Viklun Hass is eliminating all remnants of the opposition. Starting with his daughter.
But Fleare Hass has had time to plan her next move from exile to the very frontiers of a new war.
For hundreds of millions of years, the planets and stars of the Spin have been the only testament to the god-like engineers that created them. Now, beneath the surface of a ruined planet, one of their machines has been found.
Creation Machine by Andrew Bannister will go on sale on March 5th.
The thousand and third day of Fleare’s imprisonment dawned clear and cold. Frost fuzzed the stone battlements of the Monastery, and the plains fifteen hundred metres below were veiled in mist. Fleare paused halfway through her daily walk up the Shadow Stair and gathered the thin prison fatigues into folds around her as if that would help keep out the cold. It didn’t.
She had been climbing for twenty minutes and her clothes were clammy with sweat that was beginning to freeze. An unmodified human would have been in trouble by now, and she wasn’t far behind. She shivered, and started climbing again. Movement was vital. She was twenty-two; she intended to live to be twenty-three. Beside her the small, elongated, featurelessly grey ovoid that followed her everywhere gave off its quiet hum.
Do something, anything, to get information out.
The Monastery was the oldest structure on Obel. No one knew who had built it. The name wasn’t original; it had first been called the Monastery when it was already a thousand years old, by a sect of flagellant penitents who had lived there at the end of the Second Industrial Age. The title had stuck for seventeen millennia and the present occupants, the Strecki Brotherhood, had kept it.
The Monastery rose from the Dust Plains in a jumble of ziggurats, domes and spires. Not all were vertical. Some stuck out sideways, a few were upside down and one whole section floated a little off to the side and inverted itself like an hourglass every eleventh day. The whole thing came to a point in the slender, rotating Tower of Prayer which tapered over its five- hundred-metre height to little more than the width of a man’s outstretched arms before expanding, two kilometres above the Plains, into the Lantern.
Make alliances. Look for weak points, systems to subvert. Biological as well as tech – fuck the guards if you have to. Anything to get a signal out.
Boredom was the issue. Having the sole run of the Monastery had helped to pass the time. Fleare spent days rooting around the huge disorganized archives that occupied most of the lower levels, studying the history of the Monastery and of Obel: two strands that had run parallel for so many millennia that they looked like one.
People said that somewhere in the partly collapsed core of the Monastery were buried the remains of a temple that somehow pre-dated the Spin, or the preserved brain and genitals of a demented god-king, or the secret of eternal life.
The facts were more prosaic. The place had a still-functioning power source of an unknown type, and an apparently senile AI that spoke several dead languages and answered every ninth question with an obscenity. Fleare enjoyed talking to the AI. She suspected it was less senile than it pretended; from time to time it seemed to forget itself and become lucid and even, in a strange way, tender. Then it generally made up for its lapse with a volley of profanity.
There were no other prisoners. What the Strecki knew about her was enough to put her in a security category all of her own. She had been alone on the prison transport, and when the creaking, smoke-belching machine had docked with the Entry Gate – with a thump that had knocked her off her feet – there had been no one to greet her.
She had been conducted along dripping corridors by a floating spherical drone about twice the size of her head. It smelled strongly of ozone. She wondered why, until the first time she slowed down. It nudged her gently, and the electric shock almost knocked her out.
‘Where is everyone?’ she had asked, in the reception cell. The squat little monk hitched at his stained robes and rolled his eyes, showing dark yellow whites. ‘You are everyone,’ he told her. ‘Solitary confinement. No one wants to get near a filthy slot-crotch like you. Even the guards won’t come further in than the Second Circle. So you’ll be making your own entertainment. I know what you foul sluts get up to.’ He licked his lips. ‘There are cameras.’
Fleare suppressed a shudder. ‘Don’t you prefer boys?’ she asked innocently.
He grinned, showing black teeth. ‘Say what you like,’ he said. ‘Your ransom’s ten billion standard. Until someone raises that you’re stuck here on your own. Or not quite.’ He waved towards the cell door. ‘Some company for you.’
Fleare followed his gesture, and saw a featureless grey ovoid, floating at head height. It gave off a hum that, although soft, managed to set Fleare’s teeth on edge. She looked back at the monk, whose grin was even broader.
‘You’d better get used to it,’ he said. ‘It will follow you any- where, through anything. It can flay you in ten seconds. Watch.’
He thumped an old-fashioned looking switch on the wall beside him. The room darkened, and images covered the far wall.
Fleare lasted nearly thirty seconds before being sick.
What the monks would have done if they had known every- thing, instead of only something, she didn’t like to think.
As it was, they found ways to amuse themselves. Nothing so elaborate as the little floating ovoid, although even that could be used subtly. Sometimes, especially in the early days, she had woken from the fitful sleep which was all the hard shelf and thin, smelly covers allowed, and had heard – silence. No buzzing. She had sat up quickly and stared round her cell, her heart knocking a sickly rhythm while she tried to locate the thing, listening to the silence with her hearing so enhanced that sooner or later nothing could be silent, and the darkness became full of the buzzing and hissing of the noise floor of her own ears.
Then the thing had appeared beside her head, its noise so loud and sudden that she had jumped violently enough to pull a muscle in her abdomen.
Somehow, the monks seemed to know. The next day there had been something wrong with her food; it looked and tasted only as bad as usual but a few hours after eating she began to retch. She ran to the toilet hole in the corner of her cell and crashed, vomiting, to her knees with every spasm tearing at her injured muscle so that she howled bile.
Eventually, she slept a little, and woke to find that the attack had shifted so that she was voiding jets of scalding filthy- smelling liquid shit. She had no choice but to use the floor because the toilet hole had closed itself up while she slept.
Remember, almost anything can be information. Even just a repeated behaviour-pattern, if that’s all you can manage.
The early abuse had tailed off. She had learned to ignore the ovoid’s absences and after a while it seemed to have given up. These days it contented itself with floating a metre above her head while she tried to sleep, tilted slightly downward so that the blade-end of its casing pointed at her crotch. The buzzing made it almost impossible to sleep. Even when she managed, she was quickly woken by hunger.
Just once she had flicked at the thing in anger. Just once; a tongue of violet light had licked out of the front of the casing, almost too fast for her eye to follow, and then she had her hand cradled in her lap while blood welled from her half-severed finger. Inevitably, the cut had festered. Even a year later it still hadn’t quite healed.
We’ll be watching.
Fleare hoped someone still was.
At last the Shadow Stair turned inwards, climbing through a narrow access into the heart of the Tower itself. Another handful of steps led out on to a wide platform. She had reached Millien’s Vigilance.
Who or what Millien had been was one of many Tower unknowns, but everyone agreed that the Vigilance had been created after the Tower was finished. Where the rest of the Tower was inscrutably unmarked, the inner surfaces of the Vigilance showed faint, irregular tool marks almost as if something had gnawed its way through.
The other thing everyone agreed on was that the creation of the Vigilance should have felled the Tower like a tree.
Take a round tower. Punch through it with something rectangular, a bit over half its own diameter wide and twice the height of an average human. Rotate ninety degrees. Repeat.
The four columns that remained at the corners of the Vigilance were obviously, wonderfully, stupidly too thin to carry the weight of the hundred metres of Tower above them, never mind the unknown quantity of the Lantern. The first time Fleare had seen them she had actually flinched at the enormous weight that seemed about to crush her to two dimensions. These days the flinch was internal, but it never quite wore off.
She took a deep breath that was half unconscious and stepped on to the platform, rubbing her palms together and kneading her fingers. At this altitude frostbite would happen in twenty minutes no matter what she did, but if she did nothing it would happen a lot faster. So far she had done this a thousand times– the anniversary had not escaped her – and still had all her fingers.
The muscles in her legs felt hot, cold and numb at the same time. The weakness was getting worse. If she let herself think about it she knew that she was being starved to death, as slowly as possible. It was one of a growing list of things she didn’t dare let herself think about.
It was okay to think about heights. Heights were distracting. When she had first seen the Vigilance the unprotected drop had sent her into a dizzying panic which had not faded until she was back on the solid lower terraces. The next time she made the climb she had brought a long coil of lightweight rope, surplus to Monastery needs and dusty from centuries of storage. Working partly with her eyes shut, she had tied it round the four columns to form a token rail, just above waist height.
The next day it had gone. She replaced it two days running, with the same result.
After fixing it a third time, she found a sheltered balcony near the base of the Shadow Stair and settled herself in with a flask of hot water and a bag of the bitter herbs the Strecki used for everything from making infusions to flavouring food or smoking. They were the only thing she was allowed in abundance, probably because they had nil nutritional value. She watched well into the evening until the stair was slick with unclimbable frost. She saw no one.
The next day the rope was gone. Fleare concluded that the Tower itself objected to the rope and must have removed it. How, she could not imagine. She didn’t mind. The lack of protection felt a little like an invitation. Not one she planned to accept yet; maybe she would never accept it. But she needed to know it was there. She knew she would always be able to force herself to complete the climb, but if the day ever came when the weakness got so bad that she couldn’t make it back down again, then perhaps flying, even for a short time, would be a more glorious end than freezing. But not yet. The old thin air was dry and very clear. With nothing to blur its outline the sun was a tiny pinkish-white disc in a uniform blue-black sky. Or at least, usually uniform. This morning there was something else. A patch of air was hazy, as if full of the smoke from a distant fire.
We’ll be watching. And one day, no matter how long it takes, we’ll come.
The smoke moved, swirling towards the Tower and wrapping itself round the column nearest Fleare. It wasn’t smoke, she realized. It was more like fine black dust. Dust that moved.
She stepped back reflexively and glanced at the hovering ovoid. Its hum was getting stronger, and a tongue of violet light sprang from the front of its casing. Just like the video.
‘Shit!’ Fleare backed away. And then stopped and turned, as another sound – a loud buzz – filled the Vigilance.
The dust flicked away from the column and closed in on the ovoid like a swarm of insects. The buzzing rose to a screech, then fell away.
The ovoid was gone.
The cloud re-formed, looking a little bigger than it had before.
Then it spoke, in a voice like pouring sand.
She stared at it, shaking her head slowly. ‘You’re not real,’ she told it. ‘You’re a trick.’ Her legs were hurting a lot now. She focused on the pain. Real things were safer than tricks or, worse, hallucinations. If she was starting to hallucinate then maybe it was time to take the last flight, right now.
‘I am real. Fleare? You don’t look so good.’
‘I’m fine.’ It was a stupid denial but that and the pain were all she had left. She had to sit down. She began to lower her hips towards a squat but her muscles wouldn’t listen and she collapsed backwards, landing with a ringing blow to the base of her spine. I’m falling apart, she thought, and suddenly she wanted to believe, or didn’t care enough not to. She looked up at the cloud.
‘Muz? Is that you?’
‘Of course. How many other floating talking clouds do you know?’
She nodded, and propped herself up on her elbows. ‘Well it’s about fucking time,’ she said. Then her arms slipped out from under her and she was on her back with the remaining breath knocked out of her.
The cloud swooped low to her side and she felt a quick stab in her upper arm.
‘What . . . ?’
‘Sshhh. Stimulants, analgesics, vitamins, mixed-release sugars, a circulation modifier. You’re malnourished, and you’re not far from freezing to death.’
‘No shit.’ The stuff worked fast. Her head was clearing. She managed to sit up and this time it felt feasible, but her reviving senses flinched at the cold. ‘Thanks,’ she added quietly.
Fleare felt her eyes pricking. She raised a hand and wiped it roughly across her face. ‘So,’ she said, ‘since you’ve finally turned up, shall we get out of here? I take it you’ve arranged a way off this rock, if we do manage to get that far?’
‘Yes.’ The cloud dipped forwards as if it was nodding. ‘There’s a net-cloaked Orbiter, ten seconds out.’
‘Good.’ She stood up and tested her legs. They seemed fine, so she turned and headed for the Shadow Stair. Over her shoulder she added: ‘And disguise yourself. You look obvious.’
She didn’t hear a reply, but a few paces down the Shadow Stair something nuzzled against her side. She jumped, and then looked down.
‘Oh, very funny,’ she said.
The perfect replica of a dildo somehow contrived to look up at her innocently. ‘What?’
She let out a patient breath. ‘I meant, disguise yourself as something’ – she waved her hands impatiently – ‘something that blends.’
‘Huh. Okay, how about this?’ The phallus dissolved into specks and coalesced again.
Fleare looked down at it. It was the image of the ovoid, although it somehow managed to look more solid than the real thing.
‘Yes,’ she said, quietly. ‘That’s a better look.’
The image snickered. ‘Oh, believe me, it’s more than just a look.’ It floated up until it was level with her eyes. ‘Now, shall we go and find some monks to play with?’ It giggled, and a tiny tongue of violet flickered round the front of its casing and vanished.
Fleare suppressed a shudder. ‘Yes,’ she said, taking a deep breath. ‘Let’s. By the way, Muz, are you still . . .’ She paused, uncertain.
‘Psychotic?’ It giggled again. ‘Oh yes, definitely. Quite mad. As mad as a sack of scorpions. Wasn’t the dildo thing enough of a hint?’ Its voice became concerned. ‘Does it bother you?’
She shook her head. ‘Right now it reassures me. And it’s really good to see you.’
‘Did you visit me when I was in my jar?’
‘Yeah. Just once, before they brought me here.’
‘I wasn’t sure if it was a dream.’
‘It was real.’ She stared at nothing for a moment. Then she shook herself. ‘Let’s go.’
‘Don’t be sarcastic.’ She paused. ‘Anyway, you used to be senior to me when we first met.’
‘Yeah, I know. Three years.’
‘I’ve been here for three years. It’s nearly four years since I joined up.’ She set off down the stair, with her mind ranging back to the start of those years, whether she wanted it to or not.
So, nearly four years ago: it had been sixteen days since she had joined the rapidly growing militias of Society Otherwise, which she had done exactly at the moment she passed the age threshold meaning her family couldn’t prevent her; eight days since she had arrived at the training centre; and most of a day since they had decided the best way to use their last free time before immersive training was to get very, very chemical.
‘What about the mods?’
They were in the smoke bar of the Dog’s Dick. Fleare wasn’t sure how they had got there. They had been there for a long time.
‘Sorry. Can’t hear. Too fucking noisy!’
Fleare sighed, and leaned over so that her mouth was next to Kelk’s ear. ‘I said, what about the modifications?’
Kelk grinned, and put his drink down. ‘I want a fucking enormous knob!’
She slapped him gently. ‘Be serious.’
‘I can’t, I’m pissed.’ He looked at her worriedly. ‘So are you. How come you can do serious when you’re clattered?’
She raised her hand again and he drew back in pretended terror, knocking his drink over. ‘Bollocks!’ He patted clumsily at the pool of spirit then looked up again, his eyes unfocused. ‘I still want an enormous knob.’
Fleare sighed again and sat back. She was pissed, definitely, but Kelk had left her well behind. So had most of the others. She squinted up through the smoke haze at the old-fashioned timepiece above the bar, and winced. Four hours. It had seemed like a good idea when they started.
She turned to the man on her other side and thumped his shoulder. ‘Hey!’
His eyes wandered, and then focused. ‘Oh, hi, Fle. Great night, huh?’
‘These guys – and you as well – it feels like we’re really bonding, you know?’ He waved a hand. ‘Like we’ve been around for, like, years or something. Not just a few days.’
‘Sure.’ She nodded, carefully, and then leaned in closer to him. ‘Listen, Muz, did you think about getting modifications?’
He pursed his lips. ‘What, that nano-y gene-y kinda stuff?’ ‘Yeah, that.’ She searched his face. ‘So, did you?’
He picked up his glass, examined it, and held it upside down over the table. ‘Empty. See? Empty!’ He raised the glass, still upside down, and roared towards the bar. ‘Oi! Some assistance here. Thirsty soldiers in major need, thankyouverymuch.’ He put the glass down, turned back towards Fleare, studied her face and then said: ‘What?’
She suppressed a grin. ‘You aren’t thirsty, you’re drunk.’ He nodded gravely, and she went on. ‘And you aren’t a soldier – yet. You’re a cadet. You could still get busted straight out of here.’
‘Nah, I wouldn’t do that. Coz if I did I know I would break your heart. Ow!’ He flinched, and removed Fleare’s elbow from his ribs. ‘Besides, there’s always another way to stay.’ He looked directly at her with eyes that suddenly seemed more sober. ‘Get modified and you’re in for life. You realize that?’
She held his gaze for a while, and then looked at her drink. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘That’s right.’
The floor shivered. Muz swivelled his head so he was looking at the old clock. ‘Ah,’ he said. ‘Steam’s up. Only happens every ten years or so. Some coincidence we should have our last day off today. You want to watch?’
She nodded gratefully. ‘Sure,’ she said. She stood up, and then grabbed at the table as another stronger tremor shook the room. ‘Let’s go.’ She slapped Kelk on the shoulder. ‘C’mon, piss-head. It’s showtime. We’re going to watch. Coming?’ Kelk’s head was on the table. He raised it just as the barman thumped a full glass down in front of him. ‘Ah,’ he said. ‘Decision. Watch steamy thing, or drink.’ He laid a finger on the rim of the full glass, and wagged it towards the door. ‘Drink- watch. Watch-drink. Drin-wash . . .’ He frowned and his voice tailed away.
Fleare looked at Muz and shrugged. She picked up the full glass and held it up to Kelk’s bewildered face. ‘Drink,’ she suggested, and he brightened and took the glass from her. Then she turned and followed Muz out of the bar. The floor shook again. Behind her there was a crash, about the right size to be someone falling off a chair. She didn’t look round.
The balconies outside the bar were crowded. Muz elbowed roughly through. Fleare followed, resisting the urge to apologize, and nodding at a few people she recognized from the shuttle trip. Muz didn’t stop until he had forced his way to the gnarled timber rail that formed the edge of the balcony. Fleare caught up with him and took hold of the rail.
Wisps of steam curled up from below and wrapped around the massive Pump Trees. The smooth water-engorged trunks formed a close, dense circle around the outside of the bar. Fleare looked up through the warm mist to the canopy of Shower Buds a hundred metres above her head. Even at that distance the reddish-brown buds looked swollen.
The balcony shook, strongly enough to knock a few of the least steady to their knees. Most of them stayed there. Muz nodded. ‘It’s coming,’ he said. He held out his hands. ‘You wanna hold on to me?’
She shook her head and tightened her grip on the rail as the first drops of rain hit her.
When she had first seen this place from space, only eight days before, Fleare had thought it looked like a storm – or a pimple or a target – a distinct, raised, rust-coloured disc on a small, dull, tawny planet. It might have ended up with any of several names. In the end, most people had settled on Nipple, which was one of the politer ones.
She had pushed herself away from the obs screen and turned to look at the speaker. He was tall and skinny, dressed in brigade kit like hers, but faded, and with shoulder pips that said he had been in for a year. She drew herself upright but he smiled and held out his hands, palms down. ‘No salutes,’ he said. ‘I’m only cadet-plus, not full officer. Besides, I’m shit at hierarchy.’ He held out a hand. ‘Muzimir fos Gelent. Muz.’
She took the hand. ‘Fleare Haas. Fleare.’ His fingers felt dry and muscular.
He gestured towards the planet. ‘Definitely weird, in a slightly horny sort of way. Happened at the end of the Second Machine Wars.’
‘Happened?’ Fleare looked back to the little planet, which was filling more of the screen as the shuttle dropped into orbit. ‘Didn’t it start out like that, then?’
‘Nah.’ He shoved himself away from the rail. ‘Look, we won’t be hooked up to transfer for at least an hour. Buy you a drink?’
She studied him for a moment. ‘Is this a pick-up?’
He grinned. ‘Ha. Busted! Very inappropriate. Abuse of position.’ He turned back to the screen, and then gave her a stagey sideways glance. ‘But anyway – buy you a drink?’
It had been a long journey, Fleare told herself, and the air on board the creaking little military shuttle was oily and acrid. Of course she was thirsty. The fingers and the grin had nothing to do with it. Obviously.
‘Okay,’ she said.
The shuttle had no bar, only vending slots that served nothing stronger than fruit juices and herbal infusions. Muz fetched up in front of one, swiped a credit chip through the reader and raised his eyes to the display. ‘What do you know. It thinks I’ve got some credit left. Suckers!’ He turned to Fleare. ‘What are you having?’
She chose a sour chai and Muz dialled two. They took their drinks back through the mostly humanoid crowds to the obs screen. Fleare sipped, and pulled a face at the astringent taste. ‘Yuk.’ She turned to Muz. ‘So, tell me about Nipple. It might take my mind off this stuff.’
‘Ha!’ He sipped, and looked at the glass in horror. ‘Something of a challenge there.’ He shrugged, and screwed up his face as if it helped his memory. ‘Actually there’s not that much to tell. It was a boring little planet with a bit of underground water and just enough atmosphere to support a few misfits who wanted a quiet life. No native fauna. Millions of years of sweet fuck all. Then things got interesting.’
He was a good story-teller. Fleare liked that in a man. She listened.
The story he told her began two thousand years earlier. In those days Nipple had the more prosaic name of Salamis 1. Salamis was a smallish yellowish star in the third shell of the Spin, a long way from anything useful or interesting. The total population of its only planet peaked, so it was said, at five hundred stinking hermits in five hundred stinking huts. Total exports equalled total imports, at zero. Limited plant life allowed the dedicated to grow food, as long as your definition of food began and ended at a primitive maize and a couple of tough starchy roots.
The small wars that were endemic to the sector at the time somehow swirled round the little planet without touching it; as well as lacking every other useful attribute, Salamis didn’t even offer a strategically valuable position.
Which made it all but impossible to understand why anyone should try to destroy it.
Fleare wrinkled her forehead. ‘Destroy?’
Muz waggled a hand in front of him. ‘Well, that’s what it looked like, although it was probably an accident.’ He drained his glass and put it down with a look of relief. ‘Ever heard of a race called the Zeft?’
She frowned. ‘Maybe. Remind me. Can’t remember.’
‘I’m not surprised. It wasn’t exactly their finest hour. More like their last, actually.’ He shrugged. ‘Bit players. Or so everyone thought.’
Fleare nodded. Her own memory began to supplement the story Muz was telling, as fragments of the expensive education she had done her best to ignore began to assemble themselves. Shit, she thought to herself. I wasn’t wasting Daddy’s money as badly as I thought. Must try harder.
The Zeft had been humanoid, and aggressive in a limited, pointless sort of way. They had assembled a small but nasty five-system, ten-planet empire based mainly on crude techno- logical theft, a rigid caste system and a bit of slave trading, and had hung on to it for several hundred years by keeping out of the way of the real grown-ups in the sector. At any one time the Spin contained two or three Zefts, and the best way to deal with them was to hold your nose and move on.
Then, without any warning, a battle fleet that no one knew the Zeft possessed had turned up in one of the last battles of the Second Machine Wars, announced their intention of joining what everyone could already see was the winning side, issued a garbled warning to the inhabitants of Salamis 1 – and fired something.
They probably intended it to be a surprise, and the effect had presumably surprised the Zeft very much indeed, although not for long. Whatever it was produced a hundred-thousand- kilometre ball of plasma, centred on their fleet. When it had cleared, the Zeft were simply gone.
Fleare stared at him. ‘Just gone? Nothing left?’
‘Nothing. Not even dust. Just a heap of hot atoms.’
‘Shit.’ She thought for a moment. ‘So what the hell was it?’ ‘The weapon? No one knows. People are still studying the area, of course. Best guess is that the Zeft somehow managed to pinch an artefact left over either from the First Machine Wars or, more likely, from the original Construction Phase. Decided it offered a path to immortality and proved themselves right in the worst way.’
Fleare nodded. Artefacts popped up occasionally. These days they were supposed to be handed in to the Hegemony, on pain of alarming sanctions. Mostly they were either useless or incomprehensible, but there was always the risk that something seriously potent would turn up.
She turned to the obs screen. ‘So what did that have to do with this?’ She waved at the reddish-brown aureole and frowned. It really did look like a nipple.
‘Ah. That.’ Muz leaned low over the obs rail as if he was studying the little planet. ‘I said there was nothing left after the fireball. Not quite accurate. Something shot out of it. Something small and very fast and very hot, piece of Zeft debris most likely. Whatever it was, it was going at a hell of a clip. It drilled a hole straight through the crust. Connected a lot of hot magmatic water to the outside world, and created, well, that.’ His hands described a rough circle in front of him. ‘A whole new eco- system, five thousand klicks across, based on warm water. Pump Trees, hot springs, Rain Sharks. There’s a pub in the middle of it. It’s pretty cool. I’ll show you when we get there. If you like?’
She looked at the planet and then at Muz. ‘I like,’ she said.
And now, eight days later, they were in the middle of the nipple itself. The rain became heavier, and the ground shook continu- ally as hundreds of geysers sent steaming, mineral-rich water shooting up. The spouting water splashed against the underside of the platform, and little jets found their way through the gaps between the planks. The warm moist air smelled of minerals and leaf mould and damp timber.
Fleare felt Muz nudge her. He was pointing upwards. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘That one’s ready to blow. See?’
She squinted through the mist towards the Pump Tree he was pointing at, and nodded. The spray buds that crowned the tree were trembling. A pod of Bud Chimps, invisible in their camouflage until they moved, screeched all at once as if they were one animal and threw themselves away from the tree.
The distended buds swelled visibly. Then they burst.
The concussion shook the platform. Around Fleare and Muz, dozens of people were knocked off their feet and lay sprawled on the rough planks. Most of them stayed there, holding on to railings or each other as the sheets of sweet, sap-tainted water fell around them.
It was like a chain reaction. One tree set off another, until it seemed that the whole spinney was roaring water into the air.
Fleare kept her feet somehow. She screwed up her eyes against the hammering curtains of water. With blurred vision she watched as shoals of Optimist Fish began their desperate climb up the falling rain. Not one in a thousand would get high enough to plant their fertilized eggs in the depleting buds. For those that did, it would take a whole year for the eggs to sink through the Pump Trees’ draining systems to ground level, and another nine for the fish to grow to maturity in time for the next Spray Season.
She turned to Muz, and laughed. He had his hands braced on the railing and his head tipped back, eyes closed and mouth open. Rivulets of sap and water ran over his lips, and his throat rippled as he swallowed.
She nudged him. ‘Hey!’
His eyes snapped open, and he turned to her, licking his lips. ‘What?’
‘What are you doing?’
‘What does it look like? Taking a drink.’ He grinned at her. ‘You’re going to ask why.’
She considered. ‘I might slap you instead. Smug bastard.’
He shook his head. ‘Nah, you won’t do that. Nice girls don’t hit drunks. Anyway, you want to know the answer.’
She studied her fingernails.
‘Okay!’ Muz was still shaking his head. ‘Three reasons. First, I’m thirsty. Second, it’s supposed to be good for you. Full of natural thingies and stuff. And third,’ and he lowered his voice, ‘it’s a guaranteed aphrodisiac.’
‘The hell you say.’ She kept her own voice level. ‘Nah, I made that bit up.’
‘Yeah.’ She turned back to the obs rail. ‘I’d have walked off if I thought you were really that tacky.’
Much later, she let a lazy finger trail down the short, damp hairs on his chest. He stirred, but didn’t wake from his sated sleep. She frowned, and pressed harder. As his eyes fluttered open she swung herself astride him. He groaned. ‘Oh, no. Again?’
She put a finger to his lips. ‘Oh, yes,’ she told him. ‘Remember, I could have walked off.’
‘Ah. That’s true. Ahh . . .’
Fleare woke slowly, and lay as still as possible while she grew into her hangover. It was an impressive one. She seemed to remember earning it.
After a few minutes she trusted herself to move. She rolled over and found herself pushing against something warm. She pushed harder and it moaned. She pulled back the cover and saw Muz, face slack. Fleare grinned to herself and rolled over to the other side of the bed.
She achieved upright on the second attempt and stood, swaying, until her stomach and her inner ears settled down. Then she took stock. She was not in her own quarters. The room was cadet standard, just big enough for a bed, a table and a wash cabinet, and it smelled of last night’s alcohol and slightly more recent bodies. She stood as still as possible and concentrated on breathing through her mouth.
When she was fairly sure she was not going to be sick she walked over to the wash cabinet, shrugged off a T-shirt she didn’t remember either owning or putting on and stepped into the shower. The water was cold. You’re a Soc O soldier, she told herself. You can do this.
Society Otherwise was what happened when an idea became a movement and then, somehow, got organized without destroying itself. It had begun with groups of students unpicking the encryption of commercial news conduits and watching with their mouths hanging open as they realized just how mendacious their parents’ generation could be. It had gained weight from the remnants of left-wing groups, washed up and marginalized by the swelling oligarchical tide of the Hegemony as it rolled through minor societies across the Inner Spin, leaving them sweating and indebted in its wake. It liaised with a couple of private militias and found itself suddenly able to project real power – and therefore suddenly of close interest to the Hegemony. From there on, Society Otherwise had run out of choices. It had to fight.
Fleare let herself turn under the spray for a few minutes, feeling her body beginning to forgive her. Then she shut off the water, stepped out of the cabinet and collided with a naked Muz.
‘Hi, baby.’ He tried to wrap his arms around her but she pulled back. ‘I’m wet,’ she told him.
He grinned. ‘I have that effect.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘Pervert. Besides,’ and she wrinkled her nose, ‘your breath smells like, like breath, and not in a good way.’ She placed a hand on his chest and pushed. He took a surprised step backwards, met the edge of the only chair in the little room and dropped into it.
‘Hey,’ he protested. ‘That’s no way to treat a superior officer.’
She looked down at him, a hand on her hip. ‘Superior officers,’ she said, ‘are probably not supposed to spend so much of their time underneath.’
‘What? Oh . . .’ He stared at the floor for a moment then looked up innocently. ‘Mind you,’ he said, ‘there’s always leading from behind.’
Fleare shook her head. ‘Life in the army . . . speaking of which, wasn’t there something we were meant to be doing?’
Muz nodded. ‘Brigade briefing,’ he said, ‘but that doesn’t start until— Oh, shit.’ His eyes followed her pointing finger to the time display on the wall. ‘Oh shit, ohshitohshit!’
‘Precisely.’ Fleare nodded. ‘We have six minutes. Of course, I’m already washed.’
She stood aside as he charged into the cabinet, and then laughed out loud at his scream of protest. She had forgotten to mention the cold water.
They made the briefing with ten seconds to spare.
‘. . . modifications, including Enhancements, for anything other than therapeutic purposes were banned in all Spin jurisdictions following the collapse of the Dimililer class action in 734. Please refer to your notes for that. De jure, this remains the case, but accumulating precedent allows a degree of interpretation . . .’
Fleare fought back a yawn. The elderly Technical Sergeant who was briefing them was bone-thin, and her voice had a droning quality. As well, the briefing room was stuffily under- ground, in a partitioned-off corner of what had been a hardened missile silo. It was also still faintly radioactive; to come in here you had to wear a monitoring tag. The tag was clipped to one of the pocket flaps on her fatigues. It felt a little irritating, but it hadn’t pinged yet.
Something brushed against her shoulder. She glanced to the side, and suppressed a grin. Muz was standing with his eyes half closed, swaying. She dug an elbow sideways; his head snapped up.
‘. . . decided to offer certain recruits the opportunity to Enhance, with the focus being on strength, speed and stamina. Those with complementary outcomes will be formed into squads of five for training as intervention squads, for duties which will be disclosed only at that time . . .’
There were about fifty of them, all casualties of the Dog’s Dick the night before. Fleare guessed she was one of the lucky ones. Muz was obviously struggling, and to her other side Kelk looked like a black and white picture of himself. His fatigues were rumpled, and Fleare guessed he had slept in them. She sniffed a little, and wrinkled her nose. Definitely slept-in, and possibly something-else’d-in as well.
‘. . . concludes the disclosure. There will be a short period for questions and then you will have free time until sundown, after which all those who volunteer will be required to enter their consent with Legals.’ The woman put down her notepad and gave a frosty smile. ‘So, questions? Yes – at the back?’
‘Uh, what does “complementary outcomes” mean?’
Fleare looked round. The questioner was a tall, hard-looking male with blue-black skin. They’d met the night before, in the sense of drunkenly bumping into one another and exchanging ID tabs. Zepf. That was the name. Exclusively homosexual, Fleare remembered. She shrugged and faced forward.
‘What it says.’ The woman looked impatient. ‘Different bodies experience different levels of outcome from the same intervention.’
Zepf persisted. ‘And different levels of success?’
‘Self-evidently.’ The Technical Sergeant gathered her papers. ‘I recommend you read the notes, if you have not yet had the opportunity; everything is fully covered.’ She made to walk away from her lectern.
Fleare raised a hand. ‘Sorry. One more question?’
Heads turned towards Fleare. The woman stopped, tutting audibly. ‘One question only. Go on.’
Fleare took a breath. ‘What’s the rush?’ she asked.
There was silence for a moment. Then the woman placed her papers back on the lectern and raised her eyebrows. ‘What rush?’ she asked mildly.
‘Well, we’ve been here for nine days. We haven’t even done any basic training yet.’ Fleare felt herself getting ready to shrink under the cool gaze, and shook herself. ‘And we haven’t been assessed yet. Don’t we have to get sort of tested before you put us in for mods?’
The woman’s eyebrows climbed. ‘The Hegemony isn’t waiting. How many people do you think have come into its influence since you arrived on this planet?’
Fleare shook her head.
‘I’ll tell you, although I suspect that you of all people know.’ The emphasis had been subtle; Fleare looked around, but no one else seemed to have noticed. ‘It’s roughly a hundred million. That is the average rate of advance of the Hegemony over the last few years: ten million people a day. A mega-city every ten days, a medium-sized planet every year, with their democratic governments replaced by so-called technocracies imposed without their consent to correct the financial disasters caused by the depletion of their economies by the tame bankers that follow the Hegemony like flies following a dragged corpse. Technocracies which then control social freedoms, roll back progressive statute, turn healthcare into a currency. Where life expectancies fall and infant mortality rises and suicide rates soar.’
Fleare realized with something like shock that the woman’s voice had trembled as she spoke and there were beads of sweat clinging to her hairline. She hadn’t thought such a dried-up- looking entity capable of moisture. Let alone passion.
The woman went on. ‘So if every day provides ten million human reasons to act, why should we wait?’ The corner of her mouth twitched. ‘Besides, both the nature and the urgency of your training will depend on the nature of your modifications and the level of their success. Clearly we would not waste time training you for a role which you had no chance of carrying out. And as an aside, your reading of the sign-up disclosure was obviously defective. You have been the subject of close remote- sensing scrutiny since the moment you arrived. We know more than enough about your physiological responses . . . to every situation.’ She gave a smile which looked genuine and gathered up her papers. ‘Enjoy your afternoon, Cadet Haas.’ She paused. ‘And of course your, ah, friend, Cadet-Corporal fos Gelent.’
There was a rustle of laughter and Fleare felt her face burning. She stood to attention along with the rest of the room until the woman had left. Then, as hard as she could, she drove her elbow into Muz’s side.
‘Ooooof!’ He staggered and clutched at himself. ‘What was that for?’
‘You knew!’ She pulled back her elbow for another shot but he grabbed it. ‘You knew they were spying. You complete,’ she searched for a bad enough word but couldn’t find one, ‘you complete turd! You might as well have hauled me into a fucking porn studio!’
‘Oh, right. Of course!’ He gave her back her elbow. ‘Obviously I pushed you down the slope against your will. I mean, it’s not like you were the sober one or anything.’
His eyes met hers, and she held the gaze for a moment. Then she felt her stomach muscles twitch and suddenly she was laughing, and so was he. When they had panted themselves to a stop he took her hand. ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘We’ve got the after- noon. I’ll show you something.’
‘Will it be something you showed me already?’ She raised her eyebrows.
‘Not that sort of something! Come on.’
Half an hour later, Fleare was surrounded by planets.
The Spin was a thickly populated area of space about thirty light-days across. It was moderately remote from the nearest major civilizations and therefore tended to make its own astro- political weather. It was independent, socially fissile, multilingual, multifaith, internally and externally argumentative, occasion- ally united but far more often chronically squabbling. Small wars were endemic; larger ones rare. Really big conflicts like the First and Second Machine Wars were unusual enough to merit capital letters if your language supported them.
Depending on how and when you counted, there were between eighty-nine and ninety-four planets in the Spin. Five were wanderers, on vast elliptical orbits that brought them back into play every few years. There was a fashion among the wealthy for maintaining houses, estates, whole private contin- ents on these planets. The fact that they were useless for nine tenths of the time just seemed to add to the attraction. The remaining stable – by Spin standards – eighty-nine looped in complex orbits around twenty-one suns, with both orbits and suns evidently being artificial. Not just artificial; most of the orbits were impossible, and a few were close to whimsical. One described a flattened figure of eight centred on nothing obvious, with light, warmth and an intermittently fatal spectrum of radiation coming from its own pet mini-star orbiting a few light-minutes out. It was popular with thrill-seeking tourists, who mostly wore radiation suits, and a select cadre of the ter- minally ill, who mostly didn’t. The suntans were spectacular, of course.
Nobody knew who or what had built the Spin, and to speculate on why was just farcical, but whoever it was seemed to have had grand ambitions, almost limitless power and a sense of humour. There was archaeological evidence, but it pointed in so many wilfully different directions that the only safe assumption was that it was part of the joke. There were also artefacts that turned up from time to time, most so inscrutable as to their use that they might as well have been executive toys. Despite constant attempts, the Construction Phase remained opaque to investigation.
As far as anyone knew, no race had ever tried to attain civilization from a starting point in the Spin. It was just as well. As one anthropologist said, if they’d tried to interpret what they saw in the skies the resulting religions would have been lethal.
Joke or not, the Spin was unique as far as its inhabitants knew. It had few external visitors, mainly because it was rather isolated, floating in a bubble of more or less empty space half a dozen light-years across. Outside the bubble the galaxy got quite dense, with civilizations clustering together and gazing warily across the gap. The Spin had sometimes been a boisterous neighbour – another reason to leave it un-poked, if possible.
The obvious guess was that the empty bit had been plundered for the raw star-stuff needed to make the Spin in the first place, but this was just a guess. What was certain was that the Spin was by a massive margin the single biggest artificial structure in the mapped galaxy. It was home to about ten per cent of known sentient civilizations, twenty per cent of economic activity and, historically, anything up to fifty per cent of total military effort.
It had another claim to uniqueness, too.
Fleare ducked as a cluster of moons whistled past her. ‘What, on every planet?’
‘Yup. All different, but all complete. A planetarium on every planet. Look, don’t stand there. Incoming solar system.’ Muz took her arm and pulled her gently backwards. She shook herself free but stepped back a few paces, in time for a planet about the size of her head to go barrelling by. It looked as if it was made of some dark hardwood, mounted on a polished brass stalk that disappeared down into the darkness. Several others followed, all made of similar materials, and some with sketches of continents etched on to their spinning surfaces. Then a bigger brassy globe wobbled past. Fleare looked at Muz. ‘A sun, right?’
‘Right. Look, Fleare, I gotta sit down.’
The planetarium occupied a spherical space about fifty metres across, with a metal checkerplate walkway running round the circumference. There were banquettes on the walkway. Muz wandered over to one and collapsed on to it. The cushion made a sighing noise as it took his weight.
Fleare sat next to him. ‘Still suffering?’
‘Oh yes.’ He leaned back against the wall of the planetarium and gave a sigh that sounded just like the cushion.
Fleare grinned. ‘Serves you right.’
‘Thank you, Cadet Haas.’ Muz stretched his arms above his head. Fleare heard one of his joints click, and he winced. Then he sat up. ‘Hey, that’s funny.’
‘Well, your name. Isn’t there some, like, mega-rich total bastard that owns half the Spin? Big wheel in the Heg’. He’s called Haas, right? Coincidence. Funny.’
Fleare stared at her feet. A small cold knot formed in her stomach. ‘Not really,’ she said.
‘Not really what?’
‘Funny, or a coincidence.’ She stood up, turning and hugging herself. With her back to him she said: ‘Viklun Haas is my father. It isn’t half the Spin but it’s plenty, and yes, he is a total bastard, and yes, he is on the side of the Hegemony so I’m technically at war with him. I’m sure he’d say it was just a ges- ture but I can’t ask him because I haven’t spoken to him since my fifteenth birthday, because he’s at least twice the bastard you think and he makes me want to throw up. Sorry.’ She turned round. ‘So, I’ll be leaving, I guess. Thanks for last night.’ She swallowed. ‘It was fun.’
‘What?’ Muz got to his feet, a little unsteadily. ‘Leaving? Why?’
‘That’s how it usually goes after his name comes up. Even if it takes a while.’ Fleare tried to meet his eyes and failed. ‘I’ve got plenty of experience.’ She turned abruptly and headed for the exit.
After a few paces she heard him following. She spun on her heel and held both arms out straight, bracing herself. He bounced gently off her outstretched palms, took a wobbly step backwards and collapsed on to a bench. His expression was so comical that she almost relented.
But only almost. Instead she shook her head. ‘I can’t, Muz. I joined up to get away from all that shit, you see? Him and any- thing to do with him and anyone who even heard of him, because it doesn’t take long for everyone else to stop having a relationship with me and start having one with him. And if you did that, I’d have to kill you.’
He threw his hands up. ‘Okay, have it your way. I feel too crap to argue and if you really gave a shit you’d probably be staying, so just fuck off. But you’d better change your name, otherwise you’ll be fucking off for the rest of your life.’
‘I’m going to change more than that.’ She turned and stamped towards the exit. The old-fashioned door slammed satisfyingly behind her.
Three hours later she was half sitting, half lying on a med couch while a cloudy neutral-coloured fluid dripped into her bloodstream through a slim tube which looked disappointingly ordinary. The fluid was a complex, doubtfully legal suspension of nano-particles, and the process was neither risk-free nor reversible.
Despite this, her formal agreement to the military’s right to modify her had been accepted without a flicker, barely ten minutes after she had left the planetarium. The bored Adjutant- Administrator hadn’t even looked up from his terminal as Fleare had submitted to the iris scan that confirmed her consent. She’d had to scan twice. Apparently tears obscured the beam.
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