A question that has often been raised is: “What interest does the Committee have in Mars?” To which the answer has to be that in the beginning it had no interest at all. The early Mars missions were part of a project jointly pursued by the Asian Coalition and Pan Europa; an affirmation of the ties that eventually led to the creation of the Committee itself. However, as the Committee increased in power, some of the delegates initiated a sequence of moves to scrap the Mars project—one such being arguably the reason why the first base, in Valles Marineris, failed. However, more far-sighted Committee members kept the whole project going because, utilizing data produced by assessment and focus groups, they came to the conclusion that the Mars missions could ultimately lead to a tightening of their control over Earth. The project’s infrastructure would enable them to obtain crucial metals from the asteroid belt, which in turn could provide the basis for a space-based industry large enough to construct the Argus satellite network. Beyond this, they had little interest in the red planet, though one discussion point was mooted: if travelling to Mars became an easy option, it might become useful as a prison planet.
“I see,” said Ricard, “that you now have entered Hydroponics, which is one of the most critical areas on this base. Doubtless you have also murdered my two men stationed there. Be assured that by threatening our food supply, you cannot hold the people of this base to ransom.”
“Speaking for the crowd again,” observed Var.
They looted the two corpses but, disappointingly, this provided them with only two machine pistols and five clips of plastic ammunition. It seemed that even Ricard hadn’t thought it wise to arm guards located inside Hydroponics with weapons and ammo capable of penetrating the geodesic dome.
“He’ll be sending his men soon,” Lopomac warned.
“He can’t send all of them.”
The public-address speaker system now emitted a feedback whine, and Ricard started speaking again, but this time without the echo in the background. Obviously he was now addressing them directly, rather than including the whole base.
“So, Var, what will you do now?” he began. “I have six highly trained Inspectorate personnel here with me, and I’ve provided them with antipersonnel grenades, and Kalashtek assault rifles, along with a crate of ceramic ammunition. I also have all the rest of the base personnel locked up in the Community Room, many of whom are friends and associates of yours.”
Var noticed the com icon flashing down in one corner of her visor. Ricard wanted to talk to her privately, but what really was there to say?
“He’s in Hex One, right now,” observed Carol.
“He must have loaded up a crawler and taken it round,” suggested Lopomac.
Var had perhaps underestimated Ricard, having expected him to stay hidden in the safety of Hex Three.
Ricard continued, “By my estimation, you yourselves must possess some weapons—mostly plastic ammunition and, I see from the base manifest, maybe one seismic charge. You have two choices now. One is that you rebalance the atmosphere in Hydroponics, then, once the bulkhead doors can be opened, you come at us through the adjoining wing—where my men will be waiting for you. Your only alternative is to exit via an airlock and try to gain access in some other way. However, the second shepherd is waiting outside for you, and it is now adjusted for shredding rather than capture mode. You might even get lucky with the one seismic charge you possess, but I doubt that, since our robot is now broadcasting local EM interference so that any radio detonation signal simply won’t work.”
“What the hell do we do?” Carol wondered. She sounded weary, and defeated.
“We don’t have much time,” admitted Var, at a loss.
“We can’t take off the head now,” said Lopomac, “but we can still deliver an ultimatum to him and Silberman, and to the remaining enforcers. They’ll have heard Le Blanc’s speech and will know the situation: they can’t run this base by themselves. We demand that they surrender their weapons, and their authority, and that from now on we run this place separate from Earth, and on the basis of the needs of all here. No more political thought police—we can’t survive like that.”
“Yes, that’s the most logical step,” said Var, “but Ricard won’t see it that way.” Lopomac was just babbling, just hoping to see some clear way of dealing with this.
“You’ll have to play the cards you’ve got,” said Kaskan, who, Var noted, was now holding the seismic charge. “There’ll be more weapons available in Hex Three.”
“Got any suggestions on how we get there?” Lopomac asked.
Kaskan shrugged, then began walking right across the hex towards the airlock. “You cut the power and you threaten to kill them all, thus forcing Ricard and his men to go after you.”
Var just then registered the words Kaskan had used: You’ll have to play the cards you’ve got. He was talking like someone who wasn’t included in their predicament.
“And kill everyone else remaining on the base?” asked Carol. “You know how fine the dividing line is between unconsciousness and death, once you start running out of air.” She pointed to the two corpses lying on the floor.
“Var here has already demonstrated extreme ruthlessness,” said Kaskan. “She’ll surely be able to convince Ricard, then it’ll be a straight fight.”
Var suddenly understood what he was doing.
But he had already opened the airlock and stepped inside.
“I loved Gisender,” he called back to them. “You’ve no idea how much.”
He closed the inner airlock door.
The jagged lights were gone from his eyes, and his head no longer pounded, but that might be as much due to the drugs Hannah had fed him as anything else. Whatever, he must use every second he remained functional.
At that moment, Smith did not seem to be active, perhaps himself lying drugged in some surgical facility, and currently beyond Saul’s ability to locate him. However, already the Committee was responding, and four space planes had been launched from Minsk. They had to be dealt with so, as carefully and as quietly as possible, Saul returned his attention to the systems in Tech Central that controlled the laser satellites. Very quickly he discovered that their security had already been breached. The set-up originally required at least five members of the Committee acting jointly to bring the system online, and then input the targets. But Smith had created a back door for himself so that he could take full control, which showed how in recent times he’d been working to his own advantage only. Checking status next, Saul discovered that only 10 per cent of the network was ready to use but, even so, that was nearly seven hundred satellites, each of them fusion-powered and firing a multi-megawatt laser capable of incinerating a single human being right down on the surface.
He could do a lot of damage, but only for so long as he retained control.
As Saul moved slowly down the corridor, catching at wall handles to propel himself along, even the adhesive quality of his sticky soles seemed too strong in his present weakened state. Nevertheless he concentrated beyond his own body, slowly infiltrating the satellite control system through the same back door that Smith had created. He studied the limitation to what he could achieve before alerting Smith to his intrusion—not a lot really: just run computer diagnostics and power-source tests. Using the latter test routine, he sent the requisite instructions to power up the seven hundred available satellites. Readings at once started climbing, as fusion reactors dumped their loads into advanced super-capacitor storage, and Saul knew that within a few minutes the satellites would start signalling their readiness to him—and, unfortunately, to Smith.
Saul couldn’t use the satellite weapons to stop the space planes already heading up here. Two of them had gone into SCRAM, and there was no point in trying to laser them, since their carbon nanofibre hulls were designed to disperse point temperatures and comfortably withstand temperatures that would melt steel. But he could certainly prevent further planes launching.
“You okay with this?” Hannah asked him, as they reached the cageway at the very end of the corridor.
Saul looked up. Of course he was—after all, he weighed nothing here.
“I think I can manage,” he said, reaching out to one of the struts.
Just then, something else came to his attention. Message traffic from Earth, and from the approaching space planes, was being responded to by people aboard the station itself. As he slowly propelled himself up towards Tech Central, he ran traces that discovered these replies were coming from partially isolated computers scattered throughout.
In a structure called the Political Office, situated down between Arcoplexes One and Two, Smith—obviously yet to visit the infirmary—sat strapped in a seat with a blood-soaked dressing taped across his bare chest. Other Inspectorate staff were busy communicating from various small security offices, while Commander Langstrom was speaking from the security force’s barracks. Right then, Saul couldn’t break the code used for the actual transmissions but, whilst the transmissions were coded, Smith stupidly hadn’t blocked Saul’s access to station microphones and cameras, so it was still possible for him to listen to any audible exchange. This gave him pause for thought. It was surely such a basic requirement to ensure secure communications, yet it seemed his erstwhile interrogator had neglected to do so. Perhaps, while Smith had underestimated Saul, Saul had equally overestimated Smith?
Saul netted all the conversations at once, and processed the resulting audio data. Langstrom was giving a pretty good assessment of the situation on the station and received orders to back up the assault troops, once they arrived. Smith was meanwhile notifying someone on Earth that he intended to arrest and adjust Langstrom once this was all over, since, as Smith had noted before, Langstrom had been showing signs of incorrect thinking. Checking data relating to this Saul discovered that, as Political Director, Smith was also in overall charge of the adjustment cells located aboard the station. Saul hadn’t so far picked up on the fact that they operated such facilities here.
“What about the robots?” Langstrom asked.
Saul understood the man’s concerns, because just then he took a look into the barracks’ hospital, where medics were still struggling to repair the damage resulting from hand-to-hydraulic-claw combat. It wasn’t pretty, and the surgical facilities available weren’t quite so good as those Saul had recently used. He now realized that he had occupied the kind of surgery reserved for the upper echelons, who were rated “more equal than others.”
Apparently the answer to the robot problem was the PA50 TB, and further research identified the “Pulse Action 50 Tank Buster.” This was an electromagnetic weapon developed to knock out the electronics of modern tanks, and like many such weapons had been sidelined when the Committee decided the only people left to fight would be armed merely with bricks and Molotov cocktails.
“Langstrom,” Saul spoke directly to the man, through his fone, “here’s an audio file you might like to listen to.” He then sent him a nice clear recording of Smith’s earlier conversation about future “adjustment”—then turned his attention elsewhere, as satellite after satellite reported readiness to fire.
“Trouble on the way,” he informed Hannah and Braddock.
“What kind?” Braddock asked.
“Four space planes loaded with troops in vacuum combat gear.” Saul finally brought himself to a halt at the top of the cageway, and stepped out into the short corridor beyond. “They’re also bringing EM weapons capable of knocking out the robots. Should be quite a party.”
“You seem rather unconcerned?” Hannah ventured.
“I am concerned,” he replied, “but I’m also busy.”
Now alerted by the readiness signal received from the satellites, Smith tilted his head for a moment, obviously rapidly processing data, then peered up at the camera Saul had pointing towards him. Feed from that particular cam blanked out, and, a moment later, Smith began closing the gap in his security. Saul immediately launched an attack on the Political Office, trying to infiltrate it, but Smith hit back and Saul found himself fighting a savage informational battle, striving to hold open his control channel to the satellites, while constantly rewriting code.
Only two of the ten per cent of functional satellites were positioned geostat in range of Minsk. Saul fought for control of them all, but focused primarily on retaining control of just those two, ready to sacrifice the others.
Saul was in a position to sector the critical areas of the spaceport and unleash the laser weapons, spreading burning corpses across the carbocrete. But that wouldn’t stop the next two nearly fully loaded space planes from taking off, and he had no way of punching through their hulls to get to the troops inside. He deliberately sacrificed control of the anthropic targeting programs of the lasers to Smith, which left the man juggling with a huge mass of additional data, and meanwhile identified installations and support equipment down at Minsk, then began selecting specific targets, and planning the most effective firing pattern. Next he routed a firing order to all satellites, allowing Smith to take nearly half of them away from him, simply to ensure control of the critical two.
Using high-definition telephoto cams positioned all about the Argus Station, Saul focused on one of the satellites he’d ordered to fire. The cylindrical object measured ten metres long and five in diameter, four solar panels extending like wings fore and aft to complement its fusion-power source, while impellers were dotted about its surface. A hyox engine jutted out to the rear—used to first position the satellite where needed, but also to reposition it should demand from some other hemisphere require it. As it fired, the beam wasn’t immediately visible, only flashing into view way down below, at the point where it punched through a thin layer of cirrus. The first strike hit the side of a fuel tanker parked right beside one of the loaded space planes, but only heated up metal and set it smoking. The second strike did the real damage. A spout of flame erupted from the side of the tanker, hosing across all the umbilicals and installations nearby, then shooting underneath the plane itself. Then the tanker blew, its front end blasted clear of the ground and the whole vehicle turning a complete cartwheel. The space plane juddered sideways, then crashed down on its belly as its landing gear collapsed.
This damage was done in less than a second, and Smith, still struggling to fortify his hold on the satellites Saul had now allowed him, hadn’t even noticed.
But no tanker stood beside the second plane, and already the ground crews were retracting all the umbilicals, and preparing to withdraw all the loaders and passenger tunnels. Again and again, Saul hit the points where those tunnels connected to the plane, until he could see fire and molten metal erupt, then begin to spiral out from that point, crippling loaders and vaporizing chunks out of the caterpillar treads that the mobile access buildings moved about on. Then he got lucky, because one of the loaders on the ground, obviously hydrogen-powered, exploded and rolled underneath the plane. Even if they could manage to detach the passenger ramp and get the airlock closed, it would still take them a long time to clear the rest of the debris out of the way. Time for some insurance, just as Smith—probably informed of what was happening by his contacts below—now tried to seize control of the two active satellites.
Eight fuel-tanker trucks were drawn up in a neat line inside a heavily secured compound, with a ninth tanker parked alongside the big overground pumps that drew fuel up from an underground cistern. This one tanker was currently being filled, hoses trailing from it across the carbocrete. He didn’t know if the other eight were waiting to be filled or already full, but it didn’t matter. He hit the hose first, then concentrated his aim on the pumps, all to spectacular effect.
Burning liquid fuel flooded from the ruptured pipe, pursuing three personnel trying to escape across the carbocrete, but even when they reached the compound fence and tried to climb it, they weren’t quick enough. The firestorm expanded from the compound in a steadily widening tide. Within, it flowed underneath the tanker parked beside the pumps, then spread across and underneath all the other tankers, so that in moments their tyres were burning. Next the pumps blew, hurling chunks of heavy machinery high into the air. The blast rolled the loading tanker straight into the neat row of its fellows, spewing a jet of flame from its filler port. At this point, a tanker in the middle of the row exploded, overturning the one next to it. Then the underground tank began itself to spew blazing fuel, erupting from where the pumps had stood like a mini-volcano. Saul saw fences sagging and collapsing, with a few burning remnants still clinging to them of those who had been trying to flee. It was so hot down there that the wire began melting. Another tanker blew, and yet another, a moment later, then his view was blotted out by the thick black smoke cloud rising from the firestorm.
Saul immediately turned his attention to securing his gains but, oddly, Smith merely retreated from him.
“Hopefully I’ve delayed any more launches out of Minsk for a while,” Saul declared, “but there are four planes already on their way up here, and we need to find a way of dealing with them within the next hour.”
The short corridor led directly into the lobby of Tech Central, where Saul could see the result of one of his earlier actions. Two guards sprawled motionless behind overturned metal desks, large portions of their heads spread across the floor and up the wall behind them.
“And how did you stop further launches?” Hannah enquired, her tone flat, her face pale.
“I want to see, too,” said Braddock, glancing at Saul with something akin to admiration.
They entered Tech Central to the sound of hammering from within the adjacent toilet.
“Be quiet!” Braddock bellowed.
A couple of surprised exclamations issued from within, and the noise ceased. Saul peered through the two cams in there to see a man and two women clad in the cheap standard garments of technicians. Then he turned to study the rest of Tech Central as he began finessing his control of every system that originated from here, and still remained within his compass.
This room was just like the one he had seized control of in the cell complex at Inspectorate HQ London. It bore some resemblance to a flight-control room, with outward-slanting windows running around most of the exterior, but in this case overlooking the asteroid and the full extent of the station wheel radiating all about them. Below the windows lay a range of consoles and screens, which also ran around those walls lacking windows. Saul moved over to a work station with three much larger screens mounted above it. He pulled himself down into a swivel chair and rested his blood pressure-feed on the console. The console was laden with controls he didn’t need because, by just using his mind, he now brought up a repeating series of views on the middle screen, including a close-up of the fire raging down on Earth, and a more distant shot of the whole spaceport.
“Minsk,” he murmured.
“You used the lasers?” Braddock frowned. “I thought they had only antipersonnel capacity?”
“A rifle, too, is an antipersonnel weapon, but it’s amazing what happens when you fire a tracer bullet into a petrol tank.”
“Point taken,” Braddock conceded.
“Now these.” Saul gestured, as on all three screens he pulled up views, through the sat cams, of the space planes approaching.
“And you can’t use the lasers against them,” said Hannah, pulling up a swivel chair beside him, and sitting astride it with her forearms resting on the back.
“No, they wouldn’t be able to penetrate.”
“So you’ve no usable weapons out there now?”
“But you said Smith—”
Saul held up his hand to silence her. “Please, I need to think.”
It was all about trajectories. The less atmospheric pressure around the planes, as they continued rising, the more dependent they became upon steering jets rather than ailerons and wing-repositioning, and the less manoeuvrable they thus became. The two satellites were still within range and remained under his control, while his defence against Smith’s perpetual probing attacks was steadily growing stronger and almost self-maintaining. He pulled up some nice close-shot pictures of each on two of the three screens and set the cameras to tracking them whilst maintaining a view of the approaching planes on the third screen. “What are you doing now?” Hannah asked.
“It’s nice that they’re bringing those planes up in such a tight formation,” he noted.
She shot a look of puzzlement at Braddock, who brought his two fists together with a thwack, and then grinned. Then she nodded in understanding.
“Now I need to disarm Smith,” continued Saul.
He opened fire from the other satellites under his control upon the ones that Smith controlled. Smith was quick to reply, and their incandescent battle must have been clearly visible from Earth, as lasers repeatedly targeted fellow satellites. But the whole thing was taking longer than Saul had expected, and on checking stored schematics he discovered that all these satellites were protected externally by a layer of ceramic tiles.
The contest centred at first on the two satellites located over Minsk, but then it spread. Three hundred satellites in all were disabled within the first six minutes—ten times the timespan involved if they had not been protected by those tiles—so that massive areas of the globe dropped out of coverage.
Smith’s expected attempt at communication came through shortly after the first satellites went down, but Saul ignored it. The man probably hoped to dissuade Saul from such a mutually destructive battle. Only when those satellites that Saul wanted disabled were out of action did he cease his attacks, whereupon Smith’s attacks ceased a fraction of a second later. Now, of course, Smith had nothing left within range of Argus—or of those two satellites down below.
Saul began calculating vectors in his head, loading engine-thrust calculations, and even then using the steering jets on the satellites to turn them, whilst simultaneously starting up their engines so as to set them on a rough vector he could correct later … four seconds later. The two satellites now shed their panels, folding and twisting away like discarded Christmas decorations.
They were now well on their way, but Saul maintained his mental link to the steering thrusters, so he could still make instant adjustments.
“Twenty-three minutes,” he noted. “Long before then, either Smith will warn them or they’ll figure out what’s going on and start evasive manoeuvres.”
Just then a scraping sound issued from the toilet, as someone tried to force the door open.
“Let them out, Braddock,” he said, “then bring them over here.”
Braddock nodded, without questioning the order, and headed over to the toilet door. A panel beside it contained a motion detector to open it automatically whenever anyone approached. That was until he had put a single shot through it, after the three prisoners were inside. Now he just landed a boot against the door and burst it open inwards. Someone yelled in pain and Saul glimpsed the man tumbling backwards holding his head.
“Out,” Braddock ordered the three of them.
The two women pushed their way out first. Both had cropped blonde hair, probably because keeping long hair clean up here was nigh an impossibility, and they were of very similar appearance. They looked remarkably young to Saul, seeming little more than teenagers, but that merely meant they might have been using anti-ageing drugs. He checked personnel files stored in Tech Central itself and discovered that they were twins. Angela and Brigitta Saberhagen were very bright twins who had been born in Berlin twenty years ago, then turned into societal assets from the moment they started dismantling computers at the age of five. The man was bearded, balding and running to fat. Despite the clean technician’s clothing, his hands were ingrained with dirt, and Saul found that somehow reassuring. His name was Girondel Chang, home city Nanking in China, but he certainly didn’t look at all Chinese. Braddock ushered them over and mustered them in a line, but far enough away that he could still bring any one of them down if they decided to attack Saul.
“Do you have any survival gear in or near here?” Saul asked them, even though he already knew precisely what was available.
“Well, get yourselves suited up, then,” Saul instructed, “and fetch two extra suits out for myself and Hannah—Braddock here is fine in his spacesuit.” He paused for a second. “My name is Alan Saul.” He had used their names deliberately, to humanize them, to help transform them from nameless terrorists into real people.
“We already know your name,” said Brigitta, the twin who, from her record, he had known would speak first. She turned to study the screens, perhaps instantly understanding the need for survival suits.
Saul nodded to Braddock, and the soldier herded them towards the lockers, where they retrieved baggy survival suits that could easily be pulled on over their clothing. Here and there, wherever views were obtainable, he saw other station personnel already opening similar lockers and donning similar suits. They all clearly knew what was coming. However, there didn’t seem to be enough suits to go around, and in some areas people were already fighting over them.
“What do you want of them?” Hannah whispered.
“I’ve got limited control of some sections of the station computer network, and I can also program some of the robots, but even if we manage to deal with Smith, I still cannot become omnipresent and omnipotent.” He glanced at her. “If I gain full control here, I’ll be needing people, so I may as well start recruiting them now.” It was a lie, of course. If he gained full control here, he could easily keep the place running with just the robots. But what to do with the humans then? Slaughter them all?
“That’s good to hear.”
“I don’t think there’s any need for sarcasm, at this point, do you?”
“Actually, I think there’s a very great need for it.” She eyed him carefully.
“Keeping me grounded, Hannah?”
“I try, but perhaps it’s already a bit late for that.”
He smiled tightly, but let that go.
The three staff returned with Braddock, but had yet to pull up their hoods and seal their visors. Hannah got up and accepted the two suits Chang had draped over one arm. The barrel of Braddock’s gun rested against the back of the man’s neck while Hannah was so close. Saul gestured to three chairs over to his right—the ones he knew they had occupied previously.
“I want you three to oversee the safety of whatever station residents you can contact,” he told them. “Direct them towards any survival and spacesuits still available. You can perhaps also send some of them to better-protected areas, or put them in EVA vehicles. You have about forty minutes for that. No need to bother about station security staff, as it seems they’ve quite enough vacuum gear available to them.”
“If we do what you say, we’ll end up in adjustment cells,” protested Brigitta.
He shook his head. “You can, of course, refuse to help your fellows,” he said. “In which case the adjustment you face will come from the barrel of Braddock’s gun. Make up your minds.”
After a short, almost embarrassed, pause, Chang announced, “Those in Arcoplex One will be in the most danger, since they’re not trained personnel.”
Saul eyed him steadily, and began frantically accessing station data. What he found there surprised him immensely. When Janus had originally gathered data regarding this station, the population was about a thousand; now it seemed to have climbed to four thousand. The numbers of the workforce, along with security and political monitoring personnel, had initially doubled, then a surge of a further two thousand had arrived. Most of these newcomers were located in Arcoplex One, and as he checked the relevant data the true situation began to emerge. The Committee, or some part of it, had already begun the process of relocating here. Delegates now occupied the arcoplex cylinder—including names he recognized—along with political staff, all their families, and others whose presence here he suspected was due simply to powerful people they knew. But all of these he would have to deal with later.
“Whatever,” he said, expressionless. “Just try and keep your people safe.”
He carefully turned his chair away from them as more chatter suddenly started becoming accessible to him. It seemed that the security hole Smith had recently closed had reopened in the barracks where Langstrom was located. This had to be some sort of trap, surely, involving deliberate misinformation.
“We have more serious challenges to respond to right now,” said Smith. “We can discuss your rather minor problem once we have nullified the current power instability here within the station.”
“Well, there we have a problem. I want to discuss this now,” replied Langstrom.
Three other soldiers were with him and, checking records, Saul noted that they were all sergeants. They all wore the pale-blue uniforms of Inspectorate enforcers, but specially adapted for the near-weightless environment. No one here was clad like an Earth-bound enforcer as the net broadcasts had shown—those broadcasts were either seriously outdated or had simply been falsified. Checking further, Saul began to discern the true shape of the hierarchy here.
Smith and his Inspectorate execs were the arm of government in overall command of security, political oversight, and ensuring that everyone did what they were told and thought what they were ordered to think. However, someone in the Committee had realized that, where survival depended on science, the scientists and technicians must be allowed independence, therefore authority over technical issues within the station had been handed over to someone called Le Roque. This situation had not lasted too long, for apparently Le Roque now languished inside one of Smith’s adjustment cells. Langstrom’s soldiers, who reported to Smith and his execs, were military-wing Inspectorate enforcers, and the best—as far as the Committee was concerned—that “service” had to offer. Which probably meant that they were all utter shits.
“The space planes will arrive on-station in just half of one hour,” Smith insisted.
Saul flicked his attention to the robots he controlled, already running self-diagnostics and stretching like cats. They needed to become a little bit more sneaky if they were to end up going against weapons that could fry their electronics, so he began programming them to that purpose. A suitable name for that program was “Ambush Predator.” Except for just a few still gathered about Tech Central, he began dispersing them to the outer limits of the area he currently controlled.
“Fuck the fucking planes,” was Langstrom’s rejoinder. “You’ve been down on me from the start just because I wouldn’t back you up on Le Roque.”
“It is advisable to exercise some caution during discourse,” Smith warned him mildly.
“Oh, right, I might get myself in trouble.”
After a brief pause, Smith said, “It is unfortunate to note that you have disconnected your system from Political Office Oversight and lowered your security firewall. In circumstances such as the current ones, this must be considered an adjustment offence.”
Saul was on it in a second, realizing that everything in the barracks now lay open to him. He began seizing control of readerguns and cameras, locking them into his own network, while locking out a sudden flanking attack from Smith—an information serpent looping round to try and shove its way through the same hole Saul was using. Next, Saul had control of the air, the power, even the medical machines. He could kill them all off in an instant, and meanwhile the realm he controlled had just grown significantly in volume, because now his reach extended over to the other side of Arcoplex One. If this was some sort of trap, Saul could not detect it.
“Yeah, right, so I might end up in an adjustment cell for that!” Langstrom responded. “Oh, too late, seems I’m already destined for one of your cells, because you don’t like the way I think.”
“So at this crucial time you betray our plans to enemies of the state?”
Langstrom smashed a hand down on the computer keyboard, cutting off further communication.
“That’s pretty shitty,” remarked one of his sergeants.
Langstrom nodded, his expression resolute, then turned on him, pulling a side arm. Without further ado, he raised it and shot the speaker straight through the face, spraying his brains over the door. The impact jerked him up off his gecko boots and sent him tumbling between the two men behind him. His corpse hit the door and bounced, before it began to drift away again. Globules of blood and brain and chunks of skull fell about the room like red-and-pink snow.
“Fuck, you could have warned me.” The muscular soldier with coal-black skin flicked a fragment of skull off his shoulder, then raised a boot to field the corpse and press it down to the floor. Blood went on pumping from the head wound, winding out in a thick snake across the floor, its back rippling like red mercury.
“Right, sorry, Jack. Next time I’ll say, ‘Step aside because I’m just about to shoot Smith’s weasel through the face.’” He holstered his side arm. “What about the others?”
“Two in the hospital and eighteen in the disciplinary cell.”
“How many of the rest are in this with us?”
“So that means we’ve got about a hundred and fifty who might be a problem?”
“Do you two have reservations?”
“None at all,” said Jack.
The other man, whose name Saul now ascertained, from reading the bar code on his uniform, was called Mustafa, said, “I’ve been waiting for something like this to happen all my life.”
What was going on?
The one called Jack had mentioned “thirty-two,” and a check showed Saul that thirty-two soldiers were gathered in Barracks One, while the rest were ensconced in the four other barracks. The first thing noticeable about the soldiers was that most, like Langstrom himself, were black men. He started scanning bar codes on their uniforms, and quickly realized that all these soldiers had been transferred from an Inspectorate assault group located in South Africa, specially trained for ground assault and hostage extraction. Though this hinted that they were proper soldiers rather than secret police, it did not necessarily raise them in his estimation.
“Alan Saul,” enquired Langstrom, “are you listening?”
“Always,” he replied, through their public address system.
“We’re with you, then. Just tell us what you want.”
“You’ll excuse me if I reserve judgement on that.” Saul paused for a second. “Though I perfectly understand your change of allegiance, I don’t see why any of your men should want to stick with you, especially since assault troops are on the way.”
“Then you obviously haven’t spent most of your life shovelling Committee shit.”
“Just tell us.”
“Very well.” Saul considered the situation, and decided he wasn’t going to let Langstrom or his men get anywhere near Tech Central. “Since I disarmed you and sent you away, I see that you have all rearmed yourselves. I want you, Mustafa and Jack, and the thirty-two other men formerly of SA22 Assault Group, to now disarm and confine those other hundred and eleven soldiers with you.”
The three men just stood staring at the source of his voice for a moment, till Jack was the first to snap out of it.
Langstrom shook his head. “No need. They’ll follow orders now Smith’s spies are out of the way.”
“Smith’s spies would be the eighteen held in the disciplinary cell?” Saul suggested. “And our friend down at your feet.”
The gory detritus in the air, Saul noticed, was all heading towards the louvres of an air cleaner, which began to make a sound like an air-locked central heating system as it gobbled them down. Langstrom glanced down at the corpse, taking a step back from the spreading blood. He then glanced up at a nearby cam, as if hoping to catch a glimpse of Saul. “Yeah, they’re not so hard to spot.”
“Once you’ve disarmed the rest, SA22 should be ready to fight the troops it was formerly ordered to assist.”
“We knew that would be necessary.”
Saul studied Langstrom carefully. How was he to judge this man? Could all this be some elaborate scheme to get a killer close enough to Saul to end things quickly?
“It will only become necessary if their space planes manage to evade the satellites I’m dropping on them … but be ready, all the same.” He left it at that, returning his attention to the screens in front of him, and the vector calculations inside his head.
“The pilots have spotted the satellites,” Braddock informed him.
The four space planes were now separating, their steering jets blasting, and contrails whipping away from their almost retracted wings. Saul adjusted the paths of his two satellites and after a minute, the planes reacted to that. Perfect, they were dropping lower while extending their wings, hoping for greater manoeuvrability within atmosphere. Saul made another course correction to the satellites, whereupon one pilot—obviously a lot smarter than his fellows—raised his plane’s ailerons to aerobrake hard. All the steering jets pushing the plane down, it dropped out of formation just as the pilots of the other planes got wise, too, and tried to do the same thing.
He had imaging from the two satellites displayed on the screen, imaging from other satellites, too, and from the station itself. A grandstand view. One of the satellites streaked in, striking a space plane trying to throw itself into a turn. The target became an explosion fifteen kilometres long, stabbing past a second plane, the blastwave setting the second plane into a spin that he hoped it couldn’t correct. The next satellite hit the third plane, shearing off its rear half and leaving the rest to tumble through upper atmosphere, on and out of sight. Calculating its vector, he realized it would never actually hit the ground.
“It’s recovering,” Braddock noted, gazing at the spinning plane as it gradually stabilized.
The spinning craft finally managed to correct, then abruptly extended its wings and began arcing down.
“Heading back to Minsk,” Saul noted. “Or maybe one of the emergency runways in Australia or Canada. Must have been damaged.”
“It’s out of it, then?”
“Yes, but we still have this problem.” Saul called up an image of the plane that had dropped out of formation first. It was once again rising through the upper atmosphere. “But we have time,” he continued. “It’ll have to do a full orbit of Earth”—he ran some calculations based on the fuel the plane had available and its optimum approach speed—“which gives us twenty-two hours.”
“Can you hit it with some more satellites?”
“No, they’ll be watching out for that now.” Saul turned his chair so as to face both Braddock and Hannah. “We’ll have to kill them near or actually inside the station, if we’re still alive by then.”