Even after national health services across the world turned into a lethal joke for the recipients of treatment, the Committee insisted upon amalgamating them to establish a worldwide service, free to every user. However, with status classification being established in parallel, what free treatment you received from All Health depended on how useful you were to society. Of course, since bureaucrats and politicians ran society and were, in their own opinion, the most useful members of it, they planned their own health care to be some leagues above that of the average citizen. But with the Committee world bureaucracy consisting of over 20 per cent of the population, even before taking into account the useful workers of state-run industries and services like All Health itself, there just weren’t the resources to go around, and therefore their plan lay far from reality. Only the top percentile received twenty-second-century medicine: the cancer-hunting microbots and anti-ageing drugs, the bespoke magic bullets and grafts or even organs grown from their own body tissue, the internal monitors and offline heart pumps ready to spring into action should the actual organ fail. At the other end of the scale, zero-asset citizens received healthcare on a par with that of the decrepit national health systems of the twentieth century, but with the not inconsiderable drawback that the superbugs now enjoyed a lead of a century and a half. Treatment in long-established hospitals presented a major risk, and people fought not to be taken in unless very sure that their ailment would otherwise kill them. Mobile hospitals were a slightly better option, and mobile black hospitals better still, but if you were zero-asset you were unlikely to be able to afford them unless you too were making cash money illegally.
Var backed off and scanned the interior of the crawler. Gisender’s knapsack lay beside her seat, so Var hoisted it up on to the console and opened it. Inside she found a flask, empty, and a lunchbox, empty too, both so prosaic and pathetic, but also a data disc. She powered up the crawler’s com screen, glad to see it still working despite the bullet holes torn through the console, popped the disc out of its case and inserted it into the slot below the screen. It whirred up to speed and immediately a menu appeared. For the moment she ignored it, reaching down next to pick up Gisender who, now dried out like a mummy, was as light as if made of balsa, and carried her into the rear of the crawler. She placed her gently down on the floor, her body reclined on its side since it had frozen in the sitting position, and found a tarpaulin to cover her.
“I’m sorry,” she said and, as tears started to well in her eyes, she turned away angrily and re-entered the cockpit to occupy Gisender’s seat, and there began scanning the menu.
Var assumed there must be some problem with the crawler’s computer or the disc itself, for the file containing personal messages directed to base personnel was empty, as were the other files containing software updates, Govnet search results and even the latest shipment manifest. However, some files were full: eyes-only stuff for Ricard, which she could not access, and the one containing the latest announcement from Delegate Margot Le Blanc—the usual weekly lecture that all base personnel had to sit through in the community room. Var opened it and let it play.
Le Blanc blinked into existence on the screen. As usual she was seated at her wide, polished and empty desk in her office in Brussels, above her head the space-exploration logo affixed to the wood-panelled wall behind her: a space plane penetrating the ring chain of the united world, all its links differently coloured to represent the various regions of Earth. The woman looked grave, but then that was nothing unusual, and Var felt a sneer appearing on her own face—such as she could never allow herself while watching such a broadcast within view of Ricard or any of his staff. Above desk level, Le Blanc wore a tight grey jacket straining at the buttons over her matronly running-to-fat body and a short-collar blouse, whilst out of sight she doubtless wore a neatly matching skirt and sensible shoes. An Inspectorate brooch cinched her blouse at the throat, but she wore no other jewellery, no make-up, had her hair in a page-boy cut, and a white and utterly utile fone in her ear. Her hands were neat, but meaty, the nails unvarnished. It seemed to Var that cloning technology must be more advanced than she had supposed, for many women in the upper echelons of the world bureaucracy looked just like Le Blanc.
“Citizens of Antares Base,” she began, as she always did, but this time how she continued was very different. “It is with a heavy heart that I address you today. Most of you, having been away from Earth for five years, and some for even longer, will be unaware of how circumstances have changed here. When you departed upon your great venture on behalf of the people, you left an Earth blossoming under the auspices of Committee rule.”
“Yeah, right,” said Var who, like many on the newest complement of technical staff for the base, had been secretively accessing the Subnet before her enforced departure. That was just about the time that the Inspectorate nuked Chicago and, as Var’s fellows were waiting at Minsk to board their space plane up to Traveller VIII where she awaited them in a holding cell, when the Committee had announced the restructuring of the East Saharan irrigation project. “Restructuring” always meant something had gone drastically wrong, so that probably meant starvation in the North African sprawls, along with rioting and the deployment of Inspectorate military.
“However,” Le Blanc continued, “the forces of chaos and disorder are never completely vanquished and are always ready to take advantage should the opportunity present. Dissidents and revolutionaries are ever ready to try and destroy the socialist dream; ever ready to sacrifice the lives of the people on the altar of some ridiculous, selfish ideology. These people have been working against the Committee for some time and, though they have on the whole been defeated, some of their plans have come to fruition and have caused…problems.” Here Le Blanc paused to shift about in her seat, as if she were suffering from haemorrhoids. “Of course, they can never win, and the damage they can cause to a society as strong as ours will always be minimal, but because of their actions, some restructuring is required.”
There it was, that word: restructuring.
“Because of the activities of these mentally subnormal people, we, the Committee, have decided, for the good of the people, to reallocate world resources. This is merely a momentary impediment, and I can guarantee you that we shall once again progress beyond it. Once this is behind us, further Traveller spacecraft can be constructed and supply lines can be re-established. Meanwhile—”
Var hit the pause button and just stared at the little screen. Further Traveller spacecraft can be constructed? What the hell happened to VII, VIII, IX and Messina’s ego-trip project the Alexander? She felt a horrible frustrated anger at this, for she had overseen the construction of the Traveller VIII and had been overseeing the construction of IX and the Alexander when they pulled her. She set the communication running again.
“—it is certain that you will face some hardship whilst you are maintaining humanity’s foothold on another world, but I am sure you will do so with the fortitude of true citizens of Earth. Some of you will find your final resting place in the red soil you labour upon, but be assured that your sacrifice will never be forgotten.” Le Blanc held up her fist. “Solidarity, citizens. With great regret I must now close down all communications while I and my fellow delegates focus our energies on the problems we face here. I leave you with the blessings and felicitations of the Committee.” The image blinked out to be replaced with the United Earth logo. Stirring music ensued; it was Holst, The Planets Suite, “Mars.”
“You fucking bitch!” Var exclaimed, but wondered why she should be surprised.
Right from when she had arrived here, five Earth years ago, things had been going wrong. Those who had been due to return on Traveller VIII had discovered that their space plane, the plane that had deposited Var and her fellows on the surface, did not have enough fuel to lift off again. Traveller VIII meanwhile had swung round Mars and, without delay, headed back to Earth. The delivery of new supplies had also been a fuck-up. Yes, the tonnage had been shipped, but half of the things they most needed here had not. Instead of the required soil biota, furnaces and replacement injectors for the fusion reactor, they’d received two shrink-wrapped shepherds and a tonne of aerofan spindles. This had been ascribed to the usual bureaucratic fudge which could be corrected with the next delivery, but, no, it seemed things were already winding down even then. This was how projects got abandoned: increasing screw-ups as each government department involved withdrew, until the inevitable announcement of restructuring, reallocation or, in this case, “We’re going to leave you to die now, sorry and all that.”
“Bitch!” Var repeated, then her attention strayed to a com light blinking on the console. “Miska?” she queried. Still no response via the coded channel they had been using, so perhaps something had gone wrong with that and he was now trying to talk to her through the crawler’s com. She hit the respond pad, but it wasn’t Miska’s face that appeared on the screen.
“Ah, at last,” said Ricard. “Miska shut down your com channel, and has been reluctant to provide me with the code.” Ricard turned to look down to his right. “Haven’t you, Miska?”
Var heard Miska’s voice followed by a fleshy thump—probably an enforcer’s boot going in. Ricard swung his gaze back to Var.
“You killed Gisender,” was all she could say.
“It was necessary to neutralize Gisender until certain protocols were in place.” He paused, shrugged. “Hard decisions have to be made, Var. With your expertise, this is something you must understand.”
Var let that go for the moment and instead asked, “So you didn’t think we needed to know Le Blanc’s last message?”
“As I suspected, you’ve seen it. That’s unfortunate.”
“How long, exactly, did you think you could keep it from us?” Var asked.
“As long as necessary. Such an announcement might have led to incorrect behaviour, and even disorder.”
“Incorrect behaviour,” Var repeated woodenly. “We could all die here and you’re still fretting about that. Are you fucking mad?”
“And disorder, Var,” he said gravely. “Disorder could lead to the destruction of government property—property it has cost billions to transport here. It is my remit to ensure this base remains functional and staffed, ready for when the supply route is re-established.”
“You are fucking mad.”
Ricard continued obliviously, “Certainly, some downsizing will be required and the assigned status of present personnel will have to be reevaluated.”
“There are no Travellers coming, Ricard. We’ve been left here to die!”
He nodded mildly. “The old Travellers are presently being recycled through the Argus bubblemetal plants, but new vessels should be available in between fifteen and twenty years.”
Var sat back hard, as if he’d punched her. Only now, as she really thought about it, did she realize what Ricard was implying. They all knew that, with present resources, the 163 people here—now 162—could survive unsupplied for only about five years. But it seemed Ricard had received private orders, and had made his own calculations. Downsizing? The only downsizing she could think he might be referring to was a reduction in the number of people using those resources. So, when he talked about re-evaluating status he meant deciding who he could afford to kill.
But if he thought their time here could be extended to ten or fifteen years, using such methods, he was still seriously mistaken, or had been seriously misled. Doubtless some Committee apparatchik had told him that a small complement of personnel could survive here, and when that small complement started to die, as they inevitably would, they would use up fewer resources and be less likely to damage any of that government property he had mentioned. The Committee clearly wanted to keep the Mars foothold open, the Mars base available. Staff weren’t so important, since replacements could be selected from a pool of billions.
“Surely you know you’re being lied to,” she said. “If we have any chance of survival here it’s with all personnel working on the problems we face.”
“Don’t you see?” he said. “Incorrect thought already, and yet you are an intelligent person who has only just viewed Le Blanc’s communication.”
Var stared at him for a long moment before saying, “So I’m guessing my status has just been downgraded.”
Ricard smiled cheerfully. “Certainly not! You are a valued member of the Antares Base staff, whose knowledge will be essential over the coming years.”
“But Gisender wasn’t,” she spat.
He shook his head, his expression mournful. “Merely a computer and power-systems technician—the kind of person who was useful while resources were abundant, but who would soon have become surplus to requirements.”
That really brought home to Var his cluelessness. He simply had no real idea about the necessities of survival here. Gisender had been exactly the sort of person they needed, someone who could actually repair things rather than merely head down to Stores for another plug-in replacement. Var also had no doubt that Ricard considered himself and his executives and enforcers to be utterly essential, even though they were people with skills generally limited to micromanaging and bullying.
Even then she saw it, striding out from behind Shankil’s Butte and heading towards her, kicking up little puffs of dust each time its two-toed feet thumped down on the peneplain. It seemed Ricard or his men possessed more technical skill than she gave them credit for, because one or more of them had assembled a shepherd and, in some ultimate expression of reality imitating art, a machine like something out of H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds was coming to seize her—out here on the surface of the world that gave it birth in that writer’s imagination.
In the terms of the society in which Saul found himself, he was a sociopath, though perhaps that might be considered a normal condition in a society that so easily eliminated its innocent citizens. But then who was innocent? Just by following the dictates of selfish genes in an overpopulated world, people were effectively killing each other. Yes, the Committee had turned killer as it expedited the coming resource crash, but that crash in and of itself wasn’t the product of either this political doctrine or that; it was the product of people—manswarm—endlessly breeding. Saul often felt great self-doubt, considering himself a killer without conscience, somehow damaged and not sane, but assured himself that this must have been how he was before, probably made that way by training, indoctrination, something external.
It was a comforting illusion of his that, as the product of civilization, he had once been civilized, and that to become a killer had required some traumatic twisting of his psyche. But, whatever way he looked at things, he knew that to succeed in his aims he must be even more ruthless than those now preparing to cling to power while billions died. It seemed a rather extreme demand on oneself.
It took Saul only a few moments to find an undamaged console, and then a chair not soaked with blood. A couple of those working in here had been wearing machine pistols like the one he had just used, and having deprived them of these weapons, he laid them down on the console and gazed outside.
Some people were standing about in stunned groups, the odd individual pointing towards the monitoring room, but he noted enforcers clad in body armour and grey camo-fatigues beginning to respond—running towards him. To give himself just a little more time, he picked up one of the weapons and fired at one approaching group, not particularly aiming. Carbocrete and earth erupted beside them and they ducked for cover behind a cell block. He fired again, here and there, sending others scurrying for cover, then sat down and opened his briefcase.
After unfolding his laptop on top of the console, the screen instantly bringing up Janus’s ammonite icon, he used a coil of optic cable to plug it into a nearby port, then waited a second until the icon started blinking.
“Are you good to go?” he enquired.
“I am,” Janus replied.
Immediately a loading bar opened up at the bottom of the screen, as the portion of Janus contained within the laptop began to load itself into the system here. Saul rattled his fingers on the console for a moment, then spotting some further movement down below, picked up a machine pistol and emptied its entire clip in that general direction. However, further out within the complex he saw another troop of Inspectorate enforcers cross the gap between two buildings. They were carrying armourglass shields and heavy assault rifles, and perhaps all that now slowed down their further response was not yet knowing if any hostages were being held here. Doubtless the cams above his head would soon apprise them of the facts, then, given the chance, they would attempt to turn this monitoring room into a pepperpot.
“I am in,” Janus informed him, its icon now appearing on every unbroken screen.
“Cam system first,” he suggested.
“Already done,” Janus replied.
“Is there a central locking system?”
“Yes, to all cells. However, three cells in maximum-security block A7 also need to be manually unlocked.”
“Well, open up everything you can,” Saul instructed, more just for something to say than anything else, for he knew that Janus would already be doing so. Even now, cell doors would be popping open all across the complex, with prisoners looking up in fear of another visit from their tormentors, but finding no one there. Some such prisoners, he knew, would just crouch inside their cells, too terrified to avail themselves of the open doors. Others would take the chance though, knowing that trying to escape would not make things any worse for them.
“ID implant codes located,” Janus informed him. “I am deleting prisoner IDs from the readergun system now, and simultaneously uploading staff IDs.”
“Have you found the one I described?” he asked.
“There are four who come close to your description.”
Four faces appeared on the screen, all dark-haired men clad in enforcer uniforms, but none of them possessed those hated features.
“He’s not there,” he said, at once feeling both disappointed and relieved, for what he was about to do was just too impersonal. He wanted to meet his interrogator face to face, and then kill the man with his bare hands. “Just don’t forget that Coran’s ID must be excluded,” he added. “And make sure Hannah Neumann’s ID isn’t considered a staff one, as we don’t really know for sure what her position is here.”
“I have located her. She is classified as a prisoner and is located in A7.”
From where he sat, Saul watched one of the readerguns swivel and fire off a three-shot burst, the flare from it just one bright flash and the report only one sound—the shots so close together it was impossible for the human eye or ear to distinguish between them. The guts and much of the chest of an Inspectorate enforcer splashed a grey concrete wall, just before the rest of him slammed into it. Other readerguns began to open up intermittently, then built to a steady thunder as Saul used the fingertips of his right hand to tap out a little ditty on the surface of the console before him. Finally, as the thunder started to die, he stood up and headed for the stairs.
Exiting the lower doors of the monitoring station, he ducked low and quickly slipped behind the vehicle that had brought him here, but a quick glance around revealed that no one was paying attention to him any more. The devastating and gory effectiveness of the readerguns had become immediately apparent. Corpses slumped at the termini of great red splashes of blood and body parts, or lying in spreading pools of blood, were now scattered all across the carbocrete. Whilst he watched, a woman tried to find a better hiding place by moving along a nearby wall. The gun positioned on the building opposite turned and fired, the three shots tracking down her body from the top, first taking off her head, then blowing her spine out of her back.
He stood up a little nervously, but the readerguns did not respond to him as he climbed into the electric buggy and engaged its motor. The short drive over to Cell Block A7 seemed part of a journey through some lower circle of hell: just canyons of concrete and the partially dismembered dead, blood splashes and body parts. There were no wounded here because the guns were almost incapable of inaccuracy at such close quarters. Only the particular position or angle of each detected target dictated the placing of the shots, but they were always at once lethal, wadcutter bullets slamming nearly head-sized chunks out of the most vital parts of the human body. Saul’s mouth was dry and he felt slightly sickened at the carnage he had achieved, but those feelings were dominated by the other colder and more ruthlessly cruel side of him.
Cell Block A7 looked little different from all the other blocks in the vicinity. He noted where an enforcer had tried to get inside but a gun had brought him down on the threshold. Saul dragged the soggy corpse aside before opening the door and stepping through. To his right was a small monitoring station, and two people whirling towards him.
“Have they stopped?” asked the woman, clearly scared and horrified.
The man started reaching out for her arm, as if to draw her back, perhaps realizing that anyone entering at that moment probably had something to do with what was happening outside. One burst from the machine pistol flung them both backwards into a vending machine, where they collapsed to the floor under a shower of hot coffee and milk powder.
Moving into the corridor beyond, Saul shoved open a door. A cell, but unoccupied: a single toilet in the corner and nothing else, that sole comfort provided only because Inspectorate enforcers did not want to handle shit-smeared prisoners.
What lay behind the door opposite came as a surprise, for the cell doors on this side of the corridor all opened into one single long room, the intervening walls having been torn out at some time in the past, and replaced here and there with glass partitions. Directly ahead of him lay a very high-tech operating theatre. He entered and turned right, passing two hospital beds on opposite sides of the aisle. A man occupied one of the beds, with numerous monitoring machines hooked up, optics and fluid feeds running into glued-together incisions in his skull, screens to one side running images that might even have been his dreams. Ahead lay further computer hardware, also squat tanks he recognized as artificial wombs, all containing small organic conglomerations rendered almost invisible by the masses of wires, tubes and optic threads plugged into them. He stepped back into the corridor through the next door along, and opened the one opposite. In the corner of this cell squatted a man who just stared at him blankly, his stubble-covered skull webbed with stitched-up wounds.
“If you run now,” Saul said, “you have a chance to escape.”
The man stood up. “Readerguns?”
“Targeting the staff only,” Saul explained.
The man stepped past him into the corridor and strolled off slowly down towards the exit. This wasn’t exactly the reaction Saul had expected, and the man’s speed of comprehension was somewhat unnerving.
Saul moved along to open the remaining cell.
Hannah Neumann had been provided with more comforts than the other prisoners, but then she wasn’t here for adjustment, since what resided inside her head was too valuable to risk being damaged by such crude measures. Her double-length cell contained a bed, toilet and shower and even a small kitchen area. She had also been provided with computer access, beside her terminal stretched a work surface strewn with computer components, paper read-outs, extra screens and processing units, and above this the entire wall was shelved with books. She turned her swivel chair away from the terminal and gazed at him with a kind of beaten acceptance.
Though sixty-five years of age, Hannah looked no older than twenty-five, so obviously they’d considered the new anti-ageing drugs sufficiently stable to use on her. She was slim, clad in a short jacket, like those often worn by dentists, over red jeans and trainers. Her hair was brown and up behind her head in a plastic clip, face pale and thin with dark shadows under her eyes. She scanned him from head to foot and, glancing down at himself, he noted too the splashes of blood staining his expensive suit. Her gaze finally came to rest on the machine pistol.
“I heard the readerguns firing out there,” she said. “I take it there’s been a breakout.”
“Certainly,” he replied. “Prisoners are escaping but the readerguns aren’t shooting at them.”
She stood up, and meekly followed him out through the carnage.
At first Hannah had assumed the readerguns were test firing, but when she heard the screaming, and the firing just continued, she reckoned on a breakout. A tightness in her chest and throat prewarned of familiar panic, and she was fighting to quell that as he stepped through the door. With blood spattered on his Inspectorate exec’s suit and a machine pistol clutched in his hand, she recognized him at once.
Oddly, when here stood a real and deadly reason why she should panic, the panic attack subsided like the liar it was, to be replaced by the genuine article: fear.
Even when he told her that the guns were killing the staff, her assessment of him didn’t change, for he must be an Inspectorate killer sent to ensure she never escaped. Her legs shaking and only a sudden effort of will stopping her peeing her knickers, she went with him meekly, hoping desperately for something, some way out, just some way of delaying the inevitable. He led her out into the room where Ruth and Joseph kept constant close watch on her, saw the pair of them lying dead and frosted with milk powder, coffee still pouring from the machine beside them and mingling with their blood. Outside, the readerguns were firing only intermittently and, stepping through the door, she could see why. Everyone caught in the open appeared to be dead.
Hannah felt she should be sick, but only numb blankness filled her.
“This way,” he said, leading her to an electric truck.
She glanced at him, only then realizing that the readerguns could not have been responsible for killing her guards. He had done it. Who was he? And why did his face look so odd?
Corpses everywhere, and here and there orange-overalled prisoners were unsteadily making their escape. As she and her captor reached the main gate, she saw the windows of the guard booth smashed, and even a couple of the mastiffs lying bullet-riddled in their extended enclosure girdling the compound.
“Transvan.” He was pointing her towards the nearest vehicle.
“Who are you?” she asked, finally.
He gazed at her with those cold eyes that seemed somehow wrong in that face—and yet somehow familiar.
“A question I, too, am curious to know the answer to,” he replied, staring at her with peculiar intensity. “And to which I hope you can supply an answer.”
She climbed in through the passenger door of the transvan. What else could she do? Or what else did she want to do? Underneath the shock, she felt something like excitement stir. Her life had been one of perpetual confinement and political supervision, the imminent threat of an adjustment cell just around the corner. She had never expected anything else. And now he was taking her out into a world she had never expected to see again.
Malden, she thought. He had to be one of Malden’s people.
But why had he grabbed her and not the revolutionary leader himself? The man must still be back there, still in his cell…unless he too had escaped, perhaps leaving the complex via a different route? Perhaps she had been taken out separately so as to cut down on the risk of both of them being caught?
The killer beside her drew the transvan to a halt at the gates, where the post-mounted recognition system just bleeped acceptance and opened them. While driving through, he took his machine pistol out of his lap and dumped it on the third seat, between them.
“I thought you were Inspectorate…here to kill me,” she said, since it now seemed clear that was not his intention.
“I think you underrate your value to the Committee,” he said. “If you were that dispensable, they would not have allowed you the anti-ageing drugs, or supplied you with everything you need to conduct your experiments.” He paused to glance at her expressionlessly. “Including the human subjects.”
“Not my choice,” she replied, feeling a surge of guilt.
He continued, “I’ve little doubt your escape will warrant the outlay of massive resources and any number of lives, just to put you back under lock and key.”
“Oh, yes,” he continued, a note of bitter sarcasm in his voice. “They want you regularly turning out all those astounding inventions and innovations that fall within your area of interest. They want further brain augmentation and more ways to connect it up to computer hardware. Your work is leading to developing the first post-humans, which is what many in the upper echelons of government want to become.”
It was a nightmare scenario: old and vicious ideologues made immortal by anti-ageing treatments, and super-intelligent through the hardware and software Hannah could create. An awareness of this had always been there, at the back of her mind. She studied him further, then tentatively reached up to the scalp just behind his ear. He glanced at her, but did not deny her investigation, so she probed with sensitive fingertips before snatching her hand away.
“You’ve got hardware in your skull,” she declared. “Advanced hardware.”
That was it then: he himself must be one of her experimental subjects, who had somehow escaped and now come back to exact his vengeance.
“And an artificial intelligence living on Govnet,” he added.
“An artificial intelligence,” she repeated woodenly. An artificial intelligence on Govnet? None of her experimental subjects could have managed that… Then something heavy and terrifying came and sat on her chest. Someone possessing that kind of resource, who quite evidently also hated the Committee? Far far too much of a coincidence…but he was dead. She’d watched him die, so how could this have anything to do with him? Hannah just sat there in silence turning it all over in her head, lost in a haze of speculation which she only came out of as he pulled into a layby.
“Vehicle change,” he said, nodding towards an old hydrocar parked ahead. Then he explained, “This place is a cam deadspot.”
Now Hannah felt a weird species of bewilderment, as if she’d just stepped through a hole in reality. She could not remember any time in her life when there wasn’t an active camera watching her every move. In her early years, behavioural programs had judged her and passed on snippets of her life to political officers for assessment. In later years, such officers had kept her under constant watch. Not having them watch her now felt really strange. It meant she could do something now. Say something now.
“Fuck the Committee,” she said abruptly, then felt her face redden, her chest and her throat tightening up. She flicked her gaze towards the various ragged-looking people wandering aimlessly about the area, almost afraid that someone might have heard her. But no real immediate danger seemed to threaten here, which was why her “liar” panic attack returned.
He glanced at her as he took a fuel can out from behind the seat.
“Quite.” He leaned across to open her door. “Out, now.”
She stepped out of the van, still feeling in a haze and reluctant to move away from the vehicle’s protective presence—out into the unwatched open. He rounded the front of the vehicle to stand before her, an electrical device of some kind clutched in one hand. “Step away from the van.”
Catching a whiff of diesel from the cab, she obeyed, fully expecting him to now torch the vehicle, but it turned out that the device he held wasn’t an igniter but some kind of scanner that he ran up and down her body, pausing for a moment each time it beeped.
“Five trackers on you,” he said, bringing the scanner back to the last detected point, where it beeped at her collar. He clicked another button, whilst holding the device in place, and she spotted a bar display rising on its little screen. When that reached the top, a green light blinked on. He pressed another button and a point of warmth expanded at her neck.
“Focused microwave burst,” she surmised, that sense of tight panic inside her fading with the warmth.
“Burns them out,” he supplied.
He found another two in her clothing: two dermal stick-ons which, after he dealt with them, left her skin reddened. He then paused the scanner device over her thigh.
“I’m afraid this is going to hurt,” he said flatly.
“What…what do you mean?”
“You’ve got a tracker embedded in the bone of your thigh.”
She saw the bar display rising and didn’t know how to protest. He triggered the device and at first the expected pain failed to register. But then it started to grow, a bone-deep ache that just kept climbing in intensity. She found herself gritting her teeth, her eyes watering, then her leg just gave way under her. He caught her around the waist, holding the device in place for a moment longer, till he finally retracted it.
He helped her hobble over to the hydrocar, and she was more than glad to climb inside. Sudden light caught her eye and she looked round to see fire blooming inside the transvan cab. She then looked round at the scattering of indigents up above on the concrete bank, watching the show.
“What about them?” she asked.
“They’ll disappear quick enough once the Inspectorate appear.”
He passed her a blister pack of painkillers and an analgesic patch, then concentrated on pulling the hydrocar out into a gap between passing autotrucks. Feeling no embarrassment, she pulled down her trousers and pressed the patch into place. She was so used to being watched. From behind came a whoomph and, glancing back again, she saw flames belch out of the gap where the transvan’s screen had been. Seeing this destruction too, the indigents began moving off.
“You expected deeply implanted trackers?” she said.
“I expected more than just one.”
Another vehicle change ensued in an underpass, presumably another deadspot, and again it was a place inhabited by ragged, aimless people. But then where wasn’t, these days? Everywhere Hannah looked, she could see hopeless souls trudging about with the demeanour of seniles in late-stage dementia, even though many of them weren’t noticeably old. Her head felt light as she sat staring out of the windscreen at these sad beings, but, even so, something seemed to begin unwinding inside her—years and years of it. Her leg aching after having to walk from car to car, she swallowed some of the painkillers, then realized her abductor genuinely had expected more than just one deeply implanted tracker, for the pills were strong. She didn’t remember sleeping, but after an odd hiatus she found they were driving along a carbocrete rural road, then parking on a patch of old concrete, amidst fields. Here, at last, no people in sight—which seemed very strange.
He hid the vehicle under a filthy canvas sheet whose colour matched the concrete, then guided her round by a trampled path, to a hatch that he pulled up. He then led her down below, and lights came on as they entered some sort of underground bunker. Next he tore off his mask—the layer of silicone rubber she had somehow known was there—to reveal features that she recognized at once.
Thinner-featured, of course. Hair dyed a different colour from its usual acid white. Something almost unhuman wearing a human face and finding it didn’t quite fit. That was him; that had always been Alan Saul. Of course she was glad to see him alive, but it meant that a whole bunch of complicated emotions, once securely cached in her mind, were no longer quite so secure.
“Smith,” he echoed, momentary rage transforming his expression, shortly displaced by puzzlement. He shook his head. “I know my own name, but that’s about all I know.”
“You don’t remember Salem Smith?”
She should not feel disappointed with his amnesia. Considering what Smith had done to him, it was miraculous he possessed a mind at all—or that he was even alive.
“Alan Saul,” she confirmed tightly. “But don’t even bother looking on Govnet or the Subnets for anything regarding yourself. You erased everything, and your work was so highly classified they put nothing back. Even I’m only allowed access to parts of it—after it’s been vetted by a committee of fourteen science-policy advisers.”
She told him.