In the early years, rocket scientists took elements of the NASA space shuttle, and the privately developed craft then being used by the optimistically named Virgin Galactic, and amalgamated them to create their early two-stage shuttle. This consisted of the hydrogen booster or carrier section which, after throwing the shuttle up into space, was then capable of coming down to land by itself. Even then, with engines becoming steadily more powerful, the engineers realized how overcomplicated and prone to problems was this system. They needed to thoroughly rework the technology, discarding much of what had gone before, and this they did after Airbus successfully tested its first passenger scramjet. Perhaps, under a different regime, the enforced amalgamation of the two projects would never have happened or the huge funding required would not have been available. It could also be argued that without the bureaucratic screw-ups and political oversight of the science, it would have happened faster. However, despite many difficulties and many disastrous crashes, the first Earth-to-orbit space plane made its inaugural flight during the second half of the twenty-first century.
A crackling sound first, as of something heavy falling through a forest of sticks. The screen abruptly filled with a swirl of fire and debris, then their space plane began to shudder. Only when the flame cleared a little could they see a framework ceiling sliding over above, its spaces only partially filled with bubblemetal panels, and a similarly constructed floor appearing below. They were punching their way through into the side of one of the partially constructed rim floors of the space station. The shudders continued, interspersed with an occasional gut-wrenching crash. The roar of the engine cut out, and flame wisped away on the screen ahead to reveal the tangled ruin of bubblemetal beams rimming the tunnel they had cut through. Then a further few crashes as the plane thumped at last to a halt, and they were in zero gravity again.
“Straps and belly-packs,” Braddock called, using the PA system of his suit as he unfastened and propelled himself from his seat.
Saul pressed down the buttons detaching his own straps, glad to see that Malden had left the locks off, then reached down and pulled out the pack containing his oxygen supply and CO2 scrubber from under the seat.
“Hannah,” he said over com, but just got a fizzing and no response from her. The EM shield of the station was obviously screwing radio communication, even over such a short distance.
A flat aluminium box twenty centimetres thick and about a quarter of a metre square, the belly-pack clicked straight into the suit, with bayonet fittings on its back. At once the suit’s software began running diagnostics, displayed in the visor. Next all he had to do was unplug his suit’s air-hose from the chair arm and insert it into its socket in the side of the box, and after a moment the display indicated its readiness—confirming he had ten hours of air. Then he turned to where two of Malden’s troops were opening the inner hatch of the airlock.
Those two went through first, dragging a couple of large cylindrical objects with them. Immediately after them, another four went through, then another four—each set of four attaching their belts to a combined safety- and optic-link line, then cramming themselves into the airlock. Malden beckoned Saul and Hannah to follow himself and Braddock, and they comprised the next four through, the line connecting them all and providing a communications link, but only between the four of them.
As the pressure in the airlock dropped to zero, their suits expanded slightly, stiffened and carried out further auto-diagnostics. Braddock exited first, the line between him and Hannah drawing taut until she followed. Saul pushed out next, with Malden behind—a cautious positioning on the line that reminded Saul that he was not fully trusted. Once outside, he could see how the massive length of the space plane was jammed into a network of distorted or snapped bubblemetal beams. Towards its rear, about the rocket-motor output, something like heat haze shimmered, but everything else stood out in sharp-edged clarity—with no atmosphere to distort the view.
Ahead, the two other groups of four were already moving off, widely spaced, and beyond them he saw how the first pair of soldiers had joined together those two cylindrical objects to create a single cylinder about the size of a coffin. He had assumed they would all be attached to the same line, for safety’s sake, but then understood why not. If they were fired upon out here, it wouldn’t be a good idea for them all to be bunched together.
“Let’s go,” said Malden, his voice now sounding clear through the optic connection.
Braddock used a reaction jet, fired from his forearm, snapping the line taut and towing them after the others. Glancing back, Saul saw the next four on their way out, but then returned his focus to their immediate surroundings.
They followed the path the space plane had already bashed through the surrounding structure, Braddock occasionally altering their course with his reaction jet or by thumping a foot or hand against some piece of twisted wreckage. Open space lay ahead, strewn with stars, then became visible above, too, through gaps in the bubblemetal plating. Reaching the point where the plane had punched into the structure, the first soldiers propelled themselves downwards and out of sight. Once Saul’s group reached the same edge, where supporting beams were sparse, they floated out over a long drop to the original outer hull of the station, which extended into the distance like a massive highway. Just visible over the rim, to the left, jutted the top of the technical-control centre.
Braddock slowed them with the jet, then guided them down after the others.
“Malden,” Saul enquired, “are we all using the same airlock?”
“We’re not using a station airlock.”
“What do you mean?”
Those who had already reached the main hull of the space station below began to walk out across it. Only upon seeing this did Saul check stored data on his spacesuit to find one item called “gecko boots.”
“Boots,” Braddock informed them as they reached the hull.
“Hannah, you’ll find—” Saul began, but she broke in.
“I know.” She stepped down onto the hull, and followed Braddock as if walking through tar.
Some distance ahead, cables extended out to one of the two smelting plants. They now headed towards these, circumventing the huge convex glass of a sun-catcher—for directing the sun’s rays inside—with the tilted monolith of a steering thruster lying to their right. Soon they reached the edge of the smelting-plant dock, and Saul peered down to where massive cables terminated, then up towards one of the big smelting plants perched like a steel rose atop a tall steel stem, around which craft buzzed like feeding bees. They descended, pausing only momentarily on a huge docking clamp to peer down into the seemingly bottomless well of an ore-transit tube leading down to the surface of the asteroid itself. Finally reaching the shadowy bottom of the dock, they moved out across it just as a big skeletal ore-carrier rose out of the transit tube only a hundred metres away from them, its hundred-tonne body sliding upwards in utter silence, massive guide wheels running on the cable. Now, directly ahead of Saul, the first two soldiers turned the cylinder upright and began fixing it to the hull.
“What is that thing?” he asked.
“Vacuum warfare penetration lock,” Malden replied. “Built by the Chinese about eighty years ago. The Committee doesn’t bother with such stuff now, as they have no opponents up here whose space stations or satellites they might want to penetrate.”
The forward eight held back, squatting down on the hull, heads bowed, whilst the two who had positioned the cylinder retreated as quickly as they could.
“Shield your eyes,” Hannah warned, before he could warn her.
Arc light flared bright around the base of the cylinder. He caught only one glimpse of it but enough to leave hard afterimages in his eyes, which reminded him of those migraine lights he had been experiencing too much lately. After a while the glare faded, and when he looked again the cylinder had sunk half of its length into the hull. Molten metal spat out all around it and snowed away into space, radiating white and red at first, then turning into gleaming confetti. On the cylinder’s surface, rows of spiked treads, traversing its length, propelled it downwards. When only half a metre of it still stood above the surface, it jerked up again a few centimetres as gas erupted about it, steaming away into vacuum. Then it sank again, with green foam bubbling around its circumference, lumps drifting away like spindrift until enough had hardened in place to block escaping air. After a moment one of the soldiers walked over and opened the hatch located on the outer end.
“Braddock.” Malden beckoned.
Braddock nodded, detached himself from the line and strode ahead. Saul watched as the man went head-first down into the lock, the hatch closing behind him. After some delay, the soldier on the surface opened the hatch again and the next one went down. The procedure was surprisingly quick, and it seemed no time at all before Saul was cramming himself down inside that uncomfortable thing, to drag himself through into the side of a wide pipe lit by chemical lights that the soldiers had stuck against the walls.
Five of them were now gathered to one side of the airlock, facing along the pipe in the same direction, whilst another three stood on the other side facing the opposite way, towards where the pipe terminated against a glass wall through which could be seen a vast chamber filled with the massive engine and cable drum used for winding in the smelting plant. It struck Saul as a very dangerous position to be in, there being no cover at all, which was perhaps why the air soon filled with a constant shriek as Braddock and two others hurriedly cut their way through the far wall using a diamond saw, a glittering cloud of metal swarf etching strange even patterns in the air about them, formed into swirls by the electrical activity of both the saw and the hardware of their suits. While he watched, the saw abruptly shut down and Braddock inserted a short, polished pry bar to lever out a wall plate. This he nudged away, and it began floating up slowly to settle against the curve of the pipe directly above him.
Hannah came through next, shortly followed by Malden.
“No firing unless they’re armed,” Malden said, using the PA speaker of his suit.
That seemed very generous of him, but in reality he wanted to delay alerting station security to their presence for as long as possible. People might see them and still not know they were intruders.
Soon all the troops were safely in the pipe, and again Braddock led the way, hauling himself through the new hole in the wall. When Saul’s turn came he paused on the other side to study an enormous cavity that stretched in every direction, and recognized it as a floor of the station yet to be walled out. Whilst one of the soldiers started up the saw again, cutting through another plate, Malden pointed back at the wall they’d just passed through.
“Do you see?” he asked.
Braddock had carefully positioned the hole he had cut, for it emerged through a section of plain wall. Elsewhere numerous ducts cut across, shielded wires branching off to form large squared-off spirals, with some sort of laminate enclosed in clear plastic running round the gaps between.
“For the EM field,” Saul suggested.
One of the biggest problems with living in space had always been cosmic rays and the dangerous bursts of radiation from the sun, which the Earth’s magnetic field protected people from down on the surface. With the advent of cheap and plentiful energy from fusion combined with the nearly hundred-year-old invention of room-temperature superconductors, it had become possible to build and run magnetic shielding for this station. It was, however, a very heavy energy user and interfered with local electronics, which needed to be hardened to withstand it, so was only initiated at moments of greatest threat. But even now, the results still weren’t in on its effectiveness. Certainly people working up here would be much safer than those who had first ventured into space two centuries ago, but how much safer was a moot point.
“A feed from the fusion reactor runs through the transformers and waveform modulators to reach these,” Malden explained. “We just need to cut that link.”
Saul didn’t know why the other man felt the need to explain.
“Do you feel it?” Malden asked.
“Yes,” he replied.
Of course he felt it. It was as if someone had turned on an AC transformer in his head to create a vibration he could only describe as hot tinnitus. He was grateful when the next hole had been cut through and they dropped gently into an internal corridor, though the shielding in its walls merely muffled the effect to a bearable drone.
He had seen numerous pictures of the interior of the Argus Station during Govnet broadcasts, and these had always shown an aseptic high-tech environment populated by technicians clad in clean grey and white, with reassuring Inspectorate execs clad in futuristic-looking suits overseeing them, and just a few enforcers patrolling the gleaming facilities. However, the reality was nothing like advertised. Scraped, dented and dirty walls enclosed the corridor, and scattered along it were piles of equipment, crates and large plastic water barrels. Oval doors were ranged along one wall, most of them closed but some opening onto rooms packed with similar rubbish.
“Go to station air,” said Braddock, pushing aside his visor.
Saul undid his visor, then wished he hadn’t. The place stank like boiled cabbage and some astringent chemical, all underlain by something like body odour. As they set out in a slow loping walk, he noted an open crate filled with small cardboard boxes, to which clung a wash of rust-coloured water, and from this arose the smell of putrid meat.
“Nice,” Hannah noted, then stopped to peer at a cockroach moving in slow bounds across the corridor floor like some huge somnolent flea.
“Looks like a dumping ground,” observed Malden. “Let’s hope there’s not too many people here.”
No sooner had he said it than one of the oval doors ahead opened and a woman clad in filthy overalls and towing an arc welder pushed her way through, welding smoke billowing out all around her. She glanced towards them and paused, then briefly bowed her head and hurried further up the corridor, to disappear into the next room along. The advantage for them, right then, given the society they lived in, was that such people kept their heads down, averse to asking questions.
“It’s about a hundred metres further down to get to the transformers,” announced Braddock, checking the display on a palmtop. “They’re no longer near the surface.”
So even Malden had not possessed up-to-date knowledge of the station, Saul realized. It must have grown massively. He tried linking into the station network, but as before, the modem in his head just received static. Having glanced into the room the female welder had just exited, and having continued checking all around him since entering the place, he’d observed no facilities for computer access, so must stick with Malden until he came across something he could use.
“How do you shut down the transformers?” he asked. “Explosives?”
“We just disconnect them from their power supply—no need to blow anything up.”
Malden surprised him with that, but then he guessed that, once the man assumed control here, he wanted to be sure not to get fried, should solar activity ramp up. Saul wondered how long after assuming control it would take Malden to achieve his goal, then depart. Certainly he would need to make it impossible for anyone to shut down the Traveller engine, or in any other way divert the asteroid’s course down to the surface. Maybe it would be necessary for him to access readerguns here and depopulate the whole place first.
The droning inside Saul’s head grew yet more irritating and crackly as they finally reached the end of the incredibly long corridor. Next they entered a cageway penetrating down through numerous floors, before they traversed a short tubeway to a door that gave access on to a platform overlooking one side of a massive chamber, with steel steps leading down to the floor below. He could not help wondering what idiot had decided to install ordinary Earth-scale steps here.
At the centre of the great chamber, packed into a framework extending twenty metres on each side and rising from floor to ceiling, were what he presumed must be the transformers themselves, since these vaguely cuboid objects closely resembled antique wire and laminated-steel transformers. Supported by the quadrate scaffolding that filled the rest of the chamber, pan-pipes clusters of heavy ducts wove away from these transformers like some nightmare road junction, before finally disappearing through the walls. The entire area was strewn with cables connected to control boxes and access panels that seemed to be scattered at random. Fluorescent tubes attached to the scaffolding illuminated all of this, and the whole place stank of hot electronics. In Saul’s head, the droning became merely a mumble underneath a nerve-shredding mosquito whine. He couldn’t tell precisely how much of the sound lay inside his head or actually in the air around him, though Braddock nearly had to shout to issue his next order.
“You know the drill!” he said.
The soldiers separated into groups of four, taking different routes through the surrounding scaffolding towards the transformers. Malden, Braddock, Hannah and Saul himself descended the steps, or rather they launched themselves straight down to the floor and approached the transformers directly. As Malden led the way, Saul noticed a trickle of blood issuing from one of the man’s ears. Obviously the hardware sitting in his skull rested there about as uncomfortably as that in Saul’s own skull.
“This is it!” Malden yelled as they arrived below the massed transformers. He stepped over to a large console peppered with switches, plunger circuit-breakers, dials and buttons seemingly dating from the last millennium, but probably needed because the usual computer-control hardware and software would not be robust enough here. He began by clicking over a long line of twenty switches and the steady drone in the air stuttered, the mosquito whine in Saul’s head wavering. Next Malden turned to the row of twenty plunger circuit-breakers, and as he shoved each one down, the dial above it dropped to zero, and the noise decreased in level each time. When the noise finally ceased, Saul felt hollowed out and slightly bewildered.
“It’ll take about a minute for the charge to dissipate,” Malden explained.
The fizzing from Saul’s modem waned to nothingness, and he already began to feel the computer network establishing itself around him; radio and microwave channels beginning to open up. Malden was now checking the positioning of all his soldiers throughout the chamber, so Saul launched his own penetration of the network, began putting all of himself online. It opened up around him a multidimensional reality into which he could slot himself. He began tracking and interpreting the information, starting to feel the shape of the codes and their purpose, and quickly managed to seize an updated schematic of the entire space station. Then Malden was in there with him doing precisely the same: becoming a node within that network and extruding informational tentacles. Saul glanced towards him, but Malden still wasn’t even looking at him; in fact seemed unaware of any other presence in the network.
With more of the network opening to him, other links began to open, too, and one piece of traffic in particular called for Saul’s attention. He remained wary of it until he recognized it as something instituted by Janus before their integration: the results of the search for his sister. Something tightened inside him and he wanted to inspect this data at once, but time ran out. Suddenly, looming on a horizon of pure information, there appeared a great black shape like a clenched fist, or a thundercloud expanding. It was the comlife that had been hounding him from the first moment he had opened his mind to the net.
“Malden,” he conveyed a warning, in some manner beyond normal speech.
Malden sensed him at once, at last focusing on him within that virtual world. In the real world he turned and raised his machine pistol, aiming it straight at Saul’s face.
“Withdraw,” he instructed brusquely, “or die.”
Saul hesitated for just a moment, and Malden shifted his aim slightly, firing a burst just past him, ricochets zinging around behind. Saul began pulling himself out, shutting down his connection, but he kept his mind working at its optimum—all of his mind.
“There’s something else here,” he declared. “Comlife.”
“Withdraw,” Malden repeated,
Saul pulled out completely, and Malden lowered his weapon.
“Reality wins every time,” he said, and smiled.
Yes, it did, and in his enhanced state Saul saw the reality here with a painful clarity. The station schematic in his head revealed massive reconstruction inside, huge additions outside, but specifically it showed all points of access to this particular place. They would use low-velocity, soft-plastic slugs capable of penetrating spacesuits and human flesh, but less likely to damage the equipment located in here. A maintenance tunnel lay below those ridiculous steps, and that was one access point they wouldn’t be using. For why use such a narrow approach when those above it enabled a much wider field of fire? Already every soldier present here would have been located precisely by the monitoring system.
He stepped back beside Hannah and tightened a hand around her upper arm, leaning in close. “Get ready to run,” he urged her.
Braddock was gazing at them suspiciously, swinging his machine pistol back towards them. But soon enough he would find other distractions.
“Too easy,” Saul remarked to the soldier. “They were ready for us.”
Malden turned. “They were lax. They were—”
All at once he seemed to lose the ability to speak, just mouthing words but nothing coming out. He slapped one hand to his face, digging in his fingers before letting it drop, then screamed loudly and began to slump. Keeping his machine pistol trained on them, Braddock moved towards Malden, as the man finally collapsed to his knees, his head bowed.
“Your revolution served the purpose of the people down below.” Malden said in a voice not his own. “But it serves no purpose up here.” His head snapped upright and he turned it towards Hannah and Saul. “But I’m so glad you brought me these two traitors to the State.”
Weapons fire erupted, a stuttering mechanical sound like faulty diesel engines starting up. Numerous sources began laying down a withering fire. Up above, a figure flew backwards to slam into a scaffold pole, shattered bullets and fragments of his suit spraying out all around, and a mist of blood behind him. He grabbed the pole, trying to reorient himself, but the harsh slapping impact of bullets just continued, till eventually his grip slackened and he tumbled slowly away. The firing continued amid shouting transmitted over com. As Saul turned away, dragging Hannah after him, something exploded over to their right, where he glimpsed a splash of blood up one wall.
Braddock hurled himself aside as impacts tracked across the floor, throwing fragments of blue plastic in every direction. Their path terminated at Malden, who began to shudder convulsively as shots tracked up his back, the rounds shattering inside him but failing to penetrate all the way through. He vomited blood as the force of the shots threw him forward. Elsewhere someone began shrieking as he gyrated downwards, a bullet hole in his airpack acting like a jet motor. He slammed against the side of a transformer, next into the floor, then spun round and started to rise again. A short burst of fire tore his airpack apart, and most of his chest.
They were now under the steps, where Saul pulled open a circular hatch only half a metre in diameter and pushed Hannah down towards it. Bullets rattled against the stairway above, peppering more blue plastic through the air. Braddock, over to his left now, stepped out briefly and fired upwards, but the intensity of return fire forced him back under cover. He was shouting, the words resonating in Saul’s ears, asking for a response but receiving none. Saul felt that if whoever had spoken through Malden’s mouth really wanted them all dead, dead they would be by now. But the speaker wanted Hannah, and also wanted Saul.
They crawled through the maintenance tunnel as fast as they could. Firing echoed behind them, and he turned back to see Braddock entering the tunnel, shooting behind him from the cover of its mouth. No firing in return this time; none at all. Then out into a long low room lined with gas cylinders, illuminated by their helmet lights only.
“What happened to Malden?” Hannah asked breathlessly, but he could sense she had already guessed.
“The comlife got him.”
“Went straight into his skull and spoke through him, which it could do easily enough since it is comlife with a human component.”
“The way he spoke…” she began, but didn’t want to say out loud what she was thinking.
She bowed her head. “We’re dead, aren’t we?”
“Either that or we may want to be,” he replied.
Just then the EM came back on, whining in his head.
“Who is this Smith, then?” Braddock gazed at them intently.
Hannah sat herself upright in the confined space, and looked across at the man. Braddock was resting against one wall, with his machine pistol in his lap; he could turn it on them in an instant.
“He’s the political director up here on Argus,” said Hannah, a slight catch in her voice.
“I know that,” Braddock snapped, now focusing his gaze on Saul. “But there’s something else. How the hell did he do that to Malden?”
“Hannah?” Saul enquired, looking across at her for an answer.
She dipped her head and stared at the floor, trying to dispel her doom-laden thoughts so that she could restore her mind to its analytical best. She now looked up at Saul. “He was our political director, so he must have taken whatever he wanted of my research and applied it to himself—whether with government permission or not, I don’t know.” To Braddock she now continued, “He’s the same type as Malden, but managed to outmanoeuvre Malden because he was well prepared, and because he’s been running the hardware in his skull longer and knows better how to use it.”
“What about him?” Braddock indicated Saul with a tilt of his chin.
What about him? Hannah wondered. Saul had obviously expected to come up here and snatch control of the station as easily as he had taken control of the cell complex, and if there had only been normal humans and computers for him to overcome, he would have had every chance of succeeding. But, first, Malden had stood in his way, and now a comlife poisonous spider lurked at the heart of things. And, just to add to their woes, station security officers were now searching for them, so this little hideaway would not remain safe for much longer. Could Saul triumph over such odds? Was he strong enough yet? Gazing at him, she had to wonder just what was going on behind those unreadable red eyes. She now spoke to try and boost her own confidence:
“What, my intelligence?” Saul joked.
Hannah did not respond to this attempt at humour. It was dry and disconnected anyway, since Saul was somewhere else, his gaze directed overhead and his face expressionless. It almost seemed as if an empty mannikin sat in his place.
“What do we do now?” she asked.
“I am considering our options,” he replied.
“Perhaps if you could let us in?” she suggested.
His gaze dropped to focus briefly on her, then on Braddock.
“I am simply bringing more of myself online,” he explained icily. “Even though I cannot connect to the local network, I can that way more accurately analyse the circumstances that brought us to our current position, and from there divine a solution.”
His gaze drifted away from them as he continued speaking, till it almost seemed as if it wasn’t actually him speaking—as if the real Saul was elsewhere and had delegated the tiresome task of turning thoughts into words to some subprogram of his mind.
“Obviously, Smith took an interest in the attack upon his old stomping ground of Inspectorate HQ London, so located Janus on Govnet, and through Janus located my bunker. His abilities are such that he could not have failed to locate Malden, once Malden had started operating as comlife. He did not fail to locate him. From his own words, Smith clearly allowed Malden to conduct his little revolution, possibly with Committee approval or possibly not…”
The ensuing pause was lengthy, his lips still moving according to some subroutine, then finally the voicebox re-engaging. “Smith was sensitive to anything involving the name Avram Coran, therefore must have tracked that identity back to reveal how I obtained it at Gene Bank…He’s been on top of me and Malden right from the start, I think.” Saul refocused on Hannah, his voice becoming marginally more human. “But I still wonder why he allowed Malden to get away with what he did down at Minsk. I suspect Smith’s agenda might differ from the Committee’s.”
“Smith has tight control of the station network, and will be watching out for me. If I try to penetrate it, he might be able to do to me what he did to Malden. I need to create a diversion and find another route in, if I am to kill him.”
There it was, stated with cold precision: kill him.
“How, though?” Hannah asked.
“Robots,” Saul replied succinctly, a statement of fact, his gaze again elsewhere.
“If you could explain?” Hannah suggested.
“Once the EM shield is on, all electromagnetic communications go down. The computer networks throughout Argus Station are maintained by physical wiring and line-of-sight laser. However, for the robots both those forms of connection will only be intermittent, since they are constantly on the move. They will be running on their own programs for the duration of shielding, and only updated every time they physically connect up, or connect by laser, or when the shields go down.”
“Smith can’t be in the robots,” declared Hannah. “At least not fully. Maybe they possess stripped-down copies of his AI component within them, but there’s not enough processing space for much more.”
“I doubt he even bothers,” Saul said.
“We need to find robots?” Braddock asked.
“Readerguns are going to be a problem.”
“Quite true, but not until we depart the rim and head inwards, to where they are concentrated. And I have no intention of going there just yet,” he said decisively. “Come on, we’ve been here long enough.”
They’d reached their current narrow place of concealment via an even narrower crawlway designed for some of the very robots Saul was talking about. He now headed for the exit leading to this, then paused.
“Solar activity must be high,” he observed.
“What?” Hannah asked.
Saul continued, “I can see no other reason for Smith to keep the EM shield up and running, when it severely hampers his search for us.” He glanced round. “Only hardwired cams and detection systems can be used, since most portable detection equipment won’t work, and those searching will only be able to communicate with each other by using hardened consoles. As we have noticed, both consoles and the access points for them are few in this section of the station.” He nodded as if confirming this to himself, and entered the crawlway.
Hannah followed him in, Braddock close behind her.
“Where are we going?” Hannah demanded as Saul abruptly halted in the crawlway.
“To find larger and more effective versions of this chap who is directly ahead of me,” he replied.
“What’s ahead of you?” asked Braddock.
Hannah wormed her way further, till she was pressing against Saul. She felt him go tense for a moment, then relax as if such physical proximity had first irritated him, then been discarded as irrelevant. Up beside him, she could get a close look at what he was talking about.
“Maintenance bot,” she informed Braddock.
The robot was about the size of a badger, and indeed had the same body shape, but was fashioned of metal and provided with numerous pneumatic starfish feet rather than four legs. It had halted on detecting a blockage ahead of it—namely Saul. He reached out and grabbed the machine, turning it on to its side so he could inspect it. Directly underneath its front end was a connecting plug enabling it to socket into a data port and upload new instructions, should the normal radio option be closed. On the side facing up lay a single panel which Saul flipped open. Inside were various chip sockets, but obviously not what he wanted. As he turned the thing over, Hannah noted the glassy hemisphere of a laser com unit on its back, but that wasn’t what he wanted either. Opening the panel on the other side, he revealed two coiled-up cables, one for recharging and the other an optic with a gigagate plug. Hannah well knew that all optic gate sockets were manufactured to take the smaller plugs.
“Plugging in?” she suggested.
He silently answered by peeling artificial skin from his temple, then slid his nail into the plug of synthetic skin underneath and levered it out, before uncoiling the optic and inserting it into the teragate socket in his own head. After a moment, he set the robot upright and sent it scuttling ahead, but not so fast it would risk pulling the cable from his head. Soon they were heading out into a wider area which seemed to be used as an oxygen store, judging by the cylinders clustered all around them. Saul stood, then picked up the robot and cradled it in his arms like a pet.
“What now?” Hannah asked, eyeing the machine.
“We need construction robots. Heavy robots.”
“Because readerguns and machine pistols won’t bring them down straight away and because, with the right programming, they can kill.” He turned to look at Braddock. “Are you prepared to help us?” he asked.
Braddock gazed at him bitterly. “I’m out of alternatives.”
“Good. Well, stay alert. You know what’ll happen if they capture you.”
Utterly logical, guaranteed to appeal to Braddock’s sense of self-preservation, Hannah thought. Almost like following a formula.
Braddock nodded and, like a good soldier, checked the workings of his weapon before loading it with a fresh clip. Saul led them to the far end of the store where another robot had been bolted to the floor, its single function being to load the gas bottles stockpiled here onto a conveyor.
“This leads out to the edge of the station,” explained Saul, pointing up the conveyor.
Abruptly, the loading robot opened out its single arm and clasped a four-fingered claw around one of the gas bottles. The conveyor started running for a second, then shut down.
“The fuck!” said Braddock, stepping back.
“It’s under my control now,” Saul told him. “Let’s go.”
He climbed onto the conveyor and, after some hesitation, Hannah climbed up behind him. The belt then advanced a short distance to let Braddock get on and, with the soldier in place, it started running again. Hannah understood that she and Braddock were only witnessing the surface activity, and that Saul must be running some complex programs in his head as he used the line-of-sight laser from the “badger” robot to similarly seize control of other machines in their immediate vicinity. Though this might well save them from capture and then inevitably torture and execution, she had to wonder what might come next. How important would Saul consider human life as he sank ever deeper into the machine?