When, back in 2035, the first commercial fusion reactor went online, scientists speculated that they were now just ten years away from using the same technology to build a fusion drive. It was to prove, however, a lot more difficult to develop than they supposed. Within ten years, the first prototype was assembled in orbit, then towed out from Earth for test firing. It worked for just six tenths of a second before sputtering out, yet it took the engineers a further five years to find out why. The problem was gravity. On Earth, the engine tolerances were correct, but once away from gravity the device distorted. In fact the engine was far too sensitive, since the slightest misalignment could shut it down. It took a further ten years to design and build a more robust machine, and only five years after its first successful test, the next massive fusion engine was being installed in the steadily growing hull of the first Traveller spacecraft.
Chang and the Saberhagen twins ensured that everyone they could communicate with was made as safe as possible. They found every available spacesuit or survival suit and assigned them, before ensconcing those people still without suits in the safer, inner areas of the living accommodation—the sections that could be sealed with bulkhead doors. But in total that amounted to less than eight hundred people, because the moment the three of them tried opening com with those outside the area Saul controlled, Smith shut the communication down. Just as he seemed to be shutting down so much else, for all construction and maintenance work aboard Argus had now ceased. Even the ore carriers were no longer running between the station itself and the smelter plants, which had started folding up and closing their huge mirrors.
Smith’s image flicked into view on the middle screen, the communication link having been immediately accepted. “It has been a consideration of mine at what point you would resort to the infantile gloating of a terrorist. But I feel it necessary for you to understand that, whilst you consider yourself of great significance, to the state and to the people at large you are merely an irritating inconvenience.”
“Your laser network isn’t looking too healthy.” The jibe was out of Saul’s mouth before he could stop it.
Smith shook his head as if hearing the absurd logic of a child. “It is true that over eighty per cent of the seven hundred satellites are temporarily in need of maintenance, but we have over six thousand satellite lasers on the point of being activated.”
“That’s not going to happen.”
“Not within your own limited lifespan, I would suggest,” Smith replied, allowing himself a nasty smile.
“Only one space plane.” Saul held up a finger.
“That plane contains over fifty highly trained military personnel, armed with state-of-the-art suppression hardware. The robots you have stolen from the state will not be sufficient to interfere with their mission, Saul. Not in the least.” Smith paused, then shrugged. “It is my own opinion that the dispatching of four planeloads of troops was the hysterical overreaction of untrained personnel down below.”
Saul leant back in his chair. “I wonder, Smith, how some of your masters might overreact if they were told that you’ve created a back door through which to seize control of the entire satellite network?”
“Your naivety is perhaps the result of a sheltered upbringing, or maybe the consequence of some mental debilitation suffered under adjustment.”
“Perhaps you would like to elaborate?” Saul suggested calmly.
“My deserved political status as delegate for Argus Station was approved a year ago, during early-session Committee hearings. After the Committee is relocated here, it is inevitable that I will be voted in to replace Chairman Messina, almost at once. It is my experience that the Earth government is always practical about the realities—which is why it has survived so long.”
“Very practical of them to avoid such unpleasantness.”
“I see,” said Saul, feeling he now saw even more than Smith was admitting.
By reducing to just one the number of space planes about to dock with the Argus Station, Saul felt sure he had actually done Smith a favour. Did that mean that Smith hadn’t fought as hard as he might have to prevent Saul destroying those other planes? It now struck him as highly likely that the force, ostensibly dispatched here to counter the threat Saul himself presented, would also have received instructions concerning Smith. That those troops had been dispatched so quickly indicated that they had been assembled and waiting long before Malden had launched his coup. They had been ready to seize the station back from Smith, and thus re-establish Chairman Messina’s control here.
“Are those people over in Arcoplex One your hostages?” Saul asked abruptly.
Smith gave him that nasty smile again, and cut the communication link.
Saul continued staring at the blank screen, assessing and calculating, then began mentally probing towards the Political Office. But there he hit a wall, for Smith had pulled back and consolidated, so his grip over the Political Office and the rest of the station now seemed absolute. He was clearly playing a waiting game, perhaps hoping Saul would squander his robots against the forces aboard the approaching space plane, thus weakening two enemies simultaneously. Saul realized even more urgently that to succeed he needed to eliminate Smith before that plane arrived. The situation would have been hopeless had it not been for Langstrom’s defection, which in itself still gave him grounds for suspicion.
Saul shook his head, wished he hadn’t when he instantly felt dizzy and sick, then with a thought summoned up views of Braddock, who was now guiding Chang and the twins back down to Tech Central accommodation, located three floors below. As Braddock stepped back to let the three others file into the accommodation section, then closed the door on them, Saul addressed him through the intercom, while simultaneously engaging the locks.
“You should find yourself somewhere to rest, Braddock,” he suggested. “Get some sleep.”
“Yeah, I’ll go get some sleep,” Braddock agreed, gecko boots slamming down heavily as he marched resolutely towards the cageway.
Meanwhile, the last of those whose loyalty to him Langstrom was uncertain of were being ushered into Barracks Two and Three. Sergeants Jack and Mustafa then shut the bulkhead doors and engaged the electric locks, finally securing a hundred or so potential problems.
“Okay, Langstrom,” Saul said, “time for you to prove yourself further.”
“How?” Langstrom sat in his office, gazing at station schematics on his screen.
“Smith’s adjustment cell block is only a hundred metres away from your barracks, and it’s situated close to the Political Office.”
Both the adjustment cell block and the Political Office lay between Arcoplexes One and Two, and had been built well inside the lattice walls. The reason for this was obvious, since it gave them both room to expand. Langstrom called up images of both structures on his screen and began to study them intently, only glancing round as Mustafa and Jack rejoined him.
“I want you to hit the cell block first,” instructed Saul. “Secure the place so that you won’t have any of Smith’s guards at your back, and then move on to the Political Office.”
“What about the readerguns?” Mustafa enquired.
Via the multiple viewpoints provided by construction robots clinging to nearby station frameworks, Saul focused first on the barracks, suspended within inner station structure like a starfish caught in a net, then on the cell block that lay a little further away. Certainly, readerguns were in evidence, but it seemed that not one of them was functional.
“They’re disabled in the cell block itself, and along your route to the Political Office,” Saul informed them. “Smith and I both sacrificed readerguns to prevent them falling under each other’s control. However, it seems likely they’re still in operation within Smith’s domain.”
“Why not use the robots to attack?” Mustafa asked.
“I could, of course, but I’m offering second chances.” That was not entirely true, because though he could use his robots, it struck him as unlikely they would prove sufficient to penetrate the Political Office. He needed soldiers, but before he could trust them he needed to assess them in action.
“We never even had a first chance,” grumbled Mustafa. “Your robots gonna leave us alone?”
The three of them now headed off to Barracks One, where their men checked and loaded their weapons while Langstrom delivered the briefest of briefings Saul had ever heard: “Guys, we hit the cell block, let the prisoners go, and stick the guards in the cells.”
“What if the guards resist?” asked a tall Nordic-blonde woman.
“I didn’t say they had to go into the cells alive, did I?”
General laughter greeted this, so it indeed seemed no love was lost.
Within minutes they set off again, propelling themselves, by wall handles, down a long corridor leading from the barracks to a point where it expanded into a tubeway, then through a large airlock, then further along the tubeway for about five hundred metres, until they reached a point where any construction of walls and ceiling ended. From there they progressed along a wide walkway, now down on their feet using their gecko boots. As they proceeded, Langstrom issued brief comments over radio, which his sergeants translated into orders.
“Five in the admissions section, maybe six,” observed Langstrom.
“Peach, your guys in. I want ’em disarmed and on the floor,” ordered Mustafa. “Use zip-cuffs.”
As they reached a crossroads in the walkway, Langstrom gestured right and then left. “We need to cover the other entrances.”
Sergeant Jack raised a fist, held up three fingers, twice, then also gestured right and then left. “Three minutes,” he added. “Let us know when you’re in position.”
Breaking into long loping strides, twelve troops went right and twelve went left. This confirmed for Saul that the men were organized in units of four, below the sergeants. Langstrom now slowed his pace, gazing up at three robots moving through the scaffolds above.
“They ain’t moving the same,” remarked Jack.
“Yeah, I know,” Langstrom replied.
Saul was surprised but a brief analysis provided the reason: the programs that he’d put in place—almost completely displacing their previous programming—displayed his own particular coding quirks, and the robots moved more like living creatures now.
Soon the soldiers reached a point where new wall and ceiling construction extended out from the cell block.
Two fingers up from Jack, then a thumb stabbed up and down. Eight men detached their gecko boots from the floor, propelled themselves up on to the top surface of the tubeway and set off. A further eight men headed over one side of the walkway and began making their way across the scaffolding underneath. Saul again checked a schematic of the complex, and immediately saw what Langstrom meant. Four diverging corridors possessed only one conventional way in, and finished up against the exterior walls. However, temporary airlocks were positioned above and below each end to facilitate future installation of vertical shafts. Perhaps waiting for when further levels of cells needed to be added, which indicated the way Smith and his kind thought.
Soon they entered the tubeway into the complex, at which point he lost sight of them, since the staff inside had disconnected the cam system.
“There’s about forty prisoners over there,” Langstrom reported eventually. He paused for a moment. “Are you watching, Saul?”
“Certainly,” Saul replied, though it had taken him a moment to realize he could. Via the barracks, he keyed into the feed transmitted from thirty-five pincams, each fitted at the temple of every soldier and connected to their fones. Langstrom was currently pointing to a doorway above which hung a big blue sign proclaiming: “Adjustment.” Now another view: Peach turned out to be the big blonde and, noticing she had removed her suit helmet, Saul decided they must have already passed through an airlock in the tube-way. She and the other three of her unit were approaching Admissions, where four guards were crouching behind a makeshift barricade composed of tacked-together sheets of bubblemetal.
One propelled himself out as Peach and her men approached. “Good,” he said peremptorily. “It’s about damned time.”
“Time for what?” Peach asked, still moving forward.
“About time we were relieved,” he continued. “You had no problem getting through?”
She paused beside him, while her three fellows stepped on round the barricade. Almost negligently they swung their machine pistols sideways to cover the three crouching men there.
“Drop your weapons,” said Peach.
“What the—?” The standing man’s protest ended in a coughing gurgle as he tumbled back through the air in slow motion, clutching his throat. Her karate chop had been almost too fast for the eye to follow, so Saul replayed it in his mind out of analytical interest. The remaining three were frozen in disbelief, until one of Peach’s men fired into the ceiling, and they discarded their weapons.
“I don’t know why you’re doing this,” protested one of them. “We’ve done nothing wrong.” Even then, they thought this was their own people arresting them—some mistake, perhaps.
Two of Peach’s unit remained outside, gathering up weapons and securing plastic ties to wrists. The Admissions reception area contained an armourglass guard booth to one side, a long desk on the other, with storage cupboards lining the walls behind it. One man began getting up from his desk, while another behind him was already pulling a machine pistol from a rack. That’s what killed him, for as he turned, Peach did not hesitate. A short burst of fire sent him slamming back into the weapons rack whilst the other man began shrieking, “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” and stabbed his hands in the air, his eyes closed. Whilst the survivor was cuffed, Langstrom and the others moved on through, into the cell blocks.
Just then, Braddock rejoined Saul, so he selected some of the scenes he was currently observing in his head and put them up on the screens. Without comment Braddock strapped himself down in a chair, laid his weapon on his lap, and gazed at the changing images with fatigue-reddened eyes.
Saul enjoyed observing the steady military efficiency of it all. Anyone inside the complex made a wrong move, and they died on the spot. After Langstrom had finished, twenty-eight guards occupied the cells, though one cell containing five served as a temporary morgue. Langstrom released forty prisoners, some of whom were now detailed to help others over to the barracks infirmary.
“Could your men have taken them?” Saul turned to Braddock.
“Huh?” Braddock’s head jerked up, betraying the fact that he’d dozed off. He shook himself awake in irritation, then said, “The idea was to avoid a fire fight.”
“Get some sleep, Braddock,” Saul urged him. “Go and join Hannah—I’m sure there’s room on that hammock for the both of you.”
“What about you?”
What about him? Yes, he felt utterly weary, but his mind had not slowed down at all. Gradually he was embracing more and more of the overall function of his area of the station: its cams, microphones, motion and heat sensors becoming his extended senses, and its readerguns his immune system. By the same analogy the robots had become his eyes and hands. It was as if, during the initial stages of his taking over this area, he had dissipated himself throughout the station network. To him the station had originally felt messy, bits and pieces not integrated as a whole, but now it felt like an extension of himself.
“I’ll be fine, Braddock,” he assured him.
Even as he spoke, he watched Langstrom moving out of the cell block, watched released prisoners heading for Accommodation Sixteen, and noted the space plane at last rising over Earth’s horizon. He was simultaneously refining his robots’ attack programs, and making layered plans about how to deal with the impending assault. It all depended on where the incoming troops penetrated the station.
“Okay, I’ll sleep,” agreed Braddock, wearily unstrapping himself from the chair and propelling himself off to join Hannah. Saul watched him go; watched how careful he was not to wake her as he lay down on the wide hammock beside her.
Now that he wasn’t fighting for his life, Saul decided it was perhaps time to prepare for an option that until then had remained only in the back of his mind. He allowed his senses to range across the station, bypassing the Political Office and zeroing in on an area neither he nor Smith had so far paid much attention to, yet had been of great interest to Malden.
The wheel of Argus Station was interrupted—a quarter section missing from the rim—and below that break, attached to the asteroid itself, sat the Mars Traveller fusion engine. Through various cams in the locality, Saul now studied this behemoth further.
A section of the asteroid had been ground flat, then layered, three metres thick, with the foam composite on which the engine framework rested. This was just a secondary shock-absorber, since the first impact of the engine firing was sustained by the massive hydraulic shock absorbers positioned evenly about the framework, and secured to plates bolted directly onto the asteroid itself. From nearby housings, built into the lattice walls and girder structures, a great number of ducts, cables and pipes fed in just above this secondary layer and connected to the spherical fusion reactors used for start-up, and for maintaining the nozzle fields of the combustion chambers. Above the reactors stood pairs of large cylindrical fuel tanks containing, respectively, liquid deuterium and tritium talc. Above these again were the dome-shaped, pellet-aggregation plants, and above them the six fusion-combustion chambers rose in a rectangular cluster, each surrounded at its rear by fuser lasers and the deuterium-tritium injector guns. The whole massive structure stood half a kilometre tall, secured in place by a web of steel and a framework of I-beams, all of it fixed with integral pivot points so that the engine would be allowed to move against its shock absorbers.
When this thing was up and running, deuterium droplets sprayed into the aggregation plants, where they froze, and were next electrostatically coated with tritium dust. The resulting microspheres were then conveyed to the injectors, to be fired into each combustion chamber. Once a sphere reached the chamber’s centre, it was briefly captured in a magnetic bottle, then targeted with the beams from high-intensity stacked gallium-arsenide lasers. With each ignition, the bottle expanded to form a tubular containment field, focusing the resulting blast out of the rear of the engine. The lasers fired, igniting fusion, then this process repeated itself a hundredth of a second later, and from then on kept repeating. The resulting plasma explosion from the engine provided thrust measurable in millions of tonnes.
Saul ran a diagnostic check through the Traveller engine, just to assess its present condition. As he had learned from Malden, it had still enough fuel to hurl the space station down against the surface of the Earth with catastrophic consequences, or even to throw it out of Earth’s orbit altogether, and take it up to an appreciable portion of 1 per cent of light speed. He received some dodgy readings from two of the injectors in a combustion chamber, but that’s why they installed the chambers in an array of six. If one started to go wrong it simply shut down, while the rest would keep on working. The only other problems seemed to be the cooling system, which was frozen solid, and how frangible some of the engine’s components were at such a low temperature. This meant the engine could not be fired up at once, but would require several hours of warming up, during which process further faults might emerge.
Saul carefully considered the options opening up here, aware of being poised on the brink of some understanding that still eluded his grasp. When he finally transmitted the code that would start the engine-warming process, it seemed like he had made a decision impossible to recall. He waited then for some response from Smith but, after a minute passed with no reaction, he knew Smith could not have been paying attention to the engine. Saul finally let out a long slow breath, and withdrew.
Quiet now, alone at the centre of it all, Saul peered down at his hands, which were resting in his lap. He noticed a large bruise on the back of the right hand, and how thin they looked. Inset amidst numerous other controls on the console before him was a big keyboard, with virtuality half-glove indents on either side of it. He already knew this console from the inside, and directly manipulated the flows of information it controlled. Never again, in this place, would he have to physically press a button, shift a pointer, or open up frames in virtual displays. What use were his hands?
He raised them off his lap to inspect them more closely, and noticed how they started shaking. What was wrong with them? He knew his body was exhausted, and injured, but what was the problem here? He needed to find out, for whatever his present disconnection from his body, he couldn’t manage to do without it. Right now, if his physical self died, he died too.
Deciding to take a risk, for it seemed Smith was still perfectly content to await the arrival of the assault force, he began closing down his connections to the station network—which seemed almost like deliberately blinding himself, blocking his ears, numbing his senses. By slow degrees that took many minutes, he reduced himself, returning to the primitive level of humanity. The process seemed like trying to cram something into a box too small for it, but eventually he was there in that box, and it wasn’t comfortable at all.
His head ached horribly, both inside and out. His stomach felt tight, his mouth dry, and something seemed to be twisting internally below the iron knot of his knife wound. It took him a moment to recognize the quite simple signals his body was sending him: a full bladder and a thirst so intense that it felt like something solid stapling the back of his throat to his neck bones. He felt sick too, but he reckoned that must be what remained after the hunger pangs departed. Also his back, his legs and his buttocks ached, and if he had been in Earth gravity he would have assumed this discomfort resulted from remaining seated for so long, but it was the result of his body remaining utterly motionless. With a huge effort of will, he loosened the straps securing him to the chair, and propelled himself upwards. Dizziness overwhelmed him and, failing to press his adhesive soles to the floor, he rose to the ceiling. One hand raised against it propelled him back down sufficiently for him to grab the console edge and press his feet floorwards.
With a further effort of will, Saul took firm control of his body, ignoring discomfort and just moving. Shambling like a reanimated corpse, he headed over to the door leading to the toilets, again finding it an effort just to tear the adhesive soles of his survival suit from the floor. Once inside, he paused for a moment, unable to make up his mind what to do first. He chose the toilet, attaching the hose and urinating for so long that he felt he might shrivel up and drop to the floor. The pleasure of the relief was practically euphoric. Next he went to the sink—deep with an incurving rim to hold water in at practically nil gravity, and an extractor bowl above—turned on the tap, and then dipped his head to sip water that shifted gelatinously. Not enough. Mouth closed around acidic metal he allowed the pressure to shove the water down his throat. He only stopped when his thirst started to give way to a further twinge of nausea.
Standing upright again, he gazed at himself in the mirror. His eyes, but for the pupils, were still utterly red, which seemed odd because he felt sure that should have been fading by now. At least they were no longer a dark wine-red, but more an albino pink. The glued and stapled wounds traversing his skull were obviously healing effectively, with a fuzz of pale hair shoving up scabs of dry blood and wound glue, like new grass raising the leaves scattered on a lawn. He looked painfully thin, even the bristles on his face failing to hide how closely the skin clung to the cheekbones and how evident the skull beneath. Conclusion: he needed to take better care of this storage vessel containing part of his mind. He turned, headed to the door, and stepped out.
Hannah stood by the console, her gaze flicking from screen to screen. One showed the approaching space plane, while the other two kept cycling through a limited selection of views of Earth: Minsk spaceport, Brussels, London and another urban sprawl she did not recognize. She turned as she heard Saul exit the toilet, pleased to see him showing at least that sign of human frailty.
He moved over, trying but not quite succeeding in hiding his physical debility, sat down in the chair and strapped himself in. He lifted the transparent cover from the tray to find noodles mixed with cubes of vat meat, chopped-up local vegetables, grown in Hydroponics, pancake rolls and a dipping sauce, accompanied by a steaming double espresso.
“They live well here,” he remarked.
“Le Roque’s private stash,” she replied. “He’s got a fridge full of luxuries, which I bet came up in crates listed as essential supplies.”
“You cynic, you.”
“Who isn’t these days?”
“Have you eaten?” he asked.
“Some…but I’ll have some more later.”
After being woken by Braddock stretching himself out next to her on the hammock, and then lying there for some while, still reluctant to move, Hannah had got up to investigate Le Roque’s large fridge. Almost shocked by the bounty inside, she had stuffed herself with cold food until a sense of guilt compelled her to stop, assuaging her guilt by preparing the tray for Saul. She was now glad she had, since borderline malnutrition, initial surgery, followed by injury, then further surgery, had all combined to knock him down. But she rather thought it was the hardware in his skull that was sucking the physical bulk from him, almost fast enough to be visible. It seemed a fire now burned inside his head—one she herself had ignited.
“What’s that?” She nodded towards the screen as the urban sprawl she did not recognize appeared once again.
“The Luberon Sprawl in southern France,” he explained. “Rather disconcerting to find a disconnected part of my own mind calling up that image. It shows how I am as much inside the machine as the machine is in me.”
He picked up a combined fork-and-spoon implement and shovelled some noodles into his mouth, making, it seemed to Hannah, a deliberate effort to chew slowly, swallow carefully, and then pause between mouthfuls. Both he and Hannah had been gradually starving since they had fled the underground bunker, so if he bolted such rich food he would probably throw it all up over the console. But then he wasn’t unique in his hunger; billions were starving down on Earth, and many millions dying of hunger. He glanced at the screens as he ate and his expression went blank, oddly disconnected. The image cycle disrupted, to be replaced by a randomized feed of views inside and outside the station.
“You were more human, just for a moment, but now you’re back in the system.”
Even when she had known Saul as a lover, he had always seemed one step away from being truly human, but not in a way that had seemed dysfunctional. He had been strangely unencumbered by the burdens of physical or mental weakness and the millstone of emotion, but now he was partly machine, these traits seemed to be sharply emphasized. This distanced her from him further and, beyond his intention of taking the satellite network out of Committee control, she did not even know his ultimate aims. Perhaps they involved delivering some payback for the billions suffering down below, but was that all he actually intended?
He glanced at her, then deliberately seemed to be fighting something, emotion returning to his face. He turned and gazed at the screens, a sadness, a regret, filling his expression.
“What are you thinking?” she asked, finally.
“About how it all went wrong,” he said. “And also of how it was inevitable.”
“Inevitable?” She sat up straighter.
“Yup, just human nature.”
That was so dismissive of human nature, she felt the need to challenge it.
“I think it’s a little more complicated than that.”
She gazed at him intently, gathering her mental resources, remembering things she had considered over many years but never allowed herself to voice out loud. “Crises used by politicians as excuses to stifle freedom, kill democracy and grab yet more power. Terrorism, energy crises, financial meltdown, climate catastrophe…all, of course, global so those same politicians could extend their power globally. Everyone made obedient to the state in pursuit of the so-called greater good.”
“And your point is?”
“Well,” she was on a roll now, “all those crises strangely seemed to disappear once the state had gained a sufficient stranglehold on the populations it was supposed to serve. Bit of a joke, really, when fossil fuels genuinely started to run out and we hit the human population upslope. Real crises then, and what was the response? To expand the state into a behemoth even more wasteful than the people it governed.”
He just sat there silently waiting for her conclusions.
“Less of such waste and they might have actually developed the appropriate technologies to handle the problem.”
“Ah,” he said, “you’re an optimist.”
“Perhaps.” She shrugged, feeling uncomfortable with that label.
“We’ve got fusion power, remember, Hannah. What we actually needed was a technology that’s been around for a couple of centuries. It’s called birth control.” He shook his head and gazed pensively at the screens. “The real problem is manswarm.”
“The fault here is ideology,” she said, feeling sudden doubt upon hearing him use such a dismissive label. The Committee was very definitely a bad thing, but humans were better than that—could be better than that.
“You know, the forerunners of the Committee weren’t interested in population control. They weren’t interested in making things better, because people who are well off and comfortable wouldn’t be likely to vote for the crappy ideologies they promulgated. Urban sprawls packed with ZAs were perfectly in tune with their interests.”
She had never spoken to him like this before, even in past times when they had lain in bed together. But of course, even during such intimacy, talk of this kind would have been dangerous, their words recorded and reviewed on the following day by a political officer.
“But none of them prevented people using birth control—only religions tried to do that.”
“They deliberately created underclasses and gave them a financial incentive to breed,” she insisted.
“True,” he said, “but in China, in the twentieth, they actively discouraged breeding, yet China still went into the twenty-first with a population of over a billion. Sorry, but that doesn’t cut it, Hannah. In the end, you can’t engineer a society to go against four billion years of evolutionary instinct.”
His pessimism scared her. Okay for someone to be a pessimist when he was just among billions of other powerless human beings, but it certainly didn’t seem such a good thing when that person might soon be able to seize control of technology capable of slaughtering millions, or even billions.
“There’s no light in your world, is there?” she commented. “None at all.”
Hannah didn’t know how to take this conversation any further.
The water from the shower hit like needles, before it spattered and diffused in slow motion, filling the air all around him. Across the transparent shower door it ran as thick as jelly, before being sucked into holes in the three walls of the shower and even in the door, linked by vacuum pipes running through the glass. Without this constant suction, he imagined it would be quite easy to drown taking a shower in near-zero gravity. Even as it was, the moisture hanging heavy in the air made it difficult to breathe.
After washing the rest of him, he applied a soapy sponge carefully to his head, wiping away sodden scabs, a couple of wound staples and flakes of wound glue from his scalp. Flicking these off the sponge he watched them swirl about him until sucked away. Next he turned his attention to the knife wound below his ribs. In itself it was relatively small, but the pain lingered, and kept him mindful of the damage that had been done there. After that he just luxuriated till Le Roque’s shower abruptly shut down. He was then blasted with hot air but, not prepared to wait for it to do its job, he pushed himself out of the booth and grabbed up a towel.
“I think these should fit.” Hannah gestured to some items of clothing she’d draped over the double hammock. They consisted of an undersuit, cut off at knee and elbow, and a vacuum combat suit equipped with expansion seams enabling it to cover a range of sizes.
Saul pulled on the undersuit, then thrust his feet into the integral boots of the VC suit before releasing the fabric concertinaed at the knee in order to get the right leg length, then finally tightening the upper section around his torso. It was a useful hard-wearing garment fitted with armour pads and inlaid shock and penetration mesh, suitable for stopping any missile from a plastic bullet downwards.
And it certainly seemed likely that he would be needing such protection.
Once the space plane was only four hours out, he attempted putting some satellites on an intercept course, but those aboard were obviously checking satellite positions constantly, and the craft made a sufficient deviation before he could even apply any serious acceleration. Having expected this, he swivelled one satellite, its laser still functional, and fired on the plane, probing all the way along it to look for weaknesses. No result, however, and infrared imaging indicated the point heat dispersing almost immediately.
Next he selected a communications satellite positioned within a few kilometres of the plane’s forward course, and shot at it with the laser until he hit something, like a high-density battery. The satellite flew apart, hurling fragments in the plane’s path: chunks of metal, ceramic and plastic, that it couldn’t hope to avoid. When the plane reached this debris half an hour later, Saul observed a series of impacts on its outer skin, but they neither slowed nor diverted the craft, and he had no idea how much damage they might have inflicted. All this while Smith did nothing to stop him, which seemed merely to confirm Saul’s earlier speculation about the true mission of those aboard the approaching space plane.
Meanwhile, Langstrom had been moving his men in all around the Political Office, which was a pill-shaped building eight storeys high, both its top and bottom ends terminating against the exterior lattice walls running between two arcoplexes. Simultaneously processing numerous different viewpoints, Saul watched four of Langstrom’s troops hurtle for cover as a continuous fusillade, at two thousand rounds a minute, shredded structural metal behind them. It seemed Smith had no intention of coming quietly.
Langstrom cursed long and hard, before opening communications with Saul. “We’re going to have to cause a lot of damage here. He’s got those fuckers posted at every entrance and, knowing him, probably all through the building.”
“Just keep them covered for now,” Saul advised.
Now feeling suitably clad, he picked up the suit helmet and a shoulder bag full of items that would soon be necessary, and headed for the door leading out of Le Roque’s apartment. Hannah instantly fell into step behind him. Out in the Tech Central control room, Saul checked that Chang and the twins were now back at their consoles, ready to assess damage, or to move station staff to safer locations. Braddock turned towards him, eyeing his new clothing doubtfully.
Saul glanced up at a screen, confirming that the approaching space plane was now only two hours out. This business needed to be resolved before the plane got here—which meant Smith had to die.
“I am,” the soldier replied.
“Then we go.”
Braddock and Hannah exchanged an unreadable look, then he handed her one of his collection of machine pistols. She armed it and glanced over at the three seated at their consoles, who looked back at her with some trepidation. Perhaps they thought Saul had just issued their execution order.
“So you still intend going out to join this Langstrom,” she stated.
“Certainly,” he replied. “If I can get direct physical access to the Political Office, I can end this pretty quickly.”
“This entire situation might have been manufactured just to lure you out there.”
“Let’s hope not,” he said. In reality, without Langstrom they didn’t stand a chance.
“You’re sure?” she insisted.
“Sure enough.” He turned towards the door.
He couldn’t be totally sure, of course, but who could be totally sure about anything? Perhaps undergoing such a dramatic mental transformation could have impaired his judgement. Maybe he had missed some secret communication, some covert agreement between Langstrom and Smith, or between Langstrom and his officers, or perhaps they were following some plan put together long before he arrived here? He just could not know what was going on inside their heads—or, at least, beyond his enhanced ability to read the outward expression of their thoughts. Just as he had already told her: he wasn’t omnipresent nor omnipotent. Yet.
Out in the lobby, they crossed the bloodstained floor. Braddock had been keeping himself busy by dragging the corpses into a storeroom off to one side. Later they would go the way of all corpses here: fed through the digesters that also processed all the sewage and other organic waste, the water drawn off and recycled, the residual compost spread below the twisted trees of the Arboretum. During the planning stages of this project, the idea had been that all materials imported up here must be recycled. Even the ash from the smelting plants was turned into a conglomerate building material. However, this hadn’t been entirely successful and, like a body ridding itself of accumulated toxins, some materials ended up ejected into space within the first year. Later, as demand for foamed metals increased, and ore was even shipped up from Earth, more and more waste was thus ejected, creating meteorite streaks across Earth’s skies.
“So you want me to take this role,” said Braddock.
“Certainly,” Saul replied. “I leave it all to your judgement.” He eyed the soldier keenly. “I’ll also be watching them through the readerguns and robots.” Some of those robots were now armed with weapons that Langstrom’s troops had earlier abandoned.
They headed for the main cageway running down through Tech Central, then after closing up their suit helmets, passed through an airlock into the same tubeway in which he had fought Smith earlier. They soon passed the two wrecked robots, and the sight of blood spatters decorating the walls, which started the hard lump of Saul’s knife wound throbbing in painful recall.
Eventually the tubeway extended beyond its wall panels to give an unhindered view out into the open structure beside Arcoplex One. Saul glanced aside to confirm the presence of the robots he’d summoned, then picked up his pace, propelling himself forward in a gliding, almost skating stride calculated not to raise his feet too high off the floor. He could have instead just flung himself forward until he encountered something solid, but leaving himself no way to quickly change direction, should there be hostiles nearby, did not seem like a good idea.
The tubeway ended at a junction already completed, a flattened cylindrical chamber with track-switching gear set in the floor. The worm of a stationary train blocked the branch they wanted, but they entered a pullway running alongside it. After exiting at the other end, a few more minutes of travel brought them into unfinished tubeway again. Now the robots were moving along the lattice walls immediately above and below them, like wrought-iron apes. After a further ten minutes of such progress, human figures started becoming visible waiting beside the entrance into the cell complex.
Checking via numerous cameras, Saul identified Langstrom, Sergeants Mustafa and Jack, and the big blonde woman they called Peach. Braddock moved ahead, his machine pistol raised. Saul took his time, however, as he brought the robots in closer. When he finally drew near, one quadruped robot that seemed to have bits of both lobster and earth-mover in its ancestry landed on the beams of the tubeway cage above, whilst numerous other robots became plainly visible beyond it. The four humans looked up pensively, then turned their attention back to Saul. He studied their immediate reaction: the tightening of hands on the weapons slung in front of them, their shock quickly hidden, though Sergeant Jack also took an involuntary step backwards.
On receiving a radio query through his suit, Saul linked up coms.
“Alan Saul,” began Langstrom, as Saul stepped up beside Braddock.
“The same,” Saul replied.
“What do you want?” Langstrom asked.
“Is that a question general or specific?”
“Generally, I want to be free of the Committee. Specifically, I want to get into the Political Office—and to a particular location.” He unhooked his shoulder bag and passed it over to Braddock. “Braddock, your new commander here, will explain further where I want to go.” He fixed Langstrom with a steady gaze, noticed a flash of rebellion quickly suppressed, then he turned and strolled away, to apparently gaze unconcernedly through the lattice gaps at the distant arc of Earth. But he was still watching carefully through numerous electronic eyes, including one set belonging to a robot armed with a ten-bore machine gun.
Braddock retrieved a laptop from the shoulder bag, placed it down on a girder, then peremptorily gestured Langstrom over. The man stared at Saul’s back, then, perhaps realizing you don’t argue with the chicken farmer about your position in the pecking order, he moved over to stand beside Braddock. After a brief hesitation, the other three followed him.
“Here,” said Braddock, calling up a schematic of the Political Office and outlining one particular section in red.
“The transformer room,” Langstrom noted. “But why there? You could cut their power from outside, but it’d make no difference. They’ve got hydrox generators in there, and enough fuel for at least twenty days.”
“We don’t intend to cut their power.”
“Did you question your previous commander like this?” Braddock enquired.
“Not a healthy option.”
Langstrom shrugged. “Stupid optimism?”
“Okay, here’s the deal. We’re all as good as dead now if the Committee regains control of the station.” He surveyed the faces of those around him. “All of us.”
“We get that,” said Langstrom.
Braddock lowered his voice, with a slight nod in Saul’s direction, and hissed, “He look human to you? Well, he ain’t. He’s all that’s stands between us and the Committee, and we do it like he says.” He shook his head. “He don’t need us—he doesn’t need anyone here on this station. We’re just a convenience to him, for now. So let’s talk about how we get him where he wants to go, shall we?”
Saul hadn’t coached Braddock on how he should present this, but essentially the soldier’s words were the truth. He now allowed his attention to stray away from them, ensuring his robots were all in position, checking to see if Smith was in any way responding. Nothing evident as yet. Saul tried to discover any holes in his own reasoning, but could find none. In the virtual world, Smith had lost the fight about Saul’s point of penetration, but even if that didn’t happen again this time, their battle for the Political Office should result in that safety protocol that had kicked in before, kicking in again and disabling the readerguns. This should give Langstrom the time to seize control of the place.
“Okay, we’re done,” said Langstrom abruptly.
Returning most of his attention to his present surroundings, Saul turned to see Braddock close the laptop and shove it back into the shoulder bag.
“Shall we go?” asked Langstrom.
Saul nodded. As Langstrom stepped through the skeleton of the tubeway and launched himself into the station structure, he followed, with Braddock close behind him. Progress then consisted of leaping from I-beam to I-beam, until they began to discern the lights of the Political Office amid the tangled gloom. Whilst they advanced, Langstrom continued issuing instructions, so that by the time they arrived on the lower lattice leading to the ground floor, still more of his men were ready, waiting. Saul had meanwhile summoned closer some of his robots, though he hoped not to need them. In terms of utterly ruthless calculation, they were more useful to him—and more trustworthy—than Langstrom or any of his men.