For the first fifty years, fusion reactors had required highly specialized fuels like lithium pellets, tritium microspheres, Bellington glass or Islington lead. However, the scientists continued to work diligently, and eventually attained their next goal: a reactor using full-sphere laser compression to cause fusion in a wide range of materials. But even these reactors were limited to fusing solid materials, and the final goal of devising a water or gas reactor seemed permanently out of reach. However, finally, a scientist working under Committee political oversight made the breakthroughs that resulted in the water reactor. A simplistic explanation is that he merely froze the water, thus turning it into a solid, but it is still to be revealed how water is kept frozen while being introduced into a reactor core as hot as the sun. The same scientist went on to create the first gas fuser, able to fuse hydrogen down into iron. Though these were brilliant achievements, the identity of the scientist is known only to the Committee, and Subnet rumours claim that, after he showed signs of burnout, his political director considered him too dangerous to live, so his final resting place became a community digester.
The airlock seemed to be taking for ever to cycle. Perhaps it was malfunctioning? No, the ready light now came on, so Var pulled down the handle and pushed open the door. She could grab Kaskan, pull him back inside. But, as she stepped outside, she realized she was already too late.
Ricard must have had the shepherd waiting right outside, and it was already retreating through a cloud of dust, hauling its prize up towards it. Kaskan wasn’t even struggling, just hung inert in tentacles straining to wring him out like a wet dishrag.
“Build a monument…uh…something,” he managed to say to her over com.
His voice sounded strained, and at that moment she noticed the horrible angle of his leg. So far it had not managed to penetrate his suit, but then his helmet fell away, with a great gout of vapour exploding outwards around his exposed skull.
At that point he chose to manually detonate the seismic charge.
Light flashed underneath the shepherd, and Kaskan was just gone. The blast wave picked up Var and slammed her back against the airlock. The robot’s body rose vertically, its legs blown off out to each side. Something smacked into Var’s chest and she peered down at a wormish segment of one of the shepherd’s tentacles. She batted it away and looked back up again, but no sign of either the robot or Kaskan now remained. By detonating right underneath it, the charge could have propelled the robot’s body for kilometres, while Kaskan himself would have instantly turned to slurry. Her back still against the door, Var slid down into a crouch, but then felt it moving, so stood up again and stepped away.
Lopomac came out first, then Carol, and for a moment they stood in silence staring at the wave of dust rolling away from them. Then Var broke into their thoughts.
“For that to mean something,” she said, “we have to succeed now, so let’s move.”
She broke into a steady lope, making sure that the others were keeping with her. Ahead, the wave of dust broke over the walls of Hex Three, then continued beyond it, dimming further the already waning light of the setting sun. Kaskan’s sacrifice, Var realized, had crystallized the hard determination within her: Ricard was not going to win. They were going to survive here without him and his enforcers, or they were not going to survive at all. If he did not respond in the way Kaskan had predicted, the power was going to stay turned off. Better they all died now than by whatever selection process Ricard had in mind, or by the gradual collapse of the base’s systems later on. She knew that maybe she wasn’t being fair to others, but, damn it, this must end—and soon.
The damage she had already caused to Hex Three soon became evident. They rounded the structure to reach the only remaining airlock—the one into the garage—which took them nearly a quarter of an hour to get through. She entered the garage first, with her machine pistol cocked just in case Ricard had left one of his men behind, but there was no one there.
“No action yet?” said Lopomac, stating the obvious as he stepped out behind her.
“Weapons,” decided Var. “He won’t have taken everything from the cache.”
Kaskan had given them this. Ricard had rightly believed that they stood very little chance indeed of dealing with that shepherd outside Hydroponics. But he had not included in his calculations the fact that one of them might be prepared to die in order to destroy it.
The garage contained a single crawler, parked on the ramp accessing a passage leading down underneath the hex to the workshop in the adjoining wing. The doors leading into the workshop would be sealed, that being the first area Var had opened to the Martian atmosphere. Spare wheels and engine parts were stacked along one wall, while along another one a row of super-caps was being charged up. To her right a heavy door stood open and she headed over to peer inside. Ricard had been in a hurry, so had not bothered to lock up safely. Assault rifles rested in a rack, also machine pistols and side arms. Stepping inside, Var discarded her machine pistol, selected a rifle and filled her hip pouch with clips of ceramic ammunition. The grenade rack, unfortunately, stood empty.
“The reactor,” prompted Var, after the other two had made their selections.
It resided in a room of its own at the centre of the hex, cut off from the Political Director’s control room and the Executive’s and enforcers’ quarters by bulkhead doors now tightly closed. Four pillars supported the reactor’s housing, a thick coin of bubblemetal, veined with pipes, from which ducts containing superconductive wiring diverged into the walls. A simple console and screen controlled the reactor itself, while most of the other equipment crowding this room was the tool set for taking the thing apart and performing vital maintenance on it.
Var dropped into a chair facing the console and screen, and started by calling up the menu. Then she glanced round and noticed Carol beginning to remove her helmet.
“Find some more air,” she instructed. “We won’t be staying in here.”
Carol stared back at her, looking terrified, but she nodded obediently and left the reactor room.
Having used the reactor’s simple menu a number of times before, while doing some work on the old injectors, she keyed through it quickly. This time she didn’t want to shut the reactor down, just cut the power. In a moment she had a schematic of the entire base up on the screen and, using her finger, selected every section of it except Hex Three, hesitating for only a brief moment over Hydroponics. She did not want to give Ricard a place to retreat to, nor think for a moment that she did not mean what she would shortly be telling him. The lights brightened for a second, then settled again. There, it was done, and now the rest of the base lay in darkness. Var used her wrist console to open a channel via the still flashing icon in the bottom corner of her visor.
“Hello, Ricard,” she began.
It took a moment for him to respond, and he sounded angry, of course. “Really smart, Var. I see they must have missed something during your psyche evaluation.”
“I don’t think they did,” she replied. “They’ve always been aware that intelligence is not a trait normally found in obedient little drones—but that intelligence is needed in places like this. They just took a calculated risk. However, there was no risk with you, Ricard—they roll your kind off the production line every day.”
“So rather than surrender yourself to the legitimately established authority here, you’d kill us all.”
“Yes, because I know that you won’t let me, Carol or Lopomac live. And I also know that under your stewardship, this base will fail within months, so better we all die now. You, Ricard, now have two choices. You can either do nothing, in which case you’ll begin running out of air within a couple of days, and the heat will have bled out meanwhile so that everything in Hydroponics will be dead, or, if you’ve got the balls, you can come over here and try to get the power back on.”
“You wouldn’t do that,” he said.
“Yeah, my psyche report didn’t label me as the kind who would so readily kill Inspectorate staff. Just as Kaskan’s psyche report didn’t have him down as the kind who might sacrifice himself to take out a shepherd. I’m therefore guessing that those psyche reports aren’t really so reliable.”
“A hundred and fifty people here would suffocate—that’ll be on your conscience.”
“We can’t lose Hydroponics,” said Carol.
“It won’t come to that. He’ll send his men over soon, and maybe he’ll even come along himself.”
“He might try to wait you out. He might realize you’re bluffing?”
“Carol,” said Var firmly, “I’m not bluffing. We go independent here or we all die. And I’m making the choice that if we are due to die, that will occur over the next few days rather than a few months down the line.”
“I’m with Var on that,” said Lopomac. “There are no half-measures we can take.”
Var stood up. “I’m sure they’ll blow out the windows and come in that way…though they might try bringing a crawler into the garage.” It was what she would do. Yes, she could now destroy the garage’s door mechanism to keep them out, but she didn’t want them out. She wanted them inside, then dead. “Ricard will probably hold off, hoping we’ll give in, but once the cold starts killing off Hydroponics, he’ll have to act. So let’s get ready for him. Let’s use some of our brilliant technical know-how to prepare a reception.”
She had doubts still, but couldn’t show them. Ricard might hold off for too long—certainly he could take all remaining air stocks for himself and his men. He might even use this as a method of thinning out base personnel, that way managing to lay the blame on Var. But, no, he would act before the air supply ran too low, and he’d act before he lost Hydroponics. Surely he would.
“Hit it,” Langstrom instructed over com.
A series of explosions ensued, punctuated by the stuttering light of the ten-bore machine guns, all utterly silent in vacuum. Missiles flashed across above them, bullets and tracers sparked off beams, and fires bloomed as of a city under siege at night. In loping strides of three metres each, starlit vacuum visible below them through the lattice partition, they approached the base of the Political Office. Some distance ahead, Peach’s unit reached the blank wall, against which two of her men stuck incendiary worms. Off to the right a ten-bore flashed, tracers streaking across above the latticework, before striking an armoured shield. Then from the point of impact a missile was fired back, hitting the original source of fire. The detonation flung chunks of debris out amid the surrounding substructure.
Peach’s people stepped back as the incendiary worms burned, cutting a doorway, which was then opened by the blast of a centrally positioned charge. Atmosphere blasted out, carrying all sorts of unidentifiable detritus, then just as abruptly it shut off. Two of her unit went through, one of them shouldering a missile-launcher. Detonation inside, lighting the interior, the burr of a machine pistol over com. Peach and the other man followed next, and five more after them.
Langstrom listened to com for a moment, then turned to Braddock and Saul. “We’re clear. We can go in now.”
Saul nodded briefly, then held up a restraining hand: just one moment. Through his boots he felt its approach behind him, and through its robotic eyes he noted Langstrom’s startled expression as the construction robot moved up beside him. It loomed over him like a guardian bear, but this particular bear had six limbs, and in one of its tool-wielding paws it clutched a heavy machine gun.
“Is that thing really necessary?” Braddock asked.
“It may be useful,” Saul replied, not yet ready to rely on the soldiers’ protection alone.
Langstrom led the way into a corridor filled with tendrils of smoke dissipating into vacuum. Blood smeared the floor, blackened by absence of air, yet there was no sign of any corpses. Off to the right lay further wreckage, and the remains of a machine gun embedded in a wall. They headed for a secondary airlock, and after Langstrom opened it, Saul sent his guardian through first. He watched through its eyes as the inner airlock door opened, admitting the robot to a corridor filled with smoke. He and Braddock stepped through next, and at once he picked up sound: suppressing fire from four soldiers racketing like power drills somewhere out of sight. With Langstrom following they proceeded left, then right, the sounds of gunfire almost continuous ahead of them. Saul glanced up at the wrecked dome of a readergun located in the ceiling, surprised that it seemed to have cost no lives.
Next, three corpses at the foot of a vertical cageway—Saul guessed they were Smith’s people, though it was hard to be sure, and odd that the blood on their uniforms looked so dry. They launched their way up the cageway, their progress covered by three of Langstrom’s troops, who began firing into any exposed sections of the Political Office. They continued on through, bullets zinging constantly off surrounding metal. Something thumped against Saul’s thigh, but didn’t penetrate. Smoke lay thick and heavy in the air as they departed the cageway, before entering another corridor where the smoke stank of burning meat. Someone started screaming, but he couldn’t locate the source. Next, a blast ahead, doors disappearing, Langstrom’s troops piling straight in amid gunfire. One of the men bounced out again, blood jetting from his open mouth.
Braddock caught Saul by the shoulder and pulled him down, as the fire fight continued. A minute later, the fighting ahead of them was over, though all about them the Political Office resounded with continuing gunfire and explosions.
“It’s clear now,” said Langstrom.
Braddock preceded Saul into the room beyond: a horizontal cylinder with two bulky transformers protruding from the right, one of them showering a steady stream of sparks and molten metal from its bullet-riddled armature. A man hung from one side of it, his hand melted in place and his body beginning to smoke. Langstrom’s troops were down at the far end, in the corridor extending beyond, crouched behind a barricade consisting of a couple of metal tool cabinets against which they had set doors ripped from their mountings.
“Here.” Saul pointed to a mass of fibre-optic and power-cable junction boxes, and consoles running along the wall facing the transformers, then launched across and steadied himself against the unit he required, planting his gecko boots back on the floor. Removing his helmet, he flipped up the unit lid to expose six teragate sockets, then held out a hand to one side. Braddock delved in the shoulder bag for a coil of optic cable, with teragate plugs at each end, and silently handed it over.
“We don’t have long in here,” Langstrom remarked, watching with curiosity as Saul pulled the plug of synthetic skin from his temple and plugged the cable into his skull, before jabbing the other end of the cable into one of the six sockets, randomly chosen.
Instant connection filled an empty space within his being. Smith was already waiting there, but the man’s attack on him seemed utterly ineffectual as Saul speared his way into the isolated Political Office network. It felt like satiation of vast thirst as he sucked up data, modelling the entire Political Office inside his head, while noting the positions of everyone within it. In a sudden heady rush of power, he swatted Smith aside, felt him retreating, withdrawing—the man now outmatched.
Two major fire fights still continued, and he saw Peach and the remaining two members of her unit pinned down by machine-gun fire from some of Smith’s people positioned on a gantry above them. Only twenty metres away from Saul, another four of Langstrom’s troops, led by Mustafa, were caught up in a shoot-out with more of Smith’s men, who were busy moving additional firepower into position, in the shape of another big machine gun. Elsewhere, Langstrom’s units were intermittently engaging the ten-bore machine guns at the five main entrances, simply to keep them tied down. Whilst he delved into Smith’s database, loading the ID implant codes of everyone currently under Smith’s command, he individually seized control of the readerguns in two relevant areas, and powered them up. Should he give Smith’s soldiers a chance to surrender? Should he hell, since just moments’ delay could result in soldiers on his side dying. Within a minute Saul provided the readerguns with specific targets. And it took the readerguns a further ten seconds to complete.
Their dome turrets flashed like halogen lamps, turning then flashing again. The one positioned in the ceiling immediately above the men trying to creep up on Peach and her two comrades flashed brightly for a full three seconds. Five partially dismembered bodies were blown from the gantry, sailing in a cloud of shattered flesh and bone over above the three below. Another reader then took out those running the machine gun. Just two short bursts left one jammed underneath the great weapon, his form no longer recognizably human, whilst the other one cartwheeled away to one side leaving an arc of blood in the air. Similar scenes played out amongst those attacking Mustafa, and, even from where he stood, Saul heard the sound of the guns through human ears.
“Readerguns,” observed Langstrom.
“Yes,” Saul replied, turning to gaze at him, but feeling he had nothing more to add.
Smith he finally found in a room filled with yet more computers, screens and consoles than Tech Central itself, but the computers there were used solely to control the station’s hardware and direct its staff. This array ran complex programs to monitor the behaviour of all working aboard Argus Station and thereby try to divine what was going on inside their heads, so that corrective instruction could be issued. Here lay the essential power base of the thought police.
Smith had pushed himself out of his chair and was floating backwards, hand up against his head as the hardware there transmitted his spoken orders. Already others were turning away from their consoles to look round at him. Having just learned that the readerguns were killing his people, he didn’t look as alarmed as he should, but then no readerguns overlooked this particular room. Saul guessed that Smith must be aware of the 5 percent malfunction rate, and wanted to cut down the odds of some nasty accident happening that might involve himself.
Speaking through the intercom so as to broadcast his voice throughout the entire Political Office, Saul began, “This is Alan Saul speaking, and I now control the readerguns here. So put down your weapons and surrender yourselves. This is not a request.”
Smith extended a hand to catch hold of a stable piece of hardware, then pulled himself floorwards and turned to gaze up at the nearest cam. Meanwhile, the gunfire inside the Political Office began stuttering to a halt. As soon as those operating machine guns by the entrances became aware that the nearby readerguns had targeted them, they too began shutting down their weapons and awaited further orders.
“Smith,” he continued broadcasting, “issue the surrender order.”
“Before I can do that, you must acquaint me with whatever guarantees you are laying on the table,” Smith replied, stalling for time. Saul ensured his response was broadcast as well, and studied the defenders’ reaction to it.
“I guarantee that any of your people who don’t put down their weapons, and surrender instantly, will be dead within a very short time.”
With a look of intense frustration on his face, Smith seemed momentarily at a loss for words. Saul had no doubt that this man was prepared to sacrifice any number of lives, just so long as they didn’t include his own. However, already some of his fellows had abandoned their weapons and were moving away from them. Some of the machine-gun crews, too, were drifting out of the Political Office, while others still inside were trying to keep their hands up while propelling themselves clumsily towards Langstrom’s men.
Smith knew that he had lost; it was now a matter of whether he was still prepared to allow pride and stubbornness to sway him. Saul did not like what he was reading in the man’s expression, or in the pose of his body, or the way he closed a hand over the weapon holstered at his belt.
“Can’t you just finish him?” Langstrom asked.
Saul focused on the question. “No readerguns installed in his control room.”
Studying their immediate surroundings, Saul noted that with Smith’s men surrendering in the near vicinity, certain routes now lay open. He reached up and detached the optic from his head. Access stuttered for just a second, then the Political Office was once again included within the framework of the whole station network.
“Braddock, Langstrom, let’s go and have a chat with the Political Director.”
The three of them set off.
“It will be interesting to evaluate how you managed this,” sneered Smith. “But that will be after you have found the challenges of Argus Station too much for you. Do you honestly think that a few traitors and revolutionaries can withstand the concerted might of the Committee and the People? We command the resources of an entire world: hundreds of millions of military personnel, countless space planes and ICBMs. You must know that resistance is futile.”
“Yet you neglect one obvious fact,” replied Saul as he strode onwards. “They are all down on Earth, while I am up here. Give it up, Smith. Why waste yet more lives?”
“Surrender is not an option open to me, as it would represent a betrayal of trust. Government forces are currently on their way, therefore it is certain that any who betray the people by putting their own physical survival first can be sure ultimately of a visit to an adjustment cell.”
Saul could have cut Smith off the moment he realized what he was about to say, but he wanted everyone here to understand how low was Smith’s regard for their lives. Yet there seemed to be something more to his response than just that. Smith could not hope to hold out until the space plane arrived, so he must surely know that, after making such a statement, his own life would be forfeit. Besides, it seemed certain those aboard the approaching space plane would not have his best interests at heart.
They reached the door leading into the control room, which opened with surprising ease since Saul had expected it to be sealed. As they entered, Smith turned away from the screen he was watching and stepped out on to an open area of floor. At once Saul sensed something was wrong, and he instinctively groped for a view through the eyes of his guardian robot. But, of course, having received no further instructions, it still squatted in the transformer room; just a heap of inert metal.
“I suggest that you have been guilty of the same sort of arrogance, and lack of intelligence that resulted in your friend Malden’s demise,” Smith announced.
Saul began to turn. “Braddock—”
A shot rang out and Braddock spun past him, with a quarter of his head gone. Saul turned back just in time to notice the blunt object Smith clutched in one hand. Sheer agony ripped through him from head to foot, the impact tearing his boots from the floor. In that moment it felt as if he had been plunged directly into a furnace. Saul tried desperately to link up with his robots, with the readerguns, with anything, but the code had become just a scrambled mess of migraine lights flashing through his skull. He felt a hand close about his arm, shoving him to the floor, and a foot pressing down on his chest.
“Now that was costly,” said Langstrom. “I could have taken him down long before now.”
“His value to the people outweighs the level of casualties we have sustained,” said Smith calmly. “And, for the benefit of the people, it was necessary that one of my status should be seen as able to render him harmless, thus reinforcing Committee command structures.”
“Still, there are people out there lying dead who didn’t need to be.”
“I think not,” Smith replied. “The moment you so much as pointed a weapon at him, one of his robots would have torn you limb from limb. Anyway, since when has the extinction of subordinates ever been a problem to you, Langstrom?”
“I was just saying,” the soldier replied.
“Anyway, all those men against you were primarily loyal to Messina, so that’s been to our advantage. The same with those space planes he destroyed.”
Through a blur of vision, Saul stared up at Smith smiling down at him. Then the man took his foot away and fired the disabler again, and Saul was once again in the furnace. He heard someone screaming, only realizing it was himself just before the world slipped away from him.
“The Political Office is back online,” reported one of the twins—Hannah wasn’t sure which of them it was.
“Yes, evidently,” she replied, studying the screen as some of Langstrom’s soldiers began making their way out of the office building. “Any sign of Saul?”
The other twin began flicking through cam views, till she picked up Saul currently propelling himself along a pullway beside a stationary train. She then tagged him with a surveillance program and shunted the image over to one of the three larger screens. Hannah reached out and manually operated the camera focus, trying for close-ups, but failing. Saul appeared uninjured, but that was all Hannah could discern. As the program tracked him back towards Tech Central, she wondered if Braddock was still safe. What had happened in there, and how many people had died? She’d witnessed the fire fight from the outside, and later recognized the vicious sound of readerguns over com. Did the interior of the Political Office now resemble an abattoir?
“So he now has full control,” suggested Brigitta, her voice devoid of all emotion.
“So it would seem,” Hannah replied.
She closed her eyes for a moment and tried to suppress the feeling of helpless terror. Looking again at the screens, she watched the space plane inexorably drawing closer, only a half-hour away now. She then returned her attention to Saul himself, and watched as he finally passed the two wrecked robots on his way in. He seemed stronger now, snapping himself forward by the wall handles with obvious impatience. Soon he headed through the Tech Central door and Hannah spun her chair round to face him.
“All done?” she asked.
Moving forward, Saul dipped his head and began undoing the catches of his suit helmet. Only then did Hannah understand the doubt that stirred inside her. She spun her chair round and began to reach for the machine pistol lying on the console. Shots thundered into the console, flinging the weapon out of reach. She shrank away just as a hand closed on her shoulder, tipping both herself and the chair over backwards, banging her head hard on the floor. The hand now closed about her neck and the hot barrel of a machine pistol was almost touching her face.
“Greetings, Hannah,” said Smith.
Smith must have used the simple ruse of wearing Saul’s vacuum combat suit to get himself here, but the ruse hadn’t really been necessary. With Saul now captive or dead, only one option was available to keep herself out of Smith’s hands, but she wasn’t prepared to kill herself. Now, looking straight into his face, she knew he would be in no hurry to kill her either. She noted the red eyes, the broken blood vessels around them, and the veins standing out in his forehead. His breath smelled rank too—characteristic of someone maxed out on cocktails of painkillers, stimulants, ACE inhibitors and beta blockers. Though perhaps not yet as screwed up as Malden, he must know he could not carry on living like this.
“Commander Langstrom.” Smith spoke into the vacuum suit’s mike. “Now would be a suitable time for you to be present here.” Then, after a pause, “I do not see any difficulties in that regard. All the robots are currently inactive, as Saul did not program them for completely independent action, or to engage in hostilities without direct orders from himself. Therefore, once I have divined the basis of his code, they will be mine once again. Now, please do not make me issue a reprimand, as I require your presence in here right now.”
Smith stood upright, hauling Hannah to her feet by her neck, before transferring his grip to the front of her survival suit. He then swung his attention to Chang and the twins, who remained standing by their consoles.
“We had no choice,” said Chang defensively.
“In no known situation are choices lacking,” Smith replied. “We must therefore work diligently together to reveal how difficult your choices were.”
Hannah could see the sudden terror appearing in their faces, for they knew the techniques Smith would use to discover whatever version of the truth suited him. Chang moved forward slightly, but Smith swung the machine pistol towards him. For a moment, Hannah thought Chang might charge him, but the big man desisted, holding his hands out to his sides. “What do you want of us?”
“My current preference is for you to seat yourselves again, and then refrain from further comment,” he said.
Shooting worried looks at each other, they obeyed him. Maybe if they just kept their heads down, he would forget about them. Hannah did not think so, but understood their bunker mentality.
“What happened to Saul?” she abruptly asked.
Without even looking at her, Smith released his grip, swung his arm away, then struck her hard with the back of his hand. The blow felt like it dislocated her jaw, and the adhesive sole of one of her shoes ripped free of the floor. Lights flashing in her vision, she tumbled over backwards, her spine jarring against the floor. In an instant he was crouching over her, the machine pistol again in her face.
“Saul has suffered a misfortune, for him at least, in that he is still alive.” He grinned nastily. “Presently he occupies an interrogation cell, and is enjoying recurrent inducement—just enough to keep him from regaining full mental coherence.”
Hannah felt sick. The Inspectorate used that technique to break people: give the victim just enough time to regain consciousness and some awareness of his situation, before hitting him repeatedly with an inducer until the pain again knocked him out. At that moment Saul would be in hell.
“Didn’t you already do enough to him?”
“It would appear that I did not and, though I feel more than his current mental retraining is required, I don’t want to damage the hardware and software installed in his brain, do I?”
She knew at once what he meant: Smith wanted for himself to possess the more advanced hardware and biotech inside Saul’s skull. It seemed pointless, life-threatening in fact, to try explaining to him how very different was Saul’s organic interface from Smith’s, and also how it could not now be removed.
“Okay,” she said, giving a little nod. Pretend to knuckle under, pretend that to survive she’d do whatever he wanted. But why not? Before Saul had freed her, that was how she had always behaved.
Just then the doors opened, and in came Langstrom accompanied by three of his soldiers. Smith stepped back, hauling Hannah upright. He beckoned to one of the soldiers, a heavily built black man. “Restrain her.”
“No, restrain her here within my sight.”
The man picked up the chair she had been sitting in, gripped Hannah by the biceps, and towed both of them over to one side of the room. Quickly and efficiently, he slipped a plastic tie about her wrists, then used strong tape to bind her to the chair. Meanwhile, Smith and Langstrom were busy studying the images coming up on the screens.
“In twenty minutes they will be joining us here on Argus Station,” Smith announced.
“You’ve told them that we’ve solved our little problem?”
“Yes, I have so informed them, but such information will not prevent them from docking.” Responding to a limp hand gesture, one of the screens changed to show a massive airfield in some desolate desert location. Hannah squinted at the image, realizing, with a sudden lurch in her gut, that the thirty-odd shapes revealed were space planes, some of them in the process of launching.
“I thought they were meant to wait until after full commission of the Argus Network?” observed Langstrom.
“That was the original intention, but it seems that, now the predicted societal collapse has begun, things are accelerating.” Smith shook his head slowly. “In all regions we must rely on extreme measures to quell insurrection, but throughout most of South America, North Africa and Southern Europe we are not preventing the collapse, and have therefore withdrawn resources back to our bases, in preparation for later intervention.”
Hannah felt a surge of contempt. Smith had always spoken like this, in such a convoluted manner, and sometimes it was difficult to work out exactly what he meant. The Committee had completely lost control, so was using gas, live ammunition and robots programmed to kill in order to prevent itself being overrun by the starving mobs. In the three areas mentioned, its forces had withdrawn to their bases for the time being.
“And with the few remaining lasers that you and Saul didn’t wreck, between you,” said Langstrom, “there’s no way of reversing that disintegration now.” The soldier said it without emphasis, but the hint of criticism was there. Smith, however, did not seem to notice it.
“One must await the appropriate time,” he replied, and pointed to the screen showing the launching space planes. “Messina is aboard one of those planes, which is already on its way here, perhaps to oversee any future interventions.”
Langstrom gazed steadily at him. “Is he going to try and take the station away from you?”
“He may indeed wish for primacy.”
“You’ve warned them over in Arcoplex One?”
“There is no necessary benefit in doing so. Alessandro Messina will not establish himself in control here by means of policy statements or Committee votes, therefore my pet delegates would not prove effective in such a situation.”
As they both returned their attention to the screens, Hannah digested this reference to delegates. Didn’t Saul say earlier that Smith had opened a back door into the laser network? It seemed he had been clawing for power, and control of the network had been one chip in the dangerous game he was playing. Meanwhile, he had used his bargaining position to get all those delegates prepared to back him transferred up here, only now things had drastically changed. Perhaps the Committee had hoped to retain control down on Earth with the seven hundred satellites previously available, using mass slaughter as a tool, when necessary. Now that so few laser weapons were immediately available, it seemed Messina and the rest of the Committee were ready to abandon the planet, for now. Whatever way it went, the power base was now up here on Argus, and that’s where all the politicians wanted to be. And once they got up here, they would fight, as ever, to become top dog.
“Let us assemble a small reception committee,” said Smith. “I believe you should ensure it consists primarily of those whose martial usefulness is in question. The rest of your men should be deployed around the core installations: here at Tech Central, the Political Office and the cell complex.”
“More sacrifices, you mean?”
Smith tilted his chin towards the screen. “I am ignorant of the orders issued to those in the approaching space plane. Whoever meets them can direct them straight to the nearest rim-side accommodation and, if they agree to go there, that will give time for you to move out there from the core, and be ready to negate their interference.” He turned his gaze fully on Langstrom.
“Once they dock on the rim they’ll probably head straight in towards the core,” suggested the soldier.
“A more likely and even preferable scenario, because we’ll then know Alessandro’s true intentions. Militarily it is preferable, too, since a great number of readerguns and robots lie conveniently between the rim and the core.”
“They’re going to be well equipped and there’s no guarantee they’ll use a dock at all,” Langstrom observed.
“I have enabled access for your men to Kalashtek assault rifles, and ceramic ammunition capable of penetrating VC suits,” said Smith, “and you may also wish to deploy carousel missile-launchers wherever feasible.” When Langstrom still did not seem in any hurry to depart, he snapped, “Is there anything further?”
“Nothing at all, sir.” Langstrom gestured for his men to follow him and, even as he departed, new staff were arriving and taking up positions at the consoles around the room.
“You three,” Smith indicated Chang and the twins, “return to your accommodation for now. We will discuss that ‘choice’ you mentioned at a later juncture.”
So much for keeping their heads down.
The nightmare was a repeat of one he’d experienced more times than he could count. He was strapped naked to a cold steel wall, while in front of him stood a bench scattered with the kind of tools to be found in any workshop: screwdrivers, pliers, wire cutters, a soldering iron and an angle grinder. In this nightmare, however, he could hear the words.
“The people,” declared Smith, “need to know.”
It wasn’t Smith, however, who now stepped into view, but some interrogation-block technician—no, not even that; just some recorded mockup of a human being. Saul could distinguish the man’s enforcer uniform underneath his transparent plastic overalls, but no sign of his face, for he wore a hazmat filter mask and green-tinted goggles. Careful not to tear his surgical gloves, he picked up the angle grinder, removed the grinding disk and replaced it with one used for coarse sanding.
“In what manner precisely did you alter the functions of your body?” asked Smith, now also stepping into view. “We need to know why the viral nanite you created has killed all the subjects we’ve tested it on. And how does it function in combination with the anti-ageing drugs, and what alterations did you make to those drugs themselves?”
Saul stared at him, dressed in his immaculate white suit, looking so incongruous in this dark and filthy place. Everything Saul had done appeared absolutely clear in his mind: the way the viral nanite had been modelled on his own individual DNA, therefore was in many ways equivalent to the bespoke magic bullets already used by the medical profession; the way he altered the fix so that some parts of it worked more slowly, thus allowing the virus to finish its work before sealing it perfectly. The whole wonderful complexity of what he had achieved lay there opened up to the inspection of his inner eye. But he could not explain this to Smith: the man was just too stupid to understand, and Saul didn’t possess the words to make it clear. Furthermore, at the core of him lay a rebellious stubbornness and a disinclination to communicate which just locked him into continuing silence.
The enforcer started the grinder rotating and brought it up close to Saul’s chest.
“As a consequence of the antishock drugs we have injected into you, you will undoubtedly stay conscious for an appreciable period of time,” Smith explained, in his usual laborious fashion. “Blood loss resulting from this treatment will not be sufficient to render you unconscious.” He indicated a set of blood bags tubed into his victim’s arm, which Saul hadn’t noticed before.
The sanding disc came down against his chest, producing an unbelievable explosion of agony. Saul shrieked, and struggled against the restraints, blood and skin spraying all about him. He now wanted to tell Smith, wanted to tell him everything, but the words remained locked up inside him. And even in his agony he noticed that not one fleck of the bloody detritus had marred Smith’s pristine white suit.
Saul retreated from this nightmare of pain, but just couldn’t locate himself in time or space. His groping mind tried to incorporate a thousand cam views, tried to get a grip on the huge traffic of computer code surrounding him, yet found it frustratingly slippery to his mental grasp. He sensed robots stirring in recollection, from wherever they crouched amid the inner-station substructure like roosting birds, felt others blocking him out as they began to move under someone else’s instruction. Such exploration was almost instinctive to him, yet at least it gave him his own location.
I am aboard the Argus space station.
An outside view suddenly of a space plane coming in to dock. He felt a sudden surge of panic at the sight, but had no idea why. He needed to take control, needed access, but it all now seemed far too confusing. First he needed to return to himself and locate himself precisely in space and time. He needed to rediscover his fleshly ego, and from that firmer basis regain memory and purpose. But which of these thousands of views came through his own human vision? The only way to find out was to disconnect from all obvious cam-signal traffic, which he did as rapidly as he could, and finally he opened his eyes.
He felt as if he had been beaten from head to foot, and his skin scoured with acid. Because he was bound upright, naked and cruciform against a white-tiled wall, with manacles about his wrists and ankles and a steel band about his waist, he instantly thought he had returned to the world of nightmare. But reality possessed a much sharper edge, and a particular pain throbbing in his side reawakened memories of Smith’s knife going in, and his surroundings smelt of shit, which he realized must be his own as soon as he saw the pain inducer projecting from a ceiling-suspended framework. Turning his head slightly, he noted an optic cable trailing from his temple to a box mounted on the wall, just above his shoulder. From this, yet more optics ran up the wall and across the ceiling, connecting into the hardware above the inducer. And then he remembered precisely how he had got here.
“The three…bodies,” Saul had managed, after being dragged down here from the Political Office, and when the two soldiers secured him to the wall.
“Three bodies?” Smith had enquired with interest, standing with Saul’s VC suit draped over one arm. “What three bodies?”
“On the way in…the blood on them was dry.”
“Oh, yes.” Smith had nodded. “I used some of the casualties from our previous encounter, just to set the scene. I also needed to let you kill a few yourself, just so you would feel confident enough of victory to come directly against me. Rather negligent of you to leave your robot behind, but that wouldn’t have mattered anyway, since I had one of my officers standing by with a PA50 tank-buster, just in case.”
“Why?” Saul had asked.
“I only have the one, you see. Initially, I could have sent my soldiers directly against you, but that would have resulted in too many deaths, and I will be needing them now. It was better just to manipulate you, which of course was so easy. You even destroyed those three space planes for me, which of course I can now deny responsibility for.” Smith had smiled.
Despite the pain in his head, Saul had retained enough analytical capacity to realize that Smith could have brought him down much earlier. It seemed that this whole charade had not been necessary, but merely to satisfy Smith’s enjoyment of manipulation.
Saul had blinked, the ache in his head partially receding, and he had begun to probe the computer networks in his vicinity, first picking up on the cam view inside the cell itself, then venturing beyond it to see soldiers moving about in the corridors of the cell block. He had reached further, trying to get in contact with Hannah—but then Smith was there, blocking him, undermining him.
“I did consider shutting you completely out of the station network, but it seems that switching off your internal modem would require either destructive computer intervention or even surgery,” Smith had said. “I then considered keeping you unconscious until we two found an opportunity to spend some quality time together, before I got Hannah to surgically extract all that hardware in your skull, but the problem is that while you’re unconscious you are not suffering, and I so very much want you to suffer, Alan Saul.”
Smith had stepped back and, with a surge of dread, Saul could clearly see the inducer in the ceiling. The man had continued, “Then I figured out the perfect solution: recurrent inducement. For any normal subject, periods of unconsciousness last between ten minutes and an hour, but I feel certain, in your case, the recovery period will be quicker. Let’s see, shall we?”
The agony, as ever, had been unbelievable. He roasted, screaming, in invisible naked flame, his contorted body pounding against the wall behind him like it was being electrocuted. Blackness had overcome him…then, seemingly in no time at all, he had been back in the cell, and trying to remember who he was, where he was…
“That took only four minutes,” Smith had said, checking his watch. “Remarkable.” He had departed, slinging Saul’s vacuum suit over his shoulder.
“Readings indicate that you are now fully conscious,” declared that hated voice.
Saul licked desiccated lips, trying to think of the words to beg for relief, even though he knew he was merely hearing a recording.
“And once again it is time for instruction.”
A light appeared, up there in that hardware, blinking from red to green, and in the next instant every square millimetre of Saul’s skin began to burn. He felt a moment of utter disbelief that such agony could be possible, as he glimpsed his arm, corded with veins, and could not understand how the skin wasn’t melting. He screamed repeatedly and tried to tear his manacles from the wall till, after an eternity of just ten seconds, his mind escaped once more into comfortable darkness.
Saul crept into wakefulness like a wild animal approaching a suspicious bounty of food. He couldn’t remember where he was or even when he was, but knew danger lurked close by. He therefore needed to move fast. With a feeling of déjà vu, his mind groped out and tried to incorporate a thousand cam views, tried to latch onto the huge surrounding traffic of computer code…
Not fast enough.