"There is more than a hint of a heroic ethic here, though the hero in question may be more like Milton's Satan than Captain Future. As much fun as [MacLeod's] books provide, it's that fierceness, that seriousness of purpose, that powers their engines and makes me want to read on."—Locus
Stone Canal: A Novelby Ken MacLeod
Life on New Mars is tough for humans, but death is only a minor inconvenience. The machines know their place, the free market rules all, and only the Abolitionists object.
Then a stranger arrives on New Mars, a clone who remember his life on Earth as Jonathan Wilde, the anarchist with a nuclear capability who was accused of losing World War III. This stranger… See more details below
Life on New Mars is tough for humans, but death is only a minor inconvenience. The machines know their place, the free market rules all, and only the Abolitionists object.
Then a stranger arrives on New Mars, a clone who remember his life on Earth as Jonathan Wilde, the anarchist with a nuclear capability who was accused of losing World War III. This stranger also remembers one David Reid, who now serves as New Mars's leader. Long ago, it turns out, Wilde and Reid had shared ideals and fought over the same women.
Moving from 20th-century Scotland through a tumultuous 21st century and outward to humanity's settlement on a planet circling another star, The Stone Canal is idea-driven sci-fi at its best., making real and believable a future where long lives, strange deaths, and unexpected knowledge await those who survive the wars and revolutions to come.
Read an Excerpt
He woke, and remembered dying.
His eyes and mouth opened and he drew in a long harsh gasp of thin air. His legs kicked and his fingers rasped the sand. Then his limbs sprawled and he lay still. Each breath came quickly, as if he suspected that the next would be his last. His fingers hooked the soil as he stared upwards at a deep-blue, fathomless sky.
He rolled over and clambered to his feet and looked around. He was standing on the lower slope of a low knoll above a canal. The canal was about twenty meters wide. For a few hundred meters on either side of it, the ground was sparsely covered with grass and shrubs. Beyond that the ground was a reddish color.
The man looked back and forth along the canal. It ran from horizon to horizon, a line of blue along the middle of a band of green, bisecting the great circle of red beneath a dome of blue. Near the top of the sky a sun shone bright and small; the man looked up at it, then raised his arm with his thumb up as if in a greeting. He moved his fist with the extended thumb back and forth, sighting along his arm with one eye. He smiled and nodded.
A few meters up-slope from where he stood, the hillside was broken, exposing the rock beneath the thin layer of soil and roots. Among the tumbled, jagged boulders lay an ellipsoid pod a meter long, half a meter across and twenty-five centimeters deep. Its upper and lower halves were identical, and reflective; between them was a sort of equatorial band where duller, hinged or jointed surfaces could beseen. The man stepped up and examined it with a wary look. Then he stooped closer, in an intent inspection, and abruptly turned away.
He ran down to the edge of the canal and stood gazing into it for some minutes. He took off his clothesboots and socks, a padded jacket and trousers, tee-shirt and shortsand began moving his hands all over his body, as if washing himself without water. Then he put his clothes back on and walked up the slope to the pod.
He put his hands on his hips and frowned down at it. He opened his mouth, closed it, looked around and shrugged.
"My name is Jon Wilde," he said. "Who are you?" He didn't look or sound as if he expected an answer.
"I'm a human-equivalent machine," said the pod, in an attempt at a pleasant, conversational voice. The man jumped slightly.
"I'm about to stand up," the human-equivalent machine added. "Please don't be alarmed."
Jon Wilde took a couple of steps back, his boots dislodging grit and pebbles on the slope. Clicking, grating noises came from the machine as four metal limbs unfolded from its central portion. They looked identical, with clawed digits, wrists or ankles, elbows or knees. Two of the limbs swiveled and swung downwards, the jointed extensions at their ends clamping to the ground. The machine straightened its limbs and rocked to its feetif such they could be called. It stood at about half the man's height, its posture and proportions vaguely suggestive of a man running in a combative crouch, head down.
Wilde gazed down at it.
"Where are we?" he asked.
"On New Mars," the machine answered.
"How did I get here?"
There was a silence of perhaps a minute. Wilde frowned, looked around, leaned forward just as the machine spoke again:
"I made you."
The machine turned and strode away.
Wilde scrambled after it.
"Where are you going?"
"Ship City," said the machine. "The nearest human habitation." It paused for a moment. "I'd come along, if I were you."
The human-equivalent machine and the man it claimed to have made walked together along the bank of the canal. Every so often the man turned his head to look at the machine. Once or twice he got as far as opening his mouth, but he always turned away again as if the question or remark on his mind were too ridiculous for words.
After an hour and twenty minutes the man stopped. The machine stopped after another couple of strides and stood rocking slightly on its metal legs.
"I'm thirsty," the man said. The water in the canal was sluggish, flecked with green algae. He eyed it dubiously. "D'you know if that stuff's safe to drink?"
"It isn't," said the machine. "And I can't make it safe, without using up an amount of energy I'd rather keep. However, I can assure you that if you go on walking, with perhaps the occasional rest, you'll drink in a bar in Ship City tonight."
"Mars bars?" Wilde said, and laughed. "I always wanted to hang out in Mars bars."
Another hour passed and Wilde said, "Hey, I can see it!"
The machine didn't need to ask him. Without missing a step, it smoothly extended its legs until it was striding along with its pod almost on a level with the man's head, and it too saw what Wilde had seen: the jagged irregularities at the horizon.
"Ship City," the machine said.
"Give me a break," the man shouted, hurrying to keep up. "No need to go like a Martian fighting-machine."
The machine's steady pace didn't slacken.
"You're stronger than you think," it said. The man caught up with it and marched alongside.
"I like that," the machine added, after a while." `Like a Martian fighting-machine.' Heh-heh."
Its laugh needed working on if it was going to sound at all human.
They walked on. Their shadows lengthened in front of them, and the city slowly appeared above a horizon that, for the man, was unfamiliarly but not unexpectedly close. The irregularities differentiated into tall, bristling towers connected by arches and slender, curved bridges; domes and blocks became apparent between the towers, among which a matted encrustation of smaller buildings spread out from the city, obscured by a low haze.
The small sun set behind them, and within fifteen minutes the night surrounded them. The man stopped walking, and the machine stopped too.
Jon Wilde turned around several times, scanning from the zenith to the horizon and back as if looking for something he might recognize. He found nothing, and faced at last the machine, dim in the starlight that reflected like frost from its hull and flanks.
"How far?" The words came from a dry mouth. He waved a hand at the blazing, freezing, crowded sky. "How long?"
"Hey, Jon Wilde," the machine said. In had got its conversational tone right. "If I knew, I would tell you. Same spiral, different arm, that's all I know. We're talking memory numbers, man, we're talking geological time."
The two beings contemplated each other for a moment, then hastened the last few miles toward the city's multiplying lights.
* * *
Stras Cobol, by the Stone Canal. Part of the human quarter. A good place to get lost. Surveillance systems integrate the view
A three-kilometer strip of street, the canal-bank on one side, buildings on the other, their height a bar-chart of property values in a long swoop from the center's tall towers to the low shacks and shanties at the edge of town where the red sand blows in off the desert and family-farm fusion plants glow in the dark. On the same trajectory the commerce spills increasingly out from behind the walls and windows, onto the pavement stalls and hawkers' trays. All along this street there's a brisk jostle of people and machines, some working, some relaxing as the light leaves the sky.
Among all the faces in that crowd, something focuses in on one face. A woman's face, tracked briefly as she threads her way between the other bodies on the street. The system's evaluation routines categorize her appearance swiftly: apparent age about twenty, height about one-meter-sixtywell below averagemass slightly above average. Her height is lifted within the normal range by high-heeled shoes, her figure accentuated by a long-sleeved, skinny-rib sweater and a long narrow skirt, skillfully slit so it doesn't impede her quick steps. Shoulder-length hair, black and thick, sways around a face pretty and memorable but not flipping any switches on the system's scalar aestheticwide cheekbones, full lips, large eyes with green irises and suddenly narrowing, zeroing-in pupils that look straight at the hidden lens that's giving her this going-over. One eye closes in what looks like a wink.
And she's gone. She's vanished from the system's sight, she's just a blurry anomaly, a floating speck in its vision and a passing unease in its mind as its attention is turned forcibly to a stall-holder wheeling his urn of hot oil across a nearby junction without due care and attention and the we-got-an-emerging-situation-on-our-hands program kicks in ...
But she's still there, still walking fast, and we're still with her, for reasons which will sometime become clear. We're in her space, in her time, in her head.
Her pretty little head contains and conceals a truly Neo-Martian mind, an intellect vast and cool and unsympathetic as the man said, and right now it's in combat consciousness. She's running Spy, not Soldier, but Soldier's there, ready to toggle in at the first sign of trouble. Body movement's being handled by Secretary, in leisure-time mode: her walk is late-for-a-date hurry and doing fine so far. Except she's walked farther and faster than any girl in such a circumstance normally would, and the skin over her Achilles tendons is rubbing raw. She sets a Surgeon sub-routine to work andits warning heededthe pain switches sensibly off.
She allows herself a diffuse glow of pleasure at having spotted and subverted the surveillance system. Her real danger, she knows, comes from human pursuit. She can't see behind her because she daren't switch on her sonar and radar, but she uses every other clue that catches her eye. Every echo, every reflection: in windows and bits of scrap metal and the shiny fenders of vehicles, even in the retinae of people walking in the opposite directionall go to build an all-round visual field. Constantly updated, an asynchronous palimpsest where people and vehicles in full color and 3D pass out of her cone of vision and into a wider sphere where they become jerky cartoon figures, wire outlines intermittently blocked in with color as a scrap of detail flashes back from in front. (She could keep the color rendering if she wanted to, let the visual and the virtual merge seamlessly, but she doesn't have the processing power to spare right now. Spy is a demanding mind-tool and it eats resources.)
It tags a warning, unsubtle red arrowheads jabbing at one face, then another, both far behind her. She throws enhancement at those distant dots, blowing them up into something recognizable, and recognizes them. Two men, heavies employed by her owner. Their names aren't on file but she's glimpsed them at various times over the years.
Spy analyzes their movements and reports that they haven't spotted her: they're searching, not tracking. Not yet.
She sees a bar sign coming up on her left, "The Malley Mile" spelled out in fizzing rainbow neon. By good luck the nearest pedestrian coming her way is huge and walking close to the sides of the buildings. She lets the two-meter-thirty, two-hundred-kilo bulk of the giant pass herthe only noticeable thing about him is the inappropriately floral scent of the shampoo he's most recently used on his orangey peltand as he occludes any view of her from behind she slips smartly through the doorway.
It's a trashy, tacky place, this joint. Lots of wood and metal. The music is a thumping noise in the background, like machinery. The ventilation isn't coping well with the smoke, and somebody's already had a poppy-pipe. Freshwater fish are grilling somewhere in the back. Low ceiling, dim lights. Her vision adjusts without a blink and it's daylight, give or take the odd wavelength. Spy takes over fully for a staking-out, second-long sweep of the room. There's surveillance, of course, but it's just the hostelry's own system, exactly as smart and dangerous as a dog. She pings it anyway, leaving it with a low-wattage conviction that this person who's just walked in is nice and has just given it a pat on the head and can be safely ignored from now on.
There are a couple of dozen people in the Malley Mile: farmworkers and mechanics on bar stools, and office workersmostly young womenaround the round tables. Looks like they've come in here for a drink on their way home from work, and stayed for a few more. Good. She sees a notice: no concealed weapons. She takes a pistol from the purse she's carrying and sticks it in the waistband of her skirt and walks up to the bar. The girls around the tables notice her, the men on the stools notice her, but that's just because she's pretty, not because she looks out of place.
The barman's another giant, some brain-boosted gigantopith or whatever (she's never had occasion to sort out the hominid genera) and he's slumped sadly on his elbows, wrists overhanging the near edge of the bar counter. He turns away from the gladiators on the television and smiles at her, or at any rate bares his yellow fangs.
"A Dark Star, please."
Without getting up the barman reaches for bottles and mixes her a rum and cola.
"Yes please." She's careful with the sibilants; the urge to slide into mimicry (it's a bug in Spy, actually) is hard to resist. She lets Spy handle the process of paying, selecting the right grubby note from her filched collection of promissories. Gold values she can handle in any of her frames of mind, but crops and machine-parts, land and labor-time are foreign to most of them.
The ice clinks as she takes her drink to an unoccupied table nearest to the end wall. She sits down with her back to that wall. She lays her purse, and her pistol, casually on the table. She sips her drink, lights a cigarette, and keeps an eye on the door as if waiting for her friends or boyfriend to turn up.
The two photofit faces currently hovering in her pattern-recognition and target-acquisition software might come through the door any minute now. If she's lucky, they don't know she's armed. She's almost certain they don't know about Spy, and Soldier, and all the other routines she's loaded up. They're expecting Secretary, and Sex, and Self, who between them can't raise more than a kick or bite or scratch. They can handle that, and as for the others here ... once the heavies flash their cards the customers will watch her being dragged out of the place with all the empathy and solidarity and compassion and concern that they'd give to the recovery of a stolen vehicle.
But there are people in this district who don't see things that way, and if the repossession guysthe greps, as the slang goesdon't come in and find her, or if they do and she gets away, she'll be off into the back streets to seek human allies.
That's all as may be. Her owner might by now have discovered just what hardware and software she's packing, and he'll have someone and/or something more formidable on her tracks.
She keeps her eyes on the door and her fingers close to the pistol.
"English spoken here?"
Wilde scuffed the surface of the canal-bank pathit had changed from trodden dust to a strip of fused sand which broadened and merged with the street ahead, the permanent way made from the same material as if the finger of a god had drawn the lines from spaceand waited for the machine to reply.
The city had grown on the horizon as they got closer, eventually into a huge, vaguely organic-looking jumble of soaring spiky towers, their visible structure like the interiors of bones or the skeletons of sea creatures, their outlines picked out by lights. What had looked from a distance like some matted undergrowth was now resolved into a fringe of low buildings whichunlike all the other shanty-towns Wilde had seenappeared to extend in through the main body of the city on whose edge they now stood. To their right and left were fields. The bulky moving presences of machines in those fields were the only traffic they had so far encountered. Lights had passed over, but it was difficult to tell whether they were natural or artificial. Once, something huge and silent and leaving a green after-image or trail had rushed above their heads, above the city and made a distant flash beyond.
"Waterfall," the machine had explained, unhelpfully.
Now it shifted on its feet and answered Wilde's question. "You'll be understood," it said hesitantly. "English is the predominant language. Your usage and accentand mine, I might addmay seem a little quaint."
"Before we go any farther," Wilde said, his gaze flicking from the buildings under the first street-lights ahead to the machine, "get me straight on a couple of things. First, is it normal to be seen talking to a machine? I mean, arerobots?like you common around here?"
"You could say that," said the machine dryly.
"OK. Next item on the agenda as far as I'm concerned is getting something to eat and a drink and a place to crash out. Am I right in thinking that I'll have to pay for it?"
"Oh yes," said the machine.
"And you don't happen to have some money stashed away in that shell of yours?"
"No, but I can do better than that. See the second building along the road? It's a mutual bank."
Wilde said nothing, although his mouth opened.
"You do remember what that is, don't you?"
Wilde laughed. "So I get to raise some cash by mortgaging my property?" He gestured at the clothes he stood up in. "That's not much help"
The machine gave a creditable impersonation of a polite cough.
"Oh." Wilde looked at it with a renewed, speculative interest. "I see."
He set off along the road, ahead of the machine for the first time since they'd met. The machine lurched into motion after him.
"Just don't get the wrong idea," it said, its voice as stiff as its gait.
One of the girls at the nearest table is giving a rendering of the pub's signature song in an authentically dire accent, full of maudlin yearning.
"If Ayyyye could walk acraaawrse the ryyyinbow
that shiiiines acraaawrse the Malley Mile ..."
Self knows that the Malley Mile is a real place, and that both the sense of loss and the rainbow effect refer to aspects of its reality thatstrangely, or is it just part of the program?bring tears pricking to even her cold eyes. Scientist is yammering on about it, but she doesn't want to know right now.
She's just settled down with her third drink, burning the alcohol straight to energy but remembering to emulate the effect, when the door bangs open and a girl walks in who sure isn't some office-worker deciding the weekend starts here.
She's tall and thin, though her flak-jacket makes her look broad. Narrow jeans, spacer boots, a big automatic holstered on her hip. On her other hip she's carrying a large bag with a strap taking the strain to her shoulder. Short blond hair lying close to her skull. Face too bony to be bonny. The main things going for it are her bright blue eyes and her big smile, which at this moment is turned on the men atand the man behindthe bar.
She walks up to the bar and orders a beer, and as she drinks it she chats to one or two of the guys, and while she's chatting she reaches into her big satchel and hauls out fresh-looking tabloid newspapers and carefully counts coins from the men who take them. Some of them take them as if they're keen to read them, others with a show of reluctance and a lot of banter, but most just shake their heads or shrug and go back to their own conversations and watching the television screen, where somebody's just about to take a sudden death shoot-out. All the while the girl's every so often glancing around the room in a way that has Spy torn between admiration at the unobtrusive way she does it and anxiety that she's looking for someone quite close to Spy's hard little heart, namely Self.
The girl at the bar goes on talking to the men at the bar for another few minutes, then eases herself casually from the stool and takes a handful of papers and tries to sell them to the office-girls. She's only successful at one table, and then she's walking to the last table where the dark-haired woman sits alone.
A shot echoes. Two hands jolt toward two pistols, then retract as a ragged cheer from the screen and from those watching it indicates that it's just a death penalty being scored.
And then, grinning and shaking her head, she's standing there looking down. "Jumpy tonight, aren't we?" she says.
Spy and Soldier are jumpy indeed, jostling for possession, and it's all Spy can do to modulate Soldier's sharp command into a smooth, low-voiced request: "Just don't stand between me and the door."
The tall woman steps smartly sideways. She looks surprised, but she doesn't go away.
"Hi," she says. "My name's Tamara. What's yours?"
Self takes over. She keeps her hand where it is.
"Dee," she says. "Dee Model."
"Ah," says Tamara. "I see." Her eyes widen slightly as she says it, then look away as if, for the moment, she's at a loss. "Mind if I sit down?"
Dee gestures to her to do just that. She takes the seat to Dee's right, between her and the bar.
"What's that paper you're selling?" Dee asks.
Tamara slides a copy across the table. Its masthead says The Abolitionist in quaint irregular lettering with barbed serifs. The articles, which Spy assimilates in about two seconds and which gradually seep through to Self, are an odd mix: news snippets about labor disputes; technical articles about assemblers and reactors and stuff; some columns of a sort of paranoid gossip about the doings of various important people, in which Dee's owner's name appears here and there; and long rambling theoretical pieces about machine intelligence.
Dee puts it down, having just given it what looks like the most casual, superficial glance. She wonders for a moment if this is a trap, but Spy thinks it very unlikely: these are exactly the sort of ideas she'd expected to find in this area, and it's obvious that Tamara's espousal of them is completely, perhaps resignedly, familiar to those around her. (That those around her might be part of some elaborate set-up doesn't occur to Dee, or even to Spy: although their background is rich in intrigue and betrayal, they lack the ramifying conspiratorial imagination that would be second nature if they lived in a state.) Dee tries to keep her wild hope out of her voice.
"Do you really think that human-equivalent machines are, well, equivalent to humans? That they have rights?"
"Oh, sure," Tamara says. "Don't you?"
"Hmm," says Dee. "Let me get you a drink."
When she returns she's carrying Tamara's satchel. She swings it under the table and places her pistol back on the top. Tamara waves away the offer of a cigarette. Dee lights up and leans close. Soldier takes over second place from Spy, who doesn't like what's going on at all. The most Spy can do is make sure no one overhears. Another probe into the room's electronics, and the music's volume goes up a few decibels.
"I'm a machine," Dee says.
Tamara's obviously half-suspected this, just from the name, but just as obviously doesn't quite believe it.
"You coulda fooled me, girl," she says.
Dee shrugs. "Most of my body was grown in a vat or something. Most of my brain's artificial. Technically and legally I'm a decerebrate clone manipulated by a computer. Neither component is anything but an object, but I feel like I'm a person."
Tamara's nodding vigorously, the way people do.
"And I need your help," Dee adds. "I've escaped and my owner's agents are searching for me along this street."
Tamara's head stops moving and her mouth opens.
"Oh shit," she says.
Dee stares at her. "What's the matter?" she asks. "Isn't this what you want?" She glances at The Abolitionist. "Or is this all?"
Tamara closes her eyes for a moment and shakes her head slightly. "It ain't like that," she says, looking embarrassed. She steeples her fingers to the sides of her nose and talks quietly into this adequate mask. "Of course I'll help you ... We'll help you. It's justthis isn't the main thing we do, you know? We've persuaded a few people to free machines, but a machine freeing itself doesn't happen very often. Not that you get to hear about, anyway." She's grinning again, back on track. "You into making a fight about this?"
"I'm ready for any kind of fight," Dee says. "Who's this `we'?"
"Half a street full of anarchists," Tamara says.
Dee doesn't understand what this means, exactly, but it sounds hopeful, especially the way Tamara says it.
"Can you provide sanctuary?" Dee asks.
"We're probably your best bet," Tamara says abstractedly. "There hasn't really been a proper fight on this issue. It'd be quite something to be the ones to pick it. Bloody hell. This could shake up the city, the whole damn' planet!"
Dee tries to think of a reason why this should be so, but apart from a bit of handwaving from Scientist there doesn't seem to be any information on file.
"Why?" she asks.
Tamara stares at her. "You are definitely a machine," she says, smiling past the side of her hand. "Or you'd know the answer."
Dee considers this, trying to formulate Scientist's bare hints into speech.
"It's because of the fast folk, isn't it?" she suggests brightly. "And the dead?"
Tamara's eyebrows flash upwards for a split second. "That's the smart worry," she says. "It's the stupid worries that are the real problem ... I think you'll find. Anyway. Are the greps likely to be hanging around outside?"
Dee thinks about this.
"No," she says. "Not now. But there might be others."
Tamara drains her glass. "Let's go," she says.
They're just getting their things together when the door opens and a young man and an old robot walk in. The man looks haggard and is wearing desert gear, and the robot's just a standard construction rig. Tamara doesn't give them a second glance but Dee watches as the man pauses at the doorway and looks around the room with a curious intentness.
He sees her, and his gaze stops.
He takes a step forward. His face warps as if under acceleration into an awful, anguished look, more a distortion of the features than an expressionit's unreadable, inhuman. At the same time Dee can feel the robot's questing senses scan her body and tap at her brain. Spy and Soldier and Sys move dizzyingly fast in the virtual spaces of her mind, repelling the hack-attack. Her own reactive hacking attempts are deflected by some shielding as impenetrable asand perhaps no other thanthe robot's hard metal shell. The robot makes a jerky forward lurch as the man takes a second step toward her. All of Dee's several selves start screaming at her to get out.
She has her pistol in both hands in front of her and the table's kicked over and Tamara's beside her. The bar falls silent except for the thudding music and the baying of a stadium audience on the television.
"Out the back!" Tamara says through clenched teeth. She shifts, guiding Dee to the right, walking backwards, pushing through a door that swings shut in front of them. They're in a corridor, dark except for smudges of yellow light and thick with smells of beer and fish.
Dee enhances her vision and sees Tamara blinking hard as she whirls around. From the way she's moving it's obvious that Tamara can see in the dark at least as well as Dee can.
"Come on!" Tamara calls, and plunges along the corridor. Dee kicks off her shoes, snatches them up and races after Tamara, down a flight of steps and around a couple of corners into an even darker, smellier corridor, in fact a tunnel. Dee can hear the traffic overhead and taste the water-vapor in the air increasing with every step. She glances back and there's no indication of pursuit. The water in the air tastes rusty as they slide to a halt before a heavy metal door at the end. Tamara fumbles with bolts at the top and bottom of the door until they clang back. She pauses, listening, then pulls the door slowly open, keeping herself behind it until it's almost parallel to the wall. She peers around it all the while, looking out and not behind.
"Wait," she whispers. The warning isn't necessary: Soldier has kicked in and Dee is standing flat to the wall of the tunnel two meters from the doorway and only very slowly edging forward. As her cone of vision widens she sees that the door opens onto a narrow stone shelf barely above the surface of the canal, which is about fifty meters wide at this point. The lights from the opposite street, Rue Pascal, are reflected in the canal's choppy black wavelets, stirred up by the frequent wakes of plying boats. From the sound of the slap and sigh of water she knows that the outboard motor, just at the edge of her view, belongs to a small dinghy moored close to the door.
On the meter-wide quay a shadow movesher own.
She turns to look back down the tunnel. A light, far back in the corridor, has just come on and something is moving between here and the source. Tamara, a moment later, notices it too and she steps from behind the door. She glances at Dee, points outward, and then makes a two-fingered chopping motion to left and right. Together they jump out of the door, turning in opposite directions as they steady themselves, crouching on the quay.
Dee sees the walled bank of the canal rising three meters to street level, and the quay running alongside the canal to a junction a few hundred meters away. Boats and barges are moored along it, doors and tunnel-mouths punctuate it. There's nobody moving on it at the moment.
Over her shoulder she sees a similar view in the opposite direction, except that the canal extends out to the dark of the desert. She hears at least one set of running footsteps, now about half-way along the tunnel. She gestures frantically to Tamara.
"Get in the boat!" Tamara says. She hauls the rope and the little inflatable bumps against the quay's lip. It barely rocks as Tamara steps in, sways wildly as Dee follows. She finds herself flat on her back in the wet well of the boat on top of her purse and shoes, her feet getting in the way of Tamara's as the human woman casts off and starts the engine. Dee's glad she's in this undignified position as Tamara opens the throttle and the engine's whine rises to a scream and the front of the boat lifts. The boat surges out across the water and Tamara brings it over in a long curve that has them shooting straight along the middle of the canal to yells and curses from other boats by the time a distant figure appears at the mouth of the tunnel.
It's the man who recognized her. He shouts after them, but whatever he says is lost in the engine's note. Tamara slews the tiller again and they swing around in a wall of spray and head for an opening, passing under Stras Cobol and into a branch canal that runs between high windowless walls less than five meters apart. Tamara eases off the engine and Dee cautiously sits up.
"Lucky for us the boat was there," she says.
Tamara snorts. "It's my boat! I left it there an hour ago when I started my round of the bars."
Dee smiles wanly. "Where are we going?"
"Circle Square," Tamara says. "Precinct of the living dead. Crawling with bad artists, freethinking machines, and anarchists arguing about what to do in an anarchy. Safe."
Dee isn't sure how to take this.
"Thanks for getting me out."
Tamara looks past Dee, at the dark water. "Yeah well ... I gotta admit I'm not sure what I got you out from. That guy and the robot didn't look like greps to me. Did you recognize them, or what?"
Dee's already been through this in her head, "No," she says, her voice cold. "But he recognized me. I'm certain of that."
"Me too," Tamara says dryly. "Just I don't think it was from a pic. He looked like he wanted to kill you, that first moment. Kill somebody, anyway, but shit, coulda been shock or some'inghey!" She stares at Dee's face. "You ain't dead, are you? You and him might've had previous." She looks quite pleased at this speculation. "It's all right, you can tell me. We're cool about the dead as well as machines, OK?"
Dee doesn't know much about the dead. Once, when she was new, she'd thought that she could hear the dead: press her ear to the wall and hear them talking, furiously, in dead languages. But it was just the sough of the machinery, the 'ware, the marrow in the city's cold bones.
So her owner had told her, his laughter almost kind. With a harsher tone in his voice he'd added: "The dead are gone. And they aren't coming back. Most of them ... ah, forget it."
And obediently, she had.
She isn't sure whether to be annoyed at Tamara's speculation, but it's just the woman's human limitations after all: in a way she's making the same animistic mistakethinking that machinery that sounded alive must at the very least be deadthat she herself had made way back when she was just getting her brain into gear.
So she gives Tamara a smug smile and says, "You can scan my skull if you like, and you'll see me for yourself."
"S'pose your body's a copy? A clone?"
Dee hasn't thought of this before, and the idea shakes her more than she cares to show. She shrugs. "It's possible."
"There you go," Tamara says. "That'd make whatever it was with that guy just a case of mistaken identity. No worries."
She guns the engine again. Swept from the walls' dank ledges, seal-rats squeak indignantly in their wake.
"It isn't her," said the robot, its voice more like a radio at low volume than a human speaking quietly. "So forget it. Chasing after her won't get you anywhere. She's just a fucking machine."
Wilde had trudged back up the tunnel, apologized to the barkeeper, paid for the breakages and ordered a stiff drink as well as a large beer to accompany his grilled fish. The robot, propping itself up with a chair opposite him, had attracted no comment.
Wilde wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and glared at the machine.
"She didn't look like a machine. She looked like a real woman. She looked like"
He stopped, in some distress.
"Cloned," the machine said implacably.
"But why? Why her? Who would?"
He stared at the impervious pod. "No!"
"Yes," said the machine. "He's here."
Meet the Author
Ken MacLeod holds a degree in zoology and has worked in the fields of biomechanics and computer programming. His first two novels, The Star Fraction and The Stone Canal, each won the Prometheus Award; The Cassini Division was a finalist for the Nebula Award; and The Sky Road won the British Science Fiction Association Award and is a finalist for the Hugo Award. Dark Light continues the world of his fifth novel, Cosmonaut Keep. Ken MacLeod lives near Edinburgh, Scotland, with his wife and children.
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Wow-- an interesting tale about anarchy, humans, and intelligent machines on a distant planet thousands of light years away, and at the same time a story about our near-future. It's chock full of memorable, quirky details and fascinating characters. Highly recommended.