As the Committee steadily expanded in power, it grew far too large and complex, until in danger of ceasing to function in any meaningful manner. Sitting above the massive bureaucracy there were over three thousand delegates representing countries or regions across the Earth. Even minor matters, like the standardization of paperclips, became the subject of debates that raged for years, while vastly more important issues were consigned to a political wasteland. However, a winnowing process was already at work as some of the delegates clawed more power to themselves, and created factions or supporters, whilst others of their kind were consigned to a political void. Secret decisions began to get made as an ostensibly egalitarian regime shed any pretence of equality for all. This was the time of the efficiency experts, promoting the division of Earth into larger regions and thereby the dismissal of delegates who failed to secure their hold on power. And, as with all such regimes, the penalty of failure was inevitably severe. It has, ever since, been the case that very few delegates will go into quiet retirement. And the word “retirement,” in Committee circles, has become a euphemism for something a great deal less pleasant.
“It is essential that you remain within the arcoplex,” declared Smith. “You will be perfectly safe there and, at present, facilities external to the arcoplex are unable to guarantee your full protection.”
The man peering from the screen frowned, and Hannah felt sure she recognized him from somewhere but could not place him just then. Meanwhile, the view over his right shoulder was distracting, for it showed a window through which the interior of Arcoplex One could be seen, which resembled a city distorted through a fish-eye lens.
“It is a safety protocol, Delegate Shanklin, which negates the possibility of catastrophic failure of the cylinder motors, should they suffer munitions damage.”
Shanklin was the Committee delegate for East India, and therefore controlled the Asian voting bloc, but other than that, Hannah knew little about him.
“Yet you didn’t shut it down when either Malden or Saul penetrated the station?”
“The threat they presented to the structure of the Argus Station was negligible. Should those currently approaching us aboard the space plane be prepared to use force on Messina’s behalf, they will be equipped to the highest level of Committee military requirements.”
Shanklin stared at him for a long moment. “I’m hoping, Smith, that we haven’t all made a big mistake with you.”
“Considering that you have,” Smith replied, “the time in which you might have corrected that mistake has already expired.” Then he shut off the transmission.
“Your backers?” Hannah risked asking him.
“Committee delegates tend to get overly attracted to power and its trappings,” he replied distractedly.
“How many are here?”
Without looking round he replied, “Fifty delegates in all, along with their staff and families. Over two thousand people.” Coming from him it was a surprisingly direct response.
“So they got you here, didn’t they?” ventured Hannah. “And now they’re just a millstone round your neck.”
He turned to give her an unreadable look. “They certainly would have been useful in re-establishing the rule of the people back on Earth, but a further one hundred and seventy delegates have made a provisional commitment to back me for the chairmanship.”
To Smith, it seemed, “the people,” “the state” and “the Committee” were all the same thing, but only if it meant he himself got to give the orders.
“Would have been?” she asked.
Hannah glanced out through the windows allowing a view across the wheel of the space station. From where she was seated, she could just about see the space plane dropping down behind the station’s rim. Next she transferred her gaze back to the screens, one of which now showed the space plane moving in to dock, whilst another displayed the interior of that same dock.
“His failure is inevitable,” Smith added, studying the screens.
The docking pillar, one of five sticking out from the rim, was pentagonal in section, each external face of it wide enough to encompass the largest type of space plane. As the plane settled against it, she could just about discern the docking clamps engaging underneath it. A belly lock in the plane could be opened to the inside of the docking pillar for loading and unloading cargo, whilst a separate passenger airlock would be engaged via an extending tube. She focused on the interior of the dock, wondering if Smith’s reliance on such views showed how less able he was than Saul, who had no need for such extra aids.
The interior view showed four of Langstrom’s troops making their way alongside the cargo train that serviced the dock, and then descending an internal face of the pillar itself. Ahead of them emerged one end of the passenger embarkation tube, a cylinder three metres high and two wide. As the soldiers approached, the two doors in its side opened to show three figures clad in VC suits, and upside-down. They instantly pushed themselves out, flipping over to come down upright on the floor, legs bending to absorb the shock so that their boots did not disengage. They then moved back-to-back, checking their surroundings.
To one side of the passenger tube, a pair of long double doors hinged up from the floor, opening directly into the belly of the plane. Out flew an object a couple of metres across, looking not unlike a balled-up mass of water pipes.
Smith hissed with anger, and immediately readerguns opened fire, sending the three men tumbling away, but seemingly uninjured. The balled-up thing opened, into a chaotic collection of robotic arms terminating in twin-barrelled guns which at once began firing, so it seemed rather like a flaming tumbleweed. Munitions debris spread out in a cloud as readerguns exploded all around the dock. Then, even as the onslaught diminished, the three figures in vacuum combat suits righted themselves and started firing too—at the four personnel who had come to greet them. Hannah found herself flinching as she watched bullets tearing into their bodies, jerking them about helplessly, spewing chunks of flesh and bone out in every direction.
“Low-impact ammunition in the readerguns,” observed Hannah. “You should have thought of that.”
Smith glared round at her and, by the look on his face, she half expected him to come over and hit her.
“They were dispensable,” he replied coldly.
Did he mean the human troops who had just died or the readerguns themselves?
In the dock itself, more troops in VC gear piled out of the airlock, as the big robot settled quietly to the floor. One squad of about twenty troops moved swiftly to the base of the dock and through, down beside the train there, whilst others began removing equipment from the space plane’s hold. Smith watched this activity for some minutes before speaking again.
“I am assuming that you were watching that, Langstrom?” he demanded.
Down in the righthand corner of the screen a frame opened up to show Langstrom. “I saw—and we’re ready. We’ve got ten-bores and rocket-launchers deployed,” the commander grimaced, “which we’ll need seeing as they’ve got a spidergun with them.” He glanced at something off-screen. “The first of them are not coming straight in but, as you predicted, they’re heading for the upper spindle anchor. Maybe they’ll pass through Arcoplex One to get down here.”
“Most unlikely,” Smith replied. “Though an arcoplex offers them cover, traversing it will be a slow process, for they would consider it necessary to use urban-warfare techniques. There are also few exits, all of which could provide ambush points.”
“They’ll blow it?” Langstrom suggested.
“This is not likely either, since Chairman Messina will want as little damage done to the station as possible.” Smith raised a hand to the side of his head, an unconscious gesture as new information became available to him. The screen previously showing Delegate Shanklin now revealed the first squad of invading troops deployed in and about the massive machinery at the far end of Arcoplex One. Some were gathered about an airlock, which opened even as she watched. One of them made some adjustments to a package, then tossed it inside before the outer airlock door closed again.
Now a fresh view: the interior of the arcoplex cylinder. It resembled a long street of buildings tilting inwards, with further buildings projecting from the sides and down from overhead, some of which were actually connected to the cylinder spindle. Sunlight flooded from the dispersal units positioned at intervals along the spindle jacket, bathing everything in a bright, almost Mediterranean light. Enough illumination, therefore, to see a troop of enforcers heading towards the airlock situated at the street’s end, while civilians were heading in the opposite direction. Men, women and children were down on the street itself using gecko boots, while others higher up were propelling themselves from surface to available surface, or aboard a couple of aeros. Most of those fleeing the scene carried bundles and bags just like any refugee throughout history.
Then the airlock opened.
Hannah could not understand what the attackers hoped to achieve here if they were not using the arcoplex as a route to the station core. The inner door of the airlock just stood wide open now, and nothing much seemed to be happening there at first. But next some sort of detonation within the airlock blew out a cloud of vapour like smoke from the muzzle of a cannon. It dispersed as rapidly as milk in water and, almost at once, people started writhing in mid-air. Then one of the aeros slammed into the side of a building, and stuck there, its rear fan spitting out debris. Several enforcers rose from the floor, tearing at their clothing, while the others just began contorting where they were. Within just a few seconds all of them were motionless but for those on trajectories they’d set themselves upon as they died.
“Quick,” observed Langstrom.
Smith replied, “In my opinion, they have just made use of the Novichok agent the Department of Warfare was developing. It was efficiency-tested during the Chicago riots and found to be very effective.”
“Take some clearing up.”
“That nerve agent has an active life of only about an hour,” replied Smith dismissively, “so in itself should not be a problem for us. Though effecting sanitary measures to clear up the human detritus might not be so pleasant.” He pondered this for a moment. “I will follow Saul’s lead and reprogram construction robots to accomplish the chore. They can move a proportion of the deceased to cold sections of the station, to prevent any immediate overload of the digesters.”
This exchange seemed so blandly conversational that Hannah felt a creeping horror. The two men were talking about the death of two thousand fellow citizens, yet Smith’s biggest concern seemed to be organizing the funeral arrangements.
Somewhere down in that part of his mind where decisions were made even before coherent thoughts could express them, some dreg of pure reason alerted Saul to the impending agony, utterly certain, the moment the optic plugged into his skull registered his rise to full consciousness. In a state between unconsciousness and waking, Saul rejected wakefulness and yet, deep amid a morass of dreams and undesignated data, he managed to apply logic and found the ability to think. He discerned reality below that filter that led into the conscious world, and without any sense of self he managed to process it. His organic brain demanded that he return to that world above the surface, but what did it amount to? Just the fleshly vessel for part of his mind, a part that he’d so far found necessary only because within it lay his reason for physical existence. He remained detached from the now and, on one level, wondered how long it would take him to decide not to bother continuing with such an existence at all.
“It’s monitoring him,” said a vaguely familiar female voice.
“Just unplug it?” suggested a male voice. “Do something like you did with the cams?”
“Smith’s busy out there.”
The words murmured out of some abyss, and seemed almost irrelevant to him. All but the last four words made no real sense to him, but with those Saul felt a need to agree. For, in the current halfway house of his mind, his awareness of fighting out in the station seemed like a raw point inside his own skull. But to agree with the words he needed dangerous consciousness, and that was not an option.
“This is not a great idea,” came a second female voice, very like the first.
Saul’s semi-awareness strayed far enough to capture numerous views scattered throughout the Argus Station, and there he witnessed the battle in progress. Troops clad in vacuum combat suits had penetrated the station rim by the docks, and were quickly entrenching themselves there. He watched a great multi-limbed robot propelling itself about across one lattice wall, guns blazing from the end of each limb. The word “spidergun” arose at once out of his inner chaos.
Above the endcap of Arcoplex One, the underside of the station rim was criss-crossed with gunfire, missile streaks and explosions. Saul saw shattered bodies go tumbling through the dark amid fragments of metal, plastic, flesh, bone and globules of blood. His awareness straying further, he next saw a great fleet of space planes entering an orbital vector leading them towards the station.
“What are you doing?” asked the male voice nearby.
“He’s in REM, and the unit’s set to respond to his EEG. I just copied that.” A pause. “Have you disconnected the restraint monitors yet, Angela?”
“They’re now on manual release.”
“Okay, here goes.”
Saul felt a tugging sensation at his temple, which seemed to shift his entire perception. He did not consciously understand what had happened, but his knowledge of how the human brain functions made him aware that the state of consciousness was thoroughly overrated. He accepted its resurgence anyway, the chaotic fragmentation of mind slamming together, with an almost physical sensation, into a strong coherent whole. The spectre of agony assailed him, because his animal mind knew that his body must be a roasted ruin, but his whole mind denied it—did not allow it to affect his essential self. He opened his eyes, and again saw with utter clarity, absorbing hundreds of cam views and data flows, while processing them with a speed even he himself found frightening.
Surely this was some fragment of a dream remaining with him—how could he have integrated so much information so fast? The answer came at once, via a factual assessment of processing speeds alongside active and inactive memory capacity. But he should not be like this because, after suffering a real-time one hundred and forty-three minutes of agony, which subjectively seemed like a thousand years, his mind should have become a total wreck. Therefore something else must be happening inside his head, something beyond the melding of his mind with that of Janus. There must be something else, he realized, that Hannah hadn’t told him. He would find out later. Other concerns came first.
On the other side of the cell, Angela Saberhagen squatted beside an open access panel, wires running from her palmtop, resting on the floor nearby, into the electronics revealed. Sweat beading his brow, Chang stood some way back, by the door, and looked ready to run. Brigitta stood right beside Saul himself. She had unplugged the optic from his temple and plugged it instead into a small optical drive, which she now released to hang by that optic cable.
“You’re awake,” she observed.
“I am,” Saul agreed, his voice hoarse. He looked down at the manacles still pinning him to the wall. “You can release me now.”
“Why should I?” she asked.
“Because that’s what you came here to do.”
She showed a flash of annoyance. “Don’t you even want to know why?”
Saul dipped his head in acknowledgement. “Because Director Smith is never going to forgive you even the small amount of assistance I forced you to give me. He intends to stick all three of you in cells just like this, put you through hell, and probably end up killing you. You have surely realized by now that he only seeks excuses to satisfy his lust for inflicting pain, and that he is, in fact, insane.”
“And are you sane?” asked Angela, now standing up.
Saul glanced at her. “By which definition of sanity?”
“Ours,” was her simple reply.
“I have killed, and I will continue to kill,” Saul replied. “But torture is not something I take pleasure in, nor is it something I would ever feel the need to use.”
Brigitta reached up alongside his wrist, pressed a locking button, and the padded manacle sprang open. He swung his arm free of the wall, aware of the psychosomatic pain shooting all along it, but noticed only a slight reddening of the wrist, where it had fought against the manacle. He reached round to undo the other manacle, as Brigitta unclipped the metal band around his waist, before squatting to deal with the restraints about his ankles. Saul pushed himself away from the wall, feet light against the floor.
“Are you okay?” Chang asked.
Was he? All his two-year lifespan now lay open to his recollection but seemed distant, utterly shorn from the now by his time under inducement—by that subjective thousand years. To his recollection, he had surfaced to awareness seventeen times, only to be driven under again by the same mind-destroying agony that had deleted the original Alan Saul from existence. This time, however, that same pain, operating in synergy with something new inside his skull, had driven deep into him an awareness that his physical body was not actually him, nor were the computer systems, nor the programs running within his fleshly skull, nor any implanted or external processors. He was all of these, yet none, for he was in a perpetual state of flux. He was not the sea but the waves riding upon it, and not even the same waves from one moment to the next. His definition of self seemed a hazy thing, but that knowledge of self was total. Smith had tempered him all too well in the fire.
“I have much to do,” he replied, gazing down at his naked body, then at the shit spattered on the floor. “I’ll be needing a VC suit.”
“They have some here,” said Brigitta, “but I don’t think the guards will care for the idea of you taking one.”
Saul’s perception snapped towards the cameras positioned in the entrance foyer. Three heavily armed figures were watching the progress of the battle on two screens. Another screen nearby showed an image of Saul himself, still manacled to the wall—the twins had looped the image feed. Checking further, with a touch as light as gossamer, Saul felt Smith’s presence extended throughout the station network, waiting ready at the readerguns that the attackers had ceased to advance on, reluctantly tasking robots to attack only to see them trashed by that spiderlike cousin of theirs.
Langstrom’s forces clearly outnumbered the invaders, but since their purpose seemed only to establish a beachhead until the other space planes arrived, Langstrom wasn’t making much headway so far. Looking elsewhere, Saul noted that Arcoplex One had become a mortuary, so he tentatively tried to penetrate stored image files. No reaction from Smith, since Saul chose to play those files at high speed within the memories of the cameras that had recorded them. In just a minute, he had assimilated an outline of what had been happening, surmising that if Alessandro Messina and the delegates he had brought with him now took over, the situation here would be no better than if Smith remained in power.
“Their arrival here won’t relax their grip on things down below,” Brigitta replied. “Not in the slightest.”
He gazed at her. “At some point they will completely lose control of Earth, and billions down there will die.”
Brigitta looked a little sick upon hearing this.
“They will later re-establish their authority, once they get the rest of the laser satellites up here running,” he continued. “But I will try to ensure that those who manage to survive have a chance to establish something new, rather than fall back under the rule of the Committee. I am therefore glad that Messina is coming here.” He reached back to the wall so as to propel himself off it, towards the door.
“We can get you out the same way we came in,” suggested Chang, as Saul caught hold of his shoulder, then pushed on towards the door.
“That will not be necessary.”
Smith was so very busy now, and by actually interfering with programming he found it surprisingly simple to create another video loop apparently recording from within the cell block. The cameras in the lobby would thus report no change at all. The readergun positioned there was one Smith had lost control of earlier, its software scrambled and the safety protocol thereby shutting it down, and therefore of no use to Saul. However, as he mapped, within his mind, every object in the lobby, every dimension, calculating probable reactions and their precise timings, he decided he did not need it anyway.
The three of them followed him out into the corridor.
“You can’t go that way,” hissed Chang.
Saul glanced back at him. “No need to be concerned.”
The way through into the lobby stood open, the security doors retracted into their recesses. The three guards were still concentrating on their screens. Their minds, despite their time on this station, were still locked into that perception instilled in them by living on the surface of a world. Saul launched himself up to the ceiling, towed himself through the top of the doorway and propelled himself up to the ceiling of the lobby, then glided across it. He was nearly above them, and descending, when the bearded guard standing behind the other two noticed movement, precisely as predicted.
The bearded guard began to turn, reaching down for his side arm. Saul gave him time to draw the weapon before he dropped behind the man and locked his legs around his body. Left hand on top of his skull, the other gripping his chin: a single twist and wrench. Hand now moving down to the gun, redirecting the weapon as his own finger slipped in over the man’s trigger finger. The first shot punched its way into the skull of the seated woman, the weapon’s recoil flinging it free of the bearded guard’s hand. Saul used his grip on the guard whose neck he had broken to propel himself towards the one remaining, the edge of his hand slamming into the seated man’s nose as he turned, his hand then withdrawn, and the heel of it sweeping up in a perfect arc to deliver a jaw-shattering impact. The second man was unconscious as Saul drew the woman’s side arm and shot him through the forehead.
It took less than four seconds, and by the time Brigitta Saberhagen dared peer nervously into the lobby, Saul had already donned an undersuit and was pulling a VC suit out of an open locker. Drops of blood and bits of brain still tumbled through the air, as she stared at him, lost for words.
“Hide somewhere safe,” he urged her. “Somewhere in the outer levels might be the best choice.” He paused in thought for a moment. “Be sure to wear survival gear, and try to find some way of immobilizing yourselves.”
“What are you intending to do?”
“Something rather more than I originally came here to do. I am going to free Earth of the Argus Network, and incidentally free it of the Committee, too. Now you go.”
Brigitta ducked back out of sight.
With his VC suit fully secured, Saul collected various weapons, gratified to find a couple of short Kalashtek assault carbines. He slung them on his back, along with a large pack of ceramic ammunition, then belted a side arm round his waist, after discovering it could fire the same bullets. He also broke open a computer supplies cupboard to find some neatly packaged optic cables, which he slipped into a pouch on his belt, before heading out towards the cell-block airlock, switching himself over to the VC suit’s air supply as he went. Exiting the half-completed tubeway, he watched the fireworks display far ahead of him, noting all the troop positions within the lattice walls. He knew precisely what he was going to do, but the time for that was not yet right. He needed Messina, along with whatever forces the man had brought up into orbit, landed on the station itself, and preferably embroiled in battle further in than the outer rim.
Then he would kill them.
Despite his initial confidence, it seemed Smith was not so sure of himself now. His forehead was beaded with sweat and he kept gobbling painkillers and stimulants like sweets. From a recent fraught dialogue between him and Langstrom, Hannah gathered that the assault force had unexpectedly fortified its position around the dock and, despite Langstrom sending troops against them, stubbornly refused to be drawn into an all-out conflict. And now it seemed that an entire fleet of the space planes was on its way up, obviously bringing in reinforcements as well as Messina and his inner circle of trustworthy delegates.
“You’re going to lose,” said Hannah.
Smith seemed not to have heard her, his concentration perhaps focused elsewhere in the station, then he jerked upright as if some subsidiary part of his mind had only just brought her words to his attention. He turned to stare at her, his expression somewhat puzzled.
“The blame for current circumstances lies with Alan Saul,” he announced. “Alessandro Messina will soon realize why I have so few readerguns at my disposal.”
Hannah tried to make sense of that statement, but just couldn’t fathom it. It was almost as if Smith expected Messina to forgive him for him proving unable to kill Messina’s troops. Always, on hearing Smith speak, she had been conscious of there being something about his convoluted verbal structures, his strange emphasis on certain words and inappropriate emotional reactions, that combined to hint at some sort of malfunction inside his head. However, now it seemed utterly plain to her: Smith had completely lost his mind. Hannah did not get a chance to take this conversation any further because, almost as if that mention of his name had summoned him, Alessandro Messina himself appeared on one of the screens. Smith turned back to it, nodding to himself, as if Messina’s appearance somehow confirmed his most recent statement.
“Good morning, citizen,” said Messina, “or whatever part of the day it is where you are.”
There was something odd about Messina’s appearance now, on this high-definition screen, that Hannah had never noticed before in his regular broadcasts to the people. At first glance, he looked like a thirty-year-old, with those clear eyes, clear skin and black curly hair, but closer inspection revealed a shiny, almost plastic, texture to his skin, teeth that were altogether too perfect, and a nose and ears that seemed strangely out of proportion to the rest of his face. That skin tone she assumed must be the result of some early anti-ageing treatment he had undergone. The teeth were clearly ceramic implants, and the ears and nose were so big because those earlier treatments did not halt the continued growth of nose and ear gristle which was found in the very old. Messina, after all, had been alive for nearly a hundred and ten years.
“By current Argus time, it is just after midday,” Smith volunteered.
“Ah…well, the sun was just rising as we departed Earth, so for me it’s still mid-morning. How are you Smith, no ill effects from those cerebral implants, I trust?”
“I am perfectly functional, Chairman Messina,” Smith replied. “All the same, despite the superior mental functions I now enjoy, I am puzzled as to why your troops arriving here felt it necessary to murder at least fifty Committee delegates before seizing part of this station. I therefore wonder if the rest of the Committee is aware of this action.”
“Most of the remainder of the Committee now accompanies me, aboard these planes. I want to keep them close so as to ensure their…safety. Oh, perhaps you have not yet heard about the latest tragic event? During the recent insurrection, some terrorists managed to release nerve gas inside a hall in which about one hundred and seventy delegates were assembled for an off-the-record meeting.”
Smith stared at the screen for a long moment, before repeating numbly, “One hundred and seventy.”
“Yes,” Messina continued with relish, “and for the duration of this emergency the remaining delegates have voted me a position worthy of my ancestry. They have made me dictator for life.”
“Yet that still does not explain why your troops have embarked upon such a hostile penetration of this station,” Smith insisted.
“The Argus Station, as far as we are aware, is under the control of someone evidently hostile to the Committee. How else to explain the laser attack upon Minsk, the subsequent destruction of two space planes, and then the systematic disabling of most of the working portion of the Argus satellite network?”
“One Alan Saul, a person of whom you have knowledge, temporarily took control of a section of this station. He now languishes in a cell, under inducement,” said Smith, “so now I take it I can expect the hostilities up here to cease?”
“It will be necessary for me to assess the situation personally,” replied Messina, putting on a sad expression. Then a thought seemed to perk him up. “However, I do look forward to renewing your acquaintance, Smith. I look forward to that very much.”
Messina’s image blinked out, to be replaced by Langstrom’s.
“What is the current number of planes approaching?” Smith asked him.
“Twenty-eight,” Langstrom replied.
“And in your estimation, how many troops?”
“Messina knows exactly how many are based here, and therefore the resistance he may expect to face,” said Langstrom. “He’ll be bringing up no less than two hundred troops, but with that number of planes, he could be bringing as many as a thousand.”
“Then it is my requirement that you mount your defence on that basis.”
“We’ve got no defence that’ll work.”
“When you have your plans ready, submit them to me at once.”
“Sir, we don’t stand a chance.”
“You should also prepare a hard copy to keep on file, whilst transmitting a data copy down to Central in Brussels. It is best not to be incautious in such matters.”
Langstrom gazed at him in silence for a long moment, before he said, “Whatever,” and shut off the connection.
Hannah felt no pity whatsoever for Smith. He had tried to seize power for himself and was about to be stomped on by Messina; however, she could see utterly no hope for herself or Saul, either. If neither of them got killed during the impending battle, she herself would end her days in perpetual slavery, whilst Saul would finish up in one of the station’s digesters. She bowed her head, wanting to weep in despair but determined not to.
“There will be a degree of damage done to the station,” remarked Smith abruptly, “but nothing major. Again, the problem will be to find somewhere suitable to store the resultant human detritus. It is a great shame that inducers and tasers will not be effective over the ranges involved, else I would instruct Langstrom to use them and thus there would be less of a mess.”
About twenty metres out from Saul, a three-man crew was manoeuvring a heavy machine gun into place, its barrel protruding from a curved metal shield. He paused for a moment to study them, and, even though one of them shot him a glance, they then ignored his presence and continued busily securing the gun to an I-beam. They were preparing for the imminent arrival of Messina’s forces, and, naturally, any soldiers seeing his VC suit would assume he was one of them.
Saul moved on, but abandoned the walkway before it became enclosed again at the point where it entered Langstrom’s barracks. One shove of his hand sent him dropping steadily down towards the asteroid’s surface, and on the way he tried to pick up more information on the present situation; tried to infiltrate further the station network without alerting Smith. Again it seemed so very easy.
Perhaps Smith did not notice him because he was currently focused on the invading troops entrenched above, or upon working out what Messina intended. But Saul doubted that, because this new ease of penetration seemed more likely to be due to the way he was now using his mind. Having utterly subjugated his own organic component, he had assumed a semblance to the station’s computers, till in fact he was just software running within them, and less of a presence, even to himself. Whereas before he had just about been able to match Smith’s abilities, his adversary only withdrawing deliberately so as to lure Saul deeper into a trap, it now felt as if he had taken a decisive step beyond the man. However, this advantage did not place ultimate power neatly in his hands. Even if he could now manage to seize control of the station network, that would not be enough to give him victory over Smith and his troops, or over Messina and his men. Too many readerguns weren’t operating, and against hundreds of troops the robots available here could not win. And, as ever, in this present disconnected state, he did not know how long he would actually care about winning, or even living.
Certainly, Messina was approaching the station with enough troops to ensure capturing it, therefore, despite the hatred he felt in his organic mind towards Smith, Messina’s troops were the greater danger to him. And this he must now prepare for.
The surface of the asteroid came up at him fast, and he hit it bending his legs just sufficiently to absorb the shock, so that he didn’t bounce off and away again. Exactly locating his current position, he headed off in bounding strides for the base structure of Arcoplex One. As he circumvented this, he continued to thrust his mind further inside the station network.
Smith had managed to crack the code Saul had used to secure his small army of robots, but only for a short while before it underwent one of its hidden transforms, and so had not managed to take all of them away from him. Saul found the remaining robots scattered about the lattice walls lying between him and the rim, but most were concentrated around Tech Central, which now loomed up to his left, cast into silhouette by the sun. From their slumber he woke up five construction robots, which he summoned to him along with those smaller members of the robot ecology that Smith had ignored, perhaps because they were of little use against the power of Messina’s troops. Remiss of him, for Saul now linked into them, found twenty belonging to a specific subspecies of maintenance robot, and gave them instructions little different from the kind they would normally receive. He then dispatched them throughout the station to repair disabled readerguns and make them accessible only to him. However, he knew that those readerguns, and the construction robots now heading towards them, would not be enough to bring him victory.
Ahead of him lay a mining complex, out of which an ore transit tube rose, like a massive redwood, towards the station’s rim and the smelting-plant dock located there. A huge robot equipped with twin digging wheels sat there frozen, having been shut down in the process of hacking chunks of ore from the ground and transferring them into the fat carrier comprising much of its body. A giant drilling rig on gecko-treaded tracks stood at rest only thirty metres beyond it, its extended robotic arms clamped around an anchor pillar that speared up into the station’s inner structure above his head. It held a new section of pillar destined to fill the gap where a large mass of ore had been removed below. Of course, as they mined out the asteroid, they built the station inwards as well as outwards. All around Saul could see where massive I-beams had been extended downwards and re-anchored, even cases where a few, which had once abutted the asteroid surface some metres apart, now intersected each other and had been joined into one. After kilotonnes of ore had been mined from it to turn into bubblemetals, the asteroid was now substantially smaller than when first brought here from the asteroid belt.
Circumventing the complex put both it and Arcoplex One behind him, and now only the Arboretum cylinder lay ahead, bright in the sunlight peeking round Tech Central over to his left. As he rounded the base structure of the Arboretum, his suit grew uncomfortably warm in open sunlight. Here, no more cylinders lay ahead, just lattice walls rising above him to the station rim. However, these diamond-pattern partitions now terminated up against a solid wall rising sheer from the asteroid surface ahead, marking the near edge of the single break in the rim wheel. A series of ribs braced this great wall, on which monitoring stations and work habitats clung like shellfish to a sea cliff. This barrier hadn’t been here when he had researched the vicinity down on Earth, but it appeared on the station schematic inside his skull. He realized that it had been built to protect the girders of the inner station from the heat generated by the Traveller engine that lay beyond.
Saul approached and entered a tunnel cut through five metres of foam insulation at the base of the wall, finally coming against a thick bulkhead door with a single armour-glass window incorporated. He brushed aside asteroidal dust and peered through, studying the massive Mars Traveller VI engine standing beyond it, looking like a steel church dedicated to some ultimate god of fire.
A god he now intended to awaken.