Just as with the Moon landings, way back in the twentieth century, the missions to Mars of the mid- to late twenty-first century were always reported in the main news and sold as astounding achievements for humankind. The preparatory landings of robots to erect the first buildings of bonded regolith, drill for materials and begin running small autofactories, kept the story in the public eye. That the new fusion drives reduced the flight time to Mars from years to months also helped maintain interest, and it rose to a peak when the first humans arrived there and walked out to plant the Pan Europa and Asian Coalition flags. The Marineris disaster, and the subsequent relocation of the ground base, later brought it all back into the news when interest began to wane. But by the thirtieth mission, the latest news about Mars began getting shunted into second place by the latest scandal about a paedophile footballer or the latest religious fanatic with an overpowering urge to convert unbelievers into corpses with a slab of Hyex laminate, a canister of nerve gas or some nasty biological concocted in a home genetic lab.
A snake of red dust hung in the air, marking Varalia Delex’s trail across the plain. In the pink sky Phobos hung over the horizon like a skull, and the distant sun was a bloodshot eye overhead. She paused for a moment to check the tracking arrow on her wrist screen, though needlessly. Since not a breath of wind stirred the dust and visibility remained good, she could see clearly as far as the horizon through the thin air, and there, confirmed by the direction arrow on her wrist screen, sunlight gleamed off metal polished by the jeweller’s rouge of the Martian peneplain.
“Are you there yet, Var?” Miska enquired over radio from Antares Base.
“Another ten minutes,” she replied.
“Make it quick. Ricard’s on the prowl.”
Miska sounded nervous, and well he might, for Political Director Ricard had ordered that all excursions out on to the surface must now receive direct approval from him. Through her suit, Var rubbed at the recent surgery on her arm. If Ricard became suspicious and tried to check on her location through the system, he’d locate her as being in Hydroponics, where her ID implant now resided in a test unit. But if he tried to physically locate her instead, he’d soon discover she was no longer on the base.
“He give any explanation of why he’s shut us out of Earth-com?”
“No, did you expect one?”
Political directors did not need to give explanations, and those that asked for them usually ended up in an adjustment cell to correct their thinking. But to get people to Mars had cost upwards of fifty million per person, and the only non-essential personnel within the base were precisely those who would not be so treated, meaning the five Inspectorate execs and the twelve armed enforcers, whereas “adjusting” one of the essential personnel would turn that one into a liability they could ill afford. This was why, as technical director of the base, Var had been given the power to request veto over any decision Ricard made that might endanger the base itself. Only now, that power, backed up by orders from Earth, seemed to be fading. Ricard had cut Earth-com and begun to make decisions—enforced by his men—which might end up getting them all killed.
“Still nothing from Gisender?” she asked.
“Nothing at all,” Miska replied. “Feeds from the crawler do register major damage and massive air loss, but she would have been suited. There’s no reason why she can’t drive it in.”
Except if she’s dead, Var thought.
Over a hundred and seventy people had died here, fifty-four of them when the Marineris Base was crushed by a rockfall, the rest in and around Antares Base. All the dangers of Earth were here, including overzealous enforcement, along with a whole load of new and interesting ways to expire. Though it was next to impossible to inadvertently punch a hole through the mesh fabric of an external activities suit, it still possessed plenty of seals in it that could fail. Over the years, forty-three people had asphyxiated outside the base as the result of such failures. Then there were all the odd chemical compounds generated when Martian materials were introduced into the hot, moist and oxygenated environment of the base. Before Var’s time, four people had died trying to produce viable soil from the Martian dust: a spill of water had resulted in an explosion of sulphur dioxide, and they had died inside the laboratory when emergency bulkhead doors had closed—needlessly, Var reckoned, since the gas would have affected few people beyond the laboratory itself. But, then, safety protocols had been strict for years after the first explosive decompression of part of the base complex. Other interesting ways to die included heavy-metals poisoning, some esoteric cancers solely the product of this place—one of which had killed Var’s predecessor—and suicide, which was often the ultimate choice of some who had been forced to come here against their will. Just like Var herself had been forced.
Her loping stride eating up the distance slowly brought the crawler into full view. One of its big fat tyres, she noticed, was flat, which was unusual because they would usually self-repair and reinflate. She could now see that the front screen was also broken—another unusual event, since the laminated glass shouldn’t yield to anything less than a bullet. Only as she drew closer did she see the line of holes stitched across it, and realize that bullets were precisely what it had yielded to. And when she finally reached the big vehicle, and peered through the broken screen, she saw why Gisender had stopped talking.
“She’s dead, Miska. The fucker had her shot.”
Var walked round the side of the vehicle to the airlock, scanning for footprints in the surrounding dust but seeing none. She paused for a moment and looked back in the direction of the base. Whoever had shot at this vehicle had done so from a distance, probably from Shankil’s Butte, which reared up from the plain five kilometres away from here, and just three kilometres from the base. Doubtless the killer had used a scoped assault rifle, which would work easily enough at that range in the low gravity here. One of Ricard’s enforcers, undoubtedly.
The outer airlock door opened easily enough and, requiring no equalizing of pressure, the inner one opened at once. Stepping through the small cargo space, circumventing two big reels of optic cable and the cutting tools Gisender had used to obtain it, Var entered the cockpit and peered in through Gisender’s visor, her own stomach tightening with rage and grief.
After Ricard shut down Earth-com and put recent communications off limits, Gisender had ostensibly gone in search of salvage from the old base in Valles Marineris, but had really gone to obtain a copy of those same communications from the secondary signal station up on the lip of Valles Marineris. And here was the result. Though intellectually Var had accepted that her friend might be dead, only now, finally seeing her right up close, could she accept it in her heart. Even in this condition, Gisender still bore some of that Martian look of false health, with the rouge of Martian dust ground into her skin, as it was ground into all of them, but her dried-out features told the truth. Her lips had shrivelled away from her teeth, and her eye sockets were all but empty now that the moisture had been sucked from her eyeballs. That fucker Ricard must have found out, somehow, and had her murdered.
Var really needed to know what was contained in that communication.
Behind Saul, as he headed out, Janus made the handlerbot that had first emptied the crate now pick it up and carry it over to the cargo lift. Usually these crates only went up as far as ground level, where they were picked up by a transvan from a loading bay at the back of the building. But this one was going right to the top.
“No problems?” Saul asked.
“If there are any problems I will inform you,” Janus replied—somewhat snootily, Saul thought.
Back in the mapping control room he retrieved his holdall with its waterproof lining and shed King’s lab coat, though he retained the false ID badge, before heading again to the lifts. There he hit the button for the roofport, and was glad to find the lift empty as the doors opened. His heart went into overdrive when it halted only two floors up and a nervous-looking man clutching a laptop case stepped in. But lift etiquette being what it is, the man merely ignored him and jabbed the button to the floor he required, exiting two floors later. Finally the doors opened on to the roof.
Three aircars were parked there and, oddly, a helicopter. It was probably a casualty of the supposedly smooth transition from fossil-based fuels to fusion energy and hydrogen transport, Saul surmised. That smooth transition seemed to be failing along with everything else, with the result that people were dying every day, in the hundreds of thousands. He now made straight for Coran’s vehicle, holding out the implant test unit before him, the car’s locking system responding to it by disengaging. Stepping inside, Saul tossed the holdall on to the back seat and set the tester down beside him. The console arrayed before the single joystick had also unlocked, so he pressed the start button and immediately the aerofans began to hum up to speed.
“Now we have a problem,” Janus informed him.
“And that is?”
“Coran’s boss is trying to contact him via his fone.”
“What’s the boss’s name?”
“Ahkmed Argul—but I suspect the proper form of address in this case is ‘Director.’”
“Yes, quite. Route him to my fone, and give me voice overlay.”
“Where have you been, Coran?” Argul immediately enquired.
“My apologies, Director,” Saul replied. “The mapping basement of the gene bank here is a fone deadspot.”
“I see. I’ve also been informed that your bodyguard is out of contact, too. I do hope you aren’t having problems there…”
“Aiden King was being a little unhelpful, so I left Sheila down there to have a chat with him. Besides that, everything is proceeding as per schedule.”
The car’s aerofans up to speed now, he raised the joystick up one notch, to take the machine about a metre off the deck, then eased the car back and round towards the cargo lift, which lay just behind the tail fan of the helicopter.
“Good. Oversight is anxious to get this done, as resources need to be redistributed fast.”
Interesting. Saul decided to fish for information. “Such a tight schedule,” he observed as he settled the car down again.
Argul made a hacking sound of irritation. “Coran, we don’t discuss the schedule over the air, and I think you know why I’m really calling.”
“Remiss of you,” said Argul, “but I’m not accepting any excuses. Where is that distribution report for the Straven Conference? You’ve got three days before that’s due to be the main topic of discussion, so make damned sure it’s in.”
“Yes, sir, at once. I’ve been a bit snowed under…” Saul shut down the car, and climbed out, heading round to the cargo lift.
“And Coran, if you do another of your disappearing acts, that’ll be another two points taken off your status. That’s not something you can afford right now—you know how difficult it is staying on the shortlist.”
“Disappearing acts?” Saul echoed. How very interesting, and what was this shortlist?
There came a long pause. Even though, with the overlay, his voice sounded to Argul like Coran’s, just as earlier, along with a visual overlay, it had appeared to be Aiden King’s to Director Thader, Saul again wasn’t using Coran’s normal speech patterns and perhaps Argul sensed this. In a way this might all be quite useful, because Coran’s apparently odd behaviour now might go some way towards explaining what was to come. Not that Saul intended any such explanation to be necessary.
“Well, just get things sorted out and go back to that report,” demanded Argul, and cut the connection.
Standing beside the cargo lift, Saul jabbed a button and the doors slid open, revealing the crate inside.
“We okay with the cams up here?” he enquired.
“The cams will show Coran walking out, with his bodyguard close behind him. However, there will be an extensive investigation and they will get round to studying images from the Argus Network, which I cannot change.”
“Which is why,” Saul replied, “I’m not looking up.”
With not one centimetre of Earth’s surface—unless covered by cloud—being missed by the satellite cameras, the Argus Network should have been a tool of oppression to exceed the shepherds, spiderguns, razorbirds, static readerguns, inducers and the armed might of the Inspectorate military. But, even now, computer processing was still insufficient to handle all the image data. Comlife run in the main Argus Station could perhaps eventually solve that problem for the Committee, then they’d be able to put all the HF lasers online to punch down through the atmosphere with pinpoint precision, and any form of rebellion would be driven literally underground. Sometimes, when Saul considered what he was planning, his arrogance astounded him, since after he established who he really was and enjoyed a very personal meeting with his interrogator, he intended to remove the Committee’s biggest and most potent toy.
Operating the cargo-lift control so it would slide out its floor, bringing the crate right up to the hatch back of the car, he then unfastened the lid and tipped the crate over. Sheila spilled most of the way into the back of the car, and he spent some minutes and worked up quite a sweat manoeuvring her forward into the driver’s seat. Coran was much lighter, so easier to heave into the back seat of the car. Both tasks were smelly, since both had voided their bowels the moment they died—he just hadn’t noticed the stench down in the chill of the storeroom. Returning the crate to the lift he sent it back down, where one of the handlerbots, controlled by Janus, would repack it with sample cylinders and stow it back in the rack.
Shortly after this, he climbed in the back along with Coran, extracting the surgical saw from his waterproof holdall. Coran’s head came off easily, though messily, and digging the ID implant out of his arm wasn’t much of a problem either. Head and saw then went into the holdall, shortly followed by Coran’s palmtop and the contents of his pockets, but Saul retained the ID implant as he stepped out of the rear of the vehicle, depositing the holdall on the ground before closing the back door and climbing into the front alongside Sheila.
With her ID implant operating in near-proximity, the car’s console was still running. He programmed a course into the autopilot, out and away from Brussels and over towards London, then took one final item from his pocket—a short black cylinder with a timer nestling in a recess in one end. He placed it on the floor below the console, just over the forward aerofan, and set the timer running. Next he took her ID implant out of the tester and replaced it with Coran’s, and dropped the tester into his pocket. Her chip he dropped on the seat beside her. It would shut down in a short while, but that would not affect the autopilot.
Again starting up the aerofans, he jerked up the joystick and applied its lock. He had just enough time to step out of the vehicle, slamming the door behind him, before the fans got up enough speed to develop lift. He stepped back, dust blasting all around him as the car rose into the sky. About twenty metres above him, the autopilot kicked in and guided the vehicle off over the cityscape.
When the Hyex grenade detonated, about midway across the English Channel, its devastating effect would be complemented by the aerofans flying apart. The car and the two bodies inside would be shredded, to rain down in tiny fragments. Most of those fragments, being bubblemetal, would float, but the rest would simply disappear. Since he’d cut off Coran’s head inside the car they wouldn’t know he now had it, even after studying the satellite images, and they’d never recover enough for proper forensic reconstruction, at least not in sufficient time. Staff files took over two weeks to update, so no one but those directly involved would know that Coran was dead.
He now headed over to the personnel lift, called it and waited, head bowed, then stepped inside as soon as it arrived. The moment the doors had closed, he dropped the holdall, stripped off his jacket and turned it inside-out to present its blue lining, then took a matching baseball cap out of his pocket and jammed it on his head. Next he took up the holdall, stripped off its outer layer of plastic, which he scrunched up and shoved in his pocket, then inverted the handles to turn it into a backpack, and shrugged that on to his shoulders. Shortly afterwards he exited the lift on the ground floor and departed the gene bank, his appearance now somewhat different from the one the satellites would have recorded up on the roof.
“They will almost certainly obtain samples of your DNA,” Janus noted.
“Well, that’ll be interesting,” Saul replied, as he turned left and headed away from the car park towards the personnel gate in the razormesh fence.
“Perhaps your DNA is retained in some hidden file?”
“In that case keep watch and see what you can find.”
Only a few months after he’d escaped the Calais incinerator, he’d managed to turn his own DNA into data, then got Janus to penetrate the Inspectorate database to run a search. He wasn’t recorded there, which seemed odd considering how the Inspectorate had obviously taken such an interest in him.
Now it was time to further lose any satellite tracking because, despite transforming his appearance, and despite Janus shafting all the cam images and generally trashing all monitoring systems within the gene bank as he left, once investigators finally realized Coran was missing, they would use recognition programs on recorded data to track everyone leaving the building today. He needed now to head somewhere crowded and chaotic, which pretty well defined most places on Earth, but even then, without certain preparations, he would have had problems with the numerous “community safety” cameras and other forms of surveillance. This was why Janus’s next destination, and his own, lay about half a mile up the road: the MegaMall SuperPlex.
“Who put me in that crate?” Saul had asked Janus, desperately wanting to attach a name to the hatchet-sharp features of his erstwhile interrogator.
His new friend didn’t know, but certainly did know who had delivered the crate for disposal.
The incinerator complex wasn’t high-security, since big dumper trucks loaded with waste were constantly in and out, and many outsiders were sorting through the mounds of rubbish either for something to sell or something to eat. However, as with everywhere else, cams were sited throughout the area, like black eyeballs impaled on narrow posts.
Stepping out through the inspection door, he squatted to watch a big dozer take a bite out of a massive heap of garbage, the regular trash sorters rushing in dangerously close to be first to get to any finds. The dozer shoved this latest bite up a ramp of compacted trash and on inside to the throat of the conveyor system, which led into the sorting plant Saul had found himself in. Behind this, the incinerator itself loomed like a gas-storage tank, and he knew that beyond it lay a decommissioned power station which the heat from the incinerator had once run. This knowledge, like all the rest lurking in his skull, was just there—he had no idea of when or how he had acquired it.
“I have managed to reinstate the cam system and I see you now,” said Janus. “Your yellow overall is highly visible.”
Saul waited until the dozer rumbled out of sight, then ran over to join the crowd about the rubbish pile. Within a moment he spotted a bin liner spilling clothing and stepped over to snatch it up just as some toothless old woman reached for it too. With silent determination she wrestled to retain her hold and the bag tore open, spilling its contents. He quickly grabbed up a pair of Mars camo combats and a long sleeveless multipocket coat, and retreated. Both items of clothing looked like they might fit, but there was nothing to replace his already ragged foot-coverings—whatever they were called. Ducking out of sight behind a pile of mashed-up kitchen cabinets, he donned this clothing, then stood up and headed towards the exit.
A miasma hung over the place and sometimes throat-locking gases wafted across it. A road ran parallel to the chainlink fence, and beyond this lay huge ash piles like the spill from a coal mine. Once, this incinerator complex had been considered a jewel of the green revolution. Here waste was automatically sorted, sometimes dismantled, and dispatched for recycling. What remained went into the incinerator to be burnt cleanly, all the noxious gases and the CO2 scrubbed from the smoke. The fires heated up water that ran through pipes to the adjacent power station, then through heat exchangers to extract every last erg of power, then back again. Now the pipes had long since rusted through, the sorting plant worked only intermittently, and the scrubbers had clogged. Everything now went into the incinerator and its smoke cloud sometimes caused a yellow smog over the nearby port, more reminiscent of ancient London than this modern age, while they heaped the resultant poisonous ash on what was once agricultural land, alongside ancient mountains of plastic bottles and edifices composed of decaying cardboard. Gazing out across this landscape, Saul saw a shepherd striding along in the distance like some Wellsian war machine inspecting the transformation of Earth.
The gates stood open and Saul strode out through them, turned right and headed towards the parked transvan. It was the vehicle, Janus informed him, that had reversed up to the conveyor system, its driver then climbing into the back to heave out a single crate. It was parked beside another transvan, whose rear doors stood open, but Saul wasn’t close enough to see what was going on.
“How many people there?” he asked.
“Two individuals,” Janus replied.
Glancing round, Saul noticed how those indigents outside of the processing plant kept looking over towards the two vans, but not approaching, which was odd. Parked vans were always a draw, since they might contain food or something else of value.
“The second transvan contains cigarettes and alcohol and some sort of transaction is being conducted,” Janus added.
Saul snorted in amusement. The external cam system had been out of action here until, for the AI’s own use, Janus reinstated it, so until that moment this area had been a deadspot. Cigarettes were illegal and he’d no doubt that the alcohol being sold rated some way above the All Health limit of 5 per cent ABV. The two were conducting business that had been something of a tradition about these parts for over a thousand years. The second transvan clearly belonged to a smuggler, but only as he drew closer did Saul see who the first van belonged to. The Inspectorate logo of hammer and glove encircled by the multicoloured chain representing a united world was clearly visible, and this explained why the indigents were keeping well away. The driver, he noted, wore a grey Inspectorate overall and baseball cap, since even that lofty organization had to employ someone to shovel the shit.
His interrogator, he knew, would not be here, such a task being far beneath him.
As Saul approached, the negotiation had obviously come to a conclusion, for the smuggler—a dreadlocked white woman wearing a sleeveless coat, much like the one he himself had acquired, over tight pseudo-leather trousers—was pocketing a wad of cash Euros and turning away, whilst the Inspectorate guy loaded a large box into the passenger side of his van. Saul picked up his pace and, spotting him, the woman quickly slammed the back doors of her vehicle, her hand dropping to something concealed under her coat.
“Vous voulez?” she enquired watching him warily.
“Natch,” he said easily. “ZeroEuro.”
She nodded and headed round to her driver’s door. He supposed that was a response she had been hearing all too often, as Committee delegates and financial experts worked diligently to enforce a much more easily monitored cashless society. Coming back round his own vehicle the man gave Saul the hard eye and dropped his hand to an ionic stunner at his belt.
“One moment,” Saul said. “There’s something you need to know.” He pointed up towards a nearby cam post.
The man glanced up at it and looked abruptly worried. “What is it, citizen?”
English, then. Saul raised a finger to his lips, then turned to watch the woman climb into her van and close the door. The van’s turbine quickly wound up to speed and she reversed out onto the road with a horrible grating of the transmission, spun bald tyres on the macadam and headed off. Saul turned back to the man and stepped closer.
“The cam system here,” he began, moving closer, dipping his head conspiratorially.
In that moment, as a calm readiness suffused him, Saul felt sure he must have received training somewhere before ending up in that crate. But, oddly, it felt to him that only during the few minutes since his incinerator rebirth had he acquired a sudden capacity for such ruthlessness. His covered foot slammed up into the man’s testicles, bending him forward, and Saul moved in, hook fist into the gut, retracted then up, heel of the hand smashing nose. The man went down like a sack of offal. Saul stooped and turned him over onto his face, took his stunner away, jammed his arm up behind his back and drove a knee down behind it.
“You just delivered a crate to the incinerator,” he said. “Where did it come from?”
After sneezing blood for a moment, the man managed, “Head…quarters.”
“In…spectorate…London…Adjustment Cell Complex.”
“Why all the way across the Channel?”
“It’s just always been that way.”
Saul integrated that and blinked. He just knew that the trash-trains had been running rubbish out of London to the Calais incinerator for nearly a hundred years. Somewhere, he surmised, some bureaucrat had chosen the same destination for what needed to be disposed of from the adjustment cells, probably because procedure declared that all government waste should go for green disposal. It was horribly funny, in its way.
“You know what’s in those crates, don’t you?” he said.
The van driver went still for a moment, then, “No…fuck no. I’m just a driver!”
Saul wondered how many crates the man had brought over here, and how often those inside them had woken up, if they were still capable. “Just a driver” didn’t have much need for an ionic stunner, and he guessed the man used it when his cargo got a little too noisy. Saul released him to step back, and the man rolled over to wipe blood and snot from his face.
“You’re a fucking liar,” Saul said flatly, pointing the stunner at him. “And I was in that last crate.”
“I’m only doing a job!”
“Who gave the disposal order?”
“I don’t know!”
Saul fired and lightnings shorted to the ground all around the driver as he jerked and grunted into unconsciousness. Saul stared for a long moment, considering what he now knew. The Inspectorate had obviously had him in their cells and then sent him off for disposal. He had been a marked man but was now supposedly a dead one. He walked over to the driver and searched him, finding cash money, a palmtop and little else. No papers, but the man wouldn’t need them, since he’d have an ID implant embedded in his arm. Saul then took off the fellow’s foot coverings and held them towards the nearest cam post.
“What are these?”
“They are boots,” Janus supplied.
“Boots are the rear compartments in ground cars,” he argued.
“Nevertheless, what you are holding are also boots—or perhaps shoes.”
The words just weren’t there in his head and their absence both frightened him and locked inside him a sudden determination. He pulled on the footwear and stood up, then walked round and climbed into the transvan.
“I need to be free of the Inspectorate,” he declared.
“That is not possible. The Inspectorate is everywhere on Earth.”
Saul had no reply to that.
He started the van’s turbine, then realized something significant. He had told the driver he was in the last crate the man had delivered here. This information would eventually reach the driver’s masters, as he tried to explain the loss of his vehicle, and one master, one interrogator, would certainly know who Saul was, would know he was alive and start looking for him. As he reversed the van out onto the road, Saul ran it over the driver’s chest, then stopped the vehicle and searched under the passenger seat for a while before stepping out with a heavy wheel jack to finish the job. As he drove away he noticed some of the indigents cautiously closing in. They would take the driver’s clothing and maybe, just maybe, the body would disappear too—subsequently to turn up in sealed plastic packets on a stall in one of the black markets. It was an all too common occurrence in this new age.
The Mall possessed twelve main entrances. The four at the top consisted of two providing access from adjacent multi-storey car parks, one from the monorail and one set higher which connected to the aerocar port. Four more entrances lay underground, connecting to the tube network and the subterranean highway, whilst the remaining four were at ground level and at each point of the compass. Saul headed for the ground-level entrance facing south where, and even as he arrived, the hordes began jostling him and governing his pace. Checking his watch, he saw that ten minutes remained before the grenade detonated to scatter Coran and Sheila across the polluted waters of the Channel. In retrospect he realized he might get unlucky with the debris ending up on one of the giant cargo barges bringing goods in from China, or the supposed breadbasket of North Africa, which meant Inspectorate Forensics would be able to put things together a bit quicker. Finally entering the Mall itself, he began to notice something odd about the crowds, and notice a stink in the air, and then realized he faced more immediate problems.
The stink was desperation.
“We have another problem,” Janus informed him, on cue.
“Yeah, don’t I know it,” he replied.
Nobody looked at him oddly for openly talking to himself; such behaviour wasn’t unusual when most people wore fones and conducted most of their conversations with people several kilometres away from them. He studied those around him, the hollow cheeks and cheap clothing already turning thready at the seams, the collapsible flight bags and the scarred forearms resulting either from fucked-up All Health ID implantation, or the illegal removal of the same. Everything about them announced minimum-welfare and zero-asset status. No cash here, none at all. And, glancing at the store fronts, he saw little they could buy with their triple Cs—their community credit cards—though, inevitably, the doors to a Safe Departure clinic stood open to offer a free service for all. An angry murmur permeated the air, and even as he moved deeper in, a fight broke out at the entrance to a store that obviously did offer a little something on its shelves.
“The Inspectorate is closing the upper levels,” observed Janus.
Damn, that meant he’d have to move fast to get to the multi-storey before things turned ugly here. However, the imminent chaos was to his benefit, since it would very much confuse matters when the whole area went under a communications blackout. He just needed to be out of the middle of it before Inspectorate riot police turned up with their disablers, weighted batons and gas—a scene that he’d witnessed all too often. Of course, they wouldn’t use shepherds inside the mall, because of the lack of space—they’d be waiting outside.
After selling the blackmarket cigarettes and booze, then selling the Inspectorate transvan to be immediately broken up into spares, Saul had acquired enough cash to buy a cut ID implant and have it inserted in his arm. The people that did this were very professional, and their hygiene standards much higher than those of All Health. They didn’t ask him why his own implant was blank, and he didn’t ask where the new one came from, even though he knew that an ID implant died once its temperature dropped 10 per cent below human body temperature. Maybe they murdered people for their implants? Maybe they lurked like vultures about the dying rooms in hospitals whenever the “Safe Departure” nurses called by.
However, before Saul left the place the surgeon who had injected the implant acquainted him with the facts. During euthanasia, he explained, implants were deactivated, so the surgeon’s source were those who sold their implants for cash to buy things unobtainable with a triple C. This was not part of the knowledge Saul had possessed at the time, so it had been either lost along with his shoes and boots or he had been one of those people the Committee defined as a Societal Asset—therefore maintained in living conditions some way above subsistence level because of some expertise, though also kept under constant political supervision.
“It is estimated that over eight million people have died in the food riots across Asia,” Janus informed him. “The Inspectorate used inducers to begin with but, under direct instruction from Chairman Messina, cut power and water to the most uncontrollable areas for ten days, then followed that with air strikes before sending in the armour, including spiderguns and shepherds.”
On the road winding through the Provence countryside, Saul paused by a steel “gate”—an object whose name he had only just acquired during the last week—and leant on it shakily, gazing out at a robotic harvester that sat weeping rust in a field overgrown with weeds. Also in the field were people, scraping at the ground with handtools in search of tubers and wild garlic, or collecting edible seeds, while beyond them the sun was setting, an eye red with fatigue, on the horizon. No real crops here either, but at least this soil was better than the dustbowl he’d trudged through on the other side of the Luberon sprawl. The conditions here were the reason for the protest assembled around the government compound in the century-old town that formed the core of the sprawl—a peaceful but desperate affair to begin with. The nexus of the protest had seemed well organized and the participants’ demands clear. They needed fuel for the robotic harvesters, like the one sitting inactive out here, but more important, they required more than the subsistence trickle of water they were receiving from the Rhône-Durance dam. They needed enough for irrigation.
However, most of the crowd were zero-asset-status citizens who were hungry, thirsty, pissed off about a power shutdown that showed no sign of ending, and doubly pissed off because lights shone inside the compound at night, when the rest of the town was dark. And to heap on a further unacceptable indignity, only that morning two articulated lorries full of provisions, with armed enforcer escorts, had driven into the compound. Committee bureaucrats never went hungry or thirsty.
When the Inspectorate then turned up and started making arrests, things soon turned nasty.
“You got that from the Subnet?” Saul asked, rubbing his hand up and down his arm as he turned to watch scattered groups of citizens trudging up the same road. These people weren’t fleeing what had happened back in the Luberon sprawl, merely carrying their meagre belongings and getting away in search of something better. It had soon become apparent to him that there wasn’t anything better, unless you were a government employee.
“Yes, just before the Inspectorate hackers crashed it again.”
He snatched his hand away from his arm. The limb was undamaged though, when they turned the truck-mounted pain inducer on the crowd, it had seemed to work like an invisible flame thrower. He’d only caught part of it before managing to throw himself into an alleyway, yet it felt like his arm had been burnt down to the bone. He meanwhile caught a glimpse of a shepherd snatching up one of those who had been addressing the crowd, from among those screaming in agony, writhing on the ground, shitting and puking. It didn’t carry him away either, just brought him up to its underside and shredded him, dropping the bits. The sight dragged unbearable memories of Saul’s interrogation to the forefront of his mind and he ran away, as much to escape from them as from the inducer and that murderous robot. He managed to get past the enforcers erecting barricades, but a machine gun chattered, bullets thumping into the carbocrete right behind him, so he was forced to use the cover of a line of rusting cars to get safely away.
“Nothing about what happened back there?”
“The Subnet is still down.”
He moved on, sipping from his water bottle and ignoring the shrivelled apple still in his bag. He wasn’t hungry any more—seemed to have moved beyond that state.
“I have further penetrated secure communications and am building a general picture of the situation. There is too little energy from the fusion-power stations, not enough hydrogen being cracked to take up the slack, and the power-station building project has stalled.”
“Yet there’s enough funding for maintaining the Inspectorate and projects like the Argus Network?” He paused for just a second. “Don’t bother answering that—just tell me more about this general picture you’re building.”
Janus sketched out more of that picture and filled in the colours, mostly shit-brown and battleship-grey. As well as energy stocks, water supplies across the world were low—it sometimes happened, just like here, that officials had to make a choice between supplying a thirsty population or crop irrigation, and, managing to make no choice at all, ended up with dying crops and a thirsty population. Janus was able to report one instance of great quantities of food rotting inside warehouses because of the lack of power to supply either the refrigeration systems or the vehicles for transporting it. Meanwhile, just a few kilometres away, a scramjet airport was being extended at great cost, just so that Committee delegates and their numerous personal secretaries and bodyguards could more rapidly zip from location to location while going about their important government business.
The overall picture was that, yes, resources were in short supply for the general population, but only because Earth’s massive government apparatus sucked up nearly 80 per cent of them. And, though Saul instinctively attributed that to the Committee’s huge parasitic bureaucracy, something still didn’t quite add up. At the same time, government organizations seemed busier than ever, killing off industries, rerouting supply lines, while huge amounts of materials and equipment were being shifted to unknown locations.
“I’d like to believe that this crisis is going to result in Committee rule collapsing,” Saul remarked.
Saul nodded to himself, seeing hints of another picture that perhaps Janus had not spotted.
“A resources crash was inevitable, wasn’t it?”
“With the world population at its present levels, yes.”
“So Messina and the rest of those shits take an even tighter grasp on the reins of power, and hoard resources for their own use. After it’s over, they’ll still be holding those reins very tightly indeed.”
“Yes, that seems to be their intention.”
“How many people will die before the situation stabilizes?”
“Stability will not be achieved until the population level returns to that of the early twenty-first century.”
“So that means about twelve billion people dead. And the remaining six billion ruled by a government that would even like to control their thoughts.”
Moving higher up the hill, Saul gazed back to see columns of smoke now rising, big aeros hovering about them like steel vultures, lit up by the fires below, through which shepherds were striding. The stars were starting to come out, as they always would, no matter what happened down here.
Twelve billion people were going to die, and even if the five hundred and sixty delegates comprising the Committee disappeared in a puff of smoke then and there, those billions were still inevitably destined for the lime pits. He wasn’t sure which he hated most, the oppressive government of this world or the mindless, ever-breeding swarm it governed.
He looked higher into the sky, focusing on the numerous satellites shooting across it, many of them doubtless part of the Argus Network. Then he spotted Argus Station itself, a three-quarters wheel five kilometres across, built from the nickel-iron asteroid they’d shoved back out of the asteroid belt using the fusion engine cannibalized from Mars Traveller VI, and which now formed its hub. The mirrors that supplied concentrated sunlight to its two cable-extended smelting plants gleamed bright on either side of it, like eyes. At that same moment, all the frustration and anger he’d been feeling for some time, hardened into a cold kernel inside him.
He decided then he would take it away from them.