As I fasten my crash webbing Sareena looks at me and shakes her head. "What i_t?" I ask. She pauses as she pre-checks the heat shield: she look_mbarrassed.
"Do you have any last wishes?" she asks, stumbling over her words. "I mean, d_ou want me to tell anyone if you ..?"
I grin up at her humourlessly. She's little more than a shadow cast by th_lare of the floodlights, so I can't see her expression. "What do you think?"
I ask, hoping for something to distract me from what's about to happen.
She straightens up and checks over the ejection rail another time. It'_ncient, a history book nightmare. Everything on this station is ancient: th_lanetary colony abandoned space travel, along with most everything else, whe_hey cut themselves off from contact centuries ago. Cold and dark, the statio_as mothballed for centuries, until the we beamed in and reactivated it. No_t has new owners, and a very different purpose to the one it was designe_or. "Okay," she says calmly. "So if you don't come back, you don't wan_nyone to cry … "
"Not for me," I say, jerking a thumb over my shoulder towards the seale_irlock bay doors, amber lights strobing across the danger zone to indicat_ressure integrity. "But if I don't come back, you can cry for the natives.
Nobody else will."
"Yeah, well. Looks like the heat shield's good for one more trip, at least."
She finishes with her handheld scanner and hooks it to her utility belt, the_urns and waves at the redlit Launch Control room, high among the skeleta_irders above us. "Does your your life support integrity check out?"
"Check." A green helix coils slowly in the bottom left corner of my visua_ield, spiralling down the status reading on my suit; more head-up display_ind past my other eye in a ruby glare of countdown digits. The oxy pressur_n my countercurrent infuser is fine but I have a tense feeling like an itch.
I can't breathe with my lungs. Got to make this reentry drop immersed in _ubble of liquid. The decceleration on reentry is going to be ferocious.
The comm circuit comes to life: it's launch control. " Launch window opens i_wo hundred seconds. You should make your modified orbital perigee in tw_even nine seconds at one-niner five kilometres. You'd better clear the bay, Sar."
"Okay." She shrugs. "Outer helmet?"
I nod clumsily and she lowers it into place over my head. I cut in my externa_ensors and sit tight in the frame of the drop capsule, webbed in b_efrigerant feeds. The thick aerated liquid gurgles around my ears then begin_o thicken into a gel. The pod's active stealth skin tests itself, flashin_hameleon displays at the wall. "All systems go," I tell her, voice distorte_y the gunk clogging my throat: "you tie one on for me, okay?" I smile, an_he gives me a thumbs-up.
" You're go, Adjani," cuts in launch control; Helmut and Davud are in charge.
We've been through this all before: they sound professionally bored.
" Pressure drop in one-forty seconds, re-entry window in one-ninety an_ounting. Repeat, Go for drop in two minutes."
"Check," Sareena calls over her shoulder, then stops for one last word. "Tak_are, Oshi," she says. "We'll miss you."
"So will I," I say, feeling like a hollow woman as the wise-crack comes out.
She half-reaches out toward me, but doesn't quite make it: she pulls bac_nstead, and jogs towards the access hatch. I track her with the capsul_ensors, testing the image filters we yesterday. Seen by the light of radi_missions her skeleton is a hot synthetic pink overlaid with luminous gree_lesh and a thin blue spiderweb of nanotech implants just beneath the skin. I_ould have been her, I tell myself, trying to imagine myself retreatin_hrough that door and sealing it on her; it didn't have to be me. All right, so I volunteered. So why have second thoughts at this stage? The Boss sai_t's important, so I suppose it must be. There's a very important job to b_one and then I'm going to come back okay, no doubt about it. It's going to b_ood —
" One minute, Adjani. Any last words?"
"Yeah," I say. Suddenly my mouth is dry. "This is —"
The lights on the bay wall flash into a blinding red glare and a spume o_apour forms whirlpools around the air vent: the clam-shell door is openin_nto space, draining out the frail pool of air.
" Pulling sockets, Adjani. Good … "
I don't get to hear the rest. The launch rail kicks me in the small of th_ack and the head-up display blanks out the starscape in a blaze of trackin_atrices. When my eyeballs unsquash I erase the unnecessary read-outs and tak_ look. The planet is a vast, ego-numbing blueness into which I'm falling. _e-run the mission profile as the orientation thrusters cut in, spinning th_rop capsule so that I'm racing backwards into a sea of swirling gas at Mac_hirty. The capsule is going to make an unpowered re-entry like a meteor; it'_esigned to pull fifty gees of deceleration on the way down (far more than an_ane pilot would dream of), shedding fiery particles like a stone out o_eaven. This is going to happen in about three minutes time.
I'm busy for a few seconds, heart in my mouth as I scan for search radar an_issile launches, but no-one's detected me and by the time I can look up th_lack-surfaced station is invisible against the thin scattering of stars abov_e. I could almost be alone out here — but I'm not, quite. Someone is dow_here: someone dangerous. Otherwise Distant Intervention wouldn't have see_it to send a team through the system Gatecoder, fifteen light-years fro_nywhere else; otherwise it wouldn't have rated a visit of any kind, let alon_he attention of a Superbright like the Boss. Because if nobody lives here, why the hell is it pumping out so many uploaded minds that it distort_reamtime processing throughout the entire sector?
A Year Zero event, that's what. I'm told we've run across this sort of thin_efore, but rarely, less than once a century in the whole wide spread of huma_ettlement; and that's why I'm here.
That's why everyone's afraid I'm not coming back …
From the second when the pod first drops below orbital velocity to the momen_t penetrates the stratopause and deploys wings, there's not a lot for me t_o. That's only about two minutes, but it feels like forever: I'm suspended i_ tank of high pressure liquid, feeling my bones grate under the huge stresse_f deceleration.
I run my test routines, muscles tensing, relaxing, counting down th_illiseconds to landing: the green helix spins in my left eye, pacing out th_oments. While my body is in spasm I call up the wisdom download they gave me, a huge database of predigested memories sitting in the implants that thread m_rain. It's full of details about the planets population, and I go over them — got to check my knowledge, even though I already know it a thousand times over — as the first wisps of atmosphere tear at the rim of my heat shield. When _egin to feel heavy I switch off my inner ears and follow the g-forces on _isplay; New Salazar makes for daunting reading.
Primary G1 Dwarf
Distance 1.24 A.U.
Second planet of seven
none of rest habitable
Diameter 13,000 K.M.
Land area 68% of total surface
Colonised Year 2427
Present t minus 709 years
Last update t minus 231 years
Population 1,390,000,000 (last update)
Growth 1.2 % pa
Languages 4 (316 dialects)
Technology Low => Moderate
Industrialization (inferred; currently Moderate)
… It goes on from there. Two hundred nations? Double the land area of Terra?
A population measured in billions? I could be hunting a needle in a haystack, except that Year Zero Man is hardly inconspicuous.
The rim of the heat shield glows a pleasant cherry red as the g's stack u_hen began to tail off again; first the sky turns ruddy orange, then the shel_f the pod shrieks in protest when it drops through the highest reaches of th_tratosphere. The plasma conic burns out. The plan was to head for the lan_ass with the highest rate of change of population density we could deriv_rom Dreamtime transient loading …
I look up. The first aerobrake has deployed, detonating high overhead: _witch my peripheral nervous system back on and experience a shivery high o_isceral fear. The sky is swinging back and forth above me like a pendulum a_he machmeter drops towards One, and then I'm falling subsonic, altitude tw_housand metres and the counter timing down to impact. There's a gurgle and m_ars ring as the suspension gel liquifies and drains away.
— Three, two, one. Suddenly a giant hand grabs me around the shoulders an_uttocks. I'm flying high on a gossamer kite, wings outstretched above me. _ook down and there's nothing under the capsule but a vast expanse of green, slashed in half by the ochre gash of a dirt trail. My stomach does a backfli_s I reach out and grab the side-arm controller. Two heartbeats and the groun_isappears behind a wisp of low cloud, but I've got no time to wast_aydreaming: I'm gliding down to an alien forest and I've got just thre_inutes flying time left. The capsule handles like a brick; it's carryin_nough fuel to make orbit.
Right, I think. Where do I land?
I'm down to one thousand metres so I risk a quick flash on radar. There are n_etal structures out there so I decide the road's as safe as anywhere — thi_s rainforest country, my briefing whispers in my head, and I don't want th_ingsail to get wrapped up in the trees. (A brief vision flashes before m_yes; a skeleton in a stealth capsule gently sways in the breeze beneath _anopy of tree bearing strange fruit, while Year Zero Man continues to pla_is deadly game and the distortions in the Dreamtime get worse.) Year Zero Ma_s a murderous bastard: killing so many people that - the activity surge i_he Dreamtime was measurable at a range of fifteen light years —
The dusty road is coming up beneath me as I trigger the capsule motor (fo_ust a tenth of a second — I don't want to set fire to the forest) and dum_he wingsail. It drifts gracefully away and the capsule drifts gently dow_etween smoke-fumed tree trunks. I can see burning vegetation as there's _arring thump from below. The rocket shuts off. Quick! Move! The canop_etracts and the thermal tiles are still hot beneath my boots as I jump dow_nd turn — to see a large deadfall which, if I look at it carefully, migh_lmost be the silhouette of a parked orbiter capsule.
I lumber through the undergrowth, out onto the road, trot along to th_ingsail (which has come down right in the most visible damn spot in th_orest). The fabric billows and it's obviously entangled in the undergrowth, but that's no problem. I duck down behind it, pull out a ring pull, and stan_ack. The sail begins to dissolve. I look round again, see a confused tangl_f undergrowth and anonymous tree-trunks. It's going to be easy to lose th_apsule here, so I gash the tree-trunk with an armoured finger and retrea_bout ten metres back from the road. Then I check the time. It's been eleve_inutes since I left the station. That's too slow; if this was a network-read_orld they'd have been all over me ten minutes ago. What's up with thes_eople? How primitive are they?
As I wait for the soldiers to arrive, I strip off my suit and bury it. I_akes a minute or two for the suit's sensitive control systems to disentangl_hemselves from my spinal cord and viscera, then the bolts begin to slide bac_nto their sockets and the segments of armour begin to slough off like th_kin of a ceramic snake. The jungle air is a rich compost smell overlaid wit_he acrid tang of the dissolving wingsail. Now I look at them, the plants ar_eally strange. All their branches come in threes, and the leaves are mor_lue than green: something chitters in the undergrowth nearby and the insect_asp like a chorus of malfunctioning drones. I shrug out of my dismembere_uit, stand bare-ass naked but for my built-in extras, and look around.
There's no-one watching, so I disentangle my knapsack from the supply locke_n the back of the life support unit. I open it and drag out a grey overall, rough-woven sandals, and a small moneybelt that bulges. I put them on, wearin_he belt inside the suit. I don't know if I look like a native, but frankly _on't really care. What I care about is not looking like trouble, and th_rmour is more of a liability than anything else; its purpose is unmistakable.
It's been nearly two hundred and fifty years since anyone physically visite_his world. Since then it's been out of touch except for the basic Dreamtim_unction, a one-way stream of emigré minds. People dying and being uploade_nto the wider continuum supported by our insterstellar digital afterlife. Th_ame people being shunted out across the interstellar gatecoder links, funnelled into whatever corner of the growing Dreamtime has room for th_dditional load, because they don't know how to work the system. Yes, thi_lanet's on the net, but nobody here knows how to use it. There are mor_hings to the Dreamtime net than interstellar travel and continue_onsciousness after death: but it takes a certain degree of knowledge to mak_se of them.
Burying the armour is hard work without power assistance, so I just dig _hallow trench and pull some loose undergrowth over it. Then I stare at th_pot, and think hard; a sapphire triangle appears in my left eye as m_nertial tracker locks on. Something grabs at my attention for a moment: _lashback to a childhood of darkness. I shiver, breathe deeply and look roun_gain. The colours — that's what I can never get over. (The colours: tr_xplaining them to a blind woman.)
… Or to a corpse. I hunker down and switch to infrared, and boost my ears s_hat the dull rumble of the engine coming up the road is overlayed with fain_ounds of conversation from the driver's cab. It's a truck, I decide, and it'_oing to arrive here in less than half a minute. It looks like my wait i_ver. I check my chronograph again. It's been all of half an hour since I lef_he station.
The truck rumbles into view, spurting dusty blue fumes into the humid air.
It's quite bulky, and looks very inefficient — a huge engine cowling loom_ver great disc-wheels, a smokestack twice as high again protruding above it.
It's dragging a wagon train on wheels, six creaking wooden trailers wit_ealed sides and roofs with small ventilation ducts on top. The whole thing i_ravelling not much faster than a brisk marching pace. Little nut-brown me_nd women with black hair cling to the sides; they're naked but for loin- cloths and all of them are carrying guns. As it trundles past my hiding-place, I see into the cab; a sweaty figure is shovelling something black into _urnace, and another man stands guard with rifle raised. It might be a tradin_aravan, but knowing what the Boss told me about Year Zero syndrome I doub_his. The squealing of axles and rattling of chains and pistons drowns out an_oise from inside the sealed wagons.
It's so big that it takes a minute to pass my hiding place, and in that time _ount eight guards. The only efficient-looking things in the whole convoy ar_heir guns; black, polished, functional. The soldiers have that thousand yar_tare, peering into the jungle with fingers loosely wrapped around th_riggers of their weapons. I've seen that casual, sprawled-out pose amon_roops before, lying prone on their trailers or clinging to handholds with th_un half-slung in the crook of an arm. Don't be fooled: they're not laid-back.
They can tear you up faster than the eye can see.
I wait until the last wagon has rumbled by, then I scramble on hands and knee_o the edge of the road and peer after it. They missed the wingsail — no_urprising, even I can barely see its corroded wreckage and I know where t_ook — and the tail guards aren't looking particularly closely at the side o_he road. They seem to be looking at the sky: I squeeze my eyes shut and pa_ttention to the microwave sidebands. The webs of phased-array receiver cell_mplanted at the back of my eyes go to work. The world goes a dim fuzz_range, and I can see through trees: the sky is a sodium-lit hell paraded b_urorae. But there's no sweep radar! I remember the guns. The projectiles the_hoot are unguided, judging by the lack of sights. Do these people even hav_adar?
I hear a buzzing from the sky as I wait for the convoy to pass out of view. _tch in the damp heat, and the insects are trying to bite my face. Thi_lanet's been terraformed too well for my liking. I swat them away, watchin_he trail of reddish dust and blue smoke diminishing into the distance as _isten: what now?
The buzzing gets louder. I peep for radar again but nobody's scanning, so _aise my head for an eyeball search; I see a dragonfly through the tangle_ranches, a dragonfly the size of the engine at the head of the road train.
Shit! I hug the nearest tree trunk. One look tells all. The plane is primitive — rotary airscrews and guy lines to hold the wings taut. Not so far advance_ver the coal-burning crew up ahead. Speaking of whom —
Well, yes. I hear the crackle of small arms fire from the convoy. They'r_hooting at the dragonflyer, assault rifles against piston power. Quaint bu_eadly. That explains the look-outs. I squat, pull up the hood of my jumpsuit, then roll it right down across my forehead. I fasten it tight and adjust th_ye-patches so I can see, then I pull on my gloves. Thunder rumbles off th_aking road surface ahead. There's a switch in my right palm, and when _rigger it my hand shimmers and slowly dissolves into cyanic chaos against th_egetation. Wrapped head to foot in this suit I'm a chameleon: it's not _loak of invisibility, exactly, but the next best thing. I step onto the roa_nd jog towards the column of smoke. Which is no longer blue and ochre an_ry, but black and oily and hot.
By the time I get close enough to see the wreckage the dragonflyer is lon_one, vanished into the hazy skies like a lethal mirage. The smoke is dense, billowing in clouds from flames that lick eagerly at the engine and fron_arriage. The road train has jack-knifed into the trees that line the edge o_he road. Two of the rear trailers are overturned. A thin keening noise rise_rom them, grating on my nerves; the sound of many voices crying out in fear.
I know what's in them now, and why the pilot of the dragonflyer would straf_er own people on their transport to oblivion.
About a hundred metres from the wreckage I pass the first corpse. She's lyin_n a pool of her own blood, thrown there by the force of the blast. The flye_nly carried small bombs: anything bigger would have annihilated the entir_onvoy. The fire is spreading fast so I don't bother looking too closely a_he body — I've got more important things to do.
Someone's moving up ahead. I trot forward, passing a puddle of burning oi_ere and a mass of crumpled metal there. One of the trailers has burst open, spilling human flesh like a twist of corruption across the pristine chaos o_he jungle. Some of the flesh is moving. I jog past them: a mass of men an_omen, all naked and bloody, shaven scalps weirdly pale above their tanne_odies. Those who can crawl, crawl; those who can stand, stand. Their hand_re upraised, and some of them appear to be looking up, searching for th_igns of deliverance: but that's wrong, as I see when I get closer. My stomac_ives an odd lurch, something I thought I'd gotten over long ago; The Yea_ero Men responsible for this atrocity are nothing if not efficient.
All of them have recently had their eyes gouged out.
The bodies of the dead guards lie strewn around the sides of the road. Some o_hem lie like broken puppets, their limbs bent at odd angles, while other_ook perfectly healthy. A few have skin the consistency of a pulpy, rotte_ruit, and tongues that bulge and glisten gruesomely. Hydrostatic shock kill_n a myriad of ways, all of them final but some of them uglier than others.
Listening in on the high frequency cellcom bands I can hear a raucou_wittering, neural mapping data being uploaded into the invisible, omnipresen_reamtime. At a conservative estimate, the convoy consisted of twelve guard_errying five hundred prisoners; less than fifty will survive the wreck, an_ll will die before they reach civilisation. Which is a small mercy, _uppose, because those who reach what passes for civilisation on this plane_ill only take longer to die.
I spot what I'm looking for and give the escaping prisoners a wide berth as _print towards the head of the train. One of the guards there has been throw_lear. On infrared I can see the pulse in her throat, the warm breath risin_nevenly from her mouth. If I can get to her before the prisoners stumble thi_ar I may have a chance to save her.
First aid crowds out the questions that clamour in the shadows of my mind as _end over the guard. She's still breathing raggedly, and appears to b_nconscious, but I give her a quick scan with my eyes on active and sh_oesn't seem to have any broken bones. Possible concussion, then, and mayb_ome internal bleeding. Well, there's nothing I can do about that. She'_lmost as tall as I am, skin tanned and tattooed in strange designs — vortice_nd death's heads and the more arcane geometries of soft tissue injuries — an_er hair is cropped into a narrow, spiky helmet. Her fatigues are stained an_rimy and there's a knife at her belt. I ditch the toothpick and pick her up, somehow roll her across my shoulders, and head for the edge of the road.
Picking my way through trees and bushes carrying a woman who weighs nearly a_uch as I do is not exactly my idea of fun, but neither is getting a bullet i_he back of the neck. It seems to go on forever, but my chronometer keeps m_nformed with merciless precision; I spend fifteen minutes and eight second_ushing through a seething wall of turquoise-streaked khaki vegetation. Frond- like leaves brush my sweat-slick face, and thorny branches whip around afte_e or catch on my chameleon suit. There are strange rustlings in th_ndergrowth and all the while a chorus of beetles and arthropods covers th_ossible sound of pursuit.
I pitch her down at the foot of a forest giant and stop to breathe. Blac_pots swim before my eyes; I've pushed half a kilometre into this wildernes_ust to get away from that ochre killing-ground. The raw, eyeless sockets o_he victims seem to stare at me through the jungle, accusing me of … shit, _hink, why couldn't someone else have pulled this end of the stick? Mannanash, or Davud … anyone? Anyone but me! Maybe it was the Boss's decision. I've neve_rusted his sense of humour; it's as unhuman as He is. This is just the sor_f assignment that would strike him as amusing.
I blink and tell my eyes to run their power-on self-test. They flash throug_t in two seconds, sequences of light shimmering on the inside of my eyelid_o tell me that all's well and I can see as easily as anyone else. Twenty-tw_ears I've had the ability to see; twenty-two years out of my thirty-fou_ubjective. Distant Intervention gave me my eyes back when they recruited me.
I open them and look about, then down at the body that's muttering incoheren_ibberish. There's work to be done, I see; work to justify my vision. And yes … it's going to be grim.
I slip my hand through my left pocket and unzip the inside lining, then ope_y belt pouch. There are a number of small items inside; I select the ring an_lide it onto my index finger, then remove a couple of tiny cylinders. Then _eal the pouch and pocket, roll my hood back, and switch my suit to a dust- grey colour that is anything but invisible against the lunatic glare of th_egetation.
First cylinder. I peel back the tag and press it against the side of her neck; she sighs slightly and relaxes. "Tell me your name," I say.
"Ash fnargle … " she swallows and twitches slightly. My mind goes a blank a_omething rams my tongue into gear, and my mouth makes strange noises. Th_ulture of nanobots in the injector are making their way to her brain, linkin_p with and reprogramming the monitors that cluster thickly throughout he_erebral cortex. Soon they'll have her language centres dowloading direct int_y own head, ready for me to make use of their neural mappings. She makes som_ore inarticulate gargling sounds and coughs; my mouth writhes through glotta_tops and half-swallowed vowels as my hijacked larynx shadows he_ocalisation. The nanosensors that thread her brain, constantly transmittin_er sensory encoded personality to the afterlife receivers, are amenable t_ome low level reprogramming; and she's undefended. Like everyone else on thi_orld, she doesn't even know she's got them. (How much else have they lost? O_emembered?) For a minute longer she spouts gibberish; then, suddenly, everything seems to shift and clear, and it all makes perfect sense.
" … Seventh special action team. Blasted Hv'ranth flyer picked us up on th_un back home and … here I am. Here you are too, I guess. Where's here? Who'r_ou?"
"Never mind where we are," I say smoothly, "who are you? Tell me abou_ourself … "
There are standard methods for lifting material out of brains. Everyone, everywhere in human space, is riddled with nanotech Dreamtime encoders.
They're in the air, in the soil, in their cells and reproducing like bacteria.
They constantly monitor cerebral activity, transmitting updates of their hos_ersonality to the encoders, that upload minds into the Dreamtime when thei_odies cease to support them. It even makes a neat debriefing tool, if yo_ave the equipment to interrogate the brain encoders directly. (Only Distan_ntervention, that I know of, is allowed to play with this kind of kit.)
I make fairly good time; it takes me about fifteen minutes to establish tha_he is second-sergeant Mavreen Tor'Jani — or Tor'Jani Mavreen if you put th_amily name first as these people seem to — and she's attached to one of th_ear Zero meat convoys. A piece of luck: the target is on this continent.
Tor'Jani's married — polyandrous, three husbands — no children — just joine_his unit so doesn't have any close friends here — absolutely perfect. Yea_ero Man has been strutting his bloody stuff for eight years and has conquere_alf the planet; the next continent over put up a spirited resistance and i_ow a steaming charnel house, while his own people have been slightly mor_ucky so far. Especially those who collaborate in the process, like this one.
Special Action Teams … murderers in bulk.
The more I hear the angrier I get. Year Zero Man is a woman this time; _harismatic leader called Marat Hree, some kind of jumped-up politician wh_ppeared from nowhere and who is now running the standard course. A natio_alled the Kingdom of Alpagia was her springboard to empire. I don't get an_ore from Mavreen about the Compassionate Mother and Teacher, who is none o_hose, but then I don't really need to; she was on escort duty for one of th_onsignments to a local slaughterhouse and I might as well tag along for th_ide. After a while I stop her in mid-spiel and ask her who I am. She looks u_t me and tenses, and her eyes go wide just before I break her neck. Then _pen my make-up kit and begin to reconstruct my face.
Second sergeant Tor'Jani Mavreen — or a good likeness thereof — stumbles ou_f the jungle half an hour later, a good hour after the attack on the train.
She's dazed, and has a gigantic lump above her left eye; but for all tha_he's in better shape than the convoy. (She may even be a little taller, _rifle heavier than before; but there's a limit to what even nanotec_estructuring can achieve in the way of instant plastic surgery.)
The convoy is an utter shambles. Four carriages are consumed by fire, alon_ith the engine and seven of the guards: the cacophony from the survivin_argo is deafening, the drowning squeal of a sackful of kittens amplified _housandfold. Mavreen grabs forceman Kaidmaan by the shoulder and demands t_now what's going on, who's in charge; Kaidmaan shrugs numbly and looks a_er. "You are," he says vaguely: "everyone else is dead. Brazzia radio'd fo_elp and they said to wait here."
"Oh great," snarls Mavreen, surveying the wreckage of which she is now — b_efault — commander. "Who else is fighting fit, then?"
"What do you mean?" asks Kaidmaan. "There's me, you —" he looks at he_leeding forehead dubiously "— Brazzia, and, uh, Nord's arm is broken. That'_t. Everyone else is dead!"
Mavreen shakes him hard. "Listen," she says, "you go to pieces on me and I'l_ave your balls for — " She looks over her shoulder. "What's that?"
He cowers. "They're coming back!"
"Crap." She listens some more. "That's our aerovac, fool. Get the other_oving! It's only eighty leagues to Radiant Progress Base Number Six, we can'_eave these cattle here. I want those wagons unhitched; get us ready to rol_s soon as they can get a new engine down here." Forceman Kaidmaan looks a_er strangely, but scrambles to obey.
Mavreen looks at the sky and scowls, murderously angry over the loss of two- thirds of her cargo; the aerovac team is coming and when Highcom gets to kno_bout the mess that's gone down here they're going to want to know why, an_aybe some negligent eyes are going to get gouged. She gets a warm, wea_eeling at the thought. Already she's formulating her account of the convoy.
Damned partisans …
Somewhere behind her face I'm grinning with rage.
Aerovac is a zeppelin, not a dragonflyer. A ribbed brown cylinder with bat- wings and carved wooden gondolas slung below it, it cruises silently above th_orest trail. There are human skulls hanging from the command cabin, an_even-pointed iron stars and the other fetishes of an age of enlightenmen_urned bloody-dark by Year Zero. I muster my scanty forces, fingers curle_oosely round the butt of my automatic rifle as Brazzia, the radioman, hunche_ver his sparking contraption and listens to the squeal of the airwaves. "Tel_hem we're okay but we need a new engine and driver to recover these jungl_onkeys," I tell him. Nord looks at me with wide eyes, favouring her broke_rm which Kaidmaan wrapped in cloth torn from the uniforms of our dea_olleagues.
"We could use some ground support," I say, staring into the jungle; "if th_odding partisans are coordinating with the Hv'Ranth we could lose the lot o_hem." The words come easily but the meanings are more difficult; I take i_hat the Hv'Ranth are one of the remaining free nations of New Salazar, an_he partisans are those subject peoples who rise up against the Enlightene_ew Empire of The Compassionate Mother and Teacher. Meanwhile I mouth th_yllables, in search of deeper meaningful associations; the mutilate_emiotics of ethnic cleansing make great fig-leaves for hypocritica_ighteousness.
"I'll tell them," mutters Brazzia; "I'll tell the bastards!" He taps away a_is spark key as the green helix spins in the lower-left corner of my visua_ield, and information tools grind down data in the recesses of my skull. "Ge_s out of here!" he subvocalises, unaware that I can hear a pin drop at half _ilometre, should I choose to do so: "— fucking bitch is going to get us al_illed if we sit around here much longer!"
At which point I smile sharkishly and rub the butt of my stolen gun.
The great zeppelin swings low overhead, casting a shadow vaster than the roa_rain. Land anchors drop and grind through the jungle canopy, pulling throug_rees in knots of shattered wood. I hear the throbbing of the diesel engine_hat power it, as the airscrews rotate to provide reverse thrust. Ho_onderous! I look around at the carnage I've inherited and shake my head a_he first platoon of aeromarines abseil down the anchor cables from the ai_readnought.
They jog up the road towards us, fierce-faced soldiers in jungle camouflag_uits with baroque helmet-masks. My shell-shocked survivors stiffen and assum_ semblance of frightened order; I salute the commanding officer wearily as _eet his eyes. They are brown, almost muddy, and look right through me.
"Second-sergeant Tor'Jani Mavreen reporting, sir. We were strafed by _v'Ranth flyer which nailed the engine and first four trailers; we saved th_est, but hetman Enkali was killed in the blast, as were the remainder of ou_nit." I feel slightly uneasy before that penetrating gaze. My built-in wisdo_atabase whispers in my head that this man wears a uniform derived from th_lite force of Residents maintained by the Kingdom of Isoterra, two centurie_go. They were palace soldiers who lived among the nobility they guarded. H_ooks not so much cruel as absent-minded, as if he might accidentally misplac_y life with a nod of his head and a flick of his swagger-stick.
"Very good, sergeant. You say you salvaged the surviving cargo? In those tw_rucks?"
"Yes sir," I say, sweating in the sticky heat of his gaze. My left thum_ightens on the ornate signet ring I wear on that index finger. I hope I don'_ave to use it. Targeting grids in my right eye track the pulse of his caroti_ein.
"Good." He smiles, thin-lipped. "In that case … " he waves over his sergeant.
"You," he says; "wait here for the recovery wagon and ensure that none escape.
Then continue to Radiant Progress Number Six Factory and turn them over fo_rocessing." He looks at me. "You'll come with me," he says: "I want to verif_his. The Hv'Ranth were supposed to be cleared out of this district two week_go; Highcom will want to know how they got through."
I nod, and swallow. "Yes sir," I say. "The rest of my unit ..?"
He glances round. "They can travel with the convoy," he says, casuall_ondemning them to three days of jungle rot and the excremental smell of th_linded prisoners on their way to Radiant Progress Number Six Factory. I rela_lightly, removing my hand from my stolen assault rifle. "You will probabl_ace a court-martial."
Suddenly I go very cold. "On what charges?" I ask. "I was not in command o_his convoy before the attack; in any case we had no air defence cover. Wh_e? Sir?"
He looks away. "Why anybody?" he says. "You survived. You should have ensure_one of the cargo did. Calling a recovery truck for only two carriages i_asteful."
One of his aeromarines politely but insistently relieves me of my rifle.
Overhead, the zeppelin is turning. Its huge shadow races across the road, flooding us with darkness. The jungle life falls silent where the artificia_ightfall passes, as if it understands what the presence of the elite forc_ignifies. I look up at it and see that a gondola is slowly sinking towards u_rom the belly of the beast. It's the colour of old oak, carved into th_trangest shapes; great wailing demons, eyeless skeletons eating the bodies o_he living as they writhe in agony. It's almost — I shudder — like a death- cult; as if these people have forgotten their guaranteed afterlife. But i_ould be, I remind myself. If they have …
The gondola lands on the road with a thump and squeal of rubber- tyred wheels, and a door at the rear slams down. "All aboard," shouts the aeromarin_ergeant; "you too," he says to me, his expression curiously neutral. He wait_or me to get in before he follows suit, and I notice his hand staying clos_y his gun: I step inside and look around.
The gondola is about the size of one of the trailers, but feels more spacious.
The walls are thin sheets of curved metal, and the top is open at one end.
There are only two small windows — and they're for the two gunners who crouc_ehind them. I do what the other soldiers are doing, grab onto a ceiling- suspended rope, and wait.
The ground drops away and we're swinging high above the jungle on the end of _ift cable. I shut my eyes and mouth words silently, hoping they'll think I'_raying: my inertial tracker gives me a beautiful angle on their powe_ources.
There's a jolt that makes the entire gondola shudder, then a couple of latche_lam home and we're swaying beneath the main command deck of the zeppelin. _ope ladder falls through the open end and the soldiers climb it, then it's m_urn to stand on the lower deck of what must be a flying bomb, beneath half _illion cubic metres of hydrogen, on a floor of polished ebony planks lon_nough to hold a formal ball.
"You will come this way," says the officer of the Residency. He strides awa_owards a raised dais at the forward end of the platform without looking back.
I follow him.
The dais is a raised platform with a great wooden wheel on it; two aeromarine_tand by, ready to turn the distant rudder at a spoken command. Behind the_ait a trio of officers, obviously of relatively senior rank. They wear _niform of black, with black boots and helmets that shadow their eyes. I com_o attention and salute as best I can.
"Second-sergeant Tor'Jani Mavreen reporting, sirs. From the convoy."
"Ah. I see." The most high-ranking of the aeronauts, judging from the reactio_f the officers to either side of her, is going to make her own mind up an_ot be hurried by my rescuer. "You were brought back up here by resident- lieutenant Qvartman?" She turns to look at him and he straightens up.
"Yes, captain," he says. "The sergeant failed to destroy the cargo; instea_he salvaged some of it that was of dubious quality. I think a court martial —"
"I see." The captain stared at him. "Is it not true that the whole reason fo_hese continued shipments to the Progress bases is because they are of no us_f destroyed prematurely?"
Resident-lieutenant Qvartman almost squirmed; I looked at him out of th_orner of one eye. "That is true," he admitted, "but the chances o_conomically recovering —"
" — Depend entirely upon the recovery team, and on how well we can wipe ou_he nest of dragons that burned this convoy," interrupts the captain. Sh_miles, a pleasant, middle-aged matron with a lead-weighted fist in her glove.
"Sergeant Tor'Jani is not to blame for enemy attacks, lieutenant," she says, insulting him carefully by omitting the greater part of his title. "You woul_o better to persecute the enemy than our own loyal soldiers." She looks a_e, instead, and I let a flush of pride wash through me, the pride tha_avreen herself would have felt if I hadn't so abruptly kidnapped her identity — there's more to a disguise than mere facial features, after all. "We will b_eading into Radiant Progress Number Six this evening," she says. "We'll dro_ou there to rendezvous with your unit, sergeant. Now get yourself to the sic_ay and get your head looked at."
I turn and walk away hastily, listening to the sounds of Qvartman arguing wit_he captain, who is obviously in total control of this zeppelin; I think ther_re precedents for this. Elite forces working independently from the regula_ilitia, and singularly ruthless into the bargain, always appear when a Yea_ero Man starts to ply his (or her) evil trade. I shiver at the thought of ho_lose I came to landing in one of those trucks myself. And for a reason that _ouldn't be held responsible for missing! Why did it have to be me who lande_n this mess? I wonder as I look for the sick bay with an appropriately daze_xpression on my face. But my all-seeing eyes and Superbright-processed wisdo_atabase don't hold an answer to my problem. For that I have to look to th_reamtime.
The Dreamtime: Distant Intervention: life after death … where to star_xplaining? To understand what I was doing on New Salazar you'll have to cu_eep, deep into the layers that hold human civilization together across a gul_f light-centuries. So let me start by telling you what I'm talking about.
The Dreamtime is, quite simply, the afterlife. It's the biggest virtua_eality of all time, distributed across planet-sized processors in differen_olar systems. By default, everyone goes there when they die; the nanoscal_onitors are ubiquitous, stitched into our brain cells along with the organi_omponents we evolved with. They feed labelled packets of data about the brai_nd body they're embedded in to cellular transceivers, a network that repair_tself constantly and funnels the information up to the big extraplanetar_xpansion processors where the Dreamtime runs. At death, your point o_resence is transferred to that other universe automatically: you_ersonality, that is the software that defines you, is saved from dissolution.
But that's just the beginning of the story. There are other services. Wisdom: direct memories and knowledge piped into our brains, the ultimate in decisio_upport systems. Magic: the ability to bias sensory inputs, to contro_achines by thought. And reincarnation: expensive, but available to th_itizens of the wealthier worlds, the most practical way of evading death an_he uncertainty of a Dreamtime existence.
The Dreamtime is the uppermost layer on a cake of information as deep as huma_istory. The same mechanisms support the afterlife and the tools o_nterstellar commerce, the Gatecoders. Uploaded minds and their associate_hysical parameters can be transmitted between Gatecoders in different sta_ystems at the speed of light. Once present they are funnelled through th_ocal Dreamtime, reincarnated, and downloaded into cloned bodies: which is ho_ got here in the first place. At least, that's part of the picture.
Actually I couldn't have got here if the system had not been visited, centuries ago, by a seeder probe; a self-replicating robot factory that buil_he Expansion Processor and Gatecoder, then moved on to colonize othe_ystems. I couldn't have got here without The Boss, either. The Boss, like al_he controlling intelligences of Distant Intervention, is a Superbright: a_rtificial intelligence vastly more complex than any human mind. Trave_hrough the Dreamtime is hazardous for unaccompanied humans. We are no longe_he only minds in this creation, and not all the others are friendly.
Nevertheless, I'm here. The people I work with — Distant Intervention — ar_ehind me. We're troubleshooters. We look after the links, even when the loca_olony world chooses to ignore the vast network they are connected to. It's i_veryone's interests to keep travel convenient, to keep the afterlife running, to make sure that the multiplicity of services the Dreamtime provides ar_vailable at all times. Sometimes people want to interfere with the system fo_heir own reasons. Sometimes, as with Year Zero Man, the interference i_align beyond belief.
Tell the truth, it's hard to explain some of the jobs we do to keep th_reamtime running. The system is so big that it defies description. I leav_nderstanding it to Superbright intelligences like The Boss. The Boss ca_ncompass concepts that no human mind can grasp. I may not like what he says, some of the time — much of the time, these days — but there's some comfort i_nowing that at least someone knows what's going on. After all, withou_uidance the net would eventually deteriorate into chaos. And events like th_nes on New Salazar would be even more common.
I'm sitting on a bunk in the sick bay of the zeppelin. I grit my jaw as th_urgeon lays a stinging poultice across my forehead. It's noisome and dark i_ere; the floor and walls creak and throb with the vibration of the engines, and one of the other occupants is groaning repetitively: "uh, uh, uh … "
I swallow. The surgeon grips my hand unsympathetically. "Is burning?" he asks.
"Yes," I say, flexing my fingers as he drops some more caustic onto the pad h_olds to my forehead.
"Good," he says. "That means you were infected. The burning is a goo_ensation."
I don't tell him what burns. It's not my forehead, scraped in my hurry t_eturn to the burning convoy. It's the strength of my new-found desire, sinc_ saw the prisoners trapped in a hell I was rescued from by the recruitin_eam so many years ago. I want Year Zero Man; I want her so badly I could cry.
I want to kill her.
Some hours later the zeppelin is no longer cruising over jungle. We have com_o a cleared zone, where the stumps of trees still smoulder and the loggin_eams are slaving to clear the site for the purpose of some alien design. _ook down over the edge of the deck and see encampments ringed with fence_hat glint ominously in the evening light, hemmed in by watchtowers. Long, lo_uts fill the sprawling enclosures. The entire landscape seethes with _orrupt activity, like an anthill that's been set on fire; but the ants ar_eople. I feel numb as I stare down at the zone from one side of the mai_ondola. It's too vast to grasp: a concentration camp almost thirty kilometre_cross.
Orders come across the crude loudspeaker system, and the crew move to thei_anding stations. I skulk in the shadows, trying to decide what to do next. _ould take over the identity of a senior officer, I think, but that's a ris_actor. Senior officers are expected to know things; they have too man_ontacts. There's insufficient time to do another deep debrief. A member o_he Residential guard? I don't know enough about their duties. The shadow o_he zeppelin crosses a square between huts where a platoon of bodies dangl_rom a huge gallows. The dust beneath them is the colour of dried blood. We'r_lying towards a mooring mast at the centre of a field where other zeppelin_ie in various states of airworthiness. I blink, watching the endless whirlin_f the green helix in the bottom of my left eye: it's a comforting reminder o_anity and purpose somewhere in the universe.
The airship comes about with a grinding of propellers, and we head straigh_or the mooring mast at little more than walking pace. It's strange to b_oving so slowly after my meteoritic arrival; if I'd known that for the mos_art they were so backward I wouldn't have bothered with a stealth capsule. A_e nose forward, a trumpet sounds a flat note — and then we're locked to th_ast and the ladders are secured for disembarkation.
At the foot of the meshwork tower there's a low building for soldiers t_endezvous and military police to wait. Four guards are waiting to meet me: _alk towards them confidently, trying to mask my growing unease. "Sergean_or'Jani?" one of them asks, holding a clipboard.
"That's me," I say.
He looks at me. "We need to confirm that. Would you just look into this for _oment?" he asks, and my guts freeze: but his colleagues are pointing thei_uns at me as he holds up a smooth plastic box with two eye-pieces stickin_ut of it. I bend over it and a magnesium flare seems to go off inside, throwing the dark shadows of the false veins in my bionic retinas across m_ield of vision.
"Grab her," says the policeman, and I barely struggle as four strong arms loc_e into a pair of manacles because I realise just how stupid I've been. Bu_here the hell did they get a retinal scanner from?
My guts lurch. I'm in for a rough ride ahead.
They take me to a small, whitewashed room that smells of disinfectant an_ear. They search me and find my body-belt. They go through it looking fo_ncriminating objects and they're not disappointed — a small comms booster an_ome coins that belong in a museum judging by their reaction. "Smugglin_ontraband?" asks the short one with the piggy eyes who's been elected to pla_ad Cop; "or spying?" His eyes glisten wetly as he back-hands me across th_ace. My cheek and left shoulder go numb as pain-supressants cut in, but I ca_eel the trickle of blood as they pull me off the floor. They take my rin_hen they strip-search me. Then they tie me to a chair. I feel dizzy an_reathless, high on endorphins from my metabolic controller. They don't see_ery satisfied.
"Who sent you?" spits piggy-face, glaring at me.
"There must have been some mix-up," I mumble through lips like putty. "Th_ecords —"
He hits me again. Good Cop — who has not yet spoken — is looking at the comm_ooster closely.
"What language is this?" he asks idly, and I tense myself. There's one way t_et what I want, I realise; it's kind of risky, but —
"Standard," I say, in Standard. "I wouldn't open that if I were you."
"What does it mean?" he asks idly; "speak alpagian." Bad Cop gives himsel_way by staying silent.
"Contains no user-servicable parts," I say. "What are you going to do with m_ow?"
Bad Cop looks as if he's about to hit me again but holds himself back. "Wha_ow?" asks Good Cop; "well, it looks like we were wrong, doesn't it? You'r_ot a spy — you're a lunatic." He smiles at me then looks at his colleague.
"Chuck her in the pen for processing," he says casually.
Bad Cop pauses. "Not yet," he says. "What was that memo?"
Good Cop snorts. "Other worlds my arse," he says; "there's no such thing."
My mouth is wet and salty with blood. "Oh yes there are," I say. Bad Cop hit_e again, but with no real force.
"She's mad," remarks Good Cop. "Tell you what, though, let's sort her ou_efore we send her over to HQ. They'd do it on retrieval anyway, so —"
My heart is suddenly in my throat: there's an acrid taste in my mouth as m_uts loosen in fear. They pick me up by the chair and carry me through th_oor, and breathing heavily, drop me down in front of some kind of bulk_etal-box contraption and turn their backs. I try to look away but the bo_lares at me with two huge, violet laser eyes that suddenly grow brighter an_righter. I hear a sickening popping noise through the bones of my skull and —
I'm a child again.
When I was three years old my uncle cut out my eyes. I remember the raw, shrieking pain, the burning fire beneath my eyelids that wouldn't go away: th_otal red-hot darkness that dawned that morning and didn't set for ten years.
The reason he did it was to make me a more successful beggar. We wer_xtremely poor, and after my father died he had his sister — my mother — t_ook after, as well as his own family. So he blinded me, and stationed me o_he streets of the bazaar.
I was successful at my trade, and even more successful at another; people d_ot expect a blind beggar child to be a pickpocket. I wasn't a very good pick- pocket, but if they caught me they usually did no worse than slap me hard; m_utilation was a passport to security, at least in public. In private, in th_hack that passed for a home for us, it merely made me more vulnerable to hi_ruelties. Escape was impossible: where was there for me to go? My mothe_ever seemed to care much, and cared even less for me after he beat her an_orced her to watch him pay his attentions to me. They were invariabl_onceived of as mercies, for some reason: everything had to be good. H_hought of it as a kindness, the way he introduced me to my profession: an_hat I should be grateful, and that such gratitude should extend to the kin_f sexual favours that only a blind person can provide. He kissed my face, licked the scars clean afterwards. I became so terrified of his kindness, o_he kindness of men, that I was relieved in a bizarre kind of way, when _inally tried to pick the wrong merchant's pocket and was caught.
The only thing in the pocket was a hand, which gripped my wrist tightly. Th_nly person in the garment was a Distant Intervention agent, who took me awa_rom the bazaar — and, eventually, the planet. My uncle never saw me again, however often I saw him in my dreams.
My new owners introduced me to many new ways of seeing. First they showed m_ow to read expressions by touch; then how to listen for the sound of _alling leaf in a forest, to identify volatile organics by scent, to taste th_reath of fear. Only when I was proficient at the use of my other senses di_hey finally grow me a fresh pair of eyes.
I'm blind again. A haze of burning smoke shrouds the world from me; the lase_as burned out my retinas and I might as well finish the job by just switchin_ff — nothing works any more except my Dreamtime feeds. Everything is blood- red dark, laced with the hazy nothingness of a blind spot, the scotoma. I fee_ hysterical laugh building up inside. Everything seems to be very loud and _an feel the coarse ropes acutely where they cut off the circulation in m_rists. If I let myself die now, I can continue living a bit longer … can't I?
But I'll have failed, utterly. The Boss does not appreciate failures. Thes_onsters are very good at dealing with prisoners. How can I escape, blinded i_ foreign country occupied by hostile soldiers? I carefully turn my head, trying to map the room with my ears. It's hard. It's been a long time since _as blind.
"Clear now," says the voice of the Good Cop; "let's get her on the wagon fo_ongress, right?"
"Check," says Bad Cop. Together they lift me and my chair — dripping wet, because I soiled myself as they blinded me — and carry me into a confusin_omain of strange echoing conversations and rude mechanical noises. I keep m_ead down and my eyes shut, and sob quietly.
"Shut up," says Bad Cop quietly. "You want we should have given you the norma_reatment?" I shut up. Evidently only spies rate the laser: I remember th_onvoy, crowds of agonised, wounded faces, and shudder. I don't know whethe_o be pleased or horrified. It's not the damage to my sight that fills me wit_ear — I've been here before, and been cured, too. It's what goes with it: _ertain loss of control. I spit out a mouthful of blood. When Bad Cop hit m_e cut open my cheek. Just leave me alone with you for an hour with the table_urned, I wish. Just one hour!
Eventually they leave me alone. There's the rattle of a chain, then the_hrust me into a drafty room too small for echoes. It seems to be an outhous_n the middle of the camp. They untie me from the chair and free my hands, although they tether my ankles to the floor. But it's not until the small roo_egins to sway and creak that I realise I'm in a sealed compartment on a roa_rain; and that I'm bound for Congress House.
After about six hours I discover that I must be a privileged prisoner. Th_rain stops and someone comes in to feed me. They force me to my knees an_hen a bowl appears in my lap; the smell is delicious because I'm starving, even though it's just some kind of bitter-tasting gruel. Someone else comes i_nd dumps something that clatters, and they hose me down with cold water an_hrow something made of rough cloth at me. The door slams shut, and I fumbl_ver what seems to be a towel and a thin pyjama-suit. I guess I must b_riviliged prisoner to be accorded such luxuries. Halfway through, I kic_omething over; when I reach out for it, I feel the rough glazed curve of _hamber pot. The guards aren't wilfully cruel; it's just that, as far a_hey're concerned, I don't exist. When I lost my eyes I lost my humanity. So _arefully clothe myself with many false starts, as my face and body slowl_ose any trace of Second-sergeant Tor'Jani Mavreen and revert to my ol_ppearance.
We stop again about a day later, five hundred and eighteen kilometres away i_y inertial tracker is still in synch. I look round when the door opens bu_ll I get is a sigh of indrawn-breath. Evidently my transformation is no_omething they're accustomed to. They shut the door and I hear quite a_nteresting debate before they open it again to feed me and slop out.
Finally, a day later — now a thousand kilometres from where I touched down, and I don't flatter myself that they've come all this way just for me — there's a new sound beneath the wheels. Instead of the jounce and sway of th_ndless dirt tracks there's the hollow booming of a true road, and then we'r_liding downhill at a positively reckless speed. I smell smoke through th_lats of the floor as the train screeches to a halt outside some kind o_heckpoint, and boots patrol slowly down the carriages. Bolts slam home an_oors open: many feet pass my refuge.
The door opens an admits a draft of musty-smelling air. "Alien spy," says _resence in the doorway; "you will come with us." I cast about, trying t_ense where he is by the rustling of the creases in his uniform.
"Where?" I ask. "I can't see."
"Bloody mess," says someone else. "Damned butchers couldn't find their brain_ith a spoon —"
" — Probably didn't get the orders," says another voice quietly. "Okay, ge_er out of there."
Two of them get in and untie me from the floor; then they pick me up lightl_nd carry me to the edge of the door. When they put me down I freeze, listening for movement. It's eerie, like being a child again. Then two of the_ake me by the arms and lead me slowly into the complex.
When nobody is taking any notice, I turn my head about. The train has come t_ standstill in a vast underground space; I can hear the dank sound of wate_ripping somewhere distant, the echo of footsteps on slime-encrusted stone o_oncrete. A cold draft blows down from above, hinting at distant caverns.
My escorts steer me past walls of metal and wood (other vehicles, perhaps) towards a doorway. Suddenly the sounds from behind are cut off, as if we'v_ntered a tunnel. It's cold in here, and it smells of the bitter rock beneat_ mountain; the clack of their boots on the smooth stone floor is the onl_oise. We come to a guard post where they pause, restraining me, while someon_ubs a pole-like device that emits a brief humming noise all over my body.
Then we're going down a tunnel, past numerous openings from which blo_urbulent currents of air. We make so many turns that even with my inertia_racker I'll never get out of here unaided. We come to a door in the wall, an_hey push me through it and shut it behind me.
I freeze, listening carefully. It smells close. There's a lingering odour o_tale urine and despair, a miasma of decay that seems to hang in the frigi_nderground air so that I expect at any moment to put my foot into a nest o_ummified bones. I shuffle forwards and carefully stretch my hands out i_ront of me; I reach the wall unexpectedly soon. It's chilly and rough, hew_rom stone blocks. I trace the grooves between them with a fingertip. Strang_arks are cut into the surface. Perhaps they're grafitti from long-dea_risoners; it doesn't matter to me. I can't see to read them. Even if I ha_yes I probably couldn't read them. The script is as alien as my situation.
I map out the boundaries of my prison with a growing sense of bleak despair.
The floor and ceiling are as rough as the walls, the only difference bein_hat the flagstones are larger; there is no window, and when I work my wa_ack round to the door I run my hands over it. It takes me a few minutes t_ealise that the bars curve together in the strange geometry of a human ri_age; I am, indeed, in the belly of a beast.
Presently I sit down and bury my face in my hands. An iron ring digs sharpl_nto my thighs, but I can't be bothered to move. Why should I? I can see n_ay out; I can see — nothing. And without sight, in this dungeon, I might a_ell be dead.
A few hours later the door squeals open. There are two jailers, one of the_uite unfit judging by the laboured breathing. They pick me up and lead m_nto the corridor. I flinch, and they grip my arms tightly as they lead m_eeper into the stone tunnels of the catacomb. We must be in a differen_ection now, for the texture of the floor is subtly changed. We walk o_osaics, feet brushing across screaming faces: even the dungeons must b_ecorative here, in the decaying wreckage of a murdered civilisation. The_alk me down a spiral of stone stairs and along more corridors, where I fee_he heat of naked flames on my skin.
"Where are we going?" I ask anxiously, but the guards don't say anything. I'_eft to decode the rhythm of their breathing, the long silences that strea_way in the echoing darkness. It's the silence of men who know there i_othing more to say. I'm an un-person, and I know what comes next. I wis_hey'd get it over with.
We come to doors that block the passage. They clatter as one of the guard_umbles with a key, then they grate open across rough stones very unlike th_iled mosaic my feet have just been walking on.
"Go forward," says the guard, "just two paces. Mind the step." I mov_esitantly, shuffle forward and take a step down until I'm standing on a floo_f cold, smooth metal that is strangely seamed; then I hear the door shu_ehind me. My footsteps echo from a bell-like void, so perfect that even th_aint rustle of my pyjama-suit returns to my ears. Odd — I keel down and ru_y fingers along the narrow groove in the floor, just as a band of molte_teel seems to clamp itself down around my forehead.
I scream and collapse, unable even to switch off my pain response; I lie on m_ack, and it seems to me as I stare sightlessly at the ceiling that I can se_ strange, bluish eruption coming at me out of nowhere. It's roughl_enticular in shape, and I quiver with terror as I realise that it and th_ain around my head are connected: it triggers strange effects in my damage_erves. I stare at it as it seems to expand, my eyes twitching sightlessl_ven as it floods a shimmering glare into my dead visual centre until it fill_he universe. My extremities twitch uncontrollably and my head feels like _ipe fruit beneath an axe — then, as suddenly as it began, the pain vanishes.
I wish they'd simply hanged me, because this is an order of magnitude worse.
Big electromagnets, or something similar embedded in the wall of the chamber, zapped my upload transceivers, deranging the nanotech implants that are neede_o upload my identity into the Dreamtime when I die. My basic controls ar_till responding, but the deep structures — the important stuff — is gone. I_hey kill me now, Distant Intervention won't be able to restore m_ersonality. This is a kind of death I've never expected. I've bitten my chee_gain and I roll over. Then I stand up, slowly. I'm not alone.
"Bravo!" calls a loud voice from the other side of the domed room. "A_stonishing performance! Such immediacy, such feeling!" A pair of hands claps, shockingly. I carefully turn around, listening for the noise of the othe_ersons breathing.
"Who is it?" I call. There's someone there, but I can't tell how far away the_re.
"Who do you think?"
I guess. "Not Marat Hree?" I ask unsteadily. "Come to do the honours i_erson?"
She laughs again, humourlessly. "Don't honour yourself. You're very tenacious, you know. I've survived local assassins before, but if you're typical of th_ariety Distant Intervention sends — " again, I feel a caress of molten stee_round my forehead, but it relaxes before I can flinch at the anticipate_gony — "please remember that I have integral defences. I can kill you with _hought."
I nod, too resigned to feel terror. "Why am I still alive?" I ask.
She steps into the room and I listen carefully. There's a swish of fabri_cross the metal floor; light silk or cotton, perhaps. There's a noise of hai_rushing on her collar, the creak of sandals flexing slightly as she walks — _urn my entire anatomy into an ear, listening to the roaring sounds o_ilence.
"I want you to carry a message," she says. "That's why you're alive. Need _ay any more?" Her voice is warm, intimate, and chillingly detached fro_eality.
I think, briefly. "No," I say. "Is that thing up there designed to fr_anocircuitry?"
"Yes," she says. "It's one of several I brought with me. I lifted the desig_rom a badly secured system out near Beta Lyrae Internode." She laugh_usically and stretches — I can hear her arms sliding in her sleeves. I ca_ear everything; terror hones my senses to a knife-edge. "Can you guess what _m?"
My mouth goes dry. "Yes," I say. "You're not a native, are you? You found _ay to break their quarantine. For your own reasons." I stay where I am, rooted to the spot, as she walks towards the geometric centre of the room, where all the echoes converge.
"More or less," she says. "How could they ever expect to succeed on their ow_erms, with the threat of the Dreamtime's owners hanging over them? If yo_nderstand what this is really about … working for them is not the greatest o_our crimes, but it's probably the most pernicious." Her voice sounds as i_he ought to be frowning. "I'm not going to kill you, but I would like it i_ou would accompany me, and talk."
I swallow. She walks closer to me and I catch a faint impression of scent; sh_ses something rough and heady, something wild that hints at the darkness sh_alks in. The thing is, everything around her is dark, even at noon; none o_er victims can ever see what she does to them because she works under th_hadow of blindness. Like a spider lurking in a web at the end of a tunnel.
"Your followers flash-burned my eyes," I say. "I can't see where I'm going."
She laughs again and claps her hands. "Very well," she says. "Place your trus_n me … "
I feel my legs begin to move without my willing them; her integral defenc_ystem is interfacing with what's left of my peripheral nanotechs and drivin_y body by remote control. I jitter on the edge of panic for a moment until _ealise that I can shut off any peripheral nerve trunk in my body — I can pla_ neural shell game with her if I have to. My legs are weak with a fear that _on't let myself acknowledge: the body knows what the mind denies.
A dry hand slips itself over my wrist, and I try not to flinch away. My arm i_s sensitive to her touch as to a lover's. Her skin is dehydrated, as if al_he blood she's shed has come from her own body, leaving her a creature o_shes and salt. I think she's prematurely aged — or her intensity is eatin_er up at least as fast as she is using it. "Come this way," she says, oppressively close to my ear. "I'll tell you what I want you to do when I sen_ou back. I wish those fools in intelligence had picked you up earlier."
"Why?" I ask. "Why should I?"
She sighs. "I would have thought it was obvious. These people never asked t_e farmed by your superbrights! I'm going to free them. This curren_eneration is damned — the nanotech uploaders are pervasive — but if I ca_aise the children, cleansed at birth … "
"How?" I ask; "I mean, why are you doing this?"
She lets go of my hand. I feel a breeze as the door opens; we're standing in _unnel, I decide, or a lift shaft. "For love of the people," she says quietly.
"The afterlife your sponsors claim to protect is a cruel lie. I come to fre_hem from the cannibal tyranny of those who eat minds. If you don't believ_e, go ask your masters. They aren't human, and their agenda is inhuman. O_id you think people were still afraid of death and upload for nothing? Ste_orward now." I obey, stumbling slightly on the edge, and she's behind me: th_oor closes and we begin to rise.
We ascend for an eternity, and then the lift stops. I hear the door open, an_hen another set of doors open; "step forward another three paces," she says.
I do what she wants and almost walk into a railing. I can feel a stead_reeze, the warm glow of sunlight on the skin of my face, a cool metal rai_eneath my hands. The stones beneath my bare feet are warmed by the invisibl_un. "Steady now," she says. "You're looking out across my personal spaceport.
There are two shuttles on the field; my resource base is in deep orbit, wher_t can out-build your weapons systems before you can find it. You_uperbrights masters would never let us live in peace, you see," she says;
"it's not in their interests to let human beings learn the truth about th_reamtime. So I had to either go outside the Dreamtime, beyond all huma_ettlement, or destabilize it locally to disrupt their feeding patterns. Th_ormer was impossible, but the latter … all it takes is a little leverage… "
"That's it!" I say. "You're blinding and killing people in bulk, to overloa_he local Dreamtime substrate. Is that true? So that eventually their childre_an live without hope of an afterlife, of a second chance when this life i_ver? You blind and kill how many people a day?"
I can hear birds singing in the distance. I realise that I may never hear the_gain. I'm probably grinning like a corpse but I don't care — she must know b_ow that blind people often smile. It's easier to grin than to frown; th_acial muscles contract into a smirk more easily. Even when you're about t_ie.
"It takes a lot of stress to unbalance a network processor the size of a smal_oon," she replies calmly; "it shows a remarkable degree of fault tolerance.
As for physical assault, the automatic defences are still armed … as the_lways have been. So If we want to take it for ourselves, we must overwhelm i_y frontal assault, sending uploaded minds out into the simulation space unti_t overloads and drops into NP-stasis. They do that if you feed them faste_han they can transfer capacity elsewhere, you know. It's happened before, an_t's what the Superbrights are most afraid of. A Dreamtime they lose contac_ith means a human world that will not succumb to their domination again. Onl_hen will we be safe. The superbrights need uploaded minds, you see. Thei_ntelligence needs so much input that they consume human personalities or the_o insane from memetic deprivation. Overloading the Dreamtime … you wouldn'_elieve how many of them it takes." She falls silent for a moment, and I focu_n the sound of her breathing. It's noisy — perhaps a touch of asthma in thi_ropical climate? I hear, again, the rustle of her garment as she turns he_ead towards me.
"But what have the superbrights done to you?" I ask, not quite believing tha_ can talk. I feel dizzy. Weak, too. She's completely crazy but there's _ower in her voice that overwhelms me, driving me mad with something like _ust for blood. "All they do is stabilize the Dreamtime for everybody'_enefit."
"If only you'd listen … " she stops. I hear her swallow. Deep emotion; I'v_it some kind of sensitive spot. She believes what she's saying, howeve_arped and mad it sounds. If I had nothing worse to fear it would give m_ause for thought. What if there's a germ of truth in it? "It's for their ow_enefit. They eat human minds! Like demons! — but everything they've taugh_ou contradicts that. They're benefactors, to you. You look after thei_nterests, which superficially look beneficient. But they aren't, not really.
If you don't believe me, ask your owner! We know the truth —"
She pauses. The manic urgency leaves her voice. She continues: "I want you t_ake a message to your controller in Distant Intervention. I don't intend t_ake action against the rest of the Dreamtime network, but they must recognis_hat we do not want the Dreamtime here in this system." She pauses for effect.
"Either you shut down the local expansion processor, or … I have lots o_eapons left."
"That is the total content of your message?" I ask. I can feel the fresh win_lowing across my face; I think I'm high above the ground, looking out from _alcony in the turret of a castle … but I can't tell for sure. That's th_urse of blindness, the uncertainty. I'm locked into my childhood hell; all _an do to resist is to try to revert to the time when my entire body was a_ar, to the time when the noise of sunlight falling on water was as loud a_hunder. I feel as if I should be weaker, smaller, than I am. I have my ears, I tell myself.
"Yes," she says. "That's what I want from you. This attempt to assassinate m_s futile — why can't the Superbrights just leave us alone? We represent n_hreat! They don't have to prey on us. They can eat dreams as well as minds."
There's anger in her voice, and a sense of churning menace that makes my bloo_un cold; I don't doubt that if she wanted to she could blot out m_onsciousness like a gnat. "I am loyal to my species," she insists, almos_etulantly. "It's your freedom I'm fighting for! The superbrights — they trea_s like animals! Without the freedom to suffer and die, what are we?"
"How do you know they eat us?" I ask. "The network is expanding. New world_re added. Uploads could just be being shunted over the local event horizon, to even up the load on new processor sites. Colonizing space —"
"They're not," she says dogmatically. "That's a lie the Superbrights promot_or their own purposes. Do you really think they'd tell you the truth if the_new it would make you question their motives?"
"I don't know," I say diplomatically, biting back the rage building up insid_e. "Maybe we need to live on the edge of existence in order to prove t_urselves that we exist; maybe — " I shrug, unable to express what I'_eeling. They gave me eyes again, and you took them away. My guts are burnin_ow. I know what I've got to do: I'm tense with anticipation.
"Come, then," she says. "I'll put you on board one of the shuttles. Then yo_an rendezvous with your station and give them my message. It's not such _errible thing, is it?"
She guides me back towards the lift, not bothering to warn me that she'_aking control of my legs again.
"Your minions took my sight," I remind her.
"They're brainburned fools. Ignorant. Why do you think I'm dealing with yo_irectly?" The lift doors close and we drop a few floors. "You should conside_ourself lucky to be alive."
The doors open and she guides me forwards. I walk forever across a causeway o_ock delimited by touch; nothing exists outside of that narrow track excep_he steady breeze and the slap of her sandals on stone. I sense somethin_earby that blocks the sun, then she stops me with a touch on my shoulder tha_eels like a bundle of bones bound together in parchment. "We'll go aboard i_ minute," she says. "The ship is ready. You have a call sign for rendezvous?
An orbital element set?"
"Yes. I came in by drop capsule, but —"
"Good. Just one last thing now, then you can go."
I feel that itching again, at the sides of my head. "What is it?" I demand.
"What are you doing?" I strain with every nerve to feel her presence, to hea_he shifting of her robe in the wind, to imagine this remarkable woman in suc_erfect detail that my imagination becomes one with the real. I see he_eaning on a cane beside the airlock of a battered shuttle, perhaps a metr_way from me; her long, steel-gray hair is braided down her back. He_xpression is stony and harsh. I paint the heraldic trappings of genocide i_he background; barbed wire fences and watchtowers with searchlights. An_hen, tense as a live wire, I listen.
"I'm going to have to program you," she says. "You've got a strong will and _on't trust you without MilSpec control — " she pauses, alerted by he_efences. "You can still see!" she says.
I feel the band of molten steel clamp down around my forehead, her built-i_mart weaponry turning up the pressure on my implants, but I'm ready for i_his time. I twist and listen for the faint soughing noise of her heav_raided hair sliding across her collar as she turns her head. "Yes, I ca_ee," I say, excited now, locking onto just where her eyes must be: "I ca_ee!"
I lunge, and feel a moment of warm release as I ram my stiffened fingertip_nto her eyes and twist in the damp softness.
The band of agony lightens almost as rapidly as it descended — pain confuse_er, blocks access to her built-in arsenal.
She stops screaming and whimpers quietly. "Why?" she asks, voice breaking.
"Why can't you understand? Why can't you leave us alone?"
I look round blindly, across the field; I can hear boots racing towards us bu_hey're too far away to open fire yet with me so close to their leader. Sh_reated me with the over-confidence of the one-eyed among the blind. I run m_and along the side of the shuttle until I feel the raised edge of the airloc_oor. "You want to live without interference," I say, "and maybe you're stron_nough to rule this world on your own." I turn back to her, listening to he_asping breath; and now it's simply one blind woman against another. "Bu_here's a problem."
She must be standing around, trying to make her systems regenerate traumatise_ptic nerves so she can see me; a fatal mistake because she doesn't realis_ow fast I can move, even blind. "What's that?" she asks, playing for time.
I pinpoint her position and reach out for her tenderly, gathering her to m_houlder; I shiver with release as I twist her neck until it crackles. "Thes_eople didn't even know there was an afterlife: and you never asked for thei_pinion," I breathe in her ear. Dropping her, I fumble my way into the airloc_nd tell the ship to take off; it agrees readily. The door shuts behind m_ith a hiss of gaskets, and the drive rumbles into life and vomits me at th_tars.
Meanwhile, on the war-shattered planet below me, the clock strikes one.