by Neal Asher

Paperback(First Edition)

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With Cowl, Neal Asher, acclaimed author of Gridlinked and The Skinner, has created a powerful time-travel novel for the 21st Century, a violent thrill ride that will leave you breathless

In the far future, the Heliothane Dominion is triumphant in the solar system, after a bitter war with their Umbrathane progenitors. But some of the Umbrathane have escaped into the distant past, where they can position themselves to wreak havoc across time and undo their defeat. The most fanatical of them is the superhuman Cowl, more monstrous than any of the creatures outside his prehistoric redoubt.

Cowl sends his terrifying hyperdimensional pet, the torbeast, hunting through all the timelines for human specimens. It sheds its scales — each one an organic time machine — where its master orders. Anyone who picks one up is dragged back to the dawn of time, where Cowl awaits. Then the beast can feed, growing ever larger . . .

In our own near-future, Tack is one of U-gov's programmable killers. When a scale latches onto him, his doom seems inevitable, but the Heliothane have other ideas: they can use Tack against Cowl. Tack is no stranger to violence, but the Heliothane, hardened in their struggle for humanity's very existence, have much to teach him. He will need it all for his encounter with Cowl.

Once one of Tack's targets, Polly escaped with her life when a torbeast scale snatched her. Now, like Tack, she must learn fast as she is dragged back to Day Zero. To cheat death again, she will have to help him save the human race.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780765315120
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date: 05/01/2005
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.69(w) x 9.61(h) x 0.68(d)

About the Author

Neal Asher lives in Chelmsord, Essex, UK.

Read an Excerpt




Engineer Goron:

From what I have learnt from the two survivors, we have to find another way to attack Cowl. The first of the group took with them a fusion and displacement generator to punch through into interspace to provide an energy tap. This was so subsequent travellers could arrive accurately at the same location—the inaccuracy of time travel increasing proportionally to the temporal distance from a suitable energy source. In this they succeeded. But being able to transport only a few personnel and small amounts of equipment on each trip, it still took them too long to establish a base. The preterhuman detected the tap and sent his pet—now grown into something titanic. It killed them on Earth and in interspace as they fled. Ate them alive.


A STORM WAS OPENING white-hot cracks in the basalt sky and soon the rain would be etching all exposed metal. Polly knew she should get undercover, as such acidic downpours made all but synthetic clothing degrade to the strength of wet blotting paper, caused hair to fall out and laid rashes across a person’s scalp. After grinding out her cigarette, she pulled her rain film from its cigar-sized cartridge and suddenly felt a loneliness the vodka had failed to dispel. It was at times like this that she most missed Marjae: they would have headed back to the flat to split a block of Moroccan, drink coffee and jaw away the evening before setting out for the night trade.

When Polly had lost her virginity at the age of eleven, her mother, a Christian Scientist, spent the next year trying to beat the sin out of her. At the age of twelve Polly spent several months stealing all the money she could without arousing suspicion, packed her rucksack with portable valuables and left her mother lying on the repro lino with an antique stainless-steel vegetable knife in her groin and the instruction to pray for stitches. As far as she was concerned she’d never really had a mother and the only person she valued any more than herself had been Marjae. But now there was only shadow.

With her rain film belling out around her and her hood up, Polly headed back through streets already turning slick with a cloudy drizzle. Every now and again a gust of wind wafted the smell of sulphur dioxide from where the acid in the falling rain reacted with discarded Coke cans or other garbage. In a few minutes she reached the door to her tenement, fumbled her keycard into its slot, then shouldered the door open. In the cold light cast by everlasting bulbs she climbed the stairs with her hand ready on the small taser in her handbag. She’d been rolled in here before and she wasn’t going to let it happen again. Reaching the plastic door to her flat, she checked behind her before using the card again and entering.

‘Lights,’ she said, quickly closing the door behind her. The lights flickered on just in time to reveal the man in Task Force fatigues as he stepped up close to her and slammed her back against the door.

‘Nandru!’ She was more surprised than scared, but that soon changed.

‘You touch it, you know, and it calls to you … calls to you all the time,’ he hissed, his breath rank, his eyes not tracking properly.

‘Nandru … what is it?’

His hair was filthy and there was a week’s stubble on his chin. He looked out of it—on something.

‘But they are U-gov—straight out of Brussels,’ he said. ‘Vat grown, I’d bet.’

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ Polly said.

‘You know what it means to be hunted?’ he snarled.

She shook her head.

He gestured with the gun as if for emphasis, but when he did so, Polly flinched. This wasn’t his usual UN-issue stunner, nor was it hardware commonly found on the streets. Polly recognized the weapon as a favourite in the latest smash-em-up VR interactives: it was a MOG 5, a weapon that fired depleted uranium bullets, seeker rounds, and mini high-yield grenades capable of turning a house to pebble-sized rubble—if the interactives, the ints, were to be believed.

‘Do you know?’ he yelled.

Polly stared at his bloodshot eyes and ravaged face, then lowered her gaze to the cluster of barrels he was waving under her chin. She carefully reached out and pushed him away, then, unhooking her handbag, stepped past him to the sofa, where she sat down. She found her lighter and cigarettes, lit up and blew a plume of smoke.

‘Why don’t you tell me?’ she said, slurring only a little despite the vodka she’d been downing all evening.

He gestured with the miniature Gatling barrels towards the window—streaked now with neon-lit rain, the colours changing every second as the bar sign across the street went through its sequence. Walking over to the pane, he stood silhouetted against it for a moment.

‘It’s all shit,’ he said. ‘If it’s hunting you, you’re nothing—you don’t mean anything to the future. You’re just a taste, a scrap of protein, and there’s nothing you can do—nothing. Christ, we’re just fucking morsels to it, and it can have us any time it likes. It’s going to have me. It knows it. I know it. Just a game to it.’

Still by the window, he leant his shoulder against the frame, the gun resting in the crook of his right arm. With his left hand he reached out and smeared the condensation on the glass—it was hot in her flat—and he sighed, suddenly looking very tired. This had to be about Marjae.

Because of their trade, she and Polly had received the World Health download for free. Polly had watched it during an evening taken off to allow the prescribed drugs she was taking to clear up her latest recurrence of herpes—contracted before Marjae had finished training her in the hygiene discipline of their trade. The most recent and rugged HIV caused New AIDS, the download had informed her. This particular bug could survive outside the human body for as long as an hour and could be passed on with the same ease as hepatitis A. Public toilets came under stringent health restrictions and in some levels of society it was already fashionable to wear masks outside the home. On the street there was a rumour that the virus was able to survive in the proboscis of a mosquito and that this information had been suppressed. It wasn’t a new rumour. Marjae was found to be HIV positive during her monthly test a year after they’d laughed at that download—presented by a supercilious doctor program—and they’d been certain that they were not stupid enough to end up infected. She died from one of the pneumonias a year after that. PS 24 probably, as that was the one rife at the time. It was Marjae, Polly remembered, who had observed, ‘The man said it’s like the wars, y’know? We’re getting wise enough to number ‘em.’

Marjae: lying skeletal on a bed in the confinement hospital. One last little chat while she lay with the euthanizer in her lap, a finger poised over the button. Polly’s replies muffled by the surgical mask she wore.

‘It ain’t easy any more. It’ll kill you. Get out. Get out while you can.’

Her finger rattled on the button until a little red light came on, and the killing drugs shot through the pipes to her catheter. Ten minutes later she was asleep, ten minutes after that she was dead and, Polly realized as she left the hospital, in another half-hour Marjae would be in the incinerator. Those hospitals had a high turnover and U-gov efficiency targets to meet.

When Marjae euthanized, Nandru had been out with Task Force, cauterizing the latest haemorrhage of fanaticism spreading from oil wells run dry. He must blame her for his sister’s death. Polly decided she needed something a little stronger to get her through whatever was coming. From the back of her cigarette packet she pulled her last H-patch, stripped off the backing and pressed it into the crook of her arm.

‘Look … I’m sorry about Marjae,’ she said.

He turned from the window and stared at her in confused bewilderment, then his expression sharpened when he saw what she was doing.

‘You stupid ignorant little bitch. You want to end up like my sister?’ he sneered.

‘AIDS and sep,’ she managed as she pressed the H-patch tighter against her skin and shuddered with expected pleasure. ‘She was jabbing. That’s real dumb.’

‘So you’re the sensible girl?’ he hissed at her.

Irony, that was. Polly knew what irony was, even now. The hit from the patch was weak; it in fact seemed to sober her rather than take her anywhere pleasant. She needed to use the chaser—the second patch—but knew that to do so would probably further piss off Nandru. He moved close now, leaning over her.

‘Well, sensible girl … I’ve seen it, stretching further than the eye can see: a hell of flesh and teeth and bone and, of course, the scales. Just a glimpse, mind. Just a glimpse past the feeding mouth it used to take four Binpots, then Leibnitz, Smith … Patak.’

Fucking insane.

She must have lost it for a moment then because when she came back Nandru was sitting on the arm of the sofa, the weapon resting greasily against one of her cushions. In his hand he held an object that glittered.

‘ … too much of a literary reference, don’t you think?’

‘What? What?’

He was staring at her again with that sick crazy look. ‘I haven’t got time and you’re too smashed to understand.’ He reached into the pocket of his fatigues, took out a roll of money, and showed it to her. ‘You get this after you’ve followed my instructions. I’d give it to you right now, but I know you’d be useless to me if I did. Hopefully I can get this done before it gets me. You see, I’m a marked man—I’ve been selected from the fat stock.’ He paused, suddenly looking very angry. ‘You know, they didn’t give a fuck about the rest of us—had us confined and wired so they could watch and learn while it took us. Well, I’ll take them. You just watch me.’

Polly stared at him in bewilderment. Some animal had killed his men and was hunting him. Who were they? Different from the animal? What was he talking about? She eyed the money as he slipped it back into his pocket.

‘I took it to our place, you see. You remember? Our party place before the two of you went shit out …’ He leaned closer and shook her hard. ‘Do you remember! ’

‘Yeah! Yeah, I remember. Back off, for fuck’s sake!’

She’d sucked down a real interesting piece of blotting paper while camping out in the Anglia Reforest. Why it was called that she had no idea, as there hadn’t been forest there before the flood and the reclamation. East Anglia had been mega-fields and factory complexes stretching from the outskirts of London to the coast. Maybe the name referred to the far past; way back premillennial, before the European space station and the Big Heat, back when knights in armour charged after dinosaurs and all that crap. Polly was hazy about the details.

Their camp had been next to a ruin that was little more than half-collapsed breeze-block and brick cavity walls, the cavities packed with estuary mud sprouting stinging nettles and thistles. This ruin had stood in the shadow of a thermal generating tower, built there when the place had still been under water. The holiday had been Marjae’s idea. They’d spent two days on bennies and disiacs, partying with Nandru and one of his comrades from the Task Force: screwing amid the rough grass and stinging nettles, stopping only when the chemicals ran out and they began to feel real sore.

‘The old house under the tower,’ Nandru reminded her. ‘I won’t tell you exactly, in case they put a bend on you. I’ll instruct you when you lead them there. You know, they didn’t dare feed it … kept it in Isolation while they studied it.’

Polly accepted that there was some valuable object out there and that somehow she would be involved. She smelt money. She smelt danger. Now she turned her attention to the glittery thing he held.

‘This is state, diamond state. They got some in Delta Force and maybe in the SAS. Like I said before, they’re called Muses.’ He must have told her when she was out of it. She studied what he was holding out to her. In his palm rested a fancy ear stud and a teardrop of aluminium the size of a cigarette lighter. ‘It’s AI, got about a hundred terabytes of reference, can fuck any idiot silicon within five metres.’ He caught her by the shoulder and pressed the teardrop into the hollow at the base of her throat. It hurt. It hurt a lot.

‘What is it? What are you doing?’

He was at her handbag and in a moment had found what he wanted. He held up the second patch for her to see, and she nodded, choking as the pain spread from the base of her throat to the back of her neck, as if someone was slowly sawing off her head. Moving in front of her, he parted her legs, then reached up to press the patch against her inner thigh, just hidden there by her leather pelmet. DP they called it: double patching. The second patch was an ‘endorph gate naltraxone derivative’—or a ‘pearly’, to those who used them. It reactivated over-backed neural receptors, brought the H-hit back on line; made it like it was. The pain faded and Polly lay back to stare at the pretty lights. Vaguely she heard a door open and close.


AT FIVE IN THE morning Polly woke on the sofa with post-euphoric depression, undressed and went to bed in a foetal coil round the pain in the top of her chest. She didn’t know what Nandru had done, but she could feel the metal lump bedded above her breastbone. She tried to get back to sleep, but as well as the pain everything else nagged at her: not only was Marjae’s brother back on the scene with some serious weaponry and a serious fuck-up in his head, but there were the prosaic and sordid facts of her everyday life.

The rent was overdue, she’d used the last of her patches, her DSS card had been revoked because she’d been caught soliciting without a U-gov licence, and now the Revenue were after her for back taxes for the ‘public service’ she had provided. But she was determined they were not going to get her on any of the social projects, which was the usual way things went in this situation. She had friends who’d done that and who were classified bankrupt, the result of this being revocation of citizenship and full indenture to U-gov. The chains were plastic cards, location torcs, but nobody dared call it slavery.

At seven Polly rolled out of bed and got herself moving. She kept herself busy to hold depression at bay. Without somagum she had no chance of sleep now. Anyway, the temperature was in the upper twenties already and the day looked likely to be a holezoner. Standing before her grimy mirror, she studied the ear stud Nandru must have inserted in her lobe while she was stoned. It looked a lot nicer than her usual topaz so she left it in place, before turning her attention to the teardrop of metal. With her hardened fingernail, she tried to lever it up from her skin, but it was stuck solid there. He must have used skin bond—the stuff comedians had put on public toilet seats before all the public toilets were closed down. No doubt she would see him again sometime when she wasn’t out of her skull and he wasn’t out of his, then she could demand an explanation. For now it could ride: there was the morning trade to catch and she had work to do.

She dressed in absorbent knickers, loose vest and padded knee boots, then sat in front of her mirror and did her face. Her flat was squalid and her credit breadline, but she was proud of the fact that she could sling on any old charity-shop rag and, with a bit of eyeliner and lipgloss, look good enough to walk into Raffles or Hothouse. She grinned at herself, exposing her white and even teeth. Best thousand euros she’d ever spent, having those done: no tooth decay, nothing stuck to their frictionless surfaces, and no pain. And the force of the blow required to break them would likely kill her, so she had no worries on that score. Suitably tarted she strapped on her waterproof hip bag and stocked it with the essentials of street survival. Into it went condoms, tissues and spermicidal spray, a neat Toshiba taser the size of a pistol grip, her smart cards, money, cigarettes and lighter, and her last joint. She would save the joint to haze things for the inevitable rich ugly bastard she usually ended up blowing. Thus set she headed out into the streets of Maldon Island.

Granny’s Kitchen had only just opened by the time she arrived. She sat near the window and tapped up coffee and toast on the holographic menu that had appeared in the glass top of the table as soon as she sat down. Windows opened from each of these asking how she would like them prepared. She punched her selection then ‘send’ before any more windows could open. When her order arrived Polly ate one of the slices of toast and shoved the other aside, before lighting up her first cigarette of the day. Smoking and sipping coffee, she watched the street.

Already the island town was filling up with foot traffic and those zero-carbon hydrocars allowed within the town limits. After her second cup of coffee and second cigarette, Polly decided it was time to go to work. She quickly left Granny’s and walked up the High Street with her hips swaying. Within a few minutes she had taken up her usual position outside the Reformed Church of Hubbard. There she stood with her hand on her hip and smoked yet another cigarette. She had been told that no one smoked a cigarette quite so provocatively as she did. Her first customer approached her ten minutes later.

‘I need a blow job real bad,’ he said. Polly recognized him from the week before. By his businesswear, he was an executive of TCC, and carried on a shoulder strap a laptop disguised as an old book.

‘Fifty,’ said Polly, upping her price by ten euros.


Polly led the way round the back of the church. As she went she sprayed spermicide in her mouth and left her hip bag open so she could grab the taser at any moment. The alley behind the church was scented by the blossoms of a jasmine sprouting wild up one synthewood wall. On the cobbles were used H-patches, the slimy remnants of degrading condoms, gum wrappers and a smashed VR helmet. Polly noted a splash of blood on the walls and on the leaves of the nearby vine before turning to her customer and taking a condom from her bag. He was already undoing his trousers. She knelt down in front of him, grateful for the padding in her knee boots. It didn’t take long, and after she’d cast the condom in a corner to degrade with the rest of them, he transferred the money straight across to her card.

‘See you next week?’ he asked, eyeing her almost possessively. She remained wary and noncommittal, and deliberately sprayed spermicide in her mouth while he was watching to bring home to him the basis of their relationship. She’d had hassle before with a guy who got too hooked into her and started causing problems. When he was on his way, she took up her station again. By midday she’d made seven hundred euros. Not bad, even though the last hundred had left her walking somewhat gingerly. She reminded herself not to forget her gel next time. And as she walked away she promised herself to give this all up before she turned sixteen. That still gave her six months’ leeway.


WITH CUSTOMARY EAGERNESS POLLY headed back to her flat. She’d made good money this morning and turned half of it into DPs, an eighth of Moroccan, ten fifty-gram packs of rolling tobacco plus papers—her local smuggler had been out of packet cigarettes—and a litre of Metaxa. Niggling at her conscience was the thought that she should have put some of the money aside for the rent and taxes, but she’d worked hard providing for the pleasure of others and now it was time to provide for herself.

Online tactical. Tech-com unavailable. Instruct?

Polly whirled round from the door, groping in her hip bag for her taser, but there was no one standing behind her. She surveyed the street, her attention finally coming to rest on the customers sitting at the tables outside the bar across the road. A few men were looking at her, but that was nothing unusual: dressed as she was, there were few men who wouldn’t give her the eye. No one over there was laughing, so it likely wasn’t some joker there with a directional speaker. It also seemed unlikely that she’d been targeted by advertising com. Turning back to the door she used her keycard, and was quickly inside.

Going mute until further instructions.

‘Fuck! Who is that?’

There was now no one anywhere in direct line—no one to point a directional speaker at her. That meant there had to be a phone hidden nearby.

Muse 184, came the toneless reply.

‘What the hell is this?’ Polly asked, but something was nibbling at her memory. Hadn’t Nandru mentioned the word ‘Muse’? She tried to recall the conversation, but found there were blank and hazy spots, as there always seemed to be nowadays. Suddenly she remembered the gun he had carried: state-of-the-art hardware like in the interactives. And what were those other things they called ‘Little Buddies’? She touched the metal at the base of her throat. Shit, what the hell had he given her?

‘Who is that speaking to me?’ she asked.

Muse 184, came the reply again.

‘What the fuck are you?’

Adaptech AI Muse 184 tactical and reference system. Interdiction enabled. Note: tech-com is unavailable and should be reported to com central. Instruct?

‘Shut up!’

Going mute until further instructions.

Polly ran up the stairs to her flat, fumbling her card to get her through the door. As she dropped her shopping on the sofa and sat down beside it, she was shaking. After a moment she took out a foil-wrapped block of resin, opened a pack of tobacco, and began making a joint—the familiar action calmed her shaking more than the smoke she eventually took in. She tried hard to think straight. According to Marjae, Nandru had been hinting about an important job he’d got in Task Force, so he must have been into something a bit more serious than smearing a few Binpots. But it didn’t make sense. Why had he come here, to her, and fixed on her this … thing? Suddenly she had an idea.

‘Muse, er, I want to … take you off me,’ she said.

Awaiting detach code.

That was no good then. ‘Go mute,’ she said.

Going mute until further instructions.

Shaking her head, Polly stood and walked over to the the kitchen area, found a glass, then back at the sofa filled it to the brim with Metaxa. After draining half of that she began to think about the patches tucked into the secret compartment at the back of her hip bag. On another level she knew that none of this constant intake was helping her to think about her problem—she was just abandoning thought altogether.

Polly, time to rock and roll.

‘I thought I told you to go mute,’ she said with irritation. Then she realized what she had just heard. ‘Nandru?’

Yeah, your ever loving. You didn’t think I teched you up with forty grand of hardware just so’s you could look pretty? This is utterly Anything else and they’d have zeroed me in seconds.

‘What the hell are you talking about, Nandru?’

Within the next hour some serious scumbags are going to be paying you a visit. You see, your Muse was mine and it’s bugged, and thinking they’re tracing me they’ll find you. Shame I can’t do that myself with the monster, but at least I’ll be wiping up some shit.

‘You’ve done this because of Marjae,’ said Polly. She then downed the last of her brandy, shoved the cigarette makings into her hip bag and headed for the door—if someone nasty was going to find her she’d rather be out in the open and visible to lots of witnesses.

You’re wrong there, my little slot machine. You’re my mouthpiece and my goat. When they find you, they’ll ask you where I am and where I stashed the fucking scale they want so badly. You’ll tell them the truth and lead them to our place, and through you I’ll talk to them.

He was talking crazy again? Scale? She was halfway down the stairs before she asked, ‘And when you’ve given them what they want, what happens to me?’

Don’t worry, you’ll live if you do just exactly what I tell you. Also, you don’t really have much choice in the matter: you cannot remove Muse, so they will find you. And if you don’t follow instructions, they’ll take you away and peel your skull until there’s nothing left.

Outside in the blazing afternoon of the street Polly shaded her eyes and, once a gap appeared in the stream of hydrocars, headed across the road to the bar. The place had a reputation for being a bit retro, hence the sinister look of many of the alfresco patrons in their mirror shades and wrap-arounds. Finding a plastic chair that had been tucked under one of the outside tables, and so was not scalding to sit on, she took up a position with her back near the plate-glass window, where others gave her some cover and from where she had a view of the street. As soon as she sat down the table surface displayed a turning array of beer bottles and spirits. She tapped a bottle of Stella passing under her hand, then hit the edge of the display to turn it off. The table’s appearance returned to its customary granite finish.

The waitress who came out with her beer eyed her dubiously. ‘You know we don’t allow …’ began the girl, embarrassed.

‘It’s OK,’ said Polly, dropping a five euro on her tray. ‘I’m only here for the beer.’

The first swallow was rapture in that dusty heat. The breeze that suddenly began blowing was really nice as well. Polly tilted her head back to enjoy it and only then heard the low thrumming that accompanied it.

‘Willya lookit that!’ exclaimed the man at the table next to hers—the man who had been conspicuously not ogling her, since he was sitting opposite his wife or partner. A shadow drew across them and Polly opened her eyes to observe one of the new Ford Macrojets sliding across the sky above, its four turbines uncannily like eyes staring down into the street. The vehicle hovered for a while, then shot away to spiral down to the infrequently used connection platform up the hill and just off the High Street. It was predicted that in another ten years most traffic would have taken to the sky. This did not concern Polly as she had never accumulated enough money to afford even an electric scooter.

‘There it is again!’ said the man ten minutes later. ‘Just like Bluebird.’

Polly didn’t know what that meant but, as she observed the huge vehicle turning down from the High Street, even she was impressed. Such transport spoke of wealth she was sure she herself would never own. When it drew up in front of the bar, her instinct was to try and get herself into the car and hopefully get some taste of the riches it represented. But when she saw the four men who climbed out of it, she just wanted to run.

They were U-gov meat. Just like Nandru had said: they were straight out of the Agency in Brussels. They wore their grey suits and blue EU ties like a uniform, and what need had they of mirror shades when their eyes were mirrored? One of them, a blond-haired Adonis with an utterly blank expression, looked at the device in his hand, held it up for a moment, then abruptly pocketed it and walked over to Polly’s table. But for hair colour, the one who followed him was in appearance indistinguishable, as were the two standing by the car. Illegal net-sheets had men like this down as the product of some strange eugenics project involving cloning and augmentation. Of course all the official news organizations decried that as hysterical rubbish, but then they had to if they wanted to stay in business.

Already other drinkers in the bar were finding their reasons to be elsewhere. The couple at the next table gulped their drinks and quickly grabbed their shopping. The blond man sat down opposite Polly. He blinked the mirroring from his eyes to expose calm grey. With an almost apologetic smile he reached inside his jacket and removed a short, ugly, seeker gun. Pointing it at her he flipped up the frame sight and clicked a button on the side of the weapon, before putting it down on the table. Polly observed the flashing LED, and she had played in enough interactives to know the gun had acquired her.

Interdiction online. Tech-com unavailable, Muse informed her, leaving her none the wiser.

Ah, I see our friends have arrived, said Nandru.

See? thought Polly.

‘Where did you get that Muse?’ said the heavy sitting opposite, at last.

Polly glanced around. All the other outside tables were now unoccupied. The waitress stepped out, then quickly ducked back inside when she saw her new customers. There were still people inside the bar, standing well back from the window and observing the scene. No help there. The only possible rescue in a situation like this would be to have a few hundred thousand to slip to a eurocrat, and even then …

‘It was given to me by a Task Force soldier called Nandru Jurgens,’ she said.

The man nodded slowly then said, ‘And you’re linked to him now, I take it?’

Polly nodded.

‘Ask him how much,’ said the man.

Polly tilted her head as she listened to what Nandru told her. Her mouth went dry and it took her a moment to get enough spit to repeat his message, ‘Fifty million wired direct to Usbank account PX two hundred and three, two hundred and seven, forty. He also wants to know your name.’

The man now tilted his head for a moment, and Polly had no doubt that he was listening to voices inside it much like her own, for there was a small grey pill of an ear stud in his left lobe, and she doubted it was there for decoration.

‘My name is Tack,’ he said eventually. ‘He must understand that the transfer cannot be authorized until I have possession of the item.’

‘I’m to take you to it,’ said Polly.

Tack showed no change of expression and Polly thought: I’m going to die.

‘I find that unlikely,’ said Tack. ‘What is to stop us taking the item once we have it in sight?’

‘He says you’ll see when you see.’

Tack picked up his gun, rose, and gestured with it to the Macrojet. Polly tried to seem casual by finishing off her beer, but it was warm now and she had difficulty in swallowing. She stood up and moved ahead of the blond man towards the car. Climbing inside, she found herself trapped between walls of identical muscle. The one called Tack sat in the front passenger seat, while the driver wound up the turbines to a howl and took the car into the sky. Polly doubted the traffic police would be hitting on this vehicle. Questions of legality with people like these remained that: questions only.


THE PROBE, CARLOON THOUGHT, resembled a barbed arrowhead he had once seen in a museum, but one from an immense arrow. Mounted on the launch platform that hung geostationary above equatorial Africa, it now stood separate from the gantries and maintenance pylons, supported only by the fuelling towers that were pumping in the deuterium oxide used in its initial fusion burn, and personnel were leaving the platform in stratocars and supply ships. Suited against vacuum, Carloon floated high above the platform on a line attached to a control tower on the first giant displacement ring. He wanted to see this as directly as possible and there was nothing more to do inside the tower now. The launch would either be successful or not. The ‘not’ case was the reason his personnel were leaving the platform. He looked up to where he could just see the second ring a thousand kilometres out from Earth.

‘If we could use time travel, we could get the probe back before it went,’ Maxell observed laconically over com.

Carloon glanced across to the second figure floating a few metres away from him. That she had come to see this showed the importance of the project to the Heliothane Dominion.

‘But we can’t,’ was all he replied.

‘Explain to me the reason for that,’ Maxell instructed.

Carloon sighed. He himself was only just beginning to understand the possibilities and limitations inherent in the new science. Phasing matter and matter displacement he did understand, but such things as temporal inertia, short-circuit paradoxes, and the vorpal energy generated by life, were a little beyond him. ‘As I understand it, time travel is easiest on Earth and becomes increasingly difficult the further you get from that centre of … vorpal generation. We can use it within a limited sphere, which encompasses most of the solar system surrounding Earth; beyond that the energy levels required climb exponentially.’

‘But you are using an offshoot of that technology here?’

‘Yes. We’re using spatial displacement to shift the probe back to its launch point as it accelerates on its antigravity engines, while feeding it the energy to accelerate—which we couldn’t do if it was heading out of the solar system. If we complete twenty successful displacements, the probe will be travelling at ninety-three per cent light speed when we finally let it go. We could have used temporal displacement between the rings as well, but that would only have reduced the mission time by less than one-hundredth, and would have used over four-fifths of the Earthgrid energy output.’

‘That mission time being?’

Carloon repressed his irritation: Maxell knew all this. Rather than reply, he observed, ‘The probe is launching.’

They both turned their attention to the geostationary platform, where the fuelling towers were rolling back under a haze of heavy-water vapour. Then the fug was lit by the bright burn of fusion engines igniting and the probe began to rise towards them on two spears of white flame. Behind it, on the platform, structures glowed and flared in the back-blast. This was a one-off launch. Carloon found his body tensing and his mouth going dry as the probe accelerated rapidly. In a minute it was close, then it passed through the displacement ring, travelling at five thousand kph, in eerie silence. He watched it rise high, accelerating for the next ring. When it was almost invisible, the fusion flames flicked out.

After taking a drink from the pipe by his mouth, he said, ‘It now accelerates on AG only.’

‘How long until the first displacement?’ Maxell asked.

‘Minutes, but we won’t see much.’

‘And how long before it arrives at its destination?’

‘Sixteen years before it reaches Proxima Centauri. But before we get any results …’ Carloon shrugged.

Minutes later the probe reached the second displacement ring a thousand kilometres out. Space distorted in that ring and the probe just disappeared. Instantaneously it reappeared inside the first ring and continued to accelerate—its AG motors working against the gravity of Earth. Again and again it ran that course, energy being fed into it by microwave transmitters in the displacement rings themselves, enough energy to power a solar civilization for years. Finally that civilization let it go. The probe headed out into darkness, to confirm or deny a theory about the existence of life on Earth.

Copyright © 2004 by Neal Asher

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