Democracy is a luxury enjoyed by simple low-population societies, though wealth can maintain it for longer than its natural span. However, societies grow in population and complexity, the technological apparatus of control improves, individual freedoms impinge upon others until they demand “action” from government that is generally eager to comply and accrue more power to itself, and democracy gradually sickens and dies. This is what happened on Earth, but out in space democracy dies a different death. On ancient Earth all the necessities of life were free to every potential user: air, food and water, the materials from which to build a shelter or craft the tools of survival. As we built more complex societies, more and more items on this list fell under the control of others, and ceding such control is the way we forge our own chains. Out in space, every single item on such a list has to be either transported there or produced there at great cost, under the control of small specialist groups, or the regime which put the project up in vacuum. Also in space, where decisions about survival must often be made quickly, there is rarely time for full debate, for a vote. In space, meritocracy is the nearest to democracy you can hope to get, and neither of them are rugged survivors.
A long grassy slope curved ever downwards away from her, and as she ran it grew steadily steeper. Eventually she would fall, but she knew all she required in order to fly was an effort of will. Shortly the slope disappeared from beneath her…but at that moment she knew she could only fly in her dreams, and so she fell. When dream slid into reality, the sensation of falling did not leave her even as she opened her eyes.
“How long was I asleep?” she asked.
Saul was naked, towelling himself down vigorously after using the shower. Hannah could not help but notice how he showed no sign of sensitivity when rubbing the area where he had been stabbed, which meant the wound must have continued healing at the same speed she had witnessed while she had been operating on him. She sat up, licking her tongue round a dry mouth. She felt grotty and was momentarily tempted to lie back and go to sleep again, but instead her guts tightened and a familiar feeling of panic arose. She closed her eyes and tried to calm herself.
“You okay?” Saul asked.
“Panic attack,” she explained, and saying it out loud seemed to help her get a handle on it and suppress it. And even as the weight of the decision he expected from her descended again, she managed to stave it off. It was time to do something about those people in Arcoplex One. They weren’t entitled to cause her such grief.
“They’re not all guilty,” she remarked.
He didn’t even ask who she referred to, his mind operating so fast. “Define guilt.”
“I believe it is no more than can be attributed to many others on this station.” She stood and took off her VC suit and underclothes, then headed for the shower. “Messina is as guilty as hell, as are his core delegates and whatever staff implemented their decisions. But there must be members of staff, bodyguards, wives, husbands and children who are no more guilty than anyone else you’ll find out there.” She pointed to the door leading to the control centre, before propelling herself into the shower booth.
The spray was good and hot, as she washed away the grime, clouding the water with soap till she seemed to be floating in a pool of milk. As she came out of the shower, she found Saul standing motionless, his gaze distant.
“Forty-one delegates, plus Messina himself, have been involved in the decisions about sectoring, and the euthanizing of dissidents. All of those have blood on their hands, as do most of their staff and some of their family members. Most of the Executive present here are killers, too. However,” he now focused his gaze on her, “how exactly do we measure guilt? They are all of them the product of a society where the only route to power and wealth was a career in government, and it was impossible to rise high anywhere in this regime without getting blood on your hands. Bucking the trend in any way would be suicidal, and altruism a fast route to poverty—and quite possibly to readjustment in an Inspectorate cell.”
“Then the buck stops with Messina and his forty-one delegates,” decided Hannah. “And anyone else who has directly ordered or committed an act of murder.”
Saul blinked. “That means thirty-eight more, then, according to their records.”
A tightness returned to Hannah’s stomach, but this time it wasn’t panic but a strange species of excitement—and awe. While just standing there, he must be processing hundreds of personnel files, running searches, decoding govspeak and assessing every one of all those people currently confined in Arcoplex One.
“The others must be allowed to leave the arcoplex,” she declared.
“What do I do with them?” he shot back.
“Assign them quarters and find them work to do throughout the station. Give them a chance to redeem themselves.”
Saul gave a doubtful sneer. “Generally, their skills aren’t of the kind the station requires. These people are bureaucrats now deprived of their natural environment of endless micromanagement and interference.”
“Then they must be retrained on the basis of whatever other skills they possess.”
“Very well.” Saul headed for the door. “But you still haven’t told me what you want done with the remaining seventy-nine.”
He wanted her to tell him that they must die but, even though she knew they did not deserve to live, she could not bring herself to make that pronouncement. In her eyes it wasn’t right. No one should be forced to make such a harsh decision.
“They will remain in Arcoplex One,” she pronounced, with as much firmness as she could muster. “Their task will be to feed the corpses into the digesters.”
“Surely there is a way they can be dealt with?”
“Yes, I am sure there is a way,” he said, staring at her while something hardened in his expression. “Let’s go.”
“Food first,” said Hannah quickly.
He paused. “Yes…of course.”
Hannah suddenly wanted to rage at the unfairness of it all, but instead she merely turned away. She found a fresh elasticated undersuit in one of the wall-length cupboards, then picked up her discarded one and just stood staring at it helplessly. Saul turned away from the fridge and pointed to a little door set in the same wall. Hannah pulled on the handle, hinged out a hopper, and tossed the soiled undersuit inside.
“Where does it go?” she asked, prepared to talk about anything but the previous subject.
“Ultrasound and gas cleaner,” he replied succinctly. “All clothing worn here is made of material suitable for that kind of cleaning.”
“One more job the bureaucrats can’t do,” she muttered as she pulled on her VC suit. Meanwhile he placed the two ceramic trays into a microwave cooker, and shortly she joined him to eat bean stew, followed by some sort of treacle pudding. A drinks machine provided frothy coffee and chilled bottles of flavoured water. It all seemed so very domestic, though the coffee had to be sipped through a spout, and the emptied trays went into the ultrasound cleaner, along with their dirty clothes.
“Now,” said Saul, leading the way out after they had finished.
A different shift of staff occupied the control room now, though Le Roque remained in charge. Meanwhile, a crew of technicians was gradually replacing the plastic office chairs with the kind of acceleration chairs found aboard space planes.
“Good thinking,” observed Saul, as Le Roque wearily turned to face them.
“We could take more out of the planes, but I wasn’t sure if that’s what you’d want.”
“The chairs from the one space plane you’ve selected should cover your present needs.”
After a momentary look of surprise at this, Le Roque said, “I don’t suppose I’ll be needing to make a further report to you then?”
It was something they would all have to get used to. Saul might stand amongst them like a normal human being, yet his mind could range throughout the Argus Station with the omniscience of a demigod.
“I can detect what you’ve done so far,” concurred Saul. “All personnel are now aware of the direction of thrust, and where to position themselves, though they’re not yet aware of the duration of thrust, which will be two hours at one-half gravity. You’ve prepared the hospitals, I see, and are presently getting everything loose tied down or securely placed on gecko matting. You should have everything ready within the next thirteen hours. Any additional problems I should know about?”
“The Arboretum, and hydroponics there and also in the outer ring,” Le Roque replied.
Saul paused for a moment, tilting his head, then said, “The Arboretum topsoil is layered with a mesh into which most of the trees are rooted. That was done so they would not break free of the soil should it be necessary to use the emergency brakes on the cylinder. The mesh should be enough, and the hydroponics there should be fine too. Those troughs situated in the outer ring need to be drained into their cisterns. Do this precisely half an hour before acceleration and, whilst under acceleration, you should set the misters to operate constantly. That treatment should be sufficient to keep the plants alive.”
“But some will get thrown free?”
Saul shook his head. “No, I’m going to use only a gradual increase in thrust. Inside the cylinder there will simply be an increasing fluctuation in apparent gravity, from half a gee to one and a half gees. There’ll inevitably be damage to some plants—an approximate fifteen per cent loss—but we can live with that. Anything else?”
“That about covers it for now, Dir—” Le Roque paused, looking uncomfortable.
“I do not like the title ‘Director,’” said Saul, sharply. “It’s got too many unpleasant associations.” Another reflective pause. “Call me by my name but, if you’re not comfortable with that, then refer to me as the Owner—because I own this station now.”
Le Roque merely nodded, then watched while Saul led Hannah towards the exit, the spidergun falling in behind them and now moving with a spooky fluidity it had not possessed earlier.
“Where now?” Hannah asked.
“Arcoplex One—I want this resolved before we round the Moon.”
Once out of the control room, she queried, “The Owner?”
“For all our lives, everything we’ve laid hands on has been considered the property of the state. Even our own bodies were considered thus. But no more.” He turned towards her, his face a mask pinned by weirdly pink eyes. “Decisions, power, responsibility, Hannah. I am now the most powerful here and therefore the most free, yet inevitably, I am also the least free because I bear the most responsibility.”
“That still doesn’t explain it.”
She caught a glimpse of irritation in his expression.
“I am now in charge and, whether I want it or not, I have the power of life and death over all those here with me, because I physically and mentally own this station, which is the only thing keeping them alive. In fact this entire station now feels to me just like an extension of my own body. It’s something I will not give up, which is something they all need to be reminded of, and the title I’ve chosen does exactly that. I won’t call myself Director, Delegate, Chairman, Governor or King. From now on I’m the Owner—that is enough.”
Arrogance or truth? Perhaps both. Hannah just did not know for sure. Maybe his choice of title incorporated a degree of calculation that went beyond what he could easily express to her. She wondered if the irritation he had just shown was due to her tardy comprehension, though more likely it was because she still refused to sentence seventy-nine people to death.
They collected their helmets at the airlock and were soon back outside in the main station. Here Hannah could see crews busily engaged, welding arcs faring blue light across the lattice walls, work lights glaring white and casting black angular shadows, one-man EVA units moving ponderously here and there amidst the rapid insectile precision of countless robots.
“This is not going to be a democracy,” Saul reminded her over com.
“That’s a political system that probably can’t work satisfactorily out in space,” Hannah admitted. “It has to be a Captain and his crew.” Then she couldn’t help adding, “Or the Owner and the owned.”
Saul merely snorted.
As they reached the base of Arcoplex One, two more spiderguns approached them down the length of the cylinder, like dogs eager to greet their masters, joining them just as Saul and Hannah propelled themselves up towards the endcap. The spiderguns proceeded first through the airlock, but on the other side Hannah saw no one they needed guarding against. She reached up to detach her helmet, but Saul caught her arm.
“The levels of putrescence in the air here have risen substantially,” he advised. “Better remove it when we are a little further in.”
“Are all Messina’s people confined in here now?” she asked, as they moved away from the mounded bodies and along a concave street.
“They’re all here,” he confirmed. “Messina and his delegates broke off for a recess after two hours of exhausting debate, and they have now secured themselves suitable apartments after ordering their staff to clear them of the previous occupants. Some of the staff even started using a digester to dispose of the corpses, but were ordered to desist until the Committee came to a decision on the matter.”
“Are they total idiots?”
“No, just mentally hardwired, still adhering to the old hierarchy—whilst Messina himself can’t accept that he now rules nothing.”
It seemed they were now far enough away from the endcap, because Saul removed his VC helmet and hung it from a hook on his belt. As Hannah removed her own, she detected some of the stink. Perhaps those already here for a while hadn’t noticed the smell increasing. But they would definitely notice once the corpses began crawling with maggots.
Ahead, now, Hannah could see people on the move, all of them heading for a large building extending right up to the central spindle of the cylinder. Many of them kept looking back towards her and Saul, while trying to propel themselves along faster. She glanced at Saul questioningly.
“I ordered them all to their conference chamber. The place has room to contain all of them, and is equipped with large screens.”
“And what images will you display on them?”
“Enough, let’s hope, to burn out some of that hardwiring.”
Govnet opened up like a whore eager to get her business over with, and virally dispatching copies of the programs he was running aboard the station proved easier still. He particularly needed to shift round vast blocks of data, but not necessarily in his own mind, so he just hijacked a range of computer systems down on Earth and let them do the work instead. All this meant was that it would all take just a little longer to kick off. Essentially he was doing, on a vaster scale, what he had already done aboard the station at large, and this time no other comlife stood in his way. Leaving processes running, he now focused a small proportion of his attention elsewhere.
“Langstrom,” he said, uttering the name merely in his mind, as he saw the new Security Director suiting up along with forty of his men.
Langstrom looked up. “I hear you.”
“I want you positioned at the base of Arcoplex One. Some people will be coming out soon, and I want them escorted to their assigned quarters both inside the ring and in the worker units situated within the lattice walls. I’ve already sent the details to your palmtop.”
“Chairman Messina?” Langstrom prompted.
“Is not your concern.”
Saul refocused his attention on the activity within Arcoplex One.
Delegates arriving in the conference chamber were obviously annoyed to see so many others present and started gesturing back to the walls any who had the temerity to gather about the tiers of horseshoe tables and chairs. No sign of Messina there—he was still in his apartment questioning two of his bodyguards about where the other two had gone. The missing pair were already in the chamber, one clutching the hand of his young daughter whilst the other leant back against the wall, arms folded and his expression sour. Saul had already checked on an earlier discussion between them, whose content was little different from so many he had already heard. Messina was fucked, they had agreed, and now the time had come for them to look after themselves. Out of curiosity, Saul reviewed the data on these two men. The one called Ghort, leaning against the wall, had not actually killed anyone, so under Hannah’s terms was salvageable. Unfortunately the one with the daughter had eagerly dispensed Messina’s personal justice in the past, and even kept image files of the proceedings.
Finally Saul and Hannah themselves reached the entrance to the building containing the conference chamber. There he paused, gazing along the length of the arcoplex. It seemed not all had answered his summons. Two were in fact hiding nearby, in a room where they had first smashed all the cams. A recorded video showed them entering the place, while the station net had registered the toilet being used only a minute ago.
“If you do not both go to the conference chamber straight away, I will have to send a spidergun after you,” he announced loudly, via the intercom inside their refuge. Hannah turned to him in puzzlement, then swung her gaze to follow his. After a minute a door opened and a couple of people propelled themselves out. They abandoned their hide at a reluctant pace, but speeded up once they registered the spiderguns.
“There, that’s all of them,” declared Saul, folding his arms.
“We were—” began Delegate Margot Le Blanc, as she approached him with her bodyguard.
Saul waved her inside. “I don’t care what you were. And that’s something you’ll all have to learn very quickly.”
“Very well.” Delegate Le Blanc swept on past, her dignity somewhat diminished by her lack of experience in using gecko boots.
After a moment, Saul dispatched one of the spiderguns after her, while simultaneously watching through cams as Messina finally quit his apartment and entered the conference chamber. The Chairman took the prime seat at the horseshoe tables, and only when properly seated with his two remaining bodyguards behind him did he gesture imperiously and the delegates took their seats. As Le Blanc hurried in and sat down, Messina eyed her calculatingly. He seemed just about to say something, but then the spidergun entered. Some delegates leapt from their seats and began backing off, while an uproar arose among the surrounding crowd as they retreated further against the walls.
Saul grinned. “Let’s go.”
Entering the lobby, they climbed a spiral stair two floors up, then took a short corridor to the double doors leading into the chamber. These had meanwhile swung closed, muffling the uproar inside. This entire building, Saul had discovered, had been planned as the Committee base inside the station. The three tiers of horseshoe tables within the chamber had seating for no more than a hundred and fifty, so it seemed to have been intended for Messina and his core delegates only. Whether the remaining delegates were due to have been assassinated, or just abandoned on Earth, he did not know. He stepped up to the doors, with Hannah at his side and the second spidergun close behind.
“What do you want me to do?” she asked.
“You’ve not made your decision,” he replied, pausing, “and I now realize you may be incapable of making one.”
“But it’s not my decision,” she said. “You’ve already decided that Messina and the rest must die, and you just want me to confirm that.”
“No, I want you to perceive the correct course.” He turned to her, wishing he could force her into seeing what was so plain to him. “Tell me, if we were back on Earth, with unlimited resources, what would you do with them there?”
“Try them, then send them to prison for life,” she replied. “They’re guilty of too much wrongdoing to ever be released, and if they were released they would only scrabble for power again. They would never be genuinely useful.”
“So a trial would be irrelevant because you already know they are guilty. It would just paint a gloss of justice over a course of action that is already just.”
“Some might be innocent…”
“No, not among the seventy-nine.”
Hannah shrugged, looked away.
He continued, “This Argus Station is not Earth, and its resources are severely limited. Keeping this lot alive, whilst they contribute nothing, would definitely mean others here dying. So what is the right decision?”
With her face still averted, she replied, “They should die.” She then turned to him, her expression registering shock at her own words. Doubtless she was now telling herself that she was equally as bad as those she had judged. He tried not to feel contempt for her weakness.
“I am glad to hear you say that at last. Now consider this point: It has been within your power to sentence those people to death, but it is also within your power to allow them to live—and within your power alone. When the time is right, I am going to ask you whether I can offer them the choice.”
She was clearly confused, for she hadn’t yet seen that other option, but eventually she would.
He continued, “As for what I want you to do now, just go wherever you feel comfortable.”
“I’d feel more comfortable not being here.”
He glanced at her. “Which was exactly the position of many decision makers within the Committee who had dissidents killed or drew up the plans for sectoring.”
Hannah showed further discomfort at that statement, but stayed by his side as he pushed open the double doors and strode through, heading straight out into the middle of the chamber. Behind him, he had one of the robots remain on guard at the door, whilst the second climbed the wall and scuttled across the ceiling, positioning itself up above like some macabre chandelier. The uproar quickly waned, for they were frightened, but from Saul’s presence they now knew they weren’t facing instant extinction.
For a moment he scanned the faces all around him. Seated as many were, they obviously felt themselves to be in a superior position, but no matter. In a bit of theatre, he waved his hand, and the six massive screens ranged high on the walls all around the room flickered on. The views he chose for three of the screens were the same as those displayed previously in Tech Central: one of Earth from the station, another of Earth from cams on the Argus satellites, and finally a view of some of the satellites themselves.
Messina cleared his throat. “What can we do for you, citizen?”
Most of those present were wearing fones, but some were not. Saul nodded towards a fourth screen, routeing through to it a list of the names of everyone in the chamber, excluding the seventy-nine. “There are one hundred and fifteen of you here who are, from the available evidence, not directly responsible for the murder of citizens you governed. You will see your names are on this list and, as soon as I have finished here, you may depart forthwith to quarters assigned to you.”
“Doubtless my name is not there,” said Messina.
Saul turned to face him. “No, it is not.”
“So you intend to kill me and everyone else not on your precious list,” Messina suggested, with lazy contempt.
“That decision is not mine, and has yet to be made.” Saul eyed him steadily. “Some seem to find it more difficult to pass a death sentence than you do, Alessandro Messina.”
“Perhaps that’s because they are not properly elected representatives of the people,” the Chairman replied. “These last few years have needed some hard decisions about the very survival of the human race.” He sat up straighter and stabbed a finger towards Saul. “It seems to me that you yourself are demonstrating that you do not have the strength of character to make such decisions. You treat us with spite, whilst running away from Earth and all that must be done there.”
“Yes, I may be fleeing Earth,” Saul replied, “but I have nevertheless made some decisions.” Again he waved a hand towards the screens. “Twenty-three of your satellite lasers are still functional, and they can each fire a shot every two seconds. They could keep that rate of fire up for five days, until depleting their fusion reactors of fuel.”
Messina glanced at the delegate sitting beside him, a woman with her hands poised over an open laptop, and with some very sophisticated fones seemingly welded against her head. Saul knew her to be officially the delegate for New Zealand and the Antarctic Region, but that was an empty title since she was primarily Messina’s personal statistical analyst.
“Yes,” Messina continued, having just received some figures from her. “Enough to kill five million people.”
“Not nearly enough,” said Saul. A rumble of whispered conversation broke out, and hissed like a wave over shingle. Saul noted Hannah staring at him, appalled, but he kept his eyes on Messina as he added, “However, I have some extra proposals.”
“Oh, yes?” The Chairman sat forward. Obviously the word “proposals” gave him the odd idea that he still retained some influence over events.
Saul changed the screen views, adding two more on the blank screens.
“Even though this station may be moving away from Earth, I still have access to Govnet,” he informed Messina.
One screen now showed an aerial shot of a mass of buildings protected by high fences, and it was possible to see the readergun towers surrounding the place, and the hundreds of aero gunships lined up, row upon row, across an enclosed landing field. On the other four screens views appeared briefly only to be replaced by new ones. Some of these Saul snatched from ground-level cams operating in bright sunlight: they showed armed enforcers departing a gunship, armoured groundcars, a cell complex, warehouses, government bureaucrats hurrying busily to some new assignment, yet more enforcers overseeing prisoners clad in yellow boiler suits as they rolled drums out of a warehouse; several Inspectorate execs up on a roof, peering at something in the distance through image amplifiers, with the familiar shape of a spidergun squatting behind them.
“One of you here will recognize this place,” Saul remarked.
“Inspectorate HQ Brazilia East,” stated a swarthy individual who was seated five seats over to Messina’s right.
“Of course you recognize it, Delegate De Sousa. It cost eight hundred billion, approximately ninety-three per cent of one year’s budget, to build it, and brought forward by ten years the expected famine in South America, at a further cost, thus far, of over a hundred and eighty million human lives.”
“Hard choices,” replied De Sousa. “They were going to die anyway.”
“Yes, quite. Billions are due to die anyway, and many of you here have been busy running the selection process.” Saul paused. “Just prior to your departure, De Sousa, food riots broke out in central Salvador, but now no one goes hungry there since, on your way up here, you ordered your people to drop nerve gas. Under your orders, too, they’re presently struggling to sector the North Salvador sprawl, but power outages keep taking the readerguns offline and therefore ZAs keep escaping.”
“And what would your solution be?” Messina asked.
“You’re about to find out.”
Saul was already beyond the confines of the chamber, mentally, delicately tuning programs that controlled massive data flows. It was as if he was manipulating screen icons that governed the rotation of tornadoes or the rolling force of tsunamis.
Hannah felt like a child that had been summoned to her political officer to receive a lecture. With only herself and Saul and the spiderguns here, she still felt wrong-footed, in an inferior position, for surrounding her were some of the recently most powerful people on Earth. She wanted to fold up inside herself and disappear.
“Is all this drama strictly necessary?” Messina demanded. “Are you really using the hard decisions we were forced to make to justify killing us?”
He still sounded so superior, so in control.
“No, I need no justification for that.”
Even as Saul said this, Hannah felt something akin to embarrassment. Why was he revealing all this? Certainly it could not be for the benefit of those here. It seemed more like grandstanding, showing off. Or was he demonstrating all this to himself, simply to justify the actions he was about to take? Could it even be extra data for her to integrate, so she could offer all those present that mysterious choice he had mentioned?
“Then there’s HQ Athens.” New pictures appeared on the screens instantly. “The Greeks, being such a contentious people, started rioting early. The enforcers don’t have so much to do there now: merely deploying spiderguns to hunt down the remaining dissidents hiding among the olive groves.” Here came a scene of ragged refugees running from a dilapidated stone building. Sound now, too: Hannah was sure she could hear the sea over the pistoning of hydraulics and the drone of an aero’s fans. Then came the crackle of high-speed machine-gun fire. Shots tracked across the fugitives and they all went down in a cloud of dust. As the viewpoint started to advance, she realized that the scene was actually being viewed through the eyes of a spidergun.
“I could go on and on,” Saul continued. “But for every minute I stand here talking, your Inspectorate forces are exterminating, at their present average rate, one hundred and twenty thousand civilians across the entire globe.”
Hannah turned to him abruptly. “You could stop it. You could stop the spiderguns,” she pleaded. “You could ground the aeros, shut down the readerguns, shut down the shepherds. You could trash their computer systems.”
As he turned towards her, she could see a bloody tear at the corner of his eye. “I could do all those things, but the infrastructure would still be there. Inspectorate enforcers would still be there, with their guns and their nerve gas. Some will then realize how it was done, and from where, and they’ll take those readerguns, spiderguns, shepherds and aeros off Govnet, they’ll shut down satellite com dishes, and switch over to different frequencies. It may take them days but eventually they’ll cut me out of the circuit—a task all the easier as radio delays make my task ever more difficult. So, should I follow your suggestions?”
“You’ll do precisely what you think best.”
He returned his attention to the screens. “Yes, I think you may be right.”
“And what is that?” Messina interjected.
“ID codes,” he said. “And then infrastructure.”
He pointed at the screens and everyone turned to watch, seeing the spidergun’s point of view swinging round. A grounded aero slid into frame, Inspectorate enforcers fanning out from it. Shock registered in their expressions as the spidergun suddenly advanced towards them. One of them shouted something in Greek, Hannah did not know what. Machine guns sighed and picked them off the ground, tumbling them backwards in the dust.
“Fifteen million spiderguns, eight million shepherds and their numerous brethren,” he recounted. “Now for the readerguns.” He glanced again at Hannah. “As with the spiders, I loaded a complex virus which does one simple thing. It’s now loading to their kill lists the ID codes of all local Inspectorate enforcers, execs, Committee officials and political officers.”
Hannah only caught it at the last moment, as a spidergun here shifted. De Sousa, perhaps considering himself under as great a threat as Messina, raised something from his lap. The sound made by the robot weapon just seemed to ape that of the machines featuring on one of the screens, but the red streaks that issued from two of its limbs were painfully bright. Strapped into his seat, De Sousa juddered, fragments showering out of his back and all over the bodyguard behind him. The gun the delegate had held went flying upwards through the air. Screaming and shouting filled the chamber, and those of the crowd furthest from the exit swarmed towards it. But those nearest to it came face to face with the spidergun posted there and started pushing backwards, with the outcome a milling crush. More firing, and a bodyguard went spinning away with half his head gone, a female delegate vibrating in her seat, something like a make-up compact spilling out of her hand. Hannah found herself crouching, but couldn’t remember dropping into that position.
“The spiderguns will only kill those of you stupid enough to draw weapons,” Saul announced, his voice much amplified. “Just keep still!”
It took some minutes before the shouting stopped, before someone suffering hysterics was slapped into silence, and by the end of it the whole balance of the room had changed. Some of the delegates abandoned their chairs and joined the main crowd. Others sat alone, their staff and flunkeys having withdrawn. No longer a single entity, the crowd had now separated into protective huddles. Messina himself was leaning forward, his hands laid flat on the table before him. For the first time, he actually looked frightened. Hannah stood upright, edged closer to the real power in the room: Saul, standing there, still as a statue.
“A salutary reminder,” he said, “that I can and will do this.”
A number in the tens of thousands was now displayed at the bottom of a screen showing shepherds marching through some urban sprawl, and it began to rapidly increase. The views depicted changed constantly: a street somewhere with gunfire crackling across armoured cars, dead enforcers strewn all around; an aero gunship dropping out of the sky; blocks of offices now, Brussels perhaps, where corpses were strewn across the carbocrete and sheets of paper snowed from the sky. And during the time it took Hannah to fully register each scene, the number below had leapt into the hundreds of thousands.
A woman in the crowd was moaning loudly, pressing her hands over her face. Perhaps she was De Sousa’s wife, or had some emotional tie to one of the others who had just died. Perhaps she recognized something from one of the screens, or simply did not like seeing her world being torn apart.
“If they’re already airborne, I’m currently shutting down their engines. If they’re on the ground I’m just feeding the same ID data to their antipersonnel guns,” Saul explained.
Hannah wanted to beg him to stop, but was he actually wrong to commit such slaughter? Knowing that so many down on Earth would inevitably die, she could not think of any who deserved to die more. Also something ugly deep down inside her—some obscene voyeur—seemed to be taking righteous pleasure in this carnage.
Another scene appeared. Hannah recognized Maunsell Airport, just as a scramjet slammed down and disintegrated, spewing fire and debris over the edge and into the sea.
“Two thousand and forty scramjets are presently either airborne or in the process of landing or taking off. Their passengers will not be surviving the journey.” His words fell like lead blocks amid a growing stillness.
Just then, a scramjet on one of the screens, crashing into a sprawl, buildings toppling.
“It’s unfortunate,” said Saul, “but there will inevitably be innocent casualties too.”
“Isn’t this…enough?” Hannah asked.
Saul indicated the figure flickering at the bottom of the screen. It took a moment for her to realize that the set of digits was now in the millions.
“No, I haven’t finished yet. Even now, power is being cut to readerguns, spiderguns are being hit with EM weapons, and aeros are being taken off Govnet and switched over to manual control. I have already taken a large bite out of the Committee apparatus, but there’s a larger bite I can still take.”
Again the first views Hannah had seen, showing the satellite network arrayed about the Earth.
“Twenty-three lasers,” he declared. “They are firing now, their target sectors primarily government installations. Five million is an overestimate, unless I reposition the lasers or become less selective in choosing sectors.” He eyed her again. “Though only twenty-three lasers are currently operating, all seven thousand satellite drives are in perfect working order.”
“What do you intend?” Hannah asked, and glanced at Messina, who was now focused on Saul like a rabbit mesmerized by a fox.
“The satellites are made of bubblemetal and each weighs upwards of five tonnes. They were even given ceramic shielding to armour them in the event of extraplanetary war—another one of those hugely wasteful Committee inefficiencies that no one thought to review later.” He fixed his gaze on Messina for a moment. “As we know, the Committee has freed us from the likelihood of warfare.”
Messina just licked his lips.
Saul swung his gaze around the chamber. “As such,” he said, “the satellites can in most cases survive atmospheric re-entry. If we use the old-style nuclear weapons measurement of TNT yield, I calculate that the impact energy of each will be in the region of ten kilotonnes.”
“Impact where?” some brave soul asked.
“I am still making the ballistics and re-entry calculations—which means I’m having to do some processing outside my head and in the Political Office mainframe. I should then be able to bring each satellite down within one square kilometre of its target area.”
“Where?” Hannah repeated, when the previous questioner did not persist.
The overall view of Earth, seen on one screen, suddenly bloomed with seven thousand stars as all of the satellite drives fired up. Two of the screens now showed previous views, Inspectorate HQs Brazilia East and Athens, whilst a third and fourth showed other Inspectorate headquarters. The remaining screen still showed that same list of names.
“Where do you think?” He gestured to the screens. “There are just over eleven thousand world regional Inspectorate HQs, but I think I can take care of the main ones.” He nodded to himself. “The first impacts will occur in the Asian Bloc, in about one hour and forty minutes.” He raised a hand and immediately the spidergun at the door moved forward, leaving space behind and on either side of it. “Now, all those I have listed will exit this chamber and head towards the asteroid-side endcap. Those not on that list will remain here—and should they attempt to leave, they will die.”
The main crowd made straight for the exit, almost falling over each other to get out, thronging down either side of the spidergun on their way. Even as Hannah watched, the machine swung one limb sideways and the weapon at the end of it spat red fire, just once. A woman was slammed back against the wall, the top of her head missing. Hannah did not get a chance to recognize the delegate, as her corpse was shoved to one side by the crowd.
“No warnings,” Saul added.
Within minutes, only the designated murderers were left in the chamber—along with four corpses.
“Now, Hannah,” said Saul. “I want to know if I can offer those who remain here the choice.”
She stared up at the screens, and particularly at the one showing an Inspectorate HQ so very similar to her former prison: where she had done her research, where she had operated on people’s minds and inserted ever more sophisticated hardware and bioware. In a place just like that she herself had invented the things that had made Saul what he now was. But in a similar place Smith had used similar hardware to erase the mind of the Saul she had once known and loved. Smith had used pain, because that was his personal preference and because the hardware in Saul’s head had not been so sophisticated then. But now, using the new organic interfaces stored in Arcoplex Two, pain would no longer be necessary. It should be perfectly possible to rub out a human mind with the ease of wiping a computer file.
“Yes, you can offer them the choice,” she replied.
They had only two viable crawlers left. Var watched as the flat trailer towed behind one of them was loaded with the corpses from Hex Three, alongside Miska’s, which had been recovered first.
“No reactor damage,” reported Lopomac, over com. “But plenty of other stuff here is totally screwed.”
“Is the hex recoverable?” Var enquired, now sitting in a chair back in her own quarters.
“We’ve got three replacement windows, and the rest can be sealed with regolith blocks. Martinez’s crew is fetching all the materials now. Those aren’t the possible problem, however.”
“Structural damage from the grenades. Martinez is in there right now, using ultrasound scan to check for it.”
“Still keeping the same chain of command?” Lopomac asked.
“We have to. Democracy and freedom are only available to societies that can afford the dithering and time wasting.” She hated stating such a truth, because it sounded like it came right out of the Committee manual, but that didn’t make it less valid.
Upon her return to Hex One, weariness had bludgeoned Var. With Lopomac and Carol, she then stepped into the Community Room to inform about a hundred and fifty personnel that the Inspectorate no longer had power over the base, and henceforth the technical staff would control it completely. There had been few questions to begin with; there never were many, since discussing orders or policy statements had never been allowed. Then Martinez had spoken up to ask some of the most relevant ones and, emboldened by his example, others then began to ask questions too. Silence fell again when Var informed them that the enforcers, execs and Ricard himself were all dead.
“Return to your duties, or to your beds if that’s where you were,” she urged them, “as I’m now going to my own. In the morning I want all the chiefs of staff assembled here at nine, when I’ll tell you exactly what’s happened—and what is going to happen.”
Back in her own quarters, Var turned on her laptop and again took a look at image feeds from the satellites surrounding Earth. What she found there was utterly confusing at first but, on checking back through recorded footage from over the previous ten hours, the images began to make sense. It suddenly felt as if someone had grabbed hold of her intestines and twisted them, and the relevance of this to their own situation could not be denied. Since she had first studied the images from Earth, the situation had changed substantially, indeed catastrophically. She extracted the same footage for use later, at that morning meeting, then fell at once into a deep sleep.
Waking at six, Var showered and got some breakfast. Whilst she consumed scrambled eggs, she remembered Gisender telling her to never close her teeth here whilst eating, because the Martian grit made its way into everything.
After working with her laptop for nearly three hours, she had broken into and studied carefully a substantial portion of the Inspectorate database. She now had everything she needed and must use it to try and get things in order here. She finally closed the laptop and turned her gaze to the object lying on her bed. Undecided about wearing anything so blatant, she picked up the belt and its holstered side arm, studied it for a long moment, then abandoned it. She could not rule by force here, nor did she want to.
Next she turned to inspect herself in the wall mirror. Her spiky cropped hair gave her a boyish appearance, belied by a face subtly touched with make-up to make her look even harder, tougher, more capable. Var picked up her laptop, tucked it under her arm, and headed for the door.
Besides Lopomac and Carol, six chiefs of staff waited in the Community Room, along with a few of their subordinates. One was Martinez, a swarthy lump of a man who ran building and buildings maintenance, and particularly atmosphere security. Lopomac himself dealt with most of the other infrastructure, including water and power supply, air control and the recycling system, with Carol and formerly Miska acting as his lieutenants. Here also was Gunther, now assuming Kaskan’s job as chief of Hydroponics and Agriculture. The three remaining were Chief Medical Officer Da Vinci, Rhone from Mars Science, which covered geology, meteorology and survey; and Leo from the Store, whose duties were to keep the base manifest and ensure the repair and maintenance of all equipment deployed on the base. They were now gathered around a single table, some sitting and some still standing. As Var entered, those seated stood up too, which seemed a good sign.
She headed to one end of the table, placing the laptop in front of her as she sat. The way to play this, she decided, was to approach it as business as usual—but without the political intervention from Earth. Following her lead, the others quickly took their seats.
“I assume you’ve all had a chance to see Le Blanc’s broadcast?” she began. Nods all around and grim expressions. “Some of you will have learned more but, for the benefit of all, I’ll go through it from the beginning. I’ll meanwhile transmit the evidence to your personal computers.” She paused to link her own laptop to the main screen on the wall, projecting an image of the first shepherd carrying Gisender’s body.
“We all had our suspicions, mostly unvoiced, when Ricard cut Earth-com,” she continued. “However, some of us—myself, Lopomac, Carol, Miska, Kaskan and Gisender—managed to free ourselves from surveillance long enough to discuss the matter and decide what to do about it. We arranged it so that one of us could go out and collect optic cable from the old Marineris radio station, meanwhile downloading from there the latest communications from Earth. It was Gisender who went, but what we didn’t realize was that Ricard had access to the security cams in that station too. He saw what Gisender had found out, and had her murdered before she could return.”
“How?” asked Gunther.
“One of the enforcers shot up her crawler from Shankil’s Butte,” Var replied, then went on covering the next events in cold detail: her removing of her ID implant so that she could go out and find out what had happened to Gisender; Le Blanc’s broadcast, and then her own exchange with Ricard; all the stuff about the Travellers going into the Argus bubblemetal plants, and final rescue in fifteen to twenty years. By the lack of any interruption, she realized they had heard much of this already.
“So he intended cutting down on our population here, to make it easier to support those who remained?” suggested Da Vinci.
“How and who?”
“Not you,” she replied. “I have the figures at hand now from the Inspectorate database. The plan was to gather one hundred and eight of the staff—those designated non-essential—here in Hex One, whilst moving the rest to Hex Three for an “Assessment Meeting,” then to evacuate the air totally from Hex One. Ricard reckoned this would leave just enough people to keep the base running, but that wasn’t the ultimate plan as far as Earth was concerned.”
“They wanted us all to die,” said Lopomac. “They planned for us to die as quietly and quickly as possible, using up as few resources and causing as little damage as possible, so as to leave this place intact for later reoccupation.”
“You have proof of this?” asked Martinez.
Var shook her head. “No direct proof, but the most basic study of resource usage, which I have transmitted to your computers, allows us a lifespan here of five years, maybe a little longer. All living here now are essential, and without them, things would break down a lot quicker. Reduce the personnel and you don’t stretch resources over a longer period, you just kill the base faster.” After this introduction she went on to tell them the rest: how she herself had killed Inspectorate personnel; how Kaskan had killed the two in Hydroponics, and about his subsequent sacrifice. She noted some angry looks as she detailed the cutting of power to lure Ricard out, but, of course, as a result they had all been left sitting in the cold and dark waiting to die. She then bluntly informed them how she had killed Ricard, sensed their approval, realized that some were now looking at her with something approaching awe, or even fear. Finally she called up video footage recorded from around Earth.
“Whilst the three of us were preparing for Ricard’s attack,” she continued, “we found evidence of some sort of disturbance going on around Earth. Since then, it seems the action there has escalated. Here is recorded footage from over twenty hours ago.”
“Mother of God!” Carol exclaimed.
“What the hell is this?” Martinez demanded.
Before answering, Var scanned the shocked faces around the table, let them take it in, begin to absorb the implications. “The Argus satellite network,” she eventually explained, just as another ground-based explosion flared down on the night side of Earth. “When I recorded this, about half of the network was already gone. Someone’s been dropping the satellites onto Earth. Something major is happening there.”
“War?” Lopomac queried. “I did wonder —”
“Who with?” Gunther interrupted. “There’s revolutionary groups down there, we know, but none of them has the resources to achieve something like this.”
A spear of light cut across the night side, terminating in yet another blast.
“Civil war,” declared Lopomac. “It’s the only possible answer.”
Var nodded, for that seemed to make sense. “A schism must have developed within the Committee. They’re fighting each other.”
Such huge events laid out there for them to witness, yet they had only one crucial point of relevance to what must now happen here on Mars.
“There’s something else too,” she said. “I’m not really sure what to make of it.”
She flicked to another recorded view showing an object at extreme range but drawing rapidly closer.
“Argus Station,” said Lopomac.
“They’re going to drop that thing on Earth?” said Carol, her voice hushed.
Var glanced across at her. “It doesn’t seem so. Last time I checked, it was on a spiral orbit moving outwards from Earth. In fact that path should have intersected with the Moon’s orbit some hours ago.”
“They crashed it on the Moon?” gasped Carol. “I don’t know,” said Var, vexed that she hadn’t checked the same feeds again this morning. But how important were they? Her co-workers had just seen enough that was of relevance to them, because it showed the truth of their own situation. Of course, she understood the concern of those here who still had family back on Earth. Her own brother might still be alive somewhere back there. There was just a chance that he hadn’t ended up in an adjustment cell for, if anyone truly fitted the description her political officer had once applied to herself—too dangerous to live, too valuable to kill—it was her brilliant sibling, Alan Saul.
“But, in light of all this,” she said acidly, “it seems likely that the rebuilding of Mars Travellers has been postponed way beyond the prediction of fifteen to twenty years. There might not be further missions heading out this way for centuries, millennia…or ever.” She paused for a moment, realizing that none of them knew about Chairman Messina’s private project, none of them knew about the Alexander—that massive spacecraft under construction out beyond the orbit of the Moon. It had been kept very secret, and the construction station it sat within was EM-shielded and invisible from Earth. Whatever, with the events occurring on Earth the project had almost certainly been shelved, if not destroyed.
“How can you be sure?” asked Gunther.
“Last night I ran a rough analysis on those same images,” she replied, “and what you are seeing is not random. Someone is dropping those laser satellites directly onto Inspectorate HQs all around Earth. When I last looked, all seven thousand satellites were on the move. I’m guessing it’s finished now. Someone just annihilated most of the Committee power base on Earth.”
“I can confirm that,” said Rhone, of Mars Science, a man so pale that, without the Martian rouge ground into his skin, he would have had an albino complexion. “We’ve also been picking up some Govnet chatter, though most of Govnet now seems to be down. It goes beyond what we’re actually seeing. Some kind of computer attack has turned readerguns and military robots against the Inspectorate all across Earth, and even dropped government scramjets and aeros out of the sky. Prior to this, it’s also worth noting, the satellite lasers fired on Minsk and then on each other. There was also a big launch of space planes from a hidden spaceport in central Australia towards the Argus Station. A lot of them didn’t make it, as they got fried by the Traveller VI engine.”
Var stared at him. Here was someone who had been accessing data she hadn’t even noticed. Best to keep a close eye on him. Then she felt a sudden irritation with herself. That was unfair; that was Inspectorate thinking.
“Any speculations?” she asked.
“We’ve picked up nothing on Alessandro Messina or the Committee delegates—probably now hiding in a bunker somewhere.” He paused, looking thoughtful. “I don’t know who or what did this, but it seems likely to me that it’s based aboard the Argus Station.”
It was Martinez who got down to the practicalities. “But where does that leave us now?” he asked.
Rhone was about to add something else, but he desisted, just dipping his head. She watched him for a moment, then turned her attention to Martinez.
“It leaves us completely and utterly on our own.” Var scanned the faces all around her. “We now have to make this place work, all of us.”
“And how’s that going to be?” Martinez asked, studying her intently.
“We repair the damage,” she said. “We locate resources, finish building the Arboretum, graft damned hard and very cleverly to make sure we can continue surviving here. We have to make this place self-sufficient or it’s our tomb.”
Rhone raised his head. “I don’t think that’s the question Martinez was asking. I think he wants to know who’s in charge now.”
“I suggest I retain my present position,” said Var. “The command structure the Committee established here had its faults, but most of those are now lying on a flatbed trailer outside. Remember, I was chosen for the position of technical director here. You all know my qualifications in all branches of science, and that I am the best synthesist you have.” She paused for a moment, focusing her attention on Rhone. “Does anyone else have suggestions?”
“I agree,” said Rhone. “You are the best one for the position, and have ably demonstrated the ruthlessness the position may require.”
“I certainly don’t want the job,” said Da Vinci.
They all agreed in turn, without reservation, some of them evidently anxious to avoid what they assumed might be a poisoned chalice.
“Perhaps we should agree to reassess the situation in a year’s time,” Var suggested, knowing that by then it would be clear enough whether they might survive longer than the predicted five years.
“An interesting choice of timespan,” said Rhone, obviously hiding something.
“So that’s it,” said Martinez. “Now we get to work.”
“Not entirely,” said Rhone. “Though we must now focus primarily on our survival here, there’s another rather worrying fact we’ll need to confront just after the one-year period you’ve mentioned.”
What was he getting at now? Did he intend to suggest some kind of inquiry at the end of her rule, some sort of investigation and maybe a trial?
“Go on,” she said, waiting for the knife in her back.
“Those images you showed us are rather old, Var.” Rhone pointed upwards. “A few hours ago, Argus Station did a low-fuel course change around the Moon, and unless its vector changes or it makes use of its engine again, it looks likely to be sitting right above us here in one year and three months’ time.” He smiled at her. “Whoever or whatever just trashed Earth is now coming here.”