In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, massive processing power and memory outpaced other technologies. It took many years before the software was invented to utilize it efficiently, and before sufficiently intelligent systems could be designed. When those were finally invented, this advance created its own mini-revolutions in personal entertainment and access to information; unfortunately it also created a mini-revolution in the ability of governments, already increasingly totalitarian as political elites gathered more and more power to themselves, to monitor their citizens and become even more totalitarian. Following the socialist dream into the territory of nightmare, those elites now took increasing control of society. Next to catch up was robotics, displacing the weak human components utilized in so many walks of life, and in the end those not included in the massive bureaucracies that controlled Earth became just client citizens—mostly on the dole, mostly zero-asset. Was the technology itself to blame: should people have Luddite-fashion smashed it? No, technology is merely a tool and any blame always rests squarely on the one wielding that tool.
Saul chose a less-travelled route: up over the North Sea, to land for refuelling at Trondheim, then crossing the Scandia province of old Norway and Sweden, down across the Baltic to cross erstwhile Lithuania, finally to Minsk. Refuelling was no problem. It merely required a minor penetration of the airport computers, since unscheduled Inspectorate aero flights weren’t uncommon. Just a minor headache there, and a few warning flashes across his vision. This time, as with his previous minor penetrations of Govnet, no sign of that other presence on the net. He calculated the degree of noise he could create before attracting its attention, now knowing that the moment he did anything related to Coran or Hannah, that would be the equivalent of a shout.
After he landed, a tanker of liquid hydrogen waiting on the carbocrete hooked up its bayonet hoses and completed the job within twenty minutes. Then they were off again, and all the way as far as the Baltic he saw only two other aeros and just a few vapour trails from the high-atmosphere scramjets of space planes. But as soon as they entered Lithuania troposphere traffic became much heavier, with definite aero-lanes visibly punctuating the sky. The activity here was very much more than he had expected.
Information garnered from the Subnet showed that the fortunes of Minsk Spaceport had been on the wane until the Committee started building the Argus satellite network, and that now it was even busier than before. He knew that many of the aeros he saw flying the route from Lithuania to East Germany would be loaded with drugs, data-crystals, 3D silicon chips and the like, whilst the big trucks on the twelve-lane autobahns below him were loaded with bubblemetals or products of the same from the surrounding industrial complexes. The traffic using the same route into the port was mostly of empty vehicles and staff buses, though some commodities were still shipped up to the station. However, the Argus Network was all but complete, and supplying Argus Station itself and ferrying down vital materials and technologies that could only be made in zero gravity would not account for this furious activity. Some other operation was under way.
It was difficult to say where the actual Minsk sprawl began, because in Lithuania the Vilnius sprawl had absorbed Kaunas and also blended across a forgotten border with the district of Minsk. As with the rest of the world, none of the old national borders now divided this area, just various regions of Committee political authority. However, Minsk Spaceport remained under its own authority, the lines of division from its tertiary industries clearly marked by security fences, readergun towers and a no-man’s-land seeded with mines. Ahead, just inside this massive fence, aeros were spiralling down towards a twenty-storey vehicle park that squatted amidst the glassy administration towers located beside the square kilometres of primary direct-support industrial estates attached to the spaceport. It resembled the grey edifices of the ancient communist regime—the kind of buildings demolished during Russia’s emergence from communism, but now being built again under Committee rule.
Air Traffic took control as they approached this spiralling descent, and the orders he’d falsified on the way here gave them primacy, so Traffic inserted their craft lower down in the queue. As the big machine descended, sometimes only tens of metres away from other aeros, so that the roar of surrounding engines penetrated even the high-tech insulation of their craft, he unstrapped himself and headed to the rear. Hannah came to watch as he dragged Taiken’s body to a large integral chest half-full of squat gas canisters, and then shoved it inside.
“Getting here was the easy part,” he said.
Her irony had returned, so her sleep during the ten-hour journey must have restored some of her equilibrium.
He shrugged. “But though the next part will be difficult, failure is not an option.”
“Was part of your installation software an arrogance program?”
Again linking into Govnet and the subsidiary spaceport network, cyberspace became as real all around him as the physical world. It seemed in fact part of the real world—just an extra perception of it somewhere between sight and thought, but with the added factor that he could manipulate it. His mind perpetually groped for suitable analogies for describing to himself what he was doing. To a certain extent it seemed like being inside a control space in virtual reality where information came in apparently physical units, to be moved about by hand and ordered by voice, but even this close relationship between man and machine amounted to no more than a more complex keyboard-and-mouse combination. It seemed he had completely closed the gap between man and machine; being actually in the machine, and part of it.
“When someone knows his own capabilities and states how he intends to use them, is that arrogance?” he asked.
“It’s how it was said,” Hannah replied.
He nodded, realizing that he really had been arrogant, because already he began detecting increased activity on Govnet, and a sampling of the communications soon explained why. Security had upped a level shortly after the destruction of Inspectorate HQ in the London sprawl, but was now ramping up to condition red. Massive troop movements were in progress, critical facilities being locked down, Committee delegates disappearing into their private fortresses. Chairman Messina was off the radar, and execs from the next echelon down were taking refuge in bunkers. Someone had just poked the Inspectorate wasp nest with a big stick, and it wasn’t Saul. Perhaps this explained why that other presence out there seemed unable to find him.
“Seems the revolution has started.”
Fourteen separate Inspectorate HQs had been hit, all across the world. Tactical nukes were used against two of them, four had been stormed by well-armed insurgents, most of the staff slaughtered and only a few captives taken. One was destroyed with thermal Hyex missiles whilst the remainder had received a taste of what they dealt, for the revolutionaries had used nerve gas. Eight scramjets had been hit by ground-to-air heatseekers before they got up enough speed to outrun the missiles. Three actual Committee delegates had been assassinated, hundreds of lower-echelon execs knifed, shot or blown up. These incidents were just part of a much larger widespread whole that included less lethal sabotage with, for example, a garage of Inspectorate cruisers being disabled, com towers blown up, and viral attacks affecting Govnet. He now related much of this news to Hannah.
“I’d say they don’t stand a chance, but there’s Malden…”
“Much of what I’m seeing seems likely to have been organized beforehand,” Saul interrupted, as the aero settled into its slot. “I don’t think Malden would be satisfied with just taking out another Inspectorate HQ. He’ll go for something bigger.”
He checked the inventory of equipment aboard their craft, and then, opening a tool chest, took out a couple of large rolls of duct tape before turning and instructing the aero door to open ahead of them. After stepping down to the carbocrete floor, he turned to help Hannah down, but she ignored his hand and moved away to put some space between them. He didn’t react to that rebuff, since he was busy penetrating the cam system in order to cause a temporary fault. Once this sufficiently developed, he decided it was time she ceased to be just a passenger and tossed her one of the rolls.
“Cover the serial number on the far side,” he instructed.
She nodded and moved round to the other side of the craft, whilst he covered the number on this side. As Hannah returned, his next mental instruction closed up the machine and locked it, and in considering how to make things even more difficult for anyone who found this machine, he remembered numerous viral programs from that part of his mind that had been Janus. He used just one virus, but including elements of yet another one and a little bespoke tailoring, and it left the machine pondering, so that, about the time they stepped into the park lift, the craft shifted over to auto-defence. He had not set the readerguns to just kill any who got too close to it, but the moment someone started tampering, by either trying to force open the doors or peel that tape off, they would be in for a nasty surprise.
The lift took them down eighteen storeys, to where it opened into a security area with a row of gates operated by combined palm and retinal scanners. Just beyond the lift, Hannah came to a halt, uncertain and obviously frightened, as she turned to look at him for reassurance.
“No problem,” he said, beckoning her after him, while trying to ignore the stabbing pain growing between his eyes.
Penetrating the security all around them, he simply shut down the scanners and then opened the gate ahead. Beyond it lay an open area with readerguns mounted on the walls—a kill zone. He instructed the readerguns to ignore them both, but knew that would not be enough. Another push and he was into the Minsk security mainframe, inserting sketchy identities for the spaceport’s recognition programs, which now either opened any barriers ahead or simply overlooked the intruders.
“You’re terrifying,” remarked Hannah—but abruptly moved up beside him and looped her arm through his.
“Yeah, maybe,” he replied, turning his head away from her to flick a bloody tear from his eye. “But there’s something out there looking for us that might be just as capable. It keeps zeroing in on me every time I create enough noise on Govnet.”
“Malden?” she asked.
He shook his head. “No, it’s the ‘powerful comlife’ Janus mentioned.”
“But they don’t have anything.” She looked confused.
“Seems they do.”
She was very thoughtful for a moment. “Are you making too much noise now?”
“I don’t think so. Just local penetration.”
Local penetration wasn’t enough, however. At some point a diagnostic program would detect the alterations he had made, so he just hoped he had given himself and Hannah enough time.
Sliding glass doors drew open ahead of them, and they stepped out on to a pavement beside which were parked automatic ground taxis resembling stretched-out flying saucers. In the distance, between two glassy octagonal-section office blocks, the orange flames of a cluster of rocket motors blasted into the sky a long black shape with triangular rear wings and stubby nose wings. The space plane passed behind the tower block to his left, steadily accelerating upwards at an angle of forty-five degrees. Somewhere high above the Baltic, when it hit Mach 5, its scramjet would kick in, taking it up to Mach 15, and its wings would fold into its body. By then its trajectory would be vertical, the scramjet finally shutting down through lack of air, and Earth’s gravity bringing the plane’s speed down to below a thousand miles an hour. Then would begin the long slow deceleration and manoeuvring towards Argus, if that happened to be its destination.
“You realize,” he said, “that without what I can do and have done we’ll end up in custody within minutes—and with that comlife out there there’s still a chance that’ll happen anyway.” He glanced at her. “I can’t turn back now, but if you want I’ll get one of these”—he nodded to one of the autotaxis—“to take you to a ground-level gate. The security system here will simply let you out, but beyond that gate you’ll be on your own.”
“Is that what you want?” she asked, pulling away from him a little. “I’m sure I’m a liability you can ill afford.”
That wasn’t actually what he wanted, but some nasty part of him was wondering if he only kept her with him because he needed an audience. In an eyeblink he distanced himself both from the machine and from his human anger. No, he wanted her with him because he knew that, even though great dangers lay ahead, she was safer with him than on her own. All those protective instincts of a man with his mate were operating, and the idea of her falling back into the clutches of the Inspectorate horrified him. Did this mean he loved her? He didn’t know. What is love?
“As far as I’m concerned, you’re with me all the way, Hannah,” he said. “But I won’t stop you now if you want to leave.”
She pulled herself closer again, reached up behind his head and drew him down into a kiss. It was long and passionate, her body pressing against his, and he felt himself responding. Drily analytical, another part of himself noted that he was wasting time. With a flash of irritation, he sent that part off to roam cyberspace—to make preparations and keep watch for that other thing out there. The kiss finished, they now approached one of the taxis, which opened its doors for them, and they climbed in the back.
He sat in the back with Hannah pressed up against him, her head on his shoulder and the smell of her hair in his nostrils. He connected up again, becoming more of himself once more, feeling a brief bitter ache as he recognized that to be more human he needed to be actually less complete, the human him just being a part of the whole. His inner vision of himself seemed to be one of interfaces: some central entity sitting neither in cyberspace nor in that grey fatty tissue inside his skull, its senses operating through the fleshy gene transporter within this taxi, within cyberspace and the silicon, wires, optics and electromagnetic signals that were its medium, touching the physical world through those surrounding cams and sensors he chose. Did he know what love was before Smith sent him to the incinerator? Was human love possible for him now that it seemed he was no longer really human?
Humming contentedly to itself, the taxi pulled out on to a two-lane highway, away from the park, then joined a six-lane highway where massive trucks loomed about them like mobile buildings. Saul studied these, wondering just what the hell they were carrying; again aware that such massive movement could not be accounted for by standard operations, as of a year ago. Then, with a feeling of unease, he observed that some of these vehicles were troop transporters, and when the taxi swerved into another lane to let two Inspectorate cruisers race by, he sat upright. Surely this could be a reaction to Malden’s revolution, because Minsk would be considered a prime target?
“What is it?” Hannah asked, noticing his reaction.
“Lot of security activity.”
Just a brief modem connection revealed how local network security had escalated. Something had got them really bothered here, some major penetration, yet it wasn’t him. However, this made it increasingly likely that his own interference in the mainframe would be quickly detected. His head started to throb as he tracked diagnostic traffic and tracer programs.
“We’ve got trouble,” he added.
The taxi turned off on to another two-laner utterly devoid of traffic. They sat apart, now gazing out of the windows at their surroundings, taking in sprawling factories with steam towers belching white clouds, cranes etched against the sky, stationary since all construction here had ceased, then the bloated hemisphere of a fusion-reactor building, kilometres of above-ground pipes, with those glassy tower blocks nailing it all to the ground. Notable by its absence was any sign of life that wasn’t human. Neither trees nor grass were visible, and the only green on view glinted in traffic lights or showed on faded signs in Cyrillic declaring the environmental credentials of this place. Saul gritted his teeth, now aware that a search engine had begun riffling through identity files. Almost certainly it would find the two sketchy ones he had put there and immediately delete them.
Then would come a location trace…
“Get ready to run,” he warned, lights again beginning to jag across his vision. He should be able to deal with nearby cams and readerguns, and hopefully that would be enough.
Soon the taxi turned off again into a single lane that curved round to one side and across a bridge over one of the big highways, then down again. Thunder from above and a dark shadow drawing across, as another space plane hurtled into the sky. Even so high up, the thing seemed massive, and he remembered that standard transporter planes like that one overhead spanned six hundred metres from nose to rocket engines, and were capable of hauling two hundred tonnes of passengers and cargo up into orbit. Amazing that humans could build such a massive, complex and wonderful piece of technology, yet could not apply the same degree of logic and intelligence to building their societies or preventing their eventual decline. He watched the thing continue to rise, as the taxi drew up right beside the doors leading into the long, low Embarkation building. There was now a hollow feeling inside him, a blend of both awe and regret.
Then, suddenly, a massive disruption in the Minsk network, whilst simultaneously something exploded within the back end of the space plane, extinguishing that punctuated glare of its motors and throwing out chunks of dark metal trailing spears of smoke. It dropped out of the sky with all the aerodynamics of a falling chimney pot.
“Mother of God!” Hannah exclaimed.
He groped for information throughout cyberspace, hit disruption wherever he looked, then oddly found easy access to cameras positioned on high buildings, giving him multiple views of the disaster. He watched the plane trying to stay level but, with one of its rear wings tearing away, its nose came up as it descended. Another view gave him four seconds of its underside hurtling in, silhouetted against fire, until its rear end struck the building on which the cam was positioned. Back to another view of that same edifice, the plane carving through it, its position in the sky and angle of descent hardly changed by the impact, the wreckage of the top half of the building now strewn across factory complexes below. Then the plane went in like a wounded black swan descending on to a lake, churning up and spraying the lower buildings like water. As the nose slammed down, it disintegrated, becoming a train-shaped firestorm within which could be seen the burning black bones of its structure. It cut a swathe of devastation ten kilometres long.
Only when the final debris rained down did Saul consider why it had been so easy for him to access these views of this disaster. Someone had got there before him, to position the cams.
“Let’s move,” he said, shoving his elbow against the door of the taxi.
It wasn’t opening, which meant that from somewhere an instruction had been sent to lock it down. He turned and looked behind him, spotted an armoured troop carrier motoring into sight.
Then something out there. Some pattern forming in surrounding and seriously disrupted cyberspace. Something tentacular expanded, a shadow cast by someone’s manipulation of the network, yet Saul immediately recognized that this wasn’t the comlife that had been hunting him. Hannah became like a distant creature trapped in the taxi, alongside that set of mobile fleshy sensors that seemed to be a minor part of himself—yet within which resided the essential him. It had to survive because, even in this new state, he knew himself unready to depart physical existence; knew that without that human connection he would lose any real reason to stay alive.
This new comlife, he realized, was taking control of Inspectorate aeros that were even now ascending into the sky to head for the crash site. They began firing upon each other.
Missile streaks cut above the devastation caused by the space plane, and cartridge cases rained down from machine guns firing continuously. Two of the aeros just dropped like bricks, trailing smoke, and slammed into the ground, one exploding and the other just turning into a flattened mess of wreckage. Another aero blew a fan and began spinning around about its other main fan, until that too blew and tore its guts out. It also went down.
Saul saw it then: a single craft departing the battle, between its fellows, neither firing nor being fired upon. It flew past the face of a tall building built in the shape of a cowl—one he recognized as he withdrew from cam systems and used only his eyes. The building lay just half a kilometre away from them, and he watched the aero fly into view, settle into a hover and revolve towards them. He knew in an instant that they weren’t the target—those troops back there were—but, trapped inside this taxi so close to them, he and Hannah would die.
Hannah had told him that in his previous incarnation, as well as being a semi-autistic genius with enough going on in his head to frighten members of the Inspectorate, he had excelled in the martial arts. And, as he had since discovered, he still did. His body still possessed the muscle and coordination developed through all that previous training. However, that alone would not have been enough—it was knowledge acquired from Janus that tipped the balance. His AI, which was now part of him, knew the design of autotaxis like this one down to the smallest detail. The lockdown was a security protocol usually employed by the Inspectorate to secure suspects remotely, before they themselves could arrive on the scene.
A lockdown would seal the doors, then shut down the vehicle’s computer so those trapped inside could not access it to open them. No mental access for him there, but he knew precisely how the vehicle was constructed. Two steel locking bars had engaged to the rear of the door, and these could only be physically disengaged from outside by arresting officers. The window glass wasn’t glass at all but a laminated perspex which here, in the spaceport where many important people might use the taxis, was capable of stopping a bullet. The weakness lay at the hinges, being angled steel plates riveted to the body and the door, connected by five-millimetre steel hinge pins. He spun in the seat, grabbed a hand support provided for less able passengers, drew back both his legs and kicked out hard at the front of the door, over those hinges, the force of the blow running from his rigid arms right down through his body. The top hinge broke, the door tilting out. He kicked it again, and the second hinge broke away, but the door still hung suspended from its two locking bars. Leaning over, he shoved the door forward off its bars, and it clattered to the ground.
Saul got out, turning to drag Hannah after him, but she was already close on his heels. Behind them, troops were still piling out of the armoured car and, noticing someone trapped in a taxi just ahead, he realized the lockdown hadn’t been directed at only his taxi. Somebody began shouting, and he saw a crowd of people, outside Embarkation, pointing over towards the aero. A glance in that direction, fire flaring under the craft, a stream of missiles spewing out, smoke trails heading directly towards them. Less than ten seconds, he calculated, as he grabbed Hannah’s hand and they ran.
One man stood at the scanner beside the entrance to Embarkation, the glass doors drawing apart for him. Saul shouldered him aside, just hoping the readerguns in the foyer beyond would still ignore them. Just for a fraction of a second, the sight of numerous potted plants—the first green he had seen in a while—fazed him, but then he dragged Hannah towards a guard booth stretching all along the left side of the foyer. The doors to this stood open, an enforcer halfway across the blue-carpeted floor, on her way to the main doors. The woman turned towards him, to say something, he didn’t know what. He pushed Hannah ahead of him to reach the door into the booth, where she threw herself on the floor with her hands over her head. An enforcer within the booth turned on his revolving chair, hand dropping to the ionic stunner at his belt. Saul dropped down on top of Hannah, shoving his fingers in his ears just as a sound impacted like that of an avalanche in a scrapyard.
Then came the light and the fire.
The blasts blended into one hollow roar, and Hannah felt something grab and drag Saul backwards off her. Heat washed over her legs and then the roar receded, as if some angry fire god had just paid a brief visit, then departed. She raised her head and saw that the vacuum created by the blast had dragged Saul halfway out of the booth. Glancing up she realized the armoured glass had been blown in, sheets of it now resting against the back wall to form a low ceiling. The enforcer seated in the revolving chair had not ducked fast enough and lay on the floor, his head weeping blood.
Saul stood up and mouthed something at her. She gazed at him, puzzled and stunned. Her ears were ringing and his words an indistinct mutter. He studied her for a moment, then, crouching below the armourglass, reached out a hand to haul her up, and they ducked out of the booth.
The autotaxis outside were gone or, rather, all she could now see of them was the remains of a hydrovane embedded in the rear wall of the foyer. Outside, she could see other burning wreckage, and smoking fragments she did not want to identify. The glass doors lay strewn in mostly hexagonal chunks, each the size of a spectacles lens, across the floor. The plants were blackened, some of them burning, but the carpet below, though scorched and hot underfoot, yielded neither smoke nor flame, from its fire-resistant ceramoplastic. An arm lay on it before them; a torso, one leg still attached, reclined beside a steaming money tree positioned against the far wall. The enforcer they had seen on the way in lay flat on her back, utterly still, her uniform seared but surprisingly little damage to her body; merely a little blood in her ears and nostrils, despite the fragments of glass all around her.
“Why?” Hannah managed to utter, her voice oddly off-key.
He replied, but again she heard only that indistinct mutter. She pinched her nose and blew, popping her eardrums, shook her head. Hearing returned slightly: the sounds of metal and rubble falling on hard surfaces, the oily crackle of fire and a couple of whumphs, of things exploding, maybe gas canisters, fuel tanks or overheated batteries.
“Seems the revolution just arrived,” he said, the words now clear but a perpetual buzzing behind them. He beckoned her after him and headed towards the rear of the foyer, where long corridors, ceilinged with smoke, speared towards the trains used to transport passengers to the space planes.
More people were starting to appear, and the first to reach them, running down that corridor, were two Inspectorate enforcers. She noticed that both possessed the kind of mods more usually seen in bodyguards: subdermal armour, black artificial wide-spec eyes, and the exterior control units at elbow, shoulder and wrist that showed they possessed implant motors and bone reinforcing. But she knew in an instant that if they got in Saul’s way they were dead.
“What the hell happened?” one of them asked.
That he even asked demonstrated that communications must be down—if only temporarily.
“Hey, I’m damned if I know,” Saul replied.
The enforcer stared, hand dropping to the butt of his machine pistol, doubtless taking in Saul’s reddened eyes and the marks of surgery on his shaven skull. Hannah knew that, in this situation, Saul was sufficiently abnormal for the enforcers to want to detain him, and when Saul moved to step past, the man reached out and grabbed his upper arm in a cyber-assisted grip. The killing would resume very shortly.
“You know a space plane went down?” Hannah interjected, before she even knew where she was going with this.
“It was probably wreckage that hit here. Officer Coran needs to get to Damage Control now before this situation gets any worse,” she declared imperiously. “Don’t you two have things to do?” She stabbed a thumb behind her. “There are people back there who need your help.”
The bluff was good, but needed reinforcing. Saul did not disappoint her. He looked down in annoyance at the hand closed on his arm, then up at the enforcer, just the right amount of arrogance in his expression. “Govnet,” he said, “is severely disrupted, so I am unable to obtain full access.” His gaze strayed to the bar code on the top pocket of the man’s uniform. “What’s your name, officer?”
The enforcer let go of his arm as if it had suddenly heated up, seemed about to say something further, then abruptly stepped past and headed towards the foyer, his companion pausing only for a moment before trailing after.
“I just saved their lives, didn’t I?” Hannah said.
“Yes,” Saul acknowledged. “Yes, you did.”
More staff appeared in the corridor further along, some heading towards the foyer and others moving away. Two teams clad in fluorescent hazmat suits were pushing wheeled stretchers towards the incident. Moving beyond these, Hannah and Saul got far enough away to just be part of the crowd, and entered a lift to take them down a floor to one of the train stations. Once inside the lift, Saul pressed his hands against his head.
“No, not now.” He looked up. “Did Malden suffer this pain?”
She nodded. “Yes, he did.” The lie tasted sour on her lips.
The sliding doors drew aside and he forced himself into motion again. They crossed a short platform to board a waiting train. Five other people were already inside, deep in nervous conversation.
“Our flight has to be cancelled,” said a woman wearing the same grey flight suit as the rest of them. “For Christ’s sake, that plane just dropped out of the sky!”
“Don’t bet on it,” replied her nearest male companion.
“No, don’t,” said one of the other men. “We’d have been notified of a blanket grounding, and been recalled by now.”
The woman looked at her watch. “There’s still time. I’ll bet the orders’ll catch up just when we’re strapping in.”
“Ever the optimist, Eva,” said another woman.
“They’ll need to know why it happened,” Eva insisted. She then noticed Saul and gazed at him disbelievingly for a moment, before abruptly looking away. She glanced queryingly towards one of her companions, who shrugged. Always better not to ask.
After a moment, the train moved out of the Embarkation complex, following its rails out towards the hectares of carbocrete comprising the spaceport runways.
The front end of the space plane reared up out of the surrounding support vehicles, fuel silos and tangles of umbilicals like some monstrous Gulliver trying to escape its Lilliputian captors. It rested on the specially formulated carbocrete like a prehistoric beast reformatted for a new cybernetic age: all hard angles and black solidity.
The train drew to a halt at the end of its line, directly opposite a large mobile building poised on enormous caterpillar tracks, from which an entrance tunnel rose towards the belly of the plane itself. The five on board with them exited the train first, carrying an assortment of laptops and short cylindrical flight bags containing their personal effects. Saul and Hannah were certainly the odd ones out, and because of that would come under scrutiny. Time for him to once again penetrate local computers to ensure that they got safely aboard. He did not relish the prospect and wondered if he had been foolish to push so far so quickly. A mental crash now and it would all be over for them both.
Saul linked into Govnet, found it still disrupted, then into the subnets of the spaceport and brought his focus down on to everything concerning this plane, and it didn’t take him long to find problems. The woman called Eva was right: a general order had been issued to cancel all further missions, and the concert of groaning and swearing from the five ahead confirmed that they had now received this instruction through their fones. Orders specific to space-plane crew and passengers were that they must return to quarters whilst an investigation was put in place. All space planes were to undergo a thorough inspection.
These were the orders on the surface, but there seemed a great deal more activity going on below this. The spaceport authority was aware that the plane had been brought down by computer penetration, the same sort of penetration that resulted in the aeros turning on each other and wreaking destruction elsewhere about the port. Saul discovered that the missile firing, having wiped out an Inspectorate security squad sent to apprehend suspects at Embarkation, was under heavy suspicion, and further squads had been dispatched. It seemed likely to him that he and Hannah had been detected, but so far the Inspectorate just had a general location.
Deeper penetration now, the thumping in his head growing, and some invisible tormentor trying to drill him another eye socket.
He sent orders to whatever crew was aboard the plane, and in its surrounding infrastructure, to expect an investigator plus his assistant. By way of a cam within the train he made visual files of both their faces and sent them through, with no more than the name Agent Green, and which gave him complete authority here. After the five crew had climbed back aboard the train, ready to return to their quarters, Hannah and he disembarked.
“We are now investigators,” he told Hannah as they stepped from the vehicle.
“Very good,” she replied. “But how does that help us get the plane off the ground?”
“We’ll see when we get there.”
She stared at him. “Nothing planned here? Nothing prepared?”
“No, but I know how to fly this thing now and, once I have it isolated up in the air, there’s nothing they can do. I don’t see them quickly making a decision to shoot twenty billion Euros worth of their own hardware out of the sky, and once the scramjets fire up they won’t be able to.”
She flinched and shook her head. “I wish I could trust your superior intelligence, but obviously I can’t. Even a space plane travelling at Mach 15 can’t outrun a laser.”
“You’re talking about the Argus Network?”
“Then you can trust my intelligence. The lasers were designed for accurate antipersonnel use against people on Earth’s surface, and even when they’re at close range they haven’t got the power to penetrate a carbon nanofibre, heat-dispersing hull.”
“I’ll trust to your judgement,” she decided, doubtfully.
“Yes, you must.”
Outside the train, the chilly air was redolent with the odours of oil and some other acrid chemical smell. He shrugged his jacket more closely about himself, then reached up to touch his scalp as the cold added to his misery by causing sharp stabbing pains all over it. He was also hungry and thirsty, not having eaten since they delved into the supplies aboard the aero they had used to travel here. He realized that the computer hardware in his skull, and the constant pain from the surgery employed to install it, had distanced him from his body to the point that he was neglecting it. He glanced at Hannah, who had made no complaints even though she must be as worn down as himself, but he could do nothing for either of them now.
“Just play along,” he said, as he pulled open the door into the mobile building before them and stepped up inside it.
Within lay a suiting room: spacesuits on hangers along one wall, test equipment against another, and various hoses trailing along the floor. He wanted them wearing suits but wasn’t sure how he could achieve that if he was supposedly here as an inspector only. No one around but, lightly linked into nearby cams, he observed a technician now approaching down the entrance tunnel. Time now, he felt, to begin isolating this plane, to begin cutting it off from surrounding Govnet. Yet penetrating the plane was proving difficult, as if it was already partially isolated. Perhaps the spaceport authority had done this to prevent penetrations similar to the one that brought down the other craft. Now the technician stepped into view and Saul concentrated on him, trying to read his features through the constantly flashing lights.
“Agent Green,” he announced to the technician.
The man was shaven-headed, a scar running down from his forehead and over his right eye, which was a double-pupil engraft. He looked like he should be clad in an enforcer uniform rather than the orange tech overall he was wearing. He showed little reaction to Saul’s odd appearance. Perhaps seeing his own face in the mirror over many years had inured him to such sights.
“You’re the inspector,” he said.
“I certainly am,” Saul rasped. “And I want to start here with these.” He gestured towards the suits, meanwhile searching local software for explanations of the suiting-up protocols, and how the suits worked. “Myself and my assistant are going to suit up.”
The man merely shrugged—you’re the boss—and said nothing, which annoyed Saul because now he had just found a justification for why he, as an inspector, wanted to don a suit. The suits possessed sophisticated comware that linked into the plane’s computer. He therefore intended to check this facet of the system for possible sabotage.
“Copy me,” he said to Hannah as he stepped towards the rail of suits.
First they stripped off, then donned padded undersuits. Skin-stick sanitary devices went on next, and Hannah discovered it was fortunate that her pubis was hairless. Next the integral trousers and boots, with the urine pack on one hip and a power pack at the other. Nothing provided for storing shit—the suits were made for only short-term use. The trousers possessed expansion and contraction points that automatically adjusted. The tops next, sealing at the waist, numerous electrical and plumbing connections made there; gloves with wrist seals hung at the belt. The helmets were tight against the skull, with bowl visors that slid round from the side. He twisted his visor round for a moment, clicked a control at his wrist, and when a series of computer menus lit up on display he pushed the visor aside. They both next took up packs containing belly airpacks and other peripherals. The suits were not bulky at all, rather like motorbike leathers, so moving around in them was easy. They were ready.
“Okay.” He led the way up the entrance tunnel, where the technician waited for them, leaning against the wall.
Saul was still having trouble worming his way inside the computers of the space plane, then abruptly everything collapsed and he could see clearly inside. No one at home, which made things a damned sight easier. Checking systems he saw that, but for the disconnection of a few umbilicals, the plane stood ready for launch. The technician waved them ahead of him to a ladder leading up to the airlock situated in the belly of the plane, and they proceeded through the airlock and up into the rear of the passenger compartment. Saul then experienced a moment of complete confusion when the images in his mind did not match up properly to what he now saw.
A cold barrel was pressed against the back of his neck, and two men clad in white spacesuits grabbed his arms and dragged him forward. Two more grabbed Hannah, and just too many guns were aimed at them for him to do anything to resist. All of those occupying the plane were armed with assault rifles or other military hardware.
“Welcome aboard,” said Malden.