The Star Fractionby Ken MacLeod
Britain in the 21st century is a Balkanized mess. Moh Kohn is a security mercenary unaware that he holds the key to information which could change the world. Janis Taine is a scientist who needs Mohs help. And a rogue computer program is guiding events to a breathtaking conclusion.See more details below
Britain in the 21st century is a Balkanized mess. Moh Kohn is a security mercenary unaware that he holds the key to information which could change the world. Janis Taine is a scientist who needs Mohs help. And a rogue computer program is guiding events to a breathtaking conclusion.
"Science fiction's freshest new writer." -Salon
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The Star Fraction
By Macleod, Ken
Tor BooksCopyright © 2002 Macleod, Ken
All right reserved.
It was hot on the roof. Above, the sky was fast-forward: zeppelin fleets of cloud alternating with ragged anarchic flags of black. Bright stars, mil- and comsats, meteors, junk. Moh Kohn crouched behind the parapet and scanned the band of trees half a klick beyond the campus perimeter. Glades down, the dark was a different shade of day. He held the gun loose, swung it smoothly, moved around to keep cool. The building's thermals gave him all the cover he could expect, enough to baffle glades or IR-eyes that far away.
"Gaia, it's hot," he muttered.
"Thirty-one Celsius," said the gun.
He liked hearing the gun. It gave him a wired feeling. Only a screensight read-out, but he heard it with his eyes like Sign.
"What'll it be tonight? Cranks or creeps?"
"Stop." He didn't want it racking its memory for an educated guess; he wanted it looking. As he was, all the time, for the two major threats to his clients: those who considered anything smarter than a pocket calculator a threat to the human race, and those who considered anything with a central nervous system an honorary member of it.
He'd been scanning the concrete apron, the perimeter wall, the trees for three hours, since 21:00. Relief was due in two. And then he wouldn't just be off-shift, he'd be off-active, with a whole week to recover. After seven nightsof staring into the darkness, edgy with rumors, jumpy with hoaxes and false alarms, he needed it.
Music and laughter and noise eddied between the buildings behind him, sometimes loud when the speeding air above sent a blast down to groundlevel, sometimes--as now, in the hot stillness--faint. He wanted to be at that party. It no attack came this watch...dammit, even if there did. All he had to do was not take incoming fire. Shelling it out was something else, and it wouldn't be the first time he'd dissolved the gray-ghostly nightfight memories and the false colors of cooling blood in drinking and dancing and especially in sex--the great specific, the antithesis and antidote for violence--to the same night's end.
Something moved. Kohn chilled instantly, focusing on a point to his left, where he'd seen...There it was again, where the bushes fingered out from the trees. Advance cover. He keyed the weapon's inertial memory and made a quick sweep, stepping the nightsight up ×3. Nothing else visible. Perhaps this was the main push. He turned back and the gun checked his hand at the place it had marked.
And there they were. Two, three--zoom, key to track--four, crouching and scurrying. Two with rifles, the others lugging a pack. The best straight line of their zigzag rush arrowed the Alexsander Institute. The AI block.
Cranks, then. No compunction.
"Do it for Big Blue," he told the gun. He made himself as small as possible behind the parapet, holding the gun awkwardly above it, and aimed by the screensight image patched to his glades. His trigger finger pressed Enter. The weapon took over; it aimed him. In a second the head-up image showed four bodies, sprawled, stapled down like X- and Y- chromosomes.
What was it about? Kohn checked the scrolling read-out. The gun had fired five high-velocity slugs of slip--skin-contact liquid pentothal. It had put the cranks to sleep. He could have sworn he'd switched to metal rounds.
"HED detected. Timer functioning. Reads: 8:05...8:04...8:03..."
Kohn looked over the parapet. Two figures in hard-suits were running across the grass toward the unconscious raiders. He thumbed the Security channel.
"Lookout Five to Ready One, do you copy?"
"Ready One to Lookout. Receiving."
"They've got a time bomb with them. Could be booby-trapped."
They stopped so fast he lost sight of them for a moment. Then an unsteady voice said, "Hostiles are alive, repeat alive. Our standing instructions--"
"Fuck them!" Kohn screamed. He calmed himself. "Sorry, Ready One. My contract says I override. Get yourselves clear. No dead heroes on my call-out. Shit, it could be dangerous even from there, if it's a daisy cutter...Hey, can you give me a downlink to the UXB system?"
"What hardware you got up there, Moh?"
"Enough," Moh said, grinning. The guard took a small apparatus from his backpack and set it on the grass. Kohn adjusted the gun's receiver dish let, hearing the ping of the laser interface. The screensight reformatted.
"OK, you got line-of-sight tight beam, user access." The guards sprinted for cover.
Normally Kohn couldn't have entered this system in a million years, but there's never been any way around the old quis custodiet (et cetera) questions. Especially when the custodes are in the union.
Fumbling, he keyed numbers into the stock. The gun was picking up electronic spillover from the bomb's circuitry (no great feat; AI-abolitionists didn't really go for high tech) and bouncing it via the security guard's commset to British Telecom's on-line bomb-disposal expert system.
"2:20." Then: "No interactive countermeasures possible. Recommend mechanical force."
In a distant tower, something like this:
* * *
THEN; /* DO NOTHING */
* * *
"SHOOT THE CLOCK OFF!" relayed the gun, in big green letters.
"Oh. All right."
The gun lined itself up. Kohn fired. The screen cleared and reverted to normal. The gun was on its own now.
He could see that for himself. The pack containing the bomb had jerked as the bullet passed through it. So had one of the bodies.
Kohn felt sick. Ten minutes earlier he'd been annoyed that these people weren't dead. No one, not even his true conscience, would blame him, but the twisted code of combatant ethics revolted at prestunned slaughter. He stood, and looked down at the prone figures, tiny now. The one he'd hit had an arm wound; at the limits of resolution he could see blood oozing rhythmically...
Therefore, not dead. Relief flooded his brain. He talked into the chin mike, requesting medicals for the injured hostile. What about the others? Campus Security wanted to know.
"Put them in the bank," Kohn said. "Credit our account."
"Lookout One? What's the name of your account?"
Disarmed, waking from their shots, the attackers were being handled gently. They'd gone from hostile to hostage, and they knew it. An ambulance whined up.
"Oh, yeah," Kohn said. "The Felix Dzerzhinsky Workers' Defense Collective. Nat-Mid-West account 0372 87944."
"Uh-huh," muttered the guard's voice. "The Cats."
"Hey!" another voice broke in, ignoring all comm discipline. "We got one of your exes!"
"Lookout One to unidentified," Kohn said firmly. "Clarify message."
"Red Crescent truck to Lookout, repeat. Patient Catherin Duvalier has employment history of work on your team."
Catherin Duvalier. Gee Suss! "One of your exes," indeed.
"She was freelancing," Kohn lied. "Where are you taking her?"
"Hillingdon Hospital. You want her released on recovery?"
"Like hell," Kohn choked. "Don't even put her in the bank. We're keeping her this time."
"Secure ward, got you." The medics slammed the rear door and leapt into the ambulance, which screamed off around the perimeter road like they had a brain to save. Fucking cowboys. Subcontractors for the Muslim Welfare Association in Ruislip. Probably trained by veterans of Cairo. Always assume incoming...
Behind him he heard a heavy, dull crump and the song of falling glass. "You missed the backup fuse," he snarled at the gun and himself as he flattened to the roof. But then, in the sudden babble in his phones, he realized it was not his bomb.
The crank raid had been a diversion after all.
* * *
Janis Taine lay in bed for a few minutes after the diary woke her. Her mouth was dry, thick with the aftertaste of ideas that had colored her dreams. Just outside her awareness floated the thought that she had an important day ahead. She kept it there and tried to tease the ideas back. They might be relevant.
She swallowed. Perhaps, despite all precautions, minute traces of the hallucinogens at the lab infiltrated her bloodstream, just enough to give her vivid, elusive but seemingly significant dreams? More worryingly, she thought as she swung her legs out of bed with a swish of silk pajamas and felt around for her slippers, maybe the drugs gave her what seemed perfectly reasonable notions, sending her off down dead ends as convoluted as the molecules themselves...Par for the course. Bloody typical. Everything got everywhere. These days you couldn't keep things separate even in your mind. If we could only disconnect--
She heard the most pleasant mechanical sound in the world, the whirr of a coffeegrinder. "Pour one for me," she called as she padded to the bathroom. Sonya's reply was inarticulate but sounded positive.
It was an important day so she brushed her teeth. Not exactly necessary--she'd had her anticaries shots at school like everybody else, and some people went around with filthy but perfect mouths--but a little effort didn't hurt. She looked at herself critically as she smoothed a couple of layers of sun cream over her face and hands. Bouncy auburn hair, green eyes (nature had had a little encouragement there), skin almost perfectly pale. Janis brushed a touch of pallor over the slight ruddiness of her cheeks and decided she looked great.
Sonya, her flatmate, was moving around in the kitchen like a doll with its power running down, an impression heightened by her blond curls and short blue nightdress.
Janis shuddered. "No thanks."
"Zhey're great. Wakesh you up jusht like zhat." She was making scrambled eggs on toast for three.
"Gaia bless you," said Janis, sipping coffee. "How much sleep have you had?"
Sonya looked at the clock on the cooker and fell into a five-second trance of mental arithmetic.
"Two hours. I was at one of your campus discos. It was phenomenome...fucking great. Got off with this guy."
"I was kind of wondering about the third portion," Janis said, and immediately regretted it because another glacial calculation ensued, while the toast burned. The guy in question appeared shortly afterward: tall, black and handsome. He seemed wide awake without benefit of a tab, unobtrusively helpful to Sonya. His name was Jerome and he was from Ghana.
After breakfast Janis went into her bedroom and started throwing clothes from her wardrobe onto the bed. She selected a pleated white blouse, then hesitated with a long skirt in one hand and a pair of slate calf-length culottes in the other.
"Sonya," she called, interrupting the others' murmuring chat, "you using the car today?"
Sonya was. On your bike, Janis. So, culottes. She eyed the outfit. Dress to impress and all that, but it still wasn't quite sharp enough. She sighed.
"Sorry to bother you, Sonya," she said wearily. "Can you help me into my stays?"
* * *
"You can breathe in now," Sonya said. She fastened the cord. "You'll knock them out."
"If I don't expire myself...Hey, what's the matter?"
Sonya's hand went to her mouth, came away again.
"Oh, Janis, you'll kill me. I totally forgot. You're seeing some committee today, yeah?"
"I just remembered. Last night, at the disco. There was some fighting."
"At the disco?"
"No, I mean there was an attack. On a lab somewhere. We heard shots, an explosion--"
"Oh shit!" Janis tightened her belt viciously, stepped into her shoes. "Do you know what one it--?"
Sonya shook her head. "I just overheard some guy later. Sitting at a table by himself, drinking and talking--about, uh, bloody cranks, I think."
"Oh." Some of Janis's tension eased. She smiled quizzically. "This guy was talking to himself?"
"Oh, no!" Sonya sounded put out at the suggestion that she'd been eavesdropping on a loony. "He was talking to his gun."
* * *
The night's muggy heat had given way to a sharp, clear autumn morning. Janis pedaled through the streets of Uxbridge, slowly so as not to break sweat. An awacs plane climbed low from Northolt, banked and headed west, toward Wales. The High Street looked untouched by the troubles, a cozy familiarity of supermarkets and wine bars and drug dens and video shops, vast mirrored frontages of office blocks behind. Around the roundabout and along the main road past the RAF barracks (DANGER: MINES), swing right into Kingston Lane. Usual early-morning traffic--a dozen buses, all different companies, milk-floats, water-floats, APCS flying the Hanoverian pennant from their aerials...
In through the security gates, scanned and frisked by sensors. The sign above the games announced:
BRUNEL UNIVERSITY AND SCIENCE PARK plc
FREE SPEECH ZONE
She rode along the paths, steering clear of snails making suicidal dashes for greener grass. On one lawn a foraging party of students moved slowly, stooped, looking for magic mushrooms. Some of them would be for her.
smiled to herself, feeling like a great lady watching her peasants. Which the students looked like, in their sweeping skirts or baggy trousers and poke bonnets or broad-brimmed hats, patiently filling baskets.
In the wall of the ground floor of the biology block a three-meter hole gaped like an exit wound.
Janis dismounted, wheeled the bike mechanically to its stand. She'd half expected this, she now realized. Her hands flipped up her lace veil and twisted it back around the crown of her hat. Up the stairs: two flights, forty steps. The corridor tiles squeaked.
The door had been crudely forced; the lock hung from splinters. A strip of black-and-yellow tape warned against entry. She backed away, shaken. The last time she'd seen a door like this it had opened on smashed terminals, empty cages, shit-daubed messages of driveling hate.
Behind her somebody coughed. It was not a polite cough; more an uncontrollable spasm. She jumped, then turned slowly as reason caught up with reflex. A man stood leaning forward, trying to look alert but obviously tired. Tall. Thin features. Dark eyes. Skin that might have acquired its color from genes or a sunlamp. He wore a dark gray urban-camo jumpsuit open at the throat, Docs, a helmet jammed on longish curly black hair; some kind of night-vision glasses pushed up over the front, straps dangling, phones and mike angling from its sides. He looked about thirty, quite a bit older than her, but that might just have been the light. A long, complicated firearm hung in his right hand.
"Who are you?" he asked. "And what are you doing here?"
"That's just what I was about to ask you. I'm Janis Taine and this is my lab. Which it seems was broken into last night. Now--"
He raised a finger to his lips, motioned to her to back off. She was ten paces down the corridor before he stepped forward and scanned the door with the gun. His lips moved. He put his back to the wall beside the door and poked it open with the gun muzzle. A thin articulated rod shot out of the weapon and extended into the lab. After a moment it came back, and the man stepped forward, turning. He swept the tape away from the door and shook it off his hand after several attempts. He glanced at her and disappeared into the room.
"It's OK," she heard him call; then another bout of coughing.
The lab was as she'd left it. A high-rise block of cages, a terminal connected to the analyzer, a bench, fume cupboard, glassware, tall fridge freezer--which stood open. The man was standing in front of it, looking down at the stock of his gun, puzzled. He coughed, flapping his free hand in front of his mouth.
"Air's lousy with psychoactive volatiles," he said.
Janis almost pushed him aside. The test tubes racked in the fridges were neatly lined up, labels turned to the front as if posed for a photograph. Which they might very well have been. No way had she left them like that. Each--she was certain--was a few milliliters short.
Everything gets everywhere...
"What's the problem? The concentrations aren't dangerous, are they?"
"Let's have a look. Where did you get this? No, they shouldn't be, it's just--well, it may have completely fucked up my experiments. The controls won't be worth a damn now."
She suddenly realized she was cheek-to-cheek with him, peering at a tiny screen as if they were colleagues. She moved away and opened a window, turned on the fume cupboard. Displacement activity. Useless.
"Who are you, anyway?"
"Oh. Sorry." He flipped the gun into his left hand and pulled himself straight, held out his right.
"Name's Moh Kohn. I'm a security mercenary."
"You're a bit late on the scene."
He frowned as they shook hands.
"Slight misunderstanding there. I was on a different patch last night. I'm just dropping by. Who's responsible for guarding this block?"
Janis shrugged into her lab coat and sat on a bench.
"Office Security Systems, last time I noticed."
"Kelly girls," Kohn sneered. He pulled up a chair and slumped in it, looked up at her disarmingly.
"Mind if I smoke?"
"I don't." She didn't. She didn't give a damn anymore. "And thanks, I don't."
He fingered out a packet of Benson & Hedges Moscow Gold and lit up.
"That stuff's almost as bad for you as tobacco," Janis couldn't forbear to point out.
"Sure. Life expectancy in my line's fifty-five and falling, so who gives a shift?"
"Your line? Oh, defense. So why do that?"
"It's a living." Kohn shrugged.
He laid a card on the lab bench beside her. "That's us. Research establishments, universities, worthy causes a speciality."
Janis examined the hologrammed business card suspiciously.
Kohn inhaled deeply, held his breath for seconds before replying.
"Sharp of you to notice. Some of us are, but the main reason we picked the name was so we'd sound really heavy but, you know, right-on. Later--when we could afford market research--we found out most people thought Felix Dzerzhinsky was in the Bolshoi, not the Bolsheviks."
Janis spread her hands.
"Doesn't mean anything to me," she said. "It was just the 'Workers' Defense' bit. I'm not into...all that. In my experience politics is guys with guns ripping me off at roadblocks."
"Aha," Kohn said. He looked like the THC was getting to him. "A liberal. Maybe even a libertarian. Remember school?"
He gave her a disconcertingly objective look.
"Maybe the first couple years of primary school, for you." He raised his right hand. "'I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United Republic, and to the States for which it stands, three nations, individual--'"
"Jesus Christ! Will you shut up!"
Janis actually found herself looking over her shoulder. It had been years--
"I thought this was an F S Zee," Kohn said mildly.
"High treason is taking it a bit far!"
"OK. So I won't ask you if you've ever, ever consciously and publicly repudiated that. I haven't."
Janis glanced sidelong, swiveled her eyes back.
"ANR? Good goddess no. They're terrorists, Doctor. We are a legal co-op and, uh, to be honest I'm touting for business. Now, just what has been going on here?"
She told him, briefly, while she did her rounds. At least the mice were all right. Apart from her precious drug-free controls being stoned out of their little skulls.
"Very odd. I thought it was creeps when it happened--you know, animal liberationists. Doesn't look like that," he remarked.
"You said it."
"Mind you--this isn't what I imagined an animal-research lab would look like."
Janis stopped feeding cornflakes to the mice for a moment.
"What did you expect? Monkeys with trodes in their heads? Do you know what monkeys cost?"
"Marmosets thirty K," said a tiny, tinny voice. "Rhesus macaques fifty K, chimps two hundred--"
"Oh, shut up, gun." Kohn's face reddened. "Didn't even know the damn thing had a speaker. I must have thought it was a mike."
"An easy mistake." She was struggling not to laugh.
Kohn moved on quickly: "What do you do, anyway, if that's not an awkward question?"
"It's no secret. Basically we dose the mice with various drugs to see if they act any smarter."
"Smarter?" he said. "Mice?"
"Faster learning. Longer attention span. Greater retention."
Kohn looked away for a moment, looked back. "You're talking about memory drugs." His voice was flat.
"Well,”promising, but they built a little paper hang glider and escaped through that window...Naw, all we've had is stoned rodents. They take even longer to run the mazes. A result some of us could take to heart. Still...we're like Edison. We ransack nature. And unlike him we have computers to give us variations that nature hasn't come up with."
"Who's paying for it?"
"Now that's a secret. I don't know. But a team from a front for a subsidiary for an agency of whoever it is will be here in--oh god, an hour, so would you mind?"
Kohn looked embarrassed again. "Sorry, Doctor Taine. I'll get out of your way, I'm behind schedule myself. I have to, uh, visit someone in hospital and then release some prisoners."
"I'm sure." She smiled at him indulgently, dismissively. "Bye. Oh, and I will ask our admin to check out your rates."
"Thank you," he said. "You'll find we're very competitive." He stood up and patted his gun. "Let's go."
When he'd gone she had the nagging feeling that more than one person had left.
* * *
The hand writhed, gesticulated autonomously as if to accompany an entirely different conversation. Plastic sheathed the forearm. A drip-feed and a my electric cable looped away from it.
Kohn sat on the bedside chair fiddling with the torn sleeve of Catherin Duvalier's denim jacket. It had been washed and pressed, but not repaired, leaving an image of what his shot had done to the flesh and bone inside. The nurses' quick soft steps, the steady pacing of the guards, set off alarms in his nerves. Again and again, in the secure ward, insecure. Catherin's clear blue eyes, in her light-black face with its surrounding sunburst of springy fair hair, accused.
Defensive, Kohn attacked first.
"I have to ask you," he said heavily. "just what you think you were doing in that attack squad?"
She smiled from far away. "What were you doing, defending that place?"
"Doing my job. Only giving orders. You know where it's at...Cat."
She winced. The nickname was her own, but one they'd all shared, as a collective named after what some people, as he'd told the scientist, thought was a ballet dancer, some thought was a cartoon cat, and only a handful recognized as the founder of a once highly successful security agency. A fine company they were, and--in her ideas, her ferocity, her speed--she'd held out the promise of becoming one of the best. Defending union offices and opposition demonstrations against the lumpen muscle men of the Hanoverian regime, she was someone Kohn had been glad to have at his back. Success had brought more contracts--plenty of establishments needed security which the security forces, occupied with their own protection, couldn't supply. But, one night a couple of years ago, she'd been on a squad that took out a Green Brigade sabotage team on behalf of some multinational. As the Green Brigade regarded that company's employees as fair game and had dozens of workers' deaths in its debit column, Kohn hadn't given the contract a second's thought.
Catherin had rejected her blood money and walked out.
She and Kohn had been lovers, before. A classic case: their eyes had met across a crowded fight. It was like hitting it off at a disco. They were both having fun. Some shock of recognition at the preconscious, almost the prehuman, level. He'd once joked that the australopithecine ancestors had come in two types, robust and gracile: "I've got robustus genes," he'd said. "But you're definitely gracilis." Just a romantic conceit: those slender limbs, tough muscles under skin that still ravished him just to look at; that face prettily triangular, wide eyes and small bright teeth--they'd been built by genes recombined out of a more recent history, crossing and recrossing the Atlantic in everything from slave ships to international brigades...a thoroughly modern girl.
Dear gracilis. He'd missed her at his back, and he'd missed her everywhere else. The word was that she was working for other co-ops, more purist outfits that took only politically sound contracts. Kohn had wished her luck and hoped to see her again. He'd never expected to find her in his sights.
* * *
Her hand, moved by the muscles that tirelessly reknit the shattered radius and ulna, beckoned and dismissed.
"You don't understand," she said. "I'm still on the same side." She looked around. "Can we talk?"
"Sure." Kohn waved airily. "The guards are screened for all that."
He didn't believe it for a moment.
Catherin looked relieved. She started talking, low and fast.
"You know it's gonna be a hot autumn. The ANR's planning another of its final offensives. Believe that when I see it, but the Kingdom's for sure under pressure, from the Greens and the Nationalists and the Muslims and the Black Zionists as well as the workers' movements. Right now it's fighting them all, and the stupider of the Free States're fighting each other. So--you know, the party?"
"The real party?" Stupid question.
"No, the Labour party. There's been a conference, over in--well, over the water. Bringing all the party factions together, and some of the movements. Decided on joint actions with all the forces actually fighting the state, all those who want to undo the Restoration Settlement."
"I know about the Left Alliance. I didn't know the cranks were part of it."
She returned him a level look.
"You just don't know what they're up to in these AI labs, do you? Their idea of a glorious future is a universe crawling with computers that'll remember us. Which is what those nerds think life is all about. Meanwhile the state's using them, just like the Nazis used the rocket freaks. They're itching to get their hands on some kind of intelligent system that'll keep tabs on everything. And it's all linked up with the other lot, the NC guys."
"Natural Computing. Some of the big companies and armies are trying to get a handle on ways to enhance human intelligence, connect it directly with large-scale integration on the machine side. Sinister stuff like that."
"'Sinister stuff?' I can't believe I'm hearing this shit. Christ, woman! I've just been in one these mad-evil-scientist laboratories, and they're still trying things out on mice! The cranks are out to wreck the data sphere, and one day they might just do it. There's just no way the Left should do deals with those shitwits. It's madness."
"They've no chance of shutting down the whole thing, and you know it," Cat said. "But they're damn good at sabbing, they're brave and resourceful, and we need those skills to hit the state."
Kohn jumped to his feet.
"Yeah, right, and they need you to give them hardware support. Who's using who in this campaign? Greens onside too, huh? Got the comrades helping to take out some of that evil technology? Know their way around the factories--yeah, fucking great."
"We've all fought alongside people we didn't exactly see eye to eye with." She smiled, almost tenderly, almost conspiratorially. "'There is only one party, the Party of God,' remember?"
Kohn struggled momentarily with the politics of that particular past conflict and found it was all either too simple or too complicated.
"The Muslims are civilized," he said. "The gang you were with are enemies of humanity."
Catherin shrugged, with one shoulder. "At the moment they're the enemies of our enemies, and that's what counts. That's what's always counted."
There were times when Kohn loathed the Left, when some monstrous stupidity almost, but never quite, outweighed the viciousness and venality of the system they opposed. Ally with the barbarians against the patricians and praetorians...think again, proletarians!
"What does the ANR think of this brilliant tactic?"
Catherin's face warped into scorn.
"They're being macho and sectarian and elitist as usual. Anyone who wants to fight the Hanoverian state should go through the proper channels--them!"
That was a relief. The Army of the New Republic had an almost mythical status on the Left. Claiming the legitimacy of the final emergency session of the Federal Assembly (held in an abandoned factory in Dagenham while the US/UN teletroopers closed in), it fought the Hanoverians and, it sometimes seemed, everybody else.
"They're history," Catherin said. "And if your little gang of mercenaries can't get it together to stop defending legitimate targets, you are too."
Kohn felt old. She was just a kid, that was what it was. Too young to remember the United Republic, hating the Hanoverian regime so much that any alliance against it seemed only common sense...There had to be more, you had to hold onto some sense of direction, even if it was only a thread. Growing up in the Greenbelt shantytowns, Moh had learned that from his father. A fifth-generation Fourth Internationalist, paying out the thread, the thin line of words that connected past to future. The party is the memory of the class, he used to say; meanwhile, the workers of the world did anything and everything except unite. Now he, Gaia shield his soul, had thought the Republic a rotten unstable compromise, but that didn't stop him fighting to save it when the US/UN came in...welcomed, of course, by cheering crowds.
Kohn had no illusions. Most of the opposition would welcome the broadening of the Alliance, even if they saw it as only tactical and technical--a joint action here, a bit of covering fire there. The price would be that the list of legitimate targets would become a good deal longer. His co-op had lived by defending what he still saw as the seeds of progress--the workers' organizations and the scientists and, if necessary, the capitalists--against the enemies of that modern industry on which all their conflicting hopes relied. The delicate balance, the ecological niche for the Cats, would be gone. For the first time he understood all that his father had meant by betrayal.
His rage focused on the wounded woman.
"You're free to go," he told her. "I'm not claiming ransom. I'm not hostage-swapping. Not pressing charges in any currency. I'll clear you from our account."
She sank back into the pillow.
"You can't do this to me!"
"Watch my legs."
He stalked out, leaving her free. Unemployed and unemployable. Only burned-out, squeezed-dry traitors, double and triple agents several times over, were ever released unconditionally.
At the time he thought it just.
Copyright 1995 by Ken MacLeod
Excerpted from The Star Fraction by Macleod, Ken Copyright © 2002 by Macleod, Ken. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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