It has long been a dream of humanity to go out into space, but as dreams become reality they lose their mythological quality, sliding into the humdrum day-to-day, and the dreams fade. The first Moon landings marked the dawning of a new age, yet dropped into second place in the headlines when pitched against the latest “Politician Buggers Rent Boy” scandal. So died the public wonder at the space stations in near-Earth orbit, and at the mission to Mars. It’s only human nature, in the end. However, throughout all these ages technology continued its steady advance. The entire computing power of the control room of NASA during those first Moon missions could not match that of an ordinary home PC thirty years later, and then the computing power of a home PC could be fitted into something no bigger than an ear stud a further fifty years down the line. But beyond a certain point, the size of the technology within a computer becomes irrelevant, because there’s a minimum size to which you can reduce the button a finger presses. Humans, unfortunately, are the weak component in the circuit, as also in all their logical creations.
Sited on the second-highest floor of a multi-storey car park, the All Health mobile surgery had obviously remained stationary for quite some time, seeing that the power cables extending up from it through holes in the ceiling probably connected to photovoltaic panels above. Gazing at the vehicle and assessing all the people in the vicinity, as he and Hannah headed over, Saul replayed his justification for the four corpses he left behind him, and he wondered how Hannah would have reacted to hearing the truth.
They would eventually be heading back that way, back through that makeshift toll gate on the stairs, and he wouldn’t be in such great shape then, so he had removed a potential threat. And, though he needed to be utterly ruthless to achieve his aims, to be honest he enjoyed being able to blow away any scum found in his path. Did that mean he was a sociopath? Just as the four corpses behind him had demonstrated, the quicker civilization disintegrated, the sooner its veneer was peeled away from those prepared to discard their social conditioning to survive. Of course, it was Smith who had peeled away Saul’s social conditioning in an adjustment cell. In this case the blame was his.
“Dr Bronstein?” he enquired.
Bronstein had once been a fat man, so now the skin of his face hung in loose folds, just as his newly outsize clothing hung around his body. He sat in a deckchair, smoking a cigar, his feet up in front of him on a crate marked with All Health’s logo of a caduceus set against a world map. A bottle of clear moonshine and a glass rested on a couple of crates stacked beside him.
“Yup, that’d be me.”
“Business slow today?” Saul asked, looking around.
On the market stalls behind, a pathetic amount of food was on display, while the best business was being conducted out of the back of a transvan. It contained bags of homegrown tobacco, in strong demand because everyone knew that when you’re smoking you don’t feel so hungry. Here and there lolled guards armed with very up-to-date assault rifles—underworld enforcers. Over to the right, behind an area almost fenced off by car bodies, lay piles of engine parts and burnt-out computer-locking mechanisms. Pillars of tyres formed the entrance to this zone, but no one was currently doing any business there. Saul guessed that the car-breaking business must be on the wane. Over to the left the open side of the car park overlooked the urban sprawl, now lost in the hazy polluted distance. There were plenty of people about, he noticed, but none by the mobile hospital except Bronstein himself.
The doctor inspected the end of his cigar. “It’s a matter of priorities.”
“You got enough cash for lung wash and a relining you now spend it on bread.”
Hannah stepped forward. “I didn’t realize that All Health was charging for its services now.”
“All Health?” He eyed her wonderingly. “I stopped working for them once they told me to carry on reusing syringes after the sterilizers broke down.” He waved his cigar at the vehicle behind. “I’m private now, and this set-up is my pension plan.”
“Won’t they miss it?” Saul gestured at the vehicle.
“Amazing what records can disappear when you M-bullet a bowel cancer for the right official.” Bronstein drew on his cigar again and let out a long stream of smoke. “So what can I do for you?”
“You’ve got the full auto-surgery with telefactored instruments, clean box and full life-support?” Hannah asked.
“Nerve-sheath scouring and microtools?”
“Yup.” He looked slightly puzzled and wary now.
“Sigurd biotic tools?”
“Fuck me, lady, this is an AH unit not a Committee hospital.”
“But you must do implants here, so what do you have available?”
“Some Sigurd,” he admitted, stubbing out his cigar and taking his feet off the crate, “and old Clavier biotics.”
“That should do it.”
“So what’s the deal?”
“Cerebral implants,” she said.
He grimaced. “I do some, but nothing after the Net Chips.”
“Not a problem. I’ll operate and you can assist.”
“Lady, no one uses my stuff.”
Saul unshouldered his backpack, opened it and took out a heavy parcel wrapped in newspaper, tore the end open and showed Bronstein the contents. At first he’d considered bringing the considerable sums of cash he’d accumulated, but since a bag of tomatoes now cost upwards of four hundred Euros, he would have needed a transvan to carry the necessary payment. However, there’s something people always fall back on in times of hardship: gold. He’d got five bars in the pack, all he’d been able to lay his hands on over the last two years, and hoped he wouldn’t need to hand over them all. The doctor let out a low whistle and slowly stood up.
“Best we go inside,” he said.
The driver’s cab and living quarters took up the entire forward compartment of the All Health trailer bus, the rear section accommodating the surgery itself. The rear door led first into a small office-cum-waiting room, with a desk and computer, but with all the chairs intended for customers and most of the surrounding space taken up by stacks of supplies. Most of the crates bore the All Health logo, but some boasted the blood-red stamp indicating reserved government property. Once they were all inside, Bronstein closed and locked the door, then moved over to perch on the edge of his desk.
“Cerebral implants,” he said.
Saul took the briefcase out of his pack, rested it on the desk and snapped it open. Bronstein peered inside for a moment, then reached in to pick up the cigarette-packet-sized container for the organic interface, studying the blue LEDs along one edge, then the miniscreen that ran a convoluted screen saver.
“Organics,” he said, as he turned to regard Hannah. “You’d better know what you’re doing, lady, because I don’t pay compensation here.” Next he picked up the box containing the teragate optic socket and examined it in puzzlement.
Hannah gazed through the glass window beside them at the operating theatre. Saul had also inspected this room and been glad to find it spotlessly clean. No used syringes, pus-soaked dressings or bloodstains on the floor, like you’d usually find in an AH hospital.
“I know what I’m doing,” she replied firmly.
Bronstein turned to Saul. “I take it you’re the recipient?”
“Yes,” Saul confirmed.
Bronstein pointed to a door adjoining the window. “Clean port through there. You strip, depilate your head and take a shower, making sure you use the small cleaning head on your mouth, nose, ears and anus, then dry yourself with the fibresept towel and put on some disposeralls. You okay with that?”
“I think I can manage,” Saul replied, “but we’ve yet to agree a price.” He felt more than a little edgy. Though he’d undergone implant removals previously in places like this—having done most implantations himself—those had all been under local anaesthetic. He didn’t like the degree of trust involved in going under full anaesthetic and letting someone take a scalpel to his head. Yes, Hannah would be doing the procedure, but if Bronstein found the bag of gold attractive enough, Saul had no doubt that he might choose his moment to take her down. Disposing of two corpses would be no problem for him and, as they had witnessed on the way here, no one would be investigating their disappearance.
“Two of those gold bars will cover it,” Bronstein replied. “One more, maybe, if there’s any complications.” He gazed at Saul steadily. “But that ain’t your main problem right now, is it?”
“I don’t follow you,” Saul said.
“You armed?” Bronstein asked.
“Why do you want to know that?”
“Because, if you are, you can take whatever weapon you’ve got through the shower with you.”
That would not be a problem for the automatic Saul was carrying, since it had been over a hundred years since damp could affect the firing of a modern weapon.
“A lot of good that’ll…” Saul paused and looked at Hannah. “You mean I’ll be conscious during the operation?”
She nodded. “You don’t ever attach up such hardware to an unconscious brain, or you get activation problems.”
“I see.” He took out the three bars of gold and set them down on Bronstein’s desk, then headed straight for the door. As Saul went through, Bronstein was already picking up one of the bars to feed through the narrow throat of the kind of scanner a jeweller would normally use. Doubtless many of the doctor’s clients now paid him with precious metals or with gems.
The short passageway beyond the door terminated at the shower booth, with a plastic box on a low shelf beside it for the client’s belongings, and coathangers arranged above. Saul stripped and placed all his clothing in the box, along with his boots and backpack, but he retained the automatic as he stepped into the shower to inspect its complex controls. He first dealt with his head, the dyed hair dropping as powder into the shower tray from the high-speed tungsten-carbide heads of the shaver pad. Next he spread depilating cream over his scalp from a spigot beside the shaver recess, and following the instructions on a screen just above the spigot, he waited until the timer hit zero before turning on the shower itself.
As he punched the shower button, needles of water jetted towards him from one wall, also from the ceiling and from the floor. At the same time, bactericide UV lights came on. The greenish water had to be loaded with powerful antivirals and antibacterials, for an astringent stink filled the steamy air. Brown water disappeared down the drain as his dissolved hair went with it, followed by the stripped-off outer dermis and reactive soap bonded to particles freed from his body. He detached the dildo-shaped secondary cleaner head from its recess and used it to wash everything the needle jets weren’t reaching, starting with his nose and mouth, where it tasted and felt like he was spraying turpentine inside them. After a few minutes of this, the water changed colour again, and began to eliminate the slimy feeling from his skin, till finally it shut down altogether and a small hatch popped open beside him to reveal a rolled-up pad. It smelt strongly of bleach, and he recognized it as a fibresept towel. After drying himself thoroughly, he tried to exit via the door he’d entered by, but it was now securely locked. Feeling slightly stupid, he opened the alternative door, and took up the disposeralls hanging just outside it as he finally entered the operating theatre.
Bronstein came through next, clad in disposeralls too. He glanced at Saul, then went to pick up a remote control. He pointed this at the surgical table which, with a low hum, transformed itself into a surgical chair. “Okay, take a seat.”
Saul did as instructed, resting the gun in his lap. He wondered what good the weapon would do him after the doctor folded up clamps from behind the chair so as to immobilize his head, but then the man also utilized a non-standard addition in the form of a mirror mounted on a jointed arm. Still, if Bronstein decided to skull-fuck him with a liposuction tube, Saul didn’t suppose he’d be able to react very quickly. Hannah now entered, clad in disposeralls, and carried the secondary processor and organic interface over to a nearby work surface where she could safely open their containers.
Bronstein attached monitoring pads through strategically placed vents in Saul’s disposeralls, then hooked up a saline pressure feed. The same feed would also be injecting into him all sorts of antivirals, antibiotics, antishocks, and other drugs beside. Again he felt really vulnerable because Bronstein could easily start feeding cyanide into him for all he knew. In a situation like this, he just could not guarantee safety. While the doctor made all these preparations, Hannah carefully placed the items destined for installation in a stainless-steel tray filled with a clear fluid. This she laid on a trolley loaded with surgical cutlery, which she guided over to Saul’s right side. Peering down at the tray, he quickly identified the processor as a white object about the size of a hundred-Euro coin, but with smoothly rounded edges from which radiated hair-thin wires attached to tiny objects like beads of polished ruby. The teragate, by contrast, was an object that could be mistaken for a blackened cigar butt. The organic interface resembled a scale taken from a mirror carp, but with vaguely identifiable capillaries running through it and a spongy-looking collection of tubes at its base where, he guessed, it would be connected into his blood supply and lymphatic system.
As he peered down at these items, something cold and wet was pressed against his scalp, right over his right ear and the jaw below, as Bronstein affixed an anaesthetic cap and half-mask. The doctor then swung in a kidney dish to rest just a short distance from Saul’s jaw, and began to adjust the clamps that would hold his head steady. Saul tightened his grip on the gun and watched the doctor carefully in the mirror, but Bronstein soon had everything arranged to his satisfaction, and stepped back round beside the trolley to gaze with curious expectancy at Hannah. By now Saul’s head and the right side of his face felt as numb as granite. Hannah studied the half-mask closely and he supposed there must be some sort of display on it, for after a moment she stripped it off decisively, and he felt nothing.
“We’ll start with the teragate,” she said, taking up a ceramic scalpel. “That’s just a swap-and-plug job.”
He watched her making quick and neat incisions into his temple, but he couldn’t get a clear view of them. Next a slim set of tongues, and a sound as of cornflakes being crushed. She extracted something from his head and dropped it into a wad of tissues that Bronstein held ready, then reached for the teragate socket. By then Bronstein was back, using a suction tube to drain the wound of fluids, as Hannah inserted the socket into Saul’s temple with a simple push and twist. Last to go in was a small cap of synthetic skin and, but for the blood all down Saul’s neck, it appeared as if no surgery had been performed at all.
“Now for the real work,” said Hannah, taking up another scalpel, this one crescent-shaped. As Saul watched her draw it across the top of his head to his temple, then down behind his right ear, in one long neat and decisive slice, he tried to remain analytical and ignore the fact that, despite being numb to pain, he could still feel the tugging of the blade. Next she used a small curved spatula to unzip his head like a bag for a bowling ball, while Bronstein started up the bone saw. At that point, Saul raised his right finger and pushed the mirror aside. That was enough thanks.
After a few minutes of vibration, some manipulation and tugging accompanied by a butcher’s shop stench, there was a sucking sound as if someone was opening up an oyster, then a dull clunk, and it didn’t take much expertise for Saul to realize that a chunk of his skull now rested in the kidney dish.
Hannah took up the other dish, the one that held the processor and interface, and placed it somewhere near the kidney dish. More cutting ensued, whilst Bronstein wheeled over a pedestal-mounted microsurgery, then retreated as Hannah positioned the machine directly over Saul’s opened skull. She locked its nose into the framework that held his head steady, stepped round behind to insert her hands into the telefactor gloves, and studied the screen before her. Then the machine whined into motion, moving tiny implements over distances measured in fractions of a millimetre—at which point things started to turn a little strange.
Saul’s internal computer came online of its own accord, its menu flicking up just to the right of his vision and the cursor scrolling through it, selecting options too quickly for him to follow, while finding submenus he didn’t even know existed. Code ran down through his artificial retina, breaking and fizzing like a faulty screen, then, weirdly, the operating theatre abruptly expanded to seem a couple of kilometres wide, while Bronstein loomed beside him like a giant studying something on his enormous palmtop.
“Never seen this set-up before,” the doctor remarked.
“Not many people have,” Hannah replied.
Next the operating theatre appeared claustrophobically small, but did Saul mind? No, he didn’t, because he was now gazing across three different sections of the London sprawl simultaneously: a massive visual input, but one that he could encompass and process. However, he managed to enjoy this only for a short time before a sense of imminent threat began to impinge on him. He was now out in the computer networks and fully exposed, feeling certain that something dark and dangerous was looking for him.
“Getting some weird visuals,” he slurred.
“You were still open to the Internet,” she explained. “It seems Janus restored your link even when it severed its own.”
“Janus?” Bronstein enquired.
Did they really need the doctor? Saul felt sure Hannah could complete the operation by herself now that she had the necessary equipment. Perhaps it would be safer if he just raised the automatic and put a bullet through the side of Bronstein’s head.
“Not your concern,” Hannah replied.
“I’m just curious, obviously.”
“Put it this way,” she said, “you already know enough now to get yourself permanently adjusted through a recycling plant. Do you really want to know more?”
“Well, things can’t get much worse than you describe. Yes, I do want to know.”
After a pause in which yellowish three-dimensional space sectioned by cubic gridlines began to expand inside Saul’s skull, where surely there could not be room for it, she replied, “If you think things can’t get any worse than that, you obviously don’t know enough.”
“Hey, the Inspectorate catches up with me and I’m in for adjustment anyway—or more likely a bullet through the back of the head. Yeah, I know they can stick you under an inducer until your mind’s turned to jelly, but that’ll never happen to me.”
“Why not?” Hannah asked.
“A lot of us have them now: a Hyex implant at the base of the skull.” He paused thoughtfully. “I can kill myself simply with a thought.”
“A lot of you?” Hannah echoed.
The space inside Saul’s skull had meanwhile grown vast. In fact it seemed infinite now; something underlying his mind and his perception of…everything, but still he managed to interject, before Bronstein answered, “He’s a revolutionary…Hannah.” By then he had the automatic raised and pointing straight at Bronstein’s face. The doctor seemed strangely unsurprised by this. “Over there.” Saul gestured with the weapon towards the far side of the theatre and, after a shrug, the doctor moved to where instructed, leant back against a work surface, and folded his arms.
“Just a minute or so and I’ll be able to glue this bit of skull back in,” she replied.
He had just wanted the time frame, not the physical detail.
“What are you two?” Bronstein asked.
“None of your business,” Saul replied, calculating the best move to make next. As his capacity for thought expanded, it seemed to be sapping his capacity to act. Other considerations impinged, like, if he shot the doctor now, this place would be filled with a mist of blood that might be infected with something, or he might damage computer hardware linked to the microsurgery.
“Only Committee executives get given the kind of stuff in your head, and they certainly don’t come here to have it fitted,” Bronstein said.
The doctor had to have some emergency way of dealing with Hannah and himself, Saul realized. Allowing them to walk in here armed had just been to reassure them, but Bronstein would never otherwise put himself at such a disadvantage, since armed customers might decide to retrieve any payment they had made. Saul needed to work out his options before Hannah finished up, because it would be then that the doctor made his move.
“It’s still none of your business,” Saul replied.
“Maybe we can help each other,” Bronstein suggested, one finger going up to his own temple.
He clearly had hardware in his own skull, and was doing something with it. After a moment he exclaimed, “Jesus!” and suddenly looked very frightened. “We have to go!” He pushed himself away from the worktop.
Saul heard sizzling and smelt burnt meat as Hannah sealed blood vessels.
“Stay the fuck where you are!”
Next a smell he recognized as bone glue.
Just then something slammed against the trailer van, throwing it sideways until it crashed to a halt. Bronstein’s feet slid out from under him, but he saved himself from falling by grabbing the work surface behind him. The microsurgery tore loose from the framework steadying Saul’s head, falling to the floor with a sound like a dropped cutlery drawer, and Hannah ended up sprawled across his lap. A great booming roar filled the multi-storey and Saul heard loose objects smashing against the side of the vehicle. Almost simultaneous with this, the paralytic, which Bronstein’s clean lock must have administered to her as they entered the surgery, had now activated and dropped Hannah straight to the floor the moment she pulled herself off Saul’s lap. At the same moment, Saul found himself incapable of pulling the trigger. His arm dropped, heavy as lead. Consciousness faded.
As consciousness slowly returned, Saul felt totally disconnected from his body, his mind cowering alone like a cockroach in some huge tiled bathroom. But then the cockroach began to break apart, each piece of it assigned to a separate tile, as the chaotic structure of thoughts normally organized on an evolutionary organic basis found itself being stored much more logically, and given room. The table of elements sat there perfectly clear in his memory, and he found he could view those elements in any order he chose: whether by valency, atomic weight or even chromatic spectra. Spreading out from this mutable table reached a forest of chemical formulae, all just as mutable, whereupon he found disconnected parts of himself idly modelling and filling in the gaps in his knowledge. From all this he could link to subatomic formulae, but by then was positioned on another tile within his mental space, in another cube of the grid…No, such images were too much of a simplification for the benefit of his animal consciousness, for his mental space was multidimensional, the blocks of information reordering and linking up dependent on requirements. He understood this all to be real, as he woke up; his only problem was that he himself did not feel real. If he had believed in the human soul, he would have now felt certain that his own had taken a sabbatical. It seemed that those parts of his brain dealing with self-image and ego had somehow been swamped.
“More advanced than the shit in my head, then,” said a voice.
He opened his eyes to find he lay sideways in a ratty armchair, surrounded by a haze of cigarette smoke. His head, which felt as if it’d been kicked by a horse, rested on a stained pillow. Focusing his gaze, he saw two armed guards standing by the door. With great care he turned his head to take in the rest of the room.
“Why?” asked the man, scratching at a crusty, sewn-up split in his skull as he paced round behind her, coming to a halt beside the same table.
“I’ve yet to be able to either obtain or build anything useful, and anyway it’s too early for installation,” she lied to him. Saul could sense her fear, no matter how hard she tried to conceal it. The man standing over her had, after all, been one of her experimental subjects, with hardware implanted in his skull to test it, and doubtless through which he could be interrogated. It hadn’t mattered to the government if this procedure killed him; he had been due to die anyway.
“Malden,” Saul observed, recognizing the man he had released from IHQ London.
He wore the fatigues of an Inspectorate enforcer, over a heavy-boned physique winnowed of spare flesh. Now sprouting bristles on the scalp and chin, his skull-like head had regained some humanity, but dark circles still underscored his eyes, and stitched-up slices were mapped across his crown and behind his ears. When he snapped a glance towards Saul with bloodshot eyes, it felt almost like a blow. Malden assessed him, making calculations based on this new input of him being awake and cognizant, then dismissed him as he returned his attention to Hannah. After a moment he picked up a hand-rolled cigarette from the ashtray on the table and took a drag.
“How did he manage to penetrate Inspectorate security?” Malden asked.
Saul abruptly felt the imminence of a bullet through his brain. He had used Janus to penetrate Inspectorate security, an AI hiding on Govnet which he could summon at any moment, in turn alerting the Inspectorate to his location, and he would be dead if Malden found that out. Saul sat up, feeling sick and slightly dizzy, and with a thought called up a menu to some inner visual field.
“I used a virus,” he said. “I could give you the schematics, but I doubt it will work again now the Inspectorate is aware of it.” He paused, in his mental space somehow summoning up a virtual screen and beginning to lay down the coding for just such a virus, in case Malden requested it. Even as he did so it felt as if he had started up some sort of pump in his head, his pulse thundering inside it and a pain growing between his eyes. “Then, again, the Inspectorate has a bit of a problem at the moment, so might be slow to respond.” Saul gazed at the man intently. “How is it we are here now and what was that blast?”
Malden gave him a humourless smile. “My people were watching out for the good Dr Neumann here, so consider my surprise when she walked straight into one of our surgical units.” He paused. “The blast was a tactical nuke, and Inspectorate headquarters London is now a radioactive crater.”
In Bronstein’s mobile surgery they had been quite some distance from the HQ, yet were still at the periphery of the blast. That meant more than just the HQ was gone. As Saul absorbed the implications of this information, the part of his mind trying to build a virus just hung, nothing happening. The pain then peaked and the virtual screen dissolved in a jagged mass of migraine lights. He’d just discovered his limitations.
“How?” he asked.
Again that glance: still Malden was comparing the danger Saul represented to how useful he might be, and deciding whether or not to kill him. Saul tried to run a search through his extended mind, and again that pump started up and the pain increased. Nothing happened for a moment, then something seemed to connect inside his head, with an almost physical clunk, and he was in. It was like no search he had ever run before, more like trying hard to remember something. Menus appeared, overlaid and linked, no longer two-dimensional but spreading out in a multidimensional array, and in that instant he remembered how to turn on the beacon that would summon both Janus and the Inspectorate to him.
“It was a simple matter,” Malden spat. “Inspectorate headquarters had a weapons cache which included tactical atomics. While the staff were hiding from the readerguns, I entered that cache and left them a parting gift. So the moment they offlined their system to shut down the guns, a timer started running.”
Such understatement. To be able to open the cache and then access the computer of an atomic, he must have penetrated Inspectorate security on a level similar to that of Janus. Saul wondered if any of the staff had got in his way, and knew that any who had would have died, quickly and quietly. In the sheer ruthlessness stakes, Malden was some way ahead of Saul.
“And what are your plans now?” he asked.
Malden just blinked, then turned back to face Hannah. “Can you copy the comlife I’m running, and load it to him?”
“How long?” Malden asked.
“A few days.”
Malden turned back to Saul. “I plan to tear their world government apart. What I need to know is what your plans are. Are you prepared to join me?”
“Yes,” Saul replied, realizing that “no” was not a healthy option.
Malden stood up. “We need to move. You’ll stay with Bronstein until you’re ready. I’ve meanwhile got to move other assets into place and notify the Council that it begins now.”
“What begins now?” asked Hannah.
“The revolution,” Malden replied succinctly. “Merrick and Davidson here will accompany you and, if you need anything, Bronstein can contact me in an instant.” He stared at Hannah for a moment longer, and she seemed to be trying to shrink in her chair. “I’m still undecided about you, Doctor, so don’t disappoint me.” He departed, saying to the guards, “Take them to Bronstein.”
As the door closed, Saul gazed at Hannah. He wanted to know more before acting, but they needed some time to talk. He bitterly reflected upon the similarity between the Committee and “the Council,” and wondered just how extensive this revolution might become. No matter if it was big enough to take down the government, he understood enough history to know that revolutions never ever led directly to a less autocratic regime.
“Come on,” said one of the guards.
Saul tried to stand up, and nearly crashed out of the chair. Hannah came over to steady him, and he managed to struggle to his feet. He still wore the disposeralls from Bronstein’s mobile surgery, and his feet were bare. As, with one guard ahead and one behind, they entered a short corridor outside, he considered what it would be safe to ask her.
“What do you know about this revolution?” he enquired.
“Malden was a prime catch for the Inspectorate,” she said, averting her eyes. “That’s why they wanted the hardware put inside his skull—so they could get at all the information it contained.” She glanced at him briefly. “I was present during his first interrogation, when they learnt enough to know that the Council is worldwide and keeps in contact via unbroken code on the Subnet. They were just learning that the revolutionaries possess arms caches and have agents high up in government, when the interrogation had to be stopped before Malden died.”
At the end of a corridor stinking of piss and scrawled with graffiti, they descended a stairway where dirty windows overlooked the sprawl. Above this a distant black cloud trailed across the horizon, strobing with the emergency lights of numerous aeros buzzing about it like flies round a turd. At the base of this he spotted the glare of orange-red fires.
He gestured towards the grim scene. “How much damage?”
“I don’t know.”
“Inspectorate HQ and about four square kilometres of surrounding ’burbs,” interrupted the guard ahead of them.
“A lot of innocent people,” Saul suggested.
The guard glanced over his shoulder. “Lot of IHQ staff and other Committee shits who lived in those ’burbs. Might even have been some delegates there, too.” He shrugged. “Anyway, the General had to grab his chance.”
“You’re Merrick?” Saul asked, whilst easily making some complex calculations in his head.
“So the General just killed about four million people.”
“Total war,” said Davidson, from behind. “Better a quick death than starvation.”
Saul controlled his urge to enter a vitriolic debate about this, since he was now supposed to be a new recruit to their cause. He felt in two minds about it all anyway, since billions were going to die over the next few years. Whoever ended up in charge would not be able to change that. Maybe a massive loss of life in order to displace a totalitarian government was a cheap price to pay, when those lives were due to end anyway—that is, if the revolutionaries were likely to be less totalitarian. It just seemed morally wrong, though he then suppressed a self-mocking laugh. Who was he to be sitting in moral judgement over anyone?
Raggedy people, silenced by hunger and lack of hope, just sat numbly on the stairs and in the corridors branching off from each landing. This tenement was ZA, and he started wondering if it lay within a zero-asset sector, until they stepped out into a street thronged with both ZA and SA citizens. A mixed area, then, and clearly one the government had yet to decide what to do with. He was about to step out into the street, when Merrick halted him with a hand held against his chest.
The reason soon became apparent as a shadow fell across the street and people started running for cover. A shepherd paced into sight, its twin-toed feet crunching down on chunks of broken concrete. It paused for a moment, as if thinking to itself, its gecko tentacles writhing under the smooth tick-like body, then abruptly it moved on.
“Fucking things,” muttered Davidson.
Merrick ducked out to look up and down the street, then, calling back, “Clear,” he moved out.
Parked at the kerb, Bronstein’s All Health vehicle showed damage from the blast, with a great dent in the trailer’s side and the windscreen of its cab crazed with cracks. Despite the two armed guards escorting Saul and Hannah, no one seemed to take much notice of them. The residents stood about in groups on a street littered with broken glass and chunks of rubble, gazing up at the smoke cloud from the distant firestorm, while posing questions that none of them could answer. He noted a lack of the usual collection of flight bags and rucksacks carried in readiness for the next shopping opportunity. For once these people were not thinking about the source of their next meal.
Their guards hustled the pair of them up to the door accessing the living quarters located just behind the cab. Merrick stayed with them in the space lined with bunks down either side, whilst Davidson moved forward into the cab itself. Their clothing lay ready on one of the bunks, but their weapons now stood out by their absence—as did Saul’s gold.
Bronstein headed back to check on them just as the vehicle’s engine whined into life. “Do you need anything?” he asked Hannah, with a nod towards Saul.
“The drugs you gave us should be sufficient, but food and drink would be good too,” she said.
“You’ll find it in the fridge.” He was staring at Saul, who could see how pale and sad the doctor looked. Perhaps Bronstein secretly had some reservations about the nuclear incineration of four million people, being a surgeon after all. “I’ll be up front,” he finished, then abruptly returned to the cab.
Hannah got changed first, ignoring Merrick’s faint smile as he inspected her naked body. Then she helped Saul to dress. He kept deliberately emphasizing his debility, though already starting to feel much better. He began to feel even stronger after eating the tomatoes and sausage Hannah had taken from the fridge, washed down with a pint of water and accompanied by the painkillers and antibiotics she supplied him. Merrick seemed pretty relaxed around the pair, abandoning his rifle on the seat beside him, sprawling out his feet and closing his eyes. He probably reckoned that Saul was in no condition to jump him, or maybe he believed that Saul was genuinely now a paid-up revolutionary. However, as Merrick took the opportunity to use the toilet, he took his assault rifle along with him.
“I need the toilet too,” said Saul, standing up shakily and clutching his stomach, as Merrick returned. The sudden lurching of the vehicle negotiating through the crowds or around fallen debris was timely indeed. Saul stumbled forward just as Merrick turned his head to point back towards the empty toilet, and a side-fist caught the man precisely on his temple. Saul clutched the front of Merrick’s jacket as he went down, guiding his descent on to one of the bunks, and then quickly took hold of his rifle.
Saul turned to Hannah. “I’m not joining any revolution,” he announced.
She stared at Merrick, perhaps wondering if he had killed the man. Then she looked up at Saul. “I didn’t for a moment think you would.”
You have to grab your opportunities when you can, and he now saw one, just as the vehicle slowed down on approaching some sort of encampment sheltering in a highway tunnel. Saul activated the beacon, and an instant later a voice spoke in his head.
“You took your time,” said Janus.
“Download to me,” he instructed. “Download now.”
“You have been found,” replied Janus. “The Inspectorate comlife has you located in an All Health mobile hospital presently on the A12c.”
“Not a problem,” he said. “Just download.”
“My home is in your head,” Janus observed.
“I know, and I repeat: download to me now.”
As the vehicle entered the tunnel, they simply opened the side door and stepped out. Saul stumbled and went down, splitting the knee of his trousers just as chunks of data began landing inside his skull, like bricks tumbling into a goldfish bowl.
“I’m drowning,” said Janus. And those were the last words the AI ever spoke.