Robots steadily displaced human beings working in industries across the world, until the only ones left were robotics engineers and programmers. But Committee delegates did not like to see so much power residing in so few hands, unless of course they happened to be their own. As a result the same engineers and programmers became some of the most heavily scrutinized and politically supervised people on Earth. A similar displacement of human labour was also taking place within the Inspectorate military, seeing that the likes of a single spidergun could deliver the firepower of a whole platoon. However, the danger there was not from having some small number of individuals in a position to bring industry to a halt—a problem the Inspectorate military could easily deal with—but the risk of them being able to bring about the swift obliteration of their masters. This was a possibility the Committee delegates could not allow, so they carefully balanced the number of war robots against the number of human soldiers, and then ensured that the engineers were kept separate from the programmers, and that both were kept separate from the machines they created. That separation often involved confinement in a secure cell, so long as they were still considered useful.
Someone grabbed hold of her chair and began turning it slowly. Hannah looked about her in confusion, then realized that the whole station must be revolving as, through the windows, she saw Earth itself begin sliding round.
Smith staggered briefly before dragging himself back to the console.
“Good, that’s good,” he said, gazing at the chaos now revealed on one screen, amidst conflicting forces. “Very good, Saul.”
What the hell was Saul up to?
Smith summoned up another image that showed a space plane nearly torn in half, and slowly falling away from the dock it had just crashed into. Hannah could see a couple of people out there in vacuum clad in smart business suits, vapour misting from their mouths.
“Did you do that…sir?” Langstrom enquired, his face suddenly appearing in a new window opening at the bottom of the screen.
“No,” replied Smith, “that was Alan Saul who, due to inadequate cell-block security, has escaped. However, he has managed nevertheless to destroy a space plane filled with treacherous delegates, and I see that he has also disrupted the main attack by Messina’s troops.”
“Yeah, great, but he’s managed to ‘disrupt’ our defences at the same time.”
Smith did not seem to be listening. By now he had summoned up another image on a different screen, this one showing space planes still hovering out in vacuum. “I think I know his—”
A great flash of light, and the screen went blank for a moment, yet the light still blazed in through the windows behind Hannah, feeling hot against the back of her neck. The screen image reappeared as autocontrast tried to make the image clear. Some of the space planes were now missing, while others seemed to be tumbling away beyond the perimeter of the Traveller engine’s fusion blast, though it was difficult to tell because they were rapidly disintegrating. Another of them tried to escape, till a detonation starting in its engine travelled up inside the craft to peel it open like a banana. Even as Hannah realized what was happening, the thrust of the massive engine made itself felt.
Half a gravity of thrust cut horizontally through Tech Central, and her chair shot backwards to crash into a console. Glancing aside, she saw the nearest technician actually pinned against the window above his console. Others were thrown from their seats, chairs and people all falling in the same direction, though Smith managed to stay put, clinging to his console like a drowning man grabbing a piece of floating timber. All of Tech Central seemed to tilt right over onto its edge, so that what had once been the floor now rose vertically like a wall.
With a surge of horror, Hannah realized what Saul was doing. Having recognized the hopelessness of their position, he must now be following through on Malden’s plan. The space station would burn on its way down, and Tech Central would be scoured off the asteroid by re-entry fire. She gazed back up towards the main screens, just as Smith lost his grip and tumbled back across the control room, crashing down somewhere over to her right. The first screen just showed the glare of fusion flame, the image feed breaking up into squares as the camera sourcing it began to fail. The middle screen had blanked completely, whilst the remaining screen still focused on Messina’s invading forces.
In the time it took Hannah to realize that the half-gravity currently jamming her up against one side of Tech Central would be affecting all the troops outside too, the first of them went flying past outside. She turned her head to track his progress, as he began leaving a vapour trail, before disappearing in light too bright to gaze at directly. He must have been one of Langstrom’s men, for they were closest.
Returning her attention to the screens, she watched the fate of Messina’s forces. Many of them kept slamming into beams between the lattice walls, others bounced out into space, away from the station. There must have been screaming, and if Hannah had been tuned in to a radio channel she might have heard it. Then came the rumbling of multiple impacts all around.
“Oh my God!” someone cried, as a soldier from outside slammed into a forward window, his split glove issuing vapour as he slid across it, smearing blood, then dropped out of sight.
It was raining soldiers. Men and women who had been preparing for an attack in practically zero gravity now found that what had once been a long gap they needed to propel themselves across had turned instead into a drop of two kilometres. Trying to grab hold of vacuum, yet more figures hurtled past Tech Central, many of them jetting air from torn VC suits. Equipment rained past, too: heavy guns, circular shields, packs of ammunition. It lasted for just a minute, but by the time it ended, most of the attackers and many of the defenders had simply vanished, burning up inside that bright light that lay behind.
“You have achieved your aims,” said Smith, out loud. He stood upright, parallel with what was once the floor, his feet on a window and his gaze now fixed on the same screens Hannah had been watching.
He continued, “It would perhaps be wise for you now to shut down the Traveller engine which, it appears, I cannot gain access to.”
“I have not entirely achieved my aims,” Saul replied through the intercom.
“At its present vector,” said Smith, “Argus Station might eventually crash into the Moon, but if you shut down the engine now, we should be able to reinsert ourselves into orbital position just by using the steering thrusters.”
“In actual fact I can no more shut the engine down than can you. It will follow its firing program,” said Saul. “You’re also wrong on two other points: first the station will not crash into the Moon, but in twenty-four hours it will slingshot round it, putting it on an optimum course for Mars; and, second, I have no intention of letting you or Chairman Messina get anywhere near Earth ever again.”
Hannah felt some relief that Saul wasn’t intent on crashing the station into Earth, but otherwise, had their situation improved? Though many invading troops had been incinerated out there, some would have survived, and would still be armed—and against them, there was only him.
Saul unplugged the optic from his temple. The interference caused by the EM output of the fusion engine reached even as far as the space dock, but he overcame it easily by running programs to clean up the data and by double-layering the code he sent. After ensuring that their programming was capable of handling the half-gravity, he summoned three of the spiderguns, whilst dispatching the other two down towards Tech Central. Viewing through their sensors, he observed survivors clinging to the intersecting beams within the station ring, but now there were only a few of them. Messina’s force had for the most part been approaching the station core sheltering behind those discs, so had necessarily distanced themselves from the structural beams, and that had killed them. A larger proportion of Langstrom’s force had survived, having built armoured hides about junctures of beams. Saul estimated he had killed about three hundred and fifty of Messina’s force in all, which left about fifty; and about seventy of Langstrom’s, leaving only thirty to forty. That was a massive slaughter, but he felt as much concern for them as they would have felt for him. He even considered instructing the robots to kill the rest of them, but relented.
First he successfully penetrated Langstrom’s military com, which involved working through some tangled coding, then—already in the com network Messina’s troops were using—he broadcast a message to both sides.
“Those of you that can hear me,” he said, “should be aware that I am now in control of the spiderguns. You will first abandon all your weapons, then, as acceleration cuts, as it will do in three minutes, Messina’s remaining troops must withdraw towards the station ring, whilst Smith’s force will head back to their barracks. Failure to obey these instructions means I will be forced to use the spiderguns. That is all for now.”
He immediately picked up on numerous minor communications: soldiers trying to find their commanders, others pleading for medics, many others complaining that they were in no state to go anywhere. Then arrived com traffic from Messina’s space plane, as some general instructed the troops to “maintain their positions” and “retain their weapons.” At which point Saul decided it was time to butt in.
“So you are actually instructing all your men to commit suicide,” he said, making sure that his words—and any replies—would be heard by all the troops outside.
“Who is this?” demanded the general.
“I think I have been here before,” snapped Saul, “and I’ve no patience with it any more. Here is the position: Argus Station is presently set on a course away from Earth, and while it is under acceleration, all your space planes will remain locked down. I have destroyed the majority of your force and I now control your spiderguns. If your troops do not withdraw immediately as instructed, I will send the robots to kill them all. After that, I’m coming for you personally. I can detect that some of the nerve gas is still available, and a little bit of that released inside your plane should conclude this matter.”
“This is Alessandro Messina speaking.” The Chairman’s voice was instantly recognizable from so many broadcasts back on Earth. “And you, I take it, are Alan Saul?”
“I certainly am,” said Saul, rather distractedly.
The two robots Saul had sent off to Tech Central still had half a kilometre to go. When some of Langstrom’s men opened fire on them, their reply was brief and wholly destructive: five human beings converted into flying chunks of flesh interspersed with shreds of VC suits, all raining down on the asteroid beneath. This fusillade had also turned their gun to unrecognizable scrap, but now Smith was moving hundreds of station robots in between the pair of spiderguns and their destination.
“We have much to discuss,” continued Messina. “I can understand your anger towards Director Smith, since it seems he has subjected you to the most—”
“Yes, do let’s have a discussion,” Saul interrupted him. “Relay my order to your troops, or I come over and kill you. Meanwhile you remain aboard your plane. End of discussion.”
Saul cut the link and left them to it.
He now reviewed the progress of the construction robots he’d previously sent into Dock Two. They’d already secured Messina’s plane and three others, and were proceeding towards the last one on that docking pillar. He checked on timings and saw everything running to plan: less than two minutes left till shutdown, and by then the construction robots would have finished their job. His three spiderguns were in position within the same dock, so he sent them instructions to kill anyone who tried to step out of the space planes. All neatly tied off there, time now to deal with Smith.
There was only one life that Saul felt ready to save, and unfortunately it now seemed Smith had realized that. Once again intercepting the image feed from Tech Central, Saul discovered that Smith had untied Hannah from the chair and forced her, at gunpoint, out into the corridor behind. They were now both standing on what might once have been considered the wall, as Smith held out to her a lightweight survival suit—which she accepted with reluctance and began to put on.
So, once the acceleration cut and movement about the station again became easier, Smith obviously intended to take her somewhere outside Tech Central. Saul paused to think, after ordering the two spiderguns to hold still where they were. If he allowed them to continue towards Smith’s robots, the battle around Tech Central would be in progress just as Hannah left it, which risked her getting hit by a stray round. The robots controlled by Smith also came to a stop once they had positioned themselves. Even if Saul tried to seize control of them, it would take up time he did not now have.
There had to be a neater, and more satisfying solution—and his adversary gave it to him:
“Retain your weapons and retreat to the Political Office once acceleration cuts,” was Smith’s brief instruction to his men. Saul could have made threats, but this scenario was perfect: lots of troops heading for what he assumed would be Smith’s destination.
Malden’s original target had been the EM shield, and once that was down he had tried penetrating the station network. But Smith had been waiting for him within the same network, and had promptly killed him. Smith had also used the shield to cut out Saul, but then shut it down once it became a tactical disadvantage. At no stage after that point had he tried to shut Saul out of the network in the same way, instead leading Saul into a trap. Saul now understood Smith’s reluctance to start up the shield: when linked into the station network he was powerful, he could see so much, control so much, but cut off by the shield from all that, he reverted to just a normal human being. Saul now probed the network till he found the virtual controls for operating the shield, and its “on” button.
The minutes ticked by as Saul watched Smith laboriously herding Hannah as far as the airlock accessing the tubeway leading out of the lower levels of Tech Central. Then the fusion drive cut out, the harsh brightness of it fading, till the station dropped back into shadow and practically zero gravity. Saul now breathed easier, his seat straps loosening. He unclipped them and pushed himself away, donning his suit helmet as he headed for the airlock, while instructing the robot posted there to open it ahead of him. In a moment he was through, the schematic of the station fully clear in his mind. Smith was definitely heading for the Political Office, which he had a greater chance of fortifying, for it was still staffed and had heavy machine guns still in place. Time now to engage the EM shield.
Nothing stood in the way of him accessing those virtual controls. Smith had not even thought to defend them, perhaps not comprehending why anyone with the capability of reaching them would want to turn the shield on, and thus sacrifice access to the station network. As he turned the device on, an explosion of static began fragmenting neat structures in his mind. He at once felt blind and powerless—almost like a normal human again. But Smith would be feeling the same, and almost certainly would head straight for the Political Office control room, for access to the shield’s manual controls there.
Saul propelled himself across the dock, shouldering into the side of the monorail train to halt himself, then propelling himself down through the rim to the airlock through which Messina’s troops had delivered their package to Arcoplex One. Though Smith had directly controlled the readerguns in here, with the EM shield operating he could no longer access them. There was some risk that they might fire on him automatically, though Saul doubted Smith had taken the time to program them. Manually opening the outer airlock door, he glanced down at the remains of the backpack, with its ruptured chrome cylinders still protruding. He closed the door behind him and after the airlock had pressurized, opened the one ahead, stepping into a massive cylindrical mausoleum. Buildings were lensed around him; a chunk of city rolled into a tube at ground level. The corpse of a woman clad in a long silky dress revolved through the smoky air directly ahead. To his right, fire belched from various windows, and fragments of metal went shoaling about like small fish. There were surprisingly few other corpses in sight.
Saul launched himself towards the central spindle, which seemed the quickest way to the other end. Using the handholds, he propelled himself feet-first towards the base of the cylinder, his speed gauged precisely such that he wouldn’t break any bones as he reached it. As his destination came in sight, he realized why so few corpses had been visible where he had entered the cylinder, for the same acceleration that killed Messina’s troops had propelled all their victims in the same direction. The base cap of the arcoplex now resembled a medieval depiction of some level of hell. A mass of corpses lay tangled together, limbs jutting out at odd angles and sodden with blood. In zero gravity, Saul had to literally dig his way through them to reach the further airlock. As he exited into vacuum, their blood rapidly freeze-dried on his VC suit, flaking away like black leaves.
Had he been a normal person Smith might have been terrified, but as far as Hannah could see, he seemed to be showing only an intellectual curiosity in the sequence of events. It seemed he had stepped off the far side of weird some time ago.
“That was an excellent tactic, well thought out and precisely applied,” he had remarked, his voice crackling through the button speakers set into the fabric of Hannah’s survival suit. “I might have used it myself, but the Traveller engine has always resided outside of my calculation structure.”
Meaning he hadn’t thought of it.
Once the half-gravity of acceleration had cut out, Hannah had tried throwing herself away from him, but his hand had closed instantly on her shoulder as he jammed the automatic into her side. Now he kept her close, digging the gun in deeper every time she tried to slow down. So what, she wondered, was the situation now?
Saul had killed most of both the attacking and defending forces. It seemed he also had control of the spiderguns out there but, judging by the robot host gathered between her and these weapons, he did not have full control of the station. It looked like a stand-off to her, and one that none of them could survive. If Smith and Saul continued fighting for control here, much of the equipment would get wrecked, and as they drew further and further away from Earth, they would increasingly need that equipment to survive. But did Saul even care about that? He’d successfully cut the head off Earth’s government, taken away one of its biggest technological toys; he’d struck a blow, had his vengeance, and now Messina and his corrupt crew would have no chance of taking up the reins of power again. Saul had then chosen to fling the Argus Station out into space, rather than down towards Earth, so perhaps he was not entirely suicidal, but what would he do now?
Corpses were draped over nearby beams, others had broken free and were floating about between the lattice walls, as now the Political Office loomed ahead. Where are you Saul? What are you doing now? Part of the answer reached her almost at once, as Smith lurched abruptly to a halt, his gun hand rising up alongside his head. Hannah tried to pull away again, but his other hand still tightly gripped her shoulder. She could see him saying something but, over com, nothing but static. Roughly, he shoved her forward again, their pace now even faster. Nearby, the robots hovered inert, whilst moving through the station structure ahead she could see soldiers entering the Political Office.
After another half a kilometre, she and Smith entered an enclosed tubeway, passed a machine gun tipped over on its side, and finally came to a double-door airlock. When these doors did not open on their approach, she realized what that burst of static meant. The EM shield was turned back on, preventing Smith from delivering mental instructions, but it also meant Saul was out of that realm too. Both were now as blind and powerless as anyone else in this place.
Smith shoved her up to the doors, tapped a code into the console immediately beside them, then pushed her inside as soon as the doors opened. He gripped her shoulder as the airlock cycled, then after dragging her through finally released his hold on her. Stepping back, he gestured at her suit, then flicked his hand to one side, obviously wanting her to remove it. She considered pretending to misunderstand him, but this garment did not offer her the same protection as a VC suit, so there seemed little point. She laboriously stripped her way out of it, as other people began to appear—most of them looking like the kind of desk jockeys that ran the Committee’s bureaucracy, though they included a few of Langstrom’s soldiers, whose battered appearance suggested they had just come in from outside.
“Sir?” the soldier glanced dubiously at the anxious-looking staff standing all around them.
Smith nodded. “Organize teams to guard all the entrances. See that no one gets in unless you can confirm their identity. Am I understood?”
Smith waved the man aside, then caught hold of Hannah’s shoulder and hauled her along after him.
“Saul’s turned the EM shield on,” she remarked. “That means you’re blind.”
“I can turn it off directly from my control room,” he replied.
“If you two keep fighting, there won’t be anything left here,” she said.
“Once I have dealt with Saul, though unfortunately at a distance, I should be able to gain mental access to the steering thrusters and the Traveller engine.” He glanced at her, and continued, “He is aiming to set on course towards Mars. I, however, will bring us back. I can then dispose of Messina—probably dump him into one of the station’s digesters. You see,” he gave a strange twisted smile, “Saul has made my victory complete.”
“But you’ll have to deal with Saul first.”
He turned suddenly and slammed her back against the wall, his face thrust forward till it was almost touching hers. “Even with the shield turned off, he controls only a few robots and some unimportant systems inside this station.” He stepped back, gesturing to his chest with the weapon. “I will take them all away from him, and then hunt him down with his own machines. He simply does not possess the moral strength to defeat me.”
He pulled her from the wall and pushed her ahead. They entered a cageway rising to another floor, made their way along another corridor, then through double sliding doors into a large control centre. It looked more like a slaughterhouse.
Two corpses lay on the floor, a third drifted through the air whilst another lay draped over a console. Bullet holes riddled the equipment and a stratum of smoke hovered in the air just above head height. The place stank of burnt plastic and something was sizzling behind one of the screens.
“What?” exclaimed Smith, looking round, his grip slackening momentarily.
Seizing her chance, Hannah threw herself sideways, turning to hit the wall hard with her back, the breath knocked out of her. She scrabbled to get away from Smith, even as he swung towards her. Across the room, Saul rose from behind a console, a carbine up and braced against his shoulder. Two shots slammed into Smith’s chest, hurling him back into the closed doors. He bounced away, brought his feet back down onto the floor, struggling to raise his weapon. Saul rounded the console and headed over, caught Smith’s hand and shook the weapon from it, sending it tumbling away through the air.
“The shield will shut down in a moment,” explained Saul. “I estimate it will then take me only half an hour to crack all your codes. Then this station…” Saul paused contemplatively. “No, this spaceship, will be mine.”
Smith started to say something, but only blood issued from his mouth. Hannah pushed herself upright, keeping well back. She now just felt exhausted.
“There’s nothing more I need to say to you, really,” Saul finished.
He raised his carbine to Smith’s forehead and pulled the trigger. Smith was slammed back again, the rear of his skull exploding outwards, hints of metal glinting inside. He hit one of the double doors again and bounced away, slowly tilting forward like some kind of ancient monolith. Hannah just stared at the blood beading the air, at a piece of scalp gyrating away from him, then, abruptly and violently, she threw up.
“This feels somehow disappointing,” remarked Saul, still staring at Smith.
“The EM shield?” Hannah finally managed.
“With the EM field up, he could not get into my head and I could not get into his,” said Saul. “But most important he was blind, and that’s what enabled me to sneak in here.”
Both dried and fresh blood covered his VC suit, she noticed, the fresh blood looking the same colour as his eyes. A fuzz of white hair now covered his scalp, concealing most of the scars, but to Hannah as he turned to face her, he just didn’t look human.
“How did you get in here, then?” she managed.
“I just walked in along with some of Langstrom’s men,” Saul shrugged. “I knew Smith would come here directly to shut down the EM shield.”
He raised his head slightly as if listening to something. “That’s the shield down again. Now I’m running code crackers on everything he controlled.” A humourless smile. “Since I’m no longer fighting him or need to perpetually look to my defences, I can use station computing…there, I have the readerguns. The robots next.”
He looked momentarily pensive. “Presently I have this station set on a spiral course outwards from Earth. At the end of that course, it will swing itself around the Moon. By then, all necessary decisions will have been made.”
“Yes, Hannah, decisions.”
Saul revelled in the new feeling of freedom and safety as he cracked the last of Smith’s codes, whereupon the last of the functioning readerguns and station robots came under his control. Human feeling like this he now allowed himself to indulge in, since it seemed to give him a reason to continue existing—after all, what was the use of victory if it could not be enjoyed? However, despite this sudden extension of his power, and with areas he had previously been almost blind to now opening up to him, he remained merely a fragile human being in a space station filled with those who, given the chance, would kill him.
“So that’s it. He’s gone.” Hannah turned to gaze back at Smith, rather than query Saul’s comment about “decisions.”
Saul reached out and grabbed the front of Smith’s VC suit, kicked the dead man’s feet away from him to detach his soles from the floor, and lifted him higher.
“He won’t get much deader than this,” he observed, then shoved Smith away to send him drifting across the room.
What now? Hannah had asked. When Saul had fired up the Mars Traveller engine, his decision to fling the Argus Station away from Earth had been founded on the notion that his human self would want to survive. Now, by allowing human emotions to emerge, his reason for going to Mars was obvious: his sister was there. But wouldn’t the moral choice now be to first neutralize Messina and the remaining delegates, then return to Earth to do whatever possible to mitigate the impending horror there? Quite simply, he did not know the answer, for he could do little to avert the catastrophe, and he wondered if he really wanted to set himself up as some kind of arbiter over it. The human race had walked blindly into this disaster, so it was theirs to deal with, wasn’t it?
“I can see more of the station now,” he informed Hannah, as the doors swept open ahead of him. “It possesses enough fusion plants and enough raw materials and equipment to continue functioning for a century or more without any need of the sun.”
“What about food?” asked Hannah, following him out into the corridor beyond.
“The Arboretum and zero-gravity hydroponics can provide enough food for all those presently on board, and because they sent nearly the entire library from Gene Bank up here, along with tonnes of frozen samples, there’s enough biodiversity available to iron out any instabilities occurring in the ecology.” He shot her a glance. “Arcoplex Two is full of state-of-the-art technology, including the necessary biotech to turn any of those samples into something living. We could resurrect whole species here that Earth hasn’t seen for centuries, or even millennia.”
“But we’re not going back to Earth.”
Saul paused as he mentally riffled through the inventory of the equipment, laboratories and technologies contained in Arcoplex Two. There he discerned a laboratory and surgery even more advanced than the one Hannah had been using down on Earth, along with hundreds of copies of the hardware that had ended up inside both Malden’s and Smith’s skulls. No doubt this had all been laid on for Messina and his core delegates, so they could elevate themselves to a state of post-humanity. But, as Saul well knew, such equipment could provide a two-way street; what could expand the mind could also be used to scrub it, to totally erase it. He felt that thought for future reference; a viable alternative to death. And, when the time seemed right, he would let Hannah know that this alternative existed.
“If we went back to Earth, what could I do?” he asked.
“You could…save people.”
“Yes, I could, but how exactly would I do that?” He gazed at her steadily. “Whilst in orbit, the tools I would have at my disposal to interact with Earth would consist of the satellite laser network and my ability to penetrate the computer systems down there. I cannot make more food available. I cannot build more power stations or more efficiently channel water supplies. In the end all I could do to ensure that some lived would be to choose which others should die.”
“But isn’t that what you want to do?”
He felt a wholly human flash of anger at that. “The only power I ever wanted was that of deciding my own destiny, which was something I could never hope for while the Committee still controlled Earth. I know that total individual freedom is about as real as the tooth fairy, but I still wanted more than I was being allowed. The power I’ve never sought is that of deciding the destinies of billions of others. I absolutely don’t want such utter power over life and death.”
But even as he said them, those last words rang hollow in his mouth, and he could see by Hannah’s expression that she could hear the echoes. In pursuing vengeance while dressing it up as “power over his own destiny,” he had already changed the entire course of history. The lives of a population of just over two thousand people now aboard this station were currently in his hands and, by removing both the Committee and the big stick that was the Argus satellite network from Earth, he had changed the fate of the billions remaining down on the planet.
“The Committee came to power largely through the complacency of Earth’s population,” he said. “Should I really be interested in them, Hannah? Should I be interested in the manswarm?”
He had influenced events on a massive scale, and in his hands lay the power to influence them further. He had obtained freedom of choice but, seemingly, no freedom from responsibility. Power was not something that would simply go away, and the decisions he now made, though unlikely to prevent the death of billions, could still change a very great deal.
“What would you do?” he asked.
“Whatever I could,” she replied.
So easy for her to say that. He decided then that there was one decision he would delegate to her, to see how, given power, she handled it. Then he would finally decide on his own course of action. There was time, more than enough time, even though the station was steadily drawing away from Earth. In the end, Earth would still lie within his grasp even from Mars, for even from there he could still penetrate Govnet and thereby so much else. But what about here in the station, inside his own domain?
An idea hard to rid his mind of was that if he set the readerguns to killing, over half of those aboard the station would be dead within the next ten minutes. Turning the rest of the robots, including the five spiderguns, on the survivors would result in a space station full of corpses within six hours. He could then use the robots to clear up the mess and, needing to look to his own survival only, he could gradually reprogram the robots to replace any essential personnel. A plant for producing more robots existed in Arcoplex Two, so making replacements or increasing the robot population would not be a problem either. Then he could be alone and utterly free of contemptible humanity. Only Hannah’s presence, and some remaining dregs of compassion, enabled him to resist this temptation.
“Stay behind me,” he said, and perhaps meant more than just those words.
Peering through the cam network, he saw Langstrom limping down a corridor, with Sergeant Mustafa, the Nordic woman Peach and three other soldiers accompanying him. Obviously they had survived the acceleration. Just a thought and the readergun positioned in the ceiling of the intersection ahead would finish them off. Instead Saul spoke, his voice transmitted through the Political Office public address system, and then, because it seemed easier, throughout the station.
“Okay, everybody, listen very closely. Security Director Smith is dead and I, Alan Saul, am now in complete control of Argus Station, which is, as you may have noticed, no longer orbiting Earth. I now repeat my instructions to all the troops still aboard this station. Those who were engaged in attacking will withdraw to the outer ring; those defending will return to station barracks. Furthermore, all technical control staff will return to Tech Central to organize and assign essential maintenance and repair tasks. And, for the present, all construction work will remain on hold.”
He watched Langstrom and the others come to a halt, and then gaze up at the readergun just ahead of them. Saul proceeded to limit the transmission of his voice to the Political Office only. “And you, Langstrom, and those with you, will place your weapons on the floor.” Just to drive this point home, Saul made the readergun swing towards them and begin rotating its three barrels.
Langstrom was the first to react. He drew his side arm, held it up in plain view, then ducked to place it on the floor in front of him. In that same moment it occurred to Saul that there would be an excess of weaponry scattered all about the station, which perhaps would not be healthy for him and Hannah. He would have to do something about that, soon.
Langstrom’s companions followed suit, till shortly a stack of side arms, machine pistols and assault rifles lay on the floor. Saul began to walk again, beckoning Hannah after him. They rounded the corner just as Langstrom and crew were turning to head off again. They swung back and just eyed Saul carefully. As he advanced, he studied them too, through his own eyes and through the sensors of the readerguns behind him and also behind them, their electronic triggers at the ready, and a program already loaded that would have them responding to the detection of any overlooked firearm.
Saul came to a halt ten paces away from them.
“Smith’s back there?” Langstrom enquired, jerking his chin towards the dead man’s one-time control centre.
“What do you intend doing with us now?”
Saul gazed at him steadily. “You live or die at my whim. At present it is my whim that you live.”
“No change, then,” the commander replied. “We lived or died at Smith’s whim.”
“And yet you obeyed him and deliberately led me into a trap. Also you killed Braddock.”
“I’d seen what happened to those who ever disobeyed him.”
“There then is the difference between myself and Smith.”
“Yes—I wouldn’t torture you for disobedience, I’d just kill you. Now,” Saul paused in apparent thought, “most of your companions here can return to barracks, but for you,” Saul pointed at Peach, “and you,” he indicated Langstrom, “I have another task.”
When Langstrom just stood motionless, Saul added, “Now.”
Langstrom waved a hand and all but Peach retreated, glancing behind them as they went. Despite Saul’s claim otherwise, they probably thought he meant to kill Langstrom—and the commander himself probably thought so too. Saul felt he could perfectly justify that to himself, as vengeance for Braddock, but, no, he actually had something else in mind.
“So what’s this task?” Langstrom asked.
“I want you to go and collect Smith’s body. Then I want you to take it to the nearest digester, which is at the bottom level of the Political Office. You’ll have to strip him of his clothing before he goes in, as a VC suit won’t digest.” Now he turned to Peach, and pointed to the combat recorder extending alongside her temple from her fone. “You will film your commander here while he carries out my orders. I want clear images of Smith’s face, and unbroken footage of him being taken to the digester and fed into it. Then, after you have both returned to barracks, I want that same image file made available to every console aboard this station. Is that clear?”
Langstrom nodded numbly, as Peach reached up and adjusted her combat recorder. Saul glanced at Hannah, who had been watching expressionlessly, then he nodded towards the corridor ahead. They set off, stepping round the pile of guns, then past Peach and Langstrom as the two moved aside. Saul did not bother to watch them further. If they tried to attack him, they would be dead in an instant, and he didn’t want to show he was nervous that they might try. Soon they were out of sight, and by now Saul could see the exit airlock from the Political Office up ahead.
“Why?” Hannah asked.
“They need to be certain Caesar is dead,” Saul replied, “before they can feel safe in obeying his replacement.”
“I’m betting you have assembled enough image data of your own already.”
“True enough, but the sooner I start issuing orders accompanied by implicit threats, the sooner it will be that I can issue orders without any need for threats at all.”
Hannah nodded. “Yes, you need to firmly establish your rule here, which must extend beyond just the power to kill at whim.”
“Because if I don’t do so quickly,” Saul continued, “there’s going to be a lot more killing.” Then after a pause he added, “And then I might just get bored with the whole idea of keeping anyone alive.”
As they approached the airlock—presently closing behind a large troop of soldiers—he studied her reaction.
She shrugged. “I can see how it would become a trial to you.”
As he suspected, his last words had come to her as no surprise at all. She fully expected him to stop playing games, and resort instead to the much easier option of mass slaughter. He had already decided not to follow that easier route and, of course, the avoid-killing-people test was about to get much harder now that he intended paying a visit to Chairman Alessandro Messina and the remaining delegates of the Committee—people whose own experience of mass slaughter made him look like an amateur.
But, no, that would be Hannah’s test. It would be her choice.