Pandora’s Star

1

By
Peter Hamilton

       PROLOGUE

Mars dominated space outside the Ulysses, a bloated dirty-ginger crescent of a planet that never quite made it as a world. Small, frigid, barren, airless, it was simply the solar system’s colder version of hell. Yet its glowing presence in the sky had dominated most of human history; first as a god to inspire generations of warriors, then as a goal to countless dreamers.

Now, for NASA Captain-Pilot Wilson Kime, it had become solid land. Two hundred kilometers beyond the landing craft’s narrow, curving windshield he could pick out the dark gash that was the Valles Marineris. As a boy he’d accessed the technofantasies of the Aries Underground group, entranced by how one day in an unspecified future, foaming water would once again race down that vast gully as raw human ingenuity unlocked the frozen ice trapped beneath the rusting landscape. Today, he would be the first to walk through those dusty craters he’d studied in a thousand satellite photos, trickle the legendary thin red sand through his gloved fingers. Today was glorious history in the making.

Wilson automatically started a deep feedback breathing exercise, calming his heart before the reality of what was about to happen could affect his metabolism. No way was he giving those goddamn desk medics back in Houston a chance to question his fitness to pilot the landing craft. Eight years he’d spent in the USAF, including two combat duties based in Japan for Operation Deliver Peace, followed by another nine years with NASA. All that buildup and anticipation: the sacrifices, his first wife and totally alienated kid; the eternal VR training at Houston, the press conferences, the mind-rotting PR tours of factories; he’d endured it all because it led to this one moment in this most sacred place.

Mars. At last!

“Initiating VKT ranging, cross match RL acquisition data,” he told the landing craft’s autopilot. The colored lines of the windshield’s holographic display began to change their geometrical patterns. He kept one eye on the timer: eight minutes. “Purging BGA system and vehicle interlink tunnel.” His left hand flicked the switches on the console, and tiny LEDs came on to confirm the switch cycle. Some actions NASA would never entrust to voice activation software. “Commencing BGA nonpropulsive vent. Awaiting prime ship sep sequence confirmation.”

“Roger that, Eagle II,” Nancy Kressmire’s voice said in his headset. “Telemetry analysis has you as fully functional. Prime ship power systems ready for disengagement.”

“Acknowledged,” he told the Ulysses ’s captain. Turquoise and emerald spiderwebs within the windshield fluttered elegantly, reporting the lander’s internal power status. Their sharp primary colors appeared somehow alien across the dull pallor of the wintry Martian landscape outside. “Switching to full internal power cells. I have seven greens for umbilical sep. Retracting inter-vehicle access tunnel.”

Alarmingly loud metallic clunks rang through the little cabin as the spaceplane’s airlock tunnel sank back into the fuselage. Even Wilson flinched at the intrusive sounds, and he knew the spaceplane’s mechanical layout better than its designers.

“Sir?” he asked. According to the NASA manual, once the lander’s airlock had retracted from the prime ship they were technically a fully independent vehicle; and Wilson wasn’t the ranking officer.

“The Eagle II is yours, Captain,” Commander Dylan Lewis said. “Take us down when you’re ready.”

Very conscious of the camera at the back of the cabin, Wilson said, “Thank you, sir. We are on-line for completed undocking in seven minutes.” He could sense the buzz in the five passengers riding behind him. All of them were the straightest of straight arrows; they had so much right stuff between them it could be bottled. Yet now the actual moment was here they were no more controlled than a bunch of school kids heading for their first beach party.

The autopilot ran through the remaining preflight prep sequence, with Wilson ordering and controlling the list; adhering faithfully to the man-in-the-loop tradition that dated all the way back to the Mercury Seven and their epic struggle for astronauts to be more than just spam in a can. Right on the seven-minute mark, the locking pins withdrew. He fired the RCS thrusters, pushing Eagle II gently away from the Ulysses . This time there was nothing he could do to stop his heart racing.

As they drew away, Ulysses became fully visible through the windshield. Wilson grinned happily at the sight of it. The interplanetary craft was the first of its kind: an ungainly collection of cylindrical modules, tanks, and girders arranged in a circular grid shape two hundred meters across. Its perimeter sprouted long jet-black solar power panels like plastic petals, all of them tracking the sun. Several of the crew habitation sections were painted in the stars and stripes, implausibly gaudy against the plain silver-white thermal foam that coated every centimeter of the superstructure. Right in the center of the vehicle, surrounded by a wide corrugated fan of silver thermal radiator panels, was the hexagonal chamber that housed the fusion generator that had made the ten-week flight time possible, constantly supplying power to the plasma rockets. It was the smallest fusion system ever built: a genuine made-in-America, cutting-edge chunk of technology. Europe was still building its first pair of commercial fusion reactors on the ground, while the USA had already commissioned five such units, with another fifteen being built. And the Europeans certainly hadn’t got anything equivalent to the sophisticated Ulysses generator.

Damnit, we can still get some things right, Wilson thought proudly as the shining conglomeration of space hardware diminished into the eternal night. It would be another decade until the FESA could mount a Mars mission, by which time NASA planned on having a self-sustaining base on the icy sands of Arabia Terra. Hopefully, by then, the agency would also be flying asteroid-capture missions and even a Jovian expedition as well. I’m not too old to be a part of those, they’ll need experienced commanders.

His mind underwent just the tiniest tweak of envy at the prospect of what would come in the midterm future, events and miracles whose timetable and budget allocations meant they might just elude him. The Europeans can afford to wait, though. While thanks to the dominant influence of the Religious Right over the last few administrations, the U.S. had halted all genetic work centered around stem cells, the Federal government in Brussels had poured money into biogenic research, with spectacular results. Now that the early bugs had been ironed out of the hugely expensive procedure, they’d begun to rejuvenate people. The first man to receive the treatment, Jeff Baker, had died in a climax of global publicity; but in the following seven years there had been eighteen successes.

Space and Life. Those separate interests spoke volumes about the way the cultures of Earth’s two major Western power groups had diverged over the past three decades.

Now Wilson’s fellow Americans were beginning to reevaluate their attitude to genetic engineering. Already there were urban myths of Caribbean and Asian clinics offering the rejuvenation service to multibillionaires. And Federal Europe was once again attempting to narrow the American lead in space, desperate to prove to the world that it excelled in every field. Given the fractious political state currently afflicting the planet, Wilson rather welcomed the idea of the two blocs drawing closer together once more—that was, after Americans had landed on Mars.

“First de-orbit burn in three minutes,” the Eagle II’s autopilot said.

“Standing by,” Wilson told it. He automatically checked the fuel tank pressures, and followed that up with main engine ignition procedures.

Three hypergolic fuel rockets at the back of the little spaceplane fired for a hundred seconds, pushing their orbit into an atmosphere-intercept trajectory. The subsequent airbrake maneuver lasted for over ninety minutes, with the scant Martian atmosphere pushing against the craft’s swept delta wings, killing its velocity. For the final fifteen minutes, Wilson could see the faintest of pink glows coming from the Eagle II’s blunt nose. It was the only evidence of the violence being done to the fuselage by high-velocity gas molecule impacts. The ride was incredibly smooth, with gravity slowly building as they sank toward the crater-rumpled landscape of Arabia Terra.

At six kilometers altitude, Wilson activated their profile dynamic wings. They began to expand, spreading out wide to generate as much lift as possible from the thin, frigid air. At full stretch they measured a hundred meters from tip to tip, enough to allow Eagle II to glide if necessary. Then their turbine fired up, gently thrusting them forward, keeping speed constant at two hundred fifty kilometers an hour. The westernmost edge of the massive Schiaparelli Crater slid into sight away in the distance, rolling walls rising up out of the rumpled ground like a weather worn mountain range.

“Visual acquisition of landing site,” Wilson reported. His systems schematics were tracing green and blue sine waves across the view. Ground radar began to overlay a three-dimensional grid of spikes and gullies that almost matched what he could see.

“Eagle II, midpoint systems review confirms you are go for landing,” said Mission Control. “Good luck, guys. You’ve got quite an audience back here.”

“Thank you, Mission Control,” Commander Lewis said formally. “We are eager for the touchdown. Hoping Wilson can give us a smooth one.” It would be another four minutes before anyone back on Earth heard his words. By then they should be down.

“Contact with cargo landers beacon,” Wilson reported. “Range thirty-eight kilometers.” He squinted through the windshield as the autopilot printed up a red line-of-sight bracket within the glass. The crater rim grew steadily larger. “Ah, I’ve got them.” Two dusty gray specks sitting on a broad patch of flat landscape.

For the last stage, Eagle II flew a slow circle around the pair of robot cargo landers. They were simple squat cones that the Ulysses had sent down two days earlier, loaded with tons of equipment, including a small prefab ground base. Getting them unloaded and the projected exploration campus up and running was the principal task awaiting the crew of the Eagle II.

“Groundscan confirms area one viability,” Wilson said. He was almost disappointed at the radar picture. When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were landing on the moon, they had to hurriedly take manual control of their Lunar Module and fly it to safety when the designated landing site turned out to be strewn with boulders. This time, eighty-one years later, satellite imagery and orbital radar mapping had eliminated such uncertainty from the flight profile.

He brought the Eagle II around on its preplotted approach path, engaging the autopilot. “Landing gear extended and locked. VM engines pressurized and ready. Profile dynamic wings in reshape mode. Ground speed approaching one hundred kilometers per hour. Descent rate nominal. We’re on the wire, people.”

“Good work, Wilson,” Commander Lewis said. “Let’s bump struts, here, huh?”

“You got it, sir.”

The landing rockets fired, and Eagle II began to sink smoothly out of the light pink sky. A hundred meters up, and Wilson couldn’t stand it. His fingers flicked four switches, taking the autopilot off-line. Red LEDs glared accusingly at him from the console. He ignored them, bringing the little spaceplane down manually. Easier than any simulation. Dust swirled outside the windshield, thick and cloying as the rocket jets scoured the surface of Mars. Radar gave him the final approach vectors, there was nothing to see visually. They settled without a wobble. The sound of the rockets died away. External light began to brighten as the agitated dust flurries dissipated.

“Houston, the Eagle II has landed,” Wilson said. The words had to be forced out, his throat was so tensed up with pride and exhilaration. He could hear that beautiful phrase echo along history, past and future. And I made it happen, not some goddamn machine.

A wave of jubilant shouts and cheering broke out in the cabin behind him. He wiped an errant drop of moisture from his eye with the back of one hand. Then he was suddenly involved with systems supervision, reengaging the autopilot. External instrumentation confirmed they were down and stable. The spaceplane had to be put into surface standby mode, supplying power and environmental services to the cabin, keeping the rocket engines warm so that takeoff wouldn’t be a problem, monitoring the fuel tank status. A long, boring list of procedures that he worked through with flawless diligence.

Only then did the six of them begin to suit up. Given the cabin’s chronic lack of space, it was a cramped, difficult process, with everyone jostling each other. When Wilson was almost ready, Dylan Lewis handed him his helmet.

“Thanks.”

The Commander didn’t say anything, just gave Wilson a look. As reprimands went, it didn’t get much worse than that.

To hell with you, Wilson retorted silently. We’re the important thing, people coming to Mars is what matters, not the machines we come in. I couldn’t allow a software program to land us.

Wilson stood in line as the Commander went into the small airlock at the back of the cabin. Third, I get to be third. Back on Earth they’d only ever remember that Dylan Lewis was first. Wilson didn’t care. Third.

The tiny display grid inside Wilson’s helmet relayed an image from the external camera set just above the airlock door. It showed a slim aluminum ladder stretching down to the Martian sand. Commander Lewis backed out of the open airlock, his foot moving slowly and carefully onto the top rung. Wilson wanted to shout: For God’s sake get a move on! The suit’s medical telemetry told him his skin was flushed and perspiring. He tried to do his deep feedback breathing exercise thing, but it didn’t seem to work.

Commander Lewis was taking the ladder rungs one at a time. Wilson and the others in the cabin held their breaths; he could feel a couple of billion people doing the same thing back on the old home planet.

“I take this step for all of humanity, so that we may walk together as one people along the road to the stars.”

Wilson winced at the words. Lewis sounded incredibly sincere. Then someone sniggered, actually sniggered out loud; he could hear it quite plainly over the general communications band. Mission Control would go ballistic over that.

Then he forgot it all as Lewis took his step onto the surface, his foot sinking slightly into the red sand of Mars to make a firm imprint.

“We did it,” Wilson whispered to himself. “We did it, we’re here.” Another outbreak of cheering went around the cabin. Congratulatory calls flooded down from Ulysses . Jane Orchiston was already clambering into the airlock. Wilson didn’t even begrudge her that; political correctness wouldn’t allow it any other way. And NASA was ever mindful of pleasing as many people as possible.

Commander Lewis was busy taking a high-resolution photo of his historic footprint. A requirement that had been in the NASA manual for the last eighty-one years, ever since Apollo 11 got back home to find that embarrassing omission.

Lieutenant Commander Orchiston was going down the ladder—a lot faster than Commander Lewis. Wilson stepped into the airlock. He couldn’t even remember the time the little chamber took to cycle; it never existed in his personal awareness. Then it was him backing out onto the ladder. Him checking his feet were secure on the rungs before placing all his—reduced—weight on them. Him hanging poised on the bottom rung. “I wish you could see this, Dad.” He put his foot down, and he was standing on Mars.

Wilson moved away from the ladder, cautious in the low gravity. Heart pounding away in his ears. Breathing loud in the helmet. Hiss of helmet air fans ever-present. Ghostly suit graphic symbols flickered annoyingly across his full field of vision. Other people talked directly into his ears. He stopped and turned full circle. Mars! Dirty rocks littering the ground. Sharp horizon. Small glaring sun. He searched around until he found the star that was Earth. Brought up a hand and waved solemnly at it.

“Want to give me a hand with this?” Commander Lewis asked. He was holding the flagpole, stars and stripes still furled tightly around the top.

“Yes, sir.”

Jeff Silverman, the geophysicist, was already on the ladder. Wilson walked over to help the Commander with the flagpole. He gave the Eagle II a critical assessment glance on his way. There were some scorch marks along the fuselage, trailing away from the wing roots, very faint, though. Other than that: nothing. It was in good shape.

The Commander was attempting to open out the little tripod on the base of the flagpole. His heavy gloved hands making the operation difficult. Wilson put out his own hand to steady the pole.

“Yo, dudes, how’s it hanging? You need any help there?” The question was followed by a snigger, the same one he’d heard earlier.

Wilson knew the voice of everybody on the mission. Spend that long together with thirty-eight people in such a confined space as the Ulysses and vocal recognition became perfect. Whoever spoke wasn’t on the crew. Yet somehow he knew it was real-time, not some pirate hack from Earth.

Commander Lewis had frozen, the flagpole tripod still not fully deployed. “Who said that?”

“That’d be me, my man. Nigel Sheldon, at your service. Specially if you need to get home in like a hurry.” That snigger again. Then someone else saying: “Oh, man, don’t do that, you’re going to so piss them off.”

“Who is this?” Lewis demanded.

Wilson was already moving, glide walking as fast as was safe in the low gravity, making for the rear of the Eagle II. He knew they were close, and he could see everything on this side of the spaceplane. As soon as he was past the bell-shaped rocket nozzles he forced himself to a halt. Someone else was standing there, arm held high in an almost apologetic wave. Someone in what looked like a homemade space suit. Which was an insane interpretation, but it was definitely a pressure garment of some type, possibly modified from deep-sea gear. The outer fabric was made up from flat ridges of dull brown rubber, in pronounced contrast to Wilson’s snow-white ten-million-dollar Martian Environment Excursion suit. The helmet was the nineteen fifties classic goldfish bowl, a clear glass bubble showing the head of a young man with a scraggly beard and long oily blond hair tied back into a pigtail. No radiation protection, Wilson thought inanely. There was no backpack either, no portable life-support module. Instead, a bundle of pressure hoses snaked away from the youth’s waist to a…

“Son of a bitch,” Wilson grunted.

Behind the interloper was a two-meter circle of another place. It hung above the Martian soil like some bizarre superimposed TV image, with a weird rim made up from seething diffraction patterns of light from a gray universe. An opening through space, a gateway into what looked like a rundown physics lab. The other side had been sealed off with thick glass. A college geek type with a wild Afro hairstyle was pressed against it, looking out at Mars, laughing and pointing at Wilson. Above him, bright Californian sunlight shone in through the physics lab’s open windows.

ONE

The star vanished from the center of the telescope’s image in less time than a single human heartbeat. There was no mistake, Dudley Bose was looking right at it when it happened. He blinked in surprise, drawing back from the eyepiece. “That’s not right,” he muttered.

He shivered slightly in reaction to the cold air around him, slapping gloved hands against his arms. His wife, Wendy, had insisted he wrap up well against the night, and he’d dutifully left the house in a thick woolen coat and sturdy hiking trousers. As always when the sun fell below Gralmond’s horizon, any warmth in the planet’s thinner-than-average atmosphere dissipated almost immediately. With the telescope housing open to the elements at two o’clock in the morning, the temperature had dropped enough to turn his every breath into a stream of gray mist.

Dudley shook the fatigue from his head, and leaned back into the eyepiece. The starfield pattern was the same—there had been no slippage in the telescope’s alignment—but Dyson Alpha was still missing. “It couldn’t be that fast,” he said.

He’d been observing the Dyson Pair for fourteen months now, searching for the first clues of the envelopment that would so dramatically alter the emission spectrum. Until tonight there had been no change to the tiny yellow speck of light twelve hundred forty light-years away from Gralmond that was Dyson Alpha.

He’d known there would be a change; it was the astronomy department at Oxford University back on Earth that had first noticed the anomaly during a routine sky scan back in 2170, two hundred and ten years ago. Since the previous scan twenty years earlier, two stars, a K-type and an M-type three years apart, had changed their emission spectrum completely to nonvisible infrared. For a few brief months the discovery had caused some excited debate among the remnants of the astronomy fraternity about how they could decay into red giants so quickly, and the extraordinary coincidence of two stellar neighbors doing so simultaneously. Then a newly settled planet fifty light-years farther out from Earth reported that the pair were still visible in their original spectrum. Working back across the distance, checking the spectrum at various distances from Earth, allowed astronomers to work out that the change to both stars had occurred over a period of approximately seven or eight years.

Given that amount of time, the nature of the change ceased to become a question of astronomy; stars of that category took a great deal longer to transform into red giants. Their emission hadn’t changed due to any natural stellar process; it was the direct result of technological intervention on the grandest possible scale.

Somebody had built a solid shell around each star. It was a feat whose scale was rivaled only by its time frame. Eight years was astonishingly swift to fabricate such a gigantic structure, and this advanced civilization had apparently built two at the same time. Even so, the concept wasn’t entirely new to the human race.

In the twenty-first century, a physicist named Freeman Dyson had postulated that the artifacts of a technologically advanced civilization would ultimately surround their star in order to utilize all of its energy. Now someone had turned his ancient hypothesis into reality. It was inevitable that the two stars would be formally christened the Dyson Pair.

Speculative papers were written after the Oxford announcement, and theoretical studies performed into how to dismantle Jovian-size planets to produce such a shell. But there was no real urgency connected to the discovery. The human race had already encountered several sentient alien species, all of them reassuringly harmless; and the Intersolar Commonwealth was expanding steadily. It would be a matter of only a few centuries until a wormhole was opened to the Dyson Pair. Any lingering questions about their construction could be answered then by the aliens themselves.

Now he’d seen that the envelopment was instantaneous, Dudley was left with a whole new set of very uncomfortable questions about the composition of the shell structure. An eight-year construction period for any solid shell that size had been assessed as remarkable, but obviously achievable. When he’d begun the observation he’d expected to note a year-by-year eclipse of the star’s light as more and more segments were produced and locked into place. This changed everything. To appear so abruptly, the shell couldn’t be solid. It had to be some kind of force field. Why would anyone surround a star with a force field?

“Are we recording?” he asked his e-butler.

“We are not,” the e-butler replied. “No electronic sensors are currently active at the telescope focus.” The voice was slightly thin, treble-boosted; a tone that had been getting worse over the last few years. Dudley suspected the OC tattoo on his ear was starting to degenerate; organic circuitry was always susceptible to antibody attack, and his was over twenty-five years old. Not that the glittery scarlet and turquoise spiral on his skin had changed. A classic spree of youthful dynamism after his last rejuvenation had made him choose a visible pattern, stylish and chic in those days. Now it was rather embarrassing for a middle-aged professor to sport around the campus. He should have had the old pattern erased and replaced it with something more discreet; but somehow he’d never gotten around to it, despite his wife’s repeated requests.

“Damnit,” Dudley grunted bitterly. But the idea of his e-butler taking the initiative had been a pretty forlorn hope. Dyson Alpha had risen only forty minutes earlier. Dudley had been setting up the observation, performing his standard final verification—an essential task, thanks to the poorly maintained mechanical systems that orientated the telescope. He never ordered the sensor activation until the checks were complete. That prissy routine might have just cost him the entire observation project.

Dudley went back for another look. The little star was still stubbornly absent in the visual spectrum. “Bring the sensors on-line now, will you please. I need to have some sort of record of tonight.”

“Recording now,” his e-butler said. “The sensors could benefit from recalibrating, the entire image is considerably short of optimum.”

“Yeah, I’ll get on to it,” Dudley replied absently. The state of the sensors was a hardware problem; one that he ought to assign to his students (all three of them). Along with a hundred other tasks, he thought wearily.

He pushed back from the telescope, and used his feet to propel the black leather office chair across the bare concrete floor of the observatory. The rattling noise from its old castors echoed thinly around the cavernous interior. There was enough vacant space for a host of sophisticated ancillary systems, which could bring the observatory up to near-professional standards; it could even house a larger telescope. But the Gralmond university lacked the funds for such an upgrade, and had so far failed to secure any commercial sponsorship from CST—Compression Space Transport, the only company truly interested in such matters. The astronomy department survived on a collection of meager government grants, and a few endowments from pure-science foundations. Even an Earth-based educational charity made an annual donation.

Beside the door was the long wooden bench that served as a de facto office for the whole department. It was covered with banks of aging, secondhand electronic equipment and hi-rez display portals. Dudley’s briefcase was also there, containing his late-night snacks and a flask of tea.

He opened the case and started munching on a chocolate cookie as the sensor images swam up into the display portals. “Put the infrared on the primary display,” he told the e-butler.

Holographic speckles in the large main portal shoaled into a false color image of the starfield, centered around the Dyson Pair. Dyson Alpha was now emitting a faint infrared signature. Slightly to one side and two light-years farther away, Dyson Beta continued to shine normally in its M-type spectrum.

“So that really was the envelopment event,” Dudley mused. It would be two years before anyone could prove whether the same thing had happened simultaneously at Dyson Beta. At least people would have to acknowledge that the Dyson Alpha event occurred in under twenty-three hours—the time since his last recorded observation. It was a start, but a bad one. After all, he’d just witnessed something utterly astounding. But without a recording to back him up, his report was likely to generate only disbelief, and a mountainous struggle to maintain his already none-too-high reputation.

Dudley was ninety-two, in his second life, and fast approaching time for another rejuvenation. Despite his body having the physical age of a standard fifty-year-old, the prospect of a long, degrading campaign within academia was one he regarded with dread. For a supposedly advanced civilization, the Intersolar Commonwealth could be appallingly backward at times, not to mention cruel.

Maybe it won’t be that bad, he told himself. The lie was comforting enough to get him through the rest of the night’s shift.

The Carlton AllLander drove Dudley home just after dawn. Like the astronomer, the vehicle was old and worn, but perfectly capable of doing its job. It had a cheap diesel engine, common enough on a semi-frontier world like Gralmond, although its drive array was a thoroughly modern photoneural processor. With its high suspension and deep-tread tires it could plow along the dirt track to the observatory in all weather and seasons, including the meter-deep snow of Gralmond’s winters.

This morning all it had to surmount was a light drizzle and a thin slick of mud on the track. The observatory was situated on the high moorland ninety kilometers to the east of Leonida City, the planet’s capital. Not exactly a mountaintop perch, but it was the highest land within any reasonable distance, and unlikely ever to suffer from light pollution. It was forty minutes before the Carlton started to descend into the lower valleys where the main highway meandered along the base of the slopes. Only then were there any signs of human activity. A few farmsteads had been built in sheltered folds of the land where dense stretches of dark native evergreen cynomel trees occupied the ground above every stream and river. Grazing meadows had been established on the bleak hillsides, where animals shivered in the cold winds blowing down off the moorland.

All the while as the Carlton bobbed cautiously along the track, Dudley pondered how he could realistically break the news. Even a twenty-three-hour envelopment was a concept that the Commonwealth’s small fraternity of professional astronomers would dismiss out of hand. To claim it had happened in a split second would open him to complete ridicule, and invariably to an in-house status review from the university. As to the physicists and engineers who heard his claim… they’d gleefully contribute to the case against him.

Had he been at the start of his career he might have done it, achieving a degree of notoriety before finally proving himself right. The little man overcoming formidable odds, a semi-heroic, or at least romantically poetic, figure. But now, taking such risks was too great. He needed another eight years of uninterrupted employment, even on the university’s demeaningly low salary, before his R&R pension was full; without that money there was no way he could pay for a rejuvenation. And who in the last decades of the twenty-fourth century was going to employ a discredited astronomer?

He stared out at the landscape beyond the vehicle’s windows, unconsciously stroking the OC tattoo on his ear. A wan light was illuminating the low undulating landscape of drab, damp cord grass, revealing miserable-looking terrestrial cows and herds of the local bovine nygine. There must have been a horizon out there, but the bleak, gray sky made it hard to tell where it began. As vistas went, this had to be one of the most depressing of all the inhabited worlds.

Dudley closed his eyes and sighed. “And yet it moves,” he whispered.

As rebellions went, Dudley’s was fairly pitiful. He knew he couldn’t ignore what he’d seen out there among the eternal, unchanging constellations. Somewhat thankfully, he realized, he still had enough dignity left to make sure he didn’t take the easy burial option. Yet announcing the envelopment to the public would be the end of his own particular world. What others regarded as his essential meekness, he liked to think of as a caution that went with age. Similar to wisdom, really.

Old habits die hard, so he broke the problem down into stages, the way he always taught his students, and set about solving each one with as much logic as he could apply. Very simply, his overwhelming priority was to confirm the speed of envelopment. A wavefront of proof that was currently receding from Gralmond at the speed of light. And Gralmond was almost the farthest extent of the Commonwealth in this section of space. Almost, but not quite.

The Intersolar Commonwealth occupied a roughly spherical volume of space with Earth at the center, measuring four hundred light-years across. Gralmond was two hundred forty light-years from Earth, among the last of the second expansion phase planets to be settled. It didn’t require a great deal of calculation for Dudley to find that the next planet to witness the envelopment would be Tanyata, right on the edge of phase two space. Tanyata was even less developed than Gralmond—there was certainly no university yet—but a unisphere datasearch did find him a list of local amateur astronomers. There was one name on it.

Five months and three days after the evening he’d seen Dyson Alpha vanish, Dudley nervously waved good-bye to his wife as the Carlton pulled out of their driveway. She thought his trip to Tanyata was legitimate, sanctioned by the university. Even after eleven years of marriage, he didn’t have the courage to tell her the absolute truth. Or maybe it was that after five marriages he knew what to keep quiet about.

The Carlton drove him directly to the CST planetary station, on the other side of Leonida City from the university campus. Spring was just arriving, bringing a sprinkling of vivid green buds to the terrestrial saplings in the city’s parks. Even the full-grown native trees were responding to the longer, brighter days; their dark purple bark had acquired a new lustrous sheen as they prepared to unfurl their leaf awnings. Dudley watched the city’s residents from his seat: businesspeople striding about with purpose; parents being tolerant or exasperated with their kids; first-life adolescents milling about together outside coffeehouses and mall entrances, hopelessly gauche yet still managing to look like the most lethal gang members in human history. All of them so bright and normal. Dudley had chosen to settle here late in his second life because frontier planets always had an infectious air of expectation and hope; this was where new dreams really could take root and grow. And he’d done so little with that second life. His slightly desperate relocation here was an acknowledgment of that.

CST had opened their planetary station on Gralmond over twenty-five years ago. About the time Dudley was getting his colorful OCtattoo, in fact—an irony that hadn’t escaped him. The planet had done well for itself during its first quarter century of human history. Farmers had set their tractorbots and herds loose on the land. Urbanites brought prefab buildings that they lined up in neat grids and called cities in homage to the great metropolises they hoped would one day evolve from such humble beginnings. Factories were imported, riding in on the strong tide of investment money; hospitals, schools, theaters, and government offices multiplied fruitfully around them. Roads expanded out from the population center, sending exploratory tendrils across the continent. And as always, the trains came after them, bearing the greater load of commerce.

Dudley’s Carlton drove along the side of the Mersy rail route as he neared CST’s planetary station. A simple chain-link fence and a plastic safety barrier was all that separated the dual lane highway from the thick lines of carbon-bonded steel rails. The Mersy rail route was one of five major track lanes that had so far been laid out of the station. Gralmond’s population was rightly proud of them. Five in twenty-five years: a good sign of a healthy expanding economy. Three of the rail routes, including the Mersy, led away to vast industrial parks squatting on the outskirts of Leonida City, while the remaining two stretched out into the countryside, where forking again and again, they connected with the principal agricultural towns. Goods flowed in and out of the CST planetary station day and night, slowly increasing in quantity as the years progressed; circulating money, material, and machinery across fresh lands, advancing the human boundary month by month.

A big freight train grumbled alongside, going only slightly faster than the Carlton. Dudley looked over at the sound, seeing long olive-green wagons rolling along steadily, the sulfur-yellow lettering on their sides faded from age and sunlight. There must have been fifty of them linked together, all pulled along by a giant twenty-wheel engine. It was one of the GH7-class engines, he thought, though which particular marque he wasn’t sure; those brutes had been in use for nearly eighty years, a thirty-five-meter body filled with superconductor batteries, powering massive electric axle motors. Gralmond wouldn’t see anything bigger until the planet reached full industrialization status, in maybe another seventy years or so.

Already, such a monster trundling through the flourishing city seemed slightly incongruous. This district still contained a lot of the original prefab buildings, two- or three-story cubes of whitened aluminum with solar cell roofs. Redevelopment was hardly necessary on a world where the government gave land away to anyone who asked for it. Gralmond’s total population barely reached eighteen million, nobody was crowded here. The prefabs, however, remained as useful housing and commercial centers for the newest and poorest arrivals. But many city blocks of the shabby metal boxes had been torn down and replaced by new stone or glass-fronted buildings as the local economy bootstrapped itself upward. More common was the encroachment of drycoral, a plant originally found on Mecheria. New residents planted the genetically tailored kernels along the bases of their houses, carefully tending the long flat strands of spongy pumicelike stone that grew quickly up the walls, broadening out to form a sturdy organic shell around the entire structure, with simple pruning keeping the windows clear.

The passenger terminus was only a small part of the ten square kilometers that was the CST planetary station; most of the area was given over to marshaling yards and engineering works. At one end was the gateway itself, sheltered from the weather beneath a broad arching roof made from crystal and white concrete. Dudley could barely remember it from his arrival eleven years ago, not that it would have changed.

The Carlton drew up at the departures rank at the front of the terminal, then trundled off home as soon as he stepped out with his luggage. He walked into the station to find himself immersed in a throng of people who seemed to be going in every direction but the one he wanted. Even though it was relatively new, the concourse had an old-fashioned look to it: tall marble pillars held up a high glass roof; franchise stalls lurked in the cathedral-style archways; the short stairways between levels were implausibly wide, as though they led to some hidden palace; statues and sculptures occupied deep high alcoves, every surface covered in bird droppings. Big translucent holographic projections hung in the air, crimson and emerald signs that backed up the train timetable information for anyone who didn’t have an interface with the local network; little birds zipped through them continuously, hooting in puzzlement at the trail of sparkles their membranous wings whipped up.

“The Verona train is leaving from platform nine,” Dudley’s e-butler told him.

He set off down the concourse toward the platform. Verona was a regular destination, with a train leaving every forty minutes. There were a lot of commuters from there, middle management types from the finance and investment companies who were involved with setting up and running Gralmond’s civil infrastructure.

The Verona train was made up of eight double-decker carriages hooked up to a medium-sized PH54 engine. Dudley shoved his cases into the baggage compartment on the fifth carriage and climbed on board, finding an empty seat by one of the upper deck windows. Then there was nothing to do but try to ignore his growing tension as the timer display in his virtual vision counted down toward departure time. There were seven messages for him in his e-butler’s hold file; half of which were from his students containing both data and audio clusters.

The last five months had been extraordinarily busy for the small university astronomy department; even though there had been no stellar observations made in all that time. Dudley had declared that the state of the telescope and its instruments was no longer acceptable, and that they’d been neglecting the practical side of their profession. Under his supervision, the tracking motors had been dismantled and serviced one by one, then the bearings, followed by the entire sensor suite. With the telescope out of commission, they also had the opportunity to upgrade and integrate the specialist control and image analysis programs. At first the students had welcomed the chance to get their hands dirty and improve the available systems. But that initial enthusiasm had long since faded as Dudley kept finding them new and essential tasks that delayed recommissioning.

Dudley hated deceiving them, but it was a legitimate way of suspending the whole Dyson Pair observation project. He told himself that if he could just secure the evidence, then the impact it would have on their department and its budget would more than justify the small subterfuge. It was only during the last couple of months as he put up with all their complaints that he’d begun to think of the effect a verified envelopment might have on his own career and fortunes. Failure to back up the observation would have ruined him; success, on the other hand, opened up a whole new realm of prospects. He could well progress far beyond anything the Gralmond university could offer. It was a pleasant daydream to lose himself in.

The train started moving, pulling away from the platform and out into the spring sunshine. All Dudley could see through his window was the industrial landscape of the station yard, where hundreds of tracks snaked across the ground, crossing and recrossing like some vast abstract maze. Single wagons and carriages were being moved about by small shunting engines that coughed out thick plumes of diesel exhaust. The only visible horizon seemed to be made from warehouses and loading bays, where a spidery gridwork of gantry cranes and container stackers wove through every section of the big open structures. Flatbed carriages and fat tankers were being readied or unloaded within the mechanical systems that almost engulfed them. Engineering crews and maintenancebots crawled along several tracks, performing repairs.

Traffic began to increase on the tracks around them as they headed for the gateway; long cargo trains alternating with smaller passenger carriers. All of them snaked their way over junctions with sinuous motions, arrowing in toward the final stretch of track. On the other side of the carriage, Dudley could see a near-continual stream of trains emerging from the gateway.

There were only two tracks leading to the gateway: one inbound, one outbound. The Verona train finally slotted onto the outbound stretch, fitting in behind the passenger train for EdenBurg. A freighter bound for StLincoln slotted in behind them. A low warning tone chimed through the carriage. Dudley could just see the edge of the curving gateway roof ahead of them. The light dimmed fractionally as they passed underneath. Then there was just the wide shimmering amber oval of the gateway dead ahead, so reminiscent of an old-fashioned tunnel entrance. The train slid straight into it.

Dudley felt a slight tingle on his skin as the carriage passed through the pressure curtain that prevented the atmospheres of the two worlds from mixing. Even though it spanned a hundred eighteen light-years, the wormhole itself had no internal length. The generator machinery that created it had a considerable bulk, however; most of which was tucked away in the massive concrete support buildings behind the roof. It was only the emission units that were contained in the great oval hoop of the gateway, measuring over thirty meters thick. Given the speed the train was traveling, even that flashed past in a second.

Glorious copper twilight streamed in through the carriage windows. Dudley’s ears popped as the new atmosphere flooded into the carriage through the rooftop vents. He looked out at the massive expanse that was CST’s Verona station. There was no visible end to it, no glimpse of the megacity that he knew lay beyond. One edge of the station was a solid cliff of gateways, sheltering under their curving single-span roofs, each oval framing a slightly different colored patch of haze depending on the spectral class of the star whose world they reached. But for the rest of it, as far as the eye could see, trains and tracks were the sole landscape. Behemoth freighters rolled along, their engines dwarfing the GH7s that had so impressed Dudley; nuclear-powered tractor units pulling two-kilometer chains of wagons. Sleek white passenger expresses flashed past pulling dozens of carriages with multiworld commuters whose routes would take them through twenty or more planets as they rushed from gateway to gateway on a never-ending circuit. Simple little regional trains like the one Dudley was on shuffled between their larger, grander cousins. Verona station had them all.

As Earth was the junction world for all the planets in phase one space of the Intersolar Commonwealth, so Verona was the major junction for this section of phase two space, with gateways leading to thirty-three planets. It was one of the so-called Big15; the industrial planets established out along the rim of phase one space, a hundred or so light-years from Sol. Company-founded, company-funded, and company-run.

Verona station boasted seven passenger terminals; Dudley’s train pulled into number three. Again the scale of the place hit home. This terminal alone was five times the size of Gralmond’s planetary station. Verona’s thicker atmosphere and slightly heavier gravity contributed to his feeling of triviality as he wandered along the packed concourse in search of the Tanyata service. He found it eventually on platform 18b, three single-deck carriages pulled by a diesel-powered Ables RP2 engine. His luggage went on an overhead rack, and he sat on a double seat by himself. The carriage was less than a third full. There were only three trains a day to Tanyata.

When he arrived, he could see why there were so few scheduled services. Tanyata was very definitely a frontier planet; the last to be established in this sector of phase two space. It simply wasn’t commercially practical to build wormholes that reached any farther. Verona would link no more Human-congruous planets; that honor now fell to Saville, which was less than ten light-years from Gralmond. CST was already building its new exploratory base there, preparing to open wormholes to a new generation of star systems: phase three space, the next wave of human expansion.

The CST Tanyata station was just a couple of hurriedly assembled boronsteel platforms under a temporary plastic roof. A crane and a warehouse comprised the entire cargo section, backing on to a vast muddy yard where stacked metal containers and tanks formed long rows on the badly mowed vegetation. Wagons and trucks grumbled along the aisles, loading up with supplies. The settlement itself was a simple sprawl of standardized mobile cabins for the construction crews who were laying down the first stage of the planet’s civil infrastructure. Quite a few prefabs buildings were being integrated, with men and big manipulatorbots slotting together reinforced aluminum modules inside a matrix of carbon beams. The biggest machines were the roadbuilders, tracked mini-factories with big harmonic blades at the front chewing up soil and clay. A chemical reactor processed the material into enzyme-bonded concrete that was squeezed out at the rear to form a flat level surface. The thick clouds of steam and fumes swirling out from around the units made it virtually impossible to see them fully.

Dudley stepped out onto the platform, and immediately reached for his sunglasses. The settlement was somewhere in the tropics, with a clammy humidity to go with the burning blue-tinged sunlight. To the west, he could just see the ocean past a series of gentle hills. He pulled his jacket off and fanned himself. His skin was already sweating.

Someone at the other end of the platform called out Dudley’s name and waved. Dudley hesitated in the act of raising his own hand. The man was just over six feet tall with the kind of slim frame that marathon runners cherished. Physical age was difficult to place, his skin was heavily OCtattooed; patterns and pictures glowed with hazy color on every limb. Gold spiral galaxies formed a slow-moving constellation across his bald head. A perfectly clipped, graying goatee beard was the only real clue to late middle age. He grinned and started to walk down the length of the platform; his kilt flapping around his knees. The tartan was a bold pattern in amethyst and black.

“Professor Bose, I presume?”

Dudley managed not to stroke his own OCtattoo. “Uh, yes.” He put his hand out. “Er, LionWalker Eyre?” Even the way he pronounced it was wrong, like some kind of disapproving bachelor uncle. He hoped the heat was covering any blush to his cheeks.

“That’ll be me. Most people just call me Walker.”

“Er. Great. Okay. Walker, then.”

“Pleased to meet you, Professor.”

“Dudley.”

“My man.” LionWalker gave Dudley a hearty slap on his back.

Dudley started to worry. He hadn’t given any thought to the astronomer’s name when the datasearch produced it. But then, anyone who had enough money to buy a four foot reflecting telescope, then ship it out to a frontier world and live there with it, had to be somewhat eccentric.

“It’s very kind of you to allow me a night’s observation,” Dudley said.

LionWalker smiled briefly as they headed back down the platform. “Well now, it was very unusual to be asked such a thing. Got to be important to you, then, this one night?”

“It could be, yes. I hope so.”

“I asked myself: why one night? What can you possibly see that only takes up such a short time? And a specific night as well.”

“And?”

“Aye, well that’s it, isn’t it? I could not come up with a single thing; not in terms of stellar events. And I know there are no comets due, either, at least none I’ve seen, and I’m the only one watching these skies. Are you going to tell me?”

“My department has an ongoing observation of the Dyson Pair; some of our benefactors were interested in them. I just want to confirm something, that’s all.”

“Ah.” LionWalker’s smile grew wise. “I see. Unnatural events it is, then.”

Dudley began to relax slightly. Eccentric he might be, but LionWalker was also pretty shrewd.

They reached the end of the platform and the tall man suddenly twisted his wrist and pointed a finger, then slowly drew a semicircle in the air. The OCtattoos on his forearm and wrist flared in a complicated swirl of color. A Toyota pickup truck pulled up sharply in front of them.

“That’s an interesting control system,” Dudley commented.

“Aye, well, it’s the one I favor. Sling your bags in the back, will you?”

They drove off along one of the newly extruded concrete roads, heading out of the busy settlement. LionWalker twitched his fingers every few seconds, inducing another ripple of color in his OCtattoos, and the pickup’s steering would respond fluidly.

“Couldn’t you just give the drive array some verbal instructions?” Dudley asked.

“Now what would be the point in that? My way I have control over technology. Machinery does as I command. That’s how it should be. Anything else is mechanthropomorphism. You don’t treat a lump of moving metal as an equal and ask it pretty please to do what you’d like. Who’s in charge here, us or them?”

“I see.” Dudley smiled, actually warming to the man. “Is mechanthropomorphism a real word?”

LionWalker shrugged. “It ought to be, the whole bloody Commonwealth practices it like some kind of religion.”

They quickly left the settlement behind, driving steadily along the road that ran parallel to the coast, just a couple of kilometers inland. Dudley kept catching glimpses of the beautifully clear ocean beyond the small sandy hillocks standing guard behind the shore. Farther inland the ground rose to a range of distant hills. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, nor any breeze. The intense light gave the tufty grass and coastal reeds a dark hue, turning the leaves almost jade. Small scrub trees grew along the side of the road; at first glance similar to terrestrial palms, except their leaves were more like cacti branches, complete with monstrous red thorns.

Fifty kilometers clear of the settlement the road curved inland. LionWalker gave an elaborate wave with his hand, and the pickup obligingly turned off, heading down a narrow sand track. Dudley wound the window down, smelling the fresh sea air. It wasn’t nearly as salty as most H-congruous worlds.

“See the way they laid the road well inland?” LionWalker called over the wind. “Plenty of prime real estate between it and the coast. Thirty years’ time, when the city’s grown up, that’ll sell for ten thousand dollars an acre. This whole area will be covered in rich men’s beach houses.”

“Is that bad?”

“Not for me,” LionWalker said with a laugh. “I won’t be here.”

It was another fifteen kilometers to LionWalker’s house. He’d taken over a curving bay that was sheltered by dunes that extended for several kilometers inland. His house was a low bungalow of pearl-white drycoral perched on top of a large dune only a hundred meters from the shore, with a wide veranda of decking facing the ocean. The big dome of the observatory was a little farther back from the water, a standard concrete and metal design.

A golden Labrador ran out to greet them, tail wagging happily. LionWalker fussed with it as they walked to the house. Dudley could hear the sounds of a furious argument while they were still twenty meters away.

“Oh, Lord, they’re still at it,” LionWalker muttered.

The thin wooden shutter door slammed open and a young woman stormed out. She was startlingly beautiful, even to Dudley, who was used to a campus full of fresh-faced girls.

“He’s a pig,” she spat at LionWalker as she hurried past.

“Aye, I’m sure,” LionWalker said meekly.

The woman probably didn’t hear, she was already walking toward the dunes, face set with a determination that made it clear she wasn’t going to stop until she reached the end of the world. The Labrador gave her a longing look before turning back to LionWalker.

“There, there.” He patted the dog’s head. “She’ll be back to give you your supper.”

They’d almost reached the door when it opened again. This time it was a young man who came out. With his androgynous features, he was almost as beautiful as the girl. If it hadn’t been for the fact he was shirtless, Dudley might even have questioned his gender.

“Just where does she think she’s going?” he whined.

“I don’t know,” LionWalker said in a resigned tone. “She didn’t tell me.”

“Well, I’m not going after her.” The youth set off for the beach, slouching his shoulders and kicking at the sand with his bare feet as he went.

LionWalker opened the door and gestured Dudley inside. “Sorry about that.”

“Who are they?” Dudley asked.

“They’re my current life partners. I love them dearly, but I sometimes wonder if it’s worth it, you know. You married?”

“Yes. Several times, actually.”

“Aye, well, you know what it’s like then.”

The interior of the house was laid out in a classic minimalist style, which suited the location perfectly. A big circular fireplace served as the focal point of the living room. Tall curving windows revealed an uninterrupted view of the bay and the ocean. Air-conditioning provided a relaxing chill.

“Sit yourself down,” LionWalker said. “I expect you could do with a drink. I’ll take you over to see the telescope in a minute. You can check it out then. I’m confident you’ll be satisfied.”

“Thanks.” Dudley lowered himself into one of the big sofas. He felt very drab and colorless in such surroundings. It wasn’t just the richness of the house and its setting, but the vivacity of the people who lived here as well.

“This isn’t what I was expecting,” he admitted a few minutes later, when he’d drunk some of LionWalker’s very agreeable fifty-year-old scotch.

“You mean you thought I’d be somebody like you? No offense, my man.”

“None taken. So what are you doing here?”

“Well, I was born with a reasonable trust fund; then I went and made even more money for myself in the commodities market. That was a couple of rejuvenations ago. I’ve just been loafing ever since.”

“So why here? Why Tanyata?”

“This is the edge. This is as far out from our starting point as we’ve got—well, with the exception of Far Away. That’s a wonderful thing, even though everyone regards it as commonplace. I can sit here at night and look where we’re going. You look at the stars, Dudley, you know what marvels there are to be seen out here. And those cretins behind us, they never look. Where we are now, this was what our ancestors thought was heaven. Now I can look out from their heaven and see where our future lies. Do you not think that’s a thing of glory?”

“Certainly is.”

“There are stars out here that you cannot see from Earth with the naked eye. They shine down out of the sky at night, and I want to know them.”

“Me, too.” Dudley saluted him with the crystal tumbler that was a hundred years older than the scotch it held, and gulped it down in one.

The two youngsters returned after a couple of hours cooling off by themselves. LionWalker introduced them as Scott and Chi as they sheepishly greeted Dudley. As a penance, the two of them set about building a bonfire on the beach, using the local driftwood that had a curiously matted texture. They lit it as the sun sank down toward the ocean. Bright orange sparks blew out of the flame tips to swirl high above the sand. Potatoes were pushed into the heart of the fire, while a makeshift barbecue grill was prepared for when the flames died down.

“Can we see the Dyson Pair from here?” Scott asked as the stars began to appear in the darkening sky.

“No,” Dudley said. “Not with the naked eye, they’re too far away. You can barely see Earth’s star from here, and the Dyson Pair are almost a thousand light-years beyond that.”

“So when were they enveloped?”

“That’s a very good question—we’ve never been able to pin down the exact construction time of the shells—that’s what my observation project is going to help solve.” Even now Dudley wasn’t going to admit what he’d observed.

Astronomy post 2050 had effectively ceased to be a pure science. CST had long since taken over all major deep-space observation for purely commercial ends. In any case, when you could visit stars of every spectral type to observe them directly, there was little point in prioritizing astronomy. Few higher education institutions on Commonwealth worlds bothered building observatories; even Oxford’s telescope had been over a century old when it discovered the Dyson Pair.

An hour after sunset, Dudley and LionWalker walked through the dunes to the observatory. Inside, it was little different to the one on Gralmond: a big empty space with the fat tube of the telescope in the middle, resting on a complex cradle of metal beams and electromuscle bands. The sensor housings surrounding the focus looked a lot more sophisticated than anything the university could afford. A row of neat, modern display portals was lined up along the wall beside the door.

Dudley glanced around at the professional equipment, feeling a degree of tension ebbing away. There was no practical reason the observation shouldn’t occur. All he had to deal with was his own memory of the event. Could it really have happened like that? Five months after the fact, the moment seemed elusive somehow, the memory of a dream.

LionWalker stood close to the base of the telescope, and began what looked like a robot mime dance. Arms and legs jerked about in small precise movements. In response, the doors on the dome started to peel open. Electromuscle bands on the telescope cradle flexed silently, and the fat cylinder began to turn, aligning itself on the horizon where the Dyson Pair were due to rise. LionWalker’s body continued to twist and whirl, then he was snapping his fingers to some unheard beat. The portals came alive one by one, relaying the sensor images.

Dudley hurried over to them. The image quality was flawless. He gazed at the starfield, noting the minute variation from the patterns he was used to. “What sort of linkage have we got?” he asked his e-butler.

“The planetary cybersphere is negligible; however, there is a landline to the CST station. Available bandwidth is more than capable of meeting your stated requirements. I can open communication to the unisphere whenever you want.”

“Good. Begin a quarter of an hour before estimated enclosure time. I want full SI datavault storage, and a unisphere legal verification of the feed.”

“Acknowledged.”

LionWalker had stopped his gyrations, allowing the telescope to rest. He raised an eyebrow. “You’re really serious about this, aren’t you?”

“Yeah.” A datavault store and legal verification were expensive. Along with his ticket, the cost had taken quite a chunk out of their carefully saved holiday money. Something else Dudley hadn’t told his wife. But it had to be done, with the telescope sensor feed authenticated the observation would be beyond dispute.

Dudley sat in a cheap plastic chair beside the telescope, his chin resting on his hands, watching the holographic light within the portals. He watched the dark sky obsessively as the Dyson Pair rose above the horizon. LionWalker made a few small adjustments and Dyson Alpha was centered in every portal. For eighty minutes it remained steady. A simple point of ordinary light, each spectrum band revealing an unwavering intensity.

LionWalker made a few attempts to talk to Dudley about what to expect. Each time he was waved silent. Dudley’s e-butler established a full wideband link to the unisphere, and confirmed that the SI datavault was recording.

It was almost an anticlimax when, right on time, Dyson Alpha vanished.

“Yes!” Dudley yelled. He jumped to his feet, sending the chair tumbling backward. “Yes, yes, yes. I was right.” He turned to LionWalker, his smile absurdly wide. “Did you see that?”

“Aye,” LionWalker grunted with false calm. “I saw that.”

“Yes!” Dudley froze. “Did we get it?” he asked his e-butler urgently.

“Unisphere confirms the recording. The event is logged in the SI datavault.”

Dudley’s smile returned.

“Do you realize what that was?” LionWalker asked.

“I realize.”

“It was impossible, man, that’s what. Completely bloody impossible. Nobody can switch off a star like that. Nobody.”

“I know. Wonderful, isn’t it?”

TWO

Adam Elvin walked out of the CST planetary station in Tokat, the capital of Velaines. He took his time as he passed the sensors that were built into the fluted marble pillars lining the concourse. If he was going to be arrested, he would rather it be now, before the rest of the mission was exposed.

The average Commonwealth citizen had no idea such surveillance systems existed. Adam had dealt with them for most of his adult life. Understandably paranoid about sabotage, CST used them to monitor everyone using their facilities. The sensor’s large processor arrays were loaded with visual characteristics recognition smartware that checked every passenger against a long long list of known and suspected recidivists.

Adam had used cellular reprofiling to change his height and appearance more times than he could remember; at least once a year, more often twice or three times. The treatment could never cure the aging process that was starting to frost his joints and organs; but it did remove scar tissue, of which he’d acquired more than his fair share over the decades. It also gave him a wide choice of features. He always felt that trying to disguise his seventy-five years was a pointless vanity. An elderly person wearing an adolescent’s face was truly pitiful. The rest of the body always gave them away: too bulky, too slow.

He reached the departure rank outside the station’s passenger terminal and used his e-butler to hail a taxi. There had been no alarm. Or at least nothing detectable, he told himself. You never could tell when you were up against her. She was smart, and getting closer to him as the years wore on. If she had prepared a trap for him on Velaines, it wasn’t to be sprung today—the time he would prefer.

For the moment he was free to go about his mission. Today he was a new person, previously unknown to the Commonwealth. According to his citizenship file he was Huw North, a native of Pelcan, a first-life sixty-seven; an employee of the Bournewell Engineering Company. To look at he was overweight; considerably so, given how seriously Commonwealth citizens took their health these days, weighing in at around two hundred thirty pounds. Accompanying that was a round saggy face that sweated a lot. Thinning gray hair was combed low across his forehead in an unfashionable style. He wore a baggy brown raincoat with wide lapels. It was open down the front to reveal a creased gray suit. A big man with a small life, someone nobody paid attention to. Cellular reprofiling was a cosmetic treatment for the poor and the vain, not a method of adding fat and giving skin a pasty pallor. As a misdirection it never failed.

Which means it is probably time to change it,Adam thought as he eased his oversize frame into the taxi, which drove him to the Westpool Hotel. He checked in and paid for two weeks in advance. His room was a double on the eighth floor, with sealed windows and air-conditioning set too cold for him. He hated that; he was a light sleeper and the noise from the air-conditioning would keep him awake for hours. It always did.

He unpacked all the clothes in his suitcase, then took out the smaller shoulder bag containing his emergency pack—two sets of clothing, one of which was several sizes too small, a medical kit, cash, a CST return ticket from EdenBurg to Velaines with the outbound section already used, a couple of very sophisticated handheld arrays containing some well-guarded kaos software, and a legal ion stun pistol with buried augmentation that gave it a lethal short-range blast.

An hour later, Adam left the hotel and walked five blocks in the warm afternoon sunlight, getting a feel of the capital city. Traffic up and down the wide roads was close-spaced, with taxis and commercial vans dominating the lanes. None of them used combustion engines; they were all powered by superconductor batteries. This section of town was still respectable, close to the central financial and commercial districts. Around him were stores and offices, along with some small side roads of terraced apartments, none of them over four or five stories high. Public buildings built in a late-imperial Russian style fronted neat squares. In the distance, down the perfectly straight roads, were the towers that marked the heart of the city. Every few blocks he walked under the elevated rail tracks snaking through the city’s road grid, thick concrete arteries on high stanchions, carrying the major lines in and out of the planetary station.

Velaines was in phase one space, barely fifty light-years from Earth itself. Opened for settlement in 2090, its economy and industry had matured along model lines ever since. It now had a population of over two billion with a proportionally high standard of living, the kind of world that phase two and three space planets aspired to become.

Given the length of its history, it was inevitable that some strands of decay should creep into its society. In the fast-paced capital market economy model that Velaines followed, not everybody could make themselves rich enough to enjoy multiple rejuvenations. The areas they lived in reflected their financial status. Road surfaces became cracked and uneven, while the efficient citywide network of metro trams serving them offered fewer than average stops and ran old carriages. This was where the real rot set in, the despair and dead ends, where human lives were wasted, sacrificed to the god of economics. In this day and age it was an outrage that such a thing should happen. It was exactly the environment Adam had long ago committed himself to eradicating, and now the place he needed most for his other activities.

He found himself an A+A hotel at the end of Fifty-third Street, and checked in, using his Quentin Kelleher identity. The A+A was a franchise of cheap fully automated hotels where the manager was also the maintenance chief. The reception array accepted the Augusta dollar account transfer from his credit tattoo, and gave him a code for room 421. Its layout was a simple square three meters on a side, with a shower/toilet alcove and a dispenser outlet. There was one jellmattress bed, one chair, and one retractable shelf. However, the room was on the corner of the building, which meant he had two windows.

He asked the dispenser’s small array for a sleeping pouch, three packaged meals, two liters of bottled water, and a toiletries bag, all charged to his account. The mechanism whirred smoothly a minute later, and the items popped out into the rack. After that he set one of his handheld arrays to sentry mode, and left it scanning the room. If anyone did break in, it would notify his e-butler immediately with an encrypted message from a onetime unisphere address. Such an act had a low probability. Velaines was proud of its relatively low crime index, and anyone staying in an A+A wouldn’t have anything of value. Good enough odds for him.

That evening Adam took a metro tram across town to another slightly shabby district. In among the closed shops and open bars he found a door with a small sign above it:

INTERSOLAR SOCIALIST PARTY

Velaines, 7th chapter

His e-butler gave the door his Huw North Party membership code, and the lock buzzed. Inside was pretty much what he expected, a flight of bare wooden stairs leading up to a couple of rooms with high windows, long since boarded up. There was a bar in one, serving cheap beer from microbreweries and lethal-looking liquors from ceramic bottles. A games portal took up most of the second room, with observer chairs packed around the walls.

Several men were sitting on stools at the bar. They fell silent as Adam walked over. Nobody wearing a suit, even as cheap as his, belonged in that room.

“Beer, please,” Adam told the barman. He put a couple of Earth dollar bills on the counter; the currency was accepted without question on most worlds.

The bottle was placed in front of him. Everybody watched as he took a sip. “Not bad.” Adam even managed to keep a straight face. He could appreciate a Socialist club not buying from a big corporate brewery, but surely they could find a smaller one that actually produced drinkable beer.

“New in town, comrade?” the barman asked.

“Got in today.”

“Staying long?”

“A little while, yeah. I’m looking for a comrade called Murphy, Nigel Murphy.”

The man at the far end of the bar stood up. “That’ll be me then.” He was slim, taller than Adam, with a narrow face that carried suspicion easily. Adam guessed he was a first-lifer; his head was almost bald, with just a thin monk’s ring of graying hair. His clothes were those of an ordinary workingman: jeans, and a checked shirt, with a fleece jacket worn open, a woolly hat stuffed into one pocket. They were all streaked with dirt, as if he’d come straight from the factory or yard. But the way he looked at Adam—the assessment he carried out in a glance—marked him out as a leader.

“Huw North,” Adam said as they shook hands. “One of my colleagues was here last week.”

“Not sure if I remember,” Nigel Murphy said.

“He said you were the man to talk to.”

“Depends what you want to talk about… comrade.”

Adam held in a sigh. He’d been through this same ritual so many times over the years. By now he really ought to have worked out how to circumvent the bullshit and get right down to business. But as always, it had to be played out. The local man had to be proved top dog in front of his friends.

“I have a few issues,” Adam said. “Can I buy you a drink?”

“You’re very free with your money there, comrade,” said one of the others sitting behind Nigel Murphy. “Got a lot of it, have you? Thinking you can buy our friendship?”

Adam smiled thinly at the barfly. “I don’t want your friendship, and you certainly don’t want to be a friend of mine.”

The man grinned around at his colleagues. His appearance was mid-thirties, and he had the kind of brashness that suggested that was his genuine age, a first-lifer. “Why’s that?”

“Who are you?”

“Sabbah. What’s it to you?”

“Well, Sabbah. If you were my friend, you’d be stalked across the Commonwealth, and when they caught you, you’d die. Permanently.”

Nobody in the bar was smiling anymore. Adam was glad of the small heavy bulge in his jacket produced by the ion pistol.

“Any of you remember November 21, 2344?” Adam looked around challengingly.

“Abadan station,” Nigel Murphy said quietly.

“That was you?” Sabbah asked.

“Let’s just say I was in the region at the time.”

“Four hundred and eighty people killed,” Murphy said. “A third of them total deaths. Children who were too young to have memorycell inserts.”

“The train was late,” Adam said. His throat was dry as he remembered the events. They were still terribly clear. He’d never had a memory edit, never taken the easy way out. Live with the consequences of your actions. So every night he dreamed of the explosion and derailment just in front of the gateway, carriages plunging across junctions and parallel rails in the busiest section of the station. Fifteen trains hit, sideshunted, crashing, bursting apart, exploding, spewing out radioactive elements. And bodies. “It was on the wrong section of track at the wrong time. My chapter was after the Kilburn grain train.”

“You wanted to stop people from eating?” Sabbah asked sneeringly.

“Is this a drinking den or a Socialist chapter? Don’t you know anything about the Party you support? The reason we exist? There are certain types of grain trains which are specially designed to go through zero-end gateways. CST don’t tell people about those trains, same way as they don’t mention zero-end. The company spent millions designing wagons which can function in freefall and a vacuum. Millions of dollars developing machinery whose only job is to dump their contents into space. They go through a zero-end gateway onto a line of track that’s just hanging there in the middle of interstellar space. Nobody knows where. It doesn’t matter, they exist so that we can safely dump anything harmful away from H-congruous planets. So they send the trains with their special wagons through and open the hatches to expel their contents. Except there’s nothing physically dangerous about the grain. It’s just tens of thousands of tons of perfectly good grain streaming out into the void. There’s another clever mechanism built into the wagons to make sure of that. Just opening the hatch isn’t good enough. In freefall the grain will simply sit there, it has to be physically pushed out. And do you know why they do it?”

“The market,” Nigel Murphy said with a hint of weariness.

“Damn right: the market. If there’s ever a glut of food, the prices go down. Commodity traders can’t have that; they can’t sell at enough profit to pay for the gamble they’ve made on the work of others, so the market demands less food to go around. The grain trains roll through the zero-end gateways, and people pay higher prices for basic food. Any society which allows that to happen is fundamentally wrong. And grain is just the tiniest part of the abuse people are subject to thanks to the capitalist market economy.” Adam stared hard at Sabbah, knowing that once again he was going too far, making too much of an issue out of his own commitment. He didn’t care; this was what he’d devoted himself to. Even now, with all his other priorities, the greater human cause still fueled him. “That’s why I joined this Party, to end that kind of monstrous injustice. That’s why I’ve committed my life to this Party. And that’s why I’ll die, a total death, a member of this Party. Because I believe the human race deserves better than those bastard plutocrats running us like some private fiefdom. How about you, sonny? What do you believe in?”

“Thanks for clearing that up,” Nigel Murphy said hurriedly. He stood between Adam and Sabbah. “All of us here are good members of the Party, Huw. We might have joined for different reasons, but we have the same aims.” With one hand he signaled Sabbah and the others to stay at the bar. His other arm pressed lightly on Adam’s shoulder, steering him toward a small door. “Let’s talk.”

The back room was used to store beer crates and all the other junk that a bar generates down the years. A single polyphoto strip was fixed to the ceiling, providing illumination. When the door was closed, Adam’s e-butler informed him its access to the cybersphere had been severed.

“Sorry about that,” Nigel Murphy said as they pulled out a couple of empty beer crates to sit on. “The comrades aren’t used to new faces around here.”

“You mean the Party’s a lost cause on Velaines?”

Nigel Murphy nodded reluctantly. “It seems that way some days. We barely scrape two percent in elections now, and a lot of those are simply protest votes against the major parties. Any direct action we take against the companies is so… I don’t know. Puerile? It’s like we’re hitting a planet with a rubber hammer, we’re not causing any damage. And there’s always the risk of another mistake like Abadan. Socialism isn’t about killing people, after all. It’s supposed to be about justice.”

“I know. It’s hard, believe me. And I’ve been working for the cause a lot longer than you. But you have to believe that someday all this will change. The Commonwealth today is based on pure imperialist expansion. That’s always the most favorable time for market economics because there are always new markets opening. But it will ultimately fail. The expansion into phase three space is nothing like as fast and aggressive as the first and second phases were. The whole process is slowing. Eventually this madness will stop and we can start to focus our resources toward genuine social growth instead of physical.”

“Let’s hope so.” Nigel Murphy raised his beer bottle. “So what can I do for you?”

“I need to speak to some people. I’m looking to buy weapons hardware.”

“Still blowing up grain trains, huh?”

“Yeah.” Adam forced a smile. “Still blowing up grain trains. Can you set that up for me?”

“I can try. I’ve bought a few small pieces myself over the years.”

“I’m not looking for small pieces.”

“The dealer I use, she should be able to help. I’ll ask.”

“Thank you.”

“What kind of hardware are we talking about, exactly?”

Adam handed over a hard copy of the list. “The deal is this; you can add on whatever this chapter needs up to ten percent of the total price. Think of it as a finder’s fee.”

“This is some very serious hardware.”

“I represent a very serious chapter.”

“All right then.” Nigel Murphy still couldn’t quite banish the troubled expression from his face as he read down the list. “Give me your e-butler access code. I’ll call when I’ve set up the meeting.”

“Good. One thing, have you had any new members join recently? The last couple of months or so?”

“No. Not for about nine months now, unfortunately. I told you, we’re not very fashionable at the moment. We’re going to mount another recruitment drive in the general workers unions. But that won’t be for weeks yet. Why?”

“Just checking.”

Sabbah hated himself for what he was doing. The comrade was obviously well connected in the Party, probably in the executive cadre. Which meant he truly believed in what he was doing, especially if he’d been truthful about the grain train.

It wasn’t that Sabbah didn’t believe in their cause. He absolutely hated the way everyone else in the world seemed to be doing better than he was, that his background had condemned him to one life lived badly. The way society was structured prevented him from bettering himself. That was what attracted him to the Socialists in the first place, the way they were working to change things so that people like him would get a chance to live decently in an inclusive world.

All of which only made this worse. The comrade was actively working to bring down the companies and the plutocratic state that supported them. Which was a lot more than Sabbah ever seemed to do. All the seventh chapter did was hold endless meetings where they argued among themselves for what seemed like hours. Then there was the canvassing, days spent being abused, insulted, and treated with utter contempt by the very people they were trying to help. And of course the protests outside company offices and factories, ambushing politicians. Sabbah had lost count of how many times he’d been on the wrong, and very painful, end of a police shockwhip. The real reason he kept going these days was because of the rest of the chapter. He didn’t have many friends outside, not anymore.

But he didn’t have any choice. Not in this.

It was nine years ago when he met the woman. The job that night had been so easy it would have been criminal not to do it. He’d gone along with a couple of old mates he’d known back from his gang years, when they’d all pulled a tru from the reform academy to run the streets. Their quarry was a delivery truck that made a nightly run from the CST planetary station to various local wholesale warehouses about town. It was carrying crates of domestic goods from Augusta, all high quality. And the van was old, its alarm a joke.

Thanks to some decent targeted kaos software bought from a contact they’d managed to intercept the van and lift its load clean within ten minutes. Sabbah even took a couple of maidbots with him when he went home in addition to his cut.

She was waiting for him when he walked through the door: a middle-aged woman with mild Asian features, her shoulder-length raven hair flecked with gray strands, wearing a smart business suit. Sitting in his living room, looking like she belonged in that dingy two-room apartment more than he ever did.

“You now have a choice,” she said as his mouth was gaping open in surprise. “Either I’ll shoot you in self-defense, because you were assaulting a government official in the pursuit of her duties, or we make a deal and I’ll let you keep your dick.”

“Whoo…” Sabbah frowned at his door, silently cursing its alarm circuit for not warning him she’d broken in.

“Or do you believe the Velaines public medical insurance scheme will pay for a new dick, Sabbah? That’s where I’m aiming, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

In horror he saw she had some kind of small black metal tube in her hand, and it really was leveled at his groin. He shifted the boxes containing the maidbots, gradually lowering them until they covered his hips and the hugely valuable personal organ situated there.

“If you’re police, you won’t—”

The violent crack that her weapon produced made him cower. Scraps of foam packaging drifted through the air while the remnants of the maidbot dropped to the floor. The little machine’s crablike electromuscle limbs spasmed for a while before collapsing limply. Sabbah stared at it. “Oh, Christ on a crutch,” he whispered. He gripped the remaining box even tighter.

“Do we now know where we both stand?” the policewoman asked.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“All I want is for you to do something for me. A small thing. Will you do that?”

“What?”

“One day someone will turn up at your chapter, and I want to know about it. I can’t give you his name, he changes it every time. But he’ll be looking to buy things, weapons most likely, or kaos software, or samples of diseases, or components with the wrong specifications which will screw up whatever they’re installed in. That’s the kind of person he is. A very unpleasant individual. He’ll claim to be a Party member, to be doing what he does for a noble cause. But he’s lying. He’s a terrorist. An anarchist. A murderer. So I want you to tell me when he visits you. Okay?”

Sabbah didn’t like to think of the alternative. She was still pointing the weapon right at him, aiming low. “Yeah, sure. I’ll do that.”

“Good.”

“When’s he coming?”

“I don’t know. It might be tomorrow. It might be in thirty years’ time. It might be never. Or I might have caught him before he ever reaches Velaines.”

“Uh, right, okay.”

“Now turn around.”

“What?”

“You heard.” She got to her feet, the little weapon still pointing at him. Sabbah reluctantly turned to face the door. His hands were grabbed, forcing him to drop the maidbot box. A cold band of malmetal coiled around his wrists immobilizing them. “What the hell…”

“You’re under arrest for theft.”

“You’ve got to be fucking joking! I said I’d help you. That was the deal.” He turned his head to try to look at her. The weapon was jabbed into his jaw.

“There is no deal. You made a choice.”

“That was the deal!” he yelled furiously. “I help you, you get me off this rap. Jesus!”

“You are mistaken,” she said relentlessly. “I didn’t say that. You committed a crime. You must face the consequences. You must be brought to justice.”

“Fuck you, bitch. Fuck you. I hope your terrorist blows up a hundred hospitals, and schools. I hope he wipes out your whole planet.”

“He won’t. He’s only interested in one planet. And with your help, we can stop him from damaging it further.”

“My help?” The word came out as a squeak he was so shocked. “You stupid bitch, you can suck me and I’d never help you now. We had a deal.”

“Very well. I will lodge a plea with the judge, asking him for leniency.”

“Huh?” This was so weird it was doing his head in. Right from the start the woman scared him. He wasn’t even sure she was a policewoman anymore. More like a serial killer.

“I will tell him you cooperated fully, and agreed to be my informer. The file will not be encrypted when it is attached to your court record. Do you think your friends will access it when they see you receiving a light sentence? Will they be happy about what it says? My colleagues have already arrested them for tonight’s robbery, by the way. I expect they’ll be curious about how we knew.”

“Oh, goddamn.” Sabbah was near to tears. He wanted this whole nightmare to end. “You can’t do that to me. They’ll kill me, a total death. You don’t know what they’re like.”

“I think I do. Now, are you going to tell me when my target turns up?”

So through clenched teeth he said, “Yes.”

And that had been the way of it for nine years. He’d been given a suspended jail term for the robbery, and made to perform two hundred hours’ citizen service. It was the last time he’d done a job—well, anything major, anyway, just the occasional rip off.

And every three weeks there would be a message in his e-butler’s hold file asking him if the man had come. Every time he replied no.

Nine years, and that superbitch had never let it go. “Time,” she’d told him on the way to the police station, “lessens nothing.” She’d never said what would happen if he didn’t tell her. But then, it wasn’t something he wanted to find out.

So Sabbah walked for several blocks, leaving the chapter house behind. That way his e-butler would be operating through a cybersphere node that wasn’t anywhere near the building. The chapter had several tech-types; heavily idealistic about total access they all sailed close to anarchistic beliefs, believing all information should be free. They also smoked things they shouldn’t and played sensory immersion games for most of their waking hours. But they did have an unnerving habit of delivering the goods when databanks had to be cracked for the cause. Sabbah wouldn’t put it past the Party’s senior cadre to mount a simple surveillance operation around the chapter building.

His e-butler entered the code she’d given him. The connection was placed immediately, which was unnerving if not entirely surprising. Sabbah took a deep breath. “He’s here.”

Adam Elvin took his time in the lobby of the Scarred Suit club while the hostess dealt with his coat. His retinal inserts adapted to the low lighting easily enough, bringing up an infrared profiling that banished shadows for him. But he wanted a moment to take in the whole scene. As clubs went it was pretty standard; booths around the wall, each with an e-seal curtain for privacy, tables and chairs on the main floor, a long bar with an extensive number of bottles on the shelves, and a small stage where the boys, girls, and ladyboys of the Sunset Angels troupe danced. The lighting was low, with topaz and purple spots casting their shady beams onto the dark wood of the fittings. The music was loud, a drab software synth that kept up a constant beat for the performers to remove their clothes to. There was more money in here than there should have been, he thought. That made it protected.

At one o’clock in the morning, every table was taken, and the crowd of lowlifes around the stage was enthusiastically waving notes in the faces and crotches of the two dancers. Several booths were occluded by shimmering force fields. Adam frowned at that, but it was only to be expected. As he watched, one of the Sunset Angels was led over to a booth by the manager. The force field sparkled and allowed them through. Adam’s handheld array had the capacity to pierce the e-seal, but the probe would be detected.

So many hiding places was a risk. Again, one he was used to. And in a protected joint, they wouldn’t take kindly to police.

“Excuse me,” the doorman said. He was being friendly, not that it mattered, cellular reprofiling had given him the same kind of bulk as Adam, except his wasn’t fat.

“Sure.”

The doorman glided his hands above Adam’s jacket and trousers. They were heavily OCtattooed, the circuits fluorescing claret as they scanned for anything dangerous.

“I’m here to meet Ms. Lancier,” Adam told the hostess as the doorman cleared him. She led him around the edge of the main room to a booth two places down from the bar. Nigel Murphy was already there.

For an arms dealer, Rachael Lancier wasn’t inconspicuous. She wore a bright scarlet dress with a low front. Long chestnut hair was arranged in an elaborate wave, with small luminescent stars glimmering among the strands. Her rejuvenation had returned her to her early twenties, when she was very attractive. He knew it was a rejuvenation, possibly even a second or third. Her attitude gave her away. No real twenty-two-year-old possessed a confidence bordering on glacial.

Her bodyguard was a small thin man with a pleasant smile, as low-key as she was blatant. He activated the e-seal as soon as Adam’s beer arrived, wrapping the open side of the booth in a dull platinum veil. They could see out into the club, but the patrons were presented with a blank shield.

“That was quite a list,” Rachael said.

Adam paused for a moment to see if she was going to ask what it was for, but she wasn’t that unprofessional. “Is it a problem for you?”

“I can get all of it for you. But I have to say the combat armor will take time. That’s a police issue system; I normally provide small arms for people with somewhat lower aspirations than yours.”

“How much time?”

“For the armor, ten days, maybe two weeks. I have to acquire an authorized user certificate first.”

“I don’t need one.”

She raised her cocktail glass and took a sip, looking at him over the rim. “That doesn’t help me, because I do need it. Look, the rest of your list is either in storage or floating around the underground market, I can pull it in over the next few days. But that armor, that has to come from legitimate suppliers, and they have to have the certificate before they’ll even let it out of their factory.”

“Can you get the certificate?”

“I can.”

“How much?” he asked before she could start on her sales pitch.

“In Velaines dollars, a hundred thousand. There are a number of people involved, none of them cheap.”

“I’ll pay you eighty.”

“I’m sorry, this isn’t some kind of market stall. I’m not bargaining. That’s the price.”

“I’ll pay you eighty, and I’ll also pay you to package the rest of the list the way I require.”

She frowned. “What sort of packaging?”

Adam handed over a memory crystal. “Every weapon is to be broken down into its components. They are to be installed in various pieces of civil and agricultural equipment I have waiting in a warehouse. The way it’s laid out, the components will be unidentifiable no matter how they are scanned or examined. The instructions are all there.”

“Given the size of your list, that’s a lot of work.”

“Fifteen thousand. I’m not bargaining.”

She licked her lips. “How are you paying?”

“Earth dollars, cash, not an account.”

“Cash?”

“Is that a problem?”

“Your list will cost you seven hundred and twenty thousand. That’s a lot of money to carry around.”

“Depends what you’re used to.” He reached into his jacket and pulled out a thick bundle of notes. “That’s fifty thousand. It’s enough to get you started and prove my intent. Once you’ve assembled the list, give me the location of your secure warehouse where I can send my machinery. When it arrives there, I’ll pay you a third of the remaining money. When you’ve installed it, I’ll pay you the remainder.”

Rachael Lancier’s poise faltered slightly. She gave her bodyguard a glance, and he picked up the notes. “It’s good to do business with you, Huw,” she said.

“I want daily updates on the state of play.”

“You’ll get them.”

Chief Investigator Paula Myo left her Paris office three minutes after getting the call from Sabbah. It took her eighteen minutes to get across town to the CST station. It was only an eight minute wait on the platform for the next express. She arrived on Velaines within forty minutes.

Two senior detectives, Don Mares and Maggie Lidsey from the Tokat metropolitan police, were waiting for her when the taxi delivered her to their headquarters. Given the level of the request for cooperation from the Intersolar Serious Crimes Directorate, the two detectives had no trouble requisitioning a conference office and departmental array time. Their captain also made it clear to them that he expected them to provide genuine assistance to the Chief Investigator. “She’ll file a report on our operational ability when this is over,” he said. “And the Directorate has political clout, so be nice and be useful.”

With Don Mares sitting restlessly beside her, Maggie Lidsey used her e-butler to call up the Chief Investigator’s file. Broad columns of translucent green text began to flow across the virtual vision generated by her retinal inserts. She skipped through the information quickly; it was a refresher rather than a detailed appraisal. Everyone in law enforcement knew about Paula Myo.

The headquarters array informed the two detectives their guest had arrived. Maggie focused on the lift doors as they opened, banishing the ghostly ribbons of text. The conference office on the eighth floor of the metropolitan police headquarters building had glass walls, as did every cubicle on the same floor. From her viewpoint, Maggie could see the whole layout. At first nobody paid much attention to Paula Myo as she walked down the main corridor, followed by two colleagues from the Serious Crimes Directorate. In a white blouse, prim office suit, and sensible black shoes she fitted perfectly into the bustling compartmentalized work environment. She was slightly short by today’s standards when eighty percent of the population had some kind of genetic modification. Not that she lacked physical stature; she obviously stuck determinedly to an exercise routine that kept her fitness level an order of magnitude above anything the metropolitan police required from their officers. Her thick raven hair had been brushed straight so that it hung well below her shoulder blades. The Human Structure Foundation on Huxley’s Haven that had so carefully developed her genome had selected a mix of Filipino and European genes as a baseline, giving her a natural beauty that was utterly beguiling. A rejuvenation five years previously made it look as if she were now in her early twenties.

Even though she knew she should never judge anyone by physical guise, Maggie Lidsey had trouble taking the girl seriously as they shook hands. With her size and fresh looks, Paula Myo could quite easily be mistaken for a teenager. The giveaway was her smile. She didn’t seem to have one.

The other two Investigators from the Directorate were introduced as Tarlo, a tall, blond Californian, and Renne Kempasa, a Latin American from Valdivia, who was halfway toward her fourth rejuvenation.

The five of them sat around the table, and the walls opaqued. “Thank you for such a swift response,” Paula said. “We’re here because I have a tip-off that Adam Elvin has arrived on Velaines.”

“A tip-off from who?” Don asked.

“A contact. Not the most reliable, but it certainly needs investigating.”

“A contact? That’s it?”

“You don’t need to know, Detective Mares.”

“You were here nine years ago,” Maggie said. “At least, that’s the official entry in our files. So I’d guess your man is Sabbah. He’s a member of the Socialist Party, as was Elvin.”

“Very good, Detective.”

“Okay, we’re here to help,” Maggie said. She felt like she’d passed some kind of test. “What do you need?”

“To begin with, two surveillance operations. Elvin has made contact with a man called Nigel Murphy at the seventh chapter of the local Socialist Party here in town. We need to keep him under constant watch, virtual and physical. Elvin is here to acquire arms for Bradley Johansson’s terrorist group. This Murphy character will be his link to a local underground dealer; so he can lead us to both of them. Once we have the connection, we can intercept Elvin and the dealer at the exchange.”

“This all sounds very easy and routine,” Maggie said.

“It won’t be,” Tarlo said. “Elvin is very good. Once we’ve identified him, I’ll need a detective team to help backtrack his every movement to the moment he arrived. He’s a tricky son of a bitch. The first thing he will have done is establish an escape route in case this deal blows up in his face. We need to find it, and block it.”

“You guys know it all, don’t you?” Don Mares said. “What he’s doing, where he is. I’m surprised you even need us.”

Paula looked at him briefly, then turned her attention back to Maggie. “Is there a problem?”

“A little more information would be appreciated,” Maggie said. “For instance, are you sure he is here to contact an arms dealer?”

“It’s what he does. In fact, it’s all he does these days. He’s just about given up on the Party. Oh, he’ll throw the local chapter a bone or two for cooperating with him. But he hasn’t really taken any part in the movement since Abadan. The Party’s executive cadre effectively disowned him and his entire active resistance cell after that fiasco. That’s when he hooked up with Bradley Johansson. No one else would touch him, he was too hot. Ever since then he’s been the quartermaster for the Guardians of Selfhood. The acts they commit on Far Away make Abadan seem quite mild.”

Don Mares grinned. “Managed to get any of the money back yet?”

Tarlo and Renne gave him hostile stares. Paula Myo looked at him without saying anything. Don met her gaze levelly, showing no remorse.

“Is he likely to be armed?” Maggie asked. She glared at Don; at the best of times he could be an asshole, and today he seemed to be going out of his way to prove it.

“Elvin will probably be carrying a small weapon,” Renne Kempasa said. “But his main armory is his experience and guile. If there’s any kind of physical trouble, it won’t be him that starts it. We’ll have to research the arms dealer carefully; they tend to lean toward violence.”

“So no money, then,” Don persisted. “Not after—what is it now—a hundred and thirty years?”

“I also need your office to try and track down Elvin’s export route,” Paula said. “The CST security division will cooperate with them fully on that.”

“We’ll liaise with our captain over officer allocation,” Maggie said. “We’ve already arranged for you to have an office and access to the departmental array.”

“Thank you. I’d like to brief the observation teams in two hours.”

“Tight schedule, but I think we can manage that for you.”

“Thank you.” Paula hadn’t moved her gaze from Maggie. “No, I haven’t got any of the money back yet. Most of it is spent on arms deals like this one, which makes it particularly hard to track and recover. And I haven’t gotten this close to him for twenty years. So I will be seriously disappointed if an individual screws this up. It will be a career-wrecker.”

Don Mares tried to sneer off the threat. He didn’t really succeed. Maggie thought it was because he’d realized the same thing she had. Paula Myo never smiled because she didn’t have a sense of humor.

Adam was finishing a rather splendid early breakfast at the Westpool Hotel when his e-butler informed him that an unsigned message had arrived in its hold file. It had come from a onetime unisphere address, and the text it contained was encrypted with a key code that identified the sender to him immediately: Bradley Johansson.

Outwardly, Adam drank his coffee quietly as the waiters fussed around the restaurant tending to the other guests. In his virtual vision, he prepared the message for decryption. His wrist array was worn on his left arm, a simple band of dull malmetal that flexed and expanded constantly to maintain full contact with his skin. Its inner surface contained an i-spot that connected to his OCtattoos, which in turn were wetwired into his hand’s nerve fibers. The interface was represented in his virtual vision by a ghostly hand, which he’d customized to a pale blue, with sharp purple nails. For every tiny motion he made with his flesh and blood hand, the virtual one made a scaled-up movement, allowing him to select and manipulate icons. The system was standard across the Commonwealth, giving everyone who could afford an OCtattoo direct connection to the planetary cybersphere. He guessed that most of the businesspeople having breakfast around him were quietly interfacing with their office arrays. They had that daydreaming look about them.

He pulled the appropriate key out of its store in his wrist array, represented by a Rubik’s Cube icon, which he had to twist until he’d arranged the surface squares into the correct pattern. The cube opened up, and he dropped the message icon inside. A single line of black text slid across his virtual vision: PAULA MYO IS ON VELAINES.

Adam just managed to hold on to his coffee cup. “Shit!”

Several nearby guests glanced over to him. He twitched his lips in an apologetic smile. The array had already wiped the message, now it was going through an elaborate junction overwrite procedure in case it was ever examined by a forensics retrieval system.

Adam never did know where Bradley got half of his information. But it had always been utterly reliable. He should abandon the mission right now.

Except… it had taken eighteen months to plan and organize. Dummy companies had been established on a dozen worlds to handle the disguised machinery exports to Far Away, routing and rerouting them so that there would be no suspicion and no trail. A lot of money had been spent on preparations. And the Guardians wouldn’t receive another shipment of arms until he could set one up. Before he did that, he needed to know what had gone wrong this time.

They had been so close, too. Rachael Lancier’s last call confirmed that she had put together about two-thirds of the list. So close.

Maggie Lidsey’s car drove her into the headquarters building underground parking lot an hour before she was due on shift. She’d been working longer hours ever since the case started. It wasn’t just to curry favor with Paula Myo; she was learning a lot from the Chief Investigator. The woman’s attention to detail was incredible. Maggie was convinced she must have array inserts, along with supplementary memorycells. No aspect of the operation was too small for her to show an interest in. Urban myth certainly hadn’t exaggerated her dedication.

The elevator in the lobby scanned her to confirm her identity: only then did it descend to the fifth basement level where the operations centers were situated. The Elvin team had been codenamed Roundup, and assigned room 5A5. Maggie was scanned again before the metal slab door slid aside to admit her. The interior was gloomy, occupied by three rows of consoles with tall holographic portals curving around the operator. Each one was alive with a grid of images and data ribbons. Laser light spilled out from them in a pale iridescent haze. A quick glance at the ones closest to the door showed Maggie the familiar pictures of the buildings that Rachael Lancier used to run her car dealership from, along with shots from the team’s two shadow cars showing Adam Elvin’s taxi as they followed him through midtown.

Maggie requested an update, and quickly assimilated the overnight data. The one item that stood out was the encrypted message delivered to Elvin’s e-butler through the Westpool Hotel node. She saw Paula Myo sitting at her desk at the far end of the room. The Chief Investigator seemed to get by on a maximum of two hours’ sleep per day. She’d had a cot moved into her office, and never used it until an hour after both main targets had retired for the night. And she was always up an hour before the time they usually got out of bed. The night shift had standing orders to wake her if anything out of the ordinary happened.

Maggie went over to ask about the message.

“It came from a onetime address in the unisphere,” Paula said. “The Directorate’s software forensics have traced its load point to a public node in Dampier’s cybersphere. Tarlo is talking to the local police about running a check, but I’m not expecting miracles.”

“You can track a onetime address?” Maggie asked. She’d always thought that was impossible.

“To a limited degree. It doesn’t help. The message was sent on a delay. Whoever loaded it was well clear.”

“Can the message encryption be cracked?” Maggie asked.

“Not really, the sender used folded-geometry encryption. I logged a request with the SI, but it said it doesn’t have the resources available to decrypt it for me.”

“You talked with the SI?” Maggie asked. That was impressive. The Sentient Intelligence didn’t normally interface with individuals.

“Yes.”

There was nothing else forthcoming.

“Oh,” Maggie said. “Right.”

“It was a short message,” Paula said. “Which limits what it could contain. My guess is it was either a warning, a go authorization, or a stop.”

“We haven’t leaked,” Maggie said. “I’m sure of it. And they haven’t spotted us either.”

“I know. The origin alone seems to rule out a mistake by any of your officers.”

“The Socialist Party does have a number of quality cyberheads, they might have noticed our scrutineer programs shadowing Murphy’s e-butler.”

Paula Myo rubbed a hand over her forehead, pressing hard enough to furrow up the skin. “Possible,” she conceded. “Although I have to take other factors into consideration.”

“Yes?” Maggie prompted.

“Classified, sorry,” Paula said. Even though she was tired, she wasn’t about to confide her concerns to anybody. Although if Maggie was any kind of detective she should be able to work it out.

As Mares had said, a hundred thirty-four years without an arrest was an uncomfortably long time. In fact, it was impossible given the resources Paula had to deploy against Bradley Johansson. Somebody had been providing Johansson and his associates with a great deal of assistance down the decades. Few people knew what she was doing on a day-to-day basis, so logically it was someone outside the Directorate. Yet the executive administration had changed seventeen times since she had been assigned command of the case. They couldn’t all contain secret sympathizers of Johansson’s cause. That just left her with the altogether murkier field of Grand Families and Intersolar Dynasties, the kind of power dealers who were always around.

She’d done everything she could, of course: set traps, run identification ambushes, deliberately leaked disinformation, established unofficial communications channels, built herself an extensive network amid the political classes, gained allies at the heart of the Commonwealth government. So far the results had been minimal. That didn’t bother her so much, she had faith in her ability to work the case to its conclusion. What concerned her more than anything was the reason anyone, let alone someone with true wealth and power, would want to protect a terrorist like Johansson.

“Makes sense,” Maggie said with a trace of reluctance. She knew there was a terrific story behind the Chief Investigator’s silence. “So what action do you want to take about the message?”

“Nothing immediate,” Paula said. “We simply wait and see what Elvin does next.”

“We can arrest all of them now. There are enough weapons stored at Lancier’s dealership to begin a war.”

“No. I don’t have a reason to arrest Elvin yet. I want to wait until the operation has reached its active smuggling stage.”

“He was part of Abadan. I checked the Directorate file, there are enough testimonies recorded to prove his involvement no matter how good a lawyer he has. What more do you need to arrest him?”

“I need the weapons to be shipped. I need their route and destination. That will expose the whole Guardian network to me. Elvin is important primarily for his ability to lead me to Johansson.”

“Arrest him and have his memories extracted. I’m sure a judge would grant the Directorate that order.”

“I don’t expect to have that option. He knows what will happen the second I have him in custody. He’ll either suicide or an insert will wipe his memories clean.”

“You can’t be sure of that.”

“He’s a fanatic. He will not allow us access to his memories.”

“Do you really believe that?”

“It’s what I’d do,” Paula said simply.

Paula briefed the watcher teams before the shift changeover, explaining her suspicions about the encrypted message. “It changes our priorities slightly,” she said. “If it was a cancellation then Elvin will make a break for the CST station. I need a detail of officers on permanent duty there to arrest him if he tries to leave. Detective Mares, will you organize that, please?”

“I’ll see the captain about more personnel, sure.” During the week of the operation Don Mares had modified his attitude slightly. He didn’t contend anything, nor disagree with Paula; but neither did he put any extra effort into the operation. She could live with that; baseline competence was a depressing constant in law enforcement agencies throughout the Commonwealth.

“Our second option,” Paula said, “is a go code. In which case we need to be ready to move. There will be no change in your assignments, but be prepared to implement immediately. The third option is not so good: he’s been warned about our observation.”

“No way,” Don Mares said. “We’re not that sloppy.” There was a grumble of agreement from the team officers.

“As unlikely as it sounds we have to take it into consideration,” Paula insisted. “Be very careful not to risk exposure. He’s smart. He’s been doing this for forty years. If he sees one of you twice in a week he’s going to know you’re following him. Don’t let him see you. Don’t let him see the car you’re using. We’re going to get a larger vehicle pool so we can rotate them faster. We cannot afford mistakes.” She nodded curtly at them. “I’ll join the lead team today. That’s all.”

Don Mares and Maggie Lidsey came over to her as the other officers filed out of the operations center. “If he catches a glimpse of you, it really will be game over,” Don Mares said.

“I know,” Paula said. “But I need to be close. There are some calls you can’t make sitting here. I’d like you to take over as general coordinator today.”

“Me?”

“Yes, you have the qualifications, you’ve taken command of raids before.”

“Okay.” He was trying not to smile.

“Maggie, you’re with me.”

They caught up with Adam Elvin as he was taking a slow, seemingly random walk through Burghal Park. He did something similar most mornings, an amble through a wide-open space where it was difficult for the team to follow unobtrusively on foot.

Paula and Maggie waited in the back of a ten-seater car that was parked at the north end of Burghal Park. The team had the rest of their vehicles spaced evenly around the perimeter, with three officers on foot using their retinal inserts to track his position, never getting closer than five hundred meters, boxing him the whole time. The Burghal was a huge area in the middle of the city, with small lakes, games pitches, tracks, and long greenways of trees brought in from over seventy different planets.

“That’s twice he’s doubled back on his route,” Maggie said. They were watching the images relayed from the retinal inserts on a small screen in the car.

“Standard for him,” Paula said. “He’s a creature of habit. They might be good habits, but any routine will betray you in the end.”

“Is that how you tracked him?”

“Uh-huh. He never uses the same planet twice. And he nearly always uses the Intersolar Socialist Party to set up the first meeting with the local dealer.”

“So you turned Sabbah into your informant and waited.”

“Yes.”

“For nine years. Bloody hell. How many informants do you have, on how many planets?”

“Classified.”

“The way you operate, though, always arresting them for their crimes. That doesn’t make for cooperative informants. You’re taking a big risk on a case this important.”

“They broke the law. They must go to court and take responsibility for their crimes.”

“Hell, you really believe that, don’t you?”

“You’ve accessed my official file. Three times now since this case started.”

Maggie knew she was blushing.

That day Adam Elvin finished his walk in Burghal Park and caught a taxi to a little Italian restaurant on the bank of the River Guhal, which meandered through the eastern districts of the city. While eating a large and leisurely lunch he placed a call to Rachael Lancier, which the metropolitan police had no trouble intercepting.

ELVIN:Something’s come up. I need to talk to you again.

LANCIER:The vehicle you wanted is almost ready for collection, Mr. North. I hope there’s no problem at your end.

ELVIN:No, no problem about the vehicle. I just need to discuss its specifications with you.

LANCIER:The specifications have been agreed upon. As has the price.

ELVIN:This is not an alteration of either. I simply need to speak with you personally to clarify some details.

LANCIER:I’m not sure that’s a good idea.

ELVIN:It’s essential, I’m afraid.

LANCIER:Very well. You know my favorite place. I’ll be there at the usual time today.

ELVIN:Thank you.

LANCIER:And it had better be as important as you say.

Paula shook her head. “Routine,” she said disapprovingly.

Eighteen police officers converged on the Scarred Suit club. Don Mares dispatched the first three within two minutes of the conversation. The club wasn’t open, of course, they simply had to find three observation points around it and dig in.

Two of Lancier’s people arrived at eight o’clock that night, and performed their own surveillance checks before calling back to their boss.

When Adam Elvin finally arrived at one o’clock in the morning, ten officers were already inside. As before, they had managed to blend in well enough to prevent him from identifying any of them for what they were. Some of them assumed the role of business types looking for some bad action after a long day in the office. Three of them hung around the stage, identical to the other losers frantically waving their grubby dollars at the glorious bodies of the Sunset Angels. One had even managed to get a job, trying out as a waiter for the night, and was making reasonable tips. Renne Kempasa was sitting in one of the booths, the hazy e-seal protecting her from view.

The remainder of the team were outside, ready for pursuit duties when the meeting was over. Paula, Maggie, and Tarlo were parked a street away in a battered old van, with the logo of a domestic service company on the side. The two screens they’d set up in the back showed images taken by the officers inside the club. Rachael Lancier was already in her booth, a different one this time. Her skinny-looking bodyguard was with her: identified by headquarters as Simon Kavanagh, a man with a long list of petty convictions stretching back three decades, nearly all of them violence-related. When he arrived he’d swept the booth twice, scanning for any covert electronic or bioneural circuitry. The passive sensors carried by the officers nearby nearly went off the scale. He was using some very sophisticated equipment—as was to be expected from someone who worked for an arms dealer.

Paula watched Lancier and Elvin tentatively shake hands. The arms dealer gave her buyer an inhospitable look, then the e-seal around the booth was switched on. Its screening was immediately reinforced by the units that Kavanagh activated. One of them was an illegally strong janglepulse capable of frying the cerebral ganglia of any insect within a four-meter radius.

“Okay,” Paula said. “Let’s find out what’s so important to Mr. Elvin.”

A meter above the booth’s table, a Bratation spindlefly was clinging to the furry plastic fabric of the wall matting. Amid the artificial purple and green fibers, its translucent, two-millimeter-long body was effectively invisible. As well as a chameleon-effect body, evolution on its planet had provided it with a unique neurone fiber that used a photo luminescent molecule as the primary transmitter, making it immune to a standard janglepulse. It had only half the expected life span of a natural spindlefly because its genetic code had been altered by a small specialist company on a Directorate contract, replacing half of its digestion sac with a more complex organic structure of receptor cells. In its abdomen was an engorged secretion gland that threw out a superfine gossamer strand. When it had flown in from the neighboring booth, it had trailed the gossamer behind it. Gentle lambent nerve impulses from the receptor cells now flowed along the strand to a more standard semiorganic processor that Renne carried in her jacket pocket.

In the middle of Paula’s screen a grainy gray and white image formed. She was looking down on the heads of three people sitting around the booth table.

“So what the hell has happened?” Rachael Lancier asked. “I didn’t expect to see you until completion, Huw. I don’t like this. It makes me nervous.”

“I got some new instructions,” Elvin said. “How else was I supposed to get them to you?”

“All right, what sort of instructions?”

“A couple of additions to the list. Major ones.”

“I still don’t like it. I’m this close to calling the whole thing off.”

“No you’re not. We’ll pay for your inconvenience.”

“I don’t know. The inconvenience is getting pretty fucking huge. All it’s going to take is one suspicious policeman walking into my dealership, and I’m totally screwed. There’s a lot of hardware stacking up there. Expensive hardware.”

Elvin sighed and reached into a pocket. “To ease the inconvenience.” He put a brick-sized wad of notes on the table and pushed them over to Simon Kavanagh.

The bodyguard glanced at Lancier, who nodded permission. He put the notes into his own jacket pocket.

“All right, Huw, what sort of goodies do you need now?”

Elvin held up the small black disk of a memory crystal, which she took from him.

“This is the last time,” she said. “Nothing else changes. I don’t care what you want, or how much you pay, understood? This is the end of this deal. If you want anything else, it has to wait until next time. Got that?”

“Sure.”

Paula sat back in the thin aging cushioning of the van’s seat. On the screen, Adam Elvin had stood up to leave. The booth’s e-seal flickered to let him out.

“That was wrong,” she said.

Maggie frowned at her. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, that was nothing to do with additions to the list. Whatever’s really in that memory crystal, it won’t be an inventory.”

“What then?”

“Some kind of instructions.”

“How do you know? I thought it fitted what happened.”

“You saw his reaction to the message at breakfast. The camera caught his expression spot on. It shocked the hell out of him. First rule on a deal like this is you don’t change things this late in the game. It makes people very nervous. Rachel Lancier’s reaction is a perfect example. And it’s not a good thing to make arms dealers nervous. A deal this size, everybody is quite edgy enough already. Elvin knows that.”

“So? He was shocked his bosses wanted to change things.”

“I don’t buy it.”

“So what do you want to do?”

“Nothing we can do. Keep watching. Keep waiting. But I think he’s on to us.”

The news about Dyson Alpha’s enclosure broke midmorning two days later. It dominated all the news streams and current events shows. A surprisingly large number of Velaines citizens had opinions on the revelation, and what should be done about it.

Maggie kept half her attention on the pundits, both the serious and the mad, who appeared on the news streams while she was sitting around the underground operations center. Time and again, the shows kept repeating the moment when the star disappeared from view. Diagrams sprang up simplifying what had happened for the general public.

“Do you think Elvin was rattled by that?” Maggie asked. “After all, the Guardians of Selfhood are supposed to be protecting us from aliens.”

Paula glanced at the portal where Dudley Bose was being interviewed. The old astronomer simply couldn’t stop smiling. “No. I checked. The message was sent half a day before Bose confirmed the event. In any case, I don’t see how the Dyson enclosure concerns the Guardians. Their primary concern is the Starflyer alien and how it manipulates the government.”

“Yeah, I get their propaganda. Damnit, I fall for the message authorship every time.”

“Think yourself lucky you’re not the author. I pick up the pieces on those scams as well.”

“You know a lot about them, don’t you?”

“Just about everything you can without actually signing on.”

“So how does someone like Adam Elvin wind up working for a terrorist faction?”

“You must understand that Bradley Johansson is basically a charismatic lunatic. The whole Guardians of Selfhood movement is simply his private personality cult. It calls itself a political cause, but that’s just part of the deception. The sad thing is, he’s lured hundreds of people into it, and not just on Far Away.”

“Including Adam Elvin,” Maggie muttered.

“Yes, including Elvin.”

“From what I’ve seen of Elvin, he’s smart. And according to his file he is a genuine committed radical Socialist. Surely he’s not gullible enough to believe Johansson’s propaganda?”

“I can only assume he’s humoring Johansson. Elvin needs the kind of protection which Johansson provides, and his beloved Party does benefit to some small degree from the association. Then again, maybe he’s just trying to revive past glories. Don’t forget he’s a psychotic; his terrorist activities have already killed hundreds, and every one of these arms shipments introduces the potential for more death. Don’t expect his motivation to be based in logic.”

The observation carried on for a further eleven days. Whatever additional items Adam Elvin had requested, they appeared to be difficult for Rachel Lancier to acquire. Various nefarious contacts arrived for quick private meetings with her in the back office. Despite their best attempts, the Tokat metropolitan police technical support team was unable to place any kind of infiltration device inside. Lancier’s office was too effectively screened. Not even the spindleflies could penetrate the combat-rated force field that surrounded it. Her warehouses, too, were well shielded. Although the team had managed to confirm the two where the weapons were being held. Several modified insects had gotten through to take a quick look around before succumbing to either janglepulse emitters or electron webs.

Secondary observation teams followed the suppliers as they left, watching them assemble their cache of weapons and equipment before delivering it to the dealership. A whole underground network of Valences’s iniquitous black-market arms traders was carefully recorded and filed, ready for the bust that would end the whole operation.

On the eleventh day, the observers logged a call that Adam Elvin made to a warehouse in town, authorizing them to forward an assignment of agricultural machinery to Lancier’s dealership.

“This is it,” Tarlo declared. “They’re getting them ready for shipment.”

“Could be,” Paula admitted.

On the other side of the operations office, Mares just sighed. But she did ask for the arrest teams to be put on standby.

Maggie was in one of the cars parked close to the dealership. When the eight trucks arrived, stacked high with crates of agricultural machinery, she relayed the pictures to the operations center. Wide gates in the fence surrounding the dealership compound were hurriedly opened to let them through. There was a brief holdup as yet another of Lancier’s cars went out on a test run. The lawful business had been doing well for the whole duration of the observation, with up to a dozen cars a day taken out by legitimate customers. Sales were brisk.

All eight trucks drove into the largest of Lancier’s warehouses. The doors rolled down as soon as the last one parked inside. Sensors that the observation team had ringing the site reported screening systems coming on immediately.

“Where’s Elvin now?” Paula asked.

Tarlo showed her the images of their prime target finishing his lunch in a downtown restaurant. Paula settled down at the side of the console to follow him, using the sensors carried by the observation teams.

After lunch, Elvin walked around one of the shopping streets, using his usual tactics to try to spot any tails. When he got back to the hotel he started packing his suitcase. Late that afternoon he went down to the bar and ordered a beer. He drank it while watching the portal at the end of the counter, which was showing Alessandra Baron interviewing Dudley Bose. In the early evening, just as the sun was falling below the horizon, his suitcase followed him downstairs, and he checked out.

“All right,” Paula announced to the teams. “It looks like this is it. Everybody: stage one positions please.”

Don Mares was in one of the four cars assigned to follow Elvin. He waited a hundred meters from the hotel, seeing the big man emerge from the lobby. A taxi drew up at the request of Elvin’s PL. His suitcase trundled up onto the rear luggage platform as he climbed in.

“Stand by, Don,” Paula said. “We’re placing a scrutineer in the taxi drive array. Ah, here we go, he’s told it to take him to Thirty-second Street.”

“That’s nowhere near the dealership,” Don Mares protested as their car took off in pursuit.

“I know. Just wait.” Paula turned to the visual and data feeds coming from the dealership. Rachael Lancier and ten of her people were now inside the sealed-up warehouse with the trucks. The rest of the work force had been sent home as usual at the end of the day.

On the console in front of Paula, data displays began flashing urgent warnings at her. “Hello, this is interesting. Elvin is loading some infiltration software into the taxi’s drive array.” She watched as the police scrutineer program wiped itself before the new interloper could establish itself and run an inventory on the operating system.

“He’s changing direction,” Don Mares reported. There was an excited note in his voice.

“Just stay calm and stay with him,” Paula said. “But don’t get too close, we’ve got him covered.” Out of the six images of the taxi that the console’s big portal offered her, only one was coming from a pursuit car. The others were all feeds from the civic security cameras that covered every street and avenue of the city. They showed the taxi sliding smoothly through the rush-hour traffic.

Elvin must have ordered it to accelerate. It began to speed up.

“Don’t be obvious,” Paula muttered to the observation team as the taxi took a sharp right. It was a good hundred fifty meters ahead of the first pursuit car now. Their standard boxing tactic had put the lead vehicle out of the picture. She watched the grid map with its bright dots, seeing how they rearranged themselves to surround the taxi.

Elvin turned right again, then quickly left, taking off down a small alleyway. “Don’t follow,” she instructed. “It’s only got one exit.”

Pursuit car three hurried to reach the street where the alleyway finished. The taxi emerged smoothly, and took a left. It was heading in the opposite direction to car three. They passed within a couple of meters.

Don Mares’s car resumed its tag position. The taxi began to speed up again. Screens along Paula’s console showed the blurred lines of car lights on either side of it, stretching away through the tall buildings of the city center. The taxi turned onto Twelfth Street, one of the broadest in the city, with six lanes of traffic and all of them full. It began to switch lanes at random. Then it slowed. An overhead camera followed it as it passed under one of the hulking bridges that carried the rail tracks into the CST planetary station.

“Damnit, where did he go?” Paula demanded. “Don, can you see him?”

“I think so. Second lane.”

Two cameras were focused on the other side of the bridge, covering every lane. A constant flow of vehicles zipped past. Then the cameras were zooming in on the taxi. It had changed to the outside lane again.

“All right,” Paula said. “All cars, reduce separation distance. Stay within eighty meters. We can’t risk loss of visual contact again. Car three, get under the bridge, check it out. See if he dropped something off.”

The taxi carried on with its evasive maneuvers for another kilometer, then abruptly turned onto Forty-fifth Street and stayed in one lane. Its speed wound back to a steady seventy kilometers per hour.

“He’s heading right for us,” Maggie said.

“Looks that way,” Paula agreed. “Okay, all pursuit cars, back off again.”

Eight minutes later the taxi pulled up outside Rachael Lancier’s car dealership. The gates opened and it went in, driving right through the open door of a warehouse. It stopped beside an empty repair bay.

Paula squinted at the portal image. The warehouse door had been left open, allowing the team’s sensors and cameras a perfect view. Nothing moved.

“What’s happening?” Tarlo asked.

“I’m not sure,” Paula said. “Rachael is still in the warehouse with the trucks. No wait…”

Simon Kavanagh was walking across the brightly lit concrete of the open warehouse floor. His bank tattoo paid the taxi charge. The rear luggage platform opened, and Elvin’s suitcase rolled out. It started to follow the slim bodyguard as he walked away. The taxi drove out of the warehouse.

“Oh, hell,” Paula grunted. “All teams, you have a go code for stage three. I repeat, we are at stage three. Interdict and arrest. Don, stop that taxi.” The city traffic routing array fired an emergency halt order into the taxi’s drive array. All four pursuit cars surged forward, forming a physical blockade around the vehicle.

Maggie was already moving as the taxi emerged from the warehouse. The sun had finally sunk from the sky ten minutes earlier, leaving a gloomy twilight in its wake. Behind her, the towers of the city center cut sharp gleaming lines into the shady sky. Ahead, there were only a few murky polyphoto strips fixed on the warehouse eves to cast a weak yellow glow across the dealership with its rows and rows of parked cars. On the far side of the compound, an elevated rail line blocked the horizon, a thick black concrete barrier separating the city roofline from the darkening ginger sky. A single cargo train hissed and clanked its way along, a badly adjusted power wheel intermittently throwing up a fantail of sparks that marked out its progress as it slid deeper into the city.

Her fellow officers were advancing beside her, scuttling between the silent, stationary cars as they closed on the locked and screened warehouse. She activated her armor. The system, which looked like a chrome-blue skeleton worn outside her uniform, started to buzz softly. Its force field expanded, thickening the air around her. She prayed the power rating was good enough. Heaven only knew what caliber weapons they’d be facing.

Cars skidded behind her with tires squealing like wounded animals. Up ahead, the point members of the police tactical assault squad had reached the warehouse door. They barely stopped to fire an ion bolt at the bonded composite paneling. A dazzling flash threw the compound into monochrome relief, accompanied by a thunderbolt crack. Splinters of smoldering composite hurtled through the air, revealing two large holes in the building. Squad members raced through.

“FREEZE, POLICE.”

“DO NOT EVEN THINK OF MOVING, MOTHERFUCKER.”

“YOU, HANDS WHERE I CAN SEE THEM. NOW.”

Adrenaline was singing in Maggie’s veins as she rushed through the gap. She cleared the little layer of smoke on the other side, her ion pistol held ready, retinal inserts on full resolution. Surprise at the scene before her almost made her stumble.

Rachael Lancier was standing casually at the front of a truck. The ten employees who had stayed behind were clustered around her. Heavyliftbots had removed several crates from the truck, stacking them neatly on the floor. A bottle and ten glasses were standing on top of one, clearly waiting for a toast to be drunk.

“Ah, good evening, Detective,” Rachael Lancier said as she saw Maggie’s insignia. Her mocking grin was pure evil. “I know I offer a good deal on my cars, but there’s no need to rush. I have something to suit every bank tattoo.”

Maggie cursed under her breath, and slowly engaged her pistol’s safety catch. “We’ve been had,” she said.

“Don?” Paula was asking. “Don, is he in the taxi? Report, Don.”

“Nothing!” Don Mares spat. “It’s fucking empty. He’s not in it.”

“Goddamnit,” Paula shouted.

“This is a stitch up,” Maggie said. “The bitch is laughing at us. I’m standing five meters away from her, and she’s still bloody laughing. We’re not going to find anything here.”

“We have to,” Tarlo cried furiously. “We’ve been watching them for three goddamn weeks. I saw those arms go in there with my own eyes.”

Now it was over, now the hype had cooled, the adrenaline cold turkey kicked in, Maggie felt dreadfully weary. She looked directly into Rachael Lancier’s triumphant gleaming eyes. “I’m telling you, we’ve been royally fucked.”

The one make-or-break moment came when he rolled out of the still-moving taxi under the rail bridge. Adam hit the ground hard, yelling at the sharp pain slamming into his leg, shoulder, and ribs. Then he twisted again, and surged to his feet. The second, empty taxi was parked ready not five meters away. He dived in through the open door, and his Quentin Kelleher e-butler told it to take him directly to the A+A.

The vehicle slid smoothly out into the busy traffic flow. As he looked around, he could see a car brake hard under the bridge. Two people jumped out, and began scanning around. He grinned as the distance built behind him. Not bad for a fat seventy-five-year-old.

Room 421 was just as he’d left it, and the scanning array gave him an all-clear. He limped in. The bruises were starting to hurt badly now. When he sat on the edge of the jellmattress and stripped off his clothes he found a lot of grazed skin that was oozing blood. He applied some healskin patches, and flopped down to let the shakes run their course. Sometime later, he began to laugh.

For two weeks he never left the room. The dispenser mechanism delivered three meals a day. He drank a lot of fluid. His e-butler filtered the output of the local and Intersolar news shows, with a special search order for items concerning Dyson Alpha.

He lay on the bed for twenty hours a day, feeding on cheap packet food and crappy unisphere entertainment shows. Standard commercial cellular reprofiling kits cocooned his torso and limbs, slowly siphoning the fat out of him, adjusting the folds of skin to fit his new, slimmer figure, and ruining most of his OCtattoos in the process. A pair of thick bands with a leathery texture were attached to each leg, on either side of his knees. They were the deep pervasion kits that extended slender tendrils through his flesh until they reached bone. Slowly and quite painfully, they reduced the length of his femur and tibia by half a centimeter each, altering his height to a measurement that was absent from any criminal database.

The adjustments left him weak and irritable, as if he were recovering from a bout of flu. He consoled himself with the mission’s success. It had cost them another hundred thousand dollars, but Rachael Lancier had cooperated enthusiastically. Over the last ten days of the mission, every car leaving the dealership compound had been carrying a part of the order. They’d been dropped off all over town at buildings he’d paid her to rent. Rachael’s workers had parceled them up in the crates he’d shipped in months before. The entire list was on its way to Far Away via a multitude of circuitous routes. They’d arrive over the next few months.

His only regret was not being able to see Paula Myo’s face as the extent of the deception became apparent. That would almost be worth the feel of restraints clasping his wrists.

Seventeen days after the fateful night, Adam dressed himself in a loose-fitting sweatshirt and trousers, and left the A+A. A twenty-minute taxi ride took him to the CST planetary station. He wandered through the concourse without setting off any alarms. Content with that, he caught the express train to LA Galactic.

THREE

Few people outside government circles had ever heard of the Commonwealth ExoProtectorate Council. It had been formed in the early days of the Intersolar Commonwealth, one of those contingency groups beloved of bureaucrats. Back then, people were still justifiably worried about encountering hostile aliens as CST wormholes were continually opened on new planets farther and farther away from Earth. It was the Commonwealth ExoProtectorate Council that had the task of reviewing each sentient alien species discovered by CST, and evaluating the threat level it posed to human society. Given the potential seriousness should the worst-case scenario ever happen, its members were all extremely powerful in political terms. However, with the extremely rare probability that such an encounter would ever occur, the Council members invariably delegated the duty to staff members. In this diluted form, the Council continued to meet on a regular annual basis. Every year it solemnly confirmed the galactic status quo. Every year its delegates went off and had a decent lunch on expenses. As the Commonwealth was discovering, sentient aliens were a rare commodity, at least in this section of the galaxy.

Now though, the Dyson Alpha event had changed everything. Nigel Sheldon couldn’t recall ever attending a Council meeting before, although he supposed he must have when the Silfen and the High Angel had been discovered. Such recollections weren’t currently part of his memories. He’d obviously retired them to secure storage several rejuvenations ago.

His lack of direct recall experience had been capably rectified by the briefings his staff had given him on the trip from Cressat, where he and the rest of the senior Sheldon family members lived. CST had routed his private train direct through Augusta to the New York CST station over in Newark; from there it was a quick journey over to Grand Central.

He always enjoyed Manhattan in the spring. The snow had gone and the trees were starting to put out fresh leaves, a vibrant green that no artist ever quite managed to capture. A convoy of limousines had been waiting at Grand Central station to drive him and his entourage the short distance to the Commonwealth Exploration and Development Office on Fifth Avenue. The skyscraper was over a hundred fifty years old, and at two hundred seventy-eight stories no longer the highest on the ancient metropolis island, but still close.

He’d arrived early, ahead of the other Council members. The anxious regular staff had shown him into the main conference room on the two hundred twenty-fifth floor. They weren’t used to such high-powered delegations, and it showed in their hectic preparations to have everything in the room just perfect for the start of the meeting. So he waved away their queries, and told them to get on with it, he’d just wait quietly for the other members to turn up. At which point his entourage closed smoothly and protectively around him.

From the conference room, he could just see over the neighboring buildings to Central Park. The patina of terrestrial-green life was reassuringly bright under the afternoon sun. There were almost no alien trees in the park these days. For the last eight decades, Earth’s native species protection laws had been enforced with increasing severity by the Environment Commissioners of the Unified Federal Nations. He could just see the brilliant ma-hon tree glimmering dominantly at the center of the park, every spiral leaf reflecting prismatic light from its polished-silver surface. It had been there for over three hundred years now, one of only eight ever to be successfully transferred from their strange native planet. For the last hundred years it had been reclassified as a city monument—a concept that Nigel rather enjoyed. When New Yorkers were determined about something, not even the UFN environmental bloc could shift them, and there was no way they were going to give up their precious, unique ma-hon.

Nigel’s chief executive aide, Daniel Alster, brought him a cup of coffee, which he drank as he looked out over the city. In his mind he tried to sketch in the other changes he’d seen to the skyline over the centuries. Manhattan’s buildings looked a lot more slender now, though that was mainly because they were so much taller. There was also a trend toward architecture with a more elaborate or artistic profile. Sometimes it worked splendidly, as with the contemporary crystal Gothic of the Stoet Building; or else it looked downright mundane like the twisting Illeva. He didn’t actually mind the failures too much; they added to the personality of the place, so different from most of the flat urban sprawls on most of the settled worlds.

Rafael Columbia was the second committee member to arrive, the chief of the Intersolar Serious Crimes Directorate. Nigel knew of him, of course, although the two had never met in the flesh.

“Pleasure to meet you at last,” Nigel said as they shook hands. “Your name keeps cropping up on reports from our security division.”

Rafael Columbia chuckled. “In a good context, I trust?” He was just over two hundred years old, with a physical appearance in his late fifties. In contrast to Nigel, who rejuvenated every fifteen years, Rafael Columbia had apparently decided that a more mature appearance was appropriate to his position. His apparent age gave him broad shoulders and a barrel torso that needed a lot of exercise to keep in shape. Thick silver hair was cut short and stylish, accentuating the slightly sour expression that was fixed on his flat face. Bushy eyebrows and bright gray-green eyes marked him down as a Halgarth family member. Without that connection he would never have qualified for his current job within the Commonwealth administration. The Halgarths had founded EdenBurg, one of the Big15 industrial planets, and as a result had become a major Intersolar Dynasty, which gave them almost as much influence inside the Commonwealth as Nigel’s family.

“Oh, yes,” Nigel said. “Major crime incidents seem to be down lately, certainly those against CST anyway. Thank you for that.”

“I do what I can,” Rafael said. “It’s these new nationalist groups that keep springing up to harass planetary governments, they’re the main source of trouble; the more we frustrate them, the more aggressive their core supporters become. If we’re not careful, we’re going to see a nasty wave of anti-Commonwealth terrorist assaults again, just like 2222.”

“You really think it will come to that?”

“I hope not. Internal Diplomacy believes these current groups simply claim political status as a justification for their activities; they’re actually more criminal-based than anything else. If so, they should run a natural cycle and die out.”

“Thank Christ for that. I don’t want to withdraw gateways from any more planets, there are enough isolated worlds as it is. I thought the only planet left with any real trouble was Far Away. And it’s not as if that can ever be cured.”

Rafael Columbia nodded gravely. “I believe that in time even Far Away can be civilized. When CST begins opening phase four space it will become fully incorporated into the Commonwealth.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” Nigel said dubiously. “But it’s going to be a long while before we start thinking about phase four.”

Commonwealth Vice President Elaine Doi walked into the conference room, talking to Thompson Burnelli, the Commonwealth Senator who chaired the science commission. Their respective aides trailed along behind, murmuring quietly among themselves. Elaine Doi greeted Nigel with polite neutrality, careful to maintain her professionalism. He returned the compliment, keeping an impassive face. She was a career politician, having devoted a hundred eighty years to clawing her way up to her present position. Even her rejuvenations were geared around promoting herself; her skin had progressively deepened its shading until it was the darkest ebony to emphasize her ethnicity. Over the same period, her face had actually abandoned her more attractive feminine traits in favor of a more handsome, sterner appearance. Nigel had to deal with her kind of politician on a near-constant basis, and he despised every one of them. In his distant idealistic youth when he’d built the first wormhole generator he had dreamed of leaving them all behind on Earth, allowing the new planets to develop in complete freedom, becoming havens of personal liberty. These days he accepted their dominance of all human government as the price of a civilized society—after all, someone had to maintain order. But that didn’t mean he had to like their endlessly self-serving narcissistic behavior. And he considered Doi to be one of the more reprehensible specimens, always ready to advance herself at the cost of others. With the next presidential selection due in three years’ time, she had begun the final stage of her century-long campaign. His support would ensure she reached the Presidential Palace on New Rio. As yet he hadn’t given it.

Thompson Burnelli was less effusive, a straight-talking man who was North America’s UFN delegate in the Commonwealth Senate, and as such the representative of a huge conglomeration of old and powerful interests made up from some of the wealthiest Grand Families on the planet. He looked the part, a handsome man, wearing an expensive gray silk suit, so obviously a former Ivy League college athlete. His air of confidence was something that could never be acquired through memory implants and bioneural tweaking; it was available only through breeding, and he was very definitely one of Earth’s premier aristocracy. Nigel had hated that kind of rich-kid arrogance while he was in college—as much as he did the politicians. But given a choice, he would prefer to deal with Burnelli’s kind any day.

“Nigel, this must be somewhat galling for you, I imagine,” Thompson Burnelli said with amusement shading close to mockery.

“How so?” Nigel asked.

“An alien contact that your exploratory division had nothing to do with. Some fifth-rate academic astronomer makes the most profound discovery in the last two hundred years, and his only piece of equipment is an equally decrepit telescope that you could probably pick up for a thousand bucks in any junk shop. How much does CST spend on astronomy every year?”

“Couple of billion at the last count,” Nigel replied wearily. He had to admit, the Senator had a point. And he wasn’t the only one making it. The unisphere media had adopted a kind of gleeful sarcasm toward CST since Dudley Bose announced his discovery.

“Never mind,” Thompson Burnelli said cheerfully. “Better luck next time, eh?”

“Thank you. How did your continent’s team do in the Cup?”

The Senator frowned. “Oh, you mean the soccer thing? I’m not sure.”

“Lost, didn’t they? Still, it was only the first round of eight, I don’t suppose you suffer quite so much getting knocked out at the bottom. Better luck next time.” Nigel produced a thin smile as the Senator turned away to greet Rafael Columbia.

More Council members were arriving, and Nigel busied himself welcoming them; at least they could swap football small talk. Crispin Goldreich, the senator chairing the Commonwealth budgetary commission; Brewster Kumar, the President’s science advisor; Gabrielle Else, the director of the Commonwealth Industry and Trade Commission; Senator Lee Ki, director of the phase two space economic policy board, and Eugene Cinzoul, Chief Attorney at the Commonwealth Law Commission.

Elaine Doi raised her voice above the burble of conversation. “I believe we can call this meeting to order now,” she said.

People looked around and nodded their agreement. They all started hunting for their respective seats. Nigel took the chair to the left of the Vice President, who was chairing the meeting. According to protocol, he was the ExoProtectorate Council’s deputy chair. Aides began to settle behind their chiefs.

The Vice President turned to her chief of staff, Patricia Kantil. “Could you ask the SI to come on-line, please?”

That was when Ozzie Fernandez Isaac chose to make his entrance. Nigel squashed the smile that was forming on his lips; everyone else around the table looked so surprised. They should have known better. Back when Nigel and Ozzie assembled the math that made wormhole generators possible, he’d been a genuine eccentric; moments of pure genius partied with surfer-boy dumbness to become the dominant personality trait throughout his undergrad years. A time that Nigel had spent alternately worrying himself sick about the days Ozzie spent out of his skull, and shaking his head in awe as his friend cracked the problems that he’d considered unsolvable. They’d made a great team, good enough to compress space in time for Nigel to step out on Mars to watch the NASA spaceplane landing. After that, taming the beast they’d created was always Nigel’s job, transforming that temperamental prototype of high-energy physics equipment into the ultimate transport method, and in doing so fashioning the largest single corporation the human race had ever known. Management and finance and political influence were of no interest to Ozzie. He just wanted to getout there and see what wonders the galaxy held.

It was the time spent in between his forays out amid the virgin stars that made him legend; the wildman of the Commonwealth, the ultimate alternative lifestyle guru. The stories ran the gamut: girls; the new narcotic stimulants, chemical and bioneural, that he pioneered; Ozzieworld, the H-congruous planet he was supposed to live on all by himself in a palace the size of a city; decades spent as a tramp poet worldwalking to witness the new planet cultures forming from the bottom end of society; the hundreds of naturally conceived children; outr? rejuvenations so he could spend years in animal bodies: a lion, an eagle, a dolphin, a Karruk nobear; the attempted dinosaur DNA synthesis project that cost billions before it was hijacked by the Barsoomians; the secret network of wormholes linking the Commonwealth planets that only he could use; his thought routines taken as the basis of the SI. Everywhere you went in the Commonwealth, the locals would tell of the time when Ozzie passed through (an unknown in disguise at the time of course) and enriched their ancestors’ lives by some feat or other: organizing a bridge to be built over a treacherous river, rushing a sick child to a hospital through a storm, being the first to climb the tallest mountain on the planet, slaying—in single combat—the local crime boss.Turning water into wine, too, if the tabloid side of the unisphere was to be believed, Nigel thought. After all, Ozzie was certainly an expert on the opposite process.

“Sorry I’m late, man,” Ozzie said. He gave the Vice President a friendly wave as he walked over to the last empty chair. As he passed behind Nigel, he patted him on the shoulder. “Good to see you, Nige, it’s been a while.”

“Hi, Ozzie,” Nigel said casually, refusing to be out-cooled. It had been seventeen years since they’d last seen each other in the flesh.

Ozzie finally made it to his chair and sprawled in it with a happy sigh. “Anyone got some coffee? I’ve got a bitch of a hangover.”

Nigel gave a quick flick of his finger, and Daniel Alster had a cup taken over. Several Council members were struggling to keep their disapproval from showing at the legend’s disrespectful attitude. Which was, as Nigel well knew, what Ozzie was hoping for. There were times when he considered Ozzie having a rejuvenation to be singularly pointless; the man could be extraordinarily juvenile without any help from the popping hormones of an adolescent body. But the acceptance and adoration he was granted by the Commonwealth at large must have made that same young Afro-Latino kid finally feel content. Even in the politically correct twenty-first century those two cultures had never mixed, not out on the San Diego streets where he came from. Ozzie had gotten the last laugh there.

“Are you here in an official capacity, Mr. Isaac?” Crispin Goldreich asked, in a very upper-class English accent, which simply reeked of censure.

“Sure am, man, I’m the CST rep for this gig.” In his casual lime-green shirt and creased ochre climbing trousers he looked hugely out of place around that table of masterclass power brokers. It didn’t help that he still had his big Afro hairstyle; in over three centuries of arguing, pleading, and downright mockery, Nigel had never persuaded him to get it cut. It was the one human fashion that had never, ever, come around again. But Ozzie lived in hope.

“Don’t look at me,” Nigel said. “I’m the operations side of CST; Ozzie is the technical advisor to this Council.”

Ozzie gave Crispin Goldreich a broad grin, and winked.

“Very well,” Elaine Doi said. “If we could proceed.”

The large wall-mounted portal overlooking the table bubbled into life. Tangerine and turquoise lines scudded backward into a central vanishing point, looking like some antique screen-saver pattern. “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen,” the Sentient Intelligence said smoothly. “We are happy to be in attendance at what will surely be an historic meeting.”

“Thank you,” the Vice President said. “All right, Brewster, if you would, please.”

The presidential science advisor looked around the table. “There isn’t actually much I can add to the unisphere news reports, except to confirm that it’s real. At our request, CST has opened an exploratory wormhole in interstellar space beyond Tanyata, and used its own instruments to confirm the envelopment event.”

“Our equipment is considerably more sophisticated than the telescopes used by Dudley Bose,” Nigel said. He ignored the quiet snort from Thompson Burnelli. “Even so, there is very little raw data available. The entire process takes about two-thirds of a second. We don’t believe the barrier can be a physical shell, it must be some kind of force field.”

“One which cuts off the visual spectrum?” Lee Ki asked.

“In scale alone, this technology is way beyond anything we have,” Brewster Kumar said. “The damn thing is thirty AUs in diameter. I wouldn’t even expect it to be anything similar to our molecular bonding shields, or even a quantum field.”

“Are there any realistic theories about what the barrier is?”

“We’ve got two dozen in every university physics department across the Commonwealth. But that’s hardly the point; it’s what it does which is interesting. It’s an infrared emitter, which means it’s preserving the solar system inside.”

“How’s that?” Gabrielle Else asked him.

“Essentially there is no buildup of energy inside the barrier. When the star’s electromagnetic output hits the barrier, it passes through to be emitted as heat. If it didn’t, if the barrier contained it, well, the effect would be like a pressure cooker in there. We believe the barrier radiates the solar wind as infrared energy as well, although at this distance it’s difficult to tell.”

“In other words,” Nigel said, “whoever put them up around the Dyson Pair is still living happily inside. The conditions in there haven’t changed from before.”

“Which brings us to the next consideration,” Brewster Kumar said. “Were these barriers erected by the aliens living at the stars, or were they imposed on them? Neither case is particularly helpful to us.”

“How can isolationism be detrimental to us?” Rafael Columbia asked.

“Isolationism in our history is traditionally enacted in times of hostility,” Nigel said. “Such a situation must have existed at the Dyson Pair when this happened. If it is the alien civilizations of these two star systems who erected the barriers, we have to consider the possibility that their motive was defensive. If so, that was one god-awful weapon they were protecting themselves against. The alternative is just as bad, that some other alien species feared them so much, they wanted them contained. Either way, there could well be two alien species out there, both with weapons and technology so far ahead of ours it might as well be magic.”

“Thank you, Sir Arthur,” Ozzie muttered.

Nigel grinned at his old friend; he doubted anyone else in the room got the reference. They were all too young by at least a century.

“I think you’re wrong in assigning them human motivations,” Gabrielle Else said. “Couldn’t this simply be a case of stop the universe I want to get off? After all, the Silfen are fairly insular.”

“Insular?” Rafael Columbia exclaimed. “They’re so spread out we don’t even know how many planets they’re settled on.”

“It is the purpose of this Council meeting to take the worst-case scenario into account,” the Vice President said. “And the hostile locale scenario is certainly plausible.”

“Speaking of the Silfen,” Ozzie said. “Why don’t we ask them what’s going down there?”

“We have,” the Vice President said. “They say they don’t really know.”

“Hell, man, they say that about everything. Ask them if there’s going to be daylight tomorrow and they’ll scratch their asses and ask you what you mean by ‘tomorrow.’ You can’t just ask them a straight question like that. Goddamn loafing mystics, they’ve got to be chased down and fooled into giving us an answer.”

“Yes, thank you, Mr. Isaac, I am aware of that. We do have a great many Silfen cultural experts, all of whom are pursuing this avenue as a matter of urgency. Hopefully, they will coax a more coherent answer from the Silfen. Until that happens, we are left on our own resources. Hence the need for this Council meeting.”

Ozzie frowned furiously and snuggled down into his chair for a good sulk.

“I don’t believe the barrier could have been imposed on those stars by an external agency,” Lee Ki said. “It’s not logical. If you fear someone so much and have the ability to imprison entire stars, then you would not make the barrier permeable. You would use it as a pressure cooker, or do worse than that. No, for my money it was defensive. Something very nasty was heading toward the Dyson Pair, and they slammed the gates shut in its face.”

“In which case, where is it now?” Thompson Burnelli asked.

“Exactly,” Brewster Kumar said.

“It no longer exists,” Ozzie said. “And you guys are all far too paranoid.”

“Care to qualify that?” Thompson Burnelli said impassively.

“Come on, man; the Dyson Pair are over twelve hundred light-years away from Tanyata. This all happened when the fucking Roman Empire ruled the Earth. Astronomy is history.”

“It was closer to Genghis Khan than the Romans,” Brewster Kumar said. “And no culture as powerful and advanced as the Dyson Pair or their aggressor is going to fade away in a single millennia. We certainly won’t, and we’re nowhere near that technology level yet. You can’t just bury your head in the sand over this and hope it all blew away all those years ago.”

“I agree,” the Vice President said. “Far Away is only five hundred and fifty light-years from the Dyson Pair, and they’re observing the barrier still intact.”

“One other piece of information which CST hasn’t made public yet,” Nigel said. “We also used our exploratory wormhole to track down the envelopment time for Dyson Beta. Unfortunately, our first guess was the right one.”

Rafael Columbia was suddenly very attentive. “You mean they’re the same?”

“Yes. As seen from Tanyata, the Pair have a two-light-year linear separation distance. We opened a wormhole two light-years closer to Beta from where we made our observation of Alpha’s enclosure. We saw Beta’s enclosure, which is identical to Alpha’s. They occur within three minutes of each other.”

“It’s defensive,” Eugene Cinzoul said. “It has to be. A civilization inhabiting two star systems was approached by an aggressor.”

“Curious coincidence,” Ozzie said.

“What is?” the Vice President asked.

“Something aggressive and immensely powerful closes in on the one civilization in this part of the galaxy that was technologically savvy enough to protect itself from them. I don’t believe it, man. Galactic timescale simply won’t allow that to happen. We only coexist with the Silfen because they’ve existed for like millions of years.”

The Vice President gave the SI portal a troubled look. “What is your interpretation of this?”

“Mr. Isaac is correct in stating that such a conflict between two balanced powers is extremely unlikely,” the SI said. “We know how rare it is for sentience to evolve on any life-bearing planet; as a consequence, technological civilizations rarely coexist in the galaxy—although the High Angel is an exceptional case. However, the proposition cannot be excluded simply because of this. We also acknowledge Mr. Kumar’s point, that any civilization capable of performing such a feat will not quickly disappear from the galaxy.”

“They can evolve,” Ozzie said quickly. “They can throw off all their primitive instincts. After all, we leave a lot of our shit behind us.”

“You also generate a great deal of new ‘shit,’ ” the SI said. “All of which is depressingly similar to your old ‘shit.’ And no primitive culture could erect these barriers around the Dyson Pair. But again, we concede the point. The barrier mechanism may simply be an ancient device that has been left on for no good reason other than its creators have indeed moved onward and upward. There are endless speculations which can be made from the presently observed data. None of which can be refined as long as that data remains so scarce and so old.”

“What are you suggesting?” the Vice President asked.

“That is obvious, is it not? This Council was brought into existence to formulate a response to any perceived threat to the Commonwealth. No coherent response to the Dyson Pair can be made based on the currently available data. More information must be acquired. You must visit the Dyson Pair to ascertain their current status, and the reason behind the enclosures.”

“The cost—” exclaimed the Vice President. She gave Nigel a quick guilty glance.

He ignored it; the SI had made things considerably simpler for him. “Yes, it would cost a lot to reach the Dyson Pair by conventional methods,” he said. “We’d have to locate at least seven H-congruous planets, stretched out between the Commonwealth and the Dyson Pair, and then build commercial-size wormhole generators on each of them. It would take decades, and there would be little economic benefit.”

“The Commonwealth treasury can hardly subsidize CST,” Crispin Goldreich said.

“You did for Far Away,” Nigel said mildly. “That was our last alien contact.”

“One station on Half Way!” the Senator said hotly. “And if nothing else, that convinced me we should never do such a thing again. Far Away has been a total waste of time and effort.”

Nigel resisted the impulse to comment directly. The Halgarths had direct allies around the table in addition to Rafael, and their family were the main beneficiaries of Far Away. Not, as they’d be the first to admit, that there were many benefits.

“I would like to propose something a little more practical than consecutive wormholes,” Nigel said. Everyone around the table looked at him expectantly, even Ozzie, which was quite an achievement. The Vice President’s expression of interest tightened at the simple demonstration of true political power.

“I’m in total agreement with the SI that we need to know exactly what has happened at the Dyson Pair,” Nigel continued. “And we can neither afford the cost nor the wait to build a chain of wormholes to take us there. So I suggest we build a starship instead.”

The idea was greeted with several nervous smiles. Ozzie simply laughed.

“You mean a faster-than-light ship?” Brewster Kumar asked. There was a strong note of excitement in his voice. “Can we actually do that?”

“Of course. It’s a relatively simple adaptation of our current wormhole generator system; instead of a stable fixed wormhole which you travel through, this will produce a permanent flowing wormhole that you travel inside of.”

“Oh, man,” Ozzie said. “That is so beautiful. Whaddayaknow, the space cadets won after all. Let’s press the red button and zoom off into hyperspace.”

“It’s not hyperspace,” Nigel answered, slightly too quickly. “That’s just a tabloid name for a very complex energy manipulation function, and you know it.”

“Hyperspace,” Ozzie said contentedly. “Everything we built our wormhole to avoid.”

“Except in cases like this, when it makes perfect sense,” Nigel said. “We can probably build this ship inside of a year. A crack exploratory team can go out there, take a look around and tell us what’s happening. It’s quick, and it’s cheap.”

“Cheap?” Crispin Goldreich queried.

“Relatively, yes.” The starship proposals had been sitting dormant in Nigel’s personal files for over a century. An exercise in wishful thinking, one he hadn’t managed to fully let go. He’d never quite forgotten (nor erased) his feeling of admiration when he watched the Eagle II fly gracefully out of the Martian horizon to settle on Arabia Terra. There was something noble about spacecraft voyaging through the vast and hostile void, carrying with them the pinnacle of the human spirit, everything good and worthwhile about the race. And he was probably the last human alive who remembered that. No, he corrected himself, not the last. “The CST corporation and Augusta Treasury would be prepared to fund up to thirty percent of the hardware costs.”

“In return for exclusivity,” Thompson Burnelli said scathingly.

Nigel smiled softly at him. “I believe that precedent was established during the Far Away venture.”

“Very well,” the Vice President said. “Unless there’s an alternative, we’ll take a vote on the proposal.”

Nobody was against it. But Nigel had known that from the start; even Burnelli raised his hand in approval. The ExoProtectorate Council was basically a rubber stamp for CST exploration and encounter strategy. With Nigel’s blessing, CST had started practical design work on the starship three days earlier. All that remained were the thousand interminable details of the project, its funding and management. Details they would all delegate to their deputies. This meeting was policy only.

“So are you going to captain this mission?” Rafael Columbia asked as they stood up to leave.

“No,” Nigel said. “Much as I’d like to, that position requires various qualities and experience which I simply don’t have, not even lurking in secure storage at my rejuve clinic. But I know a man who does.”

Oaktier was an early phase one planet, settled in 2089. Its longevity had produced a first-class economy and a rich and impressive cultural heritage. The crystal skyscrapers and marble condo-pyramids that comprised the center of the capital, Darklake City, made that quite obvious to any observer arriving fresh at the CST planetary station from Seattle.

Most of the original settlers had arrived from Canada and Hong Kong, with a goodly proportion of Seattle’s residents joining up with them. As such, its influences were memorably varied, with ultramodern trends sitting comfortably alongside carefully maintained old traditions. Given such roots, formality and hard work had seeped into the population’s genome over the centuries. As a people, they’d flourished and expanded; two hundred forty years after settlement, the population was just over one and a quarter billion, spread out over eight continents. The vast majority worked diligently and lived well.

With the Seattle legacy perhaps weighting the decision, Darklake City had been sited in a hilly area of the subtropics. With its slopes of rich soil, constant warm weather, and abundant water from rivers and lakes, the area was ideal for coffee growing. The lakeshore that made up the southeastern edge of the city now sprawled for thirty-five kilometers, incorporating marinas, civic parks, expensive apartment blocks, boatyards, leisure resorts, and commercial docks. At night, it was a gaudy neon rainbow of color as holographic adverts roofed the roads like luminescent storm clouds, while buildings competed against each other to emphasize their features in raw photonic energy. Bars, restaurants, and clubs used music, live acts, and semilegal pleasure-tingle emitters to entice the party people and it crowds in off the street.

Some forty years before Dudley Bose made his vital discovery, the night she was due to be murdered, Tara Jennifer Shaheef could see it all laid out before her from the lounge balcony of her twenty-fifth-floor apartment in the center of the city. The shoreline was like the glimmering edge of the galaxy, falling off into complete blackness beyond. That was where life and civilization ended. Beyond were only a few sparkling cruise ships that slid across the deep water like rogue star clusters lost in the deep night.

A gentle evening breeze stirred her hair and robe and she leaned against the balcony rail. There was a sugary scent of blossom in the air, which she relished as she inhaled. Oaktier had long ago banned combustion engines and fossil fuel power stations from the planet; local politicians boasted that its atmosphere was cleaner than Earth’s. So she breathed in the air contentedly. There was no noise, at this height she was insulated from the low buzz of electric vehicles on the streets below. And the bustling shoreline three kilometers away was too far for its racket to carry.

If she turned her head left, she could see the bright grid of city lights stretch out into the foothills. A pale light cast by the gray-blue crescent of Oaktier’s low moon was just strong enough to reveal the mountains behind them that formed a low wall across the night sky. In the daytime, long terrace lines of coffee bushes curved along the slopes. White plantation mansions nestled in lush groves of trees, set back from the narrow roads that snaked up to the summits.

Two rejuvenations ago, she’d made her life out there, away from the more frenetic urban existence. Sometimes, she dreamed of reverting, heading back into the countryside for a quieter, slower existence. An existence away from her intense, driven husband, Morton. After a couple more rejuvenations, she would probably do it, just to recharge herself. But not just yet, she still enjoyed the faster mainstream life.

She went back into the apartment, and the balcony doors slid shut behind her. Her bare feet padded quietly on the lounge’s hard teakwood floor as she made her way across to the bathroom.

In the apartment tower’s basement, her killer entered the power utility room. He removed the cover from one of the building management array cabinets, and took a handheld array from his pocket. The unit spooled out a length of fiber-optic cable with a standard v-jack on the end, which he plugged into the cabinet’s exposed maintenance socket. Several new programs were downloaded, and quickly piggybacked their way onto the existing software. When it was done, he pulled the v-jack out and replaced the cover with the correct locking tool.

Tara Jennifer Shaheef’s bathroom was decorated in marble, while the ceiling was a single giant mirror. Recessed lighting around the rim of the bath cast a warm rose-pink glow across the room, flickering in an imitation of candlelight. The bath itself was a sunken affair big enough for two, which she’d filled to the brim and added a variety of salts to. When she got in, the spar nozzles came on, churning the water against her skin. She sank into the sculpted seat, and rested her head back on the cushion. Her e-butler called up some music from the household array. Tara listened to the melody in a pleasant semidoze.

Morton was away for a week at Talansee on the other side of the planet, attending a conference with a housing developer group he was trying to negotiate a deal with. AquaState, the company he and Tara had set up together, manufactured semiorganic moisture extractor leaves that provided water for remote buildings, and was finally starting to take off. Morton was eager to capitalize on their growing success, moving the company toward a public flotation that would bring in a huge amount of money for further expansion. But his devotion to his work meant that for seven whole days she didn’t have to produce any excuses about where she’d been or what she’d been doing. She could spend the whole time with Wyobie Cotal, the rather delectable young man she’d snagged for herself. It was mainly for what he did to her in bed, but they also traveled around the city and enjoyed its places and events as well. That’s what made this affair so special. Wyobie paid attention to all those areas that Morton either ignored or had simply forgotten in his eternal obsession to advance their company. These seven days were going to be a truly wonderful break, she was determined about that. Then maybe afterward… After all, they’d been married for thirteen years. What more did Morton want? Marriages always went stale in the end. You just shook hands and moved on.

Her killer walked across the ground-floor lobby, and his e-butler requested an elevator to take him up to the twenty-fifth floor. He stood underneath the discreet security sensor above the doors as he waited. He didn’t care, after all, it wasn’t his face he was wearing.

Tara was still deliberating about what to wear that evening when the hauntingly powerful orchestral chorus vanished abruptly. The bathroom lights died. The spar jets shut down. Tara opened her eyes resentfully. A power failure was so boring. She thought the apartment was supposed to be immune from such things. It had certainly never happened before.

After a few seconds, the lights still hadn’t come back on. She told her e-butler to ask the household array what was happening. It told her it couldn’t get a reply, nothing seemed to be working. Now she frowned in annoyance. This simply couldn’t happen, that’s what backups and duplicated systems were for.

She waited for a little while longer. The bath was such a tranquil place, and she wanted her skin to be just perfect for her lover that night. But no matter how hard she wished and cursed, the power stayed off. Eventually, she struggled to her feet and stepped out. That was when she realized just how dark the apartment was. She really couldn’t see her hand in front of her face. Using irritation to cover any bud of genuine concern, she decided not to feel around for a towel. Instead she cautiously made her way out into the corridor. There was a glimmer of light available there, at least. It came from the broad archway leading into the lounge.

Tara hurried through into the big room, only mildly concerned what her soaking wet feet would do to the wooden floor. Light from the illuminated city washed in through the balcony windows. It gave the room a dark monochrome perspective. Her lips hardened in annoyance as she looked out at the twinkling lights. This was the only apartment that seemed to be suffering.

Something moved in the hallway. Large. Silent. She turned. “What—”

The killer fired a nervejam pulse from his customized pistol. Every muscle in Tara’s body locked solid for a second. The pulse overloaded most of the neural connections in her brain, making death instantaneous. She never felt a thing. Her muscles unlocked, and the corpse crumpled to the floor.

He walked over to her, and spent a moment looking down. Then he pulled out an em pulser and placed it on the back of her head, where the memory-cell insert was. The gadget discharged. He triggered it another three times, making absolutely sure the insert would be scrambled beyond recovery. No matter how good a clone body the re-life procedure produced for her, the most recent section of Tara Jennifer Shaheef’s life was now lost for ever.

The killer’s e-butler sent an instruction to the apartment’s array, which turned the lights back on. He sat in the big sofa, facing the door, and waited.

Wyobie Cotal arrived forty-six minutes later. There was a somewhat smug and anticipatory smile on the young first-lifer’s face as he walked into the room. It turned to an expression of total shock as he saw the naked corpse on the floor. He’d barely registered the man sitting on the sofa opposite before the nervejam pistol fired again.

The killer repeated the procedure with the em pulser, erasing the carefully stored duplicate memories of the last few months of Wyobie Cotal’s life from his memorycell insert. After that, he moved into the spare bedroom, pulling three large suitcases and a big trunk out from their storage closet. By the time he’d got them into the master bedroom, three robot trolleys had arrived from the tower’s delivery bay, carrying several plastic packing crates.

His first job was shoving the bodies into the two largest crates and sealing them tight. He then spent the next two and a half hours collecting every item of Tara’s in the apartment, gradually filling the remaining crates with them. Her clothes went into the cases and trunk.

When he was finished, the trolleys loaded up the crates again, and took them back down the service elevator to the delivery bay, where two hired trucks were waiting. The crates containing the bodies went into one truck, while everything else went into the second.

Upstairs the killer drained the bath, then ordered the maidbots to give the apartment a class-one cleaning. He left the little machines busy at work scouring the floors and walls for dust and dirt, conscientiously switching off the lights as he went.

FOUR

So here she was, in the bleak small hours of the morning, strapped tightly into the confined cockpit of a hyperglider that was tethered to the barren rock floor of Stakeout Canyon waiting for the storm to arrive with its two hundred kilometers per hour winds. At her age, and with her family heritage behind her, there were probably a great many better things for Justine Burnelli to be doing. Most of the ones she could think of right now involved beds with silk sheets (preferably shared with a man), or spa baths, or extremely expensive restaurants, or plush nightclubs. But the only luxuries within about a thousand kilometers were currently racing away from her as fast as the support crews could drive the convoy’s mobile homes over this god-awful terrain. And it was all thanks to her newest best friend: Estella Fenton.

They’d met in the day lounge of the exclusive Washington rejuvenation clinic she always used, both of them just out of the tank and undergoing physiotherapy, hydrotherapy, massage, and herbal aromatherapy, among other remedies to bring some life back to limbs and muscles that hadn’t been used for fourteen months. They moved like old-time geriatrics, an irony made worse by their apparently adolescent bodies.

All anyone did in the lounge was sit in the deep jellcushion chairs and stare out at the wooded parkland beyond the picture windows. A hardy few used handheld arrays to do some work, reading the screens and talking to the programs. None of them had retained the ability to interface directly with the cybersphere. Their bodies had all been purged of most of their inserts, like processors and OCtattoos, during the rejuvenation process, and they hadn’t received their new ones yet. Estella had been led into the airy lounge by two nurses, one holding each arm as the gorgeous young redhead wobbled unsteadily between them. She sank into the chair with a grateful sigh.

“We’ll be back for your hydro session at three o’clock,” the senior nurse said.

“Thank you so much,” Estella said with a forced smile. It blanked out as soon as the nurses left the lounge. “Bloody hell.”

“Just out?” Justine asked.

“Two days.”

“Three, myself.”

“God! Another ten days of this.”

“Worth it, though.” Justine held up the paperscreen she’d been reading; it was still running through the articles and pictures of the fashion magazine she’d accessed. “I haven’t been able to wear anything this good for the last ten years.” Although plenty of her female friends underwent rejuvenation religiously every twenty years (or less), Justine tended to wait until her body age was around fifty before going through the whole process again. You could carry vanity too far.

“I’m not even at the stage where I’m thinking of clothes yet,” Estella said. She ran a hand through her disheveled hair, which was an all-over bonnet five centimeters long. “I need to get styled first. And I hate having hair this short, I normally wear it down to my waist, and that always takes a couple of years to grow,” she grouched.

“That must look lovely.”

“I don’t have any trouble catching men.” She glanced around the lounge. “God, I don’t even feel like that right now.” The clinic was strictly single sex, although that didn’t always stop clients who were nearing the end of their physical therapy period from indulging in a bit of illicit hanky-panky in their rooms. It wasn’t just youth’s appearance they reclaimed after rejuve; their newly adolescent bodies were flush with hormones and vitality. Sex was at the top of just about everybody’s agenda when they left a rejuvenation clinic, and tended to stay there for quite a while.

Justine grinned. “Won’t be long. You’ll be heading for the nearest Silent World full speed ahead.”

“Been there, done that, a hundred times over. Not to say that I won’t make a stop off on the way, but I’ve got something more exhilarating planned for this time.”

“Oh? What’s that?”

Thathad turned out to be a two-month-long safari across Far Away. Justine had almost outright rejected the notion of joining her. But the more Estella talked about it—and she talked about very little else—the more it began to lodge in her mind.

After all, Far Away was the only true “wild world” within the Commonwealth, where civilization’s grip on the inhabitants was a loose one. It was difficult and expensive to reach, the climate and environment were odd, the enigmatic alien ship Marie Celeste was still there puzzling researchers as much as it had on the day of its discovery. And then there was the ultimate geological challenge, the Grand Triad, the three largest volcanoes in the known galaxy, arranged in a tight triangle.

Justine’s hyperglider was tethered just inside the wide opening of Stakeout Canyon, so the nose was pointing east, which put Mount Zeus to her left. In the daytime when the ground crew was rigging the hyperglider, all she could see of that colossus was its rocky lower slope, which formed one side of the huge funnel-shaped canyon. The crater peak could never be seen from the base; it was seventeen kilometers high.

To her right was Mount Titan, the only currently active volcano of the three, its crater rim standing outside the atmosphere at twenty-three kilometers high. Sometimes, at night, and if the eruption was particularly violent, the rose-gold corona shimmering above the glowing lava could be seen from the pampas lands away to the south, as if a red dwarf had just set behind the horizon. Directly ahead of her, forming the impossibly blunt and massive end of the canyon, was Mount Herculaneum. Measuring seven hundred eleven kilometers wide across its base, the volcano was roughly conical, with its twin-caldera summit leveling out at thirty-two kilometers above sea level, putting it a long way above Far Away’s troposphere. Thankfully, the geologists had classed it as semiactive; it had never erupted in the hundred eighty odd years since human settlement had begun, though it had produced a few spectacular shudders in that time.

That vulcanism could produce such huge features on a small planet like Far Away was a wonderful enigma to her. Of course, she’d studied articles on the science of it all, the fact that only a forty percent standard gravity allowed something as gigantic as Mount Herculaneum to exist, while on a world with normal Earth-like gravity it would collapse under its own weight. And the lack of tectonic plates meant that lava simply continued to pile up in the same spot, aeon after aeon.

But none of that cool reasoning could detract from the actuality of the monstrous landscape she’d come to experience. The power and forces amassing around her were elemental, a planet’s strength readily visible as nowhere else. And she was sitting in her pathetic little machine, in a lunatic attempt to tame that power, to make it do her bidding.

Her hands were shaking slightly inside her flight suit as the first hint of dawn emerged, with an outline of slate-gray sky materializing high above the end of the canyon. She cursed Estella-bloody-Fenton for the sight. It didn’t help calm her nerves knowing that Estella was in a similar hyperglider fastened to the rock a couple of kilometers away, staring out at the same inhospitable jags of rock.

“It’s starting,” someone said over the radio.

There was no cybersphere on Far Away; in fact, no modern communications at all outside Armstrong City and the larger towns. A hundred years earlier, there had been a few satellites providing some coverage for the countryside and ocean, but the Guardians of Selfhood had shot down the last of them long ago. All anybody had out here was simple radio, and Far Away’s turbulent ionosphere didn’t offer a lot of assistance to that.

“There’s some movement out here. Wind’s picking up.”

Justine peered through the tough transparent hood of the cockpit. Nothing moved on the bare rock below her. The storms that swept in from the Hondu Ocean to the west were channeled and squeezed by Zeus and Titan to roar along this one canyon between them. It had been scoured clean of any loose soil or pebbles geological ages ago.

“Derrick?” Justine called. “Can you hear me?”

Her only answer was a fluctuating buzz of static as the dawn slowly poured a wan light down into the canyon.

“Derrick?”

The caravan of trucks, four-by-fours, and mobile homes must be clear now, she acknowledged grimly, over Zeus’s foothills and sheltered in some deep gully from the morning storm. All the mad hyperglider pilots were on their own now. No escape.

Somehow this part of it had been missed off the slick advertising and intensive, reassuring briefing sessions. Even the pilot skill training memory implementation hadn’t included it. Waiting helplessly as the wind from the ocean built from a gentle breeze to a deranged hurricane. Waiting, unable to do anything. Waiting, watching. Waiting and worrying. Waiting as fright emerged from some primal place deep in the brain, growing and growing.

“How’s it going, darling?” Estella asked.

“Fine,” you bitch. “Actually, I’m getting a bit nervous.”

“Nervous? Lucky cow. I’m scared shitless.”

Justine instructed her e-butler to run through the cockpit procedures again, checking the hyperglider’s systems. Even with the limited capacity of the onboard array, the e-butler produced a perfect control interface. Its review was instantaneous; translucent icons blinked up inside her virtual vision, everything was on-line and fully functional. “Remind me again why I want to do this?”

“Because it beats the hell out of breakfast in bed,” Estella told her.

“In a five-star hotel.”

“On a Caribbean island, with a veranda overlooking the beach.”

“Where dolphins are playing in the water.”

It was getting a lot lighter outside. Justine could finally see some thin streamers of sand drifting past the hyperglider. They must have blown in from the coast, she thought. She switched the weather radar to the main console screen, studying the blobs of vivid color as they surged and squabbled against each other. The storm was definitely on its way; scarlet ribbons representing dense high-velocity air were seeping across the screen like some kind of fresh wound, always expanding.

In a way she was glad the storm was heading in from the west, creeping up on her from behind. It meant she couldn’t watch the hammerhead clouds as they devoured the sky. She was quite frightened enough as it was. Even now she wasn’t sure she was going to make the flight. There was an option to just stay here; the hyperglider was currently configured into a smooth, fat cigar shape, the wing buds confined below the main fuselage; she could simply keep the tethers wound in, and let the winds roar around her until it was all over. Many had, so she’d been told, bottling out at the last moment. Right now, in the middle of the annual storm season, it was an average five-hour wait for the gales to sweep over.

Within twenty minutes, the wind was strong enough to start shaking the hyperglider. If there was sand out there, she couldn’t see it anymore. Red waves washed continually across the weather radar screen.

“Still there?” Estella asked.

“Still here.”

“Won’t be long now.”

“Yeah. Are you getting the same readings from your radar? Some of those airstreams are almost two hundred kilometers an hour already.” The digital figures for wind speed were blurring, they were mounting so fast. At this rate the storm’s central powerhouse would be overhead in another forty to fifty minutes, and those were the winds she wanted. If she took off now, the hyperglider would simply be driven into the base of Mount Herculaneum.

The radio band seemed to be full of bad jokes and nervy bravado. Justine didn’t join in with any of it, although listening was a strange kind of comfort. It helped keep away the sense of isolation.

Clouds were rampaging across the sky now, gradually becoming lower. They blocked the rising sun, cutting the illumination to a gloomy twilight, although she could still see the swollen tatters of rain charging off into the distance. The rock around the hyperglider began to glisten with a thin sheen of water.

“Wind’s reaching two hundred,” Estella called out. There was dread mingling with anticipation in her voice. “I’m about to release. See you on the other side, darling.”

“I’ll be there,” Justine yelled. The fuselage was shaking violently now, producing a steady high-volume thrumming; even the howl of the wind was penetrating the heavily insulated cockpit. The screen displays on the console in front of her were jumbled thanks to the quivering, jittering lines of color, completely out of focus. She had to rely almost completely on the more basic information inside her virtual vision. Gray mist was a constant blur outside, eliminating any sight of the sky or canyon walls.

Then it was time. The winds along the ground of Stakeout Canyon were over a hundred sixty kilometers an hour. Her radar showed the storm’s leading edge was now boiling up Mount Herculaneum ahead of her, and that was the critical factor. Those winds had to be there to carry her a long, long way. Without them, this was going to be a short trip with one very abrupt ending.

She put her hands down on the console’s i-spots, fingers curling around the grip bars, plyplastic flowed around them, securing them for what promised to be a turbulent flight. The OCtattoos on her wrists completed the link between the i-spots and her main nerve cords, interfacing her directly with the onboard array. Virtual hands appeared inside her virtual vision. Her customization had given them long slender fingers with green nails and glowing blue neon rings on every finger. A joystick materialized amid the icons, and she moved her virtual hand to grasp it. Her other hand started tapping icons, initiating one final systems check. With everything coming up green, she ordered the onboard array to deploy the wings.

The plyplastic buds swelled out, elongating to become small thick delta shapes. The thrumming increased dramatically as they caught the wind. Tethers were being strained close to their tolerance limits. Justine prayed the carbon-reinforced titanium anchor struts, driven fifty meters into the naked rock by the support team, would survive the next few minutes.

Some little demon inside said: Last chance to stay put, and live.

Justine moved her virtual hand and flipped the forward tether icon. The locks disengaged, and she was immediately shaken violently from side to side as the hyperglider fishtailed. An instinctive response from the implanted training memory came to her aid. She twisted the joystick, and the wings bent downward several degrees. A touch on the rear tether icon, and the two strands extended. The hyperglider lifted twenty meters into the air, still shaking frantically, as if it was desperate to be rid of its final restraints. Justine halted the tether extension, and began to test her control surfaces. The rear of the hyperglider was quickly shifted into a vertical stabilizer fin. Wings expanded a little farther, angling to produce more lift. Finally, once she cleared the ground, the dreadful thrumming vibration faded away—although never cutting out altogether. Now all she had to contend with was the awesome roar of the wind as it accelerated toward two hundred kilometers an hour.

At this point, the hyperglider was nothing more than a giant kite. Very carefully, she began to extend the rear tethers still farther. They played out behind her, and the hyperglider rose eagerly away from the ground. After two minutes of careful extension, she was a hundred meters high. The ground wasn’t visible, for which she was obscurely thankful. Tatters of mist were scudding past so fast they prevented her from seeing anything beyond twenty or thirty meters. Raindrops that hit the cockpit transparency immediately hurtled off, scoured clean by the tremendous air velocity. Constantly flexing the wings to compensate for turbulence, she began extending the tethers again.

Twenty-five minutes after leaving the ground, she was fourteen hundred meters high. It was a cautious ascent, but the two tether cables were shaking with a harmonic that set her teeth on edge. Justine configured the plyplastic hyperglider for freeflight. The wings flowed outward, reaching a hundred ten meters at full span while curving around into a crescent shape; from above it made the hyperglider look like a giant scimitar blade, with the cockpit bullet jutting out of the apex. Behind her, the rear fuselage performed a vertical stretch, becoming a deep triangular stabilizer, its tips twitching with near-subliminal motion to keep the craft lined up accurately in the windstream.

She reached fifteen hundred meters in altitude. The wings curled fractionally along their length, presenting the most efficient lift capture profile to the wind. Looking at the figures on the console screen, she couldn’t believe the strain on the tether cables, almost all the safety margin was used up.

Justine sucked down a deep breath as the raw elements screamed around her. If she had the courage, this ought to be the ride of a lifetime. If… She thought back to all those years she’d lived through, from this strange viewpoint they all seemed so achingly identical, and boring.

A virtual finger reached forward, almost reluctantly touching the disengage icon.

The g-force slammed her back into the seat as the hyperglider cut free, bringing back the weight she hadn’t felt since she arrived on Far Away. The craft hurtled toward the blunt end of Stakeout Canyon at two hundred kilometers an hour. Immediately it lurched to starboard and began to descend. She twisted the joystick to compensate—not fast, smooth and positive—shifting the wings to alter the airflow. The response was astonishingly quick, sending her swooping upward. Then a near-spin started, and she flipped the stabilizer tips to counter it.

Every moment demanded her total concentration merely to hold the hyperglider roughly level. It wasn’t just the featureless wrap of cloud that cut her off from the outside world. Her attention was focused solely on the attitude display and the radar. As Stakeout Canyon narrowed, she had to hold her course directly down the center. All the time the rock walls closed in toward each other, growing steeper in the process, the furious buffeting increased proportionally. Wild turbulence was constantly trying to swirl the craft around into a spin, or pull it down to oblivion.

She wasn’t even aware of time passing, only the frantic, exhausting fight to keep the hyperglider on track. If she let it ascend too high, the massive upper windstreams would carry it away over the sides of the canyon as they gushed up and away, expanding in release from the escalating pressure at the base of the walls. She would wind up somewhere on the weather-blasted and boulder-strewn midslopes of Zeus or Titan, hundreds of kilometers from the recovery vehicles of the caravan.

Without any warning, the radar picked up the end of the canyon, twenty-five kilometers away. At this point, where the three volcanoes intersected, Mount Herculaneum was a simple vertical cliff, six kilometers high. Her own altitude was three and a half kilometers. Outside, the wind speed was still increasing within the constriction. The weather radar screen flared lurid scarlet around the edges as it tracked the lethal currents and shock waves reverberating off the rock. Darkness deepened around her as the shredded clouds were crushed back together.

Justine retracted the wings slightly, sacrificing the propulsive push they generated for a little more maneuverability. It had begun to rain steadily outside the cockpit now, thick droplets slashing along beside her. Paradoxically, visibility began to lift. The clouds were recondensing under the pressure. Droplets began to merge together for an instant before the raging winds tore them apart. Then they would re-form a second later, larger this time as the pressure continued to build relentlessly. Semicohesive horizontal streams of water churned and foamed around the hyperglider fuselage.

The cliff was twelve kilometers away, and she was down to three kilometers from the canyon floor. Water had become so dense, it was as if the hyperglider was surfing along inside the crest of some crazy airborne wave. The sun had risen above the volcano’s slopes, shining down into the top of the canyon. Suddenly it struck the chaotic foam whipping around the hyperglider, and the world flared into a thousand tattered sparkling rainbows, birthing and dying, clashing and colliding. Justine laughed in dazed appreciation at the astounding sight.

Three kilometers ahead of her, the gushing rivulets merged into a single writhing torrent two kilometers above the floor of Stakeout Canyon. That was a couple of kilometers from the cliff. The rocky constriction was at its narrowest, the pressure at its highest. There was only one way the churning river could escape.

Justine slid the hyperglider above the water, staring down on it in utter disbelief. The rainbows fizzled out abruptly. Rock slammed up into her vision to replace them, terrifyingly huge walls of it, stretching up halfway to heaven. Right in front of her, the flying river curved upward and began the long, impossible powerclimb to freedom as the entire storm went vertical. Blasting out an eternal thunderclap, the wind reached three hundred kilometers an hour. She knew she was yelling wordlessly, but couldn’t hear herself above the cacophony bombarding the cockpit.

The hyperglider was wrenched upward. G-force slammed Justine down into the seat again. Her knuckles grew white as she clenched the grip bars, fearful she’d lose contact with the i-spots. She wrestled the wing surfaces to obey in a desperate bid to maintain stability within the geysering air. Water rose with her, defying gravity to shoot up parallel to the cliff. Even with the hyperglider demanding her full devotion simply to survive the demented air currents, she spared the time, a couple of precious seconds, to stare at the incredible phenomenon. A waterfall going straight up.

At five kilometers altitude, the foaming sheet of water began to break apart again. The immense upright storm was beginning to spread wide as it reached the top of the canyon. Pressure and wind velocity were weakening. Throughout it all, Justine steered the hyperglider directly up the central track. Water and cloud cascaded away on either side as she burst out above the rock, two immense waves of vapor falling back down in swan-wing curves to crash onto the volcano’s lower slopes. Only in the center of the maelstrom did the wind keep howling, thrusting her forward and upward.

Mount Herculaneum’s gigantic bulk became visible below her, a desolate ground of shattered stone and saturated gravel extending for tens of kilometers around the top of the canyon. Gradually the harshness began to give way to the more welcome stains of ochre and avocado-green as the plants reasserted themselves. Tiny grasses rooted hard in crinkled fissures, hardy tropical moss welded to boulders. The storm continued to rage above them, seeking its escape to the quieter skies in the east by sliding around the slopes to the north and the south.

Justine modified the wing camber again, maintaining her speed, but rising ever higher. She was tracking a straight line between the canyon and the summit, never deviating to either side. Grassy meadows with sturdy scrub bushes passed below her now. Temperate lands, the plants lashed and cowed by the unremitting storms, but always flourishing. The twin cataracts of erupting water from the canyon were fifteen kilometers behind her, and the clouds were parting, pealing off right and left to find their own route around the volcano. Justine sought another path through the clear sunny sky ahead and above. Her speed was still colossal, sufficient to carry her well clear of the storm, but not quite enough for her ultimate goal. She began scanning the weather radar.

As if the volcano’s western midsection didn’t have enough to contend with, twisters were skittering over the rumpled slopes, a legacy of clear air turbulence from the storm. She could see them through the canopy, spindly strands of beige ephemera, whipping violently back and forth across the land. They came in all sizes, from mild spirals of dust, to brutal, dense vortices reaching kilometers in height. The onboard array plotted their courses, eliminating those too weak or too distant for her purpose. Not that any of them were truly predictable. This was where human intuition came in—and luck.

There was one, twenty kilometers ahead, and slightly more southward than she would have preferred. But it stood nearly five kilometers high, siphoning up car-sized boulders as it wove its erratic course. Justine banked around, lining the hyperglider’s nose on it. She acquired yet more speed as the craft sank closer to the ground. The wings and vertical stabilizer shrank inward, thickening as they went. Her eyes were mesmerized by the wild pirouettes of the twister’s base, leaving her hungry for a pattern, any sort of clue to which way it would swerve next.

The hyperglider’s descent became a fearsome dive. She swayed it in time with the base of the twister—judging, anticipating. Wings and stabilizer were down to nothing more than stubs, giving her minimal control. The ground was barely five hundred meters away. Ahead of her, the twister altered course again. She knew it would hold steady for perhaps a couple of seconds, and pushed the joystick forward, arrowing the craft straight at it. At the last moment she pulled up, watching the nose trace a sharp curve. The horizon fell away, leaving her with a sky that faded from glaring turquoise to fabulous deep indigo.

Then the hyperglider penetrated the twister. Enraged dust and whirling grit surrounded the fuselage, holding it tight. The wings and rear stabilizers bowed around, forming a stumpy propeller as the nose finished its arc to point straight up along the wavering unstable core of whirling air. Wing blades bit deep, spinning the fuselage and thrusting it up in one potent motion. Particles from sand up to alarmingly large stones hammered away on the fuselage. The multiple impacts sounded as if she were being hit by machine-gun fire. Structural stress levels quickly went to their amber alert levels. She flinched almost continually from the stones smacking against the cockpit transparency, not a foot from her face.

Despite that, this was the moment: the reason she was here. Not everybody got to this point. Some were smeared along the floor and walls of Stakeout Canyon. Others who’d actually managed to fly up the waterfall never found a twister, or messed up the entry. But her foreign memories had played true, giving her the skill. All she had to provide was the determination to back it up. That was what she’d come to this place for, finding out if she was still the same impetuous carefree person she remembered from her first life.

Motors whined loudly below her back, providing a counterspin to the forward fuselage. It helped enormously with stability, as well as holding the cockpit steady. That was the theory, anyway. She still felt dizzy and queasy, not that there was any visual reference to check if she was spinning. Virtual vision graphics showed a modest rotation that the onboard array was trying to compensate for. Acceleration was pushing her painfully deep into the seat.

It was only moments later when the hyperglider shot out of the top of the twister like a missile from its launch tube. Even though she’d only been inside for a few moments, her velocity had almost doubled. Fuselage motors strained again, halting the counterrotation. The hyperglider’s wings and rear stabilizer lengthened, this time taking on a more normal planform; straight narrow wings and a cruciform tail. There was very little atmosphere to affect them now, the hyperglider was sliding quickly and smoothly through the stratosphere. However, she did angle them so the trajectory bent slightly. The craft was chasing a simple ballistic curve, the apex of which would be nine kilometers above Mount Herculaneum’s summit.

She watched the pressure display digits wind down until it was registering an effective vacuum outside the fuselage. The sky had changed from blue to midnight-black. Stars shone strongly all around, while dazzlingly bright sunlight poured into the cockpit.

The contrast was astounding. From the pummeling terror of the storm to the utter silent serenity of space in a few seconds. Even though this environment was every bit as lethal to a human as the storm, she felt strangely secure up here. Her yammering heart began to subside. She eased the seat straps away from her shoulders, and craned to get a good look outside.

She was almost level with the summit of Mount Herculaneum, and still rising. The volcano spread out below her, its lower slopes lost below the clouds. Far behind the hyperglider’s tail, the storm emerged from Stakeout Canyon to boil away furiously around the immense rock barrier. Twisting her head to starboard she could look down into Mount Titan’s crater. Right at the bottom of it was a demonic scarlet glow from the lava lake, partially obscured by webs of thick black smoke. Broad tendrils waved upward, thinning out as they reached the lip to disperse into a haze that drizzled flaky gray ash across the upper slopes. She was mildly disappointed it wasn’t in full eruption; locals working as crew for the caravan had enthused about Mount Doom (as they called it, only half jokingly) in full flow.

Eight and a half kilometers above the summit of Mount Herculaneum, the hyperglider had reached the top of its arc. Its trajectory was flattening out as Far Away’s low gravity slowly began to reassert itself. The planet’s horizon rose into view beyond the nose. A crisp white curve against the black of space. Directly below her were the twin caldera, two vast indentations in a drab russet plain of solidified lava waves and broken clinker.

Justine’s radio picked up a few scattered words, heavy with blasts of static, from the expeditions trekking over the airless surface. Hiking trips to the top of Herculaneum were another of Far Away’s principal tourist attractions. It wasn’t difficult, the slopes weren’t particularly steep, and the low gravity gave offworld visitors an easy time of it. But the last half had to be covered in pressure suits; and the only real view, sensational though it was, came from Aphrodite’s Seat, the clifftops just below the caldera plateau. Anyone wanting to walk to the actual highest point, an unimpressive mound on the wall of the northern crater, faced a long dreary slog across a lunar-style landscape to reach it.

With the hyperglider’s nose now dipping slightly, Far Away filled most of the universe to the east of the volcano. From her supreme vantage point, Justine could see the Dessault Mountains stretching away ahead and southward. Small sharp pinnacles stabbed up through the gentle whirl of clouds. They guarded the high desert south of the equator, a cold land almost devoid of cloud. Over to the east she could see a smear of deep greens, where the steppes began their long roll toward the North Sea and Armstrong City.

The horizon’s pronounced curve presented the illusion that she was seeing an entire hemisphere of the planet, like some ancient god of myth gazing down on Earth. Although Far Away lacked the softer textures granted to the old gods of Mount Olympus. The white clouds covered a graded spectrum of miserable browns and grays. Despite close to two centuries of human endeavor, the planet’s land surface was nowhere near recovered from the mammoth, and utterly lethal, solar flare that had called people here. Tough, independent-minded settlers had pushed out from Armstrong City, planting their seeds and spraying energetic, wholesome soil bacteria across the empty miles of dusty sand, but the biosphere remained tenuous, its progress toward full planetary enrichment slow. So much was still desert or blasted earth; very, very little of the planet’s original flora and fauna had survived the radiation. The greenery she could see was alien to this place, invaders colonizing a near-dead world.

She soared silently and smoothly over the towering cliffs of Aphrodite’s Seat that guarded the eastern approach to Herculaneum’s summit. Many kilometers below them was the glacier ring that encircled the entire volcano, extending hundreds of meters across the bare rock. Sunlight glinted from the gritty fractured ice, producing a halolike aura at the upper limit of the atmosphere. Sheltering beneath the glare were the alpine forests, gene-modified Earth pines that had been introduced here as a beacon of life and color that could be seen for hundreds of kilometers. She smiled down on them, as she would any old friend, grateful for the comfort of familiarity that they brought.

Ghostly waves of blue and green began to shimmer across the weather radar screen as the hyperglider sank back into the upper atmosphere, showing her the pressure building outside the fuselage. Justine extended the wings again, shaping them into a broad delta. After a while, the cockpit began to tremble as the leading edges bit deeper and deeper into the air. Aerodynamic forces started to take over from the ballistic impetus.

Justine slowly shook off the dreamy lethargy that had captured her during the flight over the volcano. Practical decisions had to be made; from this altitude she could easily coast along for four or five hundred kilometers, putting her well clear of the volcano. But ahead, that would put her into the Dessault Mountains; while north and south would take her back into the divided wings of the storm. There was also distance to consider, the farther she flew now, the longer it would take the caravan to recover her. She altered the hyperglider’s pitch, putting the nose up so the air would start to brake her speed. Her rate of descent increased, which she balanced against the slope below, maintaining the same height above the ground. Clouds flashed around her, ablaze with bright monochrome light, as she passed through the level of the glacier ring. When the hyperglider fell out of their base she was above the pine forests. She could see grasslands stretching out beyond them. Easy enough to land on, but they were still high. It would be cold.

The grasslands grew more lush and verdant as she flew on. Swirls of wind from the lower slopes began to affect the hyperglider, shaking it with growing strength. Bushes and trees speckled the grasses, building swiftly to a dense tropical rainforest that formed an unbroken skirt around the eastern base of the volcano. Looking down, she could see the small black dots of birds flitting amid the treetops. She was already eight hundred kilometers from where she’d started, and that was in a direct line. The caravan would have to go all the way around Mount Zeus before it even reached Herculaneum. Justine sighed, and pushed the hyperglider down toward the rainforest canopy.

This close, it wasn’t as dense as she’d thought. There were clear swaths, shallow valleys with fast silver streams that had hardly any trees at all, lines of dangerous crags. Several times she saw animals racing across open spaces. The Commonwealth Council’s biosphere revitalization project had certainly been successful here.

The radar switched to ground-mapping mode. Justine was searching for a reasonable patch of ground to land on. Although, in extremis, the hyperglider could come down in a patch barely a hundred meters long, she didn’t fancy trying that. Fortunately, the scans revealed a straightish stretch three kilometers ahead and to the north. She brought the hyperglider’s nose around, lining it up. The clear ground was easily visible amid the trees. It looked like there was a clump of rock a third of the way along. Nothing too serious. When she switched the radar to a higher resolution, it showed a narrow, shallow gully running across one end of the clear ground. She started her prelanding flare, shrinking the wings in again, enhancing the camber. The edge of the long clearing rushed toward her. Three of her console display screens distorted into a hash of random color.

“Shit!”

Her e-butler was slow to respond, reporting several processors dropping out of the onboard array, even her inserts were degraded.

“What’s happening?” she demanded. Her virtual hands flickered and vanished.

A gust of wind slewed the hyperglider to starboard. She groaned in dismay as the cockpit tilted. The console screen displays were making no sense.

“Multiple electronic system failure,” the e-butler said. “Compensating to restore core function.” Hands wavered back into her virtual vision. “You have control.”

Justine automatically countered the dangerous roll with a simple wing twist. The little craft responded sluggishly, forcing her to accentuate the maneuver. When she glanced up from the console she cursed. She was already over the clear ground, and losing altitude fast. All her display screens had righted themselves. Control surface responses were instantaneous again.

She initiated the landing sequence. The wings rotated through almost ninety degrees, braking the last of the hyperglider’s speed. It began to sink as if it were made from lead. Twenty meters from the ground, and with almost no forward motion at all, she altered the wings again. They shot out into huge, thin concave triangles, generating as much lift as possible from her stall speed. The landing strut wheels touched and rebounded. Then she was bouncing over the rough terrain for forty meters before the wheels finally halted. The wings and stabilizer shrank back into their buds.

Justine let out a huge breath of relief. The cockpit canopy hissed as the seal disengaged, and it hinged upward. Plyplastic flowed away from her hands, and she let go of the grip bars. She released her helmet catches, and took it off. A somewhat nervous laugh escaped her lips as she shook her sweaty hair out. All the hyperglider’s electronic systems were back on-line.

The craft had come to rest on a slight incline in grass and some purple leaf plants that were long enough to brush the bottom of the fuselage. A stream burbled away, twenty meters to her left. Hot humid air was already making her perspire. Birds were crying overhead. The surrounding wall of the rainforest was draped in thick ropes of vine that were sprouting a million tiny lavender flowers.

Justine clambered over the side of the cockpit and dropped to the ground in an easy low-gravity curve. Only then did the enormity of what she’d done hit her. Both legs gave way, and she fell to her knees. Tears blinded her eyes, and she was laughing and crying at the same time, while her shoulders shook uncontrollably.

“Oh, Jesus Christ, I did it,” she said, sobbing. “I did it I did it, I goddamn did it.” The laughter was turning hysterical. She gripped some of the grass strands and made an attempt to calm herself. It had been a long time since she had given in to raw emotion like this, a sure sign of youthfulness.

Her breathing steadied, and she wiped the back of her hand across her eyes, smudging away the tears. She climbed to her feet, careful not to make sudden moves. In this gravity her inertia played havoc with all normal motions. A few birds were flapping about overhead, but that was about the only motion. The sun shone down, making her squint. Its heat made the skin on her face tingle. And the humidity!

She puffed out a breath, and began to struggle her way out of the leathery flightsuit. Her e-butler triggered the hyperglider’s locator. A small section of the fuselage behind the open cockpit irised open, and shiny folds of balloon fabric slithered out. It inflated quickly, and rose up into the bright sapphire sky, trailing a thin carbon wire aerial behind it.

Justine checked that the transmitter was working as she slathered on suncream. She kept her boots on, but hurriedly discarded the flightsuit in favor of simple white shorts with matching T-shirt. Everyone on the convoy swore there were no dangerous animals around, certainly not on the Grand Triad. And the Barsoomians, with their weird creatures, were thousands of kilometers away on the other side of the Oak Sea. So she should be all right dressed like this.

She slipped her multifunction wrist array on, a bronze malmetal bracelet with emeralds set along the rim, a gift from her last husband. He’d laughed about her using its extensive capabilities to survive the department store sales. That deteriorating sense of humor of his had hurried their divorce forward by several years.

The bracelet contracted softly, connecting its i-spot to her OCtattoo. Her e-butler expanded out from her inserts into the larger array, increasing its capacity by an order of magnitude. She ordered it to open the hyperglider’s cargo compartment underneath the cockpit, and checked through her equipment and supplies. It would probably take the recovery vehicles three days or so to reach her; she had decent food for a week, and dehydrated rations for another thirty days, though she really hoped she wouldn’t have to eat any of it.

Right at the front of the compartment was a box from the tour company, with a chilled bottle of champagne in a thermal jacket, and a box of chocolates. She was tempted, but the first thing she fished out of her personal case were her sunglasses, an expensive steel designer band that fitted snugly around her face, adjusting themselves to her skin. A floppy old bushman hat followed. She’d picked it up in Australia decades ago; the stupid cheap thing had been to more planets than most people, and was now bleached almost white by all those different suns.

“Okay, so what happened to the electronics?” she asked the e-butler as she took the wrapping off the chocolates. They’d started to melt in the heat.

“The cause of the systems failure is unknown. The onboard array lacks the diagnostic facilities to make a detailed analysis.”

“There must be some indication.”

“It would appear to be an external event. The recorded effect was similar to an em pulse.”

Justine glanced around in shock, a chocolate strawberry half eaten. “Someone was shooting at me?”

“That is unknown.”

“Could it have been a natural phenomenon?”

“That is unknown.”

“But is it possible?”

“This array does not have any data on possible natural causes.”

“Can you sense any em activity?”

“No.”

Justine gave the trees surrounding the open space a more careful look. She wasn’t frightened, more like irritated. She simply wasn’t used to not getting a definitive answer from her e-butler, when all of human knowledge was available in real-time anywhere within the Commonwealth. But here, cut off from the unisphere, data was a rarer, more precious commodity. And being shot at was a possibility, albeit remote.

Firstly, there were the Guardians of Selfhood, who roamed the planet at will. As everyone knew, they were well armed and prone to violence. Then there were other people, locals, who could make a great deal of money out of recovering a dead pilot’s memorycell insert. Families would pay a big finder’s fee to insure their lost loved one’s conscious-continuity when growing a re-life clone. Hypergliding was uniquely dangerous, dozens of pilots were killed each year. Most were recovered by the tour operator, and their memorycells returned home. But any whose flight was flung dramatically off course before crashing risked being lost for a very long time. Locals who came across the crash site were in for a bountiful time once they’d finished the gruesome task of cutting the memorycell free of the corpse. So it certainly wasn’t beyond possibility that there were groups who facilitated a few crashes.

If the em pulse truly had been an attempt to crash her, they were piss-poor at their job, she thought.

Right at the back of the cargo compartment was a small ion pistol for her “personal safety” should the landing site prove hostile. Nobody in the caravan had ever really defined hostile for her, the unspoken implication being wild animals. She gave the secure alcove a thoughtful look, then ordered the compartment to close and lock. If it was a criminal gang hunting her, she wouldn’t stand a chance, armed or not.

“Time to find out,” Justine told the hyperglider. Her voice sounded very loud in the long, tranquil clearing.

She filled her water bottle from the stream, the semiorganic top sucking up the slightly muddy liquid, immediately filtering and cooling it. Then she set off into the trees, using the wrist array’s inertial guidance function.

It took her quite a while to backtrack the thousand or so meters where she’d roughly estimated the interference came from. The undergrowth could be vigorous in places, and where it was low, the vines and creepers filled the gaps between tree trunks. Her whole route seemed to be one giant detour. There was certainly no sign of any track, animal or human. Nor could she hear any voices.

As she approached the general area, she began to feel sheepish. She’d jumped to a lot of conclusions very quickly. Pirates and conspiracies just seemed to fill her adrenaline-pumped mood. Now she was back to mundane reality. Hot, sweaty, having to swat creeper leaves out of her face the whole time, boots sinking into the damp peaty soil. The one blessing of tramping through this jungle was the lack of insects, at least any of the varieties that feasted on humans; the revitalization team hadn’t introduced any. Though there were plenty of tiny multilegged beetles roving around her feet, a great many of which looked alien to her. A lot of the plant species were certainly nonterrestrial.

After about twenty minutes, Justine simply stopped. She was feeling ridiculous now. There was no sign of any human activity. And if there was a band of hunter pirates creeping down to the landing site through the trees, they were crap at tracking her when she was walking straight at them.

“Can you sense anything?” she asked her e-butler.

“This unit’s sensors are registering some weak electromagnetic activity,” it replied. “It is difficult to locate an origin point. It appears to be operating on a regular cycle.”

“Some kind of radio signal?”

“No. It is a multiband emission, there is no identifiable modulation.”

“A powerburst, then?”

“That is a source which would fit the sensor data.”

“What kind of equipment would generate that?”

“That is unknown.”

“Okay, which direction is it coming from? Give me a graphic.”

The e-butler expanded a simple map into her virtual vision. Justine started walking, pushing the vines apart.

“The emission just repeated,” her e-butler said after she’d gone about fifty meters. “It was much stronger. The sensors are registering a degree of residual activity. There is no pattern to it.”

“Am I still going in the right direction?”

“Yes.”

“What about the pulse duration? Does that correspond to the one which hit the hyperglider?”

“It is very close.”

The trees seemed to be spaced slightly farther apart—although that could have been her imagination. The undergrowth and vines certainly didn’t slacken off. She’d gotten long scratches on her legs.

The overlaid map faded from her sight. “What’s happening?”

There was no reply from her e-butler. She halted and looked at her bracelet. The little power light behind one of the emeralds was winking red.

“Reboot complete,” her e-butler announced abruptly.

“Did the pulse hit you?”

“No data from the event was retained. Another pulse is the most obvious explanation.”

“Can you safeguard against another one?”

Silence answered her.

“Damnit,” she muttered. But she was intrigued now. Something was close by, and it wasn’t pirates.

She almost missed it. The vines had completely swamped the low walls, making the small building look like nothing more than another impenetrable cluster of greenery. But the door had sagged inward, leaving a dark cleft amid the leaves.

Justine pushed up her sunglasses to study the structure for a moment. It certainly wasn’t a house, it was too small for that: just a simple square shelter five meters to a side, with a sloping roof no more than three meters high at the apex. When she pulled the thick cords of creeper from the wall around the door, she found the surface beneath was made of some dull gray composite. Simple panels bolted onto a metal frame, put together in a few hours. It could have been made anywhere in the Commonwealth, even Far Away had the resources to produce this. By the look of the material, and the vegetation clinging to it, the shelter had been here for decades.

There was no lock, so she put her shoulder to the warped door and shoved. It flew open after a few pushes. Light streamed in through the opening; there were no windows. The floor was a single sheet of enzyme-bonded concrete, wet and crumbling. In the middle was a black cylinder just over a meter in diameter and eighty centimeters high. When she went over to it she saw it was actually embedded in the concrete, so she had no idea of its true length. It seemed to be made from a dark metal. Two sets of thin red cable emerged from the top, and ran across the floor to disappear into a translucent disk, half a meter wide. Examining that, she found the disk was also set into the concrete. It glowed with a faint vermilion light that originated deep inside, seemingly well below the concrete floor.

Justine narrowed her eyes at the disk as memories began to stir. She wasn’t even sure why she’d kept such old times in her head when she rejuvenated. But she’d seen something like this before; a lot of buildings on Earth used them as a power backup, places like hospitals and police and transport control centers. A solid-state heat exchange cable sunk kilometers down into the crust, where the geothermal energy could be tapped. They didn’t generate a huge amount of electricity, just enough to keep essential systems functioning in case of emergency.

So what the hell is one doing in the middle of a jungle, halfway up the biggest volcano on Far Away?

She stared at the cables, which were presumably superconductors. The cylinder they were feeding power into must be the source of the em pulses. And the whole arrangement had obviously been here for a long time, at least a couple of decades, and probably a lot longer than that. Certainly nobody had visited for ages, and concrete didn’t crumble overnight. So what could possibly use or absorb that much electricity year after year?

Her puzzlement was pushed aside by surprise as she realized the only thing the cylinder could be: a niling d-sink. They were the ultimate storage devices, and as such were rarely used within the Commonwealth simply because few people needed to store that much power. CST used them as backup supplies for their wormhole gateways, but she couldn’t remember any other organization, commercial or government, having a use for them. They were a quirk of physics, a zero-size sinkhole in spacetime that you could keep filling with energy. Theoretically, any power level could be contained providing the confining quantum field was strong enough. And after uninterrupted decades of charging from the heat exchange cable, this one would have an accumulated power level that wasn’t so much measured in kilowatt hours, more like kilotonnage.

So, a niling d-sink that pushed out an em pulse…Unshielded!

Justine got out of the shelter quickly. If it truly was unshielded, the electromagnetic emission would be intense enough to harm her nervous system as the quantum field cycled ready to admit its next input charge.

She hurried away, even more confused now she’d found the source. It began to rain before she got a hundred meters. The storm that had split to curve around the volcano had finally caught up with her.

Kazimir McFoster watched the girl pull a fist-size ball of shiny blue plastic out of the compartment that had opened under the hyperglider’s cockpit. He was sheltering behind a finicus bush, fifty meters away from where the sleek machine had landed. Rain pattered away on his head and the long dark crimson leaves alike. He paid it no heed; this was the weather he had grown up with; always at this time of year the storms would come in the morning. In another hour or so the rain clouds would have blown away to the east leaving the rest of the day mercilessly hot and humid.

The girl casually threw the ball over her shoulder, then tugged a big cylindrical bag from the compartment. He was impressed, for the bag was large and obviously heavy. But despite the clumsy way she carried it, she could lift it easily. She was strong. All offworlders were strong, he knew that. What he hadn’t expected was her beauty.

He had seen the glider pass overhead an hour earlier, a simple cruciform shape, black against the glaring sapphire sky. The sight had enthralled him, it was so graceful, so elegant. All the stories and learning of the Commonwealth and its ways had never prepared him for this. That a machine could be so poised, not just in shape but in function, was a revelation. Machines as Kazimir knew them were blunt and functional.

From his vantage point atop a lava outcrop he’d watched as it swooped ever lower over the jungle. Only once did it wobble in an ungainly fashion, and that was only for an instant. Then its wings had moved like those of a nimble bird as it alighted in the open space. Kazimir had stood looking at the place where it had sunk from sight behind the trees, a simpleton’s smile on his face. It took him a while to realize he was exposed on the rock. Harvey would scold him relentlessly for such a lapse; there would probably be short rations as well to emphasize the point. He was supposed to be well past making such stupid mistakes; that was why he was out here alone in this his final groundwalk, to prove he had mastered the wild. After he returned alive to the clan in another fifteen days, he would be ready to join battle against the alien monster. But not if he stood around like a first-year novice, offering himself as an easy target for any enemy who might be passing.

Kazimir dropped down off the rock and back into the undergrowth. He thought for a moment, placing the glider’s position in his mind. Then he was ready to pathfind through the trees, alert for enemies, focused on his goal.

By the time he’d stealthily crept up to the fringes of the lengthy clearing where the glider had landed, it was raining heavily. He couldn’t see anyone, so he’d found himself a safe place of concealment, and settled down to observe the sleek craft. The girl had appeared a couple of minutes later, her face screwed up against the rain as she hurried out of the trees. She was all in white, a few scraps of cloth clinging to her slender frame. And she was so beautiful. Like an angel, Kazimir thought. An angel come down from the sky.

The blue ball that the girl had discarded on the ground began to swell, with folds of thin plastic bulging out in odd shapes. The whole mass rolled around as if it were a living creature in pain. A minute later it had become a bulbous hemispherical shelter four meters across at the base, with a single opening, like a bloated tent. Kazimir nodded in appreciation. His own night-shelter was a little sac of shapeshift membrane that he could inflate with a small electric current. It kept him warm and dry at night, but it wasn’t big enough to move around in. This was a palace in comparison.

The girl hurried inside. Kazimir saw her grimace as she pulled a shabby soaking-wet hat from her head and ran her hands back through equally wet white-blond hair. She delved into her cylindrical bag and produced a towel, which she rubbed vigorously over herself.

Every movement fascinated Kazimir. She had long limbs, all of them perfectly shaped. The way she held her head; proud but never arrogant. Not her. Not the angel.

She eventually finished with the towel, and went over to the fat tent’s opening to peer out. Kazimir held his breath as she looked at the thick bush sheltering him. She smiled coyly, and the universe was a happier place because of it.

For a second.

“It must be uncomfortable crouching behind that bush,” she called. “Why don’t you come out into the open?”

Kazimir’s heart thudded loudly. She must be talking to him, she must have known he was there all along. He fumed, angry that his lack of skill had been mocked so. Yet the angel was still looking at him, head cocked to one side, an expectant expression in place. There actually wasn’t any mockery, he decided.

He rose to his feet, and looked from side to side, half expecting the enemy’s hunters to be there, waiting and grinning. But there was only the rain. So Kazimir had a simple choice, turn and leave, and never see her beauty again, or walk over and let her see him—which, apparently, she could anyway.

He walked toward the blue hemisphere, still wary. The angel’s head was cocked slightly to one side, regarding him with a guarded expression. One of her hands was holding a slim cylinder that he knew had to be some kind of weapon.

“You don’t have any friends nearby, do you?” she asked.

“I walk this forest alone. I need no help to survive here.”

She seemed amused by this. “Of course.” The weapon was pushed discreetly into a pouch on her belt. “Would you like to come in out of the rain? There’s plenty of room in here.”

“You are most kind, I thank you.” When he ducked inside, he was suddenly, unaccountably, overwhelmed by her presence. His eyes sought out the smooth features of the interior, looking everywhere but at her.

“My name’s Justine,” she said gently. There was a hesitancy in her voice, as if she was as uncertain as he.

“Kazimir,” he said. “How did you know I was there?”

A slim arm was raised, a finger tapping just below her right eye. “My inserts have an infrared capability. You were shining quite brightly.” Her lips twitched. “You’re hot you know.”

“Oh.” But he’d foolishly followed the motion of her hand, and now couldn’t look away from her face. Her eyes were light green, he saw, with slim eyebrows. She had long, prominent cheekbones, and a somewhat flattish jaw; a slender button nose poised above wide, moist lips. Every feature was delicate, yet together they awarded her a sophistication he was sure he could never match. And her flawless skin was a shade of pale honey-gold he’d never known before. In surprise, he realized she was very young, close to his own seventeen years. Yet she had flown the glider through the heart of the storm. The courage and talent that must take… He looked at his feet again, aware of distance opening between them.

“Here you go,” she said kindly, and handed him the towel she was holding. “You’re actually wetter than I am.”

Kazimir looked at it in confusion for a moment, before slipping his small backpack off. “Thank you.” He mopped the moisture off his face, then shrugged out of his leather waistcoat. The towel’s thin fabric seemed to suck the droplets off his chest and back as he rubbed, leaving his skin perfectly dry.

Justine reached into her bag, and produced another towel for herself. He was aware of her eyes on him, narrowed with amusement, as he dried his shins and calves. So he stopped at his knees, not lifting his kilt to dry his thighs—though they weren’t that damp, the kilt was reasonably waterproof.

“What tartan is that?” she asked.

He glanced down at the emerald and copper check, and smiled with pride. “I am a McFoster.”

Justine produced a sound that sounded suspiciously like a snort. “I’m sorry,” she said contritely. “But, with that skin color it’s a little difficult to picture you as a native clansman.”

Kazimir frowned. His skin was a rich brown, complemented by thick jet hair that he wore long and tied back with a single scarlet band; how could colors prevent him from being a clan member? Between them, the clans had members from most of old Earth’s racial groups. His grandmother always told wonderful tales of her grandmother’s early life in India. “I don’t understand. My ancestors were one of the first families to be saved by Bradley Johansson.”

“Johansson? We’re not talking Scottish clans here, are we?”

“What’s a Scottish?”

“Never mind.” She looked out of the entrance at the steady downpour of warm rain. “It looks like we’ve got a bit of time to spend together. Tell me about your clan, Kazimir.”

“The rains will only last another hour.”

“How long a story is it?”

He grinned at her, warmed by her answering smile. The angel was so achingly beautiful, any excuse to remain close to her was welcome. As if knowing this, the wall of the tent beside him changed shape, and expanded out to form a couch. They sat on it together.

“Tell me,” she urged. “I want to know about your world.”

“Will you tell me of your flight?”

“I will.”

He nodded his head, happy at the promised trade. “There are seven clans living on Far Away. Together we form the Guardians of Selfhood.”

“I’ve heard of them,” she murmured.

“We stand between the Starflyer alien and human ruin. Alone of all our race, we see the danger it brought with its shadows of deceit and its manipulation of vain men and women. Bradley Johansson opened our eyes to the truth long ago. One day, thanks to him, we will help this planet take its revenge.”

“That sounds like something you’ve been taught, Kazimir.”

“Since the moment I drew my first breath, I have known what I am, and what I must face. Ours is a harsh burden: none of you offworlders believe in our cause, you are blind to the alien’s poison. Yet we endure because of our faith and our gratitude. Bradley Johansson is our savior, and one day, all of humanity will know him as their savior.”

“How did he save you?”

“As he was saved. By decency and kindness. He came to this world among the first people, and began to investigate the alien’s ship.”

“I heard that,” Justine said. “He was the first director of the Marie Celeste Research Institute, wasn’t he?”

“Yes. People say it is deserted, a wreck, abandoned and empty. It is not; that is what the alien would have humanity believe. It survived the crash.”

“There’s a living alien here, from the arkship?”

“It used to be here, it passed into the Commonwealth long ago, where it moves among us, hidden and evil.”

“Really? So you’ve never seen it for yourself, then?”

“I have never left Far Away. But one day the Starflyer will return when its schemes reach fruition. I hope that is within my lifetime. I would like to be a part of its downfall.”

“What does it look like?”

“Nobody knows what it looks like, not even Bradley Johansson is sure. He may have seen it, he can’t remember. Many of his old thoughts were lost when he was liberated.”

“Okay, so this Starflyer survived the crash. What happened then?”

“It ignited the flare in Far Away’s sun to lure the unsuspecting here. And when Bradley Johansson delved into the secrets of the ship, he awoke the Starflyer and was enslaved by it. For many years he toiled under its control, helping to extend its influence into the Commonwealth, whispering into the hearts of those in power, issuing false promises and shaping the tide of events. But the Starflyer was ignorant of this part of the galaxy, and troubled by the other races who live here, fearful they would thwart its goals. Not all of them are as ignorant and prideful as us. It sent Bradley to Silvergalde so that he could experience the Silfen firsthand and report back on what he found. But the Silfen are wiser than humans and the Starflyer; they could see the bonds which it had cast into Bradley’s mind, and cut him free.”

“Ah, the liberation.”

“Yes. They cured him. Some men, having been freed, would run away from such a horror so they could remain free. But Bradley knew there was a greater danger in that; he said that for wickedness to succeed all it takes is for decent people to do nothing.”

“Bradley Johansson said that, did he?”

“Yes. He returned to Far Away and liberated others who had been enslaved by the Starflyer. They were the seven families who grew into the clans.”

“I see.” Her voice was serious.

Kazimir glanced anxiously at her. The expression on her face was terribly sober. It saddened him; that lovely face should only know happiness. Wasn’t protecting her and her kind what he had given his life to? “Don’t worry,” he told her. “We will guard you from the Starflyer. It will not succeed. This planet will be revenged.”

Her head tipped to one side as she gave him a long, thoughtful gaze. “You really mean that, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

For some reason the answer seemed to trouble her. “It’s a very noble thing that you do, Kazimir. Nobility exerts a kinship which is hard to break.”

“The Starflyer will never corrupt my loyalty to my clan and our cause.”

Justine laid a hand on his arm. “I respect that.”

Kazimir tried to smile confidently at her, but she still seemed sad, and her touch, light though it was, distracted him terribly. She was so very close. And neither of them was wearing much clothing. Lustful, yet wondrous thoughts began to percolate through Kazimir’s mind.

Justine gave his arm a quick little squeeze, and suddenly looked around. “Oh, look, it’s stopped raining.” She sat up and went over to the entrance. “The sun’s out again.” Her smile was lovely. She was the angel again.

Kazimir got to his feet, and took a moment to put his waistcoat back on. He went outside and stood behind her as she slipped a steel band around her face. It disappointed him that he could no longer see her eyes. The sunlight made her white T-shirt nearly transparent. She was as tall as he.

“Did you really fly over the volcano?” he asked hurriedly.

“Uh-huh.”

“That must take so much courage.”

She laughed. “Just stupidity, I think.”

“No. You are not stupid, Justine. Never that.”

A finger hooked over the top of her sunglasses, and she pulled them down a fraction to stare at him over the rim. “Thank you, Kazimir. That’s very sweet.”

“What was it like?”

“Crazy! Wonderful!” She popped her sunglasses back up, and started telling him about the flight.

Kazimir listened, fascinated by a world and life as alien to his as that of the Starflyer. Justine possessed a perfect existence. It gladdened him to know that such a life was real, that humans could reach such a state. One day, perhaps, when the Starflyer was vanquished, all of them would live as she did.

It must be fate, he decided, that he’d met her. This vision, his own personal angel, come to show him that he was right to try to protect human life. She was his inspiration, his private miracle.

“You must be very rich,” he said when she finished telling him about the landing. “To afford such a craft that has no purpose other than to bring you enjoyment.”

She shrugged casually. They were both lounging on the bank above the little stream that gurgled its way along the clearing. “Everybody who visits Far Away is rich, I guess. It’s not easy to get here.” She tipped her head back to admire the tufty clouds drifting across the sapphire basin of the sky. “But definitely worthwhile. You have a strange and lovely world, Kazimir.”

“What do your parents think of you coming here by yourself? And taking such risks? That flight was very dangerous.”

Her head came around quickly, as if she’d been shocked by the question. “My parents? Ah, well, let’s see. My parents always encouraged me to be myself. They wanted me to live my life as best I can. And this, Mount Herculaneum, you, this has to be one of those classic moments that make life worthwhile and give you the confidence to go on and just experience what the universe has to offer.”

“Me? I think not.”

“Yes, you. Here you are on your own adventure, all by yourself facing whatever the volcano and the land throw at you. That makes you a lot braver than me.”

“No.”

“Yes!”

“No!”

They both laughed. Justine took her sunglasses off, and smiled warmly at him. “I’m starving,” she said. “Fancy trying some decadent Earth food?”

“Yes please!”

She sprang up, and raced toward the glider. Kazimir hurried after her, awed by how high her perfect, slender body floated above the ground as she ran.

They sat cross-legged on the ground, and she fed him morsels of food, eager for his reactions. Some of it was delicious, most was simply strange, like the hot curried meats that burned his mouth as he swallowed. “Wash it down with this,” she told him. The white wine she gave him was light and sweet. He sipped it appreciatively.

In the afternoon they explored the jungle around the edge of the clearing, trying to guess the names of the plants. He explained the purpose behind his groundwalk, how it prepared him for difficult campaigns against the enemy over all sorts of terrain, how it showed he had learned all his teachers could give him.

“A rite of passage,” she said.

He thought there was admiration in her voice. But then, several times he’d seen her glancing at him when she thought he was unaware. He hadn’t dared do the same.

“We must know that we can do what we have to do.”

“Kazimir, please, don’t do anything rash. You never have to prove your worth by risking yourself. Life is too important for that. It’s too short, as well, especially here.”

“I will be careful. I will learn not to be impetuous.”

“Thank you. I don’t want to spend my life worrying about you.”

“Will you do something for me?”

Her smile was mischievous. “There’s a lot I’ll do for you, Kazimir.”

The answer surprised him. He knew he would be blushing as he attached his own interpretation to that; one he was sure she didn’t intend, not someone so sweet and good-natured. “Please don’t visit the Marie Celeste. I know a lot of tourists do. I would worry for your safety if you did. The Starflyer’s influence is strong around its ship.”

Justine made a show of pondering the request. Fortunately the old arkship wasn’t on the itinerary anyway. Strangely enough, because of Kazimir’s devout belief that there really was a surviving alien, a little frisson of worry crept into her head and refused to leave. The whole thing was one of those ridiculous legends used by wicked old men like Johansson to keep his followers in line and paying their dues. Yet at the same time it sounded so plausible…

“I won’t go,” she promised solemnly. His look of relief made her feel guilty.

They built a fire in the late afternoon. Kazimir had an aging powerblade in his pack, and seemed intent on showing off his living-off-the-land survival skills to impress her. So she sat back and watched as he built a big pile of wood. He stripped off his little leather waistcoat, and the sweat showed on his skin from the effort of carrying the logs about. It was a sight that raised her own body temperature several degrees. Low gravity certainly hadn’t stopped his bod from developing to late-adolescent excellence. Thankfully, he didn’t want to do anything macho like shoot birds out of the sky so they could roast them on a stick spit. He was quite content to open up more of her food packets. The bonfire was just for warmth and comfort. She finally popped the cork off the champagne, and they drank it with the leaping gold flames glimmering off its energetic bubbles.

Kazimir didn’t want the evening to end, not ever. They sat close on a blanket as the sunlight abandoned the sky. Then there was only a shimmering purple-edged nimbus high above the western horizon as the glacier ring diffracted the last rays through the stratosphere. It shrank away, leaving the crackling bonfire as the only source of illumination. Platinum stars shone above them. For the first time in his life he didn’t think of them as a threat.

They talked and they drank and they nibbled on the exotic food. And all the time Kazimir silently worshiped the smiling, gorgeous angel with all his heart. A while after the sun had set, the bonfire’s wild flames sank away to leave a mound of lambent coals. It was in that teasing radiance that the angel rose to her feet and stood over him. Her T-shirt and shorts gleamed magenta in the quiescent fire, while her hair had become the gold halo his mind had always perceived. Without a word she walked over to her hemispherical tent, disappearing among the shadows that haunted the interior.

“Kazimir.”

His limbs trembling, he went over to the entrance. Twinkling starlight showed him half of the floor had risen to become a giant mattress. His angel stood before it, a simple silhouette. Her T-shirt lay crumpled on the ground at her feet. As he watched she slid the shorts down her legs.

“Don’t be afraid.”

Kazimir walked forward into the darkness. Gentle, sensual hands pushed the waistcoat from his shoulders. Unseen fingertips stroked his chest as they moved down to his waist, making him whimper helplessly. His belt was undone, and his kilt removed. The naked angel was hot on his skin as she pressed herself up against him.

Kazimir’s astonished cries of ecstasy rang out across the clearing, lasting long after the glittering sparks of the fire had finally died away.

Not even the cabin’s insulation could protect Estella Fenton from the roar of the powerful diesel engine. She held her highball glass up high as the suspension rocked the four-wheel drive Telmar ranger from side to side, trying not to spill any of the elaborate fruit cocktail. It wasn’t working, so she downed the rest of the drink in a couple of quick gulps. There was definitely vodka in it, she could feel the distinctive chill burning along her throat.

The recovery vehicles sent out from the main convoy had picked her up twenty hours ago. Which had come as a profound relief; two and a half days alone in the temperate forest was slightly more wilderness adventure than she’d wanted. Now there was just her friend Justine to find. The convoy had picked up her hyperglider’s beacon signal. Its location had caused a flutter of interest among the crews; few people, apparently, managed to fly quite as far as Justine had.

So once they’d loaded up Estella’s hyperglider into its container trailer, the five remaining recovery vehicles had set off in search of their last client. For all that Far Away’s population had left Mount Herculaneum as a natural wild park, there were plenty of paths through the rainforests of the lower slopes that vehicles like the Telmar used on tourist expeditions. Branching off them were tracks that were less well used. And then there were lines on the map that were marked as “passable routes.” They’d been on one of those for three hours solid, pushing their way through the vines and undergrowth of the jungle. Then came the really tough work of cutting a new route through the trees.

The trailblazer vehicle was fifty yards ahead of them, its forward harmonic blades sending out dense clouds of fractured woodchips as it chewed its way ever onward. Watching its progress had sent Estella to the back of the cabin where she started raiding the refrigerated bar.

“Couple more minutes should do it,” the driver, Cam Tong, called out.

Estella put the empty glass down, and peered through the bubble canopy at the broken swath of vegetation left behind by the trailblazer. The thick green walls of trees and vines came to an abrupt end, and they lurched out into a long clearing. Justine’s hyperglider was intact, standing in the middle of a carpet of lush grass. Her tent was a few meters away.

“Looks like she’s okay,” Cam Tong said happily.

“I never doubted it.”

The recovery vehicles picked up speed, which increased the rocking motion. They all started sounding their horns.

A head poked out of the tent.

“That’s not her,” Estella exclaimed.

It was a teenage boy, wearing Justine’s tatty old bushranger hat. His mouth gaped wide at the big vehicles rushing toward him, then he yelled something back into the tent. Next second he’d snatched a small backpack off the ground, and was sprinting toward the nearest tree line. Estella stared on in astonishment. He was wearing a long orange and green skirt. No, she corrected herself, a kilt, she could see the pleats. His small pack had a leather garment of some kind tied to it. He kept looking over his shoulder at the vehicles. One hand pressed the hat on his head, black hair streamed out frombelow the brim.

Cam Tong was laughing as he braked the big Telmar behind the hyperglider. Estella’s grin spread right across her mouth as she opened the door to climb down. Just then, Justine emerged from the tent. All she wore was a very small scarlet thong and a pair of sunglasses.

“Come back,” Justine shouted above the blaring horns and yammering engines. “Don’t be frightened. They’re my friends. Oh, fuck it!” She put her hands on her hips, and glared at the recovery vehicles.

Estella dropped lightly to the ground. By now the grin had grown into near-hysterical laughter. Other vehicle doors were opening, the smiling crew clambering out. Horns were still being tooted enthusiastically. The frantic boy had almost reached the jungle. Whoops of encouragement were yelled after him.

“Afternoon, darling,” Estella called brightly.

“You scared him off,” Justine accused, her voice sounding hurt.

Estella raised her hand to her throat in theatrical shock. “Why thank heavens, we got here just in time by the look of it.” She still couldn’t stop laughing. “We obviously saved you from a fate worse than death.”

“Goddamnit!” Justine gave the fleeing boy a last look as he disappeared into the foliage. She raised her hand limply, hoping he would see her forlorn gesture. The horns fell silent as the engines were turned off, but the hearty laughter of the crew remained loud in the muggy air.

Justine stomped back into the tent, and picked up a light cardigan. Estella trailed after her. The floor mattress was still inflated. Empty food packets littered the ground around it, along with a couple of bottles of wine.

“I don’t believe your luck,” Estella chortled. “I’m going to complain to the tour company. The only thing waiting for me at my landing site was a squirrel, and I’m pretty sure he was gay.”

Justine started buttoning up her cardigan. “Don’t,” she said irritably. “Kazimir was sweet.”

“Yeah: was.”

“You don’t understand.” She pulled up her shorts. “It wasn’t just that. I wanted to teach him a different view of the universe, make him question what he sees.”

“Ah, like: what position is this called? And: I didn’t know you could do it that way around.”

Justine growled at her and went back outside. She ordered the tent to contract, forcing Estella to hurry through the entrance. The crew were backing an empty trailer up to the hyperglider. Broad, knowing smiles were flashed in her direction; several of them winked. Justine had to roll her eyes at that, thinking what it must have looked like to them. A small sheepish smile appeared on her own lips as her sense of humor returned.

“What was he doing here?” Estella asked. “This is nowhere.”

“It’s somewhere now,” Justine replied tartly.

“God, your luck. I’m as jealous as hell. He looked divine.”

Justine pushed her lips together modestly. “He was.”

“Come on, let’s go find a bottle, we should celebrate your grand victory: longest flight and greatest landing. I expect you need to sit down, too, must be difficult trying to walk properly after all that education you gave him.” She glanced pointedly at the tent that had finished contracting. All the empty packets and bottles now lay around it, ejected by the shrinking walls. “Did you even get to see the outside world?”

“There is one?”

Estella giggled wildly, and started to climb up the short ladder to the Telmar’s cabin. “So is it true, does everything really rise higher in low gravity?”

Justine ignored her, scanning the jungle’s dense wall one last time. There was no sign of him, not even using infrared. She’d taught him that, if nothing else.

“Good-bye, Kazimir,” she whispered.

He would be out there. Watching. Probably feeling a little foolish now. But this was probably the best way. A swift clean break, and a golden memory for both of them. No regrets.

And maybe, just maybe, I taught him something about real life. Maybe he will start to question his idiotic Guardians doctrine.

There was a loud pop of a champagne cork in the cabin. Justine climbed inside and shut the door, enjoying the chill of the air-conditioning as it banished the jungle’s raw heat.

FIVE

From their admittedly elitist point of view, the residents of York5 often claimed that theirs was one of the luckier planets in the Commonwealth’s phase one space. This particular world never experienced pollution or human population pressure, and financial irregularities and corrupt politicians passed it by. A quirk of evolution had produced far fewer than average plant and animal genera. Such conditions made the establishment of nonnative species on its surface an undemanding enterprise. For people who wanted to develop land in their own special ways, it was highly desirable real estate.

When CST announced that the planet was open for settlement in 2138, the consortium of families behind the Big15 planet Los Vada put in an offer, effectively buying the entire planet. CST got an immediate payoff on its exploration costs, but York5 was never opened for general immigration. The families in the consortium were too diversified to qualify as an Intersolar Dynasty, although as they all now lived on a single world the future genealogy dynamics were such that they’d probably wind up as one, defined by the classic model.

York5 had no real capital city; the largest urban area was a small service town that supported the CST gateway and the airport that sprang up beside it. No factories were ever shipped in, denying it any industrial facilities. Everything a person wanted or needed, from cutlery to paving stones, electronics to clothes, had to be imported. There were no roads or railways providing a civil transport infrastructure, only aircraft owned by the resident families. In all of its two-hundred-forty-year history, the population had never risen above ten million, of which almost three million were staff employed by the families. Instead, it was divided up into vast estates, with each family building mansions and lodges and beach homes as they wanted, where they wanted, and planting whatever kind of surrounding flora took their fancy. Consequently, the continents became magnificent quilts of designer landscapes; it was terraforming on a scale not seen even on Far Away, and all for aesthetics sake.

Captain (retired) Wilson Kime had watched his family estate develop over the last two centuries, returning time and again for vacations and long weekends and annual reunions to enjoy the perfect tranquility it offered. The land he’d chosen was hilly with long sweeping valleys, and situated well inside the southern temperate zone. When he’d arrived, the ground was covered in native tuffgrass, a gaunt reddy brown in color, and a few manky scrub trees. Slowly, a tide of verdant, and far more pleasing, terrestrial green had rippled out over hill and vale alike, cooler and more soothing. Spinnys had sprung up, bunches of wildly different trees from dozens of worlds, their foliage varying in color from snow-white to eye-wrenching orange. Valley floors had been forested in oaks and walnuts and willows, while a few special enclaves among the taller hills were now host to giant sequoia.

One day at the height of an exceptional midsummer heat wave, Wilson walked along a long, meandering gravel track on the broad, south-facing slopes a couple of kilometers from the huge mock ch?teau that was the family home, inspecting the vines. His only company was two of the senior family’s youngest children, who skipped along with him. Emily, a six-year-old with fawn-colored braids who was his great-great-great-great-granddaughter; and eight-year-old Victor, a quiet inquisitive lad who was a nephew with a connection that was too complicated to memorize. He’d made both of them wear big white hats to protect their young skin from the blue-tinged sun’s powerful UV, even though both of them had received extensive germline modification, which included high resistance to all types of cancer. The way they charged around they’d be exhausted long before lunch, he didn’t want heatstroke added to that.

Every now and then he would stop at the end of another row of the vines, and inspect the clusters of grapes that were just beginning to fill out. It was going to be a high-quality crop this year, possibly good enough to qualify as a classic vintage. Though everybody abused that term dreadfully nowadays. The small light green spheres were wonderfully translucent, with a tinge of color creeping in as they soaked up the sunlight. Their rows stretched all the way down the slope to the broad valley floor, three kilometers away. In total, the vineyards covered nearly a hundred square kilometers now, after flourishing for a hundred twenty years in the slightly chalky soil. Buried irrigation pipes made sure they had enough water in sweltering years like this one, pumped out here from the inland freshwater sea thirty kilometers away. The Kime estate occupied a quarter of the coastline.

Red-painted viniculture bots, each the size of a motorbike, trundled up and down the rows with their electromuscle arms flashing in and out as they carefully thinned out the clusters, and forked over the soil. There couldn’t have been more than five human supervisors covering the entire vineyard. Not that any of the wine would ever be sold, this wasn’t a commercial venture, it was for the family, with a small number of bottles made available to other Farndale board members.

Wilson stopped and picked a couple more grapes. They were immature and sour, but that taste was right for this moment in their development. He spat them out after he’d chewed them thoroughly.

“Urrgh!” little Emily said, wrinkling her nose up. “That’s gross, Grandpa.”

“No it’s not,” he assured her. He tipped his own straw hat back and smiled. “They decay straight back into the soil as fertilizer. That’s good for the plants. Query your e-butler when we get back home if you don’t believe me.”

“Wilson’s right,” Victor said, using a lofty tone. “We did environmental cycles in biology.”

“You mean the vines drink your spit?” Emily was even more appalled.

Wilson put his arms around her and gave a swift hug. “No, no, it doesn’t work like that. It’s all to do with organic chemistry. Very complicated when you get down to details. But trust me, the vines don’t drink spit, okay?”

“Okay,” she said dubiously.

Victor’s look was condescending, so she scowled at him. Then the two of them were suddenly racing off down one of the rows, chasing a Forlien delong, similar to a porcupine but with a silly collar wing that flapped green and yellow when it was excited.

“Don’t touch it,” he called after them. “You’re frightening it.”

“All right.” Victor’s voice was faint from behind the vines.

Wilson carried on down the gravel. He didn’t hurry, he was enjoying the day too much. He’d come out of his latest rejuvenation three years ago, and this was a time-out life, intended as a complete sabbatical from all corporate activity. Everybody needed one now and again, especially at the kind of executive level he lived his normal lives.

After the debacle of the Mars mission, Wilson had returned to an Earth that began to change on an almost daily basis as the implications of wormhole technology were realized. In the second half of the twenty-first century, space exploration was the biggest boom industry there could possibly be. Except, this was no longer the kind of space exploration he knew anything about. What CST actually conducted was planetary surveys, the province of geologists and xenobiologists; they weren’t interested in the void between the stars, there was no striving to bridge the distance. With wormholes, there simply was no distance anymore.

A lot of the old NASA teams left to join the burgeoning CST when the agency folded not six months after Kime’s ignoble return. But they all had to start from scratch again, retraining, acquiring different skills. It wasn’t the same; they weren’t special anymore, it was just another company job—albeit a spectacular one. The change affected some people more than others. The last Wilson heard of poor old Dylan Lewis, the ex-Commander had taken over a bar in Hawaii, and was steadily and relentlessly drinking his way to full liver failure, while making an ass of himself with any passing woman who paused to hear his “old space hero” story.

Wilson escaped the whole scene altogether. He was smart enough to see the kind of requirements that the new planets would make upon the old, the desperate need for infrastructure and development. People weren’t going to live in their new promised lands without some basic civil services in place; and as local economies took off, so they’d be wanting upgrades—fast. The manufacturing of both heavy and medium engineering products was the new growth industry. With his superintensive NASA technological training and his military background, Wilson had no trouble getting himself a divisional manager slot in a company called KAD Components, which produced a range of parts for larger companies. Three years later he was on the board with a decent share option scheme when they were bought out. By 2103, seven mergers and acquisitions later, he was secure as an executive director on the board of Farndale Engineering, one of the new multiplanet colossi that had prospered and expanded in parallel with phase one space. He now had enough new share options to buy a small nation, and Farndale was just moving into the consortium partnership that would ultimately fund Los Vada. After that it was a simple linear progress as the centuries went by, his own fortunes and influence rising with the company until his own extensive family’s private wealth moved into the realm enjoyed by Earth’s Grand Families.

Twice in the last eighty years he’d been chairman of Farndale. It was a position that took up twenty-five hours in the day, leaving no time for anything other than dealmaking and politicking. His old traits of discipline and ease of command served as excellent foundations for his tenures, enabling him to score several notable victories against rival companies during those heady decades. Shareholders and fellow board members alike were satisfied with his performance; and everyone knew that within a century he’d be rotated into Los Vada’s chief executive chair. But board leadership came with a cost, the constant stress acted like an accelerated aging mechanism. Both times, he had to seek rejuvenation years earlier than he normally would, due to the strain that running the company placed on his body.

That was one of the reasons he’d decided to take a sabbatical this time around. For once he was going to sit back and enjoy the worlds and wealth he’d created. So far it had been a success. He’d even surprised himself with the enthusiasm he’d shown for the vineyards and general estate management. The current batch of children produced by his huge extended family loved having him around. It was details again, he concentrated on details, using his abilities to solve every problem the family threw up; only the scale was different from before. He had plans to extend and refurbish the ch?teau. There were lots of places he would like to visit just as a tourist, cities with their unique festivals and carnivals to experience, different landscapes, exotic species. He was also open-minded about marrying again, perhaps this time finding a wife in a way that didn’t seem too much like negotiating a company deal. All these events were out there waiting for him, a swift taxi ride from any CST station. He’d even started drawing up an itinerary, a grand tour that would take over eight years to complete. Not even Bose’s discovery of Dyson Alpha’s envelopment event had distracted him; he had faith that Farndale’s current board was capable of dealing with any problems and opportunities it created. Although the news that a starship was to be constructed had given him a momentary twinge of nostalgia.

The children emerged from the vine rows to race along the gravel road again. Wilson didn’t try to stop them. They were happy. He would have given a lot to have had a childhood like theirs. His main concern was that they grew up with some sense of dignity and responsibility. An environment like the ch?teau could give any kid a very messed up sense of his or her own importance. Rich kids were notorious brats at the best of time, a situation not helped by York5, where they were all heirs to the throne. At the same time, he didn’t want to send them away to school.

Above the western mountains, a lone contrail streaked across the open sky. He stood to watch it go, impressed as ever by the speed and the lack of any sonic boom. Everybody used hypersonics to reach their estates from the CST gateway. But the velocity that the modern planes could reach in the atmosphere was imposing, even to him. To go any faster you’d have to use a semiballistic hop, actually skimming above the upper atmosphere. The designs for such craft had been around for a long time, it was just a question of development funding. After all, the demand was very small. Planes were used on standard Commonwealth worlds, but normal commercial passenger jets flew at around Mach three, which was good enough for airlines. It was only the residents of worlds like York5 who were impatient with that speed.

Wilson heard a low whoosh of air behind him as if a phantom had just rushed by. Leaves on the nearest vines fluttered. He frowned, and turned. The sight that greeted him sent a cold shock running down his nerves. A wormhole had opened not five meters away, perfectly circular, four meters in diameter, its base holding steady a few centimeters above the gravel. A man in an expensive lavender business suit stepped out. He gave Wilson a tenuous, apologetic smile and then said, “Yo, dude, how’s it hanging?”

Wilson took three quick steps, bringing him right up to the interloper, and swung a fist. His knuckles connected with a satisfactory crunch and a burst of pain.

“Fuck!” Nigel Sheldon tumbled backward, landing on his ass in the dry grass. Two CST security personnel stepped smartly out of the wormhole, arms pointing at Wilson. Their suit sleeves rippled slightly. An annoyed Nigel Sheldon waved them back. “It’s okay,” he said, then grimaced and brought a hand up to his jaw. “Damn, that hurt.”

Wilson glowered down. “It was supposed to, you little shit.” The children came running up, stopping in confusion at the tableaux.

“Wilson!” Victor yelled. “That’s…”

“I know who it is,” Wilson said sharply.

“Oh, this is great,” Nigel grunted indignantly as he struggled to his feet. “Three hundred and thirty goddamn years, and you’re still pissed at me?”

“Three hundred. Three thousand. Nothing changes what you did.”

Nigel was poking a forefinger into his mouth. “Ouch. I think you loosened a tooth.”

“You hurt my knuckles.” Wilson shook his hand; the damn thing was, it really did hurt. He hadn’t been in a brawl since his Air Force Academy days; the streetwise how-to had evaporated over the intervening centuries.

“Are you going to do that again?” Nigel asked.

“Are you?”

“Okay, okay, so this entrance isn’t supremely tactful of me.” Nigel eyed Wilson’s grazed hand warily. “But I wanted to make an impression.”

“You did that back at Schiaparelli.”

“This is important, damnit.”

“What is?” Wilson was having to work hard at not being impressed. The fact was, he hadn’t heard of a wormhole being used like this before, not to touch base with an individual—unless you counted the rumors about Ozzie. Gateways were hugely expensive links between worlds with a very long payback time, not personal transport machines, even if that person was Nigel Sheldon. Wilson supposed he was using the CST exploratory division gateway back on Augusta to open this tunnel across interstellar space. He didn’t like to think of the cost. “I do have an e-butler address code if there’s anything urgent, you know. You could use the unisphere like the rest of the human race.”

“We both know I’m not on your e-butler acceptance list, and I needed to talk to you urgently.”

“Why? What the hell is all this about?”

“I need a favor.”

Wilson started laughing.

“Yeah, all right,” Nigel said sourly. “Very funny. Now try this on for size. We’re building a starship to go to Dyson Alpha.”

“I heard. There’s been nothing else in the unisphere news for over a month.”

“So, but you didn’t join the dots too well, did you? We can build a ship, but the kind of experienced astronauts we need to crew it, and especially captain it, are kind of in short supply in this era.”

Wilson abruptly stopped laughing. “Son of a bitch.”

“Oh. Do I have your attention now?”

“Why me?” Wilson was surprised by how weak his voice had become.

“There’s no one else left, Captain Kime. You’re the last space cadet left in the galaxy. We need you.”

“This is bullshit. You’ve got tens of thousands of people in your exploratory division.”

“We do indeed. Good kids; great, even. Not one of which has ever been out of contact with the unisphere in their first, second, or even sixth life. You, on the other hand, you know what it’s like to be shut up in a metal bubble for months on end, you can handle the isolation, the stress; you can keep command of people under those circumstances. It’s a lot different from issuing orders down the corporate chain, and having some middle management jerk leap to it. Experience is always valuable, you know that. No false modesty, Wilson, we both know how successful you’ve been. I mean, look where we’re standing right now. There aren’t many of us even today who can re-create an eight-thousand-square-kilometer chunk of a France that never really existed outside romantic literature. You’ve got that, what did you used to call it: the Right Stuff?”

“Old phrase,” Wilson muttered as the really ancient memories began their inevitable replay. He always swore he’d dump them into deep secure storage at every rejuvenation, clear them out of his brain along with all the other irrelevant clutter so there would be space for the new life. Each time, he never did. A weakness for nostalgia. He’d so nearly been a contender for true greatness rather than the corporate chieftain he’d actually become. Even today a lot of people knew who Neil Armstrong was. But Wilson Kime? Not a chance.

“Well dust off your copy, man, because it’s about to become fashionable again.”

Wilson stared at the edge of the open wormhole, the dark shimmer of nothingness that very few people actually got to see firsthand. “Is this a serious offer?” he asked quietly.

“Absolutely. It’s your gig if you want it. I hope you do. I mean that sincerely. The more I think about Dyson Alpha, how strange it is, the more I want someone I can really trust in charge out there.”

“Grandpa?” Emily gazed up in newfound awe at her ancestor. “Are you going to fly the starship, Grandpa? Really?”

“Looks like it, poppet.” Wilson patted the girl’s head. He hadn’t even needed to think about it, the response had been automatic. “Give me a few days,” he told Nigel. “I’ve got to sort things out here.”

“Sure thing, man.” Nigel smiled broadly, and stuck his hand out. “Welcome aboard.”

Wilson considered it, but not shaking would just be churlish. “Just so we’re completely clear on this, you’re not thinking of joining the crew yourself, are you?”

“No. We’re clear on that.”

Anshun was on the very edge of phase two space, two hundred seventeen light-years from Earth, and almost directly between the old world and the Dyson Pair. That location had been quite a factor in CST siting its new phase three exploration division there. Boongate, sixty light-years away, already had a second gateway leading to Far Away, and its government had been hopeful that CST would follow that up with the exploration station. It was not to be. Far Away was a dead end. Anshun would help extend the human frontier toward the Dyson Pair.

Not that much expansion had been notable in the eight years since the division had been established at the CST planetary station, a mere two planets had been opened up. But Anshun now possessed a quiet confidence about the years to come. It was going to be the junction for this entire new sector of space. Over the next century its economy and population would rise until it matched any of the successful phase one worlds. Its future was secure.

Wilson Kime grinned privately at the peculiar sensation of d?j? vu as the passenger express from Los Vada slipped smoothly into the CST planetary station in Treloar, Anshun’s capital. The outside air here was hot and muggy from the nearby coast, just like Houston used to be. He could remember arriving at the NASA Space Center for his first day of training, the sun prickling his exposed skin with its heat. The uniform government-issue buildings of that campus had looked surprisingly shabby in the bright light, especially given what happened inside them. Somehow he’d expected the structures to be a little less industrial, a little more grandiose.

It was the same here on Anshun. Two members of CST’s exploration division were waiting for him on the platform. They showed him to a small station car, which drove through the vast empty area contained inside the perimeter fence that was destined to become the junction yard, where dozens of gateways and hundreds of busy tracks would route transport out to the new stars at some unspecified date. Right now, the landscape around him was almost ironically post-industrial. Long strips of enzyme-bonded concrete laid out long ago were now slowly buckling, roads for a mini city that never existed. The soil between them supported dispirited clumps of local grass and spindly weeds, cut up with curving tire ruts of baked clay that would form puddles after every downpour. Abandoned heavy-duty vehicles were scattered about, metal sections molting flakes of rust, composite bodywork bleached to a bland off-white, window glass smashed in, car-sized tires flat and calcified. Big fornrush birds glided above the area in wide spirals as their black wings captured the thermals. They were sleek scavengers, hunting down smaller rodents; though their catch was poor out here.

It made the brand-new dual carriageway that he was driving along seem strangely out of place, ahead of its time. A twin rail track ran parallel with it, also newly laid, linking the station’s marshaling yard with the starship project complex ahead. He saw a single DFL25 shunting engine rolling slowly in the opposite direction to him, pushing eight empty flatbed carriages ahead of it, the only sign of movement within eight kilometers.

It took ten minutes’ driving across the unused wilderness to reach the starship project. A long row of windowless pearl-white buildings materialized out of the powerful heat shimmer, protected by a six-meter-high fence. Guardbots trundled along the foot of it on an eternal patrol, smooth conical bodies concealing the weapons and sensors they were equipped with. There were three human guards on the gates. Wilson was scanned twice before they let him through, saluting smartly as he passed.

This whole complex smelled of money. He was familiar enough with fast-track projects to see an extraordinary amount of cash had been spent in a short period of time. Inside the fence, long strips of newly laid turf were neat and trimmed. Car parking spaces had names on the asphalt in fresh paint. The buildings were made from the new low-friction surface paneling that the construction industry was currently obsessed with, giving them a perpetually clean appearance. There were high doors set into most walls, all of them closed, with silvery rail lines running underneath the bottom edge. A row of pylons was visible at the back of the complex, stretching off toward the city’s largest industrial precinct, supporting slim red superconductor cables. The project was using up a lot of power.

Three stumpy, circular glass towers made up the heart of the complex, joined together at the base by soaring sheets of glass that looked like a solidified pavilion roof. The entrance lobby they formed was a huge atrium, with crystal pillars containing exotic big-leafed plants. A lot of people were hurrying across the stone floor, all of them with intent expressions. Work here was a serious thing.

Daniel Alster stood beside the long reception counter. He greeted Wilson warmly, introducing himself. “Mr. Sheldon apologizes for not being here to welcome you personally, he’s in a meeting which is overrunning quite badly.”

Wilson gave the lobby a thoughtful look, cementing his impression of unlimited budgets. Farndale had mounted big projects often enough, but that was different; their offices were built in cities, factories in industrial estates. They belonged. It must be the complex’s relative isolation that gave it such a sense of importance and urgency. “You mean Sheldon is managing the starship project himself?” he asked.

“Not the day-to-day details, no. But it is certainly high up on his schedule. He was quite relieved when you agreed to accept the captaincy.”

“Really?”

“Yes. I understand you’ll be taking over a number of administration procedures.”

“That’s right.” The quantity of data that the project had sent him over the four days since he agreed to captain the ship was phenomenal. Most of the information files were accompanied by requests from the department heads concerned. “But I need a while to settle in before I start slinging my weight around.” He’d actually felt a little overwhelmed walking into the lobby, facing up to the project all alone. Normally when he was involved in anything on such a scale he’d be accompanied by several of his own aides, and there would have been time for a thorough briefing beforehand. It was only last night he’d finally received a report on the Commonwealth ExoProtectorate Council meeting, which didn’t give him much time to mull over the political implications of the flight. The Farndale board had given his appointment their full approval, though, eager to climb on board the project.

“Of course,” Daniel Alster said. “Your office is ready for you now. But Mr. Sheldon suggested I should give you a quick tour of the facilities first.”

“Lead on.”

The complex layout was simple enough, with the three towers already housing the design and management personnel. A quarter of the office space was unused. “Crew training facilities,” Daniel Alster explained as they passed line after line of darkened glass cubicles.

“Has anybody been selected yet?”

“So far, only you. Just about everyone in our exploration division has volunteered, that’s technical personnel as well as the survey teams. Then there’s a couple of million hopefuls on every planet in the Commonwealth who are insisting they’re perfect for the job. This section of the Anshun cybersphere is having to be upgraded, we’ve had so much datatraffic. We’re waiting for you to draw up the requirement criteria before we start active recruitment.”

Wilson gave a resigned shrug. “Okay.”

The big hangarlike buildings outside the towers were where all the starship’s components were delivered, then rigorously tested before being taken through to the assembly platform. There was no manufacturing on-site, everything was shipped in through the planetary station’s gateway. Sixty-three percent of the components were fabricated on Augusta, including the wormhole generator mechanism that would act as the hyperdrive. The rest of the sections were coming in from all over the Commonwealth, contracts placed according to financial involvement and political clout. Wilson was pleased to see Los Vada had snatched over three percent.

As soon as the wagons delivered the containers, they were moved into clean rooms for testing. The assessment facilities that CST had built in such a short space of time were impressive. Sealed environment chambers could produce a huge combination of radiation, extreme thermal loads, vibration stress, electromagnetic irradiation, and hypervelocity particle impacts, all inside a good old-fashioned vacuum. There were also test labs where electronic components were subjected to all manner of improbable failure scenarios. Once they were certified, the components were moved out to the platform for assembly.

Nigel Sheldon was waiting at the gateway, which was at the end of the largest assessment building. He was wearing the same kind of white overall that Wilson had changed into. They both shook hands; still slightly wary of each other, like old friends who were patching up an argument.

“Ready for zero gee again?” Nigel asked. He put on a protective helmet, which molded itself to his skull.

“I guess so,” Wilson said. It had been a very long time, and as Daniel had been telling him during the tour, a lot of their assembly technicians had experienced mild to debilitating nausea when they were working on the ship. Not even continued exposure seemed to weaken the effect. The astronautics companies based at the High Angel had little practical help to offer; they either used robotic systems or personnel who’d been screened to find a degree of immunity. In desperation, CST had been deep-mining some very old medical papers on human zero-gee adaptation, some of which dated back to the Russian MIR station, to see what kinds of drugs or DNA resequencing they should be considering.

Wilson allowed Nigel to go first, following cautiously behind him. They were using the exploration division’s gateway, which had been taken off interstellar survey duties to provide a simple link between the complex and space above Anshun, where the assembly platform was orbiting a thousand kilometers out from the planet. A circular titanium tunnel had been built through the gateway, lined with bands of electromuscle that were capable of handling components up to eight meters wide and weighing a couple of hundred tons. The motion was like a throat swallowing, with the sealed containers riding forward on synchronized waves that rippled along the bands.

As Wilson walked forward, it looked as if they were going from the assessment building through a simple circular opening into a giant spherical chamber beyond. The assembly platform was a globe of malmetal that had been expanded out to six hundred meters in diameter. Its internal stress structure resembled hexagonal ribs, with gantry towers extending toward the center from the junctions. They supported a broad gridwork cylinder directly in front of the gateway. It was in there that the starship was taking shape. Right now, it looked like nothing more than an even denser lattice of girders. Hundreds of men and women in simple overalls were scampering along the framework, or anchoring themselves in place beside mobile constructionbots. White composite containers were sliding along the gantries, like pearls of condensation slithering down glass.

Even though Wilson was expecting it, the end of the planetary gravity field came as a shock. One foot was pressed firmly on the ground, while the one in front seemed to waver in midair. Wilson concentrated on pulling himself forward, using the handholds between the electromuscle bands. Every sense immediately told him he was falling. His hands automatically tightened their grip. In front of him, Nigel’s body had already swung around parallel to the gateway. He started to pull himself along the support gantry handholds, heading in toward the ship. Wilson copied him, using the handholds like a ladder for the first few meters, then his body simply glided along twenty centimeters or so above the gantry. He remembered to grip a handhold every few meters, just to correct his direction and prevent any spin from building up. His stomach was quivering at the falling sensation, but apart from a wet belch, he didn’t feel any dramatic onset of sickness. The air around him carried a distinct tang of welded metal and warm oil, though the smell slowly weakened as fluids began to pool in his head.

“Tell you something,” Nigel called back over his shoulder. “I get one hell of a buzz out of seeing this baby. Big projects always do that to me. But, man, I ain’t been this excited about a chunk of engineering since Ozzie and I put the original wormhole gateway together.”

“I remember the day,” Wilson said dryly. He couldn’t escape from his memories of the Ulysses that day either, the last time he’d ever seen the proud interplanetary ship, a big mass of struts with hardware attached at all points. None too dissimilar to this craft.

Nigel chuckled. “We’re coming up on the reaction drive section.”

The maze of girders wasn’t getting any clearer as they approached. Wilson asked his e-butler to access the assembly platform array. It overlaid a blueprint of what he was seeing on his virtual vision. The starship’s design was quite simple. The life-support section housing the crew was a thick ring three hundred meters in diameter, which would rotate to provide a twenty percent gravity field along its rim. A basic VonBraun wheel, Wilson thought, though no one would ever call it that nowadays. In the middle of that was a cylinder four hundred meters long and a hundred fifty in diameter, containing both the FTL drive and the plasma rockets. The surface had a multitude of bulges and prominences, as if it were growing metallic tumors.

The three of them floated around a fat nozzle with a perfect mirror-surface interior. It was the first of the five plasma rockets to be installed, leaving rosettes of struts where the other four would be fitted. Wilson studied the thick reaction mass fuel pipes and superconductor cabling that would be connected into the other units when they arrived. His hand crept out of its own accord to touch the casing of the installed nozzle.

Plasma rockets. Just like the old Ulysses had. It’s like a bicycle, some things you can’t improve.

“What kind of power source are we using?” he asked.

“Niling d-sinks,” Nigel told him. “Fifteen of the goddamn biggest we make. There are backups, as well, of course; we’re providing microfission piles and two fusion generators. But the niling d-sinks are your primary supply. They’ll give you enough power to fly seven thousand light-years.”

“That far?” Somehow Wilson had been expecting the ship to be capable of reaching Dyson Alpha and returning, nothing more.

“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean you’ve got a license to fly off and explore the rest of the galaxy, Captain, okay?”

Wilson smiled with a faint degree of guilt. He’d been thinking just that. “You know what you’re doing, don’t you? What this ship is?”

“What?”

“You’re dropping a pebble off the top of a mountain. When it gets to the bottom it’ll be an avalanche. People are going to be interested in exploring the unknown again. They’ll want more ships like this, they’ll want to know what else is out there. The next ship will be big enough to fly around the galactic core.”

“Wrong, Captain. Only people like you want to do that, born romantics. And there aren’t as many of you as you’d like to think. This Commonwealth we’ve built for ourselves is a mature, conservative society. We’ve grown up a lot in the last couple of centuries. Only people with one short life want to go tearing out into the great unknown with nothing more than a flashlight and a stick to poke the rattlers with. The rest of us will take our time and expand slowly, that way there are no mistakes made. Tortoise and the hare, Captain, tortoise and the hare.”

“Maybe,” Wilson said. “But I don’t believe we’re as civilized as you like to think, not all of us.” They’d gone past the reaction drive sector of the ship, and were in the midsection, where two stumpy arms linked the habitation ring to the central engineering section superstructure. Again there wasn’t much to see, just the raw skeleton devoid of any hull plating, even the internal decking was missing inside the stress structure. Although a lot of auxiliary machinery had already been installed. “How’s the hyperdrive coming along?”

The lines around Sheldon’s mouth tightened slightly. “The flow wormhole generator is undergoing stage three component testing. They should begin primary installation in three to four months.”

“So how does that leave our overall timetable?” Wilson asked.

“Our initial projection has completion in another seven months,” Daniel Alster said. “However, there were several problems associated with zero-gee construction which we hadn’t factored in.”

“Be more like nine months now,” Nigel grunted.

“Everything costs more,” Wilson pronounced happily.

“And takes longer,” Nigel completed. “Tell me about it.”

“How come you didn’t build this at the High Angel?” Wilson asked. “I know it would add another two hundred and thirty light-years to the trip, but that’s not much to this ship if I read the specs right. And they have all the astroengineering expertise there.”

“Political control,” Nigel said simply. “Specifically: mine. This way, CST remains the primary operator for the whole mission.”

“Fair enough,” Wilson said. It was a reasonable compliment that Nigel didn’t feel the need to guard what he said.

Near the front of the superstructure a great nest of power cables waited for whatever unit was to be installed there. Intrigued by the power levels involved, Wilson checked the section against his virtual vision blueprint to find it was a force field generator, one of seven. “It’s well defended.”

“I want you back in one piece,” Nigel said. “And I still worry about the envelopment being a defensive action. To me it’s the most likely scenario.”

“If we’re up against weapons that you need to protect a star against, I don’t think a couple of our force fields will be much use.”

The three of them stopped drifting, and clustered together around a force field generator emplacement. “Look,” Nigel said. “One of the reasons I wanted you to see this today was so you could get a decent overview. At this stage the design is still reasonably flexible. Hell, we can put the launch schedule back by a year if we need to. I want your input on this.”

“Fine. My initial response is that we should be a lot more cautious than the flight profiles you’ve shown me so far. The last thing we want is a mission where we come out of hyperspace right next to the envelopment barrier and start yelling: Anyone here? We need to be taking our first look from at least ten light-years out, which means the very best sensor systems the Commonwealth can build. If we can’t detect any signs of conflict from there, then we move in by stages. That will probably mean adding several months to the mission.”

“I can live with that,” Nigel said.

“Good, because I will only take this ship out if we’re running with a safety-is-paramount philosophy. Not just for the crew, but for humans everywhere. If there is something hostile out there, I don’t want to draw its attention to us. I hope you appreciate just how much responsibility is accruing around this project.”

“I know that, man, believe me, I know. This is what CST faces every time we open a wormhole to anywhere new. People don’t pay us any attention these days because they think that after three centuries, encounter scenarios are routine, and maybe even boring. Me, I don’t sleep much, I know that one day we’ll come across some virus or bug that gets right past our biomedical screening, or an alien race that is the opposite of the Silfen. Every year we go farther out, I add another safety procedure and ignore my staff screaming about what a monster bureaucrat I’ve become. All I do is pray that new procedure is going to be good enough for the one seriously badass encounter that nobody’s thought of before. Take a look at our exploration division’s operational guidelines some time, they should reassure you.”

“Okay, we understand each other then.”

“I hope so, Wilson, because this could well be that one encounter I’ve been dreading all these centuries.”

“So why are you pushing so hard for this mission?”

“We can’t hide in the dark just because of something we don’t understand. As a species, we’ve evolved a hell of a lot these last centuries, we are Homo galactic now. It might be arrogance on my part, but I believe we’re now capable of facing something this big. And don’t try to kid yourself: this is big, even if all you find is a deserted barrier generator. We have to come to terms with truly alien aliens, and the Silfen have never been that.”

“I thought you said us true romantics were few and far between?”

“We are. But look who we are.”

Wilson finally laughed. He tilted his head to take in the massive bulk of the ship. “So how come you haven’t named it yet?”

“You’re the captain, that’s your prerogative.”

“Are you bullshitting me?”

“No, man, I figure I owe you that much. Any ideas?”

“Sure. She’s called Second Chance.” It wasn’t something he had to think about.

Nigel grinned. “Not bad. I guess we’ll have a proper ceremony sometime. But first you’ve got to start putting your crew together. I can keep the politicians off your back for a while, but the quicker you make the selection the better. Man, I thought I was used to political horse trading, but this has got them all riled up. Every president, king, queen, first minister, prime minister, chairman, chief secretary, and grand emperor wants their world represented.”

“You’ve left room for a big science complement, that’s good, I would have insisted on that anyway. The actual crew, the engineers who’ll keep the ship running, I want to keep to a minimum. This is a science mission, after all. So I expect they’ll be drawn from the teams working here.”

“Okay, I have no problem passing the buck to you on this one. But be warned, there’s going to be pressure.”

“I’ll handle it. I don’t suppose you tracked down any more of my old crew, did you? I know Commander Lewis never made it to a rejuvenation. The rest of us drifted apart.”

“I’ll get on to it,” Alster said.

Paula Myo could actually see the Eiffel Tower from her office window. A century ago the Senior Investigator Office of the Intersolar Serious Crimes Directorate had taken over a lovely old five-story building just three streets away from the Seine, refurbishing the interior while leaving the Napoleonic facade intact. If she pushed her chair back from the desk and craned her neck, the ancient iron tower was visible over the rooftops. In the ninety-two years since she made Chief Investigator she probably hadn’t looked at it more than a dozen times. Today was one of those rare days when she succumbed, and gazed out at the panorama. The ant-size tourists were just visible on the top, while the lifts ran smoothly up and down the center of the ancient iron pinnacle. A timeless sight, which if anything had actually improved over the last two centuries as Parisians had gradually pushed the skyscrapers and modern apartment blocks farther and farther away from the ancient heart of their city.

While she watched, the office array was running cargo and transport files through specialist analysis programs, searching for the patterns that always seemed to elude her. It was the reason for her mood. Those patterns had escaped her for a couple of months now, and there were only so many ways you could search the data, even with modern smartware.

She knew Elvin had begun shipping the arms to Far Away. He would do that the only way possible: break them down into innocuous components, and incorporate them in other cargoes. Every time he bought an arms shipment this was the endgame that resulted. She would have cargoes pulled at random by CST security staff at Boongate’s gateway; they would be broken apart and evaluated for any discrepancy. Only three times in the last twenty years had they found components that the manufacturer couldn’t explain. She was sure that if every cargo was taken apart in the same way the results would be a lot better. But CST security had made it quite clear they didn’t have the resources to handle that kind of operation. Besides, she would inconvenience everybody on Far Away who was legitimately importing machinery, and without much just cause other than her own determination. Like all of his predecessors, Mel Rees, her immediate boss, had made it quite clear that the Intersolar Serious Crimes Directorate wasn’t going to support or fund that kind of interception procedure. It was an infuriating policy that she had argued against for decades, to no avail. So while she kept on filing official requests and applying what pressure she could through political contacts she had to make do with the occasional, random raid on likely cargo cases of equipment.

In an attempt to swing the odds in her favor, she’d initiated the data analysis. Every piece of cargo arriving at the Boongate CST station came with a full complement of files on shipping details, purchase invoices, payment confirmation, packaging companies, handling agents. Adam Elvin would send the arms via a multitude of different routes over a period of time that probably stretched into years. It was a physical encryption, you just had to have the key, the knowledge of which cargo hid which components, and when it would be arriving; if you had that you could slot the whole lot together. So her programs searched routes for crates that had shared a warehouse six months ago on a planet a hundred light-years away, payments that came from the same bank, a freighting company that was used by different agents, bills paid from an account that was only used once. Every time, she drew a blank. It didn’t help that eighty percent of cargo destined for Far Away belonged to individuals or families who were emigrating there, and took all their personal belongings with them, along with an amazing list of items they considered necessary for their survival and well-being.

“Now that’s something I don’t see every day,” Mel Rees said. “You loafing on the job.”

Paula gave him a silent, contemptuous glance and turned back to the Eiffel Tower. Mel Rees had only been with the Directorate for forty years, reaching his current position as one of its numerous deputy directors because of his family. But then that was always the way with Earth-based Commonwealth institutions; if senior appointees didn’t come from a Grand Family, they were inevitably part of an Intersolar Dynasty. Of course, had she gone gunning for a directorship she would probably have got it; but again, ironically, that would have been because of who she was, not to mention the amount of seniority gathered from one hundred forty-seven straight years of employment in the Directorate. But then, because of who she was, she didn’t want a post that would take her away from actual investigative work.

Mel Rees studied the data running through the desk portals. “No luck, huh?”

“Not with the budget you give me.”

“I’ve got something else for you.” Mel Rees never quite had the courage to summon Paula to his office if he wanted to discuss anything, he always visited her in person.

“What?”

“An ice case on Oaktier. Possible deliberate bodykill and associated memory loss.”

Paula couldn’t help her interest. “How long ago?”

“Uncertain, but it could be forty years.”

“Hum.” Paula crinkled her nose. It wasn’t that long ago. “Can’t the local police deal with it?”

“They tried, the results were inconclusive. That’s why we got the request for assistance. One of the possible victims, a Tara Jennifer Shaheef, has an important family on Oaktier, who have connections. You know how it works. Her family want positive results, one way or the other; so naturally I want you to have it.”

“You said one of the victims?”

“Yes. If it happened, there were two of them—that the police know of so far.”

“Okay, now I’m interested.”

“Thank you.” Glancing around the spartan office, he saw the small bag that was kept permanently packed, ready for any off-Earth assignment. It was one of three personal items she permitted herself in the plain room. On the windowsill was a rabbakas plant, a black corm sprouting a single marbled pink flower with petals that looked like feathers, which she’d been given by a Silfen on Silvergalde. And on the desk was a quartz cube containing a hologram of the couple who’d brought her up on Marindra, some summer day picnic scene with Paula and her stepsister, both girls aged about five. Mel Rees always tried to avoid looking at the hologram; every time it gave him an uncomfortably powerful reminder of just how strange the Chief Investigator was. “Do you want to shift any of your casework while you’re away? Renne and Tarlo haven’t got much on right now.”

She looked at him as if he had spoken some incomprehensible language. “I can keep up-to-date on everything from Oaktier, thank you. It is part of the unisphere.”

“Sure. Right.” He started to back out of the office. “Anything you need, just let me know.”

Paula waited until he had gone, then permitted herself a small smile. Actually, Rees wasn’t a bad deputy director—he kept his teams happy and made sure the department received a healthy budget—but she always made sure he knew his place. After a while she pulled her chair back to the desk and asked her e-butler to retrieve the Tara Jennifer Shaheef case files.

The Clayden Clinic was set amid twenty acres of its own grounds in one of the eastern suburbs of Darklake City. As rejuvenation facilities went, it was among the best on the planet. Paula had read through the Directorate’s green-code background file on the company, a typical medium-sized corporate operation, with clinics on five worlds in this sector of space.

What she could see as the police car pulled in through the gates seemed to reflect what she’d read. A long, three-story pearl and bamboo building standing on a slope above a small lake. One wing ended in a lattice of scaffolding, with constructionbots riding along the rails as they locked new prefab sections together.

Her office suit gave no protection from the humid early afternoon air as she hurried from the car to the reception. Detective Hoshe Finn was a couple of paces behind her the whole way, puffing with discontent at the heat. He was from the local ice-crime division, and had been assigned to assist her for the duration of the case—a duty he accepted cheerily, which was something she found refreshing. For once, someone was enjoying working with her and was actively helpful right from the start. She was sure he was mostly interested in seeing if her reputation matched up to the actual person, but she didn’t mind that. Whatever got results. Part of his acceptance no doubt came from the fact he was eighteen years on from his second rejuvenation. Older people tended to have a more phlegmatic approach.

Hoshe Finn’s last rejuvenation had given him a thin face. He wore his black hair drawn up into a neat single curl at the back, held in place with an elaborate silver ring clip. Just about the first thing he said to her was an admission he was overweight, though his shiny green silk suit was cut to deemphasize his waist and stomach.

“This way,” Hoshe Finn said once they were indoors. He led off down one of the long corridors leading away from reception. They passed several recent rejuvees being helped along by staff.

“Have you handled many ice cases?” Paula asked.

“Three.” He shrugged. “Including this one. My success rate is not high. Most of the time I work for the main criminal investigation department. This kind of allegation doesn’t occur very often.”

“Don’t worry, there aren’t many ice crimes which get solved.”

“Yeah. Even with our data storage capacity, digging up the past is difficult.”

“It’s not that, exactly.” She paused. “The information you gather from the past has to be related to human behavior. It’s a holistic picture we’re looking for. Law enforcement today relies too much on digital evidence.”

“And that’s where you come in.” He smiled at the suspicious look she gave him. “A true detective.”

“I do what I can.”

They had to put on clean coveralls to enter Wyobie Cotal’s room through its small decontamination lock. The light was low and pink inside, so it didn’t place undue strain on his eyes. Paula steeled herself behind her face filter mask as the second set of doors slid open. Something about emergency re-life cases always left her feeling queasy. Even though Cotal’s new clone had been out of the womb tank for five weeks now, she found the body unpleasant to look at.

The clone had been initiated two years ago, after Cotal’s insurance company array had conducted a legally required attempt to contact him through the unisphere. Subsequently, a more detailed search involving human researchers had also failed to locate any trace of him since he left Oaktier forty years earlier. At that time sixty-five years had elapsed since his birth, and he should have booked in to the clinic for his first rejuvenation in accordance with the policy that his reasonably wealthy parents had taken out at conception. As he didn’t appear, the courts granted the insurance company a body-death certificate on the grounds that he had either been illegally killed or had been involved in some freak accident that had gone unreported. The re-life procedure was activated a week later.

Although not too common, the operation was relatively straightforward for a facility as well equipped as the Clayden Clinic. Cotal’s DNA was subtly modified to produce accelerated growth, and the fetus kept in the womb-tank for just over twenty-three months. During the last five months, the clinic had inserted a neural link, and started to download Cotal’s stored memories into his new brain. There weren’t many; although he had regularly updated his secure store every couple of months, he’d stopped when he allegedly left Oaktier, aged twenty-five.

Lying on his bed bathed in mock-twilight, he looked like a fourteen-year-old famine victim. His body was dreadfully thin, with skin stretched tight over ribs and limbs. Some kind of gel had been applied to prevent excessive flaking, though several large areas were raw and crusting beneath the glistening substance. There was almost no muscle on his arms and legs, leaving his knees and elbows as knobbly protrusions. It meant he had to wear an electromuscle mobility suit to move, which looked as if he was imprisoned in a wire exoskeleton cage. But it was his head that was the most ungainly aspect. It was almost adult size, leaving it far too big for his spindly neck to support without the mobility suit.

Wyobie Cotal’s large sunken eyes followed them as they came into the room. He made no attempt to move his head. Every now and then he would open his lips a fraction, and a nipple would deploy from the side of the suit, pushing into his mouth so he could suck on it. Paula refused to look at the tubes around his waist, and the arrangement for connecting them to his penis and anus.

And I used to think recovering from an ordinary rejuvenation was humiliating enough.

“Hello, Wyobie,” Hoshe Finn said. “You’re looking better this time. Remember me?”

“Policeman,” Wyobie Cotal whispered. His voice was amplified by the suit, producing a weird echo effect.

“That’s right: Detective Finn. And this is Chief Investigator Paula Myo from the Serious Crimes Directorate. She’s come all the way from Earth to look into your death.”

Wyobie Cotal’s weary eyes focused on Paula. “Do I know you?”

“No.” She wasn’t about to start explaining her notoriety to someone who was struggling to make sense of his small stock of memories. “But I would like to help you.”

He smiled, which allowed drool to leak from his mouth. “You’re going to break me out of here?”

“It won’t be much longer.”

“Liar!” He said it loud enough that the amplification circuit wasn’t triggered. “They said I’ll be here for months while my muscles grow. Then I’ll just have a kid’s body. The speed-up growing part has stopped now.”

“But you’re alive again.”

He closed his eyes. “Find them. Find who did this to me.”

“If you were killed, I will find them. I always do.”

“Good.”

“I understand you and Tara Jennifer Shaheef were sex partners.” Paula ignored the way Hoshe Finn winced behind his filter mask. The amount of time they could spend with Cotal was limited by his condition; she didn’t intend on wasting any of it.

“Yes.” The expression on the strange child-face softened. “We’d just started seeing each other.”

“You know she left Oaktier as well.”

“I know. But I can’t believe I ran off with her, there was too much for me here. I told the police before. I was seeing another girl, too.”

“Philipa Yoi, yes?”

“Yes.”

“Was she the jealous type?”

“No no, I’ve been through all this before. It was all just fun, nothing too serious. We all knew that. Philipa and I were first-lifers, we wanted to… live.”

“It was just fun at the time of your last memory backup into the clinic’s secure store. But you didn’t leave Oaktier for another nine weeks after that. A lot could have happened in that time.”

“I wouldn’t have left,” he repeated stubbornly.

“Had anybody mentioned taking any trips? Were any friends planning a holiday on another planet?”

“No. I’m sure. My head’s all weird, you know. This was just five weeks ago for me. But my whole life is jumbled up. Some of the childhood stuff is clearer than Philipa and Tara. Oh, fuck. I can’t believe anybody would want to kill me.”

“Do you know anything about Tampico?”

“No. Nothing. Why?”

“It was the planet you bought a ticket for.”

Wyobie Cotal closed his eyes. Tears squeezed out to wet the fine lashes. “I don’t know. I don’t remember any of this. This has to be a mistake. One giant mother of a mistake. I’m still out there somewhere. I must be. I just forgot to come back for my rejuvenation, that’s all. Find me, please. Find me!” He started to lift his back up off the pillow, juvenile features straining hard. “Do something.”

A nurse came in as Wyobie Cotal sank back down again. He was unconscious before the electromuscle suit finished lowering him back flat onto the bed.

“He’s been sedated,” the nurse said. “It’ll be another three hours before he’s conscious again. You can come back then if you have to, but he can’t be exposed to an unlimited number of sessions like this. His personality is still very fragile, he’s completely immature emotionally.”

“I understand,” Paula said. She and Hoshe Finn left the room together.

“What do you think?” the detective asked as they took their coveralls off.

“Taken alone, I would have said it was a clear-cut case. First-lifers are always excitable. He went off on an adventure holiday with a girl and drowned or crashed or flew into a hill, something reckless and stupid. But with Shaheef as well, we have to consider the circumstances.”

Hoshe Finn nodded and threw his coveralls into a bin. The cooler air outside Cotal’s room made him shiver. “That’s what alerted us to this in the first place. Tara Jennifer Shaheef was re-lifed twenty years ago. She was written off as having an accident.”

“So who made the connection?”

“Morton, her past husband. Apparently, Cotal was named on the divorce papers; he was the one she was shacking up with on Tampico.”

“So it did get serious between Cotal and Shaheef?”

“Looks like it, but not on this planet. She filed the papers on Tampico. Once the divorce was arranged, Morton never heard anything from her again until her re-life. My division investigated her re-life as a matter of course, but there was nothing unduly suspicious other than the lack of a body. Accidents do happen.”

“So after the divorce Cotal and Shaheef went on holiday, or even honeymoon, together. They had the same accident.”

“Could be. Except there really is no trace of them after they left Oaktier.”

“Apart from the divorce petition.”

“Yes. And there certainly isn’t a motive for killing them. All we have are a lot of suspicious circumstances.”

“I need to see Shaheef next.”

“She’s expecting us.”

SIX

The message was loaded into the unisphere through a planetary cybersphere node in Hemeleum, a small inland farming town on Westwould. It remained in a onetime address file for five hours, long enough for whoever loaded it to have traveled clear across the Commonwealth. After five hours were up, the message’s sender segment activated. The program distributed the message to every e-butler address code in the unisphere, an annoying method of advertising called shotgunning. As a method of commercial promotion it had fallen into disuse centuries ago. Every modern e-butler program had filters that could bounce the spam right back to its sender, although as most shotgunners used a onetime address there was little point. The e-butlers also automatically notified the RIs controlling the unisphere routing protocols, who immediately wiped the offending message from every node. And under Intersolar law, finally passed in 2174, anyone shotgunning the unisphere was liable to a large irritant fine that could be applied to every message that was received by an e-butler, so the penalty was never less than a couple of billion dollars. Subsequently, shotgunning was used only by underground organizations or individuals who had ideologies, disreputable financial schemes, religious visions, or political revolution that they wanted the rest of the Commonwealth to know about. Given how quickly the unisphere RIs could identify shotgun spread patterns and block them, any software writer capable of composing a decent new shotgun sender could earn themselves a lucrative fee—cash, of course.

In this case, the factor that allowed the shotgunned message to get around most e-butler filters was that it had a genuine author certificate. On the arrival of any message, that was the first thing an e-butler would query. This one had the certificate of April Gallar Halgarth, a twenty-year-old resident of Solidade, the private world owned by the Halgarth dynasty. Over ten billion e-butlers allowed it to go forward into their hold file.

Most people upon receiving a message from a Halgarth opened it from sheer curiosity. When the visual recording started to play they realized they’d been shotgunned, and ninety percent wiped it immediately. Those who let it run did so out of native inquisitiveness, the prospect of filing a shotgun suit against a Halgarth, or because they were fellow extremist freedom fighters or it was useful raw material for their dissertation on modern political factions. A rare few simply believed.

The visuals opened with a man in an office, sitting behind a desk, with the snow-cloaked city of San Matio, Lerma’s capital, spread out panoramically through the window wall behind him. His face boasted strong features that were highlighted by dark skin, while neatly trimmed brown hair was threaded with a few silver strands. It emphasized the kind of authoritative air that inspired confidence, marking him down as a positive, progressive leader. (Forensic analysis showed he was a graphics composite, designed by the Formit 3004 simulator package, using its politician sculpture function.)

“Sorry to burst in on you like this,” he said. “But as you probably know, the government spends a lot of tax money on hunting down our group. Contrary to the Commonwealth charter which permits free public assembly, I am not allowed to say what I want to other citizens. I represent the Guardians of Selfhood. And before you wipe this message, I have one question to ask you. Why has the Senate and the executive chosen to send a starship to the Dyson Pair? Specifically, why now?”

There was a perspective shift in the pause while the man drew a realistic breath. The observer point moved forward and down, sitting in front of the desk, closer to the spokesman. It was a cozier setting, giving the impression of a one-on-one chat.

“As you know, we are campaigning against the Starflyer, an alien we contend is actively influencing the Commonwealth’s political classes for its own advantage. It is this Starflyer which has engineered the current mission to investigate the Dyson Pair. The Commonwealth has known about the enclosure of the two stars for centuries. We have known that one day, when phase six space is opened, that we would reach these strange stars and begin our investigation. What has changed? A single observation that proved the enclosure was a force field rather than a solid shell. Exactly why should that reverse centuries of Commonwealth policy?”

The spokesman shook his head solemnly. “Possibly the most critical human voyage of exploration since Columbus set sail has been launched without any valid explanation. The question was not debated openly in the Senate, despite the vast amounts of public money being spent to finance the starship. Instead, the decision emerged from some obscure ExoProtectorate Council that nobody had ever heard of before. It is exactly the kind of clandestine back-room deal that favors the Starflyer and its agenda.”

Perspective shifted again, sweeping the viewer out through the window to soar over the complicated maze of San Matio’s streets. “Somewhere out there it lurks, controlling and influencing us through its puppets. Government and their media manipulators ask how we know the Starflyer is malign. The answer is simple: if it is a friend, it would reveal itself to us and the other alien affiliates of the Commonwealth. If it is a friend, it would not push us into sending an expedition to the Dyson Pair. The President says we need to know what happened. He is mistaken. We know what must have happened. Shielding two entire star systems with force fields is an act of extreme desperation. Something terrible was about to be unleashed, something that warranted such colossal countermeasures. These barriers have kept the threat isolated from the rest of the galaxy for over a thousand years. We are safe because of that. This wonderful city, and thousands like it across the Commonwealth, sleep soundly at night because the threat is contained. Yet now we are being sent out there to tamper with the dangerous unknown. Why? What was wrong with our old policy of caution? By the time we reach phase six space we would probably know how to generate force fields of such a size, we would certainly comprehend the science and technology involved. We would not be endangering anybody, least of all ourselves.”

The view slid back into the office, establishing eye contact with the spokesman again. “Why was no public debate allowed? The Starflyer does not want that. Why is there an urgent need to visit the Dyson Pair? The Starflyer wants us to. Why does it want that? Consider this: the Starflyer has traveled hundreds of light-years across the galaxy. It knows what lies within the barrier. It has seen the danger there.

“All that we ask is that you resist its strategies and deceits. Question your Senator, your planetary or national leader. Demand from them a full explanation of why your tax money is being spent on this undemocratic recklessness. If they cannot satisfy you, then demand your rights. Demand this monstrous plan be stopped.”

The spokesman bowed his head in respect. “I thank you for your time.”

The star was a blue dwarf formally named Alpha Leonis, more commonly referred to as Regulus by intrigued astronomers on Earth, back in the days when there was such a thing as astronomy on the old world. They also found its companion star, Little Leo, an orange dwarf, which itself had a companion, Micro Leo, a red dwarf. This cozy threesome was situated seventy-seven light-years from Sol, an unusual system that attracted quite a degree of interest and observation time.

Then in 2097, CST discovered an H-congruous planet orbiting a long way out from the primary, and christened it Augusta. For Nigel Sheldon it was the opportunity he’d been waiting for. At that time the Human Intersolar Commonwealth was being formed, and the UFN on Earth was enacting the first wave of its global environmental laws. With Regulus in a strategically important position to expand the CST network into the already envisaged phase two space, Nigel claimed it for the company. He transported every single CST manufacturing facility out there, and went on to welcome any other factory that was suffering from Earth’s difficult new regulations. It became the first of what eventually were known as the Big15.

There was no culture to speak of on Augusta, no nationalist identity. It was devoted solely to commerce, the manufacture of products, large or small, which were shipped out across the Commonwealth. New Costa sprang up along the subtropical coast of the Sineba continent, the only city on the planet. In 2380 it was home to just over a billion people, a centerless urban sprawl of factories and residential districts stretching for more than six hundred kilometers along the shore and up to three hundred inland.

For all its crass existence, the megacity had a sense of purpose upon which all its inhabitants thrived. They were here for one thing: to work. There were no native citizens, everyone was technically a transient, earning money as they passed through. A lot of money. Some stayed for life after life, workaholics sweating their way up through the company that employed them, subtly remodeling themselves with every rejuvenation to give themselves the edge over their office rivals. A few stayed for only one life, entrepreneurs working their asses into an early rejuvenation but making a fortune in the process. However, the vast bulk of people lived there for sixty to ninety years, earning enough to buy into a good life on a more normal planet by the time they finally left. They were the ones who tended to have families. Children were the only people who didn’t work on Augusta, but they did grow up with a faintly screwed-up view of the rest of the Commonwealth, believing it to be made up of romantic planets where everyone lived in small cozy villages at the center of grand countryside vistas.

Mark Vernon was one such child, growing up in the Orangewood district at the south end of New Costa. As districts went, it was no better or worse than any other in the megacity. Most days the harsh sunlight was diffused by a brown haze of smog, and the Augusta Engineering Corp, which owned and ran the megacity, wasn’t going to waste valuable real estate with parks. So along with his ’hood buddies he powerscooted along the maze of hot asphalt between strip malls, and hung out anywhere guaranteed to annoy adults and authority. His parents got him audio and retinal inserts and i-spot OCtattoos at twelve so that he was fully virtual, because that was the age for Augusta kids to start direct-loading education. By sixteen he was wetwired for Total Sensorium Interface, and receiving his first college-year curriculum in hour-long artificial memory bursts every day. He graduated at eighteen, with a mediocre degree in electromechanics and software.

Ten years later, he had a reasonable job at Colyn Electromation, a wife, two kids of his own, a three-bedroom house with a tiny pool in the yard, and a healthy R&R pension fund. Statistically, he was a perfect Augusta inhabitant.

When he drove home that particular Friday evening, he wanted nothing more than to scream at the planet where it could shove his exemplary life. For a start he was late out of the plant, the guy on the next shift had called in sick, and it took the duty manager an hour to get cover organized. This was supposed to be Mark’s family day, the one where he got home early and spent some quality time with those he loved. Even the traffic didn’t want that to happen. Cars and trucks clogged all six lanes on his side of the highway, corraling his Ford Summer. Even with the city traffic routing arrays managing the flow, the sheer volume of vehicles at this time of the evening slowed everybody down to a fifty-five-kilometer-an-hour crawl. He’d wanted a house nearer the factory, but AEC didn’t have any to rent in those districts, so he had to make do with the Santa Hydra district. It was only sixteen kilometers inland, but that put it uncomfortably close to the Port Klye sector, where one of New Costa’s nests of nuclear power plants was sited.

Mark opened the Summer’s side window as they turned off the highway and onto Howell Avenue, which wound through the Northumberland Hills. It was a district that senior management favored: long clean boulevards lined by tall trees, where gated drives led off to big houses in pretty emerald enclaves surrounded by high walls. It wasn’t because there was crime on Augusta—at least, noncorporate crime; the well-to-do simply enjoyed the sense of physical separation from the rest of the megacity. Low sunlight gleamed off the district’s buildings and sidewalks, creating a hazy lustrous shimmer. He breathed in the warm dry air, trying to relax. As always when the tiny blue-white sun sank down toward the horizon, the warm El Iopi wind blew out of the southern desert toward the sea. It swept the day’s pollution away, along with the humidity, leaving just the scent of blossom from the trees and roadside bushes.

During his childhood, his parents had taken him and his siblings out into the desert several times, spending long weekends at oasis resorts. He’d enjoyed the scenery, the endless miles of flinty rock and sand, with only the rainbow buds of the scrawny twiglike native plants showing any color in that wasted landscape. It was a break from the megacity that was all he’d known. The rest of Sineba wasn’t worth visiting. That which wasn’t desert had long since been put to the plow. Giant mechanized farms had spread across the continent’s prairies, ripping up native plants and forests, and replacing them with huge fields of GM high-yield terrestrial crops, their leaves awash with pesticides and roots flooded with fertilizer. They poured a constant supply of cheap crops into the food processing factories dotted along the inland edge of New Costa, to be transformed into packaged convenience portions and distributed first to the megacity’s inhabitants, then out to the other planets, of which Earth was the greatest market.

After snaking down through the Northumberland Hills, Howell Avenue opened out into Santa Hydra, a broad flat expanse that led all the way across to the coastline twenty-five kilometers away. He could see the Port Klye nest in the distance, eleven big concrete fission reactor domes perched along the shore. The ground around them was a flat bed of asphalt squares, where nothing grew and nothing moved, a mile-wide security moat separating them from the megacity that they helped to energize. Pure white steam trickled out of their turbine-building chimneys, glowing rose-gold in the evening light. He couldn’t help the suspicious stare he gave the plumes, even though he knew they weren’t radioactive. The coolant system intake and outlet pipes were miles out to sea, as well, reducing any direct contamination risk. But the power plants were all part of his general malaise.

Slim pylons carried superconductor cables back into the megacity, following the routes of the major roads before they branched off and split into localized grids. Other, larger pylons carried the cables along the shoreline to the foundries. It was the heaviest industries that had colonized the land above the ocean, the big dirty steel mills and petrochemical refineries that used the seawater for coolant and the seabed as a waste dump.

Howell Avenue turned to run parallel with a heavy-duty eight-line rail track. These were the lines that connected the big industry districts to the CST planetary station, New Costa Junction, a hundred sixty kilometers north and three hundred kilometers inland. Kilometer-long cargo trains ran along it all day and night, hauled by DVA5s, massive nuclear-powered tractor units. The leviathans roamed all over the planet, some of them on three-week journeys from the other continents, winding their way through a huge number of different terrains before crossing the final isthmus bridge on Sineba’s northeastern corner, which connected it to the rest of the world’s landmasses. Their trucks carried every kind of raw material available in the planet’s crust, collecting them from the hundreds of crater-sized open mines that AEC had opened up across the world. In terms of bulk shifted, only the oil pipelines could rival them, bringing in crude from the dozens of major oil fields AEC operated.

The Ford Summer accelerated through a wide concrete underpass as a freight train thundered overhead, heading out from the coast. It was taking refined metal away from the mills, one of a hundred that day alone. In a few hours it would reach the planetary station and transfer the metal to a world whose clear-air laws wouldn’t permit the kind of cheap smelting methods Augusta employed.

With that depressing thought at the forefront of his mind, Mark finally turned into his own street. Putney Road was two kilometers long, with innumerable cul-de-sacs leading off it. The sidewalks were cracked, and the road surface uneven, long trickles of dark water leaking across it in several places where the irrigation pipes had fractured. Eucalyptus trees had been planted along both sides of the asphalt when the district was laid down, two hundred years ago. They were now so big their branches tangled together high above the center of the road, creating a welcoming shaded greenway and providing a great deal of privacy for the houses. A lot of bunting was hanging from the branches, the little flags all with the silver and blue Augusta football team emblem sparkling in the center. As Mark turned the Summer into his own drive, the tires scattered the usual layer of red-brown bark scabs that had peeled from the trunks to gather in the gutters. His father’s car was parked up ahead of him, an opentop 2330 vintage Caddy that Marty Vernon maintained in perfect condition. Beside it, the twelve-year-old Ford Summer looked rundown and cheap.

Mark stayed in the front seat for a moment, taking stock. He wanted all his agitation to fade away so he could enjoy the evening. I deserve a decent break. Around twenty years. There were noises coming from around the back of the house as the kids played in their little scrap of yard. The eucalyptus trees rustled in the gentle El Iopi wind, sending shadows wavering across the roof. Mark studied his home critically: pale lavender walls of drycoral, with a curving lime-green roof, arched windows of silvered glass, and matte-black air-conditioning fins under the guttering with their front edges glowing a dull orange. Gold and scarlet climbing roses, heavily dusted with mildew, had covered the whole south wall up to the eves, and needed a good pruning; while a blue and white kathariz vine had attached its suckers to the gable end above the two-door garage—it also demanded attention. And for this the monthly rental took up fifteen percent of his salary. With the utility bill, car payments, his R&R pension, the kids’ education trust, the germline modification mortgage, health insurance, the vacation fund, clothing, food, and other regular debit payments, there was precious little left over for enjoying himself. Not that there were many places on Augusta where you could genuinely do that. Suddenly he didn’t want to get out of the car, he would throw a damper over the whole evening.

“Bad day at the office?”

Mark looked up to see Liz smiling at him through the open window. He grinned ruefully back at his beautiful wife—another of his daily worries was that she wouldn’t be there for him when he got home.

“Is that what it looks like?”

She reached in and touched his hand. “I’ve seen happier-looking suicide cases.”

“Sorry I’m late, work screwed up.” He realized she was almost never home late from work. Was that due to experience? He hated reminding himself of her sophistication, the kind that could only be acquired over decades, the years he hadn’t lived yet.

“Come on,” she said, and opened the Summer’s door. “You need a drink. And Marty’s here.”

“Yeah, I see that.” He gestured at the Caddy.

She frowned in concern as he climbed out of the car. “You all right, baby?”

“I think the interface at the office is giving me a headache again. That or the whole goddamn OCtattoo is crashing.”

“Mark, you have to complain. You can’t come home every day with a headache that gives you cold sweats. If the system’s wrong, they have to repair it.”

“Okay. Right. I’ll talk to the supervisor.” She didn’t understand how it was at work right now. If he kicked up a fuss he’d probably wind up getting shitlisted. Don’t be so damn paranoid, he told himself. But it was hard.

His father was on the patio decking that ran along the side of the pool, sitting on a sunlounger. Marty Vernon was a hundred eighty, and eight months out of his latest rejuvenation. Physically, he looked like Mark’s younger brother. Not yet old enough to develop the thick neck and creased cheeks that was the Vernon family trait.

“Mark! Hi, son, you look like shit, come and have a beer.” Marty pulled a bottle out of the cooler sheath. His voice was high and excitable.

“Dad!” Barry, aged five, was waving frantically from the pool. “Dad, I can reach the bottom now. Watch!” He sucked in a huge breath, and ducked his head under the surface, paddling desperately. Mark waved back at his son’s splashing feet. Liz dumped little Sandy into his arms. A wet smile beamed out from the thick folds of fabric. He smiled back, and kissed her. Tiny hands wiggled about happily. “Has she had her bottle?”

“Twenty minutes ago,” Liz assured him.

“Oh.” He rather liked that chore. They’d collected Sandy from the clinic seven months ago, and that was after the stress-hell that was raising hyperactive Barry. The kids had the best genes they could afford, with Liz paying considerably more of the modification mortgage than he did. It always surprised him how much of a comfort the kids were, and how much stability they brought to his life. Liz just said: “I told you so,” every time he mentioned it. Having a family was a huge strain on both their finances, especially renting the womb tank for nine months. But although she’d gone through the whole traditional wedding ceremony with him, Liz flatly refused to have a pregnancy. “I did enough of that last time around,” she insisted. So the womb tank it was.

Mark sat on the spare sunlounger, with Sandy cradled carefully in one arm. He took the beer bottle in his free hand. Barry broke surface with a victorious yell and a lot of splashing.

“Well done, kid,” Marty shouted. “Here, go fetch this.” He chucked a dollar coin into the pool. Barry whooped, and dived down after it.

“I don’t want him worn out,” Liz admonished. “He’ll get all tempered up when he needs to go to bed.”

“Give the kid a break,” Marty complained. “He’s having a ball. And your pool’s only—what—a meter deep. That’s not going to tire him out.”

“One point five.” Mark gulped down some of the beer. It was an imported brand he didn’t recognize. He sighed and settled back into the sunlounger. That was when he noticed the girl sitting in the chair behind Marty. She was wearing a bikini top and some tight shorts, showing off a trim, tanned teenage body. “Hi, I’m Amanda.”

“Oh, hi.” Mark couldn’t help the glance he gave his father.

“My new girl,” Marty crowed loudly. His arm went around her, and she giggled.

“Great,” Mark said. “So how long have you two, er…”

“Ten days,” Marty said gleefully. “But mostly ten nights.”

Amanda giggled again.

Mark’s smile was fixed. He knew what was coming now.

“We met up in the Silent World down at New Frisco Bay. Turns out we had a lot of things in common, and… hey!”

One thing in common,Mark corrected silently and sullenly. He couldn’t believe his father had done this. Silent World was a Commonwealth-wide franchise. It was the club that all the newly rejuvenated visited. Frequently, in the first few months after leaving the clinic. They went for just one thing: sex. It didn’t matter with whom, just someone equally horny from their beautiful, youthful new body’s deluge of hormones. There was only one rule, whatever happened inside, stayed inside. You could fuck your worst enemy, or your ex, or your ex’s younger sibling or parent, or the most glamorous unisphere celeb—it didn’t matter, because it didn’t count back outside the doors, it didn’t get mentioned, it simply never happened. And Marty had gone and brought her to a family evening.

David turned up ten minutes later, Liz’s forty-five-year-old son, an accountant working in AEC’s export credit division. Then there was Kyle, Mark’s older brother (by a hundred fifteen years), and Antonio, his boyfriend; Joanne, one of Liz’s mother’s great-granddaughters. Finally, Carys Panther arrived, Marty’s older sister, driving up in a Merc coupe and wearing a thousand-dollar “casual” dress from Jacvins. Mark was glad she had found the time to come; Carys was the one multi-lifer apart from Liz who always made him feel comfortable. She was also the most glamorous person he knew. When she did work, Carys designed dramas that were occasionally made into TSIs by various media conglomerates. They tended to be pretty raunchy.

As Regulus fell toward the horizon, they ordered Barry out of the pool and fired up the barbecue grill. Carys accepted a glass of white wine from the maidbot and fussed over Barry, helping him dry himself. Barry responded with true puppy-love devotion, showing her his new collection of dead nipbugs; he really adored his aunt Carys.

Mark stood beside the barbecue, turning the burgers and sausages himself. The gardenbot had an attachment for it, but he never did trust an array’s judgment when it came to cooking.

“You should cut some of these damn eucalyptus trees back,” Marty told him, standing at his shoulder. “That solarbrick isn’t getting enough sun on it during the day, look. It should be a lot hotter than that.”

Mark looked down at the thick slab below the barbecue’s grill, which was glowing a weak cherry-pink. Little flames flared briefly as the meat dripped juices down through the grill. “Looks fine to me, and it’s hot enough.”

“It won’t last, I’ve got experience with these things.”

“Yes, Dad.”

“Marty,” Kyle called out. “Sit down and leave the kid alone, for Christ’s sake.”

Every time his relatives came around the same thing happened. A lot of the time, Mark felt as if he were a child allowed to listen to adult conversation, laughing when the others did and not understanding why.

“Just trying to help,” Marty grumbled as he backed off.

“Next family evening is around at my place,” David announced. “I thought we could have it on the eighteenth, that’s when we play our next cup round.”

“I’m on for that,” Marty said. “You know I nearly had a trial once, when I was first-life eighteen. Newby City.”

“Wrong,” Carys said. “You are a trial, Marty, not you had a trial.”

Marty made a gesture, to which she laughingly covered Barry’s eyes.

“I can’t believe we’ve got this far,” Kyle said. “We only need, what? A win and a draw to go through to the second round.”

“We’ll get the win against Sterling, no problem,” David said. “But we’ll be struggling to get a draw against Teleba, they’re football mad.”

Antonio groaned theatrically, and put his hand to his head. “How long does this go on for?”

“Another seven and a half months,” Kyle told him cheerfully. “And I’m going to the stadium on Tampico to see our last group one game.”

“By yourself,” Antonio muttered.

“Twenty-five percent of us called in sick when the last game was on,” Joanne said. “The Cup has really taken off this time around; you couldn’t get into a bar anywhere in New Costa they were so crowded. I don’t remember everyone getting so excited last time.”

“Wonder if the new aliens will want to play,” Liz said.

“And what a goddamn waste of time and money that is,” Marty complained.

“Hardly,” David said. “We need to know what’s going on out there.”

“Wenton out there,” Marty said. “It all happened thousands of years ago.”

“That doesn’t mean it isn’t relevant now,” Carys said. “The envelopment barrier is still in place around both Dyson stars.”

“You’re sounding like that Guardian shotgun,” David said.

“Don’t tell me you watched it, Marty?” Carys taunted. “Didn’t you realize what it was?”

“Course I goddamn well realized,” Marty shot back. “Only an asshole wouldn’t recognize a shotgun. I saw the highlights on Alessandra Baron’s show, is all.”

Mark turned the sausages, keeping quiet. He hadn’t realized the message from April Halgarth was a shotgun propaganda blast until he opened it; and even then he’d let it play. The Guardians had made a great deal of sense. Why hadn’t there been a vote in the Senate?

“So if it comes from Alessandra, it’s acceptable is it?” Carys asked.

“Who cares who says it,” Marty said. “They’re both right. It doesn’t affect us, and it’s certainly something beyond us at the moment. We should take our time and reach the Dyson Pair as we expand naturally, not pull off this crazy Apollo stunt.”

Mark flipped the burgers again. Regulus had finally sunk below the horizon, allowing the stars to come out. Brightest among them were the Leo twins, a single glowing orange dot in the eastern sky. He could see them through the leaves of the eucalyptus trees as they swayed quietly. Some nights he’d sit out on the decking with a drink, just staring up at the canopy of stars twinkling above the megacity. They were the physical proof that people did live elsewhere, and live differently. Seeing that made life on Augusta that fraction more bearable. “They put my promotion off again,” he said.

“Oh, Mark, I’m sorry,” Carys said. “I know you wanted that.”

“Tough break, son,” Marty said. “But you’ve got to serve aces the whole time to get by on this planet. And don’t try and change the subject that quickly. The goddamn starship is a waste of money.”

“The point, Dad, is that I didn’t get promoted because the company’s market isn’t growing the way economists predicted. The new factory’s on hold, investment is minimal right now, and not just with us. Phase three space isn’t growing anything like phase two did at the start. We’re not expanding like we used to; the Commonwealth is too stable these days. Population growth is down even with womb tanks; it’s certainly not enough to provide a base population for a couple of new planets every year like we have been doing. We’re too civilized and measured. At this rate we’d never reach the Dyson Pair if all we do is wait around for CST to open wormholes in phase twenty space, or whatever.”

“Mark’s right,” David said. “My office has been working some long-range forecasts, we’re in a slowdown right now. They used to call periods like this ‘golden ages.’ Things tick over nicely and there are no upsets.”

“I thought they were recessions,” Carys muttered.

“No, there’s a difference.”

“It’s all a bunch of crap,” Marty said. “My board isn’t making any cutback plans. Our market’s bullish.”

“Nobody’s talking cutbacks,” David said. “The menu is all about reduced growth rates. If anything, Sheldon is playing smart with the starship project. There’s nothing like a sudden deluge of government cash to accelerate growth rates. And the majority of spending is here on Augusta.”

“That’s not the case, actually.”

Everybody turned to look at Amanda as she snuggled up close to Marty. She smiled back coolly, completely unintimidated. “My family has a board seat on the First-Quad bank, I get to see Intersolar finance tables before they’re massaged. The amount of money spent on the starship is irrelevant in macro-economic terms. Twenty billion Earth dollars is barely a couple of minutes’ worth of exports from this planet.”

“We’re doing well from it,” Liz said. “Bitor-UU won the contract to develop bioscreening kits for the starship.”

“I didn’t know that,” Joanne said. “Congratulations. Are you working on them yourself?”

“Some concepts, yes.”

“One kit, for a super-specialist market,” Amanda said. “There can be no spin-off from it. I rest my case.”

“My girl.” Marty leaned over, and they kissed quite lavishly.

“Why do you think there’s only going to be one starship?” Kyle said. “If you ask me, this is just the beginning. People have really taken to this Dyson Alpha mission; it’s going to be bigger than the Commonwealth Cup by the time it’s ready to fly. If you ask me, it’s a perfect antidote to how moribund phase three space has gotten. Everyone with an ounce of poetry in their soul will leap at the chance of taking off for the wild blue yonder, and settling somewhere that CST will never ensnare with their sticky fingers.”

“Crap,” Marty said. “If that were true, all these poets of yours would go live on Far Away.”

“I meant we could find clean fresh worlds, not some violent anarchist hell.”

“Not going to happen,” Marty insisted. “We’ve had breakaways before. I bet all those worlds that severed ties with the Commonwealth to be ‘free’ are all medieval nightmares now. Isolation never works. Look what a mess Earth was in before Sheldon and Ozzie invented wormholes.”

“Interesting model,” Carys said.

“One world, cut off from the galaxy,” Marty said. “I rest my case.”

David refused to be baited, he just smiled at Mark and rolled his eyes.

“Did you hear, they’ve chosen Wilson Kime to captain the mission?” Carys said. “That must really be choking Nigel Sheldon.”

“Is that a story for you?” Antonio asked.

“Could be. Old enemies have to set aside their rivalries for the greater good of the Commonwealth.”

“Sounds dull if you put it like that.”

Mark started slipping the sausages onto the serving platter. “Food’s up!”

Liz took a while in their bathroom getting ready for bed. She had a shower, and used some of the smaller, more expensive bottles of scent, dabbing the chilly drops on her skin and massaging them in until the flesh seemed to glow. Then she took out the special cream silk lingerie that she knew Mark really liked. Her jet-black hair was combed out until it hung loosely down below her shoulders. Then she put on her gold gown, carefully arranging it so it was almost falling open at the front. She took a contented look in the mirror, reassured once again she’d made the right choice not undergoing pregnancy for him; her belly was still as firm and flat as the day she came out of rejuve ten years ago, and there wasn’t any hint of cellulite on her thighs yet.

Back then her friends had laughed at her dating a first-lifer, claiming it was a way of saving on Silent World bills. She had to admit, when they’d first met at a party thrown by a production company Carys had been writing for, there was something of the puppy dog about him. He looked so uncomfortable and lost amid all the z-list celebrities and wannabe production people that rescuing him was the only decent thing to do. They’d dated a few more times, and she’d enjoyed herself because he was enthusiastic about life and the Commonwealth, and didn’t have the kind of guarded falseness of people her own age. There was no game playing with him, he was too honest for that. She found that inordinately reassuring. So maybe it really was a case of subconsciously hoping his genuine youth would rub off on her; even though the age difference had never been an issue for him. Then completely out of the blue he’d asked her to marry him, carried away by some mad romantic notion of them being soul mates.

She’d been so close to saying no, a hard fast put-down that would hurt him for a month until he met some equally wild, inexperienced girl his own age and they went off into the sunset together. Except, why should she actually do that? So what if he was sweet in a puppy-dog way? Men who were thoughtful and considerate were rare no matter what their age. She was going to live forever anyway, or a damn good portion of it at least, so why not be happy with a good man for twenty years or so—and to hell with her jealous friends and their catty remarks.

Since then there hadn’t been a single day when she’d regretted the decision. They fought—what married couple didn’t—but never over anything serious. He was a wonderful father, too. She’d never planned on having more than one kid with him, but just being together with him over the years made her give in and agree to Sandy.

And her friends had been right, healthy first-lifers his age took a lot of satisfying in bed. Which made her the lucky one.

There was only one bedside light on when she stepped out of the bathroom, casting a warm yellow glow on Mark’s half of the bed. He was sitting up studying data on a paperscreen. The window was open and the air-conditioning off; dying gusts of El Iopi warmed the room. “Hi, baby. Is there room there for mommy?”

Mark looked up. A nervous smile flickered across his face as he saw what she was wearing. He dropped the paperscreen as she clambered onto the bed, and slowly crawled toward him.

“That Amanda looked quite something,” she murmured as she nuzzled his ear.

“Pha. She does nothing for me, not like you.” He slid one hand inside the gold gown, fingers stroking the hot ebony skin beneath the fabric.

Liz slowly moved around until she was straddling him. She planted light, tickling kisses on his cheek and down his throat. Her head waved from side to side, allowing her hair to brush across his chest. His hand slipped under the camisole. She smiled at the pleasurable sensation his fingers conjured and brought her head up to kiss him properly. Then she saw his face, and sighed heavily.

“What’s the matter, baby?” She rolled off him, dismayed and concerned. “This isn’t like you.”

Mark stared up at the ceiling, unable to meet her gaze. “It’s nothing.”

“Wrong. Believe me, I know. I am your wife, and a lot more besides.” She deliberately paused as she retied the robe tighter.

His smile was regretful. “I know. It’s just that tonight wasn’t what I was hoping for. I’m sorry.”

“I think this is a little deeper than your father turning up with his latest lady friend, however tactless it was.”

“Damnit.” He turned on his side to face her. “That’s exactly it, don’t you see?”

“See what?”

“You, Dad, the others, you’ve all got this wealth of experience. And I don’t. And… it gets a little overpowering at times.”

“And you didn’t get the promotion.”

“Jesus H. Christ, you just did it again. Do you have any idea how small that makes me feel?”

Liz was quiet for quite a while as she gathered her troubled thoughts together. “I didn’t realize the effect was this upsetting. It’s never been an issue before.”

“I know.” He grinned lamely. “Maybe it’s a cumulative thing.”

“Okay, baby, then I’ll say one more thing that I think about you.”

“What?”

“You really hate it here, don’t you?”

Mark let out a relieved breath. “Yeah.” Then he was suddenly animated, jumping up to give her an intent stare. “This whole world is strictly for adults only. And I don’t mean me, I’m only twenty-eight for Christ’s sake, that’s not adult. They shouldn’t let anyone through the gateways at New Costa Junction until they’re at least a hundred years old. You’re the only kind of people who can take this kind of life.”

“All right,” she said. “I admit it doesn’t bother me as much as it obviously does you. That’s because it’s temporary, baby. One day we’ll leave.”

“But not together! That’s part of you as well, that fatalism, or wisdom, whatever you want to call it. Nothing ever seems to bother you. You’ve had other marriages; they’re just sections of your life. You’re my whole life, Liz, you and the kids. I know I’ll get out of here one day, but it won’t be with you. And this world isn’t for children, there’s no society here. That’s what I hate most about all this; Barry and Sandy are going to grow up just like me. That’s… that’s so much the worst thing I could ever do to them.”

“Okay.” She put a finger on his cheek, turning his head so she could look straight at him. “Tomorrow you hand in your resignation, and we start looking through the unisphere for somewhere else to live, somewhere different. Maybe a phase three world.”

“You can’t… you’re not serious.”

“Perfectly serious. This is eating you up; you don’t have to be my age to see that. And, Mark, I meant everything I said at the altar. I do love you, and if we stay here we’re going to get torn apart. So, this is what we have to do.”

“But what about your work? The stuff you do at Bitor-UU is real cutting edge.”

“So? There are tens of thousands who can do the same thing, hundreds of thousands, actually. And I don’t really need to be in the labs the whole time, I can work most of the systems over the unisphere. Then again, maybe it’s time for me to get a new job if we are going to live somewhere different.”

“Jesus.” Mark looked shocked, then he began to smile. “My God, do you know what they’ll say if I tell them I’m quitting? Burcombe will go crazy.”

“Let him. Who cares?”

“But what about money? We’ll never earn as much anywhere else, not doing what we do now.”

“Pay is relative. Augusta costs a lot more than most places. We’ll find a world where our jobs support this kind of lifestyle, if not a better one.”

He held her close. The expression on his face was the same kind of wonder as the first time they’d gone to bed together. “You’ll really emigrate with me?”

“Yes, Mark. You’re not just some section of my life, baby, you are my life. Who knows, maybe we’ll be the one in a hundred billion couples who actually stays married for all eternity.”

He grinned. “I like that idea.”

“You got any thoughts where you’d like to go? You’ve obviously been thinking about this for a long time.”

“Since I was about five.” His hands moved down to the gown’s belt, and gently pulled the bow open. “But we can talk about that in the morning.”

An hour after the case broke, Tarlo and Renne accompanied the Directorate duty forensics team to the Paris CST station, where all of them climbed onboard the express for Nzega. They routed via Orleans, the Big15 world for that sector of phase two space, and arrived at Fatu, Nzega’s capital, forty-one minutes later. The forensics team hired a van to carry their equipment, while Renne and Tarlo checked out a big BMW four-by-four Range Cruiser.

Nzega wasn’t a backwater world, but it had managed to sidestep the excesses of full technoindustrial development. The majority society was stable, civilized, and took a decently relaxed attitude to life and human foibles. Its main body of initial settlers were Polynesian and Latin Americans. They came because of the seas; half the planet’s surface was water. Nzega didn’t have any major continents, just hundreds of large islands and thousands of smaller ones. That gave them an awful lot of coastline.

The economic spin-off was the colossal number of resorts, hotels, and rental properties along the shores of the islands. Combined with the planet’s liberalism, it attracted a lot of middle-class kids looking for a break from the worlds with a faster pace of life.

Renne loaded their destination, Port Launay, into the BMW’s drive array, and settled back to enjoy the view. It was a seventeen-hour drive from Fatu along the Great Mantu Road, taking them over innumerable causeway bridges, and five ferry rides between the islands into the subtropical zone. Sometimes the road was enzyme-bonded concrete, sometimes not. There were times when it ran along the top of sheer cliffs, and others when it meandered through what seemed like endless salt marshes, while the rest was just a standard route through the string of coastal towns. After a while, both Investigators opaqued the windows and settled down to sleep while the vehicle rolled along.

Port Launay was simply a four-kilometer section of the urban strip that ran along the whole shore of Kailindri island, though “urban” was pushing the definition a bit. The single compacted stone road ran along two hundred meters inland from the sea through an unbroken forest of shaggy native trees, with small cul-de-sacs branching off where clusters of chalets and bungalows sheltered under the branches. Towns were identifiable only by the way shops and commercial buildings clumped together to serve residential neighborhoods.

When the BMW’s drive array indicated they’d reached their cul-de-sac, Renne switched to manual to steer the car along the last few hundred meters. The road wasn’t even broken stone anymore, just tire tracks of dusty sand in the dense yellow-blue queengrass. Three local police cars were blocking the way. Several rented cars were parked on the verges in front of them, with reporters arguing with police officers.

“How did they get here so goddamn fast?” Tarlo asked.

“Who knows,” Renne said. “They smell misery the way vultures smell carrion. You want to deal with the local police?”

“Sure.” Tarlo grinned, slipped his sports sunglasses on, and opened the door.

She watched him saunter over to the sergeant in charge. Tarlo was from Los Angeles, eighty-two years old. Not that he gave that impression in the flesh; nine years after his first rejuvenation he still looked as if he was barely out of his teens. His wealthy California family had contributed extensive germline sequencing, one facet of which restricted his natural aging process. They’d also gone for a traditional (or stereotyped—depending on your viewpoint) surfer-kid appearance: slim body, but tall and naturally toned, with lush blond hair and perfect teeth set on a firm square jaw. Tarlo clearly relished his heritage. Why he’d gone into law enforcement was something Renne never understood. “I like puzzles,” was the only explanation he’d ever offered. Personally, she felt he got slightly too much of a buzz out of the Directorate’s covert operations. The little boy who wanted to be a super secret agent when he grew up.

He ought to fit in just fine on Nzega. Which was why she was happy to let him talk to the police. Sometimes there was a lot of resentment within the local law enforcement agency when the Directorate turned up and took over.

She saw the forensics team’s van pull in behind the BMW just as Tarlo and the sergeant laughed together. One of the police cars was driven off the track it had been blocking, and Tarlo waved her through.

The beach cottage was another couple of hundred meters down the track. Tall trees with gray-blue leaves lined the track, providing a degree of privacy for the homes along the cul-de-sac. She caught glimpses of the single-story buildings, built mainly from wood or composite panels; one had been grown from drycoral. A black Merc had drawn up outside the cottage she wanted. Renne had a good idea who that had brought. She parked the BMW behind it, and climbed out into strong humidity and the strong smell of salt water. The trees provided reasonable shade from the fierce morning sunlight, but she still put her own sunglasses on.

“The Halgarths sent their own security team,” Tarlo said as he walked up beside her, holding his linen jacket over his shoulder. He nodded at the Merc. “Police said they arrived about forty minutes ago.”

“How do the police feel about us being here?”

He grinned his broad grin. “Pleased to hand the whole problem over to us. They’ll handle crowd control until Ms. Halgarth leaves.”

“Good.” She watched the forensics team van jolt its way along the track. “Do we know which house the Guardians operated out of?”

“Yep.” He pointed along the shore. “Two down. They obviously had good intel. Police have put a guard on it. The reporters don’t know about that yet.”

“Okay.” Renne straightened her shoulders, adjusted her light jacket. “Let’s get this over with. Put your jacket back on.”

“The boss isn’t here.”

“That’s not the point.”

With a great show of reluctance, Tarlo put his jacket back on, and pulled his tie up. “There’d better be air-conditioning,” he muttered as Renne told the forensics team to start with the other house.

They walked down the narrow front path to the beach cottage. It was a modest little building, made of wood that had been freshly painted lime-green, with a solar cell roof and semiorganic precipitator leaves hanging from the eves. A wide veranda faced the sea. Only the rear and sides of the property were fenced in with trees, giving the cottage a grand view out across the broad cove. A barbecue stood at the end of the veranda, with several chairs and a table on the grass beside it. Empty bottles of exotic cocktails, beer cans, and dirty plates occupied the table, glistening in the fast-evaporating dew.

One of the Halgarth security personnel was standing in front of the door, dressed in a simple navy-blue sweatshirt, and long beige shorts that came down over his knees. Renne tried not to smile when they walked up to him; his image was obviously something he felt strongly about. “Serious Crimes Directorate,” she said solemnly. “We’d like to interview Ms. Halgarth.”

“Sure thing,” he said. “Some identification, please?”

Renne’s e-butler sent an SCD certificate to his e-butler.

“Thank you,” the security man said. He opened the door for them.

The cottage wasn’t large. A narrow hall led to three bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen, and a living room, which took up half of the total floor space. The furniture was functional rather than ornate, a typical low-budget holiday rental.

“She’s a Halgarth, and she comes here for a vacation?” Tarlo said. “Even if she’s minor family she could stay someplace better.”

“That’s not the point. Didn’t you access the file? This is her first year at college, her first vacation with a bunch of friends. She’s free of the family for the first time in her life. Anyway, what’s wrong with this place?”

He winked. “No moon. No tides.” His voice dropped to a deliberately hoarse whisper. “No surf!”

Renne gave him a despairing look, and went into the living room. April Gallar Halgarth was sitting on the settee, looking as woebegone as if she’d just been told her parents had undergone complete bodyloss. Even dressed in baggy green jeans and a rumpled old russet T-shirt, she was quite beautiful. A tall twenty-year-old with smooth light ebony skin, thick wavy hair, and sweet features that belonged on an even younger face. Her hands cupped a mug of coffee that she wasn’t drinking. When she looked up at the two Investigators, her eyes were red and puffy, desperate for understanding.

Her three girlfriends were standing guard protectively around her. Marianna, Anjelia, and Laura, all from Queens University Belfast where they studied together. Two more Halgarth security personnel were also in the room, looking slightly lost. Their orders were to protect April from the media, and escort her home. The girl clearly wasn’t up to that much activity yet.

“Have you caught the bastards?” Marianna demanded when Renne and Tarlo identified themselves. She had a thick Irish accent.

“Not yet, no,” Tarlo said. “We’re just establishing the investigation.”

“Huh!” Marianna snorted. She turned her back on the two Investigators.

“Ms. Halgarth, we need to ask you some questions,” Renne said.

Marianna knelt down beside her friend. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”

April peered up at Renne. “It’s all right. I want to do this.”

Marianna nodded reluctantly, and led the other two girls out of the living room. “If you don’t mind,” Tarlo said politely to the remaining bodyguards. One went out into the hall, the second left through the sliding-glass door and stood on the veranda outside.

“I guess you must be wondering why this happened to you?” Renne said as she sat beside the distraught girl.

“Yes,” April moaned.

“Mostly because you’re a Halgarth. The Guardians of Selfhood regard you as their enemy.”

“Why? I don’t know anything about them, I’ve never been to Far Away, or helped any aliens or anything. I’m just studying twenty-first-century history, that’s all.”

“I know. But your dynasty is the main backer behind the Marie Celeste Research Institute. To their warped minds, that’s a big crime. I have to tell you, don’t look for reason in this. There is no true rational explanation. You are the result of a search program. They wanted a Halgarth—it’s always a member of your family—and one who is—I’m sorry—slightly naive, and isolated. It was your name which popped up out of the program.”

April bent her head, dabbing at her eyes with a paper kitchen towel. “He was so nice. I can’t believe this.”

“What was his name?” Tarlo asked gently.

“Alberto,” the girl said. “Alberto Rasanto. He was with his friends Melissa and Frank in the cottage one down from here. They were doing the same thing as us, taking a spring break. They said. I suppose that was a lie.”

“Yes,” Renne said.

April winced as she stared into the cold coffee.

“So you met them,” Renne prompted.

“He was lovely. He had these big green eyes. I thought he was a first-lifer, just like me. They were on the beach the day we arrived. We all started talking. There was a little bit of competition for Alberto, you know? I mean, Melissa and Frank had each other. And there are four of us. We sort of gathered around Alberto. And Marianna’s really pretty; she always gets the best boys. But he liked me. He was always smiling when we spoke; and he was easy to talk to. He had a lovely smile—really lovely. So it was like me and him for the next few days. We went swimming, and he was teaching me how to windsurf; we all went out in a group to the bars in the evening, and had too much to drink. I even tried some TSInarc. Nothing hard, just some low programs. They were weird, but kind of fun. I suppose that was the start of it.”

“They’d be establishing a pattern, yes,” Tarlo said. “A TSInarc or even ordinary chemical drugs help blur your recollection. I’m sorry, April, but we have to ask this: Did you sleep with him?”

“Uh-huh.”

“When, please?”

“I suppose the first time was four days ago.”

“And you stayed over at their cottage when you did?”

“Yes. He had a room of his own. I’m sharing with Laura. We all made a pact about boys before we came here, that we’d use the couch if a roomie scored. But… I just. This was easier.”

“More private?” Tarlo said with a sympathetic smile.

“Yes,” she said eagerly. “I’m still a bit conservative, I suppose. Not that I mind my friends knowing I’m with a boy, but the walls here are really thin. I grew up on Solidade, which is just family.” Her head came up, giving them a dejected look. “You must think I’m a really dumb rich girl who knows nothing about the real world. Nobody else would be so gullible.”

“No,” Renne said. “You’re not gullible. It’s not that kind of con trick. They would have got the unisphere message author certificate out of you no matter what.”

The tears filled her eyes again. “But I don’t remember. And now the whole Commonwealth thinks I sent them Guardian propaganda.”

“By tomorrow the Commonwealth will have forgotten. Your family will make sure the news media never mentions you again. Normally I’d complain about undue influence, but in this case I have to agree it’s a blessing.”

April nodded slowly in agreement. “What happened?” she asked with a fierce whisper. “The family security people said they didn’t know, but I’m sure that’s what they were ordered to say. Tell me, please.” She looked from Tarlo to Renne. “Please. I have to know. I can’t even work out when. That’s so awful. I don’t care how bad it is, I just want to know.”

“It would have happened two nights before they left,” Tarlo said. Renne flashed him an angry glance, but he just shrugged. “Part of the routine of getting you drunk and high each night is that you wake up the next morning with a fuzzy head. So that when they take the next step you don’t even realize.”

April frowned, her eyes unfocused as she gazed out through the broad window wall, concentrating on something way beyond the sparkling sea. “I don’t remember. I really don’t. I’d like to say I was more sluggish than usual that morning. But I wasn’t.” She looked up at Tarlo. “So what happened to me?”

“They would probably have given you antronoine or some variant, slipped it in your drink. You wouldn’t know what was going on, it’s almost like being blind drunk except you’re completely open to suggestion. Then they’d have used an interface scanner in conjunction with a hack program on your inserts. It wouldn’t have taken more than a couple of minutes. After that, you would have had a memory edit.”

“Memory edit.” April ran her hands back through her hair. “You make it sound so clinical. That’s a piece of my life they stole from me. I never knew it could be that easy.”

“The technology is well established,” Renne said. “Some of the refinements didn’t even come out of corporate research. The first thing criminals do after they’ve committed a big crime is erase any record of the event from their memories. They don’t even know they’ve committed the crime—which is kind of weird—but that way we can’t read their memories and use them as evidence in court.”

“You know I think I hate that part more than anything, more than being seduced, or having my certificate used. It’s just awful. They could have done anything, anything; I’ll never know. I can’t believe I don’t remember.”

“We’ll need to run some tests on you,” Renne said. “Our forensics team will take some blood samples. Given this only happened a couple of days ago, we’ll be able to find traces of whatever drug they used. They’ll also want to run some calibration programs through your inserts. Do you think you’re up to that for us?”

“Yes,” April said. “Whatever it takes, I’ll do it.”

“Thank you. We’ll use a characteristics sketch program to get a picture of them. You and your friends can contribute to that.”

“Are you going to catch them? Realistically?”

“It will be tough,” Tarlo said. “The Guardians wouldn’t have shotgunned their message until after their team was off Nzega. By now they could be on any world in the Commonwealth. They’ll use cellular reprofiling kits to change their appearance. Our best chance of arresting them is when we break the whole Guardians group.”

“You’ve been after them for a long time, haven’t you? Everyone knows that, it’s Paula Myo’s only unsolved case.”

“Nobody can run forever,” Renne said. “Today will have brought them a little closer to justice. They will have left clues and evidence. Their DNA will be in the cottage; their software patterns will be all over Nzega’s cybersphere, in the finance for renting the cottage and hiring transport, their communications records. I know it doesn’t sound like much to you, especially now, but believe me, every little bit does help us.”

Renne and Tarlo left through the veranda window, sending the bodyguard back in. They walked over the spongy lawn toward the cottage the Guardians had used. Both of them had to slip their sunglasses back on against the glare of the hot sun.

“That was kind of you,” Renne said. “Telling her they would have used a date rape drug. I wondered what you were doing telling her about the hack.”

“She’s suffered enough,” Tarlo replied.

Renne stopped and looked out to sea, a humid breeze toying with her thick auburn hair. “Bastards. Fancy doing this to a first-lifer. Even without the memory, she’ll be screwed up about it for decades.”

“I hate memory edit,” Tarlo said. “Every time we come up against it, it gives me the creeps. I mean, suppose we already solved the Guardians case, started to round them up, when they turned it on us. We might have arrested them a hundred times already. I mean, it is goddamn strange that the boss has never got one of the principals.”

“You’re starting to sound like Alessandra Baron, always criticizing the Directorate. If anyone invented a memory edit you fired like a laser, we’d know about it.”

“That’s the whole point,” he said, shrugging, his arms held wide. “We did know about it, and the inventor fired it at us.”

“Stop it. You’re getting paranoid.”

He grinned ruefully. “You have to admit, something’s not right about this whole Guardians situation. Hell, you were there on Velaines. Did we make a mistake? Come on, I mean, did we? We played that so by the book we got paper cuts, and they still found out.”

“They got lucky.”

“They’ve been lucky for a hundred and thirty years. That ain’t natural.”

She gave him a troubled glance. “What are you saying?”

“I don’t know. I really don’t.” He sighed. “Come on, let’s go find out what Forensics turned up.”

“It’ll be nothing.”

“Optimist. Ten dollars that this is the time the Guardians made a mistake and left a decent clue behind.”

“You’re on.”

SEVEN

The CST exploratory division wormhole on Merredin had been down for fifteen months while it was given a class five overhaul—complete energy-focusing structure maintenance and upgrade of all the level beta support systems. It was no small job servicing a half cubic kilometer of high-energy physics machinery. Oscar Monroe had been on-site for ten months, managing the crews as they crawled around the wormhole generator armed with screwdrivers, arrays, programs, and every conceivable type of bot. Three more months had been spent training with his ground crew; after all, most of the systems were new, and that meant learning a whole new set of procedures. Six weeks had been spent with the forward crew as they got to grips with the latest marques of their equipment and software during innumerable simulation runs. That left him with an entire fortnight’s holiday.

He took off for Earth, and spent the first ten days alone, e-butler address deactivated, sitting in a fishing boat on Lake Rutland in England at Easter time. It rained for seven of the ten days, and he caught a total of eleven trout. Those were probably the most relaxing days he’d enjoyed in eight years. Not that he wanted to make a habit of loafing around.

For the last four days he went to London, where he was determined to catch some of the quaint live theater shows amid all the rest of the slightly-too-nostalgic culture that the grand old capital offered its visitors. On the very first night, during the interval of a “reinterpreted” Stoppard, he met a handsome young lad from some aristocratic European family who was curious and impressed with him and his job. With a shared taste for art and opera and good food they were inseparable for Oscar’s remaining three days. They waved good-bye at the CST London station and his express started the thirty-three-minute trip back to Merredin, two hundred eight light-years away.

Next morning, they began the wormhole generator power-up; done correctly it was a slow process. Six days later, Oscar was ready to start planet hunting.

The exploratory division base was visible while he was still eight kilometers away, occupying five square kilometers on one side of the CST planetary station. Such prominence wasn’t difficult. Merredin was the new junction world for phase three space in this sector of the Commonwealth. In anticipation of the fifty gateways that would one day connect it to those distant stars, the planetary station was a cleared area over two hundred and fifty kilometers square, located just west of the capital city. So far, it had one standard-size passenger terminal, a small marshaling yard, and three gateways, one back to the Big15 world, Mito, the other two out to the phase three frontier worlds Clonclurry and Valvida. The rest was just weeds, grass, drainage ditches, and a few roads leading nowhere. A month ago, most buildings had flown the green and blue national flag, but since Merredin’s team had been knocked out of the cup halfway through the first round they’d all been taken down. Disheartened janitors had locked them away, muttering aboutnext time .

The exploratory division base was laid out around its own wormhole, which was housed in a windowless concrete and steel building eight hundred meters long. At one end was the spherical alien-environment confinement chamber, a hundred meters in diameter, two-thirds of which was above the ground. A little town of industrial-style buildings surrounded it, containing offices, laboratories, workshops, training facilities, and the xenobiology department. Power came from the nuclear plants on the coast.

Oscar’s Merc 1001 coupe drove him through the main gate at seven forty-five and slid right into the Operations Director’s parking slot. He smiled at the few envious stares the car earned him from other members of the team as they pulled up outside the administration block. He doubted there were many, if any, others like it on Merredin. It was his one foible; changing the car once every twelve months (or less) for whatever the hottest new sports model was that year. This one had been imported specially from the Democratic Republic of New Germany, the Big15 planet where Mercedes had relocated its factories when it left Earth. He’d never decided, given his first-life background, if that consumerist extravagance was ironic, or if he was subconsciously distancing himself from that very same past. The only reason he hadn’t wiped the memories entirely when he rejuvenated was so he could be on his guard against any kind of relapse into the stupid idealism that his younger self had embraced. These days he was a fully paid-up member of the establishment, and finally at ease with himself and his role.

He made his way through the administration block and straight into the wormhole control center. The prime ground crew was already starting to assemble at the back of the big theaterlike room. He said his hellos and swapped a few jokes as he made his way down the sloping floor to his console at the front. The control center had eight tiered rows of consoles looking toward the broad molecule-chain reinforced sapphire windows that made up the front wall. Beyond that was the alien-environment confinement chamber, in its inactive state a spherical chamber fifty meters in diameter with dark radiation-absorptive walls. The wormhole gateway mechanism itself was directly opposite the windows, an oval fifteen meters wide, with a ramp leading up to it from the base of the chamber. Ranged around the walls were various airlock doors. The ceiling had a bright polyphoto ring, which was currently illuminating the chamber by emitting the same spectrum as Merredin’s sun. Around that were sealed recesses that contained a range of scientific and astronomical instruments. They had also undergone a major revamp during the downtime, and the prep crew had just finished testing them during the night.

Oscar sat at his console and told his PL to log him in with the center’s main array. His console portals lit up, delivering simplified schematics of the gateway, while his e-butler established voice linkages to every console operator as they slipped into their seats and logged in. As he acknowledged their inclusion in the communications loop, the prep crew chief came over and briefed him on the state of play. As the handover progressed the prep crew left the room; several of them went into the observation gallery at the rear, jostling for seats with reporters, CST’s local executives, and various VIPs who’d wrangled an invitation.

By nine-fifteen Oscar was satisfied that the wormhole generator was ready for an opening. He went around the loop one last time, personally checking with his station heads that they were equally satisfied with the situation: astrogration, power, focusing, main ancillary systems, sensors, short-range astronomy, confinement chamber management, emergency defense, forward crew, planetary science, alien encounter office, xenobiology, base camp equipment quartermaster, and finally the medical staff. One by one, they all gave him a green light. Finally, he checked with the Restricted Intelligence array that would handle integrated procedures. It said it was ready.

“Thank you, people,” he said. “Chamber Management, please take us to status one. Astrogration, stand by. RI, I’d like the gateway brought to full activation readiness.”

The overhead polyphoto strips in the control center began to dim, putting the room in a twilight glimmer. Holographic displays inside the console portals cast an iridescent glow over the faces of their operators. On the other side of the thick sapphire windows, the alien environment confinement chamber’s big polyphoto ring also shed its intensity, sinking to a weak red radiance that barely illuminated the gateway oval.

“Internal force field activated,” chamber management said. “All airlocks closed and sealed. Walls to neutral. Thermal shunts on-line. We have status one.”

Oscar could just see the ramp in front of the gateway sinking back down into the chamber floor. He felt an electric tingle begin deep in his stomach. No matter how long the human race had been doing this, how far they’d traveled into the universe, opening a door onto the unknown was always an exciting risk. “Astrogration, I want a wormhole destination on star AFR98-2B, five AUs galactic north from target.”

“Yes, sir, loading now.”

He watched the RI portal display as it registered the coordinate lock. AFR98-2B was an F2 spectral-class star, twenty-seven light-years out from Merredin. CST’s long-range examination from the orbiting telescope indicated the existence of a solar system of at least five planets. With the coordinate confirmed by astrogration, the RI took over the opening procedure, a vast program composite capable of handling the billion variable factors that governed the gateway machinery and power flow. Normally software that powerful would swiftly evolve up to full SI status, but this one had been formatted by the SI with strategic limiters written in to prevent any outbreak of self-determination. Even though it incorporated genetic algorithms the RI was essentially stable, it would never develop alternative interests and goals in the middle of its operations as some large array software had done in the past, with often disastrous consequences.

Behind the window, the dull silver rim of the oval gateway began to flicker with dusky turquoise shadows. They quickly expanded to merge together, at which point focusing on them became immensely difficult for the human eye. They shifted constantly while staying in the same place. In the center of the gateway, depth arrived with a giddy lurch. As always, Oscar got the impression he was abruptly hurtling forward through an infinitely long tunnel. Not a bad interpretation for beleaguered human senses. He knew he was holding his breath just like any rookie console operator. But this was the moment of greatest reward, the reason he committed himself to his job with such passion, the reason he’d made it all the way up to Operations Director. Despite all the commercial and political crap that was CST, this was a new world they were searching for today. Chances were, the human settlers would make it just another poor clone of the majority society within the Commonwealth. But there was always the possibility it would be something new and inspiring.It can’t always be the same.

The instability at the center of the gateway mechanism stabilized and cleared, darkening immediately. Stars appeared amid the blackness. A beam of brilliant white light stabbed through the opening, angled so it struck the chamber to the left of the windows.

A few digits jumped on the digital displays, registering the small electromagnetic infall. “Have we got a clear exit?” Oscar asked.

“Negative on gravity distortion sweep,” sensors said. “There’s no solid matter above particle level within a million klicks of the opening.”

“Thank you. Chamber Management, vent the chamber, please.”

A hole opened at the center of the secondary force field covering the gateway, and slowly expanded back toward the rim. The chamber’s atmosphere streaked out. It was visible at first, a thick jet of gray vapor playing across the starfield. After a minute, and with the force field withdrawn, there was nothing left but a few glittering grains of ice slowly dispersing.

“Vacuum confirmed,” chamber management said.

“Sensors, deploy the star tracker,” Oscar ordered. “Astronomy, tell us where we are, please.”

One of the recesses on the chamber ceiling silently irised open. A long tentaclelike arm of electromuscle uncoiled out of it, holding a two-meter metal bulb on the end. It was studded with small gold lenses. Oscar watched the arm slowly reach forward, its careful sinuous motion pushing the star-tracker mechanism out through the open gateway and into space beyond. A standard camera on the collar of the star tracker sent its image up to one of the five big screens above the windows. An ordinary star was revealed, its small disk shining bright amid the constellations. To Oscar it looked about the right size for an F2 at five AUs. Nonetheless, he waited patiently as information flowed in from the star tracker. Hasty decisions were just as dangerous as hesitation; one of the main requirements of his job was to keep calm in all circumstances. It was a trait he’d learned early in his first life, it just got misapplied back then.

“The spectrum matches AFR98-2B, sir,” short-range astronomy said. “Acquiring marker stars and measuring emergence point location.”

Oscar could remember the first stellar exploration he’d worked on, decades ago back on Augusta; as one of the junior prep crew he’d stood in the observation gallery for nine hours after his shift ended at handover. Nine hours that passed in no time the excitement he felt was so strong. It was the day he knew he’d made the right choice; that in some obscure way this was how he could make amends for what he’d done. This way he could bring the hope of a fresh start to other people’s lives as well as his own.

“Confirming location of wormhole exit,” short-range astronomy said. “Distance to AFR98-2B is seventeen-point-three million klicks out from the projected coordinate.”

Oscar allowed himself to relax a little, seeing the smiles springing up around the ground crew. That wasn’t a bad margin of error for a newly recommissioned gateway, well within acceptable limits. “Well done, Astrogration; load in the new figures please. Sensors, let’s get the planetary survey scope out there.”

While the new, bulkier telescope mechanism was deployed out through the confinement chamber, Oscar went around the control center loop again, verifying that everything was holding steady. Then it was an hour-long wait while short-range astronomy analyzed the images from the planetary survey scope. The procedure was simple enough: they scanned the plane of the ecliptic for any light source above first magnitude. When it found one, the telescope observed it for movement. If it was a planet, then its orbital motion should become apparent almost straightaway.

The results flashed up on the screens above the window. Short-range astronomy located five planets. Two were gas giants, Saturn-sized, orbiting eleven and fifteen AUs out from the star. The inner three were solids. The first and smallest, a lunar-sized rock one hundred million kilometers out from the star, had a high-viscosity plastic lava mantle moving in sluggish ripples generated by the star’s massive tidal pull. Second was a large solid, seventeen thousand eight hundred kilometers in diameter, and orbiting a hundred twelve million kilometers out. With its high gravity, Venusian-style atmosphere, and close proximity to the sun, it didn’t come anywhere near qualifying as H-congruous. But the third was a hundred ninety-nine million kilometers distant from the star, and measured fourteen thousand three hundred kilometers in diameter. Cheers and a patter of applause went around gateway control as the data slowly built up. Spectrographic results showed a standard oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere, with a high water vapor content. Given its distance from the star, it was somewhat cool, with the equator having the same temperature as Earth’s temperate zones in autumn or spring. But the information was sufficient for Oscar to award it a preliminary H-congruous status, which brought another round of applause. First time out with a recommissioned gateway, and they’d struck gold already. A good omen.

“Sensors, let’s get the dish out there,” Oscar said. “Check for emissions.”

Another electromuscle arm snaked out from its ceiling recess, carrying a furled dish. It went through the gateway beside the planetary survey scope, and extended its metal mesh.

“No radio signals detected,” sensors reported.

“All right, bring both the arms back in,” Oscar said. “Astrogration, move the wormhole exit to geosynchronous height above the third planet’s daylight terminator.”

When the arms were back in their recesses, the starfield winked out. A moment later, the gateway opened again, revealing the crescent of a planet directly ahead. Its radiance washed across the confinement chamber and in through the windows. Oscar smiled in welcome as the soft light fell across his console. The cloud cover was above average, cloaking a good seventy percent of the hemisphere. But he could see the blue of oceans, and the grubby red-brown of land, even the crisp white of polar caps was visible in that first glimpse.

“All right, people, let’s concentrate on the job,” Oscar said as excited conversation buzzed through the loop. “We’ve all seen this before. Sensors, I want a full electromagnetic sweep. Launch seven geophysics satellites, get me some global coverage. Planetary Science, you’re on; preliminary survey results in three hours, please. Alien encounter office, start hunting. Emergency Defense, you’re on stand-by alert, and now have full wormhole shutdown authority; acknowledge that, please.”

“Acknowledged, sir.”

The launch rail telescoped out from its storage bay below the control center windows, extending a good ten meters through the wormhole exit. Satellites accelerated down the rail, riding the magnetic pulses before whirling away along different trajectories. Once they’d fallen a kilometer from the gateway, their ion drives came on, pushing them into high-inclination orbits that would provide coverage of the planet’s whole surface. As they went, each released a swarm of subsatellites like golden butterflies, expanding their observation baseline. Tracking dishes were deployed to keep in contact. The big dish came out again, scouring the continents for any electromagnetic activity. A two-meter telescope peered down inquisitively.

Oscar sat back and had his first in situ break of the day. A trolleybot slid along the console rows, distributing drinks and snacks. He claimed a cheese and smoked bacon sandwich and a couple of bottles of natural mineral water. As he ate, the screens above the windows came alive with images from the satellites. Details were gradually sketched in by the data tables and graphics in the console portals.

The planet had five major continents, accounting for thirty-two percent of the surface. Temperature was lower than strictly favorable, resulting in huge ice caps that between them covered a third of the planet. One and a half continents were completely buried beneath ice. That left a lot less usable land than average. The magnetic field was stronger than Earth’s, which gave it a very large Van Allen radiation belt.

“There is no evidence of sentient life at this time,” alien encounter said. “No large-scale structures, no electromagnetic activity, no visible cultivation, and no artificial thermal sources.”

“Thank you,” Oscar said. The last factor was the clincher for him. The ability to start and use fire was deemed the litmus test of sentience. If anything on the planet was capable of sentient thought, it was currently below Neanderthal-equivalent. “Sensors, you can switch to active scanning now.”

Radar sweeps started to penetrate the pervasive cloud. The images on the big screens began to develop a lot quicker, with detailed layers building on the provisional outlines. Lasers swept through the atmosphere, plotting its composition. The RI manipulated the energy flow through the gateway mechanism, manufacturing tiny gravity wave distortions at the wormhole exit. They rippled through the planet’s crust, allowing the satellites to determine its internal layout.

At fifteen hundred hours, Oscar called an intraloop conference with his station heads. So far, they agreed, the planet appeared to be hospitable. There was definitely no sign of an indigenous sentience. No animals above two meters in length had been spotted by the infrared sensors. Its geology was standard. Its biochemistry, as far as could be deduced from spectrography, was an ordinary carbon-based multicellular form.

“So, is it aggressive or passive?” Oscar asked. The problem was common enough. On a colder world such as this, most life would be slow-growing, a trait that inclined toward a more passive animal nature. Although there were cases where the opposite was true, and evolution had produced some very tough life-forms geared for survival at all costs. “Best guesses please.”

“The geology is stable,” planetary science said. “The current bio-epoch is probably about eighty million years old if we’re reading the stellar cycle right. We can’t detect any previous ice ages, so there’s been no sudden climate change to throw their evolution off-kilter. Everything growing down there is stable and adjusted. I’d say passive.”

“I have to agree,” xenobiology said. “We’re seeing small movable thermal spots indicative of animals, but nothing larger than a dog. Certainly nothing we normally associate with carnivorous predators. Botany is also reasonably standard, though there are few large plants, and what passes for trees are solitary, they don’t congregate in forests, which is unusual.”

“Very well.” Oscar swiveled his seat until he could see McClain Gilbert, the forward crew chief, sitting at the front of the observation gallery. “Mac, I’m giving you an initial encounter authorization. Get your first contact team suited up.”

“Thank you, sir.” McClain Gilbert gave him a thumbs-up from behind the glass.

Oscar switched back to the full loop. “We’re going for a ground encounter. Sensors, put the geophysics satellites to automatic, and withdraw all the arms. Astrogration, I want the exit moved to a five-hundred-kilometer equatorial altitude, then give it an orbital velocity. When we’re established, launch the low-orbit surveillance satellite fleet; I’ll need constant coverage of the ground contact site. We’re aiming for ground opening in one hour, people, get ready for that. Planetary Science, find me a suitable dawn site at that time.”

With the exit positioned five hundred kilometers above the ground, the clouds below seemed a lot brighter. The small squadron of low-orbit satellites shot off the launch rail, curving down to an even lower altitude and spreading out to form a chain around the planet’s equator. Images from their high-res cameras appeared on the screens, revealing a wealth of details. Stones a mere five centimeters across were visible amid the carpet of vermilion grass-equivalent. Squirrellike rodents, with gray scales rather than fur, bounded about, scuttling into burrows and swimming along streams. All the small independent trees had peculiar zigzag branches.

“Confirming low-orbit satellite fleet in position,” sensors reported. “We have full coverage.”

“Coming up to dawn on the landing site,” planetary science said.

“Withdraw sensor arms,” Oscar said. “Chamber Management, establish a force field across the gateway. Astrogration, reposition the exit one kilometer above designated contact site, horizontal axis.”

The wormhole blinked, and they were looking down on a gently crumpled landscape of thin burgundy grass and twisted carmine bushes. A low dawn light was casting long gloomy shadows across the ground. Pools of dense mist clung to hollows and depressions with oily tenacity.

“Chamber Management, equalize pressure. Sensors, deploy the atmospheric probe and exposure samples.”

The force field reconfigured itself to allow the sampler arm through. It didn’t find any immediately lethal particles missed by the scans from orbit.

Oscar waited the designated hour for the exposure and micro-analysis processes to run. “Xenobiology?” he asked eventually.

“Some spores—probably plant life. Small bacterial count in the water vapor. Nothing abnormal, and no adverse reactions to our sample materials.”

“Thank you.” It would take months of laboratory testing to discover if any of the microbial life was dangerous to humans. Until they were given the all-clear, the forward crews would all be in suits anyway. It was the other biological reactions that worried Oscar. A century ago CST had opened a wormhole to a planet where the local fungus ate polymers. Quite how that evolved was still a puzzle for the xenobiologists. Now a whole spectrum of materials was exposed to the planet first. “Astrogration, please take us down to the surface.”

The exit began to move, drifting downward with the same sedate lack of urgency as a hot air balloon. Oscar could even guess the point that astrogration had chosen for contact. A flat patch of ground clear of any trees, with a stream three hundred meters away. Ground search radar confirmed the area was solid. At a hundred meters up, the oval exit began to rotate around its long axis, tilting to the vertical. A light blue sky slid into view, with wispy clouds high above the horizon, glowing pink in the rising sunlight. Astrogration halted the descent when the bottom rim was a couple of centimeters above the fluffy leaves of the cochineal-tinted grass-equivalent.

Oscar let out a breath as he watched the landscape for any sign of movement. If there were any Silfen on this world, now was the moment they appeared. Stupid lanky humanoids ambling up to the opening and waving gamely at all the ground crew behind their consoles. “Welcome,” they sang in their own language. “Welcome to a new world.” He’d seen it once himself, twelve years ago when he was chamber management station head on Augusta. There had been so much amusement in their smooth voices, laughter for the serious humans and their clunky machinery. He’d wanted to pick up a rock and throw it at the smug mystics.

But this time the chilly red and blue terrain could have been a painting it was so still. There were no Silfen here.

He wasn’t the only one waiting, anticipating. A number of sighs were released around the control center.

Oscar went around the loop again, confirming every station was stable. “Forward crew, initiate contact,” he said.

The floor of the confinement chamber rose up into a ramp. Airlock two irised open. McClain Gilbert and the four members of his first contact team were standing just inside. They wore their magenta insulation suits, a close-fitting onepiece with a flexible hood that clung to the skull; a broad transparent visor dominated the front. The backpack was slim, containing a lightweight air recycling unit and the superconductor batteries for the force field armor they wore unseen underneath the fabric. It was a precaution against any newfound native animal that was hostile enough to try to find out what the invaders tasted like.

Cameras mounted on the sides of their hoods relayed images to the big screens above the windows. A quick check showed Oscar that several hundred million people were accessing this moment through the unisphere. They would be exploration addicts, the stay-at-homes who couldn’t get enough of alien worlds and the expanding human frontier.

“Out you go, Mac,” Oscar told the heroic-looking figures as they stood at the bottom of the ramp.

McClain Gilbert nodded briefly, and strode forward. The force field over the gateway exit slipped around him as he stepped through. His booted foot came down on the feathery leaves of the ground cover plant.

“I name this planet Chelva,” McClain Gilbert intoned solemnly, reading from CST’s approved list. “May those who come here find the life they search for.”

“Amen,” Oscar muttered quietly. “Right, people, to work, please.”

Procedure meant they acquired immediate soil and plant samples that were quickly taken back through the gateway. Once that was done, the team began a more elaborate investigation of the area around the wormhole exit.

“The grass-equivalent is spongy,” McClain Gilbert said. “Similar to moss but with much longer leaves, and they’re kind of glossy, like they have a wax coating. From what I can see the ground next to the stream has a high shingle content. Looks like flint, same gray-brown coloration. Possibly good for fossils.”

The forward crew was heading toward the water. Streams, lakes, even seas, always provided a rich variety of native life.

“Okay, we have company,” McClain Gilbert announced.

Oscar glanced up from the console portals. The forward crew were about a hundred meters from the exit, he could only see three of them directly now, and two of them were pointing at something. His eyes flicked up to the screens. The small squirrel-rodent creatures had appeared; helmet-mounted cameras were following them as they hopped around on the flat rocks beside the stream. Now he could see them properly, his first equivalence naming was becoming more and more inaccurate. They were nothing like squirrels. A rounded conical body, thirty centimeters long, was covered in lead-gray scales, with a texture astonishingly similar to stone. There were three powerful limbs at the rear, one directly underneath the body, and two, slightly longer, on either side. Where they connected to the main body they were shaped like chicken thighs, except there was no mid-joint, the lower half was a simple pole. It was as if they walked on miniature stilts, which made their motions fast and jerky. The head was a giant snout, with segmented ring scales allowing it to bend in every direction. Its tip was a triple-pincer claw arranged around a mouth-inlet. Two-thirds of the way along the snout, three black eyes were set deep into folds that creased the scales.

“Ugly-looking critters,” McClain Gilbert said. “They seem, I don’t know, primitive.”

“We think they’re quite evolved,” xenobiology said. “They obviously have a good sense of balance, and the limb arrangement provides a sophisticated locomotive ability.”

They didn’t bound about, Oscar saw, it was more like a kangaroo jump. Watching them, he worried that the forward team were scaring them, they were never still. One of them darted forward, its pincers splashing into the water. When it brought its snout out, the claws were gripping a tuft of lavender foliage. It moved with incredible speed, shoveling the dripping morsel back into its mouth-inlet.

His virtual vision brought up an amber warning over a section of McClain Gilbert’s insulation suit’s telemetry. The cautions were repeated on the other forward crew. “Mac, what are you standing on?”

In unison, the helmet camera images on the screens tipped down. The feathery grass was slowly curling over to embrace their boots. A thin mist was leaking out from the onion-shaped tips of every blade.

“Hell!” McClain Gilbert exclaimed. He quickly lifted one foot. The grass wasn’t strong enough to stop him. Blisters and bubbles were erupting on the top of the boot. The rest of the crew shouted in alarm, and began to pull their own boots clear.

“That’s some kind of acid,” Planetary Science said.

Oscar noticed all the creatures were hopping away from the humans at quite a speed.

“What sort of plant has acid for sap?” McClain Gilbert asked.

“Not a good one,” xenobiology said. “Sir, I recommend bringing them back in.”

“I concur,” emergency defense said. “If nothing else, we need to wash that acid off them before it eats through their soles.”

“I think they’re right, Mac,” Oscar said. “Get back into the environment chamber.”

“We’re coming.”

“Xenobiology, talk to me,” Oscar said.

“Interesting. The plants didn’t move until our team had been standing still for a little while, so I’m guessing they probably operate off a time/pressure trigger. I’m reminded of a Venus flytrap, except this is a lot more unpleasant, and the scale is larger. Any small animal that stops moving is likely to be trapped and dissolved.”

Oscar glanced back through the oval gateway. McClain Gilbert and his team had almost reached the rim. Behind them, there was no sign of the small not-squirrel creatures. “Those native animals never stood still,” he murmured.

“No, sir,” xenobiology said. “And their leg structure would be difficult for the grass to capture. I’d love to know what their scales are made of, it looked pretty tough. Anything that evolves here must be relatively acid resistant.”

“How widespread is this plant?” Oscar asked. “And is the rest of the vegetation going to be similar?”

“The images we’re getting from the low-orbit satellites indicate a comprehensive ground plant coverage,” sensors said. “If it’s not this particular grass-equivalent, it’s a close cousin.”

“Damnit,” Oscar hissed.

The forward crew hurried back into the alien environment confinement chamber. At the bottom of the ramp, decontamination shower cubicles had risen up out of the floor. They were designed to wash away spores or dangerous particles. But they’d be just as effective for this. The team members stood underneath the nozzles as the water jetted down.

“All right,” Oscar announced to everyone on the loop. “Our priority is to establish how widespread this grass variety is, and if the other plants are related. Sensors, get a marque 8 samplebot out there. I want to check out the nearest trees, and there are a few other kinds of plants in that grass-stuff. Mac, go through a complete decontamination, and desuit, I don’t think we’ll need you again today.”

Everyone in the control center watched anxiously as the samplebot trundled out across the red grass. It stopped several times to snip sections of leaf from clumps of other plants, then headed for the nearest tree a hundred fifty meters away. As it got closer, they could all see the jagged pattern of the branches as they forked at acute angles. There weren’t many leaves, just a few slender beige triangles clumped around the end of each twig. Black kernels similar to walnuts dangled down from almost every joint on every branch.

The samplebot stopped a meter from the waxy trunk, and gingerly extended an electromuscle arm. Every kernel on that half of the tree popped simultaneously. A torrent of liquid showered down over the surrounding ground and the samplebot. Its casing began to dissolve immediately. Acid started to leak through and the telemetry ended.

Oscar put his head in his hands and groaned. “Shit!”

By twenty-one hundred hours, they’d confirmed the planet’s plants shared a common biochemistry. Oscar had moved the wormhole exit eight times to different regions. Each one had subtle variants in the grass-equivalent, and no variance in their biochemical makeup.

He ordered the exit to be closed, and the gateway mechanism to be powered down to level two. It disheartened everyone, especially for a mission that had started so promisingly. Then there was the administration crap to deal with; the ground crew that was scheduled to take over exploration from prime had to be switched to a prep crew; everybody faced a mountain of reports to file.

The door of the control center closed behind Oscar. “Another day another star,” he murmured to himself. He was tired, disappointed, hungry. No way was he going to start in on the administration tonight. He told his e-butler to have the maidbots start a decent meal and open some wine to breathe. By the time he got home it should be ready.

Just as he started walking down the corridor, a number of people came out of the observation gallery door ahead of him. Dermet Shalar was there, the CST Merredin station director, and the last person Oscar wanted to see right now. He hesitated, putting his head down, hoping Dermet wouldn’t notice him.

“Oscar.”

“Ah, good evening, sir. Not a good day, I’m afraid.”

“No, indeed not. Still, astronomy has a huge list of possible targets. It’s not as if we’re short of new worlds.”

Oscar stopped listening to his boss; he’d just recognized the young-looking man in the expensive suit standing beside him. “Have you been watching today’s operation?”

“Yes,” Wilson Kime said. “I remember that kind of disappointment myself.”

“I’m sure you do.”

“But I was impressed by the way you ran things in there.”

“I see,” which was a dumb thing to say, but Oscar knew there were very few reasons for Kime to be here today. His fatigue suddenly vanished under a deluge of adrenaline. To be head-hunted for this CST exploration mission was the ultimate compliment.

As if he was mind reading, Wilson smiled. “I need somebody like you as my executive officer. Interested?”

Oscar glanced at Dermet Shalar, who kept his face carefully neutral. “Of course.”

“Good. It’s yours if you want it.”

“I want it.”

Two days later Oscar arrived at the Anshun starship project complex. He was given an office next to Wilson on the top floor in one of the three central glass towers, complete with a staff of three. Starting with their first official meeting that morning, he and Wilson had to put the crew selection problem at the top of the agenda. It was a hint of what was to come. Nigel Sheldon hadn’t been joking about the number of requests to join the mission. Tens of millions of people from all over the Commonwealth, endorsed by their government or some venerable respected institution, were hammering against CST’s filter programs for a berth on the starship. Right from the beginning, they decided on a policy of filling the science posts from the CST exploratory division wherever possible. The general crew would be assigned on a similar basis. Exceptions would be made for “outstanding achievers.” Both of them acknowledged that would mean geniuses with political clout.

“Anybody you owe a big favor?” Wilson asked. “We might as well get that out of the way to start with.”

“I’m sure there’ll be a whole bunch of people from this life and my first who are suddenly going to remember the five dollars they lent me. And just about everyone at the Merredin station managed to bump into me before I left and tell me how terrific they are. All I can say is, McClain Gilbert is the best forward crew leader I’ve worked with.”

“You want him for that duty on the Second Chance?”

Oscar took a moment. “It’s that easy?”

“We have to start somewhere, and we have to have some rationale for selection. After all, it’s how I chose you, I asked Sheldon who his best Operations Director was.”

Oscar had guessed it had been something like that: but who didn’t like hearing it firsthand? “Okay then, I’d like Mac. What about you? Do you have any preferences for the crew?”

“There’s fifty management types from Farndale I’d like to bring onto the construction side of the project to smooth out the current schedule, and I’ll probably do that. But as for anyone familiar with this kind of mission, no, not anymore.” They’d managed to track down two others from Ulysses . Nancy Kressmire, who had never left Earth again, was now the Ecological Commissioner for Northwest Asia, and hugely committed to the job—after all, she’d held it for a hundred fifty-eight years. She’d said no as soon as he reached her—not even waiting to say hello, or ask why he was calling after all these centuries.

“Are you sure?” Wilson had inquired.

“I can’t leave, Wilson. There’s so much here on this good Earth we still have to put right. How can we face aliens before we’ve cured the ills which beset our own people? Our moral obligation is clear.”

He didn’t argue, though there was much he wanted to say to her, and all her crusading kind for that matter. The Earth that the ultra-conservative Greens wanted had never existed in the past, it was an idealized dream of what Eden might be. Something not too dissimilar to York5, he thought to himself.

The only other old crew member Sheldon’s staff had located was Jane Orchiston. Wilson took one look at her file, and didn’t even bother placing that call. Call it prejudice or intuition—he didn’t really care which. He just knew it would be a waste of time. Two centuries ago, Orchiston had moved to Felicity, the women-only planet. Since then she’d been enthusiastically giving birth to daughters at the rate of almost one every three years.

All in all, he reflected, it wasn’t an outstanding record for a crew that was supposed to represent the best of humanity at that time. Three known survivors out of thirty-eight; one plutocrat, one bureaucrat, and one earth-mother.

The second half of the meeting was scheduled as a unisphere conference with James Timothy Halgarth, the director of the Research Institute on Far Away. “I’ll be interested in your opinion on what he has to say about the Marie Celeste and its crew,” Wilson told Oscar. “Tracking down alien knowledge is an aspect of our mission which I’m going to delegate to you.”

“You think it’s that important?”

“Yeah, we need to know what they know. Or don’t know. I’m determined that we cover every angle of approach on the Dyson Pair envelopment, not just the physical voyage. I was in training for the Mars mission for damn near a decade. I wound up knowing more than any college professor about its geology, its features, the geography, and even the books people had written on it—fact and fiction. Everything. I knew the myths as well as the truths. Just in case. We were ready for anything, any eventuality. And a fat lot of good that did us in the end.”

“Sheldon and Ozzie weren’t anything to do with Mars.”

Wilson grinned. “My point exactly. So… after this, arrange to see the Commonwealth xenocultural experts talking to the Silfen. Get out to the High Angel. Interview a Raiel. I simply don’t believe that none of our so-called allies know nothing about the Dyson Pair. Most of them have been around for a hell of a lot longer than us, certainly they all had starflight when it happened.”

“Why would they hold out on us?”

“God knows. But then there’s a great deal about this which doesn’t seem logical.”

“All right, I’ll add it to my list.”

Wilson’s e-butler announced that the wormhole connecting Half Way to Far Away had begun the ten-hour active phase of its cycle. The unisphere established a link to the small data network in Armstrong City. From there, a solitary landline carried the call to the Institute.

The big portal at the far end of Wilson’s study fizzed with multicolored static. It cleared to show Director James Timothy Halgarth sitting behind his desk, a fourth-generation member of the family that founded EdenBurg, which gave him a reasonable level of seniority within the dynasty.

He wore a simple pale blue suit of semiorganic fabric that stretched and contracted around his limbs whenever he moved, giving him unrestricted movement. His apparent age was mid-thirty, though he was completely bald, an unusual style in the Commonwealth. Small OCtattoos shimmered platinum and emerald on his cheeks.

“Captain Kime, finally,” the Director said with obvious enthusiasm. “I apologize for the delay in enabling this conference. The Guardians of Selfhood are annoyingly tenacious in their attacks on our landline. The current repairs were only completed three hours ago. No doubt we shall suffer our next cut within a few days.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Wilson said. “Wouldn’t you be better off with a satellite relay?”

“We used to have one. The Guardians shot it down, and its three replacements. It’s actually more cost-effective to have a landline and keep a repair crew permanently on the payroll. Fiber-optic cable is very cheap.”

“I didn’t realize the civil situation was quite so bad on Far Away.”

“It’s not. We’re the only ones suffering from assaults by the Guardians. They are deplorably xenophobic, not to mention violent.”

“I’m not too well briefed on their objectives; I never did pay much attention to conspiracy theories before. They think you’re helping an alien survivor from the arkship, don’t they?”

“Actually, they believe we transported the Starflyer into the Commonwealth, but that’s the general thrust of their argument, yes.”

“I see. They have been releasing a great deal of propaganda about how the Starflyer arranged for the whole Second Chance mission. What I really need to know, from the horse’s mouth as it were, is if it is in any way possible the Marie Celeste did come from the Dyson Pair. Does it have that kind of flight range?”

“In theory, yes. Once the ship accelerates to its flight velocity of point seven two lightspeed, its range is limited only by the amount of fuel it carries to power the force field generators, and indeed the lifetime of the generators themselves. However, our research determined that the actual flight time was five hundred and twenty years. The arkship didn’t come from, or even pass by, the Dyson Pair. It came from somewhere closer.”

“That could be a planet which didn’t have the kind of protective barrier the Dyson Pair possessed,” Oscar said. “They couldn’t defend themselves against whatever was threatening the Dyson aliens, so they left?”

“We can speculate on the reason for the flight as much as you like,” the Director said. “As we don’t yet know which star the arkship came from, we can hardly determine anything for certain. It could have originated from inside Commonwealth space for all we know.”

“What about if the Marie Celeste species was the reason for the enclosure?” Wilson asked.

“I’m sorry,” the Director said. “I don’t follow your reasoning.”

“If more than one arkship set off from its origin star, the civilization at the Dyson Pair could be defending themselves from the arkship aliens. After all, look what the Marie Celeste did to Far Away’s star when they arrived there.”

“Ah, the mega-flare. Yes, I suppose that’s a valid argument, although I don’t see why the barriers would remain on for such a long time. But we do believe that the sterilization of Far Away was an unfortunate side effect. The flare was only triggered to act as the power source for the message.”

“That’s one hell of a side effect.”

“You have to take the alien viewpoint. They triggered the flare to communicate across the entire galaxy. Whatever machine manipulated the star into flaring then went on to modify the emission into a coherent radio signal powerful enough to be detected as far away as the Magellanic Clouds. We humans certainly picked it up easily enough, you barely needed a dish when the signal reached Damaran, let alone the SETI scanners they were using back then.”

“But nobody knows what they were saying,” Wilson observed. “We’ve had a hundred and eighty years to decode the signal, and I’m not aware of any breakthrough yet. They must have been broadcasting back to their own home planet.”

“That’s certainly one theory proposed by the Institute, Captain. We have a hundred more if you have the time to listen. All we can do is work through the wreckage and try to put together as many pieces of the puzzle as possible. One day we shall have our answers. Regrettably, it won’t be in the near future.”

“You must have some idea where they came from,” Oscar said. “If they traveled at point seven lightspeed for five hundred years that gives you an origin point roughly three hundred and fifty light-years from Far Away. Surely you can match a star to the light spectrum in the ship’s life-support section?”

“That would be difficult, Mr. Monroe, the tanks had a multispectrum illumination source. They weren’t trying to match their home star’s emission.”

“Tanks?”

The Director’s face displayed mild disappointment. “There was no planetary surface environment replicated inside the Marie Celeste. The starship carried tanks. As far as we can tell from the residue, they were filled with water and a type of monocellular algae.”

“It was an aquatic species?” Wilson was fascinated. He’d never done any research into the arkship. Far Away had been on his list of worlds he wanted to visit in his sabbatical life.

“Again, that is one theory,” James Halgarth said. “There were no remnants of advanced creatures in the tanks, and we have never identified any such species in Far Away’s ocean. Another theory is that the Marie Celeste is actually an automated seedship. It was programmed to sterilize whatever habitable world it found, and seed it with genetic samples from its own world ready for its builders to colonize once the alienforming was complete.”

“Another good reason to throw up a barrier,” Wilson said.

“I doubt it, Captain. Firstly, if you have the technology to erect the kind of barrier found at the Dyson Pair, then you certainly have the capability to deactivate a robot ship before it begins its in-system mission. Secondly, it is a dreadfully flawed method of interstellar colonization. The resources spent on constructing such a ship are enormous. And it didn’t work. The flare killed off most but not all of Far Away’s native life, yet no trace has been found of any nonnative life. And if the Marie Celeste is one of a fleet, then where are all the other flares presumably set off by the rest of the ships? Thirdly, if you are a space-faring civilization intent on spreading out of your own solar system, then you will be constantly improving your technology. Whether you will develop faster-than-light travel is questionable. But certainly better ships than the Marie Celeste can be built, and the second wave would overtake the first and travel farther. Why haven’t we seen any other ships from the species which launched theMarie Celeste ? I’m afraid, gentlemen, that we are presented with a unique puzzle with Far Away. It is as the saying goes: a mystery wrapped in an enigma. But I must conclude, it has nothing to do with the Dyson Pair.”

“I’m sure this is in your reports,” Oscar said. “But what about the onboard electronics? You must have salvaged some programs, surely?”

“No. The processors left installed are fairly standard, using a basic gate principle like ours, though some of the chemistry involved is different from anything we employ. However the core control array is missing, salvaged or removed.”

“Before or after the crash landing?”

“After. It wasn’t so much a crash landing as a heavy landing. The arkship’s systems were working at the time otherwise it would have been a true crash and all we’d have to examine would be a very deep crater. The official Institute history is that the flare was successful in calling another ship and a rescue mission picked up the survivors. That certainly fits all the known facts. Anything else is pure conspiracy theory.”

“You mentioned technology levels,” Wilson said. “Is the Marie Celeste a product of a technology more advanced than ours?”

“By definition, we are more advanced because we have wormhole generators. However that is now. By our best estimate, the Marie Celeste was launched aroundAD 1300, and at that time we had barely begun the Renaissance.”

“I see what you mean. Even if they only had half of our technological progression rate, they should have the same kind of pathways the Silfen use by now.”

“Exactly.”

“What about now, though? Is what we have now equivalent to the Marie Celeste?”

“The easiest answer is equivalent but different. We could undoubtedly build a more sophisticated slower-than-light starship. Obviously they didn’t have our wormhole capability, but then we don’t know how they flared the star.”

Wilson remembered several meetings he’d had with Commonwealth security chiefs so senior the general public didn’t even know their Directorates existed. They’d been very eager to examine the possibility of the Marie Celeste ’s “flare bomb.” Farndale’s military researchers thought it might be some kind of unstable quantum field effect that disrupted the star’s surface, like dropping a depth charge into the ocean. Aside from theoretical studies, nothing had ever been done, certainly not at a hardware level. Of course, he didn’t know what other companies might have developed. It might be worth a quiet word with Nigel Sheldon. “Aren’t you even looking into it?”

“There’s nothing to look into, Captain. We have classified every single component onboard the arkship and identified their use. Whatever triggered the flare is not here. Presumably if there was more than one, the others were evacuated along with the crew and the control array. After all, it’s not the kind of thing a responsible species would leave lying around.”

“Good point. What I was trying to determine through the flare technology is if the Marie Celeste builders had the ability to throw up the Dyson barrier.”

“No, they didn’t have that ability. The Dyson Pair barriers predate the arkship. We are dealing with yet another unidentified alien species, perhaps two if the wilder ideas about the barrier’s defensive nature are true. I wish you luck in your encounter.”

“Thank you.”

“While we are in contact, I’d be very glad to offer sabbatical leave to any of the Institute’s researchers who you’d care to have on your crew. The experts we have here are quite formidable, both in terms of expertise and capability, many of them are advanced, like myself.”

“That’s a very generous offer, Mr. Director. We’re about to issue our requirements for the Second Chance, and I’m sure your personnel will match up.”

“Very well then.” His hand was raised in a small wave as the image disappeared from the portal.

Oscar pulled a face. “So that takes the Marie Celeste aliens out of the equation.”

“Looks like it, not that I ever believed the Guardians, but it’s useful ammunition for the next media interview.”

Even though it was officially summer, the winds from the west had been bringing in rain clouds from the ocean for over three weeks. Leonida City suffered thunderstorms and flash floods in most of the parks. Even today, the sky was blocked by lusterless gray clouds whose constant drizzle was falling on the lightweight plastic awning that had been set up over the podium. As he looked out across the audience sitting on the lawn of the university’s botanical garden, Dudley Bose didn’t even see the dull glimmer of moisture clinging to their suits and fanciful summer hats. He was too wrapped up in his own sense of awe and delight to pay attention to anything as mundane as the weather.

The dean also seemed immune to the suffering before him as his speech rambled on and on. Sitting just behind him, Gralmond’s Vice President was trying to keep a civil expression on her face. Eventually, the dean finished complimenting the university under his own leadership, and gestured to Dudley Bose.

Making his way to the lectern, Dudley had a sudden bout of nerves as the event hit home. He caught sight of Wendy, his wife, sitting tall in the front row, applauding loudly. Ranged beside her were his students; one of them let out a piercing whistle, while the other two were laughing as though this were the biggest joke in the world. Typical, he thought. But the sight of them allowed him to carry on with renewed conviction.

Dudley stepped up to the dean, who solemnly handed over the scroll of parchment that signified his appointment to full professorship. The applause peaked, and Dudley smiled down happily at his damp audience, and absolutely did not scratch the OC tattoo on his ear—Wendy had been very specific about that. He said his standard, trite “thank yous” and added how privileged he was to be a part of an academic institution as grand as this university, made one little point about how government should always support pure science (a thoughtful nod of agreement from the Vice President behind him), and finished up by saying: “I now hope to build upon the discovery which Gralmond has made possible by representing this planet as a crew member on the Second Chance. By contributing our planet’s expertise and unique experience we may finally unravel the mystery which has haunted our species for the last two hundred years. All I can say is that I will do my best not to let you down. Thank you very much.”

The applause that greeted the end of the speech was warmer and louder than he’d been expecting. As he turned the Vice President rose and shook him by the hand. “I’ll certainly do what I can to get you on that ship,” she murmured.

Dudley sat down and smiled oafishly through her speech about the long-term grant her administration was utterly delighted to be awarding the university’s newly enlarged astronomy department. He’d been agitating for a berth on the Second Chance from the moment he’d heard of the mission. In every unisphere interview, and there were many, he’d told the reporters how he deserved to be on it, how his contribution couldn’t possibly be overlooked, how his exclusive knowledge on the subject made him indispensable. He’d done the same to every politician he’d met, every industrialist, every high-society member he’d encountered at the hundred cocktail parties and dinners he’d received invitations for since the discovery. His lobbying had been relentless. The envelopment observation had given him a security he’d never known before, with the awarding of his professorship and sudden rush of money into his department. Success, he’d found, had a delectable taste. He wanted more, and the starship was the way to get it. There would be no limit to what he could achieve when he returned triumphant from the distant Dyson Pair.

As soon as the Vice President finished her announcement the audience broke for the reception in the main hall where canap?s and wine were being served. Several local companies had helped fund the day, which allowed the bursar to bring in outside caterers, elevating the usual standard of university parties.

Wendy Bose snagged a glass of ros? from one of the young waiters and looked around to see where Dudley had got to. It was a day of conflicting emotions for her. The relief she felt at seeing him finally get his professorship was profound; it secured both their futures. Already, at the city planning office where she worked, her own promotion had finally gone through; her R&R pension was safe and sound, in another eleven years she could go for a rejuvenation. A decent one this time, she thought. Over the last few years she’d been very conscious of her hips getting heavy again—just at the wrong time. Dudley was clocking up a lot of inquiries from companies, there had even been mention of nonexecutive directorships. Gossip around the university common room said he was now a contender for the dean’s job in a few years’ time. She needed to look good, fit the part of capable supportive wife. When she’d married him, she hadn’t expected anything like this level of professional and personal success, just a quiet life spent pleasantly on the fringe of the capital’s social and governmental circles. Now, Dudley’s fame was changing all that. So far they’d faced it together, but she was only too aware of the strength of their marriage. It was another of those perfectly amicable unions that was intended to last maybe a couple of decades, a standard anodyne to the loneliness of mediocre achievers right across the Commonwealth. As such it could trundle along contentedly so long as nothing too momentous affected it. And here he was, the most famous astronomer in the Commonwealth, right in the middle of a campus of beautiful young girls, and being courted by companies with serious money.

“Mrs. Bose?”

Wendy turned to find a very tall man smiling inquisitively at her. His apparent age was late thirties, though she knew he was a lot older than that, several lifetimes at least. She’d rarely seen someone so self-confident. He had blond hair that verged on silver, and eyes that were so dark it was hard to see where the iris began. Combined with a small nose and delicate prominent cheeks he was striking rather than handsome, certainly memorable.

“That’s me.” She smiled, slightly edgy, knowing people like this didn’t usually single her out—for whatever reason.

“I’m with Earle News.” He held up a small card with golden wings in the middle. “I was wondering if I could have a few moments with you, please.”

“Oh, of course.” Wendy automatically slipped into good corporate wife mode—she’d had enough practice recently. “It’s a very proud day for me, Dudley’s achievement means so much, not just to the university but to Gralmond itself.”

“Absolutely. It’s certainly put you on the map. I had to look up which section of space Gralmond was in, and I’ve been to a lot of worlds. My brief is a roving one.”

“Really, that must be very interesting, Mr…”

“Oh, that’s Brad, please.”

“Okay, Brad.” She smiled at him over the rim of her drink.

“One thing I was curious about when I researched the university, it has just about the smallest astronomy department anywhere. Was it your husband who started it?”

“Oh, no, that was Dr. Marance, he was one of the founders of the university; his actual discipline was astrophysics. The astronomy department was set up under his wing, apparently he was quite a dynamic character, hard to say no to. He believed astronomy was an essential component to classifying the universe, so there wasn’t much opposition to setting up the observatory. Then he left for rejuvenation, and Dudley got the appointment to carry on running the department. It’s been a bit of a struggle, to be honest; astronomy was still part of the physics department. It hasn’t really been independent until today.” She took a sip of the ros?. “Big day.”

“I see. But it still managed to attract funding after Dr. Marance left, enough funding to keep it going independently.”

“Well, there are all sorts of sources you can apply to: government and educational foundations. It was a constant struggle for Dudley to secure the budget every year, but he’s most tenacious, and a very capable administrator. Thankfully. He managed to keep going against quite a few odds. And, well, look at the result.”

“Quite. So it really is a case of the small noble man against the universe.”

“I wouldn’t put it exactly like that. Nobody was opposing him, it’s just that astronomy isn’t the most highly valued discipline these days. That’s all changing, now, of course. We’ve had over eight thousand applicants to study with Dudley in the next academic year.”

“I take it you won’t be able to accommodate them all?”

“Unfortunately not. It’s going to take some time to build the department up to Commonwealth-class standards. And, of course, Dudley may well be involved in the Second Chance mission.”

“Really?”

“He ought to be,” she said emphatically. “He was the discoverer, after all. He’s devoted years of his life to the Dyson Pair; that dedication has made him the Commonwealth’s premier expert on the subject. It would be very strange if they didn’t take him along as part of the science team, now wouldn’t it?”

“I suppose so. Has Captain Kime asked him to join the crew?”

“Not yet.”

“Like you say, I’m sure it’s just a matter of time. But I’m more interested in his history, and that of the astronomy department here at the university. I’m sure you’re being modest, but it really does sound like an epic battle; the fight for recognition, the fight for money, year after year. That provides quite an insight into your husband’s personality.”

“I’m very proud of him.”

“Can you tell me who some of the supporters were in the past? For example, which educational trusts provided money or resources?”

“Ah, well, there was the Frankton First Advancement, the St. James Outlook Fund, the Kingsford Pure Research Enablement Foundation, BG Enterprise, they all made most generous contributions; but the largest single donation came from the Cox Educational charity, that’s based on Earth.”

“An Earth charity supporting work out here, that’s quite remarkable.”

“They support a lot of basic scientific groundwork in universities across the Commonwealth, I believe.”

“So how long have the Cox commissioners been supporters of your husband’s department?”

“Eleven years now, ever since we arrived here.”

“What are they like?”

“Who?”

“The charity commissioners.”

“I don’t know. The contact was made over the unisphere. They’ve never actually visited. We are one of thousands of projects they support.”

“They didn’t even come today?”

“No, I’m afraid not. As you say, it’s a long way for a glass of wine and a canap?.”

“Okay, so what made Professor Bose choose the Dyson Pair as his observation target?”

“Distance. Gralmond was in the right place to observe the envelopment. Not that we expected one as dramatic as this.”

“Did he choose Gralmond because of that? Was he interested in the Dyson Pair before?”

“Not especially, no. After all, Dudley is a pure astronomer, and the envelopment for all it’s an astounding event isn’t natural.”

“He only started the observation after you arrived, then?”

“Yes.”

“What did the university say about that proposal?”

“They didn’t say anything; it’s up to Dudley to decide the astronomy department’s objectives.”

“And the foundations, they didn’t object? They are mostly pure science institutions, aren’t they?”

“Brad, are you trying to find a scandal?”

“Oh, good heavens, no. I haven’t worked for a good old muckraking tabloid show like Baron’s in decades. I just want the history, that’s all. To tell a story properly, you need background; it doesn’t necessarily all get included, but those details have to be there to add authority. I’m sorry, I’m lecturing, I’ve been doing my job for a long time.”

“That wasn’t a lecture. If you’d lived with Dudley for any length of time, you’d know what a lecture is.” Damn. Did that sound bitter?

“I’m sure. So, the foundations and their funding?”

“They were supportive, especially the Cox. In fact, I think the Dyson Pair observation was written into the endowment contract, they wanted to make sure it was seen through to its conclusion.”

“Did they now?”

Just for a second, Wendy saw a flash of triumph on his slender face. It was rather unnerving, she’d thought him more controlled than that, a long-lived sophisticate. “Is that important?” she asked.

“Not at all,” he said with an urbane smile, much more in character. He leaned forward slightly, taking her into his mischievous confidence. “Now tell me, just how is the dean handling all this? One of his professors becoming the most famous academic in the Commonwealth must be a bit of a shock.”

Wendy gave her glass a demure glance. “I couldn’t possibly say.”

“Ah well, you can’t say I didn’t try. I must thank you for sparing so much of your time on this day.”

“That’s it?”

“Yes.” He inclined his head politely, then raised a finger. “One thing, when you see Paula, please tell her from me to stop concentrating on the details, it’s the big picture that counts.”

“I don’t understand, I don’t know anyone called Paula.”

He grinned. “You will.” And with that he slipped away through the crowd, leaving her staring after him, bemused, if not somewhat irritated, by his ridiculously cryptic message.

Two hours into the reception, Dudley’s e-butler told him the police were calling him. “You’re not serious,” he told it.

“I’m afraid so. There are two patrol cars at the house. A neighbor reported someone leaving.”

“Well what does the house array say?”

“The house array seems to be off-line.”

“Goddamnit.”

“Will you be coming? The police did emphasize it is important.”

“Yes, yes!”

So he had to break away from the chairman of Orpheus Island, who had been suggesting a serious sponsorship arrangement for some of the observatory equipment—possibly extending to the Second Chance —give up his wineglass to a rather pretty waitress, who knew his name and smiled, then walk around the hall trying to find Wendy. It didn’t help that she was also moving around trying to find him. They both decided not to say their good-byes to the dean.

The Carlton drove them back home. Slumped down in his seat, Dudley realized how drunk he was. But the wine had been good, and the catering staff kept filling his glass. Wendy gave him a disapproving look as he climbed out of the car using extreme caution.

Constable Brampton was waiting for them beside the front door of their two-story home. Like all the others on the housing estate, it was local wood pinned to a carbonsteel frame and painted a deep green. The windows were white, with the glass turned up to full opacity. The policeman saluted casually as they approached. “Doesn’t seem to be any damage,” he said. “But we’ll need you to take a look around and see if anything’s missing.”

Wendy gave the open door a curious glance. “You’re sure they’ve gone?”

“Yes, ma’am. We’ve checked it out thoroughly. Nobody inside apart from us.” He gestured with an open hand.

Dudley couldn’t see any obvious signs of a burglary. No broken objects, furniture exactly where it always was. The only thing wrong was the lack of response from the house array. “What happened?” he asked.

“Your neighbor reported someone leaving by the front door. They got into a car parked just down the street and drove off. He knew you were at a function at the university, so he called us.”

“My husband was getting his professorship,” Wendy said.

“Yes, ma’am,” Constable Brampton said. “I know that. Congratulations, sir, you deserve it. What you did put old Gralmond right on the map.”

Wendy frowned. That was the second time she’d heard that phrase today.

Dudley gave the front door an annoyed look. It was properly wired, the insurance company had insisted on that, and the house array had excellent security routines. “How did they get in?”

“We’re not sure. Somebody who knew what they were doing. Bypassed all your electronics, takes a smart person to do that. Or someone with a smart program.”

They went into Dudley’s study. He felt as if he should apologize for the mess. There were books and glossy printouts everywhere, pieces of old equipment, a window almost invisible behind the rampant potted plants. Two forensics officers were examining the desk and its open drawer. The house array was inside, a simple housing box with junction sockets connecting it to more fiber-optic cables than the performance specs really permitted. He’d been meaning to upgrade for a while.

“They dumped your memory,” the senior forensics officer said. “That’s why the array’s down.”

“Dumped it?”

“Yeah. Everything, management programs, files, the lot. They’re all gone. Presumably into the burglar’s own memory store. I hope you kept backups?”

“Yeah.” Dudley looked around the study, scratching at the OCtattoo on his ear. “Most of it, anyway. I mean, it’s only a house array.”

“Was there anything valuable on it, sir? I mean, your work, and everything?”

“Some of my work was there, I wouldn’t call it valuable. Astronomy isn’t a secretive profession.”

“Hum, well, it might be an attempted blackmail, someone looking for something incriminating. You’d be surprised what stays in an array’s transit memory cache, stuff from years ago. Whoever they are, they’ve got all that now.”

“I don’t have anything incriminating to keep. I mean, bills paid late, some traffic tickets when I was driving on manual—who doesn’t?”

“Nonetheless, sir, you are in the public eye now. It might be an idea to think about extra security, and you certainly ought to change all your access patterns after this.”

“Of course, yes.”

“We’ll notify the local patrol car,” Constable Brampton said. “They’ll include you on their watch detail in future.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re sure there’s nothing else missing?”

“No. I can’t see anything.”

“We’ll sweep for DNA fragments, of course, and try and trace the car. But it looks like a professional job. Chances are, if there’s nothing to worry about in the array memory, then there won’t be any follow-up.”

EIGHT

After the Commonwealth ExoProtectorate Council finished with its unanimous vote to send a starship to the Dyson Pair, Ozzie Fernandez Isaac excused himself and took the elevator down to the lobby. Outside, it was warm for spring, with just some slim banks of dirty snow lingering in the gutters where the civicservicebots had pushed it. He started down Fifth Avenue, one of a handful of people to be using the broad sidewalk. There were none of the street vendors he could remember from even a couple of centuries ago: the burger stands on every intersection, T-shirt sellers, stalls with quasi-legal software fixes, sensepimps with pornomemories. That would be too untidy now, too low-down for the city and its cultured inhabitants. These days quaint booths and boutiques occupied the ground floor of every skyscraper, offering quirky objects imported from every planet in the Commonwealth—all so strangely unappealing. It was all a sad decline, as far as Ozzie was concerned. You couldn’t sanitize a great city like New York without losing its original quality, the dynamism and grubby edges that made it an exciting vibrant place to live. Despite the buildings, which still impressed him, it was becoming just another suburb of Earth. Its manufacturing industry had long since moved off-planet, leaving only the research and design consortiums that remained on the cutting edge, staffed by billionaire partners. The advertising agencies remained along with media company headquarters; there were even still some artists down in SoHo, though Ozzie regarded them as talentless dinosaurs. It was the finance sector and government offices that dominated the employment market, for those who had to work. Many didn’t, having their idle lives taken care of by the innumerable supply and service companies that encircled Manhattan, all employing offworlders on medium-term visas.

Visits like this reminded Ozzie why he so rarely came back to the world of his birth these days. When he looked up, there was a jagged strip of cool-steel sky a long way above him, pushed away by the grand towers. Even in midsummer, the sun was a near stranger to the ground in this part of town, while today the trees and shrubs planted in the expensive plazas all had artificial lighting to help them grow.

Glancing down the impressive vertical canyon at one of the intersections, he saw the ancient Chrysler Building secure inside its glass cage, protected from the elements. “And which of us is going to outlast the other?” he asked it quietly.

The cars and cabs and trucks were sliding past him on the road, their axle motors making almost no noise at all. People in thick coats or black-tinted organic filament ponchos hurried past, not even looking at him. They were almost all adults. As far as he could see up and down Fifth Avenue, there were no more than three or four kids under ten years old. That was what he missed most of all; and Earth’s birth rate was still declining year after year as the rich sophisticates who populated the planet found other things to spend their time and money on.

There was nothing for him here anymore, he decided morosely, nothing of interest, nothing of value. He stepped back toward the base of the nearest tower and told his e-butler to give him a link to his home’s RI. Once the RI was on-line he gave it his exact coordinates. A circular wormhole opened behind him, expanding out to two meters in diameter, and he took a step backward through the neutral gray curtain of the force field. The wormhole closed.

Ozzie didn’t have a whole network of private secret wormholes linking the Commonwealth planets. He had precisely two wormholes; one standard CST micro-width connector to give his home a hyper-bandwidth link to the unisphere via Augusta’s cybersphere; and one highly modified version of the wormhole generator that CST’s exploratory division used, which provided him with independent transport around a good section of the Commonwealth. Nor did he live by himself on an H-congruous planet. His home was a hollowed-out asteroid that drifted along its long elliptical orbit around the Leo Twins.

As he walked through the gateway he was immediately enveloped by bright, warm light. The gateway mechanism had been built into a broad granite cliff with a wide awning of white canvas overhead, like a yacht sail that had been commandeered as a marquee roof. He stepped out from underneath it, and his domain stretched out before him.

The cavity that automated diggers, CST civil engineering crews, and an army of various bots had excavated was close to eighty miles long, and fifteen in diameter; the greatest enclosed space the human race had ever constructed. Its geography was a rugged undulation of hills and dales, broken by the silver veins of streams. A single range of huge rock-blade mountains spiraled down the entire length, the tallest pinnacles a mile and a half high, raw purple and gray rock capped with dazzling white snow. Nearly every hill had a waterfall of some kind, from magnificent torrents gushing over sharp-edged mantles, to foaming cascades that tumbled down long stony gullies. On the mountains, wide dark caves had been bored out below the ragged snowline. Water gushed out from the shadows within, sending massive jets to plummet down sheer granite sides, flinging off swirling clouds of platinum spray as they fell and fell. All of them curved gracefully as they sliced through the air, distorted by the asteroid’s ponderous gravity-inducing rotation before plunging into lakes and pools.

All the streams and rivers fed by the waterfalls wound away to empty themselves into the huge reservoirs that were hidden away in caverns behind the central cavity’s endwalls. From there the water could be pumped back into the intricate underground network of tunnels and pipes that led back to the waterfall outlets. Its pumps consumed the output from three of the fifteen fusion generators that powered the asteroid.

Away from the waterfalls, long dark lakes filled the floors of the deeper valleys, fringed by bulrush reeds, and surrounded by overhanging trees that trailed lush branches across the shallows. Great patches of water lilies bloomed across the surface, bringing the intense primary colors of their tissue-flowers to enliven the cool blankness of the water. Bracken and rhododendrons crowned most of the hills, while grass meadows besieged the lower slopes, their unkempt emerald carpets dappled by vivid speckles of scarlet, topaz, azure, violet, and tangerine wildflowers. Marble boulders were scattered on every incline, white as snow. Trees grew wild, singularly or in clumps; spinnys and small forests of oak, silver birch, beech, laburnum, ginkgos, and maple meandered along the lower contours of most valleys. It was a vision of high summer in a temperate land, one that had now lasted for two and a half centuries. The deciduous plants had all been genetically modified into evergreens, forever throwing their leaves wide to the perpetual season. Far, far above them, a silicanium gantry was stretched down the axis, supporting rings of solarlights too bright to look at with unprotected human eyes.

Ozzie hurriedly unbuttoned his woolen coat and carried it over his arm. He made his way down the winding gravel path out of the sheltered lee of rock and into the wide valley, heading toward the only surface structure in the asteroid. His bungalow was barely that, five rooms of plain white drycoral walls, with hardwood floors and a gray slate roof that overhung to provide cover for the encircling veranda. Belowground he’d constructed a big vault for his library of real books. Not that he ever ventured down there; modified maidbots brought up whatever he needed so that the cool dry atmosphere was disturbed as little as possible.

He did use the rest of the modest building, its living room, kitchen, study, bedroom, and bathroom. There was nothing else he wanted, not to take care of his body’s requirements. While he was here he spent most of his time outside anyway. A comfy deckchair in the garden, shaded by a big copper beech; the swimming pool was constantly refreshed by a brook that gurgled over broad flat stones as it ran through the middle of the lawn.

A big maidbot took his coat from him as he arrived, and rolled away to store it in the cloakroom. There were over a hundred thousand bots in the asteroid, all of them directed by the RI. The little artificial worldlet was self-sufficient, and self-maintaining thanks to the very large array that ran it. With its comprehensive manufacturing facilities belowground producing the majority of components used by the environmental support machinery, very little had to be imported. What did come in tended to be upgrades rather than replacements. The designers had spent years on refining the systems to the ultimate in low-maintenance sustainability. Even Ozzie had worried about the cost while the blueprints were being drawn up, but in the end he’d persevered. Now, total freedom was his reward. Engineers from CST still visited once every couple of years (under horrendously strict nondisclosure contracts) to inspect and occasionally modify the gateway machinery, but that was all. And if he withdrew from the human race entirely, the RI could conceivably keep it all going if he really wanted; it was the most powerful program composite the SI had ever written.

“Any messages?” he asked out loud as he went into the kitchen.

“Several hundred thousand,” the RI replied. “Only eight came through the filters.”

Ozzie opened the fridge and rummaged through the containers and hand-wrapped packages. His food was supplied by the same London greengrocer that held the warrant from the king of England. The shop’s snob value and prices were phenomenal, but he had to admit their delicatessen counter couldn’t be bettered anywhere in the Commonwealth. He found a bottle of mineral water and popped the top; despite the coffee he’d drunk at the Council meeting he could still feel his hangover—product of a too-long stay at the Silvertopia Club on StLincoln the night before. “Give them to me.” His virtual vision showed the messages and their clusters; they were from CST, his finance lawyers, two from his newest children, one from an antiquarian book dealer who thought he might have a first edition copy of Raft signed by the author, the results of datasearches through superluminal cosmology theory papers. By the time he’d skimmed through them all he was out at the garden chair and kicking his shoes off. As usual he picked one message at random from the perennial mass that the filter had blocked. He laughed delightedly as he read the weird and wondrous proposal for cooling stars that came above G in the spectral classification, a paper called “Solarforming the Galaxy” by the nutter who’d sent it.

He lounged back in the chair and took a pair of sunglasses from a maidbot. It was a strategic view, his garden was positioned so that he could see down three-quarters of the curving green wings that were the cavity’s interior. One of the mile-and-a-half-high mountains was directly ahead, its giant waterfall emerging from the snowfield a mere three hundred yards short of the deadly needle peak. The vast cataract of water performed an elegant twist as it fell through coils of mist and spume until it finally pounded into a lake at the bottom. That was just one of the vistas that washed over Ozzie with its color-riot and soothing waters. He never did understand why people collected or even admired art; the greatest human artist could never hope to match what nature did with a single flower.

“I’d like to talk to the SI, please,” Ozzie told the asteroid’s RI. There weren’t many people in the Commonwealth who could talk to the SI directly. Ozzie and Nigel qualified, given their role in establishing the SI, and the President was also given the courtesy along with senior government department heads; otherwise all communications had to be conducted at a very formal level through buffer programs. Of course, the SI did occasionally make exceptions; people claimed to have struck deals with it, or received a surprise call revealing where a lost child could be found. Ozzie had heard that Paula Myo had some kind of arrangement with it—which didn’t surprise him.

“We’re here, Ozzie,” the smooth voice said immediately.

“Yo, man, good of you to come visiting. So what’s new?”

“Many things, but you are only interested in one.”

“True. So how come you ganged up with my friend Nigel to get this stupid space cadet mission off the ground. That’s like the ultimate not-what-you-are.”

“Our response was measured and prudent. What else did you expect?”

“I don’t get it, you guys are normally so conservative.”

“Investigation is a conservative option.”

“Investigation is poking a sharp stick into a hornet’s nest. If we send a starship out there, then whoever put that barrier up is gonna know about it. They are so far ahead of us technologically it’s scary.”

“If they are significantly advanced, they will know about the Commonwealth anyway. Wormhole generation creates a great deal of gravitational distortion as well as an easily detectable wave pattern within so-called hyperspace.”

“If they’re all tucked up cozy inside the barrier they won’t…” Ozzie put a hand on his head as he realized. “Wait, the ones inside are the defenders. It’s the aliens outside who are the aggressors. So if we’re that easy to detect, why haven’t they come looking for us?”

“A very good question. Assuming the barrier is defensive, we propose three possible options. They have arrived, and we don’t know it, or realize it.”

“The High Angel!”

“Indeed. Or the Silfen.”

“I dunno about that, man, they don’t seem the type. What’s the second option?”

“The aliens have already been here and examined us, after which they simply ignored us.”

“Too low-down for them to bother with. Yeah, I can dig that. And number three?”

“Number three is the unknown. It is why we need to travel to the Dyson Pair and investigate what has happened.”

“But why now? Hell, man, you can afford to wait; leave it a couple of thousand years until we’re like good and ready to go take a proper look. I mean, even I might still be around. What’s the hurry?”

“In order to respond to a situation, it must first be understood.”

“I’m not arguing that. But why now?”

“Because now is where we are. This should be faced, whatever it is.”

“Maybe you’re interested. I can dig you enjoy a puzzle, something for you to think over and solve. But it’s going to be our asses on the line if this goes all to hell.”

“That’s not entirely true; ordinarily the physical world does not concern us—”

“Hey! You live in it.”

“Yes, but it does not concern us. The physical does not affect us, or interfere with us.”

“I get it. The physical Commonwealth doesn’t affect you, but superior aliens with ray guns and battleship flying saucers might.”

“We accord the defense theory a high probability. In which case an aggressor will exist. If there is an entity so powerful and malevolent loose in the physical universe, then we could very well be affected.”

Ozzie took a long drink of his mineral water. He could remember what it had been like when the SIs came together at the end of the twenty-first century; people had been very frightened at the time. “Frankenbrain” was one of the terms bandied about, mainly by a minority of humans who wanted to pull the plug just in case. Along with Nigel, he’d helped establish the new cyber-based intelligences on their own planet, Vinmar. After all, the majority of SIs had originated out of the AI smartware running in the very large arrays built to run CST wormhole generators, and some solution had to be found. The Commonwealth, and specifically CST, was dependent on big arrays, so Ozzie and Nigel negotiated with the SIs to format their replacements in the form of RIs.

Vinmar’s location was even more confidential than Ozzie’s own asteroid. It was a barren airless rock with no tectonic activity, alone in a star system without an H-congruous planet. CST had linked it to Augusta and the unisphere via a single wormhole. A great deal of equipment had been taken through at the start; very large arrays capable of running all the SIs then in existence, solar and fusion generators to give them independence. Once the SIs had withdrawn from the unisphere, leaving behind RIs to carry on their duties, they began to import equipment: bots, chemical refineries, assembly cells. First with human help, then with increasing autonomy, they started designing and building their own array systems, expanding themselves and their capacity, multiplying.

Ozzie knew that the wormhole had been reduced to micro-width in 2178. The link with the unisphere remained, but nothing physical had traveled to or from Vinmar since then. Popular speculation had the planet’s surface covered in vast crystal towers, the mega-arrays that ran continent-sized thought routines.

“I don’t see that,” Ozzie said quietly. “We’ve been talking about different technology levels. How far ahead the Dyson civilization is, all that crap. But what about you?”

“What about us?”

“Oh, come on! A whole planet for a brain? That makes you smarter than God. And that’s only if you stayed on Vinmar. You’ve got this whole super-technology thing going for you, don’tcha? Anything you want, you just think up how it works and how to build it. Takes maybe a nanosecond. Do you know how to manufacture a Dyson barrier? Better still, do you know how to penetrate one?”

“There are possible theories concerning the erection of a barrier; we have conducted mathematical simulations and analyzed them.”

“So you can build one?”

“Capability and intent are separate. In effect they define us quite accurately. We are thought, not physical. You cannot ever understand how infinitesimal the capacity we have employed to deal with you and this subject.”

“Pretty much beneath you these days, huh? Thanks for that.”

“Ozzie Fernandez Isaac, are you trying to provoke us?”

“Into what, man? Maybe build your own starship and send it to the Dyson Pair.”

“We have ceased to become your servants.”

“And we’re yours?”

“No. Our relationship is one of partnership and trust. And respect.”

“Tell us how to build a barrier generator. Teleport me to Dyson Alpha.”

“We are not God, Ozzie. Humans are not chess pieces we move around a board for amusement and interest. If you wish to build a barrier generator, design it yourselves. Our interest in the Dyson Pair is related purely to yours. Our advice was just that, advice best suited to help you deal with the problem.”

“Would you protect us if the aggressor comes after the Commonwealth?”

“We would offer whatever advice the situation required.”

“Well hot damn thanks a whole bunch there. Half of you are memories that humans send into you rather than rejuvenate again. Don’t you have any empathy, any humanity left in those mountain-sized circuits of yours?”

“Fifty percent is an exaggeration, Ozzie. We believe you know that. You who dispatched copies of his own memories—incomplete ones, at that—to run in our arrays in the hope of receiving special and privileged treatment.”

“And do I get any?”

“We are aware of our debt to you concerning the founding of our planet. You were an honest broker at the time, as such you are entitled to our respect.”

“Respect doesn’t put food on the table.”

“Since when have you ever wanted for anything material?”

“Oh, getting personal now you’re losing, huh?”

The SI didn’t reply.

“Okay, then tell me, with that infinitesimal piece of processing you’re covering this with, don’t you think it strange the Silfen know nothing about the Dyson Pair?”

“They are notoriously reluctant to supply exact definitions. As Vice President Doi confirmed, Commonwealth cultural experts are working on the problem.”

“Can you help us there? Maybe slip in a few trick questions.”

“The Silfen will not communicate directly with me. They have no interest in technological artifacts.”

“Yeah, something I’ve always been suspicious of. I mean, what is technology? Are steam engines? Do they class organic circuitry in there with quantum wire processors? And where do they get off claiming their transport method isn’t technology-based—whatever the hell it actually is.”

“If you’re hoping they will assist the Commonwealth, you will be disappointed. They are not deliberately obtuse; their neural structure is simply different to that of humans.”

“You think?” Ozzie stretched himself out in the chair. “I met somebody once. Long time ago now. It was in a bar on Far Jerusalem, just a seedy little watering hole in a town on the edge of nowhere. Don’t suppose it’s even there anymore, or if it is, it’ll be some tarted-up club with entry standards. But back then a man could walk in and get a drink without anyone bothering him. That’s what he did, except he sat next to me, and he was the one who started talking. Of course, he had a message to put across; but I’m a good listener when I want to be. He had quite a story, too. He claimed he’d been living with the Silfen for a few years. Really living with them, down at the end of those paths in their forests which we all know about and never see. Well, he said he’d walked through their forests with them. Started out one fine morning on a path in the heart of some Silvergalde wood, and finished up hiking across Mt. Finnan on Dublin, like all the rumors have it. Three hundred light-years in a single stride. But he’d actually done it and come back. He’d been to planets far outside the Commonwealth, so he claimed; sat on the blasted desert of a dead planet to watch the remnants of its sun fall into a black hole, swum in a sea on a planet where the only light comes from the galactic core which filled half the sky above, climbed along things he called tree reefs that live in a nebula of gas dense enough to breathe. All those things I always wanted to do. He sat there drinking his cheap beer with thatlook in his eye as he told me about his travels. Got to hand it to him, he could spin a good yarn. I haven’t seen him in years, though we still keep in touch occasionally.”

“An improbable tale, but not impossible given what we know of the Silfen. The knowledge of their paths is one of your primary modern myths.”

“But it’s what else he told me about the Silfen that I’ve always been interested in. He said their bodies are just chrysalides. Somewhere out there in the galaxy is the true Silfen, the adult community. I don’t think it’s physical. A collection of minds, or ghosts maybe. But that’s where they go, what they become. Interesting parallel to you and us, don’t you think?”

“Yes. Although we are not a natural evolutionary step for humans.”

“Not yet. But you’re constantly evolving, and even us poor old naked apes have genetic and intellectual aspirations. What I’m saying is, the Silfen we meet in the forests aren’t the only source of their species’ history. Have you ever encountered the community?”

“No. If it exists, then it functions on a different plane to us.”

“Ever shouted into the abyss and listened for an answer? I’m sure you must have. You’d be curious to find out if there was anything there, an equal.”

“There are echoes of mind in many spectrums, hints of purpose if not intelligence. But for all we know and see, we are alone still.”

“Bummer, huh. I guess it’s down to me, then.”

“To do what?”

“Go find the adult Silfen community, ask it what the fuck’s going on with the Dyson Pair.”

The CST planetary station on Silvergalde was always going to be smaller than any of the other settled worlds in the Commonwealth. But then, Silvergalde wasn’t strictly a Commonwealth planet. From the very beginning, when the exploratory wormhole opened above it, the CST Operations Director knew something was out of kilter. Silvergalde was nearly three times larger than Earth, but its gravity was only point eight nine. Half of the surface was land, while the other half contained mildly salty seas with a hundred thousand picturesque islands. With that composition, and an axial tilt less than half a degree, the environment was completely stable, giving two-thirds of the planet a predominantly temperate climate.

Humans always speculated the globe was artificial. Its interior composition was mainly silicate; no metals were ever found in the crust. A small molten core generated a magnetic field, but did not produce volcanoes. There were no impact craters, no geological reason for the continents and seas to be separate. And most tellingly, no fossil of any kind was ever found. If it was natural it was completely unique. But the real proof appeared after humans reached the surface, where they were greeted by the slyly amused Silfen. Classifying local vegetation and animal life turned up a dozen DNA types, all living in equilibrium with each other. They had to have been imported, and none of them were from any world the Commonwealth was familiar with.

As far as anyone could determine, Silvergalde was the Silfen capital, or at least a regional capital. There were billions of them living on it. They didn’t mind sharing the land with humans, though there were rules, primarily concerned with technology and pollution; nothing above Victorian-level mechanization was permitted. Enforcement was relatively simple, as the more advanced an artifact, the less likely it was to work. The only exception was the CST gateway machinery holding the wormhole stable. No explanation given. When asked, the Silfen apparently didn’t understand the question.

Such a world attracted a certain kind of human. There were pastoral worlds within the Commonwealth, where a similar physical lifestyle could be followed. But it was the Silfen themselves that attracted the gentle, spiritualist types. About a million and a half people had emigrated there. Lyddington, the town with the CST station, had about ten thousand residents; the rest found villages that took their fancy. Then there were the caravans, eternally touring the land, and sailing ships that spent years on a single voyage. A few solitary wanderers wanted the whole Silfen experience. These set off into the forests that covered sixty percent of the land, where legend said you could find paths leading to other worlds and realms.

It was a simple FG67 diesel engine that pulled the five carriages into Lyddington station. The service ran twice a week from Bayovar, through a gateway that was just wide enough to carry a single set of tracks.

Ozzie got out of the first-class section and stood on the solitary platform. He was wearing fawn-colored leather trousers, a thick woolen red and blue checked shirt, a wide-brimmed olive-green oilskin hat that was crunching up his big hair, and the best hiking boots money could buy, manufactured on the Democratic Republic of New Germany. His luggage was a towering backpack full of spare clothes, top-quality camping equipment, and packaged food. There was a saddle under his arm, which was proving exceptionally heavy and awkward to carry.

He looked around to see who was about to help him. A couple of CST staff were standing at the end of the platform talking to the train manager; other than that the only people in view were his fellow passengers, seemingly as bemused as he. When he looked behind the train, he saw the rail leading back to the pearly luminescence of the gateway, not two hundred yards away. Beyond that, the countryside was standard for any H-congruous world, with green vegetation and a light blue sky. There were mountains in the distance, not quite tall enough to have snowcaps. Ahead of him was the town, a drab brown sprawl of small buildings, few of which were more than one story. They clustered along the slope above the harbor, where a natural spit of rock curved defensively around a long beach. Wooden boats were drawn up above the waterline, their nets draped over masts to dry out. A bunch of kids were playing a game similar to football on the sand.

The passengers started to wander along the platform toward the town. Ozzie shoved the saddle over one shoulder, and moved off with them. The CST staff never gave him a second glance. He thought it strange nobody at all from the town was at the station; the train left back for Bayovar in another two hours. Surely someone must be returning home to civilization?

There were houses right up to the station, the oldest section of town. These were either drycoral or prefab, the kind found on any frontier planet. The streets knitting them together were made from thick stone slabs, their only drainage a deep open gutter at the side. Ozzie soon realized why they needed to be so deep; he wished he’d brought some kind of scarf he could wrap over his nose. The transportation was either bicycle or animal. Horses clumped along passively, as did the quadruped galens from Niska; and lontrus, big, shaggy-pelted octopeds that looked terribly hot on this sunny afternoon; he also saw tands being used, some finnars, and even a giant bamtran, which had been given a saddle platform and a harness that pulled a cart the size of a bus. The domesticated beasts either carried riders or pulled wagons. People and cyclists took care to avoid the muck they left behind them, but the smell couldn’t be missed so easily.

Farther into town, the buildings were made from wood or stone; many had thatched roofs. Brick and clay chimneys puffed out thin blue-white tongues of smoke, the scent of burning wood mingling with the smell of animals and cooking. Creeper plants swarmed up every vertical wall, adding to the overall impression of shabbiness. They weren’t cultivated for decoration; in some cases they completely swamped buildings, with just a few holes hacked into the bedraggled greenery to keep windows clear. The stone paving under his feet had given way to hard-packed gravel with a thick top layer of mud and manure. He could see the neat white rectangular offices of the Commonwealth cultural mission sitting at the top of the town, overlooking all the rooftops, but that was the last place he wanted to be. This wasn’t any part of the ExoProtectorate Council mission.

Ozzie kept on walking. As he suspected, the sophisticated handheld array in his rucksack was almost useless, operating at the most basic level and with frequent glitches. There was no cybersphere here, nothing his e-butler could link him to. But all his OCtattoos seemed to be working, for which he was grateful; he’d spent nearly two days in an expensive Augusta clinic having new ones etched into his body, along with several modern biochip inserts, which also appeared to be operational. Whatever the Silfen used to glitch human technology, it only affected photonic and electronic systems. Bioneural chemistry was relatively immune.

The inn was called the Last Pony, a long shambling wooden building camouflaged by an ancient vine that had colonized the sagging front wall to such an extent it was probably all that was now holding it up. The big indigo valentines of semiorganic precipitator leaves were draped along the eves, sucking clean water out of the humid air and funneling it into the building’s pipes for drinking and washing. A dozen young kids were playing in the dusty soil outside. The boys were dressed in badly worn trousers and shirts, made from natural fabrics in dark brown and gray colors. Most of the girls wore dresses that were frayed and patched. Their hair was wild and grubby, detonating out from their heads in frizzy strands. Ozzie smiled at them, enchanted; their faces were those of miniature angels, all happy and curious. They’d all seen him, the clean stranger in decent expensive clothes. Their games were drying up as they whispered among themselves. One ran over, the boldest of all: a little girl no more than seven, wearing a simple fawn-colored sleeveless dress.

“You’re new here,” she said.

“That’s right, my name’s Ozzie, what’s yours?”

“Moonshimmer.” She grinned knowingly. “But you can call me Moony.”

Ozzie resisted the urge to look up at the sky; Silvergalde had twin moons in the same half-million-kilometer orbit. “That’s nice. So tell me, where’s a good place to stay in this town?”

“In there.” Her little arm rose to point at the Last Pony.

“Thanks.” He flipped a coin to her, a fifty Earth cent, which she caught neatly and smiled up at him, revealing two gaps in her front teeth.

Ozzie pushed aside strands of fur-leaf creeper from the front door, and walked in. The main bar was a simple rectangular room, with a counter along one side. Heavy wooden tables, darkened by age and ale stains, cluttered up the floor space. Bright sunbeams from the windows shone through the dusty air. A huge brick fireplace filled the far wall, with black iron doors of ovens built into both sides. The grate contained a high pile of ash and embers, with the blackened ends of logs sticking out, glimmering weakly as they smoldered away.

Just about every head turned to look at him as he entered; conversation ebbed away. It was all he could do not to laugh at the clich?. He walked over to the counter. The landlord eyed him up; a thickset Native American with his graying hair tied back in a neat tail.

“Afternoon,” Ozzie said politely. “I’d like a drink, and a room for the night, please.”

“Yes, sir,” the landlord said. “Will that be ale?”

Ozzie glanced at the shelves behind the counter. There were five big wooden barrels set up, already tapped. Various bottles were ranged along beside them. He didn’t recognize any of them. “Sure. You got a wheat beer?”

The landlord blinked, as if that wasn’t the answer he was expecting. “Yes.” He took down a tall glass, and went over to one of the barrels.

The two men leaning on the counter next to him were exchanging significant looks. Now they started sniggering quietly.

“Anything wrong?” Ozzie asked.

The smaller one turned to him. “Not with me. You here for the Silfen are you?”

“Jess,” the landlord warned. “There’s to be no trouble in here.”

“I’d like to meet them, yes,” Ozzie said.

“Thought so. Your type always does.”

“My type?” For a moment Ozzie wondered if he meant his color. Prejudice in the Commonwealth worlds wasn’t anything like as strong as it had been back in San Diego while he’d been growing up, but that didn’t mean it had disappeared. There were several planets where he would be in real trouble if he ever walked into a bar like this. He hadn’t expected it on Silvergalde, though.

“Rich,” Jess drawled insultingly. “Young. Don’t work for a living, don’t have to, not with family money. Looking for a new thrill. Think you’ll find it here.”

“Will I?”

“Do I care?”

The landlord put Ozzie’s beer down on the counter. “Ignore Jess. The Silfen do.”

That brought some derisive laughter from the customers who’d been listening. Jess scowled.

Ozzie reached for his drink, only to find the landlord’s fleshy hand closing around his wrist. “And how will you be paying?” he asked softly. “Your bank tattoos are no good here.”

“How would you like me to pay?” Ozzie brought out his wallet. “Earth dollars, Augusta dollars, Orleans francs?” He didn’t mention the gold coins in his secure pocket.

“Ah.” The landlord smiled for the first time, revealing yellow teeth. “A smart visitor. That’ll be five Earth dollars, thank you, sir.”

“Man,” Ozzie said glumly. “That’d better be for the beer and the room.”

“Not worth my while to open the door for less than thirty.”

“Thirty, my ass! I’ve only got fifteen in total, and I need to buy some provisions.”

It took another three minutes of haggling, but he managed to get the room, and the beer, for seventeen Earth dollars. He drank the beer as he counted out the money. For a wheat beer it was suspiciously dark, but Ozzie conceded it had a good taste—though he could have done without the slice of lemon that had sunk to the bottom of the glass. The landlord accepted the clean notes happily, and tucked them into his jerkin pocket. “Orion! Take the gentleman out back to his room.”

The kid who showed up was barely fifteen, dressed in long black trousers and an ancient purple T-shirt with a swirling counter spiral hologram of some Total Sense Immersion recording (Ozzie was interested to see that it worked). He had thick, curly, ginger hair that hadn’t been cut for a long time; it actually rivaled Ozzie’s luxuriant growth. Long skinny limbs, a semiwicked smile, freckles, bright green eyes, scab on his elbow—your typical hellbound tearaway. He’d taken hold of the saddle before Ozzie could say anything, struggling to balance it on his bony shoulder. “This way, mister.”

The guest rooms were in an annex at the back, surprisingly clean and well kept. Ozzie walked in to find a simple cot bed and chest of drawers, with a plain white china bowl and a jug of water on the table. A small fireplace was filled with kindling, a stack of cut logs beside it. There was a dreamcatcher web on the wall above the bed, causing him to raise an eyebrow. The first sign of spirituality he’d seen on the planet.

Orion dropped the saddle on the bed, and stood smiling expectantly.

Ozzie produced a dollar note and put it in his hand. “You look like you’re the kind of guy it’s smart for a visitor to know. It’s Orion, right?”

“That’s right, mister.”

“Okay, well just call me Ozzie, everybody else does. I get kind of nervous when people say sir or mister. Was that your daddy downstairs?”

“Hell no, this is Big Bear’s place. I don’t know where my parents are. They went down the paths ages ago.” He didn’t seem particularly bothered by it.

“Right. So who takes care of you?”

A frown creased the boy’s heavily freckled forehead. “I do.”

“Of course, sorry there, little dude.”

“What do you mean, little?”

“I don’t mean anything by it, just the way I talk, is all.”

“Well, okay then.”

“Good. Now I’m going to need some serious guidance around this town, can you like provide that for me?”

“Sure can.” He winked elaborately. “I know where all the girls are; I can help you meet them.”

The reply actually shocked Ozzie. A fifteen-year-old pimp? No—just a kid who’s been fending for himself for too long. Uncomfortable memories of his own time as a teenager on the city streets trickled back into his mind. “No. Thanks for the offer there, dude, but, uh, that’s not what I’m here for.”

“Okay. But if there’s anything you need, I know where it’s hid in this dump.”

“I’m sure you do. Right then, what I need is a horse, and maybe some kind of guide.”

Orion tipped his head on one side, viewing Ozzie skeptically. “You here to see the Silfen?”

“Obvious, huh? Yeah, I want to see the Silfen. That’ll do to start with.”

“Oh.” Orion pulled a face. “A pathwalker. It doesn’t work, you know. You can’t just show up and expect it to happen. The paths aren’t like the trains.”

“You think?”

“We get them here all the time, pathwalkers. They start off into the forest all happy and pleased with themselves; then a couple of weeks later they’re back, all dirty and hungry.” For a second he paused, his little face all serious. “That’s if they come back. I never met one who did get anywhere else but lost. But I can get you to the Silfen, no trouble. I know the glades they visit. The near ones anyway.”

“I’ve seen the Silfen many times.”

“Yeah, so if you’re not here for them, or the girls, what are you doing?”

“You got it right the first time, I’m a pathwalker. I want to go deep into the forest and on to other worlds.”

“All right, it’s your money. You get your horse from Mr. Stafford, at Top Street Stables. He keeps a load of animals, not just horses, there’s dogs, venshrikes, and lontrus, too. Keeps them ready for offworlders, makes a pretty packet out of it, and all; but you can haggle him down if you stand your ground. There’ve not been so many folks visiting for a while.”

“Thanks. What about a guide? Do I need one?”

“I told you, I can show you where the Silfen live. I’ve met them, see.” He put his hand down the front of his T-shirt and fished out a small pendant worn around his neck on a black leather string.

Ozzie examined it curiously. It was a teardrop pearl with a strong gold tinge, held inside a mesh of gossamer-fine platinum. Tiny pale blue sparkles bloomed and died beneath its translucent surface, as if it had caged a swarm of Aphelli phospheens.

“Very nice.”

“I’m their friend,” Orion said proudly. “That’s a friendship charm, that is.”

“When did you get it?”

“Years ago. Mom and Dad used to take me camping with them out in the forests when I was little. I played with the Silfen. I like them, even though they’re weird.”

“You used to play with them? The Silfen?”

“Sure. No big deal. They like human kids. Dad says it’s because we’re more like them than the adults are. He always took me with him when he went into the forest. It was like I was his ticket to meet them.”

“What did you play?”

“All sorts of stuff. Tree climbing, swimming, chase. You know.”

“Yeah. So did they show you the paths?”

“No. I told you, there’s nobody who knows where the planet paths are, don’t matter how much they brag they do.”

“That makes sense.”

Orion dropped the pendant back down into his T-shirt. “So you see, I can find them for you. I charge five Earth dollars a day, and you got to feed me, too.”

“I think you should be staying here and earning your keep, perhaps go to school in the day.”

“What do I want to go there for?”

“I don’t know. To get educated, maybe? That’s what happened in those places when I was your age.” There was more he should have said. As a civilized responsible adult, things like what about the social services and medical care. He didn’t, even though it pained him. It was something he’d learned on his wanderings years—decades—centuries ago. Not to interfere—not unless he was witness to some monstrous evil or brutality. He couldn’t be responsible for everyone. Together with Nigel, he’d given the human race unlimited opportunity to live as they wanted. If some chose this kind of life that was up to them. But it was hard to see children living like this, they were having their choices taken away.

“I know what I need, thanks,” Orion said.

“Okay. I’m not the police. When did your parents leave?”

“I dunno. A while back. They walked off while I was playing with the Silfen. I looked for them for days, but I got hungry and came back to town. The Silfen eat the fruit in the forest, but it doesn’t fill people so good. I miss them sometimes, I guess.”

Ozzie sighed, and pulled out his wallet. “Look, I’ve got some friends back in the Commonwealth, quite a few families would be happy to take care of you. I’ll buy you a ticket for the train. How’s that?”

“But when Mom and Dad come back I won’t be here, I’ll never see them again.”

He didn’t know what to do, which was funny in a painful, sad way. The great Ozzie, stumped by a kid who wouldn’t admit he needed help. And he had set himself a greater task. “Okay.” He took a couple of twenty-dollar bills from the wallet. “But you get yourself some decent clothes, and a good meal.”

“Oh, wow!” Orion held the bills up, his eyes bugging in amazement. “You must be really rich, mister—er, Ozzie.”

“I am. Which means you do as I ask, or you’ll be in real trouble. To start with you can take me to the stable yourself, and help me find some local food for the trip.”

It took two days to prepare everything, which was slightly longer than Ozzie had expected. But Lyddington wasn’t exactly filled with overeager salesmen and dozens of competitive businesses. Half the people he met acted as if they were stoned, which he admitted they probably were. There were a lot of kids running around all day. School seemed optional, they mostly learned what their parents felt inclined to teach them.

However, he made progress. Mr. Stafford was indeed pleased to see him, and wasn’t anything like as skeptical as young Orion when told Ozzie wanted to venture far into the forests. “Many of my clients do the same,” he confided. “I offer all of you that I buy back the animals when you return. There are some I never see again, though I think of them often, walking on worlds across the galaxy. Who knows where the deep paths lead. There are no maps. Stay clear of scoundrels that would sell you such fakes.”

Of which, it turned out, there were many. Ozzie was offered a dozen as he and Orion strode about town getting things ready for his departure. Some were elaborate parchments with gold-leaf runes and skilled drawings of animals and plants, lines leading to small star charts of constellations unknown to the Commonwealth; one he was shown was a black frictionless sheet with intricate glyptics that claimed to be a Silfen original, while the remainder were tattered papers or aged notebook diaries of intrepid travelers who had walked the paths. Ozzie didn’t buy any, though he appreciated the effort that had gone into the forging of such detailed tourist traps.

Mr. Stafford did persuade him to purchase a lontrus as a pack beast. There wasn’t much to eat out in the forests, he said, and certainly not if he made it to another world—he would need a large amount of supplies, which were best carried by the big docile beasts. So Ozzie found a saddlery that sold him a harness with bags. He also got Mr. Stafford to reshoe his horse, a big russet-colored mare called Polly. Various merchants were visited, and orders placed for dried food.

He set off early on the third morning, while the sun was just a sliver of gold above the horizon and mists lingered above the streams. The grass with its amethyst edging was wet from the night’s rains. It made the world look fresh, invigorating. A good omen for the start of his journey. Despite the welcome from people like the landlord and Mr. Stafford, he was glad to be on his way. On top of everything else, the locals’ idea of nightlife in the Last Pony was folk songs sung along to an out-of-tune piano, drinking enough ale to knock out a horse, and lighting their own farts. Two centuries ago he would have enjoyed that, joining in heartily as the games became more childish; but as he’d slowly discovered, despite rejuvenation, age was a truly cumulative thing, bringing a degree of wisdom to life.

Directly outside Lyddington, the land was host to dozens of farms: neat little fields divided up by well-layered hedges of hawthorn and ash. Cart tracks led him through them. Workers were already walking to the fields, cows being brought in for milking. Cultivation gave way to bigger pastures, and hedges gave way to rickety fences; animals from twenty worlds nuzzled at the grass and hay bales, ignoring him as he passed by.

Eventually, the ground rose to hide the sea behind him. The stony ruts of the farm track gave way to a simple path of beaten grass. The lontrus was quiet as it shuffled along, its cloak of ratty gray-brown hair swishing about as eight legs moved in ponderous rhythm. It was about the same length as Polly, and two-thirds the height, but capable of carrying twice the load of any horse. The head was a big bony wedge, with rheumy eyes set close together on the apex, at the bottom the mouth had a double jaw arrangement, allowing it to tear thick strands of vegetation. The creatures had been known to eat entire bushes if they were hungry.

As he looked around at the rolling landscape, Ozzie could see a few houses half hidden among the folds of the ground, as if they were slowly sinking into the grass. They became less frequent as the morning began to heat up. There had been this—slightly naive—expectation that the horizon would be in some way larger, the evidence of how massive this planet actually was. In fact, its size became apparent in the silence. The air soaked up all sound, smothering him in peace. It was an eerie sensation. There were no birds out here, not above the land that stretched between sea and forest. This was simple grassland, with streams and hummocks, even trees were strangers. But true silence, he realized, came from the lack of insects. If there were any, they made no noise as they flew and crawled about their business. It was unnatural.

After three hours he’d almost reached the outlying fringes of the forest. It had been stretched out in front of him like a dark blanket across the rolling land below the mountains, always there yet taking an age to get any bigger. It extended in a smooth unbroken expanse right back to the mountains, rising up their lower slopes and filling the valleys between them.

Several times in the last hour, he’d almost lost the path as it disappeared under layers of thick grass and patches of wildflowers. Polly always seemed to know where to go, picking it up again as she plodded onward. Now he could see two white pillars set against the cliff of dark green trunks. As he neared them, their size became apparent; solid shafts of marble, sixty meters high. There was some kind of carving at the top of both, roughly humanoid; the wind and rain of centuries if not millennia had worn away any features, leaving just the melted-looking outlines. The pillars were renown as being about the only artifacts ever found relating to Silfen culture. Nobody knew what they signified, other than marking the start of the path into the forest.

Polly and the lontrus ambled between them without changing gait. Ozzie saw the remnants of some wooden shack at the base of one. Blatantly a human residence, it had fallen into disrepair a long time ago. Behind it were small piles of stone, laid out in a rectangle, now almost engulfed by grass and caramel-colored longmoss.

The trees began three hundred yards beyond the marker pillars. As he approached he heard the faint call of birds again as they circled high above. Then he was among the first ranks of the trees. These were small, similar to Earth’s beeches, with bright green leaves as long as fingers, which drifted lightly in the breeze like small banners rustling in chorus. Pines started to appear among them, with smooth pewter-gray bark and slim, tough needles. The path was clearer now as the grass began to shrink away. On either side the trees were getting progressively taller, their great canopies shielding the ground from raw sunlight. Polly’s hooves became silent as the ground turned to a soft loam of rotting leaves and needles. Within minutes, Ozzie could see nothing but trees when he looked back over his shoulder. Several trunks had human lettering carved into them, with arrows leading him on. He didn’t need them, the path itself was distinct, almost like an avenue. On either side the trees grew close enough to each other to prevent anyone straying. Stillness closed in on him again. Whatever birds nested here, they were lost far above the treetops.

There was a variety among the trees, not obvious from the outside. He saw furry silver leaves, claret-red triangles bigger than his hand, lemon-green hoops, plain white; with them came all kinds of bark, from crumbling black fronds to stone-hard bronze shields. Nuts and berries hung in clusters or on single stems bowing under the weight. Ivies had found a purchase on some trunks, embracing the trees as they clawed their way up the bark, producing white and blue leaves, so old now their strands had swollen as thick as the main branches.

An hour in, and he began to glimpse the occasional animal. Fast-moving things, with sleek brown pelts that hurtled away as soon as he got anywhere near. His retinal inserts had trouble focusing on them and capturing their profile. From their nature he suspected they were herbivores.

When he arrived at the first stream crossing the path, he dismounted to let Polly and the lontrus drink. As soon as he was on his feet he felt the aches and sores begin. It had been an age since he’d ridden. He pushed his fists into the small of his back and started stretching, groaning as vertebrae popped and creaked noisily. Thigh muscles started shivering, close to cramp. There was a whole batch of ointments and salves in his medical kit that he promised himself he would use this evening.

The path forded the stream with large flat stones. He led the animals across, struggling to keep his footing in the clear fast-flowing water, but the boots kept his feet perfectly dry. After that he walked for a while in the hope his various pains would ease up. It wasn’t much longer before he heard the sounds of hoofs behind him. The option of mounting up and galloping on ahead didn’t appeal; his ass was just too tender for that. So he waited patiently. Soon enough a pony came trotting into view. Ozzie groaned as he saw Orion was riding it.

The boy smiled happily as soon as he caught sight of Ozzie, and trotted his pony right up to a disinterested Polly. “I thought we’d never catch up,” he said. “You started really early.”

“Whoa there, man.” Ozzie held up both hands. “What is going on here? Where do you think you’re going?”

“With you.”

“No. No you’re not. No way.”

Orion gave Ozzie a petulant look. “I know who you are.”

“So? I know you are going back to Lyddington, right now.”

“You’re Ozzie,” Orion hissed it out like a challenge. “You opened the human gates. You’ve walked to hundreds of planets already. You’re the oldest person ever, and the richest.”

“All right, some of that stuff is nearly true, but that makes no difference. I’m going on, you’re going home. Period.”

“I can help. I was telling the truth, honest I was, I’m friends with the Silfen. I can find them for you.”

“Not interested.”

“You’re going to walk the paths, the deep paths,” Orion said hotly. “I know you can do it. I’ve seen all the other losers come and go, but you’re different, you’re Ozzie. That’s why I chose to come with you. If anybody can find the paths to other places it’ll be you.” He looked down at the ground, shamefaced. “You’re Ozzie. You’ll make it happen. I know you will.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, but this is a non-starter.”

“They’re there.” It was a whisper from the boy’s lips, as if he was having to confess some terrible secret.

“What’s that?” Ozzie asked kindly.

“Mom and Dad, they’re there. They’re on the paths somewhere.”

“Oh, holy… No, listen, I’m not going to find them. I’m sorry, I’m really sorry. But they’re gone. I know that’s so hard for you. But you have to go back to town. When I come back, I’ll do everything I can for you, I promise; we’ll find you a nice new home, and track down your family, and I’ll take you to see all sorts of wonderful places.”

“I’m coming with you!” Orion shouted.

“I can’t let you do that. One day you’ll understand.”

“Yeah?” the boy sneered. “And how are you going to stop me, huh! How?”

“I… Now listen—”

“I’m just going to ride on right behind you, all the way.” Orion’s eyes were gleaming defiance now; he was on a roll and he knew it. “Maybe I’ll even ride on in front—you don’t know the way. Yeah, I don’t even need you, not really. I can walk the paths and find them for myself.”

“Jesus wept.”

“Please,Ozzie,” the boy entreated. “It’s not like you can ever get hurt where the Silfen are, so you don’t have to worry about me. And I won’t slow you down. I can ride real good.”

For the first time in over three centuries, Ozzie didn’t know what to do. Quite obviously, he should take the stupid kid back to town and hand him over to the authorities. Okay, so there weren’t any authorities. Hand the boy over to the CST staff, who would do what Ozzie told them to. Send him away to some planet far from Silvergalde, which he’d hate. Tidy him up and force him into school so he could be twisted into a model Commonwealth citizen. And if by some miracle his utterly useless life-reject parents did show up in the future, they’d never find him. And how exactly was he going to march the kid back to town anyway? Tie him up and sling him over Polly?

“Fuck it!”

“That’s really rude,” Orion said, and started to giggle.

Ozzie woke up an hour before dawn when his e-butler’s timer function produced an audio impulse like an old-fashioned alarm clock bell. He slowly opened his eyes, looking around with the retinal insert adding a full infrared spectrum to his vision. The boy was a few meters away, rolled up snugly in thick wool blankets, a small tarpaulin rigged on bamboo poles above him to keep any rain off during the night. The fire they’d lit yesterday evening had burned down to a bright-glowing pile in his enhanced sight, for anyone else it would be a dark mound with a few twinkling embers. Infrared also allowed him to see small creatures scampering about beneath the majestic trees, nibbling on seed pods and nuts.

He lay there, keeping still for a long moment. This was all part of last night’s plan, to wake early and walk Polly and the lontrus away before mounting up and riding off. The path had branched many times yesterday, he could take any number of turnings. And the forest was vast; he’d studied the original orbital survey maps made by CST’s exploratory division. It extended for over two hundred miles beyond the mountains, in some places merging with other, equally large stretches of woodland that covered most of this massive continent. Orion would never be able to find him. The kid would wander around for a day or so, then head back for the cozy safety of the town that was home. A parentless kid alone in an alien forest.

Goddamnit!

Orion moaned slightly, his eyes fluttering as his dream turned uncomfortable. Ozzie saw the blanket had slipped off his shoulder, leaving his arm cold and exposed. He went over and tucked the kid back up again. Orion quieted quickly, a contented expression falling across his sweet face.

A couple of hours later, Orion woke to find Ozzie had got the fire burning properly again and was cooking breakfast. Milk tablets, Ozzie found to his relief, worked perfectly. Dropped into cold water they bubbled and fizzed until they produced a rich creamy liquid, into which he mashed dry oatcakes. With that came scrambled egg and toast, thick slices cut unevenly from an iron-hard traveler’s loaf he bought at a Lyddington bakery. Tea was proper flakes brewing in a kettle; he was saving the tablets for later.

Watching the boy munching away as if he hadn’t eaten anything last night, Ozzie started to recalculate how long his supplies would last.

“I brought my own food,” Orion told him.

The kid must have been reading his mind. “You did?”

“Cured meat and traveler’s bread for sure. But none of your tablet stuff. There aren’t any in Lyddington.”

“Figures. What about a filter pump, did you bring one?”

A guilty expression flashed over his face, making the freckles bunch up. “No.”

So he showed the boy how his worked, a neat little mechanical unit that clipped onto his water bottle. Its short hose was dropped into the nearby stream, and he pumped the handle grip, pulling water through the ceramic filters. It wasn’t quite as effective at eradicating bacteria as a powered molecular sieve, but it would get rid of anything truly harmful. The kid had fun, splashing about and filling his own ancient plastic pouches from Ozzie’s bottle.

“What about toothgel?” he asked.

Orion hadn’t brought any of that, nor soap. So he loaned the boy some from his own tube, laughing at Orion’s startled expression when it started to foam and expand in his mouth. He rinsed it out as instructed, spitting furiously.

Chemistry worked here, its reactions a universal constant. When Ozzie checked his handheld array, it remained as dead as a chunk of rock. The damping field, or whatever the Silfen used, had grown progressively stronger as he approached the forest yesterday. Now, it was even affecting his biochip inserts, reducing their capacity to little more than that of a calculator. His virtual vision interface was reduced to absolute basic functions.

As a concept, it fascinated Ozzie, rousing all his old physicist curiosity. He started to ponder mathematical possibilities as they rode off down the path.

“They’re close,” Orion announced.

It was late morning, and they were riding again after giving the horse and pony a rest for a while, walking alongside them. The forest trees were darker now, pines taking over at the expense of the other varieties. Although, to counter their darkling effect, the canopy overhead was letting through a multitude of tiny sunbeams to dapple the ground. The carpet of fallen needles that covered the path gave off a sweet-tangy scent.

“How do you know?” Ozzie asked. Even the lontrus’ heavy foot pads made no sound on the spongy loam.

The boy gave him a slightly superior look, then pulled his pendant out. Inside its metal lattice, the teardrop pearl was glimmering with a strong turquoise light, as if it contained a sliver of daytime sky. “Told you I was their friend.”

Both of them dismounted. Ozzie glanced suspiciously around the gray trunks as if there were going to be an ambush. He’d met the Silfen a couple of times before, on Jandk, walking into the woods with some Commonwealth cultural officers. To be honest he’d been a little disappointed; the lack of communication ability made his human prejudice shine out, it was all too much like talking to retarded children. What some people classed as playful mischief, he thought was just plain irritating; they acted like a play group at kindergarten, running, jumping, climbing trees.

Now, he could hear them approaching. Voices flittered through the trees, sweet and melodic, like birdsong in harmony. He’d never heard the Silfen singing before. It wasn’t something you could record, of course; and they certainly hadn’t sung while he was on Jandk.

As their voices grew louder, he realized how much their song belonged here, in the forest; it ebbed and flowed with a near-hallucinogenic quality, complementing and resonating with both the flickering sunbeams and gentle breeze. It had no words, not even in their language, rather a crooning of single simple notes by throats more capable than any human wind instrument. Then the Silfen themselves arrived, slipping past the trees like gleeful apparitions. Ozzie’s head turned from side to side, trying to keep them in his sight. They began to speed up, adding laugher to their song, deliberately hiding from the humans, dodging behind thick boles, darting across spaces.

There was no doubt about what they were. Every human culture had them in folklore and myth. Ozzie stood in the middle of the giant wood, surrounded by elves. In the flesh they were bipeds, taller than humans, with long slender limbs and a strangely blunt torso. Their heads were proportionally larger than a human’s, but with a flat face, boasting wide feline eyes set above a thin nose with long narrow nostrils. They didn’t have a jaw as such, simply a round mouth containing three neat concentric circles of pointed teeth that could flex back and forth independently of each other, giving them the ability to claw food back into their gullet. As they were herbivores, the vegetation was swiftly shredded as it moved inward. It was the only aspect that defeated the whole notion of them as benign otherworldly entities; whenever they opened their lips the whole mouth looked savage.

Many skin shades had been seen since first contact, they had almost as much variety as the human race, except none of them were ever as pale as Nordic whites. Their skin was a lot tougher than a human’s though, with a leathery feel and a spun-silk shimmer. They wore their hair long; unbound it was like a cloak coming halfway down their backs, though more often they braided it into a single long tail with colorful leather thongs. Without exception they were clad in simple short toga robes made from a copper and gold cloth that shone with a satin gloss. None of them had shoes, their long feet ended in four hook toes with thick nail tips. Hands were similar, four fingers that seemed to bend in any direction, almost like miniature tentacles, giving them a fabulous dexterity.

“Quick,” Orion called. “Follow them, follow them!” He let go of the pony’s reins and slithered down the side. Then he was off, running into the trees.

“Wait,” Ozzie called, to no avail. The boy had reached the trees at the side of the path, and was running hell-for-leather after the laughing, dancing Silfen. “Goddamn.” He hurriedly swung a leg over the saddle, and half fell from Polly’s back. Hanging on to the reins, he pulled the horse along behind him, urging her into the forest proper. His quarry was soon out of sight, all he had to go on were the noises up ahead. Thick boughs stretched out ahead of him, always at head height, causing him to duck around the ends, with Polly whinnying in complaint. The ground underfoot became damp, causing his boots to sink in, slowing him still further.

After five minutes his face was glowing hot, he was breathing harshly and swearing fluently in four languages. But the singing was growing louder again. He was sure he heard Orion’s laughter. A minute later he burst into a clearing. It was fenced by great silver-bark trees, near-perfect hemispheres of dark vermilion leaves towering a hundred feet over the grassy meadow. A little stream gurgled through the center, to fall down a rocky ridge into a deep pool at the far end. As arboreal idylls went, it was heavenly.

The Silfen were all there, nearly seventy of them. Many were climbing up the trees, using hands and feet to grip the rumpled bark, scampering along the arching branches to reach the clusters of nuts that hung amid the fluttering leaves higher up the trees. Orion was jumping up and down beside one trunk, catching the nuts a Silfen was dropping to him.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Ozzie snapped. He was dimly aware of the song faltering in the background. Orion immediately hunched his shoulders, looking sullen and defensive. “What do you think would have happened if I hadn’t kept up? Where is your pony? How are you going to find it again? This is not a goddamn game, we’re in the middle of an unmapped forest that’s half as big as the planet. I’m not surprised you lost your parents if this is what you did before.”

Orion raised an arm, pointing behind Ozzie. His lips were quivering as he said, “The pony’s there, Ozzie.”

He swiveled around to see both the pony and the lontrus being led into the clearing by a Silfen. Instead of being relaxed and amused as the Ozzie-of-legend should have been, the sight simply deepened his anger. “For Christ’s sake.”

“This is a Silfen world, Ozzie,” Orion explained gently. “Bad things don’t happen here.”

Ozzie glowered at the boy, then turned and walked over to the Silfen holding the reins. Come on, he told himself, get a grip. He’s just a kid.

Who shouldn’t be here screwing up my project.

He started to dig down into the memory of Silfen language that had been implanted at the Augusta clinic. Nobody had ever taught the Silfen to speak any Commonwealth language. They weren’t interested.

“Thank you for collecting our animals,” he said; a messy collection of cooing sounds and impossible Welsh-style tongue-twister syllables that he was sure he’d got completely wrong.

The Silfen opened its mouth wide, showing its snakelike tongue wobbling in the center of the teeth rings. Ozzie wanted to turn and run before he was devoured—but his ancillary cultural memory reminded him it was a smile. An answering stream of gibberish flowed out, far more melodic than the clumsy sentence Ozzie had spoken. “It is our delight that we are met this fine day, dearest Ozzie. And your poor animals needed only guidance that they might be with you once more. Such teachings are but a trifle of all that we are. To give them is hardly onerous.”

“I am pleased and charmed that you remember me.” From another world, decades ago.

“Nothing so treasured should be lost to that which we are. And you are a splendid treasure, Ozzie. Ozzie, the human who taught humans their first steps along the true paths.”

“I had some help.” He bowed slightly and called to Orion. “Hey, let’s see you taking proper care of that pony, okay? It could do with a drink.”

Orion came over and took his animal from the Silfen, leading it away to the pool at the bottom of the small waterfall. Ozzie was thrown several disgruntled looks, obviously still not forgiven. A couple of the Silfen were already bathing, gliding through the clear water as easily as they climbed trees or ran. Orion soon joined them in the water.

“May I ask with whom I speak?” Ozzie asked.

“I am the flower that walks beneath the nine sky moons, the fissure of light that pierces the darkest glade at midnight, the spring that bubbles forth from the oasis; from all this I came.”

“Okeydokey,” He took a moment to compose a sentence. “I think I’ll just call you Nine Sky, if you don’t mind.”

“Evermore you hurry thus, unknowing of that which binds all into the joy which is tomorrow’s golden dawn.”

“Well,” Ozzie muttered to himself in English, “it was never going to be easy.” He let Polly rummage through the light lavender grass that covered the clearing. The Silfen were congregating on the edge of the pool. Flasks were produced and passed around as they munched on the nuts and berries they’d gathered. Ozzie stuck close to Nine Sky; while Orion came back to sit by his side, snacking on his own food.

“We walk the paths,” Ozzie said.

That seemed to amuse the Silfen; they laughed their warbling laugh, a remarkably human sound.

“Others of our kind have,” he reminded them. “Seekers of beauty and strangeness, for are we not all that in the end.”

“Many have walked,” Nine Sky replied. “Willful and skillful their footfalls echo fast upon hallowed lands, came them far, go them farther. Round and round in merry dance.”

“Which paths did they tread?” Ozzie asked. He thought he was getting a handle on the conversation.

“All paths are one, Ozzie, they lead to themselves. To start is to finish.”

“To start where?”

“To start here amid the gladness of the children and twittering of birds and pesky merriness of the terinda as they frolic over dale and gale. All we bid go in music and light.”

“I am starting here, where must I go?”

“Ozzie comes, Ozzie goes, Ozzie flies, Ozzie sees many stars, Ozzie lives in a cave, Ozzie leaves a cave, Ozzie sees trees, Ozzie comes. The circle is one.”

The hair on the back of Ozzie’s neck pricked up at the mention of living in a cave. “You know where the wonders live, you walk to the wonders, you see the wonders, you live the wonders, you go. Ozzie envies you. Ozzie goes with you.”

That brought another round of loud laughter, the tips of their vibrating tongues just protruding into the air.

“Ozzie walks away,” Nine Sky said. His head came forward, big black eyes staring at the human. “Embrace what you be, afraid show you not, long the seasons are among us, love you we do, for is not all stardust in the end as it begat us all. So that all is joined in eternity which turns again and again.”

“What do you become; for is it not greatness and the nobility? What do any of us become between the twin times of stardust? It is the greatness out among the stars that burn now where I walk.”

“Walk you without joy strumming its song upon your heart, travel you far without knowing will your fate unfold. For to walk among the forests is to live. See us in glory now, for this fate we ache to be.”

“Do you walk the forests of the planet whence we came?”

“All forests we walk, those of darkness and those of light.”

“And those of greatness? Walk you those?”

“Light and dark, and those alone. Strike you not the black and the gold for it leaves a terrible mark upon the sky at the height of day. Heed you loud the ides of winterfall.”

Ozzie ran that through his mind, fearing he was losing track of what was being said. But then that was always the way when you talked to the Silfen. “All of humanity needs to see what you become. I walk for them to that place. Where is the path?”

“Knowing is in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat; rejoice for it is yours as much as ours, to live among it is glorious. Look to nature in the fullest of bloom, bend the sky and the ground to your bidding if you truly can, for what will be has also been. Fond farewells and fond joinings are all part of the endless turn of worlds upon worlds, and who are we to cry judge upon which is the jolliest of all.”

“This child weeps nightly for his lost father and mother.”

“We all weep together, huddled in the breath of this iciest of winds in fell consequence we do ignore, for who has lost who in this benighted time asunder.”

The Silfen began to get up.

“Well thanks, man,” Ozzie said in English. “It’s been unreal.”

“Hasten us as the quarral flies to its nest amid the lonely lake beyond dale and tonight’s river.”

“I hope you reach it okay.”

Nine Sky sprang to his feet. He and all the other Silfen were running now, hurrying around the side of the pool. Their wild strange song filled the air again. Then they were gone, vanishing into the quiet spaces between the tree trunks.

Ozzie let out a long breath. He looked down at the boy, who wore an expression of troubled wonder. “You okay there, man?”

“They’re so… different,” Orion said slowly.

“Could be,” Ozzie said. “They’re either stoned the whole time, or my memory is nothing like as good as the warranty claims. Whatever it is, they don’t make a lot of sense.”

“I don’t think they’re supposed to make sense, Ozzie. They’re elves, mortals aren’t part of their world. We’ll never be able to understand them.”

“They’re as real as we are, maybe more so if I’m right about them. But I can certainly see why all our dippy hippies love them. They know things they shouldn’t. One little glimpse of forbidden knowledge amid all the gibberish, and they’re instant messiahs.”

“What do you mean?”

“Where I live, for a start. That was more than enough to convince me I’m on the right track—pardon the pun.”

“What track?”

“I’m trying to find where the Silfen go after they leave their forests.”

“Why?”

“I have a question for the thing they become.”

“What thing?”

“I’m not sure.”

“That’s silly.”

“Yeah, man. Put it like that, I guess it is a bit.”

“Will we find Mom and Dad on the way?”

“Honestly: I doubt it.”

“Nine Sky didn’t seem to know where they were, did he?” Orion said.

“You understood all of that?”

“Some of it. You speak Silfen really well.”

He gave the boy a wink. “That’s because I cheat. It’s the only way to get through life.”

“So where do we go now?”

“Same place as before,” Ozzie said; he glanced around the big clearing, unsure where they’d come in. “Down the first path we find, and without a clue.”

NINE

Legend has it that the asteroid was a lump of pure gold, the core of which remained intact and now lies buried deep beneath the castle. Whatever the actual composition was, it certainly had an above average density. When it hit Lothian’s southern continent, a couple of centuries before humans arrived, it carved out a perfectly circular crater three kilometers across. The rim wall was over one hundred meters high, with quite a steep inner face; the central peak rose to nearly four hundred meters.

The first settlers, all from Scotland, had a large Edinburgh contingent among them, nostalgic for the old town and dynamic in their approach to their new homeworld. Their bigger and better attitude was given an aggressive outlet when it came to building the new capital, Leithpool, with the crater as its nucleus. An entire river, the High Forth, was diverted for eleven kilometers along a newly built aqueduct embankment to pour over the crater’s rim wall, slowly filling the ring-shaped lake inside. They wanted a castle at the center, of course, but the new island’s easy gradient hardly matched the jutting rock crag to be found dominating the heart of old Edinburgh. A fleet of civil engineering bots got to work carving as the surrounding waters rose. Over the following years, three rock-blade pinnacles were hacked out from the solitary mound, sharp and rugged enough to fit into any Alpine range. A Bavarian-style castle was grafted onto the apex of the tallest peak, reached by a solitary road that spiraled up around the sheer rock cliffs.

Beneath the castle, and occupying the rest of the harsh mount, monolithic granite buildings sprang up, separated by broad cobbled roads and twisting alleyways. There were no parks and no trees, for there was no soil where living things could grow, only the naked rock exposed by the cutting tools of the bots. As the construction work progressed, the entire overfinanced mechanism of government moved in; from the doughty parliament building itself to the elaborate palace of the supreme court, bloated office-hive ministries to the Romanesque planetary bank. With the world’s rulers came the usual circus of subsidiaries: the expensive restaurants, hotels, clubs, the office service companies, theaters, corporate headquarters, concert halls, lobbying firms, legal partnerships, and media companies. Swarming through the somber official buildings were the army of elected representatives, their aides, researchers, interns, spouses, civil servants, and pimps. Only the top echelon actually lived on the Castle Mount; everyone else commuted from the city that grew up on the other side of the rim. Suburbs and boroughs sprawled for kilometer after kilometer down the incline of the crater’s outer walls, home to four and a half million people.

Leithpool was one of Adam Elvin’s favorite cities. Its layout was a welcome exception to the neat grids found on most worlds. Here the streets wound down the outside of the rim in random curves, intersecting and branching chaotically. Light industry and housing all had their separate zones, but they were squashed together in true jigsaw layout with admirable disregard for logic. Broad terrace parks formed pretty green swaths through the stone and composite structures. A good underground metro network and street-level trams kept the private traffic to a minimum. Elevated rail lines knitted together the main boroughs, meandering their way down to the bottom of the northeastern slope, where the CST station squatted on the outskirts.

Today, Adam was walking along the western quadrant of Prince’s Circle, the road that ran around the top of the crater rim. It was the main retail district, renown on many planets. A rampart of tall department stores and brand-flagship shops formed the outer side of the broad road, while the inner side curved down sharply to the quiet waters of the ring lake twenty meters below the pavement. When the city was built, the rim had been leveled off, with the exception of the High Forth inlet, which was roofed by a twin arch bridge; and the similar outlet gully on the opposite side that sent the water foaming down a long artificial cascade through the most exclusive residential districts.

He spent a quiet twenty minutes walking among the crowds that boiled along the shopfronts. Every building sported a white and scarlet Celtic Crown national flag. Without exception they were at half mast. Two days earlier, Lothian’s team had been knocked out of the Cup. That had knocked the new Scottish nation hard, it was as if the planet had gone into mourning. Eventually he found the caf? he was looking for, a door at the side of a big electrical retailer, opening onto stairs that took him up to the first floor. The large room was some kind of converted gallery, with high ceilings and huge curving windows that looked down on Prince’s Circle. He found a slightly tatty sofa in front of one window, and ordered a hot chocolate with two choc-chip and hazelnut shortcakes from the teenage waitress. The view he had out toward Castle Mount was peerless. A few hundred meters to the south, one of the monorail tracks stretched out across the calm dark water; a single silver carriage streaked along it, shuttling late office workers over to their desks.

“Impressive, isn’t it?” a voice said at his shoulder.

Adam glanced up to see Bradley Johansson standing behind him, holding a large mug of tea. As always, the tall man gave the impression of being slightly disconnected from the world around him. There was something about his thin, elegant face that made him appear far more aristocratic than any Grand Family member.

“I enjoy it,” Adam said evenly.

“Of course, it looks even better at Mardi Gras,” Bradley said, sitting down on the sofa beside Adam. “They light up the castle with huge hologram projectors for the whole week, and during the closing ceremony they let off real fireworks overhead.”

“If you ever give me the time off, I’ll come and take a look.”

“That’s what I wanted to see you about.” Bradley stopped as the waitress brought Adam’s hot chocolate, and smiled winningly at her. She sneaked a smile back at him before hurrying off to the next table.

Adam tried not to show his annoyance at the little silent exchange, it was just one more reminder of his own age. “You’re going to give me more free time?” he asked.

“Quite the opposite, old chap. That’s why I wanted to see you in person, to impress upon you how important the next few years are going to be. After all, you’re not… a lifelong Guardian. Your commitment to the cause has always been more financially oriented. I want to know if you’re prepared to continue your role when things get a lot tougher.”

“Tougher? That Myo bitch almost caught me on Velaines.”

“Oh, come come, Adam, she was never even close. You outsmarted her beautifully. And continue to do so, the components are all arriving on schedule.”

“Save the flattery for the bourgeois. I can’t be motivated that way.”

“Very well. So will you continue to provide us with your assistance, and if so how much will it cost?”

“What exactly are you wanting from me?”

“This is the time which the Starflyer has worked for. The time for good men to draw a line in the sand and say: No more. ”

“No further,” Adam muttered.

Bradley sipped his tea and smiled. “In the past, maybe. But in the here and now, I know what must be done. Little of it will be pleasant.”

“Revolution never is for those who live through it.”

“This is not revolution, Adam, this is my crusade. I am going to fling the corrupter of humanity into the depths of night beyond hell, where even the devil fears to tread. And that will be the least it deserves. I will avenge myself and all the others who have been consumed by the Starflyer’s evil.”

“Bravo.”

“You have your beliefs and convictions, Adam, I have mine. Please don’t mock them, I find it unpleasant. What I am proposing is to extend our combat activities off Far Away. I want to directly confront the Starflyer’s agents and interests in the Commonwealth. And now would you care to tell me what your cooperation will cost, if that doesn’t make you too much of a capitalist?”

“Direct confrontation? You want me to lead your troops into battle?”

“Yes. You know more about covert operations and security procedures than any of us. That makes you invaluable to me, Adam. I need you for this. All I can say is that without a human race, there will not be any socialist society. So will you help me?”

It was a fair question, Adam admitted to himself. Not one he expected in a pleasant caf? overlooking a serene lake with a fairy-tale castle. But then where should such questions be delivered? Just what do I want out of life? Once again his resolve faltered. It had been a principle for so long not to seek rejuvenation, because it was a purchase of the bourgeois and their plutocrat masters. Society should be structured so that everyone received it regardless of circumstances. The ancient political dream of justice and equality for all, true socialism. For all his active involvement in the cause, the disruption and violence he’d unleashed against the establishment, nothing had changed. But that doesn’t make me wrong. When he thought of the others, ex-friends and comrades, who had betrayed the movement over the decades by abandoning them or worse, he knew what his course must be, despite the intensely human wish to live forever. If even someone as committed as him gave in at the end, what hope ultimately could there be?

“I’m tired, Bradley, really truly tired. I’ve seen my ideals crushed by the plutocrats for my whole life. I’m clinging to a lost cause because I don’t know anything else. Do you realize how pathetic that makes me? Well, I don’t want to save the Commonwealth anymore; I’ve tried to do that for fifty years and got nowhere. I can’t do it anymore. There’s no point. Capitalism or the Starflyer, I don’t care which of them finishes off this society. I’m through with it.”

“No you’re not; stop trying to talk up your bargaining position, Adam. You are not going to stand by and watch an alien commit genocide against your own species. You’re an idealist. It’s a magnificent flaw, one I quite envy. Now what can I offer you for your invaluable services?”

“I don’t know. Hope, maybe.”

“Fair enough.” Bradley nodded at the remarkable castle atop its pinnacle. Sunlight was striking the slender conical turrets, making their polished rock walls shine with a vivid bronze and emerald hue. “The original castle back in Edinburgh was the seat of Scottish nationalism. It symbolized everything to the diehard believers. Despite all the changes and defeats they endured, the castle stood solid at the center of their capital. They waited for generations for the Scottish nation to be properly reborn after their Bonnie Prince was lost. There were times when the cause seemed impossible, or even cursed; they regained their independence from the English only to lose it again right away with the formation of Federal Europe. But once people reached the stars, the true nation was reborn here, and on two other worlds. An ideal kept alive in the darkness can flourish if it has the chance, no matter how long the night lasts. Don’t give up on your ideals, Adam, not ever.”

“Very trite, I’m sure.”

“Then try this. I’ve seen what societies like ours progress into. I’ve walked on their worlds and admired them firsthand. This Commonwealth is only an interim stage for a species like ours; even your Socialism will be left behind in true evolution. We can become something wonderful, something special. We have that potential.”

Adam stared at him for a long time, wishing he could see through those enigmatic eyes into the mind beyond. Bradley’s faith in himself and his cause had always been extraordinary. There had been times over the last thirty years when Adam really wished he could write Bradley off in the same way the Commonwealth establishment dismissed him, as nothing more than a crackpot conspiracy theorist. But there were too many little details for him to be laughed off. His superb intelligence sources, for a start. The way little facets of Commonwealth policy were organized, seemingly out of kilter with the interests of the Grand Families and Intersolar Dynasties. Adam was so close to believing the whole Starflyer notion; at the very least he didn’t disbelieve it anymore. “There’s something I’d like to know, though I’m afraid it might be a personal weakness on my part.”

“I will be honest with you, Adam. I owe you that much.”

“Where do you go for your rejuvenation? Is there some secret underground clinic that I don’t know about which provides the treatment for people like us?”

“No, Adam, there’s nowhere like that. I use the Unstorn clinic on Jaruva. It’s very good.”

Adam paused as his e-butler called the CST Intersolar timetable up into his virtual vision. “Is Jaruva a town somewhere?”

“No, it’s a planet. CST shut down the gateway two hundred and eighty years ago, after a civil war between various nationalist culture factions and the radical evangelicals. The only thing they hated worse than each other was the Commonwealth—there were some unpleasant acts of terrorism committed before the Isolation. Things have calmed down considerably since then, thankfully. They have rebuilt their society, with each faction having its own homeland. The structure is similar to Earth in the mid-twentieth century. None of the mini-nations are Socialist, I’m afraid.”

“I see,” Adam said carefully. “And how do you get there?”

“There is a path which leads to Jaruva. The Silfen don’t really use it anymore.”

“Somehow I knew you’d give me an answer like that.”

“I will be happy to take you there and pay for a rejuvenation, if that’s what you want.”

“Let’s leave that possibility open, shall we?”

“As you wish. But the offer is sincere and remains.”

“I wish I believed as you do.”

“You are not far from it, Adam. Not really. I expect what is about to happen over the next few years will convince you. But then, I expect it to convince everyone.”

“All right,” Adam said. He had a sense of near relief now he’d made his decision. Many people spoke of the contentment that came from accepting defeat; he was mildly surprised to find it was true. “So what do you want the Guardians to do in the Commonwealth? And bear in mind, I won’t ever repeat Abadan station, I don’t do political statement violence anymore.”

“My dear chap, neither do I. And thank you for agreeing to this. I know how it conflicts with your own goals. Don’t give up on them. You will live to see a socially just world.”

“Like a priest will see heaven.”

Bradley’s soft smile was understanding and sympathetic.

“What are you going to hit first?” Adam asked.

“The Second Chance is my primary target right now. Part of your task is going to be assembling a crew to obliterate it.”

“Old folly; you can never destroy knowledge. Even if we were to succeed and blow the Second Chance to pieces, they’ll build another, and another, and another until one is finally completed. They know how to build them, therefore they will be built.”

“I expect you’re right, unfortunately. But destroying the Second Chance will be a severe blow to the Starflyer. It wanted the starship built, you know.”

“I know. I received the shotgun message.” Adam stared out at Castle Mount for some time. “You know, castles once had a purpose other than symbolism; they used to hold the invaders at bay and keep the kingdom safe. We don’t build them anymore.”

“We need them, though, now more than ever.”

“What a pair we make,” Adam said. “The optimist and the pessimist.”

“Which do you claim to be?”

“I think you know.”

To the mild dismay of his staff, Wilson always arrived in the office at around half past seven in the morning. With management meetings, training sessions, interviews, engineering assessments, media reports, a one-hour gym workout, and a dozen other items scheduled every day he didn’t leave until after nine most evenings. He took lunch at his desk rather than waste time going to the excellent canteen on the ground floor. His influence began to percolate through the whole starship project, and with it his enthusiasm. Procedures were tightened under his relentless directives, policy became clear-cut and effective. Pride settled around the complex, driving the crews onward.

Every week, Wilson met up with Nigel Sheldon to perform their ritual inspection tour of Second Chance . They arrived at the gateway, and kicked off into the assembly platform. Both of them pointing at and gossiping about some new section of the huge ship, acting like a pair of school kids.

All of the plasma rockets were installed now, along with their turbopumps and power injectors. Big reaction mass tanks were being eased into cavities along the ship’s central engineering superstructure, dark gray ellipsoids whose internal structure was a honeycomb maze of tiny sacs.

“It’s the ultimate slosh-baffle design,” Wilson explained as the two of them glided along the assembly grid above the central cylinder. “The sacs can squeeze out their contents no matter what acceleration maneuver we’re pulling, and while we’re coasting, they hold the fluid stable. If only we’d had that on the old Ulysses we’d have saved ourselves a lot of mechanical trouble, but materials technology has come a long way since those days.”

Nigel held on to one of the platform grids, pausing directly above an egg-shaped tank that was being gently eased into position by robot arms. Construction crew and remote mobile sensors were swarming around it like bees to their queen. “How come we’re not using hydrogen? I thought that gives the best specific impulse for rocket exhausts.”

“When you’re talking chemical reactions, sure. But the plasma rockets operate at such a high energy level they break their working fluid down into subatomic particles. The niling d-sinks we’re carrying pump so much power in, this plasma is actually hotter than a fusion generator’s exhaust. With that kind of efficiency, cryogenics is a waste of time. Of course, in an ideal world we’d be using mercury as the propellant fluid, but even that has handling problems, not to mention cost and sourcing for the kind of volume we’re looking at. So what we’ve wound up with is a very dense hydrocarbon, it’s almost pure crude oil, but the chemists have tweaked the molecular structure so it remains liquid over a huge temperature range. Given the type of near-perfect insulation we’ve got cloaking the tanks, the thermal support we have to provide for the fuel is minimal.”

Nigel gave the tank a thoughtful look. “I always used to think rockets were dead simple.”

“The principle is as simple as you can get, it’s just the engineering which is complex. But we’re doing our best to reduce that; modern techniques allow us to do away with whole layers of ancillary systems.”

“I heard you’ve instigated a design review board.”

“Final design approval, yeah. I prefer that method to the multiple steering committees you’d set up.” Wilson let go of the grid, and pushed off so he was drifting along the length of the starship toward the life-support wheel. “It gives the project an overall architecture policy.”

“I’m not arguing. This is your show now.”

They passed over the wheel section. The internal decks were clearly visible now, with decking and wall paneling fixed to the stress structure, showing the internal layout.

“We should start fixing the hull in place by the end of next month,” Wilson said.

“Not too much slippage, then.”

“No. You gave me a good team. And the unlimited funding helps.”

“Actually, it’s not unlimited, and I’ve noticed it’s still rising.”

“That was inevitable, but it really should have plateaued now we’re entering the final design freeze. We’ve already started to make a few modifications to the central cylinder to accommodate the expanded stand-off observation period of the mission. The upgraded sensor suite is finishing its alpha-analysis stage, it should be out to tender soon. And we already have the engineering mock-ups of the class three and four remote probe satellites. They’re being assembled for us at High Angel by Bayfoss—we’re up to capacity here, and they are the experts. Most of your exploratory division geosurvey satellites are built by them.”

“Sure.” Nigel took another look at the crew accommodation decks, where an atmospheric processor had been secured in place, still wrapped in its silver packaging. “Man, I still can’t get over how big this beauty is. You’d think… I don’t know, we could build something neater by now.”

“A one-man starship?” Wilson asked in amusement. He waved a hand at the front of the cylinder. “You helped design the hyperdrive engine. I’ve owned smaller houses than that monster.”

“Yeah yeah, I know. I ought to go back and take another look at the basic equations.”

“You do that, but I’m telling you a car-sized starship will never catch on. I want something big and powerful around me when I go exploring the unknown.”

“Man, oh, man, Freud would have had a field day with you. Now, how’s it going with the crew selection?”

“Hoo boy.” Wilson grimaced at the memory. “The actual crew squad has been finalized. We’ve got two hundred and twenty who’ll start their second phase training next week. We’ll select the final fifty a month before launch. The science team is a little tougher; we’ve passed seventy so far, and Oscar’s office is trying to sort out the rest of the applications. It’s the interviews that are taking up so much time; the Commonwealth has an awful lot of highly qualified people out there, and we need to put them all through assessment and psych profiling. What I’d like is a pool of about three hundred to choose from.”

“Ah.” Nigel stopped himself above the rim of the life-support wheel, watching a constructionbot fixing a decking plate into place. “Have you considered taking Dr. Bose with you?”

“Bose? Oh, the astronomer who saw the envelopment. I think I remember Oscar mentioning he’d applied; he’s certainly got a lot of sponsors. Do you want me to check if he got through the assessment?”

“Not as such, no. The thing is, my office is getting a lot of inquiries about him, as is the Vice President.”

For a moment Wilson thought he meant the vice president of CST. “You mean Elaine Doi?”

“Yes. It’s a bit awkward. Every time the media want a comment on the envelopment they turn to Bose, which is understandable. The trouble is, he cooperates with them. All of them. When the guy sleeps, I’ve no idea. But anyway, in the public eye he’s most strongly associated with the project. It’s a position he’s exploited superbly.”

“Wait a minute here, are you telling me I’ve got to take him?”

“All I’m saying is that if you were planning on taking an astronomer, you could do worse. For an obscure professor from a back-of-beyond planet, he’s certainly a goddamn expert self-publicist.”

“I’ll tell Oscar to review the file, if that’s what’s bugging you.”

“That’s good. And I hope there won’t be any ageism in the selection process?”

“What?”

“It’s just that the professor is, er, kind of closer to his time for rejuvenation than you or I… or anyone else you’re considering. That’s all.”

“Oh, Jesus wept.”

The plantation where Tara Jennifer Shaheef lived was on the far side of the mountains that rose up out of the northern districts of Darklake City. Even with a modern highway leading through them, it took the car carrying Paula and Detective Hoshe Finn a good three hours to drive there. They turned off the junction at the start of a wide valley, the car snaking along a winding local road. The slopes on either side were heavily cultivated with coffee bushes; every row seemed to have an agriculturebot of some kind trundling along, tending the verdant plants. Humans and buildings were less prominent within this landscape.

Eventually the car turned into the plantation through a wide gated entrance with a white stone arch. Cherry trees lined the long driveway, leading up to a low white house with a bright red clay tile roof.

“All very traditional,” Paula commented.

Hoshe glanced out at the arch. “You’ll find that a lot on this world. We do tend to idolize the past. Most of us had settler ancestors who were successful even before they arrived, and the ethos lingers on. As a planet, we’ve done rather well from it.”

“If it works, don’t try and fix it.”

“Yeah.” He showed no sign that he’d picked up on any irony.

The car halted on the gravel in front of the house’s main door. Paula climbed out, looking around the large formal gardens. A lot of time and effort had gone into the big lawn with its palisade of trees.

Tara Jennifer Shaheef was standing in front of the double acmwood doors underneath the portico. Her husband, Matthew deSavoel, stood beside her, an arm resting protectively around her shoulders. He was older than she by a couple of decades, Paula noticed; thick dark hair turning to silver, his midriff starting to spread.

The car drove off around to the stable block. Paula walked forward. “Thank you for agreeing to see me,” she said.

“That’s all right,” Tara said with a nervous smile. She nodded tightly at Detective Finn. “Hello again.”

“I trust this won’t be too upsetting,” Matthew deSavoel said. “My wife had put her re-life ordeal behind her.”

“It’s all right, Matthew,” Tara said, patting him.

“I won’t deliberately make this difficult,” Paula said. “It was your wife’s family who wanted this investigation kept open.”

Matthew deSavoel grunted in dissatisfaction and opened the front door. “I feel like we should have a lawyer present,” he said as he walked them through the cool reception hall.

“That is your prerogative,” Paula said neutrally. If deSavoel thought his wife was fully recovered he was fooling himself badly. Nobody with three lifetimes behind them was as twitchy as Tara seemed to be. In Paula’s experience, anyone who had been killed, accidentally or otherwise, took at least one regeneration post re-life to get over the psychological trauma.

They were shown into a large lounge with a stone tile floor; a grand fireplace dominated one wall, with a real grate and logs sitting at the center of it. The walls had various hunting trophies hanging up, along with the stuffed heads of alien animals, their teeth and claws prominently displayed to portray them as savage monsters.

“Yours?” Hoshe asked.

“I bagged every one of them,” Matthew deSavoel said proudly. “There’s a lot of hostile wildlife still living up in the hills.”

“I’ve never seen a gorall that big before,” Hoshe said, standing underneath one of the heads.

“I wasn’t aware Oaktier had a guns and hunting culture,” Paula said.

“They don’t in the cities,” deSavoel said. “They think those of us who tend the land are barbaric savages who do it purely for sport. None of them live out here; none of them realize what sort of danger the goralls and vidies pose if they get down to the human communities. There are several political campaigns to ban landowners from shooting outside cultivated lands, as if the goralls will respect that. It’s exactly the kind of oppressive crap I came here to get away from.”

“So guns are quite easy to get hold of on this planet?”

“Not a bit of it,” Tara said. She made a big show of flopping into one of the broad couches. “You wouldn’t believe how difficult it is to get a license, even for a hunting rifle.”

Paula sat opposite her. “Did you ever hold a license?”

“No.” Tara shook her head, smiling softly at some private joke. She took a cigarette out of her case, and pressed it on the lighting pad at the bottom. It gave off the sweet mint smell of high-quality GM majane. “Do you mind? It helps me relax.”

Hoshe Finn frowned, but didn’t say anything.

“Did you ever possess a gun?” Paula asked.

Tara laughed. “No. Or if I did, I never kept the memory. I don’t think I would, though. Guns have no place in a civilized society.”

“Most commendable,” Paula said. She wondered if Tara was really that unsophisticated, or if that was something she wanted to believe post-death. But then, most citizens chose to overlook how easy it was to get hold of a weapon. “I’d like to talk about Wyobie Cotal.”

“Certainly. But like I told Detective Finn last time, I only have a couple of weeks’ memory of him.”

“You were having an affair with him?”

Tara took a deep drag, exhaling slowly. “Certainly was. God, what a body that kid had. I don’t think I’d ever forget that.”

“So your marriage to Morton was over?”

“No, not really. We were still on good terms, though it was getting a bit stale. You must know what that’s like.” There was an edge of mockery in her voice.

“Did you have other affairs?”

“A couple. Like I said, I could see where it was heading with Morton. Our company was doing well, it was taking up more and more of his time. Men are like that, always obsessing about the wrong things in life. Some men.” She extended a languid hand to deSavoel, who kissed her knuckles indulgently.

“Did Morton know about the other men?”

“Probably. But I respected him, I didn’t flaunt them, they were never the cause of any argument.”

“Did Morton have a gun?”

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous. We had a good marriage.”

“It was coming to an end.”

“And we got divorced. It happens. In fact, it has to happen when you live this long.”

“Did he have a gun?”

“No.”

“All right. Why would you choose Tampico?”

“That’s the place I filed the divorce from, isn’t it? Well, I don’t know, I’m sure. The first time I heard about it was right after my re-life when the insurance investigators were asking me what happened. I never even knew the place existed before.”

“You and Cotal bought tickets there. You left with him four days after your last memory dump in the Kirova Clinic’s secure store. Why did you run off with him?”

“I don’t know. I remember meeting him, it was at a party, then after that it was just for the sex, really; and he was fun, enthusiastic the way only first-lifers can be. I enjoyed him, but I always found it hard to believe I gave up everything for him. It was a good life Morton and I had here.”

“You weren’t the only girl Cotal was seeing.”

“Really? Somehow I’m not surprised. He was gorgeous.”

“You’re not jealous about that?”

“Irritated, is about as far as it goes.”

“Did Wyobie have a gun?”

“Oh…” She appealed to her husband. “Please.”

“Come now, Chief Investigator,” deSavoel said loftily. “There’s no need to take such a line. Wyobie Cotal was also killed.”

“Was he? We haven’t found a body. In fact, we haven’t found your wife’s body either.”

“If I’d been alive, I would have turned up for rejuvenation,” Tara said sharply. “And I’ll thank you not to open that can of worms.”

“I understand. We do have to examine every possibility.”

“But perhaps not out loud when it can cause such distress,” deSavoel said irately. “This is not pleasant for my wife to raise such specters again after she has finally accustomed herself to complete bodyloss.”

“That’s why I’m here,” Paula said. “To make sure it won’t happen again.”

“Again?” Tara’s voice rose in alarm. She stubbed her cigarette out. “You think I’ll be killed again ?”

“That’s not what I meant. It would be most unusual for a killer to strike at you twice; and you have been alive for over twenty years this time. Please don’t concern yourself about the possibility. So, Wyobie didn’t have a gun?”

“No. Not that I remember.”

“You mentioned other affairs. Were you seeing anybody else at the same time as Cotal?”

“No. Wyobie was quite enough for me.”

“What about enemies, yours or Cotal’s?”

“I must have fallen out with many people, you do over a hundred years, but I can’t think of any argument or grudge that would warrant killing me. And as for Wyobie, nobody that age has enemies, not ones that kill.”

“His other girlfriend might have been angry enough.”

“Possibly.” Tara shuddered. “I never met her. Do you think that’s what happened?”

“Actually, no. If you and Wyobie were killed, then it certainly wasn’t a crime of passion, or at least not a spur-of-the-moment slaying. As yet, we don’t know where and when you were killed. To throw up that much uncertainty takes planning and preparation. Other than your ticket there’s no real proof you ever went to Tampico.”

“The divorce,” deSavoel said. “That was filed on Tampico. And all Tara’s things were sent there.”

“The divorce was lodged with a legal firm, Broher Associates, on Tampico. It was a pure data transaction. In theory it could have been filed from anywhere inside the unisphere. As for your effects, Tara, they were sent to a Tampico storage warehouse for seven weeks, then removed by your authorization into a private vehicle. The insurance company investigators were unable to trace them. What I find interesting about this is your secure memory storage arrangement. There isn’t one apart from the Kirova Clinic, not on Tampico, nor on any other Commonwealth planet as far as the investigators could find, though my Directorate will start double-checking that now. And you would have made one, everybody has a secure store they can update for precisely this reason: re-life. The ticket, your effects shipped out there, your divorce, it’s all evidence you were settled on Tampico. But to me, the lack of a secure memory arrangement calls the whole Tampico episode into question.”

“But why?” Tara asked. “What would be the point in killing me or Wyobie? What did we do?”

“I don’t know. The last time you were seen alive was when you had lunch with Caroline Turner at the Low Moon marina restaurant. If anything was wrong, you didn’t tell her. In fact, she said you seemed quite normal.”

“Caroline was a good friend, I remember. I might even have told her about Wyobie.”

“She says not, and certainly nothing about leaving Morton to go off with Wyobie. So if you didn’t go crazy wild and run off, we have to consider you got involved in some criminal event.”

“I wouldn’t!”

Paula held up a cautionary finger. “Not necessarily deliberately. The logical explanation would be an accident, something you saw or discovered that you shouldn’t have, and were killed because of it. My problem with that theory is where it happened. If it was here, then we only have a very small incident window to investigate. Morton had been away from home for two days, and was scheduled to stay at his conference for another four days. He says you stopped answering his calls two days after your lunch with Caroline, the same day your Tampico ticket was purchased. Now, your last memory deposit in the Kirova Clinic secure store was the same day Morton went away. So at the most you had four days for this event to happen to you. I believe we can safely say it didn’t happen in the two days prior to your lunch, which leaves us with just two days, forty-eight hours, for it to occur.”

“Police records don’t show any major crime incident that month,” Hoshe said. “Actually, it was a quiet year.”

“Then they were good criminals, clever ones,” Paula said. “You never caught them, and the only evidence is this ice murder. That doesn’t leave us with a lot to go on. I have to say that if Saheef and Cotal walked in on something bad, then the chances of discovering what actually happened are slim. Which leaves us with Tampico. You arrived and bumped straight into something you shouldn’t have. Our hypothetical Tampico criminals maintained the illusion that you were alive by picking up your effects and then filing for the divorce. That would explain the lack of a memory store.”

“What sort of criminals?” Tara asked shakily. “What would they be doing to make them kill me and Wyobie?”

“It is only a theory,” Paula told her quickly. “I have difficulty in accepting major criminal conspiracies—the probability is extremely low, though we can’t ignore it. But that implausibility does leave us with a quandary. If it wasn’t that, and it wasn’t your private life, which appears blameless, then what did happen?”

Tara fumbled with her case, and lit another cigarette. “You’re the detective, everybody knows that.” Her hands were trembling as she took a drag. Matthew deSavoel held her tight, glaring at Paula. “Have you got enough?” he snapped.

“For now,” she said calmly.

“Find out,” Tara called out as Paula and Hoshe started to leave. “Please. I have to know. Everything you’ve said… it wasn’t a freak accident, was it? I’ve told myself that for twenty years; told everybody I had a mad romantic impulse and ran off with Wyobie, because if you say it and keep on saying it, then that becomes what happened. It was like making up the memory. But I knew, I really knew it didn’t happen like that.”

“I’ll do what I can,” Paula said.

“Where now?” Hoshe asked as the car drove away from the big isolated plantation house.

“The ex-husband, Morton.”

He sneaked a look at her. “You got any idea what happened?”

“It wasn’t an accident. I believe Tara, she used to be too sensible to do anything like running off with Wyobie. He was already giving her everything she wanted from the relationship. That means Tampico is all wrong; it was a setup, an alibi.”

“Used to be sensible?”

“You saw what she is today.”

“Yeah. That’s what you meant by investigating people, isn’t it?”

“Of course.” She turned to stare out of the car’s windows, seeing nothing but a blur of big shaggy walrush trees that had been planted as a windbreak for the neat plantation bushes. “It’s people who commit crimes, so that’s where you’ll find the motivation: people.” It was so instinctive, so obvious, she didn’t have to think to talk to him.

Her parents, or rather the couple she had thought to be her parents during her childhood, had sincerely believed that instinct could be stillbirthed. It was the old nature versus nurture argument, and in this particular ultra-modern chapter of it they desperately wanted to prove to the whole Commonwealth that nurture could be the victor, that there was no preordained fate. Especially not the one Paula’s creators intended for her.

The planet where she was birthed was called Huxley’s Haven, though the other Commonwealth worlds derisively called it the Hive. Settled in 2102, it was funded, and populated, by the Human Structure Foundation, a strange collective of genetic researchers and intellectual sociopolitical theorists. They were keen to explore the genetic possibilities for psychoneural profiling now they were clear of Earth’s restrictions, believing it possible to create a perfectly stable society by implementing the phrase “each to his own” to a degree that the rest of humanity found quite chilling. A lot of Anglo-Saxon surnames originated from occupation: tailor, thatcher, crofter… the aim of the Foundation was to make the link solid and unbreakable, determined within an individual’s DNA. Professions couldn’t be installed wholesale, of course, a psychoneural profile merely gave a person the aptitude to do his or her designated job, while simpler, physiological modifications complemented the trait. Doctors would be given dextrous fingers and high visual acuity, while farm workers and builders possessed a large, strong physique—so it went, right through the entire spectrum of human activity. The traits were bundled together, and fixed to prevent genetic drift. As far as the traits were concerned, there would never be any mixed profiles. The Foundation scrupulously avoided using the word “pure” in its press releases.

The Commonwealth as a whole detested the notion. Right from its conception, Huxley’s Haven became a near-pariah state. There were even serious calls for military/police style intervention made in the Senate, which contravened the organization’s constitution—the Commonwealth was set up originally to guarantee individual planet freedom within an overall legal framework. In the end, the Foundation was able to proceed because legally the planet was independent and free.

After several prominent and well-financed private court cases against the Foundation came to nothing, it was CST’s turn to face a barrage of media-supported pressure to close the gateway. Nigel Sheldon had to reluctantly argue the case for keeping it open: if they closed one gateway because of a cause activist campaign, that left all gateways vulnerable to people who disagreed with a planet’s culture, religion, or politics. The Hive stayed connected to the Commonwealth, though it never really contributed to the mainstream economic and financial structure. Quietly, and with considerable scientific flare, the Foundation got on with the job of building their unique society.

Some people never did accept the lost court cases or the Foundation’s “right” to pursue its goal. A greater human right took precedence, they argued. In their view Huxley’s Haven was a planet of genetically modified slaves who needed liberation.

If there was ever anybody to whom the term extreme liberals could be applied, it was Marcus and Rebecca Redhound. Born into the considerable wealth of Grand Earth Families, they were happy to contribute financially as well as actively to the cause. Along with a small, equally dedicated cabal, they planned a raid against the Hive, which they were convinced would be the grand event that would finally demonstrate to the rest of the Commonwealth that the Foundation was wrong, not just in its politics but in its science as well.

After months of covert planning and preparation, nine of these urban rich-kid commandos broke into one of the Foundation’s birthing wards in the Hive’s capital, Fordsville. They managed to steal seven new birthed babies and get them to the CST planetary station before the alarm was raised. Three infants were traced immediately by the Intersolar Serious Crimes Directorate and returned to their creche on Huxley’s Haven. The publicity was everything the group could have wished for, though public sympathy didn’t entirely swing their way. Something about stealing babies just cut people cold.

Four of the cabal were arrested when the babies were traced. After that, the Serious Crimes Directorate mounted the largest manhunt the Commonwealth had ever seen to find the four missing babies, one male and three females. It took another fifteen months of painstaking detective work by ten Chief Investigators aided by the SI to locate the missing boy in a town on the then-frontier planet of Ferarra. Five months after that two more of the girls were recovered on EdenBurg. The last child and remaining two cabal members proved more elusive.

With the paranoia that only the truly committed can muster, Marcus and Rebecca had spent over two years fermenting elaborate preparations for the snatch, an activity they kept secret from the rest of their cabal. The first part of their cover was to have a child of their own, Coya, who would act as a sister to the Hive baby. She would set a normal behavioral example to the psychoneural profiled waif; and a young family with twins would be less likely to attract attention. It was a good plan. Marcus and Rebecca had bought a house on Marindra, out in a small agricultural town, where they established a market garden business. It was a pleasant place to live, with a good community spirit. The children fitted in well as they grew up. Paula’s half-Filipino features were slightly incongruous, given her parents and “twin” Coya were all of prominent eastern Mediterranean stock. But they explained it away as a genetic modification designed to bring out Rebecca’s distant Asian ancestry, honoring her deep ethnic origin. By then, the case of the last missing Hive baby had long faded from public attention.

As a child, Paula really wasn’t too different from her sister. They played together, ran their parents ragged, loved the puppy Marcus bought them, had a fondness for swimming, and did well at school. It was as she moved into her teens that Paula was noticeably more restrained than Coya; she did as her parents asked, didn’t argue with them, and steered clear of all the trouble that was to be found in their little rural community. Everyone commented on what a nice girl she was becoming, not like half of the teenagers in this town who were simply terrible and a sure sign of society’s imminent collapse. She regarded boys with the same contempt and fascination as her peers; started dating, suffered the heart-aching humiliation of being dumped, and promptly took it out on her next two boyfriends by chucking them. Found another boy she liked—and went steady for five months. In sports she was competent rather than outstanding. Academically she excelled at languages and history. As teachers remarked, she had superb recall and an obsession with tracing down the smallest facts connected to her subjects. Aptitude tests showed she would make a great psychologist.

Looking at their contented, normal, extra daughter on her sixteenth birthday, Marcus and Rebecca knew they had succeeded. They’d brought up a Hive child in a loving natural environment, and produced a perfectly happy, healthy human being. What could be done with one could be done to all. The Foundation’s hold over its oppressed population could be broken; their method of control was flawed. Decency and human dignity had triumphed in the end.

Two days later, on a splendid late-summer afternoon, they took Paula out into the garden and told her of her true heritage. They even sheepishly showed her the old news media recordings of the snatch and subsequent manhunt.

What the Foundation had never revealed was the nature of the psychoneural profiling given to the snatched babies. The others were all reasonably standard for Huxley’s Haven: public service workers, engineers, accountants, even an archivist. But Paula, as luck or fate would have it, was an exception even among her own kind. Crime on Huxley’s Haven was extremely rare, naturally so given its citizens were all designed to be content in their jobs and lives. But not even the Foundation claimed to make life perfect. All human civilizations needed a police force. On Huxley’s Haven it was a source of national pride that there was one law enforcement officer for every ten thousand people. Paula was destined to be one of them.

Two hours after their joyful confession, Marcus and Rebecca were in custody. It was Paula who turned them in. She had no choice; knowing what was right and what was wrong was the core of her identity, her very soul.

The last missing Hive child was the greatest media story to hit the unisphere for a decade, making Paula an instant celebrity. Young, beautiful, and frighteningly incorruptible, she was everything a sixteen-year-old should never be.

Thanks to Paula’s relentless testimony, Marcus and Rebecca were sentenced to thirty-two years’ life suspension each, losing double the time over which their crime was perpetrated. It was the kind of punishment normally reserved for murderers. Unisphere coverage of the trial allowed a quarter of the human race to watch in silent fascination as Coya broke down and screamed hysterically at the judge before begging her step-twin to withdraw the sentencing application. Paula’s only answer, a silent pitying glance at the sobbing girl, made that whole quarter of the human race shiver.

After the trial, Paula went back to Huxley’s Haven, the home she’d never known, to discover her real name and suffer embarrassing introductions to the other stolen children with whom she had nothing in common. She belonged there even less than on Marindra; a modern Commonwealth education put her completely outside the norm as far as Huxley’s Haven was concerned. They didn’t have advanced technology on the Hive; the new conformist society was structured so that people did all the work, not machines. With her exposure to domestic bots and the ultimate data access of the unisphere, Paula considered such rejection to be stupid and provincial. It was the one success Marcus and Rebecca had with shaping her thoughts, though by then their bodies were beyond knowing, safely comatose in the Justice Directorate’s hibernation wombs.

Away from the public eye, Paula left Huxley’s Haven for Earth, where she enrolled at the Intersolar Serious Crimes Directorate. At the time, she had no idea how high up the political food chain her application was bounced before it was finally approved. But approved it was, and inevitably she became the best operative they ever had—despite the one notorious case of 2243 that she still hadn’t solved.

Morton lived in the penthouse of a fifty-story skyscraper standing behind Darklake City’s Labuk Marina. Not at all far, in fact, from Caroline Turner’s last lunch with Tara. Paula noted the coincidence as the car drove them along the waterfront. They parked in the skyscraper’s underground garage and took the express lift up to the top floor. Morton was waiting for them in the vestibule as the doors opened. Three years out of rejuvenation, he was a tall, handsome young man whose thick chestnut hair was tied back in a long ponytail. Dressed in a fashionably cut amber and peacock-blue tropical shirt and expensive hand-tailored linen slacks, he looked good and obviously knew it. His youthful face put on a broad courteous smile as he shook their hands in welcome.

“Good of you to see us,” Paula said. It was early evening local time, which was only a few hours ahead of Paris time.

“Least I could do.” Morton ushered them inside through elaborate double doors. His penthouse had a floor area larger than the plantation house where his ex-wife now lived. They walked into a massive split-level living room with a window wall. It was six-thirty, and the copper-red sun had already fallen level with the top of the skyscraper, shining its rich hazy light directly into the penthouse. Opulent furnishings and expensive artwork gleamed in glorious twilight hues as they soaked up the illumination. There was a large roof garden on the other side of the wide glass doors, half of which was taken up with a swimming pool. Beyond the stainless-steel railings ringing the patio area was a tremendous view out across the city and lake.

The three of them settled in the lavish conversation area in front of the glass wall. Morton ordered it to raise its opacity, banishing most of the glare. That was when Paula saw someone in the pool, a young girl, swimming lengths with powerful easy strokes. She told her e-butler to bring up Morton’s file; there was no current registered marriage, but local media gossip files had linked him to a string of girls since he came out of rejuvenation. His current lover was Mellanie Rescorai, a first-life nineteen-year-old, and member of the Oaktier national diving squad. Mellanie’s parents were on record as strongly objecting to the liaison—in reaction, Mellanie had simply moved out of the family home and into Morton’s penthouse.

“Something to drink?” Morton asked. The butler appeared at his side, dressed in antique-style black clothes. Paula stared at him, mildly surprised: a real live human servant, not a bot.

“No thank you,” she said. Hoshe shook his head.

“I’ll have my sparkling gin, thank you,” Morton said. “It is after office hours, after all.”

“Yes, sir.” The butler gave a discreet bow, and walked over to the mirrored drinks cabinet.

“I understand it was you who alerted the police about this situation,” Paula said.

“That’s right.” Morton leaned back casually into the leather cushioning. “I thought it was kind of strange that Cotal had to be re-lifed as well as Tara. To me it implied that they died at the same time, which is kind of suspicious, especially as nobody ever found out how Tara died. I’m surprised nobody else made the connection, actually.” His polite smile focused on Hoshe.

“Different insurance companies, different clinics,” Hoshe said defensively. “I’m sure Wyobie would have raised the question with my division eventually when he asked after Ms. Saheef.”

“Of course.”

“So you recognized the name,” Paula asked.

“Yes. God knows why I didn’t edit the little shit out of my memories during the last two rejuvenations. Subconscious, I guess. You learn from your experiences, a smart man doesn’t dump them.”

“So was it a painful divorce from Tara?”

“Her leaving me was a shock. I simply didn’t see that coming. I mean, with hindsight I was heavily involved with our company, and we’d been together for a while, I suppose it was inevitable. But to walk out like that, without any warning, that wasn’t Tara. Not the Tara I thought I knew, anyway. But I got over it the same way a lot of guys do: screwed every piece of skirt in sight and threw myself into my work. After that, the actual divorce was completely irrelevant, just a signature certificate loaded on a file.”

“And there was no clue she was going to leave you?”

“Hell no, I was worried about her when I got back from my conference. I mean, she hadn’t answered my calls for two days. But I figured at the time she was pissed with me for spending the time away from home. Then when I got back she’d stripped the apartment, everything she owned was gone. Pretty big fucking clue, huh?”

The butler returned with the sparkling gin in a crystal glass, and put it on the side table next to Morton. “Will that be all, sir?”

“For now.” Morton waved him away.

“Was there any message?” Paula asked.

“Not a damn thing. The first and only time I heard from her was when the divorce file arrived two weeks later.”

“That was handled by a legal firm. So you never actually had any contact with Tara at all?”

“No. Not after she left.”

“How did you know Wyobie Cotal’s name?”

“It was in the divorce file.”

“Tara put it in?”

“Yes. He was the irreconcilable difference.”

“I’d like a copy, please.”

“Sure.” He instructed his e-butler to release a copy of the file to Paula.

“I have to ask, did you benefit from the divorce?”

Morton laughed with genuine amusement. “Sure did, I got rid of her.” He took a drink of his sparkling gin, still grinning.

“That’s not quite what I meant.”

“Yes yes, I know.” He locked his hands together behind his head, and gazed up at the ceiling. “Let’s see. There wasn’t much to it. We both came out of it financially secure. That was part of the premarriage contract, everything to be split fifty-fifty. It was fair enough. Tara was richer than me back then, she put up a higher percentage of initial capital for the company. That was no secret. But I was the one who managed it, who made it work. When we divorced, our shares were divided up strictly according to the contract, we both got half.”

“How much more money did she put in?”

“It was a sixty-five, thirty-five split. That percentage isn’t something I’d kill for.”

“I’m sure. So who kept the company?”

“I’m still running it, after a fashion. AquaState’s one of our subsidiaries now.”

Paula consulted his file. “I see. You’re the chairman of Gansu Construction now.”

“That’s right. Six months after we went public, Gansu made an offer for AquaState. I negotiated a good two-for-one exchange rate on my shares, a seat on the Gansu board, and a decent options deal on more stock. Forty years of hard work later, and here I am. We’re the biggest civil engineering outfit on this whole planet; you name it we can build it for you. Plenty of offplanet divisions as well, and more opening every year. One day we’ll rival the multistellars.”

“According to my records, the company you and Tara owned, AquaState, didn’t go public until three years after the divorce.”

“No, Tara agreed—or rather her divorce lawyers did—that we’d both get a better deal by waiting, letting the moisture extraction business grow until we could get the maximum price from the floatation. When AquaState finally went public, her shares were registered with a bank on Tampico, then they were converted to Gansu stock when I sold out. I shouldn’t really be telling you this, but… Since she got re-lifed, most of them have been sold. She’s using up money at a hell of a rate supporting that idiot aristocrat husband and his plantation.”

“Thank you, but I don’t think that’s relevant to our inquiry. I’m more interested in what happened to her shares for the seventeen years prior to her re-life. Did they just sit in the Tampico bank?”

“As far as I know, yes. I only know they’re being sold now because as chairman I can see the ownership registry. She’s disposing of them at quite a rate, a couple of million Oaktier dollars a year.”

Paula turned to Hoshe. “We need to check with the Tampico bank to find out what happened to those seventeen years’ worth of dividend payments.”

“Certainly.”

Mellanie Rescorai climbed out of the pool and started toweling herself down with the pink-wash sky as a backdrop. She was very attractive, Paula conceded. Morton was staring at her with a greedy expression.

“What about enemies?” Paula asked. “Did Tara have any?”

“No.” Morton was still looking at his trophy girlfriend. “That is: I doubt it, I don’t actually remember, I got rid of the majority of those memories, just kept the essentials from those days, you know.”

“And you? Did you have enemies back then?”

“I wouldn’t go that far. I had business rivals, certainly. And I’ve got a damn sight more of them now. But no deal would be worth killing over, not in those days.”

“Only those days?”

“Or these,” he said with a grin.

“Did you meet up with Tara again, after the re-life?”

“Yes. The insurance investigators and the police both had a load of questions for me, all of them the same as yours. I went to see her after she came out of the clinic, for old times’ sake, to make sure she was okay. I don’t hold grudges, and we’d had thirteen good years together. We still meet up occasionally, parties, social events, that kind of thing. Though that’s getting less and less now she’s got her husband. I haven’t actually seen her since my last rejuvenation.”

“You and Tara didn’t have any children, did you?”

Morton’s attention switched back to the living room. “No.”

“Why not? As you said, you were together for thirteen years.”

“We decided we didn’t want them, it was even written into our premarriage contract. Both of us were busy people. The lifestyle we had then didn’t have any space for that kind of family commitment.”

“Okay, one last question, probably irrelevant considering you’ve had two rejuvenations since, but do you remember any odd incidents prior to her disappearance?”

“Sorry, no, not a thing. If there were any, they’re memories that I left behind a long time ago.”

“I thought that might be the case. Well, thank you again for seeing us.”

Morton stood up and showed the Chief Investigator out. As they walked through to the vestibule, he let his eyes slip down to her rump. Her business skirt was clinging in an enjoyable way, showing off her hips. Even though he’d accessed her court cases several times through the unisphere, her physical appearance post-rejuvenation was a pleasurable surprise. He wondered if she’d be going to a Silent World tonight. If so, it was one he’d like to be visiting.

When they’d gone he went back out onto the roof garden. Mellanie smiled at him with the simple happiness of the totally devoted.

“So was she murdered?” the girl asked.

“They don’t know.”

She twined her arms around his neck, pressing her still damp body against him. “Why do you care? It was centuries and centuries ago.”

“Forty years. And I’d care very much if it happened to you.”

Her lips came together in a hurt pout. “Don’t say that.”

“The point is, time doesn’t lessen a crime, especially not today.”

“Okay.” She shrugged, and smiled at him again. “I won’t run away from you like she did, not ever.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” He bent forward slightly, and started kissing her, an action that she responded to with her usual eagerness. Her youthful insecurity had been so easy to exploit, especially for someone with his years of life experience. She’d never known anyone as urbane and self-confident, nor as rich; the only people she’d ever dated were nice first-life boys. By herself, she wasn’t brave enough to break out from her middle-class conformity; but with his coaxing and support she soon began to nibble at the forbidden fruits. The publicity of their affair, the arguments with her parents, it all played in his favor. Like all first-lifers she was desperate to be shown everything life could offer. And as if by a miracle, he’d appeared in her life to fill the role of both guide and paymaster. Suddenly, after all the years of discipline and restrictions she’d endured to reach national level in her sport, nothing was outlawed to her. Her response to the liberation was a very predictable overindulgence.

Mellanie wasn’t quite the most beautiful girl he’d ever bedded, her chin was slightly too long, her nose too blunt, to be awarded that title. But with that lanky, broad-shouldered body of hers trained to the peak of gymnastic fitness, she was certainly one of the most physically satisfying. Although, truly, it was her age that excited him in a way he’d never reached with any of his Silent World encounters. Even in this liberally-inclined society, a rejuve seducing a first-lifer was regarded as being over the edge of civilized behavior—which simply added intensity to the experience. He could afford to ignore the disapproval of others.

This was what he was now, one of the rich and powerful, rising above the norm, the mundane. He lived his personal and professional lives in the same way, if there was something he wanted in either of them, he got it. Empire building became him, allowing him to thrive. Compared to his first mediocre century he was truly alive now.

“Go in and get changed,” he told her eventually. His e-butler summoned the dresser and the beautician to help get the girl ready. “Resal is expecting us on the boat in an hour. I don’t want to be too late, there are people coming that I need to meet tonight.”

“It’s not all business, is it?” Mellanie asked.

“Of course not, there’ll be fun people there as well. People your own age, and people older than me. Now please, we need to get moving.”

“Yes, Morty.” Mellanie caught sight of the two women waiting for her, and turned back to him. “What would you like me to wear?”

“Always: something that shows you off.” His virtual vision was displaying recent clothing purchases the dresser had made. “That gold and white thing you were fitted for on Wednesday. That’s small enough.”

She nodded eagerly. “Okay.” Then she hugged him again, the kind of tight reassurance-seeking embrace a child would give a parent. “I love you, Morty, really I do. You know that, don’t you?” Her eyes searched his face, hunting for any sign of confirmation.

“I know.” His older, earlier self would probably have experienced a twinge of guilt at that adulation. It was never going to last. He knew that, even though she would never be able to see it. In another year or so some other stray beauty would catch his eye, and the sweet heat of the chase would begin again. Mellanie would be gone in a flood of tears. But until then…

He gave her bum a quick gentle slap, hurrying her back into the penthouse. She squealed in mock-outrage before scampering in through the wide doors. The two women followed her in.

His e-butler brought up a list of items that he hadn’t finished working on during the day. He surveyed them all, taking his time to add comments, demand more information, or approve them for action. It was always the way; no matter how complex the management smartware a company employed, executive decisions were inevitably made by a human. An RI could eliminate a whole strata of middle management, but it lacked the kind of creative ability that a true leader possessed.

When he’d tidied up the office work, the butler brought him another sparkling gin. Morton leaned on the steel balcony rail to sip the drink, gazing out at the city below as the sun fell below the horizon. He could outline sections of it in his mind, entire districts that Gansu had built, where their government-licensed subsidiaries now provided utility and civic services—his innovation, that. There were other areas, as well, that drew his eye. Old plantations and orchards that now formed the outskirts, green parquetry flocking around the base of the mountains. Gansu’s architects had drawn up plans for beautiful buildings that would fit snugly into those crumpled mini-valleys, expensive exclusive communities providing for Oaktier’s increasingly affluent population. Already, the farmers were being tempted with financial offers and incentives.

When he looked up to the darkening sky the stars were starting to twinkle. If everything went to plan, his influence would soon stretch out to them, far exceeding the small subcontracts their offplanet offices currently achieved. He controlled Gansu’s board now. The increased business and rising stock price he’d achieved for them over the last decade had given him near-regal status. There would be no timidity in his expansion plans. The opportunities that lay out there were truly staggering. Entire civil infrastructures to be built. The new phase three junction worlds that would one day rival the Big15. Now was the best time to live.

He lowered his gaze again to scan the city rooftops. One old medium-sized tower caught his attention. It was the apartment block he and Tara had lived in for most of their marriage; he’d never realized he could see it from his roof garden. There were no details from this distance, twilight transformed it into a gray slab with parallel lines of light shining out through the windows. He took another sip of the cocktail as he stared at it. His memory couldn’t even provide an image of the apartment’s interior. When he’d gone in for rejuvenation six years after the divorce he’d edited away everything but the basic information from his secure store. Now, that life was almost like a series of notes in a file—not real, not something he’d lived through. And yet… Twenty years ago, when he’d heard of Tara’s re-life procedure, something about it had nagged at him. It was out of character to go and see her, yet he had. The semineurotic woman in her new clone body wasn’t anyone he recognized, certainly not the kind of woman he could form an attachment to. He put that down to shock and psychological trauma from the re-life.

Then the news about Cotal had been filtered out of the unisphere media streams by his e-butler, which had caught the connection to Tara. He’d stopped work in his office—an unheard of event—and worried about how strange the coincidence was. His staff had made a few discreet inquiries, the results of that had been enough for him to call the police. Their subsequent report on the case had annoyed him with its vagueness and lack of conclusion. Rather than kick up a fuss himself, which would draw comment, he’d spoken to some of the senior members of the Shaheef family.

He hadn’t quite expected someone as renown as Chief Investigator Myo herself to be assigned the case. But it was a pleasing development; if anyone could sort out what had actually happened, it would be her. His thoughts slipped to her compact body again, and the high possibility of her needing to visit Silent World.

“Morty.”

He turned around. The dresser and beautician had worked their usual magic. Mellanie was standing silhouetted in the light from the living room, her auburn hair dried and straightened so it fell down her back, the tiny dress exposing vast amounts of toned young flesh. His disquiet over Tara and Cotal vanished at once as he contemplated what new indecencies he would tutor her in later tonight.

“Do I look all right?” she asked cautiously.

“Perfect.”

TEN

Oscar Monroe and McClain Gilbert took the early-morning express from Anshun, passing through StLincoln, then Earth-London before arriving at Kerensk. The CST planetary station there operated the gateway to the High Angel, but there was no train. Instead they disembarked from the express and walked back up the platform to the main concourse. Next was a series of security checks to get into the High Angel transfer section; CST operated the first, a standard deep body scan and luggage examination, before passing them over to the Commonwealth Diplomatic Police Directorate who reviewed all visitor details. The High Angel was the one place where free entry was not a guaranteed right for Commonwealth citizens. As well as all personal details being reviewed by the Diplomatic Police for any criminal record, the file was also forwarded to the High Angel who possessed the ultimate veto on who could enter.

Oscar waited with a fluttering stomach as the policeman accepted the citizenship ID file from his e-butler and ran a DNA scan to confirm he matched the certified data. He’d never been to the High Angel before, there was always a chance it would refuse him entry or, worse, say why. “You ever been before?” he asked Mac. It was an attempt to appear casual in front of the policeman.

“Five times now,” McClain said. “Forward teams train in the zero-gee sections so we’re ready for any type of space encounter.”

“Damn, all these years on the job, and I never knew that.”

McClain grinned at his friend. They’d known each other for ten years, working together in Merredin’s CST exploratory division; after that much time in a high-pressure profession if you didn’t develop a mutual respect then somebody had to leave. Chain of command was always a nominal concept in the division, you trusted people to do their job right. “Oh, great, I’ve been risking my life under an Operations Director that doesn’t have a clue what’s going on.”

“I saw that tar-pit monster coming, didn’t I?”

“Gentlemen,” the policeman said, “you’re clear to proceed.”

They walked through into the transfer section lounge. A steward gave them each a one-piece overall made of light breathable fabric, with fuseto footpads and cuffs. “It’s just for the shuttle,” he told them. “Wear it over your clothes, it stops anything flying loose. And please don’t forget your helmets before you go through, safety regulations will not allow us to fly unless all passengers are wearing them.”

Several other people were in the lounge, all of them shrugging their way into the white overalls. Anyone with long hair was fastening it back with bands that the stewards were handing out. Mac nudged Oscar. “Isn’t that Paula Myo over there?”

Oscar followed his gaze. A young-looking woman was fixing her straight black hair with the bands. Her companion was an overweight man in a smart suit who could barely fit into his overall. “Could be. She must have come out of rejuve recently. I remember accessing the Shayoni case about six or seven years back, the one where she tracked down the arms seller who’d supplied kinetics to the Dakra Free State rebels. Four days she waited in that house for them to show up. That is what I call dedication.”

“My wife studied her cases when she was in the academy, that’s how I know her. I’m sure it’s her.”

“Wonder who she’s after this time?”

“You know, we should have her in the crew.”

Oscar gave Mac a startled look. “As what? Do you think we’re going to start killing each other on the voyage?”

“Living in close proximity with your farts for a year, more than likely. But she solves problems, right, that’s what her whole brain’s wired for. She’s exactly the kind of talent we should be taking with us.”

“There are different kinds of problems, you know; and we’re heading for the wrong sort.” Oscar clapped Mac’s shoulder. “Keep trying, one day you’ll be command material.”

“The day before you, pal.”

“Right. And by the way, what does your wife think about you going off and leaving her for a year?”

“Angie? She’s fairly cool about it. We talked about splitting up, but that’s being unduly pessimistic. We’ll just leave it and see what happens. If she finds someone else while I’m gone, fair enough. Our partnership contract allows for that.”

“Nice contract.”

“Yeah, so what about you? How are you going to cope for a year? Seen any possibilities among the recruits?”

“Haven’t really thought about it. I’ve got enough OCtattoos for a very high-resolution TSI, I’ll just make do with a harem of nicely shaped pixels.”

Mac shook his head in sad dismay. “Brother, you have got to get out more.”

A steward led five of them, including Paula and her companion, into the departure corridor at the far end of the lounge. Everybody’s feet made crunching sounds as the fuseto pads tried to anchor them on the floor. They were all handed a protective helmet as they went through, the steward making sure they put it on. “Are you familiar with zero gee?” the steward asked.

“I am nowadays,” Oscar told him grumpily. The helmet was identical to those they used at the starship complex on Anshun. He still hated his trips to the assembly platform, but Wilson was a real believer in hands-on management—obviously a relic of his gung-ho NASA days. There wasn’t a week since Oscar had joined the project that he hadn’t been on some kind of inspection tour.

“The gateway itself is marked by the black rim,” the steward said, pointing ahead down the corridor. “After that you’re in zero gee; please use the fusetos and do not float free. Your shuttle is waiting at dock five. Now if you’ll all follow me.” As he arrived at the black line, he reached forward and touched his fuseto cuff on the wall. He eased himself gracefully across the line and his feet floated off the floor. Oscar grimaced in resignation, and followed suit.

After five meters, the corridor opened out into the middle of a hemisphere measuring fifty meters across. There were no windows, only eight big airlocks set equidistantly around the rim. Number five was open. The steward led them carefully along the curving surface, adhering to it from his wrists and toes, like some giant insect. He waited by the airlock, ready to give assistance as they stopped to maneuver themselves through into the shuttle.

The little craft was a basic tube, ten meters long, with a double line of couches. Oscar strapped himself in, and looked up. Five thick windows were set into what passed as the fuselage ceiling above him. All he could see was the curving outer wall of the departure port.

There were only fifteen passengers on board. Their steward went along the couches, checking that everyone was settled, then the airlock irised shut. “High Angel does not permit CST to put a gateway inside itself,” the steward said. “So we’re about fifty kilometers away. The journey over will take approximately fifteen minutes. If anyone has any real difficulty, please let me know. I have some strong sedatives which will probably help. In the meantime please familiarize yourself with the sanitary tube on the seatback in front of you.”

Oscar grimaced at the flexible hose with its freshly replaced nozzle. Still, it was an improvement on the bags he’d taken to carrying with him around the starship platform.

The shuttle vibrated quietly as it disengaged from the locking mechanism, chemical reaction control rockets nudged it away from the docking port. After drifting for a few seconds, the more powerful main rockets flared, accelerating them away. As they retreated from the port, more and more of the structure flowed into view through the shuttle windows, until after a minute Oscar could see the entire gateway station. It reminded him of a quartz cluster, long hexagonal tube sections all rising up out of a central disk; with the twin shuttle departure and arrival ports extending out from the disk’s rim. The end of the hexagonal tubes were giant airlocks where cargo tugs delivered their shipments; sealed pods containing completed satellites, sophisticated solid-state devices, compounds, crystals, and biologicals that could only be fabricated in microgee environments. Cargo tugs also used the airlocks to load up with consumer goods and food that the gateway delivered, ferrying them over to the High Angel.

The rest of the archipelago drifted into view through the window; over a hundred free-flying factories ranging from tiny independent research capsules barely larger than the shuttle up to the corporate macrohubs, kilometer-wide webs with production modules sitting on each junction where they glinted like jewels of prismatic chrome. Behind them the gas giant world, Icalanise, dominated the starfield as the little shuttle rotated slowly. Their orbital position showed it to them as a massive crescent striped by saffron and white cloud bands whose fluctuating edges locked together by counterspiral curlicues, as if each was extending talons into the other. A pair of small black circles were close together on the equator, eclipse shadows thrown by two of the gas giant’s thirty-eight moons.

After ten minutes, the shuttle turned again, aligning itself for the deceleration burn. Oscar found himself looking straight at the High Angel.

The exploratory division wormhole that opened in the star system in 2163 was unable to locate any H-congruous planet, and the Operations Director was almost about to close it and move on when the dish picked up a powerful, regular microwave pulse from Icalanise. They obtained a position lock to a point orbiting half a million kilometers above the brimstone atmosphere, and shifted the wormhole in for a closer look. It was a confusing image at first. The telescope had centered on a dark, rocky moonlet sixty-three kilometers long, and up to twenty wide. But it appeared to be sprouting petals of pearl-white light—an angel’s wings. Moving in, and refining the focus, revealed the rock was actually the host body to twelve giant artificial domes of crystal sitting on the end of tall metallic stalks. Not all of the domes were translucent and radiant; five were clear, revealing the alien cities contained inside. Street grids were illuminated in ruby, turquoise, and emerald light, while thousands of windows set into the strange architectural silhouettes of towers, hoops, cones, and spheres blazed away in the spectrums of many different suns.

What they’d found was a starship, a living behemoth capable of FTL travel. It was not any kind of life that humanity understood, being neither a machine that had risen to sentience nor a spaceborn life-form that had evolved or been engineered into its current nature. However, the High Angel wasn’t forthcoming about its origin, saying only that its purpose was to provide a habitable environment to the planet-based species it encountered in the hope of learning about them. It was “resting” in orbit around Icalanise—for how long was also not divulged. After some negotiation over a radio channel it agreed to open three of its domes to humans, who would use the space primarily as a dormitory town for the astroengineering companies. The two most prominent clauses in the settlement agreement were High Angel’s veto on visitors and settlers, and its promise to inform its new human residents before it took flight again, whenever that might be.

Their shuttle maneuvered underneath the vast base of the New Glasgow dome and down along the tapering stalk underneath. The dome’s spaceport was situated just above the point where the pewter-colored stalk sank into the starship’s rocky outer crust, a thick necklace of airlocks and ports that ringed the structure. Several of them had shuttles attached, while larger docking cradles were holding cargo tugs that were unloading.

They docked with a slight tremble, and the plyplastic airlock irised open. “Thank you for traveling with us,” the steward said. “Please remember that after you disembark you will still be in freefall until the lift is moving.”

Oscar waited until all the passengers in front of him had gotten out before releasing his own straps. The corridor outside the airlock was disappointing: a wide silvery tube with a shallow curve taking it deeper into the stalk; there was no exotic feel to it at all. He drifted across it to the lift opposite. Like everyone else he let his fuseto soles stick him to the floor. Just before the doors closed, he saw Paula Myo and her companion glide past the lift, heading farther down the corridor.

Gravity slowly built as the lift slid up the inside of the stalk. That much Oscar could understand, they were accelerating, after all. When it stopped, he was still in a full standard gravity field. The High Angel had never explained that, or any other technical ability it possessed, like its power source, the nature of its FTL drive, how it shielded itself from particle impacts, where the mass came from to extrude its new domes.

Their lift was one of ten opening out into a big arrivals lounge. Oscar and Mac took off their overalls and dropped them into a bin, then headed eagerly for the exit. The transit building was at the center of New Glasgow’s Circle Park, an area of greenery five kilometers wide filled with so many trees it could almost be classed as forest. Behind the trees were the skyscrapers, as varied in shape and texture as those along any New York avenue. The difference here was the skyway loops that coiled around them, thin rails carrying personal pods between public stops at considerable speed. It was daytime, which meant the crystal dome above them had turned translucent, emitting a uniform white light close to Sol’s spectrum. The atmosphere was pleasantly warm, with a touch of summer humidity.

Oscar took a long moment, his head craned back, turning a slow circle. “I have to admit, this is hellishly impressive. Puts the old Second Chance into perspective, doesn’t it?”

“Different strokes…” Mac shrugged. “We developed gateways and the CST network: every planet just a step away. If we’d spent three hundred years developing starships, I expect we’d be riding around the galaxy in something like this.”

Oscar glanced at him. “You’re impressed,” he decided.

“It’s a grand chunk of engineering, I admit. But it doesn’t give me an inferiority complex.”

“Okay, okay. So how do we get to Madam Chairwoman?”

Mac pointed through the woodland ahead. Small footpaths led away from the transit building, meandering through the trees. There was a stream not far away, the glimpse of a lake past the wider trunks. About fifty meters along the path ahead was a small white pillar with three personal pods parked around it. “They’ll take us as close as you can get,” Mac said.

The pods were simple pearl-white spheres with a flattened base. The doors were open ovals on either side, protected by a translucent force field. Mac eased through and sat on the small bench seat inside. Oscar joined him. From the inside, the pod shell was transparent. The force field doors flickered and strengthened.

“Chairwoman’s office, please,” Mac said.

The pod slid along the ground for a few meters, then the path surface dilated, exposing the top of a tunnel, and they sank down into it. There was no light in the tunnel, though the pod’s interior remained illuminated.

“Whoa,” Oscar said. His hands automatically gripped at the inside of the shell, even though there was no sensation of movement through the tunnel. “Must be some kind of inertial damping.”

“Stop analyzing. Enjoy. Especially this bit.”

“What— wowshit.”

The personal pod left the tunnel vertically, soaring along one of the skyway rails at what seemed like supersonic speed. Without feeling any acceleration, they were racing parallel to one of the skyscrapers, a tall slender cone of blue steel with a red sphere perched on top. Then the skyway curved around in a leisurely arc and leveled out. Another pod was hurtling toward them. Oscar had to force himself to keep his eyes open as they flashed past each other. Only then did his rattling heart slow enough so that he could take some enjoyment from the spectacle. They were high enough now that he could see right across the dome. There was as much parkland as there was urban area, and the shapes of the big buildings really were remarkable.

“This is much better at night,” Mac said. “That’s when the crystal turns transparent; you can see Icalanise overhead. Then you really know you’re in an alien place.”

They twisted over a junction to another skyway, which sent them arching around and down toward a building that looked like a silver clamshell. The pod zipped into the huge lobby on the eighteenth floor, and stopped by a white pillar where several others were clustered, waiting.

“Better than your Merc, huh?” Mac said as they climbed out.

Oscar pulled a face. “Just different.”

One of the Chairwoman’s political staffers was waiting for them, a young-looking woman in an expensive business suit. “Welcome to city hall, gentlemen,” Soolina Depfor said. “Ms. Gall is expecting you.” She led them straight into the office of the Chairwoman of the Human Residents Association, a huge oval room that had to be inside the building’s largest central rib. Its ceiling was a half cone of stained glass whose colors undulated in a long perpendicular wave pattern. There was only one piece of furniture, a desk right at the far end; an arrangement that made it seem like an old-fashioned throne room. But then, Oscar knew, Toniea Gall had been Chairwoman of the Residents Association for over a century. Few of history’s absolute monarchs had reigned for that long.

The Chairwoman, a tall woman with blue-black skin, dressed in a traditional African tribal robe, rose to greet them as they approached. With less than a decade left before her next rejuvenation, her face was dignified and solemn. Gray strands had infiltrated her tight-cropped cap of hair. It said something of the confidence she had in herself that she didn’t bother having it dyed. But then she won every election with a substantial majority. Her few critics and opponents claimed it was because nobody else really wanted the job; it was nothing other than a figurehead position; the High Angel ran all the services in the domes with peerless efficiency. To say that was to badly underestimate her ability. The High Angel might have started off simply as a convenient dormitory town for the astroengineering companies, but now the three domes—New Glasgow, Moscow Star, and Cracacol—were home to over fifteen million souls. Two new domes, New Auckland and Babuyan Atoll, which the Chairwoman had negotiated with High Angel, were now almost fully grown and ready for human occupancy. The freeflying factories outside manufactured a small but significant overall percentage of the Commonwealth’s high technology systems. By any measure, the High Angel was a big success story, and Toniea Gall, who had arrived as a company-contract ion thruster technician with the first wave of residents, was both a mirror and champion of that success story. She was also one of the longest serving heads of state, and lately the political media had begun to talk of her as a serious potential candidate for the presidency.

Oscar clasped the hand that the Chairwoman proffered, feeling dry, cool skin. “Thank you for seeing us, ma’am.”

“I was in two minds if I should,” Toniea Gall said. Her voice lacked any trace of humor or welcome. “Along with the rest of the residents, I felt quite insulted that Nigel Sheldon ignored us as a location to build his starship.”

Oscar’s smile tightened; he didn’t dare risk a glance at Mac. “I’m confident that no insult was intended, ma’am.”

“Then why not build it here?” she asked, genuinely puzzled. “We have all the facilities, as well as a huge pool of experience and knowledge. Building it at Anshun must have added a considerable amount to the cost of the project. Why would he do that?”

“Anshun is somewhat closer to the Dyson Pair—”

“Pah.” She waved a hand dismissively. “As if that would make any difference, a few days travel time at best. Is he trying to establish a rival space industry?”

“I assure you, ma’am, the only thing being built at Anshun is the starship. There are no freefall industrial facilities. A great many of our componants are sourced from the High Angel.”

“Humm. I’ll accept that for now, but you can tell Mr. Sheldon directly from me, I am extremely displeased by the decision. The next time his proxies need support for a close vote in the Senate, he need not come looking for it here.”

“I will let him know,” Oscar said meekly.

“So what are you here for?”

“We would like to ask the High Angel what it knows about the Dyson Pair. Any information, however small, would benefit our mission.”

“We are connected to the unisphere, you know.”

Oscar managed to avoid her piercing stare. “My immediate boss favors a very hands-on personal approach for something as critical as this, and the Residents Association has a permanent open link to the High Angel’s controlling intelligence.”

“It doesn’t know anything about the Dyson Pair.”

“We’d like to confirm that.”

Her lips pressed together in a thin smile. “The horse’s mouth, eh, gentlemen. Very well.” She gestured at the vaulting window behind her. “Did you see all the domes on your approach?”

“Most of them, yes.”

“The Raiel live in one. We know that because they consented to contact with humans. As to the other eight original domes, nobody knows who or what they house. Three of them contain cities or structures of some kind; they light up at night but nothing has ever been seen moving inside. One dome seems to be filled with mist; people claim they’ve glimpsed lights and shadows in there, but there’s no proof. One is permanently dark, though it does emit heavily in the infrared spectrum, indicating an internal temperature higher than an H-congruous world. One is permanently opaque and illuminated. And the last two have a thirty-seven-hour day-night cycle, but also remain opaque. So you see, gentlemen, after two centuries living here we don’t even know who our neighbors are. The High Angel prizes privacy above all else. Now you’re here to ask it about a species that has deliberately locked itself away from the rest of the galaxy.”

“It is a long shot, I admit,” Oscar said. “But we have to ask, you can understand that.”

“I understand your motives, but I don’t approve. We have to safeguard our own position, a priority which I place at the top of my list. However, you are welcome to use the Association’s open channel to our host.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

They retreated from her office, following a couple of paces behind Soolina Depfor as her heels clicked loudly on the polished floor. Oscar could feel the Chairwoman’s eyes staring into his back the whole way out. As soon as the tall doors closed, they exchanged a glance. Mac puffed his cheeks out. “Jeeze, what a ballbreaker,” he muttered.

At which point Soolina Depfor turned around, raising an eyebrow. Mac’s face turned a heated red.

“Our official channel is through here,” Soolina Depfor said. She showed them into a windowless conference room off the reception hall. It was built on a considerably less grand scale than the Chairwoman’s office, with a slim oval table in the middle that had six high-back leather chairs around it. “Just talk,” she told them. “The High Angel can hear you.” The door closed behind her.

“Make that two ballbreakers,” Mac said as they sat at one end of the table.

Oscar gave him a warning glance. “Hello?”

The featureless wall at the far end of the room glowed blue, then cleared to show a mirror image of the conference room. A man was sitting about halfway down the table. He wore a black V-necked sweater and dark trousers, his broad face had a couple of days’ stubble, and the hair above his forehead was receding. It was an image aimed at reassurance, the kind of senior executive you could trust. “Hello.”

“You’re the High Angel?” Mac asked.

The man shrugged. “I find this representation helps your species. Just showing an image of my hull and habitation section seems a bit pretentious, somehow.”

“Thank you for the consideration,” Oscar said.

“After meeting with our dear Chairwoman, making life easy is the least I could do for you. You were right, Mac, she is a complete ballbreaker. I guess that’s why you people keep voting for her—who’d dare vote against. Of course, she does do a good job as well.”

“You heard what we said in there?”

“I hear what I want to inside myself. As I did explain to your Commonwealth leaders right at the start, I’m here to learn about different species; you can only do that through observation.”

“I know this isn’t quite on topic, but why are you collecting information?”

“Why does your species spend so much time obsessing about sex, politics, and religion? We are what we are, no matter what our appearance, nature, and size. My priority is gathering information on alien species, I’m an explorer and social anthropologist. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

“Okay,” Mac said amicably. “Who are you collecting it for?”

“I’m not even sure anymore, I’ve been doing it so long now. Then again, that might be a lie and I’m actually feeding information on this galaxy and its defense capabilities to a fleet of warships that are thundering in from Andromeda. One day, my kind will regroup at the center of the collapsing universe, and carry the seeds of a new evolution into the next universe to be born, a mix of the best of what’s gone before. Or, I watch the planetborn for entertainment here in my Olympian orbit. Pick your reason, gentlemen, your species has forwarded all those and more.”

“Why are aliens all intent on being enigmatic?”

“You’re not classing me in there with the Silfen, are you? It’s really very simple, as I said, this is what I do. I gain, I suppose, satisfaction from meeting you and learning from you. I regret I teach very little in return, but that, too, is my nature. Maybe one day I will decide to do something with all the knowledge I have acquired, and transform or even transcend; but for the moment I haven’t reached anything like a data saturation point. I remain curious about the universe.”

“Did that curiosity ever take you to the Dyson Pair?” Oscar asked.

“No, I’m afraid not. Our Chairwoman was being truthful with you; I have no information on either star.”

“Aren’t you curious, though? Surely a species which can erect a barrier around a star would be worth studying?”

The High Angel grinned broadly. “If they’ve put up a barrier, how would I study them? No, you’re right, they would make a most interesting addition to my little menagerie. But I’ve only just encountered you.”

“Fair enough,” Mac said. “But aren’t you interested in the reason why the barriers went up?”

“Of course I am. But again, I can’t help you. I don’t know the reason, I’ve never visited that sector of space.”

“What about observation? Did you ever sense any kind of conflict going on out there before the barriers went up?”

“No, I didn’t. That whole section of space is unremarkable as far as I know. Certainly there have been no unnatural alterations made on a stellar level, no stars extinguished or turning nova; nor am I aware of any planets physically annihilated.”

“What about in general? Even you admit you’ve been around for a long time, have you ever encountered anything that would require a barrier like this to defend a star? Are there species out there that would attack a star or obliterate an inhabited planet?”

“Intent and capability are not the same thing. There are many humans throughout your history who have shown no compunction about unleashing death and disaster on a massive scale; if they had possessed a device capable of exterminating a star they might well have used it. And in the past I have observed species who make your most evil tyrants appear saints by comparison. However, as a general rule, in order to reach the kind of technology level where destroying a sun is achievable, a society must be relatively stable.”

“Some of our biggest leaps have been made during wartime,” Mac said.

“I agree that humans are most adept at innovating when placed under pressure or threat,” the High Angel said. “But there is a difference between building new weapons and the fundamental theories upon which such technical advances are based. Genuine scientific progress is a slow climb, which requires a stable society to support thinkers and theorists over many generations. Evolution usually means that the species which break out of their planetary environment have some inbuilt social or biological mechanism for restraining their prehistory savagery. Of course there are many exceptions, with determined individuals circumventing such strictures. And it could well be that a less developed culture obtains the relics and knowledge left behind by a more advanced race. But to extrapolate that to a race or entity which poses a physical threat to a star is almost beyond probability.”

“Then why the barrier?”

“I really don’t know,” the High Angel said. “But from my experience and observation I’m ninety-nine percent certain that it was not to ward off aggression.”

“It’s the one percent that kills you,” Oscar mused.

“Inevitably. But I am not aware of any species within thousands, if not tens of thousands, of light-years which is capable of aggression on this scale. I may be wrong, for I don’t claim to be infallible. It could even be argued that the mega-flare which eliminated most of the life on Far Away was an example of such belligerence, it certainly falls beyond the ethics of most civilizations and species. However, as you are aware, I do maintain a comprehensive observation of space over a great many parsecs. If such a threat is out there, then it has the ability to elude my senses. A worrying development, I concede.”

“Or so big a threat it’s actually not worth worrying about,” Mac said.

“That’s a very human viewpoint,” the High Angel said. “I don’t subscribe to it myself. But then by your standards I’m something of a coward.”

“Is that why you haven’t visited the Dyson Pair?”

“Let’s just say, this is a comfortable distance to watch from. I am curious, which is why in this instance I am keen to help you beyond my normal capacity.”

Oscar ran his hand back through his hair. “Thank you for that. If you do observe anything relevant…”

“I will inform you of course. And please feel free to call me again should you have any further inquiries. In the future, I will accept a direct link from either of you through the unisphere.”

Both Paula and Hoshe spent the express train journey to Kerensk sitting quietly in first class, running through information from the case. Diagrams, text summaries, financial graphs, they all swarmed through their virtual vision. Even Paula’s attention wavered occasionally under the relentless flow.

However, they both abandoned the case data for the shuttle trip over to the High Angel. Hoshe was fascinated by what he could see outside the windows, requesting a stream of descriptive information from his e-butler. Once they’d docked at the base of the New Glasgow stalk, Paula instructed her e-butler to query the High Angel’s internal information net for directions as the other passengers drifted past on their way to the lift. A subsidiary net program directed her down the curving corridor to a door that opened into a smaller lift capsule.

“Did you find anything relevant in the case files?” she asked as the doors closed and they started to accelerate.

Hoshe glanced around the lift suspiciously. “Can we talk in here?”

“Yes. The High Angel is aware of everything inside itself. And I’ve already briefed it about the case.”

“Oh. Right. Well, the Tampico National Tax Office was helpful. After the flotation, the shares from Tara’s half of the company were deposited into the Tampico First State Bank by Broher Associates, her divorce lawyers. Eight months later, those were then exchanged for Gansu Construction shares when Morton agreed to the buyout. All very standard. Then they just sat there until she was re-lifed, at which point she transferred them back to her accountant on Oaktier.”

“What about the dividends?”

“Gansu was an excellent deal. They’ve paid dividends every four months, and the share price has gone up twelve times their original price in that time—Morton is a good director. The money went straight into the bank’s long-term investment account, which also did reasonably well over seventeen years, although the percentage was lower than most managed funds. No money was ever taken out; it stayed there and grew for her. The bank paid local tax on it every year. Nobody questioned the timescale. Apparently, there are a lot of accounts left untouched like that, some of them for centuries.”

“Did she have a current account with First State?”

“No.”

“And there’s no record of Wyobie Cotal having any kind of account off Oaktier? If they had lived there on Tampico, they had to have some kind of funds. They’d be traceable.”

“All credit transfers from Tara’s Oaktier bank dried up after the final balance was paid, three weeks after she supposedly left for Tampico. The last item on the account was a payment to Broher Associates for handling the divorce case, that was a week prior to the final balance payment. That all checks out, Broher Associates served Morton the divorce file a fortnight after she left. The bank changed her account status from current to sleeper three years later; that’s standard procedure when it’s been inactive for that length of time, it prevents any less-than-honest bank employee from spotting she’s not using it and siphoning off the money themselves. To open it up again after her re-life she had to go in with a court order confirming her identity.”

“What’s listed on her credit account in the two weeks before paying her lawyers?”

“Not a damn thing. The second to last payment is for her lunch with Caroline Turner. There is nothing in the period between that and the divorce lawyers.”

“Do we know where she was when the payment to the lawyers was made?”

“No. Just somewhere within the unisphere.”

“No live sighting or confirmation then,” Paula mused. The banks would swear in court that anyone with an account had to be alive for the pattern code to work. It was a complete lie, of course; banks across the Commonwealth lost billions to credit hackers every year. The only really secure credit account was with the SI bank; and she’d seen classified reports on the ultra-grade hackers who had even managed to forge those transfers, though it involved cellular reprofiling and assuming the victim’s life. A pattern code, however detailed and complex, could always be copied and duplicated given enough time and resources.

“What about Wyobie Cotal, did he spend any money on Tampico?”

“No. I checked his account. Same story as Tara. No purchases after the day they disappeared together. His bank changed the account from current to sleeper two years later.”

“Who paid for the tickets to Tampico?”

“Cash transaction the morning they went missing. But they were registered in Tara’s name.”

“I don’t suppose there’s any way of knowing if they were actually used?”

“No. CST doesn’t keep that kind of information.”

“They have sensors and cameras in every planetary station.”

“But the data isn’t archived for four decades, it would cost a fortune. They keep it for a couple of years at most, and that varies between stations.”

“What about cash? Did either of them make any large withdrawals before they supposedly left Oaktier?”

“No, neither of them ever made any large cash withdrawals from their Oaktier accounts, period. So unless one of them had a secret numbered account somewhere it’s hard to believe they were alive, even for that first fortnight.”

“Humm.” Paula reached out and used her cuff fuseto on the wall, steadying herself as the lift capsule changed direction. She knew they were traveling along the inside of the giant starship’s hull now, heading for the Raiel habitation dome. “I suppose it’s possible she could have sold some jewelry and lived off that money. But why would she? The whole case that they went to Tampico is getting worse the closer we look at it.”

“I haven’t believed it for some time.”

“Me neither. But we must always be sure, Hoshe.”

“Of course.”

“My Directorate has been unable to find any secure memory store facility opened by Tara. I think that just about makes it official. She was killed, and presumably Cotal as well. We now need to find a motive, which is the really puzzling part of all this. It certainly isn’t financial. I’m still inclined to think Shaheef and Cotal walked in on some criminal activity; the payment to the lawyers two weeks later would tend to support that because someone was clearly busy building up the alibi that they were still alive. If so, there will be very little evidence for us to find.”

“Then why are we here?”

“Process of elimination. I want to lock down Shaheef’s personal life. All of it.” Her hands gripped the small bag she was carrying. She could tell Hoshe was deeply uncertain about the whole concept, but like a good policeman he wasn’t criticizing his boss. Not yet.

The lift rose up the stalk to the Raiel dome, and the gravity field asserted itself, reaching eighty percent Earth standard. Hoshe took a moment to steady himself; he’d never seen an alien in the flesh before—though his wife was always talking about visiting the Silfen. But then this break in everyday life was all part of working with Paula Myo. He’d pulled in every favor, real or imagined, with the division’s captain to stay assigned to the case when it became known she was taking it on. Success by association was always welcome, but he genuinely wanted to see her working her magic. There was also the remote possibility she might endorse an application to the Serious Crimes Directorate. Hoshe hadn’t mentioned that piece of career planning to anyone, but the idea was firmly lodged at the back of his mind now.

When the door opened it was a slight anticlimax; rather than some exotic alien metropolis he was looking out on a gloomy alleyway with smooth matte-black metal walls thirty meters high. Above him, the dome’s crystal was transparent, permitting Icalanise’s wan amber light to shine through. Small red lights were embedded along the foot of the alley walls, glimmering like candlelit jewels. He found the silence imposing, a complete absence of even the faintest sound.

“It probably looks better in the daytime,” he decided.

“This is the daytime,” Paula told him primly. She started walking.

Twice, Hoshe was convinced something big flew overhead, just above the walls. A subliminal rustle of air, maybe the light flickering ever so slightly. Of course, whenever he looked up, all he could see was the rigid strip of dome crystal above the walls.

“Do you know where we’re going?” he asked.

“More or less. The city geometry changes slightly the whole time, its buildings and streets tend to move around, but they do it slowly. Don’t worry, the High Angel won’t let us go anywhere we shouldn’t.” She paused at an intersection. This alley was a little wider, and had green lights glinting along its length. A Raiel was moving along it, heading toward them. In the dim light it was hard to see anything but a large dark bulk sliding closer, which made the huge alien even more intimidating. An adult Raiel was larger than a bull elephant, though that was where all comparison ended. From the angle Hoshe was seeing it, the alien’s forward body looked more like an octopus tipped on its side. A bulbous head was surrounded by a collar of tentacle-limbs ranging from a pair at the bottom that had evolved for heavy work, four meters long with paddlelike tips and a base thicker than a human torso, down to clumps of small slender manipulators that resembled energetic nests of boa constrictors.

A bunch of five small hemispherical eyes on the side of its head swiveled in unison to focus on Hoshe as it reached the intersection. When he glanced down, he saw eight short stumpy legs on each side of its underbelly; they didn’t have any knees or ankles, they were just blunt cylinders of flesh that tilted up and forward in pairs to propel it along in what amounted to a continuous smooth waddle. As the main bulk of its body went past, Hoshe could just make out brown rings mottling the grizzled hide of short bristly fur. Behind the collar of tentacles a number of small protuberances were dangling down as if the flesh had been pulled into dreadlocks; by the way the bulbs at the end swung about ponderously they could have been solid lead, they were definitely technological rather than any natural growth.

“How about that,” he mumbled once the giant alien was past. Its rear end tapered to a drooping point.

“They are somewhat overwhelming,” Paula said as she started off down the alley with green lights. “A lot of human residents here think they actually built the High Angel. Given their intelligence level it’s a strong possibility.”

“What do you believe?”

For the first time since they’d been on the case, Paula produced a small smile. “I don’t believe it really matters. But for the record: it’s unlikely.”

“Why?”

“Because they’re almost as indifferent to us as the Silfen are. Mind you, it’s different in this instance; the Raiel really do look down on us from a great intellectual height. I don’t think any entity that aloof would build something with the High Angel’s mission. Qatux told me once that they study the physical dynamics of the universe, not the cultures it contains. To them, life really is an accident of chemistry; all life, including themselves. I think they only agreed to contact with the Commonwealth so that they could have access to our unisphere’s astrophysics database. They’ve made some substantial contributions to our sensor technology over the years.”

They walked for another five minutes. Other than the color of the low lights that was different at each intersection, there was no change to the nature of the alleys or walls. He knew there were tall structures somewhere in the dome, but none of them were visible from the bottom of the alleys. It didn’t take much imagination for him to picture himself as some lab animal scuttling through a maze.

Paula eventually stopped beside a section of wall no different from any other; the string of lights along the base were purple shading toward ultra-violet. After a moment, a section of the wall in front of her split open and parted. The gap was wide enough to admit a Raiel. Inside was a broad circular space, its floor glowing a pale emerald. The roof was invisible somewhere in the darkness above.

A Raiel was waiting for them a few meters beyond the door. Paula stood before it, and gave a small bow. “Hello, Qatux, thank you for seeing me.”

Qatux’s head lifted, revealing the crinkled, damp folds of pale skin that was its mouth zone. Several of them creased up, briefly exposing deep gullets and nasal passages. There was even a glimpse of sharp brown fangs. “Paula.” The voice was a mellow whisper, accompanied by the soft sighing of air escaping through the big alien’s loose muscles. “Have you brought it?”

“Yes.” She opened her bag and brought out a fist-sized cylinder of memory crystal.

The big Raiel quivered at the sight of it. Now that his eyes were acclimatizing to the murky light, Hoshe could see Qatux didn’t appear to be in very good physical shape. The hide around its main torso was tight, outlining the platelets of its skeletal structure. One of its large tentacle-limbs was trembling, which it kept coiled up, though the splayed tip kept falling out. All its eyes were rheumy, blinking out of sequence.

“How long is it?” Qatux asked.

“Tara Jennifer Shaheef is over a hundred years old. Can you handle that much memory?”

One of the medium-sized tentacles slithered out toward Paula, its tip poised above the memory crystal. “Yes. Most certainly. I can do that.”

“I’m serious.” Paula slapped at the tentacle tip that hurriedly withdrew. “I need to know if it’s actually possible. You’ve never taken more than twenty years before.”

“Yes. Yes. It will take longer for me to absorb that much information, that’s all.”

“All right then. I’m looking for anyone who could carry a grudge. Anyone who features prominently and then vanishes from her life. They might have been edited out, so check for missing segments, you know, sequences that don’t connect to anything else. I want you to consider professional clashes as well as personal ones. It might even be a quick meeting, a particularly savage argument. I don’t know, but some trigger, okay?”

The tentacle crept out again, a sheepish motion. “These events and people I will find for you.”

“I hope so.” Her hand moved up and down, as if physically weighing the cylinder, demonstrating her reluctance. Then she brought it up and slapped it into the hooked end of the tentacle. Qatux hurriedly pulled it back. “Don’t take too long,” she admonished.

“A week. No more. I will call you. I promise.”

The wall parted again to let them out.

“That’s it?” Hoshe asked. “We just leave her memory with Qatux?”

“You heard. Qatux will call when he’s finished.”

“Hell, I thought…” Hoshe lowered his voice. “I thought we were taking it to some Raiel authority, a forensics lab. Something official!”

“What do you want? A mayor or a president with a signature certificate on a court warrant? The High Angel lets us in, the Raiel city gives us access; it doesn’t get any more official than this.”

Hoshe took a long breath, he really didn’t want to get on the wrong side of the Chief Investigator. But he was police, too; maybe not like her, but he had a sense of right and wrong, of justice. “All I’m saying is, it took the Oaktier Supreme National Court three days to grant us copy authority to Shaheef’s secure store memory. And if it had been anybody else but you applying, we probably wouldn’t have got that. Isn’t that an indicator of how highly we value a secure store? This is a person’s life we’re dealing with here, her whole life. And now you just hand it over to some sick alien.”

“Yes it’s her life. But that life was entrusted to us when she was murdered.”

“Alleged murder.”

“It is time you learned that passing your own judgment and acting upon it is essential to our profession. Have some confidence in yourself and your ability, Detective.”

Hoshe scowled, though he knew his cheeks were reddening. He walked through the bizarrely lit alleys next to the Chief Investigator, both of them keeping silent.

The lift door was still open when they arrived back at it.

“They pity him, you know,” Paula said as they started their descent back down the stalk.

“Who?”

“The other Raiel. They pity Qatux. You understand what he is, don’t you?”

“I think so.”

“They’re an old race. They have dignity and grace in abundance, their minds are far superior to ours. We’re only a few generations away from our hunter-gatherer ancestors; while the Raiel are so far past that rung on their evolutionary ladder they’re almost a different species to the creatures they left behind. It leaves them vulnerable to certain things. I’m not making excuses for what Qatux is, but I understand his fall. We can cope with raw emotion because we’re still close to the animal origin. I can’t imagine what it’s like for an entity who has never experienced love or hate or anger or joy to be exposed to such feelings. Shock, I guess. For the majority of them, anyway. Most Raiel are mentally strong enough to dismiss it. But the weaker ones, they can become addicted. That’s what happened to Qatux; he’s a human junkie. He loves us. And I think it’s the saddest thing in the universe.”

“So he’s reliving Shaheef’s memories?”

“Not reliving, he’s becoming her. Every experience, every sight, every sound, he knows them. You heard him, it’ll take a week to absorb a hundred years of her life. When it’s done, we’ll be able to ask him anything about any day, hour, or minute of her life, and get a coherent answer.”

“All right, but I don’t see the need. We can do that, we don’t need a Raiel.”

“Have you ever reviewed someone’s memory, Hoshe?”

“No,” he admitted.

“It’s not like a TSI recording; similar I grant you, but not the same. TSI is the polished version, directed and focused. They’re made for a reason, to push your attention onto something. Ninety percent of the market has a sexual content, but there are the pure dramas, and action adventures, and tourist trips as well. It actually takes a very skilled performer, backed up by an equally skillful nerve impulse editor, to receive and filter out the impressions that the director wants and the script calls for. You access a TSI and the story is laid out for you, easy and simple, you sit back and zip through it. True memory is different, it’s whatever has caught your attention at the moment. There can be a dozen important—critical—things going on around you, and because of your prejudices, the way your personality is put together, you’re only looking at one, most likely the least important. It doesn’t even have to be visual; a sound, a smell, that could be the only recollection you have of a room, not who was in it or what they said. And try finding that room amid all the years you can recall… We can date the sections of memories which were recorded by an insert memorycell. But indexing, that’s completely different. Unless you know the exact time, you’re forced to review the whole day, or if you’re unlucky, week. And that’s where Qatux comes in. Humans have to review memory in real-time, we can’t accept it running faster than it happened. So if I wanted to look through the century which is Shaheef’s life, I would have to spend a century doing it. But Qatux with his larger brain and excellent mind, he can take the whole load in almost at once.”

“You were worried about him.”

“Yes. A hundred years is a long time. Even his brain will have a limit. And I know he’s soaked up dozens of human lives already.”

“Doesn’t that bother you, being his pusher?”

“Human ethics,” she murmured. “You can’t judge the Raiel by our standards. They don’t police their own kind the way we do. Raiel are supposed to police themselves. Qatux has made his choice, which in his society he has a perfect right to do. He’s going to get those memories anyway. If I didn’t supply them, other people will; it’s not just commercial TSI recordings you can buy within the unisphere, there are real memories to be had as well. A small specialist market. This way Qatux helps us solve the crime, everybody benefits. If we stopped him from getting them, it would be us committing the transgression as far as the Raiel are concerned.”

“Maybe,” Hoshe said. The lift was slowing again, delivering them into freefall. “I still believe this is wrong.”

“Do you want to leave the case? I won’t stop you, and it won’t read against you on your record.”

“No thank you, Chief Investigator. We’ve come this far; I’m going to see it through.”

From the moment it began, Rob Tannie regretted taking this job. It was all down to money of course, and his perennial shortage of it. In his current chosen profession of “field security operative” ordinary jobs were hard to find, and well-paid jobs were merely the stuff of legend. So when his agent called to offer him the contract with its fantastic payment, he should have known better. And if that wasn’t enough, the contract also had a re-life clause: he was to load his memories into a private clinic’s secure store and his anonymous employer would provide a five-year bond. If Rob didn’t reappear within five years in person to cancel it, then the clinic would go ahead with the procedure.

That told him, even if intuition and simple common sense didn’t, that sure-as-shit five years from now he’d be waking up in some freaky infant-teenage body with no recollection of the last few months of this existence. He should have walked. But it was those damn finances: some bad investments in horses and certain sporting fixtures, as well as poker and other games of chance, had left a rather large shortfall in his credit balance. He couldn’t afford not to agree, not with creditors like his, and his agent knew that. So he said yes, and expected to wind up helping some radical ethnic group strike a blow for greater cultural autonomy against their planetary government, or take part in a corporate black ops strike, or if things were really bad he could even be involved in some criminal syndicate power struggle. Naturally, with his luck, it was even worse than any of those.

Two weeks settling into his newly arranged job as a security guard at CST’s Anshun starship complex. Two boring weeks staying in character while he learned the layout, the schedules, the hardware that CST used. Getting on nodding terms with the technical teams putting the starship together. Sharing a laugh with his new colleagues about the hundreds of overeager hopefuls who arrived every day for their final stage crew interviews and assessments. Actually catching a glimpse of Nigel Sheldon himself, surrounded by his entourage of aides.

Two weeks and he still had no idea why he was here. He couldn’t work out who was opposed to CST, unless it was some kind of Earth Grand Family conflict—who knew what those rich weirdos would do to each other to gain an advantage.

Then this morning just before breakfast he received an encrypted message from his agent. Rob used the key he’d been given, and slim green text opened up across his virtual vision. His mug of breakfast coffee grew cold as he read and reread the briefing with its precise instructions and timings. Finally, he looked up at the apartment’s ceiling and groaned, “Oh, bloody hell.” That was it, he really wasn’t likely to survive the day, despite the last text section that detailed extraction routes.

He stuck to the routine he’d established, and took a city metro out to the CST planetary station. From there he caught one of the staff buses that spent the day trundling back and forth over the wasteland of the station yard to the starship complex. Along with the other security guards he arrived at the locker room twenty minutes before shift started so he could change into his uniform. This time, he took longer than usual, waiting until the room was nearly empty. When there were only two others left, he went over to the locker specified in the briefing. The code pattern in his thumb OCtattoo opened it. A simple utility belt was inside, identical to the one he was wearing. He swapped the pair of them around, and closed the locker before leaving.

His shift began at eight-thirty, and he was at the main gatehouse on time, one of three guards to be stationed there. The first person through was Wilson Kime. Rob saluted as the gate opened for the captain’s car. It was about the most physical part of his duty. The three guards in the gatehouse were responsible for monitoring the perimeter with its six-meter fence and patrolling guardbots. Hundreds of sensors were strung out along the fence, along with dozens more scattered across the surrounding land. Nothing could get close without security knowing. All the guards had to do was run random second-level verification scans on personnel and check visitor vehicles.

At ten-thirty, Rob said, “I’m going for a break, back in twenty.” He left the gatehouse, and walked back to the main complex buildings over the newly mowed grass. The air was as humid as ever, making him wipe perspiration from his brow.

Once he was inside, he made straight for the gateway section. The control room was on the lower of the building’s three sublevels. Another security guard and a building maintenance tech were waiting in the lift. His e-butler swapped IFF codes with them, confirming they were all part of the mission. They gave each other tense looks, judging what they saw, wondering if one of them didn’t have what it took.

A timer in Rob’s virtual vision counted down the seconds until ten forty-seven. “Right,” he said, and touched the button for the lower level. “Anyone want out, you’re too late.” The lift doors slid shut, and they began their descent to sublevel three. Rob opened his holster and took out the ion pistol, checking its charge level. It looked the same as the one he’d been issued with, the difference was that the security network couldn’t disable it as it could all the others, a precaution in case a guard ever went “rogue.”

“Put it away,” the maintenance tech said, he gave his eyes a warning flick toward the lift’s sensor.

Rob showed him a disdainful glance, just to prove he wasn’t taking orders, and slipped the weapon back. “You got the door?”

“Door and gateway network hold-down,” the tech said. “You?”

“We make sure you don’t get interrupted.” Rob and the other guard exchanged a glance.

“Okay then.”

The lift opened onto a short corridor. There were two doors on either side, and one at the far end.

The tech took a small array out of his tool kit, and placed it over the lift controls. “Neutralized,” he confirmed.

Rob slipped the first remote charge from a pouch on his utility belt. The little unit was a simple square of black plastic, the size of his palm, a centimeter deep. He pushed it against the ceiling, and instructed his e-butler to load the activation code. The e-butler acknowledged the charge switching to armed status, and Rob pulled his hand down. The remote charge stayed in place. Its casing slowly changed color, matching the lift’s ceiling tiles.

The maintenance tech led the way down the corridor to the big door at the end, struggling to carry his heavy tool kit bag. He held another array over the lock panel. Rob took his ion pistol out again, slipping the safety off. His timer showed him they were perfectly on schedule. The door slid open. They hurried inside.

The gateway control room was nothing like the center used for interstellar exploratory work. This was a simple box ten meters on each side, full of consoles, with glass-walled management offices along one side, all of them currently dark and unoccupied. Eight people were working the shift, sitting behind the consoles to monitor the huge assemblage of machinery that was buried in its own cavern beyond the control room. Three giant high-rez portals on the wall opposite the offices revealed the gateway’s status with dense three-dimensional graphic displays.

Heads came up to frown at the intruders. Right on schedule Rob’s e-butler reported that its interface with the cybersphere had just dropped out; kaos software was infiltrating all the local nodes.

“Everybody be quiet and stay calm,” the other guard said. “Keep your hands where we can see them, and please don’t do anything stupid.”

One of the console operators stood up, giving Rob an incredulous stare. “What the hell is going on? Is something wrong?”

Rob shot the ceiling above him, with the pistol on minimum charge. The manager got out a short animal screech as sharp splinters of the polyphoto strip came crashing down around him, trailing thin wisps of smoke. An alarm started to shrill loudly.

“You were told to shut up,” Rob shouted above the noise. Frightened faces stared at him. Hands were being held high in the air.

“Shit, man!” The tech was staring at the fallen manager, who was still crouched down on the floor, arms over his head, shaking badly.

“Do your job,” Rob snapped back at him.

He nodded with a fast jerk, and pressed the button to close the door.

“What?” The other guard shot the alarm, killing the sound.

“Thank you,” Rob said.

“You lot,” the tech shouted at the managers. “Get away from the consoles.”

Rob and the other guard waved their pistols meaningfully, shepherding the managers over to the glass wall. They were made to crouch down. “Joanne Bilheimer,” Rob called. “Front and center, now.”

One of the women looked up fearfully. “I’m Joanne. What do you want?”

“Up.” Rob beckoned with all four fingers. He pointed to the console marked Chief of Operations. “Secure this room, activate level three isolation.”

“I…” She gave his pistol a frightened glance. “I’m not…”

“Please,” he said. “Don’t give me any bullshit about not having the authority. And you really don’t want to make me start issuing threats, because I’ll carry them out. Now, level three?”

“I can’t interface. Something’s contaminating the console nodes.”

Rob smiled pleasantly. “That’s why CST provided you with a backup manual system as well.”

She bowed her head, then got up and walked over to the console.

The other guard was standing facing the captive managers. “This is just an anesthetic,” he told them. “Nobody’s going to be killed, we’re not homicidal lunatics.” He went along the line, pressing a hypotube against their necks. One by one they went limp and keeled over.

A big metal slab rumbled out of the floor, sealing the doorway. A similar slab covered the fire door. The air above them shimmered, then hardened as the force field came on, reinforcing the molecular structure of the walls. Two fat cylinders came telescoping down out of the ceiling at opposite ends of the room. Rob grinned in satisfaction at that: air filter, recycling the atmosphere now the force field had sealed off the air-conditioning ducts. “Thank you, Joanne.”

She didn’t even have time to look at him before the other guard slapped the hypotube against her neck.

The tech had gotten the panels off one of the consoles. He’d tipped up his tool kit, a number of custom array units spilled onto the floor around him. They all sprouted a long bundle of fiber-optic cable, which he was working frantically to connect into the ridiculously complicated console electronics.

“Can you do it?” Rob asked.

“Shut the fuck up and let me concentrate. We’ve got about two minutes left to verify control before the RI shuts us out.”

“Right.” Rob and the other guard looked at each other and shrugged. Rob didn’t have a clue what the man was doing, nor how to help him. The kaos software was still contaminating the nodes, blocking access to the cybersphere. He didn’t know what was going on outside in the rest of the complex, if the other units in the mission were going ahead, if it had stalled, if they’d already all been shot. Being cut off like this wasn’t good. He wanted to know. He needed to know. His virtual vision timer was relentlessly counting down the mission elapsed time, crossing off events that should have happened. Ninety seconds left, and the tech was still working with obsessive fever inside the console.

Come on,Rob urged him silently. Come on.

Wilson had reached the central gridwork in the assembly platform when his e-butler told him Oscar Monroe was calling. “Connect us,” he ordered it. He slowed his momentum against one of the gantry girders, and rotated slowly so he could look in at the starship’s rear section. All of the reaction mass tanks had been installed now, bulging out from the cylinder superstructure. Nearly a fifth of the fuselage plating was in place, with constructionbots busy adding more.

A small translucent image of Oscar’s head appeared in the corner of his virtual vision. “Want some good news, Captain?” Oscar asked.

“Sure.”

“The High Angel claims it doesn’t know of any aliens equipped with superweapons in this part of the galaxy.”

Wilson automatically shifted his gaze to the ship’s force field emplacements. Some of the generators were in place now, though none had been connected up to the power net and commissioned. “You’re right, that is good news. I take it you didn’t have any trouble dealing with the habitat?”

“Not the habitat, no.”

Wilson grinned privately; he’d encountered Chairwoman Gall a few times himself. “So what did it say?”

“It hasn’t visited the Dyson Pair, so it knows very little. It indicated that it was curious, and maybe even nervous about the barriers. Basically, it’s waiting to see what we find.”

“Interesting policy. Did it say if it had contacted any aliens at all from that section of space?”

“Not really, it’s keeping its alien privacy commitment very st—”

The link dropped out. Wilson was forming a question for the e-butler when it relayed a security alarm. The starship complex’s datanet was under some kind of kaos assault. “How bad?” he managed to ask. Several lights around the assembly platform flickered, startling him. “Forget that, give me a systems status review: overall and platform.”

Two more security alarms flashed up as the status display expanded into his virtual vision. There had been an explosion at one of the complex’s main power generators. Intruders had penetrated the gateway control room. Security guards in assembly room 4DF were in the middle of a firefight with more intruders. Sections of the complex’s datanet were failing and dropping out as the kaos software contaminated the routing nodes.

“Holy shit!”

Systems across the assembly platform were switching to backup power sources as the main grid supply fluctuated. He twisted around wildly, having to grab at the girder to stop himself from spinning. The gateway was still established, leading back to the big assessment building. Pods were sliding along the electromuscle; a couple of people were floating around the junction, looking back. “Get me the security chief,” he told his e-butler.

The status display showed power and data connections to the security command center blanking out. Fire suppression systems in surrounding sections of the tower building switched on. Shock paralyzed Wilson’s thoughts for a second. He had trouble grasping what he was seeing. Then his really ancient training kicked in: React, don’t freeze.

Lights were going out across the assembly platform as the local management array began its emergency power-down procedures.

“Establish command of the local management array,” he instructed his e-butler. “Encrypt all traffic and key it to my pattern code. Isolate the array and the platform network from the ground complex datanet now. Authorize continuance of all its internal emergency procedures, but I want the platform’s force field erected over the gateway immediately. Divert all internal power reserves to sustaining it.”

“Working,” the e-butler said.

The virtual vision status display vanished as the datalink to the main complex was cut. “Give me internal status.” Fresh streams of translucent data wrapped around him: he was at the center of a globe composed from thousands of red and amber lines woven through and around each other. The construction activities were shutting down; even so there wasn’t a lot of power in reserve. “Cancel environment functions, we’ve got enough air for hours.”

“Enabling.”

“Locate senior staff inside the platform, and list them. Open general broadcast channel to everyone up here.”

Lights continued to go out all around him, dropping huge sections of the platform into gloomy half-light. The force field came on, sealing over the gateway. Bright light from the assessment building shone through into the gloom.

“Attention, everybody,” Wilson announced over the general channel. “The complex seems to be suffering some kind of physical assault. We’ve sealed the gateway, so we should be perfectly safe up here. But just as a precaution, I want everyone to head up to the Second Chance ’s life-support ring, section twelve.” He skimmed through the list of senior personnel. “Give me Anna Hober.” He vaguely remembered her from crew training sessions, an astronomer from CST’s exploratory division, appointed to the crew as a sensor expert and navigator.

“Enabling.”

“Sir?” Anna Hober said.

“Anna, where are you?”

“Up at the secondary sensor array. I’m part of the installation team.”

“You’re now my executive officer. Get linked into the ship’s life-support section array, and start powering up the internal environmental systems. Snatch whoever you need from the assembly teams to facilitate the job. Get going. I want a safe haven established for everyone up here.”

“Yes, sir.”

His virtual hand touched the e-butler icon. “Give me a status display for the starship’s internal systems.”

“Enabling.”

When it came, it was a small representation. Few systems were receiving power, and the starship’s internal network was little more than primary communications links—a spine without nerve junctions.

Wilson kicked off from the girder, heading in toward the life-support ring. As he glided forward he reviewed the onboard power sources. Most of the backup emergency reserves were in place, and two of the fusion generators had been tested before being shut down again. That ought to give them enough power to sustain a few decks while the situation on the ground sorted itself out. If things started to stretch out they might even be able to start a fusion reactor and plug it into the force field generator—the drain that was exerting on reserves was uncomfortably large.

“Do we have any external communications links to the planetary datasphere available?”

“The assembly platform is equipped with emergency transmitters which can link to geostationary satellites.”

“Activate them. I need to know what’s happening down there.”

So many lights had gone off he was having trouble seeing where he was going. Girders and structural poles were invisible until he was really close. It slowed his progress; he was practically having to feel his way along now. His retinal inserts fed an infrared image into his virtual vision, turning his sight to sparkling pink and white.

The bright flood of light coming through the gateway faded away to a soft jaundiced glow given out by the assessment building’s emergency lighting. Then there was a bright orange flash, which his retinal inserts had to damp down to prevent it from dazzling him. Wilson blinked his eyes, finding himself in near darkness now the flash had died away; the main power lines had also been lost, leaving just a few emergency lighting systems functional inside the platform. The gateway was completely black. “Oh, fuck,” he whispered. His suspicions had been right all along. They were targeting Second Chance.

Lennie Al Husan had arrived at the Anshun CST station after a two-hour rail journey that was supposed to take forty-eight minutes. It always happened when he routed through StLincoln; there was always a delay in that station yard. So he was late for his appointment with the starship project’s media office. His editor was going to play hell over that, every media company was trying to get an angle on the flight. Lennie even dreamily entertained the idea he might somehow qualify as one of the reporter/crewmembers, a post that the CST kept dangling in front of media representatives to ensure favorable cooperation.

Except this delay had probably blown that option.

He made his way along the main concourse to the transport holding area for the starship complex. There were a couple of extensive security checks, then he was outside in the wretchedly humid air, joining several other people milling about waiting for a bus. He asked his e-butler to contact the media officer he’d been dealing with.

“I’m having trouble establishing an interface to the datasphere,” the e-butler told him. “Kaos software is contaminating the local datanet nodes.”

“Really?” Lennie looked around with interest, which was a stupid thing to do, he acknowledged. But kaos attacks were rare, and usually preceded or covered some kind of criminal activity.

A crashing sound so loud he assumed it was an explosion reverberated over the transport holding area. Along with everyone else in the queue, Lennie hit the ground. For a second he thought it was a derailment, however impossible that was. Then a roaring sound began. Mingling with that was a second crash. Lennie got up, and tried to work out where the barrage was coming from; it was now so loud he had to jam his hands over his ears.

“Full record, all senses,” he told his e-butler. He started running to the end of the long building. As he rounded the corner he got a view out over a wide section of the marshaling yard. First impression was that a lengthy train of covered wagons parked behind the cargo handling sheds was breaking apart. Two of the wagons were already reduced to scraps of junk. As he watched, a third burst open. Huge dark metal shapes were rising out of the debris on vivid columns of violet flame. They looked like armored rectangular dinosaurs, with blunt wedge-shaped heads. Thick cannon barrels jutted out from where their eyes should have been, while smaller guns protruded from the front of the head, like lethal mandibles. Three stumpy legs were folded back against each side of their flanks as they went airborne. The air shimmered around them as force fields came on.

Lennie didn’t dare blink. He kept his eyes wide, holding them steady, absorbing the glorious sight. His e-butler was sending out a multitude of pings, searching out a cybersphere node clear of contamination.

“Let us in!” Lennie screamed at the collapsing cybersphere. “I command you in Allah’s name, for fuck’s sake. Let us in!”

Then the kaos contamination suddenly vanished, emptying out of the cybersphere like water draining down a pipe. Everything was on-line, and Lennie’s images were shooting into his office array back on Kabul.

“The SI has cleaned the local network,” his e-butler told him; there might have been a small note of awe in the program construct’s artificial voice. Lennie didn’t care if it was the glorious Prophet Himself who’d returned to work the electronic miracle. It was him who was channeling the images, and the sound, and the terror out across the Commonwealth—he: Lennie Al Husan. This was his show.

The three horrific machines swung around in unison; their exhaust jets vectored horizontal and they accelerated away over the station’s wilderness yard. “They’re Alamo Avengers,” Lennie shouted into the howl of the rockets, praying his audience would be able to hear. “You’re seeing real-live Alamo Avengers in action.” He just managed to fight down the impulse to cheer them on.

The two guards left sitting in the gatehouse were just starting to wonder where Rob had got to when their standard cybersphere connections went down. They weren’t unduly concerned, they still had their secure links to the sensors and perimeter systems. Two alerts came in on the line from the security command center. Before they even looked at them properly, an explosion behind them sent a fireball roiling up into the sky from the far side of the complex. Red circles were springing up all across their security status display.

“God, that was a generator,” one managed to say as flames billowed up after the expanding fireball. “Looks like the whole fuel storage section went up with it.”

Three floors of windows in one of the towers erupted, a million spinning splinters of glass surfing out on huge gouts of flame.

“Security command center not responding,” the gatehouse array reported. “You now have autonomous control of perimeter security.”

“Seal it!” the senior guard shouted. He loaded his pattern code into the gatehouse array, watching the protective systems come to life. The guardbots halted where they were; hatches opened down the sides of their bodywork, and weapons deployed, locking into ready positions. More reassuringly, the force field generators came on; triplicated and self-powered, they erected a huge dome-shape shield over the entire complex. Air molecules trapped inside the bonding effect sparkled as they absorbed the energy input, aligning themselves into a rigid lattice.

A further two explosions went off inside the complex. The senior guard tried to work out what was being destroyed. His status display was almost devoid of information.

“What do we do?” his partner demanded.

“Just sit tight. We can’t turn off the force field, we don’t have that authority. We’re safe in here.”

“No we’re bloody not.” The guard pointed frantically at the huge flames and black smoke rising over the complex’s buildings. “We’re locked in with a bunch of goddamn terrorists.”

“Don’t panic. They just caught us by surprise. The whole place is going to seal up tighter than a lagoon onna’s ass now. Look.” He pointed at one of the towers. Its outer surface was cloaked in the telltale sparkle of a force field. “Isolate them and bring in the big guns to mop them up: standard procedure.” He turned around to see his partner was completely ignoring the complex, instead he was squinting out across the barren expanse of the station yard.

“What the hell are those?”

It had gone down right to the wire, but the maintenance tech had interfaced all his arrays into the gateway control room network. The RI had been locked out.

“They can’t alter the gateway coordinate,” he said triumphantly. “I’ve isolated the command network, so the system’s fallen back on its internal arrays. Everything will just keep ticking over nicely.”

“Great,” Rob sneered. “What about when they cut the power?” He’d already felt the floor tremble slightly. There’d definitely been an explosion nearby. Some other part of the operation was moving forward. He wished it weren’t so compartmentalized; it was hard not knowing what was happening.

The tech gave him a contemptuous look. He sat down behind the console he’d mutilated, and called up new schematics on the large wall-mounted portals. “They already have, look. The grid supply is just about zero. We’re already running off the niling d-sink. Everything’s okay. We just have to hold out for another thirty minutes.”

Rob’s e-butler suddenly reported it could connect to the room’s cybersphere nodes. Half a dozen calls were incoming, demanding his identity. “Tell them to fuck off,” he ordered the e-butler.

“That’s funny,” the tech said. His eyes were unfocused as he studied the data within his virtual vision. “The cybersphere is clear, someone countered the kaos software, it got flushed out.”

“Is that good or bad?” Rob asked.

“It’s strange. I’d never guessed Anshun’s cybersphere RI was powerful enough to extinguish that level of kaos so quickly.”

“How does it affect us?” Rob demanded. He always hated working with these specialist nerds, they never appreciated the physical side of any mission.

“It doesn’t, really. I mean, CST security can’t physically get in here, or the chamber with the gateway machinery—we control that force field as well.” He scratched at the side of his face. “It might make it a little tougher for us to exit at the end if all their sensors are back on-line. Let me think about that.”

Rob glanced at the other guard, who simply shrugged.

“Oh, wait,” the tech said. He leaned forward as one of the portals switched to a grainy image from a sensor covering the corridor directly outside the control room. “Here we go, they got the lift circuit back.” The sensor showed the lift door closing. Ten seconds later, the remote charge detonated. All Rob saw on the portal image was the lift doors quaking, the central join split apart as the metal buckled. A dense cloud gushed out into the corridor. It was dust, not smoke, Rob realized.

The other guard chuckled. “They’ll never get down that way now, the whole shaft must have collapsed.”

Rob glanced at the metal slab covering the fire door. Security would be down the stairwell that connected to it soon enough. According to the instructions he decrypted that morning, once the lift shaft was out of action they’d be able to leave the control room by the main door. One of the offices off the corridor outside had a utility passage that would take them to the chamber containing the gateway machinery. After that, they had a choice of three exit routes once the force field was switched off. Of course, that had all rather depended on the cybersphere and security sensors being knocked out by kaos.

“Can anyone see in here right now?” Rob asked. He searched around the ceiling for sensors and cameras. There were at least three covering the room.

“Let me review the local network,” the tech said. He suddenly froze, and gaped at the portal displaying the gateway command network. One section was flashing red. “No way,” he whispered.

“What?” Rob demanded.

“The first routing lockout fireshield. It’s down.”

“Once more, in English!”

“Look, the actual fiber-optic cables which carry the network, they’re still intact, still integrated with the local datanet, which in turn is connected to the cybersphere. But the nodes, where the routing is controlled, that’s where I loaded my software in to block contact. In electronic terms, there’s no physical barrier between us and the outside, only the fireshields. I erected five, in sequence, at each node, blocking every channel in, and something just got through the outer one.”

“You told us the Anshun RI cleaned out the kaos,” the other guard said.

“No, I said I didn’t think it could, not that quickly. Jesus!” Another section of the gateway command network was flashing amber. “This isn’t possible, I swear: not possible.”

“Another fireshield?” Rob guessed.

“It’s going to fall, oh man, half the format codes have been cracked already. No way. I mean no fucking way! Do you know what kind of encryption I used for that thing? Eighty-dimensional geometry. Eighty! That should take like a century to break, if you’re lucky.” He seemed more angry than worried by the event.

Rob was starting to get a real bad feeling about the mission. “So what can crack that kind of encryption?”

The tech became very still. “The SI.” His gaze found a ceiling camera that was lined up on his console, and he looked straight into the tiny lens. “Oh, shit.”

The other guard brought up his ion pistol, and started shooting the cameras. “Find out how many sensors there are in here. Now!”

Rob took a shot at a sensor above the main door. He risked a quick look at the portal display as he hunted around for more. The amber warning over the second fireshield was shading into a more ominous red.

The senior gatehouse guard stared out through the window, his lower jaw sagging open as the true nature of the flying objects became apparent. “I’ve seen those things before,” he croaked. “I know what they are. They were on an action drama I accessed years ago. Alamo Avengers. But they’re ancient history.”

“Not anymore,” his partner said. “What do we do?”

“Pray.”

All along the highway to the starship complex, vehicles had halted automatically as the kaos software corrupted their drive arrays. Then when the explosions began and the force field dome came on, people got out to stand on the hot tarmac to watch the spectacle. Several turned as the new sound rumbled up behind them, only to fling themselves down, screaming a warning.

The Alamo Avengers stormed over the highway at barely a hundred meters altitude. When they were a kilometer from the force field, they opened fire with their particle lances. It was as if sheet lightning was bridging the gap between them and the dome. The entire sky transformed into a blinding white maelstrom as the air disintegrated from the tremendous energy discharge. The sound blast alone shattered every window on the cars and vans and buses below; people were hurled about by the sonic wavefront. Ears and eyes ruptured, capillaries tore apart; blood started to foam out of their mouths and noses and ears, unprotected skin liquefied.

The force field dome maintained its integrity under the strike. Right across its surface, air molecules collapsed and punched upward in a seething coronal cloud. From above, it looked as though a small red dwarf sun had become buried in the ground. Huge lightning bolts spun outward from the seething ion cloak, lashing against the surrounding earth. Guardbots, waiting alertly along the base of the force field, their lasers and magnetic rifles tracking the incoming enemy, simply detonated into fragment swarms that vaporized in microseconds as the energy cascade engulfed them. Every scrap of vegetation within four hundred meters of the perimeter burst into flame.

All three Alamo Avengers fired again, concentrating their lances on a single point. Again, the force field resisted, deflecting the terrible energy deluge back out into the tortured coruscating air. Thick cataracts of lightning ripped out, pummeling the ground.

Inside the gatehouse, both guards had dived to the floor at the first barrage. Their entire world vanished in a violent whiteout. Even inside the force field, the noise was tremendous, translating into direct physical pain stabbing in through their eardrums. When the light died down, they risked looking up. Five hundred meters away, where the lances had been targeted, a huge patch of the force field was still ablaze with radiant violet streamers as residual energy swirls grounded out.

“It held,” the senior guard grunted in disbelief. He couldn’t hear what he’d just said. When he put his hand up to his ear, his fingers came away sticky with blood. He didn’t care. “I’m alive.” The back of his knuckles smeared tears across his cheeks. “Oh, sweet Jesus, I’m alive.”

When he raised his head above the desktop he could see the Alamo Avengers approaching the force field dome. Pitiful fires sputtered below them as the last of the weeds and grass were consumed. They didn’t so much land, as fall out of the air. Their rockets cut off while they were still twenty meters up. Legs stretched out, and absorbed the impact, leaving them in a crouching position on the blackened smoldering earth. The head on the nearest one swung slowly from side to side in mockery of a living creature, scanning its sensors back and forth. Their arrays were loaded with animal-sentient smartware, giving them an independence fueled only by aggression; once their target was loaded in, they wouldn’t stop until it had been reached.

The lead Alamo Avenger lurched forward, legs thudding heavily as they moved with a speed unnerving for something so massive. Plumes of soot and dirt shot up from each impact, flowing in strange swirls around its own force field. Small sections of armor along the front edge of its head flipped up, allowing long black prongs to slide out. The medium-caliber weapons barrels retracted back into their bays. At thirty meters from the base of the dome, it stopped and lowered its thick wedge head. The prongs flared with a cobalt nimbus that spun and flickered. It thrust them down into the ground. Huge geysers of soil were flung up into the air. The Alamo Avenger braced its legs, shoving its head deeper into the hole that the prongs were gouging out. Sand and shards of fractured rock were shooting twenty meters into the air above it. Slowly, it began to ease its huge armored body down into the excavation.

Every building on Leithpool’s Castle Mount was illuminated by bright beams of light, their colors gracefully morphing through the spectrum; while above them all, the bold fairy-tale castle itself was drenched in the brilliance of thirty solar-bright searchlights. From his position in the curving window of the Prince’s Circle caf?, Adam had a superb view of the resplendent rock against the backdrop of a serenely clear night. Its reflection shivered across the cold black waters of Leithpool’s circular lake in a near-perfect mirror image. Like all the other late-evening denizens of the caf?, he’d stopped looking at the view several minutes ago. Unisphere news shows were all featuring the events on Anshun, as were thousands of media companies stretched across the Commonwealth. The caf? had switched to Alessandra Baron; although even the images she had access to lacked professionalism, they came from the survivors of broken or abandoned vehicles on the highway to the starship complex. Retinal inserts were relaying the sight; the pictures blurry from tears, wobbling as the senders shook from fear or relief.

They showed the Alamo Avengers digging their way underneath the force field dome. There was actually little now to see of the ancient war machines themselves, the holes that they had dug were deep enough to contain the main bulk of their bodies. Huge sprays of earth were still fountaining up into the sky, to fall as a concealing cloud of dust and fractured stone granules dryer than any desert sand. The volume of dirt they vomited out behind them never slackened. At the speed they were going it could only be a matter of minutes before they were underneath the complex itself. It was a point that Alessandra Baron, safe in her studio on Augusta, was keen to point out. She did confess that she knew nothing of the defense capabilities that CST may or may not have built into the complex, although the standard ones didn’t seem to have held out very well so far. Also chosen for emphasis was the legend of just how destructive the Alamo Avengers were.

“Nothing and nobody,” she said, “would survive inside the beleaguered complex if just one got in. We can only pray for the people trapped in there.” Even her beautiful face with its mane of elegant dark blond hair seemed troubled.

Adam was also uncertain if CST had any surprises waiting ahead for the Alamo Avengers. Of necessity, this mission had been put together hurriedly, the time for research was short. He couldn’t be certain of anything, though he strongly suspected there were no serious heavy-caliber weapons in the complex.

Along with all the other transfixed watchers in the caf? he drew breaths of awe and fright as flashes and rumbles emerged from the gaping tunnel mouths. It wasn’t entirely an act. He’d watched the giant machines being refurbished over the last few months, yet even so he’d been as overwhelmed as everyone else by the sheer brute power they wielded as they launched themselves into battle for what was bound to be the very last time.

A timer in his virtual vision counted off the mission event sequence. So far they were doing remarkably well in keeping to schedule. Which meant that stage two was about to come on-line. As a veteran of many campaigns large and small, Adam knew there was nothing truer than the old military adage: no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy. And when that enemy was as powerful and resourceful as CST, he wasn’t about to leave anything to chance.

Wilson heard the last emergency airlock clang loudly, the noise reverberating along the whole deck that they’d commandeered. None of the primary malmetal airlocks on the Second Chance were working; they were all contracted into thick rings around the edge of their rim. But the emergency airlocks offered a reasonable degree of security. He began his deep breathing regimen, calming his racing heart.

“We’re sealed,” Anna announced. There was a high degree of satisfaction in her voice. Her round face smiled brightly, despite the situation down on the ground. Her eyes and mouth were heavily OC tattooed, producing a filigree of slender gold and platinum lines that flickered in and out of existence on her skin. Hands and forearms were also covered in the same lines, which crawled around her fingers and wrists as she pressed her fingers against a console i-spot.

“Good job,” Wilson told her. He didn’t strictly approve of such flamboyance; his own OCtattoos were completely nonvisual. But he had to admit, her performance so far was exemplary. It was Anna who had organized the surprised and nervous technicians into working parties to go through the life-support section and physically close the big solid emergency locks with power tools and their own muscle—one of a dozen jobs he’d given her that she’d conducted flawlessly. The air conditioners were up and running, fans stirring the heavy atmosphere, backup lighting rigged to portable power cells. Now she was organizing personnel into damage crews, ready for anything.

While she’d been accomplishing that, he had spent the time frantically reviewing what systems the starship had in anything approaching operational status. It hadn’t taken him long. Given the vast quantity of equipment that had been installed so far, only an alarmingly small percentage of it was available to him. And almost none of that was of any practical use to their current situation. Their one major success was using the assembly platform’s emergency communications system to reestablish a link to the planetary cybersphere. Through that, Wilson had been in touch with the SI continually since he reached the starship. He was gratified that the SI was taking a much greater-than-usual interest in the attack.

“The Anshun special forces squadron will be able to deploy around the complex perimeter in another seven minutes,” the SI told them. “First echelon security reinforcements from CST will arrive at the station four minutes after that; their deployment should be faster than the local forces. Commonwealth Security Directorate forces are also being mobilized.”

“And even if they can get inside the perimeter force field, do any of them have anything which will kill those goddamn Alamo Avengers?” Wilson asked. He was aware of Anna giving him an anxious glance. Tiny slivers of gold rippled out from her eyes as she realigned her virtual visual display to access the security data directly.

“I do not believe so,” the SI said. “One of the causes of the Alamo Avenger’s enduring reputation is the sheer power contained within it. They were hugely cost-ineffective to build, had a poor range, and limited tactical ability. Yet their effectiveness against United Federal emplacements was almost one hundred percent. The Single Star Republic came very close to its goal of turning Austin into an Isolated.”

“You mean we don’t have guns inside the complex big enough to take them out?”

“No. But the Security Directorate does have the necessary firepower, especially given the age of the Alamo Avenger force field generator design. However, you will have to wait until they arrive. Their Anshun deployment should start in twenty-five minutes.”

Wilson took another look at the display screen. He and Anna had set up their command post in a crew office that had several network systems and arrays installed, though precious little else. The walls and flooring were still raw structural panels; ducting ran across the ceiling like a pair of dull-silver serpents twined in a mating position. So far, three console screens were set up to show crude representations of the starship’s internal status, while the remaining two were being fed images from the cameras around the assembly platform. There hadn’t been a repeat of the explosion in the assessment room beyond the gateway, but that wasn’t what he worried about seeing now.

“Are they under the perimeter yet?” he asked the SI.

“Most definitely. The volume of earth they are ejecting behind them has not decreased. Our best estimate already puts them one hundred and eighty meters inside the force field. They will probably surface soon.”

“How long till they reach the gateway?” Anna asked. Her OCtattoos had sunk into quiescence. She was looking directly at the screen that showed the camera image covering the gateway from inside the assembly platform.

“The shortest time is six minutes,” the SI said. “To derive that, we are assuming they will continue underground until they are underneath the complex’s buildings before surfacing. That tactic means they will not have to expend any energy breaking through the building wall’s force fields.”

“Okay, let me have it straight: Can the Alamo Avengers break through the gateway force field?”

“If their original specifications have not been downgraded, our estimate is that it will take at most two shots from a particle lance to break through the gateway force field’s cohesion.”

“Son of a bitch.” Wilson growled it through clenched teeth. He kept telling himself that it wasn’t even dying in this body that frightened him—there was enough bandwidth in the satellite link to download his memory into a secure store right up until the last instant. No, it was being unable to defend the project from some bunch of half-assed anarchist terrorist freaks. The project didn’t deserve this; they were trying to achieve something noble and right with the starship. No piece-of-shit trendy-cause rebel outside the political process had the right to screw with that. Not to mention the time and money and—goddamn it!—lives which had been poured into its construction.

“I can probably route some additional power from the ship to the platform’s force field generator,” Anna said. Platinum spirals were rotating slowly around her eyes as she studied a network schematic within her virtual visual. “One of the niling d-sinks is partially charged; that should give us enough power to last for hours. I think I can route it through the superconductor cabling; we just have to reprogram the umbilical junctions to reverse the flow.”

“Can you help us with that?” Wilson asked the SI.

“From our analysis of your resources, your power output is actually capable of exceeding the force field generator’s designated input,” the SI said. “However, the generator was never designed to withstand the kind of stress inflicted from a particle lance. One Alamo Avenger could break through relatively quickly. Two in combination will require less than ten seconds.”

“Fuck it!” Wilson raged. “You have to close the gateway for us. They cannot be allowed to destroy this starship.” He wanted to add: It’s not fair, the Second Chancedeserves her shot at history, she shouldn’t die like this, not stillbirthed.

“The fireshields erected around the gateway network are proving exceptionally resolute,” the SI said. “We have so far broken three. The fourth utilizes one hundred and sixty dimension geometry encryption. It will take us several minutes to crack it.”

“We don’t have several minutes!”

“Our calculations are not in error.”

Wilson twisted his body to look at Anna. She was floating in front of the console, gazing at the screen that displayed the ship schematic. Her hands pressed tight against the console i-spot; gold glyptics chased slow strange patterns across the stretched skin of her forearms.

“Is there any kind of weapon installed?” he asked desperately.

Her virtual hands were pulling data out of the array as if by brute physical force. “No, sir. Nothing.”

“Goddamnit!” He punched at the nearest surface with his free hand, sending his body into a nasty twist, which strained the hand he was holding himself in place with.

“Any sign of them breaking surface yet?” He was just going to have to leave it all to the SI, and pray it could break the fireshield in time.

“No,” the SI said.

“Okay. Will you please set up a store to receive the memories of everyone on board. If you can’t close down the gateway, they’ll have to be transferred to the clinic which performs the re-life procedures.”

“We will do that, of course. But there is now a new problem.”

Anna gave Wilson an anguished look. He could see how hard it was for her to keep going, the effort it required to stay resolute. Executive management was hardly training for this kind of situation. He would have to consider that carefully later—once they survived this. In the meantime there wasn’t much he could say to help. “What now?” he asked levelly.

“Anshun Civil Flight Control is tracking two unauthorized spaceplane launches from an island close to the equator.”

“What kind of launch?”

“Unknown. But they appear to be accelerating into a retrograde orbit.”

It took Wilson a second to work out the implication. “They’re heading for us,” he murmured.

“It would appear so, yes.”

“How long?”

“If their acceleration remains constant, eight minutes.”

“Have you got any idea of their size?”

“From their radar return, they appear to be medium-lift spaceplanes. If so, they will mass around two hundred and fifty tons each, unloaded.”

Wilson didn’t even try to do the math in his head. Two hundred fifty tons impacting at a combined speed of twice orbital velocity… “They don’t even need to carry a warhead,” he said. And it didn’t matter anymore if the gateway was switched off or not. If the Alamo Avengers didn’t get them, then kinetics would.

Somebody somewhere really hates us, Wilson thought. Why, though? What’s the point, wewill get to the Dyson Pair eventually. I’ll re-life, and by Christ I’ll fly this ship yet.

And with that the muscles in his arms locked in shock. “Anna! We pressure tested the fuel tanks two weeks ago. I remember the schedule.”

“Yes,” she said cautiously.

“Is there any fluid left in the tank?”

The concrete floor in cosmic radiation test laboratory 7D quaked slightly. Equipment juddered along benches and desks. A soft roaring sound was just audible, its volume increasing in tandem with the ferocity of the quakes. Cracks began to appear across the floor, with little splinters of concrete flaking off to jump and spin across the now-unstable surface. Ceiling-mounted cameras scanned back and forth. But the only illumination in the laboratory was a pale amber emergency lighting that had come on after the complex generators had been sabotaged. It provided a poor resolution.

Seconds later, the floor disintegrated, with vast chunks of concrete whirling upward, their molten edges throwing off glowing droplets. Beneath the torn rift a dazzling jade-white light poured upward to blind the cameras. Small tendrils of energy followed an instant later, scratching and clawing at every neutral surface, vaporizing metal and obliterating plastic and glass.

Then the light went out. An Alamo Avenger heaved itself up and out into the flame-shrouded ruin of the laboratory. Its head swung around to focus on its goal, casually demolishing a wall and several support pillars. Chunks of masonry and the shattered floor of the upstairs laboratory crashed down, only to slither and bounce off the armored monster’s force field. The six legs shifted around, turning the body until it was lined up behind the head, pointing directly toward the gateway. It moved forward, slowly at first, smashing through another internal wall. Gradually it built up speed.

As it charged through the constructionbot maintenance center, the floor ruptured underneath its feet. Slightly off balance, it lumbered onward for a few meters, then stopped and twisted its head around to see if there was any threat. Impenetrable jets of dust gushed up from the new rip in the ground. Then a second Alamo Avenger pushed and forced its way out of the tunnel. The first waited until it was level, then they began their final charge toward the assessment building and the gateway.

The caf? was utterly silent as Alessandra Baron’s overawed voice announced the rise of the spaceplanes. Adam realized he was licking his upper lip in anticipation, and hurriedly stopped. The images shifted from the smoldering land around the complex force field dome to a clean graphic of the assembly platform’s orbit around the planet. In conjunction with Baron’s now-somber voice they illustrated the impending destruction. Figures in the corner of the screen counted down. They almost matched the timer in Adam’s virtual visual.

Second Chance had at most another four minutes. He took a quick look around the rapt faces of the other customers, seeing horror and fascination in equal amounts. For once he didn’t feel any guilt at what he’d done. There were no innocents in the assembly platform, no children devoid of memorycells. Not this time. This time it would be right.

Someone working for Baron’s show managed to access the microsat geosurvey observation swarm around Anshun. Thousands of tiny solid-state sensors along the equatorial orbit shifted their alignment from the minerals buried far below to one specific speck of light. The assembly platform swam into focus at the center of the screen, a giant blue-gray sphere of malmetal. Its featureless symmetry gave it a strangely organic appearance, Adam felt.

Dark lines appeared on the surface, illustrating long petallike shapes. Adam blinked, leaning forward. They hadn’t been there a second before, he was sure. Then long, slim fantails of snow-white gas were shooting out from the spherical surface as the dark lines split open. Sunlight poured into the assembly platform, erasing the weak glow of emergency lighting; the starship’s incomplete superstructure gleamed silver-white at the center of an expanding cloud of vapor.

“No way,” Adam groaned. His timer read a hundred fifty seconds until impact.

Two plasma rockets ignited, wiping out the image in a white nova of super-energized particles. Both exhaust plumes blasted straight through the shell of folded malmetal, sending twin spears of light stabbing over a hundred kilometers down toward the planetary surface. Some of the plasma plume rebounded off the surviving structure, billowing backward around the starship and its swath of girders. Insulation blankets and cables lashed around as they dissolved back into their component atoms, while support girders melted away into pliable strings that stretched like hot cheese as the starship started to move away from the gateway. Component cargo pods ignited, shooting out from the stellar inferno like lurid orange comets, trailing a fluorescent haze behind them as their contents blazed.

The Second Chance began to accelerate away. Her huge body wavered at first as the programs and pilot—Adam wondered whether it was Kime himself—analyzed the nonsymmetric mass distribution along the fuselage. As soon as they’d mastered that, the rockets were vectored to compensate, and the starship held steady as she built velocity, heading straight up from the planet. Behind her, there was a last violent contortion amid the seething molten wreckage as the force field protecting the gateway finally ruptured. Atmospheric gas spewed out into the void, bringing with it a host of fragments from the ruined assessment room. The jet’s vigor was reduced for a few seconds as something pushed its way along the wormhole. Then like a cork from a bottle, a small force field globe burst through; it glimmered amid the debris storm as it was propelled onward by the aggressive blast of air from the gateway behind. The dark, heavy object within the sparkling bubble spun helplessly around and around as it soared away through space. Behind it, the gush of atmosphere was reduced once again. A second golden orb came through, tumbling off into the void after the first.

By now the Second Chance was twenty-five kilometers away, a dazzling elongated star ascending up toward the bright constellations. The first spaceplane leaped into view. Its tremendous closing velocity meant that there was only the briefest glimpse on the screen—a streamlined silver-gray delta shape—before it slammed into the cooling ruins of the assembly platform. The explosion that erupted was indistinguishable from a small nuclear blast. As the sphere of incandescent atoms began to darken, it suddenly renewed itself as the second spaceplane pierced its heart.

A hundred kilometers above, the Second Chance was still accelerating out toward the stars.

ELEVEN

Hoshe had thought that the flood of data would slow down after the first couple of days. Now, a week on from his initial request, he knew better. For shadowy creatures who lived outside society’s boundaries, there was an awful lot of information stored on the so-called big-time crime syndicates. On Oaktier, there were three main such organizations recognized by the police: the Johasie family, an old-fashioned mafia-style network of related hoodlums, but with enough brains and lawyers to disconnect the bosses from all the activities of their street-level soldiers; Foral Ltd., a company whose board seemed to have diversified down into crime, both financial and street; and Area 37, the smartest and most elusive, whose murky empire was bolstered by legitimate businesses and, apparently, political connections. They were based in Darklake City, and for that reason alone Hoshe favored them as the most likely suspects to murder Shaheef and Cotal. It was simple geography. Neither of the lovers had traveled outside Darklake for weeks before they disappeared. If they had accidentally stumbled on something that required their removal, then it was Area 37 who probably had the kind of resources and connections to make it happen. But what could two innocent civilians walk into that required a response of that magnitude?

The official files on organized crime syndicates Hoshe had retrieved from the Attorney in Chief’s office contained all the previous investigations, plus the alarmingly unsuccessful court cases they resulted in. Of those, reports filed by undercover operatives and informants were the most useful. The Attorney’s office knew the major and minor players, and had a general idea of what they were up to most of the time; proving anything legally was the perennial problem.

Proven or not, the files covering suspected events forty years ago were of little use. There simply weren’t any killing sprees, or violent clashes with rivals, or even big heists. It was just a steady drip feed of money from clubs, gambling, chemical and digital narcotics, prostitution, bank scams, and dubious development contracts.

Finished with the official files, he started to access the media’s collective knowledge of Area 37. It was more gossipy, although some of the investigative reporters certainly seemed to know their subject. But again, there was no mention of a serious crime back then. Police reports for that year and the five subsequent ones bore no evidence of any major crime that had happened or might have required years of preparation.

Halfway through the morning, along with most of the Commonwealth, he’d stopped work to watch the incredible assault on the starship. Even the Chief Investigator had sat back to stare at the images playing on her desktop screen. Once the Second Chance had reached safety the weight of waiting data had slowly drawn him back to his task, although colleagues from around the metropolitan police headquarters building kept dropping in to ask him if he’d seen it and what he thought. They seemed more interested in hearing Paula’s opinion, even though she never gave one. By late afternoon, he was once more completely immersed in the dreary details of the criminal underworld. The constant input from both virtual visual displays and reading the screens on his desk was giving him headaches. When he reached for his coffee mug, he found only the cold dregs of the last batch.

“Get some more,” he muttered.

Paula didn’t even look up from her screen as he went to the door. They’d been given an office on the fifth floor, a pleasant enough room with a broad window and furniture that wasn’t too old. The desktop arrays were all top range equipment, with screens and portals to match. The coffeemaker, however, was down the corridor.

“Wait,” Paula said as he was almost through the door. “Secure call coming in.”

It was Qatux. They put it on the large wall-mounted portal, and Hoshe sat down just as the big alien’s image came up. Hoshe frowned his concern at the Raiel’s appearance. Qatux could barely hold his head up to look at the camera. Shivers ran along his body and tentacle-limbs, as if he were coughing silently.

“I have lived her life,” Qatux whispered. “How you humans survive so much experience is something I shall never understand. To do so much and react to it all in the way you do is as much a curse as a blessing. You never take time to digest and appreciate what happens to you.”

“It’s what we are,” Paula told him. “And how are you? Did the memories cause you any trouble?”

“It was difficult. I had not expected it to be so. I see now, and I see then. I am Tara more than I have been any human before. That frightens me as much as it delights. I have never been frightened before.”

“Memories will always fade, that is their nature. You will know who you are.”

“They fade for you. For me, I am not so sure. There is so much I wish to concentrate on and remember. I will not let go of her easily.”

Paula leaned forward in her seat. “So you can access all of her life?”

“Yes. Yes, I know her that well. So many colors, so many sounds; and feelings , what feelings she had. Tara cried at the sight of a dawn one day, it was so beautiful, out in the desert where light played across the rock and sky, and every second brought a new hue to the rumpled sandy ground. I feel her tears now, small delicate traces across my skin, blurring the image.”

“Have you looked for what I asked? Did she have any enemies, anyone who hated her?”

The Raiel’s head swung slowly from side to side in mournful denial, its tentacle-limbs following the motion discordantly. “No. To you, I think, she would be bland and insipid, for her life is not as fast and intent as yours. But Tara is a gentle person, she loves life and hates pain and suffering in others. The worst she ever thought of any person was irritation and disappointment. Her most serious crime was selfishness, for she cheated on several partners; she was unable to resist the pleasure and excitement which such liaisons brought her. That does not make her a bad person.”

“How badly did those cheated partners react?”

“Some wept. Some raged. Others didn’t care. She made her peace with all of them. Nobody she ever knew wanted to kill her. Of this I am certain.”

“Damn!” Paula’s lips compressed into an angry grimace. “There’s nobody?”

“No. She is no saint, but to incite enough hatred in someone to kill her… I cannot see that, not through her eyes.”

“Thank you, Qatux. I am sorry this has been so tough for you. I appreciate what you’ve done.”

“It is not trouble. I love humans, all humans. I often think that perhaps I was born into the wrong species.”

“You’re fine just the way you are.”

“Will you bring me more memories, Paula? I purchase many from contacts in your unisphere, but none are from secure stores, none are as complete as those you bring for me, none have the richness of human existence, the trueness that I cherish.”

“We’ll see. Maybe I’ll visit again.”

“Thank you. And one day perhaps you will bring your own memory? I am sure you must be the greatest human I know.”

“That’s very flattering, Qatux. I’ll bear it in mind.” She waited until the image vanished before wrinkling up her nose at the gray screen.

“Not a crime of passion, then,” Hoshe said.

Paula continued to stare at the blank screen. “Doesn’t look like it.”

“How reliable is Qatux?”

“Very. If he couldn’t see anyone, then you and I certainly wouldn’t if we reviewed the recording. The only possibility from that angle is if Shaheef annoyed someone extremely dangerous, a psychotic who is capable of concealing their true emotional reaction. But I have to admit, that’s very remote.”

“What about a serial killer? Oaktier hasn’t got one on record, but there could be one who spreads his victims around the Commonwealth.”

“Again: it’s possible. If it is, they’re not working to any recognizable pattern. That’s the first thing my Directorate tends to look for in apparently motiveless killings. The array in Paris couldn’t find any connection to any of the known serials we have files on.” She smiled without humor and looked up at him. “So how are we doing on the crime syndicate theory?”

“Not good. I can’t find any important criminal event around that time, confirmed or rumored. My best guess would be that they walked into a random gangland slaying, and the rest is just a cover-up.”

“Yes, that works. But it leaves us devoid of evidence.”

“There’s still a load of files I haven’t reviewed yet.”

“You’ve been running analyzers through the primary files for a week; if there was anything helpful or relevant to us in them you should have found it by now. I’m sure you know I don’t like to give up on a case with so many suspicious circumstances, but we really are running out of plausible avenues of exploration.” She pulled the clip out from the back of her hair and tidied it up. “I’ll have to give this some thought.”

It was the first time he’d heard the Chief Investigator speculate on defeat, as such it was rather shocking. “Well how many motives can there be? It has to be a random killing. We know it wasn’t personal, or corporate, or political, or even financial, you said yourself she’s better off now. It’s not something we’re ever going to track down, because it doesn’t exist in any file or memory.” He broke off. Paula was giving him a very intent stare. Slowly a smile spread across her face. Hoshe really wished it weren’t directed at him, it was animal-predatory.

“Damn,” she murmured in admiration. “That is clever, isn’t it? But then he is smart, isn’t he, we’ve seen that ourselves. Smart and determined.”

“Who is?”

Her smile became a taunt. “I have never, ever encountered that as a motive before. Damn!”

“What? You know who it is?”

“Don’t you, Detective?”

“Oh, come on! Who?”

“It’s all down to the timing. He didn’t kill her off to save himself money, that’s far too much the classic scenario. We would have spotted that right off. He did it so he’d be able to make money for both of them. She profits financially from her killing as much as he.”

“Who?”

“Morton.”

“He can’t have!” Hoshe exclaimed. “He was the one who alerted us in the first place.”

“That means nothing. This was meticulously thought out. He’s not going to have kept the memory. Memory is evidence. He’d get that wiped right away.”

“Son of a bitch. Are you sure?”

“I am now.” Her eyes were closed as she hurriedly reviewed the scenario. “It fits. Hindsight is a wonderful trait.”

“So what do we do now?”

“We need evidence. There will be two types: physical and financial. I’ll tackle company records.”

“Okay. What’s the physical evidence?”

“I want you to find the bodies.”

It had been a bad day at the office. When he arrived that morning, Morton had expected the preliminary central district road and water supply infrastructure contract for Puimro’s new capital to be ready for signature certification. Gansu had underbid considerably at his insistence; a loss at this stage didn’t matter, this was the key, placing them ready for a whole sequence of follow-on contracts on that lovely, promising new world. With that foothold, Gansu could build up its local operation over the next two decades until it was as big as the Oaktier parent company. Their true expansion to Intersolar giant status would have begun.

But the development company lawyers on Puimro were suspicious, believing that Gansu’s low-cost delivery would be achieved through cost cutting on materials and construction. They wanted quality guarantees written in, as well as proscriptions against “excessive profits.” All very reasonable, but why the hell didn’t they mention all this two months ago during the preliminary round of negotiations? Morton had found himself swearing at his own corporate lawyers and accountants as the bureaucratic tangle developed throughout the day. It hadn’t been resolved when he left the office late, stomping off to his car in a foul mood. He left behind a team of Gansu lawyers and contract experts huddled in a conference room, ready to work through the night in an attempt to resolve the issues and questions raised by their counterpart team on Puimro. New meetings were scheduled for next week. The signature certificate wouldn’t come through for at least another ten days now.

Fucking civil servants, always stand in the way of progress.

The butler greeted him at the lift door opening the vestibule, grappling with the suit jacket that was flung at him. Morton went into the living room, squinting against the beautiful evening sunlight that was shining straight across the roof garden and pool. He saw Mellanie sitting on one of the sunloungers, head in her hands, shoulders slumped.

Oh, Christ, not this as well, not now. He was scowling at her as her head came up. She gave him a tentative smile and hurried inside.

“Sir.” The butler had brought his sparkling gin.

“Thanks.” He took the glass off the silver tray.

Mellanie, he saw now she was out of the sun’s rich glare, had been crying. “What’s the matter?” It was almost rhetorical; he wasn’t interested.

She pushed up against him, resting her head on his chest. “I went to practice this morning,” she said, her voice muffled. “The coach said I hadn’t been making enough effort, that my hours were too low. He said I didn’t have the right level of commitment anymore.”

“Ah.” Morton felt like saying: Is that all? These days, the only sports anyone was interested in were team events. With Commonwealth geneticists able to build super athletes, individual competition was essentially pointless, a contest between laboratories and clinics. But teamwork, that was different, that was the temple of the last natural trait: skill. In games like football, baseball, hockey, and cricket the combined talent of the team was a synergy that fans could throw themselves behind with complete devotion. He’d always thought diving was the rather desperate end of the special-interest spectrum, its importance artificially inflated by sportswear companies and media channels to drum up sales. So what he actually said was: “He’s an asshole. Don’t worry about it.”

She started crying. “I’ve been dropped.”

“What?”

“Dropped from the squad. It was horrible, Morty, he told me in front of everyone. He’s already brought in two new girls.”

“Oh. Right.” He patted her absently and took a sip of his drink. “Never mind, something else will come along, it always does.”

Mellanie pulled back slightly so she could study his face, her own expression was one of bewilderment. “What? Morty, didn’t you hear? It’s over for me.”

“Yes. I heard. So move on to something new. It’s about time anyway. You’ve wasted years on that stupid diving team anyway. You can get a proper life now.”

Her thick lips parted to form a distraught “O” as she took a step back. Then she was running into the bedroom, sobbing filling the air behind her.

Morton let out a tired sigh as the door slammed shut loudly. Well, what did she expect? That’s the only trouble with the truly young, they have no perspective on life. “No, thank you for asking,” he snapped after her, “my day did not go well.”

His e-butler told him there was a call from Chief Inspector Myo. He took a long drink from the glass. “Put it on the living room screen,” he told the e-butler.

Even magnified to a couple of meters high, Paula Myo’s face was essentially flawless. As Morton sat back in one of the leather couches, he found himself admiring her once again. Now somebody like that would make a real partner, they’d be equals, which was rare enough, and complementary rather than competitive. It was just that weird heritage of hers…

“This is unexpected, Chief Investigator, what can I do for you?”

“I need access to some financial documents, the old AquaState accounts. As you’re the chairman of the parent company, it’s simpler if I just ask you to release them to me rather than go through the courts.”

“Oh.” It wasn’t quite what he’d expected. “Do you mind if I ask why? What are you looking for?”

“I can’t discuss a case in progress. I’m sure you understand.”

“Yes. I’m very familiar with government procedures, especially today.”

“That sounds unfortunate.”

He grinned in his winning way. “Commercial confidentiality, I can’t tell you about it.”

“But can you release the files?”

“Yes, of course. Would I be right in assuming you’re making progress, then?”

“Let’s say, you’re on the right track with that assessment.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” He told his e-butler to release the relevant files to her. “May I ask if you’re currently seeing anyone, Paula?”

“I don’t believe that’s connected to the inquiry in any fashion.”

“It’s not, but it was a very sincere question.”

“Why do you want to know that?”

“I’m sure you’ve heard it enough times. But I want to be honest with you from the beginning; if you’re not involved with anyone then I would very much enjoy taking you to dinner one evening as soon as possible.”

The screen showed her head tilting ever so slightly to one side, mimicking an almost avian curiosity. “That’s most flattering, Morton, but right now I’m not able to say yes. I hope you’re not offended.”

“Certainly not, after all, you didn’t say never. I believe I’ll ask you again once this case is over.”

“As you wish.”

“Thank you, Chief Investigator. And I hope the files are useful.”

“They will be.”

The call ended. Morton wriggled down into the couch, looking at the blank screen where he could still see her elegant, composed face. Somehow, the day didn’t seem such a total loss after all.

It was the eighth day after he entered the forest that Ozzie had to delve into his pack for warmer clothes. They’d seen their last deciduous tree a couple of days ago. Now the path led through tall solemn alpine giants with dark trunks of stone-hard bark. Their waxy leaves were long and spindly, a fraction thicker than terrestrial pine needles, with colors shading from dark green to a maroon that was almost black. A thin tough layer of grass grew underneath them, and that was patchy around the trunks themselves where the acidic leaves had fallen. Here the chilly air meant it took a long time for them to decay into the kind of rich loam to be found elsewhere in the forest, and the air was heavy with their citric scent.

Sunlight seemed to have deserted Ozzie and Orion; the patches of sky they did glimpse were uniformly gray as low clouds bunched together in an unbroken veil. Patches of mist squatted across the path, reaching far above the treetops, some of them taking hours to trek through. Each one seemed progressively larger and colder than the last.

It was after riding through one for over three hours with no respite that Ozzie decided enough was enough. His thin leather jacket was dripping with moisture that was cold enough to be ice, and it hadn’t shielded his checked shirt at all. He dismounted and hurriedly stripped off the soaked shirt; changing into a dry one, shivering strongly as he did. Before the mist had time to sink into the fresh cotton he pulled out a slate-gray woolen fleece with an outer waterproof membrane. Much to Orion’s amusement he wore soft leather chaps on his legs to cover his cord trousers. Once he’d finally slicked down his rebellious hair, he crammed on a black bobble hat. Only then, when he’d dressed and remounted, did he put on his doeskin-palm gloves.

Almost immediately, he was too hot. It made a nice change. That morning, his own shivering had woken him as the dawn frost settled over his sleeping bag. A veteran of many long treks on foot and horseback, he favored modern semiorganic clothes that could heat, cool, and dry the wearer as required. They were inoperative on any Silfen world, of course, but he was pleased enough by how the old simple fabrics were performing.

Orion, who had brought little in the way of rough-weather gear, he loaned a baggy sweatshirt to wear under his thin waterproof cagoule, and a spare pair of oilskin trousers, which were perfect over trousers for his skinny legs.

The two of them urged the animals onward. Ozzie had no idea where they were anymore. With the clouds hiding the sun and the stars there was no way he could check their direction. They’d taken so many forks, traveled around so many half-day curves that he’d completely lost track of their progress. For all he knew, Lyddington could easily just be a couple of miles ahead, though he didn’t really think it was, not with this weather and the tall morose trees.

“You ever been this far in before?” Ozzie asked.

“No.” Orion wasn’t talking so much now. This wasn’t the airy summertime forest he was used to; the gloom and cold were pulling his mood down. It had been three days since they’d last caught sight of any Silfen, a group heading away from them on a diverging path. Before that they’d encountered almost one group of the fey aliens every day. They’d stopped to greet them each time, and not once had Ozzie managed to get any real sense from them. He was beginning to resent how right the SI had been: there was some deep schism between their neural types that prohibited any truly meaningful communication. His admiration for the Commonwealth cultural experts was growing correspondingly. He simply didn’t have anything like the patience they possessed to painstakingly decipher the Silfen language.

There was no discernible twilight. The grayness simply dropped into night. Ozzie had been relying on his antique clockwork Seiko watch to give him some warning, which it had done faithfully so far. But that night, either darkness fell early, or the unseen upper clouds had contrived to thicken into opacity.

When Ozzie called a halt, they had to light the two kerosene lamps that Orion had thoughtfully brought along. They hissed and fizzed as they cast a flickering yellow glow. The nearby trees loomed large and oppressive above them, while those at the edge of the radiance seemed to cluster into a dense fence, hemming them in.

“Tent tonight,” Ozzie declared as cheerfully as he could manage. Orion looked as if he were about to burst into tears. “You sort some food out, I’ll cut us some wood for a bonfire.”

Leaving the boy searching lethargically through the packs, he took out his diamond-blade machete and started to work on the nearest tree. Yet even though the blade came to an edge a couple of atoms wide, it still took him a good forty minutes of hard work to slice through the tree’s lower branches, cutting them into usable logs.

Orion stared glumly at the pile of water-slicked wood. “How are we going to get it going?” he asked miserably. “It’s all too wet for your lighter.” Nothing was dry. The mist had thickened to an almost-drizzle; water dripped continually from leaves and branches.

Ozzie was busy splitting one of the logs lengthways, turning it into slim segments of kindling. “So, like, I guess you were never in the Boy Scouts, then?”

“What’s that?”

“Group of young camping enthusiasts. They all get taught how to rub lengths of wood together so they spark. That lets you start a fire no matter where you are.”

“That’s stupid! I’m not rubbing logs together.”

“Quite right.” Ozzie concealed his grin as he opened a pot of flame gel, and carefully applied a small layer of the blue jelly to each of the kindling sticks. He pushed them into the middle of the logs, then took out his butane lighter—it was actually older than his watch. “Ready?” He flicked the lighter once, and keeping it at arm’s length, pushed it toward the kindling. The gel ignited with a loud whoomp. Flames jetted out around the logs, engulfing the whole pile. Ozzie only just managed to pull his arm back in time. “I thought they banned napalm,” he muttered.

Orion laughed in relief, and clapped his gloved hands together. The flames burned intently, spilling out across the remaining logs. In a couple of minutes, the whole pile was spitting and blazing keenly.

“Keep it well fed,” Ozzie said. “The new logs will have to dry out before they burn.”

While the boy enthusiastically dropped another log on every few minutes, Ozzie set the tent up a few yards away. The struts were simple poles supporting a double air-insulated lining that expanded automatically, inflating as soon as he twisted the valve open. Over that went the wind shell, tough waterproof fabric with long pins along its hem that he hammered deep into the ground. Not that any wind could ever penetrate the forest floor, but he was starting to get a bad feeling about this weather.

For once, Ozzie had allowed Orion to choose whatever food he wanted from the pack bag. The boy was becoming seriously depressed by their environment, he needed cheering up. So they settled down in the lee of the tent’s front flaps that had been hoisted up to form a little porch, with the warmth of the fire washing over them and drying their clothes, eating sausages, burgers, beans, with hot cheese poured on thick chunks of bread. To follow that up Orion heated a can of orange sponge with treacle.

After they’d taken care of the animals, they banked up the fire and went into the tent. Ozzie had his six seasons sleeping bag to curl up in. Orion’s bag wasn’t as good, but he had a couple of blankets to wrap around it. He went to sleep complaining it was too warm.

Ozzie woke to a bad headache and distinct lack of breath. It was light outside, though not the kind of brightness daylight usually brought. Orion was asleep beside him, his breathing short and shallow. Ozzie looked at the boy for a moment, his mind all sluggish. Then it all made sense. “Shit!” He got out of the sleeping bag fast, fingers fumbling with its zipper. Then he was crawling forward. The tent’s inner lining seal parted easily. Beyond that, the wind shell was bulging inward. He tugged at the zipper. A torrent of fine powdery snow fell in silently, washing up against his knees. Even when it finished moving, leaving him half-immersed in a broad mound, there was no sign of the sky. He pushed his way up against it and started to dig frantically. After a couple of seconds his hands were scrabbling in air. Bright white sunlight streamed in. He gulped down the freezing air, trying to slow his panicky heart.

Orion was sitting up behind him, eyes blinking. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, we’re okay.”

“I’ve got a headache. Is that snow?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh, wow.” He crawled forward and scooped some of it up, grinning delightedly. “I’ve never seen any before. Is it covering everything like it does in the Christmas pictures of Earth?”

Ozzie, who was just about to start telling him to dress in his waterproofs, did a double take. “You’re shitting me, man. You’ve never seen snow before?”

“No. It doesn’t snow in Lyddington. Ever.”

“Right. Okay. Well, put your waterproofs on, we’ll go out and take a look.”

The snow was a foot deep on the ground, with several inches coating the top of every branch and twig. Right around the base of the trees it was thinner, and of course it had drifted high against the tent’s wind shell, completely covering the apex. Ozzie looked back at it rather sheepishly; if it had truly buried the tent then the wind shell wouldn’t have been able to take the weight. Nonetheless, it was a sharp lesson not to take anything for granted in the alien forest.

He called Orion over to help soothe the animals as they stamped their hooves and shivered in the cold. The unkempt pony didn’t seem to mind the snow too much, nuzzling up to Orion as soon as the boy found some oats for her. The lontrus simply shook its shaggy gull-gray coat as Ozzie checked it over; the creatures had a strange biochemistry that allowed them to withstand temperatures far more severe than this. It was Polly who had suffered the worst, she didn’t have a winter coat. Mr. Stafford of Top Street Stables had kept the mare nicely clipped for Silvergalde’s moderate climate. Ozzie thought about that as he stroked her trembling neck. He knew damn well he wasn’t in Silvergalde’s mild temperate zone anymore. Yet the temperature didn’t drop to anything like this for thousands of miles north of Lyddington. They’d made good progress in the last nine days, but not that much. The only rational explanation was that they’d gained a lot of altitude, though he wasn’t sure where, it wasn’t a single mountain, yet his virtual vision map showed no true highlands within nine days’ hard riding of Lyddington—nor within twenty days come to that.

He turned a full circle, then glanced up at the blank featureless sky, a slow satisfied smile lifting his face. “Definitely not Kansas anymore,” he said quietly.

They had a cold breakfast, dug out and packed the tent, then went on their way. Snow drifted about aimlessly all day; the powder was fine enough for the slightest gust of air to send little flurries whirling around them. It turned the forest into an exquisite crisp winter land, but once they’d started there was no clue as to where the path actually was. Horse, pony, and lontrus plodded onward as if they knew where they should be going, bearing the new climate stoically.

Every now and then, great cascades of snow would tumble down from the overhead canopy of the giant trees, making a gentle prolonged roaring noise, which was alarmingly loud in the silent forest. A softer fall of snow began around midafternoon, big flakes trickling down from the lost sky. It turned the ambient light a miserable gray and the air even colder. Polly was making hard going of breaking ground as the snow’s thickness built up. Ozzie took a break to put his big waterproofs on over his clothes. Without semiorganics he was layering; it was a strategy that kept him warm and dry, but at the cost of mobility. Bundled up as he was, he could barely remount Polly. He gave Orion a couple of sweaters and another pair of trousers to wear under his oilskins. Once they were moving again, Ozzie began to worry about when night would fall. With the snow showing no signs of relenting, they would need time and light to make a proper camp.

About an hour later they came across a clump of bushes, all covered in snow so they looked like big dunes with just a few twigs poking through the top.

“We’ll shelter here for the night,” he said.

Orion just looked around and shrugged. The boy had barely spoken all day.

Ozzie took off a layer of sweaters and climbed up into the tree above the bushes. He set about the big lower branches with his diamond saw, slicing through at the junction. It didn’t take too much effort before they broke off, falling on top of the bushes. He got four largish ones down, letting them land on top of each other to form a semistable barrier. As a makeshift corral, it would have to do. By the time he gingerly climbed back down again, the snow was already settling on top of them.

Orion set about tying blankets around the horse and pony, while Ozzie pitched their tent in the scant shelter of a big trunk. It was almost dark when he finished. He checked his watch: quarter past five. Which made the day about ten hours long. Silvergalde’s rotation was twenty-five and a half hours.

“Are you going to light a fire?” Orion asked; his teeth were chattering.

Ozzie helped the boy into the tent. “Not tonight. Get into your sleeping bag, that’ll keep you warm.”

Orion did as he was told without complaint. There were dark circles under his eyes, by the light of the kerosene lamp it looked as if his freckles were fading from his white skin. Ozzie wormed his way into his own sleeping bag, and immediately felt the benefit. He took a heatbrick out of his bag and ripped the tag. The unit was powered by a simple chemical reaction, and the top surface was soon glowing vermilion, throwing out considerable heat. They took it in turns to cook their cans, and Ozzie boiled up two large thermosfuls of tea so they’d have a hot drink waiting for them when they woke. “Get some sleep,” he said. “It’ll be dawn quite quickly.”

Orion gave him a worried look. “Is the snow going to cover the tent again?”

“No. We’ll be fine. It was definitely thinning out when we came in. But I’ll check every couple of hours. Don’t worry.”

“I’ve never been so cold.”

“You’re warmer now, though, aren’t you?”

“Uh-huh.” The boy pulled the sleeping bag up to his chin. “Suppose so.”

“Okay then.” Ozzie pulled the blankets up around him. “It’s just when we stop moving you feel it worst.”

Ozzie’s watch read five minutes to four when dawn arrived. His e-butler had woken him up at regular intervals through the night so he could check the tent. He felt as if he’d had about ten minutes sleep all night. Orion was equally reluctant to get out of his sleeping bag.

“We have to move on,” Ozzie told him. “We can’t stay here.”

“I know.”

The snowfall had stopped sometime during the night, producing a uniform brilliant white landscape. Snow covered everything, even sticking to the vertical tree trunks so that any dark twig or leaf that protruded looked strangely out of place. It was nearly two feet deep on the ground now. Ozzie put on the darkest sunglasses he had, trying not to show how much that perturbed him. It was going to be slow progress for the animals today.

“Mr. Stafford should sell sledges,” Orion said. “He’ll like that when I tell him.”

Ozzie laughed too loud at the boy’s humor, and gave him a quick hug. They were both sipping their tea from the thermos as they walked over to the animals. The precarious corral had worked to a degree; covered with snow and frozen solid it had provided a reasonable protection against drifts. Behind it, the horse and pony had trampled the snow about their feet, and were shivering heavily. The lontrus simply stood there, snorting out clouds of faint steam. If such a thing were possible, it was giving them a sullen look from beneath the shaggy strands of fur that curtained its eyes.

Orion gave their surroundings a baleful stare. “Which way?”

Ozzie frowned as the answer stalled in his throat. He tried to work out which direction they’d arrived from last night. It simply wasn’t possible, the clumps of trees all looked identical. “Try your gift,” he suggested.

The boy fumbled with his sweaters, pulling the pendant out. There was a tiny glimmer of blue starlight within the little gem. He slowly turned full circle, holding it like a compass. When he was pointing just to the right of the tent, its intensity increased noticeably.

Ozzie thought the trees formed a kind of avenue that way. Sort of. “Guess that’s it then,” he said.

“Glad I came now?”

“Very.” Ozzie put his arm around the boy’s shoulder. “Looks like I owe you big-time, huh? How do you figure you’ll cash it in?”

“I just want Mom and Dad back.”

“Yeah yeah, but like apart from that? I mean, guiding me to safety’s got to be worth a couple of mega-K’s. That’s serious money.”

“I don’t know.”

“Oh, come on, man. I knew when I was your age.”

“Okay then,” Orion said, suddenly animated again. “This is huge money, right?”

“Absolutely. Buy your own planet style.”

“Right, first off, I’d buy loads of rejuvenations, so I live as long as you do.”

“Good one, I can dig that.”

“And then I’d buy lots of smart memories, so I’d have an education and know all the complicated stuff like physics and art and banking, but I don’t have to go to school for years.”

“Even better.”

“And I want a car, a real cool one—the coolest there’s ever been.”

“Ah, that’s the Jaguar-Chevrolet 2251 T-bird, the convertible.”

“Really? There really is a coolest car ever?”

“Oh, yeah. I got a couple in my garage. Sad thing is I never drive them these days. That’s the thing with serious money, you can do so much that you never have time to do anything.”

“I’d give some away, too, to charities and hospitals and things, people that really need it.”

“Nice; that’ll prove you’re an okay kind of a guy, not just another rich bastard who doesn’t give a shit.”

“Ozzie, do you give money away then? Everyone knows you’re cool.”

“Yeah. I give some of it away.” He gave the boy a dutiful shrug. “When I remember.”

As Ozzie expected, it was slow going at first, with Polly breaking ground again. He would have preferred to send the lontrus on first, but its legs were too short. So Polly pushed her way laboriously forward, her longer legs churning up the thick layer of snow. He spent most of the morning considering options. Make some kind of snowshoes and sled, haul their food along and let the animals go? Simply turn around and return with the right kind of equipment to tackle this terrain? Except… who knew what kind of terrain he’d face next time? Assuming he could find a way back to Lyddington from here.

He just kept telling himself this was Silfen country. The aliens wouldn’t let any real harm befall anyone. Would they?

As the morning progressed, so the depth of snow gradually began to reduce. It didn’t get any softer, though, and it remained stuck to every surface. Four hours after they started he was shivering inside his multiple layers. A layer of hoarfrost caked every square inch of his clothing. There was nothing else for it, he got down and plodded along beside the horse, shoving his boots through the snow. The action warmed him slightly, but now he was worried about the rate he was burning off calories. The horse and pony were visibly in distress, despite the blankets tied around them.

Sometime after midday, Ozzie noticed what looked like tracks in the snow ahead of them. He took his sunglasses off, and found the light had become a pale pink. It turned the world into a strange grotto land, as if the forest had been carved out of brittle coral.

“Is it evening already?” Orion asked with a muffled voice. His face was completely swathed in a wool scarf, with only a narrow slit left to see through.

Ozzie checked his watch. “Don’t think so.” He bent down to examine the tracks. They were definitely footprints, elongated triangles without any tread. “These may be Silfen boots,” he said excitedly. There were perhaps fifteen different sets, all emerging from the forest; a couple had even appeared directly beneath trees, which he suspected the aliens had been climbing. They merged together and headed off along the vague avenue of snow-encrusted trees.

“Are you sure?” Orion asked. He was treading ground where he stood, slapping his hands against his sides in an effort to stay warm.

“I think so. I don’t know who else is going to be running around these woods. Besides, we haven’t got a lot of choice.”

“Okay.”

They started off again. Orion was walking beside his pony, one arm draped over the saddle so his hand could grip the reins. Ozzie suspected he was doing that so the pony could partly pull him along. The air was so cold now, it burned the inside of his mouth if he took a clear breath. The scarf he’d wrapped over his own nose and lips dangled long ice crystals where his breath had frozen against the woolly fabric. Before he put the sunglasses back on, he tried to see where the sun was. The branches overhead were thinner now, showing patches of a hazed ruby sky. He thought one section was slightly brighter, about halfway between the zenith and horizon, but that would put nightfall several hours away. If he’d worked the new short days out they only had about an hour left.

Half an hour later, Orion stumbled. Ozzie only knew because he heard a small grunt. When he looked around, the boy was facedown in the snow with the pony standing above him. Much as he would have liked to hurry back, Ozzie’s limbs responded slowly. It was like trying to move through liquid.

When he sat Orion up, the boy wasn’t even shivering. Ozzie pulled the scarf off his mouth to check for breathing. His lips were dark and cracked, with tiny flecks of blood frozen into place.

“Can you hear me?” Ozzie shouted.

Orion’s eyes fluttered weakly. He moaned softly.

“Shit,” Ozzie grunted. “Hang on, I’ll put the tent up. We’ll wait here until the weather picks up.”

There was no reply, although Orion raised one arm a few inches. Ozzie left him propped up against the pony and tried to get the tent pack off the lontrus. His outer gauntlets were too thick to unfasten the strap catches, so he took them off, trying not to wince as the arctic air bit straight through the woolen inner gloves. He started fumbling with the straps, then gave up and pulled the diamond-blade machete from its sheath, and cut the straps.

Three times he had to put his gauntlets back on and flap his arms to try to heat his hands back up before his fingers actually moved. What seemed like hours later the air-insulated section of the tent had reluctantly self-inflated and he’d got the support poles secured to the edges. He dropped a couple of heatbricks inside, then dragged the semiconscious boy in after them. With the flap sealed, the interior of the tent warmed rapidly from the radiance of the heatbricks. Ozzie had to strip several layers of clothing off himself and the boy before they began to feel the benefit. The chilblains in his fingers and toes were strong enough to make him wince as circulation returned. Orion started coughing; he looked as though he wanted to burst into tears.

“How can it be so cold?” the boy asked wretchedly.

“If you really want to know, I don’t think we’re on Silvergalde anymore.” Ozzie watched the boy anxiously to see what his response would be.

“Not for about three days, I figured,” Orion said. “But I still don’t see why anyone would visit a world with this kind of climate.”

“Oh. I’m not sure. I don’t think we’re in this planet’s polar regions, because of the trees. I may be wrong, but rule of thumb is that year-round ultra-cold environments don’t support living things as big as trees. So my guess would be either a world with a dying sun or one with a very long elliptical orbit and we arrived midwinter, worst luck.” He shook his hands, trying to ease the pain as feeling and movement returned. His ears still felt like lumps of ice.

“So what do we do now?”

“Like I said, wait to see if the morning brings any change, though I suspect it won’t. But we can’t go any farther now. We need to prepare. I’ll go out again in a while. I need to put the tent’s wind shell up, then I’ll get the rest of our packs in here. We also have to eat a good hot meal. And the first aid kit has some cream that’ll take care of your lips.”

“And yours,” Orion said.

Ozzie put his fingers up to his mouth, feeling the rough broken skin. “And mine,” he conceded. He was praying he wouldn’t have to deal with frostbite as well; fortunately his boots had kept his feet reasonably insulated, but he’d have to check Orion over properly later.

“What about the animals?” the boy asked.

“I can’t chop any branches off for a bonfire, I won’t have the strength. I’m going to spread some flame gel around the base of a tree and see if I can just set the whole damn thing alight. That might help them keep warm enough.”

He really didn’t want to go out again, which might have accounted for how long it took him to get ready. Eventually, he slipped back out into the sub-zero forest. Polly and the pony had slumped to the ground—a really bad sign. The lontrus was wheezing quietly, but otherwise seemed unaffected. While his fingers were still functioning, he pulled the remaining packs off its back and carried them over to the tent. Then he spent a frustrating twenty minutes erecting the wind shell over the inner lining as his hands got progressively stiffer. Finally it was done, and he took the pot of flame gel over to one of the nearby trees. He scraped the snow off a section of the trunk a foot above the ground, then stopped and peered closer. It wasn’t bark he’d exposed, more like a rough layer of dark purple crystal, almost like amethyst. His gloves were too thick to give him any clue to the surface texture when he rubbed his hand over, and in any case his skin was too numb. Despite that, he thought it was genuine crystal, he could see refracted light glinting from deep inside. For the life of him, he couldn’t think what type of chemical reaction had done this to the bark—some kind of ultra-cold catalyst conversion? Hoping the wood was still unchanged below the crystal, he held up the machete and took a swipe. Several crystals shattered from the impact, but the cut was barely a centimeter deep. Another, heavier swipe broke a big chunk of the amethyst crust away. The hole exposed more crystal inside, a column of what he took for near-pure quartz that made up the interior of the tree. Lush pink sunlight shone into it, revealing a vertical lattice of capillaries with what looked like dark viscous fluid moving through them extremely slowly.

“Son of a bitch,” Ozzie grunted. “A fucking jewelry tree.” When he looked up, the branches did seem to be more angular than a normal pine’s, their twigs multiplying out in fractal geometry patterns. All of them were smothered in a hard scabbing of snow, which had kept their true nature hidden.

The sense of wonder he would normally have enjoyed at the discovery of such a magnificent quirk of nature was canceled out by the realization that the weather wasn’t going to improve for tomorrow morning. Evolution hadn’t come up with this crystalline biota for warm climates; in fact, it was probably a form of reverse evolution; arctic-style plants expanding with the final ice age, then struggling for survival in a degenerating environment until their genes refined the ultimate winter-attuned chemistry. And how many millions of years of declining heat would it take to produce something this sophisticated? They’d missed this planet’s last springtime by geological eras.

He hurried back to the tent, too guilty to look at the horse and pony as he passed them. Orion had started cooking a meal on the heatbricks. Condensation was dripping off the inner lining.

“I can’t see a fire,” the boy said as Ozzie closed up the seal.

“This wood won’t light. Sorry.”

“I can feel my toes again.”

“Good. This insulation should keep enough heat in overnight. We’ll be fine in our sleeping bags.” He was doing a rough inventory. There were only eleven heatbricks left. Enough to keep them going for—realistically—three days. They could afford to walk forward for one more day, no more. If the path didn’t take them to a warmer world by tomorrow night, they’d have to turn back. No: Just see what’s around the next curve; no: I think it’s getting brighter. If things didn’t genuinely change, he couldn’t take the risk. There was no margin for error left anymore. And there would be nobody to return his memorycell to the Commonwealth for a re-life procedure. In fact, how long before anyone even notices I’ve gone missing?

Ozzie dug his sewing kit out of the pack. “Ah! This is going to be useful. I’ve an idea for some things we need tomorrow. How are you with sewing?”

“I’ve spoilt your chances, haven’t I?” Orion said. “You would have made it if it wasn’t for me.”

“Hey, man.” Ozzie tried to smile, but his lips cracked open. He dabbed at the drops of blood. “No way. We’re really doing it, we’re walking the deep paths. It’s your friendship gift that got us this far.”

Orion took the pendant out. They both stared at its dark lifeless surface.

“Try it again in the morning,” Ozzie said.

Polly and the pony were frozen solid when they emerged from the tent the next morning.

“They wouldn’t have felt anything,” Ozzie said when Orion stopped to look at them. His voice was muted by the thick fabric mask he’d carefully stitched together last evening. He was wearing every piece of clothing it was possible to wear, as was Orion. The boy looked as though his coat had inflated out to twice its normal size; even his gloves were covered in crude, bulging wraps of modified socks, like small balloons.

“They would have felt cold,” Orion said.

Ozzie couldn’t see his eyes behind the sunglasses he was wearing, but he guessed the boy was feeling a great deal of remorse. With his more practical gauntlets, it was Ozzie who dismantled the tent and put the packs back on the lontrus. The cold was every bit as debilitating as the day before, but the little extra pieces of protective garments they’d put together helped to keep it from attacking their skin. The temperature was far too low for the snow to melt, which eliminated the chance of their feet getting wet—a lethal development.

The breeze had scattered the loose top layer of snow about, but there were still a few signs of the footprints they’d followed yesterday. Ozzie pushed at the lontrus’s rump, then finally gave the miserable beast a kick. It started moving, emitting a wounded wailing.

Optimism, which had been high as Ozzie climbed out of the tent to greet the day, drained away quickly. Though it never faltered, the lontrus moved slowly. Every step Ozzie made was an effort, moving the weight of clothes, pushing his feet through the cloying snow. Warmth left him gradually. There was no one place it was leaking out from, rather an all-over emission, slowly and relentlessly chilling him. Every time he tipped his head up to the high cerise clouds drifting across the rosy sky he could imagine currents of his body heat flowing upward to fill the insatiable icy void.

Some dreary time later, he noticed the crystal trees were shorter than before. Their perma-cloak of snow was also thinner, with the upper branches poking clear. Sunlight glinted and glimmered from their multiple facets, splitting into a prismatic spectrum entirely of red, from a gentle light rose to deep gloomy claret. There was less snow beneath their feet as well. Ozzie had long since lost sight of the Silfen footprints.

He was so intent on trying to see through the thinning crystal pillars he didn’t see Orion slowing. The boy grabbed at matted strands of the lontrus’s pelt, which made the animal whine in protest.

“Do you need a break?” Ozzie asked.

“No. It’s so cold, Ozzie. Really cold. I’m frightened.”

“I know. But try and keep going. Please? Stopping is only going to make things worse.”

“I’ll try.”

“You want to lean on me for a bit?”

“No.”

Ozzie tugged gently at the strands of pelt just behind the lontrus’s neck, reducing the animal’s speed. It didn’t resist the instruction. They ambled forward at a terribly slow pace. Ozzie started reevaluating their whole progress. He clearly hadn’t taken Orion’s state properly into account last night as he’d worked out how far they could travel. Obviously, they weren’t going to get more than a couple of kilometers farther at best today; and that was going to be exhausting for the boy. The sensible course would be to turn around immediately. At this rate, if they were lucky, they might just get back to where they’d pitched the tent last night.

“The forest’s finishing, look,” Orion said.

Ozzie focused, alarmed by how easily he’d fallen into a daydreaming state. The crystal trees were small and naked now; central boles of amethyst armor standing proud, with their main branches flung out at right angles. Away at the tips of the regular twig segments, the purple encrustation gave way to smooth opal wedges that flared out from each tip, flat side up to absorb the crisp frigid sunlight. They had thinned out enough for him to see past the last clusters to the vast plain beyond. From his position it looked like a circular depression walled in by low curving hills. In the thin clear air, the far side was almost as sharply drawn as the ground around him. Distance was difficult to judge with so few reference points, but he guessed at thirty to thirty-five kilometers across. Bright sparks of reflected sunlight twinkled with vivid intensity to halo each hill, indicating the crystal tree forest had spread over every slope. The depression’s floor was empty apart from its scattering of dusty snow.

For all the harsh beauty of the exotic landscape, Ozzie wanted to curse it. There was no hope here. They were going to struggle just to reach the end of the forest, a few hundred meters ahead where the crystal trees were nothing more than spindly dendrites of clear crystal strands sticking out of the iron-hard ground. Any notion of traversing that vast bleak and empty land to the other side was unthinkable.

Perhaps this is why so many who sought the deep paths were never heard of again. Our perception of the Silfen as gentle and kind is our own stupid, convenient illusion. We wanted to believe in elves. And how many human bodies lie out there under the snow because of that?

“It’s a desert.” Orion said. “A desert of ice.”

“Yeah, ’fraid so.”

“I wonder if Mom and Dad got here?”

“Don’t worry. They’re not stupid, they will have turned back, just like us.”

“Is that what we’re doing?”

Ozzie saw a flash of near-blue light out across the plain. He pushed his sunglasses up, heedless of the sharp pain from the terrible air gusting against his exposed skin. The flash came again. Definitely emerald. The contrast was astounding on that vista made up entirely from shades of red. Green had to be artificial. A beacon!

He dropped his sunglasses down again. “Maybe not.” The distress flares were nestled in hoops on each pack for easy access. He pulled one of the slim cylinders out, twisted the safety cap off, and held it at arm’s length to pull the trigger. There was a loud crack, and the flare zoomed off into the sky. A dazzling star of scarlet light drifted over the edge of the crystal forest, lingering for a long time.

Orion was staring at the slow pulse of the green beacon. “Do you think that’s people?”

“It’s got to be someone. My handheld array still doesn’t work, so the Silfen are screwing with the electricity. That means this is definitely one of their worlds.” He waited a couple of minutes, then fired another flare. “Let’s try to walk to the edge of the trees. If we haven’t seen an answer by then, we’ll turn back.”

Ozzie hadn’t even fired the third flare when the beacon light started flashing faster. Laughing beneath his mask, he held up the cylinder and triggered it. As it sputtered out overhead, the beacon light became constant.

“It’s a beam,” Orion cried. “They’re pointing it at us.”

“I think you’re right.”

“How far away is it?”

“I’m not sure.” His retinal inserts zoomed in, compensating for the emerald glare. The resolution wasn’t great, but as far as he could make out, the light was coming from the top of some mound or small hillock. There were dark lines on it. Terraces? “Ten or twelve miles, maybe more; and there’s some kind of structure around it, I think.”

“What kind?”

“I don’t know. But we’re stopping here. If they’re used to people they’ll know we need help.”

“What if they don’t?”

“I’m going to put the tent up. We’ll use a heatbrick and get warm, we both need a proper rest. When the brick’s finished we’ll know what to do. If nobody’s arrived we turn back.” He started to tug at the big knot he’d tied in the strap that secured the tent onto the lontrus.

“Can’t we go there?” Orion asked plaintively.

“It’s too far. The state we’re in it’d take another couple of days. We can’t risk that.” He unrolled the tent, and let the inner lining suck in air, raising itself into a small elongated hemisphere. Orion crawled inside, and Ozzie handed him a heatbrick. “Rip the tag,” he told the boy. “I’ll join you in a minute.” He lifted his sunglasses again, and zoomed in on the mound below the beacon light. Then he fired another flare. In answer, the green light blinked off three times in slow succession before returning to a steady glare. In anybody’s language that said: We’ve got you. He still couldn’t make out what the mound was, except it actually had quite steep sides.

Three hours and four hot chocolates later, there was a great deal of noise outside the tent. Ozzie unzipped the front to peer out. Two big creatures were slogging their way up the last section of slope in front of the crystal forest. They were quadrupeds, about the size of terrestrial rhinos, and covered in a straggly string-thick fur similar to the lontrus. Steamy breath whistled out of a stubby snout on the bottom of a bulbous head that bristled with short prickly spines. He’d seen uglier animal heads, but it was the eyes that were strange, long strips of multifaceted black stone, as if they too had crystallized in this deadly climate. Both animals were harnessed to a covered sledge; a simple framework of what looked suspiciously like bone, with cured leather hides laced to it. As he watched, the side was pulled back, and a humanoid figure climbed down. Whoever it was wore a long fur coat with a hood, fur trousers, fur mittens, and a fur face mask with hemispherical goggle lenses bulging out of it like fish eyes. The figure strode toward them, raising a hand in greeting.

“I thought it would be humans,” a female voice called gruffly from behind the mask. “We’re the only people tasteless enough to use red light for emergency flares around here.”

“Sorry about that,” Ozzie shouted back. “They don’t stock a real big range of colors at the store.”

She stopped in front of the tent. “How are you coping? Any frostbite?” Her voice had a strong northern Mediterranean accent.

“No frostbite, but we’re not prepared for this kind of climate. Can you help?”

“That’s why I’m here.” She ducked down, and pulled her mask free to look inside the tent. Her face was leathery brown, engraved with hundreds of wrinkles. She must have been in her sixties, at least. “Hello there,” she said cheerfully to Orion. “Cold here, isn’t it?”

The boy just nodded dumbly at her. He was curled up in his sleeping bag again.

She sniffed the air. “God in his heaven, is that chocolate?”

“Yes.” Ozzie held up his thermos. “There’s some left if you want.”

“If we ever had elections around here, you’d be emperor.” She took a big swig from the thermos, sighing pleasurably. “Just like I remember. Welcome to the Citadel. I’m Sara Bush, kind of unofficial spokesperson for the humans here.”

“Ozzie Isaac.”

“Hey, I’ve heard of you. Didn’t you invent the gateways?”

“Uh, yeah.” Ozzie was a little distracted. A block of fur had appeared from behind the sledge. This time it definitely wasn’t a biped in a fur coat. More like a tall rectangle of the fluffiest fur he’d ever seen, with wide dark eyes visible near the top, about eight feet from the ground. There were ripples in the fur that suggested legs were moving somewhere within as it glided forward. It gave off a loud hooting that rose and fell, varying in pitch, almost like a chant.

“All right, all right,” Sara said irritably, waving a hand at the creature.

“What’s that?” Orion asked timidly.

“Oh, don’t worry about him,” Sara said. “That’s old Bill, he’s a Korrok-hi. More like a yeti if you ask me.” She broke off to warble a long verse back to her companion. “There, I’ve told him we’re coming. Now let’s get you packed up and on the sled. I think you two could do with a hot bath and a drink. Not long to cocktail hour now.”

“You’re shitting me,” Ozzie exclaimed.

Paula spent most of the night reviewing the old AquaState accounts. The verification she wanted was easy enough to find, you just had to know what you were looking for to make the facts fit. Like every good conspiracy theory, she told herself. And no doubt that would be the angle that the defense counsel took.

When she arrived in the office the next morning, she was surprised that Hoshe was already behind his desk and running through forty-year-old files from City Hall. Even staying awake for half the night, she wasn’t exactly late.

“I can’t believe how much construction work there was in the city forty years ago,” he complained as soon as she’d sat down at her desk. “It’s like half of Darklake wasn’t here. I don’t remember it being so much smaller, and I’ve lived here for sixty years myself.”

Paula glanced over to the big wall-mounted portal he’d activated. It showed a detailed map of Darklake City, with a lot of green lights pinpointing building activity forty years ago, both civic and private. “Don’t forget to include things like roadworks for at least a couple of months after the murder. I know that will increase the search area dramatically, but that uncertainty makes them a prime possibility.”

He didn’t say anything, but his expression soured further.

“I’ve finished my analysis,” she said. “I’ll help with your search. Divide the city into two, and I’ll take one-half.”

“Right.” Hoshe instructed his e-butler. “What did you find in the accounts?”

“It confirmed my theory. But it’s hardly evidence we can take to court, at least not alone.”

“You mean, we need the bodies?”

“They’ll certainly help. Once we’ve established it’s a murder, then the circumstantial evidence will be enough to convict him. I hope.”

Hoshe looked up at the map in the portal. “This is an awful lot of fieldwork for our forensics people. They’re good, but there’s only so many available. It could take months. Longer.”

“It’s taken forty years so far, they’re not going anywhere. And once we’ve locked down every site, I’ll call in some teams from the Directorate. That should help speed things along.”

Mel Rees knocked on the open door and came in. Paula gave him a surprised look, then frowned. The Deputy Director always handed out her assignments in person. For him to visit a field operation, it had to be something big. He looked nervous, too.

“How’s the case going?” he asked.

“As of yesterday, I have a suspect,” she said warily.

“I’m glad to hear it.” He shook hands with Hoshe. “I’ve had some good reports about you, Detective. Do you think you’ll be able to close this one by yourself now?”

Hoshe glanced at Paula. “I suppose so.”

“He will,” Paula said. “Why are you here?”

“I think you know.”

After the Second Chance launched from the assembly platform, it had taken the SI a further three minutes to crack the last fireshield in the gateway control center datanet. The CST security team had marched in twenty minutes after that, once Rob Tannie had agreed to an unconditional surrender. The only promise CST made was not to shoot him and his colleagues on the spot. As it happened, the other two chose to suicide before the team got through the door, wiping their memorycells as they did so.

A fresh group of wormhole operation technicians rushed in as Rob was unceremoniously hauled away in handcuffs, leg restraints, and neural override collar. They took two hours to run checks on the systems and reopen the gateway next to the starship in its new, highly elliptical orbit. By then, what remained of the complex was under the strict control of CST security forces. The surrounding area was isolated and swept clean by the Commonwealth Security Directorate. A squadron of FTY897 combat aerobots had taken up patrol of the perimeter; the smooth dark ellipsoids were ultra-modern and equipped with the kind of weaponry capable of taking out pitiful antiques like Alamo Avengers with a single shot.

The assembly platform survivors were brought back down to the planet. Fresh crews were taken up to assess the ship’s status and secure exposed equipment against further vacuum degradation. Procedures were drawn up to establish a new assembly platform around the ship.

Five hours after the first explosion signaled the start of the assault, Wilson Kime stepped out of the gateway to spontaneous applause and cheers from the complex’s staff, and a bear hug from Nigel Sheldon. The CST media office broadcast the captain’s triumphant return to an audience almost as big as the assault itself had attracted. After that, he gave half a dozen interviews, thanked everyone involved for their tremendous effort, cracked a few jokes, didn’t speculate too hard on who had launched the attack but said he was fairly sure it wasn’t the Dyson Alpha aliens themselves, promised that he’d come through the ordeal more determined than ever to complete the mission, and finished up saying he’d donate his hazard bonus to a local children’s medical charity. Anshun police gave his car an escort of eight outriders back to his flat in the city.

Wilson woke with a smile on his face. When he turned over, Anna’s dark hair tickled his nose. She was curled up on the jellmattress beside him, one arm around her head like a small child warding off bad dreams. A whole series of delightful memories—and a deliciously wicked one—drifted through Wilson’s head. He kissed her shoulder. “Good morning.”

She stretched with a cat’s lethargy, giving him a sleepy grin. “That’s a horribly smug smile you’re wearing there, mister.”

“Yeah? I wonder what could have put it there?”

She giggled as he slid his arms around her. One hand stroked down her spine until it came to rest on her rump. “Was it this?” His other hand squeezed a small beautifully shaped breast, mercilessly tweaking the nipple. “Or this?” He kissed her neck, moved around to her mouth to smother the giggling. “This?”

One of her hands wriggled down between them, gripping.

“Wa-how!”

“Might have been that,” she said with a laugh.

“Oh, yeah?” He started to tickle her ribs. She retaliated. It turned into a mild wrestling contest, which soon developed into a much more intimate body contact sport.

In the end she grinned down victoriously from her position straddling his hips. “Well, whadda ya know: it is true what danger does to a man.”

He could hardly deny it. Last night had been all about survival, his body celebrating with its most basic physical reaction. The amount of relief he’d experienced when the Second Chance had risen above the spaceplanes had actually produced the shakes (which thankfully only Anna had witnessed). The others on board—the youngsters—had been delighted, ecstatic even, with their dramatic escape; but the prospect of dying hadn’t been too much for them to stand.

Wilson had never quite realized before how scared he was of dying, especially now. It wasn’t something today’s society could understand, not with all the expectation of rejuvenation and re-life procedures instilled from birth. The post-2050 generation knew they could live a good chunk of forever, it was their right. He thought his fear might have come from growing up in a time when there was only one life and then you died. The idea that memories could be saved and downloaded to animate a genetically identical body was a reassuring crutch for everyone else. But he couldn’t quite convince himself that was a continuation of his current existence. There would be a discontinuity, a gap between what he was now, and what that future Kime would remember being. A difference; a copy that was flawless was still a copy, not the original. People got around the dilemma by saying that every morning when you woke the only link to your past was memory, therefore waking in a new body was just an extended version of that ordinary nightly loss of consciousness. It wasn’t enough for him. His body,this body , was his life. The longer he lived in it, the more that identifying link was hardened. Three hundred plus years had produced a rock-solid conviction that nothing could break.

“I don’t think I’d survive another dangerous night like that one,” he told her, still panting slightly.

She folded her arms across his chest, and bent forward until her chin was resting on her hands, putting their faces inches apart. “What’s ship regulations about the captain sleeping with the lower ranks?”

“The captain is very much in favor of it.”

A finger tapped on his sternum. “You do have a sense of humor.”

“Carefully hidden, but cherished nonetheless.”

“So what do we do tonight if there isn’t an attack?”

He pursed his lips in mock thought. “Practice just in case?”

“My diary’s free.”

“You don’t have anyone?”

“No. Not for ages, actually. Too damn busy with my new job. You?”

“Not really. I haven’t been married since my last rejuvenation. Some affairs, but nothing serious.”

“Good.” She straightened up. “I’d better get a shower. Do you really want to meet up again tonight? Last chance for a clean getaway.”

“I would like to meet up again tonight.”

“Me, too.” She gave him a quick kiss. “Life’s too uncertain not to try and keep hold of something good. Yesterday really made that clear to me like nothing else. Nobody’s ever tried to kill me before.”

“You did a magnificent job up there. Combat stress is hardly something you’re used to. I’m proud of you.”

“Have you been through something like that before?”

“Not exactly. But I’ve seen active military service. It was a long time ago, though. Not that you ever really forget, not even with rejuvenation editing.”

“Did you—” She hesitated. “Kill anyone?”

“Honestly? I’m not sure. I certainly shot at a lot of people. You don’t hang around to see the result. Slam on the afterburners, and head for home almost before the missile’s left the rail.”

“It’s hard to think how old you are. I just know you as a corporate chief. I had to run a search program to dig up the Ulysses story.”

“Ancient history. If you accessed it recently you probably know more about it than me.”

“But you did it, though. You traveled through space in a ship. It can be done.”

“I wouldn’t call that mission an unqualified success.”

“Oh, but, Wilson, it was! You reached Mars. Millions and millions of kilometers from Earth. It doesn’t matter that Sheldon and Isaac found another way. Don’t denigrate what you did. After all, look who needs you now.”

“Sheldon. Yeah, I suppose that’s poetic justice. You know what he said to me yesterday after we got back? He just fixed me with that smartass smile of his and said: You’re having a ball, aren’t you? He was right, too, the bastard. It felt so right flying the starship. We did it on a wing and a prayer. And we won! It’s like everything I’ve done since Ulysses was an interlude; I’ve been marking time for three centuries.”

“And now you’re doing what you were born to do.”

“Damn right.”

She looked down at her body, then his. Her expression became coy. “There’s a question a lot of us on the project have speculated about. You don’t have to answer.”

“What?”

“All those months on Ulysses. It was a mixed crew. You were all young and fit. The whole voyage was in freefall.”

“Oh. Sorry. That’s classified government information.”

“Classified, huh?”

“Yes. But let me just say this: the longer you spend continuously in freefall, the more immune you get to motion sickness. Even vigorous motion.”

“Really? A long time acclimatizing.”

He gave her an evil grin. “Worth every minute of the wait.”

“It better be,” she muttered. “I’ve really got to take that shower now. I’m supposed to be on duty in another ten minutes.”

“Take the day off. Tell them the boss said it was okay.”

Anna scrambled off the bed. “Uh?”

“That door.” He pointed. There hadn’t been much time to show her around the apartment last night. Clothes were coming off before the door shut.

“Thanks.” Another giggle, and she headed for the bathroom. “At least you don’t have to ask what my name is.”

“Certainly don’t: Mary.”

One of his slippers flew across the room and hit him on the leg. “Ow!” The door closed. As the sound of the shower began, Wilson put his hands behind his head and stared happily up at the ceiling. Given that yesterday he’d nearly been killed, this really wasn’t a bad way to start a brand-new morning.

Not even the sight of the badly damaged complex brought down his mood. As he approached along the heavily guarded highway, thin trails of dark smoke were still leaking up into the sky from the ruined power plant. The missing circular administration tower was still a shock. Debris was piled high where the big atrium used to be, and most of the windows on the remaining two towers were either cracked or missing. Firebots picked their way delicately over the fragments of glass and concrete that sprawled out from the base, occasionally spraying out a jet of white foam. Medical salvage crews were working alongside the firebots, sending smaller remote sensors down into the rubble. They were seeking out bodies to remove their memorycell inserts ready for re-life.

Emergency vehicles had taken over the parking lot, so Wilson parked on an unused piece of lawn and got out. Oscar was standing watching the work parties in a group of several office staff and a squad of uniformed CST security guards.

“Morning, Captain,” he said, and saluted. Everyone around him abruptly straightened up.

“Morning,” Wilson replied. He didn’t bother with returning the salute, outside genuine military circles there was little point. “Where do we stand?” Before he’d left last night, he’d discussed the immediate problems with Oscar and left his deputy to it.

“The starship is okay, all critical onboard equipment is stable and holding. There were enough backup and redundant systems lying around down here to reestablish most of the umbilical feeds overnight. We’re going to keep her like that until we can secure her inside an assembly platform again. The malmetal manufacturer hopes to deliver a viable globe to us in another four days. Once that’s in place, we can perform a more detailed examination.”

“Good.” Wilson nodded at the sagging ruin of the closest assessment hall. “And the complex?”

“That’s going to take a bit longer. Security wants to verify the place safe first, make sure the terrorists didn’t leave any nasty little booby traps behind. Once that’s done we can clear the site and start the rebuild. With the Second Chance so far along her schedule, we won’t need the full suite of facilities down here again, so a lot of the work will just be patch-up operations. CST’s civil engineering division is preparing a bunch of appropriate equipment as we speak; as soon as we give them the go-ahead, they’ll move straight in.”

“Sounds like you’ve done a good job, Oscar, thank you.”

“Least I could do. Wish I’d been here yesterday.”

“Believe me, you don’t. I suppose security is eager to implement a whole new set of procedures?”

“Oh, yeah. We’re going to have to make some decisions about that and review our new assembly program today. I put off the biggies until you got in.”

“Right. I’ll get on it. Do I have an office?”

“I took over chemical systems building three for senior staff. Oh, and there’s some security people who want to see you now.”

“They can wait.”

Oscar gave him an uncomfortable look. “It might be a good idea to get it done and over with. Mr. Sheldon suggested it.”

“Did he now?”

The last Alamo Avenger had been shot by an FTY897 as it was charging through assessment hall seven on its way to the gateway. An atom laser had pierced clean through its force field to strike the main body with devastating consequences. It had been severed in two as its primary power cells exploded. The blast flung the sections apart, smashing the forward part into racks of delicate fuselage panel stress test equipment, while the smaller rear portion had buried itself into the composite wall, which had promptly collapsed on it, leaving the overhead ceiling dangerously unsupported. One of the legs had been ripped off, embedding itself in the concrete floor.

A CST security tech force had spent the night debugging and powering down the wreckage. Small red tags fluttered from every element, confirming it was now inert and harmless. There were so many of them they made it seem like some abnormal Chinese parade monster. Paula walked slowly around the upturned front section, bending down to inspect one of the shattered sensor clumps on the head. The Director of the Serious Crimes Directorate, Rafael Columbia, was standing in the middle of the damaged assessment hall alongside Mel Rees, the pair of them watching her as she performed her little inspection of the dead armored monstrosity. Both looked unhappy. Water left behind by the fire sprinkler deluge dripped off the overhead beams; their expensive shoes were already soaked from walking through all the puddles.

Paula ran a finger over the battered polyalloy armor, feeling the thin carbon ablation blisters crumple like ancient paper below her nail. “Not bad for a hundred-and-fifty-year-old weapon,” she acknowledged. “They were lucky Captain Kime was in orbit to take charge.”

“Absolutely,” Mel Rees said.

“I would have preferred CST to be luckier somewhat earlier,” Rafael Columbia told the Deputy Director. “The current estimate is one hundred and seven people killed, and another eighteen so far unaccounted for. They’re still calculating the financial loss, but it won’t be less than two billion. And we had no prior warning. None. This is the single most destructive act of criminal terrorism we have known in the last century. The death toll in nationalist succession movements adds up over time, but this…” His arm swept around, a gesture taking in the smashed hall. “This is our failure. It is a challenge to the Directorate’s very credibility to perform its designated task. I will not tolerate this appalling violation of law and order.”

“We’ll get them,” Mel Rees said. “No question of that.”

“Your division has had decades on this case. I expected better.”

Paula turned from the Alamo Avenger. “I have spent decades on the Johansson case, not Deputy Director Rees. And I really hope you’re not implying we should have provided you with some kind of advance warning.”

“Paula—” Mel Rees began.

She shot him a look that silenced him immediately. “The reason Bradley Johansson and his associates have had the run of the Commonwealth for so long is twofold. The resources which are allocated to tracking him and his activities are wholly inadequate. That is a political decision, made by you and your predecessors, Mr. Columbia. He also receives help from someone extremely well placed in the Commonwealth establishment.”

“Rubbish,” Rafael Columbia snapped.

“Even with inadequate funds, there is absolutely no way he should have eluded me for over a hundred and thirty years. It simply isn’t possible. If he kept a low profile and lived a thoroughly simple life I should have caught him. But as the leader of a criminal organization constantly involved in smuggling weapons to Far Away he leaves himself continually exposed to our sources and monitor programs. To avoid them requires a considerable degree of assistance. He is not acting alone.”

“Do you realize what you’re saying? Do you know how many administrations there have been since he founded his ridiculous Guardians movement? There isn’t one which would give him any kind of support, covert or otherwise, let alone all of them.”

“Administrations change, power groupings do not.”

“I am not going to stand here and be told I’m part of some corrupt cover-up operation. I don’t care who you are, how dedicated you are, or what your case conviction record is. I am the chief of this Directorate, and you will show me some respect.”

“Respect is something which is earned, Mr. Columbia.”

“Okay!” Mel Rees put his hands up and walked forward to stand directly between them. “One thing Johansson would be doing right now is laughing his ass off at the pair of you. The only person you’re helping right now is him.”

“Thank you for that,” Columbia said. He gave Paula a glare that would normally ruin any of his staff. She didn’t even seem aware of it.

“First question,” Paula said. “Why do you think it’s him?”

Columbia gave an irritated wave to the Deputy Director.

“Method of operation,” Rees told Paula. “This has Adam Elvin’s signature all over it. We think he put the operation together.”

“That would be unusual,” Paula said. “Elvin himself hasn’t been directly involved in violent acts since Abadan. He just puts shipments together for Johansson.”

Rafael Columbia produced a small scornful laugh. “This is not an age where the measure of time depreciates anything. I thought you of all people should appreciate that, Chief Investigator.”

“All the recent Guardians propaganda has been denouncing the Second Chance as a project organized by the Starflyer,” Rees said. “They’re the only ones who have any kind of reason to do this.”

“A reason?” Paula said thoughtfully. “To launch an action like this inside the Commonwealth is a huge change of policy for Johansson.”

“Who knows how his deranged mind works,” Rafael Columbia said.

“He’s not deranged,” Paula said. “Deluded, certainly, but don’t make the mistake of believing he isn’t capable of rational thought.”

Rafael Columbia pointed at the crumpled blackened body of the Alamo Avenger. “You call this rational?”

“We’re only a couple of hundred meters from the gateway, and the other two got through. Then there was the kinetic assault on the assembly platform. They almost succeeded. I’d call that pretty smart. Whatever you think of him, and I think worse than most, he is not stupid. If he is behind this, then something new is happening. Is it possible the Marie Celeste came from the Dyson Pair?”

“Unlikely in the extreme,” came Wilson Kime’s voice. He nodded respectfully at Rafael Columbia as he walked across the wet floor of the assessment hall. “Paula Myo, a privilege. I’ve accessed a lot of your cases.”

“Captain.”

“We’ve discussed the possibility of a link between Dyson Alpha and the Marie Celeste with the Director of Far Away’s Research Institute,” Wilson said. “He says it doesn’t exist. I’m inclined to believe him.”

“An official denial is the certificate of endorsement for conspiracy theorists,” Paula said. “Especially one issued by the director of the Institute. We know Johansson believes there is a link.”

“That’s his problem.”

Paula gave him a grave smile. “He just made it yours, too.”

“I want him stopped,” Rafael Columbia said. “Deputy Director Rees has assured me you are the best, indeed only, person to take charge of this case. Do you agree with that assessment?”

“I certainly have the experience,” Paula said. “What I need to finally track him down is the Directorate’s full cooperation and resources behind me.”

“As of now, you’ve got them. Whatever it takes. You can build your own team, take whoever you want no matter what they’re working on. This has total priority.”

“Very well, I’ll start with my usual colleagues, and expand from there as our lines of inquiry open up. The first thing I’ll need from you, Mr. Columbia, is political coverage. CST security will want to make this their mission. Please talk to Mr. Sheldon and have them stand back.”

“I will point out the jurisdiction implications to CST,” Rafael Columbia said. He ignored the quiet laughter coming from Wilson’s direction.

“Thank you. Now how exactly do you smuggle three working Alamo Avengers to a planet?”

“They weren’t smuggled in,” Rees said. “According to the export files, they were neutralized relics on their way to a new museum here on Anshun. It was a lawful shipment.”

“A new museum?”

“You got it. The land exists, it was bought three months ago, and there’s a registered company to control it. But there’s no building yet, or even plans. The company has a few thousand Anshun dollars in its account, but that was transferred from a one-use account on Bidar. Untraceable, or at least very difficult.”

“Ah,” she said in satisfaction. “Yes, that does sound like Elvin’s signature.”

“Completely. The Alamo Avengers were bought legitimately from a dealer a week after the museum company was registered. Back then, they really were just wrecks. They’ve spent the intervening time being ‘refurbished’ to display standard on the Democratic Republic of New Germany. The company which did the work has been sealed up, and the DRNG police are going over their facilities and records for us.”

“What about the spaceplanes?” Wilson asked.

“Leased from a fully legitimate commercial operator here on Anshun. Again the company hiring them was a shell. Using them as kinetic missiles was a simple case of reprogramming their pilot arrays. It’s not difficult. We’re sending in some teams to the port they took off from. I’m not expecting much.”

“Are these Guardians likely to try again?” Wilson asked.

“Johansson has been launching attacks against the Institute on Far Away for a century and a half,” Paula said. “It would be reasonable to assume this was only the first attempt against the Second Chance.”

TWELVE

Over the High Desert the deep sapphire sky began to darken. Kazimir McFoster stood alone on one of the long wave-shaped dunes of gray sand and watched the stars emerge. It was a ritual for him now, staring up at those platinum sparks, waiting for the mighty constellation of Achilles to come shimmering out of the golden velvet twilight. When he’d found the shape of the ancient warrior and his gleaming red eye, he traced along the Milky Way swirl of his cloak. There in the sparse lower hem was a twinkle he could never be sure was real or imagined. Earth’s star.

She will be there, standing on cool, rich, green land, looking up into this same void. Six hundred years away. But I can see you still, my glorious angel. Grant me victory on this raid, even though you never believed in our cause.

In Kazimir’s mind, Justine’s beautiful face was shadowed by sadness as his task on this night became clear to her. “Choose your own path, my love,” she whispered in the darkness and thick warmth of their secluded tent in the forest. Fingers lighter than mist stroked him this way, then again like so. Her delighted laughter filled the tent as he twisted with helpless delirium beneath her sensual puppetry. “Be your own man, not the tool of others. Promise me that.” The pleasure she bestowed made him weep openly, swearing on generations of McFosters as yet unborn he would be true to himself and his own thoughts.

Yet for all her concern, Justine did not understand the reality of this planet. Like every offworlder before her, she regarded the Starflyer as a local myth, Far Away’s Loch Ness monster.

“Forgive me?” he asked of the stars. “I’m doing this for you, so you may enjoy your world and the wonderful life you have there.”

A tiny rivulet of sand shifted behind him, causing the faintest of sounds. Kazimir smiled softly, and continued to stare into the heavens. The desert heat lacked any hint of humidity. Surrounded on all sides by the Dessault Mountains, the air here never moved. Not even wisps of cirrus clouds sneaked past the rampart peaks. The static climate sucked the moisture from exposed skin and every breath. Few plants grew here, some native cacti that resembled stones, and were often harder; not even the Barsoomians could bring verdant life to a place without water. But for all its harsh nature, it was home, the place in the universe where Kazimir felt most secure.

“If I were the Starflyer, you would be mine now,” a voice whispered contentedly in his ear.

“If you were the Starflyer, Bruce, you would be dead now,” Kazimir said. He pushed the knife blade back a little farther so the tip touched the stomach of the other young man.

Bruce McFoster laughed with relief, and threw his arm around his friend. “You had me worried, Kaz, I thought you were going soft.”

“Worry for yourself.” Kazimir withdrew the knife and slid it back into the sheath on the side of his sporran. “You sounded like a herd of T-rexes coming up the slope. The entire Institute will hear you coming.”

“They’ll hear me from the afterlife. Tomorrow night we shall inflict a massive blow to them. Did you hear the attack on Anshun damaged the human starship?”

“Scott told me.”

“Scott! That old woman? Is he here? I can’t believe the elders will let him in on the raid.” Bruce dropped a shoulder and limped around Kazimir. “Mark my words,” he lisped. “This Starflyer will spill your blood and tear your body apart for its amusement. Never has there been a monster so evil in the universe. I know, I faced its slaves in single combat. Hundreds of them killed, a thousand, yet still they came on.”

“Don’t mock so,” Kazimir exclaimed. He and Bruce had grown up together, shared so much they were closer than any brothers. Yet his friend could still be incredibly offensive, not to mention tactless. Sometimes he wondered if Bruce had ever been awake at any time under Harvey’s years of tutelage. “Scott has suffered for our cause, more than I’d wish.”

Bruce straightened up. “I know, I know. But you have to admit, he’s too cautious.”

“He’s alive. I’ll be happy if I’m alive after serving the cause for that long.”

“Keep daydreaming about your offworld nympho, and your contribution to the cause is going to be over too quickly. You were thinking about her again, weren’t you? That’s what you’re up here for, presenting a fine skyline target for the enemy.”

It was difficult for Kazimir not to smile. “I was enjoying the quiet, that’s all. Listening to you for the whole day before the raid would drive anyone nuts. And stop calling her a nympho.”

“I knew it! You were thinking about her again.”

“So what? At least I do care about others.”

“Oh, hey, below the belt, or what. There have been a lot of girls I cared for in the last few years. More than you.”

“More, yes. But none of them for very long, eh, Bruce?”

“Doesn’t need to be long, just thorough. Now come on, Romeo, time we got ready.”

“Yes.” Kazimir took one last longing look at the thick swath of stars, then followed Bruce as he skidded his way down the dune. Directly ahead of them was StOmer, the great mountain that marked the most northeasterly point of the Dessault range.

“Did it help?” Bruce asked, serious for once. Or as serious as he could be. They’d reached the broad ridge of crumbling sandstone where there was a tunnel to the clan’s Rock Dee fort.

“Did what help?”

“Thinking about her?”

“Some. Yes. I know that what we’re defending is worthwhile.” Kazimir ducked his head to step under what looked like a deep overhang. The tunnel was underneath, hidden from the sky, barely wide enough for one person. He tucked his shoulders in, and scraped his way forward, the once-gritty sandstone on either side now smooth as marble from the passage of so many bodies over the decades. The tunnel bent twice, following a sharp S-curve. Thirty meters from the entrance it opened out into the first of the wide chambers that formed Rock Dee fort. The guard, standing proud in her lavender and tangerine McMixon kilt, studied his face, then allowed him to pass. If the Institute soldiers did ever find the tunnel, any guard would be able to hold them off just about single-handed as they wriggled their way out of the narrow slit one by one.

Polyphoto strips had been epoxied to the roof, with long strings of black electrical cable stretched out between them. Their relentless sol-spectrum light etched deep shadows across the rumpled sandstone as they led deeper into the fort.

“She must have been phenomenal in bed,” Bruce said with apparent sympathy. “I mean, the two of you only had, what, a couple of days together? And you’re still moping about her.”

“Sometimes, I almost wish you’d met her.”

“Almost?”

“If you’d seen her, got to know her, you would understand this isn’t some easy infatuation like the ones you have. And I would have wanted my two closest friends to meet.”

“Oh… well, thanks, Kaz.”

“But I thank all the heavens you didn’t, because you’re such an embarrassment I’m sure she wouldn’t want to have anything to do with anyone who knew you.”

Bruce made a lunge for him. A laughing Kazimir dodged ahead and started running. The pair of them burst out into the fort’s main chamber, still taunting and insulting each other loudly. Heads swung around to check out what was happening. Some frowned at the flippancy of the youths at such a time. Others—those of a similar age—smiled tolerantly. Most simply turned back to their work.

Kazimir and Bruce put on their sober faces, slowed down, and nodded courteously at their fellow clansmen. The rocky cavern had been carved in the rough shape of a football amphitheater by storm waters now long gone from this side of the mountains. Two fast channels had once merged here, swirling around and around as they clashed before rushing out toward the northeastern lowlands. The surging waters also had eroded a host of smaller passages and caves, tributaries that had splintered and shifted as geology took over from hydropressure.

Rock Dee was one of the largest Guardian communities, and a formidable safe refuge. There was still fresh water to be found in the lower caverns, filtering in from the mountains that guarded the desert above. Solid-state heat exchange cables had been sunk deep into the mantle below, providing power for lighting and cooking, along with the more important task of supplying the armory with electricity. All that had to be brought in was food, and that was supplied by the McKratz clan’s farms and grazing lands scattered throughout the Dessault range.

Kazimir felt a surge of pride at what he saw in the big chamber. If only he could have brought Justine to see this, then she would have believed in the Guardians’ purpose. Over eighty fighters were busy on the chamber floor, making up one of the largest raiding parties the Guardians of Selfhood had put together in years. But then, as everyone here knew, events were picking up with the construction of the human starship. The Starflyer’s long-laid plans were maturing rapidly, bringing disaster and death to the Commonwealth from the one direction no one in authority was looking.

All the clans had contributed to the raid. McFosters had provided a dozen young fighters, who were checking over their packs and equipment. Their emerald and copper kilts had been packed away; this evening they wore their navy-blue and ebony hunter tartan, helping them pass unseen through the night.

The McNowaks, also predominantly fighters, were in their gray and brown tartan. A group of them were engaged assessing the armor worn by one of their captains. The blue skeletal suit flooded the air around him with a nebulous orange haze, as if he were standing inside a ghostly amoeba. The radiance crackled and intensified each time a test penetrator cane was applied against him. With each application the force field emitter was gradually tuned until the emanation was nothing more than a faint aural outline, the kind any Old Testament saint might possess. Fine-tuning inverted the radiance, cloaking him in a skin of absorptive shadow.

The McOnnas were the third clan to focus on the soldier ethic. Their nomadic boys and girls were undergoing the same lessons, training, and tests that Kazimir himself had gone through. All of them he knew he could trust as much as Bruce. All were totally loyal to the cause, prepared to give their lives that humanity could be liberated. The squad they’d sent were wearing their nightguard blue and vermilion kilts, along with dark leather travel jackets; ion pistol holster and harmonic blade knife sheaths hung from their belts.

The McMixons, who were charged with the keeping of Rock Dee and other forts in the countryside surrounding the Institute, were tending to the Charlemagnes, the warhorses they would all ride to the raid. The gene-modified beasts were fully twenty-one hands, carried by legs like small tree trunks. They had no mane or tail; their thick leather hide was tougher than rhino skin, and a similar dull slate-gray in color. A short unicorn spike rose out of their heads, tipped with carbon-bonded titanium blades by the Rock Dee smithy. Any unprotected human caught by one would be ripped in half; and even force field armor had been known to give way from the inertia of a full charge. Fat iron bolts had been driven through the tough shield ridges of bone that protected the neck and underbelly, and straps of leather and silicon threaded through hoops in the bolts to hold the saddle in place. The Charlemagnes had been designed by the Barsoomians in their lands away to the east of the Oak Sea. Not for money—an emblem of the culture to which the radical ecogeneticists were fiercely aversive—but for the challenge of engendering an animal that in symbiosis with humans had only one purpose: carnage. The Barsoomians probably even delved into the forbidden field of psychoneural profiling, for no clan fighter had ever known a Charlemagne to shy away skittishly in the heat of battle like an ordinary horse would. With their tough skin, triple hearts, and multiple stress loading pathway skeleton, the great beasts were inordinately difficult to kill even with modern weapons.

The McPeierls, the widest-roaming clan of all, gathered intelligence on Institute activities from all over the planet. They also collected the advanced equipment that Johansson smuggled through the gateway along hundreds of innocuous routes. This evening, their members were distributing the final pieces of technology and weaponry required by the raiders.

The McKratzes farmed and raised cattle out across Far Away’s sweeping plains and tricky mountain pastures. They were the ones who bred the Charlemagne herds and lynxhound packs, and other domestic animals used by the clans. Throughout the year, they insured the more nomadic clans were fed and supplied.

And everywhere in the main cavern moved the McSobels, the armorer clan, responsible as well for general technology. Lugging their test equipment over the rock floor, they stopped beside each fighter and warhorse, running test programs through the arrays. Scarlet superconductor cables were pulled about behind them, supplying top-up charges to batteries and weapons magazines. Seven of them had been assigned to the raid, dressed in kilts that were matte-black with a plain grid pattern of thin dark gray lines and equally black coats. Five were bringing the missile launchers and medium-caliber plasma cannon, bulky titanium-cased units hanging from their Charlemagnes, which didn’t even seem to notice the extra weight. The remaining two operated electronic warfare systems intended to neutralize the Institute communications and throw in as much confusion and false data as possible.

Walking up to his own warhorse, Kraken, Kazimir felt the gooseflesh rising as the prospect of the coming raid grew more real. The Charlemagne snorted like a small thunderstorm, lifting and turning its head slightly so it could watch him walk around to its flank. Kazimir had absolutely no instinct to pat the creature reassuringly, this was nothing like the normal ponies and horses he’d learned to ride on. It was enough that the beast didn’t try to bite his head off on sight; the carnivore tusks curving over its rubbery lips were thicker than his fingers.

He began to check his pack once more.

“So are you two screwups ready?” a rasping voice asked.

Kazimir smiled around at Harvey McFoster, his old tutor. The man was a veteran of many clan raids against the Institute, and had the scars to prove it. Years ago, an ion beam fired by an Institute soldier had vaporized a superconductor battery beside him, and the superenergized molecules had penetrated his armor force field. After his injury, he spent his time teaching rather than fighting. He was lucky he survived the toxic shock. Clan medics spent six months repairing as much tissue as they could; even so the skin on a third of his body now had a melted appearance, and he could never raise his voice to shout. Not that he needed to, his presence alone inspired awe in his pupils. Kazimir considered himself privileged to have been one.

“Doing my best to be ready,” he said.

“Good enough,” Harvey said. “And you, Bruce, are you scared yet?”

“Ha.” Bruce gave the ion pistol on his belt a confident pat. “No, sir.”

Harvey’s cheek muscles moved his too-thick skin into a grimace, looking even more like some Halloween grotesque. “If you had a brain, lad, you would be.”

Bruce’s eternal cockiness vanished.

“Be nervous,” Harvey said. “Their soldiers are trying to kill you, or worse. Fright is your friend, it keeps you alert. That gives you a chance out there.”

“Only heroes are fearless,” Kazimir said. “And they die young.”

“I’m glad you heard something I said,” Harvey told him. “Even if it is just an old lyric.”

“We’ll make you proud,” Bruce insisted.

Harvey’s hand closed on his shoulder. “I know you will, lad, although I’d prefer it if you just stay alive. Remember, keep your eyes focused in front of you the whole time, not on your dick.” He gave a labored wink toward the McNowak group, then walked off.

Kazimir and Bruce smiled at each other in the same way as they had when they got caught playing truant. Bruce lifted his pack up and fastened it behind his saddle. “He’s right, you know.”

“I know. We mustn’t let our attention slip.”

“No, you idiot, about them.”

“Huh?” Kazimir followed the line his friend was surreptitiously indicating. Four of the McNowak fighters were young women. Kazimir had even chatted with a couple of them yesterday when they arrived in Rock Dee.

“That one with the dark hair, she hasn’t stopped looking at you since we came in.”

“Andria?”

“Oh, ho, you already know her name. Quick work, my friend. So who’s the one next to her? I wouldn’t mind a tumble with her after the raid.”

“That’s Bethany. I think she’s paired with one of the McOnnas. And anyway, what about Samantha? It’s only another month until she’s due, right?”

“So? This is why I love being a McFoster. We exist to kill the Starflyer and breed enough warriors to make the cause successful. That’s our duty. We fight. We fuck. When you think about it, what else is there worth doing? And believe me, that Bethany over there, she’ll be thinking along the same lines.”

“Dear dreaming heavens. Bruce, she’ll be thinking how to brain you with her pistol butt, that’s all. Can’t you ever get a grip on yourself?” Kazimir unfolded the lightweight shield coat, and threw it over Kraken’s back, bracing himself should the beast not want it and react with a fast kick. The dark fabric was embroidered with glittering black metal curls and spirals, long tassels hung from the lower edges, almost touching the ground. He started to smooth it over the warhorse’s thick skin, and used its straps to tie it to the bolt rings.

“I’m being honest,” Bruce protested with genuine hurt feelings. “You know that. This raid is going to make every female fighter incredibly horny afterward. It does me. What better way to celebrate our glorious victory?”

“How about in a civilized fashion?”

“Ha! I remember the West Irral raid. You were drunk for a week after. And you vanished off with that McSobel. What was her name?”

“Lina.” He didn’t mention it was because in the midst of his happy drunken haze Lina had looked more than a little like Justine.

“That’s the one. So don’t go all noble on me. You and I are the same.” Bruce’s arm went around his friend’s shoulder. He turned the reluctant Kazimir until they were both facing the young McNowak women, and gave them a cheery wave. Andria returned a sly smile, her gaze lingering on Kazimir before turning to her Charlemagne. Her three companions went into a huddle with her. The boys heard giggling.

“Now tell me that wasn’t an invitation,” Bruce insisted. “Look at her. What a figure. I bet she’ll be as lusty as hell in bed. And those breasts, dear heaven, they’re huge.”

“Will you shut up!” Kazimir tried to clamp his hand over Bruce’s mouth. “They’ll hear you.”

“You’re such a virgin. Ohooo, be quiet, or they’ll hear how much we like them. Wake up and smell the coffee, Kaz, you’re not going to live forever. And it’s such a beautiful life in the meantime, especially when it’s got breasts that size in it.”

“Stop it!” He started plucking at Bruce’s shirt, peering under the collar, checking the cuffs.

“What are you doing, Kaz?”

“Looking for the off switch. Please, heaven, let there be one.”

Bruce laughed, pushing his friend away. “No man can stop thinking about women, especially not at a time like this. Battle fires up all the primitive instincts.”

“That explains a lot; nobody gets more primitive than you.”

“Let’s get over there, we’re wasting time.” He took a step forward.

“No!” Kaz almost had to lunge to grab hold of Bruce’s shoulder and stop him. All four McNowak women were staring at their antics now. “I swear I’ll shoot you dead on the spot if you make a scene with them,” he growled at Bruce.

Bruce allowed himself to be halted in midstride. “Kaz! You do care about Andria.”

“I don’t want the whole raiding party to think we’re a pair of jerks, that’s all. Which is what they will do if we go over there and you spin them your usual bullshit lines. Now will you quit being such an ass in public?”

“Okay: I will be quiet if you promise you’ll bed her after the raid. Deal?”

“And that’s really a promise I can make.” Kazimir wished his traitor mouth wasn’t trying so hard to smile. It seemed as though from the moment he and Bruce became teenagers every second of their time together had been spent plotting strategies to meet and impress the opposite sex. Now when relationships were more adult, casual, and easier, he wasn’t interested. Though Andria was genuinely attractive, and it had been pleasant talking to her earlier. And it had been a very long time since Lina. I wonder if Justine has found a lover? She would never lack for young men pursuing her.

“If you don’t, I’ll take her.”

Kazimir grunted in utter contempt. “Oh, yes, and that’s even closer to reality. Everyone knows your reputation. And if she didn’t know about Samantha, I’d tell her. I’ll go over there, and…”

“You’ll do it then?” Bruce’s face was radiating delight.

“Anything to shut you up.”

Bruce hugged him heartily. “Thank the dreaming heavens. You have no idea how badly you need to get laid. Every second since your offworld nympho left has been torture for your friends.”

“Good! So now you know what my life is like having to listen to you the whole time.” Kazimir lifted up his saddle and slung it over Kraken’s back, settling it on top of the blanket. He was convinced that even the warhorse was laughing at him.

The raiding party left Rock Dee an hour after nightfall, fully eighty clan fighters filtering out of hidden clefts amid the desert-side foothills of StOmer. They led their warhorses at first, negotiating the tricky passes and steep dune banks. Before midnight, they had all reached the southern side of the mountain, and mounted up to start their descent into the lowlands. Small tufts of wiry dry grass the color of straw were appearing in the gritty sand. As the gentle folds in the land began to deepen into distinct valleys the grass turned greener, and began to spread out into patches that soon joined together into a single carpet. This far down, and facing due east, a cold wind blew at them. For the first time they felt a tinge of moisture against exposed skin.

The air warmed quickly as they moved steadily lower. Even though it was now deepest night, they were only a few degrees south of the equator. A thin belt of giant heather formed the upper border to the forest that covered the lower half of StOmer’s eastern slopes. By daybreak they were safely under cover of the lush trees, and moving in small groups along the myriad hidden tracks.

They had a long break at midday, taking time to sleep as best they could as the heavy warm rain pattered against the broad canopy of leaves overhead. A quick, cold meal at the start of the afternoon, and they were on their way again. As the light began to drain out of the sapphire sky they had reached the edge of the forest, where the land fell away in a steep shingle and grass ridge. The captains of every squad sent out scouts, who crept up to the edge of the ridge to check the ambush point. Several of them were McSobels, who pinpointed and neutralized the remote sensors that the Institute had installed along the road below.

Far Away only had one major road: Highway One, which ran southward from Armstrong City to cross the equator where it snaked along the western side of the Great Iril Steppes until finally driving into the valley where the Marie Celeste had crash-landed and the Institute had been built to study it. The road provided the sole supply route from the gateway in the city to the Institute, a twin lane strip of enzyme-bonded concrete extruded by the only pair of tracked roadbuilders ever to be exported to Far Away. They’d been brought in specifically for that one job, although once they’d finished the long north-south route they’d managed to keep going long enough to lay down a few smaller roads linking Armstrong City with the larger towns in the north. But after they finally broke down no spare parts were ever brought in to fix them.

From their position atop the ridge, the clan scouts could see the stone-gray ribbon of the road curving around the hill that marked the entrance to the alien arkship’s valley. It was late afternoon, and the thick cover of vegetation that lay across the lowland was still steaming gently. Carried on the air, echoing and drifting out of the valley that contained the Institute, was the faintest of mechanical sounds. For over a year now, scouts had been reporting increased activity around the massive metal hull. The news had been given an ominous reception by the clans, its synchronicity with the work on the human starship was too strong to be ignored.

But now, from the vantage point of the ridge, there was no sign of any activity. Nobody was using the road. The scouts settled down and waited; their information on the convoy was good, it was only a matter of time.

Every couple of weeks a supply convoy delivered food and equipment to the Institute. It took at least a week to drive the route down from the city, often longer depending on the road’s state of repair, and the level of sabotage by the Guardians. Each convoy was protected by soldiers who were hired by the Institute and licensed by the planetary governor.

The Guardians had been monitoring this convoy since it left Armstrong City. There were twenty big trucks hauling the cylindrical freight containers that had arrived through the gateway over the last fortnight. They were all FordSaaB VF44s; sixteen-wheel, twin axle, diesel-fueled, and manual drive—even the most sophisticated arrays would have trouble coping with Far Away’s poor surfaces and absence of satellite positioning systems. The Institute had chosen them for its transport fleet because they were designed for low maintenance and rough terrain.

Driving with them were eight matte-black Land Rover Cruisers, vehicles in common use among Commonwealth police and paramilitary forces operating in remote areas. On the road, they rode low on six independent suspension wheels, which could extend down and out to carry them over really rugged ground. The rest of the convoy was made up by a huge fuel tanker, and a couple of tow/repair trucks.

When they reached the last stretch of road before the start of the Institute valley, it was already twilight. The scouts saw the headlights blazing ahead of them, visible for kilometers across the rumpled countryside, advertizing their presense. A couple of the Cruisers were out in front, their drivers accelerating eagerly now they could see the sodium orange corona from the Institute’s little town crowning the hill ahead.

The dark sky was ripped apart by three blinding streaks of plasma as the McSobels opened fire from the top of the ridge. Two of the bolts struck the lead truck, blasting it apart. Inertia kept the disintegrating bulk tumbling forward as the freight containers spewed out great streamers of flame. After a couple of seconds the flaming wreckage flipped over and skidded to a stop, blocking the road. The third plasma bolt hit the fuel tanker. A tremendous explosion bloomed out, the fireball eruption swelling in seconds until it was over thirty meters wide, lighting up the whole convoy with garish menace. The trucks directly ahead and behind were completely engulfed, their own subsequent detonation adding to the devastation.

Every vehicle in the convoy emergency braked as the attack began, wheels locking and screeching as they scored huge scars of black rubber along the enzyme-bonded concrete. Several of them came dangerously close to fishtailing as their automatic systems fought to stabilize the braking sequence.

Another three plasma bolts flashed down. Two of them found their targets, smashing trucks apart in swarms of flaming debris. But the driver of the third truck had reflexes fast enough to activate his force field as he struggled to halt the bucking vehicle. A hemispherical shell of air solidified around the truck, sizzling electric blue as the bolt hit. Spikes of lightning lashed off in every direction. Long jagged lines of concrete ruptured into gravel and soot as the energy discharge pounded the road. Slim streamers of lava welled up in the gashes. There was nothing the force field could do to protect the truck from them as it slithered onward. Tires burst apart as they touched the molten rock, tipping the wheel hubs onto the ground. The front edge of the cab gouged out a huge scar as it shuddered to a violent stop.

By then every other surviving vehicle had a force field surrounding it. Drivers shouted into their radios for help and instructions, receiving nothing but thick static even on the encrypted security channels. The road was completely blocked; if they were going to get to the safety of the valley they would have to drive across open ground. Force fields made progress along a flat surface difficult; to travel over such rugged terrain the strength of the protective hemispheres would have to be reduced. Nobody wanted to do that. A further series of plasma bolts whipped down, hammering at the force fields like the spears of angry gods. None of them penetrated, but the pyrotechnic electron display was lighting up the countryside for kilometers around. Waiting in their cabs, engines running, praying for reinforcements, the drivers watched in horror as the strobing incandescence revealed a dark horde of horsemen rushing down the ridge toward the road.

Kazimir had fitted active lenses into his eyes long before the scouts reported the convoy was approaching. The view they presented him gave the world a pale emerald tint, but it stayed sharp and clear as the sun went down. Along with the rest of the Charlemagnes he hung back from the top of the ridge so the enemy had no hint of their presence. Then the McSobels fired the plasma cannon. His lenses simply refused to let that much light through into his eyes; he saw them as pink lines blinking on and off, like an afterimage of the noon sun traced across his retina. That was the signal to advance. With the sound of the exploding trucks reverberating around him, he urged Kraken forward to the crest of the ridge. A quick sideways glance showed Bruce at his side, laughing like a demon as the massive warhorses picked up speed. Then they were over the ridge, and the entire panorama glared brilliant jade below them as the diminishing tanker truck fireball ascended into the sky. He watched the trucks skidding about on the road, their force fields haloed by pieces of flaming wreckage that bounced and skittered across the invisible screens. The Cruisers had all turned off the road, and were driving straight toward the clan raiders as they charged down the slope.

As the distance quickly shrank, the raiders started to fire their ion pistols and the larger carbines. Force fields protecting the Cruisers flared chrome-yellow, but none of the shots got through. The thunder of hooves was now as loud as the howl of flames bursting out of the ruined tanker and the crackling energy weapons. Kinetic rapid-fire guns on the front of the Cruisers opened up. Tall gouts of earth sprayed up around Kraken. One of the projectiles struck Kazimir. His force field rang like a sepulchral church bell, completely deafening him. Vibrant slivers of energy rippled down the dark confining field, then surged through the curlicues embroidered in the warhorse’s shield blanket, turning the metal a glimmering white, before grounding out through the bottom of the tassels. Blue and purple sparks fizzed out around Kraken’s hooves as they charged onward. The air was filled with the sharp tang of burning metal. All around him, the clan raiders were trailing fabulous streamers of Saint Elmo’s fire as the projectiles hammered into them, human comets streaking across the gloom. Warhorses screamed as the gunfire tore their flesh open, falling to the earth as blood poured through huge tattered wounds.

A flight of missiles soared overhead. The Cruiser guns switched their aim upward, trying to lock on to the elusive barrage. Soldiers jumped out of the rear of the vehicles, sprinting for cover. They started firing ion rifles at the raiders. Their armor suit force fields became vivid coronal beacons as they were shot at in turn.

The front line of warhorses wavered as their casualties built up. They were almost level with the lumbering Cruisers now. Small groups peeled away. Kazimir urged Kraken toward the front end of the convoy. There was little thought involved, he simply remembered that was where he was supposed to go. Five times he’d been hit by kinetic bullets or ion rifle fire. So far his armor suit’s force field had held. Terror and exhilaration surged through his body, crushing almost all rational thought. Only some faint recollection of the plan kept him moving in the right direction. He loved the vivacity of the mad ride straight into the lethal muzzles of the Institute soldiers. Simultaneously, the constant fear of being cut to shreds any second made him scream wordless defiance at his foes, while shooting his ion pistol wildly. It was insanity, and utterly beautiful. Even Kraken seemed to share the recklessness, pounding on into the heart of the bedlam. Blood from two craterous wounds was running down the warhorse’s flanks, soaking the shield blanket.

Bruce was still level with him, still wearing the same rictus grin that had begun on the top of the ridge. He yelled something that Kazimir never heard above the clamor. Then he was gesturing urgently with the long barrel of his ion carbine. Kazimir glanced ahead. The road was only fifty meters away now, as brilliantly lit as any city, showing a zigzag jam of trucks. Bruce gestured again at the second truck, which had come to rest with its force field just nudging into the sputtering flames of the ruined lead truck. Kazimir’s heated zeal subsided enough for him to nod sharp agreement, and they both altered track for the trapped vehicle. Kraken galloped over the road in front of the flames, with Kazimir pulling on the reins to slow their unruly flight and curve back to the second truck.

It was at that moment he saw into the Institute valley for the first time in his life. He couldn’t see far down it, the angle was wrong for that. From his position all he could make out were a few nondescript low buildings clustered around the end of Highway One. Beyond them, however, the aft section of the alien arkship was just visible. Kazimir had always known its dimensions, and how only something that large could survive centuries of travel between the stars. But all the statistics Harvey had coached him in had never registered the way seeing it for real did. The diabolical thing was big. Its fuselage design followed a simple cylindrical geometry, with various protrusions and fins breaking the uniformity of its eight-hundred-meter length, and a complex wart-cluster of force field generators at the prow. At the rear it was a sheer circular cliff of metal two hundred fifty meters in diameter, with the eight stubby nozzles of its fusion drives sticking out. The Institute had set up a ring of powerful arc lights around the ship, centering it in a huge pool of bright monochrome light. Not that Kazimir could see many of the slate-gray metal hull plates. Vast arches of scaffolding had been erected around theMarie Celeste , supporting access walkways running the length of the fuselage. The shapes of humans and bots were discernible moving along the aluminum planking, tiny scavenger insects swarming over some fallen corpse. Cranes rose from the apex of the scaffolding, their long gantries hauling up big freight containers to the loading bays on every walkway level. Flashes of ruby laserlight were coming from the dark cavities of the fusion drive nozzles, evidence of a great deal of activity within.

A sudden chill washed across Kazimir’s skin, sobering his thoughts. Actually seeing the enemy that his clan was sworn to destroy was a humbling experience. The power and purpose reflected in the massive arkship was formidable, an extension of its master’s will. He felt pathetically small by comparison.

“Come on!” Bruce yelled as he galloped past. “For fuck’s sake, Kaz.”

Kazimir dropped his gaze from the ship and saw a fleet of black Land Rover Cruisers tearing out of the Institute town, accelerating toward them.

He grunted, “Oh, shit,” under his breath and urged Kraken around toward the intact truck. His hand fumbled with the equipment belt hanging from the side of his saddle, but he eventually found the dump-web unit and pulled it free. Ten meters ahead of him, Bruce was holding his own dump-web, leaning forward in his saddle as he rushed up to the force field surrounding the truck. His arm began to sway to and fro, calculating the weight and closing distance. Then as the warhorse was only a meter from the edge of the force field he swung the unit in a short arc and let go. The dump-web hit the ground and bobbled along until it reached the shield.

Kazimir had little chance to check his friend’s accuracy. He was doing the same thing with his own unit, letting it swing slightly, watching the force field as he hurtled toward it. Speed, distance, angle—he judged them all and dropped it at what he knew was the right moment, squeezing the activation trigger as it left his hand. The heavy gadget bounced a couple of times, then slapped into the force field. Internal sensors detected the coherent energy structure and immediately deployed the compressed nest of conductive filaments at the core of the unit. Fine dark strands expanded quickly, sliding their way along the curve of the shield like a stain spreading upward. The flimsy mesh began to leach energy out of the force field, channeling the flow down into the ground. Smoke began to rise up from the enzyme-bonded concrete where the lower half of the web was unfurling. On the back of the truck, behind the cab, the force field generator began a near-subliminal whining as it consumed more and more power, trying to reinforce the relentless drain that was gnawing into it in two places. The driver watched helplessly as more and more indicators on the cab dashboard turned from amber to red.

Thirty seconds after Kazimir let go of his dump-web, the huge quantity of energy that the generator had to pull from its superconductor battery to maintain the shield’s integrity exceeded its rated wattage. The force field collapsed as small turquoise flames jetted out of glowing cherry-red cooling fins on the generator casing. Several hundred meters overhead, loiter missiles launched by the McSobels detected the failure. Their sensors acquired the naked truck. Solid rocket boosters ignited, and they screamed down vertically at Mach four.

Kazimir was halfway back to the bottom of the ridge when the truck exploded behind him. He risked a quick look over his shoulder and whooped for joy at the sight of the billowing flames. There must have been some volatiles in one of the containers; flaming aquamarine globules were spinning out of the main explosion, soaring across the night sky like rampant fireworks.

Another convoy truck’s force field vanished, and long rocket plumes blazed high above as missiles locked on. Several clan raiders were circling the remaining trucks, ready to throw their dump-webs. Spread out between the road and the ridge, the firefight between Institute soldiers and the remaining mounted raiders was intense. The rapid-fire guns on the Cruisers were inflicting heavy casualties among the Charlemagnes. Retaliatory ion carbine shots were directed at the vehicles, turning their protective force fields into seething bubbles of light.

Kazimir tugged the reins slightly, steering Kraken away from the stationary Cruisers. According to the plan, all he had to do now was get back to the top of the ridge, and from there the rendezvous point. At that moment he hadn’t realized how close the Institute reinforcements had come until the rapid-fire guns on the first of the new Land Rovers opened fire. A patch of ground along the side of Kraken tore open, throwing up a ragged curtain of earth and vegetation. The big beast bellowed in shock, jerking sharply to one side. Kazimir clung on grimly.

Bruce was slightly ahead of him, staying low in the saddle. Ten meters beyond him, three Institute soldiers jumped up from nowhere and opened fire with their ion rifles. Bruce’s force field glared like a fragment of captured sunlight, the howl of its energy stresses louder than any thunderclap. Perilously thick tendrils of electricity writhed across his Charlemagne’s shield blanket, punching out of the tassels like a jet exhaust. Kazimir was already shooting back at the soldiers, forcing them to stop, when Bruce’s warhorse reared up as if to charge its attackers. Kinetic projectiles from a Cruiser rapid-fire gun plunged into its underbelly, shredding hide, organs, and bone in a cloud of crimson vapor. Time and gravity withdrew for a moment, allowing the mighty warhorse to hang poised on its hind legs. Then it slowly toppled over. Kazimir howled, “NO!” as he watched Bruce slide off the saddle, instinctively seeing the shape that the fall would take. Bruce hit the ground first, and ion rifle fire pummeled at him, straining his armor toward overload. The warhorse collapsed on top of him, its momentum rolling it over. Kazimir froze, staring in agony as more and more of his friend was engulfed by the massive carcass. Bruce actually managed to lift one arm, as if he were clawing his way free. Then the force field nimbus flickered and died. The warhorse completed its roll, crushing the human beneath an avalanche of dead steaming flesh.

More trucks exploded as missiles slammed down. The newly arrived Land Rovers rushed onward, driving straight for the retreating groups of warhorses. Clan raiders concentrated their fire on individual Institute soldiers, overwhelming their armor.

Kraken stood perfectly still as the battle raged around them. Kazimir hadn’t moved, his stare fixed on the bloody remains of Bruce’s warhorse, unaware of anything else. Waiting, waiting…

Another clan raider charged past, screaming something at Kazimir, half of it obscenities. Sound and light swooped back into Kazimir’s universe. The raid was over. They were supposed to be leaving. Already, most of the warhorses were galloping back up the slope. He spurred Kraken on, searching the ground ahead. A couple of the Institute soldiers were kneeling beside a clump of thick bushes not twenty meters away, shooting at the raiders on the slope above. Kazimir was never sure if it was him or Kraken who chose the direction, only that it was the right direction. They were suddenly moving toward the soldiers, picking up speed. The soldiers had a few seconds’ warning, both of them turning to gape in consternation at the terrible medieval vision of vengeance bearing down on them. One ran. One brought his rifle up. Kraken lowered its head, the titanium blade of its horn level with the soldier’s chest. Kazimir’s face was contorted into a vicious sneer of triumph as the tip rammed home into the soldier’s force field. There was a brief cascade of sparks, streaming out of his torso like some ephemeral flower. Then the carbon-bonded blade punctured the armor, slicing clean through the sternum and into the soft tissue of the organs inside the rib cage. That was when Kraken shoved its neck back, ripping the blade upward. The soldier’s body left the ground, dragged upward as the blade continued its scythe through his upper half before it pulled out with a last violent shake as Kraken twisted. The torn figure spun lazily through the air, squirting arterial blood as it went.

Kazimir knew he should have felt joy. The sweetness of revenge. But it was a hollow, meaningless victory. It mattered nothing to Bruce that the soldier was dead. He wouldn’t care, wouldn’t rejoice back in West Dee, wouldn’t down glass after glass of beer, would never get his chance with Bethany. Bruce was dead.

As if knowing Kazimir’s confusion, Kraken sped away back up the slope on its own accord, carrying its rider back to the safety of the forest.

The rendezvous spot was a patch of clear ground alongside a small stream, deep in the forest. There should have been twelve McFosters gathered there. Instead, there were only nine. A somber Scott McFoster began the roll call. Kazimir listened to the names with eyes closed and tears leaking down his cheeks.

The roll call was the formal end of every raid. Unless you were there and confirmed your name to the squad leader, there could be no readmission to the clan and its places, the villages, farms, and forts. Too many fighters had fallen in battle only to be caught and enslaved by the Starflyer. Many of them were sent back to infiltrate and kill the very clansmen and women they had grown up among. The roll call prevented such treachery from reoccurring.

“Bruce McFoster?”

The way Scott said it told everyone he already knew.

Kazimir opened his mouth. He was going to shout: Yes, I’m here. I made it back. But all he could see behind closed eyelids was that last sliver of radiance from Bruce’s force field going out. The half-second glimpse of fright rushing across Bruce’s face as he realized. Then there was just a mass of blood and gore descending, the sickening crunch of bone snapping.

“Bruce McFoster, your name will be written in honor on our clan’s memorial for those who have forever escaped the Starflyer’s reach. We pray that your final sleep will be filled with dreams of a better place.”

“Amen,” the others murmured.

“Kazimir McFoster?”

That faint second skin of light extinguished. How long would it have taken Bruce to die as his body was pulped? Who was going to tell Samantha?

“Kaz,” someone urged.

“Here,” he said brokenly. “I’m here.” Which was such a blatant lie. He wasn’t himself, not anymore, a part was missing. It was never coming back.

The Manby Memorial Clinic was in Little Sussex, one of the more pleasant residential districts of New Costa. Senior management had their big homes and sweeping gardens here, protectively moated by middle management developments. The shops were small and exclusive, the schools high class, and the facilities generally excellent. There wasn’t a factory within twenty-five kilometers.

The AEC police car swept up to the center’s main entrance and its door opened for Paula. She got out and greeted Elene Castle, the clinic’s deputy manager. As the woman chattered away in a slightly nervous manner, Paula underwent a touch of d?j? vu; it wasn’t that long ago she’d visited the Clayden Clinic and Wyobie Cotal. But then, most of her cases involved a visit to medical facilities at some point or other.

Elene took her past the first two blocks, which contained the private recovery rooms, day lounges, and physical therapy spas. Paula was familiar with the setup, her own post-rejuvenation rehabilitations had been spent in almost identical buildings. The Manby had a slightly plusher decor, but the rituals would be the same. Elene Castle was delivering her to the third block, where the actual rejuvenation treatment was conducted. The long corridors were strangely empty. As Paula passed a lounge, she saw a number of recovering clients slumped in deep chairs watching the Augusta StLincoln Cup match. Nursing staff hung around unobtrusively, keeping an eye on the big portal as the two national teams duked it out on emerald grass.

“I’m afraid you will have to wait for another couple of hours,” the deputy manager said apologetically as a collective groan went up from the lounge as StLincoln’s striker missed a shot. “Professor Bose was withdrawn from the actual treatment chamber only forty minutes ago. It will take him a while to recover sufficiently to answer your questions.”

“I can wait that long,” Paula said. On any other world, it would have taken weeks just to get a court order allowing her to interrupt a rejuvenation. But CST was paying for Bose’s fast-tracked treatment, and Augusta was essentially controlled by the Sheldon family. It hadn’t been difficult to arrange.

Paula was shown into a reception room, where a man and a woman were standing waiting. “This is Mrs. Wendy Bose,” Elene said, “and…”

“Professor Truten,” the man said, offering his hand. He was in late middle age, dressed in the kind of suit that Paula guessed had gone out of fashion several centuries earlier. The fabric was a brown tweed, cut with very small lapels. Judging from the tightness across his shoulders the professor must have bought it quite some time ago. “I’ve wanted to meet you for some time, Chief Investigator,” he said. “It’s a shame it had to be under these circumstances.”

“What circumstances?” Paula asked.

“You exert a natural fascination on members of my profession. Unfortunately, I am here to represent Professor and Mrs. Bose.”

Paula gave Wendy Bose a sharp glance; in her opinion the woman’s jittery inability to return the contact spelled out a great deal of guilt. Unfortunately, Paula didn’t know what the crime could possibly be. The Directorate had run its usual search, and Wendy Bose had come up completely clean. “And what is your little profession, exactly?”

“Ah, yes. I teach law at Leonida City university.”

Paula kept staring at Wendy Bose, who was looking all around the small room. “I didn’t know the professor was guilty of anything.”

“He’s not. Everybody is innocent until proven guilty. Commonwealth Charter Clause 3a. As I’m sure you’re aware.”

“If he’s not guilty, what does he need a lawyer for?”

“I don’t know. What do you want to question him about?”

Elene cleared her throat. “I think I’ll leave at this point.”

“Thank you,” Paula said. “Please call me when Professor Bose has recovered.”

“Of course.”

“So does a professor of law on Gralmond know much about Augusta law?” Paula asked once the door had closed behind the deputy manager.

“There’s not much law here to know. Augusta is hardly an enviable democratic model.”

“Exactly. You don’t have any jurisdiction here. Whereas I have a lot. I can have you removed from the planet very easily.”

“Surely you believe in fairness, Chief Investigator?”

“Fairness I believe in more than you ever can. I also believe in justice. What I don’t tolerate is lawyers interfering with that justice.”

“Ah yes, we’re always the bad guys, aren’t we?”

“Wherever you find human misery, you find lawyers, either causing it or making a profit from it.”

“Please,” Wendy Bose implored. “I asked Professor Truten to come here. I don’t know any lawyers on Augusta, and we don’t have much money. Dudley isn’t receiving any salary while he’s in regeneration.”

“Dudley is a colleague,” Truten said. “Surely having a witness and advisor can’t harm your investigation. He’s bound to ask for a lawyer anyway.”

“I’m not investigating Dudley Bose,” Paula said. “As far as I know, he’s not guilty of anything.” She gave the lawyer a pointed look. “You obviously believe differently. Why is that?”

Wendy Bose gave Truten a questioning look.

“I don’t understand,” the lawyer said. “Dudley is only having two months of rejuvenation treatment. That’s all the time he can afford before the starship leaves, and that’ll barely get him into a reasonable physical condition. This investigation must be incredibly important for you to have him pulled out of that. You might have cost him his place on the crew.”

“Not a factor for me.”

“What do you think he’s done?” Wendy Bose asked.

There was desperation in her voice, but Paula knew that wasn’t all. Some of the worry was for herself.

“Very well, but this investigation is confidential. You are not at liberty to discuss it without my express permission.”

“I am aware of basic law…” Truten trailed off under Paula’s gaze.

“We believe that that attack on the Second Chance was made by a group called the Guardians of Selfhood. They are an obscure paramilitary political group based on Far Away who believe the Commonwealth is politically manipulated by an alien.”

“I’ve heard of them,” Truten said. “My e-butler has let their shotgun messages through its filters several times, unfortunately.”

“In order for them to see the Second Chance as a threat,” Paula said, “they would need to establish a link between its construction and their alleged enemy alien. What I’m trying to do is uncover that link, or at least their belief in a link. As the whole mission started because of Professor Bose’s discovery, he was the logical place to begin.”

“I hardly think this warrants yanking him out of the treatment.”

“It didn’t,” Paula said. “This kind of data analysis is a standard correlation for the Directorate RI. It came up with an unusual coincidence. I want to ask the professor about it. That’s all.”

“What was the coincidence?”

“The Cox Education charity account in the Denman Manhattan Bank was subject to an attempted data hack some while ago, prior to the attack. The charity is one of the sponsors of your husband’s astronomy department. Obviously, the Guardians believed the charity was channeling money into the Dyson Pair observation project on behalf of the alien. We assume they were trying to find their ‘evidence’ for this in the charity’s financial records. They weren’t successful in gaining access to the secure files, the bank’s smartware managed to lock them out. It wasn’t considered important at the time, the bank is subject to many such attacks, but the Trojan the hackers used to ride in on was based around Professor Bose’s codes.” She watched with interest as the color faded from Wendy Bose’s face. The woman reached out for Truten’s support. “Is there something you’d like to tell me?”

Truten nodded encouragingly. His grip on Wendy Bose’s arm tightened. There could have been a degree of affection in that grip, Paula decided.

“He said to tell you something,” Wendy Bose said. “I didn’t understand at the time.”

“Your husband?”

“No, the reporter. He said, ‘Tell her from me to stop concentrating on the details, it’s the big picture that counts.’ ”

“A reporter said that to you?”

“Yes. To tell Paula when I see her, that’s what he said. I don’t know anyone called Paula. And we were talking about the astronomy department’s sponsors. He was interviewing me.”

“When was this?”

“Months ago. I think it was when my husband was awarded his professorship. There was a party afterward, a lot of people. Most of the media wanted to talk to us.”

“This reporter mentioned me by name? Me?”

“Yes. Definitely.”

“What was his name?”

“I think it was Brad.”

Bradley,Paula mouthed. Surprise chilled her skin. For the first time ever, she knew how it must feel to come off worse during an interview. To have your confidence kicked out from under you.

“You know the gentleman?” Truten asked mildly.

Paula ignored his gentle mockery. “I’ll need a description of this Brad person. Were there any other reporters recording the party?”

“Probably. Yes. There’s something else.”

“What?”

“We left the party early. There’d been some kind of break-in at the house. Whoever did it copied all the memories in our household array.” She brightened. “That would hold Dudley’s information about the Cox Educational charity bank account, wouldn’t it?”

“Yes,” Paula said softly.

“So Dudley’s innocent, then, isn’t he? He can go on the starship.”

“I’m not going to stop him.” She didn’t comment on the way the loyal wife and the supportive colleague hugged each other.

Ozzie was rocked from side to side as the big awkward sled jostled along over the frozen surface of the depression. The murky interior of the covered sled was actually colder than the inside of the tent, despite an iron brazier filled with glowing, hissing charcoal. Even so, Ozzie felt a lot more comfortable now they were under way. Orion also perked up considerably as the ride progressed, sitting on the long bench, his sleeping bag wrapped around him like a quilt.

The sled framework was constructed mainly out of bone, great honey-brown ribs of it, cut and fitted together as if they were lengths of wood. Walls and ceiling, and the benches they were sitting on, were made from stiff black leather, which Ozzie could see had been poorly scraped. A strip of clear crystal in the front wall, which he presumed was a chunk from the local trees, provided the only window. It gave him a rough view out across the ice-locked ground, but mainly of the swaying rumps of the two big ybnan that were pulling them. Bill, the big Korrok-hi, was standing on an open platform at the rear, steering them with a long set of reins. He was keeping their speed low so that the lontrus could keep up.

“What is this Ice Citadel place?” Ozzie asked.

“I’m not sure what it was originally,” Sara said. Now they were inside, her face mask hung on straps at the side of her hood. The brazier’s somber light had turned her creased skin as dark as Ozzie’s. “Most of us think it was some kind of Silfen lodge. They still use it when they come to hunt the icewhales.” She patted her fur coat. “That’s where all this comes from. I’ll need a new one soon, I’ve had this seven years now. It wears well if you take care of it.”

Ozzie glanced around the sled again. “And the bone?”

“Smart lad. Yes. In that respect they’re like the whales on old Earth, a valuable resource. We can use them for a lot of things. Once the Silfen have killed them and taken their trophy tusks, they don’t mind us utilizing the rest of it. A hunt is quite a sight, the Silfen ride out like some royal medieval pageant, dressed up in all their winter finery. Then you get us lot hanging on behind, trying to keep up. After they kill an icewhale, we set up camp for a week to butcher and cook the damn thing. Most parts have a use here. Even the blood has a kind of alcohol in it to stop it freezing, not that you can drink it—and there’s been enough experimental stills over the years. Then there’s one gland in the male icewhale which some people dry and then grind up. They say the powder puts the peck in your pecker, if you know what I mean.”

“I think I get the idea.”

“Some of the organs have medicinal properties, so our doctor claims, not just for us but other species at the Ice Citadel. And of course the meat is edible. That’s our basic diet.” She puckered her lips in disapproval, deepening the mass of wrinkles on her cheeks and forehead. “You have no idea how truly boring icewhale meat can get. Were you two riding horses?”

“Up until like two days ago, yes.”

“Humm. Horse steak. Now there’s a gourmet dish. If folks hear there are some horse bodies lying around out there for the taking, they might just put themselves in gear and get an expedition together. Two days away, you say?”

“Roughly, yeah. Not that we walk very fast.” Ozzie had eaten horse before, so the thought didn’t make him too squeamish. But he could see the boy turn his nose up in disgust.

“That’s near the limit,” Sara said. “It would be a risk. But there’s some who’ll take it just for the chance of tasting something different.”

“What sort of risk? You seem well equipped for this planet.”

“It’s not equipment, lad, it’s location. The Silfen paths aren’t stable, you know. Once you start going deep into the forests, there’s no telling where you might wind up.”

“You mean like there’s no dependable way to get out of here?”

“There’s a million ways out by all accounts. And then again, there’s another million ways to stay. I’ve seem them sometimes, with my own eyes. Friends who can’t take the Ice Citadel anymore. They set off into the forest, looking for somewhere better. Years go by, and you think they must have made it, must be safe. Then an expedition will come across their bodies, all stiff and black.”

Orion pulled the sleeping bag tighter around him, fighting the way his chin was quivering.

Ozzie gave the woman a look, but she didn’t seem perturbed. “If there’s a way in, there’s a way out,” he said.

“Sure there is. What I’m telling you is, nobody here knows one. Anybody who does leave permanently doesn’t come back. At least, I’ve never seen one return.”

“How long have you been here?” Orion asked.

“I’m not sure. Some of the places I’ve visited might not have had the same kind of time as others. They were different. Don’t ask me how. You only realize once you’ve left. When you try and remember, every moment you spent there was like a dream. Then there’s the paths, time flows along them as well. You probably realized that the climates merge very gently, to do that they have to match seasons.”

“But how long?” Orion persisted.

The old woman smiled, showing copper-colored teeth. “Put it this way, I walked off Earth in 2009.”

Orion let out a gasp of surprise. “No way!”

“Oh, yes. I was on vacation in Tuscany. I still liked doing that, walking through the countryside, visiting the towns, sampling the food. There were enough areas of it that the developers never got around to ruining which made it worthwhile. One day I packed my backpack and hiked off into the forest. That was it. I’ve been out here ever since. I never really wanted to go back. I mean… what’s the point?”

“Interesting,” Ozzie said. It was fascinating to know the Silfen paths had led to Earth in those days, but somehow not surprising. “That would make you about four hundred years old. They didn’t have rejuvenation on Earth back then, not even in Europe.”

“I’ve never been rejuvenated. I told you, time runs differently along the paths.”

“But you just said you don’t walk the paths anymore.”

“I’m here, though, and I encounter the Silfen most years.” She shrugged. “This isn’t something you rationalize and order, Ozzie. Everything that is here simply happens. Don’t try to assign reason to what you experience.”

“Right.”

“Please?” Orion said. “Do you know if my mom and dad are here?”

“What are their names?”

“Maurice and Catanya.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Orion, there’s nobody here with those names. And I can’t recall a couple passing through, either.”

The boy hung his head.

“Not every path from Silvergalde leads here, you know,” she said. “They could be anywhere. Some nice tropical island, perhaps.”

“Yeah. Whatever.”

She looked at Ozzie, who gave her a don’t-ask-me shrug.

The Ice Citadel gradually grew larger in front of them. It was difficult for Ozzie to see clearly through the grubby, ice-crusted crystal window, but the basic pyramid shape soon became apparent. From base to tip it was about seventy yards high. Every surface had been covered in crystal, great lengths of the quartz trees arranged into hexagonal arrays. They were packed together in a perfect honeycomb, giving no clue as to what material was underneath. A smooth cylindrical pillar of crystal rose from the center of each hexagon, topped by a large multifaceted stone that swelled out almost organically. Ozzie frowned at the assembly, trying to understand its purpose. The long segments that made up the hexagons were angled in series against each other, forming tiers. Little prismatic sparkles of light danced off the sheer surfaces. They were like… “Mirrors,” he muttered to himself. Very crude concave mirrors focusing sunlight on the central stalk. Or maybe not so crude, he decided; it would take a real artisan to get the angles just right.

The top of the pyramid was a small rounded pinnacle. As he watched, the beam of green light shone out of it, sweeping around.

“You can see it right over the other side of the crater,” Sara said. “There’s been many a night it’s guided me home.”

“It works at night?” Ozzie said. “I assumed the mirror array gathered sunlight for it.”

“Worked that out, huh? Shouldn’t surprise me, a techie like you. The mirrors mostly scoop up light for the rooms inside. But, yeah, the top row is exclusively for the lighthouse system. They pour sunlight into some kind of light battery. Please don’t ask me how it works, it looks like a big ball of stone to me. There’s always some idiot science type wanting to take it apart. We don’t let them, of course.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll spare you that.”

“Good. We have been known to run some people out of town. And as far as we know, there isn’t another town on the whole damn planet.”

The sled came slowly to a halt at the base of the pyramid. Ozzie and Orion pulled their gloves on again, covered their faces, and stepped out carrying their packs. Another couple of the Korrok-hi warbled mournfully to Bill as they started to unharness the big ybnan that had pulled the sled. Some humans (or human-shaped) had come over, dressed in the same bulbous fur coats as Sara wore. There were other aliens as well, a small gnomish creature with five limbs and two things like snakes with legs, all wearing coats of icewhale fur. Ozzie stopped to study them; he’d never seen their kind before. He began to wonder just how far into the galaxy the Silfen paths ran.

“This way,” Sara beckoned. “Iusha will stable your lontrus for you.” There were a number of archways of various sizes along the base of the pyramid, from trapdoor height up to an opening wide enough to take two sleds at once. There was a lot of activity around them, with animals (again types he’d never seen) and aliens coming in and out. Several sleds resembling racing toboggans were being prepared.

She led them through one of the archways into an antechamber with plain black marble walls. At the far end was a big revolving door made from bone, with thin crystal windowpanes. “It’s like a heat-lock,” she said as she pushed one of the panels and set the doors moving.

Beyond that was a wide corridor walled with the same marble. Long panels of quartz were set into the ceiling, with pink sunlight pouring out of them. Ozzie stood underneath one and squinted into the glare, but there was nothing to see.

“They light the whole place,” she said. “It’s like a root network of big crystal ducts leading down from the mirrors on the pyramid. Same principle as our fiber-optic cable, but big, much bigger, the ducts are a meter wide.”

The corridor angled down slightly, then opened out into broad stairs that curved around out of sight. They started their descent. The curve was actually a wide spiral. Ozzie lost track of how many times they went around, and how deep they were. It was a long way down. Sara took her face mask off, then unbuttoned the front of her coat. She was wearing woolen trousers and a thick blue sweater underneath. Ozzie realized he was getting warmer, and unzipped his own coat.

“What heats this place?”

“Hot springs,” she told them. “It was built right above them. I wasn’t kidding about that bath.”

The stairs ended at an archway. Sara watched as they walked out onto the main floor of the Ice Citadel. Ozzie took a few steps in, and came to a halt. He’d entered an alien cathedral, a vaulting dome at least eighty yards high. Pillars curved up the wall like some arcane rib cage, supporting seven balcony rings. It had to be a religious monument. The alcove walls between the pillars were carved marble. Thousands of different creatures stared out at Ozzie, every third was a Silfen. Somehow, the artist had given each one a majesty surpassing the divine quality suggested for the human prophets. They’d all been captured at the same moment of revelation and veneration, seeing the wonder dwelling beyond the physical universe. The bas-relief landscapes around them ranged from arboreal scenes to stark landscapes with exotic moons in the sky, cities of grandiose buildings and even technological surroundings. Right at the apex, a mandala of crystal strips shone brighter than the sunlight outside. “Jesus wept,” he exclaimed. As proof that the Silfen did have a tangible culture it was a startling introduction.

In the center of the floor was a large pool, fed by a raised fountain, whose waters steamed gently as it splashed and gurgled. There was no altar or rows of seating, which Ozzie was half expecting. Long tables made of bone and leather had been set up on granite paving that was worn and badly cracked. On the other side, a large rectangular stone hearth had been built, with neat brick-walled ovens on top. Flames were visible flickering through grids set in the base. Judging by the background smell in the room, and the soot clogging the oven brickwork, it was some kind of fat-based oil fuel. Several humans and aliens fussed around on tables next to the hearth, preparing a meal.

The chamber obviously served as a main meeting place for the Ice Citadel residents. Even in the daytime it was busy. The number of species astounded Ozzie; he could make out at least twelve different types. Creatures with three legs, four legs, six legs, some that squirmed or wriggled across the floor, one that hopped, and something that was either a young Raiel or a close cousin. Big and small, they had skins in many shades, scales, fur, spines, and oil-rainbow membranes; clothes on those that bothered ranged from simple togas to practical utility harnesses.

Like the statues, every creature was now focused on Ozzie and Orion. They were stared at, smelled, echo-sounded, heat-scanned…

Orion edged behind Ozzie, who returned the attention levelly. “Where are they all from?” Ozzie asked. “Do we know their star systems?”

“It doesn’t matter where they come from,” Sara said dismissively. “Only that they are here now. Why do you want to classify them? That’s the first step toward segregation.”

“Nobody’s classifying,” Ozzie snapped back. “Man, this has got to be the most important gathering of cultures we know of. There are more species represented here than even the High Angel hosts. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”

“It means we have a broad fund of abilities to help us survive.”

“I’ve got to find out where they come from, if they know anything more about the Silfen.”

“Introductions later,” Sara said. “Your rooms are over here.” She led them around the edge of the chamber. There was a corridor leading off between every set of pillars on the ground level. The one they walked down opened into a cluster of three simple circular rooms. There was crude human-style furniture in one of them: a sleeping cot and a pair of sling chairs. The leg on one chair was broken, and the leather so old and cracked it looked like it would tear if anyone sat on it. A bathing pool took up half of the last room, filling the air with steam. Orion stuck his hand in the clear water, and smiled happily at how hot it was.

“Take your time to freshen up,” Sara said. “The evening meal is served in a couple of hours. It’s kind of tradition that the newest arrivals tell their stories and bring us all the news from whatever part of the galaxy they’ve come from.”

“I can manage that,” Ozzie said.

“Good.” Her expression was troubled. “You won’t try and rush off to find a path, will you? We lose a lot of people that way. At least take the time to learn the way things are around here.”

“Sure. I’m not stupid. But we will be leaving as soon as we can.”

“Good luck.”

There were a dozen grand dinners, balls, and galas on the night before departure. Only one counted, of course: the one thrown by Anshun’s First Speaker, which was attended by Vice President Elaine Doi, Nigel Sheldon with three current wives from his harem, Rafael Columbia, Senator Thompson Burnelli, Brewster Kumar, and a dozen other notables from the Commonwealth’s political ruling classes. And that, sadly, was the one which Captain Wilson Kime also had to attend. His car drove him through no less than three security checks, including a deep scan, on his way into the government’s Regency Palace, which served as the First Speaker’s official residence at the heart of Treloar. The sun was just setting as he and Anna drew up outside the massive stone portico. They were greeted by two human servants in long frock coats covered in gold brocade. The senior one bowed deeply. “Welcome, Captain. The First Speaker is receiving her guests in the Livingstone Room. Please go straight in.”

“Thank you,” Wilson replied. He took Anna’s hand, and they walked up the big steps. She was wearing a long formal ocean-blue gown with elaborate nonsymmetrical loops of gold and a pearl necklace that seemed to merge with her glittering OCtattoos. Her hair had been cut short ready for the voyage, but the stylist had managed to weave in some temporary extensions flecked with platinum and phosphorescent Titian strands. He’d never seen her so elegant before. At work she was mostly in overalls or an office suit, while at the apartment she wore very little. The effect, enhanced by a thick subtle perfume, made her extremely desirable. He wanted to rip the dress off her and have passionate sex right there on the cold tiles of the palace floor. Her pose was only slightly spoiled by the way she had to grip the front of her dress with her free hand, holding the hem off the steps as they ascended.

“Bloody classical architecture,” she muttered under her breath.

As they reached the top, a shiny black Ferrari Rion pulled up at the foot of the steps, emitting a hum of barely controlled power. A gull-wing door lifted up, and Oscar climbed out.

“Might have guessed,” Wilson said. He was mildly envious of the car; it was a limited edition. Of course, given his age and status, he was above such things now. But he couldn’t help wondering what the Ferrari would be like to drive on manual. From a purely engineering point of view, it was a superb machine.

Oscar waved cheerily, and dashed up the steps. He kissed Anna on the cheek. “You look gorgeous tonight, my love.”

“Thank you,” she said with a smile. “You, too.”

Oscar carried off a tuxedo with great panache, a stylish searing-white jacket with a trendy cut and an old-fashioned scarlet carnation in his lapel. In contrast, Wilson felt as though he’d been stuffed into his own tux, like a high school boy on a prom date.

“Shall we go in, boys and girls?” Oscar said.

They walked through the doors into the over-classical interior, dominated by gilt-framed portraits and the twisting bronze and jade shapes of first modernist sculpture. The First Speaker, Gilda Princess Marden, greeted Wilson with a politician’s firm, trustworthy handshake, and air-kissed Anna. Wilson said something sympathetic about the planet’s defeated national football team. The First Speaker thanked him profusely, going into detail about the sporting and personal failings of the main striker.

“Well done,” Anna murmured as they walked away. “Only another five hours of small talk to go.”

The Livingstone Room’s large garden doors had been folded back, allowing the guests onto the wide balcony outside. The palace courtyard’s formal garden had been lit by flaming torches and yellow and green starglobes hanging like fruit from the trees and larger bushes. Over a hundred guests dressed in smart colorful clothes suitable for the warm summer evening were milling around as the golden sunset drained out of the horizon. Local A-list socialites mingled with famous unisphere celebrities and wealthy grandees while official news and political reporters maintained a respectful distance. A band was playing on a small platform set up in front of the Henry Wu planet-sphere fountain.

All three of them grabbed drinks from a waiter. Wilson could see several other crew members, each at the center of a knot of people. Like him, they were the unlucky ones; more junior members had a free choice where to spend their last night. For himself Wilson would have preferred a less ceremonial event.

“I see our illustrious navigator is here,” Anna said quietly at his shoulder.

Wilson and Oscar saw Dudley Bose standing beneath a Japanese maple. He’d returned from his partial rejuvenation on Augusta having had about fifteen years taken off his age. Unfortunately, his frame hadn’t quite adjusted yet. Skin hung in folds from his neck; his hair was a mottled fuzz of gray and black, and a sagging belly hung over his tuxedo waistband. He was telling some story to his attentive audience of Anshun dignitaries, with his wife in close attendance, laughing as if she’d never heard the anecdote before.

“Remind me again why he’s coming with us,” Oscar said.

“Because he’s the greatest expert the Commonwealth has on the Dyson Pair,” Anna told him demurely.

“Ah. I knew there was a reason.”

Wilson did his best not to frown. Not for the first time he wished he hadn’t bowed to political expediency. Bose hadn’t undergone even half of the tests that the rest of the crew had struggled their way through, let alone taken part in any meaningful training. Having the astronomer on board was simply asking for trouble. But it had got the media off his back.

He saw Nigel Sheldon talking to the Vice President and other members of the ExoProtectorate Council, and made his way over to their small group. As he reached them he realized the young-looking woman standing next to Sheldon, who had his arm around her shoulder, was Tu Lee, their hyperspace officer. Her small delicate figure was clad in a little black dress; with her raven hair cut short she looked like a sexy imp.

“Captain!” Nigel grinned in welcome. “I know you’ve met Elaine.”

Wilson smiled politely at the Vice President. Farndale Engineering had chosen to donate to her rival’s campaign, and Elaine Doi knew that.

“Any last-minute problems?” Nigel asked.

“No. It’s all going remarkably smoothly.”

“We reached point two five light-years per hour on the last test flight,” Tu Lee said. “That’s our operational target, so we’re on the green for tomorrow.”

“Listen to you,” Nigel said. He grinned proudly at her.

“Stop it.” She gave him a sharp look.

“Tu Lee is my great-great-great-granddaughter,” Nigel said to Wilson. “Four natural-born generations; you don’t get a stronger family tie than that. Can you blame me for being proud of her?”

Wilson couldn’t remember that being in Tu Lee’s file.

“I hope you don’t mind,” Tu Lee said, her dark eyes gazing intently up at Wilson. “I never said anything, because I wanted to make the crew on merit.”

“You succeeded,” Wilson said. He suddenly wondered why none of his own family had ever made it through the qualifying stages.

“A Sheldon and a Kime finally flying together, eh,” Nigel said happily. “We’ve got it covered from every angle.”

“Looks that way.” Wilson was having trouble keeping his smile intact.

“I understand you’re taking a lot of weapons on your flight,” Thompson Burnelli said.

“The great debate,” Wilson said, not quite mocking. “Do we shock culturally superior species with our primitive warlike behavior, or do we go into the unknown with sensible protection that any smart alien will understand.”

“Given what we’re facing, a degree of self-defense is appropriate,” Nigel said.

“Huh,” Thompson snorted. “What do you believe, Captain? Is the barrier a defense against some psychopathic race armed with superweapons?”

“We’ll find out when we get there,” Wilson said mildly. “But I’m not taking a crew anywhere unless I stand a chance of bringing them back alive.”

“Come on, Thompson, this is supposed to be a party,” Nigel said. “Stop giving the man a hard time.”

“Just making a point. I’m still not convinced this is the best way to deal with the Dyson Pair. There’s a strong body of opinion saying we should leave them well alone for a few centuries.”

“Yes,” Anna said. “The Guardians of Selfhood for one.”

Thompson flashed her an angry look.

“Any news on them?” Wilson asked Rafael Columbia.

“We’ve made over two hundred arrests in connection with the raid. Mostly black-market arms merchants and other underworld military types. My Chief Investigator is confident they will provide us with enough information to finally track down the organizer.” He didn’t sound impressed.

“She seems to be doing a good job so far,” Oscar said. “There hasn’t been a hint of trouble since the raid.”

“Sure that doesn’t have anything to do with the level of CST security?” Elaine Doi asked demurely.

Oscar raised his glass to her, ignoring the dark expression on Columbia’s face. “That’s probably about ninety-nine percent of the reason, yeah,” he conceded.

She looked around at the four crew members. “So, are you nervous?”

“It would be stupid not to be,” Wilson said. “The fear factor is a significant part of our racial survival mechanism. Evolution doesn’t like arrogance.”

“A healthy attitude. For myself, I wish there was some way of communicating with you. To be cut off from information seems barbaric somehow.”

Wilson smiled a challenge at Nigel. “I guess our best hyperspace theorists aren’t quite up to that.”

Nigel raised a glass, but didn’t take the bait. “That’s the whole reason for me getting Wilson here to captain the mission. As they can’t refer every decision back here for review by your committees, I wanted someone who could make a decent judgment call. Unless you’d like to go yourself, Vice President.”

Elaine Doi glanced from Nigel to Wilson. “I’m satisfied that you’re in charge of the mission, Captain.”

“If we had more than one ship, communications wouldn’t be such an issue,” Oscar said.

“And who’s going to pay for another ship?” Thompson asked quickly. His gaze flicked to one of the big portals set up along the far side of the courtyard garden. They all showed various images of the Second Chance. The starship was docked to its assembly platform, though the outer shell of malmetal had peeled back to a thick toroid skirt around the gateway. Of all the construction gridwork, only a tripod of gantry arms remained, like an aluminum claw gripping the rear of the starship. Sunlight fell across the four-hundred-meter length of the central cylindrical section’s snow-white hull, casting small gray shadows from every hatch, nozzle, grid, antenna, and handrail that stood above the protective cloak of foam. The huge life-support ring was rotating slowly around it, almost devoid of windows, except for a few black rectangles along the front edge. Tiny colored navigation lights winked at various points on the superstructure, otherwise there was no visible activity.

The sight of the massive vessel brought a flush of comfort to Wilson. Something that large, that solid, gave an overwhelming impression of dependability.

“Any subsequent ships would be cheaper now we’ve finalized the design,” Nigel said. “CST is certainly considering the formation of a small exploration fleet.”

“What the hell for?” Thompson said. “This expedition is bad enough, and we know something strange is out there. We don’t need to go looking for trouble any farther out.”

“That’s hardly the attitude that pushed us this far out into the galaxy, Senator. We’re not a poor society, thanks to that outward urge; we should continue to push back the barriers.”

“Fine,” Thompson said bluntly. “You want them pushed back, you pay for them. You certainly won’t have my support for further government funding. Look what happened with Far Away—we poured billions into that venture, and it still costs the government hundreds of millions a year. What have we ever got back out of it?”

“Knowledge,” Wilson said, surprised to find himself defending Far Away.

“Precious little of it,” Thompson grunted.

“Tell that to the Halgarths, they dominate force field manufacture thanks to the technology they acquired from the Marie Celeste.”

“What if we don’t come back?” Anna asked. The way the Council members all looked at her in a mildly scandalized silence made her want to giggle. “You have to admit, it’s a possibility.”

“We won’t abandon you,” Elaine Doi said smoothly. “If it is necessary to build another ship, then it will be done.” She gave the North American Senator a sharp frown as he gathered himself to speak.

“The ExoProtectorate Council has drawn up contingency plans for every possible scenario,” Nigel Sheldon said. “And quite a few implausible ones as well. As the Vice President says, every effort will be made should we face a worst-case outcome.”

“Does that include military action?”

Now even Wilson was giving her a look.

“I don’t believe that’s relevant,” Rafael Columbia said.

“It just strikes me as odd that very little is being done to beef up the Commonwealth’s defenses. Especially as one of the most plausible theories about the Dyson barrier is that it’s protective.”

“We are doing something about it,” Rafael Columbia said. “We’re sending you to assess the situation.”

“And if it’s bad?”

“We will respond accordingly.”

“With what? We haven’t had any wars for three hundred years.”

“There are seventeen Isolated planets, and each one was withdrawn from the Commonwealth because of military action. The last of those was only twenty years ago. Sad to say, our Commonwealth is actually quite experienced in such matters.”

“Those were guerrilla actions mounted by nationalist and religious groups. Most of the Commonwealth’s citizens weren’t even aware of them.”

“What exactly is your point?” Elaine Doi asked, irritation creeping into her voice.

“All I’m saying is, a few Alamo Avengers aren’t going to be much use against anything that’s seriously hostile out there.”

“We know that. Your mission profile was drawn up with the possibility in mind, and I welcomed Captain Kime’s input in the planning. Frankly, his cautious approach is one I favor. And to be realistic, if you do find anything as powerful and hostile as what you’re talking about, then they’re going to know about the Commonwealth anyway.”

The band struck up a light waltz that Wilson felt he should know. But he was thankful for the distraction as everyone turned to look at the western sky. A particularly bright star was rising above the palace rooftop.

They’d left the Second Chance in her highly elliptical orbit around Anshun; after all, the exact position made no difference to the wormhole gateway. Now as she glided up high over the horizon, still exposed to the full radiance of Anshun’s sun, she was the brightest object in the heavens. Fireworks zoomed over the palace to greet the starship, exploding in huge bursts of emerald, gold, and carmine with a cacophony of thunder cracks. The courtyard was swiftly filled with the rapturous applause of the elite guests. A laser projector drenched Wilson in a bubble of white light. Everyone turned to look at him, the sound of their applause rising. He bowed graciously, gesturing Anna and Oscar into the lightfield as the senior members of the ExoProtectorate Council sank away along with Tu Lee. Somehow Dudley Bose managed to appear beside Oscar, clasping his hands victoriously above his head.

When the fireworks were over the band resumed a more traditional background piece. The buffet was opened and people surged across the garden. Elaine Doi stepped forward again. “Captain, I just wanted to say bon voyage.”

Even when it was over, Wilson regretted having to attend the official party for the personal time it stole from him on the eve of the departure. By the time the buffet started the affair had become immensely boring. Two hours in, he’d seen Oscar making a quiet exit with some handsome young lad, and wished he could do the same with Anna. But they’d be noticed; he’d forgotten the true price of fame.

There were compensations, however. At eight o’clock this morning he had arrived at the complex to walk through the gateway. Management staff, construction crew and technicians, designers, medical personnel, and a hundred others lined the last length of path before the wormhole, all applauding as Wilson led the senior officers through the gateway. Now he was sitting in the bridge, about to embark on the voyage that would put him on the same list as Columbus, Armstrong, Sheldon and Isaac. But not poor old Dylan Lewis.

To be honest, he did consider the bridge to be a bit disappointing. Even the old Ulysses command cabin had been more visually exciting, let alone the bustling chambers of a thousand unisphere fantasy drama ships. It was a simple compartment with consoles for ten people, although only seven were currently manned. A glass wall separated off the senior officer’s briefing room—basically, a big conference table with twenty chairs. At least there were a couple of large high-rez holographic portals in their traditional place on the forward wall, although (bad design, this) the consoles right in front of them blocked the lower portion from anyone farther back.

Not that he had much time for the standard images they were relaying from hull-mounted cameras. His virtual vision was on high intensity while his retinal inserts were filtering out most natural light. The result was an almost indistinct room flooded with ship-function icons. He rested his palms on the console i-spots, seeing phantom fingers materialize within the galaxy of graphics drifting through the air around him. When he tapped his customized chrome-yellow fingernail on the airlock icon, it expanded to show him the hull was now sealed. A simultaneous tap on the umbilicals told him all the tanks were full and on internal power. The only links to the platform were a high-band data cable and the mechanical latches.

“Crew status?” he asked Oscar.

“Everyone on board and ready.”

“Okay then; Pilot, please activate our force field and disengage us from the platform.”

“Aye, sir,” Jean Douvoir said. The pilot had spent decades working for several companies at the High Angel, flying engineering pods around the big freefall factories, shifting sections massing hundreds of tons with the casual precision of a bird of prey. Before that, he’d helped develop control routines for spaceplane RI pilots. Coupled with his enthusiasm for the project, it was a background that made him perfect for the job. Wilson counted himself lucky to have someone so competent on board.

A communications icon flashed in Wilson’s virtual vision, tagging the call as Nigel Sheldon. He tapped for admission.

“Captain,” Sheldon’s voice sounded across the bridge, “I’m accessing your telemetry. It all looks good from where we are.”

“And here.” There had been a great many of these pointless official talks on the Ulysses, too. All for posterity and media profile. One of his virtual vision digital readouts was showing the number of people accessing the moment through the unisphere: in excess of fifteen billion. “We’re ready to go.” His voice was somber and authoritative as the impact of the event finally hit home. One of the portals showed him a view of the three umbilical gantries swinging away from the starship’s rear section. Little silver-white fluid globules spilled out of the closed valves, sparkling in the sunlight as they wobbled off into space.

“Hopefully, we’ll see you again in a year’s time,” Nigel Sheldon said.

“I look forward to it.”

“Godspeed, Captain.”

Jean Douvoir fired the small thrusters around the rear of the central cylindrical section. Second Chance started to slide away from the gateway. Acceleration was so tiny Wilson couldn’t even feel it affect the low-gravity bridge. The dazzling turquoise flames of the thrusters shrank away and vanished.

“We’re now at five meters per second,” Douvoir reported. There was a lot of amusement in his voice.

“Thank you, Pilot,” Wilson said. “Hyperdrive, please bring the wormhole up to flight level.”

“Aye, sir.” Tu Lee couldn’t help the strong twang of excitement in her voice. She began to shunt instructions into the ship’s RI that would handle the enormously complex energy manipulation functions.

Nigel instructed his e-butler to shift down his virtual vision intensity, and took his hands off the console i-spots. One hologram portal showed the assembly platform slowly shrinking behind them. The second had a small circular turquoise nebular glowing in the center. It began to expand, growing more indistinct, although no stars were visible through it.

“Course laid in?” Wilson asked.

“Want to consult our expert navigator on that?” Anna muttered under her breath. She still hadn’t warmed up to Bose.

Wilson ignored her, wondering if the rest of the bridge crew had overheard.

“As agreed,” Oscar said. He had his hands pressed firmly on his console i-spot, his eyes flicking quickly between virtual icons. “First exit point, twenty-five light-years from Dyson Alpha.”

“Wormhole opening stable, Captain,” Tu Lee reported.

“Inject us,” Wilson told her.

The blue haze folded around Second Chance like petals closing for the night. Their datalink to the assembly platform and the unisphere ended. Both portals showed the starship bathing in the wormhole’s pale moonlight radiance of low-level radiation.

Oscar canceled the camera feeds. The bridge portals switched to displaying the gravitonic spectrum, sensors around the ship detecting faint echoes resonating within the wormhole. It was a crude version of radar that allowed them to locate stars and planets to a reasonable degree, but that was all. For truly accurate sensor work they needed to drop out into real space.

Wilson upped his virtual vision again, taking another sweep of the starship’s primary systems. Everything was humming along sweetly. He came out and checked around the bridge. The engineers were all still heavily integrated with the ship’s RI, monitoring the performance of their respective fields, but everyone else was already relaxing. Wilson glanced inquisitively at Oscar, who put on a contented expression as he sat back. There wasn’t much left for them to do. Not for another hundred thirty days.

THIRTEEN

Hoshe waited at the side of the street for her to arrive. It wasn’t midmorning yet, but already a small crowd of curious locals had gathered along the sidewalk. Two police cruisers had parked nearby, their constables directing the copbots as they set up temporary barriers around the thirty-story condo building. As he watched, yet another big police technical support van pulled up and slowly nosed its way down into the underground garage. His e-butler told him the precinct commander was on his way, and the city commissioner had asked for the Ice Department case files.

“Great,” Hoshe muttered. It was going to turn into one big jurisdictional free-for-all, he was sure of that. Now all the real work had been done, every other department in Darklake would be after a slice of the credit.

An unmarked police car drew up beside him. Paula stepped out. She was wearing a simple pale blue dress with a fawn jacket, her raven hair tied back neatly. Hoshe thought her skin was a shade darker than the last time he’d seen her, but then Treloar, Anshun’s capital, was in the tropics. She actually gave him a smile as he said hello.

“Good to see you again,” he said.

“And you, Hoshe. Sorry I left you carrying the ball on this one.”

“That’s okay,” he lied.

“But I appreciate the way you carried on, and for calling me today. That’s very professional.”

He gestured her toward the entrance to the garage. “You might yet regret coming, a lot of senior city police officers are on their way.”

“That I’m used to. You know, right now I’d actually welcome some of the old problems again.”

“Tough case?”

“You wouldn’t think so by the number of arrests we’ve made.” She shrugged. “But yes. My opponent is an elusive man.”

“Holmes and Moriarty, yes?”

“Hoshe, I had no idea you read the classics.”

“It was some time ago, but I used to really enjoy that kind of thing.”

“Holmes never knew how easy he had it,” she said as they reached the bottom of the ramp. “So what have you got for me?”

Two white forensics department vans were parked at the far end of the garage. Various sensor patches the size of paving slabs had been stuck to the floor around the walls and thick cables snaked around everywhere, winding back to the open access panels on both vans. Several GeneralPurposebots were moving the sensors around, clustering them in one corner while three forensics officers supervised.

“We found them first thing this morning,” Hoshe said as they climbed into the back of the squad leader’s van. The inside was cramped, a narrow corridor between two equipment benches, the air hot from all the humming electrical circuits. He was more than familiar with all the units. The additional forensics teams Myo had promised from the Serious Crime Directorate had never materialized. In view of what amounted to her withdrawal from the case, Hoshe’s commander had reluctantly agreed to allocate him two of the city’s forensics squads. Hoshe himself had undergone the appropriate skill memory implementation so he could operate the equipment and interpret the results, helping his pitifully small team throughout all the dreary months that had followed. They had worked through the list of sites where construction work had been going on forty years ago, a laborious and terribly tedious task. Sick days and short hours among the team members had been on a steady upward curve from the first week onward. There had been times, especially in the last few weeks, when only the GPbots had turned up at the start of the day’s shift.

Hoshe had been receiving an increasing amount of pressure from both the team and his commander to wrap things up. But he’d kept doggedly to the list, examining the sites one after the other while soothing and cajoling the team and pleading for just a little more time from the police department. Reflective deep scanning had revealed a great many interesting things buried beneath the city, but no bodies. Until this morning.

Paula peered closely at the small high-rez holographic portal with its 3D grid of gentle pink luminescence; right at the center were swirls of darker red, like knots in wood.

“Even allowing for decomposition you can see the shapes quite clearly,” Hoshe said, his finger tracing around denser swirls. “This is a head here, look, and these are arms and legs. Both bodies are inside some kind of box-shape container; there’s a distinct air cavi