The greater the power and extent of the state, the more room there is for corruption. The more inept state services and industries become, the more pies it takes its huge cut from and the more regulation it imposes, the greater the call for black markets. This last fact is one governments consistently failed to learn, even after the stark lesson of American Prohibition. Deadspots are where you’ll find them. Inspectorate officers grow rich in cash by selling the locations of such deadspots to the underworld, which in turn makes its cut from those it opens up such spots to. The breakers come there—those who burn out the tracers in stolen vehicles and disassemble them for their components, those who take apart computer hardware to sell to others maintaining the Subnet, and those who chop up human bodies for usable organs—usually to be sold to low-echelon officials not yet enjoying twenty-second-century medical care. Retailers come to sell other blackmarket goods: food disapproved of by All Health, like high-fat dairy products, sugary drinks and sweets; cigarettes, drugs, illegal ABV booze, coffee and tea without the cumulative emetics to discourage abuse. And then there are the black surgeries dealing in illegal implants, ID implant excision and exchange, gunshot wounds, and all those injuries and illnesses not catered for under All Health—but only for those who can afford them.
In a totalitarian state, some people are just too dangerous to be allowed to live. Saul now considered his second-hand knowledge of the person he had been. He was a brilliant, brilliant man, indeed a genius, but with a huge drawback in that he was also only a marginally functional human being. It could be called autism, or maybe Asperger’s syndrome, but Saul liked to think that so focused on his work had he been, he simply had not found the time, space or energy to deal with the trivialities of normal human relationships. Able to speak and read even before he could coordinate his limbs, his previous self had been sent immediately into special schools, but even they could not quite handle him and he ended up being home-tutored by educational experts. By the age of ten, he also outpaced these experts, and thereafter had taken charge of his own education. Had Saul been a child of zero-asset-status parents, all this might have caused great problems, and sufficient funding and resources might have been hard to find, but his parents were high-level Committee executives and able to lavish attention on him.
For Saul, every test, both mental or physical, was of overriding interest and in nothing he tried did he fail to excel. He practised martial arts, taking his second black belt in shotokan karate whilst studying for eight doctorates in the physical sciences and three in the arts. Very soon he began to produce: making vast improvements to the software of agricultural robots, then designing a new kind of materially inert microbot that could hunt through the human body for cancer cells without causing rejection problems. Next he applied the same inert materials to someone else’s invention of a chip interface to the human mind, so it too would not activate the immune system. That was Hannah’s invention.
Saul thus became a “societal asset” even as the Committee was just inventing the term. When Committee political officers realized how valuable he could be, he was seconded to a gated science community secure in the Dinaric Alps of Albania and there, for the first time, and like all the other scientists thus seconded, he came under intense political scrutiny. This was where he had first met Hannah.
“That was forty years ago, Alan,” Hannah told him.
“How old am I?” he asked.
“Somewhere in your sixties,” she replied. “Just like us all, you received anti-ageing treatments.”
“I see.” He nodded. “So how, then, did I end up in a crate heading for the Calais Incinerator?”
“You didn’t do what you were told. You kept antagonizing them.” She gazed at him steadily. “Most of the community thought you a brat. They’d been working under the eyes of political officers since their school days, yet you’d experienced none of that.”
“How…how did I antagonize them?”
“Probably the first example was what you did thirty years ago when you were into splicing nanotech and viruses.” Hannah shrugged. “They still haven’t been able to work out what you actually did, and neither have I. You created something: a splicing of the cancer-hunting nanite you’d developed and a retrovirus used to fix the genetic faults that lead to some cancers—one of the so-called magic bullets. You injected it into yourself and actually edited your own DNA. You wouldn’t tell them what you’d done, and that’s when they really started to get pissed off with you.”
“Why wouldn’t I tell them?”
“I think you had developed an extreme dislike of Political Director Smith.”
That name again. The mention of it caused some sort of deep reaction and, as on previously hearing it, he again chose not to analyse the feeling.
“He wouldn’t allow you unsupervised contact with your sister,” Hannah added.
“I have a sister?” Saul felt a surge of something inside—something difficult to identify.
“You do. As brilliant as you, apparently, and seconded like you to work on government projects.”
“I don’t know. You never talked about her much.”
That tight emotion wound itself even tighter inside him, and he glanced up, visualizing the Argus Station somewhere above them, seeing void beyond it, and some sort of resolution.
“Janus,” he said, “find her.”
“I have already begun searching,” the AI replied. “Unfortunately, with your own files deleted, I don’t have much to work on. Females with the surname Saul number two point six million, and if all reference to you has been deleted then there’ll be no record that they had a brother called Alan. It is also possible that she is now listed under a married name.”
“She’ll be listed in a protected-asset file.”
“Which makes the search even more dangerous and difficult.”
After a moment, he shrugged the problem away. “Keep looking whenever you have the processing space available.” He was aware he felt strong emotion about his sister, but pursuing his present course now seemed more important. In fact he had the odd feeling that by sticking to this course, the matter of his sister would be resolved, and that it was inclusive—yet that made no sense at all.
“They could easily have forced me to tell them what I did,” he said to Hannah.
“They searched your files but couldn’t find very much, because you kept most of what you achieved inside your head. They’d already tried the viral nanite on a political prisoner, and it killed him quicker than cyanide.” She added, “You got away with a lot simply because your mother was high up in the Committee Executive.”
“What about my father?”
“Dead by then.”
“What happened next? What finally made them put me in that crate?”
Hannah explained the history.
One of the scientists working in the Dinaric community, a woman who always came under the most intense scrutiny because the political officers knew she disagreed with the whole concept of world government, had created a very powerful form of Hyex laminate which she supplied to the Albanian Separatists. They then blew the periphery fence and got her and five other scientists out, but that effectively spelled the end of the community. The Applied Sciences branch of the Inspectorate Executive now decided it would be better to separate the scientists into small groups, each focusing on one discrete area of the various projects the Committee wanted quickly advanced. One group worked on fusion-drive technology, one on satellite imaging and recognition programs, another on gerontology and yet another on GM bacteria used to clear up pollution, and so forth. Hannah’s particular group had the goal of connecting up the human mind to a computer, whereupon Alan Saul, his focus now straying from nanotech and retrovirals to artificial intelligence, was seconded to her group under the supervision of Political Director Smith.
They did some superb work, finally managing to install a terabyte processor inside a human skull, though never able to connect it up completely to the human brain, only managing to wire it in through the sensory nerves. Saul decided he wanted one of these processors inside his own skull and so, with his usual blinkered focus, he hacked into research-team security when Smith was absent, and falsified the orders…
“I inserted that processor in your head, Alan,” Hannah now told him. “I thought it a stupid risk to take, but I never disobeyed orders. I assumed you had suggested it to Smith and he’d agreed, perhaps after you claimed that by using the technology you might be able to crack the mind-silicon interface.”
Saul had then been concentrating on trying to copy the function of the human mind into software, on silicon, to make it easier to crack that same interface. Smith and his advisers were getting both very worried and very excited about this work, and when Alan used some of his comlife, as he called it, to punch through security so easily, it seemed that their worries were justified.
“Smith hated you, though I don’t think he could have done anything about that if your mother had still been alive, but she’d died a month before.” Hannah shook her head. “I tried to excuse your behaviour by telling Smith you’d gone a bit strange after your mother’s death, but the truth was that you showed no reaction to that at all. It just didn’t seem to interest you.”
Smith finally cleared permission to take Alan off the project and send him for adjustment. But that came a little too late, because Saul crashed computer security systems and all the research computers before escaping. While in the outside world, he created false community credit, a false identity, and even managed to penetrate secure Committee files to erase all details that might be used to track him down. Alan Saul thus disappeared from most computer systems and most live computer files, except for the discs retained at the Dinaric community. It was the information on a single disc like this that enabled newly developed recognition software to track him down. Enforcers arrested him while he was living in a ministerial apartment in the Caribbean, and handed him directly to Smith for adjustment.
“He used the hardware inside your head and pain inducers to torture you,” explained Hannah. “He even brought me and the rest of the team in to watch, just so we understood where any disobedience would lead. When he’d finished, you didn’t have a mind left; in fact large parts of your brain suffered lethal bleeds, and tissue had died inside your skull, too. They then dragged you off for disposal, so I don’t know how you can be here now.”
So Smith was his interrogator. Even as Hannah finished speaking, Saul also knew why he hadn’t died. A memory lurked just at the periphery of his mental perception, a ghostly hint of the person he had once been. He realized that to lose his mind was his greatest terror, and Smith, knowing this with the instinct of all sadists, had therefore chosen that way to destroy him. He also realized that he had done something to ensure that both his brain and his mind would prove difficult to totally destroy, perhaps something involving that retroviral and anti-ageing fix. Nevertheless, Smith had come very close to his objective: Saul still possessed a mind, but not the mind of the original Alan Saul.
“Was I violent?” he asked.
“Never,” she replied. “In fact, if you had been capable of real violence, I don’t think they would ever have caught you.”
So that was it. The first Alan Saul had not been sufficiently ruthless, but had ensured that his creation would be.
The British government had established the World War Two bunker in preparation for a Nazi invasion, perhaps to provide just one more safehouse amidst many for dissident forces or a government in hiding, but what remained of its history was unclear. It was Janus who found it for Saul, then carefully erased all reference to it from official computer records, but he needed to ensure that no local knowledge of it existed either. It lay amidst agricultural land, just fifty metres to one side of a road composed of carbocrete blocks along which only robotic harvesters ran. It was a location frequented by very few humans now.
To gain access to the croplands he had to assume yet another identity but, wanting to use the bolt-hole long-term, he did not lift that identity from a corpse. Janus created a new persona for him, and to acquire it he needed to visit an All Health clinic to have the necessary ID implant injected into his arm, which struck him as even more risky than killing off another bureaucrat. All agricultural land now being private government property, only approved workers were allowed anywhere near it. Any intruder was at risk of being spattered by readerguns mounted on the harvesters or independently mobile and stalking through the crops like iron spiders—in fact, the precursors to modern spiderguns—or in danger of being attacked by razorbirds, with a similarly messy result. He’d already seen the decaying corpses of those who had tried to supplement their rations: their remains got ploughed into the soil after harvest, old bones shattered by the disking that broke up the clods of earth.
Driving his recently requisitioned mini-digger up from the roadway, Saul came to a concrete area enclosed on three sides by block walls, now overgrown with weeds and occupied by rusted-together piles of swarf and machine parts and an ancient truck probably belonging to a scrap dealer from some previous age. He recognized this area as a bay intended for mounding beets before they were transported away—from the time before such vegetables were wrenched from the ground by robotic harvesters, washed and then mashed up, before the mulch was injected straight into one of the many processing plants scattered across the local landscape.
“You are heading in the right direction,” Janus informed him. “Another twenty metres and you should be right over the entrance.”
It lay behind the beet bay, where brambles and nettles fought for predominance with GM beans, so there was no visible sign of it on the surface. Scraping downwards a metre through this tangle, he unearthed a layer of cracked concrete and managed to pull away a lot of this before revealing a rusted cast-iron lid. This he tore up to expose steps heading down underneath the beet bay. He picked up his torch, climbed out of the digger and descended.
Because it was concealed inside a hill, only the lower floor of the bunker had flooded. The large upper chamber and four side rooms were packed with all sorts of interesting rubbish: sacks of solidified fertilizer, a table and chairs made of plastic now as brittle as eggshell, a kitchen counter with an old gas stove, the gas bottle underneath it; a generator that had obviously broken down, then been taken apart and abandoned; some cups, plates and cutlery in decaying kitchen units which, judging by the date of a newspaper stuck to the table, must have been only a hundred years old. He had much work to do.
It took him a full month to get the required equipment in place. He first ran a buried power line from a harvester recharging station, then a pipe from the surrounding irrigation grid. Pumping out the lower floor revealed rotten crates filled with the rusted shells of food tins, and also an escape tunnel filled with rubble. After running a dehumidifier inside—one stolen from one of the grain-processing plants—he sprayed every surface with a layer of sealant. All the while he resided there, he kept the dehumidifier running and never required any of the irrigation water, instead using water leeched from air that was constantly moistened by the damp surrounding concrete.
Whilst Saul made the place comfortable, Janus worked its magic in the local agricultural security, until such time as Saul would no longer require his new identity—the recognition systems just ignoring him. When finally ready to act, he was fully linked via the agricultural network in Govnet and the intermittent Subnet, and possessed a weapons cache, an excess of computer hardware, and his own cams installed in the surrounding area as an additional layer of security sitting below Janus’s access to the government cams and readerguns. Also a plentiful food supply, and all the other comforts of a home.
“This place is mine,” he told her, which was a statement you just did not hear these days. The Committee owned everything and allotted to its citizens those things they might require on the basis of their status—their usefulness. And, with what Hannah had seen, she knew that people did not even own their own bodies, while the property of their minds now lay under constant siege.
“No cams in here,” he added. “No monitoring of any kind.”
“Nice place,” said Hannah, looking round, tears welling in her eyes.
This was incredible, like a dream they’d once shared: no government watchers, none of those constant flushes of embarrassment in case she might have behaved in a manner some political officer might find questionable. Being here seemed like stepping back, over a century or more, to the time when people actually owned their own homes and government intrusion stopped at the front door. Yet, perhaps understandably, she now felt clumsy and somehow foolish. So long had she lived within set parameters defining both her behaviour and what she was allowed to say that suddenly without them she felt almost lost.
“A temporary accommodation,” he explained. “Nowhere on Earth is safe.”
“So where next?” She swallowed drily, tried to get herself back under control.
Grow up. For Christ sake, grow up!
“I have attained my first goal,” he said emotionlessly. “I now know who I am, so it is time for me to attain my next goal.” His face showed extreme emotion, raw hate. “Now I must show these fuckers they’ve really made an enemy.”
When he told her how, she wondered where the hell that idea had come from. He studied her with fevered intensity, perhaps waiting for her to declare him insane, but usual definitions of sanity did not apply to the person he had once been and probably did not apply to the person he was now. She considered what he had told her about this artificial intelligence on Govnet. He’d mentioned a name, Janus, which was revealing in itself. In light of her own research, and what she knew of his previous work, she could see where this inevitably had to go.
“You are incomplete,” she said, her voice catching. “And once complete you’ll be much more able to do what you want.”
He didn’t know. He just had no idea of what was possible…Then, again, he had come looking for her first even though, from his point of view, she was merely a footnote to his main goal, just a way to learn about his past. Belatedly she wondered if his older self had prepared his present mind for this, impelled him to go after the one person who could give him the tools to bring his plan—his vengeance—to fruition. Yet she had once known that other self so intimately, and this seemed too cold and cruel a calculation, even for him.
“I’m not talking about what memories or what portions of your mind you’ve lost.” She took a firmer grip on her emotions, wiped her face shakily. “I’m talking about what it’s possible for you to become.”
Hannah paused, suddenly horrified with herself, then after a moment continued, “I was currently working on a full organic interface of the human mind with an internal computer, and thence with computer networks. Unfortunately that interface, the new cerebral computer and software, are still back at the cell complex.”
She explained further, and it seemed like her words just plugged themselves into his brain like programming patches, yet did nothing to slow down the impetus of something unstoppable. He frightened her at an almost visceral level because of his capabilities, even with his mind fractured, damaged. However, the thought of once again falling into the hands of the Inspectorate frightened her even more, for even here in this damp underground bunker she was experiencing a freedom of thought and expression not previously allowed her, never allowed since the moment the first community political officer had told her to carefully watch her parents and report any incorrect behaviour.
“I have to go back, then,” he concluded.
“Yes, perhaps,” she agreed, wondering what price she was prepared to pay for her own continuing freedom and survival.
“The Inspectorate won’t be expecting that,” he noted, whilst carrying out the prosaic task of pouring hot water from a kettle. “But still it’s a risky venture. My plan will require substantial revision.”
She felt a scream of laughter rising in her chest. Risky venture? He’d just broken her out of Inspectorate HQ London, slaughtering most of the staff in the process. Yet, even so, he obviously wanted what she had to offer. Was it because of that ghostly memory of who he had once been, of the powerful intelligence that lay wrecked inside his skull? Was it the promise of turning his mind into something post-human, superhuman, that tightened his expression into something dangerously predatory? Maybe it was more complicated than that. Maybe his old self wanted to live again, and this was the nearest it could get to him, out of the land of the dead.
“The artificial intelligence is the key,” Hannah told him. “They would only allow me just small portions of the comlife presently being developed, and it works every time—for a little while at least. And if this Janus is capable of penetrating government security like you’ve just demonstrated, then it’s far in advance of anything I knew about.” She used some of the tea he’d just made her to wash down another painkiller. The ache in her leg was not so bad now—it just felt like she’d bashed it against the edge of a desk.
“You’ve had people connect up?” he asked. “Fully?”
Her tea was just as she liked it: strong with two sugars. It bothered her that somehow he had remembered this small fact, yet nothing else about her.
“Yeah but, with the comlife they allowed me, it was like trying to direct-link laptops using different computer languages. Janus is almost certainly like all the other comlife you created: an almost direct synaptic copy of your own mind.”
“Alan Saul lives again?”
“No, there should be no memories there…unless you did something no one knows about while you were a free agent. But you claimed Janus activated at about the same time you woke up in that crate?”
“Perhaps Janus just initiated before but wasn’t conscious, and then started searching for the coded signal from the hardware you installed inside my head?”
She nodded. It could be that his earlier self had prepared the AI just before his capture, and that it found him only after the guards removed him from the interrogation cell, perhaps when his brain re-engaged with the processor lodged in his skull. However, she felt a horrible intimation: perhaps Saul had connived at his own capture, knowing that he needed to become something else, and that only by destroying what he already was could he…no, no, that way lay madness.
“You’ll go alone?” she asked.
She didn’t quite manage to hide her relief.
It now being night-time, diode lamps bathed the cell complex in an unforgiving glare. Between the security fences where the mastiffs had once patrolled, leggy, bunched-up steel shapes squatted—spiderguns at rest. The inner areas now swarmed with Inspectorate investigators, and from the surrounding mess, Saul assumed they’d only just managed to get the readerguns offline. With thin plastic-film overalls covering their clothes, workers were identifying corpses, scooping them into body bags, then loading them on to electric carts to be conveyed to nearby ambulances. The crowd here was good cover, because one more investigator on the scene would be of no particular note. Also, since they’d yet to unscramble the mess Janus had made of their system, they wouldn’t have figured out who had entered or left during this incident, so no one would be particularly wanting to interrogate Avram Coran. Abandoning his car in the internal car park, he acquired a transvan, drove it over to Cell Block A7 and reversed up to the doors, beside an enforcer’s armoured car.
“What’s the situation now?” he asked.
“All security is offline and all the computers down,” Janus replied. “They had to shut everything down just to stop the readerguns.”
Good. Confusion was just what he needed. He climbed out of the transvan.
“You two,” he pointed to two of the Inspectorate enforcers outside the doors, “come with me.”
The things Hannah really needed could be fitted into his briefcase: namely the secondary processor and implant hardware enclosed in a cylinder lit with LEDs to show they were powered up and running interface software; also the organic interface, which resided in a container the size of a cigarette packet—again under power but this time to keep the scrap of semi-organic tissue frozen. However, she had drawn up a secondary list of surgical items, and they would fill up a crate like the one Smith had dispatched him in to the incinerator. It took about half an hour to get this stuff loaded, and just as he headed for Transvan Gate Two, an Inspectorate forensics van, trailed by an Inspectorate limousine, passed him heading in the other direction. He guessed there would be some delay whilst they sorted out how they were going to conduct their investigation, so hopefully it would be a little while before someone got round to mentioning that an Inspectorate officer had already removed certain items from the scene.
On through the gate and out, then into the nearest tunnel. He parked in the underpass where previously he had made the second vehicle change, fifty kilometres from the burnt-out van he’d used in order to get Hannah out. Even though not precisely following the previous route, he was now using the same vehicles a second time, and this worried him. Before moving the crate over to the car, he ran his scanner over it, and found it loaded with trackers, so he just took off the lid and spilled it and its contents out the back of the van, knowing that the whole lot would be spread out among the indigents of the sprawl by the time the Inspectorate even started looking. However, the only trackers he found on the essential items were fixed on their containers and therefore easy to dispose of. Fortunately the items themselves were aseptically sealed, ready for surgical implantation.
By early morning he reached the bunker where Hannah, having only just roused from his bed, greeted him wearily.
“You did it,” she observed.
He dropped the briefcase on the worktop and pulled out the objects she had requested.
“Is that all?”
“Too many trackers on the other stuff,” he said. “We’ll have to acquire it from elsewhere.”
She looked disappointed, but seemed to shrug it off and move on. “That means we’ll need equipment from a high-tech surgery.” She scanned her surroundings and frowned. “Preferably the use of a high-tech surgical theatre.”
“Mobile black hospital.”
She nodded in agreement, which surprised him. How could she have learned about such illegal concerns from her prison?
“Problem,” Janus abruptly warned him.
“What sort of problem?”
Hannah looked at him oddly, but he pointed a finger at his bonefone, and she nodded in understanding. Janus did not reply; all he got was a fizzing noise from the fone.
Of course, it had all been too damned easy. He grabbed up a scanner from the work top and ran it over himself. Nothing, so what had he missed? They must have worked out what happened to Avram Coran and been tracking him by satellite the moment he departed the cell complex—he could see no other possibility. He abruptly stepped over to the two screens allowing him a view outside. The agricultural security net was offline and most of his own cams were now down, the screen becoming a patchwork of fizzing squares with only a few clear views. He realized the clear views came from cams with direct fibre-optic links, but they were enough. One big aero had landed in a nearby field and another was still descending. Inspectorate enforcers were pouring from the first and heading across directly to the old beet storage bay.
“We’ve got trouble,” he said, gazing at the screen disbelievingly, the evidence before his eyes not yet really impacting.
“Oh, Christ.” Hannah’s voice was full of weary pain.
“They’re using EM blocking, and have knocked out the agricultural network here,” he observed. “I can’t talk to Janus.” He abruptly felt a strange sense of loss, not remembering ever having gone without the voice of Janus in his ear…never in all his two-year lifespan.
“We’re dead,” said Hannah.
He turned to study her. “I might be, but they’ll sacrifice anything at all in order to take you alive.” Simple fact of life: while she was close to him they’d use ionic stunners which didn’t have a great range, maybe disablers or gas, but they certainly wouldn’t be firing live rounds. His mind abruptly kicked into gear again and he jerked round to gaze down at the open briefcase, then after a moment he walked over to a cupboard standing against one wall, took out a package and returned to drop it into the case.
“An optigate?” Hannah enquired, eyeing the box as he slammed the case shut.
“More specifically: a teragate optic socket with skin port and inert fibre-grid exterior.”
“For installing in a human body.”
He nodded. They used such ports for access to cerebral computers employed to replace function and control stem-cell regrowth in the severely brain-damaged. It was twenty-second-century medicine.
“But where?” she asked.
He tapped his temple where the control for his internal computer resided. “We haven’t enough time for me to explain now.” He turned and headed towards his weapons cache. She followed him over, and watched while he donned a bulletproof jacket, belted on an automatic still in its holster, shouldered the strap of an assault rifle, then loaded ammo and grenades into a backpack, though reserving some of the latter for his pockets. He slipped the briefcase and its precious components in too.
“Do you know how to use any of this?” He waved a hand towards the weapons.
“I know, but I’ve never done so.”
“You came with me,” he said, “but how long are you prepared to stay with me?”
“For as long as it takes. I’m not going back.”
She pulled on a bulletproof jacket, then selected a light, short assault rifle and plenty of ammunition. She also took up a couple of press-button grenades and put them in her pocket.
“Where now?” she asked.
“We go down.”
After he’d managed to get things set up in the bunker just as he wanted, and begun formulating the detail of his plan, he had found physical activity a welcome distraction, so had often spent time clearing rubble out of the escape tunnel. At the end of the tunnel he found only bare earth, checked the position of that point on GPS, then dug towards a particular location, sealing the earth walls all along the way behind him with a spray of fibre bonding. His tunnel exited about a hundred metres away from the bunker, through the side of a drainage dyke, and just another few metres from a wide underground pipe.
As Hannah went ahead of him, down the stairs to the lower floor, he felt really reluctant to leave. So much work, so much equipment—and a home of his own. He would have had to abandon it at some point, but hadn’t expected it so early in the game. Saul stepped over to one of the computer consoles to input the code detaching the whole system from the surrounding agricultural network, then input another code, whereupon a number of things happened simultaneously. A proximity explosive activated under the entrance hatch, the computer began scrubbing data and overwriting with nonsense, time and time again, and a three-minute countdown began to trigger detonators within the Hyex laminate buried in the bunker walls, and along the walls of the tunnel below. He took one last regretful look around, then followed Hannah downstairs.
A steel door closed off the entrance to the tunnel. He now unlocked and opened it, pointing his assault rifle inside, just in case the cam images he had seen from down here had in some way been subverted. Nobody home, thankfully, but then they wouldn’t have had time to do seismic scanning here, so hopefully only knew that he’d descended into a hole in the ground. He moved ahead, rifle braced against his shoulder constantly and his nerves on edge. Fragmented memories surfaced of what happened to him the last time the Inspectorate had got him in its tender care, so the weight of the grenades in his pockets was a comforting one. Whether they took Hannah alive, he left up to her, but they certainly would not be capturing him.
The tunnel curved round, lined with concrete until they entered the freshly dug section, where the walls now looked to be made of fibreglass. He then caught a whiff of something: a perfume-like smell that was characteristic of some insecticides.
As they hurtled ahead, he could feel the knockout gas starting to haze everything. Soon they reached the exit hatch, where he fought a growing lethargy whilst undogging it. He thrust it open and hauled himself out on to a muddy slope, then had to reach back inside and drag out Hannah, who seemed unable to control her limbs. He slammed the hatch shut.
They lay gasping on the bank, clearing the gas from their lungs, but their limbs still heavy as if they had just woken from a deep sleep.
“Come on, movement’ll clear it quicker.”
Sliding down the bank, they ended up to their knees in water choked with sickly yellow silkweed, then waded along the V-shaped dyke towards the pipe and ducked inside it. The massive crump of an explosion resounded, and a shockwave sent them staggering. Glancing back, Saul saw an enforcer, his clothing afire, slam into one bank of the dyke and roll down it, sizzling in the water and thrashing about, seemingly unable to put out the flames. His screams pursued them into the darkness.
Hannah knew something about the illegal hospitals Saul had mentioned—she had learned about them from the kind of people supplied for her experimental work. He had originally planned on heading for such a hospital, but as they stepped out of the end of the pipe, and a mobile readergun stepped down into the dyke ahead of them, it seemed they weren’t going to get much further.
The incredible unfairness of it suddenly raged up inside her. “Fuck you!” she shouted, and opened fire, but the kick of her gun put her aim well off, the bullets cutting clods out of the dyke’s lip, some distance above the advancing robot. She then threw herself in one direction, while Saul took the other.
Like a harvestman spider, two metres across and fashioned of wrought iron, it crab-walked and slid down the bank, the sharp tips of its extended legs slicing through the mud. As Hannah lay there expecting to die, she noticed how fast Saul moved. Already he was up in a squat on the bank, swinging his weapon round to target the thing, but then he hesitated.
“Shoot it!” she yelled, trying to pull her own weapon out from underneath her.
“Those attacking us would have taken all the readerguns offline, to prevent them shooting their own soldiers or, worse still,” he glanced her way, “killing you.” He pointed to the robot. “If this thing was back to running its usual program, we’d have been dead less than a second after it spotted us.”
Hannah now managed to get her weapon aimed at the thing, but didn’t open fire. She just stared, taking in its details and wondering how Saul managed to show so little fear. The robot’s main body was a squat upright bullet of metal painted in earthy camouflage patterns, a sensory band under clear glass encircled its circumference. The barrel of its gun protruded like a proboscis, while depending underneath its body, like a prolapsed bowel, hung its magazine and power supply.
“It might have been reprogrammed just to capture us alive,” he said speculatively.
She still expected him to open fire, but he abruptly lowered his weapon. The robot was now behaving very strangely, as with one sharp foot it wrote something on the mud bank. After a pause, he scrambled down the bank and waded forward to take a look. Hannah heaved herself to her feet, leg aching again, and waded after him. They both peered down at the mathematically precise letters.
“PWRFL GOVT COMLF TRCKD U THRU ME. J.”
“Janus?” she gasped.
“Are you?” Saul asked the robot.
The spider dipped briefly in acknowledgement.
He glanced at her. “That would be something you should know more about than I do.”
“NET UNSAFE MST EXIT,” the thing now wrote.
“How?” he asked.
Again that dip of acknowledgement.
“We needed it to do so anyway, and we’ve got the right place for it,” said Hannah shakily. That was the next stage, after the installation of further hardware in Saul’s head.
“The secondary processor,” he observed. Then he addressed the spider, “You’re fully loaded to this readergun?”
“How do I download you?”
“THRU U BUT COMLF WIL KNO LOCA.”
“I have to tell you when…”
“BECON,” Janus scribed in the mud, then something crackled inside the spider and, smoking, it sank down into the dyke water, jerked once and lay still.
“Beacon?” He looked round at Hannah.
“Janus must have found you by following the beacon in your processor,” she said. “I can only think it’s shut down now, probably by Janus, and that you’ll be able to find some way to start it running again.”
He nodded. “Yeah, but before then we need to find a mobile surgery.” He stepped over the now burnt-out robot and led the way along the dyke. As she followed, Hannah’s foot kicked against something in the water, and for a moment she gazed down in horror at the skull she had brought to the surface—the thing wearing a wig of yellow silkweed. She then saw bones embedded in the dyke bank, all the way along the bank for as far as she could see.