Featuring Inspector Dreyfus - one of Alastair Reynolds most popular characters - this is a fast paced SF crime story, combining a futuristic setting with a gripping tale of technology, revolution and revenge.
One citizen died a fortnight ago. Two a week ago. Four died yesterday . . . and unless the cause can be found - and stopped - within the next four months, everyone will be dead. For the Prefects, the hunt for a silent, hidden killer is on . . .
Alastair Reynolds has returned to the world of The Prefect for this stand-alone SF mystery in which no one is safe. The technological implants which connect every citizen to each other have become murder weapons, and no one knows who or what the killer is - or who the next targets will be. But their reach is spreading, and time is not on the Prefects' side.
Release date: January 23, 2018
Print pages: 432
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Cautiously, struck by some faint sense of impropriety, he opened the shutters on the glassless window and took a breath. The evening air flooded his lungs, sooty with combustion products. He coughed, a sudden human sound that seemed louder than it had any right to be, and then stifled any further coughing with his hand.
Across the grounds, far from the Shell House—but still within the family dome, on the edge of Chasm City—something was on fire.
He watched it, mesmerised and troubled. There was a glow, concentrated in a small area and hemmed in by a darker mass of trees and vegetation that obscured the heart of the fire. Above the conflagration the dome panels reflected the glow in dusky variations of the same orange tones he had seen through the shutter.
If there was a fire in the grounds … but, no, he thought. There was no danger of such a thing taking hold and spreading. Automatic sprinkler systems would cut in long before the flames posed any risk to the Shell House itself. And besides, his father would have programmed Lurcher to detect fire and take immediate action to extinguish it.
The only curious thing was that the robot had not already done so.
Then he caught a movement above the tree-line, silhouetted against the glow: a metallic arm sweeping into view before returning to concealment. Puzzled, certain of what he had seen, but not understanding its significance, he watched and watched—while slowly drawing the shutters, until he peered out through a single furtive slit.
Presently the glow grew less intense. The crackles and hisses ebbed to silence. The smells faded, as the air in the dome was subjected to its usual circulation and filtering process.
Still he observed, certain the evening’s mystery was not over.
He did not have long to wait. Lurcher emerged from the dense cover of the inner part of the gardens. The robot strolled nonchalantly, silver legs scissoring, two of its four silver arms swinging. In the other pair it carried buckets of tools, as it often did when attending to its gardening chores. From the domed head at the top of its tall, slender body, a single eye stared ahead with unblinking focus.
His instinct was to retreat further back into his darkened room. But if the robot detected that its nocturnal activities were being witnessed, it gave no indication.
What was left of the glow guttered out. A red reflection lingered on the dome, fading until only his imagination insisted there was still a trace of it.
The fire was out. The thing—whatever it was that had been set alight, and allowed to burn—had been consumed.
He closed the shutters fully and returned to bed. Under the sheets he coughed the last traces of smoke from his lungs. It was not long before the drowsiness took its hold of him, properly this time—vengefully, almost—but in the last moments of clear consciousness a distinct certainty formed in his mind. A white tree had stood where the fire had been.
A dead white tree, hollow to the core, in which he had once liked to play.
Thalia Ng would have preferred not to have an audience while she worked. That was not the way it was happening, though. A small party of civic functionaries was in attendance, watching in a loose semicircle while she completed the routine upgrade that was her day’s business in the Shiga-Mintz Spindle.
“And … we’re done,” she said, as the core began to sink back down into its pit, status symbols confirming the upgrade had proceeded without difficulty.
“You’ll be on your way now, then,” said the citizens’ designated spokesperson, a functionary named Mander.
The core was nearly back where it belonged. She eyed it for a few more moments before turning to look at the thin-faced man. “Someone might think you wanted to see the back of me, Citizen Mander.”
“It’s not that,” Mander said, his Adam’s apple moving hard.
The polling core sank fully into the floor. An iris whisked shut to seal it from casual tampering.
“I’ll say it if Mander won’t,” said a tall woman standing just behind Mander. “We don’t have to pretend you’re welcome here, Prefect. Of course you can visit and do as you please while you’re here.” She brushed a hand through long auburn hair, pushing it away from a shrewish face. “But that doesn’t mean we have to like it. Not after what happened. Not now that we know.”
“Know what, exactly?”
“What you’re capable of,” said another man, emboldened by the woman’s outburst. “What you’ll do, when it suits you.”
“You mean,” Thalia said mildly, “the lengths we’ll go to to protect your interests?”
“It was butchery,” said the woman.
“It was surgery,” Thalia corrected, keeping her voice level, uninflected, unintimidated.
“It’s no good arguing with them,” someone muttered. “They’ve got a justification for everything. They could murder us all and still say it was in the shining name of democracy.”
It was just a spasm, but Thalia felt her fingers twitch for the handle of her whiphound, still holstered on her belt.
“If you don’t like democracy,” Thalia said, “then you’re in the wrong solar system.”
“As if we have a choice,” sneered the woman.
“There’s always a choice,” a red-faced man said. “They’d just rather none of us were aware of it. But maybe it’s time to consider the unthinkable. Maybe it’s been time ever since they showed their true colours. We all know what’s possible, if enough of us take a stand. Panoply won’t intervene now—they’re too afraid.”
“Be grateful you’ll never need our intervention,” Thalia said. “But if you did, you’d still have it. You don’t have to like us to count on us.”
It was an old line, one she had picked up from Dreyfus.
Something buzzed in her ear. She pressed a finger against her earpiece, squeezing it.
“It’s Sparver,” she heard. “Thalia, drop whatever you’re doing. Even if the core’s still exposed, leave it—we’ll secure it remotely. Are there citizens with you?”
She eyed the civic functionaries, feeling the full needling pressure of their suspicion and distrust.
“Yes, and they’ve been most hospitable. What’s the—” She was about to say “problem” but prefects never spoke of problems, at least not in public. “What’s required of me, Prefect Bancal?”
“There’s a situation inside the habitat. I’m passing coordinates to your whiphound. It’ll proceed ahead of you and secure the area.”
It was probably some kind of civic disturbance, a citizen mob or something the local constables were not equipped to handle.
“I’ll be right behind it.”
“Not immediately. Return to your ship. There’s a containment vessel in the aft stowage compartment. Retrieve it, break out a second whiphound, and follow it to the first.”
Her hand moved back to the whiphound. Nothing about this was part of the plan for visiting Shiga-Mintz. It was an in-and-out, all perfectly routine. Nothing about second whiphounds or cases in stowage compartments.
“Prefect Bancal …”
“Get on it, Thal. When I say every second counts, I mean it.”
She drew the whiphound’s handle from her holster. In its stowed form the whiphound—an autonomous robot whip with enforcement, detainment and evidence-acquisition capabilities—was a black, grip-coated rod about the size and thickness of a truncheon, inset with a battery of twist controls at one end. On sensing its removal from the holster, the whiphound extended its roving filament, pushing out a thin silver tentacle until it made contact with the ground. The tentacle stiffened along its length and formed a snakelike traction coil at the point where it met the floor. A single bright red eye glared from the other end of the handle.
The whiphound had gone from being an inert tool on her belt to a thing that was alive, purposeful and more than a little intimidating.
“You know what to do,” she said. “Go.”
The whiphound nodded its handle and slinked away, picking up speed with a series of sinuous whipping motions. It made a dry whisking sound as it skated across the floor and the functionaries jerked back to allow it passage. It vanished through the doorway, already moving faster than a person could run.
“What’s going on?” asked Mander, as if he had every right to an explanation.
She ignored him, still pressing a finger to her earpiece.
“Whiphound deployed, Prefect Bancal. I’m on my way back to the cutter.”
“Quick as you can, Thal.”
She took him at his word, leaving the polling core and the gawping, mystified functionaries behind, breaking into a jog and then a run. She sprinted up a ramp, through a short warren of corridors, into the bright sunlight of civic gardens, past a hissing line of ornamental fountains, up an escalator to a forested plaza, onto a high-speed tram to the dock.
She stood on the tram, one hand on the ceiling hoop, as it accelerated away from the stop. It had been three, maybe four minutes since Sparver had first contacted her. There were citizens on the tram, watching her with puzzled, worried expressions.
“It’s all right,” she said, pausing to catch her breath. “This is a local emergency, nothing to be concerned about.”
Panoply must have been pulling strings to override local traffic patterns because the tram made a non-stop sprint for the docking complex. Thalia boarded her cutter—the smallest class of Panoply spacecraft, and the only type she was authorised to operate single-handedly—while her hand kept reaching for the whiphound. It felt wrong to be back in the cutter without her weapon. But she opened the aft hatch, craned down to look inside, and found a silver object she didn’t recognise.
It was a stubby cylinder, about the size of a space helmet, and there was a handle on top of it.
“The silver thing, Sparver, I’m presuming?”
“Take it. Your backup whiphound knows where to go.”
She hoisted the cylinder, then went to the foil-sealed cavity that held the second whiphound. She broke the seal, extracted the whiphound, hefted the heavy black handle for a few moments and then let it deploy.
“Want to tell me what this is all about?”
“Follow the whiphound. Your first unit is already on-site and securing the theatre.”
She left the cutter and headed back into the public spaces of Shiga-Mintz, the cylinder dangling from her left hand. It was awkward more than heavy, as if it was mostly hollow. The second whiphound slithered ahead of her, showing the way, glancing back with a puppy-like impatience. In a minute she was back on the tram, retracing at least part of her route, the whiphound slinking up and down the tram’s interior, its eye sweeping menacingly.
The tram was nearly empty this time, with only a handful of passengers at the far end of the compartment.
“What do you mean, theatre?” Thalia asked, keeping her voice low.
“You’ll find a citizen,” Sparver said. “They’re dying. You’re going to operate on them.”
“I’m not a surgeon.”
“You don’t need to be. The whiphound knows what to do.”
The tram sped on. Towns and parks flashed by outside. Thalia eyed the citizens she spotted in these rushed glimpses, strolling along paths, going in and out of white-walled buildings. Just glimpses, no chance to make out expressions or gain more than a fleeting impression of body language. But word spread quickly in a place like Shiga-Mintz, where everyone shared access to the same abstraction. The air crackled with a million invisible thoughts, flashing from skull to skull. It would not be long before everyone knew something was up.
“What’s wrong with them?”
“A neural episode,” Sparver said. “That’s all we know at the moment.”
The tram came to a hard stop. The doors opened, the whiphound springing out through the widening gap, those few citizens on the platform jerking back as the slithering weapon made its presence known. Thalia had barely caught her breath from the first run, and now she was bounding after the whiphound with the extra burden of the silver cylinder. It bumped against her hip as she jogged.
A ramp led down from the tram stop into an area of manicured gardens. An agreeable enough place to spend an hour or two: winding gravel paths, flowerbeds, elegant lakes and painted bandstands. Still daytime, by the habitat’s internal clock. Yet citizens were already moving out of the park, looking back with a certain unease even as Thalia barged through them, fighting against the flow.
Peacocks scattered into undergrowth, protesting at this interruption to their easy routine.
Ahead was a circular intersection of four paths. A ring of people had formed within it, and the mood was agitated. Thalia caught a flash of moving red within the ring and realised the first whiphound was establishing a widening cordon.
The second whiphound, having brought her to the first, slinked back and lowered its head in a submissive posture. She opened her right fist and it sprang into the air, retracting its tail with a crack, its handle tumbling into her grasp and allowing itself to be holstered.
“Deputy Field Prefect Thalia Ng,” she called out. “You are under Panoply observance. Step back from the whiphound, please.”
“It’s not letting us through!” shouted a man. “Call your toy off, Prefect, before someone dies!”
The man wore a green and white outfit, and he carried a white box marked with medical symbols. A woman in an identical outfit stood next to him. Parked a little way off was a luminous green, fat-wheeled tricycle with the same markings.
“We were tasked to a medical emergency,” the woman said, anger breaking through her voice. “It’s still happening. But we can’t get to the citizen with that thing of yours running around.”
Thalia pushed through the ragged circle. The first whiphound was still circling at high speed, etching a deepening line in the gravel, a plume of dust barely having time to settle before it came around again. A determined citizen could easily have crossed the cordon between the whiphound’s circuits, but so far no one had summoned the nerve. Thalia did not blame them for that. It took force of will to step over the cordon herself, even knowing the whiphound would never hurt her.
“Prefect,” the female medical functionary said, with a sort of resigned calm. “You must let us through. Whatever’s happening to that citizen—”
“Is our responsibility,” Thalia said, with all the authority she could muster. “Pull back. You’ve done your duty here—I’ll make sure that’s noted.”
“How can you …”
The male medic set his jaw and stepped over the cordon, glancing back at his colleague for encouragement. The whiphound sped around in its circuit, at first appearing as if it would ignore his transgression. Then with an almost effortless insouciance it flicked out its filament, tangling its end around his ankle, and between one instant and the next the man was on the ground. The whiphound released him and resumed its patrol.
The man tried to get to his feet, then collapsed back down again, yelling in surprise and pain.
“It’s probably broken your ankle,” Thalia said. “When I’m finished here you can get the medical attention you need.” She levelled her gaze at the woman. “Don’t try to help him.”
Then she directed her attention to the citizen, the man at the epicentre of all this commotion. She had only given him the most cursory of glances until this moment. He was on the ground as well, lying on his side, quivering from head to toe. He was a respectable-looking individual of no particular age, hair neatly groomed, clothes smart but unostentatious, only a dusting of gravel marring their cleanliness.
Thalia set the silver cylinder down. She knelt next to the man, digging a knee into the gravel. His eyes were rolling back into their sockets, a fine white foam spilling from his lips. She touched a hand to his forehead, and almost flinched back at the heat coming off him.
“Sparver,” she whispered. “I’m with him now. He seems in a bad way. If there’s something I ought to know …?”
“Give your second whiphound the command sequence ‘One Judith Omega.’ It will know what to do. Meanwhile, open the containment vessel.”
Her hands were starting to shake. She had some dark inkling what was about to happen. She fumbled the second whiphound back out of the holster.
“Containment for what?”
“Just get on with it, Thal.”
Her lips were dry. The man’s palsy was intensifying. Choking sounds were coming from his mouth. “One Judith,” she began, before pausing with a terrible heaviness in her throat. “Omega.”
The whiphound jerked from her grasp, flinging out its filament. Its red eye swept the immediate locality then locked onto the man.
“Open the vessel,” Sparver reminded her.
There was a control under the handle. She pressed it and the lid unsealed itself. She set the lid aside, handle down on the gravel. The interior of the vessel was a sterile white, its walls perforated with tiny holes.
The injured functionary was still calling out in distress. Beyond the cordon, the mood was turning ugly. Thalia felt something sting the back of her ear, as if someone had lobbed a piece of gravel at her. She pivoted on her heel.
“I’ll repeat what I said. I am Deputy Field Prefect Thalia Ng. I am here on the authority of Panoply. I am sanctioned to use lethal force in the execution of my duties. A physical assault against a prefect is considered grounds for immediate reprisal.” She swallowed hard. The words had come out well enough, but she had not found quite the effortless tone of authority that she was certain Dreyfus would have used. Dreyfus would barely have bothered raising his voice.
Dreyfus could sound disinterested even as he was issuing a final warning.
“Tell them the man’s already as good as dead,” Sparver said. “No local intervention’s going to make any difference to his chances, but Panoply might be able to help.”
The whiphound had coiled the end of its filament around the man’s neck. There were two edges to that filament: a blunt one, which it could use for traction—as well as twisting bones until they broke—and a cutting edge. The second edge was a busy miracle of molecular-scale machinery. It could eat its way through almost any material it encountered.
Blood swelled along a fine scarlet line as the whiphound dug deeper into the man’s neck. Thalia did not want to look. She gazed around in a slow arc, addressing the horrified audience. She felt like the last actor on a stage, crouching down with some wild madness in her eyes, a bloodied dagger in her hand after some gruesome act of vengeance.
This was not what she had seen herself doing at the start of the day.
“There’s nothing you could have done for him,” she said. “None of your medicine would have helped. But we can. That’s why I’m here.”
“Take the head,” Sparver said, “and put it in the containment vessel. Seal the lid. Then get yourself back to Panoply.”
A large quantity of blood stained the gravel. It turned the stones shades of rust and pink, as if they were an expensive import. That said, there was less blood than she would have expected. The whiphound must have been doing something clever at the level of arteries and veins—a sort of surgery, rather than a quick, mindless decapitation. When the head rolled loose, she watched her own fingers scoop it up by the hair and place it neck down in the silver vessel. A head was a strange thing to hold, heavier than she had thought, and yet somehow not heavy enough.
Then she put the lid back on the container and felt a faint scuttling going on inside as some sort of process was initiated.
“Tell them to secure the body and freeze it,” Sparver said. “A Heavy Medical Squad will be here shortly. Tell them the emergency is over and they need have no fears for their own safety. Tell them Panoply thanks them for their cooperation.”
Thalia did these things. It was her speaking, she knew it. But it might as well have been Sparver, pushing his words out through her mouth. The whiphound was cleaning itself, drawing its filament back in at a slower than usual rate.
She was about to fix it back in the holster when she had second thoughts. It was a long way back to the cutter, and she would need to get there with a man’s head still in her possession.
“Forward scout mode,” she said. “Ten-metre secure zone. Lethal force authorised. Proceed.”
She said it loudly, as much for the crowd’s benefit as the whiphounds’.
The second unit scooted ahead of her. It knew the way they had come, and it would make sure there were no surprises along the way. The first whiphound broke away from its circling cordon and established a moving barricade around Thalia, daring anyone to cross it. She marched forward, the vessel clunking against her thigh, now much heavier than before.
No one stopped her.
In another habitat, elsewhere in the Glitter Band, a hooded man watched from the edge of a gathering.
He was glad of the rain misting down from the distant curved ceiling of the wheel-shaped world: it had given him licence to slip the hood over his head without appearing to seek anonymity. There were other hooded onlookers, as well as people under hats, ponchos or umbrellas. Their clothes were as drab as his own, dyed in natural shades of grey and brown.
Modest, stone-built homes dotted a gentle hillside, with smoke curling up from their chimneys. A waterwheel turned next to a mill, and off in the distance two woodcutters were at work with manual saws, lopping the branches off a fallen tree trunk. Further away, farm labourers and harnessed animals were working terraced fields.
The gathering was taking place in a gardened commons, on an area of land that jutted out into the millpond next to the waterwheel. There were footpaths and well-tended flowerbeds arranged around a collection of statues relating to significant historical events and figures from the birth of the Glitter Band. The speaker was leaning on one of these statues, standing on its plinth to gain some height over his audience. The statue was a kneeling figure, a young woman in an old-fashioned spacesuit, helmet at her feet, digging her fist into fruitless soil. Her face conveyed a mixture of desperation and determination, despair vying with strength.
The speaker leaned against her with laconic disregard, one arm resting on her head. He was tall and thin of frame, his dark purple clothes of a simple but formal cut. A collarless jacket hung from his slender shoulders. He had not bothered with an umbrella, poncho or hood, but the rain glistened off his hair, upsetting the lavish wave of his blond curls. He was nearly sixty years old, but his features were smooth and unlined, with an unsettlingly boyish quality. His eyes were a very pale blue, touched with coldness. The only distinguishing mark was a pale vertical scar under the right eye, a blemish so easily removed that it could only have been a deliberate decision to retain it.
Dreyfus studied the face with particular attentiveness. He had seen all the images of it he could ask for, but it was something else to commit it to memory with his own eyes. If it held even the tiniest clue as to the inner workings of the mind behind it, he was determined not to miss a detail.
What the man had to say was almost incidental to the recordings of similar gatherings Dreyfus had consulted, and the flow of words varied little from one performance to the next.
“Good people,” the man was saying—as he had done hundreds of times before, in hundreds of habitats. “Good citizens, people of Stonehollow. Two years ago you were all witness to the actions of Panoply, in response to the so-called Aurora crisis. You’ll have heard the official line: that an artificial intelligence exploited a subtle weakness in the security provisions of the Glitter Band, enabling it to gain control of the mass-manufacturing infrastructure, spewing out an infestation of self-replicating war machines. They’ll have led you to believe that the cost of our survival—the disarming of that threat—was the surgical destruction of forty-one habitats and the loss of more than two million human lives. They’ll tell you that as if it somehow excuses their actions, or even paints them in a flattering light. ‘Look at us, taking such momentous decisions in your interests! Look at the hard things we had to do.’ What they won’t tell you is those actions were only needed because of the lapses they made over many years and years, after all the trust we vested in them.” He was smiling as he spoke, beaming down at his audience, the tone of his address at odds with the indictment he’d made. “Make no mistake, though. You still haven’t been trusted with the truth. What was Aurora, exactly? They won’t say, despite the rumours. Nor will they offer any sort of explanation as to what became of that so-called artificial intelligence after the crisis was concluded. There’s a reason for their evasiveness, just as there’s a reason you won’t hear about the catalogue of blunders that caused the whole tragic affair. It suits them to have you think the whole terrible business was somehow sprung upon us without warning, and not something that could have been avoided, had their eyes been on the task given to them.”
The words ought to have lost their sting by now. Panoply had been criticised before; this was nothing new. But Dreyfus knew the crisis had sprung out of a confluence of factors that could never have been anticipated. The shocking thing was not that the emergency had happened in the first place, but that it been contained with only a modest loss of life. And—although their numbers were small, compared to the civilian deaths—Panoply’s own operatives had been lost, including Dreyfus’s close colleagues.
But all he could do now was listen.
“Their failing cost millions of lives,” the man was saying. “And in their betrayal of that public trust, we see now that the entire institutional framework of the Glitter Band was never anything more than a confidence trick. The security we counted on was never there in the first place. We surrendered our sovereignty to the wisdom of Panoply and in return they left us bereft. Our shining democratic apparatus was a hall of mirrors, designed to blind us to the truth of our own powerlessness. But it needn’t be that way.” He allowed himself a significant pause, beaming out at the onlookers, adjusting his leaning posture against the statue of the Amerikano pioneer. Now his voice lowered, becoming confiding, inviting the nearest onlookers to pull closer. “Across the Glitter Band, a new consensus is dawning. Habitats don’t need Panoply. Panoply wouldn’t be there for them if they did! And so they choose autonomy. They are taking back control. Control to manage the affairs of their citizens in a way that suits their needs, not those of some distant, disconnected network of overseers. Nothing can stop them. Provided the citizens vote to secede, Panoply cannot deny them their wish. And so it has proven. In the last six months, eight habitats have already declared their independent status. The prefects can’t touch them. They can’t even step inside without an invitation! And has the sky fallen? Has the world ended? Not in the slightest. These habitats continue to thrive. They continue to trade—with the Glitter Band, with Yellowstone and between themselves. Free movement of citizens and materials has not been endangered. Far from it, my friends—far from it.”
Dreyfus felt his neck hairs bristle against the fabric of the hood collar. He had heard enough. The point had not been to listen to the words, but to get a clearer impression of the man speaking them.
Devon Garlin was not the only figure associated with the breakaway movement, but he was by far the most influential and outspoken. Where Garlin went, dissent followed. His ideas took a toxic, ineradicable hold. Dreyfus had been tracking him throughout the whole breakaway crisis and he was in no doubt that Garlin’s presence and prominence was critical to the momentum of the whole affair. Something about this easy-going, affable figure pushed the citizenry to act against their own interests. It was Garlin who had taken the lead in turning public opinion against Panoply; Garlin who had publicised the legal and institutional loopholes that permitted habitats to secede from the Glitter Band without penalty.
So far only eight had jumped. A manageable number, in Jane Aumonier’s view. Small habitats, for the most part, with low population loads. But Garlin was still moving from world to world, disseminating his views. Panoply, meanwhile, was keeping a close eye on the mood across the entire Glitter Band. About twenty more habitats—some of them quite large—were in open debate about whether or not to secede, and almost all of the others were at least aware of the possibility. Aumonier’s response was to wait and see what happened. Dreyfus was not so willing to stand back and let events take their course.
Satisfied, if not exactly reassured, he was turning to make his way back to the shuttle dock when a change in Garlin’s tone snagged his attention.
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