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Jay Hilton was sound asleep when every electrophorescent strip in the paediatric ward sprang up to full intensity. The simple dream of her mother broke apart like a stained glass statue shattered by a powerful gust of sharp white light; colourful splinters tumbling off into the glare.
Jay blinked heavily against the rush of light, raising her head in confusion. The familiar scenery of the ward hardened around her. She felt so tired. It certainly wasn't morning yet. A huge yawn forced her mouth open. All around her the other children were waking up in bleary-eyed mystification. Holomorph stickers began reacting to the light, translucent cartoon images rising up to perform their mischievous antics. Animatic dolls cooed sympathetically as children clutched at them for reassurance. Then the doors at the far end of the ward slid open, and the nurses came hurrying in.
One look at the brittle smiles on their faces was all Jay needed. Something was badly wrong. Her heart shivered. Surely not the possessed? Not here?
The nurses began ushering children out of their beds, and along the central aisle towards the doors. Complaints and questions were firmly ignored.
"It's a fire drill," the senior staff nurse called out. "Come along, quickly, now. I want you out of here and into the lifts. Pronto. Pronto." He clapped his hands loudly.
Jay shoved the thin duvet back, and scuttled down off the bed. Her long cotton nightie was tangled round her knees, which took a moment to straighten. She was about to join the others charging along the aisle when she caught the flickers of motion and light outside the window. Everymorning since she'd arrived, Jay had sat in front of that window, gazing solemnly out at Mirchusko and its giddy green cloudscape. She'd never seen speckles of light swarming out there before.
The silent mental word was spoken so quickly Jay almost didn't catch it. Though the feel of Haile was unmistakable. She looked round, expecting to see the Kiint ambling down the aisle towards her. But there was only the rank of flustered nurses propelling children along.
Knowing full well she wasn't doing what she was supposed to, Jay padded over to the big window, and pressed her nose against it. A slim band of tiny blue-white stars had looped itself round Tranquillity. They were all moving, contracting around the habitat. She could see now that they weren't really stars, they were lengthening. Flames. Brilliant, tiny flames. Hundreds of them.
My friend. My friend. Lifeloss anguish.
Now that was definitely Haile, and intimating plenty of distress. Jay took a step back from the window, seeing misty grey swirls where her face and hands had pressed against it. "What's the matter?" she asked the empty air. A cascade of new flames burst into existence outside the habitat. Expanding knots blossoming seemingly at random across space. Jay gasped at the sight. There were thousands of them, interlacing and expanding. It was so pretty.
Evacuation procedure initiated.
Jay frowned. The second mental voice came as a faint echo. She thought it was one of the adult Kiint, possibly Lieria. Jay had only encountered Haile's parents a few times. They were awfully intimidating, though they'd been nice enough to her.
The adult responded forcefully.
You may not, child. Sorrow felt for all human suffering. But obedience required.
No. Friend. My friend. Designation. Two. Confirmed.
Jay had never felt Haile so determined before. It was kind of scary. "Please?" she asked nervously. "What's happening?"
A torrent of light burst through the window. It was if a sun had risen over Mirchusko's horizon. All of space was alive with brilliant efflorescences.
The adult Kiint said: Evacuation enacted.
Jay felt a wash of guilty triumph rushing out from her friend. She wanted to reach out and comfort Haile, who she knew from the adult's reaction was in Big Trouble over something. Instead, she concentrated on forming a beaming smile at the heart of her own mind, hoping Haile would pick it up. Then the air around her was crawling as if she was caught in a breeze.
"Jay!" one of the nurses called. "Come along sweetie, you . . ."
The light around Jay was fading fast, along with the sounds of the ward. She could just hear the nurse's gasp of astonishment. The breeze abruptly turned into a small gale, whipping her nightie around and making her bristly hair stand on end. Some kind of grey fog was forming around her, a perfectly spherical bubble of the stuff, with her at the centre. Except she couldn't feel any dampness in the air. It darkened rapidly, reducing the ward to weak spectral outlines. Then the boundary expanded at a speed so frightening that Jay screamed. The boundary vanished, and with it any sign of the ward. She was alone in space devoid of stars. And falling.
Jay put her hands to her head and screamed again, as hard as she possibly could. It didn't put a stop to any of the horror. She paused to suck down a huge breath. That was when the boundary reappeared out on the edge of nowhere. Hurtling towards her so fast from every direction that she knew the impact would squash her flat. She jammed her eyes shut. "MUMMY!"
Something like a stiff feather tickled the soles of her feet, and she was abruptly standing on solid ground. Jay windmilled her arms for balance, pitching forward. She landed hard on some kind of cool floor, her eyes still tight shut. The air she gulped down was warmer than it had been in the ward, and a lot more humid. Funny smell. Rosy light was playing over her eyelids.
Still crouched on all fours, Jay risked a quick peep as she gathered herself to scream again. The sight which greeted her was so incredible that the breath stalled in her throat. "Oh gosh," was all she eventually managed to squeak.
Joshua initiated the ZTT jump with little enthusiasm. His downcast mood was one which he shared with all the Lady Mac's crew and passengersat least, those who weren't in zero-tau. To have achieved so much, only to have their final triumph snatched away.
Except . . . Once the initial shock of discovering that Tranquillity had vanished from its orbit had subsided, he wasn't frightened. Not for Ione, or his child. Tranquillity hadn't been destroyed, there was at least that comfort. Which logically meant the habitat had been possessed and snatched out of the universe.
He didn't believe it.
But his intuition was hardly infallible. Perhaps he simply didn't want to believe it. Tranquillity was home. The emotional investment he had in the habitat and its precious contents was enormous. Tell anyone that everything they ever treasured has been erased, and the reaction is always the same. Whatever. His vacillation made him as miserable as the rest of the ship, just for a different reason.
"Jump confirmed," he said. "Samuel, you're on."
Lady Mac had jumped into one of Trafalgar's designated emergence zones, a hundred thousand kilometres above Avon. Her transponder was already blaring out her flight authority codes. Somehow Joshua didn't think that would quite be enough. Not when you barged in unexpected on the Confederation's primary military base in the middle of a crisis like this one.
"I've got distortion fields focusing on us," Dahybi said drolly. "Five of them, I think."
The flight computer alerted Joshua that targeting radars were locking on to the hull. When he accessed the sensors rising out of their recesses, he found three voidhawks and two frigates on interception courses. Trafalgar's strategic defence command was directing a barrage of questions at him. He glanced over at the Edenist as he started to datavise a response. Samuel was lying prone on his acceleration couch, eyes closed as he conversed with other Edenists in the asteroid.
Sarha grinned round phlegmatically. "How many medals do you think they'll give us apiece?"
"Uh oh," Liol grunted. "However many it is, we might be getting them posthumously. I think one of the frigates has just realised our antimatter drive is ever so slightly highly radioactive."
"Great," she grumbled.
Monica Foulkes didn't like the sound of that; as far as the Confederation Navy was aware, it was only Organization ships who were using antimatter. She hadn't wanted to take Mzu back to Tranquillity, and she certainly hadn't wanted to wind up at Trafalgar. But in the discussion which followed their discovery of Tranquillity's disappearance, she didn't exactly have the casting vote. The original agreement between herself and Samuel had just about disintegrated when they rendezvoused with the Beezling.
Then Calvert had insisted on the First Admiral being the final arbitrator of what was to be done with Mzu, Adul, and himself. Samuel had agreed. And she couldn't produce any rational argument against it. Silently, she acknowledged that maybe the only true defence against more Alchemists being built was a unified embargo covenant between the major powers. After all, such an agreement almost worked for antimatter.
Not that such angst counted for much right now. Like ninety per cent of her mission to date, the critical deciding factor was outside her control. All she could do was stick close to Mzu, and make sure the prime requirement of technology transfer wasn't violated. Though by allowing it to be deployed against the Organization, she'd probably screwed that up too. Her debrief was shaping up to be a bitch.
Monica frowned over at Samuel, who was still silent, his brow creased up in concentration. She added a little prayer of her own to all the unheard babble of communication whirling around Lady Mac for the Navy to exercise some enlightenment and tolerance.
Trafalgar's strategic defence command told Joshua to hold his attitude, but refused to grant any approach vector until his status was established. The Navy's emergence zone patrol ships approached to within a cautious hundred kilometres, and took up a three-dimensional diamond observation formation. Targeting radars remained locked on.
Admiral Lalwani herself talked to Samuel, unable to restrain her incredulity as he explained what had happened. Given that the Lady Macbeth contained not only Mzu and others who understood the Alchemist's principals, but a quantity of antimatter as well, the final decision on allowing the ship to dock belonged to the First Admiral himself. It took twenty minutes to arrive, but Joshua eventually received a flight vector from strategic defence command. They were allocated a docking bay in the asteroid's northern spaceport.
"And Joshua," Samuel said earnestly. "Don't deviate from it. Please."
Joshua winked, knowing it was being seen by the hundreds of Edenists who were borrowing the agent's eyes to monitor Lady Mac's bridge. "What, Lagrange Calvert, fly off line?"
The flight to Trafalgar took eighty minutes. The number of antimatter technology specialists waiting for them in the docking bay was almost as great as the number of marines. On top of that were a large complement of uniformed CNIS officers.
They weren't stormed, exactly. No personal weapons were actually taken out of their holsters. Though once the airlock tube was sealed and pressurized, Lady Mac's crew had little to do except hand over the powerdown codes to a Navy maintenance team. Zero-tau pods were opened, and the various bewildered occupants Joshua had accumulated during his pursuit of the Alchemist were ushered off the ship. After a very thorough body scan, the polite, steel-faced CNIS officers escorted everyone to a secure barracks deep inside the asteroid. Joshua wound up in a suite that would have done a four star hotel credit. Ashly and Liol were sharing it with him.
"Well now," Liol said as the door closed behind them. "Guilty of carrying antimatter, flung in prison by secret police who've never heard of civil rights, and after we're dead, Al Capone is going to invite us to have a quiet word." He opened the cherrywood cocktail bar and smiled at the impressive selection of bottles inside. "It can't get any worse."
"You forgot Tranquillity being vanquished," Ashly chided. Liol waved a bottle in apology.
Joshua slumped down into a soft black leather chair in the middle of the lounge. "It might not get worse for you. Just remember, I know what the Alchemist does, and how. They can't afford to let me go."
"You might know what it does," Ashly said. "But with respect, Captain, I don't think you would be much help to anyone seeking the technical details necessary to construct another."
"One hint is all it takes," Joshua muttered. "One careless comment that'll point researchers in the right direction."
"Stop worrying, Josh. The Confederation passed that point a long time ago. Besides, the Navy owes us big-time, and the Edenists, and the Kulu Kingdom. We pulled their arses out of the fire. You'll fly Lady Mac again."
"Know what I'd do if I was the First Admiral? Put me into a zero-tau pod for the rest of time."
"I won't let them do that to my little brother."
Joshua put his hands behind his head, and smiled up at Liol. "The second thing I'd do, would be to put you in the pod next to mine."
Planets sparkled in the twilight sky. Jay could see at least fifteen of them strung out along a curving line. The nearest one appeared a bit smaller than Earth's moon. She thought that was just because it was a long way off. In every other respect it was similar to any of the Confederation's terracompatible planets, with deep blue oceans and emerald continents, the whole globe wrapped in thick tatters of white cloud. The only difference was the lights; cities larger than some of Earth's old nations gleamed with magisterial splendour. Entire weather patterns of cloud smeared across the nightside diffused the urban radiance, soaking the oceans in a perpetual pearl gloaming.
Jay sat back on her heels, staring up delightedly at the magical sky. A high wall ringed the area she was in. She guessed that the line of planets extended beyond those she could see, but the wall blocked her view of the horizon. A star with a necklace of inhabited planets! Thousands would be needed to make up such a circle. None of Jay's didactic memories about solar systems mentioned one with so many planets, not even if you counted gas-giant moons.
Friend Jay. Safe. Gleefulness at survival.
Jay blinked, and lowered her gaze. Haile was trying to run towards her. As always when the baby Kiint got over-excited her legs lost most of their coordination. She came very close to tripping with every other step. The sight of her lolloping about chaotically made Jay smile. It faded as she began to take in the scene behind her friend.
She was in some kind of circular arena two hundred metres across, with an ebony marble-like floor. The wall surrounding it was thirty metres high, sealed with a transparent dome. There were horizontal gashes at regular intervals along the vertical surface, windows into brightly lit rooms that seemed to be furnished with large cubes of primary colours. Adult Kiint were moving round inside, although an awful lot of them had stopped what they were doing to look directly at her.
Haile thundered up; half-formed tractamorphic tentacles waving round excitedly. Jay grabbed on to a couple of them, feeling them palpitate wildly inside her fingers.
"Haile! Was that you who did this?"
Two adult Kiint were walking across the arena floor towards her. Jay recognized them as Nang and Lieria. Beyond them, a black star erupted out of thin air. In less than a heartbeat it had expanded to a sphere fifteen metres in diameter, its lower quarter merging with the floor. The surface immediately dissolved to reveal another adult Kiint. Jay stared at the process in fascination. A ZTT jump, but without a starship. She focused hard on her primer-level didactic memory of the Kiint.
Haile confessed. Her tractamorphic flesh writhed in agitation, so Jay just squeezed tighter, offering reassurance.
Only us were designated to evacuate the all around at lifeloss moment. I included you in designation, against parental proscription. Much shame. Puzzlement.
Haile turned her head to face her parents.
Query lifeloss act approval? Many nice friends in the all around.
We do not approve.
Jay flicked a nervous gaze at the two adults, and pressed herself closer against Haile. Nang formshifted his tractamorphic appendage into a flat tentacle, which he laid across his daughter's back. The juvenile Kiint visibly calmed at the gesture of affection. Jay thought there was a mental exchange of some kind involved, too, sensing a hint of compassion and serenity.
Why did we not help? Haile asked.
We must never interfere in the primary events of other species during their evolution towards Omega comprehension. You must learn and obey this law above all else. However, it does not prevent us from grieving at their tragedy.
Jay felt the last bit was included for her benefit. "Don't be angry with Haile," she said solemnly. "I would have done the same for her. And I didn't want to die."
Lieria reached out a tentacle tip, and touched Jay's shoulder.
I thank you for the friendship you have shown Haile. In our hearts we are glad you are with us, for you will be completely safe here. I am sorry we could not do more for your friends. But our law cannot be broken.
A sudden sensation of bleak horror threatened to engulf Jay. "Did Tranquillity really get blown up?" she wailed.
We do not know. It was under a concerted attack when we left. However, Ione Saldana may have surrendered. There is a high possibility the habitat and its population survived.
"We left," Jay whispered wondrously to herself. There were eight adult Kiint standing on the arena floor now, all the researchers from Tranquillity's Laymil project. "Where are we?" She glanced up at the dusky sky again, and that awesome constellation.
This is our home star system. You are the first true human to visit.
"But . . ." Flashes of didactic memory tumbled through her brain. She looked up at those enticing, bright planets again. "This isn't Jobis."
Nang and Lieria looked at each other in what was almost an awkward pause.
No, Jobis is just one of our science mission outposts. It is not in this galaxy.
Jay burst into tears.
Right from the start of the possession crisis the Jovian Consensus had acknowledged that it was a prime target. Its colossal industrial facilities were inevitably destined to produce a torrent of munitions, bolstering the reserve stocks of Adamist navies which thanks to budgetary considerations were not all they should be. The response of the Yosemite Consensus to the Capone Organization had already shown what Edenism was capable of achieving along those lines, and that was with a mere thirty habitats. Jupiter had the resources of four thousand two hundred and fifty at its disposal.
Requests for materiel support started almost as soon as Trafalgar issued its first warning about the nature of the threat which the Confederation was facing. Ambassadors requested and pleaded and called in every favour they thought Edenism owed them to secure a place in production schedules. Payment for the weapons involved loan agreements and fuseodollar transfers on a scale which could have purchased entire stage four star systems.
On top of that, it was Edenism which was providing the critical support for the Mortonridge Liberation in the form of serjeant constructs to act as foot soldiers. It was the one utterly pivotal psychological campaign waged against the possessed, proving to the Confederation at large that they could be beaten.
Fortunately, the practical aspects of assaulting one or more habitats were extremely difficult. Jupiter already had a superb Strategic Defence network; and among the possessed only the Organization had a fleet which could hope to mount any sort of large-scale offensive, and the distance between Earth and New California almost certainly precluded that. However, the possibility of a lone ship carrying antimatter on a fanatical suicide flight was a strong one. And then there was the remote possibility that Capone would acquire the Alchemist and use it against them.
Although Consensus didn't know how the doomsday device worked, a ship certainly had to jump in to deploy it, which in theory gave the Edenists an interception window to destroy the device before it was deployed. Preparations to solidify their defences had begun immediately. Fully one third of the armaments coming out of the industrial stations were incorporated into a massively expanded SD architecture. The 550,000-km orbital band containing the habitats was the most heavily protected, with the number of SD platforms doubled, and seeded with seven hundred thousand combat wasps to act as mines. A further million combat wasps were arranged in concentric shells around the massive planet out to the orbit of Callisto. Flotillas of multi-spectrum sensor satellites were dispersed among them, searching for any anomaly, however small, which pricked the potent energy storms churning through space around the gas-giant.
Over fifteen thousand heavily armed patrol voidhawks complemented the static defences; circling the volatile cloudscape in elliptical, high-inclination orbits, ready to interdict any remotely suspicious incoming molecule. The fact that so many voidhawks had been taken off civil cargo flights was actually causing a tiny rise in the price of He3, the first for over two hundred and sixty years.
Consensus considered the economic repercussions to be a worthwhile trade for the security such invulnerable defences provided. No ship, robot, or inert kinetic projectile could get within three million kilometres of Jupiter unless specifically permitted to do so.
Even a lone maniac would acknowledge an attempted attack would be the ultimate in futility.
The gravity fluctuation which appeared five hundred and sixty thousand kilometres above Jupiter's equator was detected instantaneously. It registered as an inordinately powerful twist of space-time in the distortion fields of the closest three hundred voidhawks. The intensity was so great that the gravitonic detectors in local SD sensor array had to be hurriedly recalibrated in order to acquire an accurate fix. Visually it appeared as a ruby star, the gravity field lensing Jupiter's light in every direction. Surrounding dust motes and solar wind particles were sucked in, a cascade of pico-meteorites fizzing brilliant yellow.
Consensus went to condition one alert status. The sheer strength of the space warp ruled out any conventional starship emergence. And the location was provocatively close to the habitats, a hundred thousand kilometres from the nearest designated emergence zone. Affinity commands from Consensus were loaded into the combat wasps drifting inertly among the habitats. Three thousand fusion drives flared briefly, aligning the lethal drones on their new target. The patrol voidhawks formed a sub-Consensus of their own, designating approach vectors and swallow manoeuvres to englobe the invader.
The warp area expanded out to several hundred metres, alarming individual Edenists, though Consensus itself absorbed the fact calmly. It was already far larger than any conceivable voidhawk or blackhawk wormhole terminus. Then it began to flatten out into a perfectly circular two-dimensional fissure in space-time, and the real expansion sequence began. Within five seconds it was over eleven kilometres in diameter. Consensus quickly and concisely reformed its response pattern. Approaching voidhawks performed frantic fifteen-gee parabolas, curving clear then swallowing away. An extra eight thousand combat wasps burst into life, hurtling in towards the Herculean alien menace.
After another three seconds the fissure reached twenty kilometres in diameter, and stabilized. One side collapsed inwards, exposing the wormhole's throat. Three small specks zoomed out of the centre. Oenone and the other two void hawks screamed their identity into the general affinity band, and implored: HOLD YOUR FIRE!
For the first time in its five hundred and twenty-one year history, the Jovian Consensus experienced the emotion of shock. Even then, its response wasn't entirely blunted. Specialist perceptual thought routines confirmed the three voidhawks remained unpossessed. A five second lockdown was loaded into the combat wasps.
What is happening? Consensus demanded.
Syrinx simply couldn't resist it. We have a visitor, she replied gleefully. Her entire crew was laughing cheerfully around her on the bridge.
The counter-rotating spaceport was the first part to emerge from the gigantic wormhole terminus. A silver-white disk four and a half kilometres in diameter, docking bay lights glittering like small towns huddled at the base of metal valleys, red and green strobes winking bright around the rim. Its slender spindle slid up after it, appearing to pull the dark rust-red polyp endcap along.
That was when the other starships began to rampage out of the terminus; voidhawks, blackhawks, and Confederation Navy vessels streaking off in all directions. Jupiter's SD sensors and patrol voidhawk distortion fields tracked them urgently. Consensus fired guidance updates at the incoming combat wasps, determinedly vectoring them away from the unruly incursion.
The habitat's main cylinder started to coast up out of the terminus, a prodigious seventeen kilometres in diameter. After the first thirty-two kilometres were clear, its central band of starscrapers emerged, hundreds of thousands of windows agleam with the radiance of lazy afternoon sunlight. Their bases just cleared the rim of the wormhole. There were no more starships to come after that, only the rest of the cylinder. When the emergence was complete, the wormhole irised shut and space returned to its natural state. The flotilla of patrol voidhawks thronging round detected a capacious distortion field folding back into the broad collar of polyp around the base of the habitat's southern endcap that formed the bed of its circumfluous sea.
Consensus directed a phenomenally restrained burst of curiosity at the newcomer.
Greetings, chorused Tranquillity and Ione Saldana. There was a distinct timbre of smugness in the hail.
Dariat did the one thing which he had never expected to do again. He opened his eyes and looked around. His own eyes in his own body; fat unpleasant thing that it was, clad in his usual grubby toga.
The sight which greeted him was familiar: one of Valisk's innumerable shallow valleys out among the pink grass plains. If he wasn't completely mistaken, it was the same patch of ground Anastasia's tribe had occupied the day she died.
"This is the final afterlife?" he asked aloud.
It couldn't be. There was an elusive memory, the same befuddlement as a dream leaves upon waking. Of a sundering, of being torn out of . . .
He had fused with Rubra, the two of them becoming one, vanquishing the foe by shunting Valisk to a realm, or dimension, or state, that the two of them grasped was intrinsically adverse to the possessing souls. Perhaps they had even created the new location by simply willing it to be. And then time went awry.
He gave his surroundings a more considered examination. It was Valisk, all right. The circumfluous sea was about four kilometres away, its clusters of atolls easily recognizable. When he turned the other way, he could see a fat black scar running down two thirds of the northern endcap.
The light tube was dimmer than it should be, even accounting for the loss of some plasma. It proffered a kind of twilight, but grey rather than the magnificent golden sunset Dariat had experienced every day of his life. The grass plain echoed that malaised atmosphere, it was uneasily torpid. Its resident insects had curled up into dormancy; birds and rodents slunk back reticently to their nests, even the flowers had shrugged off their natural gloss.
Dariat bent down to pick an enervated poppy. And his chubby hand passed clean through the stem. He stared at it in astonishment, for the first time seeing that he was faintly translucent.
Shock finally liberated comprehension. A location hostile to possessors, one which would exorcise them from their enslaved hosts, denying them their energistic power. That was the destination he and Rubra had committed the habitat to.
"Oh, Thoale, you utter bastard. I'm a ghost."
For nearly ten hours the lift capsule had skimmed down the tower linking Supra-Brazil asteroid with the Govcentral state after which it was named, a smooth, silent ride. The only clue to how fast the lift capsules travelled (three thousand kilometres per hour) would come when they passed each other. But as they clung to rails on the exterior of the tower, and the only windows gave a direct view outward, such events remained out of sight to their passengers. Deliberately so; watching another capsule hurtling towards you at a combined speed of six thousand kilometres per hour was considered an absolute psychological no-go zone by the tower operators.
Just before it entered the upper fringes of the atmosphere, the lift capsule decelerated to subsonic velocity. It reached the stratosphere as dawn broke over South America. On Earth that was no longer an invigorating sight; all the passengers saw was an unbroken murky-grey cloud layer which covered most of the continent and a third of the South Atlantic. Only when the lift capsule was ten kilometres above the frothing upper layer could Quinn see the army of individual streamers from which the gigantic cyclone was composed, flowing around each other at perilous velocities. The seething mass was as compressed as any gas-giant storm band, but infinity drabber.
They descended into the slashing tendrils of cirrus, and the windows immediately reverberated from the barrage of fist-sized raindrops. There was nothing else to see after that, just formless smears of grey. A minute before they reached the ground station, the windows went black as the lift capsule entered the sheath which guarded the bottom of the tower from the worst violence of the planet's rabid weather.
Digits on the Royale Class lounge's touchdown counter reached zero, an event marked by only the slightest tremble as latch clamps closed round the base of the lift capsule. The magnetic rail disengaged, and a transporter rolled it clear of the tower, leaving the reception berth clear for the next capsule. Airlock hatches popped open, revealing long extendable corridors leading into the arrivals complex where treble the usual numbers of customs, immigration, and security officers waited to scan the passengers. Quinn sighed in mild resignation. He'd quite enjoyed the trip down, mellowing out with all the facilities the Royale Class lounge could provide. A welcome period of contemplation, assisted by the Norfolk Tears he'd been drinking.
He had arrived at Earth with one goal: conquest. Now at least he had some notions how to go about subduing the planet for his Lord. The kind of exponential brute force approach the possessed had used up to now just wasn't an option on Earth. The arcologies were too isolated for that. It was curious, but the more Quinn thought about it, the more he realized that Earth was a representation of the Confederation in miniature. Its vast population centres kept separate by an amok nature almost as lethal as the interstellar void. Seeds of his revolution would have to be planted very carefully indeed. If Govcentral security ever suspected an outbreak of possession, the arcology in question would be quarantined. And Quinn knew that even with his energistic powers there would be nothing he could do to escape once the vac-trains had been shut down.
Most of the other passengers had disembarked, and the chief stewardess was glancing in Quinn's direction. He rose up from his deep leather seat, stretching the tiredness from his limbs. There was absolutely no way he'd ever get past the immigration desk, let alone security.
He walked towards the airlock hatch, and summoned the energistic power, mentally moulding it into the now familiar pattern. It crawled over his body, needle spears of static penetrating every cell. A swift groan was the only indication he showed of the grotesquery he experienced passing through the gateway into the ghost realm. His heart stopped, his breathing ceased, and the world about him lost its glimmer of substance. The solidity of walls and floors was still present, but ephemeral. Irrelevant if he really pressed.
The chief stewardess watched the last passenger step into the airlock, and turned back to the bar. Secured below the counter were several bottles of the complimentary Norfolk Tears and other expensive spirits and liqueurs which her team had opened. They were careful never to leave much, at most a third, before opening a new bottle. But a third of these drinks was an expensive commodity.
She began inventorying all these bottles as empty in her stock control block. The team would split them later, filling their personal flasks, and take them home. As long as they didn't get too greedy the company supervisor would let it pass. Her block's datavise turned to nonsense. She gave it an annoyed glare, and automatically rapped it against the bar. That was when the lights started to flicker. Puzzled now, she frowned up at the ceiling. Electrical systems were failing all over the lounge. The AV pillar projection behind the bar had crashed into rainbow squiggles, the airlock hatch activators were whining loudly, though the hatch itself wasn't moving.
"What?" she grumbled. Power loss was just about impossible in the lift capsules. Every component had multiple redundancy backups. She was about to call the lift capsule's operations officer when the lights steadied, and her stock control block came back on line. "Bloody typical," she grunted. It still bothered her badly. If things could go wrong on the ground, they could certainly go wrong half way up the tower.
She gave the waiting bottles a forlorn glance, knowing she was giving them up if she logged an official powerdown incident report. The company inspectorate authority would swarm all over the lift capsule. She carefully erased the inventory file she'd started, and datavised the lounge processor for a channel to the operations officer.
The call never got placed. Instead she received a priority datavise from the arrivals complex security office ordering her to remain exactly where she was. Outside, an alarm siren started its high-pitched urgent wailing. The sound made her jump, in eleven years of riding the tower she'd only ever heard it during practice drills.
The siren's clamour sounded muffled to Quinn. He'd watched the airlock lights quiver, and sensed the delicate electronic patterns of nearby processors storm wildly as he pushed himself through the gateway. There was nothing he could do about it. It took all of his concentration to marshal his energistic power into the correct pattern. Now it seemed that pattern had an above average giveaway effect on nearby electronicsthough nothing had happened when he'd slipped out of the ghost realm into the Royale Class lounge at the start of the descent. Of course, he wasn't exerting himself then, quite the opposite, he'd actually been reining in the power.
Ah well, something to remember.
Thick security doors were rumbling across the end of the corridor, trapping stragglers among the passengers. Quinn walked past them, and reached the door. It put up a token resistance as he pushed himself through, as if it were nothing more than a vertical sheet of water.
The arrivals complex on the other side was made up from a series of grandiose multi-level reception halls, stitched together by wave stairs and open-shaft lifts. It could cope with seventy passenger lift capsules disembarking at once; a capacity which had been operating at barely twenty-five per cent since the start of the crisis. As Quinn made his way out from the sealed admission chamber at the end of the corridor, his first impression was that the air conditioning grilles were pumping out adrenaline gas.
Down below on the main concourse, a huge flock of people was running for cover. They didn't know where they were going, the exits were all closed, but they knew where they didn't want to be, and that was anywhere near a lift capsule that was crammed full of possessed. They were damn sure there was no other reason for a security alert of such magnitude.
Up on Quinn's level, badly hyped security guards in bulky kinetic armour were racing for the admission chamber. Officers were screaming orders. All the passengers from the lift capsule were being rounded up at gunpoint and being made to assume the position. Anyone who protested was given a sharp jab with a shock rod. Three stunned bodies were already sprawled on the floor, twitching helplessly. It encouraged healthy co-operation among the remainder.
Quinn went over to the rank of guards who were forming a semicircle around the door to the admission chamber. Eighteen of the stubby rifles were lined up on it. He walked round one guard to get a closer look at the weapon. The guard shivered slightly, as if a chilly breeze was finding its way through the joint overlaps of her armour. Her weapon was some kind of machine pistol. Quinn knew enough about munitions to recognise it as employing chemical bullets. There were several grenades hanging from her belt.
Even though God's Brother had granted him a much greater energistic strength than the average possessed, he would be very hard pressed to defend himself against all eighteen of them firing at him. Earth was obviously taking the threat of possession very seriously indeed.
A new group of people had arrived to move methodically among the whimpering passengers. They weren't in uniforms, just ordinary blue business suits, but the security officers deferred to them. Quinn could sense their thoughts, very calm and focused in comparison to everyone else. Intelligence operatives, most likely.
Quinn decided not to wait and find out. He retreated from the semicircle of guards as an officer was ordering them to open the admission chamber door. The wave stair down to the main concourse had been switched off; so he climbed the frozen steps of silicon two at a time.
People huddled round the barricaded exits felt his passage as a swift ripple of cool air, gone almost as it started. On the plaza outside, more squads of security guards were setting up; two groups were busy mounting heavy-calibre Bradfield rifles on tripods. Quinn shook his head in a kind of bemused admiration, then carefully walked round them. The long row of lifts down to the vac-train station was still working, though there were few people left on the arrivals complex storey to use them. He hopped in to one with a group of frightened-looking business executives just back from a trip to Cavius city on the moon.
The lift took them a kilometre and a half straight down, opening into a circular chamber three hundred metres across. The station's floor was divided up by concentric rows of turnstiles, channelling passengers into the cluster of wave stairs occupying the centre. Information columns of jet-black glass formed a picket line around the outside, knots of fluorescent icons twirling around them like electronic fish. Lines of holographic symbols slithered through the air overhead, weaving sinuously around each other as they guided passengers to the wave stair which led down to their platform.
Quinn sauntered idly round the outside of the information columns for a while, watching the contortions of the holograms overhead. The bustling crowd (all averting their eyes from each other), the confined walls and ceiling, wheezing air conditioners pouring out gritty air, small mechanoids being kicked as they attempted to clean up rubbishhe welcomed them all back into his life. Even though he was going to destroy this world and despoil its people, for a brief interlude it remained the old home. His satisfaction came to a cold halt; the name EDMONTON, in vibrant red letters, trickled over his head, riding along a curving convey of translucent blue arrowheads towards one of the wave stairs. The vac-train was departing in eleven minutes.
It was so tempting. Banneth, at last. To see that face stricken with fear, then sufferingfor a long long time, the sufferingbefore the final ignominy of empty-headed imbecility. There were so many stages of torment to inflict on Banneth, so much he wanted to do to her now he had the power; intricate, malicious applications of pain, psychological as well as physical. But the needs of God's Brother came first, even before the near-sexual urgings of his own serpent beast. Quinn turned away from the glowing invitation in disgust, and went to find a vac-train which would take him direct to New York.
People were starting to congregate around the windows of the bars and fast-food outlets which made up the perimeter wall of the station. Kids stared with intrigued expressions at the images coming at them from newschannel AV projectors, while adults achieved the blank-faced otherwhereness which showed they were receiving sensevises. As he passed a pasta stall, Quinn caught a brief glimpse of the image inside a holoscreen above the sweating cook. Jupiter's cloudscape formed an effervescent ginger backdrop to a habitat; dozens of spaceships were swirling round it in what could almost be read as a state of high excitement.
It wasn't relevant to him, so he walked on.
Ione had gone straight to De Beauvoir palace after Tranquillity emerged above Jupiter, co-ordinating the habitat's maintenance crews and making a public sensevise to reassure people and tell them what to do. The formal reception room was a more appropriate setting for such a broadcast than her private apartment. Now with the immediate crisis over, she was snuggled back in the big chair behind her desk and using Tranquillity's sensitive cells to observe the last of the voidhawks assigned to implement the aid response settle on its docking ledge pedestal. A procession of vehicles trundled over the polyp towards it, cargo flatbed lorries and heavy-lift trucks eager to unload the large fusion generator clamped awkwardly in the voidhawk's cargo cradles.
The generator had come from one of the industrial stations of the nearest Edenist habitat, Lycoris; hurriedly ferried over by Consensus as soon as Tranquillity's status was established. There were currently fifteen technical crews working on similar generators around the docking ledge, powering them up and wiring them in to the habitat's power grid.
When she sank her mentality deeper into the neural strata and the autonomic monitor routines which operated there, Ione could feel the electricity flowing back into the starscrapers through the organic conductors, their mechanical systems gradually coming back on line. The habitat's girdling city had been in emergency powerdown mode since the swallow manoeuvre, along with other non-essential functions. Grandfather Michael's precautions hadn't been perfect after all. She grinned to herself; pretty damn good, though. And even without the Jovian Consensus on hand to help with all its resources, they had the smaller fusion generators in the non-rotating spaceport.
We would have been okay.
Of course we would, Tranquillity said. It managed a mildly chastising tone, surprised at her doubt.
Obviously, nobody had fully thought through the implications of the swallow manoeuvre for Tranquillity. When it entered the wormhole, the hundreds of induction cables radiating out from the endcap rims had been sliced off, eliminating nearly all of the habitat's natural energy generation capability. It would take their extrusion glands several months to grow new ones out to full length.
By which time they might have to move again.
Let's not worry about that right now, Tranquillity said. We're in the safest orbit in the Confederation; even I was surprised by the amount of fire-power Consensus has amassed here to protect itself. Be content.
I wasn't complaining.
Nor are our inhabitants.
Ione felt her attention being focused inside the shell.
It was party time in Tranquillity. The whole population had come up out of the starscrapers to wait in the parkland around the lobbies until the electricity was restored. Elderly plutocrats sat on the grass next to students, waitresses shared the queue to the toilets with corporate presidents, Laymil project researchers mingled with society vacuumheads. Everybody had grabbed a bottle on the way out of their apartment, and the galaxy's biggest mass picnic had erupted spontaneously. Dawn was now five hours late, but the moonlight silver light-tube only enhanced the ambience. People drank, and ran stim programs, and laughed with their neighbour as they told and retold their personal tale of combat-wasp-swarms-I-have-seen-hurtling-towards-me. They thanked God but principally Ione Saldana for rescuing them, and declared their undying love for her, that goddamn beautiful, brilliant, canny, gorgeous girl in whose habitat they were blessed to live. And, hey, Capone; how does it feel, loser? Your almighty Confederation-challenging fleet screwed by a single non-military habitat; everything you could throw at us, and we beat you. Still happy you came back to the wonders of this century?
The residents from the two starscrapers closest to De Beauvoir palace walked over the vales and round the spinnies to pay their respects and voice their gratitude. A huge crowd was singing and chanting outside the gates, calling, pleading for their heroine to appear.
Ione slid the focus over them, smiling when she saw Dominique and Clement in the throng, as well as a wildly drunk Kempster Getchell. There were others she knew, too, directors and managers of multistellar companies and finance institutions, all swept along with tide of emotion. Red-faced, exhilarated, and calling her name with hoarse throats. She let the focus float back to Clement.
Invite him in, Tranquillity urged warmly.
Survival of dangerous events is a sexual trigger for humans. You should indulge your instincts. He will make you happy, and you deserve that more than anything.
Romance has nothing to do with this. Enjoy the release he will bring.
What about you? You performed the swallow manoeuvre.
When you are happy, I am happy.
She laughed out loud. "Oh what the hell, why not."
That is good. But I think you will have to make a public appearance first. This crowd is good-natured, but quite determined to thank you.
Yes. She sobered.
But there is one last official duty.
Indeed. Tranquillity's tone matched her disposition.
Ione felt the mental conversation widen to incorporate the Jovian Consensus. Armira, the Kiint ambassador to Jupiter, was formally invited to converse with them.
Our swallow manoeuvre has produced an unexpected event, Ione said. We are hopeful that you can clarify it for us.
Armira injected a sensation of stately amusement into the affinity band.
I would suggest, Ione Saldana and Tranquillity, that your entire swallow manoeuvre was an unexpected event.
It certainly surprised the Kiint we were host to, she said. They all left, very suddenly.
I see. Armira's thoughts hardened, denying them any hint of his emotional content.
Tranquillity replayed the memory it had from the time of the attack, showing all the Kiint vanishing inside event horizons.
What you have seen demonstrated is an old ability, Armira responded dispassionately. We developed the emergency exodus facility during the era when we were engaged in interstellar travel. It is merely a sophisticated application of your distortion field systems. My colleagues helping with your Laymil research project would have used it instinctively when they believed they were threatened.
We're sure they would, Consensus said. And who can blame them? That's not the point. The fact that you have this ability is most enlightening to us. We have always regarded as somewhat fanciful your claim that your race's interest in star travel is now over. Although the fact that you had no starships added undeniable weight to the argument. Now we have seen your personal teleport ability, the original claim is exposed as a complete fallacy.
We do not have the same level of interest in travelling to different worlds that you do, Armira said.
Of course not. Our starships are principally concerned with commercial and colonization flights, and an unfortunate amount of military activity. Your technological level would preclude anything as simple as commercial activity. We also believe that you are peaceful, although you must have considerable knowledge of advanced weapons. That leaves colonization and exploration.
A correct analysis.
Are you still conducting these activities?
To some degree.
Why did you not tell us this, why have you hidden your true abilities behind a claim of mysticism and disinterest?
You know the answer to that, Armira said. Humans discovered the Jiciro race three hundred years ago; yet you have still not initiated contact and revealed yourselves to them. Their technology and culture is at a very primitive level, and you know what will happen if they are exposed to the Confederation. All that they have will be supplanted by what they will interpret as futuristic items of convenience, they will cease to develop anything for themselves. Who knows what achievements would be lost to the universe?
That argument does not pertain here, Consensus said. The Jiciro do not know what the stars are, nor that solid matter is composed of atoms. We do. We acknowledge that our technology is inferior to yours. But equally you know that one day we will achieve your current level. You are denying us knowledge we already know exists, and you have done so twice, in this field and in your understanding of the beyond. This is not an act of fellowship; we have opened ourselves to you in honesty and friendship, we have not hidden our flaws from you; yet you have clearly not reciprocated. Our conclusion is that you are simply studying us. We would now like to know why. As sentient entities we have that right.
Study is a pejorative term. We learn of you, as you do us. Admittedly that process is imbalanced, but given our respective natures, that is inevitable. As to bestowing our technology; that would be interference of the grandest order. If you want something, achieve it for yourselves.
Same argument you gave us concerning the beyond, Ione remarked testily.
Of course, Armira said.
Tell me, Ione Saldana, what would your reaction have been if a xenoc race announced that you had an immortal soul, and proved it, and then gone on to demonstrate that the beyond awaited, though as Laton said, only for some? Would you have greeted such a revelation with thanks?
No, I don't suppose I would.
We know that our introduction to the concept of the beyond was accidental, Consensus said. Something happened on Lalonde which allowed the souls to come back and possess the living. Something extraneous. This calamity has been inflicted upon us. Surely such circumstances permit you to intervene?
There was a long pause. We will not intervene in this case, Armira said. For two reasons. Whatever happened on Lalonde happened because you went there. There is more to travelling between stars and exploring the universe than the physical act.
You are saying we must accept responsibly for our actions.
Very well, with reservations we accept that judgement. Though, please appreciate, we do not like it. What is the second reason?
Understand, there is a faction among my people who have argued that we should intervene in your favour. The possibility was rejected because what we have learned of you so far indicates that your race will come through this time successfully. Edenists especially have the social maturity to face that which follows.
I'm not an Edenist, Ione said.
What about me, and all the other Adamists, the majority of our race? Are you going to stand back as we perish and fall into the beyond? Does the survival of an elite few, the sophisticates and the intellectuals, justify discarding the rest? Humans have never practised eugenics, we regard it as an abomination, and rightly so. If that's the price of racial improvement, we're not willing to pay it.
If I am any judge, you too will triumph, Ione Saldana.
Nice to know. But what about all the others?
Fate will determine what happens. I can say no more other than to restate our official response: the answer lies within yourselves.
That is not much of a comfort, Consensus remarked.
I understand your frustration. My one piece of advice is that you should not share what you have learned about my race with the Adamists. Believing we have a solution, and that piety alone will extract it from us, would weaken their incentive to find that answer.
We will consider your suggestion, Consensus said. But Edenism will not voluntarily face the rest of eternity without our cousins. Ultimately, we are one race, however diverse.
I acknowledge your integrity.
I have a final question, Ione said.
Where is Jay Hilton? She was taken from Tranquillity at the same time as your researchers. Why?
Armira's thoughts softened, shading as close to embarrassment as Ione had ever known a Kiint to come. That was an error, the ambassador said. And I apologise unreservedly for it. However, you should know the error was made in good faith. A young Kiint included Jay Hilton in the emergency exodus against parental guidance. She was simply trying to save her friend.
Haile! Ione laughed delightedly. You wicked girl.
I believe she has been severely reprimanded for the incident.
I hope not, Ione said indignantly. She's only a baby.
Well, you can bring Jay back now; Tranquillity isn't as vulnerable as you thought.
I apologise again, but Jay Hilton cannot be returned to you at this time.
In effect, she has seen too much. I assure you that she is perfectly safe, and we will of course return her to you immediately your current situation is resolved.
The walls of the prison cell were made from some kind of dull-grey composite, not quite cool enough to be metal, but just as hard. Louise had touched them once before sinking down onto the single cot and hugging her legs, knees tucked up under her chin. The gravity was about half that of Norfolk, better than Phobos, at least; though the air was cooler than it had been on the
Jamrana. She spent some time wondering about Endron, the old systems specialist from the Far Realm, thinking he might have betrayed them and alerted High York's authorities, then decided it really didn't matter. Her one worry now was that she'd been separated from Gen; her sister would be very frightened by what was happening.
And I got her into this mess. Mother will kill me.
Except mother was in no position to do anything. Louise hugged herself tighter, fighting the way her lips kept trembling.
The door slid open, and two female police officers stepped in. Louise assumed they were police, they wore pale blue uniforms with Govcentral's bronze emblem on their shoulders, depicting a world where continents shaped as hands gripped together.
"Okay, Kavanagh," said the one with sergeant stripes. "Let's go."
Louise straightened her legs, looking cautiously from one to the other. "Where?"
"I'd just shove you out the bloody airlock, it's up to me," said the other. "Trying to sneak one of those bastards in here. Bitch."
"Leave it," the sergeant ordered.
"I wasn't . . ." Louise started. She pursed her lips helplessly. It was so complicated, and heaven only knew how many laws she'd broken on the way to High York.
They marched her down a short corridor and into another room. It made her think of hospitals. White walls, everything clean, a table in the middle that was more like a laboratory bench, cheap waiting room chairs, various processor blocks in a tall rack in one corner, more lying on the table. Brent Roi was sitting behind the table; he'd taken off the customs uniform he'd worn to greet the Jamrana, now he was in the same blue suit as the officers escorting her. He waved her into the chair facing him.
Louise sat, hunching her shoulders exactly the way she was always scolding Gen for doing. She waited for a minute with downcast eyes, then glanced up. Brent Roi was giving her a level stare.
"You're not a possessed," he said. "The tests prove that."
Louise pulled nervously at the black one-piece overall she'd been given, the memory of those tests vivid in her mind. Seven armed guards had been pointing their machine guns at her as the technicians ordered her to strip. They'd put her inside sensor loops, pressed hand held scanners against her, taken samples. It was a million times worse than any medical examination. Afterwards, the only thing she'd been allowed to keep was the medical nanonic package round her wrist.
"That's good," she said in a tiny voice.
"So how did he blackmail you?"
"The possessed guy calling himself Fletcher Christian."
"Um. He didn't blackmail me, he was looking after us."
"So you rolled over and let him fuck you in return for protection against the other possessed?"
Brent Roi shrugged. "He preferred your little sister?"
"No! Fletcher is a decent man. You shouldn't say such things."
"Then what the hell are you doing here, Louise? Why did you try and infiltrate a possessed into the O'Neill Halo?"
"I wasn't. It's not like that. We came here to warn you."
"Earth. Govcentral. There's somebody coming here. Somebody terrible."
"Yeah?" Brent Roi raised a sceptical eyebrow. "Who's that then?"
"He's called Quinn Dexter. I've met him, he's worse than any normal possessed. Much worse."
"In what way?"
"More powerful. And he's full of hate. Fletcher says there's something wrong about him, he's different somehow."
"Ah, the expert on possession. Well, if anyone is going to know, it'll be him."
Louise frowned, unsure why the official was being so difficult. "We came here to warn you," she insisted. "Dexter said he was coming to Earth. He wants revenge on someone called Banneth. You have to guard all the spaceports, and make sure he doesn't get down to the surface. It would be a disaster. He'll start the possession down there."
"And why do you care?"
"I told you. I've met him. I know what he's like."
"Worse than ordinary possessed; yet you seemed to have survived. How did you manage that, Louise?"
"We were helped."
"No . . . I don't know who it was."
"All right, so you escaped this fate worse than death, and you came here to warn us."
"How did you get off Norfolk, Louise?"
"I bought tickets on a starship."
"I see. And you took Fletcher Christian with you. Were you worried there were possessed among the starship crew?"
"No. That was one place I was sure there wouldn't be any possessed."
"So although you knew there were no possessed on board, you still took Christian with you as protection. Was that your idea, or his?"
"I . . . It . . . He was with us. He'd been with us since we left home."
"Where is home, Louise?"
"Cricklade manor. But Dexter came and possessed everyone. That's when we fled to Norwich."
"Ah yes, Norfolk's capital. So you brought Christian with you to Norwich. Then when that started to fall to the possessed, you thought you'd better get off-planet, right?"
"Did you know Christian was a possessed when you bought the tickets?"
"Yes, of course."
"And when you bought them, did you also know Dexter wanted to come to Earth?"
"No, that was after."
"So was it dear old samaritan Fletcher Christian who suggested coming here to warn us?"
"And you agreed to help him?"
"So where were you going to go originally, before Fletcher Christian made you change your mind and come here?"
Brent Roi nodded in apparent fascination. "That's a rather strange place for a young lady from Norfolk's landowner class to go. What made you chose that habitat?"
"My fiancé lives there. If anyone can protect us, he can."
"And who is your fiancé, Louise?"
She smiled sheepishly. "Joshua Calvert."
"Joshua Cal . . . You mean Lagrange Calvert?"
"The captain of the Lady Macbeth?"
"Yes. Do you know him?"
"Let's say, the name rings a bell." He sat back and folded his arms, regarding Louise with a strangely mystified expression.
"Can I see Genevieve now?" she asked timidly. No one had actually said she was under arrest yet. She felt a lot more confident now the policeman had actually listened to her story.
"In a little while, possibly. We just have to review the information you've provided us with."
"You do believe me about Quinn Dexter, don't you? You must make s
ure he doesn't get down to Earth."
"Oh, I assure you, we will do everything we can to make sure he doesn't get through our security procedures."
"Thank you." She glanced awkwardly at the two female officers standing on either side of her chair. "What's going to happen to Fletcher?"
"I don't know, Louise, that's not my department. But I imagine they'll attempt to flush him out of the body he's stolen."
"Oh." She stared at the floor.
"Do you think they're wrong to try that, Louise?"
"No. I suppose not." The words were troubling to speak; the truth, but not what was right. None of what had happened was right.
"Good." Brent Roi signalled her escort. "We'll talk again in a little while." When the door closed behind her, he couldn't help a grimace of pure disbelief.
"What do you think?" his supervisor datavised.
"I have never heard someone sprout quite so much bullshit in a single interview before," Brent Roi replied. "Either she's a retard, or we're up against a new type of possessed infiltration."
"She's not a retard."
"Then what the hell is she? Nobody is that dumb, it's not possible."
"I don't believe she's dumb, either. Our problem is, we're so used to dealing with horrendous complexities of subterfuge, we never recognise the simple truth when we see it."
"Oh come on, you don't actually believe that story?"
"She is, as you said, from the Norfolk landowner class; that doesn't exactly prepare her for the role of galactic master criminal. And she is travelling with her sister."
"That's just cover."
"Brent, you are depressingly cynical."
"Yes, sir." He held on to his exasperation, it never made the slightest impression on his supervisor. The anonymous entity who had guided the last twenty years of his life lacked many ordinary human responses. There were times when Brent Roi wondered if he was actually dealing with a xenoc. Not that there was much he could do about that now; whatever branch of whatever agency the supervisor belonged to, it was undoubtedly a considerable power within Govcentral. His own smooth, accelerated promotion through the Halo police force was proof of that.
"There are factors of Miss Kavanagh's story which my colleagues and I find uniquely interesting."
"Which factors?" Brent asked.
"You know better than that."
"All right. What do you want me to do with her?"
"Endron has confirmed the Phobos events to the Martian police, however we must establish exactly what happened to Kavanagh on Norfolk. Initiate a direct memory retrieval procedure."
Over the last five hundred years, the whole concept of Downtown had acquired a new-ish and distinctly literal meaning in New York; naturally enough, so did Uptown. One thing, though, would never change; the arcology still jealously guarded its right to boast the tallest individual building on the planet. While the odd couple of decades per century might see the title stolen away by upstart rivals in Europe or Asia, the trophy always came home eventually.
The arcology now sprawled across more than four thousand square kilometres, housing (officially) three hundred million people. With New Manhattan at the epicentre, fifteen crystalline domes, twenty kilometres in diameter, were clumped together in a semicircle along the eastern seaboard, sheltering entire districts of ordinary skyscrapers (defined as buildings under one kilometre high) from the pummelling heat and winds. Where the domes intersected, gigantic conical megatowers soared up into the contused sky. More than anything, these colossi conformed to the old concept of "arcology" as a single city-in-a-building. They had apartments, shopping malls, factories, offices, design bureaus, stadiums, universities, parks, police stations, council chambers, hospitals, restaurants, bars, and spaces for every other human activity of the Twenty-seventh Century. Thousands of their inhabitants were born, lived, and died inside them without ever once leaving.
At five and a half kilometres tall, the Reagan was the current global champion, its kilometre-wide base resting on the bedrock where the town of Ridgewood had stood in the times before the armada storms. An apartment on any of its upper fifty floors cost fifteen million fuseodollars apiece, and the last one was sold twelve years before they were built. Their occupants, the new breed of Uptowners, enjoyed a view as spectacular as it was possible to have on Earth. Although impenetrably dense cloud swathed the arcology for a minimum of two days out of every seven; when it was clear the hot air was very clear indeed. Far below them, under the transparent hexagonal sheets which comprised the roof of the domes, the tide of life ebbed and flowed for their amusement. By day, an exotic hustle as kaleidoscope rivers of vehicles flowed along the elevated 3D web of roads and rails; by night, a shimmering tapestry of neon pixels.
Surrounding the Reagan, streets and skyscrapers fanned out in a radial of deep carbon-concrete canyons, like buttress roots climbing up to support the main tower. The lower levels of these canyons were badly cluttered, where the skyscraper bases were twice as broad as their peaks, and the elevated roads formed a complex intersecting grid for the first hundred and fifty metres above the ground. High expressways throwing off curving slip roads at each junction down to the local traffic lanes; broad freight-only flyovers shaking from the eighty-tonne autotrucks grumbling along them twenty-four hours a day, winding like snakes into tunnels which led to sub-basement loading yards; metro transit carriages gliding along a mesh of rails so labyrinthine that only an AI could run the network. Rents were cheap near the ground, where there was little light but plenty of noise, and the heavy air gusting between dirty vertical walls had been breathed a hundred times before. Entropy in the arcology meant a downward drift. Everything that was worn-out, obsolete, demode, economically redundantdown it came to settle on the ground, where it could descend no further. People as well as objects.
Limpet-like structures proliferated among the criss-cross of road support girders bridging the gap between the skyscrapers, shanty igloos woven from salvaged plastic and carbotanium composite, multiplying over the decades until they clotted into their own light-killing roof. Under them, leeched to the streets themselves, were the market stalls and fast-food counters; a souk economy of fifth-hand cast-offs and date-expired sachets shuffled from family to family in an eternal round robin. Crime here was petty and incestuous, gangs ruled their turf, pushers ruled the gangs. Police made token patrols in the day, and went off-shift as the unseen sun sank below the rim of the domes above.
This was Downtown. It was everywhere, but always beneath the feet of ordinary citizens, invisible. Quinn adored it. The people who dwelt here were almost in the ghost realm already; nothing they did ever affected the real world.
He walked up out of the subway onto a gloomy street jammed with canopied stalls and wheel-less vans, all with their skirt of goods guarded by vigilant owners. Graffiti struggled with patches of pale mould for space on the skyscraper walls. There were few windows, and those were merely armoured slits revealing little of the mangy shops and bars inside. Metallic thunder from the roads above was as permanent as the air which carried it.
Several looks were quickly thrown Quinn's way before eyes were averted for fear of association. He smiled to himself as he strode confidently among the stalls. As if his attitude wasn't enough to mark him out as an interloper, he had clothed himself in his jet-black priest robe again.
It was the simplest way. He wanted to find the sect, but he'd never been to New York before. Everybody in Downtown knew about the sect, this was their prime recruiting ground. There would be a coven close by, there always was. He just needed someone who knew the location.
Sure enough, he hadn't got seventy metres from the subway when they saw him. A pair of waster kids busy laughing as they pissed on the woman they'd just beaten unconscious. Her two-year-old kid lay on the sidewalk bawling as blood and urine pooled round its feet. The victim's bag had been ripped apart, scattering its pitiful contents on the ground around her. They put Quinn in mind of Jackson Gael; late-adolescence, with pumped bodies, their muscle shape defined by some exercise but mostly tailored-hormones. One of them wore a T-shirt with the slogan: CHEMICAL WARFARE MACHINE. The other was more body-proud, favouring a naked torso.
He was the one who saw Quinn first, grunted in amazement, and nudged his partner. They sealed their flies and sauntered over.
Quinn slowly pushed his hood down. Hyper-sensitive to trouble, the street was de-populating rapidly. Pedestrians, already nervous from the mugging, slipped away behind the forest of support pillars. Market stall shutters were slammed down.
The two waster kids stopped in front of Quinn, who grinned in welcome. "I haven't had sex for ages," Quinn said. He looked straight at the one wearing the T-shirt. "So I think I'll fuck you first tonight."
The waster kid snarled, and threw a punch with all the strength his inflated muscles could manage. Quinn remained perfectly still. The fist struck his jaw, just to the left of his chin. There was a crunch which could easily be heard above the traffic's clamour. The waster kid bellowed, first in shock, then in agony. His whole body shook as he slowly pulled his hand back. Every knuckle was broken, as if he had punched solid stone. He cradled it with frightened tenderness, whimpering.
"I'd like to say take me to your leader," Quinn said, as if he hadn't even noticed the punch. "But organising yourselves takes brains. So I guess I'm out of luck."
The second waster kid had paled, shaking his head and taking a couple of steps backward.
"Don't run," Quinn said, his voice sharp.
The waster kid paused for a second, then turned and bolted. His jeans burst into flames. He screamed, stumbling to a halt, and flailing wildly at the burning fabric. His hands ignited. The shock silenced him for a second as he held them up disbelievingly in front of his face. Then he screamed again, and kept on screaming, staggering about drunkenly. He crashed into one of the flimsy stalls which crumpled, folding about him. The fire was burning deeper into his flesh now, spreading along his arms, and up onto his torso. His screaming became weaker as he bucked about in the smouldering wreckage.
The T-shirted kid raced over to him. But all he could do was look down in a horror of indecision as the flames grew hotter.
"For Christ's sake," he wailed at Quinn. "Stop it. Stop it!"
Quinn laughed. "Your first lesson is that God's Brother cannot be stopped."
The body was motionless and silent now, a black glistening husk at the centre of the flames. Quinn put a hand on the shoulder of the sobbing waster kid at his side. "It hurts you, doesn't it? Watching this?"
"Hurts! Hurts? You bastard." Even with a face screwed up from pain and rage, he didn't dare try to twist free from Quinn's hand.
"I have a question," Quinn said. "And I've chosen you to answer it for me." His hand moved down, caressing the waster kid's chest before it reached his crotch. He tightened his fingers round the kid's balls, aroused by the fear he was inflicting.
"Yes, God, yes. Anything," the kid snivelled. His eyes were closed, denying what he could of this nightmare.
"Where is the nearest coven of the Light Bringer sect?"
Even with the pain and dread scrambling his thoughts, the waster kid managed to stammer: "This dome, district seventeen, eighty-thirty street. They got a centre somewhere along there."
"Good. You see, you've learnt obedience, already. That's very smart of you. I'm almost impressed. Now there's only one lesson left."
The waster kid quailed. "What?"
"To love me."
The coven's headquarters had chewed its way, maggot-fashion, into the corner of the Hauck skyscraper on eighty-thirty street. What had once been a simple lattice of cube rooms, arranged by mathematics rather than art, was now a jumbled warren of darkened chambers. Acolytes had knocked holes in some walls, nailed up barricades in the corridors, pulled down ceilings, sealed off stairwells; drones shaping their nest to the design of the magus. From the outside it looked the same, a row of typically shabby Downtown shops along the street, selling goods cheaper than anywhere elsethey could afford to, everything was stolen by the acolytes. But above the shops, the slim windows were blacked out, and according to the building management processors, the rooms unoccupied, and therefore not liable to pay rent.
Inside, the coven members buzzed about industriously twenty-four hours a day. Looked at from a strictly corporate viewpoint, which was how magus Garth always regarded his coven, it was quite a prosperous operation. Ordinary acolytes, the real sewer-bottom shit of the human race, were sent out boosting from the upper levels; bringing back a constant supply of consumer goodies that were either used by the sect or sold off in the coven-front shops and affiliated street market stalls. Sergeant acolytes were deployed primarily as enforcers to keep the others in line, but also to run a more sophisticated distribution net among the dome's lower-middle classes; competing (violently) with ordinary pushers out in the bars and clubs. Senior acolytes, the ones who actually had a working brain cell, were given didactic memory courses and employed running the pirate factory equipment, bootlegging MF albums, black sensevise programs, and AV activant software; as well as synthesizing an impressive pharmacopoeia of drugs, hormones, and proscribed viral vectors.
In addition to these varied retail enterprises, the coven still engaged in the more traditional activities of crime syndicates. Although sensevise technology had essentially eliminated a lot of prostitution outside of Downtown, that still left protection rackets, extortion, clean water theft, blackmail, kidnapping, data theft, game-rigging, civic-service fraud, power theft, embezzlement, and vehicle theft, among others.
The coven performed all of them with gusto, if not finesse. Magus Garth was satisfied with their work. They hadn't missed their monthly target in over three years, making the required financial offering to New York's high magus over in dome two. His only worry was that the High Magus could realize how lucrative the coven was, and demand a higher offering. Increased payments would cut into Garth's personal profits, the eight per cent he'd been skimming every month for the last five years.
There were times when Garth wondered why nobody had noticed. But then, looking at sergeant acolyte Wener, maybe he shouldn't be all that surprised. Wener was in his thirties, a big man, but rounded rather than wedge-shaped like most of the acolytes. He had a thick beard, dark hair sprouting from his face in almost simian proportions. His head was in keeping with the rest of his body, though Garth suspected the bone thickness would be a lot greater than average. An overhanging forehead and jutting chin gave him a permanently sullen, resentful expressionappropriately enough. You couldn't geneer that quality, it was a demonstration that the incest taboo was finally starting to lose force among Downtown residents. Fifteen years in the sect, and Wener was as far up the hierarchy as he'd ever get.
"They got Tod, and Jay-Dee," Wener said. He smiled at the memory. "Tod went down swinging. Hit a couple of cops before they shot him with a fucking nervejam. They started kicking him then. I got out."
"How come they spotted you?" Garth asked. He'd sent Wener and five others out to steam a mall. Simple enough, two of you bang into a civilian, cut a bag strap, slice trouser pocket fabric. Any protest: you get crushed by a circle of aggressive faces and tough young bodies looking for an excuse to hurt you as bad as they can.
Wener shifted some flesh around on top of his shoulders, his way of shrugging. "Dunno. Cops maybe saw what was going down."
"Ah, fuck it." Garth knew. They'd hit a streak and stayed too long, allowed the mall patrols to realize what was happening. "Did Tod and Jay-Dee have anything on them?"
"Shit." That was it. The cops would send them straight down to the Justice Hall, walk them past a judge whose assistant's assistant would access the case file and slap them with an Involuntary Transportation sentence. Two more loyal followers lost to some asshole colony. Though Garth had heard that the quarantine was even affecting colony starship flights. Ivet holding pens at every orbital tower station were getting heavily overcrowded, the news companies were hot with rumours of riots.
Wener was shoving his hands in his pockets, pulling out credit disks and other civilian crap: fleks, jewellery, palm-sized blocks . . . "I got this. The steam wasn't a total zero." He spilt the haul on Garth's desk, and gave the magus a hopeful look.
"Okay, Wener. But you've got to be more careful in future. Fuck it, God's Brother doesn't like failure."
"All right, get the hell out of my sight before I give you to Hot Spot for a night."
Wener lumbered out of the sanctum, and closed the door. Garth datavised the room's management processor to turn up the lights. Candles and shadowy gloom were the sect's habitual trappings. When acolytes were summoned before him, the study conformed to that: a sombre cave lit by a few spluttering red candles in iron candelabrums, its walls invisible.
Powerful beams shone down out of the ceiling, revealing a richly furnished den; drinks cabinet filled with a good selection of bottles, an extensive AV and sensevise flek library, new-marque Kulu Corporation desktop processor (genuinenot a bootleg), some of the weirder art stuff that was impossible to fence. A homage to his own greed, and devoutness. If you see something you want: take it.
"Kerry!" he yelled.
She came in from his private apartment, butt naked. He hadn't allowed her to wear clothes since the day her brother brought her in. Best-looking girl the coven had acquired in ages. A few tweaks with cosmetic adaptation packages, pandering to his personal tastes, and she was visual perfection.
"Get my fifth invocation robes," he told her. "Hurry up. I've got the initiation in ten minutes."
She bobbed her head apprehensively, and retreated back into the apartment. Garth started picking up the junk Wener had left, reading the flek labels, datavising the blocks for a menu. A gentle gust of cool air wafted across his face. The candles flickered. It broke his concentration for a moment. Air conditioner screwed up again.
There was nothing of any interest among Wener's haul, no blackmail levers; some of the fleks were company files, but a quick check found no commercially sensitive items. He was indifferent about that. Data was the other offering the coven made to the High Magus, and that on a weekly basis. A gift that never brought any return, other than the invisible umbrella of political protection the sect extended to its senior members. So Garth played along, considering it his insurance premium. The reports were more than a simple summary of what was happening inside the coven; the High Magus insisted on knowing what action was going down on the street, every street.
Years of being out on the street at the hard edge had taught Garth the value of good intelligence, but this was like a fetish with the High Magus.
Kerry returned with his robes. The fifth invocation set were appropriately flamboyant, black and purple, embroidered with scarlet pentagrams and nonsense runes. But they were a symbol of authority, and the sect was very strict about internal discipline. Kerry helped him into them, then hung a gold chain with an inverted cross round his neck. When he looked into a mirror he was satisfied with what he saw. The body might be sagging slightly these days, but he used weapon implants rather than straight physical violence to assert himself now; while the shaven skull and eyes recessed by cosmetic adaptation packages gave him a suitably ominous appearance.
The temple was at the centre of the headquarters, a cavity three stories high. Straight rows of severed steel reinforcement struts poking out of the walls showed where the floors and ceilings used to be. A broad pentagon containing an inverted cross was painted across the rear wall. It was illuminated from below by a triple row of skull candles, great gobs of wax in upturned craniums. Stars, demons, and runes formed a constellation around it, although they were fading under layers of soot. The altar was a long carbon-concrete slab, ripped from the sidewalk outside, and mounted on jagged pillars of carbotanium. Impressively solid, if nothing else. There was a black brazier on top of it, lithe blue flames slithering out of the trash bricks it was filled with, sending up a plume of sweet-stinking smoke. A pair of tall serpent-shaped candle sticks flanked it. Ten iron hoops, sunk into the carbon concrete, trailed lengths of chain which ended in manacles.
Just over half of the coven's acolytes were waiting obediently when Garth arrived. Standing in rows, wearing their grey robes, with coloured belts denoting seniority. Garth would have preferred more. But they were stretched pretty thin right now. A turf dispute with a gang operating out of ninety-ten street had resulted in several clashes. The gang lord was doubtless thinking it would all be settled with a boundary agreement. Garth was going to cure him of that illusion. God's Brother did not negotiate. Acolytes had the gang under observation, building up a picture of their entire operation. It wasn't something the gang understood or could ever emulate, they didn't have the discipline or the drive. Their only motivation was to claw in enough money to pay for their own stim fixes.
That was what made the sect different; serving God's Brother so rewarding.
In another week Garth would unlock the weapons stash and launch a raid. The High Magus had already arranged for him to take delivery of sequestration nanonics; that would be the fate of the gang's leadership, turned into biological mechanoids. Any attractive youths would be used as bluesense meat after the acolytes had enjoyed their victory orgy. And, inevitably, there would be a sacrifice.
The acolytes bowed to Garth, who went to stand in front of the altar. Five initiates were shackled to it. Three boys and a two girls, lured in by the promises and the treachery of friends. One of the boys stood defiantly straight, determined to show he could take whatever the initiation threw at him so he could claim his place, the other two were just surly and subdued. Garth had ordered one of the girls to be tranked after he'd spoken to her earlier. She'd virtually been abducted by an acolyte angry at losing her to an outside rival, and was likely to go into a mental melt-down if she wasn't eased in to her new life; she had strong ambitions to better herself and rise out of Downtown.
Garth held up his arms, and made the sign of the inverted cross. "With flesh we bond in the night," he intoned.
The acolytes started a low, mournful chanting, swaying softly in unison.
"Pain we love," Garth told them. "Pain frees the serpent beast. Pain shows us what we are. Your servants, Lord."
He was almost in a trance state as he spoke the words, he'd said them so many times before. So many initiations. The coven had a high turnover, arrests, stim burnouts, fights. But never drop outs.
Indoctrination and discipline helped, but his main weapon of control was belief. Belief in your own vileness, and knowing there was no shame in it. Wanting things to get worse, to destroy and hurt and ruin. The easy way forward . . . once you give in to your true self, your serpent beast. All that started right here, with the ceremony.
It was a deliberate release of sex and violence, an empowerment of the most base instincts, permitting little resistance. So easy to join, so natural to immerse yourself in the frenzy around you. Indulge the need to belong, to be the same as your brethren family. An act which gave the existing acolytes that fraternity.
As to the initiates, they passed through the eye of the needle. Fear kept them in place at first, fear of knowing how exquisitely ugly the sect really was, how they would be dealt with if they disobeyed or attempted to leave. Then the cycle would turn, and there would be another initiation. Only this time it would be them showing their devotion to God's Brother, revelling in the unchaining of their serpent beast. Doing as they had been done by, and enraptured by the accomplishment.
Whoever had designed the ritual, Garth thought, had really understood basic conditioning psychology. Such elemental barbarism was the only possible way to exert any kind of control over a Downtown savage. And there was no other sort of resident here.
"In darkness we see You, Lord," Garth recited. "In darkness we live. In darkness we wait for the true Night that You will bring us. Into that Night we will follow You." He lowered his arms.
"We will follow You," the acolytes echoed. Their rustling voices had become hot with expectation.
"When You light the true path of salvation at the end of the world, we will follow You."
"We will follow You."
"When Your legions fall upon the angels of the false lord, we will follow You."
"We will follow You."
"When the time . . ."
"That time is now," a single clear voice announced.
The acolytes grunted in surprise, while Garth spluttered to a halt, more astonished than outraged at the interruption. They all knew how important he considered the sect's ceremonies, how intolerant of sacrilege. Only true believers can inspire belief in others.
"Who said that?" he demanded.
A figure walked forward from the back of the temple, clad in a midnight-black robe. The opening at the front of the hood seemed to absorb all light, there was no hint of the head it contained. "I am your new messiah, and I have come among you to bring our Lord's Night to this planet."
Garth tried to use his retinal implants to see into the hood, but they couldn't detect any light in there, even infrared was useless. Then his neural nanonics reported innumerable program crashes. He yelled: "Shit!" and thrust his left hand out at the robed figure, index finger extended. The fire command to his microdart launcher never arrived.
"Join with me," Quinn ordered. "Or I will find more worthy owners for your bodies."
One of the acolytes launched herself at Quinn, booted foot swinging for his kneecap. Two others were right behind her, fists drawn back.
Quinn raised an arm, his sleeve falling to reveal an albino hand with grizzled claw fingers. Three thin streamers of white fire lashed out from the talons, searingly bright in the gloomy, smoke-heavy air. They struck his attackers, who were flung backwards as if they'd been hit by a shotgun blast.
Garth grabbed one of the serpent candlesticks, and swung it wildly, aiming to smash it down on Quinn's head. Not even a possessed would be able to survive a mashed brain, the invading soul would be forced out. Air thickened around the candlestick, slowing its momentum until it halted ten centimetres above the apex of Quinn's hood. The serpent's head, which held the candle, hissed and closed its mouth, biting the rod of wax in half.
"Swamp him!" Garth shouted. "He can't defeat all of us. Sacrifice yourself, for God's Brother."
A few of the acolytes edged closer to Quinn, but most stayed where they were. The candlestick began to glow along its entire length. Pain stabbed into Garth's hands. He could hear his skin sizzling. Squirts of greasy smoke puffed out. But he couldn't let go; his fingers wouldn't move. He saw them blister and blacken; bubbling juices ran down his wrists.
"Kill him," he cried. "Kill. Kill." His burning hands made him scream out in agony.
Quinn leant towards him. "Why?" he asked. "This is the time of God's Brother. He sent me here to lead you. Obey me."
Garth fell to his knees, arms shaking, charred hands still clenched round the gleaming candlestick. "You're a possessed."
"I was a possessed. I returned. My belief in Him freed me."
"You'll possess all of us," the magus hissed.
"Some of you. But that is what the sect prays for. An army of the damned; loyal followers of our darkest Lord." He turned to the acolytes and held up his hands. For the first time his face was visible within, pale and deadly intent. "The waiting is over. I have come, and I bring you victory for eternity. No more pathetic squabbling over black stimulants, no more wasting your life mugging geriatric farts. His true work waits to be done. I know how to bring Night to this planet. Kneel before me, become true warriors of darkness, and together we will rain stone upon this land until it bleeds and dies."
Garth screamed again. All that was left now of his fingers were black bones soldered to the candlestick. "Kill him, shitbrains!" he roared. "Smash the fucker into bedrock, curse you." But through eyes blurred with tears he could see the acolytes slowly sinking to the floor in front of Quinn. It was like a wave effect, spreading across the temple. Wener was the closest to Quinn, his simple face alive with admiration and excitement. "I'm with you," the lumbering acolyte yelled. "Let me kill people for you. I want to kill everyone, kill the whole world. I hate them. I hate them real bad."
Garth groaned in mortification. They believed him! Believed the shit was a real messenger from God's Brother.
Quinn closed his eyes and smiled in joy as he gloried in their adulation. Finally, he was back among his own. "We will show the Light Bringer we are the worthy ones," he promised them. "I will guide you over an ocean of blood to His Empire. And from there we will hear the false lord weeping at the end of the universe."
The acolytes cheered and laughed rapturously. This was what they craved; no more of the magus's tactical restraint, at last they could unleash violence and horror without end, begin the war against the light, their promised destiny.
Quinn turned and glanced down at magus Garth. "You: fuckbrain. Grovel, lick the shit off my feet, and I'll allow you to join the crusade as a whore for the soldiers."
The candlestick clattered to the ground, with the roast remains of Garth's hands still attached. He bared his teeth at the deranged possessor standing over him. "I serve my Lord alone. You can go to hell."
"Been there," Quinn said urbanely. "Done that. Come back." His hand descended on Garth's head as if in anointment. "But you will be of use to me. Your body, anyway." His needle-sharp talons pierced the skin.
The magus discovered that the pain of losing his hands was merely the overture to a very long and quite excruciating symphony.