"Neal Asher's books are like an adrenaline shot targeted directly for the brain." New York Times bestselling author John Scalzi
Humanity, artificial intelligences, and monstrous aliens clash over control of deadly technology in this explosive beginning to Neal Asher’s newest Polity series.
In a far corner of space, on the very borders between humanity’s Polity worlds and the kingdom of the vicious crab-like prador, is an immediate threat to all sentient life: an accretion disc, a solar system designed by the long-dead Jain race and swarming with living technology powerful enough to destroy entire civilizations.
Neither the Polity or the prador want the other in full control of the disc, so they’ve placed an impartial third party in charge of the weapons platform guarding the technology from escaping into the galaxy: Orlandine, a part-human, part-AI haiman. She’s assisted by Dragon, a mysterious, spaceship-sized alien entity who has long been suspicious of Jain technology and who suspects the disc is a trap lying-in-wait.
Meanwhile, the android Angel is planning an attack on the Polity, and is searching for a terrible weapon to carry out his plansa Jain super-soldier. But what exactly the super-soldier is, and what it could be used for if it fell into the wrong hands, will bring Angel and Orlandine’s missions to a head in a way that could forever change the balance of power in the Polity universe.
In The Soldier , British science fiction writer Neal Asher kicks off another Polity-based trilogy in signature fashion, concocting a mind-melting plot filled with far-future technology, lethal weaponry, and bizarre alien creations.
About the Author
Neal Asher is a science fiction writer whose work has been nominated for both the Philip K. Dick and the British Fantasy Society awards. He has published more than twenty books, many set within his “Polity” universe, including Gridlinked, The Skinner, and Dark Intelligence. He divides his time between Essex and a home in Crete.
Read an Excerpt
Haimen are deluded in their belief that their close amalgam of artificial intelligence and human being is an eclectic mix. The simple reality is that AI running in crystal, or some other modern substrate, can incorporate everything it means to be human. Millions of human minds are, for example, recorded to the crystal of Soulbank. With a scrap of genetic tissue and a regrowth tank, they can be resurrected to their previous state with all its faults and foibles. Forensic AIs, when investigating human crime, can record the totality of the perpetrator, including the genetic code that made him. They can review the contents of his mind and its function, and examine him physically down to the microscopic level, before disposal. Human minds have regularly switched from organic bodies to the chassis of a Golem android or some other mechanical body incorporating AI crystal. It is notable how few choose to go back. Also notable is the fact that an AI has never chosen to record itself to a human body. The haiman ethos should be seen for what it is: an ideology with its roots in old religions. It arises from the belief that a human being is more than just a meat machine running some antiquated programming, whose sum purpose is the replication of its genes. A haiman is a cop-out; an inability to take the next step on the evolutionary ladder to full AI.
— from Quince Guide, compiled by humans
Marco's ship surfaced from the faster-than-light continuum of underspace into realspace, and was quickly back within Einstein's laws. His vessel came to an abrupt stop in the permitted zone lying five light-minutes out from Musket Shot — a dark planetoid whose mass was over 50 per cent lead. Had Marco surfaced his ship just a few thousand miles outside this spot it would only have lasted a little over four microseconds, so he had once been told by the Artificial Intelligence Pragus. This was how long it would take the three-feet-wide particle beam to reach the ship from the weapons system watching that area of space. Of course, Pragus could have been lenient and delivered a warning, but any traders who came here never missed that spot. Apparently two other ships had arrived in the proscribed zone. One had been owned by a tourist who had ignored all the warnings delivered to anyone who programmed these coordinates. The other had been a ship controlled by separatists out of the Polity in search of new terror weapons. Both were now cool, expanding clouds of dust.
Or so Pragus said.
"So, what do you have for me, Captain Marco?"
The voice issuing from his console made Marco jerk, then he grimaced, annoyed at his own reaction. He'd made the deal, it was a good one, and certainly not one he could renege on considering who he'd made it with. He shrugged his shoulders, like he did before going into a fight, and opened full com. The image of a chromed face appeared in the screen laminate before him, and Marco forced a smile.
"Something interesting today," he replied gruffly.
"I never thought otherwise," said the AI Pragus.
Interesting was what Pragus needed, what all the AIs out here on the defence sphere needed. Marco had learned the story from another trader who used to do this run before him. Here the AIs, each stationed on a weapons platform, were guarding the Polity from one of the most dangerous threats it had ever faced. Automatic systems would never have been sufficient, for the format of this threat could change at any time. But the problem with employing high-functioning AIs as watchdogs was their boredom. Three AIs had to be pulled out of the sphere in the first years, having turned inward and lost themselves in the realms of their own minds. That was before Orlandine — the overseer of the sphere project — decided on a new approach. She allowed contact with the Polity AI net, and she permitted traders to bring items of interest to sell. AI toys.
"You can come in to dock," Pragus added.
"Thank you kindly," said Marco. Then, trying to find his usual humour, added, "Finger off the trigger, mind."
"I don't have fingers," said the AI, and the chrome face disappeared from the screen laminate.
Marco reached down to his touch-console, prodded the icon for the docking program that had just arrived and simply slid it across to the icon representing his ship's mind. This was the frozen ganglion of a prador second-child — voiceless, remote, just a complex organic computer and nothing like the living thing it had once been. It began to take his ship in, then Marco used the console to pull up another view in the screen laminate to his left.
From this angle the accretion disc, around which the defensive weapons platforms were positioned, looked like a blind, open white eye. It seemed like any other such stellar object in the universe — just a steadily swirling mass of gases and the remnants of older stars which would eventually form a new solar system. His ship's sensors could detect scattered planetesimals within it, the misty bulks of forming planets and the larger mass of the dead star at the heart of the disc. Occasionally that star would light, traceries of fusion fire fleeing around its surface like the smouldering edges of fuse paper. One day, maybe tomorrow or maybe a thousand years hence, the sun would ignite fully. The resulting blast would blow a large portion of the accretion disc out into interstellar space. Marco knew this was the event to be feared, since it was the job of weapons platform AIs like Pragus to ensure that the virulent pseudo-life within that disc did not escape.
Marco shivered, wondering how the sub plot in which he had been ensnared related to that. Certainly, the creature who had employed him was a conniving bastard ... No. He shook his head. He could not allow his mind to stray beyond his immediate goal. He banished the image and, as his ship turned, watched Pragus's permanent home come into view.
The weapons platform was a slab ten miles long, five wide and a mile thick. The designer, the haiman Orlandine, had based much of its design on the construction blocks of a Dyson sphere — a project which she was rumoured to have been an original overseer of. After his first run here, Marco had tried to find information about this woman from the AI net, but there was little available. It seemed that a lot was restricted about this haiman, a woman who exemplified the closest possible melding of AI and human.
The platform's only similarity to a Dyson sphere construction block was its shape. The numerous protrusions of weapons and shielded communication devices gave it the appearance of a high-tech city transported into space. But the skyscrapers were railguns, particle cannons, launch tubes for a cornucopia of missiles, as well as the attack pods of the distributed weapons system that the platform controlled. And all were needed because of Jain tech. The accretion disc was swarming with a wild form of technology, created by a race named the Jain. These creatures had shuffled off the universe's mortal coil five million years ago but left this poisoned chalice for all ensuing civilized races. The technology granted immeasurable power but, in the process, turned on its recipients and destroyed them. Quite simply it was a technology made to destroy civilizations.
Marco's ship drew closer to the platform on a slightly dirty-burning fusion drive — a fault that developed over a month back that he'd never found the time to fix. Its mind signalled on the console that it had applied for final docking permission, and Marco saw it accepted. He looked up to see a pair of space doors opening in the side of the platform. Having used these before he knew they were more than large enough to allow his ship inside. But, at this distance, they looked like an opening in the side of a million-apartment arcology.
His ship drew closer and closer, the platform looming gigantic before it. Finally, it slid into the cathedral space of what the AI probably considered to be a small supply hold. Marco used the console to bring up a series of external views. The ship moved along a docking channel and drew to a halt, remora pad fingers folding out from the edges of the channel to steady it, their suction touch creating a gentle shudder he felt through his feet. He operated the door control of his vessel then stomped back through his cabin area, into his ship's own hold. He paused by the single grav-sled there, then stooped and turned on its gesture control. The sled rose, hovering above the floor and movingcloser to him at the flick of a finger, as he turned to face a section of his ship's hull folding down into a ramp. An equalization of pressure, a whooshing hiss, had his ears popping but would cause him no harm.
By the time the ramp was down pressure was back up again. Marco clumped down onto it in his heavy space boots, the sled following him like a faithful dog. He gazed about the hold, at the acres of empty grated flooring, the handler drays stuck in niches like iron and bone plastic beetles. Spider-claw bots hung from the ceiling like vicious chandeliers, and to one side the castellated edges of the space doors closed behind his ship. The sun-pool ripple of a shimmershield was already in place to hold the atmosphere in. As soon as he reached the floor gratings a cylinder door revolved in the wall ahead. Marco grimaced at what stepped out of the transport tube behind.
The heavy grappler — a robot that looked like a giant, overly muscular human fashioned of grey faceted metal — made its way towards him. It finally halted a few yards away, red-orange fire from its hot insides glaring out of its empty eye sockets and open mouth. But Pragus had used this grappler as an avatar before so Marco knew he should not allow the sight of it to worry him; he should not let himself think that the AI knew something. He had to try to act naturally. He was just here doing his usual job ...
"Still as trusting as ever I see," Marco said.
He could feel one eyelid flickering, and felt a hot flush of panic because he knew the AI would see this and know something was bothering him. He quickly stepped out onto the dock, boots clanking on the gratings. At his geture, the sled eased past him, then lowered itself to the floor. Sitting on top of it was a large airtight plastic box. The grappler swung towards this as if inspecting it, but Marco knew that Pragus was already scanning the contents even as it sent the grappler robot over. In fact, the AI had certainly scanned his ship and its cargo for dangerous items before it docked, like fissionables, super-dense explosives or an anti-matter flask. The more meticulous scan now would reveal something organic. Hopefully this would start no alarm bells ringing because the contents, as far as Marco was aware, were not a bioweapon. Anyway, it was not as if such a weapon would have much effect here, where the only organic life present was Marco himself, as far as he knew.
"What is this?" Pragus asked, its voice issuing as a deep throaty rustle from the grappler.
"Straight out of the Kingdom," said Marco, sure he was smiling too brightly. "You know how these things go. One prador managed to kill a rival and seize his assets. One of those assets was a war museum and the new owner has been selling off the artefacts."
It was the kind of behaviour usual for the race of xenophobic aliens that had once come close to destroying the human Polity.
"That is still not a sufficient explanation."
"I can open it for you to take a look," said Marco. "But we both know that is not necessary."
When the box had been handed over to him, Marco had been given full permission to scan its contents, though he was not allowed to open it or interfere with them. He knew that Pragus would now be seeing a desiccated corpse, like a wasp, six feet long. But it wasn't quite a single distinct creature. Around its head, like a tubular collar, clung part of another creature like itself. Initial analysis with the limited equipment Marco had available showed this was likely to be the remains of a birth canal. Meanwhile it seemed that the main creature had died while giving birth too. A smaller version of itself was just starting to protrude from its birth canal. It was all very odd.
"Alien," said Pragus from the grappler
"Oh certainly that," said Marco. "You want the museum data on it?"
Marco reached down and took a small square of diamond slate from his belt pouch and held it up. The grappler turned towards him, reached out with one thick-fingered hand and took the item between finger and thumb. Marco resisted for a moment, suddenly unsure he should carry this through. He realized that on some level he wanted to be found out, and he fought it down, releasing the piece of slate. The grappler inserted the square into its mouth like a tasty treat. Marco saw it hanging in the glowing opening while black tendrils of manipulator fibres snared and drew it in. Doubtless it would next be pressed to a reader interface inside the grappler's fiery skull.
It would not be long now before Marco knew whether or not he had succeeded. Minutes, only. The AI would put its defences in place, then translate the prador code before reading it. Of course, it had taken Marco a lot longer to translate the thing and read it himself, in fact, most of his journey here.
He had found out how, before the alien prador encountered the Polity, they had come upon another alien species whose realm had extended to merely four solar systems. The prador had attacked at once, of course, but realized they had snipped off more than they could masticate. What had initially been planned as the quick annihilation of competitors turned into an interminable war against a hive species whose organic form approached AI levels of intelligence. These creatures quickly developed seriously nasty weaponry in response to the attack. The war had dragged on for decades but, in the end, the massive resources of the Prador Kingdom told against the hive creatures. It was during this conflict that the prador developed their kamikazes and, with these, steadily destroyed the hive creatures' worlds. It seemed the original owner of the museum had been involved in that genocide, and here, in this box, lay the remains of one of the aliens the prador had exterminated.
"What is your price?" Pragus finally asked.
"You've been doing some useful work with that gravity press of yours?" Marco enquired archly, his acquisitive interest rising up to dispel doubts.
"I have," Pragus replied.
Marco pondered that for a second. "Don't ask for too much," the creature had told him, "and don't ask for too little."
"I want a full ton of diamond slate."
"Expensive and —"
"And I want a hundred of those data-gems you made last time."
This was a fortune. It was enough to buy Marco a life of luxury for many, many years. He had also calculated that it was about all Pragus would have been able to make with the gravity press since the last trader visit, when it wasn't using the press to make high-density railgun slugs. But was the dead thing inside that box worth so much? Of course it was. Material things like diamond slate and data-gems the AI could manufacture endlessly, filling the weapons-platform storage with such stuff. But the alien corpse would contain a wealth of what AIs valued highest of all: information. It was also so much more to weapons-platform AIs like Pragus: the prospect of months of release from the boredom of watching the accretion disc.
"You have a deal," the AI replied.
Marco had no doubt that Pragus was already having handler drays load the requested items onto themselves. He felt a species of disappointment. Weren't Polity AIs supposed to be the pinnacle of intelligence? Surely Pragus should be able to see to the core of what was happening here ... surely the AI would have some idea ...
The grappler stooped and carefully picked up the box, then it froze, the fire abruptly dimming in its skull. Marco had seen this before. It meant that Pragus had suddenly focused its full attention elsewhere. Had he been found out?
After a moment the fire intensified again, and the grappler turned towards the door of the transport tube.
"Something is happening," it said.
"What?" Marco asked, his mind already turning to the prospect of getting away from here as fast as he could.
"Increased activity in the accretion disc." The grappler then gave a very human shrug. "It happens."
Marco simply acknowledged that with a nod, hoping it would not delay his payment or his departure. This, he decided, would be his last run here. He wanted no more involvement with giant weapons platforms, Jain technology or Orlandine. He also, very definitely, wanted no more involvement with an alien called Dragon — a creature whose form was a giant sphere fifty miles across. A creature who, some months ago, with some not so subtle threats and the promise of great wealth, had compelled Marco to make this strange delivery here.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Soldier"
Copyright © 2018 Neal Asher.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Another great Asher novel! I have read them all and the story keeps twisting, growing and unfolding. Must read series.
Please, keep them coming!
Don't tell me your editor put a limit on you. Perhaps your cruel Jainish streak came through, or maybe the Wheel took over and you decide to punish us for reading. Whatever, we want more!!!!