"Deep, complex...a new world of wonder." -Denver Post
In a city overrun by a virus that attacks both man and machine, an agent pursues a lowlife postmortal-and uncovers a centuries-old atrocity that history would rather forget...
"Deep, complex...a new world of wonder." -Denver Post
Table of Contents
Ace Books by Alastair Reynolds
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
An Ace Book / published by arrangement with
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Copyright © 2001 by Alastair Reynolds.
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Welcome to the Epsilon Eridani system.
Despite all that has happened, we hope your stay here will be a pleasant one. For your information we have compiled this document to explain some of the key events in our recent history. It is intended that this information will ease your transition into a culture which may be markedly different from the one you were expecting to find when you embarked at your point of origin. It is important that you realise that others have come before you. Their experiences have helped us shape this document in a manner designed to minimise the shock of cultural adjustment. We have found that attempts to gloss over or understate the truth of what happened—of what continues to happen—are ultimately harmful; that the best approach—based on a statistical study of cases such as yours—is to present the facts in as open and honest manner as possible.
We are fully aware that your initial response is likely disbelief, quickly followed by anger and then a state of protracted denial.
It is important to grasp that these are normal reactions.
It is equally important to grasp—even at this early stage—that there will come a time when you will adjust to and accept the truth. It might be days from now; it might even be weeks or months, but in all but a minority of cases it will happen. You might even look back upon this time and wish that you could have willed yourself to make the transition to acceptance quicker than you did. You will know that it is only when that process is accomplished that anything resembling happiness becomes possible.
Let us therefore begin the process of adjustment.
Due to the fundamental lightspeed limit for communication within the sphere of colonised space, news from other solar systems is inevitably out of date; often by decades or more. Your perceptions of our system’s main world, Yellowstone, are almost certainly based on outdated information.
It is certainly the case that for more than two centuries—until, in fact, the very recent past—Yellowstone was in thrall to what most contemporary observers chose to term the Belle Epoque. It was an unprecedented social and technological golden age; our ideological template seen by all to be an almost perfect system of governance.
Numerous successful ventures were launched from Yellowstone, including daughter colonies in other solar systems, as well as ambitious scientific expeditions to the edge of human space. Visionary social experiments were conducted within Yellowstone and its Glitter Band, including the controversial but pioneering work of Calvin Sylveste and his disciples. Great artists, philosophers and scientists flourished in Yellowstone’s atmosphere of hothouse innovation. Techniques of neural augmentation were pursued fearlessly. Other human cultures chose to treat the Conjoiners with suspicion, but we Demarchists—unafraid of the positive aspects of mind enhancement methods—established lines of rapport with the Conjoiners which enabled us to exploit their technologies to the full. Their starship drives allowed us to settle many more systems than cultures subscribing to inferior social models.
In truth, it was a glorious time. It was also the likely state of affairs which you were expecting upon your arrival.
This is unfortunately not the case.
Seven years ago something happened to our system. The exact transmission vector remains unclear even now, but it is almost certain that the plague arrived aboard a ship, perhaps in dormant form and unknown to the crew who carried it. It might even have arrived years earlier. It seems unlikely now that the truth will ever be known; too much has been destroyed or forgotten. Vast swathes of our digitally stored planetary history were erased or corrupted by the plague. In many cases only human memory remains intact . . . and human memory is not without its fallibilities.
The Melding Plague attacked our society at the core.
It was not quite a biological virus, not quite a software virus, but a strange and shifting chimera of the two. No pure strain of the plague has ever been isolated, but in its pure form it must resemble a kind of nano-machinery, analogous to the molecular-scale assemblers of our own medichine technology. That it must be of alien origin seems beyond doubt. Equally clear is the fact that nothing we have thrown against the plague has done more than slow it. More often than not, our interventions have only made things worse. The plague adapts to our attacks; it perverts our weapons and turns them against us. Some kind of buried intelligence seems to guide it. We don’t know whether the plague was directed toward humanity—or whether we have just been terribly unlucky.
At this point, based on our prior experiences, your most likely reaction is to assume that this document is a hoax. Our experience has also shown that our denying this will accelerate the process of adjustment by a small but statistically significant factor.
This document is not a hoax.
The Melding Plague actually happened, and its effects were far worse than you are currently capable of imagining. At the time of the plague’s manifestation our society was supersaturated by trillions of tiny machines. They were our unthinking, uncomplaining servants, givers of life and shapers of matter, and yet we barely gave them a moment’s thought. They swarmed tirelessly through our blood. They toiled ceaselessly in our cells. They clotted our brains, linking us all into the Demarchy’s web of near-instantaneous decision-making. We moved through virtual environments woven by direct manipulation of the brain’s sensory mechanisms, or scanned and uploaded our minds into lightning-fast computer systems. We forged and sculpted matter on the scale of mountains; wrote symphonies out of matter; caused it to dance to our whims like tamed fire. Only the Conjoiners had taken a step closer to Godhead . . . and some said we were not far behind them.
Machines grew our orbiting city-states from raw rock and ice, and then bootstrapped inert matter towards life within their biomes. Thinking machines ran those city-states, shepherding the ten thousand habitats of the Glitter Band as they processed around Yellowstone. Machines made Chasm City what it was; shaping its amorphous architecture towards a fabulous and phantasmagoric beauty.
All that is gone.
It was worse than you are thinking. If the plague had only killed our machines, millions would still have died, but that would have been a manageable catastrophe, something from which we could have recovered. But the plague went beyond mere destruction, into a realm much closer to artistry, albeit an artistry of a uniquely perverted and sadistic kind. It caused our machines to evolve uncontrollably—out of our control, at least—seeking bizarre new symbioses. Our buildings turned into Gothic nightmares, trapping us before we could escape their lethal transfigurations. The machines in our cells, in our blood, in our heads, began to break their shackles—blurring into us, corrupting living matter. We became glistening, larval fusions of flesh and machine. When we buried the dead they kept growing, spreading together, fusing with the city’s architecture.
It was a time of horror.
It is not yet over.
And yet, like any truly efficient plague, our parasite was careful not to kill its host population entirely. Tens of millions died—but tens of millions more reached some kind of sanctuary, hiding within hermetically sealed enclaves in the city or orbit. Their medichines were given emergency destruct orders, converting themselves to dust which was flushed harmlessly out of the body. Surgeons worked furiously to tear implants from heads before traces of the plague reached them. Other citizens, too strongly wedded to their machines to give them up, sought a kind of escape in reefersleep. They elected to be buried in sealed community cryocrypts . . . or to leave the system entirely. Meanwhile, tens of millions more poured into Chasm City from orbit, fleeing the destruction of the Glitter Band. Some of those people had been amongst the wealthiest in the system, yet now they were as poor as any historical refugees. What they found in Chasm City could hardly have comforted them . . .
—Excerpt from an introductory document for newcomers, freely available in circum-Yellowstone space, 2517
Darkness was falling as Dieterling and I arrived at the base of the bridge.
“There’s one thing you need to know about Red Hand Vasquez,” Dieterling said. “Don’t ever call him that to his face.”
“Because it pisses him off.”
“And that’s a problem?” I brought our wheeler to near-halt, then parked it amongst a motley row of vehicles lining one side of the street. I dropped the stabilisers, the overheated turbine smelling like a hot gun barrel. “It’s not like we usually worry about the feelings of low-lives,” I said.
“No, but this time it might be best to err on the side of caution. Vasquez may not be the brightest star in the criminal firmament, but he’s got friends and a nice little line in extreme sadism. So be on your best behaviour.”
“I’ll give it my best shot.”
“Yeah—and do your best not to leave too much blood on the floor in the process, will you?”
We got out of the wheeler, both of us craning our necks to take in the bridge. I’d never seen it before today—this was my first time in the Demilitarised Zone, let alone Nueva Valparaiso—and it had looked absurdly large even when we’d been fifteen or twenty kilometres out of town. Swan had been sinking towards the horizon, bloated and red except for the hot glint near its heart, but there’d still been enough light to catch the bridge’s thread and occasionally pick out the tiny ascending and descending beads of elevators riding it to and from space. Even then I’d wondered if we were too late—if Reivich had already made it aboard one of the elevators—but Vasquez had assured us that the man we were hunting was still in town, simplifying his web of assets on Sky’s Edge and moving funds into long-term accounts.
Dieterling strolled round to the back of our wheeler—with its overlapping armour segments the mono-wheeled car looked like a rolled-up armadillo—and popped open a tiny luggage compartment.
“Shit. Almost forgot the coats, bro.”
“Actually, I was sort of hoping you would.”
He threw me one. “Put it on and stop complaining.”
I slipped on the coat, easing it over the layers of clothing I already wore. The coat hems skimmed the street’s puddles of muddy rainwater, but that was the way aristocrats liked to wear them, as if daring others to tread on their coat-tails. Dieterling shrugged on his own coat and began tapping through the patterning options embossed around the sleeve, frowning in distaste at each sartorial offering. “No. No . . . No. Christ no. No again. And this won’t do either.”
I reached over and thumbed one of the tabs. “There. You look stunning. Now shut up and pass me the gun.”
I’d already selected a shade of pearl for my own coat, a colour which I hoped would provide a low-contrast background for the gun. Dieterling retrieved the little weapon from a jacket pocket and offered it to me, just as if he were passing me a packet of cigarettes.
The gun was tiny and semi-translucent, a haze of tiny components visible beneath its smooth, lucite surfaces.
It was a clockwork gun. It was made completely out of carbon—diamond, mostly—but with some fullerenes for lubrication and energy-storage. There were no metals or explosives in it; no circuitry. Only intricate levers and ratches, greased by fullerene spheres. It fired spin-stabilised diamond flèchettes, drawing its power from the relaxation of fullerene springs coiled almost to breaking point. You wound it up with a key, like a clockwork mouse. There were no aiming devices, stabilising systems or target acquisition aids.
None of which would matter.
I slipped the gun into my coat pocket, certain that none of the pedestrians had witnessed the handover.
“I told you I’d sort you out with something tasty,” Dieterling said.
“Do? Tanner; you disappoint me. It’s a thing of intense, evil beauty. I’m even thinking it might have distinct hunting possibilities.”
Typical Miguel Dieterling, I thought; always seeing the hunting angle in any given situation.
I made an effort at smiling. “I’ll give it back to you in one piece. Failing that, I know what to get you for Christmas.”
We started walking towards the bridge. Neither of us had been in Nueva Valparaiso before, but that didn’t matter. Like a good many of the larger towns on the planet, there was something deeply familiar about its basic layout, even down to the street names. Most of our settlements were organised around a deltoid street pattern, with three main thoroughfares stretching away from the apexes of a central triangle about one hundred metres along each side. Surrounding that core would typically be a series of successively larger triangles, until the geometric order was eroded in a tangle of random suburbs and redeveloped zones. What they did with the central triangle was up to the settlement in question, and usually depended on how many times the town had been occupied or bombed during the war. Only very rarely would there be any trace of the delta-winged shuttle around which the settlement had sprung.
Nueva Valparaiso had started out like that, and it had all the usual street names: Omdurman, Norquinco, Armesto and so on—but the central triangle was smothered beneath the terminal structure of the bridge, which had managed to be enough of an asset to both sides to have survived unscathed. Three hundred metres along each side, it rose sheer and black like the hull of a ship, but encrusted and scabbed along its lower levels by hotels, restaurants, casinos and brothels. But even if the bridge hadn’t been visible, it was obvious from the street itself that we were in an old neighbourhood, close to the landing site. Some of the buildings had been made by stacking freight pods on top of each other, each pod punctured with windows and doors and then filigreed by two and a half centuries of architectural whimsy.
“Hey,” a voice said. “Tanner fucking Mirabel.”
He was leaning in a shadowed portico like someone with nothing better to do than watch insects crawl by. I’d only dealt with him via telephone or video before—keeping our conversations as brief as possible—and I’d been expecting someone a lot taller and a lot less ratlike. His coat was as heavy as the one I was wearing, but his looked like it was constantly on the point of slipping off his shoulders. He had ochre teeth which he had filed into points, a sharp face full of uneven stubble and long black hair which he wore combed back from a minimal ist forehead. In his left hand was a cigarette which he periodically pushed to his lips, while his other hand—the right one—vanished into the side pocket of his coat and showed no sign of emerging.
“Vasquez,” I said, showing no surprise that he had trailed Dieterling and me. “I take it you’ve got our man under surveillance?”
“Hey, chill out, Mirabel. That guy doesn’t take a leak without me knowing it.”
“He’s still settling his affairs?”
“Yeah. You know what these rich kids are like. Gotta take care of business, man. Me, I’d be up that bridge like shit on wheels.” He jabbed his cigarette in Dieterling’s direction. “The snake guy, right?”
Dieterling shrugged. “If you say so.”
“That’s some cool shit; hunting snakes.” With his cigarette hand he mimed aiming and firing a gun, doubtless drawing a bead on an imaginary hamadryad. “Think you can squeeze me in on your next hunting trip?”
“I don’t know,” Dieterling said. “We tend not to use live bait. But I’ll talk to the boss and see what we can arrange.”
Red Hand Vasquez flashed his pointed teeth at us. “Funny guy. I like you, Snake. But then again you work for Cahuella, I gotta like you. How is he anyway? I heard Cahuella got it just as badly as you did, Mirabel. In fact I’m even hearing some vicious rumours to the effect that he didn’t make it.”
Cahuella’s death wasn’t something we were planning on announcing right now; not until we had given some thought to its ramifications—but news had evidently reached Nueva Valparaiso ahead of us.
“I did my best for him,” I said.
Vasquez nodded slowly and wisely, as if some sacred belief of his had just been proved valid.
“Yeah, that’s what I heard.” He put his left hand on my shoulder, keeping his cigarette away from the coat’s pearl-coloured fabric. “I heard you drove halfway across the planet with a missing leg, just so you could bring Cahuella and his bitch home. That’s some heroic shit, man, even for a white-eye. You can tell me all about it over some pisco sours, and Snake can pencil me in for his next field trip. Right, Snake?”
We continued walking in the general direction of the bridge. “I don’t think there’s time for that,” I said. “Drinks, I mean.”
“Like I said, chill.” Vasquez strolled ahead of us, still with one hand in his pocket. “I don’t get you guys. All it would take is a word from you, and Reivich wouldn’t even be a problem any more, just a stain on the floor. The offer’s still open, Mirabel.”
“I have to finish him myself, Vasquez.”
“Yeah. That’s what I heard. Like some kind of vendetta deal. You had something going with Cahuella’s bitch, didn’t you?”
“Subtlety’s not your strong point, is it, Red?”
I saw Dieterling wince. We walked on in silence for a few more paces before Vasquez stopped and turned to face me.
“What did you say?”
“I heard they call you Red Hand Vasquez behind your back.”
“And what the fuck business of yours would it be if they did?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. On the other hand, what business is it of yours what went on between me and Gitta?”
“All right, Mirabel.” He took a longer than usual drag on his cigarette. “I think we understand each other. There are things I don’t like people asking about, and there are things you don’t like people asking about. Maybe you were fucking Gitta, I don’t know, man.” He watched as I bridled. “But like you said, it wouldn’t be my business. I won’t ask again. I won’t even think about it again. But do me a favour, right? Don’t call me Red Hand. I know that Reivich did something pretty bad to you out in the jungle. I hear it wasn’t much fun and you nearly died. But get one thing clear, all right? You’re outnumbered here. My people are watching you all the time. That means you don’t want to upset me. And if you do upset me, I can arrange for shit to happen to you that makes what Reivich did seem like a fucking teddy bears’ picnic.”
“I think,” Dieterling said, “that we should take the gentleman at his word. Right, Tanner?”
“Let’s just say we both touched a nerve,” I said, after a long hard silence.
“Yeah,” Vasquez said. “I like that. Me and Mirabel, we’re hair-trigger guys and we gotta have some respect for each other’s sensibilities. Copacetic. So let’s go drink some pisco sours while we wait for Reivich to make a move.”
“I don’t want to get too far from the bridge.”
“That won’t be a problem.”
Vasquez cleaved a path before us, pushing through the evening strollers with insouciant ease. Accordion music ground out of the lowest floor of one of the freight pod buildings, slow and stately as a dirge. There were couples out walking—locals rather than aristocrats, for the most part, but dressed as well as their means allowed: genuinely at ease, good-looking young people with smiles on their faces as they looked for somewhere to eat or gamble or listen to music. The war had probably touched their lives in some tangible way; they might have lost friends or loved ones, but Nueva Valparaiso was sufficiently far from the killing fronts that the war did not have to be uppermost in their thoughts. It was hard not to envy them; hard not to wish that Dieterling and I could walk into a bar and drink ourselves into oblivion; forgetting the clockwork gun; forgetting Reivich; forgetting the reason I had come to the bridge.
There were, of course, other people out tonight. There were soldiers on furlough, dressed in civilian clothes but instantly recognisable, with their aggressively cropped hair, galvanically boosted muscles, colour-shifting chameleoflage tattoos on their arms, and the odd asymmetric way their faces were tanned, with a patch of pale flesh around one eye where they normally peered through a helmet-mounted targeting monocle. There were soldiers from all sides in the conflict mingling more or less freely, kept out of trouble by wandering DMZ militia. The militia were the only agency allowed to carry weapons within the DMZ, and they brandished their guns in starched white gloves. They weren’t going to touch Vasquez, and even if we hadn’t been walking with him, they wouldn’t have bothered Dieterling and me. We might have looked like gorillas stuffed into suits, but it would be hard to mistake us for active soldiers. We both looked too old, for a start; both of us pushing middle age. On Sky’s Edge that meant essentially what it had meant for most of human history: two to three-score years.
Not much for half a human life.
Dieterling and I had both kept in shape, but not to the extent that would have marked us as active soldiers. Soldier musculature never looked exactly human to begin with, but it had definitely become more extreme since I was a white-eye. Back then you could just about argue that you needed boosted muscles to carry around your weapons. The equipment had improved since then, but the soldiers on the street tonight had bodies that looked as if they had been sketched in by a cartoonist with an eye for absurd exaggeration. In the field the effect would be heightened by the lightweight weapons which were now in vogue: all those muscles to carry guns a child could have held.
“In here,” Vasquez said.
His place was one of the structures festering around the base of the bridge itself. He steered us into a short, dark alley and then through an unmarked door flanked by snake holograms. The room inside was an industrial-scale kitchen filled with billowing steam. I squinted and wiped perspiration from my face, ducking under an array of vicious cooking utensils. I wondered if Vasquez had ever used them in any extra-culinary activities.
I whispered to Dieterling, “Why is he so touchy about being called Red Hand anyway?”
“It’s a long story,” Dieterling said, “and it isn’t just the hand.”
Now and then a bare-chested cook would emerge from the steam on some errand, face half-concealed behind a plastic breathing mask. Vasquez spoke to two of them while Dieterling picked up something from a pan—dipping his fingers nimbly into the boiling water—and nibbled it experimentally.
“This is Tanner Mirabel, a friend of mine,” Vasquez said to the senior cook. “Guy used to be a white-eye, so don’t fuck with him. We’ll be here for a while. Bring us something to drink. Pisco sours. Mirabel, you hungry?”
“Not really. And I think Miguel’s already helping himself.”
“Good. But I think the rat’s a touch off tonight, Snake.”
Dieterling shrugged. “I’ve tasted a lot worse, believe me.” He popped another morsel into his mouth. “Mm. Pretty good rat, actually. Norvegicus, right?”
Vasquez led us beyond the kitchen into an empty gambling parlour. At first I thought we had the place to ourselves. Discreetly lit, the room was sumptuously outfitted in green velvet, with burbling hookahs situated on strategic pedestals. The walls were covered in paintings all done in shades of brown—except that when I looked closer I realised they were not paintings at all, but pictures made of different pieces of wood, carefully cut and glued together. Some of the pieces even had the slight shimmer which showed that they had been cut from the bark of a hamadryad tree. The pictures were all on a common theme: scenes from the life of Sky Haussmann. There were the five ships of the Flotilla crossing space from Earth’s system to ours. There was Titus Haussmann, torch in hand, finding his son alone and in the darkness after the great blackout. There was Sky visiting his father in the infirmary aboard the ship, before Titus died of the injuries he had sustained defending the Santiago against the saboteur. There, also rendered exquisitely, was Sky Haussmann’s crime and glory; the thing he had done to ensure that the Santiago reached this world ahead of the other ships in the Flotilla, the ship’s sleeper modules falling away like dandelion seeds. And, in the last picture of all, was the punishment the people had wrought on Sky: crucifixion.
Dimly I remembered that it had happened near here.
But the room was more than simply a shrine to Haussmann. Alcoves spaced around the room’s perimeter contained conventional gambling machines, and there were half-a-dozen tables where games would obviously take place later that night, although no one was actually playing at the moment. All I heard was the scurrying of rats somewhere in the shadows.
But the room’s centrepiece was a hemispherical dome, perfectly black and at least five metres wide, surrounded by padded chairs mounted on complicated telescopic plinths, elevated three metres above the floor. Each chair had an arm inset with gambling controls, while the other held a battery of intravenous devices. About half the chairs were occupied, but by figures so perfectly still and deathlike that I hadn’t even registered them when I entered the room. They were slumped back in their seats, their faces slack and their eyes closed. They all bore that indefinable aristocrat glaze: an aura of wealth and untouchability.
“What happened?” I said. “Forgot to throw them out after you locked up this morning?”
“No. They’re pretty much a permanent fixture, Mirabel. They’re playing a game that lasts months; betting on the long term outcome of ground campaigns. It’s quiet now due to the rains. Almost like there isn’t a war after all. But you should see it when the shit starts flying around.”
There was something about the place I didn’t like. It wasn’t just the display of Sky Haussmann’s story, though that was a significant part of it.
“Maybe we should be moving on, Vasquez.”
“And miss your drinks?”
Before I had decided what to say the head cook came in, still breathing noisily through his plastic mask. He propelled a little trolley loaded with drinks. I shrugged and helped myself to a pisco sour, then nodded at the décor.
“Sky Haussmann’s a big deal round here, isn’t he?”
“More than you realise, man.”
Vasquez did something and the hemisphere flicked into life, suddenly no longer fully dark but an infinitely detailed view of one half of Sky’s Edge, with an edge of black rising from the floor like a lizard’s nictitating membrane. Nueva Valparaiso was a sparkle of lights on the Peninsula’s western coastline, visible through a crack in the clouds.
“People around here can be quite religious, you know. You can easily tread on their beliefs, you’re not careful. Gotta be respectful, man.”
“I heard they based a religion around Haussmann. That’s about as far as my knowledge goes.” Again, I nodded at the décor, noticing for the first time what looked like the skull of a dolphin stuck to one wall, oddly bumped and ridged. “What happened? Did you buy this place from one of Haussmann’s nutcases?”
“Not exactly, no.”
Dieterling coughed. I ignored him.
“What, then? Did you buy into it yourself?”
Vasquez extinguished his cigarette and pinched the bridge of his nose, furrowing what little forehead he had. “What’s going on here, Mirabel? Are you trying to wind me up, or are you just an ignorant cocksucker?”
“I don’t know. I thought I was just making polite conversation.”
“Yeah, right. And you just happened to call me Red earlier on; like it just slipped out.”
“I thought we were over that.” I sipped my pisco. “I wasn’t trying to rile you, Vasquez. But it strikes me that you’re an unusually touchy fellow.”
He did something. It was a tiny gesture which he made with one hand, like someone clicking their fingers once.
What happened next was too fast for the eye to see; just a subliminal blur of metal and a breezelike caress of air currents being pushed around the room. Extrapolating backwards, I concluded that a dozen or so apertures must have slid or irised open around the room—in the walls, the floor and the ceiling, most likely—releasing machines.
They were automated sentry drones, hovering black spheres which split open along their equators to reveal three or four gun barrels apiece, which locked onto Dieterling and me. The drones orbited slowly around us, humming like wasps, bristling with belligerence.
Neither of us breathed for a few long moments, but it was Dieterling who chose to speak in the end.
“I guess we’d be dead if you were really pissed off at us, Vasquez.”
“You’re right, but it’s a fine line, Snake.” He raised his voice. “Safe mode on.” Then he made the same finger-clicking gesture he had done before. “You see that, man? It looked pretty similar to you, didn’t it? But not to the room it didn’t. If I hadn’t turned the system off, it would have interpreted that as an order to execute everyone here except myself and the fat fucks in the gaming seats.”
“I’m glad you practised it,” I said.
“Yeah, laugh about it, Mirabel.” He made the gesture again. “That looked the same as well, didn’t it? But that wasn’t quite the same command either. That would have told the sentries to blow your arms off, one at a time. The room’s programmed to recognise at least twelve more gestures—and believe me, after some of ’em I really get stung for the cleaning bill.” He shrugged. “Can I consider my point adequately made?”
“I think we’ve got the message.”
“All right. Safe mode off. Sentries retire.”
The same blur of motion; the same breeze. It was as if the machines had simply snapped out of existence.
“Impressed?” Vasquez asked me.
“Not really,” I said, feeling prickles of sweat across my brow. “With the right security set-up, you’d already have screened anyone who’d got this far. But I suppose it breaks the ice at parties.”
“Yeah, it does that.” Vasquez looked at me amusedly, evidently satisfied that he’d achieved the desired effect.
“What it also does is make me wonder why you’re so touchy.”
“You were in my shoes, you’d be a fuck of a lot more than touchy.” Then he did something that surprised me, taking his hand from his pocket, slowly enough that I had time to see there was no weapon there. “You see this, Mirabel?”
I don’t know quite what I was expecting, but the clenched fist he showed me looked normal enough. There was nothing deformed or unusual about it. Nothing, in fact, particularly red about it.
“It looks like a hand, Vasquez.”
He clenched the fist even harder and then something odd happened. Blood began to trickle out of his grip; slowly at first, but in an increasingly strong flow. I watched it spatter on the floor, scarlet on green.
“That’s why they call me what they do. Because I bleed from my right hand. Fucking original, right?” He opened the fist, revealing blood pouring out of a small hole somewhere near the middle of his palm. “Here’s the deal. It’s a stigma; like a mark of Christ.” With his good hand he reached into his other pocket and pulled out a kerchief, wadding it into a ball and pressing it against the wound to stanch the flow. “I can almost will it to happen sometimes.”
“Haussmann cultists got to you, didn’t they,” Dieterling said. “They crucified Sky as well. They drove a nail into his right hand.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“Shall I tell him?”
“Be my guest, Snake. The man clearly needs educating.”
Dieterling turned to me. “Haussmann’s cultists split up into a number of different sects over the last century or so. Some of them took their ideas from penitential monks, trying to inflict on themselves some of the pain Sky must have gone through. They lock themselves away in darkness until the isolation almost drives them insane, or makes them start seeing things. Some of them cut off their left arms; some even crucify themselves. Sometimes they die in the process.” He paused and looked at Vasquez, as if seeking permission to continue. “But there’s a more extreme sect that does all that and more. And they don’t stop there. They spread the message, not by word of mouth, or writing, but by indoctrinal virus.”
“Go on,” I said.
“It must have been engineered for them; probably by Ultras, or maybe one of them even took a trip to see the Jugglers and they screwed around with his neurochemistry. It doesn’t matter. All that does is that the virus is contagious, transmittable through the air, and it infects almost everyone.”
“Turning them into cultists?”
“No.” It was Vasquez speaking now. He had found a fresh cigarette for himself. “It fucks with you, but it doesn’t turn you into one of them, got that? You get visions, and you have dreams, and you sometimes feel the need . . .” He paused, and nodded towards the dolphin jutting from the wall. “You see that fish skull? Cost me a fucking arm and a leg. Used to belong to Sleek; one of the ones on the ship. Having shit like that around comforts me; stops me shaking. But that’s as far as it goes.”
“And the hand?”
Vasquez said, “Some of the viruses make physical changes happen. I was lucky, in a way. There’s one that makes you go blind; another that makes you scared of the dark; another that makes your left arm wither away and drop off. You know, a little blood now and again, it doesn’t bother me. At first, before many people knew about the virus, it was cool. I could really freak people out with it. Walk into a negotiation, you know, and start bleeding all over the other guy. But then people started finding out what it meant; that I’d been infected by cultists.”
“They started wondering if you were as razor-sharp as they’d heard,” Dieterling said.
“Yeah. Right.” Vasquez looked at him suspiciously. “You build up a reputation like mine, it takes time.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Dieterling said.
“Yeah. And a little thing like this, man, it can really hurt it.”
“Can’t they flush out the virus?” I said, before Dieterling pushed his luck.
“Yeah, Mirabel. In orbit, they’ve got shit that can do it. But orbit’s not currently on my list of safe places to visit, you know?”
“So you live with it. It can’t be that infectious any more, can it?”
“No; you’re safe. Everyone’s safe. I’m barely infectious now.” Now that he was smoking again he was calming down a little. The bleeding had stopped and he was able to slip his wounded hand back in his pocket. He took a sip from his pisco sour. “Sometimes I wish it was still infectious, or that I’d saved some of my blood from back when I got infected. It would have made a nice going-away present, a little shot of that in someone’s vein.”
“Except you’d be doing what the cultists always wanted you to do,” Dieterling said. “Spreading their creed.”
“Yeah, when instead I should be spreading the creed that if I ever catch the sick fuck who did this to me . . .” He trailed off, distracted by something. He stared into the middle distance, like a man undergoing some kind of paralytic seizure, then spoke. “No. No way, man. I don’t believe it.”
“What is it?” I said.
Vasquez’s voice dropped subvocal, though I could see the way his neck muscles kept on moving. He must have been wired for communication with one of his people.
“It’s Reivich,” he said finally.
“What about him?” I asked.
“The fucker’s outsmarted me.”
A maze of dark, damp passages connected Red Hand’s establishment to the interior of the bridge terminal, threading right through the structure’s black wall. He led us through the labyrinth with a torch, kicking rats out of the way.
“A decoy,” he said wonderingly. “I never figured he’d set up a decoy. I mean, we’ve been following this fucker for days.” He said the last word as if it should have been months at the very least; implying superhuman foresight and planning.
“The lengths some people’ll go to,” I said.
“Hey, ease off, Mirabel. It was your idea not to waste the guy the instant we saw him, which could easily have been arranged.” He shouldered through a set of doors into another passageway.
“It still wouldn’t have been Reivich, would it?”
“No, but when we examined the body we might have figured out it wasn’t him, and then we could have started looking around for the real one.”
“Guy’s got a point,” Dieterling said. “Much as it pains me to admit it.”
“One I owe you, Snake.”
“Yeah, well, don’t let it go to your head.”
Vasquez sent another rat scurrying for the shadows. “So what really did happen out there, that made you want to get into this vendetta shit in the first place?”
I said, “You seemed reasonably well informed already.”
“Well, word gets around, that’s all. Especially when someone like Cahuella buys the big one. Talk of a power-vacuum, that kind of shit. Thing is, I’m surprised either of you two made it out alive. I heard some extreme shit went down in that ambush.”
“I wasn’t badly injured,” Dieterling said. “Tanner was a lot worse off than me. He’d lost a foot.”
“It wasn’t that bad,” I said. “The beam weapon cauterised the wound and stopped the bleeding.”
“Oh yeah, right,” Vasquez said. “Just a flesh wound, then. I can’t get enough of you guys, I really can’t.”
“Fine, but can we talk about something else?”
My reticence was more than simply an unwillingness to discuss the incident with Red Hand Vasquez. That was part of it, but an equally important factor was that I just didn’t remember the details with any clarity. I might have before I was put under for the recuperative coma—the one in which my foot was regrown—but now the whole incident felt like it had happened in the remote past, rather than a few weeks ago.
I’d sincerely believed that Cahuella would make it, though. At first he seemed to have been the lucky one: the laser pulse had gone right through him without cleaving any vital organs, just as if its trajectory had been mapped in advance by a skilled thoracic surgeon. But complications had set in, and without the means to reach orbit—he would have been arrested and executed as soon as he left the atmosphere—he was forced to accept the best black market medicine he could afford. It had been good enough to repair my leg, but that was exactly the kind of injury the war made commonplace. Complex damage to internal organs required an additional level of expertise which could simply not be bought on the black market.
So he’d died.
And here I was, chasing the man who’d killed Cahuella and his wife; aiming to take him down with a single diamond flèchette from the clockwork gun.
Back before I became a security expert in the employment of Cahuella; back when I was still a soldier, they used to say that I was such a proficient sniper that I could put a slug into someone’s head and take out a specific area of brain function. It wasn’t true; never had been. But I’d always been good, and I did like to make it clean and quick and surgical.
I sincerely hoped Reivich wouldn’t let me down.
To my surprise, the secret passageway opened directly into the heart of the anchorpoint terminal, emerging in a shadowed part of the main concourse. I looked back at the security barrier which we’d avoided; watching the guards scan people for concealed weapons; checking identities in case a war criminal was trying to get off the planet. The clockwork gun, still snug in my pocket, wouldn’t have shown up in those scans, which was one of the reasons why I’d opted for it. Now I felt a tinge of irritation that my careful planning had been partially wasted.
“Gents,” Vasquez said, lingering on the threshold, “this is as far as I go.”
“I thought this place would be right up your street,” Dieterling said, looking around. “What’s wrong? Scared you’d never want to leave again?”
“Something like that, Snake.” Vasquez patted the two of us on the back. “All right. Go and bring down that postmortal shit-smear, boys. Just don’t tell anyone I brought you here.”
“Don’t worry,” Dieterling said. “Your role in things won’t be overstated.”
“Copacetic. And remember, Snake . . .” He mimed firing a gun again. “That hunt we talked about . . . ?”
“Consider yourself pencilled in, at least on a provisional basis.”
He vanished back into the tunnel, leaving Dieterling and me standing together in the terminal. For a few moments neither of us said anything, overwhelmed by the strangeness of the place.
We were in the surface-level concourse, a ring-shaped hall which encircled the embarkation and disembarkation chamber at the base of the thread. The concourse’s ceiling was many levels above, the intervening space criss-crossed by suspended walkways and transit tubes, with what had once been luxury shops, boutiques and restaurants set into the outer wall. Most of them were closed now, or had been converted into minor shrines or places where religious material could be purchased. There were very few people moving around, with hardly anyone arriving from orbit and only a handful of people walking towards the elevators. The concourse was darker than its designers must have intended, the ceiling scarcely visible, and the whole place had the quality of a cathedral in which, unseen but sensed, some sacred ceremony was taking place; an atmosphere that invited neither haste nor raised voices. At the very edge of hearing was a constant low hum, like a basement full of generators. Or, I thought, like a room full of chanting monks holding the same sepulchral note.
“Has it always been like this?” I said.
“No. I mean, it’s always been a shithole, but it’s definitely worse than the last time I was here. It must have been different a month or so ago. The place would have been heaving. Most of the people for the ship would have had to come through here.”
The arrival of a starship around Sky’s Edge was always something of an event. Being a poor and moderately backwards planet compared with many of the other settled worlds, we were not exactly a key player in the shifting spectrum of interstellar trade. We didn’t export much, except the experience of war itself and a few uninteresting bio-products culled from the jungles. We would have happily bought all manner of exotic technological goods and services from the Demarchist worlds, but only the very wealthiest people on Sky’s Edge could afford them. When ships paid us a visit, speculation usually had it that they had been been frozen out of the more lucrative markets—the Yellowstone-Sol run, or the Fand-Yellowstone-Grand Teton run—or they had to stop anyway to make repairs. It happened about once every ten standard years, on average, and they always screwed us.
“Is this really where Haussmann died?” I asked Dieterling.
“It was somewhere near here,” he said as we crossed the concourse’s great, echoing floor. “They’ll never know exactly where because they didn’t have accurate maps back then. But it must have been within a few kilometres of here; definitely within the outskirts of Nueva Valparaiso. At first they were going to burn the body, but then they decided to embalm him; make it easier to hold him up as an example to others.”
“But there was no cult then?”
“No. He had a few fruitcake sympathisers, of course—but there was nothing ecclesiastical about it. That came afterwards. The Santiago was largely secular, but they couldn’t engineer religion out of the human psyche that easily. They took what Sky had done and fused his deeds with what they chose to remember from home; saving this and discarding that as they saw fit. It took a few generations until they had all the details worked out, but then there was no stopping them.”
“And after the bridge was built?”
“By then one of the Haussmann cults had gained possession of the body. The Church of Sky, they called themselves. And—for reasons of convenience, if nothing else—they’d decided that he must have died not just near the bridge but right under it. And that the bridge was not really a space elevator at all—or if it was, that was just a superficial function—but really a sign from God: a ready-made shrine to the crime and glory of Sky Haussmann.”
“But people designed and built the bridge.”
“Under God’s will. Don’t you understand? It’s nothing you can argue with, Tanner. Give up now.”
We passed a few cultists moving in the opposite direction, two men and a woman. I felt a jolt of familiarity when I saw them, but I couldn’t remember if I had ever seen any in the flesh before. They wore ash-coloured smocks and both sexes tended to wear their hair long. One man had a kind of mechanical coronet fixed on his skull—maybe some kind of pain-inducing device—while the other man’s left sleeve was pinned flatly to his side. The woman had a small dolphin-shaped mark on her forehead, and I remembered the way in which Sky Haussmann had befriended the dolphins aboard the Santiago; spending time with the creatures that the other crew shunned.
Recollection of that detail struck me as odd. Had someone told it to me before?
“Have you got that gun ready?” Dieterling said. “You never know. We might walk round the corner and find the bastard tying his shoelaces.”
I patted the gun to reassure myself that it was still there, then said, “I don’t think it’s our day to be lucky, Miguel.”
We stepped through a door set into the concourse’s inner wall, the sound of chanting monks now quite unmistakably human; sustaining a note that was almost but not quite perfect.
For the first time since entering the anchorpoint terminal, we could see the thread. The embarkation area into which we’d stepped was a huge circular room encircled by a balcony on which we stood. The true floor was hundreds of metres below us, and the thread plunged from above, emerging through the ceiling via an irised entrance door, then stretching down towards the point where it was truly anchored and where servicing machinery lurked to refurbish and repair the elevators. It was somewhere down there that the sound of the chanting was coming from; voices carried higher by the odd acoustics of the place.
The bridge was a single thin thread of hyperdiamond stretching all the way from ground to synchronous orbit. For almost its entire length it was only five metres in diameter (and most of that was hollow), except for the very last kilometre which dropped into the terminal itself. The thread here was thirty metres wide, tapering subtly as it rose. The extra width served a purely psychological function: too many passengers had baulked at taking the journey to orbit when they saw how slender the thread they would be riding really was, so the bridge owners made the visible portion in the terminal much wider than it needed to be.
Elevator cars arrived and departed every few minutes or so, ascending and descending on opposite sides of the column. Each was a sleek cylinder curved to grip nearly half the thread, attached magnetically. The cars were multi-storeyed, with separate levels for dining, recreation and sleeping. They were mostly empty, their passenger compartments unlit as they glided up or down. There were a handful of people in only every fifth or sixth car. The empty cars were symptomatic of the bridge’s economic woes, but not a great problem in themselves. The expense of running them was tiny compared with the cost of the bridge; they had no impact on the schedule of the inhabited cars, and from a distance they looked as full as the others, conveying an illusion of busy prosperity which the bridge owners had long given up hoping would one day approach reality, since the Church had assumed tenancy. And the monsoon season may have given the illusion that the war was in its dog days, but plans were already drawn for the new season’s campaigns: the pushes and incursions already simulated in the battle-planners’ wargame computers.
A dizzyingly unsupported tongue of glass reached from the balcony to a point just short of the thread, leaving enough space for an elevator to arrive. Some passengers were already waiting on the tongue with their belongings, including a group of well-dressed aristocrats. But no Reivich, and no one in the party who resembled any of Reivich’s associates. They were talking amongst themselves or watching news reports on screens which floated around the chamber like square, narrow-bodied tropical fish, flickering with market reports and celebrity interviews.
Near the base of tongue was a booth where elevator tickets were being sold; a bored-looking woman was behind the desk.
“Wait here,” I said to Dieterling.
The woman looked up at me as I approached the desk. She wore a crumpled Bridge Authority uniform and had purple crescents under her eyes, which were themselves bloodshot and swollen.
“I’m a friend of Argent Reivich. I need to contact him urgently.”
“I’m afraid that isn’t possible.”
It was no more than I was expecting. “When did he leave?”
Her voice was nasal; the consonants indistinct. “I’m afraid I can’t give out that information.”
I nodded shrewdly. “But you don’t deny that he passed through the terminal.”
“I’m afraid I . . .”
“Look, give it a rest, will you?” I softened the remark with what I hoped was an accommodating smile. “Sorry, it wasn’t my intention to sound rude, but this happens to be very urgent. I have something for him, you see—a valuable Reivich family heirloom. Is there any way I can speak to him while he’s still ascending, or am I going to have to wait until he reaches orbit?”
The woman hesitated. Almost any information she divulged at this point would have contravened protocol—but I must have seemed so honest, so genuinely distressed by my friend’s omission. And so clearly rich.
She glanced down at a display. “You’ll be able to place a message for him to contact you when he arrives at the orbital terminus.” Implying that he hadn’t yet arrived; that he was still somewhere above me, ascending the thread.
“I think perhaps I’d better just follow him,” I said. “That way, there’ll be the minimum of delay when he reaches orbit. I can just deliver the relevant item and return.”
“I suppose that would make sense, yes.” She looked at me, perhaps sensing something in my manner that was not as it should have been, but not trusting her own instincts sufficiently to obstruct my progress. “But you’ll have to hurry. The next departure’s almost ready for boarding.”
I looked back to the point where the tongue extended out to the thread, seeing an empty elevator slide up from the servicing area.
“You’d better issue me with a ticket then.”
“You’ll be needing a return, I presume?” The woman rubbed at her eyes. “That’ll be five hundred and fifty Australs.”
I opened my wallet and pinched out the money, printed in crisp Southlander bills. “Scandalous,” I said. “The amount of energy it actually costs the Bridge Authority to carry me to orbit, it should be a tenth the price. But I suppose some of that gets skimmed off by the Church of Sky.”
“I’m not saying that doesn’t happen, but you shouldn’t speak ill of the Church, sir. Not here.”
“No; that was what I heard. But you’re not one of them, are you?”
“No,” she said, handing me the change in smaller bills. “I just work here.”
The cultists had taken over the bridge a decade or so back, after they had convinced themselves that this place was where Sky had been crucified. They had stormed the place one evening before anyone realised quite what was happening. Haussmann’s followers claimed to have rigged the whole terminal with booby-trapped canisters primed with their virus, threatening to discharge them if there was any attempt at an eviction. The virus would carry far enough on the wind to infect half the Peninsula, if there was as much of it in the bridge as the cultists said. They might have been bluffing, but no one was prepared to take the risk of the cult forcing itself on millions of bystanders. So they held the bridge, and allowed the Bridge Authority to continue running it, even if it meant that the staff had to be constantly inoculated against any trace contamination. Given the side-effects of the anti-viral therapy, it obviously wasn’t the most popular work on the Peninsula—especially as it meant listening to the endless chanting of the cultists.
She handed me the ticket.
“I hope I make it to orbit in time,” I said.
“The last elevator only left an hour ago. If your friend was on that one . . .” She paused, and I knew there was no if about it. “The chances are very good that he’ll still be in the orbital terminal when you arrive.”
“Let’s just hope he’s grateful, after all this.”
She almost smiled, then seemed to give up halfway through. It was a lot of effort, after all.
“I’m sure he’ll be blown away.”
I pocketed the ticket, thanked the woman—miserable as she was, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her having to work here—and then walked back to Dieterling. He was leaning on the low glass wall that surrounded the connecting tongue, looking down at the cultists. His expression was one of detached, watchful calm. I thought back to the time in the jungle when he had saved my life, during the hamadryad attack. He had worn the same neutral expression then: like a man engaged in a chess match against a completely outclassed opponent.
“Well?” he mouthed, when we were within earshot.
“He’s already taken an elevator.”
“About an hour ago. I’ve just bought a ticket for myself. Go and buy one as well, but don’t act as if we’re travelling together.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t come with you, bro.”
“You’ll be safe.” I lowered my voice. “There won’t be any emigration checkpoints between here and the exit from the orbital terminal. You can ride up and down without getting arrested.”
“Easy for you to say, Tanner.”
“Yes, but still I’m telling you it’ll be safe.”
Dieterling shook his head. “Maybe it will be, but it still doesn’t make much sense for us to travel together; even in the same elevator. There’s no guessing how well Reivich has this place under surveillance.”
I was about to argue, but part of me knew that what he said was right. Like Cahuella, Dieterling couldn’t safely leave the surface of Sky’s Edge without running the risk of being arrested on war crimes charges. They were both listed in systemwide databases and—save for the fact that Cahuella was dead—they both had hefty bounties on their heads.
“All right,” I said. “I suppose there’s another reason for you to stay. I’ll be away from the Reptile House for some time now: three days at the very least. There should be someone competent looking after things back home.”
“Are you certain you can handle Reivich on your own?”
I shrugged. “It takes only one shot, Miguel.”
“And you’re the man to deliver it.” He was visibly relieved. “Fine then; I’ll drive back to the Reptile House tonight. And I’ll be watching the newsfeeds avidly.”
“I’ll try not to disappoint. Wish me well.”
“I do.” Dieterling reached out and shook my hand. “Be careful, Tanner. Just because there’s no bounty on your head, it doesn’t mean you’ll be able to walk away without doing a little explaining first. I’ll leave it to you to work out how to dispose of the gun.”
“You miss it so badly, I’ll buy you one for your birthday.”
He looked at me for a long moment, as if on the point of saying something more, then nodded and turned away from the thread. I watched him leave the chamber, exiting back into the shadowed gloom of the concourse. He began to adjust the coloration of his coat as he walked; his broad-backed figure shimmered as it receded.
I turned around myself, facing the elevator, waiting for my ride. And then slipped my hand into my pocket, resting it against the diamond-hard coolness of the gun.
“Sir? Dinner will be served on the lower deck in fifteen minutes, if you intend to join the other passengers.”
I jumped, not having heard anyone’s footsteps on the staircase which led up to the observation deck. I’d assumed I was completely alone. All the other passengers had retired to their rooms immediately upon boarding—the journey just long enough to justify unpacking their luggage—but I had gone up onto the observation deck to watch our departure. I had a room, but nothing that I needed to unpack.
The ascent had begun with ghostly smoothness. At first it hardly seemed like we were moving at all. There had been no sound, no vibration; just an eerily smooth glide moving imperceptibly slowly, but which was always gaining speed. I had looked down, trying to see the cultists, but the angle of the view made it impossible to see more than a few stragglers, rather than the mass that must have been directly below. We had just been passing through the ceiling iris when the voice had startled me.
I turned around. A servitor had spoken to me, not a man. It had extensible arms and an excessively stylised head, but instead of legs or wheels, its torso tapered to a point below the machine’s waist, like a wasp’s thorax. It moved around on a rail attached to the ceiling, to which the robot was coupled via a curved spar protruding from its back.
“Sir?” It began again, this time in Norte. “Dinner will be served . . .”
“No; I understood you first time.” I thought about the risk involved in mixing with real aristocrats, then decided that it was probably less than that involved in remaining suspiciously aloof. At least if I sat down with them I could provide them with a fictitious persona which might pass muster, rather than allowing their imaginations free rein to sketch in whatever details they wished to impose on this uncommunicative stranger. Speaking Norte now—I needed the practice—I said, “I’ll join the others in a quarter of an hour. I’d like to watch the view for a little while.”
“Very well, sir. I shall prepare a place for you at the table.”
The robot rotated around and glided silently out of the observation deck.
I looked back to the view.
I’m not sure quite what I was expecting at that point, but it couldn’t have been anything at all like the thing that confronted me. We had passed through the upper ceiling of the embarkation chamber, but the anchorpoint terminal was much taller than that, so that we were still ascending through the upper reaches of the building. And it was here, I realised, that the cultists had achieved the highest expression of their obsession with Sky Haussmann. After his crucifixion they had preserved the body, embalming it and then encasing it in something that had the grey-green lustre of lead, and they had mounted him here, on a great, upthrusting prow that extended inward from one interior wall until it almost touched the thread. It made Haussmann’s corpse look like the figurehead fixed beneath the bowsprit of a great sailing ship.
They had stripped him to the waist, spread his arms wide and fixed him to a cross-shaped alloy spar. His legs were bound together, but a nail had been driven through the wrist of his right hand (not the palm; that was a detail the stigma-inducing virus got wrong) and a much larger piece of metal had been rammed through the upper part of his severed left arm. These details, and the expression of numb agony on Haussmann’s face, had been rendered mercifully indistinct by the encasing process. But while it was not really possible to read his features, every nuance of his pain was written into the arc of his neck; the way his jaw was clenched as if in the throes of electrocution. They should have electrocuted him, I thought. It would have been kinder, no matter the crimes he had committed.
But that would have been too simple. They were not just executing a man who had done terrible things, but glorifying a man who had also given them a whole world. In crucifying him, they were showing their adoration as fervently as their hate.
It had been like that ever since.
The elevator tracked past Sky, coming within metres of him, and I felt myself flinching; wishing that we could be clear of him as quickly as possible. It was as if the vast space was an echo chamber, reverberating with endless pain.
My palm itched. I rubbed it against the hand-rail, closing my eyes until we were free of the anchorpoint terminal; rising through night.
“More wine, Mr. Mirabel?” asked the foxlike wife of the aristocrat sitting opposite me.
“No,” I said, dabbing my lips politely with the napkin. “If you don’t mind, I’ll retire. I’d like to watch the view while we climb.”
“That’s a shame,” the woman said, pursing her own lips in a pout of disappointment.
“Yes,” said her husband. “We’ll miss your stories, Tanner.”
I smiled. In truth, I’d done little more than grimace my way through an hour of stilted smalltalk while we dined. I had salted the conversation with the odd anecdote now and then, but only to fill the awkward silences which fell across the table when one or other of the participants made what might, within the ever-shifting loom of aristocratic etiquette, be construed as an indelicate remark. More than once I had to resolve arguments between the northern and southern factions, and in the process of doing so I had become the group’s default speaker. My disguise must not have been absolutely convincing, for even the northerners seemed to realise that there was not automatically any affiliation between me and the southerners.
It hardly mattered, though. The disguise had convinced the woman in the ticket booth that I was an aristocrat, making her reveal more than she might have done otherwise. It had allowed me to blend in with these aristocrats, too—but sooner or later I would be able to discard it. I was not a wanted man, after all—just someone with a shady past and a few shady connections. There had been no harm in calling myself Tanner Mirabel, either—it was a lot safer than trying to come up with a convincing aristocrat lineage out of thin air. It was, thankfully, a neutral name that had no obvious connotations, aristocratic or otherwise. Unlike the rest of my dinner companions, I couldn’t trace my lineage back to the Flotilla’s arrival, and it was more than likely that the Mirabel name had arrived on Sky’s Edge half a century after that. In aristocrat terms I was posing as a parvenu lout—but no one would have been gauche enough to allude to that. They were all long-lived, tracing their lineages not just back to the Flotilla, but to the passenger manifest, with only one or two intervening generations—and it was perfectly natural to assume that I possessed the same augmented genes and access to the same therapeutic technologies.
But while the Mirabels probably had arrived on Sky’s Edge sometime after the Flotilla, they hadn’t brought any kind of germline longevity fix with them. Perhaps the first generation had lived a longer-than-normal human lifespan, but that advantage had not been passed to their offspring.
I didn’t have the money to buy it off the shelf, either. Cahuella had paid me adequately, but not so well that I could afford to be stung by the Ultras to that extent. And it almost didn’t matter. Only one in twenty of the planet’s population had the fix anyway. The rest of us were mired in a war, or scraping a living in the war’s interstices. The main problem was how to survive the next month, not the next century.
Which meant that the conversation took a decidedly awkward turn as soon as the subject matter turned to longevity techniques. I did my best to just sit back and let the words flow around me, but as soon as there was any kind of dispute I was pushed into the role of adjudicator. “Tanner will know,” they said, turning to me to offer some definitive statement on whatever had provoked the stalemate.
“It’s a complicated issue,” I said, more than once.
Or: “Well, obviously there are deeper issues at stake here.”
Or: “It would be unethical of me to speak further on this topic, I’m afraid—confidentiality agreements and all that. You do understand, don’t you?”
After an hour or so of that, I was ready for some time on my own.
I stood from the table, made my excuses and left, stepping up the spiral staircase which led to the observation deck above the habitation and dining levels. The prospect of shedding the aristocratic skin pleased me, and for the first time in hours I felt the tiniest glow of professional contentment. Everything was in hand. When I reached the top I had the compartment’s servitor prepare me a guindado. Even the way the drink fogged my normal clarity of mind was not unpleasing. There was plenty of time to become sober again: it would be at least seven hours before I needed an assassin’s edge.
We were ascending quickly now. The elevator had accelerated to a climb rate of five hundred kilometres per hour as soon as it cleared the terminal, but even at that rate it would still have taken forty hours to make it to the orbital terminal, many thousands of kilometres above our heads. However, the elevator had quadrupled its speed once it no longer had to punch through atmosphere, which had happened somewhere during our first course.
I had the observation deck to myself.
The other passengers, when they had finished dining, would disperse through the five compartments above the dining area. The elevator could comfortably carry fifty people and not appear crowded, but there were only seven of us today, including myself. The total trip time was ten hours. The station’s revolution around Sky’s Edge was synchronised to the planet’s own daily rotation so that it always hung exactly over Nueva Valparaiso, dead above the equator. They had star-bridges on Earth, I knew, which reached thirty-six thousand kilometres high—but because Sky’s Edge rotated a little faster and had a slightly weaker gravitational pull, synchronous orbit was sixteen thousand kilometres lower. The thread, nonetheless, was still twenty thousand kilometres long—and that meant that the top kilometre of thread was under quite shocking tension from the deadweight of the nineteen thousand kilometres of thread below it. The thread was hollow, the walls a lattice of piezo-electrically reinforced hyperdiamond, but the weight of it, I had heard, was still close to twenty million tonnes. Every time I made a footfall, as I moved around the compartment, I thought of the tiny additional stress my motion was imparting to the thread. Sipping my guindado, I wondered how close to its breaking strain the thread was engineered; how much tolerance the engineers built into the system. Then a more rational part of my mind reminded me that the thread was carrying only a tiny fraction of the traffic it could handle. I stepped with more confidence around the picture window.
I wondered if Reivich was calm enough to take a drink now.
The view should have been spectacular, but even where night had yet to fall the Peninsula was hidden under a blanket of monsoon cloud. Since the world huddled close to Swan in its orbit, monsoon season came once every hundred days or so, lasting no more than ten or fifteen days each short year. Above the sharply curved horizon the sky had darkened through shades of blue towards a deep navy. I could see bright stars now, and overhead lay the single fixed star of the orbital station at the high end of the thread, still a long way above us. I considered sleeping for a few hours, my soldiering years having given me an almost animal ability to snap into a state of total alertness. I swirled what remained of the drink and took another sip. Now that I had made up my mind, I felt fatigue rushing over me like a damburst. It was always there, waiting for the slightest relaxation in my guard.
I flinched again, only slightly this time, for I recognised the voice of the servitor. The machine’s cultured voice continued, “Sir, there is a call for you from the surface. I can have it sent through to your quarters, or you may view it here.”
I thought about going back to my room, but it was a shame to lose the view. “Put it through,” I said. “But terminate the call should anyone else start coming up the stairs.”
“Very well, sir.”
Dieterling, of course—it had to be. He wouldn’t have had time to get back to the Reptile House, although by my estimate he should have been about two-thirds of the way there. A shade early for him to try and contact me—and I hadn’t expected any contact anyway—but it was nothing to feel any anxiety about.
But instead, the face and shoulders that appeared in the elevator’s window belonged to Red Hand Vasquez. Somewhere in the room a camera must have been capturing me and adjusting my image to make it seem as if we were standing face to face, for he looked me straight in the eye.
“Tanner. Listen to me, man.”
“I’m listening,” I said, wondering if the irritation I felt was obvious in my voice. “What was so important that you needed to reach me here, Red?”
“Fuck you, Mirabel. You won’t be smiling in about thirty seconds.” But the way he said it made it seem less like a threat than a warning to prepare for bad news.
“What is it? Reivich pulled another fast one on us?”
“I don’t know. I had some guys make some more enquiries and I’m damn sure he’s on that thread, the way you think he is—a car or two ahead of you.”
“Then that isn’t why you’re calling.”
“No. I’m calling because someone’s killed Snake.”
I answered reflexively, “Dieterling?”
As if it could be anyone else.
Vasquez nodded. “Yeah. One of my guys found him about an hour ago, but he didn’t know who he was dealing with, so it took a while for the news to get back to me.”
My mouth seemed to form the words without conscious input from my mind. “Where was he? What had happened?”
“He was in your car, the wheeler—still parked on Norquinco. You couldn’t see there was anyone in it from the street; you had to look inside deliberately. My guy was just checking out the machine. He found Dieterling slumped down inside. He was still breathing.”
“Someone shot him. Must’ve waited near where the wheeler was parked, then hung around until Dieterling got back from the bridge. Dieterling must have just got in the wheeler, getting ready to leave.”
“How was he shot?”
“I don’t know man; it’s not like I’m running an autopsy clinic here, you know?” Vasquez bit his lip before continuing, “Some kind of beam job, I think. Close range into the chest.”
I glanced down at the guindado I still held. It felt absurd to be standing here talking about my friend’s death with a cocktail drink in one hand, as if the matter was only a piece of easy smalltalk. But there was nowhere nearby to put the drink down.
I took a sip and answered him with a coldness that surprised me. “I prefer beam weapons myself, but they’re not what I’d use if I wanted to kill someone without making a fuss. A beam weapon creates more flash than most projectile weapons.”
“Unless it’s very close range; like a stabbing. Look, I’m sorry, man, but it looks like that’s how it happened. The barrel must’ve been pushed right into his clothes. Hardly any light or noise—and what there was would’ve been hidden by the wheeler. There was a lot of partying going on anyway tonight. Somebody started a fire near the bridge, and that was all the excuse the locals needed for a wild night. I don’t think anyone would’ve noticed a beam discharge, Tanner.”
“Dieterling wouldn’t have just sat back and let someone do that.”
“Maybe he didn’t get much warning.”
I thought about that. On some level the fact of his death was beginning to register, but the implications—not to mention the emotional shock—would take a lot longer. But I could at least force myself to ask the right questions now. “If he didn’t get much warning, either he wasn’t paying attention or he thought the person who killed him was someone he knew. He was still breathing, did you say?”
“Yeah, but he wasn’t conscious. I don’t think we could have done much for him, Tanner.”
“You’re sure he didn’t say anything?”
“Not to me or the guy who found him.”
“The guy—the man—who found him. Was he someone we’d met tonight?”
“No; he was one of the men I had tailing Reivich all day.”
This was how it was going to carry on, I thought: Vasquez just didn’t have the initiative to expand on an answer unless it was dragged kicking and screaming out of him. “And? How long had this man been in your service? Had Dieterling ever met him before?”
It was painfully slow, but he must have seen the way my questioning was running. “Hey, no way, man. No way did my guy have anything to do with this. I swear to you, Tanner.”
“He’s still a suspect. That goes for anyone we met tonight—including you, Red.”
“I wouldn’t have killed him. I wanted him to take me snake hunting.”
There was something so pathetically selfish about that answer that there was a good chance it was true.
“Well, I guess you’ve blown your chance.”
“I didn’t have anything to do with it, Tanner.”
“But it happened on your turf, didn’t it?”
He was about to answer, and I was about to ask him what he had done with the body and what he intended to do about it when Vasquez’s image dissolved into static. At the same instant there was a powerful flash that seemed to come from everywhere at once, bathing every surface in a sickly white radiance.
It lasted for only a fraction of a second.
It was enough, though. There was something unforgettable about that hard burst of tarnished light; something I had seen once before. Or was it more than once? For a moment I wondered: remembering carnations of white light blossoming against stellar blackness.
The elevator’s illumination dimmed for a few seconds, and I felt my weight grow less and then return to normal.
Someone had let off a nuke.
The electromagnetic pulse must have swept over us, momentarily interfering with the elevator. I hadn’t seen a nuke flash since my childhood, one of the war’s small sanities being that for the most part it had stayed in the conventional realm. I couldn’t estimate the burst yield without knowing how far away the flash had been, but the lack of a mushroom cloud suggested that the explosion had taken place well above the planet’s surface. It didn’t make much sense: a nuke deployment could only have been the prelude to a conventional assault, and this was the wrong season for it. Elevated bursts made even less sense—military communications networks were hardened against electromagnetic pulse warfare.
An accident, perhaps?
I thought about it for a few more seconds, then heard footsteps racing up the spiral staircase between the elevator’s vertically stacked compartments. I saw one of the aristocrats I had just been dining with. I hadn’t bothered remembering his name, but the man’s levantine bone structure and golden-brown skin almost certainly identified him as a northerner. He was dressed opulently, his knee-length coat dripping shades of emerald and aquamarine. But he was agitated. Behind him, his foxlike wife paused on the last step, eyeing both of us warily.
“Did you see that?” the man asked. “We came up here to get a better look; you’ve got the best view from here. It looked pretty big. It almost looked like a . . .”
“A nuke?” I said. “I think it was.” There were retinal ghosts, pink shapes etched across my vision.
“Thank God it wasn’t any closer.”
“Let me see what the public nets say,” said the woman, glancing at a bracelet-shaped display device. It must have tapped into a less vulnerable data network than the one which Vasquez had been using, because she connected immediately. Images and text spilled across the device’s discreet little screen.
“Well?” said her husband. “Do they have any theories yet?”
“I don’t know, but . . .” She hesitated, her eyes lingering over something, then frowning. “No. That can’t be true. It just can’t be true.”
“What? What are they saying?”
She looked to the man and then to me. “They’re saying they’ve attacked the bridge. They’re saying that the explosion’s severed the thread.”
In the unreal moments that followed, the elevator continued to climb smoothly.
“No,” the man said, doing his best to sound calm, but not quite managing it. “They must be wrong. They’ve got to be wrong.”
“I hope to God they are,” the woman said, her voice beginning to crack. “My last neural scan was six months ago . . .”
“Damn six months,” the man said. “I haven’t been scanned this decade!”
The woman breathed out hard. “Well, they absolutely have to be wrong. We’re continuing to have this conversation, aren’t we? We’re not all screaming as we drop towards the planet.” She looked at her bracelet again, frowning.
“What does it say?” the man said.
“Exactly what it said a moment ago.”
“It’s a mistake, or a vicious lie, that’s all.”
I debated how much it would be judicious to reveal at this point. I was more than just a bodyguard, of course. In my years of service to Cahuella there were few things on the planet which I had not studied—even if that study had usually been motivated by some military application. I didn’t pretend to know much about the bridge, but I did know something about hyperdiamond, the artificial carbon alloptrope from which it was spun.
“Actually,” I said, “I think they could be right.”
“But nothing’s changed!” the woman said.
“I wouldn’t necessarily expect it to.” I was forcing calm myself, clicking back into the crisis-management state of mind my soldiering years had taught me. Somewhere in the back of my head was a shrill scream of private fear, but I did my best to ignore it for the moment. “Even if the bridge had been cut, how far below do you think that flash was? I’d say it was at least three thousand kilometres.”
“What the fuck has that got to do with it?”
“A lot,” I said, managing a gallows smile. “Think of the bridge as being like a rope—hanging all the way down from orbit, stretched out by its own weight.”
“I’m thinking about it, believe me.”
“Good. Now think about cutting the rope midway along its height. The part above the cut is still hanging from the orbital hub, but the part below will immediately begin falling to the ground.”
The man answered now. “We’re perfectly safe, then? We’re certainly above the cut.” He looked upwards. “The thread’s intact all the way between here and the orbital terminus. That means if we keep climbing, we’ll make it, thank God.”
“I wouldn’t start thanking Him just yet.”
He looked at me with a pained expression, as if I were spoiling some elaborate parlour game with needless objections.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean it doesn’t mean we’re safe. If you cut a long rope hanging under its own weight, the part above the cut’s going to spring back.”
“Yes.” He looked at me with threatening eyes, as if I was making my objections out of spite. “I understand that. But it obviously doesn’t apply to us, since nothing’s happened.”
“Yet,” I said. “I never said the relaxation would happen instantly, all along the thread. Even if the thread’s been cut below us, it’ll take some time for the relaxation wave to climb all the way up to us.”
His question was fearful now.
I had no exact answer for them. “I don’t know. Speed of sound in hyperdiamond isn’t very different than in natural diamond—about fifteen kilometres a second, I think. If the cut was three thousand kilometres under us, the sound wave should hit us first—about two hundred seconds after the nuke flash. The relaxation wave should move slower than that, I think . . . but it will still reach us before we reach the summit.”
My timing was exquisite, for the sonic pulse arrived just as I had finished speaking, a hard and sudden jolt, as if the elevator had just hit a bump in its two-thousand-kilometre-per-hour ascent.
“We’re still safe, aren’t we?” asked the wife, her voice only a knife-edge from hysteria. “If the cut is below us . . . Oh God, I wish we’d been backed-up more often.”
Her husband looked at her snidely. “It was you who told me those flights to the scanning clinic were too expensive to make a habit out of, darling.”
“But you didn’t have to take me literally.”
I raised my voice, silencing them. “I still think we’re in a lot of danger, I’m afraid. If the relaxation wave is just a longitudinal compression along the thread, there’s a chance we’ll ride it out safely. But if the thread starts picking up any kind of sideways motion, like a whip . . .”
“What the fuck are you,” the man asked, “some kind of engineer?”
“No,” I said. “Another kind of specialist entirely.”
More footfalls on the stairs now as the rest of the group came up. The jolt must have convinced them something was seriously wrong.
“What’s happening?” asked one of the southerners, a burly man a foot taller than anyone else in the elevator.
“We’re riding a severed thread,” I answered. “There are spacesuits aboard this thing, aren’t there? I suggest we get into them as quickly as possible.”
The man looked at me as if I were insane. “We’re still ascending! I don’t give a damn what happened below us; we’re fine. They built this thing to take a lot of crap.”
“Not this much,” I said.
By now the servitor had arrived as well, suspended from its ceiling rail. I asked it to show us to the suits. It should not have been necessary to ask, but this situation was so far beyond the servitor’s experience that it had completely failed to detect any threat to its human charges. I wondered if the news of the severed thread had reached the orbital station. Almost certainly it had—and almost certainly there was nothing that could be done for the elevators still on the thread.
Still, it was better to be on the upper part of the thread than the part below the severing point. I imagined a thousand-kilometre-high section below the cut. It would take several minutes for the top of the thread to smash into the planet below—in fact, for a long while it would seem to hang magically, like a rope trick. But it would still be falling, and there was nothing in the world that could stop it. A million tonnes of thread, slicing down into the atmosphere, laden with cars, some of them occupied. It would be a slow and quite terrifying way to die.
Who could have done this?
It was too much to believe that it didn’t have something to do with my ascent. Reivich had tricked us in Nueva Valparaiso, and if it hadn’t been for the bridge attack I would have still been trying to assimilate the fact of Miguel Dieterling’s death. I couldn’t imagine Red Hand Vasquez having anything to do with the explosion, even though I hadn’t completely ruled him out of the frame for my friend’s murder. Vasquez just didn’t have the imagination to attempt something like this, let alone the means. And his cultist indoctrination would have made it very hard for him to even think of harming the bridge in any way. Yet someone appeared to be trying to kill me. Maybe they had put a bomb aboard one of the elevators rising below, thinking I was on it, or would be on one of those below the cut point—or maybe they had fired a missile and misjudged the point to aim for. It could have been Reivich, but only in the technical sense—he had friends with the right influence. But I’d never figured him as someone capable of an act of that ruthlessness: casually wiping out of existence a few hundred innocents just to ensure the death of one man.
But maybe Reivich was learning.
We followed the servitor to the emergency space suit lockers, each of which held one vacuum suit. They were of antique design by spacefaring standards, requiring the user to physically insert themselves in the garment rather than have it enfold around them. They all appeared to be one size too small, but I donned my suit quickly enough, with the dexterous ease with which one might slip on a suit of combat armour. I was careful to hide the clockwork gun in one of the suit’s capacious utility pockets, where there should have been a signal flare.
No one saw the gun.
“This isn’t necessary!” the southern aristocrat was saying. “We don’t need to wear any damn—”
“Listen,” I said, “when the compression wave hits us—which it will do any second—we could be flung sideways with enough force to break every bone in your body. That’s why you need to be wearing a suit. It’ll offer some protection.”
Maybe not enough, I thought.
The six of them fumbled with their suits with varying degrees of confidence. I helped the others, and after a minute or so they were ready, except for the huge aristocrat, who was still complaining about the fit of the suit, as if he had all the time in the world to worry about it. Troublingly, he began to eye the other suits in the closet, wondering perhaps if they were all truly of the same size.
“You don’t have time. Just get the thing sealed and worry about cuts and bruises later.”
Below, I imagined the vicious kink in the thread racing toward us, gobbling the kilometres as it climbed. By now it must have already passed the lower elevators. I wondered if it would be violent enough to fling the car off the thread.
I was still thinking about it when it hit.
It was much worse than I had imagined it would be. The elevator jerked to one side, the force of it slamming all seven of us against the inner wall. Someone broke a bone and started screaming, but almost immediately we were flung in the opposite direction, crashing against the clear arc of the picture window. The servitor broke loose from its ceiling rail and fell past us. Its hard steel body daggered into the glass, but though the glass fractured into a webwork of white lines, it managed not to break. Gravity fell as the elevator decelerated on the thread; some element in its induction motor had been damaged by the whiplash.
The southern aristocrat’s head was a vile red pulp, like an over-ripe fruit. As the whiplash oscillations died down, his body tumbled limply around the cabin. Someone else started screaming. They were all in a bad way. I might even have had injuries of my own, but for the moment adrenalin was whiting them out.
The compression wave had passed. At some point, I knew, it would reach the end of the thread and be reflected back down again—but that might be hours from now, and it would not be so violent as before, its energies bled into heat.
For a moment I dared to think that we might be safe.
Then I thought about the elevators below us. They might have slowed down as well, or even been flung off the thread completely. Automatic safety systems may have come online—but there was no way to know for sure. And if the car below was still ascending at normal speed, it would run into us very soon indeed.
I thought about it for a few moments before speaking, raising my voice above the moans of the injured. “I’m sorry,” I said. “But there’s something I’ve just thought of . . .”
There was no time to explain. They’d just have to follow me or take the consequences of staying in the elevator. Not even time to get to the elevator’s emergency airlock; it would take at least a minute to cycle all seven—or six now—of us through it. Besides, the further we could get away from the thread, the safer we’d be if there was a collision between the elevators.
There was really only one option.
I retrieved the clockwork gun from my suit pouch, gripping it clumsily in my gloved fingers. There was no way to aim it with any precision, but thankfully, none was called for. I merely pointed the gun in the general direction of the fracture pattern left on the glass by the falling servitor.
Someone tried to stop me, not understanding that what I was doing might save their lives, but I was stronger; my finger pulled the trigger. In the gun, nano-scale clockwork unravelled, unleashing a ferocious pulse of stored molecular-binding energy. A haze of flèchettes ripped from the barrel, shattering the glass, creating a widening network of fractures. The window puckered outward, straining, and then broke into a billion white shards. The storm of air hurled all of us through the ragged opening, into space.
I held onto the gun, clinging to it as if it were the only solid thing in the universe. I looked around frantically, trying to orientate myself relative to the others. The wind had knocked them all in different directions, like the fragments of a starshell, but though our trajectories were different, we were all falling downward.
Below was only planet.
My suit spun slowly, and I saw the elevator again, still attached to the thread, climbing away above me as I fell, growing smaller by the second. Then there was an almost subliminal flash of motion as the elevator which had been riding the thread below flashed by, still climbing at normal ascent speed, and an instant later an explosion almost as bright and quick as one of the nuke flashes.
When the flash had gone, there was nothing left at all—not even thread.
Sky Haussmann was three when he saw the light.
Years later, in adulthood, that day would be his first clear memory: the earliest that he could clearly anchor to a time and a place and know to be something from the real world, rather than some phantasm which had transgressed the hazy border between a child’s reality and its dreams.
He had been banished to the nursery by his parents. He had disobeyed them by visiting the dolphinarium: the dark, dank, forbidden place in the belly of the great ship Santiago. But it was Constanza who had really led him astray; she who had taken him through the warren of train tunnels, walkways, ramps and stairwells to reach the place where the dolphins were hidden. Constanza was only two or three years older than Sky, but in his eyes she was almost fully grown; supremely wise in the ways of the adults. Everyone said Constanza was a genius; that one day—perhaps when the Flotilla was nearing the end of its long, slow crossing—she would become the Captain. It was said half in jest but half in seriousness as well. Sky wondered if she would make him her second-in-command when that day came, the two of them sitting together in the control room he had still never visited. It was not such a ridiculous idea: the adults also kept telling him that he was an unusually clever child as well; even Constanza was sometimes surprised at the things he came out with. But for all Constanza’s cleverness, Sky would later remind himself, she was not infallible. She had known how to reach the dolphinarium without anyone seeing them, but she had not quite known how to get them back unseen.
It had been worth it, though.
“The grown-ups don’t like them,” Constanza had said, when they had reached the side of the tank which held the dolphins. “They’d rather they didn’t exist at all.”
They stood on drainage grilles slick with spilled water. The tank was a high-sided glass enclosure bathed in sickly blue light, reaching away for tens of metres into the darkness of the hold. Sky peered into the gloom. The dolphins were purposeful grey shapes somewhere in the turquoise distance, their outlines constantly breaking up and reforming in the liquid play of light. They looked less like animals than things carved from soap; slippery and not quite real.
Sky had pressed his hand against the glass. “Why don’t they like them?”
Constanza’s reply was measured. “Something’s not quite right with them, Sky. These aren’t the same dolphins the ship had when it left Mercury. These are the grandchildren, or the great-grandchildren—I’m not sure which. They’ve never known anything except this tank, and nor have their parents.”
“I’ve never known anything except this ship.”
“But you’re not a dolphin; you weren’t expecting oceans to swim in.” Constanza had paused because one of the animals was swimming towards them. It had left its companions at the far end of the tank, huddled around what looked like a set of television screens showing different pictures. Now that it emerged into the volume of clear water immediately beyond the glass, it assumed a presence it had lacked a moment earlier; suddenly it was a large, potentially dangerous thing of muscle and bone, rather than something bordering on translucence. Sky had seen photos of dolphins in the nursery, and there was something not quite right about this creature: a network of surgically fine lines encased its skull, and there were geometric bumps and ridges around its eyes; evidence of hard metal and ceramic things buried just below the dolphin’s flesh.
“Hello,” Sky said, tapping the glass.
“That’s Sleek,” Constanza said. “I think so, anyway. Sleek’s one of the oldest ones.”
The dolphin looked at him, the sly curve of its jaw making the scrutiny appear both benign and demented. Then it whiplashed around so that it was face-on to him and Sky felt the glass reverberate with unheard vibration. Something formed in the water in front of Sleek, sketched in arcs of transient bubbles. At first the trails of bubbles were random—like an artist’s preliminary brushstrokes—but then they became more structured and deliberate, Sleek’s head jerking animatedly as if the creature was in the throes of electrocution. The display lasted for only a handful of seconds, but what the dolphin was shaping was unmistakably a face, rendered three-dimensionally. The form lacked any fine details, but Sky knew that it was more than just a suggestion that his subconscious was creating from a few random bubble-trails. It was too symmetric and well-proportioned for that. There was emotion there as well, though it was almost certainly horror or fear.
Sleek, his work done, departed with a contemptuous flick of his tail.
“They hate us as well,” Constanza said. “But you can’t really blame them for that, can you?”
“Why did Sleek do that? How?”
“There are machines in Sleek’s melon—that bump between its eyes. They’re implanted when they’re babies. The melon’s what they normally make sound with, but the machines let them focus the sound more precisely, so they can draw with bubbles. And there are little things in the water—microorganisms—which light up when the sound hits them. The people who made the dolphins wanted to be able to communicate with them.”
“You’d have thought the dolphins would be grateful.”
“Maybe they would be—if they didn’t keep having to have operations. And if they had somewhere else to swim other than this horrible place.”
“Yes, but when we reach Journey’s End . . .”
Constanza looked at him with sad eyes. “It’ll be too late, Sky. For these ones, anyway. They won’t be alive then. We’ll even be grown-up; our parents old or dead.”
The dolphin came back with another, slightly smaller companion and the two of them began to draw something in the water. It looked like a man being pulled apart by sharks, but Sky turned away before he could be certain.
Constanza continued, “And they’re too far gone anyway, Sky.”
Sky turned back to the tank. “I still like them. They’re still beautiful. Even Sleek.”
“They’re bad, Sky. Psychotic, that’s the word my father uses.” She said it with not-quite-convincing hesitation, as if slightly ashamed of her own fluency.
“I don’t care. I’ll come back and see them again.” He tapped the glass and spoke much louder. “I’ll come back, Sleek. I like you.”
Constanza, though she was only slightly taller than him, patted Sky maternally on the shoulder. “It won’t make any difference.”
“I’ll still come.”
The promise, as much to himself as to Constanza, had been sincere. He did want to understand the dolphins, to communicate with them and in some way alleviate their misery. He imagined the bright, wide oceans of Journey’s End—Clown, his friend in the nursery, had told him that there would be oceans—and imagined the dolphins suddenly freed from this dark, dismal place. He pictured them swimming with people; creating joyous sound-pictures in the water; the memory of the time aboard the Santiago fading like a claustrophobic dream.
“C’mon,” Constanza said. “We’d better be going, Sky.”
“You’ll bring me back, won’t you?”
“Of course, if that’s what you want.”
And they had left the dolphinarium and commenced the intricate return trip, the two of them working their way through the Santiago’s dark interstices; children trying to find their way through an enchanted forest. Once or twice they passed adults, but Constanza’s demeanour was so confident that they were never questioned—not until they were well within the small part of the ship which Sky considered familiar territory.
It was there that his father had found them.
Titus Haussmann was a stern but kindly figure amongst the Santiago’s living; a man whose authority had been earned through respect rather than fear. He towered over the two of them, but Sky felt no real anger emanate from him; only relief.
“Your mother’s been worried sick,” his father said. “Constanza—I’m deeply disappointed in you. I always had you down as the sensible one.”
“He only wanted to see the dolphins.”
“Oh, the dolphins, was it?” His father sounded surprised, as if this was not quite the answer he had been expecting. “I thought it was the dead that interested you, Sky—our beloved momios.”
True enough, Sky thought—but one thing at a time.
“And now you’re sorry,” his father continued. “Because they weren’t what you were expecting, were they? I’m sorry, too. Sleek and the others are sick in the head. The kindest thing we could do would be to put them all to sleep, but they keep being allowed to raise young, and each generation’s more . . .”
“Psychotic,” Sky said.
“. . . yes.” His father regarded him strangely. “More psychotic than the last. Well, now that your vocabulary’s showing such tremendous growth, it would be a shame to stifle it, don’t you think? A shame to deny you the potential to enlarge it?” He ruffled Sky’s hair. “I’m talking about the nursery, young man. A spell in it, where you can’t come into any harm.”
It was not that he hated the nursery, or even especially disliked it. But when he was banished there it could not help but feel like a punishment.
“I want to see my mother.”
“Your mother’s outside the ship, Sky, so there’s no use running to her for a second opinion. And you know if you did she’d say exactly the same thing. You’ve disobeyed us and you need to be taught a lesson.” He turned to Constanza, shaking his head. “As for you, young madam, I think it might be for the best if you and Sky were not to play together for a period of time, don’t you think?”
“We don’t play,” Constanza said with a scowl. “We talk, and explore.”
“Yes,” Titus said, with a long-suffering sigh, “and visit parts of the ship you’re expressly not allowed to go to. That, I’m afraid, can’t go unpunished.” He softened his voice now, as he always did when he was about to discuss something of genuine importance. “This ship is our home—our only real home—and we have to feel like we live here. That means feeling safe in the places where it’s right to do so—and knowing where it isn’t safe to go. Not because there are monsters or anything silly like that, but because there are dangers—adult dangers. Machinery and power systems. Robots and drop shafts. Believe me, I’ve seen what happens when people go into places they’re not meant to go, and it usually isn’t very pleasant.”
Sky did not doubt his father for an instant. As head of security aboard a ship which generally enjoyed political and social harmony, Titus Haussmann’s duties usually concerned accidents and the very occasional suicide. And although Titus had always spared Sky the more intimate details of how it was possible to die aboard a ship like the Santiago, Sky’s imagination had done all the rest.
“I’m sorry,” Constanza said.
“Yes—I’m sure you are, but that doesn’t change the fact that you took my son into forbidden territory. I’ll be speaking to your parents, Constanza, and I don’t think they’ll be best pleased. Now run along home, and perhaps in a week or two we’ll review the situation. Very well?”
She nodded, said nothing, and left along one of the curving corridors which radiated away from the intersection where Titus had cornered them. It was not really far to her parents’ domicile—no part of the Santiago’s major habitation section was far from any other part—but the ship’s designers had cunningly avoided making any route too direct, except for the emergency crawlways and the train lines which reached down the spine. The snaking general-use corridors gave the illusion that the ship was considerably larger than its true size, and two families could live almost next to each other and feel that they lived in entirely different districts.
Titus escorted his son back to their dwelling. Sky was sorry that his mother was outside, for—despite what Titus had said—her punishments were generally a shade more lenient than those his father prescribed. He dared to hope that she was already back aboard ship, having returned from her shift early, the work on the hull completed ahead of schedule, and that she would be waiting for them when they reached the nursery. But there was no sign of her.
“In,” Titus said. “Clown will take care of you. I’ll be back to let you out in two, possibly three hours.”
“I don’t want to go in.”
“No—and if you did, it wouldn’t be much of a punishment, would it?”
The nursery door opened. Titus propelled his son into the room without stepping across the threshold himself.
“Hello, Sky,” said Clown, who was waiting for him.
There were many toys in the nursery, and some of them were capable of holding limited conversations—even, fleetingly, giving the impression of true intelligence. Sky sensed that these toys were built for children of about his age, designed to mesh with a typical three-year-old’s view of the world. In most cases, he had begun to find them simplistic and stupid not long after his second birthday. But Clown was different; not really a toy at all, although not quite a person either. Clown had been with Sky for as long as he remembered, confined to the nursery, but not always present even then. Clown could not touch things, or allow himself to be touched by Sky, and when Clown spoke, his voice did not come from quite the place where Clown stood—or seemed to be standing.
Which was not to say that Clown was a figment of his imagination; without influence. Clown saw everything that happened in the nursery and was punctilious in telling Sky’s parents when he had done something that required reprimanding. It was Clown who told his parents he had broken the rocking horse, that it had not been—as he had tried to make them think—the fault of one of the other smart toys. He had hated Clown for that betrayal, but not for long. Even Sky had understood that Clown was, apart from Constanza, the only real friend he had, and that there were some things Clown knew that were beyond even Constanza.
“Hello,” Sky said, mournfully.
“You’ve been banished here, I see, for visiting the dolphins.” Clown stood alone in the plain white room, the other toys concealed tidily away. “That wasn’t the right thing to do, was it, Sky? I could have shown you dolphins.”
“Not the same ones. Not real ones. And you’ve shown them to me before.”
“Not like this. Watch!”
And suddenly the two of them were standing up in a boat, out at sea, under a blue sky. All around them the waves were broken by cresting dolphins, their backs like wet pebbles in the sunlight. The illusion of being at sea was marred only by the narrow black windows which ran along one side of the room.
In a story book, Sky had once found a picture of someone else like Clown, dressed in puffed-out, striped clothes with big white buttons, with a comical, permanently smiling face framed by bouffant orange hair under a soft, sagging striped hat. When he touched the picture in the book, the clown moved and did the same kinds of tricks and vaguely amusing things that his own Clown did. Sky remembered, dimly, a time when his response to the Clown’s tricks had been to laugh and clap, as if there were nothing more that could be asked of the universe than to provide the antics of a clown.
Now, subtly, even Clown had begun to bore him. He humoured Clown, but their relationship had undergone a profound sea-change which could never be entirely reversed. To Sky, Clown had become something to be understood; something to be dissected and parameterised. Clown, he now recognised, was something like the bubble-drawing the dolphin had made in the water: a projection carved from light rather than sound. They were not really in a boat, either. Under his feet, the room’s floor felt as hard and flat as when his father had pushed him inside. Sky did not quite understand how the illusion was created, but it was perfectly realistic, the walls of the nursery nowhere to be seen.
“The dolphins in the tank—Sleek and the others—had machines in them,” Sky said. He might as well learn something while he was prisoner. “Why?”
“To help them focus their sonar.”
“No. I don’t mean what were the machines for. I mean, who had the idea to put them there in the first place?”
“Ah. That would have been the Chimerics.”
“Who were they? Did they come with us?”
“No, to answer your last question, though they very much wanted to.” Clown’s voice was slightly high-pitched and quavery—almost womanly—but never anything other than infinitely patient. “Remember, Sky, that when the Flotilla left Earth’s system—left the orbit of Mercury, and flew into interstellar space—the Flotilla was leaving from a system that was still technically engaged in war. Oh, most of the hostilities had ceased by then, but the terms of ceasefire had still not been completely thrashed out, and everyone was still very much on a war footing; ready to return to the fray at a moment’s notice. There were many factions who saw the closing stages of the war as their last chance to make a difference. Some of them, by this time, were little more than highly organised brigands. The Chimerics—or more precisely, the Chimeric faction that created the dolphins—were certainly one of those. The Chimerics in general had taken cyborgisation to new extremes, blending themselves and their animals with machines. This faction had pushed those limits even further, to the point where they were shunned even by the mainstream Chimerics.”
Sky listened and followed what Clown was telling him. Clown’s judgement of Sky’s cognitive skills was adept enough to prevent a lapse into incomprehensibility, while at the same time forcing Sky to concentrate intently on his every word. Sky was aware that not all three-year-olds could have understood what Clown was saying, but that did not concern him in the least.
“And the dolphins?”
“Engineered by them. For what purpose, we can’t begin to guess. Perhaps to serve as aquatic infantry, in some planned invasion of Earth’s oceans. Or perhaps they were simply an experiment which was never completed, interrupted by the war’s decline. Whatever the case, a family of dolphins was captured from the Chimerics by agents of the Confederacion Sudamericana.”