The boy had finished his supper and was now listening goggle-eyed to the story in the hope of the usual denouement. The woman pursed her lips as she scanned the next bit of text before reading it out.

“Upon the morning of the second day Brother Serendipity came upon the siluroyne coiled on its bed of grasses. ‘Please feed me, begged the creature, ‘for I am old and cannot hunt so well, and I am hungry. ‘Why should I feed you when, given strength by my food, you might rise up and strike me down? he asked it. ‘I give you my word, said the siluroyne. ‘Swear your word in the name of God and in the name of his prophet Zelda Smythe, the good Brother demanded. The siluroyne so swore, and he gave it the second third of the meat cake given to him by the old woman by the boundary stone.”

The boy started playing with the bits left on his plate, his attention wandering.

“Into the night the creature followed him, companion to the heroyne, and so, doubly warded, did he survive to come closer to the compounds.”

“Mum’s boring,” the boy interrupted.

“You must stay with stories like this, my dear, for through them you will receive great instruction, and great understanding of God,” said the woman.

The boy gave her a look — young he might be but he had the innate intelligence of both his parents, and the extra intelligence of the genetic tweaks he had received before being born, and he knew when his mother was taking the piss.

With no little trepidation, Thorn watched while Jarvellis flew Lyric II in towards a large lump of rumbling asteroidal rock. Once she was close enough, the ship’s AI took over and, with exact bursts of manoeuvring thrusters, apparently brought the rock to stillness. It wasn’t until he looked beyond this piece of asteroidal debris that Thorn felt a touch of nausea to see Calypse and the stars beyond mirroring the tumble he had earlier seen — Lyric II now perfectly matching the rock’s motion.

Jarvellis now thrust her right hand into a telefactor glove, closed a viewing visor across her eyes, and began to work the loading grab from the centre of the trispherical ship. On various screens Thorn and Stanton watched the multi-jointed arm rise up towards the rock, with its five-fingered grab opening like a hand, then fingers telescoping out so this hand became large enough to get a sufficient grip.

“You say you’ve done this before?” Thorn asked.

“Four times,” replied Jarvellis. She glanced at him. “Don’t worry. I’ve dealt with heavier loads than this.”

“That wasn’t so much my worry,” said Thorn. “I was just wondering if the Theocracy would be getting suspicious about all the meteor activity.”

“They don’t care unless it’s near their cylinder worlds, and it never is,” said Stanton. “And any large enough to reach the surface and cause deaths, they’d view as the hand of God — just so long as it went nowhere near themselves.”

The grab closed on the rock and began to draw it down to the deck area extending between the three spheres that made up the ship. As it touched down, Thorn felt a faint vibration through the structure of Lyric II. With the rock now in position, metal arms folded in from the edges of the deck area and Thorn wondered what their purpose could be; they were not long enough to hold the rock down against the metal. The question he had been about to pose was answered for him when jets of vapour issued from cylindrical objects mounted on the ends of these arms as soon as they touched the surface of the rock.

“Explosive bolts,” Thorn said.

“Uhuh,” agreed Jarvellis, as she now detached the grab and folded it away.

“Not standard fittings on such a ship,” he said.

“As Jarv said, we’ve done this before,” said Stanton.

The ship’s thrusters were again firing, this time to correct its tumble. The views on the screens began to settle down, and soon Calypse itself was centred on the main screen.

“We take a sling around Calypse, and from here on in it’ll take us five solstan days to reach Masada,” said Jarvellis.

Stanton said, “Lyric, start the chameleonware generator.”

Thorn kept his attention focused on the screens showing various outside views of the ship. He watched as cowlings split and slid aside from three devices positioned just in from each of the connecting tunnels between spheres. These things had the appearance of huge metallic ammonites, intersecting with something like an ancient combustion engine. For a second every image shimmered, then stabilized.

“How far out is the interface?” Thorn asked.

“About twenty metres, but beyond that the field is ten metres deep,” Stanton replied.

That meant that outside that distance there would be no sign at all of Lyric II. They were invisible.

The five days ground past like cripples at a funeral, and Thorn came to agree with Stanton that staying in cold-sleep was the best thing to do whilst travelling on a ship this size. On the second day he decided to take the plunge and have the autodoc assess the damage to the nerves in his fingertips, then later had the pleasure of sitting watching it opening the ends of his fingers — folding up the nails like little hatches — as it repaired the damage it found. Thereafter some hours passed before not everything he touched felt scalding hot or searingly cold. The bed set up for him in the hold was comfortable enough, and in an insulation sheet he had no trouble sleeping despite the constant cold. It was the periods between sleep that almost had him screaming. It was nice for the other two that they were always so wrapped up in each other, but their intimacy made Thorn uncomfortable, so he had to keep avoiding them. He spent most of his time viewing lectures about Masada, put together by the ship’s AI. In this electronic intelligence he found company more to his liking, with its abrasive personality and constant sarcasm. It probably knew how he felt and was doing the best it could to keep him from going mad with boredom.

On the third day, Lyric II closely passed the Theocracy’s cylinder worlds. Close by extended a structure two kilometres long and half a kilometre in diameter, with a huge mirror mounted at one end to reflect sunlight inside, and at the other end a chaos of loading docks around which various ships hovered like bees round a hole in a log. Further out was another such cylinder with mirrors at both ends, but one of those mirrors forming a ring penetrated centrally by a strangely displaced Gothic tower. And distantly there lay yet another such world, shadowed against starlit space and only just visible.

“How many of these orbitals are there?” he asked Stanton and Jarvellis who, for this dangerous flyby, were both back at the flight and weapons controls.

“Just the three,” Stanton replied. “With a population of over a few hundred thousand in each.”

“I’d have expected more.”

“Remember, they don’t have Polity technology here, as that’s difficult to maintain without using AI — and AI to them is a product of Satan.” Stanton pointed at the cylinder world. “The shielding from cosmic radiation and solar flares is not the best, and that causes a high incidence of infertility. They like it that way — keeps the whole thing exclusive.”

“Why cylinders?”

“Again: the technology. AG motors and grav-plates are manufactured, but not on any scale. It would take a major industrial upgrade for them to produce enough for these worlds. Then again, why bother? The centrifugal system works well enough.”

“Lyric tells me there’s something of an imbalance between planetary and orbital populations.”

Stanton glanced at him. “Only the usual one existing between the rulers and the ruled. How many major AIs would you say there are in the Polity? One to ten for each planet?”

“But they don’t rule, as such,” said Thorn.

Stanton grinned. “Yeah, I know, they ‘direct’. You have to remember, I’ve often witnessed what happens to people who don’t take the AI’s considered advice.”

“Thinking of becoming a Separatist?” Thorn sniped.

“Oh no, I’ve no objection to the Polity. The way I see it is that if you don’t like it then there’s plenty of places to go where it isn’t present. It would be an eye-opener for some of those soft objectors to the ‘AI autocrat’ of Earth to come out here and see how they’d get on.”

The cylinder world slid behind them and Masada itself grew large on the central screen. Some time later, Thorn was in a position to ask Jarvellis her opinion of Polity AIs. She replied, “Stone Age men broke flint and found it cut things better than their own teeth did. We’ve created methods of transportation that work better than legs, and often do things we could only dream of, like flying. A hydraulic grip clamps on things better than a human hand. They’re all tools and nobody objects to them, so why should anyone object to creating minds that are better at thinking than our own, and rulers that are better at their job than those humans who would aspire to rule?”

“Tools?” Thorn repeated.

“All extensions of ourselves.” She shrugged. “And probably not even that for much longer. With augs and gridlinks and the like, we’re seeing them become ourselves. There’ll come a time when humans and AIs are indistinguishable. What’s a memcording of a human mind? Is it, strictly speaking, AI or human? And when they did that experiment, way back, of downloading an AI mind into a vat-grown human body, what did they make then?”

“So what do you think of the Separatist cause?”

“Anachronisms, throwbacks. AIs are just larger and more efficient versions of ourselves. Those people are fighting for a past that never existed — and they’ll lose.”

“Why did you run arms for them, then?”

“Money,” she replied succinctly, bringing their conversation down to earth.

On the second day, Thorn tried to learn some more about the Theocracy: its aims, its teachings, its structure, and what its members actually believed in. It seemed for them there was a god whose rules for the existence of his children were little different from those posited by the Islamic or Christian religions. And, as was the case with those old religions, the higher up you were in the hierarchy, the more freedom you enjoyed to interpret those rules. In the end, brute force maintained the whole thing, and those who lived in the cylinder worlds spent most of their time utterly wrapped up in power struggles. It would seem they had other methods of population control to ‘keep the whole thing exclusive’, as Stanton had opined, and were often crueller to the losers in this continual struggle than they were to the surface dwellers of Masada. Given the courage and the opportunity, such losers often took the option of suicide, as the alternatives were far from pleasant. They consisted of a device similar to an autodoc but which could be programmed to inflict things the Inquisition never thought of; the aptly named ‘steamer’ in one of the world’s rendering plants; and a veritable cornucopia of viral and bacterial agents.

“Do you believe in this god?” he asked Stanton.

“No,” came the flat reply. “But if he does exist, I’d like to give him a CTD suppository.”

Their exchange of greetings had been brief, and the other three seemed intent on staying at the cave mouth. Eldene crouched alone by the fire, which issued from blocks of some brownish organic matter. It was nevertheless welcome. Slowly the chill began to leave her, and before she knew it she had dozed off then woken again. After a time Lellan entered the cave, crouched beside Eldene, and poked at the embers with a length of flute grass.

“Did he get the ajectant?” the rebel woman asked.

Eldene peered at her. “What’s that?”

Lellan looked up. “Did he get a sample of the pills you must take to prevent your scoles from dying?”

Eldene nodded.

Lellan went on, “Then let’s hope he gets back in one piece. But then, if anyone could survive a hooder attack it would be him. I haven’t yet witnessed anything he can’t survive.”

“He told me he’s part machine and part human.”

Lellan grimaced. “Yeah, you could say that, though I’d challenge him to point out which part is human.”

“You don’t believe him?” Eldene asked.

“It doesn’t matter. I’m glad to have him on my side.” Lellan stood up and, from amongst the packs, found another rifle like the one she was carrying, and handed it to Eldene. “In there” — Lellan pointed to another of the packs — “you’ll find spare oxygen and food, if you need them. I suspect we’ll be facing a long night here.”

“You suspect wrong,” said a voice out of the darkness.

“Fethan!” said Eldene, shooting up.

The old man walked into the middle of the cave followed by the other two. They were called Beckle and Carl — the latter being the one who had run alongside her.

Fethan glanced around. “Very cosy.”

“So what happened out there?” Lellan asked.

“Don’t think I smelt right, so it stopped chasing me. I tracked it for a while, but it seemed intent on going after a herd of grazers up at the other end of the valley.” He shook his head and grinned. “That was some experience. I’ve always wanted to actually see one of them.”

Everyone in the cave stared at him as if he was quite mad.

“You get to my age,” he explained, “and you come to relish experiences like that. It’s what makes life worth living.”

“It’s also the kind of thing that can make life shorter,” opined Beckle.

Fethan shrugged, then winked at Eldene.

“We all been introduced?” he asked.

“Yeah,” said Lellan. “But we can save the getting-to-know-you routine until we’ve got some decent stone overhead. Let’s move out now. I don’t fancy hanging around here in case our friend comes back, having worked up an appetite chasing grazers. That is not an experience I’d relish.”

Quickly the three began gathering their equipment and hoisting bulky packs onto their backs. After passing his own pack to Eldene, Fethan took up one of the bulky ones as well. Carl, who was now the one without a pack, exchanged his heavy rifle for an even more lethal ugly-looking weapon.

“You still got the ajectant?” Lellan asked when they were nearly ready to go.

Fethan pretended to search his pockets in panic before finding the tube of pills and tossing it to her. She studied them for a moment then carefully buttoned them into her top pocket.

“A more important question to ask is, ‘Have the manufactories arrived yet? ” he said.

“Not yet,” Lellan replied. “But they’re on their way — along with some arms, more ballots, and a U-space transmitter.”

“A lot,” said Fethan, puzzled.

“There, old man: you don’t know everything. We’ve got a ship coming in soon, with enough maybe for us to tilt the balance down here.”

“How the hell will you get something that big past the arrays?” Fethan asked.

Lellan turned to Eldene and grinned at her. “Wouldn’t he like to know?”

Eldene smiled back uncertainly — she just did not know her own position here. These people behaved as if she was one of them, yet they discussed things that were beyond her. She realized she had a great deal to learn.

They all headed to the cave mouth, Lellan and her two comrades moving some sort of apparently opaque visors across their eyes. Fethan took the lead out into the night, followed by Lellan and Beckle. Before waving her ahead, Carl passed Eldene a pair of glasses of a similar material to the visor he himself wore. She at least understood enough to know that these must provide night vision, but she let out a sound of startlement when she discovered just how effectively — it was as if day had descended instantly. Carl moved in behind her, his head moving from side to side with almost robotic vigilance — his heavy gun hanging from a strap over his shoulder.

It gave her a weird sense of dislocation, this sudden daylight, and walking out into it while realizing that if she raised these glasses she wore it would be night again was weirder still. Trudging along with her new companions, Eldene wondered just how much her life was about to change. She felt trepidation at this, but also a growing excitement at the feeling that she might be taking part in major events. With a sense of irony she realized that just about anything might appear ‘major’ to someone who had spent a dull five seasons managing squerm ponds. However, a grinding weariness — with which she was all too familiar — soon extinguished excitement. One of the few benefits of her previous employment had been that you got to go to bed at night.

As the trek went on and on, Eldene found herself slipping into a state of fugue. Even seeing three grazers — of the type she had seen earlier — close by on a slope, worming their snouts between the rocks, did not arouse in her any curiosity this time, and later, when something flew overhead making a strange whickering, she didn’t even look up at it.

“Watch your footing,” warned Carl from behind her, and she gazed down at her boots as if they were somehow disconnected from her. Nevertheless, the boots trudged on, without any intercession from her brain.

How long this continued she had no idea, until Beckle glanced back towards her, his visor raised, and informed her, “Calypse is up.”

Eldene removed her night glasses and blinked in the twilight of early morning. Placing the glasses in her pocket, she felt herself coming out of her stupor, as if they had disconnected her from reality. The gas giant had breached the horizon and, in this stage of the cycle, the sun would not be far behind it.

“Not much further,” said Carl in a more affable tone, slapping her on the shoulder as he moved past her.

“Well, that’ll be one to tell the kiddies,” said Beckle.

From all of them there now seemed a relaxing of tension. When Fethan slipped back to walk at her side, Eldene asked him, “The hooder?”

“From what I gather they only hunt in the full dark. Best stay alert, though — they might be wrong about that,” Fethan replied. “Be a bit of a bastard to get hit when we’re this close.”

“Close to what?” she asked.

“The real Underworld,” he replied.

Soon they were walking along under a rocky overhang that resembled a breaking wave. The further along this they proceeded, the further it overhung them, until soon it closed over completely on their right and they were entering a perfectly circular tunnel. Seeing the others push their visors back into place, Eldene took out her night glasses and put them back on. Here the effect of them was even stranger, for the inside of a cave was not a place one ever expected to be as bright as day. She found it weird that it could be so light in here without any apparent source of illumination.

The cave curved off to the left then began to drop. Before the floor became too steep to negotiate easily it became stepped. Staring down at these steps, Eldene realized that they were not natural, and had obviously been specially cut.

“What if proctors ever found this place?” she asked Fethan. “They could march straight in.”

“Pin-head cameras,” Fethan explained, gesturing to the curving walls. “If they did find this place and tried to go down lower they’d find themselves at the hot end of a pulse-cannon.”

Before they had descended much further, Lellan held up her hand and the party came to a halt while she unreeled a thin optic cable from her coms helmet and plugged it into a hidden socket in the wall. She then stood frowning with her hand up against the speaking side of her helmet.

“It here yet?” Carl asked.

She detached the cable, then shook her head. “Nothing yet. The dishes are out to track Ragnorak, but they’ve picked up nothing else.”

“Ragnorak?” Eldene whispered to Fethan.

“A weapon powerful enough to destroy what you’re just about to see,” he replied.

After a time they came down to a level tunnel lit by wall panels, where they all removed their visual aids. Eldene was already thinking how grim an existence it must be to live constantly under the earth in tunnels like this one, when the tunnel itself opened out into a circular chamber. At the centre of this gaped the mouth of a wide shaft, and poised over this stood a steel framework containing a cable mechanism, electric motor, and lift cage. Lellan led the way over, throwing the locks on the cage’s wire door with a remote control she took from her pocket. Inside, Eldene noted a more visible camera that moved on its little stem up in the corner of the cage to inspect each of them in turn. Without any of them touching another control, the lift jerked and began to descend, the motor droning.

Against the sides of the shaft clung square light panels like crystals of some exotic mineral, and at one point an encircling ring of what could be mistaken for nothing other than heavy weapons. The deeper down they went, the whiter the calcite glittered in runnels down the walls; and, as the shaft curved, this calcite formed stalactites and stalagmites, so it seemed they were flying between the teeth of some underground monster. Finally reaching the bottom of the shaft, they exited the lift into another tunnel, curving round towards a huge armoured door with another smaller door inset in it.

“A lot of lights,” Eldene observed, gazing at the numerous light panels set on faces of stone, their glow reflecting in rainbow hues from the crystalline surfaces of a forest of calcite above.

“Geothermal and hydroelectric energy,” said Carl — answering a question she had not asked. “No shortage of that down here.”

Eldene noticed then that he had removed his mask and was breathing easily. Feeling gauche, she hinged her mask down and breathed clear air. It was cold and tasted of iron, but sweet.

Lellan pointed her remote control at the smaller, centre door and it opened with a tearing sound as they approached. Inside was a space the same size as the lift cage, with yet another door at the opposite end. Eldene recognized this was an airlock, but wondered at its purpose when they had walked into breathable air before reaching it. She looked questioningly towards Fethan, but it was Carl who answered that question too:

“The main cavern haemorrhages air all the time, but we can produce it faster than we lose it. This lock is about a century old — from a time when we didn’t have much oxygen to spare,” he said.

Main cavern? Eldene wondered.

As the inner door opened, Eldene thought for one moment that they had returned to the surface — so bright was the vision before her. Following the others through, she looked about herself in wonder.

The cavern was so huge and so well lit that its lofty ceiling had the appearance of lowering cloud rather than stone. Across it ran webworks of metal, and in places it was supported by huge many-windowed buildings, formed like a collection of bulging discs of distinctly varied sizes stacked haphazardly one upon the other until reaching the ceiling. Running down the centre of this cavern, with arched bridges spanning it, was a foaming torrent, whose source was a dark hollow in one wall, warded at its sides by two slowly turning water-wheels. Alongside this river, Eldene recognized the same pattern of square ponds used on the surface to grow food crustaceans, and their presence helped give a further indication of the sheer scale of this place. Beyond the ponds lay fields in varying shades of green and gold, or the black of recently turned earth. On the floor of this cavern were not many low-rise buildings — it seemed space was at a premium, hence the design of the pillar-townships. However, as they advanced further into this underground idyll, Eldene did spot some recently erected prefabs around which many people busied themselves at many tasks. They too all wore uniforms the colour of old flute grass — like Lellan and her two comrades — and their labour seemed mainly to concern maintenance and preparation of weapons.

On the last of the five days, they were all together in the flight cabin as the ship hurtled towards the atmosphere of Masada. Glancing at one of the subscreens, Thorn watched the explosive bolts detaching themselves from the lump of asteroidal rock, and the arms they were fixed to folding back out of sight. A few blasts from the manoeuvring thrusters were enough to have the rock apparently rising from Lyric II, though it would be more correct to say that the rock now hurtled towards atmosphere at a speed slightly faster than that of the ship.

“What about it outpacing you?” Thorn asked.

“It’s angled so it’ll explode and fragment, rather than burn up. We’ll be one of those fragments,” said Jarvellis.

Stanton picked up with, “Believe me, no one watching will call attention to the dissimilarity of velocities. Up here, reporting anything to your superiors that you are unsure about gains you no credit, and the best way for the lower echelons to keep out of trouble is to keep out of notice.”

“A fatal lack of vigilance,” Thorn observed.

“Yes, it’s why the Underworld now possesses a more advanced technology than the Theocracy itself. Their only disadvantage is in numbers and position.” He called up an image on one of the side screens and gestured to it. Satellites hung stationary around the curve of the horizon, the nearest one bearing an uncanny resemblance to a huge curved machine-gun magazine. “What advantage the Underground does have, it must be prepared to use soon, before the Theocracy finishes building something with greater punch than that.” He indicated the satellite.

“And what is that?” Thorn nodded to the displayed picture.

“Laser array — but it’s only effective on the surface of the planet. It can’t reach into the real Underground.”

“They’re building something that will?”

“Near-c coil-gun. Should have enough power to penetrate right down to the caverns.”

“And the people on the surface?”

“It’ll kill millions, but the Theocracy doesn’t care about them — down on the surface they breed easily enough.”

“If the ECS knew about this, then you’d get some action.”

Stanton turned to gaze at him. “The Polity just lost an Outlink station out here, supposedly to Dragon. The Theocracy is building things like that,” Stanton stabbed a finger at the screen, “supposedly as a defence against Dragon. All nice and innocent, so if the Polity came in heavy-handed now, it’d cause big problems with its members and potential for rebellion inside its own borders. They’ll need a damned good reason to intrude here; like an open rebellion, or a cry for help.”

“I see,” said Thorn.

Now Lyric II was vibrating, and a couple of hundred metres ahead of it the rock was producing contrails and small pieces of it were ablating away. All around — ahead of the rock — the surface of the planet filled the screen. Thorn glanced at Jarvellis’s profile as she now manoeuvred the ship down out of the contrail and below the rock itself. She looked rapt and beatific — this was what she was all about.

“About two minutes. Stress readings are way up,” she said.

Thorn glanced with alarm at Stanton.

“On the rock,” explained the mercenary laconically. “We’ve got a sensor on it.”

The rock began to glow and, like a stuttering gas torch with the pressure too high, its contrail kept igniting and going out, until suddenly it ignited completely on full blast. Larger pieces began to break off from the rock, coiling away, sparkling with burning iron.

“We’re on it!” shouted Jarvellis, and slammed her hand down on the controls. All at once, the rock broke into four large pieces and many smaller ones, those pieces themselves rapidly parting, driven asunder by gaseous explosions. Lyric II‘s ion engines roared, for a moment internal AG did not correct, and Thorn felt himself coming out of his seat. On the screen, the breaking-up rock rapidly receded, as Lyric II slowed and dropped through atmosphere behind it, underneath a trail of smoke and vapour dispersing across the sky. It occurred to Thorn that on a Polity world this scenario would never have been allowed, not so much because of the superior detectors possessed but because the AIs would have long since mapped the solar system concerned, therefore knowing in advance what asteroidal debris posed a threat, so would have been very suspicious of finding one out of place. Also, no Polity AI would have allowed a rock of that size into inhabited space.

Soon Jarvellis switched the view on the main screen to encompass the planet’s surface. Under cloud like swirled sugar, the main inhabited continent soon became visible amid seas of a dark purplish blue. This continent was roughly rectangular, with its four corners stretched out so it bore some resemblance to the sail on an old galleon. Mountain chains spread from one of the corners, as if this was the point where a cannon-ball had holed the sail and it had subsequently been roughly stitched together — the material rucked up in the process. Huge areas extending beyond these mountains were dark greenish blue, whilst other wide areas were khaki or Sahara beige.

“Desert?” Thorn pointed at the last of these.

“No desert here,” Stanton replied. “What you’re seeing there is old flute grass — where it’s not yet been flattened by spring storms or the new is yet to come through like it has elsewhere.”

“It’s all flute grass?”

“Not all. There’s other kinds of native vegetation, and of course there’s the agricultural areas — mostly crop fields and ponds — but when you’re in the wild it seems like nothing but flute grass. It’s said that there were once trees here.”

Thorn remembered something from one of Lyric’s little lectures. “The tricones?” he suggested. “They disturb the soil so much that nothing large can root, but flute grass survives because it sprouts from rhizomes that sit on the surface.”

“You have done your homework,” quipped Jarvellis.

“Trees are grown,” said Stanton. “But to grow them requires a major excavation, lined with plascrete then refilled with soil. Even then, the tricones manage to grind their way through. They go through plascrete at a rate of about a centimetre every five solstan years.”

“Surely there are better ways?”

“There are: use Polity composites, use genetic splicings from flute grass, build hydroponics facilities, float platforms on the sea. But the Theocracy is not prepared to inject the level of financial resources required for change. If there are shortages of any of the crops they require, they simply attribute blame and innocent people are punished.”

“Very short-sighted of them.”

“They don’t care. Aren’t they all going to Heaven?” Stanton spat.

The screen now contained the whole of the continent — the edges of its surrounding world hidden from sight. Jarvellis checked her instrumentation and made some adjustments. The roar of the ion engines, which had been growing increasingly muted for some time, now cut out.

“We’re fully on AG now,” she explained.

For a short time they found themselves flying through cloud. On one of the subscreens giving a view of the ship itself, Thorn noticed that ice was building up on all its surfaces, then breaking away in thin flat flakes. They emerged from this cloud above the mountains: guts of stone pushed up through the plains and rucked together in tight folds and twisted pinnacles, scree slopes and slanted boulder-fields, the white scars of rivers slashing through dark valleys, and waterfalls cutting down from the heights. Jarvellis now folded her viewing visor across and firmly gripped the complex joystick before her. Obviously flying her ship was a great source of pleasure for her, as the AI could have done the job just as well, if not better. Soon they were hurtling along a riverine valley, grey faces of stone looming over them on either side, as if inspecting this impertinent intrusion into their realm.

“You got the beacon?” Stanton asked.

“I traced that an hour back,” she replied. “Though no one’s talking to us yet.”

Lyric II slowed to negotiate a curve in the valley, then descended further. Thorn could see vegetation blown flat by the wind of their passage, and papery fragments clouding the air behind. At the end of the valley was a small lake surrounded on all sides by precipitous slopes. Jarvellis brought the ship down onto its stony shore, next to a cliff formed by the collapse of one of the mountainous slopes, on an area between boulders that had once formed part of that slope. Thorn heard hydraulics operating as Lyric II lowered its feet. Along the bottom of the main screen, six subscreens appeared showing a view of each of the ship’s six feet with its spread of four toes. Five of the feet came down flat on the shore, but one of them descended on a small boulder, and Thorn was amused to see the obstructed foot close on it and shove it to one side as if in irritation, before planting itself down firmly — it seemed the AI did still control some things.

Manoeuvring thrusters cut out and various motors and generators wound down throughout the craft. He heard the tick of cooling metal, the occasional loud clunk or hissing crunch as its weight settled. Jarvellis operated a ball control to slide from view to view around the ship, giving the effect of a single camera panning slowly round 360 degrees to survey their surroundings. For a moment she paused at a view showing one of the partially submerged boulders, where something large and insectile squatted, its mantis head tilted towards them while its mandibles fed something wriggling into its mouth, as if without the insectile creature’s consent or apparent notice.

“Harmless,” said Stanton, “unless you feel inclined to go swimming.”

After a moment, the creature raised its snaky body from the stone on rows of centipedal legs, and dived into the water in one smooth motion. Jarvellis snorted and continued on round, until she came back to the original view.

“You’d have thought they would have been here to meet us,” she said.

“We gave them a window of two months,” Stanton replied. “They couldn’t wait out in the open for that length of time without attracting unwanted notice — and I don’t just mean from the Theocracy.”

“Gabbleducks, heroynes and hooders?” suggested Thorn.

Stanton shook his head. “Not so many heroynes or gabbleducks in these mountains. Siluroynes and hooders cause the most problems, and in the latter case any weapon heavy enough to deal with the problem might attract the notice of the Theocracy.”

“Hard to kill?” Thorn’s curiosity was piqued.

“Never seen one myself, but I’m told that nothing less than an APW or missile launcher will do the job. Their chitin is something like a carbon composite, and they’re mainly made up of that substance and fibrous muscle as dense as antique wood. Small arms just make a lot of holes that do nothing to slow them down, and the heat from lasers quickly disperses through their chitin. Also, for something so large, they move very fast.”

“How large and how fast?” Thorn asked.

“I’m told that a hooder once grabbed a proctor, plus his aerofan, from a hundred metres up in the air. As to how fast they move — faster than a man can run, and they hunt grazers that move at a similar rate to the grazers on Earth.”

“Like gazelle?”

Stanton glanced at him. “If that’s a grazer on Earth, then yes.”

“This is all very interesting,” said Jarvellis, “but what do we do now?”

Standing up, Stanton replied, “I’m for stretching my legs outside. Anyone coming?” He looked from Thorn to Jarvellis. “Lyric can listen for any signals coming in from them.”

As he headed away through the entrance tunnel, Jarvellis turned to Thorn. “You know, every time I land here it confirms for me that the Theocracy has the right idea.”

“Living safe in their cylinder worlds?”

“Safe anywhere you’re not likely to get eaten,” she replied.

Aphran and Danny entered the bridge pod first, soon followed by five other Separatists who looked both tired and frightened. Skellor observed them as they halted just inside the doors and showed no inclination to come further in, and through their augs he sensed the gritty taste of their fear and their confusion at what they were seeing.

Nodding to the command-crew chairs he said, “Take your places.”

With their eyes widening in horror, they stared at the chairs with the growths poised underneath them like grasping claws. Through most of them, he sensed continued fear and confusion, but from Aphran he felt sudden panic at her partial understanding of what he wanted. He reinforced the order with something like a mental slap that jerked them all into motion. Inevitably it was Danny who responded first, and was soon in the seat nearest to Skellor.

“You don’t need to do this,” said Aphran tightly, fighting all the way but unable to stop herself from sitting down.

Skellor did not bother to reply. Whether or not he actually needed to do what he was doing was irrelevant — he was doing what he wanted to do, and because he could. With the seven now seated, he started the Jain structure growing again, observing it climbing around the backs of each chair, fingering over the arms, and fumbling at the clothing of the seven Separatists. At the first penetration of his skin, the man on the end groaned in pain, then his groan was cut off as the filaments penetrated his spine and rapidly made connections as they sped up to his brain. Skellor then shunted over programs to run the man and programs for him to run. Where the man’s own experience or memory or skill conflicted with what was now required of him, it was erased — chalk wiped from black slate. Drooling in his chair, the Separatist took control of the almost irrelevant systems of life-support.

Aphran, Skellor noted, was making weak whimpering sounds as an extension of the structure slid over her shoulder and rose up by the side of her face and hung poised there like a cobra. She showed the whites of her eyes as she tried to peer round at it, but was unable to turn her head. She yelled once when it struck, and thereafter lost herself as she unwillingly gained control of the weapons systems of the Occam Razor. But she did not control them as a human being — she controlled them as a submind of Skellor, an extension, a useful tool that possessed as little self-determination as a trigger. Aphran did not drool; she just slumped in her seat and her face lost any vividness of expression it had once possessed.

The others followed, one after the other, and as he delegated control of systems, Skellor freed up much processing power within himself in which to more fully view and understand his conquest. The Occam Razor was a formidable ship, but it was not yet entirely his. Such had been the destructiveness of the burn Tomalon had initiated, there were huge sections of the vessel that Skellor could not yet even see, let alone control. He realized now that he needed a breathing space in which to grow the Jain structure throughout the whole ship, and he understood that here was not the best place to initiate that chore. Using another member of his crew as a sophisticated search-engine — an informational bloodhound — soon revealed to him a simple recording of a conversation that gave him all the information he required. He smiled nastily to himself: so Dragon was going there, outside the Polity, to a world that was utterly primitive by comparison — a place where it would be easy to still the wagging of tongues. With a half-nod to that member of his crew who controlled the U-space engines, he had the Occam taken under, and away. Then, when — through the Jain substructure — he experienced underspace utterly unshielded, he screamed. And one second after, his command crew mimicked him exactly.