Once the Committee had firmly tightened its grip on Earth, it distributed wealth only on the basis of its own survival. In the beginning, “zero-asset” citizens received just enough to keep them fed, clothed and housed, whilst “societal assets” could receive considerably more, calculated on the basis of their use to the Committee and how much more of a contribution could be derived from them by allowing them more. But the Committee itself sucked up the bulk of world wealth through building the infrastructure of utter control, and it maintained its upper executives at a level of luxury never before witnessed on Earth. However, as the population continues to grow and production does not, inevitably there will be a resource crash and ensuing Dark Age. Those at the bottom of the pile will starve and die in their billions, whilst those at the top will perhaps have to forgo their caviar and biscuits.

As robots located down on the surface of the asteroid began to respond to Saul’s laser communications, he rather thought Smith was mistaken. However, even as he considered that, the number of robots he was hijacking ceased to increase, while other robots again were clearly on the move. Smith had evidently begun taking control of the remainder and was turning them against him. Saul received data on the first robot-on-robot clash less than a second later.

“I’ll be on top of you very shortly,” he replied to Smith. “That doesn’t look like failure to me.”

He began probing, feeling out the network—gritting his teeth at a familiar stab of pain in his head—and started recording large chunks of code to then run through the processors lodged inside his skull. This was slow progress, however, because though he realized a lot of the activity he was currently picking up would involve tactical information and attack orders, that stuff only gave him a vague lever for code-cracking.

“You’ve made a miscalculation based on badly collated data,” Smith explained, arrogantly confident of his own abilities.

“You think so?” Saul asked, probing behind the Director’s latest words to where they’d passed through the same coding as served the entire station’s network. Just eight words and one contraction enabled him to crack 18 per cent of the overall coding of voice and text transmission, and also enabled him to recognize the image files of visual feeds, but he was getting nowhere with the hardware instructions to cams, readerguns, and other station security devices.

“It would appear you are now heading for Tech Central, expecting to seize control there. That could be considered amusing if it were not for the people’s resources I must expend just to deal with you.”

Smith’s love of verbiage had now given Saul a further 47 per cent of all voice and text transmission, then, within a few seconds, he had all of it. He erased all recorded text and voice data from his mind so as to concentrate on the rest, his head immediately feeling less congested. At the same time he realized that, whilst he had partially penetrated Smith’s comlife element, Smith had been probing him likewise in an attempt to crack the ten-digit code keeping the robots secure.

“You’re not in Tech Central?” Saul enquired, pretending ignorance.

“That’s not the kind of information one should volunteer to an opponent.”

Saul supposed Smith must think him really stupid, assuming that Saul believed that, by taking physical control of Tech Central, he would thereby gain control of the station. He’d never thought that for an instant, of course. Having expanded himself just as Malden and Saul had, Smith could control the station from any location he chose, and therefore it was him Saul needed at gunpoint, or dead. He probed deeper still, trying to get a handle on visual feeds being routed from the same source as Smith’s voice. And that’s when Smith pounced.

Smith was into his mind, a search-engine link stabbing deep down into its processing spaces, like a barbed harpoon. Saul tried to cut it off, but the engine instantly began searching the software he used to control his modem, and his instructions queued up like print orders to an overloaded printer, whilst the pain between his eyes rapidly increased. This is how Smith did it, he realized; this is how he got Malden. He simply overloaded everything within his prey until its programs started to hang. Malden had probably failed because his first instinct, like most other people’s, would have been to retreat, defend himself, try to get this intruder out of his head. Saul realized now his advantage over Malden, and maybe over Smith himself: he had more firmly accepted that his self did not reside only in this body of flesh and blood. Like a salmon leaping up through a waterfall, he battled his way up through the informational tsunami to get to Smith himself. Even as the pressure of data began to shove him back down, and lights began flashing across his organic vision, he copied the weapon Smith had used against him—that search engine possessing a huge requirement to find, without any clear definition of what it must find—and flung it straight back towards Smith.

“You fucker!” Smith exclaimed, losing his usual laborious manner of speech.

The thing thunked into the man’s brain like a crossbow bolt into wood, and before Smith got a chance to clamp down, Saul saw for a moment through his opponent’s eyes, and then through the cams in his immediate vicinity. Smith was making his way along a wide tubeway, four guards surrounding him, all of them suited up for vacuum. Despite his apparent assurance earlier, he was fleeing, and Saul realized that, by deploying the robots, he had caught the man out. He now precisely located Smith on the station schematic—in a tunnel over to his left and further down, leading away from Tech Central. And, as Smith struggled to drive out Saul’s probe, he was forced to retract his own from Saul.

Now they were swirling around each other in the network, like immiscible fluids. Feeling the other man’s panic, Saul realized he had a chance to win this. However, it could not be through direct mental confrontation like this, because the steady growth of pain in his head made an eventual loss of control inevitable.

Within a second, Saul punched into Tech Central, grabbing the readerguns, and from that point also spreading out virally to contest for control of additional guns and cams. Smith seemed weakest at Saul’s point of penetration, as was the case in Tech Central itself, yet, even beyond a certain point where the sheer density of data began interfering with Saul’s usurpation, Smith could not seem to hold on. He tried to retain control of the readerguns, but only managed to trip safety protocols designed to prevent the weapons being hijacked, thus crashing their systems and burning out critical hardware. Meanwhile even as he fought for control elsewhere, Saul was focusing through the cameras of Tech Central itself.

Smith had abandoned the staff working the consoles in the main control room, and they were now trying to make sense of what was happening. Outside that room itself, two Inspectorate guards had tipped a couple of steel desks onto their sides and were crouching behind them for protection. Saul gave instructions to the readergun in the ceiling immediately above them, and two short bursts of fire wrote them out of the equation. Then, despite Smith’s interference, he managed to reprogram the same gun, as well as others in the vicinity, to respond only to his ten-digit code. Smith, unfortunately, was not in range of any gun Saul could fire. Time now to finish this, because Smith must not be allowed to escape.

“Braddock,” Saul called, as he came to a halt and squatted behind a pallet of sheet metal.

The soldier leapt to one side as shots exploded across the walkway in front of him. He then turned and fired his stolen machine pistol over to the right, emptying it completely, then tossing it away. A weapon tumbled away down there, not because its owner had been hit, but because he was desperately trying to fight off the robot which was attempting to tap a twenty-millimetre thread through his back. Braddock retreated fast towards Saul and Hannah, his own machine pistol in his left hand and the missile-launcher in his right. He crouched low beside them.

“The both of you, head up into Tech Central.” Saul focused on Braddock, meanwhile sending new instructions to two of his robots. “Those remaining there are not armed, and the readerguns there are now under my control.”

“You’ve won? You’ve won already, haven’t you?”

Saul shook his head, then quickly wished he hadn’t when it felt as if something began snapping loose inside. He was trying to keep thousands of separate functions open to his conscious perception, striving to keep the pain under control. Smith’s informational assaults on him were constant and it took all Saul’s effort to retain control of the robots and readerguns he had already seized, his attempt to code them to respond only to himself becoming a continuing battle.

“I’ve got an advantage over him in the immediate area, simply because of the robots and readerguns I control,” he explained. “But I don’t know how long I can hold on to that.”

One of the robots drew itself up into the cage of girders, causing a shudder of metalwork, whilst another passed below on its way towards the required destination. Saul meanwhile replaced the ammunition clip in his machine pistol with the ceramic ammunition clip from the assault rifle, then tossed the emptied weapon away.

“What are you doing?” Braddock asked.

“Smith isn’t in Tech Central, so I’m going after him.”

“Then I’ll come with you.”

“Go where I told you to go,” Saul instructed, before he propelled himself over towards the squatting robot and caught hold of its bullet-scarred cowling. He then focused on Hannah. “Justice now, I think.”

Hannah merely nodded, her expression unreadable behind her visor. Braddock’s expression, however, was an open book—the man obviously angry and ready to protest. Saul slung one leg over the robot and jammed his fingers into a row of data ports inset in its upper surface. It leapt from the walkway, claws closing on beams in the latticework, then propelled itself onwards through the internal structure of the station wheel, like some magical lion in a VR fantasy.

The machine exhibited none of the jerkiness associated with robotics of previous ages; instead his metallic mount flowed smoothly towards its destination, keeping him seated safely by choosing a route to ensure he wouldn’t be knocked from its back—or, rather, Saul was doing that himself, because his mind lay as much inside these machines as in the grey fat inside his skull. Through other eyes—or rather sensors—he saw Hannah and Braddock reach the airlock that led up into the entrance block of Tech Central. There they would be safe, at least for a little while.

Finally, his robot mount landed on top of the wide tubeway snaking down and away from Tech Central, and after he had stepped down it joined its fellow in cutting and levering up a section of the bubblemetal ceiling. Faster, he needed to move much faster. But even as he registered that thought, he saw from another viewpoint the missile speeding down towards them.

Saul hurled himself forward, every instinct now concentrating on personal physical survival. He shouldered the floor and rolled into the gap below the plate the two robots were levering up, then shoved himself downwards. Even as he was falling through he pulled the machine pistol from his thigh pocket, aimed it and fired. Two of Smith’s guards flew backwards just as the missile detonated above, shaking the tubeway violently. As he hit the floor, he initiated the gecko function of his boots and propelled himself forward, firing again to send a third guard spinning and bouncing backwards in dreamy slow motion, vapour jets pinpointing the punctures in his spacesuit.

Behind Saul, an undamaged robot slipped through also, but as it tried to right itself, a robot under Smith’s control hurtled along the tubeway leading from Tech Central and slammed into it, a collision silent in vacuum, yet noisy in interference over com as internal components shorted. Shots tracked along the nearby wall as the last guard tried to regain his balance and get a bead on Saul—but by then Saul was on him. He caught the barrel of the man’s gun and pushed it aside, whilst pulling himself in closer. A heel-of-the-hand blow to the man’s visor, then again and again, air leaks starting to create vapour trails all around it, his gun barrel hot, and vibrating in Saul’s gloved hand, as it spewed a stream of bullets. The guard tried a hook punch, but Saul turned him towards the wall and chopped at the back of his neck—once, twice and then again to feel something break.

“Smith!” he bellowed, with com set to broadcast.

Smith had abandoned his guards and fled out of sight, somewhere ahead.

Glancing back, Saul saw the two robots still locked together, their movements growing sluggish as they died. The tools they used for their work were as effective against each other’s bodies as on the metals they manipulated, and in very little time they had managed to nearly cut each other apart. He summoned more robots towards the tubeway, certain he would need them, then grabbed up a machine pistol and went loping after Smith.

In the network, Smith then went for him, closing the virtual gap between them. Through surrounding cams they could now see each other. Smith was down on one knee, armed with some sort of wide-barrelled assault rifle aimed back along the tubeway. Within Saul’s mind, Smith delved into the organic interface, this interference firing off nerves in Saul’s body. He staggered, his inner ear telling him everything was spinning, while those jagged flashing lights blinded his human eyes.

Saul fought back by going for a more specific effect, looking for a physical function already queued up, and forcing it. Smith’s finger pulled tight on his trigger, so his weapon emptied itself on full automatic. Recovering as Smith’s attack on him weakened, Saul saw armour-piercers punching through the wall just ahead of him with shreds of paint showering away like snow.

“Acceptable,” Smith said, and copied his opponent’s attack.

Saul’s own trigger finger closed, low-impact slugs denting the floor by his boot, scattering fragments of blue plastic in every direction. Smith abandoned the assault rifle and drew a side arm, but access to that trigger response had become easy for both of them, and Smith nearly shot himself in the leg before managing to drop the weapon.

Round the corner now, and there he found Smith waiting, those ridiculously blue eyes glaring from behind his spacesuit visor. Saul was finding it difficult to walk by now, just as Smith was finding it difficult to turn and run. They were rooting deep into each other’s hardware and software, feeding back instructions through the organic interfaces they both possessed. Robots, friend and foe, were closing in on the tubeway from all around, and Saul had no idea which side would get there first.

This had to be finished, soon.

Saul reached his opponent, closed a hand on his shoulder and spun him round again. Smith’s fist came up towards Saul’s throat, but he managed to turn enough for it to glance off the side of his helmet. But the knife in Smith’s other hand lunged straight through the fabric of Saul’s spacesuit and into his side. Agony surged through him as Smith tried to tilt the knife upwards through Saul’s liver, to find his heart. No good: grip all wrong. Smith extracted the blade to try again, which gave Saul just the break he needed. All but blind now, he grabbed Smith’s hand and turned the knife away, driving it back towards the man’s throat, below the metal rim of his helmet. But instead it went lower, going in just above Smith’s collarbone, and sent the other man staggering backwards. Saul now tried to seize sufficient mental control to make Smith pull the weapon out and stab again, but, with a spastic convulsion of his arm, Smith flung the knife away.

Now the entire tubeway shuddered under the clash of combat. Through multiple sensors Saul observed the robot-on-robot battle outside, and realized he had no way of knowing which side would win. If one of Smith’s robots made its way inside this tubeway first, then Saul was dead—though the reverse applied too.

“You are a greater enemy of freedom than I considered,” declared Smith ludicrously, one hand at his collarbone, where blood and suit sealant had begun welling underneath. He looked grey and sick and—to Saul’s eyes—scared.

Saul didn’t bother replying. Navigating only by cam view, he grabbed a nearby safety handle, propelled himself over to the knife and snatched it up, his shoulder jarring against the floor and causing something to twang painfully in his side. He then rolled through the air, bringing his feet down to adhere, pushed himself upright again and held the knife ready. However, this time Smith did not seem inclined towards hand-to-hand fighting. He resorted to a mental assault instead, but it bounced away as Saul now recognized it and closed down that route into his mind.

Smith suddenly turned and fled, propelling himself along the tubeway, perhaps knowing he would lose in any physical encounter, but not knowing that Saul could hardly see him. Saul tried to slow him by interfering with the operation of his limbs, but Smith had closed down that route too and, in retreat, presented a sheer and slippery surface that Saul could find no purchase on. Tracking him by cams, Saul stuck with him to the limit of his own domain.

Smith hauled himself to a halt before moving beyond the last of the cams that Saul controlled. Hand pressed to his knife wound, he gazed up at the nearest lens.

“We will conclude this matter later, Citizen,” he managed to gasp.

Then he was gone.


Outside the tubeway itself the robot-on-robot battle continued, but the ones Smith controlled were now steadily retreating. This might look like a victory, but Saul knew otherwise. Smith might have pulled back, but mentally he seemed stronger. Though by using the element of surprise Saul had carved out a little realm for himself, Smith still controlled the rest of the station, its personnel, and the bulk of the robots. And now those jagged flashes of light were killing the last traces of Saul’s human vision, his side hurt even more than his head, and he was beginning to cough up foamy blood. Without medical attention he could soon die here, he realized, but he needed to give himself a breathing space.

Taking a firm grip on the readerguns he did control, he began opening up on security personnel, but even now many of the troops were withdrawing into those grey areas where the readerguns were out of commission. Only those whose escape routes were blocked by the guns or robots that Saul controlled were still trapped.

As he lay there, blood bubbling in his lungs, Saul perceived a number of options. He could continue this local slaughter until no one remained standing against him, but with cold calculation he realized that he might need personnel on his side to finally win this place. That meant demonstrating some compassion, even if it wasn’t genuinely there. He therefore shut down readerguns and put his robots on hold.

“Lay down your weapons,” he broadcast to those trapped soldiers, through personal fones and spacesuit com systems.

Through a thousand cams, he watched security-force personnel still firing on the robots poised to fall upon them. Some had already destroyed readerguns that had turned on them, that had been blocking their retreat. Hundreds of messages slid into the network, seeking instructions from the commander, or from Smith and his immediate subordinates, but so far no replies seemed to be forthcoming.

“This section of the station is no longer under Smith’s control,” he informed them, his lips merely miming the words, but the com system turning them into something stronger than he himself could physically manage. “I am now in control of all local computer systems, robots and readerguns, so you will drop your weapons immediately and either leave the area extending between Arcoplex One and the Arboretum, and including Tech Central, or return to your quarters to await instructions.” With that, he made the robots in the area jerk forward menacingly like war dogs pulling at their leashes, and set readerguns in motion momentarily, but did not allow them to fire.

A fit of coughing racked him suddenly, more blood emerging, his breath becoming noticeably shorter. Saul rested for a moment whilst watching the security forces scattered about the area. Listening to the exchange of orders, he finally managed to locate the military commander of all these troops. It was a guy called Langstrom, so he opened up com with him.

“Political Director Smith has abandoned you,” he explained. “I now have absolute control of this section. The only choice you now have is whether you obey me and live, or disobey and die.”

Momentarily transferring his attention to Tech Central, he saw Braddock herding all but three of the staff outside and sending them on their way. Hannah meanwhile held the remaining three at gunpoint, so perhaps it was Braddock’s idea to keep a limited number of hostages. But they needed to be people Smith actually cared about, and Saul doubted that such people existed. He next explored Tech Central’s schematic, in his mind, quickly finding what he required, then connected to a simple cleaner robot nearby and sent it over to Hannah’s location. Finally he summoned one of the least damaged construction robots remaining just outside the tubeway.

“Who is this?” Langstrom responded, with seemingly admirable calm.

About twenty troops had retreated into another tubeway, where they had eliminated the nearest readergun. They were obviously on the point of heading for the next gun along, just as Saul started making his announcements. Langstrom was a wiry black man clad in the same style of vacuum combat suit as his soldiers, except with a silver diagonal bar across the front, and he now stood near an uncompleted section of tubeway, gazing out into the web of girders running between the latticework walls. Within view were soldiers who until then had been fighting desperately against robots that Saul controlled.

“My name is Alan Saul, but that of course means nothing to you.”

“Precisely,” Langstrom replied.

Just a mental nudge caused all the robots within view to once again advance slightly. Firing broke out again, until Langstrom issued orders into his helmet mike.

“If he really controls all the readerguns and robots, like he says he does,” observed a huge bulky man standing just behind Langstrom, “we don’t stand much chance of getting out of here.”

“And if he’s lying, and we surrender our weapons,” said Langstrom, “you know damned well what Smith will do with us.”

“Have you recently received any word from Smith?” Saul interjected.

Langstrom shook his head involuntarily, then said, “No word, as yet.”

There was nothing to stop Smith from communicating with his troops isolated here, but it seemed he considered them even more dispensable than the robots he had withdrawn from the fighting earlier. Saul also wondered if Smith was now receiving medical treatment, just like he himself would need very soon.

“He wasn’t lying about these readerguns here,” said the bulky man, eyeing two corpses sprawled at the edge of the tubeway. “And he’s not lying about the robots either.”

Langstrom nodded. “What guarantees are you offering?”

“You know I need to offer you none,” Saul replied.

The man again tried for some response from Smith, but got nothing. He then cursed and tossed down his machine pistol.

“Smart move,” Saul remarked.

“You’re watching?” Langstrom asked.

“As I told you, I have control in a limited area, but my control there is absolute.”

“You’ll let my men come in?” Gesturing up at the nearest cam, Langstrom pointed out the robots that hovered menacingly.

“So long as they don’t try anything stupid, Langstrom,” Saul agreed.

Langstrom nodded briefly and waved his men back. Speaking over com, he called them all in, and soon they began retreating.

“What is it you want?” was his parting question.

Right then, Saul wanted more than anything to not be leaking so much blood inside his suit.

“Not your concern right now,” he replied.

As the commander moved off, Saul opened com with Tech Central. “Hannah,” he began.

Braddock was now back inside, too, where he had ordered the three remaining captives to call up views of the surrounding area on their screens. Both he and she looked up simultaneously.

“A cleanbot has arrived just outside, and I want you to follow it.”

“Where to?”

“There’s a surgical area located one floor below you.”

“I see,” she said, suddenly looking worried.

Just then the construction robot arrived, dropping through the hole in the tubeway roof, and advanced towards him. He could only see it through the cams, as he programmed in its next location, retracing Smith’s escape route along the tubeway, before giving it very careful instructions about how to pick Saul up. Even so, the world greyed for a moment as its claws closed around him, but it seemed that unconsciousness remained out of his reach.

Hannah felt overcome by a sudden atavistic fear at the sight of the construction robot crouching in the corridor with bloodstains on its cowling. When she saw Saul slumped in front of it with his back propped against the wall, she assumed it must have attacked him. Then she noticed the Caduceus symbol on the door he was resting beside, and logic triumphed. She stepped over the cleanbot that had guided her here, and rushed over to kneel before him.

“Smith…got away,” Saul managed.

Those were definitely not the words she wanted to hear. She stared at the blood plating the outside of his spacesuit, dried out and turned oak-brown by vacuum. “Where are you wounded?”

“Side.” He gestured with one blood-smeared glove.

Hannah peered at the mess of suit sealant that had boiled out of there. “Can you move?” A weak shake of the head. “I’m going to need Braddock,” she decided.

After a pause Saul replied, “He’s coming now.”

Braddock arrived in double-quick time, armed and looking for a fight, but as soon as he saw Saul, his face turned white. Was that because without Saul their chances of survival became precisely nil?

“The prisoners?” Hannah enquired.

“I locked them in the toilet,” Braddock told her.

“Okay, help me.”

They carried Saul as carefully as possible through the door and into a surgery prep room.

“Get his suit off,” Hannah instructed, as she herself frantically began checking the cold stores and equipment cupboards ranged along one wall. It was good that the level of gravity lay as close to zero as made no difference, otherwise Braddock’s task would have been much more difficult. By the time she had found trauma dressings and a pair of scissors, Braddock had removed the spacesuit to expose the blood-soaked undersuit. Whilst he held Saul in place Hannah cut away the undersuit, and soon located the wound. She then affixed a trauma dressing, which quickly formed itself over the wound while infusing it with coagulants. After that they loaded Saul on to a special gurney which closed pads securely over his arms, legs and forehead, before rolling him through the clean lock leading into the operating theatre.

“What about Smith?” Braddock asked.

“He got away,” she replied bluntly, trying to stamp down on her fears. She just had to be pragmatic; no use wondering when Inspectorate enforcers would come piling in here to drag them away, no use thinking about what lay in store if Smith managed to get to them.

“So we’re fucked,” replied Braddock, equally blunt.

She quickly stripped off her spacesuit and undersuit, hardly noticing Braddock’s embarrassment as he turned away. She then propelled herself through into the surgeon’s lock, quickly donning surgeon’s whites and forgoing the decontamination process. Now in utterly familiar surroundings, she connected up a pressurized blood feed to her patient, before administering a general anaesthetic through it. While Saul was relaxing into unconsciousness, she began sifting through the tools she required, picking up a wound ring of the appropriate size.

“We need him awake again as quickly as possible,” warned Braddock, from the other side of the isolation window, having obviously located the intercom. “If Smith discovers he’s out of it, his people will be down on us in a second.”

“No, really?” said Hannah, sarcastically.

She stripped away the dressing to expose the weeping hole in Saul’s side, then folded up the wound ring and inserted it into the gash, before opening it out to leave a neat round hole into his body, out of which oozed black, jelly-like blood. Next she swung over the microsurgery unit and positioned its slow-worm head in the mouth of the wound. The head pushed its way in, tentatively exploring inside the patient’s body, suction pipes slurping as they cleared out yet more congealing blood or leaking fluids, while sensors mapped out the internal damage to its screen, for her inspection.

The knife had penetrated his side, slicing straight through his liver and pancreas, and, just missing the splenic artery, had twisted upwards and into the lobe of one lung. The comprehensive damage ended only a couple of centimetres from his heart, but, even so, the lesser vena cava had been nicked. Starting with that vein, Hannah began repairing the damage, working the microsurgery head gradually back out, cauterizing and gluing on its way. Most of this repair work could be left to automatic programming now the damage was mapped into the machine’s processor, but she did pause it a couple of times to inspect the situation more closely. This was all wrong, she soon realized. Some of the damage within Saul had already begun to heal up, and checking his bloodwork, she found it flooded with unassigned stem cells and other elements she just did not recognize. And she felt renewed awe of the man he had once been.

The work continued until the slow-worm head slipped obscenely out of the wound carrying the wound ring with it. Micro-manipulators then drew it closed, the astringent smell of wound glue arose, then a brief sound like that of a fingernail being run along the teeth of a comb as the surgical head stitched in a neat row of staples just to make doubly sure.

“I’m done now,” said Hannah.

“That was quick,” remarked Braddock.

“Left untended, a normal person would probably have died quickly,” she explained flatly as she folded the microsurgery head back down into its sterilizer. “He was already beginning to heal up.”

“Heal up?” Braddock echoed, puzzled.

“His predecessor’s nano-viral fix.”

“Nano-viral fix?” asked Braddock. “Predecessor?”

“It’s a long story,” she replied.

“Right,” Braddock snarled, obviously annoyed. “So what happens now?”

“You think I know?” Hannah spat back.

She shifted the microsurgery unit away from the gurney, then headed over to the drug dispensary. There she tapped her requirements into a touch screen, and waited while it buzzed and hummed to itself. Shortly a drawer emerged, holding three loaded syringes: one containing a counter-agent for his anaesthetic, the second a mix of sugars, antishocks, viral and bacterial applications, the third a wide-spectrum stimulant package. She injected just the counter-agent and waited.

Saul lay utterly still for a short while, then suddenly jerked, his left hand rising to touch the wound in his side. He opened his eyes and licked his lips, then slowly sat upright, using his arms to lever himself up. Just as well, because straining his stomach muscles didn’t seem like a great idea right then. For a moment Hannah assumed that the chilly distance of his expression was due to the drugs, then she realized that he was back inside the station’s computer network.

“The pain…has gone,” he slurred. “And I can see again.”


He reached up and probed his forehead, closed his eyes and for a moment fell utterly still. Then abruptly his eyes reopened.

“Unbelievable,” he said, the slur vanishing from his tone.

“What is?” demanded Braddock from behind the glass, before peering suspiciously at the door behind him, cradling his machine pistol even closer.

“The Argus satellite system,” Saul explained, shaking his head slowly. “There are seven thousand satellites in all, of which only ten per cent are functional. I’ve just managed to achieve a limited penetration, but that’s enough to interpret how it’s intended to run.”

Saul carefully swung his legs off the gurney, then didn’t appear strong enough to proceed any further, besides which, the pressure feed was still plugged into his arm.

“How, then?” Hannah asked, as she uncapped each in turn of the remaining two syringes.

“All queued up and ready for mass slaughter,” he continued. “But in the typically fucked-up way of any operation run by government.”

“How fucked up?” asked Braddock.

“The satellites can pick up ID implant signals and target individuals, but what criminal or revolutionary ever sticks to the same identity?”

“True enough.”

“So they tried recognition systems.” Saul glanced across at him. “The satellites all possess high-definition cameras capable of reading the writing on a cigarette packet from orbit. The images they obtain can then be run through complex recognition systems—the aim being to target selected individuals.”

“Yeah, and so?

“A slight problem is that such recognition systems are keyed to a human’s face, not to the top of his head.”

“You’re shitting me.”

Hannah held her syringes ready. “So that means the Committee’s dream of being able to identify and eliminate single insurgents from orbit is still very much a dream?”

“It is, but governments never let go of a bad idea.”

Saul finally pushed himself away from the gurney, standing up for a moment, still wobbly. In Earth gravity, he would already have been flat on the floor. Hannah stepped forward to squeeze the larger syringe into the pressure feed plugged into his forearm. Then she swabbed his biceps before injecting the smaller syringe, containing stimulants. Saul watched this procedure with a kind of impatient detachment.

“So what’re they using now?” Braddock asked.

“A rather less specific option called DAS.”

As the stimulants began slowly kicking in, Saul straightened up and began to look marginally more alert. He gazed around the surgery, eyed the blood pooled on the gurney for a moment, then turned back to meet Hannah’s gaze. He gave a nod of acknowledgement. “Thanks.”

“Think nothing of it,” she replied. “It wasn’t exactly brain surgery.”

He managed a grin, but it seemed an expression delivered by rote.

“Is that portable?” He was pointing at the pressure feed—a device positioned on the side of the gurney, into which square blood packs were plugged like ink refills.

Hannah detached the object from the gurney and held it up.

“We need to get into Tech Central itself.” He reached out for the pressure feed, took it and tucked it under his arm.

Exiting the aseptic surgery was less of a problem than actually getting into it, though a little screen did flash up a warning about them taking contaminated clothing outside. After she had helped him pull on a pair of disposeralls, cutting through one sleeve so as to feed the pipes through, Hannah overrode this warning and they moved outside to join Braddock. Now that Saul was mobile she could see how the sugars and stimulants were kicking in faster and how he propelled himself purposefully towards the door. But on gecko boots, Braddock got there ahead of him, opened the door and helped Saul to make his way through.

This display of oversolicitousness annoyed Hannah. She understood how their lives now depended on Saul, but there seemed more underlying Braddock’s behaviour than that. It seemed the soldier had found someone new to serve.

Once in the corridor outside, Braddock asked impatiently, “What the fuck is DAS?”

“Defined Area Suppression,” Saul replied, flicking his gaze towards the robot that had carried him here. “The entire planet has been segmented into a grid whose smallest area measures about a kilometre square. Feed a square number of the grid into the system, and the satellites will burn anyone found inside it. Even now, data is being uploaded from the surface to define those places on Earth that are being sectored: five square kilometres here, seven there, and ten over there. In fact, sectoring has been worked on the basis of the grid already present in the computer system here—which means they’ve been planning to depopulate those sectors for some time.”

Hannah absorbed this in silence and looked away. She wasn’t sure why he felt the need to repeatedly drive home the murderousness of the Committee. Perhaps to justify the actions he himself intended to take?

Saul turned to Braddock. “Agricultural land is also covered, as are large areas of the sea, since government vessels broadcast their position on a particular frequency and won’t be targeted. Someone has also been feeding in masses of data related to tenement and office blocks, houses, reservoirs, universities, schools, specific streets…basically any area or structure that can be comprehensively ‘defined.’” He almost spat the last word. “I guess this ensures that the Inspectorate can more easily call in a strike.” He paused, his gaze swinging back to Hannah. “They’ve gone one step up on the pain inducers. With this system up and running, the next riot would end quickly—and that burning pain would be real.”

She could see his anger, which seemed to flare out of his red eyes. She might have felt that such human emotion should make him appear to be more human, but it seemed to expose something unhuman in him, instead. Noise behind, then, and she glanced over her shoulder to see the construction robot back up on its feet, turning round in the corridor and heading away.

“What happened with Smith?” she asked.

“I think he is definitely stronger than me, but I managed to catch him by surprise.”

“But then he surprised you?”

“Yes.” Saul pressed a hand against his side.

“Can you defeat him?”

“I don’t know. I stuck his own knife back in him, and he ran.”

“That’s not the answer I was looking for.”

“It’s the only one I can give.”