion while it was overhead. Jason Whitehurst is receiving a vast amount of kombinate finance reviews which his agents have bought from commercial intelligence companies.

Julia looked at the cube again, translating the blue dot into an airship drifting idly over the ocean. What had Victor said? No such thing as coincidence. And Greg said the same thing often enough.

Grandpa, do you notice the similarity here? I'm looking for this Charlotte Fielder girl, and I've also initiated a search through kombinate finance records because of the offers Mutizen and Clifford Jepson have made to me. Jason Whitehurst has got Charlotte Fielder, and what's he busy doing?

Spot on, Juliet. Notice something else as well?

What?

This atomic structuring technology cropped up more or less at the same time as Royan warned us about aliens. A technology that is so different it isn't even a breakthrough in the usual sense of the word, because nobody's even been working on it. A technology whose origins are bloody difficult to track down.

"Bugger," she said out loud. He was right. Which was precisely what made him so indispensable, not just his experience, but an alternative viewpoint.

We should've realized that, she said to her two NN cores.

Yes, was the curiously hollow answer. A fragment of resentment.

Right, let's make up for the lapse. One of you contact Peter Cavendish, tell him to start putting some pressure on Eduard Muller and Mutizen. Explain to them that we've had a counter-offer for a partnership in atomic structuring, and they'll have to put in a revised bid if they want Event Horizon as a partner. Then I want one of our Atlantic antenna platforms reprogrammed to plug into the Colonel Maitland's satellite circuits. I want to talk to Jason Whitehurst, get him to accept a visit from Greg and Suzi.

No problem, said NN core two. I'm redirecting one of the dish foci now.

Fine. What about Jason Whitehurst's profile?

Interesting. I can find no reference to Fabian Whitehurst's birth certificate in any public memory core. The birth was simply not registered. However, I've been accessing recent gossipcasts, the boy has been to several society parties over the last nine months.

The terminal's second cube came alive, showing her the image of a mid-teens boy with long, floppy dark hair. She could see some resemblance to Jason. The boy was a lively one, she thought, bright and sparky; years of trying to contain Matthew taught her the signs.

I wonder why Jason never mentioned him to me? she mused.

There was no need for him to tell you, her grandfather said. No reason why you should know.

Grandpa, if anyone I know has a child I'm given their age, school record, told they adore dogs and horses, and get shown their hologram, all within fifteen seconds. Anything that'll get them invited to play with Daniella and Matthew. And this Fabian looks about the same age as Daniella.

Jason Whitehurst isn't an arriviste.

Maybe not. But why isn't there a record of Fabian's birth?

Got me there, girl.

OK, I want a more detailed profile of Jason Whitehurst assembled, centred on his life sixteen, fifteen, and fourteen years ago. Finance, personal, the works, every byte. I don't know exactly how old this Fabian child is, but he's around that age. Find a trace of him. Look for unexplained payments to women, and possibly medical clinics as well. Given Jason's sexual orientation, I'd guess at an in vitro fertilization and a host mother.

You got it, Juliet.

I have established a link with the Colonel Maitland, NN core two said.

Jason Whitehurst appeared on the study's phone screen. He was sitting at some kind of desk, wearing a white shirt, open at the neck to reveal an MCC cravat. There was a window behind him, showing nothing by sky.

"Julia, this is a somewhat unexpected pleasure. I wasn't aware I was taking incoming calls."

"I know, Jason, and I apologize for interrupting your communication circuits like this, but we do need to talk."

"Certainly, I was going to call you today anyway."

Julia felt a trickle of relief in her mind. At least they weren't going to play the euphemisms game. She tried to gauge his mood, which wasn't easy over a phone vid. But he was definitely riding an up.

She thought for a moment, unsure of what to say. What exactly was she asking him for? Charlotte Fielder, or should there be something more?

"I'm looking for someone, a Miss Charlotte Fielder. Apparently she left the Newfields ball with your son, Fabian."

There was a slight tightening around Jason Whitehurst's mouth at the mention of Fabian. "She left with me, that is so."

Interesting, her grandfather said. The old bastard's cagey about the tyke.

Do you think I could use that? she asked.

Bloody hell, girl, don't you ever listen to me? Don't ever ask a question unless you already know the answer. How would you use the boy? Tell me that, hey?

Sorry, Grandpa. It was just that she was so used to negotiating from a position of strength. Spoilt.

"I'd like to talk to her, Jason."

"There are several people who would, my dear Julia. But I'm sure you and I can sort out a deal."

Bugger the man, her grandfather said. Juliet, you have got to get that Fielder girl. She's not something he can sell twice. If she knows where the flower came from, then she knows where the alien is, and quite possibly all that atomic structuring technology. He's going to ask for a ridiculous sum, but pay it. You can't afford not to.

Maybe, Grandpa, but we can certainly apply some pressure here.

Jason Whitehurst was regarding her with polite expectation.

"I'd like you to receive my representative," she told him. "He can be at the Colonel Maitland in an hour or so. And he's fully empowered to negotiate on my behalf."

"I hadn't anticipated face-to-face meetings, Julia. My intention is to hold an auction. How else could I ascertain her true worth?"

"Perhaps you don't appreciate just how high the stakes are in this instance, Jason. I don't think an open bidding session would be to your advantage. Acknowledging that you hold Fielder could prove dangerous. Someone uncovering the location of the Colonel Maitland was inevitable. If nothing else, the amount of effort I've expended in finding you ought to tell you how deep you're in. Of course, you know you can trust me not to exploit the knowledge. But there are some parties involved here who won't hold your physical safety in such high regard."

Jason Whitehurst pulled on his beard. "Just the one man?"

"Absolutely, his name's Greg Mandel, and he'll have an assistant with him. They'll arrive in an ordinary civil Pegasus. Your landing pad can accommodate that."

"Very well, Julia. I'll see him." He held up a warning finger. "Nothing more. If your financial offer proves acceptable, he can take Fielder with him when he leaves. If not, you will have to compete with your rivals on a level pitch."

Julia leant forwards, schooling her face into an earnest expression. "Thank you, Jason. But please take care, at least suspend your dealings with anyone else until after Greg Mandel arrives. I don't want them finding out where you are, you're too valuable to me right now."

"I appreciate the concern, Julia. Don't worry about me." His image blanked out.

Julia let out a heavy breath, staring round the study, not really seeing it. Whenever she did have to work at Wilholm, she always used the study. With its dark panelling, chilly stone mantelpiece, and sombre glass-cased books it had the right air of sobriety. The decisions taken in here…

Atta girl, Philip Evans said. Once Greg and Suzi get out to the Colonel Maitland, old Jason's going to find his options decreasing rapidly. You did exactly the right thing.

Thank you, Grandpa. He always seemed to know when she was down. Although the mix of tension and depression that was wiring up her muscles must have given him a strong clue.

She fed the desk terminal the code for a secure link to Greg's cybofax. When his face appeared there were some small cuts on his cheeks, a splash of blue dermal seal near one eye. He was trying to damp down a scowl.

She sucked in her lower lip. It wasn't supposed to be like this. Not Greg hardlining. She had promised Eleanor that, promised herself. All she wanted was Royan. "Dear Lord, are you all OK?" Victor had mentioned there had been trouble at the Prezda, a tekmerc called Reiger; but nothing about Greg being injured.

"Yeah, more or less. I don't know what sort of commendations Victor hands out, but Malcolm Ramkartra earned his today."

She just nodded meekly at the screen.

Greg seemed to relent. "I guess we were lucky, nothing a first aid kit can't patch up." He dropped his voice. "But you've gone and dumped Suzi straight into a blood vendetta. This Reiger bloke is a right fucking loony, and no messing. Two of his team were killed, and he blames Suzi for the whole shooting match. That's serious trouble, Julia. People like this, it ain't over till one of them's snuffed."

"Whatever she needs, Greg, she's got it, you know that."

"Yeah, but you know Suzi, she won't take it." His voice was still low, almost inaudible.

"Then Victor will just have get rid of Reiger for her," she heard herself saying.

"Right." He looked loaded up with remorse, like she felt.

"I've got you the co-ordinates of Jason Whitehurst's airship. And more, he's agreed to meet you and Suzi as my representatives."

"Hey, well done."

She ordered the terminal to squirt the co-ordinates over to the Pegasus. "Not entirely good news, Greg. When I called, he was getting ready to sell Charlotte Fielder to the highest bidder."

"Christ. Just how many groups are we playing against?"

"I don't know. But you can tell Suzi that crack of hers about acquiring starship technology is starting to look uncomfortably true. I've been getting some pretty strange offers from kombinates and other major-league players today, all concerning some radical technology. Our alien isn't entirely the big hush we thought it was. I'd say the first one to reach Royan is going to hit the technological jackpot. That's why you're experiencing all this heat."

"Great," he said sourly. "At least I know why I'm being shot at."

"I don't care what price Whitehurst puts on Fielder, Greg. But you've got to come back with her. The ident card we gave you is linked directly to the company's main account, so pay him whatever he asks and don't worry about it. Besides, I don't think he really understands what he's gone and got himself involved in. Unless that airship is armed like a destroyer, he's seriously underestimated how eager we all are to get our hands on Charlotte Fielder."

"OK, Julia, it's your money. And please try to find out who we're up against. If we know, we can watch them, find out what their moves are."

"I'll do what I can."

"OK, I'll call you after we get Fielder."

She ordered the phone off.

Access Security File: Reiger, Leol; Tekmerc. She closed her eyes and let the profile open out in her mind. Victor had assembled a surprisingly large amount of information on the tekmerc, including a psychological report. Greg had been right, Leol Reiger's mentality bordered on sociopathic.

That's a mean-looking bugger, Juliet. What're you planning on doing about him?

Leol Reiger's deals seemed to glow like blue neon in the formless grey mist of the node interface; the number of fatalities involved, those confirmed plus estimates. Forty-eight in the last nine years. Rumours of more, when he was just an ordinary hardliner, before he came to Victor's attention as a deal maker.

Exactly what I told Greg. Turn Victor loose on him. But that'll take time, for the moment I want to know who's hired him.

Assemble Personality Package.

She was back in the isolation of the 'ware universe, the blank depthless emptiness. Her processor nodes were integrating the package, following the formula Royan had devised; freezing and copying specific segments of her thought patterns, digitizing them.

In its compressed, dormant, state she could access the composite's multiple data planes, all neatly folded in on each other; sequences of memory, response logic, identity, motivation. They were slices of her mind, the crucial portions; subconscious inhibitions and emotional reticence rooted out, discarded. It was a streamlined edition of her own mentality.

Julia formulated her instructions carefully, loading them into the personality package. She withdrew, leaving herself alone with Leol Reiger's sleazy profile. Her eyes flicked open, reducing the profile to a smoky shadow overlaying the warm browns of the study.

A representation of the personality package was floating in one of the terminal's cubes, a dark green sphere with a multi-segmented surface, reminding her of an insect eye.

She began to type on the terminal, summoning up a finance transfer order, then entered Leol Reiger's Zurich bank account number, reading it direct from his profile.

You're giving Leol Reiger ten thousand Eurofrancs? her grandfather asked.

That's right. She watched the representation of the transfer order form in the cube, a translucent blue starfish. Easiest way I know of accessing the bank's mainframe. The arms of the starfish were closing around the personality package.

Bloody hell, I don't know what the world's coming to.

There was no sign of the intricately nicked green sphere; its surface had been covered by a smooth blue shell. Julia tested the assembled composite with a couple of security probe programs. Its integrity held.

You know a better way? she asked.

No. A mental sigh accompanied the admission.

Right, then. She tapped the download key, and the data composite squirted into Leol Reiger's Zurich bank.

Julia made a brief kissing motion after it. There was a nostalgic thrill in watching it go. She hadn't done any serious hotrodding for years. If only the conspiracy theorists knew. Julia Evans's hobby was criminal data piracy. They'd have a field day with that one.

She could have routed the request through Victor's division, put pressure on the bank to squirt over Leol Reiger's account data. Corporate entities did co-operate to a reasonable degree, especially with regard to tekmercs. But Zurich banks still clung to their independence. It would take a lot of pressure, and time.

A hiss of compressors penetrated the window. She turned to see the Pegasus carrying Victor Tyo and Dr Parnell lifting off the lawn. The scene looked vaguely surreal, like something out of a five-star resort advert; all it lacked was a couple of smiling models posing at a table by the pool, sipping something potent and cool.

Julia ran her hands through her hair, and turned back to the terminal. Time to find out just how widespread the knowledge of atomic structuring was. With at least two other groups chasing after Royan, she was starting to wonder exactly how many routes there were to the alien.

The terminal accessed Event Horizon's main communication network for here and she loaded a cut-off program at the junction. If anyone tried to backtrack her call the best they'd be able to come up with was English Telecom's Peterborough exchange. She entered the Gracious Services number.

There was no phone on the other end; England's hacker circuit had illegal catchment programs loaded into every exchange in the country. It pulled out her call and plugged her straight in.

There was a nervous flicker across her terminal's flatscreen, then it printed:

WELCOME TO GRACIOUS SERVICES.

WE AIM TO PLEASE

DATA FOUND, OR MONEY RETURNED.

NO ACCESS TOO BIG OR TOO SMALL.

JUST REMEMBER OUR CARDINAL RULE:

DO NOT ASK FOR CREDIT!!!

PLEASE ENTER YOUR HANDLE.

Julia thought for a moment; she hadn't actually used the circuit from this side before. Royan had signed her on as a novice hotrod when he was teaching her to write dark programs, saying the experience would do her good. She had run several burns against various companies and government departments, competing against the other hotrods for the client's money. It was a race, the one who pulled the data first cleaned up, minus the umpire's cut. Competition sharpened her mind to a considerable degree.

She grinned furtively and typed: MARIE ANTOINETTE.

GOOD AFTERNOON, MARIE ANTOINETTE YOUR

UMPIRE IS BLUEPRINCE. WHAT SERVICE DO YOU REQUIRE?

BULLETIN BOARD.

ALL RIGHT MARIE ANTOINETTE, THERE ARE ELEVEN

HOTRODS PLUGGED IN, AND EACH OF THEM HAS A

MEMORY CORE LOADED WITH BASEBORN BYTES. WHAT

DO YOU WANT TO KNOW?

ONE) HOW MANY COMPANIES ARE PLUGGED INTO ATOMIC STRUCTURING TECHNOLOGY?

TWO) ARE ANY OF THEM IN POSSESSION OF THE THEORY FOR CONSTRUCTING A NUCLEAR FORCE GENERATOR?

THREE) WHAT IS THE ORIGIN OF ATOMIC STRUCTURING TECHNOLOGY? I WILL ACCEPT ORIGIN RUMOURS IF HARD FACTS ARE UNAVAILABLE.

Her message stayed on the flatscreen for over a minute before it cleared.

I'M NOT QUITE SURE WHAT YOU WANT US FOR, MARIE ANTOINETTE, SIX HOTRODS HADN'T EVEN HEARD OF ATOMIC STRUCTURING. AND THOSE THAT DO SAY THEIR BYTES AREN'T GOING TO COME CHEAP. ATOMIC STRUCTURING IS THE BIGGEST ULTRA-HUSH TECHNOLOGY SINCE EVENT HORIZON CRACKED THE GIGACONDUCTOR.

"And don't I know it," she murmured, then typed: I UNDERSTAND BLUEPRINCE. DEAL FOR ME, PLEASE.

OK, THEY DONT HAVE MUCH, SO WHAT THEY'LL DO IS POOL WHAT THEY HAVE GOT. I'LL TABULATE FOR YOU, BUT IT'S A FLAT FEE SIXTY THOUSAND POUNDS NEW STERLING EACH, AND YOU TAKE THE RISK THAT THE DATA IS REPLICATED FIVE TIMES. ARE YOU STILL INTERESTED?

I'M INTERESTED.

YOU CHOSE YOURSELF A GOOD HANDLE, MARIE ANTOINETTE. PLEASE DEPOSIT THREE HUNDRED THOUSAND POUNDS NEW STERLING INTO TIZZAMUND BANK, ZURICH, ACCOUNT NUMBER WRU2384ASE.

You're not actually going to pay them, are you, Juliet? Her grandfather asked.

Her hands poised over the terminal keys. "Fraid so. I need to know how widespread this knowledge is. And I need to know quickly. This is the simplest way. Whatever information is floating around, the circuit will have plugged into it. They're very good, you know.

I wish I still had a bed. I wouldn't have bothered getting out of it this morning. Actually paying these criminals, bloody hell in my day they would have been rounded up and forced to hand the information over. Cattle prods wouldn't come amiss.

Julia giggled and authorized the credit transfer from one of her Cayman slush funds.

YOUR CREDIT IS STAGGERING, MARIE ANTOINETTE. I HOPE IT WAS WORTH IT. HERE'S YOUR BULLETIN:

THE FOLLOWING COMPANIES ARE NOW KNOWN TO POSSESS THE BEHAVIOURAL EQUATIONS OF THE STRONG NUCLEAR FORCE: DASTEIN, JOHNA THANHEWIT SEIMENS, BOEING, MUTIZEN, MITSUBISHI, SPARAVIZ, RENAULT GLOBECAST HONDA, GENERAL ELECTRIC, EVENT HORIZON, EMBRAER, SMB, MIKOYAN, AND ROCKWELL. IN ADDITION, THE DEFENCE MINISTRIES OF THE FOLLOWING COUNTRIES ARE ALSO IN POSSESSION OF THE BEHAVIOURAL EQUATIONS: AUSTRALIA, BRAZIL, CHINA, CANADA, ENGLAND, FRANCE, GERMANY, JAPAN, RUSSIA, USA, SOUTH AFRICA, AND TAIWAN. THE SENIOR STAFF OF ALL SEVEN MAJOR DEFENCE ALLIANCES HAVE NOW BEEN INFORMED OF THE EXISTENCE OF THE EQUATIONS, AND THEIR IMPLICATIONS.

Julia sat up in the chair, consternation acting like a static charge crawling over her skin. Dear Lord, can you read that, Grandpa?

Too bloody true I can read it, Juliet. What the hell do those prats in commercial intelligence think they're pissing about at? Are they on strike, for Christ's sake?

I don't know, she told him wearily. We never heard even a whisper, nothing. And why hasn't the English MOD been in contact with us?

AS TO THE ORIGIN OF THE ORIGINAL EQUATIONS:

TWO-THIRDS OF THE COMPANIES LISTED ARE KNOWN TO HAVE BEEN APPROACHED BY GLOBECAST. THEY WERE OFFERED A PARTNERSHIP IN THE MARKETING AND PRODUCTION OF ATOMIC STRUCTURING TECHNOLOGY IN RETURN FOR GLOBECAST PROVIDING THEM WITH THE GENERATOR THEORY. MOST OF THE SUBSEQUENT DEALS BEING STRUCK BETWEEN COMPANIES ARE CONCERNED WITH SHARING THE DEVELOPMENT COSTS OF SUCH A GENERATOR. THIS WOULD IMPLY THAT GLOBECAST IS IN SOLE POSSESSION OF THE THEORY WHICH WILL ALLOW CONSTRUCTION OF THE NUCLEAR FORCE GENERATOR. I HOPE THAT'S WHAT YOU WANTED TO SEE, MARIE ANTOINETTE.

HOW LONG HAS GLOBECAST BEEN OFFERING PARTNERSHIPS FOR? she typed.

THREE DAYS. THE FINAL BIDS ARE TO BE SUBMITTED WITHIN TWO DAYS, AND THE HIGHEST BID TO BE ANNOUNCED TWELVE HOURS LATER.

THANK YOU, BLUEPRINCE

PLEASURE'S ALL MINE. THE NEXT TIME YOU PLUG INTO THE CIRCUIT YOU ASK FOR ME, I'LL GET YOU THE BEST DEALS GOING. BLUEPRINCE SIGNING OFF.

The terminal screen reverted to its menu display. Julia focused on a spot just in front of the flatscreen, lifted out of time. She didn't even have to run the data through the logic matrix function of her processor nodes. Globecast was obviously being used as some kind of distribution agent, almost an auctioneer. Although it didn't have a monopoly, Mutizen proved that. Eduard Muller wouldn't have offered her a partnership unless he could produce the generator theory.

Two sources. Two aliens?

She let the real world claim her back. Her personality package had returned to the terminal. She scanned the read-out and laughed. It had squirted itself out of the bank's mainframe by transferring nine hundred thousand Eurofrancs from Leol Reiger's account back to Event Horizon's finance division. There was a total of fifty-seven Eurofrancs left in his account.

You have an evil mind, Juliet, even in its salami version.

And who did I inherit it from?

She began to read Reiger's account statement. The last deposit had been made two days ago, for two hundred and fifty thousand Eurofrancs. There was no name, just an account number for another Zurich bank, the Eienso.

We have a result from the memory core of bay F37, NN core one reported. There was a strange sense of confusion and high spirits in the tone. You'll want to access this.

Wait one, Julia said. She reprogrammed her personality package, and squirted it into the Eienso's mainframe. Go ahead.

There was a data package waiting in the manor's 'ware for her. Its guardian program was solid, no probe programs could break in.

Most of the files listed as stored in the assembly bay's memory core are fabrications, NN core one said. According to the Institute's administrative records, bay F37 was being used to assemble a fish breeding pen filter for New London during the time Kiley was being built. But when we opened a channel direct to the bay's core to access the suspect files, we found the package stored inside. It squirted directly into Wilholm's 'ware, knew all the third-level access codes.

Query identity? she shot at the quiescent package.

Request Snowy access, it replied.

"Royan." She said it out loud, but she couldn't hear her own voice. Sorry, Grandpa, I need the processor capacity.

Yeah, all right, he grumbled. But you still owe me a visit to the gardens, and a hug for each of the children.

I won't forget. Wipe OtherEyes. She felt him go, a spectre slipping out of her consciousness. His absence left her with a slight taste of regret in her mind. Initiate Processor Node One Data Isolation/Examination Procedure. Load Data Package.

The package squirted into her processor node, and the interfaces sealed, isolating it inside. She had written the data-bus guardian program herself, if anything tried to broach the barrier the processor would wipe instantly. Her three memory nodes contained a vast amount of confidential data, as well as indexing the personal recollections she treasured, she wasn't about to risk any kind of virus attack.

Open Integrity Monitored Link to Processor Node One.

It would mean a millisecond delay in communication while her second processor node analysed the package's output, searching the downloaded bytes for a Trojan program.

She ran a quick review of processor node one's management layout. The package had expanded to fill all the available capacity, but there had been no attempt to insinuate itself in the management routines.

Hello, Royan, she sent.

Snowy His smile filled her mind, flooding her synapses with warmth and longing, triggering a cascade of poignant associations. She sagged in the study's chair, sniffing hard.

He stood behind the smile, wearing the leather flying jacket she had bought for him. His arms lifted from his side in a gesture of helplessness, lips puckering up. The movement, like a lot of his mannerisms, had been copied from one of his physiotherapists who always shrugged like that when he asked how much longer he would have to stay in the clinic.

Well, here I am, trapped like a bug in amber, Royan said. You write good guardian programs.

I had the best teacher. I'm sorry I can't let you out. There are just so many unknowns about my current situation, I can't take the risk you are a Trojan. Not that you could do any real damage to my nodes, but I'd hate to lose the memories, and then there's the time it would take to write an antithesis to purge any virus.

You sound paranoid.

I don't know what your situation is, so I can't judge objectively.

Things getting bad, are they?

Yes. But I'm coping.

I wish I could help, but I've been in the assembly bay's memory core since April. No current data.

Why were you left in storage?

A fallback, a warning if anything went wrong. I presume something has, else you wouldn't have come looking.

I don't know. Wrong with what?

He smiled again, protectively. My darling Snowy. There's so much to show you. Here, come fly with me. He reached out with an open hand.

Impenetrable night folded about her, then the stars came out one by one. There was no horizon, when she looked down there was no ground. Drifting in space. Five slender silvery booms extended out from her, probing the vacuum.

These are the Kiley flight memories, Royan said. The approach phase. There, see?

In front of her was a bright orange-brown dot, its glow somehow malevolent. She could hear its cry over the radio bands, a crackling roar. Lonely, random.

A stillborn star weeping, Royan whispered reverently. Can you imagine what we have missed? Can you imagine the beauty of a double sunrise?

Kiley, it's back now isn't it? It came back.

Hush, Snowy. Watch, learn.

Jupiter grew, becoming a salmon-pink disc, distinct cloud-bands hovering on the edge of resolution. Moons expanded from dark stars to solid worlds, coloured grey and brown, mottled and streaked. New senses swept in, magnetic, particle, electromagnetic, overlaying the basic image with bolder shadings. Jupiter nestled at the centre of colossal energy storms. Pellucid petals of blue and pink light whorled protectively around the gas giant, the white halo of it's plasma torus, intangible sleet of ions blowing outward.

The electric gusts flowed around her, soothing her thoughts, lost in marvel.

What would our world be like, Snowy, if we could perceive it with these senses? How colourful and exciting.

Why did you come here? she asked. And why alone? I would have shared all this, I would have been a part of it with you.

Because it is I who was a part of you, Snowy. I have been since the day you rescued me. I guess I make a bad prince consort after all.

You had everything.

I had everything you gave me. This—Jupiter, Kiley—was my chance for the roles to be reversed.

To make it on your own?

Yes. To be your equal.

You always were.

No. Not really. With or without me, you would still have achieved what you have today.

You brought me the electron-compression data.

If not me, then your money would have found a way. It always does.

What did you hope to achieve? How would this space probe give you equality?

The microbes, Snowy. As soon as I heard of the Matoyaii results I knew they were genuine, that the sensor results weren't an aberration. They existed, I could feel it. Just like Greg and his intuition. They were real, alive, waiting for me. It was like being born again, I'd been given a purpose to live.

They were inside the orbit of Io now, Kiley sliding through the penumbra, falling in towards the gas giant. Perspective altered, Jupiter was definitely below now. Something so vast could never be overhead. Its curvature was flattening out, edges merging with distance, cloudscape expanding into an unending plane. if she looked up she could see Io; a volcano's mushroom fountain of sulphur just north of the equator belching upwards. A cold dragon flame cascading in glorious low gravity slow motion.

The stormband below Kiley was a pallid rust-yellow, ocean-sized elliptical cyclones and anti-cyclones of ammonium hydrosulfide grinding in conflict, buffeted by supersonic jetstreams. Clots of white cloud bloomed as whirlwind vortices sucked frozen ammonia crystals up from the hidden depths. They spilled into the churning cyclone walls like cream into coffee, diffusing and dispersing.

Then the terminator was ahead of them, a shadow straddling the nearly flat horizon. Firefly lights twinkled beyond.

Was I such a challenge to you? Julia asked sadly. I thought you were the one person in the world who saw me as me, as Snowy, not some plutocrat bitch. I was alive then, when you held me.

Your heritage is the challenge, the barrier. Not you. You, Snowy, you I love. Did you need to be told that?

I could give it all up. For you.

No, no, no.

No.

You are the one who is complete, Snowy. I envy you that. Me, I still have to find your peak And I can. I can.

Kiley glided into the umbra. It was night below, but not dark. Lightning twisted between the imperious cloud mountains, tattered dazzling streamers that illuminated thousands of square kilometres with each elemental discharge. Comets sank down gracefully amid the storms, rocky detritus from the rings sucked in by the monstrous gravity field, braked by the ionosphere, flaring purple, spitting a tail of, slowly dimming sparks.

Kiley began its deceleration burn, sending out a five-hundred-metre spear of plasma. The top of the atmosphere was only seventy-five kilometres below now. Julia could sense the massive flux currents seething through the thin fog of molecules, glowing red veins pulsing strongly.

The burn ended abruptly. The image juddered as explosive bolts fired. Empty spherical hydrogen tanks and lenticular giga-conductor cells separated, tumbling away. Small chemical thrusters fired, stabilizing the modules which remained. Kiley began its coast up to the rings.

Do you see now, Snowy? The silent savagery of this place, its hostility. Yet amid all this, there is life.

Kiley found the microbes?

Oh, yes.

Is that all it found?

How could there be more?

A spaceship, a starship.

No. Is that what you are dealing with, a starship? Your trouble.

I don't know, Royan, I really don't. I've got people working on it, Greg, Victor, Suzi.

The old team. That's nice. They're good, they'll find you an answer.

They need to find you, Royan. Where are you?

I don't know. How could I?

Then why were you left in storage? What are you here to warn me about?

Potential. The potential of the microbes. But I was so sure. I had it all worked out.

Show me.

The rock reminded her of Phobos. It had that same barren grey-yellow colour, a battered potato outline. Except it was much smaller, barely a hundred metres long, sixty wide. Kiley hovered beside it, optical sensor images degraded by the dry mist of ring particles. Wavering braids of dust motes and sulphur atoms shimmered in the raw sunlight, moving sluggishly.

Jupiter's crescent eclipsed the starfield a hundred and twenty thousand kilometres away. Even from this height, the dancing lights of the darkside were easily seen. Like Earth's cities, she thought, the idea momentarily distorting scale.

Kiley's close-range sensors were stirring, focusing on the rock. It had worn down over the aeons, its surface abraded by the gentle unceasing caress of dust. Impact craters and jagged fracture cliffs smoothed down to soft curves. One end was scarred by a white, splash-pattern of methane frost, tapering rays extending their grip over a third of its length.

Lasers swept the rock from end to end, building a cartographic profile within the on-board lightware processors.

Cold gas precision positioning thrusters fired, moving the probe closer in centimetre increments. When it hovered a metre above the rock, microfocus photon amps telescoped out of their cruise phase sheaths, aligning themselves on the surface.

The image changed, a lunar mare strewn with boulders; Julia knew she was seeing the dust motes sticking to the rock. Kiley's lightware processors began to run a spectrographic analysis program. She watched the image alter, as if it had been overlaid with a grid of square lenses. Data began to flow back into the probe's lightware as the blurred squares were examined one by one.

Kiley's photon amps quartered a square metre of the rock's surface a millimetre at a time, then it fired its cold gas thrusters and moved to the next section. Again. Again.

The fourth time, one of the photon-amp grid squares flared red. The eight surrounding ones were immediately reviewed by the spectrographic program. It registered carbon, hydrogen, and various trace minerals.

The block of squares expanded to fill her vision, regaining their focus.

There, Royan said in awe. In the middle of a desolation more profound than Gomorrah: life itself. And what life.

The photon-amp focus was at its ultimate resolution, centred on a clump of microbes. They looked like a smear of caviare, tiny spheres, tar-black, sticky; they glistened with a dull pink light thrown by Jupiter's albedo.

Call it Jesus, call it Gaia, call it Allah, said Royan. Whatever name you wish to bestow, but don't tell me God doesn't exist. The true miracle of this universe is life itself. Left to fate, to random chance groupings of amino acids in the primal soup, it could never happen. Never! We may evolve as Darwin said, man may not have been made in God's image; but that spark, that very first spark of origin from which we grew, that was not nature. That was a blessing. We are not a side product of an uncaring cosmos, a chemical joke.

You're preaching to the converted, remember? She wasn't surprised by his outburst, nor its intensity; both of them had a strong quasi-religious background; her at the First Salvation Church, him with the Trinities, it was another thread in their bond.

Kiley's sampling waldo slid out, micromanipulator claws closing around the clump of microbes. It retracted and placed them delicately inside the probe's collection flask.

Cold gas thrusters fired again, backing Kiley away from the rock. The lightware processors began to check over the propulsion systems.

You did this for me? Julia asked.

I did. Do you see now, Snowy? Do you see the why of it?

Kiley's chemical thrusters fired for a long time, lifting it out of the ring's inclination, into free space where the plasma drive could be used. Star trackers locked on to their target constellations, orientating the probe for its flyby manoeuvre burns.

No, she said, inexplicably humbled by the admission. She could sit and think, run a logic matrix, tear the problem apart. Answers never eluded her when she was in that state, a determined computer/human fusion. But somehow just the thought of expending all that effort inhibited her. Perhaps this appalling vastness of the gas giant's domain had numbed her into dormancy.

Kiley was shedding mass, discarding its primary mission modules, the sampling waldos, precision attitude thrusters, photon-amp booms, laser scanners, all peeling off like mounting scales. She watched them go, oblong boxes and spidery cybernetic arms, adding to the gas giant's ring. In a few thousand years vacuum ablation would reduce them to tissue flakes, a swarm of slowly dissipating metallic confetti.

The melancholia had really gripped now. The Kiley memory was its own Trojan, draining her.

It's like this, Snowy: the theorists, Rick Parnell and his merry band, they all say the microbes survived their flight between stars because they are simple primitive organisms.

They're wrong. I know they're wrong. How could they be primitive? They are life's pinnacle, separated from amoebas by billions of years of evolution. These microbes, Snowy, came from a dying world, travelling Christ knows how far to get here—certainly there are no burnt-out stars in our immediate section of the galaxy. Think of it, their planet, its sun growing cold, a freezing atmosphere bleeding off into space, oceans evaporated, mountains fallen. Anything that could adapt to survive such a decaying environment would have to be the toughest, most forbidding, most ruthless form of life imaginable. Then, when whatever it was that eventually triumphed—plant, or algae, or even animal—was all that was left, it made the final jump. It adapted to space. It abandoned its birthworld and achieved species immortality.

That's what we all strive for, Snowy, deep down. Continuation, the biological imperative. It drives us, preordains our movements from before we are born, it is universal and irrefutable. That, if you like, is our spiritual burden.

I think I see now, she said. The microbes are a stronger form of life than any on Earth, more potent.

And more, he said, eagerness swelling like a wave. They live—thrive—in a vacuum. I want to tame them, Snowy. I want to put them to use, make them work for us. Extraterrestrial bioware, a kind of green space technology, and all at your disposal. My wedding present, at last.

Kiley's plasma drive came on, a two-minute burn, nudging the probe in towards Jupiter and the flyby. A slingshot manoeuvre that would fling it out of the gas giant's gravity field and back to Earth.

Is that what you did when the microbes got back? she asked. Manipulate them?

So I believe, that's certainly what I intended when I left this package for you.

There must be more, then.

Yes. A diary. A daily package, so you could see my progress. And then if anything went wrong, you'd be able to see what I was working on before it happened.

Daily?

Perhaps not. But there will be accounts, lab notes, reviews, explanations, tables of results.

Where, Royan? I need them. Today. Now.

If you're following me, you'll find them.

Oh, God, she called out, furious, frightened. What have you done, what are you doing? The chaos you've caused.

The smile reappeared. That's me, Snowy. The king of misrule. You know that's me. You loved that part of me, it excited you, as your power did to me. Opposites.

God damn you! You've no right.

Don't cry, not for me. I'm not worth it. If I've screwed up, you'll put me back together again. You're so good at that.

When I find you, I won't patch you up, I'll tear you to bloody pieces.

That's my Snowy. He laughed.

Cancel Integrity Monitored Link to Processor Node One. Squirt Package into NN Core Two.

The study materialized about her again. The light pouring through the windows was oppressively harsh after Jupiter's gloaming. She blinked rapidly.

What do I want with him? NN core two asked peevishly.

Run a total review of Kiley's sensor memories.

Oh yes, Io's volcanos.

That sort of affinity had unnerved her for a week or so after the first NN core had come on line. Now she just took it for granted. The NN core would comb through Kiley's sensor memories, running comparisons against existing star maps. That was how Io's volcanos had been discovered, by accident, reviewing old Voyager pictures for a guidance plot.

Maybe, just maybe, Kiley had recorded the starship.

Julia pushed the chair back, and pulled her shoes off. She walked over to the window. Daniella and Matthew were still splashing about in the pool. And they had got that damn dog in with them. The times she'd told them.

She pressed her cheek against the window, watching them. The worry which her entrancement with Jupiter had suppressed was beginning to rise. Microbes and starships. Which was she supposed to be looking for? And Royan, uncertain enough to leave her warnings, perhaps the most chilling aspect of the whole affair. He was always so cocksure.

It wasn't as if she could offload the burden, confess to someone. "Bugger you, Royan," she snapped.

The terminal on the desk bleeped for attention. Now what?

She braced herself and turned.

Her personality package had returned from Eienso's mainframe. Clifford Jepson had paid the money into Leol Reiger's account.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

The Pegasus was spiralling down towards the Colonel Maitland. Greg watched the vast bulk of the airship appear on the bulkhead flatscreen, its contra-rotating fans dawdling in a doldrum calm. Their shallow approach angle showed it as a large black oval above the glistening deep-blue of the ocean. He found it disconcerting, the absorptive black surface, sharp edges, it didn't seem to belong here at the centre of nature's passive domain, an intrusive foreigner.

"So why the guilty smile?" Suzi asked.

Greg clamped his lips together, he hadn't realized he was smiling. "Nothing."

He and Eleanor had taken their honeymoon on one of the Lakehurst-class airships, that was back in the days when all long-distance flights were made by airships. Two weeks spent circling around Greenland and back down Canada's east coast. A first-class cabin to themselves, day trips to resort centres, the eager buzz of third-class passengers on their way to a new life on homesteads springing up behind the retreating permafrost. The black shape was evocative, tripping his mind's gates, delicious memories spilling out along his synapses.

Above all was the gentleness, time spent entwined, time spent floating above fresh landscapes, above sunsets and dawns, gourmet meals, idle chatter, laughter. It had been stately.

He rued the day of the airship's passing, replaced with hypersonic planes powered by Julia's all-pervasive gigaconductor. The last commercial trans-Atlantic airship flight had rated half a column in The Times one morning; he'd passed the cybofax over the breakfast table to Eleanor who quirked her lips in remorse. They had always said they would repeat the trip, but then there had been the kids, the groves to tend, responsibilities. Now all it ever could be was a sunny memory.

Greg had never really adapted to hypersonics, the second age of air travel; two-and-a-quarter hours to New Zealand from England; Japan a hundred-minute streak over the slushy remnants of the North Pole. Where could you escape in a world like that?

Jason Whitehurst had found the answer the hard way. The Pegasus had broken away from the Italian mainland over Genoa, hitting Mach eight above the Ligurian Sea. They were passing over the Straits of Gibraltar fifteen minutes later without slowing down, curving round north-west Africa to line up on the Cape Verde islands. Total elapsed time from Julia sending him the co-ordinates to arrival at the Colonel Maitland was forty-seven minutes.

"We've just been given landing clearance by the captain," Pearse called.

"Fine," Greg said. "Take her down." He stood up as Pearse spoke into the handset. Suzi got to her feet beside him. He noticed she used her arms to push herself up out of the deep chair. "You OK?"

She pulled a face. "Sod it, yeah, I'll do."

The leg of her shellsuit was torn, stained with a ribbon of blood, blue dermal seal visible through the open fabric. And what would Jason Whitehurst make of that?

Greg's face still stung, but he'd checked it in the toilet mirror. Appearance-wise it wasn't too bad. His leather jacket had deflected a lot of the glass splinters. Out of the three of them, he had come off best. Even his neurohormone hangover had run its course.

Two converging lines of bright strobe lights were flashing along the top of the Colonel Maitland, leading them in towards the recessed landing pad. At the front edge of the pad a large blister rose out of the fuselage, which he guessed was a hangar for Jason Whitehurst's own plane.

Greg walked forward as the Pegasus descended, compensating for the inclined deck. The chair at the front of the cabin had been straightened and tilted horizontal. Malcolm was lying on it; all he had on were jockey shorts, his brown skin mottled with big patches of dermal seal. Diagnostic probes were stuck to his torso and the nape of his neck, the medical unit's screen showing an écorché representation of his body, large sections coloured amber, two red pinpoints near his spine.

"Is he going to be all right?" Greg asked Rachel.

She looked up from the plasma bladder's LCD. "Yes. Nothing critical punctured or broken, just blood-loss trauma. But we got the plasma into him in time. He might need some skin replacement for his back, otherwise fine."

"Thank Christ for that."

"Never thought I'd be doing this again."

"Yeah, you and me both," he said.

The Pegasus touched down with a slight tremor.

Greg shrugged out of his jacket. "Pearse, give me a Tokarev and shoulder holster."

"Right." The hardliner went to one of the lockers. "Suzi, do you want a holster for your Browning?"

"Nah, I stowed it."

Greg glanced at her. The Puma bag had been lost in the Prezda's well. Her shellsuit wasn't all that baggy, though. He didn't ask.

Pearse handed him the holster. "You want me to come with you?"

"No," Greg said, velcroing the holster's straps. "The deal is for me and Suzi. We shouldn't be more than half an hour, forty minutes at the outside. Buy the girl and bring her back. After that we zip Malcolm here straight to a decent medical facility."

"Buy the girl," Pearse repeated. "That sounds so… God, I don't know. Medieval?"

"Something like that." Greg checked the Tokarev's charge before slotting it into the holster. "But it's preferable to the alternative, for her and us." He pulled his jacket back on, and pressed the belly hatch activation button.

There were two people waiting for them on the pad. Hard-liners, dressed in dark grey trousers and light jade V-neck sweaters, as if they were cabin stewards.

Greg ordered a small neurohormone secretion. The hardliners were cautious, but not hostile.

They took a lift down to the gondola, riding in silence. A long windowless corridor, lit by a bright biolum strip, blank doors in either wall, and nobody else in sight. He thought the hardliners were leading them towards the prow, but it was difficult to be certain. A cleaning drone rolled past them going in the opposite direction.

He sensed the background shimmer of the crew's minds, a continual whisper of emotions. Reassuring to know the Colonel Maitland wasn't actually the ghost ship it looked.

The hardliners stopped outside one of the doors near the end of the corridor. It opened into Jason Whitehurst's clinically plain study. He was sitting behind his glass desk, playing with an old-fashioned gold Parker biro. The hologram display inside the desk top was angled so that it could only be read by him. From where Greg stood inside the door the symbology array was just an Expressionist laser frieze. Pretty, but meaningless.

A grey rectangle on the floor in front of the desk began to bulge up, silently sculpting itself into a settee.

"Please," Jason Whitehurst opened his hand, gesturing at the newly formed settee.

Greg sat, sensing the two hardliners behind him withdrawing. Suzi plonked herself down beside him, her heels barely reached the floor.

"Do you require medical attention?" Jason Whitehurst asked Suzi. He was looking at her knee, the torn shellsuit leg. "I have a doctor on board. Someone my age, it is advisable…" He trailed off with a dismissive wave.

"I've already had it patched, thanks," Suzi said.

"Of course."

"A hazard on our way here," Greg said. He studied the mind before him. Jason Whitehurst put on a good front. Behind the bemused tolerance expression he was hiding a mix of fretfulness and expectancy. Greg recognized the mind set. Jason Whitehurst was a masterclass gambler, it was his out, his bang. He didn't merely play the game, he was part of the game.

"You see, we're not the only people looking for you," Greg said. He wanted a reaction, see how Jason Whitehurst bore up under some pressure.

"I am aware of this," Jason Whitehurst said. "After all, the delectable Charlotte is in some demand, a valuable commodity. I simply did what I always do in such a case, and trade on it."

"A pity you didn't think to warn Baronski."

"Is he in some sort of trouble?"

"You judge. Suzi and I managed to escape the tekmerc team that was going to interrogate him about Fielder's location. That's where we picked up our little scratches."

Jason Whitehurst pulled on his beard. Greg sensed the first traces of alarm rising into his mind, thought currents brightening.

"Baronski knew the risks," Jason Whitehurst said bluntly.

"Baronski was a cautious man. He didn't know what Fielder has got herself involved in; if he had, he would have stopped her."

"You have come all this way, by dint of considerable effort on the part of your employer, simply to remonstrate with me, Mr. Mandel?"

"No. All I came for was Fielder. Just telling you this deal isn't all cosy advantage trading, that's all. Maybe you don't know how valuable this Fielder girl is."

"I believe I have a fair idea of her financial status, or more precisely, the price of the information stored in that pretty little head of hers. Dear Charlotte is unique. And like all monopolies, she does not come cheap."

"How much?"

"One hundred million Eurofrancs."

"Bollocks," Suzi snorted.

Greg had seen it coming, watching Jason Whitehurst nerve himself up. There was determination, but he was also testing, interested to see how important Fielder really was. It fitted Greg's initial impression. Jason Whitehurst knew he had something, he just wasn't sure exactly what.

Greg increased his neurohormone secretion. "Did you know first contact has been made?" he asked.

Shadows of doubt flittered across Jason Whitehurst's mind. "Whatever are you talking about, Mr. Mandel?"

"First contact, with aliens."

Jason Whitehurst's face registered impatience. Suspicion rose, his thought currents racing, then a slow dawn of comprehension which brought cold fright. "That is the source of atomic structuring technology? Aliens?"

"Yeah," said Greg.

"My God, of course, her holiday." Jason did his best to recover his composure, physically he managed it, mentally his mind surged with phobic dread. "Is Julia Evans really sure she knows what she is doing dabbling in this affair?"

"She's sure."

"Very well. Then as I said before, if you are unwilling to pay the reserve price, dear Charlotte will be placed on the open market, available to the highest bidder."

"Wrong," said Greg. "We will pay you sixty-five million for her."

"Greg!" Suzi protested.

"Julia has been most foolish sending you," Jason Whitehurst said. "All you have done is simply confirmed dear Charlotte's worth to me. The reserve price stands. I must say, it's most unlike Julia to make this sort of mistake."

"I told you about the aliens as a favour," Greg said. "That's the second one today. I'm trying to make you realize that you're in way over your head. This whole deal frightens me very badly, and I'm ex-Mindstar. Charlotte Fielder will be removed from the Colonel Maitland today; either by us paying for her, or by one of the tekmerc squads the kombinates have employed to hunt her down. And they're not far behind us, a few hours at most. if she comes with us, you will receive your sixty-five million. Wait until they arrive, and you can kiss goodbye to a lot more than money. That's the bottom line, Whitehurst. No third favour."

Sparkling blue eyes fixed on Greg. "The Mindstar Brigade?" Jason Whitehurst said it with reluctant admiration.

"Yeah. You want my advice, then leg it out of here as soon as we take Fielder. Head back to Monaco, where it's safe, and where you're visible, in a crowd. Tell the other bidders that Fielder's gone. Best I can offer."

"I was in the King's Own Hussars, myself."

"I know, I've read your profile. Good troops, the King's Own; they were in Turkey."

"After my day. Mexico was my last campaign." Jason Whitehurst sighed, dropping the Parker on the desk. "Didn't know you were a brother officer. Sorry if I sounded off."

"I really would like you to leave the Colonel Maitland after us."

"Yes, quite. Good idea. Sixty-five million, you say?"

"Yeah, sixty-five."

Suzi let out a disgusted hiss of breath, rolling her eyes.

"Very well, Mr. Mandel. We have a deal."

Greg fished around in his jacket pocket, and produced the ident card Julia had given him: pure white, except for the LCD display and a small triangle and flying-V logo filling the top right corner.

"You have the authority for the transfer itself?" Jason Whitehurst asked.

Greg scaled the card over the desk to him. "No messing. Julia and I go back a long way. I help her out now and then."

Jason Whitehurst picked up the card, glancing at it briefly. "Event Horizon's central account, no less. You sound like a chap it would be a good idea to know."

Greg stood up. "Charlotte Fielder, is she on board?"

"Indeed she is, yes." Jason Whitehurst's fingers sketched hieroglyphic symbols on the smooth surface of the desk.

Greg still couldn't make out the graphics, but they were changing below his hand.

"You really gonna?" Suzi asked. She had risen to stand beside him. Her mind appalled and fascinated. "Sixty-five million?"

Greg imagined his own thoughts must be similar. Sixty-five million. He knew there was a tingle of magic in his relationship with Julia, but this kind of money wasn't chicken feed, even for her. He wondered who he would trust with that much, not many. There were levels of trust; Suzi would be utterly dependable in a scrap, but hand her sixty-five million for safekeeping and it would be a goodbye that would last beyond the end of the world.

"I have set up the credit transfer order," Jason Whitehurst said.

The desk let out a piercing whistle. Greg saw a whole section of the incomprehensible graphics turn red and scurry into frantic motion. His cybofax bleeped, and he reached for it automatically.

There was the unmistakable crump of an explosion, distant and muted. The hazy blue world outside the study's broad windows remained unchanged.

Julia's face filled the cybofax screen, there was no background behind her, as if she was starless space. "Greg!" she called. "I'm registering an electronic warfare alert."

Suzi was sprinting to the nearest window. The distinctive double thunderclap of a sonic boom rocked the Colonel Maitland. Greg could feel the vibration through his feet.

"Nothing here," Suzi shouted. She was pressed up against the window, Browning in her hand. "Shit, it must be above us."

An alarm was shrilling in the corridor outside. The two hardliners burst into the study, weapons drawn.

"Put them down," Jason Whitehurst said sharply.

They lowered the handguns reluctantly. Racal IR laser carbines, Greg noted absently, restricted to military sales only.

"What's happening?" he asked.

"Someone's thrown a jamming field around the airship," Julia's image said. "It's fluctuating, as if the source is moving. I can't get a message out."

The desk stopped whistling. "The plane that flew over," Jason Whitehurst said; both his hands were pressed against the glass surface, almost as though he was communing with it. "It attacked your Pegasus." One of the homolographic maps on a wall-mounted flatscreen flicked off, replaced by a view from a camera on the Colonel Maitland's tail fin, looking down the fuselage towards the prow.

Greg stared in horror at the ruined landing pad. The Pegasus had been ripped almost in two along the length of its cabin. It had collapsed on to the landing pad, spewing black oily smoke from its rear quarter. Intense flares of blue-white light writhed continually inside the buckled fuselage, the giga-conductor cells shorting out. As he watched, flames began to lick out of the gashes.

No one could have survived that blast. Through the shock, all he could think of was that he never even knew the pilot's name.

"The plane is returning," Jason Whitehurst said with deliberate calm. "Subsonic, and slowing."

"Can the Colonel Maitland hold it oft?" Greg asked.

"We have some ECM systems naturally," Jason Whitehurst said. "But this is not a warship. I consider my staff more than adequate to deter any normal kidnapping attempt."

Greg was still gaping at the ruined Pegasus when a thin column of air above the landing pad seemed to sparkle for an instant. The hangar blister and whatever plane was inside disintegrated into a vivid plume of white fire. A shock wave thumped the wreckage of the Pegasus into the rim around the pad, flinging out a flurry of debris. The incandescent tumour of light swelling out of the ruptured hangar had turned the flatscreen image black and white. Large strips of the solar cell envelope all around the landing pad were curling up like autumn leaves, edges crisping, exposing the thin monolattice struts of the fuselage.

The sound of the blast rolled around the airship's flanks and hammered against the study's windows a couple of seconds later.

This time the Colonel Maitland shuddered perceptibly. There was a long drawn out series of agonizing creaks and groans reverberating through the geodetic framework.

"Leol flicking Reiger," Suzi said. She flinched at a loud metallic twang. "Gotta be."

"I think you might be right," Greg said. He turned from the flatscreen to see Jason Whitehurst slumped nervelessly in his chair, a vein throbbing on his temple. "Apart from the landing pad, how do you get on board?" he asked.

"There are access hatches on the top of the fuselage," Jason Whitehurst said. "I suppose they could break in there. The plane would have to hover, though. It would be difficult."

"Not to tekmercs," Greg said. He thought fast, no question that they were here for Charlotte Fielder, so there would be no indiscriminate shooting. Not until after they snatched her, anyway. "What about escape systems? Lifeboats? Parachutes? Something to bail out in?"

"There's an emergency survival pod in every lower deck cabin."

"It shouldn't come to that," Julia's image said. "My security crash team will be on the way."

"You sure?" Greg asked.

"The Pegasus was in constant contact with Event Horizon's security division. As soon as that jammer cut the satellite link the crash team launched. I promised I'd back you up."

"How long till they get here?"

"Twenty minutes, maybe a little less."

"You hear that, Suzi? Twenty minutes' evasion and decoy."

"Yeah. If these security people of Victor's are any use. So what do you wanna do about the girl, meantime?"

"Where is she?" Greg asked Jason Whitehurst.

"On board somewhere, with Fabian. Probably in his cabin. Get her away from him, Mr. Mandel, get her well away."

"Are you coming with us?"

Jason Whitehurst glanced round the study, blinking leadenly. His thought currents had slowed drastically; the attack had shaken him badly, fissures of insecurity were opening in his mind, allowing subconscious fears to rise and clog his thoughts. "Go where?"

"Shit. OK, order your crew into the emergency pods. That plane might try to puncture the gasbags, force everyone out so they can pick up Fielder."

Jason Whitehurst debated with himself for a moment, then acquiesced. "Yes, all right." He stretched a hand out over his desk, stirring the light patterns. "Fabian must get into a pod by himself; he'll be safe then. That's all that matters now."

"Greg!" Suzi yelled frantically. She was pointing out of the window.

The plane was descending into view about two hundred metres away, a delta planform with a long bullet nose. Not easy to see, an elusive light-grey stealth coating seemed to slither when he tried to focus on it, pulling the uniform blueness of sea and sky around the flat fuselage like a cloak.

"That's a Messerschmitt CTV-663," Suzi said grimly. "Armed hypersonic military transport. Bollocks; Leol could be carrying up to twenty-five troops in that bastard."

Greg watched it halt level with the gondola, then turn ponderously until its tail was pointing at him. The rear loading ramp lowered. Indistinct shapes moved inside. Something dropped off the end of the ramp, falling for a few metres then slowing, bobbing in midair. It began to rise. Human shaped, but bulky, dark. A second one fell from the ramp.

"Holy shitfire," Suzi gasped. "They're wearing jetpacks. Jet-packs and muscle-armour suits. The fuckers are gonna storm us."

"Greg, I can't see what's going on," Julia's image said. "You must squirt me into the Colonel Maitland's 'ware. I can help you from there."

"Against them?" Suzi shouted.

"Where's a key?" Greg demanded.

Jason Whitehurst stared at him uncomprehendingly, shocked into stupefaction by the aerial assault.

"A bloody interface key!"

Five dark figures were hanging in the air between the Messerschmitt and the Colonel Maitland, wobbling slightly as they approached, picking up speed. Another two jumped from the plane's loading ramp.

The two hardliners in the study were fingering their carbines nervously.

"Don't shoot, for Christ's sake," Greg told them. "Lasers aren't going to puncture muscle-armour suits at this distance; all you'll do is pinpoint us for them." He ran round the settee to the desk, and held up his cybofax. "Try a squirt now," he told Julia. The tiny lenticular key on the top of the cybofax winked with ruby light. There was an answering pulse from the middle of the desk. When he looked at the wafer's screen her face had gone.

Suzi had the tight-jawed expression he'd seen on squaddies in Turkey, the one put on just before combat, the one which said it wasn't going to be me, no way. Her nostrils flared.

"The girl?"

"Yeah. Find her and steer clear of the tekmercs. Twenty minutes, that's all, and this is a big ship." He took a deep breath, psychological more than anything, and ordered up a full secretion.

The cold reptilian gland vibrated away, rattling his brain from the inside. His espersense swept outwards; a spectral silhouette of the airship filling his perception, a cobweb of struts enfolded by bottomless shadow. Minds glowed within, pure thought turning to light, fluctuating with emotion. He was bathed in an exodus of fear, and confusion, and hurt from the crew; their silent unbosoming. Soiling him; he hated people for their failings, he was always so careful to filter it out, pretend it didn't exist. The only way he could move through life.

He examined each of them, and found the mind he knew must be hers. It had the brightness of youth, tight thought currents that spoke of strong self-control, an underlying theme of resentment and longing. The silver-white study rushed back in on him. "Got her."

"Thank Christ for that," Suzi said.

"Let's move."

The two hardliners didn't try and stop them. He turned back when he reached the door, and saw ten armour-clad figures in the air. Jason Whitehurst's face was profiled against the window. "Keep her away from my son, Mandel. Please. None of this is his doing."

"You got it."

The door slid shut.

"This way," he said, and began to jog towards the stern. "Fielder's up inside the fuselage, some sort of room near the tail. We need to be up. Look for some stairs, an inspection hatch, something."

"Got it," Suzi barked.

He nearly smiled. She was fighting off fear with action, needing orders, a goal. It wasn't such a bad idea. He began to scan the names printed on the doors.

They ran into an espersense sweep. It registered like a curtain of cold air brushing against his body. Goose bumps rose on his arms.

"Shit!"

"What?" Suzi's Browning came up in reflex.

"Chad." Greg pulled the old Mindstar-training memories from his brain, looking for something he could use. This time Chad would be ready, and he was strong; Greg couldn't afford a straight trial of strength. He let loose the neurohormones, and—

— reality flickered—

— and Chad felt two familiar minds impinge on his expanded sphere of consciousness. He recoiled in alarm. Then, furious with himself, opened up the sacs' extravasation rate.

The neurohormone boost was almost a physical jolt, sacs acting like electrical terminals, hot and bright, charging his brain with energy, leaving his body buzzing inside the unyielding formfit grip of the muscle armour. His espersense pushed through the airship's hull like an eldritch radar, and closed around the two minds again. Contact made the skin in his palms itch.

He concentrated on the squirming thought currents, relating his espersense perception with his visual field. His view of the outside world was being relayed from the muscle armour's integral photon amp. The airship and its gondola had taken on a bluish-grey tint, overlaid with a tactical display—distance, speed, power reserves—the lower-deck target window was outlined in red. Numbers constantly changing.

"Squad leader," he told the muscle armour 'ware. A green go-ahead dot appeared in the communication section of the tactical display. "Leol. Couple of our friends on board. Suzi, and that Mindstar bastard, Mandel." He was aware of Reiger's mental flare of excitement, the unclean glee.

"Yeah? Well don't fuck up like last time, my boy, or I'll kick your arse into orbit," Reiger said.

"Not a chance. He pulled a fast one back in the Prezda, that's all, won't work twice."

"OK, well, get this straight, that bitch Suzi is mine."

"Sure thing, Leol."

"Where is she?"

"Upper deck, twenty metres from the prow."

"What about the Fielder girl?"

"Cabin on the lower gondola deck, right at the stern." He heard Leol Reiger issuing a stream of instructions to the rest of the squad. There were none for him, Reiger was leaving him free to deal with Mandel.

He saw the first two squad members were about twenty metres from the gondola, actually under the bulk of the airship's vast fuselage. The leader lifted his Lockheed rip gun, and fired at the target window. The shot was like a rigid bolt of lightning, two metres long. A section of the gondola hull around the oblong window simply blew apart, leaving a jagged gap three metres wide.

The first squad member flew straight in, never even touching the sharp composite fangs round the edge of the gap. The rest of the squad were clustering round outside, passing through the gap one at a time, like black, hyped-up hornets sliding into their nest.

Chad tilted his jockey-stick, veering off to one side. The jetpack nozzles behind his shoulders rotated slightly, realigning him. He brought his own rip gun up. The armour's muscle-band lining made the movement effortless. A targeting graphic traversed the side of the gondola. He halted the motion when it had centred on a window a couple of metres behind Mandel. He fired.

The window vaporized instantly, enveloped in a blinding fireball. Chad's photon lamp blanked out for a second, protecting his eyes from the violent light burst. He jigged about in the blastwave.

When his vision came back on line the window and its surround was a rough-edged crater. A jumble of broken struts and disfigured decking lay inside.

He twisted the jockey-stick for full acceleration, heading straight for it. Another coherent lightning bolt from the rip gun tore out a chunk of the cabin's interior wall. A cloud of scorched fragments fluttered round him and he slammed in through the hole he'd made. He jerked the jockey-stick back savagely, killing speed. His feet landed on the decking, and he ran at the narrow rent in the cabin wall ahead.

The wall seemed to be made out of kelpboard, his muscle armour punching through into the gondola's central corridor without even slowing him.

His photon amp penetrated the gloom beyond. Frail biolum light illuminated the corridor, flat sheer planes of floor, walls, and ceiling extending into ambiguous distance.

For one unnerving moment his eyes tricked him into believing it went on for ever.

The beast was waiting. Snarling, Chad brought the rip gun up, target graphics zeroing its open jaw. The bolt overloaded his photon amp again.

It was Suzi, lying on the corridor floor, her chest torn apart by the rip bolt. The violation had blackened her flesh and singed her ribs, flinging her slight body backwards to sprawl against a wall. Flames licked at her shellsuit.

Mandel was standing behind her, yelling in torment at the sight. He looked at Chad, then turned and ran.

"No good!" Chad cried jubilantly. His armour's external speaker boomed the words down the corridor after the fleeing man. "Nowhere you can hide from me, shithead!"

Mandel's mind gibbered in terror. He disappeared through a door at the end of the corridor.

Chad charged after him, rip gun blowing the door into splinters. There was another corridor behind; Mandel was halfway down it. "You're not going to die quick, Mandel. It's going to take a long time after I catch you. A real long time."

"I know," Mandel said as he rushed through the door at the end of the corridor.

Chad shouted an unintelligible curse of rage. Fucking typical smartarse answer. He sent a rip bolt spearing into the door. "I can see your mind, Mandel. You're scared shitless, and it hasn't even begun yet."

There was another corridor waiting for him. He fired off a barrage of rip gun bolts, slamming them into walls and doors. Revelling in the unstoppable vandalism, the keening of terror in Mandel's mind at each shot. His tireless armoured feet pounded on the decking, leaving sharp indentations.

Mandel was disappearing through a door ahead of him. Just how long was this airship? The tactical display was wavering, out of focus, colours smearing together into an oil rainbow film over his vision.

Crashing through the door. Another corridor. Shorter this time, the door at the far end still closing. A blink of Mandel, face red, wheezing, stumbling on, energized by adrenalin alone.

"Going to catch you, Mandel. Real soon. And when I do it's going to be worse than you could believe."

"I'm relying on it, Chad."

The voice was sensed rather than heard, desperately weary.

"Shithead!" Chad used the armour's speaker like a sonic cannon. He hit the door full on, composite crumpling under the impact. The corridor was barely fifteen metres long.

Mandel was shutting the door at the other end.

Chad sprinted for him, the armour's muscle bands whining softly. He was closer now, much closer, and Mandel was tiring. Past the door, so flimsy it was virtually unnoticeable. The next corridor, ten metres long. Five quick steps. Mandel's mind so near he could feel sweaty skin, labouring heart, burning lungs.

"Nowhere in this universe you can hide from me," Chad crowed.

"I'm not hiding from you, Chad, I'm inside you. You've been running through your own mind, an eidolonic reality."

Chad opened the door. There was a five-metre corridor in front of him. An armoured figure opening the door at the far end. What the fuck…? Mandel trying to fool him. "Not good enough any more, shithead!"

"It's powered by your own anger, Chad. This is what you yearn for. I grant it to you, I surrender to you."

The door behind Chad swung shut in tandem with the one he was looking at. He was alone in the corridor; walls shrinking, biolums dimming. "Think I'm falling for that? Your last mistake, Mandel."

"Stop hating me and you're free. Can you do that, Chad?"

Chad flung himself at the door ahead. Triumphant. "Die, shithead!"

"I'm right behind you."

The door shattered. It was like being caught between two mirrors. Infinite multiples of a muscle armour suit jumping through the door, arms outstretched, legs bent, long composite splinters spraying out all around. The same ahead, the same behind. Slowing. Freezing—

— reality flickered—

— Greg staggered against a wall. A groan escaping from his mouth.

"Bollocks, hey, you OK now?" Suzi asked. Her taut anxious face peering at him through blood-coloured mist.

"Yeah," he croaked.

"Sure, you look it."

He swung his head about, focusing. A neurohormone hangover was burning like napalm inside his skull. They were at the end of a gondola corridor. The sign on the door ahead read DINING-ROOM. "Where are we?"

"Upper deck, at the stern. I think. Jesus, Greg, I reckon I got corridor-phobia after that. Couldn't hardly tell if what I was seeing was real or not. What happened?"

"I suckered Chad into an eidoloscape, looped him in his own power fantasy. Think of it as cephalic judo."

"Yeah, right. So where is he now?"

"No more hazard. You bring me up here?"

"Yeah. Like steering a sleepwalker. Been some shots below. Loud."

"Rip guns, they've got bloody rip guns; Lockheeds, I think."

"Good old Leol, just what you need to snatch a major hazard like an unarmed whore." She grasped the handle of a door marked FUSELAGE.

Greg noticed the hesitancy in her hand as she turned the handle, afraid of what might be behind—a doorway into eternity. It was a narrow staircase leading up. A braid of thick ribbed hoses ran up the bare composite wall, a single biolum strip ran along the ceiling. The darkness above seemed to suck sound away. A gust of dry cool air blew down at them.

Sun pointed her Browning up the stairs. "This it?" she asked without any enthusiasm. "Fielder's up here?"

"Guess so. At least Reiger doesn't know she's up here." He paused. "Make that was up here."

"Can't you check?"

"Give me five minutes, Suzi, OK?"

"Sure." She started up the stairs.

Greg drew his Tokarev, snicked the safety off, and went up after her.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Fabian could actually play the guitar quite well. Discoveries like that didn't surprise Charlotte any more.

Whatever held Fabian's attention long enough for him to develop an interest normally wound up being practised with a high degree of proficiency. The trick was getting him to notice something in the first place.

After lunch, he'd put on jeans and a studded leather jacket, white silk headband with scarlet Japanese ideograms. Grinning slightly self-consciously. The den's music deck was programmed to provide him with a support group, bass, rhythm, and drums. Unsurprisingly. Fabian favoured hard rock, one or two glam tracks. Thank heavens he didn't sing too.

She listened to him playing a couple of numbers, then walked over to the Yamaha piano.

"I didn't know you played," Fabian said.

She gave him a disdainful smile, running through the intro to the Sonic Energy Authority's 'Last Elvis Song. "Doesn't everybody?" One of her first patrons had shelled out a small fortune on lessons for her. He liked what he called traditional evenings, no channels, no VR games, no nightclubs, just music recitals and poetry readings, sometimes a play or the ballet. She had enjoyed the piano lessons, one talent Baronski couldn't implant or graft on in the Prezda's little clinic.

Although her knuckles had been reconfigured to give her fingers a greater dexterity, which was useful.

Charlotte gave Fabian the opening bars of Bil Yi Somanzer's classic 'Dream Day Hi. She had fond memories of Bil Yi; his albums were the first music she'd ever really heard after being taken into care. He was in decline then, but still the greatest, no matter what anyone said.

Fabian picked up the rhythm, strumming along in some private paradise. They cranked the deck up, and started jamming some Beatles and Stones, more Bil Yi, the two of them shouting the lyrics at each other over riffs that shook the den's heavy thermal insulation panels and rattled her gullet.

The fish were going berserk in their tanks. She hadn't let her hair down like this for an age.

They were thrashing the hell out of 'Bloody Honey' when Charlotte heard the bang, thinking they'd blown a speaker. It took Fabian a minute to realize she'd stopped playing.

"What?" he asked. His face was flushed and sweaty. She didn't think she'd ever seen him smiling so brightly before, a natural high. It was nice to see.

"We've bust a speaker," she told him, laughing. Her cotton top was damp and hot, contracting about her. There wasn't much air conditioning in the den. Somehow she didn't care.

"Aww." Fabian pulled a face. He bounced over to the music deck, the guitar hanging round him. LEDs winked green and orange as he flicked switches. "No, we haven't."

"I heard something go pop."

"Not us, not guilty," Fabian's voice had a ragged euphoric edge.

"Oh well, I needed the rest."

"Crikey, you were fantastic, Charlotte!" His eyes shone.

"I've never played with anyone before, only the deck."

The breath was coming out of her in short puffs. "Never?"

"No."

"Pretty damn good, you were."

"Really? Honest to God?"

"Yep. You've got a definite talent there, Fabian."

His expression went all distant. "Know what I dream? That I get a slot on MTV's garage access 'cast."

Charlotte grinned. She'd seen that herself sometimes.

Thrice a week MTV turned over about ninety minutes of the death hours between two and four in the morning to unsigned bands. Any bunch of kids with an amp stack and a camera could plug into the channel. Wishful rumour said music biz suits sat glued to it, searching for new talent. Charlotte thought that was a load of crap.

Suddenly she had a vision of Baronski watching her and Fabian decimating 'Your Coolin' Heart." She started giggling as Baronski's jaw dropped in stupefaction, every one of his precious sensibilities overloaded and fused.

"What?" Fabian asked.

She waved her hands helplessly. "One of my friends seeing me on that 'cast."

Fabian's nose twitched. "Father seeing us on that!"

Charlotte whooped ecstatically, banging out a nonsense blast on the keyboard, aware of Fabian hooting wildly.

The door opened. Charlotte saw the maid framed in the gloomy light of the fuselage biolums.

"What do you want?" Fabian asked between gulps. "Unless you've come to audition for drums?"

Charlotte laughed delightedly at seeing the sulky cow so thrown by the scene, which set Fabian off again. Although there was something peculiar about the maid's face, squinting as though she was drunk. Charlotte had seen that expression before somewhere. Couldn't quite place the memory.

The maid took two steps into the room. Fast steps.

"Hey—" Fabian began.

The maid hit him. It was a backhanded blow, she barely aimed it. Her hand caught him on the side of his face, lifting him off the floor. There was a moment of dead silence as he fell back on to the pile of cushions. Then the guitar made a clattering noise as it caught on the deck, and Fabian let out a dull grunt.

Charlotte yelled, "Fabian!" and rushed over to him.

There was blood trickling out of his mouth, the side of his face where the maid had struck was bright red. He was blinking in numb confusion, his arms struggling limply. One eye was already swelling, the smooth skin discolouring. She went down on the cushions, scattering some, and gripped his wrist. Her other hand went on his forehead. "Don't move," she whispered. The guitar neck pressed awkwardly into her belly.

"I—" he coughed. More blood sprayed out between his lips.

Charlotte sucked in a breath at the sight. Utile specks of blood were staining her white cotton top. She stroked the side of his head anxiously, eyes watering. "Don't…"

Fabian caught sight of the maid behind her. His face twisted into rage, and he surged up.

"No!" Charlotte flung herself on him, pinning him down on the cushions. "No, Fabian. She's cleardusted." That was the memory, the squint, the dazed crazed look. She'd seen some of her patrons' hardline bodyguards take the stuff. Cleardust was a synthesized derivative of the old angel dust, giving the manic strength and immunity to pain without the hallucinogenic effect.

"Very good," said the maid. "You're bright for a whore."

Charlotte was centimetres from Fabian's face. Seeing pain and reflections of pain in his eyes.

A hand that must have been made of metal closed around her upper arm, and she was yanked up, squealing at the sudden pain. She stumbled for her footing. "Please, Fabian, please stay down. Please." It was all she could think of. He wouldn't understand. The maid would kill him.

He glared upwards, bloody lips parted.

"Please, for me," she pleaded.

"Right," his voice was distorted, as if he was chewing on something.

The pressure on Charlotte's arm increased, making her mouth part with the pain. She was turned to face the maid. The glazed eyes made her shiver inside. They didn't see anything in this universe.

"I will ask you some questions," the maid said. "You will answer them for me, or I will start to snap all that expensive bonework of yours. Understand, whore?"

"Let him go. I'll tell you anything you want. But don't hurt him."

Charlotte heard a muffled high-pitched crack from somewhere outside the den. She thought it sounded like some kind of weapon.

The maid gave a cyborg smile. "You're a very popular girl all of a sudden. Lots of people want to talk to you. But I'm first. And last."

The crack came again, then again.

"Who gave you the flower?" the maid asked.

It took Charlotte's wild thoughts a moment to work out what flower she was talking about. "Let Fabian go."

"The flower?"

"I don't know who he was, not his actual name. Please."

"Liar."

Charlotte's hand was grabbed. She screamed as two fingers were bent back. There was a pistol-shot snap.

Strangely enough, there wasn't any pain, not at first. She couldn't feel anything below her wrist, then a red-hot ache spread up her fingers, biting hard into her knuckles. There was bile rising in her throat. Her head began to spin alarmingly; for a moment she thought she was going to faint.

In horror she saw Fabian on his feet, lurching towards her and the maid. She lashed out with her free arm, knocking him back. His face was a mask of desperation and agony.

"Oh God no," she wailed, tears swelling up. He was regaining his balance, going to try again.

"ENOUGH OF THIS. FABIAN, STAY WHERE YOU ARE." The voice was an inhuman roar, loud enough to be painful. It was coming out of the music deck speakers, she realized.

Fabian ducked his head down in reflex, hands halfway to his ears. Even the maid was frozen.

The flatscreens came on, each one showing the same picture of a woman's face. Charlotte let out a choked cry as she recognized her. "Julia Evans," she gasped. It was her. Really her. Just like at the Newfields ball. That same compelling oval face.

Julian Evans smiled thinly. "Hello, Charlotte. I think it's about time you and I had a talk."

"Not a chance," said the maid.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

Julia's personality package was coded as a commercial intelligence summary, so the Colonel Maitland's 'ware network-management program automatically assigned it storage space in the lightware cruncher Jason Whitehurst was using to analyse kombinate finances. Once it was loaded, the personality package immediately reformatted the command routines of the processing structure it was running in, isolating itself from the lightware's operating program and antiviral guardians. After it had confirmed its autonomy it sent out a series of instructions to the internal databuses, arrogating their handling procedures, shutting down the data flow.

With the lightware cruncher's processing operations suspended, the personality package began to wipe all the programs and files it found stored in the unit's memory. Access codes were changed. A new sequence of operating routines were loaded. The package's highly compressed data planes expanded into the empty lightware. Julia's reconstituted mentality came on line.

She started to assess the airship's 'ware architecture, spreading her presence through the datanet, burning into ancillary processor cores. The bridge's 'ware was her first priority, gaining complete command of her new domain. New channels were opened and safeguarded, data flowed back into the lightware cruncher.

The Colonel Maitland's flight control systems were plugged into a broad range of sensors and cameras distributed throughout the fuselage. Radar and the satellite uplinks were useless, swamped by the tekmerc's jammer. She studied the optical circuits, pulling their codes out of memory cores, then started to look around.

External camera, portside fuselage. The Messerschmitt hovered level with the gondola. A laser rangefinder pulsed every second, helping it to maintain its stand-off position exactly. Eight armour-clad figures were left swung out between it and the Colonel Maitland. Each of them identical, factory moulded; left hand controlling a jockey-stick, right hand holding a Lockheed rip gun. Two wavering columns of hot compressed air streamed out of the jetpack nozzles, behind and slightly below the shoulders. As she watched, one of them disappeared through a hole in the side of the gondola.

Internal camera, gondola lower-deck crew lounge. The lounge had been ravaged by the rip bolt, loose chairs hurled at the walls, composite walls cracked and buckled, carpet smouldering. Glass lay underfoot, the door twisted in its frame.

Two of the armoured figures were standing inside, Lockheed rip guns raised cautiously, covering the open doorway. Helmets blank bubbles of metal. A third swept through the hole, jetpack efflux stirring up a mini-hurricane of wreckage as he settled on the uneven decking.

External camera, upper tail fin. The ruined landing pad, pitiful remains of the Pegasus spewing out thin plumes of smoke. Two of the Colonel Maitland's crew, dressed in silvery fire-suits, were surveying the scene. They kept close to the edge of the pad, giving the Pegasus a wide birth as they shuffled along, testing the deck sheeting before each step.

Julia called up a structural schematic and systems status review from the bridge's flight control 'ware. The central gasbag, below the landing pad, had been badly lacerated. Helium was escaping at a critical rate. The bridge crew had ordered a near-total ballast dump to compensate. Water from tanks and the swimming-pool was venting out of the gondola as fast as it could be pumped.

The Colonel Maitland's geodetic framework was drawn in fine blue lines, gasbag suspension rigging a jumble of green cobwebs. A large, roughly oval, area of fuselage struts around the landing pad and hangar had turned red, fringed in yellow. The landing pad itself was mostly black; a lot of the stress sensors' optical cables had been cut in the explosions, leaving gaps in the picture. Maintenance drones were inching along the longitudinal frames, inspecting individual struts for fractures, supplementing and refining the data from the sensors, filling in the true status of the black zones.