The planet Golgotha-supposedly lifeless-resides in a remote star system, far from those inhabited by human colonists. It is home to an enigmatic machine-like structure called the Blood Spire, which has already brutally and systematically claimed the lives of one starship crew that attempted to uncover its secrets. But nothing will deter Richard Swift from exploring this object of alien origin…
In the seas of Turquoise live the Pattern Jugglers, the amorphous, aquatic organisms capable of preserving the memories of any human swimmer who joins their collective consciousness. Naqi Okpik devoted her life to studying these creatures-and paid a high price for swimming among them. Now, she may be the only hope for the survival of the species-and of every person living on Turquoise . . .
Release date: April 21, 2020
Print pages: 208
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Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days
It was one of those days when I had the place largely to myself, able to walk from aisle to aisle without seeing another visitor; only my footsteps disturbed the air of funereal silence and stillness.
I was visiting my parents’ shrine. It was a modest affair: a smooth wedge of obsidian shaped like a metronome, undecorated save for two cameo portraits set in elliptical borders. The sole moving part was a black blade which was attached near the base of the shrine, ticking back and forth with magisterial slowness. Mechanisms buried inside the shrine ensured that it was winding down, destined to count out days and then years with each tick. Eventually it would require careful measurement to detect its movement.
I was watching the blade when a voice disturbed me.
“Visiting the dead again, Richard?”
“Who’s there?” I said, looking around, faintly recognising the speaker but not immediately able to place him.
“Just another ghost.”
Various possibilities flashed through my mind as I listened to the man’s deep and taunting voice—a kidnapping, an assassination—before I stopped flattering myself that I was worthy of such attention.
Then the man emerged from between two shrines a little way down from the metronome.
“My God,” I said.
“Now do you recognise me?”
He smiled and stepped closer: as tall and imposing as I remembered. He had lost the devil’s horns since our last meeting—they had only ever been a bio-engineered affectation—but there was still something satanic about his appearance, an effect not lessened by the small and slightly pointed goatee he had cultivated in the meantime.
Dust swirled around him as he walked towards me, suggesting that he was not a projection.
“I thought you were dead, Roland.”
“No, Richard,” he said, stepping close enough to shake my hand. “But that was most certainly the effect I desired to achieve.”
“Why?” I said.
“Start at the beginning, then.”
Roland Childe placed a hand on the smooth side of my parents’ shrine. “Not quite your style, I’d have thought?”
“It was all I could do to argue against something even more ostentatious and morbid. But don’t change the subject. What happened to you?”
He removed his hand, leaving a faint damp imprint. “I faked my own death. The Eighty was the perfect cover. The fact that it all went so horrendously wrong was even better. I couldn’t have planned it like that if I’d tried.”
No arguing with that, I thought. It had gone horrendously wrong.
More than a century and a half ago, a clique of researchers led by Calvin Sylveste had resurrected the old idea of copying the essence of a living human being into a computer-generated simulation. The procedure—then in its infancy—had the slight drawback that it killed the subject. But there had still been volunteers, and my parents had been amongst the first to sign up and support Calvin’s work. They had offered him political protection when the powerful Mixmaster lobby opposed the project, and they had been amongst the first to be scanned.
Less than fourteen months later, their simulations had also been amongst the first to crash.
None could ever be restarted. Most of the remaining Eighty had succumbed, and now only a handful remained unaffected.
“You must hate Calvin for what he did,” Childe said, still with that taunting quality in his voice.
“Would it surprise you if I said I didn’t?”
“Then why did you set yourself so vocally against his family after the tragedy?”
“Because I felt justice still needed to be served.” I turned from the shrine and started walking away, curious as to whether Childe would follow me.
“Fair enough,” he said. “But that opposition cost you dearly, didn’t it?”
I bridled, halting next to what appeared a highly realistic sculpture but was almost certainly an embalmed corpse.
“The Resurgam expedition, of course, which just happened to be bankrolled by House Sylveste. By rights, you should have been on it. You were Richard Swift, for heaven’s sake. You’d spent the better part of your life thinking about possible modes of alien sentience. There should have been a place for you on that ship, and you damned well knew it.”
“It wasn’t that simple,” I said, resuming my walk. “There were a limited number of slots available and they needed practical types first—biologists, geologists, that kind of thing. By the time they’d filled the most essential slots, there simply wasn’t any room for abstract dreamers like myself.”
“And the fact that you’d pissed off House Sylveste had nothing whatsoever to do with it? Come off it, Richard.”
We descended a series of steps down into the lower level of the Monument. The atrium’s ceiling was a cloudy mass of jagged sculptures: interlocked metal birds. A party of visitors was arriving, attended by servitors and a swarm of bright, marble-sized float-cams. Childe breezed through the group, drawing annoyed frowns but no actual recognition, although one or two of the people in the party were vague acquaintances of mine.
“What is this about?” I asked, once we were outside.
“Concern for an old friend. I’ve had my tabs on you, and it was pretty obvious that not being selected for that expedition was a crushing disappointment. You’d thrown your life into contemplation of the alien. One marriage down the drain because of your self-absorption. What was her name again?”
I’d had her memory buried so deeply that it took a real effort of will to recall any exact details about my marriage.
“Celestine. I think.”
“Since when you’ve had a few relationships, but nothing lasting more than a decade. A decade’s a mere fling in this town, Richard.”
“My private life’s my own business,” I responded sullenly. “Hey. Where’s my volantor? I parked it here.”
“I sent it away. We’ll take mine instead.”
Where my volantor had been was a larger, blood-red model. It was as baroquely ornamented as a funeral barge. At a gesture from Childe it clammed open, revealing a plush gold interior with four seats, one of which was occupied by a dark, slouched figure.
“What’s going on, Roland?”
“I’ve found something. Something astonishing that I want you to be a part of; a challenge that makes every game you and I ever played in our youth pale in comparison.”
“The ultimate one, I think.”
He had pricked my curiosity, but I hoped it was not too obvious. “The city’s vigilant. It’ll be a matter of public record that I came to the Monument, and we’ll have been recorded together by those float-cams.”
“Exactly,” Childe said, nodding enthusiastically. “So you risk nothing by getting in the volantor.”
“And should I at any point weary of your company?”
“You have my word that I’ll let you leave.”
I decided to play along with him for the time being. Childe and I took the volantor’s front pair of seats. Once ensconced, I turned around to acquaint myself with the other passenger, and then flinched as I saw him properly.
He wore a high-necked leather coat which concealed much of the lower half of his face. The upper part was shadowed under the generous rim of a homburg, tipped down to shade his brow. Yet what remained visible was sufficient to shock me. There was only a blandly handsome silver mask; sculpted into an expression of quiet serenity. The eyes were blank silver surfaces, what I could see of his mouth a thin, slightly smiling slot.
“Doctor Trintignant,” I said.
He reached forward with a gloved hand, allowing me to shake it as one would the hand of a woman. Beneath the black velvet of the glove I felt armatures of hard metal. Metal that could crush diamond.
“The pleasure is entirely mine,” he said.
Airborne, the volantor’s baroque ornamentation melted away to mirror-smoothness. Childe pushed ivory-handled control sticks forward, gaining altitude and speed. We seemed to be moving faster than the city ordinances allowed, avoiding the usual traffic corridors. I thought of the way he had followed me, researched my past and had my own volantor desert me. It would also have taken considerable resourcefulness to locate the reclusive Trintignant and persuade him to emerge from hiding.
Clearly Childe’s influence in the city exceeded my own, even though he had been absent for so long.
“The old place hasn’t changed much,” Childe said, swooping us through a dense conglomeration of golden buildings, as extravagantly tiered as the dream pagodas of a fever-racked Emperor.
“Then you’ve really been away? When you told me you’d faked your death, I wondered if you’d just gone into hiding.”
He answered with a trace of hesitation, “I’ve been away, but not as far as you’d think. A family matter came up that was best dealt with confidentially, and I really couldn’t be bothered explaining to everyone why I needed some peace and quiet on my own.”
“And faking your death was the best way to go about it?”
“Like I said, I couldn’t have planned the Eighty if I’d tried. I had to bribe a lot of minor players in the project, of course, and I’ll spare you the details of how we provided a corpse… but it all worked swimmingly, didn’t it?”
“I never had any doubts that you’d died along with the rest of them.”
“I didn’t like deceiving my friends. But I couldn’t go to all that trouble and then ruin my plan with a few indiscretions.”
“You were friends, then?” solicited Trintignant.
“Yes, Doctor,” Childe said, glancing back at him. “Way back when. Richard and I were rich kids—relatively rich, anyway—with not enough to do. Neither of us were interested in the stock market or the social whirl. We were only interested in games.”
“Oh. How charming. What kinds of game, might I ask?”
“We’d build simulations to test each other—extraordinarily elaborate worlds filled with subtle dangers and temptations. Mazes and labyrinths; secret passages; trapdoors; dungeons and dragons. We’d spend months inside them, driving each other crazy. Then we’d go away and make them even harder.”
“But in due course you grew apart,” the Doctor said. His synthesised voice had a curious piping quality.
“Yeah,” Childe said. “But we never stopped being friends. It was just that Richard had spent so much time devising increasingly alien scenarios that he’d become more interested in the implied psychologies behind the tests. And I’d become interested only in the playing of the games; not their construction. Unfortunately Richard was no longer there to provide challenges for me.”
“You were always much better than me at playing them,” I said. “In the end it got too hard to come up with something you’d find difficult. You knew the way my mind worked too well.”
“He’s convinced that he’s a failure,” Childe said, turning round to smile at the Doctor.
“As are we all,” Trintignant answered. “And with some justification, it must be said. I have never been allowed to pursue my admittedly controversial interests to their logical ends. You, Mister Swift, were shunned by those who you felt should have recognised your worth in the field of speculative alien psychology. And you, Mister Childe, have never discovered a challenge worthy of your undoubted talents.”
“I didn’t think you’d paid me any attention, Doctor.”
“Nor had I. I have surmised this much since our meeting.”
The volantor dropped below ground level, descending into a brightly lit commercial plaza lined with shops and boutiques. With insouciant ease, Childe skimmed us between aerial walkways and then nosed the car into a dark side-tunnel. He gunned the machine faster, our speed indicated only by the passing of red lights set into the tunnel sides. Now and then another vehicle passed us, but once the tunnel had branched and rebranched half a dozen times, no further traffic appeared. The tunnel lights were gone now and when the volantor’s headlights grazed the walls they revealed ugly cracks and huge, scarred absences of cladding. These old sub-surface ducts dated back to the city’s earliest days, before the domes were thrown across the crater.
Even if I had recognised the part of the city where we had entered the tunnel system, I would have been hopelessly lost by now.
“Do you think Childe has brought us together to taunt us about our lack of respective failures, Doctor?” I asked, beginning to feel uneasy again despite my earlier attempts at reassurance.
“I would consider that a distinct possibility, were Childe himself not conspicuously tainted by the same lack of success.”
“Then there must be another reason.”
“Which I’ll reveal in due course,” Childe said. “Just bear with me, will you? You two aren’t the only ones I’ve gathered together.”
Presently we arrived somewhere.
It was a cave in the form of a near-perfect hemisphere, the great domed roof arching a clear three hundred metres from the floor. We were obviously well below Yellowstone’s surface now. It was even possible that we had passed beyond the city’s crater wall, so that above us lay only poisonous skies.
But the domed chamber was inhabited.
The roof was studded with an enormous number of lamps, flooding the interior with synthetic daylight. An island stood in the middle of the chamber, moated by a ring of uninviting water. A single bone-white bridge connected the mainland to the island, shaped like a great curved femur. The island was dominated by a thicket of slender, dark poplars partly concealing a pale structure situated near its middle.
Childe brought the volantor to a rest near the edge of the water and invited us to disembark.
“Where are we?” I asked, once I had stepped down.
“Query the city and find out for yourself,” Trintignant said.
The result was not what I was expecting. For a moment there was a shocking absence inside my head, the neural equivalent of a sudden, unexpected amputation.
The Doctor’s chuckle was an arpeggio played on a pipe organ. “We have been out of range of city services from the moment we entered his conveyance.”
“You needn’t worry,” Childe said. “You are beyond city services, but only because I value the secrecy of this place. If I imagined it’d have come as a shock to you, I’d have told you already.”
“I’d have at least appreciated a warning, Roland,” I said.
“Would it have changed your mind about coming here?”
The echo of his laughter betrayed the chamber’s peculiar acoustics. “Then are you at all surprised that I didn’t tell you?”
I turned to Trintignant. “What about you?”
“I confess my use of city services has been as limited as your own, but for rather different reasons.”
“The good Doctor needed to lie low,” Childe said. “That meant he couldn’t participate very actively in city affairs. Not if he didn’t want to be tracked down and assassinated.”
I stamped my feet, beginning to feel cold. “Good. What now?”
“It’s only a short ride to the house,” Childe said, glancing towards the island.
Now a noise came steadily nearer. It was an antiquated, rumbling sound, accompanied by a odd, rhythmic sort of drumming, quite unlike any machine I had experienced. I looked towards the femoral bridge, suspecting as I did that it was exactly what it looked like: a giant, bio-engineered bone, carved with a flat roadbed. And something was approaching us over the span: a dark, complicated and unfamiliar contraption, which at first glance resembled an iron tarantula.
I felt the back of my neck prickle.
The thing reached the end of the bridge and swerved towards us. Two mechanical black horses provided the motive power. They were emaciated black machines with sinewy, piston-driven limbs, venting steam and snorting from intakes. Malignant red laser-eyes swept over us. The horses were harnessed to a four-wheeled carriage slightly larger than the volantor, above which was perched a headless humanoid robot. Skeletal hands gripped iron control cables which plunged into the backs of the horses’ steel necks.
“Meant to inspire confidence, is it?” I asked.
“It’s an old family heirloom,” Childe said, swinging open a black door in the side of the carriage. “My uncle Giles made automata. Unfortunately—for reasons we’ll come to—he was a bit of a miserable bastard. But don’t let it put you off.”
He helped us aboard, then climbed inside himself, sealed the door and knocked on the roof. I heard the mechanical horses snort; alloy hooves hammered the ground impatiently. Then we were moving, curving around and ascending the gentle arc of the bridge of bone.
“Have you been here during the entire period of your absence, Mister Childe?” Trintignant asked.
He nodded. “Ever since that family business came up, I’ve allowed myself the occasional visit back to the city—just like I did today—but I’ve tried to keep such excursions to a minimum.”
“Didn’t you have horns the last time we met?” I said.
He rubbed the smooth skin of his scalp where the horns had been. “Had to have them removed. I couldn’t very well disguise myself otherwise.”
We crossed the bridge and navigated a path between the tall trees which sheltered the island’s structure. Childe’s carriage pulled up to a smart stop in front of the building and I was afforded my first unobstructed view of our destination. It was not one to induce great cheer. The house’s architecture was haphazard: whatever basic symmetry it might once have had was lost under a profusion of additions and modifications. The roof was a jumbled collision of angles and spires, jutting turrets and sinister oubliettes. Not all of the embellishments had been arranged at strict right angles to their neighbours, and the style and apparent age of the house varied jarringly from place to place. Since our arrival in the cave the overhead lights had dimmed, simulating the onset of dusk, but only a few windows were illuminated, clustered together in the left-hand wing. The rest of the house had a forbidding aspect, the paleness of its stone, the irregularity of its construction and the darkness of its many windows suggesting a pile of skulls.
Almost before we had disembarked from the carriage, a reception party emerged from the house. It was a troupe of servitors—humanoid household robots, of the kind anyone would have felt comfortable with in the city proper—but they had been reworked to resemble skeletal ghouls or headless knights. Their mechanisms had been sabotaged so that they limped and creaked, and they had all had their voiceboxes disabled.
“Had a lot of time on his hands, your uncle,” I said.
“You’d have loved Giles, Richard. He was a scream.”
“I’ll take your word for it, I think.”
The servitors escorted us into the central part of the house, then took us through a maze of chill, dark corridors.
Finally we reached a large room walled in plush red velvet. A holoclavier sat in one corner, with a book of sheet music spread open above the projected keyboard. There was a malachite escritoire, a number of well-stocked bookcases, a single chandelier, three smaller candelabra and two fireplaces of distinctly Gothic appearance, in one of which roared an actual fire. But the room’s central feature was a mahogany table, around which three additional guests were gathered.
“Sorry to keep everyone waiting,” Childe said, closing a pair of sturdy wooden doors behind us. “Now. Introductions.”
The others looked at us with no more than mild interest.
The only man amongst them wore an elaborately ornamented exoskeleton: a baroque support structure of struts, hinged plates, cables and servo-mechanisms. His face was a skull papered with deathly white skin, shading to black under his bladelike cheekbones. His eyes were concealed behind goggles, his hair a spray of stiff black dreadlocks.
Periodically he inhaled from a glass pipe, connected to a miniature refinery of bubbling apparatus placed before him on the table.
“Allow me to introduce Captain Forqueray,” Childe said. “Captain—this is Richard Swift and… um, Doctor Trintignant.”
“Pleased to meet you,” I said, leaning across the table to shake Forqueray’s hand. His grip felt like the cold clasp of a squid.
“The Captain is an Ultra; the master of the lighthugger Apollyon, currently in orbit around Yellowstone,” Childe added.
Trintignant refrained from approaching him.
“Shy, Doctor?” Forqueray said, his voice simultaneously deep and flawed, like a cracked bell.
“No, merely cautious. It is a matter of common knowledge that I have enemies amongst the Ultras.”
Trintignant removed his homburg and patted his crown delicately, as if smoothing down errant hairs. Silver waves had been sculpted into his head-mask, so that he resembled a bewigged Regency fop dipped in . . .
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