A Space Opera
By MacLeod Ken, Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2004 Ken MacLeod
All rights reserved.
As soon as she stepped through the gate Lucinda Carlyle knew the planet had been taken, and knew it would be worth taking back. It bore the thumbprints of hurried terraforming: bluish grass and moss, low shrubbery like heather. No animal life was visible, but she had no doubt it was there. Five kilometres away across an otherwise barren moor dotted with outcrops and bogs a kilometre-high diamond machine speared the sky. Complex in aspect, somewhere between a basaltic cliff and a cathedral, it had shown up on the robot probe, but that was nothing compared to actually looking at it.
She turned away from it and looked back at the gate. It was marked by a hilltop henge, whether by the gate's builders or by subsequent, less sophisticated minds she couldn't guess: two three-metre slabs upended, and topped by a third. One by one her team stepped forth from the unlikely shimmer and gazed around at the landscape. A yellow G5 sun blinked a bleary, watery morning eye over the horizon.
'Grim place,' said Macaulay, the ordnance fellow, as drizzle gusted. 'Minds me a Scotland.' He heaved a Charnley plasma cannon to his shoulder, mimed a shot at the distant edifice, and — abashed by Carlyle's sudden glare — looked to the robot walkers that carried the heavier gear.
'Divil you were ever in Scotland,' jeered Amelia Orr, comms op and Carlyle's great-great-grandmother, who had been.
'Shut it,' said Carlyle. She flinched slightly at her own words, but she was in charge here, and she had to stamp authority on seniority, and fast. She strongly suspected that Orr had been put on the team to keep an eye on her, and harboured contingency plans to take over if Carlyle faltered. On the inside of her helmet the names of the rest of the ten-person team lit up one by one. Meanwhile the suit's firewalls fenced with the atmosphere. The planet was habitable — inhabited, even, damn their cheek — but its bacteria, viruses, and fungi all had to be neutralised. It would be an hour or more before the suits had passed on the new immunities to the team's bloodstreams, and the suits, or at least the helmets, could be dispensed with.
'Are you picking up anything?' she asked Orr, in a carefully polite tone.
The older woman tight-beamed a glyph of to Carlyle's head-up. 'Usual encrypted chatter.' 'Some music. D'ye want to hear it?' Carlyle raised a suit-gloved hand. 'No the now.' She swept the hand forward. 'Come on guys, this is gonna be a slog.'
Two hours later their suits were covered in mud and stained with bits of the local analogues of bracken, moss, and lichen, crawling with tiny tenlegged analogues of arthropods, and their firewalls were still running the virtual equivalent of fever, but they were all standing in front of the glittering cliffs. Carlyle let the team deploy a hundred metres away from the first visible ground-level gap and consulted her familiar. Professor Isaac Shlaim was an Israeli comp sci academic whose vicissitudes since the Hard Rapture could have filled a book, and had. So far Carlyle had resisted his entreaties to have it published.
'Whaddae ye make of it?' she asked.
The familiar's icon filled a quadrant of the head-up. The icon was a caricatured face that Lucinda varied whenever she felt too uncomfortably reminded that Shlaim had once been human.
'From after my time,' he said, a slightly smug tone overlying his usual mixture of resentment and resignation to his plight. 'Can you confirm that it is the only such artifact on the planet?'
'May I access your remote sensing equipment?'
Carlyle hesitated. The familiar's efforts to escape the circuits of her suit were as predictable as they were persistent. On the other hand, she needed his assistance more than usual.
'I'll scan then gie ye a download,' she compromised.
'Excellent!' said Shlaim. Even centuries removed from muscle-tone and breath, his cheerful compliance sounded forced.
The radar and sonar pings and full-spectrum scan took about a minute and returned a mass of data quite incomprehensible to Carlyle, or to any individual human. She filed it, isolated it, and tipped it and a copy of Shlaim into a firewalled box. Let the poor bugger fight whatever demons might lurk in the electromagnetic echoes of the posthuman relic before them.
Macaulay was chivvying his iron gorillas into setting up the field pieces to triangulate the provisionally identified entrance. Orr was lying on her back surrounded by small dish aerials. The other team members were prone on the edge of a dip, periscope sights and plasma rifles poking over it, for whatever good that would do. From here the irregularities of the diamond cliff looked like crenellated battlements, its high black hollows like loopholes. But there was no evidence anywhere Carlyle could see of firing on the moor: no burn marks in the knotty ankle-high scrub, no glazed slag. The sense of being watched was overpowering, but she knew from experience that this meant nothing. She'd felt the same tension on the back of her neck in front of natural cliffs.
She ducked to stay beneath this nominal skyline and ran over to Jenny Stevenson, the biologist, who had one hand on her rifle and with the other was picking bits of grot off her suit and feeding them into an analyser.
'How's it looking?' Carlyle asked.
Stevenson's brown-eyed gaze flicked from her head-up to focus on Carlyle, and crinkled to show the top of a smile. Her grubby glove's thumb and forefinger formed an 'O.'
'Compatible,' she said. 'After we've got the immunities, we could turn they plants into food, nae bother.'
Carlyle flicked a finger at a clump of scrub, jangling its tiny violet bellshaped flowers. 'Is this really heather?'
'Naw really,' said Stevenson. Her smile brightened. 'Just an analogue, like. Somebody's done a real sweet job on this. Took some ae the native life and adapted it. Ye can still see bits ae the native sequences in the DNA, braided in wi the terrestrial stuff. Every cell here must be running two genetic codes simultaneously, which is quite a trick. I'm picking up signatures of they Darwin-Gosse machines fae way back, where was it?'
'Aye, that's the one.'
'Good work,' said Carlyle. This was a puzzle; AO, the main population of terraformers, mistrusted Darwin-Gosse machines, but it was always possible that a deviant sect had bought some. 'That'll maybe gie's a handle on the squatters. Speaking of which.'
She rolled to Orr, staying outside the barrier of aerials. 'Have the locals spotted us yet?'
Orr remained staring upward, at some combination of the real sky and the images being patched in from her apparatus. She didn't turn around; probably still smarting.
'No's far as I see. Place is under satellite surveillance, sure, but I've no ta'en any pings. Most ae the action's round the other side of the planet, and all we're picking up here is spillover. I got a few quantum demons grinding through the encryption. Should be cracked in an hour or so.'
'Any low orbit presence?'
Orr waved a dismissive hand skyward. 'Scores of satellites. Sizes range between a grape and a grapefruit. No exactly heavy industry. Typical fucking farmers.'
'Any deep space stuff?'
'Aye, a few, but it's hard to tell fae leakage ae tight-beam transmissions. The odd asteroid miner, I reckon. Maybe a fort or two.'
Carlyle chewed a lip, sucked hot coffee from her helmet nipple. 'Makes sense. The squatters don't seem to be AO, whoever they are.'
Orr sniggered. 'Squatters coulda picked a better place to fittle into. Makes me wonder why they didnae fittle straight back out.'
'Yeah,' said Carlyle. 'Well, assuming.' Assuming a lot about the squatters' tech level and motivations, was what she meant. She sat up, hunkered forward, elbows on knees, looking around. 'When your demons have finished we might have something to go on. Meanwhile ...' She toggled to an open circuit. 'Time for a bit ae combat archaeology.'
* * *
The mission profile was straightforward. They were neither to hide from nor confront the squatters, but instead pull down from the busy sky as much information as they could about them, then scout the diamond machine-mountain for any traces of usable tech and/or dangerous haunts, and get the hell out before sunset. Her familiar had found no signals in the noise bounced back from the precipitous face, but as Carlyle stalked forward alone, the Webster reaction pistol strapped to her hip, her backup team behind her to keep her covered, she felt her knees tremble. It wasn't so much the possible soul-searing dangers presented by the incomprehensible posthuman artifact, as it was a fear of screwing up. This was her first big job for the firm, one she'd fought hard to get, and she had no intention of blowing it. And on the plus side of the ledger, there was always the chance that the tech in here would be radical and capable of being parlayed into wealth beyond the dreams, etc. There was always that, but it wasn't enough. It wasn't what kept you walking forward, like a soldier into enemy fire. The Carlyles led from the front, always had, from the days when the worst any of them faced was a chibbing in a Glasgow close.
From a few metres away she saw that the lower part of the face, to about head height, was overgrown with moss and grass, evidently on the slow stacking of windblown dust. Above that the slope was sheer, the surface so smooth that nothing could gain purchase. The gap, a triangle ten metres high and three across at the base, had been dark only from a distance, and by contrast. As she walked into the cleft Carlyle could see that the interior was almost as bright as the outside. The passage itself was only a few paces long.
The ground level of the space opened out before her. It was so like a forest of frost-rimed low trees that for a moment she wondered if it was indeed that, perhaps a region of the heath trapped under this machine and preserved. A closer look at the nearest of the objects showed her that there was nothing biological there: the clear crystalline structure was replicated on an increasing scale from the frost that covered the needles through to the needles themselves, and the branches, to the main stem that sprouted out of the floor.
The floor was like ice, its transparency diminishing with depth. Looking up, Carlyle saw that the entire interior of the machine was encrusted with similar treelike structures, the ones above hanging down like enormous chandeliers, their prismatic bevelled sides shining with every colour of the visible spectrum in the sunlight that slanted through the outer surface.
'It's diamond all right,' said Shlaim.
'How much carbon is locked up in this?' Carlyle asked.
'Many millions of tons,' said the familiar. 'An entire coal measure, I would say, save that coal measures seem unlikely here.'
'Or an entire carbonaceous chondrite? Could they have done that?'
'If so it would be a quite profligate use of anti-gravity.' Shlaim sounded skeptical. 'Or they could have lowered it from a skyhook, I suppose, but it would seem pointless....'
Carlyle laughed. 'Since when has that ever ruled out anything they did?'
'In any case,' said Shlaim, 'it appears to have been grown or manufactured in situ. From atmospheric carbon, like a plant.'
'It's no just carbon,' Carlyle said.
Looking down the aisle between rows of diamond shrubbery Carlyle could see other, metallic colours interrupting the riotous monotony of the prisms. The frequency and size of these interruptions increased towards the centre of the artifact, where an arrangement of copper and steel, conical in outline, complicated in detail, rose a hundred metres or more from the floor. The grail in this cathedral, or the host. It looked more like a machine than the rest of the structure did, its hints of organic form echoing animal rather than plant structures.
She walked along to the nearest apparently metal object. About a metre and a half high, it seemed a miniature of the thing in the centre. Squatting beside it, she peered at the intricate surface. Fluted, mirror-smooth steel, veined with copper that could have been tubing, in a series of varied but individually precise diameters. In among the copper were other lines, green and red, that resembled and might even be plastic insulation around wires. Checking her head-up, Carlyle saw that this object was slightly above the ambient temperature of the artifact. She switched to IR and looked again at the central cone. It too glowed, more strongly than its smaller counterparts.
'Something going on here,' she said. 'Some kinda circulation. Flow of electricity, maybe fuel.'
She reached a hand towards it.
'Don't touch it!' warned Shlaim.
'Course not,' said Carlye. 'Just waving the inductance —'
'I would still caution against —'
Something fizzed and melted on the object's surface. A jolt of heat or electricity jackknifed Carlyle's arm back.
'Shit!' She wanted to suck her fingertips. She jumped up and backed off, clutching her numb elbow. The thing was moving, flowing as though melting into the floor. It spread, and long tendrils that looked like dribbles of mercury reached the bases of a few of the diamond bushes. These too began to move, branches clicking into new and different shapes like a multitool with nanchuk blades, the trunks becoming dislodged from now-revealed grooves in the floor as they did so. Carlyle backed off farther, and drew the Webster. Within seconds the metal object had become the central component of a frightening arachnoid array of skittering legs and waving arms, the whole freestanding and rotating as though deciding where to pounce. She could see lenses, formed through some complex infolding of prisms, and they were scanning her.
'I think at this point there is nothing to lose by firing,' said Shlaim, with irritating calm.
The Webster roared and bucked in her hands. The machine leapt backwards several metres but was otherwise unaffected. Projectiles ricocheted for what seemed a long time. Before the sounds tinkled to a halt Carlyle turned to sprint for the opening. All around her, machines were assembling themselves. She fired as she ran, hitting the metal cores here and there with effect before the diamond carapaces could form around them. Liquid bled and burned.
Out of the opening she sprinted as far and as fast as she could, then threw herself forward and rolled.
'Fire at will!' she shouted.
A Charnley bolt singed the air a metre above her. There was a flash. Then a cacophonous sound from her radio speakers deafened her. Something shorted in her helmet, stinging her neck. She rolled farther, over the lip of ground. The team were all blazing away at the opening. The banshee outcry ceased. Carlyle slammed another clip in the Webster and fired at the gap in the wall. The robot walkers were rocking back and forth on their spring-loaded legs as they lobbed shells from their field pieces, to no effect Carlyle could see apart from chewing up the soil around the face of the edifice. The diamond walls hadn't taken a scratch.
The shooting ran down to a ragged patter then stopped. Carlyle lay prone and peered at the hole as the smoke cleared. One of the multi-legged machines stood there, not moving forward or back. It had, she was pleased to see, taken some damage. Not much.
She was momentarily blinded as a laser beam from the machine slashed a line of fire across the ground a couple of metres forward of their position.
'Hold it!' she yelled.
Nothing further happened.
'Looks like we've been warned off,' she said heavily. 'Time to pull out. We can come back wi' a search engine.'
They picked up their gear and retraced their steps towards the gate.
'No a bad recce,' said Orr.
'Thanks,' Carlyle grunted. The back of her neck was sore, partly from the burn and partly from the tension brought on by the thought of the laser at their backs.
'See there's mair ae they dolmens,' said Stevenson, with a sweep of the arm at the horizon.
Carlyle glanced around, confirming, counting ten. They were easy to spot, when you knew where to look, on the crests of the surrounding hills.
'Make sure we're heading for the right one,' she said.
That got a laugh. 'Maybe they've aw got gates,' someone said, and got another.
'Anybody else get short-circuits from that electromagnetic blast?' Carlyle asked.
They all had.
'Shit,' she said. 'Any idea what it was?'
'It was a signal,' said Shlaim, breaking in to her mike. 'And no, I have not analysed it.'
'Just so long as you haven't recorded it,' snarled Carlyle. She hated being upstaged by her familiar.
Something banged in the sky. They all looked up, and saw black fragments flying apart and falling down from a couple of thousand metres overhead. Then a screaming noise started, and glancing a way off they all saw a larger black object separate into six parts, which peeled away from each other, banked around, and began a controlled and rapid descent towards them.
'Modular aircars in disposable hypersonic shell,' said Shlaim.
'Locals!' yelled Carlyle. 'Don't shoot first!'
The team and the robot walkers formed an outward-facing ring, bristling with weapons. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Newton's Wake by MacLeod Ken, Patrick Nielsen Hayden. Copyright © 2004 Ken MacLeod. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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