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O let us be married! too long we have tarried—
Avalon outlink station lay on the border of the Polity, that expanding political dominion ruled by artificial intelligences and, to those who resented unhuman rule, the supreme autocrat: Earth Central. In the entire history of the Polity only one living alien intelligence had been encountered: an enigmatic entity that for no immediately apparent reason, it being neither ophidian or fire-breathing, named itself Dragon, and ever since spent its time baffling researchers with its Delphic pronouncements. Ruins were found, artefacts certainly the product of very advanced technologies, traces of extinct star-faring civilizations, but no other living sentients. Now a live one had been found.
Avalon, once travelling at one-quarter C, now slowed on the borders of what scientists named, after translation and much academic debate, the Prador Second Kingdom. As Jebel Krong understood it, humans and AIs, though having long been in communication with the entities living in that kingdom, were yet to actually see them. Their ships had been encountered, only to speed away. Probes were sent in to survey the Kingdom worlds and many of them destroyed by the Prador—perhaps understandable caution on their part—but those surviving returned data on high-technological societies based on watery worlds, some pictures of strange organic dwellings, cities, seeming as much at home on land as in sea, and large shoreline enclosures holding herds of creatures like giant mudskippers. However, even those probes were destroyed before returning pictures of the Prador themselves.
However, researchers managed to work out some facts from the data returned. The Prador were creatures at home on both land and in the sea. The design of their ships and some nuances of their language indicated they might be exoskeletal, maybe insectile. They had not developed sophisticated AI, so it seemed likely they were highly individualistic, highly capable as individuals, and definitely somewhat paranoid in outlook. They communicated using sound, and the larger components of their sensorium were compatible with those of humans: their main senses probably being sight and hearing, though scanning of their ships' hulls indicated their ability to see might stray into the infrared with some loss at the other end of the spectrum, and analysis of communications revealed hearing straying into the infrasonic. Their language, just by usage, also indicated a sense of smell as a strong characteristic. Polity AIs claimed, with a certainty above ninety per cent, that Prador were carnivores, hence the corruption of the word "predator" resulting in their name.
But such ominous assertions about these creatures aside, they created, without the aid of AI, a space-faring civilization, a workable U-space drive, and by some quirk of their development it seemed their metallurgical science lay some way ahead of the Polity's. They didn't possess runcibles, which by their very nature of being based on a technology completely at odds with the straight-line thinking of evolved creatures, required AI. From this the Ambassador for humanity felt there to be grounds for constructive dialogue. The Ambassador eagerly anticipated facilitating that dialogue for the technical, moral and social advance of both the human and Prador cultures. It was the kind of thing ambassadors said. Jebel remained highly suspicious, but then, as an Earth Central Security monitor, that came with the territory.
"Their shuttle is now coming in to dock," said Urbanus.
Jebel wore a silver, teardrop-shaped augmentation bonded to his skull behind his left ear, and connected into his mind. He auged into the station network and confirmed the status of the approaching vessel. He studied some of the specs available and did not like what he saw, but at least the mother ship still remained at an acceptable distance. He very definitely did not like the look of that thing: a massive two-kilometre-wide golden vessel, oblate and flattened with some armoured turret on top, many extrusions that were possibly sensory arrays but more likely weapons, and a hull that seemed likely to be armoured with an exotic metal only recently created by Polity metallurgists—one resistant to much scanning, but most importantly one with superconducting crystalline layers that slid against each other, making it resistant to massive impacts and most forms of energy weapon. He frowned, then also checked his messages, since more data might be coming through to him from other sources, and felt a sinking sensation upon seeing just how many awaited his attention. He would have to check most of them later, but one he opened immediately.
TWO BOTTLES OF VIRAGO CHAMPAGNE TO COMPLEMENT A GREEN PRAWN CURRY. ONLY ONE FURTHER INGREDIENT REQUIRED: JEBEL KRONG. SEE YOU AT SIX—CIRRELLA.
Jebel realised he was grinning stupidly and quickly wiped the expression. One of the definite plus points of being seconded to the monitor force here was Cirrella. He hoped this meeting would be brief and without mishap, for then the diplomats and the various xeno experts could take over, and Jebel could enjoy a long-awaited break. Cirrella was a good cook and screwed like every occasion might be her last, and Jebel rather suspected he was falling in love with her.
Now glancing around at the gathered dignitaries, Jebel noted the Ambassador chatting with a group of network reporters, then he focused his attention on his companion. Urbanus looked like a Greek god, but one supplied with grey nondescript businesswear rather than shield and spear. His hair was dark and curly, complexion swarthy, eyes piercing blue. Jebel understood that Cybercorp was debating the merits of actually making their Golem androids ugly so the people who bought their indentures would not feel quite so inferior. Studying Urbanus, he understood why. The Golem made him feel uncomfortable, doubly so when he came to understand that beyond being better looking than him, Urbanus possessed a much larger knowledge base than himself, impeccable manners, and ten times the speed of mind, body and strength.
"Then they're happy with Earth-normal atmosphere and gravity?" asked Jebel.
"So it would seem. Their worlds range from three-quarters to two and a half gravities with atmospheres not much at variance from Earth normal, so it should be within their tolerance."
Jebel already knew all that—only talking because of nerves. He peered up at the hovering holocams, then once again scanned around the chamber constructed especially for this occasion. Auging again, he checked the status of the weaponry concealed in the walls, though really he didn't need to do that since the station AI controlled it.
A boom echoed through the chamber, followed by various clonks and ratchetings as the docking gear engaged. Specifications for the docking apparatus were transmitted many months ago and this equipment built and installed expeditiously. Jebel focused his attention on the double doors hull-side of the chamber. Their design told him something about the imminent visitors that made him rather nervous. The doors were five metres across and three high. Humans never needed doors so large.
Almost casually Urbanus commented, "I note you are wearing your armour."
"I'm cautious by nature," he replied, frowning, slightly embarrassed that his caution increased since meeting Cirrella. He spoke into his comlink. "Okay guys, you know our remit: only if the AI starts shooting do we draw our weapons, and only then in self-defence. Our prime objective then is to get the Ambassador and all these good citizens out of here. Don't do anything stupid meanwhile ... just be ready." Jebel hated this. On the one hand you needed to show trust by meeting openly, and in agreeing to meet on this Polity station the Prador had also shown such trust. However, he could not shake the feeling that the Ambassador, and all the others in this chamber, might be sacrificial pawns in some AI game. Human ambas-sador—Jebel snorted to himself—everyone knew who the real powers in the Polity were.
The doors clonked, a diagonal split opening and the two door-halves revolving into the wall—as per the Prador design. In the air above Jebel, the holocams of the various news agencies jockeyed for the best view, sometimes smacking rivals aside. He checked the positions of his security personnel, then with Urbanus at his side, moved into position behind the Ambassador as that man moved out before the crowd. Only one other accompanied them: a woman called Lindy Glick—the lower half of her face concealed by hardware made to produce Prador speech, linked up to the aug behind her ear—her presence here only as a precaution since the Prador should be carrying translators.
The smell struck Jebel first; damp, briny and slightly putrid like the odour of flotsam cast up by the tide: decaying seaweed and crab carapaces. He almost expected to hear gulls, but instead heard a heavy clattering from the docking tunnel now revealed. A shadow appeared—one with too much movement in it—and then the Prador came.
There were two of them, each walking on far too many long legs—hence the clattering. These extended from carapaces which from the front resembled pears stood upright and flattened. They scalloped around the rim, purple and yellow, the upper turret of each sporting an array of ruby eyes plus two eye-palps raised up like drumsticks, and mandibles grating before a nightmare mouth. To their fore they brandished heavy crab claws—that being the general impression given. These creatures reminded Jebel of fiddler crabs, though ones with carapaces a couple of metres across.
They swarmed through the doors into the chamber and clattered to a halt before the Ambassador, who took a pace or two back at the sight of these creatures. A stunned silence fell. After a moment the Ambassador found his voice.
"I welcome you to—"
More clattering came from the docking tunnel. The two creatures already in the chamber scuttled sideways in opposite directions towards the sides of the chamber. Two more Prador came out, then two more after them. Finally a larger individual came through—darker than the others and with metallic tech attached to its shell around its grinding mouthparts. This monster was the size of an aircar.
"To coin a cliché," Jebel muttered to Urbanus, "I've got a real bad feeling about this."
Jebel noted a louselike creature the size of a shoe clinging where the big Prador's legs joined to its carapace.
Now the Ambassador got up to speed again. "Prador, I welcome you to the Human Polity. It is with great—"
A crunching hissing bubbling interrupted him, then the flat inflexion-less voice of the Prador's translator turned the sound into words. "I am Vortex, first-child of Captain Immanence."
Jebel wondered how the translator went about selecting those names from the data-bank. They seemed rather ominous, especially when applied to monsters that appeared capable of tearing ceramal. What were these creatures thinking right now? Look at all these soft and chewable food items?
Vortex made its thoughts known. "You humans will surrender this station to us."
Jebel stared in fascination as the smaller Prador to Vortex's left unfolded sets of arms from underneath itself—each ending in complex manipulatory hands which held something that Jebel guessed weren't gifts. One item resembled an old Gatling gun, with heavy cables and something like an ammunition belt trailing back from it to a large box attached to the creature's under-carapace. Another item also trailed cables back to that box. Despite its alien manufacture, Jebel recognised a pulse-gun. The other things they held out were not so easily recognisable, but you just knew you'd rather be on the other side of them.
"You are, at present, the target of many weapons concealed in the walls of this chamber," the Ambassador observed. "I don't know what you hope to—"
Vortex surged forwards, its claws snapping out and open, then closing around the Ambassador's waist. Jebel drew his thin-gun and wished for something heavier as he aimed at the looming Prador. There came a whirring roar as of wind blowing hard down a pipe, then suddenly the chamber filled with deafening noise that drowned out the surge of shouting and screaming. He fired on the Prador, the shots from his weapon only blowing small craters in its hard carapace. Something hit him and jerked him through the air. Subliminally he glimpsed torn-apart human bodies flung piled against the back wall and a blur of missiles tracking up that wall hammering a trenchlike dent.
He hit the floor. All around him hot metal fragments rained down. Winded, he rolled and tried to come upright. Weapons ports were open all around. He saw one of the smaller Prador get flung back, its armour smashed so it held to the softer inner body like fragments of shell clinging to a crushed mollusc. Its bubbling scream rose and then abruptly cut off as some explosive projectile detonated inside its body, blowing that away and flinging its limbs bouncing in all directions. Something big penetrated the left-hand wall, detonated inside and blew fire from a large crack, shutting down the weapons ports above. Those of the crowd still able to, were exiting through the rear of the chamber. Jebel tried to put his hand down to shove himself up from the floor, but just did not seem to be able to. A second later he noticed that his right arm ended at the elbow, and that he lay in a sticky pool of his own blood. He sagged back.
Two Golem—monitors like himself—were in close to one of the Prador. They'd lost their clothing and most of their syntheflesh so it seemed two shiny skeletons attacked the crablike creature. They were systematically tearing off its limbs. Another of the creatures staggered around in a circle, with the top half of its carapace completely missing and a grotesque stew of exposed organs bubbling inside. Vortex now backed towards the entrance tunnel, still holding the struggling Ambassador, its remaining three comrades covering its retreat. Next came two crumps, and two of the three Prador disappeared, spraying limbs and carapace and boiled pink flesh everywhere. Something like a piece of liver a metre long slopped down over Jebel's legs, bubbling and smelling of cooked prawns.
"Not good. Not good at all." Urbanus was suddenly beside him, tying a piece of wire above his arm stump then hauling him to his feet. Golem hurtled towards Vortex and the remaining smaller Prador. Few humans remained in the chamber—living ones, anyway. Vortex seemed to ponder the situation for a second, then its claw snicked and the Ambassador fell in two halves to the floor. The Prador now held out that bloody claw. A flash of turquoise cut the air—some kind of particle cannon actually concealed in the claw. Three of the Golem were down, their ceramal bones fused or shattered. A missile struck the big Prador's shell and ricocheted into the wall above, exploding there. As the smoke cleared Jebel saw Vortex pushing forwards, firing that cannon again and again into the weapons ports, and from out behind the creature, those smaller Prador surged, some scrambling over each other in their eagerness. As Urbanus dragged him through the crack in the armoured wall, Jebel glimpsed one of the new arrivals picking up a severed human leg and tearing the flesh from the bone with its mandibles, eating it.
Right, thought Jebel, big hostile aliens with a taste for human flesh. It was the kind of scenario that would have been laughed out of the door by a modern holofiction producer.
Jebel could not have been less amused.
Excerpted from Prador Moon by Neal Asher, Marty Halpern. Copyright © 2009 Night Shade Books. Excerpted by permission of Start Publishing LLC.
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Posted August 1, 2009
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Posted January 13, 2009
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