Late in the twenty-sixth century, the human race has advanced enough to accidentally trigger the Inhibitors—alien-killing machines designed to detect intelligent life and destroy it. The only hope for humanity lies in the recovery of a secret cache of doomsday weapons—and a renegade named Clavain who is determined to find them. But other factions want the weapons for their own purposes—and the weapons themselves have another agenda altogether.
Release date: April 21, 2020
Print pages: 592
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Listen to a sample
“Please stand back,” the proxy said. “Physical contact is not advised.”
The propellant cloud smelt toxic. She slammed down her visor as the proxy scuttled by.
“I don’t know what you’re hoping to find,” she said, following at a discreet distance.
“I won’t know until I find it,” the proxy said. It had already identified the frequency for her suit radio.
“Hey, look. I’m not into smuggling. I like not being dead too much.”
“That’s what they all say.”
“Why would anyone smuggle something to Hospice Idlewild? They’re a bunch of ascetic religious nuts, not contraband fiends.”
“Know a thing or two about contraband, do you?”
“I never said…”
“Never mind. The point is, Miss Bax, this is war. I’d say nothing’s ruled out.”
The proxy halted and flexed, large flakes of yellow ice cracking away from its articulation points. The machine’s body was a flanged black egg from which sprouted numerous limbs, manipulators and weapons. There was no room for the pilot in there, just enough space for the machinery needed to keep the proxy in contact with the pilot. The pilot was still inside one of the three cutters, stripped of nonessential organs and jammed into a life-support canister.
“You can check with the Hospice, if you like,” she said.
“I’ve already queried the Hospice. But in matters such as this, one likes to be absolutely certain that things are above board—wouldn’t you agree?”
“I’ll agree to anything you like if it gets you off my ship.”
“Mm. And why would you be in such a hurry?”
“Because I’ve got a slush… sorry, a cryogenic passenger. One I don’t want thawing on me.”
“I’d like to see this passenger very much. Is that possible?”
“I’m hardly likely to refuse, am I?” She had expected as much, and had already donned her vacuum suit while waiting for the proxy to arrive.
“Good. It won’t take a minute, and then you can be on your way.” The machine paused a moment before adding, “Provided, of course, that there aren’t any irregularities.”
“It’s this way.”
Antoinette thumbed back a panel next to her, exposing a crawlway that led back to Storm Bird’s main freight bay. She let the proxy take the lead, determined to say little and volunteer even less. Her attitude might have struck some as obstinate, but she would have engendered far more suspicion had she started to be helpful. The Ferrisville Convention’s militia were not well liked, a fact which they had long since factored into their dealings with civilians.
“This is quite a ship you have, Antoinette.”
“That’s Miss Bax to you. I don’t remember us being on first-name terms.”
“Miss Bax, then. But my point stands: your ship is outwardly unremarkable, but betrays all the signs of being mechanically sound and spaceworthy. A ship with such a capacity could run at a profit on any number of perfectly legal trade routes, even in these benighted times.”
“Then I’d have no incentive to take up smuggling, would I?”
“No, but it makes me wonder why you’d waste such an opportunity by running a peculiar errand for the Hospice. They have influence, but not, so far as we can gather, very much in the way of actual wealth.” The machine halted again. “You have to admit, it’s a bit of a puzzler. The usual route is for the frozen to come down from the Hospice, not go up to it. And even moving a frozen body around is unusual—most are thawed before they ever leave Idlewild.”
“It’s not my job to ask questions.”
“Well, it does rather happen to be mine. Are we nearly there yet?”
The freight bay was not currently pressurised, so they had to cycle through an internal airlock to reach it. Antoinette turned the lights on. The enormous space was empty of cargo but filled with a storage lattice, a three-dimensional framework into which cargo pallets and pods were normally latched. They began to clamber their way through it, the proxy picking its way with the fastidious care of a tarantula.
“It’s true, then. You are flying with an empty hold. There’s not a single container in here.”
“It’s not a crime.”
“I never said it was. It is, however, exceedingly odd. The Mendicants must be paying you extremely good money if you can justify a trip like this.”
“They set the terms, not me.”
“Curioser and curioser.”
The proxy was right, of course. Everyone knew that the Hospice cared for the frozen who had just been off-loaded from recently arrived starships: the poor, the injured, the terminally amnesiac. They would be thawed, revived and rehabilitated in the Hospice’s surroundings, tended by the Mendicants until they were well enough to leave, or at least able to complete a minimum set of basic human functions. Some, never regaining their memories, decided to stay on in the Hospice, training to become Mendicants themselves. But the one thing the Hospice did not routinely do was take in the frozen who had not arrived on an interstellar ship.
“All right,” she said. “What they told me was this: there was a mistake. The man’s documentation was mixed up during the off-loading process. He was confused with another puppy who was only meant to be checked over by the Hospice, not actually revived. The other man was supposed to be kept cold until he was in Chasm City, then warmed up.”
“Unusual,” the proxy said.
“Seems the guy didn’t like space travel. Well, there was a fuck-up. By the time the error was discovered, the wrong frozen body was halfway to CC. A serious screw-up and one that the Hospice wanted to get sorted out before the mess got worse. So they called me in. I picked up the body in the Rust Belt and now I’m rushing it back to Idlewild.”
“But why the hurry? If the body’s frozen, surely…”
“The casket’s a museum piece, and it’s received a lot of rough handling in the last few days. Plus, there are two sets of families starting to ask awkward questions. The sooner the pups are switched back, the better.”
“I appreciate that the Mendicants would wish to keep the matter discreet. The Hospice’s reputation for excellence would be tarnished if this got out.”
“Yeah.” She allowed herself to feel the tiniest hint of relief, and for a dangerous instant was tempted to throttle back on the studied obstinacy. Instead she said, “So now that you can see the whole picture, how about letting me get on my way? You wouldn’t want to piss off the Hospice, would you?”
“Most certainly not. But having come this far, it would be a shame not to check out the passenger, wouldn’t it?”
“Yeah,” she intoned. “A real shame.”
They reached the casket. It was an unremarkable-looking reefersleep unit, tucked near the back of the freight bay. It was matte-silver, with a smoked-glass rectangular viewing window set into the top surface. Beneath that, covered by its own smoked-glass shield, was a recessed panel containing controls and status displays. Indistinct coloured traces flickered and moved beneath the glass.
“Strange place to put it, this far back,” said the proxy.
“Not from my point of view. It’s close to my belly door—it was quick to load and it’ll be even quicker to off-load.”
“Fair enough. You don’t mind if I take a closer look, do you?”
“Be my guest.”
The proxy scuttled to within a metre of the casket, extending sensor-tipped limbs but not actually touching any part of it. It was being ultra-cautious, unwilling to run the risk of damaging Hospice property or doing anything that might endanger the casket’s occupant.
“You said this man came in to Idlewild recently?”
“I only know what the Hospice told me.”
The proxy tapped a limb against its own body, thoughtfully. “It’s odd, because there haven’t been any big ships coming in lately. Now that knowledge of the war’s had time to reach the furthest systems, Yellowstone isn’t quite the popular destination it used to be.”
She shrugged. “Have a word with the Hospice then, if it bothers you. All I know is I’ve got a puppy and they want it back.”
The proxy extended what she took to be a camera, probing close to the viewing window set into the casket’s upper surface.
“Well, it’s definitely a man,” it said, as if this would be news to her. “Deep in reefersleep, too. Mind if I pop back that status window and take a look at the read-outs, while I’m here? If there’s a problem, I can probably arrange an escort to get you to the Hospice in double-quick time…”
Before she could answer or frame a plausible objection, the proxy had flipped back the smoked-glass panel covering the matrix of controls and status displays. The proxy leant closer, steadying itself against the spars of the storage lattice, and swept the scanning eye back and forth across the display, dithering here and there.
Antoinette looked on, sweating. The displays appeared convincing enough, but anyone who knew their way around a reefersleep casket would have been instantly suspicious. They were not quite as they should have been had the occupant been in a state of normal cryogenic hibernation. Once that suspicion had been aroused, all it would take would be a few more enquiries, a little burrowing into some of the hidden display modes, and the truth would be laid bare.
The proxy scrutinised the read-outs and then pulled back, apparently satisfied. Antoinette closed her eyes for an instant, and then regretted it. The proxy approached the display again, extending a fine manipulator.
“I wouldn’t touch that if I were…”
The proxy tapped commands into the read-out panel. Different traces appeared—squirming electric-blue waveforms and trembling histograms.
“This doesn’t look right,” the proxy said.
“It’s almost as if the occupant’s already dea—”
A new voice boomed out. “Begging your pardon, Little Miss…”
Under her breath she swore. She had told Beast to shut up while she was dealing with the proxy. But perhaps she should be relieved that Beast had decided to ignore that particular order.
“What is it, Beast?”
“An incoming transmission, Little Miss—beamed directly at us. Point of origin: Hospice Idlewild.”
The proxy jerked back. “What’s that voice? I thought you said you were alone.”
“I am,” she replied. “That’s just Beast, my ship’s subpersona.”
“Well, tell it to shut up. And the transmission from the Hospice isn’t intended for you. It’s a reply to a query I transmitted earlier…”
The ship’s disembodied voice boomed, “The transmission, Little Miss…?”
She smiled. “Play the damned thing.”
The proxy’s attention jerked away from the casket. Beast was relaying the transmission on to her helmet faceplate, making it seem as if the Mendicant was standing in the middle of the freight bay. She assumed the pilot was accessing its own telemetry feed from one of the cutters.
The Mendicant was a woman, one of the New Elderly. As always, Antoinette found it slightly shocking to see a genuinely old person. She wore the starched wimple and vestment of her order, emblazoned with the Hospice’s snowflake motif, and her marvellously veined and aged hands were linked beneath her chest.
“My apologies for the delay in responding,” she said. “Problems with our network routing again, wouldn’t you know. Well, formalities. My name is Sister Amelia, and I wish to confirm that the body… the frozen individual… in the care of Miss Bax is the temporary and beloved property of Hospice Idlewild and the Holy Order of Ice Mendicants, and that Miss Bax is kindly expediting its immediate return…”
“But the body’s dead,” the proxy said.
The Mendicant continued, “… and as such, we would be grateful for the absolute minimum of interference from the authorities. We have employed Miss Bax’s services on several previous occasions and we have experienced nothing less than total satisfaction with her handling of our affairs.” The Mendicant smiled. “I’m sure the Ferrisville Convention appreciates the need for discretion in such a matter… after all, we do have something of a reputation to uphold.”
The message ended; the Mendicant blinked out of reality.
Antoinette shrugged. “See—I was telling the truth all along.”
The proxy eyed her with one of its cowled sensors. “There’s something going on here. The body inside that casket is medically dead.”
“Look, I told you the casket was an old one. The read-out’s faulty, that’s all. It’d be pretty stupid to carry a dead body around in a reefersleep casket, wouldn’t it?”
“I’m not done with you.”
“Maybe not, but you’re done with me now, aren’t you? You heard what the nice Mendicant lady said. Expediting its immediate return, I think that was the phrase she used. Sounds pretty official and important, doesn’t it?” She reached across and flipped the cover back over the status panel.
“I don’t know what you’re up to,” the proxy told her, “but rest assured, I’ll get to the bottom of it.”
She smiled. “Fine. Thanks. Have a nice day. And now get the fuck off my ship.”
Antoinette held the same heading for an hour after the police had left, maintaining the illusion that her destination was Hospice Idlewild. Then she veered sharply, burning fuel at a rate that made her wince. An hour later she had passed beyond the official jurisdiction of the Ferrisville Convention, leaving Yellowstone and its girdle of satellite communities. The police made no effort to catch up with her again, but that did not surprise her. It would have cost them too much fuel, she was outside their technical sphere of influence and, since she had just entered the war zone, there was every chance that she was going to end up dead anyway. It was simply not worth their bother.
On that cheering note, Antoinette composed and transmitted a veiled message of thanks to the Hospice. She was grateful for their assistance and, as her father had always done under similar circumstances, promised to reciprocate should the Hospice ever need her help.
A message came back from Sister Amelia. Godspeed and good luck with your mission, Antoinette. Jim would be very proud.
I hope so, Antoinette thought.
The next ten days passed relatively uneventfully. The ship performed perfectly, without even offering her the kind of minor technical faults that would have been satisfying to repair. Once, at extreme radar range, she thought she was being shadowed by a couple of banshees—faint, stealthy signatures hovering on the limit of her detection capability. Just to be on the safe side she readied the deterrents, but after she had executed an evasive pattern, showing the banshees just how difficult it would be to make a hard-docking against Storm Bird, the two ships fell back into the shadows, off to look for another victim to plunder. She never saw them again.
After that brief excitement, there was not an awful lot to do on the ship except eat and sleep, and she tried to do as little of the latter as she could reasonably get away with. Her dreams were repetitious and disturbing: night after night she was taken prisoner by spiders, snatched from a liner making a burn between Rust Belt carousels. The spiders carried her off to one of their cometary bases on the edge of the system, where they cracked open her skull and plunged glistening interrogation devices into the soft grey porridge of her brain. Then, just when she had almost been turned into a spider, had almost had her own memories erased and been pumped full of the implants that would bind her into their hive mind, the zombies arrived. They smashed into the comet in droves of wedge-shaped attack ships, firing corkscrewing penetration capsules into the ice, which melted through it until they reached the central warrens. There they spewed forth valiant red-armoured troops who tore through the maze of cometary tunnels, killing spiders with the humane precision of soldiers trained never to waste a single flèchette, bullet or ammo-cell charge.
A handsome zombie conscript pulled her from the spider interrogation/indoctrination room, applied emergency procedures to flush the invading machines from her brain, then replaced and sutured her skull and finally put her into a recuperative coma for the long trip back to the civilian hospitals in the inner system. He held her hand while she was taken into the cold ward.
It was nearly always the same fucking thing. The zombies had infected her with a propaganda dream, and although she had taken the usual recommended regimen of flushing agents, she could never clear it out completely. Not that she even wanted to, particularly.
The one night when she had slept untroubled by Demarchist propaganda, she had spent the entire time dreaming sad dreams of her father instead.
She knew that the zombie propaganda was, to some extent, an exaggeration. But only in the details: no one argued about what the Conjoiners did to anyone unfortunate enough to become their prisoner. Equally, Antoinette was certain, it would not exactly be a picnic to be taken prisoner by the Demarchists.
But the conflict was a long way away, even though she was technically in the war zone. She had chosen her trajectory to avoid the main battlefronts. Now and then Antoinette saw distant flashes of light, signifying some titanic engagement taking place light-hours from her present position. But the silent flashes had an unreal quality about them, allowing her to pretend that the war was over and that she was merely on some routine interplanetary haul. That was not too far from the truth, either. All the neutral observers said that the war was in its dying days, with the zombies losing ground on all fronts. The spiders, by contrast, were gaining by the month, pushing towards Yellowstone.
But even if its outcome was now clear, the war was not yet over, and she could still become a casualty if she was careless. And then she might find out exactly how accurate that propaganda dream was.
She was mindful of this as she backed in towards Tangerine Dream, the largest Jovian-type planet in the entire Epsilon Eridani system. She was coming in hard at three gees, Storm Bird’s engines straining at maximum output. The gas-giant world was an ominous pale orange mass that bulged towards her, heavily pregnant with gravity. Counter-intrusion satellites were sown around the Jovian, and these beacons had already latched on to her ship and had started bombarding it with increasingly threatening messages.
This is a Contested Volume. You are in violation of…
“Little Miss… are you certain about this? One must respectfully point out that this is completely the wrong trajectory for an orbital insertion.”
She grimaced. It was about all she could manage at three gees. “I know, Beast, but there’s an excellent reason for that. We’re not actually going into orbit. We’re going into the atmosphere instead.”
“Into the atmosphere, Little Miss?”
She could almost hear the cogs churning away as antiquated subroutines were dusted off for the first time in decades.
Beast’s subpersona lay in a cooled cylindrical housing unit about the size of a space helmet. She had seen it only twice, both times during major strip-downs of the ship’s nose assembly. Wearing heavy gloves, her father had eased it from its storage well and they had both looked at it with something close to awe.
“In, did you say?” Beast repeated.
“I know it’s not exactly normal operational procedure,” Antoinette said.
“Are you absolutely certain of this, Little Miss?”
Antoinette reached into her shirt pocket and removed a shred of printed paper. It was oval, frayed and torn at the edges, with a complex design marked in lambent gold and silver inks. She fingered the scrap as if it were a talisman. “Yes, Beast,” she said. “More certain than I’ve ever been of anything, ever.”
“Very well, Little Miss.”
Beast, obviously sensing that argument would get it nowhere, began to prepare for atmospheric flight.
The schematics on the command board showed spines and clamps being hauled in, hatches irising and sliding shut to maintain hull integrity. The process took several minutes, but when it was done Storm Bird looked only slightly more airworthy than it had before. Some of the remaining bulges and protrusions would survive the trip, but there were still a few spines and docking latches that would probably get ripped off when it hit air. Storm Bird would just have to manage without them.
“Now listen,” she said. “Somewhere in that brain of yours are the routines for in-atmosphere handling. Dad told me about them once, so don’t go pretending you’ve never heard of them.”
“One shall attempt to locate the relevant procedures with all haste.”
“Good,” she said, encouraged.
“But might one nonetheless enquire why the need for these routines was not mentioned earlier?”
“Because if you’d had any idea what I had in mind, you’d have had all the more time to talk me out of it.”
“Don’t sound hurt about it. I was just being pragmatic.”
“As you wish, Little Miss.” Beast paused just long enough to make her feel guilty and hurtful. “One has located the routines. One respectfully points out that they were last used sixty-three years ago, and that there have been a number of changes to the hull profile since then which may limit the efficacy of…”
“Fine. I’m sure you’ll improvise.”
But it was no simple thing to persuade a ship of vacuum to skim an atmosphere, even the upper atmospheric layer of a gas giant—even a ship as generously armoured and rounded as hers. At best, Storm Bird would come through this with some heavy hull damage that would still allow her to limp home to the Rust Belt. At worst, the ship would never see open space again.
And nor, in all likelihood, would Antoinette.
Well, she thought, at least there was one consolation: if she trashed the ship, she would never have to break the bad news to Xavier.
So much for small mercies.
There was a muted chime from the panel.
“Beast…” Antoinette said, “was that what I thought it was?”
“Very possibly, Little Miss. Radar contact, eighteen thousand klicks distant, three degrees off dead ahead; two degrees off ecliptic north.”
“Fuck. Are you certain it isn’t a beacon or weapons platform?”
“Too large to be either, Little Miss.”
She did not need to do any mental arithmetic to work out what that meant. There was another ship between them and the top of the gas giant; another ship close to the atmosphere.
“What can you tell me about it?”
“It’s moving slowly, Little Miss, on a direct course for the atmosphere. Looks rather as if it’s planning to execute a similar manoeuvre to the one you have in mind, although they’re moving several klicks per second faster and their approach angle is considerably steeper.”
“Sounds like a zombie—you don’t think it is, do you?” she said quickly, hoping to convince herself otherwise.
“No need to speculate, Little Miss. The ship has just locked a tight-beam on to us. The message protocol is indeed Demarchist.”
“Why the fuck are they bothering to tight-beam us?”
“One respectfully suggests you find out.”
A tight-beam was a needlessly finicky means of communication when two ships were so close. A simple radio broadcast would have worked just as well, removing the need for the zombie ship to point its message laser exactly at the moving target of Storm Bird.
“Acknowledge whoever it is,” she ordered. “Can we tight-beam them back?”
“Not without redeploying something one just went to rather a lot of trouble to retract, Little Miss.”
“Then do it, but don’t forget to haul it back in afterwards.”
She heard the machinery push one of the spines back into vacuum. There was a rapid chirp of message protocols between the two ships and then suddenly Antoinette was looking at the face of another woman. She looked, if such a thing were possible, more tired, drawn and edgy than Antoinette felt.
“Hello,” Antoinette said. “Can you see me as well?”
The woman’s nod was barely perceptible. Her tight-lipped face suggested vast reserves of pent-up fury, like water straining behind a dam. “Yes. I can see you.”
“I wasn’t expecting to meet anyone out here,” Antoinette offered. “I thought it might not be a bad idea to respond by tight-beam as well.”
“You may as well not have bothered.”
“Not have bothered?” Antoinette echoed.
“Not after your radar already illuminated us.” The woman’s shaven scalp gleamed blue as she looked down at something. She did not appear to be very much older than Antoinette, but with zombies you could never be sure.
“Um… and that’s a problem, is it?”
“It is when we’re trying to hide from something. I don’t know why you’re out here, and frankly I don’t much care. I suggest that you abort whatever you’re planning. The Jovian is a Contested Volume, which means that I’d be fully within my rights to blast you out of the sky right now.”
“I don’t have a problem with zom… with Demarchists,” Antoinette said.
“I’m delighted to hear it. Now turn around.”
Antoinette glanced down again at the piece of paper she had removed from her shirt pocket. The design on it showed a man wearing an antique spacesuit, the kind with accordioned joints, holding a bottle up to his gaze. The neck ring where his helmet should have been latched was a broken ellipse of gleaming silver. He was smiling as he looked at the bottle, which shone with gold fluid. No, Antoinette thought. It was time to be resolute.
“I’m not turning around,” she said. “But I promise I don’t want to steal anything from the planet. I’m not going anywhere near any of your refineries, or anything like that. I won’t even open my intakes. I’m just going in and out, and then I won’t bother you again.”
“Fine,” the woman said. “I’m very glad to hear that. The trouble is it’s not really me that you need to be worried about.”
“No.” The woman smiled sympathetically. “It’s the ship behind you, the one I don’t think you’ve even noticed yet.”
The woman nodded. “You have spiders on your tail.”
That was when Antoinette knew she was in real trouble.
Skade was wedged between two curving black masses of machinery when the alert came in. One of her feelers had detected a change in the ship’s attack posture, an escalation in the state of battle readiness. It was not necessarily a crisis, but it certainly demanded her immediate attention.
Skade unplugged her compad from the machinery, the fibreoptic umbilical whisking back into the compad’s housing. She pressed the blank slate of the compad against her stomach, where it flexed and bonded with the padded black fabric of her vest. Almost immediately the compad began backing up its cache of data, feeding it into a secure partition in Skade’s long-term memory.
Skade crawled through the narrow space between the machine components, arching and corkscrewing through the tightest spaces. After twenty metres she reached the exit point and eased herself partway through a narrow circular aperture that had just opened in one wall. Then Skade froze, falling perfectly silent and still; even the colour waves in her crest subsided. The loom of implants in her head detected no other Conjoiners within fifty metres, and confirmed that all monitoring systems in this corridor were turning a blind eye to her emergence. But still she was cautious, and when she moved—looking up and down the corridor—she did so with exquisite calm and caution, like a cat venturing into unfamiliar territory.
There was no one in sight.
Skade pulled herself entirely free of the aperture, then issued a mental command that made it sphincter tight, forming an invisibly fine seal. Only Skade knew where these entry apertures were, and the apertures would only show themselves to her. Even if Clavain detected the presence of the hidden machinery, he would never find a way to reach it without using the brute force that would trigger the machinery to self-destruct.
The ship was in free fall, still, so Skade presumed, sidling closer to the enemy ship they had been chasing. Weightlessness suited Skade. She scampered along the corridor, springing from contact point to contact point on all fours. Her movements were so precise and economical that she sometimes seemed to travel within her own personal bubble of gravity.
She never knew precisely when the Night Council was going to pop into her head, but she had long since stopped being fazed by its sudden apparitions.
Nothing untoward. We haven’t even scratched the surface of what the machinery’s capable of doing, but so far everything’s working just the way we thought it would.
[Good. Of course, a more extensive test would be desirable…]
Skade felt a flush of irritation. I already told you. At the moment it takes careful measurement to detect the influence of the machinery. That means we can perform clandestine test
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